Just thought I’d give you all an update on my Still Audio EL84 integrated amp and my impressions of three speakers that I’ve paired with it so far. I continue to be extremely impressed by the Still Audio amp. It has functioned flawlessly and sounds clear, dynamic, dimensional, and engaging. I’ve been running it with the new production Mullards that came with the amp. I did swap in a set of new production Tung Sol tubes for a comparison. The Tung Sols were a touch more transparent and detailed, but I ended up preferring the slight warmth of the Mullards.
I’m running an analog-only system with an Acoustic Signature Wow XL turntable, a Grado Reference Sonata 2 cartridge (4.8mV output), and an Avid Pellar phono stage (48db of gain). With the low-powered (10wpc) integrated and the analog front end I’m finding that I am right at the border of having enough gain in the system. In fact, I tried a phono stage with 45 db of gain, and it was insufficient. It seems that 48db is the bare minimum for my current set up.
I’ve tried three different sets of speakers so far:
1. Contrast Audio Model One AS3 Reference: 92 db, 16 ohms, -3db @ 36hz
The clarity of these speakers was startling. Music emerged from a deep silence, and instruments sounded more realistic than with any speaker I’ve ever heard in my room (even more realistic than with my Harbeths, which I didn’t think was possible). Every small detail was clearly portrayed – light cymbal work, background singers, brushes on drums, subtle vocal inflections, etc. I often found forgetting the system completely and listening to what the musicians were doing.
The two drawbacks of the speaker were the ultimate volume levels and the depth of the bass. Ten watts and a 5.5” woofer simply couldn’t produce enough of a foundation for the music. I don’t need much bass in my room, as most speakers that can produce bass down to about 50 hz are more than enough. I tried the speakers with a 22 wpc solid state amp, and that small difference in wattage provided better bass depth. Also, I could only generate musical peaks around 80 db at the listening position before the sound started to get a bit shouty and thin. For most of my listening, however, I was pleased with the sound.
2. Fritz Carbon 7 mk.2: 88 db, 8 ohms, -3db @ 38 hz
I had read several positive reviews of the Fritz Carbon 7 SE speakers with 8 wpc SET amps, so I decided to give his new mk 2 a try. The Still Audio amp drove them fairly well at moderate listening levels, but the sound was too warm and lacking some detail. I imagine these speakers would sound amazing with a good, moderately-powered integrated like the Rega Elex-r or the Belles Aria. With the Still Audio integrated, however, they just didn’t quite come to life. At one point, I put on a Metallica record and turned the volume all the way up. The highest musical peak that I measured at the listening position was only 80db.
3. Nola Boxer 2: 90 db, 8 ohms, 39 hz but no -db spec given
I’ve only recently acquired these speakers, so my opinion may evolve over time. With the volume control just below 50%, I am getting musical peaks around 82-83 db, and the sound is dynamic with good bass depth. This volume level suits my listening habits, and the bass is more than sufficient in my room. I will give the speakers a couple of weeks of break-in time before reaching a decision, but I don’t anticipate ultimate volume or bass depth will be an issue.
The Nola Boxer 2 is obviously the best fit of the three I’ve tried. However, I find that I am missing the clarity and realism of the Contrast Audio speakers. A little more time with the Boxers may sway me as I become more accustomed to their sound. Contrast Audio makes two other bookshelf speakers – one is a 3-way and goes a bit lower in the bass (93 db, 8 ohms, 32hz @ -3 db), the other has the same drivers as the Model One but has a front baffle that is decoupled from the speaker and is more sensitive (95db, 16 ohms, 36 db @ -3 db). I may try one of those to maintain the clarity and realism of the Model One and add a touch more volume and/or bass depth.
I feel like I may have painted myself into a corner with a low powered amp, the need for stand mount speakers, and an analog front end. There aren’t many stand mount speakers that are efficient enough with the limited power/gain that I have on tap. Coherent Audio and Audio Note are a bit out of my price range. I haven’t been overly impressed by the Tekton or Zu speakers that I’ve heard. I may order a pair of the Omega Super Alnico Monitors to give a single driver speaker a try. But the list of possibilities is pretty short.
I’ll keep you all posted as the Nolas break in and I consider other speakers. I appreciate all the input that you’ve given me so far, and I'm having a lot of fun with this process.