21 September, 2017

BBC LS5/1A, Line Magnetic LM-126, EAR 519, Koda K-10, Studer A807, Tape Project, Analogue Productions

Click pics to enlarge. Top: Chez Jules I; R: Chez Jules II. Note the Studer A807 above the Koda K-10. On the small stand in front is the Thorens TD-125, beneath which is the Line Magnetic LM-123 buffer. In front, on the floor, is the challenger DIY preamp.

Review: BBC LS5/1A, Sheer Brilliance
Review: Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamplifier
Review: Studer A807 Reel-to-Reel
Review: Line Magnetic LM-126 Integrated Amplifier
Talk R2R: Re-issue Tapes from Tape Project and Analogue Productions

Note: This article took forever to write! Some time ago I nearly finished but someone accidentally erased much of it. After the deflating process of re-writing, I found out Jules had made some momentous acquisitions and we just had to pay him another visit. As a result, this article has snowballed into gargantuan proportion. While there is a real line up of stars here, make no mistake that the LS5/1A remains the central attraction.


Introduction
The BBC monitors that we regularly encounter are the ubiquitous LS3/5A and the larger LS5/9. This is because these are relatively small, as large boxes with large footprints are out of fashion anywhere where real estate prices are high. Recently, Graham Audio has also "re-issued/replicated" a much larger LS5/8, bigger brother of the more home friendly LS5/9 (reviewed in this blog here) and descendant of the even larger LS5/1A. Aside from these, earlier BBC monitors are seldom seen or heard, although their influence can still be felt in various Spendor (e.g. SP1/2, SP100) and Harbeth loudspeakers (e.g. HL5, M40).

So I was ecstatic when my friend jules called me to audition with him a pair of LS5/1A. I first heard it at the shop, then at his place. What a find! But first some basic info...

From KEF website: "...Soon after the formation of KEF, Raymond Cooke re-established his previous relationship with the BBC and KEF took on the exclusive manufacture of the LS5/1A monitor system, a system to which KEF’s meticulous approach to production engineering was well suited. The monitor utilised a Goodmans C129/15pr 15” woofer and two Celestion HF1300 tweeters and was designed for studio broadcast monitoring. The system stayed in production for more than ten years and was a useful benchmark for KEF’s own designs.
KEF also supplied the LS5/5 (including manufacturing the bextrene coned 12” bass and 8” midrange units) the LS3, LS5/2A, LS3/4 and LS5/6. In 1973, the KEF designed Reference Series Model 5/1AC, an active version of the LS5/1A, went into production and found application in many of the new independent radio stations of the time..."

pic from internet.


From Elsewhere, likely original BBC info (typo's unedited; LS5/1AC is the active version of the LS5/1A):

"LS5/1, and LS5/1A
The studio versions of the LS3/1 and A, designed to replace the LSU/10. The cabinets were larger than the LS3/1 and the tweeters were mounted above the woofer, rather than in front of it.
The following units were used: Plessey (LS5/1) or Goodmans C129/15pr (LS5/1A), 15-inch paper cone woofer 2 x Rola-Celestion HF1300 tweeters.

KEF /BBC DESCRIPTION FOR LS 5/1AC: 
BBC MONITOR SPEAKERS 

DESCRIPTION 
The speaker system employs three units, which together cover the audio range available from present day records and broadcast programmes. The enclosure is constructed from high-grade veneered chipboard of a quality, which has been found by experiment to possess the smallest degree of self resonance of all suitable construction materials. The structure is reinforced by internal partitions which restrict the vibration of the back and sides and also by a metal strut between the front and the back panels. Mudocel damping is applied to the top panel. 
The internal volume of the enclosure is 4.7 cubic feet and a small vent resonating with the volume of about 50c/s is used to give a slight boost to the low frequency output. Standing wave effects are damped by internal pads of absorbent material. 

LF UNITS 
The lowest frequency unit is a 15 inch paper cone type with a 3 inch diameter voice coil and PVC roll surround. Its axial frequency response extends smoothly up to about 2 Kc/s and it is relatively free of colouration effects. The sound output for this unit radiates through a vertical slot 7 and a half inches wide to ensure good horizontal dispersion up to the crossover point with the high frequency unit s at 1750 c/s.


HF UNITS 
Two identical HF units are fitted each having a phenolic impregnated diaphragm. The frequency response extends smoothly up until 13kc/s above, which it dies away in a regular manner. Tests have shown that the output to be free from prominent low damped resonances. The two HF units are mounted in a vertical line above the LF unit in such a way that the separation between high and low frequency sound sources is not noticeable to listeners located over four feet away. Both units are operated in parallel at middle frequencies to increase power-handling capacity in the region close to the crossover point.


Above 3Kc/s the input to the upper HF unit is reduced to induce dispersion in the vertical plane and the phase is retarded as to direct the combined radiation pattern upwards 

CROSSOVER NETWORK 
A thirteen element printed circuit crossover network incorporates facilities for equalising minor irregularities in the LF unit as well as providing for adjustment for relative levels of LF and HF units in 1 DB steps. An additional network corrects the diffraction effect at low frequencies due to the finite size of the cabinet, as well as the low frequency loss due to the motional impedance. 

ALTERNATIVE CABINETS 
There are two versions, one a floor standing cabinet for studio and control room work and a suspended model for use in television control rooms.


The floor standing speaker model LS5/ 1A is intended to be operated on a 15 inch plinth above the floor which positions the HF unit at optimum listening height. 
The plinth is designed to accommodate the equalised power amplifier conveniently beneath the speaker enclosure. 

The suspended model is equipped with metal suspension gear, which enables the entire speaker to be tilted downwards at the required angle The LS5/2A requires additional equalisation at low frequencies to compensate for the loss of floor reflections. A suitable equaliser is available which can be incorporated with the power amplifier if required. 

Both cabinets are available in a choice of oiled teak veneer or hammer grey lacquer. 

SPECIFICATION 

SIZE: LS5/1AC 33 X 19x 17 inches 
Weight: 82 Lbs 
Nominal Impedance 25 Ohms 
Maximum input: 35 watts R.M.S 
Frequency response : 40 –13 K/cs +_ 5db 
Directivity index: Better than 54 db up to 3 Kc/s reaching 7db at 10 Kc/s 
Calibration Accuracy: The axial frequency response checked against a BBC approved standard sample is adjusted so that the curve of the loudspeaker under test does not differ from that of the reference loudspeaker by more than the following amounts: 
50 c/s - 200 c/s +_ 1.5 db 
200 c/s – 400 c/s 0db 
400 c/s – 13000 c/s +_ 1.5 db 
13000 c/s- 15000 c/s +_ 2 db - infinity 
The reproduction of the Loudspeaker under test is also compared with that from the reference speaker using high quality programme sources and white noise. 

LF Unit: 15 inch Heavy paper cone with plasticised P.V.C. Roll surround. 
Fundamental resonance: 25 c/s 
Flux density: 9000 oersted on a 3 inch dia centre pole 
Total Flux : 16000 maxwells 

HF Unit: 1.5 inch diameter direct radiator with Phenotic impregnated - fabric diaphram 
Flux density : 10,000 oersted 
Total Flux : 25,500 maxwells 

Crossover Network 13 Element printed circuit network employing Radiometal - - cored inductors and closed terminal metallised foil capacitors. - Completely enclosed and shielded in a steel case.

Other Useful Links:


Wireless World Article on developing replacement for LS5/1A
BBC Paper on Design of LS5/1's successor's LS5/5 and LS5/6
Japanese Site with Great pics of the Active LS5/1AC

Sonic Impressions
  • At the Shop The shop sells clone-Dartzeel's and has only a solid state preamp. Even with their solid state amp or a cheap Chinese amp, the LS5/1A sounded good enough. But with my pair of Western Electric 124 that jules had been auditioning and which we brought with us, it became a revelation. Needless to say, since this is a BBC design, the midband was immaculate, rendering vocals perfectly. The treble was just a bit grainy with the ss amp, but this was largely ameliorated by the WE amp. Most impressively, there was great presence, creating the illusion of a live event; indeed, the palpability bore an uncanny resemblance to the Graham LS5/8 (here). My one reservation then centered on the quality of the bass, quite slow, one-note and somewhat truncated. I was weary of possible driver deterioration and urged caution, but jules bit the bullet anyway. As we find out later, that was due to the partnering electronics. Read on...
  • Chez Jules I - pre Koda Jules' place is very familiar to me (last reported: the Dahlquist DQ20 here). Equipment Orpheus Zero SE cd transport; Totaldac d1 twelve dac; Van Alstine Pat 5 Preamp (solid state, fully modded dynaco); Line Magnetic LM 126 power amp or EAR 519 power amp. Sound With this setup I heard the LS5/1A twice chez Jules, once as pictured, the other time with the loudspeakers more or less in the same positions but turned around firing towards the couch (as I heard the Dahlquist DQ20). The sound had improved since last reported (no wonder as the tube amps replaced the ss amps). Now, the LS5/1A really shone! Needless to say, there was just more of everything good. The bit of grain in the treble heard at the shop was gone - one only heard the surprising energy of the dual Celestion tweeters, which worked seamlessly with the 15" Goodmans woofers in the midband. The bass anomaly heard at the shop basically vanished - perhaps it was still a trifle slower than ideal and not the lowest reaching, but it was tuneful and tactile. Old loudspeakers sometimes need to be re-run-in (again, why all the difference from the shop? Read on...) vs Dahlquist DQ20 I wished Jules still had the DQ20's for me to compare. Alas, the small space had necessitated their removal. If my recollection serves me, both had a lively presentation, and excellent midrange presence. To my mind, the Dahlquist DQ20 (at least the treble) suffered a little from being partnered by ss electronics. Let me just say, the Dahlquist DQ20 costs a lot less than the LS5/1A and I miss it.
  • Line Magnetic LM 126 Among the Chinese manufacturers I have always regarded Line Magnetic (official site) to be among the best. I have heard their amplifiers, particularly the SET behemoth LM-219IA, perform well at the HK AV Show. I have also heard at friends their WE Horn Replicas and Field Coil Amps and they look decent (hard to individually assess the sound in a horn system, but I know there is a European fan base). They make a bewilderingly huge range of products and in the West it seems only certain products (higher-priced; manageable size) are offered. The LM 126 at hand seems to have limited distribution. One can understand why - it is a another imposing behemoth, hard to ship! Design wise, it is a potpourri - said to be based on WE circuit, with inclusion of a clone WE 618C input transformer (definitely not a necessity), but upping the power by using KT66 instead of 6L6. I understand this is a move to accommodate modern "real-world" loudspeakers but, if you ask me, there is no way one can duplicate 6L6 based WE amps with higher power - just not the same things (even for WE, the more powerful 142 is not as good as the 124), not to mention the sheer impossibility of cloning the WE transformers! The LM 126 performed well enough but, even though Jules had installed the best NOS tubes, I still had my doubts - a powerful sound, yes; but not quite an even response, especially when... vs EAR 519 There is no if's and's or but's: disregarding the substantial price differential, the EAR 519 completely outclassed the LM 126. Even with generic tubes, the EAR is much more even across the frequency spectrum and controlled the bass with an iron grip. That said, the LM 126 is quite good for the money and probably more than satisfactory for those who do not need full-range amplification. However, if you are patient and discerning, I'd wait for a good second-hand pair of the 509/519 and you will be settled for life (see also my most recent appraisal of the equivalent EAR 509 MkII) - until you get to know WE, that is...:-)

  • Chez Jules II, post Koda Just as this article was about to be finished, a few days ago, I called Jules and was flabbergasted that he had acquired the Robert Koda Takumi K-10 Preamp and a Studer R2R. Of course this article would have to be extended to incorporate these important new acquisition. So, after yumcha, Trazom, KC, Pluto and I all went to visit. We tested a lot in a few hours, so read on...
  • Robert Koda Takumi K-10 The system was unchanged from Jules I (listed above) except for the Robert Koda K-10 Preamp. I was of course very interested in this very expensive solid state preamp from a Kondo cohort/disciple (a man who has gone on records saying he has never preferred a solid state preamp), which has won some accolades (see official link, which has review links; avoid the garbage HK magazine). Sound The sound actually quite fascinated me. It was more upfront, but quite warm, utterly devoid of the nastiness of lesser solid state components. Images were taller and larger than usual, with a fleshiness that I liked. Perhaps because of the warmth, I felt it to be a little less airy than the usual tube preamp in soundstage (not something of utmost importance to me) and depth, The reviews mentioned ultra low noise and distortion, which I agree with, but as usual with designs that place utmost importance in these parameters, a little liveliness may have been sacrificed (I dealt with this important topic in my lengthy review of iFi's iPhono). To be concise, much as I appreciated the K-10, I was thinking I'd prefer a tube preamp (like my EAR 912, now relegated to the rear; but more to come, read on...).
  • Surprise! David vs Goliath? As it happened, our yumcha friend davewong had been building a Kondo-clone preamp based on the very simply laid out boards by thomasfw. Since it is said to be a Kondo-clone, I expressed an interest to hear it (a very rare occurrence). Suffice to say, davewong geared up and had the prototype ready that day (click on right pic to enlarge), so we took it along to Jules. The DIY preamp employed 6X4 rectification and MOSFET regulation. For the line section, the two triodes of the 12AX7 were coupled and output was cathode follower. No exotic components were used - Dale resistors and Wima red caps for the line section; Philips caps for the power section. Sound The Kondo clone actually sounded quite decent. It seemed to be modern sounding, with a surprisingly fast leading edge (methinks faster than the Koda). Immediately, there were more air and a deeper soundstage, and the front corners were better illuminated. With the jazz CD, virtues were more split: the percussion had better rhythmic expression and exactitude with the Kondo clone; the saxophone and guitar sounded much fuller with the Koda - a surprise as usually one would expect the reverse. A Little Tube Rolling As there were Europhiles present, Valvo long plate's were swapped in for the RCA (D getter, grey plates). Immediately, the saxophone and guitar sounded much fleshier, but at a heavy price - the percussion lost almost all of the snap, a price I'd not pay. The Votes Though still a flawed prototype, some of us preferred the DIY tube preamp, but pluto, a DIY man, admired the Koda. As you see, it was not quite a David vs Goliath scenario. Suffice to say, both the DIY kit and the solid state Koda met with our approval, and (except for pluto and maybe jules) this is a rather hard-core tube crowd! After this, we reconnected the Koda and listened to analogue playback.
  • Detour: vs Audio Note Japan M7 After I got home, I actually briefly compared it to my own Audio Note Japan M7 (the one in the pic). Both are quite neutral sounding so it is hard to say whether they sound alike, but the challenger is obviously a little on the lean side and rhythmically a little too insistent, without the M7's subtle and articulate nature. Still, a respectable showing!
  • Analog Rig I This consists of the Thorens TD-125 with the Linn Ittok arm fitted with an EMT TD-15 cartridge, fed into EAR MC4 and phonoamp (EAR 912?). We listened only to a few cuts. Sound during the visit was a little on the sharp side. I was told after we left a swap to Gotham DGS-1 ameliorated the problem.
  • Analog Rig II The big surprise! After my dear friend Robin left for Taiwan, I thought I'd never hear another R2R, but here it is in the form of the Studer A807 (info on this classic here)! And we heard two new tapes, one from Tape Project (Bill Evans Waltz for Derby, link) and one from Analogue Productions (Rickie Lee Jones It's Like This, link). These are both USD 450 a pop. Is it expensive, yes; is it worth it, even I have to say yes! Yes, the R2R playback absolutely trumped the vinyl, according to jules. We didn't really compare but the playback of the two tapes via the Studer was simply breathtaking. Of course I had long known this to be true. This time I shall not waste words, but instead re-direct you to my previous impressions of R2R (under the Label: Talk R2R) - everything said about Robin's R2R applies to jules. That is how good it is! The A807 is a professional two-track only machine, and cannot play four-track tapes. I predict there will be a second R2R deck chez jules soon.
Conclusions
  • LS5/1A The LS5/1A is simply magnificent, the best BBC (or BBC-derived) loudspeaker that I have ever heard. How is that for direct utterance? And I know my BBC and BBC derived loudspeakers! Epitome of 2-Way I have always preferred 3-way's to 2-way's, but the LS5/1A is an exception that challenged my views. It is the best large 2-way I have ever heard. Indeed, I don't think the best BBC-derived 3-way's, like the Spendor SP-100 or the earlier BC-3 can match it. That is TALL accolade. Also, once again, a 15" paper cone woofer proves hard to beat; and it is very rare to have a two way that employs a 15" woofer! This is basically one of a kind.
  • Robert Koda Takumi K-10 This is likely the very best solid-state preamps I have heard (It sounds better to me than the Cello Suite, Mark Levinson ML-6, to name two, and jules had owned these before too I think). I think the K-10 would be a godsend with solid state or even hybrid amplifiers, like Koda's own K-70. But while I admire its rock solid steadiness and imperturbable nature, I am too hardcore a tube man and in general prefer a livelier presentation, but then, as we witnessed, others may not think so. In the end, no question, it plays everything well! I'd like to listen to it more next time to get more impressions.
  • Reel-to-Reel Although I don't plan to own one, I am very happy the R2R Renaissance shows no sign of waning; rather, it is going from strength to strength. Price of new tapes are expensive, but not really overpriced, if you ask me. You may want to read this interesting interview of Tape Project's Dan (also known as Bottlehead's Doc B, whose cheap products I admire and have had some experience with) to gain some perspective. How does Vinyl Compare? Well, even the most expensive vinyl rigs I have heard have to yield to R2R, in every parameter. The tape advantage is decisive. And Digital? This year is the 35th year of digital, yet sonically it is still inferior to a good vinyl setup, not to mention R2R. Think, 35 years of continual "advances" and it is still a distant third. Don't you think all those data people and critics are laughable?
  • DIY Advice The success of the DIY challenger reminds me once again that simple is best. Using simple, cheap and reliable components (like the Dale resistors) more often than not bring better results than stuffing it with expensive boutique components (like Jensen caps).
Image result for manger cdPostlude: What Went Wrong at the Shop?I actually hesitated about writing up this part of the experience. I knew next to nothing about the shop and don't want to make enemies, but I am truly astonished by the sheer ineptitude of what the shop offered.

When I arrived, the resident DIY Transport/DAC combo, of which the owner was proud of (and I think he sold quite a few), was playing some jazz/percussion stuff, and it was OK and offered no premonition of things to come. A while later, I asked to play the Manger Test CD I spotted, my favorite all-in-one, if there is such a thing. The owner immediately jumped to the last track (Track 15), the percussion track everyone knows. But that was not my intention - I asked him to start with Track 1. As soon as the bells tolled, I knew something was seriously wrong. The whole thing was utterly flat, with virtually no microdynamics to speak of. Ditto every subsequent track of this CD that was played. I was flabbergasted - I have never heard this CD sound so bad. Desperate, I spotted a 47 Labs Transport and asked to switch to it. Despite having to use adaptors, the 47 Labs immediately and unequivocally demonstrated what was wrong with the resident DIY Transport - almost all the microdynamics and nuance missing came back.

And then, there was the poor bass quality, which can be attributed to the resident DIY DAC, which can hammer it out, but in a one-note, monochromatic fashion. If it were me, based on the demo I'd not have taken the chance with the loudspeaker. Fortunately, chez Jules the bass problems basically vanished.

I cannot even briefly tolerate this kind of front-end, but obviously some people do! In my years of hifi wandering, I have heard plenty of way-off stuff, but this experience belongs in the top ten. It made me feel I must write this article:

HiFi Basics VI: Know Your Source(s) and Digital Front-End Buying Guide (coming soon)

06 September, 2017

Schiit Mani Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono Shelter 201

Review: MoFi StudioPhono, Part I
Review: Schiit Mani
Review: Shelter 201 MM Cartridge, Part I
Talk Vinyl: More Budget Phonoamps and another MM Cartridge
Letter from NYC (65): 2017 (4)

Article Finished in HK.

Once in a while, would you spend up to $100 per person or so on a gourmet meal prepared by a chef that you admire? Of course, you'd not be dining alone and there could be other mitigating factors that increase cost...one thing is for sure, after tax and tips, you'd end up paying quite a bit.

I have no need for phonoamps; so, why did I buy these two in question? Simple, I bought them because for very little money I could sample the latest offerings from the reputable designers behind these products, no tax and no tip to pay either.

Equipment Used:
Analog 1: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shelter 201
Analog 2: Thorens TD-125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304
Preamp: Schiit Saga
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way Horns

Schiit Mani (official link)
The tiny Schiit Mani costs $129. I bought it with the Saga and basically saved shipping. At the price of a modest dinner for two, you get to taste the design of Mike Moffat of Theta Digital fame, and I still swear by their old Data transports (I know they are lambasted for being modified from other cheaper products, but they are cheap second-hand and for some reasons they just sound better, especially in the bass, believe it or not).

After I read the mercurial review (a masterpiece) by Herb Reichert (a writer I love) in Stereophile I expected the Mani to deliver a decent sound but was not sure on how much - after all, even after several readings there are quite a few passages where I wasn't sure exactly what he meant.

The Mani turned out to be a real winner, and more than what I expected. MM It sounded good right out of the box, and for almost 2 months it partnered my Shelter 201 MM cartridge. I found the two gain settings for MM (42 and 47 db) to be really useful for fine tuning the sound. The higher one provided just a shade more jump factor for the passive Saga. The two together made fine music not only at my place but also at Andy's (see my review of Saga here). MC I also briefly tested its MC section with my very low output DL-304 combo, and it passed with flying colors. Loading freaks beware, the Mani has only two choices: 47K, de rigeur for MM; but the only MC option is 47 ohm, lower than the usual 100 ohm norm. However, I had no problem with either setting with my Denon - they both sounded superb, and for once unusually I preferred 47K (not unheard of for Denon).

The Mani was quiet and played everything well; it had good resolution but was forgiving at the same time. This is likely due to its attractive and distinctive warmth that is unusual for a budget phonoamp or the usual solid state phonoamp. And then I understood the sound to be exactly as Herb Reichert described in his article. In a way, it is like my Parasound JC3 on a smaller scale - a lot of what I wrote about the JC3 are applicable to the Mani (see here and here), and that is accolade indeed.

Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono, Part I (official link)
Being a fan of EAR and Tim de Paravicini, I just had to get this one when I read that TdP was behind the design. I still own the flagship tubed EAR 912 and entry level tubed 834P, and have good knowledge of the solid-state 324 (see here). Now, I would not buy the 324 but was very happy to fork out $249 for the StudioPhono. Is it a facsimile? Maybe not quite, as it turned out.

For a budget phonoamp, the StudioPhono has ample gain and loading options, and even a mono button! But it came without any instructions, and I had to go online for the manual to operate the dip switches.

The StudioPhono arrived late during my NYC stay, and I only had 2 weeks to it. Although it performed very well from the start, I was a bit perplexed by a trace of hardness in the treble, not something I expect from the designs of TdP. Perhaps this unit takes longer than usual to run in.

At this point, I began to examine the source. I was using the same Shelter 201 as I had with the Mani. The Shelter is shorter in height than the previous cartridges I was using, but I hadn't bothered to adjust the VTA because it sounded quite good with the more forgiving Mani. With the StudioPhono it was a different story. The MoFi showed up the VTA inexactitude of the installation. I put in a shim between the cartridge and the headshell and, voila, the sound took a turn for the better.

But all was not entirely well until I changed the interconnect from the phonoamp to the preamp from Gotham to the more forgiving solid-core (DIY) 47 Lab. Like the Schiit Saga, the StudioPhono forced me to change cables, a rare occurrence in my systems which employ professional cables.

I briefly tried too the MC Denon DL-304 and the StudioPhono engaged it beautifully. Overall, at this point I'd say the StudioPhono is a very neutral device that demands more setup care. I am optimistic that it shall sound even better with time, but then time will tell if it is an EAR 324 on a smaller scale (I suspect it is).

Shelter 201, Part I (Official Link)
This cartridge has generated quite a bit of controversy. Down to its white plastic box, it is a dead ringer for the Sumiko Pearl, which sells for half the price. Yet, the listed spec's differ slightly, and there are various opinions on the internet which I shall have you dig up yourself. I bought it from Japan, and the premium on the Sumiko Pearl is about $100. I seriously doubt Shelter is going to risk its reputation by offering the same thing. I'd venture either it is slightly modified or selected from a bunch, like the way Grado scaled its base models (it is said they are the same cartridges, with the top ones earning the Gold grading).

In my experience, Shelter cartridges always sounded quite neutral, and the 201 is no exception. As mentioned above, with neutral partnering gears, it is quite sensitive to VTA. Aside from this, I found nothing to criticize at all - indeed, for a small sum of money, one gets MC class resolution and microdynamics, good enough for me. I didn't have time to compare it to other MM's or MC's - that shall have to wait till Part II. But, if my recollection is correct, I absolutely prefer this one to the early version of the Sumiko Blue Point Special (more expensive than the Pearl) that I once owned. I am sure it is money well spent.

01 September, 2017

LP Pressings of Different Generations

Music Diary: Rock Legends, Vintage LP Pressings and Current Re-issue's, Children's Music
Talk Vinyl: Vinyl Pressings from Different Generations
Letter from NYC (64) 2017 (3): Listening Notes, Chez Moi and Chez Andy

Article finished in HK.

Stairway to Heaven
If resale values were a concern, I'd spend more time shopping for rock and jazz LPs rather than classical. But my favorites remain with thrift shops and dollar bins - you never know what you are going to find.

On my recent UK trip, unusual for me, I went to this Rock and Pop store that I had visited before and unusually decided to spend a princely 20 GBP for a very good latter-day copy of Led Zep pictured above (not current re-issue). Some years ago, I heard it on a big horn system and it became something that I have always wanted. And, boy, what great stuff played on my horns! Indeed, Stairway to Heaven! :-)

I have always been a fan of The Band, whether by themselves or with Dylan. I picked up this UK pressing for 2 GBP at a thrift shop. Again, what great music on the horns!

Back in NYC, I picked up this beaten copy of this controversial Lou Reed album after half an hour of sifting through the dollar bin. Quite adventurous music that grew on me after repeated listening. I particularly like the collaboration with Don Cherry, better than many a jazz album! Great sound again on the horns.

Click Pics to Enlarge. R: Note the very rare Stax electrostatic arm and cartridge on the Garrard 301 to the right. Walker Proscenium to the left and ET arm on Thorens 125 in the middle. L: from top to bottom, Mono (LOC), early and later Stereo (LSO).


Sojourn in South Pacific - Chez Andy
This trip I have so far listened to Andy's downstairs system twice. The setup has not changed much from last visit:

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


Andy is another vinyl junkie with a taste more eclectic than mine. These days when I go to his house I mostly stayed downstairs (upstair is where his classical and serious rig is) and just chat and drink wine, and he would play for me all sorts of albums on his "easy-listening" system, from Mancini to Broadway Musicals. The music is largely forgotten, but think about this, these composers were actually classically trained and seriously proficient in what they do.

On one occasion, we listened to three pressings of Roger and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The earlier Living Stereo and its later stereo reincarnation (LSO's) are cut form the same cloth, but the Living Stereo had greater impact, though not nearly as much as its mono predecessor (LOC)! Of course the stereo pans out more and has greater depth, but some may just prefer the more focused mono the way Beatles fans swear by their mono's.

Click to Enlarge. L: Ellington Uptown. To the Left, Later Six-Eye Mono; To the Right, Earlier Blue-Label Mono.

Ellingtoniana
I have always been a fan of Ellington. His big band just sounds much better to me than the others (with the possible exception of the occasional Count Basie in top material).

Ellington Uptown Quite a while ago I casually listened to Ellington Uptown (blue-label mono) at Andy's. Some days later I chanced upon a beat-up Six-Eye Mono and bought it for a dollar. As is wont for audiophiles, a comparison was in order. Boy, do they sound different! Again, the earlier pressing is more impactful, visceral.

Ellington Indigos
This is another famous Ellington album. I got to listen to a friend's current re-issue (Impex). It sounded very good, but then too modern in a way. I happened to have a very early CD, and so played it for comparison. Well, I am not so sure the vinyl is that much better - if at all. I personally would not buy the current re-issue. That said, this is a great album that one can enjoy no matter what!

So, when it comes to mono pressings, definitely the older the better! Many of the later "mono" LP's in the early stereo era I am convinced have no different modulations than their stereo counterparts.

Play with Me, Sing along! Not just for Kids!

I recently attended a kindergarten graduation ceremony, and while watching the children perform was thoroughly captivated by some of the music performed by a female singer. After some research I discovered Patty Shukla (official website). I immediately ordered the CD Play with Me, Sing Along! from Amazon and it was waiting for me when I got back to NYC.

Sample her songs on Amazon (MP3 samples here). I particularly enjoy her catchy tunes, dance rhythms and thoughtful lyrics. My favorite is Elephant Steps, which I'd rather listen to than, say, many of the so-called jazz singers favored by audiophiles. Sound is very good. If you have kids, try this one, or send one as a gift. Or, better yet, discover the kid still lurking in you.

31 August, 2017

Schiit Saga

Review: Schiit Saga, Part I
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

Article finished in HK.

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.

Impressions

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...
  • 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.
On To Reference System II
  • 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.
Chez Andy
  • 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. 
Return to System III
  • 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.
Conclusions

  • 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 swappingThink 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.

22 August, 2017

Letter from the UK: 2017 (1)

A beautiful Day by the Dee River.

Letter from the UK: 2017 (1)

Article finished in NYC. Click pics to enlarge.

During times of stress, everyone copes in a different way. For me, a two week stay in Chester, UK (my third visit; previous ones reported here) had a soothing effect. For the classical music fan, the UK is great for LP hunting, which continues to be the best relaxation I can think of.

L: By the Canal, Outside the New Waitrose; R: Roman Remnants and Clock in Town Center.

Going Somewhere?
My visit was not long after the Manchester Terror Attack, and heavy security was apparent at the Manchester Airport. Chester is an important retail center of Cheshire (think the Cat), equidistant from Manchester and Liverpool and is steeped in history. As the Royalty sometimes visit its famous racetrack, the historic town center is well preserved. As is usual for a smaller town, the locals are a lot friendlier than their big city counterparts. It is also apparent the city has seen some urban renewal in the past years (like the nice new central Bus Exchange), all of which look good to me.

It was my luck that it neither rained much nor got too hot during the two-week stay. I was able to make frequent forays into City Center. Walking (and biking) along the Canal has always been a pleasure, indeed the local's preferred way of getting around. About midway is the new Waitrose Supermarket, which rose from the ashes of a drab old shopping mall and is a worthwhile example of urban renewal and solid architecture (more pics here) that beautifies our lives. Incredibly, with a Waitrose card one can get a free coffee (good) each day, which one can enjoy in its cafe or on the outside steps. For Happy Hour, I'd have a Sierra Nevada Ale, surprisingly not only available in the UK, but at a cheaper price than stateside! One employee actually told me it's his favorite, and the English know their beers!

The Canal goes everywhere and connects with the beautiful Dee River. On a sunny day, one wants for nothing to just sit by its banks and watch people of all races and faith mingle under the sun (top pic); it is enough to restore one's faith in humanity.

Wales. R: On the bus to Wrexham; L: Wreham; Bottom, Llandudno.

One Country, Two Systems?
This time I did some research and decided to do a day trip to nearby Wales towns. I decided on Wrexham, and was pleasantly surprised by the new double-decker bus, with facilities like a sun roof, tables (fixed or fold-down) and WiFi. It was like traveling on a bullet train, at a slower speed. Between cities one sees huge swarths of grazing pastures. It almost makes me want to sing the old Chinese communist propaganda song 南泥灣, which extolls the bright future of a land of riches, with herds everywhere (遍地是牛羊). And the land is laden with historic semi-ruined castles.

Being a resident of Hong Kong, I am painfully aware of the slogan "One Country, Two Systems". So it is fascinating to travel to Wales. Once one enters, signage is bilingual, with Welsh everywhere. I understand - a pacifying gesture, since, as per what I was told by a record shop proprietor, less than 10% speak the language. Surely politically weighted, Wales gets higher social security benefits than the rest of the UK. I am not sure that is enough to suppress their separatist desires (think Scotland, Ireland).

Wrexham is a much more blue-collar town than Chester, and the contrast is stark, not something one can gleam from wikipedia. It is certainly less pristine and falling apart at the seams a little more, yet I find it quaintly fascinating.

I wanted to have a pint, but unusually felt estranged from many of the local pubs, sprawling Welsh speaking spaces laden with Rubenesque figures. It was not that I felt intimidation, no; it was that I felt I should not have intruded into their space.

I was also taken to seaside Llandudno again. It was a very nice day, and the place reminds me a little of Brittany.


Vinyl Hunting
In the Chester town center there are numerous charity thrift shops where one may try one's luck at vinyl hunting. On Brook Street there is a great rock and pop vinyl shop called Grey & Pink. It is pricey but I bit the bullet and paid GBP 20 for a Led Zep IV in good condition. In wrexham, in a narrow alley I found a great record shop and bought a few LPs. The owner was quite friendly and we chatted quite a bit. No luck this time in Llandudno.


Gears There is not much around, but in a shop close to the Chester train station I scored a mint condition NAD 3020 (my third). I paid GBP 100, which is a fair price. Better than Ebay.