Thursday, August 25, 2005

NAD's high-end ambitions

Source: NAD Web-site, not-yet-published (?) marketing material

According to various industry sources, "budget king", high-value-for-money NAD is going up-market - and in a big way. Company will announce in this month "Masters Series Reference Audio and Video Components." What is fascinating is that beyond the AV components there are M3 Dual Mono Integrated Amplifier ($2799.00) and the M55 Universal DVD Player ($1799.00), see picture below. Other members of the Masters family are the M15 Surround Sound Processor ($2999.00) and the M25 Seven-Channel Power Amplifier ($2999.00). Build quality seems to justify the price, but actual sound remains to be seen - although I suspect that we might have here some new category winners. Musical Fidelity, beware!

I could not help smiling when I read the marketing material of the M55 Universal player. Hear this out: "Since the high-density data recorded on DVD must be read with absolute accuracy, vibrations from outside or from internal sources, such as the power supply, will adversely affect sound and picture quality. A variety of special measures have been incorporated in the NAD M55 to suppress these unwanted vibrations, from the carefully engineered heavy gauge steel chassis, to the vibration isolating silicon rubber foot design." Although above is related to video performance, quite often it is the NAD owners who trash audiophiles in regard to isolation devices, excessive focus on power supply etc., and now NAD is using the same jargon. But heck, if you want to sell to audiophiles, then use jargon of the target segment ;)

I suspect that M55 is yet another player based on Pioneer's reference design akin Bel Canto PL-1A, McCormack UDP-1, Simaudio Moon Orbiter, just to name a few. Yet if the M55 sounds as good as other Pioneer based players, then its indicated price of $1.799 is competitive.

Simaudio Moon Andromeda and dCS P8i

Source: Haute Fidelite September 2005

Actually this was not an head-to-head shoot-out of two players. The HF tested both players using different reviewers, but the same rig consisting of ATC SCA-2 pre-amp, FM Acoustics F-30 B amp and Pierre-Etienne Leon Kyoro speakers. BTW, especially in France FM Acoustics brand still enjoys quite a mystical reputation.

Moon Andromeda Redbook CD player is part of brand's new Evolution series, other components in the series are P-8 pre-amp and W-8 power amplifier. The HF review confirmed what can be observed from the pictures in manufacturer's Web-site - this cost-no-object, two-chassis player is built like a tank and looks and feels worth of its retail price of €€13.950 (no typo). Other interesting design note is upsampling up to 24-bit/705.6kHz. Reviewer Monsieur C.H. Lucy was exhilarated: "When listening Corsican polyphonies I was transported on the precipitous coastal roads of Isle Of Beauty. The intoxicating and captivating timbers were reproduced with sensation of spaciousness, air, subtleties of harmonic tonality and deep soudstage uncommon for any other competitive player." His listening notes describe extensively the subjective charasteristics of Andromeda: the ease and liquidity of sound and a remarkable subtlety in reproducing the variety of shadings from each instruments. He wrapped up poetically. "The result of listening can be summarized as appearance of three dimensional universe, intimate, sensuous, tactile, futuristic, zen, baroque." Ah, the way Les Francais can describe sound of audio equipment ;)

As for dCS P8i, the review left me at a loss. Although review had some 2 pages of technical information about P8i, the actual listening notes didn't make any refernce to its SACD performance, nor was in-built digital volume control evaluated. Strange. What I could establish was that P-8i is highly capable (CD?) player, but as said, not the best review. Stereophile has on-line Art Dudley's January 2005 review of dCS Verdi La Scala CD/SACD transport and Delius D/A converter, which hint that single chassis P-8i should sound pretty phenomenal.

Viewpoint: Even if you have financial means to buy a CD/SACD player costing over €10.000, value should be a basic factor in evaluating it. Truthfully, most audiophiles expect (and hope?) not to hear an appreciable difference between their existing Redbook CD only players and the latest generation of high-end multi-format players. Or if they hear a difference, it would be so incremental that a new player could not justify the high price. Personally, I assign a higher priority to CD-playback than for new formats per se, for a simple reason that I have no intention to re-purchase yet another copy (whether it is in DVD-A or SACD) of disks I already own. Having said that, some DVD-A demos have left me convinced about that format, and similarly all SACD demos have left me wondering what the fuss is all about. And yet trend seems to be that future high-end playback system shall be either traditional two-channel hifi components utilizing DSD (think dCS or EMM Labs) or computer based with external DAC. As for the latter, in the September 2005 Stereophile Art Dudley did a good job in evaluating Wavelenght Audio's Brick DAC with a portable computer and uncompressed music.

As an IT professional I'm OK with computer based approach, but what I would like to see are i) audiophile grade downloads, ii) capability to rip and store DSD data on a computer's hard-disk and output it to external DAC, and iii) Digital Rights Management and copy protection methods that work. The latter is annoying, e.g. copy protection used in Blue Note Records Rudy Van Gelder (RVG) Series CDs results in audiple cracks when ripped into iTunes, and also create occasional read errors in my Levinson CD-player and CEC transport. You see the logic here, i.e. re-mastered jazz classics are typically bought by the audiophiles exactly for the reason that they sound great, and yet the copy protection system prevents them to be used in high-end playback systems. Overall, whole DVD-A/SACD roll-out and marketing mess and aforementioned example of record companies annoying their best customers (read audiophiles) really makes me wonder from where they find their "management talent".

Friday, August 19, 2005

Wilson Audio MAXX Series 2 loudspeakers

Source: The Absolute Sound August/September, Stereophile August 2005, Soundstage August 2004

Robert Harley / TAS, Michael Fremer / Stereophile and Marc Mickelson / Soundstage, all respective reviewers of high-end components - and all salivating over latest MAXXs. Harley: "... produced the best sound I've had in my listening room over the past 16 ears as a fulltime reviewer." Fremer: "In my space, the Wilson MAXX2 was easily the best overall loudspeaker I have ever heard, though others may have bested it in specific performance parameters." Mickelson: "Would I buy MAXX 2s? Absolutely. They are the most significant product I've written about in my eight years as an audio reviewer."

I think you got the picture, no need to quote listening notes regarding resolution or imaging. There are some issues, however, which attracted my attention. To start with, Harley and Fremer have almost identical size listening rooms: 4.5m (w) x 6.4m (l) x 2.5m (h), i.e. relatively smaller than most environments in which the MAXX is likely to be used. One expects that such a large, full-range speaker would definitely overload these smallish rooms, and yet both reviewers highlighted and focused on sub 200Hz performance of MAXX. Harley stated that there are very few components which have caused him to reevaluate what's possible in music reproduction: "To that select list I can now add ... MAXX Series 2 loudspeaker. The aspect of music reproduction that the MAXX redefines, in my experience, is the bottom end, where it combines huge bass power and dynamics with ultra-precise control, coherence, and resolution. More than any other loudspeaker I've heard, the MAXX integrates the bass into the musical fabric, both dynamically and tonally, in a way that makes me forget I'm listening to a mechanical reproduction of music rather than to music itself."

Fremer: "... delivered the deepest, tighest, most pitch-precise bass I've ever heard in my room."

Mickelson: "... bass is deeper and more powerful than that of any speaker I've used. The lowest and most powerful sounds -- electric bass, bass drum -- simply appear, and just as you get ready for at least a little slop or overhang, they disappear with realistic speed."

All three gents wowed the immense dynamic capabilities of MAXXs, combined with accurate and properly proportioned imaging. Although the MAXXs are large speakers by any account, reviews noted that one of their most striking quality is their ability to disappear and to sound believable with large-scale orchestral music and with the most intimate recordings. Lastly, both Fremer and Mickelson noted that the MAXX 2 is a speaker for late-night listening, i.e. they are able to sound open, balanced and articulated even with low volume levels. For me all this can be best described as dynamic consistency, in other words, MAXXs seem to be speakers that perform over a wide volume range, and at any given volume can play consistently music that covers a wide dynamic range.

Viewpoint: I've stated earlier the following:

i) One of the more frustrating uncertainties facing high performance audio is determining the ultimate capabilities of a component. Being able to identify a component as excellent is easy enough. Knowing exactly just how excellent is rather more ambiguous. Since any component will only be audible when placed in a system, judging its ultimate limits requires that one knows the ultimate prowess of each component in the system, each of which in turn faces the same dilemma. Upgrading an individual component becomes a shot in the dark: will the upgrade bring a genuine improvement in system sound and will the rest of the system be capable of resolving the difference?

ii) The purpose of audio reviews is not to make choice for a reader. It is rather to help potential buyer to know what products merit a visit to a dealer showroom - or more preferably, leads into home trial within listener's own system.

But consider the MAXX2s. At $45.000 they represent for most audiophiles the ultimate purchase in terms of price, or should I say, a choice between a new car or new speakers. But before committing to the purchase, can an audiophile have a home trial? Nope (shipping weight is 500kg plus they require a time-consuming set-up by a dealer). How about listening in a dealer's showroom with your choice of components? Hmm, I suspect you are happy if you can locate a dealer within some hundreds of kilometers, and be equally lucky to have in a dealer's showroom anything resembling equipments you have at home. In real life (and at least in Europe), these are the speakers you'll buy with limited first-hand knowledge or experience, and in order to achieve the best results you might have to upgrade substantial part of your HE-gear to reveal the magic and hear their full potential.

Would I buy? If money were no issue, most probably. Have once spent a good hour listening in Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7s driven by full Nagra gear (source was nothing less than Nagra SNST-R tape recorder) and I was sold. There are audiophiles who have strong opinion about Wilson house sound, but at least for me the latest Wilson offerings are something special.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Stereophile and controversial cable review

Source: Stereophile August 2005

It's almost legendary. When either Stereophile reviewers Michael Fremer or Art Dudley find a particular and usually esoteric tube based component seductive sounding, John Atkinson, editor and in-house measurement guru points out the measurable problems, perverse distortions or audible idiosyncrasies that strongly contradicts subjective listening experiences of aforementioned gents.

The same phenomenon occurred when Michael Fremer reviewed in August issue the Harmonic Technology Cyberlight Wave interconnects. As he stated himself he risked and jump into hyperpole hell by saying "... Harmonic Technology's Light Analog Module Transducer is the most significant single technological breakthrough I have experienced in my career as an audio reviewer. It is immediately superior in every way." And naturally Harmonic Technology uses this very quote in their Web-site.

What Harmonic Technology "forgets" to mention is that Atkinson went on record by saying the following: "If this review were of a conventional product, I would dismiss it as being broken. Ultimately, no matter what someone might think of its sound - and Michael Fremer is one the most skilled listeners I know of - I really don´t see how the CyberLight P2A and Wave cables can be recommended. I am puzzled that Harmonic Technology, which makes good sounding, reasonably priced conventional cables, would risk their reputation with something as technically flawed as the Cyberlight."

In Manufacturers´comments Jim Wang from HT thanked MF for "his stunning subjective description of the CyperLight cables in his system", yet confessed that "JA´s measurements have put our engineers under stress; they cant´t understand how they differ so much from their own." In the same section MF stated that he knew before publication about JA's reservations, but chose not to lobby for "withdrawal in order to avoid embarrassment and possible damage to my reputation." Moreover, JA explained his usual and alternative test set-up for these cables.

Viewpoint: Kudos for Stereophile for publishing the whole story! For me this illustrates solid and unbiased editorial policy and MF should not feel embarrassed at all. Positive Feedback's Robert H. Levi equally wowed CyperLights in his review. However, this whole episode provides food for thought - and fundamentally so. Do we audiophiles experience more "natural sound" from components which basically colour the sound through distortions? As a tube advocat I'm first to confess.

All audiophiles know that how different harmonics are "presented" by an amplifier tends to affect how a listener perveices the sound. Below I have inserted an extract of unknown source which apparently concerns Parasound's JC1 monoblocks. Whether the conclusions are correct or not, they nevertheless provide some insights for harmonics and how we perceive them.

"The second harmonic adds clearness and brilliance but nothing else, it being a general principle that the addition of the octave can introduce no difference of timbre or characteristic musical quality. When the second harmonic is of equal strength with the first, it produces much of the same effect as adding the octave-coupler on an organ or harmonium or playing in octaves, instead of single notes on the piano.

The third harmonic again adds a certain amount of brilliance because of its high pitch, but it also introduces a difference of timbre, thickening the tone, and adding to it a certain hollow, throaty or nasal quality, which we may recognize as one of the main ingredients of clarinet tone.

The fourth harmonic, being two octaves above the fundamental, adds yet more brilliance, and perhaps even shrillness, but nothing more, for the reason already explained. The fifth harmonic, apart from adding yet more brilliance, adds a rich, somewhat horn-like quality to the tone, while the sixth adds a delicate shrillness of nasal quality.

As the table on p. 73 shows, all these six harmonics form parts of the common chord of the fundamental note, and so are concordant with this note and with one another. The seventh harmonic, however, introduces and element of discord; if the fundamental note is c, its pitch is approximately b , which forms a dissonance with c. The same is true of the ninth, eleventh, thirteenth, and all higher odd-numbered harmonics; these add dissonance as well as shrillness to the fundamental tone, and so introduce a roughness or harshness into the composite sound. The resultant quality of tone is often described as "metallic", since a piece of metal, when struck, emits a sound which is rich in discordant high tones.

What John Curl reads in his solitary nocturnal reflections, or private research about music, though dated, is still illuminating: it demonstrates how the acoustics of musical instruments can be exaggerated by electronic circuits unless proper steps are taken to avoid undesirable "roughness," "harshness," and "shrillness," apparently due to odd-numbered harmonics in the signal path. Apparently, Curl has taken special pains to minimize these devils. The result is that the JC-1 is "voiced" toward emphasis on even-numbered harmonics, which is characteristic of the best tubed amplifiers. Or, we might say, Curl has designed this amplifier with a design goal of approaching the sound of good tubed amplifiers, along with the authority of the best solid state amplifiers. I’d say that in large measure he has succeeded! And that’s why in certain circles, the guy is a legend.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Musical Fidelity kW SACD player

Source: Hi-Fi News September 2005

Evidently Hi-Fi News is trying to distinguish itself from other audio magazines by trying to review first the latest gear under "Hi-Fi News Exclusive" label. In this issue David Berriman reviewed Musical Fidelity's latest kW series offering, new flagship CD/SACD player. Other "Exclusive" in the same issue were 3D Acoustic Omega Drive CD player (re-branded Shanling CDT-300, "A stunning piece of audio engineering, this player earns an unequivocal recommendation..."), Martin Logan Summit speakers (Ken Kessler wowed about their "unbelievable dynamics, speed, transient attack..." - but observed that they are not that easy to drive), Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a V2 speakers (another BBC LS3/5A wannabees, though Kessler was impressed), Marantz SA-15S1 SACD player and matching PM-15S1 amplifier (Kessler continued to be impressed...), Clearaudio Emotion turntable and finally DNM 3D-Six pre-amp. Moreover, they even had "Hi-Fi News Definitive TEST", subject was Tower of Power, i.e. ATC Anniversary SCM 50 active loudspeakers. Huh and hmm - if you get my point.

Back to MF kW SACD player. Some interesting design choices. It's stereo-only, as most high-end SACD-players nowadays, but with two output stages. The tube stage utilizes 6112 "mu-Vista" tube, and the other is a Class A transistor circuit. Both operate simultaneously and can be connected to different amp inputs, making sonic comparisons easy. Verdict? "I thought the A5 CD sounded astonishing, but the kW SACD has taken CD replay a step further ... revealed an even greater sense of delicacy and transparency." As for those two output stages, "...there is no argument; to my ears, the valve option is so obviously better as to make the choice a no-brainer." Only gripe was that there is no facility to access PCM layer on dual-layer discs, i.e. you end up listening always SACD layer. Well, as Microsoft says, "it's not an omission but a feature". Go figure. And yes, kW SACD is a limited edition of 500 pieces.

BTW, MF maintains in their Web-site all reviews as PDF files, including this one, so entertain yourself.

Viewpoint: The kW SACD has a completely separate DAC and filter stage for CD and SACD and hence seems to maintain pure DSD signal path. I was startled when I read in Hi-Fi World August 2005 issue review of Esoteric X-01. This is as high-end player as they can get: super build quality, latest TEAC VRDS transport etc. - and yet DSD signals are converted into 88.2 Khz/24bit PCM before analogue translation! Although said magazine gave it enthusiastic review like "Nothing compares" and "... surely the best sounding silver disc spinner money can buy" I have my reservations.

Apple Ipod volume control restriction

Evidently Apple had to introduce volume control limit to its iPod players within the EU in order to comply with health (and sanity?) regulation. I typically exercise pretty strict control how loud I listen to my iPod using Etymotic ER4P earphones, but there are times I would prefer just a tad more volume. There is an answer, i.e. software hack, which removes this limitation. If you feel that you want to take control over your listening volumes, see GoPod. Click "GO" and choose a proper ZIP file for downloading. I had no problems unlocking my 6GB iPod Mini.

BTW, if you own Etymotic ER4 earphones and are unsure which model you have, I got this answer from Etymotic customer support (which is SUPER, don't hesitate to contact them): The 4P has a green pod at the "Y" connector and the 4S has a gray pod at the "Y" connector.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Four high-end tube and hybrid pre-amplifiers

Source: Revue du Son July/August 2005

RDS reviewed a dream team of pre-amps: Audio Research Reference 3, Conrad-Johnson ACT2, EAR/Yoshino 912 and Musical Fidelity kW. All are either tube based designs or hybrids employing tubes. There was undeniably something about these pre-amps that seduced even jaded audio reviewers like Jean Hiraga into using superlatives.

Audio Research Reference 3 was noted for its phenomenal transparency and resolution and one reviewer perceived that the addition of Reference 3 into RDS's usual listening system brought substantial gains in system transparency, dynamics and resolution.

Conrad-Johnson ACT2 has been discussed before in this blog. I also pointed out some questionable rise time of 14,5µs. In RDS measurements rise time was 9,8µs, still on the high side. Measurements aside, RDS reviewers wowed this masterpiece of mechanical engineering and industrial design: incredible charming, so seductive that one tends to listen the most favourite disks one after another. However, its price of €18.900 was considered punitive, resulting in 3/5 in quality/price ratio - whereas all other ones were 5/5. See also SoundStage's ACT2 review.

As for EAR/Yoshino 912 this was propably the first review ever. This is hybrid design, using five PCC 88 tubes and the only one which includes phonostage (and hence, strictly speaking the only pre-amp here, other ones are linestages). Both reviewers noted the sensational dynamic range of which the EAR/Yoshino 912 is capable to reproduce, easily the most dynamic of quattro tested. Considering the company quite a remark.

Musical Fidelity kW preamp was undeniable winner with respect to quality/price ratio - at €4.145 it's one quarter of the price of the ACT2! The RDS listening notes were pretty much idenytical what I reported earlier, i.e. exceptional pre-amp for the money. Only criticism is lack of balanced input and outputs, which limits its use with all symmetric components.

Viewpoint: A preamp in my book has to justify its inclusion by adding dynamics, body, tone and spatial dimensionality. For me, that means tubes. Based on this review one might conclude that as for pre-amps we're almost there - wherever "there" is.

I also point readers to the Absolute Sound issue April/May 2005 where in HP’s Workshop four other interesting line-stages are reviewed and positioned against Conrad-Johnson ART II (now discontinued): Tom Evans Audio Design Vibe, Burmester 808 Mk V, the Keith Herron VTSP-2 and the Lector Zoe. The Lector Zoe especially looks interesting at €2.000. Although somewhat dark sounding, HP mentioned exceptional dynamics - a test against EAR 912 might be interesting in this domain.

The one sure thing these reviews illustrate is that all linestages impose themselves on the music, and in a sense, limit and interpret its truth. As HP said in April/May 2005 TAS: "If cost alone were the determining factor, then one linestage would be the hands-down winner, and that linestage is, indeed, the very best buy in the business. But, otherwise, we have to juggle between the sonic aspects, like the handling of dynamics, the tonal character of a unit (e.g., whether dark or light, yin or yang), or its handling of the ambient and dimensional qualities of the reproduced soundfield. Taken together, these things will be at the root of your perception of the linestage’s musical worth."

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