10 March, 2018

Dynaco PAS 3 Mods

Click pic to enlarge. L: Slightly modified PAS 3.

Dynaco PAS 3, Part II
Letter from NYC (84) 2018 (10)

Revised Mar 11, 2018.

PAS 3, Part I saw the stock Dynaco PAS 3 ran for may hours. The sound then was remarkably detailed at low volume, but stressed when pushed harder. While mods were definitely on the agenda, as is my wont I decided to go against the fashion of sea change (replacing everything) and start with a minimalist approach. First, I researched on the internet, but found the documentation of sonic changes to be quite lacking, even contradictory (as opposed to electrical changes, for which most would agree on). I ordered just a few caps and resolved to do one mod at a time to hear the individual impact each has on the sound. Yes, I heard enough potential to think my efforts would be repaid. They were, amply.

Tone Control Mod Dilemma
Most people bypass the tone controls, which is not hard to do. One popularly discussed method is the Curcio Tone Control Bypass. It seems, however, this increases the DC present at the PAS 3 Output, which can be resolved by adding a 0.1 Output Cap, as done at audioregenesis. As I did not have the requisite caps, for the moment I decided to leave the tone controls in the circuit.

Now the Mods I have done this time, numbered in order and rated in efficacy from * to ***:

1. The Amazing $0.25 Non-Electrical Mod (***)
While waiting for the caps to arrive, I thought about how to improve the preamp. Staring at the innards, I saw both PC Boards (PC-5 and PC-6) were affixed to the chassis by 4 screws, bolts and washers. Since the chassis also has the transformer directly bolted on it, the idea of providing some measure of isolation against vibrations came to me. This did not come out of nowhere. Similar tweaks can be found in some modern manufacturers, but also in vintage equipment (e.g. the Marantz 7 has some isolation for the tube socket mounting plate.) As I did not have rubber washers around and as I was working on some Gotham DGS-1 cables, I slotted in small cross sections of the springy PVC jacket between each screw and the PC board, and between the chassis and transformer. The length was not enough to completely encircle some screws, particularly the ones fixing down the transformer, but that would have to do for the moment. I figure, proper rubber washers would cost you less than 25 cents. With just this done, I sat down to listen. !Oh My! The difference was unbelievable! Not only did the sound smooth out a bit, I now could play significantly louder before the sound tightened up. No, it did not completely cure this particular ill, but it went quite a way towards ameliorating it. Even if you have already done all your mods, I can still confidently recommend this easy and reversible step. Do keep in mind that the PC Boards are a little looser than before and a little more care should be exercised when swapping tubes, particularly during insertion (use gentle wiggles).

2. Output Cable Change (*1/2)
The stock hook up cables are tinned solid cores. As I usually prefer stranded cables in interconnects, I decided to first change the high level cable from the output tube to the main out. I swapped in a run of Gotham 2-conductor GAC-2, one of my reference interconnect cables (center run in pic). The copper shield was not connected at either end. Compared to the above, the result was a small (but audible) improvement in the same qualities.

3. $3 Capacitor Change (***)
I replaced the two 0.22 Output Coupling Caps (the green globs seen in the Part 1 pic) with German Audyn (Parts Express, bright red ones in pic). I wanted to also replace the two 0.02 caps that couple the two sections of the 12AX7, but that would have to wait as I don't have the parts, and the original Black Cats are not bad in my previous experiences. The Sonic Improvement was Dramatic, on par with the isolation measures above. Considering that there were only two cap changes, the degree in improvement is quite amazing! As the tone control circuits, which employ all Black Cats, are still in-circuit, this strengthens my belief that they are not as nearly as bad as they are often made out to be.

4. Line Input Cable Change (*1/2)
Emboldened, I then re-cabled with GAC-2 one of the Line Inputs ("Spare") and the same small incremental improvement was audible. Note that I only replaced the segment immediately leading out from the Input Sockets (the longest, see pic). The Selector has three gangs, and it would be a major task to replace all wires going to the PC Boards and Switches (it would be simpler to install a new selector).

5. Phono Input Cable Change (**)
I then made the same cable change to the Phono Input, though this time I used the shield, which was tied at the Input End only (not in the pic, as this was done after). The sonic difference was more substantial than cable change in the line section, resulting in a smoother sound and quieter background. However, I did notice a very subtle drop in the presence factor, but that did not worry me as the PAS 3 is super strong in this department.

  • Chez Moi As reported in Part I, the PAS 3 always had excellent transient speed and great presence. The challenge was to get it to smooth out, and it was immensely gratifying to hear it do exactly that as the mods progressed. After the Cap and Line Input Cable Change I went through the CDs I used in the last visit to R (here). I knew my job in the line section was complete when I tried out Masekela's Stimela; yes, that crescendo was perfect; the train imitations were strongly rhythmic; and the loud cries were heard without strain. After the Phono Input Cable Change I listened to cuts from Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (Ozawa/BSO, DG), which had previously sounded strained, and all was well. Finally, it was time for the real litmus test - the two LPs I heard last time at Andy's (here) that so impressed me. Moravec's Beethoven (Connoisseur Society LP) showed considerable dynamic range, and the inner voices were clear and vital, the atmosphere charged. The PDQ Bach LP (Vanguard) was very lively; though occasionally the recording still appeared a little hot, it was quite listenable and never strident. The PAS 3 now joins my Reference System II, which has just been completely revamped (sidebar)!
  • Chez Andy As with most of my projects, I took it to Andy's for a final assessment. Kevin was also present for the excellent lunch of rack of lamb. In his system the PAS 3 sounded slightly brighter than usual but with less grain than the Citation I even when pushed hard. Throughout the afternoon, we played many records and everything sounded very good. Yes, replay of the PDQ Bach and Beethoven were just as beautiful as before, but it was the album below that deserved the limelight. Project Accomplished!
  • Radka Toneff Transformed Most amazingly, Andy played his original pressing of her mostly digitally recorded Fairy Tales (Odin, LP). Her rendition of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress needs no introduction to audiophiles, but although I have probably heard it close to a hundred times in the past two decades, I have never taken to it, or understood what the fuss was all about. This time, however, the fine modulations of her voice were more impressive and I actually managed to hear several other tracks. Most importantly, I finally heard at least some emotion and charged atmosphere, which were devoid from all the CDs and 2015 re-issue LP I have heard in other systems in HK. Incidentally, a new re-issue is just available and the April Stereophile (not online yet) has a story on it by Atkinson. Apparently, the 2015 issue was flawed technically (see this google translated link). I note too that I had also heard the original LPs in quite a few very expensive systems in HK, but never to this effect, attesting that the horn reigns supreme.
  • PAS 3 Then and Now The transformation of the Dynaco PAS 3 was utterly amazing. Indeed I had to ask the same question that I asked after I brought my Citation I back from obscurity: Why had I not appreciated it before? Likewise, there is no easy answer. Horns perhaps just show everything in a new light. For more musings on this subject, see here.
  • Thought on PAS 3 Mod As you have read, my mods are minimal, cost almost nothing and can be accomplished in little time. I believe the isolation work is very effective. Also, before you decide to embark on a wholesale mod, ponder this: as I had changed only two caps, I believe the original Black Cats are no at all as bad as they have often been made out to be. For the moment, I do not have that great a desire to do further mods. It is already an excellent preamp and can fully stand alongside the Citation I.

Lucy Dacus

Letter from NYC (83) 2018 (9): Good Indie Singer

Just heard Lucy Dacus on CBS TV singing selections from her sophomore album and it was great. I have never heard of her before and the album (CD and vinyl) may be difficult to find in stores (easier to download, if you do that kind of stuff).



06 March, 2018

SMSL SA-36A Pro, Citation I, Conrad Johnson Premier 2 and 3, Cary CAD 211

For all pics, click to enlarge. L: Note the weighted down SMSL on top of HT center loudspeaker, behind which is the subwoofer. On the flanks are the Cary 211 monoblocks. Marantz 8B and Jadis JA-80's in front.

Review: SMSL SA-36A Pro
SMSL vs Cary CAD-211
Conrad Johnson Premier 2/3 vs Harman Kardon Citation I
Cary CAD-211 vs Jadis JA-80 vs Marantz 8B
JBL L20T, Part II
Letter from NYC (82) 2018 (8): Smorgasbord

R's Altec A5 saga continues. After the last report, we made two more visits and exhaustively tested numerous combinations. This article summarizes the two visits. But first, a little diversion.

SMSL SA-36A Pro (TDA7492PE) 
  • T-Amps Though I firmly believe in the superiority of tubes, for some fun at low cost I occasionally do dabble in T-amps (expensive implementations are ridiculous). My first one was the (discontinued) Lepai LP-2020A+, which employed the well-regarded Tripath TPA2020 chip. I was delighted by its performance (as an amp in a humble system here and even more as a power amp in a hi-end system here). I also bought one of its successors, the Lepai LP-2024A+ (employing TPA2024) which was almost as good, though a shade cooler in sonics (no report yet). As the TPA2020 chip had long been unavailable (Tripath had gone bankrupt), my curiosity for a better built one with a better power supply had me turn elsewhere.
  • General Info This model from the interestingly named (in Chinese, 雙木三林) company (official info) has been in production for a long time and had gone through many iterations. The earliest used the Tripath TPA2020 chip, but it was replaced soon by the Texas Instrument TPA3118 chip and all of these garnered a good reputation. However, after the company switched to the current TI TPA7492PE chip, there were quite a bit of noise and confusion on the net (read the incredible fuss made over something under $50), and that is the version I have just bought. There are variations, and mine is the more common 12V version.
  • Ergonomics The build quality is very good, though for the bare wire user (me) the small speaker binding posts are no more convenient than the cheap posts on the Lepai. What really bothers me is the lack of an indicator lamp, so be mindful of the on/off status.
  • Round 1/Chez Moi/JBL L20T I tested these on my JBL L20T (Part I here). Direct-In First I fed the output of my reference Aurorasound Vida phonoamp directly into it, and the sound was very good. As Power Amp Next, I used it with my reference System III (last described in detail here) driving the JBL L20T's. The sound was surely even better. Compared to my bookshelf reference Almarro M1A (reported here; a tall order indeed), the L20T's were just a little more weighted towards the midrange, less pure in the treble (which may be the amp too) and smaller in soundstage. It should be known that my relatively near-field and way-in-room placement minimizes the room effect and difference between loudspeakers. Although the JBL's likely would like even more power to pump out more bass, the SMSL did an excellent job driving them. The 
  • Round 2/Chez Kevin/Altec A7 It was briefly tested at the same session reported here (note in the R pic the SMSL perched atop the Dynaco PAS 3). Suffice to say the the SMSL stood up to the Conrad Johnson MV-75 amp very well.
  • Round 3/Chez R/Altec A5 The result was astonishing, as detailed in the section below.
Home Visit 1: Sometimes I think of the squad as the coaching team, trying to coalesce the players (the equipment) into a winning whole. Andy is the mild-tempered and democratic head coach, myself a temperamental assistant; R of course is the owner of the franchise - demanding at times, but not quite a Steinbrenner. On this occasion, Kevin was the fourth man, and we tried out numerous plays. The lunch (L pic) as usual was wonderful, an overstuffed omelette washed down with a brut sparkling.
  • My Agenda During the previous visit to R's smaller room, I thought that although the Altec A5 sounded quite nice, the leading edge/attack was slower than what I am accustomed to hearing from Altec (e.g. Andy's) and other well implemented horns. Remembering that none of the amps were quite satisfactory, I decided to take along my SMSL for "diagnostics". Since I also thought R's turntables in this small room had anomalies, I wanted to use digital playback as a reference. The California Audio Labs Delta Transport/Sigma Tubed DAC were dusted off and pressed into action. I brought several of my own test CD's. Equipment used were somewhat different from last time (see link above). The CJ Premier 2 served as full function preamp in lieu of the previous Jadis DPL2, its phono section also replacing the Lamm. This section described mostly the results obtained using digital playback, which was very instructive.
  • CJ Premier 2 + Cary CAD-211 We didn't hear the Cary's last time, as they had only just recently returned from electrolytic cap replacement (the big blue cans, which R had listened to for several days and heard them opening up). This long running model has had multiple iterations - these are from way back (no bias meters). The 211 designation is a misnomer, as these use a pair of 845's in each channel. Used with the CJ Premier 2, the sound was powerful but overly warm and woolly, somewhat rounded off and slow in the leading edge. These were touted for their "life sized" images, which unfortunately were rather fuzzy through the horns. Substitution of the RFT EL34's for the Russian fat bottle 6CA7 brought a significant improvement - more believable outlines.
  • CJ Premier 2 + Cary CAD-211 (vs SMSL SA-36A Pro) Using the same CJ Premier 2, the very humble SMSL showed off the glaring weakness of the Cary. Aside from a warmer tone and more power, there was nothing favorable. On Masekela's Hope, the audiophile fave stimela (Track 12) best illustrates this: the big crescendo was perfectly gauged and proportioned through the SMSL, but ill-shaped and prematurely saturated through the Cary's; the rhythmic imitations of the train were incandescent through the SMSL but sorrily flaccid through the Cary's. The trombone and double bass in the vivo movement of Stravinsky's Pulcinella (ASMF/Marriner, Argo/Decca) commanded their own lines and were perfectly integrated as a duo though the SMSL, but through the Cary's they were just plain mushy. Even worse was the Bach Double Violin Concerto (Kuijken/La Petite Bande, Pro Arte) - through the SMSL, the lines were perfectly clear, and one could feel the up- and down-bow's, all hopelessly lost through the Cary's. The playback of a jazz CD, Shirley Horn's You Won't Forget Me (Verve) was similarly excellent and, imho, much better balanced than the analog rigs.
  • CJ Premier 2 vs 3 vs Citation I We used the two turntables mostly. As there were two full function preamps with both phono sections and tape out, we went  through quite a few permutations that we had to go through. Suffice to say as a whole: CJ 2 vs 3 The CJ Premier 3 is very similar to 2, but solid state rectified, and they sounded more similar than different to my ears. Citation I As expected, the Citation I was obviously more neutral and did not unduly soften the leading edge, making it a much better match for the lugubrious Cary. Not only that, as we had fed the CJ (can't remember whether it was the 2 or 3) phono section into the Citation line stage, I can conclude that the Citation I phono section is superior. Just before we left, we played the Masekela track, and it was a lot better than before, but the crescendo was still not quite shapely.
Home Visit 2: On this occasion almost the full gang showed up. We were also joined by R's friend Louis. This occasion was marked by the arrival of an Audio Research Reference 2 preamp, which we compared to the Jadis JPS2 in the main Wilson rig. Then we tried out more combos in the A5 room. Lunch was R's wonderful home-made sausages and, for novelty, venison burger, all washed down with an excellent Chilean Shiraz and  California Red.

  • Reference 2 vs Jadis JPS2 We used the Rockport Sirius turntable, now fitted with 100 ohm loaded Ortofon 2M Black (Andy said this eliminates the unpleasant peak). We first used the Lamm LP2 phonoamp, which did not woo us, and so we replaced it by the sweeter phono section of the CJ Premier 2. We unanimously agreed that the venerable ARC (with completely stock tubes) had much better focus and control than the Jadis JPS2. In this room this is of great importance as the ARC obviously consolidated the center stage, which has a tendency to be less filled up. Naturally, with the all-Russian tubes, sound was not quite as sweet, but it is a trade-off I personally would gladly take. Interestingly, although this setup was targeted to play classical music, jazz sounded even better. On Ellington - The Pianist (Fantasy LP) Ellington's piano sounded smart (as it must) while Sam Woodyard's brushwork was breathtaking on (side 2, track 1) Tap Dancer's Blues. Sony Stitt also was very much his golden-toned, comforting self in one of his late outings, Sonny Stitt meets Sadik Hakim (Progressive, LP).
  • Cary CAD-211 vs Jadis JA-80 vs Marantz 8B based on the session reported above, we stayed with the Harman Citation I as preamp. The Cary was just as I remembered it, but the Jadis JA-80 fared not one whit better. Then we swapped the Marantz 8B in. Previously, we had heard it with the CJ Premier 2 and its slow speed bothered me. Not this time: partnered with the Citation I, the Marantz 8B showed a clean pair of heels to the Cary and Jadis. The leading edge was faster and cleaner; Masekela's Stimela almost edged up to the SMSL amp. The tonal qualities too were way superior to the Cary's and Jadis'. I was quite satisfied and would personally stay with this combo in this room.
  • Jazz vs Classical? Although the results were satisfying enough, I still think on this day, in this room, supposedly the jazz room, the jazz playback was not as as good as in the living room, supposedly the classical room. Similarly, the classical (digital) playback through the A5's sounded to me as good as the big rig. For myself, there is no such division, and indeed may write more on this in a coming article. I do think now that there is much competition between the two setups, we can expect improvements in both in due time (they are already quite wonderful).
  • SMSL SA-36A Pro This is a wonderful little amp. The sound is excellent, particularly with efficient loudspeakers. It is more robust than my Lepai  LP-2020A+, and I have yet to hear it clip with my less efficient JBL L20T. Mine is the current version, which uses the TI TPA7492PE; I think if it can pass muster with me, there is little point in struggling to compare it with past iterations. The treble is generally good (witness how it renders violin and massed strings) though not as pure as tube, but there is a little grain at the very top which becomes noticeable at high volume. I think a little mod or a better power supply could take the amp to a higher level, though I shall stop at here for the moment. Horn users should have one of these amps on hand to compare with the tube amps (and preamps) they are using - they may be pleasantly, or unpleasantly, surprised. Its neutrality and simplicity reveals most of the music, which is more than can be said about severely flawed lesser tube gear (and this from a tube lover).
  • Conrad Johnson Premier 2/3 To my ears, the 2 and 3 are more similar than different. They share similar sonic characteristics - a big, bold sound that many like. However, their weaknesses - lack of dynamic and rhythmic exactitude, not to mention refinements - preclude my endorsement. In many ways, I think the Premier 2 and 3 are just beefed up PV-5's (substitute your favorite numerals) and may be even the worse for it. This is true of the line stage for sure. Although we had tested it less, I do also think the phono sections are too colored for me (much prefer the Citation I).
  • Jadis JPS2 Much the same can also be said about the Jadis. There is some measure of opulence, a la creme, but where is the finesse?
  • Harman Kardon Citation I The Citation I continues to impress. The phono section is superior to those in the Premier 2 and 3 and, if you ask me, likely the Lamm LP2. I also much prefer the line section over the sluggish CJ Premier 2/3 and Jadis JPS2, all cathode follower designs (Stu Hegeman was definitely onto something). Yes, the line section gets stressed a little when playing loud but this is largely ameliorated by partnering with a more forgiving amp, like the Marantz 8B.
  • Cary CAD-211 and Jadis JA-80 Not my cup of tea, as you must know by now. They were decidedly bettered by the Marantz 8B, not to mention the tiny SMSL. I actually think these have no place in a horn system but would probably do better with conventional dynamic speakers of good to moderate efficiencies and a fast modern preamp.
  • Marantz 8B Like I said before in my last report quoted above, it is hard to go wrong with this amp; the more you work with the 8B, the better it is - it repays your efforts.
  • Altec A5 Absolutely marvelous! R's pair surprise me by how well they play classical material (via CD though). I am not sure why the analog rigs are not quite performing as well - I'd venture to guess the very revealing A5's just reveal every anomaly in the chain. Personally I think, factoring in the difference in partnering gear and room, the A5 renders classical music (again CD only) at least as well as the big Wilson's; in fact, in dynamic gradation and presence they are unquestionably superior. If placed in the big living room I am confident they will easily trounce the Wilson's. Remember, the good sounding living room rescued the Wilson's, and it would do wonders with other loudspeakers too. Also, further improvement in A5 playback can likely be obtained by substituting a better subwoofer (e.g. my cheapo but over-achieving Pioneer SW-8, reported here) for the subpar (home theater) Focal. 
  • Audio Research Reference 2 This definitely has potential. I await the results of some tube rolling. I have heard this many times before in HK, and it has aways turned in reliable, if not often exciting, performances.
  • California Audio Lab Delta/Sigma This is a combo that has stood the test of time; I have heard it many times in HK, always to good effect. Although I am a fan of true multi-bit players, this is nonetheless a very good implementation of Delta-Sigma. A classic.
  • JBL L20T Impression here is the same as in Part I. Typical JBL quality that needs no further touting.

28 February, 2018

Overview Dynaco, PAS 3, Conrad Johnson PV-5,

For all pics, click to enlarge. L: innards of my bone stock PAS 3.

Dynaco PAS 3, Part I
Overview: Dynaco
Letter from NYC (81) 2018 (7): PAS3 vs Conrad-Johnson PV-5

This article is the first on the Dynaco PAS 3. The coming, more important Part II shall center on mods, but let us get the CJ out of the way first.

Communication Woes I detest it when people talk loudly and incessantly on the phone in public. In HK and China, many chat loudly away in public, even in the closed confines of subway cars and buses, much to my annoyance. The US fares much better. Here I believe the telephone conversation is going the way of vinyl - that is, not dead but a minority activity. Texting is more instantaneous and in widespread use. It is almost rude to call someone, one of my friends says. As I write, a TV ad against texting while driving flashed on the screen...

Not when it comes to Audiophiles. Our long conversations tirelessly scrutinize every component and combinations. I am not the worst example, but am not completely immune. In NYC, I frequently call (though I keep them short) Andy to discuss the audio issues at hand, which is how the idea of resurrecting my Dynaco PAS 3 came about. I don't remember exactly how. I think we were talking about the Citation I and Andy reminded me that the Cathode Follower so favored by tube designers slow down the sound. The PAS 3, like our beloved Citation I, does not have one. I decided to dig out mine for a reappraisal.

"If there is one name in Hi-Fi which is synonomous with excellent sound, and at the same time with excellent price, that name is Dynaco.(from TNT)

Overview: Dynaco

  • Background Read this comprehensive wikipedia entry on arguably THE most famous tube company of all time. Many people, including industrial professionals, got their first taste of tube audio from Dynaco, at a time when solid state started their domination. The HUGE amount of information and after-market products and support on the internet testify to the excellence, indeed immortality, of the products. The reader can easily search for any info on any Dynaco product, so I need not elaborate.
  • Online Resources, Mods and HiFi Lore As the stuff were bargain kits without frills, mostly home-built and easily available, they were, and still are, undervalued. You know, cheap stuff, no matter how good, do not engender pride of possession, an unfortunate human trait. This leads many people to buy and modify Dynaco for fun, to satisfy their own DIY penchants and David vs Goliath mentality (whereas few would do drastic surgeries on, say, a Marantz or McIntosh). What matters more to me, however, is how perceived monetary value undermines the objective assessment of their true sonic merits. As an example, is Dynaco PAS 3 vs Marantz 7 really David vs Goliath? I think not. But many of the DIY people and mod squads buy into this line of thinking, partly because they have been taught so (for people who supposedly are thinking outside the box, many of them have a surprisingly herd mentality) and partly because many of them do not have much experience with more expensive gear nor high end audio. The internet can provide any number of instructions on how to do this and that. Aside from basic restoration, you are urged to defeat the tone control, remove the selenium rectifier, beef up the power supply, use expensive caps, improve the speed, firm up the bass, make the RIAA flatter, add stages and stand up to perceived Goliaths. All of these promise improved sound, but should you believe in all of it? Based on my experience with mods, exercise caution and restraint. I have yet to hear a wholesale mod of anything that sounds good. Also, our beliefs in Google are seriously challenged these days - it buries the small voices, much dissent, and the Google algorithm is no less commercial than advertisements as it is calculated to increase traffic and income. When you get tired of the monolithic views prevalent in most popular and most googled sites, perhaps you can search in audioreview user reviews, which offer capsular opinions that are much less didactic and more varied.
  • Dynaco ST-70 This is THE most iconic product, and deservedly so. As with all Dynaco products, it is a masterclass in economy - in a relatively small footprint, we have a tube rectified (valued by many tube aficionados), adjustable bias amplifier with very good irons. Many people think the treble is too soft, but I disagree and think (given a good specimen) in this parameter it is amongst the best in EL34 amps that I have heard - there is a silken smoothness that is just mesmerizing. People also complain about the somewhat loose bass, which is also why many mods and later iterations switched to solid state rectification, but I think it is the opposite - the tube rectification makes the amp more wholesome. I think it sounds better than the Marantz 5 and gives the Marantz 8B a run for its money. In my early years in HK, I had a pair (with the later and supposedly inferior Japanese output trannies) and it produced delightful sound with a DIY Marantz 7 (constructed for me, before I took up the solder, by an audiophile student) and Rogers LS 3/5A. I still have one in NYC with the A470 trannies, which I occasionally listen to (read my report on the ST70 and 8B driving the Maggies). Maybe it is time to resurrect it in view of my PAS 3 project.
  • ST 35/SCA 35 I have one of each in HK. They are wonderful examples of EL84 amps, which I prefer to EL34 amps.
  • Mark III This is another classic product that offers more power than the ST-70 in small monoblock chassis. Very fine sounding if tubed right.
  • FM 3 A marvelous no-frills tuner that is a sonic match for many much more well known tuners (like McIntosh). My specimen is mint and sounds great.
  • PAS 3 In shocking ways, my experience with the PAS 3 pretty much parallels mine with the Harman Kardon Citation I. That is, for the longest time, I did not think much of it, but my opinion drastically changed when it was finally used with my horns, but not without struggles! Read on, as it may be a long series!
  • Other Products I have no experience of the earlier products, some mono. I have heard quite a few of the solid state products and they all sounded above average. There is some good engineering behind this brand! But these are largely outside my radar.
  • Panor and Later Products In the early 90's I heard in HK the Panor ST-70 Series II (in the now defunct Man Yee building), and it did not impress me, but that could be the dealer, which was not known for setup skills. It had divided opinions (panned in Stereophile but well received by TNT). If you google, you shall find out how much furor it had stirred up. I'd think that is par for the course - it takes a courageous soul to try to bring back an "updated" version of a legend. The lesson continues to the present day, right now, when Canadian company Raidial Engineering tries to bring out its Series III (here). Although publicized in trade magazines like TAS, apparently Panor, which seems to still own the trademark, had instigated lawsuits which may or may not have been settled.

Dynaco PAS 3

  • Round 1: Initial Impressions I am not sure how many years had elapsed since the last time I heard the PAS 3 - perhaps two decades? Hooked up to my horns, I was quite take aback. Whereas I had remembered it as slow and gray, it was now lightning fast and quite aggressive. The leading edge and transients were very exciting, but the treble was very rough and the preamp could not play loud at all, as it turned strident fast. But I knew: it has potential.
  • Round 2: vs Conrad Johnson PV-5 I took it to Kevin's house (equipment more or less detailed here), where it was matched with Conrad Johnson PV-5. As expected, the PAS 3 sounded smoother here but its fast leading edge and weakness at loud volume were still very much evident. Listened at a reasonable volume the sound was very promising, very much more so than the CJ PV-5: while the CJ painted a more comforting broad stroke and bold colors, the stock PAS 3, even when tethering at the edge, revealed a much broader palette of infinite shades and hues, in both tonality and rhythm.
There is a LOT more to Part II. Stay tuned.

27 February, 2018

Bell 2122, Citation I, and more

For all pics, click to enlarge. Left, Chez Andy. Note Bell perched on top of Cary. Garrard 401 with Odyssey arm in foreground.

Letter from NYC (80) 2018 (6): Making the Rounds

I think I have been a bit under the weather of late, the symptoms even premonitory of S.A.D. (Seasonal Affective Disorder). So what better than to counter with time spent in good systems? That all the visits came with great food and wine made it all the more enticing. Many thanks to Andy, Kevin and Stephen for their hospitality. There is too much to cover, so I shall try to be brief and, sorry (anonymous reader who had left a comment), no food pics (for this post)!

Chez Andy - Bell and Citation redux
Andy had recently gotten himself a pair of Bell 2122 (info here) and spent a great deal of time doing basic restoration on the line section (phono section and tone controls left in circuit). On this occasion, Andy had switched to the Citation I's line section, so it was used as full-function preamp. Equipment has changed a bit since last reported:

Analog 1: Garrard 401/Odyssey tonearm/Ortofon 2M Red (hot-rodded; see below)
Analog 2: Walker Proscenium Gold Signature/Pickering 380 with elliptical stylus
Preamp: Harman Kardon Citation I
Amp: Bell 2122
Loudspeakers: Altec A5 (with JBL 075 tweeter and Entec subwoofer)

Although I had listened to Andy's system quite often, I had somehow neglected to report that for quite a while he has been using the Altec 288 driver (instead of the JBL) with the 515 woofer, so that makes it a bona fide A5 system.

Despite some obvious anomalies, the sound this time was truly inspiring. Every note of Ivan Moravec's Beethoven (Connoisseur Society LP) was clear as a Bell (punt intended). Most impressive were the inner voices, which were never subsumed. The PDQ Bach LP (Vanguard), recorded live at Town Hall, was full of life, yet never strident.

Back home, the Rostropovich/Richter Beethoven Sonatas (Philips) had a much weightier tone, which also benefited the two Jazz LPs, Portrait of Marian McPartland (Concord) and Oscar Peterson We Get Requests (Verve/Speakers Corner). However, I could not quite reproduce the palpability of the Moravec, and the PDQ Bach became a torture LP, which set me on a new quest, the details of which shall follow in a future post.

Chez Andy, the lightness probably had multiple causes: the fast speed and relatively light balance of the Citation I, compounded by the exact same qualities in the Bell amplifiers. But it too threw into sharp relief the sterling qualities of the system, a palpability and clarity that would be very hard to emulate.

We had listened mostly to the Garrard/Odyssey/Ortofon. But it should be noted that the Ortofon Red was specially modified (in particular a shortened cantilever) by Stephen (of VAS, see here). Andy has high regard for it, and I can hear why. Also, Andy loaded it at 100k, which he said smoothed out a rough peak. The exercise also once again reaffirm the exemplary qualities of the Citation I.

The visit was made even better by lunch: excellent lamb and wines! Sorry, no pics!

Chez Kevin
A few days later, I re-visited Kevin (system covered in great detail here). James brought his newly acquired CJ PV 5, and the purported purpose was to compare with Kevin's unit. I also brought my newly re-enlisted Dynaco PAS 3. My impressions will be published in another article.

Keep the Distance! Somehow we ended up re-positioning the smaller loudspeakers. The Conrad Johnson MV-75, so lackluster with the Altec A7, fared better (as it should) with the B&W CM5 and Rogers LS3/5A (late bi-wire version), which are much hungrier for power. Way in-room and free of boundary effects, the bookshelves performed admirably with all kinds of music: soundstage was deep and wide, and images were close to life-size. Indeed, with simpler music one can almost mistake them for the big horns in the back! As expected, the B&W sounded bigger but more diffuse and the LS3/5A more accurate and well proportioned. I was also impressed by the performance of Kevin's second-system turntable, a lesser known Technics direct drive fitted with a humble P-mount Pickering MM.

Many thanks to Kevin for the delicious lunch (fried rice and turnip soup) and hot-pot dinner washed down with a surprisingly good vintage Australian shiraz! Again, no pics.

Whirlwind New Jersey Tour
The next day, the full gang headed for New Jersey. First stop was a short stay chez Paul, an electronic wizard. It was too bad we were only doing drop-off's and pick-up's, as among his goodies I spotted Tannoy 15" Gold, Marantz 7 + 9, Philips CD-1000, Dahlquist DQ-20, Stromberg Carlson monoblocks and much more.

Next we re-visited Stephen at VAS (covered before here). Partnered with Focal floorstanders, the same setup sounded much airier. We were even more impressed by his bespoke MONO cartridge than his very good stereo one. This guy is seriously talented!

After a quick lunch hosted by Stephen, we visited veteran Mr Ma, a well respected electrical wizard. In his crazily jam-packed workshop we listened to Classe Digital/ARC SP 6/Eico HF-20 (modified as power amps) driving Altec 604H's. Sound was very good with simpler material. Littered around the room were, to name a few, ARC CL-60, Meridian/Philips CD100, IMF, R2R decks, Counterpoint SA7 and Radio Craftsman RC-2 (which R bought and hopefully I'll get to hear soon).

As if that wasn't enough, Stephen and his lovely wife treated us to a marvelous Chinese dinner, washed down with an excellent Napa red and a refreshing Riesling. Again, sorry, no pics.

Life is good.

Being Electrically Correct

State of Audiophilia (1): Being Electrically Correct
Editor's Note: New Blog Feature - Cartoons
Letter from NYC (79) 2018 (5)

Here is another new feature. Though my drawing skill is rudimentary, sometimes I like to have a visual element to make a point and, yes, I like to poke fun at audiophiles. So here is the first of my cartoons. For those who don't know, audiophiles have long been caricatured, even in reputable magazines like The New Yorker.

If you do a Google search for "audiophile cartoon" you get pages. And you will think: "...truth hurts..."

26 February, 2018

Happy New Year, Old Dogs, Loudspeaker Finish

Letter from NYC (78) 2018 (4): Happy New Year of the Dog
Editor's Note: Old Dogs, Mid-Life Crisis and More
Tip in a Capsule (1): Loudspeaker Enclosure Finish 

From an Old Dog A belated Happy New Year of the Dog, the celebration of which traditionally is not really over until the first full moon, which is one of two Chinese equivalents of Valentine's Day! According to most Chinese Astrologist, this year is likely to be better than the departed Year of the Rooster. It better be for this Goat! And, dear readers, may you finally achieve that elusive audio breakthrough! Not 10% better, not 30% better, but better! May your throats grow lumpy and tears roll down your cheeks every day!

Dog Pig Men are often called Pigs, which is unfair to the much maligned animal that occupies one of twelve places in the Chinese Zodiac. Given our collective penchant for the Deadly Sin of Gluttony, we deserve the allocation. Many people I know can fill a basement or two with equipment, much in disuse, disarray and disrepair. I am guilty as charged, but perhaps no more than women who just pile up different things that have even less of a chance to be used. Why should I, and why do I, still long to make the round and dig through vinyl piles, when I have enough for several lifetimes? It is for sure a malaise, one that could only be kept at bay by infirmities, not will. At this point in time I could still lift an amp and do not quite yet wish to be cured.

Be Green Being mainly a purveyor of second-hand, even unwanted and unloved, items give me some kind of justification. My take of the audio hobby is consistent with my otherwise reasonably green credentials (I get only e-statements, use only a few sheets of fresh paper a year; I don't even own a printer and in general don't create much new waste). Yes, the tubes (and I use a few) waste a little more electricity than usual, but that is nothing compared to the environmental waste perpetrated by people who make or buy big new amps (Boulder, D'Agostino, Constellation, Soullution etc etc), loudspeakers (Magico, YG etc etc), even interconnects (MIT Oracle etc) milled from large blocks of aluminum. Collecting old equipment and physical media also gives me the satisfaction as it has a cultural aspect that is much undervalued in this age. When all the unworthy noise about the latest "advances" of our generation (particularly in digital, be it hi-res, DSD, MQA what have you) has subsided, there will still be discerning people who value vintage (old LPs and equipment) and, many years from now, the latter will have outlasted in durability and value those aluminum blocks. Can you name more than a handful of solid state "legends" that still work and have rising second-hand value after a good number of years?

When Old Dogs Learn New Tricks Perhaps for good reason, old dogs stick to their preferences. When they do venture out of their safety zones, anything can happen, usually to mixed results. I have known quite a few tube people who ventured into various types of solid state equipment, be it undervalued vintage, boutique modern hi-end or cheap and cheerful D- or T- amps (the last includes myself) - aside from perhaps a somewhat different perspective, none to my ears could rival, not to mention surpass, tube magic. More puzzling to me is the old analogue man who adds Computer Audio to his source: not for the act per se, as I can see the fun in novelty, but for the Herculean effort to rip their CDs into files and make them sound as good. These people have good analogue setups and CD players (and large libraries of LPs and CDs) but to my ears (though they may proclaim otherwise) their CAS at best are only close approximations of their analogue front ends (forget about reel-to-reel, a even greater divide there) and usually no better than CD playback through their (good) red-book CDP. Every time I think to myself: "this is protracted Mid-Life Crisis" and "Old Dogs should not learn new tricks". Yours truly will stay an Old Dog.

New Blog Feature One of my problems is I am quite obsessive when it comes to writing, so articles often take too long to write and may even morph into bigger things of less manageable proportion. So I have decided to start a new feature called Tip in a Capsule: these would be short blurbs on my beliefs, written on the whim, without much exposition or citation. Read it at your own peril. To group these close to "HiFi Basics", these would also be labelled "HiFi Basics" but followed with "/Tip in a Capsule". Here is the First One:

Tip in a Capsule (1): Loudspeaker Finish 
  • The Finish Makes a Difference We are talking about the same loudspeaker. We are not talking about different color paints (like the many painted colors available from many modern loudspeakers). We are talking about different types of Finish and Veneers. This is experience based upon a lot of listening to certain very popular loudspeakers like the LS3/5A and Sonus faber Concertino, among others. The difference sometimes is surprisingly big.
  • WORST "Piano" Finish The Piano Black versions of the KEF LS3/5A and Sonus faber Concertino, mostly for the Asian market, were (and are) very popular in HK, and I have heard tons of them. To my ears, compared to their wood-veneered siblings, they sound less relaxed. Moreover, those fingerprints are just annoying!
  • BETTER Rosewood/Ebony For LS3/5A, the Rosewood (and rarer Harbeth Ebony) finish is arguably even more in demand. To my ears, they sound better than piano black, less uptight, but still not the best. I do like the looks of the older rosewoods and Ebony, but most of what we see now are not genuine and I'd pass, for visual as well as sonic reasons.
  • BEST Walnut/Maple Though less fashionable today, these are the most traditional and sonically superior veneers. The treble and bass are usually slightly less extended or controlled than Piano Black (or Rosewood/Ebony), but these finishes sound more relaxed and musical.
  • Exotic Finishes (like Birdseye/Bur(l) Maple) usually are more expensive but do not sound superior to cheaper Walnut/Maple. Moreover, the lighter colored ones age/oxidize less gracefully. I'd pass.
  • Knock on the Wood Different finishes yield a different feeling when knocked upon. Contrary to most reviewers, I think the deader it seems, the deader the sound.

16 February, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Overview: 6V6 Tube and Amps

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

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

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

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

13 February, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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