29 September, 2010

Site Visits: cnamusic and Elekit

Site Visits: cnamusic (Elekit)

cna is now distributor for Japan's Elekit, one of my favorite kit companies (primarily a toy company though). Commendably, for some items they offer kits at reasonable prices, for DIYers and starters. For some items, only fully assembled items are available. The room is comfortable. The Elekit speakers to my ears do not sound as balanced as the cheap Tannoy's behind. Sound is otherwise quite decent.

cna is primarily a distributor for various (mostly hifi) music labels (many obscure). The Elekit is just a very small sideline for fun. Both Mr 伍 and Mr 劉 are very helpful.

You are welcome to bring your own CD for audition, but NOT pirates and CD-R's! I went to hear the limited edition TU-8300 (top shelf right). Report later

cna (Elekit)
Elekit official website

WhenI have time I shall do an Elekit overview.

26 September, 2010

Review: Muiscal Fidelity A100-X

Review: Muiscal Fidelity A100-X (and Revel Ultima Gem I)

Part I.
The MF A100-X is a close cousin of my favorite integrated amp, the iconic A1 designed by Tim Paravicini (EAR). I quote myself:

Musical Fidelity A1 and A100-X and variants
From a pure sonic viewpoint, personally I think the A1 (and its closely related siblings A1-x, A1-S, A2 etc) as well as the higher powered A-100-X are the best integrated amps ever. Their unique look is entrancing. But they run alarmingly hot. One must have adequate ventilation. They are musically so wholesome that one wonders why a tube amp is needed. They even have better bass! Power is limited but if your space is not too big it's enough. In this respect the A-100-X is superior, with enough power to drive a good speaker even in a larger LR (info here). If the A1 were not so good, they would not be introducing a new version so many years later (though its power rating is closer to the A-100-X)! I haven't heard the new one. I am using an A1-S in my bedroom, which is air-conditioned in the summer, but it's in winter that the amp is comforting!!! It's a great match with my Audio Physic Step. Here is a must-read site. MF is NOT a brand that I like too much but, hey, the A1 was designed by none other than the great Tim Paravicini, now founder of EAR. If you know the excellence of EAR gears, you'd like this one. The MC/MM phonostage is excellent.
(click for full overview).

The web does not have much info on the A100-X. This little bit is interesting:

Product Info
(from cached file) The Musical Fidelity A100 is a strongly biased into Class A (roughly 93% of music is in Class A), the A100 benefits from the sonic advantages of Class A operation, without the drawbacks of immense heat and vast power consumption of pure Class A. It is a low feedback design with passive preamp, phono and RIAA stages, and a sophisticated power supply.

Info on Italian site

Serendipity, A Gem!
A few weeks ago after yumcha I went into 影音寄賣 (Central) and immediately spotted a mint-condition A 100-X quietly sitting in a corner. My heart literally fluttered. As the price was reasonable and condition excellent, I bought it without hesitation. For testing, 榮哥 hooked it up to a pair of old Revel Ultima Gem I. Before hooking up, he was worried the sound may not be too good, as the 50 wpc on hand, though twice that of A1, is really quite limited. But we were testing only for function.

When the music played we were quite pleasantly surprised by the absolute rightness of it. The 2010 AV Show CD was rendered as well as I have heard anywhere. Most impressive was the quiet background, from which pristine sound emerged. It was so good that for twenty minutes it literally stopped everyone in his track.

I have always liked Revel loudspeakers, particularly the Ultima's and Salon's. I'd refer you to JA's review in Stereophile. I'd buy this pair downright if it were not for the dark wood finish, which is not to my taste for this particular styling.

Back Home
I tested the A100-X in my living room with the following gears:

Digital: Quad 99 CD-P
Analogue: Clearaudio Concept/Ortofon MC3000
Speakers: Usher X-708; KEF LS3/5A; ATC SCM7

A note on the CD player which I just brought back from SZ. This is a wonderfully natural player that is woefully under-rated. And I don't usually like oversampling technology. This shows with every kind of technology, some people do it right, and some don't. Mine is the original version with Philips CDM-Pro 2 laser (as reviewed by KK).The later version CD-P2 is basically the same player with a different laser mechanism (as reviewed by Stereophile).

While not quite matching the refinement of the Revel heard at the shop, it partnered the Usher X-708 extremely well, delivering a lively and dynamic sound. With the less efficient ATC SCM7 sound turned a little stressful at high volume. My KEF LS3/5A did surprisingly well, even with a Bruckner symphony. With simpler material, like RR's Rameau, sound is truly sophisticated. Although 50 wpc is only nominally more powerful than the A1's 25 wpc, subjectively it seemed to have significantly more power.

Just to satisfy my curiosity I gave the MC phono section the ultimate challenge by using my Clearaudio Concept setup. The Ortofon MC-3000 has a very low output of 0.13, but the A100-X handled it with aplomb. It was quiet and good sounding and, although lacking a little necessarily in ultimate dynamics, everything moved with good PRaT. A marvelous phonstage!

At the start of the article, the "Product Info" was from a previous MF website page used by some seller. MF doesn't have info on the A100 anymore. I was much intrigued by the statement "... It is a low feedback design with passive preamp..." and shall test this out by using a preamp in Part II. Perhaps there's really no preamp section, as the usual volume pot noise prevalent on the A1, which some attribute to DC (see must-read site cited previously), is completely absent.

21 September, 2010

Review: Pro-Ject Headbox II

Review: Pro-Ject Headbox II

And now for something much easier to write than the last post!

Pursuant to my last post on the Sennheiser HD-600, I decided to get a cheap headphone amplifier to go with it. That is because I have decided to take my HD-600 to SZ, where I'm materializing a small headphone setup.

Pro-Ject is an interesting company that I have always watched. Although they have grown more ambitious, I firmly believe their heart are in the right places when it comes to budget gears.

Long before they have branched into other electronics, I heard the original version of the cheap RPM 4 through a much more expensive setup consisting of Verdier Control B preamp, Unison Research Smart 845 and Spendor SP-100. icefox's setup not withstanding, it's still one of the best analogue playback I have heard. On the internet, you read a lot of negatives about Pro-ject's, about their arms or whatever. But since that experience nothing can shake me from an admiration for Pro-ject.

The Headbox II can be had for around HK$ 800. In view of my positive experience with this company, its diminutive size as well as look made that a no-brainer for me.

After I got it home, I hooked it up to the tape loop of the Nagra PLP. No, it was not as mellifluous as the Nagra, but it was close. What surprised me the most was that it drove the inefficient HD-600 easily. With most music I seldom had to venture beyond 11-12 o'clock for satisfactory sound level. With earphones off, the mix was tonally closely related to what came through the main speakers. Later, back in the PRC, the Pro-ject delivered highly satisfactory result with the humble Sony DVP-PR50P. Music had a natural breath, even tonal balance and never a shrill moment. One also felt enough power on hand, enabling one to hear deep into the mix with full bass.

The combination of the Senneheiser 600 and Pro-Ject Headbox II is a clear winner.

19 September, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 18-09-10 (WilsonWAMM, Continuum Caliburn)

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 18-09-10 (Wilson, Continuum Caliburn)

Part I
The Prodigal Son, His Friend 你既老友, and a Go-Between
On this day JCR33 came back from a business trip and resumed his place at the table. You should have seen how the waitresses congregated around him! It was happily coincidental that we had planned a visit to his friend ML afterward, and it turned out to be a very fine time.

Sometime ago, shortly after our last visit, we got wind that the system of 盧華煇, aka ML, had undergone some major changes:

(1) The Focal Grand Utopia EMs are gone and in their place now are the Wilson WAMMs (moved from home);
(2) The Continuum Caliburn turntable is back from an upgrade.

Of course, we would not miss for the world the chance to hear the legendary WAMM and to pitch the Continuum against the Clearaudio. Again, we relied on 鄔 Sir Sir to arrange things, and made our second visit after yumcha. Apology to the host that the crowd was a little larger than anticipated.

How an Ugly Duckling Turned Into a Swan.
A little background on the WAMM is in order. A good place to start would be the History page in the official Wilson Audio site (just don't read the baloney about the Wiener Musikverein inspiring his newest thinking!). The next piece of mandatory reading is JA's 1990 Wilson interview in Stereophile, in which Wilson offers much insight into the WAMM.

In the pic on the right, you shall note that the Dahlquist DQ-10's, on which the WAMM prototype was initially based. The look of the DQ10's look is a dead-ringer for Quad ESL57. They were famous during their long reign and contemporaneous with the Yamaha NS-1000 (info here, here and here; even J Gordon Holt wrote a preview on a pre-production unit). It's a bit like Vandersteen, all drivers except the enclosed woofer in an open-baffle and time-aligned. Readers with good memory would remember I had a pair of these marvelous speakers and mentioned them in a previous article. On top of the DQ10 sat what looks like a large RTR ESR electrostatic tweeter and at the very top a small Braun (/ads) 2-way mini-monitor (not sure what model; earlier WAMMs used Braun's). Info on both RTR and Braun are difficult to find now. If you have more info on Braun or RTR, let me know.

What has Paul Klipsch got to do with it?
Here is a pic of Wilson's home during the last days of the WAMM , from a Soundstage Factory Tour. Here we have a set of late-production WAMMs. The report took place just before the WAMM was discontinued (article mentioned 53 WAMMs in existence; according to ML, only 55 were ever produced).

This set looks very similar to ML's set (serial #49). In between the 2 2-way mini-monitors (not Braun anymore) is sandwiched an electrostatic panel made up of 9x Janszen (not to be confused with Jensen) units, the whole sort of an augmented D'Appolito Array.

The (sub) bass column has a single 15" woofer mounted rather high, and a small front-firing port. What most interested me in the pic was where Dave Wilson (I think purposefully) placed it, right against the corner, kind of like the Klipschorn (which differs in having a true bass horn that utilizes the corner by design). Many people simply do not know Dave Wilson has very high regards for Paul Klipsch and Klipschorn. I suspect most Wilson users, "modern" hi-end'ers, would instantly dismiss horns as a genre. They should read this article indeed. Another thing of note is what Wilson used himself, including an ARC preamp (he talked about ARC later in the JA interview). Wilson Audio has always used ARC tube products (and vice versa) in their own rooms (here), but for some reasons it's not so common to see HK Wilson users doing the same. Keep in mind Wilson's recordings (one example below) were made with tubes in the signal path too.

Even more interesting are the bass units, the iconic KEF radiators (aka 大球場; I'd guess active versions here). People have derided the WAMM as being LS3/5A + ESL + KEF; in actuality there is nothing LS3/5A about it, except for the presence of the small mini-monitors. If anything, the implementation is more like the pioneering KEF 104AB pictured, very fine monitors that are seriously under-rated (see here). Come to think of it, for a multi-box idea, KEF's 105 was a pioneer too. To digress further, the KEF (and TDL) radiators of course can be seen in many other iconic speakers of the era, such as the Sonus Faber Electa Amator (I own the MkII) and the Extrema, one of my dream speakers.

I note that aside from an infinite number of permutations on aligning the drivers, the equalizer was not flat at all. You can spend a life time dialing in the settings...I am sure that's not the last we have heard of the WAMM. A tweaker's delight!
Part II
It's Lonely on Top
Before I begin to "report", I'd refer you to the picture I drew. Driving the four columns were 2 pairs of Spectral monoblock amps connected by MIT Oracle cables. Here's the current equipment list, including Hong Kong's sole sample of Continuum Caliburn (now with the latest updates):

Vinyl 1 - Clearaudio Statement-Goldfinger
Vinyl 2 - Continuum Caliburn-Cobra arm-Airtight PC-1 on dedicated stand
Phonopreamp - FM Acoustics 222
Digital Transport- Metronome Kalista Reference SE on stands
DAC - Wadia 931 Controller + 922 monoblock DAC
Preamp - Audio Note M10
Amp - Spectral DMA360 monoblocks bi-amping
Speakers - Wilson WAMM (serial #49)
Cables - Oracle bi-amping; Gotham for preamp-amp I believe.

Wilson WAMM = Focal Grand Utopia EM?
In the high-end design world, Form Follows Function is almost an imperturbable dictum. But in the hifi world, where both form and function are not as well delineated, such is almost always not the case. As in live performances, the "form" of the music/sound in any particular setup is contingent upon interactive personal and room factors, and most audiophiles would not hesitate to subjugate the functions of the hard wares in his pursuit. As a result, most systems bear the sonic signature of the owner, and ML is perhaps no exception.

All this only to preface what I observed, that is in this particular room the Wilson WAMM did not sound all that different from the Focal Grande Utopia EM. Of course, as the Focal's were gone we did not do an A/B comparison and I am relying on my aural memory.

Similar as they may be, they are not quite identical. Mostly the same LPs were played to facilitate comparison. Overall, the Wilson's sounded a trifle lighter, looser, and perhaps more extended; the Focal's had more midbass gravitas.

Just 2 examples: on the Manger Test LP, Gelber's Beethoven on Track 3 was more solid on the Focal but the Wilson's had more of the leading edge as the fingers hit the keys, though some of it had me confused for a Bosendorfer for a while (it's Steinway). On Track 2 though the Focal built up the steadily eerie atmosphere quite a bit better.

We also heard some different items. I personally found We Are The World nicely rendered. While it was not quite the usual rowdy rendition, the subtle delineation of the various different voices was quite mesmerizing, if just a little light on the male vocals.

Digital replay is quite different from analogue, indeed more upright and upfront, in other words livelier. Some may well prefer one format over the other. More comments on the sound are reserved for Part III.

As everybody may have his own explanations for perceived sameness, my statement is sure to stir controversy. Before my statement is deliberately hijacked by others to suit their own ill intentions, let me expound further on my own thinking...

Q1. Should 2 loudspeakers sound alike?
I believe this is not a question of "Should", but rather "Can". Yes, I believe two very different systems, not just loudspeakers in isolation, can sound similar. And keep in mind the more subjective "alike" does not equal the more objective "the same". In our hifi world, I believe the accumulation of at least over 80 years of growth and experience, wisdom and follies has greatly enriched us, particularly in the understanding of neutrality and the means to get it. By this I mean for the dedicated there are many paths, using new or old equipment, home or pro gears, to similar results.

Should the Wilsons and Focals sound alike? Who knows! But why not? If you look carefully at the designs, even shapes, you shall start to find more than coincident similarities between the two. In particular, variations on the D'Appolito Array and care paid to time alignment.

Can they sound alike?
Not if I had to guess from previous impressions of Wilson and Focal speakers. But yes, judging by this audition. Now, the corollary.

Q2. What's the "real" sound of a good transducer?
Aside from its duty to provide good presence to the music, I believe a good transducer should be responsive to whatever changes in the signal. Unfortunately, this also means two people (designers and audiophiles alike) can get completely different sound out of the same transducer. If this were not true, we would not have the frequent misfortune of hearing anomalies such as ear-bleeding "neutrality", airless panels, narcotizing vintage gears, lugubrious ESLs, bass-shy big JBLs, to name just a few oddities perpetuated by some audiophiles.

In the most exalted realm, it is often said the loudspeakers (and other gears) should have no real sound of their own, their only duty to get out of the way. Do the Wilsons and Focals belong to this exalted category?
I believe they do.

Q3. What Factors are Conducive to Likeness?
In short, a higher control, beyond equipment, akin to the supratentorial influence on reflexes. Electrical gears interact like reflexes, but they are susceptible to other controls. Here are some candidates:

The Room: No matter how much care we take in speaker placement and system implementation, we all know the room plays the biggest role in how the system will sound. Here, as discussed in the last visit, ML's unique room is even more of a factor than most, its almost stealthy silence (particularly the stage portion) more of an iron grip than any equipment can be. Incidentally, before I forget, I still think images, like last time, are just a shade elevated even at our listening volume. This could well be alignment or preference, or simply room effect. The bottom line is I think the room is a major player here, as I am sure is ML's intention.

Another reason why some people listen at low volume is a Hong Kong syndrome: the speakers are too large for the room.

Power Conditioning: The best power conditioning is supposed to remove interferences without removing music. Here I must declare a bias. Unlike ML, I'm usually quite strongly against conditioning. Personally, I'd rather have a little more roughness than too much smoothness. But not everyone is the same. My guess would be that in ML's place a little of the sort of liveliness (presence) I treasure has been deliberately removed during conditioning, but I do appreciate the silent background and refinement. There was a huge amount of tiny ambient details on offer, more than in almost any other system I have heard, though presented in an ultra-calm fashion that perhaps betrays a synthetic origin. You can listen to this system for days without fatigue, but wouldn't just a bit of fatigue be more real?

Listening Volume: I have consistently observed this is a pervasive trait among well-known older HK audiophiles (often over-solicitously referred to as "Master" this and that; 各大師,大佬,大大,大_...). Almost down to the last person they guard the volume knob zealously. Let me be frank, for my taste most of them play at unrealistically low volume. It is relatively OK to play chamber music at a low volume, but to play a big symphony at low volume just does not work for me, someone who goes to concert regularly. When we listen by ourselves, we can choose any volume we like, but when there is a gathering it is then a showcase where more realistic volume level is a requisite for demonstration of high fidelity, for what fidelity can there be if the volume is much lower than in real life? I'd venture that too low a listening level easily leads to a feeling of sameness washing over even audible differences. It's like asking which of two girls is prettier and getting an answer of "...the same."

That said, if I have to, I can adjust myself to low listening level and, well, interpolate the rest. In the case of ML, although the listening level is below my norm, it is still thankfully significantly higher than many of his cohorts. Careful listening revealed that, within his own chosen envelope of calmness, nothing serious was lacking. The sound was layered and nuanced, of exceptional refinement. Commendably too, transients were quick when the dynamics changed, and the scale of bigger canvas faithfully preserved, though somewhat scaled down. Within this low-listening-level species, I personally would rate ML a master, and downgrade some of well-known "masters" and "大_" to journeymen, if not apprentices.

Neutrality: Finally it's my firm belief that only in a highly neutral system can two highly neutral speakers achieve semblance.

Silent Presence 無聲勝有聲?
As quoted from JA's 1990 Stereophile interview:

Atkinson: What range does the electrostatic unit cover?

Wilson: It operates above 5kHz. And it operates at a very low level. It functions primarily to provide part of the leading edge of high-frequency transients.

ML asked us to participate in a test. Some of his friends has queried whether the electrostatic panels are functional at all since one can hear almost nothing even standing directly in front of them. We listened to just one cut, Milstein's Meditation twice, with the power on and off. There is little question they did make a subtle contribution to the leading edge of the violin, exactly as Dave Wilson intended.

To me this little demonstration was the singular most interesting thing about the afternoon. A designer took great pains to add just a little information to the leading edge of the notes which he missed from the tweeters. No doubt skeptics will think of this as patching, but I think it showcased Wilson's acute hearing. Thumbs up! Now, where have I placed the telephone number of 教父高, anathematic to some but a hero to me? It'd be time to pay him a visit! I wonder how many drivers he now employs...

Pictured also above is an original Janszen unit. You may want to read the little link at Martin Logan's site, especially if you have been seriously misled into thinking Quads as the only worthy electrostatics on earth.

Part III
Vinyl Talk: Clearaudio Statement vs Continuum Caliburn
Shootout Fantastique 擧(手)與不擧(手)
Gulp...after a drink of water we have finally arrived at the real raison d'etre of this article, to compare the Continuum Caliburn and Clearaudio Statement, 2 of the most expensive turntables in the world. For such famous turntables, there are really very few reviews. Whatever there are mostly report on the technical aspects and much less so on the sonic aspects, even severely lacking in thoroughness.

Continuum Caliburn/Cobra: Stereophile ; HiFi Choice
Airtight PC-1: Ken Kessler; TAS

Clearaudio Statemen
t: The reviews need further scrutiny. The TAS review is a thorough one, but IMHO failed to pick up on the Archilles' heel of the Statement (on which more later); Ken Kessler's review in HiFi News was more a site visit than a proper review and said little on the sound; Australian HiFi was downright negligent and ill-informed. Claiming one cut was enough to establish the supremacy of the Statement, the reviewer said: "...I can assure you that listening longer did not tell me anything more about the sound quality than drinking a glass of wine tells you any more about the taste than you knew after the first sip..." Wow, what a "connoiseur" who most likely has had too much Australian wine and not enough of French vintages! And this on the soil of the Continuum! :-)
Clearaudio Goldfinger v2: TAS

Here I must again thank ML for playing various tracks on both TTs even without our prompting. Both cartridges were fed into the same FM222, with the same loading of 30o ohms. The specs of the 2 cartridges differ significantly:

(A) Air Tight PC-1 vs (B) Clearaudio Goldfinger v2:
Output Voltage: 0.6 (A); 0.9 (B)
Internal Impedance: 2.5 ohms (A); 35 ohms (B)

As is frequent with expensive cartridges, there is little information on loading recommendation, not even from the manufacturers. ML believes the Goldfinger should be loaded at 300 ohms. He thinks the PC-1 should be 400 ohms. Curiously, I found at one of the vendors the "Recommended Loading" for the PC-1 is 30-100 ohms, but that may be the vendor's own opinion. But we listened to 300 ohms for both.

As the Audio Note M10 preamp has a stepped volume, precise volume matching was not entirely possible, but the different temperaments of the 2 contenders were instantly revealed. Unlike the case with the loudspeakers, I believe you can easily tell them apart in a blind test and with disparate volume settings. This is important, especially in light of the discussion in Part II. It is also a testament to the neutrality of the system and to the effacing act of the speakers.

The Clearaudio setup sounded rock-solid as usual, with pitch-black background, uncanny imaging detail retrieval and seismic bass. In these departments one is in agreement with the reviews. But what of its weakness? None of the review mentioned a single weakness. I regard this as serious malpractice by the audio critics.

The Archilles' heel of the Clearaudio Statement is a (profound) lack of rhythmic savvy, or (poor) Pace, Rhythm and Timing (PRaT), should you wish. I have said this on numerous occasions, and I have heard 3 Statements so far, and they all sounded the same, so it's not an afterthought after comparison with the Continuum. I quote myself:

July-10 First Visit to ML: "...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。..."(addendum: many months ago at another place we actually got to listen to a newly delivered Statement. Comparison with the old Master Reference revealed the newcomer to be rhythmically inferior)

August-10 in a report on the Clearaudio Concept: "...Most importantly, it has a lively rhythm and pace, something unusual for this company. In this aspect, without A/B comparison, I instantly know it is superior to my Champion, and many of this company's expensive offerings..."

September-10 listening to another Clearaudio TT (model unnamed): "...The TT has recently been upgraded. Sound is very dynamic, with black background, but I am still bothered by its lack of rhythmic elan. I remain unmoved by this Clearaudio..."

More than round earth vs flat earth, PRaT is an absolutely integral part of music replay. Without it, music becomes boring. Would you tolerate your favorite drummer, say Art Blakey, sounding four-square like the boy next door? Whatever their individual merits and demerits, this would never happen on a humble Garrad 301, Thorens TD150, Systemdek, to name just a few. For a manufacturer with tall claims to building the world's finest turntable, it is serious negligence.

How does the Continuum setup better the Clearaudio setup in this regard? The Wilson LP violin and piano (Abel/Steinberg) illustrated it for us. At the same sound level, the violin sounded more sinuous, simply more fluent. It was as if bar lines had suddenly disappeared. Even more significantly, the piano sounded louder and livelier as a result of better transients and microdynamics. The leading edge of the Continuum setup was faster and had more presence. I think part of this may be attributable to the difference in cartridges. In the TAS review of the Goldfinger cited above, JV made a similar observation. Overall, as heard in this setup, most of us voted for the Continuum.

To be fair, the Statement triumphed in almost every other department. I also think the newly upgraded Continuum setup was not yet fully optimized. Aside from obvious superiority in PRaT and better transients, it sounded a little constricted compared to the Statement. Perhaps more experiments in loading options shall bring rewards.

What I'd like to hear one day is a different arm and cartridge on the Statement. I wonder who's going to be the first one bold enough to do it? Well, if that's too much to hope for, how about a different cartridge on it? That would be fascinating. It would be boring if everyone uses the same arm and cartridge, same sound. Otherwise, I'd personally prefer to hear more of the Continuum and less of the Statement.

Red and Blue
ML played for us the RR LP of Berlioz, and since JCR33 was there we reminisced about the Everest version heard so unforgettably (the bell!) on his Westminster. ML managed to dig out that recording too, and we had a good time comparing the two. Myself? I prefer the Everest.

Despite some differences in opinions, all was jolly and no one got red and blue.

Acknowledgement: Differences pale next to gratitude. I must give my biggest and most sincere thanks to ML for treating us to so many rarities in one day.

17 September, 2010

HiFi and Film: Diva and La Wally

HiFi and Film: Diva and La Wally

Catalani's La Wally is a much neglected and seldom staged opera for many reasons. My first encounter was not via records and certainly not in the opera house. The year was 1981, the venue the local movie theater. Jean-Jacques Beineix's Diva was an instant hit, and I certainly enjoyed the film very much and later even got the soundtrack (on LP).

Wilhelmenia Wiggins Fernandez' rendition of the most famous aria in La Wally, "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana", was warm-hearted and touched many people, even brought the opera back from obscurity, at least for a moment. Here you can watch and hear her sing:

If you must compare, here's Callas:

And here's Tebaldi:

You can decide who's your favorite. There's no need to fight like the comments on youtube.

10 September, 2010

Review: Airtight MSM-1 Bonsai loudspeakers

Review: Airtight MSM-1 Bonsai loudspeakers

阻抗:4 歐姆
尺寸:165×140×245 mm

Info on U-Audio (Chinese)
hifihivi 高傳真視聽 group test (Chinese)

Thanks to
Danz' loan I was able to enjoy this tiny pair of speakers. Suffice to say, its performance quite surprised me.

A true high-efficiency speaker
I am not really a fan of
Airtight. While I think they make decent products that are very well finished, I have heard many of their products, including the 211 amp, and the sound for my taste usually veers a little too much towards the overly warm. Their push-pull products are not too accomplished, and their SET products are definitely better. This MSM-1 Bonsai was definitely developed to partner their low-powered SET amps. The 4" driver is claimed to be an original design.

While I have always liked full-range speakers, I have grave reservations on small drivers (like ALR Jordan) in small cabinets. Physics dictates that these have very lean bass, if usable at all. You have to have at least the cabinet volume of
Loth-X BS-1/Amaze or Reference 3A to have a meaningful balance between transparency and weight.

At first I frowned upon its small size and ultra-light weight. 2 kg, is this a joke? the packaging is quite luxurious, the finish good, but the speaker terminal is not of high quality.

I placed them high up, on top of my big Tannoys. Equipment used:

Sony R1 combo or Revox C-221
: Nagra PL-P or EAR 912
ICL 300B

As a good full-range should, the sound immediately enthralled me by its
speed and coherence. At least, this is for once a real pair of efficient speakers suitable for SET use, more so than its 89 db rating suggests. On jazz and chamber music, detail retrieval in the treble and mid-range is first-rate, actually yielding to none. Thanks to its full-range nature, instrumental timber always ring true. Image size is quite reasonable, not tiny.

Commendably, playing it real loud did not cause it undue stress, and I was able to play my big classical pieces. of course, for big orchestrals the bottom is found wanting, which also makes the high a little over-etched. I'd say its 70 Hz rating is reasonably true.

Enters the subwoofer
This is where the
subwoofer comes in. I mated it with an old JBL paper-cone, and the result literally floored me. The cheap sub did not allow for precise crossover; I estimate I used around 100 Hz. The marriage was highly successful. I was able to play my Mahler to my satisfaction. And I detected no incoherence. I doubt one shall have trouble with most subwoofers.

My conclusion is that this is a pair of very worthwhile full-range speaker. Personally I'd definitely mate it with a subwoofer. For a SET lover with space constraints, it's truly a blessing.

p.s. How does it compare to the Pioneer 酒桶仔? I think it's better, in almost all departments, and certainly friendlier to SET.

07 September, 2010

Home Visits: TAD and Rey Audio

Home Visits: TAD and Rey Audio

It's time to tie up some loose ends, and write up a few recent visits. Foremost is a wonderful Rey Audio setup.

Part I. Rey is King (in Spanish it is)
Sometime ago thanks to icefox I had the fortune of visiting andyhkw (aka 富貴, I believe) at his Tsuen Wan loft. He had recently finished re-arranging his gears. That's no mean feat, as he had rotated all equipment 90 degrees to another wall, and his main speakers weigh several hundred pounds, each! Andy's setup is relatively simple (but hugely costly):

Digital: EMT 986 (hard disc player). Delicious!
Analogue: EMT 948
Preamp: ARC Reference 3
Amp: MC2 MC-1250
Speakers: PMC MB2i and huge Rey Audio (RM7)

First we auditioned the PMC in front. Previously, with lesser PMCs I have always been bothered by bass that seemed a little lagging behind, which I attributed to the transmission line designs. Not so this time. This was true monitor sound, tonally accurate, well integrated and dynamic. Rock and pop recordings were fast and highly exciting. Overall, in this large room, bass was still just a shade lean. Moving the seat up a foot or so produced better defined bass and even extension. I suspect a little room mode at work here. Still, a highly commendable setup.

With great expectation we moved on to the double-15" woofer Rey Audio. It was a revelation when the first bass notes of a classical piece came in and we just FELT it. A clarification is in order, it was classical music at low volume, so this was not what's commonly referred to as 褲管震 of the rock-JBL kind; rather it was a sensation of feeling a distant rumble, of feeling THREAT, of feeling atmosphere. There's no better attribute to the quality of a system if one has this feeling during listening (this is not something you'll ever feel with Maggies, e.g., no matter what their other attributes are). The Rey's were almost completely blocked by the PMCs, darker and likely less neutral, yet the sound had tremendous authority and the presence of live music.

A note here on the equipment. Once again it upheld my belief that a good tube preamp matched with a solid state amp frequently is a simple and effective solution for speakers that demand power (both in this case). I'd also like to note that, although I have long been an ARC fan, previously I had not been impressed by the ARC Ref3, even suspecting it of lack of dynamics. It's all in the implementation after all. It should also be mentioned that both digital and analogue replay were very balanced and tonally similar, as it should be in a good system.

Now, we have here not just a highly commendable setup but an awesome system. In many ways, I think it even gives Alansoo's wonderful (and complex) so-called "TAD2401" system (now more and more of a Goto system) a run for its money? Competition is healthy! :-)

Part II. A Tale of Two TADs
Of the huge number of hifi systems in 錦繡花園 there are two that I know quite well, those of the 2 gentleman in the picture. Both use TADs with tubes but their approaches differ greatly.

On this day we all met up and by chance talked about approaches. Although they looked to be of similar vein, Andy on the right always claimed his hearing has been compromised and builds his system upon high frequency air and treble performance; Simon on the other hand, craves warmth and smoothness, preferring to build upon a solid bass.

A tad sharp?
In a previous visit to Andy he was using the stock TAD 3401. Since then a lot has happened. He acquired 2 adjacent houses and crafted new spaces out of them. In the new house, the listening room is a lot larger than previously, though still kind of squarish. I have visited this place several times.

Now he is using a pseudo-2402, in that the treble-midrange driver with its original horn is placed out of the box, on top of an aftermarket cabinet that houses the woofer. For reasons of symmetry and bass performance, Andy placed the speakers almost right against the wall. Gears:

Analogue: Clearaudio YKW (the unmentionable you-know-what); Goldfinger
Digital: MacIntosh-Amarra-Firewire; Weiss Firewire-XLR converter+professional DAC
Amplification: Kondo step-up, M7 phono, M7 preamp, Ongaku

We listened mostly to vinyl. The sound of the TAD is now very crisp and sharp, and there is a lot more bass to be had than in the old room. This marks a big step-up from his old house. In case you wonder, yes, the Kondo system drives the TADs quite well. It showcases hifi recordings quite well but falls down a little on mellower classical material. Nonetheless, it is frequently exciting and never ear-grating, though at times one is aware of an "anal" control, a refusal to let loose. Presence is quite good with the right material. The TT has recently been upgraded. Sound is very dynamic, with black background, but I am still bothered by its lack of rhythmic elan. I remain unmoved by this Clearaudio.

I should mention that the crossover in the picture is newly developed by our friend tubediyer. I have listened to the original crossover and can attest that this DIY one maintains the tonal balance while improving on details and perhaps transients. I understand our friend wadia is also trying one out (for his Rey Audio) to great satisfaction.

Andy in the last 2 years has completely gravitated to CAS. Previously he was using iPod/iTransport, but now that has been replaced by the full system detailed above. This is probably the most expensive CAS system I have encountered. On a previous visit I listened to it in detail. I was quite disturbed by a glassy sound. Replacement of the Nordost XLR by a Kimber immediately ameliorated the situation. This shows other hifi parameters are still important in the digital domain, and one can EASILY trip up.

Am I impressed by the very expensive Weiss? the answer is NO. It does not equate a good CDP, not to say trailing far far behind vinyl. My view on CAS remains: have fun on the cheap, and forget about all the bullshit of delivering the best. That's only sales talk cleverly crafted by certain "experts", who have been wrong again and again on the path of digitals.

A tad smooth?
For some reason, previously I have only briefly treated Simon's system in these pages. His has always been a musical system. 300B driving TAD of course is a challenge, and Simon has steadily improved his system's driving ability. System now:

Analogue: Verdier La Platine-Boyer arm-EMT cartridge
Preamp: Shindo Giscours (using WE349a)
Amp: Shindo 300B monoblocks using old stock WE300B
Speakers: TAD 2402

Compared to the previous visit, the system certainly gained in dynamics while remaining highly musical. I asked him what he did. He said the only changes were the tonearm and cartridge, plus a little tube rolling.

I have always treasured some of the very fine sound coming out of the WE tubes in this system. That's not for mere mortals to savor, perhaps even know...:-) More power to him.

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 04-09-10 and 28-08-10 and 21-08-10 (Yamaha, ESL)

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 04-09-10 and 28-08-10 and 21-08-10 (Yamaha, ESL, Magnepan)
Talk R2R: Otari

Part I.
04-09-10 Return to Robin's Nest

About a year ago, my good friend Robin the hairy Scott visited me and got smitten by the Yamaha NS-1000 (my review here). He soon got a pair and never looked back (for our visit at that time, click here and read Part II). Now he has upped the ante and gone one step further, and got the big brother FX-3, which shares the same Beryllium tweeter and mid-range, but with a larger 15" woofer.

As Robin is a very busy (and important) man, it took several weeks to arrange the visit, but it was worth the wait, not least because he finally got his recently acquired expertly-restored Otari MX-5050-B2HD Reel-to-Reel machine working for us! The visit was not without mishaps. Two of our cars were not able to find parking around Seymour Road, so I arrived late as the tapes rolled. Finally, six of us cramped into Robin's nest.

REELity Check
What impressed me most was an old Duke Ellington tape, which gave a remarkable presence, a live feeling that rivaled with the best I have heard. Some of the tapes were quite old and had minor pitch instability (due to stretching of tape) and I would guess the machine would benefit from a little alignment, but a Mozart tape was pristinely rendered too (see video below). Perhaps tape quality varies.

The ARC SP-11 and McIntosh 275 formed the same invincible combo; I doubt Robin shall ever part with them, and he shouldn't. He continues his TT tweaking though. Robin's Garrard 301 with highly modified RB300 (Michell counterweight etc) is now mounted on a double-granite plinth with some kind of expensive cones between the layers providing shock absorption. The Ortofon Kontrapunkt B gave a hugely pleasant sweet and crystalline sound that was addicting, particularly on plucked acoustic guitar strings. Though I felt it veered off from neutrality, it was towards the pleasant side and I was left in no doubt as to why there are so many aficionados for this variant (my C version is more hifi, for sure).

Robin played quite a few obscure but great-sounding albums for us, and Nelson surprised us by taking out his iPhone. The SoundHound software correctly identified every one of those songs. If you have an iPhone (or Android etc) I'd think it would be a very worthwhile download! Click here for a youtube demonstration on how this software works. Marvelous! Too bad I don't have a 3-G phone. If I do, I'd use it quite often, not least in concert to identify those unannounced encores!

As it was, I thought the vinyl setup more balanced, but the reel-to-reel surely had its allure. If I have any reservations, it would be about the height of the speakers. They were only a few inches off the floor, as it was sometimes in the studio, but I felt in the smallish LR sound was weighted down and most of the music was beneath the top of the speakers. I am used to much taller images and that caused me a little discomfort. Robin told me he had them higher earlier and balance was off. For these heavy beasts, it would take a while to provide the proper stands.

I eagerly look forward to our next visit. Robin is a handy man who gets literally to the bottom of everything. He is going to buy an oscilloscope and calibrate the tape machine. Now, THAT is an audiophile!

After the visit, we went for happy hour in Kennedy town, where we were joined by oozz. At his suggestion, we went to Saikung for French food. And then we all went back to my place to audition Nelson's B&W CM1. What a full and crazy day!

Reeling On

As Lascalawong could not make it for this return visit, I took a video clip for him to reciprocate his effort last time. Here is Robin introducing his prized Mozart reel. Enjoy!

Part II.
28-08-10 Small Panel, Big Sound

On this day I was in a hurry so I only stopped by icefox's loft briefly after yumcha, with a few others.

As soon as I was inside, I was surprised by the big and reasonably dynamic sound the Quad ESL57 produced in this large space, firing in the opposite direction as Spendor. This pair is actually daiwok's and it must be one of the most beautiful pairs I have seen. Look at those sexy legs! :-)

I believe icefox was drivng them with a pair of Manley 4xEL84 PP monoblocks. At less than 30 watts, the music was fluently rendered, once again proving that an EL84 amp is one of the best matches for Quad ESLs. The most surprising thing was that images were full and tall, the sound big. Once again this proves a large room sometimes works wonders. I have heard more "refined" Quads, but I prefer this big-hearted performance.

While I liked the performance, I cannot agree at all with those ESL freaks who say this panel performs better than icefox's Spendor SP-100. ESL, no matter how you work it, is not at all an all-rounded speaker. It does what it can very well, but is hopelessly bandwidth-limited and dynamically restricted. To call it the best transducer is not to know music in its full glory at all. My cohorts stayed for much longer and heard the SP-100 as well as 15" Tannoy Golds in corner York cabinets. They too reported that the Spendor SP-100, even the Tannoy, far-out-stripped the ESL in performance.

I'd use this space to briefly mention again icefox's Spendor setup. I have paid him several visits since my first visit, and his systems have steadily improved. The SP-100 now is mostly driven by legendary monster 200 wpc EAR 549 amps, and sometimes by Nagra VPA. These markedly outperform the previous Symphonic Line (of course). If you pay him a visit, ask him to play some Mahler!

When I have more time, I shall re-visit icefox and listen to the ESL57 in depth. Watch for more report on the amazingly rapid progress made by this young man. I call him 教父 now.

Part III.
21-08-10 Bigger Panel, Bigger Sound
Now, size matters. Our friend jules recently got a pair of Magnepan 3.5. We visited him while he still had the 1.6, and planned to compare them side by side.

As soon as I stepped out of the elevator, and BEFORE I stepped into the apartment, I knew there was no need to compare. Sound emanating from the room was instantly bigger than previously. Even if we did not listen to LP, as driven by Orpheus-Cello-ML, sound was pristine. Compared to the previous visit, there was more fullness. The big panel seemed just right for his not-big LR. Ry Cooder's Jazz was lightning fast and classical piano was thundering. It was so satisfying that our friend k.c., surely discriminating ears, instantly praised it and proclaimed it to be (+/- the word "among") the best Maggies he has heard. I agree. But I do have one reservation; none of the Maggies I have heard, including my own, goes deep enough, and I'd add a subwoofer.

jules' pair of 1.6 went to tubediyer, via welborne. More reports later I'm sure.

03 September, 2010

Editor's Note 主编的话: Today's Housekeeping

Editor's Note 主编的话: Today's Housekeeping

I just finished moving all the content of my other audio Blog ("review and overview") to this Blog. With the indexing capability of this Blog now, the other Blog, mainly created for indexing, is redundant and shall be closed down in time. Normal activity shall resume shortly.

Sorry for the inconvenience.

Review: NAD 4020A AM/FM tuner

Review: NAD 4020A AM/FM tuner
After I got my wonderful NAD 315BEE integrated amp, now in constant use in my study, I started looking for some other NAD stuff, perhaps with an eye towards building a cheap all-NAD system, just for fun. I ran into this very old 4020A tuner by chance, available at a very low price (as usual for non-famous old tuners). After doing a little homework on the internet, I decided to buy this tuner, which is 老到掉牙,又残又“薯”.

I live in 八乡,not too far from the 石岗 military airport. Reception for RTHK4, the only station I listen to, in this area is notoriously bad (I think for military reasons). I have tried a lot of tuners and previously the best result I got was from an old Magnum Dynalab FT-11. However, the FT-11 is prone to interference from the noise generated by my computer in my study and I have long disconnected it.

I was very very surprised by the performance of this cheap tuner. Its reception is every bit as good as the FT-11, but its RF rejection is several magnitudes better. With just rabbit-ears, I still have to use MONO, but everything is steady. The sound is slightly euphonic, but rich and clear.

Finally, I am able to enjoy quiet RTHK4! My CD player is getting less air time!

This one may not look as good as the famous 412 I used to own, not to say the more recent remote-controllable models, but it's almost certainly better.

Reivew: Nagra PL-P Tube Preamplifier

pic from Dagogo.

Reivew: Nagra PL-P Tube Preamplifier

Note: I now own one.

First, a million thanks to feikeung's generosity. Not many people would lend out so expensive an item.

For background, click here for an excellent pdf file from Nagra.

For a detailed review of both sound and features, this Stereophile article by Jonathan Scull is quite good, though some of my conclusions may be slightly different.

Basically, I agree with much of Stereophile's review. However, as I use at the end SET tube amp and Tannoy speakers, my conclusions in a couple of important aspects are quite different, and even more in Nagra's favor. What I used:

  • Clearaudio Champion turntable/Origin Live RB250/Ortophon MC15 super II
  • Revox C221 CD player
  • ICL 300B amp or AES 300B amp
  • Tannoy Canterbury HE
  • All Gotham cables and also AN AN-V
  • Counterpoint SA-3000 preamp for comparison
First, let me state my firm view on preamps: (1) No solid state preamp, no matter how expensive, can come close to a good tube preamp (not necessarily expensive) in conveying the full scale of music; (2) Only a few modern tube preamps (like Nagra, Verdier, EAR) match or surpass the level of classic preamps from the likes of Counterpoint, MFA and ARC; (3) Really old preamps from the likes of Marantz, McIntosh, Fisher etc, while possibly tonally alluring, just cannot compete with more modern tube preamps with serious attention paid to power regulation. These vintage preamps are only for people who want to play some songs, not for people into serious musical playback, like full-scale classicals.

That said, I find Nagra's PLP one of the very few modern products worth its price (the other for me would be EAR 912). This doesn't mean at all it's necessarily superior in all aspects to a reasonably priced older Counterpoint or ARC (not expensive new ARC), but aside from its smashing looks it has some qualities that are very special:

1. Remarkable "presence". The sense of a "live" occasion is rare. This is perhaps partly due to the somewhat forward stage it projects (which also means it has a less wide and deep soundstage than even the cheap Counterpoint). There is plenty of air though, and I'd opt for real presence (which is always tied to the music) over fake soundstage (which is almost never really related to the venue) every single time.

2. A subtle rhythmic savvy. This is usually difficult to appreciate when there are a lot of people. But in a small gathering one night, everyone heard a very different Mozart/Szigeti from that portrayed by Counterpoint. Tonal difference aside, the Nagra just makes you acutely aware of Szigeti's sinuous phrasing; the flow of the music being just more mellifluous. This quality is usually tied to excellence in microdynamics and truthful portrayal of the leading edge (like Naim). Here it's only partially true, as generally on some other musics the Counterpoint is at least as revealing of low-level dynamics and details (and possibly slightly more tonally balanced; it was preferred by some listeners in piano music). However, when it comes to portrayal of the leading edge, Nagra is superior. As an example, Nagra has some of the best portrayals of bow attacks I have heard anywhere. You "see" and feel the attack, and this helps in making something like 哮天犬 (or the harp and bass track 2 of AV show) less boring than it can be.

3. Phenomenal bass quality. This is a mighty plus for proper classical music replay. Deep and fast, you just hear more and feel you're getting at least a few more Hz of bass extension from your speakers (no mean feat in Tannoy 15")! The double basses are just delights, rather than background rumble as with lesser preamps!

4. Superb phono section with comprehensive loading options which, unlike many lesser phono sections and (mis-matched) MC input transformers, is able to render my Ortophon with natural timber and warmth (I used the 33 ohm jumper).

5. Superb dynamics. It plays even the largest scale music with ease, and make the flea-powered amps sound a little more powerful than they are.

With most of my NOS tubes stacked away in boxes, I managed to find 4x Holland Amperex 12AX7 and 2x Mullard 12AT7 for a little tube rolling (originals are Sovtek 12AX7WXT and GE 6201). There is a little difference, but I can assure you all of Nagra's strongest points mentioned, which (besides an even balance) have little to do with tonal quality, are just as easily audible with stock tubes and hence inherent. Those who only concentrate on rolling tubes and not music would do better with a vintage preamp perhaps.

Overall, the PL-P is a solid and surpisingly "NON-hifi" preamp. I find it quite balanced and not at all "soul-less" People into exaggerated and artificial soundstaging and more brightly lit vista may well find other preamps (like the Counterpoint) more enticing. For me, its subtle strengths are the more important and I like it a lot more than many tube preamps of more recent vintage, including ARC. If money is not an issue and you're an LP user, it's a good buy. If not, something like a much cheaper Counterpoint can be equally satisfying, if without a certain je-ne-sais-quoi quality, not to say prestige.