10 June, 2016

Direct Drive Turntables

Brief Overview: Direct Drive Turntables (with budget emphasis)

UNDESERVED BAD REPUTATION Audiophile Aversions Among audiophiles, direct drive turntables as a genre has a reputation of being hard-hitting, lean sounding, even crude or only for DJ's. Some of this is because the average audiophile only knows the cheaper Direct Drives or the ones intended for DJ use. Fact is, there were many esoteric hi-end turntables (except for EMT, majority Japanese) that are classics and coveted by connoisseurs. Another factor is due to the Linn-led suspended table, belt drive crusade (for it was really that) - any other methodology (including my favorite, Idler Wheel Drives) were deemed heretical and adherents burned at the stakes (spectacles even now staged on the internet). Motor Noise One of the important turntable design parameters is how to isolate the motor noise for a supposedly clear midband. Belt drives do this with relative ease (though a lot depends on how you mount the motor), but all the great direct drives have Herculean engineering to minimize this. It is all in the implementation. Why I like them While I'd not deny belt drives do have their own set of virtues, I have always liked Direct Drives for their speed, transients (much as you would for panel speakers) and slam. As noted above, I appreciate all kinds of design. Maybe a Direct Drive should not be your only turntable, but it should be one of several. The Direct Drive's Rhythm and Pace is different from the Belt Drive (or even the Idler Wheel), a little more insistent (even take-no-prisoner), less subtle, but undeniably exciting if you can tame its "undesirable" aspects. Another reason I like Direct Drives is because they are less cluttered, usually more compact and, though suspension-less, heavy for size. Also, Classic Direct-Drives are Screaming Bargains, because a High-Torque Direct Drive Motor is very expensive to develop and produce. Take the Technics SL-1200, its price (then and even now) is so reasonable only because it sold in huge numbers. By comparison, a second-hand Linn LP-12, with a cheap low-torque motor, is NOT innovative, and NOT a good buy!

Current Revival Fashion recycles; styles that have gone out of fashion all of a sudden make a comeback. This is no less true for audio. While belt drive still rules the analog hi-end (albeit in suspensionless designs mostly), tides are certainly turning for the Direct Drive, as in recent years quite a few new direct drive designs have emerged (Read the informative article by Roy Gregory in theaudiobeat). Many of those mentioned in the article have reviews on the net, and it is fun reading them, just google the manufacturer's name and direct drive. No doubt more is to come. Also, in Stereophile, Herb Reichert gave a rave review of the Pioneer PLX-1000, a clone of the Technics SL-1200.

 Drive Turntables - My Experience
  • Price/Performance Ratio Current vs Classics I'd be interested in comparing the current crop (pretty expensive, understandably) against the classics, say the cheapest and ubiquitous Technics SL-1200! Someday I hope... Classics vs Classics This gets more interesting. Disclamer: I don't own the most expensive ones, but since EMT's and classic Japanese turntables are popular in HK, I have heard a lot. If you stick to Technics, It is definitely true the more expensive SP-10 is better than the SL-1200. BUT, imho they are the bargains among quality Direct-Drives, maybe even "giant-killers". Some classic Direct Drives, like Micro Seiki, Pioneer P3(a), not to mention EMT's, command a very high price, but should you spend so much? Here is an anecdote: my friend Edward once asked Walt Bender, godfather of vintage gears, about EMT, and he said he thought the Technics SL-1200 is just as good, and totally under-valued. Well, take it with a grain of salt - aside from mechanics, they do sound quite different. Point is, for a modest outlay, one can get a very good direct drive design.
  • Technics SL-1200 General The most famous of direct drives is without a doubt the Technics SL-1200 and variants, in constant production for decades and a DJ staple. I need not further elaborate as there is a huge amount of info on the internet. Literally, millions have been sold (unique among "hifi" gears), and as a result, obtaining one is not difficult (though still escalating in value). Also, many parts are available, so refurbication is not a problem. Mods Given the underground cult (deserving imho) there are many hifi mods dedicated to them, chief among them KAB. But I think the most significant mod would be to replace the tonearm, a somewhat laborious project (guides available on the net). Re-Birth! The SL-1200 has been discontinued for a few years, but a completely updated anniversary edition, and maybe more, are coming the summer of 2016. It has just received a rave review from HiFi News (not yet on the net). This one is immortal! My Experience This is the one of two turntables that I have in both NYC and HK (the other is Thorens TD-124). For my own general experience see here, also here for matching with the incomparable Decca cartridge. Currently, in NYC I use it with my mono Denon DL-102 (here). All those combo's - how's that for versatility? The Technics SL-1200 is not as good as the SP-10, but it is mighty good! I have never heard a modified one, but I'd be curious. One day, I'd hope to go that route too, although I have to say, given my variety of experience, I don't think the stock arm is that bad!
  • SL-120 This is a curiosity, more for home use than DJ purposes. Unlike the SL-1200, it is not quartz-locked and the motor is an enclosed type (which some say is better). It has an armboard, which allows mating with any tonearm, an advantage over the SL-1200. If you see one with a suitable arm board for you, buy it! An after-market armboard costs a bit, and if you subtract that sum from your cost, the turntable really costs very little. I just acquired one in HK (SME board) and you shall hear more from me.
  • Technics SP-10 (top pic; info here) This is Technics at its pinnacle, and my personal favorite. The sound has bite, but is smoother than the SL-1200 - everything is just a little better. For my experience, see here and here (which includes a link to the Revox direct-drive). It is commonly said that the plinth is undesirable, but I personally have never heard feedback or unwanted noises emanating from that. That said, recently at my friend seng's place, putting Vibrapods under the feet dramatically improved the fluency of the sound. In HK, a noted audiophile, limage, has stuck with this TT for decades, and he gets good sound from it. This is worth all you can throw at it (if you are convinced your measures will work). Unfortunately, it is getting more expensive.
  • Audio-Technica AT-PL120/AT-LP120USB These are basically the same thing, with the current version sporting USB ADC for digitizing purposes (and reversing PL for LP). This is a blatant clone of Technics SL-1200. Although still massive at 27 lbs, it is made in China and not as sturdy as the Technics (one knock at the plinth's surface and you'd know; a hollow sound vs the Technics' dull thud - plastic vs metal). Perhaps it is too cheap (in street price) for its own good. For some reason, I have never formally "reviewed it", but my satisfaction can be gleamed from my experience with the Empire Cartridges (here) and Shure SC35C (here). Note here that for the last month, partly fueled on by Andy, I had been playing with MM's using this turntable. I cannot say things were as refined as my other more expensive turntables sporting MC's, but I can say I really did not feel much was wanting. I'd think there's no better testament to its value. Also, its built in phonoamp (MM) is not bad at all, making it a screaming bargain.
  • Taiwanese "Super OEM" Hanpin While researching, I read this: "...As vinyl began to wane as a mainstream format, Chinese (editor: Taiwan) company Hanpin produced the ‘Super OEM’ turntable, the most well-known model of which is the Stanton STR8-150, but which has been adapted and re-badged by numerous companies. What the Super OEM had in it’s favour, besides good build quality, was that it was the first deck to take advantage of the expiration of the Technics motor patent. So, finally, there was a Technics ‘clone’ on the market with truly similar performance.
    The beauty of the Hanpin design is that, working from a solid base with that motor, manufacturers are free to then innovate around that. So bell & whistle features like line-level output, reverse play, pitch correction, and digital pitch readouts have all appeared on Super OEM decks, reaching a zenith with the Reloop RP-8000 and it’s built in midi controls..."
    So, there it is. The Audio Technica AT-LP120(USB) is made by Hanpin. The aforementioned Pioneer PLX-1000 too (see Stereophile link above). Somehow, I doubt the more than twice as expensive Pioneer is built much better. I'd be most curious to hear the Pioneer though. I also would love to hear Hanpin's own copy (official link here). I wonder if Hanpin is one of the reasons why Technics ceased production of the 1200? If so, that is a bad thing!
  • EMT (950/948/938) I have never owned one, but they are popular among Asian vintage collectors. Hence, in both NYC and HK I have heard many (including the non-direct-drive ones, like the 927 and 930). EMT is well documented on the internet (try the wiki entry; stefanopassini, emt-profi.de and febtech.de). Most of the EMT's are not direct-drives and imho they are now way over-priced. However, the direct-drive 950 does have a fair claim to be the best direct-drive turntable. Although the price is sky-high one should keep in mind it was very expensive originally. As for the sound, it is hard to assess the turntable individually, as they are usually used with their own 12" arms and EMT cartridges, which like Ortofon's SPU's, have a full midrange sound that is noticeably not modern (which is what many prefer, but I have my reservations). In NYC, my friend Andy has a good 950 setup, and in HK I have heard the related 948 (here) to good effect. I have never heard the 938.
  • Goldmund Studio As mentioned in theaudiobeat, this is a classic, and a curiosity. The most interesting thing about it is that it is built by Audiomeca, with a suspended direct drive! I have heard one in my friend Andy's place to good effect.
  • Revox (790/791/795) These look very elegant. I owe the 791 (with a Shure cartridge) and the sound was lean and certainly take-no-prisoner! Unfortunately, it broke down (an often occurence) and I have yet to service it.
  • Micro Seiki Here is a very interesting article, with valuable links. Again, the brand is very popular in Asia. Micro Seiki made all sorts of turntables but the ones I have heard tend to be hi-end models, including direct drives. Somehow, most of them sound kind of mechanical to me. Not one of my favorite brand.
  • Pioneer I have heard several times (like here) the expensive and iconic P3, usually to good effect. However, I never got the feeling that it is much better than its much cheaper Technics brethens. That said, I have never used one myself.
  • Rockport Sirius III This is yet another all-out effort. I have heard it previously in HK to good effect. Anyone interested in direct drives should read this huge article in IAR. Note that Rockport is notorious for not supporting their old products. Thumbs down.
p.s. This article is not meant to be exhaustive, concentrating on my own experience mostly.

08 June, 2016

Headphone Fiio X-1 AuGlamour R8

Headphone: The Bus Ride
Review: FIIO X-1, Part II
AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones, Part II

Headphone Talk VI

Part I

Yesterday was yumcha day, and I travelled by bus. By the time I got home I had managed to listen to 9 Beethoven sonatas on my FIIO X-1. I used the AuGlamour R8.

Listening on the Bus
Like the UK, HK's buses are mostly double-deckers. Except for the stairwell, the upper deck is sealed and hence quite quiet in terms of isolation from outside noise, which makes it ideal for headphone listening. The MTR (subway) is in comparison less ideal.

I have only used the FIIO X-1 for a few weeks, and I usually only ride the bus on Saturdays, yet I have already listened to 2 cycles of Bach Cello Suites (Jean Max Clement, Jan Vogler) and 1 of his Solo Violin music (Amandine Beyer). Now I have started listening to Annie Fischer's almost complete Beethoven cycle.

What prompts me to write this article is that for at least two of the artists my perception of their playing through headphone is quite different from listening to the CDs on my regular systems:

In the case of Jean Max Clement, whose original L'Oiseau Lyre LP's cost a fortune, with my regular system I find the playing nuanced but too refined, ultimately a little flat and boring. With the upfront sound of the AuGlamour R8, I could relish more in the minutiae, subtle inflections and coloristic efforts. Indeed it seemed more lively and dynamic.

As for Annie Fischer's Beethoven, this is a rather idiosyncratic cycle, made late in her career with many out-takes and much editing. With my regular system, everything seem rather piecemeal, one moment (a few bars to a whole movement) of brilliance followed by something prosaic and unnatural. With the earphones, that feeling certainly does not completely go away, but one can revel more in her brilliance than her waywardness, making it a more enjoyable experience.

For the other musicians cited (Beyer's Bach, Vogler's Bach), the headphone experience is commensurate with listening to the regular systems.

I mulled on my experience and had a discussion with my friend whlee, who also once used earphones. We came up with some observations.

Thoughts on (Headphone) Listening
  • The On-The-Go Factor The average audiophile thinks sitting down in the so-called "sweet-spot", perhaps drawing the curtains and dimming the lights, makes for the best listening. While that is indeed a simulation of the "live experience", I ask what are we focusing on? There is no real performer to hold our breath for...we can concentrate on listening to the music, but it still is a far cry from the real venue. On-The-Go is different - we feel alive, partaker of our own fate. It is well known people, even seasoned listeners, enjoy car music. In what is basically a bubble, one can listen to NYC's WQXR happily while travelling to upstate NY. This is because while riding, we get a lot of stimulation from the scenery. In a way, not so different from watching a movie - think Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, where the music and scenery reinforce each other. That we enjoy it so much on the go does not at all mean it is better than our home setup - it is just different. E.g., overall, the Annie Fischer and Jean Max Clement are lacking in overall flow and coherence, but with the earphones one gets distracted by the heightened microdynamics, minute details and not mind so much the lack of flow.   
  • Near-Field vs Perspective While the headphone listening experience is for certain "near-field" ("near-head" is more accurate; how can it not be when we are wearing the cans on our heads?), it is not completely devoid of perspective, but no matter how good the phones are, they are still "near". Indeed, the sound is directly pumped into the ears, devoid of any reflections - absolutely no simulation of the live venue. Near-Field This is closer to the headphone experience, but not the same. Even a near-field setup in a room has plenty of reflected sound, though one may not be aware. Near-Field vs Mid or Back Row Perspective One can setup an audio system based on near-field listening (as studios do) or from a perspective farther away. Most home and hi-end systems gravitate more towards the latter. This would favor orchestral music and less so chamber and solo music. The headphone is exactly the opposite: The big music, Mahler, Bruckner, don't do so well on the earphones, but the smaller ensembles, jazz and chamber music, can do better. which is why I do not even load complex music onto my FIIO X-1.
  • Judging a performance Listening to earphones yields a different perspective, but it is not one ideally suited to evaluating the merit of a component or a performance - being akin to the kind of "Heightened Awareness" under the influence of drugs or alcoholThe musical examples cited above illustrate my view. As a corollary, "reviews" by head-fi sites are to be taken with a grain of salt, if not worthless.
  • Listen to More Music The whole point of using the media player and earphones is to listen to (catch up with) more music. A basic level of competency is enough. To make extravagant claims is ridiculous.
I enjoy my humble setup very much but have no desire to spend a lot more money for this kind of listening.

01 June, 2016

FIIO X-1, Logitech/Ultimate Ears, AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones

Image result for fiio x1 cnetReview: FIIO X-1, Part I
Review: Cheap Logitech/Ultimate Ears, AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones
Heaphone Talk V

Many readers ask me why I review so few Chinese products. Well, in terms of the serious high-end, many questions about quality control, component authenticity and aesthetics remain. I also detest copy-cat items: I'd rather buy a real 47 Lab than a me-too (or worse, "improved") gain-clone (I don't like the name clone, period), you get the idea.

But the portability market (computers, cellphones, media players etc) is a different issue altogether. SM components can yield good sound but have much less value for counterfeiters, and we ourselves don't expect them to last very long. In this arena Chinese products are fiercely competitive - indeed they should be, and they are.

Head-Fi for Me?
Good question. I occasionally use headphones. But I certainly do not do it often. If one refers to reproduction of the live event, Head-Fi is inherently inferior and low-fi, period. The current Head-Fi scene is to me regrettable. These fellows rate DAC's and phonoamps and more based on what they hear in cans. AND, manufacturers cater to them just to sell things!

My Headphone Experience Lest you think I know nothing about headphones, read my Talk-Headphone articles, where you know exactly where I stand vis a vis headphones and the head-fi scene. And I haven't even posted my impressions of STAX!

BUT, this article is different. It is very basic, and I make use of only two very cheap In-Ear's.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you where I use the setup. Occasionally on a long bus trip, sometimes while cooking...

The Chinese company Fiio has been making head-waves for quite a while. Their products have received great reviews.

Bach: Suites for Solo Cello 1-6Built What more can you ask for USD 99? I actually adore the black rubber outer casing.

Ergonomics Definitely not the best, but certainly good enough.

Image result for beyer bach amandineFile Hiccups I haven't read about this in any review. Many classical sets have more than one CD. The X-1 gets thoroughly mixed up when it comes to multi-disc sets. The pictured 2-disc sets got jumbled together: instead of playing disc 1, track 2 of the violin set after its track 1, it plays instead disc 1, track 1 of the cello set, and so forth. You have to create albums on the computer to counter this. Manually file all the violin tracks into album "Bach Solo Violin Beyer" and do the same for the cello under "Bach Solo Cello Vogler" (names mine). Then "browse files" and hit the albums you have created.

Classical listeners have long known this. CAS has never been for them. A huge amount of editing is required to get where you want.

Logitech/Ultimate Ears (UE) In-Ears (right pic) While its pro offerings are well documented, Logitech/Ultimate Ears' cheap in-ears are orphans left in the wild. Mine are USD 20, similar to these.

Fit With the right earpieces, these simply insert into the ears with no fuss. They do not quite completely block outside sound but are well sealed off enough to hear the music even on trains and bus (I personally want a little outside sound to come through, for safety reasons).

AuGlamour R8 Some time ago, there was an official site, but it seemed to have been hacked and is defunct as of this writing. Read the head-fi article for info and pics. Mine is the black, supposedly more "neutral" version.

I dislike the name. "glamour" is feminine in French, hence "la glamour"; "au" is masculine and incorrect;  "a la glamour" would be more like it though still unidiomatic. This kind of thing is exactly what irks me about the Chinese products! Instead of a simple, plausible name, why be pretentious?

A friend recommended these for RMB200 (around USD 30) so I got a set not even knowing what it is. The packaging is luxurious but I dislike the looks of these phones because they are blatantly copies of their more expensive counterparts (including UE).

Fit With the complicated ear-loop and weight, these prove surprisingly difficult to fit. The "luxurious" metal weight, liked by some, is asinine to me, tiring in the long term. The seal is reasonably good, but for my left ear I could never get them to fit perfectly. I do find these a little too heavy for my taste. After listening for an hour, the outer skin of my ears get a little sore.

Sonic Impressions
  • FIIO X1 No complaint at all. Except for the unfriendly interface for classical listeners (which is universal), it does what I'd like it to do. Sound is good enough, as it reveals recording differences and seems rather neutral to me. In NYC I did try it briefly with my Audio-Technica AT-750 and Grado SR80 phones, and it drove them with aplomb. I have the equalization OFF, but they are interesting (the classical one has bass boost). Recommended.
  • UE No complaints either. These have a very comfortable fit and sound is airy and good enough for most material. I did use it to listen to a radio (RTHK4) broadcast of Bruckner Symphony No. 4. There it proved a little too lightweight. But these shall be my casual/go-to average use in-ears.
  • AuGlamour R8 These need some run-in. Initially they are rather dry. The R8 stands out for ONE thing - a deeper and more powerful bass. The midband however is a little forward and the treble somewhat sand-papery in quality. In general, these sound somewhat shut-in. For casual listening, I prefer the cheap UE's. However, the R8  lends more needed weight and dynamics to the same Bruckner broadcast mentioned above. After almost an hour of Bruckner, the skin of my ears were just a little tired from bearing those metal weights. Overall, jazz fans, like my friend, may take to these more than I (bass impact, upfront sound).
I am glad to have both.