03 February, 2011

Talk Vinyl: Restoration of Garrad 301 Part III

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 29-01-11
Talk Vinyl: Restoration of Garrard 301 Part III
Talk R2R: Otari Restored!

Best Sound of 2011 (so soon?)!

No mincing of words here. Mark my words, what we heard on this day SHALL be the BEST SOUND OF 2011!. I know, it's just the start of the year, but this ain't no hyperbole. I simply don't expect to hear better sound in the next 11 months ! I'd love to be proven wrong, but I doubt I would be. Coming so soon after the best sound heard in 2010 these had been fruitful months, sonically.

Salute, Garrard 301!
On this day, after yumcha we went to Robin's place to listen to my Garrard he gave a second life to, and his almost fully restored Otari. I brought along the arm/cartridge that was on my Clearaudio Champion to be installed. Robin's system (previous listening report here) is largely unchanged from before, so we listened to:

My Turntable: Garrard 301 (grease)/Origin Live basic mod Rega 250/Ortofon MC15 Super II/simple plywood plinth
Robin's Turntable: Garrard 301 (oil)/Rega 250 with Michell counterweight and Incognito wiring/Ortofon Kontrapunkt B/complex slate plinth
Ree-to-Reel: Otari
Preamp: ARC SP-11
Amp: (vintage) McIntosh MC275
Loudspeakers: Yamaha FX-3

Remember the "rudimentary" plywood plinth for my (grease-bearing, see pic of belly) Garrard 301, which you were shown in Part II? As Robin said, he "...went ahead and stained the plinth a dark Indian Rosewood colour", and just as he said "...it looks rather sleek and sexy, alongside the grey metal turntable!..." We gasped at the beauty of the table. Robin used small pieces of hardwood for the legs and support, with blue-tac coupling between the support and plywood top. Robin has other ideas about the plinth but we were so smitten by its look that I am tempted to use it just as is.

I instantly felt it has a Yamamoto's "house" "sushi-table" (pic of Yamamoto A-08S here) look to it, and I love it! The occasion deserved celebration, and Robin promptly opened up a bottle of white wine!

Otari, the Vinyl Slayer!
After a few sips, the RB250 was swapped out for the arm I brought and ready for action, but not before listening to the Otari.

Between our last visit and this time Robin had put an untold number of man hours into its restoration, first meticulous alignment using oscilloscopes and other equipment acquired specifically for the purpose (now, THAT's dedication!), then (saintly patience!) replacing the hundreds of caps inside (almost finished).

At first, we played the acerbic Bartok 6th quartet. It was immediately evident that any instability previously heard had been completely vanquished. A quick comparison with the DG LP showed the R2R to be almost superior in all aspects, though a little over-bearing in its "studio-like" objectivity through the Yamaha. Robin attributed this to the so-so solid state Tape Head Preamp inside the tape deck. He has already ordered a Bottlehead Eros Tape Head Preamp which hopefully shall be built during the coming holidays.

(Detour) Talking about Bottlehead, I still have their simple and good sounding original Foreplay (now in its III version) and our friend Hoi the old Paramour monoblock parafeed 2A3 amps. Unfortunately, the Yamaha FX-3 I don't think would take to flea-powered amps, otherwise we could have an all-Bottlehead party soon!

As the tape ran we slowly realized the sound had become better and better. Like the cartridge, the tape head also needs warm-up time. By the time we reached the Fitzwilliam's rendition of Shostakovich's 8th quartet, we were literally TRANSFIXED by the life-like vista in front of us. Here were four musicians breathing life into music right in front of us, one of those rare occasions when every note feels right no matter how you analyze it, IF you want to analyze it that is. I paid attention to the bowel sounds and the leading edges of the strings and could find no fault. Utterly clear and fulsome bass, no overhang, nothing except music. The illusion of a live event was so strong it instantly challenged my conviction that a horn is the only thing that can convey this all-important feeling. In comparison with reel-to-reel, vinyl replay is inevitably a little colored in the many ways vinyl can be colored (and which many love to excess), say in tonality or portrayal of rhythm. But make no mistake, vinyl is still way better than anything digital in its conveyance of the performance, the most important parameter in reproduction and Achilles's heel of digital. The way I see it, a tube tape head amp shall perhaps improve things a little more, but I doubt it shall surpass the performance we heard in all parameters.

Family Feud
Certainly, this system's rendition of the truth is orders above what we usually hear. It is not all due to employment of R2R as source. Robin had fine-tuned his system, most importantly by propping up a bit the front of his FX-3, in other words giving them a little time alignment. This made a significant difference in coherence and more natural image size and height. If there is any limitation, it is that the space is still too small for large symphonic works, though smaller forces are reproduced to perfection.

When we played the Bartok LP, my Garrard sounded a little more musical. Robin remarked that there is a smoothness to the grease bearing perhaps. With the lesser arm and humble MC15 cartridge it delivered music in a broader stroke. Switching to Robin's Garrard, the sound was more finely etched and detailed, but less warm. I am sure part of this was due to the difference in cartridges, as I had previously matched my MC15 against the similar Kontrapunkt C and got similar results.

Then we played the Miles Davis TuTu LP. Here, again, my Garrard was a little more emotive but lesser in detail and ambience than Robin's. The bit of coldness (comparatively) emanating from Robin's Garrard was actually quite suitable for this LP and the icy brilliance of Miles.

Although the arms and cartridges are form the same families, the structural differences are likely significant, and we did not bother to swap arms. The difference between the simple wooden plinth and the slate plinth probably was an even bigger factor in the difference in sound. As a result, we did not dwell on the "duel" too much but rather just admired the sound, wonderful to say the least. But I have to say neither quite attained the level of the R2R deck.

Did I tell you we didn't even listen to a single CD?

Yamaha FX-3, The Giant Killer!
The Yamaha FX-3 deserves the last word. This large studio monitor, like its smaller sibling NS-1000, is a woefully under-rated gem. Its stark neutrality and ability to deliver the presence of a live performance is nothing short of remarkable, up-to-date in every way, and likely superior to most of the over-rated larger speakers of today.

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