25 January, 2020

Review: Goldbug Medusa and Clement II MC Cartridges, Part I
Review: Arcam rPhono, Part I
NY Diary (20-5): Goldbug Medusa, Clement II, Denon DL-103, DL-103R

After I got my 12" Thomas Schick tonearm (critically the interchangeable headshell) back in action on my Thorens TD-124 (here), I have been rotating my cartridges, including the Denon DL-103 and a DL-103R which I recently found in the pile (I forgot I brought it over from HK), and doing a lot of evaluations and comparisons (here and here.) This article is a continuation.

In terms of finance, having some time on hand just before the Holidays was not a good thing. I perused several second-hand marketplaces and really for no good reason bought the items under review. That they turned out to be rather interesting is my luck.

Click pics to enlarge. Goldbug Medusa on Thomas Schick/Thorens TD-124. Arcam rPhono out of focus behind.

Goldbug Cartridges
While there is not that much information on Goldbug in English, there is just enough. It is best to start with the man behind it:

Sugano San Goldbug is said to be "designed" by Okihiko (aka Okie) Sugano. He is a famous Japanese figure in Audio, a most influential critic. Hong Kong audiophiles will know him by his name in Chinese characters, 菅野沖彦, for the longest time the anchor/bedrock of the Stereo Sound magazine, which is also published in Chinese translation and devoured by many (I actually think it is a lousy commercial magazine that praises everything; I rarely read it, except when it has a vintage special, which is usually infomative, if expensive). For those who want to read a very lengthy article on this multi-faceted man, read this article in positive-feedback; it is of Polish origin, and sometimes something is lost in translation (another short link is Roger Russell McIntosh Site.) For the rest of you, I shall have a brief summary in the next section. Note: Before I leave this section, I'd like to shed some light on what were mentioned in that article. Western readers should know: 1) Asian Culture is very hierarchal and deferential - great respect must be paid to "elders", including in audio. Lest you think Sugano san is something like HP of TAS, banish the thought; he is like HP, Gordon Holt, John Atkinson, 陳瑛光, whoever have you, combined, and then some, a veritable Godfather. A gathering is not just like, hey, let's get together and have some beer and music! No, you must defer to the elders and "respected" figures. Japan must be even more extreme, but I have seen this too often in HK, where people make me cringe by addressing certain elders as "sifu" (Master) 師傅前師傅後,很是肉麻; Truth is, from my perspective, the sound offered by many of these "elders" were, more often than not, oddly off-kilter, veering too far from neutral and usually emphasizing certain things at the expense of others, rarely balanced, but maybe that's their "selling point" (there are of course rare exceptions); 2) Japan Audiophiles actually pay great respect to those (usually older) "Golden Ears" who facilitate "Live-like" replay (whether real or not) and regard them as Artists. As an art lover, I have problem with this - perhaps this world has too many artists...

Finally, please don't confuse Okie Sugano with Yoshiaki Sugano, founder of Supex and Koetsu! This is a common mistake made by not a few on the internet. People just write Sugano, and they assume association with Supex and Koetsu (this shows the oblivion Goldbug has fallen into). Hey, Sugano (like Honda) is a common Japanese name!

Manufacturer: Mark Corps The reason why I questioned the "designer" laurel of Okie Sugano is that Goldbug cartridges were all made by his friend Imamura at Mark Corps. Sugano surely must have had input but it was the Imamura's who made the cartridges and remained mostly unsung. Here is a short blip from Audio Asylum thread:

"...Mid to high end MC carts made in Japan in the 70's and 80's, initially introduced the Mr Brier, so named because it was fitted into a hand made brier (briar) wood enclosure that was actually carved by the wife of the company's president, and shortly thereafter the Goldbug, Medusa and Clement but those three had a more conventional housing. All of the models shared the same low output coil arrangement but differed in cantilever and styli arrangement, the upmarket Brier quickly became something of a legend particularly in Japan and the USA and became the inspiration for later wood bodied Koetsu and Grado models, in Europe the Goldbug was better know however and in the 80's all Mark Corps. products where sold in Europe, the USA and a few other places are believed to have been with the Goldbug name used as a trademark rather than a model designation. At the same time the product line was updated with newer versions of the Brier in the form of Mr. Brier and later Ms. Brier, the Clement was also upgraded to Clement II but the Medusa appears to have been unchanged and the Mr. Briar cart effectively replaced the Briar while the Ms. Briar is an upgraded model with a line contact stylus, the Mr.Briar remained in the catalogue after the introduction of the Ms. BTW. The company also made the McIntosh cartridges that were available between 80's (see below), the generators inside the McIntosh models were broadly similar to the original Brier but had plastic housings..

The Clement II technical specification are : Generator Type : Moving Coil. Mount : Standard. Frequency response : 20Hz~35KHz. Output @ 5cm/s : 0,25mV @ 1KHz. Internal impedance : 14 Ohms. Recommended load : 40 Ohms or more. Compliance : 17 x 10-6cm/dyne. Tracking force : 1,2 to 1,4 grams. Weight : 5,8 grams. (My original manual said Weight 5.6 gm)

The Medusa technical specification are : Generator Type : Moving Coil. Mount : Standard. Frequency response : 20Hz~20KHz. Output @ 5cm/s : 0,2mV @ 1KHz. Impedance : 13 Ohms. Compliance : 9 x 10-6cm/dyne. Tracking force : 1,8 to 2 grams..." (My xeroxed copy of the original spec sheet said Impedance 12 ohms and Weight 5.8 gm).

Their Cantilevers/Styli The same spec's are largely quoted by various forum people and sellers. But when it comes to Cantilever/Stylus there were great variations. Medusa An Ebay seller stated "Aluminium apered hollow"; an Asylum inmate stated "special (super?) oval" (which is for sure special/super elliptical); and an Audiogoner stated "thosand needle .3x.7". My copy of original spec sheet says stylus tip is "Pure Oval" and makes no mention of cantilever material. My best guess would be the Medusa has an Aluminum Cantilever with a (?Special/Super) Elliptical StylusClement II An Audiogoner stated "Special Elliptical boro(n)" and a Russian seller stated "Beryllium". While these 2 elements (neighbor on the periodic table) are both stiff, they are not the same thing and certainly would affect sound in different ways. In the November '85 HiFi News Review of the original Well-Tempered Tonearm by the usually reliable veteran Chris Breunig, he wrote: "...lt has ousted the Zeta from my system, as a perfect carrier for the Garrott-Deccas, and with moving-coils such as the Empire MC1000 and the altogether delightful Goldbug Clement II, soundstaging and tracking performance have been exemplary. Those MCs are, incidentally, boron cantilever cartridges of high compliance...But my original manual made specific mention of Beryllium ("Pipe", which I take to mean hollowed) as Cantilever and the stylus is listed as "Pure Oval", same as Medusa. So I am sure the Clement II has a Beryllium Cantilever with a (?Special/Super) Elliptical Stylus. This makes sense as these are largely the same cartridge with the more expensive Clement II having a more expensive cantilever, the added stiffness of which was utilized to make it track at a lighter weight that is no doubt popular at that time (Think Shure V15). Readers should know that for this article I actually googled quite a bit for various Japanese sites (like Hifido, AudioUnion and Yahoo auctions), and sometimes used Google Translate, but I was not able to get more useful info. If any reader knows better, please comment or contact me.

Arcam rPhono
I didn't learn of this item from the magazines, rather during browsing encountered it on sale, new units at substantial discounts. Being a fan of the industrial design and and functionalities of Arcam's lifestyle r-series (I had used their first-gen rDAC, here), I already knew I wanted it. Then I did some research and found out that it had been very well received. The best and most detailed review was by veteran Alan Sircom (HiFi+), much better than the brief one by Fremer in analogplanet which, though positive, was obviously a hurried job that missed much of the sound and capability of this device. The strangest thing about the rPhono is that it was discontinued after only a year or so, unusually short. Perhaps they are going to release a Mk II, perhaps with remote loading (so far only featured in the highest end)? That would not be surprising, as my old rDAC had evolved into the remote-controlled irDAC before the current irDAC-II, meanwhile getting bigger with each generation.

  • Built I was surprised when I received the rPhono, quite a bit larger than I expected. It is very well built and beautiful to look at. The inside looks equally well built. Even the wall wart power supply is larger and than usual. 
  • Features and Ergonomics As you can see from the spec's and the busy back panel (pic below), this is an eminently adjustable device! As with many phonoamps, even more expensive ones (like my AQVOX), partly to keep signal path as short as possible, all the adjustment are crowded into the back (in the case of MoFi Studiophono, on the bottom). This is still more user-friendly than having them inside so that one needs to remove the cover for adjustment (like my Nagra PL-P/BPS and BAT P5). One unusual thing is that the switches are not the usual dip-switches, but are more like mini rocker-switches - a first encounter for me; even more than the former I worry about long-term use for someone who changes cartridges all the time (like me, now that I have a turntable with interchangeable headshells right in front of me.) And for MC Loading, see below.
  • Gain The rPhono has plenty of Gain. The Gain specified next to the switches are MM gains, and the MC gain over that is +30 db. So, lowest and highest gain for MC are 60 db and 82 db, respectively.
  • MC Loading This is MOST unusual in having (tiny) continuous trim pots for loading adjustment between 50 (7 o'clock) and 550 ohms (5 o'clock)! In the above pic, they are the tiny blue pots flanking the MC input. Assuming the trim pots are accurate, the middle position (12 o'clock) is 300 ohms. Elsewhere on the dial, well, it will be an approximation. Assuming the pots track the same way, one can dial both channels to roughly the same load. This is simultaneously a great feature and baggage for those compulsive about loading (I have to say I am not), who will love and hate it at the same time, because it offers the possibility of any loading value, but also the nightmare of worrying how accurate the dial-in is.

In Use/Sonic Impressions
As in the last round, setup is very simple. The Cartridges are mounted on interchangeable headshells on the Schick 12" arm on the Thorens TD-124, which is fed into the Arcam rPhono, which goes into the Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 amp driving the YL horns. Without running in, the rPhono immediately impressed by its pristine sound.

  • Gain There is plenty of gain. With my 104 db horns, even with my low output MC cartridges I could comfortably use the 30 db position (=60 db gain for MC), suggesting very conservative spec's (unlike many phonoamps which inflate the gain figure). After going back and forth I finally settled on 40 db (=70 db for MC) for its punchier presentation, without loss of refinement. I doubt I shall ever use the 50/52 db (=80/82 db for MC) position, as it was way too loud.
  • MC Loading For this round, I empirically had my loading midway between 50 and 300, that is roughly 175 ohm. Given that the Goldbug's have impedance of 12 and 14 gm, and the Denon DL-103R about the same, that should be alright. The regular DL-103 has a higher impedance of 40 gm, but I did not bother adjusting the loading.
  • Denon DL-103 vs DL-103R I had been comparing these siblings before the Arcam's arrival, using the current mode amplification AQVOX 2CI Mk II (see here, except that I switched to a regular DL-103 in lieu of the Midas one). I switched to the Arcam rPhono and was surprised that: 1) the sound was just as good, perhaps an even better match; 2) the Arcam seemed just as quiet. Call me impressed! With both phonoamps, the results with the Denon pair was the same: while the DL-103R had perhaps a little more resolution, it was also a little grainier than the DL-103 at the top, and the DL-103 had the better midrange and was more emotive. Many people confuse these two siblings, but they are not the same. I remain loyal to the DL-103, while others (including David Wilson) champion the DL-103R; YMMV.
    Persuasive Percussion (Vinyl, LP, Album) album cover
  • Goldbug Medusa As soon as I lowered the needle, it was obvious I was in a different world than the Denon siblings. The soundstage was deeper, the top more sparkling and the bass more agile. True to its claim, there was no MC peak (which the DL-103R and even DL-103 have a little). Strings were realistic, with a sheen of rosin; and piano was resonant. I basically subjected it to all my recent test records. Yes, it passed my litmus test of the Johann Strauss Waltz LP (here,) the slight hesitations and emphasis turned to perfection. And misirlou on Persuasive Percussion (here) was well-nigh irresistible, just as when it played with the Koetsu Black. Clement II After playing many more records, delighted, I turned to the Clement II. Basically, it is very similar to the Medusa, but with a slightly leaner balance and slightly faster transient (bass is even more tactile). This cartridge is an anomaly among the MC's, as it tracks incredibly light at 1.3 gm, a historical relic of sort, but I am impressed. I am VERY happy with both cartridges.
  • ? Goldbug vs Koetsu Black No, I didn't do a direct comparison; that will have to wait till Part II, when I move the Goldbug's to Station II, where the phonoamps are also different. But, from my recollection and juxtaposition, I am confident the Goldbug's are right up there with the Koestu Black. They share the virtues of excellence in microdynamics and musical values, but the Koetsu is most likely warmer, with the Goldbug's even more tactile. We shall see.
  • Arcam rPhono So, how good is the Arcam? It is damn good. Don't forget the Arcam came right after the AQVOX 2CI Mk II and Parasound JC3, and performed just as well in this setup! I am pretty certain it is quite a bit better than my other budget phonoamps, like the MoFi StudioPhono, the iFi iPhono and the Micromega MyGroov. As a matter of fact, sooner or later, I will likely move it to Station III as reference. More than most, this one deserves a Linear Power Supply. If I have time, I shall move it to Station II to test it out against the Aurorasound. Maybe.
I lucked out this time. Great Buys.

24 January, 2020

Happy New Year of the Rat

 The rat represents the beginning of a new day and is the first of the 12 year zodiac sign rotation

NY Diary (20-4) Happy Chinese New Year of the Rat

Dear Friends, Readers:

The Year of the Rat has gotten off to a rotten start. The new coronavirus from the City of Wuhan is now a pandemic in China, and has started to spread to everywhere in the world. The tardiness of response of the Wuhan officials was damaging, but China now is fighting it as a national emergency, but I am shocked the WHO has not declared it a world emergency. As a health professional, I have always harbored contempt for the WHO, and this round is no surprise.

This bad news from China is just part of the big picture of bad news. Hatred, Vendetta, Assassination (Character and otherwise), Bigotry is Everywhere, and on the rise. Leaders everywhere resort to inflammatory rhetorics to further their own gains instead of fostering peace. It is a sad sight.

As Zodiac goes, things come and go. And bad things will pass, and good things will come. Let us pray that that will come true, again.

Happy New Year of the Rat to all my friends in Hong Kong, US and everywhere else (Mumbai, Russia, Italy, Canada, etc etc)!

Peace to you all.

09 January, 2020

Streaming Naxos Music Library New York Public Library low-res vs CD

Click pics to enlarge. Note under album cover availability of Premium Sound Quality (not to library users); under that is Album Booklet, so you get all the notes if you click (I read every one that I stream)!

NY Diary (20-3): Streaming, Finally, and For Free!
Naxos Music Library via New York Public Library
Talk CAS: WMA vs CD, Part I

Amended 1/19/20: Genre availability (near end of article) updated. Connection/Drop Out bullet added.

This actually can be regarded as a continuation of the last article. I am sure some readers now will disown me because I now stoop so low as to listen to low-res files! :-)

Why Stream? Although I have a huge collection of CDs and LPs, I still like to kind of keep up on some artists and new recordings. As by this age I have rather narrowed my tastes when it comes to music and musicians that I like, there is no need to cast too wide a net. Streaming is a good way to keep up, but since I don't have that much time, I was reluctant to shell out for a decent service (like Qobuz), especially since Classical Music is not the focus of most streaming services (and of computer music in general). Streaming surely can be fun (my HK audiophile friends and I even enjoy Bluetooth together; here). Enter...

The New York Public Library (NYPL) As I have mentioned before, on my occasional trips to Manhattan, I continue to borrow CDs from the NYPL. The day before my visit, usually I'd do a little searching for my favorite performers on their website. More and more I see the term Web Resources. So finally I decided to try it out. What it is is that the NYPL has linked up with Naxos Music Library (this old article indicates the Toronto and Edmonton Public Libraries also have this service; probably a lot more libraries by now). Unless I have missed something, access however is kinda indirect - there is no direct link. On the NYPL website, search for a classical piece or artist, say "Isabelle Faust", and among the results displayed will be physical media, followed by "Web Resources". Under the latter is a link: click "Access Naxos Music Library" and log in with your Library Card Number and you will be logged onto NML, not to the item in particular, but to NML's Home Page, where you can search for anything you want.

Naxos Music Library (NML)
  • Biggest Classical Streaming Provider NML is the oldest streaming service, originally started with institutional subscriptions (like universities) in mind. Naxos started with the immense holdings of their own classical labels and, because they have always been a big distributor for numerous smaller classical labels, soon snowballed into the biggest classical streaming service provider (directly or via giants like Tidal). It is so big that Giants like Universal and Warner also make their whole catalogue available on NML. That is not so exciting for me, as I have many of those discs. What is undeniably exciting is that many valuable small labels and the live recordings issued by various orchestras on their own labels (think CSO, LPO, LSO, Seattle etc), which I love, are also available. That means, almost all classical's are there (as of this writing, almost 150,000 discs).
  • Interface Unlike other Streaming Services, the Interface is Perfect, designed for Classical Listeners in mind. One can search in various ways, including by Label, which is good for serious collectors (I file my music by labels). Just try to search with mainstream providers, it will drive the classical listener crazy! And Liner Notes (Booklet) are available to read with a click. Fabulous, and important for learning! Like the Bach album cited below, it contains several rearranged pieces, and the booklet explains why this was done (for good reasons).
  • Cost For the regular and Premium subscribers, NML is not cheap, but I do think you get your worth, not for someone like me with a large library, but excellent for a starter. For Library users like me, it is a Godsend. It is free, and it has everything - isn't that what a library is ideally supposed to be? Yes, resolution is lower, but we will deal with that later.
  • Options and Playlist Via the Library interface, there is no personal account and no options - you get what you (don't) pay for, and a playlist cannot be created. Music is heard through a "Play Queue", where you can queue up as many tracks as you want, an dit will play them in succession; however, upon logout all history is erased, and the next time you have to start afresh.
Sound Quality
Ah, this is going to be a minefield for me! First, let me give you Naxos' FAQ page, which is interesting, but bound to raise the eyebrows of audiophiles. Just snippets here:

Q: In what format is the music streamed?
A: The music is streamed in Microsoft WMA 9.0 format, at 128Kbps, 64Kbps or 20Kbps, depending on the type of Internet connection used.

Q: How is the sound quality compared to a CD?
A: The standard streaming rate of 64Kbps produces near-CD quality. If you have a broadband Internet connection, you can choose 128Kbps for a quality equivalent to CD. If you have a dial-up Internet connection, the music is streamed at 20Kbps, which is equivalent to FM sound quality. Of course, the sound quality is also dependent upon the type of speakers or headphones used.

Q: Can I set the default search page and streaming rate?
A: Yes, through the My Account page. You can select which search page (Standard or Advanced) you prefer to have as your default when you log on; and at which speed you would like the music to stream (20Kbps, 64Kbps or 128Kbps).

  • What am I getting for free? As mentioned before, without a private account, I cannot control anything. I am not sure at all, but I'd judge that the library's subscription is the minimal standard - 64Kbps if I am lucky, 20 if I am not. It should be noted that, for non-Premium service, Naxos uses a "variable bit-rate" type of encoding.
  • System I did all this on my small System III, my Apple Macbook USB connected to Micromega MyDac; Schiit Saga; Akitika amp; Audiomaster LS3/5A (15 ohm, augmented by Pioneer SW-8 subwoofer), quite humble and fit for the task, right? But it actually is a very good sounding system, and can be regarded as near-field monitor system (details here).
  • Connection/Drop-Out Occasionally I'd get a drop-out (a crackling pop), usually at the end of a track. This could be NML's fault, but more likely could be my own bandwidth problem, as my computer is connected to the internet via WiFi, not LAN (the modem is in another room, separated by a wall). A quick breaking and restoring of the USB connection restores sound in a couple of seconds. A nuissance, but...
    JS Bach: Violin Concertos
  • Listening I started by searching for one of my favorite violinists, Isabelle Faust. I was delighted that there were a large number of entries, including her more obscure pre-Harmonia Mundi efforts. The first piece I played was the Berg Violin Concerto (Harmonia Mundi = HM). I was writing, and the sound level was lower than usual, but I was thoroughly captivated. It was atmospheric, and foreboding, and I could easily tell the soloist, conductor and excellent orchestra were breathing as a whole. The library has a physical CD, but I could not locate it, likely misfiled, so it was a joy to be able to hear something I have wanted to for a while. Then I went on to her double album of Bach concertos (HM), and it was just as great. The harmonious blend and rapport on offer made me listen to 2 full-length CD's worth of music! So, for listening to music, the NML passes the test - the music comes forth intact. I was very happy exploring music I'd never otherwise get to hear, and that was deeply satisfying for a music lover. But what about absolute quality?
    Grieg: Piano Concerto; Saint-Saens: Piano Concerto No.2
  • Litmus Test Satisfied as I was with such low-res, I'd not like you to doubt my audiophile credentials! So, I did what I had to do, to compare what was available through NML with a physical disc. I happened to have borrowed the Kohlodenko CD of Grieg and Saint-Saens Piano Concertos (HM), and so I played the equivalent file in NML. I cranked up the volume and erected my rabbit ears. Well, it was quite good! The shape of the music was absolutely there, and musically satisfying, but my audiophile self told me that, for sure, there was more to be had. And so I played the CD through the Meridian 200 transport, into the same Micromega MyDAC. Absolutely, greater separation, macro- and micro-dynamic shadings, more instrumental harmonics (be it strings or winds or brass), more rhythmic exactitude and a more crystalline and varied piano tone. And, the bass was more resolved and less tubby than before. Even the pauses had more meaning. However, what is more important that that is: there is nothing that is unpleasant in the lower-res offering.
  • So? The difference was apparent, and does that make the lower-res format unworthy? No, not at all. What I didn't emphasize was that when I streamed, that was the first time I heard the disc, and after the Grieg, I was eager to hear the Saint Saens, and even if I knew I could get more by playing the CD I didn't switch. See, when one is exploring, a little less sonic quality does not really matter. The joy of discovery outweighs everything else. As I said, the shape of music, the rise and fall, the gestalt of it all, is mostly retained in the lower-res version, enough for one to appreciate the music.
  • Casual vs Critical Listening I don't know about you. Half the time I listen to music in a "casual" way. I would be typing away or reading. But, I still know what is good or bad! And sometimes if it's good, it would stop me in my tracks. Great music making just comes through - there is no barrier, no matter the bit-rate. Many of my audiophile friends (such as BenYC in HK) listen to a lot of Youtube historical material for enjoyment. I do occasionally too. But yes, when I get a craving for sonic thrill, or testing out something, I'd put on a great sounding album and wallow in its glory. There is no substituting that either. Our gigs are supposed to play the best recorded music, but a rounded audiophile has to be able to play sonically lesser material for musical enjoyment.
  • Music Recommendation This Blog has always recommended music. What has troubled me in the last year or so was lack of access to newer recordings. With the streaming service offered by the library, that is history. Now, I can confidently recommend music based on what I hear with the streaming service and be rest assured that what one gets with a hi-res file, or CD, is even better. Meanwhile, I get all the thrills! When you read this, some of my newfound Music Recommendations are already in the side-bar.
  • Genre NML is basically a classical service. There are a limited number of items that are from other genres, but none of them are from the major labels. You are not going to find Bird, Monk, Coltrane, Miles etc (except in negligible crossover works). I'd guess the NYPL platform is basically for Classical Music. Fine for me, but perhaps not for you.
This music service will no doubt immeasurably broaden my horizon. There will be more articles about this, including testing in my horn system, which I suspect will be even more rewarding.

01 January, 2020

Hunting Discovery Repitition New Software vs New Toy

NY Diary (20-1) Jaded?
HiFi Basics: The Joy of Hunting and Discovery, and The Cost of Repetition
HiFi Basics: Looking for and Listening to New Music Material vs New Gear

Note: Today I went over my unfinished articles (many over the years) and was shocked to discover this one, which I thought I had published, but perhaps I accidentally reverted it back to draft form, perhaps to alter something, and then forgot. In any case, it is here, and apt for New Year's Day, for many the day one faces the aftermath of excess.

This article may appear rambling, but it has a logic of its own. The first section starts with how I look for new material to listen to. The second deals with how I look for audio gears. In both, I make some generalizations and dispense some "advices". Recurrent themes are The Joy of Hunting and Discovery, and The Cost of Repetition.

For how I gradually built my system and evolved into an audiophile, a related and relevant article would be the first part of this article.

Keep in mind that, occasional straying notwithstanding, I am still basically value inclined and buy mostly second-hand gears. This goes for software as well as hardware. There is no hurry.

When we say New York City is the greatest city in the world (for me it certainly is), we mean Manhattan. As one who now lives in an outer borough, I regret the lack of a multi-faceted cultural life, particularly since I had once lived in Manhattan for 15 years. Due to current family obligations I do not find that much time to go into the City. Basically I only go to Manhattan when I go to a concert at Carnegie Hall (less so Lincoln Center). When I do go into the City I go out of my way to spend up to an hour browsing for used records.

Looking for and Listening to New Music Material
This is the greatest joy of all, and all music lovers should do that. To me, an ever expanding musical experience is what properly drives the audio experience. The more music one consumes and knows, the better the audio system is likely to sound. Audiophilia detached from music appreciation is hazardous to your well-being, not to mention your ears and wallet.

The Radio In my era, this was very important. I started classical music just by listening to the radio. Ah! The Joy of Discovery! For how I evolved, read the first part of this article. Even today, as FM stations are in decline, there are still good radio stations around. Add to this Internet Radio and Podcasts, one has a good choice. Even if you have a large music library, sometimes, not knowing what comes next is a lot better than staying in your own cocoon.

Reading Fortifying oneself by reading is of immense importance in any human endeavor. This is precisely why modern social media is seriously lacking: you are much more likely to read what others feed you than to research what should be important to you. In my era, once I got into classical music, I read some books from the library, but what I found most informative were liner notes on the back of LPs (and CD booklets), which I always read. This is one thing that is seriously lacking in modern digital media, be it streaming or hi-res files. I also loved the huge compilations, such as the incomparable ALL Music Guide series (one for every genre, each an epic survey in one thick book, still available on Amazon). Particularly, I learned a lot about rock and roll and jazz reading them. Now it is online (point your arrow at "discover" to select your preferred genre) and I still consult it for various items from the library, which frequently are missing the notes. This is the wikipedia of recordings - make sure you use it! For classical music, another of my favorite webpages is musicweb-international.

Browsing for Used LPs and Dollar Bins and Used CDs Shopping for vinyl has been a habit of over 40 years. It reached a peak during the early 90's when CD was starting to overtake LP. For a while I visited the Tower Records Annex almost every night. Though I am now much less often on the move, The Joy of Hunting is still very much on my mind. Although I buy mostly dollar LPs now, and frequently come up empty-handed, the occasional find is enough to keep my going (like the 2 LPs pictured above). I also buy an occasional bargain-bin CD. If you live in a big city and still buy vinyl (or CD), I urge you to get away from the screen, stop buying re-issues and start scourging for used media everywhere, and don't be afraid to get down on your knees for the dollar bins! BTW, in case you don't know, I believe the CD will never die and actually will be slowly more collectible than now.

Recently I added one more chore to my Manhattan routine.

Browsing CDs at the Library This is actually my preferred way of keeping up (to a degree) with new releases. Readers who read my musical recommendations know that I borrow often from the HK libraries when I was there. They also know I wrote about the lack of good music at my local Queens library now. The Central Queens Library at Jamaica has a lot more but nothing remotely like Manhattan's Performing Arts Library, and if I have to take public transportation I might as well go to Manhattan. So I updated my Manhattan library card and added visiting that library to my Manhattan routine. Which is why you sometimes see relatively recent issues in my capsules. That library has rows and rows of CDs (some SACDs) (haven't tackled DVDs and BRs yet). Even before I enter the premise, my heart starts to beat faster - that's The Joy of Hunting! No different from going to a record store, except that this is free. On my last trip I concentrated on the large scaled music of my favorite composers, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler etc and borrowed 25 items (many contain more than one CD). If I don't like a recording I just stopped listening to it, it is that simple, whereas if I had bought it, I'd likely try again to no avail or go into regret mode. The only catch is that they cannot be returned to the Queens Library, so a bit of careful planning is needed. It's too bad I can't visit as often as I like. I asked the clerk and she said some people come in with 3 cards and borrow 150 CD's! If you have a nearby library that has a good collection, visit often!

tchaik6honeckListening Among the crop, there were 3 Bruckner 5th's (Rosbaud/SWR; Herreweghe/HM; Klemperer/Testament), 2 Bruckner 3rd (Rosbaud/SWR; Nelsons/DG), 2 Mahler 5th (Ivan Fischer/Challenge; Adam Fischer/CAvi) and 2 Pathetiques (Honeck/RR; Fischer/Challenge). Much as I love all of these pieces, listening to different versions in a short time blur their distinctions. Aside from different sonic merits, my memory seems not to acknowledge that much significant musical difference in the performances of the 3 Bruckner 5ths. Can that be the case, or have I paid The Cost of Repetition? I think so but, the good news is, a really fresh perspective still duly stood out, like the two recordings pictured, and that is The Joy of Discovery. Incidentally, concerning Reference Recording, touted in hifi circles, I think the quality is over-rated (I actually called up Andy about this, and he concurs with me) and the two SACDs in this crop (the other is Honeck/Beethoven) just sound lumpy to me.

Streaming Although I don't currently do so, I approve of streaming, much more than downloading and purchasing hi-res files. The sound is actually much less important than accumulating experience through browsing (with the advantage of sampling). Through Streaming, young people and music lovers are experiencing The Joy of Hunting and Discovery, and audiophiles should emulate. Some of my friends in HK, like icefox, do so. There are many ways to stream, but even via lowly bluetooth it can still be fun (an experience is recorded at the last section of this article)!

Shop for a New Music Experience rather than an Audio Experience!

Looking for and Listening to New Toys
Make no mistake, this can be a great joy but for the uninitiated there can be a lot of frustrations and traps. Some of the related and relevant issues have been treated in a previous HiFi Basics column (part of this article). Here are further thoughts parallel to the section above:

Reading When it comes to audio gears, it is a whole lot more complicated than reading about recordings. Basically, the relationship between manufacturers and an audio magazine (trade or internet) is a calculated one; too many commercial and non-audio factors are involved. Whereas, for a review of a recording, it is much simpler, as evidenced by the fact that negative reviews are gratifyingly common. I do read the trade magazines, but I look at them as useful sources of information, not truth. I don't often buy new, but as a result of reading I certainly have done so a few times (particularly phonoamps, like my Fosgate Signature, Parasound JC3 and the LCR Aurorasound Vida) but I'd not buy anything more expensive than those based on what I read in the magazines. As for the web, I can only say many sites are just as commercial, and not worth reading about. Again, use them as source of information, but take in all the hyperboles with a coarse grain of salt. YMMV.

Used and Vintage Equipment Another reason most magazines are not worth reading is because most only deal with the present. That is a big mistake. Context is important, and knowledge of hifi history and vintage equipment is a plus. This is why I value HiFi News (dedicated in-depth vintage articles) and Stereophile (which keeps archiving valuable old articles by the likes of J Gordon Holt, an excellent critic) much more than everything-newer-is-better TAS. A few webzines also have some writers with at least some vintage knowledge and perspective (like TNT, and sometimes dagogo, among others), and they are usually the better ones.

Sourcing Used Equipment The Good Old Days In the heydays of hifi, before the advent of the internet, there were many ways to buy used equipment. A friend introduced me to Walter Bender's Audiomart (a useful thread here), a subscription pamphlet that had a huge listing of used equipment. That was how I got my Eico's and a pair of Motiograph's (I think the seller was named Sunny and he taught me a few things). But it was easier for us in big cities, where there were many audio stores around, where we got exposure to a lot of used and vintage equipment. One could walk into Manhattan's Audio Exchange's basement and see a roomful of McIntosh and Marantz among other lesser known but equally desirable stuff, and that was where I bought my first serious turntable, Thorens TD-125 with an SME cutout and a pair of Dahlquist DQ-10 (covered in this article; I think it was circa 1985). I still remember the salesman, a tall guy with leather jacket who looked like a Harley rider. It got even crazier after 1992, when I went back to HK for my unexpectedly long teaching stint: there were so many shops selling second-hand and vintage hifi (I am sure more than any city in the world) that I basically went browsing everyday after work (second-hand CDs too). The great thing about HK is that you can find products from everywhere, including many excellent Japanese vintage equipment unobtainable in the US. Of course, I ended up buying much more than I ever need but it was a great learning experience! Ah, The Joy of Hunting and Discovery! Ebay The next wave that shook the world was of course Ebay. Unfortunately, I was not a very early purveyor, as prices just shot up. Still, in the late 90's I was basically hooked and bought a lot of equipment and tubes. What made it special is that there are pictures, so we get to see real pics of what we have only heard of before and even more of what we have never heard of before. Of course, a lot of audio trading platforms followed suit, but none was as educational as Ebay, where one doesn't just buy (I have never sold) but also learn. For a vintage afficionado, The Joy of Hunting and Discovery! But then, after several years accumulating and even duplicating stuff ("cannot resist that bargain") I was getting burnt out, and that is The Cost of Repetition.

Listening I don't have to tell anyone reading this that listening to a new toy can be fun, but I do want to remind you that it can easily also be a disappointment, especially if you believe in all the hooplas dished out by the audio press. Unless you are a beginner, the joy of listening to a new piece of gear (even one that you love) is likely a lot less than discovering a new piece of music that you love. The law of diminishing return really applies to audio (and collecting CDs and LPs too), no matter how much money you throw at it. That is all OK and expected. What I really want to explore are the pathological types of audiophiles, and I count myself as one.

Overstocked By this I mean too many possessions, for which I am guilty. As one gets on in age and mortality looms larger, it is something to think about. For practical and psychological reasons, selling is a lot harder than buying. It is quite likely none of your family shares your passion for audio, and they certainly don't know the worth of your stuff. Moreover, unused gears tend to break down, repair is a hassle and you get next to nothing by selling as is. Do you face all these problems? If so, trim your possessions for a better state of mind. If you have too many CD players or amplifiers or what not, you are paying for The Cost of Repetition. I certainly am.

Overstuffed By this I mean too complicated a system configuration, for which I am not guilty (multiple sources don't count in this). Whether in art or cuisine, practitioners and connoisseurs know the meaning of economy and scale - it is best to have not too much nor too little. But audio is different, a more private affair, and we are both the practitioners as well as our own audience, making it harder to develop a critical facility. If you ask me, many of the systems I have encountered are overstuffed. Offenders are many in both the digital and analog arenas. CAS people can fiddle endlessly with computer parameters, connection, clocks etc, whereas analog addicts lust after turntables bigger than your seat, fiddling with pumps and vacuum, constantly adjusting intricate arms that make them curse every time. And then there are the myriad cables, accessories and tweaks that mostly change the sound for the worse.

Overly Trustful/Hopeful By this I mean a certain naivety in audiophile beliefs, a misplaced trust in reviews (whether magazines or online) and peers, rather than one's ears: Upgrades I don't have much sympathy for this. Why is Mk II better than Mk I? And why didn't they design the improvements in the first go? The worst example is Wilson Watt/Puppy, basically incoherent loudspeakers that went through 7 or more iterations, each lauded by the press as a significant advance, while the unreasonably loyal customers paid through the nose for Wilson to learn how to make a proper loudspeaker. Absurd. No self-respecting artist will make "incremental improvements" to his work. As for upgrading to the next level product, that is likely just as bad and as much a rip-off. The best example is probably Audio Note UK, whose upgrades are based on the same things, just adding over-priced components to the same circuit. Unfortunately, their business model is successful and copied by many others. And mods! All these mods that promise to take you to the next level and what do you end up with? Selling at a greater loss than usual, of course. In my opinion, the biggest victims of upgrades are those with less money, who'd cling onto this slow upgrade thing as a line to advancement. I'd rather spend money on trying things that are very different. An "upgraded" X is still genetically X, but a Y or Z may pay different dividends. Cables This is now regarded as an essential part of the system, and I agree cables matter. BUT, being a satisfied long-term user of professional cables, I despise the expense and cost of the so-called high end cables. I have heard systems cabled with all top-of-the-line Siltech, but they did nothing for me - colored and unnatural is what I'd say. Also, cables are so system dependent that I really do not think reviewers should review, let alone recommend, audiophile offeringsAccessories The press (particularly TAS, as in Cables) is again most contemptible in this aspect. Power Conditioners, all manners of isolation devices and room treatment - how do you properly review them? Treat these as anecdotal, but it is BIG business! If you have even a little bit of DIY trait, you can invent some yourself. Breakthroughs and Menu du Jour For those more endowed, the hyperboles of the press lead them to try one thing after another. Don't forget, solid state was a BIG breakthrough, and what happened? Tubes came back. I don't mean to demean innovative circuits, for they are deserving of praise (Berning's MicroZOTL comes to mind), but "breakthrough" is an overused word. And in terms of the best sound obtainable, there has been no overall improvement in the history of hifi. Don't let the press fool you.

I have to stop here, as I am repeating myself somewhat. Happy New Year!

30 December, 2019

On Headphone Listening Pt. II Sennheiser HD600/650 Stax SRA-12S ZMF Focal Audio-Technica

From mrgoodsound: Follow-up Thoughts On Headphone Listening

This is a Part II post. For Part I, please see here.

For this post, I would like to share some philosophy on what makes headphone listening engaging to me, and provide some context with my own headphone experience.

The X Factor

Before I begin, I'd like to state that I do experience 'goosebumps', 'shivers' or 'frisson' from auditory stimuli, including hearing the right music on a 'good' system. I open with this because from what I understand this physical reaction to sound is unique to each individual and not everyone experiences this, or experiences it the same way.

All audiophiles have individual 'sounds' that they are looking (listening?) for whenever they audition a system or individual component. These 'sounds' are more felt as much as they are heard, and the enthusiast knows if system Y or component Z has 'it', even if they cannot express 'it' in words their colleagues will understand. Often as their colleagues are listening for their own 'sounds'. To simplify, I will just call the presence of these 'sounds' the X factor.

I am not sure if there is any greater audiophile thrill than the discovery of a component or combination of components that contains your personal X factor, or if there is any greater disappointment than substantial investment into a system or component which does not.

I wouldn't be able to effectively communicate in words my personal X factor to the reader for multiple reasons, the biggest of which is the shared vernacular we audiophiles use to discuss sounds has some words so completely diluted by the mainstream press and the un-experienced that they have become meaningless. Instead my goal is to give some ideas of what I am looking for in a good headphone system, in order to achieve goosebumps. I think this is important to discuss, because I spent so much time, money and frustration trying to obtain the correct balance of these traits.

  • Tonality/timbre: Unfortunately there is a disturbing trend in the high-end headphone market to sacrifice even response or natural timbre for lightning fast transient response and shoving macro-detail into your face (literally). Admittedly, it is difficult to begin with to get a driver smaller than your palm firing directly at your ear from millimeters away to produce anything resembling a linear response. In a speaker system, I can actually be more forgiving of vulgarities from metal domes and HF horns in exchange for liveliness and immediacy. With headphones, I do not feel the trade off is as worth it, and avoiding fatigue takes higher priority. Focal comes to mind as an offender, as I cannot listen their Utopia ($4000) or Clear ($1500) models for more than a few tracks without serious fatigue from metallic timbre and overemphasized leading edge transients.

  • Imaging: In my opinion precision imaging is very overrated in all forms of sound reproduction. Of course with headphones the acoustic interaction of a listening room is not part of what reaches your ear-brain system, and we get a presentation similar to near-field monitors, albeit even more intimate. But who wants to focus with laser precision on tiny instruments on a tiny stage inside their head? My favorite headphone systems have generally been a bit diffuse or even 'smeared' with how aural images are spread out.

  • Soundstage: Headphone listening can be described as intimate for a number of reasons. I will say that I dislike headphone systems that sound too 'in-your-head'. We are talking about a few millimeters here, but the best systems I've heard were able to project a sound-field slightly in front of my eyes, with a teeny tiny bit of front-to-back depth. This is in contrast to a flat plane of sound inside my head, behind my eyeballs. The latter is what is typical from even very expensive solid-state headphone amplifiers, the headphone outs of receivers, integrated amps, and CD players.

  • Euphony: It is highly desirable for me to have a headphone system to lean towards 'euphony'. This is a cop-out descriptor I admit, a lot like 'musical', it doesn't mean much by itself. But to achieve a mouth-open-drooling-stupor listening session, I want music to be played through my headphones imbued with a bit of richness or saturation of tone, that I don't necessarily 'need' in a two-channel system to stay interested. So far I have only achieved satisfaction in this area with models from Sennheiser, AudioTechnica, ZMF, and certain vintage Stax (only with un-amplified acoustic material).

Practical Headphone Advice Based On Experience

Over the past few years I have squandered my fair share of money on headphones and headphone amplifiers trying to chase a type of sound I formulated in my head (that I never quite reached). I really don't want to present myself as any sort of expert, and I try in general to avoid dogmatic thought now more than ever. However I have formed very strong opinions after several years and the below encapsulates my thoughts (read: biases) on the various types of headphone gear available on the market, broken down by driver type/manufacturer.

Dynamic Headphones

I am heavily biased to dynamic driver (moving cone) headphones.

Sennheiser: For me, the undisputed king of the hill is the Sennheiser HD600/650 (doesn't matter which, I like them both equally). They win at linearity from the lower mids through the presence region, have above average resolving ability and as such service all genres of music. These models have been around for ages, can be modified to slightly improve performance past stock and are available at prices anyone can afford. Their high-impedance voice coils make them suited to what I believe is the ideal amplifier topology for headphones, output transformer-less valve amplifiers. I do not care at all for the HD800, which is perhaps the most overrated headphone of all time.

ZMF: Relative newcomer, as they have released several models that have become very popular in recent years. Also using high-impedance dynamic drivers, and besting the Sennheiser HD600 in several technical areas such as bass extension and cleanliness of transients. My opinions vary on their models from strong dislike (Eikon) to like (Auteur). Ultimately I find them to be too expensive for what they are and the approach of using wooden enclosures as a tuning mechanism not ideal, but novel. I really understand why they have a strong fan base though, it is deserved for at least having a unique approach which works to taste.

Focal: Strong dislike. All of their models retain irregular, metallic timbre with vulgar overtones on string instruments. Very comfortable and well built.

Audio-Technica: Unfortunately, only their discontinued models are worth the time of day, many of which are fetching collectors prices on the second-hand market now. They frequently have 'Japanese' tuning which is far from neutral but suites certain genres. The best models have emphasis on fast transient response and airy but warm sound. I really like AD-2000.

Headphone bonanza from 2017 Toronto meet-up.

Electrostatic Headphones

These are supposed to be the 'most advanced' headphones, using ultra-thin membranes which are electrically energized to produce sound. I had attended a headphone enthusiast meet-up several years ago in which I heard all the modern Stax models, many vintage units, and several expensive electrostatic amplifiers. Based on this experience, I had written off electrostats as wispy and limp sounding and unable to cope with electric music. This opinion persisted until very recently.

Stax: I dislike the SR-009 and SR-007 mkII based on my listening experiences at the aforementioned meetup and again at a dealer in Toronto with Stax's own recommended energizer units. I recently acquired from a friend three vintage Stax models, the SR-3, New SR-3, and SR-5; as well as the SRA-12S integrated earspeaker amplifier/pre-amplifier, which has changed my opinion. These very early units (1970s) have thicker diaphragms versus the ultra-thin modern models, and trade some transient response for a warmer sound with a bit more heft, a bit more euphony. I still find them largely allergic to electric music, but they impress with jazz and chamber music. I will write more on these models and the SRA-12S (a very interesting unit indeed) in a separate post.

Stax SRA-12S amp + SR-5 headphones. One of the best headphone setups I have heard.

Sennheiser: I had the opportunity to hear the HE-60, with its own drive unit and several electrostatic amplifiers. It is the real deal, too laid back for my taste but again absolutely charming with acoustic music. Unfortunately these are becoming very difficult to find in good condition and fetch collectors prices.

From what I understand speaking with individuals more experienced with owning electrostatic headphones than I, the real issue with building a 'good' electrostatic system is a shortage of 'good' electrostatic amplifiers/energizer units. From what I can tell, Stax themselves have manufactured a grand total of two amplifiers which were all tube-based from input to output. Their modern models are all hybrids, either with FET input and triode output or vice versa. The most popular 'high-end' commercial offerings are solid-state. There are very few all tube-based units, many of which are cost prohibitive and fewer still employing DHTs.

Orthodynamic (Planar) Headphones

To date I am wholly unimpressed with this category of headphones. I feel that orthodynamic headphones have too many compromises in vital areas of sound and tend to homogenize music more than electrodynamics or electrostatic types.

Audeze/Hifiman: These two companies are really two sides of the same terrible coin. They engage in anti-consumer practices such as price creep, product variation, silent revisions, terrible quality control and shoddy customer service. They release new models every few months with minuscule tuning differences, but slowly and surely increasing the prices. Two pairs of the same Audeze model can sound drastically different, with variations of up to a few dB in published, repeated measurements. Hifiman all follow virtually the same tuning, with a depressed presence region and bump in the lower treble that I do not like at all. Their most expensive models don't do much to distinguish from the inexpensive ones.

MrSpeakers: Very well built and very comfortable. Strong dislike. Completely dead, dull, lifeless. Frequently releases new models with minor engineering revisions for higher prices, ruining resale for existing owners who did not even have the latest model for 6 months. Has recently re-branded to Dan Clark Audio.

In terms of sound, I find all of the orthodynamics I have experienced thus far homogenize too much in too many areas of reproduction including dynamic compression, lack of micro-dynamic expressiveness and very colored presence to brilliance regions. Orthodynamics are also traditionally hungry for current and recommended to pair with solid-state amplifiers. They will not respond to output transformer-less valve amps. Their main sonic advantage is deep bass extension with low harmonic distortion, which is on the bottom of my personal priority list. The only plus side I can think of is that these two brands have extensive distribution and dealer networks, so most living in metropolitan areas can audition before buying. Perhaps the tuning or presentation will agree with you, or you primarily listen to electronic music where deep bass is a priority, and the pricing on an open box or 'demo' unit will make sense. I cannot really recommend these though for the reasons stated above.

A visual summary of the above paragraphs.

On Headphone Amplifiers

In the next article of this series on headphone listening, I will discuss my experience with headphone amplifiers and offer some practical advise. I will also discuss in detail the Stax SRA-12S integrated energizer/pre-amplifier which is a very high value for money unit, if you can find one used.

Until then, Happy New Year and thanks for reading!

28 December, 2019

Year in Review

Click pics to enlarge.

Year in Review, 10th Anniversary Edition: 2019

I started this blog in 2008, but did not add this feature till 2010, so this year marks the 10th anniversary of the Year in Review feature, which I think is a useful capsular summary for the year. A reader can read each one for what I liked most that year. This has been a stressful year for the family, so fewer acquisitions, but what I did get were of superb quality! Read on!

New Features This year marks the first that the blog has a new writer, and I am happy that it happened just like that! In the coming year, I may just solicit some more articles from friends. Andy, in particular, is a treasure trove, and has written a lot on various forums, but it is hard to tap him. I also thought to interview my friends on how they got into audio. Let's see...

Man of The Year
This category is a First! Of course, it has to be Kevin, who has acquired and done so much this year that this blog has worked hard to track him. I thank him for all the good time, the great food, and of course for making my Thorens TD-124 arm board! His DIY and restoration efforts are also deserving of praise. I am still amazed by his DIY Tonearms (bottom pic; feel my admiration? description here) and Cactus Cantilever/Stylus (left pic, click to enlarge, here). This man re-invents himself virtually every minute; watch this space!

Loudspeakers of the Year
What else! Infinity! Although the sound changes often, sometimes for the worse, Kevin's forever in-flux RS-1B system earns my Best Sound of the Year. No less a picky man than JBL horn user Simon said the Infinity is good enough for playing everything, and indeed that is what I think too (we maintain the same for horns too). Considering it has only been a few months, it is a miracle! Even more of a legend and housed in a larger room, Mark's IRS Beta is potentially even better (here) but I have heard them only once and am still waiting for another invitation. If you ever wonder why a horn lover would fall for a line source loudspeaker, read this article! Other types of loudspeakers are only also-run's. We have to thank our great leader Andy for inspiring these 2 to choose to go down this path, and if not for his experience they would not have mastered the sound so soon. 

Best Component of the Year
The Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 (MZ2) (here) is the hands down winner. It is a 1 watt amp, preamp and headphone amp in one. I have tested it thoroughly as an amp and it is a horn lover's dream. I have also tested it as preamp and headphone amp and it is equally great (more report to follow). Considering its multiple functions, it is actually a bargain.

Bargain of the Year
Given, in kit form, its ridiculously and improbable low price, it has to be the Akitika GT-102 (here). If not for the LTA, I'd have voted it as best component of the year, that is how fond of it I am. It works a charm with my LS3/5A and is now my go-to amp for that! It has actually rejuvenated my interest in the LS3/5A and more on that may follow. Mind you, I have heard the LS3/5A with all the greatest tube amps, and the Akitika can be considered in their company, with a quite different sets of virtues.

Cartridge of the Year, and More
The most gratifying thing to me is what VAS is doing, which is both re-tipping (repair) and selling modified cartridges (usually Denon DL-103) under the VAS name, like many others (Zu, for example), but VAS goes far beyond them in modification (not just a shell change, but tinkering with everything else). Repair This is a crazy business only for those simultaneously steady of hand and crazy in mind, two things that don't usually go together (like IQ and EQ). Some people want the original sound (like I for my Koetsu Black (here) and Denon DL-301 Mk II, which Steven delivered with a sure hand), and there are others who want a different sound. I personally think Steven has truly mastered his craft and has significant insights of his own. VAS Cartridges The VAS 103 series are impressive. While the stereo (here) is excellent, the 103 Ebony Mono scaled new heights (here) and is my cartridge of the year.

DL-301 Mk II Although mine is VAS re-tipped, since I compared it to the original (here) I am confident this is an excellent cartridge, a good buy in it price class. For those who want a even-handed approach, a sleeper. Of course, don't forget its more famous sibling, the even cheaper evergreen DL-103, for which I need to say nothing more!

Shure SC35C (and M44-7) Although Shure has ended their cartridge making (a despicable decision certainly made by executives oblivious of tradition), many good examples can still be bought on Ebay at prices that are higher than before but are still commensurate with the quality of these transducers. The SC35C has always been of broadcast quality (here), and the M44-7 I have always liked too (here).

Vintage CD Players
Not all vintage CD Players are good, far from it. But, many people (there is a huge subculture here) have long known a whole class of CDPs using early Philips chips, the 14-bit (TDA-1540) 4x oversampling machines and the later but ubiquitous cheap 16-bit (TDA 1543, non-oversampling) ones are very musical (my recent re-visit here). A disc like Shirley Horn's May the music never end (Verve, CD) is sparse and can be quite bland when played by a modern player, but her distinctive and instantly recognizable vocal style, with its inimitable pauses, silence and cadence, is poignantly cast by the old CDPs. Incredible. I shall be listening and writing more on this, one of my favorite topics.

And so do old CD transports impress. I have long used the old Theta Data and Basic, and more recently, firing up my old Meridian 200 just pleasantly surprised me (here).

Time to Collect CDs Funny thing is, red-book physical CD is now considered a thing of the past. Me? I don't think so. And, these old CDPs can really throw you; you owe it to yourself to listen to a few for beer money. Come to think of it, a couple of so-called craft-beer or even one of the more expensive newer "natural" stuff, can easily buy you a machine! As for used CDs, in thrift stores they are worth next to nothing; great time to collect!

Click the image to open in full size.Elekit Continues its SE Quest
Having been occupied by the LTA, I have not yet listened to it that much, but from just first impression the new Elekit TU-8800 (left pic; review here) is surely their strongest amp in a long time. The output transformers are beefy and the amp can use more tubes than any other pentode/tetrode tubes that I can remember, including my TU-8300 (which however is also a 300B amp). VKmusic, the American distributor, is in the final stages of developing an upgrade of Lundahl transformers, so those interested may want to wait a little. I'd definitely try it out with my favorite flea-powered 6V6, which most who buy this amp would not do. But my horns are 104 db, so I wonder how does it compare with its much more modest sibling, the dedicated 6V6/6AQ5 amp, TU-8150 (right pic, review here), which I personally enjoy a lot but would hesitate to recommend to others whose loudspeakers are not nearly as efficient as mine. Both let you choose between Triode and Ultralinear, but the latter also unusually offers a pentode option, which I prefer.

As one's system improves (I sure hope this is your case), from time to time one should rotate in surplus gears for re-evaluations. Sometimes one is surprised, or reminded of certain aspects of audio reproduction. See, improvement is almost never all-encompassing. A gain in an area seldom comes without the cost of a loss in another. As we make compromises (we all do), we forget. It is good to remind ourselves. This year I have not done much revisits, but certainly re-visits to current amplification phonoamp AQVOX 2 CI Mk II (here and here) and Micromega MyDac (here) made me smile! I have also re-enlisted the service of the Fosgate Signature Phonoamp and Air Tight PC-1 cartridge (here). The PC-1, one of the first super-cartridges, sets such a high bar that others (even the Koetsu Black) struggle to come up against it. The Fosgate, which I have written up only in piecemeal fashion (but this is its third mention in Year in Review), is amazing in that it possesses the best virtues of both tube and ss, even if it is all-tube (I wonder about its newer Black Ice iteration). Hopefully, the coming year shall see a lot more re-visits, in the analog as well as digital realm.

Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Bluetooth Headphones with Mic and Qualcomm aptX Support (8323 with Bluetooth)-Large-Image-1Earphone
I was really surprised by the even-handed performance of the cheap Monoprice Bluetooth Earphone (here), a great buy!

What I Miss
It surprised me a little. In NYC, I have over 10,000 records and at least over 2,000 CDs (some brought over from HK), but on more than one occasion I yearn for a CD that I had in HK. It shows no library is too large! Of course, I miss many people and things in HK too.

I wish you a purposeful and fulfilling 2020!