Right, let's take another look at this Arkless MkII Head Amp. I posted my first impressions on here a few days back. I have now had the chance to do some more listening, note-taking, thinking and finally writing. This is a piece of kit I anticipate holding on to for keeps (I can't imagine how much I might have to pay to improve on MC vinyl replay vs what I have here) - so it may be of value to any of you who are in the market for a very high quality head amp or SUT to know why I like it so much.
First off, the system: I am using a Fidelity Research MC 702 cartridge, playing through a NVA Phono 2 stage, passive pre-amp using a conventional Panasonic stereo volume pot, SET amp and Audio Note AN-J loudspeakers. The cartridge manufacturer specifies a loading of between 3 and 60 Ohm. The loading of the Head Amp is achieved with resistive plugs - supplied by Jez according to whatever value you specify - round the back of the unit, here ...
I am currently using a pair of 51 Ohm plugs. No doubt I will experiment with my 75s and 120s in due course, and I may post my impressions if they are at all interesting. But what am I hearing now?
Well, first record on was a modern Living Stereo re-pressing of Sonny Rollins' "The Bridge". I was genuinely taken aback! The sound coming from my very familiar system was immediately fresher, more energetic and extremely powerful - but without thickening up or becoming in any way dense. It was as if someone had hoovered up the mush and hash (that I hadn't even been aware of before) from between the notes and voices of instruments and the different layers of music, leaving clean fresh space between them. The texture of the music was open and clear, and I had not previously appreciated how much this contributes to "getting" the feel and architecture of the piece so much more readily. It was a bit of a revelation to me!
At the beginning of side 2 is a piece with some terrific double bass playing. I was truly astonished at how my system, incorporating the new head amp, was now playing this back. I have NEVER heard double bass move so quickly, firmly and powerfully. Every note had clean edges and every one of them stopped before the next one started. It was remarkable to hear articulation like that at such breakneck speed (and on an instrument that can too easily sound puffy and indistinct). And very tuneful too - very low sounds came through as musical notes, not as a rumble.
On to record no. 2: Patricia Barber's studio album "Modern Cool" on Premonition. This is a superb recording which captures the full range of jazz pleasures - smoky female vocals, keening electric guitar breaks, a cracked, desolate-sounding flugel and more fabulous bass playing, much of it bowed. Again, it was absolutely thrilling to hear the music laid bare, so clear in texture and timbre with every woody vibration or cymbal brush stroke resonating in the air. It was on this record that I really started noticing the positioning of the instruments and the musical "stage". I'll make a confession now: I have never really "got" all the stuff that is talked about soundstage. When people say that they are getting a holographic sound image and it's as though the musicians are there in the room with them, disporting themselves amongst the sofas and sideboards, my reaction has always been a bit "yeah, whatever ..." But for the first time, I'm starting to get it. I noticed a genuinely realistic and pleasing distribution of the sound across the whole of the opposite side of my sitting room. Somebody who is really tuned into this whole soundstage phenomenon would probably rave about the ability of this head amp to reproduce sound in 3D. For me, it's pretty remarkable to be able to say that for the first time I can hear that there is a lot more to it than I had previously believed.
On to Monteverdi: 3rd and 4th Books of Madrigals, Glyndebourne Opera Chorus (just voices, with no musical accompaniment). With the new head amp in the system, again that word "texture" comes back to the front of my mind. Choral music can be tough going in my view if the voices just become a homogenized wall of sound. Absolutely no chance of that here: the various voices and parts of the choir occupy their own position, both in space and in the musical weave. Once again the architecture of the music became very much clearer than I have been used to hearing. It's also apparent that the head amp is very good at handling dynamic range, not just in going from quiet to loud (or back) with ease, but it can also pull off the remarkable trick of being able to reproduce a loud sound alongside a soft one and allow them both to be heard simultaneously. The clarity of texture and dynamics just makes it so much easier to grasp the big picture and understand the shape of the tune and composition that you are listening to. It's more coherent is what I'm trying to say, I think.
I'm aware that this review is becoming a bit lengthy, so I'll not bore you with recounting every record I have put on ("too late for that", I hear you say). But every one of them was an absolute delight: masses of rosin and wood sounds, harmonics and atmosphere in string quartets and early consort music, superb articulation, agile punchy bass and rattling, pattering drums in Paul Simon's "Late in the Evening" (and you should have heard the moment when the brass section launches!), buckets of previously unheard low-level detail and nuance on J J Cale's "Troubadour". In every case the different elements of the music are fresher and more distinct than I have been used to hearing but at the same time richer and more satisfying. I really am bowled over - I honestly had not anticipated hearing my system sounding THIS good.
Here's a couple of final pictures of the little feller in situ.
There has been a bit of discussion in the earlier thread about the aesthetics of the casework I requested from Jez. I'm unrepentant - I think it looks great alongside its new mates, and as you can see it's a very handy size to slot onto a shelf if you don't have unlimited space. I couldn't be more pleased! It has turned out to be one of those rare components that has the ability to transform a system and fill you with satisfaction every time you hear it. Very, very highly recommended. Emphatically. Without reservation. Clear? I'm done.