The Audio Geek!

Promitheus Audio Reference TVC4

On a whim, and as a sucker for an international 'sale' with a high Aussie dollar, I recently purchased a TVC (transformer volume control) passive pre-amplifier from a Malaysian company, Promitheus Audio, owned and operated by Nicholas Chua.

Nicholas' products have been enthusiastically received by audiophiles around the world for a few years, and as the principal designer, he is continually upgrading the specifications of his products based on personal listening and customer feedback. A few words about Nicholas and his business can be found here.

The Reference TVC4 is a dual mono design, with one Neutrik XLR and three silver RCA In and Out, housed in a bespoke stainless steel and merbau wooden 'box' with ebony knobs. The cosmetics are fine for the modest asking price but the design and finish won't cause Rowland or Krell any sleepless nights on the aesthetic front! I am new to the world of passive pre-amps so I am sure some tweaking of cables, cable lengths and footers will reveal benefits for experimentation and patience.

I have only just started to burn-in the TVC4 and it is recommended to sound it's best after about 100 hours. 95 to go then. I need to set up an iPod or tuner to continuously drive the TVC for a few days to hasten the process. It does however sound quieter than my Supratek tube pre-amplifier even at first listen.

Interestingly, using Kimber Select (copper) balanced connections from the Wadia to the TVC4 then silver RCA to the 35 watt Supratek mono block power amplifiers requires the 24 step solid-feeling dual volume controls to be wound around to about 3 o'clock to obtain enough gain and drive for the Zu Audio Definition Mk 1.5s. The specification for gain is -54db of attenuation. But given the silent operation of this unit, should I care?

More thoughts soon.

'The Beatles In Mono' Box Set

Finally I got my 'The Beatles In Mono' Box Set delivered today. And I must say the joy was immediate as the packaging is superb, almost Apple-like (pardon the pun!) in the fit & finish of the mini-LP packaging, inner sleeves and outer protective plastic to protect the artwork.

I have only had a brief listen so far, but the true mono sound is much different to what I had expected or imagined. The image is 'smaller' but has a real dense sound. The overall presentation has more weight and a sense of lots of things going on but with plenty of detail and a lot more emotion, particularly in the vocals. OK, so now to an album by album analysis as I progressively listen.

Please, Please Me (1963)
The original stereo mix seemed more like mono than stereo to my ears, with not so much of the hard left/right panning that exists on the later stereo albums. Anyway, comparing the stereo & mono versions, I heard the biggest differences on 'There a Place' where the rhythm guitars, drums and bass have a richness and drive that was nowhere near as obvious on the original stereo copy. Unlike some I didn't hear or feel much more emotion in 'Twist and Shout' (which I always felt had a pretty big 'jump factor' anyway) and heard only slightly (and I mean s-l-i-g-h-t-l-y) more detail in the ending.

With The Beatles (1963)
Now we are cooking! The separation of the instruments on 'All I Want To Do' really brings this track to life. 'Till There Was You' has wonderfully layered acoustic guitars and the guitar riff on 'Hold Me Tight' sounds vibrant and fresh. I enjoyed this album much more than 'Please Please Me', it felt more engaging.

A Hard Day's Night (1964)

Beatles For Sale (1964)

My 'The Beatles in Mono' Summary
No question, the deeper & the harder you listen, additional details (and on some tracks, more layers) are revealed. If however you need $250 to feed yourself, make car payments or you are a 'casual' Beatles listener, I might suggest that this product is better suited to the diehards fans only. The key selling point of the Mono Set is that they were the recordings that The Beatles made and wanted to issue, rather than the re-mixed original stereo versions.

Other enthusiastic reviewers seem to focus more on the quality of the re-issued recordings (either stereo or mono) which are absolutely stunning given their age, rather than the benefits of mono over stereo.

Some insightful reviews and commentary on the Mono set here: BlogBeta, Allmusic, NPR, Tone Publications, The Guardian, Pitchfork.

Grado GS1000 Review

The latest pair of headphones to grace Chez Humphries are the Grado GS1000. These are the just superseded model, rather than the newer GS1000i. At least they were burned in, if you believe that sort of stuff (no hate mail please).

In & Out Of The Box
What of the ownership / un-boxing experience? Initially underwhelming, given Grado's preference for shipping high end audio jewellery in cardboard pizza boxes, albeit securely packed. Once you lift the lid, all disappointment disappears. Resolutely packed in foam are a 1/4 to 1/8" adapter, a 10' extension cable (sorry for the imperial measurements but it is an American company) and the best looking pair of 'phones I have ever seen, or touched!

From the leather headband to the mahogany driver outer / ear cups, they look and feel the business. But that is not all. Even before you play the music, slip them over your ears and they are the absolute most comfortable cans ever to grace my head. The AKG701s are OK, my Senn 600s are terrible (IMHO), the Grado SR-60s are just OK, and with similar comfort to my Jecklins Floats but more secure. I think it is due to the circumaural design of the bowl ear pads which sit over and around your ears, not on top. While warmish, they are definitely cooler than most others I have tried for extended listening.

The Sound
OK, so much for the cosmetic / wardrobe appeal, how do they sound?

First, I should set the scene with the associated equipment. My system comprises an Apple 160GB iPod using Apple LossLess CODEC, Wadia 170 iTransport, Cambridge DacMagic and Yamamoto HA-02 amplifier hung together with mid-fi cables and no power treatment. Most of the comparative references are against my Senn 600s and Grado SR-60s with this hardware / software mix.

Either in 2 channel mode or in my headphone system I run a pretty standard set of tracks which I know intimately to monitor changes or new pieces of kit. The GS1000s initially impress with a combination of detail and smoothness which immediately engages you, while enabling the listener to hone in on various instruments or musical passages if that is where your interests lie. Using these test tracks I can confidently report that the Grado combo delivers a realism to the timbre of voices and acoustic instruments and small ensembles which is most splendid. I have had the pleasure of hearing Phil Manning and Paul Kelly play live and their voices and guitars on 'Two Roads' and 'Foggy Highway' respectively are rendered with absolute clarity and accuracy by the Grados with a degree of air and spaciousness which previously I may have thought impossible for a headphone to reproduce. Johnny Winter And 'Live' is a fantastic blues guitar album from the early 70s and Johnny's lead and Rick Derringer's rhythm guitar really shine. For a bit more depth, Yello's 'Rubber Band Man', Harry Connick Jnr 'Follow the Music' (yes really) and Gordon Goodwin's Big Phat Band 'Sing Sang Sung' are believably reproduced with at least a sense of what would be available with infinite watts, open space and sub woofers. Old favourites become 'new again' Patricia Barber 'Ode to Billie Jo' and Sarah McLachlan 'Angel' just make you want to melt into the melody & the lyric. The MFSL CD version of 'Gaucho' Steely Dan can be a bit sharp and harsh (a little too 'crisp') and this impression carries through on the Grados.

So detailed, engaging and non-fatiguing would be keywords that I would used in describing their sound. And the size of the bowl ear pads I suspect contribute significantly to the huge soundstage that these headphones manage to throw by positioning the drivers well out and away from the ear allowing the sound to 'swirl' or project into a bigger space than usual.

Any Negatives?
So, what is not to like? Of course, we all know that no audio product is perfect. The Yamamoto / Grado GS1000 combination is not overly extended at the frequency extremes, so those wishing to summon the dogs with the high frequencies or have your chest cave in with the bass might wish to look elsewhere. Interestingly, the GS1000s have been voiced with the frequency extremes tipped up slightly to deliver a more coherent presentation at moderate listening volumes. Therefore, probably not strikingly accurate, so perhaps not a perfect monitoring tool. Although the slightly reduced extension that I hear might be more due to the performance of the Yamamoto amplifier.

Grado GS1000 Test Results (Source: Headroom)

I did swap out the Yamamoto and inserted a Headroom Cosmic solid state headphone amplifier to discern any changes. In a brief listening session, I would say there was the predictable (but modest) increase in speed and punch in the bass but the highs were not as sweet and barely if at all 'higher'. Interesting and engaging in a different way, but overall, I would not say 'better'. Perhaps a matching switching power supply might drive the 'Class A' electronics module a little harder than the battery pack. I would however like to hear the Grados with a top flight solid state amp for comparison. Also, just for fun, I would like to swap out the iPod front end and insert the full-blown Wadia 861SE transport/DAC. That might be a real step up.

The GS1000s are sensationally comfortable by usual headphone standards, are really engaging and draw me easily into the music. While we all know music is built on the bass, most of the music actually 'lives' in the mid range and it is here that the Grados excel. They do enough with the highs and lows to satisfy but it is the tunefulness of the mids and the air around notes / performers that make the result really sing. The comfort and musical presentation just make the headphone disappear and let you focus on the music, not fall into analysing the 'sound'. The look and feel of the mahogany and leather ooze quality and inspire a real pride of ownership every time you pick them up. The real proof and the highest praise I can bestow is that I have been listening to more music, through my headphone system and the Grado GS1000s than any other system combo in recent months. I am delighted to own them!

If you haven't already guessed, I am a Grado guy and YMMV but the GS1000 really do make a Grado Statement!

A couple of GS1000 links & reviews, including Grado, 6Moons.

After the glow.....

After the previous post regarding the sound of the Osborn interconnect in the system, I must say that my limited subsequent listening sessions have been less than joyous. Maybe it was my mood, maybe my sobriety level, maybe lack of warm-up of the equipment, but I just wasn't 'juiced' with, and by the sound. Again, I have trouble replicating my satisfaction with the sound. Sadly.

Well, I fixed a couple of those tonight. With my wife out at a riding competition, I had the house to myself. And I didn't waste it. Fixed myself a tasty BBQ with a glass or three of fine white wine and followed that up with an extended listening session which I planned hours in advance, allowing plenty of time for the equipment to warm-up etc. Not surprisingly, the results were most enjoyable. I even got the Audio Desk CD Trimmer out and 'shaved' a few edges. As usual, a couple of the discs responded well, while others didn't show much change at all.

Incredibly, I got the volume cranked around to '3 O'Clock' on the pre-amp (which starts around 6.30 if that makes any sense!), and the sound was duly lively. Perhaps not so articulate up top, but mid and low range drive was excellent, making most music I tried highly entertaining for me, if not the neighbours. It was actually surprising how little room resonance / distortion there was at such high volumes. I look forward to the next session to see if I can reproduce the magic.

But frankly the jury is still out. The lack of audible / emotional repeatability of my listening sessions in particular, and the system in general, is frustrating me........

Exciting Stuff - A Single-Ended Interconnect Cable Review!

Well, the Osborn Cables 'Silverlink' (silver single-ended RCA) have arrived and are now inserted in the main system and the Red Rose Music Silver One slipped into the headphone rig. I know many people who may read this don't believe that different cable manufacturers or construction methods have any impact on sound reproduction. I recommend those folks move on, nothing for you to see (or read) here. I obviously live in the other camp. Not night & day, but different enough to be noticeable. Also out of necessity, I try to stay away from the uber-priced models. For example the two reviewed here are in the $A200 - $A300 per metre pair range.
The 'Silverlink' has been running in over the last few days and has about 25 -30 hours on it now. At least enough for an initial evaluation I reckon. According to the manufacturer - "Osborn Silverlink is the result of several years of careful experimenting with many different types of cabling and insulation materials. Silverlink is made from pure extruded silver wire which is specially made for Osborn Loudspeakers. It is extruded into one continual length. Many reference cables up to $6000 per pair were used as comparisons during the selection phase. Neither I, nor any of my customers have yet found an interconnect to match the performance of the Silverlink. Silver Interconnects often suffer from a brittle top end and a restricted bass performance. The sonic purity, transparency, inner detail and soundstage of the Silverlink is quite extraordinary."

The RRM cable is nearly 10 years old so needs no running in. The spiel according to Red Rose Music - "Red Rose Silver One is our finest interconnect cable. Unlike many premium cables on the market, there are reasons why it is superior. The most important reason is that when we record music and play it back, Silver One reproduces the event better than anything else. It is a fraction of the cost of many high end cables, yet is made from pure silver wire in a true litz construction (many fine conductors, separately enamelled, soldered at the ends) with a teflon dielectric (teflon is the best insulator known).
Red Rose Silver One is the ultimate interconnect, outperforming all others in terms of accuracy and faithfulness to the original signal."

With the recently purchased Cambridge Audio DAC, and the relatively new Yamamoto amplifier and under-used after-market Sennheiser 600 cable, 'Equinox' from Stefan AudioArt, the headphone system is certainly still not at it's absolute best yet. But again, good enough to see if the RRM sounds like it does in the main system. Won't spoil the answer too soon!

First up, how does the 'Silverlink'. My first impression of the sonic signature of these cables is one of 'weight'. They impart a sense of 'seriousness' to the sound and a feeling of gravitas, like you are listening to something important. Detail retrieval is good, the hi fi artefacts on my test discs were laid out to hear. At this stage, they don't sound like the fastest cables I have heard in my system, but the pace is OK. I found the imaging to be very good with musicians placed clearly across the soundstage, but the overall size seems to be a bit smaller and a little closed-in / smaller compared to what I was previously used to. Despite this, there is good 'air' around the instruments & vocals. The mid-range presentation is excellent imparting a pleasing tone on some Phil Manning acoustic guitar on 'Two Roads' and the Sarah McLachlan piano on 'Angel'. I did notice a slight fizz on the trailing edge of the treble at times as well. Not perfectly smooth to my ears yet, as evidenced by some edginess in a sample spoken passage in the Chesky 'Ultimate Demonstration Disc'. In summary however, the 'Silverlink' is a very appealing cable in my system and I would expect it's strengths to consolidate over time and the fizz to disappear and image size to open up also. They are certainly not the same as the Red Rose Silver One, and may I say Viva La Difference'.

OK, now what about the Red Rose Music Silver One in the headphone system? The openness, previously evident in the main system, is easily recreated by the Wadia/Cambridge Audio/Yamamoto combo. And I think the speed of the Silver One is really a good match to drive the Sennheisers which can, to my ears, sound a little slow and 'plodding' at times. Mind you the 'Silver Ones' are only replacing 15 year old Monster Cable ICs so I would hope that they would impress a bit! Highs are clean and not brittle at all, and of course the mid range is excellent. Overall, the sound is OK, but I would have hoped it was more engaging. The combo seems bass-shy giving the music insufficient substance & impact. 'Stormy Monday' off the Allman Brothers ' Live at the Fillmore' just didn't jump out and grab me. Damning with faint praise, all I can do at the stage is to say that it sounds 'nice'. It may be my lack of experience of benchmarks of headphone sound. Or I could just blame the Senns........ And like all my systems, it hums from I suspect a ground loop problem as this system does not go through the Furman power conditioner. Aarrgghh.

More evaluation to be done on this combo. Will swap back to the 'cheap' Grado SR-60 and see if the above still holds.

I will post additional details to be added after longer listening sessions. Stay tuned!

Cambridge Audio DacMagic

A new Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC) has found it's way into he headphone system here at Chez Humphries.

I did some listening at a city dealer between the new Musical Fidelity V-DAC and the CA DacMagic. They are at the lower end of the price scale, with the DacMagic a couple of hundred Aussie bucks the more expensive. In my test / demo I much preferred the sound of the DacMagic unit. It was more extended at both frequency extremes and a bit 'faster' (I hope it wasn't just perceived brightness), The MF V-DAC in comparison had a lovely mid-range but was rolled-off at the top and fairly weak in bass delivery. I was concerned those characteristics would have been, pardon the pun, amplified by the Yamamoto headphone amplifier. So the DacMagic won the day.

The Cambridge Audio DAC has an extensive range of input and output options from balanced to single-ended, to S/PDIF, to Coax and even USB.

With the Wadia iTransport feeding the DacMagic, then into the Yamamoto HA-02 tube headphone amplifier the initial sound through the Grado SR-60s was very tight, revealing and engaging. With only 50 hours on the gear, I will let it run in for another 50 hours before strapping on the Sennheiser 600s for a full review and evaluation. Cables are Digital (Coax) from the Wadia and some Monster Cable RCAs (!) from the DacMagic to the Yamamoto. I have a new pair of silver RCA cables coming from a local manufacturer (Osborn Speakers) which will be used either in main system or slipped straight into the headphone system. And the whole lot sits on granite shelving on an E&T rack.

So far I am very pleased with the synergy and the sound. Highly recommended.

Wadia 170iTransport Review

This review was posted in the 'Sources' forum of the on-line community StereoNet Australia on January 11, 2009.

"Thought it was about time I posted a review of my experience with the Wadia 170iTransport so far. The device has about 50+ hours on it now and is giving a much better account of itself than when I first tried it.

For the test, I had the iTransport plugged in to my
Wadia 861SE DAC section via the supplied Coax cable. It enabled easy comparison between the 170 and the 861 as transports. The output / gain of the iTransport was virtually identical (by ear) to the CD transport. I have only used the 170 as an audio device, and have not tried any of the video options.

Music on the iPod was ripped via an Apple iMac using the Apple Lossless Codec. For this review, the tracks I focused on were:

Monty Alexander, 'Sweet Georgia Brown', ‘The Ultimate Demonstration Disc’, Chesky
Santana, 'Black Magic Woman', ‘Abraxas’, MFSL
Patricia Barber, 'Ode to Billie Joe', ‘Cafe Blue’, Premonition HDCD

Set Up is a snap. Attach the wall wart (direct to the wall in this case, not via the power conditioner), and the supplied Coax cable and you are away. To tailor the dock connection to your iPod version, a number of inserts are supplied to provide a tighter fit.

One possible word of caution. If the iPod is left in the dock, the 170 is effectively 'On', and when I then powered up my tube pre / power amps I got some squeaks and squawks as the electronics came up. Simple solution is not to dock until all components are up & running. Might just be related to my system, not sure.

How does it sound. In a phrase, very good indeed.

On the Monty Alexander track, an instrumental jazz ensemble including two drummers and brass, the 170 sounded a bit thinner in it's overall presentation than the CD with a smaller stereo image. In isolation it sounds fine, only in direct comparison do these differences become obvious. But interestingly, the differences between the two transports were highlighted most clearly on nearly all tracks of this Chesky disc. Not sure why.

As for 'Black Magic Woman', it was a much closer comparison. The only differences I heard were a marginally smaller image this time, with a bit of bloom on the bass at times and some 'blurring' or overhang during large dynamic swings. The lead guitar sounded crisp and the bass line was very easy to follow and the lively percussion was well rendered.

On 'Ode to Billy Joe', the two transports were the most similar. The fingers snaps sounded 'real' and natural on both the 170 and 861, the upright bass clear and upfront and Barber's voice rock solid. Impressive!

In summary:

- Easy to use
- Very musical (good PRaT)
- Maintains good detail resolution
- Very good extension of tone top to bottom

- Slightly smaller (Left/Right) stereo image
- Occasional loss of bass control (bloat /blurring) on dynamic transients
- Shallower image depth (Front/Back) presentation on some tracks/discs
- Slightly higher noise floor (perhaps it was the lack of conditioned power in my test)

Overall, I am very happy with my
170iTransport. It does what it promises to do and performs well above it's price point in my opinion. I would be most interested in other owners views.

I am now taking the iTransport from the 'Big Rig' and setting it up as the front end to my headphone system. Looking forward to listening to it further".

Listening Room Changes

In order to eke out some more performance from my system, I decided NOT to buy new equipment! Instead I bought some knowledge in the form of this book, 'Get Better Sound' by Jim Smith.

It is in the style of 'tips', some 200+ pieces of collected wisdom from the author's days as an audio salesman, vendor representative and consultant / custom installer. It is an interesting and easy read.

What have I learned that changed or re-inforced what I had?
- Place your listening chair 350 - 700 mm from the rear wall as a starting point for system set up. That is a good metre further rearward than I had the seat previously;
- Don't go for the equilateral triangle of speakers to the listening seat, instead separate the speakers some 83% (!) of the distance of the tweeter to the listeners ear;
- Toe out speakers slightly rather than point them directly at the listener;
- The author supports some of my preferred 'tweaks' like a dedicated AC circuit, an AC generating conditioner, a CD 'sweep tone' disc and cable elevators properly used and implemented;

What were the results?
The sound became more stereo centred, less mono 'beamy' from left & fight speakers and the sound stage & imaging have been enhanced with a more holistic presentation. Overall, the sound became much more musical while still retaining the detail I expect from the Wadia and the Zus.

Independently, when moving things around, I removed the discs from under the spikes of the speakers and much of the harsh treble I was hearing diminished, replaced by some added timbre, body and a little warmth, which I always expected from the Supratek tube pre/power combo.

What's next?
- Cleaning all contact points to ensure proper and tight connections;
- Experimenting with pre/power amp gain controls to better match speaker / amplifier loads and manage output compression;
- Finish reading the book!

What I have found enjoyable is learning more about the behaviours of my components, understanding how they integrate together and how the complete system interacts with the room. Jim's mantra is you have to get your system to 'Play the Room'.

Additionally, we have moved the furniture around the listening (lounge) room, re-stacked the hi fi cabinet (again) to give the room a fresher and airier feel and take advantage of the rural views. Just need to ensure that all this doesn't impact the sound.

A fun journey and all in all, the book was a great help and a super $A75 investment. Highly recommended!