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.