16 April, 2017

Belden 9497, Part IV, 9497 vs 497 MkII

L: Japanese 497mkII; R: US 9497 (click pic to enlarge). pic courtesy of icefox.

Definitive Review: Belden 9497, Part IV
Talk Cable: USA Belden 9497 vs Japanese 497 MkII

See Part IPart II and Part III.

It is amazing how the humble US Belden 9497 has remained in my various systems for as long as I remember. I first wrote Part I in 2009, then Part II in 2012, and Part III in 2014. And now in 2017 it is time for the last one (ha!), as my dear friend Seng finally brought me some 497 MkII from Japan and I have used them for long enough to make some comments.

There are very few blogs/magazines that anally re-visit again and again what they deem worthwhile. For that I am proud. But the Belden deserves it, as many of us have never been able to find something better. Different, maybe; better, no.

Tested in my Kondo system.

Sonic Impressions

  • Air The US 9497 is airier in the high treble, more open.
  • Upper Midrange The Japanese 497 MkII has just a touch of hardness here, making the US 9497 a smoother listening.
  • Bass Similar.

  • The 9497 is the better cable, and cheaper!

09 April, 2017

Femmes Fatales, Soundtracks, Eva Cassidy, Beethoven

Music Diary: From Femmes Fatales to Dying Coffee Beans

Recently, a few albums made deep impressions on me, for different reasons. They are presented in the order they were heard.

Soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l'echafaud
This Louis Malle film (English: Lift to the Scaffolds or Elevator to the Gallows) stars Jeanne Moreau, who is on the cover of the original LP and subsequent CD releases (I have watched this film before, and it is a great one; see here). The soundtrack is by Miles Davis and his team, including Barney Willen on saxophone (for details see here). I re-listened to my CD simply because at HK's Pro Sound I saw a copy of a recent LP re-issue. I didn't buy it for 2 reasons: 1) I am not sure of the sound, it being DMM; 2) unlike my CD, which contains outtakes not on the LP, its B side actually has the soundtrack to another film (this time by Barney Willen), Un temoin dans la vie, similarly portraying a triangle that ended in murder. Now, for the real reason: the re-issue LP unfortunately chose the second film's sex-bomb Sandra Milo for the cover, and I just don't like it.

I got a bonus. I tried actually to find the film on my Mi TV box (but failed; I am sure it is on Kodi), but I stumbled upon a Japanese remake that I never knew about - the 2010 one by Akira Ogata. I watched it and it is equally excellent imho (rare for a remake). Watch it if you have a chance (Kodi has it - just search Elevator to the gallows).

If you have heard the new LP, let me know of the sound.

Audiophile Fave - The Accidental Pick-Up
Audiophiles prize themselves on hearing things others don't. Be it the NYC subway rumbling faintly during a Carnegie Hall recording, or something dropped during a session, they just go gaga. Ha! Proof of my hearing ability: during a visit to Lo (covered previously here), we heard his newest loudspeakers, the latest Avalon Saga (said to be non-diamond), which replaced the Magico Q7 MkII, with no detriment. Sound was very good. Proprius' Cantate Domino was rendered with the utmost detail and scale. But what caught me was Eva Cassidy's Live at Blues Alley. I think it was What a Wonderful World, where I heard an electronic buzz/interference in the recording. Now, this album is an audiophile fave and, while I don't have it (while I think she is good, I am not a fan; yes, Cassidy makes every song her own, but to me every song sounds the same), I have heard it numerous times in various audiophile systems. Suffice to say, I have never heard the extraneous buzz till now! Proof of his system's resolution.

While researching this article, I found that another audiophile fave in this album, Field of Gold, was linked to one of my absolute Goddess, Ice-Skating legend Michelle Kwan (and not because I am Chinese). This link connects it all.

Beethoven and Dying Coffee Beans
Just this morning I dropped by my dear classical friend Seng's place (system last covered here). I brought with me what I just got from the library, Harnoncourt's last Sony recording, Beethoven's 4th and 5th symphony with his Concentus Musicus Wien. Seng and his wife Carmen are both bookworms, and they enjoy reading, so I guided Carmen to the booklet, which was written by Harnoncourt himself. What a tremendous article that re-examines what constitutes Beethoven. What does he mean by Da-da-da-daa? Harnoncourt shocks you, but listening to the 4th was incredibly invigorating. Strings, brass (valveless horns) and tympani came to the fore, with recessed woodwinds, but what rhythmic drive and utter magnificence! A first choice and Album of the Year!

We heard it with the ICL as transport and Sonic Frontier SFD-2 MkII DAC. Great weight and foundation!

Last, why Coffee Beans? Well, Barista Seng made me a coffee, which tasted distinctively different from his previous creations, more run of the mill. That, attributed to dying coffee beans. I concur. But Harnoncourt's Beethoven proves Beethoven shall never die!

Cheers and Happy Listening!

22 March, 2017

Shure M44-7 Stanton Pickering 380 Empire EDR.9 Harman Kardon Citation I

L: Empire EDR.9; R: Pickering/Stanton 380, pics borrowed from the web.

Old MM/MI Cartridges: Shure M44-7, Pickering/Stanton 380, Empire EDR.9
Review: Harman Kardon Citation I (with Overview of the tubed Citation Series)
A Great Horn System
HiFi Basics: Re-Visit The Past
Letter from NYC (62) 2017 (1)

Heard in NYC but article finished in HK. This is a major article, but it took so long because most of the article was accidentally erased just prior to publication and I had to re-write the whole thing. Ah!

As a result of my relatively recent re-discovery of Empire 2000 series cartridges (here), I have been experimenting with older-design MM/MI cartridges. As I had been a long-term user of Shure (V15II-V), I started with the SC35C (here), and now the M44-7. Concurrently, my analog guru Andy L had also embarked on his own old MM/MI cartridge journey (to complement his downstairs horn system; see below), which took him to the Pickering/Stanton 380.

Mind you, even more than me, Andy had been there (the MM/MI era) before! We share the similarity that we had been mostly MC users in the recent decades (exclusively for me; though Andy had always used the MI Decca).

Three Vintage MM/MI Cartridges
  • Shure M44-7 Along with the Stanton 500, this must be the DJ cartridge of choice, and has been in production for the longest time. Quite the opposite of its stablemate SC35C, it tracks lighter (1.5-3 gm) and has much higher compliance. Mine is a vintage "gull wing" body. I then got an old original Mexican Shure stylus from the 80's and a Pfanstiehl 4759-D7. The output is very high at 9.5 mV, enough to overload some phonostages, so beware. The Shure M44-7 was actually what re-kindled Andy's interest in old MM design, though he now prefers the Pickering 380 (below). 
  • Pickering/Stanton 380 The history of the Moving Iron Pickering/Stanton 380 is quite complicated, and it has a cult following. Info on the web is quite piecemeal; google and read the Audiokarma and Audioasylum threads for some basic info. Andy generously let me play with one fitted with a red stylus and I tracked it as per Andy at 4 gm. This is a heavy (14 gm) cartridge with a low compliance stylus and so will likely do better in a heavier arm, which I lack. Output is even higher than the M44-7, as high as a whopping 15 mV, so overload is even more of a concern.
  • Empire EDR.9 While surfing Ebay for M44-7 needles I came across an immaculate specimen of this (with an extra stylus) and bought it on a whim. Google for a lot of scattered info (start perhaps with the vinylengine and audiogon threads). This MI cartridge was quite expensive in its days but the light body actually looks cheaper than the 2000 series; it looks like plastic but a French post says Carbon-Aluminum. This is a light cartridge which also tracks light (1 gm), and output is 4.5 mV. It can track Quad LPs but I am not into that. The engine is MI, and the LAC (large area contact) stylus is Shibata. The frequency response reaches an amazing 50k Hz.
Overview: Harman Kardon Citation Series (tubed)
Many moons ago (I think it was the early 90's; through the historic Audiomart) I started buying tubed vintage gears, like Eico and Citation. The Citation I to V were tubed products, designed by the legendary Stuart Hegeman just prior to the solid state era. I bought the Citation I and V in very good condition. A decade later in HK I chanced upon a cosmetically challenged but highly original II (which no one wanted). Have never had or heard the III (tuner) and IV (preamp, usually acknowledged as the lesser cousin of the I, but there are dissenters, like Jim Fosgate [see comment section below for link]). Here is a great original brochure on the tubed Citations. There is a lot of info on Citation "upgrades" and modifications on the net. As you know, I am conservative on this issue. I appreciate someone like Jim McShane (his classic and long running Citation Page) who keeps many units alive and offers selfless advice, but I don't think one should turn these classics into "super-units", as advocated by many other modifiers.

Citation I (original manual) This has always been regarded as top drawer vintage. No less a figure than Bob Carver used to service/upgrade this (see this very interesting cached link, particularly regarding the MC mod). This is a monster, built like a tank and with a total of 9 tubes (4 x 12AX7; 5 x 12AT7).

Over the years, I had fired up my bone stock unit from time to time. But, for some reason, I have never taken to it and preferred my modern preamps. This time though, things turned out a bit differently. It happened because Andy L wanted a vintage unit that could handle most of the pre-RIAA equalizations, and there are few units better equipped for this task than the Citation I. I fired mine up with CD and LP and was quite taken by the sound it produced in my current horn system. I didn't play with the equalization curves but I was instantly convinced by its rightness, even with the line input. Why the difference between now and then? Read on...

Citation V I bought this together with my I, and I have never regretted it. As a matter of fact, I regard the Citation V as one of my favorite vintage amps. I used the 7581 tubes and got really great sound. No, it did not have the ultimate bass control, nor the subtlety of Western Electric (or Motiograph), BUT it is certainly one of the best and most powerful 6L6 class amps that I have heard. It balances power and refinement, and it is suitable for amps from efficient horns to reasonably efficient modern loudspeakers. It is a little sweeter than its stablemate, the II. This is a sleeper. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.

Citation II In HK, in the late 90's, I chanced upon a cosmetically challenged but functionally great unit, which I bought for a song. It is utterly amazing, powerful and quite refined, even with Yugo KT90 tubes (haven't tried the current variants). If you want to use genuine KT88, Jim McShane has an easy resistor mod that will keep your valued tubes running longer. IMHO, this amp is absolutely tops and it is a shame that many boutique/garage operations had pilfered the world class transformers for their own (lesser) amps. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.

As an advice, don't buy an extensively modified Citation unit. Judiciously restored, yes; "upgraded", NO.

Equipment Used:
Analog: Audio-Technica AT-PL120
Preamp: Harman Kardon Citation I
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horns

Sonic Impressions
  • Shure M44-7 From the word go, my old specimen performed flawlessly. The 80's Mexican stylus sounded just a little better than the generic Pfanstiehl. It is bold and dramatic, yet a little smoother (particularly at the top) than its stablemate SC35C (but with less grunt in the bass). It plays music of all genres equally well, and I cannot think of a modern MM cartridge that can do the same (Ortofon 2M Red and Black sound good, but lack drama). Overall, except for hard rock, I'd give the nod to the M44-7 over the SC35C, but I reserve the right to change my opinion later. It's that close.
  • Pickering/Stanton 380 I tracked the red stylus as per Andy at 4 gm. It performed absolutely marvelously in my system. As Andy L had indicated, this is a cartridge that can play everything well. It has a unique smoothness allied to good resolution, certainly more refined than the Shure's, but with less perceived jump factor despite its very high output. The only drawback is a slightly reticent treble, which may actually be the character of the red stylus, as Andy's gold stylus seemed a little more sparkling (see below). 
  • Empire EDR.9 This is a completely different beast from the two cartridges above. Although it retains the Empire smoothness (a la 2000 series), its sound is amazingly modern, closer to MC's. BUT beware, This cartridge is VERY sensitive to VTA. At first I got a very lean sound, but proper adjustment proved rewarding. Another Empire winner.
  • Harman Kardon Citation I In contrast to my previous attempts, this time around this preamp sounded very fine in my horn system, partnered the above cartridges flawlessly, and revealed their different characters. This is what I call transparency. Its performance with digital is also beyond reproach. Why the difference this time? Read on.
Andy L's Wonderful Horn System
Andy's "Downstairs System", used for "casual listening" of old LP's, has remained much the same as last reported. Current Iteration:

Cartridge: Pickering 380 black body with D3807ATG stylus in gold color
Turntable: Walker Proscenium Gold Signature 
Preamp: Conrad Johnson Premier 2
Amp: Canary CA 300 w/Western Electric 300b reissued tubes
Loudspeakers: 4-way - JBL 075 ring radiators, JBL  2440 compression drivers with 2390 horns and baffled lenses, Altec 515b woofers in Altec A7 cabinet, Entec SW-1 active subwoofers.
Crossovers: JBL LX-5 and diy 7000Hz with L-pad
Interconnects: Monster Cable Interlink Reference A, Magnan Type Vi
Speaker cable: 16, 18 gauge zip cords, WE solid-core wires

With Conrad Johnson Premier 2 As reported before, the system was quite listenable and easy on the ears. Although I have not mentioned it before, I have always been bothered by something in the lower midrange/midbass - a lack of cleanness or resolution or perhaps speed. I suspect this had actually led Andy L to regard the system as "not good for classical", which I agreed with, UNTIL...

With Citation I We swapped in the Citation I and I was dumbfounded by the change. Whatever bothered me before with certain music just completely vanished. Not only did all the pop and jazz LP's retained their flavor, we even started playing one classical LP after another, and all were well rendered. My clarinet player friend Paul was mightily smitten by Richard Stoltzman's Tashi performances, now sadly neglected. The Stravinsky was my favorite, with bite and pizzaz. Hey, with one component change, this is no longer just an "easy listening" setup, but one capable of rivaling the "Upstairs System" (see link above) in classicals! I also felt Andy's 380 (with gold stylus) is a little more agile in the leading edge (than the red stylus in my setup), but this could also be a factor of his superior TT/arm (my Audio-Technica is not ideal, as detailed above). However, let it be known, with extrapolation, the difference is not that great and the red stylus is still a great one.

Thoughts on the Horn System with Altec 515 I confess to never liking the Altec 515. It does not go deep enough, but Andy ameliorates it with a subwoofer, which is exactly what I'd do, but that is what many "purists" would refuse to do. Despite its nominal efficiency, I have actually never heard it sound proper with a SET amp. Rather, the two previous setups which sounded better to me both employed higher powered amps: a full Altec system driven by a push-pull amp (McIntosh); and a rare successful 3-way electronic crossover, employing also massive PP amp for it. Andy's system (with the Citation I) is so far the only one I have heard that has the system driven well by a low-powered SET amp. Importantly, I think Andy's system taught me something about this famous/infamous driver. I think, what I have always disliked about this driver boils down to its cabinet coloration (I personally don't think the original A5/A7 cabinets are for home use; not much one can do short of draconian measures) and coupling with the midrange driver. The Citation I is obviously a great deal cleaner (less colored) in this critical crossover range than the massively capacitor coupled CJ.

Thoughts on Conrad Johnson I really cannot say much. I am going to do an Overview one day. I just think they are now on the wrong track. The Premier 2 is one of their older products, but I personally prefer their simpler and earlier PV series. Adding massive capacitors is not a solution (though one taken shared by other manufacturers, like BAT).
HiFi Basics/Food for Thought
  • HiFi Basics-Revisit the Past Again and again, my re-visits to things I had once left behind taught me a lot. Don't over-interpret this. By leaving behind, I mostly mean putting aside - if it is really crap, I'd have sold it, not put it aside. This is much like life. Whether wisely or not, we take detours, and we learn from our meanderings. Fortunately, with hifi, we can easily "make up the lost years", whereas with real life, one more often than not cannot do that: there are loved ones who we only later realized we had under-appreciated; there were opportunities we missed that would never come back. We play the same piece of music or watch the same movie, or re-read the same book, over and over, and each time we learn something new - this is because we have matured and progressed. As some sage said, time is wasted on the youth. But I say, we are never old enough, or not given the chance to be. No matter how smart you are, the world is not really "at your fingertips", and we all make mistakes, even simple ones! So, while it is essential that we hone our ability to judge, we must also reflect back on the correctness of the judgements we had made in the past or in haste. I have seen a lot of audiophiles who have never kept a single extraneous component, because they are so sure of their A/B judgement, but who ultimately had to completely upend themselves. There is really not much progress and no single piece of gear is omnipotent, and some take time to reveal their secrets. I shall write much more on this in my HIFi Basics series. Watch this space.
  • Vintage Preamp - A Reflection It is important to clarify what I mean by vintage preamp. The Citation I is actually a latter-day "vintage" that straddles the transition from tube to solid state. Perhaps for this reason, it has a neutrality that appeals to me now, particularly with my horn system. Citation I - My Feelings Now and Then So, why has my perception of Citation I changed? I mulled over this, and I can only come up with this: My previous use of the Citation I were with conventional, less efficient loudspeakers, not with horns. My super efficient horns brought out the best in the Citation I (and vice versa). I cannot remember clearly, but I know I never like to suffer slow vintage equipment. My YL horns are super-fast, and don't suffer from this. Vintage preamps are perhaps only for very efficient loudspeakers of their days, not for modern loudspeakers, which make them sound slow (they are).

27 January, 2017

Happy Chinese New Year!

Happy Chinese New Year!

Here I wish all my readers a Happy Chinese New Year. This year belongs to the Rooster.

Chinese New Year's Eve is the most important day of the year, meant for gathering of the whole family. But I chose not to attend a gathering and instead used the time to listen to a few pieces of music. Solo Bach (Isabelle Faust), Bruckner 6th (Karajan) and, best of all, uncommonly lucid Schubert Impromptus by Elizabeth Leonskaja, making for a quiet but very substantial evening.

Thanks for what all my readers have brought to me. I wish you well.

07 January, 2017

Kondo System Loudspeaker Matching LS3/5A Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM VP 47 Lab 4737 TAD TSM-2201 JBL Kondo S-18

Pic of system during evaluation. The Kondo system is connected to the loudspeakers on top, whereas the LS3/5A's below are driven by Flying Mole CA-S10 digital amp to the left of the M7. And No, the Pioneer's are not trapezoids (just lens distortion). Click to enlarge.

Kondo System Bookshelf Loudspeaker Matching: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP, 47 Lab 4737, TAD TSM-2201, KEF LS50, LS3/5A and JBL Subwoofer
My Kondo System, Part V
Review: Audio Note M7
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM, Part II
Review: Pioneer S-A4SPT-VP
Review: TAD TSM-2201, Part II
Kondo Ongaku SP (S-18) and Biyura
Letter from NYC (61) 2016 (17)

Revised Feb 3, 2017: For the last two weeks I inverted the loudspeakers, that is with the tweeter down. The effect is dramatic, and I am very pleased. This is added to the discussion in "Sonic Impressions: Effect of Placing Loudspeakers High Up"

Links to My Kondo System, Part I (background info on Kondo and Ongaku); Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience); Part IV (largely phono related, and Kondo preamp/amp were not used; skip if you are digital only)

The Evaluation took place in HK but the article is written in NYC.

pic: R: Kondo S-18 prototype from Positive Feedback CES 2007 Report; L: S-18 leaflet. Click to enlarge.

ENIGMA: What Loudspeakers for Kondo?
As with many SET amps, one of the major difficulties with Kondo is loudspeaker matching. Like most SET amps, ideally you really need efficient loudspeakers to get its best.

What Kondo san himself used and/or designed This must be what we ask first. YL I believe, in his earlier days, even before Ongaku, he was a horn user and involved in YL horn designs (my YL horn system here; I have yet to write more extensively on these marvelous creations and their superb sound). I have done a bit of research on YL, but there is not that much on the internet. I believe, like JBL and Altec, there were few official enclosures). Branded Kondo Since YL, Kondo san had designed many smaller loudspeakers but they are virtually unheard of. Kondo's official site has discontinued loudspeaker model names (but not info) accessible only via its Japanese page (here). Ongaku SP (S-18) The S-18 is composed of the M-18 full range unit (many Japanese designers, like 47 Lab, Sparkler, Air Tight etc, favor fullrange loudspeakers) and the M-1 tweeter (likely a first order crossover - just a cap). I did hear the S-18 many many years ago, when Kondo san himself attended a HK hifi show (organized by the now-useless magazine 發燒音響). In the smallish hotel room, it was among the best sound I have ever heard in a show. The Positive Feedback pic shown above looks however bigger than I remember. Also, this German site's Las Vegas 2008 report must be virtually what I heard. BiYura (Field Coil) Kondo san passed away in 2006. In 2011 the Biyura Field Coil loudspeaker was unveiled in various hifi shows, including that in HK, which I covered (here). As you can read, I did not like the sound then. For this article, I did an exhaustive search and it seems the Biyura made apperances in quite a few hifi shows, but none after 2014. As there is not even a mention in Kondo's Japanese page, I assume the BiYura remains a prototype, if not an abandoned project. I am curious whether Kondo san himself had a hand in its conception, or if it is solely Masaaki san's effort.

It appears: 1) Kondo loudspeaker systems are perpetually in a state of fluxalmost always in prototype stage, then and now. There may be multiple reasons for this: it is in keeping with most artisanal designer's tendency to forever tweak; also, many Kondo dealers also distribute other horn systems/efficient loudspeakers and hence may not be that interested in a Kondo loudspeaker (think Avantgarde in HK and Living Voice in the UK); 2) Kondo san likely was never completely satisfied with his loudspeaker creations (under the Kondo name). None ever remotely achieved sustained production (The S-18 and the Ruthy 4 perhaps were better known and had sold a few). Maybe Masaaki san is like that too with his field coil.

What Users and Dealers Use Aside from a few appearances by Kondo themselves using the S18 and Biyura, all manners of loudspeakers (not just horns) have been used in audio shows (to get an idea, google images using "Kondo hifi show"). My friend JC, Australian dealer (Audio 101) for Kondo, uses Avantgarde Trio and Tannoy Westminster. I have also heard an acquaintance's Kondo gears with Audio Note UK loudspeakers (sacriledge!). What I Use In my old house, I did not get to play that much with the Kondo's, but they did well with my Canterbury. In my current small abode, I could only manage to do it the way in the pic, which is why I actually carried out this not inconsiderable project of bookshelf loudspeaker matching, of which this is only the first report. 

Equipment used in Evaluation:

Digital: 47 Lab Shigaraki Transport/DAC
Analog: Pro-ject RPM1.3/Clearaudio Concept MM
Preamp: Audio Note (Kondo) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: as titled
Subwoofer: old JBL active subwoofer

Audio Note M7
The now discontinued M7 went through many iterations and is the most famous preamp of Kondo design (for the difference in versions, see my article here). All generations have similar chassis, internal structure and bespoken silver laden parts. This M7 you see in the pic is actually my second one. A few months ago I chanced upon this early unit and grabbed it because it is a full function preamp with a smaller footprint that actually slots into my IKEA shelf with room to spare/ventilate. As opposed to my other one (line only, 12AU7x2; last version), this one is a much earlier design, branded Audio Note but made in Japan, before Kondo san and Qvostrup split up and the latter founded AN UK (this is also why there are M6 and M8, but not M7, in their made in UK preamp lineup). This one uses 6072 in both the phono and line stages.

TAD TSM-2201
For info on these 86 db, 4 ohm sealed enclosure loudspeaker (8" woofer, the largest in this group), see my previous detailed TSM-2201 review. That review was when I first got them, and they were used upright. Subsequently I took them to my current abode and have actually also used them with Kondo (go to end of this sprawling article; used horizontally, on the same IKEA shelves but with them lying down, long sides parallel to the floor). The sound was excellent then but later I had to reconfigure, so the top of the shelves are higher now and I could only use them disadvantageously upright.

R pic: -PM; Lower L pic -VP

Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP
My initial impressions of S-A4SPT-PM, especially when compared with the legendary Yamaha NS-10, was not entirely favorable. They were likely not quite run-in at the time. Recently, after I decided to re-make my Kondo setup, I brought them to my current abode, where I first used them very satisfyingly on the desktop with 47 Lab Gaincard for quite a while. Sound was much better than at my old place, so they were probably finally run-in.
As I took to the PM more, I decided to acquire a used pair of its sibling, the S-A4SPT-VP. This is a slightly later and more expensive version with a different woofer (alleged to be TAD, though given the Pioneer/TAD duality, imho it is just a matter of semantics and marketing) and more luxurious finishing of ebony color. Both loudspeakers are likely of somewhat limited production, so in the West they are now only largely available through the internet (for a reasonable sum). The VP sold well in HK, but unlike the PM did not have any coverage in the West (only real online review is in Chinese, from Singapore).

Both are 84 db, 6 ohm loudspeakers with a 4" woofer, real wood enclosure and a small rear port. They differ in that the -VP reaches lower (spec'ed at 50-40k Hz vs the 60-40k Hz of the -PM). The -VP also has a higher crossover point than the -PM (4,500 Hz vs 3,500Hz). Despite similarity, they turn out to be surprisingly different in character (see below).

47 Lab 4737
These are also called the Lens Alnico or Lens II. All else being the same, it differs from Lens (also called Lens I or Lens MkII) (4722) in that the driver magnet is alnico. My initial impressions was favorable. Since then, there has only been one review in dagogo. It is an 85 db, 4-ohm  4" fullrange with MDF enclosure and a small front port. My pair is well used, obtained by trading my KEF LS50 towards them.

The 82 db 2-way with 4.5" woofer and sealed enclosure is arguably the most famous bookshelf in history and needs no introduction. In HK, after reluctantly selling my Harbeth to my good friend wss, I still have the Rogers (15 ohms, serial number 2xxx) in the pic as well as a rosewood pair of KEF (Raymond Cooke Edition, 11 ohms). I have been using them with my Flying Mole digital amp (the one next to the left LS3/5A) for casual listening, so they are in condition.

KEF LS50 This 85 db, 8 ohm loudspeaker with coaxial drivers is quite a famous loudspeaker now. See my reviews (KEF LS50, Part IPart IIPart III). I had traded them towards my 47 Labs 4737, and hence they are not formally part of this evaluation. Documentation of this period here. Note in the pic the Ongaku was used as an integrated (click to enlarge).

JBL Digital 12 Subwoofer
This is an early JBL active subwoofer I bought on the cheap in HK (in the US, the kind you can find in your local craig list for nothing). Aside from a pic or two (see here), there is virtually no info on the net. I did find its Frequency Response is 29Hz to 150Hz. Adjustable Crossover Frequency is 50-150Hz. Just a bulky veneered black box with no legs, it is rather old fashioned in looks and lacks sex appeal. I have it upright, with its 12" paper (my preferred cone material) woofer the large port underneath firing backwards. I use the hi-level rather than line input (I always do; you don't want to corrupt the output of a good preamp!). Previously I had used these very effectively with larger JBL loudspeakers (here). In most ways I prefer them to the subwoofer that I have, the REL Strata III.

Sonic Impressions
  • Audio Note Japan M7 Line Although the sound is similar to my later Kondo M7 (described here), it is not quite the same. In this older M7, the "silvery" treble is still there, but less pronounced, reinforced by a somewhat warmer midrange (some may prefer this). My later unit is on loan to a friend so I cannot yet do an A/B comparison. Phono This being a used unit, the 6072 tubes are a bit noisy. Using Stefan Ashkenase's excellent performance of Chopin's Piano Concerto No. 2, which I happen to have on both LP and CD, the LP just mercilessly killed the CD. Don't forget the 47 Labs digitals cost many times more than the Pro-ject analog rig! Part of this is the intrinsic superiority of analog, but the gulf is so wide that one has to conclude that this phono section is of the utmost quality.

  • Kondo Ongaku as Integrated and Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku In My Kondo System, Part III I detailed the difference between using the Ongaku as an integrated amp and as an amp with the M7 as preamp. That was in my old house, with Tannoy Canterbury HE. At the time, I found it a toss up. Then, in the smaller abode, configurations changed several times. First: Ongaku + M7 and TAD Long before this evaluation, from 2012 to 2014, I had actually tried both ways with the TAD TSM-2201 (see above). I briefly chronicled it near the end of this sprawling article, although I failed to mention that this time around adding the M7 as preamp was better than using the Ongaku as integrated (too bad too that I had accidentally deleted the pics - will have to restore them later). Then in 2014 I had to reconfigure the system to: Ongaku as Integrated due to lack of space on top of the now erect shelves for the Kondo M7 (article here, showing the KEF LS50 used at the time). During this period, I traded the KEF LS50 towards the 47 Labs 4737 (R pic; click to enlarge). Then in late 2016, after I acquired the Audio Note M7, the system became Ongaku + M7 and Loudspeaker Rotation With the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. The sound improved to the extent that I decided to test out all the small loudspeakers I have.
  • Effect of Loudspeakers Placed High Up The shelves are the IKEA Kallax. When prostrate (30.375") the height is quite suitable for placing bookshelf loudspeakers. However, when used erect (57.875") the shelves are too tall for a sitting person. The resulting sound would have 1) less bass; 2) a leaner balance; 3) soundstage and imaging that are a bit too high up (which is better than too low, like the ESL-57). These drawbacks can be minimized, but not erased, by listening standing up and further away. Tilting the loudspeakers forward can lower the height a little too, but not by much. More effective would be to have the loudspeakers one shelf lower (except for the TAD), but I have yet to try that. The higher position I reckon also has the advantage of a little less boundary effect. As we know, many audiophiles are anal-rententive when it comes to the listening position, imaging and soundstage, and will sneer at this kind of setup. While I am not against those values, in general I want to be able to listen to my system no matter where I am in the room - a well dispersed rather than a narrowly focused sound (ESL being an example of the latter), which all my systems can do. Addendum Feb 2017: As of Feb 2017, I now have the speakers (currently LS3/5A) "upside down", that is with the tweeter beneath the woofer. This brings the tweeters down by at least 6 inches. The result is quite remarkable. Even though the tweeters are still way above "ear-level", they seem to have entered a "comfort zone". The imaging is bigger and more natural, the panorama wider and closer to the real experience. Most noticeably, big orchestral pieces seem more at ease, and I find myself playing a lot more Bruckner and Mahler. With the woofers higher, there is less bass and cabinet resonance (see below) and the subwoofers need to be turned a little higher up in volume and crossover point, easily achieved. Marvelous!
  • Isolation/Cabinet Resonance As the shelves are not the sturdiest and as the loudspeakers sit on the same surface as the electronics, one can expect some resonance. However, since the loudspeakers have small woofers, except for the larger and fuller bass of the KEF LS50 (a large rear-port too) I did not hear much resonance/smearing. Nonetheless, I inserted slabs of industrial absorbers (gift of wss) underneath the loudspeakers. The effect is not as audible as under my Yamaha NS-1000M, leading me to think these work better for low bass, which most bookshelves lack. The 47 Labs transport has its own isolation platform, whereas the Kondo Ongaku is too heavy for devices. Underneath each of the three pointed feet of the Pro-ject turntable I put a small slab of Japanese made gel-like polymer (which they place under items to prevent sliding; sold in home stores in HK). Here I'd like to mention the lower shelf again. The LS3/5A (side panel separated from bookshelf wall; base decoupled a little with small crumbs of egg carton) has a little more audible resonance here than when on the top shelf, BUT the resonance is benign, indeed beneficial, as it actually re-inforces the bass, making the loudspeakers seem a little larger. One is reminded of the BBC and LS3/5A cabinet design principals of not using very thick (real wood, not MDF) panels and letting the enclosure "breathe". I have long been a fan of classic BBC design, and all in all think the IKEA shelves work remarkably well. My friend jules came by and without prompting thought the same thing. There are audiophiles who are fanatical about "isolation" but my experience is that in most cases they tweak away most of the music. Don't try to control everything, you can't; instead only concentrate on the harmful (meaning "audible") resonances. Heresy? So be it.
  • TAD TSM-2201 Despite having the largest woofer in the group, placed high up and used upright, the TSM-2201's sound lacks heft, and is indeed a little lean, more so than previously (see above). Reflective of the spec's, at the same volume setting, the 2201 actually plays a little louder, but that is no indication of true efficiency, as the sound tightens up more than the others at higher volume, a sign that more power is needed. To a certain extent, this can be eased by lowering the volume of the Ongaku (10 o'clock, vs 11-12 o'clock for the others) and cranking up the volume of the M7. On the other hand, given its provenance as a monitor, it is no surprise that the sound is significantly more accurate than the others in the group, especially when it comes to classical music playback. It is also true that sealed box monitor designs usually sacrifice bass extension and weight for a flat bass response, not the case for all the others in this evaluation.
  • KEF LS50 This is based on memory. The LS50 and the TSM-2201 have by far the largest enclosures in the group, yet the LS50's are easier to drive and their smaller 5.25" woofers, aided by rear ports and higher impedance, pumps out a lot more bass than the TSM-2201's (8" woofers). Sound was good but, with the rear ports really too close to the wall and the more prodigious bass, resonance was an audible problem. Too bad I could not have them in-room.
  • 47 Labs 4737 When I substituted these for the LS50 I immediately got a cleaner sound, and they were what I used for this system until well after I got the Audio Note M7. Coherence was a given (this is a fullrange) and there was no audible box coloration. Rhythm and pace were very good too. Bass weight and extension were surprisingly good. As the dagogo reviewer noted, treble is on the smooth side, but that is no problem with the Kondo system. They however don't play as loud as the Pioneer's (see below).
  • Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP As soon as these replaced the 4737's I knew I was onto something. -PM The sound immediately opened up. The soundstage is large and airy. Macrodynamics was very impressive for such small sizes! Extension at both frequency extremes were very satisfying. Although these are reasonably neutral transducers, the TAD TSM-2201's rendering of instrumental timber and microdynamics are better still. Also, rhythm and pace tend to be a trifle literal. Nonetheless, overall they are very satisfying. -VP In comparison with the -PM, the -VP has even better bass extension and perhaps neutrality. However, after listening to a lot of music, I found myself missing something. It took me  a while to point my finger at it: despite its hifi virtues, I was not enjoying the -VP as much as the more loose-limbed -PM! Then I tried out the -VP on my desktop with Micromega MyAmp. Bingo, with its excellent bass weight and extension, it makes the perfect desktop loudspeaker! It is staying in the study.
  • LS3/5A While the KEF 11 ohm is a little sharper than the Rogers 15 ohm, goes a little deeper in the bass and plays a bit louder, the difference is not that great (less than between the 2 Pioneer's). The real surprise (actually not) is that the Kondo system drove them very well (contrast this to the 86 db TAD). Neutrality is as good as any in the midband, less so in the treble and midbass (the famous hump). They resolve more than the Pioneer's, but less than the TAD TSM-2201. Its rhythm and pace is good but transient response is a trifle slower. Dynamically it is just as good as the Pioneer's. But what really catapults it to the top is a hard to define engaging quality, an ability to involve the listener.
  • JBL Subwoofer Encouraged by the dynamic result of the Pioneer's, I thought of adding a subwoofer to augment the bass. As these bookshelf speakers all do not go very low, for the Crossover Frequency I usually start at roughly at 75 or so (there are only indications for 50, 100 and 150) and work my way up. For this group, frequently the best sound is around 100Hz (I usually prefer higher to lower; some others the other way). Then I'd set the volume. Usually just a small turn (say, turning from starting point 7 to 8 or 9 O'clock) will suffice. Sometimes I needed to go back and forth a couple of times between volume and crossover frequency to achieve the best result. When properly dialed in: 1) I don't "hear" the subwoofer, but 2) I know it is working if the orchestral bass is suitably (but not overly) reinforced (maintaining the right timber); 3) the lower pitched instruments gain body, and this help to lower the soundstage and imaging a little. If I put my fingers on the subwoofer driver, it vibrates very little, but the effect, on music like Messiaen's Turagalila, is astonishingly big. Now, besides chamber music, which the Kondo system has always played beautifully, I play this piece, and my favorite Mahler and Bruckner, with sufficient satisfaction that my other rig with the big Yamaha's are getting less play.
  • Audio Note M7 + Kondo Ongaku As mentioned, in contrast to my experience in my old house and with my large 15" 8 ohm Tannoy Canterbury HE (here), with the more inefficient small loudspeakers, there is no question that the addition of the Audio Note M7 injects significantly more vitality into the system. This is because 1) compared to the 96 db Tannoy, the small loudspeakers are 10-14 db less efficient; 2) the Tannoy has a much larger woofer that gives heft, and the smaller loudspeakers are placed high up. Although addition of the subwoofer helps a long way, it does not a 15" woofer make; 3) driving power of the Ongaku is limited. Gain/Volume Used as an amp, the volume setting of the Ongaku is critical to the sound, and it varies with the loudspeaker used. With the hardest-to-drive TAD TSM-2201 (despite its 86 db spec being the highest in the group), which tense up when cranked up, the volume setting of the Ongaku is the lowest in the group. All the others more or less have the same higher setting. The process of employing the Gain and Volume is similar to using them in preamps that have both (think some vintage ARC and MFA preamps). Loudspeaker Impedance Based on the next entry, I think it is fair to deduce that the tubed Ongaku prefers higher impedances. Loudspeaker Efficiency It goes without saying that the Ongaku is best used with loudspeakers of as high efficiency as possible. I'd love to match it one day with my 104 db YL horns. I am sure that would completely outstrip Tannoy, not to mention the likes of Avantgarde.
  • 47 Labs 4737 In this system, the overall performance of the 4737 (4 ohm), although very good, lags behind the Pioneer's (6 ohm) and LS3/5A's (11 and 15 ohm). I have to mention that I do think they sound better with its original mate, the solid state 47 Labs Gaincard (maybe a future report; this is in keeping with the dagogo review cited above, which prefers solid state to tubes). The 4 ohm impedance is harder to drive with tubes (same for the 4-ohm TAD TSM-2201; and remember 47 Labs is NOT a tube company). 
  • Pioneer S-A4SPT-PM and -VP The dynamically loose-limbed performance of the -PM is an absolute delight. In this system, dynamically it trumps the LS3/5A but its overall performance suffered just a little because of its somewhat literal rhythm and pace. That is still better than the over-controlled -VP, which I think is better for solid state.
  • LS3/5A More than any of its rivals, the virtues of the LS3/5A are many and more evenly distributed, and its faults are minor. As mentioned, the real surprise is that the Kondo system drove them very well (not the case with even more flea powered SET's). Its 82 db sensitivity is the lowest in the group, but it is audibly just as efficient as the others. Although it needs enough watts, the impedance curve of the LS3/5A is benign and it is not a current-hungry transducer (see JA's measurements in this mega-article in Stereophile).
  • Subwoofer Many audiophiles like to have a sacred cow to hold on to. Count among this group LS3/5A worshippers; ESL and ribbon die-hards; Shun Mook sect, the list goes on...most of these people would never use a subwoofer, because it would "corrupt" the "purity" of what they worship. Bag of nonsense. In my opinion, in audio the only that matters is the end resultThe serious classical music listener needs to have the lower octaves, and with smaller loudspeakers, the subwoofer, properly implemented, is a necessity. But care is needed. I'm not saying adding a subwoofer is an art, because it is not; but it'd be wrong if one wants to "clearly hear" the subwoofer - rather, one wants to "feel" it. Less is more.
  • How Good Is it? I am not the one to say, but I will tell you my classical music friends jules and Seng (you have met them before; or you can search my Blog) both highly approve of the system (with subwoofer on). It won't on all fronts beat the WE/Yamaha setup, but at least it is on a more equal footing, with virtues its own. What I can say is, even with my humble bookshelves, I think I am getting more out of Kondo than I have ever gotten, and more than some other similar Kondo systems that I have heard. YMMV.
  • What's Next? Of course, I'd love to have my shelves prostrate (lower) again, but that would take some time. Meanwhile, I intend to test out my Pioneer SP-BS21-LR (Andrew Jones design), Yamaha NS-10 and Dayton Audio B652 (I will take a pair back to HK). With the subwoofer entrenched in the system, it would prove very interesting!
Postlude: A Reader's Question I was asked: "...if possible I would like to hear how you came to obtain such a prized 'holy grail' audio component as the legendary Ongaku? I know your blog is geared towards the more affordable spectrum and "bargains", so seeing the Ongaku in your set up always made me curious to how and when you acquired it..."

Difficult Question to Answer Actually I don't spend big money easily, though my Western Electric stuff are even more expensive than Kondo. Well, curiosity got the best of me, perhaps. That would be the simplest answer.

In reality, it is not a good piece to own. In many ways, Kondo does not reveal its secrets easily, and I have heard some suboptimal Kondo setups, including dealers and sometimes my own. This led people, including some friends, to want to find any excuse to put Kondo down. Of course, many SET amps face this too, as they are immediately disadvantaged by their low power. It is also true that much cheaper SET amps, like Wavac and Verdier, not to mention even cheaper Sun Audio, deliver much more performance for the buck. Kondo is definitely of low C/P ratio, though not because of its performance, but because of its price. Kondo's unique virtues are unfortunately of subtle nature, not easily revealed to the casual, not to mention the skeptical, listener. I kinda agree with what someone said this about Kondo: "...The Kondo sound is not the most dynamic, it is not the most accurate, nor is it the most realistic sound which I have heard. Yet, there is something very seductive about the Kondo sound that once it gets into your head, you will have a very hard time getting it out..." (from dagogo).

As expensive and coveted as it may be, Kondo is in some practical ways actually both hifi and ANTI-hifi. It silvery nature can be "hifi" sounding - too bright if matched with the wrong ancillaries. Its "anti-hifi" nature is that it doesn't really go well with much of modern "revealing" hifi equipment; also, playing every loud and dynamic hifi discs to impress the crowd is also not its virtue. In my opinion some Kondo systems are ruined by not realizing this dual nature. Rather, Kondo will reward those with an intimate connection to the myriad and subtle aspects of music (same case for Western Electric, and there are many bad setups too).

Another interesting thing is, as "legendary" as Kondo may be, aside from show reports, there is really not much written about them (in English). Maybe I bought Kondo just to contribute to the literature! :-) Question answered?

03 January, 2017

Editor's Note: Problems with Setting the Page, Error Messages

Editor's Note: Problems with Setting the Page, Error Messages
Letter from NYC (60) 2016 (16)

For quite a long time now, I am having problems writing and revising my Blog:
  • Usually there is not a problem the first time I write (except when occasionally pasting a picture).
  • Problems with Revising a Post or Column From the second time on, when I alter the layout, change links, paste pics, cut and paste, etc. often I 'd get an ERROR Message about incompatibility of http with https. Like this:
  • This page contains HTTP resources which may cause mixed content affecting security and user experience if blog is viewed over HTTPS. 
  • I can DISMISS and store or publish, but sometimes I get bizarre results that I cannot rectify no matter how many times I re-set or re-type:
  1. Problems with Fonts and Font Size Whole passages can be resized, usually to a smaller type. Sometimes italicized. I cannot over-ride this no matter how I try to re-write. Scroll down to my Dahlquist DQ20 article - many of the small prints are not by design!
  2. Problems with Font and Background Color Sometimes I cannot get what I want. The passage in question will get a color used somewhere else in the article. Scroll down to my JBL L20T article - the light grey background of many paragraphs are not wanted!
  3. Alignment Problems Look at my equipment list. Some paragraphs have unwanted indentations.
I am not a computer savvy person, so any help would be much appreciated. If you can help, please post under Comment!

01 January, 2017

Patti Smith

The Music of Patti Smith
CD Recommendation: Pop
Letter from NYC (59) 2016 (15)

-Patti Smith Official Site
-Detailed Wikipedia Entry
-How Does It Feel Patti Smith writes in the New Yorker after singing to honor Bob Dylan in the 2016 Nobel ceremony

Patti Smith, as much of an artist as she is, is actually not very well known (certainly not in audiophile circles, where I have never heard her CD's). Most who have heard her name does not really know her works, be it music or writings.

It was poetry that brought Patti Smith to Rock. The music started as something to add texture to her poetry recitals (including at St Mark's Church). If one does not read her lyrics, which are poems, one does not know just how great they are. If you ask me, her more elliptical way with words is as worthy of the Nobel as Bob Dylan.

In my youth, I had listened to her most famous album, Horses, but didn't take to its sharp edge, and none of the songs had a good hook. It was not until this year that my interest in her was revived by her books Just Kids and M Train, both masterpieces, the former a recipient of the National Book Award. I read a lot about her and bought a few of her CD's. This time in NYC, I went through them all.

Early Works The sharp edge of both Horses (1975) and  Easter (1978) still can be grating, but this time, more than thirty years since I heard the former, as a vastly more experienced listener and admirer of her prose I paid a lot of attention to the lyrics, evaluated them as a whole and found a lot more. While these albums certainly will not make comfortable background listening and not recommendable for most audiophiles, they are very layered and rewarding in the long term. Even this time, the first round of listening still unsettled me a little. It was done on the living room's Linn system, with Lin Kan loudspeakers. After I swapped the Linn Kan's out for the JBL L20T (here), the albums just became much more listenable. So a warmer and heftier sound would suit these albums.

Late Works Smith's late works are understandably completely different from her early works, but neither are they in the same mould. Gone Again (1996), written after the death of her husband, is mostly elegiac and strangely beautiful. Banga (2012), her latest album, is made of lighter material, atmospheric and, for lack of a better word, poetic. I can imagine an ECM lover liking this album - why not, as it has just as much atmosphere, but much more depth! A sleeper is Twelve (2007), a covers album that serves to illuminate the fact that Smith is an excellent singer. As on all these albums, she knows how to modulate her voice to achieve various shades of emotions. All three of these CD's have excellent sound.

Patti Smith was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. Read the above wiki entry for her numerous other awards for her contribution in the arts and her humanitarian efforts. She ranks 47 in Rollingstone 100 Greatest Artist list (a great read as it was written by musicians and people in the industry, with contributions by many famous names).

After reading her prose and hearing these CD's, I worship her. It would be hard to find another more unassuming person of greater accomplishment in the arts. There are prettier and more glamorous stars, but few more beautiful people. Perhaps I write this to say Happy New Year to Patti Smith!

Something that has nothing to do with this article: I chanced upon this Jennifer Warnes Interview that is about another of my heroes, Leonard Cohen.