27 October, 2010

Talk Vinyl: Restoration of Garrad 301 Part I

Talk Vinyl: Restoration of Garrard 301 Part I

As you know, I am very fond of Garrard 301 and have long regarded it as the best of turntables (see my previous Vinyl Talk article). I have TWO of them and, interestingly, both were acquired around the same time in the pre-R33 era and under somewhat unusual circumstances.

From Malaysia with Love
The first one was a mint cream-colored version I acquired together with an EAR 834P. This was before R33 and the items were selling via the second-hand forum of Audioboard (remember?) and I think on GotoHK and Yahoo. The seller was a nice Malaysian gentleman who was re-locating back home. My dear colleague who went with me also bought his Klipsch Heresy. On his very last day in HK I bought also his Lowther TP1 with Queen Anne legs and he delivered them in an open truck! I hope he is well and enjoying life and hifi in Malaysia.

The TT came with a rudimentary plinth that has a hole for a Rega arm. I screwed on my Origin Live basic mod RB300 and that was the start of a lasting marriage (again see my previous Vinyl Talk article)! Sometime ago I lent it together with an SME IV to my friend whlee. He built a nice plinth for it and its serving well with a nude Denon 103. He is enjoying it so much I'd hesitate to take it back from him.

From RTHK with Love 臥虎藏龍-韜光養晦?
At the time my neighbor across from my house collected Volkswagen's and had them strewn all over the place. One day finally I went inside his house and was surprised to see some wonderful vintage hifi gears. Tannoys, 300Bs etc. I found out he was previously in this business in Apliu Street (now again in 好望角). He was cleaning house and sold me a Japanese San Ei VT62 SET amp, AND a grey (grease bearing) transcription 301, which he said was from RTHK, untested and without even power cord.

For years I never got around to power it up. It was kept in a wood crate that originally housed my MI-300, tugged under a table that had a big heavy CRT TV on it, and with a couch in front. That meant I never even saw it for years.

Recently, my washing machine broke. As I have it out on the balcony, I dreaded delivery of a new one and removal of the old one, as the machines had to go through my cramped living room. I made enough room and finally got it done. One side benefit was that the path was clear for removal of the big old CRT TV too. That also meant I finally got my 301 out.

A few days ago icefox visited me and I became motivated to hook up a power cord to the 301. I turned the knob and...NOTHING! You can imagine our disappointment!

As a last resort, I measured the AC voltage: 33 V AC???? I plugged the power into another outlet and voila! we heard some noise but the platter (just sitting tilted on the table) did not turn. Then we propped up the TT to ensure all parts were free from interference. Voila! The platter moved! You can imagine my joy. Apparently the first AC outlet was hooked up via a wall adapter which had been knocked loose during my struggle with the huge wood crate and the table over it. Lesson: watch your connections!

Hurray! The TT shall be off soon to my friend Robin's place for his expert restoration. He had also given me his old plinth (pictured) but I think I shall make a new plinth and mount a 12" arm on it when the restoration is done. Maybe a Thomas Schick? :-)

11 October, 2010

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 09-10-10 (HiFi 德 VPI Classic vs Aries)

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 09-10-10

Showroom Audition: Ernest Audio HiFi 德
Talk Vinyl: VPI Classic vs Aries

A Classic is born
I was chatting one day with my friend Keung and we talked about VPI turntables. He expressed some interest in the Scoutmaster, and I was interested in the newer Classic. Spontaneously I called 阿明 of HiFi 德 and arranged an audition on this day after yumcha.

A little more on VPI and the TTs. I have not always taken to the sound of VPI. More than 10 years ago I heard a low model VPI (forgot model) with a Rega arm and did not like the rather mechanical sound (perhaps it was the setup). However, later, as heard at jeffr33's place, a Scoutmaster was lively and dynamite, and that had caused me to re-evaluate its offerings. VPI is a curious company that is highly eclectic in its multifarious approach to TT design. Many people still swear by the suspended HW-19, one of the company's huge early successes. VPI's reputation has grown in leaps and bounds in recent years coincident with the introduction of its unipivot JMW arm series.

After selling well for many years, the Scoutmaster has been eclipsed by the same company's Classic. The Classic has been in existence for a while, and had undergone small modifications, but it is quite different in design as well as appearance from the Scout and Aries series (including the similar flagship HR-X). Due to the popularity of the Classic, HiFi Duck does not even stock or demo the Scoutmaster.

One of the reason why the Classic is so hot is due to several awards in TAS, including Harry Pearson's endorsement as Editor's Choice 2010 :

"...The Classic, correctly named, has been made even better with a few quite small changes, which give it an even smoother sound. These are tiny changes, but consistent with Harry Weisfeld’s mechanical bent. The man is always on the lookout for a sonic improvement, no matter how slight. Oh yes, the changes, as told by HW himself: “I grounded the motor with an aluminum heat sink, the platter was changed to one piece of aluminum rather than two pieces, with a damping ring attached to its bottom (to make it quieter), and the arm increased by 6mm “for lower tracing error and better tracking.” And the price remains the same. You yourself can do a bit of improving if you opt to pay for the stainless-steel version of the Classic’s arm ($200), which I recommend for cleaner sound from your cartridges, and $700 for the stainless-steel record clamp that fits over the outside edges, the best way of the LP. The speed stability is so good thanks to Weisfeld’s design (based on earlier turntables, those from the golden age of same) that I think you can get by without the SDS speed control device (at $1200), which makes speed changes easier than does adjusting the Classic’s belt. A steal at $2500, this one does not suffer by comparison with the Clearaudio Statement and has prompted me to retire the much-loved Scoutmasters..." (note that in the full article, not available on the web, HP also quoted designer Harry Weisfeld's tall claim that the Classic may be his best creation regardless of price, but keep in mind HW likes to say that kind of thing). It should be noted also that HP's huge praise also elicited all kinds of comments on the net, in avguide (TAS) forum itself, including allegations of over-praise.

TAS' sister magazine HiFi+ also has a rave review from Roy Gregory, but the review I enjoy the most for its fastidiousness was from Germany (6moons).

Sibling Rivalry
So much for background. As the Scoutmaster is not available, 阿明 proposed to compare the Classic with the Aries. Based on his experience, he said that should offer some insight on how the Classic fares against its sibling. The VPI arms differed slightly in length and two different cartridges of roughly equivalent price were used. The gears are as follows:

-VPI Classic/JMW 10.5 arm(upgraded steel arm with VTA adjustment device)/Clearaudio Symphony
-VPI Aries 3/JMW 9 arm/Transfiguration Axia
-Clearaudio Reference Phono
-VTL preamp 5.5 II
-VTL power monoblocks MB-450-II
-Rockport Grand Mira II

We listened to several LPs. Heard as a whole, the system was hard to fault, no matter which turntable was in use. Matched with the excellent VTL tube products (which have a modern tube sound that I love; no soggy stuff!), the Rockport Mira's delivered superbly clean sound across the frequency spectrum. Here I must say HiFi 德 has always been very good at system setups. They have reliably provided some of the very best sounds at various hifi shows (same cannot be said of most of the majors). And this setup impressed all of us too.

As it was, the Classic combo was a little steadier in sound, a shade warmer and more solid. The Aires 3 combo sounded a little more extended and more refined. While part of this may be due to the difference in TT/arm, the difference in cartridge likely plays a major role too. What was definitely evident was that both setups bear similar sonic signature: supremely composed and rock solid; fast and explosive, as well as nuanced and refined, as the music demanded, all delivered with excellent rhythm and pace (PRaT). Here, I wonder whether HW's naming of his products are entirely appropriate. The Classic is mighty, as dynamic as the Aries, whereas the Aries is definitely not a brute (Aries is a Greek God of the violence and blood-lust of savage war = Mars in Roman; witness Holst's The Planets)! Suffice to say I enjoyed both setups more than a lot of hugely expensive vinyl setups I have heard:-)

Given the price advantage, for those who favor metal platters (many like whlee and me) and a classic look, the Classic indeed looks like a bargain.

A note on the Clearaudio Reference Phono. Thanks to Andy's loan, I actually got to test this at my home some time ago. While it is not a bad phonostage, to me it is not truly exceptional and lacks character (I certainly prefer tubes). Its gain is not exceptional too for such a high-priced product; I was unable to use it with my Ortofon MC-3000 (0.13V).

Knowing I was intrigued by the character of the Axia, whlee reminded me that my last experience with Transfiguration was at Lincoln's home, which had a very refined sound that I still remember. I'm sure I shall investigate this brand further.

阿明 told us just that morning An Indian customer came in to buy a small Clearaudio TT (I forgot the Emotion or the Performance) to take back to his country. But then he saw the Classic, compared the two and walked away with the much larger and heavier VPI, worrying about the over-weight charges!

阿明 also told us that the VPI Classic is selling like hotcakes in Germany (remember the 6moons review), and Germany probably produces more mid-end and hi-end turntables than anyone else. This should tell you a lot about what knowing and frugal Germans think about their own products. Personally I have always thought most of the German turntables (as well as other hifi items) underachieving and over-priced. I am glad the Germans themselves think so.

Man of Action
I would like to thank 阿明 for setting up the demo (and for finding about about the intriguing anti-skating on the Clearaudio Concept). 阿明 is superbly knowledgeable about the products he sells. For once, here's a man who is all action, not all talk. And whatever he is not sure, he immediately jumps on it and finds out, no bull-shit. I nominate him MAN OF ACTION OF THE YEAR.

06 October, 2010

News: Closure of Sound by Singer

News: Closure of Sound by Singer

Every audiophile in NYC knows Sound by Singer, which is like ten of our hi-end dealers in HK combined, so gigantic it was. That was where I heard the Duntech's first and even small speakers like the Focal 705V. Read the following links:

Audiogon thread

What really happened (maybe)

Exorbitant rent seems the culprit, at least superficially.

04 October, 2010

W3H1: WHAT is vintage tube sound?

W3H1: WHAT is vintage tube sound?

Editor's Note: This is the start of a new feature. Rest assured, W3H1 is not the newest virus, it's about the Why's, What's, Where's and How's of HiFi. Each capsule is short and addresses one specific issue. Stay tuned, and I hope you enjoy it.

Stereophile and Me
Although I have had this idea for a long time, the impetus for implementation came today when I read a post in R33 by our gentle-soul-poet pilotrol. In his invaluable Fisher and Pilot 古董同好會 ~ Vintage Amplifier thread, he cited a Stereophile article on the Fisher 500-C, in which the critics examined the vintage integrated amp with modern critical eyes and gave it a high mark. Make sure you read also the follow-ups, especially In Modern Dress, where it was used to drive the inefficient Sonus Faber Cremona! In case you are interested, there are TONS more of informative articles on the Fisher receivers (a good one in 6moons).

I shall relate a personal experience to you. Some years ago, we paid a visit to our friend Gary aka "Kondo san", who was at the time using a ML6 (something like that) preamp + FM professional amp to drive his JBL K2-9800. We happened to have my Fisher X-101-C (above right) integrated amp with me. We asked to hook it up, and all of us (except maybe the host) thought it completely trounced the modern ss setup. This integrated amp is quite similar to the 500-C, also using 7591. My sample is in excellent shape. It's superbly quiet even through my highly efficient Tannoy Canterbury and many friends have marveled at its performance.

All this to say, as has been said before by many others, a piece of good vintage tube gear in good electrical condition sounds surprisingly up to date and has a heart of gold. Unfortunately, we hear too may out-of-spec samples and, even more unfortunately, many "vintage lovers" like that kind of sound. The common term 古墓派 is aptly used to refer to them. Many tube "experts" belong to this type.

I am not sure Stereophile still does this kind of thing with regularity, but vintage gears still feature in the magazine often enough through writers like the excellent Art Dudley. In this aspect, Stereophile is not alone:

HiFi News has a regular feature that examines a piece of properly restored vintage gear in each issue.

HiFi World has always been eclectic and possessed a heavy vintage bend, long before the others. Its Second-Hand Buying Tips deals with vintage. The Features section also has some interesting overviews on old gears, like Garrad.

The HiFi World Buying Guide (less so HiFi News Hot 100), unlike many other Recommended Components list, contains many old gears, but not as old as what we term vintage. A fun read though.

02 October, 2010

Home Visits: Saba + Lenco +CAS

Home Visits: Saba + Lenco +CAS

Highly recommended: Vash's own Blog; Lenco Heaven

One fine day recently I called Vash and spontaneously arranged to visit him, primarily to listen to the Saba speaker and Lenco TT and Decca cartridge. Vash is a naughty fellow who experiments with all sorts of gears and DIY at a high level. This time the gears have changed a lot from my previous visit, and luckily I remembered to take my camera. The analogue setup and amplification are relatively simple:

TT - Lenco-Daiwok L75TT + Trans-Fi Terminator Tonearm (air-pump) + London/Decca Jubilee (with Daiwok's branded accessories 'Midas Touch' sandwiched between head-shell and cartridge).
Phono - DACT CT100 (Battery powered)
Preamp - Restek Consens
Power amp - VTL ST-150 (2008 version)
Speakers - Saba Reso with Siemens tweeter (first order crossover)(The article on assemblage of the Saba Reso in Vash's Blog is highly entertaining)

The elaborate and eclectic Digital setups merit a little description:

The main DAC used is - Lavry Blue 4496 with 3 cards to accept 3 inputs. Obviously this accepts up to 96 only.
For regular CD replay: Meridian 500 + 518 as source
For CAS: Firewire interface into Weiss converter
For some CDs - Tandberg 14-bit player direct analogue out
For HDCD - Audio Alchemy DDE 1.2 DAC is used
For SACD - dCS p8i

I stayed about one hour and listened to almost every combination. I must say the Saba Reso speakers, which I first heard so impressively at the home of Daiwok (tugged into corners), revealed even more of its potential this time when placed freely in the middle of the room. Needless to say, simple chamber music and cello solo were magnificently rendered, sounding dynamically close to uncompressed. The leading edge of Starker's cello was fast and lively, with no overhang; crescendos were for once completely natural and unforced, and all these I attribute partly to the speakers and partly the Decca cartridge/TT combo. Here the effect for my taste surpassed the Magnepan 1.6 I heard last time (and that was very good already). Even large symphonic works were delivered eminently satisfactorily. Whatever the simple speakers were missing in terms of ultimate composure and magnitude they were compensated by a superb fluidity and naturalness. The VTL 150 is a lot of power for these speakers but they seem to take it well enough.

One reason I enjoy visiting Vash is because of the balance he strikes between various media. Analogue and digital playbacks both sound balanced. And we could enjoy the various digital technology. I appreciate that he recognizes the achievement of some early players. Here's a man who chases after the newest hi-res files but can also hear the goodness of some old players. This is in stark contrast with many modern CAS people, who have very little experience with analogue or older technology, and that makes their preaching highly dubious (indeed there is a lot of commercial interest behind these things).