30 December, 2011

Review: YBA WD202

Review: YBA WD202 DAC
Overview: YBA

I shall not mince words. This is a wonderful DAC with a quite distinctive sound. I think I can pick it out from a crowd.

Status of YBA
According to the web, Chinese manufacturer Shanling (a good company in my book), said to have long been majority shareholder of YBA, bought the remaining shares in early 2010, but have retained the service of Monsieur Andre.

The official website, now revived, makes no mention of this fact. You shall note that YBA has 3 levels of products. Top-of-the-line is the Signature series, which has retained its classic looks (and I hope the good sound I have heard before) and is rumored to be still made in France. The Passion series is one tier below, extension of their more recent efforts (I'd guess made in China now?). In the HK AV Show recently I spotted the new look, ghastly in my opinion.

The WD202 DAC belongs to the budget DESIGN series (which has its own website), made in China but they look better than the Passion series! All products sport a solidly milled case with three-pronged support instead of the usual four rubber feet. Assembly is intricate and you have been warned that removing the case to take a glance at the innards is a risky proposal.

The WD202 is full in features and has been rave reviewed. The Stereophile review is excellent and extensive. Read also the Techradar review and goodsound.

Initial Impressions "...The most special thing about it is the way it "speaks"...Most CDPs and DACs sound more similar than dissimilar. In my experience, very few DACs sound distinctive. I know people are going to trudge out the absolute sound/neutrality thing, but as any vinyl person would know, each good sound has a personality. Early Naim digital is also memorable in this regard...As soon as I plugged in the YBA, I was shocked by its personality. It "speaks"! It gives punctuation to music, makes the musician's phrasing easy to follow. comm-buddy says its quite analogue and indeed it is...It is not often I call up people to talk about a DAC. With this one, I called up 2 people..." (posted in R33)

More What is it that intrigued me? Techradar has nailed it: it is the way the YBA handles microdynamics and rhythm and pace, way beyond what we usually hear in a digital player. All of a sudden, you can hear all the stressed beats effortlessly. This kind of replay enlivens a track like Take Five from Brubeck's Time Out. Focusing on Morello's drums, the bad CD player can make the strong beats only that little louder than the weak ones; the average CD player gives you an approximation of the playing; but the truly outstanding player, like the YBA (or an old Naim, say the CD2), makes you aware of the infinite dynamic shading and brings out the full flow. Whatever the CD, the YBA delivers the music in spades. In my system, the bass has a slight tendency to be a little ripe, but the way it moves is excellent. It is a cliche to praise digital gears as analog-like, but if a piece of gear qualifies for that term, the YBA is it.

There is very good detail and soundstage, possibly superior to the Musical Fidelity M1 I praised previously, but the two players cannot have more different sounds. In comparison, sonic images of the M1 are more spotlit and leaner, the rhythm not as felicitous. When it comes to ability to play loud I feel the YBA trumped the M1, hence here I take issue with Techradar's review.

USB In and Other Impressions I loaned it to my friend com-buddy to try out the CAS. He did, and more (posted in R33)...

"...Totally amazing performance and very high price/performance ratio. Sound is pretty analog (which is a must to reduce the harsh CAS sound). Good details and accurate. At this price, what else I can say?..."

"...I have tried to use the coaxial out from the Wd202 to feed into another DAC..Amazingly, It improves the sound for the other DAC a lot(20-30%). I think the jitter has been reduced by the buffering of the coaxial out. (editor's note: this is corroborated by fellow R33 mate chkwan:"...I have connected the Coaxial out from WD202 to my Aqvox II and my friend's Northstar. Both have very significant improvement. If anyone has more than 1 DAC, why not to give a try...I have discovered it many months ago and emailed to YBA to ask if it can be used to reduce the jitter, but they did not give me any answer...")

"...this decent YBA WD202 performs like a $20K+ dac with fool-proof operation...may jeopardize some self-claim superior designed DIY trader's business..."

"...After another month of usage of this fabulous DAC, I found it is improving after a one month non-power-off torture. Without losing the original analog taste of sound, it offers even more details and textures on every note. Piano just sounds more piano. Nothing more and nothing less..."

Testing system :
CD-- Studer A734 Limited (original Pikatron transformer output) ; Arcam D137 (Haufe transformer output)
CAS--Compaq notebook
Preamp: Revox B286; Telefunken STP-1.
Amp: Dynaudioacoustics T1000; Klein Hummel SB280.
Speakers: Dynaudio D40 3 way floorstanding. Revox Studio MK-IV 3 way bookshelf.

"...This little inexpensive DAC is just too much fun...."

Headphone Amp I have not yet tried out the earphone output.

A killer and a bargain. In the US this sells for around $800, but I think price may drop later, because in HK this sells for around USD 500. I suspect the difference may reflect clearance. Given the sea changes at YBA I'd wait if not in a hurry. No matter, even at list price it is a must for audition.

Brief Note on Audio Refinement Audio Refinement is a Taiwanese company that used to collaborate with YBA. It is not clear whether YBA still has ties with it now that the company is sold to the China PRC. Many years ago I heard one of their CD players. It did not at all give me any of the feelings I have with the WD202.

Below pic: Innards of the WD202 from Greek website AVMentor:

CD Recommendation: Popular

CD Recommendation: Popular

For this audiophile, it seems something nice always happens at the end of the year. Yesterday I borrowed several items from the local library, and I am happy to report that I have discovered two wonderful singers and re-visited two old favorites.

Stunning New Voices
Remember the early years of "fusion", "one world" and "New Age"? Well, I have to say towards that end some current efforts are much more sophisticated than those from earlier times.

Previously Jon Balke's work on ECM did not really impress me, but Siwan, the 2009 collaboration with Moroccan musicians and singer Amina Alaoui strike me as a superbly worthwhile effort. Grant you, I have always had fondness and admiration for Arabic music and tradition (not the gender issues and political stuff) , and this re-creation adds to it. Amina Alaoui sings in several languages, and her voice is wonderful sultry, yet strong. Balke and the band deliver great atmosphere and the recording is impeccable. For once, the ECM booklet is not empty or full of BS, instead with useful notes and lyrics. Imagine, poems by not one but two deposed and imprisoned poet-kings! A resounding success. A youtube clip of what to me is the most Arabic cut, Ya Safwati, is included below.

Less innovative is the collaboration between Afro-Spanish "flamenco" songstress Buika and Cuban jazz pianist and bandleader Chucho Valdes. The songs are a tribute to the great Spanish diva Chavela Vargas. I must say Buika's voice is at least as distinctive, if not more so, and I enjoyed the album immensely. This is not a voice for those couch-potato audiophiles who listen to bland female singers (the majority). This is a woman on fire here! The old songs are impeccably and tastefully rendered by the band. Those who like the sound of the old Trios Los Panchos will find much to like, though Buika's voice is far removed from, say, their collaborator Eydie Gorme. Below I have embedded 3 youtubes of the title song El ultimo trago, Spanish for "the last drink", meaning the last breath: the CD recording; live; and as originally interpreted by Vargas.

Old Favorites
Some silly audiophiles only buy old versions of CDs. While it is true some older issues sound better than later generations, one should not be categorical about this. When it comes to pop, many new re-masterings sound distinctly better.

I enjoyed this seminal Cat Stevens album more than the old LP I had. The sound is rich and full, the songs timeless. Salute to the tillermen of audio remasterings!

The Beatles Mono Masters delivered awesome mono sound quality that allows one to focus on the music. Never before had I been more aware of the rhythmic swagger of this band! This 2-CD set is from genuine mono masters. This wikipedia entry explains the difference of this set from Past Masters. Highly worthwhile!

29 December, 2011

Review: Belden 8471

Review: Belden 8471

Official Spec

I have long been a fan of Belden cables (not their power cables though) and it is always a pleasure to try out a different model. Recently I got to try out some Belden loudspeaker cables. I highly recommend the cheap Belden 8471 (16 AWG stranded (19x29) tinned copper conductors, PVC insulation, twisted pair, PVC jacket).

You may remember that the Belden 9497 (write-up and spec here) has long been one of my reference cables. So how do they compare?

Material-wise, the 8471 is similar, though judging by the description the conductor of 9497 is likely faster. Both are completely unshielded and have two twisted conductors. The 9497 is more distinctive by having a much greater twist angle (almost unique in its severity). The 9497 has lower inductance and resistance (capacitance not rated, likely high).

The sound of the the 8471 can be described in one word: beautiful. It is balanced and detailed. Its greatest strength is a top-class treble, incredibly refined, airy and seductive and comparable to anything else I have heard. Its possible weaknesses are a barely noticeable, very mild "slowness" and bass that is perhaps very slightly on the light side. Users of 9497 who would like a little more treble air will likely like the 8471. A winner.

The Belden 8471 is easily available both in the US and in HK. In Hong Kong, a seller on the internet offers irresistible price, and he is a nice guy! Buy with confidence.

Note: I also tried out 8471's bigger brother, the thicker (10 AWG) Belden 5T00UP, similar in construction but using ETP copper (that is more similar to 9497, though it doesn't say tinned). The 5T00UP does not have the outstanding treble of 8471 but is a little faster. Bass is more prodigious but I feel it is possibly less coherent than the 8471 and 9497. YMMV.

25 December, 2011

In Memory of Those We Loved and Lost

In Memory of Those We Loved and Lost

This article is dedicated to our friend feikeung

The Yumcha Diary: December 24th, 2011
Backlogged, seriously backlogged. There are so many articles in the mental pipeline, but so little time for execution, particularly at this time of the year. I console myself that I can allow myself to be backlogged in my writing, but not in meeting with friends. On this day, still reeling from AL's party the previous night, I was delighted to find JCR33 has brought his lovely wife to the table, and she took quite a few wonderful pics of us!

Once in a while, late in a yumcha session, the waitress would come by saying there is someone on the phone looking for people from an audiophile gathering. Of course, that could only have come from our eccentric friend feikeung. Mind you, he has my cell number; yet he prefers this more grandiose method!

So, in mid-afternoon, feikeung materialized in front of us. Conversation was immediately energized, and there was considerable controversy on the origin of his latest moniker, bigcircleson, transliterated from Cantonese vernacular 大圈仔。After research, I found out our friend k.c. was absolutely correct in everything!

From the wikipedia entry on the 1984 HK classic gangster movie《省港旗兵 : "...電影名稱中「旗兵」指紅旗派中的紅衛兵,因劇中匪幫曾為紅衛兵。戲內常稱呼之「大圈仔」其實指來自廣州的人;因之前中國出版之地圖將人口過百萬之特大城市以三個同心圓圈為標誌..." (more info on Baidu)

In Memory of Those We Loved and Lost
During conversation, I found out feikeung had just lost his elder sister this past September. As one who had lost his sister (in 2007) I empathize.

This Chinese ink cartoon by my sister is one of her best works, and fit for the holiday season. Today I just browsed through all her drawings and paintings, and remember her.

23 December, 2011

Editor's Note: Season's Greetings 2011

Editor's Note: Season's Greetings 2011

To start on a grim note. Two days ago the Chinese celebrated Dongzhi, the Chinese Winter Solstice (if you are interested, here's a wikipedia entry). In Hong Kong, this day is as important as Thanksgiving in the US, and, instead of turkey, a chicken on the table, preferably freshly slaughtered, is almost a must. But this year no live chicken was to be had. Just a few days ago the H5N1 virus strain was discovered in some random samples and wholesale slaughter and dumping was ordered by the government.

From a broadly compassionate and green viewpoint, Buddhist or not, the action is regrettable. If animals are to be farmed for food, they should not be wasted. As a physician, I personally believe this kind of interventionist action, espoused by trigger-happy virologists (a discipline of more tall claims than substance) and "scientists" who do not have a broad view of life in its most basic term (that includes the WHO), not only do not save lives but may be more dangerous than letting things run their due course. Who is to say an inapt effort at containment may just trigger an even more dangerous variant? Think about natural wildfires: the debate on the appropriateness of intervention has continued to this day. Do we have enough respect for nature, which includes other animals?

Seasons Greetings
Here I wish my readers and friends, a wonderful holiday season. May you be healthy and surrounded by family. I cannot resist to say I wish something you have long wanted is finally on sale! Treat yourself!

Merry Christmas chez Shidi
The people of Hong Kong will celebrate any holiday if it is pretext for a good time and if money can be made. Christmas in HK mostly is a distorted version of what it is in the West, consisting of fancy dinner at restaurants and crazy shopping (for the self, not as gifts).

Fortunately, the dinner and wine tasting chez Shidi (the savant I introduced previously here) was a much more congenial affair. For once, the significant others were invited and I must say their presence enlivened the gathering. I say it was also a relief not to have to be so immersed in audiophilia-trivia. That said, we did conclude audio makes us young and healthy. For proof, just look at 余師傅 (top pic below)!

When we got there, shidi (aka AL) was still reeling from the wine he had at lunch in Sai Kung (what a life!). His lovely wife Jane, despite spending much time in the kitchen, found time to be sociable and attended to our every need.

First we were served delicious hors d'oeuvres: 醉雞翼 drunken chicken wings, 滷牛肉 Chinese stewed beef slices, 芙蓉蟹肉 crab meat sauteed with egg white (middle pic below) and 煎鯪魚餅 fried dace patties.

Then came daiwok's 白酒煮青口 Normandy Mussels in wine sauce (pic above). I must say this minimally yet perfectly garnished Moules au vin blanc was a veritable masterpiece. It brought back memory of Bruxelles thirty years ago, but I think daiwok's version was actually better! The sauce was mopped up with French bread.

This was followed by daiwok's 咖喱牛腩 curried beef brisket. daiwok revealed he had an Indian roommate, no wonder the authentic flavor! By the time the 炒蒜苗 sauteed garlic shoots was served we were hopelessly over-stuffed and inebriated.

That was not all, we were served a delicious French cheese (bottom pic below) and home-made chocolate courtesy of food-photographer Edwin. Too bad I could not have coffee so late in the evening. Too bad we had to leave after just one glass of champagne! It was windy outside Victoria Park, but our hearts were warmed.

Thank you all so much for a wonderful evening.

All the large and beautiful photos courtesy of JCR33