Monday, September 16, 2013 Project Ember Initial Impressions

Hi guys,

Just received my amp today, the tube is brand new as well. No burning done so far. And used only as a preamp so far, not even tried any headphone :)

Aktimate Micro powered speakers
Swan M50W 2.1ch speakers
Asus Essence STX DAC

Out of the box, default settings with the Siemens 12AU7 tube (same tube that I was using with my Bravo Ocean):
A little warm for my taste but some improvement over the Bravo. Noticeable out of the box. But I didn't spend too much time on this setting.

I changed Output to Low, Input Gain to High, bypassed Input capacitors and then tried again with the same tube:
Again, some more improvement over the previous combination. Not night and day over the previous setting, but again, I didn't spend too much time and it did seem less warm, louder and more to my taste.

Then I tried the Philips USA 6DJ8 tube with the new settings itself:
This was a significant improvement over the previous tube. Much better. Clearer, cleaner. Better pass, better in every way. I didn't listen too long but many would call this a substantial jump considering you don't expect the lyrics to change in the audiophile world :P

Then I finally settled on the Siemens 6922 with the same new settings:
Again, a noticeable jump in performance over the previous tube. Bass did become less tight and somewhat muddy in comparison to the Philips. However, for non bassy parts, it is cleaner, sharper and clearer. Seems more lively and dynamic as well. I might go back to the Philips later but for now I seem to have settled on the Siemens 6922, at least for the time being.

Changing the tube makes a hell lot of difference. Perhaps somewhat less than with the Bravo Ocean if you really ask me, not quite sure about it.

However, it does make a very significant difference to the extent that you might like an amp with one tube and dislike it with some other tube.

Especially, when you change the family, the difference is even more pronounced. And the tubes I tried from 6DJ8 and 6922 pawned the best tubes of the 12AU7 family :)

Compared to the Bravo, with the final setting and tube:
Much cleaner, much clearer, better bass response, better treble I think, much more hifi, a huge difference if you pay attention to details and listen for a few hours. Unlikely that you will want to go back after a couple of hours I think. Though, it has barely been 30 minute for me but the clean clear sound has already won me over :D

Far more dynamic and lively over the Bravo as well.

But of course, to somebody with less finicky ears, the difference might be barely noticeable. But for audiophile ears, the difference is significant, just less than night and day I would say. But then again, to each his own.

You do end up with diminishing returns, so provided you have the dough without being clinched, it should be a decent boost in sound quality.

Mids: Much more articulate. I can clearly make sound lyrics I couldn't before. It is much closer to cinema/hi-fi compared to the Bravo. Again, the difference won't bring you to the moon, but it is rather significant if you pay attention to details and articulation.

Details: A decent jump over the Bravo. Not night and day but perhaps I will know better with time.

Bass: 6DJ8 and 6922 families give much better bass response, at least the tubes I tried, and these families are not compatible with Bravo. Those 12AU7 tubes which have similar bass response lose in other areas, so this is a very clear win for the Ember by a long short.

Treble: Much more realistic and natural compared to the Bravo Ocean. Not a night and day jump, but a huge jump I think. Much cleaner and a bit sharper. Far better at realism. This is without burning in!

Dynamics: A night and day jump. Not even a comparison. Far more lively and realistic out of the Project Ember.

Realism: Project Ember is significantly more hi-fi and cinema like. Far more natural.

Soundstage Width: A decent jump, maybe huge or at least noticeable, not sure about the extent of the difference. But it is better for sure. Wider and more realistic.

Soundstage Depth: A night and day difference. It is far more profound and natural. Deep voices which engage you!

Imaging: Not too much difference, some difference, perhaps a bit noticeable. But not too big a difference out of the box at least. Definitely more balanced without channel imbalance and stuff, a bit more natural, but not as good as what I can get without any preamp in the chain.

Clarity: A huge jump in terms of clearness and cleanness. The PRAT is better as well I think. It is speedier when required but in a natural way. The PRAT isn't night and day difference, but not nil either I think.

Volume: The Bravo Ocean is much louder than the Project Ember with high gain. Night and day louder, the Bravo Ocean is.

Most significant differences over Bravo Ocean:

No channel imbalance like in Bravo Ocean
Much much clearer and cleaner
More dynamic and realistic
A huge difference in articulation and mids
Many more differences, lots more, which really matter, but the above is what will really matter to you out of the box to the most extent.

And the tube/tube family/brand within the same family make a huge difference even with the Bravo Ocean, and also with Project Ember. It is enough for you to like or hate the amp based on the tube used. It is rather significant. Changing the tube is like trying another amp which is similar but different at the same time.

Would I call it a worth it upgrade over the Bravo Ocean for the price difference I paid?

I got my Bravo Ocean new with 1 year warranty shipped to my country including customs etc for less than USD 100.
Project Ember cost me nearly $550

Is the difference worth it?

If you can afford it and have the money to spend this much on a preamp, then yes, it is worth it, provided you have audiophile ears and can appreciate minor nuances and changes.

Is it worth it for every Tom Dick and Harry who finds Bose better than Sony?

NO, the difference isn't as large. But it is huge for most audiophiles, considering people spend 1000s+ on a single equipment, this is definitely worth what I paid, provided money isn't an issue for you :)

PS: I am not reviewing Bravo Ocean with Project Ember. Just trying to point the differences as these are the only two full sized desktop amps I have owned. They are in different price brackets and of course Project Ember is much better. But how much better? I try to answer that!

Thank You

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Saturday, September 14, 2013

Aktimate Mini+ v/s Aktimate Micro v/s Swan H5 v/s Audioengine A5 REVIEW

Aktimate Mini+ v/s Aktimate Micro v/s Swan H5 v/s Audioengine A5

The first ever review in the world which puts these four legends to test in the same environment by the same reviewer.

All these are 2.0 systems.

Test Bed:
Asus STX
Auralex Mopads

None of the speakers were burned in except AE5 because I needed to ensure that they were within the return window. So only a couple of hours of burn in for the rest.

Aktimate Mini+


Relatively flat

Forward with forward mids

Most clear and with the most prat

Thin, clean and analytical sound

Needless to say, one of the only truly HiFi powered loudspeakers which delivers crystal clear sound with a high index of prat. Supreme clarity, thin analytical sound with a huge soundstage. Neutral to slightly forward. One of the best deals in the sub $1000 US market.

Swan H5

Most musical

Sweet mids

With the least prat

Most depth in the sound

Most weighty and powerful sound

Very warm and sweet sounding monitors which may not suit everybody's taste but are still a big step down from Aktimate speakers.

Aktimate Micro

Not in the same league as Mini+ but performs like a speaker half or even one third of Mini+

A step down from Mini+, much smaller and often cheaper.

Audioengine A5

Neutral and flat but relatively warm as compared to Aktimates. Much lower than Micro. But has more weight to its sound than Micro and more depth than Mini+.

Popular desktop loudspeakers which ruled the roast before Aktimates came in.


Mini+ - Tight, thumpy, controlled bass which doesn't bleed into mids

H5 - Punchy, heavy weight bass which removes the need for a separate sub woofer. Slightly thumpy but not as tight and controlled.

A5 - Similar to Mini+ in quantity but much lower in quality. Not thumpy. Not as tight. A bit boomy as well compared to the above.

Micro - Barely any bass, though it is tighter than A5 and more controlled. But the quantity is far from sufficient.

H5/Mini+ > A5 > Micro


Mini+ - Neutral and flat. Pretty good.

H5 - Somewhat harsh. Also, the speaker is extremely dark sounding.

Micro - A step down from Mini+. Not as strong in highs but pretty good.

A5 - Between Aktimate and Swan in terms of brightness. Closer to Aktimate but nowhere near as good.

Mini+ > Micro > A5 > H5

Mids/Vocals without eq:

Mini+ - Neutral natural, cinema hi fi like vocals. Crisp, clean and clear. Forward mids

H5 - Recessed mids which sound bloated and overly dark.

Micro - Similar to Mini+ but a big step down in all respects without the hifi/cinema air. Neutral.

A5 - Relatively muddy but neutral.

Mini+ > Micro > H5 > A5

Mids/Vocals with eq inc treble eq:

Mini+ - No treble boost needed. Perfect.

H5 - Excellent but a bit too bright if they need to be made like able. Ear fatiguing else too dark without eq. Unable to find a suitable balance.

Micro - Clarity is almost as good as H5 without the depth etc. EQ not needed.

A5 - Tolerable compared to the rest but deep sounding as compared to Micro or even Mini+.

Mini+ > Micro > H5 > A5

Soundstage Width

Aktimate Mini+ > Micro/A5 > H5

With Mini+ the speakers disappear. Difficult to compare Micro to A5 without more time on my hands. H5 being a studio monitor is more fussy for me.

Soundstage Depth

H5 > A5 > Mini+ > Micro


Swan H5 is a step above the rest here. The difference to the others is huge so difficult to compare.

Clarity and Sharpness

Hands down winner Aktimate Mini+. Aktimate Mini+ competes with several a few times as expensive whereas swan can't even stand a chance in front of aktimate here,

Micro is a distant second and H5 is a distant third.

Mini+ > Micro > H5 > A5


Aktimate Mini+ is the hands down winner. Not even a contest.

Mini+ > Micro > H5 > A5

Listening Sweet Spot

Aktimate Mini+ is the best.

Mini+ > Micro > A5 > H5

Low volume listening feasibility

Mini+ > Swan H5 > Micro > A5


A5 > Mini+ > H5 > Micro

Mini+ is fairly priced within $1000. The Swan is fairly priced if you like its sound signature which probably few will, otherwise you won't like it at all. At their current pricing both are a steal provided you like the sound signature, and it is much easier to get it right with Mini+!

Micro has a clearer, slightly tighter/sharper sound than A5 while A5 has more weight and depth to its sound with more bass. I would rate the Micro better than the A5 by about 100% but is also comes down to preference to a significant extent.

Micro is fairly priced at around $500 but that should be the upper limit of its pricing. I would say it should be priced less than half of Mini+ so closer to $400 or less. A5 is overpriced at $400 considering the other options in the market.  But if Micro is $400 then A5 should be more like $250 or so.

Between Mini+ and H5:

Both have their plus and minus points. Aktimate has a thinner voice as compared to Swan's thicker voice. Swan is dark and needs eq for similar clarity due to excess warmth. Aktimate is neutral yet more lively.

Bass and treble are a bit more natural on Swan (yet Swan somehow seems harsh and gives ear fatigue very badly) though while Aktimate is much nicer sounding and to the general taste.

If you like Audioengine sound signature without the muddled and muffled sounds, then Aktimate is better. The H5 is a depart from the sound signature of the previous Swan speakers. So listen to it before buying.

Swan is more musical, albeit slightly, with sweet mids while Aktimate is crisper, clearer, cleaner, faster and pretty much better in every way possible despite its much thinner sound and worse bass!

Mini+ Impressions V/S Other Speakers

Wharfedale 10.1 + Marantz PM6004: I preferred the Mini+ by a long shot because of its more fun sound, faster PRAT and pretty much because of the WOW factor. I have read or heard by at least 3 other people who prefer Mini+ to Wharfedale 10.x with any decently priced amp. The Wharfedale did have more bass impact though.

Monitor Audio MR1 + Marantz PM6004: This is far worse than Wharfedale 10.1. Not even close.

Polk Audio TSI 100 + Entry level Denon amp: Nothing good to say about the Polk.

Polk Audio TSI 300 + Entry level Denon amp: Again, it has more bass, a bigger sound, but really doesn't have passion and musicality of $500-1000 powered speakers. Not even a comparison.

Monitor Audio BX2 + Marantz PM6004: In the same league as Mini+ but still doesn't have the same crisp, transparent and musical sound. It is very good and in the same league. But not to my taste. Though it does cost more than Mini+.

In words of an Anonymous member (Anonymous forums, not literally though, PM me for his details)

Under $1000, Mini+ is an excellent speaker and you really can't beat it by a long shot whether you go passive or active, especially for home use. According to him Adam Audio speakers under $1000 are more accurate but not hugely better for home use. And Genelec's are worse for home use.

Mini+/Mini is a step up from the Swan range including Swan T200B in terms of musicality and for home use. And the MK series are not in the same league.

According to Rajdeep (ADM AVI Dealer for India and a music enthusiast)

Maxi beats:
Monitor Audio Bronze series (with decently priced amps like mid level Marantz or NAD etc)
B&W 6xx series
Quad 11L (He found Aktimate Maxi more dynamic)
Genelec 8030 (Genelec doesn't have very good mids according to him, relatively, that is)
It comes very close to entry level Epos speakers and comes down to preference.

ADM AVI has a similar sound signature but trumps the Maxi is every way and is a huge improvement over it in every regard. However, with a similar sound taste.

Please NOTE: According to people who have tried Mini+ and Maxi
Mini+ is better than Maxi except for quantity of bass or for a bigger sound. Mini+ is faster, tighter, slightly more detailed, has better PRAT, is sharper, has slightly better mids etc. Though they are in a similar league.

Comments I have read on various forums by people who have tried various combinations

Mini/Mini+ is preferred to:
MA RS1 + Rotel amp
Wharfedale 10.1 + Marantz
Polk Audio 30
Usher S520 + Icon amp

Swan VS Audioengine A5

Swan M10 has better mids than A5. But I preferred A5 overall. Swan M50W has better bass as well thanks to the sub but doesn't have the weight A5 has in its sound. But it really comes down to preference between M50W and A5.

Swan MK200MKII is a big step up from A5. Much more powerful, much bigger sound, wider and deeper sound stage. Much better vocals. Just warmer than A5 but better in every other way. And from what I have heard, even entry level Swan bookshelves trump the more expensive A5/A5+ Audioengine speakers.


I am not a sales person. I am an Aktimate lover and music enthusiast and can't praise Aktimate speakers enough :)

Thank You so much for reading this!