30 September, 2011

CD Recommendation: Spanish and Oldies

CD Recommendation: Spanish and Oldies

This article is dedicated to davwong, a gentleman pure-at-heart.

"Spanish" is a dangerous word. Mix in a little hot rhythm and things become Spanish? What about the difference between Spain and its former colonies? Between various countries of the Caribbean, Central and South America? Never mind.

Believe me, I have listened to a lot of authentic Spanish albums, but my top three all hail from the USA. Strange, this world, no?

Linda Ronstadt-Canciones de mi Padre
Many Linda Ronstadt fans don't even know the rock diva is half Spanish. I like her in some rock songs, but one of the few albums of hers that I can listen in its totality (others being the oldies, below), including the B side, is her most atypical one, the Spanish Canciones de mi padre. It is beautifully produced (by Ruben Blades, himself no small Spanish potato), sumptuously recorded and absolutely beautifully sung. The songs are varied and lively, a great lift to the spirit. Hear this, my mother LOVES this album!

To detour a little, Ronstadt is also a very good singer of oldies (though under-rated). Witness What's New and its sequels. Seriously, she is vastly superior to latter-day Sting and the likes. When it came to re-invention, Ronstadt is tops. This is a lady with looks, passion, and talent, no doubt about it!

The Canciones and What's New both were issued in LP format too, but for some reason the latter is much more often seen than the former.

Eydie Gorme-Trio Los Panchos-Amor
Eydie Gorme is not even Spanish, or maybe she is! She is Sephardic Jewish, and if you don't know what that means, she is descendant of the Jewish people that were expelled from Spain during the Spanish inquisition, who later settled along the Mediterranean, including Turkey.

Gorme is a good singer, but I am not fond of her syrupy standards in English. Rather, her immaculate Spanish, clear as a bell, is spellbinding, particularly when she was accompanied by the great Trios Los Panchos. I can hum every song on this album. My favorite is Sabor a Mi. This LP can occasionally be seen, but CDs come in various iterations and compilations. Just go by the tile; if it contains the song Sabor a Mi, buy it. Recording quality is excellent.

Gloria Estefan-Mi Tierra
Spanish American diva, and great beauty, Gloria Estefan has more "Spanish", or rather Hispanic, blood than Ronstadt. It is no surprise that her album Mi Tierra is absolutely smashing. In terms of hot blood, this one makes the more Mexican Ronstadt seem sedate. It pulsates and gyrates, but has its tender moments too.

Aside from a disco hit or two, Estefan had never done better. She made more Latino recordings, but none measures up to this one's passion. Production value is great too.

I don't think there was an LP.

28 September, 2011

Typhoon Hour - Man in the Holocene - John Marks Records - Arturo Delmoni

Typhoon Hour

We have just been surprised. Although not among the most mighty, after flooding Manila, where it even breached the thought-to-be impregnable US embassy, Typhoon Nesat sneaked up and launched a Blitzkrieg attack on us. It came as quickly as the stock market downturn and caught many off-guard. In HK now, it is Signal 8, hoisted only when the gale has reached the greatest strength. Miraculously, it even managed the Herculean task of closing the stock market, at least for the morning, to give many people a needed respite. You know, in HK, many would rather close their own shops and cut out their own family than to close the stock market. What else is there to do?

Pigs in the Age of Global Warming
Global warming is changing the world weather landscape. There is controversy, but many experts believe global warming at least increases the intensity, if not frequency, of super storms (for one such view, read National Geographic). Judging from what the Philippines and Taiwan have endured in the past decade, I'd think that is indeed the case. But we in HK have mercifully witnessed a reversed trend; the typhoons have been scrupulously avoiding us, and even when they did visit they have been relatively tame. And there are few precious pigs left in HK to rescue; the only creatures left are pigs of another kind, the big businessmen and, unfortunately the majority, their slaves. Don't you, like I, find this piglet has a more human face, and hence more photogenic than the Li's?

For those in the West, a state of emergency would have been declared for a comparable hurricane, and people along the coast evacuated. No such thing here, not to mention poor Philippines. Last time when the hurricane hit New York, my uncle in Taiwan, a country (yes) frequented by typhoons, called my mother in NYC several times out of concern. This is ironic to me: he did so because of the big deal made out by the influential US media; but we who are used to typhoons never call him when devastating storms hit Taiwan. Well, in any case Taiwan is almost not in the world media map.

Don't these storms all have mysterious and romantic sounding names! Composers of the past just might have written a tone poem or two on these terrifying water spirits. But not in this anti-romantic age of ours. Perhaps one day some composer shall write an opera on the Wenzhou train disaster; may be John Adams? Would a Chinese composer ever be allowed to do so?

Man in the Holocene
One day when you are trapped indoors, I do hope you have this 1979 masterpiece by Swiss Max Frisch with you (wiki entry). This morning, I identify with the protagonist.

For us audiophiles, we usually listen to music (well, mostly, I hope) more than we read books. My recent crop from the library yielded some surprises and a few lemons. Come to think of it, almost down to the last one, the audiophile is a man in the Holocene, obsessing over the insignificant and largely oblivious to the world-at-large.

Survey of John Marks Records
Why do we listen to certain CDs? For audiophiles, for sure sound quality counts. But you and I know the vast majority of audiophile CDs don't cut it musically, nor are necessarily better recorded. Which is why many audiophile labels spend a lot of ink touting their artists.
John Marks Records is the label of John Marks, now writer for Stereophile. Being a subscriber, I must say I find his articles rather mundane, not as interesting as Steven Mejias, not to mention Art Dudley. But we are not concerned about his writings, what about the CDs?

JMR is most famous for their first release, Songs My Mother Taught Me, a collection of violin miniatures played by JM's friend, violinist Arturo Delmoni. This CD's audiophile credential is evidenced by the oop and sought-after Original Masters Recording issue.

I don't own this CD, but of course have heard it before, a cut here and there. But recently, our library acquired a few of them, allowing me in-depth examination. I listened to Songs on my main system, and was surprised by the rather lukewarm playing, refined in a way, with nice tone, but lacking in tension. Since most are encore pieces, they are not supposed to sound this way. The faster the music, the more metronomic here. This album I note has been well received in the classical music press, but I am not too impressed with it.

The more serious Brahms disc fares worse. As in Songs, in the Brahms Delmoni is pretty good in the lyrical passages, but things become four-square in anything that needs rhythmic felicity (always not the easiest thing in a Brahms sonata, with its Hungarian and gypsy elements). The Beach fares better. I note that this issue has not received mainstream classical music review. All the positive reviews quoted in the official website are from audiophile press.

On the other hand, the Faure and Franck disc (apparently some LP still available), also well received in the classical press, comes as a nice surprise and is overall the best of the lot, indeed an intimate performance. The Faure is quite fluent, no easy task, and the Franck retains a freshness that makes it listenable.

Overall, despite the excellent sound on offer, with the possible exception of the Faure disc, I perhaps would rarely return to these albums. While I respect Arturo Delmoni's musicianship, and have even heard him live as concertmaster and soloist of New York City Ballet Orchestra (here), despite his nice tone I often find his lack of rhythmic flair and tension distracting. I also find his playing sometimes quite empty between the notes. Perhaps notes are not being given full value? Curiously, on the cheap desktop speakers I have less reservations.

There are just too many great recordings to choose from, many in sonics just as good, to make these competitive.

22 September, 2011

Two are Better than One When Garrard Meets Well-Tempered

Home Visit: Two are Better than One When JBL Meets Altec
Vinyl Talk: When Garrard Meets Well-Tempered

Serendipity! Sweet cheaptubeaudio! Only 2 days after the wonderful encounter with Bastanis my jaded ears scaled new heights with a horn system, no, make that a 2-horn system!

The host, Mr Ng, is a very friendly and humble man. The spacious loft in an industrial building has high ceilings. The speakers were placed against a partition front wall. Furnishing is spartan, but comfortable.

CAS Digital: Opera Audio Consonance D-Linear 7
Vinyl: Garrard 401 with custom 12" Well-Tempered Amadeus arm and with Koetsu Rosewood
Preamp with phono: Spectral DMC-12
Amp of the day: Welborne Labs Laurel IIX
Loudspeakers: JBL 2-way professional horn system + Altec 2-way horn (DIY cabinet)

First I must mention that, the system drives 2 pairs of horns at the same time! This is highly unusual to say the least. I'd think the Altec would be faster in response than the JBL, and would that not smear things? But proof is in the listening!

From the first note, I was captivated, indeed salivated. The sound was so panoramic and fulsome as to even give CAS a good show. Have you noticed that most CAS people (including reviewers) obsessed themselves over bits and computer software, but have too little experience with the system as a whole, and even less experience listening to good systems?

pic of the stock Well-Tempered Amadeus 9" on the Amadeus turntable (from the internet). The host's arm is somewhat different.

Mr Ng soon switched to vinyl. And what a difference the source makes! I'd say his is amongst the most enchanting vinyl replay I have heard since NYC's master AL, and from a modest, even ad-hoc setup! Why ad-hoc? Well, look at the pic below: the "arm board" is just a piece of wood nailed to the perimeter of the equally humble wood plinth!!!

The reasonably priced Well-Tempered Amadeus turntable, manufactured by Opera Audio, has brought the company back into the lime light and universal praise (TAS review here). Mr Ng apparently has close ties to Opera Audio, and his one-of-a-kind custom 12" arm is mounted in an Opera Audio base well filled with thin silicon fluid (not the usual kind used by Well-Tempered; supplied by analog guru Condefly2).

Not to mince words, the setup plays everything beautifully. Mr Ng, a veteran of vinyl and hifi, has a beautiful collection. Leopold Mozart's Toy Symphony (ASMF/Marriner/EMI; pic here) had plenty of joie de vivre, what it was written for indeed, whereas Copland's Fanfare for a Common Man was appropriately solemn and powerful. I shall pay him more visits and shall write more then. Suffice to say, this simple and not expensive vinyl gig puts all of the Clearaudio Statements I have heard to shame (actually many turntables could do that).

I talked a little with Mr Ng about the Garrard. Contrary to prevailing views, he believes a good light wooden plinth works best for the Garrard. He thinks heavy material like slate and granite only kills the sound. Judging from the excellent result and my own experience, I am with him.

Gratuitous Advice to CAS people: Get your system into shape before even thinking of complicated CAS! And listen to vinyl before you think your CAS is even close to perfection! Better yet, better than self-delusion, better than being slave to the latest upgrades and unscrupulous providers, not to mention salvaging your own journey in audio, get into vinyl before big talk!

剛聼完了很好的 Bastanis, 以爲短期内不會再有什麽驚奇,卻讓我在兩天後,一個偶然的機會,耳朵更上了一層樓。


留意喇叭是 JBL 和 Altec 兩對一起開聲,沒有半點不協調。高手!

吳先生是黑膠迷,有很多天牒。唱盤是優秀但不貴的 Garrad 401。唱臂是 Well-Tempered Amadeus, 但是生産商 Opera Audio 特別為他訂做的 12" 版本。看看那臂版,就一片木頭釘在木框上, 居然能行!唱頭是個用了好久的 Koetsu Rosewood, 出的是天籟之聲。Clearaudio Statement 用家,換盤吧!

19 September, 2011

Audition: Bastanis Atlas Mandala

L: official version.
R: welborne's take, clic
k to enlarge (photo by 唐吉訶德).

Audition: Bastanis Atlas Mandala

Bastanis redux
I have always had interest in "full-range" (or wideband) drivers. Years ago I had hugely enjoyed the Loth-X (BS-1, Amaze), Lowther (I still have the TP-1), Altec and the popular Goodmans Axiom 201, less so the usually unsuccessful variants (like Lamhorn/AER) . Perhaps one day I shall write about them. The question now is, does the Bastanis measure up to this august company?

I first encountered Bastanis many years ago at diyhifisupply. As with most of the gears at the showroom at that time, the sound was singularly lackluster, and I promptly forgot about them until recently, when old friend welborne painstakingly constructed a pair of Mandala Atlas (left pic is official version; the actual units heard are at bottom of article).

As there are many iterations, surveying the Bastanis official website for info on the drivers can be a bit confusing. Each Atlas Mandala comprises: an open-baffle top that houses 2x Mandala wideband drivers (100-11k Hz) and 1x Gemini tweeter (compression driver; here used with back open, "dipolar"); and an open-box woofer enclosing an 18" Mandala dipole woofer.

For an idea of the speaker, read the Enjoythemusic review. Be mindful that the version we heard differ in several aspects: 1. larger and dipole woofer; 2. open bass enclosure; 3. non-active bass driver. The cabinets were made to the official plan, but beautifully decorated with carved wooden reliefs.

Ancillary equipment
Digital: Sony DVP-PR50P as transport to 5842/417a based tube DAC (? old Promitheus)
Passive Preamp: diyhifisupply Django TVC
Amp for open baffle: JAS Bravo 2.3 6C33 SET amp
Amp for bass: T-amp of some kind

A few comments on JAS. If you read the reviews, you will see the reviewers introduce the stuff as Chinese products imported into the USA. But here comes the interesting stuff: If you read the JAS official website in English, there is no mention of the company's origins in "About Us", just a vague lofty bit on audio goals; BUT if you read the equivalent page in Chinese, you will read an entirely different article that starts prominently with the words "美國JAS AUDIO品牌", which means "American brand JAS".

JAS 在自家英文網頁只說一些風涼話,完全不提自己的出身;可是在完全不同的中文網頁第一句話就是"美國JAS AUDIO品牌",然後大篇文章說自己無論在技術或銷售上怎樣世界化;其居心可測。 This is a deliberate attempt to mislead the Chinese customers, who prefer "western" brands. This is a common practice that I have commented upon before, a deliberate strategy to market Chinese stuff as western in origin in order to sell more and charge more. A practice that I despise! If you then go to "Contact Us" you shall see there is an "USA office", but the other office is in Hong Kong. And yes, the only place you will see JAS in HK is a store in Mongkok that sells exclusively Chinese mainland stuff. The amp used here, JAS Bravo 2.3, was well reviewed by 6moons and Soundstage. But let me remind you there are other reviews of other products that did not do so well (in particular the Bravo 3.1 805 amp). If I were you, I'd exercise caution, especially since their amps are not that much cheaper (new) than superior Japanese products. JAS is also known as Dignity International; make sure you do not confuse them with Dignity Audio, the latter a respected and honest HK manufacturer who shoot straight.

I'd not mince words. Although the setup is rather new, and the drivers are likely not fully run-in, the sound was very very good already. I have known welborne for years and have heard quite a few iterations of his past systems (previous visit here). While all of them were reasonably musical, none of them began to approach this one.

The percussion CD highlighted the speaker's qualities. In terms of detail, treble air and imaging, I think the performance is equal to, if not superior to, most of the Maggies I have heard, but with the added benefit of good dynamics across the frequency spectrum (unlike Maggies, which have much less body with percussion instruments, not to mention bass drums). Most importantly, credit to the open baffle and dipolar tweeter, there is plenty of that elusive quality of live presence. In a word, they sound like horns!

I am sure run-in has not been completed, and more tuning needs to be done. On the big orchestral Prokofiev, played at very loud level, I felt the presence region pressed forward a little too much. The mid-bass and bass, though fast, were tight and not exactly tuneful. IMHO T-amp is probably the least suitable amp for bass. Also, although the performance of the Django TVC was reasonable, I am certain a real active preamp of quality would do bi-amping much better.

No matter, there is no question that Bastanis is the real thing, and a bargain. So much so, that I am contemplating a down-sized version myself for my apartment in SZ. There is also no question to me the speakers deserve even better partnering equipment. In fact, I can think of a few things welborne has sold over the years that would match well. I am glad he is finally at the end of his T-amp phase and back to real high-fidelity. And what a return!

That's joking a little, since I am sure the experience welborne gained in his journey with full range speakers (including Saba) has been of great benefit in his current quest. He is already committed to upgrade to the new Chrystal drivers.

08 September, 2011

Vinyl Talk: K&K LL1678 + Audio Note Kit Phono amp, Part II

Vinyl Talk: K&K LL1678 + Audio Note Kit Phono amp, Part II

For Part I, click here

Round 6, comparing K&K gain options
Previously, f
or the LL1678 I chose the 24db gain option (others are 18 and 30db). The impedance ratio thus is spec'ed at 256 and so the loading of the MC would be roughly 183 ohm, theoretically therefore likely more optimal for Denon than my Ortofon's.

And listening revealed it to be so. While the Denon DL-103 sounded fine, the Ortofon Kontrapunkt C (weight 10 gm; compliance 12; output 0.47; internal resistance 5 ohm; loading recommendation 20-200) mounted on the Kuzma was comparatively lackluster with this phonoamp. In my experience, Ortofon cartridges sound better when loaded at low value.

Minor Surgery: I looked at the K&K spec's for the 30 db gain option. With turn ratio of 32, the impedance ratio is 1024, which makes the loading 45.9 ohm, this time theoretically likely more suitable for the Ortofon than the Denon. I studied the connection diagram. All I have to do is bridge two links and move another, not insurmountable. Half an hour later I was done with the conversion.

Immediately it became clear the sound of the Ortofon improved. But what about the Denon? Well, at the unusually low loading it surprisingly sounded quite well! Perhaps a little less airy and rich, but I think most of the magic is preserved.

While the load impedance is one thing, there are caveats. Calculating according to the info available at The Analog Dept, the Ortofon is likely overloading. Resonance figures are unlikely to be optimal for both cartridges (one high on low in compliance) with either turntable (one high mass arm, one medium). Well, I don't hear much wrong. Let me run this in for further comments.

06 September, 2011

Review: Leben RS28CX and RS-100 Preamplifiers

pic from Audio Asylum: RS-100 on top of RS-28CX

Review: Leben RS-28CX and RS-100 Preamplifiers

Vinyl Talk: Leben vs AN Kit vs Softone/ICL

As you know, because of my preference for SET, I have always been interested in boutique Japanese tube manufacturers. Even after the pinnacle of Kondo, now my reference, my interest in other manufacturers remain.

I have to admit that my interest in Leben previously had not been particularly great. Contrary to others, I am not exactly a fan of its golden looks. Leben makes only push-pull amps and I am not interested in those. Hence, the only area left for me to explore are their preamplifiers. As a vinyl man, the one I was interested have always been the RS-28CX, but my journey started with a borrowed sample of the line preamp RS-100, a product that evolved from the RS-28CX. I was grateful for that opportunity, which allowed me to gain the all-important initial insight. Ancillary equipment used in evaluation:

Digital: Audio Research CD2 as transport/Genesis Digital Lens/Musical Fidelity M1 DAC
Analogue 1: Kuzma Stabi S/Stogi S + Midas Denon DL-103
SUT: Denon AU-1000.
Phonoamps: Audio Note Kit MM Phonostage (older version); Softone/ICL Model 4
Connection to preamp: I used my best cable, the incomparable Kondo KSL-LPz.
Preamp: Leben RS-100 line preamp (info) on loan to me
Amp: Elekit 8230 amp (2 wpc 2A3 amp)
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury.

RS-100 Line Preamplifier (Official literature)
Like its bigger brother RS-28CX, from which it is derived, the RS-100 uses 2x 6CG7 in SRPP mode for amplification, but its tube rectification is by 6X5 in lieu of 5Y3. There is also a "U" version that employs 12AU7 instead of 6CG7. You can find out all the details from Jeff Day's review in Positive Feedback. It is a handsome unit and I prefer its size and hammertone finish of the top plate to that in its brethren.

The loan period coincided with my evaluation of the Audio Note MM Phonostage Kit, and you can read about that in my previous article. Here I'd add some brief descriptions. The sound of the Leben is utterly lucid in the entire frequency spectrum. Noise level is extremely low. The sound is neutral, without much tube coloration, which is how I like it. Dynamics have an unforced quality, with full, clear bass, good rhythm and pace and microdynamics. In my 200 ft LR and with my flea powered 2A3 amp I need to turn the volume knob to 11-12 o'clock to get the volume I need. This is in marked contrast with my other preamps from Japanese SET manufacturers; with the Kondo and Wavac line preamps, the volume is plenty loud already at 9 o'clock. Considering the SET amps all have very high input sensitivity, this is understandable as Leben does not make SET amps, rather higher-powered PP amps.

Since this is purely a line stage, there is a direct in feature, which was what I used. There is a set of variable output (with a knob at the back) but as you'd expect it did not sound quite as good as the fixed output. Unusually, there is also a Stereo/Reverse knob!

I did do a brief comparison with Kondo. No, there was no miracle. The Kondo just had more air and that je ne sais quoi quality, and was even more dynamic. But, keep it in perspective, the RS-100 remains a wonderful piece.

RS-28CX Full-function Preamplifier (official literature)
This flagship preamplifer has been in existence for much longer. For details, read the same Jeff day's review in 6moons.

By chance a second-hand unit became available here and I purchased it. You might remember that I have reported a little on this preamp's phonostage performance in my recent article on LFD (here).

Where the RS-28CX really diifer from the RS-100: Not surprisingly, while the sonic signature is close to the RS-100 (that is not much signature), there are important differences not explored Jeff Day's reviews. The integral part of the difference is due to the difference in gain structure of the line stage: the RS-100 has 23 db of gain, with maximum output at 53V; the RS-28CX line has only a little more gain at 25.2 db but the maximum output is much increased at 80V.

So while the line sections of the two superficially seem similar, they behave quite differently. With the same equipment, I need only to turn the RS-28CX's volume pot to about 9 o'clock to get the volume I want, bringing the preamp in line with my Kondo and Wavac. The reason for this is undoubtedly due to the presence of the phono section (keep in mind Kondo and Wavac all have separate phonostages).

This major difference in gain structure also makes the sound different from the RS-100. The higher gain undoubtedly is more suitable for my SET amps: the sound is more dynamic, more nuanced at low volume, more vital. Not a huge difference, but instantly audible. It is still not quite Kondo, but the difference narrows a little.

I think if you are a SET amp user, or your amp is low-powered, or have inefficient loudspeakers, even if you do not play vinyl, the RS28CX will likely be a better choice than RS-100. But for Leben amplifiers the RS-100 may be as suitable for digital-only users. Given Leben's integrated amplifiers are basically amps with passive volume, I'd also advise adding a Leben preamp and use the integrated as an amp (volume at maximum) if you want to upgrade the sound.

The phonostage: On Leben's website and in the reviews, there is a lot of hooplah on the superiority of the NFB-less CR type phonostage. IMHO this is over-hyped. CR types are actually not uncommon in modern tube phonostages; my Softone/ICL Model 4 is just such a device.

I had a hard time removing the tube shields of the 2x 12AT7 in my unit. Someone had applied some gluey substance to the tubes and after drying the shields were hard to remove. I had to chip away carefully. I wonder whether this was done at the factory or by a previous owner. I replaced the stock green-latter GE tubes with much older GE black-plate 6201's to great effect.

The gain of the phonostage is spec'ed at a VERY low 20.2 db. Together with the 21 db gain of Denon AU-1000 SUT, the gain of the phono section is only 41.2 db. But let numbers fool you, the truly amazing thing about it is that it sounds like twice that! With either my 0.3 Denon DL-103 or 0.47 Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, I only need to advance the volume knob to barely past 9 o'clock, about the same as using digital sources (here thanks to the high gain line section). It is also superbly quiet. Wonderful!

Which leads me to ruminate yet again. I have seen so many vinyl people calculating gain based on manufacturers' data and debate theoretically on whether a certain phonoamp is suitable, but let me tell you many of the (mostly transistor) devices just sound like less. Or shall we say there are quite a bit of inflated figures out there. Theory and data is one thing; listening is another.

Comparison with AN Kit MM Phonostage and Softone/ICL Model 4: Not to mince words, used with the Denon AU-1000 SUT, the sound of the Leben RS-28CX phonostage is decidedly superior to either high-value phonoamps. In almost all parameters, so no more elaboration.

Previous owner's setup
RS-28CX is seen here with re-issue McIntosh 275, driving Tannoy Stirling. Sound was not bad!

04 September, 2011

Audio Note Kit Phono amp, Softone/ICL Model 4, Denon AU-1000, K and K LL1678

Vinyl Talk: 2 phono amps + 2 step-up transformers
Softone/ICL Model 4 vs Audio Note Kit Phono amp, Part I
Denon AU-1000 vs K&K LL1678, Part I

Last revised Sept 7, 2011 (round 5 of K&K added)
For round 6 of K&K (change to 30 db gain option), see Part II

Behind this article is a lot of work I have done recently. I am on a roll with my current vinyl gigs, and it has been fun experimenting with everything. More Vinyl Talk are coming!

Introduction: Denon AU-1000
In 1982 Denon released the legendary DL-1000A cartridge (official literature in Japanese. Amazingly, online there is a review from the classical music Gramophone; note that the cartridge is very light, enabling its use on the light SME3009 Series 3 arm (whether that is a good idea is hard to say).

One year later, Denon released another statement product, the AU-1000 step-up transformer (official literature in Japanese), to partner the DL-1000A. Look at that curve, impressive to say the least, and probably hard to duplicate even today. The 25 lb behemoth weighs more than a small tube amp! My unit is on loan from my friend Danz, who is out of the vinyl circuit temporarily because of his child. Hey, he is not getting this back!

Spec: Twin perm-alloy transformers with direct input/output connections (no selector switch in circuit); double-shielded sealed xfrmr case; transformer and input/output connections incorporated inside an outer gun metal shield cover

Cartridge load matching: 10 to 40 ohms
Step-up ratio: 1:11.5 or 21dB
Output load matching: 50k ohms
Freq response: 10 to 80KHz flat
Freq response: 5 to 200KHz +/- 3dB
Dims: 7" x 9.5" x 4.5" (W x D x H) approx

Introduction: K&K Step-up Transformers
In 2007-8 I learned about the K&K (Swedish Lundahl step-up transformer) SUT kits (K&K official website) from two articles by my favorite writer Art Dudley in Stereophile (the shorter article available here). Who else would write about a large selection of SUT's, some budget priced, in a mass market magazine?

Almost all designs at this budget level are based on (or at least factor in) the venerable Denon DL-103, the budget cartridge to beat, and as AD knows the Denon well and praised the K&K, I decided to try it out.

True to my cheaptubeaudio roots, I only ordered the transformers as well the tiny circuit boards (which makes wiring easier). I'd probably prefer my own choice of cables for wiring anyway. But as every DIYer know, getting the right enclosure and hole-drilling is the hardest part of a project. I thought of several short-cuts to evade hole-drilling, but never got around to it. Here lies a warning: buy the complete kit to save yourself hassles (the current version shown on the website seems to be a revised larger board that combines the 2 channels. Must be easier to work with than mine!).

When I called up K&K in 2008, a one-man operation it seems, they were sold-out temporarily of the LL9206 (the one reviewed), which has a 20 db gain option that is theoretically perfect for the Denon DL-103. As I have many other cartridges with even lower outputs, I decided to order the higher-gain alternative LL1678 (Data Sheet). The LL1678 was $78 each, the circuit boards (pic) $6 each, so with shipping I spent a grand total of $175. Today, three years and much depreciation of the US dollar later, the LL1678 is $80 each and you only have to spend $4 more for the same order. That is holding the line on inflation and I sing praise to K&K.

Phonoamp 1: AUDIO NOTE MM PHONOSTAGE KIT (old version):

The current Audio Note Kits is a Canadian company that works closely with Audio Note UK and sources many parts (not sure about all) from them. The kits now have evolved to be quite different from older kits that AN UK directly sold before (like the original Kit One 300B and the Preamp Kit that I sold long ago; I still have the rarer Kit Four, a 6V6 PP amp). It is officially sanctioned, so I am sure the philosophy and methodology and parts have remained consistent, but I still wonder a little how much the designs and revisions (in particular sound) resemble AN UK. But the official ties are strong and the dealer of AN UK in HK, Elephant Holdings, is also commendably dealer of the kits (not the way to make quick money).

Hong Kong Audio Note Kit users beware: there is another place in Mong Kok that sells AN "kits". While some appear to be the Canadian stuff, there are too many "options" that are not found on the official Kits site. I'd exercise caution and only buy direct or from Elephant Holdings.

My unit is second-hand, one assembled by Elephant Holdings. It is an earlier version called MM Phonostage Kit (details still in the official archive). Comparing the pics, although there are some differences in components, I confirmed with Brian at AudioNoteKits that it is a standard version with some upgraded Jensen caps. Many thanks to Brian here; he must be a busy man!

Compared to the current L3 phonostage kit, there are similarities as well as major differences:

-Power supply: similar, based on AN UK's M2 preamp (6X5 rectifier; ECL82 regulation).
-Main circuit: L3 uses circuit from AN UK's M3 phono preamp (3x 6072) whereas mine uses Andy Grove designed, modified phono circuit of AN UK's original Preamp Kit (pic here) (2x12AX7 and 1x 12AU7).
-Wiring: L3 uses silver and mine copper AN-A.
-Gain: L3 is considerably higher than mine (40 db vs 32 db)

Click pic to enlarge. Before full surgery (1 large cap already removed).

My particular over-burdened unit
: My unit came with an anomaly, make that a deformation. Look at the photos. The previous owner thought the phonoamp had not enough bass and kept adding to the output caps. For each channel, he used 2 ridiculously large and expensive 1μ Jensen output caps (2 μ per channel). Needless to say, the bass was sluuuugish; shall we say the bass stood still? I am sure he knew, as he added a 0.01μ Jensen cap in parallel, surely in an attempt to liven up the dull top end. Considering all these are Copper PIO with Silver Lead-Outs, I could probably recoup some cost by selling them. Any offers? The units came with Mullard CV4035 (=CV4004=12AX7) tubes adapted to regular socket.

How does it Sound? Round 1, take-out: Before the unit got home I actually lent it to my friend AL. At his place he used it (warts and all) surprisingly to good effect as an MM stage with his Lenco turntable and Decca cartridge, fed into Mark Levinson electronics driving big MBL. It held up well against the EAR834P and the Softone/ICL that I am going to cover below. They did think the gain on the low side and preferred crisper current production tubes to the installed Mullards in their tube rolling.
Round 2, back home with Denon AU-1000: After I got it home, I tested it in my system. As I didn't have an MM cartridge already installed, I had to use it in conjunction with a SUT:

Analogue 1: Kuzma Stabi S/Stogi S + Midas Denon DL-103 (up to round 4)
Analogue 2: Garrard 301 grease/Ortofon RS-212S/Midas DL103/Ortofon Kontrapunkt C (round 5)
SUT: Denon AU-1000.
Connection to preamp: I used my best cable, the incomparable Kondo KSL-LPz.
Preamp: Leben RS-100 line preamp (info) on loan to me
Amp: Elekit 8230 amp (2 wpc 2A3 amp)
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury.

The gain of the SUT + phonoamp is 20 + 32 = 52 db, enough for my sensitive speakers, especially since the Leben linestage has 26 db of gain!!!!! However, as mentioned, the sound was lugubrious and sluggish in the bass. No, the big output caps don't work for me!

First Surgery, weight losing:
Without a manual or circuit, I was not sure of the correct value of the output cap. Some searching showed that the later L2 kit used 0.22 μ, which seemed right to me. I removed all of the outputs caps and put in place cheap cheap (yes, I have temporarily re-discovered my cheaptube roots) 0.22 μ NOS Russian (military) caps, which instantly restored normalcy to the sound. I later confirmed with Brian that 0.22 is the right value. Thanks again, Brian!

Round 3, after first surgery, with Denon AU-1000: After I restored the output caps to original value, the sound improved hugely. Now, rhythm and pace came back, and the bass finally moved! :-) Now, I was able to assess the true sound of this unit as well as the Denon.

The sound of the Denon AU-1000 is truly exceptional (I have used it with other preamps; more reports later) , dark in background, wide in bandwidth and dynamic. Probably partly due to its low gain, the sound of the AN kit was just a tad slow with my gig, slightly soft on top, but smooth and quiet. I didn't think Mullard tubes are the best choice for it. Swapping in 2x 12AX7 Holland Amperex + 1x RT 12AU7 resulted in some gain in air. Even if the caps were not run-in, I was satisfied with the very good performance of this kit.

Click pic to enlarge. Note the green K&K boards and grey Russian output caps.
Second Surgery-K&K weds Audio Note: As I rarely use MM, I decided to turn the AN into an MC phonoamp by installing the K&K trannies (plenty of space). This way, it saved me one chassis and the hassle of hole-drilling; cheaptubeaudio forever!

I cut off the stock AN-A input cable near the circuit board ( originally star grounded under the circuit board) and re-used the cable for input to the K&K, but I did not yet connect the shield at either end.

For the K&K/circuit board interface, I reused the AN-A red + strands. The original white -ve and shield could not be extricated as they were twisted and soldered together; worse, they broke off while I manipulated it (I am not so sure I like AN's way of wiring). As they could not be re-used, I soldered a tiny length of Radio Shack solid core to the star-ground underneath, and connected this to the K&K boards' -ve's with small lengths of silver-plated wires. I used blue-tac to fix the trannies to the cage. I did not solder in posts for loading resistors. Perhaps when I tweak again I may, but then I may not.

Aside from the -ve, each K&K circuit board has a separate ground as well as another ground out (labeled CT, presumably center tap). I did not connect these but did solder wires to them in case I need to ground them.

For the LL1678 I chose the 24db gain option (others are 18 and 30db). The impedance ratio is spec'ed at 256 and so the loading of the MC would be roughly 183 ohm, theoretically therefore likely more optimal for Denon than my Ortofon's. But again, I belong to the camp (which includes K&K) that think loading is much less important when SUT is used. But there are many who think otherwise and would go to great lengths for impedance matching; for that you can read this wonderful Vinyl Engine article on SUT and MC cartridge matching.

Round 4, with K&K, now an MC phonoamp: Brand new, without run-in and a trace of hum, the sound was not bad at all, even at first play. Compared to the Denon AU-1000, the raw K&K seemed just a little less precise, rendering the proceedings with a broader stroke, but in terms of dynamics and detail, they seemed just fine and not much behind. I shall run these in and then tell you more about it.

Later in the evening, when I returned after rendezvous with my friend, I decided to switch in the Kondo M7 preamp in place of the Leben. My my, the cheap K&K much preferred high society!

Click pic to enlarge. Note more grounding and the yellow output caps.
Round 5, with Garrard, hum management
and output cap tweak: While I did have a trace of noise with the Kuzma gig, it was at low level. But when I switched to my Garrard 301, the noise, hum and Rf and all, became quite prominent. At this point I connected the ground outs of the circuit board to the ground, but to NO avail.

I replaced the output caps with a generic yellow 0.22 output cap (available at 麥氏). It has no brand name, and I don't know what it is. Rated at 1000V I suspect it is intended for use in power supplies, but I have used these for years to great effect. Sonically they are crisp and balanced, scoring over the Russian caps for sure. But the noise remained.

I discovered accidentally that touching the phono cable connectors produced noise, and knew then that the input -ve was not well grounded. Indeed, checking the circuit diagram revealed that the -ve on the input side should be grounded (shows you how much of a DIY person I am, or am NOT). I did so and bingo, cured. The connector is no longer hot and things became much less noisy, with just a low-level hum remaining.

Click pic to enlarge. Note removed AC filter top right.

Phonoamp 2: SOFTONE/ICL MODEL 4:

Softone is a small Japanese company that used to be ICL (official site in English). Its chief designer is quite respected. I have long been a fan of this company, and shall write an overview when I have time. I have all their current products except the passive preamp. If you wonder why there is no Model 1, it is an discontinued integrated ICL amplifier available with either 300B or 2A3 (I have both).

The Model 4 is a MM/MC phonoamp of hybrid CR-type RIAA that eschews NFB. Its price has not increased in years, and at USD 650 is a screaming bargain. It is a hybrid CR-type RIAA with no NFB. ICL's mail order is efficient and packaging first-rate. Buy with confidence.

At this price point, it is a great luxury to have the choice of 2 MC loading impedance. Under the cover, the built, as with everything from this company, is exceptional.

Round 1, comparison with Denon AU-1000: The Model 4 worked a treat with the Denon DL-103 to produce a beautiful and mellifluous sound (it was after all designed around that cartridge), just a little on the soft side at the top end and in terms of dynamics. Using it as an MM stage, it was obvious the Softone has more gain than the AN Kit. The Denon AU-1000 had just a little more precision than the stock trannies, but the results were very close. This attests to the fine quality of the SUT's inside the Model 4. Incidentally, like K&K's Lundahl, they use Permalloy.

Round 2, comparison with K&K/AN: In terms of tonal balance and macrodynamics the two are hard to tell apart, even if the Softone has higher gain. But after a lengthy session one thing started to emerge: even if it is a little slow, likely due to the low gain, the AN/K&K had the better rhythm and pace. It is like speech with better cadence that employs good punctuation and appropriate pause when needed. The Softone was by no means not fluent, but it sang in a somewhat broader stroke and its fluency seemed just a little less related to the music, a sort of mild euphony if you will. It was obvious the Softone lacked a little in microdynamics.

Round 3, minor surgery before rematch: At this point I did a minor surgery that saved the day. The idea, which oozed out of my friend oozz, was conveyed through my 惡客 friend icefox.

You see, the ICL phono and digital gears all employ an AC filter at the AC socket. Personally, like my friends who noticed, I have never liked these and would prefer not to have them (even if my home is RF prone). Fortunately, as the Model 4 AC wires are only clipped on, substituting a normal filter-less socket was a breeze. I also corrected the AC polarity (Japanese AC polarity is different from HK) while at it, though I don't think that accounted for much. I did the same on my ICL DAC, but haven't had time to test it.

The result was instantly audible as better microdynamics. Now the 2 phonoamps are very close in performance and I will cover more in Part II.