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.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Crosley Moves Up, The C10 Turntable (Part 1 of 2)

Birch and Mahogany Plinth -- in the Project/Music Hall world
not obtainable unless you spend twice as much.  FWIW.

"What this country needs is a really good five-cent cigar" ~ T. Marshall

"What this country needs, is a decent 5W Amp!" ~ P. W. Klipsch

The box arrived on our doorstep a few days earlier than we had figured - it had taken less than a week.  I had been in multiple IM sessions with Scott Bingaman, the President of Deer Park Distributors (The exclusive distributors of Crosley Turntables to the US and Canada), who had indicated that they were onto something big, something that was a real step up for them from their traditional retro-styled products.
"This won't be sold at Target or Urban Outfitters.  It'll be primarily sold online, at indie record stores and high end dealers - targeted at a younger audience looking to move up," Scott said.

 After I had asked how much better it would be, given the reputation Crosley has in audiophile circles, I could almost sense Scott smiling as I saw the message "Want to try it out and tell me what you think?"  Of course!  Given we get questions from people wanting to get back into vinyl once in awhile from friends and colleagues, I figured the worst case scenario was I would find a decent but unspectacular sub-$400 turntable that would form a good basis for someone not wanting to spend multiple thousands of dollars on a turntable, not to mention the stereo system to extract the best sound out of it. Yeah, as you guessed, we were wrong.

The biggest issue we've had when listening to, or helping someone along at the budget end, is that the sound can be poor, and the people find their iPod with AAC's to be more satisfying.  The words one hears when they are disappointed is "Huh, it didn't sound very full, and had a lot of pops and crackles.  I guess that's the vinyl sound."  With a good turntable and clean record, that is very far from the truth.  We've experienced how good the sound on a good vinyl rig can pretty much wipe the floor with most other sources (even high resolution computer files).  If this offering can allow someone to get addicted a taste of what is so compelling about the medium, we're all ears (pun intended)!

So What is This Turntable?

Crosley, noted for their nostalgia oriented audio products, has recently announced their "C10" turntable which will have an MSRP of $399 (Street price is supposed to be closer to $300), and will have a target audience of people seeking better sound out of their records, or those entering the vinyl market.

When asked about their philosophy when they specified the turntable, Scott said "we selected the components of this turntable carefully, with quite a bit of balance in the cost vs. performance categories.  We had free reign to design just about any turntable we wanted, but went with a fairly simple design and didn’t complicate it with an automatic arm or built-in preamp. We put quite a bit of money where it couldn’t be seen, but heard in a quality bearing and their best motor.  Quite simply, building turntables in this range remains as much art as science, and you need craftspeople who can get them right.  These are hand-built in the Czech Republic."

The C10 consists of a birch veneer plinth (mahogany later this year), is belt driven, employs the highest grade bearing and motor offered by the company that builds Project and Music Hall turntables (it builds these, too), and comes equipped with an Ortofon OM-5e moving magnet cartridge.  Since it doesn't come with a built in phono amp, you do need to either use a receiver or integrated amp with one built in, or obtain an outboard phono amp (this is what we did with our trusty Lounge Audio MM Phono).

The Lounge Audio Phono Amp.  $300 for a stellar product!
The family resemblance to Project and Music Hall is unmistakable, actually.  This isn't a bad thing.

We unpacked and set the turntable.  The setup was a snap - set up the belt, put on the platter, adjust the counterweight to get to the 1.7g downforce specified for the cartridge (we liked 1.8g the most - so really do experiment), attach the pendulum like anti-skate weight on the middle rung, and once you hook it to the phono amp, you are ready to spin records.  (This is in stark contrast to our main rig(*) which took 2-3 hours of fiddling and adjusting to initially set up, though to be fair to everyone, in this price range most turntables are equally as easy to set up).

So ... what it it sound like?

The Rolling Stones - Hot Rocks

After about 20-30 hours of casual playing it came time to get down to business.  We put down one of our favorites, Rolling Stone's Hot Rocks - a sort of "Best of" for us.  What struck us most about this, was the bass, and pitch accuracy was far better than we expected - there was a slight loss of treble airiness and overall clarity to our SOTA (at 20x the price it had better have advantages!), but the C10 wasn't closed in sounding at all, and it had the screech of the guitars, the attack and thump you'd expect out of the Rolling Stone's glory days.

George Ezra - Wanted on Voyage

We absolutely love the mid-range of this recording, and the MM cartridge and the excellent stability of the turntable - it all came through.  What's also apparent, that if you use good components, the C10 keeps on giving - you can not only get the main rhythm, you get a nice level of detail, and that elusive 'echo' that is usually compressed right out of music on MP3's.  It was at this point I started to doubt the SOTA, so I re-played the album right afterwards on it.  The SOTA had a more air, clarity, a bigger soundstage, and the bass had a little more articulation, but the C10 was punching way above it's weight in that it didn't embarrass itself against something costing a lot more.  I had to remind myself that this table is only going to cost around $300.

Daft Punk - Random Access Memories

This album is a fantastic newer recording, that has a deep and pounding bass that is pretty hard to cut. Again we heard the strength in the bass (Bass is really hard to do well with Vinyl - the fact that Crosley has a good bearing helps here quite a lot) - and you got to sit back and relax.  In fact, I had to listen to this album twice since many times I just forgot I was reviewing and drifted into just listening.

So ... what are your impressions so far?

It's pretty clear the folks at Crosley were doing their homework.  The table gives the listener a real experience of what vinyl is capable of, and it's clear that in most stereo setups, that the table will shine through, and not hold the sound back.  In fact, if well setup with decent components, it could grow with the user if they pursue upgrades to other parts of the system.  We found it musically satisfying, and it was good enough to answer the question "so does vinyl sound better than CD and iTunes?"  If someone is looking to get into vinyl, or wants better sound than a close-and-play style player, we could easily direct them towards the C10.

What do you get for your $300?  The Crosley C10 is a musical, enjoyable and well balanced table that should give a customer the vinyl experience, that doesn't have to apologize for itself. You can spend more to get more, but you'd be hard pressed to get this kind of performance for less.

Next up:  How does the C10 stack up vs. the U-Turn.  We're also getting a Thorens Phono Stage to try out vs. the Lounge Audio.  Somebody's going to get bloody ....

Disclaimer:  We were given a review sample that we're being allowed to keep.  We are going to use it as an example of a great value for money turntable in the $300 range.

(*) For those new to the blog look here to see the gear we use.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Pardon Our Dust ...

If you follow this blog, you'll have noticed the posts have dropped off to nearly nothing.  I suppose it's the effect you get when the talk is more about gear and sound, and less about the music is plays.  We've strayed from our mission of encouraging people to let the whole family enjoy the fruits (music) of a good stereo, and started doing the easy thing.  Reviewing gear and posting opinions.

So, we're also thinking about our focus in this avocation.  The importance of quality music reproduction won't be abandoned, but we plan on pulling in more music, and focussing more on how to jump in to the fun.  Stay Tuned.

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.