A Visit to Hear Vlad's System

Al M.

VIP/Donor
Sep 10, 2013
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After return to some post-pandemic normalcy, recently I listened again to the system of WBF member Vlad (VLS). While with some reservations I had liked the system on previous occasions, now a year later I listened to some of the best sound I had ever heard from a system. This is a remarkable transformation, and it is the more remarkable since the system does not feature the most expensive components, at least by today's high end standards. In particular, the Rockport Atria II is the entry level speaker from the company.

Here is a list of Vlad’s gear, provided by him:
• MSB Premier + Powerbase + Femto 93 clock + Renderer
• SoTM ISO-CAT6 Ethernet filter just before the renderer
• Running Roon on an iMac, connected to the DAC via wired Ethernet and a basic TP-LINK 1Gb switch. Roon connects to Qobuz, Tidal, and ripped CDs and high-rez files on the iMac.
• Amp: Simaudio Moon 860A v1
• Interconnects: Shunyata Alpha
• Speaker cables: Shunyata Cobra
• Speakers: Rockport Atria II, two REL S/3 SHO subs connected to the amp speaker terminals
• Power: dedicated 10AWG AC line; Denali v2 + Shunyata Sigma XC v2 PC (input) + 2 Shunyata Sigma NR v2 PCs (output)

The tremendous progress in sound that the system has made last year seems to be due mainly to three factors:
1) using the MSB DAC direct output, via internal volume control, into the power amp, instead of using an external preamp
2) a complete upgrade of the Shunyata power conditioning system, with exchange of the Denali v1 for a Denali v2, and upgrade of the power cords (see above)
3) putting the speakers on spikes rather than on flat footers

I was struck by the tremendous dynamics, which were new. The sound was incredibly vivid and, in a good way, incisive, just as I personally like it. There was also a great, to my ears very natural tone. Personally, I would have liked a bit less speaker toe-in, which would have provided slightly less emphasis on upper midrange/lower treble, but this is a matter of taste I would say. Interestingly, even with this slight emphasis on high frequencies, the system never sounded bright, thin or aggressive. Cymbals had solid meat on their bones. Despite the energy in the higher frequencies, there was mostly great body in the sound, for example on orchestral low brass or on drums.

Undeniable was the stunning clarity and transparency of tone and of musical lines, which made following and being caught up in the music very easy. There was also an extraordinary level of resolution of timbral micro-detail, among the best that I have heard. For example, on solo cello (Bach cello suites, Starker, digital recording from the 90s when the cellist was in his seventies) the cello sound had an incredible definition and detail throughout the entire range, including the low register (which albeit did not quite have the body that can be obtained from this recording, but still was very good in that respect).

A good part of what made the tone so convincing to me was the incredible richness and shadings of color, with an illumination of tone from within. This richness and diversity of color, rarely heard from a hifi system, very much reminded me of live music.

Even though Vlad exclusively sources music from streaming, there was never a hint of the synthetic, plasticky quality that I often associate with less than the best computer audio. It all sounded very much artifact-free and natural.

There might have been a slight etching of sound in some instances, but I assume this would go away or be very much reduced with a bit less speaker toe-in and concomitant less emphasis on higher frequencies. Yet in most instances there was sublime flow of the music, which made the presentation very life-like.

Rhythm & timing was outstanding, greatly contributing to the involvement in the music. I am very sensitive to this issue, and rhythm & timing is one of the strong suits of my system, which I use as a reference in this area. The jazz rock of Trio of Doom had just the same explosive, tight and propulsive rhythm as on my system; here Vlad’s system has also made tremendous progress, as it was less than convincing on this material before, with some sluggishness. This also showed the tremendous quality of the MSB DAC, next to dynamics and of course tone, as well as resolution of timbral micro-detail. So far I had not been quite convinced, but now it was obvious that the DAC is outstanding in every way. The perceived lack of any digital artifact from streamed music shows the superiority of MSB’s streaming solution with internal renderer, inside the DAC box, which apparently circumvents the need for an expensive external server. If I were to implement streaming in my system (no intention at this point), I would primarily explore the MSB DAC with its in-box streaming renderer.

The jazz rock of Trio of Doom also revealed the great reduction of a weakness of the system that had bothered me before. There had been a hollow, smeared coloration on some drum sounds, apparently related to a narrow frequency band. It was for me the typical sound of a less than optimally rigid box speaker, a reminder why I usually do not like box floor standers unless they are of exceptional quality. Yet putting the Rockport speakers on spikes very much reduced the problem, up to a point where it really comes down to nitpicking when trying to find a fault. Drums sounded solid and very weighty. Mid-bass energy was just excellent. In general the sound was now remarkably box-free.

The sound was always effortless. There was a generous big-sized quality of sound that had not been there before, when the presentation was smaller – also in soundstage -- and less filled with energy.

Overall the system was incredibly engaging, and the presentation let you concentrate on the music rather just than the sound. Also in this of course most important sense, it was among the best systems I have heard so far.

I would also say that it was the best Rockport sound that I have ever heard, by a rather wide margin. Yes, the Rockport Lyra at Goodwin’s did some spectacular things, like just a huge soundstage on orchestral music and (from digital source, dCS Vivaldi four-box player) the most natural rendition and best resolution of the sound of a large orchestral violin section that I have ever heard, but there were problems and it was not all around satisfying like this sound is to me. On two other occasions, with Rockport Cygnus, I have heard just a boring sound, and an Altair demo was very unsatisfying as well. Clearly, nothing beats a thoroughly optimized sound as it can almost only be achieved in a home setting.

There was only one downside of the sound in Vlad’s system that was also a reduction in quality from what he had before, which is some a loss of spatial information. The presentation was rather one-dimensional in depth; the same components in the previous configuration had allowed for much greater spatial depth. If this is due to the direct coupling of the MSB DAC to the power amp, or the new Shunyata power components, or both, is not clear at this point. On the other hand, the rendition of hall ambience, while lacking in some instances, was sublime in others, for example on Haydn piano sonatas played by John McCabe (Decca).

In that context I have to add a caveat as well: the great incisiveness and energy of the music, as well as the extraordinary resolution of detail, certainly was intrinsic to the system’s capabilities, but in part it was also enhanced by the always upfront presentation, including of otherwise background layers.

Yet this is nitpicking on an otherwise magnificent system sound. Vlad also informed me that now he has version 2 of the Simaudio amp on audition, which significantly improves the sound further…
 
Lessons learned (or confirmed) for me:

1. Dynamics, both macro and micro, are not necessarily dependent on high-efficiency speakers. Some rather low-efficiency speakers with a difficult impedance curve can sound incredibly dynamic if driven by an amplifier that is up to the task. This confirms my experience with Ack’s system, featuring (modified) Martin Logan electrostats driven by Spectral monoblocks. Yet it really depends on the amp. Vlad tried an MSB amp on his speakers, and he told me the sound was rather small.

2. The MSB in-box streaming solution is excellent and natural sounding. While it is hard to get computer audio right and avoid a synthetic, somewhat plasticky sound, it obviously can be done and this seems a superior solution to me.

3. The new Shunyata gear is excellent, and works in a snergistic manner – the power cords with the power conditioner. It is much better than Shunyata gear in the past. I have heard the Denali v1 in several systems as well and my impression was always that it was, frankly, crap – well, I find most power conditioning crap. I also thought the instant current claims by Shunyata were just empty marketing blah blah, without any real world results to show for it. The Denali v2 seems so much superior, it’s not even funny. You can also plug in the power amp, which was in practice not a realistic option with the Denali v1. I still think Shunyata’s marketing material in instant current delivery is scientifically insufficient and unconvincing in terms of comprehensive data (system wide, beyond just the power cords themselves), so I keep having a beef with that, but I will not argue with the results anymore – on the new gear that is.

I have heard some of the new generation power cords in isolation, and they did not sound convincing to me or even introduced artifacts. It seems that the whole Shunyata system best works in synergy, with the power cords working from a Shunyata power conditioner.

The sound of the system emphasized the utmost importance of clean electrical power.
 
Wonderful report! Digital has come a long way. Streaming can be wonderful :)

Congrats, Vlad!
 
Thank you for a great report, Al!

Congratulations to Vlad for great improvements with his system!
 
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Great reading! Thanks for taking the time. Congrats to VLAD!
 
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It was great having you over Al - these are always fun sessions. And my hat off to you: you clearly have an unmatched ability to distill the essence of a complex auditory experience. I can only envy your auditory memory and the high level of connoisseurship you have honed over the years. Oh, and did I mention the impressive writing style? Neither of these will of course be a surprise for anyone on this forum ;).

I think you capture the current state of my system well. The last year has been one characterized by many incremental changes; some positive, others were steps backward that had to be undone. And I must acknowledge that a lot of it was motivated by my exposure to your and Tasos’ systems, both references for what is possible in terms of speed, transparency, and naturalness (yes, I’m unafraid to use this term). And, of course, kudos to WBF, as an enabler of these connections and learning.

Your point about toe-in is entirely valid. It’s time I revisit speaker positioning. It’s really mandatory after every major system change, but I freely admit that I’m lazy and I find dragging 150lb spiked speakers around a carpeted floor root-canal-level unpleasant.

The 860A v2 is intriguing so far, but I will hold off on comments since it takes a long time to sound good after a cold start and I just got the loaner on Tuesday. This demo also only has 200 hours on it, well short of Simaudio’s recommendation of 300 hours of burn-in (they have mentioned 400 hours in the past).

I have nothing but good things to say about the MSB DAC. Part of the reason I originally chose it was the hard-earned belief that computer audio works best when a single (competent) designer controls all of the elements in the chain – the Ethernet implementation, the streamer, its power supply and noise isolation, and, importantly, the fragile interface between it and the DAC. This was after years of attempting to (semi-successfully) optimize components from multiple vendors, along with a myriad of de-grungers, reclockers, etc.

I also took a scenic route towards the discovery that connecting the Premier directly to my amp beats alternatives. It was an expensive lesson, and involved a wide variety of preamplifiers (PS Audio BHK, Nagra Classic, Octave HP700, Spectral 30SV, and Music First, among them). It turns out that when feeding the Sim, the MSB output stage beats them all in terms of speed, transparency, timbre, as well as noise.
 
Nice write up Al. Congratulations on the improvements, Vlad.

Regarding speaker toe-in, from the photos, it appears you have spikes with floor protector disks over carpet. Have you tried the spikes without the protector disks for better coupling to the floor below the carpet? I would understand if you want to not mark the wooden floor boards. For rotating the speakers, I have found success by tilting the speaker slightly up on one spike, the inside front spike works best, and rotating the speaker's toe in slightly in or out around that point as a starting move. This is done easier with one person than with two.

I am forever in your debt for your kind goodbyes when leaving my house after a listening session. Your speaking voice is what convinced me pinpoint and outlined imaging is a result of enhancement. My experience is that it is artificial and not heard in live music. Your toe-in may be more relevant to address tonal balance perceived at the listening seat, but you may find there is an effect on imaging as well if you reduce toe-in, as well as the perception of energy in the room. Enjoy the process of experimenting and it sounds like you have found some real success during the isolation/lock down. Al told me by phone how impressed he was with your system and the digital streaming in particular.
 
Thanks Peter. And, good eye - I cheated and provided an old snapshot, taken before I removed the footers under the spikes.

Since you made the observation about voice localization at the end of our listening session, I have repeated that experiment in a number of different environments and believe that the degree to which one can pinpoint a real voice is very much dependent on the locale / room. There are many where precise localization is quite easy, and IMHO that doesn’t make those contexts any less natural.
 
Thanks Peter. And, good eye - I cheated and provided an old snapshot, taken before I removed the footers under the spikes.

Since you made the observation about voice localization at the end of our listening session, I have repeated that experiment in a number of different environments and believe that the degree to which one can pinpoint a real voice is very much dependent on the locale / room. There are many where precise localization is quite easy, and IMHO that doesn’t make those contexts any less natural.

Vlad, I agree that localization is easy and often quite precise, in rooms with voices and in the concert hall. I am referring more to the size, outline, and nature of the sound leaving one's mouth, or the energy leaving the strings and hollow wooden box. It is the understanding and perception of the nature and characteristics (quality) of that sound which changed for me with your visit. I then confirmed it in different settings with different sound sources. However, as is often written, people can perceive sound differently.

Interesting discussion. Please report back on how the sound changes with speaker orientation.
 
I disagree that sound perception can change with one visit that way, and then you try to confirm what you think happened with that visit. That is confirmation bias, trying to confirm your theory. Not saying if outcome is right or not, it just can't happen because a guy visited and spoke in a room and you went all Archimedes
 
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". Dynamics, both macro and micro, are not necessarily dependent on high-efficiency speakers. Some rather low-efficiency speakers with a difficult impedance curve can sound incredibly dynamic if driven by an amplifier that is up to the task. This confirms my experience with Ack’s system, featuring (modified) Martin Logan electrostats driven by Spectralmonoblocks."

Agreed. True with apogees as well. But you need serious power and current.
 
It was great having you over Al - these are always fun sessions.

Thanks for having me over, Vlad, this was indeed fun!

I have nothing but good things to say about the MSB DAC. Part of the reason I originally chose it was the hard-earned belief that computer audio works best when a single (competent) designer controls all of the elements in the chain – the Ethernet implementation, the streamer, its power supply and noise isolation, and, importantly, the fragile interface between it and the DAC. This was after years of attempting to (semi-successfully) optimize components from multiple vendors, along with a myriad of de-grungers, reclockers, etc.

I hear you. I have witnessed endless computer audio drama over the years both in person and on the web. Many pages have been spilled and wasted on WBF, and mostly elsewhere, about the next audio nirvana streaming improvement which turned out to be less promising than thought, gave other computer issues which then had to be fixed etc. A never ending, to me deeply unattractive and disturbing drama, and sonically I have heard setbacks along the way, after great steps forward, as well.

This is one of the reasons I never contemplated computer audio (oh it's so easy -- yeah, right), but this MSB solution is mightily attractive, and as I said, if I ever go streaming this is what I would explore first. Those MSB guys clearly know what they're doing in terms of both making fantastic sounding DACs and streaming, all in a single solution.

I also took a scenic route towards the discovery that connecting the Premier directly to my amp beats alternatives. It was an expensive lesson, and involved a wide variety of preamplifiers (PS Audio BHK, Nagra Classic, Octave HP700, Spectral 30SV, and Music First, among them). It turns out that when feeding the Sim, the MSB output stage beats them all in terms of speed, transparency, timbre, as well as noise.

There are obviously different opinions out there about the quality of the variable volume output stage of the Premier DAC, and you tried it yourself earlier with lesser success, which prompted the search for the ideal preamp in the first place. It really seems to depend on the final system context as to what works best.
 
[Vlad], I am forever in your debt for your kind goodbyes when leaving my house after a listening session. Your speaking voice is what convinced me pinpoint and outlined imaging is a result of enhancement. My experience is that it is artificial and not heard in live music.

Vlad, I agree that localization is easy and often quite precise, in rooms with voices and in the concert hall. I am referring more to the size, outline, and nature of the sound leaving one's mouth, or the energy leaving the strings and hollow wooden box. It is the understanding and perception of the nature and characteristics (quality) of that sound which changed for me with your visit. I then confirmed it in different settings with different sound sources. However, as is often written, people can perceive sound differently.

Peter, I fully agree with you. I have made those observations independently some time ago.

Concert hall, as I experience it:
1) Sitting within the circle where direct sound still supersedes reflected sound in effect: rather precise localization of performers possible (with eyes closed)
2) Sitting further away from the stage, where reflected sound is dominant: precise, or at times even any, localization of performers impossible (with eyes closed)
3) Never any pinpoint or otherwise small-sized imaging, even when rather precise localization of sound source is possible

Fortunately I am happy to report that Vlad's system never engaged in any pinpoint imaging during the session, but rather always presented reasonably large-sized images!
 
There are obviously different opinions out there about the quality of the variable volume output stage of the Premier DAC, and you tried it yourself earlier with lesser success, which prompted the search for the ideal preamp in the first place.

Indeed, both system interaction and personal taste play a part.

But in my case the “lesser success” was undoubtedly due to hasty auditioning and an overly strong prior (“a preamplifier MUST sound better”).
 
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madfloyd and I had an opportunity to listen to VLS's system yesterday, with one small but significant change - the v2 version of the Moon amplifier, which was still under evaluation and break-in.

The system, room and house are impeccable and Vlad is a gracious host! There are a number of key aspects I look for in a system, starting with lack of distortion and great timbre. The system scaled really well with all acid material - like Shostakovich, Berlioz and Mahler - with no strain or distortion. The MSB Premier DAC, which I also had for evaluation right as the pandemic was starting, proved to be an incredible music maker. In my system, I did not find it superior to the Yggy2, but since then, so much has changed with respect to power conditioning that, as Ive said elsewhere, it has invalidated any and all CD player and DAC evaluations I have done.

Vlad's use of the same Denali v2 but higher-end Shunyata power cords has proven to be a core and fundamental part of the system, and based on my own experience, probably widely responsible for the lack of distortion. The soundstage was outrageous with beautiful depth and width and the speakers disappearing, the bass was deep and tuneful and well positioned within the stage. I felt driver integration was impeccable, and once again, I feel Rockports are superior speakers.

Moving on to macro-dynamics, I feel the system excelled. On micro-dynamics and overall detail and trimbral resolution, and especially in terms of overall vividness, I am used to something different, but at the same time, this system was nonetheless very good here as well and extremely easy to listen to.

One thing that was quite obvious was that there were no detectable off-notes, and that's a great thing - a very linear rendition. Bravo! I personally feel this system blows away so many others I have heard, and in certain areas mine as well, and flew through all torture material with utter ease and grace. I have not heard prior iterations of this system, so can't attribute this to any particular upgrade. Best of all, all of that at a more reasonable price than what some folks invest. I felt Vlad's approach and investment approach is a very well-thoughtout process. I am looking forward to visiting again!

The Premier DAC deserves another chance in my system...

-ack
 
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Good report! Now what can I say that you haven't already? ?

I continue to be impressed with Rockport speakers every time I hear them. If I were speaker shopping this brand would be where I started. Vlad seems to have a great room and the ported Rockports produce a robust, tuneful, powerful bass. This might be the best rendering of an orchestral bass drum that I've heard outside of Boston's Symphony Hall!

The Avalon-like shape of the Rockport's speaker cabinet must be partially responsible for the speakers disappearing the way they did. Music just flowed and filled the room effortlessly.

I remember thinking "why would anyone want tubes when you can get this body, palpability and timbre with solid state?"

The system was a very good example of everything working together harmoniously. If one thought Shunyata gear threw the baby out with the bathwater, a few minutes listening to what I heard yesterday would suggest otherwise.

Very, very well done, Vlad.
 
Thanks Tasos and Ian, the visit was great fun, and, since everyone listens for somewhat different things, I loved getting your respective perspectives.

Since Al visited, I have reduced toe in. Neither of you mentioned the treble as overly prominent (good), but interestingly, noted that on symphonic material, the best listening position was now a couple of feet behind my usual spot. So maybe I overdid it with the reduction in toe in?

And, as you note, I’m happy to report that there are indeed times when a V2 convincingly beats the V1 in all attributes. The reduction in distortion and the increase in current delivery of the updated amp are palpable. That is, once three days elapsed from the cold start of the new amp.
 
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... and to add to Ian's comment on Shunyata, if you have not heard their latest products (what I colloquially call "v2") as a holistic approach to power conditioning, you are missing out. Here's another system where the amp sounds better and unfettered while plugged into the Denali v2.
 
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madfloyd and I had an opportunity to listen to VLS's system yesterday, with one small but significant change - the v2 version of the Moon amplifier, which was still under evaluation and break-in.

The system, room and house are impeccable and Vlad is a gracious host! There are a number of key aspects I look for in a system, starting with lack of distortion and great timbre. The system scaled really well with all acid material - like Shostakovich, Berlioz and Mahler - with no strain or distortion. The MSB Premier DAC, which I also had for evaluation right as the pandemic was starting, proved to be an incredible music maker. In my system, I did not find it superior to the Yggy2, but since then, so much has changed with respect to power conditioning that, as Ive said elsewhere, it has invalidated any and all CD player and DAC evaluations I have done.

Vlad's use of the same Denali v2 but higher-end Shunyata power cords has proven to be a core and fundamental part of the system, and based on my own experience, probably widely responsible for the lack of distortion. The soundstage was outrageous with beautiful depth and width and the speakers disappearing, the bass was deep and tuneful and well positioned within the stage. I felt driver integration was impeccable, and once again, I feel Rockports are superior speakers.

Moving on to macro-dynamics, I feel the system excelled. On micro-dynamics and overall detail and trimbral resolution, and especially in terms of overall vividness, I am used to something different, but at the same time, this system was nonetheless very good here as well and extremely easy to listen to.

One thing that was quite obvious was that there were no detectable off-notes, and that's a great thing - a very linear rendition. Bravo! I personally feel this system blows away so many others I have heard, and in certain areas mine as well, and flew through all torture material with utter ease and grace. I have not heard prior iterations of this system, so can't attribute this to any particular upgrade. Best of all, all of that at a more reasonable price than what some folks invest. I felt Vlad's approach and investment approach is a very well-thoughtout process. I am looking forward to visiting again!

The Premier DAC deserves another chance in my system...

-ack

Glad to hear that you and Ian both enjoyed Vlad's system very much as well!

Very good report, Ack. We agree on the excellent macro-dynamics; after more careful consideration I will gladly concede that I have not evaluated micro-dynamics as much as I should have, so this is for another visit. Yet when I visited, I did think overall vividness was outstanding -- even a striking characteristic -- and also that detail and timbral resolution were emphatically among the strong points. I wonder if the change in speaker toe-in and/or the substitution of the v1 amplifier with the, apparently not yet or just barely broken in, v2 amplifier has something to do with our difference in perception. I do notice that differences in treble energy can influence perception of timbral micro-resolution, as I hear with different levels of speaker toe-in in my own system as well.

I am very glad to hear that spatial depth is back, which I was missing a week ago compared to previous times.

As for the MSB DAC, I agree it deserves another chance now that you have the better Shunyata power conditioning. I was blown away by it last time in Vlad's system, much more that on previous occasions.
 
How nice to read a glowing report from 3 experienced listeners, about a modest system that punches well above its weight and delivers the goods; namely, the ability to enjoy finely reproduced music. Congrats to Vlad! It's no small achievement to achieve these ends without putting lots of tiny dots on the walls or adding other devices that alter the space time continuum as we know it. :cool:
 

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