20 August, 2011

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 20-08-11 Part I. Living Voice

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 20-08-11 Part I
Living with Different Voices

Living Voices
This jam-packed day was organized around three users of UK's Living Voice loudspeakers (I am surprised there are so many in HK). agentsmittie and BoyLah are both Karma's friends, and I met the former when Karma came with him to my house to audition the Canterbury.

Living Voice is the sister company of Definitive Audio, guess what, distributor of Kondo in the UK. Indeed I have heard the most expensive RW version once before, when some years ago our friend JCR33 took us to the mansion of Jonathan Midgley, now distributor of Kondo and Living Voice in HK. I was told he was using Kondo M7 with Mactone 300B at that time; I remember the sound as being very transparent and not a little lean. It was unusual for me not to take note of interesting equipment; perhaps I was more captivated by the unique house rather than the sound then.

Although the brand has quite a reputation in the UK and is apparently a UK critic's favorite, online as many reviews appear in the US. Most of these are, by practical consideration, on various iterations of the small and light (and more affordable, though still very expensive) Auditorium/Avatar series (what we listened on this day too):

HiFi Choice review of OBX-R2
HiFi+ review of OBX-R2
6moons review of OBX-R2 (more ruminations by this reviewer here)
Positive Feedback review of IBX-R2 (Karma's pair that I have yet to hear)

As a horn user, of course my wish is to have the opportunity to listen to LV's flagship Vox Olympian one day.

click pic of agensmittie's system to enlarge

Living with a Simple Voice
Karma and I started quite early. I met up with Karma and went up to mid-levels to agentsmittie's very nice flat. What a view out of his windows, too bad I forgot to take a pic! There I met BoyLah for the first time.

Aside from the complication of the outboard crossover, agentsmittie's system is likely the simplest I have ever seen.

Source: CAS (Macbook iTunes/Pure Music/built-in hidden LAN lines to Mac Mini)
DAC: dCS Debussy (USB connection to CAS)
Integrated Amp: Leben CS-600 (using Russian Hama 6L6GC and Raytheon 6CS7)
Loudspeakers: Living Voice OBX-R2 (speaker cable Kondo KSL-SPc)

For this large room, the speakers were placed rather far back against the front wall, comparatively far from the listening position and toed-in; hence the soundstage was not particularly full. From the listening position, images were not as tall as I'd have liked, nothing above the top surface of the speakers. I personally would "time align" the speakers (tilting them backwards) to raise the image heights. I wonder whether a little less toe-in would be desirable.

Sound was quite clean, but at times with just a little rough edges in the upper midrange. I'd have liked a fuller mid-bass. The Leben is an integrated tube amp, as simple and direct as it can be, hence my allusion to "Simple Voice". It may be tube, but you might not have guessed it from its neutrality (agentsmittie told me his previous German Octave amp just veered too much off towards leanness). I am sure a little more tube allure can be had in due time. I also wonder whether removing the Cerapucs beneath the amp would restore a little more flesh to the sound.

The facet of sound that most intrigued me in this setup was its dynamics. Here I'm not talking about slam. In this system, setting the correct volume is not quite easy. Sometimes, just when I strained a little to hear a soft passage, a sudden crescendo would become too loud, making one race to the volume knob. There is little doubt these speakers have very fast leading edges and impressive dynamic scale.

Most of the time we listened to CAS. I must say the simple (but not cheap) CAS was more effective than many more complicated CAS that I have heard. We did compare the same CD of Glenn Gould's second version of the Goldberg Variations using the cheap Cambridge as transport into the dCS. The CAS was more incisive (which is often good for piano replay), the physical playback fuller and more rounded at the edges. Of course, the playback equipment have to be able to deliver that potential!

It was too bad we could not stay for too long as we had to go to yumcha, but I assure you it'd not be the last time you hear of this system (some surprises are already in the works), so stay tuned.

Living with Many Voices, Can it be Easy?
After yumcha, we went to BoyLah's place, but not first without some serious parking troubles. I commend our poor drivers Karma and whlee for their loyal services.

BoyLah uses the longer leg of his L-shaped LR for hifi. Like agensmittie's, the flat is rather minimally adorned and hence a bit reverberant. In contrast to agensmittie's bare-bone system, his equipment are amongst the most exotic I have seen. It is fortunate for this writer that he has the system meticulously documented on his Flickr site. He is also a serious photographer; make sure you browse his nice photos.

CDP: Modwright Oppo 83SE (price for the top level tube mod plus more way exceeds the price of the player! Driver tubes are Shuguang Black Bottle CV181-Z (6SN7) whilst rectifier tube on external PSU is regulated using an Emission Labs 5U4G-Mesh)
Preamp: Tube Distinctions SoulMate
Amp: Tom Evans Linear A (cyro russian military EL84s)
Louspeakers: Living Voice OBX-R2 (now "anchored" on with some kind of rolling devices)

If you think that's exotic enough, let's see the list of accessories used, of bewildering complexity:

Audio Tekne copper litz interconnects, speaker cables, power cords , Sablon Audio Robusto powercords, BPT PowerCentre (with bybee, Oyaide & ERS) & L-9C powercord, Finite Elemente Pagode Signature & Cerapuc, Symposium Platforms/Rollerballs/Stillpoints & ERS paper, QRT Symphony Pro, Shun Mook Diamond Resonators/Mpingo/Cable Jackets, Machina Dynamica Clever Clocks & Brilliant Pebbles, Oyaide plugs, Harmonix Enacom Speaker & AC Filters, Furutech fuses, Marigo Signature CD Mat, Nespra Pro, Gryphon Exorcist

Phew, that is like reading James Joyce, don't you say?...

I don't know where to begin to describe BoyLah's system. A few brief comments on the main components: (1) The Modwright tube modification of the Oppo is super-expensive. Note those 2 6SN7 sticking out of the main chassis, Chinese boutique "CV181" (ah hum, inside still very much a Chinese tube, but, like its equally gimmicky balloon counterpart, commanding a princely sum). The bottom shelf houses the power supply for the Oppo. I reckon the 5U4G rectifier is sufficient for his AMP, definitely over-kill (even compared to Naim), but who is to argue? (2) The preamp by esoteric Tube Distinctions, erstwhile partner of Tom Evans. Make sure you read his site, fascinating. I'd also read about his Soul amps, SE KT88 amp with a humongous amount of regulation, that's more up my alley. More than the preamp, I'd like to hear one of them! How about it? (3) The Tom Evans "breadbox" tube amp is equally fascinating (and EL84 is one of my favorite pentodes); make sure you read the 6moons article, if only for the great photos!

On a more serious note, these are not gears that you can hear everyday, not even every year or decade, so I rather treasured the opportunity. But how do I describe the sound? Let me just say, if we take sound at agensmittie's as simple and direct (those attributes usually come with the attendant danger of being blunt), perhaps this system circumnavigates, even evades?

At first, I was taken aback a little at the sound. Here too the image was a little low, but BoyLah quickly demonstrated that it could easily be elevated a bit by some tweaking, the most amazing of which being the use of ERS paper (you have to read that link supplied above)!!! Judging by his almost reflexive actions, I know he is thoroughly grounded in the various "methodologies" of his tuning devices. He certainly knew what he was doing, but somehow I'd have preferred simply raising the front of the speakers.

The sound was very smooth, but a little too much so for me. Coming off Kondo, I felt like I had either ascended a thousand meters in altitude or dived the same distance (just an analogy; not that I am physically capable at this point with my feeble body). This is an exaggeration, obviously, but I did find the system a little dark (though very smooth). Clinton explained to me he just wants to smooth out any rough edges. He also thinks the RF situation in HK very dire and in need of drastic action (hence those papers everywhere). Judging by the results, Clinton has succeeded brilliantly and achieved his goals, but this writer can only say perhaps living dirty is the way to go for some people.

Clinton is a fanatical tweaker. Nothing, I mean nothing, in his system is not tweaked by various platforms and tuning devices. I am not against (a little) judicious tweaking, but I'd just like to add that, while all tuning devices aim (they say) to eliminate various evils, I am convinced almost down to the last one they ADD their own coloration (hence voices) while doing so.

Take the case of Symposium Rollerblock. These can "focus" and "add" texture, yet if used a little harmonic loss and reining-in of dynamics is inevitable. As for RFI, let me just say I usually prefer removing any filtering devices. Recently, I just removed the (albeit cheap) AC filter of my Softone/ICL phonoamp, to great effect, and I am going to do so for my other Softone gears!

So, for me, I'd think I was hearing many voices at once, not just the Living Voice and the gears upstream. But during the session, sometimes just as I was grappling with BoyLah's preference, suddenly the system would challenge from behind, and confound me by playing something brilliantly. I think there is something to be said about the replay of certain jazz discs in this system, where a good feeling of the live atmosphere and venue can be heard.

After BoyLah, we went to our yumcha friend k.c.'s place, which I shall cover in detail in Part II.


  1. Doctor J,

    Thanks for your very kind enlightenment. You sir are a gentleman and a scholar.

    I tried your suggestions on tilting the speakers upward and removing the Cerapucs and it did make a turn for the better, the increased scale of music was quite notable.

    Having learned so mush just from your brief visit, I can only imagine more good things to come after you spend some time with my humble setup.

    Do take your time with our "surprise", it would be most interesting to hear your insights on it.

    A small addition to your comments on my humble abode, I had 4 dedicated spurs and a separate MCB box installed for the HiFi setup. The following is the power distribution of the power receptacles:

    Spur 1: dCS Debussy
    Spur 2: Leben CS600
    Spur 3: Cambridge 650BD Blu Ray player
    Spur 4: Mac Mini, WD USB hard disc, TV, TV Tuner box, etc.

    Possible improvement may be wrought by having a linear power supply made for the Mac Mini and assignment of its own dedicated spur. What does the good doctor think?

    Also, Naim has a concept of "star grounding" where all the Nam equipment share a common ground. Would separate spur for each equipment be a breach of that theory? Sorry my electrical knowledge is zilch.

    Looking forward to more adventures.


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  3. Thanks for the kind comments. I really think adjusting the speakers and adding a preamp are the most effective.

    When it comes to dedicated receptacles, I do think they make a difference, though I 'd never go to such lengths myself.

    Many years ago I made an experiment. Even with generic home outlets, plugging the transport and DAC into separate wall sockets improved the sound over plugging them into the same one.