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: Gear & Review
It was one of those moments in which anything seems possible and time is irritably suspended while we attempt to determine whether our last move was either utterly ridiculous or absolutely brilliant. Are you familiar with such moments? It seems they usually occur when stepping onto new terrain, especially when brushing against the grain of popular belief. Well, who would ever do that?
Guess no further, because, with this page bearing ‘explorations’ in the title, stepping onto new terrain is precisely what we aim to do, and if we can take down established myths in the process, all the better. However, as we shall see, the subject at hand is especially tricky, because the HiViLux Reference Digital Coax Cable, as it is called, has quite a number of firm (and very vocal) convictions to brush against. For one thing, there is the ‘cables-don’t-matter’ corner, which is made up of audio enthusiasts who have personally never made a test between two cables but will not tire of predicting that they would not hear a difference, even if they tried.
Then there is the ‘digital-is-digital’ corner made up of technically-minded people who claim that the reduction to zeros and ones will make signal loss a thing of the past or that it at least cannot have an influence on audio performance. In the third corner are the ‘if-I-don’t-know-it-it-can’t-be-good’ people. They usually deny that they are even sitting in this corner. And, finally, there is the ‘if-it’s-cheap-it-can’t-be-good corner’, made up of high-brow rather than high-end audio gurus who have bought their way out of the reach of ordinary people and have since come to fear anything that might lessen their monetary lead on the rest of us.
Perhaps now you can imagine the forces against me, as I was unpacking the mid-market coax cable from a new manufacturer to replace a digital cable that I already owned (and that appeared to be working just fine), all in the hope of experiencing a revelation. However, I figured the following: If this cable performed as well as the one I already owned, I would have two cables to connect two devices to our DAC, and the money would not be wasted. And if it performed better, even just a little bit better, victory would be mine, as quality in music reproduction often happens in incremental steps but ends up being purely magical in the sum.
At that point I had already read a lot about OCC copper, and somehow, this ‘new’ type of pore-free copper conductor had made a lot of sense to me. As I had learnt, OCC stands for “Ohno Continuous Cast” and bears the name of the inventor of its manufacturing process. A process by which copper wires are not only produced to keep them oxygen free, as is usual in Oxygen Free Copper or OFC, but also grain boundary free, as if the whole strand was made of one continuous copper crystal, reaching a purity of 99.9997%.
With this new awareness, I had searched the web for OCC interconnects from time to time, only to find overpriced or suspiciously cheap offers, nothing that I really trusted to produce quality results. Until I had finally come across HiViLux cables with their Chinese-owned home cinema shop in Germany. Curious about their offers, I had checked the design of the cables. Their Reference Digital Coaxial Cable had struck me as being well-built and realistically priced so that I had dared to make a purchase. It seemed to me that their range of cables was rather to enhance the sales of their other gear, a fact that seemed convincing.
And, there I was, holding my sturdy-looking cable box bearing the HiViLux logo, not yet sure which of the four ‘corner-jocks’ I would fall prey to first. The cable itself was of impressive 1.4cm diameter and the quality of manufacturing appeared to be excellent. Thick as it was, it proved to be more difficult than usual to arrange behind the rack, and the turn-fastening plugs were a little tight when pushing them onto the cinch/RCA sockets. I had to take especially good care not to break anything. I positioned the HiViLux Reference cable between our Denon DCD 1420 CD-player and our Cambridge Magic DAC 100. The cable to be replaced was a four-times shielded coax that had also been designed for quality SPDIF connections. ‘Music playback’ had been listed among the purposes of use. In this combo of CD player and cable, the DAC had already outperformed the internal one of the CD player with sufficient musicality, offering an increase in stage and dynamics.
Hooking up the HiViLux Reference brought about some surprising revelations that changed our understanding of the setup. For one thing, there was a sudden and significant increase in musicality, dynamics, space between the instruments, and the general ability for the system to breathe. The difference was so intense, and the colours of instruments were so real, that I had a hard time believing that this could all be attributed to the cable design. Something else had to have changed along with the cable, and I soon found out what this was: namely, the presence of a second cable on the DAC’s two coaxial SPDIF inputs. Since I had not yet disconnected the original cable and simply used the second input, both inputs were now connected and thereby sealed off. And it seems this is what the Cambridge DAC needed to function properly. For the DAC to perform well, we should have used a 75 Ohms plug to seal off the open input. This means we had never heard the DAC working properly before and had not been aware of what it was truly capable of. One cannot help but wonder how many owners of this DAC are in that same position.
But, just as clearly, the other 50% of the audible improvements could be attributed to the HiViLux coax cable which corrected the sonic colours, especially those of metal instruments and percussions, to put life-like performances into the room as we had never heard before. On 2Cellos’s album “In2ition” the instruments appeared to be much larger than I was used to, and I heard nuances that had simply been missing before. Familiar songs that had long since lost their lustre for me were highly entertaining once again. Jamie Saft’s album “Loneliness Road” seemed more vibrant and now offered a deeper and wider soundstage. Percussion had a timbre to it that I had only heard during live performances until that day. On Boris Blank’s album “Convergence”, individual samples became visible as such, and it was possible to hear right through to the bottom of the recording.
It took several hours for the fresh-out-of-the-box cable to fully come to life. In the very beginning it seemed slightly analytical with an overly tight bottom end. However, this quickly subsided for a full and lush sound that had me coming back for more over the next few days. What took me by surprise was that the increase in punch and musicality was a more pronounced step up than we had felt when moving from the Tannoy 6 to the larger Tannoy 8 speakers. There was simply more of everything, and for the first time I had the impression of listening to a genuine high end system with every component, from CD-drive all the way to the speakers, being able to show that a great system is so much more than the sum of its parts. At its current market price, this cable offers more than the usual performance and will be a good point of reference when deciding on other components.
Note: Not all HiViLux ‘Reference’ cables are at the same quality level as their digital cable. Happy with my first purchase, I tested a pair of cinch/RCA interconnects of the same design which only gave a rather restrained performance. Their golden plugs showed signs of tarnishing from sudden temperature changes during transport (I used baking soda to restore the shine), one cable was actually 1 cm shorter than the other (!), and the ferrite rings had been fitted at random. The latter of which were probably to blame for the restrained sound. I returned the cinch/RCA interconnects after two days of trying them in different positions. Sadly, they underperformed our existing interconnects in all possible positions and combinations.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Phono Cartridges
Audio Technica’s VM95 E is an entry-level moving magnet cartridge that succeeded the widely known AT95 E in 2019. The new design includes improvements to the elliptical stylus, which is now thinner, as well as a higher output voltage. The new VM95 engine supports a whole range of compatible styluses, which should make upgrades a little cheaper and more convenient, compared with having to replace the whole cartridge. The available styluses range in 6 steps from simple conical design to complex 'shibata' (patented cut). While the lower-range styluses are bonded to the shaft using a type of solder, the higher-range ones are joined directly, i.e. ’nude’.
The VM95 E is equiped with the second possible entry-level stylus and already shows some marked improvements to the discontinued AT95 E, although it maintains some of the typical traits that are to be expected from an elliptical bonded design. Especially when coming from the more sophisticated styluses such as the micro-linear or the shibata, the AT95 E lacks some of the clarity and nuance that the higher up versions are capable of. On Katie Melua’s 2020 “Album No. 8”, for instance, the music appears to be more compressed. A general lack of sonic detail makes her voice seem less revealing and therefore not as intimate as we are used to from the micro-linear stylus.
While there is still sufficient space between the instruments, poorer recordings will more easily sound muffled and restrained. Voices are portrayed in a tonally balanced and full-bodied fashion, however, which is certainly a strength. I feel the VM95 E plays voices tonally more accurate than some of the higher versions, as there is no trace of nasal effects. On the down-side, the elliptical stylus can produce sibilant vocals, as is the case on my not-so-great pressing of Norah Jones’s “Come Away with Me” album, which is still fun on the ML stylus and only just bearable on the E version.
While bass performance is accurate and certainly fuller and more present than on the former AT95 E, bass nuance, extension, and detail is sometimes missing, especially in direct comparison with the higher-priced versions. And this is arguably the aspect that makes it the most difficult for the entry-level AT95 E: the stylus competition that is based on the same engine. When we started our explorations with the AT95 E two years earlier, I did not think I would mind the lack of detail for as long as the music was tonally balanced. Coming from the more recent and more capable ML version on our other system, however, now makes it less enjoyable to listen to AT95 E. Not because it puts up a poor performance, but simply because I have meanwhile come to enjoy the more sophisticated sound, which, sadly, is a well-known audiophile's dilemma: "Once you have heard it, there is no going back."
Character: a solid tracker with occasional sibilance, semi-revealing of musical detail, full-bodied, warm and leaning towards neutral, musically balanced
Unit 5, Millennium Way
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Phono Cartridges
The Audio-Technica Corporation is a Japanese manufacturer of phono cartridges, turntables, headphones and professional microphones. The company has its headquarters in Tokyo and launched its first products, the AT-1 and AT-3 MM phono cartridges, in 1962. Its most notable devices include a long list of headphones, a portable record player, and also some phone cartridges. Among the latter was to be found the entry level AT-95 E which became renowned for its outstanding quality-to-price ratio and was therefore predestined as an entry-drug to audiophile listening.
The now discontinued AT-95 E set itself apart from the competition by featuring a more sophisticated elliptical stylus while its price competitors were still equipped with simpler conical or spherical styluses. The elliptical shape of the stylus allowed for more detail to be picked up from the record and made for excellent treble performance. The midrange was sometimes perceived to run a little thin and nasal. Bass performance on the other hand was tight, full-bodied, but not overly heavy or particularly noteworthy. The AT-95 E’s in-house competition came from the more expensive AT100E, which outperformed the entry level cartridge in most aspects.
With their new AT VM95 cartridge, Audio Technica have given the AT95 a long needed overhaul. The full cartridge name is comprised of the company acronym ‘AT’, the body or engine type ‘VM95’ and the type of stylus attached. On the AT VM95 ML, the final two letters stand for ‘Micro-Linear’, which is one of five possible stylus choices for the new VM95 engine. The ‘ML’ version is a dual moving magnet stylus construction with nude needle attachment and a micro-linear cut. ‘Nude’ means that the needle is attached directly, instead of being soldered onto the shaft.
From our own listening experience it can be said that the VM95 is a no-frills entry to mid-level engine with sufficient dynamic potential and average channel separation. It appears that the sound has been optimised for modern listening preferences in that it is balanced, detailed and forward sounding with all stylus combinations.
Paired with the ML stylus, the VM95 manages to present lots of detail from the record that simply remains hidden from the simpler stylus versions. The sonic impression is that the frequency band is extended, revealing even the tiniest nuances in the music. With the ML stylus, cymbals sound more delicate and ring much longer than on the lower cartridge versions, and no two drum beats sound the same. There is more insight into the various playing styles of other instruments as well: piano keys sound a little softer, and there now is a marked difference of duration and force on each one.
Voices sound full and warm with no traceable bias to my ears. Female solo artists appear to have more air in their lungs and to carry notes longer and with greater accuracy than I have ever heard on any other medium, such as CD or streaming. Despite this amount of delicacy and detail in the presentation, we could detect hardly any mechanical noise coming from the record itself. Instead, the record remained ultra silent with only the music in the listener’s focus.
With the ML stylus it is easy to hear right through poor recordings. Although I have found both new and old recordings to play well, the ML stylus sounds best with more recent productions that also take into consideration the more revealing nature of today’s equipment. Listening to Bob Seger’s “Greatest Hits” album for instance, the ML stylus made the limitations of the original recording far more obvious than the elliptical ‘E’ stylus would have done. On Katie Melua’s newly released “Album No. 8” the voice comes across in a strange combination of purity and a silvery overtone that seems to stem from the studio microphone design. One needs to at least be aware that opting for the micro-linear or Shibata stylus versions for the VM95 engine will bring a great deal of detail to the music that may become a blessing or a nuisance depending on the quality of your gear and the quality of the recording.
The AT VM95 ML is also capable in terms of bass notes. While bass can certainly swell and become both loud and full, this is never coincidental and always with good measure. Instead of sloppy bass, the cartridge sheds as much light on bass notes as it does on the highs and the midrange. There is lots of bass contour and very little else to be desired for. The music easily manages to free itself from the loudspeakers and becomes a true performance. There is always sufficient flow with plenty of dynamics, although the AT VM95 ML to my ears could be slightly less academic and more engaging perhaps. However, due to its ability to present lots of musical detail, the ML version will bring even rather boring performances back to life.
Sound: Silent on the record, revealing and highly nuanced, warm and leaning towards neutral, controlled and well-contoured bass
Unit 5, Millennium Way
Sound impressions based on the following system: Lenco L75 record player, Restek V1 preamplifier, Hafler XL 280 power amplifier, Tannoy XZ8F loudspeakers.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Audiophile Music
"Turn up the Quiet" is Diana Krall’s 13th studio album and has been my personal reference medium for testing new HiFi equipment for some years now. When listened to over a car stereo or a mediocre home system, much of the album’s subtle charm may go unnoticed, but if the system is up to par, there is great tonal balance and spacial accuracy in this recording.
Released on 5 May 2017, "Turn up the Quiet" is a collection of 11 Jazz standards which Diana Krall interprets alongside some of the best Jazz musicians of our time. Among these are Christian McBride, Russel Malone, Jeff Hamilton, and John Clayton Jr. The music comes across as effortless and compelling, as both playful and mature. It is easy to forget one is listening to HiFi gear and to just focus on the music instead — if the setup is right.
Turn up the Quiet is a studio album that has been arranged around Diana’s voice. Consequently, the voice is presented louder than it would be in a live performance. This means the album should be played at around 70-80 dB living room volumes for it to be realistic. If you listen louder, the voice starts to sound unnatural, drawing too much attention to small clicks and pops happening left and right of Diana’s tongue.
In summary, it can be said that Turn up the Quiet is a high quality studio album that should easily satisfy critical ears, for as long as it is played at realistic volumes with the singer’s voice as focal point. The album can be helpful in detecting flaws such as tonal coloration, etc., in the system and is also wonderful to enjoy on a well-balanced system. When I sometimes read in forums that people’s reference tracks are to be found on the tenth remastering of Dire Straits or Pink Floyd albums, here is something more modern to consider.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Audiophile Music
Christian McBride — Live at the Village Vanguard. A must for all Jazz enthusiasts who are into live and authentic small club performances. Published by Mac Avenue Records in December 2014, the high quality double album stretches over nearly 70mins.
While the recording itself was compiled from three consecutive live sessions, listening to the full album appears natural and seamless. As is typical for performances of this nature, the music grows on you while it becomes more familiar, to the point where you can allow yourself to dissolve in the moment.
Although ‘Live at the Vintage Vanguard’ is completely instrumental, it is easy to enjoy the brief episodes of spoken English, listening to Christian introduce the band, or thank everyone for coming. The album closes with renditions of “Down by the riverside” and “Car wash” and manages never to be boring despite these familiar tunes. Great job and wonderful on vinyl. Enjoy.