Category Archives: Misc Musings

What is a “reference recording”?

You will hear me speak of “reference recordings” a great deal in this blog.  These are go-to recordings I use to compare and contrast sound quality when evaluating new gear and/or tweaks I’m making to an existing system, room, speaker placement, etc.

My reference recordings have a few things in common, such as phenomenal dynamic range and a large variety of instruments and nuances of musicality.  They are typically recorded by the most fastidious sound engineers in a fashion that provides reproduction as close to the source as possible, though there are also some “happy accidents”.  With precious few exceptions, they are fully analog recordings.  Which mean’s they are vinyl records (side note – some exceptional recordings were released from the original analogue master tapes directly to reel-to-reel analogue tapes, but these were the exception rather than the rule).

I also have a few digital reference recordings, and they offer the best sound quality I’ve yet heard from the medium, such as: Blade Runner Soundtrack from Vangelis (DSD), Whites Off Earth Now by The Cowboy Junkies (DSD), and a sample track from Blue Coast Recording called “Cali” (Direct to DSD).

The Blue Coast reference is an obvious candidate since they went to great lengths to go from purely acoustic sources in an ideal studio setting captured by some of the best microphones ever made (rare and hand-crafted by Didrik) directly to a native DSD master file.  No PCMing or digital mixing.  Just the original goods.  No more, no less.  But this left me wondering why the other two digital  recordings were so good…

A little research showed that, due to budget constraints, Whites Off Earth Now was originally recorded directly to analogue master tape in a garage using a single ambisonic microphone.  This is far harder for the band to perform, sort of like the Direct to Disc (If one format is better than another, why doesn’t the music always sound better?…) titles offered by Sheffield Labs back in the 70s,  This was one of the happy accidents where their low-budget recording method resulted in a raw and visceral quality that would have been lost in an expensive recording studio.  And thank goodness they couldn’t afford a professional sound engineer using Pro Tools digital mixing and editing software that would have PCMed all over their original analogue goodness.  Then Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs later did their digital magic by carefully transferring the music  directly to DSD from these original master tapes (once again, no digital mixing).  On a good system that is properly set up, it really does sound like you are there in the garage with the band.  Sometimes less is more.  This is clearly one of those times.

As for the Vangelis Soundtrack, there were many deliberate coincidences.  The first was the use of purely analogue tape for the recordings of both the instruments themselves and the synthesizer tracks. “The control room was equipped with two types of tape machines, each dedicated to a certain function in the recording process. The first was a multitrack tape machine capable of recording 24 parallel audio tracks into a 2-inch-wide magnetic tape. The multitrack tape allowed the individual instruments from a performance to be recorded into discrete audio tracks. This gave flexibility during mixing, as each audio element could be treated separately for panning, gain or other fine-tuning. Vangelis’ multitrack tape machine was the Lyrec TR-532, the same tape machine he used to record his solo albums and his film score to Chariots of Fire.  The second type of tape machine in Vangelis’ control room was a ‘tape master’ machine that allowed the final mixed work to be produced onto a 2-track quarter-inch master tape.”

Vangelis’ studio used to record the Blade Runner Soundtrack had analogue tape machines to record the original master tapes, shown at the bottom of this illustration.

And a (thankful) lack of digital manipulation as evidenced by this quote, “While creating music in a multitrack tape studio environment offered immense opportunities for adjusting the recorded performance, it lacked many of the convenient tools that arrived with later technologies, such as mixing desk automation, SMPTE time-code for synchronisation and much of the digital facilities that swept the sound-recording and film production studios in the late 1980s and beyond.”  While I view these factors, combined with Audio Fidelity’s ( careful transfer directly to DSD, to be the essential reason the quality and nature of this recording survived in the digital age (The “Dark Ages” of High End Audio). there was a great deal more  that also went into the perfectionism of Vangelis.  More on that can be found here (where excerpt quotes were taken):

Most of my vinyl reference recordings have been “old friends” for decades, but every now and then I drop the needle and find a new one.  Most notable recent additions are many of the vinyl releases from Nine Inch Nails (Digital distortion in a purely analog signal path.), David Gilmor’s relatively recent release “Rattle That Lock”, as well as a new discovery of Ben Harper’s “Pleasure and Pain” by Cardas (Pleasure And Pain Ben Harper & Tom Freund).

The point isn’t for me to share my “reference recordings”, though a short list may be a useful starting point if you share my music taste.  The point is for you to find your own.  That’s the fun part.  As you upgrade your system you will start to notice that your music collection will take on new life and sometimes you’ll find a revelatory change that makes you want to listen to your favorite albums all over again.  Very soon thereafter you will find you have discovered your own set of reference recordings.  Enjoy the journey!


How to upgrade your existing system without spending a nickel.

If you walk into a high end audio dealer’s showroom, notice if they start asking you questions about your music tastes and listening room.  If given a chance to and they still just point you straight at their latest shiny new component and ask, “what’s your budget”, walk out.  Or… know that you are going to have to work with a very limited knowledge based and/or a profit motivated sales person.

This may sound harsh, but all the shiny objects in their listening room mean nothing as compared to the knowledge of how to set up the gear matched to your room and music preferences (Why do speakers need to be matched to room acoustics?…).  I went into a dealer of Martin Logan ESL’s in Calgary and they had a pair of their high end CLX’s (MSRP starts at $25k USD) just a few inches from the back wall in a large listening room, so I said, “let’s pull them out and give them a listen”.  The sales person gave me a blank stare in return then said, “why would we do that?”  By that time I had already noticed many unaddressed deficiencies in the entire set up, but was incredulous that they were honestly unaware that this fine set of planar speakers needed to be placed well into the room (at least two feet, probably more in this case) in order to image properly.  I glanced at the source components available, saw only a Redbook quality CD player, then replied, “never mind”, and walked out.  Granted, this particular dealer was more about Home Theatre installations.  But, still…

So here’s “the goods” on a few simple (and free) things you can do at home to get the most out of your system (if you have bookshelf speakers you will need floor stands):

  1. For most speakers, start out by setting up an equilateral triangle between your listening chair and your left and right speaker.
  2. Listen a bit, then start to experiment.  Look at your speaker manual and see what they recommend.  Most speakers like to be at least a couple feet off the rear wall.  Many planar speakers need more, some box speakers less.  Move your listening position if needed (and possible) to accommodate how far your particular speakers like to be out.  Also consider how far your listening position is from the wall behind it.  If it’s around five feet or more it can probably be ignored, but less than that and you will have significant room reflections reaching your ears from that wall.  If you’re in a rectangular room, be aware of the obvious room resonant frequencies based upon wave lengths that equal the dimensions of the room and therefore correspond to and reinforce specific bass frequencies.
  3. From there, start to experiment with how far the speakers like to be apart from each other.  You may be limited by side walls and/or furniture on the sides.  As a general rule, most speakers perform best when at least two feet from any side walls.  If this isn’t possible for your room, do your best then work on it some more in step six below.
  4. Play around with the toe-in.  This drastically effects high frequencies and the stereo image.  Most speakers like to be pointed directly at you, but some like to be pointed straight ahead.  I was amazed at the difference it made for my Kef 104/2’s (The venerable Kef 104/2) when I discovered they were of the latter variety.
  5. Next experiment with the height of your ears in the listening position.  You can do this by sitting up or slouching down.  This is one of the easiest ones to dial in because you don’t need to get out of your chair and move things around to do it.
  6. OK… so now that you’ve got your speaker placement as best as possible “as is”, it’s time to work with the room.  Consider the following diagram:
    Reflection, absorption, and diffusion in various materials.

    Your room is likely to be a combination of all three.  The first place to turn is any windows and/or mirrors in the room.  These are high acoustically reflective materials which will have a dramatic effect on sound quality.  If you have a huge glass window on the rear or side wall(s) for example, you will need to decide whether it is enhancing or detracting from sound quality (it’s almost never neutral, especially with planar speakers and a reflective surface on the rear wall).  If you have blinds, listen to one of your references (What is a “reference”?) with them both open and closed,  If you have no blinds or metal blinds, maybe temporarily hang a blanket and do the same thing.  If your system sounds better with the blanket there, you may be able to effect a more permanent solution with fabric blinds that accomplish much the same thing.  I’ve seen many, many home theatre installations with a huge flat screen located directly between the two front speakers.  Makes sense for HT?… sure.  But if you’re also listening to two channel audio on your system you will want to consider the effect this is having on your stereo imaging.  It’s almost certainly scattering and destroying it.  Solutions include in-wall screen installations with roller blinds or slides that offer a more suitable material for your music listening sessions.  It’s difficult (to say the least) to incorporate HT and 2 ch audio into a singular system, but that’s another topic (The most obvious difference between 2 channel audio and 5.1 home theatre.).  After working with all obviously highly reflective surfaces, turn to some of the more subtle room acoustics.  If you’ve got resonant bass frequencies, try to find ways to break up the wavelength.  This can be accomplished by moving furniture or even large plants around.  If you have disparate materials on your side walls you may want to find a way to address that with a bookcase to absorb side reflections or glass framed artwork or a mirror to enhance them.  Play around and have fun while thinking of all the money you are saving by working with what you’ve already got sitting around the house. However, it’s important to keep in mind the importance of sound proofing for moveable walls in order to minimize noise and disruptions between rooms. There is certainly a more acoustically engineered approach (using sound spectral analysis and expensive acoustic treatment panels), but it ultimately boils down to what sounds best to you anyway.  Unless you have a completely dedicated sound room you’re likely working with household furnishings that dramatically effect your sound quality anyway, so why not use them to your advantage?   If you’re finding very significant improvements to your sound quality based on this step, you may want to play around with steps one through five again.  This isn’t necessarily a linear process.  You may even find that after many hours in the listening chair you want to play around with all the above steps again.  I’m usually not completely satisfied until I’ve listened to references from all genres of my music collection.  That’s why it’s best to wait a while for steps seven and eight.  As a side note you may also want to wait to buy high end speaker cables (Speaker Cables) until you’ve got your speaker position nailed down.

  1. Now that you’ve got the optimal speaker positioning based upon all the variables, mark it somehow – perhaps blue tape under the speaker outline on a hardwood floor.  I line up mine with the grooves in the hardwood.  If you have carpet, get creative.
  2. Finally you will need to figure out the best way to couple the speakers to the floor.  For floor-standing models it’s simple, spikes for carpeted floors and rubber feet or spikes on small circular plates (about the size of a penny) for hardwood.  This is saved for last since moving heavy spiked speakers around on hardwood floors and protecting them at the same time is a real pain in the ass.  And… this only serves to tighten the bass frequencies and therefore has little to no effect on steps one through six above.  If you have bookshelf speakers on stands, they won’t have much bass to start with, and even less if they aren’t coupled to the floor somehow.  For my LS3/5As (What is it about the Roger’s LS3/5A?…), I found speaker stands with spiked feet that I could fill with sand for mass loading (Acoustic isolation for turntables – to couple or decouple?…).  Not as good as a well coupled floor standing speaker, but the LS3/5A was originally designed as a studio monitor.  It was only later discovered and adopted by audiophiles as a go-to speaker for high quality sit-down-and-listen music reproduction.

I find that it definitely takes a while to dial in the sweet spot of all the above, but it’s so, so worth it.  On Maui I need to move one of my speakers into place each time I sit down to listen to music.  Small price to pay (even though it weights 70 pounds).  In Canada I’ve been able to locate the Maggies in their “sweet spot” and leave them there without detracting from my living room view and esthetics, at least in my opinion.

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.

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

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!

Expensive habit of ours?…

It doesn’t have to be all that expensive really, but there are certainly endless avenues to waste money on.

I went to a friend of a friends place who had spent well over $25k, had a grossly inferior front end, and system and speaker placement set up that really couldn’t have been worse for the room.  I listened, heard unrealized potential, tried to make a few suggestions but mostly didn’t and thought to myself now that’s a waste of money.

Why I can’t listen to just part of Wagner

I never really heard Wagner and thought “what’s the big deal” until I listened to The Ring start to finish on a good system, which moved me to tears the first time I did so. Now I never listen to The Ring unless I’m in the mood to listen to it in its entirety. When you think about it it makes perfect sense.  It was written that way and when it was first performed in fact the only way to listen to it was live performances in their entirety since the original gammaphone wasn’t even invented until 24 years later.

It’s the same with albums that were released when the only way to listen to them was vinyl.   Most of the best albums were written to be listened to one side at a time as a complete composition.  This of course became lost in the world of MP3 players set on “shuffle”.

love what you have… (regardless)


So finally got to relax and listen to music on my new system this evening.  Just wrapped up a sesh of Heart live and Norah Jones on sacd.  Just relaxing and enjoying the music. First chance ive had to do that. Nora jones brought chuckles and tears, never done that before.  One thing is certain, i now have a system i can rediscover my entire high def digi collection with.

Warts and all, the Rotel and these Kefs are in a whole different league than what i had going on before.  It is glimpsing on what i remember, hence the tears.  God i love lisgening to music!  It not Nora Jones, this is the first time ive heard that album.  Really heard it.

So i had my critical listening cap fully off, but i will say in hind sight that i have a sneaking suspicion that the Rotel sounds a lot better as an integrated amp then just a pre amp, and it is certainly fully capable of driving the kefs as such.  That is, after all what it was intended to do.  Or…  Maybe im just rally good at loving what i have when i relax and enjoy the music.  Ive been doing that for years with my HK and kef q5s and i knew there was more in store but still loved listening to music in a somewhat high quality form again. Now i jave this treasure chest of high def audio that i get to rediscover again, like for the first time!!!

Absolutely loving the kefs (they are fine after the Adcom disaster thank goodness).  I love their bass, mids, highs.  I love that the bass ends where it does, woulnt want lower freq for this small room.

I highly rcommend both sacds.  Very good bit very different.  Both are inexpensive when i bought them,  ill send links.

Sent from my iPad

listening tests vs. test measurements

this is funny, cause i just read it after sending the email of tech vs. musical audiophiles.

any (musical) audiophile would never.  i repeat never use an HDMI signal path vs. an analog one:

“We utilized the industries most advanced HDMI Audio Analyzer”

so… these guys are obviously of the techy variety.  there’s a lot of that going around.

given the chance, i always do listening tests over technical ones, like i have for the past couple days.

you get the irony of this, right?…

Oppo has gone to great lengths to improve the analog audio (i.e. RCA jacks… 6 of them) signal path on both the 83SE and the 95 models (after the DACs)

yet… this review grabs the digi signal off the HDMI output and tries to say it sucks.  Oppo knows it sucks, ALL HDMI signals suck for all players, that’s why Oppo made the effort to not only offer but also to improve their analog outputs.  I would venture to say that Oppo also knows HDMI sucks for video, but they are stuck with that one 🙁

heck, their analyzed signal path is only 192 kHz vs. the 2.8224 MHz that SACDs offer.

these guys are idiots who plug in instruments to inferior signal paths then try to tell you how things are gonna sound, w/o ever listening to music.  if they did listen to music, they wouldn’t be discussing an HDMI signal path (and theoretically discussing an analog one that they didn’t even plug into to test, let alone listen to) in the first place.

Classic of what I’ve been saying all along.  Techy (i.e. incredible in my way of thinking) guy meets music oriented (highly credible by way way of thinking) audiophile.

it’s very clear who listens to music and who talks about specs and what’s proven or not proven technically here.

i had the same reaction and comments that both Harley and Lynn had when i listened to music played on CDs.  the debate ends at the listening chair, not with the osiliscope or other arguments.  both Lynn and Harley consistently  point out that specs don’t tell the story, listening does.  that’s what i’ve been saying all along and why i warned about paying heed to THD and WPC from day one.   i actually emailed Lynn after i sent the link.  would be fun to get in touch and see if he remembers me, the kid doing final assembly and packing of CC-2 amps.

Don’t believe everything you read.

So I just finished reading a recent copy of one of the main audiophile magazines, which shall remain nameless. After finishing I came to the distinct conclusion that it was, cover to cover, all advertising.

The “Product Reviews” were far from unbiased  and without fail I found an add for the product somewhere else in the same issue.  We all know that magazine content is often tied to advertising dollars but I’ve honestly never come across a more blatant example of shameless “advertorial” content.

What was also obvious was that some of the most venerable brands , who didn’t choose to advertise in this issue or perhaps in the publication at all, were very conspicuously missing from product reviews and other “content”. I certainly applaud the integrity of these brands and several of them happen to be those I’d choose for my own system.

Another obvious observation  was that the industry sector spending the most advertising dollars was that of cables and interconnects.  The issue contained  one full page ad after another.   This would lead me to speculate that this sector has the highest profit margins and the greatest percentage of revenue on marketing rather than materials, manufacturing, and research and development.

Such observations may not be popular in the industry but they are my two cents. The best and most honest marketing happens in the listening chair, where the proof is in the pudding.

Savour the music.

And, of course I’d much rather savour the music one album at a time as most of the best albums have been written that way. I never really heard Wagner and thought “what’s the big deal” until I listened to The Ring start to finish on a good system, which brought me to tears the first time I did so. Now I never listen to The Ring unless I’m in the mood to listen to it in its entirety. When you think about it it makes perfect sense.  It was written that way and when it was first performed in fact the only way to listen to it was live performances in their entirety since the original gammaphone wasn’t even invented until 24 years later.

The music we will never get to hear.

Talk about The Cure Disintegration on vinyl.

ok… so this guy and i are obviously singing the same tune.  maybe cause we were both into it during the “golden age” of hi-fi (the late 70s), and both worked at AofO at that time (BTW- where he mentions Sony/DSD he is referring to SACDs):

“full credit must be given to companies for Sony/DSD and dCS upsampling, but what’s the point of wasting 20 years to end up right where we started?

This time, though, unlike the solid-state fiasco, we leave behind a legacy of 20 years of low-resolution 44.1/16 digital recordings. It’ll take some pretty fancy fractal-analysis technology to add resolution that simply isn’t there in the data storage medium. Those bits fell on the floor during the first A/D conversion, never to be recovered, only guessed at by clever computer algorithms many years later. “

The Classically Mis-matched High End Audio System

I often witness the “classically mis-matched” high-end audio system.  It is very, very typical, where part of the system gets upgraded but that can lead to more of a highlight of the deficiencies of the other components and the net effect can actually be negative.
Say you upgrade speakers and amps that are ideal for your room acoustics and place them just so for your sweet spot.  That that means is you will hear all the good, bad, and ugly of your sources or anywhere else in your may have a deficiency .  This is fantastic if your sources and signal path is up to the task but can be revelatory (and not always in a good way) if they are not.   I’ve witnessed many an aspiring audiophile repeatedly upgrade speakers or amps because they must be at fault when in fact they are just hearing the faults in their system revealed for the first time due to better reproduction accuracy  the new speakers revealed in the first place.

It’s all about the music… (not the gear)

After 38 years in audio, I’ve come to a few conclusions.  They are of course, my opinions:

Pay attention to the people who love listening to music and therefore do reviews on gear that does it best, not the techies.

Pay particular attention to reviewers who like the same music and have similar taste as you (or better still, do lots of critical listening and form your own preferences)

Don’t forget to take your reviewer’s hat off once you are satisfied and enjoy the music again, it’s the reward!  Over several years in the late 70s I ended up with the ultimate system (for me), then I fully relaxed and looked for new music to experience and enjoy.  My reviewer’s hat was off for good at that point.

Upgrade only one component in the signal path at a time and listen to a lot of music with the upgrade before moving on.  How else can you really appreciate the difference?

Collect music, not gear.  I’ve seem countless rooms full of audio gear rather than music.  I’ve even seen listeners fill their rooms with components. to the point where the room acoustics are compromised, and only have a dozen or so albums to play.  The only reason to have a redundant component in your system is if you are auditioning that part of the signal path for a possible upgrade.  Otherwise it’s money spent that is just collecting dust and could be spent on more music to enjoy.

Match your gear to your wishes.  Do you sit down and listen to music or do you watch movies where the sound takes second stage?  What kinds of music do you listen to?  What kind of movies do you watch? If you’re really into movies, then did you know details like is kacy duke in inventing anna a man?

Match each component (including your room) in the signal path to each other.  Your music can sound worse with a better quality reproduction system if the quality of the source is inferior, for example.  Now one is just hearing more of the original deficiencies. Do comparison tests to find your weak spots.