The Audio Geek!

A new music store find

I stumbled across a store recently by the name of Basement Discs, in the basement (surprise!) of the Block Arcade in the city. They have been in operation for many years and are run by two couples who seem to know their music inside out and are happy to share their enthusiasm. Also I suspect they come from an era marked more by snail mail HSC results than SMS'd ENTER scores!

The store has a great feel, memorabilia on the walls, well arranged stock and regular in house live promotions. The range of discs they stock is an impressive collection of Australian artists, interesting new rock & pop releases, a great selection of folk, blues & jazz as well. Not sure about classical however.

Their website is: http://www.basementdiscs.com.au But it is much more fun to soak in the atmosphere, ask a couple of questions and just peruse the shelves looking for that disc you always wanted but couldn't ever find.

My recent purchases include:
  • Bettye Lavette - 'The Scene of the Crime'
  • Mark Knopfler - 'Kill To Get Crimson'
  • Robert Plant & Allison Krauss - ' Raising Sand'
  • Mary Gauthier - 'Between Daylight and Dark'
  • Ronnie Earl - 'Hope Radio'
  • Colin Hay - 'Man at Work'
  • Ian Moss - 'Let's All Get Together'
  • Kelly Auty - 'Wild Women'

The Supratek eagle has landed!

I am now delighted to announce the arrival of a pair of Supratek Malbec mono block power amplifiers and a Supratek Sauvignon line stage pre-amplifier. And after a forced five day delay, both are now installed the the listening room.


Sauvignon & Malbecs in place - 2007

The Sauvignon is a two box line stage, offering balanced and single ended inputs, remote volume control, home theatre bypass, high/medium/low input sensitivity control and a mute function. One box is for a separate power supply which connects to the other by a supplied umbilical cord. The Malbecs are 40 wpc EL34 push / pull mono blocks. They contain variable gain control, adjustable negative feedback circuitry, tunable damping factors and 4/8 ohm speaker taps. Unpacking and initial configuration was relatively straight forward once the manual appropriately consulted. My pieces have Jarrah wood chassis with matt black tops. Hand made in Margaret River, Western Australia, the Sauvignon and Malbec certainly look the business!


(Supratek Sauvignon Pre-Amplifier)

I have been without tunes for a few weeks, and all supporting components had been off power for a number of days. Plus, I thought I would experiment with balanced connections from the Wadia to the Sauvignon, so new Kimber SilverStreak XLR cable was installed. The cold components, new pre/power combo and a new cable meant the system was never going to sound at it's best from the get go.


(Supratek Malbec Mono Block)

And it didn't. Initial listening impressions were both positive and negative. The positives included increased clarity and detail with a couple of discs revealing some content I don't previously remember hearing. Vocals were more forward rather than slightly recessed as previously making them more engaging. Excellent progress! The downsides so far revolve around a slight thickening of the overall image and the sound is lacking in pace and attack.


Post Installation photo of 'The Big Rig' - 2007

There is no doubt that the new components will develop over the near term when they get a few hundred hours on them. I have some time on my hands over the coming weeks to sit back, relax and fine tune the new system. As previously mentioned, the Malbecs offer a significant amount of user configuration, with speaker damping and negative feedback user definable to adapt specific parameters to my sources, speakers and room. And I have a number of questions ready to fire off to Mick Maloney at Supratek to further increase my understanding (and subsequent enjoyment) of these splendid components.

The reality of being part of 'Club Supratek' is exciting and I will post further listening comments shortly.

No news is frustrating news.....

My Red Rose Music power amplifier has finally squeaked, hummed, squawked and crackled once too often and has now been disconnected, ready to be boxed up to go to some hi fi hospital somewhere for a little intensive care.

As reported a couple of posts ago, my system should really move into full bloom with a decent pre-amplifier and now I need some new power amplification as well. The hunt was on.

Also, in anticipation, I arranged for a dedicated 20 amp power line to be run from the main switch box to the listening room ready for some new kit.

After some deliberation, research and exuberance, an order was placed for a tube pre / power mono block combo, with the power amps featuring my favourite tube, the EL34. Without giving too much away, I can say that the new equipment is Australian made.

That was three weeks ago and the units are still in transit. The wait is killing me.........

The Yamamoto HA-02 has arrived!

Well, I am delighted to say that the Yamamoto HA-02 Headphone amplifier has arrived and it is indeed a thing of beauty. Not just to listen to but to look at as well.

The amplifier is superbly finished in a rosewood veneer, with a solid wooden volume knob. Shiny metal tube protectors and robust RCA connectors and a spring loaded headphone jack round out the other external niceties.

Well how does it sound? I tried it first, relatively new out of the box with my iPod. I must say it sounded just OK. After 40 or so hours running in, I tried with my old Rotel CD player. It sounded much better but still not anything special. After about 80 hours I plugged it in to the Wadia and had a serious listen with a colleague (see TonyC in full evaluation mode below!) through a collection of headphones and the magic really started to kick in.


The sound is particularly friendly to female jazz and vocals especially when using my Jecklin Float Model 2 'phones. They don't go really low (or really high for that matter) but demonstrate great rhythm and pace and tone in the mid range. And very non-fatiguing from a sound and comfort point of view. We also enjoyed the sound from the AKG 701s, which delivered a fuller and richer presentation, if not as 'pure' perhaps as the Floats. Slightly disappointing were the Sennheiser 600s. With an upgraded cable, these are supposed to be the best/most expensive headphones I own. They sounded good but nothing flash and were uncomfortable after some 10 or 15 minutes. I sense they could have a 'For Sale' sign on them soon........

A Recent Demo and Listening Room Changes

A good friend of mine and local VTL dealer offered me a listen to some tasty valve mono-blocks recently. Of course I jumped at the chance. A pair of VTL MB-125s, 125 watts per channel in pentode, and 60 w.p.c. in triode mode have been in position for the last week or so. All my listening was done in triode mode. These instruments looked gorgeous with their brushed metal front, and smoked glass windows hiding those EL-34 tubes. A single On/Off switch resides on the front panel (no standby mode is available), the pentode/triode switch, a pair of five way binding posts, an IEC power connection and RCA inputs round out the rear. I must say the build quality inspires confidence in the sound even before it is warmed up, which incidentally sounds better in hour three than it does in hour one in my opinion. The demo pair were suspected to still need another hundred hours or so until they were fully burned in.


Once underway, the first impression was one of weight and realistic scale. The VTLs drove my Zus far more realistically than the existing Red Rose Music 35 w.p.c. valve amp, usually used in ultra-linear (or pentode-equivalent) mode. Bass was reproduced with speed and precision and the top end was extended and crisp. The sound stage was wide and deep and imaging as detailed as you would expect.

Over an extended listening period however, I found the sound missing a little in the mid-range, not as 'tubular sweet' as the Red Rose. The dealer was slightly disappointed with that and after some investigation of related products, it appears that there is a voltage mismatch between my Wadia 861SE CD player/pre-amp and the VTLs. For amplifiers of the VTLs power or greater, the internals of the pre-amp throttle back the output, with impact being at the expense of the mid-range. The theory is yet to be proven but the source of the information has historically been reliable.

Even so I was sorry to see these amps go back, being shipped off to a lucky customer further up the coast. Once I listen to a few pre-amps, I am sure another demo of VTL gear will be in my future. My thanks to Tony Collins at Home Theatre Solutions in Melbourne for this opportunity.

There have been several changes in the listening room lately.

The major change has been the installation of three-layer curtains, with velvet fabric, some sound reducing mid-layer and a heavy backing. They look good and have done a great job in dampening much of the reflections in the room, but without 'killing' the feel of the room totally. Excellent!

A new audio cabinet is now in place. A recycled Columbian oak two shelf cabinet, with three lower draws for bits & pieces. The room is now much tidier. I can't tell if the sound is improved but aesthetically it is more in keeping with the room and more practical to boot.


Also purchased were some cable lifts. While some ceramic and fancy jobs can cost upwards of $A60 each, I managed to pick up twelve lifts today for a grand total of $A3.60! Made of none too exotic plastic, they at least lift the Zus power and speaker cables up off the floor. Absolutely no improvement to the sound that I can determine (not even a placebo effect!) but again they look just fine, and suitably hi fi 'tweaky'.......

Finally, not a tweak, but my wife and I relocated the CD rack and contents, from the family room to the music room, making access to the CD collection and spinning the tunes much easier.

A New Headphone Amplifier Order

I promised not to upgrade the two channel rig until the listening room modifications (curtains & bass traps) were installed. But I didn't commit to not buying any hi fi stuff at all!

Some guys on the StereoNet forum are excited by a range of tube gear made by Sound Craft in Japan. Apart from an absolutely gorgeous looking 2 (yes two) watts per channel SET power amp, they also have a similar-looking tube headphone amplifier. These units are handmade by one Yamamoto-san in Tokyo. An order for five (I think) has been placed and the forecast delivery is another month or so.


I intend to use an iPod (with music encoded with Apple Lossless codec) with a powered dock (and line out) and Cardas mini to RCA connectors as my source until I can save for a dedicated front end, preferably including SACD. I have a growing number of SACD/Hybrid discs wih nothing to play them on, so this seems like a great opportunity.


Interesting to see if the amp mates well with Sennheiser 600s, or if another pair of cans are required. Hence the discussions at audiophile last week regarding the Grados (RS1 or 2, or the new GS-1000) which may be a better match to the impedence of the little Yamamoto.

An exciting time indeed.

More New Music

As I wait (patiently) for the curtains and bass traps to be installed, and promising not to do any upgrades till they come along, one can't do absolutely nothing. So Robin and I went out and bought some new music. Well frankly, we bought a shed load of new music!

A quick visit to the city to pick up a car being serviced turned into a full on assault on the available discs at Focus Audio & Vision (thanks for the suggestions Tommy) and audiophile (thanks to the guys there for some great info on vintage Oz music and the Grado headphone range (that's another story)).

This was course after a couple discs were purchased at J&B during the week and after an international order was shipped to Acoustic Sounds in the US (still awaiting delivery).

Extravagant? Absolutely. Worth it? Every cent. It is one thing to enjoy the hi fi hobby and all the upgraditis and tweaking that goes with it, but one shouldn't lose sight of the music.

After an initial listening session, I have a couple of recommendations from the recent purchases:

Billy Thorpe and the Aztecs - 'Live at Sunbury'. An absolute Aussie classic. Forget the recording quality just rejoice in the fresh air, open space and out-there folks at a Sunbury paddock in 1973.


Patti Austin - 'Avant Gershwin' Had not heard of this lady before. Great recording of show tunes, powerfully but at times, intimately sung. Great orchestral dynamics as well. Entertaining and engaging stuff.
The Audiophile Voices range (Volumes 1 - 4). Just a chill out collection of fine tracks, drop-dead gorgeous vocals and sweetly recorded to boot. One(s) for sitting in front of the fire on a wet & wintry day.
Marc Cohn - 'Marc Cohn'. Marc's first (and best) effort. Re-issued as a numbered / limited edition by Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs Ultradisc II. Worth it just for the chrystalline version of 'Walking in Memphis'.


Will post more observations when the Acoustic Sounds order comes in and I have a deeper listen to the rest.

Happy listening!

Update: The US Acoustic Sounds order has arrived. A good selection of XRCD24 discs including three by the Asian songstress Jheena Lodwick and 'The Look of Love' by Diana Krall. Looking forward to the big band dynamics of Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band as well.


Latest system changes

Well it is football season, so here are the 'team changes" for season 2007:

IN:
- Zu Cable & Loudspeaker Definition Mk1.5
- Black Diamond Racing Cones (MK 3 & 4) under the RRM amplifier & Wadia CD player
- Bell'O Equipment rack
- Furman IT-Reference 16 E Discrete Symmetrical Power
- 'CD Sound Improver' Audio Desk System Disk Lathe
- CAIG De-Oxit & Pro Gold contact conditioner
- Various driver and output tubes
- Wadia output voltage change

OUT:
- Red Rose Music RoseBuds & various stands
- REL Stadium III Sub woofer
- E&T Spider equipment rack
- Furman FP E Power Conditioner
- Various driver & output tubes

Why so many changes? No simple answer, but here are some 'justifications'.

The biggest change this year has been the swapping out of the Red Rose stand-mounts and REL sub woofer for the Zu Definitions full range, active bass floor standers. Plenty of detail about the Zus a couple of blogs post ago.

As for power, the opportunity came up to get a new (but almost superseded) Furman Reference at a decent price. In my slightly rural location I was keen to get the 'best' power into my components as I could, especially now with the Zu Definition bass amps pulling more power from the wall / conditioner. After just 36 hours, my initial listening impressions are of increased richness (or gravitas) and a slightly lower noise floor.


The BDR cones were tried and I sensed improved speed and some sharpened imaging.


A return to the Bell'O rack is just temporary as I continue the search for a suitable platform. The Spider rack will see service in a yet to be finalised headphone system in the bedroom so no harm done by the acquisition.

The Audio Desk 'CD Sound Improver' device was discussed in the previous blog post.

The Wadia's digital output works best in a range greater than 70 (out of a maximum of 100). I have recently been averaging about 60 with the new Zus. So sensing I was losing something, the Wadia guru Tony whipped the top off the box and following some instructions from Wadia Central, changed the output voltage to move the output to the 70+ plus range. No real listening tests done yet, but it can't be worse...........


I have not cleaned the connectors and cables in the seven years I have owned my key system components, so the time has come. No feedback as yet.


Tube rolling can be an interesting and exciting pastime for those of us with valve amplification. My amp developed an annoying crackling noise under load when it warmed up and the original output tubes were thought to be the culprits. So we swapped the original Electro-Harmonix for some Telefunkens. To no avail. As it happened, subsequent investigations showed the fault to be poor ground switching on the amp, and a flick of a switch fixed everything! A tube-guru colleague (hi Moondog!) responded to my request for more bass and provided a couple of matched driver tubes guaranteed to provide more depth. Wow, was he right! Then I changed speakers from the stand mounts to the full range floor standers with stereo inbuilt bass driver amplifiers so the two channel power amplifier bass output was now overkill. Oh well...... Back to the originals again!


Now for some keen listening, but more importantly, just having some fun.

PS - I am sorry if this seems indulgent as it is not meant to be. When you all get to my age you will appreciate a permanent record of things that happened in the recent past! Short term memory isn't what is used to be!

PPS - Are there more changes to come? Oh yeah!!!!!!!!!!!

Too much money...........

Or too much wine! At the weekend a new 'box' infiltrated the Humphries chateaux. A 'CD Sound Improver' by Audio Desk Systeme 'Glass' CD trimmer.


I had previously heard the benefits of this device at a local listening session. Undeniably increased volume and detail resolution were delivered to 'treated' discs. Strange but true, even to a couple of skeptics who were immediately concerned that one of these was a must have, with the resultant financial impact.

The system is relatively easy to use although I won't try it on my rare MFSL discs until I get REALLY confident. A clamp is removed from the spindle, the disc placed on the turntable label side down, the puck and clamp re-engaged, then the device can be turned on and the cutting arm applied to the disc edge until the rough surfaces are 'trimmed' and the discs spins relatively evenly. A marking pen is then applied to the newly cut edge to further minimise refractions. And there is a hole in the rear (!) for the insertion (!!) of a vacuum cleaner nozzle (!!!) to clear away the nasty off-cuts. Those funky Germans, they think of everything. No, I am not making any of this this up!

Being brave (!), I initially tested the device on a computer-burnt copy of the excellent Aaron Neville disc 'Bring it on Home'. When the cutting arm was applied to the (admittedly) commodity disc, the amount of detritus flowing off the edge of the disc (remember it was my first test!) was downright scary. How did it sound? Well, again when I listened to the 'A' sample, I thought the burnt copy was not nearly as good as the original. Flatter and lacking in emotion were my instincts. After the application of the CD Sound Improver there were noticeable improvements. More volume / gain sure, but greater depth and separation and a lot closer to the 'original' or real disc. My confidence is still not up enough to try it on a commercial disc. Yet.

Replacement cutting blades are available and the box is extremely sturdy and heavy so I will refrain from putting it on cones or plugging it in to a conditioned outlet........... But perhaps a power cord upgrade. Hmmmmm.

Ain't life grand!

First impressions from the ZuKeeper

Well, it has been a month or so since the new Zu Cable Definition Mk 1.5s made their way into my listening room. They were a slightly speculative purchase as I was only just starting to think about new floor-standing speakers, but they were too good a specification (and deal) to pass up.


Zu Cable are a Utah, US speaker and cable manufacturing company churning out interesting products at sensible price points. In Australia, the Pure Music Group are my local distributors. The Definitions are a three way, high efficiency (101 db) design, with two 10" full range transducers and a super tweeter crossing over at 12kHz up front mounted in an MTM array. At the rear there are four 10" low frequency drivers (crossing over at 40 Hz) powered by a 100 watt internal amp per side. A single pair of Cardas pure copper (unplated) binding posts and an attenuator control for in-room bass tuning make up the rear. At 1.25m tall and 50 kgs each and resting on adjustable spikes, they feel substantial for the investment

Once hooked up to my Red Rose Music amplifier, they sounded pretty good straight out of the box. I have tried the RRM 35 watt EL34 amp in Ultra Linear or 18 watt Triode mode with no discernible preference for one sound over the other. Ultra Linear probably gets the nod for a little extra drive. No surprise there. As a dealer demo pair they had some hours on them already but all my research seems to indicate that a long run-in period should be expected for best results. Either I am getting used to them or they are getting better, in particular smoother, hour by hour.


Set up is not difficult, but for best results careful positioning delivers best results. On axis response seemed a bit sharp, and a few degrees of 'toe-out' seems to provide the better sound to my ears, and still well inside the recommended Zu set-up instructions according to the (slightly modest) manual.

What is the Zu sound? Very articulate, extremely quick with excellent mid range tonality are the highlights. Some room driven bass bloom (muddying the vocals on some tracks) will (should?) be resolved with some impending bass traps, and a high level sharpness on some discs is still evident. The Zus (or the Wadia front end) are not particularly tolerant of poor recordings.

In my strange room (roughly 7 metre cube (yes cubed, I have a high wooden domed ceiling), with three sides, the Zu's fill the room easily without any hint of driver strain or amplifier load. Imaging is a strong suit (helped by the inner detail rendered) while the sound-stage is a little smaller and 'centred' than I would prefer, rarely extending out past the speakers with current placement. Bass response and tone is very good on those discs where the bass is recorded well, helping to expand the sound to a much more satisfying (and engaging) level than my previous stand-mount speakers. You would hope so! But I would never have dared to listen to Chinese drum tracks in the past...........


Am I pleased with my purchase at this point? The answer is a definite 'Yes'. I estimate that there is a good 15 - 20% improvement left with placement fine tuning, room tweaks, component adjustments, cables, power etc synergised with the new kit.

Resulting from excellent sound, the Zu's have me reaching into my catalog of CDs again, and experiencing old discs anew, with newfound joy and pleasure.

Will share more thoughts in the coming months as a couple of further component / ancillary changes are being considered.

Enough about me........

This post is not about my system (for a change) but two other systems I have been fortunate enough to listen to recently.

For sonic enjoyment, and audio education I would recommend getting out and listening to as many good systems as you can find. It is not only extremely good fun, but you can learn so much from those who got it right. And also learn a little from those who messed it up too!

The first system belongs to Mr C, who is in the AV game for business, and I can tell you, for pleasure. His home system wins the title of having the most high-end gear in one lounge room title, hands down! The guy is seriously into high end - Wadia separates, Mark Levinson, Jeff Rowland Design Group, Marantz, Parasound, Furman, DBA, Kimber, ATC, Mirage and his latest addition, Magico Minis. Wow. The Magicos through a Wadia front end sound absolutely incredible. Full and warm, crystal clear and engaging. Full range, we never felt the need to ask 'why isn't the sub connected?'. No room treatments at all, but I guess the rack of DVDs filling one wall, the rack of CDs covering another and, literally, a wall of electronics at one end probably does enough damping. Mr C takes total care in system integration, tuning and set up. Speaker placement and alignment is to measured to the millimetre left and right to maximise the stereo image.

The second system belongs to Mr G, a highly Skilled individual. Not content to plonk his gear in the lounge room like Mr C and myself, Mr G went the 'Let's build a new room' route. More of a journey of sonic discovery than a building project, he has gone to some extraordinary lengths to manage the acoustics in his new space. Words can't do it justice, pictures shortly! As for the sound now, it is fantastic. Again Wadia / Levinson front end, Moon pre, Rowland power and VAF I-93 towers, with a Velo DD sub. The sound is big, crystal clear, not a hint of solid state grain, very detailed, excellent soundstage and imaging with good pace. And I have never heard a bad disc on it. It seems very 'dodgy disc friendly'.

I will try to a couple of pictures of these rooms shortly if for no other reason than to give me a visual reminder of what my ears will never forget. Thanks for the opportunity to listen guys.

Movement at the station

Plenty happening over the last month or so.

Firstly, new CD rack has arrived from Wilkins & Kent. A fine piece of furniture it is too. Capacity for 1140 discs, current utlisation is about 770. So, let's get out and buy!



The Furman power conditioner and Kimber Monocle X speaker cables are now part of the system. A speculative purchase, that of a 'Spider' equipment rack has proved visually beneficial and at least sonically neutral.



The big change this week has been the addition of a REL Stadium III sub-bass system. Still in the early days of set-up and fine tuning but so far so good, with much greater ambient 'fill' and greater depth to the bass giving more air to the mid and hi-mid levels (surprisingly) giving the sound greater breadth. Good stuff.



An acoustic consultant visited recently to advise on the room performance and the feedback was pretty negative. Brick, glass and a three-sided room makes for an uncomfortable acoustic space. For cosmetic reasons we can't do all of his recommendations but some bass traps in the diagonal corners will assist. Also recommended and desired by Robin, new curtains are to be ordered this weekend to further tame the acoustically-wild room.

As each improvement occurs, I am getting more and more excited by the sound. Stay tuned!


Latest System Developments

More work on the system this weekend. Additional fine tuning of the room, speaker placement and furniture. Probably not much else to do with the room now without going to the next level with acoustic treatments. And it needs it too.



Another power conditioner is in for a trial, a Furman Elite. Still running it in, but sounds OK so far. Impressive stand eh!


(Furman Elite 16-PF E)

Also made some serious speaker upgrades today. Back to the metal stands, then four cone-points per speaker, then the wooden base plates from the 'old' wooden speaker stands then the speaker on top of that. Seems to have the bass of the metal stands with the warmth of the wood. Can't wait to try this setup with the Kimber Monocle X's (or better)!



Sadly a repair to the Wadia remote appears to have failed so it may be the end for this particular piece. A new one beckons......


(Wadia Remote Control - RIP)

On the music front, while flashing through a few discs to get a feel for the changes, the famous Phil Collins album, 'Face Value' got a run. Fantastic sound quality, as well as great music. If you have it, spin it!