Oh Lord, Won't You Buy Me A Mercedes Benz
We caught up with Chris Cave and his extremely tolerant wife Julie in Sheffield to photograph his car and audition his system with excitement and anticipation. The system has been installed by FOUR MASTER Source Sounds in Sheffield but as is common with brand new technology, this triumph of a system was no easy birth.
Built around groundbreaking products from Audison, Chris is in every sense an early adopter. This tag does not come without pain as in many cases early adopters are buying into largely untried technology that sometimes has not completely settled down. This is increasingly true of digital products that can be radically "re-imagined" via firmware updates. The technology in this system is "way out there" and Chris, along with Source Sounds, have already done much to further product development of what will soon become the go-to system for audio purists on the move.
Chris’ car is a hardly used Mercedes SL500 AMG that I was introduced to in front of a magnificent building in Sheffield. This is clearly the sort of motor that only the very serious would entertain. The V8 engine barks a warning on fire-up making it clear that this car could take an inexperienced driver unawares! Thankfully, ex-policeman and advanced driver Chris knows how to control this beast.
Chris has always been into cars having trained initially as a mechanical engineer. Over his career, his training became an obsession and I think even he would admit to being a bit of a technology obsessive. Chris has always been a huge music lover and good quality reproduction has been a way of life since listening to his parents’ classical music collection whilst growing up. Chris tells me he still listens to classical music and still insists on the best possible reproduction when so doing!
The system is quite complex and was designed around an ambition to keep audio signals in the digital domain from source to final amplification. Three main products from Audison were employed to do this. These are the recently refreshed and updated bit Play HD, a new processor - bit One HD, and an equally recent hi-res version of the very capable 5-channel Voce amplifier, AV 5.1K HD - The HD suffix denotes that they are all high definition audio products, more commonly referred to as hi-res these days. All three are capable of handling 24-bit, 96kHz audio and beyond with amplifier and processor managing sampling frequencies up to 192kHz.
The bit Play HD is a hi-res source unit that will play many formats including the incredibly capable FLAC format files. These are output via TOSLINK Optical cable to one of two optical inputs on the bit One HD. This in turn, outputs its processed signal to the AV 5.1K HD via Audison's digital AV link. The digital signal is converted to analogue with a high quality DAC just before the final amplifying stages achieving what Audison describes as “Full D/A” or digital source to final output in common terms. Additionally, an Audison Voce Quattro 4-channel amplifier is fully occupied driving rear speakers and front woofers. This utilises an AV bit In HD, an optional input stage that accepts and converts hi-res digital signals. So there we have it, practically end-to-end digital performance. However, there is more.
The car is equipped with a MOST (Media Oriented Systems Transport) buss that allowed Paul Ellis at Source Sounds to pick up unadulterated digital audio signals from the on-board head unit using an Audison bit DMI. This is not hi-res capable but it doesn't need to be in this application as it is dealing with 16-bit, 48kHz (maximum) signal from the on-board CD player. By using this device, even the CD output remains in digital form until just before the final amplifying stage. For those of you wondering, yes, you can clearly hear the difference when 16-bit 48kHz signals are transported in the digital domain to the amplifier as opposed being piped along “lossy” cables in analogue form.
As you would expect, with so much new technology deployed, the installation required more than the expected time to get right but this is where the patience and determination of this customer coupled with the expert knowledge of a FOUR MASTER such as Source Sounds comes into play. Rather than falling at the first hurdle, the joint focus on the goal coupled with second-to-none problem solving technical skills has resulted in an exemplary system that I think is the first and certainly the best example of digital audio in any car I have listened to.
Brand new equipment aside, Paul and Chris worked closely together in specifying the speakers and did not always see entirely eye-to-eye. For instance, Paul felt that the factory-installed woofers in the doors would be adequate for Chris' needs. Chris was not convinced and after living with them for a while decided that something better was required. He opted to have them removed in favour of a pair of very excellent Hertz Mille Legend ML 1800's. Paul built these into custom enclosures that he seamlessly installed behind the original grilles. The very excellent Audison Voce AV 1.1 tweeters and AV 3.0 mids look after the middle and high frequencies more than adequately. A single Voce AV 12 subwoofer was included which I felt might be a little over the top but, having auditioned it, I think it was entirely the right thing to do especially as I can imagine that when introducing the accelerator pedal to the floor pan, a good deal of bass may be cancelled by throaty engine sounds and road rumble. The analogue end of this system is not only carefully selected but also expertly installed to ensure that every nuance of the music is squeezed out of the source material and reproduced with close to perfect fidelity to my ears anyway.
Before I report on the audition itself, I would just like to address the age-old “digital sounds too clinical and harsh” complaint often heard from vinyl disc lovers whose preferred listening I think sounds too “ploppy”. Bass extension is great but without well-balanced mid frequencies I can’t find any other word to describe it – To me, if you can hear everything then music is going to sound somewhat different but to dismiss it without giving it a proper listen is a little ignorant I feel. The new vinyl movement is professing that vinyl is the best and cheapest way to get hi-res music reproduction in the home. All I can say is that this is not my experience. I find vinyl listening at the cheap to mid-price range to be fraught with audio anomalies not to mention the ease with which things can be mechanically upset and the effort required to put on a track you want to listen to!
Naturally, I was keen to give the system a listen and threw a couple of tracks at it to get my ears in. I’d had a three-hour journey listening to my own car and just like swapping between different wines it is a good idea to cleanse the palate! This I did with a track by Dave Gilmour called “5am”: Bird sound, a dog bark and atmospheric keys joined at 40 seconds by pristine guitar. This was 16-bit and already I was feeling the love. Time to wake everything up so I moved on to a Michael Jackson classic, “Rock With You”. It had me right from the drum entry – the depth of that kick drum and crispness of the rest of the kit made me smile. I let it run on and heard distinct attack on the strings and deep musical bass – Still 16-bit and I could hear everything with incredible clarity.
It was time to wheel out the big guns. With my hi-res USB stick inserted into the bit Play HD, I selected “Lime House Blues” from 24-bit 96kHz brilliantly recorded trad-jazz album, Live at the Pawnshop. This starts with some ambience from the venue, which is clearly a bistro or eatery of some kind as you can hear cutlery and plates being cleared amongst the general hubbub. Instruments are being played by way of a sound check or tuning check. At 37 seconds you hear a cash register from somewhere in the room then the band sparks up with brushes hitting the snare drum followed by the rest of the ensemble; stand-up bass, piano, clarinet and vibraphone launching into an upbeat version of this 1921 Philip Braham and Douglas Furber-penned jazz standard. The principles of trad-jazz being as they are, we listened to the whole ensemble laying down the tune for a couple of verses before each instrumentalist takes centre stage for a three-or-maybe-more-verse solo. This takes time of course and I completely understand some listeners’ disengagement. I was bought up on this stuff and judging by Chris’ reaction, I suspect he was not entirely new to the genre either. As is traditional each instrument rotates around the melody becoming more ambitious with their chops on each rotation. Chris could contain himself no longer and half way through the clarinet solo told me he could actually see the clarinet player blowing his lungs out in a smoky club with beads of sweat on his forehead; so could I. The vibraphone beater hits were crisp and precise as was the sound of stick against cymbal. The track lasts for about 10 minutes and as is often the case, has four or five false endings that caused much hilarity amongst the lucky audience. Despite this, I was still disappointed to get to the end of this engaging rendition.
Next up, we went for Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” – Chris had voiced some concern that the sub bass may be demonstrating a little lag. This is often a very tricky thing to deal with, as it is very easy to hear anomalies that do not actually exist and others’ opinions can make you over focus on the perceived problem area. Perhaps I had done this with the 16-bit stuff or maybe the sub was set up specifically for hi-res. There was certainly no issue with what I was listening to now however. Those familiar with this piece of work will know that the recording was produced and contributed to by David Bowie and then-sidekick, Mick Ronson. A bass figure which sounds like a mix of electric bass and double bass kicks us off with some light acoustic guitar strumming, panned left. You can hear the strings hitting the fret board of the double bass which plays slow and low but with all the necessary overtones required to confirm it is a very nice instrument, exceptionally well played. I was struck by the movement engineered in by producer and “knob twiddler”. In particular, the female vocals in the chorus travel toward me becoming drier as they do. Climactically, the vocalists kiss me on each cheek before retreating to recline on a bed of soft reverb. Awesome stuff!
As always with a system of this sophistication, I can imagine that more fine adjustment will be undertaken, perhaps to balance performance between CD and hi-res sources for instance? I look forward to revisiting the system one day to see how the performance has been developed. I would urge Chris to trust in Paul's ability - his set ups are legendary and he will extract every dB of musical performance from the system over time. Paul intimated that he and Chris are working on a roof-down setting which involves a pair of Audison Voce AV 3.0 mids used for rear fill - This was not demonstrated to me as it is still very much work in progress but from the brief explanation I was given, I am extremely enthused about the innovative strategy being worked on which hopefully I can report on in the future.
For now, one word, WOW!
Huge thanks to Chris and Julie and the ever-engaging Paul Ellis for allowing us access to the vehicle.
Chris’ Top Five Tunes
“Billy Jean” - Michael Jackson
“Amazing” - Seal
“The Chain” - Fleetwood Mac
“Road to Hell” - Chris Rea
“Summer of ‘69” - Bryan Adams
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