The Pursuit of Happiness


Standard Member
Having used this (and many other forums) from which to glean knowledge and understanding of the seemingly simple art of hi-fi, I thought I would note down my journey so far to help anyone else who decides to venture down this somewhat blind alley.

I have enjoyed music and cinema for as long as I can remember, and up until about six years ago the central focus of my systems was home theatre. Keeping the total budget below the £2-3,000 mark, I gradually assembled a surround sound/projector ensemble that complimented itself and gave a very enjoyable viewing experience.

In a house move that required every last penny I had, the system was sold, and I remained hi-fi-less for a few years whilst I financially recuperated. I started getting a hankering for home theatre again, but without the necessary space for a dedicated room, a projector was out. Coupled with the difficulty in wiring for surround sound, a multi-channel system was out too. That left stereo.

I have to admit, when I went to the local hi-fi shop, I didn't demo anything and just bought stuff that I liked the look of - mainly out of over-excitement and a predisposition to become incredibly impatient in such situations. So, I was back at home with a Sonos ZP-90, Arcam A18 and a pair of B&W CM1.

Fortunately for me, the combination was an absolute peach. It opened my eyes to a quality of sound well over my previous multi-channel setup (which cost more in total, but less per component). Detail, imaging, separation - all these buzz words began to make sense to me. For the first time, my enjoyment of music became greater than my enjoyment of film, partly because of the flexibility of the Sonos. Having said that, the setup worked great for film too, the lack of surround channels and subwoofer not really registering.

I moved house again, and the A18/CM1 combination was proving a little wheezy under the high ceilings of the new place. I scoured the internet, and pleased with the sound of my Arcam/B&W system, looked to move up the line with both. I demoed the A38, the Roksan Kaspian, a Naim unit of some sort, and although the differences to me were slight, I opted to stick with Arcam. Speakerwise I demoed the CM8 and was tempted by the dealer into demoing the PM1 as well. Other speakers available did not pass the visual test from the commander-in-chief, so they were not demoed.

The CM8 pairing sounded great, like the CM1 but fuller, louder, and richer. More of the same basically. My wallet was already clambering out my pocket before the salesman even had a chance to set up the PM1 (expensive little things that they were!), but he assured me it would be worth it. Fine. I listened to the same selection of music again (Simon and Garfunkel, Radiohead, Queen, Duffy, that kind of mix) and they sounded thin, harsh and almost unpleasant. I didn't finish the full demo because I already knew what the decision was.

The salesman commented that I was quick in the demo room and I explained my conclusion. He recommended I give the CM8 another listen before making the purchase, and wired them back in again. What happened next is perhaps one of the most confusing things that has ever happened to me; the sound was thick, soupy, muddy, dull and muffled. I could not believe it. I listened to my demo playlist a couple of times over, confused as to how this might be. We then swapped the speakers back out for the PM1 and I was treated to glorious trebles, pin-sharp imaging, and a sound that, although not as bass-capable as the CM8, was pure, uncluttered and transparent. It was an expensive day.

In my internet wanderings I then discovered that the Sonos could be improved with an external DAC, so I borrowed an rDAC which gave a good bang for the buck improvement. For a few hundred quid, the bass became a little more pronounced with better control, and the mids seemed to have more clout. Treble detail remained about the same. It says a lot about the quality of the Sonos DAC to be honest, which is very impressive. It also led me to the discovery that the PS3 has a great DAC too.

The latest chapter in the story came about after an invite from a friend to demo the new Naim Ovator S800. It was a nice day out with some hugely expensive hi-fi (those Naim guys sure like their boxes) and I was fairly impressed by the Ovators, but not blown away. To me they sounded to my PM1 like the CM8 was to the CM1 - a little more of everything, but no enlightenment. Good, my wallet thought.

Downstairs, plugged into a tenth the amount of Naim boxes as the Ovators were a pair of Focal Utopia III Scala. Oh. My. God. The sound was utterly incredible. The bass was taught and the mids had good control but the trebles - the trebles were something else altogether. It's the closest experience to live that I've ever had from a hi-fi. I enquired about the cost of the bookshelf versions, which featured the same beryllium tweeter, but the cost was far too prohibitive.

The PM1 kept me in good stead from then onwards, and soon the Focal experience was out of my mind. Well, almost. I read up on this new age of tweeter materials, and another type appeared on my radar - diamond. The B&W 805 Diamond was cheaper than the Focal Diablo, with similar high-frequency properties, so I gave them a demo. Sold.

The internet is great up to a point, but you really have to listen to these things for yourself. Some reviews said the PM1 was 95% of the 805 Diamond, others said the difference in price was justified. In my opinion the 805 Diamond delivers more of everything in the mids and lows - more control, more range - but its the treble where the game moves on. The soundstage moves forward and expands, has more bite and envelops with greater depth. With both in place its easy for me to say that I prefer the 805 Diamond to the PM1, but I can understand why some would feel the opposite; the PM1 is more relaxed, warmer, more forgiving with poor recordings. In fact the 805 Diamonds I bought were an ex-demo pair returned by someone after a few months who then purchased a pair of PM1 instead.

So that's where I am now. Arcam A38, B&W 805 Diamonds, Sonos ZP-90 and an rDAC. The sound is - in my mind at least - what I experienced from those incredible Focals, and I am extremely happy with them. As my ears (and my brain) become used to the 805 Diamonds we will see how I feel about them, but for now I am happy.

That said, the salesman reckoned that the Bryston stuff he's got will blow my socks off, so we'll see...

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