It’s not every day that I am invited to listen to a truly high-end system so when the Dutch Distributor of MBL, Orpheus Lab and TARA Labs asked me over to hear a very nice system I took a day off work to make the most of it. He had the Orpheus Lab Heritage amplifiers from Switzerland on loan, the stars of the day and the main reason to take over his demo room. It proved a worthy experience and a day well spent.
The Heritage pre- and power amplifiers were installed in place of the MBLs he usually uses, which explains why this system mostly consists of MBL products. The CD transport is a Reference 1621A, connected with an Orpheus Lab digital cable to a Reference 1611F digital-to-analogue converter. The second source is an Apple computer running JRiver software, connected to the same DAC using a silver conductor USB cable, handmade somewhere in Hungary. Between the DAC, the preamp and the power amp are TARA Labs RSC Air RS-1 and ISM The 0.8 interconnects. Running from the power amp to the MBL Radialstrahler 111F loudspeakers are TARA Labs loudspeaker cables, ISM The 0.8 to the upper section and RSC RS-1 cables to the woofers. If you have to ask for prices you probably can’t afford this system, neither can I, but this is the break down: MBL source components £41,400, Orpheus Lab amplifiers £58,280, MBL speakers £31,280, and my guess would be £15,000 for the interconnects, loudspeaker- and power cables. Add in the the Apple computer and the rack it comes to about £150,000, or €200,000. The euro price for the Heritage preamp alone is €38,590, and the Heritage power amp sets you back €42,200.
Orpheus Media was founded in Switzerland in 2001 and came out of Anagram, a company that developed digital converters. Orpheus builds not only digital products but amplifiers as well, ranging from the industrial looking Classic line to top of the bill Heritage models. The Heritage power amplifier (above) is the latest model from Orpheus. With a class AB output stage using eight MOSFET transistors per channel, the topology is dual mono and has a power output of 250 Watts in stereo mode or a 1000 Watts in bridged mono mode. Two identical 1000VA transformers deliver the power to an amplifier that has over 180mF of capacitance in the power supply. On the back are double inputs for both RCA and XLR and double loudspeaker terminals. On the front is a large colour display showing the temperature of each amplifier channel and the peak wattage inside the power section. This is a bit like Pass Labs amps, which show the current in the output stage rather than the output power to the speakers. To keep the curved front panel as clean as possible the switches for setting the display and the operation modes are located on the side of the amplifier.
The Heritage preamp (top) is also new. A two-box design it separates the power supply, the digital operations electronics and the display from the delicate amplifier circuits. It looks strange to find the inputs on the blank box, but this is very clever as they are directly connected to the preamplifier section and removed from PSU and other noise sources. Inside the power supply are two mains transformers capable of delivering 350VA together. Total capacitance is 110mF, enough to power the preamp and a DAC that is part of the Heritage series. The PSU also integrates the infra-red receiver for RC control and a 4.3inch TFT-LCD colour screen shows significant data like volume setting and chosen input. Again Orpheus positions the control buttons on the side panel for aesthetic reasons. On the back are an imposing number of inputs and outputs; four analogue inputs, two processor inputs and two analogue outputs both in XLR and RCA and two RCA record outputs, making a total of ten inputs and five outputs. All inputs can be adjusted individually to match input levels from different sources. In the digital age where most sources pass through a D/A converter this should me more than enough flexibility.
Is it hard to judge a system in a couple of hours, in a room you are not familiar with? Yes indeed, so I won’t make any unconditional statements about the performance, I will only express my feelings, describe what I heard and try to give you an impression of whether this system is worth so much money. On the other hand if a system is good or exceptional any keen listener will notice what is going on. What you cannot discover is how a system performs over weeks in your own home, that is hidden under the first impression, and how well a range of tracks from poor to masterpiece quality will sound remains unknown. The room the system is placed in is a normal living room of reasonable size that’s sparsely furnished and not treated with acoustic panels or bass traps. It has a wooden floor and a big rug under the coffee table, it could be almost anyone’s living room. The 60 kilo MBL 111F loudspeakers might be the largest MBLs that would work well in a room of this size. And they are placed away from the side and back wall to make full use of their unique radial sound pattern. To get familiar with the system and the room I start with a singer who I have seen live on several occasions. Lori Lieberman’s recordings have excellent sound quality and purity, I start with tracks from her CD Bricks Against The Glass. Voice and instrument size is very lifelike, with Lori standing up, sometimes surrounded by other singers. Acoustic instruments stand out and never stick to the speakers, nor do they wander around. It is a fluent sound with great ease and the enormous power reserves of the Heritage clearly help to achieve this. Getting used to this system is very easy since it makes you feel comfortable, there is absolutely no stress in the sound. It normally it takes time to get used to the radial dispersion of MBL speakers but not with the Orpheus Lab Heritage amplifiers. When more instruments and voices join Lori and the music gets busier everything remains under control, the system handles everything you throw at it with ease.
From one female singer to another, next in line is Micheline van Hautem. Acoustic guitars play on both channels in a way seldom heard like this. The richness of the instruments is staggering, it sounds a little warmer than most systems, but this warmth adds to the naturalness. The voice avoids harshness, yet is very powerful and present, standing clear of the band. On tracks where more instruments come forward the impact is as if you are in row four or five at a live concert. The power on tap is almost overwhelming, and considerably more than this speaker needs. It’s an excellent system for this type of music and you soon forget to take notes on speed, openness, detail or any other audiophile qualities. You only enjoy the musicians and the singer. Always intrigued with female singers I put on Katie Melua Live In The O2 Arena. Will she give me that special feeling some systems do, beam me down into the audience? The concert hall acoustics are well preserved, not the best I’ve ever heard but good enough. Maybe this has to do with the room I am in or the way the speakers work. When the public starts clapping their hands they do it politely rather than enthusiastically. On the plus side are the dynamics, the combination of speed and power is something else. Microphone plops or small mistakes in the recording add to the experience, but at louder levels the speed of level changes almost scares me. Again keeping my mind on track and remembering that I am reviewing is hard, it is a lot easier to just enjoy the music. Let it flow into your veins, sit back to relax, close your eyes and do nothing else but absorb the music. I could easily live with this system, if I could afford it that is. Playing this CD reminds me of a listening session with big PMC loudspeakers where a friend and I fell in love with that brand. At the time we also used a big powerful amplifier, nevertheless the Orpheus combination is still more capable than I remember from that experience. Remember, it is not only the power hidden inside an amplifier that counts, it is the way the power is used. That is where art and engineering come together.
The oldest CD I use for reviewing must be Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits, it’s so familiar that I could play every note, if I could play an instrument. This reveals the unusual dispersion pattern of the loudspeakers, but as soon as Mark Knopfler starts singing I reach that level of satisfaction I had with the earlier pieces. The naturalness is exceptional with this system. Music flows in a way that you can never pinpoint to the loudspeaker positions. Like a ghost system it puts the players into the listening environment. The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd starts with ‘Time’. Rumbling deep after the clocks are finished, bass tones loud and clear, not messed up in a muddy environment. Both Dire Straits and Pink Floyd show that more modern recordings do sound a lot better and that we should stick to vinyl for old analogue productions. The engineers apparently had to work with outdated digital converters on both Dire Straits and Pink Floyd. On a system as revealing as this one you notice it immediately. What you won’t notice is how loud it’s actually playing. When my host asks me what I would like for lunch he taps me on the shoulder and I jump, I didn’t hear him coming in. You need a large room for the MBL speakers and it better be in a home without neighbours. By the way, I do not think this system needed a lot of tuning to perform like this, the Orpheus combination is only visiting the Netherlands so it was probably put down ‘as is’ and connected up to the MBL setup.
With Donald Fagen playing his Nightfly the percussion is especially nice, not punching you in the face but always there. It’s nice to listen to but a bit boring. I find some symphonies on the Apple computer written by Henri-Joseph Rigel and enjoy some classical music after a few hours of pop and jazz. The way the orchestra sounds resembles exactly what you hear in a concert hall. The Orpheus amplifier’s display reveals that the amount of power used is much less than the pop music, there’s no need to turn up the volume for a full experience. But if you want to reach concert hall levels with the orchestra blowing you out of your seat, take the Orpheus and it will deliver. Soft passages with a solo violin are treated carefully with respect to the instrument and the musician. This setup is not only about power, it is capable of delivering all you need with any kind of music. Maybe it’s not as spectacular as more conventional loudspeakers, but in my opinion the Radialstrahler approach gets closer to the real world experience. Not being a point source it is more like an acoustic instrument, with sound travelling in every direction.
I could have spent hours and hours listening to this system, the problem is that at some point I have to leave but don’t want to. The magic of this high end system is a combination of the source components, the loudspeakers, the cabling and most of all the Swiss amplifiers. They show that conventional analogue amplifiers are still superior to PCM, PWM or any other alternative currently available. When an amplifier is made the way Orpheus Lab makes them you end up with fast and natural sounding devices, with enormous power reserves that behave like the ideal straight wire with gain. This pre- and power amplifier combination never ran out of steam, it never failed to entertain me, it never showed any sign of strain or coloration. The Orpheus Lab Heritage amplifiers belong among the best amps I ever had the pleasure of listening to. The only problem is a price that means that most music lovers cannot afford them, but we can all dream.
Heritage power amplifier
Amplifier modes: stereo / bi-amplifier / mono
Output stage: Class AB
Analog inputs: 2 x unbalanced, 2 x balanced
Outputs: Dual speaker terminals allowing stereo and mono connections
Input sensitivity: 2V RMS on XLR, 1 V RMS on RCA for maximum rated power
Output power into 8 Ohms: Stereo mode 2 x 250 W, Mono mode 1 x 1000 W
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise: 110 dBr
Signal to Noise Ratio: 105 dBr
Input impedance: 94 K Ohms on XLR, 47K Ohms on RCA
Slew rate on 8 Ohms: 35 V/μs
Maximal voltage swing: 130 V
Maximum output current: Stereo mode 2 x 130 A, Mono mode 1 x 260 A
Power consumption: Idle 95W, Standby 3W
Dimension: 440 x 420 x 200 mm
Weight: 50 Kg
Analogue inputs: 8x unbalanced, 8x balanced, 4 x balanced processor inputs
Analogue outputs: 4 x unbalanced, 4 x balanced, 2x unbalanced record outputs
Input impedance: Unbalanced 47 KOhms, Balanced 95 KOhms
Output impedance: Unbalanced 75 Ohms, Balanced 150 Ohms
Maximal input voltage: 11 Vrms
Maximal output voltage: 8 Vrms (6.2 Vrms saturation level)
Frequency response: +/- 0.002 dB (from 20 Hz to 20 KHz)
Total Harmonic Distortion + Noise: 120 dBr
Signal to Noise Ratio: 125 dBr
Digital volume control: from -100 dB to +10 dB by 0.5 dB steps
Slew rate: 10 V/μs
Input level: Input level adjustment for all channels from -10 dB to + 10 dB by steps of 0.5 dB
Power consumption: Operating 35W, Standby 5W
Dimensions (W x L x H): Power supply 440 x 420 x 120 mm, Preamplifier 440 x 420 x 80 mm
Weight: power supply 24.3 Kg, preamplifier 13.8 Kg
ORPHEUS Media Sarl
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