30 December, 2016

2016 in Review

pic has distortion at the edges - the Pioneer loudspeakers are not trapezoids! Click to enlarge.

2016 in Review
Letter from NYC (58) 2016 (14)

A belated Season's Greetings!

This Blog is now over 8 years old. Due to family matters, my output (in terms of articles written) hit an all-time low in 2012/13. Since then, there has been a small but steady increase. However, since I am buying fewer things and the stuff I do buy in HK tend to be small "gadgets", there is less to report on "serious" current products. However, I now focus more on older products and my own things that I have neglected previously, a valid trade-off. A little more than a year ago, I started the "HiFi Basics" series, but due to my somewhat compulsive nature have managed only 3 articles so far. I hope 2017 shall see more entries under that label.

Most Significant Events
  • Kondo System Re-Make In a coming article I shall detail my efforts at matching loudspeakers to my Kondo Ongaku. Mind you, this is at my present small abode in HK. There were quite a few candidates and the results were, to say the least, quite surprising! After I started this effort I acquired an old Audio Note (Kondo design) M7 with built-in Phono. Its smaller size allowed me to use it in on an IKEA shelf (see pic above). It would be a shame not to use a turntable, so I just managed to squeeze in the smallest that I have, the humble Pro-Ject RPM 1.3. Then I added a subwoofer!!!! I assure you the end-result was quite satisfying, earning the approvals of my music lover friends Seng and wss! Coming soon...
  • Vintage Cartridges Although this started 5 years ago when I re-tested my Empire 2000 cartridges (here), things didn't get serious until recently. Shure SC35C After initial failure, I finally got this "DJ" cartridge right (here)! Although my sample is current production, it is a replica of a vintage creation. I have yet to put this low compliance cartridge on a heavy arm, and it is already darn good. Warning: In some systems the treble could be just a little on the unrefined side. I rather think of it as a "monitor" type product, not the kindest to bad recordings. I just noticed its street price has gone up quite a bit to around $59. Still, quite a bargain! Shure M44-7 The ones currently sold are replicas of this vintage relic, beloved by DJ's. My sample just happened when I spotted a vintage body and NOS Empire replacement on Ebay, and so may not be representative. In any case, I just installed it yesterday as replacement for the SC35C on my cheap AT PL-120 and was absolutely floored - my cartridge of the year! Stanton 380 I heard this at my friend Andy's and took one back home to play. It has a very attractive rich hue and plays anything well. There shall be big article on these cartridges soon. Happy New Year already! Mono Cartridge Finally I got a mono MC, the Taiwanese Raos, and I am very satisfied. Unfortunately, Master Rao has passed away and these are not obtainable. Nagatron Ribbon Cartridge heard at Andy's was very impressive!

Vintage Loudspeakers Although in 2016 I have heard megabuck loudspeakers of the caliber of Magico Q7MkII, top-rated in any magazine, my kudos go to much older designs:
  • Dahlquist DQ20 (reviewed here) was astonishing in how it made the music come alive, unequivocally leaving an expensive and well reviewed modern loudspeaker in the shade.
  • JBL L20T Even this unassuming vintage JBL (reviewed here), which can be had for perhaps $200, is over-achieving. I was thinking of trying out Andrew Jones' new Elac B5/6 just for fun (I have a thing for inexpensive bookshelves), but after I got these JBL's I completely dispelled the idea (after all, I know his designs, as I have his recent Pioneer SP-BS21LR).
Headphone Stax SRS 2170 (my review here) is all I need in a headphone! Although this is a current product, both the design and the sound have been around for a long time. Vintage reproduction again!

Buffer Amp Though a niche product, the iFi iTube is just wonderful. If you need some bloom, give it a serious thought!

Cable The Gotham DGS-1 continues to gain my admiration. Although not the best in hifi parameters, there is definitely something that is very attractive to this simple cable - a fluency that just makes music come alive with great presence and PRaT (the best analogy is non-oversampling in digital conversion). More and more of this cable are finding their way into my systems.

Brief Mentions My 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp is finally running in and providing solid support for my mono Raos cartridge. My resurrected EAR 509 Mk II dealt a coup de grace to unreasonably priced Conrad-Johnson. I also acquired a Naim Nait I - no surprise as I previously owned and loved a II and still have the III. Sound is in the same mould.

Happy 2017!

28 December, 2016

Review: JBL20T 4406

Review: JBL L20T, Part I
JBL 4406 4312A
Letter from NYC (57) 2016 (13)

A friend just gave me his father's pair of JBL L20T. They look remarkably handsome, and I immediately tested them.

Basic Info
The L20T was introduced in 1988 ($235), as the smallest member of the L series (Official Brochure, with spec's). It is the consumer version of the 4406 and uses the exact same drivers (115H woofer and the famous 035Ti titanium tweeter). If you look at the Official 4406 Brochure you shall see the spec's are identical. They are different only in the looks of the enclosure and the port, and the 4406 has a tweeter attenuator. In fact, the L20T is also used in many studio!

I was quite eager to hook them up as I still own two pairs of the 4312A (official literature here and here), which employ the same 035Ti tweeter (I have also heard countless others of the 43 and 44 series). I had a ball with the 4312's (including stacking, see my mammoth article).


Impressions

  • Build and Cosmetics My pair is in good shape, with a little bleaching from the sun. The L20T is well built. Although the cabinet is made of particle wood, the real wood veneer lends solidity, and they feel sturdy. I find they quite nice to look at, comfortably old fashioned! Note that unlike more modern designs, and like its other JBL contemporaries and pro monitors, the pair are not mirror-imaged - not only the ports, even the drivers are all to one side if you look at the pic. Surely this would bother some audiophiles and speaker designers, but the excellent sound speaks volumes about the engineering prowess of the JBL team (and about many of the so-called "science", "theories", even "facts", of modern speaker design, of which I am highly skeptical).
  • Sound I drove them with various electronics but not yet with a high powered amp. Lepai LP2020A+ Ancillary electronics are more or less that of my Reference System III (see right sidebar; for full article see here). Sound was excellent, more solidly honed than my Dayton B652, but it is apparent these need more power than the B652. Elekit TU-8300 (here) Swapping in the more powerful Elekit immediately freed up the sound more. There is more dynamic headroom, and I played and enjoyed a Bruckner symphony in full. However, I did notice that the brass in the right speaker did not have quite the sheen they should have. I put my ears close to them and discovered that the tweeter was not making sound. I took the tweeter out, disconnected the cables and tested it with a multimeter - surely, the coil is unfortunately open. Linn System Even with one tweeter out the L20T's still were very enjoyable! I put the tweeter back (but left disconnected) and took them into the large living room (>300 ft), where I connected them to the Linn Majik (here) integrated and Karik CDP (an excellent device that I have yet to write up). With 33 wpc on hand, sound further opened up, allowing me to make a more proper (but not ideal) assessment. Sonically, I could hear the resemblance to the much larger 4312A, as the L20T is in the same mould as other JBL monitors - quite an even frequency response from the treble to the midrange; a slightly perceived midbass warmth allied to deep bass on the lean side. Contrary to some claims , the 035Ti tweeter is not edgy, just playing it straight (see also my 4312A article quoted above) as evidenced by well reproduced mass strings and biting (but not grating) brass in the 3 last symphonies of Dvorak I played (Warner/Silvestri, all recorded with different orchestras and by different engineers). The scale is very decent for a loudspeaker of its size, though of course not at all approaching the scale of the 4312A. It is smoother, has fleshier images and a deeper soundstage than the Linn Kan I normally use in this system (see here). All in all, a more satisfying listen. I think I'd prefer this to many similarly sized modern bookshelves. It is rare to hear downright bad JBL, which cannot be said of many modern loudspeaker brands. All make one yet again weary of the word progress. 
  • Power Requirement The L20T is rated at 8 ohms and efficiency is 87 db, a full 5 db less than my 4312A. Therefore it likes a bit of power, as evidenced from my listening experience. On the other hand, it should be noted it is an easy load (the impedance curve seen in the 4406 brochure is quite benign), so there is no need for high-current amps. This is also borne out by the fact that even my 300B amp drove it nicely (in a more or less near field placement). 
Despite one tweeter out, I am confident this is an excellent pair of loudspeakers. I am taking the tweeter back to HK to be refurbished. Next time, I shall test them with better amplification.

26 December, 2016

Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ20 Totaldac Luminous Audio Volent



Left, DQ10; Right, DQ20.

Overview: Dahlquist
Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ-20

My First Serious Stereo System
Yumcha Diary: 24-09-2016 and a month later Volent Totaldac Luminous Audio
Letter from NYC (56) 2016 (12)

Article finished in NYC. This article was long in the making because the appearance of DQ20 totally usurped order at my friend Jules' house, and I had to drastically alter the layout. Call it a labor of love for Dahlquist.

My old friend Jules is that rare breed, a truly experienced audiophile who has impeccable musical taste. As a result, his systems never sound less than good. Although I periodically visit him I seldom write him up (see here). His equipment has changed much recently (?mid-life crisis, :-p) and we paid him three visits, this article being about the first two (same equipment). The third visit shall be written up later (Technics SB-7000!).

Equipment (at the time):
CD transport: Orpheus Zero SE
DAC: Totaldac D1 Twelve
Preamp/Amp:
1. Luminous Audio Axiom 2 passive + Brinkmann Mono
2. Paracas Sierra + Krell KSA200
3. PSE SL + Krell KSA200
Speakers Visit 1: Volent VL3.5 (latest grey ceramic unit)

Speakers Visit 2: Dahlquist DQ-20

Pic of Saul Marantz and Jon Dahlquist. Click to enlarge. Note the Marantz 10B tuner, 7 preamp and 9 monoblocks.

Overview Dahlquist
Since my experience of Dahlquist is confined to the DQ10 and DQ20, it is stretching it a bit to call  an overview. However, since 1) these two are Dahlquist flagships and most famous creations; 2) I have had intimate experience with two pairs of DQ10's, one of which I owned for a LONG time; and 3) I now have heard two pairs of DQ20's, I feel justified.

Dahlquist was formed by the great Saul Marantz after he sold his company to the Japanese, with young Jon Dahlquist on board. The DQ10 and the much later DQ20 have similar design philosophy, with only the woofer enclosed and all other drivers open-back. Dahlquist's approach was influential and likely inspired later designs like Alon. The DQ-10 visually is a dead-ringer for Quad ESL57, which I take to be a tribute to the latter's sonic purity. It is commonly held that at the time of DQ10, quality drivers were few and Jon Dahlquist had to make a lot of adjustments to make the drivers work together. The DQ20 had fewer drivers of likely better quality. Visually it is a taller DQ10. Both look and sound great to me. 

DQ10 The DQ10 is one of the classic speakers of all time, and has made its way into many audio halls of fame (like this one in TAS). It even has a facebook of its own! The DQ10 has a long production history, with apparently quite a few changes of drivers and parts along the way. The net has many entries on it but given its nature things can be a little confusing.

My Road to DQ10 For the longest time I was not at all an audiophile. I bought my first humble stereo system in 1973  (for details of my audio beginnings, see here).  Around the late 70's I upgraded to the cheapest Pioneer separates, and although they were not too great either I kept the system for a long time. Gradually I came to realize my speakers were the limiting factor. I had a good friend in undergraduate school who started working after graduation and bought a nice system. It was SAE equalizer preamp/amp, a Thorens TT and most importantly, the Dahlquist DQ-10 (he also added the Dahlquist subwoofer later). He was (is) one of those friends who widens one's horizon. Hey, introducing me to Sibelius and Bruckner immeasurably enriched my life! Although I went on for four more years of school, I visited him quite often and listened to music together. The DQ10 impressed me greatly, and I lusted after it for many years. After I finished my specialty training and started making a better salary, I went shopping for a serious system.

One day I visited Stereo Exchange (when they had that cavernous basement of goodies - those were the days!) and was ecstatic when I saw the pair of DQ-10, waiting for me after all these years! I immediately bought them and also the Thorens TD-125MKII with an SME armboard (since I had, and still have, the 3009i arm). Then I went shopping for preamp/amp. I narrowed it down to the then well-reviewed entry level Adcom and B&K systems. I did a serious audition at a hifi store on 70th Street and Broadway (forgot the name) and finally decided on the warmer B&K ST140 with the entry level Pro5 preamp. These B&K's (and the contemporary Adcom too) still command a reasonable second-hand price!

Sound My friend's Pair As I realized later, my friend had a living room of tall ceiling and just the right size for his system.He had them against the wall, flanking the fireplace. The sound was warm, fluid and utterly musical. That I later assembled a system very similar to my friend's is testimony to its spell on me. My own pair Soon after I acquired my system I later moved into an apartment with a very large living room and (!)14 ft ceiling (it was previously a multi-tiered parking space) and I had the system against the wall. The sound was not as good as at my friend's. True, the midrange was splendid and it was very musical, but the top was a little shut in. Image was good but there was not much of a soundstage and everything was just a little diffuse. My suspicion that my 70 wpc amp was not up to the task (in this cavernous space) grew on me, and was confirmed much later on when a friend came over with his McIntosh MC-60 monoblocks, which totally opened up the sound. That taught me two things: 1) DQ-10 is power hungry; 2) 60 wpc of tube power is much more power than 70 wpc solid state. And - I became a tube person right then and never looked back. A few years later when I rented out my apartment and relocated I sold my pair of DQ-10's to a friend's photographer boyfriend (he instantly fell in love with the DQ10's when he attended one of my parties) and he enjoyed them with his rock and pop. The memory of all the precious time spent with these two pairs of DQ-10's is always somewhere on my mind. One more thing, I have heard few speakers with better mid bass and bass articulation.

DQ20 The DQ20 was issued 14 years after the DQ10. With more competing choices, it was never quite as well received as the DQ10, perhaps because the older loudspeaker sold too well and had many die-hard fans. I always feel the DQ20 never got its due. For a contemporary review see hifi-classic (unfortunately we do not know from which magazine).

Sound First Pair The first time I listened to the DQ20 was at a music lover's house (he was selling some records). He was not an audiophile but I instantly liked the sound, which bore no little resemblance to the DQ10, which I still had at the time. I have always felt the DQ20 deserves more attention than it had received. Second Pair Before I had even paid him the visit to hear the Volent loudspeakers Jules called me about a pair he saw in the (HK) second-hand forum review33. The asking price was very reasonable and I told him to grab it. As they say, the rest is history (see below).

Service/Parts/Upgrades Dahlquist went under a long time ago, although it was resurrected briefly by a Canadian company. However, the company regnar specializes in service and parts of Dahlquist products, including the DQ10/20. Since I do NOT find much that is wrong with the 10/20, I'd personally shy away from so-called "upgrades" that second-guess the designer.

Sonic Impressions:
  • Dahlquist DQ20 I heard this on the second visit. Having heard the Volent by then I was astonished by the change the Dahlquist brought about. The music acquired a much greater vibrancy. Midrange was hard to fault and vocals came alive with great presence. Most noticeable were the great rhythm and pace and deep reaching and walking bass. Just loved it, no if's and's or but's. At today's price, it is a steal.
  • Volent 3.5 During the first visit, for over 2 hours, we listened to a large number of recordings, and also alternated between various preamps and amps. The sound was good, but on the polite side. Now, I am not a great believer of mixing technologies, but the Volent, though not cheap at all, did a reasonable (but not perfect, as the bass was a little four-square) job of integrating the ribbon, ceramic and Ensemble/-like bass units. By itself, it is not bad. But compared to the Dahlquist heard not so long after, there was just no comparison - the Volent sounded like processed music, but the Dahlquist made a serious attempt at creating the presence of live music, and mostly succeeded!
  • Totaldac This up-end version is highly rated on the net. During the first visit, I thought the sound was good, but I just did not get the hang of it. I wrote in the initial draft of this article: "...I wondered "how absolutely good is it? I don't know. I'd like to get my Sparkler S303 to match up one day...". During the second visit, with the Dahlquist DQ20 in place, I began to hear the character of non-oversampling, and to get it. Jules perceptively made the remark: "The Dahlquist DQ20 brought out more of the character of Totaldac."
  • Luminous Audio Jules bought this after a my friend icefox poisoned him. He loves it. It seems transparent and pretty nice and I'd like try it in my system one day.

Viva Dahlquist!

20 December, 2016

Stax SRS-2170

Review: Stax SRS-2170 System
Headphone Talk VII: Electrostatic Headphones
Letter from NYC (55) 2016 (11)

My attitude towards Headphone is described in Headphone Talk I

As a long-time audiophile, I am simultaneously amazed, alarmed and sometimes amused or even dismayed by the exponential growth of headphones, headphone amps and so-called "head-fi" sites. The reasons are too numerous, so I shall leave that for a planned "Hi-Fi Basics" article.

Suffice to say, I do have some rather peripheral interest in headphones, and own several respectable headphones (Audio Technica ATH-AD700, Grado SR80e, Sennheiser HD-600 and now Stax SRS-2170) and headphone amps (listening experience of my Meier Audio Corda SwingPro-ject Headbox II and the amazing bargain Micromega Myzic, which I have yet to write about). That is not all: some of my preamps have excellent headphone outputs (certainly not the usual value added feature). Both my Nagra PL-P (listening notes here) and Manley 300B preamp (here) drive headphones in the best way possible, i.e. through dedicated transformers. I doubt most current headphone amps costing into the thousands can beat those two.

This surprises me: only after researching my own blog did I find out I have actually written on quite a few headphone and headphone amps!

The Best Earphones? Best du jour?
These days, new technologies are being used to make earphones of all kinds, and reviews are all over the audio websites and magazines. Planar magnetic earphones (led by HiFiMan, Audeze and now, Oppo) are all the rage. Each is touted to be better than the last, and a breakthrough in sound. Is that truly so? I'd reckon, no.

Even my friend shidi Andrew asked me whether he should get a pair of planars. My answer to him is basically encoded below.

Electrostatic Headphones in General
  • Power Supply Electrostatics, whether loudspeakers or earphones, have the inherent disadvantage of having to be tethered to a power supply. So the usual headphone amps and outputs cannot be used with an ESL headphone. However, as I note there is now self-biasing ESL technology (no power supply needed) used for ESL supertweeters (the Enigmacoustics Sopraninos are currently the darling of the audio press), I harbour hope perhaps this technology can be used in headphones in the near future to free the ESL from its power supply.
  • Adaptors There are adaptors which both provide the connection and power supply for ESL headphones, facilitating use with a regular loudspeaker system. Stax used to make these (SRD-7 Pro) and there are also current offerings (from the like of Woo Sound - the Wee). However, I don't see how the serious audiophile would be willing to insert one of these between their amplifier and loudspeaker. One can also of course wire the loudspeaker input to a phono jack so as the normal headphone output can be used. As for me, I'd just stick to the companion amp.
  • Stax and Other Makers Stax is virtually synonymous with the ESL Headphone. There have been others, but they have been few and far in between. In the past, there have been Koss, Beyerdynamics and perhaps others (some are rebranded Stax). Now, paradoxically, there may be renewed interest, as Sonoma and HiFiman have just made their rounds at HiFi shows with their new ESL headphones, which are due for release. Caveat, I think these are likely to be more expensive than Stax. What is more interesting to me is the Shure KSE1500, recently well reviewed by John Atkinson in Stereophile (November 2016), a unique in-ear ESL design with a portable amp, expensive but quite different. Even more interestingly, in the same issue, Herb Reichert wrote of the Koss ESP 950/E90 ESL system (link), still in production but issued in 1990, a full 26 years ago. HR compared them favourably, indeed preferred them to Audeze's magnetic planar LCD-X and LCD-4 (the same article contains links to TJN's 1992 review). Also, another Stereophile reviewer Steve Guttenberg also presents another view in cnet, and the article also interestingly compared the Koss system to the Stax SRS-2107 system. These are all worthwhile reads, highly recommended.   
  • My Stax Experience-Vintage Over the years I have periodically encountered STAX earphones, always to great satisfaction. Just a few years ago, along with his AKG 501 and 701 and Grado RS-1, the same Andrew also lent me his old Stax SR-3 and SR Lambda Pro, with a driver. While I had sampled the AKG's and Grado early on, because of the nuisance of hooking up the dedicated amp, I never listened to the Stax's until I had to return them to him. And boy, what had I missed! For the hallmark sound, see description below.
  • My Stax Experience-Current In NYC my friend Kane owns the current SR-507 with the tubed SRM 007tII amp. As I remember, the sound is luxurious, in the same vein as below.
  • (In)Visibilty of ESL Despite its virtues, ESL technology has always been on the fringe of audio, and this is as true of ESL headphones as ESL loudspeakers. Imagine, a great company like Quad has not had US distribution for a few years until recently. Part of the reason must be the difficulty in servicing Quad ESL's (costly and cumbersome). But Stax headphones are a different story - they are famous for their longevity and many old units are working perfectly. One interesting observation: If you google "electrostatic headphone" you will get Stax among your entries, but if you use "electrostatic earphone" you get pages of Shure only. The vagaries of googling!
SRS-2170 System (SR-207+SRM252S) (Official link with spec's)
SRS-2170 is Stax's entry level system. As it comprises both headphone and matching amp, the package is very reasonably priced in my opinion. It has been well received and even managed to have a few reviews (see cnet and avhub). I agree with those and shall be brief here.
  • Comfort is unsurpassed.
  • Sound Although "entry level", these deliver Stax's hallmark sound that can only be called luxurious, with a large soundstage, plenty of air and warmth. Nothing grating to the ear, yet everything was crystal clear. (the same cannot be said about some of the current, very hifi cans). As expected from ESL, transients are fast (but natural) and bass is tight and tuneful.   I cannot imagine better replay of classical music. Large orchestral music have scale and flow that surpass the usual dynamic headphones. To name just one very important virtue: a very realistic rendition of massed strings (many modern designs fail miserably in this). Chamber music is even more superior - what glorious string tones and tensile interaction! Jazz also benefits from the fast leading edge - pristine percussion and brozen brass, all with superb rhythm and pace. Another difficult feat: a reasonable facsimile of  hall sound, if that can be portrayed by headphones at all. It all adds up to one word: natural.
  • Upgrade? Personally, I don't really think so, or at least not at all in a hurry. Although this is entry-level Stax I don't really hear that much difference between the SRS-2170 system and the more expensive vintage Stax or the current (middle level) SR-507/SRM007tII that my friend has. The SRS-2170 system is an overachiever that has most, if not all, of what Stax has to offer, at an eminently affordable price. I am sure you get more as you go up the ladder, but it is likely a case of diminishing returns.
Conclusion

  • The Best For once, I shall say what is the best: Stax, even entry level, is the best for me, and I am not at all tempted by newer and sexier offerings. If you are into headphones at all, you should try Stax. Stax is durable, and older offerings offer much the same sound and can be obtained at bargain prices. Just get one!
  • vs Planar Magnetics The hottest headphones of today are almost all planars. I have never had one in my own system, but I know the sound. A good analogy is Planar Magnetic loudspeakers (e.g. Magnepan) vs ESL loudspeakers (e.g. Quad and Martin Logan). Now, I know quite a bit about that, as an owner of Maggies and Martin Logan, and interested student of Quad. With large speakers, ESL suffers from dynamic limitations, and in the case of Quad (except the 29xx series) less than full size images, while Maggies tend to grate a little in the treble, not as refined and luxurious as the ESL's. However, with the cans over our head, the situation is totally different. Unless one listens to heavy metal and a steady diet of rock (which is not the average audiophile), I personally have not heard better than Stax, and shall remain an ardent fan.

28 September, 2016

Conrad-Johnson vs EAR; Wilson Alexia

In front of the CJ GAT preamp are the EAR 509 MkII monoblocks, much smaller in size, but not in sound, than the CJ LP275 monoblocks. In the foreground are removed TAOC stands. Click to enlarge.

Home Visit: Conrad-Johnson vs EAR; Wilson Alexia

Talk Tweak: Ditch your Amplifier Stands; TAOC

EAR Overview

EAR 509 MkII Resurrected While my EAR 912 has been making the rounds and seen active use, my pair of 509 MkII have been idling for over ten years - until recently, when my friend WoSirSir expressed interest in them. Lo and behold, at my old place they worked a charm with my Tannoy Canterburies! We both agreed they sounded excellent, with a clear and controlled sound.

Then I met up with Andy (one of the trio covered in this blog, last featured here), and things blossomed into a second day of "slug-fest"! Don't you get too excited; it did not last long!

Resident System:

Turntable: Clearaudio Statement/Goldfinger
Phonoamp: Clearaudio Statement Phono
CAS: Aurender N10
DAC: EMM Labs DAC2X
Preamp: Conrad-Johnson GAT MkII
Amp: Conrad-Johnson LP275
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia

Challenger Amp: EAR 509MkII
Challenger Preamp: EAR 912

SONIC NOTES
  • Andy's Previous Magnepan 3.7 Setup As reported, Andy was previously a horn and SET guy. Between then and now, he had a period when he used the Maggie 3.7 with largely the same analog and CJ gears, and I had heard them. For CAS, he was still using the Weiss and as before I didn't like it one bit. Analog was much better, though the Maggies as expected lacked deep bass and had a mid-bass leaness (preferred by the ribbon/ESL crowd).
  • Wilson Alexia  It was immediately apparent that the Wilson's sounded very much meatier and heftier that the Maggies. And I mean that in a good way - images were just fleshier and more real, and the bass had real kick. Although a trace of bass bloat remained in this large room, which is unfortunately closer to a square than a rectangle, it was the best sound I had heard yet at Andy's.
  • CAS Aurender and EMM Labs To my ears, the Aurender N10 and EMM Labs DAC2X combo is much to be preferred to the parched sound of the Weiss. Fleshier, more naturally flowing - in a word, less digital.
  • Clearaudio Statement Phono While the analog sound is clean and good, I cannot help feeling this phonoamp, like the turntable it partners, lacks rhythmic verve. Andy likes it for its remote controllable features (like equalization curves), but for me it is just plain spoken.
  • Challenge: EAR 509 MkII vs CJ LP275 While we were chatting on the first day, I was a little surprised that Andy expressed interest in hearing the EAR after I told him of its excellent bass control. And so it happened on the second day! Despite having only just one hour of playing after a ten-year hiatus, the EAR 509 MkII trounced the actively in-use CJ LP275 immediately and in convincing fashion. The bass was simply tauter, more controlled and extended lower! The CJ LP275 uses 8 tubes per monoblock, but did not sound more powerful than the EAR's simple pair (and Andy matches his tubes with a top-notch tube tester); also, it is actually quite light and easy to lift, indicating the light weight of the transformers! Andy was impressed! See "Andy's Decision" below!
  • Challenge: EAR 912 vs GAT MkII The sound was quite similar, but the EAR 912 had a more subtle and easier musical flow. Andy agrees, but loves the remote facilities of the GAT. If you ask me, the EAR 912 is the better preamp, full-function at a much lower cost; there was no area where the GAT could manage to surpass. One can only gasp at the ridiculous price some hifi manufacturers charge, or marvel at how reasonable EAR gear is!
  • Andy's Response Man of Action! Andy immediately ordered the EAR 509 MkII! But he has retained the GAT for its convenience.
  • UN-Tweak At first, Andy has his amps on his surplus TAOC stands (foreground). Since I have never heard amplifier stands do any positive thing, I asked for their removal. Bingo! More coherence and better bass (here is yet another example: "...like a good audiophile, SG had almost all his stuff on heavy (wood) racks and gears were placed on various tuning devices (which I usually avoid). The Goldmund Telos were placed on Nordost Pulsar Points over a Solid-Steel amp rack...JC, a previous user of Goldmund, suggested removing the Nordost devices. It took a while, but the result was mind-boggling. Music became much more lively. Then we proceeded to remove the amp rack. With the amps on the floor now, there was further improvement, but not quite of the same magnitude as removing the Nordost devices. So much for isolation devices (at least for power amps)..."). Andy's preamp is also temporarily sitting on two TAOC's, but in this case, as I had reservations about putting it on the floor (preamps are much more susceptible to vibrations than amps), we slotted two slabs of solid wood between the preamp and the stands, and sound again improved.
 Thoughts
  • Things at CJ are definitely not like before (not that I have been that much of a fan). The light weight of the LP275 is a joke - indicating transformers are smaller than before (similarly, Audio Research trannies now are smaller). Those were the days, when their classic amps like the Premier One had really heavy transformers. The 8x 6550 per side did not feel very powerful. Likewise, I also think the GAT is ridiculously over-priced for what it is.
  • Wilson Audio is finally getting better. I have lost count of how many times I have listened to generations of Watt/Puppy, but I know I have never heard them to total satisfaction! I have also listened to a large number of their larger offerings, like Alexandria, Maxx etc, and they never fully impressed either. That started to change when I heard the Sophia at the HK hifi show. Now, Andy's Alexia is not perfect, but it has potential. Think of all those hifi writers (like TAS) who praise each iteration - hey, should the customer fork out so much money for Wilson to move slowly on his learning curve? Basically, most Wilson's were (some still are) incoherent, and the hifi press indulged him instead of warning readers.
  • EAR's Tim de Paravicini is my hero. Great designs, compact size, powerful and controlled sound, all at much more reasonable cost than most manufacturers.

08 September, 2016

Review: EAR 912 vs 868 vs 324

Review: EAR 912 vs 868 vs 324

Recently, some good friends and experienced audiophiles in my area all took on EAR, and I had the opportunity to listen to the 868 and 324. I also collected their opinion for this article.

For more on EAR, please refer to my EAR Overview, which itself is updated after this article is published.

912 I have had this as one of my references for a long time (see my EAR Overview). Currently, I use it as preamp for my Western Electric 124 and 133 (here). The versatility and rightness of this amp is never in doubt.

Image result for ear 868868 As reported before, my good friend Tony uses this. I know him quite well, yet I didn't know he was going to buy it and he didn't know I have the 912! Such are the whimsies of hifi friends!

This is largely a "stripped down" 912, with a more consumer look and higher WAF than the stark 912. And it got more reviews (soundstage and enjoythemusic), all great. Pertinent 868 vs 912:
  • Line Section: Largely identical
  • MC Loading: Internal 3-impedance "MC-3" vs 4-impedance "MC-4"
  • Phono Connectivity: One vs Two
  • Phono Tubes Used: 2x 7DJ8 (the reviews mentioned that the phono section of the 868 is circuit-wise "identical to the 88PB", but I have my doubts as the 88PB employs 4x 7DJ8, twice that of the 868) vs 3x 7DJ8 in the 912
  • Meters: None in 868 (these are supremely useful in phono overload assessment)
  • Phono Control Accessibility: Mostly Internal vs All Front-Panel
As you can see, the phono section of the 868 is quite a bit stripped down from the 912 in terms of convenience, so it is perhaps not intended for those who tweak and change gears all the time. After all, this is for home use, but you know audiophiles...

Image result for ear 324324 In contrast to the 912 and 868 (and 88PB), this is an interesting solid-state offering from EAR, and has withstood the test of time (more than a decade in production). It has received great reviews from the press (Stereophile, HomeTheaterReview, positive-feedback). Let me highlight its features vs the 868 and 912:
  • Selectors: Like the 912, accessible from the front panel.
  • Phono Connectivity: Like the 912, two; but different in that one is dedicated to MM and the other to MC.
  • MC Input: As the tubed 868, the 324's MC input employs the 3-impedance "MC-3" input transformer.
  • MM Input: Unlike the 868 and 912, the dedicated MM Input has a good choice of loading and capacitance, allowing one to fine-tune the MM (defeatable too in case it is used with an external SUT for another MC).
Sonic Notes
  • 868 This is based on audition at Tony's as I never had this in my own setup. The sound was certainly at least as good as the deHavilland and ARC preamps he's had before. I lent Tony my 912; Tony says the 912 is just a bit better in every way. Also, he said the meters of the 912 are supremely useful when transcribing vinyls.
  • 324 My friend Sang, whose loudspeaker placement change was featured in the last article (below), owned this for a while. I went to hear it and of course took along my 912. I must say this is a fine machine! Tonally, the 912 is a little sweeter, with a little more tube bloom, while the 324 just has a trace of its transistor origin (for this user who uses tubed phono as reference). Rhythmically, the 324 has a little more snap. Also, Tony is quite familiar with the 324 too and holds the same opinion. Recently, my friend Paul, who used to use the EAR 834P, has upgraded to a 324 after borrowing my 912. He reports that as a phonoamp the gain is not as high as the 912.
  • My Thoughts You cannot go wrong with any of EAR's offerings. If you need a full function preamp, and are inclined towards trying different turntables, arms and cartridges, I personally would bite the bullet and get the ergonomically superior 912, likely the only preamp you'll ever need, but the average home user with only one turntable would be almost as well served by the 868. Whereas if you want to stay with your favorite preamp and just want a phonoamp, then the 324, at about half the price of the 912, is a viable alternative, especially if you lean towards snappier and uptempo material or are a MM die-hard. But if you are a MC person, I'd say the 912 is even more accomodating. Ultimately, 912 has it all.

05 September, 2016

HiFi Basics III: Loudspeakers Placement, Short vs Long Wall, Vibrapods

pic: Case 1, Sang's room. L, Now; R, Before. Click to Enlarge.

HiFi Basics III: Examine Your (Loudspeakers') Orientation, Short vs Long Wall
Talk Tweak: Vibrapods do no Evil

This article is NOT a tutorial on loudspeaker placement. There are many such articles on the net. This article serves to illustrate how a change of placement can DRASTICALLY improve the sound.

Loudspeaker Placement = Obstacle Course? The Reality
There is no question Loudspeaker Placement is often the most compromised in the audio chain. Many audiophiles do not have a dedicated audio room, and sharing a room with the rest of the family means major compromises. Add WAF to the equation and the result is often as good as only a toss-up.

In HK, this is a major problem, as small living rooms are used for audio (there are basically no family rooms, nor basement-as-man-cave). Compounding the problem, many LR's are irregular in shape, the worst being the so-called "diamond shaped" ones (Apartment D in the diagram, which basically has only one long wall!). In my own place, I too have to contend with my loudspeakers pretty much against the wall, even my large Yamaha NS-1000.

Even for those who do have the room to maneuver, habits and reluctance to move things around too much can sometimes make them choose one configuration over the other. In this article I shall cite you just THREE cases where a change of placement reaped massive benefits.

Short Wall vs Long Wall (sort of, 90" rotation)
Instructions try to be generally applicable, which is why none would go straight out and say it is better to place loudspeakers against the short wall, firing down the length of the room: but I tell you, this is so, in the majority of cases. In HK, we have more unusually shaped living rooms, sometimes with "short" almost the same as "long". In years of home visits, I have encountered many households with sub-optimal placement. I often suggest re-positioning, but not everyone is receptive (or have the strength!).

Case 1 - Verity Audio Sang and Carmen are good friends. Once in a while, I steal some time to have Sunday breakfast with them, and of course try to do a few things in due course. His Verity Audio Rienzi's for a long time were placed rather in-room, with the TV wall in the back (top, right pic; as covered here, though equipment is much different now). Imagine my surprise when I sat down during a recent visit and discovered the loudspeakers moved to the other side, which I have nudged him to do for many years (top, left pic). Even I was shocked by how much the sound had improved! Larger soundstage, fleshier images and more effortless presentation. In the current setup, the distance from the listener to the loudspeakers is increased significantly, and the loudspeakers now have more symmetrical, extrapolated, certainly not ideal, "side-wall" "reinforcement/reflections" (or lack of).

Case 2 - Klipsch In the case of our friend Bernard, re-positioning of his Klipsch La Scala was one of the seminal events in my recent journey in audio, and was written up in detail here. In this case, after re-positioning, the speakers are firing down a much longer distance, and the side-walls are much more symmetrical.

Case 3 Yamaha FX-3 Although I haven't heard it, my friend Robin's latest coup resulted in exactly the dramatic change for the better, covered here.

There have been quite a few more examples, but these 3 will do. The Room and Loudspeaker Placement are the most important elements in the audio chain, yet most audiophiles do too little in placement, either because of inertia or other constraints. But, if you can try everything!

Vibrapods have Done it Again!
During this visit to Sang's place, I discovered he had several unused packages of Vibrapods. We put them under his sources, the Technics SP-10 and the Sparkler S303 CDP, and in both instances things were significantly improved, more natural and breathing. Wonderful!

29 August, 2016

Robin, Taipei, Un-Tweaking, Townsend Seismic Podium

Click pics to enlarge. Note the Townsend Seismic Podium beneath the Yamaha's. L: Now, after my visit!; R: Before, during my visit.

Home Visit: My Dear Old Friend Robin the Scot
Coupling/Decoupling, Townsend, Stillpoints, 120V/240V, Slate/Acrylic
A Trip to Taiwan

As reported, Robin's house is perched on the Danshui side of Yanmingshan in Taipei, Taiwan, and commands a magnificent open view. His listening room/study is on the top floor. Finally, after more than 4 years, I got to visit him. Equipment has not changed much: R2R: Otari; Turntable: Garrard 301/Thomas Schick/Michell-Incognito-Rega RB300/Ortofon Kontrapunkt B; SUT: EAR MC-4; Preamp: ARC SP-11; Amp: McIntosh MC-275; Loudspeakers: Yamaha FX-3 (now on Townsend Seismic Podium). We spent two afternoons altogether and combed through the system:
  • Accessories As usual, removal of most tweaking accessories (a lot of Stillpoints were used to support the turntable especially) resulted in an easier, freer-flowing sound. Readers should note I do NOT agree with the extravagant claims of most accessory manufacturers - while their products may change the sound for the better in some aspects, they also rob the music of vitality and presence. Almost no exceptions (think Stillpoints, Symposium, Finite Elements, TAOC etc, the list is looong). Ah, cheap and cheerful Vibrapod is a happy exception !
  • 120V/240V Robin has both 240V (HK) and 120V (Taiwan) equipment. Removal of various (step-down/up and isolation) transformers improved the sound. He also found out later that the 240V outlet in the house (like the US, intended for air-con's etc) did not sound good for 240V audio equipment. So, while it is wise to use as few transformers as possible, using the 240V for audio is not desirable.
  • Acrylic/Slate As the Thomas Schick arm had an alignment problem, we decided to swap in the Rega arm, which necessitated a change of plinth, from the acrylic back to the old slate one Robin used before. I must say I prefer the slate (and I am not even sure about that! I like wood even more, good wood at least). Never had too much enthusiasm for supposedly acoustically dead acrylic.
  • deHavilland 222 Tape Playback Preamp (official link) Robin uses this as a headamp for his R2R. The 222 has a preamp section. We tried it out as a full function preamp but its line section did not quite match up to the ARC SP-11 (tall order of challenge!). We shall give it benefit of the doubt as it may not be quite run-in.
  • Townsend Seismic Podium Now, the most interesting part. Robin had these under the loudspeakers. They slide around, making positioning an easy task. As I am usually against spikes, dishes and cones, I was receptive. Suffice to say, I heard nothing bad. I actually think for bulky speakers these are definitely viable, likely superior (though expensive) alternative to spikes. Would love to hear more! Those who want to read more can go to HiFi+, or watch Townsend's own demo video.
  • Short Wall/Long Wall Placement Now, this occurred after I left! I had always advocated firing down the long wall, and the FX-3 is a powerful loudspeaker. Robin had tried this before a long time ago, but didn't quite like it. This time, after I left, he tried it again, and he excitedly told me that everything snapped into focus! In the huge room, the speakers are about 10 ft out into the room. I must hear it! For those who needs convincing, read my incredible experience on Klipsch La Scala!
  • Long Live Yamaha! What incredible loudspeakers, the NS-1000 and the FX-3. Now, when am I going to hear the FX-1???
Taiwan, the Forgotten Land
Taiwan is an interesting island (wiki entry). Because politics, it is rather isolated. And yet, despite this, perhaps even because of it, Taiwanese people, ethnically mostly Chinese, are amazingly friendly and disciplined citizens (compared to their mainland and HK counterparts). The city has a lot more breathing room than crowded HK, and it is quite a livable place. Except for the occasional cigarette butt, the streets are litter-free. I spent two weeks, living in the humblest area of industrial Sanchong, where there are large populations of Thai and Vietnam people (imported laborers). Every morning I get my coffee (better than Starbucks) at the local 711. I had trouble when I came back to congested HK. Some pics:

Wonton with Side Dishes of Bamboo Shoots and Dried Bean Curd 溫州大餛飩,油燜筍,拌豆腐皮
 Halal Noodle with Beef 清真牛肉麵
 Morning Coffee at Spacious 711 的早上,咖啡不錯
Bullet Train 台南高鐵站
 All Along the Railroad, Neat, Modern Farms 一路翠綠,農業井井有條
 Inside Kaoshiung Terminal 高雄高鐵站
Chenqing Lake,Gaoshiung 高雄澄清湖
 View from Gaoshiung City Park 高雄市公園一灠
 Small Night Market in Taipei 臺北小夜市
 An Amazingly Beautiful Park under the Chongxin Bridge 重新橋下打造了個諾大而漂亮的公園