30 October, 2011

Divertimento: Change, in the Sky and on the Ground

Divertimento: Change, In the Sky and on the Ground

And so, time to fly again. Though some may enjoy it, I have always thought human beings are not meant to be moving around so much, if at all. Are we supposed to conquer nature, conquer other nations, wreak havoc on economies all over the world under the banner of "globalisation"? And who are the beneficiaries of mobility - the majority or the minority? No wonder there now is "Occupy Wall Street". As you shall see in some of my coming articles, perhaps there will soon be an "Occupy Hi-end" movement in audio; about time, don't you think?

Now and then

Progress, Two Chinas, Two Generations As I wanted to stop over in Taiwan on my return trip, this time I opted for China Airlines, not to be confused with Air China, the (PRC) People's Republic of China's state carrier. That meant I had to take a red-eye flight to Tapei and wait for an early morning flight to NYC.

As soon as I got on my connecting flight I was surprised. China Airlines, which I had used countless time decades ago when I was in a long distance relationship, had reeled from a few disasters, grown old and allowed herself to deteriorate over the last decade. But everything interior now seemed revamped. That is, thankfully, with the exception of the beautiful traditional qipao worn by the stewardess. In the right pic above (click to enlarge), you shall also see the qipao worn by three beautiful ladies over 50 years ago in Taipei 永康街. Time has not diminished the beauty of the captured image in my heart. Note also the tricycle in the background, a luxury in the fifties.

Inside the cabin, I was even more surprised when I browsed the in-flight magazine: Aviation Week’s 2011 Top-Performing Airlines study ranked China Airlines as the world’s tenth mainline carrier! Wow, who would have thought!

An airport finally tries to re-invent itself I had to move from one terminal to another. So around 2:30 am I was shifting around the Taoyuan International Airport. Even more than airports in the People's Pebublic of China, you feel the weight of history here. Its change of name (see above link) had signaled seismic changes in Taiwanese politics. The airport was a much-criticized drab structure, but this time I saw tremendous efforts being lavished on its renovation; it seems to me it is perhaps modelling itself on the Korean Incheaon airport, which is not a bad thing. It is about time. Considering how much Taiwan has re-invented herself in the past decades, the airport has a lot to catch up to.

The transit lounge was yet another surprise. Modern and reasonally comfortable, though not quite as luxurious as Incheon. We are talking about the common man here, not the VIP lounges. I was able to get some rest.

In the morning, I was not hungry but went looking. The eateries are comfortable and I decided to try out the classic staple Beef Noodle Soup 牛肉麺. The staff sliced open a package of noodle and took quite a while to prepare. I said this ain't going to be good, packaged noodles! But it turned out just the other way. The noodle was al dente (Q 感), the broth flavorful and not heavy in MSG, the beef succulent. A generous sprinkle of scallions and non-salty but flavorful pickled vegetable 酸菜 enhanced the flavor. Why, it was one of the better bowls of noodle I have had in Taipei!

Boarding the flight to NYC was an even bigger surprise. The cabins have been modernized and finally every seat gets its own screen (they must have been among the last international carriers to do so).

click pics to enlarge

The Beauty of Kansai

The flight refuels in (Osaka) at the Kansai International Airport. I must say, the descent on a clear day was a spirit-lifting experience, perhaps not as dramatic as Vancouveur or Seattle, but possessing a calm beauty its own.

It seems all airports now have undulating roofs, and this one predated the HK airport. I rather liked the intimacy and scale of this unusually laid-out airport. The control tower immediately grabbed my attention. I liked its isolation, seemingly devoid of population, a NASA station in the desert. When I got home, I did some research and found out that Renzo Piano was the architect for this airport on a man-made island. Make sure you read the fascinating wikipedia entry and discover this airport's technological advance and its link with the HK airport. In terms of design, if you ask me, it speaks to me more than the coolly grandiose Norman Foster, whom I have always thought over-rated.

China Airlines used to be known for its food. I am glad to report on this international flight the food was excellent. The fish I had was presented Japanese style, simple and flavorful. The flight was only half-full. I suppose people don't even want to be near Japan in the wake of the quake.

El Nina?
Just as we were to descent, it was announced there would be a delay due to visibility, which had never happened to me before on my trips to NYC in the fall and spring. When we finally descended through the clouds, I found out why.

It is extremely rare for NYC to have a snowstorm in late October. Fortunately, it was not too bad in Queens, and after a bit of waiting I got my car service and got home.

23 October, 2011

Review: Verity Audio Rienzi meets Softone ICL

Click pic to enlarge.

Review: Verity Audio Rienzi III

1, 2, 3, Go! Softone ICL

OK, I admit it, part of the reason for the revisit was for the fantastic and wholesome breakfast: eggs, sausage, fresh carrots and cabbage, and home-made bread! Thanks and thanks again! How am I going to do without today! :-(

Before and during breakfast, we had round 1, which used the resident ASR Emitter I Exclusive. Since the sound was not much different from before, I shall not dwell on this part and refer you to my previous reports (here).

Mostly Softone ICL (official website)
This came about because our host Sang just acquired the ICL Model 3 CD player. Yes, contrary to what you read in the commercial press, many people still buy CD players! He wanted to play with my ICL Model 2 DAC and I wanted breakfast, so the visit was arranged. Since I have read that the Verity Audio Rienzi is friendly to flea-powered SET amps (based on a review in Ultra Audio), I decided to take along some extra stuff, and the challenger system was as follows:

Transport/CD Player: Softone Model 2
DAC: Softone Model 3
Preamp: Bryston 0.4B
Amp: Softone Model 1 (300B amp; discontinued; on the floor in the pic)
Speaker: Verity Audio Rienzi
Cable-Analogue: Canare (cheap 75 ohm) and Belden teflon silver-plated (looks like Cello String, but white)
Cable-Digital: Belden (yellow)
Cable-Speaker: Belden 9497
Cable-Power; generic

ONE OF THE MOST JOYFUL MOMENTS IN MY HIFI JOURNEY. Yes, in terms of fun and delight, not absolute performance. And vindication for Verity Audio also. Previously, I had not been too enamoured of Verity, indeed for all speakers of this kind, with one small speaker on top of a "subwoofer" module.

But, on this historic day, with the full system as described, the system cast a huge soundstage, with instruments reaching into the far corners (whereas the ASR only had the center, not even particularly full at that). Instruments gained presence and size, with beautiful and correct timber. Amazingly, the sound had excellent live presence. The voice of Buena Vista Social Club's Omara was smoky and the band swinging. In the duet of Ray Charles and Nora Jones, not only were the voices beautifully differentiated, they tightly inter-weaved to covey a feeling of duo partnership. Grappelli's violin was sinewy, and the system coveyed effortlessly the rhythmic finesse, as it also did with Take Five.

Even with the classical and bigger stuff, the system did well. Yang Tianwa's violin on this most delightful Naxos series was bewitching; with a good system, you should be feeling the bow's return as well as the finger's action, and I did. The orchestra accompaniment had good weight. Musica Antiqua Koln was swinging in this wonderful account of the Brandenburg's. Even more impressively, the second movement of Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony showcased the gutsy playing of the lower strings and very good dynamics. The only track that exposed the limited power on hand was a closely miked piano track.

Now a few words on particular components in the system. I shall not be exhaustive as I am sure I will write a Softone/ICL overview one day:

Softone Model 3 This is a wonderful CD player as well as a transport. Using the same Philips CDM Pro2 laser mechanism, I wonder why people buy over-priced transports like Orpheus and Weiss. As a CD player, the sound is refined and very clean.

Softone Model 2 This is a best-buy DAC that handles up to 24/96. Being tube buffered, the sound is warmer and weightier than the Model 3, and hence likely more suited to the high resolution Rienzi.

Bryston 0.4B This is a surprisingly musical preamp of older (and better imho) vintage. It has absolutely nothing "transistory" about it. To this dedicated tube preamp user, this is the highest praise.

Softone/ICL Model 1 This is a surprisingly sophisticated design (as most ICL products) 300B amp (there is also a 2A3 version) of fixed bias design, with 330V at the plate and the 300B run at 65 mA. Surprisingly, using only small output transformers, it can be driven very hard and outperforms many a costlier SET amp. Since I had not used it in a long time, I randomly took a pair of Chinese 300B and tested it in the morning. I measured it to make sure it was not over-biased. Boy, it was only running at 33 mA, lower than you'd run a 2A3. You know what? I did not re-bias since it sounded just fine with my Tannoy. So, this amp now is running at much less than full power; I'd estimate only outputting 3 watts or so.

Verity Audio Rienzi This experience completely changed my view of VA. Previously I had heard several pairs at shows and in homes. At best I'd say they were hifi-ish, not particularly attractive (I'd say the same about the over-rated Wilson Watt/Puppy). I had even heard a higher model driven by a full Monty DIY EL34 amp and the sound was sleep-inducing. So imagine my surprise this time. The Rienzi is lightning fast and superbly transparent. It may be a trifle too bright for my taste but I think that can be easily rectified. More importantly, unlike most Wilson Watt/Puppy, the two boxes appear to be coherently integrated (although not so when the ASR was used). Most surprisingly, it has excellent rhythm and pace as well as a live presence, very rare qualities in loudspeakers.

The Rienzi is obviously a tube and SET friendly loudspeaker. Given the already mightily impressive performance with the lowly Softone/ICl amp, I would say it is a marriage made in heaven. My great happiness is not only for the host, but also because I am happy there is another good loudspeaker for SET amp users. There is no way I personally would use this speaker with anything else but tubes, and preferably SET amp at that.

Of course, the Rienzi is still not a large, nor fullrange, speaker, but given its modest footprint it is a worthwhile effort.


The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 24-10-11 Tannoy Wavac

Click pic to enlarge; note new Wavac monoblocks on top of cabinet

The Yumcha Diaries 飲茶後記: 24-10-11 Tannoy Wavac
Overview: Wavac Part III

I am severely backlogged!

We have heard so much in the past 2 months, but I am dragging my reporter feet. One of the reason is the beautiful weather lately, making me want to do other things than sitting in front of the computer. Another is my recent effort on cleaning up my house; it all started with Robin's rack, which he left for me. That called for creating space where there was none!

Of course, Tannoy gets priority, so this report jumps the queue. I shall try to tie up home visit loose ends later.

On this day, after yumcha, we re-visited Karma. First, congratulation for the successful back surgery! The household had not been idle; since the last visit, the living room had been completely re-arranged, and with sonic benefit!

One of the great things about Tannoy (and big horns like our friend JC's Avantgarde Trio) is room-filling music. You don't have to sit like an idiot (which is most audiophile) fixed in one spot. I sat off to one corner, stretched out my legs on the sofa, and enjoyed the music! At the new spot for the dining table, where we had tea, the sound was wholesome even with a pillar blocking the view (look at the pic in the previous visit report, where the clock was)! This is how a proper system should sound. Besides the re-arrangement, the other significant change is that Karma purchased the Wavac MD-805 monoblocks (perched on top of the cabinets)! We tried many things, but I shall only briefly touch upon some of them:

Wavac PR-T1 - XLR vs RCA input I brought my Musical Fidelity M1 DAC, which has an excellent balanced output. We compared the Wavac PR-T1 preamp's RCA input (using Gotham GAC-4) and XLR input (GAC-3). There is no question in my mind the balanced input is more composed. This is a more significant comparison than most, because the PR-T1 uses an input transformer for the XLR input. There is no bandwidth loss, attesting to the excellence of the input transformer.

Wavac PR-T1/MD-805 vs PR-X2/MD-300B I was glad finally I had the chance for a re-match of my much cheaper Wavac PR-X2/MD-300B combo vs the expensive PR-T1/MD-805. Last time when we compared them at Danz' place (report here), I appreciated the more expensive system's authority but had a nagging suspicion that the cheaper one has a bit more nuance. This time, I am sure. For sure, the big brother is more commanding, but I would say the younger one is a little lighter on foot, more on the fly, a little more spontaneous (at the expense of weight of course). At this point, Karma's Canterbury are new and harder to drive, but when he finally runs them in (which shall take at least months of heavy use) , I'd like to have yet another re-match. For myself, I shall happily continue my romance with my Wavac set. In my place, I don't quite need the extraneous power. However, I'd not mind to be able to upgrade to a higher Wavac 300B model at some point.

A wonderful afternoon, and I think Karma has found his partner for life in audio!

10 October, 2011

CD Recommendation: Music for a Rainy Day, Sadness in the Soul

Click pic for CD details

CD Recommendation: Music for a Rainy Day
, Sadness in the Soul

This little article is dedicated to my friend Karma, whose spiritual learning and leaning has entertained, moved and enriched me.

For a while now, successive tropical storms had coursed around us. One day it was cool, the next muggy Indian summer. Finally, yesterday afternoon catharsis came in the form of a heavy downpour. The sky darkened and the air cooled. Sitting by the open balcony my whole being relaxed.

The 2 discs I played moved me deeply. Yes, they are superbly recorded, audiophile standard in fact, but the music is intensely private. They demand your total attention; more, they require you go on a journey together. It is not every day I can do that, so I was grateful for the rainstorm. Two hours later, I emerged cleansed and renewed, just as the air was fresh.

Valentin Silvestrov's music has always stimulated me. Unlike many modern compositions, they always feel logical in their progression, and along the way one finds much breathtaking beauty. Symphonies Nos. 4 and 5 here are widely embracing in their discourse, spellbinding in peroration. Meticulous performances.

Peteris Vasks is not as well known as his fellow countryman Arvo Part, whose music I follow advidly. Previously I have listened to small bits of Vasks, but nothing moved me nearly as deeply as this superb Wergo disc. Both the title work, Viatore, and Musica Adventus are for string orchestra, and I cannot imagine Arvo Part lovers not equally taken to them. The CD booklet mentioned that "...Flaubert once said that enjoyment of genuine beauty leaves behind a feeling of sadness in the soul, and this feeling is present here in great abundance. .." I cannot agree more.

Enjoy the youtubes!

Vasks' Viatore for string orchestra:

Vasks' Musica Adventus:

Silvestrov's Symphony No. 5:


09 October, 2011

Review: SinoVT Raphaelite TP-215AI Part I

Review: SinoVT Raphaelite TP-215AI Part I

And now for yet some more cheaptubeaudio...Now, don't say I don't review Chinese products! :-)

Taken in dim light. Click to enlarge.

One Night in Taipei
Rewind to 2009. I was in Taipei, staying at my uncle's place in 復興崗, near 北投, an old and humble residential neighborhood. Imagine my surprise when I accidentally chanced upon a tube audio shop on the street. But it was never open during the day. Finally, one evening during a stroll I was able to get in the dimly lit place.

The boss apparently is a respected DIY and modifier kinda guy, some sort of guru with a following. The place was loaded with SinoVT-Raphaelite gears. That was my first encounter, and I found the retro hammer tone chassis highly attractive. I seemed to recall the brand as Chinese, and asked the owner about it. He said it is a Taiwan company based in China. I did not express my skepticism.

I forgot what speakers he used; I think horns with DIY cabinets. Regardless of origin, using the transformer output 5842 preamp driving a modified version of the 6L6 SE amp (see pics above), sound was not bad, in fact much better than at the HK dealer, whom I recently got to hear, unfortunately.

Back in HK I checked and of course the company is very much Chinese, based in Tainjin. The Taipei place is listed on the Chinese home page, but not as distributor. And price? If you buy from China, from taobao (list here), price is about half of what I was quoted in Taiwan. In HK, the dealer concentrates on the more expensive items, and does not make buying the cheaper kits easy. Mark up varies from model to model.

Why the name Raphaelite, I wonder? In case you don't know, Archangel Raphael is the angel of healing. Perhaps that attests to the power of music? Of course, there is the painter Raphael, but that seems even further removed.

click to enlarge

SinoVT TP-215AI
I have always wanted to try out their most popular SE kit (here), only about US$235 or HK$ 1831 from taobao, at today's exchange rate. But I never got to it.

Just a few weeks ago, by chance I saw this beautiful integrated amp second-hand, for a fair price. Since I have always liked 6V6, I bought it. When I opened the bottom I was impressed by the superb built and reasonable component quality (click pic to enlarge). As evidenced by the Bennic coupling caps, perhaps there is a Taiwan tie after all.

The model numbers of SinoVT are confusing. The TP215 apparently is a series. The AI I got is an older version (official manual). It operates the 6V6 in fixed bias push-pull. There is a meter up front that shows the current for each tube. But you have to open the bottom to adjust the bias. There is only one bias pot for each channel, so it is desirable to have tightly matched pairs.

A newer version, the TP215AB, seen on the website but not seen in taobao, looks virtually identical except for the improvement of adjustable bias for each of the 4 power tubes, and adjustable from the top, without having to open the bottom plate!

Yamaha NS-10M pentode vs triode This amp is rated at 7 wpc in pentode operation. Switching to triode operation halves the power. I first tested it with the 90db legendary Yamaha NS-10M. It proved a match made in heaven. Not surprisingly, a little tube warmth complements the neutrality of the Yamaha. Even in my 300 ft room I could listen to big orchestrals at reasonable volume. However, triode operation (3.5 wpc) proved not too ideal for the Yamaha.

Adding a preamp As with many budget (actually even many expensive ones) "integrated", the volume is passive. With the volume maxed and used as an amp only, the Leben RS-28CX preamp added a great deal of control, and that was how I used it from that point on.

Tube Rolling The stock Chinese 6P6P (6V6) were used throughout. Substituting metal base 6SJ7 and RCA 6SN7 immediately brought more refinement. Although I usually prefer direct-heated rectifiers, in this flea-powered amp, the (similar to the Chinese 5Z4P) indirectly heated 5AR4 (with its lower voltage drop), just edged out the 5U4 in solidity, but the difference was not huge.

Tannoy Canterbury Convinced of its worthiness, I hooked it up in the reference system, with the Tannoy. With the much higher efficiency, the SinoVT sounded more effortless. Indeed, the bandwidth seemed quite reasonable and sound balanced for such a cheap product. Compared to my SET amps, the midrange is more recessed and there was a loss in details, but that is hardly surprising. The performance was still beyond expectation.

In sum, a great little amp. In Part II, I shall try out old-stock 6V6 as well as compare the amp to the much beefier Audio Note Kit 4. I am sure it would not measure up, but it would be fun to see how close it would be.

Click Schematic to view in full.

03 October, 2011

Cassette Revival?

Cassette Revival?

I case you do not know. the humble cassette is miraculously creating a niche for its survival.

Apparently, the pop music underground and indie groups employ the medium for cheap production of their music. In NYC, where there is a large music industry and aspiring musicians are on every street corner and subway platform, it is a common sight to see street musicians selling their own cassettes. I have even bought one before!

In depth articles:

Stereophile, USA Today, Boston Globe, Guardian, LA Times

Lastly, an over-serious cultural examination:

Pop Matters

All the news has me thinking of restoring my Tascam 122 MkII (suffering from some pitch instability) for occasional fun.