29 October, 2013

Review: Dayton Audio B652

Click pics to enlarge. This one shows the double-stacked.
Review: Dayton Audio B652, Part I

Update May 30, 2017: A very brief Part II has been published. And in Part III it went up against speakers costing quite a bit more.

Talking about cheap(tube)audio, this is the cheapest loudspeaker I have ever bought new or reviewed. It is even cheaper than the excellent Pioneer SP-21BS-LR that I previously reviewed (now superseded by the SP-22BS-LR).

Controversial? The Dayton Audio B652 (spec's can be found in the official link) is very famous for its bang for the buck, and has been praised even by mainstream press like stereophile and cnet. However, It is not without its detractors. If you do a quick google, along with all the positive views you shall also find a significant number of negative comments. There was also an issue of different iterations. Keep in mind most of these (almost all) are paired with low-end electronics or used casually.

Buying I bought mine in June 2013 through Parts Express. If you buy 4+ pairs it is only $35, with free shipping! I initially bought only 1 pair, but after being impressed ordered 3 more pairs as Parts Express was so nice to adjust the price so I got the better deal. What service!

Construction is very basic, nothing like the Pioneer. Unlike the Pioneer, the B652 uses a first-order crossover. Speaker terminals connect directly to the woofer (no coil and working as a "full-range"), and with just one cap to the tweeter (no resistor). Note that in the version (current) I have the capacitor is different in value from some description I found on the net (older versions). This site describes the cap as 3.3mu, which translates to a crossover point of 12,000Hz for a 4-ohm tweeter, but mine is 6.8mu, which means the crossover point to the tweeter is a much lower 6,000Hz or so for the same 4-ohm impedance (more or less I presume). This substantiates that there are different versions. So how does this latest version sound?

Basically I placed it on my Sonus faber stand and listened to it rather near-field through my reference setups used for the iPhono review, and that is much better partnering equipment than in any B652 review you shall find on the internet!

Analog 1: Linn LP-12 Lingo/Ittok LV-II/Airtight PC-1
Analog 2: Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
Analog 3 (mono): Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-102
Phonoamps used: Nagra BPS and iFi iPhono (review here) Fosgate Signature (my experience here); AQVOX 2CI MkII used only for MC (here); Musical Surroundings Phonomena II (here); Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 (only MM);
Digital: Ensemble Dirondo Drive + Dichrono HiDAC
Preamp: Manley Neo-Classic 300B
Amp 1: Sunfire 300
Amp 2: Wavac MD-811 SET amp
Amp 3: Elekit TU-8300 300B amp

General Aspects At 87db, the B652 is not too efficient, but that is on paper as it is well known to be easily driven by low-powered T-amps (the magnets are not big and the simple crossover helps). Of course, I had no trouble with my Sunfire, but what pleased me the most is that I got decent sound out of them when I used my 300B amp (~8 wpc). If like mine your room is not too big and you don't listen too loud, the 300B is just enough with most material, even complex ones, though some break-up is inevitable in dynamically demanding passages. So, this can be an entry level speaker for the SET lover who has a small room (or desktop). The B652 is even-handed generally but even if you give it a lot of power it cannot play too loud (no heavy metal or big orchestral showpieces at high volume). The bass is limited but of good quality that I did not feel I needed a subwoofer. Soundstage is impressively deep and reasonably wide.

Transparency and Coherence The B652 has exceptional transparency and coherence. The transparency is impressive at the price, though it may come at the expense of a tendency to have just a little over-emphasis in the treble when the going gets rough or if the partnering electronics is not so good (most of the cases out there). The coherence is even more impressive (until the runaway tendency manifests itself with high volume), and that is a trait of good first-order designs (think Loth-X, Reference 3A and B&W CM1, to name just some).

HopeRhythm and Pace Given the fine coherence and first-order crossover, it is natural that PRaT are excellent. Miles' Tutu showcased this perfectly - the various strands are sinuously woven together and flow is natural. The ultra-demanding Stimela track from Masekela's Hope was reproduced with fine scale, though of course the last degree of oomph is necessarily missing compared with more powerful magnets. Nonetheless, the fine microdynamic turns render the experience highly pleasurable.

B652 vs Pioneer SP-21BS-LR I did not have the Pioneer with me but aural memory is still fresh. For sure the Pioneer is a little less efficient and more controlled, and can play louder with composure. However, overall, for my taste, the B652 has better PRaT and I prefer the way it makes music come alive. Also, I like its bass quality more than the Pioneer.

Two Better than One? One reason I bought more is because I wanted to give a pair to a friend. Another is to give a stacked pair a try (see pic). Thus stacked, the double B652 gained a degree of solidity though the bass was only minimally fuller. Sometimes a stacked pair are easier to drive - not so here, the 300B amp clipped more easily, so for the SET person this is not a way to go. However, for those with enough power to spare, two may be better than one!

Tweaks There are articles devoted to mods, but I think easy does it. I am certain changing the cap or perhaps the hook-up wires shall reap certain benefits. Moderation.

Conclusion: A bargain and Best-Buy!

16 October, 2013

Review: iFi iPhono, Nagra BPS

Review: iFi iPhono, Nagra BPS

Talk Vinyl: iFi iPhono vs Musical Surroundings Phonomena II (also Nagra BPS, Audio Technica AT-PEQ3, AQVOX 2CI and Fosgate Signature)
Talk Vinyl: Naim Nait I vs Jolida JD-9 vs MFA Magus B vs iFi iPhono

ifi Audio Micro iPhono MM/MC PhonostagePart I: iPhono
Prologue When I first wrote about the iFi iPhono (here) almost a year ago, I could not find any reviews. Subsequently, a few appeared, and here are some links:

Reviews: AnalogPlanet; EnjoytheMusic; MonoandStereo
Interview: Designer Thorsten Loesch Interview in MonoandStereo

First, A Long Digression 好事多折磨
In case you wonder why the real review of the iPhono took so long, it was because it was to be months before I actually heard it in my own system! It went through several guest systems before joining mine. I would like to spend a little time describing the journey as some of the results add to my understanding of this unit, and I'd also detour a little to write up briefly on some other phonoamps I have encountered. In case you cannot wait, you can jump to the real review below. I'll give you the conclusion on iPhono first: the iPhono is a wonderful phonoamp, but it may take time and care to reveal its considerable strengths.

Detour: First Impression of iPhono (by others) My unit finally arrived about one month later. As I usually do not have time to spin vinyl these days, and as my usual abode has no vinyl set-up, I asked friend A (vinyl and tube fanatic who uses Quad ESL-57) to pick it up for me and test it out. After a short try he told me the sound was not bad but a little too thin for his taste and I completely understood because I know he likes vintage equipment and a fatter sound. Then I asked him to pass it to friend B (vinyl and jazz fanatic who uses Mark Levinson to drive big MBL speakers) who likes his music big and upfront.The iPhono did nothing for him in this system either. So far, things did not look too good...

Detour: My Second Impression of iPhono (first was at the dealer) actually took place on foreign turf! Friend B decided to renovate his apartment. He had to move temporarily into a smaller place where he listened to a pair of Quad ESL-57 placed side-by-side with reinforcement by corner placement (see pic). This actually sounds a lot better (fuller bass) than many "normally" placed ones! The little Nait I amplifier did a good job driving them. On the day I went to pick up my iPhono we actually did a small session of phonoamp shootout (MM only). The turntable used was a Linn LP12 (Valhalla) fitted with a Decca arm and Decca Maroon cartridge. Loading was at the standard 47k, so some may argue about that.

The result was not surprising. The iPhono easily bettered the Nait. The ultra high-gain hybrid Jolida JD-9 (a unit bought in Shanghai) was more overtly exciting than the iPhono but less refined. The owner had also borrowed my MFA Magus B, and on this occasion it was used as a phonoamp via its Tape Out. The MFA was decidedly the best, and that did not surprise me as its phono section is amongst the best I have heard, very quiet for a tubed unit as well. 

Mahler Symphonie 3 Jascha Horenstein Mahler Symphonie 3 - Norma Procter, Jascha HorensteinReview: iFi iPhono

Shortly after I reclaimed my unit I took it to New York (thanks to its universal PS, one reason I bought it) where I finally had the chance to really test it out during the nearly 3-month stay. I knew that it was probably not run-in, so it was one of the first things I plugged in! In NYC I spin vinyl almost exclusively. Equipment used this round:

Analog 1: Linn LP-12 Lingo/Ittok LV-II/Airtight PC-1
Analog 2: Clearaudio Concept/Koetsu Black
Analog 3 (mono): Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-102
Other Phonoamps used: Fosgate Signature (my experience here); AQVOX 2CI MkII used only for MC (here); Musical Surroundings Phonomena II (here); Nagra BPS; Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 (only MM)
Digital: Ensemble
Preamp: Manley Neo-Classic 300B
Loudspeaker/Amp 1: Magnepan MG 1.7 (used with Sunfire 300 amp)
Loudspeaker/Amp 2:-YL Acoustics 4-way Horn Speakers (used with Wavac MD-811 SET amp)

My previous phonoamp group review covers some of the units on hand for comparison, so it is relevant for this article. I dare you to find a more detailed or useful iPhono review! :-) I must have played more than 100 LPs during my stay, but I will single out 2 of them. The Unicorn Horenstein Mahler 3rd (in the US also on noisier Nonesuch) is a magnificent recording of a magnificent performance, with a huge orchestra and more than one chorus! Note that this famous recording is now on HDTT reel-to-reel tape!The Miles Davis Tutu is of course classic and one of my favorites, still Marcus Miller's best effort. There are many passages of complex instrumental interplay that tests the phonoamp's savvy. Another reason I use this LP is because I have the CD and I use them to make sure both the digital and analog rigs are balanced. Vinyl enthusiasts should do this often; too often they tweak so much that the sound is way off.

Observations I am not going to give a blow-by-blow description of how various LPs sound with the iPhono. It is not necessary, because (thankfully for all the right reasons) its sound really does not stand out. But over the few months I made some observations that I think are interesting:

  • Note 1: My impressions are almost exclusively based on the MC setting (I do not listen to MM much, though the mono Denon DL-102 uses the MM setting). For MM, usually I'd prefer tubed amplification.
  • Note 2: I got so caught up by my listening that I did not spend any time evaluating the equalization curves (though I have many mono LPs). After all I do believe the basic aspects of the phonoamp are much more important.
  • Run-in I suspect the unit needs quite a bit of run-in. I am sure it had a lot less than 20-30 hours on it when I got it back. Initially the sound was a little uninspiring, but I just played on. Read on.
  • Vibrations I have said before that my racks in NYC leave something to be desired (placed on stone slabs on thick carpeted wood floor). Certainly, it made my preamp prone to microphonics. I found out the light and slim iPhono was quite susceptible to vibrations! I could hear a trace of smearing much like microphonics in nature. Putting two Vibrapods (here) underneath immediately cleaned up the sound and gave the impression of more solidity. I also noted that the susceptibility to vibration decreased with time and run-in; I wonder why? I also tried Tony's trick of putting some books on top but in my setting that did not reap extra benefits, so for the entire duration in NYC only the Vibrapods were used.
  • Background Noise (lack of) You should note that among the battery of phonoamps here iFi is one of the few that fearlessly publish various specifications (AQVOX and Nagra do; Fosgate and Phonomena don't). One listen and you know why: one is immediately impressed by the extremely low noise floor (Signal to Noise Ratio 82dB). This is black background unusual for a budget phonoamp, indeed unusual for any phonoamp! In comparison, it is as quiet as (or quieter than) the more expensive AQVOX and battery operated Nagra (no mean feat!) and certainly quieter than the (pretty quiet) Phonomena II and Fosgate Signature (which is excellent for a tubed unit). This low level of noise, especially in MC, is quite an accomplishment. Now, that brings up the next question/observation.
  • Dynamics, or Is there Life in Low Noise? This is a little hard to describe. Experienced listeners know that with lowered noise and darkened background often comes a degree of "reticence" in the music making, as if the baby has been thrown out with the bathwater. It is often debated whether the "diminished dynamics" is just erroneous human perception. In such cases, often the music only comes to life when you crank up the volume. Now, personally, especially as a tube and vinyl person, the debates aside, I am not obsessed by noise level but I do think any component/system that cannot be enjoyed at a low volume, that does not have good microdynamics, is bad, period. Not so the iPhono - in my reference systems it performs just as well (and sounds just as as well and quiet) at all volume settings, with all kinds of music (unlike the Phonomena II). Its dynamics are properly scaled. In the grand opening of the Mahler, the iPhono puts you in a mid-hall perspective. In contrast, the Phonomena II is upfront. While the latter may have more overtly exciting bass and slam, overall its presentation is falsely highlighted dynamically. As the movement goes on, with the iPhono one is aware of natural progression, of unfolding drama, whereas the Phonomena II increasingly seemed to be a pastiche of highlights. I do think the composure demonstrated by the iPhono means that while it will work best in a balanced system, in less ideal circumstances I rather think it should work better in an over-energized system than one more sedate. The corollary is that the iPhono, unlike much modern hifi, does not set out to "impress" - it rather demands you to listen carefully (and you can do that at low volume!)
  • Hall Sound Experienced listeners listen for the hall sound, or that of the recording venue. In digital, a good example of the faithful rendering of hall sound would be the 16-bit TDA1541 chip; nothing else since has really come close (all you have to do is compare a 16-bit Revox B226 with a later delta-sigma Revox C221 and you will know what I mean, though the latter is a very fine machine otherwise). The iPhono is exceptional in this regard. The Mahler just heaved and sighed, bathed in the hall acoustics. I am not surprised, given that designer Thorsten Loesch is a fan of the 16-bit chip! In contrast, the upfront Phonomena II gave no clues to the hall, a serious failing to my ears.
  • Rhythm and Pace The iPhono is excellent in this regard. The flow of music is always natural, yet not without a spring in the step. Take Tutu as an example, the various instruments were not unduly highlighted but the delicate interplay came over as part of a whole fabric. The Phonomena II on the other hand seemed to be more visceral initially, but soon I got worn down by a certain uneasiness - the music just did not flow as the phonoamp imposes its own insistent quality.
  • Gain The gain of the iPhono is pretty standard. Since my favorites are big orchestral music I use the +6 db setting. At high volume, I do find it a little more dynamic and not much noisier. The gain is sufficient for my Koetsu Black, Air Tight PC-1 and Denon DL-304.
  • vs Fosgate Signature In some ways the iPhono breathes in a way not unlike the Fosgate. The tubed unit has more bloom (as it should) and dynamics, though comparison gives credit to the iPhono for running it close in its fine grain, details and smoothness, an achievement for a solid-state unit.
  • vs AQVOX 2CI MkII The AQVOX is quite a different beast in its design. Used in balanced mode it has higher gain (though reduced by my use of an adaptor I am sure). The AQVOX is more overtly exciting and dynamic than the iPhono, though the latter runs it close in details and S/N ratio. I love the AQVOX and it shall remain one of my references, but comparison certainly made me respect the iPhono!
  • vs Audio Technica AT-PEQ3 (only MM) Michael Fremer (Stereophile, Vol. 32 No.12 December 2009) had this to say abount the AT: "How about a sweet sounding starter phono preamp that lists for $119...? It's the Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3, a little plug'n'play box with a wall-wart power supply that's quiet, sounds clean and surprisingly dynamic, and get's the job done remarkably well.". Using the mono DL-102 I did compare this against the MM section of the iPhono and Phonomena II. The AT-PEQ3 is more like the iPhono in reduction, a unit that lets the music flow naturally, unlike the upfront and unnatural Phonomena II. Of course, it has appreciably less details and dynamics. I also briefly added a step-up transformer for MC use - not bad! A fine unit at the price!
  • vs Musical Surrounding Phonomena II If you have read this far you know that I do not much like the Phonomena II. Yes, I much prefer the iPhono! To me, all the praise heaped upon the Phonomena II just shows how wrong hifi has become.

  • The iPhono is unusually fine-grained and quiet (not just at its price, but comparable to most products regardless of price). It makes the music flow naturally, and has excellent rendition of hall sound. It doesn't play to the gallery, instead rewards in the long term.
  • The iPhono compares well to more expensive phonostages (even to the Nagra BPS reviewed below), and so is surely a BEST BUY. I think mid-priced phonoamps, not to mention budget ones, will have a hard time going up against the iPhono.
  • In the company of all the phonoamps I have,  for three months I listened mostly to the iPhono (save for comparison purposes); that should tell you more than this review how satisfying the iPhono is!
  • Take time to run-in and check for isolation.

page_BPSPart II: Nagra BPS
I have always been a fan of Nagra and have owned its tubed full-function preamp, the wonderful Nagra PL-P (my reviews here and here) for a number of years, so I am quite familiar with its phono sound. Recently I acquired a BPS and took it to NYC, where I tested it by the side of the iPhono.

Whereas the phono section of the PL-P preamp and the newer VPS phonoamp are tube-based units, the BPS is a solid-state device. Although tube-based, the VPS uses solid-state devices for its last 16 db of gain (unlike the PL-P, which I think is all-tube). Like its more expensive brothers, the BPS employs transformers (wound in-house) for MC step-up function. Like the PL-P, the BPS is battery-operated, though in a simpler manner by using a simpler 9V cell. Thus, you can infer that the BPS is no cheap compromise, as borne out by its sound.

The BPS (official literature) has been well reviewed (using multiple high-end cartridges) by TAS and Stereophile. 6moons has a review too but it is limited to use of the Denon DL-103.

After spending so much time writing on the iPhono, I am going to be a lot briefer when it comes to the BPS: simplement fantastique!

  • Much of what I wrote about the PL-P (links above) can be applied to the BPS! Indeed, comparing the BPS to the PL-P (from memory, though I did have the PL-P on hand but did not fire it up) is not unlike comparing the iPhono to the Fosgate (see above).
  • The battery-operated BPS is very quiet. But the iPhono is subjectively equally (perhaps even more) so. In this regard, the achievement of the iPhono is outstanding. If blind-folded and asked to tell which is battery operated, I just may say iPhono!
  • The BPS is fast and  has a leading edge that is just right in speed and sharpness. Its superb microdynamics make music easily come alive. In these respects I do prefer it to the much cheaper iPhono. Here, for the same reasons that I detailed in the section on background noise in the preceding iPhono review, I should say I am not usually a fan of batter-powered equipment, but the BPS does not suffer any of the shortcomings of battery operation. In terms of macrodynamics, it is certainly not wanting. In some regards, sonically it resembles AQVOX the most.
  • Like the iPhono, if you don't use care in cabling tonally the BPS may be a wee tad towards the lean side, but still far from lean (think Phonomena II). It has just a tad more bloom than the iPhono. In both my systems, it rendered everything faithfully and, importantly, delightfully. I am not sure what the 6moons reviewer was talking about when he mentions the mid-bass/bass. My opinions are closer to the TAS and Stereophile.
  • The BPS, though not cheap, is actually a Best Buy!  It is now one of my references.

05 October, 2013

Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part II

Letter from NYC (26) 2013 (2): Magnepan, Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part III
Review: Carver Sunfire Amplifier, Part II
Review: Manley Neo-Classic 300B Preamplifier, Part II
Review: Ensemble Dirondo and Dichrono HiDac, Part II

Article finished in HK

You can scroll down to Part I of Carver, Manley and Ensemble (link here). However, to save you time, and to make it more coherent, I have duplicated relevant Part I text in italics below.

After having finished with the Maggies MG1.7 (and it will perhaps be years before I get to them again) it is time to give some comments on the ancillary equipment that contributed to the wonderful whole.

pic borrowed from the net; click for source

Ensemble Dirondo Drive + Dichrono HiDac 
This is my one of my reference digital sources and it is a shame I haven't given it detailed treatment before! The DAC may have been discontinued as the Official Website only lists the Drive and the integrated CDP, but everything else is the same.

For a good description, read this Positive Feeback favorable review. Note that the reviewer uses gears that are more in keeping with my preferences, like Audio Note CD players and EAR amplification, and my feelings parallel his. To be complete, you should also know there is a considerably less enthusiastic review in 6moons, but I do think the reviewer was seriously remiss there, as happens so often in that site, which though frequently informative, seems more keen on tasting plats du jour than maintaining any long term philosophy, and I have never been impressed by the system integration of their reviewers.

From previous introduction I have always admired Ensemble products for their refined sound. In HK, quite a few people I know are still using their older (non-Sondoro) gears. You shall find diverse opinion on this combo on the internet. For me, it takes in-depth listening to reveal the beauty of this set. Delivering exceptional details that never call attention to themselves, they really don't stand out immediately. Partnered with the wrong gears they could even sound just a little less full in body than some, but when done right show a fleshy presence which together with great rhythmic sophistication and dynamic exactitude deliver the illusion of a live event. Talking about dynamic accuracy, let us examine the last track, Stimela (the coal train) of this much abused Hugh Masekela album, Hope. In the opening, the drummer's insistent bangs mimick the sound of a train. Most digital playbacks would homogenize the multiple hits and give you only a sense of a small crescendo. Not so the Ensemble combo, which uncannily deliver a sense of gradual, and powerful, increase in sound. Not only that, about a third of the way, one of the hits is actually less forceful than what had gone before; this is not well rendered usually, but clear as day with the Ensemble combo.

Is the Ensemble combo the best I have? Perhaps in some tonal area my Theta/SFD-2 combo can give them a run for the money, but there is little question that the Ensemble set belong with the best (and better most for musicality). I use their own Gigaflux BNC cable (which I happen to have) and the DAC uses an Ensemble power cord (I don't have another one for the transport).

The Ensemble has some upsampling options which I shall perhaps cover later, but right now I am using the 48kHz setting, so the CDs are upsampled a little.

Part II Suffice to say the Ensemble duo is a greatly nuanced player in my system. Yes, if you are not careful the sound can turn a little bright, as obviously happened to some reviewers. But if you do it right, you are rewarded with a truly crystalline, scintillating sound that has nonpareil rhythm and pace. All the subtle inflections of music pour forth. I did not really do any extensive comparison, but the combo quickly put down my Rega Apollo and Meridian 506-24. Also, I compared the transport section of the Rega (very good) and the Dirondo Drive was obviously more savvy in its handling of microdynamics and rhythm. Most of the time I did not bother to upsample, using the redbook 44.1. I used the BNC input and Ensemble's own Gigaflux digital cable was better than everything else I had. As a tube man I did not try its preamp function. 

Manley Neo-Classic 300B Preamp (left pic can be enlarged by clicking on it)

From previous introduction While the 300B SE/PP amp (which is excellent, I have used it before) of Manley's wonderful and statement-level Neo-Classics series has received many reviews and much accolade, its companion 300B Preamp has had quite a low profile. There are no reviews from the major English audio press. You can find reviews from hometheaterhifi, Audio Video Revolution , Inner Ear Report, and Image HiFi (available from Manley site only in German). I suspect this is because of its ungainly nature, built like a tank and resembling more a serious amplifier. I ran into an irresistible bargain and acquired it brand new.

Part II The various reviews combined give a fair view of the preamplifier. I'd like to share briefly some of my experience: (1) since there are output transformers, the preamp is really a power amp in disguise, and as such needs a lengthier run-in than usual (transformers especially); (2) In my system, the difference between direct and transformer output is not as big as some reviewers claimed; this attests to the excellence of the output transformers; (3) I prefer the transformer output by a little; with long interconnect to the power amp, this output mode is more composed on big dynamic swings; (4) my results are based on use of the 5U4 rectifiers, which I generally prefer to the specified indirectly-heated 5AR4. The B+ of the 5U4 is a notch lower than 5AR4; I wonder if the sound would be a little softer; (5) that said, the sound is clean, focused and full-bodied; (6) as one reviewer rightly noted, the preamp is very sensitive to vibration/microphonics, and it is not just the 300B tubes; the 6SL7 tubes too! Good isolation is essential; (7) the thing runs hotter than may amps - make sure you have ventilation; (8) it gives a very different presentation from my other reference Shindo preamp, a little less colored, more straightforward; sometimes I prefer one for its neutrality, sometimes the other for nuance! Both are wonderful!

Sunfire Carver Sunfire Amplifier

From Part I Although Carver's Sunfire amplifiers were famous for its time (cited in TAS' Ten Most Significant Amplifiers of All Time), there is not much info on the internet.

There appeared to have been several versions. Mine was certainly an earlier one, not a Signature version (see Audiophilia 2004 review and avrev 1998 review; see also review of the related Lightstar). The simpler front and back matches well the version described by one of my favorite writers, Robert E Greene, archived in his own website: regonaudio TAS 1996. I should also mention that I acquired the amp after I heard my friend Vash's Sunfire Architect's Choice driving Maggie.

Part II There is very little to say except that the amp is quite a smooth performer. It is quite transparent, but details never sound etched or grey (like most transistors can and do), especially when pushed. I compared it to my McIntosh MC-2200 and generally found it superior in detail retrieval and openness. This is quite a bargain!

The one thing I don't quite like about this original version is the lack of a power off switch. If you don't use a switched outlet, make sure you take care when turning on and off the preamp, especially if it is a tubed unit. I used it with my Manley 300B; what I do is switch the preamp to earphones when I power on or off. Also, when I plug my unit in, I get a (capacitor) spark, which is apparently a common problem.

04 October, 2013

Review: Pioneer/Exclusive/TAD TD-3401, Part I

model3401-Wの画像Review: Pioneer/Exclusive/TAD TD-3401, Part I

Part II details how my pair performed in another space.

Previous Encounters with various Pioneer/Exclusive/TADs
I have to confess I have always had mixed feelings about most of my previous encounters with Pioneer/Exclusive/TAD. The 2-way 2402 and even the bigger 2401 seem to be not efficient, not SET friendly and not even very "horn" sounding. I have also previously heard the TD-2301 (see the pdf cited below), and neither did that do much to me. Part of this I am sure is my general reservation about wooden horns. Those who want to read more about my previous experiences can read more here.

But then came my encounter with TD-3401. My impression was, for once, very positive. Now, despite its smaller size, and a small wooden horn (compared to the more popular 2401/2402), it makes a hornier sound! The reason for that is what I mentioned previously: "...although the wooden horn of 3401's midrange driver is very small, with the help of the tweeter the 3401 achieves an excellent dispersion, feeling of air and presence that to my ears OUTCLASSES its succesor 2401. Here lies one of my strong beliefs: A very good 3-way is better than an excellent 2-way. The 3401 is 3-way, the 2401 2 only. Enough said for me; YMMV...". Now, that is the one for me! First some useful info:

audio-heritage.jp has a lot of info on Pioneer/Exclusive/TAD loudspeakers:

Comprehensive catalog of individual components (Page on 3401)

Woofer 15" (EL-403)
Mid-range driver + horn (ED-915EH-351S
Super-tweeter(ET-703 Crossover Unit (EN-907)

And here is a useful Chinese pdf on various Exclusive/TAD models.

TD-3401 Redux
I am happy to report that thanks to some recent development I recently got a pair of TD-3401 to play in my reference system. I took some help and effort to get them into the house. They were casually placed in front of the Tannoy's, rather near-field and really too low in placement, but that will have to do until I elevate them. I briefly tested them with all Japanese electronics:

Digital: Sony CDP/DAC R1
Preamp: Leben RS28CX
Amp: Wavac MD-300B

Before hooking things up, based on previous encounters we had doubts about the viability of using 300B for the 3401. But after things warmed up it was not bad at all! Sound was tremendously detailed, if just a tad cool. The 300B did not plumb the greatest depths, but the bass was developed and the general sound was balanced, fast and lively, hardly betraying the limited power on demand. Considering that the speakers had been idle for more than 2 years, and the electronics had not been fired up recently too, that is remarkable! The rated 97 db of the TD-3401 surely is much closer to the truth than the 95 db of the TD-2402! This also attests to the great driving power of the Wavac MD-300B.

You will hear a lot more about the 3401 in the coming future.

28 September, 2013

2013 TAA Taiwan 23rd International Hi-End Audio Show

2013 TAA Taiwan 23rd International Hi-End Audio Show 臺灣第23屆國際HI-END音響展報導

Published by Taiwan Audionet magazine (no relationship to hifi brand)(link here)

The blog report is of course in Chinese, but if you don't know the language you can still enjoy the huge number of photos uploaded. The report is so extensively cross-referenced that you have to take steps to prevent duplicating page visits.

The easiest way would be to go down page-by-page (tab on top of report, and on right-hand side). First pages show the setting up of rooms; opening ceremony is on page 16/51, and so on...

Scroll down past the location map and you'll see some tables. On the left are room numbers and you can click on them. This is useful if you want to see a particular dealer (names in Chinese, center column). On the right are links to various editors' recommendations.

It is vast and the pics take forever to load. Good luck!

21 September, 2013

Show Report: 2013 Hong Kong High End Audio Visual Show 香港高級視聽展 (August 11, 2013)

Show Report: 2013 Hong Kong High End Audio Visual Show 香港高級視聽展 (August 11, 2013)

Attention: click pics to enlarge 點擊照片就會放大

General Observations As usual, I could almost reprint last year's show report (click here for 2012 show report) for this year's. You may also want to click here for my 2009-2011 show reports. Year after year, the show is much as usual, with the exhibitors occupying their usual rooms on the upper floors. As a matter of fact, I have written this article by modifying last year's template.

That said, this year is a bit different for me. I almost could not make it, and barely managed to attend on the last day, Sunday. There were few people, but the overall sound was in many ways better than on the Fridays I usually attended in the past.

Busy as I have been, I had to wait till now to write-up this report. Since the report is not timely, I shall be even more concise than usual.

As usual, the best sounds came from LP sources, followed by CD replay. Despite use of expensive stuff, CAS had the poorest sound overall. BTW, do you believe all the hype about CAS? Not me.

The coverage below is in no particular order, divided into categories and by merit only. But I shall start with some good news:


Best News from the Show

I was really surprised when I saw Vandersteen back in HK! Now, THIS silent display of the evergreen 2CE(Signature II iteration) and I guess Treo made my heart jump! Kudos to distributor Hua Fu for re-introducing the brand to HK and China. It is courageous of them , because HK/China audiophiles do not take to brands like these (think Magnepan too) because (a) they are too reasonably priced; (b) they don't look pretty - no lacquered wood etc; and (c) they don't sound overtly exciting or artificial like too many of today's products.

When I find time, I'd definitely go to the dealer's showroom to audition them. I urge you in he area to do so too. I can think of no better product for money than the 2CE (a masterpiece really).



Given brands like Kondo in their arsenal, Avantgarde (the company) is capable of serving up good sound, but this did not prove to be the case this year. When I was in the room, Avantgarde (the brand) people were there, but the sound from this new model (driven by their own ss amp and using CAS as source) was terrible. I have heard a lot of their models. IMHO, only the Trio (+/- Basshorn) is worthwhile. None of the hybrids really integrate well. Too bad the pretty Kondo monoblocks were not in use.

Last year, Raidho driven by simple Linn electronics got my thumbs up, but this year's sound was fuzzy and ill-defined, definitely attributable to the partnering electronics. CAS was provided by Linn, but the integrated amp (curiously named and Japanese Spec) was not up to the job. Raidho deserves better.

Good Try (Large Room)

As usual, Ernest Audio (Tara Labs Far East), under Ah Ming's skilled leadership, got good sound out of their Rockport. This year's model was the smallest ever, but still showcased to good effect (using 1/2 the room). Here finally was a room that breathed naturally. Electronics were the usual VTL.

Both Wilson and Focal flagships got good demo's in their large rooms (not always the case).

Over the years in HK I have known many French JMR loudspeaker lovers, and they have always sounded musical. This year is like last year, a smooth sound as driven by Mod-Wright. Digitals used the reliable North Star. I was glad to again run into my friend Carl, who was helping out.

Could have been Better

PMC and Dynaudio were average. Both could have been better.

The combination of Verity and Artemis Lab was inferior to last year. German Physiks did not seem to be too happy with Plinius.

Harman has got JBL, which cannot be too bad, but they haven't got the electronics to do them justice. This year's impromptu effort is better, but come on!


Good Try (Medium and Small Room)

Wilson's Alexia, like the Sophia's of past years, performed well. You can definitely forget about the grossly incoherent Watt-Puppy (any generation) and doomed Sacha's. After decades, Wilson is finally getting better (but still not worth the money) and all those people who championed the incoherent models of the past (including critics) should be ashamed of themselves.

Harbeth is always reliable, and Sugden did a reasonable (but not the best) job.

(Distributor Hit Audio) again showcased the Violin loudspeaker, from China (CES report here; curiously, its own site is unstable). Sound with the Line Magnetic tube amp was OK.



"Exotic" European stuff (more often than not) = overpriced + insipid sound. Austrian Brodman loudspeakers and Bulgarian Thrax tube elctronics seemed to prove my point. The pretentious Neumann room seemed more like a bathroom!


An Oddity

There were actually many odd things in such a show, but this venerable modifier has topped them all. He modifies vintage equipment, and THAT is the secret. Sound is not bad at all, and most people do not know that is due to the excellence of vintage stuff more than his efforts. Still, good for him and a sad reflection for modern tastes.


Photo Gallery 

Beautiful Tubes, from left to right: Nagra, Japanese Tri, exotic Elrog tubes 

47 Labs and Dartzeel

Silent Magico, a flock of Giya's

17 September, 2013

Editor's Note: McDonald's New Face, Van Morrison's Old Song, the Lasting Power of Music

Editor's Note: McDonald's New Face, Van Morrison's Old Song, the Lasting Power of Music

If it is 6:00 am, and you are in a major Chinese city, but not in its CBD or central area (one hour away), where would you go?

Choices are surprisingly limited (unless you count the, eh, adult playgrounds). Yumcha places are not open yet. Even small eateries that provide breakfast are few. And they are not comfort-oriented anyway.

Just like in the West, fast food joints come into consideration. Many McDonald's and KFC's in China operate around the clock. And some Chinese fast food places open early too (a nice one is 永和大王).

Recently, I paid several visits to a particular McDonald's, tugged away in no man's land (深圳市龙岗区横岗街道力嘉新马商贸城). It is 4-months old, immaculate and very comfortable. Unusually, it has a drive-through. Traffic is on the slow side and the staff is wonderfully courteous.

Unlike most KFC's (more successful in China than Uncle Mac), most McDonald's in China enjoy the new modern look (here's an article that mentions China). This one is quite beautiful (perhaps I shall have some pics soon).

Most gratifyingly, the music played is marvelous. Imagine how stunned I was when I heard Van Morrison's Moondance. It just completely picks me up. And the jazz and oldies mix is reasonably good and perfect for breakfast. A far cry from the Muzak of old.

Sometimes, things change for the better. And great music shall go on forever.

08 September, 2013

Editor's Note: Back!

Editor's Note: Back!

Hello folks, it has been a while. Two plus months of not posting is atypical of me, and some of you got to be wondering.

While it is true that I have been preoccupied by more urgent matters, there was another reason for the absence: my aged computer, with its lamented Windows XP, died on me in March, before leaving for the USA. Could not even turn it on. Until help arrive, And I don't know whether it was just a power supply issue, or worse...I do hope the hard disc has survived as I have valuable photos and other material (like my entire iTunes library) trapped inside. Should give you second thoughts about CAS, right?

Back from the US, I finally replaced it with a cheap i3-1TB Dell Inspiron. I opted for the Windows 7, but am still not quite used to it. It is a pain to set up everything again, but a real desktop is still infinitely preferable to the small notebooks and smartphones I had been using to check mail and get by (when I am in Shenzhen, I use only a Lenovo smartphone). I wonder how many people manage to write something meaningful using a touch pad. I can't. It is hard enough to make a call using a smartphone! The phone may be "smart", but a person addicted to using it usually is not!

You may have noticed my "Coming Attractions" section. I use it as a reminder for myself on what to write about. Believe it or not, I have an article in my mind on each item there, but execution is another story.

Mid-Autumn is celebrated by the Chinese with an important Festival (second only to the New Year). Hence the old rabbit, still much lovelier than all the vulgarity that pass for art during this period.

Greetings to you all. 中秋節快樂!

27 June, 2013

Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (4), Carver, Manley, Ensemble

Letter from NYC (25) 2013 (2): Magnepan, Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part II
Review: Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (4)

Scroll down to last post for Magnepan, Carver, Manley, Ensemble, Part I

Magnepan MG 1.7 Listening Tests (4) (scroll down for (3) and links to older posts)
I should like to share with you details of my effort to improve the performance of the Maggies. Partnering gears was listed in the previous article. In this article I shall concentrate on the Maggies, but I shall write more about the gears later.
Placement As mentioned, I had the 1.7's in nearly a "near-field" situation. The Maggies are constrained between my low equipment rack (in front of me) and my YG horns (middle of room). I pulled them as much towards me as I could. The left speaker's bottom is obscured by the rack, but this is of little import as the bottom part of the 1.7 is just the frame, and most of the speaker is visible to me. They have about 2 ft clearance from the horns. The speakers form a near-isosceles triangle of about 8 ft with my listening seat.

Soundstage Depth is excellent, reaching further than my front wall (20 ft); Width is good, but mostly limited to the lateral span of the speakers, though on certain material images clearly exceed this limit.

Tweeter Position As I have said many times, Magnepan has no official dogma about this, though there are imaging fanatics/idiots out there who insist the tweeters of any mirror-image loudspeakers have to be on the inside. In our old flat, inside worked better, but in my current room, imaging and just about everything else just locked in with the tweeters on the OUTSIDE.

Toe-in Again, some idiots can be dogmatic about not using toe-in. Magnepan doesn't need much of it, for sure, but in my case, a small toe-in further tightened up the focus. As I was reading my older writings I was stunned to come across what I wrote in 2010: "One interesting thing. In the manual AND in a separate sheet, Magnepan says: "The 1.7 has exceptional phase characteristics that are accomplished without the use of compensation networks. To realize the optimum phasing, the 1.7 should be angled inward to be on-axis with the listener (Do not place parallel to the front wall)". No doubt this is not going to happen with HK users who cling to the superstition of "no toe-in". Well, some people want to show you they know better than the manufacturer. With electronics and modifcations I'd say maybe (but only occasionally), but with loudspeakers of good repute, and in the absence of measuring equipment (not just a microphone to measure room response) it would be foolhardy, not to say arrogant and ignorant, not to consider the manufacturer's suggestions. I experimented quite a bit and did find toeing-in to yield a more focused sound." See, I had completely forgotten about that!! Fortunately, my own efforts and intuitions arrived at the same conclusions! But, do remember to read the manual! :-)

Subwoofer Now, we arrive at the big issue. Yet again, some people are dogmatic about not using subwoofers with panels or electrostatics. What these people insist is that quality and coherence matters more than quantity. But it is not that simple, and that statement shows unfortunately a misunderstanding of live bass, even with people who pride themselves on their taste and "understanding" in bass.

I wrote something on this subject a long time ago, when I first got my 1.7, but had not published it. Time to include it here:
  • Subwoofer? After driving the 1.7's with everything under the sun, I turned my attention to the bass. Although it certainly has more useful bass than the MMG, their characters are really not that different. A few more hertz of extension does not equate a lot more weight. We don't even mention percussive drum music here. On recordings such as Mahler's 6th, on the Maggie (anyone's that I have heard, bar none) the double-basses attack furiously, lean and mean, but where is the menace that one should feel? My friend, this is not just one single bass, not closely recorded Ray Brown doing a solo against Almeida, nor within the Oscar Peterson Trio, not jazz, this should sound MASSIVE.

    Again I used the lowly AR "sub-woofer", and the benefit it brought was substantial and, importantly, almost subliminal! I only used a couple of notches on the volume. As for the crossover point, it varies with the equipment used and is best tuned by listening carefully to a piano recording with substantial bass content. It was immediately apparent the double-basses were more threatening, and that was what Mahler wrote and wanted. When I disconnected the Maggies and listened only to the sub-woofer, there was only the faintest of rumbles, and one would never guess from that that the difference would be so significant.
  • Coherence
    In the world of hifi, I have met many so-called "purists", but IMHO few of them are true spirits. Why is that? Because they are "true" to themselves and their own beliefs, but almost never true to the music they are listening to. In other words, they are hardly true music lovers.

    The "purists" insist that a sub woofer would pollute the "purity" of their beloved Maggie, bringing forth disastrous incoherence. But where were they when the 1.7 is touted for new level of coherence? Can we reason that the collorary of that is that all older Maggies are in comparison more INcoherent? Wait a minute here, has anyone said anything close to that before?
+Pioneer SW-8 Now let's move on to my current game. I mated the humble (Pioneer SW-8 subwoofer
(previous write-up and info here) and immediately found the result promising. The subwoofer was positioned between the Maggies in mid-room, largely free of boundaries, and connected to the subwoofer out of the Manley preamp: Crossover Point The budget design has a continuous pot for this, so I cannot tell you at what frequency I finally settled. I started around midway (12 o'clock) and worked worked my way around. You have to listen very carefully to bass quality. The body sound of the doublebass, the attack and finish.This is important: the leading edge should not feel blunted. I ended up around 10 o'clock, surely rather low crossover point; Volume of course, concurrently you have to adjust the volume. I tell you, just a little is enough! When you can "hear" the subwoofer contribution, you are likely turning it up too much; Phase This should be done last - in my case 180 degrees audibly snapped things in focus. If not, you may have to start all over again and go back and forth.

The difference with the subwoofer connected is hard to explain. It just adds a touch of fullness to the bass, perhaps because the finish is longer (like a good French wine). Ultimately, the lean and fast bass of Maggies does not always unfold the whole bass note adequately. It is a tribute to modern-day subwoofers that they can work in concert and not get left behind.

I am not at all a bass freak, but I know what should be there in a good orchestral recording. There is no question in my mind that Maggies need subwoofers. Just a bit of augmentation. Can I go back to listening without the subwoofer? Yes, I can, but it just sounds more real with one. One listen to the mighty opening of Mahler's 3rd Symphony  (LSO/Horenstein) (I have the LP) and you will agree with me that both the mighty brass and percussion forces benefit from a subwoofer!