16 October, 2019

Full-Range Drivers, Audio Nirvana, Tonewin, Lowther, Cabinets, Mark Audio, Voxativ

Full-Range Drivers, A Guide
"Full-Range" and Hyperbole
Letter: From Russia with Love - Where is the promised Audio Nirvana?
Tonewin VT-2806

This is a sprawling article. You have been warned. But I think, should you be patient, you may be rewarded with an unusually interesting read, with an insight into how I see things that no amount of digital tracking or AI can provide...On the other hand, you can also skip certain sections to what you're interested in:

Section 1 is about my email policy and why I chose to make an exception to one. It is below in italics, which some of you may want to skip:

This article was inspired by an email I received from a Russian audiophile who knows no English but used a translator. Basically he is using a Full-Range driver with an amp from the same company. He did all the "right" things, yet the sound disappoints.

This happens to be a topic close to my heart. I appreciate full-range drivers, have experienced quite a few, still own some, and know them very well and have heard many such systems over the years, including many from my yahoo cheaptubeaudio group days. Given my preference for large scaled music, I have very firm opinions about the pro's and con's.

I did some research on what this reader used and dissected the issues. I was a bit unsettled by certain things. In audio, there are a few things I frown upon. One is hyperbole (pervasive), the other is not fully disclosing the true provenance of products (not unoften). Before getting down to business, a note about emails.

An Exception, and A First
I accept comments in this blog. Within a confined subject, dialogue is easy. But email is a different thing. Although I provide my email in this blog, I discourage directly emailing me and state clearly that I cannot and will not answer every email. Aside from time constraints, because of strong personal preferences there are just too many things out there that I am not sympathetic to. For every email I do answer there are several that I just let go. The subject has to be close to my heart. That said, even with limited engagement I have met some friends from all over, and I do hope audio makes the world a better place (certainly we can do better than politicians!).

Given their highly inequitable societies, I know many Russian audiophiles, like their Mainland Chinese counterparts, have mostly very limited budgets, and my heart goes out to them. I know well that expectation, that yearning for improvement and, most terribly, being unsure how to choose or navigate the sea of information on the internet. I am not sure how much I can help, but to my disdain not a few audio manufacturers actually pander to this sector, to lure by making usually exaggerated claims.

Section 2 starts to answer the email:

The Email So, in order to explore the subjects, I decided to make a one-time exception and actually publish this letter in an article. Here's the email in small fonts. The sender knows no English and used a translator. My editing and response in normal fonts:

Pic shows the reader's 8" full range loudspeakers. Click to enlarge. Below the A5 and 6V6 amp on a platform.

My problem is this - there is no magic)), but I really want to. The system (photo) at the moment is as follows: CD player musical fidelity A5 - connecting cable Belden 8402 (70 centimeters) - push-pull ultra-linear amplifier (lamps 6v6, 6sn7, 12akh7) - acoustic wire mono-conductor - acoustics audio nirvana alniko 8 "... power wires - normal high-quality computer cords.The equipment is on heavy maple blocks (vibration control).

What does not suit the sound? - I would like a deeper scene, greater clarity, musicality (by this I understand ... I’ll try to explain - you can hit the clay cup and the sound will be poor, or you can have a crystal glass - the sound will be colorful).

Some well-recorded discs with vocals sound pretty nice, but still there is no effect of presence. Classical music lacks hardness (there is no dryness and no brightness, namely a natural timbre - the sound is too soft).

Translation is difficult, but I think this is what you are saying: my problem is, the system has no magic. I'd like a deeper soundstage, better definition, presence and dynamics. Especially classical music, which lacks punch. (Notes: lamp = tubes; 12Akh7 is Russian for 12AX7) 

There is always not enough money and therefore the source should be digital, but I'm afraid to sell musical fidelity to A5 - most players sound even worse (up to $ 2000) ... In your blog you wrote that the figure and analogue can be very similar - you can pick up natural tone. I like this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yyj-Keg3dk . Please advise me what to do ??? - replace the source? and on which? (the sparkler seems to me like a child’s toy, it has obviously poor mechanics ... + the Japanese are crazy about high frequencies and all that they are doing now is a sharp ringing sound ... I heard that many people don’t like 47 laboratories - they call their sound primitive / simplified ... it is amazing how the Japanese made Sony ES 7... in the 70-80s - but these devices were already destroyed by time). If you try the DAC, then you need transport (and this is 2 extra wires + it's difficult to synchronize the clock) ...

After evaluating your email and doing some research I think I have some thoughts which I will go into much greater detail later. Here, I agree with you that your source is not likely the main problem. Musical Fidelity made reasonable CD Players and DACs. And your cables are not the problems either. Although the Belden 8402 is not the last word in presence, it is nonetheless a neutral cable and unlikely to be chiefly responsible for your system's woes. That said, Gotham will give you a little more "jump factor".

It is also true that in some quarters Japanese gears are associated with sharpness, but personally I am an admirer of the Japanese hi-end. As for minimalist Sparkler and 47 Labs, they sure use very few parts, and not boutique parts either, but they sure sound good to me, with exactly the kind of qualities you miss in your system (like presence). Of course, the DIY people, whom you have obviously aligned yourself to, think by using better components and more complex supporting circuits things can be much better but that is likely not the case. Different philosophies, which I know quite well and will touch upon again later.

Have you heard this? http://www.chiaki.cc/Transport/sdtrans192.html

No, I have not heard it personally, but I do know using SD cards as "transport" is popular in some quarters, and there are many people, DIY or small outfits making them. A friend in HK always talk about that, but computer as server is not my cup of tea really.

P / S classical music You probably know better than me - but here are a few performers as an example ... in America they can sing like that? )) .... (verses are very deep - this is not consumer goods) . If you like it - you can always find CD or LP

The reader is obviously proud of his Russian heritage. He gratuitously included around 50(!) youtube links, mostly vocal, a few classical and the rest pop. I leave only two links here:

https://youtu.be/t2CVUOEfVKI?t=17 . Dmitry Hvorstovsky (recently died) - this is the most favorite concert of all the people ... who now can make the auditorium cry ???

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QHaHObdCu0Y (He was a virtuoso - stronger than Glenn Gould) (editor: Sofonitzsky)

The artists he included links for include: Владимир ВысоцкийАлександр Градский, Александр Малинин, Григорий ЛепсТамара Гвердцители, Николай Носков, Елена ВаенгаПелагея, Александр Розенбаум, Анна Герман, Полина АгурееваАлексей Архиповский, Александр Малинин 

Section 3, the most serious part of this entry, will analyze aspects of the problem/system:

Full Range Driver
  • Full-Range Drivers are ubiquitous We all listen to full-range drivers everyday. They come in all sizes. The smallest are in earphones, cellphones and other devices. They are used in TV's and cars (where some of the larger ones can be found). These drivers can usually be relied upon to faithfully deliver the vital midband so important to human speech and daily communication. We all know the voice of famous personalities, musicians or not. If that voice sounds off in your hifi, blame only yourself. The best example in my HK experience is the voice of the Cantonese opera singer 梁醒波, who is known to everyone in HK by virtue of his ubiquitous presence on TV (in old movies). His voice is favored by HK audiophiles, yet many of the poor systems that I have heard got his voice wrong - usually the more expensive, the more inaccurate. Such is the off-kilter world of the "high end".
  • My Experience I am an admirer of full-range drivers and have quite a bit of experience. For more than 20 years, I owned one of the best full range loudspeakers ever made, the original Lowther TP-1. To me, its performance is unsurpassed. Regrettably, I had to sell it before I left HK a year ago. Not having really listened to it for more than 10 years, a simple hooking up with Sun Audio 2A3 just filled the room with music (details here which you should read as it gives my view on Lowther and wannabes). You should have seen the grin of the buyer! And my grin, because I loved selling it to someone who actually appreciates it. In HK, for the last few years I have used the much smaller 47 Labs 4737 alnico full-range (here) and am also familiar with the astonishing Sparkler S301 (here,) which uses a Mark Audio driver. Many years ago, throughout the period of my Yahoo Cheaptubeaudio group, I was also very pleased with my friend jules' over-performing bookshelf Loth-X Amaze (I know, it has a whizzer cone). That was a very good company, regrettably defunct. Of course, countless DIY Fostex systems too. I have also heard very reasonably priced Goodmans and Altec full range drivers to excellent effect. Others that I have heard include Beauhorn, expensive Japanese field coils and even Voxativ (twice), but they did not make a lasting impression. Here in NYC I still own the iconic WE and Altec 755's, purportedly the best ever, which I still haven't put into use.
  • "Full-Range", Utopian or Dystopian? There are idealists, and then there are fanatics, and many full-range aficionados are a mix of the two. Their "one-driver is best" mantra can actually be agreed to even by those non-aligned. Who would not want a crossover-less driver that can do everything? But real conditions are not so simple. Over the past three decades, I have heard probably close to a hundred full-range setups (including my own), some from manufacturers of finished products (most recently, the unconscionably expensive Voxativ Ampeggio, the cabinet of which is dead-ringer for a Lowther-derivative,) but mostly in DIY cabinets. My Observation: Most DIY full-range setups are in some ways, if not woefully, inadequate, not to mention not at all full-range, and many users are unsatisfied and in a state of limbo, like our Russian friend here. That is not the kind of testimony one is likely to find in a seller's website! I know many people who have a bunch of different full-range drivers, yet is not satisfied with any. They also end up with many different cabinets, none satisfactory in the long term. And you cannot even give away the cabinets you have no need for. Mind you, I like full-ranges for what they are, but there are very good reasons why other people, including me, ultimately prefer other means of delivery, be it horns (my YL) or line source (Infinity), or planars (my Magnepan 1.7), and for smaller footprints, the LS3/5A I am using now. There are many reasons for this, and let us examine them.
  • Musical Preference Know your Advisor If someone waxes lyrics about full-range, it pays to examine what music he listens to. Audio Nirvana, which we will examine in more detail later, actually has a page on music they use; it is maybe 1/3 audiophile material, the rest pop stuff. There is not one single classical music entry. While everyone has a right to listen to whatever he wants, I personally believe without using some classical music as reference the system will never be voiced right. This is ironic because true full-range can only be found in an orchestra. It is also likely the list includes no classical music because they know their replay is more difficult. For the same reason, I dismiss the reviews of Ken Kessler in HiFi News; the man also uses no classical music. Know Yourself It is also important that the end user knows what he wants. If classical is part of the diet, like our Russian friend, full-range drivers by themselves are likely to fail the mission. Next we talk about the difficulties of implementing a full-range driver.
  • The Biggest Obstacle: The Cabinet Material Almost every seller tells you his driver works well with his cabinet plan. This is not so. The plan maybe a start, but there are too many factors. To start, the choice of material influences the sound greatly. For full-range drivers, I have rarely heard an MDF cabinet sound right, and this includes some of the "authorized" Lowther replica cabinet makers I have heard in HK. None of the reproduction Acousta, Fidelio, not to mention "TP-1" (how ambitious!) sound remotely right to me. There are people who don't think much of the original (UK) Lowther cabinets, but they are seriously mistaken - they always sound right, and I have heard them all. So use wood, which is another big topic I will not go into. Size Matters Understandably, because of space constraints and simple construction, most DIY cabinets take the form of slim line towers, but I personally have not heard many truly successful efforts. The fact that ports are almost invariably used indicates that bass always needs help. Even then, it is usually not enough, or simply not right. The lack of bass foundation makes the treble stand out too much, especially exposing the problems of "advanced" driver designs. Baffle Width If we take baffle width into the sonic equation, argument for a full-range driver housed in a slim line tower makes even less sense. The full-range has a built-in advantage of point source and soundstaging, which does not need extra help, whereas the bass does, which means a wider baffle likely helps. Even if we consider conventional dynamic loudspeakers, most of the ones that impress me with the bass are housed in wide and large cabinets (say, Spendor SP-100, B and W 801, not to mention Tannoy's). Usually loudspeakers adjust for the baffle "step" effect in the crossover, but the full-range does not have this option.  Not Everyone is an Artist By this, I mean, cabinet making is an "art". Just a simple box likely fails 99 out of 100 times, which is why people experiment with damping materials from cotton wool to bitumen. The repeated tweaks and listening evaluations can be pretty draining and disheartening. Open Baffle The people who advocate open baffle is evidence that the colorations of the box is a serious challenge. While it is true open baffle indeed works, the fact that for a full-range you'll need a very large baffle and likely corners/walls to get any bass just does not work for the majority of people. Incidentally, not a few multi-way loudspeakers mount their tweeter and midrange in an open-baffle fashion (Alon, Nola), even without baffle (Dahlquist, Vanderstein), and, more recently, super-high-end Zellaton actually even has an open-baffle bass (but with side panels; open in the back.) Back Loaded Horn It is my firm belief  that full-range drivers sound best with a back-loaded horn design (this is in contrast to Audio Nirvana). The problem is it is much more difficult to build (hence after-market services), and one still has to choose the right wood etc (witness the failures of the MDF Lowther replica cabinets I have heard in HK). A good original UK Lowther cabinet, all back loaded horns, never shouts, as US reviewers seem to suggest Lowthers always do (including Art Dudley). They simply haven't heard the real things. Bookshelves After hearing so many failures of DIY big boxes, I actually think, for full-range beginners, it is better to start with a bookshelf, and augment, as we shall see later.
  • Efficiency Let me spill the beans: No Full-Range driver is as efficient as the spec's suggest. Period. I shall start with Lowther, My fat-lady Lowther TP-1 is iconic, and it works with Sun Audio 2A3, but it would not work well with Sun Audio's even lower powered VT-25/10Y amp (estimated 1.5 wpc), with which it clips just too easily. The same VT-25/10Y amp however works much better with my Klipsch La Scala (yes, 3 horn drivers, plus crossover, but higher efficiency at 104 db). All this with a preamp with gain for the punchiest first-watt. In my experience, Fostex and Mark Audio are efficient  (as exemplified by my friend's Sparkler S301 (here,) and Kevin's Fostex (here) - both sound decent with SET tube amp. Not so the 47 Lab 4737 alnico full-range, which works better with solid-state (here). Also, read this dagogo review of the Voxativ Ampeggio, where veteran Jack Roberts states that solid state actually worked better than SET (I believe him). So not all full-range drivers prefer tubeDynamic Conditions Under dynamic conditions, the full-range driver struggles to reproduce the full frequency range and, in the process, reveals itself to be not as nearly efficient as under static (or test-bench) conditions. It is after all still a driver, susceptible to everything that any driver faces, e.g. break-up's, what have you. All you have gotten rid of is the crossover, not all evils (but you also lose room for compensation). And how that is  forgotten! Basically, the user puts all his faith in the omnipotence of the driver/designer. Mind you, I am not at all against the full-range, just questioning some people's quasi-religious attitudes.
  • Augmentation More often than not, indeed in the majority of cases, if one wants to listen to all kinds of music, some augmentation is needed. In almost all cases, bass augmentation is needed. In some cases, treble augmentation is beneficial too. But I hear battle cries: "What? Pollute the purity of the driver with others? Sacrilege!" Tweeter, or "Supertweeter" With time, as the drivers improve in bandwidth, it seems an additional tweeter is not needed. This seems so - I had no need to augment the treble of the 47 Labs or Sparkler (Mark Audio) mentioned above. Indeed, even back many years ago, the single driver Loth-X Amaze bested its predecessor BS-1, which had an additional tweeter (first-order) and which I enjoyed. With older full-range drivers, like Goodmans and Altec, even some Lowther's, adding a tweeter is often beneficial, even mandatory, opening up the soundstage and, believe it or not, tightening the bass. This is true too of many vintage loudspeakers, like vintage Tannoy (e.g. my Tannoy Gold Lancaster 12"). But, why not use a modern driver with better extension, you ask. Well, judging from what I have heard so far, many modern drivers, in an obsession to improve spec's, lose the soul. Personally, I'd pick a driver that has the best midrange rather than the best extensions, and work from there. Which is why I am still a Lowther fan, though I do like some others (like Mark Audio). Subwoofer In my opinion, the subwoofer is essential with most "full-range" systems, which under dynamic conditions become lean in the bass, especially when driven by flea-powered amps and a passive preamp fashionable in DIY circles. No-No. Nyet. Big Mistake.You need the Jump Factor, the precious First-Watt. Or else it is just a stagnant pool. Actually the suffix "sub" is a misnomer - what the subwoofer does, more than adding the missing octave(s), is supplementing the inadequacy of the woofer! And under dynamic conditions, the so-called "full-range" leaves a lot to be desired. My own 47 labs 4737 is a good example, as it benefits greatly from addition of a subwoofer (here). Crossover Point There are people who believe in spec's, so dial in the subwoofer at or below where the woofer supposedly rolls off, but that is too low in most cases, as in real-world and dynamic conditions the woofer rolls off much quicker. Let's say your loudspeaker is supposedly -3db at 50 Hz, start at 100 Hz and go down. I personally find better integration at higher crossover points but lower subwoofer volume rather than vice versa. Lastly, if you ask me, the subwoofer benefits most bookshelves and, if set up properly, is more than competitive with tower speakers of similar footprints. Keep in mind, the larger the cabinet, the more the coloration problem, particularly in the bass. Take Home Message Dial in your tweeter or sub by making sure you just cannot hear it, but can just feel it. If you can hear very clearly the contribution, it's already too much. Purists will reject all of this, because they claim the raison d'etre for using a full-range is not to have any crossover. In the idealist vacuum, I agree; in reality, more often than not, no. To have your music portrayed faithfully is the goal, not to be loyal to your/other's doctrine.
  • 2-Way Loudspeakers with First-Order Crossover Many very good loudspeakers in my experience are basically a more-or-less full-range augmented with a tweeter connected first-order. The aforementioned Loth-X BS-1 is a budget and overachieving example. Even more shining examples are the older Reference 3A's. More recent mass-market examples can be easily found, such as the B & W CM-1 (here) and Vienna Acoustics Haydn (here). At the higher-end, you may be surprised to learn that many of the classic (not now) Sonus faber loudspeakers (call me a fan) utilize first-order. Just one cap. How much sonic degradation is there, you ask? Don't forget, whatever the compromise, we only may hear it in the treble frequency, whereas the midrange driver derives much benefit from being able to concentrate on the bottom, where most 'full-range" falter. Mind you, I don't necessarily think a capacitor is bad, as it may just temper your wrong choice elsewhere. Too many factors, too many theories, too little critical listening.
  • The Best Driver? Lowther Call me conservative, but to me the best is still Lowther (preferably heard in their own UK cabinets), whose classic (PM series) offerings are evergreens. As with woofers, my preference for paper is absolute - they just sound more tactile, with greater PRaT. There are many imitators (like AER), but they almost always sound more sterile. A well done Lowther just has soul. Damn the Surrounds As much as I love Lowther's, I dissuade people from using them. The gap between the voice coil and magnet is less than 1 mm, and that is great trouble. In the less humid parts of the US, like the Northern or even Eastern states, it is better, but if you are in the humid South (say, Florida) or, even worse, in HK, Southern China, Southern Asia, I really would advice against it. The paper doesn't respond well to humidity and deform, and then you get a rubbing problem that necessitates a repair. Truing the cone is not a simple task and few can manage. The foam surrounds are problems too in humidity, necessitating periodic repairs. A little known fact is that early Lowther units have rubber surrounds, which is likely to last longer and which Lowther still repairs! Call that service! Others There are numerous Lowther imitators (like expensive AER) but, as mentioned, I usually find them sterile sounding, not worth the money. I have heard the ridiculously expensive Voxativ Ampeggio twice, but it was just good enough, not spectacular (I detest Jonathin Valin's rave review in TAS of its subwoofer'ed brethren; what does JV know about full-range, I ask) and certainly would not hold a candle for my departed Lowther TP-1 original. But I do support the budget driver sector: both Fostex and Mark Audio, to name just two, make superb value-for-money drivers. In terms of sound I'd think Fostex is very neutral and listenable, but I prefer Mark Audio for its consideration of rhythmic savvy, shown to stunning effect in the Sparkler S301 (link above). Audio Nirvana I have never heard their offerings, so I cannot comment. But the hyperboles on their website makes me feel highly uncomfortable. They say "...Are you tired of all the hype from advertising driven websites, magazines, and dealers just out for your money? Tired of '4D' speakers? Dead, dull, dark, and distant. Ready to be amazed?..." That sounds like hype to me, and our Russian reader is definitely not amazed. Mind you, Lowther, which has lasted more than half a century, and is likely to go on forever as a proverbial foil, is almost incognito, and has never said similar things. Mind you, hype can be everywhere, but it is imho actually more prevalent online than in trade magazines. Worst are the head-fi forums touting every new DAC and headphone. Avoid.
Now, problems can also be due to other system issues, which we will analyze below. But first, this...
"Manufacturer-Direct" and "Factory Built"
We all love manufacturer-direct, cutting out the middleman, but let's look at this in depth. Audio Nirvana's amplifiers all said "Factory-built", but let us look at what factory that is. Our Russian friend is using their older 6V6 amplifier.

This Polish site curiously juxtaposes Audio Nirvana with Tonewin, and one of the links included is actually the manufacturer's commercial information.

Another Polish site sells the Tonewin VT-2806H amplifier for 2000 Zloty, which is about USD 500, and that includes the very high 23% VAT, which makes it around USD 400 before tax. I am sure you could have bought this from China for less. There is no question the Audio Nirvana 6V6 amp is basically the same as the Chinese Tonewin amplifier. But, there are differences in the 2 pics. A limited number of components have been added or removed, and the wiring is slightly different. It is possible Audio Nirvana did modifications on the Tonewin unit and gave it a different faceplate and knobs. It is also possible that Tonewin itself had different versions (not uncommon) and Audio Nirvana only changed the external look (front plate and knobs). Whatever, it is safe to say the so-called US Audio Nirvana "factory built" 6V6 amp was designed and built in China, at most slightly modified.

Tonewin itself appears to be defunct, so Audio Nirvana is no longer selling their 6V6 model. If you ask me, all their current amplifier offerings are dead-ringers for made-in-China offerings. There is nothing wrong with selling made-in-China stuff, but it would be better if the seller would say so.

Having heard tons of lower-end Chinese amps, I'd say the quality of the transformers is definitely not a given, and that is a real consideration for good sound.

Tube "Integrated" Amp
Most people equate an amp with a volume knob (and maybe source selector) as an integrated amp. This depends on how you define an integrated amp. If anything that allows you to adjust volume and connect more than one source is an integrated, then it is. But, for me, an integrated amp has a preamp section that has gain, wedded to an amp section. This is actually very rare, particularly in the budget sector.

Most tube "integrated" amps are just amps with a passive volume knob. There is no preamp gain stage. Sun Audio, Elekit, and innumerable other Japanese and Chinese amps. Likewise, many solid state "integrated" amps, like Densen, are also just amps with a passive volume.

I do not have the circuit of the Audio Nirvana Chinese amp in question, so I do not know whether it actually has an active preamp stage. Even if it does, it is a rudimentary one.

DIY, Preamp, Passive Volume Control, First Watt and Low Powered Amp
  • Is an Active Preamp necessary? Audiophiles are divided into the pragmatics and the theorists. The former will try anything if it makes the system better. The latter believes in numbers and have strong beliefs on many issues. There can be no more contentious issue than whether an active preamp is necessary. Take the standard CD player output of 2V, if you run that directly into your amp, it will be ruinously loud. So the preamp actually attenuates the signal going into the amp. The classic active preamp has gain, sometimes a lot, but in the end the signal is also attenuated before going into the amp. Many people take this to mean a passive preamp is all one needs. Why amplify and then attenuate? In theory this is correct, but in practice things are very different - the setups I have heard with passive preamps (including my own and those with source going directly into an amp with a passive volume) easily number more than a hundred, and in no more than a handful of instances did I not long for an active preamp. Let's look at this in detail.
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  • Passive Volume Control (PVC) Basically this is a volume pot. You can easily build one with a cheap volume pot, or you can spend thousands using boutique parts and ultra expensive resistors. My Audio Synthesis Passion V (a pic from the net to the right) costs a lot, and the cost of the parts add up to more than the second-hand price! Here are some factors influencing performance: Amplifier Sensitivity Amplifiers with high input sensitivity, such as Leak, works well with PVC, whereas those with low sensitivity, like Quad, would not. Source Output Most CDPs output a standard 2V, but there are exceptions. The vintage Muse Model 2 was supposed to be a very refined sounding DAC, but it has an unusually low 1V output. I heard it once many years ago in Opera Audio in HK. The late Stanley Chu had it in a system with 300B amp and Klipsch La Scala, but I just found the sound dull. On the other hand, Audio Note UK is known for the very high output of its DAC's. My vintage DAC-2 (here) has a monstrous 10V max. It was designed to be able to drive AN amps (those with volume knobs) directly. High Source Outputs work better with PVC. This is why imho people who play vinyl should NOT use PVC. Signal Loss and Buffer One reason why  preamp with gain drives the amp better is that a PVC by nature can only use a short interconnect. Preamp with gain can drive much longer interconnects. Even more important, many active preamps actually buffer the output, which has a great advantage in impedance matching. Transformer Volume Control (TVC) This is now all the rage. Since a transformer naturally "buffers" the output, it has advantage in impedance matching with the amp. Some can even have gain, which is a plus, especially for those who use analog sources. But TVC's are not without problems: 1) expense - all are very expensive, more so than a very good active preamp; 2) non-linearity - I don't care what they claim; ALL of them cannot be linear across the range due to the compromises in winding; in fact, non-linearity can be severe. All the claims for better cores, wires etc are exaggerated. It is ironic that the DIY enthusiast can put so much faith into TVC, as they cannot easily measure the TVC's performance under dynamic condition. That said, so do sound reasonably good.
  • First Watt I am a firm believer of First Watt, which has to be: 1) of good tonal quality; and 2) of good dynamic capability. The former is not hard to achieve, but the latter is often ignored. In forums I see many DIY people using flea powered amps with PVC for "pure" sound, but most of those setups are severely lacking in dynamics. There are many people who like the "economy" of an integrated amp, but in almost all cases their "integrated" amp is just an amp with a PVC, incapable of a glorious first watt. There is a reason why a company like Audio Note, which specializes in low-powered amps, use high-gain everywhere else, be it a CDP, preamp or phonoamp (I am actually not a fan of their sound, but I know why they do what they do).
  • DIY Woes This is too big a topic for this article, so I shall be brief: I have literally come across hundreds of DIY people in my audio life and, sorry to say, much of the experience is a waste. Too much trust in science and material, too little cognitive insight, too much reliance on internet opinions, too little equipment to compare with. I don't care what you DIY, have a good source (say, an old 16-bit CDP or turntable), integrated amp (say, the cheap NAD 3020) and loudspeaker (say, the Yamaha NS-10M) on hand to compare, and be honest with your failures.
Vibration Control If you ask me, most "vibration controls" do more harm than good. This is also a vast topic, so I shall just go over only our Russian friend's setup. Amplifier I am totally against placing the amplifier on anything but the floor. Here is an example of a costly, but detrimental effect of isolation. Source and Preamp I do think some isolation here could be beneficial but, again, most products are detrimental. What I like is cheap Vibrapods (here). Wood The effect is variable. If the sound is too lively or too lean, wood helps; but if it does not have enough life, don't use wood! Overall, wood is not a good solution, certainly not as good as sorbothane (Vibrapod).

For Our Russian Friend
  • Lack of Power You do not have enough driving power and control. Your "full-range" is not as efficient as you think; and your amp is not as powerful as you think.
  • Active Preamp Consider adding an active preamp, it will open up the sound.
  • Buy or borrow an integrated amp to compare Any old integrated amp with enough power to compare. NAD 3020, Cyrus 1/2/3, or an old Japanese, whatever. You may be amazed.
  • T-amp Or Buy a very low-cost T-amp; it likely will perform better. Chinese SMSL is very good (see my experience here, where it performed much better than many tube amps).
  • Add a Subwoofer This, I think is very important. Just get a very cheap second-hand one, and it will make a difference.
  • Put your amp on the floor. Don't use the woodblock.
  • Put your CDP higher up on something else. Don't use the wood block.

JBL Hartsfield 375 HL-88 Western Electric Classic Turntable Company Garrard 301 Power Supply Speed Controller

Click pics to enlarge. Top, JBL Hartsfield pair with 375/HL-88 and 075 on top. In the background on the right edge of the photo is another single idle Hartsfield. Strewn on the floor are some DIY amps.

NY Diary (19-13): JBL Hartsfield x 5!!!

On Monday Andy had to see his accountant KW. Kevin and I went with him. Why? Because KW has the legendary and highly desirable JBL Hartsfield, and not just one pair but two, plus another single one! While Andy and KW were working, Kevin and I played many records.

KW is a vintage buff as well as DIY man. He has two operating systems, on the ground floor and in the basement. Both have a pair of Hartsfield and a Garrard 301 with Power Supply/Speed Control. Both use SUT and Harman Kardon Citation 1 as phonoamp. And of course both use DIY preamp and amps. We only heard the ground floor system.

It should be noted we didn't hear the Hartsfield per se. KW is only using the bass driver in the enclosure. As you can see in the top pic, the 375 is attached to a JBL HL88. Andy said previously he had heard the Hartsfield as is, which is what he prefers. I asked KW why, he said most of his friends prefer the HL88 on top.

The Preamp and Amp both use lots of expensive vintage components (Western Electric, UTC etc). KW told me just the parts cost for the 2-chassis preamp was $5K, sans tubes! And the 2 WE tubes he uses in the PS would easily cost more than the parts, Wow! I shall let the pics tell the story. We only heard the vinyl system. I wish we had time for the digital system, which employs the excellent Meridian 500/566 transport and DAC.

The room is a long rectangle. The Hartsfield are placed along the long wall. Given the lack of corner reinforcement and relatively short listening distance, the sound was shy in the bass and mid-bass. Fleetwood Mac's eponymous album was lacking in the power range. Otherwise the treble and midrange were pretty good, and I enjoyed his collection of old Hong Kong Polydor albums. Surprisingly, jazz was not too impactful; the large number of oil caps in the preamp and amp may have slowed down the transient a little. Even with 2x 300B each channel (~16 watts), there was audible clipping at higher volume, attesting once again that JBL's are not that efficient compared to Altec and Klipsch. I personally would place these with one side against each long wall and firing down the long walls. One wall is better than none, and the listening distance can be drastically increased.

The Hartsfield was created to compete with the Klipschorn (see this wonderfully informative link), but without corners I did not hear what I heard in the Klipschorns (here). Too bad there is no room in my den - I'd love to relieve KW of a pair! Here are more pics and descriptions:

G/F: The elaborate Preamp power supply unit uses WE 274A and WE 300B!
Also a 6X5, 6SJ7 and an OA2.

G/F: The Preamp section uses CX 301. The socket is floating, to combat microphonics.

G/F: The monoblock amplifiers use 2x 300B per side. Not WE though, no doubt due to cost.
All cables are DIY.

G/F: Grease bearing Garrard 301 with Classic Turntable Company PSU,
Ortofon AS-309s/SPU and SME3012/Ortofon SL-15

Downstairs: Another Hartsfield pair.

Downstairs: Also DIY preamp and amps

Downstairs: The SUT uses WE 618C (600 ohm) with impedance matching transformers.

Downstairs: Garrard 301 with speed control and Accuphase CDP

14 September, 2019

Kronos Pro, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, Audionet, Auralic, Mola Mola, Qobuz, Bow Technologies, YG Anat Reference II

Click pics to enlarge. YG driven by Audionet monoblocks. Screen displays Qobuz.

NY Diary (19-12): Exotic High End, LP Kingdom, Vintage Silent Display

Two posts below I reported a trip to New Jersey. What I didn't report then were the main events of that day, and here they are now. A very full day indeed. The day started with dropping off at Paul's our gears for repair. Then we proceeded to the warehouse, and then a so-so late lunch and visit to Princeton Record Exchange, where I bought nothing, imagine! Then for some relaxation, we visited the home of JY.

Home Visit: Exotic High End
The basement was large and comforting. It housed some serious gear. JY is foremost a classical music man and an analog aficionado. The basement was spacious, comfortable and the wall of LP was inviting and comforting.

The Kronos Pro is a very expensive turntable that has garnered a good reputation. As the well written  HiFi+ review introduced, it combines suspension with twin counter-rotating platters (the latter first used by 47 Labs Koma). This marked the first time I heard Kronos. Cartrdige is the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme.

Amplification was all German Audionet (phonoamp on bottom rack, preamp and monoblock amps). Now, Audionet is very familiar to me. In HK I used to know the grey goods importer and got to hear many systems. Good power and OK/kinda bland sound but like most German gear this is not a favorite brand of mine, even among transistor offerings.

CAS is run via Roon, using a Linux Server. As JY does quite a bit of streaming and because of his classical bent, he uses the service of Qobuz, quite new to the US, which is hi-res. This is run into an Auralic Streamer, then into the Mola Mola Tambaqui DAC (another brand that I have never auditioned before), which also serve for CD playback via an old but very beautiful Bow Technologies CDP used as transport (of which I forgot to take a pic!). Bow used to be popular in HK and they sounded as good as they looked.

After suffering damage after a thunderstorm, the YG Anat Reference II were "upgraded" to "current technology" (still available on official website). I did not make a study of all the expensive cables.

We started with LP. The first one was a current re-issue Decca Ansermet Stravinsky Petroushka, and I cringed in my seat because of the lean balance and threadbare violins, the kind of sound we associate with bad digital. I really question the sound of many of these re-issues, and I as a rule don't buy them. Fortunately, after a few old LP's, sound got to be much better. In this system, interestingly the same album sounds better on London than Decca.

With a loudspeaker like that, it goes without saying that the system was very revealing. But most impressive was the dynamics - in Mahler Symphony No. 2 (Solti), the swing from a whisper to a fortissimo crash was downright awesome. A quibble is that due to the fast speed the bone-crunching dynamics sounded a bit unnatural and crescendos peaked too suddenly. However, impressive it nevertheless was! For sure, the sound was better than the many YG's I heard at HK shows.

We also asked to hear the streaming, which was surprisingly good, on par with the analog actually. Mozart's Zauberflote (Nezet-Sequin, DG) was pristine. We heard a few more cuts and stayed later than usual. In terms of CAS, JY's setup is relatively straightforward but it sounds much better to my ears than those complicated and threadbare systems concocted by many HK self-proclaimed computer audiophile guru's. As in much of audio, the more complicated it gets the worse the sound usually, and CAS is no exception.

Silent Display Then the over-generous Steven insisted on taking us to dinner. Because we had lunch late, we went to his spacious house first. He had equipment and LP everywhere on silent display. Music plays constantly when he's at work so it is no wonder he does not need to fire any of these up. He seems well on the way to become another 陽江十八子 ("Worlds's Number 1 Audiophile?" in this TAS article). Well, but Steven collects vintage only. Well, before I forget, thanks for the dinner! Some pics (click to enlarge):

Pair of Tannoy. In the corner cabinet, Fisher, Scott, Marantz 7C, ARC SP-11.
Study loaded with LP and CD. Pilot, Quad, and many pairs of Quicksilver's.
McIntosh, CJ
Tannoy Churchill, ARC D-79, CJ Premier 7, CAT SL-1, Marantz 8B

09 September, 2019

Infinity RS-1B Altec 604-H VAS Re-Tip Cartridge Repair Monster Alpha Genesis 1000 Decca VdH SC4E Gold

Click pics to enlarge. A Tale of Two Positions. Top, Initial Position, rather missionary; Above, Final Position, freer. The Bass Columns are all the way in the Back Corners, barely visible below the unused horns. The Front Panels are driven by CJ Premier 3 on the rack and Premier 8 monoblocks in the center. The Bass Column is driven by a Professional Crown Amplifier on the rack below the CJ P3. The Lenco in the center is not used on this occasion. The Thorens TD-125 with Decca Gold (VdH tip) is to its right. Below the Thorens are the Yamaha DVD player, TEAC DAC and Chinese Server. A bit of the VPI turntable is visible behind the left Altec A7 horn system. McIntosh C20 + MC-30 drive the Horns. Poor B&W 801's are covered up in purple.

Background and earlier session with the Infinity RS-1B here.

Infinity RS-1B, Almighty!
To paraphrase Anna Karenina a bit: All great sounding systems are more alike than different, and easy to write up; whereas bad systems are bad in all sorts of different ways and test a writer's patience (not to mention friendships). Now, this article is super easy to write!

This man Kevin is one of the most incredible audiophiles I have encountered. Over the course of a very short 2 years, he has gone from someone who was using a small Fostex full range to Altec A7 horn system, then B&W 801 and then now Infinity RS-1B (amply chronicled in this blog, search link). If audio is a degree, then in 2 years he went from high school to post-doc! Of course, he was helped along by Andy, and benefitted from Andy's many connections. I tell you, if you have the chance to connect with older audiophiles, do so; it is likely more beneficial than hanging out day and night on the internet. One thing great about Kevin is, whatever "advice" we give him (some just guesswork from experience), he would try it out. Even if the conclusion is different, the experience is worthwhile. Yes, audiophilia is serious work.

This pair of Infinity RS-1B came on the heels of Sad News - the departure of Andy's long-time friend, Mr Ma, a notable tech wizard familiar to many in upstate New York. When he was young, in Taiwan, Mr Ma serviced the very complicated Studer components and most things are just piece of cake to him. I should have touched upon him in my last article below but somehow didn't. Suffice to say, Kevin went with Andy and bought the Infinities which were languishing in the garage and also took home a pair of Altec 604-H.

Last weekend Kevin called us and told us of the great progress he has made since my last visit (here). I of course was a bit skeptical, as this kind of call has happened often with audiophiles. Gratifyingly, it proved otherwise on this occasion.

Image result for karajan sibelius 4 dg discogsIn-Room Kevin had drastically rearranged his room. He removed his sofas (to me unnecessary) and moved the Infinities forward (just as I'd like, as chronicled with his Altec's here and at one time his B&W's here). It is my firm opinion that in-room usually sounds the best. And this time, as in the past, it is proven again. The sound was wide open and dynamic, just superb, as one would expect of Infinity (at its best). Surprisingly, the bass alignment was excellent, and I could not detect any incoherence - an achievement! Closer Together We first listened to them this way (top pic), and the sound was highly focused, super-detailed, but somewhat tight and relentless. Further Apart Then we pulled them apart (second pic from top). Aloha! The strings in Sibelius Symphony No. 4 (Karajan/BPO; DG) sweetened considerably and everything relaxed; both Andy and I nodded in approval. Dialed in, as far as I am concerned, a total success! As a matter of fact, it sounds even better than Mark's Beta, as last heard here.

Image result for britten pagodas cdLoudspeaker Placement Again, as I have expounded many times in the past (search link), this illustrates the absolute importance of loudspeaker placement. For people who have a choice (I know many don't), it is imperative to try to find the best position. It is also true that in-room and near-field positions are freest from boundary effects.

Digital vs Analog To balance the system, this time Andy brought over material in both CD and LP format . We are in total agreement that digital and analog should sound similar in tonality at least. Here. tonally the modest digital setup was definitely warmer and fuller in the bass. The Sibelius was definitely better in CD form when the speakers were in initial position. Ditto Britten's own recording of his Prince of the Pagodas (Decca). But when the speakers took up the final position, wider apart, the sound smoothed out in the treble, to make the analog sound more open and detailed, without stridency. I judge it superior but, knowing Andy, I'd think he still prefers more warmth. Nonetheless, the way analog breathes and brings out the full harmonic spectrum, and how it makes one aware of phrasing, simply can only be approximated by digital. We discussed how the ribbons have their own sound, likely not easy to fully warm up.

Two Decca Cartridges Both have the Van den Hul re-tip, and both exhibited the Decca's virtue of fast transient time and evenhandedness. Detail is probably more than the original ones due to the VdH mods. Overall the Decca SC4E on the VPI Prime was preferable; indeed this marked the best sound I had heard on the VPI (that says a lot for me, as it is not my favorite brand). Andy is very particular about the TT used with Decca's; while his current choice is Nottingham, he gave approval to the VPI. The Decca Gold on the Thorens TD-125 (with tangential arm) was not far behind. As a Decca fan, I was quite happy with both; surely with time and some cabling experiments the sound would further improve.

Altec A7 I don't know what he did, but on this occasion the A7's sounded quite good driven by McIntosh C20 + MC-30. It was the best sounding since he moved them further back. This is just a footnote, as we didn't pay too much attention being more distracted by the younger brother...

Altec 604-H
A dining table and a few chairs separate the two ends of the room. I did miss the old couch, which I think he could have kept! But now at the other end is another horn system! The Altec 604-H is the last alnico iteration of this classics, which I have heard many times in HK (read this home visit in HK). The Bell 2122-C's were not optimally tubed and lacked impact compared to the Sun Audio SV-2A3, Sound showed potential and was in keeping with many others I have heard, though bass certainly could have been fuller. I told Kevin that one time I heard a McIntosh amp worked well with the 604. Kevin followed up and called me that sound had further improved. That would have to wait till the next report.

Altec 604-H driven by Bell 2122-C's and Sun Audio SV-2A3 (behind). Preamp is Conrad Johnson PV-5 and turntable is a Lenco L-78 with original arm and ADC cartridge.

Monster Alpha Genesis 1000 (VAS Repaired)
A few days later we had a lunch gathering at Andy's. He wanted us to hear his resurrected Monster Alpha Genesis 1000 Cartridge. This was a famous cartridge in its days, and Stereophile online has an article on its sibling 500 compared to the 1000.

Andy's 1000 is certainly not the first one Steve had repaired. Here is an interesting report on his job with this cartridge.

Our impressions were certainly in keeping with the Stereophile report. The Monster was made by ZYX, which still makes them more or less the same way. I am not a fan of ZYX, which I have heard many times in HK - its usual literal manner holds no fascination for me. On this occasion though, they sounded pretty good with Andy's A5's driven by a pair of vintage Bell 2122's. Andy's 1000 broke off after not much time, and he had waited all these years for a re-tip. Andy said VAS Steven's re-tip is likely better than the original. We enjoyed the music together with the sumptuous lobster noodle and seafood tofu soup.

23 August, 2019

Death of Audiophile

NY Diary (19-11): Death of An Audiophile

Last Saturday I received a call from an old acquaintance, relating the news that a mutual acquanitance had suddenly passed away.

The deceased was a (in)famous reseller. In audio's heydays, he sold a lot of grey goods of hi-end brands (such as MBL) at substantial discount. He himself was into vintage and also traded old tube amplifiers and stuff, eventually foraging into some Western Electric.

For the last decade, he barely hanged on as the audio scene waned. Unscrupulously, if he was desperate for money he would even sell what his friends have lent him, be it tube testers or amps. He owed most of his friends money, quite a bit in fact.

He had a warehouse where mostly unrestored and un-repaired stuff were stored. On Sunday we happened to have an excursion into New Jersey, so we went to see it. His daughter also rented another warehouse for what was left in the house, similar stuff.

Let this be a warning to audiophiles who accumulate too much, including myself. Sell them before it is too late, or at least mark down their approximate worth. Family members have no idea and do not know how to sell. Eventually some buyer will buy the whole lot for a song.

08 August, 2019

VAS Re-Tip Cartridge Repair Koetsu Black Goldline

Now taking pride of place in my System II - Thorens TD-309 with Koetsu Black Goldline.

Persuasive Percussion (Vinyl, LP, Album) album cover Review: Koestsu Black Goldline, VAS Re-Tip Service

As progenitor of modern high end MC cartridges, Koetsu needs no introduction. The Black, despite its not inconsiderable cost, has long been the "entry level" of the line. The Goldline, now marked by a gold plate on the underbelly, is a relatively recent iteration. See the Stereophile review for more info.

Chabrier Orchestral Music  (Vinyl, LP) album coverMy Tortuous Koetsu Journey I acquired my Black Goldline in 2010 and was very happy with it (here). Diamonds are Forever? Not that long after (I think 2011), I played a record and the needle skidded all the way to the end groove. I tried again and the same thing happened. Nonplused, I examined it carefully and, my God, the diamond was gone! Although I have had it for a year or so, I wasn't in NYC often then and it likely had less than 200 hours. I was not about to re-tip it and was highly annoyed. The Vagaries of Repair Some time later, I spotted a re-tipped Black Goldline (a somewhat earlier version with gold lines on the bottom of the sides, not a plate on the belly) for a very good price and acquired it. I think it was the basic Soundsmith re-tip, which replaced the cantilever together with the diamond, as this is less hazardous (and much less costly) than replacing the diamond alone. So what I got was a new re-pairing - a basic aluminum cantilever with an elliptical stylus in a Black Goldline body (the owner was honest, so I knew this beforehand). It played flawlessly but the magic was gone! Mind you, the sound was not bad, but if it was almost indistinguishable from the Ortofon I was running at the time, then it is not no longer a Koetsu! No wonder it was sold and it was not even run-in. But it was worth it for the lesson learned, which was why I waited so long to get mine re-tipped. Enter VAS A few months ago I decided to get my first one re-tipped by Steven of VAS...

"Live" In Japan (Vinyl, LP) album coverImpressions
  • On my Thorens TD-309 Given how I loved its sound before, I hoped the Black will be a permanent fixture in my system. As my Technics SL-1200ii is frequently used for tests and comparisons, I decided to install the Black on my Thorens TD-309. So out came the Denon DL-A100. It proved a good match, but not before some Initial Adjustments Run-In took around 20 hours, when the grain miraculously, and almost suddenly smoothed out. VTA Initially I did not adjust it, but after a while, unusual for lazy me, I spent some effort to re-level the turntable and lower the arm (also advised by Steve) and the sound got even better.
    Mostly Mozart (Rondo In D Major, K.485 / Sonata In A Major, K.331 / Fantasia In C Minor, K.475 / Chaconne) (Vinyl, LP) album cover
  • Playing Old Records Usually I play mostly my newly acquired LPs and then some CDs (from the library or not), but with the Koetsu I dug out many of my old records (I was simultaneously cleaning house) and listened and marveled. Persuasive Percussion (Command Classics) Older audiophiles know about this famous 1959 LP recorded by Terry Snyder and The All Stars. This LP is still popular with HK audiophiles. While researching, I was taken aback by this amazing analysis of the music (from Germany!) MCP has re-issued it with the follow-up Volume 2 in 1 CD. If you read the Amazon user reviews where someone his review "cried"! Also read this insightful review from audad. I have heard this record many times, but this time I was really struck by the shimmering colors of Misirlou. These are serious musicians with expressive power. When it comes to percussion, most audio reproduction only deliver the basics, largely bereft of color - not so the KoetsuEspana With its colorful music and relatively short duration, this piece of music by Chabrier is made for audiophiles. If not for stablemate Argenta's version, which has more vibrantly colorful covers, is on HP's Super LP List and commands a hefty price (especially in its Decca UK version), the equally brilliant Ansermet version (London CS6438) would receive a lot more attention (as it does in Taiwan). Whether it is the deep bass drum thwack, snarling brass, the vibrant percussion or the col legno strings, the Black plays it to perfection. Sarah Vaughn Live in Japan This very inexpensive album catches Ms Divine at her peak, and the sound is excellent. The Black renders her voice (a wide range) and scatting with highly accurate timber, and the atmosphere is well caught too. Piano Alicia de Laroccha was born to play Mozart, but unfortunately not to audiophiles. With the Koetsu, the piano is live size and the sound is truly grand. I felt the bass resonating off the bowel of the piano, and her deft touch and masterly shading were all brought off in a highly natural manner. Bruckner x 3 Bruckner's 3rd Symphony is one of my favorites. My first LP was Cleveland/Szell and it remains one of my favorites. This being a Columbia LP, the sound can be a little lean on the wrong system. With the Koetsu, I was focused on the committed playing and Szell's balance and grasp was well nigh perefect, riveting from start to finish and I had goosebumps at the majestic end. It was so good I then played also the VPO/Bohm (London) and Dresden/Jochum (EMI). Both are great orchestras. What is highly gratifying is that the Koetsu effortlessly differentiated the different recording venues and methods: The Decca sound is typical of their VPO recordings, with a golden glow; the Dresden quite reverberant, as is well known of this cycle; the Columbia clean and a little upfront.
    Symphony No. 3 In D Minor (Vinyl, LP, Album, Stereo) album cover
  • Koetsu Black Goldline Older Koetsu's are sometimes regarded as overly lush, but the many times I have heard them they have always been musical. The newer Koetsu's, like the Black Goldline, are definitely quite neutral, but very musical at the same time. This cannot be said of many other brands (e.g., zyx, Clearaudio, Lyra). Also do not make the simplistic mistake of equating musicality with a warmer sound, which many do. Using loudspeakers as analogy, if most hi-end cartridges are like modern loudspeakers, Koetsu resembles more the BBC loudspeakers, and that is a compliment. The musicality stems from an innate ability to dig and to allow one to hear deep into the mix. Which was why I spent a lot of time describing the records that I heard. It really is very subtle, a breathtaking shading here, a deft touch there; the unusual coherence, the compelling listenability (one hears records after records). That is all what listening to music is all about. This cartridge joins the Air Tight PC-1 as the top dogs in my systems; incidentally, they both have boron cantilevers. As for my favorite Denon DL-103, it can come very close and be equally dramatic, but in terms of the really subtle shadings it is edged out by these, not bad at all for a budget cartridge.
  • VAS Cartridge Repair While I don't have an original Black Goldline to compare, I know the Koetsu experience quite well and that feeling is definitely back! Unlike the other re-tip, VAS has done a sterling job! I am going to send the other one to Steve too. I urge you to talk to Steve before sending your cartridge for a re-tip (see website).

28 July, 2019

Book I Got Thunder Nina Simone

PictureNY Diary (19-10): I Got Thunder, Nina Simone

While researching an article, I came across this 2007 book and got it from the library. Author LaShonda Barnett teaches at Sarah Lawrence College, but she is better known as a Black Music expert, who once even had her own jazz show on WBAI. Her c.v. is impressive.

As the title says, the book has 20 interviews with black women songwriters, with one exception (Dionne Warwick, who never wrote any). I know Abbey Lincoln, Angelique Kidjo, Chaka Khan, Dianne Reeves, Dionne Warwick, Joan Armatrading, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone but not the rest.

Most of the interviews are quite inspiring. Several themes are recurrent. One is hard work and preparation. Another is resentment towards being pigeonholed: Nina Simone hated being called a jazz artist (as did Ellington); Dionne Warwick hated being classified as adult contemporary music. And then, all the artists were asked how they feel about hip-hop; while they offer limited support, all of them hated the dirty and insulting lyrics.

If you are into black female vocalists, you will like this book.

Ninasimoneforbiddenfruit.jpgNina Simone
Of course, I was most interested in Nina Simone. In the book, she mentioned that she is known everywhere, and that her song To be Young, Gifted and Black has been translated and performed in Chinese! Now, if anyone knows more about that, please let me know! Now, in HK, audiophiles think of her as a jazz singer, something she would not be happy about.

Nina Simone At Town Hall.jpgLike many black artists who could not stomach the racism in America, she chose to live abroad, finally settling in France, which was where she died. Many people do not know Nina Simone was a piano prodigy in classical music who wanted to be a classical pianist but was denied entrance into Curtis, for which she remained resentful all her live. Most regard that as racist on the part of Curtis, but there is also evidence to the contrary (here). Nina Simone is known to mix some classical bits into her concerts.

While I was writing, I played my ragged copy of her Nina Simone at Town Hall (Colpix). The concert opened with Black is The Color of My True Love's Hair, and the song opened with a Bach theme (see youtube below). Even more amazing was the lengthier bit of Bach in the middle of the song Love Me or Leave Me embedded by Norman Lebrecht in one of his posts on Simone (here).

The entire Montreux 1976 concert is on youtube. This one moves me to tears.

26 July, 2019

Audiophile LPs and the Dollar Bin

pic. Worth anything to you? Johnny Hodges needs no introduction. The incomparable Hollywood String Quartet and Edwin Fischer are also in mono. Stoika Milanova is an underated Bulgarian virtuoso and pedagogue and this is a beautiful disc.

NY Diary (19-9): Wanderlust
Talk Vinyl: Audiophile LPs and The Dollar Bin, Triumph and Disappointment

Here we are not talking about the audiophile's well known lust for gears - we are talking about the lust for desirable software. But then, what exactly is desirable? Most of this article shall be on vinyl, but the psychology can be equally applied to digital physical media (CD/SACD, etc).

Beethoven Sonata in G Major. Op 96 For Piano And Violin; Enescu Sonata No. 3 Op. 25 In Rumanian Folkstyle (Vinyl, 12", Album, Reissue, Remastered, Stereo) album coverAudiophile Certified
HP's Super LP List Harry Pearson was the first to compile a so-called super list. This is highly unfortunate, as it became Bible and almost every audiophile (particularly in the East) is looking for the same thing. The worst aspect of this is that in not a few the music-making itself is not particularly inspiring. Examples: 1) Beethoven/Enescu (Wilson), this LP commands a hefty sum, but the music is better done by numerous others. I don't even find the recording particularly outstanding but I have been made to hear it many times in HK; 2) HiFi a la Espanola (Mercury) - downright dull musically! 3) Sheffield Records direct-to-disc - unexceptional musically and even sonically; 4) La Fille Mal Gardee (Decca), not even close to top flight ballet music. Not too Serious, please! Perusal of the list show the selection is lopsided - mostly for the sonic aspects, not for more. In classical, they are mostly from the romantic and post-romantic era, i.e. employing large orchestras. Theatrical music (the Chabrier mentioned below is a good example) greatly outnumber "simpler" or grimmer stuff. Unthinkably, much music of the greatest beauty, Bach and Mozart in particular, are conspicuous for their absence, surely because the music is more sparsely scored. Mahler 1 and 3 made the list, but his more churning stuff (like 5, 6, 9) did not. For someone like me, nothing elevates me more than Bruckner, and he is absent, undoubtedly because his music requires patience and a spiritual bend to get through, yet no music, not even Mahler and Shostakovich, better showcase orchestral opulence, indeed transcendence (think No. 8).

The Royal Ballet Gala Performances album coverWilkinson Quite a few of the Decca LPs on the list were recorded by Kenneth Wilkinson, but this great engineer recorded so many others of equally good sound (including those for Reader's Digest) that singling a few out is absurd. As an example, Ansermet (of whom I am a fan) recorded a ton of ballet music, all more complete and sonically resplendent, so why pay an arm and a leg for the Ansermet/Royal Ballet (RCA), an album of short excerpts? Ansermet's Chabrier LP sells for good money in Taiwan because it is on a list there, but I just recently found one in a dollar bin here. Rudy Van Gelder ditto for him, singling any album out for best sound is just pure hype. Most of them, and that means most of the classic jazz catalogue, are excellent.

HP's Offsprings Judging by the price of LPs, the influence of HP's list is vast, but it stopped there. TAS has for a long time added items to the list, but most of the post-HP additions did not perform well (testament to the lackluster personalities of the current staff, be it JV or RH). HP's list spawned many others, including Stereophile's "Records to Die For", which is just as unsuccessful (though that magazine's music section is always more interesting). Chinese Descendants The Chinese hi-end was, and is, a lot more successful in creating their own lists (which include Chinese albums). How could it not be, given its huge base of musical novices, whether in HK, Taiwan or PRC, non-fluent in English ! Many recordings skyrocketed in value because of this (like the Rossini mentioned below). Given the Chinese penchant for smaller scaled music, these lists include a lot more smaller scaled music. And "sparser" music, like Dire Straits.

6 Sonate A Quattro (Vinyl, LP) album cover
Home Visits When you make home visits, audiophiles want to show you their "best", so in HK I was frequently "treated to" things like the aforementioned "Royal Ballet", or things like Rossini's "Sonata a Quattro" (Accardo et al, Philips, oop, very expensive). I have even met audiophiles who know little about music but have everything on HP's list, that is how influential it is. This is understandable, as they also want to play you something that you have heard - this way we audiophiles listen again and again to unworthy things (like Gary Karr, what a bore!) I don't do this to my visitors. Yes, I have played that Prokofiev Scythian Suite, but that is before I knew it is on the list and mine is a Philips Import, not original Mercury. Yes, that is great stuff, but I have never encountered another audiophile who played some Prokofiev, except Andy.

The Dollar Bin
No matter where I go, I always go through the dollar bins. Unfortunately, there are less dollar bins (many start at 2-3 dollars) these days and the pickings are much slimmer compared to many years ago. In the past I'd look at the regularly priced stuff too, but these days I have gotten cheaper - almost exclusively dollar bins. The reason is, I already have too many LPs and there is nothing I must have.

Superdiscs Mind you, I have a few of the albums that are on HP's List, and some of those were acquired long before I knew of the list (like the Prokofiev/Maazel). And I also own some in the form of later re-issues. London and Living Stereo I have long been a fan of London (Decca) recordings, both for the sound and the artists (like Ansermet). I have a lot more budget STS than London's simply because they are cheaper and frequently found in dollar bins. ditto I have a lot more Victrola's than Living Stereo's as the price difference if too huge. Current Re-issues I don't buy them. Aside from a couple of companies, most are awful and likely pressed from digital masters. Many sound bad. And then there is the price. The most extreme is The Electric Recording Company, whose offerings of Kogan were immediately sold out (most of it probably went to Asia). I got to hear the Tchaikovsky in HK and was not particularly impressed. At GBP 500 each disc, I was expecting to be dazzled, my heart fluttering and my mouth drooling, but it did not happen. Not sour grape, but I will stick with my Seraphim equivalents from the dollar bin.

First Pressings It is a fact first pressings sound better, but they are more expensive. I have collected almost all of the Ansermet recordings, but that was because most of it is on STS (still English pressing) and from the dollar bin. Do you know there is a parallel trend in used CDs? There is a thriving market in HK and China for the equivalent of 1s/1s LP's - CD first pressings, can you imagine? Certain pressing plants, like German Sonopress, JVC and Nimbus are particularly prized.

Others Regardless of what they sound like or are worth, I love finding recordings that I like in the dollar bin. Bruckner of course! These days, increasingly, I dig mono recordings by lesser known artists, such as many found in early Westminster. I do not exclude an LP because it doesn't sound good, but a friend does; he only likes London and shaded dog, no later RCA's, Angels and Columbia's for this man - imagine how many artists he excludes!

Adrenalin Rush Ultimately, buying too many from the dollar bin is not sensible, but sense is not something audiophiles are famous for (see my article on music lover vs audiophile). Perhaps it is better to buy exactly what you want and not what are bargains, but then you will not get the adrenalin rush as when you pull out a prized item out of a dollar bin. I am still waiting for the moment I pull out the Royal Ballet or Casino Royale (Aside from The Look of Love, does anyone play the rest of the music?). Dream on...

Wandering from Dollar Bin to Dollar Bin, one gets tired bending down. Most of the time, you score nothing much, so you owe it to yourself to have a pint at a local bar after you wash the dirt off your hands. Ah, that Hootie ain't bad, especially when it is nearly 100 degrees outside.