27 July, 2008

Home Visit: pigdog's den

Fig: Altec 604 in large DIY cabinet
Courtesy rcwy, I recently met pigdog, who is such a nice guy. I believe he is the only gentleman I have met since hifienthusiast. The rest of you need not apply.

He occupies two large flats on the same level of an old building, part of which used for studio. His hifi is placed in an irregular L-shaped room. The Altec 604 is a late verion, with Mantaray horns. He uses this in conjuction with Altec 288C/woodhorn and a Fostex supertweeter that resembles JBL 077, all connected with ultra-thin DIY 47 Lab cables. The speakers are too close together for my taste, but he does get out of them the fast Altec sound with horny presence.

Fig: 47 Lab Shigaraki, Lite DAC, DIY preamp/300B amp

Unlike me, pigdog was not enamored of the non-oversampling 47 Lab DAC, so he partnered the transport with Lite tubed DAC. However I find the delivery of CDs just a little matter-of-fact and miss the mellifluous quality of the flimsy Shigaraki.

The DIY preamp employs tube rectification and, unusually, was designed around the ECC32 tube. The DIY amp uses 6SN7 and 6J7 to drive 300B. Here Full Music "Mesh-plate" 300B is used (I don't personally like this tube). The amp gave a reasonable performance overall but failed in power with our Water Lily Shostakovich CD. Last time I visited, pigdog was using the Leak 12.1, which would have given more power.

Fig: Nordic Concept turntable

pigdog plays mostly LP and has a really nice collection. We found Muddy Waters, Divox 4 seasons etc. The Garrad 301 with what looks like a Clearaudio arm seems to be collecting dust. He played first the EMT 930 and the sound was really upfront. Most of us preffered the more mellow character of the Nordic Concept. This is the first time I met this turntable, unusal looking to say the least! Its arm is also unusual, OEM'ed by Schroeder I believe. Catridge is the 47 Lab MC Bee and the DIY phonoamp uses 3x 6922.

Fig: Mystery Fullrange

Then we switched to his fullrange speakers, housed in a DIY Lancaster cabinet. It's not clear whether the drivers are Tannoy or Vitavox or what.

Sound is very decent and many present preferred them to the more neutral 604. The replay of the rare Radka Toneff LP earned all of our admirations. Sound is a little soft and constricted, maybe supertweeter or a larger cabinet and higher powered amps would help. The venue is certainly not small!

Fig: A nicer dog than what we have seen recently!

pigdog is an animal lover and has 4 dogs adopted from the ASPCA. One of them is blind! This one is funny looking and really affectionate.

The phtography books are also magnificent!

"Everybody is talking about it!" (from the "Citizen Kane" poster in the back.

25 July, 2008

Review: SHINDO Claret preamplifier

The CLARET is a RARE preamp, an older model of Shindo that helped put Shindo on the map. Its circuit is simple but regarded as extremely well implemented by a very large following in the DIY circle. The popular Thorsten Loesch has always championed it. The good Thorsten also left a whole folder of Shindo pics in a Shindo file in the FILES section of my Yahoo group. In this link you shall find the circuit as well as a DIY project:


Years ago, my friend Ringo bought it from Ebay and he generously let me listen for a long time. I was really impressed and almost bought it from him when he sold it, eventually to yet another friend Simon hing, who is now using it together with Shindo 300B monoblocks (not at all enough power to drive his TAD 2402). During its time with me, I knew its rarity and took some pics, so I can share them with you now.

The preamp is exceptionally well-built, using mostly hard wiring in conjunction with a little circuit board and compartmentalization to reduce noise. See the shielded phono amplification.

The 12Ax7's in the phonostage have damper rings around them, the 12AT7/12AY7 in the line stage doesn't. Selected vintage components are used, as you can see. Does this not remind you of the Marantz and other vintage preamps of yore?

It's difficult to characterize the sound. I would say it is neutral, fast and quiet. All that despite the presence of many vintage parts in the preamp! That goes to show you implementation is the most important and forget about pre-conceived notions. The phonostage, though just MM, is supremely clean, effortless and powerful, surprisingly better with MCs than many a weaker MC stage! The linestage is a little on the "yang" side, but I'd not like to give the wrong impression that there is anything harsh sounding here. It's a super preamp for those who like tube gears that veer a little towards the neutral side. Its performance in just about every aspect of sound reproduction, including dynamics and rhythm-and-pace, is exceptional. It gives you music with a good measure of presence and is a good re-producer of live music if you partner it well.

Although Shindo shall never sound like many clinical sounding modern tube gears, still, it is not for those "vintage sound" lovers that we see so often here, for all the wrong reasons.

24 July, 2008

Overview: SPENDOR loudspeakers

pic: the current iterations of the Classic series.

Overview: Spendor Classics

SPENDOR is the speaker for tube addicts. They boast uniformly
beautiful treble and mid-range, perhaps at the expense of ultimate bass, but throughout the mid-band they are ALWAYS just RIGHT. Compared to the smooth integration of Spendor, most modern transducers are exercises in tonal mismatch and discontinuity. The crossover of Spendor is always seamless, almost like a full range. Many models are best buys. I am a die-hard Spendor fan who speaks from experience. To date I have personally used the following Spendors: SP1, SP1/2, SP2/2, S20, SP100, and LS3/5A (old 11 ohm and modern bi-wirable 11 ohm), and I have listened to the BC1, Prelude/2, 7/1 and 9/1, and S3/5.
SP1 (and BC1)
Basically these are very closely related 3-ways sealed speakers and they sound that way. They share the same tweeter and midrange units, and hence have much the same open and light, but refined treble and midrange, with VERY good details, and surprising speed. The SP1 has improved bass which sounds a bit tighter and not as lugubrious as BC1. But overall they are indeed similar, though I prefer the crisper sound of SP1. It's really unfortunate that HK people use BC1 in their small rooms and many suffer booming. If any complaint can be lodged at these speakers, it is that they are less textured than speakers like ATC. So, while nice for Teresa Tang and Aaron Neville, chamber music, jazz, or plucked strings, one sometimes wishes for a bit more weight for baritones and rock and roll.

are those people who regard these as larger LS3/5A's. That's NONSENSE. These are much superior to the LS3/5A in ALL ways, including vocals. Of course some people listen to these in a room of 70 ft, suffer from booming, yet speak with "authority"! Put them in a large room, do the bass right and they walk all over the LS3/5A. Another virtue of these speakers is that they work well with SE amps if the room is not overly large. The SP1 is less often seen. The BC1, often, but usually in questionable conditions, so buy with care.

Beware there is a so-called anniversary edition, "updated", BC1-69, which sounds much inferior and should be avoided.
SP1/2 ---This date from relatively recent times. The SP1/2 is a 3-way ( 2 top front ports) but design and ALL units are different from the SP1. The only similarity is the dimension. Sound is notably different, indeed not similar at all. The SP1/2 has greater texture, but lacks a bit the open, airy nature of the original. The greatest problem with these refined and textured speakers is the speed. They sound slow with almost all tube amps and indeed much livelier with ss amps, leading one to suspect voicing with ss amp. So though they are efficient and can be used with 300B amp, the original is preferred. But it is highly recommended for ss amp users. These speakers are RARELY seen.SP2
---I have used the SP2/2. The SP2/3 has the front port in a different location. These are closely related to the SP1/2 in drivers but are 2-way and have a different sound. The SP2/2 I used is fast, open and quite well-controlled in the bass (but not that much; quality rather than quantity). Tonally it is leaner than the SP1, so partner accordingly. These are excellent even with relatively low powered amps like the Dynaco ST70. One caveat. I listened to the SP2/3 once and it seemed duller. So my recommendation is based upon the SP2/2. They are best buys, though not at current prices.
S100/SP100---These evergreens are forever on Stereophile's Recommended List, reference-grade 3-way speakers (2 front ports; similar to SP1/2) that give the B&W 801 a run for their money. IMHO these are possibly preferable in all but the deep bass, with beautifully clear treble and mid-band that bear more than a bit of resemblance to the BC1/SP1. That's accolade indeed. BUT it has the considerable advantage of much better texture. The bass goes REAL low and is tuneful, though a bit fruity when not handled right. No one-note bass here! For its size (12" woofer), it is surprisingly agile, much more musical than most of our monstrous speakers these days. It's also surprisingly easy to drive. A vintage Marantz 8B drives it to thumping levels. Even a good 300B SE amp (like AN kit one) will drive it in my 200 ft room, though of course with the inevitable flattening. But the stronger UR Smart 845 amp (~20 watts) did nicely. These are true references and, at current price, truly best buy. (click for reviews in HiFi+ and Stereophile)(click here for a recent experience)
S20 --- This is an unsung hero. It is a small 2-way (about 2x size of 3/5A) featuring the treble and mid-range units of the SP100. It shares the same characteristic of the SP100. Excellent weight, density and speed, and easy to drive. A modern small classic, sadly neglected. Should be REAL cheap if found (I guess ~$3-3.5k). A professional sound technician friend snatched my pair. He loves them. Truly best buy.


The Prelude is probably an ancestor of the SP2, sounding airy, light and similar but cannot play as loud. The 9/1 is SP100 in a floor-stander and sounds good and is worth investigating, though I hate its look. The 7/1 is derived from that and is a lesser consideration.
LS3/5A---- Old Spendor Ls3/5A, whether 15 ohm or 11 ohm, sound as good as any rival brands. Newer bi-wirable LS3/5As sound quite different, more analytical, a bit like KEF. I like my birdseye pair, but I did not at all like the rosewood versions, including the awful "Cardas" version. Avoid the bur-maple version too.

----This is a failure in my experience. Bass is way too lean and so it has to be placed closer to the wall for augmentation. Don't have it out in the middle of the room

Go to the Spendor site, click History and investigate the family tree and read about the speaker that started them all, the BC1:

(Note: this article is the first of the OVERVIEW series, which examines a particular brand. This is revised from an article originally published in my Yahoo group)

Review: USHER X-708 loudspeakers

Review: Usher X-708

I shall review the larger Usher X-708 before the S-520, as it is a no brainer.

My main speakers are the 15" Tannoy Canterbury HE's, which can be driven by SET amps to concert hall level. However I do try out various small and mid-sized speakers for fun. The problem is, after you get used to large woofers and full sound it can be difficult to listen to things that seem unrealistically small, and that's not just a question of frequency extension. The good ones, like Proac Response 2 (original), ATC20, LS5/12, even the smaller ATC7/A7 and Audio Physic Step, can still deliver great presence with less challenging material, but when the full Mahlerian orchestra comes in, you know what's missing.

In this respect, X-708 is a class-leading (meaning size, not price) performer. It sounds less compressed that almost all the aforementioned speakers I have on hand. On Tennstedt's live Mahler 5th with the CSO (EMI Japan) you can hear into the crescendo's and feel the continuous increase in volume (the CD player has to be able to do this too; many don't). Images are surprisingly full; one would think one is listening to much larger speakers. The full orchestra is superbly well laid out. The soundstage is unusually deep and the X-708 also possess the rare virtue of exceptional front-to-back layering.

Piano replay is yet another strength of the X-708. Unlike most monitors of equal or smaller sizes, the piano is realistically large, not a little thing. The full body is conveyed as well as the percussive leading edge. This doesn't mean the violin is slighted; its size is appropriately smaller.

Given the superb classical music playback, what about jazz? Patricia Barber's "Touch of Trash" shows off X-708's amazing speed. The percussion galore has the kind of bang-on-a-can vitality and presence that is usually found in only horns. Meanwhile the vocal is kept neutral and enticing, never harsh. The neutrality of X-708 is uncanny, avoiding the sort of paper-thin sound you get in many, if not most, expensive and worthless German/European "high-end" speakers, while at the same time providing a clean and full bass that goes satisfyingly deep.

These are revealing speakers so a little tube is beneficial. I use a tube preamp anyway, but I partner it with a solid state amp most of the time. It's not choosy, whether I use Bryston or Rotel or Counterpoint the sound changes a little but stays excellent. The advantage of cheap speakers is that you can even use them with very cheap and "volatile" amps like Counterpoint SA-12 without fear! Come on over, OTL (don't have one on hand)! With a tube amp, like the 40-watt Copland 501 (EL34 PP) sound is even better, and not soft. I also tried the ss ARC LS-9 and it too did a good job. So, provided you take some care in voicing, X-708 can be used equally well with both ss and tube gears.

Can you get away with less power? I certainly think so! In my >250 sq ft LR, I can use my 300B amp to good effect. Except for things like Mahler, with jazz and vocals you get very full and satisfying sound. This is an advantage over other smaller speakers like LS3/5A, S-520, ATC7 etc. In this aspect, it reminds me a little of the old Sonus Faber Concertino, another excellent speaker which the X-708 resembles a little in appearance!

I now have more than a hundred hours on mine. Initially they can be slightly metallic. Since I plonked them down on my massive clone-Sound Anchor stands (used for the ATC20), situated 2/3 from the rear wall, I have never felt the need to change to any of my other speakers; they are that good. The rear port never invited attention. Several friends with demanding ears have come and marveled at the value Usher provides at each price point. To my own surprise, this one is staying in my system and I am debating whether to get a second pair (to be placed inverted on top) or to get a pair of Be-718 when I next visit Taipei.

Rating: Magnificent! At any price!
Advantages: Big big sound, Neutrality, Dynamics, Speed, Bass.
Disadvantages: Rear port; No dealer in HK.

23 July, 2008

Review and Site Visit: USHER in Taipei

Left: Usher S-520 on top; X-708 on bottom.

Review and Site Visit: Usher in Taipei

My journey with USHER, which somehow I feel has only just started, started with my friend Kris, an avid reader of TAS. Some months ago, after the Usher S-520 won many accolades, his interest intensified. We went to the Shenzhen dealer to listen to it, as well as the X-718 (actually they sell out fast and the dealer frequently does not have them on demo; we're lucky that time) and Kris ended up ordering a pair of Ferrari Red. Around the same time, another friend tubediyer went to Taipei and brought back a pair for me. I remember that time tubediyer spent 4 hrs at Usher and listened to at least 4 models, and posted a report on review33 when he returned to HK.

Contrary to most of what TAS praises, the S-520 turned out to be the real thing. Most of the unusually stubborn LS3/5A people will likely never consider it, even disparage it given a chance, but it is exceptional on its own. I shall write a report later on its performance, but let me go on here with my visit to Usher in Taipei in May of this year.

Happy Hour in Taipei
Due to family duties, I did not have that much free time. But I spent 3 hours over 2 days at Usher auditioning various stuff. First in the ground floor room, where I first auditioned the V-601, X-718 and Be-718. The staff was super nice, and my every wish was attended to by a young man, Mr. 譚興. In this room, they use a HK $2000 Usher integrated amp and cheap Usher CD player (not on the net?) to demo things.

First I auditioned the very cheap V-601, really for cinema. This speaker is really not small, size of ATC20. It sells for only NT 7900 (as opposed to NT 5800 for S-520), a fraction of the cost in the USA. I was stunned by the sound driven by cheap entry Usher electronics. Things are just FULL. It does sound like a big speaker. MOST importantly, it conveys, as almost NO small speaker does (No, 3/5a does NOT do it), a feeling of Live music.

Next, I auditioned the rather famous X-718, younger brother of the Beryllium Be-718 (both drivers are different). A little more refinement and headroom, but the sound of X-718 and V-601 are not THAT dissimilar. In-room feel, live ambience, fleshed-out and well-focused images. Both played classical well.

Being cheap me, I went into Usher intending to buy only something DIRT cheap. The X-718, which I had heard in Shenzhen before, is priced at NT 16,900, double that of V-601. Yes, it is better, but not by THAT much. I was wondering what I'd do. Finally I decided to give the Be-718 a listen. At NT 31,900, it is still very cheap compared to the tons of ridiculously expensive and very bad sounding German speakers out there, but perhaps not so attractive to someone who has more than a pair of speakers with 15' woofers!

The sound of the Be-718 is still similar to that of the X-718 and V-601, but it is definitely significantly better in almost all departments. I am not a fan of Beryllium, or any "rare" metal, and have never really taken to top-of-the-line JM Lab. The Usher Be tweeter though does not bring attention to itself as much though it does give you a huge amount of air. Dynamically, all 3 speakers do very well, but the Be-718 definitely goes a little deeper and sounds a little more powerful.

Nonetheless, one thing bothered me in this room, a little honking in piano decays that did not even escape the Be-718. I attributed this to the electronics. After listening to V-601, X-718 and Be-718 I said to Mr Tam that I thought the honking sound, a bit like microphonics, bothered me. He attributed this to the presence of numerous pairs of speakers around. Obviously, he knew not my living room is packed to the T with speakers. :-)

I asked to play the S-520 briefly, just to have a reference. Lo and behold, there is no such problem with the tiny thing in this room. What's more interesting is that the S-520 sounds obviously VERY close to what it sounds like in my living room. So a little doubt set in and I began to get lost. What to buy? I must buy something (don't ask me why)! The V-601 is a little coarse. The X-718 better but not THAT different. The Be-718 better though more expensive. Moreover, all of them came from the same vein and exhibit the same strengths and weaknesses.

Before I even asked, seeing my dilemma, Mr Tam said why don't we move upstairs and listen again with better electronics (he knew I use ARC etc). So we went to the room upstairs, which is much smaller and where the flagship Usher preamp/amp combo resides.

In this room, I listened to the X-718 and Be-718 mainly, and the V-601 only briefly. The little problem I had with piano resonance completely disappeared in this room. Not only that, sound was really quite a bit better in control as well as in finesse (a lot more power here and smaller here). By this last visit I had 3 Japanese CD's with me for serious testing (pics later):

--Chopin recital/ Halina Czerny-Stephanska Tokyo live (RCA): Now, as rendered by Usher, that's a REAL piano! Big and resonant. You'd never want to listen to the piano on the LS3/5a again.

--Josef Suk/ Bach Partitas (EMI): Appropriate size for a violin, silken tone, rich harmonics. Every little detail is dynamically well articulated.

--Mahler 5th/ Tennstedt/ Chicago LIVE (EMI): Tennstedt's live Mahler 5th recording has excellent sound. Listen to the well executed crescendo's as portrayed faithfully by Usher. Not many big speakers can do that, sounding either compressed or congested. Usher has that rare combination of speed and a leading edge that does not sound frantic. Someone has done excellent work on the crossover.

ALL of these played beautifully here. Control, power, dynamics, speed, you name it. The violin is small, the piano is BIG, as it should be, and the orchestra is totally laid out holographically, with deep, quick bass. Only with the Mahler, played loud, is a little runaway tendency apparent. That's better performance here than I hear in most audiophile's setups. Usher also made me think how come a speaker at this price point can be made to sound small and pinpoint or big and bold? The same company does both!

My problem was solved, at least temporarily. After some deliberation...

--"Yes, I'd like a pair of Be-718 please."
--"No problem. What color baffle?"
--"Black please"
--"...uhhh...I am sorry, we have red, white, grey...everything but black..."

Aiya! Back to square one, or square 2 to be exact. I had decided to be less thrifty and ruled out V-601. I found X-718 excellent but it's somewhat neither here nor there. Now what?

Earlier downstairs I spotted a X-718 look-alike, the slightly smaller X-708. The demo pair is the earlier version with lighter wood panel. Usher wanted to simplify things and since export demands the darker/redder "mahoganny"-like finish, that's what they have now. The lighter wood panel allied to the rather large silver phase plug (no phase plug on 718's) made it look unappealing to my eyes. I was assured the new side panels look prettier.

In desperation, I asked more about the X-708. I was told it's "cleaner sounding" and favored by the Japanese. So I asked to try it out. And that lies the surprise.

The sound is really still in the vein of V-601, X-718 and Be-718. Of those, Be-718 is the most controlled, though still exhibiting a slight runaway tendency at the highest volume (in Mahler). The X-708, though a lower model, to me trumped even the Be-718 in this regard. It sounds like its siblings, big and bold and lively, certainly a little cleaner and, more importantly, it is more controlled during climax and exhibits what sounds to me a truer crescendo (and how Tennstedt delivered a meticulously graded crescendo!). It does not have the hot "liveliness" and "air" of the Be tweeter, but it may be calmer and easier to deal with.

I liked the sound. To me it vanquished whatever slight reservation I had about the V-601 and X-718 and offers an equal, though different, footing to the Be-718. The last thing that remains is to have a look at a new pair with mahoganny wood panels. The salesman was rather amused that I had that serious aversion to the large silver phase plug.

And so I went with the poor salesman to the warehouse! I was not allowed in, but he took out a brand new pair of X-708 for me to examine. Indeed the new panel matched better with the phase plug. However I rejected the first pair. Finishing was not perfect. The side panels have vertical grooves and the stain was not even here. Also, the front of the wood panel (cut-surface) was a little too light. It was too obvious.

The second pair was almost perfect. At this price, I passed over a very slight irregularity in one of the panels. Otherwise you shall never walk out with a perfect pair. Remember the price of these things when you buy a pair!

Did I tell you the X-708 is nominally cheaper than the X-718? At NT 16,000 per pair. Also it's an older model. Both have been in production for a long time.

A pair of these in a large box is rather ungainly. Imagine the surprise of my mother and uncle when I hauled the box through the doors, where they were waiting for me together with my newly wed cousin to go out to dinner. But I had my feast already. You would have missed something if you are traveling to Taiwan but not visit Usher. Their showrooms (there are many) may look like the worst dens, but they are the real things. I admire their low-keyed nature. Thumbs up!

In summary, a few pointers to those who are interested.

--The S-520, at NT 5800, is a great little speaker with exemplary control. It has a fine treble and excellent bass. Mid-range is neutral. Don't expect 3/5a like "richness" here but dynamically it's another story. This is the least "Usher-like" speaker in that things are much smaller and pinpoint in scale, which is actually preferred by many HK "audiophiles", including the 3/5a and Proac gangs. It's not fuzzy; you can match it with anything and it shall sound great.

--ALL the other speakers I auditioned, even the cheapest V-601, have big and bold sound, with a live feeling and a slight tendency to run away at LOUD volume if not well controlled, though most people would never listen that loud. These are for people who like that LIVE sense. You need BETTER electronics (like a good preamp) to get the most out of these speakers. And they are more power hungry, but power is cheap these days. If budget is limited, the NT 6900 V-601 is an excellent choice, though you actually have to spend more at electronics. At NT 16000, the X-708 sounds better to me than the NT 16900 X-718. The Be-718, at NT 31900, has that special sound and even better bass though at highest volume it may not outperform the X-708 in composure.

You may want to know there is a new policy regarding Be-718. Recently, someone bought a pair, took it back to the USA and promptly sold it on Audiogon. The US dealer complained and now Usher would not let you have the BOX (and packing). They can deliver to an address in Taipei but would take back the box!!!!! Have you ever heard of such a policy? Blame the USA mark-up!

The funny thing is that that fellow called back and said he damaged his pair and wanted another pair shipped to the USA. :-)