04 December, 2019

DIY Plumber 9" Tonearm VAS Ortofon 2M Red Decca Tonearm VdH Gold

Click pics to enlarge. The Lenco L-78 turntable. The Plumber 9" arm very similar to its 12" brother in construction. Note the same cannibalized Lenco bearing housing and rider weight. The cartridge is VAS Ortofon 2M Red. The other arm is Rabco.

NY Diary (19-20): DIY Plumber 9" Arm

With a little stolen time, yesterday I paid Kevin a brief visit, to listen to his newest effort, a DIY 9" arm, the 12" predecessor of which we had nicknamed "Plumber" (see here; or 3 posts down).

We played several records, and they were all very well rendered. As mentioned before, the VAS Ortofon 2M is prodigious in bass, add to that the urgency of the DIY arm, and that makes for very memorable playback. Jazz of course, but next time I have to bring some heavy metal, not exactly his type of stuff.

We also spent considerable time listening to the Thorens TD-124, now fitted with the Decca Arm. Amazing! The VdH re-tipped Decca Gold sounded so much better than all previous efforts (on Lenco L-78 and on Thorens TD-125/ET arm). I think it is going to stay there.

On this occasion, we listened to the CJ PV-5, which I like more than the more sedate Premier 2/3.

No food! :-(

02 December, 2019

Vintage Equipment Magnavox FD 3000 2041 CDB 492 Non-Oversampling

NY Diary (19-19) Reasons to Buy Vintage
Talk Digital: Non-Oversampling, TDA 1540 1543 and Old CD Players

I am not the only one; there are many like me. We always feel we belong to a bygone era. For me, due to my ethnicity, no, not so far back (not in America anyway), but I would not mind to have stayed in the 70's forever. Then was when I, as a teenager new in the country, absorbed everything voraciously. Yes, there will always be the good, the bad and the ugly, but I remember the people as more generous than now via the help I have received.

I have always liked vintage things. I still remember with fondness the beautiful cigarette box cum lighter of my father, and I still hold on to the cashmere cardigan of my father, even if I have outgrown it. Somehow the old black and white photos don't look any less sophisticated than the exuberantly colored ones we take with our cell phones now. Vegetables and meat have lost their taste. Is that progress?

A-323B ; Altec Lansing Corp.; (ID = 1328321) Ampl/MixerBut this is an audio blog, so here are the reasons why you should get into vintage audio:
  • Things always come back Just as vinyl has come back and is staying forever, and soon to outlive CD (physically, not as format, due to CD deterioration), just as books have made an "improbable" comeback, vintage audio is thriving and is here to stay. Not to mention reel-to-reel; even cassettes are showing sign of rejuvenation. And how many of you have discarded your LPs, fully embraced the digital "revolution" and then come back to vinyl? Quite a few, I tell you! It is like the people who follow "prophets" who promise a better life and fulfillment but then become disillusioned that their guide is even more misguided than they are. And then, you find out that that "totally outdated" gear that no one would buy, that you begged someone to buy, now sells on ebay for 10 times the price you sold it for! Sounds familiar? 
  • There is nothing new under the sun Fashion is a finicky thing, even more so now that there are so many "influencers". But "classics" shall always remain so, and above fashion. Things just come and go, but then they "come full circle" with a vengeance. Vacuum tubes were out and then came back fully. The newest circuit turns out to be an updated version of an old idea. Part of the problem are the reviewers, who are either too forgetful or too inexperienced. Which brings us to the next one...
  • New is usually not better Yes, there are new developments, but while they can be exciting, are they better? Usually not. T-amps, Class-D (not new really) etc can be quite good, and I appreciate their green credentials, but they are not better. Only those silly head-fi and forum people believe that every new can, or DAC, is better than the last, and the manufacturers play to that. As I write, I am listening to a vintage Thorens TD-124 and a 14-bit Magnavox CDP and I don't feel much lacking. In fact, they engage me like few new gears!
  • Non-Ownership in Digital and Physical Media "Perfect Sound Forever"? Digital files was the audio mainstream for a while, but it has completely lost ground to streaming, and for good reason. Many digital files are expensive, often corrupted, even of doubtful origin, and often not very good sounding in my experience, whereas streaming has gotten steadily better, and cheaper (witness the recent price drop offering of Qobuz), and is becoming quite irresistible (even for an old fart like me, I think about it). If you can easily have access to a huge library that you do not own, that paradoxically makes Physical Media more attractive than ever. You buy something you can look at, and feel, not to mention with liner notes that make you learn about the music and the performers!
  • Vintage holds value Over time, vintage equipment (by which I mean mostly tube gear) hold their value. Can you say the same about any digital equipment? Today, the day after thanksgiving, I spent half a day perusing eBay, an addiction I have long given up. There are so many beautiful vintage things I'd like to own, but I no longer have room, so I passed. But if I were starting on my audio journey, I'd find the world of vintage bewitchingly beautiful and enticing. The current hi-end offerings pale in comparison (with few exceptions). Salut!
  • Vintage is green OK, not entirely. Tube equipment usually waste quite a bit of electricity, if compared to some of the modern energy-efficient products (like T-amp or Class-D). But, the last decades have seen a despicable trend in hifi hi-end - for no good reason, carving a chassis out of a large block of aluminum (usually expensive solid state gear of low merit) is a sin against the world. Restoring any number of vintage gear is more environmentally sound.
  • Vintage sounds better You may not believe me, but in terms of absolute sound, audio has not progressed. In fact, one can make a case that the best has already happened. Nothing is going to be better than Western Electric, and horns. Why else should vintage gears hold their value?
  • Vintage is Sexy Indeed. Modern equipment mostly look alike, plain Jane. When they do try for a different look, most efforts are failures (there are some exceptions). But vintage stuff differ - it is a huge universe, and there are so many beautiful designs (like the pic above, the Art-Deco Western Electric-era Altec 323, now highly valued). Even the very common Quad 2 is beautiful looking to my eyes. Compare the turntables now, mostly chunky metal and square corners, without the grace of yesterday's Thorens TD-124, Garrard 301. Tonearms too. Even my LS3/5A, it just looks right, as few modern bookshelves do.
Listening to Old CD Players
Suddenly in the mood, I pulled out three old CDP with classic Philips swing arm laser pickup to listen to. The audition was surely affirming of what I wrote above. Read on...

They are all Magnavox, basically Philips at a cheaper price. Two of them were given to me and the third I bought off Ebay. They were all run directly into the LTA MicroZOTL amp that I recently got (2 articles below, or here). These are by no means among the most desirable vintage players, but they performed admirably, and I know the sound of most vintage models quite well, though here, like with vintage amplification, one cannot be entirely sure of one's experience. While the ones that sound good undoubtedly are great, the ones that don't could sometimes be only out of spec, so YMMV.

The Magnavox FD 3000 is the equivalence of Philips CD-300, a 14 bit machine utilizing the TDA 1540 chip. It was built in Belgium, like a tank, with the short-lived CDM-0 (precursor to the legendary CDM-1, also with Rodenstock lens). These early machines have really serious discrete output sections that run hot (likely Class A), necessitating the use of heatsinks in the back. The most undesirable thing about them is the captured analog output. Despite this, the sound was really really good. I was sinking into it when I started to hear popping noise. From my experience, the output sections of these frequently need work. It will take me a while to get it repaired, but I'd sure like to listen again in the near future - it was just so beautiful.

Onto the Magnavox FD-2041, which is the equivalence of the Philips CD-350. Like the FD 3000, this is also a 14-bit machine utilizing the TDA-1540, with discrete output (and heatsink, but not so hot to the touch), also built in Belgium, but with the less desirable and also short-lived CDM-2 laser (much inferior to its immediate predecessor, the FD-2040, which used the CDM-1), and generally to a much lesser and plasticky standard. Despite this, the sound was mellifluous, as good in its own way as my Sparkler S-303 CDP. Not as incisive or rhythmically charged, but warmer and inviting, a sound that bore more than a trace of similarity to its much more expensive cousin above. I really enjoyed it.

Then I swapped in the Magnavox CDB-492, the equivalence of Philips CD-492. Unlike the last two CDPs, this one uses the cheap 16-bit TDA 1543, although by this time the better CDM 4/19 was used ubiquitously. And the analog output now is less complicated (no more heatsink, cool). Although similar in look to the above, (at least lower end) Magnavox by now was manufactured in Mexico. The sound was excellent, but significantly different from the two 14-bit players above, being faster, more open and airier in the treble; in fact it was very close to my Sparkler S-303 (see below). But my machine now does have some trouble. It sputters a little on certain discs, usually initially. Mid-way through till the end is always OK. A couple of hours in, there was hardly any hiccup. If you ask me, the problem is not due to the laser, but rather some servo problem, or simply because I haven't used it in a long time. Right now, it doesn't bother me enough, and I enjoy it very much.

The Issue of Oversampling One common thing about all these early players is that they are all low in Oversampling, or even Non-Oversampling (NOS). The FD 3000 and FD 2041 are 4 x Oversampling, found in all of Philips' early 14-bit machines. By the time of the 16-bit era, almost all of the machines using the TDA-1541 employ 4x (soon later, much higher) oversampling, except for some low-end models that use TDA-1543, like the Magnavox CDB-492 that I have. Here are some comments from the internet:

"...Frank Van Alstine wrote in his Audio Basics newsletter that the CDB 260, 262 and 470 were built without the Philips 4x oversampling digital filter chip (SAA7220) to save a few bucks. They run the DAC at 1x and follow it with a brickwall analog filter. I owned a 470 some years back, and while it wasn't a bad-sounding player, it was definitely not as good as my 460 or 650, both of which combine the TDA1541 DAC with the oversampling filter chip. I gave my 470 to a friend whose CD changer died; he was grateful to get it and is still enjoying it..."

Magnavox CD 2000: a Philips NOS CDP from 1989

Recently purchased this unit (from a fellow DIYer) which seems to be quite an obscure model. Weirdly, the decoder (SAA7210) feeds a TDA1543 w/o DF (ed: digital filter); this is strange as most late-1980's Philips (and other manufs') CDPs were at least 4x OS. This is a bare-bones CDP, but is well-constructed otherwise: CDM4/19, decent PCB layout, OK cap quality. BUT ... output (I/V) section is cheap, and the chassis is partly plastic, like CD650 and others. Some even-cheaper Philips units from the same period, like the AK6xx, series were 2X OS (avoid the AK6xx in the used mktplace) .
The CD 2000 is supposed to be identical to the CDB49x.

NOS and TDA 1543 The innards of the Magnavox CD 2000 cited above look exactly like my CDB 492. Basically, many of these cheap units are Non-Oversampling, followed by a brickwall analog filter, which most theorists (particularly digital ones) would insist are not good. Nonetheless, this brings my Magnavox CDP very much closer to my Sparkler S-303, which employs NOS and TDA 1543 (but I don't know what filter the Sparkler uses). Comparison of Sparkler S-303 and Magnavox CDB 492 is instructive. The two sounded remarkably alike. Take Van Morrison's Moondance, I heard everything the way I heard it on the Sparkler (as written up in my LTA MicroZOTL review, link above)! The spatial clues, the attack, the rhythm, all instantly recognizable. In my opinion, the resemblance is as much due to the use of the same chip as NOS. The ironic thing is, NOS traditionally only existed in the lowest end!

NOS Today After all these years of digital evolution, it is in fact quite startling that many, like me, still prefer NOS. That NOS is used in some of the high end (Audio Note, 47 Labs, Sparkler, Totaldac, etc) is quite amazing, a testament in sort to our age that, despite overwhelming popular perception and professional opinion to the contrary, dissent is heard and thrives. Take a more recent contestant, the Border Patrol NOS 1543 DAC, which I'd love to hear, the good review it got from Herb Reichert in Stereophile and the bad measurements of John Atkinson sparked a controversy (see here, very funny). I do know, NOS is not for everyone.

TDA 1540 and 4x Oversampling All of the (many) 14-bit TDA-1540 CDPs that I have experienced all employ 4x Oversampling, but they almost down to the last one sound excellent. This is for sure due to the excellence of the TDA 1540 (which I love), but perhaps also in part due to the 4x Oversampling, which we see from one of the quotes above some prefer. My feeling is that, 4x is still closer to NOS than later and ubiquitous 256x, not to mention even higher rates and more modern Upsampling, which mostly do nothing for me.

Less is More The beauty of it is, whether the earliest (expensive or cheap) TDA-1540 with 4x Oversampling machines or the later cut-cost budget-sector NOS TDA-1543 machines, they all sound very musical. Amazing!

Hiccups As you can see, two of my three machines have some hiccups. So, beware, if you are a newbie, you'd want to be extra careful in acquiring one. Even good sellers don't test their machines thoroughly enough (no one can), so human judgement errors can and do creep in.

A Recent Shanghai Style Dinner, from bottom: Braised Spare Ribs, Sweet and Sour;
 Braised fish with Brown Sauce; Poached Okra with Garlic dressing;
 Chicken Feet with mild hot sauce. Wine was a Pinot Grigio.

Lobster, Cantonese Style with Ginger and Scallions

27 November, 2019


NY Diary (19-18): Thanksgiving

The more bad news there are, the more important to give thanks. I wonder, today, whether thanksgiving is more about turkeys than giving thanks, more about going through the motions than renewal. As time progresses, we curse more than we thank. And I wonder whether people look more at their phones than at each other during the festivities.

For sure, the news, real or fake, are increasingly hard to take. First, my laments, based on my own experience, and not political at all.

Inequity is growing, in every part of the world. Take my own life as an example. Being in NYC, for the first 2 years of my college I went to Brooklyn College, basically for free. When I went to medical school, the tuition for the first year was $3,500 and for my last year, four years later, it was around $5,500, and we thought that was expensive. I put myself through school by working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. At the time, say, a Moo Shu Pork was a few dollars, say $5. Fast forward to now, my medical school would be around $80,000 in tuition, whereas said dish is perhaps $10-15. So, income earned as tip has doubled or tripled, but tuition increased over 15 times. There is NO way I could have put myself through school now. I don't envy wealth, but things have gone terribly wrong in the last decades. In HK, it is the same, perhaps even worse. Rent is so high many families of several can only afford to squeeze into a 100 ft room, bunk beds for all. Right now, like in the 80's, I see more and more homeless people in the subway and on the streets in NYC. Sigh.

The world is ignoring the very obvious climate change. When I was small, few in HK had air conditioners. Summer was hot, and we all hovered in front of the fan, but it was tolerated (granted, people of yore were more patient too), and relatively short. Now, HK is like summer for 9-10 months of the year, and no one would think of living without air conditioners. Similarly, in NYC, fewer and fewer snow storms and severe weather. And of course, shorter falls and spring everywhere. But we are still blessed. The worst thing is that the weather has gone crazy: warm places can get a snow storm; cold places can get a 100 degree temperature; and everywhere there is flooding.

Meat is now a culprit in the climate change debate. While I'd certainly enjoy good meat, I don't eat that much of it, and probably can go vegetarian if need be. My late mother was a devout buddhist, and a vegetarian for sure. She recited the scriptures everyday, and during thanksgiving would do special sessions for the turkeys that are doomed. Empathy for all beings.

Technology has brought wonderful things, but awful things too. I happen to think the digital age spreads hatred more than love. Hatred goes viral much more quickly than love. The superintendent in my building is Albanian, and I talked to him about this issue. He said, absolutely, in the past, everybody was OK in his country, Christians next to Muslims; but now the religious divide is greater than ever, and people don't talk across the divide.

The average audiophile has much to thank for. Whether we just have some spare change or are more endowed, we at least think of something other than the humdrums of life. We are lucky, to be able to indulge in a hobby, to be able to escape into a corner of our own, have an asylum, to have another sort of community and Peace!

26 November, 2019

DIY 12" Tonearm VAS Ortofon 2M Red

Click pics to enlarge. Note the Rider Weights. Bearing Housing cannibalized from Lenco L-78, but with new bearings installed. If you need any of the other parts, perhaps visit Home Depot, or ask your local plumber for help. :-)

NY Diary (19-17): The Incredible DIY Plumber 12" Tonearm
VAS modified Ortofon 2M Red

Modified 11/27: Youtube Link added (see bottom of article)

After Kevin cut an armboard for my Thorens 124 for my Thomas Schick 12" arm (here), he set to work on his own turntable. We all knew he was going to DIY a tonearm, but we were shocked how soon he got it done, and so yesterday we gathered at his place.

I got there in late afternoon. As soon as I walked in, I heard a BIG sound. Yes, it was his DIY tonearm working his Thorens TD-124. Instantly, I knew it sounded better than any of his other rigs (Lenco L-78, Thorens TD-125, VPI, see link above). Kevin's Infinity RS-1B had tended to sound somewhat lean, but this analog setup had killer bass, and fills out the soundscape. Andy and James had been there before me, and from their beatific smiles I knew they think so too.

Not unexpected, of course, the Thorens TD-124 is a superior turntable! I have always maintained that. My favorite.

I brought several of the records featured in my recent posts, and they all passed with flying colors.

Kevin cockily asked me if I'd like to exchange my Thomas Schick for his "shxx" arm. Ha, I certainly would like to commission him for another one! But given the source of his parts, no two arms are going to be alike!

The tonearm is modeled a little after the Thomas Schick, and a little from SME (I had lent him my 3009 original and 3009R recently; witness the rider weight). Kevin comes across a lot of discarded building material in his job, which is where a lot of the parts came from. He jokingly referred his arm as a plumber's arm.

I asked him what tonearm wiring he used. Cardas? Of course not, he said, it had to be much cheaper stuff befitting of the tonearm parts' humble origin. They are Chinese OFC tonearm wires bought from the internet. Very good, I say. When it comes to tonearm wires, I have to say the two most common ones, VdH and Cardas, come from companies whose products I usually frown upon. Perhaps I'll ask him to rewire some of my arms!

That is not the whole story. What cartridge was he using? My, a VAS re-tipped/modified Ortofon 2M Red, likely the most popular entry level cartridge that comes with many turntables. But this one is different. I know the sound of the stock 2M Red (my experience here), but was still surprised by the bigness of this VAS update. This was actually the second VAS/Ortofon 2M Red we have heard, and the two differ greatly in sound due to different cantilever lengths (and perhaps other parameters). This latest one is on steroids.

This brings back memories. In HK, I have heard at least two DIY tonearms, both excellent. The first was by Wesley, very simple yet ambitious, with air bearing! The second was Thomas in North Point (a visit 10 years ago, a much better time in HK, sigh). Ah, I do miss my friends!

Great Stuff! And why are tonearms and cartridges so expensive these days? Move over, Swedish Analog Technologies (and maybe Michael Fremer?)!

Cautionary Tale: If you read the comments below, you shall see that our Russian friend has submitted a youtube clip of how absolutely insane DIY efforts can get! Link here for your convenience.

Dinner was Seafood Pasta. Too bad, no white wine.

 I thought it was going to be a Chinese meal, so I brought in
 my over 25 year-old Chinese wine (said to have medicinal properties), 五加皮,
 left by my father. Though not compatible with the meal,
we tasted it anyway. It was very good! Vintage! Great!

18 November, 2019

Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL MZ 2.0

Click pics to enlarge. The small box in front of the Akitika amp is the basic Switch Mode PSU, connected to the MicroZOTL2 by an umbilical cord.

Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL MZ 2.0, Part I
Overview: OTL

My recent acquisition of the LTA MicroZOTL 2.0 is like a dream come true, in more ways than one. The Delayed Gratification is all the Sweeter. Part I reviews the MicroZOTL mainly as an amp (something not adequately treated in reviews on line). Then I shall test it out as preamp (this would take a while) as well as take the unit to my friends Andy and Kevin for evaluation on their Altec horns (3 of them!). Watch for future Installments.

Overview: OTL
My experience with OTL goes back a long time. It started in the early 90's, when a friend (unwisely) used big Atmasphere MA-1's that employ the classic OTL tube 6AS7. They drove his early MBL 111 (an expensive but imho overrated loudspeaker with a top shaped like Wotan's Spear, with lousy woofers that were total disconnects). Naturally, I didn't hear much that was special; the sound was clean but there was no magic, not to mention quality bass. Later on he switched to a pair of Marantz 9's which I lent him and we were all much happier.

Fast forward to Hong Kong, where I heard more of everything. I remember hearing a Croft OTL (uses 6AS7 also) that was pleasant with vintage JBL loudspeakers. It was surprisingly not at all a clear sound but I thought there was potential. I toyed with buying it but chickened out. Sometime later, I saw a pair of Atmasphere M-60's (I love the look) in a second-hand shop. I asked to hear it, but the owner just refused (defective?). For quite a while, I toyed with building a Transcendent Sound OTL (I kinda liked their grounded grid preamp but had heard nothing else), but desisted because of cost. For this article, I re-visited their website; is it my imagination, as the prices now seem more reasonable (and I have tons of EL-509)? I'd love to hear from someone who has one of these.

What I heard most often, at several places, was the Graaf 20 (here) and also the Modena, and it was usually quite nice. My friend Paul is still using the 20 with his B&W Nautilus 804 to good effect. Graaf uses the high-heat 6C33 tube (Atmasphere does too, like in their Novacron), which I personally like. It should be said that the Graaf OTL aficionados are a very loyal group, and it is not easy to spot one on the second-hand market. Even second-hand, it is on the expensive side, so I never got one. I do like and have 6C33 amps, but they are all transformer coupled (Almarro, Audio Professor), not OTL.

Now, back in the US, I also heard Andy's iconic Futterman OTL (also using the EL509) play very well with his Quad ESL-57 (here). I talked to Andy and he said he always felt OTL is "problematic", meaning too lean in the bass. Perhaps, but in my experience the Graaf is quite even and not overly lean in the bass. So I still would like to hear and experience more. I'd love to hear the legendary Counterpoint SA-4 (using 6LF6)!

Most OTL amps, like other tube amps, require some maintenance, a re-biasing once in a while for some. So you see, I have paid attention and heard a lot but never owned any, till now...

Linear Tube Audio MicroZOTL 2.0 MZ2
Under Mark Schneider, since 2015, Linear Tube Audio (LTA) basically uses and at most tweaks a little David Berning's ZOTL design (the technical aspects are beyond me but you can read about it at David Berning). The only David Berning product that I am familiar with is the TF-12 preamp (here), which I heard and saw many times in the 90's in HK's second-hand stores. It is a very liquid sounding preamp, the sound of which I still remember but I refrained from buying one because I did not find dynamics to be one of its strong suits. That is digressing, the MicroZOTL uses the 2 triode halves of the 6SN7 in a push-pull configuration, though the implementation is by no means the PP we understand for the usual tube amp with transformers. There is zero negative feedback.

Various Iterations MicroZOTL went through several. All use the same technology and tubes. The Original, in blue, was reviewed by Dick Olsher in enjoythemusic in 2000. In 2016, LTA issued the 2.0 version, which was again reviewed by Olsher, this time in TAS (though he did not test it as an amp). It was also reviewed by Herb Reichert in Stereophile (who did, good for him). There are many other reviews, which are focused on earphones and rather irrelevant to me. Current 2019 2.0 As you can tell from the pic, even within the designation 2.0 the current version is different in many small ways from the 2016 2.0 (see below). This one is reviewed on many internet sites, mostly with earphones, as on innerfidelity (which commendably included a comment on use as preamp). Second-hand buyers should be aware of the changes over time.

Spec's This is all laid out in the Official link. I shall comment only on a few aspects. Inputs The current 2019 version has, thank God, 3 inputs instead of 2 in the 2016 version, selected via a tiny toggle switch (which I am sure is sonically better than generic larger selectors). Power Output is 1 watt into 4 ohm, and 0.5 into 8 ohm. Output into my 15 ohm horns should be even lower. However, I noticed that in Olsher's 2000 review of the original cited above, the spec's says 0.5 ohms into 14 ohms. Numbers don't mean everything, as we shall see later. Output Impedance A very low 2 ohms, one reason for me buying one, as I run long interconnects from preamps, and I do intend to try it out as a preamp. Input Sensitivity Quite high at 0.6V, which imho is necessary for such a flea-powered amp. It proves friendly to sources as we shall see later.

Options My unit is the most basic one. Voltage I ordered the Switch Mode PSU (used in the original version), which comes at no extra charge and can naturally be used anywhere in the world (come to think of it, the amp is sort of "portable"). I of course am curious about the optional linear PSU, which is usually better. 6SN7 or 12SN7 This was misconstrued even by some reviewers. One can actually choose. I somehow did not read that there are internal dip switches to enable use of both; if I had known I'd have opted for the NOS 12SN7 (which I don't have) rather than the current production "Tung-Sol" 6SN7. Too bad, but I do have a lot of old 6SN7's. Remote No for me. Color The Black really looks great!

Built and Ergonomics Generally, the unit is very well built and component quality is high. Even the PSU feels sturdy. The umbilical cord that connects the PSU with the amp is well made and the locking collar is surely a good touch. But I do have Caveats: 1) this is a major one for me - if you look at the pic at the bottom, you will notice that the circuit board, which is not that thick, is completely unanchored around the SN7. This makes swapping tubes, particularly the SN7's, a worrisome and potentially perilous act, as the circuit board severely warps during the procedure. I was afraid that I'd break some of the tracings. I advise when pulling a tube to apply gentle pressure with a blunt probe to counter the pull; more difficult is when inserting the tube, where I'd advise rolling a paper tube the diameter of the clearance between the circuit board and chassis, bend it into L-shape, and stuff the short end under the circuit board to counter the pushing action. Or, if your fingers are very slender, you could provide some counter action down there. No matter, not optimal; 2) this one is minor, some of the screw holes for the acrylic top-plate are visibly rough around the perimeter, too bad for such an otherwise well-finished product, a beauty in my eyes (in black).


  • As Amp, with stock tubes and Preamp I used the LTA with my 104 db YL horns. For ease of connection, I actually first connected the fully loaded Shindo Monbrisson preamp from my System II (see sidebar) to one of LTA's Inputs. On-Off On my highly sensitive horns, there is a faint thump turning on and off. With less sensitive loudspeakers, one may not notice. Instant Musicality Muddy Waters' Folk Singer (MCA/Chess, CD) was what was on the Sparkler S306 CDP. I turned the LTA's volume knob half way. As soon as I pressed play, I was blown away by the big and expressive sound. I sat down thrilled, and listened to the entire album, allowing myself to be swallowed whole. Bass The most amazing thing was the bass (the bass-strong Shindo also contributed some, I am sure), full and ripe, in one fell scoop dismissing the notion that OTL has no bass. Presence Although there is good air, I'd not say it is the airiest thing, but the treble was clean and very accurate (see music examples below). and the midrange sparkling. The guitar playing and interaction of Muddy Waters and young Buddy Guy were just mesmerizing, the picked notes flying at you like darts - as good as I have heard, and then some. I then turned up the volume of the LTA, and down the Shindo, and it was good too. I did not hear overloading. Background Noise None that I could hear. This is the quietest amp that I have. In contrast to many efforts, the quiet fortitude does not come at the expense of liveliness ( a topic I treated here).
  • As Integrated Amp, with stock tubes Gratified that the amp is more powerful than I thought, unusual for me, I decided to forego the preamp. Now, the Sparkler CDP goes directly into the LTA. For vinyl, I employed my Thorens TD-124/Thomas Schick 12" Arm/"Midas" Denon-DL103 (see last article; just roll down) and my trusted Parasound JC3 as phonoamp. No problem whatsoever with gain. With CD, it is loud enough when the volume knob is at 1 o'clock or so; with vinyl and the very high-gain Parasound JC3, often just 11 o'clock would do. The sound has just about the same attributes as with a preamp, though the bass, still prodigious, was a little less without the Shindo.
    Virtuoso Overtures (Reel-To-Reel, 7 ½ ips, ¼", 4-Track Stereo, 7" Cine Reel, Album) album cover
  • As Integrated Amp, with Old Stock Tubes Impatient, I randomly rolled in what's on hand, well used old-stock Tung-Sol grey plate 12AT7's and Tung-Sol smoke-glass 6SN7's. The sonic attributes remain, but now the bass is a still little less full, more lithe and defined. While I'd prefer these tubes, I was actually surprised at how the current Russian "Tung-Sol" tubes have improved upon their predecessors. From this point on I listened to album after album, always with great pleasure and surprise, to the point that I expected some surprise in each! An example, in Everyone, on Van Morrison's Moondance, an album I am very familiar with, I was startled by how the flute punctuated past the confines of my loudspeakers and, no kidding, reached and dangled about 2 ft in front! In the great Into the Mystic, the undulating guitars lines also similarly advanced and retreated like waves. That is physicality, something rarely savored in hifi! It was so good that I pulled out Astral Weeks and gobbled that up whole too. In classical's, recordings are not that dramatic, but if you listen carefully, examples of superb articulation and expression in the reproduction can be found. I just played LAPO/Mehta's Virtuoso Overtures (London, LP); the sheer presence of the crisp double bass attacks in Die Fledermaus and Der Freischutz brought smiles to my face (and I was just in Carnegie Hall last night)! And Rienzi, that stirring potpourri (in the right hands), had tender strings, noble brass and big swells, the latter full and urgent where lesser gears would pinch up. What is really important is that, while details are abundant (but not artificially super-abundant, like in some so-called hi-ends), nothing is etched or at the expense of others. Strings are really impressive - whether solo, small group or tutti, they sound real. Sometimes, even with very good equipment, tutti strings sound either somewhat one-dimensional or homogenized; not here, it sounds like many violins playing, whether in VPO/Bernstein Sibelius Symphony No. 2 (DG, LP) or the thrice-familiar LSO/Kertesz Dvorak 9th (London, LP). In both of these, the brass chorales were absolutely lovely - one could separate every section and hear vertically with ease. In the latter, the filler, Othello Overture, was uncommonly gripping, thanks to the microdynamic details on offer.
  • Redux: As Amp, with old stock tubes and Preamp After all that, I reconnected the MZ2 with the Shindo Monbrisson Preamp and System II, like when I started. I again played with the volume knobs. It seemed to hardly matter the two knobs' positions. Even with the MZ2 volume maxed, there was no detriment. The first record I played was Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 24 (Anda, DG, LP), one that I had just played before the re-connection. The Thorens TD-309/Koetsu Black/Aurorasound Vida sounded quite a bit sweeter and more emotive than the Thorens/Schick/Parasound (which I am not about to move for A/B comparison), but I think that may well be due to superiority of the Koetsu Black over the more clinical "Midas" Denon DL-103 (property of the aluminum shell). Seeking a more valid comparison, I re-connected the Sparkler S306 CDP to the Shindo (but the cable is still different; both are still Gotham but the former setup used a very long GAC-2, whereas the setup now was a much shorter DGS-1 into preamp and then a long one into the MZ2). I then played Moondance again. Compared to before, there were subtle but audible differences: addition of the Shindo preamp shifts the tonality downwards. The flutes did not quite startle as much on Everyone, but there was more gravitas, more force, better bass profile, and more fulsome interaction between the very talented musicians. My Van Morrison CD's are rather late pressings, and compared to my older copies in HK they usually sound somewhat lean (believe me, CDs, like LPs, differ in sound quality from pressing to pressing). The combo eliminated that problem. Readers should interpret this properly, as the difference is more subtle than blatant, and in part due to the difference in interconnects (even if both are Gotham). While some would view this as a case against preamp, for others like me the greater control would sound better with most material. The latter was definitely the case in Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 (BSO/Nelsons, DG, CD). With the preamp, in the middle of the first movement, the passage leading to the depiction of massacre just had more menace, central to the meaning of the score. No, it did not sound as good as in the humongous WE system I heard just before I left HK (here), but adjusted for room size and power, perhaps it was close! One of my favorite movie soundtracks 桂花巷, (oop, now commanding a hefty second-hand price) which I have heard more than a hundred times (usually late night) since the mid eighties, sounded absolutely lovely, the oriental rhythms tensile, the reflections subtle, as well as I have heard it. I can go on and on, and I am going to go through a lot of music. Perhaps Part II would be just about music played! The important thing is, although the preamp does to a certain degree impose its own sonic signature, it does not detract from the formidable sonic merits of the MZ2, and in the best case, add solidity (just make sure your preamp is of similar merit, no easy task).
  • Extra: As Headphone Amp It was late and I didn't want to do it, but I couldn't help it. I got out my AKG K701 and Beyerdynamic DT880 600 ohm. I listened to the aforementioned movie soundtrack whole on both. Just on memory, I am confident the MZ2 significantly bettered my small headphone amps (Schiit Magni and Vali, Micromega MyZic), though without comparison I cannot be sure about the formidable outputs from my Nagra PL-P and Manley 300B Preamps. Of those 2 cans, the darker Beyerdynamic, although seemingly more distant, brings out more of the sinuous quality of the MZ2. The AKG seems immediately more attractive, more airy, but ultimately less subtle. Those 2 cans are probably not even run-in, but the performances are compelling. Based on my listening, unlike some other reviews, I'd not have any any issue with high-impedance cans; in fact, they bring out the best of the MZ2 (with the material I listen to). 
Conclusions The LTA amp could do no wrong, with any material. Even if I have only tested it in one of its three roles, it is already the best thing I have bought in quite a long time. It shall definitely feature prominently in the impending Year in Review.
  • Power This is the number one concern for folks with high efficiency loudspeakers who want to try it out (which Dick Olsher did not really do). LTA illustrates perfectly what I (and some others) have always said, that numbers don't mean everything. For my 15 ohm YL horns, it sounds much more powerful than expected. Before I bought it, via a friend I actually got to briefly speak to Mark Schneider on the phone (he was at the Capitol Audio Fest). I told him I wanted to use it as an amp and, unprompted, he immediately asked me the sensitivity of my loudspeakers. I said 104 db and without any hesitancy he said it would be fine. Now, even I had my doubts, as definitely not all 0.5 watt amp are equal, but now I know why he sounded so utterly confident! Being someone who enjoys flea-powered amps and regards low-powered tubes as better sounding, I could not be happier. I count myself, and likely my inner circle of high-efficiency horn users, lucky to be able to exploit a product like this. Detour, on this issue, I am highly skeptical of the current crop of "high-efficiency" loudspeakers, like Devore and Volti, which through my readings in many Stereophile articles in amp matching simply seem lower in actual efficiency, certainly much lower than those I have used (my current YL; and my Klipsch La Scala, Tannoy Canterbury and TAD 3401 of yore). That is a postulation, but I'd love to be proven wrong (I doubt it). Similarly, I'd think Olsher's loudspeakers are not nearly as efficient as their spec's, not to mention ours (hence his reluctance to use the LTA as an amp). With my loudspeakers, there was at most a little congestion at really loud peaks, no ugly distortion or clipping at all, which in a way surprises me. That said, I do think, unless you have proven high-efficiency loudspeakers (preferably vintage horns; like I said, I am not so sure about modern ones), I'd be cautious about getting the MZ2 to use as an amp. BUT, I am demanding, and I listen mostly to large orchestral works - if your music is smaller scaled, and you have a smaller room, by all means investigate.
  • Sonic Attributes If the OTL is supposedly more direct and gives you more of the music, the LTA most certainly is. It plays everything well, so much so that I have yet to find an album that I do not like. Usually, equipment that does this is on what we called the "forgiving side", something that can be faint praise or even damning to the exacting audiophile who wants as much detail as possible. Nothing to worry here, the LTA is that very rare thing, gear that gives great detail and yet is forgiving (WE and good SET amps can do that). This is the kind of equipment that makes me angry at the current high end, which seems to pride itself at being able to play only "audiophile" recordings. As importantly, it draws my attention to pieces that I have neglected before (like the Othello mentioned before; or the Vienna Octet's London LP filler to Dvorak String Quintet, the Spohr Piano Quintet). The LTA also has something that is missing in most OTL's (indeed most amps) that I have listened to - an unperturbed quality when the going gets rough. It also belies the OTL's albatross of lean bass. The distance between the performer(s) and the listener is significantly shortened, the venue is naturally incorporated and listener engagement is significantly enhanced, rarities in the hi-end. In another word, superbly involving. The LTA rubs shoulder with the likes of Western Electric and Sparkler, the highest accolades in my book.
  • Run-In What run-in? Unlike output transformer based amps, this amp was great from the word go, and is uber consistent. How lovely not having to run-in things!
  • Tube Rolling With any tube equipment, tubes always matter, and the old-stock tubes are always better. The great thing about the LTA is that, the difference is minimized. Unlike in many conventional tube amps, whether using the current production Tung-Sol tubes or my old-stock tubes, the sonic signature is uncannily similar. Grant you, the older tubes have a little more finesse, but I really did not run-in the new tubes. I do know from experience that the current-production tubes require quite a bit of run-in to smooth out. Initially, they usually have just too plump a bass, and it is the case here. With run-in, I am sure the bass will align even better. That said, I'd not be surprised that some people will prefer the new tubes (just as in older ARC products, where old tubes could be lacking in oomph). AND, as I have not encountered new tubes in a while, I am surprised by the difference in construction of the new tubes from their earlier Russian cousins. The 12AT7 has broader plates (whereas many are half-width) that smack of NOS; so does the 6SN7, which also has supporting rods reminiscent of NOS 5692. Just by eye, they are significantly better than their predecessors. Sonically too, they did not shame themselves. The important thing is, for those who want plug-and-play, these are irreproachable. Also, I shall try to get hold of some 12SN7's to compare with 6SN7's.
  • Preamp? Most people would not be entertaining this question. For me, using the MZ2 as an amp, running the source directly in or via a preamp are both immensely satisfying. I can easily use one of the 3 inputs for the preamp and the other 2 as direct-in. If pressed, especially since I use many sources at once, I'd opt for the greater control and flexibility of using a preamp, but the preamp better be of superb quality (as mine are).
  • Upgrade? Many of the reviews mention upgrades. The most obvious one for the MZ2 is the Linear PSU, which I'd be curious about. I have also read about their more expensive and more powerful amps that use power tubes in PP (though they differ in having NFB). The MZ3 is perhaps an upgrade (and it looks even better, sleek!) but the ones that interest me the most are the ZOTL10 MkII amp and its cousin, the integrated Z10. Not because of the increased power (10 watts), but because they use another of my favorite tubes, the sweet EL84 (which imho has great bass quality). It is too bad LTA does not make a 6V6 or even 6L6 version (imagine the possibility of rolling in WE 349A and 350B). Nonetheless, to my thinking, if you have horns as efficient as mine, despite limitations the 6SN7 just very well may hold up sonically to more powerful tubes. Many reviews use the ZOTL40, but that one uses EL34, not one of my favorite tubes (though many like it). I'd love to hear any of these though.

 Note the intricate components, some specialized transformers that we don't see in others tube amps. Note the myriad fine wires and the banks of diodes; no ordinary DIY, this. As mentioned in the text, the circuit board has too few anchoring screws. Note the 2 screws flanking the 12AT7's (also 2 on the opposite side). In each lower corner, a full 2" of circuit board, where the 6SN7 sits, is unsupported. Note the 2 dip switches just above the 2 left tubes can be connected in parallel or in series for 12SN7 or 6SN7.

13 November, 2019

Elekit TU-8800 Thomas Schick 12" Thorens TD-124 Ensemble Di-Chrono

Click pics to enlarge. Thorens TD-124 with an extra large armboard. The Thomas Schick Arm is shown with the Daiwok Midas Denon DL-103. Elekit TU-8800 in the background.

NY Diary (19-16): Old Friends Rehabilitated, and a New Kit on the Block
Elekit TU-8800, Part I
Thorens TD-124 with Thomas Schick 12", Part I
Ensemble Di-chrono Transport/Hi-Dac and Theta Data

As my last article (just roll down) showed, our friend Kevin made a new armboard for a 12" arm for my Thorens TD-124. Just a few days ago, he installed my Thomas Schick 12" arm on it and delivered  it to me. Earlier, in anticipation, I started my...

Rehabilitation of System I, Part I
This system right in front of me is somehow the one I lately least use. As a matter of fact, because of various projects, since I returned more than a year ago, I haven't fired it up - until now! This system is based on the overbuilt Manley 300B preamp (here). Since I have recently worked on System III, I continued using my Audiomaster 15 ohm LS3/5A, augmented by subwoofer of course (here).

First up was actually the Digital System. My Ensemble Di-Chrono Hi-Dac (details here) had long returned from a very minor repair, and I used this opportunity to install it. I hooked it up to my trusted dinosaur Theta Data transport, and, still using the Akititka GT-102 amp, the sound was superb! I used the Belden 1694A, terminated in RCA. Ensemble advocates BNC (though it has an RCA in), but the Theta has no BNC output. I used an adaptor at the Ensemble end and I do think the sound was somehow slightly better than plugging it into the RCA input. Later I shall hook up the Ensemble Dirondo Transport but I first would have to DIY a Gotham BNC digital cable.

Compared to the System III, the sound was not surprisingly more detailed and powerful. Not only that, everything is more solid and bigger. This I think is partly due to a more powerful DAC (great as it is, the Micromega MyDac is a small device, which usually is less dynamic than much larger components) as well as the quality of the tube preamp.

Click the image to open in full size.Elekit TU-8800, Part I
This is almost a fluke. The newest offering by Elekit (great details and pics here), this kit got to me because my friend RC went to the Capitol Audio Festival and brought it back from VK Music. It is a SE Pentode/Tetrode amp that is switchable between Triode and UL modes; and has 3 levels of bias that enable use with many tubes, from lowly but lovely 6V6 to KT88 and power-monger KT150! Except for 2 output caps, this one is bone stock.

With KT88 For the small tubes, this specimen came with Siemens 12AT7, which are surely an upgrade from stock tubes. Employing the "High" bias setting, sound with current production Gold Lion KT88 is surprisingly good. While the Triode Mode is warmer, I preferred the greater openness and control of Ultralinear Mode. Compared to using the Akitika amp, the soundstage is larger and there is more air. In terms of warmth though, the Akitika is very close! What is even more deserving of praise is that the Elekit could control the LS3/5A really well, sounding a just a little reined in only at the loudest of orchestral peaks (where a little clipping can sometimes be heard).

Down the Road, I can see myself rolling some output tubes. I am particularly interested in using the 6V6. Given the much larger output transformers I am sure it shall sound more powerful than the TU-8150 (here). I shall also compare it with my much earlier TU-8300 (here), which can use both 300B and common Pentodes/Tetrodes (but only has 1 bias setting, so definitely no 6V6). But so far this amp looks like a serious winner.

Rehabilitated Thorens TD-124 with Thomas Schick 12" Arm, Part I
You have read about the first phase of the rehabilitation of my battered TD-124 (here); later it was mated to a make-do (pitiable, said Andy) SME "3012" (a great story really, here). Recently, Andy got Kevin to make some armboards and I jumped on the bandwagon. Finally I have a dedicated 12" armboard that I can use with the plinth! I like the wood but someday I'd like to repaint the plinth (I am thinking black). I cannot thank Kevin enough; ever the perfectionist, he actually lubricated and cleaned my Thorens and it works a charm now. Now, I am confident I can get the best out of the turntable! For phonoamp, I just grabbed my Parasound JC3 (here), which I also haven't used in quite a while!

With "Midas" Denon DL-103 Much like the Zu body, the "Midas" is an aluminum headshell created by our friend daiwok (active in Lencoheaven) for the Denon DL-103 (here). It is the first one I tried, with the same heavy Ortofon headshell, as this was what worked in HK, when I had the Thomas Schick on my Garrard 301 (here).

Sound is lovely! My impressions of the Thomas Schick is pretty much what I wrote when I had it on the Garrard (link above). With the Midas Denon DL-103, sound is involving and recognizable to any 103 user. There is no dreaded "slowness" which I heard at many a vintage afficionado's SME 3012/SPU setup. Immediately noticeable was the darker background compared to most of my other 9" armed turntable (also see my spiel on my Garrard link). The other interesting thing is that, given the very poor rack isolation at my carpeted room, this turntable is surprisingly pretty immune to interference; knocking on the rack did not produce the usual instability, not to mention skipping. The best isolated turntable in my place, better than the suspended ones! Perhaps kevin did something, as this did not have the original rubber grommets. You shall hear more about this turntable with other cartridges and systems (preview - it works great with a < 0.5 wpc OTL amp and horns).

Pics Loose Ends
Korean SGD Tofu House lunch

Lamb at Andy's

12 November, 2019

Thorens Lenco Infinity RS-1B Decca Cartridges

Click pics to enlarge. L: Thorens TD-125 with Eminent Technology Tonearm and VAS Ortofon 2M Red; Below: Lenco L78 in its New Plinth, with Decca Tonearm and Decca Gold VdH. Further Below: Thorens TD-124 with Rabco Arm and Staton/Pickering 380. 

NY Diary (19-16) Thanksgiving Comes Early
Turntables Galore

Despite last minute glitches, a good number of us managed to gather at our friend Kevin's place for a pre-Thanksgiving Celebration.

The Infinity RS-1B sounded even better than last visit (scroll down to last article). I gave him a copy of Ansermet's celebrated Chabrier album (London, LP) and another of my favorite Night on Bald Mountain (on Danse Infernale, Fiedler, DG, LP). Both sounded excellent. Simon commented that the Infinities are good for everything, all you need.

Chabrier Orchestral Music  (Vinyl, LP) album coverKevin has kept up his feverish pace, and the various cartridges have been playing musical chairs on the various turntables. He even made a very nice new plinth for his Lenco L78, which looks spectacular with the Decca Arm. One constant though - no matter how, the Decca SC4E (VdH) seems to sound better than the Gold (VdH).

When Kevin started to make an armboard for my Thorens TD-124 (article to come, with Thomas Schick Tonearm), I predicted to him that he would eventually get one. For sure, blink, and it happened. On this occasion, we heard the new acquisition in his Altec 604-H system and it was quite nice. Some also tinkered with the Altec A7, which was also sounding better.

Overall, excellent sound, perhaps a little light, due to the ribbon tweeters. In due time, no hurry. These are all affordable and excellent vintage turntables and tonearms that will give modern hi-end a run for the money.

Danse Infernale (Vinyl, LP, Album) album cover
Paul, the technical wizard (profiled here), was a pleasure to see, especially since he delivered my AES 300B amp to me. It would not turn on, but it turned out to be just a fuse. Silly me, after logging so many hours in this hobby, how could I have forgotten to check that! :-( And it was a pleasure to see R and his wife (whom we first met here), and listen to their trip to Italy (mainly the Almafi and Adriatic Coasts). What resonated with me was, after a great week, a desire to be back home and listen to some music! Perhaps only us old farts who do one thing at a time are like that; younger people have portable music everywhere, even when crossing the street.

All that may just have been an excuse to get together and chatter. Indeed, there were debates about state of the nation, the coming presidential election etc. Although sometimes heated, and there were definitely different stands, the harmony maintained is a testament to the cohesiveness of the group, all wonderful people who care about more than audio.

Some of us started "early", at a late lunch. The take-out Taiwanese style Seafood Fried Rice Noodle (right pic) was delicious and went great with Andy's surprisingly refreshing New Zealand Pinot Noir (right pic, to the left of which was Kevin's Chinese Medicinal Wine, the rare and expensive ingredients of which can buy you many bottles of fine French wine.

But the dinner, all prepared by Kevin and his lovely wife, was a veritable tour de force. The notated pic below explains it all. What were missing in the pcis were the fine wines enjoyed, including an excellent Saint-Estephe and an even more brilliant Haut-Medoc. Call me a Francophile. And yes, I have orthodox taste.

I say this was an early start to Thanksgiving. Indeed I thank all my friends for the hospitality and friendship they have offered over the years. I am very grateful to be in their company!

We should all be grateful for our lives of plenty!

Dinner. Clockwise from 12 O'Clock: Chicken Soup with American Ginseng; Drunken Goose's Gizzard; Braised Pork with Dried Bamboo Shoots; Sautéed Cabbage with Peppercorn; Braised Lamb; Drunken Chicken Feet and Drunken Duck's Gizzard; Brined Shrimps in the Center.

29 October, 2019

Infinity RS-1B, Altec 604H, VTL MB-450 Series I

Click pics to enlarge. My earlier Visit 1. VTL MB-450 monoblocks have replaced the previous CJ Premier 8 on the amp racks. Between the Infinity panels is my Thorens TD-124. What are the dishes? Clockwise from top: Pocket Pastry with Chives and Eggs, plus Chinese Flatbread; Fried Eels; Spicy Tripes; Mustard Green with Other Vegetables; Braised Pork.

NY Diary (19-15): Infinity RS-1B and Altec 604-H Redux
VTL MB-450 vs Conrad-Johnson Premier 8

As mentioned many times before, our friend Kevin is a dynamo. Just chronicling his quest is enough material to sustain my Blog! :-) This is the latest update.

VTL MB-450 (Series I) After my last visit (peruse for the other equipment used), Kevin bought a pair of VTL MB-450. This is the same amp that Andy (who inspired both Kevin and Mark to get into Infinity) has used for over 10 years (here). This is the series I, which has a much plainer look (that I prefer) than the later II and the current III.

Talking about product longevity, this amp actually harks back to the even earlier MB-300, which is why this Stereophile archived review link grouped all the MB-300 and MB-450 Series I and II reviews together. Quite a good read, with some caveats, as we shall see.

Each MB-450 uses a 12AT7 and a 6350 to drive 8 x 6550's, switchable from Tetrode to Triode Operation. Andy's Svetlana 6550's had lasted him for over 10 years and that is astonishing given how hard they have to work driving the Infinity panels. Kevin's amps on the other hand are now tubed with current production Gold Lion KT88's. As with VTL, fixed bias for each tube.

Visit 1 Not long after, I got to hear them. As soon as I heard the first piece, I said I preferred these to the CJ Premier 8's. Kevin laughed and said, "I predicted you are going to say that and I mentioned it to Andy last night!" Well, we know each other well indeed; I know myself well too, as I too knew even before the visit that I was to prefer the VTL.

So why my preference? I have thought of writing a CJ Overview as I have heard plenty of them and used a few, but...Well, I find CJ products too colored. To use its rival ARC as an example, if I compare their products of the same vintage, I almost always prefer ARC, for its more neutral sound. Some tube warmth is undoubtedly desirable, but CJ over-eggs it, especially as it evolved. Basically for a long time they just added more and more, and larger and larger, capacitors, particularly in the preamps. The Premier series preamps are widely used in our circle, but I personally  do not favor them. As for the amps, I find them even more unacceptable. To me, CJ's use of high bias and current on the power tubes wastes power, leads to short tube life and frequent failures, produces a tight sound, but somehow does not translate into power when the going gets rough. Here, the CJ LP275, a latter day (but less well built) version of the Premier 8, was a wimp compared to the diminutive EAR 509, a neutral amp closer to the VTL in sound. That said, the popularity of CJ must owe a little to the remedial effect it has on lean systems (prevalent). It should also be said that more recent CJ products have moved towards the more neutral side.

And so it proved here. The sound of the MB-450 was surely more neutral than the CJ, more powerful too as I expected. Kevin preferred Triode Operation because of its sweeter sound. In this system, with Kevin's audio preference and the ribbon panels, there was really not much sweetness, but I left pretty satisfied. It should be noted that in one of the Stereophile's reviews, a much younger Michael Fremer favored the sound of the CJ Premier 12 (which can be thought of as a smaller version of the 8) to the MB-450. Horses for Courses.

As predicted (see link), the Altec 604-H (right pic) sounded better with the McKintosh C20/MC30 combo. Things fleshed out. On James' Lenco 78 turntable, Kevin replaced the original arm with a modified Rega 300, and the result was enormous, much better balance and bass, a tribute to the Rega arm.

Visit 2 Just yesterday we met again. In the interim, Kevin had built new power cords for the VTL's and according to both him and Andy it made a big difference. Indeed the sound was a little fuller. Kevin is now using the Tetrode Mode for its greater control and power. He said the power cord smoothed out the sound enough for him to make this choice. Kevin had switched cartrdiges. The VAS-modified Ortofon 2M Red sounded better than the Decca on his Thorens TD-125/ET arm (this arm is said to be light in bass, and so it proves). The Decca Gold (VdH stylus) also sounded better on the VPI. A good switch. On this occasion, we also heard his digital system with a Wadia 2000 transport, which sounded pretty good. It was too bad I had to leave early.

The job is not quite done. While I liked the more neutral sound of the VTL, I do think the system could use a little more warmth, but that is surely to come soon.

Note my Thorens TD-124 now has a 12" arm board made by Kevin. Lunch is Seafood Pan-fried Noodles.

27 October, 2019

Denon DL-301 Mk II VAS Repair

Denon DL-301MK2 Moving Coil Phono CartridgeReview: Denon DL-301 Mk II (VAS Repair), Part II

Denon DL-301 Mk II Review, Part I

Time flies, I cannot believe it has been 7 years since I wrote Part I. What readers don't know is that right after I wrote that article, an accident ripped the cantilever out! I got it at a quite inexpensive price (I lament that Comet Supply doesn't seem to supply Denon's anymore), so was not prepared to re-tip it. But now, with VAS service available, I grabbed the opportunity. It seemed to need no running in and the Denon impressed from the word go!

What a Joy! Its return coincided with my reconfiguration of System 3 (last article; below). As the result is so wonderful, I shall be quite brief with this review. Not much qualification is needed. No if's, and's or but's.
    Sonata For Arpeggione And Piano / Sonata For Cello And Piano (Vinyl, LP, Album, Stereo) album cover
  • On my Audio-Technica AT-PL120 in Station 3 (see sidebar), playing into all 3 phonoamps, Mofi Studiophono, Micromega MyGroov and 47 Labs Shigaraki 4718 the sound was excellent. Finally I settled on the 47 Labs for its most detailed sound, but not before changing the interconnect to DIY 47 Labs. Downstream are the Schiit Saga used as buffer, Langevin 102 preamp, Akitika GT 102 amp and Audiomaster LS 3/5A.  The sound is neutral through the audio band, full of air and vitality, and no discernible MC peak. Perhaps it is slightly less a drama queen than its more famous cousin, the DL-103, but in many systems this will be smoother. I listened to every genre of music, and I can detect no serious weakness. One illustration suffices. Rostropovich/Britten's never surpassed performance of Schubert's Appregione Sonata (London, LP) was incisive, the best I have heard (cello can be a little bloating in many systems). What I wrote in Part I stands.
  • On my Technics SL-1200 Mk II in System 2 (see sidebar), it played into the AQVOX 2CI Mk II (also undergoing further evaluation, more in an article later), Shindo Monbrisson, Elekit TU-8150 and my YL horns with aplomb. In the same system is the Thorens TD-309 fitted with the Koetsu Black, and the Denon is not far behind, just lacking a little the special magic of the former. Sweet!
  • Comparison with a stock DL-301 Mk II Serendipity! My friend RC has this cartridge, so when I visited him I asked him to play it in his system (here). I heard more or less the same things as in my own systems. This proves that the VAS re-tip is an excellent job.