16 February, 2018

Altec A7, Bell, Grommes, WE 285L, Langevin 402B, Ortofon MC-5000, T-20

Click pic to enlarge. Bottom Row, Bell Amps; Middle Row, C-J PV5 to the left and Premier 3 to the right; Top: from R, C-J PV-75, Grommes Amps, Sun Audio 2A3.
Two 6V6 Amps: Bell 2122 and Grommes Little Jewel LJ5
Ortofon MC-5000 Cartridge (vs Ortofon hot-rodded 2M Red)
Three Step-Up Transformers: Ortofon T-20, WE 285L, Langevin 402B
More Horns Without Pain: Altec A7
Letter from NYC (77) 2018 (3): The Amazing 6V6

After hearing the A5, barely a day had passed when Andy and I visited Kevin to hear the A7 (previous visit here.) Equipment had changed a bit. Through a mutual friend, he acquired an Ortofon MC-5000 which had previously belonged to me! Before I left for HK last time, I had also lent him my Bell 2122 and Grommes Little Jewel LJ5. For this round I also brought with me the WE 285L and Langevin 402B SUT's for fun. Equipment:

Analog: VPI Prime; Arm 1 with Ortofon 2M Red hot-rodded (MM); Arm 2 with Ortofon MC5000 (MC)
MC Step Up's: Ortofon T-20, WE 285L, Langevin 402B
Phonoamp: Conrad-Johnson Premier 3 (using Tape Out)
Preamp: none for Bell 2122; C-J Premier 3 for Grommes LJ5
Amps: Bell 2122 and Grommes LJ5
Loudspeakers: Altec A7 augmented by JBL 075 as supertweeters and an old subwoofer

Here I shall detour to write briefly on what I know of 6V6 tube and amps. As power rube, the 6V6 is famously still used in guitar amps, but now rarely in hifi. I probably know and have heard more than most audio tube aficionados, as the 6V6 tube's low power precludes useful applications with conventional loudspeakers, which won't do it justice like an efficient horn would. And that's a shame, as it is one of the most wonderful tubes!

Overview: 6V6 Tube and Amps

  • 6V6 Tube Astonishingly, the 6V6, like the 6L6, has been in continuous use since its inception in 1936 and, if I am lucky, will get to witness its centenary less than twenty years from now! For a surprisingly good history, read this wikipedia entry. Sonics The intrinsic sound of the 6V6 can be described as possessing uncommon clarity and lucidity (that other tetrodes/pentodes struggle to equal, let alone surpass). In fact, some knowledgeable old timers in HK regard this tube as 琴王, meaning "king", nonpareil in the portrayal of the violin (or other stringed instruments). On the other hand, perhaps due to its low power, it often sounds a little lean in the bass. Like the 45, there are a huge number of different old stock 6V6s out there, and almost all brands and constructions sound very good. 6V6G vs 6V6GT As usual for G vs GT, the earlier and larger G (ST type) has a warmer sound than the smaller GT type. However, to me (and I just found out, to Kevin), the 6V6G lags quite a bit behind 6V6GT in resolution and speed, which doesn't stop it from being favored by the "older is better" vintage crowd (prevalent in Asia; I know many of them and imho they don't know what high fidelity is). Big Family The 6V6 is but one member of a large family, with siblings and cousins like 6F6 (used in a lot of radios, and said by some to be closest to WE349A), 6Y6, 6W6, 6K6, etc. Perhaps the most famous "cousin" is the WE349A, whose price was driven up insanely partly because of people who use it as substitute for the 6V6, a dubious application in an attempt to get the "WE sound on the cheap". Durability The 6V6 is known to have a good life and survive beyond its ratings. However, I don't feel this to be true of Russian and Chinese tubes - I had quite a few die (same for Russian 6SN7/6SL7) when I first fired up my old Audio Note Kit 4, but that was a long time ago (perhaps current ones are better; I sure hope so).
  • 6V6 Usage Amps For a while, from the forties to the fifties, the 6V6, like the 6L6, was ubiquitous in home use amps (loudspeakers of the day were efficient). Therefore, there were innumerable models, even from the same company, though, in terms of sheer number, they were outnumbered by the higher powered 6L6, which survived for much longer after the emergence of stereo and lower efficiency loudspeakers. Topology As for the era, most 6V6 amps were mono Push-Pull and had classic, simple designs. Most were mass market Integrated Amps with a Phono Section (usually employing 6SC7). There were fewer Power Amps, which usually employed larger irons and were built to a higher standards (like Radiocraftsman C-400 and RC-2, McIntosh 15W-1/20W-2, WE made by Dukane KS-16617-L1), though some were integrated with loudspeakers in consoles or guitar amps (like Ampex), and some were for professional use (like Langevin, descended from WE; one may also count the WE 133, which employed the 349A). In terms of Circuit, they can be roughly divided into two eras: the earlier ones were driven by an Octal Tube (typically 6SL7, like the Bell 2122 here), which were later replaced by the smaller Noval Tube (typically 12AX7, like the Grommes LJ5 here), an evolution exemplified by the various iterations of the Bell 2122 and Grommes LJ amps over their life spans. In Our Times 6V6 is little used. Classic push-pull operation were few and far in-between, some examples being the Audio Note Kit 4 of yore and, more recently, an amp module from Swiss hi-end Swissonor. The 6V6 is sometimes used in DIY amps by horn or fullrange driver users, mostly in Single-Ended configuration (like the Sun Audio 6V6 amp). It should be known that there were a few vintage SE 6V6 amps (like the one auditioned here in this blog). The 6V6 is also known as a good Driver Tube, used in many DIY applications, with or without interstage (as well as in commercial products, one example being the Audio Note Jinro; the related 6Y6 is also used as driver in Wavac SET 811 and 300B amps).
  • Bell 2122 I acquired this pair (an "A") from an old hand, whose Altec A5 was amongst the best horn sound I have heard. He had restored it meticulously and proof was in the listening. Here are notes from a previous 6V6 listening session more than seven years ago! The History of Bell can be found hereBell 2122 The site claims the 2122 was rolled out in the late 40's, but  some 2122's for sale that I have seen claim those were manufactured in the 50's, so the model could have had a long life. Some also had a sticker proclaiming "licensed by Western Electric" (what is not?). We do know that the later 2122C replaced the 6SL7 driver with the smaller 12AX7, and by 1957 Bell had rolled out their completely different looking slimline models.
  • Grommes Little Jewel LJ5 Grommes has survived today as Grommes Precision, whose webiste has a History Page. Its cached Past Product Guide did not have the LJ5, but one can see that, as in Bell products, by the time of LJ5 (circa 1957) the noval 12AX7 had replaced the 6SL7 used in its predecessor LJ2. There is more info on LJ5 in radiomuseum. By 1959 their amps had become slim-line like Bell.
Info: Ortofon MC-5000 Cartridge; Ortofon T-20, WE 285L, Langevin 402B SUT

  • Ortofon MC-5000 This is second from the top in Ortofon's '000 series (Official Info) and employs the famous Replicant Stylus diamond which continues on successors like the Winfield, A90/A95 and Anna. The MC-5000's internal impedance is 6 ohm and output is 0.14 mV. This is one of my reference cartridges and my experience is briefly documented here
  • Ortofon T-20 (Official Info) This was originally designed for the MC200 cartridge which has an output of 0.09 mV and internal impedance of 3 ohm, both even lower than the MC-5000, which however should still be an excellent match.
  • WE 285L Western Electric 285L, the input transformer for the 124-B Amp, has a secondary of 75k ohms (pins 5 and 6) and two primaries. The 600 ohm primary (pins 1 and 4) was used for microphone/professional inputs (in conjunction with the 170B) and the 124-B is configured as such. But it also has a 30 ohm input (pins 2 and 3) which makes it suitable for use as a step-up transformer for certain cartridges, and the MC-5000 should be one of them.  
  • Langevin 402B This is reputed to be internally identical to the WE 618A. Like the WE 285L, it also has a 30 ohm primary (in addition to 120 ohm). Secondary is 50k. The figures seem perfect for a SUT and suitable for the MC-5000.
Sonic Impressions

  • General The Altec A7 turned in another fine performance. In this incarnation it seemed quite a bit smoother than the A5 we heard at R's. Although this might be partly be the intrinsic character, I think there could have been more transient information and attack. Sound with 6V6 furthered the promise shown last time with the Sun Audio (the C-J MV-75 need not apply).
  • Bell 2122 After amplification by the phono section of the C-J Premier 3, line level signal via Tape Out was fed directly into the Bell. The sound exhibited all the lucidity the 6V6 is famous for, with superb microdynamics, articulation, rhythm and pace, save for bass which was a little lean. It should be mentioned that this pair has the phono section disengaged. A brief mention here that Andy also has a pair with the phono section intact and less luxuriously restored. He thinks it doesn't sound as good, so restoration is a trial and error thing and demands patience.
  • Grommes LJ5 Unlike the above, this was not directly driven, rather controlled through the Premier 3's line section. Despite addition of a preamp and regardless of where the volume knob was set on the Grommes, the sound was softer than the Bell 2122, with less microdynamic nuance. However, the smoothness was eminently suitable for classical replay. It should be noted that the phono section is intact in this pair and we surmised that the ceramic coupling capacitors were compromising the sound.
  • Ortofon MC-5000 and 2M Red With classicals the MC-5000 turned in a performance much as I remembered it - very neutral and detailed, with excellent rendition of microdynamics. The Ortofon T-20 initially sounded quite coarse but became quite decent when proper VTA was dialed in. However, it was thoroughly outclassed by the WE 285L, which turned in the best performance that I have heard from it (better than in my setups), with that je ne sais quoi subtlety and finesse that is WE, where every phrase becomes distinct, with nonpareil rhythmic pointing and flow. The Langevin 402B did not fare as well in this setting. However, jazz and pop were quite bland and here the hot-rodded and peaky 2M Red gave good performances. This puzzled me as I don't recall such preference when I used the MC-5000.

  • 6V6 Amps With high efficiency horns, 6V6 should be seriously considered. Aside from the most famous models they are very reasonably priced, especially the integrated amps covered here. However, our experience poses questions: one wonders why the outwardly similar Bell and Grommes sound so different (even why two pairs of Bell sound different): is it due to the difference between driver tubes, restoration methods (like removal of unused stages) or component use (particularly caps)? There is no quick answer, and I promise you shall hear more of it. However, one thing is certain, particularly with more complicated integrated's - it would be highly desirable if you have some electronic knowledge and soldering skills to tackle the vagaries of restoration (the most important asset though is a good ear). Integrated vs Power Amps The ubiquitous integrated's tend to be more mass-market. Compared to the more famous power amps, they have much smaller output transformers, but, as heard, they sound just as good in their own ways. I have heard most of the famous big power amp brothers with big transformers, like the Radiocraftsman RC-2 and C-400 and the Dukane KS-16617-L1, and I don't think they sound as nimble as they less "endowed" brothers (I had better impressions of Ampex and McIntosh). When it comes to output transformers, size matters and it may not always be "the bigger the better".
  • The SUT's Those considered here are theoretically all suitable for low cartridges with low internal impedances, and so they proved. But it is amazing how different they sounded, and the spec's really are meaningless. The Ortofon T-20 is good value for money. But, for a lot more money, the WE 285L was remarkably much more enticing, though the Langevin 402B sounds better in my own setup (with 3 ohm Air Tight PC-1 and Shindo Monbrisson MM). The cartridge and the cable (I went through 8 cables to find the right one for my Langevin) make a huge difference - synergy is the word. My own thinking is, like arms and cartridges, you cannot have too many SUT's.
  • The Perfect Complement What is audio without good friends and good food? I thank Kevin for painstakingly making every one of his house specialty, Shanghai Style Wonton. The stir-fried cauliflower with cured pork (home made by Stephen's relative) was equally inspiring. All washed down with two excellent wines from Andy! Thank you all, if all audio meets were so fulfilling for the ears and tastebuds!
  • Spec's and Rules For a hobby that relies so utterly on our senses, it is amazing how many audiophiles choose to believe less in their ears than in spec's and rules. So many newcomers on the internet seek opinions, so many more trolls offer opinion based solely on spec's and rules rather than experience! I do think while one should have some technical grounding, proof in the pudding is in listening. Early in this session, I found the sound of the MC-5000 a bit unnerving. I discovered that the tail of the tonearm was way down, and so raised it by almost 1 cm! Sound smoothed out quite a bit, while theoretically it should perhaps have gone the other way. Andy surmised perhaps it was because of the profile of the Replicant Stylus. Who knows! Our rooms and equipment do not function in an anechoic chamber, and there are always local anomalies. If we spend a lot of time positioning loudspeakers (and one should) we should equally spend time matching equipment and cables. Spec's and Rules are not at all everything! In hifi, think SET amps, Non-Oversampling, even active preamps (which many think are unnecessary) and cables (which many laughably think all sound the same). Well, in the picture below are some closely spec'ed craft beers, and they all taste dramatically different. Incidentally, if you ask me, American Craft Beers are now the best in the world. Thumbs up for choice!

13 February, 2018

Altec A5, WE124, Marantz 8B, Jadis JA-80, JPS2, Citation I, McIntosh Verdin P-153

Click pic to enlarge. Front to Back: WE 124; Marantz 8B, Jadis JA-80, McIntosh Verdin P-153. Subwoofer behind center channel.

Growing Up Without Pain! One Lucky Man's A5
Jadis JA-80, Marantz 8B, WE 124, McIntosh Verdin P-153
Jadis JPS2 vs Harmon Kardon Citation I
Letter from NYC (76) 2018 (2): Smorgasbord!

That Horny Feeling What would life be without our taskmaster R (you last met him recently, here)? Contented now with the big Wilson rig in his cavernous living room, he immediately set about to fill the void in his previous man-cave and theater room, where the Wilson's had literally struggled to be heard. Being a jazz fan under the influence of mentor/team leader Andy, he was somehow (rightly) drawn to horns (without having heard much).

The Great Debate Since the den was vacated, the team had spent much time fruitlessly debating on whether JBL or Altec or even Klipsch would be best for R. Simon has always been a JBL fan, and in some ways I concur - it is usually much easier to get good sound out of JBL (better crossovers) than Altec (notorious crossover woes, which I am not at all sure is always justified). On the other hand, I thought a good pair of classic Klipsch is a complete solution - the stock crossovers work well (and I prefer them to the many overhyped aftermarket kits) and you need not do much tweaking. However, some of us, myself and likely Andy, do feel that, when properly implemented, Altec delivers the most.

Men at Work It all came to fruition during my absence. A late alnico Altec A5 system was sourced from Andy's friend P and the I heard the team had recently labored quite hard to implement the system in R's den, one of those occasions when everything that could have gone wrong did. I reaped the fruits of their efforts as I got to hear them this past Saturday, and I brought with me a pair of WE 124.

The A5 came with the original crossovers as well as ones DIY'ed by the previous owner P. I only got to hear the latter, which have attenuators for the 288 drivers. We played several jazz records, including mono Clifford Brown, audiophile fav Saxophone Colossus etc. All with a little subwoofer dialled in (crossovered high).

Equipment (for more detail on some items, please refer to 2016 visit)

Phono 1: Walker Proscenium/Kondo IO-J
Phono 2: Versa Dynamics 2.0/Stanton 380 (with nude elliptical stylus inserted)
Phonoamp 1: Kondo KSL-SFz step-up into Harman Kardon Citation I phono section (via Tape Out)
Phonoamp 2: Lamm LP2
Preamp: Jadis JPS2 (and Harman Kardon Citation I)
Amps: Jadis JA-80, Marantz 8B, WE 124, McIntosh Verdin P-153
Loudspeakers: Altec A5 (DIY crossover)
Subwoofer: Focal/JM Lab

Sonic Impressions Overall, the sound was good and quite coherent, though not the last word in detail or nuance. I am sure a lot more of the strengths of the Altec horn system are still waiting to be unearthed but, for now, it does sound more lived in than horn novice R has a right to expect!
  • Jadis JA-80 This has always been a Jadis staple. This pair is the older, pre-KT150, version, modestly tubed with old-stock 12AU7's, Chinese 12AX7's and Russian 6550's. I know this amp quite well and in this setting it delivered sound just as I remembered it - punchy, weighty and smooth, with good transients and macrodynamically adept (with these efficient horns) but with sub-par microdynamics, failing to convey all the low level signals in the music. Painting in broad strokes, so to speak, and that is not quite acceptable for expensive electronics.
  • Marantz 8B For the EL34's, this unit has a melange of 3x RFT's and 1x Russian that necessitated some re-biasing. That done, no surprise, the ever reliable 8B turned in a good performance - the microdynamics walked all over the Jadis JA-80, restoring most of the nuances in the music. However, used with the Jadis preamp, it had a significant flaw - the slow transient speed drained the zap out of jazz.
  • Western Electric 124 What more can I say! As usual, the WE immediately established its credentials. The music simply came alive: the superb microdynamics revealed infinite shades in the music's rhythm and color. Transient speed was excellent without being breathless. The only criticism that could be levied was a somewhat lean bass in this setting.
  • McIntosh Verdin P-153 Now, this is a rarity! Likely this was not intended for audio applications. It employs McIntosh transformers and the typical driver tubes, 2x 12AX7 and 1x 12BH7. Output tubes are 4x 8417. R reported the plates of the 8417's in one amp turning red after an hour of use. We did not listen that long, but what we heard was classic McIntosh sound - Ballsy, big and bold, like the Jadis, but with much better microdynamics, though still not quite in the league of the Marantz, not to mention WE. Right is another pic from the net (click to enlarge).
  • Harman Kardon Citation I I mused at the frequent lack of microdynamics. Suspecting the Jadis JPS2 to be inadequate, I asked for the line section of the Citation I to be substituted. We had trouble with the connectors, as so often in R's place, but we did manage for a while. Suffice to say, the Citation I was snappier and much more detailed and articulated in its line stage than the Jadis - it was not even close!
  • Jadis JPS2 As heard, it performed quite sub-optimally in this system. I am pretty sure it is robbing the music of much microdynamics, no more obvious than in its pairing with its own stablemate JA-80! The JPS2 is not a favorite of mine, but I have not been previously aware of such deficiencies in the systems of my friends Paul and Simon (here; the latter in the form of the line stage of JP80). I am not sure whether the deficiencies are intrinsic or if it is amenable to tube rolling, but my feeling was echoed by this comment posted by a user on the net: "...does anyone know any other pre which has the midrange magic of Jadis JPS2 plus more resolution on complex orchestral music and more control in the bass?..." I am also curious because Dick Olsher, a reviewer with priorities somewhat in line with mine, specifically lauded the similarly configured but cheaper Jadis JPL (one chassis, no separate power supply) for its dynamic prowess. For this write-up, I went back to my post on my one of my early visits to R, and was reminded that I had already documented the problem when I much preferred my Shindo on that occasion.
  • Harman Kardon Citation I Once again, the Citation I showed its mettle. Just as it worked well with my YL horns (here), it seemed to work well with R's A5's. I also urge you to re-read what I said about it in our last preamp shootout (here). Next time, I'd like to spend more time with it IF the connection quirks were dealt with.
  • Jadis JA-80 I have long familiarity with this amp, since the 80's in fact, when a friend owned it. But I had never really taken to it then; I only liked it when it was used with GEC KT88, but then that was almost solely due to the excellence of those valves, which also could transform the McIntosh MC275 from a good amp to a great one! Speaking of which, the Jadis JA-80 is no more powerful than an MC275 in good condition, and the latter only employs half the number of output valves and occupies a fraction of the real estate.
  • Marantz 8B To me, the Marantz 8B is an evergreen. It is not perfect, nor does it immediately grab you in any parameter, but it never puts a wrong foot forward, safeguards the big musical picture, and rewards patience and time spent. It should be partnered with a modern preamp of lively presentation (think ARC, Shindo etc), or else sound may be a little slow.
  • McIntosh Verdin P-153 I think this one has potential, if one manages to get around the conundrum that is 8417, famous for its excellent sound, rarity and sometimes finicky behavior (QC issues for later production tubes and issues of ?oscillation). Given its solid state rectification (selenium) and power envelope, I wager it should sound like a more powerful MI-75, but not quite in the eschelon of tube-rectified MC-60. Just a guess.
  • WE 124 Simply, in a league of its own.
  • The Lunch Raison d'etre for the day? The specially sourced lamb, served with risotto and Shiitake mushroom sauce, was an absolute delight, washed down with a very fine 2005 Saint-Emilion and a mature Cotes du Rhone. Surely enough to make one forget audio woes. What more can one ask for?

09 February, 2018

In the Eyes of Others

Editor's Note: In the Eyes of Others and Eye to Eye with Others
Letter from NYC (75) 2018 (1)

Regular readers know I try to thoroughly research the topic/stuff I am writing about, but what they probably don't know is that, for gears that don't have so much coverage (which is a lot of what I write about), even after I have finished the topic at hand, I often continue to re-google/research the topic, to see what others after me have thought. There can be unexpected consequences; several scenarios...

Voice in the Wilderness  Often, with something uncommon, I am bemused when the only significant thing I turn up is my own writing. Make no mistake, I'd rather there be other contributions. Different Opinions Occasionally, I come across an honest view that is different from mine. I welcome that and usually read it the more carefully. The world is big enough to harbor different opinions. Critiquing the Reviewer All reviewers get critiqued, even bashed, and this so-called reviewer, more a user/blogger in perpetual motion and revision, is no exception.

In this article I'll tell you of some reactions to what I have published, and my own reactions to their reactions.

Mofi StudioPhono
Part I of my StudioPhono Review was published on Sept 6, 2017, followed by Part II on Oct 27, 2017. At the time of writing, there was nothing on the internet that approaches a decent review. There still isn't, but recently I discovered a stevehoffman forum thread, where some user opinions were published. In late Jan, 2018, someone asked whether there is a photo of the innards, which led to another posting a picture from my article, with the comment: "...Source is this.(my Part I) An amateur review with comparisons to the Schiit Mani...". Another chimed in: "...No personal offense to whomever wrote that review but it uses a whole lotta words to basically say nothing...". Reading that, I was not offended but did comb through the thread and failed to find anything that was more insightful. Fortunately, another (more careful) reader posted (as if for me): "...Did you look through all the parts? Agreed about all the system descriptions and such, it's a little to follow if you are just interested in the Mofi review, but did try it in a variety of settings and does finish up with a conclusion section for all the pieces tested..."

In reality, I think my comparing the StudioPhono in different systems with esoteric components whose costs are not commensurate with the StudioPhono means nothing to most people who are looking for a quick opinion, usually people who are on a budget. Here is the problem: when something is truly good, you should try to have it compete in a different class to see how much potential there is, not to be satisfied just because it can trounce a few similarly priced competitors. Stereophile writers, like Herb Reichert (sometimes Art Dudley and even Michael Fremer), do that regularly, and that is commendable for a trade magazine. Perhaps people just want a quick opinion - a short proclamation that it is good or bad, great or simply competent. But I don't believe it is that simple.

Capsular reviews don't usually yield a good sense of the gear. System matching and synergy comprise half the battle, which is why I always list my equipment and change things here and there to try to achieve the optimum. An experienced reader shall be able to tell from my equipment list whether he and I are on the same wavelength and if there is any need to read on. For myself, there are a lot of articles I don't bother to read in the trade magazines because the associated equipment lists tell me I have nothing in common with the writers.

And then on the net and various forums there is a prevailing sentiment that all trade magazines are compromised and the writers not as trustworthy as user opinions in forums. To me, this is a ludicrous, even dangerous position. Every publication, hard copy trade or internet, has its own bias - there is no exception. The trade magazines do have good editing, which cannot be said of the nearly free-for-all free speech on the net, where the signal/noise ratio is low and where there are as many angry people as helpful ones. I could go on and on, but I'll stop here.

Belden 9497
Basically I have owned this topic. For the longest time, googling yields nothing but myself. Imagine my surprise when I came across this Aug, 2017 review from 6moons (here). The writer is Michele Surdi, a fellow Tannoy (Canterbury, no less, though his is SE and mine HE) and Klipsch man, who concluded he preferred his van den Hul Skyline to 9497. I don't have a problem with that, and can perhaps even understand that. I find him entertaining and unfailingly polite, which seems to be the case with most continental European reviewers (a breed I am usually sympathetic with; witness enjoythemusic).

The Tannoy Canterbury is actually more malleable than many think. It can work with flea powered SET amps, but neither does it blink an eye with high powered amps (as per my experience with the marvelous 100 wpc EAR 509), which can make the sound "snap into focus", even excitingly "hifi". We take different paths. As with my preference for horns, I believe the low powered path is more rewarding. Commensurate with this belief, I also think the goal with the Canterbury is different from most other hifi speakers - one wants power (why else the volume and 15" woofers), but that which is in tandem with grace and subtle virtues rather than visceral "hifi" ones. The article mentioned Jeff Day, who has published lots of articles on the Canterbury, but I find today's Jeff Day more than a little too complicated and too into esoterica, which is not my path. That said, although Michele Surdi may have different preferences than I, we likely have more in common, and I'd love to connect with him. So, Mr. Surdi, if you are reading, could you please email me (email address in sidebar)? I'd love to talk to you!

I want to answer one of his questions: "...though for reasons unexplained, the good doctor seems to dislike 6moons...". Indeed, I have voiced my ambivalence towards 6moons in the past, and Michele Surdi seems to be a careful reader! Well, I don't want to offend, but since this came up, I'll try to answer it. I believe: 1) 6moons is an unusual creature, one which has morphed from a useful alternative web magazine to a full-flight commercial enterprise. Every page, including, God forbid, the front page, now has by far more unwanted ads than words, and this is far more annoying than trade magazines; 2) unlike trade magazines, it reviews too much stuff that can only be termed DIY, and promotes far too many guru's, people and their products; 3) it heavily promotes expensive accessories and tweaks (especially Srajan Ebaen), which is against my beliefs; 4) it has too many contributors of unknown sympathy/affiliation - I know at least one who is intimately connected with the companies he writes about; thankfully he doesn't write anymore; 5) publisher Srajan Ebaen - although he dabbles in SETs and horns, his approach and ways are alien to me; even his speaker placement in various rooms look wrong to me. Enough said. In the end, I think 6moons has become far too complicated, and commercial, for its own good.

31 December, 2017

2017 in Review

2017 in Review

It is hard to believe it's that time of the year again. Here in Asia we are ahead in time and it's 2018 already. So this morning I must finish this article. I rose early, made tea, turned on my Kondo setup and started listening to one of my favorite pianists, Geza Anda, playing the complete Mozart concerti while I wrote.

Happy New Year!
Happiness is to get together with friends and have a good time together. Audio is secondary - BUT, if one can achieve substantial improvements while having a good time, it is even more gratifying. In 2017 the NYC gang did precisely this, several times over, under the leadership of Andy.

Thank You Happiness is also giving thanks. NYC Here I'd like to thank Andy for organizing all these events which provided a modicum of relief for me during a period when I saw mother through considerable strife. I'd also like to thank teetotaler Kevin for serving us expensive Napa wines and driving me to the airport. Also to Ralph and Andy again for cooking those wonderful meals. HK I'd like to thank my friend wss in particular for helping me get rid of some unused goodies languishing in my old home, for hosting happy hour at his small den, and for the free concert tickets. Readers Thank you readers for your words of encouragement - I appreciate them.

Thank you to the Great Composers for giving us music that immeasurably improve our lives! Writing this article I went through Mozart's Piano Concerti 19 to 24. Like our lives, in everyone, there was great beauty, but also undercurrents, foreboding and sadness. Mozart just lay it all out, whereas someone like Beethoven would work hard to overcome. Later, perhaps.

Looking Forward Though I expect our NYC gang to unfurl surprise after surprise, for myself there will be few audio events as my family may see tumultuous changes in 2018. But our struggles pale next to those of the countless uprooted peoples (including the urban homeless, definitely on the increase in NYC) of this unkind world. I spent New Year's Eve alone at home, and all of a sudden the faces of suffering children came to the surface. Unlikely as it may be, with the prospect of nuclear war looming larger than ever, I hope 2018 shall witness more peace and kindness.

Best Sound
There are several excellent setups (mostly horns of course), but two of the most gratifying experiences involved drastically re-positiong the loudspeakers.

Transfigurations Most audio improvements are better termed "transcendence", at most "metamorphosis", but the following experiences are even greater. Foremost must be Ralph's Wilson Grand Slamm (here), which turned from barely listenable to the best Wilson I have heard (I am not a fan but I have heard tons in HK; none came remotely close.) Then came my own pair of Klipsch Heresy (here), which over-performed when given the room and support. These experiences mirror my previous La Scala experience, as quoted in the Heresy article.

Altec Fever Most gratifyingly, through Andy's arrangement, I heard two more excellent Altec's: excellent as Leo's A5 is (here), Kevin's A7 (here) has just as much potential and is undergoing metamorphosis as I write. Of course, there is also Andy's mellower A5  "casual setup" (here), which I predict shall also undergo metamorphosis soon.

Western Electric Fever What can rival Western Electric? Nothing, really. In HK, our friend Humphrey's all-WE system is awe-inspiring. I have not yet written it up, as he is constantly changing and it is a daunting task.

BBC For mere mortals, especially in HK, who don't have the space for large horns, few loudspeakers can rival the sheer brilliance of jules' LS 5/1A (here). For even smaller footprints, I cite myself as I have further fine-tuned my Kondo system, and my final choice of loudspeaker is surprisingly my KEF LS 3/5A (here) - they provide immense pleasure during my very limited free time.

Most Significant Negative Experience
Why? Because negative experiences are as much learning experiences as positive ones. Having owned (and still own) and heard countless CDPs, transports and DAC's, I regard myself as a seasoned student of digital, but I was not prepared for the occasion when a change of transport completely turned a system from ugly duckling to swan (at the bottom of this article.)

Analog Events of Note
Again, the superiority of Reel-to-Reel is unassailable (here). And two vintage phonoamps excelled, as evidenced by the Citation I (here and here) and the even more incredible Brook 7 (here.)

For a much smaller outlay, the diminutive Schiit Mani (here) has surprisingly good color. For those who need more details and precision, the MoFi StudioPhono punched way out of its class (here,) though those with lean systems should avoid it.

The Schiit Saga is several things in one (here,) and should be seriously considered by those who are in the market for a passive preamp or buffer.

The Tien Direct-Drive Turntable (here) is not exactly budget, but given its performance and finish, I regard it as a bargain. Personally I'd choose it over the likes of VPI, Rega or Pro-ject at the same price.

CD of the Year As Bach is my favorite composer and his music is inexhaustible, after much thought I decided to nominate this disc (details) that features the mandolin as an unusual member of a trio. The arrangements are deceptively simple and artless, the playing of one piece, the recording superb - a joy from start to finish.

19 November, 2017

Brook 7

Click pics to enlarge: L: JBL system; R: Electronics.

Brook 7, Part III
Letter from NYC (74) 2017 (13): A Fine JBL Horn System

Article finished in HK.

For detailed info on the Brook 7, see Part I and Part II.

Time to catch up with some loose ends, though these shall evolve into the most significant of events, I predict.

Our team leader and friend Andy has such generosity in heart that he always tries to do best by his friends and cater to their whims of the moment. In order to let his friend R decide what horns to go for, with help from fellow JBL guru Simon he actually revamped his old dining room JBL system so R can compare Altec with JBL. But I got there way before R. System:

Loudspeaker System: JBL 2440 with 2390 horn and lenses with no baffle, JBL D130 in C34 enclosure with the 175DLH compression horn removed, a DIY crossover at 900Hz in place of the 1200Hz crossover that comes with the C34.
Amplification: Audio Research SP-8 and Canary 300B
Front End: modified Bogen B61 turntable with stacked platters in Baltic birch plinth, Rabco SL8 tonearm, Ortofon SL15T cartridge.
Cables: garden variety.

According to Andy, and Simon, who built the crossover, the JBL system is a close extrapolation to the one JBL loudspeaker that I like the most, the L300. Anecdote: Many years ago, I heard many JBL systems in close succession, but the one that impressed me the most, by far, was the L300, which was able to sail effortlessly between all musical genres, playing classical music with the utmost distinction, all in a compact enclosure.

Over lunch we heard the JBL system to great effect. A richer, more forgiving, yet detailed sound. I'd not elaborate, but Andy did express the interest to move the JBL system to where the Altec system now is. I'd help any time if I could. Similarly, I had not visited Simon in a long time, who now has a quasi-L300B system as I understand. Shall catch up next time.

Brook 7, Phono Resounding
This time, I actually tried the Phono section of the Brook 7. Unfortunately, one channel had a noise that I could not get rid of. But, although my loudspeakers are >100db, the noise was not intrusive enough that I was able to evaluate it. Suffice to say, the phono section was just as exemplary as the line section. I felt nothing wanting and was truly impressed. Due to the space constraint, I could not really change tubes to make it even better, but I am convinced by its greatness. I took it to Andy's and my opinion remains the same. There would be more.

One interesting thing is that, with the quicksilver horns, the preamp did not feel "slow" at all! Marvelous!

16 November, 2017

Vinyl Jazz and Pop

Vinyl Talk: Scouring the Dollar Bin
Jazz and Pop Recommendation
Letter from NYC (73) 2017 (12)

Article finished in HK

By Dollar Bin, I mean the bargain bins in used vinyl, which usually require you to get on your knees. And they are not always a dollar, sometimes 2-5. But I buy mostly One Dollar stuff. Sometimes one can spend a whole day and not get anything. Occasionally, one gets lucky, and find interesting stuff. Some people scour the bins for records they can resell for profit, but I mostly just pick up things I'd like to try. I can listen once, or even sample a track, and get on with it if it is no good. Recently, on one dreary day I visited a few stores I have never been to, and got some items that I enjoyed.

Although most people, including myself, think of myself as a classical listener, there are days I actually spend quite a lot of time with jazz and pop.

The most astonishing find here is Carla Bley's A Genuine Tong Funeral, performed by Gary Burton Quintet and friends (my copy is an old French RCA re-issue). The music is ultra sophisticated and reminds me of the death and ascension aspects in Strauss' tone poems, from Till Eulenspiegel to Metamorphosen. One can also connect it with St James Infirmary from the audiophile fav Satchmo plays King Oliver (my copy is $5, pristine UK mono). But the truly amazing Armstrong was the mono Louis Armstrong and his Hot Seven, Vol 2 (Columbia Mono), recordings made in 1927 and sounding thoroughly present and engaging through my horns (I took it to Andy and he too shook his head in disbelief at the realism). The Jazz Giants '56 pitched Lester Young against Roy Eldridge, with a star-studded back up, including pianist Teddy Wilson. Noisy copy, as was Ellington Indigos (I particularly like Ray Nance's violin) but great stuff. This late Blue Note LP found Charles Lloyd in Copenhagen utterly relaxed and playing several instruments, in a lighter vein that I prefer to his current more somber ECM stuff. But to me the find is the neglected Buck Hill (Scope. Steeplechase), a postman who plays after work. The one that left me non-plussed was Art Tatum/Ben Webster, the two seemingly playing in different universes. A curiosity is the forgotten Jean Durand Baby, did you hear?, folk songs in Creole, French and Spanish, no less ably sung than Belafonte.

Some Pop
I won't write more on these pop stuff, but suffice to say I enjoyed them, especially the Soul stuff. I just love the covers!

08 November, 2017

Schiit Mani, Denon DL-103, Denon DL-A100

Brief Review: Schiit Mani, Part II, with Denon DL-103 and DL-A100 
Letter from NYC (72) 2017 (11)

Article finished in HK

Schiit Mani, Part I

Reader Peter asked me whether the Denon DL-103 will work well with the Schiit Mani. Although in Part I I had used the Denon DL-304 successfully with the Mani, I just wanted to make sure. So I inserted the Mani into the recently re-constituted System I:

Analog 1: Thorens TD-124/SME "3012"/Denon DL-103
Analog 2: Technics SL-1200 MkII/Denon DL-102
Phonoamp: Aurorasound Vida (and Schiit Mani)
Preamp: Manley Neo-Classic 300B
Amp: Wavac MD-11
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horn system

The Mani's loading is somewhat unusual 47 ohm (a bit lower than usual) for MC and 47k for MM. I used mostly the 47 ohm setting. For  few days I played a few of my favorites as well as a bunch of pop music I just bought. Everything sounded lovely - definitely a good combination. Some people may worry about the lowish 47 ohm, especially since some think the DL-103 should be loaded a little higher than usual, but I encountered no problem. I also used 47k ohm on some classical - there is more sheen on the strings and quite listenable, though pop may occasionally become a trifle coarse.

Then I installed the Mani into my System III, in lieu of the StudioPhono.

Analog 1: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-A100
Analog 2: Pioneer PL-50/Raos MC Mono
Phonoamp 1: Mofi StudioPhono (and Schiit Mani)
Phonoamp 2: 47 Labs Shigaraki
Buffer Amp: Schiit Saga
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horn system

The move is to test the combination in a shorter arm and lighter arm (not everyone has a heavy 12" arm, which is "said" to be optimal for DL-103). The DL-A100 is an anniversary version of the DL-103. Sonically the two are almost identical. And so in this system the same result was obtained. The Denon was able to play everything well.

It is simple to conclude that the Schiit Mani works well with Denon DL-103. I also once again am mightily satisfied by this cartridge, surely still after all these years a bargain. Its sound may not be the silkiest at the very top, and its bass may not be the tightest, but it is a good all-rounder. Most importantly, the DL-103 delivers emotionally, unlike many an expensive MC cartridge. Counting in the mono DL-102 and the DL-304 MC, I now have 4 Denon Cartridges in my systems!

01 November, 2017

Altec A7, Sun Audio 2A3, VPI Prime, VAS Nova MC, Fostex FE168SE

Click pic to enlarge. Note JBL 075 on top of Altec A7, Fostex Fullrage in DIY cabinet. On top of the rack, from L to R: Sun Audio 2A3, VPI Prime, CJ MV-75. Beneath, from L to R: TEAC UD501 DAC and Luxman C32 preamp; Luxman CD-S300; and CJ PV5.

Soldiering On with The Audio Handymen and Altec
Letter from NYC (71) 2017 (10): One Fine Day with Altec's

Yet another pair of Altec! But lunch came first.

The Lunch Party On Sunday, Andy threw a lunch party for the audio gang. Early in the morning, the weather report was frightening, forewarning gusts and heavy downpour from afternoon through the night, even invoking a Hurricane Sandy scenario. Of course, nothing could have deterred the gang. James as usual came from Philly and picked up Simon and I on the way; Anthony and Jenny drove from NJ. Mark came from LI. On that day I met Kevin, who lives not so far from Andy.

We were greeted by a cool but strong mint punch. And I noticed Andy's new Odyssey tonearm! He also dragged out his Cary 805 (misnomer; 300B driving 845) monoblocks, which ably played Ellington and other stuff for us over the course of lunch. The long meal started with some steamed stuffed tofu skin rolls and marinated pork knuckles, then proceeded to chicken cooked in fermented rice, Thai red curry seafood and a big salad. We were more than half full when the piece de resistance arrived at the table. Andy had marinated several racks of lamb. We grilled them and finished them in no time! All washed down with a bottle of South African Shiraz Mouvedre and two from Napa Valley. In all, a debauchery (I counted on my plate nine pieces of remains; surely I am a glutton for mutton). As if that wasn't enough, Simon asked for coffee and we were generously served the last of Andy's Kopi Luwak, the world's most expensive coffee (see here.) Andy was overly generous, and I feel guilty that the gang had bankrupted him; his next tonearm would just have to wait... Stuffed to a T, we took advantage of a moment's respite in the rain and shifted to Kevin's place for the next part of the program.

A7 and More
Here we met another nice audiophile wife! Kevin is a lucky man to have the large basement to himself. The hifi bug has really bit him recently and he has been upgrading his system at a good speed. First came the nice Altec A7 picked up from Pennsylvania, then the CJ PV5 preamp, the CJ MV75 amp and for this day, Stephen delivered his VPI Prime Turntable to his door. Stephen is the consummate handymen - from unpacking to listening took all of 10 minutes!

Altec A7 Background Info A word about the A7, even if I am not an Altec expert. Quite similar to its more expensive brother A5 (see brochure at end of article for comparison,) the A7 is called the "baby" Voice of the Theater. Long in production, the A7 had several variations and it can be confusing. Basically, the A7 usually employs the 416 woofer, my favorite (used in my YL; I prefer it to the A5's 515) and a high frequency driver less costly/famous than the A5's 288, housed in a cabinet similar/identical to the that of the A5. If you google, you will find lots of info buried here and there. This article by WAJ is an interesting start, and I can agree with most of what he said. Crossover Woes Altec crossovers are rather infamous for needing rebuilds/updates/revisions (at least according to audiophiles) and many build their own (like Leo's and Andy's A5's). I think Kevin's are originals. In this interesting link is an industry professional who built all his, in a meticulously tweaked system. Here is an even more interesting article from another industry professional detailing what the author thinks should be done to the A7. Note that all A5/A7 lovers love them for the same reasons, even if their approaches can differ quite a bit. Electronic Crossover For some reason it seems people in HK and the Far East opt more often to take this even more complicated path (unlike fixed crossovers, with knobs the users get tempted to constantly adjust the crossover points). I have heard several such attempts with horn systems, including Altec. Most left something to be desired, but a pseudo-A5 I heard in Brooklyn many moons ago was stunningly great (the system was tri- or quad-amped.) Amplifier Choice SET, PP, low or high powered, multi-amped, that is the question. Read on for more discussions below.

Altec A7 + CJ First we listened to Stephen's modified Ortofon Red, amplified by CJ PV5 and MV-75. I found myself listening to a sound that has long been familiar to me - a trapped and veiled midrange/bass I have heard so often in Altec's that were not done well. After a while, we moved on to an extra tonearm with Stephen's moderately low-output VAS Nova MC installed (0.8 MV, sufficient for the CJ) and things started to take a turn for the better.

Fostex + Luxman + Sun Audio Kevin has the Fostex FE168SE (Sigma series, 6") in his own DIY back-loaded horn Acousta-like cabinets. The system was probably his main system before he got the Altec's. This was now a secondary system, but all connected, ready to go. Many moons ago I had a Luxman preamp but didn't like its sluggishness (Stephen said the caps have to be changed). But this Luxman C32 sounded up to date driving the Sun Audio 2A3 (equipped with Arcturus single plates). The sound was quite wonderful, clear and sweet! Aided by a subwoofer, of course! I think we were using digital (a USB stick) as source, and the very humble Yamaha CD-S300 + TEAC UD501 combination did surprisingly well!

Altec System in Tandem with Fostex System At this point Kevin pulled off a hat trick. He blended the two systems together by manipulating the two volume controls. And it was great! Much clarity was added to the lower midrange of the Altec system. Surprisingly good! I have actually heard two-loudspeakers systems before, no less than Altec + JBL (see here!) Kevin's was in some ways potentially almost as good. Even if Andy said he heard some phase shift irregularities, and I trust his ears, I much prefer this amalgamation to the Altec's alone (with CJ, but read on...)

Altec with Sun Audio I then audaciously asked Kevin to swap the Sun Audio 2A3 into his Altec system. This turned out to be a LOT of work for him, as he had to move interconnects and speaker cables. It was finally ready, and the sound was tentative at first. While it had extra clarity, and much of the previous lower midrange mush was gone, the sound got strident when the going got rough. One factor was likely the much lower power available, but I knew I'd prefer to work with this rather than the CJ amp. As a SET amp user with several 2A3 amps, I knew the single plated 2A3's can be lean in certain systems, and likely not a match with the ruthless (I use this term in its best possible sense) Altec system. I asked Kevin whether he had double-plate 2A3's and he dug out his Chinese 2A3-C's. These are not what I expected - they are actually "bastard" 300B tubes with 2.5 instead of 5V filaments, but they have the advantage of higher outputs, 5 watts or so vs 2 watts. While I knew these are not as sweet as double plate 2A3's, we swapped them in, and after a while the sound smoothed out a little. Less strident but still not optimal. I went over to look at the TT and discovered the "VTA" to be quite off and we lowered the arm considerably after which the sound smoothed out further. At this point the ladies brought in some food. We were still very full from the epic linch, but we savored the home-made wontons and some fish balls. Kevin is not much of a drinker so James raided his collection (gifts) and we had some very expensive Napa wines and Chinese hard liquors. As we drank and ate, the sound slowly got better and better. Itzhak Perlman's style and tone in the Brahms concerto (EMI) was just as I remembered (I heard him live once) and the A7 did an incredible job at rendering tone, bowing and rhythm, even the intent of the performer; the background orchestra reasonably fleshed out too. This was at a moderate volume (there were a lot of us, remember), and I was satisfied; the cartridge and 2A3-C's were practically brand new and would need more run-in; I have confidence they will sound a lot better down the road. Andy also nodded in approval.

Some Thoughts
Although I have never personally owned any Altec loudspeakers, I have heard many A5's, A7 variations (including the -500) as well as 604/605's (largely 515 woofers with coaxially mounted small horn tweeters) systems. I have heard them sounding fantastic (occasionally), and I have heard them sounding dreadful (quite often). They are never perfect, and will never be (don't let anyone else deceive you), yet they are never dull, and they entice you to play on because their presence, evocation of the live event, is simply unrivaled. I'd gladly give them a day rather than, say, the Wilson Watt/Puppy, a minute. In HK we have a saying, they are 抵玩, meaning "bargains", not based on price only, but because they can entertain/torture you for a lifetime, I kid you not, and you would still keep them (who doesn't like a hot woman?) With these in mind, I venture a few thoughts on the evening's Altec proceedings:
  • Home Use? These were theater loudspeakers designed to reproduce sound in huge spaces, driven by large amps. Theoretically, home use is a far stretch, but we have heard several successful attempts recently, haven't we? I count Andy's, Leo's and potentially even Kevin's as successes. Close to Front Wall All these people have a reasonably large space (LR or basement) and have these close to the front wall, which saves the most space. In-Room I myself believe in-room (subject to daily life constraints) yields better sound (certainly when it comes to soundstage) in smaller spaces. I place all my horn systems this way: in the US, the YL (its placement exercise briefly documented here;) in HK, the Tannoy Canterbury and TAD 3401. Note too one of the authors of the above links also have them in-room and near-field. Anyway, the most important thing is to make sure the placement has the least bass anomaly.
  • Altec = Mirror Translated: Ruthless! More than most conventional loudspeakers, even those designed with skills, even modern day monitors, the Altec's never try to hide anything - the more so in our small (even large is small) rooms. Everything is reflected; even if something is just a bit off, it will be audible. This means equipment matching, including cables, to be of even more importance than usual. Tubes too - abandon the idea that what you think of as the best will sound better. Try a lot of Telefunken's and Siemens and your ears will bleed. This evening, the excellent single-plated 2A3's, which sounded quite wonderful with Fostex, did not sound so hot with the A7.
  • Amplification Power and Quality With the sensitive Altec, we are talking about tube power - solid state is simply out of the question. When it comes to Tube Quality, it is usually in inverse relationship with power - the higher the power, the less pure the sound (why else are there so many SET fans?) The greatest dilemma the Altec user faces stems largely from the fact that the high frequency driver is a whole lot more efficient than the woofer, which is actually true with almost any dynamic loudspeaker designs, except that horn designs simply complain too easily: Too little power and the bass is not well controlled; too much power and the the midrange and high frequencies are less pristine. To a good extent, the evening's proceedings reflected these inescapable facts: The CJ MV75 sounded simply murky in comparison with the flea-powered Sun Audio 2A3, especially when fitted with the Chinese 2A3-C. Altec simply reflected that the Sun Audio delivered a pristine First Watt, compared to which the CJ MV75 was like grunge. Sure, one can spend over $1k to re-tube the CJ with GEC KT88's, but I doubt that will save the amp - it will improve but shall never be a Citation II nor McIntosh MC275. In any case, the excessive power is just wasted heat; note one of the authors quoted above sensibly used just a 12 wpc EL84 amp to his content. Bi-Amp This is a viable alternative. Note another of the above authors quoted used a 300B amp for the HF and a McIntosh 240 for the LF. As mentioned I have also heard a multi-amped Altec A5 to great effect. My Take I am definitely in the camp for SET (or even low powered PP amps like EL84's and 6V6's.) Personally I think some of the perception of lack of power stemmed from partnering with gear/cables that are too tight sounding. My old pair of Klipsch La Scala and current YL's do very well with BIG classical pieces on as little as 2 watts (I used 2A3 double-plates the most with my La Scala), and I expect no less, rather even more, from Altec. I am keen to re-visit Kevin, perhaps with a bunch of cables, in the future when the 2A3-C's and VAS cartridge have run in more.
  • Crossover Woes? So much have been written about the poor quality of Altec crossovers, so there must be good reasons, but sometimes I have my doubts. My theory is that a lot of setup mistakes (like poor positioning and gear matching) can account for the poor sound, and it is just too easy to blame everything on the crossover. Remember I owned the La Scala - both my ferrite and alnico pairs through their original corssovers sounded excellent and played big classical pieces with aplomb. But I have heard La Scala's that puzzled me too. So much have been written on the internet about improved crossovers for Klipsch and there is a huge aftermarket - guess what, every time I heard those mods I wanted to run for the door, and this happened so many times I even wrote an article about it (here). I say, audiophilia and horns are a dangerous mix. Call me skeptical, but I have heard just too many expensive and bad sounding self-assembled horn systems (many TAD's) with DIY crossovers.
All in all, despite the weather, one fine day! Below are some Atec Brochures

Original Altec A7 Column Loudspeaker Systems Sales Sheet / Brochure

29 October, 2017

Letter from Taipei: Robin's New Toys
Home Visit: Intact Audio Autoformer Preamp
Letter from NYC (71) 2017(10)

Regular readers of this blog will have read about my friend Robin the Scot, who now lives in Taipei. Those who don't can read about his setup in my visit last year. Robin and I share remarkably similar musical and audio preferences and he uses a R2R deck! I just got an email from him. As usual, his writing is thorough and worthy of publishing, so here it is below. Around the same time in NYC I paid a brief visit to reader Richard, who also employs an Autoformer Preamp in his system, hence I here group these two disparate articles together.

pic of Townsend Allegri from HiFi+. Click to enlarge.

Letter from Robin

"...I’ve made some major improvements to my hi-fi system since you came to visit us last year — you’d probably hardly recognize the sound now. Just after your visit, I discovered that one of my Yamaha FX-3 tweeters was seriously damaged, and had been so for at least a couple of years. No wonder I always felt the sound had a harsh edge to it! The tweeters for te FX-3 are basically Unobtanium (they’re slightly larger than the ones for the NS-1000), but I’d had an eBay search set up for one for quite a while before that, and to my amazement an auction listing for a pair of FX-3 tweeters suddenly appeared in my inbox. I snapped them up, swapped out the damaged one, and hallelujah! — all was clarity and finesse, finally, in the speaker department. And did I mention stereo imaging? The dfference from before is like night and day. 

I also fixed the Thomas Schick tonearm, which as you’ll remember had somehow been knocked squint. I wrote to Thomas, and he sent me instructions for straightening it out by myself, which basically amounted to grabbing it firmly in one hand and then pushing the bent end down sharply against a table top with the other hand. Against all my predictions, this somehow sems to have done the trick! (As I told Thomas, his advice reminded me of my grandmother, whose solution when any piece of electrical equipment failed was: “Just hit it with a hammer!”)

However, I’m now using as my main turntable for the MC cartridge a Kenwood KP-1100 direct drive, which I bought from hifido in Japan (Link.) It has a wonderful, rigid metal X-plinth tucked away inside the unassuming wooden box exterior, which some people think makes it more effective than the Technics SP-10. (I don’t know enough to say ... but the Kenwood cetainly sounds VERY nice, and it’s also great to have an auto-stop at the end of the record — something I haven’t had since the late 1970s.) 

I stripped down the Garrard 301 and gave it a complete overhaul and refurbishment, and then set it up as a mono-only rig, using the Schick tonearm and an Ortofon 2M Mono SE cartridge — played via an ultra-cute 1954 George Gott tube phono preamp, which I bought because like the McIntosh C-20 it has all the pre-RIAA alternative phono equaliation settings available. It’s fascinating to hear how LPs from the 1950s can sound so different, once you play them with their correct EQ adjustment. For example, Decca FFRR records sound thin and tizzy, by comparison, if you play them through the later RIAA setting. However, in the interests of better overall sonics, I’ll probably retire the Georg Gott soon, and instead use … 

My spanking new Icon Audio PS-3 Mk II phono preamp! (Link)(It’s currently in the customs bay in Taipei, awaiting final clearance, so I should have it by the end of this week.) It has a volume knob (and both MM and MC inputs - the latter using the company’s own stepup transformers), so I’m planning to run it directly into the MC-275 amp. Well, not quite directly… 

First, the signal will run through my newly acquired Townshend Allegri passive preamp (Link.) I bought this a couple of months ago, and it’s met all the high expectations I had of it. CDs and R2R tapes sound astonishingly natural and “all there” when played through it, and it makes one realize how much grunge and grayness gets added by even a pretty good preamp like my ARC SP-11. I haven’t yet played any LPs through the Allegri, as I’m still waiting for the Icon Audio phono preamp to arrive. But I have high hopes for that! 

In the HI-fi Plus review, Alan Sircom explains it very well:  because, uniquely, the Allegri uses single-coil “autotransformers" (as opposed to regular, adjacent-coil transformers) to adjust the volume level, the preamp acts like a “gearbox" rather than a traditional attenuator. That is, it matches the source impedance to the power amp impedance very closely at each of the different preamp volume settings (just like a car gearbox matches road speed to engine speed, to minimize the loss of torque in different road conditions). This results in clarity and depth across the frequency range, no matter what volume level you select — so for example, you no longer have that disappointingly thin sound at low listening levels. 

All so different from the way that active preamps — and most passive preamps too — deal with the volume level question. Suffice it to say that I’m thoroughly sold on the idea, now that I’ve actually experienced it. The only sad part is that my trusty old SP-11 (although somehow I’d already started feeling a bit bored with its sound) will need to be taken off the rack and gracefully retired, at least for the meantime..."

"...There’s actually a couple of things I forgot to put into it — I've bought a Yamaha B-2 power amp (the early 1980s one that uses V-FETs), which has a great, almost tube-like sound; and I’m now using an ultrasonic cleaner to clean LPs..."

pic of Richard's system. Click to enlarge. Note the unusually modfied Ortofon arm and rare Glanz cartridge; to the left is his DIY preamp. All digital stuff inside the antique cabinet. The custom small Ohm's were perched atop REL subwoofers; the other two by the couch and to the left, not seen in thi spic.

Home Visit: Slagle Autoformer Preamp
Reader Richard first encountered my Blog after he acquired a Nagatron cartridge. I rarely venture into town these days but last Sunday I managed to pay him a belated, though brief visit. Richard likes to build things, so naturally has a DIY bent and is obviously a tweaker who has spent a lot of time adjusting his system. He system is rather complex:

Analog Front End: Technics SP10 MK2; Tone arm 12" Ortofon AS212 (modified by Alfred Borkland); Cartridge Glanz MFG 610 LX.
SUT: Technics SH-305MC
Phonoamp: iFi iphono 2 (used as MM).
Digital (CAS): Mac Mini, Focusrite red net 3, Antelope live clock, Mutec mc3+usb reclock,
Metrum Octave dac, Player software Chanel D Pure Music.
Preamp: DIY passive pre with Bent audio Tap X autoformer volume controls by Dave Slagle
Amp: Ben Jacoby modified VTL compact 100 mono blocks running 2 KT120 tubes ea.
Loudspeakers: Custom Ohm Walsh 2.2000
Subwoofer System: DSPeaker antimode 2.0 for DSP room correction of 4 REL Q201e subwoofers

Richard's Living Room is typical of a medium sized NY apartment, with a layout not particularly advantageous for audio. Obviously a family man, the room is stuffed with heirloom furniture. Obviously a considerate person, the audio is laid out along the long wall with the loudspeakers minimally in-room. In HK's small apartments I also see a lot of setups placed this way.

Yet the sound (from both CAS and Analog) was quite enjoyable, smooth yet detailed. Note R's Ohm's are custom, that is truncated at the bottom, in height as well as frequency response, nothing below 50 Hz, where the DSP'ed distributed subwoofer systems take control.

I am not a fan of CAS, but this (complex) one is definitely one of the better ones I have heard. The TT is the mighty Technics SP-10, one of my favs, and the rare Glanz cartridge seems like an unusually detailed MM, in the vein of my Shelter 201.

Most interesting to me, of course, is the Autoformer Preamp. David Slagle's designs are rather famous, heard here in a Bent Audio variation, but Intact Audio sells direct for DIY'ers, and there are other companies, like the very expensive Vinnie Rossi, that employ his autoformers. Although I am a horn user and personally prioritize the "jump factor" and hence don't prefer passive preamps of any kind, I do have a keen interest in their use as buffer amps. Given my recent experience with Schiit Saga, I was particularly interested. I was not disappointed. I think in the future if I have time I'd DIY an autoformer preamp to use as a buffer amp.