20 November, 2015

Review: Weiss Minerva vs Sparkler S306 vs Sony BDP-S190

Review: Weiss Minerva vs Sparkler S306
Review: Sparkler S306, Part I
Review: Sony BDP-S190, Part II
Talk Digital: Non-Oversampling

Revised January 13, 2016 (added Caveats of Blue Ray Player as Transport, and Sparkler S306 warm up time)

For Review: Sparkler S306, Part II, please click here.

As I continue to simplify my already simple enough system at my current abode (last iteration here), I temporarily retired my Micromega system. For CD transport I fell back on my trusted and humble Sony Blue Ray Player, BDP-S190, which can also play Blue Ray Audio discs, of course. I installed the Sparkler S306 DAC and did a comparison with my shidi Andrew's Weiss Minerva. This report is long overdue. There is a lesson here relevant to my last article on HiFi Basics.

Weiss Minerva
As CAS hit its stride, DAC's underwent a renaissance, with 24/192 capable ones leading the "Hi-Res" "revolution". In the USD 1K category, Benchmark arguably led the pack in widespread acceptance (I personally find it a little lacking in musicality). Price-wise, between the Benchmark and more rarefied stuff like dCS came Weiss, which was quite successful (especially in Asia) in marketing its Minerva (and then the very similar DAC202/DAC2).

Minerva employed a DICE chip for Firewire and used isolation input transformers. DAC appears to be ESS Sabre.

One interesting bit: since Weiss, with its professional roots, has always emphasized so-called "science", almost all the reviews of the Minerva (HiFi News, computeraudiophile, positivefeedback, 6moons) only employed CAS. Only one of these reviews (6moons) even bothered to try the coaxial input with a CD transport, finding it inferior in resolution. There lies a problem, as we shall see later.

Previous Experience I have heard the Minerva, and its closely related successors, DAC202/DAC2, on many occasions. For Hi-Res, I have heard the local distributor's uninspiring setup with Dynaudio active speakers. A friend's all-Weiss CAS was also underwhelming (report here).

Of course, I have heard the Minerva play CD's too. The owner of this unit only started to listen to CD after he replaced it with the Berkley Alpha (reported here). He also compared the Minerva to my Micromega MyDAC at his place (reported here).

In this article, in contrast to all previous press reviews, I only used in my own home the coaxial input of the Weiss Minerva, thereby evaluating it only as a "common" DAC (let's admit it, Firewire users are few and far in between). Also, I only use Weiss' RCA outputs, which may be a different thing from the balanced outputs. However, I do think a reasonable judgement on the basic qualities of the DAC can be had.

Sparkler S306
The Sparkler S306, like the 47 Labs stuff it hails from, is as far away from the Weiss Minerva as you can get. This is a 16-bit non-oversampling (NOS) DAC employing the TDA 1543 chip. Official data:
  • D/A converter: Philips 16 bit non-oversampling DAC TDA1543
  • Rate: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz
  • Re-clock: discrete BJT extra low jitter oscillator
  • Crystal: high grade (for professional wireless devices), low drift (within 5..7ppm) crystal
  • I/V conversion: discrete BJT current feedback architecture
The S306 is available with only one input. USB and I2S options are available. Now, with sampling rate up to only 48 Hz (no "Hi-Res" files) and no oversampling, why would anyone want this for CAS? Read on.
Talk Digital: Non-Oversampling The evolution of digital playback/CD players is a huge topic by itself. Early players use very low oversampling (or none) and were accused of being coarse. Yet, even the very primitive 14-bit CDP's with low oversampling have their adherents (like me) for its analog-like directness. Fast forward: after oversampling became the norm, some Japanese re-examined the NOS concept. 47 Labs, from which Sparkler is derived, has been a long-time adherent. But one of the earliest exponent is Kusunoki san (tnt interview).

The digital NOS concept has later been propagated by Kondo san (and hence its spinoff, AN-UK). Because of simplicity and cost concerns, NOS DAC's took off like a wildfire in the DIY community. TDA-1541 and the lesser TDA-1543 were the most popular. Many people used multiple stacked DAC's, which to me seems to negate the simplicity. Not so obvious, but to me implicit in this is that even NOS die-hard's recognize that the simplest may not be everything.

AN-UK took the concept for a run. It even introduced NOS into its cheapest ZERO/One range, with the NOS One 1x DAC. To me it trounced its Zero (24/96) player. Those were the days...

For me, NOS DAC's, if well implemented (like Sparkler), has a well-articulated sound, but with large-scale, complex material some (not all) may not respond as well, coarsening in the fray. Similarly, with modern DAC's, complexity is well-handled, though simpler stuff lacks the rhythmic flair that NOS DAC can bring. To each his own.

Think about this: even today, when CAS emphasizes the "prefect bit", reading everything many times over for "correction" and when "Hi-Res" and oversampling and upsampling are rampant, some discerning audiophiles still would not dismiss NOS low-bit DAC's - isn't that something?

Technology is not necessarily a cure-all - something is lost when something is gained; you just have to know your own priorities.

Summary of my views on NOS vs oversampling:
  • The simpler the music, the fewer the instrument, the better NOS shines - there is a directness that more complex algorithms miss. On the other hand, with very complex music, such as a large symphony, oversampling may prove steadier, with less raw edges.
  • NOS, like Analog, has better Rhythm and Pace. The more you over-sample (or up-sample for that matter) the less pointed the music becomes. This negatively affects jazz and pop music more than more complex large orchestral music.
Sony BDP-S190 Blue Ray Player
This is an old model, just a plain vanilla Blue-Ray Player, lowest of the range. However, as I reported in Part I, its performance as a CD player is not bad at all. I have heard Blue-Ray players in 2-channel audio several times , and every time they proved competent. Also, I believe Blue-Ray Players, like DVD Players, make for very reliable transports for CD, as we shall see.

Channel Classics 25 years - sampler cd
Listening Notes
System used:

CDP/Transport: Sony BDP-S190 (Belden 1694A coaxial)
DAC: Sparkler S306 or Weiss Minerva
Amp: Naim Nait 3
Loudspeakers: Yamaha NS-1000
RCA to DIN Interconnects: Gotham GAC-4/1 and Gotham GAC-2/1

  • Channel Classics Sampler CD Channel Classics is a good classical label with excellent artists and exceptionally good recording quality. This Sampler is a tribute to its recording engineer with 25 of his favorite tracks. Various recording venues were used, and the well recorded ambiance information provide very good tests for DACs.
  • Weiss Minerva Used via its coaxial input, the Weiss was an even but not quite inspiring performer. Although the flow of music is, for lack of a better word, somewhat "digital", at least there are no digital nasties to be heard. Sound is upfront and everything is clearly heard, but I find, like many modern DAC's, ambience clues are not well conveyed (Track 12, Rachel Podger's solo Bach was recorded in a church, but you would not know it listening to the Weiss). One thing, this unit must be a later unit, with a small screw between the analog outputs. Turning it reveals indentations which determine output level. When I first got it, sound was too soft for me, and it took this discovery to get back some energy missing with a higher output level.
  • Sparkler S306 As expected, this DAC is almost the antithesis of the Weiss.Coming right off the Weiss, one strains a little to hear certain details, but soon finds most of them present, though less upfront and embedded together with the correct ambience clues. Good ambience information is what I have long noticed with the 16-bit TDA-1541 chip, the much costlier brother of the TDA-1543 used here; and now I can also confirm that the same admirable quality is present in the TDA-1543 as well. But I know not everyone (especially non-classical listeners) value ambience, and some HiFi-oriented audiophiles just may prefer the more upfront Weiss. When it comes to the flow of music, there is no comparison, as the Sparkler completely trounces the Weiss. Again, many audiophiles simply do not have pace, rhythm and timing (PRaT) on their consciousness, and hence may not notice at all the NOS DAC's greatest quality. The S306 DAC should be basically the same as the one in the S303 CDP (my brief reviews, Part I and Part II), but to me it sounds less sharp, with an almost sweet quality. Also, it seems the S306 handles complex passages better. The S306 does not have the take-no-prisoner quality that the S303 possesses. It is logical then to attribute the sound difference to the difference in transport. Quirks S306 is a little picky about the coaxial cable - some of mine just do not work well (occasional clicks and pops, like a poor wifi connection). See below for other issues when using a Blue Ray Player as transport. Warm Up Time The S306 takes a while to reach optimal performance and it is intentionally powered up continuously. I did unplug it to test the AMR DP-77 and when re-connected the S306 sounded subpar for quite a while.
  • Sony BDP-S190 as Transport Using the PCM digital output, the Blue Ray Player is a top-notch CD transport. I can hardly fault it in any parameters. In many ways, for the more complex and large-scaled music I listen to, I think it is better than the simple mechanisms that 47 Lab/Sparkler use (see above), steadier, more rounded, but perhaps less sharp. But there are some Caveats: (1) Unlike CD Players/Transports, the Digital Output is NOT automatically on. When you stop the music, the digital output is lost. With the Sparkler S306 (which has no auto-muting) you get a loud pop; so turn down the volume before hitting the stop button. Similarly, when you insert a disc, the digital output only comes on after the disc is read; with the Sparkler S306 you again get a pop; so also turn down the volume when you start to play the disc. (2) With the Sparkler S306, I sometimes get crackles when the Blue Ray Player's HDMI cable is connected. This is understandable as the HDMI carries also digital signal, so maybe there are conflicts. Remember, without the HDMI connection, you don't get metadata and has to count when you change tracks. So, unless you can put up with nuisances like these, a Blue-Ray Player is not recommended for Sparkler S306. I only have this one Blue Ray Player, so I don't know what I described is universal or only pertinent to Sony, though I suspect it is the former.
  • Sony BDP-S190 analog out  As I reported in before, its performance as a CD player is not bad at all. But this time, coming up against the Weiss, I had even more revelations. It is perhaps even cooler than the Weiss, and things are a little flatter, but the BDP-S190 outperforms the Weiss in pace, has more details and better ambience retrieval!
  • Spec's and "advances" mean nothing. Something is lost as something is gained. Particularly in the digital realm.

19 November, 2015

HiFi Basics I: The Flow of Music - Overview

HiFi Basics I: The Flow of Music - Overview
Talk Tube: Tube vs SS, Triode vs Pentode, SE vs PP, Direct vs Indirect Heated

Some time ago I decided to start my first HiFi Basics article with how our hifi gears enhance (or just as often impede) the flow of music. As I took time to formulate, a visit to old friend WSS snapped everything into focus and showed the way. So you may be interested to read about the time I shared with WSS (here).

In this (rambling) article I shall touch upon some of my deepest beliefs, which in future articles I shall expound in greater detail. However, if your inclination is like mine, I do think you shall find some useful audio tips here.
  • What is the Most Important Thing in HiFi? Most people get their notion of what is important in HiFi through "magazines" (first paper, now the web). But magazines differ in many respects. Some combine subjective listening with measurement (Stereophile, HiFi News), others just subjective (TAS; and almost all web magazines) (I must say my sympathy lies with the former). All writers write in some way about the flow of music, but not before they expend huge efforts on delineating the various merits (power, definition, soundstage, imaging etc) of the item at hand. This is completely wrong. If the pulse of music, its flow, is not right, nothing else is of importance. Unfortunately, in my experience, much of modern HiFi, most highly praised, belong to this category of mediocrity. Among the worst perpetrators of modern HiFi writing is the Taiwanese magazine 音響論壇, which now gives almost every gear it reviews 9 to 10/10 in all of its 10 HiFi Parameters 音響十要. Its argument is that modern standard is much higher than in the past; while this may be true from a technical standpoint, listening tells a completely different story
  • Pace, Rhythm and Timing (PRaT) The UK writers invented this, and they have a good point. Flat Earth people, narrow as they can be, also get this right. I am acutely sensitive to this, but I am aware most audiophiles in HK are not. If music does not have good rhythm and pace, it does not flow well, then all other hifi parameters just do not matter. Music must be involving.
  • Tube vs Solid State In general, tube gears are superior to solid state devices. Best are vintage ones in good electrical condition, Western Electric being the Epitome (my WE experiences here and here). This is especially so when it comes to the flow of music (yet there are times where the opposite may be true, like when it comes to certain speakers, usually inefficient ones, ss gears may gain competitive advantage). It is not just a matter of tube, as many modern tube gears are as bad as their ss counterparts in their lack of fluency. The take-home message here is: with transformers or tubes, vintage is usually superior to current production. I don't quite understand why the term "liquidity" is used to describe the sound of tubes - in my experience, the best tube designs have a clear and lucid sound.
  • Triode Superiority I believe Triode, especially direct-heated ones, is generally superior to tetrodes/pentodes (in both musicality and transparency). This is true whether it is used in Single-Ended (SE) or Push-Pull (PP) configuration. Even pentodes strapped as triodes usually sound better - there are no better examples than Audio Research's old Classic series amps (Classic 30 /60/120/150), imho the best amps they have made.
  • SE vs PP First, SET amps mandate high-efficiency loudspeakers - many SET detractors simply used the wrong equipment (like LS3/5A) to make up their impression. Properly set up, a good SET amp has a tactile presence (sense of the live event) and musical fluency superior to a PP amp. But there are rare exceptions - WE PP amps are superior to any SET I have heard (I have yet to hear the real WE91 - clones need not apply).
  • Directly vs Indirectly Heated In my (considerable) experience with SE amps, the directly heated single-ended triode (SEDHT) design has the best performance. An SE amp using triode-strapped pentode (usually indirectly heated, like EL34) is simply second-class in comparison. My very first SE amp was actually not directly heated. It was the Audion Stirling (EL34). I then got the same company's similarly structured Silver Night (300B). There was no comparison and I immediately sold the Stirling. Within this category, I believe the lower-powered EL84/6BQ5 (a superior pentode) fares the best (I have used Welborne Labs and Almarro), though still well short of SEDHT. When it comes to Rectifiers, I also always prefer Directly Heated (like 5U4, not to mention WE 274A/B) to indirectly heated ones (like 5AR4/GZ34/U52 etc). All Directly heated tubes have better presence than Indirectly Heated ones.
    Image result for gramophone
  • Source - Analog vs Digital Nothing epitomizes the spirit of this discussion more than this point. Analog (vinyl or reel-to-reel) simply delivers the flow of music better, period. This best illustrates that, despite claims of whatever superiority, digital is seriously flawed. , and that is why you should never believe people who trumpet each advance of Computer Music (Computer as Server, CAS). Digital can be competent, but never spend too much money on it. Our humble Sony DVP-PR50P tried at WSS' place (see link at top) provides more magic than many a more expensive digital source. Art Dudley, of Stereophile, opines that the mechanical aspect of vinyl replay somehow is superior to digital number crunching, and I agree with him. This may not be new, as many a Heifetz (legendary violinist) fan who have heard him live swear that his 78's played on a gramophone (mechanical) is more truthful than playback through any subsequent media (be it remastered LP, CD or CAS). I have one of these antiquities, and I do agree that my Andre Segovia 78 (guitar) had a special allure even the LP misses. As for Reel-to-Reel, which is how most of the immortal performances are recorded, read my articles here.
  • Loudspeakers Few would deny the importance of the transducer. But which type is the best? There are no best, but I believe a well constructed horn system (like Klipsch, see my overview here) is hard to beat. However, horns by nature like real estate, and not everyone can afford such "luxuries". I am also partial to Full Range Speakers, select traditional 3-ways and First-Order Crossovers. For me, loudspeakers must be relatively easy to drive, as this makes less demands on electronics. Many modern loudspeakers simply fail this. Efficient loudspeakers may not be perfect, but they are usually more musical.
  • Preamplifier To me, this is one of the most important link in the chain. With few exceptions, Passive Preamps fail to inspire me. Also, a good tube preamplifier is mandatory - even with ss amps. No solid state preamplifier has ever excited me.
  • Amplifiers As a rule, the lower the power, the better the amplifier sounds, and this is true for both tube and ss amps. This is one good reason to avoid inefficient speakers. Simple designs that have stood the test of time, like those in most tube amps, have a better chance of sounding good. Think of SET amps: one reason they sound good is because the circuit cannot be simpler.
  • Good Solid State Gears Although in absolute terms rather short of the achievement of tube, ss gears can be quite musically satisfying. Humble examples are now-vintage UK integrated amps (here) and the Micromega and Naim gears I have written about (here), and they do their tricks in different ways that are difficult for words to describe. I shall write more on this subject in future articles. As a rule, the more high-powered or expensive the ss gear, the more you should beware.
  • Cables Most HiFi cables, beside being ridiculously expensive, are highly colored, more likely to ruin your system rather than enhance it. I use exclusively highly affordable professional cables (my favorite being Gotham). Also, solid core cables, especially those of higher gauge, are more colored than stranded cables. Think professional interconnects, which aim at neutrality and never employ solid core.
  • Tweaks When it comes to tweaking, there are plenty of HiFi lores (and stores) but, I tell you, most dampen and tone down the system's energy. This is because there are just too many equipment and digitally recorded music out there that are simply non-musical, in dire need of toning down. What you need is equipment that performs well as soon as you plonk it down, equipment that needs no excuse. Often enough, equipment are less than inspiring, and you should not make up excuses for them.
This can go on forever, but I shall end it here, with many more articles to come.

11 November, 2015

Quad 2812 revisted, Quad QMP, Ortofon Quintet Mono

AVI AVITAL / BETWEEN WORLDSThis CD is not as easy to replay as you may think.

Quad 2812 revisited
Breif Reviews: Quad Elite QMP monoblocks,  Ortofon Quintet Mono, Ortofon SPU
Yumcha Diary 24-10-2015

Yesterday, between yumcha and a concert in the evening, I spent my (and the host's) precious time at our old friend WSS' cozy den, which I have visited several times since my last report. WSS is a true music lover and in many ways not your typical audiophile (which is why I'd like to hang out with him more than most others). This article describes not just this visit, but also serves to summarize our findings and doings over time. Equipment has undergone quite some changes. Current configuration:

Turntable 1: JC Verdier La Platine/SME3012R-Air Tight PC-1/Ortofon TA210-SPU
Turntable 2: Garrard 301/SME M2-12/Ortofon Quintet Mono
Phonoamp 1: Phase Tech EA-1 IIs (no MC; step-up by EAR MC-4)
Phonoamp 2: ARC Reference 2 Phono
Digital: Sony DVP-PR50P (standing in for his out of commission AN CDT4/DAC5)
Preamp: AN M8
Amp 1: Quad Elite QMP monoblocks
Amp 2: AN Jinro Shochu

Image result for ortofon quintet monoPristine Piano Sound through the Quad ESL.

Sound Notes
  • Analogue Supremacy I'd not belabor this. The 3 analogue sources fed into the 2 phonoamps (some described in last report) still reign supreme in this system.
  • Ortofon Quintet Mono Since my last report, WSS had a Garrard 301/SME M2-12 practically "forced" upon him , on which he installed this cartridge (Output 0.3 mV; info here) . It is a true low-output mono MC cartridge, a very even-handed performer that handily delivers the virile and tactile qualities mono cartridges are known for. Those who favor low-output MC cartridges, who want to experience mono, but who cannot afford more exotic fares like Ortofon's own SPU and the likes of Miyajima should consider it.
  • Digital Woes (or David vs Goliath) Sometime ago I spent quite a bit of time at WSS, and the digital playback nagged at me - substantially slower and less lively than the analogue. In my experience, Audio Note UK digital's usually over-emphasize, not under. I made for WSS a Belden 1694A cable (here) and it trounced his considerably more expensive AN-UK silver cable, as well as Kimber! Things seemed to have improved somewhat, but on a subsequent visit, when I played the Avi Avital CD shown above, the magnitude of the problem revealed itself. This CD is a crossover genre, which usually is geared towards the lively, but at WSS it was utterly un-involving. The epiphany came when I got home, nonplussed, and just to cross-check played it in my very humble Micromega system (here), and everything simply came alive! I then knew something was seriously amiss with his digital system. On a subsequent visit, I joined force with with my infamous taskmaster icefox, who brought his Sony DVP-PR50P (see review here) for stand-in duty. Guess what! The el-cheapo Sony completely trounced the AN UK (this did not surprise us, as it had happened in similar circumstances many times before - an expensive digital system proves inadequate next to much humbler kins, again and again giving lies to "advances" in digital "technology"). One thing though, sometime later WSS told me his DAC went caput. So, maybe its suboptimal performance was (at least partially) due to this. I look forward to a rematch. But I tell you, many "senior" audiophiles, including some who think they are audio experts, have visited WSS, yet completely failed to realize the magnitude of the problem. To me, these people don't even know the HiFi Basics I am about to expound (Watch for next article!)
  • Quad Elite QMP A Quad amp almost always does a decent job anywhere. And with the Quad 2812 it goes without saying. The Elite series just proves Quad has not lost its qualities that stem from the 300/400/600/900 series, all from old current-dumping technology. In this system, it proves every bit the equal of the AN Jinro Sochu, and the larger power reserve at hand was particularly evident in a remarkable rendition of Stravinsky's Rite for 4 hands.
  • Ortofon SPU  Just a brief comment. As usual, the SPU is emotive and involving, though it presents details in a less truthful perspective, but what ultimately nags at me is the lack in resolution by modern standards. Not my fav, but there are fans.