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Greg Tiller  |   tiller@cs.dal.ca   |   Part 1   |  August 14, 2012

 

Background


I've owned my PSB Stratus gold-i's since 1999. They have gone through various sources and amplifiers, concluding with a Lynx L22 soundcard / NAD C272 power amplifier. The L22 was used in a recording studio. I decided to sell off all my studio gear and start researching a serious Two-Channel upgrade. I've done some mixing and mastering and have always loved good music, whether a great performance, or a great technical presentation. I've also learned (the hard way) how bad mixing or mastering can ruin an otherwise good recording. This time I wanted to step back, and enjoy the benefits of everyone else's work.

I don't like the word, "audiophile". It is vague, and often carries a stigma of spending money on things that have no audible benefit. I think we've lost touch with what really matters in today's retail market; sonic performance, and value.

 

I researched a lot of speakers, and discovered some interesting things about what kind of information you find on the internet. At first glance, there are a lot of speakers that sound great on paper, but digging deeper inevitably reveals an unfavorable review. The point is you really have to dig deep to find any truth on the internet. Enter the Linkwitz Orions.

 

The Orions are described as a compact and highly refined open-baffle speaker with integrated dipole woofers. The linkwitz website offers the challenge, “Have you heard about dipole and omni loudspeakers and the realism that stereo is capable of?” The more I read about the Orions, the more curious and intrigued I became. I won't bore you with what you probably already know about Sigfried Linkwitz, and if you don't know, google him! After all my research I decided to make a huge leap of faith on this project and it paid off more than I ever hoped for.

 

Building the Orions


 
 

I knew I wanted to enlist the services of a professional cabinet maker. I wanted speakers that looked as good as they sound! In my search for a cabinet maker I found Ken Havinga from Blue Sapphire Cabinetry [www.bluecabinetry.com/include/about.htm].

Ken’s high end kitchen designs were impressive, but having discovered he was a musician and an audiophile, the synergy was clear. He even went so far as to analyze the plans from the perspective of a furniture maker, with the knowledge they had to be rattle and vibration free. In doing so, he removed an entire sheet of plywood which he felt was unnecessary, and would be a potential source of additional vibration. Besides, it looks much better this way. While I am somewhat biased, I think these are the best looking Orions I've seen! The wood choice was Walnut and Quarter-Sawn White oak with birch maple for some of the components of the W-Frame. The only finish was multiple applications of linseed oil to bring out the natural qualities of the wood.

 

The e18 DAC

 

Exasound is not a complete newcomer to the audio market, they are well known in the DIY community with their exaU2I usb-i2s asynchronous usb interface. When I spoke with George Klissarov of Exasound, I was intrigued by his design paradigm of the e18 DAC. We shared a belief that the rate of true innovation has slowed over the years and that quality has been replaced with useless features in an effort to continue releasing new products year after year. George said they started with a blank slate and wanted to remove as many unnecessary layers of processing as possible to give the purest signal path possible into the best DAC chip available. Also a Canadian Company, I couldn't help but try their $1999 30 day trial.

 

The Sound

Simply put, the Orions ability to reproduce a correct sound-stage is staggering. If I had to choose a few words to describe the sound they would be, “dynamic, effortless, enveloping, natural, and 4-Dimensional”. 4-Dimensional, you say? The Orions not only completely disappear in the room, but render different soundstages as if each soundstage is an entirely different speaker. It is hard to describe this effect, but other speakers impart their own sound which is not part of the original recording. The exact quality of this distortion may vary, but I’ve found box speakers are usually given away when it comes to the bass. Rather then a natural, articulate sound of a drum, for example, you hear more of a resonant "oomf". You can dampen some of this bass energy, but not all of it. When I hear a drum through the Orions it sounds like a real drum.

One of the first things I noticed was that if you walk around the room, even behind the speakers, the timbre and balance of the sound doesn't change much. I even went so far as to have a listener close their eyes as I started rotating one speaker off-axis. They didn't even notice I was rotating the speaker.

Why is this happening? Essentially, humans are very capable of filtering out the effects of a room, so long as the delayed sound spectrally matches the original. This is not the case with box speakers as they only radiate as a monopole. The Orions have the advantage of allowing your ear/brain mechanism to filter out the room, and what you are presented with is more of the original sound. [see http://www.linkwitzlab.com/rooms.htm].

 

To compare DACS, I found it best to swap them out infrequently. Rather than swapping ABX style, I let my ear/brain adjust to the e18 for a two week period. I played a small selection of songs which I was intimately familiar with, then switched out the e18 for the L22, all other things being equal. I was actually surprised at the differences! Sure, I was expecting the e18’s superior clocking/lower jitter to present obvious advantages over the lynx, but I didn’t expect so many differences outside of what a superior clock would provide. The Lynx presentation was very coarse, and “edgy.” Resolution was much less – it was veiled and missing detail. Spatial clues were less focused. Bass was much sloppier as if the damping factor took a major hit and was less extended. The soundstage went from a very significant 3D back to much more 2D. The L22 had a very limited front to back presentation, and was much less enveloping.

 

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The e18 sounds liquid, natural, and extremely detailed. The dynamics are superior on the e18. Transients have more attack, where the L22 is more rounded. There is a significant overall wall of sound that goes beyond the room boundary, something that is missing with the L22. The e18 just sounds much more real, more ‘analog’ where the Lynx is not going to fool anyone into thinking it’s not digital. Even my fiancé commented she could hear a significant difference between the two. If anything, this shows truly how revealing the Orions really are. If I had to quantify this difference, I’d compare the gap from L22 to e18 as greater than going from 128kbps mp3 to lossless. If I had one complaint about the e18 it would be that the display size is too small to be viewed from across the room.

 

 

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