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)

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