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Consonance Reference Tuner 1.0

FM stereo wipes out DAB

[Annoying_display]
The face of Consonance FM
[Italian version]

Product: Consonance Reference Tuner 1.0
Manufacturer: Opera Audio Co., Ltd - Beijing, CHINA
Approx. cost: 1400 € (895)
Test sample supplied by: Alium Audio - UK
Reviewer: Mark Wheeler - TNT UK
Reviewed: January, 2006

I love good FM broadcasts and for a long time you couldn't hear a better balanced analogue source than BBC Radio3, and BBC Radios 1, 2 and 4 were often pretty good too. Nowadays the signal is in compressed digital format between studio and transmitter and varies in quality depending on the busy network. In 1986 the BBC were specifying 32bit capability in some parts of their mixers to ensure no loss or distortion to the then 16bit signal (but anticipated 24bit future developments) in contrast to their current dash-for-DAB at data rates designed for diversity rather than quality.

Hi-fi used to include FM stereo as a key source componant, and that most venerable of the audio comics, Hi-Fi News & Record Review, used to run a splendid Radio column every month written originally by the late, great Angus Mackenzie, until he retired in January 1988. He was succeeded by John Nelson until the mid 90s, when FM radio seemed to drop from the hi-fi radar.
If the decline in media interest reflects that of consumer interest, it is no surprise that there has been no outcry at falling audio standards in broadcast FM signals throughout the world as more stations are packed into ever smaller slices of band II.

Greater packing density requires lower deviation which means a narrower available frequency response. The demand for more station space is the driving force behind DAB (digital audio broadcasting), so again the high-quality audio consumer suffers at the hands of the lowest-common-denominator marketplace where all that counts is the company accountant who needs more stations to carry more adverts to generate more revenue.

Sadly, today you're more likely to read a review of a new plasma screen in a so-called hifi magazine than a mention of analogue radio, although my friend Paul had a lengthy letter in September's Hifi World extolling the virtues of his Leak Troughline with One Thing Decoder. One Thing do note on their website "We quote the words of a former BBC engineer: "Cherish your well designed and proven analogue tuner. It may be years before you hear anything as good.' "

[Proper 3 element aerial]
Attic or rooftop aerial recommended

Consonance products have been receiving favourable reviews both here at TNT-Audio and in the comics, so I expect good things from this tuner. The Consonance Reference range seems to lie in the midpoint of their hierarchy. Consonance do not subscribe to any obvious hegemony: they market solid state electronics, tube (valve) electronics and feature both push-pull and single ended amplifiers, with or without global feedback.
The Reference 1.0 Tuner arrives well packaged in double cardboard boxes, plenty of polystyrene and all the requisites, except an external aerial, necessary to get you started:

[cheap'n'nasty-remote]
A tale of two remotes

The white gloves are a splendid touch common to many Chinese audio product ranges that immediately proffer increased pride-of-ownership in the purchasor. They have a similar psychological effect to the bunch of flowers placed on the passenger seat of prestige cars by clever dealerships after each service. A nice high-value service touch that costs very little but pays a company immense image dividends. Sadly the tacky plastic remote control is nothing like the cute aluminium remote supplied with some Consonance amplifiers.

I was puzzled by the gold plated 75ohm female connector (not having previously seen gold plated terminations on 75ohm standard connectors) until I discovered that the connector on my FM downlead would not fit the male socket on the rear of the tuner. Upon fitting the new connector to my downlead I discovered that it is too slack to make an adequate connection on the Reference 1.0 75ohm FM chassis mounted socket and had to be crimped with pliers to make a sound connection mechanically and electrically.

The instructions very sensibly begin with advice about FM aerials that is well written and a good description of the compromises in choosing the best antenna for a given geographical location and choice of stations. My system only gets FM via my rooftop 3 element array and I cannot believe anyone could be foolish enough to spend this much cash on a tuner and expect it to demodulate a signal detected by a wet piece of string. Equally innappropriate would be the commonplace omnidirectional dipole, which is fine for access to the maximum number of local stations in urban areas, but at the price of massive multipath distortion that mitigates against high-quality reception.

Throughout Consonance Tuner 1.0 instructions are useful tips for making the most out of the control options. The only ambiguity being that the 'MUTE' button merely silences the output, rather than offering inter-station muting as might be expected by long-time users of manual analogue tuning FM tuners.

There are still plenty of tuners on the market in the 21st century, and the Denon DT260 is an established 99 favourite that's been in production (with modifications) for over 12 years. I bought my sample so long ago when it also cost 99 so it's now even better value. The Consonance will be compared to the Denon as an indicator of whether it is worth spending that much extra money to receive modern FM signals. The next step up would be something like the Creek T43, an established benchmark product (also available rebranded Cambridge Audio) for which some specialists offer upgrade packages.

There are also a few established classics in whose shadows any new tuner has to walk. The Accuphase T101 is my personal favourite all-rounder and I live with one running all day when I am not listening to other sources. The Naim NAT01 with NAPST power supply is another that has always impressed me with its fine musical qualities. The Marantz Model 10B with its trade-mark front-panel oscilloscope multipath detector is another legendary tuner, occasionally appearing on ebay, would cost about twice as much as the Consonance to get up & running. The Marantz 10B's thumbwheel-tuning solid-state successor, the successor Model 150 rarely appears, but impressed me when I last heard one about 25 years ago. Recently the old Leak Troughline valve tuner (with modern stereo decoders installed) is a cult item much revered by its devotees, so a 895 valve output tuner in 2006 might face tougher competition from the past than perhaps from the present, as buyers are unlikely to be also considering the Day Sequerra or Magnum Dyanalab models at over $5k.

It will be interesting to hear how a modern 895 tuner compares with one of these classics.

[Lid off]
Tidy interior with 6H30 tube output stage at centre rear
FM front end at right rear
Big toroidal transformer front left
Tuner circuit board centre
Control & display board at front

With the lid off the essentials are well spaced to minimise interference, although the ribbon connectors may not be ideal. Generally, the internal cabling is nothing special but passive componants are good quality items, with good high-performance rectifiers in the audio power-supply, Rubicon capacitors (not Black-Gates) on the audio board, good film types too. The main tuner board looks like a proprietry item, and the main display has all the hallmarks of something borrowed from mid-fi with a useless jiggling bar-graph display commonly seen on stuff sold in supermarkets. Far more useful would be a proper centre-tuning meter and/or a signal level meter. The Creek T43 manages such features at nearly half the price. OK I'd also love a Marantz 10B style multipath oscilloscope but that's just greedy, but Billington Export do have the Mullard DG7-32 oscilloscope tube (as fitted to the 10B) in stock for 22.10, so there's a possibility!

The ingredients look suitable for the job and they're wrapped in a stylish package, the Consonance Reference trademark cherrywood strips are well secured to the lid and render it so inert that any aftermarket case damper won't make any difference. The presence of a valve in the output stage prompted me to try the ERaudio SpaceHarmoniser platform, but there was little difference between this and BrightStar Isonodes on an old prototype shelf.

[Rear_socketry]
Lid underside

Manufacturer's specification:

  • FM:
  • Tuning range: VHF/FM 87.5 - 108.5MHz
  • Sensitivity: (INF) 10dB uV/m
  • Signal/Noise Ratio 55dB
  • Output level: 700mV per channel at 100% modulation
  • AM:
  • Tuning range: VHF/AM 522 - 1620kHz
  • Sensitivity: (INF) 60dB uV/m
  • Signal/Noise Ratio: 45dB
  • Output level: 700mV per channel at 100% modulation

These specification in the manual are pretty meaningless as the sensitivity is not quoted to a specific quieting figure, the selectivity is not quoted, and the signal-to-noise ratio (S/N ratio) is arbitrarily described as 55dB without reference to the input level needed to achieve this. For example my Accuphase T101 has two pages of specifications for FM only, including 5 graphs. While numeric specifications are usually pretty irrelevant to the listening experience of amplifiers, with tuners they are very useful in choosing a model to suit the prevailing local FM conditions and intended usage. Some FM users wish to listen to obscure stations from far-away feeble transmitters, others wish to listen to their favourite type of music from a local (perhaps pirate) station in overcrowded urban airwaves, while many of us just listen to the main BBC stations via a good aerial with an unobstructed path to the transmitter. The latter requires a front-end (the bit of the circuit that gets the FM signal from the co-ax) with good overload margins, while the long distance listener demands excellent sensitivity and the urban specialist needs narrow selectivity.

Accuphase specification for same parameters:

  • FM:
  • Sensitivity (stereo): 50dB quieting 34.8dBf
  • Sensitivity (stereo): usable 19.2dBf
  • Signal/Noise Ratio at 65dBf: 75dB
  • Output level: 2.0V

The Accuphase is a legendary tuner so readers may think I am being very unfair, but you cannot choose a high performance tuner without some knowledge of how it will work in your setting. 895 should buy a lot of tuner, there are various very competitive Japanese models at 250 and below. I don't have the facilities to measure FM front-ends so will have to rely on how it sounds. I feed the Consonance Reference Tuner 1.0 with top quality BBC FM signals from my 3 element array atop a 4m mast above my chimney, pointing at Sutton Coldfield 250kW transmitter, broadcasting BBC national channels Radio 2 at 88.3; Radio 3 at 90.5; 92.7; & Radio 4 at 97.9kHz. The stations at higher frequencies tend to be local pop stations broadcast with enough compression to fit AM. Your mileage may vary...

Radio sound now

I'm lucky enough to catch a fascinating programme The Copleat Conductor on BBC radio 4 about the role of the conductor in an orchestra, punctauted by rehearsal excepts of my favourite Beethoven symphony, the Seventh in A Major; this symphony most dependent on immaculate timing of all Bethoven's oevre. The excerpts were too short to demonstrate how well this tuner times, but it wasn't failing in this respect. It was also clear enough that the broadcast was Optimod compressed about as far as possible long before it reached the transmitter.

I can get feeble ghost signals from nearby Buxton (100W horizontally modulated) and Chesterfield (400W vertically modulated), and I use my signal strength meter to enable rapid selection of the Sutton Coldfield signal everytime I retune the manual Accuphase. Because I know the frequencies used by each transmitter (available on the BBC website) a meter is not needed on the Consonance for this purpose as the actual frequencies can be simply programmed into the memory. Other multiple-transmitter stations usually do not have this information available and it can be difficult to use the Consonance to pick the best signal by scrolling back and forth to compare. A signal strength or centre-tuning meter would solve this problem.

When programme material has been compressed almost beyond recognition it is hard to identify significant difference between the 3 tuners. They have slightly different flavours with mediocre material, but little to identify each as particularly different performance leagues. The Consonance is probably the sweetest of the three under these circumstances.

When the BBC choose to favour us with good quality signals (usually on Radio 3 in the evenings) definite identifiable performance differences emerge. The Accuphase handles the widest dynamic range, the best timing and most stable soundstage. The Accuphase also seems to extract more audio information from the FM signal. The Consonance creates a bigger soundstage than the others and has a good unassuming quality that allows the music to flow. The old Denon trails the other two on all audio parameters, but I do not know how a more recent version would fare, now that it is so much cheaper in real terms.

On FM performance from weaker stations not on the correct aerial axis, the Accuphase is the best, the multipath meter indicating distortion present due to off-axis reflections. The Denon is as good as the Consonance with these signals, but you don't buy a hifi tuner to play at DXing.

[rear_socketry]
Rear panel connections

The audio section of the Consonance Reference 1.0 tuner is its best feature. The 6H30 valve output stage is a gem. The 6H30 and its variants is almost as common in high end as the 6922 variants of the ECC88 were a decade ago. It happily drove 7m cables without any noticable loss in sound quality compared to 1m of the same wire. Used direct into the Consonance Cyber 100 signature (review due soon) the two complimented each other to produce the most natural sounding voices possible through audio electronics.

Wondering whether it would be possible to achieve a similar effect using the cheap Denon DT260L via a valve pre-amp, I inserted the Concordant Excelsior between the Denon and the Consonance integrated amp, with the Concordant volume control matched to the Consonance reference tuner. This quick experiment yielded an overal impression that was broadly similar to the Consonance, however the cheaper output stage of the Denon was definitely masking much information.

Conclusion

To drawing clear conclusions on the Consonance Reference Tuner 1.0 is a tough assignment. The 6H30 valve output stage certainly sweetens the sound, and the audio and power supply components have been well selected and there should be no matching problems with any amplifiers or cables.

The case work is splendid, I do like the look of the cherrywood strips and I especially approve of the effect they have on the box intertia. The power supply and internal layout are excellent for a tuner and the provision of AM does not seem to have affected FM perfomance at all.

The micro-system jiggly spectrum bargraphs do not belong on such a high quality product aimed at this elevated market. The Plastic remote control is pathetic compared with the lovely aluminium object that Consonance supply with some of their amplifiers, and regular readers know I carp on about this on any product other than a supermarket DVD player. The Consonance Reference amplifiers get a splendid aluminium remote control so why can't tuner purchasors enjoy the same billet of ally?

I have to consider which of our readers is going to splash out 895 on a tuner, and whether this would be a good one to add to their shortlist. Tuner buyers are an endangered species, in the UK the dash to digital is all about cramming more stations into less waveband, not about quality, so the service life of any new purchase may be dictated by this as BBC FM switch-off is predicted at 5-8 years. That means any new tuner purchase will last at least 8 years, according to current policy rumours. That works out at about 2 per week for the Consonance Reference 1.0.

As a stand-alone purchase in another system a user would have to be very serious about radio to justify 895 on a tuner. That much radio enthusiasm is also likely to want more from the radio facilities, like selectable inter-station muting, selectable selectivity, but especially a tuning meter to enable manual tuning among the overcrowded airwaves. That buyer will probably look elsewhere.

In the context of other Consonance family electronics the Reference 1.0 tuner looks & sound will no doubt delight potential owners of Consonance amplifiers. During the review period, listening to BBC national radio everyday I listened only to the Consonance, never feeling an urgent need to switch to one of my alternatives like the Accuphase. If readers already have a matching Consonance amplifier they need have no doubts about buying the matching Reference 1.0 tuner. Owners of other systems will probably be put off by the lack of FM facilities, despite the Consonance's obvious superb sound quality.

There are not enough good interesting FM tuners around in hifi in the 21st century and I am pleased that Consonance are making one.

Music enjoyed during this review:

BBC Radio 3
BBC Radio 1
BBC Radio 2
and a lot of talk on BBC Radio 4

Copyright 2006 Mark Wheeler - www.tnt-audio.com

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