31 July, 2010

Brief Review: Audioengine 2 Desktop Speakers

Review: Audioengine 2 Desktop Speakers
How complicated should your computer setup be?

(more pics)

It is amazing how complicated CAS (computer as server) has become. It is also amazing how younger people are flocking to it, attracted by the promise of perfect (well, high) resolution. I'd not say they are ignorant, nor completely misguided. But they are certainly historically ill-informed. Why? Read on.

I have been using this pair of Audioengine 2's, the smallest of the range, for quite some time. Previously I have written that I prefer not to listen to CDs near-field in the study (link), but to link the computer to the system in my study is work over distance, and I finally decided on a pair of small active speakers for listening to my iTunes library and internet radio in the study, and I chose Audioengine. Under a promo, I got them for US$180, shipping included.

I was not going to write about this humble setup, but yesterday I visited TST Fortress and listened to an expensive "desktop" setup using Weiss and active Dynaudio. I didn't dedicate time to the active speakers, my mission being earphone listening. But the active Dynaudio's are big and first impression was it was just not for me (granted I have never taken to Dynaudio's sound).

This review is going to be brief. I basically agree with everything in the review in Stereophile. It's a very good and detailed review that does full justice to these remarkable speakers. But if you're in a hurry, I'll just quote the conclusion, which I fully agree with:

"...I have never been more impressed with or more stunned by a component I've reviewed for Stereophile than I was with the Audioengine 2. The level of sound quality produced by this uncolored, detailed, articulate, and dynamic speaker, in all situations, was beyond reproach, and its ratio of value to cost borders on the criminal. It extended my enjoyment of music into a new realm of portability that I hadn't before thought possible. I can't think of a single reason why every reader of this magazine should not go out right now and buy a pair of Audioengine 2s. I couldn't decide which finish I liked better, the white or the black. I bought a pair of each..."

On my desktop, there is a reasonable soundstage, neutral, fleshy, focused sound with good rhythm and pace. The bass is tuneful and just right. Like the reviewer, I never felt I need a subwoofer. Note the tweeter has neodynium magnet and the woofer is kevlar. And all this with the "chicken" speaker and interconnect cable supplied, connected to my computer's regular analogue out (no, I don't have a special soundcard). I don't even feel the urge to upgrade my connection. But I shall experiment with the computer out when I have time. Maybe use a USB out via the HRT Music Streamer.

In case you wonder, in NYC I did just as the Stereophile reviewer did and tried the A2's out in the main listening room on 28" stands. The sound was simply amazing.

Highly recommended. I didn't buy my pair in HK, but I see there's a distributor in HK (click "home theater", then "speaker").

p.s. For why "historically ill-informed", please wait for the next articles.

27 July, 2010

Review: Sennheiser HD600 and 580 Earphones (as driven by Nagra PL-P)

Review: Sennheiser 600 and 580 Earphones (as driven by Nagra PL-P)

Normally I am not one to listen to headphone much. In NYC I use a pair of Audio Technica ATH-AD700 late at night. Since that article was written, my bedroom setup became the Linn Majik I, and its headphone output was excellent, whether playing CD from an old Proton CDP or LP from an Audio-Technica SP1200MkII/Benz Micro Silver.

Nagra Headphone Amplifier!
In HK I have not the need until recently, when I had a guest in my study and I needed to use a headphone in the early morning. Admittedly, part of this was prompted by my recent acquisition of a Nagra PLP. Most people are familiar with this preamp, but VERY few people have commented on, or even used its headphone section. This is a SERIOUS headphone amplifier! Two large transformers, several times larger than the MC step-up's and certainly costly, are dedicated to the headphone output. The transformers can be glimpsed in the Nagra brochure on line (download here). With tranformers, by serious professionals, one can be assured the headphones shall be driven well and there'd be few issues due to impedance mismatch. A switch on the front selects between preamp and earphono outputs. So the PLP can rightfully be viewed as a DEDICATED headphone amp with tube amplification, including MC-capable phono!! If you are a Nagra user, you MUST try it out.

Sennheiser, the older the better?
As stated in my previous post, I still have my first headphone, the Sennheiser 414, so the brand is familiar to me. For my current purpose, I started off borrowing a pair of old Sennheiser HD-580 from BenYC, who's knowledgeable on earphones, old and new ones alike. These are really old models and difficult to drive, but the sound on the Nagra PLP can only be described as absolutely correct. Full, yet not bloated; neutral, yet rich in timber; detailed, yet not etched. String music is just luxurious. And comfortable to boot. I wanted them.

A note on the sound, which was for sure superior to the make-shift setup I used in NYC, the AT-Majik combo, good as that was. There is little question the Sennheisers are more solid sounding and superior. Of course, the Nagra "headphone amp" here I am sure has contributed much. Perhaps one does need dedicated headphone amps afterall! :-)

Unfortunately, the HD580 has long been discontinued. Fortunately, its elder brother, the venerable, and perennial, HD600, is unbelievably still around, and still made in Ireland! This model has long been a high-end staple (Stereophile review). I went shopping in Mongkok. Almost all the shops in Yau Sing carry the 600, and I bought a pair for just over $2k. That's actually not much different from the price over 10 years ago. Not cheap, but a bargain for a classic, one deserving to be partnered with the Nagra! It's THAT good!

A note on the sound of the 600. I heard little difference between it and the 580. I actually prefer the more straightforward black of the 580 to the "marbled" 600. Nonetheless, wonderful!

22 July, 2010

Talk Vinyl: When is Analogue Not Analogue?

Vinyl Talk: When is Analogue Not Analogue?

Or: Buy your Historical Recordings with Care

The recent appearance of some re-issue LPs of doubtful provenance is cause for reflection. This was started by an email from Shun Cheong HK, dealer of many obscure (and questionable) CD labels that specialize in re-issue of historical performances, announcing the availability of Johanna Martzy's Bach solo works on the Mythos label.

The Quagmire of Copyright
The main reason many such obscure labels have sprung up in Europe is because in Europe the 50-year copyright has lapsed on a huge number of valuable recordings. It is 2010 now, and that means in Europe you can transfer anything up to 1960, well into the stereo age. In the USA, copyright lasts longer and there are not yet that many such companies. Which is also why Naxos can sell their 50's Maria Callas CDs in Europe and Asia but not in the USA.

Material Recorded on 78's and Unethical Practice
By now most material on 78's are now in the public domain, and anyone can take a 78 or shellac and use a cheap A to D converter to digitize it, and then manufacture it. With made-to-order CD a coming trend (even with big companies) surely such transfers shall continue to mushroom.

There are people who have long done such conversions with care, and the 2 most famous are Ward Marston and Mark Obert-Thorn, whose work can be found on many legitimate and honorable historical re-issue special labels, such as Music and Arts, Pearl, Biddulph, Arbiter and, yes, even Naxos, now a main player.

If you take a 78 and make a transfer yourself and sell it, no one will question you. But then there are companies that simply STEAL digital transfers already prepared by others and market them under their own brand. If it is not unlawful it is at least UNETHICAL. The most notorious in this aspect are labels like Iron Needle, Dante/Lys and Arlecchino (all of which unscrupulously carried by Shun Cheong). For more info on this, read the Hall of Shame article on the Music and Arts label. I'd urge you not to buy these labels.

Material Originally Recorded on Tape
Since material up to 1960 can now be issued outside the US, more and more LPs, inclduing stereo issues, have been digitally transferred to CDs by small labels, BUT NOT FROM THE ORIGINAL MASTER TAPE.

If it is well done, I'd think this is useful for re-issuing material that have not been tranferred digitally before. The major record companies have yet to re-issue many valuable items in their catalogue, and the small labels can serve a purpose here.

But this Martzy Bach item from Mythos I have my doubts about. This is one of the first "re-issue" LP that I know about from a small label. There is nothing much special from Mythos before. My impression is that they just take old LPs and transfer them to CD. these performances were recorded in good sound by EMI on tape in 1955, and the CDs are reasonable in sound and price too. I doubt Mythos had licensed the original tape from EMI to use for transfer. Much more likely they had just used some old LPs as source. Note that unlike more reputable historical reissue specialists, I failed to find any useful information about this record company. Who's behind them? the only thing I found was in Japanese:

"...「マルツィはひところ、ヴァイオリン愛好家や初期LP収集家の間では知られていたが、一般の知名度は低かった。最近、東芝EMIのCDでの復刻や、レキシ ントンのLP復刻で少しは認識されてきたようだ。しかしそれらのディスクを聴いてみたが、残念ながらその真価を知るには、初期盤にかぎられてしまうことが はっきりと分かった・・・・」(2000年発売 光文社 『クラシック名盤この一枚』より)

今回リリースされるこのレコードによって、現代のマルツィファンはようやく彼女の演奏の真価を知ることとなるでしょう。この3枚には、オリジナル最初期盤 でしか聴くことのかなわなかった、美しい旋律の底に横たわる深い響き、艶やかな表現を生む繊細な音のゆらめき、そして彼女の弓を握るその手の力具合までも が、録音スタジオの空気をも伝えんとする精緻な復刻により生々しく再生されているのです。

製作にあたり、MYTHOSは新たに発見された未使用と思われるプロモーション盤を使用しました。静かに再生の時を待っていたこのプロモーション盤には、 驚く程の情報が刻まれていたのです。ソロヴァイオリンの録音の復刻は、その音源のクオリティに厳しい条件を突きつけますが、今回発見された盤はその要求に 完璧に答えるものでした。蘇るマルツィ。 あの演奏は本当はこのような音がしていたのです。(MYTHOS).."

If you can read Japanese, please tell me what it says, especially the last paragraph. Using the Google translator:

"...Marzi was at one time, early enthusiast and violin LP among collectors have been known, recognition of a general low. Recently, Toshiba EMI in CD and reprinted in the Lexington LP little reproduction is getting recognized or seem to. I tried to listen to those disks, but see the value, unfortunately, they are understood clearly that the board limited the initial "(masterpiece Kobunsha released in 2000 [classics From this single 』)

This record will be released by this time will be a modern Marutsuifan to know the value of her performance at last. These three pieces of a bout of listening only original of the first panel, lying on the bottom of a deep melodic sound beautiful delicate shimmer of sound produce glossy representation, the power of her hand holding the bow and Even the condition is being played by the vivid and detailed reproduction of the recording studio 伝En air also.

Niatari production, MYTHOS used a promotion board seems to be newly discovered unused. The promotion board was waiting quietly playing time, I was surprised about the information engraved. Reissue of solo violin recording, the sound quality gives her severe condition, the panel found this was the perfect answer to the request. Marzi revived. That performance was the sound I really like this. (MYTHOS)

Mythos seems to have claimed they have found a new something, but what? A mint copy of LP?

Would you want to buy an expensive re-issue LP from someone who used an old LP as source, then did the A-to-D process, and then the D-to-A process again? For me, no, at least not until I have compared it to the official EMI CD release remastered from original tapes.

Record companies and dealers have the obligation to tell us the provenance of the material they are selling.

More later.

17 July, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 17-07-10 (Bauer, Avantgarde, AMR, Kondo, Kiso)

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 17-07-10

The Oz Connection
JC was back in town on this day. It was also nice to see classicalkan and his cute boy. They are due in Australia in August and we look forward to his report on JC's current system. As it was a rainy day we decided to postpone our planned visit to hear tubdiyer's 4343.

David and Goliath
After yumcha the seven of us went to Avantgarde Hong Kong. When we arrived there was a large crowd of mixed sex in the main listening room auditioning 第一鼓. Sales manager Jeff Yip ushered us into the smaller room, where we spent time with an expensive small system:

Digital: Weiss (I think Jason/Medea)
Preamp and Amp: Kondo M7 + Souga (2A3 PSE)
Speakers: Kiso Acoustics HB-1

Tell you one funny thing. As I was writing I googled "Kondo Souga" hoping to find more info or a link for you. Guess what popped up first? MY brief audition of Souga at another dealer!

Well, the sound of Souga was much better this time, for sure. At $130K the small Kiso speakers had better be good! And they were, as driven by these expensive electronics. The violin was a little artificial paradoxically, but that may be Eugene Fodor. A Japanese jazz CD was well rendered, with snappy timing, crisp piano and serviceable bass (let's not exaggerate that it's a big speaker).

The Kiso are certainly not the first to use resonating cabinets of thin wood that simulate musical instruments. Not even Ocellia was there first. According to daiwok, the concept has long been in existence. If you can accommodate larger speakers and are handy, you might want to follow daiwok's footstep and assemble the Saba Reso (see also here). I have auditioned the Saba Reso at daiwok's place, and they were phenomenal; I had never heard Starker's Bach to better advantage. All at a tiny fraction of the price of the Kiso, and you get more bass, a lot more. But that's for another article.

When the rival gang left, we moved into the main room and auditioned the large system. Here, the "director" Edward Choung took over:

Digital: AMR CD-777
Preamp + Amp: Kondo M77 + Gakuoh (300B PP)
Speakers: Avantgarde Duo Grosso

We listened mostly to CDs. The sound was reasonably good, especially behind the desk. My impression is that the Duo Grosso is better than the regular Duo that I had listened to in the past, and it had better be given the extra cost. Mr Choung was an enthusiastic personality(at times almost overly so), tirelessly explaining to us facets of the gears in use, especially since we were unfamiliar with the AMR brand.

Another chip on the shoulder
The AMR's look aroused suspicion in us about its origins. It's a British company but the look of the machine somehow had something Chinese about it. The pompous English on the official website was not reassuring either. My ears perked up when Mr Choung alleged it used the 16-bit chip. At the time, in the unfamiliar surroundings I could not really assess the performance level. Back at home, I read its website and the reviews. I was surprised to read in the 6moons review that Thorsten Loesch, who used to be active in my cheaptubeaudio Yahoo group, and whom I respect as a technocrat, may have something to do with it (at least with its progenitor CD77)! So it IS a bona fide UK company after all...

The multi-bit chipset used is actually the Philips UDA1305AT, a chip new to me and believe me, I have heard my share of CD players with all kinds of chips. Now, THAT's interesting and I am glad! I urge you to give it a listen. Old technology, new implementatio, and I admire a company that does that. Official gibberish here:

"...At the heart of the CD-777 Processor is AMR’s ‘continuous calibration’ Multibit Digital-to-Analogue Converter circuit using the Philips UDA1305AT Multibit Chipset. This is the first time this New Old Stock chipset has been used in a CD source and is worthy of the title “son” to the “King of Multibit” Philips TDA1541A chipset used in the multi-award winning CD-77. With AMR’s understanding of digital design down to the silicon die-level, the sonic performance of this “Prince of Multibit” chipset has been taken beyond the textbook limit. Producing visceral music that other mega-buck CD players cannot match, it must be heard to be believed. Along with AMR’s OptiSample, the CD-77 boasts full remote control of all sampling modes: Direct Mastering (AMR’s custom Non-Oversampling), Oversampling (2X, 4X) and Upsampling (96 kHz, 192 kHz)..."

"...The UDA1305AT is also superior to the TDA1543 and TDA1545. An added bonus is that this chipset has been off the radar and until now never been used before in a high-end CD player. Amongst its features are a continuous calibration concept, fast settling time to enable 2, 4 and 8 times oversampling (serial input), adjustable bias current for maximum dynamic range, internal timing and control circuits, I-squared-S bus input format (time multiplex, two’s complement, TTL up to 384KHz), no zero crossing distortion, low power consumption and low total harmonic distortion. Full-scale output is 2mA, THD at 0dB is -90dB, A-weighted S/N ratio is -101dB and current settling time to ±1 LSB 200ns..."

Without even prompting Mr Choung showed us the CAS ability of the AMR. Using a netbook he played back downloaded high-res files and compared them with ripped files from CDs as well as the CD itself. Needless to say, the CD playback was superior.

Analogue is King
Since there were a plethora of turntables around, we asked to play an LP. Mr Chuong obliged and took quite a bit of time setting up the analogue setup:

-Feickert (Das Laufwerk Triple) turntable (tonearm not sure) with an Ortofon SPU Gold cartridge
-fed into an Ortofon SPU-T100 step-up transformer
-then into AMR PH-77 phonoamp.

He played a first-edition Take Five (red-label; 6-eyes). the sound instantly trumped the CD replay, but that was not all.

It's all about Curves!
Again, the spotlight was on the AMR PH-77. This unusual phonoamp is prodigiously equipped:

"...The PH-77 is the only phonograph source able to lay claim to exclusively feature a comprehensive catalogue of 23 equalisation (EQ) curves: every LP record can now be replayed using the one and only correct equalisation curve. This includes AMR's exclusive RIAA Direct Metal Mastering 'Curve' which transforms DMM records from being 'bright/edgy' to the life-like analogue recording that it always was.

This along with 8 levels of gain, 64 steps of load, 3 inputs for unprecedented flexibility in cartridge choice and matching and the onboard 24bit/96kHz Analogue-to-Digital converter, the PH-77 is undeniably one of the most significant reference phonograph sources ever produced..."

For sure, Take Five sounded better with the Columbia curve engaged. I don't recall another phonoamp as versatile as this one. Somewhat surprisingly, it lacks a phase switch. Mr Chuong's reply: "...I was told when the engineer records something in reversed phase, he has the effect in mind and it is supposed to be listened as it is..." Well, I'll take that with a grain of salt...

The last thing we asked for was to remove the step-up transformer and only use the MC phono section of the PH-77. Sound immediately flattened significantly, as predicted by Mr Chuong. Nonetheless, this is yet another interesting offering from this company, one that I shall watch intently from now on.

The showroom has a lot of TTs to look at. The Feikert line at least looks good. Nottingham I have no interest in at all. Of all the TTs, what interested me the most was the Bauer Audio DPS on silent display (read the HiFi+ review). The elegance of this particular sample from Jonathan Midgley was unfortunately visually disturbed, if not destroyed, by a hopeless marriage with a clutzy Triplanar.

While we were engaged in the main room, Mr Yip in the small room took the pains to show some video to classicalkan's little boy (so as to contain him?). We spent a lot of time there and I am really impressed by the service of the two gentlemen. Commendable indeed!

No, we don't carry this...
After that, we went to nearby Prestige HiFi because I wanted to take a look at the Thorens TD-309, which has been winning praise. Despite its reasonable cost and spunky look ( sassy to me, maybe ugly to you), it actually has many interesting design features (read the pdf file). I saw every Thorens deck (mostly ugly) except this one.

Sales: "...Sorry, we don't carry this..."
DJ: "Why?"
Sales: "...Nobody would be interested in HK..."
DJ: "...But I am! Can you get my a quote anyway?..."
Sales (after a call or two): "...sorry, we don't do this ah..."

So, even if you want one, the dealer refuses to get one for you. What kind of dealer is that? Thumbs down for Prestige Audio. This is the kind of dealer I dislike a lot.

Just an hour ago, Avantgarde HK told me they carry everything in the Ortofon catalogue, and Ortofon makes some very cheap cartridges and acessories. HiFiDuck sells the Concept, the lowest in the line of Clearaudio, for a good price. That's service.

We did not stay, not because of the turntable, but because the sound emanating from a Thorens TT was shockingly anemic, as if bled of all music.

15 July, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 26-06-10 and 03-07-10

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 26-06-10 and 03-07-10

03-07-10 鄔 Sir Sir 地認識了一些老發燒友

事情是這樣開始的。沒多久以前, 飲茶前在 Pro Sound 唱片店無意聽到一位先生跟朱老闆在聊天中提及聞名已久的盧華煇 (ML)。 知道此人是發燒友後, 就跟他搭訕, 聊了起來。原來此人就是也聽説過的 "鄔 Sir Sir"。鄔 Sir Sir 性隨和(爲了方便朋友,也就這樣自稱),大家言談甚歡, 就約了改天去盧先生那裏拜訪。

就在王羽佳的音樂會上又踫到了朱 老闆和 鄔 Sir Sir 等一票人。音樂會完了就跟了他們去宵夜。坐上還有另外兩位:一位 DIY 先生,也就是朱先生 Pro Sound 店裏那部聲音不錯的 DIY 12E1 膽後級的製造者;另一位是古典發燒友。這幫人都是注重聼現場古典音樂的人,在發燒友中少見,大家遂聊得很開心。

言歸正傳,是日飲茶後就隨 "鄔 Sir Sir"上了盧先生的場。用“場”一字,再貼切不過,因爲屋子裏藏了不少玄機。 其中之巧妙,盧先生也在開場前一一為我們詳細介紹。先說主聆聽空間, 原來是間六面與外隔絕的“屋中屋”,有地台墊高的“房内房”, 比起大多錄音室的隔音處理有過之而無不及。所有的電都經過大排大排的 Isoclean 處理。房内的木板很多都有弧度的,有調聲之用。相對來講,頂尖的器材好像變了配角似的:

Vinyl - Clearaudio Statement-Goldfinger
Digital Transport- Metronome Kalista Reference SE on stands
DAC - Wadia 931 Controller + 922 monoblock DAC
Phonopreamp - FM Acoustics 222 MkII
Preamp - Audio Note M10
Amp - Edge NL Reference monoblocks
Speakers - JM Lab Grand Utopia EM

此房隔音之佳,我想一時無倆。同行 whlee 說一進屋就耳鳴, 令我想起當年去鄉下 Delaware 探望我二姐時,那令人難眠, 寂靜如雷轟的夜之聲。器材放在不起眼的地方,面對著的只有喇叭和放大器,感覺很舒暢。此刻想起二姐那標緻無雙的瓜子臉孔, 卻只能緬懷...

聲音也好。就算我這號角喇叭和單端三極管愛好者和盧先生口味可能南轅北轍, 也能盡情欣賞他的一些首本戲。如果你去拜訪,請聼聼以下的幾首黑膠:

-Direct-to-disc 日本妹鋼琴,彈得一般, 但音效一流。
-Manger 靚聲王 LP 第三首的鋼琴,第二的詭魅之聲。

如果你聼過後,覺得你播這些比盧先生播的好的話,就請你在網上發表, 邀請我們去聼聼, 以證其實。

話又說回來, 在背景寧靜和細節重播上,Clearaudio Statement 肯定是優秀的,可是我認爲這個唱盤似乎有點遺漏了音樂重生最重要之一的一環, 那就是節奏感。 這是我聼過 Statement , 甚至於 Master Reference (乃至於大部份 Clearaudio 唱盘) 後都沒能揮去的感覺。如果你擁有或聼過這些唱盤, 不同意的話,不妨說說你的觀點。盧先生自覺得正在升級的 Continuum 在小品的重播是比 Statement 更生動的, 但大爆棚就以後者爲優。 我期待短期内能聽到盧先生頂級的 Continuum。

在這裏我沒用"前輩"或者"師傅"這些人人掛在嘴上可沒放在心裏的表面之詞。這些年, 見過太多庸俗不堪的 "前輩", 以老賣老的老不朽。 盧先生令我耳目一新。 他有他的觀念,可他沒有説教, 平和, 可嘉。鄔 Sir Sir 那天說, 音響對一些人來說,像宗教一樣黑白,一笑。

26-06-10 A Challenge to digital amps
The day was stormy, but that did not prevent us from squeezing in a "challenge" between yumcha and the HKPO-Wang Yuja concert. The resident system was simple and digital (Tact and Lyngdorf). We brought over a very cheap system: Counterpoint 3.1 tube preamp and Adcom 555 MkII amp. I shall be brief. To most of us, the cheaper conventional system scores over the digital amps in most aspects, particularly in bass and dynamics.

07 July, 2010

Talk Vinyl: Current NYC setup (keywords Denon DL-304, Koetsu Black, Linn LP12, Thorens TD-125, SME 3009, BAT P5, GCPH)

Talk Vinyl: Current NYC setup

As I was about to write about a new "surprise" purchase, I realized I had not written about the extensive changes my vinyl setups underwent towards the latter part of my last stay in NYC.

Enter the Black. Koetsu vs Denon
The arrival of the Koetsu Black (read this Art Dudley review) induced great changes in my setup. The sheer weight of this cartridge precludes installation on any of my other arms except the Ittok on the Linn LP12/Lingo. Fed into the BAT P5 , the sound was not that far off from the Denon DL-304 used previously. After protracted listening I made the decision of not using the WE 285L transformers and just using the high-gain setting of the P5. The gain offered previously was not quite enough for the Denon, but the Koetsu's slightly higher output and somewhat wilder streak made the difference. Here, I shall repeat that, whenever possible, for step-up my preference goes to active devices rather than transformers. Aside from the gain and energy, the Koetsu is also bolder and more romantic, with a lush treble. The Denon DL-304 is quite neutral I'm sure (more so than the 103), but the black veers off from neutrality by a much smaller factor than I'd have thought.

As much as I was enamored of the Koetsu sound, I also gained even more respect for Denon, the DL-103 having long been a personal favorite. Indeed, it's always valid to ask, upon hearing any Denon, "Why pay more"?

Merry-go-round 1. What, 304 on the 3009?
Displaced by the Koetsu, the Deonon DL-304 went on the Thorens TD-125/SME 3009S2Imp. The cartridge is likely too heavy for the arm, and the "resonant structure" may not be perfect, but I didn't want to install it on the Technics SP-1200. The result on the SME 3009 though was surprisingly good. After the initial promising sound, I concentrated on mating it with phonoamp.

The neutral DL-304 had always taken to the tubed BAT more than the PS Audio GCPH. Previously, on the Linn LP12/Ittok, I had tried it extensively with the GCPH. With the gain setting maxed, the GCPH had enough gain for the DL-304 but the sound was just that tiny bit etched in the treble. While this brought great brilliance to percussion pieces I missed a little heft down below. At that time, the WE285L transformer fed into the BAT P5 outclassed the GCPH decidedly.

On the SME 3009 the DL-304 sounded lighter still. As I ran several TTs at once and with the BAT P5 now bonded to the Koetsu, I decided to try out the WE285L transformer in conjunction with the lower gain setting of the GCPH. Bingo, that did it, with added heft and elimination of the slight whiteness. Comparison with the Koetsu/BAT setup was close and I was immensely satisfied.

Is it the 3009 or the TD-125?
Assuming the TD-125 is similar in sound to the LP-12, the 304 on the 3009 sounded remarkably different from the Ittok. To be expected was a lighter and less dynamic sound, with the bottom lighter in heft and slam. However, it was also immediately apparent that there was a delicacy to the treble that was quite a bit more refined than the LP12/Ittok. Rhythm and pace was superior on the TD-125/3009 too: while pop material was obviously less heavy-footed, it was in certain classical material that the difference was most felt; the phrasings on violin recordings instantly felt more sinewy, the flow more organic. I'd venture to say, if you are a violin aficionado, there would be little reason to own the Linn combo.

As the TTs are more similar than dissimilar, I personally felt the arm to be more responsible for the obvious difference in sound. But is that completely true? Somehow, as in previous observations, I have a nagging suspicion that the TD-125 is also a superior turntable to the LP-12. What is inescapable is that the Linn is over-rated.

Merry-go-round 2. A sliver of Silver
Last, I installed the Benz Micro Silver on my bedroom system's Technics SP-1200. I was very pleased that the sound reached new heights. As a matter of fact, they proved so synergistic into the Linn Majik I integrated amp and Linn Kan I speakers that I may have to up my opinion on this particular cartridge by a notch. It has refinement as well as tremendous rhythm and pace that makes me think about how to further improve the main gig a little in this regard.

01 July, 2010

HiFi 天碟 Golden Discs (3): Film Music I The Soundtracks of Wim Wenders

HiFi 天碟: Film Music (1)
The Soundtracks of Wim Wenders

In general I am not a fan of soundtracks, but there are notable exceptions. I shall start with Wim Wenders. All his soundtracks have fantastic sound.

Wim Wenders is one of my favorite directors. Every inch the auteur, he is never afraid to experiment. His compass is vast, from documentaries to road movies to love stories. If you have not watched any of his films, you have missed much sensual experience (nothing to do with sex, which is largely absent in his films), and certainly you have missed mesmerizing performances by many of the world's most beautiful women, like Natasha Kinski (Paris, Texas) , Solveig Dommartin (Wings of Desire and Until the End of the World) and Milla Jovovich (The Million Dollar Hotel), to name just a few. Talking about Jovovich, who can forget her in Luc Besson's Joan of Arc?

Wenders is obviously a connoisseur in music too. Whether using original music or compilation, his film music more often than not form "concept albums", where the individual numbers cohere into a greater whole. This last attribute can in general be said of the better film music (such as from Preisner and some of Morricone, to be covered later).

A listing of Sountracks from his Official Site is missing many items. Perhaps many have been discontinued.

Until the End of the World
Many of Wenders' soundtracks not only feature U2, some even are musically directed by them. These all have the signature of Wenders, but Until the End of the World has to be my favorite of the bunch (and of all his soundtracks), and really the only one you need to have for Wenders' films featuring rock band compilations. From this soundtrack I discovered people like Daniel Lanois, Neneh Cherry, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds etc. Paradoxially, this is IMHO one of Wenders' worst films.

Paris, Texas
Fantastic Soundtrack by Ry Cooder. It is very short, simple and atmospheric, but the guitar work, like solo violin music, is endearing to most simple-minded audiophiles.

And it is not just for the slide guitar either. If you can, catch the movie too! Great film that shows the "road-movie" side of Wenders.
The story is simple and heart-warming. Natasha Kinski here is no longer at her youngest, but her portrait of a ravished woman has inner beauty, making one regret all the more the many trash films that wasted her.

Lisbon Story
A non-story. Despite the nominal billing, the real stars in this film are the beautiful city of Lisbon, and emphatically Teresa Salgueiro, playing herself, beauty and beautiful voice of the band Madredeus. Ainda is actually the name of the album.

I have collected quite a few of Madredeus' albums, but Ainda remains the best to me. The music is based on Fado, but modernized.

Wings of Desire
An unusual film in Wenders' canon, not only for the structure and cinematography, but also for the atmospheric instrumental score. However, this soundtrack may not be so useful to those who have not watched the film, as it includes German monologues.

The beautiful Solveig Dommartin, who died young, is the remarkable actress in this film. It is hard to believe that she learned the acrobatics (lots of it) in eight weeks!

Buena Vista Social Club
Probably the greatest thing Ry Cooder ever did was to bring these wonderful Cuban musicians to the world's attention in this documentary. The compilation coherently blended the vocal and non-vocal numbers.

But if you have the chance, catch the film. There's a lot more in the film about these musicians. Their arrival in glitzy New York from Cuba is literally eye-opening for them, and a reminder for us of the repression of communist rule. It's most touching.

Several of the stars, like Ibrahim Ferrer, Omara Portuondo and Rubén González went on to make their own internationally released albums. You really don't need that many albums of Cuban music; the soundtrack still is the best. Of these, the one I like the most is Ruben Gonzalez' solo effort, beautiful piano playing by any standard, excellently recorded too.

Soundtracks to die for