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.

27 October, 2017

MoFi StudioPhono, Schiit Saga, Shelter 201, Citation I, Monbrisson, Gotham

pic: Innards of the StudioPhono. Click to Enlarge. Caution: the case is well designed. After unscrewing, take off the cover gently; you will encounter a little resistance, but gentle wiggling helps. I actually like the look of it, well laid out and built.

Review: MoFi StudioPhono, Part II
Review: Schiit Saga, Part II
Review: Shelter 201, Part II
Review: Shindo Monbrisson, Part III
Review: Harmon Kardon Citation I, Part III
Talk Cable: Gotham GAC-2 and DGS-1
Letter from NYC (70) 2017 (9)

MoFi StudioPhono, Part I and Shelter 201, Part I
Schiit Saga, Part I
Shindo Monbrisson, Part I (extensive basic info and review); Part II (vs Manley 300B preamp)
Harmon Kardon Citation I, Part I (basic info and review), Part II (in a group preamp shootout)

Round I (MoFi Studiophono; Shelter 201)
Using my Reference System II, In Part I of my MoFi StudioPhono review, I used the Schiit Saga as preamp. Since elsewhere I did find the Saga to be on the neutral/lean side, this time around, I swapped it out for my usual tube preamps, and that made all the difference in the world. Whereas last time I had to use a smoother cable (DIY 47 Labs) with the StdudioPhono to tone down the sound, this time I re-instated my Gotham DGS-1 with no problem. I also think more run-in helped.

Equipment Used:
Analog 1: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shelter 201
Analog 2: Thorens TD-125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304
Preamp: Shindo Monbrisson and Harmon Kardon Citation I
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way Horns

LPs Used: For this rather big round of testing, I relied on several LPs which I wrote up in my last post (roll down, or here). The same LPs were played through both preamps' own phonostages, and through the StudioPhono through the preamps' linestages.

As there are a lot to cover, I shall be brief with each entry, and sum up my findings in my Conclusions section.

StudioPhono + Shindo Monbrisson
Through the line section of the Shindo Monbrisson, the StudioPhono performed brilliantly. As with the Schiit Saga, I was particularly impressed by the way it separated the orchestral instruments and defined them in space. In Finlandia, I definitely could visualize the front, middle and back of the orchestra. As also with the Schiit Saga, the bass reached impressively deep and was suitably taut. The Shindo's warmth and sweeping power in the bass, however, was like a great air cushion and immeasurably enhanced the StudioPhono. However, when it came to the Budapest Quartet, there was still a little lingering leanness.

MoFi StudioPhono + Harmon Kardon Citation I
The performance was still very good, warmer than with the Schiit Saga. However, the line stage of the Citation I, though still warm, lacked the depth of the Shindo, and at higher volume things became just a little ragged. The lower brass in Bruckner 4th did not have quite the desirable heft.

Interlude: MoFi StudioPhono chez Andy
I took both cartridge and phonoamp to Andy's for a brief listen. On the Garrard 401, the Shelter 201 replaced a Decca cartridge. In his more forgiving system, the sound was quite listenable, without any undue leanness. The Shelter, however, did not have the color and force of Decca. Andy actually thought the StudioPhono to possess a reasonable warmth, whereas he was not too enamored of the starker sound of the Shelter. We noted the calibration may not have been precise.

Round II (Shelter 201, Denon DL-304, MoFi StudioPhono and Full-Function Preamp Use)
Up to this point, I had used mostly the Shelter 201. Then, I added to the source my Thorens 125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304, likely better in every way than my go-to Audio-Technica.

As mentioned in Part I, the StudioPhono had no problem whatsoever with the low-output Denon DL-304. Indeed, through either the Shindo or the Harman Kardon, the sound acquired a new smoothness and have a subtler inflection, while retaining all the positive attributes mentioned above.

Shindo Monbrisson
I then turned my attention to the performances of my preamps in their intended full-function mode. Most interestingly, much as I like my Shindo, I did not find running the Shelter 201 into its MM section to be decisively superior to using the StudioPhono. Although it produced fleshier images and a fuller tone, the Shindo was darker, less detailed and somewhat colored. It also did not reveal space in the highly accurate manner that StudioPhono did. With the MC Denon DL-304, which I first ran through the Western Electric 285L and then through the Shindo's own input trannies (which I prefer in this case), it was a different story - clearly superior to Shelter 201, through the Shindo MC stage it in almost all aspects of performance surpassed the StudioPhono, which however still managed to have image definition and layering precision to its advantage.

Harmon Kardon Citation I
Used as full-function preamp, the Shelter 201 performed much like with the StudioPhono, with just the right added warmth. Unlike the Shindo MM section, the Citation I was almost just as good in the areas where the StudioPhono excelled, and a little better it other parameters - not surprising given the Citation's modernist tube bent. I did not get to use the Citation with DL-304 as it would necessitate trials with SUTs.

Round III (Schiit Saga; reunited with StudioPhono in System III)
At the end of my last trip (see Schiit Saga, Part I; link on top), I left the Saga in my Reference System III, but was not happy with the phono setup. Equipment:

Analog 1: Pioneer PL-50/Raos MC Mono
Analog 2: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-A100
Phonoamp 1: 47 Lab Shigaraki

Phonoamp 2: AQVOX 2CI MkII vs MoFi StudioPhono
Digital: Sparkler S303
Buffer: Schiit Saga
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL Acoustics 4-way Horn Speakers

This time, most of the time I was preoccupied with System II, but as the StudioPhono was soon to be retired from this station (which has too many good phonoamps and preamps), I refocused on System III.

I swapped in the StudioPhono for the AQVOX, using the same Gotham DGS-1 cable to the Saga. But I also swapped out the phono cable, switching from Mogami 2534 to Gotham GAC-2. That did it! A Miracle! Unlike the duo's performance in System II (again, see Part I link), the sound was synergistic, indeed superb. It even had gravitas in the Bruckner 4th. And in Pollini's Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 (EMI HMV Concert Classics), the strings now sounded much sweeter, the woodwinds natural and the piano focused. Most amazingly, even though I knew the StudioPhono was good in the bass, I was surprised that the system had a sweepingly solid bass foundation much like the Shindo - for this credit must go to the Langevin 102 preamp.

Note on Remaking of System III  I also did a bit of re-cabling for the rest of the system. For the Sparkler CDP, I installed the Gotham DGS-1, to excellent effect. Now, only a small trace of dryness remains, even in big-boned pieces like Finlandia (PO/Ashkenazy, Decca) and Brahms 3rd (VPO/Giulini, DG) - some of this is definitely the inherent character of Sparkler; and some of this may be due to the recording (the DG is certainly drier than the Decca). I also installed the (DIY) Belden 8451 (another unsung hero; good at cooling things down) and it similarly improved the mono LP playback. I hereby declare this system ship-shape. Done!

Yes, the Schiit Saga forced me to re-cable the system, almost from top to bottom, but it is eminently worth it, and it is staying in the system (saves me space)! More below in Talk Cable and Conclusions.

Round IV (Shelter 201 with Nagra PL-P in System IV)
The Shelter 201 did well in my newly promoted System IV (here.)

Round V (Linn LP-12 Lingo/Ittok LV-II/Air Tight PC-1 in System II)
This is part of Restructuring. System I right now is seeing less action, so I decided to move the Linn LP12/Ittok/Air Tight PC-1 to System II. Also, in System II, my Thorens 125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304 is doing so well that I did not want another Denon cartridge in the system, Hence, I moved the Thorens TD-124/SME 3012/Denon DL-103 to System I. Suffice to say, the sound of the Linn/Air Tight was just absolutely splendid through the Shindo. Even more detailed, warmer and sweeter than the TD125/SME/Denon DL-304, the PC-1 exudes a subtle elegance. More on System I later.

Cable Talk: Gotham GAC-2, DGS-1 vs Mogami
I have been using professional cables for the last 20 years. Prior to Gotham, I used mostly Mogami (2534 and 2549) but that changed after Gotham. Generally speaking, Mogami is neutral but a little on the "white" side, suitable for warm tube and vintage gears. While Gotham is just as neutral, their cables have a bit more warmth and excelled at the frequency extremes: an airy and extended treble and a tactile and deep-reaching bass. I have used the (Austria made) shielded 4-conductor GAC-4 and 2-conductor GAC-2 for the longest time in HK. The GAC-4 is a little airier than the GAC-2 and hence preferred by most HK audiophiles. Here in the US, I bought a roll of GAC-2 (earlier) and coaxial DGS-1 (later) each and have been using them mostly in my systems. With my sensitive horns, the GAC-2 is more than transparent enough, with a wide soundstage and excellent imaging. The DGS-1 is less so in those parameters, but even more direct and emotive (a parallel would be non-oversampling in digital). Due to the large number of equipment that I have, I cannot make Gotham cables fast enough, and so sometimes in less critical stations/areas use other makes, including Mogami. This was the case when I first tested the Schiit Saga at Station III (see part I, link above). This time I shuffled things around and re-cabled with Gotham and things got much better. With neutral gears like AQVOX, Schiit Saga and MoFi StudioPhono, Gotham works well but Mogami doesn't. It should also be noted that some of the current Gotham cables (like the Ultra Pro series) are even more resolving, but I wonder if it has gone overboard (I have the GAC-1 Ultra Pro, which I like, but Andy thought it too bright).


  • Shelter 201 This round hasn't changed my impression of this cartridge. This is a commendably highly resolving cartridge with a very neutral tone. It is sensitive to VTA. Although generally MC-like in resolution and musical enough, it is not quite as nuanced in microdynamics and tonality. Should be partnered with warmer gears.
  • MoFi StudioPhono The StudioPhono finally found its footing in the round. Perhaps further run-in helped. The StudioPhono has outstanding resolution - image specificity and definition in space are world class. Its bass quality and reach are irreproachable. This is very neutral phonoamp and care should be taken with cabling and partnering gears - not for people who prefer warmth. It is not quite an EAR 324 (from memory) but a seriously good bargain that performs way beyond its price point.
  • Shindo Monbrisson As usual, it was big, bold and colorful (or as Art Dudley would say, force and touch), but with the Shelter 201 it surprisingly sounded colored and uneven. This is in fact a little puzzling, as before I had used it with numerous MM's to great effect. Even so, it shone with low output MC's. My fondness for it has not abated.
  • Harmon Kardon Citation I Compared with older vintage preamps, the Citation I is a model of neutrality. Its phono section is just superb, very neutral, not unlike the StudioPhono with tube warmth added. Its line section is neutral too, but gets a little taxed when the going gets rough, lacking the Shindo's sweeping power.
  • Schiit Saga As before, I am convinced the Saga is like a surgical instrument. While it sometimes demands one to think out of the box, it is a valuable piece of kit. As I said before, if your system needs more details, it is a good choice; but if your system could use more warmth, stay away.

21 October, 2017

Audio Research ARC SP-11, CJ Premier 3, Harmon Kardon Citation I, Jadis JPS2, Tien Turntable, Tom Tutay Phonoamp

L. Finally Got It Up! R: Reward for the Stooges.

How Many Stooges Does it Take to Move a Table? Keeping Up with Audio Handymen and Gluttons
Letter From NYC (69) 2017 (8): Making Rounds in Metropolitan NY
The BIG and BAD Preamp Shootout: Jadis JPS2, Audio Research SP-11 Mk II + Mk I Modified, Conrad Johnson Premier 3 AND Harman Kardon Citation I!!
Review, Harman Kardon Citation I, Part II
Audition: TIEN Direct-Drive Turntable
Talk Vinyl: The Western Electric Phenomenon

!Addendum (10/28/17): Citation I, Part III (more action against other preamps) has been published.

This article chronicles two long days with the audio gang. The activities far outstripped my ability to write them up (and I still have my own long-delayed agenda). I am still TIRED! I say, Far From the Madding Crowd!

Part I. The Garden State Troopers
Two weeks ago, R and Andy picked me up in the morning, and drove to New Jersey, where we were joined by James (from Philadelphia, but a frequent presence in NYC) and friends.

Click pics to enlarge. R: Workshop Front; L: Interior, system was VPI TT, modified CJ PV-5, VAS amps, JBL 4343. Note too the B&W 801 and R's Watt/Puppy 5.1. On the walls were covers of many re-issue LP's. More pics at bottom of article.

Collector, DIY, Manufacturer, all in one
First stop was Stephen's workshop, right next to VPI, where R's pair of Watt/Puppy were unloaded to be refurbished.

Stephen, an unassuming fellow, is an enthusiastic audio collector of both hardware and software (LP's and even R2R tapes!) He is also an industry professional who represents VAS, Cayin and Aurum Cantus. We spotted but did not get to hear a VAS Citation I replica. The workshop also does OEM jobs for others. Technically savvy and with a DIY bend, Stephen also does skillful restoration and mods for his friends. After hanging around a bit, Stephen generously treated us to a delicious lunch at his favorite Chinese restaurant. Then we headed to the next stop.

Click pic to enlarge. Simple but VERY effective system.

I know what you want, and I know what I want
Leo is a vinyl collector and reseller. Basically, he spends a lot of time foraging for LPs, and is apparently well known to many vinyl sellers in the NY metropolitan area. He resells quite a bit of it to the largest vinyl store in Taiwan. The very large basement has boxes of vinyl piled up and strewn all over, and what you see in this pic is just tip of the iceberg.

The man has thoroughly studied various audiophile vinyl buying guides (there are many in Chinese) and knows the price of every audiophile record. Unusual among audiophiles, he himself has a preference for Columbia LPs, and there are tons of them strewn around. As R wanted to buy some classical records, Andy (and I) picked some out for him while listening to the excellent horn system, which deserves a little more coverage.

The horns are Altec A5, the crossover made by Canadian Chinese magazine writer and audio guru "Spring" Yeung (彈弓楊). Preamp is CJ Premier 3, driving Jadis SE300B monoblocks. Most interesting, however, was the turntable:

Click pic to enlarge.

Tien Direct-Drive Turntable was the first brainchild of Taiwanese vinyl and analogue dealer Mr. Tien of Tien Audio (田昌政類比音響)(Official Blog), with industrial design by D.More (也作設計). It was very well received in Taiwan and has found distributors in several Asian countries and France. It won Taiwan's Golden Pin Design Award (here, with English description of the rationale behind the award).

For those who read Chinese, there is good coverage of its genesis in an article in Taiwan's AV magazine 高傳真視聽. Those who don't should still peruse this link for all the pics, which include various prototypes. A short description: The plinth is made of birch. The direct drive motor is obviously directly below the acrylic platter, mounted on a PCB board for control electronics. The motor is fastened by four screws with rubber washers providing some measure of isolation. Note the platter retainer (small rubber ring) around the spindle (visible in the main pic of the official blog) providing additional shock absorbance. It comes with a modified Rega arm (some bearings replaced by gem stones, exactly what not mentioned). Note also the other arm shown in the article is a more expensive version, with the front portion of the Rega arm lengthened and replaced by a carbon tube.

Tien has since gone on to design more higher end models, including a 3-motor Voyd-like design, but imho none looks as good as his original namesake. The Tien sells for Taiwan Dollar 38,000 (roughly USD 1250) which, judging from its looks and what I heard (below), is GREAT value, and deserves wider distribution. Despite that, supposedly demand so far has outstripped supply due to manufacturing bottleneck.

Leo used to use "better" cartridges but apparently he has broken a few. Fed up, he switched to the humble Shure V15MkII. In this large room, the performance of the cheap analogue setup in the system was just marvelous, and almost everyone thought it sounded better than their previous visits. It had all the presence that Altec is famous for, largely without the attending raggedness. St James Infirmary (one of many original copies Leo owns; jealous?) growls and grimly grinds along as it should. Led Zep's Stairway to Heaven was full-throttled. Most miraculously, classical playback was also very good as evidenced by 2 versions of Night on Bald Mountain: LSO/Solti (Decca) was dark and menacing; my dark horse favorite, Boston Pops/Fiedler (DG) was a frenzied whiplash. I personally think the large room and plenty of absorbance (all those boxes) contributed greatly to the good sound. This ranks as one of the very best Altec systems I have heard.

Click to enlarge. Note the added rectifier (5AR4), choke and additional heatsinks.

Part II, Long Island Reunion - The Longest Day

Last Sunday, the augmented Audio Handymen (Andy, Simon, James, Stephen and wife, Mark and I) descended on R's mansion (equipment and previous visit detailed here). Even though R already possesses the Jadis JPL2, Citation I and CJ Premier 3, he was curious about the ARC SP-11. So James brought in from Philadelphia his stock SP-11 MkII. Stephen also came with his modified tube-rectified SP-11 MkI (which he prefers to MkII) which we saw earlier in NJ.

As usual, R put us to work before lunch, and this time it was a BIG task, moving the Rockport Sirius II into the living room. The thing is definitely over 300 lb. One could do some desoldering to separate the parts but it was too much of a hassle. So four of us held the corners and lifted it up while two quickly shoved the dolly under. Unfortunately the dolly could not clear the rear legs and we could not lift it up higher, so an extra person came to the rescue in the back and finally it was done. Unloading was much easier. The Rockport actually looked very nice in the LR but we did not get to hear it as there were no air pump and vacuum yet in the living room (hole on the floor would have to be drilled for the tubings to come from the basement motor unit). Now, that was the physically taxing part of the program.

We picked out some music to listen to and for using later. For some reason (perhaps cabling) the system sounded a little coarser than last visit. After a few sides we adjourned for lunch.

The Ideal Audiophile Wife Stephen's wife Jenny is no audiophile, but obviously she has seen and heard more than most people. She totally supports her husband in his ventures (as with many men, more than just audio) and actually conversed with us on audio. Ode to the lady!

Lunch this time was perfectly turned (a given for R) Hanger Steak garnished with Cauliflower and Brussel Sprouts, washed down with some Californian wine. Again, unlike audio, just perfect. Then some of us had the Durian that Andy bought (see pic at bottom; wiki entry here). Most Americans probably have never had this tropical Asian fruit, as it has a strong smell and an intricate taste. The one Andy picked  (and he took a long time; I was waiting in the car) was a great one, with an intense yet complex taste. Like with certain cheeses, I still am not a fan, but I can appreciate it. Afterwards, strong coffee was mandatory and the barista (lady of the house) made a great expresso. After lunch the mentally taxing part, the preamp shootout, began in earnest.

    Saxophone Colossus - Sonny Rollins.jpg
  • ARC SP-11 MkII James' is stock, tubed with mostly Russian tubes. I should mention here that I have always been a fan of older ARC's. In HK, I still have an SP-3, SP-8MkII, SP-10MkI and SP-11MkII, so am familiar with the sound of this hybrid preamp. It was just as I remembered it. The sound had great presence, fast transient speed and a tight, walking bass, but the midrange was not quite as rich as an all-tube preamp. Compared to the Jadis JPS we heard before lunch, on Saxophone Colossus, Rollins' sax was missing a little bowel sound, and Max Roach's drumsticks were not quite woody when slapped together or on the drum edges. However, the rhythmic snap and timing were superior, the Jadis a bit heavy footed in comparison. Mahler's Second (VPO/Mehta, London) also could have used a bit more heft, but it was atmospheric and uplifting. Again, the Jadis was richer, but a bit brutal during fortissimi. I then wanted to try Stephen's MkI power supply on this unit, but a loud hum told us it was not compatible.
    Image result for mahler 2 mehta
  •  SP-11 MkI (Tube Rectified) Compared with the stock SP-11 MkII, the tube rectified and choke filtered MkI was definitely smoother, with less high frequency hash (not that there was a lot before). The midrange was a little richer, but still not quite like an all-tube unit. The gain in fullness and smoothness in both Saxophone Colossus and Mahler Second was met with approval by most of the crowd, but I thought this came at the price of rhythmic vitality and transient speed, a trade I personally would not want to make. I actually think one can hear the FET part of the hybrid, and in my opinion it is not a trait that can be camouflaged in its entirety (in many ways, among hybrid preamps, the very good Counterpoint thousand series does better in this regard, the best in my experience being the Melos 222, though it is a little dark sounding.)
  • ARC SP-11 MkII Redux This time James put in more vintage tubes (I don't know what), and sound sweetened a little. However, the re-tubed unit lacked a little definition in comparison and, like the effect of tube rectification, also lost some rhythmic vitality and transient speed. I myself preferred the first iteration.
  • Tom Tutay Phonoamp At this point, R's Tom Tutay phonoamp was swapped in in lieu of the SP-11's own phono section. A word on Tom Tutay: he apparently is a well regarded DIY person who runs Transition Audio Design (no website). The one R has is actually an early all-tube full function preamp, though R is only using the phono section, which looks very much like the later Tutay phonoamp named Vibrance, which employs both octal and noval tubes. We have heard it in conjunction with the Linn many times before. The sound was definitely a little darker, smoother and warmer than ARC's own phono section. As with designs employing the larger octal tubes, images were larger and fleshier. though a trifle homogenized (as Andy put it). I thought it had sounded better with the Jadis JPS in R's regular rig during the last visit. This synergy thing is unpredictable and has upset many an audio boat! One more thing on this phono design. The octal tubes are prone to microphonics and noise. R's unit works with the Cardas cable, which rolls of the top, but with my considerably more neutral Gotham GAC-2, R reported hearing high frequency noise, likely tube noise, but that shall be investigated.
  • Conrad Johnson Premier 3 R had used its phono section in his previous room before he dismantled it; in contrast, Andy has long been using the similar Premier 2 (tube rectified) as a linestage (preferring the Citation I's phono section). As a full preamp, it put in a performance that was the most puzzling and inconsistent of the lot. It was the warmest and most full-bodied of the lot and was easy to listen to, but in comparison with the others it seemed sluggish and lacking in sparkle and resolution. I wondered if it was out-of-phase but was told that this is one of the rare CJ preamps that is not phase-inverting. From my experience, old CJ is too much of a good thing - big caps likely slow down the sound and make it more earthbound. Used as a full preamp, the problem compounds itself; no wonder both of my friends use only a half of it. The CJ, especially the phono section, is definitely not neutral. This experience also reinforces my view that these slower and darker components work with horns better than with conventional speakers (even the modernist Citation I usually works better with horns than regular stuff; that it works so well with this system and Wilson surprised me a little.)
  • Harman Kardon Citation I Once again, this vintage classic, beloved by me, Andy and others (see Part I), instantly revealed its true mettle. The sound was modernist in tendency and well balanced, very neutral and with excellent resolution, reasonable transient speed and clean bass. Add a good dose of presence and touch of tube warmth and it was quite wonderful. Most approved, and Mark exclaimed that he wanted one. R made the decision to have the Citation stay in the system and he took the Jadis JPS out, that is how much he liked it. But, was it perfect? No, there was just a trace of leaness and coarseness that increased with volume. To me, in a way, it was like the SP-11 with more tube and less FET characteristic, though the Citation I's power supply is by no means comparable, commonly faulted for being marginal for support of the large number of tubes. Nonetheless, a classic. Note that I spoke to R later and he said he found it a little fatiguing after prolonged listening, but I am sure that can be ameliorated by some cable matching; I am sure you will hear more of this later.
  • My Choice Personally, I'd prefer to work around the more neutral Citation I or stock ARC SP-11. The colored CJ is clearly not my cup of tea, but has its adherents. The equally colored Jadis JPS strangely was ousted in this session, but it should have done better (as last time).
Collector vs Glutton Call it what you want, but there is only a thin divide between the collector and the glutton. However, somewhat unfairly, the former has an elevated aura and the latter is usually a denigration. More than the Glutton, the Collector could morph into a Connoisseur, though most don't. Most of the time, we are all of these rolled into one. This certainly applies to Andy, James, Stephen and I, even R! Talking about myself, I hoard both equipment and software. I have over 10,000 LP's and thousands of CDs - there is no way I can listen to each one even once. There is also tremendous duplication. Simon and Leo have not much extraneous equipment, and hence are not audio gluttons, but they collect LPs prized by audiophiles. Leo of course is a reseller; maybe that's the best way, buy what you like, yet have an easy way to unload stuff. In HK, this is why many audiophiles ultimately end up in business (physical and virtual shops) - one would have to when one has amassed way too much and reached critical mass. But then when money comes into it, things get complicated, even with friends - something to think about.

Vinyl Talk: The Western Electric Phenomenon There is a dark side to the US's unparalleled history of innovation, invention and progress - waste. There is another dark side to the US's inborn revolutionary and evolutionary attitude - undervaluation of heritage. Both of these play a very significant role in the current state of audio, particularly vintage audio. I'll expound on this in detail n another article. Here we will only note that nobody much in the US buys classical music LPs, but there are many people like Leo, from especially from HK, China and Korea, who buy these and ship them back to Asia, because they are treasured by audiophiles there. Like the depletion of 300B and other WE tubes and equipment in the US, classical vinyl (the better titles and selected pop titles) is heading the same way.

More photos. From top: Durian (does it not look like a mis-proportioned organ?); Note the VAS Citation I between 2 vertical stacks of VPI 16.5; Tip of the iceberg, note the Quicksilver, McIntosh 240 and Marantz 8B; No eggs, but much more expensive VPI tonearms.