15 April, 2012

Talk Vinyl: Mono Replay, Part I

pic shows Paul Klipsch with his masterpiece, the Klipschorn, and Brook amplification. The setup would make a great, perhaps even definitive,  mono playback.

Talk Vinyl: Mono Replay, Part I Background

In case you haven't already heard, there is now a modest resurgence in mono analog playback. This is not a fad, but a thorough re-evaluation by analog lovers and audiophiles, a wicked commentary on why much of modern gear and developments in audio are not the advances in sound reproduction the discerning ear had hoped for.

In HK, there are a few mono addicts in my circle, and I must say I am somewhat infected by their enthusiasm. But, unlike most of them, I look at it from quite a different angle.

Like many a classical music lover of a certain age, mono recordings have long figured in my diet. Many of the greatest artists, like Edwin Fischer, Fritz Kreisler and Furtwangler, had only left us mono recordings from shellacs and the 78' era. Whether remastered on LPs or CDs we had been listening to them for the longest time. But for many people, mono is a new thing. Some started being curious about the "obsolete" technology, and others got drawn in because of their objectivity when exposed to ask the crucial question - why does it sound good at all?

For myself, in recent years I have re-evaluated mono recordings and their replay, from an audiophile perspective. What I find are sometimes surprising, and let me do this step-by-step, starting with facts.

The MONO Analog Renaissance

Well-Known Fact: Despite more than two decades of repeated claims of breakthroughs in digital replay, and now everyday proclamation of CAS advances, analog replay in general has enjoyed not only a resurgence but real growth. Modern day CAS people, who think they are saavy, should really look into this rather than concentrating on meaningless or, at best, dubious measurements. They would do well to hone their ears instead.

Not So Well-Known Fact: MONO analog replay, which has always had its advocates, is enjoying a surprising resurgence of its own. For the longest time, there have only been a few mono cartridges available, like the Denon DL-102 and a model or two from Grado, Shure and Ortofon. Today, there are quite a few newer "boutique" MC mono cartridges, like the Miyajima, and more loom on the horizon or can be made to order. Mono replay has even earned attention from the mainstream press, like Art Dudley in Stereophile.

There MUST be something here, but it is difficult to tell someone new to mono why mono replay can sound superior to stereo, and why it is a viable and living thing. There is not much organized writing on the Internet, but if you google key words you get to read a lot of discussions in various forums, some quite interesting. If you're new to mono, you could start here: enjoythemusic; Stereophile article.

First, back to how mono recordings were made and played. For the technical side, search the internet for the difference between mono and stereo LPs.

Mono Replay in History
To thoroughly understand why some audiophiles are attracted to mono recordings, we must have some historical perspective.

Mono Replay in the 78 Era The earliest reproduction is by mechanical means. Indeed, early recordings were mechanically recorded and replayed by spring-loaded gramophones. Has subsequent technologies rendered this most ancient methodology completely archaic? Unfortunately not. Many people who have heard violinist Heifetz swore that the 78's played through the gramophone most accurately conveyed his tone and playing. Note that Heifetz made many stereo recordings in the LP era (many Living Stereo's treasured by Audiophiles), but many connoisseurs regard the recordings on tape less faithful to his tone than 78's played on the mechanical gramophone (and digital remastering atrocities).

Mono Replay in the LP Era All serious music fans of a certain age grew up with both stereo and mono recordings. That goes without saying for classical fans, but the situation is similar for jazz fans, they too have a veritable treasure trove in mono recordings. Take Blue Note, many swear by the mono pressings, or mono recordings by Rudy van Gelder. Even rock fans may prefer the mono Beatles masterings to the stereo ones. With the advent of stereo, most people just use their stereo cartridge and setup to play mono.

One important thing to note is that there are different kinds of mono LP's: 1) recordings remastered from 78's. Needless to say many of these qualify as immortal recordings, which is why they were remastered for the (mono or stereo) LP crowd. However, some who still have the original 78's for comparison (some use the gramophone even) swear that the LP remasterings do not sound as good as the originals, and Heifetz' tone was used as an example; 2) mono recordings recorded on tape. There is little question that tape recording techniques improved steadily as the LP went along, so that at the dawn of stereo mono recordings enjoyed similar technical standards. Late mono recordings are of the highest quality 3) recordings with both mono and stereo mixes. When it comes to availability, this is easily the largest group, due to popularization of the LP, and because for quite a few years recordings were issued in both mono and stereo to satisfy those who haven't made the switch. While some of mono masters might just have been down-mixed stereo, many recordings had separate mono and stereo masterings. Replayed with the same stereo cartridge (usually; or mono cartridge as the case may be), the details are often different. As usual, the engineer is a factor in the equation (and perhaps the biggest one). It should be noted that on acoustic jazz recordings and small combos early stereo often simply put different performers in the two channels and the resulting sound has nothing much in between, which leads many people to prefer the mono equivalents, which put things smack in the middle. The early Beatles albums serve to illustrate this, and there are good reasons why the mono pressings are coveted. 

Mono Replay in the Digital Era Many reared on vinyl soon found out digital was certainly not "prefect sound forever". Nothing brought this more to the fore than replay of mono recordings. Most of the earlier mono digital remasterings were well-nigh unlistenable. Some of this could be attributed to the tipped up treble of much modern equipment, which paradoxically compromises the most the bandwidth-limited mono recordings (due to midrange suck out). While I am on this point, let me emphasize that, even with a digital remastering, a proper hifi system should be able to play mono recordings with some semblance of fidelity. Consistent failure usually means the system is not balanced. Another significant factor is incompetent remastering, which is unfortunately ubiquitous. In this regard there is good news as more quality mono remasterings are appearing due to the careful efforts of people like Mark Obert-Thorn in classical (whose output on budget Naxos must be commended), and even some good pop mono, like the Beatles, are getting the respect they are due - the new mono remasterings sound fantastic (that is saying a lot for digital mono).

I believe for someone new to mono the basic understandings are important. In Part II I shall detail my impressions on my mono playback using the Denon DL-102 cartridge and comment on why I think some of the enthusiasm I see in my friends are over-the-top. By no means do all mono LPs sound good or benefit greatly from dedicated mono replay, but mono replay is certainly worthwhile when the material and system come together.

09 April, 2012

Letter from UK 2012 (3): Liverpool

Letter from UK 2012 (3): Liverpool

On a windy and dreary day we visited Liverpool. In many ways the city is like Manchester, with few tall buildings and an even more compact central area. One can see the radio tower everywhere, and the broadcasts were redolent with, what else, The Beatles.

Albert Dock To a New Yorker, this looks like combination of South Street Seaport and Red Hook. The re-vitalization of the waterfront is on all counts a highly successful effort.

Merseyside Maritime Museum This is a very nice museum for kids and adults alike. I enjoyed the exhibit on the fascinating tale of the tragic fates of three cruise ship associated with Liverpool, the RMS Lusitania and RMS Empress, and the Titanic of course. The story of the RMS Lusitania, sunken by a German U-boat, is especially engrossing, and I noted that the exhibition (probably deliberately) did not cover many points discussed in depth in the wikipedia entry.

As Liverpool played an important role in the slave trade, the International Slavery Museum, enclosed within the same compound, proves highly educational.

Tate Liverpool This branch of the Tate came as a most welcome surprise. On exhibit in the small spaces are literally the who's who in modern art, from the Dadaists to Andy Warhol, as well as little known names. The various artists seem to play off each other in the relatively small space, and I enjoyed it more than many larger modern art museums. My favorite has to be Marcel Duchamp's infamous Fountain.

After a quick meal at an Irish pub I managed to get a few LPs from the charity shops on Bold Street before retreating back to Chester.


03 April, 2012

Review: Thorens TD-309 Part I

pic: my Thorens stable: top; the new TD-309; bottom, the venerable TD-124 with SME3009 (my TD-125 is unused at the moment)

Review: Thorens TD-309 Part I
Talk Vinyl: Denon DL-102 review Part I
Talk Cable: Gotham GAC-2111, DGS-1

Online Manual for TD-309 (must-read for those interested; its wonderful illustrations make understanding the deceptively simple turntable easier)

Unusual Looks and Design Ever since the Thorens TD-309 came out, I had wanted one, for its daring looks as well as unusually sophisticated design (not obvious at first glance), both out of the mainstream and perhaps not for everyone. I inquired then at the HK dealer, and found out they shamefully did not even import it. I decided to wait. Secretly I thought to myself that the unusual design would not sell well and I would wait for clearance when it is discontinued.

Reviews As I think most aspects of performance had been well covered in the many reviews from around the world and as I agree with the majority opinion that the turntable is exceptional, I shall not go into great details in my review, instead concentrating on a few points not covered as well. Best of the reviews were HiFi News UK, Ralph Werner/Fairaudio.de Germany, avhub Australia and High Fidelity Poland (you might also want to read HiFi Choice and Goodsounds). The Stereophile review is not on line but it made Class B of Recommended Components. Note one unusual thing, the Australian article revealed Steve Harris (UK) as one of the designers; well, he is the reviewer in the HiFi News article, isn't that conflict of interest?

One-time Sale Fast forward to late last year, when I suddenly saw in Mong Kok the non-glossy red version on sale at a good discount. On inquiry I found out that the dealer was selling it even cheaper. I was struggling as I wanted a black one, and only the red was available in HK. My procrastination turned to wonder when I found out in the US Audio Advisor had a special for both the non-glossy black and red ones at an even more unbelievable price (sorry, the sale had long ended), and I immediately ordered one. It seemed these were Thorens overstock. Audio Advisor still sells the glossy black and red ones at regular price, and the HK dealer still does not usually carry this model and does not have even have a glossy one on display (shame on them), but the non-glossy red one possibly may still be found on sale. 

Packaging I did not get to see the turntable until three months later. As one of the reviews mentioned, the packaging was a little flimsy, but everything inside were in place. A little oil had leaked out but I think part of the reason was that mother had improperly placed the box on its side. Unpacking was a breeze and the manual is truly excellent. I double checked the alignment of the installed Audio Technica AT95 cartridge with the supplied (commendable) paper mat/protractor and it was good. The turntable was up and running in no time.

Isolation Ability In the hotly contested low- to mid-priced group, it is not often (if at all) that one sees a more costly to implement suspended design, and that is wonderful. The unusual suspension design works a treat on isolation. Believe me, I know, as my racks are "soft", their spikes resting on stone slabs on the thick carpet (no spikes through the carpet).

Construction/Ergonomics While construction quality and ergonomics are generally good I have several reservations:
  • Use of plastic for the triangular sub chassis as well as for the arm rest are regrettable. Don't tell me that's for resonance control!
  • The RCA connectors are rather light weight and a little too recessed, making them somewhat difficult to reach.
  • As noted in Stereophile, the clips on the tonearm wires are flimsy; great care should be exercised when mounting and dismounting.
System Used
-Shindo Monbrison preamp (built in phonostage)
-Wavac MD-811 amp
-YL Acoustics 4-way horn loudspeaker

Sound with AT-95
As all the reviewers have mentioned, right out of the box, the sound was wonderful. I was surprised by the fine balance of the Audio Technica AT-95. Aside from a slightly fat mid-bass, there was little to fault. Immediately apparent was the turntable's excellent PRaT, making evrything fresh and exceiting. As one of the reviews had mentioned, I noted too a slight leanness in the upper midrange. A few play and I switched cartridge.

Sound with MONO Denon DL-102
 Previously, I had heard this cartridge to great effect in mono replay. My own efforts though were hampered by the lack of a suitably heavy arm for this heavy cartridge. I first installed this on my cheap Audio Technica turntable, but the arm could barely be balanced and the sound was only so-so, rather thick and lacking in life. Later I switched the cartridge to the Technics SP-1200MkII and the sound improved significantly. I was happy with the vital presence of the midband but knew more resolution could be had.

Background for DL-102 While the DL-102 qualifies as "legendary" even if it is still in production, there is really nor many serious write-up's on it. Here are some great links to let you understand more about this wonderful mono cartridge. The best technical article (basic spec's, nuts and bolts) is Murray Allen's Denon DL-102 Page. It is worthwhile to note that the frequency responses for the cartridge loaded at 47k (the usual MM phonstage) and at 1k (Denon's official spec) are almost the same, just slightly shifted in amplitude. This seems more in keeping with my experience below. The best all-around consideration is Philip Holmes' One Cartridge for All LPs. The important thing here is what all mono-philes understand, that mono replay of stereo LPs yield great sound (I agree). It should also be noted that, in contrast to the previous author, this author found loading at 1k provided much better results.

When Denon DL-102 Meets Thorens TD-309 And so with the arrival of the TD-309, the DL-102 was the first thing I wanted to try. Installation was a bit of a pain. I had trouble fitting the flimsy clips of the TD-309 onto the cartridge (as this is a true mono cartridge, two clips had to be attached to each cartridge pin). Where the cartridge is mounted, the arm only has 5 mm of overhang adjustment, and I was short by 1 mm or so on the Baerwald points. I could have perfectly aligned it by loosening one of the hex screws at the rear and moving the arm tube, but I decided just to let it go. It should be noted that the counterweight still had quite a bit of leeway to accommodate even heavier cartridges, making it a versatile tonearm.

As soon as the needle hit the groove, I knew I finally am getting there in my MONO quest. In terms of tonal balance, the improvement from my previous admittedly rather improvised mono setups was only too obvious: much more air and refinement in the treble, more transparency in the midband and a much cleaner midbass. So much so that the little leanness in the lower midrange noticed before had remained. I was surprised but delighted that the setup was able to resolve this. One more minor gripe: Like one of the reviewers I did too find that dynamics were slightly reined in on some material. Although the spherical stylus is not supposed to be sensitive to VTA, a small adjustment brought improvement. What is more amazing about the transformation is that the cartridge finally displayed all the rhythmic finesse and musicality that should be typical of Denon. Say what you will, Denons are champs in this area. But that's enough for now, as I shall cover more about mono replay in another article. One final important thing though...

Attention! Cable for the Turntable
The TD-309 comes with a 0.75 m length of RCA cable for connection to the tonearm output. I used it with the stock AT-95. It looks slightly better than the ubiquitous generic red and white cables; the diameter is greater, I think due to shielding. I soon swapped it out for better cables, like the Audio Note AN-V. However, after a while I realized things were not what they seem. With the stock cable, the sound is more balanced; several other cables I tried accentuated a little the high midrange leaness and seemed to restrict the dynamics a little. Only when I swapped in Gotham cables did things improved. So, do not underestimate the stock cable, with this turntable it is not easy to beat. You have to go through quite a bit of trial and error to better it. I happened to be soldering some new cables and so tried them out. Here are the best:

Gotham 10550 GAC-2111 (specs) This unusual cable is Gotham's replica of a classic EMT cable. The conductors are very small in gauge and the insulations rather stiff, making it difficult to handle. Sonically it is a winner. Superbly transparent with an abundance of top end air, somewhat less exuberant than GAC-2 and GAC-4, this cable shoots straight to the top echelon of Gotahm cables. A great bargain.

Gotham 60001 DGS-1 (specs) This is a thin coaxial cable, the cheapest in the Gotham range. It is somewhat rolled off on top, not as detailed as GAC-2, GAC-4 or GAC-2111, but there is something very attractive about its midrange presence and ability to invoke the live atmosphere. Another Gotham winner, likely more suitable in brighter systems.