27 July, 2015

DSD from Vinyl Rip, Harbeth SHL5

ScreenshotsTalk CAS/Talk Vinyl: Ripping Vinyl to Digital
Home Visit: Harbeth Super HL5, E.A.R. 868, Parasound Zphono USB
Overview: Harbeth

This article comes from two visits to my friend 唐吉訶德 Tony's place. A lot has changed between the two visits: Tony has acquired an EAR 868 preamp, close cousin of my 912. I had also brought back from NYC my Parasound Zphono USB expressly for him to play. Also, Tony has experimented extensively with various ripping methods and both DSD and PCM formats.

Digitizing Vinyl
  • This is something I am curious about, but not something that I'd do myself on a large scale. I just have too many LPs (numbering more than 10k) - transfer is impossible, especially if you consider the cleanliness required. But I can see the urge to occasionally transfer a favorite LP to digital file, especially if it is not available on CD. Back twenty years ago, a Taiwanese friend moved to work in China and could not bring his vinyls with him, so he digitized his collection, so vinyl ripping is not at all something new to me.
  • Some people (including reputable people like AMR/iFi's Thorsten Loesch) say if done well the digital file should sound very close to analog playback. Also, I have noted reviews have favorable comments on Devialet's A to D phono section.
Overview: Harbeth
Recently, in the HK forum review33, someone asked about Spendor SP100 vs Harbeth M40. My view expressed can serve as a brief overview of my experience with Harbeth. First, in Chinese:

"...唐吉訶德的問題是 SP100 vs M40。 在我看來,不容易討論。表面看來兩者都是承傳 BBC 的設計,但我相信用起來絕對不一樣。

先說 Spendor, 大家都知道我是它經典產品的粉絲,更用過不少, 不妨看看我的總結

如果不是玩了號角,我是永遠不會賣 SP100 的。 它容易推, 更受膽。連 Unison Research Smart 845 單端都有超凡效果。我賣了給好朋友,他用普通的 KT88 膽機也推得不錯

另外一個朋友,也受了我們的影響,買了新款一點的 SP100R, 用 Verdier 膽機也推得很好

這些都是實例,所以 SP100 受膽是不容置疑的。但我也相信,用適當的石機(如以前的英國合併)也會很好。還有,留意, SP100R 還是大致保留了前身的味道。 我會猜 R2 也一樣。

現在的 Spendor 變了很多,新產品我沒太大興趣。但他們既保留了 SP100, 不會在它身上做太多變動的。這種樣子的東西只有少數的知音(尤其在臺灣和日本)。

再説 Harbeth, 我的經驗少許多,但也不太少。M40 我以前在朋友 Wher 哥舊家聼過,用石后級,效果非常不錯。40.1 就沒聼過。

最近在 ”Conrad Johnson Classic 60 Power Amp“ 這 thread 裏,我說過我對膽機推 Harbeth 的保留:

”...用在 Harbeth 身上,我有點保留。多年前我玩過第一代 Compact 7 及 HL5。用膽機推,高中漂亮,但低音始終不好。M30 我不敢說,你可去 Harbeth 同好會 問問。

講到英國喇叭,很多人都以爲像 LS3/5 一樣受膽, 其實不然。 除了 Harbeth 外,我玩過的Celestion SL6, Spendor SP1/2, 乃至 Proac Tablette 2,都不容易用膽玩得好。

在我看來,Harbeth 的低音比較難搞。連他們的 LS3/5A 低音都和其它 LS3/5A 不一樣,多些。

爲了了解 40.1 我在網上看了很多資料,有些非常值得細讀, 尤其是 Stereophile

這幾篇文章一流,Harbeth 同好必讀。 除了 Art Dudley 的 review 外,還有編輯 John Atkinson 和 Alan Shaw 來回辯駁,都圍繞著低音的問題。中國人的音響雜誌什麽時候才可以出一些這樣的文章和對話!

6moons 的波蘭人也值得細讀,不像 Art Dudley, 他用的是石機.

玩 Harbeth, 我自己可能會選擇膽前石後。

M40.1 太貴了,我會偏向 SP100R2...".

To translate, basically, based on my experience with the old Compact 7 and HL5, my own general advice on Harbeth to others is (1) Harbeth loudspeakers have very good treble and midrange, but (2) do not think of them as tube-friendly BBC-derived speakers; (3) bass control is the difficult part, so consider solid state amp rather than tube amp. If you carefully read this Stereophile link, you shall see much debate between the reviewers and Harbeth's Alan Shaw on the bass response, a fascinating read.

Harbeth Super HL5
Many years ago, I owned a pair of Compact 7, brother of the original HL-5. Like the Spendor SP1/2 and Celestion SL-6SI that I had, the treble and midrange were excellent with various tube amps, but not the bass, which would sound loose. I never owned the 2-way HL-5 but heard it many times; it too had bass that was hard to control. I am a tube man, but these experiences led me to conclude Harbeth's match better with solid state. The HL-5 evolved into an ES version. Then, a supertweeter was added and it became the Super HL5. The Super HL5 was generally well reviewed (see TAS; 6moons; StereoTimes) and sold well. The latest version is termed the Super HL5Plus.

Parasound Zphono USB (official info)
Parasound's ultra-compact and budget Z series products are popular with consumers and professionals alike. The Zphono USB is basically a Zphono with addition of an A to D Convertor. It has been well reviewed. The best read is enjoythemusic, which compares the analog playback with digitized copies. For some reason, Parasound has discontinued it, though at the time of writing it is still available.

While I was in NYC, I bought one at discounted price. I tried it briefly with my Denon DL-103 and was surprised by its solid performance as a phonoamp. I never got around to digitizing, so I took it back for Tony to play.

EAR 868 Preamp
Basically, this is said to be similar to my 912 (see my Overview EAR). It has been well reviewed by Positive feedback and soundstage. Tony bought a new one and had to run it in for a long time (small phono signals, large number of transformers). I also lent him my 912 to compare.

There are significant differences between the 868 and 912. The 868 uses 2 instead of 3 tubes in the phono section, and it lacks the 3-position attenuation feature. And of course, no meters.

Home Visit II
Like me now, my friend Tony lives in a small flat. Although the effective listening area is not much more than 100 sq ft, that doesn't dampen his enthusiasm. Tony is an experienced audiophile who has played with a large number of gears. Perhaps due to space limitation, in recent years he has delved fully into CAS. Now, he has embarked on digitizing vinyls, which was the real raison d'etre for my two visits. His current equipment:

Vinyl Setup: VPI/Kuzma 4Point/Ortofon Jubilee
Phonoamp: Parasound Zphono USB or EAR 868 built-in phono
ADC for vinyl ripping: Parasound Zphono USB or Terratec
CAS Server: Macbook Pro/Audirvana

DAC (PCM): Weiss DAC2
DAC (PCM): Meridian Explorer
Preamp; EAR 868
Amp: Marantz 8B
Speakers: Harbeth SHL-5

Click pics to enlarge. R, setup; L, Korg

Home Visit I
The visit was a few months ago. Equipment was rather different:

Vinyl Setup: VPI/Kuzma 4Point/Ortofon Rohmann
Phonoamp: EAR 834P or Hovland built-in phono
ADC for vinyl ripping: Korg MR-2000S (DSD files)
CAS Server: Macbook Pro/Audirvana
Digital Interface (DDC): Weiss INT204
DAC (PCM): Weiss DAC2
Preamp; Hovland HP-100
Amp: ARC D-115MkII
Speakers: Harbeth SHL-5

Detour: ARC D-115 The reason for the detour is my personal interest in ARC, and the D115 (see here). This unit actually used to be mine, and it was my second one! Back in the late 90's I used to own one, and it was really powerful, capable to drive almost anything. My first sample used Sovtek tubes and the sound was a trifle bland compared to other tube amps, more modern if you like. This second sample though was fitted with the original Philips 6550 (themselves worth quite a bit now) and it sounded better. When I sold it to Tony, I was shocked how good it sounded driving the JBL 4312's! Massive, room-filling sound. I almost wanted to renege on the deal! A bargain!

  • Vinyl Setup Tony's vinyl setup is fairly high-end. Although I am generally not a fan of VPI turntables (especially older ones, imho often lacking in rhythmic verve), as a Kuzma (Stabi/Stogi) and Ortofon (MC3000/5000/Kontrapunkt C) user, I have reasonable confidence in the neutrality of his source. Ditto the excellent amplification used on both visits.
  • General Sound/Harbeth Super HL5 For such a small space, sound was properly scaled, decent enough. Particularly gratifying was the good bass control of the Harbeth. Based on my previous experience with the Compact 7 and HL-5, I know that is not easy to achieve, so kudos to the system. Naturally, the Harbeth sounded more run in during the second visit.
  • Vinyl Rips/Visit I On this occasion, Audirvana was used to rip to DSD. Weiss INT204 converts the DSD on-the-fly to PCM192. The Korg can play DSD files but was not heard on this visit (and has since broken down). During this visit Tony's vinyl setup was in overhaul and I heard only stored files. My recollection is they sounded similar to, but not as good as Visit II.
  • Vinyl Rips/Visit II On this occasion PCM was used. I stayed for a long time and compared files derived from various ripping methods with direct analog playback. In general, the files sound very close to direct analog playback and accurately reflect the characters of different equipment.
  • Parasound Zphono phono section vs EAR 868 Tonally, the two are very similar, indeed almost dead-ringers. However, the EAR has better dynamics. This is in accord with my previous impressions in NYC (not as dynamic as my reference gears, as expected).
  • Parasound Zphono USB in action Compared with Tony's regular ADC (Terratec), files ripped by the Parasound is just a little less detailed. However, it seems warmer and flows more naturally. Note here that the Parasound is only 16/44.1, not the 24/96 and 24/192 files made by Tony's regular ADC. Tony also likes its volume control for recording.
  • EAR 868 vs 912 This is based on Tony's experience. Tony says the 912 is a bit better in every way. Also, he said the meters of the 912 are supremely useful when transcribing vinyls. Tony compulsively archives and crosschecks his rips, and so was able to play me the same cuts ripped previously using the 912 - they sounded very close to those ripped using the 868.
  • 24/96 vs 24/192 Tony says often he prefers 96 to 192. Again, this is in accord with my experiences.
  • Meridian Explorer Briefly we heard the Explorer in lieu of the Weiss. Though less dynamic, the little Explorer is warmer and rhythmically more suave.
  • Ripped vinyl files can sound very similar to analog playback. This is indeed food for thought. For me, analog source is superior to digital source not because it has more tonal allure, but that it brings more force and drama to the proceedings (especially with pop music). It seems that this force and drama is not (all) lost after proper digitizing. Fascinating.
  • The Parasound Zphono USB is a screaming bargain!

12 July, 2015

Letter from NYC (44) 2015 (6): Feasts

Click pics to enlarge.

Letter from NYC (44) 2015 (6): Feasts

Warning: This is basically a diary type entry on certain incorrigible audiophiles, and I wish to convey the joy we had in gatherings; nothing much on hifi matters.

1. Andy's Surprise
One day my friend and analog guru Andy L called up and said he is inviting everyone to his house for lunch. There will be a hired cook and a surprise. This had me guessing to no avail. Someone he wants us to meet? But we audio people don't usually get so personal, no?

When I arrived the house was packed, wine was flowing, and the cook was working frantically in the kitchen. The surprise turned out to be Andy's newest acquisition, a mint Goldmund Reference turntable (with Decca cartridge; you can barely see the TT in the top pic - center, behind another TT). Indeed, that is worth celebrating!

LR Setup The living room setup has changed a lot since my last report (here). Andy's JBL's, which I never got to report on, now are in the dining room (see lower pic) and the living room corners are taken up by Altec's! Those are A5 cabinets housing 515's with the 288's on top. Low bass is augmented by subwoofers. Preamp is an ARC SP-6C and amps are Canary 300B monoblocks. System is not yet perfectly tuned but still sounds decent enough. You wouldn't expect less from Andy.

The Feast The diminutive cook, a middle aged woman from the 四川 Sichuan (Szechuan) province of China, used to be a caretaker for Andy's mother. What a find! This is Sichuan cuisine at its authentic best. The lady actually brings back from her home province some of the indispensable ingredients. We talked at length with her after the meal. Like all great cooks, she prides herself on the layers, subtleties and differentiation her food brings to the palette.  No two dishes should taste the same (and they didn't). I live in HK, where Sichuan food is hardly ever authentic. I travel often to nearby Shenzhen, where Sichuan food abounds, but still this meal got them all beat. 有痲有辣,有濃有淡,五味俱全。

2. Two Much of a Good Thing?
Soon after, Andy hosted a similar, but smaller, similarly catered lunch party for his senior citizen upstate NY (report here) and younger Long Island friends (a psychologist audiophile and his beautiful nurse girlfriend). It was nice to meet up with Milty and Ming (Lao Tang) again, but for an incidence.

Near the end of the delicious lunch, I turned around to talk to Ming, and he slumped on my shoulder! Our competent nurse determined he had briefly lost his pulse due to orthostatic hypotension. Nonetheless, we played safe and called in the medics, who insisted on talking him to the hospital, where he spent the the evening, until his wife (also a nurse) took him home AMA. Ming had simply not eaten and drunken enough water, we all thought.

3. Return Visit to Upstate NY
Soon after we returned to Upstate. Milty's system had changed a bit, with a Schiit Gugnir DAC and some Chinese CDP and preamp at the front. We spent a little time tweaking his stuff before having a big lunch, as usual. Then we went to Ming's place. He has embraced CAS, and even gave me his Roksan transport!!!! I have to thank Ming here. Also, Ming treated us to a marvelous meal at a local Greek restaurant. Superb!

4. Simple is Best
I actually got to meet up with Andy once more, a simple noodle lunch with just Simon and Mark. Andy's Noodle with Beef is simply excellent, and we enjoyed a few bottles of wine. Wonderful!


08 July, 2015

SME 3012, Thorens TD-125, Pioneer PL-10, Denon DL-103, Shure SC35C

Letter from NYC (43) 2015 (5): The Long and Winding Road
Talk Vinyl: Saving SME 3012; Rehabilitation of Thorens TD-125 and Pioneer PL-10
Talk Vinyl: Turntable Setup
Review: Denon DL-304, Part II
Review: Shure SC35C, Part I

Acknowledgement: I want to thank my friend and analog guru Andy L for his gift of 2 hex-wrenches for SME, without which I'd not have been able to setup the SME 3012.

Related Links from this Blog:
All my Turntables (Arms and Cartridges): A (Rambling) Overview for background material on Thorens TD-125 and Pioneer PL-10.
2011 Report on reactivation of my Thorens TD-124 (with SME 3009S2i/Denon DL-304).
Previous report of Denon DL-304 on the Thorens TD-125/3009S2i

Warning: Purists who lose sleep over setup precision need not read further. You have been warned.

A few years ago, my friend Mark gave me a Thorens TD-124 and a really beat SME 3012. In 2011, with help of my friend and analog guru Andy L we restored the TD-124 to use and it has become my mainstay in Reference System 2. Finally, four years later I managed to revamp the SME 3012 to working condition, but not before a lot of hard work!

Click pics to enlarge.

Saving "SME 3012"
This particular specimen of the SME 3012 is in poor condition. I wonder where the hell it had been before Mark found it, and if I can still call it an SME 3012 (therefore the brackets)!

Deteriorated Rubber The rubber coupler between the arm tube and counterweight bearing tube had deteriorated, with the latter drooping. It still holds and for now that is the way it will be.

Incomplete Counterweight The main part of the counterweight as well as the rider weight are missing. The small counterweight on it is not enough to balance even a light cartridge, and I had to fix some weight over it by blu-tac to achieve balance (see right pic). Andy L told me the rider weight is very important for balance, but until I source the rest of the counterweight (expensive no doubt) that is the way it will have to be.

Head Shell Missing This should have the traditional SME headshell with just two holes for headshell screws. Given my balance woes, I decided to use a very light and cheap retro-style head shell with screw slots that looks like a replica of my Pioneer head shell (see top pic and pic below). Looks good with the SME.

Headshell Collar Problem This almost caused me to give up! The collar had been messed up. It was rotated but getting it back in position was not hard. The real headache was inside: 3 out of 4 pins were sunken and frozen, not making contact with head shell pins when checked by multimeter. I wanted to remove the collar and clean the pins. Andy told me there should be a small screw underneath (like my SME 3009) but there is none, just a longitudinal groove. Perhaps this is a crimped version (could not find anything on the internet)? If anyone has info on this, let me know. I did not have pure alcohol and so applied a liberal amount of 70% rubbing alcohol and some aerosol, and repeated several times. No luck even after prolonged and rigorous probing with the leads of my multimeter. Finally, I resorted to WD40 (I know, it is oil based and not so good). After a few days, I was ecstatic to find 2 of the 3 frozen pins had popped out completely, while the last one did just a little, enough to make contact, perhaps? With the head shell installed, I used the multimeter to test continuity and discovered a fresh set of problems.

Pin-Out Mystery I tested for continuity between the head shell cartridge cables and the output terminals. At first, I got no continuity on all 4 pins. In desperation, and with the realization that everything is skewed about this particular specimen, I tested all combinations, and soon found the pin out at the collar to be all screwed up. All 4 pins have continuity, but not according to convention (that is, looking at the head shell, red is not top right). This is not a problem; I mapped it out and simply re-shuffled the cartridge clips. I know there are instances of pin out deviations, but this one matches with none I can found on the internet. Again, perhaps some reader can enlighten me.

No Connecting Cable Well, like many others I am not fond of the original SME cable anyway. With the connections sorted out, I decided to re-terminate in RCA's. I made a small board out of two small rectangular slices of expired credit cards and fixed the RCA terminals on it. It is a bit warped, emphatically not elegant but it works (see pics).

No Anti-Skating Assembly For a 12" arm, this should not be a problem. I shall do without. Note the Thomas Schick arm does not even have this feature.

Armboard for Thorens TD-124 Two years ago, I bought in the second-hand market in HK an unused acrylic armboard for the 3012, said to be from Singapore (if I remember correctly). I am not fond of acrylic, but it is better to get the job done than wait. I took it back to NYC last year but misplaced it. This year I found it and got down to work. Hell! The base plate screw holes were drilled too small for the screws to go in all the way. Anyway, the thing felt reasonably secure and I left it at that, for now. The base plate is missing one rubber grommet, so in lieu I used a little bit of paper to achieve leverage (you can see this if you enlarge the right pic). I know you are frowning!

Ditch the Plinth! Clearance Problem After all that, as I tried to affix the armboard, I realized to my great dismay that the bottom part of the arm could not clear the wooden plinth! Damn! I just had to ditch the plinth, for now. I rested the TT on a solid slice of kitchen counter top (apartment renovation leftover; IKEA; recommended for its solid sonic properties; see pic). The long screws were skewed, so I balanced the TT by putting small folds of cardboard beneath. Insecure? Not me, maybe the TT, or maybe you?

Cartridge Well, what better choice than the Denon DL-103? In the previous article, I just installed the variant DL-A100, so I decided on this most humble, and most over-performing, of cartridges. After all, this is what I am most familiar with, and still use in HK (here)

Alignment Lacking the SME protractor, and lacking the original SME head-shell, I used the Dr. Feikert protractor. I used the Stevenson favored by SME. I aligned the first point (step 1). After much fiddling, the end groove (step 3) still aligns much better than the start (step 2). Let it be!

Whew! Done!

Thorens TD-125 Rehabilitated
When I reactivated the Thorens TD-124, my SME 3009S2i, together with the Denon DL-304, was removed from my TD-125 (see link above) and so my TD-125 went MIA. Now, the 3009S2i was returned to the TD-125, together with the Denon DL-304 carrtdige. Welcome back, old friend!

Shure SC35C/Pioneer PL-10 Rehabilitated

The cause for resurrecting this first TT of mine was because of a recent Stereophile article by Herb Reichert, in which he (like others on the net) praises the evergreen $35 DJ Shure SC35C cartridge, used on a cheap Pioneer direct-drive PLX-1000 (his review of the TT here). Now, HR is a seasoned reviewer (though now on the cheap), and the Pioneer is almost the same thing as my AT-PL120. As he got curious about the Shure, I did too. I enlisted the Pioneer PL-10 for the purpose.

The PL-10 has no VTA adjustment, but it was designed in an era for Shure cartridges, and sure enough VTA looks to be correct. Alignment was easily achieved too.

Associated Gears (Reference System II):
-Preamp: Shindo Monbrisson (MC input used for Denon DL-103; MM for Shure SC35C)
-SUT: WE 285 for Denon DL-304 (into Shindo's MM input)
-Amp: Wavac MD-811
-Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horns

LP's Used for Testing Same as in my recent big phonoamp report.

Sonic Impressions/Comments
  • Thorens TD124/SME 3012/Denon DL-103 I bet the SME 3012/Denon DL-103 combo is seen on as many decent TT's (certainly Garrard's and Thorens) as anything else! Tried and true, for sure. On the TD-124, compared to the SME 3009S2i/Denon DL-304 (see link above), the sound is richer, and background is darker. Compared to my Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-A100 (cartridge also new; see here), the sound is more solid and effortless. From memory, compared to my Garrard 301/Thomas Schick 12"/Denon DL-103 "Midas" (see here), the sound is crispier, with faster transient, but here I think the characteristics of the TT influence the sound greatly. However I look at it, even in barely restored condition, the venerable arm is a winner and deserves its reputation. Although I am not necessarily a fan of 12" arms, considering that I have used a large number of SME arms in the past, including the 3009, 3009R, 3009S2i, 3010R etc, this fills in the gap and is long due! Even if the arm is incomplete, I am a happy man! Andy L though does not think too highly of SME and uses none on any of his many TT's.
  • Thorens TD-125/SME3009S2i/Denon DL-304 Given my long familiarity with the Denon DL-304 on the SME 3009S2i, would this return to ground zero disappoint? Not at all! The SME3009S2i/Denon DL-304 gives a slightly lighter sound on the TD-125 than on the TD-124, but it is more similar than different. Excellent by any means, and welcome back! This also re-affirms what a great TT the TD-125 is!
  • Denon DL-103 I have continuously used this cartridge for almost 2 decades, and can claim long familiarity. On the Rega RB250/300 arm it has always sounded very good (I know there are detractors). For my priorities, it has almost always performed miraculously on innumerable combos. It is the drama queen, and even much more expensive cartridges usually fail to approach its human touch. On a 12" arm, it certainly has more composure, but even if you only have a shorter/medium mass arm, you should still try out this classic. Like it or not, one of a kind. I should tell you Andy L thinks the cartridge, though otherwise fine, to be lacking in full range deep bass.
  • Denon DL-304 Despite being from the same family, this cartridge is way different from the DL-103. Its low output demands the best from partnering gears. Optimally set up, the sound is very different from the DL-103. It has less drama, more refinement. The DL-304 is cheaper than a decent Ortofon MC, but I think just as good (if you can handle it), and this is coming from a long time Ortofon MC user. Given its low output, SUT's are recommended as an option.
  • Shure SC35C In the 70's and 80's, I have used almost all incarnations of the V15, from the II to the V. I have always liked their neutral and natural sound. Alas, the V15 is no more (I seriously don't understand why), and the closest you can get is a 97ED, which is a damn fine MM too. I had used the V15 to fine effect on the Pioneer PL-10, but the SC35C disappoints. It is not run-in, but the performance was so bad I was literally taken aback. The sound is veiled, without resolution at either end of the frequency spectrum. Never had I tried something praised in the mainstream press to such dire results. In desperation, I substituted the transistor iFi iPhono or Nagra BPA (report here) and the result was better than the tubed MM of the Shindo due to more extended frequency extremes. This kind of result was completely out of my expectation, and has never happened before! Still, despite the improvement the result was not what you'd call great. I also briefly tried the SC35C on my AT-PL120 direct drive, to better but still not great effect. Failure, round one. Maybe it takes a long time to run in?
  • Setup Precision We try, but we don't always achieve precision. Sometimes, it is not our fault and it is ridiculous to lose sleep over it. A great setup (such as the TD-124/3012/DL-103) will triumph no matter what. The corollary is something inferior will still be inferior even if perfectly set up. Andy L seems to share my kind of philosophy. No matter how much you align, adjust SRA, VTA etc, analog is still inexact. As Andy says, setting up for a given LP doesn't mean the next one will sound as good. Sleep well! I do.
Now, in NYC I have 7 turntables running, rivaling Andy L in quantity, but perhaps not in quality (his are the likes of Goldmund and Versa Dynamics)!

Article finished in HK

06 July, 2015

Langevin 102 Preamplifier

L: Langevin 1961 Catalog, from internet (Preservation Sound); R: system upstream. Click pics to enlarge.

Letter from NYC (42) 2015 (4): Langevin 102 Preamplifier - My Reference System III
Review: Elekit TU-8500, Part VI Use as Buffer Amp
Review: Lepai 2020A+, Part II

Links relevant to this article:
Reviews of Lepai 2020A+, Part I; Dayton B652, Part III; Almarro M1A
Phonoamp Shootout (with Parasound JC3, Part II)
Elekit TU-8500 Review Part I (with links to II-V)

Casual got Serious
Compared to years past, I had less spare time during my stay in NYC this year, and what time I had were piecemeal. My large systems (see equipment list in sidebar) saw relatively little use compared to my "Casual System". This left me to ponder a drastic upgrade of the system to reference status - "casual" should also mean quality!

Acquiring the Vida, which can hook up two turntables in Reference System II, freed up the Parasound JC3. Also, I have long wanted to set up my professional Langevin preamp, which has enormous gain and . So I got the idea of using my Elekit TU-8500 as buffer amp, to control the listening volume. All sources are connected to the TU-8500 System is now as follows:

Digital: Sony XA-5400ES SACD/CDP
Turntable 1: Clearaudio Concept/Ortofon Kontrapunkt C
Turntable 2: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Raos MC Mono
Phonoamp 1: Parasound JC3
Phonoamp 2: Elekit TU-8500
Buffer Amp: Elekit TU-8500
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Lepai 2020A+ or McIntosh MC-2200
Loudpseakers: Almarro M1A or Dayton B652

Click pic to enlarge.

Langevin 102 preamplifier

Considering the innumerable roles audio play in our lives, it is appalling how poorly audio history is documented. Which is why we all should contribute a little.

History The best known Western Electric is the best documented, but its various spinoffs are less fortunate. Langevin is the most important of these (actually incorporated much earlier and long supplier to WE), but its history is barely documented on the internet. Its very close ties with WE is immediately obvious from the similarity of its products (at its peak in the Golden Era) to WE. The products are superior in every aspect, and deservedly escalate in value.

The professional world in which most Langevin products are used provide tidbits of information (see here, here, and here). Langevin products and consoles were widely used in recordings. The company lasted into the transistor age, and its name was later acquired by Manley, which did not seem to do so well by it.

Documentation Descriptions and Schematics on the 102 series (A-G) are available in original Langevin literature from vintagewindings. My unit looks to be the 102-B/F fitted with the optional 103-B (for more info on 103 A-C, see vintagewindings) input panel and has a matching 201 Power Supply. Also, from the technicalaudio site, you can get more useful Langevin info: Description of Various Line Series; 1952 Catalog.

Acknowlegement: most sincere thanks to the folks who selflessly put these valuable info on the internet for free. Salut!

Design and Tube Complement The 102 is similar to the more famous WE 106 preamplifier, which employs the famous WE 348 and WE 349 tubes. The 6SJ7 is electrically identical to 6J7 except for pinout. Mine was re-wired for 6J7 (with its top-cap), hence enabling use of WE 348. And WE 349 can be used in lieu of the output tube 6V6. Output is similarly transformer-coupled. The 103B panel is not used. Right now, I am not using WE tubes, instead Sylvania 6J7 and National Union 6V6. The 201 Power Supply can use both 5Y3 and 5U4 types. I have used both but settled with the Tungsol 5Y3 for less heat, as sonically it is as good as the We 422. My unit was restored by Master Huang 臺北黃老闆 in Tapei, who has restored numerous WE units, including a pair of WE 124 that I have. He has very high praise for the unit.

Gain Like the legendary WE 106, these being professional equipment not originally designed for home use, the gain is enormous. I am not sure of the spec but the 102A is in the vicinity of 55 db! My unit thus is configured for both fixed and variable outputs (I use the former). Hum is therefore a potential problem, especially with high efficiency speakers. It would be interesting to try out this for phono direct in (after only RIAA application and sans phonoamp)!

Setup and Sonic Impressions
  • Settings The setup has three volume knobs, and setting is somewhat aribitrary, arrived by listening. The lepai 2020A+ was used as an amp, with volume around 12 o'clock. The volume of the Langevin (fixed output) was around 11 o'clock. With these settings, the volume knob of the Elekit TU-8500 hovered around 10-12 o'clock. The interconnect from the Elekit output to the Langevin input is very long (not desirable but of necessity), around 15 feet.
  • General Sound I first listened to the system using the dirt-cheap Lepai amp, and the result shocked me, that is how good it is. I would think most of this is attributable to the excellence of the Langevin 102. The sound has strength in every department. Most importantly, it is superbly lively. Indeed, it gives my Reference System I (always cooler than reference System II) a run for its money, lacking only power and bass heft.
  • Langevin 102 Particularly impressive is the pristine high frequency. A miracle, in fact, considering the input is through a very long interconnect and a buffer amp. I think there is not a little of the single-ended 6V6/349A quality here. You may want to know older Chinese vintage tube lovers dubbed the 6V6 tube 琴王 the king of string instruments. The sound is very similar to my WE 106 (in which I use WE 348A/349A), and that is the highest accolade. In passing, note too Shindo used to use the WE 349A in his Giscours. As with the 6V6, the sound can turn lean with bad recordings, but with most material the midband and bass are beyond reproach.
  • Elekit TU-8500 I rolled in RCA 6201 black plates and the sound was so good I let them stay. So users should try 12AT7 family tubes too! Set to unity gain (actually 1.1), the Elekit performed flawlessly as a buffer amp. Its neutrality allowed the full flavor of the Langevin to emerge. Commendable! Too bad I do not have the iFi iTube on hand to compare (next year perhaps). Not surprisingly, it also functions very well as a phono amp for the Raos MC Mono cartridge (shall be covered in a coming article). With this, I think I shall conclude my series on this gem.
  • Parasound JC3 As mentioned in my last article (roll down), with an Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, I played Willy Deville's Miracle (acquired after hearing it played in Audioarts) and was compelled to listen to the entire side, a luxury for me these days. The high gain of the JC3 is not needed in this setup (indeed a detriment) but its quietness was again proved in this very high gain setup - remarkable!

Article finished in HK.

01 July, 2015

Review: Aurorasound Vida Phonoamp, Parasound JC3, 47 Labs 4718, AQVOX 2CImkII, Denon DL-A100

Letter from NYC (41) 2015 (3): Vida! Aurorasound gives Life to Vinyl
Review: Aurorasound Vida Phonoamp
Review: Parasound JC-3, Part II
Review: 47 Labs 4718, Part II
Review: AQVOX 2CImkII, Part II
Review: Thorens TD-309 Turntable, Part II
Review: Denon DL-A100 cartridge
Talk Vinyl: Group Review: (Aurorasound Vida, Parasound JC-3, 47 Labs 4718, AQVOX 2CI MkII, Fosgate Signature)
Talk Vinyl: MC Loading, Phonoamp Gain and Matching

Revised 16/9/2016: Reevaluation of the 47 Lab 4718 (see Part III), to its advantage. Relevant sections below appended.

Originally just a review of the Aurorasound Vida, this article is late in coming and months in preparation. To examine various aspects in depth, more and more equipment got dragged in. It is now too ambitious but I hope you will appreciate the care I have taken with these exceptional equipment. For myself, I am gratified that I am finally giving more deserved space to some of my frequently used equipment, like the AQVOX, Fosgate and Parasound phono amps, as well as the Thorens TD-309 TT. Last, but not the least, I am glad, after a long absence I have another Denon DL-103 sibling in my systems here in NYC (for two decades they have been in continuous use in HK).

For highly relevant info on how I view my various analog rigs and many of these phono amps I'd urge you to read (my previous articles):

Group Review of 8 Phonoamps (includes AQVOX)
Shootout of 8 phono amps (includes 47 Labs 4718, Part I)
47 Labs 4718, Part III
Review: Parasound JC-3, Part I
All my Turntables (Arms and Cartridges): A (Rambling) Overview

Review: Aurorasound Vida

Detailed Info can be found on Official Site, with links to several reviews. Readers are urged to read up on its innovative LCR design employing Lundahl coils.

Background When it comes to cartridge manufacturing, aside from the few western brands like Ortofon and Benz-Micro, the lion's share goes to Japan, where the culture is healthy (also serving as OEM for numerous western brands).In Japan, a plethora of small boutique brands (Koetsu, Miyajima, Transfiguration, Phasemation, etc) thrive side by side with giants like Denon and Audio-Technica. Yet, aside from some expensive boutique products, Japanese phono amps (and SUTs) are relatively little known in the West. My experience with them show them to be superior products.

Aurorasound's first product reviewed in the western press, the Vida, uses an LCR design for RIAA (claimed to be a first) and is capacitor-less in the signal path. It immediately grabbed everybody's attention and garnered praise. I first read about it in 2013 when the first (and best) review from HiFi Review came out, and immediately knew I wanted one. Aurorasound must be indifferent to soliciting reviews, since in the intervening two years there have been few reviews in the mainstream press aside from those in Asia (in HK, the Chinese magazines HK Audio Technique and HiFi reviews). There are some less mainstream not covered by the official links (the-earhifiwigam, users' thread on theartofsound).

I had to hear it. Although I rarely have time these days to visit audio showrooms, I made an exception for the Vida. Audition at HK dealer was OK, but it did not really further my desire. The setup was good but, with its dry and analytical sound, not quite my cup of tea, though I am experienced enough to know you listen to "potential" at a dealer, not the "final word" (my experience with dealers is that they always stress hifi "virtues", which are "sins" to many).

I also pondered whether I should get a 120V unit to use in the USA, or a 240V one for HK. Recently, with the great help of a friend, I ordered a 120V unit and it was waiting for me when I got back to NYC. I lost no time putting it through its paces.

General Comments
  • Options Some reviews don't seem to mention this, but options like balanced connections can be had for a premium. More, for those obsessed with loading, an MC loading selector is also an option. I opted for the cheaper basic version, which DOES have a switch for high (100 ohm) and low MC impedance (10 ohm).
  • Voltage Here is a slight quirk. The same transformer is used for both the USA (120V; 125 in my locale) and Japan (100V). The spread is rather large, but I guess the current used is really small (the unit runs slightly warm left permanently on) to be of concern (confirmed by Mr Karaki). Like most other boutique manufacturers, 220V requires another transformer.
  • Looks and Built The Vida is fantastic in appearance and relatively small (~2/3 the usual width). In comparison, my Parasound JC3 and AQVOX look positively ugly, the former especially so since it is unnecessarily over-sized. A look inside and one can only conclude that the unit is reasonably priced!
  • Ergonomics Possibly aside from lack of a phase switch, the features are all one can desire. I don't know why there are not more phono amps with 2 inputs. The Vida has one MC and one MM input and nicely comes with two grounding posts (those who have more turntables know the pain of fitting two ground cables, particular of different gauge or termination, onto a small single post). The unmissable Mute Switch and Mono Switch are delights.
General Sonic Impressions
I connected the Vida mainly to 2 turntables in one of my Reference Systems:

Turntable 1: Linn LP12-Ittok-Air Tight PC-1
Turntable 2: Technics SL-1200MkII-Denon DL-102
Turntable 3: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-A100 (used as supplementary source; see below)
Preamp: Manley Neo-Classic 300B
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL Acoustics 4-way horn system
  • Attention! Shorting Plug I put this here to catch your attention. The Vida comes with shorting plugs (like the one pictured) into one of the inputs (I forgot which one; I think the MM). I removed them when I installed my 2 turntables. Since initial setup, I have changed turntables a few times and sometimes only one turntable is connected, but I did not use the shorting plug. One time, more than one month into my use, I toggled the MC/MM switch (possibly to an unconnected input) and I heard a "pop" noise and the muting switch light came on (which means it muted itself; the Vida has a protection mechanism for overload). When I tried to un-mute it, no sound came out. I had to disconnect the power supply and reboot to get back normal sound. Sorry my recollection of events is not so precise, but that is what happens when too much time has elapsed between the event and the reporting. My interpretation of this is: if you use only one turntable and do not use the shorting plug, if you toggle the MC/MM switch to the unused input, you may trigger auto-mute and shutdown. My advice is: follow the instructions and use the shorting plugs on the unconnected inputs. The manual only states use of shorting plugs improve S/N ratio, but does not mention the likelihood of auto-muting if they are not used. This is in contrast to my Shindo Monbrisson, which similarly has MC and MM inputs selectable by a toggle switch, but then the Shindo uses transformers for the MC section, so I'd think that is why it is more immune to electrical problems.
  • Run-In The unit sounded fresh and vital from the word go. Perhaps initially there was a tiny over-emphasis in the lower treble which went away after a while (regardless of use; I have my unit on all the time - a gross violation of my own die-hard green sensibilities).
  • Background Noise What background? There is none. This has the cleanest background of all the phono amps I have. I am no hypochondriac when it comes to equipment, but what is more important to me is that the unit sounds vital even with complete absence of background noise (for my take on this, read a previous article).
  • General Sound I cannot describe it better than the review in HiFi News. There is absolutely no trace of the peaky glare or "hardening" (at least in certain frequencies) that could afflict even the better ss phono amps. Rhythmically it is alive and never boring. Treble is perfectly balanced and never tippy; bass is well contoured (not particularly full), tactile and reaches deep. In a word, not a weakness. See below for more detailed comments.
Review: Parasound JC-3, Part II, Second Coming after Minor Restoration
It should be noted that the model is now superseded by the JC3+, with addition of variable loading and various smaller changes. Readers should refer to last year's Review: Parasound JC-3, Part I for my full assessment and a peculiarity of my unit.

General Sonic Impressions At that time, although I was generally immensely satisfied I found the slightly grainy treble of my unit puzzling. My second-hand unit had a resistor factory replaced by a different brand to lower gain. When I got back this year, I replaced them with the original Dale resistors (sent by Parasound) and re-evaluated. Low and behold, the slight treble grain vanished! So do not under-estimate the sound effect of a single component at a critical point in the signal path! Also, as I have witnessed in many cases, the stock component (with which the sound is tuned) is the most even-handed performer. Also, the gain is noticeably higher in stock form, and I could understand the previous user's concern. It is not a big problem to me, even if I have very efficient speakers. After warming up and running in a bit, the unit is truly first-class. See below for more detailed comments.

Review: 47 Labs 4718 Shigaraki MC phonoamp, Part II, a bit Later on 
I am a late comer to 47 Labs. My standard gain (75 db) unit is said to be the last one of this series. The 4718 review by Dick Olsher in enjoythemusic is likely the most useful for most people, as it does not use 47 Labs' cartridge, as the review in 6moons does (Jeff Day, like me, also used the Denon DL-103 as comparison; more of my experience with that below). there is also a negative review of the 4718 in dagogo, but I'd discount that because I totally disagree with the author's statement that the 4718 sounds like the Hageman Bugle - even though I agree the Bugle is nothing special (my review of Bugle2), the dagogo author completely missed the excellent rhythmic ability of the 4718, which the Bugle completely lacks .

General Sonic Impressions My initial impressions in Part I really hasn't changed much after a bit more run-in (though please understand I don't use it nearly as much as the Aurorasound Vida, which did not need much run-in). I'd like to think of my reference system, including cabling, as rather neutral in sound, but my impressions are in contrast to some of reviews which describe a "lush" sound! My impressions are closer to Dick Olsher's. The distinctive house sound is dominated by fast, incisive rhythm allied to a lean mid-bass. Treble extension is a little curtailed. For this classical fan, another negative is its decidedly limited ability to swing large dynamics at higher volume. See below for more comments. Note 9/2016: after more run-in, the 4718 delivered a much better performance (see Part III).

Review: Thorens TD-309, Part II
Usage For my full assessment of the TD-309 with the heavy mono Denon DL-102, please refer to Part I. Since then I have used the TT quite frequently. After moving the Denon to the Technics I have happily rotated several cartridges. This time around, enlisting its service was almost a second-thought, originating from my desire to test more than one MC (I simply don't want to remove the PC-1 from my LP12).

Difficulties in Denon Cartridge Installation I decided on a brand new Denon 100th anniversary cartridge, because the similar DL-103 is a common staple and many can relate to it. The installation proved difficult: 1) Even with the cartridge platform pushed all the way up front, the cartridge came up short for alignment. I re-read the (useful) manual and was relieved to find loosening the top screw in the bearing block enables the arm tube to be pulled out for 3mm. Even so, It was 1mm short for Baerwald alignment. I am no perfectionist, so I just let it be. I re-read the German review by Ralph Werner (see link above) and found he also had the exact same problem with an Ortofon; I suspect my clearance unit was an early one, before Thorens fixed the problem (not apparent from other European reviews that also use the DL-103); 2) I had to lower the arm considerably, almost all the way, to get correct VTA, and I still have to find a small hex wrench to raise the arm-lift! If you use Denon and are considering a second-hand unit, beware. Sonically, as you shall see, things seem OK. See below for more comments.

Review: Denon DL-A100, Old Friend Re-incarnated
I got this when they were clearing it out, and it was not much more expensive than a new DL-103. Aside from the different colored body (but same material), the A100 and 103 are identical in all spec's. The A100 supposedly is more meticulously manufactured and selected. Please refer to the useful review by Art Dudley in Stereophile. This is useful for the purpose of this review as the Denon DL-103 is popular and has much higher impedance than the PC-1, so it is a good foil and test for any phono amp's versatility. DL-103 these days have at least 0.35 V output, and my DL-A100 is no exception, spec'ed at 0.38 V.

General Sonic Impressions Amazing as it may seem for this Denon veteran, I have never heard the DL-103 in my systems in NYC!!! As Art Dudley mentioned, the Denon is known to require considerable break-in time, so for the duration of my stay in NYC and this test it is unlikely in best condition. Despite that, its exceptional timing and musicality shone through the first notes. At this point in time, it does not sound as clean as my Air Tight PC-1 nor my Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, but its inimitable microdynamic ways more than compensate. As mentioned below, even when matched with (theoretically) unsuitable phonoamps it still shines. Although I didn't install it for comparison, based on my two-decade experience with the generic DL-103 my feeling is the DL-A100 has a noticeably cleaner bottom and a faster bass (as mentioned too by Art Dudley), though it is possible that the Thorens arm, designed to take much heavier cartridges, also plays a role. See below for more detailed comments.

Click pic to enlarge. Note that I have switched the dip switches to ON to bypass the output caps. See text.

Review: AQVOX 2CIMkII, Part II
This exceptional fully balanced, fully discrete gem, like the Vida, is a wonder in design. Readers are urged to read the detailed official literature and refer to my Group Review link on top for my previous impressions.

Previous Experience I only use the balanced input. Since my initial review, although I have briefly tried it with most of my turntables (using the adaptor) to excellent effect, I have mostly used the AQVOX only with my Thorens TD-309. The reasons is: I am not about to rewire my turntable leads to balanced connections (most of my phono phonoamps are single-ended) and the TD-309 is my only TT that does not have captured tonearm cables. To get rid of the adaptor, I have made DIY Mogami 2534 RCA to XLR phono cables for connection. For output, I use mostly RCA but have tested the balanced out with DIY Mogami 2534 XLR to RCA cables. Usually I have the gain knobs around 11 o'clock. I re-read the official materials and discovered several things.

Official Tips 1 Not in the manual but in the online info is a little on bridging the output capacitors. I opened up my unit and surely there are two 4-position dip switches at the output. Setting all to "On" bridge the caps and remove them from the signal path. As I use tube preamps, lack of DC blocking is not a concern and I happily did that. Even if I don't always favor no capacitor at the output, it is nice to have that option!

Official Tips 2 Not in the manual but hidden in a "Setup Info" download are some startling advices, the likes of which I have never read in a phono amp manual! To quote just a little: "...the PHONO2CI’s XLR-input is a current-amplifier what means a nearly shortcut to the cartridge.This requires to realign/readjust the cartridge/tonearm for a correct bass response. For more or less bass please try:
  • Tonearm weight (max. 0.5 g more or less than recommended by the cartridge manufacturer) More weight mostly results in more bass.
  • Tonearm heigt (higher or lower) The rule that tonearm and record should be parallel is not true. You really need to try it out. Mark your start position and try a slightly higher and lower position of your tonearm. Maximum 10 mm higher at the base..."
Most users, including this one, are unlikely to go to the suggested limits. I agree tonearm and record do not have to be parallel, but I'd think the cartridge body and record should be roughly so. In any case, 1 cm higher at the tonearm bass? That sounds like a lot. I think I may experiment a little, but not to the draconian limits suggested. 
    General Sonic Impressions The AQVOX has always delivered a very detailed and clean sound, perhaps not the last word in bloom but not etched either. But to these ears its strongest suit is its effortless delivery of rhythm and pace, and top-class microdynamic nuance. Theoretically it should not suit high impedance/inductance cartridges; but see further comments below.

    Phonoamps Comparison

    Although I played many LPs, I will use primarily three LP's for illustration. Due to the long time span and equipment re-deployment, nearly all, but not all combos were tried.

    Using Air Tight PC-1
    The PC-1 was heard with all phono amps except the AQVOX (though I have heard that combo before to excellent effect). Here I will concentrate on comparing the Vida and JC3.

    Vida vs JC3 The first LP is probably the best known: Khachaturian conducts Spartacus and Gayne Ballets (London CS-6322), long on HP's list and now available as an 180 gm re-issue. On the Sabre Dance cut, both presented the full galore of the orchestra. The Aurorasound is a little fleeter and more open; the Parasound a little darker and weightier. Interestingly, this difference is audible as the more life-like return-bow of the celli on the Parasound. Also, the hall ambience appears better resolved by the Parasound.

    The second is Dupre and Barenboim's incandescent Brahms Cello Sonatas (Angel S-36544). More than most others, this excellently recorded LP astutely reveals how each phonoamp treats spatial clues. No two phono amp sound the same with this LP, which is not to say one can easily come up with a preference. This LP was one of the first I heard on the Vida, and I remember vividly my wide-eyed wonder at the open sound that also conveyed the urgency of the performance. Here, although some tonal aspects of the piano and cello are better with the Parasound, I definitely preferred the Aurorasound for its cleanness, agility and balance, as these qualities particularly benefit the difficult task of replay of the piano.

    Last is a digitally recorded LP (I also have the CD and together they have long served as my tools for comparing the neutrality of my digital and vinyl rigs), Sigiswald Kuijken/La Petite Bande's cogent performances of Bach's Violin Concerti (ProArte PAD-124; The LP is rarer and ugly, so I show you the classier CD cover). Again, it is a toss-up. I marginally prefer the Aurorasound for the reason stated previously, though the Parasound is more emotive. Now, this recording can easily turn harsh with the wrong equipment, but the sunny Aurorasound never confuses gleam with harshness.

    Using Denon DL-A100
    As mentioned, even brand new and not as refined as the PC-1, the Denon brought a very different flavor to the table. With all phono amps (not tested with Parasound), in Sabre Dance, there is just as much excitement and bass oomph; more, string bowing is noticeably discernible, and one feels acutely the phrasing and intent of the performer(s). These are a priceless qualities that money often fails to buy! The period instruments of the Bach are a little twangy, as it should be and arguably more accurate than the PC-1. The Brahms reveal in full the youthful ardor of the performers, though the piano is a little less real sounding than the  Performance is best with the Vida and AQVOX. With the Vida, one gets a slightly more upfront and less smooth sound than the PC-1, but perspectives are otherwise rather similar. Surprisingly, the High Impedance setting, which I use, is not that different from the Low Impedance setting. The performance with the AQVOX was shockingly good. Big, bold, full of drama, benefitting in particular the piano playback.  With the 47 Labs 4718, even if the cartridges' impedances are very different, the performance was quite similar to that with the PC-1, which to me means the personality of the phono amp dominates.

    Further Sonic Comparisons and Comments (by Brands and Parameters):

    • Aurorasound Vida Sound The Vida is an incredibly even performer with all genres of music. Just its admirable performance with my best cartridge, the Air Tight PC-1, alone is enough to win itself pride of place in my reference system, and from this tube phono amp man this is saying a lot. Equally exceptional is the sound it gives to my mono rig (with the Denon DL-102; I may write more about this aspect in another article). The dual connectivity further sweetens the deal. Yes, some of my phono amps sound just a bit more emotive (and that is of paramount importance to me), but the Vida never feels lacking and after full consideration the Aurorasound Vida has become my go-to reference phono amp.  Even the excellent Parasound JC3 has to step aside, and I have re-arrange my setups as a result. Gain the rated MC gain of 64 db sounds like it should (confirmed by measurement in HiFi News) and I have no problem in use. MC Input Impedance as mentioned, the high and low settings did not sound significantly different with the Denon. To me this means the phono amp is not very sensitive to loading, and compatibility with most cartridges seem certain. I doubt one needs the more expensive option of the loading selector. Output Impedance the measurement in HiFi News shows a high figure. This should mean short interconnects are more desirable. In actual use, I have tried several (up to 3m) and could hear no deleterious effects on the pristine treble.
    • Parasound JC3 Sound The JC3 has quite a different sound that is no less valid than the Vida. It is a little darker, more bassy and robust than the Vida. I think it also likely resolves a little more venue ambience clues than the Vida. My preference for the Vida is only partly for sonic reasons, partly for ergonomics. In a new setup, where the JC3 now resides (shall write about that later), with an Ortofon Kontrapunkt C, I just played Willy Deville's Miracle (acquired after hearing it played in Audioarts) and it was so riveting I just had to listen to the entire side, a luxury for me these days. I have an inkling that with a rock and pop diet the JC3 may reign supreme. Also, keep in mind the output stage of the JC3 is a true balanced design and I am mostly a single-ended user. Gain the MC gain sounds a lot more than its rated 68 db! This is the phonoamp to have if you have gain issues or ultra-low output cartridges (I should mount my Ortofon MC3000MkII, or buy an MC2000!).
    • 47 Labs 4718 Sound For this classical orchestral music fan, the 4718 is out of its depth in this company. As stated before, with large orchestrals like the Sabre Dance, the 4718 tightens up and turns borderline strident. While the tympani are fast and tight, brass are parched. The Bach and Brahms fared better but the lean mid-bass and lack of heft at the foundations are still very much evident. Maybe my unit is still not run-in? Yet, despite these reservations, the 4718 does have its own sound/charm that sheds lights on some recordings. Loading again, since the 4718 worked as well with the Denon as with the PC-1, it seems this is not a big problem. Gain the gain of 75 db seems way "optimistic" to me, even compared to the 64 db Aurorasound, not to mention the 68 db Parasound! So, never take spec's at face value (PS Audio GCPH is another that comes to mind)! Note 9/2016: the 4718 gained much ground after run-in (see Part III).
    • AQVOX 2CI MkII Sound In terms of fast transients and attack, the complex AQVOX beats the 47 Labs 4718 at its own game! But unlike the 4718, the AQVOX in addition plays large scaled and complex music with absolute control. Unlike the Vida, which, as the HiFi News commentator says, sounds neither tube nor transistor, the neutral sound of the AQVOX is discernibly solid-state, though with all virtues and few flaws. This may not be the choice for those whose system is already bright, but should be on the short list of all others, including tube lovers. Cap Bypass brings even greater clarity and speed. This should be considered a must for those who are not concerned with DC blocking (like tube preamp and amp users). Loading as designed, this is not an issue when used with the XLR input, taking the guesswork out of those neurotic about it. It has worked well with every cartridge I have tried, including the Denon. Inductance There are those who worry that the current amplification does not suit cartridges with high inductance (difficult to measure and frequently not known). Some have said the Denon DL-103 has high inductance, yet my similar DL-A100 works remarkably well with the AQVOX, so well that I am leaving this combo as it is!! Note that the two European reviewers (see my Part I, link above) both used the Denon DL-103 (popular in Europe) as part of test, so I am not alone. Indeed, arguably the DL-103 is most popular in Germany, where this unit was designed. So, little to worry about. Gain there is plenty, and with the 0.39 V output of my Denon, my gain knobs are at the 1 o'clock position. Lowering it softens the sound a little; position is purely arbitrary and system dependent.
    • Fosgate Signature Sound For more details, readers are referred to my previous article. I only briefly auditioned the Fosgate this time around (hence no rigorous comparison), if only to remind myself (and readers) that I am still a tube man at heart. This has been a staple in my reference systems and it has matched well with all cartridges I have tried, including the Denon and PC-1. This phono amp is an incredible achievement. Its low noise belies its full tube nature (most tube phono amps would use a SUT for MC duties)  And it does everything right: neutral, detailed, yet with plenty of bloom, as only the best tube designs offer. Even the Vida, JC3 and AQVOX cannot surpass it in overall performance. There you have it; it is a shame I have never given it a full review. Loading There is a 6-position selector at the back, very convenient. Gain is sufficient for my cartridges, including the DL-103. See link above. I agree with TAS that the gain seems more than the 60 db suggested.
    • Denon DL-A100 (DL-103) Sound is very much in the vein of the classic DL-103, i.e., full of drama and presence. As mentioned above, its ability to convey the musical intent is top-notch, likely unsurpassed (except Decca), something money often fails to buy (I include various top-of-the-line Clearaudio and VdH cartridges in this statement, to name just two brands). Low Compliance and Arm Mass The common thinking is the Denon DL-103 only "works" on a heavy arm. Until relatively recently, I actually do not own one. So most of my time with the DL-103 were spent with more ubiquitous lighter medium-mass arms, like the RB250/300, and I still managed to get great sound out of it. In recent experience, the DL-103 worked well on the medium mass Ortofon AS-212S and of course the heavier Thomas Schick (reported here). In a coming article I will chronicle my rehabilitation of a battered SME3012 (I just installed a DL-103 on it to splendid effect). But I have saved the most intriguing for last: I have yet to write about it specifically but I have a Lenco GL-75 with an ultra-light SME 3009S2i and the Denon DL-103R (a somewhat different cartridge from the DL-103) works well on it (tested here). The large number of purists and thoerists out there in vinyl land no doubt would think of that as a joke but proof is in the pudding. Give the low cost of the DL-103, I think everyone owns it to himself to try it out (instead of asking for opinions)! I can think of no other cartridge that would make me say that.
    • Thorens TD-309 Sonically the TD-309 is wonderfully confident with every cartridge I have tried. Although it may lack the weight of a heavier TT, the sound is agile, with excellent PRaT and tonal accuracy. A very fine TT.
    • A Word on Gain Many people who worry about not enough gain, especially in the MC stage. With some phono stages, the query is justified, yet more often than not, the problem resides elsewhere in the system. In audio, there are many funny people around, usually people who cite theories and doubt their ears. You would be surprised by the number of people who don't like preamps, preferring to use a passive preamp or drive an amp directly from the source. With digital, due to popular demand DAC's now frequently incorporate a preamp stage (of variable implementation quality), but my experience with them (even well-reviewed ones like the Eximus DP-1, reported here) have been uniformly negative - all benefit from addition of a good preamp. With analog, it is even more important to not just have a full-function or line preamplifier, but to have one as high-quality as possible. A phono amp with volume pot will not do. Witness one of the reviewers of the Fosgate, who had gain problems, and he is not the only reviewer like that. Yes, we ask why amplify the signal then attenuate (or the reverse)? I don't have a definitive answer, but I can tell you a good preamp does more than gain (doing things such as buffering, very important) and is the soul of a system. IMHO, it is simply ridiculous to use a passive preamp, and then buy a certain phono amp just because it offers the highest gain (usually in lesser hands not necessarily beneficial to sound) in spec. Beware of spec's, as you can see in this group spec's don't mean much at all (the highest spec'ed one has the least gain). Also, everyone should have a Step-Up Transformer or two, which are preferable to active MC stages in many instances (as with most lesser MC phono amps). Suffice to say I almost never have gain issues.
    • A Word on MC Loading Again, here many people use their heads instead of their ears. The various vinyl forums are overflown with opinions on "proper" loading. Many of these writers use mediocre phono amps and then fuss endlessly with MC loading (or MM capacitance). This is sad. My experience is just the opposite. IMHO, Loading may have its value but more important is the quality of the phono amp. With phono amps of the highest quality loading is less important (indeed many famous designers do not believe in it)My Vida and Fosgate have loading selectors, but the difference in sound is not as much as you'd think. The JC3 does not, but sounds great with all my cartridges. On this topic I also had a chat with my vinyl guru, Andy L (who is active in many forums). Like me, he does not think MC loading to be of supreme importance; he says any loading would not sound equally great with every record - food for thought!
    Hallelujah! The article is done!