26 February, 2018

Happy New Year, Old Dogs, Loudspeaker Finish

Letter from NYC (78) 2018 (4): Happy New Year of the Dog
Editor's Note: Old Dogs, Mid-Life Crisis and More
Tip in a Capsule (1): Loudspeaker Enclosure Finish 

From an Old Dog A belated Happy New Year of the Dog, the celebration of which traditionally is not really over until the first full moon, which is one of two Chinese equivalents of Valentine's Day! According to most Chinese Astrologist, this year is likely to be better than the departed Year of the Rooster. It better be for this Goat! And, dear readers, may you finally achieve that elusive audio breakthrough! Not 10% better, not 30% better, but better! May your throats grow lumpy and tears roll down your cheeks every day!

Dog Pig Men are often called Pigs, which is unfair to the much maligned animal that occupies one of twelve places in the Chinese Zodiac. Given our collective penchant for the Deadly Sin of Gluttony, we deserve the allocation. Many people I know can fill a basement or two with equipment, much in disuse, disarray and disrepair. I am guilty as charged, but perhaps no more than women who just pile up different things that have even less of a chance to be used. Why should I, and why do I, still long to make the round and dig through vinyl piles, when I have enough for several lifetimes? It is for sure a malaise, one that could only be kept at bay by infirmities, not will. At this point in time I could still lift an amp and do not quite yet wish to be cured.

Be Green Being mainly a purveyor of second-hand, even unwanted and unloved, items give me some kind of justification. My take of the audio hobby is consistent with my otherwise reasonably green credentials (I get only e-statements, use only a few sheets of fresh paper a year; I don't even own a printer and in general don't create much new waste). Yes, the tubes (and I use a few) waste a little more electricity than usual, but that is nothing compared to the environmental waste perpetrated by people who make or buy big new amps (Boulder, D'Agostino, Constellation, Soullution etc etc), loudspeakers (Magico, YG etc etc), even interconnects (MIT Oracle etc) milled from large blocks of aluminum. Collecting old equipment and physical media also gives me the satisfaction as it has a cultural aspect that is much undervalued in this age. When all the unworthy noise about the latest "advances" of our generation (particularly in digital, be it hi-res, DSD, MQA what have you) has subsided, there will still be discerning people who value vintage (old LPs and equipment) and, many years from now, the latter will have outlasted in durability and value those aluminum blocks. Can you name more than a handful of solid state "legends" that still work and have rising second-hand value after a good number of years?

When Old Dogs Learn New Tricks Perhaps for good reason, old dogs stick to their preferences. When they do venture out of their safety zones, anything can happen, usually to mixed results. I have known quite a few tube people who ventured into various types of solid state equipment, be it undervalued vintage, boutique modern hi-end or cheap and cheerful D- or T- amps (the last includes myself) - aside from perhaps a somewhat different perspective, none to my ears could rival, not to mention surpass, tube magic. More puzzling to me is the old analogue man who adds Computer Audio to his source: not for the act per se, as I can see the fun in novelty, but for the Herculean effort to rip their CDs into files and make them sound as good. These people have good analogue setups and CD players (and large libraries of LPs and CDs) but to my ears (though they may proclaim otherwise) their CAS at best are only close approximations of their analogue front ends (forget about reel-to-reel, a even greater divide there) and usually no better than CD playback through their (good) red-book CDP. Every time I think to myself: "this is protracted Mid-Life Crisis" and "Old Dogs should not learn new tricks". Yours truly will stay an Old Dog.

New Blog Feature One of my problems is I am quite obsessive when it comes to writing, so articles often take too long to write and may even morph into bigger things of less manageable proportion. So I have decided to start a new feature called Tip in a Capsule: these would be short blurbs on my beliefs, written on the whim, without much exposition or citation. Read it at your own peril. To group these close to "HiFi Basics", these would also be labelled "HiFi Basics" but followed with "/Tip in a Capsule". Here is the First One:

Tip in a Capsule (1): Loudspeaker Finish 
  • The Finish Makes a Difference We are talking about the same loudspeaker. We are not talking about different color paints (like the many painted colors available from many modern loudspeakers). We are talking about different types of Finish and Veneers. This is experience based upon a lot of listening to certain very popular loudspeakers like the LS3/5A and Sonus faber Concertino, among others. The difference sometimes is surprisingly big.
  • WORST "Piano" Finish The Piano Black versions of the KEF LS3/5A and Sonus faber Concertino, mostly for the Asian market, were (and are) very popular in HK, and I have heard tons of them. To my ears, compared to their wood-veneered siblings, they sound less relaxed. Moreover, those fingerprints are just annoying!
  • BETTER Rosewood/Ebony For LS3/5A, the Rosewood (and rarer Harbeth Ebony) finish is arguably even more in demand. To my ears, they sound better than piano black, less uptight, but still not the best. I do like the looks of the older rosewoods and Ebony, but most of what we see now are not genuine and I'd pass, for visual as well as sonic reasons.
  • BEST Walnut/Maple Though less fashionable today, these are the most traditional and sonically superior veneers. The treble and bass are usually slightly less extended or controlled than Piano Black (or Rosewood/Ebony), but these finishes sound more relaxed and musical.
  • Exotic Finishes (like Birdseye/Bur(l) Maple) usually are more expensive but do not sound superior to cheaper Walnut/Maple. Moreover, the lighter colored ones age/oxidize less gracefully. I'd pass.
  • Knock on the Wood Different finishes yield a different feeling when knocked upon. Contrary to most reviewers, I think the deader it seems, the deader the sound.

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