27 December, 2009

The Yumcha Diaries: 26/12/09

Pics courtesy of oozz. Who's that genie in the bottle? Click to enlarge.

The Yumcha Diaries: 26/12/09

The older the better, and not just HiFi either

When people in HK speak of "holiday atmosphere", they usually mean large crowds and much commercial buzz. I rather think that just represents a glorified long weekend, and don't much take to it. The major holidays should rather be time spent with family (and good friends), preferably indoors (if space allows). In the West, on Christmas eve and day, or on Thanksgiving, the streets would be deserted. More than a decade ago, Chinese New Year finds HK in much the same way. Shops closed, few people on the streets. It's the desolation that brings the sense of holiday home. Now, it's money all the way, and one day is no different from another. That dilutes the holiday atmosphere for me.

Saturday felt a little like a real holiday. I guess many people were out of town, and Central was rather deserted. Add to this the cool weather and fog/smog and it even smelled of the end of the year. As usual for the end of major holidays, yumcha turnout was larger than usual. The eight of us struggled with the waitresses over the coupons that they peddle, but there was fun along the way. It was nice to gather with old friends.

Oozzing class, as always (previous visit here)

After yumcha, oozz had to yield to pressure from Captain and Hoi, who had never visited his new place. I am not kidding, the sound is further improved compared to just days ago. But that's the least we'd expect from him. As you know, many of us are admirers of his setup skills and golden ears. Some novelties this time:

--We spotted an Arcus Anniversary turntable oozz was setting up for our gourmet friend cat7. Given the price, it looks like a bargain. I'd try to give it a hearing later.

--oozz demonstrated for us his simple CAS. Using WAV file played on a small Firewire-enabled PC laptop via Foobar, fed into a lowly TC Electronics Konnekt 8 AD/DAC/Firewire interface (pictured). I personally think it's likely the best CAS I've heard yet. Given the very low cost of the DAC, I'd say give it a try if you have Firewire, or even if you don't (there's S/PDIF and optical too; no XLR). oozz said he had also briefly tried its AD section and the results on the few LPs he archived was encouraging. That's chock full of features for such a low cost thing!

--We marveled at the full metal jacket Gaggia Achille Espresso Machine. Unfortunately, it's not operational yet. Next time we visit, we demand espresso! I miss JC here.

After that, we all stopped by sokps' place. He generously let us break the seal on a 20+ year old bottle of Johnny Walker Red, which as you know is emphatically not the same thing as what passes for it now. Popular brands of scotch and brandy are now just ghosts of their former selves. Connoiseur of scotch oozz murmured to himself "tastes like single malt..." That just about said it all (though popular single malt is also not quite their former selves, but the downturn is not as severe). So, the older the better!

After that, we went for a very good dinner at the venerable 龍華 in 錦田. 燒鵝皮脆肉嫩,淡而有味; 小炒王沒多半點油,香口惹味; 炸生蚝酥脆, 肥而甜. Now, THAT is a rare good restaurant! Too bad no photos. After dessert, four fellows squeezed into my LR for an audition of my WAVAC system, for which I shall write a full report one of these days.

Happy Holidays to All!

Home Visits: Spendor SP-100 and DIY Fullrange

Home Visits: Spendor SP-100 and DIY Fullrange

Different ways, all money well spent

It's amazing to realize it has been exactly one and a half years since I started my Blog. The inaugural article was on Usher. The third article was a Spendor Overview and it's a delight to return to Spendor again here.

Click on pics to enlarge

Class A Bargain
A week ago I hooked up with icefox in 葵涌. After lunch at likely the busiest 茶餐厅 I have ever visited (where the waiters were literally running around) we spent some time listening to his SP-100. Previously, he was listening to the Maggie 3.5s. While he was awaiting servicing for the Maggies, icefox brought the Spendor SP-100s out and placed them in positions where they can be more advantageously heard. This just happened recently and so things have not settled down. At first sound was a little lugubrious and the bass was not too good. So we spent some time getting them into shape. Things have changed a bit from the previous visit. For this temporary setup:

-CAS: Mac mini + HD. iTunes/AIFF/mini Toslink into a set of recently acquired old DPA flagship (still not nearly as good as CDP playback).
-CDP, Preamp, Amp, speaker cables: Symphonic Line
-Speakers:Spendor SP100

-The first thing I noticed was that icefox in haste used a few strands of solid core copper (stripped from Pirelli power cables) threaded through the holes of the binding posts (SP-100 is Tri-wire) as jumpers. The cores are of rather high AWG (diameter) and he used many of them. Since my own experience is too many strands of solid core wires cannot be used in a cable without the risk of smearing the sound, we removed them and decreased the number of strands, using only 2 twisted together. Sound was immediately cleaner and bass became more agile.

-I noticed the single pair of speaker cables were inserted into the bass posts. I moved the (+) to the midrange post and left the (-) on the bass post. There was immediately more air. I don't always favor this kind of connection but it's system dependent.

-I know for a fact the SP-100, like most large speakers, respond to bi-wiring (few people would go to the extent of tri-wiring). In fact, IMHO this is a MUST for better control. I brought with me a set of twisted solid core jumpers (from salvaged old AQ cables) and hooked up the treble and midrange posts. icefox dug up some very long Gotham cables, 2 pairs of different construction and length (I think 50040 and 50150) and we installed them, the shorter pair on the bass units. the sound improved further, for me to an extent larger than the previous 2 maneuvers. Most importantly, sound was much more at ease, especially with classical showpieces. Bass smoothed out and, more importantly, now had a walking quality. Perhaps the cables had not been used for too long; sound was just a little slow for my taste, something that's not characteristic of Gotham.

-icefox finally remembered had had another pair of Symphonic Line speaker cables, loaned to him by oozz. Perfect! The two pairs were of identical length and the switch tightened up the sound a small notch.

-A very small degree of toe-in snapped images into better focus.

The speakers are really marvelous. They filled up the space in a way that the Maggie 3.5 could not begin to do. Sound is fast and smooth, dynamic as hell and responsive to all types of music. Properly set-up they put most super-expensive speakers of nowadays (unfortunately too many of them) to shame. Remember the SP-100 is an evergreen on Stereophile's Class A list. You should audition it.

In truth, I should mention that although SP-100 should be (tri) bi-wired for better control, this should not be taken as an indication that it's power-hungry. Just as importantly, the SP-100, like many good speakers (Maggie e.g.), does not need expensive amplification to sound its best. A good tube preamp and a cheap but resonably strong amp is already enough to bring you to nirvana.

Add a little here, a little there, all on the cheap
Then we visited neighborhood denizen welborne, another very old friend of mine. I was delighted to run into limage and Ken1967. It's a Monday, does any body work these days?

When I first knew Welborne in my Cheaptubeaudio days he was into tubes and all kinds of reasonably priced things, including fullrange speakers (Diatone), BBC monitors, SET amps etc. In recent years he has concentrated on T-amps and the like, but it seems his love for the fullrange has remained. His setup is, to say the least, most unusual. It's slightly different from when I last visited:

-Digital: Philips 963 into Promitheus (non-oversampling) DAC
-Amps: NuForce integrated for fullrange and tweeter; pre-out to electronic crossover to Virtue Audio T-amp for bass.
-Speakers: The calling card of the system. based on a (radio) SABA fullrange. I forgot the (super)tweeter. The bass is augmented by a huge professional Celestion unit. the "enclosure" is basically open-baffle.

welborne's has always managed good sound. The speakers are highly sensitive and likely present a benign loading curve (important for digital amps). The sound was layered and easy on the ears. I don't think even flea-powered T-amps would be taxed by the fullrange and tweeter. Compared to last time, sound was smoother but slightly lacking in fleshiness. Perhaps the crossover needs a little fine-tuning (I'm sure he's doing that all the time). Overall, however, the sound was quite musical. It's now from Cheaptubeaudio to CheapTaudio for welborne. Try to pay a visit and be amazed by what can be achieved for so little.

My view of T-amps in general
Texture always seems to be somewhat deficient; I think that's too much to ask from T-amps. Call me biased, T-amps and such likes always seem to me to have a one-dimensional and "papery" quality (for lack of a better word) in the sound. There can be a lot of it, or a little, but never completely absent. I'd not say "digital sound" because the better digitals (at least as source) sound satisfyingly fleshed out. And for a SE Triode man, harmonics and decay of T-amps are also not of the first rank. However, for the price and convenience (diminutive size) they are wonderful things.

20 December, 2009

HiFi Basics: What's the most important thing in HiFi?

HiFi Basics: What's the most important thing in HiFi? And, is there progress?

Technically, aside from the speakers, I'd regard what's at the front (source and preamp) more important than what follows. But really, the most important thing to Hifi comes from the heart. It's the love of music.

It perhaps matter not so much what genre of music one likes, as long as one is willing to explore and go in depth. There are people well versed in Rock & Roll, and Jazz, and as primarily a classical fan I admire and read what they write. Contrary to popular belief, it takes not much money to do this, but it takes effort. A case can be made that various free venues of exploring music, be it via the library or radio (easy these days because of the internet), or even the internet and youtube (sound limitation hardly detracts from greatness in music) is more fruitful than buying CDs on your own.

Unfortunately, most audiophiles spend way too much time listening to audiophile recordings and too little exploring music. Buying multiple versions (SACD, XRCD, LPCD, xxCD) of the same album just for the slight difference in sound effect can also be an overkill. While pursuing "higher fidelity" is inevitably part of the audiophile, when it comes to "progress" the subject is more complex than it seems. Every new technology has its own Archilles Heel, and it takes time to even just admit it.

Many years ago, long before the advent of R33 and imitators, mirroring elsewhere, in the HK forum Audioboard, there were lots of writing and debates on the "death" of CD, not to mention LP. The argument used the advent of DVD-A, SACD, as well as then-new "upsampling", 24/96 and even 24/192 on the horizon. Looking at it now, aided by the internet, while high-bit, high-sampling rate has finally raised their heads, DVD-A and SACD (let's not argue about their merits or de-merits) have largely fallen by the wayside, and many of the doomsayers have been proven wrong. The same people are again saying now the CD is dead, and downloading is the future. Are they right this time while proven wrong many times before? I think not.

These "experts" (and some of them are active still on the net) who predicted the death of LP and even CD could not have been more wrong. LP in the past decade experienced a strong resurgence. It's not just discerning hifi people who feel so, even "ordinary" music lovers think LP sound superior. If you think the contrary, read no further. As for the CD, it's interesting to note that out-of-print CDs now command increasingly stratospheric prices. Does that not remind you of LP?

Don't mistake me for someone who believes "the older the better". I follow CAS with great interest, and listen to CAS whenever I can. I use CAS as an alternate source, but since I've a hugh collection of software, it shall never be my main staple. For the classical fan, the "convenience" of CAS is over-rated. It's a pain to maintain and difficult to sort. Let's say you use iTunes and have registered for the store, cover Art for pop is easy and almost inevitable, but it almost never works for classical. Sometimes you even get the wrong album cover! OK, classical fans is a minority, but one undeniably of the greatest importance in HiFi.

Another truth is, there is nothing that is the "best". Such terms are only employed by magazines and the inexperienced. Can CAS completely trounce the best of the most primitive 14-bit (such as Philips 100, 2000 or revox 225) machines? Many think not, but you have to have the experience first. There are too many people out there making big statements, and many of them don't have substantial experience with older decoders, not to say LPs. For me, anyone who doesn't know LP well and make pronouncements on digital superiority is suspect. There were too many of that type in the earlier digital era. Then people began to find out about "jitter". Now, there is "pre-ringing". As the ordinary CD is getting better and better, problems with CAS is only starting to emerge. Download a high-resolution file and perfect sound forever? I wager not.

So far in my experience, CAS has not convincingly trounced even simple CD playback, not to say LP playback, but I'd be happy to be proven wrong. Most alarming are the hyperboles I've read. One example is the lavish praise of CAS through the Benchmark DAC. Yes, it's a reasonable DAC, but it's not what it's claimed. Even with the "best" cables and tweaks, it's seriously deficient in rhythm and pace, which means music has a canned quality.

CAS is certainly fun, and there are people older than I totally immersed in it. I think it's great for the industry and our hobby, and more than enough for the music lover. Which brings me back to the question of "progress". I do think there is progress in audio. Very good sound can be had for much less than before. That is certainly progress.

However, in terms of the unfortunately named "absolute sound", the answer is a resounding NO. In this day and age, why would someone listen to an astronomically priced Western Electric tube that outputs less than 0.5 watt? Why do people listen to hugh vintage horns? You can choose to deride these people, but I know and agree with their basic premise: notwithstanding measurements and "advances", these primitive devices are capable of getting one closer to "absolute sound" than the newest devices. If you don't think so, it may be your lost. Of course, not everyone gets good sound from these things from the "Jurassic Age", but some do. It's no different from CAS: it can be wonderful, or awful. It's all in the implementation, and that takes time and experience.

What happened to liner notes? Every time you take out a CD or LP, the liner notes are calling out for you. Maybe you don't read them, but you should. It's important to learn more about the music you're listening to. I read all the liner notes, even those that come with the library CDs. With only CAS, you need to turn on the computer to find out, and that's not too good for your musical growth. The bottom line is, explore music more than you explore technology. Only in that way can you become a better audiophile.

18 December, 2009

Home Visit: JBL 4343

家访: JBL 4343 胆石皆宜?

唐吉訶德的安排,周一待他下班后就直奔龙岗。 与他朋友亦同事余先生等在肥仔烧鹅吃了便饭。这家连锁店听说很有名,烧鹅还可以,但没能令我忘了锦田聚富轩的味道(可惜已成绝唱); 倒是油鸡和鹅肠都还不错。

这是我第二次到访。JBL 4343 是钢磁的,先前经唐吉訶德的调教由 Marantz 7+9 推得有板有眼,加上余先生令人羡慕的聆听环境,效果比很多香港的 JBL 都好。 留意由于地方大中置用上了一对 L100。当然这一切没能令余先生止痒, 最近又买了一套 Cello。 器材如下:

CD: Revox 126 (有时直出;有时做转盘); Meridian 588, 562
前后级: Cello Suite + Performance, 还是有 phono 的

刚进去的时候, 声音有点薄,且左右不均, 有点飘忽。 唐吉訶德发力调教了一番; 我在旁喝啤酒,偶然添添乱;声音也就慢慢好起来。还是很好听的声音,平衡得来稍嫌淡抹了一点

我看余先生跟我一样,骨子里是个胆客。 个人认为, JBL 确是胆石皆宜, 但胆是走在前面的, 就是好那么一点。尤其以 JBL 来说,再贵的石机就算在一套中低价的胆机身上也讨不了便宜。其实胆前石后也会很好, 值得尝试 (我就是这样推 4312A 及 Century Gold 的)。

The Yumcha Diaries: 12/12/09

The Yumcha Diaries: 12/12/09
From Spectator to Participant

Altogether eight people turned up, and we were glad to see some old friends showing up in sports suit and even sandals (in cold weather). No doubt the effect of the East Asian Games, which we watched on the screen. Given that there were children nearby, I was not sure of the propriety of these middle aged fellows commenting on every female figure. Some good looking girls in tracks! Well, just talk, there's little chance we could run after them...Another topic revolved around the turntable, and a certain "expert" who showed up to demonstrate, seemingly not too successfully. This generated a hot debate on "azimuth", cooled only by the water splashing on the screen and...naked flesh.

After yumcha, three of us went to sokps' familiar setup, which of course sounded somewhat different from a recent visit. Here's one brave soul who's never tired of tweaking. We concluded our visit with not one, but two versions of Saint Saens' organ symphony. After this, we all cramped into oozz' small but lovingly adorned place. His system as covered in The Yumcha Diaries 05/09/09 had undergone some changes. Given that he's primarily a vinyl user, he finally had to set aside his passive preamp, and a Pass Lab preamp resides in its place, for now. The sound was, as expected, excellent, and the speakers seemed a little more run-in though some residual tightness remained. oozz played for us various symphonic music, all well done, but when he took out Fremaux' famous Saint Saens, we all said no, enough organ music in one day. With sokps present, needless to say some tweaking (such as removal of absorbent material) were experimented. After a nice dinner, I went home but the rest proceeded to Happy Hour!

06 December, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (5): How to construct a bedroom-study system

pic: (L) bedroom in NYC; (R) study in HK

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (5): How to construct a bedroom/study system

This article represents a personal view of how to listen to music in a smaller secondary space, be it a bedroom or study. Of course, if you're the lucky few with a huge house and your secondary space is the size of a living room, congratulations to you. For those of us with smaller spaces, and want to retain the function of the small space, here's what I would do.

The pro's and con's of near-field
Many people, be they young people living with parents or older people sacrificing space for their children and families, have only a small room to do their things, usually equipped with a computer desk. Often people would choose a desktop system, upgrading their sound card or using active speakers etc. To go with the trend, even "reputable" magazines have reviews of gears conducted at least partly on the desktop. An example is Steven Stone of TAS, who has a "serious" desktop for CAS, connected to a subwoofer for "fullrange".

While I would concede that a serious desktop (particularly if your desk is large) can be serviceable, it has drawbacks. While it is possible to construct a system that plays with some detail and finesse at low volume, with only direct sound the music is robbed of its foundation. yes, you can get a "soundstage" but it's one so small I'd not bother with. For the same reason I'd hardly consider listening to headphones, no matter how good it is (even electrostatic Stax). Without excitation of the room, music is not quite music. At least, it loses connection to the event.

Place your speakers near the ceiling
My preferred way is to place the speakers high up, where real estate is not so precious. Place them so they're as far from your seat/bed as possible. If you think this is unusual, think again. Think of record stores (in particular, HMV and Pro Sound with their quality speakers) that mount speakers up high. The music always sound beautiful and flowing and without "problems", have you not noticed? Placed thus, you get reflected sound and excitation of the room, and little of "room problems". The only caveat is the soundfield is high in the smaller room. For me I'd gladly trade an artificial soundstage for a much bigger sound.

Set up thus, my rooms can play large symphonies with heft and satisfying bass. Right now I'm listening to this sonic spectacular (Varese 2; Naxos) and the HUGE orchestra with its many exotic instruments gets me so involved I can hardly type! A piano sounds like a piano, an organ a organ, and a bass drum a bass drum. Try to do that with your computer speakers.

The speaker makes a difference. In my HK study, my Proac R1 outperforms my ATC A7 and SCM7. In my NYC bedroom, standing where I took the photo, it was obvious the Linn Kan creates a larger sound field (one that is lower too) than the Focal. If you have more than one pair of small speakers on hand, it's worth experimenting. However, it's comforting to note that, placed thus, no speaker sounds bad in my experience.

Your mileage may vary. For equipment used in the 2 systems, go down the side-bar.

(This article was started in NYC, but finished in HK).

01 December, 2009

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (4): Focal Chorus 705V, Linn Kan

HiFi Letter from New York 2009 (4): Focal Chorus 705V; Linn Kan

Toiling with Bookshelves.
Do they all sound the same?

Focal Chorus 705V
The smallest bookshelf in the Focal Chorus range, these speakers have garnered good reviews (HiFi Choice; What HiFi!; TAS "Best Buy"). I first read in TAS Steven Stone's short review of the 705V, which is somehow not on the web. I have always been cautious about what Stone says because of his associated equipment and small listening environment. This is one reviewer who starts a bookshelf review by listening to them on his DESKTOP, with a sub. He said they were beautiful but became less and less attractive in his bigger room (still small). I'd not have pursued further if not for the fact that the more dependable Robert Harley had earlier given the bigger brother 706V a great review (both are TAS recommended components). I actually auditioned both in Sound by Singer's small room (as an aside when we went to audition Vienna Acoustics' marvelous Haydn Grand), where they were hung against the wall. Using Cambridge electronics, both delivered a good performance; actually the smaller 705V's sounded more refined.

About a year ago I chanced on a second-hand pair and the bargain was irresistible. When I tried them out in my living room (which is quite a bit larger than Stone's), inside of the ML's (see earlier pics), I was greatly disappointed. They disappeared and imaged well; but then they simply sounded small and lackluster. I relegated them to the bedroom and did not find them great either.

As mentioned in the last post, by drastic re-positioning the improvement I got this time was eye-opening. Almost flush against the side-walls, with a good degree of toe-in and driven by my second station (see last post), everything snapped into place. The speakers delivered a big-sounding, smoothly textured and nuanced performance that belies their price. Images were focused, but tall and fleshy like larger monitors. The treble quality surprised me greatly. In a brief comparison (below), it's at least the equal of the venerable LS3/5A. No doubt a tube preamp helps a great deal. In many ways the tweeter here has many of the strengths of its more expensive brethren (Beryllium included) and little of their weakness. The midrange is well-integrated and transients quick and life-like. The bass, while limited and truncated at the bottom, was full and agile. In fact, the rhythm and pace was surprisingly excellent, and on Van Morrison's Moondance one immediately noticed the bass to have a wonderful walking quality. For my taste, the 705V's easily trumps the Usher S-520's in most aspects (except bass and dynamics), especially in refinement. On music that demands loud playback the 705V's still did surprisingly well. Haitink's Shostakovich 5th rang out loud and true. Yes, a small degree of politeness noticed by the better British reviewers was indeed evident, but that was more than compensated by the smooth dynamic expression, no mean feat.

Another notable thing is the efficiency of the 8-ohm 705V's. This did not come entirely as a surprise, as Focal has usually been relatively efficient and a rather friendly load. Yes, you guessed it, here's another speaker that responds beautifully to SE amps. The Almarro 205A (probably 5-6 watts) partnered it really well, even at my real-world listening level. soft-clipping only occasionally during the loudest passages. Remember my living room is not small. The larger 706V's probably would do even better, and I'd be curious to hear them.

The paradox is, contrary to what Stone said, these speakers perform better in a large room than near-field, PROVIDED a good degree of wall reinforcement is introduced. Caution here, the usual mid-room placement on stands would NOT work. In a coming article I shall tell you how they did in my new bedroom setup.

I almost forgot to mention that (like the Usher S-520) the woofers are long-throw types. Another reason for my success this time I suspect is because I used an ss amp to pump it for a while before listening. I suspect these require longer break-in's to sound their best.

Linn Kan I vs Focal Chorus 705V vs LS3/5A
This time I also acquired a very handsome mint pair of Linn Kan I of black veneer, a finish I much prefer to its later reincarnations. This is the first generation, which uses the 3/5A KEF woofer but Linn's proprietary tweeter in a box identical to that of the BBC 3/5A. When they arrived, I conducted a small test, comparing these three speakers. Here are my observations:

  • With these small boxes, the placement I used for the Focal 705V worked equally fine for the Linn Kan and the Audiomaster LS3/5A (15 ohm). All had similarly wide soundstage, good imaging, fleshy presentation, with even tonal balance and no significant anomaly. In a way, they sounded more similar than different. In other words, the room effect was minimal. One could imagine further component matching with different gears could result in even closer match.
  • Using the 8 ohm tap of the Almarro, sound of the Linn Kan was superbly fast and dynamic (way ahead of its time), edging out the Focal. The LS3/5A suffered from a little sluggishness in comparison.
  • All had good rhythm and pace, but Linn Kan took the palm for boogie factor.
  • Linn Kan had the airiest treble, very modern in fact. On the other hand, with some material it could be a tad bright. Focal's treble is the smoothest.
  • In terms of details rendered, they came very close.
  • Though darker, the LS3/5A is just a little bit more subtle and dynamic than the Focal, perhaps even the Linn Kan, in the mid-range.
That the Focal 705V could compete in the same company says a lot about the quality of the entry product. There's not a loser amongst the three. Looked from another angle, Focal is a real bargain (though quirky) but the Linn Kan is even more of a good buy given its similarity and parity with the LS3/5A. As a matter of fact, many (likely jazz and pop fans) may prefer the Linn Kan to the LS 3/5A (I could be in that camp). Given that it costs only a fraction of LS3/5A, it's a bargain. Even if you have the LS3/5A, you would want a pair.