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.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Quick Hit: Surge-X and power conditioning

This was supposed to kill our sound
and save our amp.  It made our sound
(and sleep) better!

"You know ... if you use a surge protector you will ruin the sound"

I had bought into this idea, plugging in the amp right to the wall, since instantaneous power delivery was supposed to be compromised wheever anything was between the wall and power cord, and therefore the sonics compromised.  The only give-back I had, was utilizing a Chang Lightspeed powerstrip to handle sources and our preamp (low current stuff). For things well outside of the sonic pathway we still have a long extension cord to another plug with a standard (inexpensive) filtered powerstrip that the motors, and dirty digital stuff (Logitech Squeezebox Touch, Sonos, the cool Philips Hue products, and our Lava Lamp).

But ... every single time there was a thunderstorm rolling through, we got nervous - with visions of a smoking carcass of that amp (making us unplug the amp) - and that we aren't exactly rolling in money so it could take out our listening enjoyment for quite a while if we suffered a hit.  So ... while we trusted the conventional wisdom of audiophile experience, we felt we needed to do something even if it was going to degrade sonics a little to give us peace of mind.

We had explored getting a high current Chang Lightspeed, or any other higher end power conditioner all claiming to improve the sound through a variety of technologies from filtering, isolation or even regenerating the AC signal perfectly.  All were a little to a lot North of $1000 and our budget just wouldn't allow that - at least currently as we recover from an unplanned-on new roof.  (it isn't just electronics that fail in stormy weather!)

Given that Florida is the lightning strike capital of the US, a number of Audio Asylum Florida dwellers has a lot of useful advice - they recommended a number of brands, but based upon our (beer and not champagne level) budget, we carved out enough to get a 2 high current outlet from Surge-X (SA-20).  Our local audiophile dealer, Forefront Audio, got one, and given it had a captive plug for the 20A circuit we had, we also bought an inexpensive audiophile hospital style plug and the whole thing installed in about 30 minutes.

Over the last 3 weeks of owning things, we've noticed a lower noise floor, a little more detail, and better transient snap.  Given the 20A circuit is hardly dedicated (it covers this lower floor room and most of the upstairs) it's pretty clear the filtering helped a bunch.  And our only conclusion has to be that when it comes to system Synergy, take conventional wisdom as free advice, but not a law.  Try things out for yourself, since there are so many things that can and do vary in a particular system and particular setup, that there is plenty of room for experimentation.

(This is not to say that the rule of thumb is wrong, just that your experience might run contrary to this in your specific case!)

So ... we added a quality, but not astronomically priced, surge protector, and got better sound.  Perhaps you should violate a couple pieces of received wisdom and see if it works for you, too!
We're no longer worried about this.  We also improved our sound!
Isn't this a strange hobby?

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Koru Phonostage, part 2: Performance

The Koru's understated yet solid front face
Cue music playing of the Elton John Variety

"Will you go get it?"

"No, you go get it!"

"It's all the way over there, I don't care enough to get it."

Thus ends the Mancave's statement about album art and liner notes.  For those keeping track, it was "Funeral for a Friend" and how silly is that to fuss over?

No, we don't read liner notes, or gaze lovingly at the album art.  If this makes us overly honest, or philistines, I couldn't tell you.  I am skeptical that lot of people pour over it at all, and find people listing this as one of their favorite things about vinyl, are either overselling it, are crazy and actually do it.  But in reality, we spin disks and stream files for no other reason but the music - and for us the closer it sounds to what was actually laid down, the more we enjoy it - good liner notes, or not.

This attiude not only keeps us vinyl fans, it also keeps us in the DAC/FLAC and SACD game, too.  All make it easier, and sometimes possible at all to hear what the artist was actually playing in the studio or on stage.

And the Koru phonostage promised to do all of that within a few hours of putting it in the stack (Thanks to the generous equipment loan from Forefront Audio).  We avoided Audiophile Favorites - that kind of music that sounds good but has no soul.  We played a lineup of what we would actually listen to, rather than a bunch of tests.  Some is recorded well, some actually enjoyed by audiophiles, and some are definitely below average in the sound quality.  If this Phono stage is to distinguish itself, it's got to be forgiving where forgiving is called for, and revealing when what is revealed is beautiful.

Rondo Bronze + Headshell
One of the things that really stood out was the musical density of this thing - not only do you get a thick musically-rich sound (not euphonic, but a solid you-are-there presence) with enough detail that musical instruments sound like musical instruments.  And also what was notable in every case, was the quiet of the phonostage and the extra transparency that you get when noise is low.  You aren't usually aware of the small amount of haze or grunge hanging in the air with most phono stages.  In fact, I was able to turn the volume nearly all the way up before we heard any noise, which is a big difference between the Plinius Koru and the Plinius Jarrah we had before (which was very prone to RFI if everything wasn't just perfect).  Where the Koru remained quiet, was even at the point where noise would start becoming audible with the extremely quiet Parasound JC3*.  The Plinius Koru is free of any of that, and its silent background adds to realism not in a beat-you-over-the-head-audiophile-feats-and-stunts kind of way which quickly grows tiring (the artificially inky blackness with overhyped dynamics some components have that quickly have you seeking other activities).  It was more natural in a "you aren't going to ever tire of spinning your records" kind of way.

*- our house is only a mile or two from some powerful radio transmitters, so noise is always and has always been an issue in our setup.  The Parasound is damn quiet in any real sense, but just the Plinius has a very small edge over it in our situation.  We suspect both would be outstanding in a "normal" location.

One of the things that made this review somewhat delayed, is we substituted in an Ortofon Rondo Bronze on and Arche headshell.  From our impressions of that combination in the previous review, we felt that we needed to go back and re-listen and reevaluate the Koru.  One of the things that we had previously was the Denon DL-103R was perfectly suited to the Parasound JC3 we were using it with, and it sounded even better with the Koru, however, on a lark we drug out the Ortofon Rondo Bronze, which we were never quite satisfied with with the Parasound, but with the Arche+Koru ... whoa!  The whole setup took a giant leap forward and despite the "higher than entry level" price, this cartridge was never considered a reference (the "Cadenza Black" would be considered a possible Reference level, and higher).  But the Koru clearly wasn't reading the marketing literature and the market position of our little Rondo, it took its signal and brought forth more music and emotion than we were, frankly, expecting.  And one thing that we have to be clear, is that we were unable to try truly expensive "reference" cartridges - we figure this sin is forgivable, since even on a US$4k phonostage, it would be a rare audiophile indeed that would use a $2.5k+ cartridge given it would have to be retipped every couple of years (it certainly wouldn't be for us, anyway).

But once we were sure the Rondo Bronze was fully broken in, we got down to work ...

Elton John "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" [stereo]

Right at the needle drop, we started hearing density of music we hadn't heard before, but along with that density and detail, the instruments were separated in a way we hadn't heard previously.  A sense of the live performance, too.  The dynamics came through perfectly, and it felt like we heard a special version of the performance.  A sense of the "echo" we hadn't heard before, too.  It went from a good recording to a "flesh and blood" performance.  Score one for the Koru ...

She took a piece of our hearts ...
Big Brother and the Holding Company "Cheap Thrills" [vintage, mono]

We have two copies of Cheap Thrills actually.  One (mono) was bought decades ago, new, by the parent of the Mrs.  We also have the (stereo) reissue that was released more recently.  When we played both, the vintage mono sounded by far the best:  the emotion of the music, Janis' pleading voice on "Piece of My Heart" came through the best - and gave us goosebumps as the song took us away from our living room to the feeling of a concert.  As much as we like to pick apart recordings and sound cues, the only thing we really noted was that the raw emotion, and music turned off our analytical minds and swept us away.  And to think we felt this album was "so-so" ...

Felt like a very good demo - where
they worked it all out, but more
intimacy than studio gimmicks
Jefferson Airplane "Surrealistic Pillow" [mono]

We decided to listen to the mono version, since the stereo has a heavy hand on the reverb, and the mono version has a much more intimate feel, indeed, the best playback gives a feel of a demo-tape in the emotion.  This did that to a great deal, with the outstanding track of that reminded me how much I liked them, and how ahead of their time they were when they made this album.  The stand-out track for us was "Plastic Fantastic Lover" which, again, was a track I usually didn't "get" but with the sonics all dialed in, the rhythmic poetic chanting had us toe tapping and the rawness that put me in a space that was what I imagined it was like hanging out in a mellow, loose party hosted by someone famous, where Andy Warhol was a guest.

"Ella and Louis" [45RPM 2 disk Reissue]

This is a stalwart of ours we use to compare everything.  I can confidently say that unless we become refugees of some kind, we will always have this album in one form or another.  Everything we have come to expect came through, but a little more.  The voices can sometimes seem giant and overblown, but with the Koru, somehow the space seemed bigger and voices more proportional (neat trick!).  When we had listened to the SACD version on some Quad speakers, there was the sense of physical presence we hadn't heard on anything previously.  But with the Koru, we had it.  And I'd have to say the whole system was keeping up with those Quads.  Which is remarkable on a setup that ultimately has to go through dynamic speakers.

Chicago's Greatest Hits [vintage LP, stereo]

Yeah, this album isn't the best for sound quality - each track is somewhat uneven compared to the other ones.  But this is the sort of music that we listen to on a day to day basis - and wager everyone else does too.  What came through on some of the better tracks was that the brass instruments were realistic in tone, and size - given how we've struggled with the sound of trumpets to dial it just the right way in, we were very pleased to find the sound dialled in here, which showed that the Koru let through more musical beauty than our previous set-ups when faced with this, frankly, poor record.  On tracks with poor quality, while the Koru didn't underline and beat you over the head with it, you knew the tracks didn't sound good, but even so, it was listenable.

Norman Greenbaum "Spirit in the sky" [Reissue, LP, stereo]

We were absolutely blown away with the opening on the title track, the blat and braaaaap of the guitar wasn't overblown, nor too thin - the thick, meaty sound of the guitars led into the rest of the song.  On a good system, this song is a great toe tapper, and we wish the artist had more success!

Miles Davis "A Kind of Blue" [LP, stereo]
You may have noticed that our music descriptions are lighter on the detailed technical descriptions, and heavier on how the music made us feel.  This is both the result of how we listen to music, but it is also that this combination with the Koru at its heart, time and time again pulled us into the emotion and flow of the music, and while the instruments all sounded like instruments, it also sometimes produced that "X" factor you get when listening to live music. When you listen to this album even through a clock radio, you know you are hearing fantastic music.  When you hear it presented the way we did?  It is mind blowing.  The Koru delivered to us the whole band in our living room, with a very emotional core that you can only get when things are just right.

Conclusions:   A New Reference for us?

We will state quite plainly, that the Plinius Koru really rocked our world, and distinguished itself to the point where we ordered one and it currently resides in our reference stack.  Not only did if offer us more performance than our previous phonostage (Parasound JC3), even at a higher MSRP, it offers greater value for what we're after.  It seems unfussy about the cartridges (assuming optimal load and gain, the Koru seems to do really well with whatever you throw at it), and seems to extract more beauty, better (and more tuneful) bass, and a natural extended treble but all of that was preserving the coherence we go for in our musical presentation.  The really killer deal is that time and time again, we were drawn into the performance and emotion of the music.  And if there is a stronger endorsement than that, I don't know what it is.

Strengths:  Dead quiet, Great dynamics, Solid frequency extensions at both end, all are tuneful and coherent.  Seem happy with whatever you throw at it cartridge-wise.  Tons of loading and gain options right on the back for easy access.  Set it and forget it.  Invariably drew us into the performance.

Downsides:  Dearth of competition at its price point forces you to compare to vastly more expensive and cheaper, making comparisons much more difficult.  Needs 24 hours to warm up and sound its best.  (Yeah, not a lot)

Still a Mystery:  How would it do with some truly high end cartridges ($2k+)?

Bottom Line:  We have a new reference.  You should have this on your "short list" if you want more from your records.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Led Zeppelin I, II, III Reissues - A Whole Lotta Love!

I grew up in the Midwest in the US.  What that means for our readers is pretty simple - I'm incapable of an unbiased review of classic rock since it was in the air we breathed and water we swam in during our formative years.  But also I love the genre possibly more than any other. I play a mean air guitar, as well as the air drums.  And I probably cannot listen to a stream of classic rock (just called "rock" when and where I am from) without being familiar with more than half the songs from way back.  I think, during the summer, too, when I was growing up, at any one time you could go see any number of bands that seemed perpetually on tour, wending their way across the plains and up and down the Mississippi & Missouri Rivers.

When I go and visit my home city of St. Louis, a quick spin the dial will usually give you 5-6 choices of various forms of classic rock, where the library ends about the time Clinton assumed office.  For someone coming to his home region, steeped in nostalgia, this is a good thing, as the music sets the mood, and the memories come flooding back.

But as Thomas Wolfe said: You can't go home.  I've changed, and was not the same 18 year old who was so keen on getting out of town and conquering the world (and how is that conquest coming along, mister?  Hmmm ... ).  But one memory that stuck in my head was a "contest" they had circa 1985 or so - the DJ got in his head to play several Led Zeppelin songs (Black Dog, Communication Breakdown, Immigrant Song and Dazed and Confused) - and people were asked to call in to vote for their favorite.  They declare a winner, and it is all a success.  I couldn't get my call in because all the lines were busy the whole time.  This was the power of Led Zeppelin in St. Louis in the mid 1980's - arguably the whole Midwest.

This was the radio station I grew up listening to
Going back?  Nothing changed, it is still as
awesome as ever!
What delighted me, is that I had heard some time ago that Led Zeppelin was going to do a high rez rip of their master tapes, and press vinyl and release files, etc.  As someone who is naturally cynical I at first rolled my eyes and thought there they go again another band trying to extract some more cash from their past glories.  Then I woke up ... no this is Led Zeppelin!  If you ever haunt stores looking for clean, unscratched, unabused records, it can be a little challenging.  It isn't as hard as the most popular Beatles albums, but it is rather daunting.  Plus the scuttlebutt was they were also releasing 24/96 on FLAC after ripping the masters to 24/192.  And the vinyl didn't looks like it was going to be $50 like many reissues, too.

The Cynicism melted away, and I preorderd the vinyl.  And then found out that the vinyl pressing plants were so busy that the vinyl would have to wait a couple of weeks, but CD's were out, and the FLAC files were downloadable.  I couldn't wait.  I downloaded all 3 in 24/96.  You call it weakness, I call it Led Zeppelin!

You know?  This is the best and most detailed (not analytical) I have ever heard them - Communications Breakdown, Dazed and Confused, The Immigrant Song ... all sound as they should, and if you system is revealing enough - it will have the sense of "presence" we're all trying to achieve.  What I noticed is none of the instruments, vocals and other things never get congested as they sometimes did in earlier mixes on the reference system. And of special note, is that on Whole Lotta Love (LZ2), there are a ton of cymbal hits.  Previously I thought they messed up the recording.  Nope.  On this master, the cymbals sound like cymbals.  For recording quality, you won't find better out there, I don't think - all the tracks are far better than I have heard on CD and used vinyl.  Not only is it a rational path for a record collector frustrated with locating a good sounding copy, I'd say the FLAC version offers nearly a definitive version.
I only, as of the writing, Have I and II on vinyl, and with a quick spin, it sounds better than the FLAC.  I was wondering if they did a special version for vinyl - or saved the highest 24/192 for it?  Or perhaps it is just that the "imperfections in vinyl" forced the engineers to work their hearts out and came up with a better product.  Or my theory ... Classic Rock of this caliber needs an LP to be absolutely right.

I could continue to heap accolades upon this release, but really all I have to say is to pick up the music in your preferred format and ENJOY it - and the better your system sounds, the better the presentation will be, and this is one of those rare cases where favorite music has an uncompromising sound quality.

I have to go, my air guitar solo starts soon, I'm playing Led Zeppelin II, The Lemon Song ...