23 November, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (3):

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (3):

Spread them wider! Menage a Trois, ou Quatre!

If you look at the pic in my first letter you shall see the placement of the left speaker left something to be desired. With approval, a week ago I relocated the table to the middle of the front wall and the left speaker further against the sidewall. This enabled me to put the small bookshelves to the lateral side of the Martin Logan Source’s. I am still 10 ft+ from the speakers but the distance between the MLs and between the bookshelves now become a more respectable 7+ ft and 9 ft.

Needless to say, the soundstage became much wider instantly, and after adjusting the toe-in angle, there is no loss of focus. While the benefit to the ML’s are solid, the change made to the sound of the bookshelves, which shall be described in another letter, is nothing short of astonishing.

The Martin Logan Source

These continue to please me to no end. Its ability to run on good SET amps is a great bonus. The real strength is the ability to let the listener into the venue, meaning feeling like you're listening to the real musicians. In this, it is matched by few transducers that I have heard. Right now as I type I am listening to LP, Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (LPO/Tennstedt), one of his most atmospheric. In III one distinctly feels the hushed atmosphere of the posthorn solo, and so it is the same in IV, where the singing by contralto Ortrund Wenkel is similarly atmospheric. No doubt the engagement I felt can be most appropriately attributed to ML’s exceptional portrayal of the leading edge (fast, but not too fast to stand out) allied to a full sound palette. The ML also makes most of the other speakers touted for imaging sound just that little bit manicured, even artificial. The palpability and real-life size decidedly trump the smaller Quads, which have trouble with tallness of image, not to say a realistic level of playback. I mostly play the LP pile I have just bought, but every time I slot in something familiar, like Van Morrison's Moondance, I am astonished by the experience of hearing something anew. I know it’s a cliché, but that is certainly how it is.

With its rear port and still less than ideal placement surprisingly I have very little bass problem. There isn’t significant bloating and I do not feel much standing wave effects. Perhaps I am just lucky, though I feel the 2 corridors behind the 2 speakers help a bit here.

A second station

After some toying around and running some other components for maintenance sake, the main system (for this visit) has been settled:

-Linn LP-12 (just upgraded from Valhalla to Lingo; report later) with Ittok 2 and Denon DL-304 (yes, changed from the Benz Micro Silver; report later too)

-Audio Technica 1200 turntable with Grado Gold and Denon DL-102 mono cartridges

-Linn Karik/Numerik (Linn cable)

-PS Audio GCPH phonoamp (Mogami)

-BAT VK3i preamp (thin WE interconnect)

-Almarro 6C33 SET amp (Belden 9497)

-Martin Logan Source

What’s the real reason for setting up a second system? Usually and ostensibly it is for practical reasons, like to have something in the bedroom. I suspect the true reason for some people is at least a trace of harbored ill-will for the main system. Avoiding the naked truth staring in one’s face, so as not to upset the weak psyche, one usually savors something different and usually lower in status.Just a thought.

If you believe me, my reason for a second system IS a practical one. I get up really early, like 6 am, and start to listen to music. Of course you can only listen at a very low level, though the system must excel at microdynamics. I could use the main system, but why burn up so many tubes? The second reason is to use it to test new toys. I set up a separate station close to where I sit, placing my gears on 2 coffee tables (see pic). After a bit of work, here it’s now:

-Revox 226 Signature (DIY solid core cable of thin gauge)

-Pioneer PL-10 with cheap AT cartridge (my first TT)

-High Resolution Technology Music Streamer (PC running iTunes/Wav files)(cheap Audioquest)

-Sony XDR-F1HD “digital” tuner, with HD capability (useful in the USA)


-Almarro EL84 SE amp (Acrotec) or NAD 325BEE (used as power amp)

-Linn Kan or Focal Chorus 705V on Sonus Faber adjustable stands.

With the new positions of the bookshelves, the second system is functioning splendidly. I had a hard time with the Focal Chorus before, but they are fine now and deserve a separate report later. The Linn Kan (version I) I just got and it was plug and play. The system now achieves a very good level of transparency even at very low volume. But it is surprisingly dynamic at high volume, with images tall and fleshed out. It took a bit of work and the experience is worth also a separate report.

A bedroom system is also half finished. Stay tuned.

19 November, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York (2): High Resolution Technology Music Streamer

pic from Stereophile: the red MS on top of the grey MS+

HiFi Letter from New York (2):

High Resolution Technology (HRT) Music Streamer

It took me 2 weeks to plow through my Stereophile and TAS. Both contain recent reviews of this little toy. As soon as I found out there is NO external power supply (so I can bring it back to HK) and saw the price tag of $99 for the basic model, I ordered one.

Always a sucker for a bargain, I opted for the cheaper MS. Actually, it is also because CAS (computer as server) only plays a minor role (albeit a fun one) in my listening. And because for convenience in my big system in HK I prefer the wireless route, so as not to have a computer in the LR.

In case you don't know, designer Kevin Halverson is as hi-end as you get. Some of you may remember the MUSE DAC (I think model 2) many years ago. Does my memory serve me? This DAC reminds me of the late Stanley Chu of Opera Audio HK, who swore by it (Ah, Stanley, one of the most decent fellows in audio I have ever met). More recently, Halverson is designer of the coveted Polyhymnia multi-player, which I'd love to hear (little chance in HK it seems).

I received the MS in no time. It was basically plug-and-play except for 2 issues (in my case):

(1) It does not come with any cables. The DAC end uses the smaller USB (1.1) and my computer end only has the larger one; so I went to my local ten-cent store and got a $1.99 one, and it's "gold-plated"! Solved.

(2) After plugging in, one has to select one-off the device as default player in "Audio Devices" in the Control Panel. Easily done but no sound through iTunes. I opened the Windows Media Player and got sound. I emailed to "support" at HRT and got replied by Halvorsen himself. How's that for service! Later, I found out that on my iTunes setup I had to uncheck "use iTunes as default player" to get sound. So iTunes "default" is not just for the interface, but for playback too. If you run Media Player on PC or iTunes on Mac you should not have this kind of problem, just plug-and-play.

At this point, it needs running in. . However, preliminary sound is respectable, importantly of good dynamics and it has good PRAT (unlike Benchmark, no matter how good it is in other respects). I shall post an update later, and report in details after I try it out in HK. You see, I almost play viny exclusively here in NYC and my iTunes library here is much smaller than its counterpart in HK (compromised too, as the old portable is almost out of disc space)

The unit has been reviewed simultaneously by many hi-end magazines:

6moon (good pics of innards, though current versions are somewhat different. At least in digital components I have great faith in surface-mount components.)
HiFi+ (good pics of innards too)
Stereophile (good one by Art Dudley; unfortunately in the magzine there was a half page on the cheaper MS, which seems to have been omitted on the net version)

More later.

06 November, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York (1): Martin Logan, Jetlag

(pic taken in the wee hours)

HiFi Letters from New York (1):

Martin Logan Source redux; Jet-lag

JETLAG (and how to make the best of it)
and mental stamina
As one grows old, flying long-distance becomes more of a chore. In my case, jet-lag is more severe than in my youth. I wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning and try to kill time by catching up with my Stereophile, TAS and American Record Guide subscriptions. Then I make some coffee and have breakfast.

What does one do when one is in physical decline (and you know what I mean I presume)? One compensates by fortifying one's mental attitude, honing one's technique, to better focus on the task at hand, and to be more efficient. As it is with most things in real life, the approach to hifi and music is the same for me.

In the past, I'd just putter around doing nothing for a few days. Not now. Older people with less time left should gear up, not down. I arrived at night and after barely any sleep started building my hifi setup from the ground up early next morning. You may not know this: I dismantle my hifi every time I leave, so as to give my mother more space.

I give my gears some rotation. Last time I did not take out my Martin Logan Source. This time I did the big job, dragging the big boxes out and setting them up. Some of my gears, including my beloved BAT preamps, were on loan to my dear friend M, so I started with the following:

Digital: Linn Karik/Numerik; Rega Apollo (connected by Linn generic cables)
Vinyl: Linn LP-12/Ittok/Benz Micro Silver; Audio Technica 1200/Denon 102 (mono)
Preamp: ARC SP-9; PS Audio GCPH
Amps: Almarro 318B; NAD 325BEE (used as amp)
Speaker cables: Belden 9497 and Mogami

After hooking them up I went out and bought myself a roll with bacon and egg. Sipping strong coffee and satisfied with my hard work, I started my first serious listening session. The speakers, having been idle for a year, took some time to wake up. Ditto my other gears. Placement also had to be gradually evaluated, especially the toe-in angle of the curved panels.

For those of you who have followed my Blogs, you'd know I rate the Martin Logan Source VERY highly (see my extensive original review; now that you have the pic here you can visualize my placement limitations better), hmmm, higher than many Maggies and ESLs. By the second day, the Martin Logan Source was performing its miracles. I started my listening with CDs. Talking Heads' More Songs About Buildings and Food, which I was listening to for the first time, was so richly textured that it literally stopped me from eating breakfast. A great recording of masterfully arranged songs, if you can take a full dose of David Byrne's vocals that is. I then put on Van Morrison's Moondance and was yet again surprised by the presentation. You see, I know every song of this masterpiece inside out (but have never heard it on the ML), yet almost all instrumental touches (of which there are many in the rich arrangements) have a different presentation from what I had known before. Most of this can be attributed to the speed of the stats, which when implemented correctly give you a fast but natural leading edge that is more richly nuanced and very different from that rendered by dynamics. I say "when implemented correctly" not to praise my modest efforts ("basic" is frequently the best) but to say that quite a few people I know had ruined their panels by partnering them with highly esoteric and costly gears (notably cables) which unfortunately instantly and negatively color the sound.

While the sound was wonderful, two things began to strike me as somewhat different from before. The first is a good thing: the bass seems even more tuneful than before; the walking bass line has even more of a boogie factor and I became more aware of rhythmic subtleties, particularly with the pop albums. That was the good part.

The Source as revealed by The Source
The second thing nagged at me for a couple more days.I was diligent and had gotten out LP-shopping. I played a few on the LP-12 but the slightly rough sound just nagged at me. It was not quite on the level of the CD playback, and that wasn't the case before! I had installed the Benz Micro Silver just before I left NYC last time. It is not broken in but I remember the sound last time had more brilliance to it. This time instead of brilliance the treble just stood out a little too much and was actually grating on some LPs. I made changes which unfortunately did not ameliorate things. Perplexed, I checked the cartridge again. It was tracking at 1.5 gm. I checked the manual which says optimal weight 2 gm! So in haste at set-up I had not given it enough weight and my system did not reveal it last time! I re-set to 2 gm and played over the LPs that bothered me. BINGO! that unpleasant leading edge was gone! If you have ever listened to Francescatti you'd know what a little over-representation of the treble does to your ears!

While we're on this, don't you think most hifi systems we hear mis-represent the violin? More often than not, we hear the strings but not so much simultaneously the vibrating body. Not so with the ML. Every instrument captures your attention with its unique signature. You don't find yourself dwelling on just the upper strings in a symphony when the winds are also playing. Every solo receives its due. Despite the somewhat limited soundstage, things just seemed a lot more real than, eh, say, most dynamics and, eh again, Maggies. Should I be clearer? Well then, the ML sounds more real than the Maggie. The interesting thing is, the reality portrayed by the ML is more than a little reminiscent of the horn speaker!

One day I played the LP of Bohm's live Daphne, which I just picked up because of a superb photo of Hilde Gueden on the cover. I was stunned by her vocal portrayal, surely amongst the best Strauss vocals I have heard. This is not the greatest sounding recording, but it is clear enough. Most importantly, the ambience of the theater, and of the electifying orchestral sound emanating from the pit, was rendered in all its glory by the truthful transducer that is Martin Logan.