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!


I may be a purist, but…

Setting the phono cartridge loading and gain on the Audio Research SP-9 MkII is a bit extreme, even for me.

Phono cartridge loading is adjusted on the ARC SP9 MkII by de-soldering resistors and capacitors and re-soldering ones with desired values in place.
Phono cartridge loading is adjusted on the ARC SP9 MkII by de-soldering resistors and capacitors and re-soldering ones with desired values in place.

The two beige resistors and the two silver/red capacitors shown in the photo above set the cartridge loading and need to be removed and different ones soldered into their place to change it.  If you look up how to read resistor values you will see from the colour bands that these resistors are 47 kilohms.

And how do you modify the gain?…

Phono cartridge gain is changed on the ARC SP9 MkII by bridging solder on the printed circuit board either between points A or points B shown
Phono cartridge gain is changed on the ARC SP9 MkII by bridging solder on the printed circuit board either between points A or points B shown

See the extra lumpy solder bridging from “A” on the main circuit board to the other trace?…  Desolder that.  Luckily it comes shipped for high gain which is what I want for the Denon 103R LOMC (low output moving coil) phono cartridge anyway.

Acoustic Research explains this as resulting in better sound quality, which is certainly true in theory (less circuitry in the form of switches = better sound). But I’ll take the convenience of having some switches on the front over any very marginal gains in sound quality since what ultimately happens is that it’s such a PITA to change cartridge loading that very few do it and run their phono stage incorrectly instead (which would in theory be a far greater sonic penalty).

Having said that, Ive been running the ARC SP-9 MkII as it ships from the factory with 47k cartridge loading and unmodified gain with good success, even when I dropped in the Denon 103R.  The SP-9 MkII is probably one of the few preamps that doesn’t say “MC” on it and yet has enough gain for the 103R.

The Threshold FET 9 phono stage loading is set with dip switches and gain set with jumpers.
The Threshold FET 9 phono stage loading is set with dip switches and gain set with jumpers.

The Threshold FET 9 in the photo above is a piece of cake by comparison, although the previous owner had never opened it up.  It has dip switches for impedance and capacitance loading and jumpers for gain.  Of course, you still need to know how you want to load your cartridge, but at least it’s easy to accomplish once you do.

What is “Slew Rate” and why does it matter?…

“The focus then shifted to slew rate and TIM—low amounts of feedback and high-speed circuitry—the idea being that high-speed signals would somehow confuse an amplifier. People began building fast amplifiers and, lo and behold, quite a few of those fast amplifiers sounded significantly better. The interesting thing was that in order to achieve that higher speed, they had to make the circuits simpler. I don’t think it was actually a cause-and-effect relationship. I think that for the most part the higher-speed circuits sounded better because it took simpler circuits to get high speed with stability.”

This quote is from a 1991 interview with Nelson Pass in Stereophile Magazine entitled “Simple Sounds Better”  As most know, I’m a big Nelson Pass fan and consider him one of the best amplifier designers of all time.  What makes this quote even more interesting to me is that he is clearly referring to Robert Sickler of Audionics of Oregon here, and his breakthrough design of the CC-2 amplifier (The Audionics of Oregon CC-2. More distortion, more better).  It was the first American made amplifier dramatically departing from the total harmonic distortion specs that was the primary focus at the time (The THD wars. Why lower distortion often doesn’t equal better sound quality),  How did Robert Sickler come to this breakthrough?…  Getting away from the stool he sat on while measuring amplifier design specifications and getting into the listening chair at work and at home.  I saw him doing it since I worked at Audionics of Oregon when the CC-2 came out.

Slew rate was the “unsung hero” of amplifier specifications up until that time.  It is essentially a measure of how fast an amplifier responds to high frequency voltage shifts.  In the illustration above, it is the delta T (time elapsed) that corresponds with the delta V (change in voltage), and is typically measured in volts per microsecond, or V/uSec.  If you look at the sine waves in the illustration below, it becomes clear why slew rate is so important when it comes to frequency response.

Depicted above are sine waves of various frequencies; the lowest frequency is on top followed by sine waves of progressively higher frequency.
Depicted above are sine waves of various frequencies; the lowest frequency is on top followed by sine waves of progressively higher frequency.

As the frequency increases, the amplifier needs to be faster (i.e. higher slew rate) to produce the same voltage level.  Many amplifiers of the late 1970s and early 1980s became bogged down by capitulating to the THD wars of the time and adding excessive negative feedback circuitry to that end.   What resulted was a sluggish amplifier with great THD specs.  In other words it looked great on paper but fell flat on it’s face when you sat in the listening chair, especially with traditional “box speakers” such as Kef’s made at the time.  Not surprisingly, Robert Sickler listened to many of his prototypes on speakers made with Kef drivers, since Audionics of Oregon was using these drivers in their speaker designs.  That’s why I consider my CC-2 amplifiers driving my Kef 104/2 speakers (The venerable Kef 104/2) a marriage made in heaven.

DSD recorders – the modern day reel to reel?

Teac was a big player in the 70s in reel-to-reel tape decks, and made great gear.  Them and Korg are the only two companies currently offering consumer grade 5.6 MHz DSD recorders, the preferred  digital format to record vinyl.  Not surprisingly, two inch master tapes won out against direct-to-DSD in multiple listening tests of recorded live music.  But who has the cash, space, or inclination to store hundreds of two inch master reels around and thread them through a tape deck every time they want to hear one of their favorite albums.  I still find it interesting that age-old analog recording technology still exceeds the best that current-day digital has to offer though (The case for modern analog master recordings).

Teac slam/dunked that market when they recently came out with the DA-3000 with a street price of $1k and refurbished units available on eBay for around $700.  Until then it was the multi-track Sonoma workstation that was (and still is) sold to recording studios for around $50k.  Trouble is the DA-3000 is lacking one key feature that sort of cripples it.  Its’ a DAC/ADC combo so all the electronics are in place for it to act as an outboard DAC as well as a DSD recorder.  But even though it has a USB port it doesn’t have USB DAC capability built in so one must load an album onto a memory card and insert it into the DA-3000 to listen to it.  I spoke with a pretty knowledgeable tech guy at Teac about it and he agreed (as much as he could anyway) that they made it that way because they didn’t want to cannibalize the sales of their own DSD DAC, the Teac UD-501.  And Korg has neglected to update their tired and overpriced offerings, deeming the consumer market too small I suppose.

So I still wait for other players to come onto the consumer DSD recorder scene.  Back in the 1970s, everyone was in the reel-to-reel game since it was the only way to record vinyl with any sort of high fidelity intact.  Cassettes showed up and their quality was remarkable considering just how small the magnetic recording medium was, but still vastly inferior to reel-to-reel decks.  The tape hiss from cassettes was so prominent that it was only when Dolby came out with noise reduction that they were even feasible for quality sound reproduction.

And DSD recording faces other challenges.  So many titles are already offered in high definition digital formats, be it 24 bit PCM or DSD, why would anyone bother to record their own vinyl to DSD?  I can think of many instances where vinyl recording to DSD makes sense, such as titles that aren’t otherwise available in high def digital or recordings which were digitally remastered, following the advent of the CD, therefore making the vinyl release the only one in existence with pure analog mixing (Why Tape Hiss is Music to My Ears).

In the past, if you wanted a copy of a record you had to make it yourself by taping it.  But it’s become possible to obtain just about any title in one digital format or another, so it remains to be seen wether DSD recording for vinyl is in demand.


Ghosts I-IV [Vinyl]

if only the recording engineers who ruined The Cure’s Disintegration album had payed the same attention to detail as Trent Reznor did on this one.  If you think you know Trent Reznor’s work from NIN, think again!

This release is split between a total of 4 (yes… 4!) vinyl albums, all meticulously recorded at 33 RPM (but i bet they were 1/2 speed mastered to sound this good)

I’ve collected several of his late 80’s albums that have been re-released on vinyl, and they are all some of the best pressings I’ve ever, ever heard (including MFSLs OMs from “back in the day”)

the sound reproduction is probably the best i’ve heard on vinyl so far.  two of my four LPs are very warped, amazing they even play really.  i purchased it several years ago so too late to send the back 🙁  there’s a device for sale to flatten them i might buy

this is unlike any NIN you’ve ever heard.  TR is one of the most creative composers of his era and stands out as one of the most creative and influential of all time.  I like NIN, but he’s influenced the music of many, many other artists and was producer and engineer on many incredible soundtracks, such as “Lost Highway” and “Natural Born Killers”
this album is him playing around with ideas that you would never hear played on the radio.  very esoteric and definitely not for everyone, but worth buying if you have a good front end to hear what it’s capable of.  he is one of the few of that era who cared deeply  about sound quality.  maybe listen to some tracks online if you can find them…

Such a pity…

Such a pity…

I ordered the recent audiophile quality vinyl release of this album with great anticipation, as it is one of my favorite LPs I’ve never heard before, since it was originally released in 1989 and of redbook CD quality only.  No vinyl, so I never got to really hear it,

So I dropped the needle down on one of the most pristine slab of 180g vinyl I’ve ever seen and heard (in the beginning anyway)  – complete silence going into the first track.  “This is gonna be good” I thought to myself as the first song started.

But, after the first couple of tracks I knew something was wrong… really wrong.  I didn’t even listen to the remaining 3 sides (yes it’s a total of 2 LPs so 4 sides) and just put it back onto my shelf pretending it didn’t happen.

So as I’m copying my digital music collection onto the hard drive that’s going to Canada with me, I gave it another listen on my Maui system.  About half way through side two, I figured out what is so far amiss.

The vinyl itself is perfect.  My phono front end is very close to as good as it gets.  The recording came from the original master tapes as far as I can tell…  But it sounds flat, muddy, and lacks definition and transient response.  In other words, all the good stuff I typically find when going “back to black” is sorely missing.

So I think to myself, “there’s only two more places this could have gone so wrong: the method of the original recording or the mixing”.   I did a little research and… sure enough, that’s exactly what happened on both counts.

So the ensuing crappy CD-like sound quality is as good as it gets for this album, and as good as it will ever get short of getting the band back together to re-record it.  I’ve heard rumors that recording engineers and even mixing artists became lazy and complacent during the age of redbook CDs, since they thought the music  would only ever be played back at PCM 44.1k/16bit.  Or, as Lynn Olson at Audionics of Oregon so eloquently put it, “an era that left a legacy where the music quality will be forever lost as the bits were shaved off on the ADC sampling floor”.  I knew he was right and that I’d likely run into it sooner or later.  And now I have, on one of my favorite albums of all time.  Such a pity.

I’ll still enjoy listening to this album from time to time, and am happy to have the best quality version ever released, even if it sucks by comparison to my other audiophile quality vinyl.   But, unfortunately I just don’t feel compelled to sit down and listen to the whole album or even just one side (which is 2 sides on this release).  I expect far more when I plant my butt in my listening chair to do nothing else but enJoy music for music’s sake

Cascode amplifier design

Nelson Pass has offered a great deal to the world of high end audio amplification, and one of the things I like best about him is he encourages DIY projects of his designs.  This tells me he cares about the music deeply, above profit motives.  Here in one of his prolific and open discussions he goes into cascode amplifier design (

He’s always been outspoken in regard to the degradation of audio quality in favour of low THD specifications (The THD wars. Why lower distortion often doesn’t equal better sound quality).  But how does one solve the dilemma?  Class A amplification is the obvious answer, and one which many amps of the day went to, but Class A amplification is grossly inefficient at best, and completely unreliable at worst (The good, the bad, and the toasty about Class A amplification).

He subsequently went on to introduce STASIS, which uses optical bias current and MOSFETs, innovations that are present in his Threshold Amps and the Nakamichi PA7, which is firmly based upon Nelson Pass engineering precepts  (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier).

How to get a moving coil phono stage for free.

Step up transformers (SUTs) and pre-preamps for low output moving coil (LOMC) phono cartridges can easily exceed $1k, but that’s part of the beauty of some vintage gear of a certain era when moving coil (MC) phono cartridges were popular, manufacturer’s almost  threw in the MC phono stage for free.  There are many variants from the late 1970s and early 1980s, including offerings from some of the major Japanese players of the day such as Yamaha, Nakamichi, Sansui and Sony.  The Nakamichi CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) is unique in that it incorporates a USA designed phono stage (schematic shown above), but is manufactured by Nakamichi.  Which translates to a Nelson Pass MC phono stage nearly thrown in for free, which is exactly why I acquired it.

The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio

OK..  first a bit of a rant.  How many of you out there are aware that most of U2’s music is lost forever to the world of high fidelity?  Yep.  Original master tapes were 16-Bit DATs (Digital Audio Tapes), which are finally recognized as inadequate for audiophile quality sound reproduction.  Which means there will never be a MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs) “Original Master” version.  The original master DAT (i.e. so not analogue) tapes are garbage.  It’s immediately apparent when you listen to their music of the era of 16-Bit DATs, no matter if it’s vinyl, CD, SACD, up sampled 24 bit FLACs, or what ever (and yes, I’ve tried them all).

Short of getting the band back together and back in the studio there is no salvaging their music for high end audio reproduction.  And even if that were to happen (which it isn’t), the magic would be long gone.  As much as I admire Brian Eno and his creative genius, I gotta say he totally dropped the ball on this one and perhaps kowtowed to the (very mistaken) direction of Daniel Lanois, who was the recording engineer for U2 at the time.  He must have been paying far more attention to the flash and glitter of the “new era” (i.e. dark ages) of audio engineering than sitting down and listening to the music being recorded or he would have caught this huge (and forever) miss.

Who remembers the three part ratings on CDs when they first came out?  Each of the three rating were all either “A” or “D” to represent Analogue or Digital.  The first was for the original master tapes, the second for the mixing medium, and the third was the for the actual delivery method you held in your hands.  Of course if you are holding a CD the third was completely redundant and pure marketing hyperbole.  Just how stupid did the music industry think we were?…  Stupid enough to like how quiet CDs sounded between tracks whilst totally abolishing the music quality of the tracks themselves I suppose.

Of course audiophiles now know that any 16-Bit “D” of that era stands for “Death” of sound quality, especially for the first D in this rating as that meant the original studio work was recorded on 16-Bit digital audio tapes (DATs), which would always ensue with a DDD rating on a CD release.  But it can certainly also be f’d right up by converting stellar original analogue tapes to 16-Bit digital files for the purpose of mixing (i.e. “ADD”).  See Such a pity…

And with the digital death of the recordings themselves, the quality of high end audio reproduction components also withered on the vine.  Desperate to stay in business, many purveyors of high end audio gear sung the praises of the digital “revolution” and many manufactures tried to make some lemon aid out of the lemons the original recordings had become.

And, as the music quality failed miserably, listeners stopped caring and home stereos took a second seat to iPods and ear buds.  Enter the second digital “revolution” in the music industry, the era of MP3s, making any sort of high end audio quality completely hopeless.

Any modicum of high end audio remaining became more and more of a niche market and prices increased as such.  What’s so very ironic about this demise is that all through the 90s and up to around 2010 the primary front end source for nearly all high end audio was CDs, so listeners were chasing their tail paying more and more money to try to get good sound out of a hopeless source format to no avail.  That’s what I call the “dark ages” of high end audio.

Vinyl is back, though not necessarily for it’s better sound quality (The new (old) gear coming out).  And at the same time we are coming into the golden age of digital, with DSD formats just coming into vogue in the past couple years.  Though even the best digital release can’t match a carefully recorded all-analogue vinyl release, it’s come a long, long way from the days of the 16-Bit DAT recordings of the early 90s.  And… convenience as well as lack of vinyl’s surface noise is a legitimate trade-off for some.  And, as more people start to buy high end gear again and it goes from the esoteric realm and nudges back into mainstream, the prices will come down, which is already happening.

But I already have in-wall speakers and a built in audio system, what do I do?

so your dilemma is exactly what i’m starting a consulting business to help people with.
the short answer to your question is yes, you need a dedicated system for quality 2 channel sound (i.e vinyl, though it’s not limited to just that)
in order to advise further, i’d need to see your room.  that’s where it all starts, with the room.  and that’s where i come into the picture.  i can’t name one high end audio dealer that approaches it that way, visit the customer’s room first.  they all just have their rooms and what the equipment can do in the showroom.  these are dealers who typically sell systems from $10K to $100k.
in all honesty, i don’t know how they can do it.  either they don’t know or don’t care but it’s simply impossible to advise someone on audio gear without starting with room acoustics and in order to do that you need to see and hear the room

Doing a little research on vintage Sansui…

I had a friend interested in this integrated amplifier, the Sansui AU-9500 and I passed it off as yet another mediocre amplifier of the era.  But my knee-jerk reaction to it was kind of bugging me so I did a little more research on this baby and even examined the circuit topology from the schematics (Circuit topology, why less is more).

Upon further investigation, this looks to be one of the best integrated amps the era offered and quite possibly the best integrated amp Sansui ever produced, hence the strong following.   This amplifier was released when the owner and founder of Sansui (Khosaku Kikuchi) was on a quest to offer the best solid state amps in the world and this was his “no holds barred” TOTL (top of the line) flagship integrated model.  In that respect it is a brilliant piece of audio history, probably why my friend was so drawn to it.

This amplifier was released from 1972 to 1973 only, and Khosaku Kikuchi subsequently retired in 1974.  Although circuit design may have progressed in later Sansui integrated amps, it remains highly doubtful that sonic qualities improved, especially if such circuit designs implemented high negative feedback loops in the “THD wars” of the time (The THD wars. Why lower distortion often doesn’t equal better sound quality).  In fact, the rather high THD of .1% on this model actually bodes well for its musicality and sonic potential.  I doubt they subsequently made an integrated amp with better build and/or sound quality.  And Khosaku Kikuchi’s goal to make solid state sound like tubes was certainly an admirable one, though that wasn’t really realized until the MOSFET amps of the early 80s came out, with the exception of the high slew rate/low TIM Audionics of Oregon CC-2 driving certain speakers (The Audionics of Oregon CC-2. More distortion, more better.).

The Japanese and US approach has traditionally been polar opposite in regard to the “less is more” or “more is more” approach, and Sansui obviously believes that by adding more tone controls you can achieve better sound quality.  Hence the elaborate tone controls on the AU-9500, while US designers were going the opposite direction.  Of course which is better is purely subjective, as are all things high-end audio.  I am of the later camp and prefer not to have any tone controls at all, even just the usual “bass” and “treble” (Why I prefer analog preamplifiers that lack tone controls), which is the main reason I choose the Nak CA-5A (The Nakamichi CA-5A preamplifier) over the Nak CA-5A II.  I’ve always found graphic equalizers, that became so popular in the late 70s, to be flashy tone suckers.  But once again that’s just one guy’s subjective opinion.

It’s worthy to note that Japanese owned and operated Nakamichi contracted an American (Nelson Pass) as a hired gun for their circuit designs when they endeavoured to provide the world with the best amplifiers of the era in the early to mid 1980s, following their huge success in the cassette tape business.  His circuit designs have always been extraordinarily simple, so that’s an indisputable indicator of where the chips ultimately fell, as are nearly all the modern high-end audio components that followed.  I consider the Nakamichi amplifiers designed by Nelson Pass to be the best of both worlds from that era – fantastic circuit topology combined with Japanese build quality and stunning industrial design (The Nakamichi PA-7 power amplifier).

So the main concern I would have in regard to the Sansui AU-9500 would not be in regard to sound quality or its ability to drive just about any speakers desired, but rather due to its age combined with its complexity combined with the difficulty of finding places to get it competently serviced and it’s weight to ship.  I would consider it a roll of the dice and while it may run another 40 years, I seriously doubt it.

As a side note the AU-9500’s direct coupled design is a rather bold move, indicative of their emphasis on utmost sound quality at that time.  What it means is that without DC servo protection to shut things down in the event of a DC power fault feeding the speakers, it will destroy them in very short order.  It probably has a DC servo  protection circuit somewhere, but I couldn’t locate it on the schematics.  The direct coupled design omits DC filter capacitors on the output stage due to their potential to adversely effect sound quality, which I find ironic given the proliferation of what I consider to be unnecessary circuitry in the circuit design to begin with.

I initially had concerns about the early 70s AU-9500 possibly being behind the design curve that came in the late 70s.  But as previously noted, the high THD figure, coupled with the fact that they even mentioned TIM distortion in their specs, tells me that they were “on it” (in a good way) and trying hard to avoid that “first-generation transistor sound”, which makes sense as it was one of their stated objectives, to have a “tube-like” sound.  I found this interesting since I thought Robert Sickler at Audionics of Oregon was one of the first amplifier designers to look at how negative feedback adversely effects sound quality and strove for high slew rate (What is “Slew Rate” and why does it matter?…)/low TIM distortion amplifier designs.  The entire industry followed his lead, but maybe he was just one of the first American amplifier designers to look at it.  Robert Sickler was also onto MOSFETs way before their time, but Nelson Pass later picked up that ball and ran with it to great effect.

The vintage “crap shoot”

Long story short, vintage electronics can often be a crap shoot, especially if you leave in a remote area, far away from service facilities (like Maui, for example).  But mid-fi modern electronics, with their inferior build (and sound) quality are guaranteed to be crappy – they were designed and built in our “disposable age”.

That leaves a couple options.  Pay exorbitant prices for quality modern gear, which will easily run well into five digits for each component, or try your luck with some extraordinarily high quality vintage gear from the “golden age”.   Don’t get me wrong, vintage gear isn’t for everyone.  I’ve done tweeter surgery (Trust your ears), retro-fitted cabinets to accept spec’d tweeters since the originals are no longer available, blown two power amps beyond repair, and fussed around with isolation platforms for turntables since their original vintage ones are grossly inadequate (Denon DP-790W turntable review).

But for those reasonably handy with a soldering iron and willing to do some DIY modifications and/or repairs, vintage gear can be a veritable gold mine.  And, not all vintage gear requires tinkering, I’ve acquired three preamplifiers from the early 1980s (Nakamichi CA-5, Threshold FET Nine, and Audio Research SP9 MkII) and one power amp from the late 1970s (Audionics of Oregon CC-2) that are all performing just fine without any repairs or modifications what-so-ever.

Beware of over priced vintage gear however.  Marantz had a classic styling that is fetching prices that simply aren’t commensurate with their sound quality compared to other vintage gear of the same era.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Marantz gear and I also love their styling from the late 1970s, but you will be paying extra for that signature Marantz look and feel (see photo above).  If that’s important to you than by all means go for it.  A 1966 Jaguar XKE would totally suck on a race track by modern-day standards but is worth over $140k now since it is so collectable.

While a vintage Marantz receiver isn’t going to “totally suck”, it’s possible to find higher end components from the era at less cost.  And separate components will nearly always out-perform integrated (Integrated amps or separates?).  I used to sell these Marantz units back in the 70s when they were new and they were the bread and butter of my audio resale business (I was 16 years old at the time and worked at Audionics of Oregon after school and summers).

They have outstanding phono stages, great build quality, and descent power plants, were reliable and all wrapped up in very nice packaging with attractive real wood cabinets.  That’s why they have become collectable and some sell for nearly 10 times the prices they did back then, as does a lot of the gear of that era.  And… like so many collectable things, there is nostalgia associated with them and their distinctive styling.


The Golden Age of Digital Audio

Yep… We are only just now coming into the golden age of digital audio, where the hard disc space and computer processing are capable of it’s requirements – I now have 9 TB of storage space, something that wouldn’t have been financially feasible even a year or two ago.  The late 70s/early 80s were the golden age of analog, which is why i’m buying analog gear from that era.  It was arguably as good as it gets then, and in many respects it hasn’t gotten better, just (far, far) more expensive.  Some technologies from the 70s remain relatively unavailable in modern audiophile gear.  Technologies such as direct drive turntables which are often superior to the modern day belt drive ones with prices starting around $3k (Turntables – Direct Drive vs. Belt Drive).

But… it took analog many, many years to get there, the height of it’s glory in the mid 70s/early 80s.  It has taken digital just as long, 32 years and counting and it’s only now starting to come into it’s golden age.  Amazing that DSD has been around for at least 15 years and only recently starting to gain momentum.  But… it has begun, and that’s a good thing.

I’m at the very forefront of digi quality by virtue of creating a DSD music server by ripping files with a PS3.  And, I’m also putting together an analog system in both Canmore and Maui that is of the era that was the height of analog (i.e. vinyl).  The only major difference in my analog pursuits from what I did in the late 70s will likely be to replace a reel-to-reel with a 5.6 MHz DSD recorder.

Planars… The room is the enclosure

Maggies often love acoustically reflective surfaces behind them for imaging, so the glass might work to benefit them in your LR.  i have the perfect scenario for my rear wall for my Maggies in Canada, three acoustically reflective surfaces in an octagonal configuration (in other words a bay window).  see the rendering i sent previously.

My room acoustics here on Maui are my big limiting factor and I can’t get planers like Maggie’s to work here. They work in my room in Canada, but not the big Maggie’s.

On the other hand my Kefs are awesome here in Maui but likely wouldn’t sound nearly as good in my room in Canada that has very different dimensions and surfaces.  Very different indeed.


more later…

Losing the forest through the trees?…

First let me clarify that I’m an old school audiophile from back in the days of, “stick with the things that don’t claim to defy the laws of physics”.  Having said that, I was very much looking forward to experimenting with “modern” cables and interconnects once I’d built my reference systems.  Those now built, I’ve tried my share and, surprisingly but maybe not so surprisingly, haven’t found them to add sonic improvements over their solid quality and reasonably priced equivalents, much the same as used before the advent of esoteric (i.e. expensive) cables and interconnects (see Speaker Cables).

After listening to CDs yet again on a six digit reference system in Edmonton (with thousands of dollars worth of interconnects and cables) and doing A/B comparisons on my own reference systems at home, I can’t imagine why anyone listening to “Redbook” (44.1k/16 bit) compact discs would fuss over their cables or interconnects, which would be “losing the forest through the trees” in my opinion.

I performed extensive listening tests on a reference system at a high end dealer in Seattle around 8 years ago, including a DVD-A (PCM @ 96k/24 bit) release of George Benson’s “Breezin” vs. the same album on Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (MFSL) Original Master (OM) vinyl.  If the vinyl was a 10/10 I gave the DVD-A a 4/10 (I later discovered that this particular DVD-A was a very poor recording).  I also did an A/B comparison of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” on SACD (a very good recording) vs. the MFSL OM vinyl release and gave it an 8/10.

I’ve subsequently done many more A/B comparisons of high quality vinyl vs. high definition digital recordings on my (far better) home reference systems and have found that, while there are certainly many exceptions (If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…), my initial observations were essentially correct.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ll sit down and listen to any of the music I like in the highest quality I can get it.   Vinyl if available and the analog signal path has been fully preserved (see What a pity… ), otherwise SACD, otherwise 24 bit PCM.  And, if all else fails, even Redbook PCM at 44.1k/16 bit.  But I doubt I’ll be inclined to sit down and listen to music recored that far down the quality chain since I experience listening fatigue pretty quickly with Redbook quality CDs (I was already experiencing it within the first 10 or 15 minutes on the reference system in Edmonton).  Whereas I find just the opposite to be true with music recorded via DSD, vinyl, or 24 bit PCM – I just want to keep listening and turning it up.  As for MP-3s, I listen to them too, all the time!  I just don’t sit down and listen to them.  See…  What I love about MP3s.

DSD DACS… affordable at last.

23Jan2014 – “I won’t (spend $1.5k on a DSD DAC).  I guess you didn’t read through my email, where I suggested to wait for the DSD/PCM combo DACs to come down to $500 or less, which they will within a year:)  It’s highly unlikely I’ll spend more than that on a USB DAC for my digi signal path.”

Review of the UD-301 here


17Feb2014 – and, i now have nearly 100 titles of my SACDs for the time when the DSD music server becomes a reality.  i would estimate that to be at least a year away since it will take that long for DSD DACs to become main stream and hence more reasonably priced.  once again, worth the wait for the pursuant quality.  shootz, i’ve already waited over 20 years for quality music again (i.e. since the day when 44.1/16 bit CDs took over), what’s a little more?…

The lines begin to blur…

this is a super interesting interview with one of your neighbours (Dave) and a BIG DSD advocate (thank goodness)

this iconic quote says it all,

“One day she invited a dozen engineers and artists to do a blind test of three different audio formats. Analog tape recording, high-resolution digital (better than CD) and DSD. “Tape was still everyone’s choice in a blindfold test,” says Marenco, but they all agreed “that DSD was the closest thing to tape.””

and that has been my impression when I listen to DSD  on SACDs and compare it to vinyl.  still not analogue, but the next best thing and certainly the closest thing in today’s digi world.

the industry is catching up, now with faster computers, internet connections, and bigger hard drives.

we will most certainly see a movement towards DSD in the near future.  audiophiles, the ones who listen to digi anyway, will demand it.

“I told you so” post

“might be a few years before we see DSD take over.  but mark my words… it will.”

as i wrote this to you guys from Canada, the Acoustic Sounds (the de-facto standard in quality music content, including vinyl) catalog was sitting in my mail box here on Maui.

And… guess what it’s all about?…  DSD downloads and DSD DACs.  I knew it would play out this way, simply cause DSD sounds better.  The difference is immediately evident even on my medium-fidelity 5.1 HT system at my Pookela rental.  I’ve got numerous titles on both SACD and DVD-A (which runs PCM at 192k/24 bit) and have compared the two extensively. I’ve also compared them to vinyl and SACD comes far closer, and Acoustic Sounds says exactly the same thing as does every other audiophile I’ve met who loves vinyl like I do (the guy in Calgary even shared my love for the very fussy Denon 103R LOMC phono cartridge).

I’ve attached a scan from the opening page.  Then it was followed by numerous (overpriced) USB DSD DACs.  They are charging a premium for what they should have been providing all along, but PCM had a great deal of momentum since that was the format used for CDs at 44.1K/16 bit.  DACs (even USB DSD ones) are extraordinary simple devices since they operate primarily in the digital domain.  A few chip sets, an accurate word clock (important to reduce jitter, although “word clock” only applies to the PCM word, just plain “clock”, and a very fast one, for DSD), and a descent line stage output buffer are all they require to produce top-of-the-line (digi) sound quality.

Next… they will be trying to sell us all these titles we already own on SACD (in my case anyway) as DSD downloads for $25/album.  This is just plain wrong IMHO.  We gotta get our hands on a hackable PS3 to rip SACDs to DSD files soon before they are all gone!!!  I’m gonna run another want ad here on Maui but the chances are slim.  Dave…  you’ve got the specs for one a want ad the Bay Area  Andrew, LMK if you want the specs…

I will eventually rip my entire music collection, including vinyl, to DSD so I can easily travel with it.  There are 5.6k DSD recorders out there and one is in my future.  I should be able to get equivalent or better results recording records to DSD files as I did with a reel-to-reel tape recorder back in the 70s. And, a hard drive is a lot easier to travel with than a bunch of reel-to reel tapes 🙂



P.S. The Acoustic Sounds catalog is an excellent resource for modern, quality music content.  They offer 2 LP 45 RPM vinyl titles on 180g and 200g, as well as every digi format you could ask for (including PCM to support digi customers still on that format, which is most everyone).  I suggest subscribing, it’s free of course.  I often find the titles cheaper elsewhere, but they are leading this parade and were the one’s who put out Pink Floyd’s WYWH on 5.1 SACD and they have re-mastered many, many titles on both vinyl and SACD and even have their own vinyl production facility.  They not only sell quality music for the modern age, they create it!

Begin forwarded message:

careful… you might get the vinyl bug! 😉

i’ve got some big ideas in regard to music servers.  but…  we’ve gotta wait for the industry to catch up.  they are still in the PCM world and unfortunately that’s where most of the momentum is.  might be a few years before we see DSD take over.  but mark my words… it will.

if i have high end systems in Canmore, Maui, and maybe Utah down the road it’s gonna be necessary – i.e. carrying an external hard drive rather than duplicating my entire high def music collection (including vinyl) in two or even three places…

i’ll still continue to collect vinyl, but i’ll get a DSD recorder so i can sample it at 5.6 MHz and travel with it easily.  it will likely sound as good (or possibly even better) than very high quality reel-to-reel recordings i used to make.

Out of Print (OPP) music titles

ironically… it’s been mostly my DVD-As that having been going up in value since the format is dead and they are going OOP.

Steely Dan Gaucho on SACD? – bought 3 copies for $15 each and still worth $15 each
Steely Dan Gaucho on DVD-A? – bought 3 copies for $15 each and now worth $90 each

Of course, some SACD titles with stunning 5.1 surround mixes that went OOP are soaring in collectable value, such as Roxy Music Avalon and Bryan Ferry Boys and Girls, buy these are the exception rather than the rule with SACDs (thankfully!  even though i have collectable copies that i will sell later).  these have increased in value mainly because the only surround mix known to man is on them (in DSD quality) and only a limited number sold before they went OOP.

Recording your vinyl to DSD

DSD is sampled at 2.8 MHz.  This is what is used on SACDs and results in similar results to an analog wave form.  The differences between vinyl and SACDs still remains very audible to me though (pros and cons – the pros still far outweigh the cons for me), even on a modest system by audiophile standards.  But I consider both levels of quality, vinyl and SACD non-fatiguing and very worthy of “sit down and listen to music” sessions.  CDs I don’t and I stopped doing it in spite of having a very good audiophile system with ESLs.  The return of quality by virtue of DSD and vinyl are why I’m back into it.

The Korg can record analog sources at 2.8 MHz or 5.6 MHz.  Having a higher sampling rate than SACDs or PCM and leads to many intriguing questions to me.  Could I get even better results recording my quality vinyl to DSD at 5.6 MHz than listening to the same music recorded and mixed to SACD at 2.8MHz, for example (I doubt it).  And… it leads to potentially amazing archival and convenienice possibilities as well.  Travelling to my places with a hard drive is certainly a lot easier than with a collection of vinyl, or buying multiple copies of my vinyl albums so i have one in all places and having multiple turntables, which is the road i figured i’d likely to down but may not have to after all 🙂

I have found that DVD Audio at 192K/24 bit to be very good and a huge improvement over CDs at 44.1K/16 bit.  I have several titles on both SACD using DSD and on DVD-A using 192k/24 bit and have compared them (I’ve got at least a dozen on both formats: SJ Gaucho, Elton John GBYBR, Fleetwood Mac Rumors, etc.) and find I prefer the SACDs but both formats are miles above CDs.  And, every title various according to whiter original master tapes were used, how it was mixed, and how it was recorded.

Remember that with PCM, the bit depth is more important than the sampling rate.  So 24 bit is key (and almost all of them are).  Blu-ray Audio offers 96khz @ 24 bit.  I’ve collected a few of those titles but haven’t listened to them yet since I don’t have a player.   They play on all blu-ray players (that’s their selling point of course) but in order to give them a proper listen i would have to get an audiophile quality one, such as the Oppo.

An Edmonton audio-venture (names changed to protect the guilty)

So… I had an interesting day in Edmonton on the quest for high end audio gear.  For some reason Edmonton is a major Canadian hub for it.  Too bad it isn’t Calgary since that is a 1 hour drive and Edmonton is a 3.5 hour drive 🙁

Anyway, it’s really interesting to meet the people (all male of course) who are into this.  They all differ on their motivations and aspirations.  Every single piece of gear I’ve purchased here in Alberta (5 now) starts with meeting the wife in the nice cozy living room, then heading to the dungeon for “the goods”.  The wife always offers me coffee, beer (if it’s past 6 pm) then disappears.  It’s like this secret club or covert society.  Fascinating.  All good people, happy in their pursuit for what ever reason they are into it.  So here’s an account of the day going down that rabbit hole:

Stop number one – Threshold FET Nine preamp, circa late 80s, MSRP then: $2,595 USD

The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades
The Threshold FET 9 Preamplifier with attention to detail in spades

So I pull up to this newly built, large house replete with thee- car garage in the boonies outside of Edmonton, on acreage, terrible architecture – big, two story turret faces you from outside as you enter and once inside, the room therein is clearly never used cause it’s the antithesis of “cozy”, designed to impress rather than express (the interests of the occupants).   Classic example of what not to do from the book “The not so big house”, but I digress.

I’m greeted by the wife, who offers me coffee and I ask for water, then downstairs we go.  But this in no dungeon, this i a very well laid out home theatre complete with huge screen projector – the kind of thing you see in HT magazines.  He’s got a built-in cabinet on the left with a glass front that is filled from the floor to the ceiling with medium grade HT gear.  On a bench placed in front of the sofa, which is in the sweet spot, sits an old Macintosh SS (solid sate) amp, circa early 70s, and the FET Nine hooked up to a low end CD player.  The original box is off to the side, with hand written model and S/N on it, a good sign 🙂  He’s got some very nice Tannoy speakers, well positioned in the room (for a change) to listen to everything on.

So I start putting it through it’s paces, checking for crosstalk, hum, etc.  This thing is perfect!  I can already tell the phono stage has never been used cause there is absolutely no wear on the RCA jacks.  This is going well…  (unlike the Denon stuff I looked at in Calgary a week ago, but that’s another story).  When checking for hum in the phono stage I’m hearing hum… but identify it as not coming from the speakers.  He’s like, “oh, that’s probably the bar fridge” and I’m thinking to myself, seriously?!  But… he’s obviously gotten away from high end audio, and is only into HT now, that’s why he’s selling it, which is a good thing, for me 🙂

So we listen to a CD for a very short while.  I’m not evaluating since I already know of what this preamp is capable of, I’m just checking for obvious faults.  Nothing so far 🙂  So I head out to grab my turntable out of the FJ.  The turntable has an average at best phono cartridge in it.  I assumed it was a throw-away but this is the first time I heard it and it sounded way better than I guessed.  He knew I was interested in the FET Nine in part (a very big part) because of it’s phono stage so he knew I was bringing my turntable.  I put on a MFLS OM (Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Original Master) of George Benson Breezin (one of my reference’s).  The opening sounds a little flat, but it always does, I know to expect that, then the steel guitar and vocals kick in and I bask in the goodness.  I look over at the seller and his jaw has dropped, gazing like a deer in the headlights in disbelief.  Then he looks over at me and stammers, “it’s like they are in the room with us…”  It wasn’t turned up very loudly, didn’t need to be – that’s part of the beauty of high end gear.  I head straight to the volume control (no remote here of course – Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control), turn it down and exclaim, “I’ll take it.”   I can see by the look on his face that he doesn’t want to sell it anymore.  He’s owned it for 25+ years and I honestly think this is the first time he’s heard what it’s capable of.  It’s certainly the first time this famous Nelson Pass phono stage has had a signal passed through it.  Amazing really.

I had brought a couple more MFSL OMs with me, but no need to break them out, I already know this thing is magic.  And I’m thinking time isn’t on my side anymore and he’s likely to change his mind.  Then, his wife walks down the stairs to check on us and offer refills of our drinks.  Thank god for the WAF (wife approval factor).  The seller says, “that’s amazing”, to which I reply, “yeah… but it’s a slippery slope and next thing you know you’ll be collecting records”.  I look over at his wife Laura and she has a look of horror on her face and when he glances at her I know it’s a done deal and this piece of audio history is mine.

Before we box it I ask to pop the lid and look inside.  I’m like, “there must be a cartridge loading dip switch in there or something”.  I hadn’t researched this, but figured there must be.  I also wanted to check for bulging capacitors, overheated resistors, crumbling diodes, etc.  This thing is 25+ years old, after all.  He had obviously never done this and it seemed sacrilege to him to do so.  I dig around in the box and find, in the original little plastic bag, the 1.5mm allen key provided to remove the eight tiny screws and very carefully remove the top cover.  I’ve been into high end audio for over 35 years and honestly have never seen prettier circuit topology or populated circuit board.  All hand made of course.  But obviously done so with complete pride and audio craftsmanship.  Both the mother and daughter board are gold plated, all the capacitors, resistors, and other components are of the upmost quality, and the entire package looks like a gem box.  Exemplary design, exemplary execution.  No wonder this thing is collectable.  We pack it up together and off I go.

Stop number two – Nakamichi PA-7, circa 1988, MSRP then: $1,600 USD

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 power amp.  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.  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 more sexy looking and less than 1/2 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 amplifier with optical bias.  Well, they don’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 Nak releases the PA-7II with an altered design, 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 Nak CA-5A pre amp of the same era and also designed by NP and executed by Nakamichi for my Maui system.

So… Enough history.  Now it’s time to describe the seller.  This time it’s a Polish guy who has a hobby building his own speakers.  Not exactly an audiophile, but he’s a cabinet maker and a craftsman.  He lives in a tiny one-story house and I’m greeted by him and his (hot) Polish wife, then downstairs we go.  This time it’s truly a dungeon, no windows, star wars memorabilia, the “man cave” big time. There’s speaker drivers everywhere.  No listening chair, a huge rack of gear that must stand 6.5 feet tall with a turntable on top that I can’t even reach and he’s almost a foot shorter then me – obviously there for show and not used (only a half dozen records on his shelves), all flanked by two pairs of huge home-made speakers.  The set which are his pride-and-joy sport two sets of 15” woofers, huge horns for mid-range, and dome tweeters for high frequencies.  I look over his design, all phase aligned and actually well executed, and offer (genuine) praise.  He’s selling the Nak PA-7 cause he can’t tell the difference from his Carver, to which I offer no comment.

So once again I’m not here to evaluate this amp, but rather check for faults.  I’ve already spoken with the previous owner and got it’s history and it’s all good.  Kris (present seller) has thankfully only owned it for a couple months.  Thankfully because I have the feeling if he owned it much longer something untoward would happen… to the amp, his house, or his marriage.  He asks, “what kind of music do you want to hear?” and I reply, “how about some soft jazz”.  He looks puzzled, as if he’s thinking to himself “what the hell are you looking at the PA-7 for then?!”, but just shrugs and goes over to play something from his “music server”, which I put in quotes since it’s a laptop playing FLAC files that originated from Redbook CD quality at best (44.1k/16bit).  I listen for a while, everything seems to be working OK and his speakers sound pretty good and I suspect would sound really good with a descent front end.  The only other things to do to test this power amp are to drive it to clipping and look inside, then I’m ready to buy it.  I figure I’m never gonna drive it to clipping with my Magnepan MG-12s, as I would likely shred the quasi ribbons if I did so long before this amp cried “uncle” (side note – I’ve subsequently discovered this isn’t the case and I easily drive this amp to clipping with my MG-12s), so I ask him if he’s ever seen it clip.  “Oh sure, he replies, you mean those little red lights?”  I nod and he says, “Well, we gotta listen to something different for that.”

He puts on Dire Straits, Brother’s in Arms (the SACD version of which happens to be one of my references – lucky coincidence), then cranks the volume and looks over proudly at me as his speakers deliver seismic bass response and actually hold their own to everything the legendary PA-7 can throw at it.  I’m starting to get uneasy as the room resonates and things start to vibrate off tables and shelves all around.  I think of his wife, trying to watch olympic figure skating upstairs with her fingers crossed that I buy it.  But… it’s still not clipping.  He sees that and yells at me to wait for it, then notches it up a bit and the red lights flash away as the next bass line kicks in.  I give him the thumbs up and he turns it down so we can converse once more.  I said, “holy shit” and complimented him on his speakers once again.  He was beaming and says, “yeah, I have to replace the light bulbs every few weeks since it rattles the filaments loose”.  I said I’ll take it but want to pop the lid first, and he says, “sure, just give me a hand getting it out of the rack.”  At nearly 70 pounds, this is a two person job.  I ask him if he’s every had the top off and he says, “no” and I think to myself that’s probably a good thing.  There a sticker on top that says “Lethal shock hazard.  Do not open!”

The two of us box it up, original manual and original double box 🙂  He says, “I’m a cabinet maker, trust me it’s easier and better for your back if one person carries it.  I’ll take it to the front door if you take it to your car from there.”  I thought I’d got the better part of the deal since I didn’t have to carry it up the stairs until I got on the icy sidewalk outside.

Stop number three – Acoustic Research SP-9 MkII, circa 1987, MSRP then: $4,000 CAD

The Audio Research SP-9 MkII - one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.
The Audio Research SP-9 MkII – one of the finest tube preamplifiers ever made.

Third stop is at a high end store who is the second largest Audio Research dealer in North America, according to the salesman at least.  I get inside and with seven listening rooms full of their gear, I’m not surprised.

He’s got the ARC SP-9 MkII sitting on the test bench, warming up nicely.  This thing is visibly perfect, not a scratch and almost no wear on the RCA jacks.  He pops the hood and shows me the inside.  He’s particularly proud of the new tube he’s installed in the phono stage, which is an upgrade from the original and he shows me a link to it on ebay for $150.  Now that the transaction’s done he proceeds to give me a tour of the store.

First we go to the uber-high-end room since I had asked about phono hum and how much was normal since it’s been so long I’d honestly forgotten.  He points at a stack of large steel boxes on the floor with massive power cords into them, “See that?  $20K worth of power conditioning, that’s how you get rid of hum.”  Then he switches to the phono stage on the rack of the TOTL (top of the line) Audio Research gear feeding a floor standing Mark Levison amp located squarely between two large but not overly imposing cone speakers with (by peeking behind their cabinets) what I determined to be acoustic suspension design – almost zero hum as he inches the volume up to 104 DB.  “I spent 4 hours setting these babies up” he beams as he turns the volume down, switches sources, and motions me to the capacious leather lounge chair located in the sweet spot and pulls up in an identical one next to it but just off centre.   I’m thinking to myself, “this is gonna be a treat!”  I don’t even know what he’s gonna put on and am especially pleased when I recognize Patrick O’Hearn chiming in at mid volume levels.

It sounds great, but then as I put my critical ear on I’m thinking to myself, “I expected more than this”.  Then I hear some mid frequencies come in a bit hot and harsh and am already start to experience listening fatigue instead of closing my eyes and immersing myself in the music.  I’m like, “Am I losing it?…  Do I not know what high end audio sounds like anymore?…”  Then I glance over at the rack and the huge ARC transport’s display says “CD” on it.   He gets up (he’s been doing this for 30 years and knows how to read a listener’s reaction), turns it down and says, “You know, I never liked these Mark Levison amps”.  The amp costs $30K and is not the problem.  I know it, he knows it, but we both remain reticent.  I don’t want to say anything and be insulting.  He has to sell this stuff so he can’t say anything, but the tour moves on in short order.  The only other source in the uber-high-end room is a floor standing turntable that sits about 4 feet high.  It’s obviously not set up so I don’t even ask.  No SACD player… strange.

I spent two more hours touring the remainder of the rooms, full of high end goodness, mostly turntables, and Mangepans everywhere.  I told him of my experience testing various Maggies in a similar sized to mine (small) listening room in Calgary and he agreed that he didn’t care for the 3.7Rs.  “Accurate to a fault”, I described them as, to which he replied, “exactly”.  He shows me the HT room and points at a 5 channel amp and says, “watch this” as the lights flicker as he turns it on.  “It runs off two dedicated 15A circuits.  We’re wired for this and it still does that”.  He shows me modern turntable designs and we go on about phono cartridge loading in preamps, and why the ARC SP-9 MkII he just sold me has fixed gain.  I said that I’d remain unconvinced until I listen to it.  I could have spent all day there, but it really is too bad the only thing we sat down and listened to was a CD player.

He liked that I knew about gear from the 70s and 80s and mentioned a pair of old Kef bookshelf speakers they had kicking around about a week ago.  “They didn’t have T-27 tweeters did they?,” I inquired, failing miserably at not appearing excited.  “They sure did.  Are you thinking of building a pair of LS3/5As?”.  He was on to me right away.  “Yep, but they’ve gotta be SP-1032 version of the T-27s and Rodgers only accepted about 20% of the drivers from Kef as being within spec” I countered.  That was true but I was primarily trying to drive the price down at this point as I knew he now knew he’d get top dollar from me for them.  “We might consider parting them out” he said to which I replied, “do your research and get back to me with a price”.  I already knew they are worth $200+ USD and figured why throw that price at him until he knows if he even wants to remove the tweeters from the speakers.  That might seem like a lot for a pair of 40 year old used tweets, but worth every nickel if he’d sell them.  I spoke of my Kef 104/2 restoration project over on Maui and of replacing the ferro fluid in the T33 tweeters on them.  He knew exactly what I was doing and why, and called me “brave to tear those tweeters apart to rebuild them”.  I told him I didn’t have them working again yet and was practicing on a pair taken from salvage 104/2s that were given to me by someone who was just so happy that someone actually knew what they are he didn’t care about the money.  And, the WAF was present again in that instance, she wanted them out of the house (or even the garage).

Driving home back to Canmore:
And so, home I drove with my precious cargo of vintage audio gear.  I was even careful over the bumps, like I had an FJ full of eggs in the back.  And now the real fun starts.  Where, finally after starting down this high end audio path once again around four months ago, I hopefully begin to reap the rewards of my efforts, and sit down and listen to music again.  Something I will do almost daily once I’m able.  And, what a journey full of interesting characters it’s been so far, even before I play (really play) my first record!

Nude photos of analog gear usually tell a big part of the story.

The first thing I do when narrowing down what  high end audio gear warrants an “audition” is look at “nude pics”.  By nude I mean with the case off so all the internal circuitry can be seen.  High end analog audio gear is by it’s very nature, comprised of very few but very high end discreet components.  Low end audio gear is typically just the opposite, with overcrowded circuit boards crammed full of tone-sucking, cheap integrated circuits (ICs), undersized transformers, and other cost saving measures.

Of course, “you get what you pay for” is a saying that comes to mind, but with modern high end audio gear it can be a confusing mix.  Although there is (thankfully) a trend back to the “simpler is better” design precepts of vintage gear from the “golden age”, some companies still can’t resist adding a little “flash” and a lot of convenience by adding remote controls, which are perilous additions to any purely analog signal path (Why audiophiles don’t get to have a remote control…).  So an easy way to shop for audio gear when it’s impractical or even impossible to give it a proper listen is to look at nude pics.  Such was the case when I was looking to upgrade my DAC and stumbled upon the Marantz DSD DAC, which I couldn’t be happier with.

Even with digital sources, such as a high-def music server, you will want to maintain the integrity of the analog signal path once the best DAC chosen for the job has made the conversion from digital to analog, and nude pics can go a long way in telling the story prior to listening tests.  One look inside the vintage and collectable Threshold FET-9 pictured above illustrates this point perfectly.  Nothing but the best components very carefully and comfortable laid out in order to implement the circuit topology of the original design objectives.  Threshold even went so far as to put the power supply in a separate chassis in order to further isolate the potential interference from the power transformer.