Explorations in Audio

Gear & Review

How does it sound?

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.

Turntables

Turntables

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.

  • Lenco L75

    Lenco L75

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Turntables

    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.

    Specifications

    • Drive: Idler drive
    • Motor: 4-pole synchronous with conical axis
    • Speeds: 78, 45, 33-⅓, 16-2/3
    • Wow and Flutter: ±0,08% / ±0,4%
    • Rumble: 36 dB (unweighted); 60 dB (weighted)
    • Plater: 306 mm, 3,7 kg, Zinc-alloy
    • Tone-arm length: 227 mm
    • Overhang: 17 mm (adjustable)
    • Offset Angle: 23°12' (±0,8° max.)
    • Material: Tubular Aluminium
    • Stylus pressure: 0,5 g
    • Dimensions: 445 x 335 x 150 mm
    • Weight: 10,5 kg
    Lenco L75
    Lenco L75
    Lenco L75

  • Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic

    Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Turntables

    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.

    Specifications

    • Speeds: 33 and 45 RPM
    • Dimensions: 39x14x34 cm
    • Weight: 7 kg
    • Voltage rating: 240 V AC switchable, 5 W, 50 Hz
    • Rumble: < -62 dB (DIN B)
    Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic
    Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic
    Philips 22 GA 212 Electronic

Tuners

Tuners

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.

  • Nikko FAM 600

    Nikko FAM 600

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Tuners

    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.

    Specifications

    • Manufacturer: Nikko Electric Manufacturing Co., Ltd.; Tokyo
    • Product launch: 1975
    • Category: stereo broadcast receiver, past WW2 Tuner
    • Main principle: Superheterodyne
    • Body: Copper chassis, brushed aluminum front, wood case
    • Dimensions: 380 x 130 x 300 mm
    • Weight: 5kg
    Nikko FAM 600
    Nikko FAM 600
    Nikko FAM 600

    Picture description:

    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.


CD-Players

CD-Players

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.

  • Denon DCD-1420

    Denon DCD-1420

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: CD-Players

    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.

    Specifications

    • Digital converter: 2 x PCM54HP
    • CD Mechanism: KSS-150A / KSS-210A
    • Frequency response: 2Hz to 20kHz
    • Dynamic range: 97dB
    • Signal to Noise Ratio: 108dB
    • Channel separation: 102dB
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0.003%
    • Line output: 2V
    • Digital outputs: coaxial, optical
    • Dimensions: 434 x 135 x 310mm
    • Weight: 6.3kg
    Denon DCD
    Denon DCD
    Denon DCD

  • Marantz CD-17

    Marantz CD-17

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: CD-Players

    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.

    Specifications

    • Frequency range: 5Hz-20kHz
    • Dynamic range: > 98 dB
    • S/N ratio (WTD): > 103 dB
    • Channel separation (1 kHz): >100 dB
    • THD (1 kHz): 0.0015 % Analog output
    • Output level (cinch JACKS): 2.2 V RMS
    • Output impedance: 250 ohms
    • Dimensions: 458 mm x 83 mm x 313 mm
    • Weight: 7.8 kg
    Marantz CD-17
    Marantz CD-17
    Marantz CD-17

DACs

DACs

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.

  • Cambridge DacMagic 100

    Cambridge DacMagic 100

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: DACs

    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.

    Specifications

    • Digital to analog converter: Wolfson WM8742 24-bit DAC
    • frequency response: 20Hz to 20kHz (±0.1dB)
    • THD @ 1kHz 0dBFS <0.0025% 24-bit
    • THD @ 1kHz -10dBFS <0.0025% 24-bit
    • THD @ 20KHZ 0DBFS <0.0025%
    • Signal to noise ratio: -113dBr
    • Jitter <130pS
    • Crosstalk: @ 1KHZ < -130dB
    • Crosstalk: @ 20KHZ < -112dB
    • Output impedance: <50 ohms
    • Output level unbalanced: 2.3V rms
    • Digital input width: 16-24bit
    • Digital input frequencies: 32kHz, 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz, 96kHz, 192kHz
    • Power consumption: 5W
    • Dimensions: 106 x 46 x 130 mm
    Cambridge DacMagic 100
    Cambridge DacMagic 100

    Picture description

    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).


Pre-Amplifiers

Pre-Amplifiers

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.

  • DB Systems DB1 + DB2

    DB Systems DB1 + DB2

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Pre-Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Total harmonic distortion: < 0.0008%
    • Intermodulation distortion: < 0.001%
    • Noise separation (Phono): > 89 dB
    • Freq. resp. (Phono, -1 dB): 2 Hz to 50 kHz
    • Freq. resp. (Phono, -0.25 dB), 10 Hz to 20 kHz
    • Inputs: Phono, Tuner, Aux 1, Aux 2, Tape
    • Outputs: 2x Tape, 2x Amplifier
    • Dimensions, preamp: 22 cm x 8.4 cm x 23 cm
    • Dimensions, power supply: 16.61 cm x 11 cm
    DB Systems DB1 + DB2
    DB Systems DB1 + DB2
    DB Systems DB1 + DB2

  • Hafler DH-110

    Hafler DH-110

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Pre-Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    PHONO PREAMP SECTION

    • Rated Output: 3 Wms, 8 Hz-105 kHz
    • Maximum Output (3.5): 12 Vrms, 20 Hz-20 kHz
    • Total Harmonic Distortion: Less than 0.0006% @ 1 kHz
    • RIAA Equalization Accuracy: +0, -0.1 dB, 30 Hz-15 kHz
    • Full Power Bandwidth: -6 dB, 4 Hz-210 kHz
    • Sensitivity (3.7): 12.5 millivolts
    • Signal to Noise: 87 dB
    • Slew Rate: 12 volts per microsecond

    LINE AMPLIFIER SECTION

    • Rated Output: 3 Vrms, 4 Hz-210 kHz
    • Maximum Output (3.5): 14 Vrms, 20 Hz-20 kHz
    • Total Harmonic Distortion: <0.001%, 20 Hz-20 kHz
    • Signal to Noise: 90 dB
    • Slew Rate: 12 volts per microsecond
    • Rise Time: 2.5 microseconds maximum
    • Channel Separation: > 82 dB @ 1 kHz

    GENERAL SPECIFICATIONS

    • Inputs: 2 Phono, Tuner, Compact Disc or Video, 2 Tape recorders, EPL Outputs: 2 Tape (buffered), 2 Line, EPL, Headphone Jack
    • Controls: Volume, Balance, Bass, Treble, Input Selector, Phono l/2 Selector,
    • Monitor Selector, Mono-Stereo, Filter, External Processor Loop,
    • Power Consumption: 3.5 watts
    • Dimensions: 17” wide x 3” high x 81⁄2” deep
    • Net Weight: 5 Kg.
    Hafler DH-110
    Hafler DH-110
    Hafler DH-110

  • Rotel RC-960BX

    Rotel RC-960BX

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Pre-Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Frequency response (line): 4 - 100.000 Hz, -3 dB
    • Frequency response (phono): 40 - 100.000 Hz, +/- 0.2 dB
    • Total harmonic distortion: < 0.004%
    • Signal to noise ratio (line): 95 dB
    • Signal to noise ratio (phono MM): 78 dB
    • Signal to noise ratio (phono MC): 64 dB
    • Dimensions: 440mm x 72mm x 286mm
    • Weight: 3.0 Kg (now 5.5 Kg, with new floor plate and feet)
    Rotel RC-960BX
    Rotel RC-960BX
    Rotel RC-960BX

  • Thorens Restek V1

    Thorens Restek V1

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Pre-Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Type: Class A transistor preamplifier
    • Frequency range: 2-200.000 Hz
    • Frequency response (2-200.000 Hz): -3dB
    • Frequency response (20-20.000 Hz): +/- 0 dB, phono +/- 0.2 dB
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0,001%, phono 0,004%
    • Ext. potential difference: 128 dB (phono)
    • Channel separation: 110 dB
    • Intermodulation: 0,001%
    • Slew rate: 15 V/uS
    • Dimensions: 360 mm x 50 mm x 190 mm
    • Weight: 3,6 Kg
    Thorens Restek V1
    Thorens Restek V1
    Thorens Restek V1

Power Amplifiers

Power Amplifiers

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 ST140

    B&K ST140

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Power Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Type: Solid-state stereo power amplifier
    • Manufacturer: B&K Components Ltd., Buffalo, NY
    • Output power (RMS, 8 ohms): 105 watts per channel
    • Total harmonic distortion (5 Hz - 45 kHz): 0.09%
    • Frequency response: 3 Hz - 70.000 Hz.
    • Year: 1989, revised 105 watts version
    B&K ST140
    B&K ST140
    B&K ST140

  • B&K Sonata M-200

    B&K Sonata M-200

    8/31/2020

    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.

    Specifications

    • 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)

    B+K Sonata M200
    B+K Sonata M200
    B+K Sonata M200

  • Citation twelve deluxe

    Citation twelve deluxe

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Power Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Type: Class A/B power amplifier
    • Manufacturer: Harman Kardon, New York
    • Frequency response: 1 Hz – 100.000 Hz
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0.2 %
    • Signal to noise ratio: 100 dB
    • Slew rate: < 2 US
    • Damping factor: 40:1
    • Phase shift: < 5 degrees at 20 Hz
    • Intermodulation distortion: < 0.15
    • Power rating (RMS, 8 ohms): 2 x 60 watts
    • Power rating (music, 8 ohms): 2 x 100 watts
    • Idle power consumption: 30 watts
    • Dimensions: 430 mm x 155 mm x 370 mm
    • Weight: 16.5 Kg
    • Year: 1976
    Citation twelve deluxe
    Citation twelve deluxe
    Citation twelve deluxe

  • Hafler DH-120

    Hafler DH-120

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Power Amplifiers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Power output (RMS, 8 ohms): 2 x 60 watts
    • Transistor Type: Hitachi Mosfet
    • Frequency response (60 watts, +/-0.5 dB): 10 - 40,000 Hz
    • Frequency response (1 watt, -3 dB): 4 - 200,000 Hz
    • Signal to noise ratio: >100 dB
    • Damping factor: 100:1
    • Crosstalk: 85 dB
    • Rise time: 2 uS
    • Weight: 9 Kg
    • Year: 1984 - 1990
    Hafler DH-120
    Hafler DH-120
    Hafler DH-120

  • Hafler DH-220

    Hafler DH-220

    6/26/2020

    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.

    Specifications

    • Power output (RMS, 8 ohms): 2 x 115 watts
    • Transistor Type: Hitachi Mosfet
    • Frequency response (15 watts, +/-0.5 dB): 6 - 60,000 Hz
    • Frequency response (1 watt, -3 dB): 2 - 160,000 Hz
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0,0025%
    • Signal to noise ratio: >100 dB
    • Damping factor: 300:1
    • Crosstalk: 85 dB
    • Rise time: 2,5 uS
    • Weight: 12 Kg
    • Year: 1984 - 1990
    Hafler DH-120
    Hafler DH-120
    Hafler DH-120

  • Hafler XL-280

    Hafler XL-280

    7/9/2020

    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.

    Specifications

    • Power output (RMS, 8 ohms): 2 x 145 watts
    • Transistor Type: Hitachi Mosfet
    • Frequency response (1 watt, -3 dB): 1 - 500,000 Hz
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0,007%
    • Signal to noise ratio: >100 dB
    • Damping factor: 300:1
    • Rise time: 0,7 uS
    • Weight: 12,25 Kg
    • Year: 1987 - 1990
    Hafler XL-280
    Hafler XL-280
    Hafler XL-280

Receivers

Receivers

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.

  • HK 730 Twin Powered

    HK 730 Twin Powered

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Receivers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Tuning range: FM, MW
    • Power output: 40 watts per channel into 8Ω (stereo)
    • Frequency response: 4 Hz to 140 kHz
    • Total harmonic distortion: 0.1%
    • Damping factor: 30
    • Input sensitivity: 2.5mV (MM), 150mV (line)
    • Signal to noise ratio: 72dB (MM), 77dB (line)
    • Dimensions: 432 mm x 368 mm x 140 mm
    • Weight: 13.7kg
    HK 730 Twin Powered
    HK 730 Twin Powered
    HK 730 Twin Powered

Loudspeakers

Loudspeakers

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.

  • KEF iQ30

    KEF iQ30

    8/23/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Loudspeakers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Frequency response: 45 - 40000 Hz
    • Sensitivity: 89 dB
    • Impedance, average: 8 ohms
    • Crossover frequency: 2500 Hz
    • Recommended power: +15 Watts RMS
    • Weight: 6.45 kg
    • Dimensions: 36.5 cm x 22.0 cm x 32.7 cm
    KEF iQ30
    KEF iQ30
    KEF iQ30

  • Martin Logan SL3

    Martin Logan SL3

    6/8/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Loudspeakers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Frequency response: 30-22.000 Hz +/3 dB
    • Dispersion angle: 30 degrees
    • Sensitivity: 89 dB
    • Impedance, average: 4 ohms
    • Impedance, minimum: 1,5 ohms at 20kHz
    • Power handling: 200 watts RMS
    • Weight: 29,5 kg, per speaker
    • Dimensions: (h) 163 cm x (w) 33 cm x (d) 36 cm
    Martin Logan SL3
    Martin Logan SL3
    Martin Logan SL3

  • Tannoy DC6T

    Tannoy DC6T

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Loudspeakers

    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.

    Specifications

    • Cabinet design: floor-standing, ported
    • Drivers: 1x 1-inch titanium dome tweeter, 1x 6-inch paper cone midrange (dual-concentric, 1x 6″ paper cone woofer
    • Freq. response: 34 Hz – 35 kHz, – 6 dB
    • Nominal impedance: 8 Ohms
    • Sensitivity: 89 dB
    • Crossover Frequency: 1.7 kHz
    • Power handling: 87 watts RMS
    • Dimensions: 950 x 226 x 225mm
    • Year 2010
    Tannoy DC6t
    Tannoy DC6t
    Tannoy DC6t

  • Tannoy XT8F

    Tannoy XT8F

    10/20/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Loudspeakers

    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.

    Specifications:

    • Cabinet design: floor-standing, ported (down-fire)
    • Drivers: 1x 1-inch titanium dome tweeter, 1x 8-inch paper cone midrange (dual-concentric), 1x 6″ paper cone woofer
    • Frequency response: 34 Hz - 32 kHz, -6 dB
    • Nominal impedance: 8 ohms
    • Sensitivity: 91 dB
    • Crossover frequencies: 250 Hz & 1.8 kHz
    • Power handling: 100 watts RMS
    • Dimensions: 1080 x 317 x 345mm
    • Year 2016
    Tannoy XT8F
    Tannoy XT8F
    Tannoy XT8F

Cables

Cables

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.

  • Digital Coax - HiViLux Reference

    Digital Coax - HiViLux Reference

    11/21/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Cables

    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.

    HiViLux Reference
    HiViLux Reference

  • Power Cord - LAPP Ölflex

    Power Cord - LAPP Ölflex

    6/18/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Cables

    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.


Phono Cartridges

Phono Cartridges

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.

  • AT VM95 E

    AT VM95 E

    11/13/2020

    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’.

    Stylus Choices

    • AT-VM95 C = Conical - Bonded Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 E = Elliptical - Bonded Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 SP = Conical SP - Bonded Round Shank (shellack)
    • AT-VM95 EN = Elliptical - Nude Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 ML = Microlinear - Nude Square Shank
    • AT-VM95 SH = Shibata - Nude Square Shank

    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."

    Specifications

    Character: a solid tracker with occasional sibilance, semi-revealing of musical detail, full-bodied, warm and leaning towards neutral, musically balanced

    • Frequency Response: 20-22.000 kHz
    • Channel Separation at 1KHz: 20 dB
    • Input Load: 47 kOhms
    • Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.: 4.0 mV
    • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 g
    • Stylus Type: elliptical stylus, bonded fixture
    • Inductance: 550 mH
    • Resistance: 485 Ω
    • Weight: 6.1 g
    • Year: 2019 -
    • OSP: EUR 46,00 (Germany)
    • Stylus Replacement: Original, EUR 28,00

    Audio Technica
    Technica House
    Unit 5, Millennium Way
    Leeds
    United Kingdom
    LS11 5AL

    Audio Technica’s VM95 E
    Audio Technica’s VM95 E
    Audio Technica’s VM95 E

  • AT VM95 ML

    AT VM95 ML

    11/11/2020

    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.

    Stylus Choices

    • AT-VM95 C = Conical - Bonded Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 E = Elliptical - Bonded Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 SP = Conical SP - Bonded Round Shank (shellack)
    • AT-VM95 EN = Elliptical - Nude Round Shank
    • AT-VM95 ML = Microlinear - Nude Square Shank
    • AT-VM95 SH = Shibata - Nude Square Shank

    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.

    Specifications

    Sound: Silent on the record, revealing and highly nuanced, warm and leaning towards neutral, controlled and well-contoured bass

    • Frequency Response: 20-25.000 kHz
    • Channel Separation at 1KHz: 23 dB
    • Input Load: 47K
    • Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.: 3.5mV
    • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.0 g
    • Stylus Type: Nude Micro Linear Square Shank
    • Inductance: 550 mH
    • Resistance: 485 Ω
    • Weight: 6.1 g
    • Year: 2019 -
    • OSP: EUR 146,00 (Germany)
    • Stylus Replacement: Original, EUR 129,00

    Audio Technica
    Technica House
    Unit 5, Millennium Way
    Leeds
    United Kingdom
    LS11 5AL

    Sound impressions based on the following system: Lenco L75 record player, Restek V1 preamplifier, Hafler XL 280 power amplifier, Tannoy XZ8F loudspeakers.

    Coincidental Cartridge Bake-Off

  • Coincidental Cartridge Bake-Off

    Coincidental Cartridge Bake-Off

    11/6/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Phono Cartridges

    Most ideas in audiophile listening do not come over night but rather mature over time, during endless hours of listening. Usually, one thought or experience sparks another, creating a slow but continuous process of evolution. Since most steps are trial and error, victory is never certain, and just when we feel that it all sounds perfect, there is that little nagging voice that claims that we have heard nothing yet. And it is a race against time, of course. With growing experience comes growing age. The race is to hear it all before it all grows numb.

    Our first record player after many years of CDs and mp3s was our grandfather’s Philips 212. We found it in the basement with a protective dust cover on top and with the original cartridge stuck in a faulty bracket meant for another record player. It seems the Philips had broken down many years earlier, and attempts of restoring it had failed. By the time we finally salvaged it in 2018, its rubber drive belt had already turned back into thick oil and was sticking dead and gooey to the floor. We ended up buying a second broken Philips 212 to restore our find.

    The Philips’s original ‘GP400’ cartridge was not a great one to begin with. Given its own mechanical flaws, paired with the inherent shortcomings of the player, as well as nearly 50 years of material decay, our original impression was not exactly one of audiophile bliss. However, our inquisitive nature could not leave it at that. We first tried to improve the performance by replacing the stylus. But this had little effect, perhaps because NOS (new old stock) actually means that the replacement is also, well, old. It was not until we exchanged the GP400 with a modern Audio Technica VM95E cartridge that the Philips 212 finally came alive. Sonically, it was as if a heavy veil had been lifted. From this, record newbie as I was, I learnt that a decent cartridge will have a huge effect on performance.

    Our second record player was a Lenco L75 which was built at around the same time as the Philips. On this, the original cartridge had long since been replaced by a Grado ‘Prestige Blue 2’ cartridge. Grado has a good name for cartridge quality, and the ‘Prestige Blue 2’ has very good specifications. As I later saw, indeed, much higher than the Audio Technica. Yet, somehow, I still preferred the sound of the Philips + Audio Technica to that of the Lenco L75 + Grado, a phenomenon that struck me as odd, as audiophile listeners will usually flock to the latter and disregard the first. I had no answer for this at the time.

    Only recently, when moving from our Tannoy DC6T speakers up the model range to the more bass-heavy Tannoy XT8 speakers, I began to understand what it was that had troubled me: the ‘Prestige Blue 2’ on the Lenco was so silent and well-behaved that it somehow sounded dead and uninspiring to my ears. I guess it took the improved dynamics of the larger Tannoy speakers to point this out to me. So I called a friend to lend me a few Lenco-ready cartridges to try out. — Yes, some people have that sort of gear lying around the house, just in case an neighbour drops bye and needs one. LOL. — I consider myself very lucky to have made friends such as these, of course. What a luxury, to be able to try different gear before making a purchase. Thank you to Luigi and Derya for supporting me whenever I’m an audiophile in need.

    The cartridges I was handed to try out where: A Satin ‘117 G’ (the white Version with the grey needle holder) and a Shure ‘M75-6S’, all pre-mounted in original Lenco head shells which I just had  to fasten to the tonearm. This made changing between the cartridges quick and effortless, a plus when the aim is to compare their sound. As I have always been a fan of laid back and full sounding American gear, I began my journey with the Shure, and I immediately noticed that the M75 plays loud. At 6.2 mV, the Shure has the highest output of the three. I could feel lots of bass punch, perhaps at the expense of control over the lower frequencies. What did I care? While the audiophile in me was a bit confused, my more uncultured side loved the sheer force that was apparent from the moment of putting the needle down. The Shure made my records seem loud and showed audible noise even during silent passages, like someone accidentally brushing over a body microphone during a telco.

    The music came across as voluptuous, musical, and warm. It seemed as if the Shure ‘M75-6S’ was eager to tell the whole story of the record and was having trouble taking its time. I found this aspect to be highly entertaining. While I did have to perform some basic realignments of the cartridge and even asked a Luigi to help me with the cleaning of the needle (with FLUX fluid and a special cleaning machine), it turned out that finding the right cartridge position was relatively simple. Either this, or I had been lucky. All in all, the Shure ‘M75-6S’ is an enjoyable and playful musician with lots of bass slam and musical detail at the ready. If your system-speakers-room combination is bass heavy and imprecise to begin with, stay away from the entry level vintage Shure. But if your system is rather academic or even sterile sounding, the Shure’s do-or-die approach just might add the extra excitement you need. If it were mine, I would keep it for Shure.

    The second option presented to me was the Satin ‘117 G’, a former entry-level High End gem. A first listen showed great potential in the presentation of voices and the placement of instruments. However, it also revealed some inherent flaws that proved the cartridge to be beyond repair (for me, anyway). Somehow, due to age and decay, the magnetic needle holder had lost its firm grip on the needle, and the needle itself showed signs of corrosion. The combination of which lead to sibilant highs and a more general inaccuracy in the music. In my attempt to rescue the Satin cartridge, I ordered a replacement needle, but this showed similar corrosion. Even the foam around the NOS packing disintegrating upon touch, much as a vampire would when facing sunlight. Sad to have lost all hope of salvaging the cartridge, I sent the replacement needle back to the vendor and put the Satin base back in the box.

    Since at this point I had not yet had the chance to experience a range of cartridges in the way I had originally intended and was feeling guilty for returning the Satin needle to the vendor in broken packaging, I decided to order a more elaborate version of the Audio Technica VM95 cartridge from the same vendor instead. This time, not in the version E for Elliptical, as we had for the Philips player, but in the more refined ML version. ML stands for Micro Linear. Two aspects should make the ML stylus superior to the simple ellipses: The nude joining of the needle directly into a hole in the shaft (instead of being soldered on as on the E), and, secondly, the more refined shape and micro-linear cutting of the needle shaft itself. The ML has been designed to pull all available information from the record and has a threefold life expectancy to the elliptical version of up to 1000 listening hours. This did sound promising, indeed. While the VM95 ML is new and will not show signs of ageing, I am aware that the VM95 is an entry level cartridge, and that its specs are not as impressive as those of the Grado, regardless of the needle quality. On the down-side are its poor channel separation of just 23 dB (Grado, 30 dB), as well as limited power generation of just 3.5mV (Shure, 6.2 mV) at peak.

    From experience I know that positive technical specifications do not always translate into great musical experience. One would think that the Grado’s top frequency of 50 kHz would produce far superior sound to the Shure’s maximum of just 20 kHz, or that the Grado’s superior channel separation translates into better imaging. Yet, while our eyes are glued to the specs, our ears may come to opposite conclusions and even prefer the lower-rated device.

    It was therefore not surprising that our first listening impression of the Audio Technica VM95 ML cartridge was very positive, indeed. While it had the urgency of the Shure and could indeed become loud in dynamic passages, it was very much capable of delivering nuance as well. The audio band seemed to extend further, much like that of the Grado’s, but it did so without seeming hyper-controlled or sterile. The music was full of detail and colorful. The VM95 ML offers more bass contour, showing subtle differences in the playing of bass notes. While the Shure smothered over some musical delicacy with omnipresent bass, the VM95 ML was able to present full and controlled bass, and it was painting beautiful colors at the same time. The information on the record seems to be accurately and sensibly reproduced. From my previous experience with the Audio Technica V95 cartridge on the Philips, I knew that the engine can sound a little crude at times. Perhaps this is due to a design decision and a matter of taste rather than a flaw. Both the Grado and the Shure sounded more relaxed and vinyl-like, while losing some of the joy and musical clarity on the way. I will need to give it some time for me to fully comprehend what the Audio Technica is capable of. But I can already say that even Diana Krall’s “Glad Rag Doll”, perhaps her most difficult album to play well, sounds excellent with it. This settles my decision for now.

    The cartridges discussed here are:

    Grado Prestige Blue 2
    Sound: Ultra silent on the record, precise, academic, warm, controlled bass

    • Frequency Response: 10-50.000 kHz
    • Channel Separation at 1KHz: 30 dB
    • Input Load: 47K
    • Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.: 5mV
    • Recommended Tracking Force: 1.5 g
    • Stylus Type: Elliptical
    • Inductance: 45 mH
    • Resistance: 475 Ω
    • Weight: 5.5 g
    • Year: 2017 -2019
    • OSP: EUR 125,00 (Germany)
    • Stylus Replacement: Original, EUR 90,00

    Grado Labs
    4614 7th Avenue
    Brooklyn, NY
    11220 USA

    _____________________________________________

    Shure M75-6S
    Sound: Noisy on the record, voluptuous, musical, warm, full and sloppy bass

    • Frequency Response: 20 to 20,000 Hz
    • Channel Separation at 1KHz: 20 dB
    • Input Load:
    • Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.: 6.2mV
    • Recommended Tracking Force: 2.5 grams
    • Stylus Type:  Spherical
    • Inductance: 720 mH
    • Resistance: 630 ohms
    • Weight: 5.6 grams
    • Year: 1972 - 1979
    • OSP: DM 92,00 (Germany)
    • Stylus Replacement: OEM, EUR 30,00

    Shure Brothers lncorporated
    1501 West Shure Drive
    Arlington Heights
    Illinois 60004

    _____________________________________________

    Satin M 117 G
    Sound: N.N

    • Frequency Response: 20 to 25,000 Hz
    • Channel Separation at 1KHz: 25 dB
    • Input Load: 40 Ohm
    • Output at 1KHz 5CM/sec.: 3mV
    • Recommended Tracking Force: 1.3 grams
    • Stylus Type:  Elliptical
    • Resistance: 50 ohms
    • Weight: 9,2 grams
    • Stylus Replacement: NOS, EUR 90,00 (with caution)

    Shure Brothers lncorporated
    1501 West Shure Drive
    Arlington Heights
    Illinois 60004

    Coincidental Cartridge Bake-Off
    Coincidental Cartridge Bake-Off

Accessories

Accessories

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.

  • Audiocrast RCA Caps

    Audiocrast RCA Caps

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Accessories

    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.


  • Zero-Zone 100 VA, 12V

    Zero-Zone 100 VA, 12V

    6/5/2020

    Author: Karsten Hein

    Category: Gear & Review

    Tag: Accessories

    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.

    Specifications

    • Input voltage: 230V
    • Output voltage: DC12V, 6A
    • Front panel: Silver
    • Dimensions: 210mm x 70mm x 257mm
    • Toroidal Transformer: 100VA
    • Weight: 4.5kg, approx.
    • Power Polarity: inner"+" external"-"
    Zero-Zone 100 VA, 12V
    Zero-Zone 100 VA, 12V
    Zero-Zone 100 VA, 12V

    Picture description

    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.