All posts by Blackthorne

Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls

The Audio Research LS-3 Preamplifier (shown above) not only lacks tone controls of any kind, but it also incorporates a “direct” switch that bypasses the balance and selector switches as well, leaving only the volume control active.  Audio Research has been in the high end audio game since 1970 and has been at the very top of the amplification food chain for nearly 45 years.  They go to great lengths to fully preserve the integrity of analog signal paths, even in the necessary RIAA phono stage (see I may be a purist, but…).  As far as I know, they haven’t provided tone controls on their preamplifiers since the SP-3, released in 1972.  Why?..  Tone controls are, by definition, a degradation of an analog audio signal path.

In fact, any circuitry that is “incidental” to the task of amplification is a degradation of the signal path, and very little is essential.  This doesn’t mean that what’s there isn’t important, but what’s not there is just as important.  A volume control is necessary, as is a selector switch of some kind, phono stage circuitry for vinyl, and in most cases a balance control – both of my listening rooms require an increase of about 2 or 3 decibels in the right channel for proper sound staging, and source components are rarely perfectly balanced between left and right channels.

My Denon 103 phono cartridge (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…) shipped with the left and right output voltages individually measured, and I discovered the lucky coincidence (even before I checked the hand-measured specifications) that the right channel output is just enough higher than the left to perfectly balance out my room acoustics (right channel output = 0.42 mV, left channel output = 0.39 mV).  But that was just that, a lucky coincidence and it could have easily gone the opposite way, making a balance control absolutely essential (or swapping out the left and right channels and thereby reversing the sound stage).

Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.
Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.

Nearly all Japanese providers of high end audio components in the late 1970s and early 1980s took an opposite approach – the more tone controls and signal manipulations the better since you could use them to create a “flat” frequency response at your listening position in the room.  Of course very few listeners used these controls to this end, but rather boosted bass and treble to compensate for inadequacies in either their sources, amplification components, or loudspeakers.  Most Japanese components of that era even had a “loudness” control that performed the boosts (corresponding degradation of the signal path) at the flip of a switch.  One look at this Sansui integrated amplifier made from 1970 to 1973 tells the story (Doing a little research on vintage Sansui for a customer…).

The Sansui AU-555 Integrated Amplifier has a prolifieration of tone controls and other circuit modifications.
The Sansui AU-555 Integrated Amplifier has a prolifieration of tone controls and other circuit modifications.

And who else remembers the elaborate “graphic equalizers” that became popular shortly thereafter?…  Lots of lights and sliding controls to insure “proper” degradation of your signal path.

A typical graphic equalizer.
A typical graphic equalizer.

And, perhaps even more offensive to audiophiles, the original DBX 3BX signal processing unit that propurted to somehow, magically, create a delay in your 2 channel system (no 5.1 surround sound here) that simulates the acoustics of a concert hall… seriously?!

The Original DBX 3BX Signal Processing Unit
The Original DBX 3BX Signal Processing Unit

I was never a fan, and opted out but was definitely in the minority at the time.  Don’t get me wrong, some of these units have a place in pro-audio for live performances in venues with acoustics that vary drastically from location to location, but that’s not how these units were being marketed when first released in the early 1980s (the DBX 3BX came out in 1982).  They were “engineered” and sold to the home audio consumer market, and even some high end audiophile retailers began to adopt them.

Not to mention trashing your analog signal path, I also view the corresponding lights very distracting to the listening experience.  I even go so far as to apply black tape over any unnecessary lights on my components (which is all of them – even clipping lights on power amplifiers assuming one can hear when their amp is clipping).  Some manufactures recognize this and allow the option to extingish such lights (thank you Marantz DSD DAC), and some would rather make sure their logo or other bright (and sometimes even flashing) lights are prominent.  Not to bash anyone here, but anyone who’s owned Emotiva gear is fully aware of the “Emotiva Blues” – their crazy bright blue lights, some incorporating their logo and not all of which can be extinguished.  Ok, so I’m bashing.  I could bash Emotiva all day on many counts, but I suppose they are filling a modern-day niche in the mid-fi market.

Difficult room acoustics can be handled in many other ways, certainly without modification of the analog signal path and most of the time without even resorting to expensive room treatment accessories (see How to upgrade your existing system without spending a nickel and A free upgrade for your planar speakers).  I admit I’m a purist and listening to music is a personal endeavor and as such some may prefer drastic alterations to their signal path and accompanying flashing lights.  If that’s the case I would respectfully suggest, however, not over-spending on source components, amplifiers, or loudspeakers since the extra cash for very high end audiophile gear is spent to fastidiously accomplish exactly the opposite.

The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…

The famous Denon DL 103 low output moving coil (LOMC) phono cartridge was originally designed for professional broadcast use in 1962.  Production has continued uninterrupted since then.  That’s right, 53 years and counting.

Why?…  It’s an amazing cartridge with unparalleled transient response.  It’s a fussy player, very fussy.  It demands proper tonearm compliance (i.e. high moving mass) and rated at just 0.39 mV output it’s also very demanding of even the best moving coil phono stages or regular ones coupled with step up transformers or pre-preamplifiers.

So how has this fussy cartridge, dedicated for the broadcast industry that has left it and all other phono cartridges far behind, survived and prospered all these years?  “The proof is in the pudding” is a phrase that comes to mind.  This exemplary moving coil phono cartridge was adopted by audiophiles very shortly after it’s release.  It’s sort of like the Quad ESL loudspeaker when it first came out, immediate legendary status.  Now, 53 years later, you can still purchase a Denon 103 for around $175 street price, making it the bargain of all time for phono cartridges, bar none.  It even ships with an individually plotted frequency response curve and individually measured left and right channel output levels.  When I visited Zu Audio in Ogden, Utah; a high end audio company doing modifications for the Denon 103, the owner said he’s been out of stock for months.  When I inquired as to why, he replied, “I think the engineer doing the frequency response graphs got behind”.  Ha, I love it!

Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.
Each Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge is individually tested for output levels and frequency response and ships with the corresponding data sheet.

Of course, you can add anywhere from $500 to $2k for quality step-up transformers to couple the Denon 103 with a regular moving magnet (MM) phono stage, or spend around $20k for a Pass Labs phono stage that will handle the low output of the Denon 103 with aplomb, but this legendary phono cartridge won’t seem like such a bargain anymore.  Especially considering that modern turntables with tonearms capable of handling the compliance requirements of the Denon 103 start at around $5k and quickly escalate to $30k.

So how can a budget audiophile bask in all the goodness the Denon 103 has to offer?…  Vintage gear.   You can purchase a Nelson Pass moving coil phono stage dressed up as a Nakamichi preamplifier for around $500 (How to get a moving coil phono stage for free) and vintage Denon direct drive turntables complete with low-compliance tonearms capable of handling the 103 also start around $500 (Denon DP-790W turntable review).  Of course, you need to know your vintage gear and assess for bulging capacitors, fried resistors, blown transistors, etc (The vintage “crap shoot”).

The Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge shown on the left, and the 103R shown on right.
The Denon 103 moving coil phono cartridge shown on the left, and the 103R shown on right.

So all that said, let’s go back to the original topic, the Denon 103 vs. the Denon 103R.  With a street price of around $275, the 103R was a “no brainer” when shopping for my vinyl-oriented Maui system and I definitely wanted to give it a try – I had never heard it before since it was released in 1994.  It is marketed as a “6N” cartridge.  Why?…  Because the copper in its moving coils is rated with a purity of 99.9999%.  Too funny.

The bottom line is the 103R has even lower moving mass (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers) than the 103 and a correspondingly lower output voltage of around .25mV vs around .39mV for the original 103 (remember, these are individually tested and measured for every hand-made Denon 103 leaving the factory in Japan).  Plus the 103R has some nice gold lettering on it, dressing it up nicely, but the cartridge body remains identical to the original 103.

When it came time to purchase a phono cartridge for my digitally-oriented Canada system, I figured why not get an original 103 and listen and compare it to the 103R on my Maui system prior to bringing it north of the border.  Everything is less expensive in the USA vs. Canada anyway, but that’s another topic.

So into the tonearm of my Denon direct drive TT my new 103 went, temporarily replacing my beloved 103R.  I promised myself to give the 103 at least 50 hours of break-in prior to any evaluations, and even left it in the run-out groove of some albums to loosen it up.  But, that proved completely unnecessary.  I found myself sitting down and enjoying the 103 immediately.  Whenever I dropped the needle I wanted to jump into the listening chair and enJoy.  Even at low levels, this cartridge sings.  Even more so for it’s higher output levels.  Let’s face facts, signal-to-noise ratios are going to improve as output levels in the coils increase, that’s just common sense.  Any pre-preamplifier or step-up-transformer has the opportunity to add noise, and the greater the amplification of that device, the more noise.

After listening to the original Denon 103 LOMC for a couple weeks, I don’t feel compelled to replace it with the 103R… at all.  Maybe if I did blind A/B testing and I really tried to hear a difference, I could.  Or, maybe not.  I kind of feel like if I need to go to those lengths than what’s the point?   I’d be loosing the forest through the trees and no longer just loving the music I’m listening to (Losing the forest through the trees?…).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not “dissing” Denon at all here.  If anything, I applaud their efforts to improve on perfection.  I fell in love with their 103 LOMC cartridge in the late 70s, playing it with in a Decca tonearm on a Techniques SP-10 MkII deck into Magnepan Tympani 1D planar loudspeakers.  And now, 37 years later I’m still in love with it.  Either the 103 or the 103R can follow the grooves on my vinyl any day, all day.  They are both “giant slayers” in my book.  And, corrected for inflation, they both sell for far less than when they were originally released.

The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier

This legendary solid state preamplifier is the mate for the Nak PA-7 power amp (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier).  It is also designed by Nelson Pass and follows the same precepts as his Threshold (and later Pass Labs) preamps and power amps, which is simple, short circuit topology with nothing but the highest quality fully discrete components in the entirety of the signal path.  It lacks anything non-essential to that end, including tone controls of any kind (Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls).  Nakamichi later released the CA-5AII, replete with tone controls, which makes the original CA-5A widely recognized as “the one to get”, even though the CA-5AII has a defeat switch it still adds additional, sound sucking and sound altering tone control circuitry.

One look at a “nude” photo of the CA-5A tells the whole story.  Three beefy copper power rails running down the middle of it’s “dual mono” circuit board (which is important to reduce crosstalk between left and right channels, which compromises the stereo imaging), very short wire runs, very few circuit board traces, and nothing but top quality parts, including all ALPS for the controls (ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches), and you can really feel the quality when you use them.  Nelson Pass went on to separate the power supply into a separate chassis, which is the design in his Threshold FET 9 preamp.

The Nakamichi CA-5A cartridge loading options
The Nakamichi CA-5A cartridge loading options

The photo above shows the cartridge loading options I look for, including provisions for moving coil cartridges such as the Denon 103R (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…).  In fact, cartridge loading is the only slightly complex circuitry in this entire preamp, but is essential to top notch phono playback.  Audio Research went so far as to eliminate the cartridge loading circuitry entirely in their SP9 Mk II preamplifier (I may be a purist, but…).  Instead they, ship the resistors and capacitors necessary to change it with the preamp itself.  While I agree with this approach in theory, in practice it’s a real pain in the ass to have to remove and replace (by soldering and desoldering) resistors and capacitors just to optimize your phono section for your chosen cartridge.

Beauty in simplicity best describes the Nakamichi CA-5A circuit topology
Beauty in simplicity best describes the Nakamichi CA-5A circuit topology

If you look at the schematic in the photo above you can immediately see how simple the circuitry in the Nak CA-5A is.  The blocks labeled on the schematic diagram are even labeled on the PCB (Printed Circuit Board) itself.  The Nakamichi CA-5A clearly subscribes to the “less is more” approach.

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier

I’ve lusted after this power amplifier ever since it came out in 1988.  It just looked so damn sexy.  It originally retailed for $1,595 which isn’t a lot by today’s standards but certainly was back then, especially for a recent college grad trying to get ahead in San Francisco.   So I never owned it and instead settled on the lessor Nelson Pass design in the form of the Adcom GFA-555II to power my Martin Logan Sequel IIs at the time.  Well, I ultimately ended up with two GFA-555s powering those Sequel IIs and still wasn’t satisfied, but that’s another story (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers).

So fast forward 26 years and I’m on the hunt for an appropriate  power amplifier for my chosen Maggie MG-12s.  This baby had been on Kijiji (Canada’s Craig’s List) for a few weeks for exactly half the original retail price, not bad 26 years later but still a friggin bargain for anyone comparing it to present new offerings.  But it was in Edmonton, a 3.5 hour drive from Canmore.   I ultimately decided to make the trip to have a look at the PA-7 as well as a couple other vintage high end audio components, which I also purchased (An Edmonton audio-venture (names changed to protect the guilty)).

So what first caught my attention about the PA-7 was it’s gorgeous build quality and industrial design, a fine example of industrial art (thank you Nakamichi).

The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier - amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design.  Beauty and the (high current) beast.
The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier – amazing circuity topology and components meet gorgeous industrial design. Beauty and the (high current) beast.

I can remember like it was yesterday the first time I set eyes on this baby.  It’s mesmerizing and belongs in a museum of industrial design.  Let’s face it, brute strength power amps aren’t usually a thing of beauty, but this one is truly “beauty and the beast”.  Everyone already knows that Nakamichi made it’s name on the very best quality home audio cassette decks in the late 1970s.  So they had cash to burn, and wanted to become a major player in the high end audio market, which was dominated by US designers and manufacturers.  So what do they do?…  They recruit Nelson Pass (of Threshold) as a “hired gun” and combine his designs and circuit topology with their deep pockets and efficient production techniques.  The result?…  What is essentially a Threshold power amplifier but way better looking and less than half the price.

They were supposed to just license his STASIS technology, which combines the benefits of Class A amplification without the drawbacks (runs stupid hot = very low reliability) into a hybrid Class A/Class AB power amplifier with optical bias.  Well, they didn’t just license STASIS.  Rather, the first generation of the PA-7 is a direct copy of the equivalent Threshold amp.  A lawsuit ensues, then Nakamichi releases the PA-7II with an altered design providing 25 more WPC (watts per channel) and a higher price tag.  But everyone knew then and knows now that the original PA-7 was, “the one to get”.  As a side note I also sourced a Nakamichi CA-5A pre amp of the same era which was also designed by Nelson Pass and executed by Nakamichi for my Maui system (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier).

I found an interesting review on the now legendary PA-7 in Tone Publications, an online magazine I’d never heard of but certainly agree with the author’s findings.  It’s interesting, since he ended up pairing the PA-7 with an Audio Research SP 9 Mark II preamp and a pair of Magnepan loudspeakers, just as I did.  It all makes perfect sense in retrospect.  I found myself there by time spent in the listening chair, not reading reviews, much as I suspect he did…

http://www.tonepublications.com/old-school/nakamichi-pa-7-amplifier/

It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers

When you think about it, it’s just common sense.  A low mass phono cartridge is going to track the nuances and subtle but rapid transient changes of a record groove more nimbly and with greater aplomb than one that is burdened with the task of throwing extra weight around.  That’s the whole idea behind moving coil cartridges (which are universally recognized for their phenomenal transient response), reduce the moving weight by putting the coils rather than the magnets on the end of the stylus cantilever since their mass is so much lower (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…).  It’s the same with almost any high performance gear that requires fast response, from race car suspensions to avionics – the objective is to lower moving mass.

But listening to music is far more subjective than checking lap times on a race track, so some will prefer the sound characteristics of slower moving traditional speaker drivers and/or phono cartridges, even though their “performance” is hindered by their (quite literally) massive designs.  I’ll say one thing though, the first time you hear familiar music reproduced with low mass transducers (i.e a moving coil phono cartridge well matched with a pair of planar loudspeakers) will be revelatory and you will likely fall completely in love or be utterly disappointed.  It’s one of those classic love/hate scenarios.  Why?  Because the very thing that makes these speaker drivers  perform so well at high frequencies is their achilles heel for low frequencies (a low mass phono cartridge is typically good for the full frequency range, however).  So let’s look at the physics involved in low-mass loudspeaker designs.

Ribbon tweeter transducers are the very lowest mass and their thickness is measured as low as 4 microns, but their implementation is limited to high frequencies.  Electrostatic membranes come in a close second and are typically 10 to 20 microns thick (those manufactured by Martin Logan are 12 microns), and quasi-ribbon membranes are a distant third at around 500 microns (or 0.5 mm).  To put these numbers in perspective, the thickness of a typical human hair varies from around 50 to 120 microns and averages in around 100 microns.  Let’s look at each type of transducer separately.

Ribbon tweeter transducers:
A ribbon tweeter uses a very thin membrane suspended in a powerful magnetic field to reproduce high frequencies.  In their purest form, the electrical properties of the membrane itself suffice, such as when aluminum is utilized.  Other forms use metalized plastic film, where a very thin deposition of conductive material is applied to create a planar voice coil (though it’s not a coil at all, but rather evenly deposited over the entire membrane).  Ribbon tweeters are extrodinarily accurate but also are very limited in frequency response.

Being so thin, they are also extremely fragile.  Not such an issue with the small and enclosed traditional ribbon tweeter.  But with the revolutionary 55″ long Magnepan ribbon tweeter, just dropping them flat on the floor will rupture the membrane, as will vacuuming the Maggies cloth cover, or even leaving a door to your listening room open on a windy day.  Fortunately, the membrane itself is user-replacable at nominal cost (although not covered under warranty).

Many speaker manufacturers have experimented with arrays of ribbon tweeters in an attempt to create a larger line source and therefore overcome their individual limitations.  The monsterous Infinity IRS (thankfully short for “Infinity Reference Standard”) with it’s elaborate arrays of EMITs (their marketing jargon for ribbon tweeters)  comes to mind as a good example, but at nearly eight feet tall and with two separate cabinets per channel they are far from practical for most homes (see photo below).

Infinity IRS

Electrostatic transducers:
Electrostatic loudspeakers (ESLs) use a transducer that consists of an utra-thin acoustic membranes charged to several thousand volts off wall current through a step-up transformer.  This membrane is suspended between two stators that are fed from the power amplifier output via another step-up transformer connected in the signal path.

The ESL design has been around for decades.  Anyone who has heard of (or heard) the Quad ESL that originated in the 1950s will also remember what a breakthrough that loudspeaker was.  It brought ESL technology into a workable, (almost) full range speaker for the first time.  Although it was severely handicapped in many respects, it offered up sonic goods that were unprecedented and put ESL technology firmly on the audiophile map.  Many companies followed suit, Apogee being one of the main early players, but most came and went.  When Martin Logan showed up on the scene they brought a combination of technical innovation and fiscal staying power that ensured the technology persevered.  In 1986 Martin Logan offered up the very well received CLS (Curvilinear Line Source) model.  Their large, curved panels effectively solved three issues with ESLs – beaming from a line source creating a very small “sweet spot” (i.e. listening position), dipolar radiation canceling out lower frequencies as they pass around the side edges of the panel, and limited frequency response (their specifications claim the CLS goes down to 45 Hz).

These design precepts continue unchanged in Martin Logan speakers to this day, but very early on they went the path of hybrid speakers to deliver the bass response most listeners demanded.  Perhaps the most successful ESLs of all time was the Martin Logan Sequel II, which was featured at the end of the movie “The Italian Job” and made frequent appearances in the popular TV shows “Sienfield”, “Friends”, and others.  I owned a pair of these for around six years from the late 1980s to the early 1990s and I can tell you from direct experience that it’s weak point was the crossover between the ESL panels and the traditional bass drivers (a weakness that Magnepans don’t suffer from since their quasi-ribbon drivers are full range – more on that later).  I tried everything including massive amounts of power bi-amping them and never got what I considered to be satisfactory results and ultimately sold them (with the power amplifiers).  Having said that, it was the late 1908s and unfortunately the era of CDs so they never had a fair chance given they were playing crappy 44.1k/16 bit music (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio).  But, I’ve been recently helping a friend in San Francisco set up his system with a pair of Martin Logan Ascents and I’m still not impressed, even with high definition digital sources such as SACDs. No matter how much we tweak them, bi-amp them, reposition them (and he’s got a fantastic room), I am still left feeling something lacking when I sit down and listen.  And Matin Logan’s latest no-holds-barred $80k flagship Neolith model wins the ugly duckling award, at least to my taste, see photo below (the WAF must be off the charts on this one).

Neolith-I

Quasi-ribbon transducers:
The quasi-ribbon transducer is one in which the membrane is overlaid with wire and driven directly with the signal from the amplifier passing through the wire, rather than that membrane being suspended in a powerful magnetic field as with a traditional ribbon transducer.  As far as I know, Mangepan (formerly Mangeplanar) is the only one making these.  What they sacrifice in higher mass they more than compensate for in full range ability.  Magnepan loudspeakers (also know as “Maggies”) are never gonna fully satisfy rock fans, but for those who care for a wide range of music including acoustic, jazz and classical this design really delivers the goods.  Maggie’s don’t have conventional low frequency drivers (i.e. woofers) and therefore are not a hybrid design.  They are two-way or three-way speakers comprised of ribbon and quasi-ribbon transducers with very large surface areas to deliver full frequency response.  As one might expect, the bigger the panel, the lower the frequency response (i.e. more bass).  While Maggies are quite large panels, they remain relatively flat (about two inches thick) and therefore they appear more elegant to me.

irina-magneplanar-speakers

Ok… my bad, totally cheating, did you even notice the speakers?…  A more indicative photo here.

Maggie3.7R

And a photo of the Tympani ID that I owned in the late 1970s and well into the 1980s here.

Tympani1D

Maggies have been around for decades and have changed very little in their design over the years.  Original principles, refined.  They don’t suffer from the acoustic (and esthetic) limitations of hybrid designs and also don’t require step-up transformers in the signal path and/or wall current to operate.  They do have crossovers but in their higher end models these are external boxes that can be easily modified (or “hot rodded”) and they also offer true, active bi-amplification (Why bi-amping isn’t always what you may think) abilities as shipped, without modifications.  They are very dependent on room acoustics (Planars… The room is the enclosure) and fussy about positioning and require colossal amounts of quality, high current power to operate.  Even the relatively small Mangnepan MG-12 makes my high current Nak PA-7 (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier) sweat, clip, and cry “uncle” in the form of thermal overload shutdown when I crank it for extended periods.  But to many audiophiles they are, and always have been, the holy grail.

In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics

So I made a trip to Calgary to give the Mangepan 3.7Rs a listen.  The “R” stands for “ribbon tweeter panel”, indicative of high end Mangepans.  In a nutshell, the big maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but wouldn’t be right for my room.

I had figured out a way to accommodate these gorgeous sounding speakers (and for some, gorgeous looking too but the WAF often factors in on these babies).  I had even 3D modeled my Canmore listening room with them in it with architecture software just to make sure they would fit.   As such, I was very excited to audition them at a high end dealer in Calgary.  But after listening to them in a room with almost exactly the same dimensions as mine in Canmore and playing around a great deal with positioning, even from what the very knowledgeable advisor thought was best, I continually felt like their performance was being compromised dramatically by being too close to the side walls of the room.  And… if you move them farther from the side walls then they are too close together, so it’s a no-win scenario.

I went in with great expectations.  Having owned a pair of Tympani 1Ds in the past, I couldn’t wait to hear the modern day equivalent, and the 3.7Rs simply fell flat on their face in those terms.  To be fair, I only ever listened to my 1Ds with a very high end vinyl front end, but none-the-less, these just didn’t make it worth compromising my room only to have my room compromise their sound quality.  As I’ve always said, the room is the most important component in any audio system, and this proved true once again.

The dealer had nothing but high end turntables in their main listening room (I counted a total of nine set up to demo), and he personally shared my love for the Denon 103R phono cartridge and it’s what he runs at home.  But ironically the room that I wanted to listen to the Maggies in, since it has very similar dimensions to mine, only had a SACD player.  So that’s what I brought with me for listening tests, three of my favorite reference SACDs.  I did a total of 4 listening sessions, as follows:

Listening Session Number One – Magnepan 1.7s.  I basically walked out right away and said, “this just isn’t doing it for me”.  Like i said, I went in with high expectations from past Magnaplanars owned.

Listening Session Number Two – 3.7Rs.  Those ribbons are simply amazing.  So accurate.  But, unforgiving almost to a fault.  You better up your game in all respects if you’re gonna own these babies otherwise they will be a constant reminder of what else is amiss in your signal path.  And  i suspect they would be far better paired with a tube pre-amp.  Overall, they are very impressive but not the speaker for me at this stage of the game and they never did their sound staging properly since the room was too small – so obviously not the right speaker for my listening room in Canmore.  While the bass isn’t pronounced I found it satisfying for my listening taste.  Though not as satisfying as my Kef 104/2s which are only rated to go down to 50 Hz (the 3.7Rs are rated to go down to 40 Hz), but sound much tighter due to the very well engineered cabinet resonance that obviously doesn’t exist with the 3.7Rs since there is no cabinet to resonate (Planars… The room is the enclosure).  Bass response has never been a strong suit of Maggies, but I do remember having more bass with my Tympani 1Ds from 35 years ago.  But that just makes sense, the 1Ds had more planar surface area dedicated to bass response (they had three panels in total vs. the two of the 3.7Rs).

The original Mangepan Tympani 1D.  A revolutionary loudspeaker to say the least.
The original Mangepan Tympani 1D. A revolutionary loudspeaker to say the least.

Listening Session Number Three –  A little disappointed, I suggested  we try the Magnepan MG-12’s.  These weren’t on my hit list, but I was 0 for 2 so far and figured, “you never know…”   Bingo!  All of a sudden I was immersed in all that famous sound staging and Maggie sound I was craving.  These were the right Maggie for the room dimensions, period.  Could I hear what the ribbon’s on the 3.7Rs were capable of?…  Sure!  Did it make for a better sounding experience overall with the room (relatively small) and source (SACD so digital) I was auditioning?  No, I’d venture to say just the opposite.

Listening Session Number Four – I gave the 3.7Rs one more listen just to be sure.  I really did want to love them and had high expectations, and I could tweak away to my hearts content with their external crossovers allowing me to passively or actively bi-amp their panels.  But the answer remained the same.  I think if I were a classical music buff the outcome very well may have been different due to their extraordinary dynamic range.  But, much as I like listening to classical music on occasion, I am not and likely never will be a classical music buff.  And no matter what music you listen to, I’d venture to say the 3.7s are too big for my Canmore listening room (and the room I auditioned them in).  Or perhaps better to say the room is too small for them to breathe.

So I walked in to that Calgary high end audio store wanting to love the $6K 3.7Rs and walked out loving the $1.3k MG-12s.  Sometimes less is more and it just goes to show, you’ve gotta audition gear live rather than trust what you read.  And when auditioning speakers you’ve gotta do so in a room very similar to the one at home you will be listening to them in.  Or better still, take them home on a trail basis.

Banana plugs or spades for speaker cables?

So I’m gonna come straight out the gate by saying that I’ve never done any listening tests on this one, and I probably never will.  Why?  Because I’ve used both for so many years and never noticed the slightest difference.  So my discussions herein are based upon theory rather than empirical discoveries.  And, to further cloud the discussion, manufacturers of both power amplifiers and speakers that are some of the best I’ve ever heard seem to differ on this subject, although most offer both options.  Magnepan would be the most notable exception, offering only banana plug connections for their planar speakers (in a nutshell, the big maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but wouldn’t be right for my room.)  The folks at Zu Audio (The quest for some bang for the buck in interconnects and speaker cables) favor spade connections whenever possible, and I agree with them in theory.

This goes back to physics 101 in regard to contact resistance and it’s relation to the surface area as well as the pressure imparted upon the mechanical junction.  If you look at the photo of a banana plug termination you will notice that it likely offers less surface area than that of one made with a spade.  But more importantly, the pressure of the junction is limited to the amount of outward force created by the spring effect of the bent metal, whereas with spades one can impart far more pressure on the junction, which can offer higher conductance.  Also, many banana plugs are user-installed with some sort of a screw on system that is highly prone to error, meaning you could have 12 AWG wire with a weak link of just a few strands at the banana plug.  By contrast most spade terminations, even when user installed, are soldered.

In either case, the most important thing is full contact for the termination method used which is ideally made by cold forging, a method which pretty much rules out user installation.  Second best would be a high quality solder connection (just like inside the amplifiers themselves), and a distant third would be user-installed mechanical connection, such as spades with screws on them or banana plugs with screw down connections on the wire.  In fact, if it would be far better not to terminate your wire at all and properly connect the bare wire than to add an inferior user-installed banana or spade termination.

Some purists go so far as to eliminate the mechanical interface altogether by soldering their speaker wires directly to the amplifier outputs, but this is definitely on the extreme side and inconvenient to say the least.  I say any of the above methods can offer comparable sound quality, as long as care is taken to maximize contact area and pressure and all mechanical contacts are kept clean of course.

SHM SACDs – do they really sound better?

SHM SACDs are Japanese imports.  They are all green, and SHM stand for “Super High (quality?) Material”.  Personally, I think they should be called SGM.  The green is pure marketing and is on the the upper surface, whilst the lower (play) surface has a bit of a gold-ish tint.  They all have the Album title and Artist in small print in the same font, so they are easy to mix up.

They also only have a 2 channel, DSD layer.  No redbook or 5.1 layers.  I’ve compared them to the same releases on regular SACDs and they sound, well… exactly the same.  No surprise there, eh?  What?…  Green doesn’t effect the sound?  How stupid do you think we are over on this side of the pond?  Guess about as stupid as the French thought we were when they first put water in green glass bottles at $1 a piece and we’d buy them.  The difference is the French were right.

Street price on these Japanese imports is $60 and it’s hard to find them for less anywhere.  So there’s the bad about them, they are a rip-off.  On the plus side, there are many titles that simply aren’t available in DSD elsewhere, so thank you Japan for that.  They are still far more affordable than the Out of Print (OOP) USA SACD titles, and the Japanese writing looks cool and says “imported” in a premium sort of way.  Because they are.  All of them.

Marantz HD-DAC1 DSD DAC

So I’ve had my eyes on DSD DACs for sometime, and realized long ago that $500 to $1,000 would be the sweet spot on quality for price.  I waited about a year and sure enough, the DSD DAC market heated up as Acoustic Sounds, Blue Coast,  and other music vendors starting singing the praises of DSD.  And the prices of high quality DSD DACs came down from prices in the thousands to well under four digits for the same goods dressed up differently.

Thankfully down into the realm I was looking for, I pulled the trigger on a Teac DSD DAC that offered promise and by virtue of being DSD it was the best sound quality I’ve heard from a music server, but I still found it lacking in some areas of nuance.  And isn’t nuance what this all about, especially at this level of the game?…

So I waited patiently whilst listening to vinyl for the next DSD DAC player to come onto the scene.  And when Marantz stepped up with their recently released HD-DAC1, I figured it held promise since I had already noticed the superior sound of their SACD player to my Teac DSD DAC, which came as a surprise (DSD Music Server project).  I later attributed this to the Op-amps in the Teac vs. discrete circuitry of the Marantz in the form of their HDAM circuits (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest).

And, the Marantz has a remote control, a luxury my Teac lacked but I was willing to forego to prevent some crappy volume control IC (Integrated Circuit) messing with my fastidiously preserved signal path (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control).  So I almost held my breath to figure out how the Marantz was pulling that one off, since more likely than not it would be a deal breaker.  To my delight I discovered it utilized an ALPS motorized POT (ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches), and with that I would finally have remote volume control whilst streaming DSD music from my Mac Mini music server (Mac Mini as a Music Server).  PCM files have digital volume control, but not DSD (the less digital processing the better, just the digital to analog conversion thank you very much).

So I purchased the HD-DAC1 and had it shipped to Maui, where I could do an A/B test against my Teac prior to bringing it to Canada.  Sure enough, unquestionably better sound quality.  I forget all the subjective terms some use to describe the differences: warmer, more transparent, airy, full-bodied (are we tasting wine here?), etc.  I’ll just say that if you ever have the opportunity to hear the two DACs side-by-side you will hear the difference and leave you to come up with your own accolades.

Off the HD-DAC1 went to Canada (it still wasn’t available for sale in Canada when I purchased it in the USA) to perform for my mostly digital music collection serving my Magnepans.  As you have probably gathered if you’ve read much of this blog, I have two very different reference systems in the works.  My Canadian system is digitally oriented with planar speakers and the amps to drive them whilst my Maui system is analog (vinyl) oriented with Kef speakers that love everything analog (The venerable Kef 104/2).  They will both be overlapping in time, but that’s how things sit as I write this.

So I had great expectations as to what the HD-DAC1 would do for my digitally oriented Canadian system, and it didn’t disappoint.  I grabbed a few reference recordings (What is a “reference recording”?) and nearly giggled when I heard them.  My only regret was that I didn’t have more time to listen to it.  Something to look forward to next time I go back.  And, just in case I ever capitulate to listening to music with headphones?…  (Headphones, Earspeakers, or whatever you want to call them…) I’m set!

ALPS analog volume controls and rotary switches

I love it when I see this kind of thing…  So I’m doing a little research on the new Marantz DSD DAC (bought it…  review here) and I see that it’s got a remote control, which makes me suspicious.

We all know that remote controls can spell disaster to high quality analog signal paths, so before I pull the trigger on this beauty, I’ve gotta know how it’s pulling off remote control of the volume, which is by definition directly in the signal path.

Many “audiophile quality” components pass this duty off onto an integrated circuit (IC) and I immediately call foul if that’s the case, so the internet search begins…  Of course, no one else on the forums is looking at this.  You can find out everything about this DAC from here to Sunday and a great deal about a lot of things that make absolutely no difference to sound quality.  But try to find out this essential ingredient and it’s neigh on impossible.

So, I start looking at nude pics of the circuitry, which usually tells the story (Nude photos of analog gear usually tell a big part of the story).  There’s nothing from any of the usual suspects on the USA forums, but I hit pay dirt on the Japanese ones (the general population of Japan just seems to care more… that’s why they came out with SHM SACDs (SHM SACDs – do they really sound better?).  And, loh and behold, there it is in all it’s glory, an ALPS motorized POT (shown in the upper left of the photo), exciting!

Exciting you say?  A 50+ year old technology (ALPS has been manufacturing volume controls and rotary switch since 1948) in a brand new, state of the art, DAC?…  Absolutely!  The folks at Marantz had the guts to concede that the technology of an era past far exceeds (in sound quality anyway), that of the present IC crap that fills all AVRs and even some “audiophile grade” components today.  It’s the same APLS potentiometer (POT) used on on my Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier from the early 1980s (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier), just with a motor on it to facilitate remote volume control (yes… when you push the button on the remote it actually turns the volume control with a motor, which is awesome 🙂

 

Speaker Cables

So “back in the day” (i.e. the 1970s –The “golden age”) we hooked up speakers with ordinary “line cord” or “lamp cord”.  And we’re not talking about ordinary speakers, amplifiers, or source components…  we’re talking about some of the best the world has ever known (that’s why it was the golden age).  We used high quality,  heavy gage, braided copper wire and kept the runs as short as possible and made sure that both speaker wires were the same length, and the buck stopped there.

Yes, all the laws of physics still applied back then, and we followed them religiously.  Overall resistance  is the key factor for “transparency” in speaker cables, and that is an extraordinarily simple task to address.  Claims of superior sound quality from exotic materials and wire configurations are just that… claims.

In fact, a listener is far more likely to adversely affect their sound quality due to inferior or improper speaker cable terminations and/or connections than the speaker cables themselves (see Banana plugs or spades for speaker cables?).  To that end, raw wire was always the preferred connection method, one less link in the signal path chain.

Enter the 1980s, the digital era, and the era of highly expensive speaker cables which has survived to this day.  Listeners knew something was lacking from their music and a plethora of exotic “high end” speaker cables and interconnects ensued.  Of course what was missing was all that analog goodness lost forever on the PCM 16 bit sampling floor (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio), but it’s simply easier to look to the wire than to replace an entire music collection and go back to vinyl.  And remember, high definition digital wasn’t available for many years to come.

So now that I’ve got two very different reference quality systems, I decided to go back to the speaker wire question.  Both reference systems have exemplary front ends, but my Canada reference system has  a tube pre-amp (Vintage preamp shoot-out, tubes vs. solid state) driving a high current power amp (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier) into planar loudspeakers (In a nutshell, the big Maggies (3.7Rs) are a fantastic speaker, but are very dependent upon room acoustics) whereas my Maui system has a Nelson Pass solid state preamp (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) driving a high slew rate power amp (The Audionics of Oregon CC-2. More distortion, more better.) into box speakers (The Venerable Kef 104/2).  These are very, very different systems, I love them both for different reasons, and they would reveal any improvements, no matter how subtle they may be, in speaker cables in very different ways.

So speaker cables were the last thing I upgraded in my signal path, having used 12 AWG hardware store copper wire up to that point.  I kept the lengths long (but the same left to right) so I could dial in my speaker placement and once I got that nailed down, I pulled the trigger on high-end cables that offered good value and made no false claims.  I bought the same ones for both Canada and Maui systems, and even the same length, as it turns out.

They are Zu Audio’s Libtec Cables and are made of oxygen free copper, have cold forged terminations, and are of gorgeous build quality.  They sound great!  Better than my hardware store copper wire?…  I honestly can’t tell.  They don’t sound any worse 🙂  I can hear the difference a bad (i.e. highly resistive) cable or interconnect makes in an instant, but hearing the difference between these and the best quality my local hardware store has to offer…  not so much.  I tried to postpone any critical listening until after the break-in period suggested by the manufacturer (200 to 300 hours), but even then I’d be hard pressed to hear the difference without double-blind A/B listening tests.  Would love to do that sometime, but that’s a very elaborate set-up to do properly for speaker cables.

Then there’s the subject of capacitance.  While this factors in far less than resistance in the speaker cable arena, it can make a significant difference.  Capacitance is an unwanted presence in the accurate transmission of audio signals.  Think of it like a small battery in the form of your wire storing an electrical charge.  Ironically, many expensive high end speaker cables have relatively high capacitance, which alters the sound accuracy.

Why?…  because the elaborate wire cross sections and mix of materials create it.  Nothing will have lower capacitance per foot than plain copper wire, and only pure silver will have higher conductance (i.e. lower resistance – but it would be a waste of money to use silver for it’s slightly lower resistance when you can just jump up to the next size of copper wire for far less cost).  So how can these high end cables be selling if they have higher capacitance than regular copper wire?  The fact is that higher capacitance wire is typically heard as “brighter”, which can be interpreted as an improvement in sound quality rather than the departure from signal accuracy that it actually is.  This can be especially true if there is an expectation, due to marketing hype (see Trust your ears…) or even just the impressive esthetics of the wire itself, for better sound quality.  This can also be true if there are deficiencies elsewhere in the signal path that the extra capacitance is compensating for, sort of like a fixed curve equalizer.

So what I’m left with is a couple pair of speaker cables that are made of  the purest oxygen-free copper and are hand crafted in the USA to the exact length I require and are terminated perfectly for my amplifier and speaker combinations.   I know they are unlikely to degrade over time and they look great on my floor, they really do.  Having the proper terminations for my amplifiers and speakers makes connections a lot simpler than they would be with bare wire and I know the manufacturer of these cables has done a far better job at making these terminations than I ever could (of course I could never cold forge them myself).  I’m happy with my purchase, first and foremost to see if I noticed an immediate sonic improvement (I didn’t) but mainly because I didn’t overpay for what I got and I know these cables will last a lifetime.

Oh yeah, specifications of my speaker cables (including terminations) vs. 12 AWG, unterminated copper wire?…
Copper wire: resistance = 0.002 ohms/foot, capacitance = 15 pF/foot
Speaker cables: resistance = 0.003 ohms/foot, capacitance = 61.25 pF/foot

And… lest you think I’m overly critical of the cable industry, have a look at this link, written by a former Director of Acoustic Research and Head of Loudspeaker Design at McIntosh, one of the most respected companies in the business.

http://www.roger-russell.com/wire/wire.htm

Time for new tonearm cable?

So anyone who’s read a bit in this blog knows that I prioritize and match when it comes to optimizing my signal path, whether it’s analog or digital.  The first priority for me is the quality of the music (i.e. recordings) then shortly after that the quality at the opposite ends of the signal path which is the transducers, meaning the phono cartridge for analog (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…) and the speakers (It’s all about reducing mass for the transducers), which are of course dependent upon room acoustics (Why do speakers need to be matched to room acoustics?…).

Following that comes the amplification of the signal path, and finally the interconnects used between the various stages to accomplish this.  When I purchased my vintage Denon direct drive turntable (Denon DP-790W turntable review) the tonearm cable was an obvious candidate for replacement.  Not only was it 40 years old but even when new it was of average quality at best by today’s standards.

In my discussion of interconnects (a couple good examples of fact vs. fiction in the high end audio world) you will note that I’ve found great sound quality from quality interconnects selling for under $50.  And, I’m hard pressed to hear an improvement when spending more than that, even when listening to my reference recordings (What is a “reference recording”?).  But… one look at this original Denon tonearm cable will tell you it was sub-par, even by those standards.

Original Denon 5 pin DIN tonearm cableAnd thus began the quest to find a suitable replacement.  Unfortunately, being firmly planted in the realm of modern high end audio due to the fact that I’m seeking an esoteric tonearm cable, I was lost in a quagmire of highly overpriced options (ranging from around $500 and up to $2k) claiming to, once again, defy the laws of physics and perform some sort of voodoo magic on any music played (Speaker Cables and The quest for some bang for the buck in interconnects and speaker cables).

Enter the DIY cable market.  Yes, I could buy the materials and make the cables myself, but I figured there must be someone out there who is way better at it and doing just that for resale, and thus the eBay search began.  Of course, this search was exasperated by the fact that my tonearm used a five pin DIN connection, circa 1970s.  The first “homemade” set I purchased for around $60 used Belden cable and Cardas terminations (including the five pin DIN) so should have done the job nicely, but unfortunately they had untenable hum so back they went.  I kept poking around on eBay to no avail until I started looking internationally and then… bingo, I found a couple options.  So I pulled the trigger on the Canare tonearm cable shown below and couldn’t be happier.

Zero hum and noticeable sonic improvement immediately, even prior to burn in.  These are simply gorgeous handmade cables that sound every bit as good as they look.  You can see and feel the quality of the craftsmanship, and the attention to detail is suitably reflected in their sound quality.

CanareTonearmCable-Straight-Construction

Even when the package showed up, all the way from the UK, I could tell this guy was a meticulous craftsman by the packaging and hand written labelling.

Oh yeah, and the price?…  Great value at $85 plus $6 priority shipping from England.  And when I finally upgraded my turntable in Canada to a Denon direct drive, I purchased another one (custom length this time) to replace it’s original tonearm cable as well.

 

Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive

Ok, so first let me say that you can ask ten different audiophiles this question and you will likely get ten different versions of why they think one or the other is best.  I suppose I’ve developed an equally biased opinion, so I’ll tell you why I’m biased in advance.

Over my my 35+ years in this endeavour, I’ve owned countless turntables.  Unfortunately, I’ve never owned an uber high-end belt drive turntable.  All the belt drive turntables I owned were middle-of-the-road high-end quality, the likes of Garrard, Marantz, Dual, BIC (anyone who remembers those will also remember just how crappy they were), and… Thorens.  I saved Thorens for last since I know that’s gonna ruffle the feathers of some of their fans, but I’m sorry I’ve just never owned one that I considered capable of top-notch audiophile quality music reproduction.

Enter the Techniques SP-10 MkII into my world at age 17 and the peak of my vinyl obsession at the time.  I had a summer job at Audionics of Oregon building amplifiers and somehow managed to acquire an SP-10 MkII at the same time I had a set of the TOTL (top of the line) Magnepan Tympani IDs (some consider this the best speaker they’ve ever made, or anyone’s ever made, to this day) and the best amplifiers of the day to drive them.

What a deck the SP-10 MkII was!  It was the first time I really heard my vinyl sing.  I suppose it was the first truly high-end turntable I owned and it was revalatory.  I combined it with a Decca tonearm and started with a Decca phono cartridge, later entering the world of LOMC (low output moving coil) cartridges with the Denon 103 and a pre-preamplifier I built myself.

It’s like so many things in life, there’s only one “first time”.  So I’m not gonna dis belt drive turntables here.  I’m sure there are many fine examples, I’ve just never had the pleasure to hear one.  What I have experienced from the belt drive turntables I’ve owned is unstable speed control (most of them run off a syncrounous motor, which means the speed of the platter is determined by the AC frequency of the power outlet on your wall), amazingly unstable sprung platforms that visibly  bounce around, especially with records that are punched off center (not uncommon, at all), and noticeable wow and flutter due to the nature of the drive mechanisim.

So higher end belt drive turntables have external speed boxes and implement elaborate acoustic isolation schemes other than a set of four cheap metal springs.  But, we’re talking about some serious cash to get into that game, easily $10K+ these days.  Even back in the 1970s, belt drive turntables that really took advantage of the format were several orders of magnitude more expensive than their direct drive equivalents.  I picked up a used SP-10 MkII for a few hundred bucks and couldn’t have been happier, dodging a multi-thousand dollar bullet to get into the “best of the best” turntable realm.

Ironically, after 30+ years, direct drive turntables are making a come-back and vendors such as VPI are now calling them the new “reference” and the new price is $30k+.  It seems like everything I loved about high-end audio in the 1970s is coming back, but with a price tag over 10 times the original, even correcting for inflation.  So do they think we forgot how they sang the praises of belt drive turntables for so many years and are now offering direct drive turntables at exorbitant prices as something new?

While I understand the theoretical draw backs of direct drive turntables, such as potential motor noise reaching the stylus, I’ve never heard them.  Whereas I can hear a mid-fi belt drive turntable mishandling vinyl across a room.  That’s why when it came time to get back in the game I choose a direct drive Denon turntable from the late 1970s, and not even their TOTL model (since most of those were automatic).  I’ve had to work with it’s grossly inadequate acoustic isolation scheme (no mass loading) but after a great deal of tweaking and DIY (do it yourself) trail-and-error, I’d be hard pressed to find a better sounding deck for my Maui system at any price, be it direct drive or belt drive.  Check out my review and comments at Denon DP-790W turntable review.

 

 

 

 

 

Op Amps are holding back my digital quest

After listening to my music server for several months now, there are things I love about it and things I’m not so in love with.  I love the dead silent background during quiet music passages.  I love the convenience though never seem to mind getting up to put a record on.  I love the portability and the ability to  travel with over 25,000 high definition digital tracks in a carry-on bag (two 3 TB hard drives).  I’ve found plenty of high definition (DSD or 24 bit PCM) digital recordings that sound better than their re-released vinyl equivalent, since they were originally recorded and mixed digitally anyway.

What I’m not so in love with is what I can only describe as an “edginess” of even some of the finest “gold standard” DSD digital recordings (most PCMs lack some dynamic range and sound a bit “flat”, but that’s just the format).  It’s mostly subtle, but still… there.  I’m almost certain this is due to the op amps used in the output stage of my DAC.  The DAC uses the best chip set currently available, dual mono circuitry, but cuts corners with op amps in the output stage.

When did it become acceptable for high end audio gear to use integrated amplification circuits?!…  The answer is, of course, never.  We’ve seen IC’s (integrated circuits) in audio electronics since the early 1980s, and if you pop the lid on any modern day AVR (Audio Video Receiver) it’s mostly ICs.  This is an obvious trade-off of a typical AVR, you get lots of features, controls, remote control functions, and low cost in a single chassis and sacrifice sound quality for it.  Fair enough.

But, when vendors are claiming to provide some of the best sounding components on the planet that cost well into 5 digits and I see ICs in there, I’m calling “foul”.  I don’t care what their literature claims, I never heard a component full of ICs that I wouldn’t trade in a heart-beat for one that is fully discreet components.  In fact, that has been the hallmark of my personal acquisitions.  My Audio Research SP-9 MkII does however have two ICs, big kinda clunky looking ones (this was the early 1980s, after all), but they control ancillary functions and therefore are not anywhere near the fully analog signal path.

Integrated circuits that are particularly contrary to audio quality are op-amps.  Integrated circuits that aren’t in the signal path may be OK, but amplifiers are by definition directly in the signal path.  When I did some A/B comparison between my Marantz SACD player and my music sever running my Teac DAC playing DSD files I noticed the Marantz sounded better (DSD Music Server project), which was contrary to what I expected due to possible noise from the transport (i.e spinning disc) in the Marantz (What to look for in digital playback from disc).

Output stages are not complicated, nor expensive to manufacture with discreet components.  To throw the whole circuit into an op-amp and “call it good” is simply unacceptable for high end audio, period.  Marantz and Mark Levinson have tackled this deliema with discreet circuitry modules that have a similar footprint on the PCB (printed circuit board) as an IC, and sometimes even fit into the same pin configurations.  Marantz calls this “HDAM” and claims to have invented it, but this isn’t anything new.  All the output stages prior to the advent of the IC chip did the same.

Aftermarket vendors offer discrete component upgrades for some components (such as Oppo disc players) that plug right into the op-amp IC’s pin holes.  Desolder and remove the IC, insert discrete circuitry upgrade.  But why are we having to do this, when paying thousands of dollars for components?!  There is definitely something wrong with this picture when seeing op-amp ICs in pricey audiophile quality gear.  Enter the Marantz HD-DAC1, an under $1K DSD DAC offering top notch DAC chips and discrete output circuitry in the form of their HDAM.  It just came out and is top of my list to give a listen, fingers crossed…

Follow up.  Very pleased with the HD-DAC1, review here (Marantz DSD DAC).

The new (old) gear coming out

There is a really interesting and growing phenomena in high end audio these days, that of the “retro-cool”.  Everyone knows vinyl is making a huge comeback, but whats interesting is that it’s recently also making a main stream comeback.  Hoarded vinyl collections are no longer the exclusive domain of dedicated audiophiles.  Extensive vinyl collections are showing up everywhere, from college dorm rooms (again) to trendy cafés in chic neighborhoods.

And what is the impetus for vinyl’s rebirth?  Based on the systems I’ve seen at such venues, it’s not for sound quality.  Many of vinyl’s biggest recent fans aren’t old enough to have loaded a CD into a tray and push play, let alone drop a needle in years past when that was the main way to play music.  So it can’t be nostalgia since that implies having done it before and remembering it fondly.

That leaves the inescapable conclusion that it must be the “retro cool” factor.  Like so many fashion trends that are being revived, so is vinyl.  It’s amazing to me, that people are listening to music on vinyl records for the first time, in spite of (or possibly because of) the fact that they have never before listened to music in such fashion.   It’s like the “cool, watch this, it plays music” vinyl revolution is some sort of mysterious new invention.

I’ve also noticed vinyl product placements in modern movies and television, and not necessarily in the context of the era portrayed.  A scene from House of Cards comes to mind, when a modern day woman drops a needle onto a record to listen to music on an otherwise ordinary home audio system, then the camera zooms into the spinning record, or the many vinyl product placements in the Netflix TV show “Suits”, not to mention that the main character has filled an entire wall of his commodious office with records and has a high end (but not too high end as to come across as esoteric) turntable there to play them.

I had to scratch my head a bit over the vinyl product placements since the motive isn’t as blatant as when you see an obvious logo placement of a Dell, Apple, or HP computer, which is clearly paid for as a form of advertising (http://nypost.com/2015/03/02/house-of-cards-littered-with-product-placements/).  Then it dawned on me.  If the music industry (which arguably got hammered by the MP3 revolution) gets the next generation to adopt vinyl they will be able to sell the same music all over again in yet another “new” (old) format.  So there it is, the profit motive.  As usual, the music business follows the money.

But, there is a far less insidious trend in the industry in regard to the gear itself.  At first glance the Yamaha integrated amplifier (Integrated amps or separates?) in the photo pictured above would lead one to believe it’s vintage (The vintage “crap shoot” ).  Nope, just the styling is adopted from their amplifiers of the 70s.  Nearly everything else about this amplifier is modern, and mostly in bad ways (integrated circuits and digital manipulations, Op Amps are holding back my digital quest).  It makes sense to be sure, just as the auto industry is going for the “retro cool” look for so many of their latest offerings.  They tried to sell us futuristic cars with side panels over the wheels (to make them look like they could fly?…) and other styling cues that impaired functionality.  Form follows function and the most esthetic designs are always those that are true to their purpose.

So while I’m happy to see those idiotic flashing lights and elaborate displays on audio gear finally disappear, I can’t help but think the whole retro styling thing is a farce.  What’s sad is that what’s inside isn’t what was inside from the era it depicts, when sound quality still mattered and a good stereo system was still central to home entertainment.

Why Tape Hiss is Music to My Ears

So I’ve been hearing a familiar sound on some of the very best repressed quality vinyl recordings of music from the 70s…  Tape hiss.  It shows up in the quiet passages of familiar albums and is a very distinctive and welcome sound.

Welcome, you may ask?…  It means that when they remastered the album for the re-release they left it in the analog domain, and didn’t ruin it with digital mixing, which would make it easy to remove the hiss of course, along with much of the music.

And…  the corollary is also true.  I’ve been very disappointed in some of the “digitally remastered” vinyl re-releases, such as The Cure’s “Disintegration” (What a pity) and Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road”.  I’m not familiar with the original vinyl release of “Disintegration”, but I am certainly familiar with the MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs) Original Master release of GBYBR and I’m here to tell you…  digitally remastering it for the 40th anniversary edition to vinyl totally rained on the parade.  Look for the original from the 70s (complete with tape hiss in the quiet sections, along with all the goodness on the original tapes) or just go get the SACD and have fun with the 5.1 surround mix, which is fantastic!

Opps! your phono cartridge

This is a really interesting article (to me anyway) about polarity. Back in the 70s we used to “opps” (reverse) only one channel of our phono signal polarity at the cartridge then reverse it back at the same channel at the speaker terminal. It therefore put once channel 180 degrees out of phase with the other through the entire, fully analog signal path until it got to the speakers.  It was purported to speed up the amplification circuits. May have been smoke and mirrors  or not, don’t remember, just remember doing it…

Click here to open article on polarity in new tab.

What is DSD audio, a Simple Explanation

You guys know that I’ve been all about DSD for a long while now, years.  Well the music industry is finally catching up and DSD has been coming on strong in the past year.

Why have I preferred DSD for so long?  It sounds better, simple as that.  But since I’ve been listening to DSD and even better, Direct-to-DSD recordings on my music server, I’ve become curious why. This guy explains it as simply as anyone I’ve found to date…

DSD-BlockDiagram

DSD – The New Addiction by Andreas Koch

DSD – A Simple Explanation

A free upgrade for your planar speakers

Planar speaker (these are Maggie’s but the same applies for Martin Logan’s and others) like to have lots of room around them and nothing in between to interfere with their soundstage.  If you have a big screen planted the same distance from the listening position as the speakers are, it’s over – for 2 channel audio sound staging any way, 5.1 music and home theatre is still cool (The most obvious difference between 2 channel audio and 5.1 home theatre).

For 2 channel sound staging, I suggest changing the location of the big screen from  front and centre in the middle of the speakers imaging plane (a very common mishap) in favour of a wall mounted one behind them that could also possibly be covered in fabrics curtains (or not, I’d try both ways).  With two mono block amplifiers, it’s possible to get your power amps out of the way as well.

I’ve applied these concepts with my room and Maggie’s in Canada to simply amazing effect. I think it’s now official, I have the best sounding system I’ve ever owned. The sound staging is out of this world.  it took a great deal of trial and error to get it there but so worth it!  No amount of $$$ spent on amps, sources, or other such things will make that happen without the room placement and treatments being dialed in first.

And…  The room doesn’t have to be dedicated and/or unfurnished to get there, it’s just easier that way.  Moving a little furniture around and speaker placement got the effect I was looking for in my very compact room in Canada. Ok… Moving a lot of furniture around!

Integrated amps or separates?

Personally, I prefer separates (preamplifier and power amplifier) to integrated amplifiers for several reasons.  First and foremost, the power supply requirements are so very different, opposite really, for pre amps and power amps.

It makes perfect sense when you think about it.  Preamplifiers are all about passing along delicate signals, not powering loudspeakers.  Phono stages, and especially moving coil phono stages, are handling extremely low and delicate signals.  My Denon 103R has an output voltage of just .32/.31 mV! (see illustration below – this is a scan of the hand plotted frequency response that came with the cartridge, thank you Denon!).  If you’re intrigued by this, check out (The formidable Denon 103 vs. 103R low output moving coil phono cartridges – is there really a difference?…).

SpecSheet
The output of my Denon 103R Low Output Moving Coil (LOMC) phono cartridge, as well as it’s frequency response as plotted by the tech in Japan. Each one is individually bench tested. As a side note, they used to test these cartridges all the way out to 50 kHz and their response was just as flat all they way out!

Such low signal levels can be easily and drastically effected by the strong EMI (electromagnetic induction) of even the very best power transformer.  Imagine the 20 or 30 pound transformer found is some of the best Class A power amplifiers in the same chassis as this delicate signal… bad idea.  Especially with the large, high current amplifiers necessary to drive the difficult impedance loads of planar loudspeakers.

Many of the high end preamplifiers go as far as to separate the power supply into a separate chassis with a long cord so you can place it as far away as possible from the signal circuits.  Nelson Pass was one of the first to implement this methodology with his Threshold preamps from the 1980s.  He went even further by putting the phono sages in a separate chassis with yet another separate chassis for its power supply.  Overkill?…  In most instances, yes.

But it very dramatically illustrates the point of why having the pre and power amplification stages share the same power supply and transformer is such a huge compromise.  That’s why you simply don’t see it happen in high end audio gear.

Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…

Ok… so this is a bit of an exaggeration, but in many instances it’s entirely true.  If you want a purely analog signal path then there are limited ways to control the volume.

Once the analog audio signal is converted to digital, you have the ability to modify the volume all you want, as well as endless other digital manipulations.  But converting a high quality analog source to digital for any reason is a bad idea.  Converting it to digital just to change the volume without getting out of the listening chair is an extraordinary bad idea.  I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls entirely to avoid any degradation of the analog signal path, but that’s another topic (Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls).

If you have a remote control in your hand, consider how it’s changing the volume.  If the remote control is for a typical AVR (Audio Video Receiver), it’s most certainly converting signals to PCM digital to do so.  If the signal is already PCM digital, no big deal you’ve already sacrificed analog quality.  But if its the analog output of a DSD signal (such as from a high quality SACD player) or a high quality phono stage then beware, your signal will get PCMed just to have remote control of your volume.

Think about this for a moment…  Say you have an amazing DSD recording from an exemplary source SACD.  Then say you have a fantastic SACD player with the best DACs that fastidiously covert your high quality DSD stream to the very best quality analog signal possible (because you avoided an HDMI cable, right? – Just say “no” to HDMI).  Then this signal gets ADCed (analog to digital converted) and what’s worse, that ADC puts it into PCM digital, and then DACed again from PCM digital to analog just for a volume remote control?!

While on the topic of DSD, it’s also important to note that if you are bit streaming native DSD from a music server you still won’t have a digital volume control.  If you change the volume slider on your computer music server and the volume changes, it’s been PCMed 🙁

So, first and foremost, it’s essential to keep the volume control of analog signals in the analog domain.  Let’s consider the two primary means to do this: potentiometers and attenuators.  Potentiometers get a bad rap since they are used in cheap audio gear.  Of course not all potentiometers are cheap and of inferior quality.  In fact some of the best preamps made use high quality potentiometers, such as the ALPs found in the Nakamichi CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier).  But when you notice a cheap, scratchy, analog volume control, it’s a potentiometer alright.

The alternative is a stepped attenuator, such as that show in the photo above.  These use resistor ladders in order to precisely attenuate the volume in distinct increments.  Most audiophiles consider these to be superior since they offer more discrete circuitry.

Both of these controls, however, lack a simple means to remotely control volume.  For a potentiometer to have a remote control, it needs to be motorized, and that’s exactly what many high end audio manufacturers did as remote controls became more and more ubiquitous and expected.  If done properly, this is a very effective solution to the dilemma  of actually having to get off the couch to change the volume.

But attenuators lend themselves to digital manipulation, whereby a separate digital circuit is used to choose which resistors in the ladder go into the signal path and therefore attenuate the volume accordingly.  It’s important to note however that in spite of having digital circuitry inside the preamplifier in order to intercept the signals from the remote control, there is no digital circuitry used in the audio signal path.  It remains purely analog.

I’m sure you can see how both these solutions, especially the latter of digitally controlled stepped attenuators, gets pricey in a hurry. Therefore unless your preamplifier is accordingly expensive, it’s probably not using them.  There are many, many purported high end preamps that are PCMing your analog signal just for volume control.  Avoid them.  Either save the $$$ and get out of your chair (my preference) or splurge on one that isn’t defeating high end audio in favour of convenience and price.

22Aug2016 – There is a recent development in audiophile volume control: Light Dependent Resistors.  While it’s satisfying to see high end audio components pay closer attention to how volume control is accomplished, the cost is a bit disconcerting.  I first noticed this technology implemented in the $65,000 Constellation Audio’s Reference Series Altair II / Line Stage, and for that price you don’t even get a phono stage.  That said, you can’t beat the complete optical isolation this solution offers and the technology is already trickling down to more affordable preamplifiers, such as Tortuga offerings: http://www.tortugaaudio.com/saying-yes-to-light-dependent-resistors/

Digital manipulation of recorded vinyl

I’ve heard about this and will investigate further if there comes a time to record my vinyl to DSD.  So far I’m happy to drop the needle on my vinyl and don’t mind buying more than one copy for more than one location (i.e. Maui and Canada).

If recorded in DSD, the signal processing would also have to occur in the DSD domain since once it gets converted to PCM it’s all over and sound quality would be forever lost.  I would rather have the ticks and pops than that.  And as I understand it those DSD native workstations/ programs are pricey (mostly for professional recording studios).  But so was DSD in general until very recently, like in the last year or so, so who knows what the future holds.

Click here for example of click repair software.

DSD Music Server project

As many of you know, I’ve been working on a DSD Music Server project for neigh on a year now. Still a work in progress but I just couldn’t resist making some initial comparisons and evaluations that have been a long time coming. I based my purchase decisions for music formats over six years ago based on auditions and comparisons of the formats on a high end system in a shop in Seattle, but now I finally have my own (even better) systems to compare and contrast.

First, the Canada system used for listening evaluations:
Vinyl – Pioneer PL 530 running a Denon 103R MC cartridge
SACDs – Marantz DV-7600 SACD Player
DSD Streaming – MacBook Pro into a Teac UD-301 DSD DAC
Preamp – Threshold FET 9
Power amp – Nakamichi PA-7
Speakers – Magnepan MG-12s without Attenuation
Interconnects – Zu Audio Wylde
Speaker Wires – Heavy gauge hardware store copper, terminated with banana plugs, haven’t upgraded yet (see later post where I upgraded and evaluated the results here).

Ok…  So I’m gonna avoid a lot of the B.S. and cut straight to the chase.  But first, one major caveat.  Since I have no remote control (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…).  I used the source selector switch on the preamp and therefore wasn’t in the sweet spot.  Before you say, “all bets are off then!” let me explain.  My Maggie’s like to be very far out from the rear wall in my listening room.  That, combined with the fact that they are bipolar speakers and radiate in an equal and opposite fashion back towards the octagonal bay windows (three big panes of glass) I actually discovered another sweet spot behind the speakers, where my amps are.  It’s very small and goes away if I move or tilt my head even inches, but is unmistakably there 🙂

So here are the results of the A/B/C tests (yes, I went to the trouble to sync all three sources and even volume match DSD DAC to SACD Player).

Vinyl – dramatically different, another flavour entirely. This is the first time I’m not going to call it “better” just “different”.  That’s how good my DSD has become.  So the vinyl has a rich, warm, full bodied sound.  My Maggie’s aren’t big in the bass department but I also know from my Maui Kefs (best bass I’ve ever heard) that that is another area where vinyl kicks ass. The high frequency response doesn’t seem as crystal clear as SACDs or DSD DAC, but I’m wondering if that is because it’s less pronounced due to the full dynamic range that vinyl offers.  TBD…  Will need to do more listening and will need to be in the sweet spot, the one in front of the speakers, to evaluate further.

SACDs – The gold standard of digital audio to be sure.  Crystal clear highs, amazing transient response, fantastic imaging. And exemplary during quiet passages due to very little noise.  Sounds just a bit thin compared to the vinyl, but now we are talking pros and cons in that regard since it sounds so amazing in other areas. Although not part of the comparison, I heard Tubular Bells like I’ve never heard it before listening to it from the DSD DAC later in the sweet spot, and that says a lot!  Of course, my Maggie’s LOVE that album, it plays into all their strong suits and I’ve only played the vinyl on my Kefs on Maui.

DSD DAC – almost indistinguishable from the SACD but I’ll give the SACD the edge, which came as a surprise to me since the DSD DAC doesn’t have any issues that come with the transport and therefore if anything should sound better. I’m not saying it sounded harsh or harsher cause neither of the sources sounded that way, they were both amazingly not so for digital (thank you DSD). What I will say is that the SACD player sounded more analogue-like.  Just a very small amount smoother and warmer.   I’m guessing that is due to the OpAmps in the output stage of my DSD DAC (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest) vs the very high quality discreet circuitry in the output stage of my Marantz SACD player. Can’t be sure without other DACs to compare of course, but that would be the logical conclusion, which I came to after doing some further investigation and finding that the DSD DAC uses OpAmps, which make sense for the price – still trying to get champagne taste on a beer budget and I’m doing really well so far!

When I sit down to listen to music, I want the best quality possible, which means DSD, 24 bit PCM and vinyl.  I had loaded up around 5,000 tracks in 44.1k/16 bit PCM (Redbook CD quality) onto my music server, thinking that I’d listen to them if that’s the only format I have them in.  But I never did.  I guess that shouldn’t be a surprise, that when I sit down and listen to music Redbook CD quality just isn’t going to be on the menu.  At first, I did lots of A/B testing of the 44.1k/16 bit albums to the same album on DSD and/or 24 bit PCM.  The results weren’t surprising, very drastic differences in sound quality.  I finally figured, “what’s the point?”, and removed the 44.1k/16 bit tracks from my music server.  Not because they were taking too much space, the inferior bit depth and sampling rate results in very small file sizes, but rather because I didn’t want them cluttering up my selection of high definition digital music with files that are sub-par.

Postscript – I later discovered that it was in fact the OpAmps in the Teac DAC that was infecting my digital music server (Op Amps are holding back my digital quest), so I replaced it with a Marantz that uses discrete circuitry (Marantz DSD DAC).

The word on vinyl mono recordings

I see little or no sonic value in buying mono records, but there is likely some nostalgic value for those who listened to them in mono when they first came out.

Having said that, there is possibly (but doubtful) a sonic improvement if the music was originally recorded and mixed as mono and was subsequently pressed onto a mono pressing and then played with a mono phono cartridge.  This is a long shot, but integrity of the signal path is paramount and could potentially trump the other benefits of stereo recordings.  To realize this potential improvement everything in the front end of the signal path would need to be period specific (i.e from the days of mono so early 60s or earlier), holy PITA!

Such re-releases will likely be cut for stereo phono cartridges (so yes, could be played fine and no need to swap out the cartridge) and therefore the integrity of signal path has been lost somewhere down the road anyway.  So needing to swap out cartridges would only be necessary when playing original mono pressings, not re-releases.

Mac Mini as a Music Server

I’m not an Apple fan.  All the less so for the limitations of OS X for handling high definition digital audio.  And trust me, if there’s a way to screw up your audio quality, iTunes will find it.  So I’m also not a fan of claimed audiophile software that uses iTunes as the user interface.  And native DSD playback isn’t possible with such iTunes-structured programs, that are PCM based.  If the volume control in iTunes changes the volume on your system, you’ve been PCMed (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…).

But the obvious and most ubiquitous choice  for a dedicated computer as a music server is a Mac Mini.  So a friend gave me a not-so-old Mac Mini and it’s now my Music Server on Maui.  And I subsequently purchased a new one for Canada.  So a few thoughts after listening to the Mac Mini’s so far…

First off processing power is virtually irrelevant to sound quality.  Anything in the last few years is plenty.  Why?…  Remember, this is a dedicated computer so you are only running your high definition audio software on it, right?  This software uses less than 10% of the processing power any relatively new Mac Mini offers.

Second, RAM could make a difference depending on your hard drives.  The most demanding requirements will be playing 5.6 MHz DSD files and 392 KHz/24 bit PCM files.  You may run into occasional buffering issues with these files, but it’s not insidious to sound quality, more glitchy in nature.  In other words, you won’t hear a sonic difference due to insufficient RAM, but if a song suddenly stops playing then catches up, you need more RAM to buffer your files.

Third, your power supply doesn’t make a hill of beans of difference to sound quality.  Sonic benefits claimed my the vendors of upgraded power supplies are borderline fraudulent.  It doesn’t require a physics degree to grasp this, but if you have one you will immediately realize that the vendors selling upgraded power supplies for the Mac Mini to improve sound quality are claiming to defy the most basic laws of physics.  I’m all about high quality power supplies in amplification circuits, but EMI (electromagnetic induction) simply doesn’t effect the sound quality of digital circuitry.  If it’s “bit-perfect” than the job is done and it ends there.  And all the Mac Mini is responsible for is digital file delivery… you’ve got an external DAC, right?

Fourth, hard drives can make a difference, especially for music with soft passages.  Go fan-less!  (What are the best external hard drives for a music server?) Which unfortunately precludes all NAS (Network Attached Storage) devices.  I have yet to find one without a fan.  And, ethernet is a noisy, high-traffic, and relatively slow cabling solution anyway.  Noisy to the point where it can effect that “bit perfect” pass-off you’re looking for.

Which brings to mind the fifth requirement, a USB DAC.  Not toslink or digital coax, both of which are the legacy of Home Theatre audio.  And… if you have a USB DAC, you may want to keep your hard drives off the USB bus as it will already have it’s hands full if playing 5.6 MHz DSD or 392 KHz/24 bit PCM files.  So put your external drives on the Mac Mini’s Firewire 800 bus, which is latent anyway if your Mac Mini is a dedicated music server.   You could also use Thunderbolt but I see no benefit over Firewire 800 and two possible detriments, the first being high cost and the second being the possibility of having to share it with a monitor.

Speaking of monitors, the video circuitry in your Mac Mini won’t effect sound quality at all.  This is very different from an SACD player that has video circuitry in it, where the SACD player is performing the DAC (digital to analog) conversion internally and therefore has analog circuitry that can in fact be effected by video circuitry and therefore the possibility of sonic degradation exists.  Having said that, why not use screen sharing from your laptop in your listening chair and not have a video monitor hooked up at all, then you have the ultimate remote control!  (still no volume control for native DSD playback however).  Or if you’re using JRiver for your music server software you can use the very capable JRemote iPad app.

I’m not going to point any fingers here, but I will say there are a few vendors selling “upgraded” Mac Minis in excess of $10k.  Don’t go there, stick to the the basics and spend all that cash saved on good quality music!