23 November, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (21): Martin Logan

Letter from NYC 2011 (21): A Moveable Feast 
A Day with Old Timers

Revised December 2nd, 2011

I ask, how often are you unconditionally offered two full meals a day by your fellow hobbyists? Well, thanks to my friend AL, whose best-of-2010 system you may recall, that was exactly what I got the other day.

Aside from the royal treatment and the conviviality, what impress me the most is the undiminished enthusiasm these old timers exhibit, for audio as well as for music. AL and his friends are all my seniors, but they are all young at heart. I returned convinced that audio shall make us live longer, and more healthily. Here's a toast to you all!

Click pics to enlarge. L, the big lunch; R, the beautiful roomElectrostatic Old Timers
After a pleasant drive up the Palisades, my chauffeur AL, Lao Wu (Peter) and I were the first to arrive at the cozy home of Milty. We were soon joined by Al, Larry and Lao Tang. The hosts were effusively warm and engaging. Imagine, a shot of McCallan as greetings!

While we were feeling the sting of the mid-morning scotch, Milty's lovely wife was toiling away in the kitchen. The crowd was served a huge and delicious lunch of home-made barley soup, roast turkey and corned beef, washed down with two bottles of wine. We ate and talked for a long time, a little on audio but mostly on classical music and other sundries, during the course of which it was determined there are 4 Quad ESL users present, a majority. I must say it was the kind of long lunch that I really enjoy, and I cannot thank the host enough.

The host was proud of his sculpture in the center of the front wall, a smaller replica of the 2 century B.C. The Wrestlers (in the Uffizi). Close inspection shows excellent quality.

We had two sessions, a short one before lunch and a longer one after. We listened only to digital, mostly CDs and, unusually, a little DAD and DVD-A too. The sound produced by the unusual system, "augmented electrostatic" if you will, was wonderful.

The gears, roughly:
Analog: VPI early HW/Eminent Technology arm/Decca Gold (unfortunately not heard)
Digital multi player: Oppo 93SE
Preamp: Luxman CL-35 MkIII (restored; up to spec)
Electronic crossover: DBsystems
Amp: Parasound 2250 (old)
Speakers: Martin Logan CLS (with augmentation)

Sympathetic Vibrations Although Milty's ML is "full-range", for him, a music lover and avid concertgoer, it does not go low enough. To flesh out the sonic picture, with only minimal use of electronic crossover, Milty made elaborate use of surplus. The DBsystems crossover was used only for bass augmentation, to a Belles One amplifier for the low base, driving M &K double woofers with KLH 6 1/2 inch woofers (high base speakers). Interestingly, the small B&Ws were used to beef up the mid-bass a little. High frequency was augmented (connected passively with caps) by the Decca horns in the center (6 of them)! I am sure purists would frown upon reading this, but the great result speaks for itself!

Luxman CL-35 MkIII A word on this classic preamp, revered mostly but denigrated by some. This 70's preamp was likely designed by the great Tim de Paravicini (EAR). There is not much solid information on the net. Try this translated German website (original in German) for the spec's as well as some nice pics. Here I'd have to chime in. My previous experience with an early, and regarded, Luxman all-tube preamp (forgot model number) was not as favorable. It was just a little slow and not dynamic enough. Not so here. Perhaps it has to do with the restoration and of course the speed of the electrostatics. I'd not mind trying out this CL-35 one day.

Oppo 93SE It was great to be able to have just one player that could play everything, including DAD and DVD-A. But without a screen, we could not navigate to get some of these played. Sonically, Milty said he misses his old Meridian 508-24. The player is likely responsible for the little whiteness when the going gets rough.

Reassured Sound It would be a given that the MLs delivered utter transparency and fast transient speed. But even more impressive was the ability of the system to play loud. Integration of the large number of drivers were seamless. The DAD replay of the Classic Records issue of an old Everest classic, the exotic Corroboree of Australian composer John Antill (not to be confused for American George Antheil), was scintillating. Knowing I liked Bruckner, Milty took out his stack and we played both the new Jaarvi/Frankfurt and the old Jochum/Dresden; all preferred the latter. What an orchestra! The DVD-A of the second Kempe Ein Alepnsinfonie with the same orchestra was likewise a pleasure. Just as in the Alpine symphony, one has to make exit when daylight dwindles, so we bade farewell as it was getting dark.

DIY Paradise
Next we hit Lao Tang's house. His dedicated listening room is on the small side. Strangely, his wife decorated the room and the "hifi cabinet" and setup are unusual to say the least. For best sound, we opened the cabinet doors.

Digital Transport: Roksan ROK-DP1
DAC: Parasound D/AC 1600
Preamp: DIY 5998 with tube rectification.
Amp 1: Canary 300B SE monoblocks for high
Amp 2: Modified organ amp using 2x KT88 per monoblock, for low
Speakers: Celestion 662 inverted; tweeter replaced by Morel
Earphone amp: DIY 5998 with tube rectification (not auditioned)

Celestion 662 I was surprised by the full and balanced sound, with no booming even in the small room. The Celestion 662 surely was a quality (and expensive) speaker in its days, and is probably a tweaker's delight. It has 2x 12" bass units, one active, one passive, a 3" dome midrange and a tweeter (which most people replace). Whether it was classical or rock, the results were highly musical. The inverted placement likely helped to keep the bass clean. With classical though, it was also obvious the last degree of resolution was not there, limitation of the speakers. Even so, I was impressed by the cost-effectiveness of the setup and the quality of the DIY.

5998 According to Lao Tang, the quality of the 5998 as preamp/headphone amp tube is nonpareil. If I am not mistaken, the 5998 (made by Tungsol) is a close kin to the WE421A, and similar but not identical to the ubiquitous 6AS7/6080. Lao Tang is obviously an experienced DIYer, who concentrates on substance and not cosmetics. He eschews cathode followers and prefer direct outputs and OTL, hence his fondness for the 5998.

Home made Shanghai Cuisine As wonderful as the sound was, I have to say I was even more captivated by the host's cooking. He had apparently informally "apprenticed" himself to a chef uncle in his younger years, and it showed in his cooking. What a feast! The centerpiece was the ham and whole chicken soup 火腿燉雞湯, the stock of which were also used to braise Chinese cabbage 煨大白菜. Complementing the main dish was an immaculately prepared 四季豆, a variation on the dried string beans version (乾扁); and sauteed beef with home-made Shanghai preserved vegetable (雪菜牛肉). This was some of the best home-cooking I have had in a while! Thank you Lao Tang!

Many thanks to AL for arranging the delightful trip!

21 November, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (20): Empire 2000E/III 2000Z

pics of E/III: R, original stylus; L: replacement

Letter from NYC 2011 (20): State of the Empire
Vinyl Talk: Empire 2000E/II and 2000Z

Introduction 物極必反

The Chinese saying loosely means "Order shall unravel itself when it has reached Extreme". And so it proves in most arena of human activity. Audio is no exception.

Audio has undergone dramatic changes in recent years. While some (like CAS) are nominally progressive (as digital vs analog is regressive), perhaps even more look back for their inspirations. Witness the flowering of flea-powered SET amps and hi-efficiency loudspeakers. So, is it time for the MM again?

MM or MI in the World of MC
For three decades or more, the MC cartridge has dominated the high-end. It is not hard to see why. For a long time, the trend in audio, under the banner of resolution and neutrality, has mostly been towards an ever more explicit treble mostly without comparable improvement in the midrange. The MC, with its innate penchant for lighting the treble, fits the bill perfectly.

This is not to denigrate the MC. With more powerful magnets, fewer coils, lower impedance and all, for the modern audiophile the MC has arguably reached its Golden Age, when incremental improvements become more difficult to come by. There is only one catch; they are mostly so expensive that they are out of reach to most people.
No wonder there is an MM renaissance of sort. There are two parts to the equation:

More new high quality Moving Magnets and Moving Irons are now being made In the September issue of TAS, when asked what is the biggest innovation in LP playback in the last ten years, Harry Weisfeld of VPI says: "...The rebirth of moving-iron and moving-magnet cartridges. When done right (Soundsmith, Grado, Ortofon), they can be wonderful, and young people can afford them and enjoy music. If its just us old farts buying $4000 moving coils, this business is doomed..." Although I believe he has a point, and I can attest to the quality of some of the current MMs (from the humble Ortofon Red to the more upmarket Clearaudio Virtuoso), it is the second part of the equation that is more intriguing.

Revival of old vintage MM cartridges One of the more interesting thing about the information explosion is the re-appraisal of vintage audio equipment. I of course have long belonged to the crowd who respect and use vintage equipment. It helps that mass magazine writers like Art Dudley writes a lot about vintage equipment (in his case mostly in analog). When it comes to vintage cartridges, the advocates have always been there, though less vociferous than those interested in other sectors. This is understandable, as the cartridge is fragile and stylus of finite life. It shall always be a minority sport, and better that way.

Empire Cartridges
As much as Shure or Stanton, one of the important players in the MM era has been Empire. Their turntables were used in transcription and the Troubadour series have always been coveted by collectors (here is some good info). No less than Harry Weisfeld of VPI cites Empire as influence, and indeed his current best-selling Classic turntable is said to have derived inspiration from Empire.

When it comes to cartridges, Empire had a long history and made many. Surviving documentation is scanty and there is much confusion on the internet, especially when it comes to replacement styli.

Old timers have likely had some experience with Empire, and I am no exception. In the late seventies and early eighties, before I got serious in hifi, I had been an Empire user, first the 2000E/II, then III, then the 2000Z before switching to Shure V-15 (my stint started with the Type II and ended with the IV). As I wasn't wearing my audiophile hat then, I don't quite remember why I switched my allegiance.

Empire 2000E/III
One of the most well known Empire cartridge series was the 2000 (Info on 2000 and 4000 series from Mantra Audio; vinylengine database), and I was a partaker of that experience. I think everyone agrees they are very musical cartridges. The trouble, again, is the confusion regarding replacement styli (read the vinylengine thread).

Recently, my friend icefox, one of the 食客 of my Shidi, told me that in one of their debauchery sessions an NOS Empire 2000E/III shone when matched with a Fidelity Research step-up. This piqued my curiosity. As recent as a couple of years ago, I had last listened to it as part of the bedroom system on my Pioneer PL-10. Sweet, but I had never thought of re-installing it in my main systems.

Back into the Arms of...吃過番尋味 This is like taking it up with an old girlfriend whom one has almost forgotten about! My particular 2000E/III surprisingly still has an intact suspension and works fine, even if I had stored it without any protection to the stylus! Must have been a sturdy built. Installing it in my systems was an eye-opener.

Round 1; vs Benz Micro Silver I installed the Empire 2000E/III in my early morning listening Casual Listening Station , which has undergone minor changes:

Analog: Audio Technica AT-PL120 with Empire 2000E/III
Meridian 506-24
McIntosh MR-71
Sunfire 300; Elekit TU-8300
Martin Logan Source

This is the system I use at a low level every morning in the wee hours, before I can blast my big horns. If you have read my previous report, you shall see that the Empire 2000E/III replaced the previous Benz Micro Silver, a high-output MC. Well, the findings are favorable. An even-handed performance that lacks nothing in either resolution or tonality. Good soundstage, solid images. There is little question the massed strings have more body. The Benz in comparison is more hifi-ish, whiter perhaps (as I am using electrostatics) though it plays out with a more exciting PRaT.

Round 2: vs Koetsu Black and Denon DL-102 Next I tried out the Empire on the Day-to-Day gig, which I had just written about in the previous post. This time the equipment used was as follows:

Analog 1: Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
Analog 2: Technics SL-1200/Empire 2000EIII
Preamp: Shindo Monbrison with MM and MC phono inputs
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Speakers: YL Acoustics 4-way horns

This was made easy due to the similar construction of the Audio Technica and Technics; the arm geometries are close enough to allow for a simple swap. After quickly re-balancing and setting the counterweight I was in business. Comparison of the 2 gigs through the same phono section was enlightening. The Clearaudio/Koetsu has somewhat higher resolution and, again, more pacey, but the difference was not as big as you think. On the other hand, the warmth of the Empire was quite alluring; it makes images just seem more anchored on the ground, and certainly the feeling of massed strings is enhanced. Considering the difference in price the Empire did an outstanding job, and depending on preference it is not hard to imagine some might prefer the Empire outright. Comparison with the Denon DL-102 shall be made in the next installment.

Round 3: Aftermarket replacement stylus Given the great performance I decided to order a generic aftermarket stylus for myself as well as Shidi. There are a few variants for the styli I believe. Mine was I think a Pfanstiel "Polished Elliptical Diamond .0003 x .0007", made in Switzerland, labelled 4237DEC. I listened to this only on the Casual Listening Station. The sound is definitely not as rich and nuanced, though not nearly as bad as some description on the net, but it ceratinly does not quite measure up to the original. The most unusual thing is that the output is quite a bit lower and I have to crank up the volume. Can anybody tell me why?

The 2000Z was an upgrade to the E/III at the time, and I had used it for a long time. Read the 2000Z 1976 review in Gramophone. My specimen unfortunately suffered from deterioration in the suspension. I also ordered a generic replacement stylus and soon put it into action in the Casual Listening Station. As it uses the same frame as the E/III, it was just a matter of swapping the bodies.

The replacement stylus I think is another Pfanstiel ".2 x .7 Elliptical Diamond", labelled 4239DET, but made in Japan. This one seemed a better replacement than the E/III, and I was rewarded by a sound that was quite similar to the E/III with the original tip. It is staying on my AT turntable.

The other day I took the AT turntable with the 2000Z to a friend's house. He uses Audio Note M5, Audio Valve EL84 monoblocks (8 per channel) and Sonus faber Electa Amator I. Even with the AT's built-in phonoamp, he was surprised to find the sound at least on par with, if not surpassed that of his digital source, the capable Meridian 508-24. Such is the magic of Analog!

I am most impressed by my re-acquaintance with the Empire 2000E/III and 2000Z. It leads me to think, as our equipment improve, we should sometimes re-hear some of our forgotten toys that are lying around. The Empires have fine musicality and excellent resolution. In a modern system, they don't sound dated, indeed can compete with many a more expensive cartridge, especially if you are tired of the treble zip of some MCs.

If you already have one lying around, and the stylus is good, you should give it a second chance, but the situation becomes more complicated should you need a new stylus. If you don't have one, I don't think you should go out and buy just a body.

Last thought, I think the 2000 series is good enough to warrant a re-tip with a better stylus. maybe one day...

20 November, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (19): Thanksgiving YL Acoustics

Letter from NYC 2011 (19): Thanksgiving
Reorganization and Consolidation

My Corner: My Listening Stations (III) Day-to-Day
YL Acoustics 4-way Horn Part I

This article is dedicated to my friend Gingers, who recently suffered the devastating loss of one of his sons. As one who had lost his sister to an accident and watched his mother gravely grieve, I can comprehend the pain. May closure arrive for him in due course.

First of all, it is again time for Thanksgiving. Whatever our beliefs, it is essential to give thanks for our wondrous existence. My mother, a devout buddhist who lives simply, frequently remarks on how lucky we are. Incidentally, she is a strict vegetarian, and during this time of year a turkey sympathizer!

Any audiophile who is reading this belongs to the lucky ones, not only because he has the time and spare change but also because he is not heavily weighted down by life. While we do not exist just for hifi (though we may appear so to others, especially significant others), we do exist for all manners of good things and with them come obligations and duty. May we all happily discharge them and still have some time left for our hobby.

This time I returned to find that my mother has hung a little buddhist pendant on my storage rack. On it is a saying:


Needs are basic but desires know no boundary;
Acquire only necessities, everything else being unimportant;

Acquire only what you have a right to, never what you could not or should not have.

Great advice for sick audiophiles, don't you think! Me? Well, I deeply understand but it is not yet time - to apply to audio, that is...

May you have time to sneak in a couple of sessions after turkey and ham. And now for some hifi...

click pic to enlarge. Today's Day-to Day Station and YL Acoustics 4-way Horns

Gearing Up - Reorganization and Consolidation
Some of you may wonder why there has not been new articles in a while. Well, no news is good news. Besides having acquired some interesting stuff, I have been hard at work re-organizing my various stations to make things easier, to be more "play" than "work", easier said than done. I have decided to cut the stations down to three for versatility. Please refer to the side bar for my updated equipment list.

More importatntly, I have spent quite a bit of time tuning up my YL horns, and I have been duly rewarded by some of the best sounds I have gotten, but that is for another article. Horns are finicky, and improvements come only in fits, amid much work, frustration, even cursing! But once you get it is a life-long passion.

My Day-to-Day Station This station is housed on 2 racks and has the most frequent permutations, and is the one I operate the most. It currently has 3 preamps. This station can be fully balanced and is also unique in having a dedicated mono vinyl playback.


-Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
-Linn LP-12 Lingo/Ittok LV-II/Airtight PC-1
-Technics SL-1200 MkII/Denon DL-102

-Manley Neo-Classic 300B
-Shindo Monbrison (built-in MM and MC)
-BAT VK-3i

Phono preamps and Step-Up's:
-AQVOX 2CI MkII used only for MC

Digital front-end:
-Theta Data or Data basic II
-Sonic Frontier SFD-2; Audio Research DAC2

-Sony XA5400ES for SACD

-Wavac MD-811
-Elekit 8300
-Almarro 318B, Yamamoto A-08S, AES SE-1


-YL Acoustics 4-way Horn Speakers

Click to enlarge. Before stuffing the room.

Getting Horny

My acquisition of the horns happily coincided with our moving to a bigger apartment in the same building. After a quick refurbishment, the first thing I did in the empty apartment was to set up the horns. Unpacking took a long time. Then, with the help of my strong friends Mark and Edward, we installed the heavy metal horns and drivers into the cabinet.

The speakers are in-room because I configured the area to the rear of both speakers as storage space (while keeping the center for equipment), where I installed heavy Home Depot racks. From the front wall, the speakers were placed roughly 2/5 of the way into the room. Using a simple audio system, I decided on the final spot, where there was the least bass anomaly (fortunately the Altec woofer is very clean). Later, heavy cinder blocks were used to raise the speakers.

The 4-way speaker has a well-built original YL 4-way crossover in a bulky wood block. The mammoth wood YL low-midrange horn (with its own driver) that resembles WE or Klangfilm is not currently in use as I don't have the proper crossover and am not about to go with equalization. My plan is to whip into shape the as-is 4-way horn before tackling the fifth element (conceivably as either 4-way or 5-way). We did briefly hook it up by simply adding it to the midrange horn; suffice to say the sound was BIG and promising.

Here are some pics before the curtains were raised:

L: Arrival of all the drivers and horns; R: the cabinets.

02 November, 2011

Letter from NYC 2011 (19): Lehmann Black Cube

Above Photo Courtesy of JCR33

Letter from NYC 2011 (19): Days of Wine and Cheese

Vinyl Talk: Lenco Heaven, Phono Hell
Vinyl Talk: Denon DL-102 Mono and Decca cartridge
Vinyl Talk: Lehmann Black Cube vs Ray Samuels Nighthawk

Editor's Note: Readers not acquainted with the personalities involved here are advised to skip the Part I, which is of a more private nature. This article is a prelude to my own exploration of the mono Denon DL-102 and my old Empire 2000E/III, to be chronicled in detail starting from the next article.Here, I tell why I became recently motivated. I am sure you are wondering what's happening here. Mono replay? Ancient Empire cartridges? Can they be any good? Well, to make a long story long...

Part I. Where Jazz Reigns Supreme - Days of Wine and Cheese 吃客三千
It all came about like this. This past summer, through the introduction of my friend icefox I made the acquaintance of Shidi 師弟. It turned out we attended the same high school, which quickly furthered our friendship. Successful man that he is, the super-energetic Shidi flies on business trips all the time, yet miraculously finds time to organize jazz performances as well as talk to his friends. Shidi is a connoisseur of wine and jazz, and indeed I suspect of decadence and debauchery! He looks serious but sometimes I imagine him as a figure from the Decameron. Indeed, in whatever he does, this man manages to consume more than he can take, in doses that would overwhelm us mere mortals. A generous host, chez Shidi we always enjoyed great wine, champagne and French cheese to jazz.

Although AL turns out to have a lot more hifi equipment than we had earlier assumed, he is in many ways not a typical audiophile, that is he still possesses his sanity, unlike most of us...He does have a hi-end system built around his huge jazz LP collection and analogue preferences (I cannot access the photo I took in HK, which I shall upload when I get back there):

Source: Linn, Pioneer, Lenco TTs with various arms and cartridges.
Preamp: Mark Levinson ML-6B with MC card
Amps: Mark levinson monoblocks (forgot model; runs hot)
Speakers: MBL 101E

The listening area is not ideal, and the speakers do not have too much room to breathe, but the jazz replay is quite good, with plenty of presence.

真大鑊 It all started when AL fell under the influence of Lenco-maniac daiwok (one of the colorful figures in Lencoheaven and, if you remember, author of the Midas mods for Denon 103) and acquired a Lenco turntable. A Decca cartridge went on it, followed by the mono
Denon DL-102. As they say, the rest is history.

Quest for the Holy MM Grail 日日蘚,日日鮮 Thus began the phonstage smorgasbord. Since the ML-6B only has an MC card, AL has to have an external MM phonostage for either the Decca or the DL-102. Many of us loaned him our spare units and countless hours were spent auditioning them by AL's entourage, not so much by me, though I did attend a few sessions. Complicating the matter is AL's insatiable curiosity; everyday he wonders about something new.

Part II. Brief Listening Notes
As I shall treat some of the issues that arise in much greater detail in the next article, I shall just briefly state some of my findings here, at least those that relate to me. In the early phase many
phonostages passed through the system, EAR 834P, ICL Model 4, ARC SP-9 (used as phono), with variable results not important enough to chronicle.

Decca Cartridge I forgot which model it is; only know it is an old one, not current production. On the Lenco, undamped, the sound was a visceral assault, undeniably exciting, with great presence, all very good for jazz. It sounded completely different from the beautifully cultured sound of the damped Decca SC4E I heard in Master AL's place in NYC, my runaway choice for best sound of 2010. Which is the real Decca, I ask?

Denon DL-102 The performance of the DL-102 here outstripped my recent experience in NYC, thus providing impetus for my current effort (chronicle to come). The big and bold sound, at least with jazz, was enough to make one completely forget stereo. Qualifier: there is not much of a stereo spread in this setup anyway. Fascinating: many STEREO LPs sound better with the mono playback!

Spot-Welding (wikipedia entry) Here I first encountered a piece of spot-welded equipment, a DIY tube MM phonostage by derek2A3. It employs a beefy ss regulation, choke-smoothing and 12AX7. The brand new unit was completed the night before. It certainly sounded musical and smooth and showed great potential, but in overall balanced it had to concede to the next contender.

Lehmann Black Cube
vs Ray Samuels F-117 Nighthawk The Nighthawk is a current rage. The loan unit has been resident at Shidi's place for a long time and has garnered general approval from the picky crowd. So we were quite surprised when my old first-generation Lehmann Black Cube was inserted into the audio chain. Even not warmed up, the Black Cube seemed to better the Nighthawk in most musical aspects, a more correct tonal balance, more palpable images and, most importantly, more articulate. My friend icefox told me that subsequently they tested an MC cartridge by using an old Fidelity Research step-up transformer into the MM units; again, the Lehmann came out ahead. Note, all these results relate to the MM stage, the foundation of any phonostage, if you will.

For years, the Lehmann had been a reference for me. Although I am a tube phono man, sometimes I appreciate having it on hand to provide a benchmark for not just neutrality, but also as an example of musical flow. There is a very good review of my original version in TNT. The same reviewer, the trustworthy Lucio Cadeddu, had reservations about the MkII revision. I would be very curious to match this original unit against the much more expensive current SE version.

pics: the Lehmann Black Cube (original version)