Tuesday, January 18, 2022

TIDAL Audio Intra Power Amplifier review

Visit Parttimeaudiophile

Harman curve

The "absolute/measurements" school of audiophiles, i.e. the ones who firmly believe that flat frequency response of 20Hrz - 20kHrz is the ultimate target, take note. Research done at Canada’s National Research Council (NRC) and Harman International suggests that (and this is true to my experience) without a few decibels of domestic in-room bass boost (below 100–150Hz), most people find that a loudspeaker sounds thin and lacks bass impact and fullness. See also Harman Curve article at Headphonesaddict. BTW, when I owned Tact Audio RCS 2.2X digital pre-amp and room correction system I tested flat 20Hrz - 20kHrz correction curve, and it just sounded awful, lifeless.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Wadia iTransport iPod dock

Stereophile reports about most interesting iPod related third party hifi-equipment (below just some extracts, see full text here).

Wadia Digital, Inc. announced that it will debut the $349 iTransport iPod dock in Las Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) January 7, 2008. Certified by Apple as "Made for iPod®," the iTransport bypasses the iPod's internal D/A conversion to output an S/PDIF signal, "providing CD-quality resolution from full-resolution from file formats such as .WAV and [Apple Lossless]."

It also outputs component video signals for "up to DVD-quality" video.

I thought it was impossible to bypass the iPod's DAC. "So did we," said Wadia president John W. Schaffer. "Then we discovered the little-known fact that Apple had a process called 'authentication' that allowed mobile electronics companies to bypass the iPod's internal DAC."

"Authentication" refers to Apple's authentication chip, which essentially tells the iPod that it's okay to output raw digital audio or video data to the chip-enhanced component. The authentication chips are only available in Apple products or from products made by Apple-licensed third-party developers. After Wadia first began developing what became the iTransport, Apple opened up the authentication program to more third-party vendors. The iTransport may be the first audio product of its kind, but it probably won't be the last. But however you slice it, being firstest is a great coup.

"I think Apple approved our working on the iTransport because of our reputation as a high-end component manufacturer. Apple thinks of the iPod as a high-end source, so it made sense to them," said Schaffer.

In addition to its RCA S/PDIF and component video, the iTransport also sports a pair of RCA analog outputs, although that signal is apparently derived from the iPod's internal DAC.

"When you hear the digital output of the iTransport using full-resolution files like .WAV and Apple Lossless, you realize that it is a hi-rez source—and now that the iPod Classic has a 160GB capacity, there's no excuse for lossy compression," observed Schaffer.

The iTransport is compatible with "all current models," which means that models produced before the authentication program was implemented won't output digital or video—as I understand it, models that early don't output video anyway. I've posted a list at the end of this report.

Positive Feedback has discovered very interesting new minimonitor, the U.S. designed, but Chinese built, little wonder called the Evidence. The manufacturer and designer is MHI, Musical Heart Instruments, a division of Micro Home Installation, Inc., Corona, CA. They are available from Brooks Berdan LTD, in Monrovia, CA.

According to review, "The 4.5 inch robust Mogami paper midrange/woofer, sourced from Pioneer of Japan, is ran full-range. The driver is surrounded in a high tech cloth that will last vastly longer than foam. It has a response from about 60Hz to 10,000Hz. A crossover controls only an exotic two inch long ribbon super tweeter, also from Pioneer. This is crossed over at about 10,000Hz and extends up to 100,000+ Hz!".

Marten Form series

Marten launces its latest loudspeaker design FormSeries at the 2008 CES. The lineup includes the FormSub, FormFloor and FormCentre (3100€, 4500€, and 2100€ respectively). The FormFloor and FormCentre models are two way loudspeakers that employ a pure ceramic bass/mid driver and ribbon tweeter. The triangular configuration of the FormFloor and FormCentre models is acoustically optimized to allow the speakers to totally disappear within the soundstage. The finishes are piano lacquer in five different colors/woods. The powerful FormSub model contains a 10-inch extremely long throw driver that is powered with a 400 watt Class D amplifier.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

High-end gear for sale

I'll sell the following items.

1) JMLab Micro Be speakers:
  • Purchased in 12/2005 as new
  • Colour Avant-garde, ie. same as in picture
  • See any international hifi-magazine review list, and Micro Be is still listed as the best compact / bookshelf speaker (OK, maybe Wilson Duette is a tad better nowadays)
  • Original packaging, manual
  • Condition 9/10
  • Price 2.800 euros
2) Various top cables
  • Siltech Signature G5 / G6 XLR interconnects
  • Kimber Kable 3035 speaker cables (1.8 meter) with top-of-the line WBT 0680Ag (silver) spades
  • Kimber Kable Palladian PK10 power cords (2 units)
  • etc, etc.
  • Prices to be negotiated
Contact info@jaripuhakka.com or call at +358 40 7000 482

* * *

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Turntable manufacturers links

Quick note: Stereomojo has compiled a list of turntable manufacturers, see here.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Red Wine Audio iMod revised

Red Wine Audio now offers audiophile hardware modification for the newer 5/5.5 Generation iPods. According to RWA's web site, iMod is required because iPod experiences sonic degradation from the cumulative effects of non-audiphile grade stock components that are directly in the line-out signal path. In effect, preventing iPod's Wolfson DAC reaching its full potential.

With the 4G iPod modifications, RWA takes the analog output (line out) signal from the iPod's Wolfson DAC chip and sends it directly to the unit's 1/8" headphone jack via high-end Black Gate Non-Polarized NX-Hi-Q coupling capacitors. However, the 4G iMod is intended only for use with a high-quality headphone amp or a hi-fi system as it converts the headphone jack into a dedicated line-out jack, and therefore, the iPod can no longer be connected directly to headphones.

The 5G/5.5G iMod is a little different as it leaves the headphone jack unaltered. RWA could not Black Gate caps into the newer and slimmer 5G/5.5G iPods, so the analog output signal from the Wolfson DAC chip is sent directly to the unit's dock connector pins. Drawback is that you need ALO Audio iMod Dock Cable, as ALO has found a way to install the Black Gate caps in the dock plug of the cable itself. See ALO Audio's website for more info.

Dynaudio MC15s speakers

From Dynaudio's comes new small desktop computer speakers, model MC15s (approx. €1200/pair). These active minis feature two integrated 50W amplifiers, the matching subwoofer is Sub 250 MC. Various CES 2007 and Stereophile HE 2007 show reports highlighted sound quality.

You can see them at video here.


Chord RED Reference CD player

General public talks about MP3 and yet the audiophile companies keep pushing the Red Book CD boundaries. The latest high-end and stunning CD player comes from British Chord.

The single-box RED is based on Chord's Blu and DAC64. It employs a Philips CD Pro 2 transport mechanism (installed at 45 degrees), which is re-clocked using a highly accurate crystal oscillator. Upsampling rates are 44.1kHz, 88.2kHz, or 176.4kHz. As for the signal conversion to analog, I quote Chord's web-site: "Based on the DAC64 the digital signal is converted from 176.4KHz to analogue audio using 1024 tap filtering and 64 bit digital signal processing core. This is followed by 64 bit 7th order noise shaping, 2048 times oversampling rates and improved pulse width modulated elements. This gives much better measured performance, better detail resolution with a smoother more focused sound quality. The DAC also features RAM buffer technology that sequentially takes in all the data, re-times, it then sends it out giving jitter free operation. Digital data from other sources can also be fed into the RED via the optical or AES balanced XLR connections."

Friday, June 01, 2007

Musical Fidelity 550K Supercharger

Now we know the reason for MF's (once again) excellent marketing campaign, i.e. 1st June 10:10 am announcement. MF 550K Supercharger are monoblocks amplifiers that use the kW550 power amp circuit in a low gain configuration. The 550K Supercharger is connected to the system just before the loudspeakers. All you have to do is disconnect the existing loudspeaker cable from the loudspeaker. Connect that cable to the Supercharger’s input. Connect the Supercharger’s output to the loudspeaker and connect the Supercharger to the mains.

The 550K Supercharger is a natural product extension to enforce MF's current mantra: if a hi-fi system is to be realistic, it should be able to achieve realistic peak levels at a normal listening position, i.e. a top quality hi-fi system should be able to deliver a 110dB peak. MF maintains that during the last 10-15 years we have lost dynamics in music reproduction as current loudspeakers are less efficient as speakers of 80's and 70's.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Nordost Odin cables

German hifi magazine Stereoplay missed the boat ;) In June 2007 issue they gave Nordost Valhalla interconnects and speaker cables co-reference status (along Kimber Kable KS1036), yet Nordost had already raised the bar by announcing new Odin Reference cable range. Extract from Nordost material:

"1.Dual Mono-Filament Construction

The World-renowned performance of Nordost's Valhalla is based on the combination of Mono-Filament spiral spacing and extruded Teflon insulation, a unique construction that creates a virtual air dielectric. For Odin, Nordost's engineers have taken this process a stage further, first twisting two FEP Mono-Filaments together, before winding them in an open spiral around each solid-core conductor. It sounds simple, but demands dramatically higher production tolerances if such complex, multiple cable constructions are to be successfully manufactured. However, the results are a significant reduction in conductor contact area and far greater geometrical consistency, especially when cables are bent. First used in the Valhalla power cord and Tyr interconnect, Odin employs Dual Mono-Filaments in conductor's in optimized arrays throughout the range.

2.Total Signal Control (TSC) Shielding

Odin interconnects also employ a revolutionary new shielding technique, developed to match the theoretical performance of solid copper pipes without the resultant problems of inflexibility that such rigid structures impose. Each of the eight conductors in an Odin interconnect is individually shielded using this Nordost developed technology which minimizes both signal leakage and external interference in today's increasingly electronically polluted environment. Conductor materials remain silver plated copper, with silver plated WBT NextGen RCA or Furutech XLR terminations on the interconnects, rhodium plated low mass Z-plugs or spades on the speaker cables."

Odin doesn't come cheap, with prices starting at $14,000/pr for interconnects, $20,000/pr for speaker cables.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

High-end gear for sale

I've various high-end gear for sale.

To start with, Mark Levinson 334 power amplifier. Requires no introduction, the last line of ML amplifiers which is built like a tank - and drives any speaker. The amp in question was purchased in 2001, has one little scratch on top, price very competitive 2.900 euros. A steal.

The second gear needs some explanation. It's a combo, comprising of Perpetual Technologies P-1A digital prosessor and P-3A 24/96 DAC. The P-3A has ModWright Signature II mods, as has external Monothlic power supply. Icing the cake are silver, cryo treated Revelation Audio power cables between Monolithic power supply and PT boxes, and Revelation Audio silver, cryo-treated I2S cable to connect PT units.

Idea is that you set P-1A set to output 44.1kHz, which will leave it to the P-3A's circuitry to upsample the data to 96kHz. However, you have to set P-1A's Output Bit Density to 24 bits. Connection between the units is the best digital connection in terms of eliminating jitter, i.e. I2S.

Cracking digital re-production, 550 euros. I've Mark Levinson 390S cd-player, so I do know something about good digital sound. See Stereophile review, and then check ModWright and Revelation Audio.

The third item is a pair of Kimber Kable's top KS 9038 jumpers for loudspeakers. I used them when I owned Revel Studios, don't need them now with my pair of JMLab Micro Bes. Trust me on this, if you have jumpers in your high-end speakers, you have not heard what your tweeters can achieve before you use these jumpers. Price 400 euros.

SMS / call at +358 40 7000 482, or leave a note to this blog entry.

Musical Fidelity 1st June 10:10 announcement

During the last couple of months MF has generated buzz about important announcement at 1st June, exact 10:10 AM GMT. See their Web-site tomorrow what the buzz is all about...

Meanwhile, MF has announced new "super integrated amplifier", model A1008. The accompanied CD-player is model A1000.

The A1008 is descendant of the kW550 and has the same physical layout and circuit block componentry. The kW550, however, has an extra 3dB of dynamic range and higher power ratings.

The A1008 has 250 watts per channel, external power supply and like Naim SUPERNAIT integrated amplifier, on-board DAC. According to MF, internal 24/192 DAC is exactly the same as the X-DACV8. Digital inputs include USB.

Inner World Audio hifi publication

In May a new hifi magazine was launced primarily for Finnish market. Most articles are written in Finnish, although selected articles are written in English for a broader audience. I contribute as a reviewer, in the first issue my review subject was McIntosh MC275 amplifier.

About the magazine. The innerWORLD/AUDIO is a broad, modern, professional web/paper magazine of sound, music and visual effect. The issues are available as a free download (PDF-files), the readers can also subscribe actual paper copy. Sample the first issue, we hope you like it. We feel it is an indispensable addition to Finnish hifi magazine landscape.

Krell KID

High-end audio giant Krell Industries is acknowledging the popularity of Apple iPod as it announced Krell IPOD Dock (KID) at the Home Entertainment Show 2007. KID's retails $1200, and offers balanced outputs (+ 2 RCA and S Video outputs) and bass and treble adjustments.

Some months ago I wrote about MSB's audiophile docking solution, which requires modification to iPod. The KID has no just limitation, hence a welcome addition to iPod space.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

YouTube must-view video about compression

As an audiophile you must view this YouTube video about what compression does for recording. Even with small computer speakers you can easily here the consequences of dynamic range compression.

The TAS blog - Red Book CD history

The Absolute Sound's editor Robert Harley has his own blog. I copy hereby pretty fascinating blog entry about history of Red Book CD-format.

"April 17 - The World’s Most Expensive Book—the CD “Red Book”

Audiophiles correctly use the term “Red Book” to describe the CD format, but incorrectly to refer to any 44.1kHz/16-bit digital audio, or even to pulse-code modulation (PCM, the CD’s encoding format) in general.

So, what exactly is the “Red Book,” and why would we describe an audio format with such a name?

When Sony and Philips jointly developed the CD format in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Philips contributed the optical system, Sony the electronics and error correction, broadly speaking), they needed a specification that described the format in detail for CD factories. When a CD replicator bought a license to manufacturer CDs (for $5000), it received a copy of this 8.5″ by 11″ document, which happened to have a red cover. (Each CD format has its own book and colored cover. The book that described the CD-ROM format, for example, has a yellow cover and is called the “Yellow Book.”)

I had a copy of the “Red Book” on my desk when I worked in CD mastering. It describes the disc’s physical parameters, encoding and decoding scheme, optical system, and types of data errors and maximum allowable error rates, among other things. The reference to 44.1kHz/16-bit linear PCM encoding occupies a miniscule fraction of the book’s contents, yet the term “Red Book” is now firmly entrenched as meaning 44.1kHz/ 16-bit digital audio.

The Red Book contains some interesting provisions that aren’t widely known. For example, the CD was designed to carry 4-channel audio as an option, but at a slower sampling frequency and shorter word length. This option was, obviously, never used. Another unused option is the provision for graphics, text, or other data in the disc’s “subcode.” The CD has eight subcode channels, designated P–W, with each having a data rate of a relatively slow 7.35 kilobits per second. The “P” channel simply “goes high” (binary 1) for two seconds before the start of each track to allow cheap CD players to find track starts; the Q channel contains all the timing and track information that you see on your player’s display; the R–W channels are reserved for other use, such as graphics or text. No CD players that I know of have ever been able to access the R–W subcode. I’ve seen R–W subcode graphics displayed experimentally and can tell you why they never caught on—it takes an agonizingly long time (because of the slow data rate) to “paint” a single still graphic on a video display.

It was widely reported that the CD’s specifications were influenced by conductor Herbert von Karajan, who told Sony’s president that this new format would need to hold Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in its entirety. I don’t know if this is true, but I do know that the Red Book doesn’t specify the CD’s maximum playing time. Rather, it specifies the disc’s rotational speed (linear velocity), track pitch (the space between tracks) inner starting radius, and outer ending radius. (CD’s are read from the inside out, with the disc speed varying from about 500 rpm on the inner radius to about 200 rpm at the outer radius, which maintains a constant linear velocity as seen by the playback laser.) From these parameters one can infer the maximum playing time. For many years after CD’s introduction, 74 minutes was considered the upper limit of the CD format’s capacity. But by mastering a CD at the edges of the allowable parameters (slowest possible linear velocity, soonest starting radius, latest ending radius, narrowest track pitch), one can make a CD with more than 80 minutes of playing time that still conforms to the Red Book specification."

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

McIntosh 275 Mk V and NOS tubes

Evidently McIntosh has introduced a new version of its renowed Mc275 model, the Mk V variant. The mark V is the EU RoHS directive compliant product, i.e. lead and other "hazardous substances" free. In addition, Mk V finally eliminates strip speaker connections and has proper speaker connections, so you don't have to re-terminate your speaker cables. Also gone is adjustable sensitivity on unbalanced input.

I started saying that "evidently" because I have not yet seen any mention about mark V on McIntosh Web-site. However, I do know it exists as I've been happy owner more than 2 months. I reviewed Mc275 for one hifi-publication and was so impressed that I replaced my previous power amp Mark Levinson 334 by review sample.

Mc275 is everything than other reviewers have said and then some. I found Mc275 in my gear to be more transparent and more silent than ML334, ideally suited for kind of music I listen predominantly, i.e. acoustic jazz. The Mc275 is the quietest tube power amp I've heard, bar one. What Mc275 left me wanting vis-a-vis ML334 was that feeling of absolute authority and control. Guess I have to upgrade next to Audio Research Reference 110 in order to get Mc275's life-like performance and ML334's majesty.

I my review I stated that Mc275 did not responded much to NOS tube rolling, ie. my experimentation with NOS 12AX7A tubes did not demonstrate that much difference. I tested Philips Holland Pope 12AX7 1959 (Upscale Audio Platinium Grade, exactly same tube as Amperex Bugle Boy Holland 12AX7) and Sylvania 1961 Vintage 12AX7 1961 (Upscale Audio Platinium Grade).

Now I have to re-state my findings, reason is that I replaced stock KT88 tubes by original Svetlana, cryo treated KTR88s, purchased from Watford Valves. To cut the long story short, if you want to know what your Mc275 is capable for, try cryo treated Svetlana winged-C KT88s. Combined with Sylvania 12AX7s they produce truly breath-taking music. Moreover, I installed Herbie's Audio Lab's nickel alloy tube dampers for all small12xxx tubes and KT88 power tubes, which further tightened low registers and took care of tiny amount of microphonic haze and fuzziness. Additonal upgrade I found beneficial was Kimber Kable's top-of-the-line power cable Palladian PK10 (in my tests much better choice than Nordost Shiva or Siltech SPX20/30) and a proper platform (my Mc275 floats on Aurios Pro bearings, which reside on top of Symposium Svelte platform.

I ordered from Wafford Valves cryo treated NOS Mullard 12AT7 to replace stock tubes, but even without them I can honestly say that Mc275 with upgarded tubes causes long, long listening sessions. Phenomenal "breath-of-life", holographic imaging and transparency.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Conrad-Johnson ART3 and ACT2

Conrad-Johnson. Two legandary audio designers' (they are economist by education) name combined - and as a brand one of the Tier 1 American high-end audio companies. It just sound right, their slogan goes. And one product which put CJ into high-end radar screen was ART (for Anniversary Reference Triode) preamp. ART was first introduced in June 1996 (20th anniversary of CJ) and second incarnation ART2 came in 2001. The initial concept of ART was that CJ would only make 250 units, period. However, somehow only 225 series 1 and 2 models were made, leaving CJ with 25 chassis left over.

Fast forward to 2004 and introduction of another great CJ pre-amp, model ACT2. One of the key factor for ACT2's success in reviews and evidently on the market was extensive use of CJ specific Teflon capacitors. So in 2006 CJ decided that they can use those left-over 25 ART two-chassis, and employ the same advanced materials and Teflon caps to bring to the market ART3. At the time of writing this, all ART3 are gone, but if you own ART1 or ART2, rejoice as you can upgrade from ART1 and ART2 to ART3 for USD 13.000 and USD12.000, respectively. I love audio companies who take their "reference" products seriously, i.e. provide upgrade paths for the loyal owners of reference products. The other great example here is Mark Levinson. Audio Research, take note (no upgrade path from REF2 pre-amp to REF3!).

However, the owners of original USD 13.500 CJ ACT2 (earlier blog entry here) might not feel as exuberated. After only 2 years since its introduction, CJ announced updated Series 2 model with a complete internal makeover. In essence, Series 2 ACT2 only shares casework with previous model, circuit and power supply are entirely different. British hi-fi+ reviewed favourable ACT2 Series 2 in issue 49 - although they gave equally positive review for Series 1. Personnally I would feel a bit embarrassed as a reviewer that the product raved highly recently has much better successor only 2 years after. Remember that original ACT2 was referred as a product which raised the bar for tube preamplifiers.

Initially CJ said that there is no upgrade from Series 1 to 2, however, the word on the street is that there is an upgrade available.

Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento

Ken Kessler reviewed in Hi-fi News March 2007 issue Sonus Faber Guarneri Memento speakers. No news here, Kessler is a long-time fan of original Guarneris, and he gave a very favorable review of the speakers - "I've always loved the Guarneri. Now I positively adore it".

What struck me was the measurements. There is a broad dip in output between 2.5 kHz and 11 kHz, about 7.5 db down at 7.5 kHz! That dip indicates poor integration between bass-mid driver and tweeter. The measured sensitivity was also 3db lower than specified, at 85 db.

hi-fi+ and Audio Reseach LS26 linestage

Although the UK-based print audiophile publication hi-fi+ was acquired by Absolute Multimedia, owners of longstanding United States magazine The Abso!ute Sound, it seems to remain review-wise unchanged. Which is good as the 50th issue exemplifies. The "analogue special" issue has for example reviews of SME 20/12 and Clearaudio Performance turntables, various phono-stages and cartridges, Burmester 061 CD-player, and finally, very first review of Audio Research LS26 linestage.

According to review, the LS26 well deserves its nickname "REF 3 Junior". Compared with REF3, reviewer found LS26 to be a tad quieter than REF3. This is propably due to design differences as the LS26 has hyprid tube/JFET audio circuit vs. REF3's pure tube design, and REF3 has tube regulated power supply. The tube vs. hyprid was evident in listening notes, where reviewer found LS26 to give away to REF3 in authority, dynamics, presence, and less expansive soundstage, on the other hand LS26's leaner bottom-end made sound quicker and more direct with greater musical drive and pace.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Enjoy the Music has a review of Ed Meitner's single chassis CD/SACD player, which upsamples the Red Book 44.1kHz signal to 5.6448MHz DSD.

According to Phil Gold: "The CDSA SE has to be in very front rank of CD Players regardless of cost. It will do wonders for detail retrieval, imaging and accuracy complete with a fully realized bottom end and open top on the best Redbook recordings. Its failings are those of the medium itself. As to SACD, this is as good as digital gets, and far better than any Redbook CD you will ever hear".

The Positive Feedback seems to concur: "Put the CDSA SE up against any Redbook player extant, smile with confidence, and just take SACD as a lagniappe. At this point in time, on planet Earth, digital music reproduction just doesn't get any better than the CDSA SE".

Nagra CDP

In April 2007 issue of Revue de Son both oldtime reviewers, Jean-Pierre Landragin and Jean Hiraga, gave an extremely positive review of Nagra's latest CD-player, model CDP. To refresh your memory, Nagra introduced in early 2007 three new digital, Red Book products: the CDC equipped with a built-in DAC, remote control and pre-amplifier stage; the "conventional" CDP with a built-in DAC and fixed level analogue output; and a CD transport CDT designed to be used with an external DAC (like Nagra's 192 kHz/24 bit DAC). The chassis of CDx-family identical is in dimension to the Nagra's PL-P pre-amp and PL-L line-stage and thanks to the front-loading mechanism allows the units to be stacked neatly together.

Monsieur Landragin positioned CDP against other high-end CD-players as "Between the CDP and its competitors, there is the same difference as sound re-produced through hifi-chain and a real instrument". Jean Hiraga echoed: "... quality of re-production of sound and musicality on level never heard before. This realism astonishing ...". Une reference absolue".

There were some interesting points in the review, though. Nagra's own Web-site is very thin as for technical data of CDx-family, but evidently CDP has a 352.8 kHz/24 bit DAC (i.e. higher oversampling than company's standalone DAC). RdS found than due to extra Burr Brown stage balanced outputs sounded significantly inferior to asymmetric outputs - contrary to most top CD-players. Should make then the CDP a good match with single-end only pre-amps akin Conrad -Johnson.

BTW, German Stereo magazine gave to model CDC (in picture) in 2/07 issue a full 100% for sound quality, see review here.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Sonos Digital Music System

I reviewed some weeks ago Sonos Sonos Digital Music System for a Finnish hifi-magazine. Two Sonos "systems" were subject to review: ZonePlayer 80 Bundle, consisting of two ZonePlayer ZP80s and one Controller 100 remote controller; and one ZonePlayer 100. See details of aforementioned products at Sonos Web-site.

Some background. I've some 500 GB worth of WAV-files, i.e. almost my entire CD-collection on hard-disk. The necessary back-up methods naturally are implemented in terms of external hard-disks and daily/weekly BU procedures. Why WAV and not MP3? Look into the falling prices of hard-disk as €/GB, and tell me one reason why one should compromise sound quality using any kind of compressed or non-compressed audio formats other than WAV. There is none - except WAV's limited metadata capabilities.

For a music library software I use both Apple iTunes 7.x and MS Media Player 11, ripping is done by same software and occasionally by EAC. Which brings us to one of the Sonos shortfalls, i.e. insofar as your music library is in MP3, FLAC or Apple Lossless formats, Sonos library software works fine. The Sonos Desktop Controller organizes your music library nicely by artist, album etc. with associated album artwork, but if you use WAVs you view into music library are pretty limited. With iTunes and WAV, Sonos software provides you with very crude folder view, organised by artist. You fare a tad better with MS Media Player and WAV, but evidently Sonos has been designed for MP3 users, not for audiophiles. This is not only Sonos related problem, but applies to all music library software and how they metadata WAV files. Annoying, nevertheless.

In assessing the sonic capabilities of Sonos, I connected one Sonos ZP80 player to my HE-rig, consisting of McIntosh 275 amplifier, Great Northern Sound modified Audio Research LS25 Mk2 pre-amp and Mark Levinson 390S CD-prosessor. Speakers are JM Lab Micro Bes, the cabling consist of Siltech XLR G5/G6 interconnects and Kimber Kable Select KS-3035 speaker cables.

For testing I connected Sonos ZP80 player's digital out via Siltech G6 Golden Ridge digital cable (the best digital cable I have tested by very large margin) into my Mark Levinson 390S CD-processor's digital in. This was to assess Sonos system's performance as a transport, using the same ML 390s 24bit/352.8kHz DAC as I normally use when listening CDs.

Result was startling, i.e. I could barely hear any difference. And yet mentally I already had decided that this insignificant small box + dedicated WiFi-network could no way be on the same level as my ML 390S transport. Talking about reality check! I had to dig into my best recorded acoustic recordings to actually hear differences. Please note here that I was able to switch by remote control between original CD played through ML 390S and the same WAV-file played through Sonos system into 390S DAC.

In essence, ML 390S as a standalone CD-player had more organic sound, "black-is-blacker" background, more dynamics and less digital artifacts than Sonos - but observable only with the best acoustic recordings like Blue Coast Collection The E.S.E Sessions. My system is ruthlessly transparent, with mid hifi speakers I could propably here no difference. Please note that in fact I only compared the performance of Sonos ZP80 and dedicated network against ML 390S transport. Otherwise the reproduction chain was the same. I do recall that when I tested my CEC TL-51 belt-driven transport connected to ML390S DAC there were more significant changes, notably almost magical liquidity and smoothness in sound.

As for using Sonos ZP80's internal DAC and analog out results were less succesful, that was more like using 200-300 € CD-player. In making that assessment I used my Samsung HD-850 DVD-player as a reference. As for the ZP100, I tested it as a standalone replacement for my whole HE-rig, i.e. as 50 wpc D-class amplifier/DAC/pre-amp, and whereas ZP80 sounded somewhat compressed vis-a-vis ML 390S, then ZP100 sounded even more so against my whole HE-rig. But put into the context, super buy for your third bed room or for your kid, just add decent speakers.

To sum up, if you are an audiophile and computer audio Luddite, you should broaden your horizon. We cant't beat this inexorable movement, and we should not even try. The products like Sonos' are the proof than there is much to gain by embracing and integrating computer audio with HE-gear. I bought the ZP80 combo, and I've never listened to that much of music before. All those tracks, artists, albums which took so long time to locate before are now available by a simple search and click. Drawback naturally is all that playing with computer, especially ripping.

I can only mirror what John Atkinson concluded in his review of Sonos in Stereophile: "But the real beauty of the Sonos system is the way in which it marries excellent audio engineering to a system design that allows foolproof and efficient setup of a distributed-audio system. It's just a shame, I guess, that these groundbreaking audio products didn't come from an established high-end audio company."

Monday, March 26, 2007

Clearaudio Performance package

German hifi-magazine Audio gave in 3/07 issue 100 points for Clearaudio's Performance turntable with Satisfy arm and Maestro MM cartridge, referring combo as one of the best buys in euro 2000 price point. And the French hifi magazine Prestige Audio Video in March/April issue gave the same trio equally good recommendation - "...not even very expensive considering its performance".

What is behind this performance? First, the very latest and patented technology from Clearaudio, the Ceramic Magnetic Bearing, which negates the need for a ball bearing at point of contact as there is no contact! BTW, the same invention is available for existing Clearaudio turntables as an upgrade.

The chassis is precision manufactured from High Density Fibreboard within an aluminium frame, which is then sandwiched between two layers of STARON™ artificial stone. The separate motor is entirely isolated from the chassis, driving the precision-machined 40mm thick acrylic platter via a joint-less silicon based drive belt.

As for the Satisfy Carbon tone arm, it features an unbroken run of Clearaudio’s own Direct Wire from the cartridge to phono plugs. The Maestro is the top of the line cartridge in Clearaudio's range of Moving Magnet cartridges, outputting 3.6 mV.

Cool looking deck, prices for the package appears to vary between 1.990 - 2.495 euros, depending which part of the Single Market you purchase it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Current state-of-the-art digital gear

It is paradoxical that at the same time as music servers and computer audio are gaining popularity and turning the CD-players into "legacy" sources, CD/SACD-players are reaching the new pinnacle. Witness Naim's CD 555 or Accuphase's DP-78. It seems that current pecking order of state-of-the-art digital re-production is decided between two combos: Accuphase's SACD transport DP-800 / DC-801 digital processor and Esoteric P-03 universal transport / D-03 DAC. Accuphase 25.000 euros combo received from German Audio hifi-magazine all-time-highest 140 points for both CD and SACD re-production, Esoteric combo in the same magazine got "just" 135 for CD sound. Soundstage has a positive review of Esoteric on-line as well. In the Absolute Sound April/May 2007 issue Robert Harley evaluated the same Esoteric combo in TAS cover story, and named it as one of the best sounding digital source he has heard. However, there appears be two hot new rivals.

Spectral Audio has been developing some 5 years SDR-4000 Reference Processor, and rumour is that this 17.500 USD player sounds fabulous. BTW, it has an Esoteric drive modified exclusively for the SDR-4000.

The other rival dCS uses equally Esoteric drive in its new Scarlatti flagship combo which replaces Elgar/Verdi Encore/Verona pack. Scarlatti is a three component affair (transport, DAC, clock), where DAC is the latest version of renowed dCs' Ring DAC.

Quad II-eighty

Arguably one of the most memorable products in the history of hi-fi was the Quad II power amplifier. Quad has nowadays the Quad II-forty and the Quad II classic power amplifier in its product portfolio, and has announced model Quad II-eighty. As its moniker indicates, the II-eighty will deliver 80 watts/channel into 8 ohms, and will be available around mid-year 2007. This all-tube, monoblock design is expected to cost about $10,000 per pair. Quad enlisted legendary designer and founder of EAR-Yoshino, Tim de Paravicini, to boost output and to refine the original circuit.

BAT new preamps

Balanced Audio Technology has announced new family of line stages to complement the solid stage model VK-42SE. On top of the line sits an eighteen-tube, two-chassis REX replacing model VK-51SE. BAT claims quite revolutionary approach for overall power supply of REX, and power module comes with 10 tubes.

According to BAT's marketing material, "REX incorporates a unique feature that allows the user to optimize its sound, tailoring it to one’s individual taste or system requirements. The vacuum tube current sources incorporated in REX, being part of the signal gain stage, have a direct impact on the unit’s sound. Changing the tube type used in that circuit, allows the user an extra degree of control over the final sound achieved. In its standard configuration, the REX current sources use the Russian 6C19 tubes. This tube is basically a miniature version of the famous 6C33 tube, and provides, in our view, the best combination of sonic characteristics and electrical performance. However, the unique design of REX allows you to also use other tube types as current sources. Currently (no pun intended), the user has the following three choices for vacuum tube current sources:
  1. The standard 6C19 tube current source (installed at the factory).
  2. The 6H30 SuperTube current source (which requires the purchase of the X-PAK accessory).
  3. The 5881 tube current source.
In order to change the tube type, the user needs to remove the installed current source board, replace it with either another board (designed for a particular tube type), or install the 5881 tubes as a direct plug-in."

The other new line-stages are VK-52SE (no details yet), the VK-32SE (see picture), a successor to its highly regarded VK-31SE, and non-se version VK-32. All these line-stages use new capacitors about which BAT is excited. The VK-32SE has the same tube rolling feature than REX (the standard 32’s module utilizes a 6C19) and the VK-32 in its part trades a smaller power supply and fewer of new caps against a lower price.

Interesting point is that after pretty much everybody in audio business has started to use Victor Khomenko "discovered" 6H30 tubes (e.g. Conrad-Johnson + Chinese manufacturers), BAT feels compelled to move on towards 6C19 tube.

Shanling MC-30 Music Center

In Shanling MC-30 Music Center cuts thru generations as it combines high quality CD player, tuner, dedicated iPod input and classic tube amplification in stylish, all aluminum retro chassis.

The specs include Philips VAM-12 pick-up mechanism, Burr-Brown PCM1738 DAC chip, 2x6P1 single-ended tube output stage, flea-power 3 Wpc, remote control, and iPod integration thru docking. The input selector and volume controls are concealed and mounted atop those front cylindrical supports. Some sources state that it comes with a pair of matched speakers, all that USD 995. A true conversation piece.

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