SOUNDSTAGE! ON HIFIHot Product Archives

Published December 1, 2001

 

Niro Control Engine and Power Engine ST



Control Engine (front and inside)


Power Engine ST

At Home Entertainment 2001, there were dozens of new products and prototypes on display, but one room truly stopped me in my tracks. It featured three products that were unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was, of course, the Niro Music Systems room, which showed a humongous preamplifier, the Niro 1000 Control Engine; a very Telstar-looking power amp, the Niro 1000 Power Engine; and an integrated amp that looked like a cross between a Mississippi paddle-wheeler and a lunar colony, the Niro 1000 Integrated Engine.

Those names are a mouthful, to be sure, but they have a meaning that old-school audiophiles probably have already glommed onto. Niro is, of course, Niro Nakamichi, one of the principals of the old Nakamichi cassette-player manufacturing firm. In 1998, he founded the Mechanical Research Corporation, with the idea of applying electro-mechanical principles to audio design: He felt that the traditional method of audio design -- concentration on the electrical-circuit design to the exclusion of other aspects of physics, most specifically the electro-mechanical nature of circuit design -- had prevented audio design from truly evolving to its full potential.

"Electro-mechanical?" I hear you saying. Why yes -- this is why Nakamichi calls his amplifiers "Engines," because he sees an amplifier as personifying the complexity of both the disciplines of electric and mechanical design. And the 1000? That's the designation Nakamichi has always given its reference-quality products.

Be on your guard because alone of all the arts, music moves all around you.
Jean Cocteau

The Niro 1000 Control Engine and Niro 1000 Power Engine ST (the 150Wpc stereo version of the amplifier) are sui generis. The Control Engine is huge, a 17"W x 10.5" H x 16"D hulk that has a cantilevered upper story floating leftwards from its solid right side. The right side is apparently devoted to the power supply, while the right- and left-channel circuitry is resident in the two separated "floors." It weighs 93 pounds.

For all its mass, the Control Engine is a bit of a purist preamp. For one thing, it offers no remote control, although switching seems to be accomplished through electronic switches. It also offers no channel-balance adjustment. And you get your choice of three line-level inputs, two monitor jacks, and two output jacks -- all ultra-high-quality WBT connectors, of course.

The Power Engine ST resembles a dumbbell with a truncated shaft, stood on end. The top "bell" is all heatsink, while the bottom "bell" contains the power-supply circuitry, spring-mounted to the chassis to convert unwanted vibrational energy to heat. The AC-connector block, the speaker-terminal block, and the power switch are also spring-loaded to the chassis, all in the name of vibrational isolation. The power switch has a two-color LED (red and green). The RCA inputs are mounted on top of the heatsinks, while the speaker terminals are mounted to the bottom module -- the connectors are WBT-sourced. Both preamp and amplifier utilize only single-ended RCA connections. The Power Engine is 22" tall and 19" in diameter and weighs 174 pounds.

Music is the arithmetic of sounds as optics is the geometry of light.
Claude Debussy

For the complete bird's-eye lowdown on the Control Engine and Power Engine ST, I refer you to Niro's website (www.niro.net), where Niro Nakamichi explains the electro-mechanical reasoning behind many of the unique features of these products. I could parrot them back to you, but I'd rather you got them from the man himself -- his 35 years of experience give him an authority I would not wish to presume.

Suffice it to say that anything that can be isolated in these two products has been. And that striking heatsink design? Nakamichi has his reasons for that, too. The Power Engine's 'sinks are tuned (and damped with damping bars) and mounted in four sections, with each section directly attached to a push-pull output device. This, Nakamichi claims, promotes uniform heat distribution and prevents external vibrations from interfering with the audio circuitry.

The power supplies of both products have also received much thought. High-power wiring runs are kept short, and the primary and secondary windings do not physically cross one another. The power supplies employ chokes, like Ayre's and Musical Fidelity's amps, and the physical layout of the circuitry has been carefully mapped out to reduce interference -- one reason why the signal input enters the Power Engine on the top, as far away from the power supply as possible.

A word on the construction quality of the two components: At $20,000 for the Control Engine and $23,000 for the Power Engine, these are extravagantly priced components -- and they look it. Fit 'n' finish are first-rate, with pieces fitting solidly and smoothly together. The components' silver satin finish is set off by gold-plated hardware fasteners and plates, and all connections and inputs are of the highest quality.

That said, there's nothing "user friendly" about the construction of these pieces. They are built, according to their designer, to work optimally -- and this equation obviously did not include such frivolities as remote control or even handles. Moving the 93-pound preamp around was possible -- if back straining -- but it had solid sides and no unusually sharp edges. It was simply inconvenient. The Control Engine is almost nothing but sharp edges. I managed to roll it into position by myself, once I got two friends to help me remove it from its box. Is this a shortcoming? I suppose not -- merely an extension of the devices' operating principles. But a real-world inconvenience, nevertheless.

It is only that which cannot be expressed otherwise that is worth expressing in music.
Frederick Delius

As we get deeper and deeper into the digital age, it seems as if the best products increasingly sound similar to one another. There is an absence of overt coloration and, it seems, a meeting of the technologies. The old battle lines of tube vs. solid-state no longer seem so obvious. For example, a BAT VK-5 and a Conrad-Johnson ART probably have less in common sonically than either has with the sound of a Mark Levinson No.32. So, I must admit, I expected the Niro products to continue that theme of narrower and narrower differences. Boy, was I barking up the wrong tree.

But how to describe how different? The Niro doesn't have a different sound exactly, although nothing else sounds quite like it. It's more like a different absence of a sound -- and that's not quite right either, but it's getting close. Music seems to exist against a different background with the Niro.

Now I could intellectualize it and deduce that Niro's attention to the mechanical aspects of electrical design has eliminated a whole raft of extremely low-level noises we have come to take for granted. It might even be true, but that would only be a guess, and, in any case, it's not the point.

My problem is that we simply don't have any words to describe what we think of as "silence" in stereo design. Some people try to make do with "grain," as in photography. The closer we get to true silence, the finer the grain of the background. Other people like "blackness," as in "music emerged from fathomless blackness."

Neither works on the level I'm trying to describe. Is there any grain to a Krell CAST system? Not as far as I'm concerned. And I don't get the whole "blackness=silence" thing at all. Sez who?

Yet, the way music emerges from silence with the Niro is nothing like the way it does with the Krell system. One word, which is too heavy, but has much of what I'm looking for, is "sweetness." I don't mean that in a cloying or pejorative way, and I certainly don't mean to imply that the Krell is the opposite of sweet -- but there's a gentle, beguiling quality to music through the Niro components that cannot be denied.

The combo is probably the best I've ever heard at reproducing bass. This is an area where the Krell has always been thought to rule -- and the FPB-300c is pure Krell in its ability to control deep bass transients. Yet, there's an organic wholeness to bass through the Niro that integrates into the sonic spectrum in an extraordinarily natural way. And this is as apparent in music where the bass isn't all that deep -- such as the Quartetto Italiano's Beethoven String Quartets [Philips 454 062] -- as it is in the superbly recorded bass interplay between Steve Swallow and Jamaaladen Tacuma on Conjure [Panagaea 42135].

Not that the Niros reduce music to ranges -- music is presented as a whole, with the superb bass organically integrated into a seamless presentation that includes an articulate midrange and extended, liquid high frequencies. But if I had to choose one area that I found startlingly effective, it would be the bottom few octaves.

One area where the Niro's low-level resolution simply rules is in its depiction of the physical space in which a recording takes place. No preamp/amp combo I've experienced is quite as good as the Control and Power Engines at getting all the spatial indicators so right. This amount of low-level detail, of course, also enables the two to lay out a holographic image that, on at least one occasion, tapped into my "fight or flight" response. When I heard Julie Miller talk to her dogs after a long spell of silence on Buddy Miller's Cruel Moon [WEA/Rhino/HighTone 8111], one of those "Easter eggs" that aren't listed on the CD credits, I nearly had to change my pants. Some fun.

This also means that I've never heard the Niros' equal for revealing how recordings are put together. This is not necessarily a good thing. Edits are about as obvious as they get with this combo, which means that well-timed and feathered edits are almost invisible and awkward ones stand out naked.

You can also hear and identify any studio trickery, such as the way that lead singers are frequently "fattened up" with artificial reverb, even while their backing vocals are left au naturel. Or the way that someone in the studio turned on the reverb on Ginger Baker's drum kit for the last five measures of "White Room" -- an effect I hadn't noticed in 30 years of listening to the track.

Now you might not want to know how recordings are put together. As fascinating as the subject can be, I'm not sure I always do. Recordings are like laws and sausage -- you can lose a lot of respect for them when you see what actually goes into making them. This one can go in either your pro or con column, depending upon your temperament.

I primarily auditioned the Niros utilizing Dynaudio's $30,000 Evidence Temptation, and this led to an interesting finding. The speakers are big, but not the most complex load in the world. Stereophile's measurements (December 2001) reveal them to be relatively high sensitivity at 91dB/2.83V/m, with a minimum value of 3.1 ohms at 120Hz. There's also a relatively complex combination of 4 ohms and a challenging phase angle at 80Hz. Although the Niro Power Engine is rated at 150Wpc and is supposed to output 50W in pure class A, it was possible to drive it hard enough at stupid-approved levels so that it audibly coarsened its sound and lost some of its definition.

Associated Equipment:


Preamplifiers: Ayre K1x, Conrad-Johnson Premier 17LS, Krell KCT

CD players/transports: Krell KPS 28c, Sony CDP CX-400, Musical Fidelity A3CD

D/A converters: Bel Canto DAC1; Perpetual Technologies P-3A

Power amplifiers: Ayre V-5, Krell FPB-300c, Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300

Loudspeakers: Dynaudio Evidence Temptation, Dynaudio Contour 1.3 Mk II, Krell LAT-2

Cables: AudioTruth Midnight, DiMarzio M-Path interconnect, AudioQuest Dragon, DiMarzio M-Path, DiMarzio Super M-Path speaker cable, Illuminations Orchid digital cable, Kimber KCAG

Accessories: Osar Selway Audio Racks, AudioQuest Big Feet and Little Feet, Vibrapods, Audio Power Industries Power Wedge Ultra 116

Room treatment: ASC Tube Traps, Slim Jims, Bass Traps

Now I know we're all adults and we value our hearing, our neighbors' good will, and our drivers too much to redline our expensive gear with very much of this sort of abuse, but the Niro amp looked so bullet-proof, I was surprised to strain it. Although it's true that I was listening to Barenboim's new Le Sacre du Printemps [Teldec 8573 81702-2] so loudly that my downstairs neighbor raised her eyebrows as I passed her in the hall the next day and quietly commented, "I heard your music yesterday." I suppose so, but I suspect Jersey could have heard me before the FPB-300c showed apparent strain.

It's like an act of murder; you play with intent to commit something.
Duke Ellington

The Niro 1000 Control Engine and 1000 Power Engine ST are among the most fascinating audio products I have ever auditioned. They made me hear, not only music, but audio as well, in an entirely new light. In certain parameters, they are the best audio gear I have ever experienced, although I am not sure that that necessarily means they are the audio components I would choose to live with.

I'm reminded of the New York restaurant Café des Artistes, which is designed for palates jaded by the offerings of the best restaurants in town. The dishes there are so simple in their perfection that, to diners not used to dining out in NYC, they seem almost dowdy. But their roast chicken is the paradigm of roast chickenness, their crème brûlée the ideal. But in a very real sense, the Café requires the rest of the New York scene to shine as it does -- good as it is, I'm not sure I would dine there every night.

The Niro equipment is like the Café des Artistes -- it is expensive, even in a realm where that goes without comment, and what it offers is perhaps unique in its single-minded pursuit of a rather individualized goal. Neither the ambition nor the result can be dismissed.

For at its best, the Niro gear has to rank among the best. In fact, in some areas, it may force the industry to change the way it designs high-end components. But, and this is a big but, it is awfully expensive -- you spend $20k here and $23k there and before you know it, you've sunk some real capital into your hi-fi system. And the gear is designed, like a race car or a rocket ship, to push the limits of what is possible. If you want to move it -- or even do something as simple as change the volume on the amplifier -- you'll have to work at it. If all of this seems beside the point for you, then the Niro components definitely recommend themselves. They may change your relationship to music -- and few components can lay claim to that.

Of course, if, like me, you don't have a spare $40K lying round, you can always console yourself with the thought that the Integrated Engine has just had its price reduced to $6990. Now that's a horse of a different color -- one that my experiences with the Control Engine and Power Engine make me want to ride, and soon!

...Wes Phillips
wes@onhifi.com

Niro Control Engine and Power Engine ST
Price: $20,000 USD for Control Engine; $23,000 USD for Power Engine ST
Warranty: Five years parts and labor

Nirotek America Corporation
P.O. Box 6065
Ventura, CA USA 93006
Phone: (805) 644-9226
Fax (805) 644-0861

Website: www.niro.net


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