Near-Field Nirvana – ELAC/Alchemy Components Reviewed

by | Dec 7, 2020 | Component Reviews | 0 comments

SMOKE ON THE WATER, FIRE IN THE SKY!

ELAC/Alchemy Stack

ELAC Alchemy Stacked

DDP-2 PREAMP/DAC/STREAMER

ELAC DDP2 02

DPA-2 STEREO/MONO AMPLIFIER

ELAC PPA2 01

PPA-2 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER

ELAC PPA2 02

Introduction:

This is a story/review of my journey with Peter Madnick, the designer of Audio Alchemy and the forces of nature, which tested the patience and health of this reviewer. I have known and worked with Peter over the years in various iterations of Audio Alchemy and other projects loosely or closely knitted together, either by circumstance or design. Peter has established himself with a legendary reputation for designing/engineering innovative products in the audio/video market place for well-known companies.

I first became aware of Peter and his “DAC’s” with Audio Alchemy in the early 1990’s.  I had spoken to the man in front of the curtain first, Mark Schifter, to find out more about AA products to possibly purchase a processor for my system.  I was working for Monster Cable back then, as the High End sales manager for the M-Series and Sigma cable line. I was testing interconnect cables with a multitude of components and speakers in order to make recommendations to dealers back then. I purchased a V 2.0 processor and a DTI 2.0 filter. They weren’t even calling them DAC’s yet!   It is then when I spoke with Peter Madnick about why the devices were sounding so analog like?  He explained in his engineering-eez vocabulary the reasons for the audible performance.   

Well, turns out that a few years later I would be working with him as being a consultant developing a product line of digital products for Monster Cable called Entech.  I recently found out that he was a main contributor for the design of the RUNCO video projectors and the Constellation Audio product line. He appears like Waldo, he pops up many places in the industry!  

Request for Review

My first glimpse of the new ELAC Alchemy products was at the RMAF show in Denver, when there were shows pre-Covid-19.  I came into the room seeking out the newest ELAC speakers designed by Andrew Jones.  Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some sleek lined electronics with the name Alchemy on the nameplates. A phono section, I said to myself, interesting, wonder what that sounds like?  I gave my card to the room maven, but never had a response back for a potential review.  ELAC had a new child and were thinking about where to send the new Alchemy products to day school at that time. 

Ok, so I gave Peter a call early this summer to request his steam roller-ed flat stack of components.  Nice and sleek, compact with easy placement opportunities. He said he would have to check to see about availability and get back to me.  Later this summer he said we were a go and was going to ship the stack to me.  I received the boxes and set the gear up the next day.  I let them warm-up for a week, hooked up the stack to my revealing Magnepan LRS speakers.  Sounded right straight out the gate.  Then, the West Coast fires appeared here in Oregon and California.  Smoke so thick and toxic, you could not see across the street!  I had to shut down the house and sound space and go to industrial air purifiers to survive.  With the air conditioning and purifiers on it sounded like a jet aircraft in a hanger in the house. I could only review air-purifiers and HVAC equipment during the apocalypse. A new pursuit, turns out, I was recommending HVAC packages to my family and friends.

Smoke on the Water, Fire in the Sky!

I had developed sinus issues and plugged ears for weeks because of the smoke.  Everything sounded like an AM portable radio at 30,000 feet up in an airplane!  I was popping decongestant pseudoephedrine pills in a PEZ dispenser, so I could hear anything about 60 Hz.  I told Peter it would be awhile before I could get back to the listening.  Well, things are back on track and Humpty Dumpty’s head had been put together again. 

Review Criteria and Parameters

Near-Field Nirvana always puts sound ahead of techno features. It’s my focus to describe the embodiment of sound attributes and emotive qualities of components and speakers to give the reader a sense; “Can the system produce a pleasurable experience with a connection to the music?” This assessment is paramount in my reviews of playback equipment. 

It is a challenge to review an entire electronic component system that is loaded with features and various listening options. My wife and I recently went car shopping and solicited our long time sales counselor.  We follow him like a barnacle on a ships hull.   That’s a compliment Steve!  He showed us some different models that had robust software options; safety sensors, GPS, sunroofs, Air-Play for media, voice texting and self-parking mode.  We decided on a model and color.  Steve said, “Don’t you want to look under the hood and see the engine?”  We had always had done that in the past.  After all, performance and comfort are the main objectives, right? He said hardly anyone ever asks to look inside the engine compartment anymore!  Well, this review will cover what’s under the hood and how it feels to drive (Listen). The feature sets of these Alchemy components are very robust; however, we will feel, what it’s like to experience listening to them.  

DDP-2 PREAMP/DAC/STREAMER $2500.00 

ELAC DDP2 02

Three components in one are what we have here. The most important IMO is the Pre-amp section line stage and DAC sections.  I initially listened to the on board DAC on the unit. It features the ability to use various filter settings via selection on the menu, by addressing the main panel or remote control. The menu-ing is not very intuitive, the owner’s manual does explain how to navigate the buttons, however, practice makes perfect as they say. I was hoping for an App that would make it easier to hop scotch around the devices.  You can perform firmware updates on the preamp, so maybe in the future?

I found the sound was very incisive, open with clarity.  Of course, it was paired up with the Alchemy amplifier.  I will drill down the system chain of components to get you a holistic sound evaluation later in the review.  I chose the Magnepan LRS speakers to do this review, because of their transparent nature. Very revealing ribbon speakers. I’ve owned Magnepan 3.7’s and the LRS are kind of like Mini-Me’s to the larger Magnepan speakers.

ELAC DDP2 03I tried the four available filter options for the DAC, finding that there were subtle intonations of the sound.  I don’t recall seeing another DAC with such easily selectable options like this for perhaps the Lyngdorf units.  There is even a high resolution mode and an over sampling option that ties into the streaming section.  

I compared the on board DAC to a NAIM $2500.00 DAC unit on hand. The NAIM was warmer sounding with a more analog nature. Now, this a subjective observation based on my hearing preferences. The Alchemy has a different portrayal of sound character. One that is very spatial and clear. 

I tried comparing the Bluesound Vault DAC to the Alchemy’s. The Alchemy had more detail and light than the Vault.  The cool thing about the Alchemy DAC is that its built into the preamp, no interconnects or digital cables to mess with. This concept of a system approach is very appealing.  Now, one could mix and match Alchemy components with other brands as many audiophiles do, but at the expensive of simplicity.  I think the sound of the DAC was very much like the Benchmark’s.  Precise and specific to the nature of the recorded space. It took me awhile to zero in on its sonic attributes. 

There is a streamer in the DDP-2 PREAMP as well as Bluetooth capabilities, which I did not have the ability to play with.  My Ethernet connection via TP-Link to the sound space was importing data and popping noises into the system. A witch hunt in progress!  Peter told me that ROON is what the unit is really geared up to use. ROON is probably the Go To solution for most folks, who are serious about streaming.   Looking at the user manual, it suggests a quite manageable way to access the streaming features of the unit.  

This brings up an observation about, who is the intended audience for the Alchemy components? I think of myself as a practical Audiophile and always  looking for the sweet spot highlighting value and performance with music playback instruments.  I think we have a conundrum here with the term Audiophile, in regard to the Alchemy products.  I think today’s listeners are more identifiable as Audio-File(s).  File based software and streaming services have become the mainstay of music programming for many new and seasoned listeners. I think ELAC/Alchemy had this in mind designing for the new Millenia.  

The DDP-2 PREAMP/DAC/STREAMER is well suited to appeal to those who have cashed in their CD’s and listen to the new music platforms.  I have several friends listening to subscription services such as TIDAL, Qobuz, Spotify and Pandora.  The sound quality varies depending on what masters the program material is derived from.  It’s hard to know the origin of the native source.  You can listen to a great LP and compare it to CD, or even CD to the streamed version and hear differences between them all.  For many, convenience and consolidation of components is an attractive solution.

The DDP-2 PREAMP/DAC/STREAMER is loaded with inputs and outputs. There are 28 controls and indicators on the unit! Of course, it comes with a remote control. It’s a bit small considering all the functions available on the three Alchemy units.  There is co-ax, optical, line level, balanced and even USB inputs. A comment here about the balanced inputs and outputs.  I was using single ended cables for sources and outputs initially.  Peter had suggested that I use the balanced configuration to connect all three units in the stack.  BIG sonic difference moving the needle not subtly, by connecting the balanced cables.  I used my Kimber Kables for the task. No OP amps in the signal path to murk up the sonics.  

The result is an openness and quietness going further into the black.  

PPA-2 PHONO PREAMPLIFIER $1000.00

ELAC PPA2 02This is the component that originally got me interested with new ELAC/Alchemy components.  Recall the one that caught the corner of my eye at the RMAF show in Denver? I basically use records (LP’s) as my playback reference medium.  I was intrigued by this piece, because of its unique way of being able to adjust the cartridge load without having to crack the chest of the component to get inside, having to fiddle with DIP switches and adjustments. There are rotary pots on the back of the chassis that allow you to adjust the load.  On the front panel you toggle to get to the correct phono input, in my case the MC load selection.  Then you look up the load on your cartridge and go to the back of the unit a turn the pots to achieve the desired settings.  While doing this, the numbers are displayed for the right and left channels.  How easy is that!  Other manufacturers should take note of this cool feature.  The user manual is somewhat vague on the procedure.  I called Peter Madnick to find out verbally how to calibrate phono section.  I’m not used to seeing balanced inputs and outputs on phono preamps at anywhere near this price-point.

 

ELAC PPA2 04The PPA-2 does have the connections. I ran my balanced cables to the input on the DDP-2 PREAMP.  I compared single ended to the balanced mode and found it was more open and relaxed sounding. I had a new Rega P-3 turntable outfitted with an Ortofon MC cartridge in the system for the review.  Also, for ducks, tried my inexpensive Audio-Technica LP 120XUSB direct drive table with the amazing cheap AT95 MM cartridge with the PPA-2 Phono.  Dyno-mite kiddies. Stupid good!

Throughout this session I played some primo Reference Recording’s LP’s and some live recordings from various jazz and R&B artists.  A very involving quick paced presentation.  I found this phono preamp channeling John Curl’s designs. Reminiscent of the Parasound JC 3 Junior and JC 3+. Lots of detail with good spatial rendering of soundstage and depth.  The tonality of the phono unit is true to the voice and musical instruments.  Image height was good and there was some weight to the presentation.  I asked Peter if he used FET’s in the design and minimal gain stages like John Curl employs? He said “Yes, we all have learned from the master JC.

I was very impressed with the PPA-2.  It’s a great value and stands out from the pack at this price point.  I compared the phono unit to my reference EAR 834P modified tube phono preamp, $3,000 including NOS RCA tubes. I did prefer the EAR piece, more refined and less grain with a warmer presentation.  The Alchemy being solid-state, had that precision with good spatial imaging, illuminating the sonic landscape nicely.  Again, similar if not a bit better than the JC 3 Junior.   

ELAC/ALCHEMY DPA-2 STEREO-MONO AMPLIFIER $1500.00

ELAC PPA2 02Ok, so we are under the hood and into the Alchemy engine.  It’s a beast of an amp spewing out 325 watts per channel into 4 ohms and 625 watts into 8 ohms per channel into the mono mode.  The amp puts out 210 watts per channel into 8 ohms?  Yes, you can add another Alchemy amp to configure amplification into a mono-block mode with gobs of power!  That would have been interesting to hear with the LRS.

FET’s in the front end powered by the Hypex class D UCD modules from the Netherlands.  There was ample power in the stereo configuration to drive the Magnepan LRS speakers. The amp did run pretty warm with a resistive load going to down to 2 ohms.  

ELAC PPA2 04First listening indicated an honest, detailed and dynamic sound.  Not punchy, just really good grip and taut bass.  Compared to my reference Rogue Audio Pharaoh integrated tube & class D Hypex amp, the Alchemy bass was a little leaner.  The Pharaoh has basically the same power output as the Alchemy amp with a huge damping factor. I think power supply robustness is the key to achieving bass performance.  You have to remember that the Alchemy amp is a slim line component, and you can’t pack a massive transformer in the chassis. Also, the Rogue Audio Pharaoh is $3500.00.  Money can buy you love sometimes?

There is a GAIN mode button on the amp, if one needed more volume from the amplifier. The GAIN switch is there to allow compatibility with preamps made by other companies, which might have lower output voltage than the DDP-2, or when very low efficiency speakers are used, and you want a more comfortable volume control range.   I never needed more gain from the Alchemy stack sources during the review. The Alchemy PPA-2 rivals amps that are in the massive heat-sink arena. It sounds amazingly neutral through the power band.  If the music source is well recorded and mastered well, you will hear the benefits of truth and character of the performance with the PPA-2. There is a see through quality that is displayed as a panoramic image like from a good camera lens.  

I did switch from the LRS to the new ELAC UB 52 dynamic speakers at the end of the review.  More of a normalized sound allowing the amplifier to cruise at idle compared to the ribbon speakers. A kinder load and not quite as fussy as the Magnepans.  I think this amp paired up with good dynamic speakers might be an ideal match?

ELAC Alchemy Stacked

Let’s Add it All Up

Here is a dictionary definition of “3”:

ELAC Detail 02Three is the smallest number we need to create a pattern, the perfect combination of brevity and rhythm. It’s a principle captured neatly in the Latin phrase omne-trium perfectum: everything that comes in threes is perfect, or, every set of three is complete.

This really sums it up for the ELAC/ALCHEMY 3 stack of components addressing performance and aesthetics. Many Audiophiles like to mix and match components to seek out the ultimate performance for their system(s). To come across a matched one brand integrated system solution, where features and performance blend so well together is a rarity and refreshing.   I think the over all benefit of being able to easily house the system on a desktop or in a cabinet is appealing.  One could always shop around for similar or perhaps better components; however, you could be just having fun listening to music without the toil of shopping around and fiddling with gear. Get some really good speakers with a turntable and call it a day!

ELAC Stacked 03

 — Ric Mancuso




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