31 October, 2020

Naim SBL Golden Note AP7 Mk II


Click pics to enlarge.

Letter from Hong Kong (20-12): Eric L sets up shop

My search for a proper streamer is ongoing, but not very active, as I'm not in a hurry: my laptop and Sparkler S503 are doing a fantastic job!

Surfing Review33 used equipment column is my daily chore, just in case there's a decent Streamer selling at a well below market price. One day, I was surfing and trying my luck. Randomly, I browsed various categories and happened to check out the loudspeakers. There was a pair of NAIM SBL selling at a cheap price. It is a classic, well regarded during my LINN/NAIM days back in late 80s. It was next on my list after Linn Isobarik and before Sara! Without a wink, or maybe after a few winks, I grabbed it without deciding how I was going to deal with it! Man, what I really need is a streamer and how can I bring this home while I have my Dynaudio Crafft, which I am so content with?

An idea popped up in my mind! I can put it in my office! Did some measurements and realized it fits perfectly on one side of the wall!! It is an absolute snug fit! But would it be too showy? What the heck, it's staying in my office. OK, what about source? That did not cause me any concern since I have the oh so reliable Taobao K16 BT receiver. For Laptop, I have my Huawei P40 Pro and the company HP Laptop that I occasional bring to work (only when I need to ZOOM); it sees more time at my home, haha.

Well, I did need an amp. My goal was to find an extremely cheap Int Amp or even a NAP140 or 160 power amp directly driven with volume controlled by my P40 Pro phone. Initially, my friend volunteered to lend me his famous frying pan MF A1s to try and I happily obliged. But then I saw an int Amp from Gold Note AP7 Mk2 for cheap, at only $2k, I immediately grabbed it based on: 1) It fits my budget; 2) Rave review of its bigger brother from Darko; 3) Fancy, made in Italy; 4) Compact size.

Nowadays, due to COVID19, you cannot audition and have to press your luck. Well so far it pays off on various purchases.

I also have a pair of Gotham GAC1 and 47 OTO I.C. but 47 is so finicky that I had to revert back to GAC1. What about speaker wire?? Luckily my friend Kwong lent me his Audioplan to use, which is a very decent silver coated S.C.

Finally I was all set to go. Setup was a breeze as it's minimal. I fired it up on a Saturday afternoon to reasonable level (of coz my normal listening level during weekdays lunchtime or afterwork will be much lower). In a nutshell, it does pump out respectable mid bass which rolls off quickly as expected. But it's quite musical and with decent extension of high frequency.

I would say my main system is still superior , more polished, smoother, musical and better in digging into the essence of music, but as a second system, it has far exceeded my expectation for a budget of only 7000HKD!! The combo actually give me great pleasure and provide stress relief to my hectic job, with endless deadlines, one after another non-stop! I can stay in my room with door closed listening to favorite tunes and unlimited choice from Tidal!

Recently been digging songs from Van Morrison and a song from Chan 陳果 's 留下來坐坐! The male narrative part is so magnetic and without it the song is just mediocre and the trest of the CD remains middle of the road (I can focus on just that song)!

Jane Motis in concert

Fever by Musica Nuda

Caledonia Soul Music by Van Morrison

30 October, 2020

Shindo Monbrison Yamamoto CA-04

Brief Review: Shindo Monbrison
 vs Yamamoto CA-04

Shindo Monbrisson, Part I (extensive basic info and review); Part II (vs Manley 300B preamp), Part III (phono section vs MoFi Studiophono)

Yamamoto CA-04 Review

A few months ago, as New York turned into an Inferno, I was watching the News a lot. So I set up the Klipsch Heresy in the Living Room. A little after, I started streaming NML (USB) and in early May I started with Bluetooth. Now, New York is in a much better place, I am watching less news, still streaming via BT - and I haven't listened to music in my music room for all these months, not even once.

After living with the Yamamoto CA-04 for almost 2 months, I decided it's time to rehabilitate my Shindo Monbrison, which has been languishing in the music room. So I brought it out and inserted it into the streaming system in lieu of the Yamamoto.

The result is hardly surprising, indeed as expected. The Shindo is fuller and richer sounding, but not overly so. Its bass has significantly more impact but still good timing and contour. It is not as lithe as the Yamamoto but is more composed and an even better match for the Harbeth P3ESR. The sonic difference is consistent with the respective sonic signature of the companies.

Some of the sonic difference can be attributable to differences in design and built. The Yamamoto is more minimalist, solid state rectified, and uses 2 tubes and modern components. The Shindo is tube rectified, tube regulated, also uses 2 tubes in the line section and is choke full of vintage components. Yet the Yamamoto avoids the blandness of many modern preamps, just as the Shindo avoids the overly colored sound and timing inadequacies of many vintage products.

I slotted the Yamamoto into System II in the audio room. I was expecting a leaner sound but, with the Wavac MD-811, sound was quite wholesome and bass was still quite full with my 4-way YL horns.

The 2 preamps each paints a vivid picture. As different as they are it is hard to say who tells more of the "truth". One thing is for certain, musical "truth" is a complicated, often elusive thing.

A word on the Monbrison's phono section. This time I tried the EF83 (Siemens) instead of the EF86 and it works fine.

29 October, 2020

Harbeth P3ESR SE

Brief Review: Harbeth P3ESR SE

This article surprises even myself. As a long-time student of LS3/5A and its derivatives, be it Harbeth or Spendor, seldom have I been distracted, as almost all newfangled attempts to "update" the BBC legend failed to match the accomplishments of the predecessors. BUT, this time it is different.

Many years ago, I have heard the original P3 (Stereophile), and maybe its immediate successor P3ES, several times. While reasonably good sounding, to me the LS3/5A is still better. I have also heard the Spendor SA1 and the earlier generations of S3/5, which bothered me by their leanness in the bass. So all of these were off my radar until recently, when one of Andy's friends was selling among our circle this pair of P3-ESR SE. The SE differs only in special OFC wiring; it is likely that it is not that different from the regular version. The price was irresistible, so I took a chance.

The P3ESR (and SE) have received so many accolades that I need not provide extensive background and links. One may want to start with Stereophile, which has detailed reference back to the older models. For a dissent, read darko.

Rather than a detailed review, I see this article as a testamentary. The many reviews were largely by reviewers that I am indifferent to, but in this case their descriptions and conclusions are accurate: this is a pair of excellent small speakers. As I am intimately familiar with the LS3/5A, and as in my streaming system I had just come off months of listening to LS3/5A, I shall make a few comments regarding the differences.

vs LS3/5A With a slightly larger footprint (deeper by about 1 cm), the P3ESR (SE) is more composed than the LS3/5A. It can play a little louder without straining. Contrary to many of the reviewers. I streamed quite a bit of classical music, some large scaled (like Bruckner). Not very loudly of course, but loud enough, and the Harbeth acquitted itself pretty well, with good composure, a deep soundstage (even deeper than the LS3/5A I think, and that is quite a feat) and hall sound. This is partly attributable to the more refined and airier treble (the LS3/5A has a tendency to become a little grainy when pushed). The Harbeth also resolves more low-level details. The playing of the backing musicians on the CDs shown in the pic, though still woven into the whole fabric, are more audible and that gives pleasure. Unlike some reviewers. I regard the LS3/5A as a very neutral transducer, and here I don't feel the Harbeth is any more neutral. In fact, its somewhat smooth and warm nature is arguably more colored. Although bass is better than LS3/5A in timing and texture, the latter has more fullness and sometimes impact due to the midbass hump (which I regard as a good thing).

Now we come to what I regard as a crucial difference: the LS3/5A, no matter how one partners it, is a little slow in transient speed, but the Harbeth is not. In Hong Kong, I spent a lot of time trying various small loudspeakers for my Kondo Ongaku. The LS3/5A was the top choice for a long time (here). What I didn't mention was that sometimes I had wished for a little faster transient. Later, I switched to solid state with my 47 Labs 4737 (also called Lens Alnico or Lens II) because of its fast and exciting sound (here and here). I mentioned these to put in perspective the darko review I cited earlier. Now, I very much admire the way Darko writes, very articulate and clever, though much of what he reviews are peripheral to me. Some of his reviews are quite brief but the one on the Harbeth is longer. I am not sure of the quality of his ancillary equipment, but what I find truly unsatisfactory in this case is his comparing apples and oranges. If this were an amplifier review, then comparing its performance with different types of speakers would make sense, but it is not that meaningful to compare one speaker with another of a very different nature. Though mine is alnico, his 47 Labs Lens is similar to mine and I know it well. I can very much understand what he is talking about. Everyone has his own preference but I'd like to stress 2 points: 1) the PSESR is definitely not slow in transient; 2) I am not sure how Darko listens to the Lens, but for me, for the material I listen to, it needs a subwoofer whereas the Harbeth doesn't necessarily need to. However, although I didn't try, I am sure it would also benefit from one (as does the LS3/5A).

It would be more meaningful to compare the Harbeth with other similarly sized UK loudspeakers with (or without) BBC "heritage". I think the P3ESR is substantially improved from its previous iterations. I prefer the P3ESR to the leaner and more neutral Spendor's mentioned at the top. I shall also include Proac here. Although not BBC derived, many old Proac models are legendary, and in my opinion better than their current offerings. The old Tablettes lacked bass and can be dismissed (though 2-way, due to their small but fast woofer and narrow baffle, they actually sound not unlike the 47 Labs Lens; similarly they are not tube-friendly). My favorite is the original Response 1, one of the best small loudspeakers I have ever heard (takes more power to drive) and, yes, better than the P3ESR, though it is a different animal with only audio in mind and no allegiance to anything BBC.

That leaves the LS3/5A. Is the P3ESR just a worthy successor or has it surpassed the BBC legend? I personally think the comparison is meaningless. The Harbeth can more than stand on its own as a good design. The "heritage" is likely both a blessing as well as a burden. Due to material difference, no "update" will sound like the original. As a matter of fact, I think the Harbeth sounds less like the LS3/5A than the many clones of LS3/5A now available (UK or Chinese) but also have less of their flaws. The important thing is, like the LS3/5A, the Harbeth is reasonably neutral, musical and engaging. As a classical orchestral listener, I shall favor the Harbeth, but I'd swap in my LS3/5A from time to time to enjoy some smoky blues or ballads.

Matching The Harbeth is really easy to drive. I mostly use it with the Akitika GT-102, but it is friendly to low powered tube amps. It delivered reasonably good performances with the AES SE-1 300B amp (8 wpc) and the Almarro A205A EL84 SE amp (maybe 5 wpc). But best was the Almarro A318 (around 20 wpc; article to come). It is for sure easier to drive than the LS3/5A.

A benign impedance, an always musical sound - what's not to like?

25 October, 2020

Quarantine 2 The Cell Inhospitality Gangster Films Roast Goose and Farce of Enforcement and Circulation

Click pics to enlarge. A Room with a View?

Letter from Hong Kong (20-11): doctorjohn in Quarantine (2)

Life in Quarantine is just a slightly better version of Prison. Here I am incarcerated by the city where I grew up and spent so much of my life in, yet never have felt entirely comfortable with...

Day 1 The Hotel hails itself as being in Causeway Bay, the Shijuku of Hong Kong. The reality is, it is at the edge of it, in a somewhat dilapidated area, separated from the trendier area by a highway ramp. It is at one with the adjacent and older Wanchai district. Behind the hotel is a wet market and at night time, dai pai dong's (common folk's outdoor dining).

The entrances are barely visible and the lobby is very small. At check-in, the clerk told me that I may want to consider getting a data card as the wifi is burdened by the high occupancy. My demands are not high, so I didn't take the advice. I saw at least 2 other check-in's. One was a HK woman checking in her Filipino maid. The other was a mother from Shenzhen checking in with her daughter. Apparently the youngster is going to study here via virtual learning (an option in some schools). After check-in, I didn't go to my room immediately. I went to the back streets, bought some fruits and beer and took out a roast duck rice. Then I went back and up to my room, not to emerge in 2 weeks.

With the weather still under the influence of a typhoon, the room was a little dark. As I knew the room would be small, I requested twin beds so as to put my things on one of them. First impression was not favorable, as the room is dark hued, made more so by the weather. The decoration is curious: dark patterned wallpaper, chandelier, a bay window. Not much of a view. I checked the wifi, a little slow but acceptable.

Before long, my HK phone rang. It was shidi, whose system I had featured in the blog previously. I asked how did he know I am back. Well, apparently my friend WSS, whose system I had featured too, read the blog and informed him.

The hotel is seriously remiss in hospitality. The staff would not take deliveries up to the floors, so I was told to rely on friends. There is a meal plan, for HKD 200 a day, one gets 3 meals, but lunch and dinner are all pasta, for all seven days of the week. This is ridiculous, and I resolved to order deliveries. Many restaurants deliver to the floor, and that makes the hotel's policy inexcusable. The real problem is I was made to feel like an untouchable. They don't want you, but they want your business. The funny thing is, all the people checking in have tested negative. China does better than this: they would take care of the meals.

After sorting out my things, I took a shower and started my Happy Hour. A friend left me some wine at the door (contact-less). I thank her so much! I consumed the food, not bad. The local English channel carried the entire Presidential Debate. I watched some of it before Jet Lag overcame me and I slumbered off.

Day 2 Typical of my jet lag, I woke up past midnight. There is not much choice with the TV, but (fortunately) there is a Chinese movie channel. The 2 HK gangster films I watched, The Sharp Shooter and The Bund II (神鎗手, 上海灘) were pretty good. Though not top tier, they are still much better than most of their Hollywood counterparts. This is a genre HK films excel in. Compared to the average western action film, there is more in-depth character development (especially brotherhood) and more sense of a real locale and real happening.

Except for being confined, I felt much as I did before I moved back to NYC in 2018. Re-acclimatization was faster than I thought it would be. Perhaps my world has become too small and my workings too routine that it makes no difference where I am.

Farce I: Circulation (I) Some time in the morning I smelled coffee. It came through the air conditioning. Tell me, is this quarantine safe? I am afraid it actually poses risks for us.

It was a sunnier day. As the sun came up, I felt a little more acclimatized to the room. Resignation? Maybe. Stockholm Syndrome? Perhaps. Writing, HK movies, every day is going to be the same. Like in NYC, I watched some TV news and on the laptop went through more news and my emails. Yes, it's going to be the same everyday. NML and Spotify both work. I connected my Meridian Explorer and Grado SR80e and streamed for a while. But I tired quickly of being tethered to all that, especially since I sometimes sit on the bay window and sometimes on the bed. Lunch was Chow Fun with Beef.

Farce II Non-Existing Enforcement (I) Around noon time, I heard two ladies conversing in Tagalog (Filipino language) outside my door. No one is supposed to be outside the room, so I spoke from behind the door: "You know you are not supposed to be talking outside!" They exchanged several brief words and than went back to their rooms. 2 banging doors, one immediately left of my room and another farther away on the right. I called the hotline number on my Stay Home Safe App. The lady was nice but told me they are only responsible for the wrist band (see Quarantine I). I asked her to contact other departments. She called back and advised me to call the hotel or the Police! I asked her whether she belongs to the Health Department. The Answer was she worked under some kind of a Technology Department. Totally ill thought out plan, and zero enforcement (typical of much of the HK laws). No wonder previously there were people who just got out and party.

Day 3 was not much different, but it was enlivened by shidi's delivery of some fruits and a deluxe Roast Goose rice dish from a currently popular eatery 祺哥. Distinction: roast goose is more expensive and rarer than duck. Note: You can buy Roast Meats by the whole, halves or quarters; for one person you can get a smaller portion with rice, but the cut is up to the carver; you can specify a coveted part, like shidi did for the leg, for a premium. A smoky taste that veers off the traditional. I cannot thank him and his wife enough for their hospitality. But...

Farce III Non-Existing Enforcement (II) In the morning I heard some repetitive noise outside my door. I opened the door and saw a Filipina (likely one of the protagonists of the day before) doing ballet like stretching (one leg raised high) in the corridor! Well, even behind the mask, she looked cute but, given the circumstances...I just asked her to go back to her room.

Day 4 Article finished while watching John Woo's iconic A Better Tomorrow (英雄本色). An uneventful day if not for:

Farce IV Circulation (II) As I was about to send this article, I noticed the smell of cigarette smoke coming through the air-con. Maybe my Filipina ballerina neighbor? I hope she stays negative...


23 October, 2020

Quarantine Diary 1 On the Way to Jail

Click pics to enlarge. Congested Parking Lot.

Letter from Hong Kong (20-10): doctorjohn in Quarantine (1)

This article was initiated while waiting for a Saliva Test result in a designated seating area at the HK Airport. This is the beginning of a series examining the Quarantine Experience. There shall be little on audio, so as you know.

Hong Kong is small, a cosmopolitan city whose population density, unique history and makeup sometimes make it struggle a bit with the virus. Currently, most new cases are imported, mainly from surrounding Asian countries with close ties, like India, followed by The Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia (many of these countries have long had a large Chinese diaspora). Indians have always had a significant presence in Hong Kong, a sequalae of the city's earliest days of Colonial British rule and development, long before the mass arrival of Chinese from the mainland. Many hold dual citizenships. Hong Kong also has a huge number of Filipino maids on working permits. And HK's role as a financial hub created one of the world's largest expat communities and made HK Airport one of the world's busiest (and it built up the Cathay Pacific Airline). All that are challenges during a pandemic.

Aside from HK citizens, few foreigners are permitted entry. Even for citizens, entry requirements and procedures are among the world's harshest, especially for those who are coming in from high-risk areas (yes, that's me). In case you are interested, the official requirements are here.

Preparations for Flight 1) Only PCR tests within 72 hours of boarding are accepted (China too). In NYC, if one goes to one of the official (and covered by insurance) testing centers, there can be no guarantee that one can get the result back in time. So for the Chinese population, a small industry of private doctor's offices and travel agencies have sprung up. For out of the pocket cost of $300, one is assured of a result within 24 hours; 2) Now, HK also requires a copy of the testing laboratory's official certification, which one is not to get with the official testing (China's is similar, but less strict). This they provide too. The price is stiff but most travelers put up with it, as I did; 3) This is the easiest, a 14-day hotel booking, but as you can see later, also potentially problematic. 

Booking a Flight As for booking a flight, I did it last minute. Cathay Pacific, HK's flagship carrier, is hurting really bad. In contrast to the cost of tickets to China, flying to HK (and Taiwan) is really reasonable and yet few are doing it. One reason is likely the severe quarantine requirement. Second is that China has severely curtailed flights from and into HK, with the result of a drastic decrease in the number of transit passengers. Cathay is reeling so bad that it has just announced giving up its China arm, Dragon Air. All these factors, plus the fact that other Asian countries with large carriers (like Korea) have also limited or banned transit, have severely affected Chinese nationals returning to China, as the airfares have skyrocketed to thousands of dollars. One day I heard that a ticket from NYC to Shanghai was USD 12k! Some of these probably stem from the irregularities brought about by the Chinese travel agencies, which probably blocked out a lot of seats from being sold direct.

JFK Airport and First Hiccup Terminal 8 was like a ghost town. Almost like a scene from a sci-fi movie. This could be partly due to the scheduled flight time, 1:55 a.m. The agent told me my hotel reservation had a problem: unlike my passport, it did not have my middle name and the HK government insists on the same full name. Just when I was freaking out, the lady next to him looked at it and said since my booking was with booking.com, it could be changed. I opened my booking and within a few moves she edited my name. I was so relieved and thanked her profusely. She must have done this before. Still, I could have run into a brick wall if she was not around. It is really quite silly. The whole booking is in my email and on my personal computer, so how counterfeit could that be? But bureaucracy we all know can be carried to the ridiculous extremes (I am talking about the HK government - more later). Due to the paltry number of flyers, the plane actually took off 10 minutes earlier, an unprecedented experience.

The Flight I knew it was going to be a good flight because when I got my seat online I could see there could not be more than 50 passengers on the Airbus and everybody had 3 seats to himself. Food was OK, but I particularly took to their proprietary Betsy Pale Ale, brewed by HK's own Gweilo Brewery (the name is age-old Cantonese for "foreign devil", initially referring to colonialists). Readers may be surprised, like many larger places, tiny HK actually has a surprisingly number of boutique beers!

A Note on Cathay Pacific Although this time I start to feel sorry for them, over the years I have never been a fan of Cathay Pacific. Like all companies of UK colonial origins (such as HSBC), historically run by a lot of expats, and in many ways like HK itself (at least in the past), Cathay sets its eyes on the world. There is nothing wrong with that, but what has always been wrong is shortchanging Hong Kong people. Tickets, say to NYC, have always been significantly pricier if bought in HK than NYC. Grant you, due to heavy demand, air ticket prices have always been high in HK, but Cathay has always been the worst offender. Many years ago I took a Cathay flight, and swore not to fly it again. In Economy, the leg room was the worst I have experienced (actually better this time). And even as a Hongkonger, I have never taken to their service, which illustrates the cultural ills of HK. Yes, the attendants speak fluent English but it is their Cantonese that make me cringe. To a Mandarin speaker like me, their announcements are incompetent. HK students excel in a lot of things, but public speaking is just not one of them. To me this is a profound failure in education. In terms of service, at least in Economy, even if I have to change flight, I find other Asian airlines to be superior, and so for years I have mostly taken Korean and Taiwanese airlines. Yes, I don't take US airlines either - they are inferior in food and services. Come to think of it, maybe it's time Cathay changes it's name? Would a Taiwanese airline call itself Formosa Air? Only a HK Bakery would call itself Taipan Bakery - shame on them.

Back to the Future For the last 2 months, knowing I was to leave NYC, which I call my home, I had my apprehensions. And there were a lot of things to do, like registering for government accounts, setting up autopay's and reassigning emails where I have used Google (which does not work in China). But when we touched down in HK, I was surprisingly calm. Not because I identity with the place more than NYC - after all in the most imporrtant ways the HK now is not the HK I knew before. Too many things have happened since I left. Of course everything seemed familiar (but not necessarily comforting). I guess I have a sense that the return may have a role to play in the future. I don't know yet.

The QR Code and Bureaucracy Everyone has to fill in a health declaration form, which generates a QR Code. I generated one back at the JFK airport. I had to stop by stations after stations and each asked me to show the QR Code, many unnecessarily (typical HK). After I filled out some extra forms, some seemingly duplicating much of what's on the Health Declaration form, I was given a Saliva Test Kit and assigned a booth for self-collection (dubious for accuracy imho). After handing that in, an electronic wrist band with its own QR code was assigned to my personal QR code, and I had to download the Stay Home Safe App, which demands every conceivable access, from location to wifi and bluetooth. The lady also made sure my phone number embedded in the QR code rang in front of her. This wrist band supposedly cannot be removed without triggering a notification. Through GRP and more, big brother is surely watching, but I am not sure of its efficacy. Then they checked my passport and HK ID Card and scrutinized the 3 documents. After I got through, I was then assigned a desk and chair in a designated area to wait for the test result.

The Wait and Second Hiccup I felt like a student sitting at the desk. The wait was interminable. Lousy sandwiches made with the equivalence of Wonder Bread were provided with water. I checked my email and discovered to my dismay my Citi credit card for the hotel booking did not go through. I booked on the 17th, but Citi sent me an email asking for confirmation (a counter-fraud measure, since it was charged in HK) after I had boarded the plane on the 21st. Since I did not response Citibank denied the transaction. After being OK'ed, I tried to repay but was not successful. Neither could I pay with my HK credit card. I then noticed the update credit card button and re-entered the same Citi info. Voila! It went through, to my relief. I then spent some time writing this article but my eyes tired quickly. So I spent quite a bit of time looking out. We were situated in Terminal 2, which has been closed down. Outside, all the idle airplanes. After eight hours, I finally got my negative report. 

The Airport This was also the first time I really scrutinized the design. Like the HSBC, it was designed by Norman Foster and Partners (here). The design was much emulated later. Incidentally, Bill Clinton was the first foreign arrival, on Air Force One. Here I have to say, as a very green person, I don't have good opinions of many famous architects. Imho, their designs cater to the colossal egos of themselves and the business and politicians they serve. Despite lip service, most are not close to energy efficient. Even in a hot climate, profuse use of glass and high ceilings are wasteful of energy, and complicated and curvy surfaces have high maintenance costs. Vain bodies and governments just cannot get enough of this kind of "statement" designs. In HK, we are still in the midst of the vastly wasteful building of the West Kowloon Cultural District, also awarded to the same team. I don't find the inside too impressive either - it all left me cold.

To the Hotel I was not the only who thought it strange that no transportation arrangement is made for someone going into quarantine. I took the airport bus (HK has a great network that reaches almost everywhere) and enjoyed the scenery from the upper deck.

Eight Hours of my Life

Bundled up for longtime storage.

From the upper deck of the Airport Bus 

20 October, 2020

Taking Leave

Editor's Announcement: Taking Leave

doctorjohn is leaving New York City tonight, to attend to family matters in Hong Kong and China.

Hong Kong: I shall arrive in HK on Oct 22. Since I am arriving from what is deemed a highly dangerous place (fair enough, for the US is precisely that, though NYC is better than most of the country), even a HK resident is not allowed to go home to quarantine. Instead, I shall be cooped up for 14 days in a tiny hotel room. Now, there is of course wifi, and all things Google are available in HK. There is no better time to write! I have several articles down the pipeline and it shall gradually appear in the next 2 weeks. I shall of course also report on my quarantine experience.

After quarantine, I shall return to my HK home and stay around for a few days to run necessary errands. Then I shall cross the border into China.

China: Now, since HK still has some cases, all HK residents have to be quarantined for 14 days in a designated hotel upon arrival. Another 2 weeks of non-life! Now, anything Google is NOT available in China, so I shall not be able to access my own blog! I am not sure how long I am going to be in China - it could be months. I could of course subscribe to a VPN service, like all expats do (hey, I am an expat myself), but we will see.

When I get to HK, I shall write a more detailed Announcement on arrangements.

Meanwhile, I have already made my colleague mrgoodsound an editor, so he will fill in the gaps when I cannot.

You will hear a lot from me in a few days. Just flying to HK consumes 16 hours of my life, and that is just flight time. So much for now.

14 October, 2020

Auralic Aries Mini Lite DAC-AH Realistic Loudspeakers

Letter from Hong Kong (20-9): Eric L experiences a setback
Virtual Home Visit (15): Realistic Loudspeakers!

Auralic Aries Mini, Laptop, Naim SBL and Home Visit

Contrary to mrgoodsound's recent post on his HP Laptop's performance, I couldn't have been happier with my current setup with my HP Laptop streaming Tidal and Youtube, which comprise now my main source!

Auralic Aries Mini Recently I acquired an Auralic Aries Mini with a local LPS from 2nd hand market and I immediately hooked it up to my system. Got an old iPhone from my wife for song selection; hooked up the Wifi and I was all set to go!

To my disappointment, at once I observed that the soundstage had collapsed, the airiness had completely disappeared and the overall sound had become uninteresting. I had no choice but to put it aside and go back to my Laptop (with the Auralic Vega DAC) and everything became normal again! Later, based on my poor experience, I suspected the cheap LPS did more evil than good. I switched to the unused cheap stock SMPS. The sound improved but was still inferior to my Laptop!

I was very miserable since I had high hopes that the little streamer can be a giant killer. It turned out it was being killed by another David!! I emailed to Auralic and asked them why the sound though my Laptop was way way better than the Aries Mini, but it seemed they did not grasp what I was trying to get at. You see, the Auralic Driver for the Vega that I had downloaded from their website and use on my laptop, I think it automatically upsamples the music files to 384kps from 44.2 or 48  (you can choose different sampling rate through the pull down menu) and it has sounded extremely well and musical. I suspect this free driver software makes all the magic happen! 

My Aries Mini is still here, and I have not given up hope yet (it does register 88.2kHz on some Tidal music files). I will pair it with a proper LPS to see if that really helps. Also I will be receiving an Innuous Zen Mini MkII for trial. My search for streamer has not ended yet, just that progress is slow...

Lite DAC-AH To report on the Lite DAC-AH, which my friend had snatched from me (I poisoned him in fact by lending it to him for trial). He said, once hooked up, it sounded way way better than the internal DAC of his Audionet ART II (Not V2). This little workhorse runs hot but, like my friend said, it does wonders, and costs only HKD 1200! It seemed all the upgrades he made (Audionet bi-amped, top speaker wires from Audioplan and Gotham cables) only served to strengthen the Lite DAC-AH! Well, can't wait to hear the setup, but he lives just too far away. From what he said, the whole system is very musical, smooth and with solid foundation - very promising indeed. [Ed: see Footnote 1]

Home Visit Went to another friend's place to pay a visit to his setup built around some very unusual equipment. All his equipment is housed in his study room. In the picture is the famous TAD TSM-300, but he chose to showcase his cheapo tiny Realistic desktop speakers (8" tall) made in Canada, BUT the crossover is an aftermarket one that cost a whopping USD 1,000!! DIY silver cables, NAS with hard drives and laptop fed through an unnamed (again)  DAC to his multi-TVC passive line amp (cover sealed with special screws to prevent being opened up by customers...) then to Monarch Audio Monoblocks. Routers and DAC also had dedicated LPS (Monarach Audio is designed and built by the former owner of a Hifi shop in HK, selling first generation Audion Silver night). [Ed: see Footnote 2]

To describe the sound: it has an intensity and density that is rarely found in  many setups. I am not saying that my setup in comparison is thin or pointy in imaging, which it is not. But his is remarkably dense and quite neutral and musical. However, it gets a bit congested when playing complicated passages and can only give you limited bass, which is already very impressive, though limited by its physical size. It is always nice to hear different setups to learn from it.

What's Next While I'm still in the midst of looking for a Streamer, the drive is less since the music streamed through Tidal from my Laptop directly connected to my Vega DAC is so involving. Despite not being be the most hifi, the system is extremely musical, natural sounding with no colorations and highly listenable and enjoyable. I can listen 90% of the time to Tidal's random choice of songs and enjoy the music coming out of the system for hours without the urge to adjust or change. Same for playing You Tube videos, which are also very engaging and analog sounding too~. By the way, I have just upgraded to You Tube Premium and happily bade farewell to the annoying ads!!!! It's so satisfyingly and convenient that I seldom play CDs through my Sparkler S503 CDP. I have to say, sometimes the CD sounds a bit more engaging but the convenience of music streaming is so handy that I can comfortably live with the little trade off!

That said, out of impulse, I fetched a pair of the once well regarded NAIM SBL on the cheap and will be used in my office for music during lunchtime or after office hour!! My friend will lend me his MF A1s, and another friend Audioplan speaker cables; add to it my Bluetooth H10U, I'm all set!! I'm still open to shopping for a cheap used amp like NuForce ST120 (for 250USD) or a Cambridge A75 (Duo Transformer mode; was told it's a poor man's Naim).

Stay tuned for more update.

Editor's Footnotes: 1) Lite makes a vast range of products, from circuit boards (e.g. of famous preamps), DIY and semi-DIY stuff. They are good value, though often clones (which I try not to promote). They make several DACs. The cheap and popular DAC-AH has been around for a long long time (see this enjoythemusic review). It was suggested to Eric L by Dexler Poppe. I am not surprised at all that it was much more musical than German Audionet, not one of my favorites (here is an episode where cheap iPod/Wadia iTransport was preferred to expensive German Acuustic Arts CDP); 2) This Home Visit illustrates the lack of space of a lot of HK audiophiles. The texture should be pretty good as there is not that much distance between the loudspeakers! European and Asian readers may not know about Realistic. It is the brand of the now defunct Radio Shack, which sold drivers and DIY stuff. Certain of their loudspeakers have an underground following. This model looks like the well regarded Minimus 7. Incidentally, the TAD TSM-300 will sound much better if placed horizontally, though he may not have the space.

06 October, 2020

From mrgoodsound: Music from the computer!

By mrgoodsound

Hello! I apologize for the lack of articles from my end, there has not been enough time to listen to gear let alone write about it. 

Today's article is about a very advanced subject; one that many people on the internet, in forums, think that they have all figured out. Unfortunately, like many things in audio, it's complicated.

I am talking about how to listen to music using a computer as a digital source. Streamers are the latest craze in high-end audio, and manufacturers were quick to launch products which are essentially closed-system computers in fancy cases for obscene prices. More tech savvy users have already figured out how to copy the efficacy of these products for a fraction of the cost using an inexpensive Raspberry Pi mini computer and some specific add-ons. 

The oldest and most successful computer for music playback is the CD player! Its technical weak point is the optical conversion, reading a disc via a laser system and generating an electrical data stream. But besides this, it has many advantages the modern computer does not: a short signal path, absence of interference, construction using fine vintage components designed for audio, a bare minimum of software, etc. 

As much as I like to play CDs, I have the need to listen to rare recordings which were never issued on CD, or have become impossible to obtain on factory discs. As much as the streamer and networked audio fad has taken off, I have other specific requirements which preclude me from such a solution.

For my digital source, I require:

  • The ability to stream Tidal, for modern recordings
  • The ability to stream web-based content, such as YouTube, NML, internet radio, sites containing archived rips of 78 rpm records
  • The ability to view music videos and concert films while listening
  • The ability to rip and burn CDs
  • The ability to play local files without an internet connection
  • The ability to output sound via USB (more on this later)
So basically, I need a regular computer with a monitor, mouse and keyboard. I do not fit into the headless (controlled remotely) streamer crowd but at the same time want the best sound quality possible. What to do?
For the past year, I have been using a modern HP laptop running Windows 10. It has been connected to a USB-to-S/PDIF converter which in turn feeds my DAC. Why a converter? My DAC only has S/PDIF input and the number of ways to get a clean S/PDIF signal out of a computer are very limited. This solution worked OK, but the sound was far from inspiring. I felt for a long time that my digital transport was the weak link in my chain, and I have also felt historically that at least as much attention should be provided to the transport as is to the DAC.
Generally, laptops are not good for audio. They need a switch-mode power supply to charge the battery and all of the components are tightly packed together increasing potential for electronic interference. Generally, Windows is terrible for audio. As an operating system, it already has a reputation for being unnecessarily bloated, and the way it manages the interface between audio hardware such as a USB DAC and the software responsible for audio playback is no exception. There was a strong desire to move to a silent desktop computer using a non-Windows OS.
a simplified view of the Windows audio stack

Shiny new hardware
Luckily, I had an opportunity to purchase an early 2008 Mac Pro from a close friend for a very reasonable sum. This machine had seen service inside a recording studio, alongside a fleet of similar machines used for production and file backup. They specifically used this model of Mac Pro not because they were too cheap to upgrade but because there was no point, the newer machines from Apple had seen serious design flaws and reliability issues due to cost cutting.
I took the machine home along with an original Apple display and installed it in place of my Windows laptop. After an hour of messing around with playback software and settings, I started to listen. I expected results, but what I experienced was transformative. The sound was much improved in terms of dynamics, clarity, intelligibility and timing from both internet and local sources! How can this be?
The answer is a mix of hardware and software. On the hardware side, the 2008 machine is simply something to behold. Aside from an all-metal construction and very thick PCBs, even the quality of capacitors on the motherboard and inside the power supply were more like what you would see in a modern audio component than a computer. I was told the power supply in this particular unit was a special part number from Apple designed for low-noise professional applications. I haven't verified if that's actually true, but it would help. 
OSX playback software
On the software side, Mac OSX is simply very far ahead in terms of audio optimization when compared to Windows. There are no competing APIs such as WASAPI, ASIO, etc. but instead just the Apple-maintained low latency CoreAudio system. There is no myriad of hidden settings and optimizations to make scattered around the operating system, no alternative USB drivers to deploy, everything kind of just works. There is not as great a choice in playback software, but this is fine as I was able to find an honest one relatively quickly. 
I first tried Audirvana, which seems to be the go-to 'audiophile' playback for Mac. Supposedly it bypasses the system audio mixer and performs some other optimizations. Unfortunately, it does not sound very good to my ears. The low end is fairly boosted, leaving not much clarity in the lower mids, and the overall sound presentation is very 'hi-fi'. I can see how it would impress others, but I quickly moved on.
I next tried SoundByte, which is actually a sound clip carting software made for DJs and radio operators. You load up sound files and then have a bunch of options to play them back, fade them into each other, etc. Of course I didn't use any of these tools and simply create a playlist of the files I want. For whatever reason, SoundByte is the most honest player: all frequencies have the correct level, the sound gains in depth and more subtle intonations are revealed. 
Older is better?
I should've probably stopped here, already extremely satisfied with the quality of playback I was getting along with the absolute convenience of a computer connected to the internet, but curiosity got the better of me. I read more than once that older versions of Mac OSX sound better, and I decided to try one. My machine came pre-loaded with OSX 10.11 El Capitan. This is basically the oldest version of OSX (2015) which still has wide compatibility with modern software such as web browsers and media players. It ran reasonably well on my 2008 Mac, but there was still an occasional slowdown and freeze.
I decided to go way back and settled on OSX 10.6 Snow Leopard (2009), for several reasons. First, it would've been a period correct OS to be running on my particular machine. Second, it was the first release of OSX where Apple abandoned PowerPC compatibility and thus had a general reputation for being stable and lightweight. Third, I read a few anecdotal impressions praising the sound of this release over subsequent OSX versions. 
Since the Mac Pro has multiple hot-swappable hard drive bays, it was very easy to install an alternative version of OSX without interrupting my current installation. Two hours later and I had a fresh install of Snow Leopard, ready to test with music. To my surprise, my USB audio device was detected instantly and playback worked right away without additional configuration. Not yet internet connected and not wanting to use iTunes, I simply pressed play on the first file I found through the system default 'Quick Look' media player. 
Well, I was rather stunned at the results. There was another leap in sound quality, perhaps even to the same magnitude of jumping ship from Windows to Mac in the first place. I immediately heard greater articulation, finer detail, less aggressive and glassy sound, better rhythm and timing, and a more correct volume between instruments in the mix. How can this be? I don't really know. All I know is that at this point preconceptions about computers and digital audio should be left at the door, and the only solution for good sound is through tinkering and exploration. I went back to the Windows laptop for a reality check and was disgusted at what I heard, a sound that was simultaneously dull and aggressive. Go figure.
Trouble in paradise
My victory celebration ended when I tried to go online. The old version of Safari that came standard with the installation was simply unusable, it couldn't even load the Apple website. I had to download an old, unsupported build of Google Chrome using another computer and transfer it over. Next, I realized that the TIDAL web player wouldn't work. Well, this was to be expected. Lastly I tried YouTube and while it did play audio just fine, going full screen caused the video to become choppy and lag the entire system. Such is the fate of old operating systems, but at least I can still listen to rare and historical recordings online.
Like Icarus, I ended up flying too close to the sun. My installation disc for Snow Leopard was version 10.6.3, and the version recommended to me by a foreign acquaintance for best sound was 10.6.6. I went to Apple's website, downloaded the appropriate patch, and let it install. Upon rebooting the computer, it just hangs and will not start. I suspect a display driver error as the original video card in the system was replaced with a better one. Oh woe is me, as I became greedy and could not settle for one large jump in sound quality for a day. I will have to erase the drive later and reinstall 10.6.3. Thankfully, I can go back to using my original El Capitan installation at any time just by holding down a key during system restart.
Next steps
The results of these experiments have convinced me the old Macintosh computer is a very suitable digital transport. I would not recommend the Mac Pro, it is very large and rather expensive, but a Mac Mini of a certain vintage is an excellent choice and will fit into an audio rack. In fact, there was a period of time in audiophilia before the popularity of networked audio and streaming that Mac Mini's ruled the roost for music servers. I would not recommend the modern ones however.
For me, I am curious at just how farther this can go. I plan to acquire a PowerMac G4 from 1999 to see how it sounds for playback of local files. I am doubtful it will support my USB device but there are other ways to extract an audio signal from it. If this all sounds quite insane, it probably is, but it's also fun. I got quite a kick out of using an 11 year old operating system to play music, and messing around with software is free. The best advice I can give for computer audio is to dedicate the computer system to the task of playing audio, and ditch Windows entirely.

04 October, 2020

The Fumbling Audiophile

HiFi Basics XI: Elementary Errors and the Fumbling Audiophile

We know Newbies in HiFi run into a lot of problems, but what about Experienced Audiophiles? I tell you, all of them (us) fumble from time to time, for no good reason. First of course, there is Murphy's Law, which means when your buddies come to listen something will almost always go wrong. But we are not talking about that. Let me relate to you two of my embarrassing fumbles this past year.

1. Almost a year ago, I took out my Almarro A318B (pictured; click to enlarge) for a run. The machine heats up the filaments for almost 2 minutes before unmuting itself. Soon I heard popping sound in the left channel and shut it down. The same the second time. It also would not bias (recommended is 0.18V; no more than 0.21V). I got frustrated and put it back into the box. Recently I decided to get a new matched pair of 6C33C, and they are not cheap (over $100). I installed the stock Russian 6SN7 and 6SL7 and ran the new tubes. Great music, no bias problem. The next day, I installed the same 2 old-stock N7/L7 which I have kept in the box, expecting a better sound. Guess what, a pop in the left channel! I went to test the N7/L7. The L7 tested great. The N7 passed but for one triode I saw the meter drift erratically in both directions. There! That 6SN7 is faulty! Yes, tubes can measure well and still be faulty, particularly when warming up. I exchanged it with a RCA 5692 and the sound was perfect. Humbled, I reflected on why I had assumed it was the 6C33C that was at fault. Why had I not considered the possibility of either of the small tubes being the culprit? Perhaps the biasing problem compounded my confusion. Yesterday, I swapped in the original pair of of 6C33C and, guess what, they worked perfectly. And this time, there is no bias problem; in fact, they bias just like the new pair. Well, what happened back then? Unlikely as it is, I could only surmise that the faulty tube somehow messed up the bias. Well well, this is as it should be. I never used this amp that much and the stock tubes still should have plenty of life left (especially since I now run them at only 0.13-0.15V bias; mind you in NYC my area voltage can be 126V, dangerously near the tolerance limit of gears designed for 117V +/- 10%). I could have saved $100 if I had been more thorough before.

In case you want to know in advance, the Almarro works gloriously as an integrated amp with the Harbeth P3ESR SE.

2. About half a year ago, I decided to fire up my AES-1 300B amp. It would not turn on (not even filament). I thought it was likely a rectifier (solid state) problem and took it to my friend Paul. Some time later, when he got to it, he said it was the fuse, and that it sounded pretty good! Now, that really was an inexcusable error in judgement. Not checking the fuse when something refuses to turn on! Elementary, my dear Watson! I have probably connected and disconnected, assembled and disassembled things more times than I have eaten a meal, and I forgot to check that?

Incredible as it may seem, it happens to everyone. We are too smart or over-confident for our own good. We assume things based on our incomplete knowledge and experience, which result in imperfect algorithms. Advice: be methodical always and don't jump to conclusions. 

When there is no Sound or just Hum This is unquestionably the most common problem, particularly when we are changing components. The more complicated the system, the more components hooked up, the greater the likelihood. The more things we change in a short period, the more likely too. Some pointers:

  • This is least likely to happen when we just change the amp. If it happens, do check the fuse of the amp. Turn off can sometimes blow the fuse (such was the case with my AES-1, as it worked well the last time I used it many years ago). Fuse can fail for no reason, but if it blows twice in succession, don't try again and get help (make sure the ratings are the same, and distinguish slow-blo from the regular fast-blo).
  • Changing anything else in the chain is a different matter. People like me don't turn the amp off (I don't usually use an integrated). I'd keep the amp on and just turn the Input Selector to the next position (mute button is less common). Now, depending on what is changed, component or cable, the selector can be the one on the preamp, DAC or Phonoamp, and that can cause confusion, particularly when your visual access to the rack and cables are limited. Compound that problem with my habit of leaving unused interconnects around the back of the rack, and it can make for a confused scenario. It is not uncommon to see big guys crawling on their stomachs for up to a half hour before finding that little switch is in the wrong position. Advice: check all your selectors and switches. With vintage stuff, the problem is compounded by the unreliability of the contacts, which often cut out. With old preamps that have tone control and loudness and monitor switches, any of those can result in bad contact and no sound. Flip them on and off diligently.
  • Mating of the RCA Connectors can be an exasperating problem (which is why professionals use XLR or BNC and other even more sturdy ones). Just like in the human world, NOT every RCA Female could happily couple with every Male. Now, this is not lewd, but the truth. The Female RCAs vary somewhat in outer ground collar (metal) diameter (and pliancy), and the hole diameter and tightness (pliancy of teflon or polymers). The Male RCAs also have varying diameters of their hot pins and their outer collar vary greatly in pliancy. A stud hot pin with a tight outer grip will mate well with a Female RCA that can grip it well. On "high-end" equipment, the mating is usually good, but, with the technical contact solved, is the resultant "sound" always good? Many, like the vintage inclined, the Japanese and I (and mrgoodosund I think), do not think so. Personally, I think WBT, Cardas posts, thick spades and the likes degrade the sound because of their large metal bulk and contact area. Some are better though, like Eichmann Bullet Plug (now named something else) but they are expensive and tend to ruin vintage or generic females found on many of our preferred machines. This problem is compounded several folds if we mix modern and vintage, as I do. Many vintage female connectors, including those used on Shindo (for their sound), tend to lose elasticity dues to the relative softness of the insulating material, which deform after repeated penetration. One has to wiggle gently to see if contact can be established. Sometimes wedging a slab (I use paper roll) between the R and L connectors will make the penetration angled and made the females happy. Like humans, not every RCA connector is the same. Another example. Just the other day, my LTA (used as preamp) and Wavac could not mate and had a loud hum. I had to try 3 interconnects to solve the problem. My cherished KCAG with my favorite connector and old AN AN-Vx would not make contact unless at certain angles. An An-V solved it (and it sounds good). Come to think of it, with generic cables that come with TVs, computers, gaming stuff etc, NO ONE has ever experienced any problem. BUT, the so-called audiophile stuff are all over the place, often incompatible. A condemnation.
There are a lot more stupid instances, but that will be enough for now,

30 September, 2020

Lang Lang is an Audiophile?

New York Diary (20-32): Lang Lang is an audiophile?

Note (10-2-20): Thanks to comments by readers, the audio setup is confirmed to be in photographer Hartwig Klappert's studio in Berlin, but he is not the photographer for this album.

I was streaming Lang Lang's new recordings (one studio and one live) of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which has garnered mixed reviews so far. It is the slowest and most romantic on record. Myself? I find it refreshing. Too many recordings are too alike - not this one. I have actually listened to both several times and grow increasingly fond of them.

As usual for DG's marketing, inside the booklet are many superfluous and gratuitous photos of him in various poses. One caught my eyes. Hey, some serious gear there!

Can we name the gears? They seem to be all vintage. The R2R is a Studer/Revox (A77?); the turntable is an iconic Micro Seiki but I am not sure which one. Can someone name the amp?

Basic Repertoire Bach's Goldberg Variations on the piano was made famous by Glenn Gould's fast and exciting (and iconic) performance, which for many is still the reference (he later made a digital remake that is a little slower). Lang Lang's is the slowest and strangest, but undeniably beautiful.

25 September, 2020

R.I.P. audiopro

R.I.P. audiopro

Doctorjohn: It is with the greatest sadness that I announce the passing of audiopro. Vivek informed me a few days ago by email. I literally immediately broke into goosebumps and felt uncomfortable for hours after. Why, he emailed me just four days prior to this news. It is still not clear how he died, but he was way too young.

audiopro's first article for us, A walk down memory lane, certainly found resonance with many people, including myself. He wrote and listened with exactitude, with a touch of philosophical musing; it is too bad he did not get to contribute more. We shall miss him.

Although I have never met him and his presence in this blog is brief, I have felt from the first day that he is a kindred spirit. As I am in communication with Vivek and sometimes Prem, I have always felt that I'd get to meet them all one day. After all, India is one country that I have always wanted to visit.

As remembrance, this blog would not post anything new for three days.

mrgoodsound: This is sad news. I did not have the chance to get to know audiopro but I would consider anyone with the sensitivity to music (something many in this hobby do not have, despite their pretenses) at least somewhat connected in spirit. I wish the best for his family and friends.

Dexler Poppe: Terrible news about audiopro! Actually his first article greatly inspired me to accept your invitation to your blog. I found it fascinating that even though we live so far apart, our experiences and background are more similar than different. In fact, I did hope that readers will eventually come to the same conclusion when they read our respective articles. At this junction in history, I think it’s a message worth delivering. Or would have been. I’m deeply saddened. This year has been just too intense already.

Eric L: When I heard that audiopro had passed away, I felt sorry for the loss of a seasoned veteran who has in depth knowledge of music and equipment. Even I never knew him, I could feel strongly from his post his passion for music.May he rest in peace in hifi heaven.

Editor: I append a viol composition by Marin Marais, Tombeau pour Monsieur de Sainte Colombe, written to commemorate his teacher's death (their story popularized by the film Touts Les Matins du Monde). The playlist is very good. I have always loved viol music - that melancholic tint.

22 September, 2020

My musical journey

Letter from Hungary (20-1): Dexler Poppe got into Music Early

Editor: I am glad to introduce Dexler Poppe. Regular readers may have already read many of his comments. He introduces himself here, and will follow up with more articles. He is Hungarian, but writes perfect English! Without further ado:

When John asked me to write something for the blog, I was surprised. And hesitated a little. But I found the idea had an appealing overtone of adventurousness, so I couldn't resist to say yes.

I believe it is just fitting to start with introduction, so here it is. This is the story of audiophile-me.

When I was a kid, there really wasn't that much music in our house. My parents just weren't into it. We had a small Siemens cassette player/recorder and maybe a dozen tapes plus those with the children stories and songs. But it soon turned out, that I was wired differently. I loved music form a very early age on and was quite sensitive to sounds. This went to the extreme of me practically banning a weekly scientific tv program in our household at the tender age of 3, because I hated the voice of the presenter. To complicate things, the intro of the same tv show impressed me quite a bit in great part due to the music (as shown in this youtube.)

But then of course my parents had to switch channel quickly, before the dreaded presenter came on screen.

I was also fascinated by the mechanics of music playback. I just loved the click-clack of the buttons of our little Siemens player, the ability to detune radio stations with a simple turn of a knob and that most fascinating of all features: recording. I don't consider recording magic anymore, but other then that, my feelings towards equipment hasn't changed much during the years. So yes, I admit it openly, that I love the gear - a lot. In fact, I asked for some sort of new playback equipment every time when I could justify it.

Having wandered aimlessly on the musical landscape in my first 9 years, one day after school together with my friends we decided it's time to consolidate things. Since we liked a number of rock bands, we figured they will be best served if each of us chooses one as a primary focus. My band was Guns n' Roses, and so it became my duty to be the expert on all things GNR. This is how I learnt about all the different factors that form and influence musicians from idols, peers, through personal traumas to socio-cultural context.

As I learnt more and more, I got to know more and more bands. In practice, this meant having copied tapes in record stores (re: audiopro) and having pen-friends who had access to more obscure stuff. At a certain stage down this road, we got hold of the album ...And the Circus Leaves Town from Kyuss. I can still vividly remember the hot summer afternoon when we first listened to it. That album has a very unique sound and as a consequence, an atmosphere that was unlike anything I heard before. That was when I learnt that there's more to music than a memorable guitar riff and a catchy refrain. (Even though Kyuss can do catchy very well.)

From this point onwards, things escalated quickly. Music started to become increasingly important in my life. We've published a fanzine with my friends. I started listening to electronic music as I became familiar with - then positively underground - genres like trip-hop and drum and bass. I felt equally at home in rock pubs and techno clubs. One night I heard a program on a small community radio station, that played experimental music. They talked about an upcoming concert by Finnish noise duo, Pan Sonic. I decided to go. I died and reborn that night. That was the most disturbing, uplifting and beautiful musical experience I had up until then. A total assault on the senses, yet joyful and cathartic. I learnt that night that music has no definition and it was liberating.

Soon after the promoters of the Pan Sonic concert reached out via their newsletter in search of volunteers to help organising their first festival. I volunteered and eventually became a core member of the team for more than a decade. I also had two music blogs and wrote album and concert reviews for a now defunct online magazine.
And at some point on this road I found an old Tesla turntable thrown out. It seemed to be in fine condition, so I took it home. While it was in my possession, it worked properly for about 23 minutes in total, but that was sufficient to make me a hifi enthusiast beside being music enthusiast. This is a story for a following post.

20 September, 2020

Update on Auralic Vega, Gotham cables , Tidal vs CD , Gaincard with single or duo Power Humpty

Letter from Hong Kong (20-8): Eric L updates on his system, with Streamer on the Horizon

Since the acquisition of the Auralic Vega DAC, I have been able to do a lot of comparisons of different combinations and see which setting yields the best SQ.

Gotham GAC4 IC, power cord, 10700 Digital cable
One of my biggest surprise is the use of Gotham GAC4 I.C. and power cord. In a nutshell, the soundstage has brightened up and feels energized. Great transient, natural and non-fatiguing. For the price, it's a steal and puts many multi-thousand dollar cables to shame and make them sound manipulated. Their digital cable 10070 (75ohm) is still under run-in and being compared with my 47 OTA cable. Initial impression is positive: more energy, enhanced resolution and, again, a brighter presentation and exciting. After a while, I began to miss the 47's more refined and sinewy manner, which gives music more flow and elegance. That said, the 10070 is far from broken in, so I'll give it sometime to prove itself [Editor: see Footnote 1].

Single Power Humpty or Duo on my Gaincard? Decisions , Decisions
When I first purchased my 47Lab Gaincard, I bought 2 Power Humpties (which give 50 wpc), as I had presumed that my Dynaudio would be difficult to drive (proven by my tenure with the low power int. amp from Sparkler Audio). I used it for many years with no problem until some months ago, when I decided on a hunch to disconnect the cord from one Humpty and lump the power cord to the other Humpty in order to run solo - the result was more music involvement and foot tapping! Hence, I have been running Single Humpty until a few days ago, when I wanted to see if my current setup still justify the single Humpty configuration or does it benefit from going duo? I then hooked up the other Humpty again. With duo Humpties, soundstage is more relaxed, wider and deeper; instrument separation has improved; more details can be picked up; and the content of music and intention of musicians are better conveyed (30% gain). But that comes at an expense of a slight loss in PRaT and foot tapping, less so on the take no prisoner approach (10-15% loss). With the Duo setup I'm having now, I don't know if I will go solo again or remain in the duo mode. But currently, I rather enjoy the additional volume of information and the less strained and more at ease music presentation that I get from Duo Humpties. [Ed: Footnote 2]

Tidal SQ
SQ from Tidal can be extremely good if the recording is good. Hooking up with my Laptop yields some surprisingly pleasing sound. Neither cold nor warm, musical yet not over the top, always well poised. If the passage demands dynamics, it provides (aced) and if the passage is slow and sublime, it will go slow yet with tension and good preservation of the important spaces between notes. Often, with a great recording, it can surpass my CDP's performance!! I cannot, though, pick up significant difference between HiFi mode or Master mode (which Tidal claims uses MQA). My verdict, Tidal is highly recommended given the extremely reasonable fees, range of selection and very respectable recording quality! That said, I have been hearing less Youtube lately... Let me play Hiromi and Chic's Spain tomorrow!

Sparkler 503 CDP standalone vs CD through Vega DAC
Running the same setup with 47 as dig cable, I sometimes cannot distinguish clearly if I'm running the CDP through the Vega or not. Yes there are minor differences, but not to a point that I have a clear preference: the standalone CDP has slightly more PRat and Vega has more ease and better interpretation of slow passages. Changing from 47 to Gotham dig cable brings two different styles as I have mentioned above. So I will review it again once the latter is broken-in.

Preview: Search for my first Streamer
I haven't stopped searching for a streamer. After weighing many options for SQ/size/price/versatility, I have narrowed it down to a few: Innous Zen Mini Mk2 or 3, Lumin U1 Mini and Aurender N100H. Each one has its pros and cons and they all come with a price tag less than 1500 USD.  Meanwhile, my friend has promised to loan me the Zenmini Mk2 but it has not arrived yet. Last night, I chanced upon a second-hand Auralic Aries Mini (less than $400USD) that came with a Jay's Audio LPS. I took a plunge; it should be a decent little box which I can easily sell if I upgrade. Apart from not having a CD Ripper, it ticked all the boxes for me , it can stream Tidal, has 500GB internal storage plus a slot for SSD to use as server. Most importantly, it's really compact in size! But one needs an iPad or iPhone to work with it. I dug out my ancient first gen iPad, which has not been used in ages, but the charging cord is missing...damn! When things all work out, I'll report back in detail!

Editor's Footnotes: [1] I have used both of these as digital cable and my impressions are similar. The 47 Lab is smooth and not so detailed. The Gotham 10070 is indeed very detailed and one of my references, though it can be sharp in some systems. Both are good but I prefer Belden 1694 for overall performance; [2] both Herb Reichert in Listener and Steve Rochlin in enjoythemusic preferred just one Dumpty.

17 September, 2020

Women Conductors Sibelius

New York Diary (20-31): Engagement, Fulfillment
Classical Recommendations: Women Conductors, Sibelius and Santa Claus; Music in Time of Covid

Engagement and Fulfillment that I am talking about are the Spiritual kind. During our lifetime, unusual opportunities sometimes come knocking at the door, and sadly we don't often recognize them as what they can be until after the fact. They could be in any realm, be them career, capital gain or whatever, but they are more serious if they are in the realm of the higher emotions, like love. Personally, although I, like most, have made my share of wrong decisions, I never overdo the regret thing - it doesn't help and we have to look forward and make the best of our state. And we should grow and acknowledge our past deficiencies.

What I am really talking about is music - how it comes to shake music lovers to their cores. This is different for everyone. For me, I don't even remember what germinated in me to cause me to buy a humble setup so long ago; all I know is the joy it brought me. I still remember when I first heard the Sibelius Violin Concerto and Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4, on radio - the emotional upheaval that I felt. I knew it spoke to me, and I have never stopped exploring since then - Full Engagement. And the Music Fulfilled me in Return. What we put in rewards us in multiples - I believe that, in any genre (and in audio). Yes, to fully engage oneself is hard work and takes commitment, but the rewards are huge.

It didn't happen when I was younger. But, for the past decade at least, on the rare occasions that the music making moved me beyond description, tears would stream down down my face. This happened more in live performances but also at home, particularly during the pandemic. I am sure music is not the only medium through which this could happen. Holistic endeavors, like Yoga, probably can do this too. In particular, I know for a fact that many who have attended stringent Buddhist Retreats can sometimes attain an alter state, and not a few cry out loud after the experience, and say they don't know why.

Physiologically, as a medically trained person, I'd say the yoga, or meditation, or retreat, or whatever, alter the balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. Then, there are the brain hormones, like Serotonin, which can infuse us with positive emotions. It is likely a valley and trough. But, does it matter? Going through these emotions I believe is healthy for us. It s better that we can cry rather than not.

Crying in such a situation is not asking for help, but attaining a higher importance. It shares our spirits, and we acknowledge there are higher sentiments that we cannot control as mortals, sentiments that are effusive and, I believe, beneficial to mankind. For the youtubes I am sharing, read also the comments, some incredibly eloquent. I firmly believe being appreciative of spiritual beauty makes us better and kinder people, and contribute to a better world.
Classical Recommendations and Basic Repertoire
Just today I came across this very well crafted article (with podcasts) on Beethoven's 5th Symphony. Give it a try!
Women Conductors are getting more common. I heard quite a few in Hong Kong. Yip Wing Sze, a past winner of the Besancon competition, has been head of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta for a long time. While she is OK, many who came after her offered much more excitement. With the Hong Kong Philharmonic, I heard the exciting Zhang Xian, Carolyn Kuan and Elim Chan, from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, who hold posts with the New Jersey Symphony, Hartford Symphony and Antwerp Symphony, respectively. In New York, I have heard bigger names, like Marin Alsop and the incomparable Simone Young. There are many others in the pipeline that I'd like to hear.

Sibelius Like Bruckner, Sibelius is a one-off; there are no others like him. Writers have struggled to describe the alternately sparse and rousing nature of his music, making allusions like: paean to the great Finnish landscape, or, glimpse into eternity, etc. While his first two symphonies have its Tchaikovsky influences, I think they already show him as his own man. In the Second Symphony, an audience favorite, there are many amazing passages. In the following video, from the excellent Frankfurt Symphony series (few ads, all HD), Rising star Susanna Malkki conducted brilliantly. As a matter of fact, I have not heard better (including the benchmark, Barbirolli's Royal Philharmonic recording). I was so captivated that, at 14:52, when the strings floated the melody, tears streamed down my face. You ought to listen from the start, to catch how a master conductor builds it up; at least start 2-3 minutes before.

While we are on Sibelius, I recently heard the valedictory Ondine cycle, where Leif Segerstam conducts the Helsink Orchestra. In this video, Segerstam conducted the Sinfonica de Galicia, a susrpsingly accomplished orchestra that played with great color, in Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade. Note that this was in June, during the pandemic!!! You can see one player in the last row wearing a mask. Salut for their courage. The comments are fun. One says: "...I finally know what Santa does for the rest of the year..." :-)

13 September, 2020

C7 Figure of Eight RFI


Bottom, single sleeve C7; top, double sleeve C7.

New York Diary (20-30): RFI and the Power Cord (C7)

One day, while streaming I heard a faint but discordant strand of music in the mix. I paused the music and found the RFI picking up radio. I stepped closer to the loudspeakers and could hear the DJ talking. Highly irritating. It was not a constant but would happen randomly.

I was pretty sure it had something to do with the Micromega MyDAC, which has a SM type supply. I swapped out the Kimber KCAG (braided 3-strand silver) for a shielded cable - no use. And so it went on for a couple of days.

Yesterday, not being able to find my spare ferrite ring clamp, I decided to swap the power cable. The small Micromega uses the figure-of-eight (C7) connector. The cable I had in has a thin flat sleeve (bottom one in pic). I exchanged it for one double its thickness, with the 2 conductors running side by side in separate sleeves (like a lamp cord). Voila! RFI elminated! So the replacement has better shielding!

Just a vignette...

Basic Repertoire Brahms wrote 2 beautiful Piano Concertos, which are among his most passionate works. Concerto No. 2 unusually has 4 movements. The Andante (starting 27:38) is most lovely for its dialogue between the orchestra (especially the solo cello) and the piano. Yuja Wang plays with the Munich Philharmonic under Valery Gergiev, during their Japanese tour.