Masters of Classical Music – A Wyville Original Review Series.
For those who have read some of my reviews it will come as no surprise that I am a big fan of classical music and for quite a long time I have wanted to do something more with that than merely include a few descriptions and anecdotes in my reviews. I started out with the idea of a series of reviews where I would try to find the ultimate gear for classical music, but I found that to be a somewhat misguided goal, as the diversity of classical music can’t be captured by a single setup and I will explain later why that is. So instead, I came up with this review series. A series that is all about celebrating the unique nature of classical music and how high-end gear can help to unlock that. Classical music has this incredible ability to draw the listener in and pull their heart strings like no other music can. Even without words a single instrument can express the deepest emotions and an orchestra can tell tales of heroic adventures and tragic demise at an unparalleled scale, which is what makes it so popular for Hollywood movies. It is no coincidence that Beethoven’s 5th symphony, Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 are among the music selected for the Voyager record. What better to present to an intelligent alien species than music that embodies so much of what makes us human? That is what I want to celebrate with this series of reviews. These are not traditional reviews, but rather aim to take the reader into the soundscape and together explore the stories, uncover the nuances and experience the emotions as presented by some of the finest IEMs available for the job. It is not an exhaustive series and I intend to keep it open ended in order to add gear whenever I get the chance so that it becomes an archive of sorts for classical music loving audiophiles.
DITA Audio Dream XLS
When I use the term ‘classical music’, I use it in the broadest sense to include everything from medieval composers such as Hildegard of Bingen right up to contemporary times, although my main interest is in composers from the Classical and Romantic periods of the late 18th and 19th century. Perhaps for good reason because those were especially turbulent and exciting times, the perfect source of inspiration for music that seeks to express human emotion. Many changes in society were happening in those times and music changed along with that. Music from the Baroque period that preceded the Classical period was composed for a formal setting such as church or at court (royal, not legal, although I guess for some people being forced to sit through an entire opera would be akin to capital punishment) and thus had a subdued character to it in order to suit such a setting. Church was after all no place for exuberance or drama (especially at that time) and neither was the sophisticated setting of a royal court, so the music had to reflect that. Music from the classical period was composed for a different venue altogether, the public concert, and thus had to evolve into a new style to suit the middle classes who were now able to enjoy concerts as a form of entertainment. This often much larger audience, which was looking primarily for entertainment, meant that the music had to become more dramatic and its dynamics more easily perceptible. Thus it had to evolve into something more exaggerated to draw the audience into the music. You would get this low level of tension at one point and then a sudden burst of energy at another, making it far more exciting than anything from the Baroque period. I love that dynamic character of the music from the Classical and Romantic periods and it provides me with an experience that I feel is unique to classical music. Mozart is a great example and where I personally found my love for classical music first. I have heard him being called the “ultimate child prodigy” and he most certainly was, writing his first composition at the tender age of five and his first full scale symphony at eight. One thing that is very appealing is that Mozart’s music has this wonderfully accessible character. In fact, Mozart was very particular that his music should appeal to ordinary people as much as to the educated, stating at one point that: “Every errand boy whistles my tune.” His music is dynamic and yet never becomes too complex, which is why I think Mozart is the best recommendation as a starting point for someone wanting to explore classical music more deeply. It is more dynamic than Baroque music, which I personally find a little dry, but does not yet have the complexity of Beethoven that demands the listener’s attention. -It really does, Beethoven would throw a fit if anyone dared to talk during one of his performances.- However, it is with Beethoven that I find my bliss these days. I love immersing myself in the masterful complexity of Beethoven’s work, especially his symphonies no. 3, 5 and 7, so expect those to come by a lot in this series. Of course I will aim to include a diverse selection of music, as otherwise I would miss the goal of this series completely.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Now, I am sadly not a musician, let alone a classically trained one with extensive knowledge of how classical music works in terms of its composition (I wish I was) and so this series is simply about the subjective experience of enjoying classical music. Equally, while I include historical background details, it is not meant to adhere to academic standards, it aims merely to bring life to the composers and the context from where the music came. It is an audiophile’s way of exploring what makes classical music so special and how high-end gear can help to uncover the nuances of the music and make tangible the emotions that are conveyed by the instruments. This is most definitely not a shootout-type of series to find the “best” IEMs for classical music as such, rather it is a way to explore how different presentations work for classical and how those engage the listener with the music. This will be different from person to person and so my aim is to describe how the IEMs sound as best I can and explain why I consider them so suitable. I have selected IEMs that I feel are particularly good for classical music because I have heard them before, as well as explore a few interesting ones I have not heard yet based on advice from others or guesswork of my own. As I said, it is first and foremost about an audiophile’s way to enjoy classical music where the gear itself is a means to and end. Some presentations might work well for certain types of classical music, but not others, just like classical music will present itself differently based on the setting where it is supposed to be played. Chamber music for instance is, as the name implies, best enjoyed in an intimate setting, a private place rather than a public place. A string quartet like Beethoven’s no. 7 op. 59 can be like a conversation of sorts. The opening of the second movement starts with the Cello asking a question and the first violin answers it, followed by the viola asking the question again and the second violin answering before the conversation develops. Such music benefits from an intimate setting and would lose its character when performed at a large concert hall. So too can a more intimate stage of the IEMs potentially benefit this type of music. It is therefore not a given that a large soundstage is the key to IEMs performing well for classical music, even though it is important for large scale symphonies. I love how, when I listen to Beethoven’s 5th symphony with IEMs that have a large soundstage and a dynamic character, the symphony builds up and, especially as the third movement transitions into the fourth, it bursts with all the energy, scale and drama of an Indiana Jones movie theme. My aim here is to explore these differences and give the most accurate and informative description I can.
This is probably the section where some audiophiles will have to bite their tongue and accept that this series does not aim at setting narrowly defined and supposedly objective criteria. Because this series is about exploration rather than ranking, and about the music rather than the gear, there is no way to do that in any meaningful manner. It is about the subjective, the personal, the emotional, because that is where we engage (or not) with the music. However, that does not mean that there are not certain strengths that clearly benefit classical music and (of course) my own preferences play a role in understanding why I consider some IEMs particularly suitable and not others. So what do I look for? Let’s look at Beethoven’s 5th to illustrate.
Ludwig van Beethoven
Four notes, just four, and yet this opening motif is so universally recognizable that writing down “ta-ta-ta-taaaa” will probably be enough for most people to hear in their mind exactly what I am referring to. Still, I think most of the appeal of Beethoven’s 5th symphony is found in the journey that it takes through its four movements and just how astonishingly Grand its finale is. Yes, I capitalized the ‘G’ there intentionally. The scale of it is that Big. Mendelssohn, after hearing it, wrote in a letter in 1830: “How big it is—quite wild! enough to bring the house about one’s ears! and what must it be with all the people playing at once?” This is in my opinion, and based on my preferences, the quintessential symphony. A work of art that transports the listener to another world where emotions ebb and flow, where the listener journeys through ups and downs before experiencing a high that continues to resonate long after the final note has been played. It is big, bold, but also full of fine nuances. Ideally this masterpiece is presented in large stage, where I personally prefer a letterbox type of shape that is very wide, has excellent depth, but not a lot of height, which is presented in front of the listener. Positional information is key and layering needs to be excellent so that the orchestra stretches out in front of you. Combined with accurate timbre and a black background (image stability) this layering and positional information allows for tonal nuances to rise above the orchestra or emerge as if from out of nowhere, putting emphasis on solo instruments that rise above the orchestra. In the wide stage those instruments rise up at different points, which moves the attention of the listener around the soundscape, making for a much more dynamic listening experience than if it were presented in a more intimate stage. Such dynamics are important, not just in space, but in intensity as well. When a solo instrument rises above the orchestra, the attention must be drawn there with laser-like precision, as that will create the greatest effect for when it is contrasted by a strong rise in the complexity and energy of the music. Nowhere is this more clearly felt then in the transition from the third movement to the fourth. The music slows down with only a few instruments, such as the piccolo, playing, but playing very silently. This is where that black background, accurate timbre and positional information start to play a key role in contrasting the piccolo against the background, allowing it to rise more clearly and convey a sense of things slowing down more strongly as attention is focused on those few delicate instruments. Play time is over. Suddenly it feels like the music stops, drums start rolling gradually with the sole purpose of building up tension and anticipation. There is energy boiling in that drum role. Transposed over which are the violins signaling that pressure is building higher and higher until finally a tipping point is reached and at the start of the fourth movement the whole orchestra bursts onto the scene with a catharsis of emotion! It is wild and feels like the orchestra is taking flight, pulling the listener with them. It is here where that dynamics can make the difference between excitement as an observer and being pulled along, immersed in the moment and experiencing goosebumps even if you have heard it a hundred times before. This is classical music at its finest, as the fourth movement drags you along until the final note, after which you are left with the excitement still resonating on your head.
Here I also find that the way in which the 5th flows can be complimented with IEMs that have a certain organic fluidity to them, where notes will flow from one instrument to another seamlessly and thereby adding to that sense of the orchestra taking flight, emphasizing a sense of freedom in the final movement. It is not essential and some might prefer IEMs that lean towards a more clinical separation of the instruments (without harming coherency of course). Preferences thus play a role here in how well specific IEMs will work for any one of us. This is where I will try to convey those differences in such a way that it will be informative for people with different preferences. A letterbox stage is one thing, but a holographic stage where the listener is a central point around which instruments dart in and out from every direction can make for an incredible experience, especially when listening to a piece such as Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. What I am trying to convey is that I want to explore synergy between the music and the gear, and to describe how that works out in such a way that it informs classical music loving audiophiles about gear that might suit their preferences in terms of the music itself and its presentation. The challenge is thus not to find one generalized setup to rule them all, but to identify specialist setups that are particularly noteworthy for “classicaphiles” (okay that’s bad… very bad… I promise I won’t ever use that term ever again).
Obviously, the source used is another key factor in achieving synergy that genuinely resonates and makes for a fully immersive listening experience. I intend to experiment a little with this as well, although at the start of the series my main source will be the Lotoo PAW6000. The PAW6000 is not a ‘Top Of The Line’ DAP, but it does offer a few key characteristics that I personally value highly. First and foremost, Lotoo are masters at developing a source that generates a truly pitch-black background and this creates such a clear contrast between the notes and the background that I suspect it might well be the key feature that has propelled the PAW6000 instantly to “my precious” status. It also has a reference tuning, one with (in my opinion) outstanding dynamics that brings the music to life while revealing all the details. It offers great transparency with just a hint of note articulation, which I love with violin techniques such as Martelé and Spiccato, where the bow jumps and dances on the strings (I say as if I know what I am talking about). The pairing of the PAW6000 with the DITA Dream XLS is the first that will be up for review because I love the synergy between the two for classical music and it is what I listen to most. Despite stating here my undying love for the PAW6000, I recently also received the new Shanling M8 for a (regular) review and I found it especially good at creating realism in violins when paired with the DITA Dream XLS. This pairing seemed to be more natural sounding still and with incredible transparency while reducing the note articulation a little. Pairing the M8 with the FiR Audio M4 and DITA Audio Oslo showed great synergy and produce an absolutely massive soundstage with a concert hall feel to it. Shanling certainly introduced an interesting proposition and so contrary to my initial plan of maintaining the same source throughout the series, I will experiment with sources where possible and/or interesting. If I see an opportunity, I might also include desktop gear to see just how far I can make the IEMs scale.
There are also some practical concerns with the source, one of which is particularly important for classical music: gapless playback. This is especially important with for instance symphonies that have a seamless transition from one movement into the next, such as the transition in Beethoven’s 5th from the third to the fourth movement. This is where my sources are a little problematic because Shanling’s music player does not do gapless and the PAW6000 does do it, but unfortunately not with the lossless ALAC files I use (a consequence of using a MacBook Pro where iTunes can’t play flac files). I contacted Lotoo about this and they are working to resolve this issue, so perhaps a firmware update will come at some point during this series.
Another practical aspect is whether or not a DAP can stream music. I was never concerned about this until I discovered Idagio, a streaming service based in Berlin (Germany) that is dedicated entirely to classical music. Here the M8 has a real advantage, as its Android environment allowed me to install Idagio directly onto it, making it easier to work with than using my phone connected via Bluetooth to the PAW6000. The downside is that at the time of writing Idagio is not yet capable of gapless playback on Android, something they are aware of and working on to resolve as soon as possible.
Shanling M8 – DITA Audio Oslo – FiR Audio M4
Always a controversial topic among audiophiles and I am going to treat it very simple here. If I find a particular cable works well with certain IEMs, I will use that cable. Again, this is not a traditional review series and I have no reservation about changing from stock to an aftermarket cable if it works particularly well, it is about finding that special kind of synergy after all. A great example is the Vision Ears VE5 which synergize exceptionally well with the Effect Audio Lionheart cable and I am very happy to be able to include this pairing in the series after Vision Ears generously sent me the VE5 on an extended loan. I will however not spend a lot of time unpicking the slight changes that aftermarket cables cause, that way it will be easy to ignore for anyone who feels cables can’t make a difference. For those people, just consider I am doing it for improved comfort or the option of having a balanced termination. For those who have no problem with it, it is mostly about small nuances that I find particularly worthwhile. For instance, I found the FiR Audio M4 to have a number of really great characteristics for classical music, but pairing them with the PAW6000 was brighter than I was comfortable with. Changing the stock cable to the DITA Oslo cable resolved this issue and even enhances some of the characteristics I like for classical music, such as generating one of the biggest stages I have heard with a truly out-of-the-head experience and so I never changed it back to the stock cable. Of course, the Oslo’s Awesome plug is another very convenient thing to have and I love the versatility of changing termination whenever the need arises. So, it is all about that versatility and the Oslo cable’s excellent ergonomics. -wink- -wink-
Vision Ears VE5
I did not want to make this introduction too long, but felt it was important to at least say something reasonably coherent about what is at the end of the day an experiment that I want to give every opportunity to evolve over time. This series is not set up with very strict criteria and I do not want it to be seen for more than what it really is, a fun and informal way of exploring classical music by an enthusiastic audiophile with a little knowledge of history and considerably less understanding of classical music. I just enjoy listening to it, writing about it and pretending I am a classical music connoisseur (darn, forgot my monocle). So take a load off, be entertained by the read and if you like my descriptions, go out and demo for yourself to hear if you hear it the same way and if a particular setup might be interesting for you.