13 July, 2018

HiFi Basics: The Source Digital Buying Guide

HiFi Basics VI: Know Your Source(s)
Brief Digital Front-End Buying Guide

Note: In an older article (here), I detailed how an unfortunate encounter with a bad digital setup compelled me to write this article. If you think digits are digits, I urge you to read the link based on a true event.

The Audio System Hierarchy It is commonly acknowledged that, with the exception of the Loudspeaker, The Source is the most important part of the audio chain. Not everyone will agree with this but I mostly do, though I think the Preamp is just as important.

Many audiophiles never get the best out of their loudspeakers (there are plenty that are no good anyway) because of various factors (like gear choice, placement restriction, room anomaly, etc.) Fortunately, when it comes to the Front End, it should be easier to get at least semi-decent sound, though most could be better, and some can even be disastrously bad (as witnessed above.)

Digital Front End/Physical Format or Not? Today, there are many ways to get digital playback. Many, especially neophytes, eschew physical formats and rely solely on the computer. In my opinion, it is not a good way to start/go, fraud with trappings, for reasons that I shall mention later.

Although I am an analog man, for more than twenty years in humid HK I listened mostly to my CD's (I have several thousands.) I have always paid the utmost attention to digital sound and equipment in my own and others' systems and probably have experienced more models than most people, including most reviewers; this is just to say I know exactly what I like.

My Basic Digital Beliefs

Using the Right Player and Ancillary Equipment (do not have to be expensive,) 16/44.1 (Red Book CD) can and should sound Excellent. This is a belief held for a long time by a minority but reasonably large number of current audiophiles. Today, this is even more true as, judging from the large number of recent CD's I listen to (mostly from the library), I personally believe Red Book digital recordings have improved and reached maturity. Unfortunately, in my view, when it comes to consumer hardware (even those from companies with professional roots,) be it CD/SACD/Multi players, CAS servers or streamers, no improvement of similar magnitude has been wrought - perhaps there are more competent players around, though inspiring designs, as always, remain few and far in between.

A Well Implemented Digital System should sound like a good Analog System (and vice versa). Up to a certain point, that is. While a good analogue system shall always and decidedly outperform a good digital system in important musical aspects, these are frequently on the somewhat subtle side and require trained ears. In a good system, at least when listening not so critically, the two should sound quite similar in tonal balance, dynamics and PRaT. For me, it is important to achieve this near-parity in my systems.

However, in home visits this balance proves more elusive to find. While many people simply have unmusical digital sources, a surprisingly high number of self-proclaimed analogue die-hards actually mess up their vinyl setups. This is because they over-tweak their vinyl setups for "improvements" and let them deviate badly from the norm - without knowing it. In a way, this is as much a sign of over-confidence in one's setup skills as deficiency in knowledge of what the norm sounds like, the latter of course a common fault among audiophiles. One time, I visited an experienced turntable addict and heard all his turntable setups (almost ten), yet they all sounded a little off. I then asked him to play his Studer A730 (16-bit) CDP and everything was well. This is yet another reason to have a good digital system - to serve as a benchmark and baseline for analogue. Of course, there are those who believe analogue should be highly "flavored", and who can argue with them?

In Digital Design, there has been Little Progress. For more than 30 years, we have been told about advances after advances. Each new chip or DAC du jour is "state of the art", according to the same reviewers (this is particularly bad in many head fi sites). This makes me really angry: almost all of these serve only to illustrate that the "state" is transient and their making sorely needs "art".

In each era and with each technology, there are some outstanding designs amid the sea of also-run's and losers. Just because two manufacturers use the same and latest chip and technology doesn't at all mean that they will both sound good or the same.

If you ask me, even prehistoric 14/44.1 (given a Revox 225 or Philips CD100/200/300 series) can sound very good. The 16-bit era produced the largest number of classics. This was followed by the uninspiring true 1-bit bitstream era, which serves to illustrate that improvement in numbers is not an advance although, even then, there were a few outstanding designs from Micromega (and Revox).

And then there is the issue of Non-Oversampling (NOS). But this method (or rather, just repudiation of the method of oversampling) did not even merit a mention in Robert Harley's recent article on the history of digital (of course, he is a prototype of the type of reviewer I mentioned above). Even in this modern world of high sampling rates and high bits, there are still many adherents, so there must be something about it. I, for one, find NOS generally more musical. Now the NOS Sparkler S306 is my reference DAC.

For the longest time my reference DACs for large scaled orchestral works are two highly disparate products: the more than 20-year old tubed "20-bit" Sonic Frontier SFD-II (using the unique UltraAnalogue chip) and the even older 16-bit Sony DAS-R1 (using the classic TDA-1541). These are not NOS DAC's, but they are exceptionally built.

Physical Format/CD/SACD Disc Playback

For this, we rely on Transports/DACs/Players, which I believe is absolutely necessary even in a CAS based system.

Assessing Your Disc Player Aside from reading reviews or testing them in friends' systems (it is an important part of audio), how do we assess their merits, or lack of? I say, not difficult at all, and it depends on which level you feel confident at.

vs DVD/BR/Multi Players At the very basic level, many people have a DVD or Blue Ray Player (no matter how old) somewhere. Provided it is a quality brand, say Sony (my favorite, but other major brands, say Philips, Marantz, Toshiba etc will do too), measure your equipment (as transport or as player) against it, and it better be better (not as easy as you think, especially when it comes to blu-ray audio, given the general competence of any BR Player, such as my cheapo Sony BDP-190)! Or, get an old universal player by the reputable Oppo or Marantz and the likes (like my old Marantz DV-6001, which plays SACD's surprisingly beautifully) and measure your gears against it.

vs Digital File Or, even measure your setup against a digital file (here is an example where an overpriced German CDP fared badly against an iPod/DAC as source). CAS to me is not the ultimate word in digital, but a simple setup, like my MacBook (iTunes AIFF files) + Meridian Explorer (here) can be a very useful tool (I have taken it to many people's setups to embarrass their digital setups, and it has never shamed itself).

vs Old Players Don't believe in what the magazines constantly proclaim, that newer is better - top shelf old gears sell for a pittance and they can really show you up! Up one level, if you have experience with vintage players of repute, measure your stuff against them.

Transport As we witnessed in the link above (and here it is again), Transports can make a huge difference. I still like my various Theta Data's and Roksan DP1, but they are getting quite long in the tooth and some are impossible to restore (like my defunct Audiomeca Kreatura) and so I do not recommend them to others. At our friend jules' place, we also prefer his ancient and monstrous Forsell Air Reference to his sleek and modern Orpheus.

I'd also avoid modern transports that ask for silly money and opt for a DVD/Blu-Ray Player instead - they are quite reliable in use and surprising in performance. I use my cheap Sony BDP-190 with my Sparkler S-306 DAC to great effect. Do I feel anything lacking? No!

AND, by all means avoid those terrible DIY transports!

DAC I'd buy an old 16-bit TDA-1541 DAC (Philips, Marantz, Arcam etc) to have a reference. For more money, the Sonic Frontier SFD-2. As for modern DAC's, I haven't heard anything better than the very reasonable Sparkler S-306 (anecdote: a friend who also had the Metrum basically ditched it after hearing the Sparkler; I'd love to do an A/B with jules' Totaldac); it is small, non-oversampling and using TDA-1543 (see here). This link also tells you about why I disliked the Weiss Minerva, which is well reviewed by the audio press and serves as epitome of what I think is wrong with modern hifi. Anecdote: our friend Joe L was recently flabbergasted by the sweet sound emanating from one of my favorite classic 1-bit Micromega products, the Microdac; he ditched his modern Moon CDP.

CDP Some people prefer a one-box solution. I can understand, but modern CDPs are way overpriced and underwhelming (even the latest Naim dedicated CDP is not at all as good as their old classics, like the 16-bit CD-2), and I'd go the Transport/DAC route, since a cheap DVD/BR player can be used as transport and the DAC can also play files! But I'd forget about hi-res and get a good old DAC like the ones I cited. But, if you see a classic CDP in good condition, like Philips/Marantz to Meridian or Linn, do some research (laser etc) and think about it.

SACD? This is controversial, and I can see why. I personally like anything that is well recorded, and many SACDs are. But I am not sure at all SACD is inherently superior to the best PCM. Note that in NYC I have the Sony SCD-XA5400ES SACD player, no slouch. It is also worth noting that some older multi-players like my Marantz DV-6001 in HK, which is not real SACD playback, just PCM conversion, somehow makes SACDs sound surprisingly beautiful (and I have heard hundreds of SACDs from th local library). Go figure.

Upsampling Simple. Usually it is a give and take scenario. It can safely be said that most of the ears I trust do not believe in it. It is a bit like the Proac Response 1 - the 1S is an upsampled version; the 1SC even further upsampled, but the original remains by far the best. YMMV.
Computer As Source (CAS), but NOT Sole Source

NOT as Sole Source Make no mistake, I am not against CAS, rather quite against Computer Audio as Sole Source. As I am writing at my desktop now, I am listening to my MacBook Pro/iTunes/AIFF files played through the Micromega Myamp and Yamaha NS-10M - quite enjoyable (here). If you check my Label "Talk CAS" you will see I have written quite a bit on this subject, but from the vantage point of the occasional (though musically discriminating) user. I am also a keen observer, and have witnessed quite a few long time audiophile friends who have switched their digital playback from physical formats to CAS, but the changes to my ears were not for the better. Some of these systems were documented in my Blog (usually labelled "Home Visits"). Note too these people had never given up their analog rigs, despite proclamations that CAS could be just as good or better.

On the Cheap I have personally experienced a considerable number of people, including industry people, who use CAS to horrid effect (and don't realize so). There is a common denominator to these setups: they are expensive. Many use expensive clocks, convertors and exotic connections. This is a bit like the world of vinyl - if your quest for the "best" is based on numbers or theories or heresays and is not supported by discriminating hearing ability and musical values, you are much more at risk of going astray than the budget person using simpler and money for value gears. I have never heard a Squeezebox (Touch or not) sound bad, but in HK all the expensive CAS systems that employ some Weiss (including the dealer's demos) sound quite bad to me (even my iTunes/Meridian Explorer sounds better). In my opinion, there is no point to do CAS the expensive way - it should almost by definition be on the cheap.

Have a Reference The problem with the audio neophyte is that he has to have some references, and that can be peers or shows. But equally effectively, I'd urge someone with only files to compare against the same physical format as played in an old machine, as detailed above.

Files Sampling Rates and Upsampling One of the biggest promises of CAS is that with hi-res files (such as 24/192 PCM or DSD) you can get higher resolution than CD and this problematic promise has caused many an audiophile to invest unduly in CAS playback. But the drawbacks are many, to name a few: 1) there are very few real hi-res files available; 2) many files are found to be upsampled fakes; 3) they are intangible, which means they are susceptible to system failures; 4) you don't even own it and legally not allowed to make a copy; 5) as usual, the classical music fan is ill served.

Connection USB is the most ubiquitous, but others have championed connection with I2S, Firewire etc. The neophyte is left wondering and susceptible.

Streaming Partly because of the File Problems, Buying Files is rapidly on the wane. The other reason is because of the emergence of Streaming, which is imho a good thing. For a small fee, one can get to explore a lot of new music, ideal for the urban dweller with little space.

02 July, 2018

Lowther TP-1, B&W Matrix 801 MkII, VTL Straightline DAC/Preamp

Reviews: Lowther TP-1, B&W 801 Mk II, VTL Straightline DAC/Preamp
Overview: Lowther
Ruark Crusader II Revisited

This Blog is sort of a real time audio diary. For the moment, this is even more so.

Extra! Closing Up Shop
My friends know, due to family circumstances, I am soon to (more or less) wrap up things in Hong Kong, and spend more time in New York. Now, you all know.

This is why I am transferring some of my prized possessions to my friends. In the last two articles, you have read about my prized TAD TD-3401 in its new home. You shall soon read the same about the Tannoy Canterbury. The departure of those two loudspeakers signifies the closing of an era for me.

As anyone who has re-located, not to mention with way excessive baggage, knows, it is pandemonium. I don't know how I am going to survive it. But friends help, and writing, again, is a catharsis. The recent articles, more of a potpourri, reflect this reality.

Drunken Goose Palm!

Audio Comaraderie
In the last entry, I reported on the visit by icefox and company to my place. What I did not report on was that I scrambled to offer them something to snack on, very humble offerings (like 759 Spanish ham, sardines, Taiwanese crackers and udon; with some privately sourced organic peanuts, fried) with some equally humble generic wines.

The next day, I was really surprised to have received an email from To Sir. He had just prepared some Goose Palms 醉鵝掌 marinated in rice wine, Hence the name Drunken - this classic method has long been used by the Shanghainese to prepare chicken and other small birds. He insisted on delivering some to me, as he knows I am a drinker and this dish is supposed to go well.

I must say To Sir's take on this classic recipe is excellent! But I am even more grateful for the warm-heartedness, from a man I have met only once! In some ways, he reminds me of our NYC friend Kevin (here). No "thank you" is enough!

How do you sell a "warehouse" full of possessions? You don't; I don't really try very hard, but friends have helped me to unload a bit. And also, re-hooking some of these up have been a very pleasant reminder on why I owned them in the first place. Aside from the major events of TAD and Tannoy, here are some recent activities, and I'll take this opportunity to re-evaluate some of these and write a few words. In order of occurrence:
  • NAD 3020A I sold to someone I didn't know. As usual for such low-priced items, there was no testing and the transaction was in the MTR station. The next day, I received a call; the new owner breathlessly told me how wonderful the NAD was - it completely outclassed his vintage Conrad-Johnson preamp (no news to me) + 6A3 SET amp through his University loudspeakers (sounds like the basis for a pretty good system - too bad I have no time to visit). To recap, I have written extensively in this blog on the 3020 (click here) and as of this writing still employ it for my Yamaha NS-1000 (which the icefox crowd auditioned). I suspect there shall always be a 3020 in my possession and use; after all, it is a benchmark. Immortal!
  • Lowther TP-1 Complete Loudspeaker Names and Iterations Lowther model names for their loudspeakers and cabinets are highly confusing (like the many subtypes of Acousta), and this particular model even more so. Mine is the classic version with beautiful "Queen Anne" legs (TP-1B), which was/is more expensive than its plainer straight legs counterpart (TP-1A). A good guide is the Lowther Voigt Museum, which however I think is not complete. There were other later TP-1's, including "London" (not the current repro) an perhaps others. Currently, Lowther UK also offers the "TP-1 Imperator", which seems very different as it is front firing, though back loaded. My Pair My pair can be seen in the pic at the bottom of the article (similar to the units well documented with pictures here and here). I have had mine for almost twenty years, but haven't used them in the last fifteen. For a little info on how I got my pair and some old listening notes, click hereThis Time Around After the removal of my Tannoy Canterbury and TAD TD-3401, I was finally able to access them. It was serendipitous that my friend wher called me up around this time, saying a friend of his is interested. One day, we dragged these out. One has an intact PM3A with rubber surround (its mate has a short); the other a PM2A Silver with disintegrated surrounds (even worse is its mate). Despite this, the TP1 made mellifluous music when directly driven by my Sun Audio 2A3 (even with Russian tubes; source was Sony transport, YBA WD202 DAC). The driver with bad surround naturally had not much bass, but the intact PM3 was simple divine. The house was filled with rich, good music, so airy that we did not feel any need for supertweeters. Amazing! My Observations Based on my own wonderful experience with the TP-1's, and also the many Lowther's and as many DIY/repro cabinets I have heard, here are my views which I know is going to grate on many people: 1) Front firing Lowthers must have good bass horn loading to sound good; 2) Original cabinets sound much better than most DIY and Repro cabinets (no matter how touted or even "official"); 3) If DIY is necessary, avoid MDF and other rigid material; 4) As the repro cabinets all originate from China, we get to hear them in Hong Kong. Suffice to say I have heard my share and I am sorry to say I am singularly unimpressed - they usually sound so tight, the antithesis of a good pair of vintage Lowther's; 5) The Cabinet is much more important than the Driver used (even the cheapest PM6A produces excellent sound, IF housed right); 6) I am not impressed by the many Lowther-like drivers (like AER) that are said to be improvements. Overview Aside from the incomparable TP-1 I have heard excellent sound from a model with doors (likely the "Ambassador"). Possibly other large Lowther's like the Audiovector should sound good. I have also heard very good sound from some Acousta's, the most amazing being the "Dual-Position" firing into the corners (a bargain). I am sorry I cannot be more enthusiastic about modern cabinets or DIY efforts.
  • VTL Straightline DAC/Preamp (pics from hifido.jp; click to enlarge) Some days after the Lowther event, my friends Captain and Romo came in with "Garage" Charles and jules. Each had a different agenda, and Romo's was to get a DAC. He was very lucky that I sold this to him. This is one of my favorite DAC's. Compared to its more famous contemporaries which employed the same marvelous UltraAnalog 20-bit chip (Sonic Frontier SFD-II and PS Audio Ultralink, to name just two), it lives in undeserved obscurity. Basically, it is a DAC with a tubed output stage (with gain). It is both an excellent DAC and excellent preamp, but there is a quirk. As DAC Switch the Selector to Bypass and it works as a DAC. The sound is classic UltraAnalog, rich and detailed. Compared to the darker SFD-II, it is a little lighter on its feet (a plus) but perhaps a little less steady with big orchestral's. Absolutely first-rate, that is for sure. As Preamp Here lies the quirk. If one uses the Digital input, the sound lacks beef. However, if fed a line level signal (like we did on this occasion with the YBA WD202 DAC) the sound explodes with color. Indeed, as a preamp, I think it is as good as most that have come my way! That is accolade indeed. You get Two in One, but you cannot use both at the same time, funny, no?
  • SinoVT TP-215AI This cute 6V6 PP amp (reported here) seems to have been discontinued, and in any case this brand is a little difficult to source in the West. Charles heard this some years ago at my place. Subsequently, he bought two. On this day, Charles came to buy mine. The SinoVT did a reasonable job driving my Ruark Crusader II, and even the "Big Fat Lady" B&W Matrix 801 MkII, amazing considering it is just 7 wpc (pentode operation). More below.
  • Ruark Crusader II These were covered in a previous article. Using the VTL DAC into the SinoVT, the sound was very good, and everyone nodded in approval. I am puzzled as to why these three-way's with diminutive footprints are not more sought after in HK.
  • B&W Matrix 801 MkII For my assessment of B&W, especially the Matrix series,  of which I am fond, read my Overview. For the longest time, together with the Spendor SP-100, the Matrix 801 was a perennial on Stereophile's list of Class A components (indeed, read its most amazingly detailed review, written by a musician). I have had mine for a long time, but rarely used them, as I had my horns, which could use SET amps. But the Matrix 801 had retained my loyalty otherwise. Driven by the 7 wpc SinoVT, sound was surprisingly big-boned and decent - that should completely dispel the myth that the 801 is difficult to drive. We then switched to the Bryston 3B, which immediately firmed up the sound and put things into scale. Splendid loudspeakers of reference caliber!
A rare glimpse of my old place, in transition. Note the beautiful Lowther TP-1's in the back. In front are the B&W Matrix 801 MkII and Ruark Crusader II. On the floor is Sun Audio 2A3. You can also spot Unison Research, Cyrus, NAD, ARC, Technics, Micromega, Audionix and Lenco, among others.

20 June, 2018

Sparkler S306 DAC, RELStrata III for Quad ESL-2812, TAD TD-3401

TAD TD-3401, Part III: with Full Wavac System
The Amazing Sparkler S306 DAC, Part III: 
Sparkler S306 vs 47 Labs Shigaraki
Subwoofer for Quad 2812
Talk CAS: Cheapo Bluetooth Device vs. Meridian Explorer
Talk CAS: Tidal, Youtube, Radio Garden

The better half of this article comprise further reports on TAD TD-3401 and Sparkler S306 DAC. However, I also tie up some loose ends here.

TAD TD-3401, Part III: with Full Wavac System
On Sunday I re-visited Sang to spend more time with the TAD-TD-3401. This is basically a brief report that is the continuation of the last report (Part II) below (or here). On this day we tested out the full Wavac system by using the Wavac PR-X2 preamp in lieu of the Verdier Control B. The sound, as expected, was crisper than using the Control B. The piano sound was just awesome.

On this day (after much begging and cajoling) my taskmaster icefox finally agreed to come to listen again to my current systems. I was just about to leave Sang's place when icefox arrived in Yuen Long earlier than expected, and I asked him to join us at Sang's place. icefox was impressed by the performance, and harbored the same opinion that the 3401 is superior to the 2401/2402.

Regarding the Wavac, icefox still wished that it could be a tad cooler and thought the piano a little too clanging. For me, it was the opposite. More than most audiophiles, I am very particular about the leading edge, and have always thought the Wavac to be better on this front. However, since the TAD TD-3401 is a faster and more precise transducer than the Tannoy Canterbury, the resultant sound could sometimes be a little sharp. It is a small price I am willing to pay (especially since we get more details with the Wavac) but I can totally understand the other camp. So we were all consistent in our preferences.

Very soon, To Sir and then Mila joined us too. To Sir has a self-assembled big TAD System (which I have never heard) and is obviously a TAD expert. Both he and Mila were delighted with the 3401.

Now we go back a day or two...

Top Shelf: Note Sparkler S306 under 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC, behind Shigaraki Transport.

This is my third write-up of the Sparkler S306 DAC. For basic info please read Part I, where the Weiss Minerva proved utterly inept in its face. In Part II, the S306 went head to head with NOS AMC without shaming itself.

Sparkler S306 DAC
As mentioned in the links, ever since I bought it, I have used my S306 (serial Number 2) exclusively in my Yamaha NS-1000 system. Just could not bear removing it. Yesterday, however, with a little extra time on my hand, I decided to implement it in my Kondo system (pic above):

Transport: 47 Labs Shigaraki (Belden 1694)
DACs: 47 Labs Shigaraki vs Sparkler S306 (Gotham DGS-1 and 2111)
Preamp: Audio Note (original; Japan) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: TAD TSM-2201
Subwoofer: JBL 12" paper cone 

Just one recording for illustration shall suffice. In the EMI (Warner) Oistrakh box is a performance of Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 (with his long-term partners Oborin and Knushsevitsky). This 1958 recording is good but not exceptional in sound. In fact, with the 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC, in this Kondo system there was some harshness in the upper midrange, particularly with the Gotham 2111.

I was dumbfounded when I swapped in the Sparkler. It is very hard to describe the tonal differences, but the bit of hardness is gone with the S306, despite its being obviously more airy in the treble and elsewhere a little leaner than the Shigaraki. What is easier to describe is the utterly sinuous quality of the Sparkler. While the 47 Labs delivered a musical performance, with the Sparkler it is at another level: there is more resolution; the leading edge is sharper; the three instruments are more separated and easier heard; Oistrakh's playing is more sinuous and the cellist more mellifluous. The whole performance sparkled (pun intended) with an utterly disarming rhythm and pace.

This is not the first time Sparkler astounded me in its grab of musical intent. I have not reported this before, but in my Yamaha system, I once played the Andris Nelsons recording of Shostakovich 10th (DG) and felt something amiss: there was a brooding and threatening atmosphere that went missing (compared to my first hearing the CD in the same system). I checked and, lo and behold, the DAC was not connected and it was the Sony Blu-ray player's analogue section I was hearing. Now, as I reported in Part I, the Sony is no slouch, but it just did not deliver the charged atmosphere the way Sparkler could.

And so, despite the use of its matching transport, the 47 Labs Shigaraki DAC was displaced by the Sparkler S306 in the Kondo system.

The 47 Labs Shigaraki continues to serve in the system below as the DAC for the Sony DVP-PR50P, and it improved upon the Arcam rDAC and Sony's own analogue output.

Time Out: World Cup
After playing the imitable Celibidache's Brahms Symphonies, it was time for some food. Once again I opted for 肥姐 蠔餅 (Fat Lady's Oyster Omelette) which I wrote about last time. This time a plain red went well too with the dish.

On this day it was Germany vs Mexico; the latter's quick and precise counter-strikes were really impressive. In a way, Germany played like a bad DAC - no finesse; whereas Mexico was like the Sparkler, microdynamically alert,with tensile strength, exceptional leading edge, PRaT.

Time Out: Subwoofer (REL Strata III) for the Quad ESL-2812
As you know, the Quad ESL crowd is a special breed. They swear by their ESL and are in general very reluctant to add a subwoofer. So, I am proud to say that after listening to my 47 Labs 4737 augmented by subwoofer (here) both Quad ESL-2812 owners WSS (whose system was last reported here) and JL were persuaded to give it a try. They lugged my down-firing REL Strata III from icefox's cavernous place (he used it to augment his Tannoy) to WSS's small den.

REL STRATA III Subwoofer, Black, Mint Condition!The REL Strata III was an old product, but one of the more expensive offerings. It was generally very well received at the time and you can find quite a bit of info on the internet (pic borrowed from canuckaudiomart).

The afternoon I was there, with the low-level input we tried crossing over from 69 Hz to 95Hz. All worked quite well. The volume is indented. We started with 3 small clicks, but eventually went down to just one click. If you touch the woofer unit, it was barely vibrating. This very small bass augmentation however had the eminently audible effect of improving upon the liveliness of the presentation. The ESL always been too polite for me. It is good for a few instruments, but when the orchestra comes in, it is always underwhelming. The subwoofer improves upon this most important aspect. The effect of the subwoofer here is a bit different from what I get with my own systems - with the ESL one picks up the gain in presence more than bass extension. I am not sure whether that is due to the ESL or this REL. The important thing is, used judiciously, it is definitely a plus for the Quad ESL-2812, though I think other subwoofers may be worth trying too.

Back to the icefox crowd.

Click pic to enlarge. The black Bluetooth Device next to the Meridian Explorer.

The Bluetooth Crowd and the Generic Cable
Back to the icefox crowd. They spent a few hours in Yuen Long, but the program didn't exactly unfold the way I had wanted it to. After two hours with 15" woofers, I am sure anything else is an anti-climax. It would have been better the other way around. :-) Nonetheless, I don't think the sound at my place disappointed them unduly.

This is also the Bluetooth Crowd. Many of them use Tidal Streaming through their Cellphones. Arranged in advance, icefox brought his el cheapo Bluetooth device (from Taobao, less than USD 50; the black thing). Despite its small size, I think it has the latest technology. We connected it to the Kondo M7 with icefox's generic RCA cable, and the sound was quite acceptable, better with some cuts than others. icefox also played some youtube, which to my ear sounds even better. We then did some brief comparisons.

Tidal (Cellphone) vs Macbook Pro My Macbook Pro is very basic, unadulterated iTunes (no "mandatory" Amarra) playing lossless AIFF files. Through Bluetooth, the Macbook has a warmer and more detailed sound.

Meridian Explorer (USB) vs Bluetooth We then played my Macbook AIFF files through Bluetooth and also through USB (my favorite Unitek) connected to the Meridian Explorer. The USB connection is again warmer and more detailed. It better be, as I actually hold the Meridian Explorer in high regard (here). Actually, from memory I also think the sound through the wireless dongle of my Arcam rDAC is better than the Bluetooth.

Image result for Radio gardenInternet Radio Through my Macbook icefox also played his favorite Italian Radio Emiglio Romagna, but not through the official site, instead using Radio Garden. I can attest it was very good and the programming of much baroque music was to my liking. I also like the fun way one navigates in Radio Garden. Give it a try!

Belden 8451 vs Generic Cable We then compared the two 1/4" to RCA cables. My go-to 1/4" to RCA cable, which I use with my Meridian Explorer and Fiio X-1, is a DIY one is made from Belden 8451 (info) with Amphenol connectors. The sound was at once more controlled and detailed, but the crowd pointed out correctly that it was also a little tighter than the generic one.

For a while, there has been a little bit of a phenomenon going on with those around icefox (that means a lot of people). People give generic cables (some from Apliu Street) serious tries and devote much time to comparison, just like, e.g., one would compare Audioquest with Kimber. In general, these are pragmatic people who rightly eschew expensive cables. Many also use cables of vintage origins (WE or not). Many of these people own expensive systems (such as the two WE systems recently featured).

I don't have any problems with this. However, from the vantage point of a professional cable user, I do think one can achieve just as much, and more, playing around with professional cables and other things. Take an example, at our WE/Altec 604 friend Vincent's home, I didn't report it, but we did compare my DGS-1 with his favorite generic cable. To me, the DGS-1 was just more nuanced and had more finesse (I gave him a pair). Similarly, while the generic cable that came with my Thorens TD-309 was surprisingly good, it was surpassed by Gotham cable. Note too these about generic cables: 1) they vary greatly in quality; the ones that come with your USB devices, TVs, TV boxes etc are usually not too good; 2) they are usually smoother, less dynamic and extended at the frequency extremes, which I'd venture is why some audiophiles use them, but imho this is more of like patch-up works on flawed systems.

Nonetheless, the exercise with the Bluetooth device was highly entertaining and downright fun! How often can you say that about audio? As CAS is just peripheral to me, I can entirely see the point of doing things on the cheap, and the quality was pretty good! BTW, like me, icefox thinks usually the expensive, complicated, technical and "serious" CAS systems sound terrible. YMMV.

12 June, 2018

TAD TD-3401 and That Certain Atmosphere Verdier Wavac Tannoy

One Glorious Day!

Review: Pioneer/Exclusive/TAD TD-3401, Part II
My TAD TD-3401 Finds a New Home

TAD TD-3401, Part I

Audio Personalities There are many types, and in my experience the personality governs the outlook on audio.

There are those who never waver in their beliefs (no matter how unfounded), like "never tube" or "never solid state" (Religious Fanatics); those who anally/constantly tweak their systems and proclaim incremental improvements every time (Sales); those who believe in A/B'ing the smallest things yet fail to look at the big picture, like the obsessive cable swapper, or those vintage gear tube rollers prevalent in HK (Anal Retentive, + Religious Fanatics); and so on. In the end, these are people who know too little about music and overly confident in their own hearing ability.

And then there are the masochists, who for some reason struggle with what they suspect are no good. My friend/taskmaster icefox has long assigned me to this category. But he is wrong - I have consistently transformed what others (even I) have lost faith in. There are no better examples than my journey with Tannoy, perhaps even TAD. I know I am seemingly drifting off but the following bits have bearings on the evaluation of the TAD at hand.

Tannoy For the longest time I was really lukewarm towards Tannoy. Having already heard some really good horn systems in NYC before I came back to HK I was not at all impressed by the HK Tannoy scene, populated by "the older the better" and "only vintage need apply" types who believe in the pecking order Silver > Red > Gold (Black is too rare; and HPD and modern stuff need not apply). Oh, I heard all of these, many times - many times too many. I heard largely execrable sound from these people's Silver's and Red's - honestly, I don't have a clue what they listen to. On the other hand, some of the Gold's were semi-decent, or at least showed potential. To test it out myself, I bought a pair of Lancaster (12" Gold") and quickly got pretty good sound out of it (with the help of Aurum Cantus super-tweeters; this is >15 years ago). Of course, it is still a little slow in transients, but much better than older Red's and Silver's. A few years later (> 10 years ago, before I started this Blog) my friend Andy L sold me his pair of Canterbury HE when he switched to the TAD TD-3401 (see below), and I sold the Lancaster's to my friend whlee, who still uses them.

Interestingly, I never have really directly written much about my own Canterbury's, rather spilling perhaps too much ink on others'. During the time Andy had it, he only got fair sound out of them (in a smaller room with DIY 300B). I took them up likely because it was a challenge, not because I really clamored after them. I was after all very happy with my Klipsch La Scala's then and, having to make room for the Tannoy's I was really sorry to see one pair of my La Scala's go. When I first got the Canterbury's, the sound was rather terrible and grey and it took quite a long time to open up (my take is that the hard edge needs a lot of running-in). Masochist triumphed in the end! In the coming year, I should write more about Tannoy's - my own experiences!

TAD As for TAD, the scenario was hardly as dramatic. However, it was true that for the longest time I was not impressed by the very expensive large TAD's I have heard in HK (mostly 2401/2402) and never thought about them, until I heard the TD-3401, as documented here. Now, that is what horns are supposed to sound like! When Andy moved on to DIY TAD systems and other stuff, I grabbed the chance to acquire the TD-3401, and it was bingo from the word go in my place (see Part I). There is also a bit more of TD-3401 listening notes here.

My TD-3401 Finds a New Home
Due to family circumstances I am letting go of quite a bit of my stuff, so on this past Sunday I officially passed the TD-3401 over to my friend Sang, whom you have encountered many times before in this Blog. Sang is a bold soul, as he has never heard them before!

Tight Corners It took a while for the two of us to maneuver each >70 kg beast down the narrow flight of stairs, and Sang's wife Carmen helped a lot too. Basically, what I did was protect the loudspeaker with carton paperboard (from large TV box) which were affixed by a Ratchet Tie Down (飛機帶). We let the loudspeaker slid down slowly the stairs as we prop it up from below. Meanwhile Carmen was pulling on the Tie Down from above, lessening the pressure on us a little. 

We also took my Wavac gears (PR-X2 preamp and MD-300B amp) along for some fun.

Equipment (click pics to enlarge):

CD Transport: Softone/ICL Model 2
DAC: Audio Note UK DAC-2 (old version; PCM-63)
Turntable: Technics SP-10/Audio Technica Arm/Denon DL-103
Preamp: JC Verdier Control B
Amp 1: JC Verdier 300B
Amp 2: Wavac MD-300B 

Click to enlarge. The right lower corner (sofa not seen) is actually the best listening position here.

Sonic Notes

  • Placement These were placed where the Verity Audio Rienzi were previously (left pic, before; top pic, now), and they blended right in with Carmen's bookcases (though partially blocking them). Mind you, this placement is not ideal for such large loudspeakers, but they will have to do for the moment.
  • Tweeter Positions At my larger old place I had the tweeters on the outside, and so we tried it out first this way. Somehow closer together in this smaller place the sound didn't quite gel and so we switched the loudspeakers. With the tweeters on the inside things became well focused.
  • Grills Though the grills were actually quite transparent, perhaps they did soften the treble a little (which can be good). However, we all agreed that these loudspeakers look stunningly beautiful without the grills, so they were left off.
  • vs Verity Audio Rienzi When placed in similar fashion, previously the sound of the Rienzi was actually very good and earned my complete approval. The Rienzi is taller and, being augmented bookshelf type, threw an airy soundstage, but the images, as is usually the wont, are on the small side. Everything is Fleshier and has More Atmosphere It took seconds to tell that Everything is more Flesh and Blood with the TAD's. With jazz, there was no contest, no matter it was Miles' Kind of Blue (Sony) or Sarah Vaughn's Live at Mister Kelly's (EmArcy). For the latter, Carmen remarked that it was like being in the (smoky) club. Mind you, this CD is also the one that got my shidi hooked on the TAD's (see previous links; I urge you to get this CD). Classicals too benefited from the added weight. The opening of Tchaikovsky's Manfred (LPO/Rostropovich, Warner) had Sang shaking his head in disbelief - mine too, the brooding atmosphere was just absolutely compelling! Tonally Similar (Neutral) Sang remarked that the small Rienzi and the large TD-3401 actually have very similar tonal quality and balance. I agree and, as the TAD is of monitor origin, this attests to the neutrality of the Verity Audio.
    Image result for michael rabin magic bow
  • Air, Soundstage and Height The TAD is shorter and has a much wider baffle and this can lead many people who are used to bookshelf types to not "visualize" well. Also, the horn midrange and large woofer produce so much energy that some may think there is not so much air on top. Yet that cannot be further from the truth. What we perceive as "atmosphere" is in fact these energies converging to make sense of the recording. I personally felt nothing much lacking but, as mentioned in Part I before, if possible I'd raise the loudspeakers to ear level. Lacking stands we tilted the front a little (employing past issues of National Geographic) and that lifted the images a little. Make no mistake, it was still excellent, not like the pitiably low images produced by the Quad ESL 57 in smaller spaces. Sang subsequently reported that he got even better results from sitting on the floor. Ha! Raise them!
  • CD vs LP Commendably, in this setup, digital and analogue have very similar balance and hence near-parity, which is what I always advocate. However, with digital replay, some passages could be just a tad (no punt intended) sharp, a character of the TAD (these monitors were used in the analogue era); whereas with analogue this was not a problem. Michael Rabin's The Magic Bow (re-issue LP) was very finely rendered; so was a favorite Musica Antiqua Koln Bach LP (Archive), which compared with before was just juicier (if such a term can be used for this ensemble). Delightful!
  • DAC-2 Comes Full Circle Sang recently bought the AN DAC-2. As this old BB PCM-63P version is very rare and I haven't seen any other unit beside the unit I used to own I took a very close look. Holy! It is my old unit (treated in detail here), re-sold to Sang! Now, that must be Audio Karma!
  • Wavac vs Verdier We briefly switched to the Wavac MD-300B (still using the Verdier Control B preamp). This combination is one I have never tried before, and it was quite winning. The result was largely similar to what had been carefully compared before (here, with no less a roster than icefox and Carmen's brother Danz!). We did not try the PR-X2 preamp this time. One thing of note: the Verdier now sports Shuguang 300B whereas the Wavac uses Russian tubes; if you ask me, swapping them might yield interesting results (as the Chinese is more ying; and the Russian more yang.) More to follow.
  • TD-3401 No question about it, A Masterpiece! Here in a relatively small enclosure and with a small horn one gets a full blown horn sound, something that very few horn loudspeakers can achieve (one exception may be the JBL L-300). The excellence in air, dispersion and presence is once again confirmed. In fact, aside from the constraint of the smaller space, in some way its performance in Sang's home is even better than at my old place, as I had never really had much time to it.
  • vs Tannoy Canterbury HE Head to head with the Tannoy it is a toss up. In use, the Canterbury is richer, more forgiving, even more efficient and, due to its larger volume, more powerful and extended in the bass. Although the Canterbury is a modernized Tannoy, the older TAD sports a house sound of even faster transient and its portrayal of the leading edge is even cleaner and superior.
  • That Precious Atmosphere One problem with most modern loudspeakers is the lack of atmosphere. No matter how good the soundstage and imaging are, no matter how balanced they sound (if that), they do not render atmosphere well. I have often pondered why. My take is you need the combination of horn drivers and large woofers to reproduce atmosphere. We have recently marveled at the atmosphere conveyed by our friend Eric's epic horn system. But in this relatively confined space I was surprised that the TAD was able to convey some of that atmosphere (with jazz, that is a given; but with classicals that is impressive) - along with high quality bass, this is the most precious thing in audio. Basically, when you have that, the system is already made. One can only further refine it. Salut!

05 June, 2018

Arcam rDAC

Brief Review: Arcam rDAC (Wireless Input with rWave Dongle)

This is the originl rDAC with Wireless Input through the rWave dongle. For the past years I have used it quite a bit, but always here and there and I never got to formally write about it.

The USB Input is 24/192 capable, though Wireless is limited to 16-bit. As I only use iTunes (AIFF files) from my Macbook wirelessly, it is just fine by me - convenience and quality are more important. I must also say I love the looks of this original rDAC, a classy industrial design.

Arcam has long been associated with dCS, and so the rDAC employs dCS technology in both asynchronous USB and Wireless Inputs, and of course employs Wolfson DAC chip (the well regarded and expensive 8471). It received in general very favorable reviews, from the likes of cnetToneHiFiNews and TechRadar.

I thank Thomas for repairing my defunct Arcam rDAC. This morning I had a little time on my hand and did an re-evaluation.

COAXIAL INPUT vs 47 Labs Shigaraki 4715 DAC First I listened to the Kondo system. Using the 47 Labs Shigaraki 4716 transport and the same Belden 1694 Digital cable and Gotham GAC-2111 interconnects I was able to directly compare the Arcam rDAC with the 4715 DAC. Although the Arcam rDAC did a very solid job, in this system it did not sparkle quite as much as the non-oversampling 47 Labs (adjusted for level), which was airier, more pacy and had a more truthful rendition of hall sound (imho common attribute of classic TDA 16-bit DAC chips). The rDAC though partly redeemed itself by its unflappable listenability.

COAXIAL INPUT vs Sony DVP-PR50P Heard in the simple Naim Nait I/47 Labs 4737 system, the sound of the Sony's Analogue Out (using DIN Gotham DGS-1) and Digital Out/rDAC (using Kimber D-60 and DIN Gotham GAC-2) are virtually indistinguishable (the Sony being also a very listenable machine) as the minor differences, mostly in bass presentation, could well be due to the somewhat different cables used.

USB INPUT I had never used it until just now, when I hooked up my Macbook with my trustedUnitek USB cable (here). Sound was surprisingly decent, just a little behind CD playback via Coaxial (above). On my current favorite Bach album, the leading edges were softened a little and harmonics were rounded out just a little, but again, the difference is small (and there are cable differences involved, not to mention the iTunes software itself). All in all, it puts out eminently listenable music, something that cannot be said about a lot of hi-end CAS I have heard, An excellent USB implementation.

WIRELESS INPUT The rWave dongle works a treat and pairing is fast. From the same Macbook, the sound is very good, not that different from USB. The rDAC was one of the earlier Wireless devices, and its performance is laudable.

  • The strengths of the Arcam rDAC are its balanced presentation and unflappable nature. Commendably, all inputs are well implemented. It plays any music with composure, refinement and with a degree of subtlety rare in its price class. However, those looking for overt excitement may want to re-consider.
Postscript: How good is the Recording, the Hall, or the Performance? A Reflection
During evaluation, I listened to this (first) recording commemorating the striking new Elbsphilharmonie Hall in Hamburg, reputed to be of excellent acoustics. While the performances of the Brahms symphonies are very good what caught my eyes were how the music reviewers (who usually are not audiophiles) tried to say something about the venue.

It depends a lot on miking. Here, the perspective is mid-hall, and the orchestra sounds luxurious amid plenty of ambience. Without much highlighting, the details are there, but integrated and not prominent. In my systems I could hear them but perhaps it'll not be so in lesser systems. I say it is a warm sounding hall with good acoustics.

Hall sound is notoriously hard to record and I say DAC chips vary considerably in how they portray it. No matter how good the 24/192 capable Wolfson chip is, it does seem in this area the 16-bit TDA 1543 (not to mention the 1541) is better.

In the end, aside from really bad venues like the Barbican or Royal Albert, a good recording can be made, and one is not certain how one can separate the recording, the hall, or the performance. Sort of like feeling the elephant. And that is exactly what recordings are - an approximation of the life event.

03 June, 2018

IKEA Kallax

IKEA Shelves (Kallax)

Yumcha Diary: June 2, 2018
The yumcha gang has been on a roll. My feeble action last week of bringing a bottle of cheap German Riesling to the table enticed our resident wine connoisseur Dave to bring this time a bottle of nice white burgundy (from recollection, Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet, like pic, but different vintage). 正是:拋磚引玉,爽呀!

The nice burgundy was finished in no time. The follow up was much less glamorous, a HKD 25 bottle of Sangria from 759, but it was surprisingly full flavored and non-acidic - even without fruits it was pleasant. Our friend k.c. particularly enjoyed it.

Thx to DIY afficionado Thomas for fixing my Arcam rDAC. I am enjoying it right now. Report to come.

IKEA Kallax: My Satisfaction vs Art Dudley's Woes
This morning I had a little time on my hand. As I listened to my systems perched upon my IKEA Kallax bookshelves I read the online Stereophile and discovered Art Dudley has written about the same shelves.

Many people, including I, use this series of bookcases to store LP's - highly effective, great looking and bargains (the larger models are even better). But I know of no one who places his equipment atop these - until now.

Art Dudley made a brief attempt to place his main equipment on these (lying down), but it didn't work for him: "...In one of those moments of questionable judgment to which we're all prey (or so I'd like to think), I considered that devoting 5.5 square feet of floor space to a piece of furniture that holds only audio equipment was a luxury I could no longer afford in so small a house. So I horizontally oriented one of the three finished Kallaxes and tried it in place of my Box Furniture D3S equipment rack, with LPs within and turntable, step-up transformer, preamp, and power amp on top. My system sounded like shit—and my gift with purchase was that the stylus jumped the groove if I so much as thought about walking through the room while playing a record. Lesson learned..."

I have been listening to my systems perched atop the Kallaxes for a long time, and it has been very satisfying, as my friends Seng, jules and WSS can readily attest. Much earlier on, for about a year I had also had these lying down, and they sounded even better. I reckon my Ongaku is even heavier than AD's equipment, and I now run a cheap turntable without trouble. Arguably, my setup is even more prone to vibrations as my loudspeakers are also on top. One major difference is that my floor is solid tile, and AD's is not and much more susceptible to footfall. Second, I had spent a some time doing just a little isolation. The loudspeakers sit on shock-absorbing grooved rubber slaps (courtesy of WSS). The 3 tips of the light turntable rest on Japanese "earthquake proof" gels (from the local ten cent store), and I have small slivers of folded egg cartons under the 47 Labs 4737's, which are not allowed to directly touch the shelf. Finally, as jules astutely remarked on a visit, one can actually use some vibrations to one's benefit (a la BBC). It is not ideal, for sure, but it is doable.

Time Out for Food (HK Yuen Long)
Today's outing is for the incomparable 添記
in Yuen Long. This is another dai pai dong style roast meat eatery 燒臘飯店. Why do people bear with 34C without air conditioning? Because the food is excellent! I have never seen a 燒臘飯店 with so many female patrons - sure sign of excellence!

添記 is most famous for its 燒肉, but actually everything is good because they use the freshest ingredients. You are not going to find many 燒肉 (腩仔,絕無下欄) made with fresh pork these days (so are the 叉燒 and 燒排骨). Just as importantly, the restaurant uses coal cooking 碳燒, very rare today.

It was just me, so a humble plate of 燒肉切雞飯. Incidentally, the chicken may be frozen, but it is choice 龍崗雞, very tasty. I just wish they would charge more for a better beer, but no complaints!

02 June, 2018

Tannoy News Arden Legacy Series

pic shows Tannoy Arden.

Tannoy News: Prestige and Legacy Products

As a long time Tannoy Canterbury user I have written quite a bit on the Tannoy Prestige series (sample this Overview) and retain interest in other large Tannoy loudspeakers.

Recently I discovered a few excellent articles in Taiwanese media that cover the current Tannoy products. The  Taiwanese magazines always have in-depth coverage and boast great pictures.

If you don't read Chinese, you may still want to browse the pictures or use a translator.

九十年老店重振旗鼓-訪Tannoy國際業務總監 (U-Audio 2017 Interview with Head of Global Sales, Lifestyle Products, Jamie O'Callaghan). This article covers Tannoy in general (including its much larger professional division) and once again dispels rumors and confirm that their Prestige and Legacy products are very much made in Scotland.

復刻經典的Legacy系列-專訪Tannoy國際業務總監 (On Tannoy's new incarnations of the Legacy Series). This article is on the new incarnations of the famous Legacy series, successors to the HPD, which now comprises 3 models (Arden, Cheviot, Eaton). This is excellent news, as these are considerably cheaper than the models in the Prestige series. The Arden is most interesting - I'd love to hear it. This topic is also covered in audionet.