Home Visit: Harbeth Super HL5, E.A.R. 868, Parasound Zphono USB
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.
- 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.
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!