Explorations in Audio

Karsten Hein

Are you ready to Explore?

In 'Explorations in Audio' I aim to share some practical insights on setting up and optimising an affordable HiFi system. Although one would think that, really, all has been said about HiFi, some surprisingly simple questions still remain, e.g.: 'Is digital superior to analogue?' 'Do cables matter?' 'Can digital cables pick up interference?' 'Should speakers be placed on spikes?' 'Has evolution in HiFi made older gear obsolete?' 'Where should I place my sub?' 'Which room correction works best?' - On the other hand: 'Are these really the right questions?' - We shall see.

What's new in eiaudio?

While the entries in this blog are divided into the three distinct categories above, you will find a mixed listing of the most recent postings below. The most recent article is shown first. If this is not your first time visiting, the listing below is a good place to quickly check if anything is new.

Your input is more than welcome, as long as you follow the basic audiophile rule of ‘ear over mind’. This means that you do not comment based on what you think you know, but only on the basis of your own listening experience. Please feel free to suggest gear for testing as well as leave comments on the descriptions provided here.

  • NDHT Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage 2024

    NDHT Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage 2024

    06/02/2024

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Explorations

    Tag(s): Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage

    The Norddeutsche HiFi-Tage 2024 (or NDHT) were hosted by the Steigenberger Hotel in Treudelberg on the outskirts of Hamburg. There were approximately 200 exhibitors listed for the event, many of whom were still unfamiliar to me. Having begun my Explorations in Audio based mostly on vintage gear, I felt it was high time to make some new discoveries and broaden my horizon by including contemporary brands.

    In preparation for the fair, I ran some web searches and took notes on each exhibitor. I packed a suitcase that contained eiaudio.de business cards, printouts of the visitors statistics to the eiaudio weblog (which had recently risen to over 12,500 visits per month), two Boogie Woogie CDs by Jörg Hegemann, my trusted Macbook, and some nose spray. The latter was just in case the combination of dry air and loud music would prove to have adverse effects on my already strained vocal cords.

    Although I arrived only a few minutes after the official opening of the fair at 10:00 AM, the Steigenberger hotel parking lot was already fully occupied. I had to circle around the block and was lucky to secure a semi-legal slot adjacent to a longer line of parking lots where I was not in anyone’s way. Just in case, I walked up to the house on which I touched the driveway with two tires and left my mobile number with the young gentleman who opened the door.

    I would have preferred the parking situation to be organized better. There were clearly large open spaces on the hotel premises that had not (or not yet) been made available to visitors. Being waved on by helpless parking attendants did not make for a positive first impression and was also a contradiction to hotel’s website information for drivers which stated quite clearly that there was sufficient parking available on site.

    I ended up walking towards the hotel with droves of visitors that were exchanging stories about where they had managed to secure a spot for their vehicles. Some suggested that the traffic police had been quite unforgiving in the years before, on occasion charging parking offenders not only with a hefty fine but also with the cost of repairing the stretch of damaged lawn under the respective vehicle’s tires. I could well imagine that such proceedings had led to lasting memories for some of the guests.

    I was a bit nervous about the event, too. Ever since we had our children, some ten years earlier, we tended to spend much of our free time among ourselves, and us going out to visit events had become the exception rather than the rule. This gradual weaning off sometimes became obvious when confronted with small things, such as the price for leaving my coat at the wardrobe having doubled in the meantime. You might therefore imagine my utter disbelief when I was first confronted with the recommended retail prices of modern HiFi gear — not just at the higher end of the market. It seemed to me that sporting five digit figures for a minimal home setup had meanwhile become quite usual.

    I began my walk around the show at the Dynaudio booth and was pleasantly surprised by the setup I found. The renowned Danish loudspeaker manufacturer shared its booth with Canadian HiFi gear maker SIMAudio, and the presentation was clean and sophisticated throughout. Étienne of SIMAudio France explained to me that this impression might be due to the two companies manufacturing all their components from scratch. By doing so, they could combine technical functionality and visual design in a meaningful way, a philosophy that included the product the presentation.

    Étienne directed me to a listening demonstration in which a pair of Contour 30i were positioned with plenty of space to the front and side walls and driven by SIMAudio gear. The room was of appropriate size for the speakers, and in combination made for a well-refined experience. The classical music tracks revealed a wonderful harmonically rich midrange and only on occasion gave away the position or moderate size of the speakers. Tonal memory is an elusive beast, but here I was listening to the same reassuring sound that I remembered from many earlier experiences with the brand. I gave Étienne my card, thanked him for the experience and went on my way.

    The next room down the hall displayed a Musical Fidelity system that was hooked up to floor standing speakers by what looked like the French manufacturer Triangle, although I could not find the exact model on Triangle’s website. During the brief introduction that followed, we were informed about Musical Fidelity’s special approach to amplification, which consisted of two amplifiers working together to fully execute the positive and the negative curve of a music signal rather than killing the back signal through a high damping factor. According to the presenter, this made for a less constrained and more life-like listening experience.

    Looking around the room, my eyes rested on the A1 integrated amplifier. I ran my hand across its heatsink top and was instantly reminded of how hot these units get. What an impressive little machine this was. Sadly, the music demonstration that followed did not support the theory presented on this occasion. Instead of a life-like presentation, the Triangles sounded boomy and imprecise. Seeing that the speakers were mounted on (metal?) slabs that had been placed on top of a long floor carpet, I suspected that this setup was the culprit. All the bass driver energy was possibly causing the speakers to wobble.

    As there were sets of Magnepan speakers on the right hand side of the room, I would have much preferred to give the Maggies a listen, especially because I have not yet had a set on this blog. It was well possible that the magnetostats would have worked better on the wobbly slabs than dynamic drivers. However, as there was no indication that a change of speakers would soon take place, I decided to make my way to the next booth. Fun fact: Musical Fidelity changed owners in 2018 when its original founder Michaelson sold the company to Lichtenegger (of ProJect, amongst others).

    Walking past reception, I saw a lineup of German Transrotor turntables on display. I must confess that I have always been a silent fan of their massive designs. Touching the drive belt, I was shocked that it felt as fragile as an ordinary household rubber band. I was pleased to see that the unconventional shape of the Transrotor turntables also managed to turn heads among the few female visitors present. In HiFi this usually says something, and I was once again reminded of my wife’s flattering reception of the DQ10.

    The next room introduced me to a setup by Audio Reference, a German distributer for a handful of selected HiFi brands. I must say that, despite my prior research, it proved to be difficult to understand who was responsible for displaying what at each booth. And there was little space or time to talk to professionals, because everyone seemed quite busy. The speakers on this day were made by Perlisten Audio from Wisconsin, and we were either listening to a D’Agostino integrated amplifier that was run via a StromTank battery supply or a D’Agostino preamp with Krell power amplifier underneath. Either way, there was a slight edginess to the treble coming from this ensemble that I did not much care for.

    In addition, Audio Reference had set their system(s) up diagonally to the room, which is a valid option to mediate modes in a difficult room. However, the measure also took some of the natural agility and attack out of the bass frequencies. Looking at their website, I could see that they had such a host of well-made equipment to choose from that it must have been difficult for them to narrow the selection down to a single setup for this show. I would have been interested in addressing the treble phenomenon and learning more about the company philosophy, but with the music playing and everyone looking busy, I thought I might as well Google it. While the fair might help to increase brand awareness by confronting the visitors with products they have not yet seen or heard of, the relatively loud environment did not make it ideal for serious conversation on the subject.

    Instead of moving on to the upper echelons of the High End market with brands such as Ansuz, Axxess, and Borresen that will easily sell for six digits and more, I decided to get back down to earth with some German HiFi royalty. Rolf Gemein had been designing HiFi gear since the 1970s and made a name for himself by creating systems that made real music sound real for real people. His branded Symphonic Line products had won many national and international awards over the years.

    In room 326, located on the third floor and all the way at the end of the hall, I was warmly greeted by Heinz-Peter Völkel the founder of "analog-treff" Nürnberg, a contributor to the Rundfunkmuseum, owner of a record label, and a distributer for Symphonic Line. We had been put in contact by a mutual friend and already spoken on the telephone a few days before the fair. It was good to meet in person. H.P. took my card and passed it on to Rolf, and this is how we met. I sat down among the other guests to listen. The music was well-chosen, hand-made stuff recorded live at intimate venues with acoustic instruments and vocals. And yet it was not your usual High End system esoteric Vocal Jazz, but rather the true to life recordings of the 60s and 70s.

    Having spent much time setting up and fine-tuning systems over these past years, in getting rid of noise sources, optimizing ground potentials, moving to symmetric power cords, etc., I was pleased to identify that the same principles had been applied to the Symphonic line setup. The loudspeakers featured 20cm baked Görlich chassis and an air-motion transformer that was custom made by Mundorf and housed in a separate and mechanically insulated box. The speakers were driven by Symphonic Line’s RG10 MK5 integrated amplifier in conjunction with the brand’s newly developed power chord. There was a superior sense of order in the music and the dimensions of music events seemed both spatially and dynamically just right for the material presented.

    In fact, I was often surprised by the dynamics presented. This is one aspect in which I found the Symphonic Line system to exceed my expectations. Moments of attack came so startlingly realistic that I found myself grinning from time to time. The occasions on which the speakers showed their limitations were exceptionally few, at least from a centered position. While standing to the right or left of the room, I sometimes had the impression that there was some compression of the mid-frequencies that I had also noticed on the Dynaudio setup. This was probably caused by the speakers interacting with the room.

    My next stop was with AVM. The German manufacturer presented a lineup of high-gloss silver-fronted HiFi gear and partnered with British PMC to supply the loudspeakers. The setup looked clean and elegant, however, I could not say the same for the acoustics. My trouble is that I cannot say anything positive about a system when the tonal integrity is lost. The treble sounded piercing, metallic, and overly analytical. In this state, the setup would always draw attention to itself rather than the music. Looking behind the rack, I saw that signal cables were crossing power cables etc. It was difficult to say how the components would have sounded had they been set up properly, but having just come from Symphonic Line, where the owner and developer himself had arranged the setup, the contrast could not have been starker.

    The French streaming amplifier manufacturer b.audio partnered with Intrada, a speakers manufacturer from California to present their gear. Intrada uses bandpass technology to extend lower bass and the resulting sound was — different. As I had not heard of either of the two brands before, I first had to make some sense of what was causing what in this particular signal chain and sought the assistance of a sales representative. I was informed that all tone controls were off and that the onboard DSP of the b.audio unit was inactive and had not been calibrated to the room. With his information, I listened for a few minutes and came to the conclusion that bass came across like a separate music event on this system. The two integrated band passes of the Intrada speakers proceeded to send shockwaves of sub bass through the room from time to time, something that would surely appeal to bass lovers.

    Eternal Arts by Dr. Burkhardt Schwäbe had a combination of tube amplifiers and tape machines on display on which the company presented studio master recordings. The speakers were dipoles of Eternal Arts’ own product line. And although I very much enjoyed the approach and speaking to Mr. Schwäbe himself, I was not overly pleased with the resulting sound of this particular setup. The top end was a bit muffled, and spatial presentation suffered as a consequence. As I have read some positive reviews of the gear itself, I suspect that the source and amplification were of high quality. I am personally not so sure about the benefit of the metal grilles in front of the speakers, although I understand that these particular speakers were designed in cooperation with Ecouton and that there is surely a good reason for everything.

    Graham Audio offered a solid performance. During the second half of the day, there was a tendency among exhibitors to turn up the volume. Doors were no longer shut for the listening sessions and each room tried to drown out the noise floor coming in from the hall. Playing loud was no problem for the Grahams, however, it did present a problem to me. Trying to speak to people became more difficult, and my already strained voice was becoming coarse. The air had become quite hot and dry in many rooms. When windows were opened, the winter cold coming in at times lead to uncomfortable drafts. We were listening to the LS5/5F, and I must day that I liked the design, both, with the grille on or off. As the volume level had become quite overpowering, I could not stay in the room for long.

    From the AVM booth onward I was joined by Alec and his son from Hamburg. Alec had built speakers professionally for some time before moving into computer programming. Although Alec was not so deeply involved with the subject anymore, it was good to share our experiences and discuss each room when we were back in the hall. I was getting ready to go home but wanted to show Alec and his son the Symphonic Line booth before I did. I just wanted to see how their reaction would be. On the way there we passed the Polish brand of tube amplifiers fezz and marveled at their sleek and modern design.

    When we reached the Symphonic Line booth, Heinz-Peter was playing music from his living room-concert series by his own label and was clearly enjoying it. Having met with him earlier, I could point out that 2dB less would be an advantage for everyone, to which he agreed, and we closed the door to the hallway. We were lucky and found three empty chairs in the centre. Alec and his son were sitting in front of me, and after just a few seconds I could see them relax in their seats. After some time, I padded Alec on the back: "So, What do you think?" "It is very good. Sounds live." Alec responded.

    In the time that we were in the room, people came in, stood for a while, and left again. It seems they could not make sense of the shape of the speakers, did not recognize the brand, etc. And none of them sensed what was so spectacular about this room. People trust their eyes more than what they hear. In fact, in colloquial language use we tend to discount "I heard…" to "I saw it with my own eyes." One would think that this would be different at an audio fair, but judging from the reactions I saw at the fair, we can no longer be sure.

    Having lost my voice almost completely, I said goodby to Rolf and H.P., took a whiff of nose spray and accompanied Alec and his son to the parking lot. It seemed that meanwhile further areas had been made available so that Alec had managed to secure a space on hotel premises. Approaching my own vehicle in the street, I could see that some self-proclaimed police officer had taken a pile of dog poop and placed it on the hood of my car. „Still cheaper than a fine“, I thought as I brushed it off with a stick. It seems my note with the telephone number had not satisfied everyone in the neighborhood.

    I hope you enjoyed this little account of the 2024 NDHT fair. This being the first of its kind for me, I did not manage to get around to everyone. As usual, I have tried very hard to faithfully recount to the impressions I gathered. If you disagree with my findings or need help in setting up a system, let me know in the comments below. You can share the URL of this article by first clicking on the header picture and then copying the URL.

    While proofreading the article for me, Landon suggested that I add a summary of my findings for quick access. And since he even wrote it for me, here it is:

    Dynaudio & SIMAudio

    • Clean and sophisticated setup shared between Dynaudio and SIMAudio.
    • Emphasis on in-house component manufacturing for integrated design and functionality.

    Musical Fidelity & Triangle Speakers

    • Unique amplification approach using dual amplifiers for a more lifelike sound.
    • Setup with Triangle speakers resulted in a boomy and imprecise sound, likely due to suboptimal speaker placement.

    Transrotor Turntables

    • Impressive designs but the drive belt felt unexpectedly fragile.
    • Turntables caught the attention of a diverse audience.

    Dan D'Agostino & Krell with Audio Reference

    • Slight edginess to the treble in the sound presentation.
    • Setup orientation in the room could have contributed to less natural bass frequencies.

    Symphonic Line by Rolf Gemein

    • High praise for the authenticity and dynamic sound presentation.
    • The system's setup adhered to rigorous noise reduction and optimization principles.

    AVM & PMC

    • Clean and elegant appearance marred by piercing and overly analytical treble.
    • Setup issues suspected due to cable management.

    b.audio & Intrada Speakers

    • Bandpass technology delivered extended lower bass, creating a distinct sound profile.
    • The setup required calibration for optimal performance.

    Eternal Arts by Dr. Burkhardt Schwäbe

    • Tube amplifiers and tape machines provided a unique listening experience.
    • Sound quality possibly affected by speaker design choices, leading to a muffled top end.

    Graham Audio LS5/5F

    • Solid performance, but high volume levels during the fair impacted the listening experience.
    • Design and sound quality of the LS5/5F speakers were commendable.

    My General Observations

    • The parking situation and initial access to the event were challenging.
    • Prices of modern HiFi gear were surprisingly high.
    • The loud environment at the fair made serious conversations difficult.
    • Personal interactions, such as the one with Heinz-Peter Völkel and Rolf Gemein, added value to the experience.

    Jörg Hegemann
  • Jamie Saft, Loneliness Road

    Jamie Saft, Loneliness Road

    18/06/2023

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Audiophile Music

    Tag(s): Jazz

    For his 2017 album "Loneliness Road”, Jamie Saft teamed up with bassist and composer Steve Swallow, drummer and composer Bobby Previte, and singer-songwriter Iggy Pop, to arrange a unique and, in many ways, unexpected combination of talents. The challenge was to merge the distinct musical personas of the three artists into one cohesive work of art. While the concept seemed intriguing to me at first, I quickly found that the style and mood of the vocal tracks are noticeably disjunct from the instrumental passages, which only serves to highlight the more general lack of cohesion that the album suffers from.

    While many of the tracks of “Loneliness Road” may work quite well on their own, I would have preferred to see a build-up of suspense to a climax that spans more than a single song. I guess, I would have expected the fusion of Iggy Pop's raw and energetic rock with Saft and Swallow's Jazz expertise to make for some really interesting dynamics. However, the execution often feels forced and uneasy. The transitions between the different genres and musical styles are simply too abrupt and awkward, leaving me with a sense of disconnection from the overall composition of the album.

    Another notable issue is the inconsistency in the vocal performances by Iggy Pop. While his distinctive voice has been a defining element of his career, I find that it does not blend all too well with the Jazz-infused instrumentals provided by Saft and Swallow. Iggy Pop's vocals often come across as out-of-place and strained, lacking the necessary nuance and subtlety that is required to navigate the Jazz landscape effectively. This mismatch between vocal delivery and musical arrangement further adds to the disjointed nature of the album.

    That said, there are some redeeming qualities to be found on the album. The instrumental performances by Jamie Saft and Steve Swallow serve well to showcase their musical proficiency and creative abilities. Their interplay and improvisational moments offer glimpses of masterful synergy that I would have preferred to see throughout the album. 

    Additionally, some of the lyrical content on "Loneliness Road" displays flashes of poetic introspection and emotional depth. Iggy Pop's lyrics, although sometimes overshadowed by the mismatched vocal delivery, touch upon themes of longing, isolation, and the human condition. In moments where the lyrics are given space to breathe and take center stage, they provide a glimpse of the album's potential to connect on a deeper emotional level.

    Some critics have suggested that the production quality of “Loneliness Road” was not on par with similar Jazz productions and could seem muddy and congested, which made it challenging for some listeners to discern individual instruments and appreciate their contributions fully. While this may or may not be true for the vinyl record, it is a trait that I have not been able to detect or reproduce on our HiFi systems when working with the album on CD. In fact, the excellent recording quality and mastering is the very reason for me to include the album in my list of audiophile choices. Instruments appear live and life-like with lots of space around them, making this a decent CD album to pull out of the shelf when it comes to the task of representing natural instruments and vocal timbre.

    From an audiophile perspective, I would have preferred the piano to be positioned centre stage, as is mostly the case with music recordings these days. "Loneliness Road” instead places Steve Swallow’s drum set at the centre of the stage with the piano being positioned far off to the right hand side. This placement gives Swallow’s performance as a drummer lots of attention, but it also requires the listener to tolerate long passages during which the harmonic weight of the music appears off-centre. In the very beginning, I found myself repeatedly checking speaker position and balance to confirm that the fault was not caused by some accidental flaw in my HiFi setup.

    In conclusion, I must confess—to those who have not detected this already—that I have a love-hate relationship with this particular Jazz album. I pull it out whenever I am tired of the ordinary, smooth, and predictable, and when I am in the mood for the unconventional and unexpected, the raw and the unfinished. On such days, I tend not to mind the slight irritation from the off-centre placement of the piano or the lack of cohesion among the songs. Occasionally, I enjoy the feeling of being teased and of not getting exactly what I want, especially, when the people who are teasing me are music professionals at such an advanced level of the game.


    crossXculture Business Language Training
  • 2. Imaging

    2. Imaging

    06/06/2023

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: High Fidelity

    Imaging describes the ability of a specific HiFi stereo system or a headphone setup to accurately localise individual sounds within the soundstage. Good imaging provides a clear and precise placement of instruments and vocals. For audiophile listeners, it is often a phenomenon that fellow human beings can readily tell when a visual image is warped, distroted, cluttered, or hazy, yet are completely oblivious to the same characteristics in sound. The following expressions are used to describe imaging:

    Pinpoint
    Describes the ability of an audio system to precisely locate and position individual sound sources in the stereo field.

    Layering
    Refers to the ability of an audio system to present different instruments or voices at different depths within the soundstage, creating a sense of depth and dimension.

    Sonic separation
    Describes the degree to which individual sound elements are distinct and well-defined within the audio presentation, allowing for easy differentiation and identification.

    Micro-detail
    Describes the ability of an audio system to reveal subtle nuances and intricacies within the music, allowing for a greater level of insight and engagement.

    Precision
    Refers to the accuracy and precision with which sound sources are positioned within the stereo image, resulting in a highly defined and realistic soundstage.

    Instrument separation
    Describes the degree to which different instruments are presented as distinct entities within the soundstage, allowing for easy identification and tracking of individual instrument lines.

    Ambience retrieval
    Refers to the ability of an audio system to accurately reproduce the acoustic space and ambiance of a recording, providing a sense of the original recording environment.

    The expressions used to describe Soundstage and Imaging can overlap to some extent. Refer to my discussion of Soundstage for further vocabualry to describe music presentation.


    80s night
  • Boris Blank and Malia, Convergence

    Boris Blank and Malia, Convergence

    03/06/2023

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Music & Talk

    Tag(s): Jazz

    In 2014, Boris Blank, the enigmatic musical genius and founding member of the influential Swiss electronic duo Yello, returned with his solo project, "Convergence." Known for his distinctive soundscapes and experimental approach to music, Blank's new album promised to be a captivating journey for audiophiles and electronic music enthusiasts alike. Vocals were recorded with the Malawian singer-songwriter Malia. However, while "Convergence" offered glimpses of brilliance, it also stumbled in some areas, making for an intriguing yet flawed listening experience.

    "Convergence" begins with "Prologue," an ambient and ethereal piece that immediately transports the listener into Blank's musically simple but sonically exploratory realm. The sparse instrumentation and haunting melodies create an atmosphere of mystery and anticipation. The attention to sonic detail and meticulous production are commendable, setting a high standard for what is to come. With the second song “Interference," Blank further showcases his knack for crafting intricate sonic textures. The pulsating beats, intertwined with ethereal synth pads, create a hypnotic groove that is hard to resist. However, despite the song's captivating qualities, it lacks a clear sense of direction and fails to fully engage the listener beyond the mere surface.

    "Euphoria" is undoubtedly one of the standout tracks on the album. Here, Blank demonstrates his mastery of sonic layering and manipulation. The lush synthesisers, coupled with intricate percussion and ethereal vocal samples, create a captivating sonic tapestry that envelops the listener. It is a true testament to Blank's ability to create otherworldly soundscapes. While "Fragmented" exhibits some interesting sonic ideas, it falls short in execution. The disjointed nature of the track, although intentional, results in a lack of cohesion that makes it difficult for the listener to fully engage with the music. The experimental elements overshadow the melody and structure, leaving the listener feeling disconnected and disoriented.

    "Resonance" again is a testament to Blank's ability to create immersive sonic experiences. His meticulous attention to detail in the production shines through, as the layers of instrumentation and atmospheric effects interplay with each other seamlessly. However, the track's extended duration feels unnecessary, and it could have benefited from more concise editing to maintain the listener's focus of attention. With "Metamorphosis," Blank ventures into more experimental territory, fusing unconventional sounds and rhythmic patterns. While the track displays a level of technical prowess, it lacks the emotional depth and resonance found in his best work. It feels like an intellectual exercise rather than an organic expression of musicality. The album concludes with "Epilogue," a somber and introspective piece. The delicate piano melodies, accompanied by atmospheric textures, evoke a sense of melancholy and reflection. It serves as a fitting ending, wrapping up the album thematically and leaving the listener with a lasting impression.

    Convergence is a testament to Boris Blank's boundless creativity and mastery of sound manipulation. The album's highlights, such as "Euphoria" and "Resonance," showcase his ability to create mesmerising sonic landscapes. However, the album suffers from occasional missteps, particularly in tracks like "Interference" and "Fragmented," where the experimental nature overshadows the melodic and structural elements. Despite these flaws, "Convergence" remains an intriguing release that will undoubtedly captivate fans of Blank's unique musical vision. 

    Note: In daily practice, I occasionally take this album off the shelf to demonstrate the sonic width of a given HiFi setup, especially when presenting to tech-minded listeners. It also serves well to determine how potent a system is in plying apart individual sonic events and looking beyond the samples. It is not a great album to choose for sonic cohesion as, except for Malia’s vocals, there are not many natural yard sticks that can be applied.


    Digitising Records
  • Echle RR25-16

    Echle RR25-16

    02/06/2023

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag(s): Loudspeakers

    Shortly after the turn of the century, some twenty years ago, the audio technician and car-Hifi store owner, Winfried Echle, came across the review of a Dynamic 16cm bass-to-midrange driver with Kevlar diaphragm when leafing through one of the last issues ever printed of the German electronics magazine ‘Funkschau’. The chassis was made in Thailand and, as it turned out, was difficult to obtain from a German supplier. This prompted Winfried to contact the Thai embassy in Frankfurt to establish direct contact with the producer in Thailand. When he finally received a response, it was to inform him that the minimum order quantity was at 100 pieces. Winfried took a deep breath and made the purchase. “I was feeling put under pressure, but what I should have done, would have been to place an order for 200 units instead.” he told me laughingly, “How could I have foreseen how successful these little drivers would become.”

    His first serious bookshelf-size loudspeaker was of a two-way design, with a front-ventilated bass port that was placed in one corner right next to the tweeter. The passive crossover cut the tweeter off at 1,500 Hz and at a 6dB slope per octave. Early models featured a 2.5cm Peerless soft-dome tweeter, which Winfried ended up replacing with a Vifa XT-300/K4 ring radiator on later models. The ring radiator did not play as loud as the soft-dome tweeter, but it introduced a new sweetness to the sound and offered a more pleasant drop-off in the treble. The crossover parts, internal wiring, and wire terminals were of a high quality, and the pass port was fine-tuned to be as linear as possible, preferring tight control to the usual 60 Hz hump. Winfried spent some time listening, measuring, and adjusting the crossover parts and bass port until he was pleased with the result.

    Showing his new prototype speakers to friends and visitors to his shop, some of whom were industry specialists themselves, Winfried received excellent feedback on his design and ended up selling over one hundred of these bookshelf speakers. In fact, he sold more speakers in the given price category than the local HiFi shop did at the same time. To the owner of the HiFi shop, this did not come as much of a surprise, as Winfried’s unique price-performance ratio even impressed his friends at Hessischer Rundfunk who bought two pairs of speakers for proper installation in their broadcast vehicles. But, was this just a lucky punch, or a replicable show of skills? Listening to the story made me curious, and I just had to find out for myself.

    Ever since hearing about his monitor speakers for the first time, I was tempted to take them home with me for a trial run. But it was not until our impending relocation from Frankfurt am Main to Marne, Schleswig-Holstein, and when our weekly meetings in Aschaffenburg were slowly coming to an end, he let me know that he would actually be honoured if I still found the time to write a review. Of course, I did not have to think twice about this and brought along a large Eurobox for transport, into which the pair fit perfectly. On my drive back home, I contemplated which amplifier to test them with and decided that I would go with our Dynavox VR-70 tube amplifier, unless this would prove to be problematic due to some unforseen mismatch in capacitance or resistance.

    I gave our EPI 500 floor-standing speakers a good listen and then set up Echle’s bookshelf speakers in that same position. The DIY stands I used had originally been designed for our KEF iQ series speakers, and they were made of sturdy PDF boards perched on spikes with coasters that were in turn placed on felt cushions for decoupling towards the ground. The finished stands weighed about as much as the speakers themselves and gave them a firm position while preserving their ability to sufficiently free themselves from the floor not to excite ghastly resonances. With the Vifa tweeter being mounted off axis, I was puzzled for a bit whether to have the tweeters on the inside towards the listening position or to rather have them on the outside, away from the listening position with the bass port on the inside. I decided to listen to the set with the tweeters on the inside first.

    The resulting musical image was accurate yet somewhat thin-sounding. The center image was super sharp, and voices seemed slightly thickened and throaty with an alluring touch. There was lots of bass texture, even if low-bass extension was not great. The speakers performed in a well-behaved manner with a sensible top-end. The midrange was insightful and homogenous. Piano keys sounded warm enough but were lacking some of the treble bite and bass punch. On occasion, I noticed a little time-smear and could sense more than the usual sibilance. Looking at my setup, with the vertical radiation axis of the speakers merging about 50cm behind my head, I could see that I had brought the tweeter coils relatively closer to my ears than the woofer coils.

    Since the woofer coils were usually positioned deeper inside the speaker cabinets than the tweeter coils, swapping the left and right speakers to position the treble outward would help to correct this issue by increasing the distance between the tweeter and the ears. The result was less time-smear and sibilance and an increase in stage width. The midrange remained the strong point with accurate tonality. The initial lightness of sound had disappeared. The result was vocal credibility and a kind of no-fuss reporting of musical events. The term understatement came to mind, an impression that was even enhanced by their their ample use of build-depth rather than height or width.

    From Nick Cave’s live-album ‘Idiot Prayer’ I then changed to Boris Blank’s studio album ‘Convergence’. I also turned up the volume from Cave’s natural-sounding voice to moderate disco. Boris Blank has been a long-time favourite among tech-minded people, and on its basis the speakers could show their ability to keep the separate layers of samples apart. I was impressed with the insightful positioning of bass-events from left to right and from top to bottom as well as the lack of tweeter aggressiveness I would normally have expected from smallish speakers playing loud music. I did notice, however, that the higher excursion of the woofer of +/- 8mm did lead to to a certain breathiness in the treble. I am not convinced that the Doppler effect would have been as pronounced if the bass port had not also been positioned between the tweeter and the listening position.

    I enjoyed listening to these speakers being played loud, especially because their treble was a little more forgiving than on our other models. Michael Patrick Kelly’s live album “ID” came to mind, and the speakers did not disappoint in terms of speed, agility, and, to some extent, even dynamics. The kick drum sounded hard and firm. These loudspeakers would work equally well playing Rock music and Jazz, and that combination was not all too common. Rock music requires for the music to be kept together rather than taken apart, and this was certainly the case.

    To round off my exploration, I put on some Norah Jones. “Feels like home” was presented with musky vocals and amber keyboard notes. It sounded at once exciting and spacious as well as refined and well-proportioned. The soft top end that had served so well when playing the speakers louder here resulted in a slight lack of crispness in piano notes. In the end it seemed as though we cannot have it all, or at least not in the still affordable price categories. I wonder, how many of us would get up to tweak the sound coming from a real live event, if we were given the power to do so. As around speakers and for serious listening Winfried’s speakers were certainly able and enjoyable tools. When it came to mixing music and discerning listening, on the other hand, the somewhat relaxed treble presentation might make problems in this area seem less dramatic than they really were. For monitoring vocals, these speaker were truly excellent.

    Specifications

    • Type: 2-way bookshelf speaker
    • Speaker principle: vented cabinet
    • Crossover 1,500 Hz (@6dB per octave)
    • Application: entertainment, monitoring
    • Tweeter: 25mm Vifa XT-300/K4 (Tymphany)
    • Tweeter principle: ring radiator
    • Bass driver: 16cm dynamic, Kevlar diaphragm 
    • Dimensions: (H) 320mm, (D) 350mm, (W) 210mm
    • Country of manufacture: Germany
    • Designer: Winfried Echle
    • Year: 2002

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