31 March, 2012

Letter from UK 2012 (2): Manchester

Letter from UK 2012 (2): Manchester

This article is dedicated to my friend Daiwok, former Mancunian, Fish-n-Chips authority, Midas, fine chef and Lenco-maniac (sorry if I missed other attributes).

On a fine day I am glad I got to spend a few hours in Manchester. There was little on the way. Power lines and animals grazing on the pastures outnumber buildings and people, even cars. 

Despite the lack of tall buildings in the horizon, one immediately knows one is approaching the city by the appearance of nondescript housing blocks. More, for someone who has gotten accustomed to genteel Chester, I felt an injection of adrenalin, an inkling of the energy of the city. The gritty thoroughfare was lined by shops catering to the various minorities, mostly Afro-Caribbean, outside which people congregate. In a few moments I saw more "colored people" than days in Chester. I guess it was like getting into Manhattan through Harlem.

Although much grit has remained, the city feels energetic; urban renewal (some say thanks to the 1996 IRA attack) and competent designs are everywhere to be seen. I like the dearth of tall buildings and the manageable scale. Around every corner, you get to see the new meeting the old. Even the gargantuan Arndale Center seems well integrated and not so imposing.

My driver parked just outside the center of town, in the big Wing Yip Chinese supermarket. The tower at the entrance is garish (what do you expect?), but surely great advertisement. It is reasonably well stocked, but not to the standard of ones in New York, catering mainly to the Cantonese. Its one distinguishing feature is its adjoining warehouse, where you can buy provisions in the bulk. I was told there is little difference between retail and wholesale here, as the same store caters to both clienteles.

Walking down Oldham Road, I soon got to Oldham Street. I had done my homework (visit this great website for music shopping), and surely I found the famous record shops. As I expected, Manchester is THE rock and roll town, and they only have pop music. But I was not disappointed, indeed glad that vinyl is thriving. Solace once more came in the form of an Oxfam shop, where I scored a few classical LPs.

Pass the craggy expanse of Piccadilly and one arrives in Chinatown, which looks like any other smaller ones (like Philadelphia). I was taken to a small Casino for a cup of free espresso, not bad! As usual, mostly Chinese inside (sad), mostly senior citizens. The Chinese here seem the same breed as our US 唐山 variety; unlike NYC, the PRC presence is yet not overwhelming.

Just at the edge of Chinatown is the Manchester Art Gallery. Obviously the Chinese don't hang out here. Judging by its holdings catalogued on its website, the small museum probably shows only a tiny fraction of its collection. It houses mostly an English collection, particularly the pre-Raphaelites. I was told by the very friendly staff that, unlike their more high-brow cousins down South who concentrated on the Europeans, Mancunians collected under-valued British Art. I enjoyed the Turner and Francis Bacon, also a few small works by more famous names, Renoir, Modigliani, Sisley, Boudin and the likes.

The cold and grey returned in the afternoon. So it is this morning in Chester. 

25 March, 2012

Letter from UK 2012 (1) Chester

Letter from UK 2012 (1) Chester I

Greetings from Chester UK!

I brought great weather to this part of town. Since I arrived, the sun just followed me wherever I went. Where I stay is tranquil and comfort to the soujourner, if myself the infrequent traveller can be called one, and at  this stage I am more of one in my hifi journey than real life.

This is still mostly fairy book and picturesque England, yet this tourist town is quite sophisticated and very friendly when it comes to foreigners. I chuckled in delight when I saw the "Roman soldiers" giving a guided tour to little kids clad in fake armor. Easter signs are everywhere. There is a special "Alice in Wonderland" show somewhere. Somehow, I like the preservation of innocence of a bygone era. Much more palatable than Asians dressed as Mickey Mouse in Asian Disneylands! Kids are lucky here.

Walking around the center of town was a delight. I bought an LP from the local OXFAM shop, but didn't have much luck otherwise. The pictured record store is huge but caters only to pop music.

As usual, I don't eat out much, but lunch at the French Chez Jules was a bargain. Later, before I headed home I had a pint of local ale and it proved even more special; I delight in tasting unheard-of varieties. Not warm, but slightly cool, perfect. Great beer! Real Ale!

But the best was walking along the Canal. Quay-side bars are but one sign of rejuvenation. I do wish I had a better camera!


22 March, 2012

Letter from NYC 2012 (23): More is Less, Less is More, More or Less

click pic to enlarge: all in a family; top, my new Thorens TD-309; bottom, my reference Thorens TD-124

Letter from NYC 2012 (22): More is Less, Less is More, More or Less
Talk Vinyl: Empire Cartridge redux
and Mono vinyl replay (Denon DL-102)

In the last article, I touched upon the importance of feelings in our evaluation. Without honing our skills in evaluating the correctness of our feelings (for they can be incorrect) we cannot begin to talk about "less is more". Here, I assume you know your feelings well.

Less is More?
When it comes to hifi, this much used adage more often than not is less a genuine realization than a mental state. When it comes from the mouth of someone who is simply fed up or in self-denial, it is not the quite the same as when it comes from someone who has done and seen much (no one can claim to have done or seen it all). I am not implying anything, nor trying to be glib, but I do believe "less is more" is more credible when coming from someone who has wandered in the wilderness of hifi for a long time, not from someone who is a mere internet researcher.

Just to quickly toss off some of MY takes on "Less is More":

  • Less tubes, less components, less maintenance.Single Ended Triodes While I take pleasure in many vintage equipment, when it comes to simplicity and ability to ease oneself into the music, SET (properly matched with efficient speakers) reigns supreme. Well, in general, that is, and there is one exception...
  • Less setup pains.Western Electric (WE)Sonically, nothing else comes close. I think you can hook up anything to real WE and be mesmerized. WE confounds and repudiates. Think of it, I don't usually like interstage transformers, but there are rare examples that I like, as implemented in WE (and perhaps by Wavac). I like push-pull less than SE, but WE is another story...in a way (not monetary unfortunately) it is "less is more" because the rest of the chain becomes not so important, such is WE's overwhelming excellence.
  • Less (no) Digits, More Music.Vinyl There is so much garbage written about analog replay by digital nerds, particularly those CAS people. If you do it right, going vinyl is so much easier than getting good CAS sound. Almost any of the plug-and-play entry turntables shall trump an expensive CAS setup. Class A Benchmark or even Weiss? They pale, bleached out of life, when compared with a reasonable and inexpensive vinyl setup! For a song (indeed not much more than some CAS software!!!!) one can start with the Project RPM1.3 (my review here). A little more shall get you the wonderful Clearaudio Concept (my review here and here). I only mention these, because they are plug-and-play and any newcomers can get instant gratification. Lack of software? This is another nonsense perpetrated by the anlaogphobes. In the western countries, one can easily source many used LPs with a little effort, and the new vinyl catalogue is more extensive than one thinks. And then there is always the internet for those who live in less convenient locations. Why not listen to both?
  • Less Components We are not talking about "Straight Wire with Gain" here (some even think no gain is better, not me). Although it is not always true that the simpler the circuit/layout the better, in certain areas it is generally true. Well-implemented Fullrange and Concentric loudspeakers, which use less drivers or crossover components. Surprisingly, Surface Mount components when well done (think Linn, Primare).
That was digressing. When I started to write, I meant to tell you some recent experiences of Less is More:
  • State of the Empire As ususal in NYC, in the early morning I listened to My Casual Listening Station, which now has my Empire E/III cartridge in it. This really is a damned fine cartridge! The vinyl replay through the humble setup gave my main system a run for its money. Even my 2000Z with replacement stylus is not bad! More money does not really buy you more cartridge!
  • Mono Playback I finally have a proper arm for my Denon DL-102 mono cartridge. The arm on my humble new Thorens TD-309 turntable supports the DL-102 beautifully. Finally, I get all the details and gone were the bloated bass when mounted previously in my Technics SP-1200 arms. More report on this turntable later. The mono cartridge plays stereo wonderfully too.

Letter from NYC 2012 (22): Observations and Feelings

Letter from NYC 2012 (22): Observations and Feelings
Talk Digital: Much Ado about Nothing, CAS and Measurements

Friends, I have so much to report, yet everything takes time, and time is on the short side these days, with family duties that have to be duly attended to. But I must tell you I feel I am turning over new leaves, and several articles in the mental pipeline shall be more than worth their salt, I pledge! But first...

Audio - Science, Religion, or Metaphysics?
After more than two decades of encounters with audiophiles of all kinds, I can say for most of them, if not all of us, the approach is a combination of all of the above. Audio beliefs can often be based on sheer faith that comes alarmingly close to religious cult. When it comes to this kind of thing, why don't we read what sages from a simpler age has left for us?

Kierkegaard on Feelings and Observations, relevant for audio? Remember the great philosopher behind the masterpiece Either/Or? I invoke his views on the inadequacies of human observations:
  • (from wikipedia entry) "...The scientist can learn about the world by observation but Kierkegaard emphatically denied that observation could reveal the inner workings of the spiritual world. In 1847 Kierkegaard described his own view of the single individual:
    God is not like a human being; it is not important for God to have visible evidence so that he can see if his cause has been victorious or not; he sees in secret just as well. Moreover, it is so far from being the case that you should help God to learn anew that it is rather he who will help you to learn anew, so that you are weaned from the worldly point of view that insists on visible evidence. (...) A decision in the external sphere is what Christianity does not want; (...) rather it wants to test the individual’s faith..."
Unfeeling Digital Apologists I refer to those digital advocates out there who fanatically follow measurements and routinely tout the superiority of the newest DAC on the block (particularly those CAS folks on head-fi forums), and who cite all kinds of measurements in the case against vinyl (without even having heard a good analog setup). If you're one of them, I think you need to read the rest of the article on Kierkegaard. Like religion, music is a spiritual matter, and measurements/observations do not even begin to tell the story, indeed even hinder us in our quest for fulfilment. Think, why do some people still employ non-oversampling and 16-bit chips (I can assure you those "obsolete" methodologies can yield good results)? Why vacuum tubes, why single end? Why does vinyl still sound better? These people are not mad, they know the right thing because they utilize their feelings in their search for perfect sound, which shall never materialize if one only concentrates on numbers.

Perils of Internet Research If one extrapolates from Kierkegaard, the problem with many audiophiles, particularly younger and computer-savvy ones, is that they read too much and feel too little. Or should I say, the problem is audio experienced through others rather than through oneself. There is no quick way to find out what is the "best", except to find out oneself! Come to think of it, this is a generation of audiophiles without much personality, true experience and hence true opinions.

Get in touch with the music. If something is said to be good, but does not sound or feel right, then it is probably not good, at least not the right thing for you. Learn to trust yourself. No hifi virtues can compensate for music that does not feel right.