Early this summer I’ve received a full Audio Note Level 3 system to play around with and to review. Need I say I was very excited to get it going. My first experience with the Audio Note goes back in the mid 90´s when I bought my first ever single ended amplifier and I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was the big box P3 Silver and it got me hooked on the SET sound within days which prolonged to SET enjoyment for several years. Over the time from then until now I’ve been using a lot of different SET amplifiers from a wide range of companies. You could say that I’m quite familiar with the SET sound from a wider perspective.
First thing to arrive was the latest version of the Audio Note AN/E SPe HE speakers, as Peter Qvortrup from Audio Note believe that they are the product that takes the longest time to settle in. Unpacking a set of speakers from Audio Note is a pleasure. Cut the top tape, open the top and flip them around. Pulling the box of the speakers and you are ready to go. Now that is simple! The review sample came in a stunning good looking olive wood with a ton of wooden grain detail, Very beautiful. Audio Note´s wood craftsmanship is as good as it gets. The lines and assembling was also flawless.
I was instructed about how to set them up by Peter Qvortrup. And the approach that Audio Note suggest is so much against the audiophile book that it seemed completely wrong. “ Stick them in the corners“ I was told. Corners? Yeah, right. That just seems to break all of the speaker setup rules that I am aware of. But never the less that was what I did. And to my great surprise, it really WORKED! Believe me, I’ve tried to set them up at the audiophile norm, but the corner placement worked the best by far!
“You need to give them around 500 hours to begin with and then they will start to sing“. Say what!? 500 hours is a long time to wait for a speaker to sing. But, the AN/E SPe HE right out of the box sounded pretty darn good. Fast, agile and involving. Even brand spanking new they’ve managed to sing. So what’s up with the 500 hours or more? Well I will get on to that a bit later on.
Several hours later I finally finished the unpacking of the M3 and the Conquest´s. The samples I got was in a deep high gloss black. Stunning to behold. Let’s hook it up and see how it sounds right out of the box…
First thing I noticed was that the Conquest are CRAZY sensitive, 0.270v for full output. Well I hope the M3 isn’t noisy since the faintest noise would be very easy to spot on a combination of a 98db speakers and very high sensitive amplifiers. Proper grounding and a dedicated power line is a must for such sensitive components.
It turned out my M3 had a bit of both hiss and hum, but it was due of bad 6X5 rectifier tube. After I replaced the tube only minor hiss was audible within a feet away from the tweeters. Nothing to be worried about. I didn’t replace any of the other tubes, because I wanted to hear how the setup sounded with the factory supplied tubes and let them warm up for about two hours before playing any music, just to be sure that everything had settled in. Its my standard procedure with tube amplifiers.
First impression of the Audio Note M3 phono with the Audio Note Conquest revealed how particular system really has some grunt, lots off headroom and its very well controlled. Though not as open and full as my current reference, but I didn’t expect it to be either, because I know from experiences, tube amps need time to run in, and transformer coupled amps need even more time to settle in. But never the less it sounded very dramatic and full of impact. The bass from the Audio Note AN/E SPe HE via the Audio Note amps was quite shocking. It had lots of information well below 30hz and it was very well controlled. I did consider mixing the M3 and Conquest with other power- and pre amps, but I decided not to. I wanted to hear the system evolve and I wanted to get used to the Audio Note sound as it grow. The only way to do that is to ONLY listen to the full system over some time.
A couple of days passed and the M3-Conquest had been running 24/7, during that two days the amplifiers has evolved quite a bit, the soundstage has widened in every direction. Tonally wise there was more fullness to the music, still not as crisp as my reference. But it was promising that in a matter of only two days a system can already sound like this. My favourite cello concerto, Jacqueline du Pré playing Dvořák Cello Concerto in B minor op.104 was already presented with lots of emotion and insights. Her playing is always exquisite with her music projection getting more and more explosive as the electronics settled down. When she plays the cello in the first movement you can clearly feel she wants to tell us something more other than just the lay down the beauty of the notes.
By now there was only a slight faint sense of the electronics in the background, but I expect it to disappear within the next 100 hours of playing.
It should be noticed that I don’t judge the system in any way until I am certain it has reached a point where it won’t evolve further, this is one of the key problems in reviewing; allowing the system or component to reach a point where it is at its best, which is not always easy to judge, as I realized with the AN-E/SPe’s. Having said that this kind of performance within only two days is new to me, hence why I am taking notes of what I am hearing all the time, partly to document what I’am hearing rather than rely on my memory impressions later on.
I just could not resist trying out some bass heavy music with the system. Trentemoeller is a favorite of mine as it can really push any system closer to the limit. Holly cow, these AN/E SPe HEs can hit hard in the bass region. Even my Verity Audio Sarastro cannot reproduce such a fast and hard hitting mid bass and the Conquest managed to control the bass firmly and arrange for the AN/E to hit towards you like a mad man. Need I say I had a good time?
ONE MONTH LATER
By now a month has passed and I’ve “stressed” amplifiers with approximately 400 hours. Things really started to loosen up and expanded quite much more compared to day 1, 2 and 3. Trying every kind of music on the system become a breeze. System presented the music with much more grace, depth and detail. Tonally the system has evolved massively, with more body, more subtlety, more slam. Sonic output evolved pretty much in every sense. Listening has begun to take a whole new meaning with expression and timbre getting more and more realistic.
MUSIC IMPACT AFTER FIRST MONTH
Emilie-Claire Barlow - The Very Thought of You has so much inner detail and insight it creeps me and go under my skin, making me forget about the world around me. Smoothness and delicacy makes me daydream of her standing right here in front of me. The system steps a side and lets the album be presented as realistic as one could ever imaging. Midrange was really kicking in around this time. The trumpets in “The Very Thought of You“ track was so airy, so full of both warmth and body. It just blended, naturally enhancing the listening experience. Kind of a boundless musicality and I kept catching myself listening a fair bit louder than I used to which can only be due to the ease and headroom of the system. One can go louder without it feeling it being louder, an odd sensation.
Shaman's Dream - The Four Elements – A very non audiophile recording that sounded just brilliant. The bell playing in the start of the track was highly extended and with very crisp attacks. Bass kicked in with a punch but still firmly controlled. The 8” woofer from the AN/E SPe HE was doing some silly and unexpected punches and to be honest it is a bit surreal that this is possible with just ONE 8” woofer in each speaker. There are no muddy or flappy bass, just a deep and very well controlled pressured attack with so much decay and detail that it is hard to understand how it is possible from a relatively small two way design, especially given the overall efficiency. Even when pushing the limits of the Conquest´s 18 watts the speakers didn’t fall apart or for that matter lose control. The system just played seamlessly, almost limitless in terms of dynamics. I’ve really found myself astonished over the system’s ability to deliver dynamic contrast. From silent to loud it was without a break or delay and everything in between seems so natural and life like.
THREE MONTHS LATER
Three month has passed and I’ve passed the 1000 hours mark with the whole system. It should be noted that probably “only“ half of the hours were spend with me sitting in front of the system listening which is still a lot of hours in such a relatively short period of time. Anyhow, system just kept drawing me in to the listening room day after day, hour after hour. The last couple of days I’ve noticed that the system has more or less stopped improving so it seemed it has reach the optimism settling point as no major developing was noticed from this interval. It was time I sat down with a gallon of coffee and put on some records, and start to really evaluate the full system in its glory. So, serious listening have began!
MUSIC IMPACT AFTER THIRD MONTH
Up first is the Shelby Lynne - Just A Little Lovin album. Full of soul and very enjoyable. Despite being a very easy listening track the system performed with instant attacks and a crispy wide open soundstage. The system really did a magic trick with this album. The rim hit on the snare drum was full and round with lots of decay. Track was being replayed spacious and with lasting captivating experience. Compared to my reference system, the Audio Note system has a lot more going on. More insight to the music and a lot more depth.
Doug MacLeod - Exactly Like This. With this particular track some old blues almost had me in tears. The guitar picking really resonated in a natural way. Doug was sitting right here in front of me opening up his pain, expressing full sorrow. Talk about goose bumps! It is a sad song and it made me feel sad. Even when played digitally that song was both joy full and hurt full. And isn’t that the whole point with a good HIFI? It certainly is for me and the Audio Note system presented the track perfectly, just perfect.
Joe Louis Walker - Everybody Wants A Piece took the sad feeling from the Doug Macleod album and replaced it with a foot stamping joy. A good antidote? Again far far away from the regular used “audiophile“ albums. Just a simple and forthcoming blues album. Lots of dry riffs and hard hitting drums together with Joe Louis Walkers’ voice made for a fun evening. I was drawn right back in time in to a bar full of smoke and whisky fumes. Those memories. The Audio Note system just made me forget everything about HIFI and just let me have some plain fun!
The Doors - Morrison Hotel is another hard rocking album put into the playing. I’v listen both the vinyl version and the downloaded version. No matter the format, system was full of boogie and despite me going a bit nuts with the volume, the sound never went overboard. It’s a silly good album with a ton of simple rock. Old sound old rock came alive with ease via the Audio Note system. Even sometimes harsh recorded tracks never sounded annoying at all. It just sounded like the DOORS had a blast making that album. I know I had a blast too….. Waiting for the sun just seems to be the wait worth!
Gustav Mahler - Symphony No. 5 | Vienna Philharmonic. Leonard Bernstein started off the listening session a late Friday night. Not a smart move by me as I woke up the wife and kid. Ups. But nevertheless what a start. Powerful and full of glory, silence and extended dynamic range were the keywords for what the Audio Note system was presenting me with. The music was at some points scary and sometimes sad. Again the Audio Note system present what I noticed with other music genres; it doesn’t care what genre you play, it will bring the music to your listening room with life and beauty, it will engulf you and let you see right into the music and the quality to the performance. Mahler’s Symphony No.5 is not an easy task for any system, but the Audio Note system was breathing to its fullest and it really did portrait the Symphony with a realism I have rarely encountered. Musicians were almost in color, in front of me and way back in the soundstage. It was very easy to see and feel the musicians in the orchestra, talk about being in a bubble with music. That was exactly what I experience with this album. I could feel it and I felt it to the bones! The thundering drums shook me and energy across the room blasted the horns up to realistic scale. Wow. And never did it sounded weak, collapsed or distorted. What an amazing couple of hours. I manage to play the family to sleep, despite the fact that it really was very loud!
So in conclusion, what has amazed me the most about the Audio Note system is it’s ability to present whatever music you decide to play with grace, ease and color. This particular ease makes the music sound more realistic, present and alive. Even when going all out and listening to some serious bad recordings, its´s like the system doesn’t care about the quality of the recordings but focusses on the music in a way that just lets you hear it as a whole. It even delivers the most detailed and sustained soundstage you could ever image. Every single little note comes through. It´s easy to distinguish what is going on and one doesn’t have to concentrate to get the full emotion out of whatever music is being played.
Kenneth Aagaard Jensen - Mono and Stereo Senior contributing writer
AN/E spe HE: 9800 EUR/pair
M3Phono/M3Line: 10.400 EUR
Conquest: 9800 EUR/pair
AN-SPe17 or on later models AN-SPe19 silver internal cable, copper voice coils.
Dimensions: (Height, Width, Depth) 790 x 360 x 270mm (31" x 14" x 10.5").
Standard Efficiency Model, 94-95dB/watt/meter
Output transformer: Copper wired, M4 IE-core
Signal capacitors: Audio Note™ Cu-foil
Resistors: Beyschlag 1 watt metal film & some ½ Audio Note™ Tantalum film
Power supply: junction electrolytics
Main power supply electrolytics: Cerafine & standard electrolytics
Circuit wiring phono stage: Copper wire
Phono stage: capacitors Audio Note™ Cu-mylar foil
Circuit wiring line stage: Copper wire
Mains inlet wiring: Copper wire
Mains cable: Standard copper cable
Phono stage valves: GE 6072a/12AY7 x 3
Line stage valves: 1 x EI ECC82 & 1 x Philips 5687WB
Output Impedance: 600 Ohm balanced and single-ended
Output connectors: 1 x XLR, 2 x AN silver plated RCA
Input connectors: 6 x AN silver plated RCA
Volume/balance pots: Noble AP25, after Nov. 2007, 2 x AN attenuators
Input Switching: ELMA
Level Three, 18 watt single-ended Class A no feedback triode mono amplifiers, valve rectified choke power supply, Audio Note™ copper foil signal capacitors, Beyschlag metal film resistors, standard electrolytic capacitors, in house made I-E core output transformer, 4 x 300B, 2 x 6SN7, 2 x 5U4G,