30 December, 2016

2016 in Review

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

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

A belated Season's Greetings!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2017!

28 December, 2016

Review: JBL20T 4406

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

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

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

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


Impressions

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

26 December, 2016

Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ20 Totaldac Luminous Audio Volent



Left, DQ10; Right, DQ20.

Overview: Dahlquist
Home Visit: Dahlquist DQ-20

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

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

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

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

Speakers Visit 2: Dahlquist DQ-20

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Viva Dahlquist!

20 December, 2016

Stax SRS-2170

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

My attitude towards Headphone is described in Headphone Talk I

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

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

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

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

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

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

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