19 April, 2016

Shure SC35C, BAT P5, ARC PH1, Shindo

Review: Shure SC35C Cartridge, Part II
Letter from NYC (53) 2016 (9)
Review: BAT VK-P5
Vinyl Talk: MM vs MC, Part I
Phonoamp Shootout: BAT P5 vs ARC PH1 vs Musical Surroundings Phonomena II vs Parasound JC3

Note: At first I was perplexed that I got terrible results from the Shure SC35C (see Review: Shure SC35C, Part I), but I now know why. Read on.

Shure SC35C
Puzzling First Impression Almost a year ago, I read a Stereophile article by Herb Reichert, in which he (like others on the net) praises the evergreen $35 DJ Shure SC35C cartridge, used on a 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 he uses is almost the same thing as my AT-PL120 (I suspect they have the same OEM). As he got curious about the Shure, I did too. I bought one from Amazon and enlisted my idling Pioneer PL-10 for the purpose. As stated in my Note and the link above, the result I got was terrible. Frankly, I have never heard a worse sounding setup.

Rejuvenation/Culprit Revealed Still perplexed by the result, this time around I decided to shift the SC35C to my Audio-Technica AT-PL120 for a second chance. As I took off the cartridge leads on the Pioneer headshell, I noticed that they have deteriorated quite a bit, with clip barely hanging on. I installed it on the AT-PL120 and was immediately captivated. Yes, it was a little rough at first, but now I could hear the potential (more sonic notes down below). There! Cartridge Leads are easily damaged with time and during manipulation, and any poor connection adversely affects the sound. The degree of damage the leads did still amazes me.

I added the AT-PL120/Shure SC35C to my reference System II. As I have 2 Thorens tables fighting for the Shindo Monbrisson's 2 phono inputs, I needed to add a phono amp anyway, I used the opportunity for a little fitting.

This is an older model, a super-bargain at current second-hand prices. As you can see from the pic, its battleship built and topology bears great resemblance to its current offerings, including the current flagship VK-P12SE (just rave-reviewed in the current May/June 2016 TAS). If you compare, the more expensive offerings differ little in topology, more in component grade and added options, like input transformers (I prefer my own) and output transformers. The P5 uses 8x6DJ8 and 2x6SN7. I have all old stock tubes in them.

The P5 is highly configurable. The maximum (high) gain of 56 db is a little low for very low output cartridges (like my Denon DL-304), but the low gain is a highish 50 db. One can further trim two pots to attenuate another 6 db (44 db). Two dip-switches allow for loading and capacitative adjustments.

For some reason, I have never formally written this up. Perhaps it is because I have previously only used it in balanced mode with the BAT VK-3i preamp, not my usual connection (RCA, as I use SET amps). My previous experience, with Air Tight PC-1 and with Koetsu Black, was very positive, and so is completely at odds with the surprisingly negative review on 10audio (usually this site is OK) and more in keeping with Toneaudio (summary only; more details in its review of the similar P6).

Compared to some other big names, BAT gears are less popular. I think this is due to their insistence on balanced topology. While the preamps have concessions to RCA's, the P5 phono amp does not; there is only a single pair of balanced output, necessitating the use of adaptors when used with non-balanced gears.

Audio Research (ARC) PH1 There is not much info on the net. For an introduction, see my previous experience.

Parasound JC3 Previously reviewed extensively (see here).

Musical Surroundings Phonomena II (see here).

Analog Rig: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shure SC35C (and other after-market styli)
Preamp: Shindo Monbrisson (has MM stage)
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL Audio 4-way horns
Phonoamps: Musical Surroundings Phonomena II; Parasound JC3; BAT VK-P5, ARC PH-1
XLR to RCA Cable: Gotham GAC-2/1 and DGS-1

Sonic Impressions
  • Shure SC35C (new stock) Compliance This is a very low compliance cartridge, and my low-medium mass arms are theoretically not optimal (I added a headshell weight). You can press on the stylus and it hardly budges, maybe great for child-proofing? VTF Recommended tracking force is 4-5 gm, and I use 4.5 with no problem. Output As we shall see, the high output of 5mV proved problematic to my system with high efficiency loudspeakers. Initial Sound/Run-In As soon as I mounted the SC35C in the AT-PL120, everything just snapped into focus. Force, colour, everything just exploded. Initially the sound was rather coarse at the top, but it started to smooth out after 20 hours. Likely not fully run in yet even as of this writing.
  • SC35C + Shindo Monbrisson Trying the other phono amps made me realize the presentation of Shindo's MM section - a somewhat softer presentation and narrower stage. But it was perfect for the rather long run-in period. The Shindo tamed the edge of the SC35C (it is important to remember my horns magnify such things) and for the initial period that was what I used. Unusually for me, but highly appropriate for MM, I played many rock and pop records. Even early on, the SC35C took well to rock and the male voices: Willy DeVille's Miracle, Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate, Dylan's Nashville Skyline and Pink Floyd's The Wall were all rendered with unforced dynamic swing, a fast, clean and powerful bass. On these rock/pop LPs the SC35C outperforms my MC's, and its ease of delivery is just admirable. Only when I played the period instrument Bach Violin Concerti (La Petit Bande; Proarte) or digitally recorded Linda Ronstadt For Sentimental Reasons was some residual upper midrange glare revealed. Of course, with MC's vocals and instrumental details are more nuanced, but the Shure is satisfying enough and rhythmically even more urgent.
  • SC35C + Phonomena II Like before, I had no luck with this one. I tried the various capacitance valued but none was able to change the sterile sound. Nothing offensive and neat, but not inspiring either, and that is a no no for LPs. Abandoned again.
  • SC35C + ARC PH-1 Now, this is more like it. The soundstage expanded in width and depth significantly. Bags of air was accompanied by a little over-the-top treble. To smooth out the sound, I resorted to an old Audioquest Ruby, a solid core cable. That did it perfectly. It shows once again that solid cores can sometimes work when stranded prove unsatisfactory. It also shows that one should consider what the vintage item was paired during its time. For the ARC PH-1, it was likely the era of Monster and MIT, old models that were not so transparent.
  • SC35C + Parasound JC3 or BAT VK-P5 Parasound JC3 Previously I had only availed myself of its excellent high-gain MC stage. I was surprised that the (47 db gain) MM sound was equally impeccably detailed, quiet and smooth. Just like the ARC PH-1, as compared to the Shindo, the soundstage width and depth both expanded. Tonally and dynamically a very even performer. This is a full balanced design. BAT VK-P5 The sound is very detailed and with a wide and deep soundstage. Surprisingly for a tubed unit, the transient attack is very fast and dynamics superlative. The unit also needs an hour to sound its best. As this is tube, there is a little more harmonics, but overall the sound is rather neutral, with just a hint of tube bloom; hence I can see why some tube people may not like this. I tried all of the capacitance options but the basic sound remained the same. As the output of the SC35C is a high 5mV, I used the lowest gain of 44 db by trimming the pots all the way down (see above). Parasound vs BAT Compared to the Parasound (even higher 47 db gain), the BAT subjectively sounds like the gain is too high, and the sound becomes just a little wilder/bright with certain styli. I interpret this to mean the BAT VK-P5 is more dynamic than the Parasound. Part of this is also due to its fast transient attack, again subjectively faster than the Parasound. Put it another way, the solid state Parasound veers towards the warm of tubes, whereas the tubed BAT tends not to be tubey. For BAT, I think it is somewhat unusual to be in the position of having insufficient gain for very low output MC's but seemingly too much gain for high output MM's. Hum Like when I had the Raos mono cartridge (here), both the Parasound and BAT have a grounding issue that I could not get rid of. When the music is playing, it is low enough to be inaudible, but one can just hear it during quiet passages. Maybe the fully balanced phonoamp deos not work well with unbalanced downstream gears?
  • Aftermarket Styli Old Stock 766-D7 (SS35C) I first tried this when the Shindo was used. The sound was somewhat veiled and too smooth. However, with the Parasound and BAT, the sound blossomed with a natural balance. It is a little more refined than the stock, but the stock has a stronger and more projected midrange (particularly evident with male voices). Pfanstiel 4766-D7 The box says Switzerland SS35C, 0.7 mil con., but the seller advertised it as N35X, which was why I bought it. Out of the box I knew something was different. The stylus is much more compliant. Indeed, at 4.5 gm, the belly of the cartridge was almost sweeping the record. I then tried 1.5 gm (like an N35X) and it worked very well, without tracking errors! The stylus looks conical, but it s behaving like an elliptical. Maybe the suspension has deteriorated? I don't know. In any case, the sound is very clear, more airy, extended and refined on top than the stock cartridge. Not withstanding the curious difference in compliance of the Pfanstiel, I have to say all three styli sound more similar than different.
Conclusion The SC35C is wildly good and cheap. It does many things better than even an expensive MC (like effortless bass) and makes one seriously wonder why one should spend more than $40. As a result of this, I have also embarked on a project of rejuvenating my Empire's (2000E/III and 2000Z) and I also took them to listen at Andy's setup. So more later as we delve deeper into MM vs MC.

13 April, 2016

Letter from NYC (52) 2016 (8): More Rare Birds

Tannoy Westminster Thanks to arrangement by Paul, and dedicated driver Philip, two Sundays ago we got to visit again Jimmy's system. Look at this pair!

The host's listening room is one of the most luxurious I have seen; I love the decoration, and all that wood! Even the equipment racks are beautiful solid wood (from Ebay).

Sources are an Oracle CDP fed into an MBL DAC for CD and a Lumin for digital files (we much preferred the CDP to CAS). Preamp is Conrad-Johnson GAT. Mono amps (one just glimpsed behind right speaker) are massive so-called "WE" (like these that our friend Simon has), each of which employs a bank of 8x 300B tubes. Sound was a lot better than a previous visit 3-4 years ago. We attributed the marked improvement to his new CJ preamp (old one was Audio Space 300 preamp) and also the Field Coil Line-Magnetic Supertweeters (power supplies seen to the left of the Oracle CDP and right of the CJ preamp).

The Westminster (older version, foam surround) used with the Line-Magnetic has a very different sound than on its own. Treble is airier and bass is more controlled. A very sculptured sound that we liked, though perhaps not for the Tannoy traditionalist.

Klipsch Forte Then I went to Philip's new house on Long Island where I heard and tweaked things a little. The setup is very simple, McIntosh MX-110/MC-225, a dependable combo. His basement is a vast and bare space, really too large for audio comfort. The Forte still sounded very good and much like the Quartet I have heard before (interestingly, both setups were a little lean). Philip just got a pair of Spendor SP-100, which I look forward to auditioning. Incidentally, as the Forte's sometimes dip low in impedance (Stereo Review, Pg 1, Pg 2), one should try all the output taps, including the 4-ohm. Which one will sound the best will likely be system dependent.

Focal/JM Lab Nova Utopia (Stereophile Review) Last Sunday I went with Paul to visit 台山華 . He had just moved to a smaller house. Equipment has not changed: Jadis CDP, Audio Note M6 preamp and Pass Lab X-250 amp. The current space for audio is small, about 200 ft, but has some sidewall reinforcement. Sound, including the bass, was surprisingly much improved over his old cavernous space, which lacked wall reenforcement. Once again, this shows the effect of the room is of paramount importance. This experience makes me ponder on Philip's setup above...

It was among the best JM Lab sound I have heard, and I have heard a lot, including the current flagship. Fast and crisp, and with good control, we played many CD's while sipping tea and chatting. It was gratifying to hear that the host has gotten totally bored with audiophile discs and now listens to more and more classicals, all on his own.

Happy Listening to you all!

12 April, 2016

Review: iFi iTube

Review: iFi iTube
Letter from NYC (51) 2016 (7): Buffered

Note on Tube Buffers As a long time tube preamp user, Tube Buffers are almost anathema to me. Many tube preamp designs are inherently buffered. They are also found in the cheaper tube CD players, where a buffered stage is added to the output (different from true tube amplification). For those CDPs with a choice of direct or buffered out, I almost always preferred the sound without the buffer (like Shanling). There have also been some outboard units, which you can insert between components (like Musical Fidelity X-10D), and these I have always found detrimental to the signal. A better way may be using a 1:1 transformer for the purpose, as people have done with the output of the CDP (using trannies like the WE 111C). Indeed, some preamps with transformer coupled output is just that. Even then, I don't always like the sound of it.

iFi iTube
The iTube has been well reviewed. See enjoythemusicTNTdagogo and positive feedback (I don't agree with the latter's finding of resolution compromise). As you can see, this has been billed as a multipurpose device, but I have used mine mostly as a buffer, testing it as a preamp only briefly. I also did not try out the other sonic algorithms.

Round 1 (HK) I bought this second-hand about two years ago. As Buffer I first tested this in my System B (this iteration), inserting it between the Micromega MyDAC and Ongaku. A slight and attractive added warmth was immediately apparent. Careful comparison revealed no signal loss to speak of. I tried both the 0 db and 6 db gain settings and found little difference between them, and thereafter stuck with the 0 db setting. Impressed, I then put this into my System A, between the Arcam rDAC and Kondo M7 preamp - again, the same finding. I also took out the M7 and used the WE124's volume controls to good effect, though I still prefer a preamp in the chain. As Preamp I briefly used the iTube as preamp in lieu of the Kondo M7. Sound was still very good, but inevitably the dynamics was reduced.

Round 2 (NYC) This time I took it to NYC. I had intended to test it vs my Elekit TU-8500, but I haven't gotten around to it. vs Jadis JPS2 Instead I took it to my friend Paul's (setup here, though he has moved house). His preamp, the expensive Jadis JPS2, unusually has one dedicated input with a tube buffer (more info and links here). This is what he uses with his CDP (and a WBT interconnect). In his words, the non-buffered inputs are "unlistenable". We routed the CDP to the iTube, which was connected to one of the unbuffered inputs of the JPS2 with a run of old Audio Note AN-V. To my ears and surprise, the iTube far outstripped the built-in buffer. The iTube sounded airier, with a larger soundstage and much more dynamics. To assess the effect of the interconnect, we used it to directly connect his CDP to the buffered input: it is better than the resident cable, but the result was still not as good as when the iTube was used. So, there, the iTube beat the Jadis on its home turf!

Conclusions The iFi iTube is the best Tube Buffer I have heard. There is no signal loss and it preserves the full dynamics of recordings. Simply marvellous. With a full-tube system, I don't use this much but it is nice to have on hand in case buffering is needed.

11 April, 2016

Book: Patti Smith Just Kids

Book: Patti Smith Just Kids
Letter from NYC (50) 2016 (6): True Rapture

Patti Smith wiki entry

I chanced upon Patti Smith's newest book M Train in the Flushing Library. I browsed through it and liked it very much, thereby deciding to borrow her 2010 memoir of life with Robert Maplethorpe, National Book Award winner.

Patti Smith had spent almost all of her adulthood in New York City, and her description of its moods and people are as observant and sympathetic as any I have read. I was delighted to find that Village Voice had published a Step-by-Step Walk Through her NYC. I came to the city in 1972 (timeline: about 1/4 way into the book, which ends with Maplethorpe's death in 1989) knowing little about American popular culture, but I loved to walk and explore and eventually got to know and love most of the places mentioned. This was so partly due to the fact that in the late 80's I got to be around a lot of artists, and they opened my world.

What's the relevance to audio? Nothing much perhaps, but everyone of a certain age has heard at least a few of her songs. Her book is a who's who on artists and musicians of the period; to cite only one, Janis Joplin. Patti Smith also mentioned a lot of the records she was playing, including Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline, which I had  just played with my Shure SC35C (great sound! report to come) before I read the book.

Many people have an image of the rock and roll musician as renegade, but anyone who can write prose like that, and recall life with such candour can only be called a God. Joan Didion said it best: "...This book is so honest and pure as to count as a true rapture...". That is exactly what it is.

08 April, 2016

Turntable Setup/Starter Kit EAR MC4 Technics SL-1200 Audio-Technica AT-PL120 VTA Problems

Comedian Buddy Hackett had turntable routines up his sleeve, literally. The transcription turntable and arm look familiar. Can someone tell me what make it is?

Letter from NYC (49) 2016 (5) Set Up, not Upset 
Talk Vinyl: Turntable Setup Guide/Starter Kit
Talk Vinyl: DJ Turntable (Technics SL-1200MkII/Audio-Technica AT-PL120) VTA Problems

Note: In response to a reader's query, I started to write about the setup problems (especially the VTA) I faced with my DJ Turntables, the discontinued Technics SL-1200mkII and its clone, the much cheaper Audio-Technica AT-PL120. Then I thought I might as well incorporate that into an article on Turntable Start Up and Setup.

Perhaps of Interest: For where I came from (analog speaking), read my rambling Talk Vinyl: All My Turntables on my 40-year journey.

I do not claim to be a setup expert, far from it. My approach, if it can be so termed, is more personal, loose-limbed, certainly ad-hoc and on-the-cheap, though of course I do listen very carefully.

This article is also my meagre effort to counter some of the rampant and misplaced obsessions found on the net. While I respect someone with a simple setup (say, an old receiver, a Technics SL-1200 and a Shure) who enjoys music, tries to get the most out of it, and writes about his findings with different styli, it is another thing to read about the capacitance or loading that is absolutely required for a certain cartridge, or how a cartridge can only be used with a certain type of arm. While there may be kernels of truth in some of these, kernels are all they may be. As an example, many declared that the Rega 250/300 and the SME3009 are unsuited to the Denon DL-103, while not having used such, but I have used these combos for a long time, and satisfactorily (heresy!). I am not the only one who thinks differently: tonearm modifier and manufacturer Origin Live (I like them) goes even further here. Suffice to say, the newcomer should take everything with a grain of salt, even (some say especially) majority opinion and conventional "wisdom".

As analog is not even close to an exact science, listening is much more important than reliance on tools and adherence to theories. Over the years I have heard way too many mega-buck analog rigs that were meticulously set up (that employ all manners of expensive gadgets that together may cost more than my turntable, like expensive professional scales, lasers, tweaks etc), yet sound suboptimal, even downright dreadful. Something went wrong with their assessment. Perhaps too much attention was paid to "objective" parameters and too little to listening?

All of my (simply set up) turntables may not be the last word in anything, but they are usually eminently listenable - across genres and all the way to the classical end-groove; so setup, while important, is not the obsessive thing some make it out to be. Newcomers should not be scared off, though YMMV.

General Turntable Setup Guide for Beginners
A Google search will turn up a plethora of articles, solid evidence for the vinyl resurgence. Therefore, I shall not elaborate on this, instead just commenting on various aspects in the next section. Here are 2 links that I think are very helpful for the beginner:

The Ultimate Turntable Guide (from iamthejeff) The first half of this article is a buying guide. The second half covers setup in a relaxed manner, with particularly good links, including video instructions.

Beginner's Guide to Cartridge Setup (from Audiophilia) This is a more tightly written and comprehensive article on setup only, and should be carefully read.

After these introductory articles, peruse these very good article written in layman language:

This article in soundfountain is concisely written. It covers the tonearm-cartridge interface, compliance, resonance etc. Similar articles (here and here) are also worthwhile.

As for alignment, soundfountain also has a good article. (in fact, read all of their articles). You may also want to read this well illustrated one from the mostly hi-end TAS.

Personal Notes and Tips on Turntables, Phonoamps and Setup 
  • Internet Resources Although the novice has an equal chance of getting good or bad advice (especially in forums), one cannot deny the internet can be a very useful place for vinyl lovers. Vinyl Engine is a must for the novice and the seasoned alike. Make sure you navigate their menu bar: the Database, Tools and Library are particularly useful. Lenco Heaven is mainly a forum, much less organized, so although it has some useful information, it is Lencocentric and difficult to navigate for the uninitiated/casual visitor.
  • Turntable Type I believe there is no best, and so have no strong bias against any type; in fact, I always think one should have at least one Idler-Wheel Drive, one Belt-Drive and one Direct-Drive (at least), and I do. Here is a good article on Direct Drive vs Belt Drive. As for suspension-less turntables, I have nothing against them (I have some too), save for the fact that in general these tend only to be more effective with increasing mass (Rega is the exception), and I frown upon large and ungainly turntables. One reason I like Direct Drives is because they are less cluttered, usually more compact and, though suspension-less, heavy for size. Entry Level Turntables? Here I part ways with some of the common advices. I do not recommend the usual starter turntables out there (like Project Debut, Rega RP1, etc) for the following reasons: 1) as satisfying as these may be in the short term, they may not outperform a cheap but good vintage deck. e.g. I'd think my Pioneer PL-10, which can be obtained on Ebay for $50 or less, is as good as the current entry level offerings up to many times its price; 2) vinyl is addictive, and one sooner or later upgrades. Therefore, it is better to buy something that you would still want to hold on to as a second TT (like a Technics SL-1200) or something that can be easily sold (Rega is good in this regard). My Recommendations Budget/Current Although I haven't heard one (I'd like to), among the current budget decks the one that I'd buy is the super-budget basic version of U-Turn Orbit (no VTA adjustment; for $179). But then, $70 more (at $250) buys you a LOT more flexibility  (with built-in fine-sounding phono and USB ADC for digitizing) in the form of Audio Technica AT-LP120USB (essentially my AT-PL120 with added USB ADC). All of these are hassle-free, almost one-button buyable, plug-and-play. Beyond Budget/Second-Hand However, for an even better turntable, one could invest double the amount (or more) and energy (a lot of work sourcing or bidding) in a vintage turntable in good condition. The Technics SL-1200 (or SL-120) with a good arm is a relatively painless choice. For the more adventurous, a good manual Thorens TD-150 or 160 or Lenco would shame many current offerings, but the chance that you have to do some servicing is commensurately higher (the net offers good guidance). Other good vintage turntables, like the Pioneer PL-12/10 can be had for a song if you look around. With the internet, few problems cannot be solved, so have some confidence in yourself! My Top Choices For even more money, my top choices would be Garrard 301/401, Thorens TD-124, 125, Lenco (mine is L75), Technics SP-10. Complicated Designs No, I am lazy and I'd never play with fussy tangential tracking arms, pumps and vacuums, you get the idea! But I have to tell you, when done right, such as those touched by the magic hands of my friend and guru Andy, the result is fabulous! Cost-no-Object I got you there! Eh, I don't do this category, but I have heard a lot to tell me not to do it! Also, by nature, almost down to the last one, I don't like these chunks of metal and acrylic. I don't think, even if I have the dough, I'd want to spin vinyl on something so overbuilt like a Clearaudio Statement (besides, it has no rhythmic flair to speak of)! That is not style!
  • Tonearm Most budget tables will come with their own tonearm. But should you don't have one (say, just bought an armless Technics SL-120) I'd recommend the cheap Rega arms (the older RB250/300 to the newer RB202/303), which have served me well for two decades. Many vintage tables come with various generations of SME 3009 arms, and these I also love (with the exception of the Series III). For a moderate layout, Jelco is reputable and does OEM for Ortofon. For a 12" arm, I also recommend Thomas Schick. Gimballed vs Uni-pivot For a good articles on the various types of arms, here is a good article from TNT. Most beginner's TT has gimballed arms (which makes the uni-pivot U-Turn stand out) for good reason: easier to adjust and obtain good performances from. I do think in general gimballed arms have better dynamics, better for classical music perhaps. 12" vs 9" Arms Understandably starter TT's never have 12" arms. 12" arms, like my SME3012 and Schick, track better and have a blacker background, but they are audibly a tad slow, even more so if used with Garrard's and Ortofon SPU's (a combo favoured in Asia). Here is my experience of 12" vs 9". In general, I prefer 9" (or my 10" SME3010) arms, and I never have undue tracking errors. 
  • Cartridge Budget Starter cartridges are always MM/MI, and that is how it should be, as these make less demands on the phono stage. For MM upgrade, a safe bet is Shure, from the common home-use $80 Shure M-97XE to the amazing $35 "DJ" heavy tracker Shure SC35C (Stereophile review; my article to come), unless you, like Andy, want to wander into the jungle of vintage MM's. When you are ready for MC, start with the ridiculously inexpensive evergreen Denon DL-103. Many people, including the great J.C. Verdier, use this in conjunction with very expensive associated equipment! For every aficionado, there is a detractor, and here the internet can be confusing. In theory, the Denon should be used on a heavy arm, and so many demur on putting this cartridge on even a Rega, not to mention a 3009i, but as mentioned above I have used these to good effect. FYI, there is a big discussion between respected designer Thorsten Loesch and Denon-hater Romy the Cat that illustrates why analog is so fascinating. My 3009i has fixed SME headshell and it works like Throsten says. My Top Choices I am still basically for the MC, which I think particularly benefits classicals, though perhaps I should re-visit MM's after my experience with resurrecting my Empire 2000's (here) and my recent Shure SC35X (report to come). Besides the Denon DL-103, I like the Denon DL-304older Ortofons (I have the MC-3000 and MC-5000). More Expensive There are so many great MC cartridges out there that we are living in a time of plenty. Unlike expensive equipment, these cartridges are mostly exceptional. Problem is, they are stratospherically and unrealistically priced. I do have an Air Tight PC-1 (acquired second-hand) which is truly exceptional, and my favorite. If you are into expensive stuff, I'd go with the Japanese boutique brands (Koetsu, Miyajima, Kondo, for example) rather than the likes of Van den Hul (heard the Colibri too many times and never liked it) and Clearaudio (heard the Goldfinger many times too). I also like Benz-Micro, but they seem to have forgone the lower end of the market. And then there are the Ortofon SPU's - very popular, full-bodied old-world sound, but I in general prefer a faster sound.
  • Stylus Guard Be careful when taking one off or putting one back on. Many cartridges are ruined this way.
  • Cartridge Screws and Washers These are pain-in-the-butt, but of course necessary evils! Cartridge installation/un-installation is another common way to ruin a cartridge. The Denon cartridges in particular will have you scream out loud! Sometimes a cartridge installs better with the screws upside down. Tighten enough but not too much.
  • Headshell I am not particular about this. Expensive headshells made out of exotic material are not necessarily good sounding (I have a heavy carbon Ortofon LH-9000 and I am not sure I like it) so I avoid them (I'd like an Orsonic though). I like the looks of vintage plastic ones like those on SME and my Pioneer, but replicas are usually less well made. A very good quality and reasonably priced aluminum headshell is the Ortofon SH-4. Buy a few of them!
  • Tonearm Wire Everybody hates those cartridge clips, but that is life! The wires make a big difference in sound. In my experience, the cheap and thin ones that come with headshells usually don't sound bad, but I had issue with the "better" ones supplied with my Ortofon SH-4 (thicker stranded in clear plastic sleeves), so it is not a question of price. Experiment! Also, the thin ones easily suffer damage - an improper connection can adversely affect sound, as recently happened to me (see my coming SC35C report)!
  • Tacking Weight I always follow the manufacturer's instructions. I almost always use the suggested weight, sometimes 0.1g more, never less (unless using after-market replacements, where anything goes).
  • Counterweight and Headshell Weight In case your counterweight is not heavy enough to balance a heavy cartridge (not something that would happen to a beginner), use Blu-tac to affix some coins (or whatever metal) to add weight (as I did here). You can do the same to a headshell if the cartridge is too light or if you think it should be used in a heavier arm (as I did here). There are also headshells with screw-on additional weight (a la Stanton). And then there are thread-through weights (pic), which I find very useful. 
  • Anti-Skating Unless the cartridge flies over the label after the end groove, I pretty much just dial in the tracking weight. Note that some people don't believe in it (VPI and Thomas Schick). A serious way to test this would be to get a HiFi News Test Record (TNT review; current version has a different cover), which I don't have (and maybe should get).
  • Stylus Force Gauge This is essential. My favourite is the elegant Shure SFG-2 (right). Prices currently vary quite a bit, so shop around. One problem, it only goes to 3g, and so cannot be used on certain oddballs, like the Shure SC35C (4.5g). For this purpose, the Rek-O-Kut is perfect (left; up to 5.75g; see Art Dudley in Stereophile). It is fashionable to use electronic balances, but I doubt the accuracy of the cheap ones, and I think the expensive ones are overkill's.
  • VTA Now this is a topic on which much venom have been absurdly spilt on the internet. Basically you'd want the cartridge body to be parallel to the record surface. I do this several ways: raise or lower the tonearm, change the height of the platter, or put shims between the headshell and cartridge. Tonearm Height With adjustable arms, like my SME's and Linn Ittok, this is simple - just loosen a screw, raise or lower the pillar, and re-tighten. Rega's are more trouble, as you have to add rings or invest in an expensive after-maket VTA adjuster that could cost as much as the arm. Then some turntables have a fixed arm (like my Pioneer) that cannot be raised or lowered, in which case the next step may help. DJ Turntables I don't see this mentioned much on the net but, even with the arms at the lowest position, the tails of both my SL-1200MkII and AT-PL120 tonearms are by far too high (by almost 1 cm), nescessitating draconian measures for VTA adjustment by the following methods: Platter Mat and Height In the case of Pioneer, if the cartridge body is too tall, you can only resort to using a thinner mat (hasn't happened yet, as it matches well with the Empire 2000, Shure SC35C or Raos MC Mono that I have used). Usually, with my DJ tables (as we shall see later), the tail of the tonearm is too high and I'd have to resort to adding height to the platter (I use expendable LPs, which surely have the same resonant signature as the record being played). Shims/weight between the Headshell and Cartridge In the case of my DJ tables, sometimes raising the platter height is still insufficient, in which case I'd insert shims between the headshell and cartridge so as to raise the front of the arm (I use small strips of cut plastic, like expired ATM or credit cards). One can also use the heavier headshell weight pictured above. I do NOT constantly adjust VTA. I like the advice given in the above link to Audiophilia: "...One could spend a good portion of their remaining days on earth tweaking their cartridge’s VTA. It will, after all, vary depending on the thickness of each record played. While it’s worth investing a reasonable amount of time to find a VTA setting that works well for a representative sample of records in your collection, don’t obsess over it. Life’s too short, and there’s too much music to be heard...".
  • Alignment (see also my earlier post on the subject) This is an important step, and I can see why some can easily go anal. Aside from tangential tracking arms, there is NO perfect alignment, but that doesn't prevent many from tirelessly fighting over it. I do align, but I'd not lose sleep over it if I run into problems. I also remind you of the time I played with my friend's Decca, incredibly good sounding despite a gargantuan geometric error (reported here; nothing I could do about it). One-Point Protractor This is a relative rarity, requiring one to only align to one null point. Rega and VPI does this, but I myself use Baerwald (without any problem) on the Rega, and SME does this too, although their method of sliding the tonearm assembly is a different animal. Two-Point Protractors These are more common. There is not much point buying a cheap one, since one can print out (taking care that the computer is using the right scale; no re-sizing) the free protractors available at Vinyl Engine (links above). The "Stupid" Protractor is probably enough for most people. I tend to use Baerwald, but if I run into trouble I'd not hesitate to try the other geometries. If you run run several turntables and intend to try many cartridges, invest (like me) in a Dr. Feickert Protractor, surely modelled after (but better than) the Dennesen. I mostly play classical records, usually all the way to the end, and almost never have undue end-groove distortion even with the simplest Baerwald protractor (such as the free Vinyl Engine), so there.
  • Mat A mat changes the sound, sometimes drastically, and it is a jungle out there. There are NO rules and NO bests. I'd think every case is different and there is with little correlation with price (I'd avoid the very expensive ones). I usually stick with the one supplied by the manufacturer. Overall, I like the feel of rubber mats the best (they are essential on metal platters). Substantial felt mats are OK, but not the flimsy ones that can come out coupled to your record with static (like the one on the Pro-ject RPM1.3). I'd like to try a cork mat one day.
  • Record Weight Usually I find the sound is better without. But they have the advantage of steadying the record, useful with mildly warped ones.
  • Phonoamp A comprehensive survey is beside the scope of this article. The first thing to consider is the basic MM amplification, which I consider to be the foundation of it all, and nothing betters Tube. Because of noise issues, the additional MC gain is very difficult to achieve using tube (but not impossible), which is why Step-Up Transformers (SUT's) are often used even by accomplished tube designers (see section below). My Preference There are some who prefer outboard units, but I prefer a high quality full-function TUBE preamp (like the Shindo Monbrisson I use). Current tube preamps that fit the description are in general on the expensive side (Shindo, Leben, etc), which is why some full-function tube preamps have SS phono sections (Rogue, AVA, etc). Tube preamps that have MC facilities are even more expensive (EAR, Shindo, Audible Illusions, CAT etc), and those that use SUT's don't use very expensive ones, so there is potential for you to outgrow them. Vintage Offerings For better value one will do well to look to more recent vintage Full-Function Tube (or hybrid) Preamps. Many American brands are superb in this department: ARC (SP3/6/8/9, not to mention SP10/11), MFA (Magus), Counterpoint (3/5/7.1), Conrad-Johnson (many models), Melos (222/333), Precision Fidelity, to name a few. Of course one has to be careful and should only buy from a seller who knows the condition of the phono section (as many only uses line). These always have a Tape Loop so you always have the option of using them as outboard units. Just the phono facilities is worth the price, and you get a full preamp. Some of the more famous ones may even have gains high enough for medium-output MC duties, but not usually for low output, unless your loudspeakers are highly efficient (like mine, which is why I can more or less get away with using the Denon DL-103 with an ARC SP-11). Outboard Phonoamps As I have several systems, I do use them. For the phono amps I favor, I refer you to my various Phonoamp Shootouts (here, here and here; there're more, but these are the major ones). I'd advise buying one with both MC/MM capabilities. Among the budget phono amps I like, in increasing price, are the Micromega MyGroov (which I notice is on sale as of writing); the feature-laden iFi iPhono; and the evergreen Lehmann Black Cube (mine is the regular one, which is more expensive than the inaptly named Statement). One step up would be the Nagra BPS and AQVOX 2CI-II. Then, my reference Aurorasound Vida, Parasound JC3 and Fosgate Reference, not to mention the full-function Shindo and Nagra PL-P that I still use, or the ARC SP10/11, Melos 222 that I haven't used in quite a while.
  • Step-Up Transformer (SUT) and Pre-Preamplifier If you want to use an MC cartridge with an MM phono stage, you'd have to add around 10-20 db of amplification ahead. Because of noise, this is most easily achieved by using a passive SUT. Since vintage ones are just as good or superior, we should include them in our considerations; hence it is a wide world out there. Due to the nature of the subject, even introductory articles are somewhat technical. You may start with these in vinyl engine and theanalogdept but keep in mind impedance (see section below too) is not an easy subject even for designers, which is why there is so much heated discussion around. Buying a SUT to "match" a particular cartridge is expensive and does not always work out. It is desirable to have a few lying around; vintage ones are good and keep their resale value (think Cotter!). As for current offerings, K&K Audio (Stereophile) is great value, available both as kit and assembled (here; their MC Step Up guide is also good). Like Shindo, K&K used Lundahl transformers. And then there is Bob's Devices. They used to also manufacture cheaper units using the Cinemag 3440A, but they seem to have gone upscale, with the 1131 only, for considerably more money (here). I can attest to the superb performance and value of the Cinemag 3440A (here). Better yet, get an SUT with multiple taps. A good and modern one is the EAR MC-4 (see Stereophile; it is also the same transformer in my EAR 912, so I know it very well; see my report here), which is a bargain, as it is several SUT's in one. For  For Denon Naturally, Denon makes many SUT's, and even the cheapest AU300LC (my experience here) is good, and it is still easily available. Trial-and-Error If you have the option to try different ones, by all means do so. Sometimes, a "mis-match" will sound best in your system, so cast theories aside and use your ears (just one personal anecdote: in my old setup, using the Kondo SFz SUT with Denon DL-103, surprisingly the 1 ohm setting sounded better than the 40 ohm, go figure). PrePreamplifiers or Headamps these are active devices that supply the additional gain, not something in vogue now. I have the Mark Levinson JC-1 (DC), Klyne SK-1(here), Audionix and Ortofon MCA76 (both treated here); they all serve their useful purposes, but the Klyne is no doubt the most useful and it sounds great too. A good one can be very quiet, but less so than a good SUT.
  • MC Loading The basics are covered in many of the links above. This is a subject of much heated debate. In my experience, it is rather setup dependent - some systems are more responsive than others. Active MC Phonoamps Many, like my Fosgate Reference and BAT P5, have several impedance settings; others, like the Parasound JC3, has only the standard 100 ohm (John Curl does not believe in loading, but he bowed to public pressure in his later JC3+). Given that there are so many "experts" on loading values on the net, it almost tickles me when I think a lot of good designers don't (to name but two, the aforementioned John Curl; and Linn offers reason not to). My view is a better phono amp with no loading choice (like the JC3) is much preferable to a lesser phono amp with great loading choices (like the Phonomena II). Loading a SUT? Since SUT's are imperfect, many people add resistors to change the load. I don't do this and I don't believe in it (beside, it is too much trouble). MM Capacitance I don't do this either, but then I seldom use MM. Remember, loading is not the only way to change the sound, altering VTA and tracking weights are easier and effective.
  • Phono Interconnects Use the best and most neutral one you have. The interconnect for the source is always very important.
  • Test Records For dialling the sound in, best is to use a few good classical records, supplemented by some vocals and jazz perhaps. For assessing performance parameters, the HiFi News Test Record is surely indispensable for most even if I dispense with it.
p.s. I can go on and on, and have an unfinished feeling, but I'll stop here. Maybe more revisions and additions later. It has taken too long.

05 April, 2016

Sparkler S303, 47 Lab 4718, Raos MC Mono

Letter from NYC (48) 2014 (4): Epic: Taming the Shrews; Two, not One!
My Reference Station III Updated/Big Re-shuffle
Talk Mono: Raos MC Mono, Part II
Review: 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp, Part III
Review: Sparkler 303 CD Player, Part III
Review: Gotham DGS-1 Cable

Note: see also my Vibrapod review.

The Big Re-Shuffle (I) Although I am freer this time, I think I have spent way too much time on my Reference System III. This is because I have decided to re-configure and locate my first MC Mono Cartridge there. Getting it right was a journey. Compounding the problem, I also decided to run-in my Sparkler S-306 and 47 lab . As you shall see, that took quite a while. Now things have settled quite a bit and I'd like to chronicle it.

Re-Configuring System III This is the oddest system that I have, as it uses a buffer amp ahead of a super high-gain vintage preamp. Of course, with the extra electronics in the chain, I try for the utmost transparency that I can get. For detailed description of the contribution of the buffer amp and preamp, see system's previous incarnation. I get up early, and this is actually the system I listen to pre-dawn. After the upheaval, this is the current line-up:

Digital: Sparkler S306 CDP
Turntable 1: Thorens TD-309/Denon DL-103AL
Turntable 2: Pioneer PL-10/Raos MC Mono
Phonoamp 1: AQVOX 2CIMkII
Phonoamp 2: 47 lab 4718 Shigaraki
Buffer Amp: Elekit TU-8500
Preamp: Langevin 102
Amp: Lepai 2020A+ or Wavac MD-811
Loudpseakers: Almarro M1A/Dayton B652 or YL 4-way horns

Review: 47 Lab Shigaraki Phonoamp, Part III
Review: Raos MC Mono, Part II

47 lab 4718 in Prior Shootouts I had logged only very few hours on this phono amp prior to trying out the present combo. Part I has basic info and review links, and my initial experience with the Denon DL-103; Part II with the similar Denon DL-A100.

4718 + Raos For the present combo, my considerable initial reservations were detailed in Rao's review, Part I, but things slowly improved, especially after a change to turntable. I had problems with the initially peaky upper midrange presentation, but I also liked the 47 Shigaraki's utmost directness. I tried various phono amps. As described, some were not compatible in terms of hum, and all of them did not have the jump factor of the 47 Lab. So the review of these two cannot be separated. Jump factor is not everything, but counts for more in a mono playback, even for classical music - you'd want the instruments to sound bigger and have more slam. The Proceedings:
  • Interconnects For quite a while, the unbroken-in 47 4718 Shigaraki's peakiness made me moan and grieve. Swapping interconnects helped. Both the Canare L-2T2S and Belden 8451 were able to tie me over this period. Their slight softness at the frequency extremes and slightly restrained dynamics helped. Since 47 Lab's own cables are (very simple non-shielded single-run) solid core designs, I later swapped in a pair of DIY 2-conductor (simple twisted) solid core Sumitomo (one of my faves), to great effect. It is staying in for now. Compared to twisted cables, solid cores can be richer in the midrange if only because they are so often a bit soft at the frequency extremes, and the 47 Lab benefits from that. Hence, I recommend use of solid core cables with 47 Lab products. I have actually gotten hold of some bare 47 Lab cables. In HK I made a pair (without its proprietary and expensive connectors) and it worked well with the Shigaraki CDP. I shall make some more in NYC to use (report later).
  • Tweaks Again, a single Vibrapod (review here) placed below the Shigaraki phono module (less so two placed below its power supply) helped smooth out the sound to a considerable extent (a piece of wood helped too). However, after further run-in and a change of turntable, I removed it and to my surprise the sound became better. The single Vibrapod smoothed things out but smeared things a little; without it the sound is more incisive and rhythmically exacting. Note here that 47 lab thinks its ceramic has the best resonant properties; but I'd recommend a little damping during the break in period.
  • Pioneer PL-50 Substituted As part of reconfiguration, I switched the Raos to the Pioneer PL-50. I was quite taken in by the Sonic Sea Change from the previous AT-PL120. The PL-50 is less impactful, but more nuanced in rhythm and texture, thereby ameliorating to a great extent the initial rawness of the Raos. If the AT-PL120/47 Lab combo is Yang + Yang, too much of a good thing, whereas the PL-50/47 Lab combo is Yin + Yang, more balanced. While the AT-PL120 delivered the Curzon/Van Beinum Brahms (Decca) with more drive and sheer piano sound, the Pioneer revealed more subtleties in the strings and woodwinds, and was less harsh during the heaven-storming climaxes, a good trade-off. Once again, I am impressed by the Pioneer, much like its nearly identical sibling, the PL-12D, simple and surprisingly good.
Review: Sparkler S303 CD Player, Part III
I haven't listened much to this CD Player. For my initial impressions, see Part I and Part II. After moving it to this station, I began running it in. In many ways, the sonic presentation, as least initially, is not that different from the 47 lab 4718, rhythmic and lean, no surprise since the two companies are closely related. With run-in however, the rough edges gradually smoothed out (I use AC; should be better with DC, as North American distributor vkmusic recommends). Some Notes:

  • Support While I may like the looks of the small legs, I don't think they are good ergonomically or sonically. The CDP is so light that just pressing a button would cause it to slide and shift. One would think when the CD is spinning, there must be at least some lateral movements too small for the eyes to detect. I hear sonic improvements when the vibrapods are placed underneath, firmer and richer. Even two small slabs of wood (in the front and back) bring out a more stable sound.
  • Interconnects Like the 47 Lab 4718, a smoother interconnect is preferred. I tried various. Lacking another solid core, both the milder Belden 8451 and Gotham DGS-1 did very well. But with run-in, I was able to use one of my long-term reference, the Gotham GAC4/1. See below for more on the cables
  • Sound With run-in and some care in set up, the S303 finally shines! The music is mid-row perspective, with good ambience cues (a property shared by Philips 16-bit chips). Most impressive is the rhythmic savvy, which also makes one sit up and take notice of the phrasing of the musicians. The bass is clean and tuneful, with good finish (a property of non-oversampling). Although treble/upper midrange are not particularly sweet and have bite when appropriate, they are truthful. Masekela's Hope sounds mecurial, brimming with shimmering details (as it should), whereas most systems I have heard concentrate on brute force on the last cut (sigh). The S303 passes my test of replaying the Bach Violin Concerti on period instruments (Kuijken/La Petit Bande, Pro-Arte), which it did not initially. Sokolov's piano (DG), Van Morrison Moondance (Warner) were all well rendered. Compared to the better CD players, the sound can still occasionally be just a little tight (I am using horns!) when the going gets rough (like when Van Morrison belts it out). Here, I discovered something about my two Gotham cables: the reference GAC4/1 can handle more dynamics than the DGS-1, but the DGS-1 is surprisingly even more nuanced with rhythm and tonal shades. With the GAC4/1, the Sparkler's sound moves a little closer to regular players, whereas the DGS-1 accentuates its strengths, except in the most complex passages.
  • 47 Lab 4718 Shigaraki Phonoamp (MC) Since I have been listening to a lot of mono LPs lately, using mostly this phono amp, I think the unit is finally close to run-in, and it's time to give it a fair assessment. Shortcomings For sure, there are several: No thrills, no features for any adjustment, and not even MMit takes time to run-in (the quoted reviews did not mention this); it is very particular about the associated gear, be it interconnects or the turntable; given that I have a tube system, I think it will not do as well in brighter systems (usually ss, but sometimes tube too). Strengths As with most 47 Lab and Sparkler products, the sound is honest and direct, which doesn't necessarily mean in-your-face. Directness is about the unadorned musical communication; rhythm and pace are superb, undeniably exciting. Maybe it should not be your only phono amp (especially if you listen to big orchestral stuff), but one of several. Think, how many phonoamps has its own sonic stamp (which, ironically, the absolutist may not even want)? For me, it is perfect for my mono setup. Although I haven't reported on stereo playback, it does them well too, opening up with run-in and able to handle large-scaled music reasonably well.
  • Sparkler S303 CD Player Again, I am close to running it in, and my impressions are much more favourable. Its strengths are much the same as those of the S306 DAC (reviewed here). I cannot do a comparison, but I do keep to my view that the S306 is a little sweeter. However, the S303 has perhaps even more rhythmic flair. The transport section certainly makes a difference. Compared to my reference digital products (like my Sonic Frontier SFD-IImkII) the Sparklers come out short if I play large scaled orchestral music, but they bring freshness to almost everything else! Good stuff!
  • Direct Drive vs Belt Drive Again, the experience shows the tendency of direct drives (especially less ones) towards leanness. Match cartridges with care. But the bass drive is certainly impressive!
  • My System I am happy with it. Given the presence of a buffer amp and long interconnects it is till very transparent.
  • Gotham DGS-1 The surprise here is that the humble DGS-1 went head-to-head with the venerated GAC4/1, each with virtues of its own. A sleeper! Gotham is discontinuing it and it is available for a very reasonable price at Gotham USA. Grab some if you are the type that always puts musicality first over hifi virtues.

04 April, 2016

Walker Proscenium, Goldmund, Jan Allearts, Versa Dynamics, Stanton, Nagra and more

Heloísa Eneida Menezes Paes Pinto, the girl from Ipanema. See below for more. For all pics, click to enlarge.

Letter from NYC (47) 2016 (3): Land of Esoterica, Men from NY, Girl from Ipanema
Talk Vinyl: Goldmund, Versa Dynamics, Walker Proscenium
Talk Vinyl: Shindo and Nagra vs Lamm and Jadis

The sophistication of New York is astonishing. Being a hotbed for music of all genres must have been related to the flowering of audio as hobby. I was just on the phone with Victor of vkmusic, Vancouver based North American distributor for niche market Elekit and Sparkler, and he said a lot of his sales are to NYC.

Here we are focusing on the underworld of man caves, where nearly forgotten treasures are brought back to life. Of course, you have to know the right (meaning crazy) people, and I count it my luck to have a friend like Andy L.

Poor me only knows the 1812 Overture, but R knows about and collects Napoleonic-era Port! Pic from Chistie's.

Lady and the Tramp I
Back to R, sort of Andy's protege, whom we met two posts ago. I actually had heard his system one year ago, but it now sounds immeasurably better. Andy just told me they had completely re-aligned the Wilson Grand Slamm's recently. No wonder, that was a LOT of work!

Together with Andy L and his friend Simon, we met up again a week ago. Simon services dental equipment and together with Andy they fixed his Versa Dynamics 2.0. Damping oil was also added to the Walker Proscenium (older version). I brought along my Shindo Monbrisson (MM/MC) and Nagra PL-P (configured for MC). Brief Notes:
  • Jadis JPS2 (official link) This is classic Jadis and I know it well. My friend PH listens to digital only and he only uses the buffered input (here). There is not much on the net on this per se; the best is a French review with a lot of nice internal pics (translated here; original link in French). However, its phono equipped brethren, the JP80MC, long-time Stereophile Class A, has had more reviews. This Stereophile is worth reading, and I think it described the sound accurately - lush, but potentially sluggish with some material. vs Shindo Monbrisson I was a little surprised that the Shindo (my review here), which uses vintage components, sounded more alert, with more pointed rhythms. Note too that later Jadis' have a more modern sound. While googling, I was surprised to come up with one of my own articles that I had forgotten about - a Jadis Overview! Luckily, after a re-reading, I didn't feel any need to revise...
  • Lamm LP2 This is the original version using the great sounding but troublesome (prone to microphonics and noise) 5842/417A tubes. This tube was famously used by the late Arthur Loesch and emulated by DIY'ers. A variant claiming direct heritage is now manufactured by Tempo Audio (Stereophile review). As for Lamm, I had previously heard its excellent LL2 preamp, so I had high expectations of the LP2. R has the WE417A in them and surprisingly I heard no noise at all. Good as it was, I also did not quite hear the sinuous quality that WE can bring to the music. vs Nagra PL-P Surprisingly, the Nagra used as MC phonoamp was more neutral and even across the frequency spectrum, with more low-level nuances. This was with the AC engaged.
  • Stanton 500/Rockport Sirius II This must be crazy, and only Andy can come up with this kind of combo. A cheap and cheerful vintage cartridge on a reference level turntable! Isn't that Lady and the Tramp? Talking about Rockport, they don't make turntables any more and have basically nil service. I have a friend who waited years for a part to no avail, and who finally gave up. Although a little veiled, the cartridge is eminently musical and plays all kinds of music well. Even R said for long-term listening he prefers it to his others. Note that I have a coming report on another "DJ" evergreen, the Shure SC35X...
  • Versa Dynamics 2.0/Jan Allaerts MC2 This setup somehow did not quite gel with the resident phono amps during last visit. This time, we didn't A/B but it seemed to like the visitors. I can attest that the Jan Allaerts is a very even-handed performer, with nothing calling attention to itself. I don't think this is the kind of cartridge that will reveal its secrets easily, so I'd like to hear more of it.
  • Kondo IO-J/Walker Proscenium (not sure which generation) Here the cartridge arm is also wired with Kondo silver wire. Needless to say, the cartridge is used with its mate, the Kondo KSL-SFz step-up. Here too, the rig seems to prefer the MM section of the Shindo. A very live sound with good attack and presence.
R showed me his unbelievable wine cellar; the collection has great breath and depth. It was the first time I laid eyes on port wine from the Napoleonic era (when there was no sound reproduction)! He then cooked us a nice dinner, washed down with very nice wines. No, we did not get to taste the port...

Andy's downstair setup. Pic is from last year. Setup has much changed. See text.

Lady and the Tramp II
Remember before my last visit (last year) to Andy he told me he had a surprise for us, which turned out to be a Goldmund Reference turntable (reported here)? Well, I just visited him a few days ago and was surprised again, this time without prior announcement!

I walked in and was shocked to discover yet another Walker Proscenium (not sure which older version), not something the man would usually identity with. At the crazy price, there cannot be too many Walker's around, and I have seen two within the same week!

Now, what is its mate? Gentlemen, Lady and the Tramp, episode II! Another cheap and cheerful vintage cartridge, the Stanton 380! A new preamp too, the Conrad-Johnson Premier 2. Amps are still the Canary 300B mono blocks. The horn system has changed much. While the Altec A5 cabinet and 515 driver remains, the midrange and tweeter horns have changed to JBL. Sound of the horn has changed much for the better, now smooth and eminently listenable. Andy has deliberately set up the LR system for listenability, to make even bad records playable, reserving classical playback for upstairs.

Girl from Ipanema We spent a whole morning listening to old records, including some mono's, and everything was pleasurable. But two records impressed the heck out of me.

Everyone has heard the classic Getz/Gilberto album, the epitome of Bossa Nova. In this setup, against a perfectly paced rhythm (most systems are too insistent), I heard nuances in Astrud Gilberto's voice that I have never noticed before, as if she were whispering, murmuring, purring and puffing to me. Engaging stuff! After the languid moment, the duel between Ben Webster and Don Byas popped me out of my seat. Outstanding playing! We finished with just one classical piece, the Elgar cello concerto (Tortelier/Boult/LPO; a classic Bishop/Parker recording; EMI ASD). The frequency extremes were rolled off but it still sounded reasonably good. Mission accomplished for a system that can play even bad records. Andy is quite satisfied with the Walker/Stanton combo.

But do you know the story behind the song? It is an entertaining read, as it involves a real persona (here and here). I only just discovered it during some googling. This is one of the reasons why I write - I almost always learn something while researching what interests me. Don't you think that is better than being fed with jokes, pics and links on What's App that make you have second thoughts about your friends?

Andy's Upstair Systems After two hours (!) we broke for a simple lunch of dumplings, washed down with some wine, of course. Then we ascended the stairs to the main cave for some classicals. The main setup hasn't changed much since a long time ago (reported in detail here), except for turntable rotation. Menu du jour:

TT1 - Goldmund Studio with Monster Cable cartridge
TT2 - EMT 930 with EMT cartridge
TT3 - Goldmund Reference with Ortofon 2M Black
Phonostage 1 - Conrad-Johnson Premier 15, Nagatron Z Coupler X'former (for Goldmund Studio)
Phonostage 2 - Audio Research SP-10 (for EMT and Goldmund Reference)
Preamp - Audio Research Reference II Mk I.
Amp for Tweeter/Midrange column - VTL MB-450 monoblocks (8 x 6550 each)
Amp for Bass column - McIntosh MC-2500 (for bass column)
Loudspeakers - Infinity IRS Beta
We played the same Elgar LP, and sound was very good all around. All three turntable setups sounded different, but I did not spend enough time to accurately nail the characters of each. EMT is EMT is EMT, always enjoyable but not the last word in anything. I have heard the Goldmund Reference several times before; with the 2M Black (not quite run in), sound was detailed and more brightly lit, but without the subtle nuances a good MC can give (and without MC peak either), nor the emotive broader stroke of an MM. This occasion also marked my first encounter with the Goldmund Studio. This is an unusual beast, a direct-drive on a suspended chassis!!!  Andy says it has a very special sound, and Roy Gregory seems to think so too (in his survey of new direct-drives).

I can spend whole days at Andy's. Not a boring moment!

Note on Versa Dynamics In researching I chanced upon some of Andy's postings on Versa Dynamics in Vinyl Engine. I copied them below:

"..I use Versa Dynamics Model 1.2 and Model 2.0 on regular basis. I love their performance so much in my system that I would never think about parting with them.  

They were designed and marketed by John Bicht in the 80s. In fact, John still provides parts, manuals, and repair services for these units through his Versalab website. 

Model 2 came out first. It has a air-bearing platter with vacuum hold-down and a straight-line tracking air-bearing arm. Gordon Holt of Stereophile gave it a great review in 1987. Then followed Model 1 with an air-bearing arm and a vacuum platter with a very unusual bearing arrangement. The styling was completely different from the Model 2 which was quite a bit more expensive than the Model 1. Both models went through some similar modifications during their rather short life spans on the market.  

Both turntables come with separate controller boxes and huge air supply systems which need to be placed outside of the listening room. Compressor for the Model 1 is considerably quieter than that for the Model 2, but still not quiet enough to be placed nearby.

Both models use stepper motors and are belt driven. Both use a 4-spring suspension system. Major difference is that Model 1 doesn't have a air-
bearing platter. The arms are essentially the same in design and performance, although the one on Model 1 looks like a simplified version of the one on Model 2..."

tonearm pics: L, Model One; R, Model 2

"...Here are pictures of the two Versa Dynamics Arms. You can readily see the difference. Model 1 looks like a simplified version of Model 2 which preceded Model 1. There is a difference in the recommended air pressure level for each model. They sound different since the two tables are substantially different in terms of platter, plinth and base design. However, the major difference between the two is that Model 2 has a levitated platter. 

Although there was a eddie current damping device for the tone arm on Gordon Holt's review unit, there isn't one on mine. When asked, John Bicht said they decided not to implement it on the final product for fear of causing interference since it was so close to the cartridge. I'd love to experiment with one, but I have no idea how it's done. Maybe some knowledgeable members can shed some light on this..."