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|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Thursday, 13 December 2007|
An Exercise in the State of the Art at Transparent Audio
Last month when on a business trip to a suburb of Boston, I took the better part of a day to visit Transparent Audio in Saco, Maine. Transparent had offered a tour of their state-of-the-art facility the next time I happened to be on the East Coast, so once plans to travel to the New England area were confirmed, I set up a visit. This was a pleasure trip, not business, and a chance to play in a room rumored to be one of the best listening facilities in the world, an opportunity I couldn't resist.
Transparent is nestled in a wooded, picturesque area on 10 acres in a fairly remote location. The Transparent facility encompasses better than 14,000 square feet of warehouse and office space. The facility is elegantly appointed inside and out. The attention to detail is striking, which makes an appropriate statement about Transparent's quality, work ethic and design sense.
Upon arriving, I was greeted by the full Transparent crew. I was informed that they had a full afternoon of fun in store for me. First on the itinerary would be a visit to the world-class listening room that Transparent calls "the ultimate design tool." This theory is not news to me. I have long considered the listening room to be the most important component in an AV system. A poorly set-up room will be responsible for more sonic degradation that any other component you own. In the case of Transparent, their design philosophy relies heavily on the sonic evaluation of their products.
My guides were Jack Sumner, one of the three founders of Transparent and the driving force behind all Transparent designs, and Josh Clark. Sumner and Clark have the task of "enduring" (their word for it) as much critical evaluation work each day as they can tolerate. Boo hoo. As a reviewer, I do know that critical listening is work and can become fatiguing. However, as fatiguing jobs go, this would top my list as one of the best: sitting in a beautiful building, nicer than many homes - including mine - located in one of the most beautiful areas of the United States, listening to music and film soundtracks on state-of-the-art electronics in the best room that I have ever had the opportunity to see and hear. I would call it a job, but will stop short of calling it work.
Let the Fun Begin . . .
I was led into the listing room. As I entered, I had a feeling of near-disorientation due to the profound surrounding quiet. Of course, every time I come into a room with walls of equipment and a pair of Wilson X1s staring me in the face I get a tad disoriented – I’m often unable to find the way out. No, really, the room was so quiet that it felt like an anechoic chamber. My first impression was that it was dead or over-dampened. I quickly realized that it was merely silent and very alive. The listening room occupies better than 13,000 cubic feet. Upon entering the room, Sumner, Clark and I discussed many of the design features that make this room so very special. This innovations started from the ground up by separating the floor slab from the rest of the building. This was done with the use of a concrete saw, which cut through the slab around the entire perimeter of the room. The purpose of this is to remove any vibration or resonances that could come from the joining facility. The floor has its own footings to support the ceilings and walls, which I’m told weigh in at more than 10 tons. The walls of the listening room are constructed with five layers of 5/8-inch sheetrock. Inside this structure is a custom-designed inner framework, a sort of isolation chamber. Every inch of this inner room is treated with absorption and diffusion panels designed by RPG. The air conditioning and heating systems in this room required special treatment as well. The ducts were treated throughout their entire length, including the points at which they enter the room. The facility runs off two unshared transformers feeding the Transparent facility. A 400-amp circuit panel was installed solely to supply the audio and video gear. This panel is completely separate from the panels that supply the rest of the facility. There is a dedicated 120V - 15 amp circuit for each audio and video component in the room. The Mark Levinson 33 and 33H amps, which they were running while I was at the facility, are connected to a 220V - 40 amp dedicated circuit. The heating, air conditioning, lighting and ultra-cool Phast home automation systems draw their power from the main panel in the factory, thus eliminating any possibility of noise being introduced into the audio and theater systems.
The room contains a stunning assortment of today’s electronic masterpieces. Transparent claims that they try to keep a large variety of gear for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it gives them the ability to evaluate their products on the equipment that their retailers use and sell. Some pieces on view were from Mark Levinson, such as the 33 and 33h amplifiers, the 31.5 Reference Transport, the 306 Reference D/A Converter and the 32 Reference Preamp. Also present, from Conrad-Johnson, were the ART preamp and the Premier 8XS Triode Monoblock amps. A couple more wonderful pieces on hand were the Audio Research VT200 amplifier, and the Reference Two preamplifier. Additional digital masterpieces included the dCS Elgar Reference D/A and the 270 Reference Transport / 27ix Reference D/A from Wadia. For analog playback, they were spinning vinyl on a Well Tempered Reference Turntable with a Grado Statement cartridge. Components from Krell, VTL, Revel, and Sonus Faber were also in evidence. For speakers, the reference room used Wilson X1 Grand Slams. In their theater applications, Transparent utilized an additional X1 for the center channel, if you can imagine that, and Wilson MAXX’s for the rear channels. In the rear of the room was the always-impressive Wilson XS subwoofer, which is used exclusively for theater applications. For theater and projection, Transparent was running the Sony S7700 DVD, Pioneer Elite DV-09 DVD, Snell & Wilcox Gold Video Interpolator, Vidikron Vision One, Proceed AVP and a Stewart Film Screen.
How Did It Sound?
The sound on both the audio and video systems was out of this world! We spent hours going through music. For me, it was a painful reminder that, although my playback system is outrageously good, there are always better ones. The room let the natural bloom and decay of the music unfold and develop with an ambience that made the performance come as close to live as I have ever heard. By "live," I mean that you feel as if you are there at the performance. With a slight grin, Sumner reminded me that, although the room and equipment are very good, he believes that the cable is very much responsible for much of this system’s greatness. As I sat in musical heaven, I was not inclined to argue.
As if I even need to mention it, the theater was phenomenal as well. Simply put, it kicked butt. We watched a good portion of the movie ‘The Fifth Element.’ This film is always a terrific theater demonstration, with brilliantly colored, futuristic costuming from Jean Paul Gautier and dynamic special effects to test the resolution and color levels of a video system, along with a wide variety of musical genres on the soundtrack. I have never heard or seen ‘Element’ better than in the Transparent Reference theater. I have seen the "diva scene" in many of the country's finest high-end retailers. Their systems paled in comparison with the Transparent in-house theater in nearly every respect, even when similar gear was involved, such as the Wilson Grand SLAMs, Mark Levinson electronics and Transparent Reference XL cables. The big difference comes from the attention to detail. The idea of treating your HVAC system may seem silly to most, but at the ultimate level, subtracting even a few dBs of background noise creates a better listening environment. Add to that room treatments, dedicated - unshared AC, a floated floor and every other aspect of the Transparent environment, and you have the difference between this sound room and all the rest.
No one disputes the importance of a center channel speaker. It’s responsible for three-quarters of a movie’s dialogue, as the voices are primarily reproduced through it. As far as center channels go, a $40,000 Wilson X1 would have to be described as an outrageously wonderful choice.
Can Cables Make That Much of a Difference?
AudioRevolution.com has a policy of not subjectively reviewing cables, so I have yet to have any opportunity to publicly share my feelings on this particular system component. A large portion of listeners, many in the AV industry, think that cables are over-rated. It is thought that they cannot make enough difference to warrant the cost differences between the better lamp cord and cables that, in some cases, cost as much as a car. I had heard such phrases as "I don’t think I could hear the difference with my system." People have asked me what the most important component in a system is. I once thought I knew the answer. The real answer is that your system is like a chain. Which is the most important link in a chain? It is, of course, the weak one. More precisely, no one link is more important than another, but the weakest one is your problem. This is especially true of cable’s place in the sound system chain. Every system benefits from good cable. There are many formulas to calculate the amount that you should spend on cabling – i.e., as the cable in your system should cost one-third of the entire system budget and so on. I think that one should purchase the best cable that is affordable. I have used AudioQuest Dragons in my reference system for years now and it’s wonderful cable. I have listened to many of today’s best and worst cables. Every cable sounds different and an attempt to find your favorite can take some work. Often it is best to have your retailer recommend the best cable for your system. Even if that’s the case, take a couple of their recommendations home and pick your favorite. There are also on-line retailers like the Cable Company (www.Fatwyre.com) that specialize in providing nothing but different kinds of cables for an in-home demo.
I had the opportunity this year to have the Transparent Reference cables in my system. They are outrageously expensive, so I was secretly hoping that my Dragons would better them. They didn't. The Transparent Reference cables are my choice without question. At $4,800 per pair for eight-foot speaker wires, and $3,800 per run for the balanced interconnects, they are a component for the person looking for perfection at any cost. I have yet to be able to afford them myself, but I look forward to owning them someday soon. As far as Transparent’s other products, I have not heard many of them yet. The ones that I have heard have been very good. I would certainly recommend that they be considered in most price points, ranging from a few hundred dollars to over $10,000 a pair. The sound industry can be compared to the automobile industry, in which the lower lines benefit from the technology achieved from advances in the racing circuit models, a trickle-down effect of high-technology testing.
What Can I Learn from a Cost No Object System for My More Modest AV System?
The best lesson to be learned for any AV system at any level is that, contrary to the gospel preached by pencil-necked, pocket protector-wearing geek reviewers for years, it is the complete system that plays back your music and film soundtracks, not just one component. Each detail matters, from the quality of your CD Transport to your speakers. Everything you can do to improve your room helps.
Acoustical treatments can be very affordable or handmade. You or a professional can isolate noise in your HVAC system. You can reduce noise by repairing or replacing your windows and/or doors in order to isolate background noise. You can hire an electrician to run dedicated power for your equipment, amplifiers, video and lighting for around $500 in most cities. You can hire an acoustical technician to set up your system and report to you scientifically how your room performs and how it can be improved, starting at $1,000. You get the point. It isn't just your equipment or a $4,000 pair of Transparent Speaker cables - the route to audio/video nirvana is to attack the weakest link in your system until you get your system to the maximum level you can justify.
All Good Things Must Come To an End . . .
During my visit to Transparent, I noticed that it was about 5:30pm. Although I hated to leave, perhaps it was time to consider getting back to the Boston area. I had taken up their entire afternoon. Jack said to me, "Stay as long as you wish." I was tempted to say, "Cool, leave the key and the alarm code and I will lock up on my way out." I had an outstanding time listening and watching in a room that was nothing short of amazing.
While the goal of this room is to improve the performance of Transparent cables with the best gear in all of high-end audio/video, the result is an exercise in the absolute state of the art that raises the bar for high-end music and film sound reproduction. No retail store could ever hope to match it. Just as Tiger Woods, Wayne Gretsky and Michael Jordan have redefined the standard of excellence for their respective sports, the Transparent Music room does the same for the scope of high end audio/video. There are lessons in system and room design for every level of audio/video enthusiast to be learned in Saco, Maine.