25 September, 2020

R.I.P. audiopro

R.I.P. audiopro

Doctorjohn: It is with the greatest sadness that I announce the passing of audiopro. Vivek informed me a few days ago by email. I literally immediately broke into goosebumps and felt uncomfortable for hours after. Why, he emailed me just four days prior to this news. It is still not clear how he died, but he was way too young.

audiopro's first article for us, A walk down memory lane, certainly found resonance with many people, including myself. He wrote and listened with exactitude, with a touch of philosophical musing; it is too bad he did not get to contribute more. We shall miss him.

Although I have never met him and his presence in this blog is brief, I have felt from the first day that he is a kindred spirit. As I am in communication with Vivek and sometimes Prem, I have always felt that I'd get to meet them all one day. After all, India is one country that I have always wanted to visit.

As remembrance, this blog would not post anything new for three days.

mrgoodsound: This is sad news. I did not have the chance to get to know audiopro but I would consider anyone with the sensitivity to music (something many in this hobby do not have, despite their pretenses) at least somewhat connected in spirit. I wish the best for his family and friends.

Dexler Poppe: Terrible news about audiopro! Actually his first article greatly inspired me to accept your invitation to your blog. I found it fascinating that even though we live so far apart, our experiences and background are more similar than different. In fact, I did hope that readers will eventually come to the same conclusion when they read our respective articles. At this junction in history, I think it’s a message worth delivering. Or would have been. I’m deeply saddened. This year has been just too intense already.

Eric L: When I heard that audiopro had passed away, I felt sorry for the loss of a seasoned veteran who has in depth knowledge of music and equipment. Even I never knew him, I could feel strongly from his post his passion for music.May he rest in peace in hifi heaven.

Editor: I append a viol composition by Marin Marais, Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, written to commemorate his teacher's death (their story popularized by the film Touts Les Matins du Monde). The playlist is very good. I have always loved viol music - that melancholic tint.

22 September, 2020

My musical journey

Letter from Hungary (20-1): Dexler Poppe got into Music Early

Editor: I am glad to introduce Dexler Poppe. Regular readers may have already read many of his comments. He introduces himself here, and will follow up with more articles. He is Hungarian, but writes perfect English! Without further ado:

When John asked me to write something for the blog, I was surprised. And hesitated a little. But I found the idea had an appealing overtone of adventurousness, so I couldn't resist to say yes.

I believe it is just fitting to start with introduction, so here it is. This is the story of audiophile-me.

When I was a kid, there really wasn't that much music in our house. My parents just weren't into it. We had a small Siemens cassette player/recorder and maybe a dozen tapes plus those with the children stories and songs. But it soon turned out, that I was wired differently. I loved music form a very early age on and was quite sensitive to sounds. This went to the extreme of me practically banning a weekly scientific tv program in our household at the tender age of 3, because I hated the voice of the presenter. To complicate things, the intro of the same tv show impressed me quite a bit in great part due to the music (as shown in this youtube.)


But then of course my parents had to switch channel quickly, before the dreaded presenter came on screen.

I was also fascinated by the mechanics of music playback. I just loved the click-clack of the buttons of our little Siemens player, the ability to detune radio stations with a simple turn of a knob and that most fascinating of all features: recording. I don't consider recording magic anymore, but other then that, my feelings towards equipment hasn't changed much during the years. So yes, I admit it openly, that I love the gear - a lot. In fact, I asked for some sort of new playback equipment every time when I could justify it.

Having wandered aimlessly on the musical landscape in my first 9 years, one day after school together with my friends we decided it's time to consolidate things. Since we liked a number of rock bands, we figured they will be best served if each of us chooses one as a primary focus. My band was Guns n' Roses, and so it became my duty to be the expert on all things GNR. This is how I learnt about all the different factors that form and influence musicians from idols, peers, through personal traumas to socio-cultural context.

As I learnt more and more, I got to know more and more bands. In practice, this meant having copied tapes in record stores (re: audiopro) and having pen-friends who had access to more obscure stuff. At a certain stage down this road, we got hold of the album ...And the Circus Leaves Town from Kyuss. I can still vividly remember the hot summer afternoon when we first listened to it. That album has a very unique sound and as a consequence, an atmosphere that was unlike anything I heard before. That was when I learnt that there's more to music than a memorable guitar riff and a catchy refrain. (Even though Kyuss can do catchy very well.)



From this point onwards, things escalated quickly. Music started to become increasingly important in my life. We've published a fanzine with my friends. I started listening to electronic music as I became familiar with - then positively underground - genres like trip-hop and drum and bass. I felt equally at home in rock pubs and techno clubs. One night I heard a program on a small community radio station, that played experimental music. They talked about an upcoming concert by Finnish noise duo, Pan Sonic. I decided to go. I died and reborn that night. That was the most disturbing, uplifting and beautiful musical experience I had up until then. A total assault on the senses, yet joyful and cathartic. I learnt that night that music has no definition and it was liberating.



Soon after the promoters of the Pan Sonic concert reached out via their newsletter in search of volunteers to help organising their first festival. I volunteered and eventually became a core member of the team for more than a decade. I also had two music blogs and wrote album and concert reviews for a now defunct online magazine.
And at some point on this road I found an old Tesla turntable thrown out. It seemed to be in fine condition, so I took it home. While it was in my possession, it worked properly for about 23 minutes in total, but that was sufficient to make me a hifi enthusiast beside being music enthusiast. This is a story for a following post.

20 September, 2020

Update on Auralic Vega, Gotham cables , Tidal vs CD , Gaincard with single or duo Power Humpty


Letter from Hong Kong (20-8): Eric L updates on his system, with Streamer on the Horizon

Since the acquisition of the Auralic Vega DAC, I have been able to do a lot of comparisons of different combinations and see which setting yields the best SQ.

Gotham GAC4 IC, power cord, 10700 Digital cable
One of my biggest surprise is the use of Gotham GAC4 I.C. and power cord. In a nutshell, the soundstage has brightened up and feels energized. Great transient, natural and non-fatiguing. For the price, it's a steal and puts many multi-thousand dollar cables to shame and make them sound manipulated. Their digital cable 10070 (75ohm) is still under run-in and being compared with my 47 OTA cable. Initial impression is positive: more energy, enhanced resolution and, again, a brighter presentation and exciting. After a while, I began to miss the 47's more refined and sinewy manner, which gives music more flow and elegance. That said, the 10070 is far from broken in, so I'll give it sometime to prove itself [Editor: see Footnote 1].

Single Power Humpty or Duo on my Gaincard? Decisions , Decisions
When I first purchased my 47Lab Gaincard, I bought 2 Power Humpties (which give 50 wpc), as I had presumed that my Dynaudio would be difficult to drive (proven by my tenure with the low power int. amp from Sparkler Audio). I used it for many years with no problem until some months ago, when I decided on a hunch to disconnect the cord from one Humpty and lump the power cord to the other Humpty in order to run solo - the result was more music involvement and foot tapping! Hence, I have been running Single Humpty until a few days ago, when I wanted to see if my current setup still justify the single Humpty configuration or does it benefit from going duo? I then hooked up the other Humpty again. With duo Humpties, soundstage is more relaxed, wider and deeper; instrument separation has improved; more details can be picked up; and the content of music and intention of musicians are better conveyed (30% gain). But that comes at an expense of a slight loss in PRaT and foot tapping, less so on the take no prisoner approach (10-15% loss). With the Duo setup I'm having now, I don't know if I will go solo again or remain in the duo mode. But currently, I rather enjoy the additional volume of information and the less strained and more at ease music presentation that I get from Duo Humpties. [Ed: Footnote 2]

Tidal SQ
SQ from Tidal can be extremely good if the recording is good. Hooking up with my Laptop yields some surprisingly pleasing sound. Neither cold nor warm, musical yet not over the top, always well poised. If the passage demands dynamics, it provides (aced) and if the passage is slow and sublime, it will go slow yet with tension and good preservation of the important spaces between notes. Often, with a great recording, it can surpass my CDP's performance!! I cannot, though, pick up significant difference between HiFi mode or Master mode (which Tidal claims uses MQA). My verdict, Tidal is highly recommended given the extremely reasonable fees, range of selection and very respectable recording quality! That said, I have been hearing less Youtube lately... Let me play Hiromi and Chic's Spain tomorrow!

Sparkler 503 CDP standalone vs CD through Vega DAC
Running the same setup with 47 as dig cable, I sometimes cannot distinguish clearly if I'm running the CDP through the Vega or not. Yes there are minor differences, but not to a point that I have a clear preference: the standalone CDP has slightly more PRat and Vega has more ease and better interpretation of slow passages. Changing from 47 to Gotham dig cable brings two different styles as I have mentioned above. So I will review it again once the latter is broken-in.


Preview: Search for my first Streamer
I haven't stopped searching for a streamer. After weighing many options for SQ/size/price/versatility, I have narrowed it down to a few: Innous Zen Mini Mk2 or 3, Lumin U1 Mini and Aurender N100H. Each one has its pros and cons and they all come with a price tag less than 1500 USD.  Meanwhile, my friend has promised to loan me the Zenmini Mk2 but it has not arrived yet. Last night, I chanced upon a second-hand Auralic Aries Mini (less than $400USD) that came with a Jay's Audio LPS. I took a plunge; it should be a decent little box which I can easily sell if I upgrade. Apart from not having a CD Ripper, it ticked all the boxes for me , it can stream Tidal, has 500GB internal storage plus a slot for SSD to use as server. Most importantly, it's really compact in size! But one needs an iPad or iPhone to work with it. I dug out my ancient first gen iPad, which has not been used in ages, but the charging cord is missing...damn! When things all work out, I'll report back in detail!

Editor's Footnotes: [1] I have used both of these as digital cable and my impressions are similar. The 47 Lab is smooth and not so detailed. The Gotham 10070 is indeed very detailed and one of my references, though it can be sharp in some systems. Both are good but I prefer Belden 1694 for overall performance; [2] both Herb Reichert in Listener and Steve Rochlin in enjoythemusic preferred just one Dumpty.

17 September, 2020

Women Conductors Sibelius

New York Diary (20-31): Engagement, Fulfillment
Classical Recommendations: Women Conductors, Sibelius and Santa Claus; Music in Time of Covid

Engagement and Fulfillment that I am talking about are the Spiritual kind. During our lifetime, unusual opportunities sometimes come knocking at the door, and sadly we don't often recognize them as what they can be until after the fact. They could be in any realm, be them career, capital gain or whatever, but they are more serious if they are in the realm of the higher emotions, like love. Personally, although I, like most, have made my share of wrong decisions, I never overdo the regret thing - it doesn't help and we have to look forward and make the best of our state. And we should grow and acknowledge our past deficiencies.

What I am really talking about is music - how it comes to shake music lovers to their cores. This is different for everyone. For me, I don't even remember what germinated in me to cause me to buy a humble setup so long ago; all I know is the joy it brought me. I still remember when I first heard the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, on radio - the emotional upheaval that I felt. I knew it spoke to me, and I have never stopped exploring since then - Full Engagement. And the Music Fulfilled me in Return. What we put in rewards us in multiples - I believe that, in any genre (and in audio). Yes, to fully engage oneself is hard work and takes commitment, but the rewards are huge.

It didn't happen when I was younger. But, for the past decade at least, on the rare occasions that the music making moved me beyond description, tears would stream down down my face. This happened more in live performances but also at home, particularly during the pandemic. I am sure music is not the only medium through which this could happen. Holistic endeavors, like Yoga, probably can do this too. In particular, I know for a fact that many who have attended stringent Buddhist Retreats can sometimes attain an alter state, and not a few cry out loud after the experience, and say they don't know why.

Physiologically, as a medically trained person, I'd say the yoga, or meditation, or retreat, or whatever, alter the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Then, there are the brain hormones, like Serotonin, which can infuse us with positive emotions. It is likely a valley and trough. But, does it matter? Going through these emotions I believe is healthy for us. It s better that we can cry rather than not.

Crying in such a situation is not asking for help, but attaining a higher importance. It shares our spirits, and we acknowledge there are higher sentiments that we cannot control as mortals, sentiments that are effusive and, I believe, beneficial to mankind. For the youtubes I am sharing, read also the comments, some incredibly eloquent. I firmly believe being appreciative of spiritual beauty makes us better and kinder people, and contribute to a better world.
 
Classical Recommendations and Basic Repertoire
 
Just today I came across this very well crafted article (with podcasts) on Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Give it a try!
 
Women Conductors are getting more common. I heard quite a few in Hong Kong. Yip Wing Sze, a past winner of the Besancon competition, has been head of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for a long time. While she is OK, many who came after her offered much more excitement. With the Hong Kong Philharmonic, I heard the exciting Zhang Xian, Carolyn Kuan and Elim Chan, from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, who hold posts with the New Jersey Symphony, Hartford Symphony and Antwerp Symphony, respectively. In New York, I have heard bigger names, like Marin Alsop and the incomparable Simone Young. There are many others in the pipeline that I'd like to hear.

Sibelius Like Bruckner, Sibelius is a one-off; there are no others like him. Writers have struggled to describe the alternately sparse and rousing nature of his music, making allusions like: paean to the great Finnish landscape, or, glimpse into eternity, etc. While his first two symphonies have its Tchaikovsky influences, I think they already show him as his own man. In the Second Symphony, an audience favorite, there are many amazing passages. In the following video, from the excellent Frankfurt Symphony series (few ads, all HD), Rising star Susanna Malkki conducted brilliantly. As a matter of fact, I have not heard better (including the benchmark, Barbirolli's Royal Philharmonic recording). I was so captivated that, at 14:52, when the strings floated the melody, tears streamed down my face. You ought to listen from the start, to catch how a master conductor builds it up; at least start 2-3 minutes before.


While we are on Sibelius, I recently heard the valedictory Ondine cycle, where Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsink Orchestra. In this video, Segerstam conducted the Sinfonica de Galicia, a susrpsingly accomplished orchestra that played with great color, in Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. Note that this was in June, during the pandemic!!! You can see one player in the last row wearing a mask. Salut for their courage. The comments are fun. One says: "...I finally know what Santa does for the rest of the year..." :-)

13 September, 2020

C7 Figure of Eight RFI

 


Bottom, single sleeve C7; top, double sleeve C7.

New York Diary (20-30): RFI and the Power Cord (C7)

One day, while streaming I heard a faint but discordant strand of music in the mix. I paused the music and found the RFI picking up radio. I stepped closer to the loudspeakers and could hear the DJ talking. Highly irritating. It was not a constant but would happen randomly.

I was pretty sure it had something to do with the Micromega MyDAC, which has a SM type supply. I swapped out the Kimber KCAG (braided 3-strand silver) for a shielded cable - no use. And so it went on for a couple of days.

Yesterday, not being able to find my spare ferrite ring clamp, I decided to swap the power cable. The small Micromega uses the figure-of-eight (C7) connector. The cable I had in has a thin flat sleeve (bottom one in pic). I exchanged it for one double its thickness, with the 2 conductors running side by side in separate sleeves (like a lamp cord). Voila! RFI elminated! So the replacement has better shielding!

Just a vignette...

Basic Repertoire Brahms wrote 2 beautiful Piano Concertos, which are among his most passionate works. Concerto No. 2 unusually has 4 movements. The Andante (starting 27:38) is most lovely for its dialogue between the orchestra (especially the solo cello) and the piano. Yuja Wang plays with the Munich Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev, during their Japanese tour.

09 September, 2020

Belden 8402 8412 8422 Tin Plated Copper

Brief Reviews: Belden 8412 and 8422 as Interconnects, Part I
New York Diary (20-29): Audio Lores, Influencers and Over-Influence

Note (9/11/20): I went back to using my other cables and what a relief!

The Conductors (and braided shield) of Belden 8412 and 8422 are made of the exact same Tin-plated Copper (as in the 9497 loudspeaker cable) as the better known and discontinued (though available at a premium) 8402. Among audiophiles that is; in professional circles 8412 is the new classic. They are much more similar than different, but the 8412 and 8422 are a lot cheaper and, hopefully after you read this, worthy of your consideration. The price of 8402 is inflated because what is selling are remnants but, as you know, many audiophiles gravitate to vintage or classics and think older is better!

8402 This cable needs no introduction. Like the Belden 9497 Loudspeaker Cable, it was first advocated by the Japanese. This is a classic Microphone Cable with 2 conductors and 2 shields. Belden and Tin-plated copper began their emergence in the DIY community, especially influenced by Jon Risch (whose time-consuming projects I'd never attempt). The 8402 was popularized by the underground and then Influencer Jeff Day set it into the orbit. Spec 8402  2 x 20 AWG (26x34) Conductors have EPDM Insulation. There are 2 Shields: Rayon (fiber) and Tinned Copper. (same as conductor) Outer jacket is CSPE. Impedance is 52 ohm and Capacitance 55 pF/ft. Connection This is pure lore. Lore has it that the Japanese connect the metal shield at both ends for an ostensibly more emotive sound. In the US we usually use floating ground - connect only one end (usually proximal, unless you have different star-grounding plan) and cut off the other (usually distal), which has superiority in shielding (connecting at both ends loses shielding advantage) and noise rejection. There is/was a so-called third way; someone connects both conductors to +ve, and uses the shielding as ground/return. Mind you, this is no earth-shattering stuff. Back in the early days of Gotham, people tried all sorts of things: say, for GAC-4/1 (or Mogami 2549), 4 conductors, some would make 1 x +ve and 3 x -ve , and vice versa. Also, some Gotham have very sophisticated double metal shielding (the Belden's in question are only single metal + another fiber), and one can separate the 2 and choose to connect either or both to ground or not. Many ways; also many ways that are at odds with manufacturer's recommendations. But are not audiophiles a crazy bunch? Cite the spec's when necessary and insist on a non-redbook way when it is suitable for them. Look, I deliberately do not provide a link to any of these, because I think it is totally empirical, system dependent. One guy connected it the Japanese way and waxed lyrics, then sometime later converted it to floating ground and admitted it was better. My experience I thought I wrote about it briefly, but I could not find it in my blog! Anyway, here. Some years ago my yumcha friend Dave gave me a pair of old-stock 8402, finished with classic Switchcraft connectors (I think connected the Japanese way). It sounded reasonably good, full and weighty, but a little dark. Compared with Gotham, it also lacked rhythmic finesse. I did not linger too long on it. Note I don't have this cable with me here in NYC.

8412 and 8422 The 8412 can be thought of as 8402 Mk II, very popular with professionals. I bought these in the US, very cheaply, and terminated them with Switchcraft look-alike, nickle-plated Rean connectors. These use the same Tin-Plated Copper for Conductor and Braid. and If you look at the spec's of 8412, it is very similar to the 8402, differing just in outer jacket material (EPDM) and spec (higher 58 ohm and 67 pF/ft). The 8422 is similarly constructed. Its conductors are smaller, 22 AWG (16x34), which is what interests me. Cotton is used in lieu of Rayon. Insulation is different (PE for conductors and PVC for outer jacket) and so are the spec's (90 ohm; 32 pF/ft). Ergonomics As one removes the rayon or cotton fibers, they disintegrate into tiny flecks; make sure you don't have a fan on and keep a wet cloth to wipe up. Kind of messy.

Sound

Part I "Show Some Respect"... I made a pair of each using the "preferred (Japanese)" way, connecting the shield at both ends. I tested them in my streaming system. First, 8412 went into the Micromega MyDAC in lieu of the Kimber KCAG. Pretty good; a richer sound but enough treble and air for me, even if a moment ago I was listening to my favorite silver cable. Then, the 8422 replaced the Gotham GAC-2111 (EMT replica) between the Yamamoto CA-04 preamp and Akitika GT-102 amp. Pretty good too. Now, I was streaming classical music and I liked the deep soundstage (The LS3/5A is a champ in this respect; now I am using 15 ohm Rogers instead of the Audiomaster) and solid sound. But, after a (long) while, the "solidity" nagged at me a little and I remembered my encounter with the 8402. What if the audio lore is just that, unsuitable for me?

Part II Better be Inquisitive... Next day, I made a pair of each with the shield floated (cut-off) at the distal end. I first exchanged the 8412. Surely, a little more air and openness, which I preferred. Next, I exchanged the 8422 - same feeling. Now that I had 2 pairs of each, I tested various combo's. After some fiddling I found: 1) the 8422 and the 8412 share the same basic sonic imprint, but the 8422 sounds lighter on its feet and has somewhat smaller images than the 8412; 2) Using 2 pairs of 8422 the sound may need a little more weight, just as using 2 pairs of 8412 the sound needs some more litheness.; 4) the better balance was obtained by using the 8412 at the front and the 8422 from preamp to amp. That's what I maintained from this point on.

Part III Janus Faced? Now what of the audio lore? This was emphatically answered in this round. Up till then I have been streaming classical music and I was OK with it. To round out the test, I played some of my favorite vocal material. First up was Nick Cave's The Boatman's Call. Now, this is not an up-tempo album, far from it. The first track is a little heavy and murky in the bass, but now especially so. A few more tracks, and I was missing some of the subtle colors from the backing instruments. Next up was Van Morrison's Moondance and my jaws dropped: where has all the mystery and ecstasy gone? It was just plain slow, even lugubrious. I pulled out more; all suffered the same ailment. Readers know I listen to these albums frequently and, just before the Belden residency, with all Gotham cables, the rhythmically savvy Micromega Stage 2 made these albums shine through the LS3/5A. I then stepped up my comparison. Mind you, since I was not streaming, the signal went through The Gotham DRG-1 instead of the 8412, and then the 8422. When I made the shocking discovery, I was using the 8422 pair with the "classic Japanese" termination. I swapped in my pair with the floated ground and immediately the sound, though similar, opened up a little and gained some pace, but still not enough to raise the dead. Now, why had I not been as disturbed when I was streaming classical music? Simple. Listening to classical is just very different as one is listening as much to what's going on vertically (harmonically) than linearly. Although I had a nagging suspicion that the proceedings were too "weighty" for their own good, I was discovering all the things that the Belden were doing right: weighty brass, good instrumental colors, an unfazed nature, all pluses in my book, and it was fascinating to fathom the subtle difference in sound of the big chords and moments (from my usual Gotham). On the other hand, listening to pop music the rhythm is extremely important. Without a sense of drive, all is lost.

Part IV A New Lifeline As usual, there is a twist, and this is most unexpected. Just yesterday, I took delivery of a pair of Harbeth P3ESR SE. I swapped out the 15 ohm Rogers LS3/5A and was immediately stunned. The pop music instantly became more pacey. The footsteps were still a little heavy, but now the pop music marched in formation, not stumbling. This is not a loudspeaker review, but you will have one soon. I also took the time to swap in the 8412 for the 8422 and my previous impressions stood. Yes, the venerable LS3/5A is a little "slow" (slower transients) in comparison, but one would not notice if one were using rhythmically alert Gotham cables. The combination of LS3/5A and Belden 84x2 was emphatically not a match made in heaven.

Conclusions
  • 8402/8412 As one long schooled in professional interconnect cables (for me, mostly Gotham and sometimes Mogami), Belden confounds, especially since I am a great devotee of their similarly tin-plated 9497. My impressions of the 8412 is no different from my memory of the 8402. My opinion is: there is no reason to stake out 8402 as 8412 can be had much cheaper. For: innate steadiness, superb texture and good balance (except for bass); Against: lackadaisical timing (especially in the bass). This, for me, is a significant caveat, or fly in the ointment. Not everyone loves the 8402; some netizens complain of darkness and dullness - that is a direct result of the slow-moving bass. This Cable should not have received blanket recommendation. My advice: 1) the Belden 84x2 would likely not work well if your loudspeakers (and system) are of the more relaxed kind, or vintage; it'd work better if your system is on the fast and brash side and you need to add some texture; 2) under any circumstance I'd think it not ideal to use more than one of these; better mix and match with other cables like Gotham. 8422 imho this cable, being a little quicker on its feet, is more balanced than 8402/12, but I suspect 8402 advocates are texture freaks, so be it.
  • The Japanese Connection As the 84x2 already has good texture and smoothness, connecting the shield at both ends confers little further advantage but extracts the penalty of smearing the low midrange and bass. Take Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, his dubbed voice overs are significantly less easy to separate from the background vocals and instrumentals when using the Japanese Connection. I prefer by far floating the shield.
Audio Lore, Careless Whispers and Over-Influence
  • Reverence or Reverie? Audiophiles are an odd bunch. Many in our hobby treat it like a religion. Some look for a master to subjugate themselves to. Guru says it's best to connect the shield at both ends; yes, master. Of course, the disciple tries floating the shield too, and is only too eager to confirm that his master (and hence his own belief) is right. You see what I mean? When one has a preconceived notion, a follow up action is unlikely to receive unbiased attention. It is good to have some reverence for others' opinions, but don't let that turn into reverie, to become Superstition.
  • Wide-Eyed Journalism I'd like to call it shoddy journalism, but I shall try to be kind. After all, this is less serious, a hobby, where truth is harder to arrive at than, say, journalism on politics (or is it?) Again, it's good to be receptive to something new, but try not to be too eager to join the party. I say this not because the journalist held a different opinion than mine. I say this because he devoted very little time to find out the nature of his subject. Look hard and you will find no more than a line or two on wherein the difference lies. There certainly was no mention of the timing penalty imposed by the Japanese connection. If a journalist does not try to approach his subject from different angles, to not fact check as much as possible, he is prone to producing fake news. Even in my case, if the Harbeth had not materialized, I'd have given the 84x2 even lower marks. When the Harbeth made things better, I worked hard to find the merits of these cables. This is after all a professional cable which, in my book, deserve closer scrutiny than commercial ones. I also would like to say that on the net audio writing is getting shorter and shorter. From blog to microblog to facebook etc, increasingly piecemeal and unworthy. One reason is that some journalists get saddled by too many toys. When one spends so perilously little time on something before moving on to something else, how can you trust his opinion(s)? Now you know why I could not generate any interest at all in Duelund. And, believe me, I was playing with Western Electric cables more than 20 years ago, and mine were better than what they are selling now or what's passing as the genuine thing.
  • Over-Influence The journalist is an influencer; in this case highly so. It is unfortunate. Those of us who can use a solder make it ourselves, but there are many more others who don't and buy it assembled. As the 8402 got popularized, all kinds of operations sprang up to sell ready made ones. If you peruse Ebay, all say "terminated the Japanese way, with shield connected at both ends". Well, one voice. When it comes to cables, do you believe in one voice?

01 September, 2020

Loudness War Compression Headroom



From SOS article below. L, a 1980 CD; R, much more recent CD. If you read the article you'd know what shocking things that represents.

New York Diary (20-28): The Loudness Wars, Compression, Dynamic Headroom and The Inconveniences of Life

Over? Everyone knows about the Loudness War and how audio has been negatively impacted by young people who grew up on highly compressed and low-res music. The Loudness War peaked around a decade ago (this 2011 Atlantic article is fun), and later recording professionals even declared it over. This excellent 2014 Sound on Sound (SOS) article gave a detailed report on why that was. To make a long story short, the powerful Streaming and Media Services now do loudness equalization for whatever they play so there is little competitive advantage to maxing things out. But is it truly all over? Not quite, as one can see from this article (which is a rare one that seriously considered classical playback) and an even more recent one.

Difference between Streaming/Media Services Even I know different services do things a little differently. NML is basically classical, so can serve as a marker. Spotify, which I use quite a bit also, is definitely louder than NML. Every ten minutes or so, they ram loud ads into my ears. They don't normalize the loudness of the ads, but as I don't listen very loud, it is within tolerance. :-( Occasionally I toggle between NML and Spotify, and I always have to get up from my chair to adjust the volume. More on Spotify below.

TV If you think you have it bad with music in the US, I'll tell you it cannot possibly compare with Chinese TV. Say you are watching your favorite serial in China, and the ads come on almost 20 db louder - really irritating, downright terrorist attacks. The rationale behind that eludes me: the louder it is the more I dislike the ad (I usually mute it).

Birds Do It, Bees Do It Even in HiFi Audio, where you'd think standards would be adhered to, it is not necessarily the case. Chinese Audiophile CDs When I had my EAR 912 Preamp, I'd avoid playing my friend's Chinese "audiophile" CDs (I own few). Many of these, regarded as well recorded, like the female singer 童麗 (妙音,九洲), are totally into the red and made the needles on the meters bang around. The only company that honorably never does that is rhymoi (瑞鳴). Audio Note UK DACs These typically have much higher output (current ones are spec'ed at 3.2V but I suspect my old 2.1 was even more than that), AN said that is because they can play into their amps directly but I think that is totally nonsense. No one is going to use an ultra expensive Level 5 DAC to feed a lower level integrated with volume. I am sure they did it to juice up the "jump factor" of their SE amps (I don't condemn this practice, as many flea-powered amps need all the help they can get). BTW, ANUK is not alone. Take the current R2R hot potato, Holospring May, its RCA output is a highish 2.9V (whereas another R2R hot potato, Denafrips Terminator is 2.3) Preamps Among audio equipment, the role of the preamp in the chain is the big divide. Some insist on No Gain, some More Gain (particularly Vinyl Addicts). Most Tube Preamps (especially if the maker also markets phono products and amps) hover around 10-13 db Gain (My Artemis LA-1 and Manley Retro 300B both 13 db); some are even higher (the current Shindo Monbrisson, likely also my old one, my Yamamoto CA-04 and ANUK M10 have 16 db gain; the famed Jadis JP80 has 20 db!). But they are very different in design and, hence, how they work that volume control (there is no set value for the volume pot; for tube amp it's usually 50 or 100K). For Shindo and Yamamoto, given that my horns are ultra efficient, I only need to turn it up a little bit; for Artemis, more. Of course, part of that has to do with matching the Input Sensitivities of the maker's own amps, but one can also perhaps view this as a certain manipulation of loudness (different designers prefer different levels) for that "jump factor". Mind you, as an impure one who believes in poly-stylistic endeavors, I am not at all wary of manipulation. For me, in audio, there is no gospel. Which brings me back full circle to the following question.

Loudness War in Classical? Pop music has long been sold on loudness. As for jazz, it is better in general. But, what about Classical Music, which is supposed to be the beacon of recording integrity, the one immune to the war? Is that true? This is little talked about and based on mostly facts, though perhaps not without a little assumption. But my intensive streaming experience had me in doubt and there are more questions than answers.

Streaming on Spotify Loudness Variations between Genres As I also listen to some Jazz and Pop on Spotify, I am sure as a whole, as always, classical albums are less loud than jazz and certainly less hot than Pop. However,even streaming on NML, many recent classical albums, particularly of lean and mean baroque music (which young people, even me, take to) surprised me by their loudness. On these albums, performed by as few musicians as one to a part, their loudness is unsettling. I know, because I listen to a lot of baroque music, HIP or not. Sometimes I just lower the level on the computer, but that is audibly detrimental to the sound. A string quartet's loudest moment should not sound as loud as or even louder than an orchestra in full cry (this never happens with the LPs I play). The engineers more often than not record up close too. This is highly unsettling and makes me get up often from the chair - dial up for orchestras and down for smaller ensembles (I can understand why mrgoodsound insists on a remote). This naturally raises the question if the engineer had upped the gain (even in conjunction with a little "judicious" compression) to obtain a more "impactful" or 'fuller" sound (in fairness, I actually think all engineers use these when they deem it necessary). But, Is this the Engineer's doing or is it Spotify? I decided to conduct some simple experiments. Using BT, I picked two AIFF tracks on my iTunes on Macbook and compared with the same tracks on Spotify via Chromebook (as the Mac's browser is crippled), both outputs maxed, without changing the preamp volume setting. Compared to Spotify, the Schubert Quartet track (Doric Qr/Chandos) on the Mac was almost inaudible. On the Mac, a cover of Billy Holiday's Strange Fruit by Rokia Traore (a favorite singer of mine; the song is certainly relevant for these times; in the youtube below her live performance is worth hearing even with the heavy African accent) fared better, much louder than the Schubert and certainly clearly audible, but still not as loud as through Spotify. I will grant there may be maximum level differences between the Macbook and Chromebook, but I am pretty certain the results shall stand even if I take that out of the equation (I can burn a couple of tracks on my chromebook to compare but I can't find my external disc drive). What does this mean? I think: 1) despite the "normalization" across the board, classical music is overall definitely not quite as loud as pop, so Spotify uses different criteria across genres; 2) even within just the classical genre, albums, particularly of chamber music or small groups, tend to sound louder than expected (I don't notice this as much from the chamber music CDs I borrow from the library); 3) let us not forget that labels do have room to maneuver in what they send to Spotify and not everything is necessarily Spotify's doing. I am sure I will have more to say about this down the road. Suffice to say, this is kind of a nuisance in my my streaming experience.

Headroom Gain, whether present or not, has no direct relationship with Headroom; rather, the design, and the Power Supply does (Naim people and most Flat Earthers will agree on this) as we see in the Artemis. In my experience, with most Preamps and Buffers of various designs, for a given piece of music, I usually only have to set the volume initially but, as I have found out, not so with he Artemis LA-1. Sometimes during orchestral climaxes I will find it a little too loud and would have to dial back a little, such is its dynamic capability. Or one could think there is not enough resolution at low level but I doubt this is the case, as it has always been a priority in my systems to be able to listen to microdynamic details even at very low level. In any case, it is clear the Artemis LA-1 (as mentioned in the last article below) has more headroom than most. This is not a factor of its having 13 db gain, as my Manley (of equal gain) does not exhibit this trait as strongly. The More Headroom the Better? This is of course a rare quality, but one that does not always work well in some circumstances, one being the streaming environment, replete with "normalization" and unexpected and not end user controllable dynamic manipulations. The last link I provided on the loudness war at the start of the article describes this situation in depth. In my case, a preamp with less headroom, say the Elekit TU-8500 I used before swapping in the Artemis, is in some ways more suitable for streaming. This is not a casual observation. How Compressed is High Fidelity? We audiophiles sneer at compressed music, but is what we are listening to truly uncompressed? Of course they are not, compared to live music. It is actually quite misleading and even arrogant for an audio journalist to even talk about no compression. Recording, Mastering and Media Limitations The engineer has to work with microphones, playback and mastering equipment and they all have headroom limitations, and the end formats themselves have limitations too (certainly LPs and CDs). Audiophiles who believe in numbers sneer at the LP (this goes on everyday in some threads). Well, yes, of course the LP has less headroom than CD, so why does it sound better? Numbers tell us that the LP has less dynamic range, and therefore more compressed, but how come in a good system it sounds more dynamic? Believe me, this is particularly true of rock and pop. The harder the music goes the better the LP sounds (my AC/DC LPs, which I picked up in HK for next to nothing, sound way better than the CDs, ditto Led Zep). You just look at all the young musicians - most dig LP. Plackback Equipment Limitations And then our equipment, even the most expensive ones, leave much to be desired. What is Happening in an active Preamp? My view of the preamp is completely at odds with the orthodox view, be it a straight wire with or without gain. Large scale symphonic music being my primary diet, I am pretty sure I hear things quite differently from the majority of audiophiles (and so may not be applicable to you). Many audiophiles, particularly the technically minded ones, tend to view the preamp as a nuisance and an obstacle, hence the popularity of passive devices and the proliferation of digital devices, even phonoamps, with volume control (whether digital or analog). Many of these can sound fairly good with simpler audiophile material but they usually fall down with symphonic works. Why? Unlike many audiophiles, I'd say I don't know for sure, and the preamp, which mostly attenuates, is a mystery to me, but I'd say this: there is a lot more we don't know about the preamp than the amp. This article tells you why only horns and huge line source loudspeakers can reproduce the dynamics of live performance (the rest is BS), and I am a firm believer of that. Just look at my inner circle, all horn users and many large Infinity users. But, the amp has an impossible task of swinging enough current for that instantaneous peak. However, audiophiles don't think of the preamp that way, more as a switchboard. I happen to think differently. I think that demand of the instantaneous peak is equally challenging for the preamp. Proof for me is that, although I'd use a passive device in some instances (like Leak, of high input sensitivity), I have seldom heard a passive device (volume pots, buffers and even expensive TVC's with gain) sound better than a good preamp with gain. Big classical devotees, like my friend Andy, always find passive devices lacking. Actually, the problem is likely not gain, but headroom. Buffering Of course, there is also the issue of buffering, which helps for sure, which is why some passive devices like Autoformers and, likely, mrgoodsound's The Truth, would be better than the so-called highest quality megabuck resistor laden volume control (that could be ridiculously costly). A tube preamp naturally buffers so has an advantage. I am a believer of buffering.

This is just some observations and food for thought. As I finish this article, I was listening to Arrau's German Radio Recordings of Brahms Concertos and the levels were among the lowest I have ever streamed; I estimate greater than 15 db lower. But guess what, I cranked my Yamamoto Preamp way up, and the 1969/72 sound just came alive; more than that, it was wholesome and perfectly captured the hall sound (as is typical of German Radio Productions). It managed the not inconsiderable feat of conveying the majesty at hand. Highly satisfying. So, why do today's levels have to be so high?...Again, it casts doubt on audio progress. Sigh...



29 August, 2020

Trans

New York Diary (20-27): Trans

The music included here immediately invoke (in me) many trans- words: transformation, transfiguration, transference, transcendence...On the other aide of the divide are music that don't - let's call them cis-music.

Silvestrov Fugitive Visions of Mozart comprises 6 short movements, one of his tribute to past masters. It was commissioned by the superb Canadian ensemble, the Gryphon Trio, and included on their excellent For the End of Time CD (Analekta). Their performance is on youtube, unfortunately in 6 separate videos that don't autoplay. Theirs is superior in sound to the other 2 youtube's available, one of which is included below. The youtube that follows is also superb.



Vasks Castillo Interior was commissioned by the brilliant cellist Sol Gabetta. The youtube is by her and Patricia Kopatchinskaja - that's two fire-breathing and -eating ladies! It is supposed to evoke the mysticism of St Teresa of Avila. I learned of this piece from streaming a new NML album of Violin and Cello Duo's (Paquin and Vega; see This Round's Pick, top right); that album is just as great, maybe even better!



Bach D Minor Concerto is originally for harpsichord, but this Organ transcription has a majesty its own. Period specialist Violinist and Conductor Ricardo Minasi I have recommended many times before. There are more of this series, and I also look forward to them.



Piazzolla's Otono Porteno is from his take on the Four Seasons. I felt I owe something to the Gryphon Trio and so post their excellent performance here.

28 August, 2020

Bitsream Micromega Overview Stage 2 Philips TDA-1305 SAA7321 SAA7350 TDA1547


Click pics to enlarge. Micromega Stage 2 to left of Yamamoto CA-04L.

Review: Micromega Stage 2
Overview: Micromega, Pinnacle of Bitstream

This article is about Re-Discovering an Old Love, or rather Sibling of one (it happens). Our memories (not just of audio) are both surprisingly reliable and unreliable at the same time.

My Digital Journey really started with the Bitstream era. Simultaneously in Hong Kong I was exposed to all the 14- and 16-bit classics, which immeasurably broadened my horizon. In HK I have owned the majority of the Bitstream Micromega, so this article will start with the Stage 2 player, which will be followed by an Overview of Bitstream and Micromega. My own audio journey is tightly coupled with my digital exploration; if interested, please read my last article.

The Concept Series, to which the Stage series belongs, are all housed in the same box. Here we will deal only with the CDP's. The rest will be treated in the Overview Section.

Recently, I chanced upon a Stage 2 at reasonable price. The owner had re-greased it (this is of vital importance and will be discussed later too in the Overview). Given my fond recollection of my old Stage 1 in HK, I decided to purchase it. It works flawlessly.

For the difference between the Stage players, I translated the included manual, which was only in French (owner had been in Europe).

Stage 1: it is the youngest of the range and yet stage 1 benefits from all the technological achievements of Micromega. It allows itself for a product of this level to be built with the same care as its elders, with the same type of components such as 1% film resistors, polypoprylene or polycarbonate capacitors and the latest models of "Bitstream" circuits, The result is felt from the first minutes of listening with a sound that combines accuracy of timbres and dynamics without forgetting the legendary transparency on which Micromega has built a reputation that many envy him.

Stage 2: thanks to an analog-to-digital conversion using differential time alignment mode, Stage 2 takes a new step in sound reproduction which, while preserving the qualities acquired on the previous model, goes much further in the low register with increased dynamics.

Stage 3: This is the player integrated at the top of the range and Micromega wanted to make it a figurehead.The analog section receives two specific transformers allowing to overcome the problems due to the interaction between the digital and analog sections and to go even further in the search for the primordial micro-information in the perception of the emotions of the performers.

All of these employ the Philips TDA-1305 1-bit chip. The 1 uses just one, The 2 uses two, and the 3 adds more power supply. The TDA-1305 has a very good reputation. Some regard the TDA-1305 as a cheap implementation and it was indeed used in quite a few budget CDP and DAC (like Cambridge). Nonetheless, Micromega's implementation was brilliant and, from transformers (Schaffner) to caps (Wima and Philips), Micromega used good parts. Google Images and you shall see.

I am not going to spend too much time describing the sound. Right off the bat, even from memory it is obvious to me it trumps the Stage 1 in every parameter. Surely 20+ years on I must have gained a little setup skill yet this simple system is not that different from what I used then. I mentioned in my detailed Review of Yamamoto CA-04 that a good bit of the excellent sound in CD replay should be credited to the Stage 2. I also did briefly compared the Micromega to the Sparkler S303 CDP (NOS). I also used the digital out of the Stage 2 with the Micromega MyDac (AD1835 chip) and Sparkler S306 NOS DAC. In the case of MyDac, there is little question I prefer the 1-bit Stage 2. In the case of Sparkler, the Stage 2 also proves to be as good in PRaT (!) and is simply sweeter in the treble. It is the highest accolade for me to say the Stage 2 is as good as the Sparklers! Or: I am in love with the Stage 2.

I also tested briefly the headphone output. As soon as headphone is inserted, the display above changes. As you see from the pic, a "4" replaces the "2". No, it has not become a Stage 4, as that is now the volume indication. Sound? Surprisingly excellent! Crisp and involving.

Overview: Bitstream

As chronicled in my last article, bitstream, particularly at the cheap end, can be thoroughly uninviting. This is unlike the 16-bit era, where the cheap TDA-1543 NOS players sound thoroughly enticing to some of us now (they were completely ignored by the audio press). For those who want some history of DAC chips, see DutchAudioClassics (rather incomplete).

Even with mid-priced and high-end bitstream, truly outstanding products are few. Usually, bitstream is quite smooth, and some would call it musical. But usually, the last bit of detail is not there, and hall sound and bass definition is not as good as multi-bit designs. Also, few truly distinguish themselves in PRaT. Here are some famous and not so famous ones.

Philips The most beloved of their bitstream is probably the well-built 850 Mk II (SAA7350; and Mk I and 840 [SAA7321]). Many units are still working. I find it reasonably musical but lacking in some detail; many others find the same, and employ it as Transport (in this role it is above average, but still not the best). Its successor, the less solidly built 950 (SAA7350; and its cheaper siblings 930 [7350] and 920 [7341]) can be written off. Better sound can be found in the higher priced and better built statement LHH series. I have heard the LHH-200R, but it is definitely nothing special compared to the LHH-300R that I owned (very sweet and solid sound). I have not heard the even more expensive ones in the series. Earlier ones used the SAA7321; later ones, usually with an "R", used the famed TDA-1547.


Marantz The first Marantz that I heard was the excellent CD72 Mk II (TDA-1547; Mk I SAA7350). It was ubiquitous and always made a musical sound, preferable to Philips I thought. I still own the predecessor, CD62 (SAA7350) which is excellent. Later I owned and heard many of the wildly popular CD63 (including Mk II, SE and KI; SM5872) but they are not as good as the better built 62/72. I have heard the more upmarket CD10 and CD16 (TDA1547) many times but somehow they never impressed me. Neither did the CD17 (TDA1547) which I briefly owned. My thinking is the CDM12 machines, like the CD63 and CD17, have a lighter sound.

Studer The D730 (TDA-1547) is excellent and highly desirable, but I prefer the A730 (16-bit).

DPA (Deltec) Now, this gets interesting. I owned the 2-box DPM 1.3 (TDA1547). Designer was Robert Watts, now of Chord fame. There was a lot of then-cutting edge design, including re-clocking. 4 toslink connect the 2 units. If not for Micromega, this would get honorable mention. It was quite detailed and musical enough but, ultimately, a little too literal (as is always the case with Chord). I have also heard the lower-end Little Bit (SAA7350), which was quite nice and sweet!

Meridian 203 This used the SAA7321. Musical but kind of veiled and lacking in detail.

Pioneer I owned briefly the PD-T05, pretty good but not as good as the T-07 (SAA7350), which however is still lacking in ultimate resolution or excitement. The Stable Platter is a classic though and many use them as transports.

Metronome This is another French company that specializes in digitals. Mine was an early 1-bit unit, the model name of which I have forgotten about. Its resolution was not the greatest but unusually it excelled in dynamics, which made classical music replay superb. BTW, this company is OEM for the digital products of Jadis.

Audio Alchemy DDE 1.0 (SAA7323) This budget bitstream DAC was a bestseller and fairly good, but I prefer its non-bitstream sibling DITB (AD1853). Audiolab 8000 DAC (TDA1547) Pretty good but not very dynamic. Cambridge Audio Dacmagic (TDA1305) A bargain but it is a little coarse and lacks the last degree of slam and heft. Museatex Bidat (TDA1547) and Melior (7350) I heard many times in second-hand shops. Musical but still lacking. Naim I owned briefly the CD3.5 (TDA1305). Quite good, but it was bested by the 16-bit CD3, not to mention the CDI and, my favorite, the CD2. Proton AC-422 (Dual 1-bit) I bought at Harvey's clearance for $100. Smooth and detailed but lacking in slam and rhythmic finesse.

There are many others that I have heard but forgotten about. Just as well.

Overview: Micromega

Although not founded by him, Micromega is basically Daniel Schar. For some interesting French audio lore, read the first few paragraphs of this article. First, the products that Micromega OEM'ed:

Leedh When I first got to HK, I actually saw the leedh CD players many times in second-hand shops, commanding princely sums. They look exactly like the higher end Micromega then, except they have gold instead of black facades. Haven't come across them in a long time, anywhere.

Goldmund Only the original Goldmund CDP was a re-branded Micromega. Later ones range from modified Japanese multiplayer to designs that look like Metronome.

Revox Micromega made at least all the electronics in the Elegance Series. Note the familiarity to the later Micromega Minium series. I once owned the S22/S25, and they sound no different from the Minium.

Now, the Micromega brand:

Digital Although Micromega make full systems, they make digitals best. There is no if's, and's or but's, Micromega Bitsream products represent the Pinnacle of Bitstream! They are even better than their later designs, which are no slouch.

CD F1 and 16-bit Era These all use the classic TDA-1541. The CD F1 series, integral players and transport, are rarely seen now, and coveted. The original bread loaf Duo DAC is 16-bit and I never managed to get one in HK somehow. I also had a Micromega badged Modifed Philips CDP but I forgot the name - it could be the Optic, but I think it is even earlier.

Modified Philips Bitsream CD Players The Leader and Logic (SAA7321). This happened very early on, as lower-end offerings. I have not heard them.

Solo, Duo, Trio These represent Micromega at their best. They span the time of the classic Philips swing arm mechanisms, from CDM1 to CDM3 to CDM9/9 Pro. They are all top-loading players with a puck that is attached to a CD sized disc (there is knot pattern that looks somewhat like kevlar, surely for damping). The Solo is obviously a one box player. Earlier ones have a slanted front (I still have one). The sound is musical. The Duo obviously comprise a Transport and a DAC. There are several iterations. The Transport is named Duo CD, with later 2.1 and 3.1 (the original has either CDM3 or CDM9 Pro; the 2.1 CDM9 Pro; the cheaper 3.1 CDM9). The cheaper Duo DAC is a slim bread loaf (The BS and BS2, using SAA7321; I still own the latter) This sweet DAC is probably no better than the one in the Solo and can be improved (like others) by adding a anti-jitter device. But the Duo Pro DAC is another story. It is designed to be placed underneath the Transport (which has spike feet). I still have the Duo CD 3.1/Duo Pro combo. The sound is a big step up from Solo. Much higher resolution and dynamics. It also has balanced out. The Trio adds one more box of re-clocking/anti-jitter, and the sound is for sure the best Micromega has ever produced (still SAA7321). It has the most amazing dynamics, fantastic for classical replay. I used to have one but unwisely sold it to conserve space. Tip: 1) be careful with the heavy acrylic top lid, which can come banging down if improperly handled; 2) as with any top loaded machine, the disc initiates after the the lid comes down. Disable the mechanism and operate manually with the lid open; this will improve the airiness; removing the cover or box of an ordinary CDP will achieve the same result)

The Concept Series After Philips moved to CDM12, Micromega launched the Concept Series.  all are housed in the same black box with blue display and red buttons (this is French red and blue, quite beautiful to my eyes; unfortunately our own red and blue are much more problematic). The first CDPs were the Stage 1, 2 and 3 (treated in the first part of this article in detail). The lasers often developed problems. Although there were other theories, I think it is fair to say we now know it is due to grease drying up. A proper cleaning and re-grease (with something like lithium grease) usually solves the problem. This problem was Philip's problem, and in this era many other CD players also suffer from the malaise. No matter, the problem basically capsized Micromega and it never recovered its scale before the plague. The problems were probably what led Golden String, then distributor, to dump them in big sales. I bought a Stage 1 and had to exchange a couple of times. One time I put in a disc, and the drawer suddenly opened and the disc came flying out with a spin (much like 007 Goldfinger, remember that hat?) It was the first time I heard the CDM12, and I was entranced by its openess. Mind you later I acquired my second-hand samples of Solo, Duo, Trio and I still held the Stage in esteem, which was why recently I bought the Stage 2. There is something unforgettable about it. My friend Hoi auditioned all three and bought the 2, saying the 3 was too hifi for him, but should a good and reasonably priced sample of the 3 (or 6) comes my way I shall grab it to complete my assessment. Stage 4, 5, 6 When the European Union made a rule that all machines must have an on-off switch, Micromega revised the Stage series (if you google pics the circuit boards are somewhat different from the corresponding 1, 2, 3) but the sound (and the problems) remain the same. Drive 1, 2 and DAC 1, 2 These separates are similar in design to the integrated players. I bought the Drive 1 and DAC 1 and the sound was certainly a cut above the Stage 1 alone, difference likely due to separate power supplies. The Concept Series was a Full System, and are here some of the other products. Tempo 1, 2 These are amplifiers. I owned the Tempo 1, which runs fairly warm. It is very sweet sounding but not quite powerful enough for loudspeakers like LS3/5A, but if you paired it with a more efficient loudspeaker like Audio Note UK AN-K, the sound is astonishingly good (I found out when I sold that as a set to a friend). There was also a tuner, but it was not cheap and I never got to hear it.

T Series Slightly earlier but overlapping with the Concept series was the T Series. T-Drive 1, 2 and T-DAC These are half-size components with are slightly more upmarket than the Stage series, with balanced input and outputs. I have never owned them but have borrowed them. Sound is similar to the Stage series.

Micro Series This mini-sized series predated the Concept series. It is also a full system (no tuner I think). I own a full set. Microdrive This small top-loader used the CDM9 and a small puck. Sound is excellent but as with many Philips servo of that era, some of the strokes of the display can go missing. Microdac This is a beautiful machine, the only one in the series with an acrylic top. Sound (SAA7321) is so sweet! I had two and sold one to my friend whlee. Our Toronto friend Joe (remember Quad system?) swears by it too! Variodac This is a DAC with Preamp function and extra inputs built in. Microamp This is the craziest one. It has the same size, but runs really hot, so there are two long and jarring heat sinks attached to the back. Stacking on it is not recommended. Sound? Surprisingly excellent and, unlike Tempo 1, it can drive LS3/5A to acceptable level! Considering this is before the time of space saving SM power supply, a super accomplished Mini Series!

Minium Series This is precursor series to their current products, after the debacle of the CDM12. The style harks right back to the Revox S Series. I have only heard the CDP, musical enough (the rarer TDA-1549). The sound is likely similar to the current products.

Aria and Classic Solo Much later Micromega made some half-hearted effort to revive the classic looks. The Aria was visually striking but expensive, but for the price CDM12 and AD1853 did not seem attractive. The Classic Solo was also a curious product. It looks very much like a Solo, but also uses the CDM12, though with the TDA 1547 chip, but its price, again was on the expensive side.

The Current Products For this I refer you to their webpage. The lineup hasn't changed in a LONG time. I have used the CD-10 and IA-60 (here) and they are quite decent and under-rated. Undoubtedly, the most striking direction of Micromega is the M series products, which take after Devialet (I wonder if they are OEM), but are significantly cheaper. I'd not mind a chance to hear the M-one in my system (I doubt I'll get it).

My Series I have to single out this series from the current lineup, as they offer compact form and great sound. In NYC I have the MyDAC, MyZic and MyGroov; in HK, the MyAmp. I have covered all of them in this blog. Incredible values!

I am sure I have forgotten something but, there, finally an Overview of one of my favorite companies.

24 August, 2020

Hearing Test Auralic Vega

Letter from Hong Kong (20-7): Another step closer to CAS Nirvana? Eric L makes a major acquisition

Editor: This installment of Eric's is fascinating; it made me want to actually hear one, no mean feat (as I am so set in my ways)! But, for low tech me, I find some of the proceedings puzzling.

Most expensive equipment in HiFi

What is the most expensive or invaluable Hifi equipment? Full range speakers, megawatt power amps, DACs or exotic cables? Before, I would not hesitate to point out the answer, which is the listening room, especially in HK where a square foot of an average flat can easily cost up to USD 2000. Today, I found out I was wrong.

I realize (but may have tried to avoid that) that, as you grow older, your hearing ability would deteriorate, and the ability to hear high pitch decreases year after year, and ear after ear. If your eyesight has deteriorated, you can wear bifocal lenses to adjust and you can still take photos with it. But if your listening ability has deteriorated, then the "air" of the ambience and instruments cannot be picked up. Have I been hearing music with highs chopped off? With all the great delicacies and fine wines in this world, I could not imagine my taste buds becoming insensitive... So I took the test below:







Some friends reached the limit at 11khz; some just slightly above 10khz. I was lucky to reach  13.5khz, but it got very hard to hear the pitch when approaching my limit. Now I would like to confirm the ability to hear high pitch is the most valuable asset to evaluate sound quality [Ed: see Footnote 1] Music appreciation and understanding of what is good sound quality can be acquired, but, once gone, loss of hearing ability cannot be recovered...

CAS Journey Ongoing, A Step Closer perhaps, A Proper DAC for Hi-Rez Files

While BT is definitely a good and handy streaming method, my curiosity led me to explore more options. During the search, I have come across so many new and really hard to understand technical terms which prove to be very difficult for me to comprehend. All I know is that I would need a DAC that can handle high bits, up to 32bit/384ks for PCM or 1 bit with 512 times oversampling for DSD. But what these numbers stand for I as a civil engineer  really don't get; I have to bow to the electronic engineer! Of course the DAC should preferably have a decent quality USB input with low jitter noise. Another thing that I don't fully get is the "clock". With so many different protocols on how it works, it's definitely proven too much for an old man like me. The higher the numbers the better? I was trained to be skeptical that it could well be a gimmick to make HiFi users pump in more cash to upgrade to ever improving digital equipment. The biggest question to me is that I always believe in KISS [Keep it Simple, Stupid] and have been a fervent less-is-more practitioner. So, is this one of the biggest scams of the audio industry, a most lucrative market waiting for innocent sheeps like I to fall into the trap? Before, 4x O/S was the most I would need and NOS has been my preferred DAC mode...

Gone are the Benchmark DAC1 and iFi Zen Blue thanks to the active 2nd market in Review33, a well known audio forum in HK for trading 2nd hand gears. Those 2 pieces of equipment proved not to be my taste unfortunately. While I was happily waiting for my new NOS Lite DAC AH to arrive, something happened, as Forest Gump had said, "Life is like a box of chocolate, you never know what you going to get!" While regularly searching on Review33 for anything new in the DAC and CAS categories, usually nothing much would register. One day (there is always that "One Day"), something caught my eye, an Auralic Vega DAC (original version, not G1 or G2) on sale at an unbelievable price (MSRP of $3500USD). However, the USB does not work and the seller was selling as is. I knew it would be gone real soon. Immediately I made some inquiries and at the same time began extensive research on the internet to find out more about this once reference DAC for many HiFi reviewers and users. I do have reservations, since I am not a high-bit believer and it really violates my general "beliefs". And then there were some less favorable comments from some of my knowledgeable HiFi friends. Also, this DAC had been around for 7 years and was replaced by the what the factory claimed to be far superior G1 and the even better G2. Given the ultra fast pace of advancement of the CAS technology, is it obsolete? There were so many odds that I had to consider. I remember Vega when it was first released. I had read a rave review from 6 Moons, which compared it favorably to the Metrum's Hex, while portraying their difference as Starred Michelin Restaurant (Vega) vs hearty and delicious meal at home (Hex). Which one do I really like? If the food analogy is correct, Hex would be more to my taste. In reality I wanted for a little more guts from the Metrum Adagio that I had auditioned earlier, so perhaps the Vega would be a better fit? At the price, if I find it not to my taste, I can re-sell it in seconds. So I decided to take a plunge. Seller is a really nice Malaysian Chinese who, because of personal reasons and the recent social happenings in HK, has decided to move back to Kuala.Lumpur. Since I was the first one to approach him and have shown the most interest, he gave me 24 hours to make the decision. Cut the long story short, I bought the DAC and become friend with the seller (C) and he actually took my recommendation to buy a pair of GAC4 I.C. from Gotham and it replaced the PAD he has been using with immediate good results.

Auralic Vega , My Cup of Coffee?



The way I approached this DAC in the beginning was very simple, I even thought about getting the contact of the second-in-line who approached C after me, Well, I have heard and read enough to "predict" that this DAC would not be to my taste. Too sterile, over-analyzing things, unnatural and inorganic. Well, I always want to hear for myself. at least while I can still hear up to 13500Hz~

CD Playback To start, I hooked it up to my Sparkler CDP as a DAC and A/B'ed with or without Vega. Gotham GAC4 was used as I.C. and Mogami was used as Digital cable. The Vega allows you to change Clock Accuracy and Filters. Initially, the DAC will set the clock as Auto and after an hour's run in, you can adjust it to Coarse, Fine or Exact. Coarse mode means you can feed it anything, even material with a lot of jitter. Fine and Exact mode will stutter from time to time if signal is noisy , but yields better Sound Quality (SQ). When I played Youtube through my Laptop without proper run in, it really stuttered. However, there was never a glitch with my Sparkler, even using Exact mode when the DAC is ice cold. As for Filter modes, 1 is for Orchestral music, 2 is best performance but only good for measurements only, 3 is for Jazz and Piano while 4 is for best overall. I found out that Mode 3 suits me best with enough punchiness and pace to sound lively. After extensive listening, I found out both CDP alone and with the DAC are very close in terms of performance. Sometimes I would prefer Sparkler to Vega, but Vega has the better resolution and instrumental separation which allows one to hear deeper into the music, though in terms of excitement the Vega is slightly behind Sparkler.

USB Vega does provide a USB connection and, though C said it was not working, I decided to give it a try. With my office laptop running through Windows, I downloaded the Auralic driver to my laptop and connected it to a Black Cat USB cable which was gathering dust in the cabinet. Connection was easy and swift to my pleasant surprise. On the DAC, it registered 44.1ks but the sound coming out was lacking in highs and dynamics, and soundstage crumpled. Playing through Tidal improved things a bit but it was yet far from the best. Compared to H10U, my reliable BT Receiver, I would prefer the H10U. My initial guess is I need a proper streamer to make things work out and I began to hunt for a streamer on the market [2].

Laptop Upsampling I keep thinking if I had missed anything in the setup. I search through the tedious sound setting in the Laptop and finally got to the performance column and it allowed me to push up the bit/sampling rate! from 16 to 24 bits and 44.1 to 384 kHz! I maxed it out and started playing again. With the change, I heard a major upgrade in SQ across the spectrum. The level of details and information, the ultra quiet background allowed me to hear more deeply into the music, and instrumental separation, staging and extended highs were all present. The sound did not sound even a tad clinical, but very transparent and natural, in a cooler manner which was not unwelcoming though resolution is not of top notch, as expected. However, the transients and PRaT are still slightly behind Sparkler alone. Judging from the performance, it had bettered the H10U hands down. But that should be the case, given the huge price difference! But H10U can hold its head up high! [3]

Tweaks Approaching the end of the week , I also picked up a power cord for my Vega to replace the cheapo cord. After a few days, it did sees some improvement, but nothing too dramatic. Then yesterday, on a whim, I put the cheap Taobao bought "Finite Element" look-alike device under my Laptop; they were just lying around unused, no harm giving it a try. To my utmost surprise again (I was surprised time and time again this week), the sound took a big leap. I streamed a lot of Cantopop (singers like George Lam, Lowell Lo and Danny Summer) through Tidal. The result was so musical, yet detailed; I could hear, in every instrument, every note played with different touch; the singing technique was laid out with ease; not a bit mechanical and with lots of emotion, heart and soul. All the songs that I play frequently in my Tidal playlist yielded the same results. I could fully immersed myself in the world of the musicians playing great music! I was often forced to focus on the music while doing something else!

Back to CD performance of Vega. To test, I mainly revert to the Sampler CD from Manger, which I think is the most musical, dynamic, natural disc; I can enjoy the music content while ticking all HiFi boxes [4]. I liked both with or without DAC to be honest, now that the Vega had picked up a lot more PRaT, probably due to the power cord? Vega has more authority and weight: the instruments have more body and speed; attack is 90% of Sparkler but the slower passages are simply superior, enhanced by the abundance of details. Summing up, it has speed, attack, authority and control. The Sparkler's take no prisoner approach generates oodles of excitement but falls behind Vega in slower passages. I can easily live with both settings. So I'll call it a near-tie, with the Sparkler retaining a slight edge over Vega, just that slightest edge. Sparkler is definitely no slouch at all!

Verdict

After a week of listening and letting the DAC settle down to my system, I would say this DAC is a keeper, maybe until the day I can afford the Vega G2, Cee's Sonnet, red hot Denafrip Terminator, Totaldac or Rockna's Wavelength? But would I even bother to spend more than 5 to 8 times to get 20 to 30% improvement?

SQ improvement on my computer streaming using USB  is totally out of my expectation. You Tube playback definitely benefits from upsampling and the result is more harmonics, details and extension while being quite musical. Tidal music upsampled to 384ks is highly satisfying most of the time as well. However, (quoted from internet source) "AURALiC introduces several cutting-edge technology for VEGA: Megahertz upsampling algorithm up-samples all PCM music to 1.5MHz in 32bit.".

While some say this DAC musically does not connect, I am of the opinion that this DAC is neither colored nor clinical, but more of what-you-see-is-what-you-get unit; it may just as well be a problem elsewhere in the system and the Vega reflects it honestly! Well, I will keep listening more to double confirm my impression.

Which makes me wonder if I ever need to buy a proper Streamer to further eliminate the noise and jitter? But who knows, at least I'm totally happy right now with the overall performance coming out from my current system! Wait, I still haven't put any spikes under my DAC yet!

That said, my friend who carries British brands and Portuguese made Innous, will lend me a discontinued demo streamer Zen Mini Mkii for trial. Why not I said, I'm always open to anything new and am excited about the proposition! It'd also be interesting to compare the SQ of ripped files to the original CDs.

SQ of CD is still highly respectable despite its humble 44.1 format. I do not see I would abandon this format in the near future.

Which is the happier news, being able to hear close to 14000Hz or the positive result of streaming? I cannot tell but will gleefully accept both results. Until then, adios~~

P.S. I did not forget about the Lite DAC, I will lend it to my friend first and see how it fares in his system. I 'll then bring it back to have a face-off with the Vega later on. Right now, I would not hurry; given the sheer enjoyment my current setup is giving me, I'm a step closer to HiFi Nirvana!!

Editor's Footnotes: 1) I have always meant to write about this, but Eric beat me to it! :-) Well, not quite. The medical auditory test, which I went through as recently as 3+ years ago, is absolutely fascinating. It is conducted in a heavily damped room, as in a recording studio, possibly anechoic. The subject is alone in the isolated chamber, with the technicians in a booth, and asked to wear a headphone, and to press the button every time he hears a note. Now, the notes are delivered random in pitch (not a sweep; no predictability) and vary in loudness, from audible to barely audible. Sometimes it is almost like a tactile thing, even if barely audible. My former student (who is actually also an audiophile), who conducted the test, told me he was amazed, as I scored in the 95th percentile for my age. Now, the catch. The test is only for speech frequency, up to only 8-9k Hz! So I cannot claim golden ear! Now, let's go into the medical aspect of this. A sudden hearing lost can be a harbinger of disaster. I didn't learn this in medical school, but from an audiophile!!! Many years ago, in HK, I had an audiophile friend whose moniker was blanka (a very nice fellow). He suddenly lost his hearing one day, went to the general doctor, who gave him some pills and, when he did not improve, consulted an ENT specialist, who told him it was too late. See, usually, this has a prodrome, or is an aftermath of a viral infection. But, if you don't get to the specialist within a 48-hour window and take high-dose steroid for a month, you are at risk of losing your hearing. My episode was not related, but a year later I saved my wife, who had problem with one ear after mild flu symptoms. Testing showed she suffered severe hearing loss, and the steroid therapy saved her! Back to my friend blanka, he is still listening to music and enjoying audio with just one ear! NOW, back to the Eric test, I don't think we need to take it too seriously. Perception of musical values is a notoriously complicated thing and cannot be laid down to simple and rigid parameters. Also, we accept a +/- x db loss in normal audio use, and a reasonably loud level (speech level) to be tested at. So, if you ask me, better use this test with an earphone in a quiet environment, and your device, with a cheapo "full-range" driver, most likely may not have the frequency demanded (better USB out to a DAC). For myself, I just listened to it and could not hear beyond 11kHz on the laptop, but through my LS3/5A I could hear to 12.5k! I'd like some feedbacks from regulars. In any case, I am not sure high frequency is the most important aspect in hearing; 2) This is a somewhat implausible scenario. The Vega is noted for its USB input. Eric's initial finding is at total odds with all the reviews. As much as I don't care about those, I'd not think they are totally off. My humble Micromega MyDAC does very well by USB, and it is simply hard to believe that such a statement product does not; 3) This is even crazier! Any signal into the Vega gets upsampled to to 32/1.5M. As it is now, some upsampling is done at the laptop (Eric and I back and forth'ed many times on this; he thinks it is the Auralic Driver that upsamples, but it looks like the laptop to me; see pic below). But the Vega will further upsample to 32/1.5M anyway. The implication is the partial computer software upsampling somehow improves the sound, and that the Vega likely handles data with higher bit rates and oversampling better than redbook 44.1/16 (but then CD sounds fine to Eric). This despite the Vega using a costly oversampling in order to bypass the oversampling of the Sabre chip. Eric's finding can be further tested by losslessly ripping a CD, then compare its playback with or without computer upsampling to 24/384. This brings also the question of whether BT will sound better if oversampled. Unfortunately I cannot conduct the experiment, as my current cheapo chromebook and Windows 10 Home do not have the option in Sound Settings (My Micromega MyDAC is only 24/192); 4) The Manger CD is also a personal quick-test favorite; I use only a few tracks (don't like derivative Livingston Taylor tracks, and there are too many jazzy tracks).