Monday, September 26, 2005

The first audiophile hardware mod for the Apple iPod!

Red Wine Audio has announced the first (?) audiophile grade mod for the omnipresent Apple iPod, aiming to turn it into "a superb sounding, battery-powered, miniature sized digital playback source" for high-end audio system.

According to the Red Wine Web-site, "the goal of the Red Wine iMod is to significantly minimize the analog signal path that follows the output of the internal Wolfson WM8975 dac chip." The mod, available for the 60Gb iPod Photo, includes Black Gate caps and silver wiring, and "... converts the 1/8" headphone jack to a line out jack, so the headphone output is disabled. The Red Wine modded iPod is intended o be connected to either a high quality headphone amp or home stereo system."

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Audio Research & Conrad-Johnson - new products

According to ARC Database, Audio Research continues to revamp its product line. Following the introduction of Reference 3 pre-amp and 610T mono-blocks, company will shortly announce two new products. The Reference 210 is a 210W mono power amplifier, utilizing three matched pairs of 6550C output tubes, two 6550C driver tubes, and a 6N1P vacuum tube in amplifying stage. The biasing system is with only two bias adjustments, like with the REF610T. ARC claims extrely wide frequency range of 0.5Hz to 240kHz. The 210 has the same, new industrial design, i.e. it possesses huge vacuum-fluorescent display screen like the one on the REF3 and REF610T.

I've no doubt that ARC's new products are great sounding, but I have to agree with Ken Kessler from Hi-Fi News (in October 2005 issue) that the new display is "so truly, hideously, sphincter-clinchingly grotesque ..." ... "ARC should supply with the REF3 a brown paper bag." Plus, the new industrial design has omitted those ARC distinctive, ergonomically perfect knobs and switches in favour of software controlled functions. BTW, Kessler pronounced that the REF3 is "... the finest-sounding pre-amplifier I have ever tried in my own system."

The other new ARC product is the new Reference CD7 CD player, see pictures here. My original post had some some errors, which Marc Mickelson from Soundstage! Network pointed out. Although CD7 has the analog section from the Reference 3 preamp, it doesn't have pre-amp section as I reported. But I rest my case, this is one product I look forward to.

The other esteemed American high-end manufacturer Condard-Johnson has also adopted new industrial design. Following the success of ACT2 pre-amp, company has annouced LP140M mono block 140-watt amplifier and the LP70S stereo amplifier (70 watts/channel). Although CJ has not updated its Web-site (why most audio manufacturers are soooo bad in marketing?), the company has closed the gap in its revised product line by announcing the CT5 line-stage. This baby-ACT2 features extensive use of Teflon CJD capacitors, same zero-feed-back circuit and the 6H30 tubes (2) as the ACT2. Good-bye for the Premier 17LS2 pre-amp.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Helsinki Audio & Vision Expo 2005

Yours truly attended last week-end Hifi Magazine's Audio & Vision Expo in Helsinki, Finland. You can read show report at Highendnews' Web-site, under Industry News.

Overall expression was that this year there were several decent sounding rooms. I personally feel that to provide detailed listening reports from hi-fi exhibitions is waste of time for various reasons. First, like in this case, exhibition was organized in the hotel and like we all know, hotel rooms are not designed to be optimal acoustic environments. Second, very few dealers can spend enough time to optimise the system. Ask yourself how much time you personally have spent to obtain maximum sound from your system. And third, any attempt to critically listen to microdynamics of a system is futile in an environment where other organizers' systems and attendees' voices overload your ears (and eyes, those showgirls...).

Having said that, if a system sounds good in an hi-fi show, then it has potential to sound great in a good environment. In this context some systems were promising. I and two other fellows from Highendnews (audio editor Ari-Martti Pohtola and publisher Mikko Mattila) were privileged to play (LOUD!) JM Lab Grande Utopia Bes after show hours, the "audiophile recording" in this case was Rammstein's Los track from Reise, Reise album. I've listened to Grande Utopias as well as smaller (everything is relative) Nova Utopia Bes before, but this time I was impressed. The Be tweeter revealed astonishing amount of detail that put my highly-revealing Revel Studios in shame: extremely extended and transparent, yet never harsh. The transient response and physical appearance of low frequencies were highly convincing. We also played earlier all-acoustic recordings, which showed the depth and totality of the Utopias' neutrality. Kudos to a local dealer who had courage to bring Utopias in a public display.

The other potentially great sound was found in Kruunuradio's (the oldest hifistore in Helsinki) room - and could not be more in contrast to €70.000 JM Labs. Evidently Kruunuradio has cooperated with Gradient Loudspeaker's renowned designer Mr. Jorma Salmi to bring onto market an inexpensive two-way mini-monitor. In order to provide attractive price/performance ratio the speakers are to be manufactured in low-cost country and to be sold under dealer's own brand. We were literally blew out of the water. These little suckers sounded way, way better than their suggested price point indicates - actually after our positive feed-back price evidently went up ;). At €500 a pair (new price point) the dealer in a question better be careful, these speakers carry a significant opportunity cost factor and might actually substitute sales of higher price point speakers. We had to go back twice in order to substantiate our assessment.

Running out of space, so just few other positive remarks. The debut of PenAudio's latest "auditional wellbeing", €2.590 a pair Alba presented highly resolving capabilities, and Crevasse's production-ready horn loaded ribbon loudspeakers (around €9.500) showed much improved integration of woofer. I'll be attending Brussels Hi-Fi show in early October, so stay tuned for additional coverage.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Corrections and more about HP

I have received some comments from readers concerning my posts. First, according to some German Web-sites the correct price for a pair of Onkyo D-302E seems to be around €1.600, not €2.400 as indicated by French Revue du Son. Thanks for Leonid, although you said that they actually cost around 750-800 Euro, that seems to be per speaker price.

Second, some time ago I wrote that TAS' Harry Pearson was "in the Critical Intersection", i.e. HP elaborated in "HP's Workshop" that while auditioning some new components over the past few months, he firmly believes that we have reached a turning point in recreating an absolute sound.

HP, being a teaser, continued in the TAS August 2005 issue as follows: "I have been able, thanks to a crucial technical advance in the reference system, to eliminate a linestage from the electronic chain and plug either the ASR batterydriven phonostage or any one of a hot new generation of conventional CD players directly into the reference amplifier. What reference amplifier? What kind of input stage (t’ain’t passive)?"

A reader sent me email saying that HP is actually referring to ASR Emitter line of products, but putting that in the context what HP said above that makes little sense. But as said, HP "The Teaser" will undoubtedly enlighten us in the following issues of TAS.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Japanese high-end speakers?

Pioneer has announced some interesting new speaker designs, which incorporate drivers from Pioneer's reputable TAD division: bookshelf S-2EX, floorstanding S-1EX and central unit S-7EX (see picture below). Like JMLab Be series speakers, these new Pioneer offerings use ultra-light, ultra-stiff , ultra-hard-to-work beryllium in tweeters. According to Stereophile, "Beryllium is 2.5 times less dense than titanium and 1.5 times less dense than aluminum, but is three and five times stiffer, respectively. For domes of identical mass, beryllium is seven times more rigid than one made of titanium or aluminum, and the velocity of soundwaves traveling through it is three and 2.5 times faster than through, respectively, titanium or aluminum. While there's a huge upside to a beryllium dome, many complications are involved in the manufacturing. The metal is scarce and horribly expensive in its pure form, which is produced in only three countries: the US, Russia, and France. It can also release highly toxic and dangerous fumes when worked or machined."

The French Revue du Son in its September 2005 issue reviewed other interesting Japanese speaker, a bookshelf Onkyo D-302E (€2400 a pair). A solid recommendation. The review was published simultaneously in French music review magazine, Diapason, in where D-302E received Diapason d'or award 2005. Specs are intriguing: ring-dome tweeter with frequency extension up to 100kHz, innovative cross-over and 16cm woofer with 14cm high-strength ferrite magnet and super overall finish.

"These Onkyo D302E have a fantastic set of qualities like we have never seen before for any other speaker of that category. The qualities which clearly stand out are an unusual sound articulation, a feeling of acceleration, of sound material and an incredible speed which gives guitar, piano or any other instrumental sounds that form an orchestra such an impressive relief along with a feeling of clarity which we are clearly not accustomed to."

In addition of being astounded by awesome transient attack and resolution, the RDS reviewers were equally astonished how big this just 15.2 litres volume bookshelf sounded.

Viewpoint: Increased usage of esoteric, expensive materials (beryllium, diamond) in mid-priced speaker designs (like latest models from JMLab, B&W and now Pioneer) is just the proof that high-end audio market functions just like any other high-end segments in other industries. New innovations are commercialised on high-price points for early adopters, and then gradually over the years innovations run downstream into mid- and low-price products. Think SACD hardware roll-out here, for another example.

My guess is that even if these little Onkyos are such wonders, they'll find home in very few audiophile homes - just are our prejudices.

Audio Research Reference 610T mono amps

Source: Prestige Audio Video (French) September 2005

Seems to me that quite many hi-fi magazines nowadays try too much to provide "Industry First", "World Premier" etc. reviews - you know, to review the latest gear before anybody else. Why I'm not providing any synopsis of listening notes of this particular review (OK, they were impressed) is because personally I find this kind of reviews utterly useless.

Why? Primo, listening venue was in Sofitel hotel room and as such, reviewers had no previous familiarity with the acoustic properties of a room. Secundo, the associated gear was equally unfamiliar for them: Audio Research's latest Reference 3 pre-amp, CD3 mk2 from the same vendor and la cerise sur le gâteau, Wilson Audio Alexandria S2 speakers. Do the math, that's close to €200.000 system. Tertio, the reviewers jubilantly confessed that the 610Ts were brand new, with less than one hour of burn-in.

This review gets my J'accuse 2005 Award (the World Premier of its kind!). How in Earth anybody can make any conclusions how an audio gear sounds when listened in an unfamiliar environment with associated equipments of which personality is equally unknown? And yet we all audiophiles eagerly read hi-fi show reports where reviewers make equally farfetched conclusions how certain components sound. Furthermore, think how often we hear/read assertions by an audiophile how he/she was able to distinguish and assess the sound of a particular component in a equally unknown system. I can certainly hear the difference (not always an improvement, just a difference - if there is any) when testing primary or secondary (like cables) components in my own system, yet I always exercise caution when presenting a generalisation. My system sounds OK, your system sounds OK, and that's OK. We all appreciate different virtues, but lets not make the authoritative conclusions when there are way too many unknown data points.

Closing remarks. Nevertheless how corny the review was, but looking at the pictures of these €55.500 a pair, 77.2 kg per unit mono amps made me drooling. And BTW, there are 23 tubes per unit, but don't worry. According to ARC Web-site "This means fewer tubes to replace, and a much simpler biasing system: two bias adjustments instead of the 16 required in the REF600 series."

Monday, September 05, 2005

Acrojapan cables

"If the name "Acrolink" starts appearing in your favorite magazines, remember that you read about it here first", said Ken Kessler in Stereophile August eNewsletter. These are high-end cables previously reserved for Japanese market only, and according to KK exclusive for TEAC Esoteric brand. Company aims now to extend its global reach, and you can admire built quality at their US distributor's site.

German Stereoplay was the first to test Nordost's latest, "affordable" interconnects. Evidently so new that Nordost's own Web-site has no mention of them! At least you can see pictures here. Result: the most expensive (€1.600) "Tyr" RCA interconnect received 19 points, and the entry model (€550) "Heimdall" 15. For the comparison, the same magazine gave 18 points for Kimber Kable Select KS 1030 - and my personal experience is that the 1030 is a fabulous interconnect (I own KK Select 3035 speaker cables).

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