Friday, May 28, 2010

How much improvement in digital front ends?

The Marantz repair, which it turns out from other owners is not unexpected, has forced me to put an old Denon 2900 into service again as my main player for the foreseeable (I am resisting temptation to purchase a new Oppo or Sony for purely financial reasons). First blush, it's a step backwards: clarity lessened, somehow the soundstage is not as real as with the SA11, but, and it's a strange but, over a couple of days, and with a Virtual Dynamics David PC added to the mix, the Denon sounds pretty good. Not so much a lesser Marantz, more a different sonic picture. Of course, the players originated from similar eras, 2004 (denon) to 2005 (marantz) but they differed cost wise by an order of three, at least. Other than sonics, which are better, the Marantz has a far more elegant feel in use and tends to load faster. Still, it confirms my view that money thrown at the digital front end is not as effective as money spent on a good preamp or speakers.

Of course, this is a lesson I should have learned the first time I seriously upgraded a CD player. I'd been a slow adopter, even being lectured by a Naim dealer in the UK when I lived there who like me was a vinyl addict, upon hearing my reaction to his carefully arranged demo of the first Naim CD player (a company slow to launch this line and who trumpeted their audiophile credentials for delaying it until the early 90s) said that if I did not like the Naim then I'd never like CDs. Well, he was wrong, and that early Naim player was an ear-ache to me (Sorry Naim, I love you really). Fast forward to living in the US in early 90s, and unable to buy new vinyl, I conceded defeat and went to buy a CD player. I ended up with an entry level Rotel, unable to tell the difference (again to the dealer's annoyance) between it and his more expensive models. It was fine, for the time, and I still have it, but bombarded by the audiophile media through the 90s that I needed a DAC or a new high end player to really appreciate digital, I succumbed to a two-box Parasound set up. Oh dear. It was really not much better than the Rotel, even though the cable connecting the two cost as much as that player.

Long story short, the Denon 2900 replaced the Parasound, with a simple return to one-box, and sounded better. The Marantz sounded a little better again. How many dollars could I have spent on other parts of the rig with better return? Don't ask. So, just how good is that Oppo?

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The fragility of SACD players, perhaps

Addendum to the last post, last night the Marantz started skipping and stopping on the wonderful sounding SACD anniversary issue of Dark Side of the Moon. Ouch....all my ranting about cds might be misplaced (though I still think they are badly packaged!) as it now seems likely the Marantz could be the cause. I located an SACD owners and lovers forum, SA-CD Net which contained a several years old thread outlining problems others have had with their SACDs. Seems it's common enough for players to fail on the SACD layer while reading the red book track just fine. A series of not-terribly helpful back and forths with the Marantz customer contact line has me now packing up the SA11 for shipment to the nearest service center for a check up and hopefully, warranty-covered correction. We'll see.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The fragility of CDs

If anything is going to push me over to the computer audio side in my living room it's the increasing problems I am having with CDs. We know the 'perfect sound forever' claim was never valid but most of us interpreted that as referring to the 'perfect' part, we kind of thought CD was robust but I am beginning to wonder. It's bad enough that 1 out of ever 3 or 4 cds I purchase from Amazon comes with the case split or damaged before I even open it, or that I have to use a knife to get access to the disk with all those sticky layers of 'protection' on the case, now I find CDs seemingly give up the ghost of playing without any cause. Last night my relatively new SACD of the Incredible West Montgomery album (new because I never realized Amazon carried the SACD version (they keep this hidden mostly unless you specify it in format search) so I purchased the album again having lucked on to that), refused to play. In fact, the TOC would not read in my Marantz. I took it out, gave it a quick examination and saw nothing unusual so I wiped it down, tried again and again before popping it into my older Denon 2900, relegated to DVD duties with my TV and always a machine guaranteed to read anything. Sure enough , the blue 'SACD' light came on and the player read it. But still no luck with my main rig. Hum....time for some stronger cleaning. I tried the toothpaste trick -- no luck. So, feeling brave I tried serious buffing before making a copy on my computer for luck. A quick search on the Web turns up all sorts of tricks for cleaning and repairing CDs (including, I kid you not, bananas, coca-cola, erasers, Brasso, and Barkeepers' Friend). Now as I am seriously determined to understand how any of these work I started a regime of trying them. I can tell you that I ended up with no luck and one still largely unreadable SACD. I have no idea what heppened to it but I never manhandled it or let it fall but now I hsve only the Apple Lossless version to listen to so I did what any self-respecting audiophile of a jazz leaning would do, I bought another copy. But I've not given up. There are some serious tools out there for people who want to repair cds and I am going to explore this one further to learn if I cannot resucitate this original. Stay tuned. But let me just say, I never had this problem with my LPs.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Great reads for audio heads

I've been totally enjoying Greg Milner's Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music which offers a history of audio recording from Edison up to the software tricks of modern pop singers. Excellent material of interest to any self-respecting audiophile, including visits to Mikey Fremer's house.
Perfecting Sound Forever: An Aural History of Recorded Music

While on the subject of what any audiophile should read, I am a great admirer of Daniel Levitin's This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession which I reviewed for Affordable Audio a couple of years back. It's one thing to study gear but to really understand how it all works, you need to understand that machine between your ears. Levitin explains it better than anyone I've read.This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Welcome to the machine

Roger Waters will be touring the US later this year, playing The Wall too, but if you want to see him be prepared to pay through the nose and pre-register for the privilege of doing so via lottery at his site:

Bah humbug-- it's a gas....