Contrary to popular belief, there is only a relatively loose connection between the technical specifications of an audio device and its ability to play music in an authentic fashion. Manufacturers today mostly compete with a range of similar audio devices on the market and need to attract buyers who will mostly be unable to hear the actual product, let alone test it out in their domestic environment, before making their purchase. In this scenario, customers will be comparing the technical specifications of a device rather than the product’s ability to convey the recorded music event with lifelike musicality.
Before the receiver wars of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and even more so before we started comparing prices and purchasing products online, HiFi electronics mostly had to compete with music events and the sounds produced by real-life instruments. Judgement on the performance of audio equipment was based on the ability to satisfy the human ear rather than ultra clean measuring results that would out-spec the competition. Tube amplifiers are a relict of such times, in that they provide more joy to the listener than they do to the reader of their data sheets. Even today, true High End manufacturers will place more emphasis on the subjective human perception of sound than on the objective data that is derived from measurements. Not surprisingly then, the merits of a given audio device are entwined with the personal history and motivation of the people who have spent much of their professional lives to create it.
I must confess that I am still a relative ‘newbie’ to the subject of turntables. Like most turntable owners around in the 80s, I was excited about the emergence of the new, super silent, digital technology that came in the shape of a shiny and more compact disc. And, honestly, at the affordable price range of an adolescent, the CD performed much better. I consequently sold my record player in the early 90s, never to look back until ... summer 2018, when we found a 1972 Philips 212 deck in our grandpa’s basement.
Lots of time reading and experimenting has passed since then. The Philips needed a new belt, bracket, and cartridge. We lubricated the moving parts, upgraded the internal wiring, and changed the output terminal from 5-pin DIN to RCA/cinch sockets. We checked the platter speed, corrected the azimuth, as well as the offset and rake angle. We made sure that the turntable was placed on non-resonant footing and was level with the ground. The result is astounding, and for the first time, our turntable actually does sound more impressive than CD, if the record itself is of a good pressing. Since buying a well-engineered LP can be a bit of a gamble, it is a good idea to share personal experience on sound quality, as I have started doing here.
The Lenco shown here was our second project. Once famous as a well-built budget player with surprising sound quality, it arrived here in pretty poor condition. We have had to remove motor noise, bring in new blocks, and adjust the other parameters described above to uncover its potential. The investment of time and effort has not been in vain. For audiophile listening, turntables should not be underestimated.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Fritz and Marie Laeng founded the Lenco turntable company in Burgdorf, Switzerland in 1946. The name Lenco was derived from the Laeng’s family name, largely due to Marie’s initiative. In the time before turntable production in Burgdorf, the Laeng couple had already been fascinated with audio technology and had been running an electrical business since 1925. The Laeng’s genuine enthusiasm for sound reproduction resulted in reliable quality products and excellent service for the few units that were returned to the factory for reworking. Lots of passion, high quality, and excellent service proved to be a solid foundation for success, and the company soon opened a second factory in Italy to satisfy the growing demand.
Lenco partnered with specialist companies in the production of accessories that they could not easily produce themselves. Komet was a specialist for tube amplifiers and supported Lenco in producing turntable & amplifier combinations. Another, perhaps more famous, partner was Goldring, a specialist manufacturer of phono cartridges. Some Lenco turntables were marketed bearing the Goldring logo. In doing so, the lesser known Lenco of Switzerland was able to benefit from Goldring’s established sales network, a circumstance that made it easier for Lenco to reach out to customers around the globe. Within just a couple of years, Lenco was able to generate sales in more than 80 countries.
Sadly, Marie Laeng died at a particularly vulnerable time for the company, during the oil crisis of 1974. She had been the heart and soul of the operations, and the business was now simultaneously hit from at least two directions: a declining global economy and the loss of their chief motivator. A third hit was then caused by the influx of cheaper priced electronics from newly rising Asian countries that turned out to be the winner of Europe’s new price driven economy. Lenco AG Burgdorf declared bankruptcy in 1977, with the newly formed Lenco Audio AG taking over existing service agreements and completing what was to be the final generation of Lenco products.
The Lenco L75 was built from the early 1970s and designed to meet the challenges of a price driven market. Just affordable enough to be purchased by university students, it was designed with the intention of bringing audiophile sound quality made in Switzerland to a young consumer group. Despite the ever so slight rumble coming from the sturdy idler wheel drive construction, the woodcased Lenco included some welcome features, such as a floating cabinet, a newly designed tone arm with visible anti skating weight, and four playing speeds ranging from 78 RPM all the way down to 16 RPM. Available accessories included a strobe speed control disk for fine adjustment, a record sweeper with fixture on the deck, and record clamps to reduce vibrations. Today, the L75 ranks among the best idler turntables ever made. Especially audiophile listeners hold the L75 in high esteem, knowing well that even the considerable success of the L75 in the end was not enough to save the failing company from extinction.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Built from 1971 to 1976, the Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic turntable is still considered to be among the best Philips turntables ever made. Better known as Philips 212, the unit has achieved somewhat of a cult status among vinyl fans and vintage collectors. Key features include a floating suspension of the platter and sub chassis that provides excellent shock protection and capacitive touch keys featuring green backlights. The unit shown here was built in 1972 and, with some maintenance, is still running smoothly without any audible noise coming from the bearings or motor.
The floating sub chassis results in a very low rumble value, and the light weight aluminum platter works quite well and does provide an interesting alternative to the more common approach of providing more mass to the platter and chassis. Playing speeds are set at 30 and 45 RPM and pitch can be independently (!) adjusted for both speeds. The Philips 212 came fitted with Philips’ own GP400 cartridge which was durable but little adapted to audiophile needs. The company’s own upgrade was the GP401 which offered greater sonic accuracy and detail.
On the unit shown here, the GP400 was replaced by an Audio-Technica at-VM 95 E pickup. The Philips 22 GA 212 headshell can easily be removed by pulling it out forwardly from underneath the tonearm bracket along with the wiring. A welcome feature, for owners who wish to have multiple cartridges at hand. The modern Audio-Technica easily outperforms both the GP400 and GP401. It provides an honest well-detailed and lavish sound, perhaps with a slight tendency to sounding unrefined. There are better cartridges in the Audio-Technica range, all of them being quite affordable, but considering the lightweight tonearm’s limitations of adjustment and control the VM 95 E is certainly a risk free choice. The original 5-pin DIN plug on this unit was replaced with Neutrik cinch/RCA connectors.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Following the sale of our Tannoy DC6t speakers to a fellow audiophile in northern Germany, I again had some money to spend on explorations. Looking for improvements to make on our HiFi setup, I decided that much could be gained from upgrading the record player on our main system. While our Philips GA 212 still put out a solid performance, its tonearm and chassis did have some limitations in terms of cartridge upgrades, etc. For vinyl to sound even better, it was high time to change to a more sophisticated concept altogether.
I scanned the web for vintage offers and asked friends for suggestions. Among our choices were the typical Dual, Thorens, Denon, Technics and Micro Seiki brands, all offering well-known classics in their own right, but none of the more affordable ones looked attractive to me, until I came across an unlikely contender in the upper mid-market segment, the Sansui SR-525 DD. Based on a similar chassis and tonearm design as Sansui’s SR-323 belt-driven turntable, the SR-525 offers some significant upgrades, such as the quietest direct drive motor of its time and a quartz speed control with built-in strobe light. The technology is state of the art, especially for a 1976 machine, and I have read nothing but praise about this player.
This is no surprise, really. The Sansui Electric Company was founded by Kosaku Kikuchi in Tokyo, Japan in 1947. Similar to many of his contemporaries, Kosaku cut his teeth in the industry by manufacturing transformers and simple radio parts, until he realised that fluctuation in the quality of components was making it difficult for manufacturers to consistently assemble high quality devices. Kosaku therefore determined that Sansui should prioritise product quality over manufacturing cost. Later, as Sansui diversified into more complex products, this focus on quality proved to be beneficial to the reputation of the brand.
By 1954, Sansui was manufacturing preamplifiers and amplifiers that were sold both as kit for home assembly and as finished product. Although the first units were based on mono tube designs, stereo tube systems were introduced in 1958. By the mid-60s, Sansui’s internal and external design choices had earned the company a solid reputation for high quality audio products. It was at this time that the company started producing its iconic black-faced AU-series amplifiers. Among these were to be found many units that can well be classified as ‘High End’ and remain much sought after by audio enthusiasts until this day. The company produced its first turntable in 1967, a full nine years before the SR-525 came to life.
I found our SR-525 at a vintage HiFi dealer in Mannheim called ‘Goldladen’, combining the family name of its owner with the German word for shop. And although I had to pay a little extra for buying from a proper retailer, I liked the idea that I could drive there and inspect it, before making a purchase. Upon arriving at the shop, I found the Sansui to be in absolutely mint condition. With the platter raised, it was impossible to tell, if the motor had ever run, and there were hardly any scratches on the cover either. Standing in front of the SR-525, there is very little in its design, touch, and feel that makes it out to be a vintage player. In its simplicity and dark grey paint coat, it rather resembles the players around the turn of the century. The only item that gives it away are the clunky rubber feet, perhaps. But they do a fabulous job in keeping the record from skipping.
The tonearm is of sophisticated design with a suspended anti-skating weight and an additional lateral weight to keep resonances at bay. Its S-shape assures that the stylus angle is nearly perfect over most of the record’s surface. The Sansui’s total weight of nearly 10kg provides a solid base to absorb vibrations of any kind. At its original German sales price of 865,00 DM, it was nearly 200 DM more expensive than the belt-driven Philips, and this really shows. Other models in the SR series were the belt driven 323, the similar but wood finished 626, and the higher specced 929.
Do you have some personal experience with Sansui turntables? Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below. Your perspective will be highly appreciated.
Tel.: 0151 241 643 55
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Following the stellar performance of our 1977 Sansui SR-525 direct drive turntable, I began scanning the web for other direct drive contenders from the 70s. And, since Technics had been the company to invent the direct drive concept, I was curious to learn how their turntables compared against the formidable standard set by our Sansui. By the 1970s and 80s, Technics decks had earned a reputation for being at the cutting edge of turntable technology. In addition to introducing and refining the direct drive, a design by which the motor shaft itself serves as the axis of the turntable platter, Technics was also credited with being among the first manufacturers to bring the sophisticated S-shaped tonearm to the mass market. I therefore decided that a Technics deck would be a worthy contender for exploration.
The brand’s most iconic turntable is arguably the SL-1200. To my knowledge, it is also the longest turntable in production. It first came out in October 1972, just one month after I was born, and continued to be in production until 2010. After a six-year break during the vinyl crisis, production resumed in 2016. Although primarily intended as a high fidelity consumer record player, the SL-1200’s superb build quality and high torque motor made it an instant success with radio stations and club disk jockeys. To date, more than 3 million units of this player have been sold. And, considering that it is back in production, we are still counting. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that an SL-1210 turntable is on display at the London Science Museum, as one of the icons that have shaped our modern world.
Since so much had been said and written about the SL-1200, prices for them used were quite high at my time of searching. This was even true for specimens that were in relatively poor shape and had been dragged around clubs, etc. Regardless of the condition, the name alone seemed to validate a higher price. I therefore decided to look for Technics turntables that offered a similarly sophisticated design but were missed by mainstream attention. I soon learned that the Technics 1310 offered much of the same technology that is found on its famous sibling, but this at a far lower price tag. And, due to its mostly domestic use, chances of this player having been dragged from club to club were rather slim. It appeared to me that the major differences between the two decks rested on their ability to absorb chassis resonances, to maintain exact speed in the event of physical force against the platter, and in the stress resistance of their lower chassis. In all these disciplines, the SL-1200 clearly had the upper hand.
And still, the SL-1310 can rightfully be considered an audiophile record player, even if it was not built to be carried around as a professional DJ or radio player. For my intended usage in our domestic environment, the SL-1310 had all the relevant features without the high price tag of its sturdier sibling. I began to narrow my search to the SL-1310 and noticed that cracked lower chassis were the norm rather than the exception. It seemed to me that the combined weight of the aluminium top casing and platter were simply too much weight for the lower plastic chassis to carry, especially when the Technics was moved carelessly. Other specimens had ugly scratches along the front or showed some discolouration of the body paint where they were mostly touched. Some had missing or broken dust covers, faulty mechanisms, or were simply missing the cartridge or stylus. On the positive side, most of these symptoms were relatively easy to spot. I therefore decided that I would focus on SL-1310s that were visually intact and would then see to it that functionality was properly restored.
The specimen that I ended up buying seemed to offer both. Its body and cover were in excellent condition with just a tiny hairline scratch at the front. It was still fitted with the original Shure M75 cartridge and ED stylus, a clear indication that this player had not been used much. There was no damage to the lower plastic body. The price still was relatively high, considering that the player was nearly half a century old, however, I decided to be open-minded during my visit to the owner. If the condition was as described, perhaps the higher price was justified.
Upon arrival, I found the player set up in the basement. It was connected to power but without an audio signal connection. I was informed that the owner had sold all his original HiFi components and moved on to more convenient Bluetooth devices. The SL-1310 was the last remaining item from the glory days of high fidelity. And although he remembered his turntable to have been in working condition when he had stowed it away some seven years earlier, we found that many of the original functions were no longer intact. The automatic cueing did not meet the start of the record. Instead, the stylus landed somewhere between songs, regardless of the disc diameter setting. We managed to set the speed for 33 rpm correctly, but all attempts failed when trying to stabilise the record speed for 45 rpm. A little confused by the number of issues, we estimated the price of repair, and he offered to deduct these costs from the offer price. Under these circumstances, I was happy to agree to the deal.
Upon connecting the Technics at home, I discovered that the player’s left audio channel failed after a few minutes of playing. I managed turn it back on by re-connecting the cinch cable, but shortly after, the left channel failed again. Unlike our Sansui SR-525, all Technics decks of the period came equipped with non-detachable cinch/RCA interconnects, a factor that made it difficult to locate the left channel’s contact issue and also seemed a hindrance to upgrading the sonic ability of the player. I therefore made a list of all defects and added to this the need for proper cinch/RCA sockets to be installed. Luckily, our trusted mechanic for such audio matters had some time available, and I drove by for a visit the next day.
In terms of product innovation, the SL-1310 carried the direct drive concept one step further than the original designs. While most record players of the time, including the Sansui, had their large motors sitting centrally under the platter, a concept that required a certain minimum height, the revised Technics design used the platter itself as rotor and the player’s chassis as the stator. The turntable could therefore have a lower silhouette, used fewer parts, dissipated less heat, lowered electricity consumption to less than 0,1 watts, and decreased resonances. Speed-accuracy was class-leading at the time, at just 0.1% error over 30 min playing time. It is often said that disc-cutting lathes of the time were less accurate than this. Due to the slow-revolving motor, rumble was found mostly outside the relevant frequency band, namely from 20 - 35 Hz. The two peaks measured are at around 22 and 34 Hz. And of course, the iconic Technics platter showed a wide tapered rim with strobe markings for 33-1/3 and 45 rpm synchronisation at 50 or 60 Hz, i.e. four dotted lines in total.
As it turned out, our SL-1310 was mostly suffering from corrosion to the switches that had accumulated over the years. This was most likely facilitated by moisture while being stored in the basement. We discovered that most switches could be taken apart to be serviced. Only one of them, the one to set the record size, was beyond repair and needed replacement. Two holes were bored into the back of the turntable to hold the new cinch/RCA sockets. This step enabled me to use my own interconnects with this player, a seemingly small improvement but with a major impact on sound. The faulty left channel turned out to be caused by a loose connection inside the Shure cartridge itself. It was decided that we would heat the relevant pin with a soldering iron, until we could push the pin a few millimetres into the cartridge housing. The trick worked, and both channels played music again.
Back at home, I connected the Technics SL-1310 to our office system and was very pleased with the way it performed and handled. I set the 'Memo-Repeat' dial to 'three (3)' and the platter started spinning silently. I then pulled the lever downwards to the 'Start' position. The player reacted by gently lifting the tonearm and setting it down at the start of the first title. I noticed that the placing of the needle could have been a bit gentler, perhaps. However, the small thump it produced was still within reasonable limits. The Shure M75 with elliptical stylus used to be a mid-market cartridge back in the day and could not rival the Shure V15 that was found as standard on German-made High End Dual turntables. However, in typical Shure fashion, the M75 ED put forth a warm and delicate sound with long-trailing decay. It may not have exhibited the bass-slam of the Shure 6S, but it did play accurately and endearingly. It seemed to me that upgrading to the V15 cartridge, perhaps with a Jico replacement stylus would be a welcome but costly alternative for a later day.
The Technics SL-1310 itself could certainly do with some additional decoupling of the chassis. Right from the start, I noticed that any touching of the rack had a similar popping effect as the touching of a microphone. This effect vanished completely, after I placed the Technics on four Oehlbach isolation pads. Since the player is rather heavy with its aluminium platter and aluminium top-chassis, it remains wonderfully stable, despite the inherent softness of the pads. Among the features that I enjoy most about this player are its automatic functions that keep me from having to crawl into the small space under the slope of the roof where our system stands, and its life-like three-dimensional presentation of the music. Paired with our Hafler XL-280 power amp and Tannoy speakers, a deep holographic image of the stage is projected into the room right in front of me. Not bad at all, especially for a deck that is nearly half a century old.
Type: fully automatic direct drive turntable
Platter: 312 mm aluminium diecast
Speeds: 33 and 45 rpm
Motor: ultra-low speed, brushless DC
Motor Power Consumption: < 0,1 Watts
Wow and flutter: < 0.03% WRMS
Rumble: - 70 dB
Tonearm: S-shaped, tubular, 4-pin connector
Effective length: 230 mm
Effective mass: 23g (incl. 6g cartridge)
Effective length: 230 mm
Tracking force adjustment: 0,25 to 3g by 0.1g
Cartridge weight range: 4,5 - 9g
Dimensions: (W) 430 x (H) 130 x (D) 375 mm
Power consumption: 8,0 Watts
Power Supply: AC 110 - 240V, 50/60 Hz
Weight: 9,4 kg
Year(s): 1975 - 1977
Some people will argue that the time of analog radio tuners is over and that there are better ways of receiving signals and processing these into sound. Yet, despite many announcements that analog radio will be phased out from our public broadcasts, analog radio is still the norm rather than the exception. This may have to do with the long signal reach into remote areas that are not yet covered by the digital network, it may have to do with the number of analog radios still out there, and it may also be a strange form of nostalgia.
Be that as it may, it is probably fair to say that the people who support analog radio for the sake of its sonic abilities are few and far between, although they may have a valid point here that should be more relevant than the others. On clear nights, analog sound still has its soft and special charme, simply because there is no translation into digital involved. And because of this, there is an element of a sweet caress to the ears that is more than romanticism in that it satisfied a longing that is very human indeed.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Nikko Audio was a division of the Japanese electronics company Nikko Electric Industry Co, which was formed in 1933 in Kanagawa. The company's audio components earned a good reputation, however the brand only reached a limited distribution and during a general decline in the market in the 90's, the division was forced to close.
The history of the Nikko Audio company reads like a rollercoaster ride between a genuine interest in high quality products and inexplicable failure in managing to sell these to the world. The original ‚Nikko Electric Works‘ was re-founded shortly after WW2 as a designer, manufacturer and installer of communication technology and electrical equipment in Japan. In those early years, Nikko mostly manufactured fuses for the Japanese National Railroad - until the daughter of the boss married a young audiophile lad who allegedly had "golden ears" and persuaded his father-in-law to put on a range of HiFi products, a process that began in the late 1960s. The son-in-law understood about good sound, but he was only marginally interested in the marketing of his products, so that he initially developed devices that were very good, but also very expensive and therefore difficult to sell.
With the Audio Division hardly generating enough income for itself in the 1970s, Nikko was forced to revise its strategy and spin off into various foreign subsidiaries. The product range was streamlined and most of the early High End gear was removed in favour of less expensive and therefore more marketable equipment. Although the product quality was easily able to keep up with the competition, they did not perform in terms of sales, which was mainly due to their overly conservative appearance. In contrast to Sony or other big names with their brushed aluminium fronts, Nikko designers could not (or did not want to) follow this trend and therefore had a hard time holding their own in the market.
A later reorganisation of the product range saw the launch of compact equipment in the lower and medium price range. Nikko also entered the German market with these products, among others; they were introduced via various importers and then sold preferably via department store chains or mail order (i.e. the low-cost segment). Soon, a name and products that were still relatively unknown but that had been poised for greatness sold out to the market and the company finally closed business following the general market slump after the Asian flu at the end of the 90s.
The FAM 600 tuner shown here is of elegant design, not only from the outside, but also in terms of the simplicity found within. It came pre-equipped with outputs for quatrophonic users (the big idea at the time) and feels great in the choice of materials. The company’s High End origins still shine through on this device. Although there are better tuners e.g. in the higher Sansui price ranges, this unit offers a great way to experience analog radio at its best. As analog listeners will know, there is radio weather - and then there are those other times, when something is just not right in the universe. On good listening nights, the analog experience, if done right, has all the magic it takes for us to lose ourselves over and over again. connectors.
Moving clockwise from top center we can identify the back of the operating panel, the transformer and, below this, the circuit board of the customer made power supply. The 5-pin DIN is located in the bottom right corner, inconveniently just above the power cord. Antenna inputs are in the lower left corner and above these is the tuner's main board. The large tuning rotary capacitor is in the top left of the board. A copper sandwich floor protects the underside of the board from electrical interference with all the internal wiring remaining hidden from view.
The CD offers decent quality music in a compact digital format. It offers a 44.1kHz sampling rate at a depth of 16 bits per sample. The parameters were chosen to cover the full span of human hearing from 20Hz to 20kHz. While this should be enough to replicate most musical information in bits and bytes, in recent times, it is often produced using downsampling and/or bitrate reduction - e.g. when the master file is recorded at 192kHz sampling rate and a depth of 24bit, as is common in Jazz and Classical music. Attempts have since been made to increase the sampling rate and bit depths in formats such as SACD and BlueRay Audio, but these failed to reach a market that had already abandoned the high quality audio sector for high convenience audio, such as MP3 and music on demand services.
It is not surprising then, that sales of vinyl records have recently again surpassed those of CD, the first time in a quarter of a century. With audiophile listeners flocking to fashionable high-res streaming services, ownership has become a rare privilege and is best celebrated and contrasted by the meticulous ritual of playing and storing vinyl. Yet, in midst of all this, there is still lots of fun to be had with CD players, as there is more to setting them up and extracting an audiophile experience from them than may first meet the eye.
To have the most options, make sure that your CD player comes with a digital coax output in addition to the more common Toslink connector, as well as RCA/cinch, of course.
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: Gear & Review
Frederick Whitney Horn, an American entrepreneur, started the Nippon Denki Onkyo Kabushikigaisha in 1910 as a subsidiary of the Japanese Recorders Corp. Even before record players, cylinder recorders were common, and Denki Onkyo produced both the media and the players for them. Following mergers with other companies, the name was shortened to DEN-ON which later became Denon. The company was, next to Philips and Sony, a front runner in the development of digital technology and has made a name for itself as manufacturer of professional studio machines as well as HiFi products for the private user market.
The Denon track record of providing new ideas in music reproduction to the world is quite immense. In 1939, Denon manufactured the first (analog) disc recorder for use in the broadcast industry. In 1951, the company played a major role in selling the first long play records to the Japanese population. Two years later, Denon launched a well received line of reel to reel recorders for the broadcast industry. The first Denon HiFi components were launched in 1971. Among them were turntables, amplifiers, tuners, and speakers. In 1999, Denon produced the world's first THX-EX home theater system, in collaboration with Dolby Laboratories. Over the years, Denon has won many prizes for its outstanding contribution to the industry. Recent trends are up to 13-channel multi-channel and wireless multi room systems. Although the company has also produced some outstanding High End components, the bread and butter business has always been divided between their professional line and HiFi products for the broader consumer market.
Some of Denon’s outstanding consumer to High End products were, among many others: the TU 400 Stereo Tuner (1977): the rather peculiar two-coloured PMA 850 amplifier (1977); the DCD-1800 CD player (1985); the by any standard enormous POA-S1 mono power amplifiers (1996), and the Denon DL-103R Shibata cartridge for vinyl fans. The DCD-1420 that is shown here is not listed in the Denon Hall of Fame, as even at that time, there was the more sophisticated (10 Kg) DCD-1520 with better specifications. Despite its non-cult status, I decided to include it here, as it is a great player to begin your explorations in audio. It is well constructed, relatively easy to repair, nearly all parts for the laser drive can still be bought, and the usability is simply excellent. I love the fact that I automatically starts playing when I turn it on and that I can use the numeric keys on the unit to jump straight to the title, even if I do not have the remote at hand. The large display is dimmable and adaptable in content, which is useful for nightly sessions.
Going through the player’s internal DAC, the sound is detailed and leaning towards refined, but it feels a bit light and is lacking the stamina and tonal balance of higher priced units. Since the DCD-1420 has a digital coax connector, one can connect an external DAC, and this is where the fun begins. Putting the player on a base with absorbers and placing a ferrite clamp on the power cord inside the unit as well as outside, have greatly contributed to the musicality of the player + DAC combo. I might be a little biased, however, having owned three of these players over the years. All of them should still be playing just fine, I would assume.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Saul Marantz built his first audio product, the ‘Consolette’ preamp in Kew Gardens, New York. Although the Marantz Corporation today have their headquarters in Kanagawa, Japan, the Marantz success story began in America and reached its biggest relative success in the 1970s. Throughout its lifetime, the company formed joint ventures and changed owners many times. With the emergence of CD technology in the 80s, for example, Marantz partnered with Philips to manufacture CD players under the Marantz brand that were generally well received. Ownership was only transferred to Japan in 2001, when Marantz Japan bought the brand from Philips and, in the following year, merged with Denon to form the D&M Holdings Inc. After 28 years of partnership, Philips sold the remaining stakes it held in Marantz in 2008, and the Holding is today owned by Sound United LLC.
Among the company’s most noteworthy products are the Marantz 2325 and 2600 receivers, the CD63 and, more generally, the Ken Ishiwata signature product series, such as the Marantz PM-KI Ruby and the Marantz CD17-KI which is shown here. When it was released to the public at the end of the 1990s, the DC17 was already well-received by the audio world. With plenty of detail in treble, a clear and full mid range and Marantz-typical bass extension, the sound was described as ‘analog’ and attracted vinyl fans all over the world. However, there was also another aspect to the CD17 that was troubling audiophiles, as it also marked the departure from the fabled Philips swing-arm laser as well as other former brand features, such as diecast chassis and metal loaders. At the turn of the century, sales of high priced audio products were on the decline and cost driven choices became the new norm all around.
The CD17 Ken Ishiwata signature, 1997, is Marantz’s attempt to re-imagine a world in which cost cutting had not taken place. The ‘money-no-object’ approach did not mean a return to the swing-arm laser or diecast chassis, but it did introduce some interesting features, such as an upgrade to the drive unit, a full copper shielding of the interior, a toroidal transformer, upgrades to the analog stage, improvements on current noise cancellation, etc. The result is a super silent player with a sophisticated sound stage. Similar to the outer design of the unit, there is not much splendour or extravagance to the music, but if you prefer to be caressed rather than impressed, the Marantz CD17-KI is not a bad choice at all.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
I first came across the Philips CD 104 in the early 1990s, when a school buddy of mine was looking to buy a used CD player and asked me for support. Since he was a ‘Philips man’, we checked the journals for budget offers from this company and ended up visiting a CD 104 owner to audition his player. At the time, I was used to the soothing amber glow and sleek modern design of JVC players, and the Philips struck me as being smallish in size and particularly ugly. The buttons seemed oddly out of place. And yet—against my advice—my friend ended up buying the unit and seemed rather happy with his purchase. The player was 8 years old at the time, and I must have been around twenty.
Back then, I was still unaware that Philips had been the company to introduce the CD player to the world, alongside Sony, in 1982, or that the CD 104 had only been the company’s second model. And since my friend had carried the player out of the house by himself, I was also left unaware of the seven kilograms in weight that the compact design so cleverly concealed. As far as I could see, my friend had simply paid too much for outdated junk. All the more, I was surprised to see a rather beaten up looking CD 104 perched on a CREACTIV HiFi-rack at a fellow audiophile’s house—in fact, as the only CD player among some famous turntables and amps. “If done well, the 104 has the potential for greatness.” my friend insisted. I was highly sceptical. This was in 2015, the player was 31 years old, and I was around forty-three.
A few weeks after my visit to the audiophile friend, our 5-year-old Marantz SA 7003 CD player quit working for the second time. The first time had been due to belt failure, and this time the laser had settled and could no longer read any medium. I was furious, and we decided that we would sell it broken, fully prepared to take a hefty 500 EUR loss. To us, the Marantz was not worth repairing, as its transport had been rather loud from the very beginning, with the servo correction being constantly in action. Experiencing such poor quality from a well-known brand destroyed my trust in the achievements of modern HiFi. How was it possible, that a more than 30-year old player could read CDs completely without servo noise and access individual titles faster than a 2010 state-of-the-art Super Audio player? How could the old player run for a great number of years without service, while the new unit seemed to break down every two and a half years?
I did some research on CD players and found that modern machines, even High End ones, are of modular construction with standardised and highly integrated circuits. Manufacturers essentially purchase and combine finished modules, box them in some uniform housing and stamp their name on the units. Sadly, this is done without the manufacturer having much influence on the quality of the parts, nor on the unit’s abilities in terms of sound reproduction. For example, I found that the laser on the broken Marantz player had been built by Pioneer and that many products using this type of SACD laser ended up having the same issues. What is the point of buying a Marantz, one might wonder, if the essential parts in the machine come from other manufacturers and are destined to fail? To make matters worse, modular construction often means that items such as transport and control, D/A converter, S/PDIF decoder, clock and perhaps even the output stage are combined into a single module. This scenario does not leave much room for the manufacturer to intervene, augment and improve the sound.
In the late 70s, when Philips set out to build the CD 104, things were quite different. Because the technology was new, Philips had to take full control and responsibility over the whole process. The new technology still had to prove itself to audiophiles with the money to spend. For the offer price of over 2,000 DM, and with few discs available on the market, the vinyl record player was still hard to beat in terms of sound. Philips had to give their new creation all the love and attention they possibly could. The CD 104 has a full metal chassis and includes the CDM-1 transport that Philips developed by themselves. The basis of this is a cast-iron form which holds a sophisticated swing-arm laser paired with six Rodenstock glass-lenses. In terms of musicality, the CDM-1 is considered to be the best transport ever made. Following the audiophile rule of “garbage in = garbage out”, a flawless reading of the source material is the basis for musicality.
While Philips engineers included everything they understood about transport construction to get their first players right, the focus of later players was to make the technology more accessible to the average consumer, and this meant bringing costs down. Iron, metal and glass gave way to plastic. And, since software and electronics are cheaper in production than precision optics, modern CD players will correct the tolerance of mediocre transport optics by using their servo motors and error correction at full capacity. Since these features are on board anyway, they might as well have a job to do, right? Before customers notice the handicap, and before their players fail, the warranty period will have expired. This explains why we could hear the servo motors on our Marantz SA 7003 CD player from the very beginning, and perhaps also why the player failed after a short five years.
When the Philips CD 104 tray opens, the sound, speed, and grace is similar to that of a bank volt opening. I catch myself holding my breath each time, hoping that it will once again make the full journey, just as it has so dutifully done for four decades. The player that Luigi brought by our house for testing has been skilfully reworked and upgraded to combine the physical assets of the eighties with the electronic insights of today. And although we are not quite certain to which extent the upgrade was made, typical improvements include making full use of the CDM-1 transport and the player’s two legendary TDA1540 mono multi-bit DACs by eliminating the digital oversampling and the analog filter in the output stage. Eliminating S/PDIF and jitter, and correcting channel delay. Further upgrades may include replacing the analog output amp from the original 35 transistors version to just two high quality FETs per channel, improving internal shielding, wiring, etc. German mods are currently available from Roman Groß ‘New Perspectives on Sound’ and from ‘KR High End Laboratory’.
From the outside, our unit shows gold-plated RCA/cinch sockets in place of the formerly fixed cable and plugs, as well as a three-prong power socket to allow the connection of a higher quality cord. The finished player not only surpasses its original setup in terms of sound performance, it also beats most of today’s players in terms of tonality, nuance, soundstage, and musicality. If the 14-bit DAC was ever considered to be a handicap by hasty customers, I can assure you that no handicap is audible at all. In fact, the later Philips 16-bit TDA1541 DACs (corrected 31.05.2021: see below) were used in Sony’s High End players well into the 1990s, which says a lot about what Sony thought of the Philips DACs.
Although I was quite sceptical at first, just a few seconds of listening made it clear to me that this vintage player performs well above the level that I was used to from our Marantz CD-17, an audiophile legend in its own right. CD never sounded this good in our house. If Marantz’s CD-17 is best described as sounding ‘analog’ and ‘warm’, I would not even know how to attribute special character to the Philips CD 104 NOS modification, except to say that it sounds —real.
At the time of writing this, the player is 37 years old. And just last night, I showed it to my seven-year-old daughter, and she ended up dancing to an Alin Coen CD.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
It is sometimes suggested that the CD today is an outdated medium, and that its prescribed 16-bit, 44.1 kHz Red Book standard places it well below the musical abilities of other analog and digital devices. This is no wonder, of course, as today’s audiophile competition comes in form of high-resolution formats from digital streaming services and from the analog revival that, after decades of stagnation, has once again led to rising vinyl sales. In addition to this, the CD is sidelined by audio formats of lesser significance, such as Super-Audio CDs, DVD-Audio, reel-to-reel, etc.
And yet, the medium has a lot going for itself. For one thing, it is tangible. Touch is something that a subscription to Tidal or Amazon HD is sorely lacking. While it is true that many CDs are sitting on our shelves never to be heard again, there are currently around ten CDs in our home collection—mostly Jazz and vocal Jazz albums—that are getting all the attention they could ever ask for. And then there is the pride of ownership, of course, as the hunter-gatherer in me is enjoying the fruits of said labor. And—since the laser does not physically touch the track while reading—there is no immediate worry about deterioration either. In obvious contrast to vinyl, CDs do not suffer as much from the effects of repeat play.
Similar to records, audiophile CD players read the information straight from the disk and shy away from unnecessary storage or modulation of sound. They will expose the shortcomings of both the medium and the recording, important factors in providing a reassuring sense of realism and dimension. In contrast to vinyl, however, the CD itself does not contribute its own material resonances that would make it sound organic and therefore familiar to the human ear. Instead, CD data is likely to be affected by resonances emanating from the drive motor, the laser’s queuing mechanism, vibrations from the built-in transformer, and from other units in the rack. It can be said that all electronics and mechanics around the music information on a CD are larger, louder, and prepared to spoil the listening fun. And since the resulting effects are unfamiliar to the human ear, they can be deemed unpleasant. Still, the CDs biggest sonic advantages over modern streaming services are that it is both tangible and local. Its data stream does not depend on the integrity of various relay servers along the way to reaching our ears.
The first Rega Plant CD player came out in 1997, a time when the CD was at the height of its popularity, and four long years before the first mp3 players came to the market. Rega was already a familiar brand in the audiophile community. Founded in 1973, the British ‘Rega Research Ltd.’ had been known as a notable manufacturer of audiophile amplifiers, loudspeakers, and—most significantly—turntables long before they ever considered making a CD player. The famously affordable Planar 3 turntable had won Rega international recognition among vinyl enthusiasts and become a bedrock for analog playback. In addition to selling under their own brand name, Rega had also been asked to supply turntables, tonearms, and related parts to other brands, such as NAD and Rotel.
For a vinyl specialist to enter the CD player market, the company needed to come up with a convincing argument for its followers. The original Planet was marketed as offering true ‘vinyl-like’ sound made by a company that normally hated the sound of CD players. This created some curiosity, and the original Planet sold well, despite its quirky industrial look. It favoured musical flow over detail and achieved a soft top-end despite sounding a bit bland and crude, as some reviewers of the player have observed. Especially the lack of detail on the Rega's customised Burr Brown 16-bit DAC has sometimes been criticised as being outdated in more recent reviews.
The Planet 2000 brought about a major facelift to the original Planet. Instead of plastic, it is housed in a custom-built extruded aluminium case with a central top-loading lid. The 2000 uses similar circuit topology as the original Planet but features an improved DAC (Wolfson 24-bit, Sigma Delta IC40), power supply and coupling capacitors. Instead of a conventional iron core transformer, the 2000 version has a toroidal transformer with separate windings for the display and audio stages. Display and controls were also given a makeover, giving the Planet 2000 a better performance, look, and feel in comparison with its predecessor. However, while many things have been improved, the player does have some surprising quirks that make it difficult to compare the Rega design with more conventional front-loading players.
For one thing, the top-loading mechanism means that the Rega 2000 requires at least 20cm of rack space height for the lid to fully open. Due to some necessary adjustments made for the Rega, my rack only offers 17cm which makes changing CDs less than convenient. The drive itself sits in a plastic tray at the centre of the player’s aluminium case. Where it has not been painted, the plastic has become tobacco-coloured from UV radiation on one side. Both the front and rear panel are made of plastic. While the front panel has been painted in cabinet colour, the rear has been left unpainted and also shows discolouration. Although we hardly come in contact with the front or the back of the player during operation, the use of plastic on the front has proven to be somewhat disappointing.
The Planet’s CD drive holds the CD in a peculiar way. Similar to a turntable, there is a central prong surrounded by a cone-shaped centre that is sitting on a spring. The CD is placed on the cone and continues to wobble. Pushing the lid down then lowers a magnet onto the centre of the CD and pushes down the cone with the CD exactly centred, or at least this is the theory. In reality, CDs are sometimes slightly off axis, resulting in a wobble of the disk and the magnet on top. And since the top of the magnet is visible though the lid from the outside, one cannot help but wonder how long this will continue to go on well. While the Rega’s custom made Sony transport is surprisingly resilient in reading despite disk wobble, it is at times possible to hear the wobble in the music though strangely elongated, followed by compressed, passages. When the disk does skip, the jump is quite brutal and can misplace the laser by as much as half a song. To be fair, most CDs play with only a tiny amount of wobble, and of those that exhibit wobble, side effects will be minimal. But the player is far less forgiving than any CD player I have ever had. Playing a CD becomes as delicate a ritual as playing a vinyl record.
Due to the excessive weight of the magnet, the Planet 2000 is quite demanding in terms of proper placement in the rack. The drive is in the centre of the extruded aluminium case that channels vibrations along its curved sides down to the four rubber feet. In contrast to our other CD players, the Rega requires just the right amount of support to keep it still. My first attempt was to place it in our rack without the support a base, but this made the player sound harsh and agitated. I then brought in a base placed on Oehlbach spiked absorbers. The player sounded soft but exhibited serious timing issues that made me look for the quirks rather than listen to the music. I swapped the absorbers for Harder Oehlbach pucks which helped to improve timing but somehow resulted in a lack of bass. I finally placed the base directly on the rack and was surprised that this by far sounded the best.
I love the fact that the Planet 2000 allows us to connect a dedicated power cord. Sadly though, the central position of the socket makes it more challenging to avoid the touching of cables behind the rack, especially, since dedicated cords, such as Lapp Ölflex are quite stiff. Turning the player on and off is possible while preamp and power amplifier are turned on without any trace of popping. This excellent muting of the player during operational changes is definitely noteworthy and very practical. SPDIF, Toslink, and RCA/cinch sockets are available to allow for all kind of applications, however, the plugs are slightly recessed into the rear panel, which might render them inconvenient in combination with some types of plugs. They could also feel a little sturdier, perhaps. Although the display has its own source of energy from the toroidal transformer, the sonic effects of having the display switched on are still audible in a slightly compressed and hazy soundstage. The display-off function allows the display to be turned off during playback with a positive effect on the sound. And since one can hear the difference, with a system and ears so inclined, it makes sense to use the display-off feature. When this function is engaged, however, the display will only light up briefly to acknowledge remote commands. While this is quite convenient, the on-time is a little too short for me to read the title. The display itself is red and relatively dark when turned on. This makes it difficult to read over long distances.
For optimum performance, the Planet 2000 needs to be paired with an excellent interconnect. In my experience, simple copper cables will not be able to show its full potential and could be a reason for some private reviewers reporting a lack of detail. I have tested the player with different types of RCE/cinch-type interconnects, from solid core copper, via silver coated multi-stand copper, to solid core silver, and I can report that the ladder surpassed all other choices by far. Using the silver solid core HBS2, the 2000 is sufficiently forward sounding and creates a wide open sound stage with an broad and accurate phantom centre image. I have no complaints about the amount of detail. If a disc should wobble, this can be heard mostly through timing issues and alternating channel imbalances.
If the recording permits, the Planet 2000 offers a smooth flow of music with a refined top-end. It is not quite as lush as the Philips CD 104 (NOS mod.) player, nor does it bring the music forward with such ferocity. It does, however, offer sufficient bass if properly placed on the rack. The music it produces is tonality accurate on piano, voice, percussion. The overall impression is laid-back with a sufficient amount of entertainment to keep me interested during longer listening sessions.
The biggest downside to the Rega Planet 2000 appears to be the magnet that holds down the disc. Rega have physically decoupled the toroidal transformer from the main board and the CD transport. They have asked Sony to aid them in the development of a unique transport mechanism, and yet, a wobbly magnet brings a new uncertainty into the equation. Since the whole CD transport can be replaced in the form of a low-cost kit that is screwed under the loading mechanism, I will attempt to fix the issue with a new drive. But if the magnet itself is to blame for the wobble, this matter will need further attention. All said, attempting to fully restore the Planet 2000 is a worthwhile activity, as the player itself performs far better than the typical mid-priced CD player found on the market today. In keeping with the tradition of other British audio brands, this player offers a gutsy and unique design approach that merits further exploration and therefore fits well with our website motto.
A DAC is needed to convert digital signals coming from a CD player, a streamer, a laptop or a PC, and possibly many other sources, into an analog signal that can be processed by an analog preamplifier or similar device. As the digital signal is an approximation of an analog signal, there are some calculations involved. Finally, there is some foresight and sonic calibration necessary in the analog segment of the DAC to match the DAC’s output stage with the receiving device.
The magic comes into play, when we hook up our DAC to a high-quality CD player. Because in this setup both the bit depth and sampling rate of the medium are given facts. The question at hand being: Will the external DAC outperform the CD player’s internal DAC, and in which way? Granted, you probably have to be an audiophile nutter to enjoy this sort of challenge. But, boys will be boys, and that is arguably good as it is. Other people sit for hours to pull fish out of the water, only to throw them back in.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Cambridge Audio have long since made a name for themselves, offering very decent sounding gear at entry level prices. Perfectly fine for beginner audiophiles, as long as we do not insist on impressive build quality. Having said this, the tiny ‘DacMagic 100’ is certainly in keeping with this tradition. Similarly equipped as its larger brother, the ‘DacMagic Plus’, the unit offers a single 8742 Wolfson chip that can easily be found in higher priced digital to analog converters made by Rega and similar brands. Its USB 1.0 port might sound a little outdated, but it will handle data at rates of up to 192 kHz. In addition to the USB port, it features two S/PDIF inputs and one Toslink optical input. Outputs are RCA/cinch only, an inadequacy for some users that it does not share with its larger and better equipped stablemate.
Ken Rockwell has written an extensive review of both Cambridge DACs and in his measurements concludes that especially the USB signal processing is of unquestionable quality. In my own listening tests I have found that the DacMagic 100 performs very well over the whole bandwidth without any instantly recognisable imbalances. The stage impression is both wide and deep with plenty of space between the instruments. Voices come across in a life-like fashion with perhaps a slight tendency of too much transparency. Although bass performance was lean and fast from the start, it did not have the fullness of some pricier components. Understandably in this price range, the product’s weakness lies in its power supply. Adding a more potent power supply than the cheap plastic switching device, however, really made the bass open up and has left nothing to wish for ever since.
The DacMagic 100 is a great entry level DAC for audiophiles on a budget who shy away from the initial purchase price. Adding in a power supply at a later stage is nearly a must, although this will at least double the price of the unit. For buyers who can live with this two step process, the DAC really offers quality. On the other hand, if you are willing to invest the whole sum right from the start, you might as well get a DAC that has a decent power supply to begin with.
Picture Description Seen from above, we can identify three separate sections, the internal power supply section (bottom third), the unit's operating and switching section located around the main processor (center), as well as the digital to analog processing section (top third). The top third can be divided into the digital section featuring three clocks and the Wolfson 8742 DAC chip (right) and the analog output section with one operating amp chip per channel and a set of capacitors (left).
Magnetic phono cartridges —or ‘pickups', as they are sometimes called— are the means by which the sonic information that is pressed into the record groove is translated into an electric current that can then be processed by the pre-amplifier, power-amplifier, and finally the loudspeakers. The technical accuracy and tonal balance of this tiny electromechanical device will easily make or break the sonic integrity of our stereo system when playing records. A fact that is perfectly in keeping with the well-known audio rule of ‘garbage in = garbage out’. In other words: whatever sonic information the stylus misses will not be heard by the listener, and whatever signature it adds of its own faulty making shall be the signature of the music we hear. It therefore makes great sense to choose our cartridge well.
For vinyl newbies, including myself until recently, it is difficult to understand why one should spend lots of money on an item that is so tiny. After all, spending our money on a phono cartridge is difficult to explain to our spouse and most of our friends alike. However, a few cartridges down the line, I am still perplexed by the ever increasing amount of musical information that can be wrenched from that seemingly outdated vinyl disk. Depending on the quality and mixture of components used on the cartridge (stylus, cantilever, engine or body) the difference between two cartridges will be enormous. I have therefore decided to discuss phono cartridges in their own separate section, simply to give them the attention that they deserve.
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.
A pre-amplifier can well be considered the heart of our system. Since many pre-amps will feature a built-in phono stage, for MM, MC, or both, there is some amplification involved, however, the term describes more its position before the amplifier than its calling. Pre-amps generally serve as a hub to rout music signals from multiple sources to a single power amplifier. All preamps add a sonic signature, and, because of their central position, this signature will make or break a good system.
It therefore makes sense to choose our preamp well, and there are some pointers to look out for: 1. Signal integrity may be corrupted when running though potentiometers, hence, audiophile units will rarely feature bass, treble, and other attenuators. 2. Power supplies may inject interference into the signal. Many units therefore place the power supply in a separate housing. 3. Thin conductor tracks on the circuit board may cost speed and dynamics. 4. 2D circuit board layouts may pick up interference. High End units will often have a greater degree of direct wiring.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
As the vacuum tube was phased out in home audio appliances during the late 1960s, for the sake of cheaper production and more versatile equipment, some music lovers believed that the industry was heading in the wrong direction. While transistors outperformed tubes in terms of size and heat dissipation, their musical performance was not yet great.
Among the transistor sceptics was a man called William Zane Johnson. Bill had been running his own specialty audio store in south Minneapolis, out of which had he designed sophisticated amplifiers for those who cared deeply about accuracy and musicality in sound reproduction since 1951.
In 1970, following a failed attempt of developing his existing store model, he decided to start a company that would do justice to his designs, patents, as well as to himself. He named it ‘Audio Research’, and from the beginning it was clear that this company would put its focus on vacuum tubes for music reproduction.
While Bill held fast in the belief that vacuum tubes could convey a more realistic, and therefore convincing, sonic picture, there was still some work to be done for tubes to match transistors in terms of agility and control. The challenge was to marry the accuracy in sound reproduction that is typical of the tube with the ability to present detail in music that is common with the transistor.
The successful marriage of these properties Bill Johnson named ‘High Definition’ audio, now a well-known trademark and mission statement that has been stamped on Audio Research products ever since. While his tube designs were at times perceived to be a disruption to the progress of the industry, Audio Research proved to be well ahead of the competition during the tube revival that followed in the 1980s.
The success of the Audio Research Corporation was also helped by the fact that it was declared the official benchmark of sound by some of the most influential audio magazines of the time, such as ‘The Absolute Sound’ and ‘Stereophile’. Audio Research is today the oldest existing manufacturer of high-end audio products and is considered to have given rise to the very notion of high-end audio. Their SP-3 High Definition preamplifier was said to be the best preamplifier on the market over a period of many years.
The unit discussed here, the Audio Research SP-6 High Definition preamplifier, was built from 1978 to 1982 in only slightly deviating versions (models A-E), with the exception of the SP-6F version which has been stated to be the SP-8 MK II with a different face plate. The unit shown here is the SP-6B of 1980 fitted with Russian 12AX7 Tung-Sol tubes. For a preamplifier, the cabinet is quite tall at 13.4cm, and at 10kg also quite heavy. Although general power consumption is at a relatively low 50 watts, the internal tubes do get quite hot, so that there should be 5 cm of ventilation space kept free above the unit.
The turning knobs are of excellent touch and feel with a stepped volume attenuator. The row of switches could perhaps be a bit more refined. The muting switch can especially give an occasional plop when turned on or off. All great preamplifiers play loud, and so does the SP-6. This can make it a little difficult to set subtle volume differences for night-time listening, especially when playing from a loud CD player, DAC, or streamer as source, and when powering high decibel speakers. Due to this, we have often ended up playing our music a little louder than we would otherwise have done.
Bringing the SP-6 to operating temperature after turning it on takes about four minutes. The unit is fully warmed up when the power LED stops flashing. However, its full sonic capacity is reached only after about thirty minutes. This is when the preamplifier begins to sound the most musical. And, no surprise, what we get when the SP-6 is fully warmed up is very pleasing, indeed. Compared to our DB Systems DB1, the Audio Research preamplifier sounds wonderfully voluptuous, but it does not do so at the expense of focus. Voices simply take up more space in the virtual center. Singers are accurately allowed their own realistic dimension. Where the DB 1 can make voices sound frail at times, the SP-6 makes them sound lush and solid. Accurate tonal color and realistic musical detail are present at all times.
Similar to our DB1, the SP-6 builds a realistic and three-dimensional sound stage. Both preamplifiers play accurately and provide a warm and pleasing signature to the system; however, the SP-6 provides more bass slam and dynamic drive than the DB1. On our main system consisting of a B&K ST140 amp and Martin Logan SL3 speakers, the SP-6 offers the most balanced, musical, and entertaining performance of any preamplifier we have had the pleasure of exploring here to date.
Note: In the end I was relieved to find that returning to our DB Systems preamplifier with satisfaction was still possible after this tour of exploration. While the two preamps accentuate different aspects of the music, they both provide an endearing and convincing performance at a very high level.
David Hadaway established DB Systems in Ridge, New Hampshire in 1975 and has been quietly manufacturing world class home audio equipment ever since. Similar to many manufacturers of audiophile gems, DB Systems has been flying under the radar of mainstream HiFi discourse and has gradually and meticulously developed its line of exceptional designs for a small group of followers. The DB-1 preamplifier was among DB Systems’s first products and was well ahead of the competition at the time of its debut. To this day, the company offers revisions and updates to all their products, and the DB-1 can well hold its own in the audiophile market.
DB’s line of audio products includes preamplifiers, power amplifiers, electronic crossovers, tone controls, phase inverters, and accessories. All products are designed and hand made in the U.S.A. using selected parts. The DB-1 comes with the DB-2 linear power supply and includes the DB-designed MM phono stage, the DB-5 precision tone control and the DB-4 MC head amp. When new, the complete preamplifier setup sells for 2,200 dollars. Used versions of the preamp can be found at very competitive prices.
The DB-1 shown here arrived in very a poor state despite being advertised as ‘in mint condition’. The phono stage was dead on both channels and suffering from multiple contact-related issues. The power supply was also dysfunctional due to a faulty DIY job and fitted additional capacitors that had come loose during transport. After a few weeks of care and attention, we were able to restore the unit’s original design and functionality. The time and effort was well worth it, as there are not many preamplifiers around that can measure up to the DB-1’s performance.
For a transistor preamplifier device, the DB-1 offers a surprisingly homogeneous and ‘analog’ sound. Its sound stage is both wide and deep, and separation of instruments is commendable. The phono stage is among the best in the market with an extremely low noise floor and superb RIA compensation. Paired with the right cartridge, it is detailed, dynamic, and extended.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
In audiophile circles, the name Dynaco is reminiscent of the famous budget assembly kits that would hold up against some of the most exquisit audio products on the HiFi market during the 1960s and 70s. Originally founded by David Hafler and Ed Laurent in Philadelphia in 1955, the company’s first products were the 50 and 60 watts mono amplifiers Dynaco Mark II and III and the preamplifier PAM-1. But it was not until the launch of the Dynaco ST-70, a 2x35 watts tube amplifier design in 1959 that the company made its entry to the audiophile mass market.
Dynaco went on to manufacture other tube and solid state amplifiers, preamplifiers, radio tuners, and bookshelf speakers. Their most powerful amplifier was the solid state Dynaco ST-400 which was launched in 1972 and offered 2x200 watts of continuous output power with sophisticated speaker protection. By this time, the formerly independent Dynaco had already become a subsidiary of Tyco, Inc. with David Hafler still active until 1974, when he finally left the company to join Ortofon in 1974 and then went on to start his own Hafler Company in 1977.
The original Dynaco was liquidated in 1980 and lay dormant until the Pan Orient Corporation acquired the trademark in 1993 and began marketing audio components under the Dynaco brand. Pan Orient soon shortened its name to ‘Panor’ and began launching updated versions of Dynaco classics as well as some new designs. Among these were the ST-70 successor ‘Stereo 70 II’ and the more powerful ‘Stereo 160’, a 2x70 watts all-tube power amplifier that was packed with audiophile features, such as switchable pentode/triode modes and adjustable tube bias.
When it comes to the Dynaco PAS-4, vintage audio fans will be quick to point out that this preamplifier design is a Dynaco in name only, because it was produced and sold by Panor during the early 90s. However, the Dynaco brand name was not chosen without reason, as Panor was serious about improving the original Dynaco/Hafler designs and was set on once again producing affordable audiophile gear for the average consumer with a medium-sized budget. Visible proof of this mission are the PAS-4’s no-frills industrial cabinet and design choices, as well as its selection of audiophile components.
The PAS-4 was developed under the direction of John Nunez, a former developer with the high-priced tube equipment specialist Moore Franklin Associates (MFA). John knew that, if he wanted to convince audiophile consumers of the PAS-4’s merits, he needed to get vinyl reproduction right. He therefore took good care to make the phono stage of the PAS-4 outstanding. Manufacturing quality was also intended to be excellent, with all units sold being designed and manufactured in the USA. Sadly, however, Panor had to make some concessions to meet the relatively low price point which hindered some of the PAS-4’s audiophile potential and frustrated some of the early customers.
Despite its outstanding design, the PAS-4 was sold fitted with the cheapest tubes available and came equipped with switches that were given to fail. It also offered additional circuits for improved usability that were not in keeping with the audiophile tradition of reducing the circuitry to the bare essentials. The first customer reviews of the new preamplifier reflected these shortcomings, and resulted in only a few thousand units of the PAS-4 being sold, thus making it a rare find on today’s vintage market.
The unit shown here is a completely different beast from the version sold by Panor. It is closer to the original audiophile design and includes most of the recommended updates and modifications that have been found beneficial over the nearly three decades of its existence. Of course, it helped that the original basis was excellent: 1/8” thick circuit boards, high quality tube sockets, excellent trace layout with star grounding, and each tube with its own voltage regulator. Changes and updates to our PAS-4 include changing to an improved hum-free 230V transformer, adding a high-quality rotary Elma switch for source selection, bypassing the tape monitor and tape dubbing circuitry, eliminating the channel balance attenuator, and bringing in an audiophile grade Noble volume attenuator.
The original tubes were replaced with Russian Tung-Sol 12AX7 SC803S and SOVTEK type 6922 for the 2-stage phono section, as well as a pair of Genalex 20 03 for the hybrid line stage. The capacitors were updated to Mundorf Supreme EVO Silver Gold Oil. The aim of the updates was to minimise internal and external noise and distortion and to increase transparency, responsiveness, and dynamics. Configured in this way, the PAS-4 becomes a worthy audiophile contender in true Dynaco tradition. And, while the original preamp cost around 1,000 dollars new, following these updates, it can easily compete with preamplifiers costing 2-3 times this amount. Hafler trusted in the craftsmanship of the DIY home builder, and, apparently, so did Panor. While it took some expertise to unravel the PAS-4’s genuine character and potential, the good news is that it was possible by simply building on the superb infrastructure that was already present.
Setting up the PAS-4 in our household for the first time, I noticed that tube gear is a little more difficult to set up than solitary state equipment. My preference was to fit the PAS-4 in our main system where it was to replace our DB1 preamplifier and to play with our B&K ST-140 amplifier into Martin Logan electrostatic speakers. In this position, however, the PAS-4 was lacking the upper frequency band in a way that most of the transients were lost and that the music sounded stale. It sounded as if the tubes had reached the end of their life expectancy, or as if there was some other major problem with this preamplifier. After 2 days of trying different cable combinations I gave up and took the PAS-4 to our other system.
In its new position, the PAS-4 was to replace our Restek V1 preamp and to play with our Hafler XL-280 amp into Tannoy XT8F speakers. Here it immediately showed that the Panor/Dynaco is a Hafler derivative. The PAS-4 pre and Hafler XL-280 amp turned out to be a match made in heaven. In retrospect, this is perhaps not surprising, given the PAS-4’s pedigree, but to me it came as a revelation at the time. I simply could not understand how the same preamplifier could perform so differently in combination with two amps that it sounded broken in the one position and absolutely brilliant in the other. For the first time, the Tannoys’s sonic character also matched their physical appearance. The XT8F are not exactly small speakers, but somehow the Restek V1 in combination with the Hafler had made them sound overly precise and academic, instead of musical and dynamic.
The PAS-4 is able to build a huge stage from left to right that extends far beyond the speakers. Instruments position themselves freely with plenty of dark spaces around them. I have found that treble highlights are fewer than in combination with the Restek V1 but more pronounced when they occur. Transients are fully present and sounds linger in realistic fashion. Similar to most tube equipment, the PAS-4 can introduce interference, which will result in humming or hissing when something is not right in the setup. In my first attempt to pair it with our Hafler amp, I had not noticed that its power cord was touching that of the Hafler amp. This resulted in audible hissing on both amp channels. In fact, noise was a complaint that I had also read in some owner reviews. When everything is set up properly, however, the PAS-4 is nearly as silent as the Restek V1. One would have to hold the ear directly to the tweeter section of the speakers to hear the remaining noise.
As is the case with most serious HiFi gear, the PAS-4 will reveal the difference between a standard power cord and one that has been designed specifically for use in audio applications. On our own system, we have paired the PAS-4 with a Lapp Ölflex 2,5mm fitted with ferrite clamp to good result, but I suspect that one could get even better performance from this preamp with a more sophisticated cord. The difference between the standard cord and the Lapp cable was so striking that I suspect that further improvements in this position will again have a major impact.
After switching on, the PAS-4 needs about 15 minutes for the tubes to warm up. Actually, it will already play music after 45 seconds, but sound stage and dynamics do need some time to develop. Transients only sound right after some 30-40 minutes of playing. At this time, the six tubes will have reached their full operating temperature—which is actually quite hot. The slim cabinet design means that the tubes are literally touching the top of the enclosure, and I have meanwhile read that many users are leaving the lid off completely to improve ventilation. My reasons for leaving the cover on despite this are the presence of children in the household and the belief that the enclosure functions as a Pharadeic cage to protect the inner circuits from outside interference.
The PAS-4 puts out lots of power, with normal listening volumes being present at around 9 o’clock on the volume dial. Since the same is true for our DB1 and V1 preamplifiers, I suspect that this is a general tendency with audiophile grade preamplifiers. In contrast to our solid state gear, the PAS-4 strikes a more soothing balance between treble and bass notes without sacrificing transparency. Voices sound fuller and richer, double bass and lower piano notes have a greater sense of dimension and authority to them. To my ears, the PAS-4 puts out a more satisfying and realistic bass performance without the aid of a subwoofer in our system. Our Tannoys surely benefit from this and are sounding even more engaging. It is therefore not surprising to me that the PAS-4 is awarded 4.8 out of 5 stars in audioreview. For us as well, this unpretentious looking preamp is a definite keeper. If you can get your hands on a specimen in good condition and find yourself in a position to have the basic modifications done: do it. Where it fits in, the PAS-4 is going to be very hard to beat at this price point.
David Hafler was an American Audio engineer who was best known for his work on improving the Williamson amplifier design through the use of ultra-linear circuitry. His background as a producer of linear power supplies for use in audio applications lead to the founding of Dynaco, and later, in 1972, to the founding of the David Hafler Company, a manufacturer of high quality audio products at affordable prices. Under the supervision of its founder, the company produced many famous preamps, among them the DH-101 and DH-110, as well as a line of MOSFET power amps, including the DH-120, DH-200, DH-220, DH-500, and XL-280.
The Hafler DH-110 was the company’s second preamplifier design. It replaced the DH-101 and was built from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. In typical Halfer fashion, the unit came in form of a DIY kit as well as in fully pre-assembled condition. The DH-110 has a sleek and unobtrusive design and is very well equipped. The features include a headphone amplifier, a muting circuit to prevent downstream thumps, a mono and tone control defeat switch, a rumble filter, as well as an external processing loop. The body is well constructed and protected from outer interference through full copper coating, similar to the Harman / Kardon designs of that time period. With two tape loops and two phono stages, the amplifier offers great connectivity.
While this is a great preamplifier for the price and can well keep up with mid-priced modern designs in terms of tonality, there is also some criticism. For example, the headphone stage is not very loud. Therefore, if your headphones need lots of clean power, this preamp might not be the right on for you. The volume attenuator steps are quite enormous, this especially becomes and issue when listening at night when the house is asleep and the steps at low volume leave you stranded between to quiet and too loud. Another issue is that only one of the two outputs is actually run though the volume attenuator, which does not make it a great companion when bi-amping your speakers or wanting to add a subwoofer – whoever would want to do such a thing. In combination with the Hafler DH-120 amplifier, the unit produces a decent and musical sound with lots of drive forward. It is not as delicate and refined as the Restek V1 or the DB Systems DB1 preamplifiers, but then these cost 3-5 times the amount of the Hafler, and many will wonder whether it is actually worth paying the extra.
Rotel today has a good name in providing no-frills HiFi components, featuring what has come to be termed ‘British sound’. In this context, I was surprised to learn that Rotel is a family-owned Japanese manufacturer of audio and video equipment established in 1961. Perhaps the image of Rotel as a British manufacturer has rubbed off from the company’s 40-year strategic alliance with Bowers & Wilkins, based in Worthing, UK. But perhaps it is also due to the rather English or at least germanophone sounding company name. In the company fact files, we can read that Rotel was formed by Tomoki Tachikawa, is currently run by the nephew, Peter Kao and has had a major influence on the direction of Bowers & Wilkins, by setting up the global sales network for the loudspeaker manufacturer.
Although Rotel is primarily known for its range of High End HiFi components, including amplifiers and preamplifiers, they have always maintained a line of affordable, entry-level gear that boasted the Rotel design features and carried some of the myth of the ‘British sound’ to a new generation of audio enthusiasts. The Rotel RC-960BX is such a case in point. Paired with one or two of the RB-960BX dual-mono amplifiers, the combination of pre and amp could easily beat many of the contemporary receivers at the same price point in terms of tonal balance and punch. The wise lack of controls and the ability to bypass those that remained, paired with the separation of channels and tasks, brought something solid to the table that many other devices were lacking. Coming from a mid-priced Denon Amplifier, the Rotel combo sure was a revelation.
Although the Rotel sound can be described as sophisticated, the entry level gear shown here maintains tonal balance at the cost of providing that highly engaging musicality we have come to love from Hafler, Restek, and DB-Systems preamplifiers. The build quality shows some obvious sacrifices to careful budgeting: a plastic floor plate that broke during transportation and has since been replaced by a more solid version, plastic absorber feet that were an integral part of the broken floor plate and have also been replaced, a cheap but quite common folded sheet metal casing without copper plating, a single circuit board construction with the humming transformer placed directly on it, a balance control that is part of the volume knob and generally feels a bit iffy when trying to get the balance right. While the performance is commendable at the given price range, piano sounds do not extend into the room as well as on the other devices, separation of instruments is present but not great. The stage feels more confined than on the other devices, although there is a great center image and the mids are nice and full, features that are at once endearing.
I found the Rotel to work well with soft dome tweeters and generally speakers that would blend over occasional blunders. The RC-960BX is not a bad choice, if you are getting started in High End and need to purchase lots of gear at the same time. It usually holds its price when purchased used. Just make sure the floor plate does not get broken during transportation, because that really is a hassle to fix.
The Restek Elektronik Hugo + Elschot oHG was founded in September 1975 by two electronics engineers. In its early years, the company manufactured not only HiFi equipment, but also electric vehicles and components for industrial applications. The first HiFi components were produced at the company’s headquarters in Fuldabrück from 1977. Although each unit sold was designed and hand assembled locally, Restek partnered with the HiFi equipment manufacturer Thorens in the distribution of their products. Although Restek is best known for their exceptional FM-3003 tuner, the V1 class A preamplifier was among the company’s very first products ever produced. The label ‘High End Audio made in Germany’ has kept the company in business until this day, and one of the company two founders, Mr. Adrianus Elschot, is still heading the company today.
Restek manufactured two preamplifiers by the name of V, namely the V1 that is shown here and the V2a which offered extended functions, such as remote switching, separate headphones level adjustment and connections for two tape loops instead of just one. The V1 is perhaps the purist’s choice and does offer some very promising features. A stepped volume attenuator assures maximum contact and channel balance at each volume level, separate output level attenuators at the back of the unit allow for optimum balance setting and adjustment to the amp. For the sake of signal integrity, all unnecessary switches and attenuators have been left out, such as tone level adjustments or loudness circuitry. The Restek V1 can handle both MM and MC phono cartridges and, next to phono, has cinch/RCA connections for a tuner, a non-specified device such as a DAC, and for a reel to reel deck.
The unit is able to play back frequencies from 2 to 200.000 Hz. Linearity measured between 20 and 20.000 Hz is at a stunning +/- 0 dB (THD 0,001%) and even for phono at a mere +/- 0.2 dB (THD 0,004%). In the days when it was first released to the public, the then young German ‘Audio’ magazine even compared this unit of a relative newcomer to the established products of Burmester and other High End manufacturers of the time. Often, the extent to which a company stands behind their products can be seen by the amount of support that one can expect to receive, say, 40 years after the initial date of purchase. In the case of Restek, service can very well be regarded as excellent. Here is why:
When in 2017 the unit shown here came to show first signs of ageing, we were pleased to learn that there was not only service available, but also a complete upgrade. This included: Replacement of the relays and all electrolytic capacitors, adjustment and replacement of components that were outside the specifications, circuitry modifications according to the latest standard, and the installation of new operational amplifiers. In other words, a complete reworking of the more than 40 years old unit, to prepare it for the new millenium.
A power amplifier takes the relatively weak electrical current coming from the pre-amp and uses it to operate a regulator that controls a high current coming from the power grid. The regulator can be in the form of a transistor or a tube, or in that of a digital switch. Both transistors and tubes radiate lots of heat during operation. Tubes mostly because of their internal heating, and transistors because of their relatively slow adjusting of a high energy source. Classic transistors are round and shiny looking, similar to tubes.
An amplifier needs a strong, low radiation transformer (often toroidal or encapsulated) that delivers both the operating and the amplification current, and lots of excess energy that is stored in the large capacitors (similar to ultrafast batteries) to provide music burst power that the power grid could not otherwise provide fast enough. It also needs one operating board and at least one transistor (or similar) per channel, usually mounted on large heat sinks for cooling.
From the combination of these parts results the amplifier’s power rating. This is usually provided in two numbers: watts & ohms. The watts is the ability to provide power into a load resistance that is rated in ohms. Theoretically, when you lower the load resistance on the side of the speaker, the ability to deliver watts on the side of the amplifier increases. There is a limit to this, however, because reduced load also means more back current to the amplifier which at some point either becomes unstable or overheats and dies, perhaps taking the speakers with it.
B&K Components Ltd. was founded by John Beyer and Steve Keiser in Buffalo, NY, in 1981. The company evolved out of a single amplifier design that Steve Keiser had created attending electrical engineering school during his final year of college. Upon showing his amplifier to John Beyer, who was thinking about putting together a stereo system for his own use, John was so overwhelmed by the performance of the unit that he convinced Steve they should found a company together to market it. Initially, all units were built by hand and by the new owners themselves. From the time of the Chicago CES show, where the products were first shown to the greater public, John Beyer acted as sales and business director, and Steven Keiser performed all technical functions.
The first amplifier was to be called the ST-140 and was poised to become an instant success with audiophiles, due to its musicality and its relatively affordable purchasing price. The first version of the ST-140 was a 70 watts per channel into 8 ohms design using a standard iron core transformer. The model shown here is the updated version featuring a toroidal transformer and 105 watts per channel into eight ohms. Right from the beginning, the ST-140 followed a ‘less-is-more’ approach that makes it the ideal playing ground for music enthusiasts. While many things can go musically wrong with such a design, the right setup and combination of accessories will easily lead to a highly engaging because unfiltered musical experience.
Over the years, B&K have derived most of their income from Original Equipment Manufacturing (OEM) designing, engineering, and manufacturing products for other electronics companies and to be sold under their various brand names. The company has manufactured many amplifiers and other components that were sold under brand names such as Crestron, Harman / Kardon, Lexicon, and Onkyo Integra Research.
The ST-140 is a simple Dynaco inspired design that is able to perform into low ohm loads, an important criteria when driving ‘difficult’ speakers, such as electrostatic or magnetostatic designs. This is especially true for the revised 1989 version of the amp. It offers great musical balance and dynamics and in this sense can really ‘sing and breathe’ though a musical performance. When comparing a design like the ST-140 with more sophisticated amps, such as the higher powered Harman / Kardon Citation 22 (200 watts per channel into 8 ohms), the transparency and musicality of the smaller ST-140 is truly astounding.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Power Amplifiers
Do you have a bucket list? I have sometimes heard and read of people who write up a personal list of experiences that they hope to have during their lifetime. I suppose, bucket lists include places to travel to and experiences to have, and—until a few days ago—I was not aware that I even had items to put on such a list. But, when I dropped by Luigi’s new apartment to listen to his current HiFi setup and he suggested that I give his B&K Sonata mono block amplifiers a try, I suddenly had a great sensation that an important item was being crossed off my list.
Ever since I first listened to an ST-140 stereo amplifier, I have been a fan of the B&K sound. Simple in their design, these relatively inexpensive amplifiers offer great musicality while being very articulate in their presentation. There is nothing careless or sloppy about their approach to music. And, if the 105 watts RMS per channel amplifier can drive even difficult speakers with ease, just imagine what the 200 watts RMS per channel M-200 mono block amplifiers can do. After all, there is something humbling in a dedicated 19.5 kg amplifier designed to power a single speaker.
Luckily, my car was not parked too far away that evening, so that carrying the equipment to it proved to be an easy enough task. Getting them up the stairs on my own later that night was another story, of course. While the amps have handles up front, the sharp cooling fins extend out the back, causing ugly marks on tables and racks. It is therefore much wiser to ignore the handles and grab the amps by the body to raise them straight up. To be honest, I actually prefer this amp design, as it supports passive cooling when the units are mounted in a rack. Since both HiFi and professional racks are usually open towards the back, having the fins in this position facilitates convection cooling.
In our living room setup, the two B&K M-200 mono blocks were to replace the ST-140 stereo amplifier by the same manufacturer and to drive our Martin Logan SL3 electrostatic speakers. This is not an easy mission at all, because of the Martin Logan’s hybrid design, featuring a conventional woofer that is matched with a Mylar foil electrostatic panel. The difficulty is the low impedance of the panel—of below 2 ohms at 20,000 Hz—but also handling woofer reactance with the panel in the signal path. The SL3s therefore need a powerful amp that will perform into low ohms and offers enough damping to steady the woofer. 105 watts are barely enough for this task, although the ST-140 does have massive reserves and with its huge caps and power supply is relatively unimpressed with the Martin Logan’s impedance curve.
As usual, I gave the ST-140 a good listen first, playing Jazz, Folk, and Gospel that I know well. The Martin Logans sounded large, relatively slow, and relaxed. As a two way system, with a low crossover frequency towards the bass, the sound is generally homogenous and smooth. The ST-140 in combination with the SL3’s closed cabinet woofer produces a full bottom end but does lack some punch in the representation of kick drums. The highs are pleasant but not too crisp. This may have to do with the felt pads that we use as spike coasters to reign in the sound for a more musical and less technical performance.
Changing over to the M-200, I first noticed improved stereo imaging. The sound was still large, but now it was more articulate and slightly more spacious. Not in the sense of wider, but here was simply more room around the instruments. The SL3s now appeared more naturally agile and more forward directed. When listening to Springsteen’s ‘London Calling’ concert, for instance, ‘Youngstown’ had that same immediacy to it that I remember so well from the live concert. Since I already know this DVD well, the ability to evoke such memories at the blink of an eye really says a lot about the quality of the amplifiers. With the M-200 mono blocks, the music found it easier to loosen itself from the speakers.
Bass performance was less boomy and more refined with slightly more punch on the kick drums. While this was still not the SL3’s strong point, I now understand that larger amps will help in blending the bass in with the panel frequencies. And there is another difference that I noticed while watching TV later that night. Namely, that cinematic effects sometimes seemed to be unnecessarily emphatic, as if the engineers had mastered the sound track for equipment that was less revealing.
I hope I will be afforded the luxury of being able to listen to these amps for a few days, before returning them to their rightful owner. Well done, B&K. The Sonatas are accurate and musical amps that manage difficult speakers with ease and have enough power to convince even the otherwise relaxed Martin Logans to step it up a notch.
Number of channels: 1
Power output (8 ohms): 200 watts RMS
Power output (4 ohms): 400 watts RMS
Total harmonic distortion: 0.09 %
Signal to noise ratio: 95 dB
Damping factor (50Hz): 600
Frequency response: 1 Hz - 100,000 Hz
Slew rate: 25 V / uSec
Power consumption: 800 watts max / 65 watts (idle)
Dimensions: (w)43.18 cm, (h)14.68 cm, (d)38.70 cm
Weight: 19.5 kg
(1987 - 1990)
The Citation twelve deluxe power amplifier was released to the public in 1972 and based on the 1970 Citation twelve stereophonic amplifier that had many of the same features. The facelift to the Deluxe version included a wooden case with brushed aluminum front and slightly improved specifications in terms of frequency response and distortion. Harman / Kardon’s previous amplifiers had been tube designs, and the original Citation twelve was the company’s first transistorized power amplifier. The Citation twelve’s relatively modern design was based on a design suggestion published in the RCA Solid State Handbook.
The Citation twelve deluxe features many of Harman / Kardon’s trademark design choices. On the one hand, it was one of the first truly dual-mono design amplifiers, featuring two transformers, two power supplies, as well as two separate amplifier circuits. On the other hand, Harman’s belief in the interdependencies of sound waves gave this amplifier the freedom to deliver frequencies from 1 - 100.000 Hz at +/-1 dB. In fact, not many amplifiers are given free reign to produce frequencies outside the spectrum of human hearing. According to ‘Absolute Sound’ the Harman / Kardon Citation twelve deluxe is “One of the twelve most significant amps of all time.”
Industrial grade components made sure that the amplifier would last for a long time. Harman / Kardon was so sure of this that there is very little on board to protect the amplifier from harm. There are not buttons, switches, or attenuators on the Citation that could have a negative effect on sound. In the original design there is not even a power switch to turn the amplifier off, and the standby power of 30 watts assures that the unit is always preheated and ready to play. The Citation presents its music in a straight forward, not frills fashion. It does not sound quite as robust and aggressive as a Quad 405, but it does not paint in beautiful colours like the small Hafler DH-120 either. From all the amps I have heard, I feel the Citation sounds the most accurate. Playing in combination with the Restek V1 preamplifier, the Citation manages to shine its light deeply into the room, sets an excellent soundstage and has that ever so slight touch of inviting warmth that is sometimes missing in more modern designs. The imaging and timing are smack on, and the panorama extends widely beyond the speakers. Still an absolute highlight after all these years.
On the unit shown here, changes to the original design include: a new Lapp power cord to replace the simple US version, a high quality power switch, new capacitors and gold plated cinch/RCA sockets.
The David Halfer Co. was founded in Pennsauken, New Jersey, in 1972, but at the time of its founding, David Hafler had already made history as one of the world's most iconic audio engineers. Born in 1919, Hafler was a graduate in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania who served for some time as a communications specialist in the Coast Guard during World War II. In 1950, he and his friend Herbert Keroes founded Acrosound, a specialist manufacturer of audio grade linear transformers for tube amplifiers. From building transformers it was just a small step to building the tube amplifiers around them, and in 1954, David Hafler left Acrosound and partnered with an audio engineer named Ed Laurent to found the Dyna Company, a name that was later re-branded as Dynaco.
Throughout his career, David Hafler focused on engineering audiophile products at affordable prices. Acrosound had built transformers primarily for home electronics hobbyists, and Dynaco was to take the idea of DIY audio to a whole new level. Ed Laurent had designed a new type single-tube driver circuit for a power amplifier before joining Dynco, and Hafler was intent on marketing this as an affordable choice for a large number of enthusiasts. Because of the high quality of Dynaco’s tube audio designs, the name quickly became synonymous with great sound at affordable prices. During the 1950s and 60s, setting up an audio system was still considered mostly an engineering hobby with the best sounding gear being built by its owners. Dynaco’s first product was the Mk. II, a 50 watts tube power amplifier. The unit was available both as a DIY kit and as a pre-assembled unit. After 2 years of successful sales, the Mk. II was succeeded by the Mk. III which was slightly stronger and offered 60 watts of power. These ‘Dynakit’ amplifiers were assembled by hundreds of thousands of audio enthusiasts at their homes. During the 1990s, the famous Dynaco Mk. II was featured in the Smithsonian's Museum of American History in Washington as a groundbreaking piece of American communications history.
Several Dynaco products of this time are still regarded as among the best audio designs ever made. This certainly includes the Dynaco ST-70, a 35 watts per channel stereo tube amplifier with a highly efficient push-pull output circuit. In fact, the ST-70 was designed so well that it was to become the prototype for many similar products that followed from other manufacturers. More than 350,000 ST-70 amplifiers had been sold by the time production finally ceased, making the ST-70 the most popular tube power amplifier in history. Although Hafler sold Dynaco to Tyco in 1968, he remained in an advisory position until 1971. By the time that David Hafler founded the company bearing his own name in 1972, he had already exercised an enormous influence on several generations of audiophiles and music lovers. With his mission of manufacturing high quality audio products at affordable prices being unchanged, the Hafler Company's first two designs were the affordable DH-101 preamplifier, followed by the DH-200 companion power amplifier, both offering exceptional music reproduction in that price range. Another notable product was the DH-500 stereo amplifier which was rated at 255 watts per channel and found great success in home, studio, and live environments. All units were available as DIY kits and as fully assembled products.
The Hafler DH 120 is a bridgeable 60 watts per channel transistor amplifier. It is of sturdy build quality with two amplifier boards hooked up to a single transformer. The 4 Hitachi MOSFET transistors per channel are mounted on two large heat sinks that constitute the sides of the amplifier. The specifications of the amp still read excellent by today’s standards, and the high quality of components assures a long life expectancy. Due to the relatively small number of parts and the well thought out circuit design, the DH 120 is a dynamic and musical piece of equipment showing that sought after Dynaco signature. In direct listening comparison, I even preferred the smoother and more colourful sound of the DH 120 to Hafler’s larger DH 220, a 110 watts per channel amplifier. Size is not everything, certainly not when it comes to the DH 120. The amplifier has got charme and is able to power most types of speakers just fine. For electrostatic and magnetostatic setups, the amplifier’s 60 watts per channel rating is most likely not enough.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Power Amplifiers
There was a time when my good friend Luigi was bringing HiFi gear by our house for testing on a regular basis. And although there were lots of interesting discoveries to be made, somehow the devices did not strike a chord with us to the extent that we actually wanted to own them. One day, as I was climbing up the staircase from an evening teaching classes, I could hear music playing in the living room that sounded very realistic, even from a distance. Whatever this is, I was thinking to myself taking the last few steps, this is going stay. The system Luigi had set up for us was a Hafler combo consisting of the DH-110 preamplifier and the 60 watts DH-120 power amplifier. And its musicality was beyond anything we had heard at the time. When I later asked my wife at which point she knew that this would stay, she said that she had already heard it was very special from the kitchen - which is about thirty feet down the hall.
There are not many amplifiers capable of winning over our hearts from 30 feet away with such unanimous vote and certainly not at a price tag that most people are able to afford. Because of the obvious qualities of the Halfer, Luigi decided to purchase the 115 watts DH-220 and had it readjusted and fitted with new caps. The class-A portion of the amplifier was increased in the process, which has a positive impact on sound and leads to greater heat dispersion. I think you can literally fry an egg on this unit. At twelve kilos, the little amp feels like a solid piece of metal. The heat sinks are massive, and with this much class A-power that is probably good as it is. For an amplifier of this caliber, distortion figures are very low at any frequency. The below specs show THD at 1 kHz.
From my own experience I know that the DH-220 can be quite a princess, in the sense that it does not play with everybody. Some time ago we had borrowed it from Luigi to test it on our smaller system. In this scenario it had to play with some mediocre preamp and mid-fi speakers. The result was less than pleasing, and we soon returned the amp to look for something more appropriate. I was therefore surprised when Luigi insisted that I give this amp a second chance, now that all our other components had gradually been upgraded. In the current scenario the DH-220 was to replace the Citation Twelve Deluxe, a power amp that we have come to enjoy. And the playing partners were a Lenco L75 turntable, the Restek V1 pre, and Tannoy DC6t speakers at 8 ohms.
We gave the Citation a final listen and then hooked up the DH-220 for comparison. The improvement in this scenario was immediately audible even though the amp was still warming up. The slight dreaminess of the Citation was gone, music now had a more intense and realistic dimension to it which became especially striking when playing live recordings. Whereas the Citation had caressed the listener, the Hafler had a straightness and insistence to it that was familiar to me from some Quad amplifiers. The DH-220’s midrange is tonally very accurate and at that pleasingly broad. Its bass lines are powerful and controlled which develops into a pleasing fullness of sound. Spatial representation is highly accurate and piano notes are flung deep into the room. The Halfer played so well that we were able to remove the weights that I had placed on top of each speaker for better imaging and could pull the speakers further into the room without losing foundation. We will certainly keep this amp around for a while to enjoy the new dimension in sound. The Hafler DH-220 is well worth exploring. Wherever this amplifier fits in, it is going to be very hard to beat.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Tag: Power Amplifiers
The XL-280 stereo power amplifier is arguably one of the best devices the Hafler has ever made. Offering 145 watts RMS into 8 ohms, it runs stable down to just 1 ohm and is thereby capable of driving even the most challenging speaker loads without having to fear instability, overheating, or the amplifier going into circuit protect mode and shutting itself down. The XL-280 was therefore predestined as a work horse to power the magneplanar and electrostatic speakers of the 90s, but also served more demanding conventional designs, such as some Infinity models. 145 RMS may not seem like a lot of power at first glance, however, this perception might change, if we consider that the watts nearly double as the ohms are cut in half, if the architecture and power supply permit. Thus, at 2 Ohms the XL-280 delivers 360 watts per channel, whereas many more conventional amps will simply throw in the towel.
The XL stands for Excelinear, which—according to Hafler—means that it excels in linearity. The aim was to build an amplifier that would have the linear properties of a single straight wire. The benefit of such an amplifier would be that it neither adds or takes away from the signal it receives from the audio source. Hafler writes that “In phase, amplitude, transfer characteristic and other distortions, the XL-280 sets new standards for accuracy. It is so close to perfection that for the first time you can make a meaningful comparison of this amplifier with the classic zero distortion: a straight wire. (...) An Exclinear amplifier enables the ‘golden ear’ who demands the absolute in system linearity to move one step closer to perfection.” The operating manual goes on to describe that with the addition of the XL-10 switch box, A/B comparisons in distortion differences to a straight wire are possible, and that the XL-280 offers built in controls for load adjustment to accommodate specific speaker loads. To allow for this adjustment while the amp is closed, the top panel has two small holes that are sealed by rubber plugs through which a screwdriver can be inserted.
Halfer, like Harman Kardon, believed that musical bandwidth should not be restricted for the sake of music integrity. The XL-280’s exceptionally wide bandwidth is demonstrated by the specified 1 watt output performance of ± 3dB from 0.1Hz to 500kHz. Impressively, phase shift within the conventional audio band (20Hz to 20kHz) is specified at less than 0.5°. In terms of build quality, the XL-280 is very similar to its predecessor, the DH-220, although it is actually 25mm wider. The black case consists of four construction units: 2 pressed steel sections which form the chassis and lid and 2 large anodized heat sinks—one on each side—to which the amplifier modules are attached and the 6 output transistors are screwed for passive cooling.
In their review of the Hafler XL-280, stereo-amplifier.net writes: “Set up for Quad ESL-63 loudspeakers the Hafler XL-280 gave a truly exemplary performance. The bass was absolutely firm and seemingly more extended than I am used to hearing, despite the fact that my preamplifier has a built-in LF roll-off. The treble was crystal clear and wide open sounding, with no trace of sibilant 'splash' and the overall stereo sound stage rock-solid regardless of the dynamic activity of the music used. Some of the more subtle subjective differences one hears in top-end hi-fi equipment are terribly difficult to quantify, sometimes even to express, but my overriding impression of the Haller XL-280 is that it neither adds to nor subtracts from the source material fed to it. The word that kept coming to mind as I listened over a period of weeks was 'authority' and I can't think of a power amplifier that I've used, or for that matter heard, which demonstrates that quality more convincingly.”
In my own listening so far, I can well relate to the relative authority which the amp attributes to the music. There is no halo, no trace of uncertainty in the representation of voices or piano notes. The amp rather seems to have an ultra-tight grip on the music that is truly fascinating. I cannot yet confirm the bass extension that we have come to know and enjoy from the DH-220, however, a fact that could mean that the capacitors in our unit have dried up over the years. While this would not be surprising for a unit that has been playing music since the 80s, it does mean that there is still some work ahead of us to reveal the XL-280’s full potential. Considering its fresh-from-the-shop condition, I would assume that this particular Hafler has been stowed away in the basement or attic for a long period of time, which is generally bad news for capacitors. Since we have already fallen in love with this amp, restoring it to mint condition will be well worth it.
Receivers are those strange and hybrid creatures that combine the properties and functions of a tuner, a preamplifier, and a power amplifier in a single cabinet, an attempt that has often produced major compromises in all categories with a devastating effect on sound quality. While receivers generally offer great ‘bang for the buck’ performance and convenience, the ‘bang’ aspect has never really been defined as a musical virtue.
While separate units allow for greater freedom for both the engineer and the owner, a compact receiver unit is not without merits. For one thing, the designer theoretically has ultimate control over all internal connections. This is a benefit to the designer of separate units who cannot be sure what the other components of the chain will be. Well-designed receivers will therefore not be much cheaper than their separate cousins, but they will not look nearly as impressive. Perhaps this explains why there are not all too many notable receivers around.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
The story has it that Sidney Harman and Bernard Kardon were co-workers in the higher levels of David Bogen & Co., a telegraph and communications specialist, before they both resigned to form Harman / Kardon in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1953. From the very start, the company focused on designing integrated receivers that would merit the definition ‘high fidelity’. The first Harman / Kardon high fidelity receiver, the Festival D1000, was among the world’s first AM/FM compact receivers and already featured what would later become HK trademarks, such as a copper plated chassis. Although Bernard Kardon soon after retired, in 1953, he sold his interests in the company to Sidney Harman, who consequently named his company Harman International. Perhaps out of respect for his retired colleague, but perhaps also because he did not want to again change a brand name that customers had just gotten used to, the company has continued to carry the double name Harman / Kardon on all their receivers, tuners, and amplifiers to this day.
The company’s strategy of building the highest quality product at any price level sometimes meant the omission of nice-to-have features for the sake of clarity and for the sake of being able to afford higher grade components, which may have alienated some customers in the shops. On the other hand, it has been this focus on the essential that has helped the company build a strong base of followers to keep it alive over the years where many others have failed. The iconic HK 330 receiver was introduced to the public in 1968. It is an excellent example of the Harman design philosophy and was very well received. The HK 730 shown here was the most powerful model of that product range and was built from 1975 - 1978. Its solid 40 watts per channel into 8 ohms may seem relatively unimpressive by today’s standards, however, one needs to consider that this unit was built before the receiver wars, in other words, before high watts figures were considered to be an asset. Instead, the unit was engineered for sonic performance, and the components were chosen to perform musically and effortlessly at common listening volumes. On the basis of the components used, higher output ratings would easily have been possible, if this had been the intention.
Harman / Kardon believed that limiting frequency response outside of human hearing would negatively influence the harmonics found in frequencies within the scope of human hearing. Hence the HK 730 attempts a linear performance from 4 Hz to 40.000 Hz. As is the case with all of Harman’s twin powered receivers, the unit features a double-mono amplification unit, each side with its independent power supply, as well as a third power supply for the preamplifier. Both the preamplifier and the power amplifier can be used separately, by removing the bridge at the back of the unit. All frontal elements are made of solid metal and have been placed on high quality switches and attenuators. Given Harman’s attention to detail, it is a little surprising that the treble and bass controls cannot be cut from the signal path. A small blunder that is easily forgiven once you hear the unit sing. The tuner and phono stage are truly excellent. The copper plated body helps to keep away interference, and the components are well chosen and well placed.
The unit shown here needed some resoldering. Especially the cinch/RCA connectors on the back can come loose with time. The original US power cord has been replaced with a high quality Lapp cable, and the clamps for the two sets of speakers have been replaced with banana jacks for convenience and to be able to attach larger diameters of speaker wire. The sonic performance is life-like and natural with plenty of control over the speakers. Its quality, features, and performance make the HK 730 one of the best classic receivers ever built.
It is probably fair to say that there has been a fascination with loudspeakers right from the very start. Not so much with the technology behind them, but simply due to the fact that they can reproduce sounds of familiar things without being the thing themselves. For example, a loudspeaker may reproduce the sound of breaking glass, without being made of glass or shattering in the process. It may reproduce the clanging of hard metal, without being made of metal or clanging against anything itself. And, most importantly, it can mimic the sound of voices and instruments, a discipline in which human ears are especially sensitive and therefore critical. Even on people with emerging hearing disabilities, the voice level frequencies are usually among the last to go.
While attempting to sound natural and accurate in their reproduction of music, most types of loudspeaker are first and foremost entertainment devices, and as such, they need to be able to survive on the entertainment market. As our understanding of this market and our behaviour as consumers changes, so do the design choices made by the manufacturers. Loudspeakers today look rather different from those made in the seventies. While modern designs tend to be tall, slender and cool looking, their older cousins were often wider and stubbier with warm looking wood finishes. However, these are just the visible features and would be alright, if it was not for another trend, namely that of the infamous target group analysis.
Let’s face it. Well-engineered speakers, and the electronics needed around them, are by no means cheap. Manufacturers are therefore facing a rather mature customer group that has the space, time, and available income to purchase up-market loudspeakers. If income tends to improve with age, sadly our hearing often does not. It could well be argued that the two curves are diametrically opposed. Hearing loss affects both our ability to discern high notes, as well as our sensitivity to low volumes. Consequently, in A/B comparisons, the speaker with the loudest high notes will, more often than not, get to enjoy the ride home. Sadly, this type of speaker will have a life-long imbalance when it comes to natural representation, an obvious weakness that all future owners will have to come to terms with.
Many things can and will go wrong at the point of sale. The speaker that sounded great in the shop, might not sound so great when placed into our own living space and hooked up to our system. The room, the furniture in it, and the electric synergy with our existing components will all affect the impression of sound. If possible, loudspeakers should therefore be tested and compared at home. Some dealers will be supportive and make such testing possible, however, there is a natural limit to this, and we might feel pressured to make a choice. The other option is buying loudspeakers used. Provided that the speakers are not broken on purchase, they will either sound great or can be sold again, usually for a similar or even higher price.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Where do I begin? Perhaps best with an apology. Because, up until this point, no other speakers had captivated my attention and imagination more than these little bookshelves. And, in my attribution of positive and negative qualities to these loudspeakers, I may not always have been fair. It actually took me quite some time to find this out, and, in the end, it took the whole journey to get to the truth of things.
We had originally bought the KEFs as unobtrusive bookshelf speakers to play background music in our home office. This was well before I began contemplating to set up a second audiophile system to use when the kids where blocking our main listening room. As usual,I had studied reviews on entry level bookshelves that punched above their weight, and KEFs were mentioned repeatedly in this context.
In our office they had to replace some ageing Denon bookshelves that were left over from my old F-07 midi system. Driving these was an entry level Rotel preamp and amplifier combo rated at 2x 60 watts. The match was actually pretty decent in retrospective, as the Japanese combo had been designed with the affiliated Bowers & Wilkins in mind and is said to be following the philosophy of ‘British sound’. This, to my understanding, is characterised by accuracy, tonal balance, and a warm midrange.
While the Denons with their soft dome tweeters had been forgiving of flaws and therefore easy to integrate, the KEFs immediately revealed the sonic weakness of our cheap glass and aluminium speaker stands. Hence, we replaced the stands with a simple DIY design (using 4 cm MDF boards) and immediately noticed a shift from a harsh and technical sound towards a more pleasing and natural performance.
Another aspect revealed by the KEFs was the lack in bass response from the listening room. Our office is situated under the roof of the building and has many acoustic disadvantages: slanted gypsum walls all around that absorb much of the lower frequencies, lots of hard furniture surfaces that reflect higher frequencies, and an extensive room depth of 13 meters with the listening position located at just 2.5 meters from the speakers.
In my attempt to make the KEFs sound well-balanced, I brought in a range of preamplifiers and amplifiers, spanning from Rotel, via Hafler, to Harman Kardon. But the KEFs, to various degrees, remained harsh and bright sounding. I looked at the Uni-Q driver’s sharply pointed wave guides and could not help but wonder whether KEF had somehow got them wrong. Just like I had found my earlier Canton Ventos to have accentuated highs, which, as I later read in a test, actually turned out to be true.
Unable to get the iQ30s balanced in our office, I gave them to my brother for listening and switched to Tannoy DC 6t tower speakers instead. With an additional dedicated bass driver, the Tannoys offered more direct bass punch and sounded more balanced at short distance. Yet, on listening to the new speakers for longer, I realised that they, too, were struggling with the size and structure of the room.
Last week, I received the KEFs back from my brother. And—as during their absence I had started wondering if there was not something I had missed in setting them up—this time I decided not to take them to the office upstairs but rather to hook them up in our main listening room. To be honest, my expectations were not too high, as their rivals downstairs are not some old Denon bookshelves but rather the formidable Martin Logan SL3 electrostatic speakers.
I started out by playing a few songs on the Martin Logans. Jazz and Folk that I know well and enjoy listening to. Then I switched to the iQ30s, half expecting to have a big laugh. Surprisingly, this is not at all what happened. The KEFs set in at similar volume and almost identical sonic characteristic, so that at first, I looked over at the Martin Logans in disbelief. With the tweeter on axis and the wave guides to cast the highs deeply into the room, the KEFs displayed a similar energy and authority when setting the stage.
The SL3s strength lies in the accuracy and subtlety of voices, the iQ30s play voices well, but do not reach that same level of subtlety and intimacy. And yet, they come very close. If the Tannoys love piano keys, the KEFs caress the guitar. Nils Lofgren’s playing was thrust into the room much like I am used to from listening to the Martin Logans. Notes linger a little shorter on the KEFs than on the SL3s, which is no wonder considering the exceptional lightness of the Martin Logan’s Mylar membrane.
The KEFs now sound balanced in our main listening room. None of the former harshness is still present, so that listening for long hours is now highly enjoyable. Bass is full and present and at times even punchier than on the SL3s. However, when it comes to playing very low notes, these are still present on the Martin Logans and simply missing on the KEFs. This should not come as much of a surprise, considering the 30 cm woofer size on the SL3s as opposed to a small 16 cm full range speaker on the iQ30.
The KEFs present a wonderful stage and—like the Martin Logans—can play loud as well, creating a wonderful live atmosphere. The Martin Logans can play louder, of course, but personally I never listen to music at volumes where this would really matter. Considering the size of the KEFs, their ability to fill the room is a respectable. Doing so with accuracy and authority to take on much lager and more expensive floor standing speakers is incredible. Hence, my apology. When the KEFs did not perform well at first, it was obviously not a design flaw of the speakers. It was the room.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Gayle Martin Sanders and Ron Logan Sutherland had been interested in developing their own electrostatic loudspeakers ever since working together in a High End music store in Lawrence, Kansas in the late 1970s. Sanders was working as the store manager and had a background in architecture and advertising, and Sutherland was an electrical engineer. Both men were convinced that electrostatic loudspeakers had the greatest potential in providing High End audio performance, despite the fact that the electrostatic speakers that existed at that time still showed very limited performance in terms of frequency response and dispersion angle. Many of them became famous as amplifier killers, due to their troubling impedance curve nearing a shorted circuit. In addition to their lack of treble and bass response and the difficulty of finding a potent enough amplifier, electrostatic speakers produced a very narrow sweet spot for listening, sounding wrong or unbalanced in most places of the room. Among the few successful models of the time were the Quad ‘ELS’, mildly mimicking the design of an electric heater, and the huge KLH ‘Model 9’. While the Quad was able to reproduce chamber music in its fine and delicate tones, the limitations of its design became apparent when listening to louder performances, such as rock or classical music. The KLH on the other hand was very capable of producing all kinds of music, but its sheer size resulted in very low sales.
Sanders and Sutherland began constructing prototypes, some of which went up in flames when driven at higher volumes, until they found the materials composition that would enable them to play their speakers without fear of destroying them. Improvements included the development of an ultra-light Mylnar diaphragm and two horizontally curved stators made of perforated steel that would allow charges of up to 10.000 volts. According to the company website, Sanders and Sutherland exhibited their speaker concept at the 1982 Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago with only a mock-up and some photographs. The design was so radically new that it became an instant hit in the industry and was honoured with a CES Design and Engineering Award. While the ideas presented at the show were still in the design phase, Sanders and Sutherland had already developed their first working electrostatic speaker based on more conventional designs. It was called the ‘Monolith’, and dealers who heard it play during product demonstrations were more than eager to sell this to the public. Given the early acceptance of their ideas, the two men felt ready to start their own business. Having to come up with a brand name, they decided to combine their middle names to MartinLogan in 1983.
Despite many initial setbacks, including the departure of Ron Logan Sutherland from the company, the manufacturer managed to secure its foothold in the High End loudspeakers market. In the 1990s, MartinLogan created many now famous classics, such as the SL3, the smaller Aerius, and the Quest. The SL3 that is featured here is said to be the ‘rockiest’ of the 1990s range. It features a tall and slender stator panel that is flanked by blond oak rails. The Mylar membrane is almost completely translucent, inviting the application of soft back lighting to the front wall for optical effect. The SL3 is a hybrid speaker in the MartinLogan ‘Sequel’ series tradition and offers a 10” paper cone woofer for bass extension. The woofer is housed in a closed cabinet that also includes the 250 Hz 12 dB crossover and the high voltage transformer needed to generate the static electricity driving the Mylar membrane. The panel is open towards the front and the back of the speaker, and it is curved at the MartinLogan typical 30 degree angle to allow for optimum high frequency dispersion. The SL3 features dual binding posts for bi-wiring, as well as a Bass Control Switch to lessen bass response by -3 dB. This can be quite convenient, if the speakers are to be placed in smaller rooms in which bass response is accentuated. Although each speaker must be connected to a power source for high voltage generation, energy consumption is very low, and the speaker switches into standby if no signal current is detected on the binding posts. A small red light at the front of the speaker indicates when the speaker is switched on.
The MartinLogan SL3s is best driven with a strong amplifier that is built to handle high current feedback, because the impedance curve of the speaker shows some very low dips down to just 1,5 ohms at 20.000 Hz. Due to their bipolar panel design, placing the speakers can be a little more challenging than this would be the case with conventional designs. If placed well, the SL3 is perfectly capable of performing a disappearing act that is amazing to experience, in that the precise location of the speaker becomes difficult to trace and the music appears three-dimensional in the room. The sound is sonically balanced, and bass integration works very well on the hybrid design. At 0,37 sqm panel surface, the SL3 are capable of presenting a huge sound stage, both at low and high volumes. Bi-wiring is of the essence, as control over the woofer becomes sloppy when bridged. This may have to do with the hybrid design and the inherent electric characteristics of the drivers. When connected correctly, the SL3 is capable of lots of punch and a quick decay when needed. Because the panels themselves are of considerable size, listening to music at close distance can be quite overpowering. Some people have stated that they feel as if they are being grilled by them. To lessen this effect, but also to integrate the speakers more effectively into the room, the panels can be tilted backward. Overall, the SL3 provides a great basis for a high quality sound experience, as well as lots of room for experimentation.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
It may not be immediately obvious from looking at the photos, but I had to think long and hard about how and if to present loudspeakers on this platform. For one thing, loudspeakers are vertical objects, whereas I have made a point in maintaining a 16:9 horizontal picture format in my presentations. Secondly, it was clear from the start that I would not be able to offer a look inside the speakers, for the simple reason that this might cause damage to the cabinet or drivers and thereby lower the resale value – a significant consideration, if I want to continue our Explorations in Audio on a reasonable budget. And, lastly, loudspeaker performance depends to a great extent on the environment in which the speakers are placed. I finally decided that, due to the significant role speakers play in our systems, I would double-layer my photos based on the current listening environment that the speakers are in and to fade out the room features. My intention in doing so was to lessen the prominence of the room and to thereby give you the opportunity of imagining the same speakers placed in your own environment. The advantage is that you see the speakers at the toe-in angle and distance that is most realistic to real life.
Tannoy was founded by Guy Fountain as the Tulsemere Manufacturing Company in England in 1926 and ranks among the oldest manufacturers of loudspeakers in the world. The name is an abbreviation of ‘tantalum alloy’ a material that was used in electrolytic rectifiers that were developed by the company. The Tannoy trademark was registered in 1932. With its original headquarters in London, Tannoy soon became famous as a manufacturer of public address speakers and professional speakers for the military in World War II. Since the name was shown in bold letters on the speaker grills and thereby frequently visible to the general public, to ‘Tannoy’ an event became synonymous with providing amplification for it. In fact, older Englishmen can still be heard referring to public address systems as Tannoys, despite the fact that, more often than not, these systems today come from a wide range of manufacturers. Following economic pressures, Tannoy moved to Coatbridge, Scotland in the 1970s, where it has remained. Today, the company belongs to the Uli Behringer MUSIC Group, that has pledged to preserve the brand and to keep the Scottish location. In recent years, with mainstream buyers turning away from High Fidelity for the sake of cheap USB & wireless gadgets, Tannoy has been struggling to keep their foothold. Tannoy did not invent coaxial driver designs, but they certainly were among the pioneers of this technology. The Tannoy signature Dual Concentric driver was invented in 1948. It boasted a design in which the tweeter was set deeply inside the center of the woofer. The on-axis position had the advantage of improved time and phase alignment and was originally intended for microphone measurements. The original pair ended up being used in Decca’s FFRR studios, and then EMI ordered some for Abbey Road (source: whathifi.com), a studio made famous by The Beatles, among others. Form there it was only a short way to stardom.
The Tannoy DC6t of 2010 comes in a slender modern design with an excellent wood finish. Despite its trapezoid shape, the overall impression is still that of a box, even if it is a relatively pretty one at that. For added stability, Tannoy has mounted the cabinets on an additional and wider floor plate. This is quite effective and has allowed me to place felt pads under the spike coasters without the speaker becoming too rocky. Connection is made via bi-wiring terminals which are quite solid and conveniently located close to the floor. A bit unusual perhaps is the polarity arrangement, with the two positive and the two negative posts being located next to each other on a horizontal line. The tweeter has a titanium dome, and, like all hard surfaces, this can be rather unforgiving if something is not quite right. Clean energy is therefore of utmost importance to this type of speaker. An additional woofer is positioned directly underneath the 6-inch Dual Concentric driver, and the speaker does have an intensional three dB increase in bass response. The cabinet is rear ported but can be placed relatively close to the front wall of the room despite of this. The sound is very precise and the stage is both wide and deep. Instruments reach deep into the room and piano has just the right timbre and attack to be realistic. On the 35 watts HK730 the speakers performed very well, however, only the 60 watts Citation provides the necessary boost for piano to attack. Since the DC6t are 8 ohms speakers, the amplifier power will be exactly as presented. The speakers are ideal for small to medium sized living rooms and will survive an occasional party. 6-inch woofers have their limits of course, especially when it comes to fullness of sound and punch. If you have the room and budget for it, I would suggest that you try the next larger versions DC8 and DC10.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
To be honest, my original intention was to sell off a pair of speakers and not so much to purchase a new one. But when a caller expressed interest in my pair of KEF iQ30, somehow I could not help but enquire what troubles he was hoping to solve with them. It turned out he had a small listening room, and that his current speakers were simply too large for the job. To my surprise, they were of the exact model that I had been running a web search on for some time. We consequently agreed that he would bring them along when auditioning mine. What a strange coincidence that was.
Let me explain: Ever since replacing our KEF iQ30 bookshelves with a slim and tall pair of Tannoy DC6T floor-standing speakers, I could not rid myself of the sensation that they too were lacking the muscle to fill our 70 sqm office with music. Although articulate and pleasant in their presentation, their performance mostly inhabited the space right up to the listening position, at about one-fourth of the room’s depth, rather than filling it completely. While the pair of Tannoy DC6T was better suited than the KEFs for that same location, it still seemed a little light on the bass, not terribly underperforming, but not impressive either.
The trouble is, when your designated listening space is a sleek and modern office, this sets some limits to the possible speaker choices, especially in terms of colours, shapes, and sizes. And this does not even consider the WAF (wife acceptance factor), an aspect that does come into play when running a family business. Yet, since the DC6T had been chosen well and also found acceptance from the other dwellers, I tentatively set up an automated web search on the next larger (and more recent) model, the Tannoy XT8F. Hence my excitement when I heard over the telephone that there now was a pair on offer and that it was going to be brought to our house, instead of us having to take the trip.
As you might imagine, our double-interest in each other’s speakers created a strange scenario in which we both had something to gain and something to lose at the same time. I could see that it would be a challenge for both of us not to let this get in the way of enjoyment. Upon his arrival, I helped our guest by carrying up one of his Tannoy XT8F speakers which he had kindly brought along for them to be auditioned, and I immediately noticed how large and heavy they were in comparison to their smaller cousins. Although they were only wrapped in thin blankets and not bulky boxes, I had to take especially good care not to scrape them along the inner walls or banister of our stairwell.
Since the original reason for his visit had been the KEF iQ30s, we decided that they should be auditioned first. I had them hooked up to our DB Systems DB1 + B&K ST140 system in our main listening room. We had a choice of vinyl, CD, as well as the possibility of streaming via Amazon Music available, but we ended up only playing CDs, some of which he had brought along as his reference. It is always fun to listen to other people’s music, and so I simply sat and listened to new sounds or enjoyed playing some of my own. The KEFs do play well in our main listening room, and there were moments in which I forgot the original purpose of our meeting and was simply taking in the music.
Without a final decision on whether he would purchase my KEFs, we proceeded to our office upstairs. Here, our Tannoy DC6Ts were still connected to the Restek V1 + Hafler XL280 combo. With everything perfectly set up from hours of listening, I asked him to sit down and listen to these first. I know how our system sounds, so I simply stood aside and let the music play. My impression was that he enjoyed what he was hearing, however, the second purpose for his coming to Frankfurt was for me to decide whether I was interested in the larger Tannoys that he had brought for me. We therefore quickly took the protective blankets off and connected the XT8Fs to our system.
My first impression was that the sound was muddled and massive, resonating far too chaotically in the large office space. Would I be able to make them blend in with the room, and what was it worth to me to find this out? After all, where the DC6T had been articulate and refined, the larger speakers now seemed disorganised and colossal. However, since this forum is called ‘Explorations in Audio’, you can probably guess my final decision, although it was not one that resulted from a positive first impression. That they already had some bumps and bruises on the finish only contributed to this sensation. What consoled me was the fact that the whole room was energised by these new speakers. And this was the one thing the smaller Tannoys had been missing. We both made our respective purchases, content with each other’s offers, and the buyer went on his way.
I have learned not to judge new gear arrivals too quickly. Some of the best devices I have ever owned, have taken me weeks, if not months to set up well. New speakers can be tricky in this way, because many factors come into play: distance to the front and side walls, width of placement and toe in angle, listening position, and system matching, to mention just a few. These factors are hardly solved within a day’s work, as even one centimetre difference will have a pronounced effect on the speaker’s ability to perform. While this is true for all speakers, larger speakers tend to be more difficult to place, especially when taking interior design considerations into account.
Given some time to experiment, I came up with a placement that allowed me to keep my accustomed listening position at about one-fourth of the room’s depth with only minor adjustments. The XT8F are positioned about 5cm further away from the front wall than the DC6T had been, and my listening position had to be moved 10cm back. This way, the toe-in could remain unchanged with both speakers directed just past my ears instead of straight at them. This has a positive effect on sound stage and reigns in the highs which are a bit overly pronounced when played on axis. During the placement I listened to Bruce Springsteen’s Song "Tougher than the Rest" from his live on-Broadway performance. This way I could be sure that there was a real stage to be recreated. In fact, I listened to it so many times in an endless loop, I have been humming it ever since.
The XT8F have a full and rich sound, in comparison with the DC6Ts, but also more generally speaking. At close distance, the sensation is one of bathing in music. There is plenty of good quality bass, and due to their 91dB performance at just one watt, they play loud with ease. Although they look chunky and provide plenty of depth, they play voices intimately, as if listening to a cozy living room performance. This contrast of mighty roar and delicacy is highly addictive to my ears. Due to their concentric construction, the XT8F are very exact when it comes to locating instruments. Perhaps not quite as exact as the DC6T but still industry leading at this price level. If the sixes sounded as though one was taking part in a studio session, the eights invite you to the jazz club. Both speakers are insightful enough to be entertaining at all times, but if the room is right, the eights appear just a bit more rounded, especially towards the lower end. I now understand that in a smaller room this much bass can be overwhelming.
When the music is subtle, the XT8F will play this with delicacy and insightful detail, and when the orchestra swells, their excellent dynamics generated from a 50 litre corpus with down-firing bass port will thrust forward with a vengeance. I could not detect any compression when going loud, which is new to me and wonderfully pleasing. It quickly became clear that this is a completely different beast. Those who purchase the XT8F hoping for an upgrade to their DC6T might be disappointed that their room is simply too small of a playing companion. But those who have ended up with the DC6T in error, like myself, have a real chance of being very happy.
When discussing components of HiFi systems it is almost impossible to avoid the subject of cables. They constitute the essential link between the individual units, and they play an important role in the fine-tuning and matching of the HiFi chain. They come in many different designs and various gauges, running from straight to braided, with various degrees of and completely without shielding, and they are made of all kinds of wire materials from aluminum to copper, silver and gold in various coatings. For copper alone, there are many different grades and production methods that will effect the crystalline structure. In setting up a proper HiFi system, cables should be selected with the same care as the other components.
Choosing a matching cable requires a good ear, a supportive HiFi dealer, or friend with lots of gear, and some experience. Sadly, it is next to impossible to find the best cable for a specific position in the system from reading the specifications or studying the design alone. While research and personal convictions will help to guide us in a general direction, in the end, the cable will need to be heard in comparison with others, and this in precisely the system and in the room where it is to play. An interconnect, for instance, that works well between our CD player and preamplifier might perform poorly when placed between preamplifier and power amplifier. While it is difficult to find two cable types that sound the same, there is lots of scepticism among HiFi enthusiasts about the necessity of spending money and time on the subject.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Is it generally a good idea to buy audio cables for our HiFi system from cut-price vendors in China? The answer is: no.—Is it a good idea to buy this particular audio cable from China? The answer is: you bet! There are exceptions to every rule, as we shall see. The problem is that we can never be certain, whether the item we are looking at is the rare and exciting exception, or just another recapitulation of the boring old rule.
From the very first paragraph of writing about this interconnect, I can already feel the sad downside to cheap Chinese imports: The ever-present lack of credibility, certainty, and responsibility towards the customer. As some market observers will know, the cable shown here is sold on eBay. This particular variant is from a Chinese vendor by the name of ’audiophileseller’. But is this even a proper shop, or just a makeshift eBay address, hastily set up to sell off products that have fallen off the back of a truck? And who—or what—does the term ‘audiophile’ in the seller’s name refer to? The shop? The products sold? Or does it merely describe the ambition of the seller, as the name suggests? These are important questions, for those wanting to estimate the risk involved in purchasing from an unknown vendor in far-away China. The few ratings from international buyers rarely help in obtaining a clear picture.
To make matters worse, similar-looking cables can almost always be found from other Internet vendors, often for even lower prices. And, consequently, down the rabbit hole we go: Are these the same products? Are they better or worse? And—finally—are any of these items actually made out of the materials that they are claimed to be? In other words, how many buyers are going to have them delivered, take them apart, run a materials test, and publicly report on them, if their incentive was nothing more than the petty impulse of wanting to save a few bucks? By nature, tests of this kind are rare. And when they do occur, there is still the worry about consistency in the quality of manufacturing. Can we trust the craftsmanship to always be on the same level? Or do products made of similar components differ, simply due to changes in the quality of manufacturing?
In our western mode of doing business, branding helps us to give a product a finished form and character, and—paired with a contact address in case of trouble—a sense of legitimacy. The Chinese brand-free culture sees no other obligation, than to present the most attractive bling at the most approachable price, right at the point of sale. Much like a street vendor. After all, the “30-day test-and-return policy” is little more than a joke. If we consider that many cables have run-in times of more than 30 days, the only thing we can say for sure within this period, is that the product has arrived. And at times, I have even found that the sellers have meanwhile closed shop and are no longer able or willing to accept returns. For these very reasons, I have spent quite a sum of money in hunting for cables that fall short of the term ‘audiophile’ over the years.
Ultimately, this leads us back to the initial question. Is it a good idea to pruchase cables directly from China? Well, I am surprisingly relieved to find that the particular cinch/RCA interconnect that is presented here is a welcome exception to the norm. The plugs really are from the Chinese HiFi-brand Audiocrast, and, from what I could hear in my listening tests, I am also willing to believe that they are of solid copper and plated with 24k gold, just as described. In fact, the plugs are so heavy and slide on so well that they are a genuine highlight in themselves. The cables are described to be of OCC copper with an 8N silver coating. This, too, I can believe.
After all, there is something incredibly satisfying about stumbling upon a great cable. It is usually not any one particular thing that it does well, but rather the sum of its characteristics that comes together in what can only be described as—music. Now, this appears to be an easy enough conclusion to reach, you might think, because all cables connecting audio components cannot help but play the music that is fed through them. Sadly, this is only partially true, because, more often than not, a significant amount of the content of the original music is lost in terms of speed, dimension, dynamics, and tonality. The accumulated loss accounts for the phenomenon that people listening to your system play from another room will not think you have invited the musicians to play for you. The better our system is, the harder this distinction becomes.
The Audiocrast OCC and silver cable, sold by a Chinese eBay vendor, with its golden cinch/RCA plugs, braided design with Teflon dielectric, silver-plated OOC copper wires, and its non-branded manufacturer in who-knows-where, pulls of a magic act to rival well-known manufacturers, such as Kimber, Fadel Art, etc. Perhaps it is just a lucky shot, but the combination of materials works great, with the OCC copper-core providing tonal harmony and the silver-coating maintaining speed. If your system has music inside it, this interconnect will help you bring it to the surface. Never mind that of the three cables I ordered over a period of 4 months, not two actually look the same: two cables have direction indicators that are missing on the third. And one of the two cables with indicators sets itself apart from the rest by having the red and black colour-coating of the plugs confused.
Note: I did ask the ‘audiophileseller’ eBay shop for specifications on the cable (with plugs or without). The response was that they only knew it was made of OCC copper and silver, terminated with gold plated Audiocrast plugs. Well, I expected no less.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
When the subject of cable quality comes up in HiFi forums, it is best to disregard the post completely and look at the one-thousandth picture of an amplifier, CD-player, or turntable instead. It is perfectly acceptable to write a comment on an amplifier, such as ‘nice’ or ‘cool’. One might even claim something down the lines of “a friend of mine has one” or, more boldly, “I heard this one once, but I liked another one better”. Because it has been accepted that CD players sound different from each other, because they are made of different materials, have different layouts, etc. Some are better shielded against outside interference, some feature more opulent electronics. The same can be said of preamplifiers, amplifiers, streamers, speakers, and other audio devices. The answer to whether any of this matters is usually: “Of course, because it affects the sound of our HiFi system.” Manufacturers often make a great fuss about having developed a new feature, and, especially in High End, this usually has very little to do with usability, but everything with how it sounds.
When it comes to the subject of cables, however, we are invited to believe in a magic trick. For some obscure reason, both public and expert opinion has it that two cables made up of different materials in different gauges, and based on completely different design concepts have exactly the same effect on sound and behave the same way across all frequencies. According to this popular view, a speaker cable made up of straight 12 AWG copper clad aluminium (CCA) has the same performance over all frequencies as a twisted 10 AWG cable design made of OFC or OCC tinned copper. The implicit logic being that, although the medium changes, the sound stays the same, because cables are merely transducers with no electronic or sonic relevance on their own. Strangely enough, the holders of this argument do not seem to notice or mind the contradiction involved in running 100% of the music signal through a changed medium, without this signal’s quality being affected by the change. While this might be true for cables that are installed to operate a motor or a lightbulb, audio installations are far more sensitive in terms of signal integrity. The simple presence of current is not enough. Cables affect many aspects of music signals which are made up of a combination of overlapping wave lengths and amplitudes that are all too easily influenced by high frequency infiltration and even sensitive to outside touch. The resulting differences are audible in bass extension, bass nuance and layering, mid-band tonal accuracy, voice and instrument timbre, timing, agility, stage representation, high frequency extension and nuance, coherence, and more generally: musicality. Not surprisingly then, in A/B comparison, I have not heard two cables that have the same influence on sound.
In this context, the Belden 9497 is no exception. Heralded in vintage audiophile communities as an entry-level High End speaker cable that works well with low-power tube devices, for instance, it is easily recognisable by its orange and black coating and its tight twisted-pair design. This lollypop look makes it stand out among its unicoloured competition, even before one has had the pleasure of hearing it perform. The two high-conductivity tinned copper conductors are of relatively small 16 AWG diameter and covered with heavy duty PVC insulation. No outer shielding is used, but—similar to Western Electric and similar manufacturers—Belden have tightly twisted the cable’s conductors to cancel out high frequency (HF) radiation. The downside of this design is that the individual cable becomes longer. However, considering the 9497’s low resistance over 1000 ft of just 4.27Ohms, one meter more or less is likely to have a relatively small impact when compared to the benefit of cancelling out airborne high frequencies from the signal. Conventional shielding, on the other hand, introduces additional mass to the signal path and tends to hamper the agility and thereby the musicality of a cable. Going without shielding altogether is becoming increasingly impossible in times of interfering communication signals such as WiFi, DECT and cellular.
How does it sound? Well, to my ears it sounds great, but it took us a long time to get there. The cable was recommended to me by Luigi, who has devoted his life to finding audiophile gems, especially in the context of vintage audio. This recommendation happened at a time, when I had only been familiar with regular multi-strand speaker cables that were composed of various diameters and ranged from copper-clad aluminium (CCA) to oxygen free copper (OFC). Neither of these cables had been very special in their sound, although I had noticed that changing from 2.5mm to 4mm diameter lead to improvements in bass response. And I had changed speaker cables often enough to understand about run-in times. Because, whenever I had changed cables, I had been disappointed at first, thinking that I had made a wrong purchase. Yet, after a while, I grew accustomed to the new sound, until I was happy again, often happier than before. I had simply thought this was me getting used to the cable, until I began changing back and forth between used cables and realised that they did lead to a different sound, but never to the one that had troubled me when they were fresh out of the box. The cables had matured somehow, but I did not give it much thought, until I connected the Belden 9497.
After hearing the Belden at Luigi’s house, I had decided to purchase a pair for myself. The 9497 are not so common in Germany, and importers usually levy a big mark-up. I therefore found a supplier in Japan and ordered 10 meters for bi-wiring with 2x 2.5m on each side. I also bought 5 meters of Viablue cable sleeve, some shrink tube and silver solder, a better soldering station, and some gold-plated rhodium-copper banana plugs—the hollow version for low-mass connections. By that time, I had already learnt that low-mass was important for maintaining musicality, and that a single point of contact on the amp side produces superior homogeneity. This means, in customising the cables, I used two banana plugs on the side of the amp, joining the poles of the same colour together for the purpose; and I used four banana plugs on the side of each speaker, with separate connections for the high and low frequency drivers. In my experience, this provides greater bass control than simply using cable jumpers or the speaker manufacturer’s standard bridges.
My first sonic impression of the customised cable playing in our main system was anything but pleasant. The music sounded overly tight and tinny, there were no transients to speak of, and mid-bass was as low as it would go. The stage seemed centred and packed, and the music clung to the speakers. What irritated me most was a tonal imbalance in the voices. If I had not heard the cable perform before, and if I had not learnt about cable burn-in, I would have gone back to my OFC copper on that day, or on any day over the next few weeks, actually. Since it was not much fun to listen to, I would turn on our system before going to bed and get up early in the morning to listen for changes. After the first week of playing, voices began to sound more natural and closer to those on our matured system. Some time later, the music started to free itself from the speakers with individual notes lingering for longer. After about a month, bass had become more extended and natural. After about two months, the stage was fully set, with lots of space between instruments, natural voices, as well as full and contoured bass.
I have gone back to the OFC cables on occasion, for example when changing the length or making other changes to the Belden. Whenever I do so, it feels as if I am listening to music through a thick veil. The Belden beats the OFC in all aspects, most obviously in terms of agility, tonal balance, and transparency. For the sake of further explanation I will try other speaker cables, of course. But considering the engagement and joy I get from listening with the Belden, I know to have set a standard that is going to be difficult to beat. Following the considerable improvement in sound, I have since installed this cable on both of our systems. The run-in time was the same on both occasions.
Tested on the following setup: CD player: Marantz CD-17 (on WesternElectric); Preamp: DB Systems DB1 (Haegermann audiolabs Epic 1); Power amp: B&K ST-140 (on Belden 9497); MartinLogan SL3
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
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
When I was younger and still drinking beer, I was attracted to Pils rather than export or wheat beer, because I was fascinated with the concept of having to wait seven minutes for it, while its foam was settling in the glass. Seven minutes seemed a long time to a young man‘s heart, and the reward was a smooth refreshing drink that appeared to entail a certain maturity, which it also bestowed on the juvenile drinker.
As I grew older, I started to prefer wine over beer. And, in terms of wine, I had a preference for mature reds with a dark and fruity nose. Irish and Scotch whiskys as well have at times captured my imagination. One such highlight in whisky was the discovery of an old Haig whisky from the 1950s that still tasted smooth and fulfilling after over sixty years. Amazing!
It is no secret that some things get better as they get older, while others fade away quickly. And the difference between the two will not reveal itself to the hasty consumer. Long-term quality is more than a coincidence. It is much rather a secret bond between mature customers on the one side and experienced craftsmanship on the other. In other words, a sacred pact between the steady hand and the steady mind that will not be side-tracked by trifles.
Where quality does prevail, both customer and vendor follow the basic idea that perfection has its price. Sadly, the relationship between quality and price is all too often inverted, and customers are sad to find that their expensive products break soon after purchase. We can therefore safely concur that paying a high price does not necessarily entail quality. Customers looking for a safe purchase are therefore best advised to trust in a well-established relationship or purchase from a well-known brand.
The trouble with well-known brands in recent years has been that they, too, are driven by shareholders with minimal interest in the company’s products. All their focus, so it seems, is on the short-term and mostly in themselves. This creates a scenario in which established brands with a name to lose are forced to save on materials and labour and to sell their products at the highest possible price. Increasingly, therefore, paying a higher price does not entail sufficient quality anymore. It will be interesting to see which brands can manage to survive, once the relationship of trust with their customers has been broken.
Ultimately, this leads to the question of who to trust when exploring unfamiliar territory. Solid Core Silver cables are an exotic breed, usually reserved for High End audio enthusiasts with lots of money to spend. Buying such cables from an established manufacturer can easily set you back a few hundred euros, although the basic materials are not actually that expensive. If they were, people would not be able to afford silver cutlery, etc. Manufacturers of silver cables might be rare, and this might drive up prices, perhaps, but even bulk cables can be found at relatively affordable prices. Sadly though, terminated solid core cables are mostly expensive due to brand image, patents, and a whole lot of marketing.
From the beginning of this exploration, it was therefore clear to me that I would not be able to afford any brand interconnect of this type. Even used, these cables were out of my reach. And since I did not have a well-established relationship with a specialist yet, I had to find a source willing to partner with me at the monetary level that I was at in that moment. Among the many used cables on offer, I spotted a vendor by the name of Holger Becker, a man who has found a liking to simple but effective silver interconnects and enjoys building them for himself and others.
The HBS1 is Holger Becker’s number one silver cable. It bears the initials of his name, followed by the letter for silver and the figure one for his highest quality product. Holger especially intended the interconnect to work well with critical turntable cartridges. Measured with the plugs in place, the product features a total resistance of just 56pF. The cable consists of a silver solid core conductor that is shielded by a copper mesh. It is terminated with gold-plated pure copper RCA/cinch plugs made by RAMM Audio that screw firmly into place. The cable is relatively thin and surprisingly flexible, has no rigidity of its own and needs to be suspended freely behind the rack.
Silver is a completely different beast from copper, of course. And although I have experience in running in cables, and have read that silver solid-core conductors have a run-in time of approximately 2 months, I must say that the first three weeks made me doubt that this interconnect was ever going to sound good, not even to speak of great. When the cable arrived, I did not recognise anything in its performance that reminded me of the cherished joys of listening.
The HBS1 produced mostly mids with disappointing and overly tight bass. The music clung to the speakers, and there were hardly any transients to speak of. Individual notes appeared to be cut short, leaving sad blotches of emptiness in the soundstage. If it had been real musicians playing and not the speakers, they would have packed up and left our listening room, appalled at what was coming out of their instruments. And I must confess, it is only due to my experience with our Belden 9497 speaker cables that I had an ounce of hope left that allowed me to endure. To help me through it, I marked the dates in my calendar: ‘HBS1 one month old’ and ‘HBS1 two month old (Review?)’.
I decided that I would give this cable time to fully mature, just like a good wine or whisky, before attempting to write a review on it. And, thankfully, I had meanwhile become seasoned enough myself, not to jump to hasty conclusions. Mr. Becker himself was hesitant when I asked him about sound quality and run-in time and suggested that this was a personal matter he would rather not comment on. I must confess that I was a little disappointed, because I could have used some reassurance in my time of expectation.
From week to week there was less that troubled me about the cable. I hooked it up in various positions that would allow more current to flow than our turntable is capable of producing and found that it sounded great on all sources. For some reason, however, I could not get it to perform well between preamp and power amp. Perhaps it had to do with the need for higher resistance on one of the devices? This aside, I am now 6 weeks into my exploration and can safely say that this interconnect is doing a fabulous job on our Sansui SR-525 turntable. I have never heard such an effortless growling bass coming from a turntable while enjoying stellar transients in the treble and a wonderfully warm midrange.
In fact, my brother came over just the other day, and we ended up having an extended listening session together. My original intention had been to show him a Rega Planet CD player that I had recently bought from an audio enthusiast in Remscheid, near Wuppertal, but instead we kept retuning to the Sansui SR-525 turntable with the HBS1 interconnect, marvelling at how positively engaging, expressive, and powerful it sounded. Manu Katché’s “Neighbourhood” had all the drive and energy one could ask for. The vintage Shure M75-6S is a highly musical cartridge with high output and excellent bass slam that wants to entertain, paired with the HBS1, these positive characteristics are a real joy.
Silver cables take their time to mature, because the base material is very hard and fractures easily. Such micro fractures take a long time to heal. Moving the cable around will cause new fractures resulting in renewed run-in times. Silver cables only make sense in applications where they are left to rest in position over longer periods of time. Similar to a good wine and whiskey, they do not appeal to the entry-level consumer. As a result of their excellent conductivity, they have the potential to reveal nasty flaws in a HiFi system that go unnoticed with regular copper conductors. But for mature listeners who understand about setting up flawless systems, this type of cable will help to bring improved agility and realism to the system. Effortless, expansive, subtle, and merciless are only some of the adjectives that come to mind.
Note: I could not help but wonder about the material transitions from the silver solid-core cable construction to the pure copper gold-plated plugs. RAMM audio also makes silver-plated plugs, but on his HBS2 interconnects Holger Becker uses lower-priced silver-plated WM-Audio plugs instead that have a brass core, a decision that again introduces a third material into the equation. I shall have to give the HBS2 a listen to find out, if the choice of materials makes a discernible difference in this case.
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.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
The HBS4 is the final contender in our range of solid core silver cables. These interconnects are all based on the same base cable, using a 4N solid core silver conductor that is surrounded by a high-purity copper mesh shielding, a circumstance that leaves the audible differences between the range of interconnects to the choice of plug termination. And, since this is the point where most readers will grunt in disbelief and turn on their heels, all we can do is ask those skeptics to leave quietly and begin our next paragraph without them.
To those who are still reading, it will be important to know that material transitions, differences of mass ratios in the signal path, and the general layout of the plugs have a marked influence on how electricity travels through them, thus creating a signature that is specific to this cable and plug combination. If you have set your HiFi system up well, i.e. in keeping with some of the items listed in the High Fidelity section of this blog, your system should be able to highlight the difference between cables to you in a swift A-B comparison.
The HSB4 was added to the list at a later stage and therefore has a higher number, although it probably deserves a greater priority than this. The plugs are manufactured by Elecaudio on a tellurium-copper basis and have been silver plated. Since the cable itself is made of silver and copper, these plugs make good sense in combination with the cable in terms of minimising material transitions. On my vintage equipment, the Elecaudio plugs are a little too tight and need to be pressed on quite firmly, even if the outer barrel is turned back. Later, in taking them off, I even needed to use a knife edge as lever. Other than these minor mechanical issues, I have no complaints about this interconnect.
Running mostly non-gold-plated vintage equipment, I love the fact that the plugs are silver rather than gold-plated. This has the advantage of reducing material transitions. And, while the HSB4 has all the sonic merits of a silver solid core cable: crystal clear treble, superb transients, a sweet and compelling midrange, musical authority, and thunderously deep bass when needed, it does not emphasise a particular spectrum, as some of the other contenders in this range do. Depending on the setup of your system this may or may not be an advantage, but it is definitely good to know.
Your own choice of cable will most likely depend on the requirements of your current setup and your budget. The HBPS, for instance, costs more than twice as much as the HBS2, but if your system has the potential for it, and if you enjoy being entertained, the KLEI Absolute Harmony plugs make the HBPS engaging on a level that the other configurations simply cannot reach. For less revealing systems, the HBS2 can bring that extra momentum into the music, perhaps at the cost of lessening some of the lower end of the spectrum.
The HBS1 on the other hand will serve well in places where your music sounded a little thin and where a slight dampening of the treble is to be desired. All considered, the HBS4 is perhaps the most neutral of the range. It plays all frequencies well and provides sufficient detail in the music, however, it does not reach so deeply into each recording. In direct comparison with the HBPS you would notice the difference and perhaps feel that you are missing something, but in longer listening sessions, the HBS4 might just be more pleasant to listen to, because too much detail can be exhausting.
In our own setup, we are running the HBS4 between our preamplifier and power amplifier with very positive results. On the same system, we are running a HBPS from the CD player to the pre-amp. This is an amazing combination in many ways and has since made many a listener wonder in disbelief. When paired with a turntable, the low capacitance of all cables can serve as a low-pass filter. This can be fixed with an additional capacitor but is something to keep in mind and, at this time, the reason for us running a higher apacitance FastAudio Black Science cable from the turntable to our preamplifier, instead of introducing yet another low capacitance silver cable.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
“Are you nosy?” My grandfather asked me, seeing that I had gotten up to look outside the window to see which car’s engine sounded so full-bodied in the passing. “No,” was my reply, as I was sitting back down. But I knew it was a lie. Back in the day of former German soldiers turned factory workers, being nosy was considered a nuisance which had to be tamed, a speck of childishness on the way to being a man. And I felt guilty, of course, because I knew I was nosy way beyond my own control.
In today’s world, a playing field of competing ideas rather than battle and obedience, nosiness is considered an asset rather than a burden. What is desired changes over time, and I am fortunate enough to have been born at a time when the doors were beginning to open, and explorations of the individual were again possible. After all, what character trait other than unruly nosiness would make me search for a cable to top the Kimber Tonik, especially at a time that I was very happy with how my system sounded. I am actually listening to the Tonik as I am writing these lines and can only marvel at its ability of getting the harmonics right. However, it is high time to change to the test candidate.
Similar to the Tonik, the Timbre’s design features Kimber’s tri-braid field geometry and VariStrand technology. However, all features are slightly more elaborate. The braided cables comprise individual strands of seven different gauges, not just four. And, although Kimber does not directly specify, their “hyper-pure” copper is most likely OCC rather than “ultra-pure” OFC. The Timbre’s dielectric is made of low loss fluorocarbon, and the terminations are fitted in a nitrogen assisted hand soldering process. Instead of the more basic Ultratike plugs, the Timbre is fitted with the more sophisticated Ultraplate RCA-type connectors that are precision-machined from a solid piece of metal and feature a split centre prong for improved contact.
Changing from Tonik to Timbre, some haptic differences become apparent. The Timbre feels thinner, smoother, and is generally less stubborn to manage behind the rack. The Ultraplate plugs may be better engineered, however, they are also harder and less flexible. This makes them a little too tight to be slid all the way onto our Restek V1 preamplifier with its slightly oversized sockets from the 1980s. If the Tonik resembled household installation wires, the Timbre feels more like holding jewellery in one's hands. When it comes to sound, the Timbre also sets itself apart from the Tonik, which can be seen as beneficial, but can also be a hindrance in other scenarios. It all depends how we have set up the rest of our system.
Where the Tonik’s strength lies in maintaining tonal balance, the Timbre is far more informative. Diana Krall’s voice gets a greater sense of huskiness and realism holding more of the original timbre of her voice. The same can be said about the instruments. On “I Have Changed My Address” the cymbals simmer much longer, and the sound of metal is more realistic than on the Tonik. While the simmering is mostly about a greater width in treble, there are dark undertones that the Timbre layers in ever so subtly, while they go unnoticed with the Tonik. The next song on Diana’s album is “Love Me Like a Man” picks up the pace, and the long simmering of the cymbals slightly overlaps with the music that follows. This leads to a bit of congestion in the treble and thereby draws the listener’s attention to it, making it seem slightly off balance, which it is not. Treble congestion is something I have not experienced on the Tonik, and, depending on the rest of your setup, can become a reason for listening fatigue.*
The Timbre sets a wonderful stage which is at once wide and deep. There is ample space between the instruments and individual notes are often flung deeply into the room or beyond the left or right of the speaker position. Diana Krall who is usually the only singer on her albums and mostly positioned centre stage, appears lifelike and three-dimensional in front of me with the instruments arranged around her. Musical instruments are clearly discernible in their individual character—or timbre—and given their own space to perform. The Timbre’s ability as a performer and entertainer makes it an interesting contender in the step above entry-level range. Its revealing nature will surely raise the bar for your existing components and go a long way in helping you to optimise your system. On our smaller system—which I mostly use for nighttime listening—I might change back to the Tonik at some point, which is far less exciting to listen to. But will I be able to do it without feeling that I am missing something? It will be difficult for sure because I still am way too nosy.
Tested on the following setup: CD player: Denon DCD 1420 (on Digital Coax HiVilux Reference); DAC: Cambridge DacMagic 100 (on Kimber Kable Timbre); Preamp: Restek V1 (on Wireworld Luna 7); Power amp: Hafler XL-280; and Tannoy XT8F (bi-wired, on Belden 9497)
Cable lengths: 100cm
DC loop resistance: 0.057 Ohm/m
Parallel capacity: 62.1 Pikofarad/m
Serial Inductance: 0,493 Microhenry/m
Characteristic impedance: N.N.
Handling: directional, smooth flexible
Termination: rhodium plated, Teflon insulator
Position tested: CD player + DAC to preamplifier
* Note: 4 Apr 2021 — I have meanwhile found out that the treble congestion described above was caused by one Timbre strand touching another audio cable behind the rack. When suspended freely, the cable stays well ordered, also in faster passages. Cables without mesh shielding appear to be even more sensitive to physical contact than their shielded counterparts.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Kimber’s entry-level interconnect was also my entry ticket to audiophile listening pleasures. With the market for stereo products in decline and a growing demand for home cinema installations in need of much longer cable runs, manufacturers of high-class audio cables had to come up with more affordable solutions to stay in business. Kimber’s Tonik interconnect was especially designed with a slippery and durable outer skin that would make it easy for it to be pulled through holes and installed in walls. While other Kimber cables use wires that consist of strands of seven different gauges, this number was reduced to just four gauges on the Tonik to bring down cost. Other concessions were made in the choice of plugs, e.g. the Tonik’s Ultratike cinch/RCA connector does not have the split centre prong that we typically find on more pricy Kimber products, such as the Timbre or PBJ.
I was attracted to the Tonik by its braided design and affordable price. According to the excellent customer reviews that existed at the time, it offered an exceptional performance for an entry-level interconnect. The novice that I was to the subject of cables, I was absolutely blown away by the immediate improvement in sound, especially in direct comparison with the conventionally shielded cables that I had been familiar with, such as entry-level Sommer or Fadel Art interconnects. I have since been informed that the name Tonik refers to the base tone of a musical scale. But to me it sounded more like ‘Gin and Tonic’, rich in flavour and full of sparkly, bubbly joy.
In true Kimber fashion, the Tonik plays fast, highly dynamic, and informative. Although it is capable of presenting lots of musical detail, it still retains coherence and tonal balance, more so than its in-house competition. The Ultratike’s rhodium-plated contacts seem to help a great deal in supporting the Tonik’s inner momentum. The wires themselves are of ultra-pure copper. Kimber does not specify if OFC or OCC, and it is probably not important, because the cables’ magic trick much rather rests in its tri-braid field geometry, and its construction of wires of various thickness—or VariStrand—as they call it. The PE dielectric is less flexible than that of Kimber’s Timbre or PBJ cables, which makes it a bit more stubborn to handle behind a HiFi rack. Its braided construction serves well to shield it from external interference. Connected to a DAC, CD player or streamer, it is nearly impossible to get it to hum.
Kimber’s braiding technique has a long history. In the 1970s, Ray Kimber was working for a company that installed light and sound gear in some of the first discos. Noticing how long runs of light and sound cables rolled out side by side negatively affected the sound by injecting interference, he found that twisting and braiding these cables together in a specific way would not only protect them from interference but even enhance the sound. Based on this discovery, he founded Kimber Kable, a manufacturer specialising in using braiding techniques. At the time of writing this article, the Utah based Kimber Kable company has 12 employees and supplies audiophile interconnects and speaker cables to music lovers around the globe.
Kimber’s Tonik allows music to flow freely, with zest and harmonic richness. Piano notes and voices sound full and instantly endearing. It sets the stage well, but in comparison with the Timbre lacks some width and depth. The tonal presentation is accurate, however—again in direct comparison with the Timbre—the top-end is not quite as open, and individual notes do not simmer for as long. On Diana Krall’s “Black Crow”, the Tonik presents the music accurately with solid foundation, but the Timbre places the cymbals further away from the speakers and much deeper into the room. The same is true for bass extension. While the Tonik plays a full and compact bass, the Timbre’s bass is lighter, nimbler, and capable of more nuance. With these characteristics in mind, the Tonik is most likely a better companion for Rock, Pop, Hip-hop, etc., whereas Jazz and Classical music lovers would probably be well advised to spend a little bit extra for the next higher level. In the end, it is a question of taste, budget, and how well it blends in with the other components, of course. The Tonik is a superb entry-level cable that allows us to experience sophisticated Kimber sound, or at least 90 percent of it, without having to break the bank. If you do not have any prior experience with braided cables, the Tonik is definitely a good starting point. And—having listened to it again today—I am certainly keeping mine.
Tested on the following setup: CD player: Denon DCD 1420 (on Digital Coax HiVilux Reference); DAC: Cambridge DacMagic 100 (on Kimber Kable Tonik); Preamp: Restek V1 (on Wireworld Luna 7); Power amp: Hafler XL-280; and Tannoy XT8F (bi-wired, on Belden 9497)
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Probably the cheapest way of upgrading your existing power cords is through use of the now famous Lapp Ölflex Classic cable for industrial usage. Its specially shielded design provides a good foundation for power integrity, and the inner diameter of 3 times 2.5 millimeters should be more than sufficient for most HiFi applications, even if you are running a very powerful amplifier. This is not to say that it will not be an asset to our far less power hungry components as well.
The hand confectioned cable shown above is based on Lapp’s affordable Ölflex CY 110 power cord and was fitted with a pretty looking Viablue sleeve to lessen the glossy effect of the visible shielding. The plugs are of the high quality made-for-audio kind and were manufactured in Japan. Viablue shrink tube was used to hold the sleeves in position and a ferrite IMF shield of the same brand was added for extra protection.
I was a little disappointed with Viablue’s approach to the ferrite clamp, for two reasons: first, it is a slide-on design which is difficult to place over a just-fit cable. Second, it consists of a thin inner ferrite liner as well as an outer aluminum tube. While the outer tube may look impressive, all the work is done by the inner ferrite core which appears to be rather thin. I have not yet compared this cable with one that is fitted with a proper Würth Elektronik 74271151, 15mm ferrite ring, but I would not be surprised if it cannot compete. If I were to choose again, I would probably go with the more expensive Würth.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
When it comes to historic cables, few names cary the weight or spark the imagination as Western Electric. The company has borne its all-American name since 1872, and, in close proximity of the AT&T golden years, grew to become a giant among giants. From the early federal telegraph network all the way to modern telecommunications, Western Electric has developed cables and electronics for every imaginable purpose. The company founder, Elisha Gray, was even credited with inventing the telephone, simultaneously with Alexander Graham Bell, until losing a court battle against Bell in 1879.
Signal processing and signal transport were among Western Electric's main concerns, and experiments were conducted using different types of wires, construction methods, and dialectics. Depending on their designated position and application, cables needed to be flexible, durable, temperature resistant, resistant to moisture, substances, etc. Sometimes to connect devices over huge distances and sometimes in the tiniest of spaces. At times to be installed in fixed position for eternity, and at times to be constantly moved around. Cable design needs to take many aspects into consideration and is mostly a compromise, considering location, usage and cost.
When it comes to audio cables that are to be arranged behind a home-based HiFi rack, this somewhat limits the need for wear and tear resistance, however, it does pose a challenge in terms of signal homogeneity over a wide frequency spectrum, an optimal ratio of resistance and capacitance, etc. While there is no doubt that many cables will do the trick of making a basic connection by allowing current to flow, this does not mean that they will do so equally well, from a timing and amplitude aspect over all frequencies.
The historic Western Electric cable featured here is made up of two solid strands of high quality copper. Each copper strand is wrapped in silk cloth and the strands are twisted against each other to form a single cable per channel. Silk has some advantages over many other covers in the sense that it does not effect the tonal balance of music signals that are sent through it. Due to its twisted pair construction, outside interference is sufficiently reduced so that no additional foil or mesh is needed in protection. Conventional shielding has a negative effect on agility and dynamics, and better types of shielding often come at a higher price.
This particular Western Electric was built by using XLO Electric XLO HT PRO RCA plugs. While the quality is not bad, there was a time when they could be found cheaply online. The plugs are 24K gold plated and of light weight. The overall result is very pleasing in many ways. When used in primary position between CD player and amp, there is no comparison with a conventional shielded multi-core design. The Western Electric simply plays in a different league. And even in the braided or twisted pair category, the silk cable can hold its own.
Having run the Western Electric Silk between our Marantz CD-17 and DB1 preamplifier for close to a year, I am well-accustomed to its abilities, and finding an upgrade to it proved to be a challenge, indeed. The Western Electric produces a true-to-life natural sound that had me hooked from the first moment I heard it. Like most solid core wires it is direct and forward sounding, but, despite this, it almost never came across as aggressive. It offers great speed and clarity with slight vocal emphasis. Due to the amount of musical detail, I found it most realistic to listen at moderate volumes. The Western Electric is a great companion for tube amps.
I have read some place that the Western Electric does not provide its own signature. From my own comparisons between cables I am not sure I can agree. Without criticising its performance, which is phenomenal, I found the following characteristics to shine through: There is a slight and pleasant high frequency roll-off which becomes obvious when listening to cymbals for instance. On the positive side, this contributes to a more amiable sound. And voices are slightly pronounced. Bass notes are portrayed accurately, however, deep bass is not this cables particular strength. As such, the Western Electric is great for listening to natural and acoustic music at realistic volumes. Jazz, Blues, Folk, Classic all work great. If you purchase NOS, make sure to allow for 80-100 hours of break-in time. If you know and have some experience with this cable and would like to share this, please leave a comment below.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Wireworld’s Luna 7 is a real lightweight among the entry level audiophile interconnects. However, despite its flimsy feel, it does pack some punch. It features Wireworld’s patented DNA Dual Helix design, which internally consists of two veins of flat cable with two separate and equally spread out strands of 20 OFC copper wires in each. The silver clad aluminium plugs feature low mass gold plated contacts and a hollowed gold-plated centre prong. The two channels are physically joined together in the centre with the outer plastic skin, as is more prominently found on speaker wires. As this goes against all my advice given on this website, I was tempted to pry them apart to improve channel separation, but ultimately decided against it to preserve resale value. Although moderate in price, such a re-design of my own making would be difficult to explain to a future buyer.
I had originally bought this cable to play between our Denon CD player and preamplifier. In this position it only gave a mediocre performance and was soon replaced with more expensive braided interconnects by Kimber. Between CD player and preamplifier, the Luna 7 had sounded rather soft, producing a pleasant but unrealistic halo around the highs and lacking bass attack as well as bass control. Because of its delicate touch and feel, it had simply not occurred to me to test it in any other position. At the time, I had assumed that this was how it sounded and had placed it in my cable box with some disappointment.
Looking at the subject of cables again for the eiaudio.de website, I came across the Luna 7 again. And although two years had passed since I had last heard it, I was surprised that I still had the sonic memory of it. My first impulse was to sell it without trying it again or discussing it here, but then I called my friend and co-audiophile Luigi to discuss some ideas on cable position with him. We both agreed that there were few general rules on how a cable will perform in a given position and that, except for a few exceptions perhaps, to be absolutely sure, each cable should be tested in as many positions as possible to reach a full understanding of its abilities in combination with the given equipment.
Before re-connecting the Luna 7, I had been running a pair of Georg Neumann interconnects with HiCon plugs between preamplifier and power amp on our Restek-Hafler-Tannoy system. The Neumann cables are fast and punchy with a slight edge to them in the highs. They add a bit of drama, which I generally like. I replaced the Neumanns with the Wireworld Luna 7 and was surprised that the halo I remembered did not shine through this time. The Luna 7 still produced a softer sound, but in this new position, the change was not at all unpleasant nor was it unrealistic. While there was sufficient timbre on piano notes, there was also a new delicacy to cymbals. I had read somewhere that the Luna 7 produced a boomy bass, a phenomenon that I was unable to confirm in either position. Bass was not particularly nuanced, this was true. However, it blended in well with the overall picture.
Voices were perhaps a bit on the light side and appeared to be slightly set back, but they were never unpleasant. Kari Bremnes’ song “A Lover in Berlin” is a good case in point, as the voice can all to easily sound too piercing. This was no longer the case with the Luna 7. Other aspects of the music moved forward and reached further into the room than had been the case with the Neumann interconnects. The Luna 7 would have served well to enhance electronic music, as effects were slightly more pronounced. The soundstage could have been more clearly set and perhaps also more assertive perhaps. The Neumanns had produced a lifelike stage with lots of separation between the instruments. This was not necessarily a strong point of the Luna 7 (unsurprisingly), however, the stage that it did create was rather enjoyable and laid back.
The biggest strength next to its pleasant highs were arguably its price, at which there was little competition at the time (or even now). For those who are interested and wish to purchase new, Wireworld have released updated versions, such as the Luna 8 with a slightly improved DNA double helix design and similar sonic features. Used versions of the Luna 7 are available at very reasonable prices. Both versions have been given favourable reviews by critics and consumers alike.
If the aim of this website is to propagate affordable HiFi solutions that deserve the term ‘fidelity’, this cable should be listed among the available options. I will keep the Luna 7 running for a few days, as I am positively surprised by its performance between preamplifier and power amplifier. Not ‘High End’ but highly enjoyable nevertheless. At this point, I am not sure if I can get over the fact that the two channels are running in parallel with that tiny space of plastic between them, and, after all, there are further cables to be explored. If you are familiar with the Luna 7 or Luna 8 interconnects, you are more than welcome to leave a comment below.
Tested on the following setup: CD player: Denon DCD 1420 (on Digital Coax HiVilux Reference); DAC: Cambridge DacMagic 100 (on Kimber Kable Timbre); Preamp: Restek V1 (on Wireworld Luna 7); Power amp: Hafler XL-280; and Tannoy XT8F (bi-wired, on Belden 9497)
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
Thomas Fast opened his first HiFi studio in Stuttgart in 1998 and has since become a trusted focal point for audiophile music enthusiasts nationwide. Fastaudio offers a range of quality services, ranging from the sale of HiFi and High End components to the setting up and fine-tuning of these components in households, offices, or in professional studios. Today, fastaudio is also a reputable manufacturer of cables and acoustic room treatment solutions.
The fastaudio Black Science MK II RCA/cinch interconnect is a cable of the brand’s own making and—now in its fourth generation—has made a name for itself as an able performer. It can be purchased in many different lengths, and terminated versions offer a choice of plugs: the more affordable Neutrik NF2 CB-2, and the pricier WBT Nextgen. Both Neutrik and WBT undoubtedly make excellent plugs. I have been a fan of the NF2 CB-2s, mainly because of their massive feel and their convenient spring mechanism, a design by which the ground is pushed into the outer shell when plugging it in, thus creating an easy to place, but very firm, grip on the socket. It really is an incredibly well-designed plug.
The version of the fastaudio Black Science MK II that is shown here has been terminated with WBT’s Nextgen plugs. Just from looking at the design of the interconnect, it becomes clear that fastaudio means serious business. There is the hollow center prong of the WBT that is split apart ever so slightly as to provide maximum contact with the socket. Instead of a circular outer contact, the WBT grips the outer part of the socket in a controlled manner. The cable itself has been designed to reduce skin-effects by using a blind mesh. Both its shield and hollow inner conductor run parallel to its longitudinal axis to reach a more favourable ratio of inductance and capacitance. A promising design in many ways.
The name Black Science itself is an allusion to ‘black’ magic (or voodoo, as cable critics would have it), to the concept of the cable as an inexplicable ‘black’ box, as well as to ‘science’ and research, disciplines that help to shed light on the many undiscovered mysteries in the universe. I cannot be certain that this was Thomas’ intention when naming the cable, but, as linguist, I cannot help but place the name in the context of popular discourse.
With its shielded design, the Black Science MK II will most likely be connected between preamplifier and amplifier. (Fast makes a separate version for connecting to phono, that either comes terminated with the traditional 5-pin DIN or simply as RCA/cinch and includes a separate ground lead terminated with spade.) The cable that I had been using instead of the fastaudio until this point was the EPIC 1 of Haegermann audiolabs. I had chosen this cable, because it was fast, accurate, and forward sounding with great dynamics. In this setup, our system could appear a little harsh at times. In combination with the electrostatic speakers it seemed to deliver enough detail. I did not miss much in the music but was not terribly excited about the sound either.
Upon connecting the Black Science MK II between preamp and amp, I first noticed that the stage had difficulty forming, the sound was a bit muddled, and I sensed a slight 50Hz humming on the right channel while the left channel was dead silent, as is usual for the DB1-ST140 combo. I checked the position of the cables and made sure that they neither crossed nor touched. I checked the sound again and seeing some improvement, I doubled my efforts of placing the cables, until both channels were silent. Standing next to the system and the bi-directional electrostatic speakers, it is difficult judge the impact of any change, except for obvious flaws such as humming. But sitting back on the couch, I immediately noticed that my efforts were starting to pay off.
When properly placed and connected, the Black Science MK II is capable of constructing a very convincing stage with plenty of natural width and depth. It does this much better than the EPIC 1 with which the music was more entangled with the speakers. The MK II plays more seamlessly when panning left to right and also reaches out further into the far left and right corners of the room. The cable seemingly provides a greater spectrum of sound and is able to show more nuance. Individual notes linger much longer. This is especially obvious when listening to natural instruments being played. Jamie Saft's 'Loneliness Road' really shines in all its natural beauty, providing fully contoured natural bass. Instruments and voices are presented without tonal coloration. Comparing our two present HiFi systems, the Restek-Hafler-Tannoy and the DB1-ST140-MartinLogan, I can say that the latter paints in slightly warmer and therefore more pleasant colours whilst offering similar dynamics and detail. If this can at least partly be attributed to the fastaudio cable, I would tend to see this as an asset and still be perfectly happy with its performance.
Tested on the following setup: CD player: Marantz CD-17 (on WesternElectric); Preamp: DB Systems DB1 (on fastaudio Black Science MK II); Power amp: B&K ST-140; MartinLogan SL3 (bi-wired, on Belden 9497)
Many factors contribute to the integrity of sound. This is especially true to all components that are in electric, physical, or accoustic contact with our HiFi chain. A HiFi unit is always placed on something and connected with something, and how it is placed and connected and how it relates to the room will have an influence on its ability to perform.
For people starting their journey into HiFi it is often surprising to learn that the cable used to connect any two units together may well be considered just as important in terms of sound signature as the units themselves. In fact, those who have not experienced this with their own ears may even put this information off as hogwash. In the end our ears decide, and those of us who have no interest in exploring may decide to simply stop doing so here. For all others, the accessories chapter will hold some very useful information.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
The first time I read about RCA caps was in the instruction manual of the Restek V1 preamplifier. In this it is explained that all unused RCA input circuits must be shortened to suppress noise potential coming from high frequency radiation. It is stated that the unit could not otherwise fulfil its specifications in terms of total harmonic distortion and signal to noise ratio. Not knowing what to make of this information, I was relieved to find out that they come in a dozen varieties and are relatively inexpensive to purchase new.
Despite the Restek V1’s gold plated inputs, I decided to purchase the caps from a Chinese importer called Audiocrast. The base material is brass which has then been rhodium coated. These plugs were much better rated than their golden equivalents, otherwise I would have attempted to lessen the effect of material transitions by using the same contact material as the inputs.
On the Restek the plugs have the effect of making the noise floor dead silent, on all sources except for the phono stage. Listening to Diana Krall’s ‘Turn up the Quiet’, the fading out of the studio’s ambient noise is now much more apparent than before. I also enjoy listening at higher volumes more than I did before, simply because the music stands out more prominently from the background. I especially enjoy the affect the plugs have on stage depth, which has just become that little bit more realistic. If your system is capable of great sound, this little add-on can well be considered an audio essential.
Author: Karsten Hein
Category: Gear & Review
When it comes to the manufacturing of High End dinosaurs in our modern times, China will surely be heading the list. Two factors are contributing to this phenomenon: On the one hand, upcoming Chinese entrepreneurs have been harbouring a personal craving for vintage American, European and Japanese High-End designs that they previously could only read about in magazines. With incomes having risen and the cost of manufacture still reasonably low, such cravings can now be fulfilled. On the other hand, western industry leaders have neglected to serve their local customers with reasonably priced High End designs that are based on long-established standards.
Buying directly from China is not without risk, of course. The great distance makes returning products more difficult, and some deeper cultural issues come into play. For instance, one might not actually receive the product purchased in the exact design advertised. The internal parts used will often change with each new consignments, following local Chinese sourcing decisions that might either be price or quality driven. While this may be acceptable to Chinese local customers, it is certainly not best practice in western countries. Buyers looking for certainty and consistency are therefore better advised to purchase elsewhere. Finally, the cost of transportation mostly does not include customs duties which can come as a surprise.
For buyers who understand about the product they wish to purchase and are willing to take a risk, the Chinese High End market offers some exciting opportunities. It is probably wise to keep in mind: the simpler the product, the less can go wrong, and the Zero Zone 100VA 12V power supply is such a case in point. A five kilos dinosaur in its own right, it was brought in to replace the DACs original switching power supply that had been sending surprising levels of audible distortion to the whole HiFi system. Not a small blunder for such a sensitive device.
With 4mm brushed aluminum front and massive heat sinks on both sides, a large 100VA toroidal transformer and heavy duty caps the regulated linear supply has the potential of powering heavy machinery over long periods of time, properties that come in handy when providing maximum bursts of clean energy to a small and power sensitive unit like a DAC. Placed on three Oehlbach pucks, the unit rests so firmly on the rack as if to challenge anyone to attempt to move it ever again.
Seen from above, we can identify the AC power socket and mains filter (top right), the toroidal transformer (on the left), a rectifier (top center), two large audio grade electrolytic capacitors (right), two voltage regulators (top and bottom), as well as parts for the unit's soft start circuitry (center). The DC output socket is located bottom right.