31 March, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (13): Genesis V, MBL, EAR, Michaelson & Austin

L: Note the M&A preamp up front; R: DIY table for EMT 930 using pipes! (click to enlarge)

Letter from NYC 2011 (13): Genesis V, MBL, EAR, Michaelson & Austin

Among my hifi friends MW in LI must count as one of the craziest; perhaps even insane. I have previously reported on his Western Electric setup. It has been barely 2 years and yet his system (including the room) has undergone so many upheavals that it'd be hard to chronicle. Yes, you read it right, it's upheavals, not mere changes like what happen to you and me. I shall be brief, as I really cannot second-guess why MW made his moves.

L: HMV's; R: KEF'ed Genesis

After Mark's excellent Vandersteen 2CE period came what I had to come to think of as his mid-life crisis (don't we all experience that!). He pawned the WE combo to me but later acquired a full MBL set (the wrong path in my opinion, and you'll see why). Also, he divided his basement into two halves, presumably to give more space to his children (no, an electronic warehouse is not quite suitable really). The resultant small square room was not kind to his hifi. At this point he acquired a pair of Genesis V (early version). Not happy with its performance, he swapped out the mid range units for LS3/5A's KEF's!!!!!!!! Surprisingly, the sound was not THAT bad. Also, a pair of ancient HMV loudspeakers made a brief appearance (they sound very good).

Last time I was in NYC, he heard my horns (as yet unannounced) and was smitten. A 180 degree turn took him to build a horn system, which went through several iterations with JBL pro and Altec drivers in a custom JBL pro enclosure. With such disparate elements, electronic crossover was employed and after a bit of experiment sound was surprisingly robust.

So I was surprised this time that he had gone back to the Genesis V. Happily the stock mid range units were restored. AND he had knocked down the partition and regained use of the full room. The first time we went, we pulled the speaker up front about 2 ft, adjusted the bass servo as well as the knobs on the back before we got good sound. This is a complicated speaker!!

Over 2 days we heard the Genesis V driven by 2 sets of electronics:

Analogue: Nottingham Spacedeck/Spacearm/Denon 103D
Digital: MBL Transport+DAC
Preamp+Amp A: MBL 6010+amp
Preamp+Amp B: Michaelson & Austin TVP-X preamp/EAR 509

I shall be brief. While the MBL set sounded reasonably well on its own, upon switching to the M&A/EAR all-tube combo the system took a huge leap forward. So much for the under-achieving MBLs. That is hardly surprising. Like the EAR, the M&A preamp was designed by Tim de Paravicini, hence "Tim's Valve Preamp". This is an all-out effort, almost dual mono, with 4 tubes in the phono section and another 4 in the linestage, per channel. It is also rare as hen's teeth now. The sound was excellent with vinyl.

Back to the Genesis V. I think we had it in the sonic ballpark but, with the bass still a bit tight and not deep enough, had not quite hit the bull's eye. It was close though. Even then, the sound showcased the speaker's rich and solid sound. There is a marvelous texture to the mid range and treble that should still put most current hi-end speakers to shame for their etched sound. The basement I think is a little small for the speakers too. I have heard them in much larger rooms to different, if not better, effect.

This early all-out effort uses 6x 12AX7 and 6x 12AT7 and constant current source design. The separate power supply is transistor.

26 March, 2011

Q and A:AES, Sonus faber, Clearaudio, VPI, Chinese made products

Q and A: AES, Sonus faber, Clearaudio, VPI, Chinese made products

Periodically I receive emails from readers on various topics. A few I answer right away because the questions are simple and easy. A few requests, like the circuit diagram on the extinct AES SE-1, took some time to satisfy. But there are many on which I procratinate; I hesitate not because I don't want to, but because I don't know the readers well. Many ask whether I'd prefer A to B, and these are not too easy to answer without knowing a lot about the reader. For myself, I simultaneouly enjoy many different things, though in the bottom of my heart I know my ultimate preferences. After some thought I have decided to periodically publish Q and A, of which this is the first. This is to let you know I hate to not answer mail, but sometimes it is not easy to give a conscientious answer based on the little I know of you. Now, from the newest first.

Q. on AES SE-1 (gwoods100) "...have you, by any chance, heard the standard SE-1 against the 'Signature' version? I'm contemplating doing the upgrade...do you know where I might locate a schematic for the Signature version? If there's not much involved, I might consider the upgrade and take a chance that it'll sound better.Incidentally, I have tried to contact Cary about this, but so far they've failed to respond to my emails (three so far, across ten days). Again, many thanks for the SE-1 schematic - and for other fascinating reading..."

A. No, I have never seen, let alone heard the 'Signature' version. What I have heard though, is the difference between the stock version I have now and the decked-out one (Kimber caps; upmarket diodes; better wiring etc) I previously owned. I'd say heavily modified the sound is clearer, but not necessarily musically better all-around. From my perspective, one's money would be better spent in another amp that has a completely different design, say the wonderful Elekit 2300 or 3200. Boutique parts are expensive and don't always pay dividends. YMMV. Some people build a tube recitified power supply for the thing, and I think THAT would be worthwhile, though drastic surgery.

Q. Sonus faber EAII (gysbertwillem)
"...I have had my Sonus Faber: Electa Amator 2 for years, very happy. Nad 330 to "feed" them...
I was not going to use the Nad that long anyway, however here I am now ( years later) and one speaker stopped in the low frequency! I have worked out that it is not my amp , could it be the xover, or is it the woofer it self. I have tried all the sonus faber people to advise me in this one ,simply no reply of none of them. Desperate as i am got me on to you when I found out about your web site. I know that you don't want to get back to the people who approach you, but could you please make an exception in this case of mine so I can listen to my music again. It is nearly 2months since this shit happened! Also I would like to hear your opinion about the Almarro 318 b in combo with Electa amator 2..."

I am really sorry that the second question is a lot easier to answer than the first. It depends on the music played. I think classical solo and chamber music and jazz would be OK for the Almarro 318, but big works or rock would not do for lack of power.

I have actually tried to contact also the SF HK dealer but got little. You have to make sure it's the woofer that's bad. In HK we have repairmen who can make it work, though how much up to spec's is not clear. It's too bad SF does not back up.

Q. Clearaudio and VPI (Babar)
"...I noticed your commentary on Clearaudio Concept. I just listened to this today and it sounded great even with the stock cartridge. I am considering to purchase this table, maybe with a better cartridge like Virtuoso or Maestro. I guess you still own this table so you must like it! I see you are very particular about your tables and the musicality is important to you as it is to me. I also considered Clearaudio Emotion CMB table which I have a line on for a very good price, with the Virtuoso cart. I was wondering what you thought of this table in comparison to Concept. Personally, I found it to be very present with great soundstage, but also overly bright and fatiguing (maybe was setup?). Also many people recommend me to stay away this table and instead consider Concept or others. There was something appealing about the sound but also maybe it was analytical or something bothered me as well which stopped me from buying this, as dealer was pushing me, insisting it was best value for the price ($2000.00 approx) The last one I think about is VPI Classic and would be interested to hear more what you think about this table. It is a little bit outside of my budget for purchase, however, so I am leaning towards Clearaudio (Concept most likely). How would you compare these two tables - i.e., will I be satisfied with the Concept!..."

A. Probably too little too late. Yes, I love the Concept and consider it one of Clearaudio's better efforts. To be fair, they do put effort in their lower end products, though the upgrade path is more of a pandora's box. As I alluded to in answer to another question, many times I'd prefer just playing with something else rather than upgrade. I suspect the Emotion itself, without the CMB, is probably a lesser turntable than the Concept. I am curious about the CMB myself, but the magnetic arm on the Concept is probably just as good as the one on the Emotion, and rare to boot. As for cartridges, Clearaudio would not be my first picks. Denon, Benz-Micro, not to say Ortofon, would be hard competitors. In any case I think all of them are OK. As for the VPI Classic, I think it is a bigger sounding beast, quite different and worth an audition. It too has too many upgrade paths. Too much temptation. Do let me know what you finally settled on and whether you liked it.

One thing though on the Concept: the price in HK is a bargain!

Q. China Made (Dana)
"...since you have strong Asia connections, how come you don't review more China components. It's my understanding that China high end audio components have improved dramatically in both audio and build quality. It would be most helpful to review some of these products like the DOGE 8, and maybe identify those vendors who turn out really good stuff..."

I thank reader Dana for his kind words elsewhere. As to why I don't review too many China gears, it's actually a complex question that merits an article on its own, and I am way behind. While I agree the audio and built quality have improved greatly, based on what I hear I still often have serious reservations about most of the stuff. As a rule, I generally frown on copy-cat stuff (especially cloning), and that eliminates many products (well western products too). The looks too of many of the gears put me off, neither here nor there. Most importantly, I think in general it can safely be said the Chinese designer is likely not quite mature in his MUSICAL TASTE, which makes or breaks a product. Many products do reasonably well on vocals but fail when it comes to full-bandwidth music. This is especially true of Chinese (including HK) tube audio products, of which I am not a fan. Despite claims, many of the transformers and designs just sacrifice both ends of the spectrum, to list just one of their sins. In contrast, I do think the Chinese solid state products are better than the tubes ones. As for speakers, well, they are few good ones, and most are just clones of existing big-names.

There are good manufacturers. Like YS-Audio from HK, which I plan to report more on. I also would like to write a full length reply, but no time yet.

Talk Vinyl: Garrard 301 Reborn Part I

Return of the prodigal son. Click on pic to enlarge.

Talk Vinyl: Garrard 301 Reborn Part I

Talk Vinyl: Technics SP-10 MkII Part II
The Yumcha Diaries: 12-03-11

It was always a delight to have the company of feikeung, who is one of the rare people who has a view of the Internet that is close to mine. After yumcha, he and davwong (a fellow Garrard user) went with me to Robin's place to pick up my Garrard.

After I removed the platter i put it in my tote bag, we packed up the TT and it was actually not heavy, just bulky. I managed to get it home safely, horizontally. Here thanks davwong for his help in packing.

The Second Advent, or Return of the Prodigal Son

The return of the Garrard heralds the beginning of a Second Age for me. Remember previously I had the oil-bearing cream-colored Garrard as a reference? It is now with my friend whlee. To make room for all my new turntables I recently sold my Clearaudio Champion as well as, regrettably, my Audio Note TT1/Arm 2, which I had used in the interim. As I have always thought the Systemdek-based TT1 to be better sounding and balanced than the LP12, I regret I never got a chance to compare the two. That may yet happen as the person I sold it to planned to do that! :-)

This was just a test-drive before even starting to ponder about the final form the 301 should take. As it is one of my reference TT's and shall always be so, I am sure we'll grow together. And the current plinth is certainly not the last word on isolation (it is rather light in mass). When I say return of the prodigal son, I mean ME, not Garrard. :-)

I decided to install the very arm that I used with the previous Garrard, the RB250 with Origin Live structural mod (only) that has served me so well for so long, so as to connect with past aural memory. It is strange audiophiles so distrust their impressions, on which everything cognitive is based. While one must be objective, even ready to re-evaluate old presumptions, one must also not do so lightly without serious trials, for the present is nothing without a past.

For a cartridge I finally decided on the humble Ortofon Kontrapunkt H. One of the reasons I chose the Ortofon is for its neutrality, perhaps even its tendency towards starkness. Also, on this very arm I had spent years with my old and trusty Ortofon MC-15 MkII, which is recently sadly defunct.

Grease Bearing or just Greasy?
To be honest, the first few tracks I played had me a little non-plussed. After coming off a period of listening to the crisp and take-no-prisoner approach of the SP-10 (even with the Benz-Micro!), the smooth Garrard inevitably seemed just a little slow on the transients, and image also seemed not as focused. Dylan's record lost a bit of its bite.

However, after a while I started to get used to the sound and heard things differently. While the rhythms were not as superficially sharp, the Garrard delivered more subtle rhythmic felicities. The players in the band seemed to have their own takes on the rhythm (while keeping time). The bass was also more elastic and fulsome, more tuneful. The violin also seems to be more sinuous with the 301, and massed strings more full-bodied.

In comparison, the admittedly exciting SP-10 seemed to be have a pervasive insistent quality that likely does not belong to the musicians, sort of like a controlling master clock at work (but less than the lesser, but still over-achieving SP-1200). This makes me ponder. In digitals, can all the hooplahs in jitter and clock be at least just a bit overblown? I think so, and I am being kind. While I am convinced keeping jitter low is generally good, I am not convinced all these "state-of-the-art" clocking and jitter-reduction has brought forth more music. In having masters and slaves (as in clocking), are we sure the mysterious minutiae (not details) in music (which vinyl conveys so well) have not been smoothed out too much? It would not be the first time babies have been thrown out with the bath water. Have you ever have your doubts about dCS and the likes? Do you like the way these supercomputers make music? Do they give you more of the illusion of live music? Truth be told, I am not impressed.

I am not at all knocking the SP-10. It has its own enticing features and shall likely remain as one of my references. Like the Garrard, I doubt most of today's megadollar TTs can beat it in any all-around way. When I'd like a little more excitement I shall reach for it.

Preview: Arm Swaps and the Bottlehead Eros Tube Tape Head Preamp
Next step would be to swap arms, to have the presumably better max'ed out RB250 on the Technics transplanted to the Garrard. Later would be the Ortofon AS-212S 9" arm. Stay tuned.

Let me digress. Robin spent the last weekend building this Tape Head preamp for his R2R. He just hooked it up. We didn't listen to it. Robin said sound was a little too bass-heavy. We'll let it run-in and tube-roll a little later, but that has to wait till May I think.

24 March, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (12): The Wonder of Nagra PLP

click on pic to enlarge

Letter from NYC 2011 (12): The Wonder of Nagra PLP

On the second day (should I say middle of the night) I hooked up a system for a little music:

Digital: Rega Apollo
Preamp: Nagra PLP
Amp: McIntosh 2200
Speakers: Magnepan MG 1.7
Earphones: Audio Technica ATH-AD700

Read my other articles on the Nagra PL-P

Nuance Aplenty
Even at very low volume through the Maggies, playing a Mozart sonata (see previous post) I found the combination, which I have not tried before, highly special. The Rega CDP's all-around excellence was taken for granted, but the combination of Nagra and McIntosh seemed especially luminous. I waited till much later to try out the big stuff. In my experience, all the older McIntosh amps, whether tube or solid-state, benefit from modern preamps that are high in resolution and have fast transients. The Nagra PLP certainly fits the bill.

Given its small size, the PLP does not perhaps quite possess the wide macrodynamics of much larger and heavily regulated preamps (though it is no slouch here), but its transient speed is unusually fast for a tubed unit. In fact, many traditional tube fans (who prefer murk I sometimes think) regard the PLP to sound rather like solid-state.

Together with its excellent resolution the preamp excels in microdynamics and has fine rhythm and timing. The violin also always showcases the strength of the Nagra, the portrayal so complete and seamless that one actually hears the the music as phrases merging into each other, rather than one note after another. One easily senses the bow's return, something few preamps manage to do (the Wavac does).

Harmonia Mundi, indeed
I was even more enticed when later I played much more complex music. The Herreweghe Beethoven 9th (HM) was performed on original instruments. One heard the gut strings but not too much grit, and that was just about right for anyone who has actually heard this refined period band (one of my favorites). Crispy, rhythmically sophisticated but fluid and richly multi-layered. The whole was holographically laid out by the Maggies. Oh, did I mention the skin-effect of the tympani was immaculately rendered?

Even more impressively "hifi" was the Biber Missa Christi Resurgentis (HM). Separation of the choir and voices and layering of the orchestra were uncanny. The system also conveyed the joy in the performance, surprisingly for an Easter piece.

Later, a misteriosso performance of Bruckner's granitic 8th under Giulini. The fair BBC Live recording still managed to convey a sense of occasion. Whether it was the strings in cantilena, or a solo woodwind in the wild, or brass blazing foward, all gave the illusion of a live performance, and a great one it was! There's no higher praise for equipment that can convey this sense. Throughout, the Nagra PLP kept every strand of the music intact and the fabric whole.

Balm for the Ears
The next day, or rather middle of the night, I all of a sudden remembered the Nagra's earphone output. I plugged the AT 700 into it and was immediately rewarded by detailed and fulsome sound. I managed 2 CD's worth of Beethoven Late Quartets, as performed by the Vermeer Quartet (Warner). When I finished at 6 am, I felt well. What a wonderful headphone amp! And nice cans!

Yes, good sound reproduction puts you in touch with the world and achieve harmony with nature. Harmonia Mundi!

HiFi Letter from NYC 2011 (11): Through a Glass, Darkly

HiFi Letter from NYC 2011 (11): Through a Glass, Darkly
CD Recommendation: Classical

Waking up in the middle of the night, it was dark all around me. I stole into the kitchen to make some coffee. A while later, sipping it in my hifi room I started to come around the jet lag - not physically, but spiritually.

4:00 am, too early to play music. By 5:30 I felt the urgent need and turned on the system and listened at extremely low level through the Maggies.

I played these CDs, and did they uplift me! I played the Mozart sonatas recorded by Richter with violinist Oleg Kagan. My copy is the original EMI issue, but I think it's now available only in the budget box set, a fine value. Richter's Mozart can be idiosyncratic, and Kagan can be grating sometimes, but in K378 they gave a timeless performance.

Later I played Annie Fischer's Mozart concerti. Again, my copy was an earlier Seraphim. The playing is rather muscular, as is wont with this great artist. What's also priceless was the detailed and dramatic accompaniment by the Philharmonia under Sawallisch. Probing accounts that are among the best.

These performances are not the smooth Mozart one so often hears. They are highly intelligent accounts that reflect great study and musicianship. As listener, we also never get to the bottom of the works. That's what WONDER is all about.

13 March, 2011

Talk Vinyl: Technics SP10MkII, Benz-Micro Gold and PP1

Full Metal Jacket. Click on pic to enlarge.

Talk Vinyl: Technics SP10MkII, Benz Micro Gold, T-9 Lukaschek PP1

Mellow Gold and Bright Silver
Before proceeding with my Garrad, let me tell you I had just come off a period of listening to my recently acquired Technics SP-10 MkII. This legendary direct-drive turntable is equipped with an all decked-out RB250 (Michell mod and Incognito sliver wiring). It came with the Benz-Micro Gold. Surely you, like me, shall find the cartridge oddly installed so far up front. That is because the armboard that came with it has the center-to-pivot distance to be 3-4 mm more than the official 222 mm. Given the fait accompli, using 2-point alignment, the cartridge seems to be properly installed. Listening revealed no problem with all my LPs, and I just let it be. Until I change to another arm, that is, which is likely.

Interesting how things have come around. My first MC setup was the Benz-Micro Gold installed on my Rega RB-250 ( origin Live structural mod)(read more here), which later developed a problem with the suspension and became unusable. So I am familiar with the sound of this cartridge. Also, I still use its higher-output sibling, the Silver, in NYC (more here). I haven't directly compared the two, but I am pretty certain the Gold tends to be mellower than the snappy Silver. Both were good buys, but at current prices they have quite a bit of competition.

Direct or Indirect? That is The Question
This is the fourth direct-drive turntable I own. The Audio Technica AT-PL120 and Revox B791 were covered before. I had not really covered the Technics SL-1200 MkII I acquired from my friend. Let me just say this legendary DJ turntable is truly a superior turntable that belies its modest price. It is obviously better than the clone AT in terms of musicality. The Revox is a comparable but its sound too tends towards the lean and mean, more so than the Technics. All these direct drives have excellent resolution of detail that IMHO is superior to belt-drive TTs of similar price. However, it does take some work on matching to smooth out the edges in them. If that were not a challenge, there would not be so many people in the belt-drive camp.

Let me just say this outright. From the first play, it was obvious the Technics SP-10 MkII possesses better musicality. The sound, while detailed and excitingly fast, does not impart a feeling of breathlessness, as lesser direct-drives are prone to do. However, this is NOT to say it does not have the hallmarks of a direct-drive. It does, with the wrong phonoamp there is often still a lingering feeling of insistence in the rhythm. More on that when I cover the Garrard. Suffice to say the SP-10 deserves its reputation as one of the best turntables of all times, and certainly likely one of the best of the direct-drives.

Make sure you visit:
Soundfountain's wonderful SP-10 page

When Beauty is not Skin-Deep
I used several phono setups during audition. The TT sounded equally wonderful through the Elekit TU-875, EAR912 and Verdier Control B, all tubed in their phonostage.

The real surprise took place just before I got the Garrard back home. On impulse I got a Benz-Micro Lukaschek T9 PP-1 MC phonoamp to match with the lowly Gold. I had encountered this phonoamp many times before, often with the Glider. It always gave decent sound, but also frequently gave the impression of being on the lean side. Its lack of loading options, indeed any adjustment, is not appealing to many.

Since the arm used Incognito silver wiring, I decided to use the silver Kimber KCAG for connection to the preamp. I used the Elekit TU-875 and the result surprised me a little.

I have not yet written up the Elekit combo. The TU875 has a tubed MM phono stage, while the MC section is solid state, one main reason why I chose this preamp for comparison purposes rather than my other all-tubed units that use transformers for the MC section. Now I use 2x stock Philips 5963 for the phono section and 1x Amperex 12AU7 for the linestage.

There is just a rightness to the all Benz-Micro setup that is difficult to describe. The PP1 is a little more detailed than the Elekit, but not overwhelmingly so to swing the result in its favor. The PP1 is cleaner sounding than the Elekit while avoiding leanness; indeed it is its effortless quality that surprises. In comparison, the imaging of the Elekit is larger and more smeared (shall do more tube-rolling later). Overall the musicality is impressive.

The input impedance of the PP-1 is an unusually high 22k, "...in order to eliminate interconnect cable and phono connector influence on the sound quality..." This is a marked deviation from the norm of 100 ohm, and certain to raise eyebrows, but keep in mind that Benz-Micro cartridges were designed to be loaded at a higher impedance than most others. It is the final sound that counts.

To test whether the high impedance would be a downright mismatch with other cartridges, I later tried it with the Ortofon Kontrapunkt H (mounted on the Garrard/RB250). Again the PP-1 dealt me a surprise. I detected no great frequency aberrations nor diminished musicality, and the "neutral" sound of the Ortofon emerged with great clarity. Note that usually Ortofon's like to be loaded into rather low impedances, hence the big surprise. Maybe there is something to Benz-Micro's cable and phono connector theory (these certainly add their own impedance to the signal path).

Although very small, the PP-1 is an extremely well made device. Once again, it proves SM components and short signal path can be great pluses in a good design (Linn Linto also comes to mind). It is beautiful though the chrome is hard to keep clean and the prints will eventually come off. At its current second-hand price it is good value, but a new unit costs rather more now due to exchange rates. With a Benz-Micro cartridge it is a very good choice, but its sterling qualities should still be apparent with many other cartridges.