20 January, 2012

Happy Year of The Dragon

pic: traditional Paper Cut of traditional Dragon Dance during the New Year.

Happy Year of The Dragon

The coming Monday is the Chinese New Year It comes rather early this year. Why, we need more time to pay tribute to the mighty Dragon!

Human Saga The New Year is not quite party time, but a time for family gathering. For many, it is the only holiday they get all year. Transportation is over-stressed as many travel thousands of miles for reunion with family. From wikipedia entry (here I salute wiki for their libertarian efforts):

Chunyun (traditional Chinese: 春運; simplified Chinese: 春运; pinyin: Chūnyùn), also referred to as the Spring Festival travel season or the Chunyun period, is a period of travel in China with extremely high traffic load around the time of the Chinese New Year. The period usually begins 15 days before the Lunar New Year's Day and lasts for around 40 days. The number of passenger journeys during the Chunyun period has exceeded the population of China, hitting over 2 billion in 2008.[1] It has been called the largest annual human migration in the world.[2] Rail transport experiences the biggest challenge during the period, and myriad social problems have emerged.

As I am an avid watcher of Shenzhen TV, during this period every year I get to watch the extensively covered drama of how migrant workers scramble for just a ticket to get home. It moves me deeply. Most of the people in Shenzhen (increasingly for other big cities too) are migrants, and as a result the city is rather empty during the New year. This year I too will join the Chunyun, as I shall be spending the New Year in nearby Guangzhou. Not too far, fortunately.

pics: L, my WE133A; R, pic of Brook 12A from the Klipsch site

Brief Retrospect I am quite contented with what I have done in the last days of the year of rabbit. Firing up the Western Electric 133A amp (last article) should be named the event of the Year of the Rabbit ! Thinking about it, the year has been quite eventful in terms of hifi.

Looking Forward Last night I also fired up, for the first time, my pair of the Brook Model 7 mono preamps. Amazingly modern sound. You shall be hearing from me. But that is just a prelude for something else of even more import. My friends have requested that I let them hear my Brook 12A amps, and I shall try to comply this year. First I have to service them! 臥虎藏龍!Also, the recent WE experience has led me to re-evaluate from the grounds up my other systems. I am happy to report that I have broken new grounds with my Kondo setup, and I shall finally write that up in the Year of the Dragon. I think you shall be often surprised this coming year!

Thank You Note I take the opportunity to thank you for your support, wherever you are. According to Flag Counter, which I have installed just over 13 months ago, This Blog has logged more than 58,000 unique visitors from 141 countries in little over a year. Keep reading! The important thing is, have fun!


17 January, 2012

Western Electric, Mount Everest

Click pics to enlarge.

Western Electric, Mount Everest

Addendum added Feb 23, 2012; see visitors' comments below; I think icefox' comment goes straight to the nature of the WE. All of them are old friends. Do uou know old friends are particularly tough guests when it comes to audio. Why? Because there is no need to be polite!

In the audio pantheon, Western Electric (WE) not only has a place, it occupies the highest ground. Well, WE is God, or worshiped like one. Nothing in audio is more sought after, or increases in value faster.

The Western Electric Explosion
Up to the eighties, aside from a few in the know or in the business, nobody in the West knew much about WE, while the Japanese have long been mopping up WE in wholesale fashion. For decades, while America slept, the Japanese buyer would go to the tube warehouses and literally spend months going through them for valuable WE tubes. The Japanese were the first to appreciate WE, and use the huge WE horns and amps outside the theater. Hence, demand for anything WE had long been enormous in Japan.

A big factor that fueled the explosion was the second coming of the Single Ended Triode.
Japanese SET designers, and a lone soul or two in the west like Jean Hiraga, revived use of many of the triode tubes, including the WE 300B, which the Japanese called 夢幻之球, "Dream Tube". Aside from the 300B, the Japanese brought back use of many of the WE tubes, including the fabled 205D, which yields 0.5 watt in an SET amp. Talking about flea power! Slowly, the SET movement became worldwide, and now shows no sign of abating.

With the immense popularity of the triode tubes like 300B and 2A3 came a renewed interest in WE and other treasures of an earlier era, like the Brooks 2A3 amps. Afterall, WE was the grand daddy of them all, having invented the 300A/300B and made legendary amps that use them, the 91A and 86A. The WE 91A circuit is still used widely by DIY people, though often in modified fashion (necessary).

Then Ebay brought everything, including WE, to the world. Now the little that remained in the US were suddenly fought for. First, the Japanese dealer outbid everyone. Then people from HK and Korea. With the emergence of the Chinese economy, all of the sudden, the mainland Chinese became big players, and prices went into the stratosphere.

What's in the Western Electric name
If you read Western Electric history, you'll know WE became AT&T, which became Lucent and got lost. It is not clear who owns the name now, and this may potentially be a problem for the uninitiated.

pic of the "Western Electric" amp.

The name now is being used by at least two companies that I know of. The first is the company that markets (note I don't say "make") over-rated "re-issue" WE 300B, 274B tubes with the WE name (even if many of the internal parts look Chinese). Although visible to all, if you browse the website it is not at all clear who owns or are behind the company.

The second has even more of a stealthy presence. In NYC I have come across not one but two pairs of the 300B monoblocks shown in the pic. These have huge meters with the words "Western Electric" on them. There is no indication of a brand name, but they look uncannily like Canary Audio 300B amps with re-vamped front panels. The owner and his friends told me they are indeed made by Canary Audio, a company with strong Chinese ties. I cannot find anything about these amps on the internet.

Why so little info on the company? Why such a stealthy presence? In general I don't trust companies like these.

Western Electric Clones
There are now many people specializing in replicas, and one must take care in buying their products.

Mr "WE" Wu 西電胡 The most famous of them all, and probably still the best person. He used to have a shop in HK and sold quite some real WE tubes and gears during his time there. I think my 133A was originally sold by him. After WE's price sky-rocketed and supply dwindled he turned to cloning. He and others have re-used the laminations of non-audio WE products to make replica transformers, like the 171C. If implemented well, this practice can yield good transformers (like those on my 偉利 Wai-Lee amp), but then the making of transformer is fraught with difficulties, and that's not a topic we shall cover here. I am not sure at all how close to the originals the replica transformers sound.

Mr Wu started with straight-forward clones of the well-known WE amps, like the 91A, and used as much original WE parts as possible. But as price of tubes went through the ceiling and parts more difficult to source (mainland China followed him and now has a huge replica industry), he has turned to some older WE designs as well as new modified circuits of his own using less known and somewhat less expensive WE tubes. Click here for pictures of some of his products. In a nutshell, Mr Wu is quite resourceful and more of an artisan than most people who followed him.

I have heard quite a few of these products by Mr Wu, including one of his earlier 91A. While they could sound good and one could definitely hear the sonic signature of the WE tubes, the systems I had visited to my ears were not quite balanced, but I look forward to hearing more of them.

Chinese companies cloning WE amps Now, there are many. Most well known are probably 新時 and 志平。All claim use of WE laminations in their trannies; all claim use of WE and vintage parts. Some of these, like 新時 , look very good (you can see some here), even close to the real thing, but sonically it is another story, as most of these do not sound quite right to these ears. These clones are not cheap either, but they cater to many audiophile's unfulfilled dream of owning WE. Many buy these amps and use real WE tubes in them, another reason why WE tube prices are what they are. If you are considering a mainland Chinese cloned amp/preamp, think twice and audition carefully; IMHO, you should audition first Mr Wu's more innovative products and see if they are to your liking, and make comparisons.

WE 133A Amplifier
There is not much info on the internet. The 133A is much less famous, or common, than its brother 124 (which has several versions). Both use the same 171C output transformers. A schematic is at the bottom of the page. The signal first gets amplified and phase-split by the input transformer 618B, then through the 348A (6J7) driver tubes before going to the 349A (~6F6) output tubes, yielding just a magnificent 8 watts. The power supply of my unit is not by WE; it uses a beefy ACME KS-9441 power transformer and 5U4/274B type rectifier. For a WE power supply and nice pics, see this Japanese user site (original in Japanese).

Many WE connoisseurs, like Master Huang of Taipei 臺北黃老闆 regard the WE133A to be at least the equal of the better known 124. One interesting thing he 臺北黃老闆 told me (also mentioned by pilotrol below) is that the 133A can be configured as a preamp of even higher quality (it comes to mind that Shindo uses the 349A in its top preamps). It is my dream one day to do this and use it as preamp for my 124! It would be fun to compare the 133A preamp against the magnificent 106.

Food for the body, Food for the Soul
This article came by because of a recent visit by my friends, all experienced but jaded audiophiles and classical music lovers, and two of the four play the violin. I had long promised BenYC to showcase the real WE sound. Unlike my friend whlee and I, he found nothing to like about the sound of a replica system when we together heard it some time ago. I had him to thank for firing up my WE133A again, and what have I been missing!

The evening began with my various setups. They went through some Leben, Kondo, Wavac and JC Verdier gears while I was cooking. To save time, I decided to eat at home and made a simple meal of braised chicken with fermented rice 紅糟雞 (福州菜), eight delicacies in hot sauce 八寳辣醬 (上海菜), pork and bean curd with home-made pickled vegetable 家鄉咸酸菜豆干肉絲 and sauteed vegetable 小唐菜。 As I didn't have a dining room, they had to serve themselves and all the food were kept in the kitchen. All washed down with wine of course! I thank Jeff for his nice bottle of Saint-Estephe. Gears used for the WE133A:

Digital: Sony CDP/DAS R1
Analog: Kuzma Stabi/Stogi, Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, Denon AU-1000 step-up
Preamp: Leben RS-28CX
Loudspeakers: Tannoy Canterbury HE

Sonic Bliss I don't want to go into details but, difficult in words as it is, I will tell you what I think WE ought to sound like: to me, the real WE sound is quite neutral, possessing transient speed, refinement and detail of the utmost order, fully up to par with modern gears. The WE has superior PRaT and conveys like nothing else the leading edge, phrasing and articulation of music. And all of this in a balanced whole.

On this night, I am not sure how much of the WE sound I have achieved, but my friends sure seemed completely bowled over. Mind you, only the 349A were real WE tubes. MOV EF37A were used in lieu of 348A (don't have them in HK) and rectifier was the humble EH 5U4. The next day, my friends called me and talked at length. I shall convey an approximation of what they said:

BenYC: "... I have to thank you because the experience has re-kindled my interest in audio...for too long I have been sort of...but now I think I have some new ideas and direction...";"...I think Tannoy is not the best horn for 配不起 WE (editor: he means the horn is small and I should go for much larger horn systems; I agree, when I have the space I will do that; too bad I cannot afford real WE horns...)..."

Tony88: "...what a big surprise...previously I had heard some forgettable "WE" systems but this is something else...for a change we listened to complete numbers...even with the low wattage, the Shostakovich (5th, Haitink/Decca) was delivered with exceptional punch and power...";"...why not clean out everything and just have the Tannoy + WE133A?..."

whlee: "...what magnificence...the purity of the sound was really something else...the rhythm and pace was like nothing I have ever heard..."

Addendum: On Feb 21, one of the few days I was in my place, my old friends icefox and oozz (both 惡客) came by. This time I had no time to prepare dinner, but we did have wine and a jolly good time. Most of the time I was in the next room doing something else, just letting them be. I first offered them Kondo, but that didn't quite appease them. After I switched to WE, I could hear their chatter turned into silence. They were very well behaved from that point on. The next day I had a long chat with icefox: "...the WE just illustrates what is wrong with hifi...usually we spend all our energy listening very hard trying to identify what is good or bad about the system, fixating on one or two particular qualities...not so the WE experience; with WE we just listen to the music as an organic whole, relaxing and enjoying the experience...the WE goes straight to the essence of every type of music played and draws you in...it may not casually seem the most detailed at first listen, yet you find everything is there... "

Pilotrol: Searching the net I found one of my acquaintances, the vintage expert Pilotrol, actually has a 133A with the WE18A power supply. He had just fired it up on the last day of 2010. Here is the nicely written bit he posted in Review 33:


1945年才開始生產的WE133A可算是西電最後一 代的電台和錄音室專業用的多用途放大器。WE133A本身可用作Line Amp前級、Isolation Amp前級和Monitor Amp後級等等同用途,是西電少數專業用的萬用放大器。基本放大工作由兩支WE348A和兩支WE349A負責,信號先經由WE618B輸入牛昇壓分 相,再由兩支WE348A作初級放大並推動兩支WE349A推挽經WE171C輸出牛8 Watts輸出。在輸出段有兩級負回輸返回初級放大段落。


最 近詢問日本Dealer才得知,現時在日本一對WE133A加上WE18A電源叫價已上升至300萬日元以上,連小弟自己也覺價錢貴得近乎不合情 理...!怪不得近來有朋友在未親身聽過的情況下出價十多萬要求小弟割愛。不過在大量韓國和大陸富豪熱烈追捧下,再加上西電產品貨源供應稀少才引致供不應 求,價格長期高企的現像。



I must audition Pilotrol's rare unit one day! And it is about time I re-invite him to my place again. Last meeting several years ago was quite a bit of fun.

10 January, 2012

Review: Dared MP-5 Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM Yamaha NS-10M

pic of cheap metal steaming rack akin to the ones I used; call me insane.
CAS Talk: My New Desktop System
My Corner: My Study - Two Systems
Review: Dared
膽藝高 MP-5
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM
Review: Yamaha NS-10M
Tweak Talk: Steaming Rack

As you may have guessed, I spend a huge amount of time on the main computer in my study typing away. While writing or surfing, I always listen to music, mostly stuff newly borrowed from the library. Let me describe a little the 2 very different setups in my study in HK. This article is like a monster from the Ulysses, I cut off something only to have more pour forth! :-) But then, only equipment that brings you fun can do that, right?

pic of my traditional system. Click to enlarge.

My Study - System 1: Traditional with a Twist
Since the very beginning my study in HK has had, for lack of a better term, a traditional system, with a CD player as source. I have never liked near-field listening, and I wanted to avoid that in the small space; as a result, my speakers are placed near the ceiling corners.

This is not as crazy as you think. It has to do with making use of potentially harmful room excitation and avoidance of room limits. For a more complete espousal of my rationale, click here. If I want to listen to rock or anything loud, this system is what I go to. And it does fine by anything else too.

The system has had many permutations, but the speakers have always remained in the same positions - there is no better spot. Currently the system consists of: --Cambridge DV-87; Cyrus I; Yamaha NS-10M. The CDP and amp are leftover items chosen for their sound quality and small size. The system has served me very well for background listening.

System 1 - Enter the Yamaha NS-10M
These legendary speakers need no long-winded review on my part. They have long been cherished by all the who's who in the recording industry, and even has a wonderful dedicated website. Another must-read article is this one at soundonsound. Come to think of it, I'd not be surprised if some of the rock/pop albums I mentioned below were originally mastered on the Yamaha! :-)

In the Study - System 1 I must say with the arrival of the NS-10Ms I think this system has attained full potential. Even more than the speakers I have previously tried, including the estimable Proac Response 1 (original, and still the best version) and the Pioneer I am about to review, the Yamaha NS-10M is wonderfully suited for this purpose. The wall reinforcement lends a little extra warmth in the bass to the "studio" balance that is very welcome. Even then, bass is still not what you would call rich.

I also toyed with the idea of using them in the near-field system I am about to cover, but they are simply too big. Maybe if your desk is bigger.

In the Living Room Mind you, although a little lean in the bass, the NS-10Ms work also fantastically well in my living room with the proper tube gears. Placed in the middle of the room, their wonderfully clear sound and imaging were quite enticing, but in the larger room, some augmentation of the bass by a subwoofer would perhaps be even more desirable, though it didn't cry out in this aspect like the Airtight Bonsai did. Even without, the sound, to say the least, was as good as the Vienna Acoustics Haydn Grand SE or B&W CM1. Compared to the venerable LS3/5A, I prefer the Yamaha's for their more revealing bass and ability to play louder.

The important thing is, no matter where they are used, their wonderfully fast, revealing and articulate sound is not a bit out of date. An evergreen, a star and a bargain!

Pioneer Pure Malt S-A4SPT-PM
These rear-ported speakers have an interesting genesis, for which you can consult the Official Description. Together with their more upmarket sibling, the S-A4SPT-VP, they have caused quite a stir in HK, where many audiophiles in small apartments are forced to use small bookshelves. In HK, some even use a stacked pair! In the AV community they have also received quite a bit of attention (re: Audioholics, cnet). Even the mainstream press Stereophile has noticed it. I have serious doubts about John Marks and don't usually like his column, but here I do agree with his assessment.

In the Living Room I first tried the PMs in-room. These are good speakers with surprisingly strong bass for the size but, unlike the Yamaha NS-10Ms I described above, they lack the coherence of many of the aforementioned speakers (B&W CM1, Vienna Acoustics Hadyn Grand SE, Airtight Bonsai) I have tried in the same position. Neither do they have the mellifluousness of the venerable LS3/5A. So, of limited appeal in a larger room.

In the Study - System 1 In the traditional system in my study, the PMs did not work as well as the Proac Response 1, not to mention the Yamaha NS-10M now resident. Sound was rather grey and sterile. Perhaps it was due to interaction between the rear-port and close-by wall, but then that didn't bother my Proac's. You never know. So, no go, and they were left unused for quite a while.

pics: L, atop my Wavac MD-300B amp, click to enlarge.
Dared 膽藝高 MP-5 USB Headphone Amp

Dared is a well-established Chinese company in nearby Shenzhen, said to be an early spun-off from Shanling 山靈, that makes products only for exports. You'd not find their products in China proper! To see a lot of pics, you may want to browse this wonderful Site Visit Report in Chinese 推薦! 膽藝高專訪. This report provides much interesting info not available elsewhere. In common with some other Chinese audio companies with past or present military ties (e.g., Spark 斯巴克), the boss of Dared, the funky man pictured with the military tube-tester, is a retiree from the military 高總是退伍軍人.

Dared also does OEM for many foreign enterprises. Thus you may find products that look very much like Dared but bearing other brand names. The MP-5, in its various iterations, has been in existence since 2006 and, with more than ten thousand units sold, remain by far the product most people associate with the company. It first came to prominence as Fatman (UK company; closest product now is the iTube), and I have always liked its looks.

The MP-5 has long been marketed in the US as Dared, and has been very well received by the earphone community (despite their pretensions, I don't regard them as serious audiophiles) as well as more mainstream audiophile press like enjoythemusic and positive feedback. For comparison with similar products and more scoop on Dared, read the excellent overview in Sonic Flare. When it comes to Asia, the MP-5 has also been very popular in Taiwan (here's a review in Chinese, with a few errors, as we shall come to them later), less so in Hong Kong.

Comparison of the Different Versions; Pay More, Get More?Although cosmetically identical, comparison of the US and my HK Dared MP-5 reveals more difference than obvious at first glance.

Price The price for the US version is quite a bit more than the HK one, which is sold by the dealer 深水埗聯興 at a list price of HK1, 980 (~USD 255). It should be noted that in Taiwan (a typical seller here) the MP-5 sells for TWD 6800 (~HKD 1,760), cheaper than in HK even after bargaining. Considering that HK is much closer to China, and that HK has no import tariff, the dealer charges too much in HK. 注意:其他地方也有售,但都是行貨而開價可能更高 Price Advantage Taiwan/HK. So the question is, is the US version worth the extra price?

Tubes Used The display tuning-eye tube is for fun and is the same in any version. For the preamp section, the US version uses 12AX7 and the HK/Taiwan version uses 6N1. As we shall see later, this has import when it comes to tube rolling. Tube Rolling Advantage US.

Internals Here lies the greatest difference - they are almost like two different machines, so different is the built. The left pic of the US version is from Gainphile
's Blog. The right pic (click to enlarge) is my unit. The main differences between the US and HK versions are: (1) the US version has the better gold-plated circuit board, as claimed; (2) the HK version uses surface mount components whereas the US version uses discrete components. Built Quality Advantage US. Caveat: imho SM components sometimes can sound better, if properly implemented (think: Linn).
In the Living Room After consulting with Dared (see below), I confirmed what I suspected, that the MP-5 has either a passive input or one of low gain that it can be used as an amp with the volume maxed. I tried it out briefly in my main system (Digital: Sony R1 combo; Preamp, Leben RS-28CX; Speakers, Tannoy Canterbury HE). Serious audiophiles may laugh at this, but remember audio is for fun and for music. People who use audio for fun and serious music listening more often than not get much better sound out of even their cheap systems than anal audiophiles who spend more time being distracted by audio rather than listening to music. Sound? Exactly what I expect, not up to the level of SET amps (what is?) but surprisingly musical and satisfying. The ultimate resolution is not quite there, but the music is conveyed with little loss. As a matter of fact I think using a tube preamp and the MP-5 as amp will hands down musically outperform most of the expensive Accuphase I have seen used with Tannoy in HK (because they have the same dealer).

pic of my USB desktop system. Click to enlarge.

The New Desktop System
Lest you have the impression that I don't have desktop experience, you are not quite right. It is just that I mostly prefer not to listen near-field and favor the traditional System 1 described above. But for things like sampling music and watching youtubes I do use the desktop speakers.

System 2 Before - Audioengine A2 In NYC When I first bought them, I briefly used these with the M-Audio Firewire Solo in my study/bedroom to great effect (write-up here). I brought both back to HK, but in my study the M-Audio could not be used as my computer does not have firewire output (I shall wait till my next one). In HK Even just using the analog output of my computer's sound card (generic), I did have a wonderful experience with the A2 (my best-buy of 2011). About a year ago I gave them to a dear friend as gift, and since then have missed them greatly and even thought of buying them again. I substituted some cheap computer speakers on hand (Filand) and they were barely adequate. Time to move on.

System 2 Now - Use of USB Although some of my DAC's have USB capability, I have never tried them out in HK for the simple reason that I have yet to set up CAS in my living room and it is too much trouble for the study. Since I am not a great CAS fan, although I have listened to a LOT of USB-based CAS in other people's homes, my own experience have been rather limited: (In NYC) limited to a brief trial of the execellent HRT Music Streamer in the main system (hooked up to a good DAC); (In HK) this time marked the first time I used the USB out of my computer in the study. Using the supplied cheap USB cable (not so nice as described for the US version), connection between my computer and Dared MP-5 worked without a hitch. Using iTunes my lossless AIFF files played without any hitch.

Sound of Dared + Pioneer (USB)
I am happy to report the sound via USB, which is certainly not perfect, does manage to have quite a human face. The Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM has finally found its niche on my desktop. The sound as a whole bettered that of my previous setup of Audioengine A2 driven by the computer's analog output. Some observations:
  • Corresponding to my finding in the living room, the Dared MP-5 does not offer the last word in detail (although it does well enough). Its errors are minor sins of omission.
  • The system has above average rhythmic finesse, something very rare in even very expensive CAS. Have you ever listened carefully to the renowned Benchmark DAC? It is a clean but bland DAC with a significant weakness in PRaT (pace, rhythm and timing). Weiss does not have it either. On the other hand, Naim digital and the cheap YBA WD-202 do! Get it? Professional digital/recording gurus, no matter how talented, more often than not leave out more of the soul in their designs than designers from a strong AUDIO base. As the Pioneer is not an especially articulate speaker in general, I attribute this wonderful quality to the Dared.
  • The Pioneer performs on the desktop much better than in-room or in the study's traditional system. The rear-port on the desktop appears to be not only not a burden but an asset: close to the rear boundary and at desktop listening level, perhaps that is what makes the bass sound like it goes deeper than it does, without incurring the cost of muddying things up. Even the bass instruments in the rock tracks sound fleshed out and have good definition.
  • Although euphonic, I cannot help to notice a little grain in the treble once in a while. For example, tape hiss on older recordings are easily heard. As this was not at all present when either the Dared or the Pioneer were used in the living room, I attribute this to the USB output.
  • Speaker Cables definitely makes a difference. Ditch the cables that came with the Pioneers for something better. I first connected the system with Gotham 50025. When I later found and installed the stock generic cables I instantly felt an undefinable loss. After all of the tests above I switched to Belden 9497 and it was a significant improvement. For a check, I compared again Elman's violin. Yes, the sound has indeed improved, smoother and better microdynamics.
Tweaks Platform I improved the balance and imaging by raising the system with a piece of surplus shelf (made of particle board, yuk), supported by 4 water glasses, horror of horrors. When I get time I shall try to source some cheap but better alternatives. No, TAOC and Finite Elemente don't make shelves for the desktop, and even if they do why should you even think about buying such over-priced and colored stuff? Speaker Support Hoping to improve coupling of the speakers to the (lousy) surface they sit on, against my better judgement I first tried spikes under the speakers (see pic), but alas, they made the sound worse and were promptly removed after the pic was taken. The experience reaffirms my belief that spikes under non-floorstanding speakers more often than not work against the sound. As I write, I continue to tweak. I just tried cheap metal Steaming Racks, the kind you find in 10-cent stores (pic at top of article), and they work a treat! Just one example to illustrate what I am talking about. Take "The Mercy Seat" from Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' Tender Prey, the spikes made the heavy going unlistenable; removing them made things better; but with the steaming racks everything improved!

Traditional vs Desktop
Comparison is absolutely fascinating. It sheds light on both systems as well as some of the components. I shall not go into great depth, but a few example should tell you the difference.

General Observations This means I believe these observations are valid, in my case AND yours:
  • Despite the use of highly uncolored Yamaha NS-10M, the Traditional System is more expansive and has an easy quality. Take the aforementioned "The Mercy Seat", the ability to project even very dense music into the room effortlessly is something the desktop, mine AND yours, shall never achieve, and that is also why I continue to have one such system in my study.
  • With simpler music, like Elman's violin playing, the Desktop System can sound airy and focused, but there is no denial its smallish, somewhat myopic nature. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either not a real audiophile, or paradoxically too much of one, someone who dissects music into meaningless parts, things like soundstage etc. Yes, the Desktop System has a soundstage whereas the traditional one does not but which one sounds more like music? I conjecture if the desk is far from room boundary the sound can be much better, but then that would not be the usual desk in the usual study, would it?
Other Observations: This means the findings may be due to the properties of different equipment, so my observations may not be applicable outside my environment. I am just reporting on my systems.
  • The Desktop System has a tighter, more bassy delivery but paints with broader strokes and less accuracy. In "The weeping Song" and "The Ship Song" from Nice Cave & The Bad Seeds' Good Son, the music feels "richer" and moves quicker on the desktop but Cave's distinctive voice is a little too bassy. Through the Yamaha, Cave's voice is more correct in timber and the music is cooler. When it comes to string texture, the Yamaha is much more accurate. On the Yamaha, you could hear every minutiae as the instrument vibrates in Ry Cooder's "Paris, Texas". In Elman's "Meditation" and "Ziguenerweisen", the subtle tonal variations are not fully brought out by the desktop, and his trademark portamenti sounded more of one piece on the Yamaha, on which you can hear much more of the bowel sound. However, though much smaller in size, the piano sounds fuller on the desktop.
More on the Dared MP-5
The Dared MP-5 has a switchable RCA auxiliary input, which I connected it to a spurious cheap DVD multiplayer, 步步高 DV997, made by the people who OEM'ed Oppo. I think it uses a 24/96 Burr-Brown chip.

CD vs USB The MP-5's DAC is said to be an Onkyo USB based on the BB PCM2702 chip, making the comparison quite a valid one. As it turns out, the sound is audibly different. The USB has a higher output and is definitely, as noticed previously, a little grainier in the treble (the DVD player is not the smoothest thing to start with). As noticed before, the USB paints with broader strokes. The CD player recovers some of the microdynamics glossed over by the USB. I think this is more attributable to data corruption by USB rather than difference between the two DACs. The CD player also has better definition and details.

Tube Rolling 換膽疑雲
Now we come to the tricky part. The US version uses 12AX7, which means there are a lot of possibilities, as even the closely related 12AU7 and 12AT7 varieties can be used without much harm (美版用 12AX7). But the HK/Taiwan version uses the unique Chinese/Russian 6N1, a tube with no exact equivalent (港臺版用 6N1). On the internet, there is a lot of debate on what would be a close cousin. Most commonly regarded as a possible substitute is ECC85/6AQ8, but others refute that vehemently. Lots of Chinese tube gears use 6N1, so these questions get asked and debates arise all the time. No wonder the US version switches to 12AX7.

!!!Misleading statement 雜誌誤導 !!! For those who can read Chinese, matters become more confusing after reading the Taiwan Chinese review I referred you to earlier. It said somewhere: "...二支6N1(ECC85)真空管負責的是前級的部分的小信號放大.....用家仍可享受真空管的換管樂趣,信號管可用12AX7、5751、ECC83、12AU7/ECC82、12AT7/ECC81。..."(translation: 2x 6N1/ECC85 are used as the preamp tubes...users can enjoying tube swapping with 12AX7/U7/T7 etc) Huh? I had never read that about 6N1!

Great Customer Service I emailed to Dared (SZ) about tube rolling. I got an email reply promptly, quicker than I get anything back from many "reputable" brands. The reply asked me to call a certain Mr Zhou. I called and got him immediately. I think he could be the boss himself, though the voice sounds young 我想是高總親自接的電話。How is that for customer service! He is a friendly soul, and here are basically what he said:
  • 6N1 version ECC85/6AQ8 can be used. Should provide a richer sound in his opinion. 12AX7/U7/T7 (and 6DJ8 family) should NOT be used. 香港/臺灣的 6N1 版本只能換 ECC85/6AQ8 膽
  • 12AX7 version Sounds better in his opinion. The 12AX7 version has modification of circuitry and PCB layout, not a simple matter of changing a few parts.
  • Can be used as an amp with the volume maxed 可當後級用。
Advantage USA when it comes to tube-rolling possibilities.
Tube Rolling with ECC85 I don't know where my Teles's are, so I pilfered the tubes from my EAR509, one from each monoblock. I think one is Amperex and the other RFT, though both were labelled Mullard. Certainly the sound is a little airier and more lustrous and there is a bit more detail, though I do think tonally the stock 6N1 is perhaps a tad more neutral. I could not hear any detrimental effects. On the other hand, the change was not as significant as changing the speaker cable, and do you need to go to such lengths on the desktop, especially when most of the time you will not be paying close attention to the sound? For general desktop purposes, I think the stock 6N1 is fine. For me, I put back the 6N1 and with effort re-installed the cage (easier to remove).

Further Conclusions on Dared MP-5 and Desktop System In General
I have already stated my thoughts on the overall superiority of a traditional system in a small room/study. YMMV. A few words on the Dared MP-5 and desktop system in general:
  • The humble Dared MP-5 has brought fun to my desktop, enough to make me spend three days writing this article and testing things. Fun, that is the most important factor for a man who does not have high expectations of his desktop. Make no mistake, I have heard expensive desktop like Weiss202 + active Dynaudio playing 24/192 files and I had failed to be moved. With the Dared MP-5, I also fail to be moved, from my chair that is, as I eagerly await what it will do next.
  • Although not the last word in anything, the Dared MP-5 oozes musicality, the most important thing that consistently eludes CAS. If you ask me, getting the desktop CAS to sound good is harder than even in the main system.
  • Musicality is more important than bits and sampling rate. Don't go chasing after the latest numbers, like those head-fi nerds and audiophiles in general. The Dared is 44.1 and 48 only, but I will take that over something 192 that leaves me cold.
  • It is mandatory to change the speaker cables.
  • Roll tubes with caution; know your version. Even in the US, some people buy from Chinese sources and will get the version with 6N1 instead of 12AX7. Paying more for the US version comes with the benefit of ease of tube-rolling.
  • Power is limited, so I think it is better used in the study or in a second system.
  • The MP-5 can be used as a power amp. Use it with a good preamp in the main system only if you have highly efficient systems.
  • The HK/Taiwan version uses SM components. Not much room for "upgrades".
  • I have yet to try out the headphone output.
Is there a MP-5 MkII?
Yes and no. While there is a so-called MP-5 MkII (another article here), it is not really by Dared. According to the first link, the Taiwanese company YPL 音譜利 , which is curiously also distributor of Dared in Taiwan, either bought or licensed the name and technology of MP-5 from Dared. Curiously, the MkII is listed under products in YPL's Chinese webpage, but not in the English one. You can see from the pics in the first link that it is quite a different machine, using different tubes (6N2) and SM components, with more features. The price as well as output are about double that of Dared MP-5. I'd love to have a chance to hear it.