24 April, 2011

My Corner: An All-Swiss Affair

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Letter from NYC 2011 (16): Setting Up (II), An All-Swiss Affair!
My Corner: My Listening Setups in NYC (II) - First! And Foremost?
Talk Vinyl - The Incredible Thorens TD-124

After telling you about my humble Casual Listening Station, let me make a leap to tell you about the early setup stage of my Reference Setup. Allow me to postpone till later my Day-to-Day Setups (being middle ones, they are by nature more insecure). Deciding what goes into the Reference Setup is more headache than you think. The intention is a Reference station. I applied the following criteria and built around them:

  • A permanent and convenient setup for my cherished Western Electric and Langevin gears, able to partner both horns and panels.
  • As the WE and Langevin preamps each has only 1 input and no phono, to add another full function preamp (Nagra PL-P for now) for easy switching between analogue and digital sources.
  • To partner with the best analogue and digital source I have. Perhaps a phonoamp later.
Analogue: Thorens TD-124 MkI/SME3009 S2 imp/Denon DL-304
Digital: Ensemble dirondo/dichrono hi-dac (Sondoro series)
Preamps: WE 106; Langevin; Nagra PL-P
Amp: WE 124 (silver)
Loudspeakers: YL horns (occasionally Magnepan 1.7)

WE 106 and WE 124
The heart of my system, such utter transparency and refinement! This is in the initial stage of setup, and you shall hear about these later.

Nagra PL-P
Until I setup further the WE and Langevin monsters, I shall be using the wounderful Nagra PL-P for both digital and vinyl playback.

Ensemble dirondo/dichrono hi-dac
I have always admired Ensemble products for their refined sound. In HK, quite a few people I know are still using their older (non-Sondoro) gears. You shall find diverse opinion on this combo on the internet. For me, it takes in-depth listening to reveal the beauty of this set. Delivering exceptional details that never call attention to themselves, they really don't stand out immediately. Partnered with the wrong gears they could even sound just a little less full in body than some, but when done right show a fleshy presence which together with great rhythmic sophistication and dynamic exactitude deliver the illusion of a live event. Talking about dynamic accuracy, let us examine the last track, Stimela (the coal train) of this much abused Hugh Masekela album, Hope. In the opening, the drummer's insistent bangs mimick the sound of a train. Most digital playbacks would homogenize the multiple hits and give you only a sense of a small crescendo. Not so the Ensemble combo, which uncannily deliver a sense of gradual, and powerful, increase in sound. Not only that, about a third of the way, one of the hits is actually less forceful than what had gone before; this is not well rendered usually, but clear as day with the Ensemble combo.

Is the Ensemble combo the best I have? Perhaps in some tonal area my Theta/SFD-2 combo can give them a run for the money, but there is little question that the Ensemble set belong with the best (and better most for musicality). I use their own Gigaflux BNC cable (which I happen to have) and the DAC uses an Ensemble power cord (I don't have another one for the transport).

The Ensemble has some upsampling options which I shall perhaps cover later, but right now I am using the 48kHz setting, so the CDs are upsampled a little.

Thorens TD-124 (MKI), Survival of the Best
My friend Mark gave me this turntable with an SME armboard a couple of years ago, and I never got around to it. It just happened this time my friend princetonsound upgraded his TD-124 plinth and gave me the old one. It is not very pretty, but the plywood looks to be of good quality, prompting me to not waste more time and set it up this time.

My friend the vinyl guru AL also has the same turntable in his arsensal, so I called on him to help me. Initially the platter turned only reluctantly, but after cleaning the mechanical joints by turning on and off a few times and running it for a while things smoothed out. Not bad for an ancient machine that had not been run for God knows how many years! AL showed me around the TT, so to speak, and many thanks!

The next day I removed the SME 3009 S2 improved arm, with its Denon DL-304, from my workhorse Thorens TD-125 and installed it on the armboard. Although the cutout seems wrong I was able to do a satisfactory 2-point alignment. Lacking a proper hex-wrench the arm is improperly swung outward, but aside from not being able to cue up at the end groove, that doesn't affect the sound. I could not only adjust the VTA by placing 2 records and an extra mat on top. I had trouble plugging in the SME cable and had to lower the turntable by doing without the "de-coupling" rubber sleeves over the fixing screws. Some may prefer to have the turntable directly on the wood plinth anyway, said AL.

After leveling the TT and adjusting the speed using only the external fine adjustment (when I have time I may fiddle with the coarse adjustment inside), I put on my first LP. My jaws popped out. Why, my! Despite the light plinth, surely not ideal, EVERYTHING IS THERE!

Mind you, I am coming off not only listening to my TTs here in the NYC, but also to my Technics SP-10 and Garrad 301 in HK, and I was still grabbed by the balls! A big soundstage, crispy presence, airy and smooth treble AND, full and taut bass! The last I stress, because it has always been said the Thorens is a little light in the bass (compared to the Garrad); well, not so here! And I heard no undue rumble. I don't need to A/B to tell you the sound surpasses my other TTs and I would hedge it may even have an edge on the Garrad 301. Well, I have the exact same TT also in HK; it would be time to get that running and do the comparison. My Vinyl Golden Age!

Talking about the friendly rivalry of Garrad vs Thorens, Art Dudley of Stereophile had recently written about his just acquired Garrad 301, though he has yet to make comparisons with his Thorens, which he had written about and worked on extensively previously (Listening 40, 41 and for the restoration Listening 65). His articles are valuable in providing info on many aftermarket services. I look forward to his further comments.

If you're interested in this wonderful Thorens turntable, visit the following indispensible sites:

Soundfountain's TD-124 page
(they have many wonderful pages on various vintage things)
analogue-classics TD-124 page (wonderful TT site)

(To be continued later)

23 April, 2011

My Corner: Casual Listening in NYC

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Letter from NYC 2011 (15): Setting Up (I)
My Corner: My Listening Stations in NYC (I) - Casual Listening

Talk Tuner: The wonderful McIntosh MR-71

Martin Logan Source redux

The Many Stations of Life
Last time I left NYC after we had just moved into our new apartment. I did the rudimentary setup of my dedicated listening room, dictated mostly by the large horns. I bought some racks and set up multiplt stations. You may ask why that many? Well, yes, I have always liked to be able to switch gears on the fly, but the reasons behind are mainly twofold: multiple stations provide better ergonomics for my various turntables; and horn speakers and panels have quite different requirements, difficult to fulfill by just a single set of equipment. As I have the number of gears required, why not?

The Casual Listening Station: Last, but not the Least
In terms of monetary value, this station comes a distant last, but in terms of use it probably comes first. In NYC I get up very early, in the wee hours, as described previously. As I drink coffee and work on my computer I listen to music at a very low volume. It's really too much of a luxury to have expensive WE tubes or the battery of the Nagra taxed for such purposes. To this end, I created my Casual Listening Station, one located right behind my listening seat and working table. The goal is to have relatively simple gears to provide what I need:

Analogue: Technics SL-1200MkII-Benz Micro Silver
Digital: Meridian 506-24 or Rega Apollo
Tuner: McIntosh MR-71
Preamp: ARC SP-9MkII
Amp: McIntosh 2200
Speakers: Martin Logan Source

Much of this I have described before. Despite the "marginal" existence of some of the gears in my cannon, this system not only excels in casual and low-level listening, it also serves as a "watchdog": the other stations have to at least equal the performance of this station to justify themselves, and it has not been easy, for a myriad of reasons! I shall make brief comments on each component in the chain.

The Source (TAS review)
I know, I have mentioned it many times: the Martin Logan Source just constantly amaze me (previous write-up's). They sound fantastic even at very low volume. The electrostatic panel and dynamic woofer are seamlessly integrated, and the latter plumbs depth that still surprises me. Unlike the Maggie 1.7, they are also small and narrow enough to stand in front of my large horns without undue negative effect.

Like the Magnepan 1.7 I had up a while ago before I fired up my horns, at first I had them placed in a relatively near field isosceles triangle of 6 ft or so. In this position, the imaging was not quite as big as the Maggies (not true when I had them much further in my old LR) and it took a little fine-tuning to achieve optimal atmosphere. With the Source relatively near field it is amazing how much the front end affects the size and height of the image.

Just 30 minutes later, I finally moved the Maggies out of the way. I was able to increase the distance between the speakers. It made a huge difference. The soundstage is now as wide as the Maggies and ambience is further improved. A trace of leaness with my vinyl playback also disappeared. I consider my setup nearly finished.

A Well-tuned Tuner Needs No "HiFi" Tuning
I acquired this McIntosh MR-71, one of the great tube tuners, a couple of years ago. Not quite true to advertisement, it was great in cosmetics but weak in performance. I had this aligned by a technician but never hooked it up until now. Wow! What a surprise! It was like having a completely different tuner, so much better the sound had become!

To tell the truth, I had not been able to tear myself away from this tuner, and to our wonderful WQXR. The announcers seem to be present in my room, in real flesh of the right size, making my speakers sound much larger than they are, equalling the image produced by the Maggies previously in the same spot. Imaging is wonderfully focused, and there is a superbly natural and palpable feel to all kind of music. And the stunning look; they don't make them like this anymore! We should give thanks that we are still able to enjoy analogue FM broadcast of high quality, and nothing does that better than a tube tuner in good alignment. Internet radio? useful but not even close in quality.

Technics Sl-1200MkII
I should put in another word to this workhorse. matched with the right cartridge, and the Benz-Micro Silver is certainly one of them, this is also another "watchdog" item in my arsenal. I am copying the use of this term from my friend AL, whose AR turntable has to be surpassed for any newcomer to be admitted. The sound from this TT is always clean and fun to listen to. It only loses to the tube tuner in body and flesh,but still outperforms the CDP handily.

Audio Research SP-9
Another word for this lovely hybrid workhorse too. Some say it has some transistor haze, but I find it just sounds neutral and transparent in the right system, and with the right tubes. It economically uses 1 6DJ8 each in the phono and line stages (I use Amperex Holland). The phono section in particular seems a great bargain. It's worth more than its low second-hand price for the phono section alone. It has enough gain and quietness for even medium output MC cartridges. An ARC preamp is also a perfect match for a McIntosh amp, be it tube or solid state.

McIntosh 2200
Under-rated musical vintage solid state amp with output transformers, stable down to 1 ohm. Perfect match for panels when used with a transparent tube preamp. Currently my only ss amp in NYC; why would I need more?

11 April, 2011

Divertimento 半日閒: Cherry Blossom

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半日閒: Cherry Blossom

Despite my apparent untidiness, I am rather compulsive at classification. Hence, when I started my Blogs, I created several in order to keep them apart. However, over time I have to admit I have limited time to substantially populate them all. As I focus mostly on audio and classical music, perhaps I should try to integrate my occasional musings on other matters into my main blogs. Here I shall call it Divertimento, a term harking back to the classicists. I hope occasionally a word or two just might relieve you from audio!

Today I'd like to share with you some pics I took of Cherry Blossom when we were in Washington DC in early April. It was a heavily overcast day, but the flowers were in full bloom. Not quite as the Japanese would have it (when the trees are exfoliating), but still quite a sight. The Tidal Basin is home to the Jefferson Memorial, tribute to one of America's most interesting presidents, whose attitude on and relationship with blacks have always been closely scrutinized by the American public. Also here is the new FDR memorial, a wonderful design by landscape architect Lawrence Halpern.

05 April, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (14): Infinity IRS Beta redux

Letter from NYC 2011 (14): Infinity IRS Beta redux

Close on the heels of my visits to MW came a re-visit to AL's magnificent palace. You will remember him as the man whose system I heard on a previous visit earned my nomination for best sound of 2010.

AL is a meticulous man. A look at the facade of his nice house will tell you something. This time I walked in to find a recently acquired EMT 930 in the middle of set-up. More interestingly, he seemed to have been doing work on some cartridges under the dissecting microscope! Now, that's a pro!

A twixt, unlike last time, this time we listened to only digital playback, unusual for this vinyl man. And was it awesome! List of Gears:

CD transport: CEC 1
DAC: Sonic Frontier SFD II MkII
Preamp - Audio Research Reference II Mk I.
Amp for Tweeter/Midrange column - VTL MB-450 monoblocks (8 x 6550 each)
Amp for Bass column - McIntosh MC-2500 (for bass column)
Loudspeakers - Infinity IRS Beta

Let's cut it to the chase: this is likely the best sound of 2011. What, so early in the year? Why not? How often do you hear things that prompt you to rethink?

If anything, the sound was quite the equal of the analogue playback we heard exclusively last time. The holographic field was populated by flesh and blood images of exquisite texture. This once again confirms my long-held view that the SFD II DAC is STILL unsurpassed in many areas. Also, the experience prompted me to re-evaluate CEC transports, some of which I have heard to be slow and not quite revealing. Not this one. Dynamically the music was marvelous, and, if my memory serves me, trumped the vinyl playback (leaving one to wonder about the gain structure of vinyl playback). I'll just cite one example of excellence: the orchestra in the Messiaen Turangalila Symphony (EMI/LSO/Previn) heaved and sighed, and one could clearly separate the various percussion and keyboard instruments. Again, what a lovely recording that everyone should have. For me, the orchestra in this piece swoons like in Scheherazade, and can be orgiastic as in Scriabin's Divine Poem, and the system captured everything in glory. All this from a cheap EMI forte re-issue; I wonder what the famous LP (pictured right) would sound like here.

Back home, lazy and still jet-lagged me immediately set about to improve my Maggie setup a bit more. In my narrower room, I cannot hope to emulate AL's panorama, but a little improvement is definitely possible. I also pulled out a copy of the Messiaen (Salonen/Sony) to play. Can there be greater tribute to AL's system? I think not.