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Wanderings in the Audio Wilderness

Peter Maguire's Long Journey

A staunch supporter of HIFICRITIC, Peter Maguire’s long journey encompassing the finessing of his audio system has taken decades. I have heard several of these incarnations over some 25 years, frequently including some of the world’s finest audio components. And each of these could heard to make a contribution, enough to give hope, with some genuine high end audio sounds, but never seemed to deliver a lasting solution.

Here’s Peter’s account of the latest leg on his journey. Has he reached his final destination?

Global warming in an eco house

We moved into our present home, built from scratch 10 years ago and are still very pleased with our choice, especially when energy costs are now so high. It is a rated ‘eco HUF house’ of German manufacture following the Bauhaus tradition, with masses of both thermal and acoustic insulation, triple glazing and filtered positive pressure ventilation. Naturally it has a large PV array plus solar thermal panels on the roof. And as promised it has proved inexpensive to run in all aspects and not just energy efficiency.

Then I encountered a problem in my new music room getting rid of the excess heat generated by my Hi-Fi equipment. I was using a system based around some Audio Research Reference tube gear, a massive solid-state Krell power amp running at a truly generous bias level, driving Wilson Sophia 3 speakers. I was reasonably confident that this costly system possessed the potential to sound very good. However, the thermal output of this electronic array is considerable, and eco houses are designed to retain, and certainly not to dispel, heat. The result was that my music room rapidly became uncomfortably hot. The immediate solution was to air-condition the room and at first that’s what I did, but the absurdity of expensively generating and then expelling waste heat in an eco house was not lost on me. This was not just a matter of wanting to listen to music in comfort, but an important energy efficiency problem to be solved if I wanted to preserve my eco credentials.

Cool-running audio gear

So, with great reluctance I made the the decision to consider trading in all my present hifi gear, except my Wilsons, for fine sounding equipment that also ran cool. The problem was finding out whether such equipment even existed, while for me, past experience with efficient Class D amplification would have been a backwards step too far. Eventually, with valuable advice from a trusted and experienced friend, I was relieved to learn that Naim made good sounding, cool-running audio gear. I was certainly aware of Naim equipment but unsure whether I wanted to get into that particular cult, if cult it is. But I took the plunge and after some apprentice period trying various models, I eventually settled on a Naim 500 DR power amp, fed audio signal from a Townshend Reference passive preamp. The way that Naim has managed to solve the problem of making top class, cool running, that is to say energy efficient, gear without resorting to D-Class is another story entirely and one which flies in the face of most of the high-end hifi industry that continues to produce room heater power amps as standard. My adoption of Naim equipment easily solved the room over-heating problem and fortunately, and perhaps surprisingly, without any material loss in audio performance.

And then, during lock-down, I took the final, and for me radical step of disposing of my Audio Research Reference CD player and my SME LP player along with all of my LP collection and a large part of my CD collection, instead choosing to relying entirely on a Naim 555DR digital/streamer DAC mated with a Melco N10 source, together with a Roon Nucleus for system control and completed by a subscription to Qobuz, radical stuff. Over lockdown I had also managed to archive my entire CD collection onto that Melco hard drive.


Partitioning the L-shaped room

My music room and my office have both shared an L-shaped room for some years, with the office occupying the smaller limb of the ‘L’. I have found that most, if not all, of the low bass output from the speakers was migrating into the office space where it resonated unpleasantly. Now the obvious answer was to partition the office from the music space to create two separate rooms. And while building this division I took the opportunity to install a custom designed cabinet in the office to remote all my broadband apparatus, together with my Melco CD ripper and streamer and the Roon Nucleus, together with the inevitable network switch. I connected the two new rooms together with a longer run of Blue Jeans ethernet cable. Incidentally, I found that the Melco streamer had a separate output to connect directly to my Naim player without an intervening network switch.

Initially the new equipment cabinet had a solid door but I quickly discovered that a lot of heat was generated during the working of its contents and so it was necessary to include a large, perforated brass escutcheon in the hope that this would provide good ventilation and this certainly did the trick. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the completion of the now enclosed listening room substantially improved the bass uniformity and extension, presumably by preventing its migration into the office, this remaining effective provided that I kept the office door closed.

I had long been aware that hi fi reviewers often spoke in their equipment reviews of the height and depth of the audio image, but I had always found these qualities rather difficult to achieve with my set-ups and in my old room. In the hope of improving things in this respect, I eventually decided to move my equipment racks from their rather cramped position between the loudspeakers and into a position along an adjacent wall. Now the space between the loudspeakers was now largely symmetrical and free of clutter. For me this was a revelation. At last, I experienced satisfyingly realistic image height and even rewarding image depth.

A formidable cost trade-off was the requirement for 6m long speaker cables to replace my existing very expensive and very good 3m AudioQuest cables. After trying cobbled-together short second-hand lengths of Naim NAC A5 cable, which were very lively and immediately impressive, I settled on Naim Super Lumina, which also has a more subtle appeal. I found that they are less flashy sounding and less immediately appealing than their cheaper alternatives but that, after a lengthy running-in period, they are found to offer much greater image depth with the ability to reveal micro-detail in my recordings: ………I believe that I have no desire to upgrade.

Peter's System

  • Speakers: Wilson Audio Sophia 3
  • Racks: Quadraspire X Reference
  • Power Amplifier: Naim NAP 500 DR and NAP 500PS DR power supply
  • Preamp: Townshend Allegri Reference
  • Streamer: Naim ND555-DR and double ND555-DR power supplies
  • Power Conditioner: AudioQuest : Niagara 5000
  • Speaker Cables: Naim Super Lumina 6m
  • Power Cables: AudioQuest Dragon
  • Interconnect Cables: AudioQuest WEL Signature
  • Digital Music Library: Melco N10
  • Optical Disc Drive: Melco D100
  • Roon Nucleus+ and MRCU power supply/ XLCR power cable
  • Network Switch: Cisco 2960

Martin Colloms Comments

Splitting that L shaped listening room/office to two rooms had always seemed a step too far. Instead, it was ‘try another audio component and see if it helps’.

I have now heard the ‘step too far’ and I am shocked and surprised by the result. Notwithstanding the further rearranging, such as clearing the central region between the loudspeakers, here the resulting performance is not so much to do with bluff and bluster, but rather tonal integrity and inner balance, a degree of musical poise rarely encountered, beauty of line, with rich creamy textures. The images are now wholly detached from the reproducers and hang in the air with near palpable focus. The sound is expressive and unfatiguing, the bass tuneful and well voiced. There is a particular harmony to this well-chosen set of audio components which has now found full expression. This experience also reinforces the view that the quality of set up in a given room can be, as, or even more important than the choice of equipment.

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