The Ortho Spectrum Analogue Reconstructor
|The Ortho Spectrum Analogue Reconstructor|
|Clement Perry, Stuart A. McCreary, Mike Silverton, Jim Merod|
|19 September 2000|
Input Impedance: 100 Kohms
Output Impedance: 75 ohms
Audio Input: RCA × 2 unbalanced, XLR × 2 unbalanced
Audio Output: RCA × 2 unbalanced, XLR × 2 unbalanced
Input Level: 0.75V typical
Frequency response: 5Hz - 500KHz
Harmonic distortion: Less than 0.01%
Signal-to-noise ratio: Better than 90dB
Crosstalk attenuation: Below noise 20 to 20KHz
Maximum insulate voltage: AC3KV RMS
AC230V 50/60Hz 4.5W & AC100V 50/60Hz
Weight: 2.1 kg
Dimensions: 48.3(W) × 50(H) × 27.5(D) cm
Contact: Delve Audio
Address: 20 Andrea Drive
North Caldwell NJ 07006
The Ortho Spectrum (A)analogue (R)econstructor-2000 is yet another audio enigma, a product as difficult to quantify as Bybee products, or Quantum Symphony's A/C line conditioners. It's impossible for me to describe what takes place inside this thing. Large helmet aside, I'm no scientist. I am able, however, to judge it on its sonic merits. The U.S. distributor, Delve Audio's, website reveals more about what this mystery box does than the fractured English and therefore useless user's manual.
"The Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor is a linear isolation amplifier that adopts ultra-high speed opto-coupling technology and boasts excellent linearity and noise elimination characteristics. The circuit, which has been awarded a patent, is relevant not only with regard to improved performance in certain precision medical equipment but also digital-source audio equipment, no matter the type of D/A converter used. The AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor offers audio purists the only effective post-D/A "filter" solution in the world, combining an amazing experience of the unmodified analogue sound of a musical performance, as it was originally intended/recorded, with the best of digital processes minus the inherent setbacks."
Looking very much the pro studio device with its squat appearance, The AR-2000 measures 19" wide by 2" tall and about 11" deep. Its front consists of a rack mountable faceplate and balanced connectors – foremost impressions; serious pro use only! My system consists of Sony's SCD-1 Super Audio Player, the Tact 2.2 Room Corrector / preamplifier connected to a pair of the fabulous Bel Canto Evo 2001 amplifiers driving the all new Talon Audio Khorus loudspeakers. Sonic impressions? Yeah, I’ve plenty, but will immediately classify the AR-2000 as subtle— with fairly important sonic significance.
I've long been a fan of digital maven Ed Meitner's products. The man is largely responsible for having discovered jitter, a phenomenon that seriously degrades the performance of digital audio circuits, long before anyone knew about it. Shortly thereafter, Meitner quantified, designed and tested the Logic Induced Modulation or, the LIM Jitter detector, which became an industry standard for determining the contamination level of jitter in D-to-A's and transports. When Audio Alchemy's Mark Schifter, set himself apart by designing inexpensive jitter-killing devices, I quickly became one of his biggest fans. (Fact: when I did my very first ever review, it was on Audio Alchemy's Pro 32 Digital Engine/Jitter Reducer, for The Audiophile Voice. I rejoiced that back in '96, the Pro 32 did all sorts of wonderful things to those zeros and ones emerging from my Sonic Frontiers transport. When the review was about to go to print, sad to say, the company shut its doors.)
This brings me to the digital product under review by several of us here, the Ortho Spectrum AR-2000 Analogue Reconstructor. Unlike the Pro 32, the AR-2000 stays analogue, I'm told, with some special patent-pending digital goings-on. In order to install it, one requires an additional pair of interconnects and a good power cord. The AR-2000’s long, industrial-sounding name belies its powerful affects on my system's sonic portrait, especially with respect to its seemingly magical removal of digital noise, a.k.a. glare, without, I remind you, attacking a digital recording's brilliance, openness, and musicality.
I installed the AR-2000 downstream from the Sony using all new wiring from NBS (Monitor 1 series), including their very impressive power cords. With that accomplished, I turned the AR-2000 on, and listening progressed. The first CD put to the test is the new Malichi Thompson's Freebop Now! (Delmark DE506), featuring the great tenor saxophonist Billy Harper playing as expected and Oliver Lake doing work on alto. The disc is highly recommended by our own Anthony "Kinda Blue" Callender, and well worth the effort if you're into hard bop.
While cookin' on the first track Black Nile, a song originally written by Wayne Shorter, it wasn't hard for me to perceive what the AR2000 does, the first thing I noticed is the system's ability to play loud, even at jazz-club levels, without hardness and glare. More important is what appears when the nasties go away: an immediacy to the music I could play loud without sacrificing instrument localization, spatial acuity, focus, imaging and harmonics. I detected no exaggeration in soundstage size or width. The ability to hear all of the music simultaneously is what impresses me the most about the AR-2000.
Further listening revealed, regardless of the complexity of the recording, much greater intelligibility—rather, a greater clarity. Case in point is the wonderfully rich and bombastic Reference Recording of Pomp & Pipes! (RR58CD). Track two is a scary piece for any system, particularly when played loud. If you're familiar with Reference Recordings, then you're aware the one thing they love is to record at low levels in order to provide extraordinary dynamics. You never really know what level to listen at with these discs, especially the Turtle Creek Chorale’s, until you’ve played’em a couple of rounds. Upon first listening to Alfred Reed's Allelujah! Laudamus Te, I heard for the first time the power behind the Lay Family Concert Organ. Till now, this is something my system could never accomplish without typically falling apart at the seams.
To sum it all up, imagine, a product capable of taking the highly esteemed Sony Super Audio SCD-1 player to yet another echelon of performance. Prior, anyone accusing the Sony SCD-1 as projecting too much glare would have been looking for a fistfight. I've always thought it to be a reference-caliber product against which all others ought to be judged. Well, to put it as simply and directly as possible, the AR-2000 removed glare from what I hold to be a stellar component. In retrospect, I don't really think the problems lies with the Sony as a player, but with digital playback as a whole.
I know, I know, this is a very provocative statement. I've sent AR-2000's to others here at the mag for further evaluation using various front ends and their comments only further corroborates my impressions. With many different system configurations, one can never be sure. One thing's certain, however, mine isn't leaving my system. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if a SACD/DVD Audio player were to come out touting the very technology used in the AR-2000. Until then, there's no way I could go back to listen without this wonderful device.
|McCreary Listens to the AR-2000|
|Stuart A. McCreary
Assoc. Editor, Hardware, Positive Feedback Magazine
What’s in a name?
Well, this product’s name sounds like something the Doc would use to scope you out when you went in for a Sigmoidoscopy. "No polyps, Mr. McCreary— the Ortho Spectrum shows your colon’s clean as a whistle."
I can see why they added the descriptor "Analog Reconstructor" to their literature. That at least gets you out of the Proctologist’s office and into the general vicinity of audio.
But as far as descriptors go, it still isn’t quite accurate. As far as I know, this product is not breaking down the signal and reconstructing it. There is no DSP engine that uses an algorithm to "correct" or "reconstruct" the analog signal. Rather, I believe it to be a very special filter that removes ultra high frequency crap (Hmmm…maybe the proctologist crack wasn’t so far off) that is a by-product of digital to analog conversion. The Ortho Spectrum literature says that you could use a one-to-one transformer as a low-pass filter, but it mucks up the signal in other ways. Ortho Spectrum uses an optical de-coupling which is said to be an absolutely transparent method of performing this filtration
This begs two questions.
One — does this high frequency remnant of the A to D conversion, which is well above the highest frequency that we can hear, actually effect the sound that we do hear?
The answer to this question is emphatically, YES, but it only becomes obvious when you subtract the ultra high frequency hash and hear the result. I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t done the AR-2000 in, AR-2000 out test for myself. Clement had a unit in his system before I did, and I wasn’t all that receptive to his suggestion that the Sony SACD player had glare and hash that had to be removed by the AR-2000. My 7777ES was articulate, yes, detailed, yes, but "glaring?" ….no way.
Perhaps it was the terminology. What I hear in my system without the AR-2000 is not so much a glare, which to me is a sharp, biting treble, but a haze, or grayish sonic opacity that overlays the entire soundscape. Because it overlays the vocalists and instrumentalists and more significantly, fills in the voids between them, it has the effect of decreasing contrast, in much the same way that an underdeveloped black and white photo lacks contrast because of the pervasive light gray tones that blend with everything.
The lack of contrast manifests itself in our soundstage as poor image delineation from left to right and also from front to back. Lacking more clear boundaries, the instruments seem vague, somewhat fuzzy and bigger than life.
You pop in the AR-2000 and the haze is gone. The boundaries come into focus and the soundstage takes on a much more believable three dimensionality. The AR-2000 does this so well, that I no longer want, or need the TDS passive unit in my system. The TDS does a very good job of enriching the overtones and expanding the soundstage, but it doesn’t have the transparency and honest stage presentation of the AR-2000.
OK, I suppose there is a greater sense of treble ease with the AR-2000 that some might describe as a reduction of "glare." I just don’t think that it is the most significant thing that the AR-2000 does.
Two, is the "filtering" performed by the AR-2000 really transparent, removing only the bad without altering the good?
The answer to this question takes a little more time and careful listening to ascertain. My conclusion is that it has achieved its goal of transparency. I do not hear any veiling or obscuring of detail. Neither do I detect any shift in tonal balance. In fact, I hear more of the subtle hall cues and more of the natural harmonics when I use the AR-2000. This is as it should be, if it is only the "haze" that is removed.
My comments and conclusions apply only to the AR-2000’s use with the Sony 777ES SACD player, since I have not tried it with any other converters.
In my system, after living with it, I can’t live without it. The improvement is not as great as that of going from conventional CD’s to SACD’s, but it is still quite substantial. I don’t need to strain to hear what the AR-2000 is doing and it is obvious to me that it is beneficial.
|How Do You Say Wow In Japanese?|
Clement Perry had been trumpeting the merits of the AR-2000 long weeks before he finally showed up on a murky Sunday afternoon with a factory-fresh sample, air freight tags intact. Analogue reconstructor. Sounds like something at a rehab center for the digitally impaired. In the event, another in a succession of weird science and/or mystery boxes. I've since accepted that Bill Stierhout's free-standing Quantum podlets do an effective job, not to neglect the Richard Gray's line enhancer Jonathan Scull so merrily savaged, so why not accept at face value the claims of this latest arrival from, as it happens, Japan? Sit down, suspend disbelief, have a nice little listen.
The system: Six Richard Gray's Power Company and three Quantum podlets do their a/c thing out of sight, thanks to a prescient interior designer (my wife Lee) who left a trench behind the platform on which my Mark Levinson electronics sit: a No.39 CD player feeding a pair of No.33H mono power amps. Directly in front of these, on the floor, a pair of Wilson WATT / Puppy Sixes. Beneath the electronics and speakers Bright Star Audio isolation devices. It's a CD only system. CD only?! Yes, I'm afraid so. Who can blame you for moving on to the next review? For the edification of those willing to overlook a humiliating disclosure, the cabling is Nordost SPM throughout. In order to install the analogue reconstructor between CD player and amps, I added a pair of Nordost Quattro Fil balanced interconnects. (The Levinson player has its own analogue volume control, so no preamp.)
Perry, Lee and I were the audience for the first listening session. Some mods are subtle; others are as subtle as a two-by-four upside the head. It took no time at all for me to arrive at an impression which soon proved incorrect, or at least substantially so. I straightaway heard a difference I declared agreeable but probably euphonious and therefore undesirable. As attractive as it can be, euphonious coloration tends to homogenize differences among recordings. For a music reviewer, not a good thing.
Perry urged patience. "Give it more time. It's not coloration." I did, and he's probably 98% correct (about which more below). One's early skepticism soon yielded to a better-informed sense of what I was hearing. I don't believe that the AR-2000 colors data to any marked degree; rather it extracts irritants from even so fine a CD player as the Levinson. I've no idea how. I'm reporting impressions only. Indeed, in Perry's experience, the analogue reconstructor works most effectively with high-rez systems operating optimally, which Perry and I agree mine is and does. Be that as it may, I can only report on what I hear — impressions only, remember — and what I hear I very much like.
For two days following, I played an array of CDs. A summary suffices for the lot. Mostly because I love it so, I began with John Eliot Gardiner conducting the latest in his series on the Archiv label of Bach's church cantatas [463 584-2]. Ante reconstructor, I played this CD a good half-dozen times, enough certainly to recognize, reconstructor in place, a heightened sense of harmonic detail within a milieu of much reduced glare — glare, mind you, I'd not have identified as such before the AR-2000's arrival. I'd merely have thought, yes, another well recorded but ever so slightly bright production characteristic of this label. (Archiv, specializing in old music, belongs to Deutsche Grammophon.) As much as I'd enjoyed these four Whitsun (Pentecost) cantatas prior to the AR-2000, I was never so "into" the sound as now. Especially endearing in this regard are the opening measures of Wer mich liebet, der wird mein Wort halten, BWV 59, in which the Baroque trumpet, strings, soprano and bass soloist, performing ensemble, raise gooseflesh. Events in the can seemed to be doing a much better job of imitating life.
My large, open room has always allowed my WATT / Puppies Five and Six to image extremely well. While I cannot say that the AR-2000 encourages a yet better soundstage, it certainly does present one within which instrumentalists and vocalists seem rather more real. The Paula Cooper Gallery in downtown New York has issued a three-CD performance of Morton Feldman's For Philip Guston on its new CD label, Dog w/a Bone [DWA802]. It's a work for three instrumentalists doubling flute / alto flute / piccolo // piano and celeste // vibraphone / marimbaphone / glockenspiel and chimes that runs close to four hours! That's no typo. I did say three CDs. This studio recording by Tatiana Lieberman, Tom Lazarus and Gregory Reeve does a superb job with the long decays so critical to an understanding of a modernist masterpiece. This set arrived for review several days before the AR-2000, at which time I heard a first-rate recording. With the analogue reconstructor in place, I hear something rather closer to the instruments themselves. For the coup de grâce, I made an (unblind) A/B comparison of the system AR-2000 in / AR-2000 out. The recording is Telarc's rather endearing Don Giovanni, Sir Charles Mackerras conducting. No contest. AR-2000 out, glare.
While we're on the subject, I'm happy to report that less than good recordings remain less than good. The analogue reconstructor disdains sows' ears. I can detect clear differences in venue and production values among recordings. Were the AR-2000 a euphony engine (an abiding anxiety on my part), these differences would be far less apparent.
Fussy Complaints and an Enigma
The complaints have nothing to do with the analogue reconstructor's sonic virtues, which impress me as spectacularly good. It's a matter of aesthetics and layout. Aesthetics: an unattractive topside. Infra Noise Laboratory, Inc. should have engaged a savvy graphics designer. Second and last, nondescript "natural" wood cheeks flanking the otherwise silver and black AR-2000. Not a big deal, yet in company with one's drop-dead gorgeous Levinson pieces….
The home user occupied no part of the production team's thoughts when they laid out the AR-2000's externals. This is studio gear in big, black spades, witness an IEC power-cord receptacle on the side where the gold plated RCA inputs and outputs protrude. On the on-off button side, i.e., the faceplate side with its rack-mount tabs, one discovers the XLR (balanced cable) inputs and outputs. In other words, if your hardware operates in your daintily appointed living room, say, you've a Hobson's choice. Either the power cord and RCA cables face out or the on-off button and balanced cables do. As I've four balanced cables engaged, I've opted for the solitary power cord facing forward. It emerges from its IEC input, snakes off to the side and into the trench.
The operating manual is incomprehensible. Were it written in coherent English, I suspect I'd still have difficulty grasping the AR-2000's design philosophy, particularly with regard to its studio usages. (A matter of curiosity merely: I'm strictly a sweet-spot stuckee.) As best I can understand, the manual seems to say that digital technology is at once extremely useful and deeply flawed. As I hear AR-2000 contributing marvels (and I mean that quite literally), I'm eager to know the writer's thoughts on a fascinating topic. The company principals really ought to acquire the services of a technical writer competent in English. (I did read and understand — too late! — the on-off protocol. In shutting off my system without troubling to look at the booklet, I managed to shut down my right Levinson amp immediately after my right-side speaker squealed like an apprentice banshee. No damage, thank Providence. When shut off normally, the 33H goes into standby. I rebooted the amp without incident, nor did I damage the Six's tweeter. The AR-2000 lacks an on-off muting feature on the grounds that this would compromise performance, as would an indicator light in the on-off button, protected from accidental contact by a hinged cover. But not, alas, from stupidity.)
On to the enigma. There's no question in my mind that the AR-2000 effects a positive transformation. Why stint? Call it transcendental! Yes, lovely, but what does this tell us? That the compact disc is a congenitally flawed carrier in desperate need of intervention? Or, owing to this selfsame intervention, that the compact disc is a far superior carrier than one had thought possible? I'd be way over my head were I to hazard an answer. In a technically uninformed listener's opinion, the analogue reconstructor behaves not (to say it again) as a euphony engine but rather as a device which extracts nasties from incoming data, allowing the CD (for example) to achieve its full potential. "Oh?" says one's pain in the ass. "OK, boychik, if the CD medium is the daisy you claim, how come it requires the intervention of an AR-2000?" The question in no way deters me from purchasing my review piece. Thanks, Perry (once again).
With the AR-2000 in the system, I detect the mildest of sepia tints. I'm saying fancypantswise that the sound has ever so slightly darkened as a far from unattractive event. As we're asking a great many questions, here's another: Is this ever so mild sepia tint I detect a characteristic of the system now that the AR-2000 permits me to hear recordings absent an irritant or is it a characteristic of the AR-2000 itself?
One thing for sure: The AR-2000 swallows up a lot of gain. Not a problem since I detect no compression or diminution of dynamic capability. One simply plays his CDs at a higher level setting.
|A Pro’s Point of View|
The Ortho-Spectrum AR 2000 is an extremely unpretentious box that fools you at first by putting XLR in- and outputs on one side and RCA connections on the other. If you do not have literature to guide you, it would appear as if you had a balanced signal chain on one side (XLR) and an unbalanced line on the opposite side.
Both sides are unbalanced, which means that, if you use the XLR connectors, you will have a 6-dB loss of signal. The effects of such a drop, if you cannot retrieve the loss of signal without sonic harm, are significant. But, more to the point here, my time with this somewhat remarkable and mysterious device revealed that the AR 2000 performs better from the single-ended side. I'm certain that the manufacturers will tell me that (a) I am wrong, this cannot be the case since each connection path shares a common signal chain; and/or (b) my balanced interconnects (since one must insert yet another pair into the equation here) are inferior.
The interconnects that I have used for extended listening with the "Ortho-magnitude Sonic Bedevilment Machine" have all been Acoustic Zen's astonishingly transparent interconnects (both XLR and RCA). On another occasion I will review those state-of-the-art cables, but for the present I will assure the AR 2000 folks that their humble box is not at all humble … it does, in fact, do the job they say it will. It does so in spades and hearts and in all colors of the sonic rainbow.
Robert Lee's Acoustic Zen cables were good enough to reveal (precisely) that, especially from the single-ended side, the AR 2000 has a magical ability to deliver significantly MORE SONIC INFORMATION than you can hear without this box in the signal path.
I am working on the final mastering (for the last and truly umpty-umpth time) of Jackie Ryan's magnificent 24-bit "in concert" album, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE. It is material I have lived with each second of its gorgeous and complex life. I have been startled to hear how the AR 2000 has enhanced an already superb soundscape.
Let me say that I am ALWAYS skeptical that any device, inserted into the reproduction path, will somehow create an immediate and permanently engaging improvement. Why should more circuitry and additional cabling help one hear more sonic details? It is, on its face, counter-intuitive.
Many highly touted add-on devices have failed to dissuade my skeptical inclinations. On repeated hearing, they enhance (or merely boost) one part of the musical spectrum at the expense of general articulation and musical coherence. Such boxes are stacked on a shelf marked "Dead-end Dogs."
The AR 2000 has not only survived my skeptical resistance. It has fostered an attitude of incredulous curiosity. How does this thing work? Why does it work at all?
First, its effect on musical signals. The slight down side to this device is its tendency to blur the extreme lower end, from 200 Hz and below (of course) but, in specific, from 60 Hz on down. This is not an outcome that most systems will reveal and it is something that you will know occurs only if you have an extremely intimate knowledge of the bass signals that are given a small degree of added heft at the expense of spot on image accuracy. This is a very small down side that, I believe, 99% of the AR 2000's users will not discern or care about.
Everything else that occurs as signals zip through this box is positive. Let me list AR 2000's strengths that become evident as I listen to Jackie Ryan's fantastic voice in the company of pianist Mike Wofford's very tasteful accompaniment.
Right out of the gate, Ryan's articulation of individual syllables becomes more precise. Her personal presence — her vocal timbre, her delicate inflections (to the most nuanced possible extent), and her emotional vitality — are all more concretely realized. You feel as if you can "see" Jackie Ryan more fully as she performs. It is almost as if you hear her thinking as she sings … an immensely seductive experience.
Beyond these subtle but pleasing effects, Mike Wofford's piano locks into more vivid focus. You hear Wofford brush the keys with his fingers. The body of the piano's complex sound structure shimmers as a single voice with multiple tonalities laced through it.
A short technical note: everything in the sonic spectrum below roughly 1K 25 or so is more "open" and detailed. It is as if the filtering that the AR 2000 promises is not only "in action," but having fun cleaning out digital and electrical grunge that one did not know to be lurking in the vocal and pianistic sonic range. The bottom line with this box is more cheerful music . . . more flesh, more light, more tactile sound.
Because the mid-sonic range is more vivid, using the AR 2000, signal information above it (especially above 12K) opens up, too. The total effect of this interaction is GREATER EASE. MUSICAL AND RHYTHMIC RELAXATION.
If I were to rank the degree of these changes on the proverbial scale from one to ten, the addition of clarity that I hear is on the order of 3 to 4. The enhancement ofmusical palpability is on the order of 4 to 5. These are subtle, but significant, differences.
I have talked with a very technically astute colleague about all of this. His sense is that the opto-isolator chip in the AR 2000 may be preserving a non-contaminated signal that has been "de-toxified" of digital noise by separating the grounding between its input and output stages. This thesis will be pursued further. On its own, an opto-isolation chip will limit bandwidth — everything claimed for the device, notwithstanding. In fact, the AR 2000 measures about 20% less bandwidth than reported. But the point is that opto-isolation acts in its own right as a filter. If that is the case here, the nature of its sonic curve is not, at this moment, clear to me.
The real story of this deeply engaging, thoroughly enigmatic magical box is its ability to clear previously unrecognized sonic garbage from the reproduction path. The fact that the designers of this instrument cared enough about signal clarity to assign separate power supplies to each side — and to make a sophisticated power supply design to carry out that task — indicates a devotion to signal clarity that we find here strongly at work.
Now, if these generic op amps were swapped out for some that have Rolls Royce authority …. well, the possibilities are intriguing. Perhaps, in that case, the order of magnitude difference the AR 2000 has achieved already would soar higher yet. In the interim, my skepticism about this device has been overcome, happily.
One must be resistant to the hokum and gobbledy-gook awaiting one's cheerful disposition. When such a box as this dispels well-earned suspicion, curiosity kicks in. How does this thing work? How can we hot rod it to make it zoom faster, even more courageously taking us into the territory of stunning musical intimacy?
More, perhaps, about this box … later.
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