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Clash of the Titans

So much have been said and raved about on the 2 reference systems of AE, after reading the many comments from those who had auditioned these systems and the sometimes conflicting comments, I had the opportunity to audition these 2 mega-buck systems repeatedly in last couple of months and want to share my impression, then give my candid and 'biased' view in the hope this may shed some light which may or may not enlighten some of you audiophiles out there.

Let us start off with the topic of 'ultimate' hi-fi reproduction, this is very serious stuff, 50% of the systems that I had listened to in the past were, to put it bluntly, utter waste time as the owners of their systems did not have the faintest idea of what unamplified music sounded like, resulting in total lack of coherence in sound or the system had the incorrect tonality. Pls put your hand up if you are a FREQUENT classical concert goer, say once a month, once very 3 month, once every 6 months, once a year or never been to a concert. Never mind, let's go to AE's show room first, the majestic-looking system sounds absolutely NOTHING like your treasured system at home or vice versa but you are mightily impressed by its transparency and seamless top-to-bottom end coherence, the sound coming out of it is the sound to die for to many of you out there but you will surely die because your home system can never reproduce sound with the tonality like the Tidal, unless yours is a smaller-scaled Tidal. In a nutshell, this is the system which gives you everything you want from the hi-fi vocabulary : detail, imaging, depth and transparency. My impression of the system is it reproduces faithfully to what is recorded on the recording and to many audiophiles, it delivers, to borrow the phrase, 'The Absolute Sound'.

Next, you and I move to PT's home to hear the BIG horns and we are shocked by how different this system sounds to the Tidal, the difference is really chalk & cheese, despite the many shortcomings (nearly all of them are 'man made') of the overall sound, it sounds very life-like, it is more engaging but to most critical audiophiles (yours truly included), although 50% of the sound is top-notched, the other 50% (especially in the lower mid-bass n bass region) is too hard to swallow. In summary, you can describe the sound of the big horn as, to borrow another well-known phrase, Living Presence, its is like live music but you can easily hear many flaws in the playing.

Yesterday, January 8th, I gave the 2 systems another listen. First, I went to hear the big horns and was shocked that the persistent bass boom that was caused by room acoustic problem was completely gone !!! Wow, I could really listen without the 50% distraction/annoyance. The vital mid-range was richer, more organic, in other words, the whole system sounded more dynamic and coherent, those who had previous reservation on the bass should now go and have a good listen, it will impress and shock you, it is now easily one of the best systems you have ever heard. To me, now that all the major problem areas are gone, the system will slowly get better as other less perfect areas can be tackled, one at a time. I told PT the lower mid-bass was slightly muddy, once this is rectified, I am sure the system will make another 15% improvement. In summary, the sound I heard yesterday was 50% better than my last visit. I was very impressed by the improvement and above all, PT's tremendous effort in last one month to improve the overall sound, the big horns sound big, with very impressive micro and macro dynamic contrast (the system still needs MORE power) and the speed was the most realistic I had ever heard.

Next, we went to AE's showroom to test drive the Tidal system. The sound was easily 30% better than my last visit, the vital mid-range was fuller and the soundstage was wider, deeper and image was more 3-dimensional. I was totally bowed over by the life-like imaging of certain singers, however, the bass was not as well defined than my previous recollection, upon discovering some person had changed the DAC cable, PT reverted to the one which was used in my last homage, the coherent bass that I enjoyed so much returned. I commented to PT that this time, the 2 systems which sounded very different to each other in the previous occassions now sound more similar, especially in the area of tonality and coherence, we concluded all good systems should sound similar to each other, in order words, there should be convergence in the overall sound and presentation instead of divergence.

I hope I have put the overall performance of these 2 systems in the right perspective, if you totally agree with my description, pls read on. The Tidal system to the majority audiophiles (those who seldoms visit the concert hall and/or have not audition the Cessaro system) will be the ultimate reference because it has the highest resolution, transparency & coherence, so this is the system to aspire to, period. The big horns have the most life-like portrayal of live music but the soundstage and depth can be improved. Part of the problem is due to setting of the active bass units and the major part lies in the room acoustics. My honest feedback is it will NEVER sound perfect unless a dedicated room is employed to give these horns full justice (the windows behind the horns need to be treated to create a totally quiet background), period.

Last but not the least, if you think my assessment of the above 2 systems are too critical, then 90% of the systems I had heard in my hi-fi encounters were, by my 'current' yardstick, unlistenable. The Tidal system is the one I appreciate and enjoy but ultimatley I am unable to reach audio orgasm because it does not deliver the organic upper mid-range I treasure so much, especially when it is played really loud (could this be the drive units). The harmonics, harmonic decay and micro & macro dynamic contrast are not its forte when compared to the big horns, especially when direct comparison is made to my system - a FULL Zanden suite (could this be the difference between the best transistors & best tubes).

It is very hard not to make subjective judgment when one is evaluating other people's system, so I hope you do NOT read my impressions above as facts but just my listening bias because I am sure some folks out there, especially Tidal owners prefer their systems to PT's big horns but one thing for sure, the 2 systems are easily 2 of the best you have heard. In closing, this Clash of the Titans has not resulted in a clear victor, I am sure the future owners of the Tidal's flagship system would be just as satisfied as the owners of Cessaro.

The 2 super systems have really improved in leaps and bounds in last 3 months and it is clear they will sound even much better in coming months as the owners continue to improve it. In my biased opinion, the use of an active system together with separate bass modules, if set up correctly (none of the other 4-moduled active systems that I had heard in last 10 years were set up correctly, most of them did not have the correct phasing in the bass region), can achieve results which are head and shoulders above other single pair systems (this is my experience, before owning the Cessaro, I had the Avalon Sentinel with active electronic crossover). Hi-Fi should not be treated as a hobby, if you are a crazy audiophile, like PT & yours truly, hi-fi is part of your life, you want to improve it by constantly fine tuning its sound through tweaking room acoustics and gadgets. In the coming days(ss), if time permits, I would like to share with you my hi-fi enlightenment in 2010 and I hope this will foster better sound reproduction in your system in 2011 and may you stay forever young.

Mr Z


  • Mister Zanden,

    It is a very thoughtful writeup. It's a real refreshing read on a Monday morning, much better than those report written by stupid analysts who thought they know the world but in fact 99% of them are empty with fancy charts and jargons. Isn't it quite similar to audiophile (myself included)?

    Maybe, I should get both. I already got a pair of Cessaro Chopin in my office. The big system takes time which I don't. Upon retirement, I will decide which route should I take. But these two mega bucks system are not easy to manage. It took PT almost 6 months to get your endorsement. He said to me you helped him tremendously. I may need your help someday after I retire.

    The comment on orgasm is interesting. But different people achieve orgasm in different way. A may like doggie, but B could prefer the traditional. Some may play the taboo to get there.

    Well, I am getting into dirty adult talk if I continue. Jlam will take away my post.

    I have saved your writeup into my PC for collection.

  • It has been quite awhile for a quality essay to appear here. Not many can follow what you said. Your analogy is well presented and your view is actually unbiased, almost neutral. I can feel audio is in your blood.
  • Your article was much discussed over here in Taipei in Grand Hyatt today with a bunch of probably the most craziest audiophiles in Taiwan.

    If you have both systems, do you agree one can probably achieve multiple organsms depending on the mood? In retrospect, I tend to turn on the Cessaro when I am drunk.
  • I am very surprised there is not more discussion and debate on Mr Z's very interesting article. My wife and I have listened to both systems, though for the Cessaro it was early incarnations in PT's place and a couple of other people, and not the latest full-blown horn set-up in PT's place.

    While what Mr Z says resonates a great deal with what we happen to think as well, Mr. Z obviously articulates the differences between the two systems superbly. Let me, however, start by stating our belief that hifi (whatever system) is really far away from the real thing. I do go to concerts, and my wife plays (as a very serious hobby) the French Horn in the orchestra (though she is not an audiophile and is usually not patient with our vocabularies). In our view live sound from concerts (classical) is just so far away better than any hifi can deliver. Now with that starting point we look for what we feel are "flashes of reality" (i.e. moments when we feel we are close to hearing the real thing). Here while Tidal is great in all hi-fi dimensions, there are very few of those moments. In fact it is the Cessaro that is sometimes able to deliver that feeling of being in a live concert. This is the case even though the early Cessaro I heard suffered from muddied mid-bass, probably because of the uneven speed between the horns and the conventional drivers. I assume the full-blown horn system now in PT's place has addressed this issue to some degree.

    What confounds us (esp. my wife), however, is while we get that "live" feeling when listening to a classical concert recording, we get that very similar feel when we listen to Jazz pieces recorded in a studio through the Cessaro. Not sure why, but that surely cannot be right?! Compared to that I feel the Tidal has a much broader repetoire and different types of music do sound different and feel different through the Tidal. At this point you can jump to the conclusion that the Tidal is more transparent, but I think the reasoning must be more complex than that. You can also jump to the conclusion that I have not heard the Cessaro enough to appreciate its full subtlety, which could also be true.

    I write all this as questions rather than as commentary on how good the systems are. It is clearly a waste to leave Mr Z's article as it is as I feel it raises as many interesting questions as it offers in insights
  • It's really cool to see so many quality responses to Mr.Zanden's article. I speculate this article is being discussed worldwide at the echelon of the hi end community.

    I guess the "flahses of reality" is a function of subjective experiences inclusive the understanding of that particular instrument/piece of music being reproduced. Everyone's experineces are different.

    For all kinds of piano recordings, the "flashes of reality" coming out from my Sunray is constantly flowing. It is not a moment, but an experiences, particularly on all kinds of piano sonata.

    I do, however, feel the Cessaro delivers a more lively presentation on Jazz and Pop that is closer to live than the Tidal. It seems the experience of listening to horn is more englufing. To some, this immediate expereince brings them musicality. To some, the experience may be too direct and upfront.

    If spaces are not a physical limitation, the ultimate solution should be the horny way assuming integration is not an issue. I have confidence in the Cessaro Beta system but further up in the chain like the 5-way Gamma system, I have reservations. Integration is an issue.

    Some assign more subjective weighting on dynamic to measure musicality, but some others believe integration is the priority to musicality. When subjectivities are involved, there is no clear conclusion.

    The fun is all in the debate process.
  • This is certainly an interesting topic for discussion and I hope to chip in some of my listening experience contrasting between the horn system and conventional system. To begin, I am not a frequent concert go-er and on a year to year basis, I go 3-4 times maximum because I like to go with my family to any activities but sometimes it may not be the same case vice versa. If I am luck enough, I may get some seats on the front row, if now, it would be sometimes quite far away from the stage.

    To me, horn speaker is more direct and the soundstage created is proportionally more leaning towards the front of the speaker in the space between the listener and the speaker. I recall the time when I was using Cessaro, the feeling of being ‘engulf’ed in the venue of the recording was always prominent when listening to live recording or where one can feel strongly about the environment the recording was actually made. Bringing the experience shared by Cassph, it is just like sitting on the first row or even on the stage with the orchestra when listening to the horn system. All the musical instruments are vividly presented with clear and uncompromising tonality. Experience is sometimes ‘over-real’ to me since I have never been listening to an orchestra at such a close range of distance. Joan-Baez live concert in the Bullring has been my reference CD/LP for a long time. When I listened to them under the horn speaker, I feel like I was there in the Bullring clapping hands together with other audience. Although it is not 7.1 DTS surround system that we are talking about here, the ‘environment’ depicted under a horn system is surrounding you rather than in front of you. I believe this is one of the key factor making Cassph’s couple more engaged listening to the Cessaro system.

    I am currently using Tidal Contriva Diacera SE matching with Tron Syren preamp and Takumi power amp. This is somewhat different from the full Tidal suite in AE’s showroom. I ran the CD speaker with a Tidal preamp (Preos) and power amp (Impact Stereo) previously but in a normal size living room in HK without much acoustics treatment, the Tidal system is so unforgiving and transparent to tell there is glass reflection over there, some mid bass energy has been leaked away in the corridor, floor is too soft to slow down the bass propagation, etc etc…I think a full Tidal suite is not easily singing well in such room with so many compromises and acoustics deficiencies. In AE’s showroom which to me is world class within all physical constraints, the full Tidal flagship system will sing well if the recording is good, unbiasedly suck if the recording sucks. Soundstage is build up surrounding the front and the back of the speaker not charging too much into the space between the speaker and the listener compared to the horn system. As a result, the distance from the rear wall, front wall and the listener are all have to be measured carefully to take into account on the sounding created from the 1st and 2nd points of reflection.

    I’d like to use analogy to contrast the two systems that AE has and I have because I always find my English not as good as many in this forum. Listening to the horn speaker is like watching a movie in the Space museum where you have a 360 degree viewing capability and images are everywhere in front of and besides you. When listening to Tidal, if the speaker positioning is right, you are like watching a 3-d movie. Everything is in front of you with a virtual 3-dimensionality. Neither of these 2 are real, nor there is a clear path that they will converge with each other to give the ultimate virtual reality like a ‘hologram’ when technology becomes even more advanced than today. At this juncture, having one fully tamed system is already a blessed gift, owning both well tamed systems with the endorsement of big guns like Mr. Zanden is something I am really envy of !!
  • I had the opportunity to meet Chris @ AE and audition both the AE all-Tidal system (Stahl-Tek digital front-end) and the Cessaro/Zanden/Tron system. Before i share my own personal impressions, 3 things.
    - First, i would like to thank Chris for his time, professionalism, openness in sharing his evident expertise. A consummate professional. - - Second, my perspective comes from studying piano for 12 years and being in this hobby for 25 years. i know only what i like to hear, but am always open to learning and improving.
    - Third, for your reference, my current system: Zanden digital (upgraded mullard & amperex tubes); CJ ACT 2 preamp, Gryphon Antileon Class A amp; Wilson X-1/Grand Slamm; Velodyne DD-18 sub (in parallel up to 35hz); IC/SCs are Transparent Ref; PCs are PAD Dominus Ferox/Ann Contego plus Sablon Audio Robusto; Nordost Qx4; custom-made rack constructed out of solid 1" slate and solid 3" birchply.

    Tidal System
    1. This system reflects AE's fanatical approach to EVERYTHING. i have never experienced anything quite like this before. Not in NYC, Boston, London, San Francisco, Madrid, Istanbul where i have auditioned high-end audio.
    2. Noise Floor: AE has obsessively reduced one of the most insidious impediments to quality sound (high noise floor) thru removal of electronic, AC or ground-related "haze" or "shimmer". This allows the music and nature of the system to come through clearly, solidly and unwaveringly.
    3. Detail: In a word, extraordinary. I brought recordings i have played for 15-20 years. The most telling CD was Keith Johnson Reference Recordings. i have a pretty good system at home, and the AE Tidal system EFFORTLESSLY presents distinct musical lines, instruments and patterns...some of which you barely notice are there on "regular systems". There is NO effort required with the Tidal system to hear different musical patterns going on simultaneously with orchestral pieces. The best i have ever heard, anywhere, in any system. no exceptions.
    3. Depth of soundstage. The depth of the soundstage was very deep...but more importantly, solid. I love Electrostatics for their ability to create 3-D imaging and depth...but it is rarely solid. The best i have ever heard? hard to say...but definitely the best i have ever heard in a room this size.
    4. Pace/Rhythm/Timing. This is a fast has to be to delineate all the detail. Enough said.
    5. Organic/Warmth. Here, i have to agree with Mr. Zanden. I find it difficult to find any faults with the technical merits of this fact, they probably set the bar or compete for setting the bar on a global is that good. At the same time, i would love to see what would happen if the system were allowed to "breathe" a little bit and "relax". The sound feels "wound up tight" due to its relentless precision. Would my suggestion result in less detail, less precision? i dont think so if done properly, but even if it did, i personally would likely find the system even more enjoyable long-term.
    6. An example...Eric Clapton Unplugged...Track 1...the audience opens the CD by clapping and cheering and whistling. On the Tidal system, it made the recording super detailed, very, very deep crowd, and very definite individual claps, cheers and whistles...but it was almost like the recording engineers made a bright recording. By contrast, listening on my own system or 2 other "reference systems" including Cessaro...the crowd seemed entirely and absolutely human. Like real people making real noise that was well and naturally recorded.
    7. The room is small. Put up the volume and the subs' lower and mid-bass overhang is unavoidable...there is no place for the bass to vent. i wish i could hear this system in a large, high ceiling would sing without a doubt. It deserves it!!! That said, i was utterly shocked that so much system could have been so masterfully well set up in a room of this size. Quite a feat by AE!!!
    8. In conclusion, no doubt this is a world reference system. on many levels AE has demonstrated their commitment to no-holds-barred extreme audio which most of us dream of. Period. How might they possibly reach even a bit further towards ever-elusive perfection? For me and my personal tastes, a droplet of warmth in the existing pool of absolute crystalline clarity, depth, transparency (and power)...i think would create magic the likes of which many of us have never heard.

    System Two: Cessaro/Zanden/Tron
    Compared to AE Tidal...the room was smaller and more challenging to setup...again extreme credit to AE for optimizing the room!!!

    In general, more natural than the Tidal system if not quite as ultra-detailed. Personally, once you have heard that level of detail, you cant get it out of your head...but until the Tidal i would never have felt the CEssaro system lacked for detail. The CEssaro system was very detailed but did not strike as massively more detailed than anything i had heard before...the Tidals are.

    I would also say there was a more "human" quality to the music which (as you can tell) i found more pleasing. in the end, i obsess about my sound...but once i get it right, i literall forget about the system and go about listening and buying more music.

    i respect horns for what they do well...the openness and effortless way they deliver a wide spectrum of sound seamlessly (fewer crossover issues, etc) and at volume if necessary

    To achieve even greater perfection? I somehow miss the absolutely visceral way a combination of 12", 15" and 18" cones can deliver a steady, controlled wave through the room even at extremely low levels that synchs with the mid and upper ranges. Horns to my experience do not move or compress air quite the same way...perhaps i have just not experienced it yet.

    Example - Missy Elliot "Work it" it with a big sub...a really big high quality one. the air moves all around you (even at low volumes)...your pants flap gently at higher volumes...your chest gets a gentle "thud" at lower levels...very, very cool when done with precision and power. if you do not hear this when you play it, you are not getting everything that Missy E put on this me, its there. when you experience it, it isn't will know exactly what i am talking about.

    Tidals with the sub do that for sure...Horn speakers apparently not as much. Given that i listen to classical, jazz, blues, but also Deep House, Rap, Hip Hop, this element of bass is important. Plus, i use my 2-channel system for video as well...and i tend to watch action movies. What can i say?...explosions needs compression-type B-A-S-S! ;)

    In conclusion, i found the Tidal system absolutely educational in its outer limits of technical performance. it made me think about buying an Esoteric P-01VU transport...just because of its famed detail retrieval and natural quality (which with Zanden could be something special.) i would also love to hear that droplet of warmth/magic in it, though not necessarily as much as i would love to hear in the Tidal system. in any event, the Zanden/Cessaro/Tron system was a musical joy. I would love to hear the other sub that normally goes with these Beta speakers...Chris said they wouldn't fit in the room...probably would solve the "bass in the chest" effect i was hoping for.

    Thank you AE for providing the world with such extraordinary systems...and knowledge! i look forward to speaking with you again soon about my own system. Kind regards.
  • Lloyd,

    Welcome! I enjoy your write-up thoroughly. I can see listening experiences of yours behind the words.

    Let's view the same issue from another perspective. Had you listened to any symphonic scores from the Tidal system? Say, recordings under the baton of Solti and Reiner? Or recordings of composers such as Stravinsky and Mahler?

    I can tell you my experiences. What you and Mr.Zanden described are partially the fundamental differences of the digital sources. The ownership of Zanden 2000p/5000s for many years until now tell me clearly this is a system from smaller scale to medium scale of music. For bigger symphonic scores, the musicality is not there because of (1) macro-dynamics are too timid (2) resolution is not high enough to reveal the tonal color of various instruments groups (3) the development of the symphonic plot is not comprehensive.

    From this perspective, musicality or the so called "more human" is largely a function of your preferred music and understanding of that particular music.

    If the Zanden 2000p/5000s were there feeding the Tidal reference system, you may conclude differently. To someone like me who listens primarily to orchestrated works, musicality told by the Zanden source is not as rich as the Vekian digital suite.

    This is just another perspective of looking at the same issue.

  • Raymond,

    Many thanks for your warm welcome. Some comments to your excellent post.

    1. Yes, I agree...the Zanden does not fare well on super-large orchesteral. It cannot "hold it together" with all the intense control, dynamics that a full orchestral piece requires to sound "real". Hence why i am thinking maybe to use an Esoteric P-01VU Transport.

    there are a few "tweaks" i have found can help a little:
    - vibration. the unit is well built but using HRS damping plate on top and feet underneath helps hold the "shimmer of the image" down which increases control
    - EAT tube damper on the 7308/6922 tube in the main DAC unit helps tremendously to strength and solidify the signal. i upgraded to Amperex 7308 White PQ
    - The PSU unit also benefits from isolation of course...but the tubes are now Mullard 6CA4 from 1950s and Sylvania 6X4 (for high detail)

    2. No doubt the Tidal system holds its composure under the most stressful of orchestral pieces. i heard a little of that myself, and i have no doubt it could withstand far greater stresses and make it look easy.

    that being said, even under these fantastic conditions, i (personally according only to my own personal taste) would still hhumbly vote that a "droplet of warmth" be added to the system.

    i suggested to Chris one (and only one) PAD Anniversary power cable to the Stahl-Tek transport. I am aware of AE's views on PAD vs ARgento...i respect your views about one brand vs the other. In this case, i am not suggesting PAD...but rather about using exactly 1 PAD as an artist uses a brush to touch up a painting.

    I would love to go back to Hong Kong to revel in your fantastic Tidal system and hear what would happen if the Transport had the Anniversary Power Cable.

    Interestingly, i know of 2 owners of the new Stahl-Tek transport who have decided to use PAD Anniversary Power Cable.

    In the end, you are totally right...this is all about personal taste. AE has created a tremendous system that shows no technical weaknesses at any rationale volume and clearly shows its ability to extend well beyond the limitations of the room and the musical signal send to it by the Vekian.

    Enjoy and many thanks again for the warm welcome.
  • By the way, when i upgraded my tubes in the Zanden DAC PSU, the sound become much, much, much more powerful while retaining the musicality and organic quality that make Zanden great. The sound now also has a power i never expected from the many cases, actually "propulsive power" which it never delivered before.

    Additionally, whereas i use to listen to volume 53-61 on my preamp, i now only need to get to 42-48. For anyone interested in experimenting, i highly recommend it. Enjoy!!
  • I conquered this system!
  • And what a system it is!!! Beautiful looking, beautiful setup and it plays beautiful music. Enjoy!!!
  • I really enjoyed the very brief listening session this morning. The big horns are challenging to play well in such a constrained room. Maybe I am used/addicted to the Cessaro way of reproducing the music, I prefer this to Tidal.
  • Hi Shanghai B,

    While horns are different than ceramic drivers, i am not entirely sure it is the horns vs the Tidal speakers which are making the biggest difference between the sounds of the 2 systems (to my ear). Both speakers are so transparent, quick and able to pass a clean signal along very well. At the extremes, they are of course different (bass in particular, and also seamlessness of audio spectrum)...but i wonder if more of the difference may in fact be coming from the upfront electronics.

    In particular, i wonder if it may be a combination of the Zanden/Tron at work here (vs Vekian/Tidal). Both the Tron and Tidal electronics are quite neutral and transparent...perhaps the Tron is a touch warmer? Probably, though i cannot say for sure. I do know the Zanden system pretty well since i own the DAC, and there is a quality to its "voicing" which i could detect in the Cessaro system...and which i enjoyed immensely.
  • The flagship VIRGINIA isolation devices by SRA finally arrived after 3 months of waiting!
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