06 September, 2017

Schiit Mani Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono Shelter 201

Review: MoFi StudioPhono, Part I
Review: Schiit Mani
Review: Shelter 201 MM Cartridge, Part I
Talk Vinyl: More Budget Phonoamps and another MM Cartridge
Letter from NYC (65): 2017 (4)

Article Finished in HK.

Once in a while, would you spend up to $100 per person or so on a gourmet meal prepared by a chef that you admire? Of course, you'd not be dining alone and there could be other mitigating factors that increase cost...one thing is for sure, after tax and tips, you'd end up paying quite a bit.

I have no need for phonoamps; so, why did I buy these two in question? Simple, I bought them because for very little money I could sample the latest offerings from the reputable designers behind these products, no tax and no tip to pay either.

Equipment Used:
Analog 1: Audio-Technica AT-PL120/Shelter 201
Analog 2: Thorens TD-125/SME 3009i/Denon DL-304
Preamp: Schiit Saga
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way Horns

Schiit Mani (official link)
The tiny Schiit Mani costs $129. I bought it with the Saga and basically saved shipping. At the price of a modest dinner for two, you get to taste the design of Mike Moffat of Theta Digital fame, and I still swear by their old Data transports (I know they are lambasted for being modified from other cheaper products, but they are cheap second-hand and for some reasons they just sound better, especially in the bass, believe it or not).

After I read the mercurial review (a masterpiece) by Herb Reichert (a writer I love) in Stereophile I expected the Mani to deliver a decent sound but was not sure on how much - after all, even after several readings there are quite a few passages where I wasn't sure exactly what he meant.

The Mani turned out to be a real winner, and more than what I expected. MM It sounded good right out of the box, and for almost 2 months it partnered my Shelter 201 MM cartridge. I found the two gain settings for MM (42 and 47 db) to be really useful for fine tuning the sound. The higher one provided just a shade more jump factor for the passive Saga. The two together made fine music not only at my place but also at Andy's (see my review of Saga here). MC I also briefly tested its MC section with my very low output DL-304 combo, and it passed with flying colors. Loading freaks beware, the Mani has only two choices: 47K, de rigeur for MM; but the only MC option is 47 ohm, lower than the usual 100 ohm norm. However, I had no problem with either setting with my Denon - they both sounded superb, and for once unusually I preferred 47K (not unheard of for Denon).

The Mani was quiet and played everything well; it had good resolution but was forgiving at the same time. This is likely due to its attractive and distinctive warmth that is unusual for a budget phonoamp or the usual solid state phonoamp. And then I understood the sound to be exactly as Herb Reichert described in his article. In a way, it is like my Parasound JC3 on a smaller scale - a lot of what I wrote about the JC3 are applicable to the Mani (see here and here), and that is accolade indeed.

Mobile Fidelity StudioPhono, Part I (official link)
Being a fan of EAR and Tim de Paravicini, I just had to get this one when I read that TdP was behind the design. I still own the flagship tubed EAR 912 and entry level tubed 834P, and have good knowledge of the solid-state 324 (see here). Now, I would not buy the 324 but was very happy to fork out $249 for the StudioPhono. Is it a facsimile? Maybe not quite, as it turned out.

For a budget phonoamp, the StudioPhono has ample gain and loading options, and even a mono button! But it came without any instructions, and I had to go online for the manual to operate the dip switches.

The StudioPhono arrived late during my NYC stay, and I only had 2 weeks to it. Although it performed very well from the start, I was a bit perplexed by a trace of hardness in the treble, not something I expect from the designs of TdP. Perhaps this unit takes longer than usual to run in.

At this point, I began to examine the source. I was using the same Shelter 201 as I had with the Mani. The Shelter is shorter in height than the previous cartridges I was using, but I hadn't bothered to adjust the VTA because it sounded quite good with the more forgiving Mani. With the StudioPhono it was a different story. The MoFi showed up the VTA inexactitude of the installation. I put in a shim between the cartridge and the headshell and, voila, the sound took a turn for the better.

But all was not entirely well until I changed the interconnect from the phonoamp to the preamp from Gotham to the more forgiving solid-core (DIY) 47 Lab. Like the Schiit Saga, the StudioPhono forced me to change cables, a rare occurrence in my systems which employ professional cables.

I briefly tried too the MC Denon DL-304 and the StudioPhono engaged it beautifully. Overall, at this point I'd say the StudioPhono is a very neutral device that demands more setup care. I am optimistic that it shall sound even better with time, but then time will tell if it is an EAR 324 on a smaller scale (I suspect it is).

Shelter 201, Part I (Official Link)
This cartridge has generated quite a bit of controversy. Down to its white plastic box, it is a dead ringer for the Sumiko Pearl, which sells for half the price. Yet, the listed spec's differ slightly, and there are various opinions on the internet which I shall have you dig up yourself. I bought it from Japan, and the premium on the Sumiko Pearl is about $100. I seriously doubt Shelter is going to risk its reputation by offering the same thing. I'd venture either it is slightly modified or selected from a bunch, like the way Grado scaled its base models (it is said they are the same cartridges, with the top ones earning the Gold grading).

In my experience, Shelter cartridges always sounded quite neutral, and the 201 is no exception. As mentioned above, with neutral partnering gears, it is quite sensitive to VTA. Aside from this, I found nothing to criticize at all - indeed, for a small sum of money, one gets MC class resolution and microdynamics, good enough for me. I didn't have time to compare it to other MM's or MC's - that shall have to wait till Part II. But, if my recollection is correct, I absolutely prefer this one to the early version of the Sumiko Blue Point Special (more expensive than the Pearl) that I once owned. I am sure it is money well spent.

01 September, 2017

LP Pressings of Different Generations

Music Diary: Rock Legends, Vintage LP Pressings and Current Re-issue's, Children's Music
Talk Vinyl: Vinyl Pressings from Different Generations
Letter from NYC (64) 2017 (3): Listening Notes, Chez Moi and Chez Andy

Article finished in HK.

Stairway to Heaven
If resale values were a concern, I'd spend more time shopping for rock and jazz LPs rather than classical. But my favorites remain with thrift shops and dollar bins - you never know what you are going to find.

On my recent UK trip, unusual for me, I went to this Rock and Pop store that I had visited before and unusually decided to spend a princely 20 GBP for a very good latter-day copy of Led Zep pictured above (not current re-issue). Some years ago, I heard it on a big horn system and it became something that I have always wanted. And, boy, what great stuff played on my horns! Indeed, Stairway to Heaven! :-)

I have always been a fan of The Band, whether by themselves or with Dylan. I picked up this UK pressing for 2 GBP at a thrift shop. Again, what great music on the horns!

Back in NYC, I picked up this beaten copy of this controversial Lou Reed album after half an hour of sifting through the dollar bin. Quite adventurous music that grew on me after repeated listening. I particularly like the collaboration with Don Cherry, better than many a jazz album! Great sound again on the horns.

Click Pics to Enlarge. R: Note the very rare Stax electrostatic arm and cartridge on the Garrard 301 to the right. Walker Proscenium to the left and ET arm on Thorens 125 in the middle. L: from top to bottom, Mono (LOC), early and later Stereo (LSO).

Sojourn in South Pacific - Chez Andy
This trip I have so far listened to Andy's downstairs system twice. The setup has not changed much from last visit:

Cartridge: Pickering 380 black body with D3807ATG stylus in gold color
Turntable: Walker Proscenium Gold Signature
Preamp: Conrad Johnson Premier 2
Amp: Canary CA 300 w/Western Electric 300b reissued tubes
Loudspeakers: 4-way - JBL 075 ring radiators, JBL 2440 compression drivers with 2390 horns and baffled lenses, Altec 515b woofers in Altec A7 cabinet, Entec SW-1 active subwoofers.
Crossovers: JBL LX-5 and diy 7000Hz with L-pad
Interconnects: Monster Cable Interlink Reference A, Magnan Type Vi
Speaker cable: 16, 18 gauge zip cords, WE solid-core wires

Andy is another vinyl junkie with a taste more eclectic than mine. These days when I go to his house I mostly stayed downstairs (upstair is where his classical and serious rig is) and just chat and drink wine, and he would play for me all sorts of albums on his "easy-listening" system, from Mancini to Broadway Musicals. The music is largely forgotten, but think about this, these composers were actually classically trained and seriously proficient in what they do.

On one occasion, we listened to three pressings of Roger and Hammerstein's South Pacific. The earlier Living Stereo and its later stereo reincarnation (LSO's) are cut form the same cloth, but the Living Stereo had greater impact, though not nearly as much as its mono predecessor (LOC)! Of course the stereo pans out more and has greater depth, but some may just prefer the more focused mono the way Beatles fans swear by their mono's.

Click to Enlarge. L: Ellington Uptown. To the Left, Later Six-Eye Mono; To the Right, Earlier Blue-Label Mono.

I have always been a fan of Ellington. His big band just sounds much better to me than the others (with the possible exception of the occasional Count Basie in top material).

Ellington Uptown Quite a while ago I casually listened to Ellington Uptown (blue-label mono) at Andy's. Some days later I chanced upon a beat-up Six-Eye Mono and bought it for a dollar. As is wont for audiophiles, a comparison was in order. Boy, do they sound different! Again, the earlier pressing is more impactful, visceral.

Ellington Indigos
This is another famous Ellington album. I got to listen to a friend's current re-issue (Impex). It sounded very good, but then too modern in a way. I happened to have a very early CD, and so played it for comparison. Well, I am not so sure the vinyl is that much better - if at all. I personally would not buy the current re-issue. That said, this is a great album that one can enjoy no matter what!

So, when it comes to mono pressings, definitely the older the better! Many of the later "mono" LP's in the early stereo era I am convinced have no different modulations than their stereo counterparts.

Play with Me, Sing along! Not just for Kids!

I recently attended a kindergarten graduation ceremony, and while watching the children perform was thoroughly captivated by some of the music performed by a female singer. After some research I discovered Patty Shukla (official website). I immediately ordered the CD Play with Me, Sing Along! from Amazon and it was waiting for me when I got back to NYC.

Sample her songs on Amazon (MP3 samples here). I particularly enjoy her catchy tunes, dance rhythms and thoughtful lyrics. My favorite is Elephant Steps, which I'd rather listen to than, say, many of the so-called jazz singers favored by audiophiles. Sound is very good. If you have kids, try this one, or send one as a gift. Or, better yet, discover the kid still lurking in you.

31 August, 2017

Schiit Saga

Review: Schiit Saga, Part I
HiFi Basics V: Transparency, and Neutrality - How do you Judge and How Much do you Want? 
Letter from NYC (64) 2017 (3): Tube Buffers and Transparency

Article finished in HK.

Modern Line Level Signals theoretically only need attenuation and not gain before going into the amplifier. Yet many people, including me, prefer the sound when a preamp with gain is used. Passive attenuation more often than not just sounds anemic and rhythmically lackadaisical.

While I am not a fan of Passive Preamps, due to my interest in WE, and use of certain high-gain "preamps" (WE106, Langevin 102) I do have an interest in signal attenuation, including Tube Buffers with Unity Gain (misnomer; actually = no gain) and volume control. The Schiit Saga and the iFi iTube and Elekit TU-8500 that I am comparing it to all have this functionality.

The Saga (official info)
This recent Schiit offering caught my eye because of the relay-switched 64-step attenuation (1 db each). Purists and most DIY people would shudder at the fact that the resistors are Surface Mount (SM) Components, but I am open because I have heard a lot of excellent components that employ SM technology, even when it is its in its early years. I am intrigued too by the hybrid BJT-Tube Buffer. There is no press review as of this writing; info is even scant in the forums.


Ergonomics This is one cool component. I enjoy the remote control function, and for the first time can control my Reference System I from the chair. It is great also to have as many as Five Inputs and Two Outputs. The build is superb.

With/Without Tube Buffer In every configuration I tried below I switched the Tube Buffer in and out. The difference is very subtle, with just a little more bloom buffered; so please note then for the purpose of this article, the Saga is always Buffer On in my systems.

Tube Rolling The stock tube (Russian 6H8C) has always sounded lean to me, but it is well implemented here - substituting old stock 6SN7's smoothed out the sound just a little, but not by nearly as much as a traditional tube aficionado would like I am sure. I use an old GE or Magnavox for a touch of warmth.

Vibration Control Vibrapods under the feet, as usual, bring improvements.

Run In The Saga came batting out of the box, but it certainly benefits from running in. For 2 weeks I could hear it smoothing out a little. I actually question whether one can fully run it in - I presume it employs a two-resistor ladder; given that we only use a limited part of the range with a given system, there are going to be a lot of resistors idling. This would be of particular concern to someone like me, who swaps things in and out, though that itself will likely run in more resistors.

First Experiences In Reference System III
  • Equipment For details of this System, please refer to my Equipment List (Sidebar on the Right). Amp employed was the Elekit TU-8300 (300B SET amp). Speakers were large bookshelf Almarro M-1A.
  • Saga as buffer, vs Elekit TU-8500 Although the TU-8500 is a full function preamp, I only use its extra feature, as an attenuator/tube buffer. When swapped, the difference was immediately noticeable - the Saga was more transparent but also obviously leaner. Certain LP's played on the Thorens TD-309 Turntable with AQVOX 20CI phonoamp sounded a little lean, particularly in massed strings and tutti. Overall, it was enjoyable, but the leaness nagged at me.  Saga as Preamp However, when I bypassed the tube preamp (Langevin 102) and drove the amp directly, the Saga was definitely too lean for me. On young Pollini's classic EMI Chopin Concerto recording, the massed string swells were just too wiry. This would not be the case had the TU-8500 been in use. But read on...
  • Saga as Buffer, vs iFi iTube I briefly swapped in the iFi as a tube buffer. The result was much the same as with the TU-8500. Used as buffer, the iFi is tonally even more resplendent than the TU-8500. If not for its lack of input (one and only one) I'd use this in the system.
On To Reference System II
  • Equipment For details of this System, please refer to my Equipment List (Sidebar on the Right). In this station I do not use a buffer and so I only tested the Saga as a Preamp. Amp was the Wavac MD-811. Speakers were the YL 4-way horn System. The system runs a very long interconnect (~15 ft) from the preamp to the amp. For source, I used mainly my Audio-Techinca AT-PL-120 Turntable with my newly acquired Shelter 201 MM Cartridge and Schiit Mani Phonoamp (reviews of both to come).
  • Saga as Preamp The Saga immediately impressed by its transparency, but what I really marveled at was that, despite the long interconnects, there was no audible detriment to the frequency response, particularly high frequency. In this case, one would think the tube buffered output would easily be superior to the passive output, yet I struggled to hear differences. In this system, sound is usually warmer than in System I, but I could still detect a trace of grain in the treble with the Shelter 201 cartridge. However, this was easily compensated by its virtues, which include a surprisingly fast Leading Edge and very good, even startling, Dynamics, particularly at mid-volume. Regarding the last point, it should be mentioned that dynamics at low volume is not as impressive, but still a lot better than many a passive preamp. The Saga clearly prefers sources with strong outputs, as evidenced by: 1) the improved sound I got when I switched the Mani's gain from 40 db to 46 db, level matched; 2) the further improvement I got when I switched from the Mani to the Parasound JC3 (47 db gain, and a different league). Overall, I was quite satisfied.
Chez Andy
  • To double-check on myself, as well as to get an even better handle on the Saga, I took it to Andy, the sound of whose system I know well. Equipment Essentially unchanged from previous visit.
  • Saga as Preamp The Mani now served as the phonoamp, and the Saga replaced the Conrad Johnson Premier 2. As would be expected, the Mani/Saga was not as full bodied as the CJ, but it was more transparent and possibly more balanced, particularly in the bass. As I know Andy's system to be somewhat more forgiving than mine, I was not surprised that the treble grain I sometimes experienced before in my own systems was less in evidence. All in all, a fine outing. 
Return to System III
  • So far, the Saga performed the least well in this system, and I thought about this. I know the System is tightly titrated and geared towards very low level listening in the early morning, so some of the components in this system tend to be a little on the lean side and I have gone on records saying so. This is true of the AQVOX 20CI phonoamp ("...the neutral sound of the AQVOX is discernibly solid-state, though with all virtues and few flaws. This may not be the choice for those whose system is already bright..."; see here); the Sparkler S303 CDP ("...the sonic presentation, as least initially, is ...rhythmic and lean...With run-in however, the rough edges gradually smoothed out..."; see here);  as well as the Langevin 102 preamp ("...As with the 6V6, the sound can turn lean with bad recordings, but with most material the midband and bass are beyond reproach..."; see here). Important thing is, with a warm buffer amp, the sound just integrates and becomes wholly satisfying - until the arrival of the Saga, that is. The Saga tipped the balance too much so towards the yang side, and the Thorens/Denon/AQVOX input suffered the most. I was using the Mogami 2549 for both input and output. Changing the output cable to the 47 Lab solid core nearly ameliorated the flaw, though not quite completely. But that is just ONE act!
  • Given my limited time, in the end I could not completely compensate for this system's newfound imbalance, but I am pretty sure more judicious tweaks and changes in cables shall accomplish this in the near future. But the Saga is now resident in the system. Now, you may ask me why I am doing this despite sonics that could be improved? Well, there are qualities that I like about the Saga, and I think the small perceived inadequacy can be stamped out by further re-configuration, which shall wait till next round. Which is why I called this review Part I. Part II won't happen till some months later.

  • Transparency The Saga is utterly transparent, perhaps a little too much so (if there is there such a thing). It is so revealing that one is forced to re-evaluate the individual components that constitute one's system. Is it a "straight wire without gain"? Maybe, or maybe not. One thing is sure, it is a good diagnostic tool that will reveal new aspects of the system.
  • Is it Lean Sounding? Tonal Qualities A good passive preamp is often assumed to not have a sound (but it invariably does). And what is the Saga's Sonic Signature? That is indeed a good question. I'd say it is on the lean side, but not overly so, as it worked well in most of the systems I have tried it on. But, it is obvious too that if even a bit of bloom is what you want to add, the Saga is not for you. 
  • The Leading Edge/Rhythm and Pace I don't like a slow leading edge, which is not truthful to rhythm and pace. With the possible exception of very low listening level, the leading edge and rhythmic qualities of the Saga are irreproachable, and this is emphatically not true of most passive preamps.
  • Input Level The Saga clearly likes a strong signal, especially at lower listening levels (this is no surprise for a passive device). If you can adjust source input levels, by all means try them all.
  • System Matching Based on my experience, I believe the Saga may suit those with an already warm sounding, preferably tube-based system, but making it work in an already neutral to lean system would take a bit of work.

HiFi Basics V: Transparency and Neutrality, How do you Judge and How Much do you Want?

  • As an avid concert goer, my concern with music reproduction centers around whether it sounds like music. No system can ever reproduce live music, especially those on a large scale, like symphonic music, but a good system can create a reasonable and enjoyable facsimile, though a facsimile it shall always remain. Nothing can ever replace concert going. Now, music venues, be it a large concert hall or a small jazz club or a rock arena, vary greatly in acoustics. Also, even in a good venue, there are some bad seats. For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume we have a good seat at a good venue.
  • The interesting thing is, assuming you have a good seat, transparency and neutrality are the last things you think of when you are enjoying the music. In fact, what makes the seat and venue good is probably an optimal blend of direct and reflected sound, which creates a natural warmth. A seat that lets you hear more direct sound and less reflected sound may sound more "transparent" but not as good as one with less direct sound and more reflected sound. Reverberation by definition decreases transparency but a suitable amount increases enjoyment, and it is well known that music sounds dreadful in an anechoic chamber. This is also why I think it is vital that the audio system reproduces faithfully what we term the "Hall Sound" (one reason why for me the 16-bit TDA 1541 is still the best chip). In audio reproduction, if there is lack of warmth, the perceived transparency and neutrality is of the false kind. Unfortunately, much of modern gears fall into this category. 
  • As one who has literally heard many hundreds of audio systems, I am sad to report that most do not sound like music. There are too many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this article I shall focus on the topic at hand, so I'll just cite certain examples. The Transparency and Neutrality Nerd Many fall into this category - to name just a few, Passive Preamp believers, Mod and DIY people, CAS people, Headphone people and, last but not the least, hifi writers (yours truly is an exception, I hope). The problem of these peoples, end users and retailers alike, is that they always write of improvements in science, in "upgrading" components (resistors and caps), in the latest cans and "advances" in digital technology. All those "advances" more often than not take them nowhere closer to music since the "more" that they hear is false. The sound that these peoples proffer is often hard, etched and bland - all false. These peoples are everywhere, but nowhere more than various headphone and computer audio forums (end users and retailers). My advice: avoid those sites, or at least read, not to say follow, with caution. The Cable Freak Nothing illustrates the conundrum of audio "titration" more than cable swapping - we all do it, though there are people who believe cables make no difference (false, and forget them). The problem with the cable freak is that he overdoes it, and swings too often between a craving for more "transparency/neutrality" and more warmth, not realizing the real problem lies elsewhere. And how the cable companies capitalize on it (the more expensive, the more so)! I believe in professional cables: although the different companies sound different (think Gotham vs Mogami), they honestly strive for truthful reproduction, including neutrality and transparency (unlike hifi cable companies), or a balance thereof, and so are within a safety envelope, and one can use the differences to adjust one's system. This also illustrates that, best intention notwithstanding, there is no one definition of neutrality or transparency (same with recording engineers). Advice: never spend too much on cables, but do have a few spares for swappingThink of Cables as no more than Finishing Touches on a System (but they do make a difference). The Tube and Vintage Aficionado Boy, this is a big can of worms! As solid state vintage aficionados are few and vastly outnumbered by their tube counterparts, we are talking about the vintage tube people. The woes of this group are many, but let us focus on the issues at hand. I believe tubes help to bring about that warmth that I associate with live music (class A solid state operation needs not apply), but I also believe the warmth should not be excessive. Unfortunately, more often than not, many tube addicts tube-rolls to ill effects. To cite extreme examples: many who crave more transparency use lots of Telefunken and Siemen tubes, but get sound that is often etched and dry and much worse than even correctly implemented solid state systems; many who crave warmth liberally employ Mullard tubes but get sound that is lugubrious and dull. The fact that two tubes that meet the same spec's can sound totally different again illustrates that there is no single definition of neutrality. When it comes to vintage tube equipment, things can get even worse. I have met a lot of "Vintage Sound" people whose systems are unlistenable. As a vintage tube aficionado myself, I believe vintage tube equipment in good condition combines a good degree of transparency with some warmth, but there is just too much out there that is way off in spec's, and people are often unwilling to take out bad components and do even judicious restoration. The same is true of vintage loudspeakers, which can sound amazing or horrid depending on condition. I can go on and on on audio anomalies, but I shall stop here.
  • In the end, the quest for transparency and neutrality, like any other audio parameter, must meet one single criterion: it must sound like music. Simple? Not so, even for veterans.

22 August, 2017

Letter from the UK: 2017 (1)

A beautiful Day by the Dee River.

Letter from the UK: 2017 (1)

Article finished in NYC. Click pics to enlarge.

During times of stress, everyone copes in a different way. For me, a two week stay in Chester, UK (my third visit; previous ones reported here) had a soothing effect. For the classical music fan, the UK is great for LP hunting, which continues to be the best relaxation I can think of.

L: By the Canal, Outside the New Waitrose; R: Roman Remnants and Clock in Town Center.

Going Somewhere?
My visit was not long after the Manchester Terror Attack, and heavy security was apparent at the Manchester Airport. Chester is an important retail center of Cheshire (think the Cat), equidistant from Manchester and Liverpool and is steeped in history. As the Royalty sometimes visit its famous racetrack, the historic town center is well preserved. As is usual for a smaller town, the locals are a lot friendlier than their big city counterparts. It is also apparent the city has seen some urban renewal in the past years (like the nice new central Bus Exchange), all of which look good to me.

It was my luck that it neither rained much nor got too hot during the two-week stay. I was able to make frequent forays into City Center. Walking (and biking) along the Canal has always been a pleasure, indeed the local's preferred way of getting around. About midway is the new Waitrose Supermarket, which rose from the ashes of a drab old shopping mall and is a worthwhile example of urban renewal and solid architecture (more pics here) that beautifies our lives. Incredibly, with a Waitrose card one can get a free coffee (good) each day, which one can enjoy in its cafe or on the outside steps. For Happy Hour, I'd have a Sierra Nevada Ale, surprisingly not only available in the UK, but at a cheaper price than stateside! One employee actually told me it's his favorite, and the English know their beers!

The Canal goes everywhere and connects with the beautiful Dee River. On a sunny day, one wants for nothing to just sit by its banks and watch people of all races and faith mingle under the sun (top pic); it is enough to restore one's faith in humanity.

Wales. R: On the bus to Wrexham; L: Wreham; Bottom, Llandudno.

One Country, Two Systems?
This time I did some research and decided to do a day trip to nearby Wales towns. I decided on Wrexham, and was pleasantly surprised by the new double-decker bus, with facilities like a sun roof, tables (fixed or fold-down) and WiFi. It was like traveling on a bullet train, at a slower speed. Between cities one sees huge swarths of grazing pastures. It almost makes me want to sing the old Chinese communist propaganda song 南泥灣, which extolls the bright future of a land of riches, with herds everywhere (遍地是牛羊). And the land is laden with historic semi-ruined castles.

Being a resident of Hong Kong, I am painfully aware of the slogan "One Country, Two Systems". So it is fascinating to travel to Wales. Once one enters, signage is bilingual, with Welsh everywhere. I understand - a pacifying gesture, since, as per what I was told by a record shop proprietor, less than 10% speak the language. Surely politically weighted, Wales gets higher social security benefits than the rest of the UK. I am not sure that is enough to suppress their separatist desires (think Scotland, Ireland).

Wrexham is a much more blue-collar town than Chester, and the contrast is stark, not something one can gleam from wikipedia. It is certainly less pristine and falling apart at the seams a little more, yet I find it quaintly fascinating.

I wanted to have a pint, but unusually felt estranged from many of the local pubs, sprawling Welsh speaking spaces laden with Rubenesque figures. It was not that I felt intimidation, no; it was that I felt I should not have intruded into their space.

I was also taken to seaside Llandudno again. It was a very nice day, and the place reminds me a little of Brittany.

Vinyl Hunting
In the Chester town center there are numerous charity thrift shops where one may try one's luck at vinyl hunting. On Brook Street there is a great rock and pop vinyl shop called Grey & Pink. It is pricey but I bit the bullet and paid GBP 20 for a Led Zep IV in good condition. In wrexham, in a narrow alley I found a great record shop and bought a few LPs. The owner was quite friendly and we chatted quite a bit. No luck this time in Llandudno.

Gears There is not much around, but in a shop close to the Chester train station I scored a mint condition NAD 3020 (my third). I paid GBP 100, which is a fair price. Better than Ebay.

07 July, 2017

Updated pic of system during evaluation. The Kondo system is connected to the KEF LS3/5A's on top, whereas the Pioneer's below are driven by Flying Mole CA-S10 digital amp stacked vertically to the left of the M7. The Pioneer's have since been displaced by the Dayton's.

Kondo System Bookshelf Loudspeaker Matching, Part II: Yamaha NS-10, Pioneer SP-BS21-LR, Dayton Audio B652, KEF LS3/5A
My Kondo System, Part VI
Review: Yamaha NS-10M, Part II
Review: Pioneer SP-BS21-LR, Part IV
Review: Dayton Audio B652, Part IV

Article finished in the UK.

This is Part II of Kondo Loudspeaker Matching. For links to My Kondo System, Part I (background info on Kondo and Ongaku); Part II (all about M7); Part III (the most important one, detailing set up and listening experience); Part IV (largely phono related, and Kondo preamp/amp were not used; skip if you are digital only). Most importantly, readers should read Part V, which is Part I of loudspeaker matching and where several loudspeakers were tested.

Please note that, aside from the KEF LS3/5A, the loudspeakers used in this report are much less mainstream than even those tested in Part I. The Pioneer and Dayton are also ridiculously cheap. No one should ever complain about the mantra of cheaptubeaudio again.

As per the evaluation done in Part V, the subwoofer is always used, and the loudspeakers are inverted, with woofers upward.

Equipment used in Evaluation:

Digital: 47 Lab Shigaraki Transport/DAC
Analog: Pro-ject RPM1.3/Clearaudio Concept MM
Preamp: Audio Note (Kondo) M7
Amp: Kondo Ongaku
Loudspeakers: as titled
Subwoofer: old JBL active subwoofer

Yamaha NS-10M
As mentioned previously, these legendary speakers need no long-winded review on my part. They have long been cherished by all the who's who's in the recording industry, and even has an informative wikipedia entryAnother must-read article is this one at soundonsound. Come to think of it, I'd not be surprised if some of the albums I mentioned below were originally mastered on the Yamaha! :-) See my previous experience (Part I) in my old house.

Pioneer SP-BS21-LR
For basic info on this ridiculously cheap Andrew Jones creation, see Part I of my previous report. It is discontinued, but similar products are still around.

Dayton Audio B652
This even more ridiculously cheap offering from Parts Express is a personal favorite of mine, and has been treated extensively in this Blog (see here).

Sonic Impressions
  • Yamaha NS-10M True to its monitor origin, the sound is very neutral and revealing. In terms of truth of timber and midrange transparency, they are very similar to the TAD TSM-2201 (here), and preferable to any of the other non-monitors, including the LS3/5A. Although the NS-10M's are easier to drive in comparison to the TAD, when the volume is cranked up, the sound inevitably shows some constriction, hampering replay of symphonic music. Perhaps ultimately these also need more power.

  • Pioneer SP-BS21-LR This is a very even performer, quite neutral and dynamic. The midrange is slightly recessed. These can play louder than the NS-10M, but the sound lacks just a little in involvement.
  • Dayton Audio B652 Belying the price, at low and medium playback volume these delivered a truly sparkling sound. No surprise. The midrange is more projected than the Pioneer and the sound is definitely more involving. However, not for lack of power, these cheap jewels are simply not meant to be played loud.
  • LS3/5A What I said before needs only minor modification: "...The real surprise (actually not) is that the Kondo system drove them very well (contrast this to the 86 db TAD). Neutrality is as good as any in the midband, less so in the treble and midbass (the famous hump). They resolve a little more than the Pioneer's and Dayton's, but less than the NS-10M's. Rhythm and pace is good but transient response is a trifle slower. Dynamically it is surprisingly adept. But what really catapults it to the top is a hard to define engaging quality, an ability to involve the listener..."
Outside the Kondo System
  • Quick Listening, with the Flying Mole CA-S10 Amp The Yamaha NS-10M is too large to go into the shelf below, so cannot be used in this configuration. Both the Pioneer's and Dayton's do an excellent job here. With the Digital amp, the Pioneer's can pay symphonic music quite well, and hence earned a permanent spot in this setup. As with the main system, I invert the speakers. Thus enclosed, the rear port surprisingly does not cause trouble and indeed augments the bass significantly. One is almost tricked into thinking a subwoofer is at play.
  • At the Desktop I installed the Yamaha's in my desktop system, now using Meridian Explorer and 47 Lab Gaincard. The sound is irreproachable and the best I have ever had in this station.
  • Yamaha NS-10M If not for the fact that I could not get it to play at high volume, this would be my choice for the Kondo System. If only I only play chamber music or simple vocals! Although at high volume it doesn't turn strident like the TSM-2201, the still-evident constriction may still very well be a power/impedance issue. 
  • Pioneer SP-BS21-LR and Dayton B652 These two neutral sounding loudspeakers offered similar performances. The Pioneer can play louder but the Dayton wins out by being livelier. In the vital midrange, both do not quite reach the richness and transparency of the Yamaha NS-10M.
  • LS3/5A Again, minor editing of what I siad previously would do: "...More than any of its rivals, the virtues of the LS3/5A are many and more evenly distributed, and its faults are minor. As mentioned, the real surprise is that the Kondo system drove them very well (not the case with even more flea powered SET's). Its 82 db sensitivity is the lowest in the group, but it is audibly just as efficient as the others. Although it needs enough watts, the impedance curve of the LS3/5A is benign and it is not a current-hungry transducer (see JA's measurements in this mega-article in Stereophile)..." While the NS-10M is superior in some aspects, ultimately it could not displace the 3/5A.

01 July, 2017

Editor's Note: The Times They Are A-Changing
Letter from NYC (63) 2017 (2)
Brief Review: Grado SR-80e Headphone
Headphone Talk VIII: Grado SR-80e vs Audio Technica ATH-AD700

The Times They Are A-Changing
Here is a brief note to those who follow my Blog regularly; you must have noticed my output recently has taken a nosedive. Here, in the wee hours, suffering from jetlag, I am penning a few words.

Lately, a succession of unexpected matters relating to my family has consumed most of my time. The challenges ahead are considerable; while there will be strife, I shall focus on keeping a strong mind.

At this moment, audio, even listening to music, is indeed as they say, "guilty pleasure". But listening to music shall never lose its paramount importance, and it is often therapeutic, even lifting (think a Bruckner symphony). What equipment I use however becomes less important. In HK, if I only have an hour of stolen time, I am not going to fire up my Kondo rig, instead I'd use my Flying Mole (see Sidebar, "System C" "Newer Location"), which currently is driving my Dayton B652's. You will be surprised how satisfying this ridiculously inexpensive setup can be.

What about writing? That will go on, as it is another form of therapy. If you ask me, anything that demands concentration is therapeutic. I actually itch to do so. Although recently there has been few published posts, that doesn't mean I have shelved my writer-self; in the pipeline are quite a few half-written ones on good topics crying to be finished. I should however try not to be as comprehensive and compulsive as before, so as to get more out. After all, as an adult one doesn't always need to detail or justify one's impressions.

And Yet Things Don't Change...Listening On
My listening and writing activities may be curtailed, but they are very much alive. Here in NYC, I have a little more time and shall try to catch up a bit. A few hours ago, like yesterday, I fired up my Reference System I, and listened at very low level (sounds great). However, with the current weather it gradually grew too warm for comfort, and I then switched to listening on my Headphone Setup, which comprise an ancient Magnavox FD-2041 CDP fed into Meier-Audio Corda Swing (my previous brief review here) driving Grado SR-80e headphones.

Grado SR-80e Like the similar SR-60's, these likely need little introduction. The review in Whathifi is excellent, and I basically agree with all the points made. Since I listen at quite a low volume, its small shortcomings are quite irrelevant. vs Audio Technica ATH-AD700 (my previous review of the Audio Technica here) The differences are considerable. The Grado has a drier, possibly more precise and definitely upfront sound; the Audio Techica is more laid-back, more embedded in ambience. Piano (Messiaen Vingt Regards Pour L'Enfant Jesus; EMI/Beroff) is impeccable on the Grado, but a string quartet (Brahms; EMI/Alban Berg) is more wholesome on the Audio Technica, with more ease, more string sheen and better intimation of bow and bridge sound. As I only have less than 20 hrs on the Grado, I expect the SR-80e to further improve and smoothe out a bit.

Meier-Audio Corda Swing Mine is likely an earlier version of the current Corda Jazz. It works quite fine with the smoother AT, but is a likely little dry with the more forward Grado. There is plenty of gain (I use the low gain) and sound is lively. Although a German design, I think it is built in China by Shanling.

Magnavox FD-2041 This is exactly the same machine as Philips CD204, employing the CDM-2 mechanism and 14-bit TDA-1540 DAC chip. Sound is quite musical and organic, as one expects of the TDA-1540, with its unique je ne sais quoi (not everyone will agree, but to each his own). I also think the low oversampling rate of that earlier era makes for a more direct sound closer to non-oversampling than later extensive oversampling (artificial).

The setup is satisfying, though not quite at the level of my Stax System (here).

16 April, 2017

Belden 9497, Part IV, 9497 vs 497 MkII

L: Japanese 497mkII; R: US 9497 (click pic to enlarge). pic courtesy of icefox.

Definitive Review: Belden 9497, Part IV
Talk Cable: USA Belden 9497 vs Japanese 497 MkII

See Part IPart II and Part III.

It is amazing how the humble US Belden 9497 has remained in my various systems for as long as I remember. I first wrote Part I in 2009, then Part II in 2012, and Part III in 2014. And now in 2017 it is time for the last one (ha!), as my dear friend Seng finally brought me some 497 MkII from Japan and I have used them for long enough to make some comments.

There are very few blogs/magazines that anally re-visit again and again what they deem worthwhile. For that I am proud. But the Belden deserves it, as many of us have never been able to find something better. Different, maybe; better, no.

Tested in my Kondo system.

Sonic Impressions

  • Air The US 9497 is airier in the high treble, more open.
  • Upper Midrange The Japanese 497 MkII has just a touch of hardness here, making the US 9497 a smoother listening.
  • Bass Similar.

  • The 9497 is the better cable, and cheaper!

09 April, 2017

Femmes Fatales, Soundtracks, Eva Cassidy, Beethoven

Music Diary: From Femmes Fatales to Dying Coffee Beans

Recently, a few albums made deep impressions on me, for different reasons. They are presented in the order they were heard.

Soundtrack to Ascenseur pour l'echafaud
This Louis Malle film (English: Lift to the Scaffolds or Elevator to the Gallows) stars Jeanne Moreau, who is on the cover of the original LP and subsequent CD releases (I have watched this film before, and it is a great one; see here). The soundtrack is by Miles Davis and his team, including Barney Willen on saxophone (for details see here). I re-listened to my CD simply because at HK's Pro Sound I saw a copy of a recent LP re-issue. I didn't buy it for 2 reasons: 1) I am not sure of the sound, it being DMM; 2) unlike my CD, which contains outtakes not on the LP, its B side actually has the soundtrack to another film (this time by Barney Willen), Un temoin dans la vie, similarly portraying a triangle that ended in murder. Now, for the real reason: the re-issue LP unfortunately chose the second film's sex-bomb Sandra Milo for the cover, and I just don't like it.

I got a bonus. I tried actually to find the film on my Mi TV box (but failed; I am sure it is on Kodi), but I stumbled upon a Japanese remake that I never knew about - the 2010 one by Akira Ogata. I watched it and it is equally excellent imho (rare for a remake). Watch it if you have a chance (Kodi has it - just search Elevator to the gallows).

If you have heard the new LP, let me know of the sound.

Audiophile Fave - The Accidental Pick-Up
Audiophiles prize themselves on hearing things others don't. Be it the NYC subway rumbling faintly during a Carnegie Hall recording, or something dropped during a session, they just go gaga. Ha! Proof of my hearing ability: during a visit to Lo (covered previously here), we heard his newest loudspeakers, the latest Avalon Saga (said to be non-diamond), which replaced the Magico Q7 MkII, with no detriment. Sound was very good. Proprius' Cantate Domino was rendered with the utmost detail and scale. But what caught me was Eva Cassidy's Live at Blues Alley. I think it was What a Wonderful World, where I heard an electronic buzz/interference in the recording. Now, this album is an audiophile fave and, while I don't have it (while I think she is good, I am not a fan; yes, Cassidy makes every song her own, but to me every song sounds the same), I have heard it numerous times in various audiophile systems. Suffice to say, I have never heard the extraneous buzz till now! Proof of his system's resolution.

While researching this article, I found that another audiophile fave in this album, Field of Gold, was linked to one of my absolute Goddess, Ice-Skating legend Michelle Kwan (and not because I am Chinese). This link connects it all.

Beethoven and Dying Coffee Beans
Just this morning I dropped by my dear classical friend Seng's place (system last covered here). I brought with me what I just got from the library, Harnoncourt's last Sony recording, Beethoven's 4th and 5th symphony with his Concentus Musicus Wien. Seng and his wife Carmen are both bookworms, and they enjoy reading, so I guided Carmen to the booklet, which was written by Harnoncourt himself. What a tremendous article that re-examines what constitutes Beethoven. What does he mean by Da-da-da-daa? Harnoncourt shocks you, but listening to the 4th was incredibly invigorating. Strings, brass (valveless horns) and tympani came to the fore, with recessed woodwinds, but what rhythmic drive and utter magnificence! A first choice and Album of the Year!

We heard it with the ICL as transport and Sonic Frontier SFD-2 MkII DAC. Great weight and foundation!

Last, why Coffee Beans? Well, Barista Seng made me a coffee, which tasted distinctively different from his previous creations, more run of the mill. That, attributed to dying coffee beans. I concur. But Harnoncourt's Beethoven proves Beethoven shall never die!

Cheers and Happy Listening!

22 March, 2017

Shure M44-7 Stanton Pickering 380 Empire EDR.9 Harman Kardon Citation I

L: Empire EDR.9; R: Pickering/Stanton 380, pics borrowed from the web.

Old MM/MI Cartridges: Shure M44-7, Pickering/Stanton 380, Empire EDR.9
Review: Harman Kardon Citation I (with Overview of the tubed Citation Series)
A Great Horn System
Talk Vinyl: Vintage Cartridge and Preamp Classics
HiFi Basics IV: Re-Visit The Past
Letter from NYC (62) 2017 (1)

Heard in NYC but article finished in HK. This is a major article, but it took so long because most of the article was accidentally erased just prior to publication and I had to re-write the whole thing. Ah!

As a result of my relatively recent re-discovery of Empire 2000 series cartridges (here), I have been experimenting with older-design MM/MI cartridges. As I had been a long-term user of Shure (V15II-V), I started with the SC35C (here), and now the M44-7. Concurrently, my analog guru Andy L had also embarked on his own old MM/MI cartridge journey (to complement his downstairs horn system; see below), which took him to the Pickering/Stanton 380.

Mind you, even more than me, Andy had been there (the MM/MI era) before! We share the similarity that we had been mostly MC users in the recent decades (exclusively for me; though Andy had always used the MI Decca).

Three Vintage MM/MI Cartridges
  • Shure M44-7 Along with the Stanton 500, this must be the DJ cartridge of choice, and has been in production for the longest time. Quite the opposite of its stablemate SC35C, it tracks lighter (1.5-3 gm) and has much higher compliance. Mine is a vintage "gull wing" body. I then got an old original Mexican Shure stylus from the 80's and a Pfanstiehl 4759-D7. The output is very high at 9.5 mV, enough to overload some phonostages, so beware. The Shure M44-7 was actually what re-kindled Andy's interest in old MM design, though he now prefers the Pickering 380 (below). 
  • Pickering/Stanton 380 The history of the Moving Iron Pickering/Stanton 380 is quite complicated, and it has a cult following. Info on the web is quite piecemeal; google and read the Audiokarma and Audioasylum threads for some basic info. Andy generously let me play with one fitted with a red stylus and I tracked it as per Andy at 4 gm. This is a heavy (14 gm) cartridge with a low compliance stylus and so will likely do better in a heavier arm, which I lack. Output is even higher than the M44-7, as high as a whopping 15 mV, so overload is even more of a concern.
  • Empire EDR.9 While surfing Ebay for M44-7 needles I came across an immaculate specimen of this (with an extra stylus) and bought it on a whim. Google for a lot of scattered info (start perhaps with the vinylengine and audiogon threads). This MI cartridge was quite expensive in its days but the light body actually looks cheaper than the 2000 series; it looks like plastic but a French post says Carbon-Aluminum. This is a light cartridge which also tracks light (1 gm), and output is 4.5 mV. It can track Quad LPs but I am not into that. The engine is MI, and the LAC (large area contact) stylus is Shibata. The frequency response reaches an amazing 50k Hz.
Overview: Harman Kardon Citation Series (tubed)
Many moons ago (I think it was the early 90's; through the historic Audiomart) I started buying tubed vintage gears, like Eico and Citation. The Citation I to V were tubed products, designed by the legendary Stuart Hegeman just prior to the solid state era. I bought the Citation I and V in very good condition. A decade later in HK I chanced upon a cosmetically challenged but highly original II (which no one wanted). Have never had or heard the III (tuner) and IV (preamp, usually acknowledged as the lesser cousin of the I, but there are dissenters, like Jim Fosgate [see comment section below for link]). Here is a great original brochure on the tubed Citations. There is a lot of info on Citation "upgrades" and modifications on the net. As you know, I am conservative on this issue. I appreciate someone like Jim McShane (his classic and long running Citation Page) who keeps many units alive and offers selfless advice, but I don't think one should turn these classics into "super-units", as advocated by many other modifiers.

Citation I (original manual) This has always been regarded as top drawer vintage. No less a figure than Bob Carver used to service/upgrade this (see this very interesting cached link, particularly regarding the MC mod). This is a monster, built like a tank and with a total of 9 tubes (4 x 12AX7; 5 x 12AT7).

Over the years, I had fired up my bone stock unit from time to time. But, for some reason, I have never taken to it and preferred my modern preamps. This time though, things turned out a bit differently. It happened because Andy L wanted a vintage unit that could handle most of the pre-RIAA equalizations, and there are few units better equipped for this task than the Citation I. I fired mine up with CD and LP and was quite taken by the sound it produced in my current horn system. I didn't play with the equalization curves but I was instantly convinced by its rightness, even with the line input. Why the difference between now and then? Read on...

Citation V I bought this together with my I, and I have never regretted it. As a matter of fact, I regard the Citation V as one of my favorite vintage amps. I used the 7581 tubes and got really great sound. No, it did not have the ultimate bass control, nor the subtlety of Western Electric (or Motiograph), BUT it is certainly one of the best and most powerful 6L6 class amps that I have heard. It balances power and refinement, and it is suitable for amps from efficient horns to reasonably efficient modern loudspeakers. It is a little sweeter than its stablemate, the II. This is a sleeper. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.

Citation II In HK, in the late 90's, I chanced upon a cosmetically challenged but functionally great unit, which I bought for a song. It is utterly amazing, powerful and quite refined, even with Yugo KT90 tubes (haven't tried the current variants). If you want to use genuine KT88, Jim McShane has an easy resistor mod that will keep your valued tubes running longer. IMHO, this amp is absolutely tops and it is a shame that many boutique/garage operations had pilfered the world class transformers for their own (lesser) amps. Go to the Jim McShane Page for more info.

As an advice, don't buy an extensively modified Citation unit. Judiciously restored, yes; "upgraded", NO.

Equipment Used:
Analog: Audio-Technica AT-PL120
Preamp: Harman Kardon Citation I
Amp: Wavac MD-811
Loudspeakers: YL 4-way horns

Sonic Impressions
  • Shure M44-7 From the word go, my old specimen performed flawlessly. The 80's Mexican stylus sounded just a little better than the generic Pfanstiehl. It is bold and dramatic, yet a little smoother (particularly at the top) than its stablemate SC35C (but with less grunt in the bass). It plays music of all genres equally well, and I cannot think of a modern MM cartridge that can do the same (Ortofon 2M Red and Black sound good, but lack drama). Overall, except for hard rock, I'd give the nod to the M44-7 over the SC35C, but I reserve the right to change my opinion later. It's that close.
  • Pickering/Stanton 380 I tracked the red stylus as per Andy at 4 gm. It performed absolutely marvelously in my system. As Andy L had indicated, this is a cartridge that can play everything well. It has a unique smoothness allied to good resolution, certainly more refined than the Shure's, but with less perceived jump factor despite its very high output. The only drawback is a slightly reticent treble, which may actually be the character of the red stylus, as Andy's gold stylus seemed a little more sparkling (see below). 
  • Empire EDR.9 This is a completely different beast from the two cartridges above. Although it retains the Empire smoothness (a la 2000 series), its sound is amazingly modern, closer to MC's. BUT beware, This cartridge is VERY sensitive to VTA. At first I got a very lean sound, but proper adjustment proved rewarding. Another Empire winner.
  • Harman Kardon Citation I In contrast to my previous attempts, this time around this preamp sounded very fine in my horn system, partnered the above cartridges flawlessly, and revealed their different characters. This is what I call transparency. Its performance with digital is also beyond reproach. Why the difference this time? Read on.
Andy L's Wonderful Horn System
Andy's "Downstairs System", used for "casual listening" of old LP's, has remained much the same as last reported. Current Iteration:

Cartridge: Pickering 380 black body with D3807ATG stylus in gold color
Turntable: Walker Proscenium Gold Signature 
Preamp: Conrad Johnson Premier 2
Amp: Canary CA 300 w/Western Electric 300b reissued tubes
Loudspeakers: 4-way - JBL 075 ring radiators, JBL  2440 compression drivers with 2390 horns and baffled lenses, Altec 515b woofers in Altec A7 cabinet, Entec SW-1 active subwoofers.
Crossovers: JBL LX-5 and diy 7000Hz with L-pad
Interconnects: Monster Cable Interlink Reference A, Magnan Type Vi
Speaker cable: 16, 18 gauge zip cords, WE solid-core wires

With Conrad Johnson Premier 2 As reported before, the system was quite listenable and easy on the ears. Although I have not mentioned it before, I have always been bothered by something in the lower midrange/midbass - a lack of cleanness or resolution or perhaps speed. I suspect this had actually led Andy L to regard the system as "not good for classical", which I agreed with, UNTIL...

With Citation I We swapped in the Citation I and I was dumbfounded by the change. Whatever bothered me before with certain music just completely vanished. Not only did all the pop and jazz LP's retained their flavor, we even started playing one classical LP after another, and all were well rendered. My clarinet player friend Paul was mightily smitten by Richard Stoltzman's Tashi performances, now sadly neglected. The Stravinsky was my favorite, with bite and pizzaz. Hey, with one component change, this is no longer just an "easy listening" setup, but one capable of rivaling the "Upstairs System" (see link above) in classicals! I also felt Andy's 380 (with gold stylus) is a little more agile in the leading edge (than the red stylus in my setup), but this could also be a factor of his superior TT/arm (my Audio-Technica is not ideal, as detailed above). However, let it be known, with extrapolation, the difference is not that great and the red stylus is still a great one.

Thoughts on the Horn System with Altec 515 I confess to never liking the Altec 515. It does not go deep enough, but Andy ameliorates it with a subwoofer, which is exactly what I'd do, but that is what many "purists" would refuse to do. Despite its nominal efficiency, I have actually never heard it sound proper with a SET amp. Rather, the two previous setups which sounded better to me both employed higher powered amps: a full Altec system driven by a push-pull amp (McIntosh); and a rare successful 3-way electronic crossover, employing also massive PP amp for it. Andy's system (with the Citation I) is so far the only one I have heard that has the system driven well by a low-powered SET amp. Importantly, I think Andy's system taught me something about this famous/infamous driver. I think, what I have always disliked about this driver boils down to its cabinet coloration (I personally don't think the original A5/A7 cabinets are for home use; not much one can do short of draconian measures) and coupling with the midrange driver. The Citation I is obviously a great deal cleaner (less colored) in this critical crossover range than the massively capacitor coupled CJ.

Thoughts on Conrad Johnson I really cannot say much. I am going to do an Overview one day. I just think they are now on the wrong track. The Premier 2 is one of their older products, but I personally prefer their simpler and earlier PV series. Adding massive capacitors is not a solution (though one taken shared by other manufacturers, like BAT).
HiFi Basics IV/Food for Thought
  • HiFi Basics IV - Revisit the Past Again and again, my re-visits to things I had once left behind taught me a lot. Don't over-interpret this. By leaving behind, I mostly mean putting aside - if it is really crap, I'd have sold it, not put it aside. This is much like life. Whether wisely or not, we take detours, and we learn from our meanderings. Fortunately, with hifi, we can easily "make up the lost years", whereas with real life, one more often than not cannot do that: there are loved ones who we only later realized we had under-appreciated; there were opportunities we missed that would never come back. We play the same piece of music or watch the same movie, or re-read the same book, over and over, and each time we learn something new - this is because we have matured and progressed. As some sage said, time is wasted on the youth. But I say, we are never old enough, or not given the chance to be. No matter how smart you are, the world is not really "at your fingertips", and we all make mistakes, even simple ones! So, while it is essential that we hone our ability to judge, we must also reflect back on the correctness of the judgements we had made in the past or in haste. I have seen a lot of audiophiles who have never kept a single extraneous component, because they are so sure of their A/B judgement, but who ultimately had to completely upend themselves. There is really not much progress and no single piece of gear is omnipotent, and some take time to reveal their secrets. I shall write much more on this in my HIFi Basics series. Watch this space.
  • Vintage Preamp - A Reflection It is important to clarify what I mean by vintage preamp. The Citation I is actually a latter-day "vintage" that straddles the transition from tube to solid state. Perhaps for this reason, it has a neutrality that appeals to me now, particularly with my horn system. Citation I - My Feelings Now and Then So, why has my perception of Citation I changed? I mulled over this, and I can only come up with this: My previous use of the Citation I were with conventional, less efficient loudspeakers, not with horns. My super efficient horns brought out the best in the Citation I (and vice versa). I cannot remember clearly, but I know I never like to suffer slow vintage equipment. My YL horns are super-fast, and don't suffer from this. Vintage preamps are perhaps only for very efficient loudspeakers of their days, not for modern loudspeakers, which make them sound slow (they are).