MoCM – DITA Audio Dream XLS.
The DITA Audio Dream XLS was provided to me by DITA Audio and Project Perfection for my full review. My choice to include the Dream XLS in this series was entirely my own and no incentive was given for doing so.
- Driver: Single Ultra-linear 10mm Dynamic Driver Gen. XLS
- Frequency response: 10 Hz – 25 kHz
- Sensitivity: 104 dB
- Cable: OSLO-XLS (stock)
- Price: US$2,299
The Introduction to Masters of Classical Music article could be found here.
I am starting off the ‘Masters of Classical Music’ series with the DITA Audio Dream XLS because these were the last nudge I needed to make the series happen. The Dream XLS have been my go-to IEMs for classical music ever since I got them in for a review, coincidentally (or perhaps not such a coincidence because they are from the same manufacturer) replacing the DITA Audio Fealty as my favorite IEMs for classical music. The Dream XLS combine a number of strengths that to me make them sublime for classical music and especially symphonies such as Beethoven’s 5th, which I stated in my review was the best I had heard it. That is also the reason why I will make this entry in the series mostly about Beethoven, although I have selected two pieces by other composers as well for reasons I will explain when we get there.
The main source I will be using here is the Lotoo PAW6000 because I think the synergy between it and the Dream XLS is excellent and because it is precisely this pairing that convinced me I was set up with a sort of baseline pairing for how I personally think classical music is most enjoyable. That should, hopefully, also provide readers with insight into my preferences and how their own might align with, or differ from those. To me this seemed like an excellent starting point.
As I stated in the introduction, the Dream XLS combine a number of characteristics that, for my preferences, makes them especially good performers for classical music. To begin, the Dream XLS have a stage that is quite wide, gives an excellent sense of depth and does not have too much height, a type of letterbox stage. I love this for classical music, as it gives me the feeling of seeing the orchestra stretch out in front of me. The stage is then built up by combining this space with a pitch black background, especially when paired with the PAW6000, outstanding positional information and ability to layer the instruments. Because there is not much height to the stage, it generates an image with depth to the layering that follows how an orchestra is positioned during a performance and you can really sense it when an instrument is placed further back. The instruments themselves are then brought to life with a particular strength in conveying tonal nuances, accurate timbre, excellent texture and a tremendous amount of detail. The Dream XLS have in part a reference type of tuning that is very revealing of details, is transparent and maintains a little note articulation. However, they do something else as well and this is a balancing act that in my opinion the Dream XLS execute to perfection. Even with so much going on, that reference character that allows you to analyze minute details, the Dream XLS manage to bring it all together in a presentation that flows organically and never pushes those details forward. So we have the big stage, the layering, the positional information that is strengthened by tonal nuances, the image is rich in detail and you can analyze every aspect if you wish, but it all works together with excellent coherency and a fluidity where notes flow from one instrument to another. This is then lifted to “master” level by an incredibly dynamic character. This is why the Dream XLS work so well for symphonies, because they have the ability to follow the ups and downs in such music with ease. Tonal nuances displayed against a pitch black background when solo instruments are played silently and attention is drawn from left to right, front to back across the stage, contrasted by the entire orchestra coming in and releasing energy in a way that flows like a fast stream, sucking the listener in and immersing them in pure emotion. Even though the Dream XLS have a reference character to them, they do emotion with the best of them.
Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante (K.364)
Conductor: Colin Davis
Performers: Arthur Grumiaux, London Symphony Orchestra
As I was looking at various pieces of classical music, I wanted to include in this series there was never any doubt where it should start: Mozart’s ‘Sinfonia Concertante’. This is where my love for classical music truly started. I must have listened to it hundreds of times by now and it is still able to draw me in as if I am hearing it for the first time. It is also in my opinion a great example of the accessible nature of Mozart’s compositions.
Composed by Mozart in 1779, the full title is ‘Sinfonia Concertante for Violin, Viola and orchestra’ and is written, as the name implies, as a sinfonia concertante. This is a hybrid between a symphony, a composition written for a full orchestra, and a concerto, a composition written for a solo instrument accompanied by an orchestra. (As it happens, this section is followed by a symphony, Beethoven’s 5th, and a concerto, Paganini’s Violin Concerto #4.) In this case there are two solo instruments, the violin and the viola. Mozart greatly enjoyed playing the viola himself and this might explain why in Sinfonia Concertante the viola is an equal to the violin, where usually violins take centre stage. Sinfonia Concertante consists of three movements where the first and thirds movements have a higher tempo, while the second movement is slower. All movements though have in my opinion an incredibly powerful dynamic to them as they transition between a focus on the solo instruments and having the orchestra create a rich current that drags the listener with it. This is the dynamic that I enjoy so much when listening to Sinfonia Concertante and what acted as a gateway to falling in love with the dynamics and complexity of Beethoven’s symphonies.
The first movement starts with a statement followed by what feels like the start of a symphony. Because the orchestra consists mainly of strings, only two oboes and two horns are added, there is a wonderful flow to it that the Dream XLS accentuate due to the fluidity I mentioned earlier and the wonderful texture of strings they are able to reproduce. The opening is also layered and quite dynamic, again playing to the strengths of the Dream XLS. Only a couple of minutes in, suddenly out of nowhere the solo violin and viola come in and start a conversation. The difference in tonality of the violin and viola is very accurately reproduced and the violin sounds relatively light compared to the fuller viola, with the conversation moving from left (violin) to right (viola). What I love about Sinfonia Concertante happens the first time about five minutes in. The conversation between the violin and viola transitions into a lift, rising higher and then taking along with it the entire orchestra into a wonderfully complex current. The Dream XLS give a wonderful sense of energy here and yet you can easily pick out all the individual elements that make up the current if you so wish. …or just sit back and immerse yourself in it. The Dream XLS give this choice, as it were.
The second movement is thoroughly melancholic and some have speculated that this was Mozart grieving over the loss of his mother in 1778. It is slow and feels heavy, especially with the viola, where the violin can sometimes come up with a sense of tears trickling down. The Dream XLS give the solo instruments a wonderful texture that conveys the emotions, as expressed by the violin and viola, tangible. Just as you get drawn into the melancholy, the transition again happens where the solo instruments merge with orchestra in this sweeping sense of loss, but not desperation. It feels like there is acceptance there, perhaps even a glimmer of hope. Pure speculation on my part, but that is the beauty of classical music, trying to explain with words what instruments seem to express so effortlessly. Because of how well the Dream XLS are able to convey the dynamics here, that feeling is tangible and becomes fully immersing. Every time they put a spotlight on the solo instruments before once again sweeping the listener along with this powerful emotion expressed by the orchestra as a whole.
Grief then ebbs away and the third movement becomes cheerful and fast, faster than the first movement. The conversation between the violin and viola becomes faster, more exciting and the Dream XLS once again follow this with ease, giving excitement to the violin and viola with that little bit of note articulation that brings the strings to life as the bow dances across them. Again, there is a flow, but now more strongly between the violin and viola, giving more energy to the music and dragging you along with it with providing barely a moment to breath. The way the violin and viola play together here is amazing and complimented with short sections for other instruments, such as the horns, to get the spotlight, which works wonderfully well due to the timbre and sense of power that the Dream XLS give the horns. It builds up until the very end where it stops in such a way that it leaves the music to resonate with the listener.
Sinfonia Concertante is not the most exciting that it can get and so doesn’t show off the ability of the Dream XLS to go along with the dynamics quite as well as full scale symphonies, but therein lies the accessible nature of Mozart. It is easy to enjoy and even as background music works quite well, only occasionally demanding the listener’s attention when the entire orchestra comes in. More complex and more demanding was the work of Beethoven.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Beethoven’s 5th Symphony
Conductor: John Eliot Gardiner
Performers: Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) is without doubt one of my favorite composers, primarily because I consider him a master of complexity and dynamics. It is exactly because of the complexity and dynamics that Beethoven was initially scorned by other musicians of his time, who considered his music bizarre and too complex. For instance, his Cantata on the Death of Emperor Joseph II, which Beethoven composed in 1790, was only performed for the first time in 1884 because orchestras considered it too difficult before that time. Beethoven’s piano playing too was so violent that 18th century pianos literally could not cope and would break under the strain, forcing Beethoven to demand bigger, stronger and louder pianos to be built. Perhaps he could be considered the rockstar of classical music, he certainly had the turbulent personality for it …and the lack of personal hygiene. He had quite an ego and perhaps for good reason. His father pushed him from a very young age, hoping the little Ludwig would become the next Mozart, although his father failed to fully appreciated where his son’s talents were to be found. Rather than perfecting the performance of a specific piece, as his father would have him do, Beethoven was extremely skilled at improvising. So when Beethoven at the age of 16 was asked by the great Mozart to do some improvising, Beethoven was more than happy to and left quite the impression on Mozart, who commented to the audience that they were sure to hear great things from this young man in the future. That is high praise coming from someone like Mozart and might explain Beethoven’s ego. What it doesn’t explain is why Beethoven was living in absolute squalor. The Pasqualati House in Vienna might display Beethoven’s life in a meticulously clean museum style, but those who visited Beethoven while he was living there were confronted with a dirty and chaotic home where even the chamberpot was left unemptied. It became so bad that somewhere around 1820 Beethoven was arrested as a tramp due to his poor hygiene and his friends would resort to stealing his clothes in the middle of the night, replacing them with new, clean clothes, which Beethoven wore as if unaware of the switch. To make matters worse was that throughout a large part of his life Beethoven suffered from an increasing loss of hearing. This went on full display in the most dramatic way possible during the first performance of his 7th symphony (one of my favorites). As he was conducting it in his usual animated style he hunched down for a silent part, only to jump up in excitement for a loud part …that the orchestra had not yet reached. Beethoven only realized his mistake when his hearing caught up as the orchestra did finally reach the loud part. His life, as much as his music, was pure drama and perfect for a Hollywood script. Of his symphonies I personally find that his 5th embodies this most clearly and that is the reason why I wanted to include it in this series. Due to the characteristics of the Dream XLS, I find these IEMs exceptionally well suited to this symphony.
Of course, there are different interpretations of the 5th symphony, where some see it as Beethoven railing against his deafness. My personal favorite interpretation is by John Eliot Gardiner and his Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, an orchestra that uses period instruments in its performances. Gardiner was inspired by the theory of German musicologist Arnold Schmitz, who proposed that Beethoven was influenced by, and sympathetic of, the French revolution. Gardiner also applied Beethoven’s own marking of 108 beats per minute as the tempo for the 5th, something that many conductors have ignored because they feel it is too fast. The combination of a high tempo, period instruments and a French revolutionary interpretation make Gardiner’s 5th especially dynamic, playing perfectly to the strengths of the Dream XLS.
Like so many symphonies, the first movement of Beethoven’s 5th starts with a statement, the world famous four notes of the ‘Schicksalsmotiv’ (fate motif), and what follows is this tremendous burst of energy. What impresses me when I listen to this with the Dream XLS is how well they keep up with the complexity and how easily they layer the instruments. The opening four notes are followed by very fast, much lighter violins, then the heavy tympani and quickly more and more layers are built up, all the while the Dream XLS manage to convey the details, the textures and the tonal nuance exceptionally well. Horns sound authoritative, violins sound fast and articulate at times, while flowing beautifully at others, and woodwinds come through clear with beautiful timbre. Each layer adds to the complexity and the Dream XLS allow you to perceive those layers individually while maintaining outstanding coherency as notes flow from one instrument to another organically. This generates a feeling much like a whirlwind where the Dream XLS’s fluidity strengthens that.
The second movement is much slower, transitioning between slow sections with emphasis on solo instruments rising above the orchestra and powerful, uplifting parts. Here the Dream XLS have no trouble in conveying the tonal nuances of the different woodwinds and their position within the orchestra, pulling your attention across the stage in different directions. As Gardiner explains, there is something of Beethoven’s humanism to this movement and I think the clarity with which tonal nuances are presented by the Dream XLS really help to bring that across, especially in combination with the fact that the Dream XLS do not push details forward too much nor their musicality. This gives them a gentle smoothness and something welcoming whereby you are enticed into the music, and this seems to work very well for conveying this humanism.
The third and fourth movement I am going to take together here because it is especially in the transition from one to the other that I love the Dream XLS and where I also find a particular advantage in their pairing with the PAW6000. The third movement is like a march, powerful with a forward movement to it that sometimes slows down quite a bit as if in anticipation of what is to come, before moving forward again with conviction. The whole movement feels like it ebbs and flows like this, but towards the end everything really slows down and we get to the part I discussed in my introduction. No surprise I would imagine that I was listening to the Dream XLS and PAW6000 pair while I wrote that. Pairing the Dream XLS with the PAW6000 creates an incredibly black background against which tonal nuances contrast very clearly and with great positional information in a wide stage, it feels like the sound is jumping across the soundscape. It is gentle, instruments are being played very silently, and yet it still manages to feel incredibly dynamic. This, to me, brings across the emotion of anticipation and builds it up beautifully before finally that catharsis of emotion as the fourth movements starts and the whole orchestra bursts onto the scene. The Dream XLS’s fluidity then sweeps you along this rollercoaster ride, as the orchestra seems to take flight and everything starts to feel like the music from an Indiana Jones movie. This feeling of being pulled along is exceptionally strong for me when I listen with the Dream XLS and it continues to pull me along throughout the fourth movement, right up the last note, after which it leaves the music resonating in my head. I have heard a lot of really good IEMs, but the Dream XLS give me this feeling most strongly.
Paganini’s Violin Concerto #4
Conductor: Michel Sasson
Performers: Alexandre Dubach, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo
All the pieces I highlight in this first review of this series have a particular reason for being included beyond just being favourite pieces to listen to and Paganini’s Violin Concerto #4 is no exception. I fell in love with this piece when a friend of mine let me borrow the DITA Audio Fealty. After an initial phase of getting used to the Fealty’s tuning, I started to absolutely adore those and ended up writing a completely unplanned review of them. I was so compelled to write that it was the fastest review I have ever written and the Violin Concerto #4 played a key role in that, it was the catalyst so to speak. I loved the way the Fealty presented the piece and the Dream XLS take that up to another level.
I won’t go into this Violin Concerto as much as the other pieces because I suspect it will return at a later point in this series. Being a concerto, focus of the piece is naturally on the violin and very few can rival Paganini for creativity and pure imaginative use of the violin. He even went so far as to imitate farm animals with his violin and his ‘Duetto Amoroso’ is the musical interpretation of two lovers sighing and groaning. I am not a violin player, the violin I have is strictly a display piece and in desperate need of some TLC, but when I listen to Paganini I can’t help but be in awe of the technical skills it must take to play it. In the Violin Concerto #4 the bow dances across the strings with so many techniques that I could randomly name a few violin techniques and they will most likely be in there, giving the illusion I actually know what I am talking about. I don’t, but I can enjoy it nonetheless and the Dream XLS provide both transparency and note articulation that really brings the violin to life here. There is quite a bit of bite here because so much of it is in the upper registers and the Dream XLS accentuate that bite a little. The strings have wonderful texture and the Dream XLS are incredibly good at conveying how in the lower registers the body of the instrument starts to resonate more clearly. When the violin moves from the upper registers to the lower, it is wonderful how well you can follow that transition in how the instrument is working. The techniques in the upper registers are also very clear and the Dream XLS’s note articulation accentuates those techniques, which themselves are a form of note articulation. It edges towards my treble sensitivity and yet I find great joy in it, while it never fatigues me. This is something I love about the Dream XLS, but also where I am very curious to compare to IEMs that are strong with music such as string quartets. This is also the reason why I will likely come back to this piece later in the series with IEMs such as the Vision Ears VE5.
The Dream XLS are in my opinion masters of dynamics and very well suited to symphonies that have a lot of variation between the subtle, the boisterous and the outrageous. The music, while very detailed and well textured, flows organically and does not push those details forward too much. Instead, the Dream XLS entice you into the music and reward you with tangible emotions if you let them take you along for the ride.
This first instalment in the Masters of Classical Music series is meant as a sort of baseline. The DITA Audio Dream XLS suit my preferences very well, especially when paired with the Lotoo PAW6000, and my aim here is to not just provide a description of how the Dream XLS sound, but to also provide some insight into my preferences. From the next review onwards, I will incorporate more details on how IEMs and sources compare, which I hope will build up a clear picture of how different IEMs compare for classical music and why some work better for one type of classical music (e.g. symphonies) and others for another type (e.g. string quartets). Differences can also be in terms of presentation. The next IEMs in the series will be the FiR Audio M4, which are great for symphonies as well, but present it in a different way. The M4 offer a much bigger stage, probably the biggest soundstage I have heard, with a more energetic presentation that pushes details more forward. By using the Dream XLS as a baseline, I hope to be able to convey the differences clearly.