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AUDIO TEKNE TFA-9501, TEA-9501, TM-9502

When this brand was first reviewed on our portal, I have never expected, even in my wildest dreams, that in such short timeframe – no more than half a year – I will be able to host its flagship models at home. On one hand it is a pity to finish the acquaintance so quickly, especially when it was almost a dream, on the other, this marathon showed clearly, how the quality of sound increases when we climb up the rungs of the price list. So what is most important, when we progress so quickly? The response is quite obvious. The short intervals between the tests did not allow to forget the important nuances of each of the meeting. I know, that there are masters, who can make explicit comparisons even years after having listened to a given device, but please do not be mistaken, many small, and at this price level very important, items disappear, or turn into a different reference. This is the reason, that despite some nostalgia caused by the end of a nice episode, its, quite short, duration is the most important added value to the whole saga called “The truth about music by Audio Tekne”. So having dried the tears caused by the last meeting with the brand, I would like to invite you cordially to the, probably most heavy of those I had, contact with the Japanese constructions from the Audio Tekne brand. This time the company was represented by the line preamplifier TFA-9501, two monstrous monoblocks being the phonostage TEA-9501B and the 11 Watt strong power amplifiers TM-9502 based on the 6AS7G tubes in push-pull setting, named the most natural sounding tubes ever by the constructor, Mr. Kiyoaki Imai. To allow the set to fully show its potential, the whole was cabled with proprietary power and interconnect cables. In addition I used the XLR LessLoss Anchorwave for the pre-power connection, RCA Hijiri Million Maestro from the digital source and the set of Harmonix Exquisite and SLC 101 loudspeaker cables. Of course the tested equipment was provided by the company Natural Sound.

The description of the external looks I will start from the logistics. Typical for the High End, the AT products are very heavy. But this is not really visible on the outside, as they are quite compact for the mass. If somebody does not have had a chance of meeting with them before, and will try to lift one of them, then either he will drop it, or will have a solid back pain. You do not believe me? The constructs visible on the photos seem to go against all standards, as the phonostage alone is composed of two modules weighing 63kgs each, and that without the power supply unit, which is mounted in the line preamplifier, which brings another 55kg on the dial. The lightest elements are the power amplifiers, but they still have a lot of steel in them and reach 45kg each without problems. As you can see, there is a lot to carry around. But please do not worry, when you buy the products, a representative from the distributor will put them in the final destination and connect all the cables. When you look at the devices it is clear, that the main motive of the construction are the flat platforms, housing all the electrical connections, on top of which transformers, enclosed in protective cases, and electron tubes were placed, protected from mechanical damage and resonances. The line preamplifier has the most controls on the front. It has four golden, hexagonal knobs – two sets of two for the volume control and source selection, a rectangular, red lighted power button for the phonostage, another one for switching on the recording output, a red power indicator and a simple power switch. The back panel offers power sockets for the phonostage, dedicated XLR connectors for that device, five RCA inputs, one recording output, one XLR or RCA (switchable) for the power amplifiers and a power socket. The power amplifiers have just the power switch and the indicator on the front, while on the back XLR and RCA inputs, a singular loudspeaker terminal and a power socket. The phonostage is the humblest from the tested elements, it has only a single LED indicating power-on on the front, and on the top there is the power connector and the connectors for the cartridge. Finally I will just say, that trying to exchange the supplied cables to anything else turned out to be detrimental, what allows to save some money, as the devices are expensive themselves.

Starting the review of the sonic capabilities, I need to note, that since I received information about the proposed test, I was worried, if the 11 Watts in Push Pull would be sufficient to drive my loudspeakers. They have 90dB at 8 Ohm, but from experience, I expected some issue there. Finally, when I listened quietly, then it was fine, but when the volume knobs were turned to the right, then we could hear the struggle of the AT with the loudspeakers, posing too much of a load. Even more, I heard the potential hidden in the Japanese guests, which was there, but could not be released. This urged me to find loudspeakers, that would match the tested set not only in terms of efficiency, but also in terms of sound refinement. Fortunately, when I made some phone calls, I was able to locate an adequate loudspeaker system. So my review will be based on a few different sessions with loudspeakers build in a different ways, what allowed to have a broader look at the Audio Tekne products.
As I mentioned before, the first test were done with my ISIS. I do not listen too loud, so I could have a closer look at some important aspects of the combination. First impression? I mentioned those already during the test of the previous test. Despite my true love to the brand, Reimyo is making music prettier, and Audio Tekne is just playing it. For many music lovers going up the ladder, during the first moments of listening it can be a big surprise, because when the tested set starts playing, then the bells usually jumping to the front, or the virtual sources appearing like soap bubbles, suddenly get their rightful place on the sound stage. The first thought is, that there is a worsening, or at least boredom. Nothing out of the ordinary happens, everyone sits in their places, and the vocalist, who was sitting on our knees, now stands behind the microphone and does not move any closer. This is really surprising, but I will tell this: when you understand what audio is all about, and when you listen to the tested system, then the return to the old kind of presentation will be hard. And this is not all, I guarantee, that if you will not be able to afford the system, then all your searches will circulate around this master. It may seem a bit harsh, but it is better to strive to the real truth, and not the one imagined in our head. Of course one basic condition must be met, the full synergy of the whole system, which I achieved with the previously tested, middle system of the manufacturer. Unfortunately, like mentioned before, the combination of the Japanese with the Austrian did not allow the music to gain full breath, but the aspect of more truth correlated clearly with what I heard before, when the synergy was full. Apart from all bad fate, despite not having full freedom with the reproduction of the volume of the sounds, all the details of creating the stage in terms of its depth, width and height were reproduced phenomenally. What is important, the far planes were readable due to the resolution, and not any artificial darkening of the background, what is often done by the competition. Another important information is that there were solid layers of saturation in the midrange, also the frequency response was great at the bottom part, what was brilliantly shown with classical music which included organs. Here, despite the problems with high volume levels, at the levels I was listening at, the might of the monumental instrument was clearly audible. So loaded with very optimistic observations, I provided the Japanese a much easier load, the loudspeakers Alter II from the Polish brand Ardento.

The visit of the open baffle speakers completely reevaluated the perception of the set, as this construct, having a very short and quick bass with a not colored midrange, allowed the air to appear on the stage immediately. This showed me, that the top model from the Audio Tekne stables brings so much of the color hidden in the notes, that any help from any of the buyers is absolutely unnecessary. And yet I have never hidden the fact, that my Trenner do have the saturated way of sounding, I like so much, what caused here the lack of full synergy. When I listened again to the discs I used in the first configuration, I heard a much stiffer bass, but the most important things were the general freedom and increase of the speed of rising of the sound impulses. Somebody may ask, if the open baffles were not too heavy for the 11Watt power amps. I will answer, that I had a similar question that I posed to the constructor of the speakers, and he answered, that this loudspeaker model has 95dB measured, and if this would be a closed cabinet, then this value would be above 100. This was the reason I took the big speakers home. It was also important, that in this setting too, the virtual sound stage was very wide and deep. I am not sure if this is visible, but my loudspeakers, which are already very wide, are 10 cm narrower than the Alter. For many amplifiers this results in a flattening of the sound stage. Here this aspect was guarding the positioning of the artists and their instruments. Unfortunately time passes very quickly, and I did not notice when time came to exchange the speakers for another contender, which brought some subtlety and allowed to take all the best from the sound filling my room.

When after two series of discs played, the German came with relief in the form of the loudspeakers Cessaro Chopin I, it turned out, that another two decibels of efficiency can do wonders. The boxes were much easier to drive, due to the smaller drivers and in the end it elevated the sound to levels unreachable before. Of course this does not mean, it cannot be done better. I will even say that I am sure, that the Japanese set can perform even better, as I felt unused abilities in some aspects. Unfortunately it is not easy to get refined high efficiency speakers and I needed to work with what I could get my hands on. But let us get back to the topic. Putting the Cessaro into the system resulted in a much better reproduction of the sound stage size in all directions, width, height and depth. Interestingly, with the Polish speakers the virtual sources seemed to be bigger than they should, with the German ones, they returned to normal. Another item worth mentioning is, that any hint to chilliness of the sound, which accompanied me during all the previous encounters with the brand, regardless of the technical advancement, starting with the integrated amplifier and the entry level phonostage, and finishing with the synergetic combination of the previous set with my loudspeakers. And all of that using the company provided wires, that look like simple, run-off-the-mill cables. Any attempts to change those to the acclaimed Harmonix wires made things worse. And I am not talking about any degradation, just any interference in the signal resulted in loss of truth in the music. Like I mentioned, the tested set had already such big amounts of dense and at the same time high resolution sound in it, so that it only needed easy to drive loudspeakers, due to the low output power, which do not impose their way of playing on the sound. They just need to have enough resolution and be coherent. When all the pros and cons were named, time came to invite the set for a concert at my listening room. In the beginning it served me the greatly mastered meeting of Keith Jarrett with Gary Peacock and Jack DeJonette called “Still Live”. The splendid reproduction of the size of the concert hall housing the musicians with the positioning of the artists on the stage and the very real applause of the audience, made me play the double album from the very beginning to the end. All the sustain of the cymbals, the vividness of the piano of the front man as well as the contrabass seemed to materialize in my room. And I would like to remind you, that this is not the final statement of the tested set. This is what it can offer with the loudspeakers I had, and it was easy for me to realize, as the cheapest set was absolutely synergetic with my ISIS. So where do I see the unused potential? With all the timbre, if we would fulfill the quality requirements for the loudspeakers, the readability of the far planes would be much better. In this model of loudspeakers we have only one mid-bass driver, what resulted in the contrabass losing readability in quick and dense passages, what did not happen in the previous configuration. There each part of the frequency range had its own driver at its disposal, and the midrange did not need to share the diaphragm with the bass. But like I said, that there was slight chilliness in the sound, and here we get such a dose of homogeneity, that even for me, the too contoured Altera II turned out to be demons of smoothness. Well, how will it be with quick and dense free jazz? To test that I invited Ken Wandermark. The brass section did not show any signs of losing readability, despite all the craziness. The loads of mass on the midrange supported the sound of saxophones fantastically, what was a pure orgy of senses for any lover of this genre. What is important, the set informed me ideally about the quite small and low room, where the musicians performed during the recording session. Finally it also showed how the AT master the beryllium tube speakers from Germany, and they did that surprisingly well. I was positively surprised by how the beryllium drivers performed, as they are widely regarded as being overly offensive. In this combination they were just brilliant, they just showed how the cymbals of the percussion set are shining, while in another moment they highlighted the triangle, which was delicately touched. Impossible? Please try it out for yourselves, but I must warn you, when you get what this all is about, then the audio world will not be the same anymore.

I am a bit sad, the adventure with the Audio Tekne products comes to an end, at least for some time. The reason is simple, as during this six months I went through most of what the company offers, while being surprised, that tube devices can sound with such resolution. Do I see myself with this kind of sound? After listening to tenths of expensive and well sounding devices I know, that I have grown to appreciate the truth of the sound as offered by the AT. The only item remaining are the finances. Sad but true. But I am not fully convinced, that you are prepared for it. Here are no bells appearing out of nowhere, the sound is just played back as it was recorded on the disc, in the most natural way possible. All my attempts to change the cables, which usually improve the final effect, here resulted in introducing some artificiality into the sound, what showed clearly, that the way to achieve true sound does not rely on sound improvers, but on the abilities of the electronics. If you will be able to listen to such presentation for some time, then the initially seemingly boring sound will change your reference point in such a way, that returning to old habits will no longer be possible, or at least very painful. So all clients without solid nerves should be wary, as the top set of Mr. Imai does not take prisoners.

Jacek Pazio

Distributor: NATURAL SOUND s.r.o.
Prices:
TFA 9501: 69 000 €
TEA 9501: 89 000 €
TM 9502:  155 000 €

Technical Details:

TFA 9501
Inputs: Phono, CD, Tuner, Tape, AV, Aux.
Maxsimum input : 3 Vrms
Outputs: Rec Out; Pre Out XLR i RCA
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (+/- 1 dB)
Dimentions (W x H x D): 445 x 225 x 346 mm
Weight: 55 kg

TEA 9501
MC dedicated LOW & HIGH
Maximum inputs phono:: Phono Low 25 mV rms | Phono High 85 mV rms
Outputs att: 1,6 V rms (std.) – 13 V rms (max)
Outputs: XLR, RCA
RIAA accurcy: +/- 1,5 dB (20 Hz-15 kHz)
Power supply Provided by TFA-9501
Dimentions (W x H x D): 750 x225 x 240 mm
Weight:  63 kg each ( 126 kg total)

TM-9502
Inputs: RCA, XLR
Input impedance: 1 V/3,3 kΩ
Power output: 11 W
Harmonic distortion: < 5%/11 W
Frequency response: 10 Hz-20 kHz (- 1 dB/- 3 dB)
Szumy własne: < 1 mV/8 Ω
Power consumption: 160 W
Dimentions (W x H x D): 475 x 225 x 300 mm
Weight: 51 kg each

System used in this test:
– CD/DAC: Reimyo CDT – 777 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX
– Preamplifier: CAT – 777 MK II
– Power amplifier: Reimyo KAP – 777  
– Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL “ISIS”, ARDENTO ALTER II, CESSARO CHOPIN I
– Speaker Cables: Harmonix HS 101-EXQ (mid-high section); Harmonix HS-101 SLC (bass section)
– IC RCA: Hiriji „Milion”
– Digital IC: Harmonix HS 102
– Power cables: Harmonix X-DC 350M2R Improved Version, X-DC SM Milion Maestro
– Table: SOLID BASE VI
– Accessories: Harmonix Beauty Tone Milion Maestro, Harmonix TU 505EX MK II, Stillpoints „ULTRA SS”, Stillpoints ”ULTRA MINI”; Harmonix AC Enacom Improved for 100-240V; Harmonix Room Tuning Mini Disk RFA-80i; antivibration platform by  SOLID TECH
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Analog stage:
– Turntable:
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA

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