Aurum Acoustics Integris Active 300B Fully Integrated Audio System
The ticket agent seated behind his window was cordial enough, although he did give me a skeptical look as he handed over my ticket. I realized that he probably gave such skeptical glances to lots of people in this particular ticket line, who upon his inspection, might not meet standards of physical fitness or perceived mental toughness to take on the formidable task of remaining standing for an entire three hour performance of Giacomo Puccini’s opera, Manon Lescaut. Tossing aside such skepticism, I entered the palatial Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, marveling at its balconies towering to the sky and its ceiling encrusted with chandeliers made of tiny lights and spread out like falling snowflakes. An usher beckoned me to the very back of the orchestra section where one of Manhattan’s greatest music bargains can be found: the $25 orchestra standing room section. Here I encountered a cluster of opera affectionados, clutching bird watching binoculars or pouring over rumpled copies of Puccini scores. I was shown to my assigned cubicle of standing space, (shoulder to shoulder with an adjoining patron), containing a velvet bar (for resting one’s aching limbs) and that fabulous invention – the Met Title screen- which, when activated, scrolls at eye level a simultaneous translation into English, Spanish or German the lyrics being sung from the stage. As the lights dimmed, the ushers calmly roped all of us in, to keep us in our plebian pens.
Ah, but what sonic glory emanated from that magnificent Hall as we collectively traversed (with Conductor James Levine leading the Met Orchestra) the tragic life of Manon Lescaut! In this 211th Met performance, Soprano Karita Mattila sung the title role and tenor Marcello Giordani sung the role of the (smitten) Chevalier des Grieux. All of us in the standing room section remained resolute throughout these three hours of vocal glory, collectively sighing in the last tragic scene where Manon and des Grieux are left abandoned in a wasteland (somewhere near the port of New Orleans). Manon dies in the arms of des Grieux but not before she is overcome with despair and sings a final aria. This closing aria was stunning, as Mattila’s fragile soprano (sung in a falling whisper) reached out and filled the huge space of the Met. Mattila’s soft soprano had a quality of projected luminescence that left the audience holding their collective breath, until Manon’s last sighs were heard. After the standing ovations (and giving a wink to the ticket agent on my way out), I walked into the midnight bustle of Lincoln Center not realizing then that many of the same qualities that I most admired in Mattila’s closing aria would be present in my audition of the Aurum Acoustics Integris Active 300B integrated system.
Leaving behind the Met and journeying north to Newfoundland, Canada (where live music is more likely to be heard in the warm confines of a neighbor’s kitchen) we find the headquarters of Aurum Acoustics, founded by the amicable Derrick Moss. Moss, along with his team at Aurum, has been perfecting his vision of an integrated music system, consisting of a CD player/preamplifer (the “Integris CDP”) and an active loudspeaker system (the “Integris Active 300B”). (I will refer to the complete system as the “Integris System.”) The CDP player/preamp has been the subject of Mike Silverton’s “Random Noise” discussions in these pages (here) and I refer readers to Mike’s excellent review of the CDP as a stand alone component. My auditions, however, focused on using the complete Integris System. I was fortunate (through the kind efforts of both Moss and our mutual acquaintance, Walter Swanbon, President of Fidelis Audio of Derry, New Hampshire) to audition both the original and updated Integris Systems. This allowed me the unique opportunity to evaluate the differences between the two systems and follow the evolution of Moss and his team’s refinements to their Integris System concept.
The Integris System combines the CDP with an active loudspeaker system that has no passive crossover components between power amplifiers and loudspeaker drive units. All direct connected and crossover functions are created in the low-level amplification stage. The Integris’ system filters, located before the power amplifier sections, are built around custom made Cardas polypropylene film capacitors and precision metal-film resistors, with no inductors used in the signal filters. Without passive crossovers, the loudspeakers use all of their drive unit’s available sensitivity and 100% of power is sent to their drivers. Thus, Aurum aims for the best of both worlds: powering the midrange and treble regions with 300B mesh plate Sophia Electric output tubes run single ended (in conjunction with low-level ElectroHarmonix 6SN7 tubes and custom output transformers), while powering the low frequencies with high power transistor amplification. In the original Integris System these solid state amplifiers were built by Bryston, but in the updated system they have been replaced with UCD Class D solid state amplifier technology. Moss believes that UCD transistor amplifiers (not to be confused with digital!) are the best complement to his low level tube amp circuits and provide the “clearest transistor power” at 100 watts per channel to drive the Integris System’s bass units.
The Integris System’s loudspeaker is a three-way design utilizing one driver per frequency band. The front baffle is titled back to align the driver voice coils, and the speaker’s panels are not parallel, to reduce internal standing waves. The tweeter is a Seas Excel series unit with a Sonotex soft dome, with no ferrofluid employed. The midband is handled by a high efficiency B & C driver utilizing a 98dB treated pulp cone driver along with a powerful magnet and motor structure design. The 10 inch woofer, also designed by Seas, utilizes a treated paper cone in a highly braced enclosure, designed to perform optimally with the midrange unit. The loudspeaker enclosures are built in Denmark and offer a conservative aesthetic with fine workmanship through out. Both mid and high frequencies, as well as woofer units, are connected to their respective amplifier sections with Cardas cables, specifically designed for the Integris System. The system’s power cords and interconnect cables are all Cardas, but these can be substituted for – the only ingredients of this fully integrated audio system that can be. The 2008 update includes a number of new spikes and counterpoints to be fitted into the system and they were all employed with varying results. There is a full featured remote, preprogrammed to run the Integris’ every feature.
Set up of the Integris System was a simple task in my medium sized listening room. Loudspeakers were easily maneuvered into place and later spiked, about seven feet apart and several feet from side and rear walls. The optional supplied Integris twin shelf isolation rack was well designed, compact in form and function. The entire system was up and running in about ten minutes, proving firsthand the Integris’ purposeful design concept in this niche market of a complete, no fuss integrated audio system.
Taking a cue from the title of one of Billie Holiday’s great recordings, “Body and Soul” [Verve 5893082], it is indeed Body and Soul that defined the essence of greatness that the Integris System presents to the listener at home. After several months of auditioning both the original and updated version of the Integris System, I concluded that Moss and his team have achieved something special in designing this system around its 300B output tubes, which provide a special magic in conveying the Body and Soul of the human voice with tremendous midrange presence. Recalling Mattila’s final aria at the Met, one heard every syllable and nuance of her emotional vocal delivery, as it trailed off into a glowing whisper, disappearing into the velvety silence of the Met’s huge space. To gain even a slice of such natural image, presence and illumination of the human voice would be a great achievement in a home listening experience. I report here that the Integris System is one of the best systems I have heard in this regard. Whether it was the warm, lilting voice of Billie Holiday singing “Body and Soul,” the sinuous tangle of Maria Muldaur’s delivery of “Fever” from A Woman Alone With The Blues [Telarc 83568] or the lovely sensation of smoke and glow from Melody Gardot’s voice on her new recording, Worrysome Heart [Verve 10468], the Integris System rendered these voices with such communication that every vocal nuance, every intimacy and brash emotion was projected and illuminated naturally, like a human voice should. Every voice was rendered with a real, breathing human body attached to it, in image and texture. Female vocalists hitting the highest trebles were conveyed with a wonderful combination of resolution, lack of grain and a natural, breathy volume of air riding along on top.
Male vocalists were also portrayed and illuminated into my room with a life affirming quality that was special indeed. The simple grace and breathy vocal delivery of Nick Drake, on his brilliant Pink Moon [Hannibal 4436] was riveting, with a concise delivery, never fat or too round. Drake stood before his simple mic and sang to me, breathing naturally between his husky, dreamy vocals. Then Chris Smither took center stage, rollicking on his numbers, “Love You Like A Man” and “Tulane” taken from his live recording, Another Way To Find You [HighTone Records 8088] busting at the seams with his grit textured vocals and fast fleeted guitar, pumping his foot on the stage floor for percussive effect. Through the Integris System, there was no overly romantic or excess roundness here, just sheer dynamic vocal power, illumination of a natural voice from a real human chest and delivery of Smither’s own concoction of bluesy (sand papered) vocal textures and spanking guitar work. Finally, listening late at night at low volume to baritone Stephan Genz sing on Beethoven Songs [Hyperion 21055] was a revelation, as the Integris System projected such immediacy and illumination into this passionate music that every hidden corner of Genz’s vocal inflections and spacing of breath was revealed. This indeed was the triumph of the Integris System: illuminating the human voice and delivering every facet of each individual singer’s vocal textures, drama and technique, within a resolving and natural image of a breathing human body fully realized.
Act Three Turning to instrumental music, the magic of the Integris System was also translated into the area of acoustic instrumental textures and timbres, best rendered within small scale ensembles of all varieties. The sparkling highs of Allison Brown’s banjo, in beautiful companionship with fiddle, piano, mandolin and guitars on her eclectic recording, Stolen Moments [Compass Records 44002) were glistening and airy, without any sense of compression, lack of focus or treble roll-off. Gerry Mulligan’s deep baritone sax was rendered warm and lifelike, plunging and soaking in all of Billy Taylor’s sprightly accompaniment, on their duet “Stomping at the Savoy,” from their Live At MCG [MCG Jazz]. Taylor’s piano was clean and grain-free, with satisfying attack and resolution, even on his quickest of runs. No hint of background noise here either, enabling one to hear deep into the satisfyingly layered soundstage. Ambience retrieval was also excellent, as heard on those very special MA Recordings by Todd Garfinkle, such as those found on Sera una Noche’s La Segunda [MA 062A]. Listening to the tango “El Choclo,” through the updated Integris System, the high wood flute resonated beautifully into the surrounding monastery recording space, while the precise positioning and space between instruments was presented perfectly. However, acoustic bass and drums were sometimes heard to be less coherent, with a tendency to be overly round and full, providing less rhythmic flow and definition than heard in my reference system. This was particularly obvious with the original Integris System, whereas the upgraded version (with the new UCD Class D amplifiers driving the loudspeaker bass units) definitely made improvements in this area. With the original Integris, Garry West’s acoustic bass bulged and lingered slightly behind Allison Brown’s quick banjo, detracting from the performance as a musical whole. Listening to the Integris System upgrade, West’s acoustic bass was much deeper, faster and dynamic, keeping pace with the proceedings and fleshing out a more expansive soundstage. Still, discontinuities between low bass and above frequencies continued to be heard on some familiar recordings of small ensembles, (although room issues could not be ruled out as being a contributor).
Listening to large scale works at higher volumes, the Integris System (original and upgraded), sounded a bit compressed in soundstage, less propulsive and visceral when compared to my reference system. Keeping in mind that my Hansen Prince V.2 loudspeakers cost as much as one entire Integris System, there was still no comparison in regards to overall dimensionality, soundstaging and lowest octave reproduction between the two systems on large orchestral recordings or electric rock and blues. For example, the big strokes of Aimee Mann’s sweeping rock on Lost In Space [Superego Records 007] were nicely captured with the updated Integris System, but lacked the great dynamic drive, coherency between kick drum and electric bass and that sense of unlimited expansiveness and drama offered by my reference system. Similarly, the brash, huge multi instrumental sound of Ozomati, on their live recording, Live At The Fillmore [Concord 2298] and the multi-dimensional brilliance of bassist Brian Bromberg and his large ensemble heard on their recording Upright/Downright [Artistry 7012] were all a bit compressed with the Integris Systems. The Integris System was simply not able to kick the low frequencies into the same deep and coherent action as my reference nor able to obtain the tremendous dimensionality and dynamic layered soundstage obtained with it. For instance, on Bromberg’s “Cantaloupe Island,” Rick Braun’s trumpet entrance should bring a piercing entrance from far right of stage that stuns with brassy bite. With the upgraded Integris System, his entrance still had some bite and proper brass tone (more rounded and full), but was clearly compressed in with the other members of the crowded soundstage, leaving less of a dynamic impact and much less surrounding dimensionality and air for his horn to expand. Excitement, dynamic engagement and propulsion are the name of the game with the Hansen loudspeakers, and as volume and complexity of the recorded music increased, the Integris System gave up significant ground in bass clarity, depth and coherency, as well as in the areas of soundstaging and overall dimensionality.
Returning to our theme of the opera, I took a final listen to Professor Johnson’s outstanding recording of Eiji Oue leading the Minnesota Orchestra in Exotic Dances From The Opera [RR 71].
Listening at low volume to Saint-Saens’ “Bacchanale from Samson and Delilah,” the upgraded Integris System presented beautiful treble purity and accurate string tone, twinkling high bells and crackling castanets, all wrapped within its special 300B illumination of natural instrumental textures and great inner detailing. From all of this, I concluded that for the audiophile looking in the niche of a no fuss, all inclusive system, the upgraded Integris System should be high on the list, especially if one listens to vocal music, small scale acoustic music and recordings in general at low volume. Its price point for an entire integrated system compares favorably with the price of many single reference components in today’s market. It is also the best of compliments to think that Puccini himself would have loved to have heard a recording of his Manon Lescaut singing her closing, whispered aria on an Integris System because of how this system uniquely illuminates and breathes life into the recorded human voice.
Aurum Acoustics Integris System Pricing
Complete Integris System, including Q4/07 updates: $34,500
Integris Optional Two Shelf Isolation Rack: $3,300
Integris CDP alone, including Q4/07 circuit updates and spikes $13,500
Optional Veneers also available
10 Minerals Road
Conception Bay South
Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada A1W 5A1
(contains a complete list of specifications for the Integris System)
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