Audio Note Performance Level System
Audio Note’s product range is built around a series of ideological and technological performance platforms from which we have developed a wide and comprehensive product range catering for as many price points and as wide a performance spectrum as possible. With the end goal intended to allow our customers and dealers to select and build systems of superior sound quality and longer lasting value.
The level platforms are created to demonstrate that increases in price are consummate with suitable improvements in sound quality. What the improvements also show is that there exists a clear and demonstrable technological league table. Whilst it may not at the present time be possible within existing measurement technology to conclusively prove that these have obvious and repeatable sonic advantages over any of the currently favoured and comparable technologies, most of which were chosen for cost or convenience advantage rather than sound quality.
Such are the commercial pressures favouring cost that many technical tests and measurements are now specifically designed to provide “proof” that reductions in cost does not affect “quality”, an interesting two-dimensional concept. This type of front loaded marketing started interfering with sound audio engineering principles as early as 1965, but also a sad fact of life in a world where cost rules supremely in favour of quality
All Audio Note products are graded according into a system of seven levels, each of which primarily places a product according to its sonic performance, this is meant to serve as a guideline for our customers (and competitors?!) in three respects:
To help in choosing the right Audio Note components to build and/or upgrade an Audio Note system;
To act as a technological league table and guide to the best sounding technical and acoustic principles;
To act as a guide to better sounding components and materials.
Rather than try design out the deficiencies in the software, we try to retain as much of the information as possible, good or bad, it is not for the equipment manufacturer to change the sound of the software, if the software sounds bad, write an insulting letter to the recording and balancing engineers, not to us!!
More than anything each Audio Note Product Level is primarily an indicator of the quality of sound our customers can expect from the Audio Note equipment they are looking at. The aim is to aid you in your search for the highest level of sound quality for your money, the first rule of which is not to buy something that you later regret, sell and lose money on, the most depressing and discouraging aspect of investing in your music’s reproduction.
Formulating the Levels
The assessment of quality is based on listening criteria applied to each component according to the “comparison by contrast” method, a philosophical, but also very practical methodology wholly developed and refined by myself, as described in the “Are Your on the Road to Audio Hell?” essay. Developed over the 20 years or so, since I first noticed that the better my equipment got (I was an audio retailer then) the more “different” each of my records sounded. Over the years my record collection has grown rapidly together with the understanding of how this evaluation system can be applied to grading the sound quality of different audio equipment. As my understanding of how the many and varied techniques, technologies, parts and materials affect sound quality has improved, it has allowed me to create a “league table” of sophistication and refinement which relates to the way a well executed version of a given technology sounds.
Take amplifiers for example, here the table is easy:
Level Zero: Class AB push-pull pentode or tetrode amplifiers
Level One: Class A push-pull pentode or tetrode amplifiers
Level Two: Class A single-ended pentode or tetrode amplifiers & Class A push-pull directly heated no-feedback triode amplifiers
Level Three: Class A single-ended directly heated no feedback triode amplifiers
Level Four: Class A single-ended directly heated no feedback triode amplifiers, with high quality parts and materials such as hard wired circuits using silver wire, copper or silver foil signal capacitors, choke coupled power supplies with valve rectifiers for the HT, with a mixture (relative to overall cost) of Cerafine or Black Gate electrolytic capacitors, non-magnetic resistors made from tantalum film and output transformers with C-cores (instead of IE cores traditionally used due to cost) with very high nickel content.
Level Five: Class A single-ended directly heated no feedback triode amplifiers, with only the very best parts and materials available, fully silver wired high content nickel iron C-core output transformers, Black Gate capacitors throughout where available, silver foil signal capacitors, and both circuit and power supply hard wired with silver wire.
Level Six: As Level Five, single-ended directly heated no feedback triode amplifiers, but all-out versions with no expense spared on parts, silver wire even in the mains lead, mains transformer, chokes, likewise highest grade C-cores in mains transformers, valve rectification and regulation, no signal coupling capacitors but silver wired C-core inter-stage transformers between each gain stage, super thin lamination Super Radiometal 48 C-cored driver and output transformers.
Choosing an Audio Note System
It is not necessarily mandatory to compose your system from one level only. Whilst this always guarantees a very high value to price – performance ratio, you may choose to mix components from different levels. Perhaps in order to provide a better – cheaper upgrade path or because you prefer the balance a mixed Level system provides.
If so then the rule of thumb is that any given system should be based around the Level of the amplifier and should generally not contain products which are more than one Level above and two Levels below the amplifier used. For example, a system may comprise of an OTO Phono SE (Level 2, meaning single-ended pentode, pure Class A), such a system could comprise of:
Level Three turntable AN-TT Three
Level Two tone arm ARM Two
Level Three cartridge IoI
Level One MC-transformer AN-S1
Level Three interconnects AN-V
Level Zero CD-player CDT Zero
Level One DAC DAC 1.1x
Level Two amplifier OTO Phono SE
Level Two speaker cable AN-Spa
Level Two speakers AN-J-LX HEMP
As an exception, Audio Note cables are very flexible (both physically and in terms of system tolerance) and will improve even the most modest Audio Note system, regardless of the level designation of the cable.
The above system would represent a very good overall balance, as well as provide a highly suitable springboard from which to upgrade to, for example a Level Three MEISHU Phono or a pair of Level Three AN-E- SPx speakers. Both of which would contribute a substantial improvement in, not only contrast, but also low level dynamics, clarity, realism and overall refinement to the above system.
It is All About Refinement
Refinement is the central theme to every product at every level in the Audio Note product range, we do not believe in applying bigger, louder or more complex solutions to our products, but seek to establish greater value through better sound.
Through countless experiments, we have found that more power. bigger and louder, does not make products sound better or more satisfying. Instead, we look for solutions in technology, technique, parts, materials and amplifying devices that can be shown to provide better low level behaviour, as we believe that this is the most important aspects. It is after all a fact that all signals start from silence and it is at the “entry” point immediately after silence that the sound of a piece of equipment is born, so to speak.
It may therefore seem strange, however, that no audio measurements have been developed that take this into consideration, but it is obviously not high on the list of priorities of other manufacturer’s to understand these issues.
In stark contrast, Audio Note Is the only manufacturer unconventional enough to have extensively studied the behaviour of audio equipment at very low levels, and this research has confirmed most of the theories we have formulated over the years. All of which were based on the musical experience rather than blindly looking at the test equipment for the answers, we, at least understand that the test equipment is easily fooled by technical trickery such as feedback or over sampling.
We always recommend that you audition any hi-fi system at low volume at least as much as at high volume to see how well it behaves at both ends of the loudness spectrum. Systems that do not retain good bandwidth and dynamic contrast at low volume will always suffer from poor resolution regardless of volume, how often have you found yourself turning the volume up to be able to get a better sense of dynamics?
Poor resolution cannot be compensated for by higher volume, because regardless of volume setting the low level information is not resolved and is always going to be lost from the signal, this is a serious short coming, not just with classical music but with almost all music regardless of genre.
The Most Complete Product Range
Audio Note is also the only specialist audio company to conceptualise, design and manufacture a complete range of audio products, from turntable, tone arms and cartridges over cables, MC-transformers, CD-players, d-to-a converters (using world wide patented circuitry no less) to amplifiers, speaker cables and loudspeakers. Not all the products are expensive, we cover not just the hyper expensive, but have a complete end-to-end top-to-bottom product range covering a very broad range of cost and performance.
To make this possible Audio Note sources, specifies and designs a wide range of proprietary parts. From precision carbon film & tantalum resistors, copper and silver foils capacitors to high content nickel transformer cores and most importantly, 99.99% pure cold drawn silver wires for use in cables, coils (all our MC-transformers use 0,05mm pure silver wire!) and inter stage, interface and output transformers.
Making a wide range of complete systems also gives us nowhere to hide. We are completely responsible for the end result; the overall sound of any complete Audio Note system. Which provided it is set up according to its design requirements we have no problems with. Because it will comfortably and comprehensively outperform any system from any other source or combination of sources either at the same price, or even double the price and whether mixed and matched from different manufacturers products or offered as a one-manufacturer system.
When you think about it logically it is especially difficult to see how the widely accepted practice of mixing and matching components from different manufacturers can ever provide anything but lowest common denominator averageness (not daring to use the word mediocrity).
Logically it seems inconceivable that putting together a system from components designed and developed by different companies with widely varying technologies, disparaging levels of understanding and more importantly views on how a component should sound (sonic aesthetic) can possibly yield even an above average result. Regardless of this, the most established hifi industry practice has endorsed this and the reviewing process is designed to mitigate the short comings this process produces, rather than criticise its results in an attempt to improve the overall results.
A good set of examples of the Audio Note upgrade philosophy, is the way that the Level Three, Level Four and Level Five pre-amplifiers are designed, configured and specified. We first develop the very best possible circuit and power supply configurations and then refine the parts and materials contents, balanced towards the higher quality sonic performance as the price rises in the higher Levels, to maintain quality – price relationship.
Understanding how components affect the sound and behaviour of one another is a vital part of the overall knowledge necessary to create great sounding audio products. Believe it or not, this is just as important as understanding good circuit topology. Despite this, remarkably few audio companies investigate or test sophisticated passive parts like Black Gate, Cerafine, non-magnetic resistors, silver wires or other esoteric (and therefore by necessity expensive) components and parts. Most valve amplifier manufacturers efforts these days are spent on getting what is believed to be the “best” valves to achieve high power, which are then put in fairly basic circuits (often copied directly from classic amplifiers).
In contrast at Audio Note we spent incalculable numbers of hours voicing every product we make, to ensure that it maximises its performance to price envelope best possible.
Audio Note Sells No Old Wine in New Bottles!
An accusation often levied against anyone making valve amplifiers, is that we love things from the past, we have problems with the present and prefer a nostalgic rose tinted view of the world, that refuses to accept the advances made in technology.
You can hardly have overlooked the craze over the past few years for retro models of classic amplifiers like the McIntosh MC275 and the Marantz 8 et al, old wine in new bottles, still great amplifiers in many ways. A fact which perhaps says more about the last 30 - 40 years’ incessant annual claims by manufacturers and reviewers alike of vast and revolutionary progress year after year in amplifier quality than it does about the absolute quality of these amplifiers themselves. Narrow and primitive views that fail to distinguish between genuine progress and also seek to prevent real development, because they create and support an illusion rather than provide criticism where appropriate.
In contrast to this Audio Note takes a historical overview when studying and choosing which technology to base a design, and more often than not, we end up with a mixture of old and new. We voice our products with absolutely no regard for the dogma ruling at the time and without regard for commercial expediency or targeted at reviewer preferences or prejudices.
We seek timelessness in our designs, just as the greatest exponents of each genre is remembered, so hopefully will our approach.
We prefer stand alone, if necessary and feel that time and our customers’ should be our only Judges.
It should go without saying that the combination of circuit – power supply topologies which more eloquently shows clear and unequivocal differences between parts and materials must be the best at allowing you to select the best suited parts and materials. This must be because it is nature’s way of showing the inherent lack of an “own” sound in these circuits and topologies allow the sound of the parts to display their inherent colourations or lack of the same.
This in turn allows you to maximise the quality to price relationship al all levels exactly because such circuits and topologies have at their foundation very little sound of their own. Which is why they are able to pass through the improvements generated by the better parts and materials more obvious and self supporting in their own right, this is what we at Audio Note™ work on perfecting within each price point and each product until it is achieved.
The true beneficiary is your music which is then served with authenticity, authority and accuracy, separating the truly great from the merely good, helping you expand the range and genres of music that touches your soul and excites, pleasures, relaxes and challenges you to the greatest possible extent.
Audio Note (UK) Ltd.