Further Thoughts: Living with the behold series of electronics
Life with the Consummate Component
                                       

Page 2                                

Background
Ralf Ballmann has for years (nearly) single-handedly manufactured network analyzers (a precision test instrument akin in some ways to a spectrum analyzer, but instead of measuring the characteristics of a signal, network analyzer measures characteristics of a device). Ballmann holds numerous “world’s first” titles regarding network analyzers. One of his earliest was in 1983, when he built the first color display, 2 GHz network analyzer. With over 20 years of manufacturing experience under his belt, Ballmann’s skill and know-how in the areas of noise detection, measurement and abatement have afforded him success throughout the European Union.

Ballmann’s partner, the very talented Peter Oberhofer, is responsible for all the sophisticated software designs used in the behold GmbH line of products.


Room Correction: The Road Less Traveled

[The ADP192 Room Correction installation procedure took all of 45-minutes and was performed by Ralf Ballmann on the deck of my Jersey City, NJ home back in the fall of '06]

    

    

    

 


Before any of these components could unite in near-perfect synergy, particularly in an acoustic space as challenged as mine, the single most essential ingredient was the introduction of behold’s room correction software in the fall of 2006 in the form of the ADP192 module.

Working together with Ascendo designer Jurgen Scheuring and his Room Tools® software – acoustic shaping is Scheuring’s first love – behold announced the first ever “fast convolution” DSP based (A)udio (D)ata (P)rocessor, in the ADP192. Mine arrived as a six-channel module, although the ADP192 can be configured for up to 16-channels. In addition the ADP192 also offers an active multi-channel crossover in the digital domain, which Ballmann boasts offers “zero phase turn, dedicated time alignment, and true (time) delay.” Ballmann and Scheuring claim that the manipulation of these factors in the digital domain offers tighter tolerances than any achieved in the analogue domain.

I did a single room correction measurement using an Edirol UA-25, a sort of 24/96 kHz digital Ginsu knife, that's used only for its microphone preamp section (made by Roland Corp). A rather nondescript microphone was fed directly into the Edirol. The chosen output from the UA-25 to the ADP192 was S/PDIF optical, at 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution. The APU768 preamplifier (which contains the ADP192 module) was then coupled to my Dell Laptop via its Ethernet connection. My laptop was previously loaded with Ascendo’s Room Tools® software and was ready for the next step: room correction.

Before starting, I removed the DALI Megaline’s external crossovers in order to take advantage of behold's digital crossover. I designated one channel from each of the behold BPA768 stereo amplifiers to drive the Megaline’s ribbon tweeter and mid/bass drivers. I set the crossover frequency at the recommended 1200 Hz. With a single click on the “Start” icon in the Room Tools® software, a single full frequency (20 Hz to 20 kHz) sweep was generated. The measurement readily proved that the nearly 8’ tall DALI Megalines and Sunny Cable Technologies 18” dual subwoofers overloaded my 17’ by 21’ listening space. The correction screen displayed a reading of +10 dB between 70 Hz and 90 Hz and +6 dB at 150 Hz. The Room Tools® Correction software inverted these frequency curves (-10 dB at 70 - 90 Hz and -6 dB at 150 Hz). This would theoretically result in a flat frequency response in this room. (Note that this is analogous to how negative feedback in an amplifier works). The Room Tools® Correction software allowed me to find a happy medium since -10 dB at 70 - 90 Hz felt too light in the bass for my taste. A happy medium turned out to be around -4 dB at 70 - 90 and -2 dB at 150 Hz.

        

To affect this, I double-clicked over the frequencies on the Room Tools® screen, highlighted the frequencies I wanted to manipulate, and used my mouse to adjust the curve. It was that easy. Adjusting for the appropriate filter slopes, however, proved frustrating since I was unable to find the exact filter chosen by DALI’s designers. (Also, in the case of the Sunny Majestic loudspeakers, only room correction was done since their internal crossovers could not be bypassed). I did find the best sound was accomplished by minimizing the overlap in the curves for the ribbon tweeter and mid/bass drivers, by using a very steep 48 dB per octave slope.

A preamplifier with this level of versatility – top-flight room correction and a 6-channel digital crossover – is an impressive first. DSP-based room correction has become popular and accepted over the years, while digital crossovers are only slowly gaining acceptance in the high-end arena, particularly in France. With time, and plenty practice over the years, using the Tact 2.2XP, I found the frequencies best suited for my listening room and my tastes. Obviously, without room correction, my modest listening space could never have accommodated a pair of 400 lb 18” woofers. But with room correction in line, I achieved a level of performance that otherwise would have simply remained beyond my reach.

I was able to compare the ADP192 module to the former heavyweight champion in that line, the Tact 2.2XP. The ADP192 allowed me to remove the DALI Megaline’s external crossovers and Tact 2.2XP from the signal-chain, and replace them with a single behold APU768 preamplifier, a far simpler setup. Gone were two external boxes with their multiple inputs and outputs, expensive signal cables and AC cords, and all the potential sonic degradation they can bring. Replaced by a single digital link, the simple logic of “less is more” was finally once again in full bloom. (The Tact 2.2XP linked to the Boz digital amplifiers, my previous reference, was also an all-digital one).

The Tact 2.2 XP room correction preamplifier was far ahead of its time. It had faithfully served as my reference since 1998, but for the first time in nearly a decade, a new room correction device from behold - albeit with a far more expensive price tag ($15,000 for the module) –  proved superior in comparison. One must bear in mind that integrated circuits, the “chips” at the heart of modern electronics, rapidly and continually evolve toward improved specifications and performance. The chips used in constructing the Tact more than likely were many generations old despite it bearing the latest (XP) model insignia.

I won’t mince words. If you attempt to figure out all of their features, both behold and the Tact will give you brain cramps. They are both highly flexible so there’s no clear winner here. But the Tact 2.2XP does not offer digital crossover capability. (This feature, limited to 4-channels, is available in the Boz series digital amplifiers ($12,000), which served as my reference…until the behold system arrived). And when it comes to the construction techniques used between the Tact and behold, this is where the roads part. Internally and externally, behold is constructed on an entirely different paradigm: it is modular in concept and execution.

Regarding EMI and RFI, behold designer Ralf Ballmann can easily be viewed as being almost paranoid. This has everything to do with why behold designed the APU768 with an external power supply, and why all modules are encased in gold-plated and double-shielded metal housings. Eliminating noise in any form is paramount to Ralf Ballmann. His success has been, literally, built on this philosophy. There’s a downside: Ballmann's passion to eliminate noise directly affects the price of behold components. The APU768 starts at $30,000 and, depending on the modules added, can go as high as $75,000, (behold power amplifiers retail for $50k each).

Room correction is so vitally important to my less-than-ideal listening space (how many ideal spaces do you know of?) that I have regarded the Tact 2.2XP as an indispensable tool for 10 years. I suspect not many reviewers can name a single component that has been a reference for this length of time. That said, the sonic differences I heard switching to the APU768 were glaringly obvious, almost shocking. The increase in dynamics, signal purity and resolution, improved tonality and harmonic rightness were such that my first thought was, “Is this right?” Instruments were better spaced and appeared more solid, giving new meaning to the term dimensionality.

The APU768 made my previous setup appear to hold back the music. The late Billy Preston’s hit song, “Nothin’ from nothin’,” describes my experience transitioning to the behold system. The more nothin’ you put into your signal chain, the more nothin’ comes out! behold designed their entire line of components based on this simple – but rarely achieved – creed.

Living with the behold electronics has afforded me the opportunity to learn and use its uniquely sophisticated software. Actually, comprehending how to manipulate and dial-in this software – in an ever evolving system – has had its ups and downs due to language barriers and the lack of an American importer. But once I learned how to execute a room correction, I realized once again why I enjoyed music, and this hobby, as much as I do. (Sam Laufer, a native New Yorker, and an intensely motivated and successful businessman, formed Laufer Teknik after being appointed behold USA.)


Revisit
In my first report I mentioned how remarkably sophisticated the behold system is from a build standpoint. behold electronics have features I’ve never seen in high-end audio electronics, especially its eight cascading, 24-bit word length, digital to analogue converters (DACs) INSIDE the two 600-watt BPA768 power amplifiers. It is at this final amplification stage that the digitally manipulated data are converted to analogue. The BPA768's unique power output section is Class A. Not Class D or T or whatever else is popping up on the digital horizon. I asked Mr. Ballmann, What are the pros and cons of placing DACs down-stream?

“The signal chain, Ballmann stressed, is relieved of sound-degrading analogue connections, cable, voltage amplification and final buffer stages.” Three independent switch-mode power supplies (SMPS) were designed for the BPA768. SMPS work faster and more efficiently than conventional linear power supplies; they are inherently voltage regulated, and they offer far greater signal-to-noise ratio (S/N) and bandwidth. And Ballmann has the measuring tools to back up these claims. After personally viewing these measurements at the behold factory, I realized that the super-clarity and extra-low noise floor I’ve come to associate with behold products - a sort of signature sound - was not just my imagination running wild.

Because multiple DACs are internal to BPA768, its input is unusual. There is a single 50 Ohm coax communication cable (photo right) between the APU768 preamp and the BPA768 power amplifier. Ballmann says this offer “...far greater S/N bandwidth and zero losses.” In addition to carrying digital music data, these communication ports also handle the control signals for Power On, Power Off, Stereo/Mono channel output, Balance, Mute, and (independent channel) Volume functions. When using the crossover feature, you can assign individual frequencies (and names) to each channel. These cables also relay diagnostic information back to the APU768, which displays it on a built-in LCD screen.             

The APU768 is a feature-laden product boasting a plethora of menu and sub-menu screens. To attempt to describe all these options would take many more pages than I am willing to write. Their website, somewhat problematical due to language barriers (although they write better English than I do German), offers a better idea of how versatile these components are. I strongly urge you to visit their website for any further technical queries.

Build quality, as I've said, is superb. The behold chassis is constructed of 20mm (0.7874”) thick anodized aluminum stock. The bottom panel of the APU768 chassis is double plated for extra protection against RFI/EMI contamination. The fully loaded APU768 weighs about 35 lbs!


Lastly, the remote control is Bluetooth ® controlled, using a Palm (Dell) Pocket PC. This is novel, but I prefer a standard remote. One nice thing about Bluetooth ® technology is because it uses Industry, Scientific and Medical (ISM) radio signals, you never have to aim it directly at the preamp. But forget trying to sync your Bluetooth ® cell phone or wireless headset to the APU768...I’ve already tried using my system as a giant hands-free head-set.


Front End
The behold CD player is unique. It's linked to the APU768 preamplifier with a gold-plated 25-pin plug, providing Track, Time, Play, Forward, Reverse, Stop, and Play information for the preamplifier LCD display. Like the amplifiers, the CD player feels overbuilt, using a huge mass of solid aluminum. Despite its low profile, it weighs in excess of 35 lbs. That’s pretty substantial for a product of its size. At $8,500, it's quite expensive. In my opinion, however, it is not the sonic equivalent of the Nova Physics Memory Player. Considering the superb performance of the behold preamp/room correction/crossover and power amplifier, I think the CD player is the weak link in the series.

But I couldn't be more enthusiastic about the other behold equipment. Any potential customer with the financial wherewithal to afford these products should certainly not let themselves be intimidated by the inclusion of a Laptop or PC into their listening space (behold software is not compatible with the Macintosh OS as yet).

    

Living (just) a little...Laughing (just) a Little
In the three years that have elapsed since the behold system arrived at my home, it has been my reference sound system, along with the Nova Physics Memory Player, whose performance and growing reputation continues to dumbfound. Ditto, Jack Bybee’s new and improved line of Super Effect products. Then finally, last summer I swapped out the DALI Megaline loudspeakers for the horn-loaded Sunny Majestic by Sunny Cable Technology. These massive loudspeakers have kept me in a state of wonder and admiration for the past twelve months.

Combining behold electronics with the Nova Physics Memory player, the Sunny Majestic loudspeaker and the Bybee Super Effect products, I must say that I‘ve rarely, if ever, heard a system this overwhelmingly impressive, in terms of sheer dynamics as well as with regard to the delicate handling of that most sensitive of instruments: the human voice.

I’ve had solid-state systems in the past that were incredibly transparent and dynamic but lacking in musicality. Contrarily, I’ve had tube-based systems that were intensely musical but couldn’t provide the ultimate see-through clarity and dynamics I’ve come to appreciate. Well, life’s nothing if not compromises. There exists a certain sonic quality tubes offer, especially in the areas of three-dimensionality that solid-state devices find nearly impossible to achieve. But we also know that solid-state devices can put a grip on low-frequencies that few tube designs can ever achieve. Ralf Ballmann couldn't care less about the vicissitudes of audiophile. Of utmost importance to him was to design a product that would amplify the original signal with the least amount of degradation.

If forced to describe in a word behold sonic character—that word would have to be tonality. I found most intriguing the body of subjective and objective evidence that came through emails, discussions with audiophiles and music lovers, and many hours of listening. Tonality (or rightness) is usually the first descriptive, followed very closely by transparency, speed and definition. behold’s dexterity at cutting through noise (subliminal or otherwise) and removing ambiguity serves up music in a way that distinguishes itself from anything else I’ve heard.

I am persistently reminded that behold’s tonality isn't accomplished by that old dog and pony act of thinning high and low-frequencies, but by an intelligently designed super-short signal path. On the contrary, the bottom octaves appear with greater extension, articulation, pitch and power. This is not just my experience, either. Quite a few friends and audio journalists, whose ears I have grown to respect, made the same observations. Greg Petan (long-time friend and editor) and I have listened extensively to some really impressive solid-state amplifiers including the Krell FPB 700x, the Rowland 302, Gryphon Audio’s Encore, Karan Acoustics’ KA-S450, and Greg's reference, the Vitus Audio SS-010 monoblocks.

Only when Greg got the opportunity to hear the behold gear in his own system—on his own terms, and with the loudspeakers and other ancillaries he had personally nominated as his reference—did he recognize the truth of what I had long been saying about behold electronics. It only took an instant for behold to become his new reference. Greg has never looked back after having experienced 'a day in the life' with behold gear.

The St.Louis-based jazz label MaxJazz has recently released a vocal series of jazz releases that includes some incredible new female vocalists(www.maxjazz.com). All are remarkably well-recorded using top-notch recording techniques and house musicians like legendary saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman, drummer Victor Lewis, and trumpeter Terell Stafford just to name three (major kudos to MaxJazz for this alone). Moreover, these high quality recordings allow me to revel in the new wave of virtually unknown but outstanding songstresses that include Erin Bode, Laverne Butler, Carla Cook, Mary Stallings and my favorite CD, Vertigo by Renee Marie. Her unique rendition of Dixie/Strange Fruit is as marvelously beautiful as it is historically disturbing. Recorded using a small amount of reverb, this classic opens a capella, and is then sung with a sense of melodic scale and wonderment that it makes you pay more attention to the performance, than to the eerie references to blacks being lynched, hanged from trees in the old South. Accompanying musicians are also top-notch, such as Jeremy Pelt whose Freddy Hubbard-like style and solo really amps up this song. Most important, however, is the discovery of such talented artists such as Marie. This lady has a certain quality that is sweet and vulnerable yet strong and boisterous. Singers of this quality remain unknown for only a short period. When you have double-whammies like this Vertigo CD, where the performance and the actual recording rival one another, it’s very hard keeping ones enthusiasm tempered. Marie sings in a way that makes it hard not to rejoice over her god-given talents and the rare sense of rightness the behold system brings to this extraordinary CD.

Another remarkably well-recorded disc that I’d regret not mentioning is Terenga, by jazz trumpet extraordinaire John Faddis. I’ve talked about this CD before and would hope that you readers out there who like jazz have purchased it. Terenga shows off all the years of hard-work and dedication Faddis, a Dizzy Gillespie protégé, has put into honing his craft. “Waltz for My Fathers and Brothers,” “Courtship” and “Laurelyn” are a few of my favorites. Sweet and melancholic, these tracks feature a rare side of Faddis (mostly with a mute) showing a sense of grace and poise that’s not often visible. During the mastering of Terenga, Faddis would come over and listen to the master copy via the behold setup to hear if the engineering kept it as true to the original source as possible. After a couple of listening sessions, he found the sound he hoped would best represent his craft and gave it his approval. Upon the release of Terenga it remained the number one jazz CD requested for many weeks (and nation-wide) after it launched back in the summer of ’06. Faddis personally thanked me by including my name in his many “thanks” but most importantly Faddis thanked the system for allowing him to hear what he hoped could be accomplished on his most auspicious CD release. “No ifs, ands or buts about it, says Faddis, this is the finest system I’ve ever heard.”

If musical satisfaction is your ultimate goal and you’re not afraid of the infinite fine-tuning capabilities that go with a system like this then look no further. With the single exception of their CD player, I could not be more satisfied with behold as a company and as a product. I have now been living with these electronics for three years and am still mesmerized by their incredible sonics. Moreover, if there’s an audio system on planet Earth that claims greater versatility than behold, please let me know about it. For now, behold is easily the finest high-end system I’ve had the pleasure to live with, period.

                                     

Specifications:

behold BPA768 Stereo amplifier

behold BPA768 Technical specifications: here

Price: $50k

behold APU768 control preamplifier

APU768 Technical specifications: here

Standard price: $30k

Options include:

ADP192
$15,000
Room Correction

ADC192
$4,000
Octal Analogue Input Module 192kHz Input Sampling Rate,
[four times Stereo Input, or one Stereo and one 5.1 Input,
or one 6.1, or one 7.1]

DAC192
$3,500
Analogue Stereo Output Module 192kHz Output Sampling Rate,
[Stereo analogue Output or two Channels of 5.1 ... 7.1]

ODI768
$3,000
Octal Digital Input Module 32-192kHz Input Sampling Rate,
[four S/PDIF (Cinch 75W, up to 192kHz), four Toslink optical up to 108kHz]

DIO768
$3,000
Triple Digital In-/Output-Module 32-108kHz Input Sampling Rate,
[Independent Output Sample Rate 44.1kHz, 48kHz & 96kHz;
Inputs: AES/EBU (XLR 110W), S/PDIF (RCA 75W) & Toslink (optical);
Outputs: AES/EBU (XLR 110W), S/PDIF (RCA 75W) & Toslink (optical)]

SDO768
$3,500
Digital Output Module 768kHz Sampling Rate

MCA768
$10,000
Phono A/D-Converter Head Shell 768kHz Sampling Rate

INCLUDES:
MCK768
Phono Data-Converter 768kHz Sampling Rate
SDI768
Phono Digital Input Module 768kHz Sampling Rate

behold CD-Player

Price: $8,500.00 US

Specifications: here

USA Distributor: Laufer Teknik
Address: 27 Whitehal Street New York, NY 10004
Contact: Sam Laufer Tel: 212-269-6384
E-mail: slaufer@lauferteknik.com
Web: www.lauferteknik.com