Friday, December 31, 2010

Year end audio fashion

Easy copy is provided at this time of year for the best-of lists but I find the presence of such product listings in audio mags to be largely a waste of space, a poor substitute for more substantive content. I concede to the request in AA for my own which I keep brief but really, audio development and product releases are not as cyclical as films, books, and other 'events' in the media. A recent discussion on A'gon about products that came and went, initially with a flurry of positive reviews, reminded me of how one year's best can be quickly forgotten when new products come along, reducing the whole audio product cycle to the level of more transient realm of quick-turnover consumables.

It's not difficult to see what are the current darlings of the audio press, especially in speaker design, so I was reminded of how a couple of years ago in TAS you could hardly open a page without positive images or comments on the Kharma speakers, but where did all that attention go? You can pick up a pair easily on A'gon at about one-third of list now. Got an eye on some Magicos? Wait a couple of years and save yourself a fortune. Always longed for that Esoteric front end the mags all loved? You can have one now for a fraction of the original price. In short, take all such best-of and hyped up reviews with a pinch of salt. As I reminded myself recently in reviewing the Eastern Electric DAC, a 15 year old CD player can still sound very respectable partnered with the right gear, and yet digital audio is one area where very real progress is being made. Imagine the bargains to be had now in used tables, amps and the rest. A more interesting best-of would be a listing for a great system sourced from the used market. Try this from today's audiogon:

Basis Debut Gold, with Audio Research PH3 SE phono stage,
a Sony XA5400ES CD player, an MBL 601D preamp, a BAT VK600, with a pair of Wilson Wp7s, and you'll come in comfortably under $30k for a set up that listed closer to $100k when the rave reviews came out not so long ago. Now that's a best-of I could live with for more than a season.  Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Great Micheal Fremer video at the Audio Beat

Don't ask me how I missed this before but Paul Bolin and colleagues have produced a great new audio web site called the Audio Beat. Nice look and feel, and even nicer material. I really enjoyed this  video interview with Micheal Fremer where he discusses the state of audio reproduction and the value of turntables. Think I have to pick up a copy of his set up DVD after this. He's far saner sounding on video than I imagined from reading his columns :)

Friday, December 24, 2010

HiFi Zine issue 3 now out

The Dec 2010 issue of HiFi'Zine is out today and contains part two of my interiew with the ever-engaging Albert von Schweikert in which he discusses both the history of his designs and some exciting new plans for speaker technology. One of the goals of the mag is to offer an alternative to the limited space/ad-driven layout of paper publications and with this interview we take advantage of the lack of space restriction to let Albert speak at length. He does not disappoint.

The new issue coincides with the announcement in this month's Affordable Audio that it will be incorporated under the broader HiFi'Zine banner next year. AA will continue to organize and deliver reviews of equipment with the same writers, but it will no longer continue as a monthly 'magazine', as it has done for the last five years, with remarkable consistency. I've been associated with AA for almost three of those years and am happy to remain part of its new future under the HiFi'Zine project. As I need to remind people often, these projects are run by volunteers - none of us gets paid to write this stuff (park your sarcasm right there brother!) and to me it's a wonder of the new world of media that a dedicated group of fanatics can collectively publish articles and reviews that others seem to enjoy and which seem to draw the ire so frequently of the journalistic 'professionals' (a term I used to think implied something more than just being paid but I digress...). Anyhow, HiFiZine is the home for our efforts and we welcome new contributors.

Stylus gauge blues part 2

Well, my jousting with Music Direct resulted in a second purchased stylus gauge arriving (though no reimbursement of the original cost as yet but it's promised), this one, I am told, was checked before sending. Yes, it arrived and it works, calibrating spot-on 5g, despite reports elsewhere that this was a problem with others. Thank you Rocco at MD (where my complaining emails ended up) for stepping up.

Quick check of my set-by-ear-VTF revealed me within the 1.6-1.9g range recommended by Benz for my cartridge, leaning slightly to the light side. The drop counterweight on my JMW 10 only takes a little adjustment to increase force measurably but I decided to go the whole hog and reset everything, with pleasing results, but am still tweaking VTA within a small range.

The Audio Additives gauge has a peculiarity in that it registers slight positive weight (in the 100ths range) when my cartridge sits over but not touching the tray, presumably due to magnetic influence and the ever helpful Rocco  suggested taking the batteries out of the gauge and resintalling which I'll try, as well as running the demag function on my PPP to see if this changes anything. Not too worried, I take the 'precision' of these gauges with a pinch of salt, I just want to get to the nearest 10th and then be able to trust my ears from there. It does seem necessary with the JMW, and probably every arm, to measure at several points across the arc travelled by the stylus since VTF varies and one could become obsessive over these numbers ('could' being an understatement with vinyl afficianados). All told, I'll stick with this gauge but I can't say it inspires much confidence or pride of ownership. It's about good enough for me but one thinks there has to be a market there for something a bit better but not so costly as The Cartridge Man, but maybe not. I just wished companies would fess up that these are generic gauges, no matter what name is on the outside and I really doubt that the dealer on A'gon who claims to have these specially made to his standards is sourcing anything different than this product.

Of course, once you get into vinyl and want to set things up yourself (which sooner or later you will have to given the dealership network for tables), you will find you can spend a small fortune on tools related to setting up the basic gear: a gauge ($80), a cartridge alignment tool ($80-250), a test record ($30), an azimuth checker ($250), etc......and all this before you play a tune! There's a story waiting to be written here and I'm on it....

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Stylus gauge blues

Well, as I mentioned that I'd given up the ghost on my drained Cartridge Man gauge when I learned I'd have to pay serious dollars north of a hundred just to have the battery replaced and the machine recalibrated back in the UK, but my search for a cheaper and easier alternative has not been without hiccups. I first chose a Jennings CD stylus gauge which is cheap and semi-reliable. I say 'semi' deliberately. It measures consistently in its center spot but since the scale is formed in the size of a cd in a case, it produces variable measurements depending on where on that surface you place your stylus, which worried me endlessly, not least because it seemed to be inconsistent only with a stylus, not with a fixed calibration weight. Add to this, it's physical thickness makes measuring the tracking force at the height of the LP surface is near impossible.

Next up, I tried an Audio Additives gauge from Music Direct at $79, despite the suggestion in this online review that most such gauges are rebranded versions of a cheap Chinese sourced scale that was never designed to measure tracking force of cartridges. Well, fired up to dial in my rig after some shuffling and moving, imagine my disappointment on Saturday, a day I'd set aside for indulging in vinyl pleasures, when the damn scale would not even calibrate properly, returning only 'fail' or blinking blankly at me when I tried to set it up. A fiery email to Music Direct resulted only in a "Sorry, let us know if you want to return it or get a replacement, we're now closed, back Monday" message. Arg.....As I told them, that was the wrong answer! The right response should have been: "Sorry, we're shipping a replacement today, and issuing you a return code to ship back the faulty one" so I would at least have known one was coming. By monday they told me they would send another one (after I complained) but would have to charge me for it, promising to reimburse me for the original faulty one once I'd returned it and they'd determined it was actually faulty. From there, I'd see my account credited 2-3 business days later.....sheesh, it's all in the mail as I write but it makes me wonder if I really should have taken Bill Feil's advice a couple of months back and just paid up to have my Cartridge Man sent back to the UK...I'd be sitting prettier now, that's for sure.

I think I am definitely going to get a cheap Shure or Clearaudio analog scale as back up after struggling to set VTF by ear and struggling for hours to get things near where they should be. Am confident the cheap and approximately accurate manual scales would get me closer quicker 99 times out of 100.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Eastern Electric MiniMax DAC packs a punch

I've had the EE MiniMax Dac in my rig for the last couple of months and it's been a real treat. The review will be in the December issue of Affordable Audio but it's fair to say that at the price, you can attach it to a cheap old CD player, your computer and anything else with a digital out and achieve very impressive sonic results. With a tube circuit that can be placed in or out of the listening path, this is a true audio plaything that is just a lot of fun to use. Is it the best DAC in the world, as some have suggested given it's use of the Sabre 32-bit chip? I don't make that claim but now I have the Bryston DAC1 in for review next, I'll be able to say more in due course. The real point here is, you can get really great digital sound now at a price that does not require you to drop thousands of dollars on an esoteric piece of kit that is built like a tank. So it really did take this long for redbook to come of age....

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Remastering the masters

Just took possession of the 35th anniversary remaster of Deep Purple's Come Taste the Band. Eminating from the efforts of Simon Robinson who runs the band's appreciation society, this finally catches up the remastering of Purple's original back catalog....and what a long road. It took 25 years to get the ball rolling with the uniformly excellent 25th anniversary remastering projects on the original releases but time slipped, tapes were proving hard to source and general other hold ups meant that it was another 10 years before we got to this one.

Worth the wait? I think so. This is a double CD package, rather like the splendid anniversary job on Machine Head, with a second CD of remixes which give the old tunes a little different twist. I've always loved the album since I grew up listening to the strange mix of hard rock, jazz and funk, but let's be honest. The original vinyl sounded muffled, with Coverdale appearing to be singing in another room while the band overloaded every channel trying to be heard. The music demanded a sense of space but it was missing in action. I've tried various remastered CD releases but none sounded as good as this one. Oddly, I am finding the 2010 Kevin Shirley remixes to be a real ear opener, new lines from Tommy Bolin appearing where before there was a cut or fade; Coverdale actually sounding like he's in front of the band; and You Keep on Moving placed where it was intended, on the 'opener' to side 2, though of course on CD, this just means it's moved up the listing a little, with a riotous Drifter closing the album out. Yes, as with all original Purple releases, the band write and record in a hurry (2 albums a year being standard back then) and I wonder how this all sounds to someone who never heard the music before, but I suspect it's more than a trip down memory lane. More's the pity this line up never lasted and a greater pity we lost the wonderful Tommy Bolin before he could really shine - now that was a talent lost. Anyhow, this is not audiophile music, it's just toe-tapping, body shaking good time music by a band that confused more people than ever got it. Tasty.