31 December, 2010

Editor's Note: Happy New Year!

Two Faces of Our Lovely World

Editor's Note: Happy New Year!

W3H1: Why I have installed the Flag Counter; What have I learned; Where are the Readers from; How many Countries?
The year 2010 left quietly. My hifi was not on. SZTV was showing the Buddhist Bell-Ringing Ceremony led by high monk 印顺大和尚, and I was falling asleep. How uneventful, but is that not a blessing, considering the millions in the world suffering from all manners of natural and, sorrowfully, man-made disasters?

Shortly before the year's end, I accidentally discovered and installed the Google Flag Counter gadget. I was delighted it allowed me, and you, to see where the unique visitors of this Blog come from. At the time of writing, It has now been barely 4 days, and there have been 652 Unique Visitors (meaning each visitor's repeated page loads count only as one) from 57 countries. Something touched my nerve: our heavily burdened world, like all aging beings (for it has life), undoubtedly is getting smaller. Predictably, the majority of my visitors come from Hong Kong and USA, but the latter's proportion still surprised me a little. And I struggled with the names of some of the small (and rather new) countries, like Moldova. Hello to you all!

The important thing is, after gleaming all this information, I am more determined than ever to strive for providing useful information for our hobby, particularly on older gears on which not much info on the net is available. Stay tuned.

弘法寺鸣钟108响迎新纳福 (video of same event last year)

Why 108 times?

Allow me to diverge a little. The aforementioned Buddhist ceremony usually takes place on Chinese New Year's (coming February 3rd), but Shenzhen, like HK, is a modern city that likes to embrace the world. For people like us, there are 2 new years per year! This tradition is also honored in Japan, but their new year is celebrated on the western calender.

In case you wonder why 108 times, here are English (relatively simplified) and Chinese (much more complicated) explanations I found on the net:

Buddhist belief has it that one rings a bell 108 times at midnight on New Year’s to ring away the 108 bonno (Earthly Desires) that shackle mankind and keep one from reaching inner peace. In a strict ceremony, the bell will be struck exactly 108 times in keeping with the Buddhist belief that each reverberation symbolically represents the purging of the 108 bonno or mortal desires, such as greed, jealousy and infidelity, that bedevil humankind. In this one, all comers may approach and ring the bell to help cleanse themselves on their path to Nirvana..." (from here)






..." (from soso)

Addendum: Breakup of Readership at the Time of Writing:

28 December, 2010

Talk Vinyl: Pro-Ject RPM1.3 Genie, Speedbox, Ortofon 2M Red

Talk Vinyl: Pro-Ject RPM1.3 (Genie 3) + Speedbox II

Clearaudio Concept Part III
Ortofon Kontrapunkt C/H Part II
Overview: Pro-Ject

Mickey Mouse Business
Call me a child. About 2 years ago I saw the first version of this TT, then simply called Genie, in What HiFi and I immediately wanted one. I know I have better TTs around, quite a few of them, but I still wanted one...

It was not because I am a fan of Mickey; quite the contrary. I simply admired the simple and elegant design, in such a cheap product! Now, no one shall criticize me for having lost my "cheap" touch! And the red color was smashing (not the white belt though). A de-coupled motor, and that arm with low-slung counter-weight looks well thought-out and in-line with modern thinking; besides it is directly wired and terminates in gold-plated cartridge pins.

The early version was only available in Europe but apparently sold well enough for Pro-Ject to continue tweaking it. This version 3 has also been officially granted the designation RPM, in line with the rest of the line. Reviews of the RPM1.3 have been uniformly excellent (HiFi Choice, What HiFi). The curious thing is that, for all indications, this is actually higher in the pecking order than the popular Debut. Also, this is now available in the USA and HK/Asia.

As with many European things, the price in HK is a lot better than that in the US, costing only a little over HKD 2k. The HK version also comes standard with the Ortofon 2M Red MM cartridge, which alone costs close to USD 100, making this a huge bargain.

Pro-Jecting Confidence
As I have said before, ever since I heard the big and confident sound of an early and humble RPM3 at my friend hoi's house (Denon 103, through the Verdier Control B, Unison Research Smart 845 and Spendor SP-100) I was convinced of the excellence and value of Pro-Ject. Since then I have heard several Pro-Ject TTs, and all of them sounded at least musical, and frequently striking, bolstering my confidence. I shall remain a fan of the company's budget offerings, though I notice that they are making much more expensive products now too, and I hope they would not neglect their budget offerings.

Ortofon 2M Red
For in-depth reviews, read the links provided by Needledoctor. The very fine review by Noel Keywood of HiFi World is particularly impressive and puts MANY reviews of hi-end cartridges in magazines like TAS to immediate shame.

A big, rich sound vs Clearaudio Concept
I'd not spend too much time elaborating on the sound. I made no concessions and put it in my regular setup:

Preamp - EAR 912
Amps - various SET amps (ICL, Elekit, Sun Audio)
Speakers - Tannoy Canterbury HE

Suffice to say it sounded great right out of the box, with the 2M Red. As with many Pro-Ject TTs, the sound was like a canvas painted in bold strokes. In my all-tube system, with the stock 2M Red, the sound was robust and, as mentioned in the reviews, slightly reticent on top but full in the mid-bass. Most noticeable was the excellent rhythm and pace, a little less fast but perhaps more bouncy than the excellent Clearaudio Concept, Dynamically, the Pro-Ject is a little more scaled back compared with the Clearaudio, but still no slouch. Overall I'd judge its performance superior to the original Rega P3/Bias/Elys I used many years ago. I never was as enthusiastic about the P3 (except the arm, which was for many its raison d'etre) as the UK crowd, and I hope Rega has significantly improved things in its current (much more expensive) P3-24, as competition is much stiffer now, as the much cheaper RPM1.3 amply demonstrates.

More comparison with the Clearaudio Concept. Much to my surprise, the much lighter RPM1.3 is more immune to vibrations than the sensitive Concept! Unlike the Concept, which took an intense dislike to the glass surface of my rack, the RPM1.3 was much more tolerant.

Excellent as the 2M Red was, I have to say I was used to just a little more detail and usually use MC's. So I soon swapped out the 2M Red with the much more expensive and heavier Kontrapunkt C/H, which of course took things to another level, demonstrating that the arm is not shamed by much more expensive cartridges. The heavier Kontrapunkts also had the counterweight almost all the way to the back; perfect!

During swapping I encountered small difficulties:

1. The screws mounting the 2M Red are ridiculously poor in quality, and with their very narrow and esily damaged slots surprisingly difficult to remove! Come on Pro-Ject, don't skimp on this!

2. The cartridge pins (directly wired) and wires were too short to mount the Kontrapunkts. I gingerly pulled on them and to my relief dragged out additional lengths reasonably easily. I talked to the dealer later, and he told me that there is actually quite a bit of leeway. But exercise caution with the delicate wires!

While on the negatives, I'd like to mention another 2:

3. The "arm-rest" is terrible. The U-shaped rest is very loose and you can easily dislodge the arm if you run into it. Be careful!

4. The ultra-thin felt mat is also downright dangerous, easily dislodged. Make sure you don't damage your cartridge by a flying and flipping mat!

Enter the Speed Box II
I could not resist the temptation to get the Speedbox II, also cheaper in HK than in the USA. The difference is subtle but definitely there. Things became a little more delineated. Most interestingly, with orchestral recordings, the massed strings felt more real, more en masse, and that's an achievement for a budget TT.

Despite some shortcomings, the Pro-Ject RPM 1.3 performs way out of its league. For anyone who wants to start playing vinyl, or for someone more experienced who wants a second TT, this would make a good choice. It doesn't even disgrace itself when played side by side with the several times more expensive Clearaudio Concept (some may actually prefer the more robust sound). Even with the Speedbox added, it's still small change, coming in at less than HKD 3k. I cannot imagine money more well spent.

27 December, 2010

Overview and Review: B and W, CM1

Overview: B&W
Review: B&W CM1

B&W is still one of the world's largest (and best) speaker companies, with a legion of fans, but even their fans seem sometimes to prefer the brand for the wrong reasons.

B&W is a dichotomy. While their flagships, in particular the legendary Matrix 801 in all its incarnations, have long been references in all the important recording studios, their "trickle-down" products and particularly lower-end commercial lines have had variable voicing, leading to their preference by budget fans who regard them as "rock-and-roll" speaker but also criticism as "colored products". This hardly does the company justice.

Let's begin with the CM1, a current product. Let me also preface that I have not had first-hand experience with B&W's popular (and populist) older 6, 7 and CDM series products. Those I have listened to many times in other people's homes, usually partnered with more humble electronics. Even then, I thought they sounded decent but not my cup of tea in terms of details and balance (preferring something like Proac and Spendor in those days) . Given the excellence of the CM1, I would be rather curious about their current 6 series, slightly cheaper than the CM series, and differently voiced.

My sample was provided through the generosity of a friend. I have long had fascination, and preference, for first-order crossovers. The CM1 is an example, with minimalist crossover to the tweeter, which has a hidden cooling tube (a la Nautilus). The resultant sound amply confirms that simplicity can frequently be the best. For gears used, read my sidebar (HK equipment).

Used with good equipment, the CM1 shone from the start. The sound is fast and well controlled, whether with ss or tube gears. Most importantly, there is a sophistication to the seamless sound, and smoothness, even as the detail retrieval is class-beating. That is what I associate with simple crossovers (which MANDATE well-matched drivers). For more description, read the Soundstage review, as well as Robert Harley's praise in TAS. I take exception though to one of RH's comment, about the CM1's limited dynamic prowess. This has not been true in my experience; partnered with the superb EAR912 preamp, the CM1 even rendered big symphonic works with aplomb in my 250+ ft LR. It does lack deep bass, something my over-achieving Usher X-708 possesses, though what it had was amply satisfying; perhaps that is what pop-oriented listeners shall find wanting. For the classical listener though, at this price range the CM1 is a no-brainer.

The Matrix series
M805 (excellent Stereophile review) - This was my first encounter with the Matrix series. My pair came with dedicated Sound Anchors stands (much better than current B&W stands). The sound was wide open, with a phenomenal soundstage. At that time I was using only tube gears. One thing that bothered me about the 805 then was its lack of ultimate bass control. I put it aside, then decided to sell it. On the day of sale, before the buyer came, I casually hooked it up to a Cyrus I integrated amp. I was astonished to find out that on the whole the sound was better than my considerably more expensive all-tube setups. And the Cyrus even sailed through a Mahler symphony with aplomb. From this point on, I knew B&W works as well with ss amps as with tubes. It never hurts to try!

M804 - These are wonderful and easy to drive. Tonally they are probably closer to the M801 by sharing the same tweeter and midrange driver.

M801 (wonderful Stereophile review)- I have heard several pairs before. Long before I was an "audiophile", I was smitten by a pair of these in a large NYC loft. What authoritative bass! The M801s have an undeserved reputation of being difficult to drive, which is emphatically not true. I acquired several years ago a pair of Mk II, and they responded beautifully to good medium-powered tube amps, such as the vintage Marantz 8 or a modern ARC Classic amp or Audio Prism Debut, provided of course you use a preamp of good control (no vintage preamp needs to apply). Make no mistake, I use ss amps too; my Krell KSA100 and Bryston 4B (old version) do a splendid job when partnered with a tube preamp of good quality.

The 801's bass is definitely authoritative; listening to these makes it hard to go back to any woofer less than 15" in size (except Spendor SP-100). The depth the woofer plumbs is simply astonishing; if you think JBL with its midbass prominence is it, think again. The midrange is no slouch too, with beautiful presence and directness. The tweeter casts a large soundstage.

These remain for me a reference in dynamic speakers
(so does the Spendor SP100). Most in HK have been gobbled up by the China market, so good luck on finding a good pair.

The M802 and M803 on the other hand seem neither here nor there to me. I have heard many 802s and few of them impressed me.

The Nautilus series
The ultimate should be the original Nautilus, which I have never heard. Judging by the same designer's more recent wonderful Vivid Giya speakers, they must be worthwhile.

However, it is a rare occasion that I am impressed by a Nautilus product, let alone being moved. Yes, they have a clean sound, but not too involving. Like much power conditioning, in achieving a blacker background a good degree of presence has also been sacrificed.

Many of the poor sounding N801s and N802s I have heard were driven by expensive but under-achieving modern MLs and Krells, bad choices IMHO. These need a good tube preamp and perhaps powerful tube amp. On the other hand, the N805 frequently sounded reasonably good. One of the best I have heard in this series was the N804, which I heard with an all-tube setup. Even then, I prefer the Matrix series.

As for the more recent Diamond incarnations, I don't believe they add anything (if not subtract!). Overall, it is my belief that the Matrix series are musically superior to the Nautilus series.