Roksan Kandy K2 CD PLAYER $1649 CAD - $1400 USD
Roksan Kandy K2 Integrated Amplifier $1649 CAD - $1400 USD
ASW Cantius 404 Speakers $2000 CAD
At a recent family dinner, my (favorite) uncle asked me: “How much does a good stereo system cost?”. He is an accomplished musician, with an extensive and well-rounded music collection. Like most other accomplished musicians I know, he does not have much of a stereo system. I didn’t help him much. In fact, I don’t think I helped him one bit. Despite my self-professed expertise on matters of high-fidelity audio reproduction, I could not answer this simple question. Instead, I found myself sputtering on about matching systems to musical tastes and rooms, and the balancing of tradeoffs depending on the priorities of the listener. For example, some people prefer relatively small 2-way monitors that preserve midrange accuracy and imaging, whereas others prefer a full-range sound, and are willing to make other compromises to cover the entire (especially the lower) auditory range. To my uncle, I suspect that I was starting to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, “Whaaaaa, wha, wha, wha, whaaaaaaaa.”
In my own defense, the idea of pricing out a new system is quite foreign to me. I have never walked into an audio store and bought a complete system, including a source, amplifier, speakers, cables, and even power conditioning. A quick survey of the people I know with excellent systems (no, Uncle Bruno, that does not include you) none of them purchased the components together as a package. Instead, most of us hobbyists piece together systems, one component at a time. Upgrades are usually done one component/paycheck at a time, and it is a painstaking, and even relentless process. In the audio forums, we throw around words like “synergy” to describe the interactions of these components, where sometimes two excellent pieces fail to complement one another, and in other (special and rare and wonderful) cases, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Before we get down to business here, I have two confessions to make. First, I avoid reading audio reviews of complete systems. Why? I find them confusing, and if they catch my attention, it is usually because the system contains a component or two that interests me. I then focus my attention on the review of those pieces and move on. Shame on me. So many of us reviewers like to ramble on about the importance of component matching, and yet we almost always review pieces in isolation. Reviews of complete systems actually make a lot of sense, especially when someone else has gone through the painful (and potentially expensive) task of careful component matching. Besides, it is almost impossible to listen to only one component, unless that component is a Bose table-top system or something similar!
As for confession #2, I didn’t initially do what I was told with this system. Dave and Neil of Everest Audio of Regina SK Canada were kind enough to provide me with this complete system for evaluation and review, and they provided very detailed instructions about how everything was meant to work together. I did listen to the complete system intact (and wired as they had instructed), but I could not resist doing extensive component swapping with my reference system to really give me a flavor for each one of the pieces.
To be perfectly honest, I spent more time listening to the various pieces in different combinations with my own gear than I did listening to the intact system. Why? Well, partly because I really liked one of the pieces more than any other. The other reason is that I am trying to deliver a component review as well as a system review. In addition to describing the sound of the complete system to you, I will try to characterize each component.
The source and the integrated amplifier were both pieces from the British company Roksan. I am used to putting the word “British” in quotes, as so many companies outsource production to China, but these Roksan pieces are not just “designed in the U.K.”, but actually constructed in Britain. The CD player was the Roksan Kandy K2 (MSRP = $1649 CAD = $1400 USD), which confusingly is actually a newer product line than the Roksan Kandy Mark III. I usually associate such confusing branding with Chinese pieces. Perhaps someone in marketing wanted a demotion. This CD player is a fairly predictably featured front-loader, with gold-plated RCA outputs (both analog and digital), but none of the high-zoot features of much more expensive players, such as balanced/XLR outputs or digital inputs. The DAC chip is the same PCM1798, 24 bit, 192 kHz unit found in Roksan’s higher-end Caspian series.
The integrated amplifier was the matching Roksan Kandy K2 integrated with the same MSRP as the CD player (again, this is a more recent model than the Roksan Kandy L3 MkIII...sigh). This is a reasonably powerful design, producing 125 WPC into 8 Ohms, which is plenty of juice for all but the most recalcitrant of speakers. However, I have a pair of particularly naughty speakers in-house. My Usher Be-718’s certainly have many wonderful qualities, but ease of drive is not one of them. More on that later…back to the integrated. The ins and outs are a bit of a surprise at this price. No XLR jacks of course, but plenty of line-level RCA inputs (4). The unit also offers Tape in/out, which is increasingly rare, but even a phono input! The good news does not end there – it even offers a video/bypass mode for seamless integrated into a home theater setup. Pre-outs give the listener the option of adding an external power amp or connecting to a powered subwoofer. All these options make for a very versatile piece.
Both Roksan pieces were remote controllable through the touchscreen programmable remote, which is one of the best remotes of its kind that I have seen. Sure, it is a little chunky, but it works really well, and somehow combines flexibility/power with ease of use. I loved the remote, and that was an especially good thing because the ergonomics of the buttons/knobs on the front panels of the Roksans were actually quite frustrating. I found the volume knob especially annoying. It is so shallow that it is difficult to grasp and turn. Sure this seems like a silly complaint, but after a month I found myself relying almost exclusively on the remote, which is a testament to the frustrations delivered by the other controls. One bit of ergonomics with the Roksans I quite liked was the rocker power switches on the front underside of the chassis (just like my Jungson WG-200 poweramp it turns out). This arrangement is far more convenient than putting the switch at the back, and yet it does not clutter the front panel. It also kept my kids from discovering how to turn the units on, which was nice!
The speakers were ASW Cantius 404’s, made in Germany (MSRP=$2000 CAD). I must confess, I was a little disappointed when I saw the boxes. They were not very large, and when I picked one up, it was not particularly heavy. In this age of Class-D amps one cannot easily assess the value of most components simply by the pound (measuring weight, not British currency), but with speakers, heavier is still very often better. These speakers are downright diminutive, and they immediately reminded me of the pair of Totem Arros that I sold (jeopardizing my marriage as it turned out – Lana quite liked the look of those). The Totem Arro mates a 4.5” midbass driver to a .75” tweeter in a tall slim enclosure. These ASW’s were similar in dimensions, but they are a MTM (midbass-tweeter-midbass) design, using two 100mm (4”) midrange domes with a 30mm (1.25”) tweeter. Even the mahogany finish reminded me of the Arros. The ASW’s are rated at 150 W of power handling, an impedance of 4 ohms, and offer moderate sensitivity at 89.5 dB. Frequency response starts at 35hz and extends up to 20 KHz, which covers all but the bottom octave.
Everest Audio was extremely thorough when piecing together this system, and it came with all cabling and even a power conditioner. It came with three GutWire B-12 power cords, retailing for $150 USD/each. Two of these were used to power the two Roksan pieces, and the third was used to feed the Sine SA-6 Silver Cryo Power Distributor (MSRP=$485 USD). The speaker cables were Atlas Hyper 3.0 (MSRP = $450 CAD). Perhaps most surprisingly, the interconnect for the CD player-integrated connection was the GutWire Chime2 interconnect, which retails for $1199 CAD/$999 USD. Considering that this price comes close to that of either of the two Roksan components, I found the choice of interconnect to be somewhat unlikely, however good the cable might be! Neil did offer this bit of feedback about the interconnect though, “From the pieces above, it seems like we're using a lot of interconnect in this system, but we like the tonal balance and quality this interconnect gives in the system and points to our overall respect for the high quality of these Roksan pieces and ASW speakers. If asked about the importance of interconnect or speaker cable, while both very important, we feel the interconnect is of higher importance being higher up in the signal path”. Although I did quite a bit of component swapping during the review process, I kept the cabling and power conditioning the same.
PIECING IT TOGETHER
Of course, it is impossible to listen to these components alone. Instead, I swapped them in/out of my reference system to try to get a good sense of their individual strengths/weaknesses before trying the system as a whole. I started by replacing my Usher Be-718 speakers with the ASW Cantius 404 speakers with my Logitech Duet transport, Musiland MD-10 DAC, Kimber Silver Streak and Z-squared AU/AU interconnects, Jungson JA-2 preamp, Jungson WG-200 poweramp, and QED Genesis Silver Spiral speaker cables.
I started with “Missing You” by Alison Krauss, and I was completely floored by authority and sheer size of the opening few notes. These little speakers are capable of some serious bass! I am not just talking about loudness here, but control, pitch definition, and even depth. I was not listening to my Totem Arros, that is for sure! They were like Arros on steroids. Despite their modest dimensions, these ASW Cantius 404’s sounded absolutely huge! The soundstage was even wider than that from my Ushers, and while I was expecting less mid-bass “punch”, I actually heard more.
I quickly scrambled to cue up more bombastic recordings, like techno offerings from Infected Mushroom like “Heavyweight”, a bass torture test that pushes most two-way designs to their limit. Again, I was seriously impressed with the bass impact and extension from these modestly proportioned speakers.
The treble was virtually faultless, with its oversized soft-dome tweeter serving up plenty of detail and extension (although noticeably less of both than the Be dome from the Ushers). I quite enjoyed the impact from the metallic midrange drivers, but “warm” is not how I would describe them. Female vocals (such as tracks from the new Indigo Girls album “Poseiden and the Bitter Bug”) have lots of presence, and image focus, but the presentation is slightly on the lean side. Overall though, I was completely bowled over by these speakers. This level of performance for less than $2000 CAD is absolutely fantastic, and frankly the best I have heard at this price.
Next, I tried the Roksan Kandy K2 CD player in place of my transport/DAC combo, and replaced the ASW’s with my reference Usher Be-718’s. I know that reviewers are supposed to pretend that we don’t read reviews in addition to writing them, but I have certainly seen reviews of both Roksan pieces in the British magazines (articles I read before knowing that I would be reviewing the same pieces). Having read the glowing, even gushing reviews of the CD player, I was expecting a lot. To be perfectly honest, I enjoyed the sound quite a bit, but I was not nearly as impressed as I had been with the speakers. The ASW’s provide exceptional performance for their price, and the Roskan Kandy K2 CD player is certainly a very capable performer (accuracy & transparency), but it makes several errors of omission. Both ends of the frequency spectrum are truncated a bit (particularly the treble), and it is not the last word in detail either. However, if a component is going to make any mistakes at all, personally I prefer sins of omission. These are the hardest to hear, and they don’t provide distraction during critical listening. It is a capable all-rounder, but not a component that sent me off to the basement looking for spare audio components to sell, ensuring that I could keep it around. Those ASW speakers were quite another matter though.
Third, I tried the Roksan Kandy K2 integrated in my reference system, driving the Usher Be-718’s being fed with my Logitech Duet transport/Musiland MD-10 DAC combo. This particular combination did not last very long. The Ushers are notoriously difficult to drive, and the 125 WPC Roksan was not quite up to the task. This combination gave up bass control and extension, image focus (although image width and depth were relatively preserved), and a fair bit of transparency as well. This was particularly obvious with modern, overproduced recordings, such as Linoel Richie’s new album “Just Go”.
Swapping the ASW Cantius 404’s back into the mix helped considerably, as they are both more efficient and they seem to ‘wake up” at lower volumes, although compared to the Jungson pre-power combo, the small integrated still gave up quite a bit in terms of control/grip (especially at lower frequencies) and transparency. It is a fun piece to use, and its slightly warm tonal balance makes it a particularly good match for the potentially lean-sounding ASW’s. Two wrongs really can make a right, despite what your mother might have told you.
Last, I did what I was told to do. I actually listened to the intact system, exactly as the good folks at Everest Audio intended. All together, this is a very musically satisfying system, that offers great tonal balance, imaging, and especially timing from the two Roksan pieces. Sure, you give up some bass extension and ear splitting SPL’s, so if you are looking for a system that can overwhelm the listener with crystal clear and shockingly loud bells and whistles, you had best look elsewhere. Overall though, these pieces make for a very satisfying combination. If it were my money being spent, I would spend considerably less on cabling and invest the money in music or on a more convenient digital music delivery system (Sonos or Squeezebox), or perhaps even spend the money upgrading the amplifier.
“How much does a good stereo system cost?” asks Uncle Bruno. $7500 was the correct answer. Looking back at the dinner conversation, when I had tried to explain the idea of choosing one’s sonic compromises when assembling a system that costs less than a new luxury automobile, Bruno would not commit. He wanted a system that could do everything well. What compromises exist in the current system? Well, it does not give you that very bottom octave (although the pre-outs on the integrated make the addition of a subwoofer quite easy), and it does not give you foundation shaking SPLs, nor does it provide the very last word in detail, but even with that seemingly long list of compromises, this is an extraordinarily musically satisfying system. It is gobs of fun to listen to, and provides far more scale, realism, rhythm, and more of a soundstage than most non-audiophiles even realize is possible with reproduced music. Those of us who are used to 4-figure or even 5-figure prices of individual components might dismiss this $7500 system as a “starter” or “budget” rig, but it is so much more capable than that. For many critical listeners, this could very well be the end of their audio journey instead of merely the beginning.
For the music lover who does not want to spend months/years buying components one at a time and wants system synergy right out of the box, this configuration is an absolute joy. If you listen to a lot of large-scale orchestral music or heavy rock, adding a subwoofer would be a good investment. For me, the real gem in this system is the pair of speakers, as they punch well above their weight, and I was very sad to let them go.
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