Wednesday, December 2, 2015

RANT: Giant Killers & The Myth of Something for Nothing




He's Doomed.
When you look at various forums, and talk to audiophiles, there is a common mythical beast, the so-called Giant Killer.

The Giant Killer means many things to many people, but in essence, it is a variation of the "something for nothing" but its story is one of hope that there exists a combinations of improbable engineering successes, and marketing blunders that offers incredible performance for a pittance.

Audio reviewers talk about Giant Killers in hushed tones, audio enthusiasts look for these deals (usually fruitlessly) in new and used gear to try to find that magic component that would be like a sprinkle of pixie dust to suddenly propel their system into a new category of performance.

As you can guess, we're skeptical about these so-called Giant Killers (heneforth referred to as GK in this entry), and think the sweat, time and effort would be best spent making synergistic upgrades, careful experiments with cables and room treatments and speaker placements.  We've seen that a modest system that maximizes synergy, speaker placement, and acoustics will tend to outperform other systems that are more of a muddle of gear, placement and acoustics even if significantly more expensive.  If there is a path to killing those giants, that's more or a sure bet, hunting Boogfoot/GK is less certain.

So ... About this Giant Killer


There are lots of perceptions about GK's.  One is that it is a piece of gear that when places with significantly more expensive stuff, doesn't suck, and in some cases might improve the sound.  We don't doubt that synergy is possible this way under specific and limited circumstances.  But it is also probably not what the GK hunter is after.  What most GK hunters are after is, for lack of a better term, magic pixie dust.

The typical GK hunter, is looking for a piece of gear that though a combination of improbable engineering successes, and marketing blunders, as well as a certain sumpin' sumpin' else, when placed in a modest system, will transform it into something that performs at a level well above what would be expected for what the entire stereo costs.  It's the typical punter that wants to spend $500 and get $5000 of value when placed into a stereo stack made up of $500 parts.

Probably the wisest and most successful approach would be to find something that enhances the system synergy, and pay attention to speaker placement, room acoustics to extract the most.  Most stereos are capable of performing well above the level they normally do when those things are addressed.

But ... I have heard that XYZ is a Giant Killer!

While we do not feel that there really is anything that is really a Giant Killer, there are lots of things out there that offer good value when in the right system.  While we have yet to find the 'magic pixie dust' type of GK, there are a couple of our favorite values, but they are by no means GK, though some think they are:

The Denon DL-103r:  Fantastic Value but the Giants are Still Standing
As a "for instance" let's look at a very common cartridge, and one of our references, the Denon DL-103r.  It is oftentimes called a Giant Killer, and of all the cartridges, is probably closest to a Giant Killer as I have ever experienced.  What it's go going for it:  It's "only" $350-380, and for a decent LOMC that's cheap.  Compared to MM catridges, not too bad either.  We'd select this cartridge over nearly anything that shares its price range.

 It seems to bring recordings done in the 1960's and 1970's "alive" in a way that many similarly priced cartridges simply do not.  It's warm, which does a lot of help records that are of average quality.  It's also very forgiving of setup, though careful setup pays off in a big way.  But the downside?  It isn't as good at rejecting surface noise and retrieving detail as some cartridges a little bit more expensive.  You will need a phonostage (or transformer) to take it's very low output.  While it pays nice with less expensive tonearms, it does much better with a medium to heavy arm.  It's excitement has more to do with being a little midrange-forward, and less in accurate sound reproduction.  Most cartridges in the next price category up from it, in the $600-1000 range, clean its clock on all fronts. But wait, you might say, those catridges are more expensive so it isn't fair.  You are correct, though if it is a true GK, then the comparison is fair, isn't it?  If it is a Giant Killer, what sort of Giant is it supposed to Kill?  Lyra?  Ortofon Cadenza?  Dynavector XX-2?  I am not sure that any Denon DL-103r is under any notion that they have secretly bested those pickups, just they have a highly resolving, well engineered value.

But lt's be clear:  we love Love LOVE this pickup.  We will always own and use one.  We think it offers a unique presentation, voicing and value that's rare in audio today.  It may be one of the more musical cartridges we own.  But we don't think it is a GK, just a great value and a great choice.  It might just be the exact right thing someone wants out of a setup.  In fact, we know of quite a few people that use this in rather expensive setups, too.  Nothing wrong with that, too.  (There is something to be said for a slightly less detailed presentation - actual live performance doesn't have the breath, lip smacking and other incidental noises praised by some audiophiles.  But to be fair, it is detailed compared to a lot of MM carts sitting in its price range)

Hey, aren't there others ?

Of course, but we also don't want to pick fights.  Usually every single review and every one we've auditioned has a caveat attached - a "for the money" or some drawback or expensive accommodation in the system to extract full measure of the value (like a popular panel speaker's low price is usually paid for by the larger more expensive amp, for instance) None of the products that are claimed by some to be "Giant Killers" are actually bad products, and we don't want to give out the message there are flaws or problems with this - because there aren't.  Just the value may not fall into the "magic pixie dust" or "something for nothing" category.

Conclusion:  Giant Slain?

The point we're making is that a product which is called a Giant Killer, may really be just a great product that can give you a high level of performance so long as you pay attention to system synergy, room acoustics and other aspects of setups.  Instead of joining Ponce De Leon on his search for the Fountain, metaphorically speaking, you may be better off paying attention to your system setup, and if there is any giant slaying to be had, it will be there, because a very modest system can destroy a poorly set up expensive system, and we can pretty much guarantee most people with expensive system are more comfortable in throwing money at it, that trying to get it to work optimally.

If there is a Giant Slayer, perhaps it's really what you do with what you have to maximize performance. 


Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Thorens MM002 and MM008 meet the Crosley C10 (Part 2 of 2)

It used to be that every single receiver or preamp had a built in phonostage.  The way it used to work is that you would by a turntable, plug it in, and start spinning records.  For the audio enthusiast, there was always low output moving coil cartridges, and the resultant step-up-transformer you could use to present a signal to the phono input, but the built in was always used.  When the CD came to dominate, that the good 'ol built-in phono input went away.  A minor proliferation of external phono stages began as analog declined, but it left the mass market's consciousness as the silver disc rose in domination.  Given the people sticking to their vinyl through the near death of the medium were mostly performance oriented enthusiasts.  The state of the art playback for analog rose considerably (both in performance and price) during this dark time.  Now that vinyl is beginning to flirt with becoming mainstream again, brands are introducing their own tables and phono stages aimed squarely at the person just getting into the medium.

You may recall (link), that we reviewed the Crosley C10 turntable, custom built for them in the Czech Republic, and found it an excellent value at a street price around US$300.  But what to use for the phono stage?  When purchasing a turntable under $500, it is a pretty big ask for a phonostage above the price of the turntable.  To this end we secured 2 phono amps to compare.  The prices for the stages were $250/$300/$350 for MSRP -there are cheaper phonostages, and of course, more expensive, but these seemed to be the right balance of performance for extracting the most sound value from the tables in the $300-500 range.

The players:


Thorens MM-002 (MSRP US$250):  It's a simple black box, whose gain and input impedance make it suitable for MM catridges.  It's small enough to be able to be put wherever it is convenient.

Thorens MM-008 (MSRP US$350/$450):  This one has inputs for a MM phono stage, but also has loadingplugs and provisions for a LOMC.  For an extra US$100 it also includes a USB port so you can digitize your records directly to a computer.

Our reference is the Lounge Audio MM Phono stage (link) - it costs US$300, and is only sold direct from the manufacturer.  We feel it is an excellent phonostage for the price, and has done well in showing off the capabilities of the Crosley and U-turn turntables.  While it isn't being reviewed, know that we compared everything to it and our Plinius Koru (link) which is the phono stage of our main rig, and well outside the price class of this comparison, but is used as a counterpoint of what the turntables are capable of through a phonostage when price isn't much of a constraint.

What should one expect?


One of the things you can expect from this sort of combination, is a midrange and coherence that lets you know what the fuss is about when it comes to vinyl.  The level of musical satisfaction should be high enough that one should not be wondering if there is more to be had, but whether more is even important.  Of course, it can get better, but usually for more money.

It was our experience with the Crosley C10 and the Lounge Audio MM stage, that we also felt it wouldn't leave someone pining for their MP3's and CD rips (or CD's for that matter), and that a typical buyer would be both very pleased, but would also want to seek out the LP's and singles of their favorite music since it delivers a highly satisfying musical presenation.

Also what's cool, is that at this price level, you are nowhere near the "law of diminishing returns" and here, spending an extra $50-100 smartly will give you enormous gains in sound quality (for instance, moving from the Ortofon OM-5e to the 2M Red might be a decent upgrade, or for that matter any of the $100-150 moving magnet cartridges out there, should give solid benefits in frequency extension and musical weight and detail ... though the OM-5e isn't bad by any means).

How We Listened

This review was compiled over several weeks of listening - our steady diet of Jazz, Rock, Folk and Pop was our guide.  We took notes, and did our best to use familiar recordings where we could at times.
The MM-002 phono stage:  basic looks, decent performance

MM-002: Decent Choice!


The MM-002 doesn't look that impressive when you see it.  It's a simple black box, without much adornment, a neat set of connectors in and out, and a place to plug it in.

When we first got it, stone cold, the sound was a little constricted, but once it warmed up overnight, it opened right up. And over a period of a week with occasional spins, it clearly settled in some more. What we noticed is the midrange - which is the real strength of vinyl, and the part of the sound that tends to elicit the emotional reaction for music (as well as where vocals reside) comes through rich and full.  Anyone using this phonostage will get a good measure of what vinyl is capable of, and won't be diving for their digital music.

This is closest to the included phono stages one might find in a really well designed receiver - it's faultless, and while there is better out there (for more), you might just be fine with this.

Thorens M-008:  Adds Moving Coil capability, but also kicks
up the overall performance
MM-008:  Moving on up

The MM-008 is a step up from the MM-002, specifically in adding a Low Output moving coil input, some loading plugs in addition to the MM input.  Given the price difference of "only" $100, you'd figure it was more or less identical to the MM-002, with the additional stuff to accommodate a foray into low output moving coils.

You might expect that, but it's clear the Thorens had other ideas.  The phono stage really lit the setup up - there was more there there.  More transparency, more treble and more bass resolution - and a measure of clarity and improvement over the MM002. 

Conclusions

First off, any of these phono stages would be a decent, necessary part of a stereo adding vinyl to it, provided your receiver or amp doesn't have a built in phono stage.  These perform like a well designed phono stage like you'd find in a really good receiver.  If you are fortunate enough to have one built in, you would be best to start there, though in many mass market products, the MM-002 or MM-008 would be a very solid upgrade. 

The C10 table is capable of sounding better with better phonostages (we even tried it with our reference Plinius Koru, which weighs in around US$4000), but once you start moving up the food chain you have to wonder about system balance, and costs.  When I contemplate the supporting electronics for a $300-400 turntable, I start wondering when the price of the phonostage goes past about $500.  It's nice to know one could go higher, and one can upgrade, you have wonder if you should.

We think either Thorens Phono would get someone into vinyl, and give the natural organic sound everyone raves about.  While better performance can be had, with a setup like we're describing, you would have to spend more money to get more, and this is a very nice setup that could be a final destination for some.


Saturday, November 7, 2015

Vinyl and Digital and the AES

There is a current puzzle in audio since the introduction of CD.

While the measurements of digital are in many cases an order of magnitude better than vinyl (and audio Skeptics are fond of gleefully pointing this out), yet in the end, vinyl tends to sound more natural and more real most of the time (which subjectivist use to rub the Skeptics nose in it).

While we don't need to rehash the millions of words lost in the ongoing argument, I think it is easily summarized by three statements below:
  • The audio Skeptics have made a basic assumption that digital audio reproduction is essentially perfect, and have stubbornly maintained this idea
  • The audio Subjectivists have not adequately defined high resolution well enough to inform study.
  • Neither Skeptics nor Subjectivists have been able to acknowledge that our understanding of sound perception is incomplete and its study and revisions are ongoing.  This is either through ignorance or stubbornness.
In a perusal of AES papers (yeah, we're members, too) a couple popped up that are pretty important to this idea.  I'm putting the link here, but usually only members will have access.  But you can at least see the thinking and direction of some lines of research:

     A conference paper on October 8, 2014 [LINK] (they don't have the same weight as a journal paper, but they do have the benefit of being peer reviewed, and are given in front of peers, too, so you have to know your stuff).  They found that some sounds cannot be transparently recorded in CD, that the differences in various filters that are used these days are small but are audible using the Double Blind Test.  But even more remarkable for these types of studies, they assert that in order to hear this, the chain has to be capable of high resolution sound reproduction.  This is remarkable to hear from the AES, since most audiophile subjectivists main encounter with these sorts of people are angry ill informed posts on forums, or in the over the top somewhat slimy Amazing Randi performances.  

     But also just a few days ago (LINK.  November 5, 2015), an article that cited the conference from a year ago amongst others openly says and asks (you can download and read this overview.  Its an easy read, and a breath of fresh air): 
Up to now, High Resolution in audio hasn’t been usefully defined, which is a pity because without a secure bridge between auditory science and audio engineering, development can be haphazard.
And
If a reproducing system is to be flawless for the human listener, then its errors should be both natural and plausible. Although we tend to define errors in terms of our measuring instruments, we need to move away from the poor proxy of escalating sample-rates and bit-depths. Perhaps an even more fundamental definition can help?
For me this is tremendously good news.  While it is somewhat exacting and painful to assemble a really high quality stereo, it feels more expensive and difficult that it ought to be to get everything just right.  And like in a camera, there is more to the solution to better pictures than more megapixels, if vinyl is capable of a more convincing and transparent playback than digital despite measurements, maybe we haven't been asking the right questions, or understanding what our measurements are telling us?

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Ortofon Rondo Bronze ... the Long Goodbye

The Rondo Bronze in all the Glory
One of the largest sources of distortion and excellence in any LP setup is the cartridge.  We're big fans of Ortofon, and we took a big leap first jumping from a Grado Sonata1 to a Denon DL-103R then to the underappreciated, excellent Ortofon Rondo Bronze.

We listen to a lot of vinyl, around 8-10 hours a week.  But keep meticulous care of our records and clean the needle with every side of a disk.  This means that at best we'd have 1500 hours of enjoyment.  At our rate that is right around 3 years.  We're into year 2, and while everything still sounds fantastic, it is time to start the long arduous process of finding a replacement, since in the mean-time, Ortofon has discontinued the Rondo line.  They have consolidated most of their LOMC offerings into two series:  "Quintet" and "Cadenza"

I can have the Rondo Bronze retipped (3rd party), or I can replace it with a Quintet or Cadenza.  Or look elsewhere, but there is no going back.  Nothing on offer is precisely what I had.

As we continue to spin our LP's and enjoy the music, we'll know the voice of the system will change eventually, as we're on the downswing.  It's been a great ride, and we will try to hold out as long as possible ... but the knowledge of eventual ending with guaranteed change makes us a little sad ...

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Quick Hit: Denon DL-103R and the AS Arche Headshell

We dug out the trusty Denon DL-103R and mounted it on the Acoustic Research "Arche" Headshell ... and got an incredible musical presentation once about 15 hours had passed with some fussing and adjusting.

The Denon's sound will continue improving as your tone-arm and turntable get upgraded, but does justice to what you already have.  It responds very well to careful alignment, but it's forgiving of less careful alignment.  It can go toe to toe with carts costing multiples of its US$379 MSRP (Street price slightly less).  If the basic sound is to your liking, there is also a small cottage industry that takes the DL103 and 103R and hotrods them, too.  The Denon DL-103R is not a perfect cartridge by any means, but it is one of those rare true "giant killers" where you have to spend a lot more to do better, and makes you ask "why bother" when considering such an upgrade.

We were happy to recommend it earlier, we're happy to double down on the recommendation now.

TONEAUDIO said it best in their review"In a world of five-figure phono cartridges, a serious audio aficionado might pass on the Denon DL-103R because it’s too inexpensive. Wrong decision."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Collecting on the Cheap: CD's

The era of the vinyl bargain is over.  While we might long for the time when we could get an album for $1-2 each is gone and dead on a wave of technology revival that was both unlikely and astonishing.  While this wave might burn itself out, or go on to be a dominant media again is anyone's guess.  But for the foreseeable future, there won't be the killer Thrift Shop Finds of LP as even the charities realize they can get some real money for their copy of Simon and Garfunkel's Greatest Hits in mint condition (when 10-15 years ago, they'd be lucky to sell it for $1).  But like the Iron Throne in an unnamed overly long and bloody TV show, a new bargain sits proudly, if uneasily:  the CD.

Look at this?  Vinyl from $15 (used), MP3 $14, and Lowly CD? $8!  All for your selection on Amazon in this example. 

Funny thing, CD.  Was supposed to be "perfect sound forever" and after it's initial teething pains proved it worth by being able to do things vinyl couldn't, and has struggled mightily to exercise it's own distortions and bugbears and in the end is capable of sounding pretty good (so long as the producer doesn't wreck the dynamic range or process a beautiful voice to banality with their suite of digital tools).

And now they can't give it away as people dump all of their CD's in a lemming like rush to streaming services (and a few of those back to vinyl, too).
Silver Disk ... cue up your best Python voice
and repeat after me:  "I'm Not Dead Yet!"


Even when buying new, a lot of the time, the CD will be significantly cheaper than the MP3 version, and at the end you OWN the recording (you rent an MP3 that can be revoked at any time if you believe the small print ...).  If you start for looking for when the biggest gremlins were exercised on the recording side of things (after around 1990) and know your genre enough to know what years and/or what performances to avoid (loudness wars just about killed some popular music for sound quality), but standard collecting know-how.  And at $1-4 each for used copies, you can afford to make mistakes, too (our example shows used CD's starting at $2.21 and that's online, too!)

Our point here is that there still are bargains to be had for music, and if you have a good CD player or DAC (and experimenting with some CD cleaner solution and a microfiber towel can sometimes help a cloudy disc), you will be tapping your foot and humming along (or whatever you do when listening) for a lot less. 

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Innovation and the High End ... ?


The audio family at home, might choose to spin a record (LP standard launched in 1948, stereo about a decade later), play a CD (1982), or playback a digital file (c1996) as they settle in for the evening.  For us, we tend towards solid state amplification (c1955), but there is nothing wrong with vacuum tubes (c1920).  We have a dynamic speaker (c1930) but we know that electrostatic (c1955), ribbons (c1960-1970) or horns (c1920) could be there, too.

While you could go through the house and do a similar exercise and see that most things in a house aside form the structure itself, are from the 20th and 21st century. Most of the basic technology found in a house was developed before 1970, if not before World War II.

But ... given how white hot the electronics sector has been since World War II (really since before World War I actually!), it is a little surprising that a domestic setup to listen to music is mostly unchanged over that time.  A stereo system in 1957 is more or less the same as in 2015, save the addition of digital as a source.  Certainly the record player, speakers and amplification would be usable and useful in either era.  Try that with a computer!

The amplifier, turntable, and speakers may more or less be the same over the decades, what about CD and digital?  That's the roiling waters of change, right?

The largest changes in how we listen to music has been with sources.  CD started the digital era in 1982, and while it did become a dominant media, and is giving way to downloads and streaming of compressed files, has only offered a clear step forward in convenience.  Even when you factor out people who simply do not like change, the victory of CD in sound quality has been debatable.  The fact there is some debate at all, really speaks to the marginality of improvement to be had*.  And the whole vinyl revival springs from the squandering of the potential of CD in the loudness wars and digital downloads (article here about how vinyl is now pulling in more revenue than all the ad-based "free" streaming combined).  I will also note, that even the lower quality but highly convenient MP3 was a standard completed in 1992 ... 23 years ago at the writing of this entry.  The point?  Audio quality improvements for the end-user has largely stagnated with the high water mark of the LP (67 years), or if you feel that digital is a step ahead (it should be, but has been squandered largely by the recording industry) then it is either stagnant for 15-33 years depending upon which digital standard you'd like to hang your hat on.

State of the Art, c 1928, but useful c2015
What does this have in
common with audio?
I suppose on one hand you could argue that in an era of massive choices for entertainment, audio plays a less central role as it once did (The way we listen is changing, but still is a lot), so the investment, and employment has moved on to other things.  But there might be more to it than that.  It could be that the antique technologies we still use today, are becoming like mechanical watches:  refinement over breakthroughs, and while the gains will be impressive given time, it will be incremental driven by other fields and technologies cross fertilizing audio rather than audio driving to better means and methods directly.
But the good news would be, a good sounding piece of gear whose wagon isn't hooked up to the star of a rapidly changing adjacent field (I'm looking at YOU Computers, USB, Ethernet and networking) isn't going to be obsolete any time soon.  It also offers some rare opportunities to go "retro" without large compromises, too -- which clearly fuels some in this arena.

I suppose in many ways, a stereo fan really does rescue the things of value, dusts them off, makes them beautiful and (hopefully) keeps them forever.  And that's not a bad thing at all.

*Sticklers might point out that the state of the art of recording technology has changed in the post-production with all the fancy digital tools available, and that microphones, and the actual recording setups hasn't changes all that much either.  We'd agree.  And that is part of the limiting factor that drives stagnation.  Producers and engineers have tools available to them to be able to far more than they could.  And they use and abuse them.  And when you listen to the final product, sometimes a simple not-very-engineered recording blows the doors off of a recording with all kinds of digital "help" that's available.  I do believe in technology, and do beleive that the tools can and do offer lots of ways to "save" a poor take.  But the resulting music quality is not head and shoulders higher.  You can listen to a LP or reel to reel tape of a band playing in 1957 and be impressed that something nearly 60 years old sounds so good.  If you went back even 20 years earlier, you'd be listening to 78's and the sound quality improvement would be clear.