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How I spent my All Souls Week - 2018 edition

October 30, 2018

Back in 2004, I spent my all souls day testing phono preamps from different manufacturers as I embark on a project of selecting my next phono stage.

This year, I had to make a quick and easy decision, a cost decision, to replace my current speakers, the Infinity Kappa 200 because one of the CMMD tweeter is busted and I have not found a replacement for a very long time. The replacement was the DALI Zensor 3 speakers which were easy on the pocket at around P16,000 (discounted) from Architectural Audio.

My current love affair with the Focal Spirit Pro is the driving factor to the new speaker search as I wanted to have a bookshelf setup that offers that same enjoyment factor when I'm using the NAIM Headline 2 (with NAPSC power supply) and Focal Spirit Pro.

As my main amplification is another NAIM product, the now discontinued NAIT 5i, it seems to me that the logical choice would be a Focal bookshelf so I chose the Aria 906 and contacted Hansen for an audition. I was told that maybe I will like the KEF LS50, a Stereophile rated Class-A equipment as part of the audition, and I can't say no to that. I have a heavy bias towards the Focal, so let's see where this week-long journey would lead me.

Day 1, 29 October

I picked up the KEF LS50 and Focal Aria 906 from AVDI and with excitement, started unpacking the LS50 first.

The LS50's base is shallower than my current stands that let the DALI Zensor 3 sit perfectly so I had to adjust the bumper feet (installed upwards) for the LS50. I didn't use the supplied 3M rubber feet because this is a demo unit.

I had the NAIM NAIT 5i in its usual volume position at 9 o'clock and played Suzanne Vega, Tom's Diner and the initial impression was bad. The sound was tiny like coming from a transistor radio. I was expecting such behavior as the sensitivity of the LS50 is lower at 85 dB compare to 88 dB of the Zensor 3, but not like this. I removed the KEF from the stands and replaced them with the Aria 906.

I played the same track and now we're talkin', err, Suzanne is singing. The qualities immediately noticeable with the Aria 906 are imaging and layering, that I had to validate with another vinyl that's a favorite of mine, Dire Straits, Sultans of Swing. The drivers of the Aria 906 are able to express more details than the Zensor 3 and I had to validate them by playing the same track with the Zensor 3 in the stands.

I placed the Focal pair back to the stands and I'd like to test the dynamics by playing Isao Suzuki, Nica's Dream this time. This track is validating what I'd like to hear, which is the synergy between my NAIT 5i and the Focal, so I'm liking it thus far. Now time for some rock with Sirenia, Dim Days of Dolor. Once again, this pressing disappoints with muddy and un orchestrated presentation, most likely due to compression of the recording. Nothing the Focal can do for this one, it's simply garbage-in, garbage-out. The Zensor 3 did a better job with this vinyl perhaps masking many of the imperfections in the recording which makes it barely acceptable.

I had to do some household work but don't want to waste idle time so I queued up Information Society and listened in the background. This is when I noticed the weaker bass from the Aria 906 compared to the Zensor 3, and has somewhat put a weight on the fact that the Zensor 3 driver at 7" has an audible advantage to that of the Focal at 6.5".

After the break, I decided to put the KEF speakers back, cranked up the volume dial to 10 o'clock and replayed Tom's Diner. I just sat on my massage chair when I noticed a totally different LS50 this time around. Suddenly the soundstage got wider, Suzanne's voice got the justice it deserves, and spatially the sound got bigger. Well, I'll be damned! Isao Suzuki is back on the platter and damn (again) as I feel goosebumps growing on me. This is simply unexpected, but it was a pleasant surprise.

As the night is slowly creeping, I find that playing rock at this volume might annoy my immediate neighbor so I ended up pulling "audiophile" records from my shelf including Jack Johnson's in between Dreams and for the first time, I actually heard the rainfall from my listening chair! Yes, there's rain falling in the track Banana Pancakes that even some headphone won't resolve, specially playing from Spotify. This is precisely what I was looking for in a bookshelf, the resolution that my NAIM Headline 2 and Focal Spirit Pro offer in spades.

I capped the test with Dave Brubeck, Time In. Again, the presentation, impact, and dynamics from the LS50 was a revelation. Hansen hinted this characteristic but being immersed in the experience is gratifying.

But I can't end the night without playing rock, so I took out Mark, Don, and Mel from the shelf and put on the Focal Spirit Pro for some childhood music.

The Focal will be back on the stands tomorrow.