Remember the Handy Housewife Helper, that all-in-one kitchen gadget from "Better Living through TV," a 1955 episode of The Honeymooners? As part of their latest get-rich-quick scheme, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton make a commercial hawking the device as "the chef of the future," claiming that it will open cans, uncork bottles, core apples, scale fish, drive screws, cut glass, sharpen scissors, even remove corns from feet. How did it work in practice? Well, not so great, at least for a very nervous, camera-shy Ralph.
Many audiophiles forget that high-end home audio did not begin with such all-in-one components. When hi-fi first came of age, in the 1940s and early ’50s, all components were "separates": each box performed a single function. Only later did manufacturers begin producing multifunction components such as the integrated amplifier and the receiver. As time went on, many audiophiles shunned such integrated components. Like the Handy Housewife Helper, integrated products of all types are claimed to do many things, but often don’t do any one thing particularly well. However, separates take up a lot more room, require more cables and power cords, and don’t always perform better -- though the high end generally disfavors integrateds, they’ve never completely disappeared. Indeed, in recent years there has been a resurgence of integrated audiophile products.
Which brings us to T+A Elektroakustik’s E-Series Music Receiver ($4200 USD), which T+A calls an "all-purpose machine." And indeed it is. The Music Receiver’s small, jam-packed case contains an amplifier, a preamplifier, a CD transport, an FM tuner, a high-resolution DAC, a tape loop, and a Streaming Client board, the last of which allows it to receive digital music files and Internet Radio stations over a wireless local area network (W-LAN). The Music Receiver could very well be the poster boy of integration: its single box provides an astonishing number of features, controls, and connectivity options.
Founded in 1978, T+A Elektroakustik, a manufacturer of speakers and electronics, takes its initials from "Theory and Application in Electroacoustics," and is highly respected in its home country, Germany, for its engineering expertise. In fact, T+A claims it was the first manufacturer anywhere to introduce a number of audio advances, including: a high-end component with RS-232 control; a fully digital loudspeaker with room compensation, frequency and phase linearization and a low-end optical feedback system; and a CD player with reverse clock and switchable filters. But despite such formidable credentials, T+A remains mostly unknown in North America. This may soon change; the company is now aggressively targeting this market.
I was eager to find out whether the E-Series Music Receiver would prove the audio equivalent of the Handy Housewife Helper, or an engineering triumph that would satisfy picky high-end ears.
Can it core an apple?
As listed above, the T+A E-Series Music Receiver offers the latest and greatest options in digital sources. While it has no internal storage capacity, its Streaming Client board lets it receive digital music files from such USB storage devices as iPods, thumb drives, and external hard drives. The Streaming Client lets you stream these files, Internet Radio, and data from such Universal Plug and Play (UPnP) devices as computers or other music servers, over a wired or wireless LAN.
Accessing digital files is easy. You can scroll through the files, or use the Music Receiver’s search function by entering one or more letters or numbers via the remote control. The information displayed for these files includes the artist, album, track name, and bit rate.
You can search for Internet Radio stations directly using the Music Receiver, or use the VTuner radio service (a complimentary subscription is included). VTuner stores a large number of Internet Radio stations and classifies them by format, location, and language. You can filter the stations by name, stream speed (sound quality), reliability, and popularity, and tag them as favorites either directly through the Music Streamer or via your computer and LAN. When I checked, VTuner made available almost 18,880 stations and 10,700 podcasts.
Are you an old-school audiophile who doesn’t want your audio piped in over a USB or LAN connection? Don’t worry -- T+A has your back. The Music Receiver plays CDs, and has an FM tuner with presets. The tuner is equipped with a Radio Data System (RDS) decoder that, like the Internet Radio function, displays the radio station name, musical genre, artist, album, and song being played.
The Music Receiver’s proprietary class-D Pulse Width Modulation switching amplifier, derived from T+A’s E-Series Power Plant integrated amplifier, has slightly lower output than that model: 160Wpc into 4 ohms or 94Wpc into 8 ohms, which should be enough to adequately drive just about any speaker you’re likely to mate with it. There are separate power supplies for the analog and digital circuits, and an oversized toroidal transformer.
The Music Receiver’s preamplifier stage, including its volume control, is an analog design. According to T+A, this affords higher dynamic range and less distortion than digital preamps. The signal paths for the preamp’s input and output sections are as short as possible.
The T+A has controls for Volume, Balance, Bass, Treble, Stereo/Mono, for low-volume listening, and Loudness. A Flat function cancels any tone adjustments that have been made, and there’s a subsonic filter for use with small speakers, such as satellites. There are three analog inputs: connectors for a tape loop, phono stage, and turntable.
On the digital side, the Music Receiver’s DAC section has one Texas Instruments/Burr-Brown 32-bit Sigma Delta PCM1975 chip per channel. Each chip contains two DACs configured in a "double-mono" symmetrically balanced configuration. These DACs accept resolutions of up to 24-bit/192kHz and provide 8x oversampling. According to T+A, the Music Receiver uses a multistage reclocking system to virtually eliminate jitter. Supported file formats include MP3, FLAC, and WAV, but not AIFF.
The DAC has two types of digital filters. One of these is a standard FIR long filter, which the manual states has a "linear frequency response, very high damping linear phase characteristics and constant group delays." The other is an FIR short filter. Per the manual, this has a slightly less accurate frequency response than the standard filter, but also less digital ringing, as well as excellent timing, dynamics, and imaging. Short FIR filters typically sound better than long ones, though they don’t measure as well: while the short filters have a bit more noise, they offer superior transients. One thing’s for sure: Filter selection is often a matter of personal preference.
The DAC has five digital inputs (three 24/192kHz coaxial, two 24/96kHz optical), two USB ports (24/96), an Ethernet port, and LAN and W-LAN (24/96) ports. The coaxial and optical inputs permit the DAC to connect to and improve the sound quality of a multitude of media devices, such as a television satellite receiver or cable box, and servers and streaming devices such as Apple TVs, Sonos music systems, and Logitech Squeezeboxes.
Further illustrating the Music Receiver’s extraordinary flexibility is its Pre Out, for connecting active speakers or one or more external power amplifiers. It also has two subwoofer outputs, and a headphone mini-jack output powered by a dedicated amplifier.
Included are a remote control, a W-LAN aerial, an FM antenna, and an iPod lead. The remote is nothing to e-mail home about. Indeed, it appears to be something that might accompany a $79 DVD player, with perhaps a few more buttons tacked on. Fortunately, it worked well. The Music Receiver’s Streaming Client can be controlled by an Android or Apple phone or tablet via the use of a number of UPnP control apps such as PlugPlayer or SongBook.
Optional accessories include an iPod docking station that bypasses the iPod’s graphic user interface and DAC in favor of the T+A’s display and converter, and an upgraded FD100 bidirectional remote control with graphic display.
The Music Receiver measures 17.6"W x 4.7"H x 15.6"D and weighs 22 pounds. The top, front, and bottom of its vibration-resistant case are of aluminum, its side panels a thick molded plastic. Black and silver finishes are available for the case and side panels, and can be mixed or matched.
Say goodbye to your interconnects and USB cable!
My first task in setting up the Music Receiver was to find an appropriate pair of speaker cables. A pair of Synergistic Research’s Element Coppers did nicely. I at first used the T+A with its stock power cord, but wound up using a Synergistic Tesla T3 cord for the balance of the review. I also used the T+A with and without my Synergistic Powercell 10SE line conditioner.
Turned off and viewed from a distance, the Music Receiver’s looks were unremarkable. As I neared it, however, its impeccably shaped metalwork, which includes beautifully rounded edges, was revealed. Also, when turned on, the T+A’s red and blue indicator lights, and bright but dimmable vacuum-fluorescent display, strut their high-tech good looks. In addition to showing such CD data as track number and time elapsed, the display has large, very cool bars to graphically indicate volume and track progression.
All told, no one who gives the Music Receiver more than a passing glance will mistake it for a mass-market model. I did, however, take exception to its plastic CD tray; in light of the model’s otherwise solid build quality, it seemed a bit flimsy.
Initial setup required only that I activate and, if I liked, name external sources, then set the speaker size (Satellite or Full Range), display brightness, and language. The default settings for these settings worked fine for me. I did most of my listening using the FIR short filter, which I found sounded slightly more natural than the long filter.
I first listened to CDs and FM radio. From there, I pressed the SCL source button on the front panel (there’s one on the remote, too), which brought up the Streaming Client menu and these options: USB, Internet Radio, UPnP Devices, and Favorites. I selected USB, and the Streaming Client immediately connected to my external storage devices (an external USB drive and a USB stick), and my digital files were listed on the display. Since I was inputting via USB, I was listening at 24/96, despite the fact that some files’ native resolutions were higher. As I scrolled through the files, I saved some as favorites. I also noticed that the Music Receiver couldn’t read a very few of my FLAC files. I’ve found this to be typical of music servers; it’s likely due to coding incompatibilities between the offending files and the player.
Having no UPnP devices that I wanted to connect to the T+A, I moved on to Internet Radio via the Streaming Client board. Again, I was surprised to find how easy setup was. The Music Receiver immediately displayed my local Wi-Fi signal, and I entered my password. After I’d saved the password and restarted the Client, I was connected, and the broadcast world was literally at my fingertips. At that point I was confronted with numerous ways to find stations I wanted to hear. These options included Local Stations (many, but not all, of which I would find on my AM/FM radio), Genres, Countries, Most Popular Stations, and several similar paths for Podcasts. Choose a path to find a station you want to listen to; to find something else, retrace your steps, then head in a new direction. Of course, you can also call up a station manually. I saved some Internet stations as favorites.
It was fun to explore the different paths, but it’s also a bit tedious and time consuming. Eventually, I took advantage of the VTuner service. Once I’d used my computer to find the special T+A/VTuner website, I input my unique 12-digit MAC address, accessible via the Music Receiver’s setup menu. (I also had to input my e-mail address and create a password on the site.) I was now at the VTuner main screen, where I could search for and sort stations by the criteria noted above. I listened to many stations on my computer and stored some as favorites; these then appeared near the top of my computer screen in one or more groups, with names that I designated. That done, my favorites were instantly and wirelessly transferred to the Music Receiver. Pretty cool.
Sharp as a knife
The T+A Music Receiver was utterly neutral in tone. It generally had extended and airy highs, a palpable midrange, well-controlled bass, and an overall sound that was slightly more forward than I’m used to hearing from my reference Esoteric gear. It also sounded clean, transparent, and detailed. In fact, the Music Receiver’s sound was unexpectedly impressive. But there were other surprises in store.
When I discussed the Music Receiver with Michael Manousselis of Dynaudio USA, T+A’s North American distributor, he told me that T+A’s proprietary class-D amplifier sounded very analog-like. But while I’ve heard some fairly organic-sounding class-D amps, I pretty much dismissed his comment as sales hype.
It wasn’t. Many switching amps can render the opening guitar chords of the acoustic version of "Hotel California," from the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (CD, Geffen GEFD 24725), in an overly antiseptic and clinical manner, with a measure of digital glare. Did the Music Receiver have the intoxicating midrange glow of good tubed gear? No -- it couldn’t muster the harmonic richness, liquidity, or dimensionality of the more expensive Audio Research gear that has passed through my listening room, and it didn’t sound as organic as my pricey solid-state reference gear. Even so, the T+A neither stripped away the life of the music nor exhibited substantial digital artifacts.
I went back to Manousselis, who explained that the Music Receiver’s class-D amp is built around an analog modulator -- only its output stages operate in digital switching mode. He explained one advantage of this: Unlike with a digital processor, this amp’s signal pulses can be modified to any desired length. What T+A has done in the Music Receiver is tailor the pulse lengths, and thus the distortion spectrum, to something typically found in tube amps. Manousselis also explained that, unlike most switch-mode amplifiers, the Music Receiver uses a magnetically shielded toroidal rather than a switch-mode power supply. These facts might explain why the T+A exhibited transparency and detail without sounding sterile or harsh, as many switching amps can.
The Music Receiver was also significantly quieter than I had anticipated. For example, it nicely showed off the low noise floor inherent in digital recordings such as Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk (24/192 FLAC, Reprise/HDtracks), and mezzo-soprano Marianne Beate Kielland’s utterly haunting Come Away Death (24/192 FLAC, 2L). I knew that the Music Receiver has certain features (e.g., separate power supplies for the analog and digital circuits) that are known to lower a component’s noise floor. Even so, a single box containing so many noisy electronic circuits, power sources, and other parts, all in close proximity, wouldn’t seem to constitute a particularly hospitable source of inky-black backgrounds.
In other critical listening with CDs and digital files, the Music Receiver was a joy. Marta Gomez’s "Lucia," from HDtracks 24/96 Ultimate Download Experience (24/96 FLAC, Chesky/HDtracks), was rendered with a midrange that was pleasantly sweet and silky. Another file from that sampler, "Misery," by New York jazz trio Dave’s True Story, demonstrated just how unveiled music could sound through the T+A. On several occasions when the Music Receiver was playing and I was focused on other things, I caught myself looking across the room to see if I’d somehow left a more expensive component in the circuit. With these and other recordings, the T+A provided well-focused images, a large and slightly forward soundstage, crisp transients, and a respectably diverse palette of tonal colors.
With a number of recordings, however, the T+A sounded excessively sibilant. This was very apparent with "Get It Together," from Seal’s Best: 1991-2004 (CD, Warner Bros. 48882-2). But with other recordings, such as "I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight," from Every Grain of Sand: Barb Jungr Sings Bob Dylan (24/192 FLAC, Linn), the Music Receiver fared much better in this regard. I’m tempted to argue that the Music Receiver could sometimes slightly but sharply augment and then collapse the amount of air in the upper register, but this was audible only when I directly compared it with more expensive gear.
All told, the Music Receiver got more things right with CDs and digital files than it had any right to for $4200. Even FM radio sounded great. However, I hadn’t finished my listening -- I still had to try out the T+A’s ability to stream Internet Radio. What I found was that the quality of the radio stations I listened to was largely dependent on the bit rate available. I experienced an occasional Wi-Fi dropout, but that happens with any wireless streamer. I recommend going wired, if that’s feasible. Nonetheless, the Music Receiver’s Streaming Client did a great job with these data channels.
When you’ve grown accustomed to the vast number of Internet stations available, it’s hard to go back to terrestrial broadcasts. Do you like ambient, Chicago soul, dub house, 1950s doo-wop, nu jazz, ragtime, or ska punk? Or do you like listening to comedy, news, religious, or political stations? How about a station from Tauranga, New Zealand, or Jeju, South Korea? It’s all there. Internet Radio is so addicting that it’s likely to take time away from your critical listening sessions. It certainly has for me.
Chef of the future -- and the past
The T+A Elektroakoustik E-Series Music Receiver is a chef of the future that will propel you into the new digital age of computer and streaming Internet audio. It’s also a chef of the past, allowing you to indulge in such traditional audio pastimes as playing a CD, listening to FM radio, or hooking up a tape deck or phono stage and turntable. It’s a fairly small, extremely well-made product that not only sounds fantastic, but is one of the coolest components to pass through my listening room in some time.
While some audiophiles might be tempted to shun the T+A as audio’s version of the over-integrated Handy Housewife Helper, I assure you that it is anything but. Many products claim to do it all. The E-Series Music Receiver actually does.
. . . Howard Kneller
- Amplifier -- Bryston 6B SST2
- Preamplifiers -- Esoteric C-03, NuForce P-9
- Sources/DAC -- Esoteric K-03, JRiver Media Center 17
- Speakers -- B&W Rock Solid monitors, MartinLogan Summit X, YG Acoustic Kipod II Signature
- Interconnects -- Synergistic Research Tesla Element Copper
- Digital cable -- Synergistic Research Tricon USB, Belkin Gold Series USB
- Speaker cables -- Synergistic Research Element Copper/Tungsten/Silver
- Power cords -- Synergistic Research Tesla Hologram A (amplifier) and D (source), Precision AC (speakers and Powercell 4 power conditioner), Precision AC SE (Powercell 10SE power conditioner), T2 (preamplifier)
- Power conditioners and distribution -- Synergistic Research Powercell 10SE (power and analog) daisy-chained to Powercell 4 (digital), Synergistic Research QLS 6 and 9, DIY parallel filter
- Isolation devices -- Bright Star Audio IsoRock reference platform, Synergistic Research MIGS, Mapleshade Heavy Hats, DIY amp stands
- Misc. -- Synergistic Research Galileo Universal interconnect and speaker cable cells, Synergistic Research Galileo MPCs on all signal cables and power cords
T+A Elektroakustik E-Series Music Receiver
Price: $4200 USD.
Warranty: Three years parts and labor.
T+A Elektroakustik GmbH & Co. KG
Phone: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-0
Fax: +49 (0)52-21 / 76-76-76
North American distributor:
Dynaudio North America
1140 Tower Lane
Bensenville, IL 60106
Phone: (630) 238-4200
Fax: (630) 238-0112