28 September, 2016

Conrad-Johnson vs EAR; Wilson Alexia

In front of the CJ GAT preamp are the EAR 509 MkII monoblocks, much smaller in size, but not in sound, than the CJ LP275 monoblocks. In the foreground are removed TAOC stands. Click to enlarge.

Home Visit: Conrad-Johnson vs EAR; Wilson Alexia

Talk Tweak: Ditch your Amplifier Stands; TAOC

EAR Overview

EAR 509 MkII Resurrected While my EAR 912 has been making the rounds and seen active use, my pair of 509 MkII have been idling for over ten years - until recently, when my friend WoSirSir expressed interest in them. Lo and behold, at my old place they worked a charm with my Tannoy Canterburies! We both agreed they sounded excellent, with a clear and controlled sound.

Then I met up with Andy (one of the trio covered in this blog, last featured here), and things blossomed into a second day of "slug-fest"! Don't you get too excited; it did not last long!

Resident System:

Turntable: Clearaudio Statement/Goldfinger
Phonoamp: Clearaudio Statement Phono
CAS: Aurender N10
Preamp: Conrad-Johnson GAT MkII
Amp: Conrad-Johnson LP275
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio Alexia

Challenger Amp: EAR 509MkII
Challenger Preamp: EAR 912

  • Andy's Previous Magnepan 3.7 Setup As reported, Andy was previously a horn and SET guy. Between then and now, he had a period when he used the Maggie 3.7 with largely the same analog and CJ gears, and I had heard them. For CAS, he was still using the Weiss and as before I didn't like it one bit. Analog was much better, though the Maggies as expected lacked deep bass and had a mid-bass leaness (preferred by the ribbon/ESL crowd).
  • Wilson Alexia  It was immediately apparent that the Wilson's sounded very much meatier and heftier that the Maggies. And I mean that in a good way - images were just fleshier and more real, and the bass had real kick. Although a trace of bass bloat remained in this large room, which is unfortunately closer to a square than a rectangle, it was the best sound I had heard yet at Andy's.
  • CAS Aurender and EMM Labs To my ears, the Aurender N10 and EMM Labs DAC2X combo is much to be preferred to the parched sound of the Weiss. Fleshier, more naturally flowing - in a word, less digital.
  • Clearaudio Statement Phono While the analog sound is clean and good, I cannot help feeling this phonoamp, like the turntable it partners, lacks rhythmic verve. Andy likes it for its remote controllable features (like equalization curves), but for me it is just plain spoken.
  • Challenge: EAR 509 MkII vs CJ LP275 While we were chatting on the first day, I was a little surprised that Andy expressed interest in hearing the EAR after I told him of its excellent bass control. And so it happened on the second day! Despite having only just one hour of playing after a ten-year hiatus, the EAR 509 MkII trounced the actively in-use CJ LP275 immediately and in convincing fashion. The bass was simply tauter, more controlled and extended lower! The CJ LP275 uses 8 tubes per monoblock, but did not sound more powerful than the EAR's simple pair (and Andy matches his tubes with a top-notch tube tester); also, it is actually quite light and easy to lift, indicating the light weight of the transformers! Andy was impressed! See "Andy's Decision" below!
  • Challenge: EAR 912 vs GAT MkII The sound was quite similar, but the EAR 912 had a more subtle and easier musical flow. Andy agrees, but loves the remote facilities of the GAT. If you ask me, the EAR 912 is the better preamp, full-function at a much lower cost; there was no area where the GAT could manage to surpass. One can only gasp at the ridiculous price some hifi manufacturers charge, or marvel at how reasonable EAR gear is!
  • Andy's Response Man of Action! Andy immediately ordered the EAR 509 MkII! But he has retained the GAT for its convenience.
  • UN-Tweak At first, Andy has his amps on his surplus TAOC stands (foreground). Since I have never heard amplifier stands do any positive thing, I asked for their removal. Bingo! More coherence and better bass (here is yet another example: "...like a good audiophile, SG had almost all his stuff on heavy (wood) racks and gears were placed on various tuning devices (which I usually avoid). The Goldmund Telos were placed on Nordost Pulsar Points over a Solid-Steel amp rack...JC, a previous user of Goldmund, suggested removing the Nordost devices. It took a while, but the result was mind-boggling. Music became much more lively. Then we proceeded to remove the amp rack. With the amps on the floor now, there was further improvement, but not quite of the same magnitude as removing the Nordost devices. So much for isolation devices (at least for power amps)..."). Andy's preamp is also temporarily sitting on two TAOC's, but in this case, as I had reservations about putting it on the floor (preamps are much more susceptible to vibrations than amps), we slotted two slabs of solid wood between the preamp and the stands, and sound again improved.
  • Things at CJ are definitely not like before (not that I have been that much of a fan). The light weight of the LP275 is a joke - indicating transformers are smaller than before (similarly, Audio Research trannies now are smaller). Those were the days, when their classic amps like the Premier One had really heavy transformers. The 8x 6550 per side did not feel very powerful. Likewise, I also think the GAT is ridiculously over-priced for what it is.
  • Wilson Audio is finally getting better. I have lost count of how many times I have listened to generations of Watt/Puppy, but I know I have never heard them to total satisfaction! I have also listened to a large number of their larger offerings, like Alexandria, Maxx etc, and they never fully impressed either. That started to change when I heard the Sophia at the HK hifi show. Now, Andy's Alexia is not perfect, but it has potential. Think of all those hifi writers (like TAS) who praise each iteration - hey, should the customer fork out so much money for Wilson to move slowly on his learning curve? Basically, most Wilson's were (some still are) incoherent, and the hifi press indulged him instead of warning readers.
  • EAR's Tim de Paravicini is my hero. Great designs, compact size, powerful and controlled sound, all at much more reasonable cost than most manufacturers.

08 September, 2016

Review: EAR 912 vs 868 vs 324

Review: EAR 912 vs 868 vs 324

Recently, some good friends and experienced audiophiles in my area all took on EAR, and I had the opportunity to listen to the 868 and 324. I also collected their opinion for this article.

For more on EAR, please refer to my EAR Overview, which itself is updated after this article is published.

912 I have had this as one of my references for a long time (see my EAR Overview). Currently, I use it as preamp for my Western Electric 124 and 133 (here). The versatility and rightness of this amp is never in doubt.

Image result for ear 868868 As reported before, my good friend Tony uses this. I know him quite well, yet I didn't know he was going to buy it and he didn't know I have the 912! Such are the whimsies of hifi friends!

This is largely a "stripped down" 912, with a more consumer look and higher WAF than the stark 912. And it got more reviews (soundstage and enjoythemusic), all great. Pertinent 868 vs 912:
  • Line Section: Largely identical
  • MC Loading: Internal 3-impedance "MC-3" vs 4-impedance "MC-4"
  • Phono Connectivity: One vs Two
  • Phono Tubes Used: 2x 7DJ8 (the reviews mentioned that the phono section of the 868 is circuit-wise "identical to the 88PB", but I have my doubts as the 88PB employs 4x 7DJ8, twice that of the 868) vs 3x 7DJ8 in the 912
  • Meters: None in 868 (these are supremely useful in phono overload assessment)
  • Phono Control Accessibility: Mostly Internal vs All Front-Panel
As you can see, the phono section of the 868 is quite a bit stripped down from the 912 in terms of convenience, so it is perhaps not intended for those who tweak and change gears all the time. After all, this is for home use, but you know audiophiles...

Image result for ear 324324 In contrast to the 912 and 868 (and 88PB), this is an interesting solid-state offering from EAR, and has withstood the test of time (more than a decade in production). It has received great reviews from the press (Stereophile, HomeTheaterReview, positive-feedback). Let me highlight its features vs the 868 and 912:
  • Selectors: Like the 912, accessible from the front panel.
  • Phono Connectivity: Like the 912, two; but different in that one is dedicated to MM and the other to MC.
  • MC Input: As the tubed 868, the 324's MC input employs the 3-impedance "MC-3" input transformer.
  • MM Input: Unlike the 868 and 912, the dedicated MM Input has a good choice of loading and capacitance, allowing one to fine-tune the MM (defeatable too in case it is used with an external SUT for another MC).
Sonic Notes
  • 868 This is based on audition at Tony's as I never had this in my own setup. The sound was certainly at least as good as the deHavilland and ARC preamps he's had before. I lent Tony my 912; Tony says the 912 is just a bit better in every way. Also, he said the meters of the 912 are supremely useful when transcribing vinyls.
  • 324 My friend Sang, whose loudspeaker placement change was featured in the last article (below), owned this for a while. I went to hear it and of course took along my 912. I must say this is a fine machine! Tonally, the 912 is a little sweeter, with a little more tube bloom, while the 324 just has a trace of its transistor origin (for this user who uses tubed phono as reference). Rhythmically, the 324 has a little more snap. Also, Tony is quite familiar with the 324 too and holds the same opinion. Recently, my friend Paul, who used to use the EAR 834P, has upgraded to a 324 after borrowing my 912. He reports that as a phonoamp the gain is not as high as the 912.
  • My Thoughts You cannot go wrong with any of EAR's offerings. If you need a full function preamp, and are inclined towards trying different turntables, arms and cartridges, I personally would bite the bullet and get the ergonomically superior 912, likely the only preamp you'll ever need, but the average home user with only one turntable would be almost as well served by the 868. Whereas if you want to stay with your favorite preamp and just want a phonoamp, then the 324, at about half the price of the 912, is a viable alternative, especially if you lean towards snappier and uptempo material or are a MM die-hard. But if you are a MC person, I'd say the 912 is even more accomodating. Ultimately, 912 has it all.

05 September, 2016

HiFi Basics III: Loudspeakers Placement, Short vs Long Wall, Vibrapods

pic: Case 1, Sang's room. L, Now; R, Before. Click to Enlarge.

HiFi Basics III: Examine Your (Loudspeakers') Orientation, Short vs Long Wall
Talk Tweak: Vibrapods do no Evil

This article is NOT a tutorial on loudspeaker placement. There are many such articles on the net. This article serves to illustrate how a change of placement can DRASTICALLY improve the sound.

Loudspeaker Placement = Obstacle Course? The Reality
There is no question Loudspeaker Placement is often the most compromised in the audio chain. Many audiophiles do not have a dedicated audio room, and sharing a room with the rest of the family means major compromises. Add WAF to the equation and the result is often as good as only a toss-up.

In HK, this is a major problem, as small living rooms are used for audio (there are basically no family rooms, nor basement-as-man-cave). Compounding the problem, many LR's are irregular in shape, the worst being the so-called "diamond shaped" ones (Apartment D in the diagram, which basically has only one long wall!). In my own place, I too have to contend with my loudspeakers pretty much against the wall, even my large Yamaha NS-1000.

Even for those who do have the room to maneuver, habits and reluctance to move things around too much can sometimes make them choose one configuration over the other. In this article I shall cite you just THREE cases where a change of placement reaped massive benefits.

Short Wall vs Long Wall (sort of, 90" rotation)
Instructions try to be generally applicable, which is why none would go straight out and say it is better to place loudspeakers against the short wall, firing down the length of the room: but I tell you, this is so, in the majority of cases. In HK, we have more unusually shaped living rooms, sometimes with "short" almost the same as "long". In years of home visits, I have encountered many households with sub-optimal placement. I often suggest re-positioning, but not everyone is receptive (or have the strength!).

Case 1 - Verity Audio Sang and Carmen are good friends. Once in a while, I steal some time to have Sunday breakfast with them, and of course try to do a few things in due course. His Verity Audio Rienzi's for a long time were placed rather in-room, with the TV wall in the back (top, right pic; as covered here, though equipment is much different now). Imagine my surprise when I sat down during a recent visit and discovered the loudspeakers moved to the other side, which I have nudged him to do for many years (top, left pic). Even I was shocked by how much the sound had improved! Larger soundstage, fleshier images and more effortless presentation. In the current setup, the distance from the listener to the loudspeakers is increased significantly, and the loudspeakers now have more symmetrical, extrapolated, certainly not ideal, "side-wall" "reinforcement/reflections" (or lack of).

Case 2 - Klipsch In the case of our friend Bernard, re-positioning of his Klipsch La Scala was one of the seminal events in my recent journey in audio, and was written up in detail here. In this case, after re-positioning, the speakers are firing down a much longer distance, and the side-walls are much more symmetrical.

Case 3 Yamaha FX-3 Although I haven't heard it, my friend Robin's latest coup resulted in exactly the dramatic change for the better, covered here.

There have been quite a few more examples, but these 3 will do. The Room and Loudspeaker Placement are the most important elements in the audio chain, yet most audiophiles do too little in placement, either because of inertia or other constraints. But, if you can try everything!

Vibrapods have Done it Again!
During this visit to Sang's place, I discovered he had several unused packages of Vibrapods. We put them under his sources, the Technics SP-10 and the Sparkler S303 CDP, and in both instances things were significantly improved, more natural and breathing. Wonderful!

29 August, 2016

Robin, Taipei, Un-Tweaking, Townsend Seismic Podium

Click pics to enlarge. Note the Townsend Seismic Podium beneath the Yamaha's. L: Now, after my visit!; R: Before, during my visit.

Home Visit: My Dear Old Friend Robin the Scot
Coupling/Decoupling, Townsend, Stillpoints, 120V/240V, Slate/Acrylic
A Trip to Taiwan

As reported, Robin's house is perched on the Danshui side of Yanmingshan in Taipei, Taiwan, and commands a magnificent open view. His listening room/study is on the top floor. Finally, after more than 4 years, I got to visit him. Equipment has not changed much: R2R: Otari; Turntable: Garrard 301/Thomas Schick/Michell-Incognito-Rega RB300/Ortofon Kontrapunkt B; SUT: EAR MC-4; Preamp: ARC SP-11; Amp: McIntosh MC-275; Loudspeakers: Yamaha FX-3 (now on Townsend Seismic Podium). We spent two afternoons altogether and combed through the system:
  • Accessories As usual, removal of most tweaking accessories (a lot of Stillpoints were used to support the turntable especially) resulted in an easier, freer-flowing sound. Readers should note I do NOT agree with the extravagant claims of most accessory manufacturers - while their products may change the sound for the better in some aspects, they also rob the music of vitality and presence. Almost no exceptions (think Stillpoints, Symposium, Finite Elements, TAOC etc, the list is looong). Ah, cheap and cheerful Vibrapod is a happy exception !
  • 120V/240V Robin has both 240V (HK) and 120V (Taiwan) equipment. Removal of various (step-down/up and isolation) transformers improved the sound. He also found out later that the 240V outlet in the house (like the US, intended for air-con's etc) did not sound good for 240V audio equipment. So, while it is wise to use as few transformers as possible, using the 240V for audio is not desirable.
  • Acrylic/Slate As the Thomas Schick arm had an alignment problem, we decided to swap in the Rega arm, which necessitated a change of plinth, from the acrylic back to the old slate one Robin used before. I must say I prefer the slate (and I am not even sure about that! I like wood even more, good wood at least). Never had too much enthusiasm for supposedly acoustically dead acrylic.
  • deHavilland 222 Tape Playback Preamp (official link) Robin uses this as a headamp for his R2R. The 222 has a preamp section. We tried it out as a full function preamp but its line section did not quite match up to the ARC SP-11 (tall order of challenge!). We shall give it benefit of the doubt as it may not be quite run-in.
  • Townsend Seismic Podium Now, the most interesting part. Robin had these under the loudspeakers. They slide around, making positioning an easy task. As I am usually against spikes, dishes and cones, I was receptive. Suffice to say, I heard nothing bad. I actually think for bulky speakers these are definitely viable, likely superior (though expensive) alternative to spikes. Would love to hear more! Those who want to read more can go to HiFi+, or watch Townsend's own demo video.
  • Short Wall/Long Wall Placement Now, this occurred after I left! I had always advocated firing down the long wall, and the FX-3 is a powerful loudspeaker. Robin had tried this before a long time ago, but didn't quite like it. This time, after I left, he tried it again, and he excitedly told me that everything snapped into focus! In the huge room, the speakers are about 10 ft out into the room. I must hear it! For those who needs convincing, read my incredible experience on Klipsch La Scala!
  • Long Live Yamaha! What incredible loudspeakers, the NS-1000 and the FX-3. Now, when am I going to hear the FX-1???
Taiwan, the Forgotten Land
Taiwan is an interesting island (wiki entry). Because politics, it is rather isolated. And yet, despite this, perhaps even because of it, Taiwanese people, ethnically mostly Chinese, are amazingly friendly and disciplined citizens (compared to their mainland and HK counterparts). The city has a lot more breathing room than crowded HK, and it is quite a livable place. Except for the occasional cigarette butt, the streets are litter-free. I spent two weeks, living in the humblest area of industrial Sanchong, where there are large populations of Thai and Vietnam people (imported laborers). Every morning I get my coffee (better than Starbucks) at the local 711. I had trouble when I came back to congested HK. Some pics:

Wonton with Side Dishes of Bamboo Shoots and Dried Bean Curd 溫州大餛飩,油燜筍,拌豆腐皮
 Halal Noodle with Beef 清真牛肉麵
 Morning Coffee at Spacious 711 的早上,咖啡不錯
Bullet Train 台南高鐵站
 All Along the Railroad, Neat, Modern Farms 一路翠綠,農業井井有條
 Inside Kaoshiung Terminal 高雄高鐵站
Chenqing Lake,Gaoshiung 高雄澄清湖
 View from Gaoshiung City Park 高雄市公園一灠
 Small Night Market in Taipei 臺北小夜市
 An Amazingly Beautiful Park under the Chongxin Bridge 重新橋下打造了個諾大而漂亮的公園

10 June, 2016

Direct Drive Turntables

Brief Overview: Direct Drive Turntables (with budget emphasis)

UNDESERVED BAD REPUTATION Audiophile Aversions Among audiophiles, direct drive turntables as a genre has a reputation of being hard-hitting, lean sounding, even crude or only for DJ's. Some of this is because the average audiophile only knows the cheaper Direct Drives or the ones intended for DJ use. Fact is, there were many esoteric hi-end turntables (except for EMT, majority Japanese) that are classics and coveted by connoisseurs. Another factor is due to the Linn-led suspended table, belt drive crusade (for it was really that) - any other methodology (including my favorite, Idler Wheel Drives) were deemed heretical and adherents burned at the stakes (spectacles even now staged on the internet). Motor Noise One of the important turntable design parameters is how to isolate the motor noise for a supposedly clear midband. Belt drives do this with relative ease (though a lot depends on how you mount the motor), but all the great direct drives have Herculean engineering to minimize this. It is all in the implementation. Why I like them While I'd not deny belt drives do have their own set of virtues, I have always liked Direct Drives for their speed, transients (much as you would for panel speakers) and slam. As noted above, I appreciate all kinds of design. Maybe a Direct Drive should not be your only turntable, but it should be one of several. The Direct Drive's Rhythm and Pace is different from the Belt Drive (or even the Idler Wheel), a little more insistent (even take-no-prisoner), less subtle, but undeniably exciting if you can tame its "undesirable" aspects. Another reason I like Direct Drives is because they are less cluttered, usually more compact and, though suspension-less, heavy for size. Also, Classic Direct-Drives are Screaming Bargains, because a High-Torque Direct Drive Motor is very expensive to develop and produce. Take the Technics SL-1200, its price (then and even now) is so reasonable only because it sold in huge numbers. By comparison, a second-hand Linn LP-12, with a cheap low-torque motor, is NOT innovative, and NOT a good buy!

Current Revival Fashion recycles; styles that have gone out of fashion all of a sudden make a comeback. This is no less true for audio. While belt drive still rules the analog hi-end (albeit in suspensionless designs mostly), tides are certainly turning for the Direct Drive, as in recent years quite a few new direct drive designs have emerged (Read the informative article by Roy Gregory in theaudiobeat). Many of those mentioned in the article have reviews on the net, and it is fun reading them, just google the manufacturer's name and direct drive. No doubt more is to come. Also, in Stereophile, Herb Reichert gave a rave review of the Pioneer PLX-1000, a clone of the Technics SL-1200.

 Drive Turntables - My Experience
  • Price/Performance Ratio Current vs Classics I'd be interested in comparing the current crop (pretty expensive, understandably) against the classics, say the cheapest and ubiquitous Technics SL-1200! Someday I hope... Classics vs Classics This gets more interesting. Disclamer: I don't own the most expensive ones, but since EMT's and classic Japanese turntables are popular in HK, I have heard a lot. If you stick to Technics, It is definitely true the more expensive SP-10 is better than the SL-1200. BUT, imho they are the bargains among quality Direct-Drives, maybe even "giant-killers". Some classic Direct Drives, like Micro Seiki, Pioneer P3(a), not to mention EMT's, command a very high price, but should you spend so much? Here is an anecdote: my friend Edward once asked Walt Bender, godfather of vintage gears, about EMT, and he said he thought the Technics SL-1200 is just as good, and totally under-valued. Well, take it with a grain of salt - aside from mechanics, they do sound quite different. Point is, for a modest outlay, one can get a very good direct drive design.
  • Technics SL-1200 General The most famous of direct drives is without a doubt the Technics SL-1200 and variants, in constant production for decades and a DJ staple. I need not further elaborate as there is a huge amount of info on the internet. Literally, millions have been sold (unique among "hifi" gears), and as a result, obtaining one is not difficult (though still escalating in value). Also, many parts are available, so refurbication is not a problem. Mods Given the underground cult (deserving imho) there are many hifi mods dedicated to them, chief among them KAB. But I think the most significant mod would be to replace the tonearm, a somewhat laborious project (guides available on the net). Re-Birth! The SL-1200 has been discontinued for a few years, but a completely updated anniversary edition, and maybe more, are coming the summer of 2016. It has just received a rave review from HiFi News (not yet on the net). This one is immortal! My Experience This is the one of two turntables that I have in both NYC and HK (the other is Thorens TD-124). For my own general experience see here, also here for matching with the incomparable Decca cartridge. Currently, in NYC I use it with my mono Denon DL-102 (here). All those combo's - how's that for versatility? The Technics SL-1200 is not as good as the SP-10, but it is mighty good! I have never heard a modified one, but I'd be curious. One day, I'd hope to go that route too, although I have to say, given my variety of experience, I don't think the stock arm is that bad!
  • SL-120 This is a curiosity, more for home use than DJ purposes. Unlike the SL-1200, it is not quartz-locked and the motor is an enclosed type (which some say is better). It has an armboard, which allows mating with any tonearm, an advantage over the SL-1200. If you see one with a suitable arm board for you, buy it! An after-market armboard costs a bit, and if you subtract that sum from your cost, the turntable really costs very little. I just acquired one in HK (SME board) and you shall hear more from me.
  • Technics SP-10 (top pic; info here) This is Technics at its pinnacle, and my personal favorite. The sound has bite, but is smoother than the SL-1200 - everything is just a little better. For my experience, see here and here (which includes a link to the Revox direct-drive). It is commonly said that the plinth is undesirable, but I personally have never heard feedback or unwanted noises emanating from that. That said, recently at my friend seng's place, putting Vibrapods under the feet dramatically improved the fluency of the sound. In HK, a noted audiophile, limage, has stuck with this TT for decades, and he gets good sound from it. This is worth all you can throw at it (if you are convinced your measures will work). Unfortunately, it is getting more expensive.
  • Audio-Technica AT-PL120/AT-LP120USB These are basically the same thing, with the current version sporting USB ADC for digitizing purposes (and reversing PL for LP). This is a blatant clone of Technics SL-1200. Although still massive at 27 lbs, it is made in China and not as sturdy as the Technics (one knock at the plinth's surface and you'd know; a hollow sound vs the Technics' dull thud - plastic vs metal). Perhaps it is too cheap (in street price) for its own good. For some reason, I have never formally "reviewed it", but my satisfaction can be gleamed from my experience with the Empire Cartridges (here) and Shure SC35C (here). Note here that for the last month, partly fueled on by Andy, I had been playing with MM's using this turntable. I cannot say things were as refined as my other more expensive turntables sporting MC's, but I can say I really did not feel much was wanting. I'd think there's no better testament to its value. Also, its built in phonoamp (MM) is not bad at all, making it a screaming bargain.
  • Taiwanese "Super OEM" Hanpin While researching, I read this: "...As vinyl began to wane as a mainstream format, Chinese (editor: Taiwan) company Hanpin produced the ‘Super OEM’ turntable, the most well-known model of which is the Stanton STR8-150, but which has been adapted and re-badged by numerous companies. What the Super OEM had in it’s favour, besides good build quality, was that it was the first deck to take advantage of the expiration of the Technics motor patent. So, finally, there was a Technics ‘clone’ on the market with truly similar performance.
    The beauty of the Hanpin design is that, working from a solid base with that motor, manufacturers are free to then innovate around that. So bell & whistle features like line-level output, reverse play, pitch correction, and digital pitch readouts have all appeared on Super OEM decks, reaching a zenith with the Reloop RP-8000 and it’s built in midi controls..."
    So, there it is. The Audio Technica AT-LP120(USB) is made by Hanpin. The aforementioned Pioneer PLX-1000 too (see Stereophile link above). Somehow, I doubt the more than twice as expensive Pioneer is built much better. I'd be most curious to hear the Pioneer though. I also would love to hear Hanpin's own copy (official link here). I wonder if Hanpin is one of the reasons why Technics ceased production of the 1200? If so, that is a bad thing!
  • EMT (950/948/938) I have never owned one, but they are popular among Asian vintage collectors. Hence, in both NYC and HK I have heard many (including the non-direct-drive ones, like the 927 and 930). EMT is well documented on the internet (try the wiki entry; stefanopassini, emt-profi.de and febtech.de). Most of the EMT's are not direct-drives and imho they are now way over-priced. However, the direct-drive 950 does have a fair claim to be the best direct-drive turntable. Although the price is sky-high one should keep in mind it was very expensive originally. As for the sound, it is hard to assess the turntable individually, as they are usually used with their own 12" arms and EMT cartridges, which like Ortofon's SPU's, have a full midrange sound that is noticeably not modern (which is what many prefer, but I have my reservations). In NYC, my friend Andy has a good 950 setup, and in HK I have heard the related 948 (here) to good effect. I have never heard the 938.
  • Goldmund Studio As mentioned in theaudiobeat, this is a classic, and a curiosity. The most interesting thing about it is that it is built by Audiomeca, with a suspended direct drive! I have heard one in my friend Andy's place to good effect.
  • Revox (790/791/795) These look very elegant. I owe the 791 (with a Shure cartridge) and the sound was lean and certainly take-no-prisoner! Unfortunately, it broke down (an often occurence) and I have yet to service it.
  • Micro Seiki Here is a very interesting article, with valuable links. Again, the brand is very popular in Asia. Micro Seiki made all sorts of turntables but the ones I have heard tend to be hi-end models, including direct drives. Somehow, most of them sound kind of mechanical to me. Not one of my favorite brand.
  • Pioneer I have heard several times (like here) the expensive and iconic P3, usually to good effect. However, I never got the feeling that it is much better than its much cheaper Technics brethens. That said, I have never used one myself.
  • Rockport Sirius III This is yet another all-out effort. I have heard it previously in HK to good effect. Anyone interested in direct drives should read this huge article in IAR. Note that Rockport is notorious for not supporting their old products. Thumbs down.
p.s. This article is not meant to be exhaustive, concentrating on my own experience mostly.

08 June, 2016

Headphone Fiio X-1 AuGlamour R8

Headphone: The Bus Ride
Review: FIIO X-1, Part II
AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones, Part II

Part I

Yesterday was yumcha day, and I travelled by bus. By the time I got home I had managed to listen to 9 Beethoven sonatas on my FIIO X-1. I used the AuGlamour R8.

Listening on the Bus
Like the UK, HK's buses are mostly double-deckers. Except for the stairwell, the upper deck is sealed and hence quite quiet in terms of isolation from outside noise, which makes it ideal for headphone listening. The MTR (subway) is in comparison less ideal.

I have only used the FIIO X-1 for a few weeks, and I usually only ride the bus on Saturdays, yet I have already listened to 2 cycles of Bach Cello Suites (Jean Max Clement, Jan Vogler) and 1 of his Solo Violin music (Amandine Beyer). Now I have started listening to Annie Fischer's almost complete Beethoven cycle.

What prompts me to write this article is that for at least two of the artists my perception of their playing through headphone is quite different from listening to the CDs on my regular systems:

In the case of Jean Max Clement, whose original L'Oiseau Lyre LP's cost a fortune, with my regular system I find the playing nuanced but too refined, ultimately a little flat and boring. With the upfront sound of the AuGlamour R8, I could relish more in the minutiae, subtle inflections and coloristic efforts. Indeed it seemed more lively and dynamic.

As for Annie Fischer's Beethoven, this is a rather idiosyncratic cycle, made late in her career with many out-takes and much editing. With my regular system, everything seem rather piecemeal, one moment (a few bars to a whole movement) of brilliance followed by something prosaic and unnatural. With the earphones, that feeling certainly does not completely go away, but one can revel more in her brilliance than her waywardness, making it a more enjoyable experience.

For the other musicians cited (Beyer's Bach, Vogler's Bach), the headphone experience is commensurate with listening to the regular systems.

I mulled on my experience and had a discussion with my friend whlee, who also once used earphones. We came up with some observations.

Thoughts on (Headphone) Listening
  • The On-The-Go Factor The average audiophile thinks sitting down in the so-called "sweet-spot", perhaps drawing the curtains and dimming the lights, makes for the best listening. While that is indeed a simulation of the "live experience", I ask what are we focusing on? There is no real performer to hold our breath for...we can concentrate on listening to the music, but it still is a far cry from the real venue. On-The-Go is different - we feel alive, partaker of our own fate. It is well known people, even seasoned listeners, enjoy car music. In what is basically a bubble, one can listen to NYC's WQXR happily while travelling to upstate NY. This is because while riding, we get a lot of stimulation from the scenery. In a way, not so different from watching a movie - think Terrence Malick's Tree of Life, where the music and scenery reinforce each other. That we enjoy it so much on the go does not at all mean it is better than our home setup - it is just different. E.g., overall, the Annie Fischer and Jean Max Clement are lacking in overall flow and coherence, but with the earphones one gets distracted by the heightened microdynamics, minute details and not mind so much the lack of flow.   
  • Near-Field vs Perspective While the headphone listening experience is for certain "near-field" ("near-head" is more accurate; how can it not be when we are wearing the cans on our heads?), it is not completely devoid of perspective, but no matter how good the phones are, they are still "near". Indeed, the sound is directly pumped into the ears, devoid of any reflections - absolutely no simulation of the live venue. Near-Field This is closer to the headphone experience, but not the same. Even a near-field setup in a room has plenty of reflected sound, though one may not be aware. Near-Field vs Mid or Back Row Perspective One can setup an audio system based on near-field listening (as studios do) or from a perspective farther away. Most home and hi-end systems gravitate more towards the latter. This would favor orchestral music and less so chamber and solo music. The headphone is exactly the opposite: The big music, Mahler, Bruckner, don't do so well on the earphones, but the smaller ensembles, jazz and chamber music, can do better. which is why I do not even load complex music onto my FIIO X-1.
  • Judging a performance Listening to earphones yields a different perspective, but it is not one ideally suited to evaluating the merit of a component or a performance - being akin to the kind of "Heightened Awareness" under the influence of drugs or alcoholThe musical examples cited above illustrate my view. As a corollary, "reviews" by head-fi sites are to be taken with a grain of salt, if not worthless.
  • Listen to More Music The whole point of using the media player and earphones is to listen to (catch up with) more music. A basic level of competency is enough. To make extravagant claims is ridiculous.
I enjoy my humble setup very much but have no desire to spend a lot more money for this kind of listening.

01 June, 2016

FIIO X-1, Logitech/Ultimate Ears, AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones

Image result for fiio x1 cnetReview: FIIO X-1, Part I
Review: Cheap Logitech/Ultimate Ears, AuGlamour R8 In-Ear Earphones

Many readers ask me why I review so few Chinese products. Well, in terms of the serious high-end, many questions about quality control, component authenticity and aesthetics remain. I also detest copy-cat items: I'd rather buy a real 47 Lab than a me-too (or worse, "improved") gain-clone (I don't like the name clone, period), you get the idea.

But the portability market (computers, cellphones, media players etc) is a different issue altogether. SM components can yield good sound but have much less value for counterfeiters, and we ourselves don't expect them to last very long. In this arena Chinese products are fiercely competitive - indeed they should be, and they are.

Head-Fi for Me?
Good question. I occasionally use headphones. But I certainly do not do it often. If one refers to reproduction of the live event, Head-Fi is inherently inferior and low-fi, period. The current Head-Fi scene is to me regrettable. These fellows rate DAC's and phonoamps and more based on what they hear in cans. AND, manufacturers cater to them just to sell things!

My Headphone Experience Lest you think I know nothing about headphones, read my Talk-Headphone articles, where you know exactly where I stand vis a vis headphones and the head-fi scene. And I haven't even posted my impressions of STAX!

BUT, this article is different. It is very basic, and I make use of only two very cheap In-Ear's.

Oh, I almost forgot to tell you where I use the setup. Occasionally on a long bus trip, sometimes while cooking...

The Chinese company Fiio has been making head-waves for quite a while. Their products have received great reviews.

Bach: Suites for Solo Cello 1-6Built What more can you ask for USD 99? I actually adore the black rubber outer casing.

Ergonomics Definitely not the best, but certainly good enough.

Image result for beyer bach amandineFile Hiccups I haven't read about this in any review. Many classical sets have more than one CD. The X-1 gets thoroughly mixed up when it comes to multi-disc sets. The pictured 2-disc sets got jumbled together: instead of playing disc 1, track 2 of the violin set after its track 1, it plays instead disc 1, track 1 of the cello set, and so forth. You have to create albums on the computer to counter this. Manually file all the violin tracks into album "Bach Solo Violin Beyer" and do the same for the cello under "Bach Solo Cello Vogler" (names mine). Then "browse files" and hit the albums you have created.

Classical listeners have long known this. CAS has never been for them. A huge amount of editing is required to get where you want.

Logitech/Ultimate Ears (UE) In-Ears (right pic) While its pro offerings are well documented, Logitech/Ultimate Ears' cheap in-ears are orphans left in the wild. Mine are USD 20, similar to these.

Fit With the right earpieces, these simply insert into the ears with no fuss. They do not quite completely block outside sound but are well sealed off enough to hear the music even on trains and bus (I personally want a little outside sound to come through, for safety reasons).

AuGlamour R8 Some time ago, there was an official site, but it seemed to have been hacked and is defunct as of this writing. Read the head-fi article for info and pics. Mine is the black, supposedly more "neutral" version.

I dislike the name. "glamour" is feminine in French, hence "la glamour"; "au" is masculine and incorrect;  "a la glamour" would be more like it though still unidiomatic. This kind of thing is exactly what irks me about the Chinese products! Instead of a simple, plausible name, why be pretentious?

A friend recommended these for RMB200 (around USD 30) so I got a set not even knowing what it is. The packaging is luxurious but I dislike the looks of these phones because they are blatantly copies of their more expensive counterparts (including UE).

Fit With the complicated ear-loop and weight, these prove surprisingly difficult to fit. The "luxurious" metal weight, liked by some, is asinine to me, tiring in the long term. The seal is reasonably good, but for my left ear I could never get them to fit perfectly. I do find these a little too heavy for my taste. After listening for an hour, the outer skin of my ears get a little sore.

Sonic Impressions
  • FIIO X1 No complaint at all. Except for the unfriendly interface for classical listeners (which is universal), it does what I'd like it to do. Sound is good enough, as it reveals recording differences and seems rather neutral to me. In NYC I did try it briefly with my Audio-Technica AT-750 and Grado SR80 phones, and it drove them with aplomb. I have the equalization OFF, but they are interesting (the classical one has bass boost). Recommended.
  • UE No complaints either. These have a very comfortable fit and sound is airy and good enough for most material. I did use it to listen to a radio (RTHK4) broadcast of Bruckner Symphony No. 4. There it proved a little too lightweight. But these shall be my casual/go-to average use in-ears.
  • AuGlamour R8 These need some run-in. Initially they are rather dry. The R8 stands out for ONE thing - a deeper and more powerful bass. The midband however is a little forward and the treble somewhat sand-papery in quality. In general, these sound somewhat shut-in. For casual listening, I prefer the cheap UE's. However, the R8  lends more needed weight and dynamics to the same Bruckner broadcast mentioned above. After almost an hour of Bruckner, the skin of my ears were just a little tired from bearing those metal weights. Overall, jazz fans, like my friend, may take to these more than I (bass impact, upfront sound).
I am glad to have both.