18 April, 2024

MouthDancing Cafe 嘴舞咖啡

Click pics to enlarge. The top pic is placed only because this is an audio blog after all. Sun Audio 2A3 amp (with good old-stock tubes) driving Proac Tablette (a later edition). Rega TT. To the right, the “Chemistry Lab Apparatus" flanking Leon is what is used to make Ice-Drip Coffee!

Letter from Shenzhen (24-5): MouthDancing Cafe 嘴舞咖啡
Desert Flower 沙漠之花

Note: A Chinese expose shall be added soon. Come back soon.

Serendipity! Some months ago ELO mentioned that he knows this interesting fellow from Hong Kong who has opened a Boutique Cafe in Longgang district (borough), where I live. After some to and fro, I found out it is located on a street which I know very well because I have lunch once in a while at several of the cheap eateries around there! I have witnessed first hand the transformation of this very street - previously it was a sleepy neighborhood street with humble eateries but over the last years swanker Cafes kept popping up. 

This Cafe is called MouthDancing. Just a few days ago I finally met the proprietor, Jim Chan. Over an excellent Expresso I had a great conversation with him. Jim is a soft-spoken but very particular man and a Polyglot! Just what a good Cafe needs (as a Bar needs good Bartenders). Of course, he's a Barista par excellence but it's astonishing what else he is well versed in. His accomplishments are too many to mention (what's not mentioned below is that he was a boutique eyeglass and interior designer for many years), some of which you will find in the captions to the pics below.

The space is not big, but it's subtly divided in cells that hide Jim's ambitions. Appreciation of the art of Flower Arrangement, Visual Arts, Cinema, and Music. Jim knows many of HK's cultural and art influencers and I'd just urge you to chat with him, as he's a cornucopia of knowledge, and not afraid to tell you his true opinion. His broad embrace of the arts, cultural climate and adaptation to reality is well worth listening to!

A bit later, Jim made a (for me) highly unusual Hand-Drip Coffee and it was wonderful to savor the taste change as it went from hot to warm. This is a masterwork. Jim has his beans roasted to his specifications.

Jim has his staff (a girl-next-door on the day I visited) well trained. Jim splits his time between HK and SZ. In this SZ shop you'll find him Monday to Wednesday.

Here we have an Auteur.

And why do I say "Desert Flower"? Well, much of the Longgang district (the Eastern sector, where we are, is very different from the Western sector, which is closer to the center of town) is quite boring in comparison with hipper boroughs like Nanshan, Baoan and Futian, even Lohu. And it's a cultural desert if you ask me. Not much of artistic significance happens around here. We need more people like Jim here to spice up the place.

Home made desserts. Looks Yummy. You know, it's hard to get an authentic Tiramisu anywhere.
Varietals on Offer.
Jim's many Certifications on Flower Arrangements 
We all love Beatles
The Young Regulars arrived in a flamboyant Race Car
Movie Posters, including my favorite Luc Besson.
Mother's Day Masterclass on Flower Arrangements

11 April, 2024

Beydas Douk T8 Pro GE 5670 WE 274B 350B 80

Click pics to enlarge. R, WE 350B.

Letter from Shenzhen (24-4): Listening Notes
Douk T8 Pro, Part II (Transient Speed)
ETA Preamp, Part IV (Contact Woes, Failed Pot Replaced, GE 5670)
BRZ 6L6 SE Amp, Part IV (WE350B, Defective Volume Pot, Failed 6N2 Adaptor)
BRZ FU-50 Amp, Part III (with 80 Rectifier)

Douk T8 Pro Equalizing Preamp, Part I
Eastern Transmission Audio (ETA) 6N3 SRPP Preamp (Parts I-III)
BRZ 6L6 SE Amp (Parts I-III)
BRZ FU-50 Amp (Parts I-II)

Lately, though still based in SZ (hint: not for long), I have had the opportunity to conduct some listening sessions in HK, much of it reported in recent articles. I had been busy writing those up as well as with private matters, so it's now time to update you on what I've been up to around here in SZ. It's basically tinkering with what I have here, AND with some tube rolling. Not just any tube, but some old stock Western Electric tubes brought over from HK; with WE, it's always a transformative experience! But I shall start with humbler stuff.

Loudspeakers: Beydas 15 ohm and 11 ohm "LS3/5A"
Previously, I detailed my Struggle with Beydas 11 ohm after I returned form NYC in September 2023. Some time later, I substituted the 15 ohm version and also initially had a rough time adapting to it (chronicled here). After a while, I again "tamed" it to my satisfaction. Then, sadistic me reverted back to the 11 ohm and again had to struggle to get the best sound. But, through all these, I gained some insights:
  • Whether for initial run-in or after long disuse, (re-)running them in is a must.
  • 15 ohm This version is really quite lean in the bass but easier to manage in a way. The lack of bass heft (at least 10db less than the 11 ohm) ensures good transient response and clarity in the midband and ease of partnering. When properly matched, sound is very lucid but the lightness in the bass shall not suit all, though I find its bass pitch and definition highly satisfactory.
  • 11 ohm This version is much more bassy, but at the cost of some loss of definition in the lower midrange and bass. Therefore, more care has to be taken with partnering equipment. Overly rich-sounding gear or "tubey" stuff may not do so well, resulting in a sound that is rolled off in the treble and smeared lower down (reader Collins has complained of this, but I don't know his associated equipment). Transistor or T- and D- amps likely do better. What one needs is better speed and definition in the amplification. E.g. my Douk T8 Pro Preamp suits it more than my others because of its superior transient speed (see below). The Beydas 11 ohm also respond well to my leaner sounding BRZ FU50 (when used with a suitable rectifier). When optimized, sound is perhaps a little closer to the real LS3/5As than the "15 ohm".

2 Preamps: Douk T8 Pro and ETA 6N3 SRPP For this period, I've been mainly using these 2 preamps.
  • Douk T8 Pro This Preamp has continuously surprised me by its versatility. Mind you, this is the only Preamp in my active use arsenal here that is not pure tube, being a tube buffered op-amp design. But why not? The very expensive MBL 6010 (which is garbage imho) is just an opamp preamp that sells for the price of a car! But to compare the Douk with MBL is to tarnish the Douk, which has much more flexibility and sheer life to it! Transient Speed As mentioned before, its prowess here saves the day in many a situation. It serves the 11 ohm Beydas (which can be darkish) well. With tube gear, sometimes things gets slowed down and, when overly so, is not desirable. A faster transient preamp can make the difference. That said, faster transients can exact a cost. Things can get breathless, which is NOT the case here, thank God. Perhaps sometimes one wishes for a trifle more lingering, a little more harmonics, but one adapts. Suffice to say, it proves very useful here in SZ. XLR Use Finally, one day I brought it over to HK (with stock small wall wart). I connected it (with Gotham GAC-3 XLR cables) between the XLR output of my Marantz 94 Limited DAC and an early iteration of Bryston 4B amp, driving the B&W Matrix 801 Mk II. Sound was very good. At low volume, I swear it was even more detailed than many of my hifi preamps, the hybrid ARC SP-11 included. But, ultimately, at higher levels, it did not prove to be better at matching with the Bryston than my RCA output only tube preamps, be them MFA Magus or even Counterpoint SA3000. So, not a success yet. Capacitor Mods There being so many, I have to contact Douk on which ones are the most important. But this is in the agenda.
  • ETA 6N3 SRPP Preamp (pic above with 5670 tubes) As mentioned previously (in Part III), the Preamp developed problems in RCA Contact as well as Volume Pot. RCA Terminal Woes I thought I rectified this after re-soldering but it irritatingly still periodically failed (even sometimes as I write) to make contact with my GAC-2 (brought over from HK) which has the "Canare" plugs I bought from Apliu St (and SZ 万商) ages ago (and I never had problems with my gear in HK). These plugs manifestly don't agree with the ETA's RCA terminals, which look of "reasonable quality" outwardly. Some wiggling is usually required to enforce contact. But I'm thinking of changing them out. Incidentally, my cheap Rean plugs don't have this problem. Volume Pot I finally dug out the spare tiny cheap Volume Pot that came with one of the kits. It's 100K instead of the ETA stock 50K. What the hell, I just did the surgery, not too difficult. Voila! The pot functions well (for now) and I could use it at all positions, even with my BRZ 6L6 Amp! GE JAN 5670 Finally, I yielded to temptation and bought a few from Taobao (cheaper than HK or US). These were from '86, last of the Mohican's, but came matched in sections (as JAN tubes are wont to be). Of course, I'd have preferred WE396A /2C51 but those now command very high prices. At first, I was non-plussed by the sound of the GE 5670 - controlled and finely textured but overly reticent. For quite a while, I reverted back to my Douk T8 Pro (with 6CG7) for more oomph factor. BUT, guess what? The 5670 gradually came to life, becoming livelier and more dynamic, and now can serve in most situations, though some may still prefer the more gun-ho nature of the Russian 6N3. This tube takes quite a while to run-in! I have more to say on this tube but it shall be in another article devoted to tubes.
3 Amps: APPLause 300B, BRZ FU-50 and 6L6 SE; WE 274B and 350B For the past months, especially when the weather was cool, I have rotated these amps, especially the hotter 300B (yes, my most powerful one, LOL). BUT, I brought over the a WE274B ('82) and later WE 350B ('79). Boy oh boy, are they game changers! Yes, they are late old-stock productions, but their merits just shine through. I'm confident they are miles ahead of current re-issues.

Now, my system is powered on basically from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep, minus the 2 hours I go out for lunch and a walk, so we're talking about 10-12 hours a day for most days. While I write and multitask and so on, I would not be in critical listening mode. Most likely, I'd be sampling new releases. All these activities mandate a system that sounds decent enough but do not warrant putting in the very expensive WE tubes, which are reserved for very critical listening! Believe it or not, I had a hard time establishing the hierarchy of my amps. That is, which to choose for "casual" listening, and which to choose for more dedicated sessions?

I love exploring new releases. While some are just superb, more are disappointing, even from artists I follow. Believe it or not, a change of tube sometimes just changes how I perceive the music and make me re-evaluate. No WE can make a deadwood dance, but a shift of perception from merely metronomic to rhythmically more savvy, or from plainness to more harmonically fulfilled, is definitely possible!
  • WE 274B Of course, this immediately transformed the sound of my tube-rectified APPLause 300B amp and BRZ FU-50 amp. The sheen, rhythmic subtlety and ease of delivery is immediately evident. Mind you, many audiophiles, including many I know, are arrested in the tonality stage and judge everything by a few vocal recordings (kinda like HiFi News Kessler) and these people often fail to grasp what makes WE great. Problem is, should I run the 274B for >10 hours a day? I cringe...Mind you, many modern tubes tout themselves for guaranteed 3000 hours but, man, this is less than a year for me! I know, WE tubes can last forever, but we still want to use them when everything is optimal, not wasted.
  • APPLause 300B Putting aside the 274B, this amp runs well on my Chatham 5R4WGY and Philips JAN 5R4WGB and National Union old 5U4G. The hotter the weather, perhaps the less suitable this amp. It just occurs to me to swap out the Linlai 300B and exchange with my older Russian and Chinese 300B's in HK. Soon. No, I'm not going to bring my WE 300Bs over to SZ, as I'm in Retreat Mode. I tried my Tung Sol 80 (ST engraved) too: it works despite arcing on turn on; and current drops to 130 mA for both channels combined. Fine with me, but the 80 works better below...
  • BRZ FU-50 This amp I use the most, because it's performs well enough (less power than 300B) and does not heat up the room so much that it can be used in the summer. My Tung Sol 80 (ST) works very well in this amp (with adaptor). No arcing and it complements the slightly leaner sonority of the amp with its richness and, yes, soul. The 80 is a very fine tube, being descendent of the venerable WE 274A. It's a little darker, slower in transient and almost as subtle as the WE 274B; through its DNA has inherited a bit of the old-world magic, that is soul. The ST 80 is still an affordable tube, significantly cheaper than Globe ones, and you should try it! So! The FU-50 amp with the 80 rectifier is my main amp.
  • BRZ 6L6 SE Amp Well, SS rectified, so the WE 274B and 80 are out of the equation. In previous installments, I detailed the tube rolling (some with adaptors) I had done for the 6N2 and had mostly used it with my 6SN7/L7. WE 350B Then, about 2 weeks ago, I brought back from HK a pair of the WE 350Bs. Initially, replacing the Executone (Sylvania) 6L6GCs, I was shocked by how lackluster the sound was. I let them run for quite a while and still the sound lacked dynamics. Now, as the 350B is not quite a 6L6 type, I thought it likely needs more drive, which the 6SN7/L7 were not providing (less gain than the stock 6N2) . This is not just a matter of gain (which the preamp can make up), it's the swing required to drive the tube. Adaptor Woes So I sought to drive the 350Bs with my 12AX7 with the adaptor. NO Sound! After some tube swapping, it was clear that the adaptor now works only with 6V filament tubes (like 6CG7), and not with 12V filament tubes. For sure, a solder joint inside has gone bad. Desperate, I put back the stock 6N2 (Beijing). Voila! Sound was much improved! In fact, I was floored by how good the sound was! Yes, even with the lowly Chinese 6N2, surely not the best driver tube, the WE 350B showcased its famous qualities. Like the WE 274B and 300B, it lacks nothing: Rhythmic sophistication, tonal opulence, clarity, wide bandwidth and the most natural of dynamics. Simply put, I heard the famous WE sound, and this in an amp that costs less than 1/20th of the pair of tubes! This also attests to the reasonable quality of the output transformers, no mean feat in such a cheap amp. There are things to watch out for though. The 350B, here run in Ultralinear, surely draws more current than 6L6GC or EL34, though probably less than KT66, which I don't advise in this amp. The Power Transformer is a little hotter than usual, but not excessively so. So let's see how it fares in the long run. vs BRZ FU-50 and APPLause 300B Now, with the WE 350B on board, this little amp has become my Special Reference Amp here in SZ, its sound quality surpassing the BRZ FU-50 and APPLause 300B without WE 274B. Even with the 274B, the FU-50 and APPLause cannot completely overtake the 350B amp. This is an amazing development, which I had not foreseen. Now, you must read me carefully and I stress, this result can only be achieved with old-stock WE 350B, nothing else. Volume Pot Defect Well, small hiccups happen often with these cheap machines, no? Here again, it's the volume pot (remember my ETA Preamp, APPLause Amp), which I basically don't use actively, because I max it out and use a Preamp in front. However, when I change preamps, I turn the volume to zero. During one such swap, I heard crackling noise in the middle of the range, and it was repeatable - sure enough, the volume pot has turned bad. It doesn't affect how I use it, but the problem has to be rectified at some point. So, if you use it as an integrated, this may ruin it for you.
To sum up with some wine analogies: 1) without old-stock WE, a modern day amp can only be a good Pinot Grigio, whereas with WE it can turn into a real French Chablis (Americans beware, the word Chablis is too well known but too little understood stateside); 2) If you fail to properly utilize real WE (many people unfortunately) or perceive the real virtues of WE, then you probably prefer Australian wine to French wine, or prefer Temperanillo to Medoc.

To sum up with just one music analogy: Shostakovich Symphony No. 8 is almost mainstream repertoire now. While most performances are decent (sorry, a good Pinot Grigio), few really go to the heart of the piece. Compare your versions with the Russian National under Paavo Berglund (Pentatone) and within a few bars of the opening you shall (hopefully) know the difference (sorry again, between Pinot Grigio and Chablis, or between Temperanillo and Medoc). LOL!

01 April, 2024

UMI 2 Clarity Plus S2 version 优美 1:1 Isolation Transformer

Click pics to enlarge. Top, Mila's complicated yet interesting rig. Stacked Stirling 3/5A (15 ohm version).

Letter from Hong Kong (24-12): ELO on UMI 2 (latest Clarity Plus S2 version), Part I
Home (Salon) Visit: A Quaint Hair Salon

Update 4/5/24: More essential details and info on the 5V DC power inlet.

Editor: I  have written several articles on the slightly older UMI 2 (for a start, see here and here) but it's great to have now the initial evaluation of the latest v2 by ELO! See sections below for the subtle functional, cosmetics and sonic differences between my v2 and his latest v2).

ELO's review of UMI 1

The long awaited UMI v2 (UMI 2) has finally arrived thanks to icefox for organising the group buy! As I mentioned previously, 4 for me and my friends.

Round 1, Chez Mila's
We had arranged pickup at his freind Mila's shop on Tai Ping Road in Sheung Wan, a quaint street with a unique vibe rarely found elsewhere in HK. I used to visit the area for taking street photos or just hanging around. His shop has a back alley which is arguably the cleanest in HK, just perfect for food and wine gathering with friends!

Me and Jo arrived at the shop around 7 pm to pickup our orders, one each for me and Jo, another for Kwong and the last one for another Hifi friend "Seven" who is now using Infinity Renaissance 90 and Lab12 preamp, and I can't wait to hear his system with UMI 2 in the mix.

Mila's place is actually a hair salon with a small but dedicated space that houses a very unique system. When I first look at his setup, I know he is a seasoned veteran as his equipment are definitely far from main stream, kinda like mine even if our systems are very different in direction of preference. After a short conversation with him, I immediately realised that he is more of a music lover  than an "Effects Chaser", and we do share the same belief on how a good piece of music should sound like. Afterall, it's music that we are chasing, not effects!

Before I describe the sound from his setup, let me make a run down of his interesting setup! I categorize him as like me, an " Itchy Ass" kinda guy, meaning we don't want to be tied up by the mainstream stuff and instead like to find our own way. Thinking of my system, I suddenly realised that it comprises products made in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, UK, Japan, Mainland China, France, Germany and Canada!  In it I used 6 earth boxes to kill background noise in order to achieve a low noise floor. Diversity and open-mindedness and know-how is what a music/hifi lover should have in mind all the time.

R, Cyrus One atop EAR Phono Amp (chrome)

Setup Mila uses Bluetooth to stream Tidal music. He is also a user of  H10U (variously branded as Kyoeon 友昂, You Sheng Heng 友聲恆 or Wenliang), the el-cheapo little BT device which Kwong introduced to me and which I had written about in an early post [Editor: Before the H10U, ELO used the H-9A and reported on it.  I then got the H-9A courtesy of ELO, written up here; still has it in SZ. It should be noted that in ELO's reports, he preferred both the H9A and H10U to the popular and well-reviewed iFi Zen Blue - this is illustration of this Blog's independence from commercial influence!]. I believe it has become a popular cheap yet effective musical device! He then uses multiple  Reisong signal transformers and Douk E6 as preamp (his unit does not have any tube ringing as reported by DJ!) Then through a generic red/black wire to a MCM Reverse/Inverse RIAA device that converts the analog output of BT into an RIAA signal, which is then sent to his newly acquired "EAR 88P" (Chinese clone)! Then the "EAR" converts the RIAA signal back into analog signal and send the signal to the early version of Cyrus One Integrated Amp driving two pairs of Stirling 3/5A, stacked!! What an interesting setup and I noticed he must have followed this Blog. M told me originally the Reverse RIAA unit was acquired to run in the EAR phono, but it turned out the system sound had improved to a point that it has now become a pivotal piece in his setup. What a beautiful accident! Sound from streaming Tidal has surpassed his Turntable and he told me he mainly streams music through Tidal now.

Unboxing the UMI2 was such a pleasure. It came in a box only slightly larger than the unit, with a snug and tight fit. The unit itself is sturdy, with near-perfect metal works, like my UMI 1, not surprisingly.

Before UMI 2 We had an initial listening session with Mila's standard setup before moving on to implant the UMI2 and my Studer cable into the system. Overall sound was musical, and was already quite good. His liking is towards a meatier midrange and I can understand since stacked (15 ohm) 3/5As were used!! The stacked Stirling's seemed to add some heft in the lower octaves [Editor: interesting as a single pair of the Stirling 15 ohm tends to be lean in the bass; perhaps this is the result of stacked pair!]. The overall sound was very enjoyable and analog, without too many Hifi artefacts. His setup, with a listening distance of only 6 or 7 feet, tends to be more upfront and in your face compared to mine (which is like seated at the 8th row while his is 3rd row). 

One thing  that I really want to comment on: the whole system does not make me feel the shortfall of using a mass market Bluetooth receiver in streaming music. Back some time ago, for a while I had used BT to stream music; even now, I still use the BT that is built in to my Aiyima A08 Pro to stream TV and Youtube videos. They sound really good but ultimately fall behind the my proper setup using WEA. With the addition of UMI 1, I began to feel the gap widening between the two. Having said that, I'm still enjoying streaming Youtube music videos thru Bluetooth . 

+ UMI 2 Then we inserted the UMI 2 between the EAR and Cyrus. Upon turning up the volume, the sound had taken a change for the better. The bass dug deeper and with better definition, and imaging had tidied up without taking away the musicality. Musicians seemed to have drunk some Red Bull's, suddenly more alert and played at their highest level. Shades and Colours were fantastic, the flow smoother, more toned up and conditioned in body, all to my liking. Also, reverbs and decays were portrayed nicely in the background. Very enjoyable indeed given the listening in limited space (around 100 sq. ft I would guess).

Mila told me that his experience this night was very different from what he had heard from the loaner UMI 2 that DJ had earlier left to his HiFi buddies in HK to audition. M would have joined the group buy based on what he had heard on this night, which in his opinion was significantly better than his previous encounter. This begs the question: Perhaps this batch of transformer is better in quality? I'd think, like many smaller brands, the designer feverishly chases after improvements, so any upgrades will be implemented into the next batch without changing the version number. Therefore, it is no surprise that the most current batch's sound is superior to the previous batches! [Editor: Because of this I spoke to Engineer Li of UMI and clarified the differences; see below]

Detour: "Studer" Cable Then we added the "Studer" cable into the mix, we experienced a slight softening and increased smoothness in the music, For me the "Studer" may be a perfect match to take away some kick and coolness from my Aiyima A8 Pro and UMI 1, but on his setup, which is quite rich in body, the sound, though still very nice, turned in a slightly different direction! I tend to think that "Studer" cables is more suitable for cooler systems.

I think Mila's system definitely benefits by inserting the UMI 2 into the lineup. I think it integrates musicality and hifi values seamlessly! I'd also recommend trying out an earth box, as the background can become darker and more valuable music information can be retrieved! 

Next time, I will bring my Wattson WEA and my Entreq Earth box over to try - should be quite interesting! BTW, some days later I went again with my family for a stroll around the Tai Ping St and Hollywood Rd area and there's a shop selling a vast array of precious stones and crystals across the street from Mila's salon. I bought another pack of tourmaline and a piece of black tourmaline for Jo for his DIY earth box project.

Round 2, Chez Moi
Recently, for no particular reason, the sound suddenly suffered a setback, becoming less engaging and the soundstage seemed to have shrunken slightly. Except for switching cables for comparisons I had not altered anything. DJ reminded me that he had similar experience before and that it will go away eventually. I had my fingers crossed but, sure enough, days later the previous musical sound returned in full and now I'm back in Enjoy mode, yeah!

My latest setup with Crystals everywhere; for decoration purpose only, LOL. Also another newly acquired Entreq Minimus Ground box in the mix~

I have now replaced the UMI 1 with the UMI 2 in my system and will let it run-in for a week or so before I would switch it back to my UMI 1. DJ had said that the sound traits should be more similar than dissimilar, which is also my initial feeling, though I think the v2 has a slight edge. I am curious about the actual differences when UMI 2 is fully burnt in. It is already amazing!

Editor's Note on Latest UMI 2, Clarity Plus S2 version
Things moved fast! Before ELO penned this article (I thank him for his efficiency - must have been motivated! :-) as he has always been by UMI), very soon after the event chez Mila's, from icefox via Wechat (as E) I had already received pics of the latest v2 and texts on the proceedings. I was a bit taken aback as, aside from the purported sonic differences, there are certainly ergonomic differences between this latest v2 and my slightly older v2. So, I decided to clarify the differences and just now had a long wechat with UMI engineer, the perfectionist Mr. Li. Here are the essences on common as well as new features.

Note the Latest Version says Clarity Plus S2
The back of the Latest Version is also different! Phase Switch still there, but GONE is the 300/600 ohm switch (only 600 Ohm now). Now, for both channels there are XLR/RCA switches, which
have more functions than meet the eyes (see text).

v2 Latest Version (ELO's) vs older v2 (Editor's):
  • Latest Version is Clarity Plus S2 This is silkscreened on the casing (see above pic; the previous v2 does not have this). ALL of ELO's comments above are based on this latest version! Mine is the older version without such words.
  • Trannies (core materials etc) are the same.
  • Circuit Board is the same, but re-purposed for the different Ergonomics [Editor: Wiring is certainly different and simplified].
  • No more 300/600 ohm Choice. Only 1:1 600 ohm now. [Editor: IMHO, this is a good move as I had found the 300 ohm to be not much of a higher gain and pretty superfluous. The simpler the better].
  • Phase Switch remains the same. [Editor: I have not written much on this feature before, so at the behest of Engineer Li some pointers here. On higher-end vintage equipment (Preamps, Phonoamps and DACs) there are often a Phase Switch to cater to those who care (even obsess) over phase. To put it simply, many older recordings, be it classical or jazz or whatever, were recorded phase-inverted. My experience is that in a good system it makes a difference to have the choice, but if one listens to a mix of the modern and vintage (as I), switching back and forth is barely practical even if the switch is at one's finger tip. On the other hand, if one deals with a Preamp that is itself Phase-Inverted, like the Goliath Douk E6 (referenced above), or most CJs, it pays to have a means to invert phase (instead of switching speaker cable polarities, which is my preferred way). With this statement, if you infer that the Editor thinks Phase-Correctness is more important in a Preamp than in a Recording, you are damn right. I'd not belabor the point here. Suffice to say, this is a useful feature].
  • Ground (New Feature) This is fascinating. According to Engineer Li, with the removal of the 300/600 ohm switch a new function is added. This is because the Center Tap (300 ohm) is now permanently grounded, circuit board repurposed to the dual channel XLR/RCA Switches, etc. It's kind of confusing on the back panel, but follow me: 1) No matter where the Switch Position, both XLR and RCA will work properly; 2) XLR, with its carefully grounded planes and differentiation of ground and -ve return, of course should be switched to XLR (unless your system is uniquely queer, and I hope not); 3) RCA is grounded when switched to RCA position, but floated when switched to XLR position! This is of great use to the minority of people who experience hum with trannies [Editor: sorry to say, imho these people have usually committed basic errors in setup; analog SUT users should be familiar with this].
  • DC 5V Input This remains the Same as in previous v2. USE According to Engineer Li, the 5V is used to operate the Switches, and not in the circuit path. The 5V has to be plugged in for: 1) both XLR Input and Output needs the 5V connected; 2) Phase Reversal needs the 5V. In RCA only mode Mr Li said, and as I've experienced before, even when the 5V is not needed, the 5V still changes the sound. Even a casual generic cellphone 5V source will make the sound just a trifle warmer. But my system does not need extra warmth, so I'm not necessarily keen, YMMV. Engineer Li stresses that a proper LPS 5V supply (they have developed one which we hope to test one of these days) makes a significant difference. Let's say this remains on our agenda. Since the feature is here, we should try it out! 5V Source For reasons unknown, rarely a certain 5V cellphone charger may not work. If that is the case, just switch to another one.
  • XLR/RCA Conversion Same This can be easily accomplished, but 5V is usually needed. IMHO, it's more than worth its price even if used just as a two-way XLR/RCA Converter. Very versatile tool.
ELO again: Geez, there are so many combinations to try: 1) ground or float; 2) invert phase; 3) 5V input. This is gonna take some time and I hope I will not have listening fatigue.

I have created a test list, already added up to more than 80 tracks that have unique hifi attributes! Of course, I have to find them enjoyable musically as well!

Some photos taken recently👆

Ursula's Paddington, Sydney

Spaghetti with grilled "Pipa" Shrimp, slighlty grilled meat which taste so sweet and with a bouncy texture. The sauce is to die for!

Osso Bucco. No need to decribe the bone marrow is as good and lush as what you can imagine. Served on the side is super green and fresh cucumber with enchovies on toast which is equally as delicious~

Grass Fed Beef Steak on Chinese Chili Sauce (LaoGanMa) Excellemnt beef grilled to perfection and the chilli sauce did goes well with the steak!

Side dish with peach, ricotta cheese and Iberican ham

Scallop on a bed of Spinach. Such huge, fresh, sweet and tender Scallop!

Went to a nice French/Australian Cuisine with an Asian twist name Ursula's Paddington in Sydney. Highly recommended!

25 March, 2024

Streaming Classical

This is a classic account by the young Frager, the Prokofiev never surpassed. This is the LP cover, not used in Tidal. See below.

Streaming Classical (24-1)

Bach First, the lovely Triple from Les Muffati (Ramee). This label concentrating on Austrian artists has never disappointed me! Here, one relishes in vitality while bathed in gemutlichkeit, far removed from some of the over-aggressiveness of HIP. I pray there will be further installments, particularly of the Brandenburg’s and Orchestral Suites. Then, the Sonatas for Violin and Harpichord played by the wonderful violinist Sirrka Lisa Kaakinen-Pilch (Ondine). Biber The same violinist shines in the Mystery Sonatas (Ondine). Believe me, I’ve committed her tongue-twister of a name to my memory! Should you like more Violin Sonatas from this master composer, go to Gunar Letzbor (Pan Classics); and he also has even more Biber elsewhere (Challenge).

More Violinists
Great fiddlers are in abundant supply these days. Forget about “big” names! Beethoven While Bulgarian Liya Petrova is fabulous in Walton VC (Mirare), her Beethoven VC is even finer; this is coupled with the controversial Mozart 271a, here given a very very convincing reading (Mirare). Russian Alena Baeva, whom I have followed ever since I heard her ages ago in HK give an equally fresh reading of the Beethoven VC with the unheard of Auvergne National Orchestra (orchestra’s own label). I also highly recommend her in one of my favorites, Wieniawski’s VC2 (Chopin Institute) and the recital album Fantasy with husband Kholodenko, another pianist that I like (Alpha). Debussy The elusive Violin Sonata features in several excellent releases by non-French violinists. In Flame (Orchid), Irish Gwendolyn Masin shows real flair in a quasi-French program (equally good Ravel; she has many other interesting recordings, like Bernstein with Saxophone Quartet), while Russian Anna Ovsyanikova also excels in Les Saisons Francaises (Stone Records), which has less familiar couplings (like Poulenc). Meanwhile, English-Dutch Michael Foyle is more restrained but suitably refined in The Great War Centenary (Challenge). All these excellent violinists play chamber music better than many a bigger name.

Cellist Anastasia Kobekina’s Venice (Sony) is choice, by turns electrifying and dark in mood, but all just lovely. The best Cello album since Raphaela Gromes’ Offenbach on the same label.

Rachmaninov Lukas Geniusas has an uncommonly lucid Rachmaninov program (Alpha) that makes a convert even of me, who somehow usually has trouble with Rach’s solo piano works (as I do with Schumann). Prokofiev Nikita Midoyants is refreshingly not bombastic but just fluid in Sonatas 4 and 8 (Aparte). But the real gem is The Young Malcolm Frager (Parnassus). This performance of Prokofiev 2, partnered by Paris Conservatory Orchestra under the great Rene Leibowitz, was once issued on a Living Stereo RCA LP (also old Classic Sound re-issue; the pic shows the RCA cover; this is on HP’s list). Both performance and sonics of the Prokofiev have never been surpassed (while the Haydn is dispensible). While we’re on French Orchestra of this period, their ways with Prokofiev is inimitable: witness Jascha Horenstein’s performances (especially Symphony 5) with the Concerts Colonne (Vox). Mozart Frager can also be heard in early but wonderful performances on the fortepiano in Concertos 13, 17 and 23 with Bulgarian forces (Balkanton). Forward to now, it seems this is the great age of Mozart Piano concertos. Aside from Jean-Efflam Bavouzet’s wonderful cycle (Chandos), we have Robert Levin’s excellent HIP cycle (AAM own label). Delectable too are Charles Richard Hamelin in 20 and 23 (Analekta) and Dejan Lazic in 23 and 14 (Challenge; on Tidal you won’t find it under his name, but try conductor Willem de Vriend). Lazic and friends’ Piano Quartets are also refined (Onyx).

I much enjoyed the recital by Elizabeth Joye, modestly titled Miscellanes (L’Encellade) as well as the Byrd program by Stephen Barr (Resonus). Those more adventurous should sample Geottlieb Muffat's magnum opus Componimenti musicali per il cembalo, as played by Alexandra Nepomnyashchaya (Linn; yes, this is the first time I recommend an issue by this label, whose offerings overall do not impress me performance- or sonic-wise.).

Organ Messiaen For some contemplative repose, try La Nativite du Seigneur performed by Mark Steinbach (Aeolus).

Guitar I was turned off by the ridiculous cover “art” and didn’t listen to this album for a long time, even if I’ve followed and previously recommended once Sean Shibe, but Lost and Found proves to be an excellent program (Pentatone).

Accordion Janne Valkeajoki’s Rameau (Orchid) is quite refreshing change from the usual up-tempo tango or gypsy stuff. You would never guess how well it works in French baroque.

Harmonica Gianluca Littera's Solo (Dynamic) is potentially interesting (all transcriptions, including quite a few jazz items), but needs a good system get through, otherwise it would sound towards the bland side (the harmonica has only such a limited harmonic spectrum). Not one to upend Toots Thielemans but then this fellow is only on his own! I'd like to hear him accompanied by others instead of himself.

String Quartet
Dvorak I’ve been a fan of the old Talich Quartet, but the latest formation is even better in the famous American Quartet (Dolce Vita), helped by superior sonics. When the playing and recording is this good, I actually enjoy even more the smaller pieces or fillers, in this case Waltzes. But the greatest surprise is that some the the best Dvorak playing ever comes from the veteran American Fine Arts Quartet, who are already 2 albums in their cycle. The first, Spirit of Bohemia, is excellent but the second, Quartet 2, is even finer (Naxos). As with the Talich, the fillers, in this case the Bagatelles, prove to be gems. This quartet is unbelievably good (better than the old iterations), and I’ve previously recommended their Mozart Piano Concerto transcriptions with wonderful pianist Alon Goldstein (Naxos), several albums’ worth of delights. The Parker Quartet I've always admired. With violist Kim Kashkashian they deliver a good Dvorak quintet but it's the flanking Kurtag pieces that take the crown. This is as good a place to start with this composer if you don't know him.

Piano Trios The Trio Con Brio Copenhagen is more refined and well honed than most. The Passenger (Orchid Classics) combines the rarely played Weinberg Trio with Schubert's 2, and both are very well done. I had to read the notes on NML (Tidal has none of course) to find out the Weinberg piece has a waltz theme linked to his score for the film named The Passenger. Their many other issues (like Tchaikovsky, Shosty) on the same label are worthwhile too. Vadim Gluzman is a violinist I've long followed (on BIS). His recent Trio recording Live from the Concertgebouw with regular partner cellist Johannes Moser and pianist Korobeinikov delivers valedictory Shostakovich Trios, which this time around sandwiched the delectable performances of Silvestrov's Fugitive Visions of Mozart. More offbeat is the Turina Piano Trios by sensitively performed by Mata, Mata and Arauzo (IBS).

Modern Music Aside from the wondrous Kurtag and Silvestrov noted above, two excellent Ligeti releases are of note. Ensemble Intercontemporain under Pierre Bleuse  (Alpha) deliver three concerti and a host of chamber works, while Les Siecles under Roth (Harmonia Mundi) serve the composer equally well. There is only an overlap of one piece, the wonderful Chamber Concerto for 13 instruments. Audiophiles should really listen to this music as the sonorities are so fresh.

Tchaikovsky Two albums of tone poems and less known pieces are well performed by Alpesh Chauhan (Chandos) and well recorded. Klaus Makela, so refreshing in Sibelius, does not disappoint in his second Stravinsky album (the Debussy Jeux is arguably even finer) (Decca). Great sound of course. Rouvali’s Sibelius cycle continues with an excellent 4 (Alpha). Although not the weightiest and darkest, he makes it work very well indeed.

Live Historical Recordings Shostakovich These performances lose nothing to any modern accounts. Even the sound, though not hifi, is so real. You must try New Philharmonia Kurt Sanderling in 10 (ICA) and Rozhdestvensky BBC SO and BBC Phil in 4 and 11 (ICA). Shattering impact! Marvelous!

03 March, 2024

Reisong UMI 2 Signal Transformer 1:1

1:1 Signal Transformer Galore, Part I
Reisong 1:1 Signal Transformer, Part I

Updated 4/1/24: Links repaired, UMI versions clarified.

First: A Re-Cap and Summary of Our Ongoing Tests of 1:1 Signal Transformers


Reisong 1:1 Transformer It's about time for a formal write up! This thing (in fact, 2 of them) had been in my Shenzhen system for the longest time. One between the DAC and Preamp; the second between the Preamp and Amp.

Regular readers would have read bits and pieces of the Reisong in my various articles. Basically, this blog is kind of a journeyman's diary, where gear are in flux and subject to further evaluations, opinions not set in stone as in trade mags. For those less avid readers, or those new to the topic, here is the Timeline in this Blog for the Reisong (almost 2 years, LOL!), and you need to read very carefully to pick up all the salient points:
  • 1) A long time ago my know-all friend, taskmaster and torturer icefox informed me of the UMI 1:1 Transformer (then between 1st and 2nd gen). I had always been around transformers, including Input and Interstage Transformers (which can be 1:1) and was interested. Note that icefox and his 富贵 WE friends all use the rare and formidable vintage 天花板 WE91A.
  • 2) I first tested the waters with this Reisong Transformer, which is significantly cheaper than the UMI. My impressions were favorable (as quoted below).
  • 3) I bought one of the 1st gen (UMI 1 or v1) UMI for our writer ELO, and tested it myself. It was hard for me to choose between the UMI 1 and Reisong (as quoted below).
  • 4) In my 2022 Year in Review I expounded on this topic and the gear. Remember China was still in lockdown and Border Control was not what it's now. I wrote: "...yet to be written up, kudos to icefox (his crowd use the rare and expensive WE91A), I started playing with 1:1 transformers (the 1:2 and even 1:3 versions are for cellphone and BT users who need the extra gain, beware). Used between source and preamp, the difference is so sharply etched it’s mind boggling; used between preamp and amp, the improvement is a little less but still obvious. I’m using 2, in both positions now. I have the fortune of experiencing a new kid on the block, UMI (bought it for ELO), which has truly superior bandwidth but, at least between the DAC and preamp, my heart tilts just a little towards the older and more old-world sound of Reisong (available on Aliexpress). This is not at all the first time I have transformer coupling between stages. The excellent EAR 912 that I had has transformer coupling at every stage (input, output and interstage)..."
  • 5) ELO finally got to write about it (LOL near the end of 2023! here). I was very happy that it basically transformed his journey! I editorialized a bit: "...Where should this thing be used? Well, basically it's an impedance matching device and those who use long interconnects (like I) shall reap bigger benefits. I think the greatest effect shall be between source and preamp. But, effect can also be heard between preamp and amplifier. Think about this, many HIGH-end products employ Input and/or Output Transformers (a great example would be the EAR 912)...Well, for sonic findings I must say I completely concur with ELO. I also found it astonishingly detailed and the stabilizing effect highly beneficial to the system. I also found it was a tad cool in my system. Mind you, I also had the much cheaper Reisong 1:1 counterpart, which I have mentioned now and then but never really formally reviewed. That's for a reason. In my system, I ended up using TWO, one between DAC and Preamp and another between Preamp and Amp. The Reisong saved me a lot of money and has a much smaller footprint. BUT, it's a fact that the UMI has superior bandwidth. Whereas, the Reisong is a little warmer and more musical, though some will find it a bit rolled off at both ends. I had only heard the UMI brand new (and not run in) and I still pine for it after its departure. I suspect I shall get a unit at some point (especially after ELO's opinion). It's not often that one hears a transformer that is so transparent - consider it a job very well accomplished. Would be curious to hear the Mk II also..."
  • 6) I finally got an UMI 2 myself (2nd gen or v2) for testing. It went between my DAC and Preamp for the longest time. Some of my friends in NYC also got theirs. Their opinions are fascinating too (yet to be published)! 
  • 7) I wrote the formal first of my UMI 2 article in Chinese (here). Basically it's a review of the function of a 1:1 Signal Transformer.
  • 8) Further Testing of my UMI 2 in my HK home (here)! With hyper-critical icefox and Taimonsing! Great stuff! I left the UMI in the hands of Taimonsing to circulate among his friends.
Have I lost you? This is a strange way to start a formal Reisong Review. There's reason behind the madness.

Reisong redux in Shenzhen I After I left my UMI 2 to my HK friends I hooked back in SZ my Reisong between the DAC and Preamp. What did I perceive? Perhaps, compared to UMI, the sound field has shrunken just a little or perhaps the dynamics appeared slightly more restrained, but things were still in good order. Smaller formations, solo instruments and quartets etc sounded luxuriant, likely even more so? This is a small setup in SZ and I was OK with the music, not being in the critical mode most of the time.

Reisong in HK I (chez moi) Lest you think I'm hopelessly laissez-faire, after I tested the UMI 2 with my ultra demanding friends (but 同气as above, here), I took the Reisong to HK and tested it at my old house, all alone. Like the UMI, the effect was there and the same in quality, but smaller in magnitude. In Station A, between the Revox C221 CDP and MFA Magus Preamp, there was a stabilizing effect but not the expansion felt with the UMI.

Then came a pivotal event. In Station B, inserted between the Micromega Solo and the Melos 222 Preamp, the vast, airy and layered soundstage (here) disappeared and was replaced with something re-constructed, which was something more upfront and less dimensional, but more horn-like if you will (let me emphasize that I did not notice this at all in my SZ setup, which has a good soundstage even if it's smaller than the one in HK by nature of the smaller space). I was literally floored! Although supposedly a negative experience by audiophile parameters (particularly since I'm primarily a classical music person), I was still intellectually stimulated by the transformation. It was late at night and I didn't spend that much time on it (should have played some classic jazz, which is not so soundstage dependent). But, it left me with no doubt that it's an affirmation of the potent effect of the Signal Transformer. It all depends on how you use it! I'm sure, when I get the chance, I shall repeat the experiment with the Micromega connected to the UMI! I suspect the result would be similar, but I'd be glad to be proven wrong.

Lest you think I got deflated by the experience above, that was not so. The next day I took it to  Taimonsing's place (the RCA vintage guru;).

Reisong in HK II (chez Taimonsing) I specifically took the Reisong to Taimonsing. We first listened to his fabulous amps, used as integrated's (here). Then, one by one amp, we tried the Reisong between the source and the amp. The effect was all positive! A firming up of tone here, a little expansion of the stage there, all without taking anything away from the inherent qualities of the amps on offer (and what qualities!) Taimonsing expressed his opinion that the Reisong is basically neutral to him and hardly alters the signal (less than the UMI he thinks; and he thinks the UMI has a slight silvery edge). My view? In his place the Reisong certainly did no harm, only good. In particular, Taimonsing was very gratified that with the LP playbacks the Reisong provided a firming up that he was looking for. As it seemed he preferred the Reisong to UMI I left it to him for further evaluation.

Reisong redux in SZ II As I left both my UMI 2 and Reisong in HK, I am only left with one Reisong in SZ, which I use between the DAC and Preamp; which is to say, there is no Reisong between Preamp and Amp, so the cabling is different too (when I had two, I used an extra Sommer SC Club II). I had been using two for the longest time! I didn't A/B but I'm pretty sure it had a small but noticeable detrimental quality to the sound (so a 1:1 between Preamp and Amp still matters!).

  • The Benefits of Transformer I think it's very useful (my article in Chinese on general principals here; ther are more to come). Think about this, after my initial good impression I ended up with two Reisong's (after I heard the first one I bought the second), between the DAC and Preamp and between the Preamp and Amp. When I got the UMI 2 I tested it between the DAC and Preamp, but I still had the Reisong between the Preamp and Amp. In the last paragraph above, you can infer that I am a confirmed user of two (even if I'm temporarily without), even if the one between the preamp and amp has less effect than after the front end (but less does not equate none). If one's amp is a true integrated, with an active gain line stage (much rarer than amps with a passive volume knob masquerading as integrated; Taimonsing's amps featured in the last article all have an active preamp gain stage), one uses only one. But, keep in mind, many cost-no-object designers use interstage transformers within the amp, which is like inserting a transformer between preamp and amp. Wherever it's in the signal path, the trannie of course has to be of good quality; otherwise, negatives from bandwidth limitation to other anomalies will rear their heads!
  • The Character of Reisong To me, the Reisong is temperate and subtle. Compared to the UMI 2, it is a less upfront in its personality, meaning it's not prone to show off. In this respect, Taimonsing's view that it's more neutral is tenable. What is fascinating is that I view the Reisong as a little more luxuriant sounding (and hence one can interpret this to mean it's less neutral). This may boil down to the difference between systems. Here, I'd like to point out that, initially, even if I possibly preferred the Reisong to the UMI Mk I, I thought the Reisong might be a little rolled off at the top. Here's a little input from my NYC friend Andy. He thought that, compared to the WE 111C, the Reisong is rolled off too (but his downstairs horn systems are rolled off to begin with). However, let it be known that in my systems (both SZ and HK) now, with the Reisong's having had hundreds of hours of play, I don't feel at all there's any significant high frequency roll-off! I suspect that the Reisong needs more run-in to sound its best. I'm still perplexed by the Micromega Solo experience mentioned above, and wonder if the loss of spatial clues is tied to some kind of frequency anomaly, even if I don't feel there's any indication of that when listening (certainly not Taimonsing either). 
  • The Character of UMI 2 To me, the UMI is more dramatic. It seems more extended at the frequency extremes, and the way it expands the sound field and ups the flow and excitement factor is like grabbing one by the balls. Compared with the Reisong it almost certainly has a little less midrange richness (that is not a trade everyone is willing to make). Taimonsing said he has reservation about the smidgen of silver touch (the UMI supposedly has a little silver wiring inside). BUT, to me, and our writer ELO (who has the very similar Mk I; his views here) we love the drama it provides. Here's another interesting feedback: my NYC friend Andy thinks of the UMI as somewhat beautifying, even in his upstairs full frequency system; whereas I don't feel so (likely ELO and Taimonsing too). This leads me to ponder what exactly is beautifying. I think, perhaps expanding the sound envelope itself, which the UMI certainly does (more than the Reisong) is an act of beautifying...Fascinating! Also, the UMI didn't seem to need more run-in.
  • UMI 2 vs Reisong The reason why I have left these in HK for friends to test is because personal responses are inconsistent (as in audio in general). Taimonsing was initially quite impressed by the UMI 2 but later preferred the Reisong. Andy in NYC (and freiends) seem to be impressed more by the UMI 2. And I? Well, I like both! I think the result one gets is system and gear dependent. That said, I think both will bring improvement to most systems. Keep in mind that the Reisong costs just a fraction of the UMI 2 (not that the latter is unaffordable). I also heard through the grapevine that they also compare favorably with the much more expensive local 潘氏.
Both highly recommended. However, I don't think we have gotten to the proverbial bottom of either, which is why this article is designated "Part I".