Monday, December 28, 2009

Cable wars on the boards

Another potential flame war on cables erupted on the Audio Asylum forum this week when one poster revealed that upon opening up a cable from MAC that it revealed itself as repackaged wire from Canare. Cue the usual outrage from some. MAC replied, reasonably clearly in my view, that yes, they used this wire, it says so on their site (now) and that the price charged represents a reasonable return on their design and manufacturing costs. The discussion flowed over on Audio Circle and it is clear there is a strong undercurrent of belief in some audiophiles that 'value' is measured only in terms of parts.

Cables bring out this tendency more than any other component -- if we reduce every amp or cartridge to its materials costs then I guess few of us would buy anything. However, it is easier to recognize the value added in design, assembly, testing etc. when the component adds some real or imaginary complexity to the basic parts.

My advice for all cable purchasers is to first buy some bulk cable from a DIY store and make up a set of speaker wires. You don't even need to terminate speaker cables so just cut, strip, connect and listen. Now you know exactly what 50c a foot can buy you. Calibrate your ears to this sound and then purchase new cables only if they sound better than this to you, in your system, and you find the improvement to be worth the cost.

Those who do this and find they can keep the home made stuff in their systems are lucky, cloth-eared, cheap, deluded, clever, or any other word you care to use. Either way, it should not bother you. For me, I pull out my old home mades every now and again to remind myself of their sound. When I compare that sound to my reference cables, I always keep the reference in the system but I have to say the sonic differences between the basic and the exotic are not so large that they would matter to everyone. But they do matter to me.

I would like to know how a great sounding cable differs in manufacture and design from my basic 12awg because I am curious about why materials and designs matter. Unfortunately, most cable companies are unwilling to speak clearly on this and hide behind the term "proprietary". In this light, it is little surprise that we see the heated discourse when someone reveals the parts involved.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Cable reviews ongoing and that Spectron stretch...

No sooner had I submitted my Morrow cable review than I set about my next assignment, and wouldn't you know, it's another set of cables. This time I have Grover Huffman designs wiring my set up, including a power cord to audition. Fit and finish is very good but boy, do I hate wrapping my arms around the back of my racks to get at cable inputs. Stay tuned for more.

What this process has taught me, other than small scale cable designers must, at heart, be pretty strange creatures to devote their lives to making this stuff, marketing it, and trying my eke a living out of the results, is that my Spectrons are just plain odd designs for cable folks. Using these amps in bridged mono mode means that any speaker cable must be able to span over 17" of terminal gaps to reach the positive terminals of each amp output. Very few speaker cables come with this amount of spread, if only because few amps are designed like this:

Still, both Mike Morrow and Grover Huffman are gracious enough folks to cope and send appropiately modified cables to work in my set up. Gentlemen both. Now try that with some companies and see how far you get. I am somewhat surprised there is little mention of this stretch in the many published reviews of the Spectron amps, it seems pretty essential to people who will be using it, but there is an exception, Adam Goldfine's review in Positive Feedback makes this point clearly.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Morrow cables, a month later

I've lived with the Morrow Audio SP4 and MC4 speaker and interconnects for the last 5 weeks and am somewhat sorry to see them leave. The full review will be out this week in Affordable Audio (Dec 09 edition) but I can say that despite the plain jane looks, these cables work well with my class D system, giving new life to the upper frequencies though at the cost of a little looseness in the bass compared to my references.

Cable auditions are really a pain. I can understand the cynicism of many audiophiles to the pseudo-science that surrounds many descriptions of cable differences and it's difficult not to view with some suspicion the claims of companies who produce what is essentially a uniquely wrapped wire. I think we should though give some credit to the fanatical people who spend their time trying to ensure their cables carry the audio signal better than others because it's become clear to me, although cable differences are rarely massive, there are some flavors that work better in my system than others. Let's forget the cost of those perceived benefits for now, nobody makes you spend your money on them so why should you be annoyed by someone who does? (Well, the answer to that is because it causes you certain insecurities, but that's another matter).

However, I accept that the lack of any firm empirical data on the ability of listeners to identify reliably and repeatedly the differences between wires should give us all pause. I know the arguments, I accept the difficulties of developing such a trial, but why the leading mags display such disdain towards experimental trials when evidence supporting their position on audible differences would lay this ghost to rest, at least for awhile, really does not serve them well. I've tried to encourage Robert Harley to have TAS take this on head first but without luck. I'm trained in experimental design and can run tests on many human perceptual and cognitive phenomena that often elude simple operationalization, so I know it is difficult but it is doable. One could incorporate lengthy 'at home' auditions and black-box style A/B tests, or do a series of different tests with trained and untrained listeners. No trial would slay all objections from either extreme, but wow, if ever we needed some sensible data, this is one area where audiophiles might gain some much needed credibility.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Where to get SACDs

One might be forgiven for thinking the industry has given up on SACD despite, to my ears, their sonic improvements over standard red book in most, but definitely not all, cases. But it's frustrating to me, as purchaser of SACDs where appropriate, that Amazon does not even list the SACD as an available format even when they carry one for the very album you are seeking. I recently picked up a regular CD of the the Wes Montgomery Trio's "A Dynamic New Sound" ( a fine album, by the way) and was frustrated to learn only after I'd received it that they also carried an SACD version for only $4 more. You would never know from their listing of the album, you have to search specifically for an SACD version to find it. I battled further with their site to find a contact address to inform them of my disappointment with their search structure and a little while later I received a polite reply telling me they would pass this comment along. Of course, if you wanted to download an MP3 version, you'd get a pointer directly on the listing.

In my more paranoid moments I think this is all part of the general plan to dissuade anyone form buying a physical disk again. I now have a small knife as part of my personal toolbox for my audio set up, purely to cut open the wrapping on most CDs. Does this really help deter theft? I cannot imagine such wrapping is really cost effective but it sure as hell annoys me everytime I receive a new CD. And to add insult to injury, I still find 1 in 10 delivered CDs from Amazon come with a split plastic case. You can let Amazon know about this problem but they hide the link deep within their site.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Latest stuff in for review

I just completed a review of the TTWeights turntable add-ons for the Oct issue of AffAudio. Not super cheap but definitely a worthy addition to a good rig -- I added one of their copper/carbon TT mats and nickel plated periphery ring to my VPI Aries to great effect. That these additions have caused me to spend far more hours now listening to vinyl (Howard Roberts jazzin' it up as I type) is proof enough. These make me want to play more records, and that's what it's all about. The money spent here will outlive any cartridge of twice the price in this rig.

Currently handling basic feed from my CD player to my preamp and from my pre to my Spectron monos are sets of Morrow Audio interconnects, with speaker cables to be added in shortly. More on these as the process unwinds.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Jim Thiel and JG Holt -- goodbye

What a lousy month. First JGH (and while Stereophile did a decent job, they really should have put him on the cover this month!) and now I hear Jim Thiel has shuffled off this mortal coil. Yes life is fragile and we forget this too quickly while arguing about reproduction of music and imagining the small preferences we have among high end gear really matter enough to insult each other. Thiel was a thorough gentleman whose company embodied honest design and decent customer relations. Nothing cheap there, but everything worth the price of admission and a high commitment on his part to making you happy was added in as a freebie. Yeah, get THAT deal on the web brother!

JGH -- stories of martinis, loud curses and off-color jokes make us all smile now but that man invented the field - he also was a lot more entertaining to read than a certain pompous character who insists on running his own section in his former mag (yeah, and I'll miss him too someday). For a reminder, S'phile did gather JGH's writings here

Good bye both. In my world, there is no afterlife other than the memories you cause others to hold. In their cases, both Jim and Gordon will live a long time.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

New issues of Tone and A$$Audio online, plus VSA anniversary

Both free e-mags have new issues out for Sept: see: Affordable Audio and click on the current issue image, and TONEAudio's new issue is #23. I've no idea what happened to the Daily Audiophile but it's not been updated for some months now, which is a pity as I enjoyed it.

Today also happens to be the 1st anniversary of the Von Schweikert speaker forum I started up on Audio Circle to pull together people who own, enjoy, or have questions about these speakers. Partly the motivation was to have a place where I could ask questions since the various other forums seemed to attract crazies or agenda-driven owners of other manufacturers' products who view audio gear as an extension of sports -- you know, you can only support one team and all the others must be inferior, lucky, overpriced, overrated etc. Always wondered why some people think they can get more enjoyment out of their own gear by dismissing the enjoyment of others! But another part was to try and offer a space that was not being provided by VSA itself, a company I think of as superb on the design front but less so on the marketing side (as I suspect Albert himself would acknowledge). Anyhow, one year on we have passed 2000 postings, more than 125,000 page views and who knows how many original contributors. Join us over on Audio Circle

Saturday, August 22, 2009

AVS White Paper on Cabinet Design in Speakers

Albert Von Schweikert published a paper in the latest issue of Dagogo where he outlines his company's findings on cabinet resonances and materials in loudspeaker design. Interesting reading that you can find here

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Herbie's Audio Labs review now out

I spent the early part of this summer playing around with a variety of Herbie's Audio Labs (HAL) footers and vibration tweaks. The review is now out in the August edition of Affordable Audio. In short, these are winners --- cheap, reliable and effective. In my solid state system, the best improvements were found for:

  1. Speaker decouplers
  2. Tenderfeet, tall and regular under the CD player and amps
  3. Sonic stabilizers with the Tall Tenderfeet
I gained little from the addition of HAL-O's on the interconnects but YMMV. Given their low cost and more than generous return policy for those who want to trial these at home, I give HAL top marks.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Update on the steam cleaning process

Well, a frenzy of vinyl playing (or rather, pulling out old LP's to play and being rather disturbed by their less than pristine condition) forced my hand and I succumbed to the temptation of a steam cleaner. Today I set up the VPI 16.5, grabbed a test LP, and convinced I could do it without warping the life out of them, I proceeded to steam clean then VPI-clean (with final steam rinse) a set of old Who, Waterboys and Deep Purple albums, a mix of original old purchases from younger days and recent pick up's on e-bay. As I write, the Waterboys "Whole of the Moon" is spinning on the Aries and sounding pretty good to my ears. Put simply, I never really felt one go on the VPI did it, I ended uo doing it twice on each clean to make sure I got the benefit. The steam cleaning now replaces the double scrub, and the results seem worth it. OK, none of these LPs are audiophile wonders, but I'm never going to replace them all with new or remastered releases, and they are all recordings I still enjoy. With the new cleaning regime, I can actually enjoy spinning the LP and not feel I am gunking up my pricey new cartridge. Just don't let anyone see you do this or your sanity surely will be questioned, but then, you're an audiophile, it's probably too late anyhow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Live and loving it

Went to a couple of live acts in the past couple of weeks to replenish my ears. Two very different gigs and acts: the Brazil Guitar Duo and then Kat Edmonson. As part of the excellent Austin Chamber Music Festival this past month, The Brazil Duo played an interesting mix of classical and traditional/modern Brazilian music and are among the most fluid interplaying pair of guitarists I have witnessed in a long time (never did get to see Pass and Ellis!). The venue was a fairly large modern church and the pair played without amplification of any kind that I could discern, creating an airy but very localized soundstage which allowed you to hear each line distinctly. I'd swear I watched one of them miss the timing at one point and glance over at the other who smiled and reacted instantly to keep the groove going.

Kat's band played the back porch at Central Market (yes, even some supermarkets in Austin have live music) and it was hot, outdoors, and amplified. That said, she and the musicians created an intimate environment that allowed them all to shine. Kat's voice is distinct yet familiar - sort of Peyroux meets Holliday in places but she has the same voice when she speaks so it's no affectation. I was impressed enough with her treatment of some standards and not-so-standard tunes, including a wonderfully slowed down version of John Lennon's Starting Over, to buy her CD on the spot and it is recommended. I spoke briefly with her during the break and she is pleasant, down to earth, and easy on the eyes :)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Steam cleaning vinyl

I've always thought heat and vinyl don't mix but it seems steam cleaning is normal practice for many LP lovers, among whom I count myself. I've not gone down that path, being happy enough with double washes on my VPI 16.5 for most records but this video shows a combination of both. Upon hearing it (not even watching it) my wife declares definitively that I have fallen among the crazies...wonder what took her so long to notice -- I could be one of these people

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Great Martino/Scofield vid

I don't normally post such links to YouTube but this is a really great take featuring the top-notch cutting loose on "Sunny" -- just be grateful there are people still around who will commit their lives to this type of music making.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Latest issue of A$$Audio out now

I finished my review of the Nuforce mid-priced combo of preamp and stereo power amp in time for the May 2009 issue. At $3500 bought as a pair, you can drive just about anything with surprisingly good resolution across the sound spectrum with a slight tilt to the uppers. It's just amazing what something so small can do when you compare the amp section in particular to the typical 150w tube or solid state amps out there.

The e-mag is undergoing a management and editorial change and you'll see some revisions in the format and website going forward but it remains true to its mission of covering the sort of gear that does not usually find its way into the mainstream audio mags.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Von S on You Tube

Audio gear very occasionally gets used as props or placements on TV. Not sure the story behind this one but as the character says of the VR5s, those speakers 'kick ass':

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New old VPI turntable

As a generally (but not totally) satisfied owner of an original VPI Aries, I noted with interest the launch of the latest VPI model, the Classic. I can't help but feel that VPI makes a new model out of old parts all the time, and this one looks like another such product. It's not so obviously like the Scoutmaster with the added on motor from the more expensive models but there's something familiar looking about all this. Not a complaint, maybe it's intelligent design, and I've always wanted a good definition of that concept...Go Harry!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

BAT VK500 for sale

My longstanding BAT VK500 has been listed on CraigsList Austin, if anyone is interested. It's the BATPAK version, sold new for $5800, am listing at $2150 for local sale before I put on A'gon and deal with shipping. It's pictured below in the blog, same one that had part sent back to BAT for new parts that turned out not to be needed but BAT gave up checking and just replaced parts to make sure, even though it was a false alarm, the problem lay elsewhere in the chain. Local seller so strongly preferred that I'd consider offers below my very fair price to shift this.....but too low and I'll just keep it. E-me with questions etc.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gearing up again

Been some time since I posted but it's not been quiet on the audio front, quite the opposite in fact. I just completed my review of the Audio Horizons Tube Buffer for next month's Affordable Audio -- it's a mixed bag and not for me. I installed the NuForce 8 pre and power combo into my main rig for serious listening over the next month, and so far am very impressed (it was great in my second system powering some old Kef 103/2s). Also have a pair of Spectron Monos on warm up and will be running a few cables in too, including a new set of the Von Schweikert speaker cables I just's fun but gear really takes time to settle and give up its sound, I hate to rush to judgement. I also have been sitting on a pair of DiffractionBeGone's tweeter surrounds (Hi Jim!) which I've been loath to add to the mix until my set up settled for a bit. So, there's reviews a plenty to come. In the meantime, my VD David's returned, with wider spades which helps but not, those VD cables are such a pain to use and if it wasn't for the sound.........expect a pic soon of the most ridiculous set up I've tiny Nuforce power amp with 4 large VD cables sticking up at the back, nearly lifting this small unit off the floor! But the sonics? Very pleasant, I'll say that much now. Stay tuned.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Cable wars rage on

Interesting exchanges this week on Audio Circle regarding the value of cable upgrades. Seems despute the majority of audiophiles spending their cash on these, hard-liners believe there is no value to such cables. Most intriguingly, Frank Van Alstine of AVA, a designer who provides only captive cables on his components and a firm critic of cable claims, has agreed to test a member-provided alternative to see if he can hear a benefit. Stay tuned. Naturally, the back and forth has produced a number of spin off arguments and I was intrigued by the following link, sent to me by a fellow AC member which reports on the dissection of a Virtual Dynamic cable. Note, the destruction 'reveals' apparent ripping-off by VD since the author claims this $300 cable only has $15 of parts, a 20:1 mark up, a ratio that I don't think is out of the ordinary in any manufacturing realm but that's another matter (see the excellent "Go Forth" article in November's Affordable Audio for an analysis of costs and parts in high end gear). The VD cable 'reviewer' never actually bothered to listen to the cable, raising the spectre of a whole new form of audio review, the non-listening physical inspection. See it here:

I have to admit that it's bothersome there are so few controlled tests of anything in audio, not least cables since it is the latter that seem to annoy people more than anything. Nobody minds so much that people claim to hear significant differences between speakers or preamps, but mention differences in cables and apparently we are not longer willing to trust people's own ears, we need double-blind trials. I'd be more supportive, hell, I am supportive, but since I spent a large part of my career designing and running experiments involving real people, I know how hard it is to do a double blind trial, especially if one hopes to make comparisons quickly. And I confess, I tried several PS Audio cables (Prelude, Plus) without hearing much benefit, it was only when I tried VD Davids, yes the same VD above, that I actually felt the power cords used could have a real impact on the music coming out of my system. I've tried them on a variety of power amps and feel they actually make a difference but I won't be opening them up to see how they do it! You can check VD's own video for a chance to see what's inside: