HiFi Basics V: Transparency, and Neutrality - How do you Judge and How Much do you Want?
Letter from NYC (64) 2017 (3): Tube Buffers and Transparency
Addendum (10/28/17): Part II has been published and contains extensive further testing and system matching (to great effect). Must read.
Modern Line Level Signals theoretically only need attenuation and not gain before going into the amplifier. Yet many people, including me, prefer the sound when a preamp with gain is used. Passive attenuation more often than not just sounds anemic and rhythmically lackadaisical.
While I am not a fan of Passive Preamps, due to my interest in WE, and use of certain high-gain "preamps" (WE106, Langevin 102) I do have an interest in signal attenuation, including Tube Buffers with Unity Gain (misnomer; actually = no gain) and volume control. The Schiit Saga and the iFi iTube and Elekit TU-8500 that I am comparing it to all have this functionality.
The Saga (official info)
This recent Schiit offering caught my eye because of the relay-switched 64-step attenuation (1 db each). Purists and most DIY people would shudder at the fact that the resistors are Surface Mount (SM) Components, but I am open because I have heard a lot of excellent components that employ SM technology, even when it is its in its early years. I am intrigued too by the hybrid BJT-Tube Buffer. There is no press review as of this writing; info is even scant in the forums.
Ergonomics This is one cool component. I enjoy the remote control function, and for the first time can control my Reference System I from the chair. It is great also to have as many as Five Inputs and Two Outputs. The build is superb.
With/Without Tube Buffer In every configuration I tried below I switched the Tube Buffer in and out. The difference is very subtle, with just a little more bloom buffered; so please note then for the purpose of this article, the Saga is always Buffer On in my systems.
Tube Rolling The stock tube (Russian 6H8C) has always sounded lean to me, but it is well implemented here - substituting old stock 6SN7's smoothed out the sound just a little, but not by nearly as much as a traditional tube aficionado would like I am sure. I use an old GE or Magnavox for a touch of warmth.
Vibration Control Vibrapods under the feet, as usual, bring improvements.
Run In The Saga came batting out of the box, but it certainly benefits from running in. For 2 weeks I could hear it smoothing out a little. I actually question whether one can fully run it in - I presume it employs a two-resistor ladder; given that we only use a limited part of the range with a given system, there are going to be a lot of resistors idling. This would be of particular concern to someone like me, who swaps things in and out, though that itself will likely run in more resistors.
First Experiences In Reference System III
- Equipment For details of this System, please refer to my Equipment List (Sidebar on the Right). Amp employed was the Elekit TU-8300 (300B SET amp). Speakers were large bookshelf Almarro M-1A.
- Saga as buffer, vs Elekit TU-8500 Although the TU-8500 is a full function preamp, I only use its extra feature, as an attenuator/tube buffer. When swapped, the difference was immediately noticeable - the Saga was more transparent but also obviously leaner. Certain LP's played on the Thorens TD-309 Turntable with AQVOX 20CI phonoamp sounded a little lean, particularly in massed strings and tutti. Overall, it was enjoyable, but the leaness nagged at me. Saga as Preamp However, when I bypassed the tube preamp (Langevin 102) and drove the amp directly, the Saga was definitely too lean for me. On young Pollini's classic EMI Chopin Concerto recording, the massed string swells were just too wiry. This would not be the case had the TU-8500 been in use. But read on...Addendum (10/28/17): See link above.
- Saga as Buffer, vs iFi iTube I briefly swapped in the iFi as a tube buffer. The result was much the same as with the TU-8500. Used as buffer, the iFi is tonally even more resplendent than the TU-8500. If not for its lack of input (one and only one) I'd use this in the system.
- Equipment For details of this System, please refer to my Equipment List (Sidebar on the Right). In this station I do not use a buffer and so I only tested the Saga as a Preamp. Amp was the Wavac MD-811. Speakers were the YL 4-way horn System. The system runs a very long interconnect (~15 ft) from the preamp to the amp. For source, I used mainly my Audio-Techinca AT-PL-120 Turntable with my newly acquired Shelter 201 MM Cartridge and Schiit Mani Phonoamp (reviews of both to come).
- Saga as Preamp The Saga immediately impressed by its transparency, but what I really marveled at was that, despite the long interconnects, there was no audible detriment to the frequency response, particularly high frequency. In this case, one would think the tube buffered output would easily be superior to the passive output, yet I struggled to hear differences. In this system, sound is usually warmer than in System I, but I could still detect a trace of grain in the treble with the Shelter 201 cartridge. However, this was easily compensated by its virtues, which include a surprisingly fast Leading Edge and very good, even startling, Dynamics, particularly at mid-volume. Regarding the last point, it should be mentioned that dynamics at low volume is not as impressive, but still a lot better than many a passive preamp. The Saga clearly prefers sources with strong outputs, as evidenced by: 1) the improved sound I got when I switched the Mani's gain from 40 db to 46 db, level matched; 2) the further improvement I got when I switched from the Mani to the Parasound JC3 (47 db gain, and a different league). Overall, I was quite satisfied.
- To double-check on myself, as well as to get an even better handle on the Saga, I took it to Andy, the sound of whose system I know well. Equipment Essentially unchanged from previous visit.
- Saga as Preamp The Mani now served as the phonoamp, and the Saga replaced the Conrad Johnson Premier 2. As would be expected, the Mani/Saga was not as full bodied as the CJ, but it was more transparent and possibly more balanced, particularly in the bass. As I know Andy's system to be somewhat more forgiving than mine, I was not surprised that the treble grain I sometimes experienced before in my own systems was less in evidence. All in all, a fine outing.
- So far, the Saga performed the least well in this system, and I thought about this. I know the System is tightly titrated and geared towards very low level listening in the early morning, so some of the components in this system tend to be a little on the lean side and I have gone on records saying so. This is true of the AQVOX 20CI phonoamp ("...the neutral sound of the AQVOX is discernibly solid-state, though with all virtues and few flaws. This may not be the choice for those whose system is already bright..."; see here); the Sparkler S303 CDP ("...the sonic presentation, as least initially, is ...rhythmic and lean...With run-in however, the rough edges gradually smoothed out..."; see here); as well as the Langevin 102 preamp ("...As with the 6V6, the sound can turn lean with bad recordings, but with most material the midband and bass are beyond reproach..."; see here). Important thing is, with a warm buffer amp, the sound just integrates and becomes wholly satisfying - until the arrival of the Saga, that is. The Saga tipped the balance too much so towards the yang side, and the Thorens/Denon/AQVOX input suffered the most. I was using the Mogami 2549 for both input and output. Changing the output cable to the 47 Lab solid core nearly ameliorated the flaw, though not quite completely. But that is just ONE act!
- Given my limited time, in the end I could not completely compensate for this system's newfound imbalance, but I am pretty sure more judicious tweaks and changes in cables shall accomplish this in the near future. But the Saga is now resident in the system. Now, you may ask me why I am doing this despite sonics that could be improved? Well, there are qualities that I like about the Saga, and I think the small perceived inadequacy can be stamped out by further re-configuration, which shall wait till next round. Which is why I called this review Part I. Part II won't happen till some months later.
- Addendum (10/28/17): Part II has been published and contains extensive further testing and system matching (to great effect). Must read.
- Transparency The Saga is utterly transparent, perhaps a little too much so (if there is there such a thing). It is so revealing that one is forced to re-evaluate the individual components that constitute one's system. Is it a "straight wire without gain"? Maybe, or maybe not. One thing is sure, it is a good diagnostic tool that will reveal new aspects of the system.
- Is it Lean Sounding? Tonal Qualities A good passive preamp is often assumed to not have a sound (but it invariably does). And what is the Saga's Sonic Signature? That is indeed a good question. I'd say it is on the lean side, but not overly so, as it worked well in most of the systems I have tried it on. But, it is obvious too that if even a bit of bloom is what you want to add, the Saga is not for you.
- The Leading Edge/Rhythm and Pace I don't like a slow leading edge, which is not truthful to rhythm and pace. With the possible exception of very low listening level, the leading edge and rhythmic qualities of the Saga are irreproachable, and this is emphatically not true of most passive preamps.
- Input Level The Saga clearly likes a strong signal, especially at lower listening levels (this is no surprise for a passive device). If you can adjust source input levels, by all means try them all.
- System Matching Based on my experience, I believe the Saga may suit those with an already warm sounding, preferably tube-based system, but making it work in an already neutral to lean system would take a bit of work.
HiFi Basics V: Transparency and Neutrality, How do you Judge and How Much do you Want?
- As an avid concert goer, my concern with music reproduction centers around whether it sounds like music. No system can ever reproduce live music, especially those on a large scale, like symphonic music, but a good system can create a reasonable and enjoyable facsimile, though a facsimile it shall always remain. Nothing can ever replace concert going. Now, music venues, be it a large concert hall or a small jazz club or a rock arena, vary greatly in acoustics. Also, even in a good venue, there are some bad seats. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume we have a good seat at a good venue.
- The interesting thing is, assuming you have a good seat, transparency and neutrality are the last things you think of when you are enjoying the music. In fact, what makes the seat and venue good is probably an optimal blend of direct and reflected sound, which creates a natural warmth. A seat that lets you hear more direct sound and less reflected sound may sound more "transparent" but not as good as one with less direct sound and more reflected sound. Reverberation by definition decreases transparency but a suitable amount increases enjoyment, and it is well known that music sounds dreadful in an anechoic chamber. This is also why I think it is vital that the audio system reproduces faithfully what we term the "Hall Sound" (one reason why for me the 16-bit TDA 1541 is still the best chip). In audio reproduction, if there is lack of warmth, the perceived transparency and neutrality is of the false kind. Unfortunately, much of modern gears fall into this category.
- As one who has literally heard many hundreds of audio systems, I am sad to report that most do not sound like music. There are too many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this article I shall focus on the topic at hand, so I'll just cite certain examples. The Transparency and Neutrality Nerd Many fall into this category - to name just a few, Passive Preamp believers, Mod and DIY people, CAS people, Headphone people and, last but not the least, hifi writers (yours truly is an exception, I hope). The problem of these peoples, end users and retailers alike, is that they always write of improvements in science, in "upgrading" components (resistors and caps), in the latest cans and "advances" in digital technology. All those "advances" more often than not take them nowhere closer to music since the "more" that they hear is false. The sound that these peoples proffer is often hard, etched and bland - all false. These peoples are everywhere, but nowhere more than various headphone and computer audio forums (end users and retailers). My advice: avoid those sites, or at least read, not to say follow, with caution. The Cable Freak Nothing illustrates the conundrum of audio "titration" more than cable swapping - we all do it, though there are people who believe cables make no difference (false, and forget them). The problem with the cable freak is that he overdoes it, and swings too often between a craving for more "transparency/neutrality" and more warmth, not realizing the real problem lies elsewhere. And how the cable companies capitalize on it (the more expensive, the more so)! I believe in professional cables: although the different companies sound different (think Gotham vs Mogami), they honestly strive for truthful reproduction, including neutrality and transparency (unlike hifi cable companies), or a balance thereof, and so are within a safety envelope, and one can use the differences to adjust one's system. This also illustrates that, best intention notwithstanding, there is no one definition of neutrality or transparency (same with recording engineers). Advice: never spend too much on cables, but do have a few spares for swapping. Think of Cables as no more than Finishing Touches on a System (but they do make a difference). The Tube and Vintage Aficionado Boy, this is a big can of worms! As solid state vintage aficionados are few and vastly outnumbered by their tube counterparts, we are talking about the vintage tube people. The woes of this group are many, but let us focus on the issues at hand. I believe tubes help to bring about that warmth that I associate with live music (class A solid state operation needs not apply), but I also believe the warmth should not be excessive. Unfortunately, more often than not, many tube addicts tube-rolls to ill effects. To cite extreme examples: many who crave more transparency use lots of Telefunken and Siemen tubes, but get sound that is often etched and dry and much worse than even correctly implemented solid state systems; many who crave warmth liberally employ Mullard tubes but get sound that is lugubrious and dull. The fact that two tubes that meet the same spec's can sound totally different again illustrates that there is no single definition of neutrality. When it comes to vintage tube equipment, things can get even worse. I have met a lot of "Vintage Sound" people whose systems are unlistenable. As a vintage tube aficionado myself, I believe vintage tube equipment in good condition combines a good degree of transparency with some warmth, but there is just too much out there that is way off in spec's, and people are often unwilling to take out bad components and do even judicious restoration. The same is true of vintage loudspeakers, which can sound amazing or horrid depending on condition. I can go on and on on audio anomalies, but I shall stop here.
- In the end, the quest for transparency and neutrality, like any other audio parameter, must meet one single criterion: it must sound like music. Simple? Not so, even for veterans.