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.

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