27 January, 2009

Home Visit: Wine and Cigars first; hifi second

pic: Composite of hilltop view of Saikung (click on all pics to enlarge)

Home Visit: An old friend

On 年初二,Captain and I went to visit an old friend in Saikung.

We have known the host and his wife for years, since hk.rec.audiovisual and Audioboard days (pre-R33). The couple inhabit 整栋村屋 on top of one of the hills, with an open vista. One can see the mountain range as well as the sea and valley in the distance. The sitting/listening room is on the second floor and very cozy.

You can tell the host used to be quite a hifi addict. Although in recent years he is more interested in gardening and learning how to play the eletric piano, he has remained an avid music lover. His current system is half borrowed from friends, and it sounds a lot better than before! Nice friends to have, huh?

Gears used
-Source most used is theSlimdevice Sqeezebox (wireless transmission from computer), using digital out to
-Goldmund Mimesis DAC
-Cello preamp and Duet amp (a little equalizing)
-B&W Matrix 801 pair for music listening. Another pair in the back serves for the home theater.
-Linn multiplayer for SACD and AV use.
-Krell MD-1 for occasional enjoyment (host said to remind him how CD playback is still superior)
-The Uher is broken but a great display piece.

Captain and the host sat on the chairs to the left smoking Cuban cigars for hours, while we all sipped a nice red from South Africa. After a while, we just listened to RTHK4 thru the Squeezebox. I must say it makes you concentrate on the conversation, which is more important, and what a great time we had. Even thru the Squeezebox, sound was quite good and I enjoyed listening to the live concert from Rotterdam conducted by the rising star Yannick Nexet-Seguin with Nicolas Angelich as soloist.

After a pot-luck dinner we compared CD playback through the Krell with the Squeezebox. One track obviated the need to carry on further. But who cares? Tough the Squeezebox may not be the last word in hifi, it is eminently enjoyable and stylish to boot. I am going to get one!

The dogs were amazing! Even though we were on the second floor, whenever we got near the window we could see them perk up and intently gaze at us!

17 January, 2009

Home Visit:: Robin's Nest

Home Visit: Robin's Nest
(click on pic to see full-size. Note gears on window bay)

(17-10-09) System Update here.

Actually a return visit for me, but a first visit for Lascalawong and sokps. We worked towards a common goal and had a grand time.

Robin the Scot is the husband of an old friend. I have known them for almost 20 years, from NYC. Robin is a Scot and an avid music lover, heavily into early music, classical music and classic jazz. For the longest time, he was completely overworked and underpaid. Now, finally with better pay and more time, as the saying goes, 饱暖思音愉, he has slowly but surely upgraded his hifi.

Robin's HiFi journey is rather typical of a UK music lover. He stuck with his GBP 150 pair of Rogers LS7 until they recently gave up the ghost. He had things like an old Naim preamp. The biggest change came a few years ago, when he was in Mumbai, India (scene of recent carnage), where he chanced upon a pair of (UGLY!) McIntosh C-20 preamp and MC-275 amp, with real GEC KT88s! He soon ditched the preamp for an ARC SP-11, acquired an Arcam 73 CD player and got into various tweaks. Yes, a trusty old Rega P3 too.

My Last Visit
I first visited him some weeks ago, when he still had the Rogers LS7. We worked all afternoon with speaker placement and alignment. The gears were on a big old wood chest then in the center front wall . After moving the stuff to the window bay sound improved quite a bit, and so the chest was removed. The most amazing moment came when we filled the center void with a the much smaller and lower red chest you see in the pic, and the sound really snapped into focus. This tells us not to neglect damping the front wall, even if the corners are likely more important. When I left I asked Robin to get a better step-down (than the over-spec'ed "Super") for his MC275. As a footnote, in case you don't know, SP-11/MC275 is a 黄金组合, and the weakest link then was deemed to be the aging speakers.

In the interim, Robin did upgrade the step-down with a Bo Shu special, which made the sound of the MC275 quite a bit more powerful. He also had the MC-275 serviced, and acquired new gears (none recommended by me!) with a speed that alarmed me a little.

pic: Stello with top REMOVED

Now his setup is as follows:

--Stello Transport/I2S/DAC -> Audioquest Diamond (in lieu of Arcam 73)
--Rega P3/RB300 end-stub modified and anti-skating spring removed/Audio Technica OC-9
--ARC SP-11 - > AQ Diamond
--McIntosh MC275 - Supra OFC
--JM Lab Micro Utopia Beryllium Signature with dedicated stands

This Visit
The first thing I noticed when I got into the apartment was how different the sound of the current JM Lab is from the venerable Rogers LS7. Transducers from 2 different generations! The Focal obviously had a lot more air yet was just a little aloof at the start. So we animated the proceedings by "turning over every stone in the chain". Over the course of the afternoon we made the following changes that improved the sound:

1. Removal of most of the tweaking devices from underneath the equipment. Robin is a tweaker, so it was ironic he ran into sokps and lascalawong, both tweakers par excellence! We all frowned at his non-LP related Ringmat devices. We cleared away most of them and sound became snappier.

2. The digital setup was moved from a spread-out position ontop of the preamp to beside it stacked. Cleaner focus.

3. Removal of the acrylic cover during CD playback. More easeful and dynamic sound.

4. Removal of the strange anti-RFI clamps on his phono cables. More life.

5.Re-arranging gears to have the phono section of the SP-11 to be further away from the MC275's MASSIVE transformers. A foot further away resulted in less hum but more is needed to completely eliminate the hum.

6. Re-claibration of tracking weight resulted in less distorted sound, but I think the over-hang may need a just a little more work.

Due to household constraints and time limitation, we actually did not spend too much time with speaker placement. We did try moving them back-and forth and a little with toe-in. Effect was relatively small at this visit.

Sight and Sound
Did I forget to mention the sound? Perhaps there's no need to. In my hifi journey it has always occured to me that the few people who REALLY listen to music, and are passionate about music, and who believe in music's curative powers, usually get good sound out of their systems. Robin is not really your typical neurotic hifi guy, but he pays great attention to his music and knows whether he is satisfied or not. His sound was good to begin with, and just got better by us all working together. In many ways, he is a demanding but not pretentious audiophile, a refreshing change from the usual non-demanding but pretentious species. As an example, he knows what he wants for bass, and in this respect he still finds the system a little lacking (I agree).

I mean it, yesterday afternoon was one of the best time I've had recently. I think I can boil things down to totally uncensored, unbirdled passion (captured on youtbe! :-))). Everyone was enthusiastic. It was real. We were genuinely happy that progress was made. The host was totally open and had no pretense, but yet knew exactly what he wanted, and we not so much gave advice as gave our opinions. 没有大佬,没有肉麻,没有前辈,没有奉承, 没有作状

11 January, 2009

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (4) Computer/USb vs iPod/iTransport

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (4) Computer/USB vs iPod/iTransport

EAC/Computer/USB vs iPod/iTransport:

And so after testing briefly the files at my home, we scheduled a test at Danz' home for the second session, in order to test against Music Server playback (for his equipment, click here, for files used click here for details).

Using BENCHMARK USB-DAC-1 we compared:

1. Direct computer playback of EAC-ripped WAV 44.1 files via USB (Opicis special battery-driven Fibre Optic USB).

2. iTunes-ripped Apple Lossless and WAV 44.1 and 48 files, synced to iPod and played back via RCA Digital Out of Wadia iTransport (using XLO 4.1B RCA digital cable to feed into Danz' Benchmark).

I took all the CDs from which the iPod test files were derived to Danz' home and had the tracks ripped into his computer using his usual EAC extraction. We also took the chance to compare the playback of his Music Server with the same CDs played back using Musical Fidelity X-Ray's RCA digital out.

TEST Results:
We have almost total consensus that day from more than 10 people:.

1. Using the MF X-Ray as transport (CDM 12; likely not the greatest), playback via the CD player's digital out was unanimously judged to be superior to Music Server/USB. While tonal balance and details were close, the Server seemed to have lost a considerable sense of dynamics and rhythm and pace. In other words, the Music Server was more "poker-faced". I think most participants were happy that they do not yet have to throw out the CD player. Mind you, there are a lot better transports than the X-Ray.

2. As in my home, Apple Lossless was audibly inferior to WAV 44.1 replay, falling apart a little more during louder passages, with audible distortion at peak levels.

3. While most people judged Computer/USB playback to be superior to WAV 44.1 playback via iPod/Wadia iTransport, I have some reservations. There is little question that the EAC-ripped files delivered through the Sevrer was cleaner and less "saturated" sounding, just as in the CD player vs Music Server test the computer playback had a flat quality that bothered me. As an example, thru the Server Noah's voice and that of God's are not so well differentiated; both lacked the leading edge to the voice that give the impression of authority. The drum solo shadings in Take Five was also much less differentiated through the Server. I was quite happy that through the Wadia this quality is largely ameliorated. (Like sokps, and I think some felt this too) I judged the sound through the Wadia to have more of a "human" and CD player "feeling". I think it boils down to preference. Those less mindful of a loss of presence and value more ceratin hifi parameters may just prefer the Server without reservation.

4. It's too bad I could not play my WAV 48kHz files at Danz' place. Just would not output throught the Benchmark for some reason. I have a feeling that WAV 48 kHz would come very close to the EAC files but with better rhythmic saavy. Overall, I was happy with the quality of playback. Don't forget this is not going to be my main, not to say sole, way of digital playback!

More Questions (than Answers?) and Coming Tests
There are many questions, especially if we compare our results with what have been reported in the press.

1. Chris Martens (not a writer I usually like) of The Absolute Sound had recently given the iTransport a rave review (full report here), claiming the Wadia "...lets you pull digital audio data straight off the iPod and route them to superior-sounding outboard DACs and audio electronics. Plug your iPod into the 170iTransport, and bolt it up to a good DAC and you’ll have an audio player that not only rivals but in some cases handily outperforms multi-thousand-dollar music servers and CD players." Mind you, he claimed the Wadia was at least as good as his CD playback, though I forgot what equipment he used. Ditto HiFi News, which in the last issue (forgot name of author), claimed there is no audible difference between the iTransport results and playback via CD player. So are those just hyperboles by dishonest reviewers? Well, I note that in BOTH of these articles in prestigious magazines, the author (deliberately?) did not really tell us HOW the files were ripped. Given this is the iPod, one assumes iTunes, but there may be a catch...BTW, jules, who attended the test reported: "... contrary to what you reported (and also what we heard in Danz's place), in last issue of Audio Art (Taiwan), there was an article covering of Apple TV and other similar stuff on the market, in which the author made a remark that he couldn't hear any difference between Apple Lossless compression file and the uncompressed versions. To my untrained ears, the difference was not all subtle..." Of course, we all agree with jules and not with the magazines. Our results are clearly closer to what What HiFi reported.

2. Since I harbor the nagging doubt that iTunes is not as good a "ripper" as EAC, I shall prepare WAV 44.1 files with EAC (which cannot do 48 kHz) and compare with those from iTunes, again at Danz'. Watch this space. This is important, as I'd not want to re-rip my files at a much later date.

3. As timing in music is of vital importance to me, I have some doubt as to the quality of USB digital out from the computer. I shall be looking at other Music Server setups (like Firewire etc) where we can conduct further tests. OK, I know, the files in the iPod is loaded via USB as well.

4. As a test of the purity of the Wadia Digital out, I shall try out Anti-jitter devices in the near future.

Return Visit: Tannoy Canterbury/Counterpoint 5000/Verdier

Return Visit: Tannoy Canterbury

Danz' system has been changing fast. When I first visited, his system consisted of an AYRE combo driving the Tannoy Canterbury (pre-HE version with foam surrounds).

As noted in the previous report, when Danz decided to go tube (as it should be for Tannoy) we took the SUN AUDIO 2A3 to his place, but it was not quite enough for his large place.

A little later, he got the VERDIER L'amplificateur 6550 PP amp, and I got to listen very briefly. Sound was certainly an improvement from the Ayre amp, though with the Ayre preamp still in the chain, gain setting still posed problems for Danz.

Pic: The beautiful Verdier

Things moved quickly! Now Danz has a Counterpoint 5000 full tube preamp and the updated equipment list is as follows:

-Music Server (EAC/Foobar) - USB - Benchmark DAC (also Musical Fidelity X-Ray)
-Nottingham Hyperspace TT/arm/Shure M97x
-Counterpoint 5000 MM/MC full-function preamp
-Verdier L'amplificateur 6550 PP amp
-Tannoy Canterbury

It's pretty amazing, in the large room, with more than 10 people jammed into the room, sound was still quite easeful, and more than loud enough. How many systems can you say that about? "No, no more than 2-3 people!!! Otherwise there's no sound!" Does that sound familiar? That's what you hear frequently even from people who regard themselves as sifu (optimistic in most instances). I never buy that sort of thing.

The interesting thing about Danz' Canterbury is that with every change in partnering gears we could/needed to adjust the Treble Enery and Treble Rolloff, both accesible from the front and adjustable while music is playing. This time the center seems a little bit less filled; so we toed in the speakers a little and that improved, but not completely resolved, things. A perceived bass excess was cured by balancing the curve, by upping the treble energy and rolloff.

I have to say Danz' system has improved by leaps and bounds. Now, with excellent tube gears driving the Canterburys, sound was pretty much tonally correct and easeful. The system excells in big orchestral pieces, which were delivered with confidence. Paradoxically, with the resident digital source, small combo's and solo instruments could use a little more spice. This is the reverse of the usual situation you find in an audiophile home.

08 January, 2009

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (3) Apple Lossless vs Wave 44,1 vs Wave 48

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (3) Apple Lossless vs WAV 44,1 vs WAV 48

Part 3
iPod/Wadia iTransport
First Impressions in my home:

My test at home prior to the trial at Danz's place was actually not in one session. I burned some files and listened and then prepared different files again. But for convenience I am writing this up as if it happened in one session.

Preparation of Files using iTunes
I had burnt a lot of CDs into iTunes. I used Apple Lossless to burn and store, but for testing purpose the WAV files were mostly converted from Apple Lossless. The reason for this is that if WAV is directly used somehow album artwork cannot be imported. Bad apple! Since Sampling Rate can be customised for WAV files, for testing purpose I prepared both 44.1 and 48kHz for many tracks. These were all automatically synced onto the iPod via a USB cable.

FILES used:
For the following CDs I have prepared files of Apple Lossless, Wav(44.1) and Wav(48):

1. Shostakovich Symphony #5/Haitink, Track II. Allegretto
2. 陳果 有空來坐坐
3. Brubeck Time Out, Track 3: Take Five
4. Serenata, Track 1: Nightingale
5. Manger Test CD, Tracks 1, 5, 7, 9, 10 (no Wav44)
6. Britten Noye's Fluddle, Track 5

Test Equipment:

I used basically the equipment I used for the Yamaha NS-1000 (click for details):

-SONY CDP-R1/DAS-R1 (accepts 44.1 and 48 kHz)
-Counterpoint 2000E preamp (XLR out)
-Bryston 4B old version
-Yamaha NS-1000
- Cables (Sony Twin link; XLO 4.1 for iTransport; Gotham GAC-4 XLR and 50040)

All tracks are compared with CD replay. The following conclusions are reached:

1. Through the iPod/iTransport, none of the formats was able to beat CD playback (in a comprehensive way). CD playback is just more dynamically accurate on both macro- and micro- levels, yielding a more nuanced performance, with more tonal shadings and harmonic integrity.

2. The Apple "Lossless" format is definitely LOSSY. Although it still sounds quite decent, compared to CD playback and WAV formats, it alters the tonal balance and dynamics in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, in ways I don't think any serious audiophile can accept. With small scaled music, this detriment may not be so easily noticeable, but on orchestral climaxes the "dropout" is audible. The other interesting thing is that Apple Lossless sounds subjectively louder, which is almost surely an indication of compression.

3. WAV files in either 44.1 or 48 kHz, are significantly truer copies of the CD. However, the difference between the 2 sampling rates is of surprisingly magnitude. The higher sampling rate of 48kHz is superior: it firms out the instumental outlines, imparts a little more harmonics and, most importantly, better dynamic shadings to bring it remarkably close to CD playback. This is evident across the board. In the Shostakovich, the bass line is more threatening and climax cleaner; in Tave Five, the drum solo became more finely shaded and varied, a sure sign for better playback. With WAV at 48 kHz, the sound is really quite close to CD playback. This (re)up-sampling is ceratinly another can of worm.

CONCLUSIONS for this session
1. Although for the moment I may still continue to use iTunes to create WAV files, for sonically superior CDs, I know I shall never use Apple Lossless again, as conversion to WAV files is superior.

2. As all my DACs support 48 kHz, as long as I am using iTunes for ripping, for good sounding CDs I shall be preparing Wav files of 48 kHz for personal use.

3. Most importantly, I am satisfied by the quality of replay offered by iPod/iTransport, especially as an adjunct and not a main source. For good sound, (WAV 48 kHz) is close enough and the one I shall use. I'd like to mention that much of what I rip are sonically compromised mono "historic recordings", some dating back almost a century ago, and I think I can use lossy formats for them to save disc space. Some of these I have converted to custom AAC (at highest allowable MONO rate). Perhaps one day I shall run a comparison between the better lossy methods and seriously test even iTransport's analogue out for these files.

Questions and Coming Tests
1. Part 4 would be the next session, which had already taken place at Danz' place: comparing iPod/iTransport files with WAV 44.1 files ripped by EAC and played directly from hard-disc via USB out.

2. A big question: would ripping directly using other possibly superior methods, like using EAC or creating FLAC files, be significantly better than (conversion by) iTunes? I have already downloaded and started to use EAC (but not Foobar). I shall be comparing WAV 44.1 files ripped by EAC (which cannot do 48 kHz) with both WAV 44.1 and 48 files converted from iTunes.

3. Another big question: Would the use of an anti-jitter device improve further the digital out of the iTransport? To this end, when I have time, I shall insert such a device in the chain. I have the Genesis Digital lens, Monarchy DIP and Audio Alchemy DTI Pro32 on hand for testing.

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (1) Background (2) iTunes/ iPod

MUSIC SERVER DIARY: (1) Background (2) First Impressions of iPod/Wadia iTransport

This is the start of likely a long series on digital playback other than conventional playback by CD or DVD/SACD/Multi players, focusing on hard disc playback, including iPod. As some of this has appeared in R33 before, I am putting Part 2 before Part 1 (scroll down). Read accordingly.

Part 2:
One thing is for sure, when I surf the net there is a mighty amount of info on technical matters, but relatively little useful material (to me) on actual use examined in detail from a balanced music/hifi viewpoint that I deem trustworthy. Much of the writing seemed to me quite biased and not rigorously tested. Hyperboles by young mavericks and outrageous predictions are everywhere. Recently, that has started to change, as major music magazines start to seriously examine this area (best is HiFi News IMHO, followed by Stereophile and TAS).

In recent years, I have encountered quite a bit of Music Servers. As someone who has a special interest in CD playback of all sorts (by equipment spanning decades), and as a person who still think "archaic" technology, like NO-oversampling and 14/16 bit chips, still have a place in the modern pantheon, I have naturally been curious. I keep an open mind. What I have heard of Music Servers ranged from pretty bad to pretty good, and it's time to investigate as more and more CDs become harder to get. Very few older people like me actually bother with digital files, and I hope I can look at this from a somewhat different angle.

Ripping Files/Interface/iTunes
The very first thing I did was to use iTunes to rip some files, just because it was already installed in my computer. I find ripping files painless and the interface pretty intuitive, good for a starter. Mind you, I started doing this BEFORE I even have an iPod or know what to do with my files. I simply said to myself there's no point anymore in making CD-Rs.

As a preview, let me say I have already downloaded and started to use EAC. I shall compare it to iTunes, but that's for later...

Apple Lossless
As I am not really interested in compressed files, I first ripped my files using Apple Lossless (I know, more later). Using this, there is nothing that you have to set. I registered my e-credit card with the iTunes store and to my dismay found that for the rather esoteric classical CDs that I rip failure to locate cover art is the norm rather than the exception! Hey, sorry, I don't rip Oasis, Radiohead (though I like them and they may or may not be fahsionable anymore) or, for that matter, Bob Dylan or Lou Reed or Madonna (I like them too). That said, I found importing artwork easy, even for those esoteric Japanese CDs, especially if you have the CD on hand and import the catalogue number. The other good thing about this is you can convert to WAV easily, but there's the nagging doubt of whether conversion is as good as ripping using WAV in the first place.

Many people do not know one can load music onto the iPod in a lossless fashion, be it apple or WAV. Well, with the help of whlee, I was able to borrow a blank 30 GB iPod video from whlee's wife. I don't know how much time he used in clearing the contents, and much thanks here. Wow, the syncing was great! Through the, uhhhh, USB I instantly (over-) filled his iPod with what's on my iTunes. However, it's kinda dictatorial. It's not easy to be selective, kinda all or none. And it seems importing what's on the iPod but not on iTunes to iTunes is impossible without downloading some software (cheap but you have to pay).

Digital Out/iPod/Waidia iTransport
With the help of sokps, I acquired an iTransport. I was/am probably the only owner who does not have an ipod yet!!!!! The reason I am interested in this is because of its UNIQUE (so far) S/PDIF digital out. If not for an agreement with Apple, Wadia would not be selling this thing for the reasonable price. I know, in loading the file onto the iPod via USB, the signal is still most likely compromised, but that's likely no different from feeding the USB signal into newer, and not necessarily better USB-equipped DAC, like Benchmark or Bel Canto or whatever. Let's leave that out for the moment. Suffice to say, I can now use the digital out with any of my DACs, and that should be fun, and it surely did turn out to be so!

iTunes Import settings/Apple vs Wav/44.1 vs 48kHz
I said to myself, now I should compare the so-called Apple "lossless"with WAV. With the iTunes, I could easily rip with WAV. However, doing this directly frustrated me as it was not possible to import artwork, and that is a feature I'd like to keep! Sneaky! So I settled for CONVERSION to WAV files from Apple Lossless. Mind you, there's a way to get around this. You just add any short Apple Lossless file within the album and import the relevant artwork, which shall show for the whole album. Incidentally, I only keep artwork for the first track of an album, to save space.

With WAV files, I noticed you can choose settings. I decided to compare the sampling rates of 44.1 (CD) and 48kHz. Many people have said long ago that 48 sounds better under the right circumstances, and in the old days you can convert 44.1 to 48 through a DAT or professioanl CD-R(W) machine. Now, I am not really a "die-hard" fan of re(over)-sampling, but I do believe there are instances (few as it may be) where it can shine, and it's all in the implementation. Let's not be dogmatic about this. Can the very minimal difference between 44.1 and 48 make a difference? I included some audiophile tracks. I have conducted brief tests using the Wadia iTransport, and I have to say the results are very promising indeed. Read on...

Part 1 (Updated from what was posted December 4, 2008 in R33)

1. As a 老餅 who has >20,000 LPs/CDs and who likes the physical act of browsing at cover art and reading liner notes, I am absolutely sure I shall keep my CDs till the end of time and never rip the majority of my software onto a music server (impossible and self-defeating task). Of course, it can be fun to rip some "audiophile" tracks just for testing convenience.

2. Neither would I find downloading music (especially paying ones) very useful in general. The classical music sector is notorious for not keeping what can be argued as the MAJORITY of old recorded performances in print. This is not something well understood by pop listeners who likes to download a "song" or two (funny a symphony is just a "song" in lesser downloading language). Paying for music recorded with older technologies but have been "re/up/sampled" I'd not bother with (and that covers almost all of the greatest performers), but I shall keep an open mind on music that had been recorded in high-bit formats originally, like those from recent true 24/96 and DSD masters.

3. However, I have always been an avid copier of out-of-print CDs, many borrowed from the library, and some from friends. Before, I have just used NERO to burn them onto CD-Rs. Sound quality is acceptable to me, but I don't like the degradable nature of most CD-Rs. Note that I HARDLY ever playback these CD-Rs, though I'd like to have them in my library for archival purposes. Since I also spend much time in the USA, portability is also an issue.

4. Since I rarely play them back, from now on I'd rather rip these CDs onto a hard disc (including iPod) to save space and trouble.

5. I don't think I need a Music Server in my study, where I do all my computerization for the moment. A device in the living room's main system (which has many DACs, though none with USB in) would be nice for occasional use.

6. Though occasional use, I still want the usual (or close-to usual) quality. That rules out many "life-style" products, including most of Apple's own, I think.

1. I do have a spare hard disc which I can use in setting up a full PC system, but it's kinda overkill for occasional use.

2. Buy an iPod, copy files lossless onto iPod (sufficient storage for ocassioanl use) and use something like WADIA iTransport to feed into my own DAC's which I prefer to many of the current ones. The only problem is the user-interface is less convenient, but no more so than something like Squeezebox. I am leaning towards this.

Opinions and suggestions would be welcome. Please keep in mind I am an OCCASIONAL USER.

04 January, 2009

Return Visit: Wadia's Loft, but focus on Wolfson 8470 DAC

Return Visit: Wadia's Loft, but focus on Wolfson 8470 DAC, aided by dCS 972 Upsampler

紂虐柴灣 的 HiFi 精 A, B, C

Just a little background for the uninitiated. In the Chaiwan industrial estates there are MANY hifi 竇s, with different approaches. For what I know, fever prizes must go to HiFi 精s A (Alansoo), B (wher, aka wadia) and C(harles).

Wadia's place needs no introduction, and I won't say much. For this visit, aside from the familiar Rey Audio and FM Acoustics amp, we were treated to his new preamp, the MANLEY Wave, which has built-in digital conversion! I was particularly pleased with this new toy as I still own an excellent sounding VTL DAC-preamp much like the "First Wave" mentioned in the Manley link (Ultra Analogue 20040).

Wave the bye to Son of the Wolf?
The venerable STUDER D732 provided the digital output. I am not sure if Wadia used his dCS 972 to upsample the signal before input into the Manley, as the latter automatically upsamples to 96kHz before decoding with the 24/96 PCM1704. As soon as Wadia hit the play button, I heard the best sound to-date from his Rey Audio monitors. A good tube preamp simply breathes live into music. Once again, this re-affirms (as if it needs to be) my firm belief that a good tube preamp brings music to a higher level, whereas the choice of amp (tube/ss) is secondary. It's important to note that a good preamp provides a lot more control that is mandatory for playback of large-scaled music, something vintage and cheap tube preamps cannot do.

Then we played with tubediyer's new DAC. It was for this reason that I had to forgo Penndan's party that day. It's the DAC you see sitting on top of the box in front of the racks. Strictly speaking, this version is not tubediyer's own design, but an OEM'ed product. I cannot reveal too much, but suffice to say it uses 8x 24/192 WOLFSON WM 8740, the same chip used in less extravagant fashion by the ubiquitous Cambridge Audio 540C/640C/740C; the Arcam DiVA CD73; and the Rega Apollo. Wolfson is gaining popularity, even being adopted by mass market AV amps (like Onkyo) as well as products like the well-reviewed (even by Stereophile and TAS) Onkyo CD players of the xx55 series.

I had a stake in this that makes me want to hear more Wolfson products. As many know, I like to play with digital products and am open to any format, including Music Servers. Sometime ago in NYC I acquired a Rega Appollo. It was quite detailed and certainly quiet in background, but there is a literalness that nagged at me, which surprised me as Rega is supposed to be a company strong on rhythm and pace, which I'd rather not lack even at the expense of a little extra "refinement". Music deficient in rhythm and pace is just a dead beauty. Ditto the Arcam, though I have heard the Cambridge to reasonably good effect and perhaps one day I shall try a higher model.

Nightingale or Raven?
Much (like clock) about this prototype DAC is unknown. When first played, fed directly the digital output of the Studer, sound was singularly unpromising. There was a lack of life and coarseness so severe that it made the nightingale in Serenata sound like a hungry raven! Of course we mocked tubediyer to our content.

Then miracle of miracles. Wadia suggested we upsample the signal with the dCS. First, a hugh improvement with 96Hz. Then 192 kHz just nailed things. Suddenly, everything snapped into focus, and the evil curse had been removed and the raven turned into a nightingale!

Suffice to say we were MIGHTILY impressed. Upsampled, the stage became hughly airy, surpassing that of Manley's. High-level playback was impressive for the ability of individual instruments to maintain focus in complex passages, again out-trumping Manley. However, and this is important to me, I cannot completely rid myself of a small but nagging sense that rhythmically it can be just a bit better (the Manley is superior in rhythm and pace). It's like a deja vu, stemming from my experience with the Appollo. There are more questions than answers. Do chips have intrinsic characters? Of course they do, even if they all seem to do the same thing. Note that even upsampling vs oversampling generates a hugh amount of question marks, as evidenced by questions generated by the reviews and measurements of the dCS 972. Nonetheless, this product is very impressive and I congratulate tubediyer for his manufacturing skills, and I look eagerly look foward to seeing its completion and evolution.

David vs Goliath
That very day I had just taken delivery of the Wadia iTransport and borrowed whlee's iPod Video. So we attempted to burn some files with Wadia's iMac, surprisingly to no avail!!!! So that's for the next article to cover.

Meanwhile, these "computer speakers" are the best I have heard. Guess what brand?

Studer! :-)

Home Visit: VERITY Rienzi/ASR Emitter I

Home Visit: VERITY Rienzi/ASR Emitter I Exclusive (Blue Light)(2 batteries)

During the holidays I managed to have some interesting visits. This was the first.

Sang is an avid music lover, and quite versed in classical music. He's the type of person who is really low keyed yet focused, and precisely the type of client that the hi-end should target.

Why? Because his previous system was quite a humble one, yet he spent 1-2 years shopping for his new system! Previously I believe he had MF X-Ray and Audiolab gears, now this not inexpensive system, a QUANTUM jump!!!! Should one jump this confidently? Not if you lack even a little confidence!

Verity Audio is quite a known entity to me, having heard Parisfal and the likes. My experience ranges from pretty good to disastrous (with inadequate tube amp). I have also heard ASR to deliver musical performances. So I was not disappointed by the performance of this system.

Apparently, the dealer had come to the house and spent a good amount of time setting up the Rienzi. The left speaker, flanking a dining room and at the mouth of a corridor, is placed more forward. Visually this is unsettling but I applaud the "by ears and not by eyes" approach. The sound was quite refined and tidy, with generally good tonal balance and very good macro- and microdynamics.

Now, it's quite common knowledge that I am quite allergic to the clinical and white-washed sound of much modern German hifi, indeed much hifi in general. With that in mind, I found the sound quite a cut above the many horrible experiences I have had with German gears (don't you EVER mention Burmester to me). Of course Verity is not German for sure, and, price notwithstanding, ASR at least belongs to the good guy camp.

If I have any reservation about the system, it may be about the CD player. German Accustics Arts CD player is quite expensive. It's a 24/192 upsampling Crystal Delta-Sigma player, which I have heard a lot. In my experience and for my taste, "details" aside, it's not easy to make a musical player out of this technology, though it CAN be done. While this player sounded effortless, dynamic, and clean most of the time, particularly impressive in big orchestral pieces, it had a relatively hard time portraying the true timbre of solo intsruments like violin and piano, or conveying the give-and-take of chamber performances. This is a frequent paradox, players that can do big things falter at small things, and vice versa.

That said, this sytem is quite new and needs more break-in. And more cabling experiments is likely needed. Battery AQ cables may not be the thing for German stuff. I'd love to visit again, not least as a pretext for the marvelous pasta my gracious hosts served me!