Jun 012010
 

INTRODUCTION….
As promised during the review of the Ecofan Sound 6A3 valve amplifier, I am now able to present my findings on Ecofan’s latest offerings to come from the mind of Murray Dick, the Buffer Zone and Boost It (see separate review below)
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I had an opportunity to listen briefly to the Buffer Zone just after the 6A3 amplifier was uplifted, as Francis had a Buffer Zone with him but as it was brand new and thus not run in I wasn’t expecting much and unfortunately my first experience was poor and not worth writing about. Shortly thereafter both items went off to be auditioned by a major dealer in the South of Ireland (for his own system, not as shop stock) . Anyway several weeks later, in fact just over a month later, the Buffer Zone is back along with another interesting product the Boost It.
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I think it only right and fair to you the reader and to Murray of Ecofan to state at this stage that I was not in the best position to review the Boost It properly, so my thoughts and experiences presented here are at best fairly shallow. Normally I would not present a less than ideal review because I don’t feel it does justice to the product or what its designer intends or hopes the end user will hear in his or her system. However on this occasion despite less than ideal review circumstances I will, simply because what I heard was very exciting and pointed to a  stunning product and here’s the caveat if used ideally. I hope to revisit the Boost It in the future so I can fully unlock what it can do.
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“Buffer Zone” internal front view
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“Boost It” internal front view
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Wanting to gain some insight into the thinking behind these new products, I contacted Ecofan Sound and exchanged e-mails with Adam, Ecofan’s sales manager on both of the items in for review.
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Firstly and something which is refreshing, all my chats with Adam was free of the sometimes over the top hyberbloe some companies present you with about their products. As I stated in my previous piece on the 6A3 amplifier, Ecofan Sound is a straight talking company. No ridiculous claims and a very honest appraisal of what their designs don’t do and can do.
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Both designs are based on the use of two matched 6DJ8 (ECC88) valves. The Buffer Zone is as Adam says designed to have a “bandwidth of circuit which is pretty amazing extending flat from below 10Hz and out to well beyond 200kHz (oscilloscope runs out before the response drops)“. Thus there is no chance that the Buffer Zone circuitry will damage your music by clipping the frequencies. However Adam also says the following “if your components all match well or you have a really solid cd player with a cracking good output stage then you will probably find the black boxes redundant… however – if you only have an ok cd player or you run a pc into powered monitors or modest transistor amp you might be better pleased. Its all in the impedance matching (or not)” Adam continued “ I have tried the black boxes in a variety of situations myself with variable results – sometimes the removal of the box makes a system unlistenable  – other times the addition is negative…” This degree of honesty is refreshing.
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Adam continues by setting out quite clearly where and how the Buffer Zone is designed to be used. As well as being used as a valve output stage for the above items, the “ buffer zone might fit before a higher gain power amp, or where a source has adequate drive but is not of the best quality, this (it is felt by Ecofan) relieves strain on op amp output stages.” I did not test it as such but used it as a valve output stage for three quality CD players.
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The most famous previous example of this type of product, indeed one of the few ever available at the time for the domestic market place, was the Musical Fidelity D10; which as it turns out was one of the inspirations for the Ecofan Sound Buffer Zone. Seeing the potential for such a product and with the D10 being out of production Murray designed his own take on valve buffers and took the possibilities much further. Nelson Pass of Pass Labs has also been working on this type of product and you can read this for details on his approach to matching impedance between components. Here is a link to an article by nelson pass on his buffer stage, helpful information regarding the principles and benefits of buffers.
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The review system was as follows BAT VK 31 se Pre-Amplifier, BAT VK 75 Power Amplifier, Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 Speakers. Sources- Marantz CD 94 MK2, Chord One and the Marantz CD7. Cabling used was Audience Au24 between CD players and Buffer Zone, Atlas Marvos between Pre-amplifier and Power Amplifiers and Atlas Marvos speaker cable. No mains filters or regenerators were used. All units were warmed up and at optimum performance. In the case of the CD players all had at least a week of warm up, especially critical for the Marantz CD players less so for the Chord One.
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The music used for this review were old favourites of mine, Nitin Sawhney- Beyond Skin and the Dali Sampler CD, track used  Stimela (The Coal Train) by Hugh Masekela, a wonderful live recording. Other recordings were used, but for simplicity sake I will mostly refer to the main ones used.
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PART ONE THE “BUFFER ZONE” VALVE BUFFER…
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The Buffer Zone is a very compact unit and is very well made, but unlike all Ecofan Sound designs which are fairly plain in the looks department, in this case however, we have a piano black gloss finish which raises the perceived quality, mixed with the traditional Ecofan flick switches…read into that a love of retro. The unit is ventilated by a number of holes in the sides. The on light is blue and thats it, simple. Input and output is via good quality gold plated Rca’s. This description covers the Boost It as well..more on it later.
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Marantz CD 94 MK2  with Ecofan Sound Bufferzone and Musical Fidelity D10+power supply
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Rear view of the Marantz CD 94 mk2
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I sometimes feel that listening to the item in for review first and then going back to the known reference can show differences up more quickly, than the other way round. Having recently completed a project I have loosely called the Digital Overview (as yet unpublished on AIHFA) I have been spending a lot of time with the legendary Marantz CD 94 MK 2 CD player in my reference system (a classic multi-bit player) and I have continued to listen to it rather than go back to my Moon Andromeda, just for fun and as it has been at least 7 years since using it regularly and it seemed a shame to moth ball it too soon. So as you can imagine I am now quite familiar with its sound.
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Having hooked the Buffer Zone up to The Marantz’s output and listened to both Nitin Sawhney and Hugh Masekela I then listened with out the Buffer Zone. Before doing this I was certain that things were different but I would have been hard pressed to say exactly where these differences resided (as I was enjoying the sound too much to be totally critical) except in the bass region where a difference was all too obvious. With further listening the elements of slight leanness and edge in the Marantz’s sound which I had heard during my earlier review project, were substantially altered by the use of the Buffer Zone.
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The music had gained a degree of weight and body and the bass was fuller and richer, but not so to rob any pieces of music of their rhythm or flow. This was not a case of pouring syrup into the native sound but just that it had gained in the areas of harmonics and texture, areas where the non Buffer Zoned Marantz had failed a bit. I did quite a bit of swapping between the set up with and without the Buffer Zone and was amazed at just how transparent the unit was. The character of the CD 94 Mk2 was not lost but just improved.
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Beyond Skin by Nitin Sawhney had a big deep soundstage (as it should have) and all the instruments had good focus and detail. The soundstage hung a little in front of the speakers, so the sound was ever so slightly forward of where it had been with out the Buffer Zone. The bass was deep and extended and certainly slightly fuller but not flabby, just richer. This may be down to taste but I preferred the bass with the Buffer Zone in use on this track.
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Letting Go was up next, which has a much sparser soundscape with very nice female vocals and a drifty vibe. During the track a guitar comes into play, just to the left side of center and it had more body with the Buffer Zone than without it.
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The Hugh Masekela’s track Stimela showed the biggest improvement and I just had to listen twice, the first time had been just for pleasure. Putting my reviewers hat back on, I could hear that all the instruments had taken on a higher degree of realism compared to the sound produced with the Marantz sans Buffer Zone. Again this improvement was manifested with an increase in body, texture and richness, this resulted in the  sound being less thread bare than it had been before.
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Listening to the tracks without the Buffer Zone you could, for just a moment think that the sound was a touch more open and detailed but fairly quickly you would hear that this reproduction of the music was indeed more lean rather than open.  The Buffer Zone makes the music sound more real and less two dimensional, it adds weight, scale, a touch of warmth and takes the Marantz CD 94 MK 2 further up the performance scale, towards the sound quality of the better sounding newer players, in current market place.
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Next I wanted to see what the Buffer Zone might do for a newer design. These results with a twenty year old machine were very good but at the end of the day, its an old design and I had already found it wanting during my other review; so into play now came a Chord One CD player. I should also mention at this stage that I had to match volume levels through out this review.       With the Buffer Zone attached to all the players used, there was a slight drop in volume level than sans Buffer Zone.
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Chord One CD Player
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Rear view of the Chord One CD player
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The Chord One was a much better player from the start of listening than the Marantz; in all the areas it was weak in, The One was strong. I played the three tracks again and felt that The One was doing extremely well. I found myself enjoying the music, possibly too much, so on went the Buffer Zone and the effect of doing this was subtle at first but there was a change to the sound. Now as to which was the better is a hard question to answer and may be down to personal taste or system matching. However I thought that The One sounded marginally better by its self than with the Buffer Zone.
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Without the sound was open and detailed, slightly forward with great solid detail and a very slight forthrightness, without being hard or bright.  With the Buffer Zone in the signal path the sound lost a little of its energy and drive. This left the music slightly reigned in and some fine detail was just slightly less sharp. The soundstage was marginally pulled back and perhaps and I say perhaps only, there may have been a hint of veiling, if so it was very slight.
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I tried a few more samples of music mainly tracks from Roisin Murphy’s wonderful album Overpowered and after some further comparisons felt still that The One by its self was marginally better, but it was very slim.
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Rear view of the Musical Fidelity D10 Tube Buffer
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I decided at this point to put the Musical Fidelity D10 into action, in order to compare the well regarded elder product to the new upstart and I have to say where the Buffer Zone was fairly benign even when perhaps not being the ideal, the D10 was like a bull in a china shop.
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The soundstage sounded stretched and well known instrument placement was moved and not by a little but by a lot. The guitar part in Letting Go by Nitin Sawhney now sat further to the left of the soundstage than it ever has before. It was like the music of this track had been both spread, pushed outwards and overblown but without distortion. The results with other players used in this review were similar, so I had to rule out incompatibility as the sources used were varied enough to rule this out.
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The sound in and of its self was not bad, it was enjoyable in isolation but regardless it was wrong, very wrong. Where the Buffer Zone had lowered volume slightly the D10 was louder and the Musical Fidelity is certainly not transparent to the source unlike the Buffer Zone.  In my opinion the D10 mucks the sound up way too much and as such I could not recommend it even as a second hand purchase which is all youy can do now as it has been off the market for a number  of years now. However I must concede the possibility, though remote that different set ups or a system with less resolution may see things result in a better match but in the context of my system during this test the answer is a resounding no. I then tried a Marantz CD 7 with the D10 just before trying it with the Buffer Zone and the result of this pairing was truly awful. I will offer no further comment other than to say that I pulled the D10 out of the system.
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Marantz CD 7 CD player
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Rear view of  the Marantz CD 7
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Next to be used with the Buffer Zone was a Marantz CD 7 and while things were better than with the Musical Fidelity D10  they still were not right. I swapped mains leads to an Audience Au 24 and I tried changing isolation platforms to an RDC one, a further improvement but it wasn’t until I wired in a TCI Boa Constrictor power cable that finally I heard the CD 7 sound as I know it can. During the course of this review I had once again found that what many poo poo as being non-existent does exist. A change of Isolation and mains leads plus warm up does result in an improved sound.
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The Marantz now sounding like I know it should and was now by far the best sounding CD player used in this review, as such its sound was not improved by the Buffer Zone. With the CD 7, the Buffer Zone in the signal path ruined the magic of this excellent CD player. Without it, the sound was open and detailed with excellent sound staging, just sitting to the warmer side of neutrality but very dynamic with great harmonics and deep bass. The Buffer Zone hooked up robbed the Marantz CD7’s sound of these qualities and left it sounding overall reduced. However it is important to point out that Adam of Ecofan Sound predicted that this might happen.  It is also important to note that Ecofan did not design the Buffer Zone for use in such a High-End set up as mine. That it was able to work without seriously messing up the sound is a testament to good design and its extended frequency range.
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If you have an old CD Player like the Marantz CD 94 Mk2 then I can strongly recommend you try a Buffer Zone. However for more  modern players I think caution is required, as the results are a little less predictable. I wanted to try this design out in a Solid State system context but alas time ran out on me and I was unable to do this; it is possible that results might have been different but I think overall they would be largely similar to those with a valve based system. However as I am if nothing else a bit of a perfectionist I should perhaps have done that first and saved myself some slight frustration than I have not been able to offer a complete picture of what the Buffer Zone can do in the context of both system types.  However by using my main set up I was at least able to determine the very high level of faithfulness to the character of the machines the Buffer Zone is hooked up to. It does add a touch of warmth and richness to proceedings but in a fairly benign way, so I can’t say its totally neutral but it does not mess the sound up like a Musical Fidelity D10 does.
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I can’t give the Buffer Zone an unqualified recommendation but I can certainly suggest if you have access to one you try it and see what it does for your CD player, digital source. However overall I think the Buffer Zone is an excellent product and despite a high-end system not being its natural home I feel it did very well indeed.
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PART TWO THE  “BOOST IT” VALVE GAIN STAGE….
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Now things were about to get very, very interesting. I should point out again that some of the circumstances in this part of the review were not as ideal as they could have been but we will look at those issues later. I will let Adam describe the uses for the Boost It first “anyhow….  boost it works well driving 6A3 power amp with a passive pot of some description for level control or the variable output of your source … thinking pc or ipod line out or mid level cd player(with adjustable volume)… has 16dB of gain will swing 4volts at the output  so be careful not to overdrive your gear; also will send signal safely down long interconnects “
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The unit looks identical to the Buffer Zone from outside and even at first glance internally too but it is very different if you study the internal photos more closely. Not having the 6A3 amplifier to hand or a CD player with a variable output (oh to have still had the Beresford Dac I reviewed recently) I had to use a Panasonic 100KA volume pot which had been wired up for me (not By Ecofan Sound but Francis) and I used this into my Bat VK 75 via XLR adapters. The layout of the system was thus, Source, Boost It, Volume pot into power amplifier.
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I did not know what cabling had been used into the volume pot, or even how much run in time had been accrued by the Boost It: this for me was truly an adventure into the unknown. I had just enough Audience Au 24 cables to hook everything together, in order to keep things the same as in the Buffer Zone review. As I looked at this slightly Heath Robinson pre-amp, and it dawned on me that I was looking at possibly, the ideal pre-amp and certainly the most simple I had ever tried, gain stage to volume pot to amplifier. It reminded me of what Peter walker of Quad used to say about amplifiers “that the best ideal was a piece of wire with gain.” Would this work ? We shall see.
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Audience AU24 cable wired to a Panasonic 100KA volume pot
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I played the Hugh Masekela track first, The Coal Train and my mouth hit the floor. It was as if nothing stood in the way of the music, it was full of life, dimension and an inner energy, I had not heard before. Do pre-amps even good one’s strangle music ? I asked myself. It would seem so, by what I was hearing. The band stood in my living room more real than ever before and the sound was very open, detailed, dynamic, with excellent bass and a degree of clarity I had only ever heard before with the Ecofan Sound 6A3 amp in my upstairs system.
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However it felt a bit like stepping out into a storm, I am not used to this degree of clarity and as I listened more I became aware after my initial shock had faded a bit, that this presentation was just a wee bit to frank for me.The main problem was that the sound was lacking in musicality. That hard to explain quality that my system certainly normally had was not missing but not as I like it. The sound was a bit like that often used term “a mailed fist in a velvet glove” well the velvet was wearing a bit thin to my ears.
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When I moved to the more loudly recorded Nitin Sawhney tracks I encountered a problem, distortion on dynamic peaks and certain instruments like piano. It would seem that the input voltage to the power amp was overloading it (as Adam had warned it might).
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I have come across this problem before with badly matched inputs and outputs, with high output level in that instance being the source of the problem. It was the balanced output on a Chord Dac 64 mk1 connected to the balanced input of  a Pathos Classic One. The Chord output was way to high and thus overloaded the Pathos in a very similar way to what I was hearing with the Boost It. My raising of this issue with the UK distributor saw Pathos put this right (by adding loading resistors into the balanced input), in that case the output level from the Chord item was way over the top and could have driven a mile of cable, or so it seemed. With a lower value volume pot say 50KA after the Boost It, I am sure this would not have been a problem anymore.
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I switched music and listened to older CDs when loudness was not a factor. I worked my way through the Al Di Meola Project album Tiramisu and the Steve Khan album Public Access. These Latin flavored Jazz Fusion albums had me enthralled, the sound was both fantastic and too much (for me) at the same time. The openness and air on instruments like cymbals was stunning with the strike and following shimmer to decay being awesome, this was heady stuff but still I craved more musicality.
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For many, I know that what I was hearing would be their idea of paradise but not me as the degree of clarity and detail was presented in such away as to be lacking soul. I suspect but could not confirm that perhaps a lower value pot might have perhaps added a bit more of this missing musicality. The fact I was unable to adds to the frustration I feel at not knowing how much better the sound could have been with added musicality.
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Review system used with the Boost It
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Despite a degree of compatibility here, I have still gained a deeper respect for good pre-amplifier design but I also now would view these with a lot more suspicion than before and ask the question, just how good are those pre-amps we hold dear ? My BAT Vk 31 se was only better in its musicality, subtlety and delicacy, all important factors to me; other than that the Boost It and volume pot combination conceded nothing else….the BAT was crying in near shame.
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My experience with the Boost It shows, I believe that excellent pre-amplifiers are more than just gain and a volume pot but not much more. So is it in the area of signal switching and the transfer of the delicate signals through those circuits and extra cabling that it all can go wrong for pre-amplifier designs ? I think it is. There is no simpler pre-amplifier than A Boost It and a volume pot but how many of us only have one source ? I have at least 7 in use in my current system, not to mention the requirement for a fixed level output to feed my reel to reel recorders and headphone amplifier.  The complexity of my requirements doom me to a compromised sound due to my need for a complex pre-amplifier.
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Simplicity is the key to this understanding and this Heath Robinson (there’s nothing Heath Robinson about the Boost It) lash up was showing me this in spades.
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The Boost It must be extremely transparent doing nothing more than Boosting the signal, only the unknown cabling attached to the volume pot was letting things down plus it being the wrong value. I had very little volume control (never mind the first quarter) I was working on the first eighth and less with the newer CD’s. However despite all these issues which I am quite sure could be solved by someone of a DIY persuasion, the Boost It shone brightly and was breathtaking in its clarity and direct communication of the music. Its just here in this set up it left me gasping for air as well and I didn’t like that. I am fairly sure that with the right ingredients it can be much better and my Bat pre wants to run and hide at that thought.
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OVERALL CONCLUSIONS…
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Of the two products in for review, the Boost It is the most exciting to me (this I must admit came as a big surprised) as this product offers the opportunity to create a fantastic single source pre-amplifier as long as you match the correct volume pot to it and your power amplifier. I also feel that using the very best connectors  good quality cabling, the same as you use between the rest of your components will result in an even better level of sound quality. As I type this I can’t help but wonder how much the unknown cabling and average quality connectors used here were letting the side down ? I suspect quite a bit.
To add a gain reducing switch or in-line attenuators  might ruin what the Boost It does so well by complicating the signal path  so I would leave those options alone but perhaps the  custom option of reduced gain that Ecofan offer, if the purchaser knows exactly what they need would allow for closer system matching but keep the signal path nice and simple.
However if you get all of this right though, what we then have here is as close as I have ever come to the reality of a “piece of wire with gain”. The Boost It valve gain stage is potentially very special and as such I recommend it but with the purchaser keeping in mind the caveats fully in mind.
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The Buffer Zone also has the potential for being magical too (something I managed to do with some of the CD players I used it with), but there are too many possible variables with system matching which make me hesitant to offer a blanket recommendation. However it was very transparent to the sources I used and in the case of the Marantz CD 94 MK2 offered an upgrade that was very worthwhile in my opinion. The Chord One did not benefit much and in the case of the CD 7  output was of higher quality and was thus degraded by using the Buffer Zone; just as Adam stated could be the case…. there’s honesty for you.
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I had hoped to try both these items out with some solid state amplification but alas I ran out of time, maybe the opportunity will arise again. At the end of this review I learned that these two items, fully hand made by Murray Dick, even down to the transformers being wound by him are the first and thus this review is a World Exclusive.
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I will leave the last words to Adam “these are not ‘ultimate fi’ but aimed at entry and mid level system builders with modest budgets… the gadgets can and do make a big positive difference in certain situations….current price is $750 American.” Well maybe not the last word as Adam says that they are not “ultimate fi” but yet Ecofan Sound are being way too modest about these designs. For them to work well (perhaps outside their comfort zone) in a very high-end setting and not be disgraced, is somewhat of an achievement. Well done Murray.
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Thanks go to Francis for the loan of the units and Adam of Ecofan Sound for technical help. http://www.ecofansound.com/
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Neil
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Source of Review Products Loan…… End user owner.
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Current Retail Price Direct from Ecofan Sound (not including carriage, your local import duties, VAT or TAX)

Buffer Zone $750 US

Boost It $750 US
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BUFFER ZONE SPECS….

The bufferzone is the more dedicated ‘buffer’ with an input impedance of 1.5MΩ (one and a half million ohms) and an output resistance of 2200Ω across the line. Having zero gain it matches the player to the rest of the system, minimising the losses even across several metres of cable.
Both the boost it and bufferzone units are in correct phase and have a frequency response of 10Hz to 200kHz. The addition of these pro units adds a 6DJ8 valve to each channel, and can give an open ‘valve’ sound to an otherwise bland or ‘dead’ sounding solid state system, be it analogue or digital.

BOOST IT SPECS…..

The boost it does a similar buffering job to the bufferzone, having 1MΩ input impedence, with the cable seeing 3300Ω at the output. This unit has 18dB of gain, which can be useful if the inputting player has its own volume control and you have a pair of powered speakers, or a stand-alone power amp. It thus eliminates the need for a preamp if only one source is required, or it can provide a welcome boost to a ‘passive’ preamp or selector box. Can provide some extra ‘zing’ to an otherwise bland system, and has been tried in situations such as those above and found to be indispensable.
Both the boost it and bufferzone units are in correct phase and have a frequency response of 10Hz to 200kHz. The addition of these pro units adds a 6DJ8 valve to each channel, and can give an open ‘valve’ sound to an otherwise bland or ‘dead’ sounding solid state system, be it analogue or digital.

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© Text and Photos Copyright 2010 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio. Except album sleeves and Ecofan Sound studio photos Copyright lies with original punlishers.
NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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