Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Adjustments, abuse, and a few additions

Well, that review of the Harbeth's I wrote for the Dec issue of HiFi'Zine seems to have generated more traffic than one might think such a niche product warrants. I've had several personal notes from people about the review, mostly positive (thank you) but have been called a 'retard' and a 'sycophant' on one forum so clearly there are strong feelings out there about small speakers. Regardless, I stand by my assessment, the P3ESRs are exceptional.

It being the time for a few days off work I managed to catch up with some system adjustments that I'd put off. First, a new PS Audio P5 power plant was finally installed. I blew up my PPP somehow a few months back and was suitably put off by the cost of repair so I pounced on an offer from PS Audio to take that unit as trade on a new P5 for a decent allowance. Being in the middle of a lengthy cable review at the time I put the P5 to one side when it arrived and only got around to putting it in this week. It's certainly a classier looking unit than the PPP and seems a bit heavier, at least in memory, but the main impact has been on background. Either I'd forgotten how the PPP impacted my system in the intervening months or the P5 really does seem to drop the noise floor noticeably. That said, I think it took a few days for me to really feel I was getting the improvements I'd so enjoyed with the PPP. Today, listening to a few old familiars in a warmed up system, I hear the sort of details and space that only really clean power provides. PS Audio are a bit vague on exactly how they've improved their regenerators (it's no mere 'conditioner', ok?)  but I think the have taken them a step forward with this new line.

I'd also been on the search for a new phono cable for my SME 20/2 which I picked up used this year. Owners have innumerable recommendations to make on appropriate cables for this table but most agree the stock Van den Hul is a limiter. I plumped for a Harmonic Technology Crystal Silver cable given the great experience I had with their HDMI 1.4a cable in my digital front-end. Great service from Craig over at CJ Audio in Arizona who took my order on this one and got it to me quickly (yes, I do buy my own gear!). I was surprised that the cable comes with a ground wire that is shorter than the cable length, which is fine for some but required me to adjust my phono stage (which is where I connect the ground in my rig) to fit -- I do think this should be made clear to purchasers though I am going to just add a short length myself to make this work more easily in my set up later.  Just fitted yesterday, I've been spinning vinyl on top of my new P5 installation too so it's not easy to give more than a passing comment here that yes, this phono cable improves on the stock one but not in any specific way that I'd feel confident stating so far. More later as this cable apparently does require some time to settle in properly.

A new (used) cartridge installation is next on the agenda (once that new phono cable is run in) and then (oh please no!) a re-installation of my original system wiring (speaker cable, interconnects, power cords) so as to return the loom sent for review by Wywires (review forthcoming), a task I particularly loath and one for which I have 'previous', as we say, due to impatience. By the time this is all done, I'll be back at work and wondering just what I did with my vacation --maybe I am retarded after all!

Friday, December 16, 2011

HiFi'Zine Dec 2011 issue released

In this one I present two reviews: the wonderful Harbeth P3ESR speakers, and the equally excellent Harmonic Technology HDMI 1.4a cable.  Lots of other great stuff in the mag and again, let me remind folks, this is a totally volunteer effort at creating a truly independent audio publication (no advertising, no dealing in reviews for gear, no paid articles). If you want to be part of it, let me know, we welcome new writers.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Wish you were here - experience anew

I first heard this album as a 14 year old when my school friend bought it, unheard, and lent it to me to play while his record player was repaired. It's hard to explain the impact this LP had on my young ears but I memorized every lyric and was enraptured by Gilmour's guitar lines on Shine on You Crazy Diamond. Soon I bought my own copy (I ended up with a funny copy with the same label on both sides), then a regular CD, in turn replaced by a later remastered version. Something of my youth and early adulthood is captured in this music and when the new Experience version was announced, I pounced, indulging in both the CD and LP versions (at last, another chance to get those stickers and album pics). Fearing the worst, I put the CD on yesterday and it's stayed on for repeated plays. In a word, it's the best version I've heard and small details and instrumental timbre are truer here than ever.

I know everyone thinks Dark Side was Floyd's greatest contribution to music and while there is no denying its import, it is Wish You Were Here that stands for me as the band's best work. I can live without Welcome to the Machine (though i used to start-up my first desktop at work to this tune every morning) but the remaining tracks are as close to perfect British 70s rock as I can imagine four skinny boys making. Lyrically challenging and musically immersive, this album captures a time, a place and a mood that for me is totally transcendent. As a teenager, this album showed me a slightly scary world of adults lost and adrift, struggling for reconciliation and some sense of purpose in life. If Gilmour ever played better, I don't know it, and this album for me shows why the Waters-less version of Floyd is a bit like the Jimi Hendrix Experience without Jimi - just another cabaret. If this is not enough, the accompanying live recording and extra tracks from 1974-75 are really good -- a version of the title track with Stephane Grapelli on violin breathes new life into this most anthemic of songs. If you lived through this time, here's a time capsule to the past for $20 that you can enjoy again and again. Despite my despair at re-releases and endless repackaging of the same old catalog, this one has me hooked. LP review to follow, right now I am waiting for the right moment to play it -- this ritual is special.

Monday, November 7, 2011

New music continually surprises

There are always new recordings coming into my home, by choice, and most of them are very good. But sometimes I hear something that truly stops me in my tracks. One such recording is "Guaillibh a cheile" by Doimnic Mac Giolla Bridhe and Griogair Labhruidh, a collaboration of two Celtic musicians, one Irish, the other Scottish, exploring the rich traditions and commonalities of both forms. I doubt that most of you can listen to this music and understand a word that is sung, literally, but I doubt you can hear it and not be moved by the intimacy, humanity and sheer emotional conveyance on offer here.  As a blues fan I cringe when people tell me that white people cannot understand the blues but I suppose I was no different myself in believing only Celts can appreciate the meaning of pipes, bodhrans and the lamentations of Irish songs. This recording breaks that barrier by giving us all music that bridges lands and peoples, and over far greater distance than the relatively small space between Ireland and Scotland. Hear this and you hear something of the collective soul in all people. Now that's what I call music!

If interested, Amazon has it but you can also deal directly with the artists at:   (that's the English version, to make it easier for you!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Mikey visits Shunyata in the Audio Beat

I enjoyed this article from the excellent Audio Beat where Michael Fremer visited Shunyata Research to get an inside look at their new measurement process for determining power cord differences. You can read the arguments yourself but one practical piece of advice from Caelin Gabriel of Shunyata for those unwilling to spend much on cords is to replace the connectors on the stock wire that came with your component for a better one. He assures you of a positive improvement. Got to say that at the cost of Hubbels, you might just be better off spending $99 on an entry level Shunyata......or was that the nefarious idea all along?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Box set mania: U2 can spend a fortune

I like U2's music as much as most casual fans so perhaps this not aimed too directly at me but, much as I enjoy Achtung Baby, I cannot fathom spending nearly $600 on the new boxed set anniversary edition. You can see the details on the Elusive Disc website but really, double 180g vinyl, multiple 7" singles, 6 cds and 4 DVDs spells overkill to this fan. I've nothing against collectible releases, after all, I was there when U2 released their first single in Ireland and I bought one of those numbered 12" singles which go for silly money on e-bay too but I'm not selling (I know where three others are too which leaves only 996 unaccounted for). Maybe it's growing older but the thought of spending that money to get such boxed set of U2 goodies leaves me flat. Of course, if you buy it and then sell it on, it's probably a better investment than some stocks. Who says audiophilia only costs you money?

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Scientists discover travel at faster than light

Apparently this opens up the possibility for time travel. At last, an explanation for why most new music sounds like something I heard before.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Albert Von Schweikert on the value of biwiring

The sonic benefits of biwiring your speakers are much debated on audio forums but now Albert Von S himself has stepped into the VSA Audio Circle to give his reasoning on the science behind biwiring. Here's a teaser: 
"That is the key to the benefit of bi-wiring: by providing twin signal paths for bass and treble waves, the weaker treble waves are not modulated by the bass waves, leading to cleaner mids/highs and a more dimensional sound stage."  

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

An alternative to Audiogon?

I just learned about Stereolist from a friend posting over on Audio Circle. Traffic and content is a little light at the moment for anyone to really claim it as a major alternative to A'gon but it shows promise. The pricing structure and the more consumer-friendly disposition apparent from the 'about' page suggests it's worth giving this new site some encouragement. I'll be monitoring it for a few weeks to see how it goes. Here's hoping...

Thursday, September 8, 2011

New issue of HiFi'Zine out now

There's a new issue of HiFi'Zine out, this one containing my review of the Perreaux Audiant 80i plus lots of other goodies. It's now our 6th issue and there's more to come. We are always interested in new contributors, this is a forum for the hobbyist, the committed audiophile who spends his or her own money on the gear that matters for them.

I have a few more items in for review, including the Harbeth P3ESR (review in Dec issue) and am rewiring my rig with Wywires cables too. All this on top of having problems with my PS Audio PPP which has pooped out on me, with a $250 service fee plus shipping to have them look at it. Dear me, but this is the third PS Audio item that I've had to send back for repair. I like the company but I am getting tired of the reliability problems. Still keeping my PWT/PWD combo though as it is the best digital I've heard in my house. In the meantime, I've been rediscovering the sound of gear fed direct from the wall and I am wondering if the line conditioner really added much other than protection. More anon.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Naim bought by Focal or not? New merger announced

Much as we might imagine hi-end specialist manufacturers live in a world of their own where their destinies are tied only to the quality of their products, the more mundane aspects of business came to the fore this past week with the news that venerably UK audio brand Naim will 'merge' with Focal. On the main Naim discussion forum there is a PR piece to whit:

A new company Focal & Co will own and manage Focal and Naim as independent brands, retaining their own philosophies and product ranges, but collaborating on research and development. Focal & Co, owned by Jacques Mahul (founder and chairman), CM-CIC (long-term shareholder in Focal) and the management teams of Focal and Naim, will employ 325 people at its facilities in St-Etienne, France and Salisbury, UK. By bringing together the research and development teams of both companies, Focal & Co will create "an industry-leading R&D capability to propel the Naim and Focal brands to the next level".

Jacques Mahul says: "For future success, the key point is that there is no future for a speaker or electronic company alone. Partnership and collaboration are the way forward both in terms of investment and R&D."Paul Stephenson, managing director of Naim Audio, says: "It is a merger of European minds. In Focal, we have found a partner which shares our passion for music and will help us take Naim to the next level. "We can achieve far more together than would have been possible alone, yet at the same time we are able to retain everything that is unique about Naim and everything that our customers love us for. "We have some incredible developments in the pipeline and this alliance will help us get those to market as quickly as possible."

A Naim spokesperson adds: "A key aspect of this merger is the joint R&D opportunities it will give both companies – a crucial benefit as the industry evolves." The spokesperson confirmed that each company's product lines – and branding – will continue as before. "You're not going to see joint branding on products," they said, also stressing that it's "business as usual" for Naim's speaker ranges.

Monday, August 15, 2011

PBN does DIY

Interesting development from PBN, a company that has a long reputation for producing very large (and reportedly very good sounding) speakers as well as a chief, the engaging Peter Noerbaek, who takes out full page adverts in the mainstream audio press explaining his designs. Tired of expensive speakers whose price is determined by labor costs more than design and parts quality, PBN has taken to offering kits of a sort. The new 'Pennywise' series allows you to buy the parts and plans or the parts and the cabinets, with the rest of the labor on you. Having built a couple of kits I'd say this is an interesting approach, especially if the resulting product is both good looking (very important if we are honest) and decent sounding. I'm keen to learn more, so if you bite, drop me a line. Peter, if you ever read this, let me know too, HiFi'Zine would be interested in trying these out.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Sony's new flagship speaker and you

Sony's new AR1 flagship speaker has launched with the kind of press many manufacturer's can only dream about, including two raves in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. I am sure these are wonderful though I am equally sure snobs will ignore them because of the Sony name. For me, the idea that resource-rich manufacturing companies like B&W, Sony, SME etc put their efforts into audio excellence suggests real advantages and potential gains that smaller companies cannot afford.

But the real point here is just how divorced the launch and the reporting are from real audiophiles. "Go and listen for yourself'" is the mantra of reviewers but just try to do that with these speakers. A quick check of the Sony site reveals six dealers in the US carrying these new speakers, and the nearest one to me is only 300 miles away (guess that puts me nearer than most!). This reminds me of the time I tried to locate a pair of the TAD-induced Pioneer flagship line to audition, with a serious intent of buying if they hit the mark. Of course, no dealers were even listed as carrying them and an email enquiry to the company brought a polite reply asking me to clarify my request as they could not find those speakers themselves!

I suppose if you want to spend $25k on speakers you are supposedly able and willing to fork over a few more dollars to go hear them in a strange dealers or an audio show. OK, can someone please tell the reviewers then to stop hiding behind the 'hear it yourself' defense?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Rainbow Deluxe Editions prove interesting

As I type this I am listening through both discs in the new deluxe edition of Rainbow Rising, an album that for many represents the peak of Ritchie Blackmore's work under the Rainbow banner. Originally released in 1976 it contains a couple of classic tracks, especially Stargazer, and while there's no doubt Ronnie Dio and Cozy Powell contribute mightily on this record, the original LP version always sounded thin to my ears. About  a decade ago I bought the remastered CD version which added little sonically (and nothing track wise) to the original, a situation that always bewildered me given the near legendary status of this album. Jimmy Bain played bass on Rising but you'd be hard pressed to know it, up til now.

I was slightly late coming to this release, figuring that I hardly needed another copy, and when the 'extras' were revealed as just different mixes of the same songs, early reviewers seemed to imply there was little to get excited about, but after listening a couple of times, I disagree. Heaven knows only the most trainspotter-like among us need three versions of any track, and I concur with some who feel that the 'New York' mix and the 'LA' mix require some close listening to distinguish ( I do favor the LA mix where there is actually some bass guitar present), however all is forgiven once the previously unreleased 'Rough Mix' version on disc two springs forth. Reportedly sourced from Cozy Powell's own copy, and yes, available in bootleg form for years, the inclusion here belies the 'rough' descriptor and offers, to my ears, perhaps the most revealing and powerful recording of this album: greater dynamics, instrumental separation, and at last, you can hear the lower octaves. If there is a definitive version of the album, I can safely say the official release (the so-called New York mix) is not it!  I can't help but wonder how it might have gone over in the seventies if this mix had been the official release.

Of course, with this version coming in at $20 on Amazon, I pause at the thought of how many times I've bought some records (my Hendrix collection has cost me the most in this regard as there always seems to be new versions, though piecing together a collection of many mid 20th century jazz artists can be even more expensive and confusing) but in the absence of any compelling new rock to capture my attention (though I am getting a lot of pleasure from Black Country Communion's debut) I have quickly forgotten the price and just been spinning this release over the weekend with no little pleasure. Hearing "Light in the Black" brought back many happy memories of listening to this album on Radio Caroline as a teenager (definitely not an audiophile experience)  and of  meeting Cozy Powell  on the street two afternoons in a row in Dublin, quite by chance. Peace to him and Ronnie, both gone now, and both gracious, friendly people. For all their other successes, the Blackmore/Dio/Powell trinity rarely did anything better, and here at last is a chance to re-capture some of the magic. Nostalgia sometimes is what it used to be :)

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The state of audio discourse

There's an ongoing 'discussion' over on the Stereophile readers' forum about audio differences in cables, which true to form has quickly come down to discussions of double-blind testing. Even truer to form, the discussion that ensues is less about testing or audibility and more of a back-and-forth, 'he said, she said' about the poster's wording or apparent bias (apparent that is, to all but the accused). The predictable positions that are adopted in these arguments render progress difficult. Once you get beyond the ad hominen attacks you find all sorts of weazeling to avoid the rather depressing fact that for all the claims, people invested in the industry often seem to argue that DBTs are pointless. Out are trotted all the problems with DBTs (many of which are true, it IS difficult but that's not a sufficient excuse to ignore the effects of bias induced by sighted reviews); then we get the complete list of all the ways one can manipulate such tests (of course, but that's true of any review method); and finally the last gasp attempt to trump everyone by claiming participation in tests on occasion and, being able to discriminate A from B in that test,  your reported differences with sighted reviews on components C through Z somehow have greater authority (as if the DBT is a test of the reviewer's abilities which somehow are immune to bias).

It's worrying how quickly this debate becomes a war of words that dismisses the typical callers for better tests as "joyless" or ridicules the idea of serious DBT by claiming none of us would really do such tests ourselves when making decisions. Of course we wouldn't but that's not the index of the DBT method's value.  I am sure we would all feel better if we knew how many people reported hearing a difference when they did not know which component they were hearing. Yes, a good DBT is hard to design, and I really don't imagine we can expect every review to contain such data but it's surely not beyond the professional audio community to arrange some benchmark tests that are not so easily dismissed as flawed or biased by the naysayers. Given the heated exchanges whenever this topic comes up, I don't buy the argument from some insiders that people don't want to read about this.  Of course, this is a two-way street as many reviewers get justifiably touchy at the suggestion that they cannot 'really' hear the differences and are only fooling themselves (and their readers) when they report such in reviews, particularly of cables, cords or tweaks. What is amazing is how the issue lingers, only to flare up on occasion to generate more heat than light on various forums.

My thinking on reviews is that where differences are so obvious, knowing what you are listening to is not that important but not  every component I review offers a black and white difference. Of course we can all tell the difference blind between a ghetto blaster and our audio rig, but I remind people to try this with increasingly similar components, e.g., DACs or interconnects,  and see how soon it is before they are less confident in the perceived differences.  Where possible, I have a family member switch connections when I am out so I am occasionally listening with the expectation that I am hearing component A when in fact B is playing. This is not always possible or easy to do, but sometimes it is enlightening. Blind tests are a useful way of calibrating your listening skills and giving you a reality check on what you think you're hearing. In the recent EVS Ground Enhancer review for HiFi'Zine I gave up after a few days of switching as I could not tell, though when sighted, I thought I could make out slight differences. Cables are the hardest  here as the changeover in my rig is not simple. That said, I've been doing some power cord listening these past days and prepared myself for quick changes (sighted) by pulling my amps out and running comparison cords in parallel from the PPP for quick loading/changing. I've actually found a cord where the effects seem pretty obvious from the get-go each time. This is not usual. Review to follow, but no blind test as my trust in family members making that kind of power cord change without trouble is not there yet.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Benchmark gets in on the video showcase

Not quite as entertaining as the SME factory tour I shared below but the latest Benchmark Newsletter has the first of a promised four videos on their manufacturing process, this one showing the curious mix of automated and hand-based soldering and assembly that goes into their circuit boards. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Latest issue of HiFi'Zune published

The June issue of HiFi'Zine is now out and it contains two articles I've been working on for the last few months, a collective review of the EVS Ground Enhancers, and an interview with the totally charming audio designer Steve McCormack.  The collective review has four of us divided, though mostly leaning to the 'what's the fuss about here?'  Effects, if heard, are very subtle to the point, in my mind, of not being easily discerned. But others experienced something more positive. Try them yourself and let us know what you experience.

Steve McCormack is difficult to catch up with, but on the other hand, about as easy an interviewee as you could want. Obviously he has design chops to spare but he's building a new company with a mix of custom shop upgrading and up-market partnering for new products. And ie freely admits his reference speakers for testing his products are the Vandersteen 3A.  Read and feel free to comment, Steve welcomes reactions.  And just after I finished the interview, I found a video interview by him in Car Audio which is perhaps a little less structured than ours, despite Steve's best attempts to keep it on track.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

PS Audio launches new 'Mag'

Well, 'magazine' might be not what they intend PS Tracks to be seen as but it certainly is what it appears to be, check it out here.  Obviously PSA is a manufacturer so one should not be too put out by columns written by major sellers of certain gear (though they are apparently not 'reviews') but it does blur the lines. Still, there are some interesting contributions here, not least the work of Ken Kessler, and this is a step up from Paul McGowan's monthly newsletter which I always read. Worth checking out and keeping an eye on methinks.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The used table market

I know I should be less idealistic but it's just plain frustrating to me to see what happens over on A'gon. I started a post there about purchasing a table direct from the UK, through a legitimate dealer, since the list price there was less than half the MSRP here, and even with shipping and some imagined import duty, the buyer would come out ahead. The thread garnered lots of constructive comments, the end of which confirmed that under current US law, you can buy a turntable from overseas without incurring import tax. Thus, assuming you are not liable for the VAT and related other taxes the folks in Europe pay,  you can end up paying a lot less for a new item shipped than you can for a used item on A'gon. After a couple of weeks, the thread was deleted in the dark of night. Don't ask, they don't tell.

Well since then I've been watching the used table market closely. What I cannot fathom is how one well-ranked seller can keep listing the same tables over and over again at great prices but whenever anyone (not just me) asks about it, the table is always sold, about to be sold or spoken for by another customer. This is so noticeable that the seller's listings were mentioned on other audio forums where disgruntled potential buyers recognized each other from the shared complaints. One hopeful poster suggested we report this to A'gon. Doubt anyone did as today that little old table we all noticed came back on the market again, but guess what, if you try to buy it, it's gone!  And this from an apparent bricks and mortar store (though the recent name change might be a warning sign).

Now add in the use of current prices to describe the original cost of a 5 year old piece, third-hand passed around kit for which seller's expect to get 60% of current list price from you, the potential fourth owner,  or the estimates of use that suggest the table or cartridge has been sitting idle for years so it's really pristine, and you have a selling structure that is riddled with the potential for deception. I have to ask, why, given all these problems, you cannot find decent dealers willing to demonstrate new turntables......are we in the last throes of the turntable era or is there some inflexion point coming which will change the game? 

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The 'father of the CD' dies

Just learned of the passing of Noria Ohga, the so-called 'father of the cd' who led SONY for many years. It's claimed he made many of the decisions that resulted in the technology we all subsequently experienced in audio-land and it's hard to argue with some of the facts. Whatever the motivations, he shaped the audiophile landscape and it's fitting his efforts be acknowledged. I never knew the man nor read much about him but you can find a fitting intro here.

The delights of a small system

Since I have the Harbeth P3ESRs in for review I've been warming them up in my second system while they wait their turn in the review cycle. They are so simple and elegant looking that I had to clear a space and set up a dedicated small system just for them. Running them with my Naim Nait II with the Harbeths on old QED tristands, I find myself drawn night after night to local NPR jazz broadcasts via my $70 Sony HD tuner, using my home made 4ft speaker cables. Via my trust old Denon 2900 CD, the sounds are sufficiently pleasing to make me think about finding a new DAC to give myself a serious second system, rather than a break-in rig which is all this setup really provides right now.  There is a lot to be said for scaling the speakers to the room, and it's easy to just be in my spare room now with the music playing, never dominating. The Harbeths are the most costly component here (at $2k for this little pair) but they work superbly. Looking forward to seeing how well they co-exist when the cost-relationship is inverted.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The $1m turntable cannot be far away....

You think the $150k Clearaudio table, or the Caliburn Continuum that S'phile love so much, would mark the upper end of turntable crazy prices but you would be wrong. AV Design Haus of Germany have a table with a built in microscope that now lists at $650,000.  It's April.....but we're far beyond Fool's Day...maybe. Good luck to anyone who can afford it but you have to ask why....

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Chesky does guitar

Apart from running Chesky Records, David Chesky is a keen musician and has launched an interesting challenge to fellow guitarists as part of his Urbancity release containing the  Concerto for Electric Guitar and Orchestra. A version is  available as a reduced price special edition download with full score and accompanying materials allowing the buyer to study the guitar parts and play along with the concerto’s movements. The price of participation includes you agreeing to upload a YouTube video of your know this is going to be worth following! I've not heard the full music yet but I will report back when I know more. No, I won't be submitting a video, I have enough trouble working through the catalog of jazz standards I'm trying to master to engage in neck pyrotechnics, but it's great to have musicians as audiophiles, no?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New gear in for review

Just received a new integrated from NZ-based company, Perreaux. Their Audient 80i is, yes, an 80w, DAC-carrying, MM-phono stage bearing integrated amp that is aimed to give you a contemporary one box solution. Add speakers and you can run your laptop, cd player, turntable etc. The remote control also works with iTunes via its USB input too (that same input automatically selects the internal 24/96 DAC too). This is an intriguing product which is currently running in on my second system but I am keen to let it loose in my main rig.

Also have a pair of the totally gorgeous Harbeth P3ESR in for review. I loved these when I heard them at RMAF, actually enjoying them more than the larger Harbeth 5s in the same room, but that's probably just show conditions and the fact that the 3s make a stronger impression given the sonics that spring forth from such a diminutive box. Thanks to Walter at Fidelity for the review samples of both components, my review schedule is filling up but who could complain with gear like this to enjoy for a while.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

SME factory tour

Attempting to learn what I can about the manufacture of quality tables, I came across this video tour of SME's plant in the UK from 2007. The link is to part 1, there are further parts to link on from there, be sure to watch 2 and 3 a they offer good detail on the arm construction, and are less noisy than part 1 which goes through the machine rooms. Lots of interesting perspectives and views here, and real evidence that making a hi-end table is no trivial matter. Good info here on the real differences between models and arms, love the quote about improving the bearings on the lower arms to bring them up to V5 standards, and some understated remarks from the ever patient SME service manager, Brian Laker, who notes that some audiophiles don't like Van den Hul wire. Watch these and then you might better understand why some tables cost a bit more. Best quote comes at the end when the interviewer says SME's are the Rolex of turntables and asks Brian, 'is there a factory outlet store?' 'Certainly not!' shoots back Brian, whose look of distaste is sadly not captured on camera.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Parasound JC-3 phono stage: $1k product for $2.3k?

Been spending time on various forums learning what I can about tables and who rates what. Frightening or enlightening? Take your pick!  I discussed options with Music Direct (yes, we've become more friendly now that I have a digital gauge that works) and among the suggestions made, the idea that my phono stage is the weak link has emerged. I agree, it may be the weak link and perhaps starting there to learn the limits of my table might be a good idea. So, given I run balanced, I started to see what I could get for $2k (not being convinced that the Sim Audio 310LP suggestion MD made would cut it) and double the price of my current stage. The Parasound JC-3 emerged as a serious option but then I read this by John Curl on the DIY Audio site:

"This design was really for a small insert board per channel for the JC-2. Unfortunately, it 'grew up' into being more than what it was originally designed to do. The original discrete design worked fine, BUT NOW the jfets it used are too hard, and expensive, to get, so it is a lost cause.  You just reminded me of the painful reality of what it costs to make things like this........ If the insides of this unit were packaged more cost effectively, I would have been more comfortable, as it then might have cost $1000 or so. However, marketing disagreed." (full link)

More evidence, if any were needed, that the price you pay is not set by the brains who created it or the logical addition of a simple profit on top of cost to build. But in fairness to Parasound, would any other company sell this for less?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Russian president was a child in time....

They say if you live long enough, you see everything. Well I am beginning to feel the push of time when I read that the Russian president, growing up under communism, was secretly a Deep Purple fan and today invited the band to have tea with him. No doubt, Richie was not part of the program but you could write a sociological thesis now on the impact of western rock and roll on the emerging democracies of the world.

"When I started listening to Deep Purple, I never imagined I would be sitting with you at this table," Medvedev, now 45, told the band in remarks televised Wednesday."  You and me both Dmitry!!!  I know Tony Blair made no secret of his love for the Purps strat-laden riffs but it appears their appeal crossed more than geographical bounds.  What's next, he needs a new turntable to spin his old copy of Made in Japan? 

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The new table search starts

I've had it with my Aries. It can make great music once set up well (and boy, was this a learning curve the end of which I am delighted to reach) but it's out of its depth now with the rest of my rig. Further, I think now I just don't care for the JMW unipivot, it's too fiddly for my set-it-forget-it disposition. I mean, lift it up in a hurry at the end of a side and you risk throwing the azimuth out. Yes, the player spins well and always makes me feel like I can enjoy the music but I feel disinclined to spend more an a top cartridge until I feel the rest is as good as I can get it.

Now, the process of buying a new table is a real index of the state of audio retailing. The dealer network is sparse, home trials are impossible, yet the strength of user opinion online is through the roof. Here's what I've learned so far:

1) Every table has a fan and a dismisser. Some fans and dismissers have never heard the table in question.
2) There is no import tax on any overseas made turntable under current US regulations -- someone ask Sumiko to explain their prices here please since a new SME from the UK can be bought for less than the price of some used offerings here
3) Grown men get very heated over arm lengths and alignment geometries
4) Some people believe idler drive designs from decades ago outperform modern belt-drive tables but science seems to be unable to determine the veracity of such claims, either way. Even if it could, I doubt it would change some people's minds.
5) It's not clear why some tables costs thousands of dollars more than others.While one can envisage this being true in software based systems where it can be hard to see what went into the design, you might imagine that a physical artifact would reveal its quality to our senses directly.
6) Table companies don't seem unduly bothered by any of the above points and they have few ideas on how to make the situation better.


Saturday, March 19, 2011

New products in the system

For the last few weeks, after returning the thoroughly impressive Bryston BDa-1 (review in March issue of HiFi'Zine, forthcoming as I type), I've been grooving to the PS Audio PWT/PWD. I will have to do a formal review of this combo as it's genuinely a step forward for me digitally. In the course of becoming familiar with this piece I committed to the I2S link, using the PS Audio HDMI 12 cable, reputedly the best there is for connecting these two boxes. Somewhat surprisingly, I've been finding the cable on price-reduction everywhere, which PS Audio claim is due to a push to reduce stock on their end. Well, as enquiring minds always think there is more, I was pointed in the direction of Harmonic Technology's own HDMI offerings which someone, whose opinion I trust, told me might be even better. Jim Wang sent one may way and it's in my rig now. More on this later.

I also have been exchanging a series of fascinating emails with Steve McCormack who will be the subject of a forthcoming interview in HiFi'Zine. I've been using his super preamp, the VRE-1, for the last year and I really think it is something worthy of more coverage, which hope to provide shortly.

And of course, with tweaks being a fave exploration of mine, I've added two pairs of EVS' Ground Enhancers to my Von Schweikerts, and been testing a CD spinner which uses some kind of magic treatment to improve your disks before you insert them into the rig. It's been fun asking people if they can hear anything different without giving them a clue what they are supposed to be witnessing.  Phew, audio life is never dull.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Used cartridges

If the vinyl resurgence is really on, why are all the used cartridges on Audiogon described as 'low hours'?

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Gary Moore, guitarist, dies

Blues for GreenyTo say I am saddened by this news would be an understatement but the BBC is reporting this morning that Gary Moore died last night in Spain. No cause of death has been mentioned and the official Moore website is down as I write. Hard to make too much of an audiophile case here but Moore was a really great guitarist even if he tended to overplay some of those blues (though unlike others, he never blanded out in the name of commerce). Seems he's been around all my life, from a wonderkid player in Thin Lizzy to a jazz rocker with Colliseum II,  then later a hard rock and blues player on his own and with others. Ozzy Osbourne famously described him as having 'a face like a welder's bench' but the man could play, and did play with some of the greats (Lynott, Bruce and Baker, Albert Collins, Peter Green etc). George Harrison remarked that Gary's playing made him feel 'like a skiffler' in comparison. Cue up Blues for Greeny and hear some of his tastier licks.  He was only 58. 

Bryston BDA-1 is the real deal

From not listening to a DAC for a decade I find myself spoilt with two in succession. I've been reviewing the Bryston BDA-1 DAC in my system, likely to appear in the March edition of HiFi'Zine. It's impressive and easily beats the EE MiniMax, as it should at almost three times the price. Most importantly, it breathes such life into redbook CDs that it makes SACD obsolete. The EE MiniMax remains a great product, and the one to beat for $750 but the Bryston takes the sound to another level, and partnered with almost any decent player, it produces truly great sound. Before buying a new digital front end in the $2k range, try adding the BDA-1 to your existing rig and give yourself connection options and software upgradeability. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

Tom Fletcher of Nottingham Audio passes almost unnoticed

Just learned this morning the sad news that the man who gave us the Space deck tables and arms, not to mention the Anna Log, and the no-switch motor, passed away last year. Long-term Nottingham dealer, Brian Kurtz of Austin's Sound Mind Audio sent the following note, so well worded that I reproduce it here:

"I just got word that Tom Fletcher, founder of Nottingham Analogue, has passed on.  Tom had backed away from Nottingham Analogue several years ago when cancer had him down; selling the company to a worthy group of individuals who agreed to maintain the company at the highest level of quality (which they have, of course, done) regardless of his condition.  

Tom’s health had improved and he had, at one point, wanted to regain control of the company, but the group to which he’d handed the reins thought it best to keep things as they were, and Tom left to start a new company, Fletcher Audio.  He and I actually spoke a few months back and he was brimming with hope for what was to come.  He was quite enthusiastic about a new turntable and tonearm lineup he was planning, and was hoping to bring them to market sometime in the future after current prototypes were completed.

At 16, Tom was machining turntable parts, and before the age of 20, had a crew of a dozen folks or more, building Nottingham Analogue turntables.  50,000 turntables and 40-plus years later, Nottingham Analogue still makes the best turntables for the money I’ve ever heard. Tom’s gone, but his legacy spins forever, with no power switch J (Tom’s tables are known for their ultra-low-torque motors that require no power switch)."

Thanks Brian, for the words. More can be found at Fletcher Audio's tribute page.

Friday, January 28, 2011

PS Audio release new power plants

As a satisfied owner of the the PPP power regenerator from PS Audio, I am intrigued by the release of their new Power Plant 5 and 10 models ($3000 and $4500 respectively). The current PPP is being sold off now for around $1200, which is a bargain for its benefits (clean, new power that hits the 60hz cycle directly and repeatedly for all your gear), both sonic and practical. The PPP has improved every component which I've connected to it, with the only exception (if so it may be termed) being the power hungry BAT Vk500 which caused the fans on the PPP to kick in audibly. That it also offers power surge protection is a bonus. I've had a lot of PS Audio gear in my rig over the years but it's their power regeneration product that has produced the best bang for the buck. Am looking forward to hearing this, a review sample is promised.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

I need to move to Greece

I love the people in this video  and would love to spend time in their space. Admit it,  you know, you would love it too!!!!