Japan is surely a country, which is seen as the cradle of very refined audio components. Maybe it does not have exclusiveness for the best sound of the world, but if something was at least touched by somebody, who spent half of his life creating electronic pieces of art, then such thing is at least worth listening to. Without special ado, I would also like to say, that any device from that country gets extra points even before listening starts, just from being manufactured there. Do you think this is funny? Absolutely not. Please ask around, and you will see, that I am right. But I do not want to digress about this today, because the country of origin of the manufacturer of the audio gear is one thing, and the possibility to test it is another. And I am not only talking about the distribution of the gear on the Polish market, but about the philosophy of the creator or the brand – often also the constructor of the devices – regarding any kinds of testing. Of course most of them are happy to share their products with reviewers, but it happens, that there are such personalities, that having knowledge of the capabilities of their products, do not need to have those reviewed in different audio magazines. This kind of philosophy is shared by the Japanese manufacturer of the gear tested today – Audio Tekne, or rather Mr. Kiyoaky Imai himself, for whom I needed to present some of my reviews, to be able to show, that I know what to look for, when listening to his work of life in audio. So I will not prolong this introduction too much and invite you for the test of the “Dream System” from Japan, consisting of the top line preamplifier TFA-9501, 300B tube monoblocks, albeit in push-pull setup, TM-8801 and the phonostage TEA-8695, which is situated in the middle of the catalog.
How does Audio Tekne look like? For me it is fantastic, for many others it may be a nightmare. Fortunately you do not discuss taste, but still I will try to describe the Japanese products. Talking about the shapes of the devices themselves – they are fairly standard for tube gear, as they consist of a kind of plinth for the tubes locked below a mesh and transformers sealed with cups. This is how the AT are set-up, with the difference being, that most manufacturers try to “catch” the eyes of the potential buyers with the looks, using tricks like the “old gold” on my Reimyo. Audio Tekne has just -the raw industrial design. The elements of the devices are painted with a grey-pale blue paint, actually quite difficult to describe, but made me love the tested guests from the very beginning. Inside the transformer cups and the plinths the electronic circuitry is equally simple, you may even say it is minimalistic. Also the fronts are following the company idea for simplicity – only the absolutely necessary manipulators are available. So the monoblocks and phonostage only have a power switch and a LED, place on the left hand side of the front. However in the line preamplifier besides the same switch we have also a series of octagonal knobs and two switches, Pre Out and Power Phono. On top of the plinth there are transformer cups and tubes adequate for the function performed by the unit, while the back plates have a set of sockets to match. The power amplifiers have power sockets, single loudspeaker terminals, RCA and XLR inputs selectable with a switch and a grounding screw. The line preamplifier has a battery of RCA and XLR inputs and outputs, IEC power socket and a power socket for the top, two-box phonostage. The gramophone preamplifier we received for testing has a limited compatibility input for two kinds of MC cartridges with RCA input, an RCA and XLR output (selectable), gain switch 0/-10dB, a ground screw and a power socket. So this is how the tested bunch looks like, and below you will find how they performed during listening.
During my reviews, a few times I had some issues with how to begin describing the listening part of it. Those dilemmas were always the result of above average sound of the tested devices and almost unequivocal déclassé of the competition. “Unfortunately” this meeting with the top line preamplifier and the power amplifiers equipped with double 300B tubes, aided by the phonostage, changed my personal point of view so much, that when I would write a banal statement – “after a few weeks of listening to music presented in this way I can die”, faithful readers, who are aware how much I am addicted to my reference set, will immediately know, that my reference has changed. This was not unexpected, I thought that one day it would happen, and it finally came.
I owe you also a small explanation. When I got the set for testing, I wanted to split it into two separate episodes – the amplification and the phonostage. Unfortunately when I started testing the phonostage, it turned out that my electronics was limiting its potential, what I could verify easily using the rest of the supplied components. I still can say, that the TEA-8695 plugged into my system sounded much better than the TEA-2000, which opens the catalog, but it lost a bit of its shine when noble smoothness and saturation were added. And I am not talking about the amount of treble, but about losing breath, what resulted in blurring of the information about the stage. I am writing this fully aware of the consequences, but this is how it was. So after connecting all the visiting components into one system there was no way back and I had to review the system as a whole.
I do not know, if without listening, you will not perceive it as a negative characteristic, but the tested set sounds so natural and close to the truth, that for listeners searching for constant astonishment it may easily become boring. Listening to that sound please forget about any whistles and bells artificially appearing from nowhere before our eyes, or hyper-detail in any of the frequency bands. Music just flows along, it would seem without any care if we listen to it or not, but in fact it is so intriguing, that we cannot forgo, and are following every vocal or musical phrase played by the Audio Tekne. This just happens. However like I already mentioned, for people who like to analyze each and every sound, it may turn out, that they are not yet emotionally grown into listening to music as a whole. However I know, from personal experience, as I went the same way, that reaching such level is only a matter of time. So how does the phenomenon of the Japanese show itself? I will try to describe it as graphically and digestible as I can. The main asset of the tested set is the resolution allowing splendid insight into the recording, offering full information about all, and I repeat all, parts of the sound stage, including very big symphonic orchestras. Somebody might say, that this is easily achievable using acoustic correction or DSP or cables. Unfortunately such artificial revival of the far planes, or increasing the blackness of the environment, results in perceivable affectation coming into the music. I know this very well myself, but I do not fight with people searching for such ways to approach to the musical absolute, and while I am happy to exchange some of the sharpness of the music listened to in favor of its naturalness, I know, that everybody has a different reference and will decide for him or herself what is best. Going further with the considerations about the quality of sound, we come to the question about the way, in which AT reaches pure realism. For sure each one of you, the readers, had a chance to encounter the phenomenon of pure air in the morning, after a snow attack in the night. The snow pushes dust particles to the ground, clearing the air from pollution, resulting in air being absolutely clean and clear. This freshness of a winter morning is the representation of what I heard at home when listening to the AT system. If somebody did not live through such a state, then I do not know, how I should describe this. But if you have had such an experience in your life, then you will know, that during such a morning, even when you are in the middle of nowhere, you can immediately hear a highway, which is kilometers away, and usually it’s noise is hidden within the usual daily sounds. When you transfer a similar way of perceiving sounds onto our audiophile field, then it will turn out, that the far planes do not need to play louder, the environment should also not be dimmed, it is just that the phenomenal resolution cleans the air between us and the musicians, without favoring any of the aspects of the music. When we encounter such presentation of sound, it turns out, that the choir members from the last row swallow saliva, just like the soloists, or the wind instrument players clean their reeds. Incredible? Maybe, but true. To confirm my theory, I will use material, which is ideal for this purpose, with ancient music, “Membra Jesu nosti” The Purcell Quartet. Always, and I will repeat, always when playing this disc, I could feel the quite dense atmosphere within the church hosting the musicians. I perceived that as a way of the microphones recorded the whole, while this, theoretically harmless, fog between the performers disappeared. Of course there was no trace of artificiality, only the 3D imaging improved. I do not even mention such earthly things like positioning of the virtual sources and the gradation in depth and breadth, as any departure from their purity in this ethereal presentation would be a big faux pas. I think it is now obvious, that I needed to listen to all my digital and analog discs with such kind of music, and as this is one of my favorite genres, it took quite some evenings to achieve. Here I must say, that in the tested system, the turntable clearly showed the CD player, where it has its place in the queue, despite the fact, that the player I own, is regarded as being very close to the analog. On the other hand, it should not be very surprising, as the tested phonostage alone costs three times as much as the CD player, and together with the drive even five times as much. The verification process showed clearly, how the price should follow the increase in quality, so I do not have any discomfort with that. When something is cheaper, there is no dishonor to succumb to the better. Interestingly, when we think about the tubes employed by Audio Tekne, we could have expected something related to the vacuum valves, like some artificial smoothness, yet besides the slightly darker aura, it does not even come close to the “tubey” sound, showing its class in reproduction of the timbres of all sounds, from wooden instruments to the human voice. When I saturated my ears with music from the time of Monteverdi, time came for ECM jazz. Unfortunately it is 1:30 AM, and tomorrow I need to work, so I will continue my description tomorrow.
OK, I have rested, I got some distance to what I heard, so let us start with the second part of the review, actually coming a bit closer to its end. Listening to ancient music, which is usually played with instruments from the era, which color the sound quite heavily, and I was not really able to have a look at the edges of instruments like contrabasses, or on the weight and sustain of the hihat and ride, what is absolutely standard when I listen to jazz. Also I had the 300B tubes in the sound path now, tubes which are regarded as not very good at drawing sharp images of the instruments – more reason to change the repertoire. Well, after all the praises I wrote before this paragraph, it will be foreseeable, that when I put the disc of Bobo Stenson on the player, I did not register any surprises, which I did also not expect, by the way. I received information about the full cooperation of the strings with the body of the contrabass, as well as clear information about the thickness of the cymbals used by the percussion player, together with all the sustain they had after receiving hits with the sticks. Confirming my previous observations, I am not even mentioning the depth, width and projection of the musical spectacle, because the music generated by the Japanese was so involving, that I needed to force myself to watch out for the most prosaic elements. Unfortunately for lovers of more heavy repertoires, I did not listen to such kind of music much. Any observations from those short moments? It was surprisingly good, but I was rather concentrating on things, that brought me joy, what I compensated by inviting a good friend with a collection of symphonic music on vinyl. Due to this, despite not often listening to classical music, I had a chance to learn a very big lesson, which showed me a problem with such music, not allowing to go over it easily. I am talking about the way it is reproduced, as usually due to lack of resolution of the system, the number of musicians are somewhat unified, what compared to the very closely and thus cleanly recorded jazz, turned me away from this fantastic kind of music. Now it turned out, that the system can be the problem. For people, who live with classical music “from birth” this is not an issue, but for somebody just trying to enter this world it may pose, and often poses, a kind of a barrier. This is just how things are. When we were discussing the buildup of the virtual stage, containing a few dozen of people, I had no problems with perceiving the contrabass section as a set of a few instruments, and not just as a contrabass blur. Important is also, that the whole presentation did not favor any of the planes, all of them are equally important. This may turn boring for listeners, who expect musicians from the last rows perform equally loud as those from the front – something non-existent in reality. Unfortunately, like I mentioned in the beginning, only educated listeners will appreciate this natural truth provided by Audio Tekne. In other cases, the evaluation of the presented system may not be perceived as positive as it was for me. This is the reason, that you should really consider, if you are ready for this “dream system”.
Summarizing those weeks spent with the Audio Tekne electronics, I must say, that after my first meetings with the company, I expected such kind of experience. What I did not expect, is that they will leave such a lasting impression, that I asked for a long term loan on facebook… I am however happy, that the loudspeakers I own were an equal partner for the test, and I did not need to search for an alternative there. The two 300B in push-pull turned out to be perfectly capable to reign the big bass drivers of my boxes without the smallest problems. Of course I happened to hear them better controlled, but with this kind of approach to music, too technical approach to bass control would be disastrous for the final perception. It will take a while for me to return to the pre-review state of mind. Usually I required only a few days of reset. How it will be this time? Who knows… Finishing this encounter I can tell only one thing – if you are financially capable to afford this Japanese set, then do not wait; life is too short to lose it for anything else than this phenomenal sound.
Distributor: NATURAL SOUND s.r.o.
TFA 9501: 69 000 €
TM 8801: 60 000 €
TEA 8695: 69 000 €
Type: Vacuum tube stereo flat amplifier
Input terminals: Phono, CD, Tuner, Tape, AV, Aux.
Maximum Inputs: 3 Vrms
Output terminals: Rec Out; Pre Out XLR i RCA
Frequency response: 20 Hz – 20 kHz (+/- 1 dB)
Dimensions (W x H x D): 445 x 225 x 346 mm
Weight: 55 kg
Type: Vacuum tube monaural main amplifier
Inputs: RCA, XLR
Input impedance: 1 V/3,3 kΩ
Power output: 15 W
Harmonic distortion: < 0,3% (10 W/1 kHz)
Frequency response: 10 Hz – 20 kHz (- 1 dB/- 3 dB)
Residual noise: < 1 mV (8 Ω)
Power consumption: 100 VA
Dimensions (W x H x D): 445 x 225 x 250 mm
Weight: 28,0 kg/szt.
Type: Stereo phono equalizer amplifier (LC type RIAA)
Inputs: PHONO (MC dedicated LOW & HIGH)
Maximum Inputs: PHONO (LOW 25 mVrms, HIGH 85 mVrms)
Outputs: 1.6 Vrms (std) 11 Vrms (max), Balance (Canon), unbalance (RCA pin Jack)
RIAA accuracy: ±1.5 dB (20Hz – 15000 Hz)
Power consumption: 70 VA
Dimensions (W x H x D): 460 x 170 x 410 mm
Weight: 43,5 kg
System used in this test:
– CD/DAC: Reimyo CDT – 777 + Reimyo DAP – 999 EX
– Preamplifier: Reimyo CAT – 777 MK II
– Power amplifier: Reimyo KAP – 777
– Loudspeakers: TRENNER & FRIEDL ISIS
– 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 TU 505EX MK II, Stillpoints „ULTRA SS”, Stillpoints ”ULTRA MINI”, antivibration platform by SOLID TECH, Harmonix AC Enacom Improved for 100-240V, Harmonix Room Tuning Mini Disk RFA-80i
– Power distribution board: POWER BASE HIGH END
Drive: SME 30/2
Arm: SME V
Cartridge: MIYAJIMA MADAKE
Phonostage: RCM THERIAA