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.
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.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Audiophile Music
I have rarely come across a Jazz album that feels as instantly entertaining and naturally balanced as Carmen Lundy’s 2014 album 'Soul to Soul'. There are subtle changes in speed and dynamics from song to song that are just different enough to keep us interested and similar enough to preserve the album’s inner harmony. The music is sparsely instrumented, the recordings are tonally accurate, even delicate, with a soft warmth to them. There is a pervasive sense of natural stage depth and dimension throughout. As I am listening to the album on our newly refurbished Technics SL-1310 turntable with its original Shure M75ED entry-level classic, it is difficult to imagine a better sound.
‘Soul to Soul’ is Carmen Lundy’s twelfth music album and, in typical Lundy fashion, features many original recordings. Born in Miami Florida in November 1954, she decided to become a professional singer after joining her local church choir. She was twelve years old at the time. After receiving her BA in music, Lundy moved to New York where she quickly found engagements alongside contemporary Jazz greats. In a career spanning half a century, Lundy has cut her own career path, composing and publishing more than forty original songs along the way, predominantly Vocal Jazz. 'Soul to Soul' is in many ways the culmination of her experience and a definite recommendation for soulful nighttime cruises. Enjoy!
What is Carmen Lundy's best album? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
When I started on my explorations in interconnects, I only had a faint idea of the effects of different materials on cables and plugs. Most of what I knew was based on what I had read from other users, from manufacturers of audio products, and from magazine tests. This left me wondering, how reliable these sources were. Manufacturers and magazines obviously have an interest in promoting certain products, and ‘users’ may be anything from absolute novices to experienced audiophiles. When it comes to discussing the merits of cables, it is useful to speak to an expert, otherwise one will all too often be discussing the flaws of a specific HiFi-setup rather than general cable attributes.
It is no secret that, ever since coming across Holger Becker’s silver solid-core cables, I have been hooked on the sonic abilities of silver. The cable itself is made of a 4N solid-silver strand that is shielded with a pure copper mesh, a combination that has meanwhile proven itself to work rather well. Mr. Becker sells this cable with two different plug terminations: HBS1, utilising a RAMM Audio gold-plated copper plug; and HBS2, with a silver-plated brass plug by WM Audio. The choice of plugs was shown to make a marked difference in cable’s sonic performance over all frequencies, and it was concluded that audiophiles looking for a darker and richer sound might prefer the copper and gold combination, whereas those seeking a more agile and revealing sound would be better served with the brass and silver version.
In the context of our own system setup, I enjoy having both cables available, in order to counterbalance darker or brighter sounding HiFi components. However, considering the merits of silver as a conductor, I could not help but wonder about the choice of plug materials. Gold and brass seemingly worked against optimal connectivity, which a quick check on Wikipedia confirmed:
International Annealed Copper Standard
I decided to write to Holger Becker about my concerns regarding the combination of gold and brass with silver and suggested that he built an interconnect using the silver version of the RAMM Audio plugs. However, he was not too pleased with this idea and rightly pointed out that these were rhodium-plated and would again introduce impurity. He suggested that we should rather use a pure-silver plug made by Keith Louis Eichmann Innovations (KLEI) called ‘KLEI Absolute Harmony’, which uses a special amalgamate of silver with a conductivity rating of >106% on the IACS scale. I liked the idea, and I suggested that we name this new ‘made-for-eiaudio’ interconnect “HBPS” for Pure Silver. He liked the name, and I placed my order.
The Australian couple Keith and Patricia Eichmann made a name for themselves, when they premiered the famous ‘Bullet Plug’ connector to the world. The Bullet Plug was a radical rethinking of the classic cinch connector, which had originally been developed by the Radio Corporation of America some 60 years earlier. The KLEI design improved conductivity, enhanced signal integrity, brought about higher resolution, and improved the mechanical connection. In fact, Eichmann’s patented Bullet Plugs were used with great commercial success by many HighEnd brands. The cable manufacturer WSS used them on their “Gold” and “Platinum” lines, for instance.
The KLEI Absolute Harmony Plug is an enhanced version of the original Bullet Plug design that features improvements in terms of geometry, mass ratios, durability, and metallurgy. It is also the highest contender of the Harmony range, about which KLE states the following: “Compared to a typical gold plated brass connector used in the vast majority of deluxe Phono/RCA plugs, the Harmony RCA plug range, utilising our proprietary alloys, achieve improvements in conductivity exceeding 320%.” — Now, that is quite a statement, indeed, and perhaps explains, why our silver cables generally play louder and with superior dynamics than our copper versions. The manufacturer goes on to describe that lots of care went into minimising turbulences in the electron flow (Eddy Currents) and improvements to capacitive reactance and micro-arcing. And, while all this is theory, of course, with potentially no practical use to us listeners, I enjoyed the concept of now having a single silver-solid core strand running from end to end. Finally, no more material transitions.
When the new cable arrived, I set everything up to allow for a speedy switch between interconnects and decided not to run the first test alone. The signal source was our Rega Planet 2000 and the preamp was our DB Systems DB1. I decided that I would use our HBS2 cable as benchmark. At the time, this had been running in for about one month and had sufficiently matured in sonic balance. While the low-end was not yet fully present, listeners unfamiliar with our system or with silver cable in general would have had nothing to object to. When my wife walked into the room after putting our kids to bed, I asked her if she had a moment to try out a cable with me. Sabina was unaware that I had bought a new cable and did not know about the differences in materials, etc. She did know, however, that most of the cables we were now running were made of silver. Not that I think this made any difference. I played approximately 1 minute of Vocal Jazz on the HBS2 and then played the same passage on the HBPS. — “Holy! This is much better.” — was her immediate response. Having just returned to my seat, I was pretty much thinking the same.
Although Holger Becker had reported to me that he had played the HBPS for 1-2 hours to get an impression in his own system, I think it is still safe to say that this interconnect had the best out-of-the-box performance of the three variations. Compared to the HBS2 it was already fuller in bass, even if slightly less agile sounding. However, there was a whole new dimension of order and detail. The stage was dimensionally more concrete with lots of space between individual sounds in comparison to HBS2. On the all-too-familiar Diana Krall album 'All For You' the recording studio‘s background now was electrically and physically present at all times, for the first time in our listening history. From tiny shifts on the piano stool, the tapping of a foot, clicks, pops, and static from cables and the microphone, it was all there, even when played at relatively low volume.
The HBPS custom made for eiaudio is both the most elaborate and lightest interconnect in our range of cables, simply because the Eichmann Absolute Harmony Plugs are of extremely low mass. From its touch and feel alone, it would be difficult to guess the sonic or material value of this interconnect. Only those familiar with the industry will understand that this is a special cable in many ways. But listening to it is an exceptional experience. The interconnect is highly revealing and made for those who enjoy listening very deeply into a recording. For casual listening, this might be a little too much at times, and I do know even experienced listeners who will shy away from such a detailed experience, simply because they find this to be unrealistic. It therefore makes sense to have a choice of cables at hand and to change between them from time to time. But, is the HBPS hands down the best interconnect we currently have? Yes. It certainly is.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Having owned the smaller brother, a Denon DCD-1420, for some time now, a look under the hood revealed larger placement markings around the smallish capacitors that showed the dimensions of the parts used on ‘the real thing’, namely, the larger DCD-1500 unit. And, although the DCD-1420 is a reliable middle-class player, even after four decades, I have often asked myself, what I would be hearing, had I bought the fully equipped unit instead.
Therefore, when Luigi showed me two CD-players and asked me which of the two to get, I had a strong leaning towards the Denon DCD-1500 II. The photos we saw showed it in good used condition, but they were far from impressive. Both the Denon’s size and design did not give away its exceptional build quality and internal merits. To me, it looked like just another CD player. This impression changed, when I visited Luigi and saw the player, with its display turned on, perched on a proper HiFi rack. Although its size had not changed and its design was still an understatement, there now was a cleaned-up seriousness about it that made me curious at an instant. This was certainly a whole other beast from my 1420.
Luigi played me a few songs on the Denon DCD-1500 II before he switched to vinyl. While I usually cherish the transition from digital to analog, I noticed that I was a little sad to stop listening to the 1500 so soon. Perhaps this was because the player’s cleaned-up looks had been wonderfully present in the music as well. While the player had not sounded spectacular by any means, the music simply had this air of dependability to it that made it endearing to my ears. I had instantly trusted this player to sound pleasant. The lack of this quality is often an issue with CD players; actually, when audiophiles describe devices as sounding analog or warm, it is sonic dependability rather than spectacle that they are referring to.
Luigi suggested I should take the Denon home with me, explore it further and, perhaps, write a review on it, to which I gladly consented. When I was ready to leave and picked the Denon up from the rack, I was surprised by its weight. For a moment, it felt as if it had been glued to the boards. This aspect of the player is so well hidden, it struck me by surprise, despite having read in the advertisement that it was close to 10kg. Coming from a larger and higher built amplifier, the weight would not have surprised me, but from a standard-looking Japanese consumer device, I was positively surprised.
When I came home, I placed the Denon on our conference table and opened the chassis to look under the hood. While the top cover was made of the same bent metal as is custom on today’s units, I did find a 4mm sheet of lead glued to the inside of the cover. This certainly helps to keep the typical drive and chassis resonances at bay and also increases the player’s resilience in case of resonances coming from the outside. I guess anyone could glue a sheet of lead under the cover of their CD players to the same effect, but thinking of my DCD-1420, I could see how pointless that would be, considering that it was not even made of Denon’s full-size parts.
While performing the first operations on the DCD-1500 II placed in our rack, I noticed that some of the buttons on the front were actually made of metal. This has some advantages when it comes to durability. On our silver 1420 for instance, some of the more frequently used buttons have already lost their silver shine. This was not the case on the 1500. Like many of Denon’s players, the 1500 features both a fixed and a variable output which can be convenient in some cases. For any listening test, I used the fixed output to leave out any unnecessary augmentation to the sound. The CD transport is of excellent quality, and the drawer opens promptly and quickly.
In our living room setup, the 1500 had to compete with the 16-years younger 3.7kg lightweight Rega Planet 2000 CD-player, which was our standard choice for CDs. The interconnect used on both devices was a new type of silver solid core with KLE Innovations silver plugs that had been custom made for eiaudio.de and had not been completely run in. This is to say that bass extension had not completely evolved after two weeks of playing. Since this was our best interconnect at the time, I decided that I would stick with this cable despite this small flaw in the setup. The song played was “No Moon at All” on Diana Krall’s ‘Turn up the Quiet’ album.
The Rega came first and played this song with realistic dimension and tonality. I found that timing could at times have been better, with the player showing a slight tendency of dragging its feet, but overall it was an accurate representation with lots of warmth, musical detail, size, and natural space around the instruments. The DCD-1500 II came next and, in comparison, played slightly darker and fuller with a striking three-dimensional richness in Diana Krall’s voice. It did not present the same amount of detail; however, its timing was more accurate with slightly more drive and consistency to it. The Denon came across as slightly more controlled and dryer with individual notes being stopped earlier. The Rega in comparison appeared to be less predictable, was able to present more of the disc’s nuances, gave a fruitier performance and allowed the music more space to perform.
Both players sounded very pleasing, are excellent companions for extended late night listening sessions and renowned for their warm and analog sound. The Denon is surely the mechanically more sophisticated player, whereas the Rega wins its points on the basis of modern DAC circuitry, a more detailed presentation, and lots of musical charm. Considering that the Rega has a 16-year edge over the Denon, the DCD-1500 II a still very good and worthwhile CD-player, indeed. Its build quality, touch and feel, general usability, and its excellent remote control position it well ahead of today’s mid-market competition.
Testing environment: Denon DCD-1500 II (via HBPS pure silver solid core interconnects to) DB Systems DB1 preamplifier; (via Audiocrast OCC and Silver interconnect to) B&K ST140 power amplifier; (via Belden 9497 speaker cables in bi-wiring to) Martin Logan SL3 electrostatic speakers
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Audiophile Music
On Wednesday, 17 March 2021, I received an e-mail invitation from a musician friend to watch the YouTube streaming of a music performance by a Frankfurt-based chamber orchestra in which my friend plays the cello, taking place on the following night.
I had not spoken to Gabriel Mientka in a long time and had hardly noticed the occasional Facebook post, which showed advancements in his music career. I did remember that Gabriel was a member of the Cellharmonics quartet, consisting of Larissa Nagel, Christine Roider, Christopher Herrmann, and himself. And I had even seen some of their earlier performances, but — with two young kids in the house and a business to run — in recent years, we had stopped attending public venues.
In the time that Gabriel had been playing the cello around the world, some things had changed on my side as well. For one thing, my interest in setting up audiophile HiFi systems had led me to a deeper appreciation of music, which was slowly taking me away from repetitive Pop culture to more sophisticated recordings and arrangements of acoustic instruments. Depth, breadth, dynamics, rhythm, flow, and the presence of organic materials are the salt of great recordings.
When Gabriel wrote in his e-mail that he was now playing the Cello in the ‘Bridges’ chamber music orchestra, and that this could be streamed live via YouTube, I was immediately intrigued by the idea that I could listen to him and his colleagues perform live from living room couch, without conflicting with my duties as a father. What a wonderful and exciting opportunity. The fact that this music could also be played via our Martin Logan electrostatic system was a nice bonus, of course.
Apparently, the Bridges chamber orchestra had just come back from their winter break, and created a fresh new concert, premiering six original pieces that had been — in true Bridges tradition — composed by the musicians themselves. The e-mail went on to remind us of the special and challenging situation that musicians have been facing in times of COVID-19 and pointed out that the transcultural Bridges was a symbol of freedom and successful transnational co-operation.
On the night of the event, I called the family together on the living room couch, lowered the lights, and tuned our projector in to the YouTube stream. We set our system at realistic live performance volume and watched with anticipation. That the NAXOS theatre makes a decent venue for a chamber orchestra, was my first thought. It also felt good to see 25 musicians come together to perform their special craft, despite the fact that no audience was allowed to physically attend. It reminded me of the band continuing to play until the last minute on the sinking Titanic. In both cases this helped to bring about some reassurance that essential aspects of what makes us great as human beings are still intact.
I could not help but marvel at the orderly fashion in which all musicians played their part, taking time to pay respect to each other’s performances, each falling into place under the directions of the conductor. There is a pervading sense of dignity and respect towards one another that is especially highlighted in an orchestra as culturally and musically as diverse as this one. Bridges’s multi-ethnic musicians played a range of pieces heavily influenced by Syrian, Andalusian, Turkish, Columbian, and Hungarian music culture, the musicians’ countries of origin. The conductor was Nabil Shehata, who is also the chief conductor of the South-Westfalia Philharmonic.
Although our kids are just three and seven years old, we all enjoyed the performance very much. When at times concentration lapsed, this was mostly due to passages in which something was not quite right in the technical presentation of the music. For instance, some instruments, such as percussion, were recorded at very low volume. When these instruments took the lead or played longer parts, some of the original momentum and potential of the pieces were lost.
For the most part, we were drawn into the event. Although, for some reason, the changing of camera angles always resulted in a brief deterioration of image quality which again made it clear that we were watching a recording rather than being present ourselves. We were also surprised to see that there were cuts between the pieces which highlighted the fact that we were not following the actual event live. Sadly, YouTube is not known for excellence in sound. I am not sure what algorithms are used to compress music, but the sound quality was not on par with the usual ability of our home setup.
The pieces themselves were well-presented and gave a good impression of the ethnic diversity all around us and the possibility for cooperation between these cultures. Although quite different in timbre and harmonics, no instrument or musician sounded out of place, and no theme was boring or disappointing to listen to in and of itself. I am grateful for the opportunity of attending a concert with our children present in the comfort of our own home, a concert that each of us can relate to, especially but not exclusively, because we are friends with one of the musicians. I would wish for such luxury to become standard and have highlighted areas of potential improvement in the paragraphs above, simply because I feel that this type of offer, if done well, would be a lasting change for the better.
I enjoyed reading the musicians’ profiles on the Bridges Frankfurt website and on their Facebook page, as well as listening to Gabriel Mientka’s own composition. “Constantinople” was the last song of the event. It sounded full and energetic with lots of natural flow. A wonderful piece that left the audience on a high note.
P.S.: Candidly, I hope to invite Gabriel for an interview to find out more about his relationship with the cello and with music in general. I need to find out more about the people who make the actual music that we audiophiles listen to and to experience first-hand, if they in turn can derive some pleasure from performances being replayed at a higher than usual level of acoustic sophistication. My hope is that by listening to each other well, we will better understand what each side is striving to achieve.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Those who have followed my recent posts on HiFi cables will know that I have developed an affection towards the use of silver in the signal path. This has turned out to be especially true for 4N solid core silver cables, ever since I came across Holger Becker‘s HBS1 interconnect. Although still quite affordable, the HBS1 is terminated with gold-plated copper plugs from the American manufacturer RAMM Audio that contribute to this cable being the most expensive of his current range. What had surprised me about the HBS1 was that it introduced seemingly unnecessary material transitions: gold+copper to silver+copper and—at the other end—the same transitions in reverse.
When I voiced my concerns about this mix, Mr Becker suggested that the use of gold was of lesser concern, because the RCA/cinch sockets found on quality devices are mostly gold-plated themselves to avoid oxidation. In this scenario, the gold-plating of the cable plugs matches that of the device’s sockets to form a corrosion free coupling. The alternative would have been to use silver-plating or, even better, solid silver, which would be in line with the material of the cables.
When it comes to pure silver, there are concerns about oxidation, of course. And while such concerns have some validity in tropical climates, the realm of vintage audio is special, in the sense that the original sockets of vintage devices are rarely of the gold-plated type. In a vintage environment gold is often just an additional metal in the signal chain. In fact, the very idea that gold-plating should be the premium metal of choice was sold to the general public much later. The fact that gold is better than polished metal was easy to sell, simply because gold is precious and therefore must be good.
While the HBS2 is based on the same solid core silver cable, it is terminated with WM Audio’s silver-plated brass plugs instead of gold+copper. Brass has its place in the context of plugs, sockets, and other audio applications, however, I was disappointed that these plugs again bring a third metal into the equation: 1. Silver, 2. copper, and 3. brass. In principle, the WM-Audio plugs are well made, with a meticulously crafted ring of outer contacts and a two-fold split centre prong that is oval-shaped to increase the inner contact pressure. The construction makes an excellent fit, even if it has a tendency of being a little tight when trying to remove the plugs at a later stage. Brass—by the way—has a conductivity of less than 40% compared with pure copper. In my understanding, this indicates that most of the signal travels through the silver plating.
Fresh out of the box, the HBS2 surprised me by showing an accomplished top-end. The highs were not yet perfectly softened, transients not extended enough. However, just getting to this stage of performance had taken a few weeks on the HBS1. I even wrote to Holger Becker, asking if this cable had already seen some running-in before it was sent out to us. He denied this, saying that he had built it afresh for me and had put it in the mail straight away. Since both the HBS1 and HBS2 had arrived here in the same basic condition, I suspect that the improved out-of-the-box performance of the HSB2 was due to the substitution of gold-plating for silver. If true, it would mean that the initial lack of upper frequencies during break-in on the HSB1 had been due to material transitions rather than micro fractures. The result being that the HBS2 makes the running-in period faster and more pleasant.
Similar to the HSB1 during the initial stages of warming up, the HBS2 started with a solid mid-band and a slight emphasis of the upper vocal section. This upwards shift can possibly be attributed to the still obvious lack of deep bass during the break-in-phase.
If solid core silver cables have a musical signature of their own, this would have to be the no-frills assertive manner in which they bring forth the music. Right from the first few seconds of playback, it was clear to me that this cable holds the reigns tight and drives the ensemble forward. I had never heard such clenched determination from a multi-strand. The HBS2 thrusts piano notes forward with might and bone-chilling timbre, which made it difficult not to look up from writing this text to smile with content. With their 2 Volts of line output, digital sources (CD player, streamer, etc.) are useful companions for running in interconnects, as they offer just enough energy to speed up the process. And our Rega Planet 2000 staged a soulful performance with Naim Audio’s 2009 “Phantom Limb” CD. The recording itself is on the compressed and bright side on any of our CD players, but voices and instrumentation are ferocious and loud, and that is just what was needed to chase the Caveman out of Bristol.
After a few days of playing, bass became layered and more extended. This helped female voices to find their natural timbre. Piano sounds were still astounding, but they were no longer as piercing as they had been at the beginning. When it comes to burn-in characteristics, the lower frequencies took their time to develop, similar to my experience with the gold-plated HBS1. I love the no-frills sound of both these interconnects. If there is an audible difference between the two cables, it is that the HBS1 sounds more extended in the bass, plays slightly fuller, darker, and softer. The HBS2, on the other hand, seems more agile and responsive. It makes the music seem closer, more tangible, three-dimensional, and highly engaging. Which is better? Well, in a double-blind test between the cables, my wife Sabina suggested that the HBS1 had the feel of a dark and vaulted Jazz club, whereas the HBS2 was more similar to an open concert stage. I could not find a more fitting description.
At this point, some of the perceived difference between the cables might still be caused by the two months lead of the HBS1 in terms of running-in time. However, I doubt that the basic difference in character will dissolve completely. To be absolutely sure, I will need to compare these two interconnects again in a few months time. If my impression should then change, I will gladly revise my findings.