Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Orchestra: The Violin Player Has No Clothes

By Guest author:  Darren "Clickbait" Vogue (A parody of recent events by shameless journalists)

There was much applause at the wildly successful campaign to raise money to bring the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra to most metropolitan areas.  From the efforts by fans of all stripes funding "The Orchestra" it was going to be possible to give away free tickets to an orchestra so everyone can have the joys of live music.

It was to end the debate about what live music was going to sounds like, and what gave the most realistic sound by bringing reality to every man woman and child that wanted it in the United States.

It was said on the fundraising page “Everyone who’s ever heard The Orchestra will tell you that the difference is surprising and dramatic,” they wrote. “They tell us that not only do they hear the difference; they feel it in their body, in their soul.”
Famous musicians react to the Orchestra sound they’ve just heard. “That music made me feel good. Much better than I’ve felt in a long time listening to music,” says Norah Jones. “This gives it to you as good as you can get it,” says Tom Petty. “MP3 is like seeing a Xerox of the Mona Lisa,” says Elvis Costello.

But, unfortunately, this magic is only available if you obtain a ticket to a show, and drive to the show, and sit in a chair and listen to instruments being played by others.  While the tickets are free, that's a pretty high burden.

But ... the argument, you have to admit, it attractive - you don't know what you are missing unless you hear the music played live.

Unfortunately that isn't true.

As an expert at Guitar Hero, DJ Hero and playing a mean waxpaper comb, I know what music ought to sound like, and that Orchestra fell short.  Painfully short.  I couldn't tell the difference between the rehearsal of the Berlin Philharmonic playing right in front of me, and my iPod playing an MP3 of "Color Me Badd's Greatest Hits."  In fact, I think the iPod sounded better than that Orchestra.

But to be sure I set up a blind test, where blindfolded, with no idea which source was playing the first movement of Beethoven's 3rd was played by the Belin Philharmoic and compared to an MP3 of Meghan Trainor's "It's All About the Bass" using identical chairs, and identical people listening, and it was clear that the audience was unable to tell the difference, and showed a slight preference for the iPod.

And we were pretty sure that the Violin Player had no clothes on.  Or was that some other tired, worn out fable about self-important figures, prancing around nude, making proclamations?  It was hard to tell given the amazing MP3 compared to the identically sounding orchestra.
The Orchestra

While extremely famous, the Berlin Philharmonic can hardly be described as portable.  The instruments fill a semi trailer, and the musicians fill a stage.  In order for them to move, it takes a lot of effort - taxicabs, a bus and air-planes.  Several Air-planes to get to the next city.  By comparison, my iPod fits in my pocket wherever I go.

The iPod can hold 10,000 of my MP3's, but I was pretty sure the Orchestra could only play the single Symphony during the test.  Point two for the iPod.

The Verdict

After doing extensive listening tests, it was clear that there was a significant preference for the earbuds and iPod to the Belin Philharmonic.  Why would you spend all the time and effort to go see an Orchestra - essentially to hear music you already have an MP3 of, since the result sounds no better than what’s on your phone already? 
My advice: If you want a better, richer, better balanced, less tiring, more comfortable listening experience, you don’t have to go to an Orchestra.

Just load up on a nice pair of earbuds and an iPod.  You won't be able to tell the difference.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Can You Handle the Truth? The Crimson 710 Preamp & 640E-III Monoblocks

Crimson Electronics in our room, serving up some serious
excitement and music!
Note:  This is a long overdue article.  We demoed the crimson gear in late 2014, wrote up the outline of the article, and then life intervened in the way that life does.  I want to extend an apology to the guys at Austin HiFi for my tardiness in writing this up.  And honestly, after borrowing the cables and amps, I really do feel that I wanted to get the word out!  And for clarification, they generously offered the set to us for evaluation, and we based this review upon that evaluation.

=================================

"We feel most audiophiles are focused on the wrong things ..."

I was calling the friendly folks at Austin Hi Fi after a complimentary email to me about the blog, and we were talking about Crimson Electronics, the pre-eminence of canines in our lives, and Audio Philosophy.  And I'd have to say that not only do they have a friendly way about them, but they have some definite ideas about what it takes to weave the illusion of a live performance.  Always looking for a fresh approach, and always looking for a new way to look at things, I found it fascinating, that in their way, tonal exactness was a dead end (after a certain point) but pitch definition and transient accuracy was far more important.  Having worked very hard to have a realistic sound of brass instruments, I did see where they were coming from, but I was very curious.  They, quite out of the blue, offered to send us some cables and electronics ...

One thing to keep in mind about Crimson, is the cables are very reasonably priced, and there is just one model.  This is in stark contrast to the typical audiophile cable companies with a variety of performance levels and ever increasing price points.  Another contrast is that the cables, while not unattractive, are not typical "audio jewelry" either.  Given the casework design of their electronics - all attractive, but functional foremost, you will only be paying for performance, less so audio jewelry.  There is something very attractive with this philosophy given the state of the high end.

Additionally, the Crestons both were emphatic that they avoided high priced power cables in favor of well constructed shielded power cables that they didn't actually sell, and in the catalog I found them retailed for around $6 each.  SIX DOLLARS.  And before I talked to them about anything else, I obtained a couple of them, and tried them out.  THey were really good cables - in a definite "just the fact's ma'am" kind of way - neither romantic nor lean - but also allowing a little more in the way of pacing and dynamics through.  I was to learn that this was very much in line with the overall Crimson ideals - absolute neutrality with pacing, dynamics and resolution.  They had also indicated some ideas surrounding fuses - again fuses they did not sell.  We didn't get a chance to try them out as of this review.

After relaying our experience with the power cords, they first sent a loom of Crimson cables to us.  (speaker cables, a couple of XLR's and a couple of balanced) so we could try out.  When we put them in our system, replacing some Siltech, Crystal and Audioquest cables there, we heard one of those subtle-but significant shifts away from tonal texture and slightly softer transients, towards a very holistic live like sound - the instruments were a shade more realistic sounding (the audiophile term used for this, I think is "palpable" - all fancy for a "you are thereness"), and at the expense of a touch of warmth our system had, but clearly was a little euphonic.  One very big impression with them, though, was they were very much in the family of sound encompassing Siltech and Crystal cables.  Where the Crystals had a little more bass extension (for a lot more money) - if someone were to have incorrectly told us they were the same company, I would have believed them.  After relaying this experience to Creston Funk Sr, he suggested that the 710 preamp + 640E-III monoblocks from Crimson would be a way to see how far Crimson takes the sound, and I was then in contact with Crestin Funk Jr who arranged for a demo set to be sent to us.
Crimson cables use high grade copper and their geometry
is based upon the impedance control and noise immunity of
high performance Ethernet.  They sound great, too!

One of the things that attracts us to the audiophile world is that there is a huge variety of companies all pursuing their take on what makes sound good.  While every one is interested in weaving an illusion of reality, and capturing truth, everyone seems to have a different path.  Some claim the path is 'truth to recording,' some feel the path to realism is through tonal accuracy, some through pace, rhythm and timing (PRAT), some do something else.  Like with a good theatrical performance, there are tons of ways of getting people to suspend disbelief and getting lost in the performance, but it will always involve some sort of trade-off, and in the end what appeals to you might surprise you.

So ... we accepted (gleefully ... I have a terrible poker face) the offer to try out the electronics.

We got the amplifiers, and we set it up following a detailed sequence the Crestons both had detailed and emphasized how important it was to do the right way to avoid problems.  But even after following their instructions,  after a few hours of warm up, something wasn't quite right about the sound.  It was a little flat and undynamic.  We figured it was a burn in issue and let it sit for a couple of days playing music softly to "warm up."  Still it wasn't quite right, we worried that perhaps our Thiels were too current hungry for th diminutive monoblocks, so a phone call to Austin HiFi cleared it up after telling them how it was hooked up.  "It's your power conditioner.  It's best to have them plugged directly into the wall." Creston Jr. also said that with 250W on tap, driving the Thiel CS 3.7's should not be an issue.
A picture of the monoblocks and preamp from Crimson

Out came our two power conditioners that resided (and improved the sound) in our reference, and in went an Audioquest powerstrip (nothing but a copper bus).  Boy were they right.  Immediately it was if a heavy blanket was lifted up off the setup, and with the SACD that was playing (SHM-SACD of Synchronicity for those that are keeping track) and a new dynamic sound was let loose.  This led to an impression of a sense of presence to the instruments and song.  The cables gave us a taste of the "Crimson experience" but with the amplifier, we can see a full measure of their characteristics of pace, timing, and pitch accuracy.

This brings me to a side-bar:  Some components are very fussy about extracting the very best sound out of them.  We are completely fine with this, when and only when, there is a high reward when you get it right.  High-fuss/High-reward.  And the Crimson was this way about power.  If we could have run a dedicated line for it, I wonder if it would be better, still?  I suspect so, though it was pretty darned good, too, once the power conditioner was removed.  Other things like moving the preamp physically away form the monoblocks, and the spacing on the monoblocks didn't yield any further improvement we could detect, and neither did the lay of the speaker cable.

Once we played a few SACD's, we decided to just casually listen to it for a week.  But once that week had passed, we got down to work.

Lee Morgan "The Sidewinder" [SACD; 24/96 FLAC]:

The Sidewinder by Lee Morgan has become a particularly useful reference of ours because of the dominance of brass instruments. We've found that if things are dialed in so that horns sound natural, than many other things will sound natural, too.  In the title track "The Sidewinder," there are some very good explosive attacks and delicate decays of the trumpet, some good examples of breathiness and the biting but not harsh sound characteristic of the instrument.

Through the Crimsons, the attack and decay were 100% perfect, and again we got a physical sense of the sound of the trumpets without any exaggeration.  Crimson was hitting this one out of the park.  You could close your eyes and feel it was very close to what the real instrument sounds like -- the overtones, and "braat" and the initial puff of air was all there.

The SACD had an ever so slight sense of transient softness in our reference compared to the file, was anything but slightly soft with this new amplifier.  It was as dialed in as the FLAC played through the DAC - and both has that Crimson aesthetic of accuracy to live.

Eric Clapton: Unplugged [CD; 24/44.1 FLAC]

What we love about this CD is that it is an illustration of how good CD's can sound when everything is done right.  The FLAC does the same for computer based audio.

The initial triangle in "Signe" was present without harshness or exaggeration - but also the pluck of the guitar, as well as the presence of Eric Clapton in much of the music that followed was amongst the best we've heard on this CD.  And of note was that the Crimson did a better job of unweaving the complexities of the clapping audience to many individual hands applauding rather than a noisy mush as can happen in lesser systems.  We also noted that the sense of emotion in "Tears from Heaven" wasn't altered or changed - the way some systems can do when they are doing "audiophile feats and stunts" - Crimson was giving you the performance and the instruments without embellishment or alteration, and the beat, and the pitch was perfect - which gave the bluesy-pop record a sense of momentum when called for, and slow emotional pacing when the song had that.

Ella and Louis [SACD; Vinyl]

One of our favorite albums has an older Louis Armstrong and a young Ella Fitzgerald sing - it is a fantastic performance and great music in its own right.  Louis' great gravely male voice, and the absolutely spellbinding female voice of Ella Fitzgerald work together in a way that you just don't hear in most duets.  Every medium we've sampled this music in had been uniformly good, and we always recommend this music.  The fact that it can also help sort "good" from "excellent" when played on a sound system is just a bonus to us.

In the very best reproductions of this records, you get the sense of shifting in the seat in "Isn't it a Lovely Day" - and the wet lip smacking and breath of Louis Armstrong.  The Crimson did not disappoint, though this is one recording that benefits from a dollop of romance in the reproduction (The vinyl record played with a Grado Sonata1 cartridge, for instance, is truly a magnificent experience. It still is fantastic using more accurate cartridges or digital, though).  Given Crimson is a "just the facts ma'am" style of reproduction - we got a very accurate portrayal, still emotional, still full bodied, but not as good as gear with a small touch of euphonic midrange warmth.

We played Vinyl using our Plinius Koru phonostage - and we liked the vinyl playback more than SACD (The Ortofon Rondo Bronze gives just a touch of warmth that helps this one particular recording, both were very good and we felt quite satisfied).

Overall Impressions

The Crimson 710 and 640E-III pair with Crimson cable loom took everything we threw at it, and presented a very realistic, engaging, pace driven sound.  While it wasn't warm at all, it was neither cool, it was dead neutral, but nailing the all important transients and the pitch definition of the instruments.  We felt that regardless of medium we threw at it, the Crimsons would bring out a presentation with that all important PRAT intact.  And if you weren't up to the electronics, the cable set would take you part way there - and given their relative price compared to their competitors, it is a cable set worth considering in its own right.

A note about Vinyl:  We noted the Crimson 710 included a MC/MM phonostage.  We're happy, given we're big fans of vinyl, that more and more preamps and integrated amps are again including this once-essential feature.  We used it a couple of times to try it out, and found that while it is a fantastic convenience feature, it wasn't a good match to our SOTA/Jelco/Ortofon - though it wasn't terrible.  We were delighted it was there, but if you already have a phono preamp, you may want to consider trying both ways out before simplifying to just the preamp.  If it does work out, you may end up with a very sleek looking setup.

Conclusion

With a tear in our eye, we boxed back up the equipment that had delighted us so, and shipped it back to Austin Hi-Fi learning a little about another path to convincing audio reproduction.  As advertised, the pitch definition was first rate, and we really liked the level of instrument realism.  And not for nothing, a set of monoblocks and preamp would fit on a single shelf of a rack, allowing the user to have a no-compromise compact system.  on the picture to the right, you can see that it could replace about 50% of the volume in the 5 shelf rack it sits upon that has our reference preamp and amp.

For someone who values pace, rhythm, timing and dead neutrality above all others, this setup should be on your shortlist.  Highly Recommended.

Associated Equipment:
Thiel CS3.7 loudspeakers
Dynaudio Exite X-12 loudspeakers
Ayre C-5xeMP SACD/DADA/CD Player
Berkeley Audio DAC-2 DAC
Turntable:  SOTA Sapphire with Jelco 750E tonearm, Arche headshell, Ortofon Rondo Bronze MC pickup & Plinius Koru Phonostage

Prices:
Crimson Electronics
Crimson Cables




Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Full Rez Streaming: Deezer Elite, Murfie and TIDAL on Sonos

We were looking over the end of year reports from the RIAA and others, and one thing is clear - the traditional CD album - is in decline, and streaming services are on the rise.  We have been on the tip of that wave - being longtime subscribers to Pandora, Spotify, and others - and are happy with them.  The one thing that has stopped them for being anything other than a casual/background listen is the compressed nature always fell short of spinning a CD, or even playing a FLAC file for musical enjoyment.  The holy grail, in our book, would be a high resolution streaming service (preferably something on the order of 24/96) that could give us a reliable, high quality sound that wouldn't sound like a compromise for convenience's sake.
But streaming services c2013 weren't there.  Even at the highest offered rate of 320kbps, there was a small amount of lost ambience and detail compared to a silver disc spun in our CD player (not to even broach the subject of an LP which would wipe the floor with both of them).  It was enough that would make you miss the lost information only when you weren't in the middle of a chore cycle.  But, towards the back end of 2014, we became aware of emerging streaming services that might provide a genuine high end experience - at least to CD levels (16/44.1)!  Murfie, Deezer Elite and TIDAL all appeared as options on our SONOS player, much to our delight.  Given their promise to stream uncompressed CD resolution music, we got excited that this might be a what we were looking for:  Convenience and Quality.

For is, it boils down to a simple question:  could any of these emerging streaming services replace the CD in our (audiophile) stereo rig?  Could any of them offer a genuine high end experience?

We signed up for all of them, and started trying them out to see from Thanksgiving through the end of the year into the early weeks of 2015.

Common strengths:  All sound terrific - comparable to what you may already have on your home network or computer.  In fact all of them with our reference rig as well as through the speakers throughout the house, had a sound quality comparable to the files we had ripped and stored on our network.  They advertised 16/44.1 resolution, and from the sound quality we believe them.

Common Weaknesses:  While they all advertised 16/44.1 for their ultimate resolution, they do not stream or support higher resolution formats (such as 24 bit files at sample rates higher than 44.1kHz).  This means that they represent the main portions of a typical music collection, but not the very highest quality as represented by high bitrate files.  On the convenience front, none of them really measured up to the curated lists of Songza (really the ones to beat for scads and scads of well curated lists tailored to moods, times of day and activities with an incredible level of appropriateness), none of them had reliably good "radio station" style service like Pandora. And of course, all of them cost more than lower resolution services (either through high up-front costs like Murfie, or just high monthly fees in the cases of Deezer and TIDAL).

Special Note:
  One of the things that made itself very apparent, was that a couple of times I had difficulty connecting to one or more services.  I first thought it was the services themselves, but as I worked through the issues, I found I had to reboot my Sonos components.  It happened only over a period of 2 days in over the 2 months of use we were putting into this review, so not awful, but not flawless either.  So this mention isn't anything against the services but more a note about our modern world.  We'd only sum this up by saying that before you go completely streamed, you would be best to have some sort of local or physical backup so you won't get caught short in case of an internet outage, network or software issue of some kind.

Specific Services:

Murfie (https://www.murfie.com/) - our one-liner: "We'll rip your songs, and stream them to you, full rez."

Our sarcastic comment:  "Guess whose fault it is if you don't like your playlist?  Your music is only as good as you are!"

We liked Murfie since this is a solution to the drudgery of ripping individual CD's to a hard drive for playback later.  It solves the storage issue (they store it free for 3 years, provided you pay them 80 cents per CD for ripping), and will stream in 320kbps or FLAC lossless.  This felt like a no-brainer, so we quickly signed up for some ripping and sent in several hundred of our CD's to be ripped, but also used their user-to-user marketplace to purchase a dozen or so albums to try them out.

As the first service we tried, we realized a CD-only player may no longer be strictly required in a high end rig.  While the streaming quality of their service, once you upgraded to "HiFi" was equal to everyone else, they hold the music that you own, let you buy and sell, and add in music, and you have control over your collection like you do your cash kept in a bank.  So if you have some odd CD's you bought at a festival by some hipster artist nobody but a dozen people have heard of?  Murfie has you covered provided you turn the disc over to them to rip. 

Strengths:
  You own all the music.  They store it for you unless you want it back.  They are happy to send you a NAS or HDD of your music.  Once your CD collection is ripped, it's not expensive to maintain or stream, you can buy and sell on their marketplace very easily (with generous return policies for regretful or accidental purchases).  Fantastic customer service and support through email.  Of all 3 services, I could convince myself this had the best sound quality by just a hair over the others.

Weakness:  It will be no better or worse than your music collection.  While you can buy and sell on the marketplace, it is WAY TOO EASY to buy stuff, and it will add up!  Up front costs for ripping discs can add up.

Why you want it: Your CD collection streamed to you where and when you want it - not taking up room, and not having to worry about computer backups, and want to free up that old closet that's full of Jewel cases.

Deezer Elite (http://www.deezer.com/) - our one liner: "16/44.1 streaming, decent selection, fun music discovery tools.  Only 'okay' curated offerings."

Our sarcastic comment:   Deezer will throw in a cover in your playlist.  Deezer doesn't care.

I have to say we're not that thrilled with the name of this service (What
is a Deezer, anyway?) - but that's neither here nor there - it's about the offering, less the name (but c'mon guys ...) of course.

Deezer always gave the impression of the kid in school that put 100% of everything into whatever they did.  And while it didn't always translate to being a sports star, or Honor Roll Student, you couldn't help liking the person.  We would say that Deezer is like a reliable, if a little odd, friend who you know you can rely upon.

Where we really played into their strengths, wasn't so much the pure music catalog (seemed to have a smaller collection than TIDAL or Spotify), but their method of music discovery was both fun and more improtanlty FAST.  You could create a custom playlist of you-selected similar music faster that you could say PANDORA by utilizing the menu structure under one artist to find similar artists.  In some cases we had so much fun with it, we whiled an evening away by trying to find a similar artist way from Disco to Classic Rock.  It was fun and
hard and very VERY entertaining.  Yeah, we might need to get out more, but if you don't ... this was a very fun game.

So honestly, for pure FUN we liked Deezer Elite a lot.  In fact, it sort of wins the "Mr. or Ms. Congeniality" for the whole lineup.

Strengths:
  First mover on Sonos.  Unique way of searching "similar artists" for some really good music discovery and for us is the strength of this service. Allows user submitted playlists.  Radio is intresting, but very uneven in curating. 

Weaknesses: Catalog is improving, but not as good as Spotify or Tidal.  Allows user submitted playlists.  Universally weak playlists.

Why you want this:  Music discovery through similar artists with uncompressed CD-level music.

TIDAL (http://www.tidalhifi.com/) - our one liner: "Spotify sized collection streaming to you at 16/44.1!"

Our sarcastic comment:  TIDAL is cooler than you are.  And knows it.

The thing about TIDAL is you have at your fingertips a Spotify sized collection of albums, all ready to be streamed at 16/44.1 to your house.  That really is enough to have it be a highly recommended streaming service, and in a pure streaming environment, you may not want for much more.  In sound quality, we have to say it is first rate, and it may make you think twice about the need for a physical CD collection.  Where TIDAL gets odd, is in the curated section.  They have a ton of playlists, but for someone whose center of gravity is 1960-1990 Classic Rock, 1970-now Top 100 Pop, R&B, Blues and Jazz - TIDAL seems like the friend trying to impress you with deep and profoundly cultivated musical tastes by showing off all the less well known artists, even though they don't have to.

It isn't off-putting, but when trying to do casual listening, it can get a little frustrating checking out a dozen lists of "underappreciated artists Q4 2014" in search of "Pop Music to Clean My House By" ... c'mon TIDAL, I already subscribe, you don't need to show off, just be my one and only by being what we need when we need it! (LOL)

But seriously, this service rocks.  It really isn't any worse than the early days of Spotify when you have to make your own playlists, except there are a few they have that are nice.

TIDAL started in Europe as a full resolution service, and it grew and grew, eventually jumping across the pond to the US late 2014 in its 16/44.1 glory.  The size of their catalog was the most impressive.
Strengths: 
A first rate collection of music seemingly as good as Spotify - even "Best Of" albums, obscure artists and covers well represented.

Weaknesses:  Harder for music discovery than Deezer or Spotify.  Curated playlists need some work since it trends towards the obscure.

Why you want this:  If Spotify rev's your engine when you want what you want, TIDAL is the uncompressed answer.

Conclusions


When it came to time to choose a winner, we couldn't.  I know it sounds like a cop out, but like one's own kids, each brings an uniqueness to the party.  While we don't think this year (2015) is the year to ditch a silver disc player, this is the first time where a case has been made where physical media may someday not be needed for a genuine high end experience.  It is an interesting thought to chew on.

Happy 2015, happy listening!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Hammer Test and Portable Audio

If you can't hit it with a hammer
and easily replace it, leave it
at home ...
There is an old story about two guys sitting at a bar.  One wearing a Rolex, and one wearing a cheap Timex.  The guy with the Timex, after a couple of beers, asked the Rolex guy "I bet my watch can do something yours can't"

"That cheap Timex?  It cost what, $25?"

The Timex guy took off the watch and placed it on the bar with a nod, pulled out a hammer and smashed the watch.

"I can go and get another one easily."

Touché.  And so it goes for portable audio ...

=====

While there has been a resurgence in consumer electronics around portable audio - that has reached and created genuine high end products for it, the acid test for such devices is while you are traveling.

I have some simple principles that I use when selecting what to take:

Fiio X5 ... the heart of my
road warrior kit
It has to be light, have long battery life, portable, inexpensive enough to lose without creating a financial crisis when replacing it, but managing the best sound quality and recordings you can muster.  I also think key to keeping yourself entertained, is to have alternatives to music, too.

For me, the balance seems to be a Fiio X5*, with a couple of high capacity memory cards filled with CD (16/44.1), HR (24/96+) and a smattering of compressed audio.  Cardas headphones (EM5813) and Etymotic ER-4's.  The whole setup weighs in well below a kilobuck.

I travel with a laptop, but I don't use it for audio (or video).  I also bring along an ePaper Kindle (not a tablet as their battery life is too short).  I can survive a 12 hour plane flight to Asia without getting bored, and at the other end, have enough to keep up personal entertainment (this is especially important whenever you are in a place where you are not fluent in the local language).

What about you?

*The Pono we have on order, promises to be better quality for a similar price.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Quick Hit: Cardas Ear Speakers and Being on the Road with High Rez ...

This is a quick note to talk about how truly spectacular I am finding the Cardas EM5813 "earspeakers" are when I am on the road.

One of the things that struck me is that I keep reaching for them, despite that they are breaking a few "audiophile rules" in that they are not tonally as accurate as the Etymotic IEM's I had also packed for the trip.  There is something that is big, spacious, warm and lifelike with the way they handle the music they are given by my trusty PMP.

It is clear that the headphones capture the life and emotion of the performance, dynamics and transients are just about perfect.  Tonality?  It's on the warm/dark side of the spectrum, but unapologetically so - the subtractive loss is not large, and the benefits are so amazing, that these have become my "go to" headphone when I am not actually on a airplane (the Etymotic, while less captivating, win due to their superior sound isolation).

For acoustic instrument based music there will likely be no better headphones, but surprisingly with the diet of classic rock and pop I have been feeding it, the small details and big dynamics are captured so well that the minor accuracy (subtractive) errors aren't important.  And what's surprising as well is that instrument timber and pitch definition are intact, too.

For an experiment I used the digital EQ on the PMP to see if I could "fix" the tonality issues ... and it did make that better, but at the expense of some of what made the headphones truly special.  So I left it alone after that.

Highly recommended.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Mancave Update ... [mid october 2014]

Crimson at night!
We sent back the Crimson Audio gear ...
The guys at Austin Hifi were generous to let us borrow the Crimson Amps and Preamps with a set of their crazy Good cabling. We made the trek to send back the giant Pelican cases happy that we heard it and with a tear in our eye.  While we're gathering our thoughts for a review, we'll say that this is a truly magnificent, transparent, fast and realistic sounding set of gear and we were happy to have tried it out.  We sent it back with a sad farewell, but hope we'd be able to make it a permanent part of the mancave at some point.  Stay tuned for a review ...

We had a network filled weekend ...


Cat7 ... shields and shields ... kill that RFI dead!
We spent a good chunk of the weekend upgrading the wired side of our home network (going from a mixture of Cat5, 5e and 6, and 10/100 switches) to Gigabit and Cat7 where possible.  We noticed that even when not using streaming services, it seemed like the noise floor was lower leaving us wondering that we may have been underestimating RFI and noise detracting from our system.

Added some new video capability ...

We FINALLY set up the couple of AppleTV's we had kicking around.  While both are more or less the opposite of perfectionist ideals, they are fantastic for streaming shows when you decide you don't need to subscribe to cable anymore, and pour all of that money into a fiber optic connection + a few subscriptions for streaming.   So far it beats the pants off of our TV's native streaming capability and was a snap to setup (We love how Apple products make you feel like A/V and Networking experts even though deep down you know and everyone else knows you aren't!).

Upgraded our Macs and BROKE our Squeezebox ...


OliveOne ... can somone live with it?
We have to right now, so yes ... but
it's a great piece of kit!
An upgrade to OSX 10.10 on our music computer (Mac Mini), also seems to have broken the Logitech Squeezebox Server - which forced us to go from using our OliveOne as an alternative "experiment" to relying upon it entirely.  We switched from a DLNA server we had used for an initial listen to the Plinius Tiki (Twonky) to a new one (Serviio) as well, which was a whole lot easier and seems simpler.  Given it's the 3rd party server software for the Synology NAS which most audiophile love, this might be a killer choice - we will let you guys know what we find.  But at $25 after a 14 day trial, it might be perfect for us.

OliveOne suddenly finds itself as our main streamer ...

The OliveOne is a pretty good sounding player, and while we plan on doing a full review of it eventually, it has too many rough edges to do a good review of it just yet.  We really feel it will be the improved, spiritual successor to the Logitech Squeezebox (RIP) - but until they add some critical features (Playlist support or being able to choose the order of play being the most important), and have another round or two of general refinement and stability fixes, we can only say we're impressed by its sound quality and excited by its potential.

Streaming at full Rez - 16/44.1
We gave Sonos more money ...

We also upgraded our Sonos Bridge to a Sonos:BOOST and we'll see if it makes a big difference.  But also speaking of Sonos and streaming, we love the sound quality of the Deezer Beta service available on Sonos Labs - and it brings Sonos one step closer to being a genuine high end product.  It's $20/mo but you get full 16/44.1 streams with a very large library that's skewed towards pop and rock. 

If Sonos ever offered the ability to play 24/96+ files with decent quality (now it will skip over them, and not even play them downrezzed!), it would be game over for so many of the germinating competition big and small, because their integration and software is so freaking good.
The Gramovox - Unboxed, and Fantastic!

The Crowdfunding Bounty comes rolling in ...
We got both the Gramovox and the OliveOne in the past month.  The Jury is out on them both as we're just getting used to them, but anyone that thinks a horn based Bluetooth speaker isn't cool ... well they haven't seen or heard this baby!  More about this later - simple to use, and a vintage sound, and immediacy that only a horn can give!  Next we have our eyes on the guys at Light Harmonic ...

And what is ahead for us?

We have piles and piles of reviews and music session to do ... we slowed down from the pace a year ago ... but we're still at it, trying to bring to you guys our "regular family with regular means," take on the insanity that is perfectionist audio ...


Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Beatles ... Mono Box

I would be a liar if I claimed that we didn't love the Beatles catalog.  We have a large collection of pressings on vinyl, the stereo and mono CD sets released a few years ago, and they are in regular rotation.  Their music is timeless, and the enjoyment spans the generations in our house.

The Beatles were late to the digital game, and only recently allowed their taped to be converted to digital.  After lengthy legal negotiations with all the estates and remaining band members, they ripped the tapes to 24/192, but for some reason, only 24/44.1 downsampled has seen the light of day. 

Now we own and love the stereo box set.  Given the difficulty of locating an affordable copy of a quality pressing of their stereo albums, this was a godsend to many.  But ... purists complained (they always do!) that since it was rumored to have been mastered from those 24bit/44.1kHz digital files - the Vinyl fell short of expectations.  We had hoped the release would be a last word on fidelity, and it certinaly isn't it, but it is far preferable to a worn out abused piece of used vinyl.

But for someone seeking the best something can be ...


Recently, though, the Mono box, which is publishing a perfectionist all analog chain mastering stream from the tapes to a new high quality pressing.  Given that the mono releases for most of their catalog were the ones the engineers, at the time of the recording, sweated over, if you had to pick one ... this was the one!

We got ours in within a week of it's release, and for our favorite albums, Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour  this was truly a sonic breakthrough only obtainable with exotic, expensive hard-to-find special pressings.

For those that know the stereo mix by heart, you will notice some minor differences, but the sound quality is first rate, and we highly recommend them to not only Beatles fans, but even casual fans - this is the one you want!

Check it out.