Revisiting the Triangles and discovering a $999 amp

The brief

Recently, I was asked by a friend for advice on assembling a good sounding system for about $3k. The friend has no hi-fi components whatsoever so the system would be built from scratch. On a rough guide, I broke down the pricing of the components to:

Speakers: $1.2k
Integrated amp: $1.2k
Source : $700
Leading to a total system cost of $3.1k. Further it was agreed that the source should be a DVD player, and as a rule of thumb, a $1.4k DVD players sounds about the same as a $700 CD player so the budget was stretched for a $1.4k DVD player The search Basically, he wanted better sound that what was provided by budget speakers like the Tannoy M3/M4… and he wanted it for $3k. I let him listen to the Joseph Audio Rm22si that I was auditioning in my home for his reference and perhaps that made him agree to stretch the budget a bit more if necessary. J As the budget was tight, the plan was to listen to all the equipment on sale first… after all, if sale items sound ok, you can save yourself some money. The first stop was Precision Audio, whose sales strategy involves bringing in a lot of one particular model at one time (thus getting a good price from the manufacturer) and pricing it aggressively. Unfortunately, the sale involved the smallest of the PMC series, the PMC 700 (previously, the much better PMC 702 Mk 2, PMC 702 and PMC 703s were on sale). The price of $895 was nice, but the 700, though a rather pleasant speaker, suffered all the usual defects of a 'too small' speaker. The 700 would be a great speaker for an office system (ok, maybe it's a bit too deep), or a bookshelf somewhere, but cannot really be considered for a 'living-room' system. My friend had already visited Margil and was stunned by the prices. Klas had previously offered the Dynaudio Audience 50 for $950 but they weren't doing the sale at this time.

It was then that we decided to visit Norman Audio Works to hear the Triangles. When my friend visited my place, he could only listen to the Rm22si as I had moved my Zephyrs out. Also, I was in no mood to move the carefully positioned 56lb Rm22si in order to set up the Zephyrs.

Just a technical update of the Triangles
The Triangles have been updated again. My Zephyrs were the originals. This was followed by the Zephyr 2's which were reviewed in HFC and Stereophile. The latest incarnation is the Zephyr XS which features a new tweeter with a wider dispersion. More noticeably, the Antal (which was previously the model above the Zephyr, has been bumped up a notch as it now has another midrange unit - it now has 2 woofers, 1 midrange & a tweeter). Its place has been taken by the Itthos XS, a 3 way speaker.

Back to the listening test
Of course, having just listened to the PMC 700s, my friend was very impressed with the Zephyrs being driven by Audio Refinement. It was then that we found out that the Zephyrs were on sale for $1480! Seriously, at $1480 they are a steal. The original Zephyrs were $1600 list and on sale at $1200 (but the Sing$ was like 20% stronger at that time).

What was more interesting was that I noticed a Cairn Audio integrated amplifier [40wpc] (in a very nice brushed aluminium finish - equal to YBA standards) going for $999 (till Dec 31)! Replacing the Audio Refinement [50wpc], the differences were subtle. The Audio Refinement was better in the sense that it was slightly more spacious and refined. So far, so good, $999 + $1480 = $2479 (including GST) which brings us just slightly overbudget but with a sound that gives a very good sample of what the high-end is like.

The Zephyr XS sounds like the Zephyr 2s which sound like my Zephyrs. Open, spacious, fast, agile, detailed. What more can I say? The 'negatives' to some may be the upfront balance and a slight thinness (not much bass). My review of my Zephyrs is somewhere around :)

So if anyone asks me the question: 'What is the minimum I must spend to get a sample of the 'high-end' sound', at Dec'99, the answer is the above: $2479 + a good CD player. This is no exaggeration. We went to other stuff as well (that will not be named) and we've heard overpriced $3k speakers sounding worse than this.

But the story doesn't end here. My friend wants a remote control (I don't know what to say, but recently, I've been spoilt by my cute Sonic Frontiers remote controls) and the 40wpc model doesn't have a remote control. However, a $200+ more expensive 50wpc model does (but unfortunately, no stock at the moment). Budget stretched again….

We came back to Norman Audio Works a 2nd time. This time, his wife came along (she listens to Sarah McLachlan and Julia Fordham so she has impeccable taste in music J) In the midst of auditioning the Zephyrs, I suggested to them to try the Itthos in case they preferred a more laid back soundstage with a fuller sound compared to the Zephyrs. The speakers were still extremely lively. I don't think they gave away anything in speed but the music was not as upfront (after living with the Zephyrs for a long time, I admit that the upfrontness may not be up to everyone's liking the sound is OK with me because of the amps/source that I use)

The problem with music being too 'in your face' is that you may not be able to play music at satisfyingly anti-socially loud volumes. 85dB of music with an 'in your face' soundstage is more 'unpleasant' than 85dB of music with a more laid back soundstage. Again, this shows that its important for you to audition equipment at your normal listening levels. Conversely, this implies that more forward speakers like the Zephyrs can still sound good at low levels whereas for other speakers, there must be a certain volume level before good soundstaging is achieved.



There were mixed feelings as to whether the Itthos was better on all fronts. Certainly it was better in some areas, but the pushing back of the soundstage/vocals seemed to my friend to cause a loss of midrange focus. But personally, in 'real life', vocals don't just appear as cardboard cut-outs (or is it pop-ups… hope you get my drift), they do actually blend in with the music. Fortunately, my friend had listened to the Rm22si, which is a prime example of why pushing back the soundstage is better. It was not that clear with the Itthos (but over a longer time, I know he'll come to appreciate it :))

Anyway, how much was the Itthos? $1,980? Hmmmm.

The UK hi-fi press would like to tell you that you don't need that many watts. Perhaps this is due to the fact that so many UK manufacturers make wimpy amps and you're lucky to get 70wpc at 8 ohms. Furthermore, the UK amps often don't double their wattage into 4 ohms (Quad 77 84-115w and the Roksan Caspian 70-100w [thereabouts]) whereas American amps like the Krell KAV-300I or my McCormacks have no problem doing so (150-300, 100-200). Anyway, I generally ignore specifications and depend on the weight of the amp and the quality of its power supply. If the speaker is anywhere reasonably demanding (i.e. is able to produce sub-40Hz bass), a big and cheap NAD power amp with several hundred watts on tap will sound better in a lot of areas compared to say your average Brit amp.



However, the problem I had with the Itthos was that the Cairn amp had serious problems driving the Itthos. There was a lack of low bass and an excess of midbass. In effect, the bass seemed to be rather loose and out of control. (I suppose you call this poor damping factor). But really, pairing a $2k speaker with a $1k integrated amp with 40 wpc is not a good idea. But the questioned remained whether the 50 wpc model would do any matter since he was more interested in the remote control. Slipping in the Audio Refinement, the midbass bloat disappeared and was replacing with some good low bass. I'm sure with 100wpc, the Itthos is capable of far better bass but that's really beyond budget.

This suggests that if you really want to hear differences in an amp, you should do torture tests by using a far more expensive speaker. J Whether that is fair to the amp, is another matter, but the differences will be clearer… It also suggests that poor amps (or underpowered ones) can make even good speakers sound really bad.


Anyway, my friend has kind of decided of the Itthos now so there goes the budget now. The only concern is the amp and whether the 50wpc model will be able to drive it or whether he should get the Audio Refinement amp. We'll see if something can be worked out with Norman Audio Works (maybe get the 50wpc but if an option to trade up within 1 week at no extra cost to the Audio Refinement…) In the meantime, my friend had a listen to the Roksan Caspian ($1.35k) as well but given the listening conditions at the showroom, it was a bit difficult to figure out the Caspian so my friend is still leaning to the Cairn or Audio Refinement. (to guys at Absolute Sound : please get a better set-up for the Caspian...)

The Triangles are again wholeheartedly recommended. The only point one should note is that you should match the speaker to the room. The Zephyr should not be put into too large a room. If you intend to put it into the living room (which opens up into the dining etc), you might want to consider something larger unless you intend to do nearfield listening (i.e. listen relatively close, with speakers relatively close - say 6 ft - to each other).

Anyway, this listening experience has cemented firmly my love for the entry level Triangle speakers (Zephyr/Itthos) as a great introduction to a taste of the high-end. The sound is fundamentally 'correct' and appealing and the sale price is right as well. I have yet to carefully audition the more expensive speakers of the Triangle line but they will face very very stiff competition from the likes of the Rm22si (the entry level floorstander for Joseph Audio) because the more expensive models seem to be simply adding more and more woofers (I hope to be proven wrong.. I'll let you know :))