31 May, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries: 29-05-10 A Tale of THREE Maggies

The Yumcha Diaries: 29-05-10A Tale of THREE Maggies

After more than 2 months in NYC, it was nice to be back in HK and to have met up again with old friends and tasty dim-sum. It was also a little unsettling to learn of the health issues of an old friend. We ARE all getting old!

A Visit to Excel
After yumcha, five of us went to Excel Central hear their Magnepan 1.7. When we arrived, the Maggie 1.7 was already playing in their LARGE room (over 500 ft we estimate). The 1.7 must be getting a lot of attentions.

Sound was reasonably good at low volume and with simple material, but not top notch. The 2 entry level PrimaLuna Prologue integrated amps used (One/EL34, Two/KT88) have long been favored by 俞師傅. However, in this large room, they simply could not drive the Maggies adequately. Clipping was heard with vocals and Mahler seemed to be playing in a tunnel. A switch to the huge Krell integrated amp brought much better control, but the whistling on the Masekela Hope album and the cymbal touches were white in color and inaccurate. Despite the sonic shortcomings it is commendable that bass was quite full and good, though sluggish due to lack of power. Overall, the demo did not do the 1.7 justice.

Back to the Magnepan 1.6
Disappointed, we all went to jules' setup for some rejuvenation. His current setup:

Digital: Orpheus combo
Preamp: Cello Suite
Amp: ML ML3

Even though jules, busy with work and being dad to 2 young children, had not fired up his set in months, sound was really enticing, as usual. Rokia Traore and Masekela (see "CD recommendation 2" below) were immediately brought back to life. The VPO came out of the tunnel in Mahler 5 too. Indeed it was hard to fault the pristine sound. Since the amplification was familiar to me, I attribute the mesmerizing delivery of the treble, vivacious and rhythmically enticing, to the Orpheus (Anagram) digitals. This is digital done right and a relatively rare example of good-sounding 24/192. We spent a happy 2 hrs there before dispersing.

An Previous Visit to VASH
I'll use this space to tie up a little loose end. Months ago I had the pleasure of visiting Vash to audition his Magnepan 1.6 and, even more importantly, I was eager to hear his CAS. I hadn't brought a camera, but while sipping his latte I drew a picture of his wonderful home, full of toys. On that date his VERY complicated system comprised the following:

TT - Clearaudio Champion/Rega RB250 w/Clearaudio Audioquint tonearm wire + Expressimo Heavy Weight mod.
Phono - DACT CT100 (Battery powered)
SACDP (and DAC) - dCS p8i
CD Transport - Meridian 500 + 518
PC output via M-Audio Firewire Audiophile to p8i digital input
Balanced line stage - DACT CT100+CT101
Non-balanced line stage - Transcedent Sound GG (custom built with dual mono tubes power supply)
Power amp. - Sunfire Architect's Choice series II signature.

I must say Vash was one fearless man! Music was played LOUD, and the 1.6 was vibrant, fast and exciting. With Vash's GG preamp, sometimes there was a slightly restless quality. On that day, another DIY preamp of mellower flavor was also tested. Highly commendable too was the CAS playback, amongst the best I have heard. All in all, a highly satisfying afternoon.

29 May, 2010

CD Recommendations (2)

CD Recommendations (2)

What I use for testing gears change all the time. For the Magnepan evaluation here are a few CDs that I have used (besides LPs). They turn out to be all by Black artists. :-)

Ah, Jimi Hendrix!
I am quite a Jimi Hendrix fan. It has always been said his albums don't sound too good, but I think that's not true of current re-masterings (early rock CDs can be pretty awful). I highly recommend Axis: Bold As Love. The first 2 tracks are breathtakingly exciting on the Maggie. As a matter of fact, some of you may remember limage used to play a crazy swirling electronic track (from his son) on his system. The first tracks here should have the same effect. Sound is excellent. In case you think you have all of Hendrix' albums, think again...the latest is Valleys of Neptune, a controversial new release of previously unreleased (some say half-baked) material. I think it's not as exciting as the classic Hendrix albums, but it is a worthwhile one, in good sonics, remastered by Eddie Kramer, who recorded most of Hendrix' studio efforts.

In case you don't know, years ago Stereophile did a feature on Kramer. In his home he uses Klipschorn, driven by humble vintage Japanese electronics (either Yamaha or Luxman)!

Hugh Masekela
This jazz musician is adventurous with his African roots. Track 12 of his album Hope, Stimella: The Coal Train, is familiar to most audiophiles. The plain CD (originally Triloka label) has long been out of print. Everyone knows about the expensive Analogue Production LP and SACD/CD re-issues, but now you have the additional option of buying again the cheaper plain CD, this time on the Sheridan Square label. Note that it is highly misleading that many internet vendors still use the old template which says Triloka label. I believe that's wrong. The new plain CDs you can buy are Sheridan Square label. Correct me if I am wrong. As for the music, this live performance is eminently listenable, and not just for the last track either!

Rokia Traore
Ever since I heard Rokia Troare (official website)during a visit to JC, I have become a fan. All of her CDs are sonically and musically excellent, but some may be hard to get. The newest one, Tchamanche, , should be relatively easy to get. If you're willing to shop online, grab while you can the equally wonderful Bownboi, which has been out of print but recently available again.

27 May, 2010

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (6): Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (2)

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (6): Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (2) (finished in HK)

Marantz 9
Next I fired up an old pair of M9. I decided just for fun to drive them from my Marantz 7. These are all old versions. The M7+9 gave a superbly clean sound, but where's that legendary bass oomph? Feeling something missing, I replaced the M7 with my usual BAT VK-3i. I was shocked by the difference. Even using the non-balanced ouput the BAT delievered a lot more: there is iron-grip control, and dynamics completely trounced the vintage machine. Importantly, the bass now was phenomenal, as it should be.

I have always preferred the better modern preamps to the usual vintage (Marantz, McIntosh, Fisher etc). If you just play simple music, you may find a certain vintage preamp flavorful, but for all-around performance, there's no comparison. This little exercise was just a reminder, as if I need reminding. The other side of the coin is that vintage tube amps in good condition can be formidable.

(click on pics to enlarge): (L) Fisher 80AZ; (R) The wondrous Art-Deco Altec 323, fronted by WE285L, Langevin 402A and 402B step-up transformers.

The Wonderful Flavor of 6L6 amps
A good friend brought over a large variety of 6L6 amps for me to check. At about 20 wpc, these lacked real muscle to drive the Maggie, but for smaller-scaled music, most vocals and acoustic jazz, they performed miraculously. There's a sweetness to the 6L6 that tonally most becomes the more analytical Maggie, more so than the more powerful EL34. The Fisher 80AZ, using 6L6GC in place of the original EL37, delivered clean sound and remarkably quiet background, but it terms of finesse it yields to the wonderful, and under-rated Heath W3M, using Tungsol 5881. In terms of power and control, as well as tonal allure, they all had to yield to the WE 274-equipped WE124 (pictured in last post); its ability to drive belies its nominal 12 wpc rating. Indeed, if you only listen to smaller things this is a great speaker for the WE. Another amp from the WE era, the rare-as-hen's-teeth Altec 323 (pictured pair from the 40's) delivered the same transparency, trailing behind the WE124 just a little in terms of rhythmic savvy.

(click on pics to enlarge) (L) Biasing ARC VT130; (R) Theta+SFD2

Fully Balanced Power!

By chance I ran into some balanced gears and made a new friend. My visit to the seller, who uses Martin Logan SL3, would be the subject of another post. Suffice to say the gears I bought from him enabled me to create a fully balanced system (except for phono inputs) for the first time. A revision of reference system is in order:

Digital: Theta Data Basic II into Sonic Frontier SFD2
Analogue 1: Linn LP12/Ittok/Koetsu Black into BAT P-5 (high gain)
Analogue 2: Thorens 125/SME 3009 S2 Imp/Denon 304 (into WE285L) into PS Audio GCPH (low gain)
Preamp: BAT VK-3i
Amp: Audio Reserach VT130
XLR cables used: Gotham GAC-3

Now, the system, both analogue and digital, are balanced. Of note is that the noise floor of the BAT VK-3i preamp, which is much lower via its balanced outputs than RCA outs. This proved quite beneficial as the 8x matched Amperex Holland Globe 6DJ8 I use are inherently noisier than the the stock Sovtek 6922, but tonally much more alluring. Compared to using RCA connectors, the balanced preamp/amp configuration IMHO offered superior dynamic swings and control. I should re-iterate here that the inexpensive BAT VK-3i is really quite a bargain, a fully balanced TUBE linestage that doesn't cost an arm and a leg.

The ARC VT130 (together with its sibling VT150) is an odd product in the ARC series. Despite the designation, its 4x 6550 per channel yields only 110 wpc, 10 more than the contemporaneous VT-100. Its design is for sure related to some of the D series amps (like the D115) , without extra 6550 as regulation; and to the balanced V-series amps, but not in triode mode. IMHO, it is unnecessarily big, laid out more extravagantly than the D- and V-series amps, with a bulky cover that covers everything. I suspect the bulk is why it has never been popular here in HK. Sonically, it's another matter. Though it still contains solid state components in the signal path, its sound is definitely more tubey than the D-115 MkII, which I have in HK. The D115 betrays its hybrid nature when it is switched on, a little white in tonality, and that does not completely go away even after a full warm-up. Not so the VT130: it sounds quite warm even at power on, and reaches full bloom in about an hour. As for power, I'd say they are about equal, but the balanced connection gives it an more effortless quality.

In all, this is now my reference for the Maggie 1.7. At 110 wpc of balanced tube power, the system is powerful enough to handle everything, from fusion to big symphonic work. It doesn't have the brute power of some ss amps, but it trounces them in almost everything else. Neither does it quite have the tonal allure of a WE system, but its even attributes rewards everyday listening.

In the next and final part of this Magnepan 1.7 Listening Log, there are some loose ends to tie up, and I shall do some summation on what I have learned. Stay tuned.

06 May, 2010

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (5): Magnepan 1.7 listening tests

HiFi Letter from NYC 2010 (5): Magnepan 1.7 Listening tests (I)

I got really busy with the 1.7's. A chance to try all kinds of tube power amps. In recent years I have spent most of my time with SET amps and completely neglected my medium- and high-powered amps. The 1.7 provides me with an excuse to fire them up. Firing these up took a lot of work. Digging out the proper tubes for them, test and match the tubes and carefully bias them.

Listening began with the same gears I used to listen to the MMG (see last letter). As alluded to previously, immediately the sound struck me as more at ease, but also more extended at both ends. This implies more liquidity, a more fluent musical flow as well as tonal richness. I used this setup for quite a while to run-in the speakers. Truth be told, they really did not need much run-in; a few days was all it needed to remove the tiny bit of grain in the treble.

McIntosh MC2200
Praise must be given to the McIntosh MC2200 amp, basically a cheaper and more industrial looking 2205 (no meters either). Like all McIntosh ss amps of yore, it uses output transformers (now used only in higher models). This is a 200 wpc amp that is VERY heavy and built like a tank. It even has a 1-ohm tap. I wish I had a pair of Apogee to try this amp on. The even load of Maggie surely stressed it not one bit. Sound was superbly controlled, liquid and smooth even in the loudest moments. My WE tube friend marvelled at the synergy between this amp and the 1.7. Note that Lyric HiFi also uses McIntosh to demonstrate its 1.7. There is neither transistor hash nor dark colorations of some vintage gears. I'd say this amp is definitely a best buy for a Maggie. Given the chance I'd like to buy another one to use the pair in bridged mono mode. Now, THAT's cost-effective! This is the only ss amp I used this time (although my NAD 325BEE drove my MMG quite well, I have too little time to test it out on the 1.7 and it likely will be marginal; so be it).

Artemis Lab LA-1
At this time I got a new toy. I have previously heard Artemis Lab only at shows and, despite the looks, my impressions were generally positive. My interest in the LA-1 line preamp revolves around its use of 5687, a tube I like and popularized by AN and Kondo. If you know the layout of the Kondo M7 you should find the chassis here eerily familiar: 2-level, with only small holes to let the wiring go between the compartments. In this "poor-man" version, there is no expensive silver, and the design is also different and notable for its use of plate choke and constant current source. Perhaps later I shall write a more detailed review.

The Artemis LA-1 immediately proved itself a winner. As noted in some web reviews (avguide; positive-feedback), it is eerily quiet (more than my BAT VK3i, though that may be the problem of my particular unit, as my BAT P5 phonostage is dead-quiet) and goes loud with great ease, perfect for this classical listener. The BAT VK3i is a little tight in comparison. It's very revealing, making tube-rolling not only fun but essential for system synergy. The Tungsol is smoother and generally suitable, but with certain amps that are slightly dark, Philips/Sylvania is preferable. So the system changed to:

Analogue: Linn LP12/Ittok/Koetsu Black; Thorens TD-125/SME 3009 S2 Imp/Denon 304
Digital: Meridian 596V
Preamp: Artemis Lab LA-1 (mostly using Tungsol)

pic: Marantz 8B, Dynaco ST70 and, waiting in the wings, WE124 (click to enlarge)

8B and Dynaco ST-70

Perviously, I had used the Marantz 8B quite satisfactorily with the MMG. And in HK, another Marantz 8B had satisfactorily driven a host of "difficult" speakers, including Magnepan MG-12, Thiel 2.3. Even ATC 20 performed miraculously well with it. Don't under-estimate its 35 wpc, it's a power-house in disguise. And best value. One in good condition (mine is) should sound quite transparent and be quiet in operation.

I am glad to report that the Marantz 8B had no difficulty whatsoever handling the MG 1.7. This amplifier must also be rated a best-buy Maggie amp. Compared to the ss McIntosh, there is a little more bloom on vocals, a little more rosin on the violin, and a slightly bigger soundstage. But in some ways the MC2200 is a little smoother (perhaps because I was using the leaner Siemens EL34 on the 8B). Overall, there is rather little to choose between the two and I could live happily ever-after with either, both big bang-for-the-buck.

Moving down the food chain, I tried out the humble Dynaco ST-70 (mine is bone-stock). A little sweeter in the treble (this amp has the best treble imho), open, but looser at the bottom and not quite as powerful, though control was good enough in my large LR. This is THE best-buy in the budget sector. If you don't listen to the big orchestral stuff like I do, it will do nicely. This attests to the drivability of the 1.7.

Throughout, sound of the MG 1.7 was just wonderful and never gave me the tight feeling I get with a lot of Maggies. My WE friend again marvelled and completely agreed that it is a best buy.

That concludes Part I of the listening report. There are quite some surprises coming. Stay tuned for Part II and more.