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
Preamp: Conrad-Johnson GAT MkII
Amp: Conrad-Johnson LP275
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia

Challenger Amp: EAR 509MkII
Challenger Preamp: EAR 912

  • 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.
  • 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!