12 April, 2015

Editorial: The Enjoyment of Music

Editorial: The Enjoyment of Music
Letter from NYC (39) 2015 (1): Dayton Audio B652 redux
Review: Dayton Audio B652, Part II

What does it take to enjoy music?

Certainly no fanciful equipment is needed. A good proof is that most musicians and music professionals do not get into hifi. And many are even suspicious of our hobby and us, for good reasons I'd say!

Neither are comfortable circumstances mandated (think of your listening seat, called the "emperor's seat" in the Chinese hifi world). Even wretched souls in great suffering, like those incarcerated in concentration camps, could enjoy music for some relief. The great Szigeti wrote about the time he heard the great Busch in an over-crowded and over-heated place, and how the playing made him forget everything else.

One can enjoy music anywhere unplugged. Birdsongs are music to the great Messiaen, whose hearing I am sure was more acute than ours.

On the plane When I fly long-distance, I do not use my iPod Classic (filled with lossless files) nor fanciful earphones. The space is cramped, the engine noise loud and the journey uncomfortable enough to fuss over such matters, though I can understand why some like music on the go, for travellers and joggers etc.  No, it is better not to have to wear earphones, if possible. I am not sure I understand those who do so outside of professional or family needs. But that is my perspective, as even no less a loudspeaker design legend than Infinity's Arnie Nudell praises the sound he gets from top earphones (few are his choices, and he is discriminating).

Yet on occasion, I could enjoy music through earphones. On my flight back to NYC a few days ago, I enjoyed Bruckner's Symphony No. 4 from the earphones provided. Yes, the sound was not so good, and one could hardly hear the quiet passages, yet the spirit and greatness of the work came through. And, the excellence of the performance came through too; one could tell it is excellent orchestra under a thoughtful conductor. My only complaint is that there is no credit. Should that not be mandatory? I always want to know who is playing, to the extent that when I hear a bad performance on radio I will stay to the end to hear the announcement to find out who. Waste of time? Not sure.

As the plane began the landing routine, which is always LONG for the JFK airport, I enjoyed the music played over the cabin. Good choice! Bach, Mozart and others cheered my battered body.

Back Home Usually the first system I have running is my Casual System (see sidebar), perhaps the only thing that can be termed "cheaptube" at home (and not even all tube at that). In the wee hours, before the rest of family wake up, I listen at very low volume. Mind you, this is actually a difficult task for a system, even the most expensive ones, as it has to be very good at microdynamics to keep the listener's interest. But this is infinitely preferable to listening with earphones.

My humble one does. With the help of the Audio Research SP-9 preamp and McIntosh MC-2200 amp, the Audio-Technica AT-PL120 (a DJ turntable) with Grado Gold cartridge captured all the nuance in Busch's playing on a few Busch LPs I just acquired. That is not surprising. What is surprising is that all this is through a pair of under-$40 Dayton Audio B652!!

Part I of my Dayton B652 Review is here.

I just noticed Dayton now has an "upgraded" version, the B652-AIR, which sports a new tweeter, undoubtedly a response to the many who feel the tweeter of the B652 is too hot (not in my system though). I don't plan to acquire one so I'd not know whether there is an improvement. 

Maybe all one needs to do is to pair the B652 (or AIR version) with the $30 (well-regarded) Dayton Audio DTA-1 T-amp, the system coming in under $100. Maybe I'll try this one day.

In the Subway First chance I got, I hit the record store, where I got my three Busch LPs. In passing, let me recall an anecdote. As another kindred soul and I scoured the bargain bins, which was filled with mono classical LPs, we talked about replaying mono records and the merits of mono cartridges (all the rage now). This other man, who had been gathering a huge pile of records, many mono ones, started to talk to me. He waxed lyrics about his Miyajima Zero mono cartridge. For stereo he uses a Sumiko Palo Santos (no slouch I am sure) on his VPI HR-X turntable. Yet he said he prefers the Zero's dynamic prowess and now regrets the mono LPs he has cast away. Well, one day I'd like to hear the Zero too! Happy listening!

This is another thing, do we need millions of dollars of equipment to listen to frequency-limited recordings that are mono's? Judging by the increasing number of monophiles, maybe we should not question it, rather ask why after decades of this "absolute sound" business mono appeals?

On the way back, in the subway I heard good fiddling with pounding drum, some kind of new age act that mixes Bach with hip-hop. I got closer and saw their names, Yut and the Hot Four (just two on this occasion). It sounded good; I made a donation and got on the train. Back home, I googled and found this kid's interesting bio, and below is a youtube fragment.

If you love music, you can enjoy it anywhere, anytime. No expensive equipment is needed. There are just too many unhappy audiophiles. It occurred to me all the crazy customers (often with a gleam in their eyes) in the record store, many of whom listening only on humble equipment, enjoy music! That is the way to go, enjoy your music - hifi is just a means, not an end.

05 April, 2015

Overview: Klipsch Classics, Part III - The Best La Scala System I have ever heard

Top pic taken from the sunken Living Room. Bottom pic taken from elevated Dining Room. Click to enlarge.
Overview: Klipsch Classics, Part III - The Best La Scala System I have ever heard
Yumcha Diaries: April 4, 2015
Talk-Horns: Klipsch, the One-Stop Solution, Part III

Note: Klipsch, the One-Stop Solution Part I treats La Scala in depth; Part II is an Overview of the series; Part IV is on the later Quartet/Forte.

No, it may be the best system of any sort I have heard (whlee thinks so and I tend to agree).

Image result for stokowski rhapsodiesAfter yumcha on Saturday, whlee, trazom, captain, jules, oozz (Edwin) and I went to Bernard's spacious home in Clearwater Bay. Regrettably, ama333 did not join us. It turned out to be one of the happiest days in my HiFi life!

It is very rare in HK to encounter a split-level living-dining room. Here, the dining room is elevated. The total area must be close to 1000", and ceiling of the living room is at least 15' tall. Equipment:

CDP: Naim CD5XS; Ekco EV55DP
Turntable: Clearaudio Concept MC
SUT: Audio-Technica AT-1000T
Preamp: Marantz 7 (re-issue); also (April Music) Eximus DP-1
Amps: Marantz 9 (re-issue)
Loudspeakers: Klipsch La Scala (alnico; 16 ohm); also JBL 4343

Dvorák & Walton Cello Concertos
How Two Cousins came into our HiFi Lives Let me take a detour first and introduce you to the brothers. About a year ago, Alfred, aka ama333, joined the discussion thread entitled JC's Letterbox on review33.com. He finally came to our yumcha and now is a regular. Alfred uses the Klipsch Belle you have heard about previously, as well as the JBL 4344. He then brought his cousin Bernard to yumcha too. Alfred wanted to hear my La Scala, so one day the two cousins came by my old house and I once again connected my alnico La Scala after many year's neglect. I was a little surprised that from the word go the La Scala gave all music all the flesh and blood they needed. As they say, the rest is history.

Bernard immediately took a liking to the big bold sound of the La Scala. He also liked the vinyl playback so much that soon after he bought his vinyl system (the SUT actually belonged to his cousin). And some time later, my La Scala pair became his!

Previous visit to Bernard Before the La Scala took over, it was the JBL 4343, placed not in the positions you see now in the pics, but along the long wall, flanking the equipment rack and the AV speakers on stands (facing the beige sofa). Sound was excellent, with the vinyl outstripping the digital by a substantial margin. In turn this impressed our friend trazom so much that he took up vinyl again (see here) and now is happily cleaning and spinning his very good collection of pop LPs!

Initial Sonic Impressions
  • Initially the La Scala's were placed along the long wall, facing the beige sofa. When we arrived, Bernard was using the Ekco CDP's analogue out into the Eximus DP-1 (used as preamp). Sound was a bit pale, treble a touch hot and the whole thing just did not have the juice the La Scala is famous for. In fact, I thought his previous setup of JBL 4343 was better.
  • Eximus DP1 WE suspected some of the flat and white quality to the Eximus DP1's preamp section. Our suspicions were confirmed when the Marantz 7 was swapped in; immediately, the sound gained much flesh and tactility. Eximus has been well reviewed by the audio press (see official website) but this its performance here has been disappointing. We happened to have the Sokolov Salzburg Recital CD and LP around. The LP fared better but the CD still should convey more of the fanciful and mercurial character of the master pianist's playing.
    Image result for mingus ah
  • Ekco CDP Ekco used to be a radio and television manufacturer. The official website gives a detailed history of the company up to the 60's but did not go further and did not mention that it is now part of the Chinese IAG group. In fact, to my eyes their products look like Chinese products in new skin; this is certainly true of the round window displaying the tube in the EV55DP. We did not like its somewhat sluggish leading edge. Changing to the Naim CD5XS brought much improved articulation, rhythm and pace. Sokolov became a more subtle pianist but still not quite what we know he should sound like on this popular album.
  • After all that work, sound was much better. I forgot but trazom reminded that we had made the same, exact changes to the system last time to improve the JBL's performance. Still, sound was not quite what I know can be obtained. On the Mingus Ah Um re-issue LP, while the sound was decent and full of details, the brass should sound more throaty. Bass was somewhat woolly and truncated and sound did not fully open up and project like a good horn should. The La Scala's sounded more "confined" compared to when they were in my house - something is waiting to be let out here.
  • I did not expect Bernard to say "yes" when I suggested that he should try the La Scala's placed along the short "wall" (the windows). Well, we men of action just jumped up and did it. Easily firmly gripped, La Scala must be the easiest loudspeaker to move around. well, we just plonked them down and did not fine-tune. Again, the rest is history!
PATRICIA_BARBER_-_COMPANION_(180G_33RPM_AND_45RPM_Vinyl_2LP)"Sonic Impressions (after Re-Placement)
  • From the first note, the La Scala I knew came back; everything bloomed and birds sang! Everybody had a big smile and the party began! The sound was just so much BIGGER!
  • With pop and jazz, the sound was truly live, and difficult to fault. The percussion and bass attacks of the Let It Rain on Patricia barber's Companion re-issue LP were perfectly rendered, fast in transient response, colorful in timber, an assault on the senses. Most importantly, they sounded like real people right there in the living room.
  • With chamber music, as in jazz, the muscians were palpably present in the living room. We played a mono Casals/Horzowski CD (oop; Philips) and Casals was with us, his inimitable tone enchanting.
  • To us concert lovers, the sound of the dining room was even better, and exactly conveyed the sound of the concert hall balcony. With the two Living Stereo re-issue LPs, Stokowski Rhapsodies and Piatigorsky Dvorak Cello Concerto, the full orchestra were laid out below us. The solo passages and horn tutti were absolutely faithful facsimiles of the concert experience from above. whlee was absolutely delighted, and I haven't seen him like this in years!
    Image result for 王菲 天空
  • For a final cut, we played 王菲 “天空”. This cut usually sounds rather white and monotonous in the majority of setups, but here it is fully fleshed out and atmospheric. What a fitting end to the day,  “天空” is "The Sky" in Chinese, and the La Scala serves as a window to it!
  • Lest you think I have lost my faculties for judgement, I am obliged to point out the imperfections in the system, especially when it comes to classical orchestral music replay: The mass violins need an expansion in scale and nuance; the bass, while good, needs to reach a little lower; and just a little more ease at climaxes would not be amiss. But I think these can be easily achieved with further tuning.
  • There is no question that speaker choice and placement are the most important factors in one's system.
  • Placement The most valuable given asset is a good room, and Bernard is more fortunate than most of us. Yet, the previous incarnations before re-placement serve as reminders that our habits (or constraining factors, such as WAF) are often (understandably) at odds with the needs of the system. In a way, we are our worst enemies. Do not fight or neglect the room!
  • Speaker Choice Once again, the experience shows that horns are irreplaceable, and this was exactly what oozz and I talked about on our long way home. There is no better conveyance of the live music quality than horns (oozz's own German Physiks is a variation on the horn). This setup is not expensive, yet it gives more of the illusion of the live event than systems we have heard that cost millions of dollars. Also, the simplicity of the system should give tweakers much thought! So many people spend megabucks on power treatment, cables and tweaks etc; yet all they get are frustrations. Attend to the basics!
  • Bigger rooms breathe better There is no getting around it. The bigger the room, the better the sound, provided  the equipment is up to it (no better choice than horns). We have heard good efforts on Maggies and planars, but they are completely dwarfed by this setup. I agree with whlee that this is overall the best system we have heard.
  • It is really gratifying to hear a system truly transformed. People claim all sorts of improvements, but epiphanies do not come so often without drastic measures, usually not voodoo but attention to basics.
  • What I would do In this system, were it so fortunately mine, within aesthetically acceptable limits (and WAF) I'd fine-tune the placement. I'd also try to drive it with less power (SET or, as whlee thinks, low-powered PP amps). I think even better sound can be easily achieved without much cost.
  • The Klipsch Lesson Once again, the experience confirmed one of my convictions, detailed in previous articles. Well executed, a Klipsch system outperforms most ad-hog conglomerates of arguably superior components. The coherence is compelling.
  • Is this the best system I have heard? Not in all parameters, but in terms of the live experience, it is (surpassing my own efforts)!
What A Happy Day!

03 April, 2015

47 Labs 4718, Elekit TU-8500, Micromega MyGroov, Kondo KSL-SFz + M7 Phono, Lehmann Black Cube, Leben RS28-CX

Oh MercyTalk Vinyl: Phonoamp Shootout (47 Labs, Micromega, Kondo, Lehmann, Leben)
Review: Elekit TU-8500, Part V
Review: 47 Lab 4718, Part I
Review: Micromega MyGroov, Part I
Review: Kondo KSL-SFz + M7 Phono, Part I
Review: My Kondo System Part IV
Re-Visit: Lehmann Black Cube

47 Lab, 4718, Part II was published (using Denon Dl-A100).

My Kondo System, Part I (background info on Kondo and Ongaku); Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience)Part V (on old Audio Note M7 and use of Kondo with small bookshelves).

Revised April 6, 2015, with addition of Elekit TU-8500.

In my reference system I have been testing various phono setups for a while. Here is my report. First, some background material:

Background: Kondo KSL-SFz + M7 Phonoamp
I have written previously on My Kondo System (Part I Introduction mostly; Part II,which has info on the current phono setup; Part III mostly on M7 preamp + Ongaku), but this article concentrates on the phono amplification. Both the SFz and M7 have been in the Kondo lineup for a long time. The M7 series has been discontinued, which is a shame, as these are the most authentic Kondo san products.

KSL SFz This is the step-up transformer (SUT). Mine is the older version, which has KSL in its name (still on official website). The primary winding impedances are 1Ω, 3Ω and 40Ω, with respective step-up ratios of 36dB(1Ω), 30dB(3Ω) and 20dB(40Ω).

Note that the current SFz (sans the "KSL") is basically the same, with one less impedance choice: Primary impedances of 1.5Ω (for 1Ω~10Ω cartridge) and 30Ω (for 11Ω~40Ω cartridge), with respective step-up ratios of 34dB(1.5Ω) and 20dB(30Ω).

M7 Phonoamp Mine is the stand-alone version, as described in My Kondo System Part II. No longer on official site.

Despite their fame, there are surprisingly few online formal reviews besides these: positive-feedback; Stereotimes.

Background: 47 Labs 4718
This phonoamp of the Shigaraki series has been around for a long time, but has lower profile than its stablemates. See reviews from enjoythemusic and 6moons. Like the similar looking Shigaraki DAC, it has very few parts and is based on an op-amp, with circuit identical to the more expensive phonocube. My unit is new and not run-in.

Image result for micromega mygroovBackground: Micromega MyGroov (official link)
Aside from European (French and Spanish) reviews (link) there are virtually no other for this humble component. In Chinese, there is a surprisingly good one from Taiwan's HiFi HiVi. Switch Mode Power Supply and Surface Mount technology are used. My unit has seen some previous use.

IMHO, its lack of recognition is a gross neglect, because this is actually the first MC phonostage Micromega has made, and Micromega has made everything well. Even their top amplifiers have only MM phonostage.

RS-28CX picture No.2Background: Leben RS28CX
This had long been part of my reference system. For my detailed assessment, click here. Recently, the phono developed s little noise. I on this occasion I changed the phono tubes back to the original 5751. This may have some import on what follows.

Background: Lehmann Black Cube
Mine is the original, and it has surprised me on multiple occasions. See my previous write-up. Mine is well used.

Background: Elekit TU-8500
Please refer to my previous write ups, Starting from Part I.

Reference System Used:
-Turntable: Garrard 301/Thomas Schick/Denon DL-103 (Midas)
-Preamp: Leben RS28CX
-Amp: Wavac MD-300B
-Loudspeakers: TAD-3401

Software Used:
Aside from others, 2 of my regular reference vinyls (see pics on top). The Dylan Oh Mercy album is, as usual, well recorded and is a merciless test of jump factor and rhythm and pace. The Night on Bald Mountain on the Fiedler album is, imho, one of the best interpretively and sonically (in CD form, available as Arthur Fiedler Symphonic Spectacular.)

Sonic Impressions:

  • 47 Labs 4718 It has the classic, direct, lucid but upfront 47 Labs sound, and has the fastest leading edge. Although undoubtedly exciting, I did wonder whether it was a trifle insistent on the Dylan LP. With large scaled music, sound coarsens a little at high playback volume. Night on Bald Mountain is not quite fully fleshed out; strings are a touch dry and brass a little thin. But this is almost brand new; With the low-level signals, running-in phonoamps can take a long time.
  •  Micromega MyGroov It is similar, but from more of a mid-row perspective. On the Dylan LP, although it is not quite as overtly exciting, PRaT are beguiling, without the sometimes insistent quality of 47 Labs. On Night on Bald Mountain, strings have more sheen and brass fuller. High volume playback shows no degradation. Highly satisfying and a very even performer.
  • Lehmann Black Cube Once more, the Lehmann shines! To say the least, on the Dylan Album, I was a little taken aback that it edged out the Micromega, not to mention the 47 Labs, on rhythm and pace! Night on Bald Mountain had the best tonal balance of the three.
  • Kondo KSL-SFz + M7 Given the price differential, this may be a ridiculous comparison, but one that puts things into perspective. No, the solid-state units are not as good as the uber-expensive tubes. No giants are slayed; Goliath is not shamed, but neither are the efforts of the David's utterly out of place. Even with the cheap Denon, the Kondo setup installed a massive soundstage, with bags of air surrounding the fleshing images. Brass are more full bodied, and massive strings are more believable. With just 2 LP's I was not entirely sure whether I preferred the 3 ohm or the 40 ohm (the latter seems to be for the Denon 103), but I suspect the greater ease of 3 ohm (higher step-up ratio) is more appealing, impedance "matching" not withstanding. This also goes to show, if one has the choice, drop theories and go empirical; sound is determined by the ears, not the mind.
  • Kondo KSL-SFz into Leben Fed into the Leben's MM stage, I immediately noticed a mild depletion of air and reduction in soundstage - not massive, but noticeable. As noted, the tubes are stock, but not top ones, and tube rolling no doubt will up the performance. Still, the performance is superior to the solid-state devices. No surprise there!
  • Elekit TU-8500 into Leben Still equipped with the humble GE 5965, and used as a phonoamp (unity gain and volume all the way up), the sound was somewhere between the solid state and all-tube units, approaching the performance with the Kondo SUT in the playback chain.  It has all the virtues of the solid state devices, plus the bigger sound of the tube. Very impressive.
  • Elekit TU-8500 as full-function preamp Using the higher gain setting and run into the Wavac MD-300B amp, the performance was exciting. The big tube sound and dynamics were retained. Compared with the Leben and Kondo preamps, images are more upfront and soundstage not as deep. Given the price differential, the Elekit turned in a sterling performance.
Conclusions (for now):
  • Given the huge price differential, the cheaper solid state phonoamps performed most admirably. They are all stars, and I would want to keep all of them.
  • For a pittance, Micromega Mygroov is an outlandish best-buy. I am going to take it (as well as the 47 Labs 4718 and Elekit TU-8500) to NYC, where it will be pitted against the iFi iPhono and others. But for a little more, you can have the best of both solid-state and tube, in the form of Elekit TU-8500, which you can use as a phonoamp or full-function preamp! What versatility!
  • Tube is still the last word in phono (and others).