The Audio Geek!

Antipodes Audio DX Reference Music Server

The Antipodes Audio DX Reference Music Server has now arrived. Purchased from the Australian distributor, Pure Music Group (now Sonic Purity), Warwick and Rom delivered the DX and helped me get the configuration set up just right. The only difficult piece for my installation is the requirement for ethernet connectivity. My router is some forty feet away behind double brick walls and around doors. So some tailoring of a wireless repeater with an ethernet port was deployed and now all is well.

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The DX in place - 2017

My configuration is obviously black finish, with 2 TB of solid state disc (SSD) and all new DXs come with USB, S/PDIF and AES/EBU digital outputs as well as a USB port for connecting NAS storage or for backups of your precious digital music library. I am still loading music and the unit is settling in well. A review and listening impressions to come shortly.

The upgrades are coming...

After some lengthy inactivity followed by some soul searching, researching, listening and bank account calculating, a couple of significant audio upgrade decisions have been taken.

Firstly, I have ordered a pair of Mercury sub-woofers from Kyron Audio to complement my floor standing speakers currently in place. This will free up the existing Kronos speakers to do a bigger and better job of frequencies maybe above 40 Hz and leave everything below to the subs, especially the bottom octave that the existing dipole bass drivers didn't reach down to. This babies are custom made and will take some three months to arrive. Can't wait!

Secondly, as I am an all-digital listener, I need a 'front end' that supports more formats and internet-based technologies like music streaming.

Having auditioned the Antipodes Audio DX Reference music server in August last year at home, it was always near the top of my list when I wanted to move. And in mid April I placed an order for a black DX with 2TB of SSD storage. Delivery should only take about two weeks.

Reports to follow.

Five Tier Listening Solutions

I think about my listening experiences, what works, what doesn't, and especially where and when.

Without wanting to go TOO far overboard, I came up with my FIVE TIER solutions. And, in the end, it came down to 'where' you listen rather than 'when' and 'what' or 'why'. Confused? Let me explain.

Tier 1 - The Home System

Tier 2 - Dedicated Headphone System

Tier 3 - Laptop listening

Tier 4 - Mobile (iDevice)

Tier 5 - Mobile (Car)

I know this seems like a lot of technology, but once you get to Tier 3 and below it gets a bit repetitive or facilitates re-use. They all have their benefits, their discrete technologies, and their strengths and weaknesses.



I am in love... well nearly!

It is not often that I get truly excited… But today was almost one such day.

Let's start with the good news.

After some due consideration I decided that I should complement my ROON subscription with one from TIDAL HiFi as well in order to get the full benefit of CD-quality music streaming, library organisation and new music discovery. Reports were generally most favourable but I was not ready for the ease of setup and the total fun of chasing new material. I thought it would be a chore and take away the 'the thrill of the chase' of finding new artists and albums the 'old fashioned way'. Nothing could be further from the truth.

I have spent a couple of hours today just searching for music and albums that I didn't have in my collection but wanted to listen to. I have added at least 60 albums to 'My Music' tab in TIDAL HiFi so far. And this is all before TIDAL starts to make recommendations about what other related stuff I might like.

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So much music, so little time - 2017

Did I mention that some titles are 'Masters' versions which I believe means MQA encoded. Whether my software and hardware can decode MQA-encoded files is to be determined but it is still (potentially) exciting. The file / data integration with ROON appears seamless.

I have heard TIDAL HiFi on similar equipment to mine and have been impressed so I will settle back tonight and listen via my MacBook Pro w/Retina display (mid 2012, 16GB memory, 512GB SSD), AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC/amplifier, Jitterbugs and Grado RS 2e headphones, then follow up with the 'big rig' evaluation later in the week. I am on the 30 day trial but it would to have to suck big time from here for me to cancel my subscription.

Now for the challenges.

Update 1: The headphone session is now underway running TIDAL HiFi 'inside' ROON and the results are mixed I am sorry to say. CD-quality albums (44kHz/16bit) appear to play fine but the larger files generated by the 'Master' MQA process (48kHz/24bit) only seem to last a bit less than 30 seconds before causing an unrecoverable network error and drop out requiring a track restart. But the same track will fail again at or around the same spot. I have logged out of all other applications, no strange processes seem to be taking up disk, memory or network traffic according to Activity Monitor so it might just be a function of my poor internet connection. I will do more investigation on 'stripping back' my operating system and user account to see if that is possible and if so if it makes any differences. Perhaps a full shutdown and clean restart might help.

Update 2: After a full shutdown and clean restart, TIDAL Masters play successfully in the TIDAL desktop app. That is some good news, but from what I could tell from the 30 second samples previously with ROON, the latter's sound quality was clearly better. Cleaner and more vibrant (top and bottom) with a bigger image. Interestingly, the TIDAL app takes a lot longer to load a track than ROON, making me think it loads more into cache / buffers before playing therefore buying itself more time to refill the cache to keep continuous playback happening. Maybe… OK, now tried ROON again, and the chosen track gets to the 2 minute mark before failing. And no question, ROON was a significant step up. CD-quality played mostly OK but had one drop out. All this is going on at around midnight my time. That is the end of testing for tonight!

Update 3: A few options to consider to solve my problems came to mind after sleeping on it. NBN is at least nine months away so an immediate internet performance fix is not imminent. I could always use my iPhone as a modem to access the streams via a 3/4G cellular internet connection. I had heard that ROON is CPU-intensive and this may be impacting performance. This led me to consider 'lightweight' options. I have always enjoyed the sound of Audirvana Plus which has TIDAL integration and from V3 also MQA software decoding. My sense is that code is pretty lean with not much feature bloat so it might be a chance. Worth the approx. $A50 investment to try (I know, I know there is a trial available). Lo and behold the software ran perfectly and is way superior to the TIDAL app and hard to say if it is better or worse than ROON from a sound quality point of view. One nice feature is that in the playback window there is an embedded progress bar indicating the status of the stream giving some prior warning of 'connectivity' loss, but I did not experience any. I am sure that I can fine tune the sound a little more with the A+ preferences options but I am very happy so far. Negatives? I have over 200 albums in my TIDAL 'My Music' list and all album art has not loaded fully in the Album List window and metadata is not available for TIDAL albums or tracks. The 'normal' TIDAL album text and info windows are present.

Klapp AV - Kyron Audio Demonstration Evening

I was fortunate to be invited to a customer demonstration evening for the Kyron Audio Kronos system, complete with dual Mercury sub-woofers at Klapp AV in Windsor last week.

The event was very well organised with pre-listening canapes and beverages served upstairs allowing hosts and guests to mingle in a very pleasant atmosphere before we were ushered into Klapp's dedicated Kyron Audio Lounge for several hours of musical bliss.

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The delightful Kyron Audio Lounge at Klapp AV - 2017

While it was a social and relaxed evening, Klapp & Kyron Audio arranged for a recorded music guru, Josh (sorry I missed his surname) to bring along a curated set of his prized personal (and expensive) vinyl recordings which were intermixed with TIDAL HiFi streaming digital selections. In addition, audience requests were not just tolerated but were actively encouraged.

Readers of this blog will know that I am an owner of a Kronos system, sans Mercurys. It is always a delight to hear the depth, breadth and extension that the Mercurys add to the already spectacular Kronos. On the night, vinyl probably won the sonic battle (thanks to Josh's fine taste and rare pressings) but all selections either analog or digital, without exception sounded superb. There were a couple of folks new to Kyron Audio in the audience and their stunned silence, usually followed by barely constrained expletives, indicated that they felt that they were experiencing the presence of world class music reproduction.

One aspect of the experience was telling for me. The music was played at 'robust' volume levels and after three solid hours with only a couple of short breaks for 'refreshments' my ears and brain felt comfortable without a hint of music or loudness fatigue.

Apart from the opportunity to hear stunning audio, the other benefit of these events is meeting new like-minded people, renewing old relationships and discovering interesting music. I jotted down the set list on my phone as the night went on and have now invested in a couple of new artists and albums and developed a renewed interest in the sonic benefits of TIDAL HiFi streaming.

Many thanks to Hamish Kirkpatrick from Klapp AV and Lee Gray, Co-Founder of Kyron Audio, for the fantastic evening.

My Grado RS 2e Listening impressions

I was looking around for some new 'phones for casual / late-night laptop listening via the MacBook Pro, Roon and Audioquest DragonFly Red (with JitterBugs) and late last year I purchased a lightly used pair of Grado RS 2e headphones.

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Apple MacBook Pro, AQ DragonFly Red & Jitterbugs and Grado RS 2e - 2017

Before I talk about them, I should disclose that I am partial to the Grado 'house' sound and already own (and enjoy for different reasons) their RS-60, Alessandro MS-2 and GS-1000 products. So my heritage might cloud my objectivity somewhat. FWIW, I also use AKG-702 and Sennheiser HD600 via a Benchmark DAC1 USB and a Yamamoto HA-02 amplifier.

The Grado RS 2e is an open-back design with 44 mm dynamic drivers (matched to within 0.05 dB) and a nominal impedance of 32 ohms making them easily drivable by a smart device. But the output quality improves noticeably when driven by dedicated headphone amplification. My RS 2e also have the new light brown leather headband that matches and complements the mahogany ear cups and gives an even more luxurious look to the combo. The latest 'e' models come with a sturdier shielded proprietary copper braided 'Y' cable with the RS 2e terminated with a 3.5 mm mini plug. Also included in the box is a 3.5 mm to 6.5 mm (1/4") adaptor if required.

So, how are they comfort-wise? Grados have a solid reputation as being pretty uncomfortable if you believe all of the internet / blog reports. Actually I find them quite satisfactory. Although relatively light, the clamping force is tight enough that they don't move off your ears (they are an on-ear or supra-aural design) but 'gentle' enough to wear for 60 minutes at a sitting which is the maximum I listen for before giving my hearing and senses a rest.

As for the sound, taking note of the relative price and intended purpose via my associated equipment listed above, I am extremely satisfied.

Sonics / Colour
Warm side of neutral, imparting a slight (but extremely pleasing glow) to the sound. With a warmer amplifier than the DragonFly, I would imagine that 'lush' might be word that could describe the tone. Note to self, must try them with my Yamamoto!

Speed / Dynamics
Always a Grado strength and the 2e doesn't disappoint. They fairly gallop along with music imparting a toe-tapping, head-nodding rhythm that is particularly engaging.

Accuracy / Range
Top to bottom accuracy and range is not the strength of the RS 2e. The high end can lose definition and be a bit sharp, while the bass, although tuneful, doesn't go particularly low if your tastes (or musical selections) demand it. The overall balance is tuned to the mid range (think female vocals) so it is not the most accurate of reproduction devices.

Imaging / Detail
No issues here. The soundstage and instrument separation is clearly discernible and the size of the image is about what you might expect given the size of the drivers, resonance area (on ear) and frankly, the price. For example, the image commensurately increases when I plug in the GS-1000s with their larger drivers and circum-aural bowl pads. Within the presentation described in the preceding sentences, the RS 2es give a decent window into the music delivering very good and believable detail retrieval.

Engagement
This is probably the sum of the parts above and the number one reason people would consider buying Grado headphones. They are just great fun! They draw you in to the performance and make you want to listen.

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Love the wood - 2017

Again, I do love Grado and am probably biased, but the proof for me is that I ALWAYS look forward to strapping these headphones on and listening through the DragonFly on my laptop and feel that I am missing very little to the 'big boys' is size, quality and price.

2016 Australian HiFi & A/V Show

I went to the Australian HiFi & A/V Show held in a Melbourne hotel yesterday. On the whole it was pretty unexciting. Although a claimed 100+ brands were on show, limited range of exhibitors and sadly but not necessarily surprisingly, most systems sounded ordinary compared to my Kyron Audio Kronos system here at home. To make matters worse, the demo music being played in most rooms was dreary dirge-like stuff or classical which I couldn’t take to at all. So I didn’t even get to come away with any music recommendations.

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VAF Soundwall, really interesting - 2016
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Bricasti electronics and Tidal speakers - 2016
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Hilton and Project Audio room - 2016
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Audio Note, always an oasis of sound - 2016

The event was saved for me by one room. Stunning (in size, cost and sound) Ypsilon pre-amplifier and mono-block power amps, matching CD player & DAC, the Audio Union Helix 1 turntable designed by Aussie Mark Dohrmann and German Physiks Borderland (I think) omni-directional speakers. The CD player was frankly a bit ho-hum but the turntable sounded pretty special with decent records (CSN live from Melbourne and Johnny Cash being a couple of standouts). But I will save the best for last. When we first walked into the room, there was a drum solo playing pretty loud in a small (untreated) hot, dark hotel room full of people and equipment. It sounded pristine, lively, clear and tuneful. I assumed it was a modern percussion track designed to demonstrate the system’s dynamics. Which it did superbly. After a couple of minutes I sensed that I had heard the track before. A bunch of blokes (my age) were rocking along with the solo and then it struck me, just before the guitars kicked in. The track was ‘Moby Dick’ by Led Zeppelin off their second album recorded in 1969. A closer inspection of the playback suite showed no records on the turntable, a static display on the CD player and there was not a streamer in sight. Then I saw it. A 25+ year old Studer reel-to-reel tape recorder / player deck. I had a mate with with me and we both agreed that this was the best sound reproduction we had ever heard. The fact that the music was a 47 year old rock album that sounded like it was recorded yesterday was borderline unbelievable. We visited the room three times just to make sure our ears weren’t playing tricks on us. No surface noise, no tape hiss, no wow & flutter, just a huge image and pin point instrument placement and clarity across the (artificial) studio soundstage. Revelatory is a word that comes to mind. 

I had read in recent audio mags that audio shows in Munich and Newport had seen a rise in exhibitors using reel-to-reel as a source. I dismissed those articles as promoting the ‘lunatic’ fringe… I am now a believer! And I want one!

The good news is that the reel-to-reel decks are relatively cheap by high end audio standards. Between $5 and $20K gets you used high class Euro gear (Studer, Telefunken etc). Sadly that is the end of the good news. The bad news is that the units are a bit temperamental and delicate and potentially need regular maintenance. There is a degree of complexity around tape width, tape speeds, matching the pre-recorded tapes EQ to the player’s reproduction settings and I am sure other issues. But the big drawback is a lack of range of tapes and their cost. $A450 to $750 per tape!!! Yikes. Practically, I would only be initially looking at 10 - 25 tapes of material that I absolutely loved and was confident in the sonic quality and provenance. Think ‘desert island tapes’...

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A poor picture of some awesome technology - 2016

Over dinner my colleague and I continued to focus on the positives of what we heard and are committed to exploring the potential opportunity to get in the game. Lots more research to do however. The cost paradigm of analog LP versus tape is just swapped around. Probably long term costs are similar but in one mode you play more for the equipment and in the other you pay more for the software. But from what we heard, tape sonically kills even SoTA vinyl. I am sure my Kronos system would do the tape sound justice and take my audio reproduction to a whole new level.

Watch this space!

New music - CDs and Downloads

After a few months 'digesting' a large batch of new music I bought last year, I have started to freshen the music collection again.

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After hearing some new music at the Kyron Audio event recently, I was slightly taken with the Indie band from the UK, 'Elbow' so I procured three albums, 'The Take Off and Landing of Everything', 'Seldom Seen Kids' and 'Live at Jodrell Bank'. I haven't had a chance to have a full listen.

OK, on first listen, I quite enjoyed 'The Take Off and Landing of Everything'. Worried early as it started a bit melancholy and one tempo, but progressed nicely and if it was a vinyl record, side 2 is really enjoyable. Better melodies, greater light and shade and much more 'listenable' All comments are related to the music, I haven't listened hard or thought about the lyrical content yet. I am happy with this purchase.

Cued up next is 'Seldom Seen Kids'. Report to come later.

Fair say none of Elbow is 'three chords and the truth' so it is a little outside my normal genre but that is exactly why I bought it. On balance, good stuff.

Secondly, I have been considering signing on for the Bowers & Wilkins 'Society of Sound' download service for a year or more. The deal is for around $70 per annum, you get two albums per month, usually one 'mainstream' and one classical release. Worth a try to discover some new music AND have an 'asset' at the end of every year to show for it. Sorry I am just not a renter or a streamer…. I know, I am old….

Kyron Audio - Customer Demonstration Night

In order to get the Kyron Audio Kronos product in front of more potential customers and prospects, Lee and Leon booked out the Maven Room at the Burwood Music Centre for three days to schedule detailed and personal listening sessions for interested parties, existing customers and invited guests. I had originally invited eight guests to attend but for various scheduling reasons just two were able to make it along.

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The Kronos and Lee in presentation mode - 2016

Peter and Carol Fitzgerald were my guests and they were completely smitten by the ability of the Kronos to reproduce 'live' sounds and to deliver uncanny imaging from just two speakers. Peter was particularly interested in the technology and how it has been developed by the Kyron team over the years.

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Lee, Greg & Leon at Burwood Music Centre - 2016

A special element of the evening was the first Australian audition of Mark Dohmann's new turntable, with the industrial design of the unit penned by non other than Kyron Audio's Lee Gray. While vinyl is not my source of choice given my aversion to 'pops and clicks' there was no question that lifelike tonality, depth and width of the reproduced image and the fluidity and flow of the music via the analog front end was truly spectacular.

Many thanks to Peter and Carol for attending, and as always thanks to Lee and Leon for their hospitality and support.

KingRex PSU Mk11

The wall-wart power supply recently failed on my Acoustic Revive AR-888 Schumann Frequency Generator. As it was inside the warranty period I contacted Peter at Grooveworks website for a replacement. We had a discussion and subsequently agreed that a worthwhile upgrade would be to replace the switch-mode wall-wart with a dedicated linear power supply so the KingRex PSU Mk11 was duly ordered.

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KingRex PSU and Acoustic Revive RR-888 in situ - 2016

In addition to the power supply upgrade, we also chatted about positioning of the RR-888. I had it a little over a metre off the floor sitting in the bar area. All the documentation, Peter's advice and forum discussions seem to strongly indicate that the generator should be at least 1.5 metres from the floor. That seemed no easy task for me. The only part of the listening room that reaches that height is the top of the CD rack and it is scalloped on top without a flat surface. Hmm. So I 'stole' a granite slab from the headphone system rack and rested that on top of the CD cabinet then placed both the KingRex power supply and frequency generator on the granite shelf. Looks a wee bit clunky if you stare at it but it doesn't stand out too much for the casual viewer / listener and the units are now approx 2.1 metres from the floor.

It has been in and running on power for three weeks now and I will start some critical listening shortly.

Happy 'Hi Fi' Christmas!

May you all have a happy, musical Christmas!

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Another new cable...

To round out my connectivity options on the Kronos, Lee Suter of Kyron Audio kindly offered to make me an AES / EBU digital cable to try and it duly arrived this week.

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Nice - 2015

Initial impressions are very positive. It is crisp but smooth and I know that sounds weird. But after three hours listening that is my initial impression. And it has much more volume than the Kimber Select XLR analog copper cable and a little less than the Red Rose Music Silver Litz analog cable. Interesting. I do however need to re-check the DIP switches inside the Wadia just to make sure the gain settings are consistent across all of the analog & digital outputs.

I will do that and listen more and report additional findings in due course.

Customer service Kyron Audio style

The Control Unit for our Kyron Audio system went off site for a couple of days for a quick bench / health check and a power supply calibration / upgrade and was personally delivered and re-installed by none other than Leon Suter, Founder and Director of Kyron Audio.

In addition to re-calibrating the DEQX room correction settings, Leon measured the electrical response of the speaker drivers for future comparison and reference purposes then set about playing his selection of demo tracks before confirming the system to be in rude health. Sure sounded great to me! Afterwards Robin and I had the pleasure of Leon's company and conversation over dinner.

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The master at work - 2015

One of the reasons for the health check related to concerns about dust levels in our listening room and the ingestion of said dust through the top plate of the Control Unit. The longer term solution is a simple (but of course Kyron Audio custom designed) cover for the Control Unit when not in use, but in the short term we have re-configured the equipment rack to now have the Control Unit living underneath the top shelf. Air flow for cooling is fine and in fact the whole set-up looks a lot neater as well.

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More functional, secure AND neater - 2015

So all things Kronos just keep getting better. Thanks for the awesome customer support Leon & Lee and we look forward to seeing you both again when you are next in town.

Acoustic Revive USB & AudioQuest JitterBug

Some new accessories have landed here recently. As main system duties are now totally covered off by the Kyron Audio Kronos system and Wadia / Apple front ends, there are no near term 'big boxes' or additions to be made to the system. Perhaps a dedicated music server / streamer if you believe in the improvements over a 'normal' computer front end. Otherwise there is just tinkering around the edges.

Fantastic! For not much money one can go wild with all sorts of weird and wonderful tweaks and in the interest of full disclosure that is exactly what I intend to do! The new additions this quarter are an Acoustic Revive USB cable and a pair of AudioQuest JitterBugs.

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The Acoustic Revive USB-1.0SP (to use it's full name) cable is an interesting beast. Separate A-connectors for power and signal from the computer (source) end, into one USB-B connection at the DAC / amp end. This cable is beautifully made, of sensible thickness (if a little stiff) with aircraft-grade aluminium plugs at all three connection points. From the Acoustic Revive website, the internal construction is stated as:

'USB-1.0SP and USB-1.0PL USB cables are equipped with a very thick 0.8Φ Solid single-core PCOCC-A conductor (the highest diameter USB cable currently available on the market) to achieve an overwhelming Dynamic range and Frequency range that was previously impossible to create by conventional USB cables.
The purity of PCOCC-A (annealed PCOCC which does not have crystal grain) exceeds the high purity copper such as 6N when it is made into a cable, and its overwhelming conductivity is far superior.
We also applied PCOCC-A as a solid single-core to avoid stray current(Strand jump phenomenon) and to achieve an accurate digital transmission, resulting in a clear and blur-less sound image, wide and deep sound field with an accurate phase and a full three-dimensional acoustic field.'

Additional materials include PE shielding and cotton internal damping. Later versions (the SPS) changed the shield and damping materials.

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So what do I hear compared to my previous Kimber reference? The first trait that hit me was speed. After my years with the Zu Audio speakers, I became 'hooked' on my music having a pace that sets feet tapping and head nodding. I easily walk away from high quality reference systems if they in any way start to linger, plod along or just hold the full rhythm back in any way. Not an issue with the Acoustic Revive I am pleased to report. This also renders 'ordinary recordings / sample rates (I am looking at you MP3s)' adequately listenable as rock songs in particular can be entertaining without reaching any audiophile heights. I figured this out listening to (and enjoying) 'Bow River' by Cold Chisel off the 'Barking Spiders Live' album even as a 192 kbps MP3.

The next trick on decent recordings is, added to the speed, is detail and the starting and stopping of notes and or instruments where you hear the leading edge, the content, and the trail off. Pretty cool.

I enjoyed the tonal balance, with the emphasis on 'balance'. Probably not the weightiest bottom end I have heard but it is especially tuneful across the spectrum. Those looking for words like 'tipped up', 'euphonic', 'Stygian' are probably looking at the wrong cable with the AR. I didn't get a sense that it was in any way acting as a de facto tone control.

The logistics of the implementation of this cable can be difficult given it's relative lack of flexibility depending on where the two USB connectors are placed on your server or computer. On my mid 2013 Apple MacBook Pro, the USB ports are on either side of the keyboard base so the main issue is having enough length of cable to stretch side to side then to connect back to DAC.

Even when using headphones, soundstage and imaging are to the fore. As a lover of old Australian rock and blues I cued up '32/20 Blues' by Chain from a 30th Anniversary edition of 'Towards the Blues'. The position of guitar and harmonica in the intro can be easily heard and the separation continued throughout the track.

These impressions have been gained from my headphone system (Apple MBP, Audirvana Plus (V2.2.3), Benchmark DAC 1 USB, audiophilleo 2, Grado GS 1000, AKG 702) with the USB cable having about 50 hours burn in to date.

Now sadly as I write this the JitterBugs are still on back order with a revised shipping date of September 28. If there is any synergy and improvement with the AR USB cable then I am expecting nice things. Roll on next week!

More new music

Unbeknown to me to me, there is a great music / hifi dealer in suburban Burwood selling all manner of digital and analog quality recordings. An exceptional range and knowledgeable staff. Get on down to Audiophile Reference Recordings and have some fun!

So what did we pick up? Well, I say we because Robin joined in and is an absolute terrier in a decent music store, grabbing all manner of recordings so if you turn your back for a moment she will have an armful heading for the checkout. I didn't endear myself with the store owner by regularly returning some of her selections to the shelves…

The real reason we were there was because Robin disliked our RedBook CD version of The Doors ' Morrison's Hotel' a long time favourite album of hers that the new Kronos system shows up warts and all. So:

- The Doors 'Morrison's Hotel' (LE #4800/?)
- Phil Collins 'Face Value' (LE #2432/?)
- Box set Deep Purple 4 studio albums (LE #882/5000)
- Boz Scaggs 'Boz Scaggs' (LE #2884/?)

All the above are Audio Fidelity 24K+ Gold remastered editions by Steve Hoffman

Then there are a couple of Japanese pressing K2HD Mastering Sony discs:

- Sarah McLachlan 'Surfacing' (LE #0532/?)
- Mark Knopfler and Chet Atkins 'Neck to Neck'.

The haul was completed with the Ray Brown Trio supporting a collaboration of favoured vocalists on the FIM label and a Patsy Cline Greatest Hits by Analogue Productions.

If you read my treatise on the 'Sticky Fingers' album, then I cannot make the same claims of quality investigations of the albums above. But the labels are very credible and the products are of a decent standard I am sure.

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Locked in and ready to load - 2015

Looking forward to many hours of enjoyment from these discs.

A great music day

An old friend and a new one came over for lunch on Thursday to talk music and enjoy the system and swap stories over lunch. Unfortunately they had to leave far too early, but Robin and I continued well into the night. Joyous!

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Kronos & Friends - 2015

Real Sticky Fingers gold!

In recent weeks there has been a re-mastered, re-issued version of the classic 1971 Rolling Stones album, 'Sticky Fingers'. I don't own a CD of this album in my collection, so I thought I should take this opportunity to rectify that situation.

According to my count, this new release comes in 10 (yes 10) different formats, packages and content. I thought I would do some internet research to guide me as to which version was the best value and of most interest to a middling Stones fan like myself. What I thought I read was the new album (on CD at least), while better than the original and recent re-releases, was re-mastered 'hot' with not a great amount of dynamic range. On such a broad album of Rolling Stones work, rockers, ballads, country and other styles I thought that this prospect sounded pretty dismal. There was 'talk' that the 'best' CD version to get was the remastered Virgin Records pressing from 1994 overseen by Bob Ludwig in California. And it came with the 'original' Andy Warhol real zipper on the CD cover / insert. But you could probably guess that this version is not available at every corner record shop. So I started digging…

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My delivered copy of 'Sticky Fingers' was indeed in mint condition

Thanks goodness for Google (or in this case Amazon) as I found a 'mint' copy for sale in Portugal at a not-totally outrageous price. When shipping was including and with the exchange rate factored in it started to get up there, but hey, it had a real zipper! So I paid my money and took my chances. I received a Portugal Post shipping tracking number and duly waited. After two weeks, nothing, I logged on to the tracking site and found that it had been 'shipped' from Lisbon but no onward info. I was starting to become very nervous when mid week a package from Europe arrived on my doorstop, some two and a half weeks after ordering.

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Did I mention the zipper?

With appropriate levels of enthusiasm, I opened the DigiKase, admired the zipper (!) and album-like sleeve insert and duly copied the album in Apple Lossless format to my iTunes library. I then fired up my new preferred digital player, Audirvana Plus 2.2 and sat back to listen. By chance I was speaking to Lee from Kyron Audio earlier in the week about how badly Rolling Stones CDs are normally recorded, produced and mastered.

I am here to tell you that this one is different, very different. I certainly wouldn't call it 'audiophile quality' but it sounded relatively open, spacious, detailed and an absolute joy to listen to from 'Brown Sugar' to 'Moonlight Mile'. I had this album on vinyl back in the day and don't recall the actual music being that good. But, in my opinion, there is not a bad track on the 10 song album.

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All is not perfect however. Some of Mick's vocals are a touch harsh and / or strained. Could be the recording or it could be my laptop / USB cable front end.

One last step, for fun, is to re-rip the disc, using XLD and 'Paranoid Mode' into uncompressed AIFF format. It 'should' make no difference at all, but on a recording this good and through the transparent Kronos, even if there is a marginal improvement it will be audible. Update, I did the comparison rip and test and I heard absolutely NO DIFFERENCE between the XLD / Paranoid uncompressed AIFF and iTunes-ripped ALAC. Looks like I will be saving space and going Apple Lossless all the way from now on…

My 'Sticky Fingers' purchase has gone from just being an artist collection filler, to being a reference disc for both outstanding 1970s rock and a high quality rock recording. I couldn't be happier with the outcome.

Acoustic Revive RR-888

I have been fascinated by devices developed and sold by the Japanese company, Acoustic Revive, for quite some time. You can get a sense of the range, breadth and general weirdness of their products please check the website. Interestingly, when I was researching options for Australian purchase, there were warnings about counterfeit items being in the market at discounted prices. If true, then someone seems to feel that the RR-888 (and / or it's predecessors the RR-77 and RR-777) are worth trying to scam people with. A strangely positive situation me thinks…

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Packaging is typically complete in Japanese fashion - 2015

Recent hype has been around a device that purports to aid human auditory responses by 'pulsing' the listening room with a Schumann Frequency (7.83 Hz), the same frequency as the resonance of the earth. Spooky stuff.

From the Acoustic Revive website:

'RR-888 changes your listening room to the sound field without muddiness and fills it with a feeling of air, reproducing a realistic sound stage where all the musical instruments are set free.'

But does it work? The answer is a definite 'maybe'.

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The Acoustic Revive RR-888 in situ - 2015

The box itself is a plastic / polycarbonate case with a simple circuit board generating the frequency. The recommendation for installation is to place the device at a height of 5 feet or more. Unfortunately, I don't have such a spot available at this time so it is currently sitting at a little over 3 feet. Forum reports are fairly consistent that this is NOT the correct position. Might need to get creative…

The second limiting factor regarding performance is the size of my room. Perhaps the pulse is not strong enough to 'charge' or neutralise the room adequately to alter the listener's perceptions. Again, forum feedback recommends a second box (of any series) to be a significant (and some say, mandatory) upgrade.

The third limiting factor appears to be the included switch-mode wall wart power supply. Dedicated after market power supplies by companies such as KingRex or Channel Islands Audio are the preferred method of maximising the performance of the frequency generators.

I suspect I will go down these paths in the order of 1, 3 and 2. Option 1 should be implementable for 'free'. Option 3 is a few hundred dollar investment new, less if I can find a used box. The 1-3 combo should be enough to definitively determine whether there is a tangible change or not. If there is an improvement, then the incremental investment in a second Acoustic Revive RR unit will be worthwhile.

This brief journey has been fun so far and the results might be profound.

Kronos - Why so quiet?

With the Kronos now in place for a month, it is interesting to evaluate our impressions, activities and actions as owners, compared to the 'frenzy' when we had the Kronos on evaluation six months or so ago.

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The build quality & fit and finish is spectacular - 2015

Those of you that have watched this Hi Fi Journal will know that I am very happy to talk in enthusiastic terms about the systems that I have been exposed to. The first aspect that strikes me about the Kyron Audio Kronos is the overall QUALITY. When you have something short term on evaluation, perhaps you focus on what is important and in that case it was sound so you focus on that. For long term ownership, sure sonics are critical but other elements come into play. Ease of use, pride of ownership, configuration / input options etc and this is where the Kronos clearly shines.

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The new north/south hifi orientation in our lounge room - 2015

From the simple controls on the delightfully weighted remote, to the various analog and digital input options, to the configurable profiles for specific output variations the Kronos is at once complex, but simple to operate. Music is simply only one or two clicks away.

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Kronos by night - 2015

The Kronos have landed!

The moment has come, and the Kyron Audio Kronos System has finally been built, tested and now delivered to the (empty) Humphries audio salon.

The call came late last week that it would be possible to deliver the new equipment on the coming Sunday morning. Almost enough time to bundle out the old gear, shuffle furniture into the corners, vacuum the cobwebs and wait…

As usual (well for the second time at least) Leon and Lee unloaded, unpacked, installed and configured the entire Kronos package in around an hour or so. This time, the set up was aided by a computer-generated installation map developed from very detailed room measurements Lee took some four or so weeks ago. The final magic comes of course with the included microphone connected and the DEQX software enabled and tone sweeps calibrating the room. A few mouse clicks (and a bunch of applied knowledge later) Leon gave the signal we were good to go. As a double check Lee cues up tunes on the Kyron Audio laptop he is familiar with and almost fanatically focuses on the reproduction to ensure that this system, OUR system, is giving what it should. Not surprisingly the verdict was extremely positive, due in part to the acoustic qualities of my room when properly managed by the DEQX.

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Leon Suter dialling the Kronos to the room via DEQX - 2015

There was a significant change this time around from last. The system is now firing up the lounge room from the glass windows towards the front door rather than across. So there are now three 'bounded' sides firing at the listening chair with a void or open space behind. Also the configuration has the sweet spot in a very near field listening position with the speakers <3 metres apart and >2 metres from the central chair. Significantly different from the more distant, across room position of my 'normal system and the Kronos in our earlier trial. Interesting.

Then it was my turn to swap laptops and try my tracks. Pure music followed and all confirmed that the system was duly delivered as expected and operating superbly!

The Kyron Audio guys had other demands on a Sunday afternoon (as they should) so couldn't hang around so I was left with the opportunity to while away more of the day (until Robin came home) listening to the Kronos solo.

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I have developed some detailed notes on the Kyron Audio purchase experience, demo, communications, engagement etc and I may or may not publish it, but the short answer is the customer care, service and engagement throughout our entire buying process has been first class. Thank you Leon and Lee, and the support team and suppliers behind you. And to think that this is just the start of the rest of our lifetime of musical pleasure.

Latest music purchases

With the Kronos now only a month or so away, I have started to get really enthusiastic about freshening up the music collection. Having heard what the MacBook Pro running the Fidelia Advanced player can sound like with Redbook audio 'ripped' discs replayed on the Kronos, I have not bothered seeking out any more 'hi-res' digital versions of new music. Plain old CDs will do me fine!

So I have recently purchased:
- Led Zeppelin 'IV' and 'Houses of the Holy', both 2014 'Deluxe' remasters with Jimmy Page
- Tom Waits 'Bad as Me'
- Robert Plant 'The Lullaby and… The Ceaseless Roar'
- Gary Clark Junior 'Live
- Johnny Winter 'Step Back'

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If the new Led Zeppelin releases are as good as the 1/2/3 remastered albums, they will be pretty special.

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I do have a soft spot for Tom Wait's lyrics and musical styling, and his singing is very well suited to very, very late night listening with a beverage. Usually makes my life seem a whole lot better after an hour or so with Tom!

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Robert Plant's solo work and collaborations have been very interesting in his post LZ days. This new album, 'Lullaby and … The Ceaseless Roar' has reviewed well and I look forward to hearing it.

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As a blues lover I was saddened by the recent passing of Johnny Winter. His final album, 'Step Back' is a collaboration with friends, admirers and peers and is a fitting farewell to a legend of the blues.

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The final purchase was a younger bluesman, Gary Clark Jnr and his 'Live' album. GC Jnr is famous for his high energy, intense live performances and this 2CD set exemplifies this in fine style. From covers to original compositions, his singing and passionate playing are well worth the price of admission.

DC Blocker

Headphone System 1
I finally met Bryan Fletcher from Audio Note Australia / Finn Technology for the first time at the recent Melbourne Audio Show, although I have enjoyed the AN sound at several previous shows. The AN sonic signature for me is always holistic, engaging and pure. Even with a more cost-effective set of products, this year was no exception and we got talking about music, audio, wine and food in general and then more specially about the impact of noise on the power line on audio systems Well, to be honest, Bryan did most of the talking!

Bryan has done much analysis and testing and determined that the residual DC on the incoming AC line was responsible for an audible degradation of the sound outputs of audio systems, and visual outputs of LCD screens and panels. According to Bryan - 'D C on the A C line comes from solar inverters, switch mode power supplies, electronic transformers for halogen lights, anything using a half power switch like hair dryers and the great thing is it doesn’t have to be in your house, could be the neighbour 2 houses away or the transformer up the pole or buried in the ground.'

I am in no way technical nor do I have any electrical engineering expertise, but we do have 26 solar panels on the roof and an inverter to feed the juice back into the grid, plus electric fences for the horses (to keep us out or them in, not sure which) and various other technologies and machinery that co-habit our semi-rural environment. So if the DC Blocker was going work anywhere it should be here.

After some further discussion, and an unnecessarily long reference check on my character, Bryan kindly decided to loan me a sample of his DC Blocker to try at home. He seemed very confident of the outcome.

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The unit contains two AC receptacles as outputs, with one IEC input from the wall. The chassis is surrounded with a pleasantly machined aluminium case and rests on four rubber feet. I placed mine on an old, spare amplifier stand just to protect the loaner product and get it up off the floor. All downstream devices should be plugged into the unit so that no stray DC can infiltrate from other connected components. The only system I have that would fit this requirement is my headphone system, and upon further thought, would be an excellent test to determine if any undesirable DC impact was removed from the output.

With several other competing priorities here at Humphries HQ, I have only just got around to installing the DC Blocker into the power supply chain for my headphone system, replacing a well-regarded Gary Cawsey 'PowerBox' filter.

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Probably worth mentioning the rest of the headphone rig at this point. I have a Benchmark Media Systems DAC1 USB, which does double duty as a DAC (!) and a solid state headphone amplifier; a Yamamoto HA-02 tube headphone amplifier with RCA input from the Benchmark DAC; Sennheiser HD 600 headphones with a Stefan Art Audio 'Equinox' single ended after market cable. Front end is a mid 2012 Apple MacBook Pro (using only battery power for listening tests) running OS X Yosemite, the Fidelia Digital Player, with the Advanced module enabled. Output is via USB to an Audiophilleo 2 USB transport passing the reclocked signal via a S/PDIF connection to the Benchmark.

I sat down to listen with some enthusiasm but with a totally open mind. Probably best to start with some well known tracks (ripped and stored with the Apple Lossless CODEC) and I cued up various tracks to sample and, hopefully, enjoy. It took only a few songs to realise that I really was enjoying the iTunes-sourced material. A clear, clean and extended musical presentation from top to bottom at moderate gain levels producing a most acceptable sound to my ears.

Then I started to think about what I was hearing. Previously, my system sounded good from mid-range upwards, although requiring the volume control of the Benchmark to be wound around to the 1 or 2 o'clock position. Or more… Here I was listening at less than 12 o'cock levels, hearing excellent dynamics, instrument / vocal separation and tonal balance with minimal blurring or 'sonic confusion' in the music. Just clean, clear, smooth and balanced across the frequency range.

I deliberately did not reference Bryan's website before I sampled the product. But here now is his take on the sonic impact -'The surprise however was the substantial improvement in sound. It was like the system had a layer of grunge removed from the frequency range in the bottom end that you never even knew was there. We are not talking subtle here, faster dynamics and real bass'.

Perhaps due the headphones and related equipment I didn't necessarily hear DEEPER bass but I certainly heard clearer and more spacious bass. I absolutely agree that there is a benefit and change in the lower mid range down, but I also heard some smoothness or reduced 'flare' in the very upper register as well. These two improvements made the overall sound more musical, balanced and listenable. At no stage during a three hour listening session was I fatigued or tempted to listen to my library of high resolution music. I was simply enjoying 44/16 source material too much!

This result is frankly quite shocking. That a relatively small and simple (but well built) 'box' could produce such a sonic improvement was indeed a revelation. I would highly recommend a listen to the DC Blocker if you suspect DC contamination is a problem in your system / environment.

I will beg to retain the DC Blocker for a few more weeks of listening, comparing and testing, but I suspect that it will not be making the long road trip back to SinCity! Many thanks to Bryan Fletcher for the opportunity to sample the DC Blocker and hear it's benefits in my system and my congratulations to him on the development and delivery of such a well realised component.

Kyron Audio & Stonier, oh yes!

I thought I would toast Kyron Audio's success at the weekend's Australian Audio & AV Show 2014 with some local produce. Here's to Kronos with a 'little' 2010 Stonier Reserve Chardonnay. Congratulations to all at KA for a superb achievement!

Kyron &#38; Stonier

2014 Australian AV and Audio Show

I wrote this post for our Australian hifi forum StereoNet Australia (SNA).

"My wife and I attended the show Saturday afternoon. Being a closed-minded sort of person, I attended the rooms that I hoped / expected would maximise my enjoyment. The following are my observations in no particular order.
 
Congratulations to Addicted to Audio for laying on much of their product range and almost all their high end gear on demonstration. I didn't get a listen to the Abyss thru the outrageous Woo Monos, but Audeze LCD X and a Cypher Labs tube monolith amp fed by an Anstel Kern hi-res player was a mighty fine combination. Spacious, energetic but smooth. A lot of interest around the demo table(s) with attentive support from the AtA folks.
 
Year on year, the Pure Music Group put on a great display of gear, sonics and engaging music. This year was no exception. Alternating between an Air Force One turntable (stunning even to digital ears) and an Antipodes Audio music server, Elektra pre-amp, and Gauder speakers (sorry missed the power amps), the sound was very fine indeed with sensible and considered musical selections. 
 
Although I didn't stay a long time, I still liked what I heard in the Audio Note room. A late entrant this year, driven by more cost effective products compared to last year, the sound was engaging and just enveloped and drew you in. My sense is that headbangers need not apply, but folks with room placement speaker issues maybe interested in the way the AN speakers are able to be 'stuffed' into room corners. It should be a big plus for some.
 
This is the third year that I have heard the Kyron Audio gear under show conditions and they continue to shine. The Kronos this year sounded expansive, detailed and pretty balanced in the room. One of the benefits of the dipoles appear to be a presentation that transcends the sweet spot (although it was a cool listening chair!) and delivers a pleasing image and sonics to those in off-centre seating positions. 
 
I wanted to hear the Brodman room (too busy sadly) and the Telos Audio room (switching technologies when I stuck my head in, but still no empty seats!). 
 
Overall, I enjoyed the afternoon. We met some new people, caught up with old friends and generally felt comfortable walking the halls and enjoying high quality audio equipment and music in the one location."

Michael Fremer of Stereophile magazine fame attended the show and was most impressed by the Kyron Audio Kronos. Check out his comments
here.

Glad my order is already in!

The Kronos are on their way!

After a suitable period of 'mourning', and a detailed evaluation of alternatives and our existing options, we have decided to proceed with the purchase of the Kyron Audio Kronos System, as evaluated in-house a couple of months ago.

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Kyron Audio Kronos Control Unit - 2014

Now our order has been signed and deposit paid, we are 'in the queue' with some other lucky purchasers for delivery early in 2015.

Somehow we need to survive until then. One way to pass the time might be to buy some new music. From my experience with the Kronos, they seem to make most music sound better, and on some selections, spectacularly so. Therefore one can make new purchases with a degree of confidence that they will sound as good as possible via the Kronos.

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Red wine, Fidelia remote and Kronos. Sheer joy! Roll on 2015!

Robin and I are looking forward to exciting musical times ahead!

Recent music purchase highlights

I have purchased various CDs recently, but the highlights are:

- The remastered Led Zeppelin albums 1, 2 and 3 (or whatever their 'real' names are). A quick listen on the laptop via the DragonFly & HD800s showed the new discs to be very listenable, open and engaging, clearly sonically superior to the compressed-sounding originals.

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- Either planned or in response to the original lead singer, Doc Neeson's sad recent passing, there are two 3-CD sets of Australian pub rock band, The Angels, one of studio recordings and one of their plentiful live material. I haven't had the chance to listen yet, but I am sure that I will have several hours of musical nostalgia and reminiscing ahead of me!

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Kyron Audio Kronos System Review

The Opportunity

I had the good fortune to attend the Melbourne Hi-Fi show in the late summer of 2012. The star of the show was an outrageously engineered (and looking) dipole speaker system from a ] Melbourne based audio design company, Kyron Audio. Again, as luck would have it I must have been in the room at one of the quiet times of the day and was able to get a decent listen to their flagship (and then only) product, the Gaia. The professionalism of the set-up of the room, the engaging team members led by co-founder Lee Gray and the superb quality of the system were all most impressive. I subsequently stayed in touch with Lee and was able to briefly catch up again at this year’s show and see and hear their new product release, the Kronos. The room was packed as the word was well and truly out about Kyron Audio and I didn’t get the chance to have as good a listen as I would have liked. Welcome to the world of hi-fi shows. Some months passed and I made a mental note to contact Lee to see if I could arrange to have a listen to the Kronos in a more relaxed environment. Coincidently, within a week and totally out-of-the-blue, Lee contacted me to see if I would like them to bring the Kronos to my place for a weeks audition. It didn’t take long for me to say yes please!

The Kronos System

Kronos Speaker
Kronos is Kyron Audio's smaller room friendly system. Where the much larger Gaia needs some room to breath to show it's best, the Kronos is happy in small to medium sized (i.e. normal) sized listening / lounge / family rooms. In terms of number of pieces, the Kronos is dead simple. Two speakers and a Control Unit joined by speaker cable. That is it. Add source and stir. Done. While that is all true, it does not do justice to the system components that you see and some that you can't.

Starting with the speakers themselves, they consist of two 1" tweeters (one forward one rear firing), one 7" mid-range driver, and two 12" bass drivers per side. Designed in a dipole array, with sound emanating both froward and rearward, with no surrounding box or enclosure to resonate or 'drive' the sound. The Control Unit contains amplification which runs to in excess of 1.6kW of Hypex digital amplifiers. This staggering power is required to produce the SPL's required of the dipole arrangement. These are tied together with a DEQX preamp, room correction, active speaker calibration unit all enclosed in a hefty but impressive black metal and chrome chassis that sits on it's own (optional) stand or on a sturdy shelf or rack..

I am technically challenged at this level, so for much more detail on the Kronos components and specifications, please click here.







Arrival & Set-Up

Kronos
The set-up of the Kronos in my existing lounge / listening room was a smooth and structured affair. From the outrageously over-engineered flight case that each speaker unit was cradled in, to the cute lime green ‘booties’ to protect the base and to facilitate sliding into the best position before out-rigger spiking. The central 45 kg Control Unit is then placed on a (sturdy) shelf or on an optional spiked stand. Connecting the speakers to the Control Unit is via custom built speaker cables of considerable heft, and I am sure commensurate engineering to take the DEQX signal and allocate it to the appropriate driver. Connectors on each speaker end are custom, self locking alloy blocks.

Once the principal pieces are roughly in place, co-founder Leon Suter gets to work with the DEQX software and laptop to measure the room. The supplied microphone and stand is placed at the preferred listening position, then the DEQX software does it’s thing to identify the baseline room attributes. From there Leon is able to ‘tune’ the response to play with the room rather than fight it. I should also add that the set up process was a customer inclusive effort. No ‘go away and leave us alone’ attitude from the Kyron Audio team. Chatting easily as they went through each step of the process, the only silence required was for the DEQX to do it’s sweeps of the room.

Installation and configuration is included in the purchase of the Kronos to ensure that the system performs to it's maximum immediately.

Finally swapping from Leon’s laptop to mine and connecting my CD player was a straight forward plug and play job.

Listening

Listening tests were conducted via the trusty Wadia 861SE CD transport/DAC (over S/PDIF), and a mid 2012 Apple MacBook Pro (with SSD) running OSX Mavericks 10.9.4 with Bit Perfect V2.0.1 and Fidelia V1.5.3 as digital music players via USB. In addition to RedBook CDs, a combination of 44/16 and higher resolution FLAC and AIFF files were driven from the Mac.

It should not be a surprise that from the very first track it was obvious that something special was going on with the Kronos system.

OK, let’s start the listening impressions discussion with the foundation, the noise floor. The Kronos is for all intents and purposes silent. The music rises from and falls back into the blackest of backgrounds. Compared to my valve amps and high efficiency speakers, it is indeed a revelation. Also immediately I noticed a taller and wider centre image giving the impression that a real-life sized performer was in front of you, not a smaller replica in a rectangular 'visual' envelope.

Bass - The dual 12” bass drivers driven via the DEQX to work with the room deliver the deepest and most nuanced bass I have ever heard in my room. No artificial thump, no added boost to insert depth where it doesn’t exist on the recoding. I have two ‘go to’ tracks for bass. One is Harry Connick Jnr ‘Follow the Music’ from the 1994 ‘She’ album. I am not an HC Jnr fan normally but I was introduced to this track by the Asia Pacific distributor for Wadia many years ago and it gives the drivers a real work out. The second is ‘Rubberband Man’ by Yello from their ‘Baby’ album. Both sounded spectacular.

Mid Range / Male - Female vocals - A few examples to sample here. ‘Fields of Gold’ by Eva Cassidy’s ‘Live at Blues Alley’, Leon and Eric Bibb’s ‘Praising Peace’ from the 2006 album of the same name, and ‘Cherokee River’ by Walela from their self-titled 1997 debut album. I particularly enjoyed the harmonies of Walela underpinned by the hypnotic synth & percussion.

Highs - The Kronos speaker has two 1” tweeters per side one forward and one rear firing. I found the highs to be well controlled, by no means ‘hot’ or over-emphasised. I am big fan of acoustic blues and in addition to the mid range tone of steel string acoustic guitars I look for ringing and sustained decay of the strings particularly finger picking styles. I enjoyed listening to local acoustic blues artists Phil Manning, Jeff Lang and Geoff Achison doing their stuff through the Kronos. Very lifelike, live sounding and most satisfying.

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Your humble correspondent with the Kronos in situ - 2014

So, to my ears in my room, the individual components of the sound are excellent in isolation. In terms of detail retrieval and presentation, yes, you can get your jollies from hearing a stool knocked over in the back corner of the studio at the 4.55 mark of your favourite track. But what really impresses is the way every track comes together as a whole. You can hear the individual instruments in detail laid out across the sound field, but if you just pull back your attention more broadly the entire presentation morphs into focus as a gloriously reproduced seamless piece of music.

I have heard some high end systems which 'blow you away' with their sonic fireworks and you start to consider 'could anything be better?' Then by track three or five or some period of time, you find yourself needing a rest, to get away from that alleged greatness. Too much of a good thing? I didn't have this problem with the Kronos. The sound was simply brilliant and enjoyable at any volume level, and totally non-fatiguing. You will need to sleep, fill your glass or have to eat before the sound will force you to leave your favourite listening chair.

Dynamics are excellent. Notes start and stop. Musical signatures are preserved. In my preferred genres of rock and blues, the rhythm section in particular is extremely well served by the bass reproduction and the ability and speed of the Kronos to sound rhythmically correct giving energy to the performance.

The resolution of the Kronos reproduction chain is particularly evident when listening at lower than concert levels. Instrument separation, imaging, detail and dynamics are all present at near background levels and above.

One attribute we find critically important for a home system is that of engagement. It needs to draw the listener into the music and make you want to continue listening. And here is the clincher. With the Kronos, the quality set-up and reproduction transcends the sweet-spot. Sitting well off-axis in one of the sofas either side of 'the chair', you are still involved with the entire presentation, not just parts of it. Furthermore, if you can engage with your music from another room at modest listening levels, you have a winning system. The Kronos did that for us. Partaking in a lovely Sunday morning breakfast some distance away from the listening room, the music just flowed through the house and I caught myself nodding along and following the bass line of some track that I was barely familiar with. Apart from being fun, this extends the utility of the system as you can be doing other things and still be getting enjoyment and value from your ‘investment’ in the system and your music.

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Quality abounds - 2014

There is often an assumption that with high-end equipment everything sounds good, as if somehow by magic. That is of course a myth. After a couple of days and 50 or so discs of various genres and ages, I can confidently state that poorly recorded and mastered discs are spectacularly and accurately reproduced as poorly recorded and mastered discs!

As for the Wadia as a transport using S/PDIF and the Mac using ALAC rips of Redbook CDs via USB, the victory was a pretty clear win to the computer based files. To my ears the entire presentation was enhanced to the point where I stopped playing discs and copied all of my listening material to the laptop for the week.

For all of the reasons discussed above, it would come as no surprise that the Kyron Audio Kronos delivers the best sound I have ever heard in my room by a very, very large margin. Given the complexities of my room, I would never have thought the level of reproduction attained by the Kronos would be possible. Not even close. I am staggered with the sonics the Kronos achieved.

So how does the Kronos System differ from my current Supratek / Zu Audio Definition setup? The Kronos was clearly superior in the quality of the noise floor, the top-to-bottom balance, deeper and more tuneful bass, right-sized imaging and it simply made more music, more enjoyable, more easily, more often. On the flip side, when dialled in, the Supratek pre-power combination delivers superb mid-range tone and engagement (inaccuracies according to Leon!) and the 101dB efficient Zus are the ‘fastest’ speaker that I have heard and anything played through them seriously hustles along.

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This is how the Kronos speaker looks on arrival, and sadly, just before departure... - 2014

Ease of Use

Once set up, the simplicity of the plug and play / add a source approach completely disguises the depth of acoustic and technical engineering of the delivered solution. Just wake the system from sleep, cue up a track and hit 'Play'. No intricate turn-on procedures, no extended warm-up period required. Almost too easy!

Three listening profiles can be setup at installation time to present different flavours of sound although I forgot to sample the other two in the week I had the Kronos. I didn't feel the need. Or I forgot... Although I connected my laptop with a decent Kimber USB cable, I don't think the Kronos is cable fussy. I know that Kyron Audio's usual go-to USB cable is a very basic, three of four metre run of Belkin wire with standard USB Type A and B connectors at each end, and the system still sounds superb.

My listening room has either plenty of glass or heavy curtains and my current system sounds overly bright (reflective) with the curtains open, and controlled (or a little over-damped) with the curtains shut. With the Kronos and it's active electronics, there was minimal difference in sound signature and balance with the curtains open or closed. A clever trick and a very big tick for the DEQX I would say.

Like all elements of Kyron Audio products, the remote control is a beautifully crafted all metal affair controlling on/off, source, volume and muting functions and is simplicity itself.

Conclusion & Summary

I cannot overstate the stunning level of detail and quality of the Kronos. From the heavy dust covers, to the build quality of the footers and integrated spikes on the speakers and control unit, the fit and finish of the speakers (almost impossible to capture the details with my photographic skills) and of the supplied USB stick, microphone and stand and accessories hard case made me feel proud to have the Kronos in my home for a week. The fact that it is Australian designed and built makes it even more special.

The Kronos System is undoubtedly a destination product. It is one that will get you off the treadmill of upgrades and tweaks and into your existing, and I would hasten to bet, ever expanding music collection. It is a significant investment suited to individuals and families who are committed to the pleasure and joy that their preferred musical choices give them and to those who are able to exercise those choices often.

Sonically the Kronos System is world class, aesthetically it is off the charts, and operationally is barely more complicated that an iDevice. And as a destination product, you may find that the ultimate destination is the listening room in your home.

If you can, you must. We can't but we still might!

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Thanks to Lee Gray (left) and Leon Suter (right) of Kyron Audio for the unique opportunity to enjoy the stunning Kronos System in house


Postscript: I knew that Edgar Kramer of Esoteric Audio had reviewed the Kronos system, and in fact the Kyron guys left me with a copy of his review. However I intentionally didn't read Ed's comments until after I had conducted my own listening sessions and formed my views. Edgar's words and commentary are certainly much more eloquent than mine but it is interesting that our listening and visual impressions are pretty similar, which perhaps says less about us, and more about the consistency, quality and fidelity of Kyron Audio's Kronos system.

5 CD Sets

I was in a local record store recently browsing for a copy of Donald Fagen's 'Sunken Condos' album (found, purchased and enjoyed) and stumbled across a bunch of 5CD sets of some artists that I know and love.

These sets published variously by Sony, EMI and Warner Music seemed a great way to get into the back catalog of these artists, specifically Bonnie Raitt, Roxy Music, Chris Rea, The Allman Brothers and The Monkees. I had previously purchased the 5 CD set of the original Peter Green era Fleetwood Mac so I sort of knew was I was getting into.

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I am not expecting these discs to be high quality transfers and you can't expect miracle pressings for $A4 per disc. But if there are one or two musical gems hidden in these sets, then I can reach out and buy those albums in some hi-res format from Mobile Fidelity, HD Tracks etc to enjoy further. Or not, as these artists are part of my musical heritage and I enjoy them as much for the memories they invoke as for the music itself.

All in all, a most enjoyable 'transaction'!

New Music purchases in 2013

I thought I should document my music purchases for 2013. Not much of it is 'new' in 2013 rather more re-isssued releases, as my musical tastes tend to look backwards, not forwards....

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The Allman Brothers Band 'Brothers and Sisters (Deluxe Edition)' Originally recorded 1972, Re-Issued 2013 2CD

I had the original album on vinyl many moons ago and saw this at my favourite CD store in the city and it filled a gap in the collection. Turns out that the music is every bit as good as I remember, and the sound quality of the CD is surprisingly sparkly and clean also.

You really can't listen to 'Wasted Words', 'Ramblin Man' and 'Jessica' too often. I need to go back and have another listen to their 'Eat a Peach' album.






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Gregg Allman 'Low Country Blues' 2012 CD

I was in an Allman family mood, so I picked this one up on recommendation from the store owner above. I admit to not being familiar with Allman's solo efforts but this is a New Orleans / southern blues canter through a set of mostly covers with an all star backing band including producer T-Bone Burnett on guitar and Dr John on piano. I like Gregg Allman's voice and the classic tone of the Hammond B-3 organ and I enjoyed the sparse arrangements and production values. 'Low Country Blues' will encourage me to seek out other Gregg Allman solo efforts.






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Bettye LaVette 'Interpretations - The British Rock Songbook' 2010 CD

I like Bettye LaVette's voice, the raspiness and the pain of a long life's journey seems to draw me in. Her work lends an element of sameness to whatever she is singing, but as I said I find the voice engaging.

My favourite tracks are a heavy rendering on The Beatles, 'The Word' and a haunting and heartfelt version of the George Harrison classic 'Isn't it a Pity'. Pink Floyd fans would be well advised to avoid this rendition of 'Wish You Were Here'. The phrase 'trying too hard' comes to mind. A swampy version of Ringo Starr's 'It Don't Come Easy' works very well to my ears.

While the music is generally excellent, the SQ is nothing special on this disc.



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Boz Scaggs 'Memphis' 2013 HDTracks 44/24

I admit to having a bit of a Boz fetish and have most, if not all of his music since a tour to Australia in the mid 70s. 'Memphis' is well recorded, with a bunch a great players, and it delivers a great sense of Boz really stretching himself on a set of nine Memphis soul & R&B covers, and two originals. A most enjoyable album with the trademark Scaggs croon.









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Bob Marley 'Legend' Originally released 1974, re-issued 2012 HDTracks 192/24

I am not really a reggae fan, but again this album was 'missing' in my collection and it's availability on HD Tracks in hi-res format seemed like a good enough reason to make a purchase. I haven't had a decent listen yet but I have found it a little more accessible (or mainstream) than I may have thought.










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Paul & Linda McCartney 'Ram' Original recording 1971, remastered and re-issued 2012 HD Tracks 192/24

As a dyed in the wool Beatles fan (although not necessarily of McCartney), this is nevertheless a must-have album for the collection. Unavailable on CD now (used red book copies changing hands for $150 and up) I turned to hi-res again. Worth the entry price for the country scat-singing ditty 'Heart of the Country. The album is vintage McCartney, pretty meaningless songs about nothing, whimsy (or simply rubbish), but great melodies and arrangements. For example see Uncle Albert / Admiral Halsey.






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Howlin' Wolf 'The Memphis Sessions' Original tracks recorded 1950 onwards. Re-issued 2013 HD Tracks 96/24

Bit of a back story here. I might have told you that I have been doing some photography of a local blues band on the Mornington Peninsula called 'King Catfish'. They only play blues songs recorded in the 1930s/40s and 50s. So you get to hear a lot of Chester Arthur Burnett at a King Catfish gig. So in deference to the history of the blues (and a hat tip to King Catfish) I picked up this sort of best-of from Howlin' Wolf's Sun Studio days. A mono release of course, and a bit 'shouty' in places, but it is just an awesome piece of musical history. 






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Muddy Waters 'Folk Singer' originally recorded 1964, re-issued 2013 HD tracks 192/24

Another 'classic' that I had to pick up. MFSL 'gold' copies are now getting pricey, so I thought I would go for the all-digital version rather than chase an expensive coaster. I haven't had a decent sit down and listen session with this yet but it is a treat that is in front of me and I am really looking forward to it.








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Counting Crows 'August and Everything After - Live at the Town Hall' 2011, HD Tracks 96/24

The original studio album is one of my all-time favourite albums when released in 1993 and I just had to have this live set when I saw it. In some respects it is even more moody and melancholy in places that the original and being fresh and live it is even the better for it. The lead vocals of Adam Duritz and the jangling guitars throughout are particularly special.








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Hugh Lawrie 'Didn't it Rain' 2013 CD

This is Hugh Lawrie's second album, which was a surprise to me as I didn't realise he had any at all! And I must say it is a bit of an acquired taste. Hugh's voice certainly does't thunder through this eclectic set of R&B, blues, jazz, southern US and South American inspired tracks. In fact he doesn't sing on all tracks, preferring to contribute on both piano and guitar. Given the musical variety, it is a bit hard to get into a 'groove' (pardon the pun) when listening to this album. As with most works these days, the guest musos and the delightfully named 'Copper Bottom Band' do a fine job in support.

As pleasant an exercise as this is, I can't help but think that it may have sunk without a trace if it didn't have 'HUGH LAWRIE' in capital letters on the album cover...



In addition to new discs, there were also a number of second-hand CD purchases from Second Spin and other downloads most of which are listed in the image below. A bit tricky to calculate as there are double albums, a couple of downloaded indie Eps, but about 50 or 51 albums all up. That surprises me as I would not have guessed that I bought one per week (on average) without this analysis. It also proves that whilst I may buy music, I am better at the shopping process than the listening piece.

Thanks to my hi-fi buddy Darwin for sowing the seed for this year end review.

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Those of you with sharp eyes will see a couple of old Emerson, Lake & Palmer albums in there. See, I told you I was backward looking. Perhaps some newer stuff may appear in 2014!

Wadia Intuition 01 Demo @ Tivoli Hi-Fi

Over the last few months I have had very positive interactions with the fine team at Tivoli Hi-Fi in suburban Camberwell. I recently bought my Wadia 151 PowerDac Mini from them and attended a hi-fi forum event hosted at their premises. I have been totally impressed with their passion for fine sound and their unbridled enthusiasm to share it. Somewhere during this process, they manage to sell stuff. Like successfully for the last 40 odd years. More power to them.

For me, this relationship paid off in spades last week when senior audio guru James contacted me to let me know that Tivoli had the ONLY Wadia Intuition 01 DAC/Pre/Power box in Australia for demo for a week or so. James kindly arranged a time that was most suitable to me and today I went along for a listen to it. And more...

For those that don't know me, some information in the spirit of full disclosure is appropriate. I own three Wadia products, am known as 'wadiaman' on a few hi-fi forums and enjoy the build quality, sonics and long-term value that Wadia products afford their owners. So read this post with that information in the back (or front) of your mind. I have paid advertised prices for all my Wadia products and derive no commercial benefits from any relationships with Australian audio retailers or distributors.

So onto to the Intuition review. For more specific product details, please check out the Wadia Intuition 01 site here. But all you really need to know is that is a relatively high powered (350 watts at 4 ohm / 190w at 8 ohm) Class D+ (no real idea what the + means) power amplifier, seven digital and 2 analog inputs pre-amplifier and a full function Wadia proprietary DigiMaster 384kHz/32bit capable DAC. So all you then need is a new-ish computer, media software and music files and you are away. So I brought along the trusty MacBook Pro (Retina) running OSX Mavericks (10.9) and the Fidelia audio player (V1.3.0b3) with access to a range of FLAC and ALAC files of various resolutions.

My pictures don't do the Intuition justice at all. The curves of the 'chassis', the smoothness of the aluminium finish and it's compactness for such a full featured unit is quite a revelation. Designed and built in Italy, the Euro style certainly shows. A box it isn't...

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MacBook Pro & Wadia Intuition 01 - 2013

James kindly commandeered Studio 1 (the big rig room) for the afternoon.

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The Big Room - AR, PS Audio, Wadia Intuition 01, MBP and Wilson Audio Sasha - 2013

He slipped the Wadia onto a spare shelf and had it running for a day or so before I arrived. I placed the MBP onto the top shelf, added my Kimber USB cable, selected the Wadia as the output device and queued Track 1, Stevie Ray Vaughan / Albert Collins 'Pride & Joy', (HDTracks 96/24), from the 'In Session' album. Cool blues filled the room, although the sound was a little thicker and the guitars grungier than I remember. The next track, Pete Alderton playing 'Walking Blues' (Linn Downloads 44/24) was acoustically lighter and sounded much better. Great! But perhaps my old Kimber cable wasn't up to it. So James inserted a similarly priced Transparent Audio USB cable into the system and we tried again. If you don't believe cables make a difference, look away now.... Ooh, that was clearly worse. My cable had been used for 18 months or more and was fully broken in (again, if you believe that sort of stuff) and the Transparent was quite new, but there clearly was a tangible difference in the Kimbers favour and we stayed with that throughout the rest of the day.

As good as the sound was, James thought another speaker combo (and room change) would be worth trying. I amused myself with some Diana Krall and Shelby Lynne while the new speakers were configured. And mighty fine they sounded through the Sashas.

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The curvaceous B&W 802 (left), and either the ghost of Tivoli past or JF in full flight (right)

So we moved to Studio 2 where a pair of B&W 802 were now expertly set up and waiting. Similar tracks were played and frankly there was no real magic. Slightly recessed vocals, some reduced dynamics and an overall dryness to the experience had the B&Ws sounding very hi-fi-ish and exiting stage left after a few demo tracks. I have heard these speakers previously through a stack of Electrocompaniet gear and they sounded absolutely superb. Either a lack of synergy or more setup / configuration time required for this combination to show it's best.

Enter a pair of Wilson Audio Sophia 3s.

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Awesome looking and sounding Wilson Sophia 3 - 2013

Looking absolutely gorgeous in Desert Silver, it would be interesting to see how they sounded compared to the Sashas albeit in a different room. A question for later, but much, much better than the B&Ws in the current room was the initial answer. Immediately the music was more forward and layered, the mid-range glorious, especially on Phil Manning 'Two Roads' (ALAC 44/16), one of my go to demo tracks for male vocals and acoustic guitar. Another jazz favourite, 'Ode to Billy Joe' (ALAC 44/16) by Patricia Barber is another track that I have heard a hundred times on the Wadia and Zus at home. The 'new' Wadia and Wilson combo did it proud. Textured finger snaps, warm bass line and vocals really drew the listener in. OK, time to stop messing around with this low key stuff, so on went Yello and 'Rubberband Man' (ALAC 44/16). Most spectacular! Not only was the energy through the roof, but the Intuition dragged out some details and phrases from this track that I hadn't heard before. The native 384/32 USB upsampling maybe? For whatever reason it was simply stunning. Just for confirmation, we revisited Pete Alderton and the sound I thought was even better than the Sashas, albeit subjectively, after a 45 minute gap. The only thing holding the combo back was a slight (and I mean r-e-a-l-l-y slight) 'slowness' to the presentation compared to my whip-crack Zus and the fact that the Sophias are not the last word in bass impact (tone is fine). But I am really splitting hairs here.

But of course James had a plan to fix the speed and bass issues! Wheel those Wilsons away and lets try some Martin Logan Summit Xs.

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The Martin Logan Summit X now in place - 2013

By this point, I have to say that I was getting weary watching James move huge speakers in and out of the room...

On a perfect day, my system sounds pretty darn good. And in two minutes James made the MLs and the Wadia sound better than my systems 'golden' moments.... Through these large panels and active bass boxes, I immediately heard the same (or larger) image size, the same (or faster) speed & snap with an added level of refinement. I could almost have been sitting in my own home, rather the uber-comfy sofa of a primo audio dealer. Of course that is a bit of a problem. Was it better? Absolutely yes, but was it different enough? Probably no, not really.

So the best pairing on the day is..... the Sophia 3 / Intuition 01 combo. It was fabulously engaging, detailed, balanced and to my ears, different enough to consider an investment.

While there were no real losers in this test, there was one standout performer, the Wadia Intuition 01. If you can get a listen, I am pretty sure that you will then understand why. If you have ever thought that digital plus Class D was dry, strident and un-engaging, this is THE product that will change your view.

Thanks again to Geoff and James for your hospitality, time and the outstanding opportunity to savour the delights of the Wadia Intuition 01!

Hi Fi Royalty In The House!

l was delighted to welcome 'Super Mustud' of SNA fame to our humble home today for a long overdue ''Royal Visit'. I have been to Mr Mustud's place several times and I kept promising to reciprocate but never delivered until now.

Frankly it didn't start well when the great man got lost at the front gate (!), was unsure then of the property boundaries and once inside was critical that he was not offered a wine when less than a third the way through his demanded light beer stubby.... I just put it down to jet lag and his minder/publicist being 'unavailable'....

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Alex (left) and the intrepid host - 2013

Anyway, the good news was the day got better. Frankly, much better. A quick walk around the interior of the property re-aligned SM's bearings and we retired inside for some chat. And a bottle of 10yo Macallan... The thinking man's BYO...

Some convivial conversation was set aside when the BBQ soy chicken skewers hit the plate. After a respectable interlude, some very fine porterhouse steaks were delivered due, to be fair, a combination of the awesome skill, judgement and experience of the chef (me) and some silly over-priced temp-probe thingy that my guest thought rescued the day.... Luckily the salads were spared from the afore-mentioned intrusion... A superb 2002 Penfolds 389 matched the steak to perfection. Phew.

Tales of family, travels and work accompanied the main course and the home-made chocolate cake and fresh fruits were enthusiastically consumed with coffee.

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Ultimate concentration - 2013

The afternoon wound up with a couple more 'cleansers' and my usual musical preferences, imposed on (polite) guests at uncomfortable volumes. Awesome!

I think a great day was had by all. Thanks Alex!

'Come a little closer, huh, a-will ya huh...'

Ah, the delightful refrain of Doug Fieger and The Knack. Did a little retail therapy mid week at the local CD store and found a $6.99 copy of The Knack's 'My Sharona' album, circa 1981. Perhaps not audiophile quality, and not the deepest lyrics but somehow awesome anyway!

MY Sharona

Australian Audio and AV Show 2013

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The Australian Audio and AV Show rolled into Melbourne on 18-20 October 2013 at the Intercontinental Hotel in the city. I spent an enjoyable three hours visiting old friends and making new acquaintances across the three floors of the show.

I attended the last event here in Melbourne in 2011 and in my opinion, the 'average' sound this year was better than 2011. I didn't get to very room, but I didn't hear many rooms that had 'ordinary sound', and most rooms sounded very good or better. It was a different hotel and maybe the rooms were better, but to me they look just like any other hotel room. So I put the improvements down to improved product development, considered set up and high quality front ends.

On the subject of front ends, the best sounding rooms were either analog and digital, with no obvious preference to either. To my ears, in most rooms (sorry for the generalisation), I couldn't tell the difference between the sound of either technologies, albeit on material I was mostly unfamiliar with. That is meant to be a compliment on the high quality delivered not a put down on vinyl. Most digital was just that, very few silver discs were seen, with a very significant number of rooms streaming off laptops or servers through various DACs.

So on to what I liked. Rather than do a 'Best of Show' thing, a bit arbitrary, and devaluing several great systems, let me list my preferences (in no particular order) and general recommendations.

The Rooms
Audio Note: An AN - TT 2 Deluxe Turntable with an AN Arm Three, feeding Audio Note's ultimate 211-tubed Ongaku Kensei integrated amplifier, driving their AN-E HE-SPe High Efficiency Speakers (in beautiful Madrona Burl) wedged into the room corners and heavily toed-in. The system laid out a gorgeous soundstage and delivered a detailed and engaging presentation. A real oasis of sound.

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The spectacular Audio Note Ongaku amplifier and a very serious amp stand! - 2013

Kyron Audio: After their Gaia flagship, Kyron Audio has now developed and released a smaller dipole system to suit more modest listening environments, the Kronos. To be honest, I couldn't fault the sound at all. It was hard to identify the highs, mids and lows as the music just appears from 'nowhere' and the sound field lays out in front of you and 'plays' and 'hangs' in the air driven by the quality of the source and not coloured or impacted by the 'box'. Just outstanding. The system was fed by a laptop-driven digital front end.

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The audibly and visually stunning Kyron Audio Kronos - 2013

Pure Music Group: A very, very engaging room. A Thales TT and Simplicity tone-arm with a Phasemation PP-1000 MC cartridge, Mola Mola Makua pre-amp, and Mola Mola Kaluga mono-blocks, EMM Labs XDS1v2 CD/SACD player, Gauder Akustik Berlina RC-7 loudspeakers, with the source gear supported on an HRS platform. From what I heard, these new products to the Oz market really got out of the way and you were drawn in to the glory of the music rather than just listening to high-end hi-fi products. A most enjoyable experience.

Audio Fidelity: An analog front end, Tenor amplifier and Vivid Audio GIYA G3 were superbly setup (better than in the distributor's room IMHO), and sounded spacious, relaxed and showed off the G3's to excellent effect.

Magenta Audio: Alternating between a laptop (through a Metrum HEX DAC) and analog front ends, into Audion Black Shadow 2 845 mono-blocks driving a pair of Zu Audio Definition Mk IV. Playing music and delivering a vibrant sound, the Zu's really do get you tapping your feet and drawing you into enjoying the music. Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Magenta Audio but do own a pair of Zu Definition Mk 1.5s, and therefore I recognise and enjoy the Zu 'house sound'.

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The Magenta Room, funky turntable, PS Audio, Pure Audio & Zu Definition Mk IV - 2013

I can't imagine anyone listening to any of the above rooms and coming away disappointed.

Anything else of interest? Well there was the Advance Audio room, using an audio sledge-hammer approach leveraging a clutch of uber high end brands. I didn't check the turntable (I don't usually as you can tell from the mostly non-existent analog descriptions above), but present was the awesome DCS stack (four very large boxes consuming an entire rack), a VTL pre and power combination and the Dan D'Agostino Momentum pre and power combination (visually ridiculously awesome). As for speakers, there was Wilson Audio Duette 2 and the new Wilson Audio Alexia. All in all, very, very serious audio jewellery to be sure. It was in one of the larger (and I suspect more difficult) rooms at the show and all I got to hear was the DCS/VTL/Duette 2 combo playing Dave Brubeck 'Take 5' . That said, the Duettes really sounded full-range like. Sparkling on top, good mid-range and very deep bass for a 'stand mount'. I have to say, the sound was pretty impressive. Would warrant a longer listen in a more friendly environment.

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Apologies for the cr*ppy picture of hi-fi 'royalty - 2013

One final observation, I would like to praise most rooms for playing interesting, tailored, thoughtful music rather than the 'audiophile' selections that have been prevalent in the past. A special mention to the Audio Fidelity (playing VinylEye discs), Pure Music Group and Kyron Audio rooms for their musical selections and variety.

The mood of the vendors appeared positive and the crowd seemingly engaged with the products on the day. I do hope that lots of new business was generated and that the audio market place grows in Melbourne as a result of this show.

PS - Apologies for the rubbish pictures. It appears that indoor product photography in crowded dimly-lit spaces is not a core competency of mine…

Tivoli Hi-Fi - SNA Get Together

The Australian hi-fi forum, StereoNet Australia (SNA) and leading Melbourne audio retailer Tivoli Hi-Fi, held a joint musical evening at the Tivoli premises in inner Melbourne last week.

The evening was intended to bring SNA members to experience the range of products Tivoli offers in a congenial atmosphere. Fine finger food, excellent Grant Burge wines and live jazz was just the entree.

The many custom-designed listening rooms at Tivoli were setup with B&W / Electrocompanniet, Wilson Audio / Audio Research, PS Audio / Martin Logan, Primare / Vienna Acoustics, an outrageous home theatre room and a full complement of Loewe screens and electronics. All the rooms sounded great, but the Electro / B&W sounded very smooth and the Primare / Vienna gear sounded too good for it's price point.

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A special highlight was a fancy set of home theatre recliners. Nothing new there I hear you say. These are SERIOUS recliners, with electric controls for the footrest and head / backrest and an in inbuilt refrigerator to keep your drinks cold in the cup holders in the arms. A fold out laptop / food table is located in the arm as well as storage bins for remotes, magazines and stuff. Simply awesomely decadent!

And a big thanks to the AudioActive team (distributors of Vienna Acoustics, Primare, IsoTek and others) for gifting a copy of the IsoTek Ultimate System Set-Up Disc (by Opus3) to all the attendees on the night. Very generous indeed. I am sure it will help get my system really singing!

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Thanks to SNA and Tivoli for being proactive and enabling us to get that bit closer to the high-end. A great night was had by all.

My Wadia 151PowerDACmini Review

As I dip my toes deeper and deeper into the water of hi-resolution computer-based audio, various different topologies of playback options present themselves.

Many of you will know that I am big fan of Wadia Digital having owned one of their high-end integrated CD transport/DAC combos for the last 15 years. A 170iTransport iPod dock graces my system as well.

My latest piece of Wadia gear is the 151PowerDACmini. And it is a visual and sonic beauty!

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The Wadia 151 PowerDAC mini - 2013

The PowerDAC is DAC, digital pre-amplifer with a stereo power amplifier module. It supports only digital inputs (2x COAX, USB and TOSLINK), has no digital or analog outputs, a single pair of speaker binding posts and an IEC receptacle. It doesn't sound much but it is such a compact unit (20 centimetres square) so the rear panel gets pretty busy with 'audiophile' sized cables and connectors.

The specs are pretty straight forward. The 151 PowerDAC has an internal power supply (not too beefy as the entire unit weighs less than 3 kgs), USB is asynchronous and maxes out at 96/24 (although the Wadia DigiMaster software up samples to 24bit/384k before outputting), total power from the Class-D digital amp module is around 25 wpc at 8 ohms (50 wpc at 4 ohms). And that is about it. The only other feature to note is that like all Wadia players the 151 comes with a phase polarity switch to ensure playback can be matched to the source if phase is an issue.

The unit was simple plug and play to get going. Attach your connection of choice, select the correct input via the front panel or remote control and press play on your source and beautiful sound emanates from your speakers, in my case the Zu Audio Definition Mk1.5s. I have used the 170i dock, the Wadia 861SE as a transport (via it's Digital Out COAX output) and a MacBook Pro running Fidelia via an Audiophilleo2 (USB-to-S/DIF converter) as sources into the PowerDAC and they have all worked flawlessly with easy connectivity and setup. I ran the PowerDAC for over 150 hours before I commenced my evaluation and review.

So how does the 151 PowerDAC sound? Pretty darn good actually.

Belying it's solid state / digital amp heritage, the sound is dynamic and full, and not harsh or overly extended in the higher frequencies. I found the bass to be a real feature of the PowerDAC, deep, solid and tuneful providing a sound platform for the mids and highs o be layered upon. The overall sound is very smooth and 'listenable' with no apparent artefacts, gaps or quirks that leave you wanting for 'more of this or more of that'. Information and detail retrieval and playback is probably the PowerDAC's biggest strength with whatever is on the disc or FLAC file rendered completely and presenting it back as a whole for the listener's enjoyment. A very pleasant surprise on one of my favourite test tracks, 'Two Roads' by Phil Manning, was the clarity of the two voices in the chorus that can be hard to discern through lesser playback systems, even when listening hard via headphones. Transparency was also evident with the PowerDAC easily showing the performance and sonic differences of the multiple sources (both hardware and software) that I tried with it. Not surpassingly, power handling / headroom was not an issue in my medium sized room through the 101db efficient Zus.

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The busy rear panel, TOSLINK and USB inaccessible - 2013

Compared to my Wadia 861SE player via my Supratek Sauvignon/Malbec tube combo, the PowerDAC throws a somewhat smaller soundstage. The image is properly centred and rock solid but clearly inside the speakers and emanating from a noticeably smaller 'window'.

Overall, I am very happy with my purchase from the fine folk at Tivoli HiFi in Melbourne. It may not see too much time in the 'Big Rig' but will certainly be the heart of my 'Simple & Small Second System' paired with my Red Rose Music stand mounts.

So in summary, the Wadia PowerDAC 151 mini is not SoTA in terms of sound quality and you must live with the limitations of it's digital inputs. But for modest dollars it is a very attractive and compact one-box DAC / amplifier solution that will drive most real world speaker loads in small to medium sized rooms delivering very high quality digital decoding from a range of sources and makes the most enjoyable music. To round out the value equation, Wadia has an enviable reputation for quality and longevity and my unit appears well made, runs silently with all controls and connectors having a solid feel.

Just add a computer and speakers and you have a gateway to high end sound. Recommended!!

Don't just take my word for it, other reviewers at Home Theatre Review and Tone Audio seem to like the 151 as well. The official PowerDAC 151 mini product page at Wadia can be found here.

New pictures

It has taken me a while (like years!) to take some decent pictures of my hi-fi system.

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Wadia 861SE CD player
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Supratek Sauvignon Pre Amplifier
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First Watt Aleph J Power Amplifier

GtG at Super Mustuds

A small but intelligent and influential gathering of audiophiles (OK, I made most of that up) turned up at various times of the day and night last Saturday to enjoy Super Mustud's company and fine hospitality (I didn't make any of that bit up). Caddisgeek (who I unfortunately missed meeting for the first time due to my late arrival), DIYNut, Moondog, TonyC and myself made up Super Mustud's audience, oops, I meant guests.

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The two stars of the show (no not THEM), but the Rowans Creek at left and the Lagavulin

Comfortably seated outdoors, conversations abounded regarding the big issues in life, regularly interspersed with semi-serious sipping and listening to some 'cool' music. At various times 'The Kamado Joe' was fired up producing lamb chaps, chorizo sausage and corn all grilled to perfection. As always.

All this as we waited for the sun to go down so that the serious part of the GtG could commence.That, of course, was the whisky tasting and education, most capably led by our gracious host. As the photo indicates, available bottles outnumbered guests about 10 to 1, a most satisfactory ratio IMHO.

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The winner for me was the 2011 Lagavulin 12YO Special Release. Special by name and special by nature. Just fabulous. As a counter-point, I took along a Rowans Creek Bourbon of some repute and a mighty fine drop it turned out to be. Not that I got a lot of it with a certain person (whose initials are Moondog) consuming the 'dog's share' of the bottle. Said he wouldn't spoil the bourbon with food so he abstained from eating… For a long while…

Eventually the 'big rig' was fired up and was sounding as good as ever. A range of mellow music was played (Ray Lamontagne and Bat for Lashes were prominent) which suited the now very relaxed group perfectly. A cleansing coffee and a final wee dram rounded out the evening perfectly.

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SM, TonyC and at rear, a very relaxed Moondog

On behalf of all of the guests, I would like to thank Super Mustud for again welcoming us into his humble palace and providing an outstanding afternoon and evening of refreshment and entertainment! And a big thank you to TonyC for admirably filling the role of my designated driver. Again…

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Drinking is not doing me any good… Cheers!

GtG at Fields

I was fortunate to be invited to an SNA forum Get-to-Gether (GtG, go figure) at Field's house last night.

I had not previously had the pleasure of listening to Field's system comprising Raysonic CD player / transport, North Star DAC (I think),Supratek Sauvignon two-box pre-amp (same model as mine but finished in gorgeous piano black & chrome) and ADAM Gamma fully active speakers. A 5.1 surround sound video system (Marantz Pre & Power Processor, ADAM Center) with an Epson projector and turntable round of 'most' of the visible technology. Sorry if I missed anything! And it is all housed in a tastefully decorated, acoustically treated, dedicated listening room.

If all that wash't enough, Field has SUPERB taste in music with a serious collection of blues, jazz and 'cool' music (think male / female vocals, bass groove,, sax etc) in CD, vinyl and DVD/BD formats.

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Also in attendance were LuckyDog, Norpus and Spearmint. So the five of us settled in for a cleansing beverage and pizza and did a little catching up as I hadn't seen a couple of these guys in recent times. Then it was time to fire up the system.

And spectacular it was. Detailed and punchy as needed, soft and delicate when called for. I took a few of my favourite discs along and Shelby Lynne and Geoff Achison sounded as a good as I have ever heard them.

Unfortunately I had to call time on the evening just as the turntable and surround DVDs were firing up. I did catch one DVD, the 2010 Crossroads Blues Festival and the sound and vision of a Gary Clark Jnr track was stunning. I am sure the neighbours enjoyed it as well!

Fields Group

Thanks again for the invite and your generous hospitality Field. I had a ball!

Music purchasing habits

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Probably reflective of the wider community (except those vinyl lovers), I am buying more music downloads than CDs these days. The only CDs I buy now are second hand out-of-print discs, boxed sets, collections and rarities.

When I say music downloads, I really mean high resolution versions where the recording quality / mastering is at a level (or more) above CD quality, and not a lossy MP3 version of CD quality. Therefore, the Apple iTunes Store is not on my purchasing radar.

The reasons for going to high-res digital downloads are pretty clear to me and not limited to the fact that my CD rack is now full!

Whist I have a very good CD player, the mighty Wadia 861SE, the recording quality of the discs are almost not up to quality of the player. Highly compressed music, recorded 'hot' with little dynamic range makes the listening experience not as pleasurable as it could be.

The second reason is portability. Obviously the discs are portable but the Wadia isn't, weighing in at some 22 kilograms. Digital downloads can be played on an iPhone, iPad, iPod, laptop iMac etc, in fact anywhere and on anything that has a headphone socket.

Thirdly, the flip side of point one above, is that much (not all, buyer beware) of the high resolution download material is re-mastered up from 44/16 format found on CDs to 96/24 or higher. The sound has more air, instruments have more separation, and the music tends to flow much more easily. Labels such as Linn Records have outstanding quality recordings even at the 44/24 level, the 'Cover my Blues' album by Pete Alderton is one such fine example. I don't count iTunes downloads as high resolution, even if Apple (and others) tell you that the differences are minimal. Phooey.

And finally, as it seems by my analysis that music downloads are 'better', they are no more expensive and in some cases much cheaper than CDs so that just seals the deal.

So, it sounds perfect right? Well, no so fast. There are plenty of potential gotchas and downsides.

The first is the one that affects all things digital, the lack of tactility. Vinyl records are superb, not just for the sound, but for the feel of the rice paper inner sleeve, the look and feel of the album cover with print you could actually read and as an overall 'thing' it looked and felt substantial. All of the preceding points got dumbed down when the world moved to CD but you still had a tangible 'asset' you could hold after your purchase. Forget all of that with music downloads. Yes, you can download most of the artwork, and some of the liner notes, but depending on your software player, you might not be able to see the cover or read the notes while you are listening.

Music downloads are a bit of a copyright minefield when it comes to lending and sharing your music around. Taking CDs to parties or music get togethers was easy, the portability / format is more tricky with downloads and given some formats it is too easy for 'illegal' copies to be made. So be careful.

As mentioned above, with downloads you don't have anything to hold in your hand as it all resides on your hard drive. And we know what happens to hard drives every now and then don't we? Once downloaded, securing your tracks with adequate backups, offsite storage copies etc is vital or else your growing music download collection can disappear literally in an instant. Most if not all download sites won't replace lost music files. Owner onus applies.

Also, you need to be a bit computer savvy to leverage high resolution downloads effectively. Bit rates, word lengths, DACs, jitter, AES/EBU, gapless playback, hog mode, Toslink, USB, integer mode, up sampling, oversampling, WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC etc all need to be understood at some level to know what you are buying into and to maximise the listening experience.

The final limitation of music downloads is lack of variety or range. Various labels are releasing more and more material as high resolution downloads, the back catalog is pretty limited so one needs to search diligently and be prepared to wait until your preferred artists are available. The flip side of this one is, if you are desperate for some new music, you are tempted to try something new and different, often with joyous results. Again, I am discounting iTunes as a source for quality high resolution music downloads.

There you have it. My music buying patterns, pros and cons in a nutshell.

Here is an interesting and useful resource page for high resolution music downloads courtesy of Weiss High End.

New Music, Audirvana Plus and Audioquest Dragonfly

I downloaded some new HD Tracks albums (by Betty LaVette, Nina Simone, Hoff Ensemble) recently and in order to listen to them 'better', I thought a 15 day free trial of the hi-res Mac OS X music player, Audirvana Plus, would be in order on my new MBP-r laptop.

As for the music, I do like the emotion in Bettye LaVette's voice, the Nina Simone album is a 'classic' and I thought I would try The Hoff Ensemble, 'Quiet Winter Night' based on a review from the Audiostream webzine. I don't have a lot of church-recorded folk-influenced Nordic jazz in my collection, so if nothing else it filled a gap! In all seriousness, it is a very nice recording on the 2L label, very spacious with hauntingly sweet, delicate vocals.

Thankful N ThoughtfulI Put A Spell On YouQuiet Winter Night
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Plus I purchased an Audioquest DragonFly USB DAC for mid-fi listening while surfing the web, doing emails etc. The thing is tiny, but weighty with solid build quality and it is really cool how the dragonfly emblem on top changes colour depending on the bit rate of the song being played. Set up was a breeze on the MacBook Pro.

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My review of the Audirvana / DragonFly combo will come once the USB device has been fully run in, allegedly 200 hours according to reports on Head-Fi. Update: Still running in (slowly), only up to around 150 hours so far. I had a quick listen to ALAC tracks with the Alessandros and was quite impressed… More soon.

In the interim, the Audioquest DragonFly product page is here and a short review from 'What Hi Fi?' can be found here.

Bonkers for Boxed Set Bargains!

One thing about being laid up at home is that the Internet is your friend.

Via Acoustic Sounds in the US, I recently found The Beatles Remastered stereo boxed set at approx 50% off Australian RRP, so I took the plunge. Now I know I have most of the original CDs, plus The Beatles Mono Boxed Set plus the hi-resolution Apple USB stick but I can't resist a Beatles bargain. And the sound quality of the 13 studio albums, plus Past Masters is what you would expect. There is bonus 40 minute DVD containing mini-documentaries of the recording of the 13 albums. Excellent!

Beatles Stereo Set

Then this week, an audio buddy calls me to advise that the new Pink Floyd 'Discovery' boxed set, some 14 albums all remastered is available (locally) for half price. While I am not a card-carrying 'Floydy', I do like a couple of their albums and again it is a bargain. The sound quality is reputedly the best so far on CD but I will have a decent listen and share my views later. Also included is a colour 60 page book as well. Done!

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These are on top of last years Bob Dylan Mono Collection and this Christmas's Paul Kelly A-Z recordings. Phew.

Christmas music & audio goodies

No, not the Yuletide stuff, but musical gifts I received for Christmas.

Paul Kelly
First off is an awesome Paul Kelly boxed set, 'The A to Z Recordings'. some 105 tracks all up recorded live over the period 2004 thru 2010 . Beautifully packaged, the songs on the eight disc set are organised alphabetically starting with 'Adelaide' and ending with 'Zoe'.

All Paul Kelly originals plus collaborations, the music is sparse, consisting usually just Paul and guitar / harmonica with other band members sitting from time to time but Paul's songs and his voice are the main event here not lush productions or stage pyrotechnics.

I am enjoying the older / mature Paul Kelly playing much of his back catalog. The sense of history and place, social justice, and humour shine thru most clearly. Perhaps, a Paul Kelly Greatest Hits might suit listeners new to this artist, but for long term fans, this collection is a gem.


Bill Frisell
The second CD gifted was 'All we are saying...' by Bill Frisell.

This is a jazz guitar led set of covers of John Lennon-penned material. Frisell has been an active jazz / session guitarist for many years with a great sense of phrasing and timing. Frisell has been named 'The Most Influential Guitarist of the Last 25 Years' by the Wall Street Journal so he has some serious credibility and chops.

On this disc, Frisell sets to work diligently on respectful interpretations of 16 Lennon songs from the Beatles, Plastic Ono Band and John Lennon solo catalogs.

While I enjoy the recording quality and individual playing on this disc, it feels a little 'studio-session' like to me. A touch sterile on a set of songs that I always felt were meant to be a little grungier and earthier. One exception is a fine version of 'Mother' where emotion pours out in somewhat stark contrast to the other tracks. As a Beatles addict, this album was a must have, and it is worth it for the recording quality alone.

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The final item is a simple Sennheiser headphone holder. Easily clamped to a shelf, desk or equipment rack it is a cheap, portable and effective way to keep your headphones neat and tidy and always at the ready.

In fact, despite their portability, I am thinking about buying another couple of these just to have them where I 'might' listen to my headphone rig.

Highly recommended!


My Benchmark DAC1 USB Review

My current headphone listening rig comprises a Cambridge Audio DacMagic into a Yamamoto HA-02 headphone amplifier, all fed by hi-res and iTunes ALAC files from a MacBook Pro via KimberKable B Bus Ag USB cable. An audiophilleo2 handles the 192 / 24 USB / SPDIF conversion. An Ear Science PF1 Powerbox is now in place to handle clean power delivery duties. Vibrapods under the Mac and Black Diamond Racing cones supporting the amplifier are controlling any stray vibrations / resonances.

I had a sneaky feeling that the DacMagic was a weak link and that I might also like solid state point of comparison to the tube-based Yammy. So, enter the Benchmark DAC1 USB, acquired second hand (but in mint condition) via the classifieds of my local audio forum.

My software of choice is Fidelia which handles the interface with the Apple Midi Setup environment seamlessly, swapping bit rates and word lengths on the fly while playing hi-res FLAC files (up to 192/24) and Apple iTunes ALAC tracks at 44/16, via an attractive interface which kills the more expensive Pure Music and Amarra products IMHO.

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The Headphone Rig - 2011

The setup process in my headphone system was a breeze once I found the correct adapter to insert the audiophilleo2 into the S/PDIF input. If you can get a product going without reading the manual it is a bonus in my view, and I am a guy so the manual is an A4 paperweight anyway. My secondary uneducated challenge was cycling through the inputs to select my preferred input option. A second or so of patience as you cycle through is rewarded. Too speedy and the signal is never locked on.

And speaking of the unboxing, while it doesn't affect the sonics, the quality of the Benchmark DAC chassis & controls, the packaging materials, supplied accessories and manual all ooze quality and class.

Initial listening was done using my AKG K702, with an aftermarket AudioMinor silver cable. After listening to three different tracks, all at different bit rates it was easy to understand that the Benchmark products were originally designed as a pro audio monitoring tool. The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth flowed through the AKGs. No romance, no bloom, no thumping bass, no take your ears off highs. Just the accurate rendering of what was recorded. I was initially disappointed with the lack of fireworks, but I quickly settled into listening to the music rather than the audiophile artefacts and really started to enjoy the presentation, and forgot about the technologies in play. This is not a product for those who like to use their DAC as a form of tone control.

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Benchmark DAC1 USB - 2011

Without an A/B test to fully evaluate, my sense is that the Benchmark is more balanced and more composed than the DacMagic. The Cambridge Audio DAC is a great budget value-for-money performer but with multiple filters and a presentation that swings between slightly veiled and strident it is unable to match the Benchmark's confident, consistent if slightly clinical output.

I have not yet used the DAC1 USB as pre-amp, but plan to ASAP as I can run the Benchmark's RCA output into my Yamamoto amplifier to get the tube-amp headphone experience and be able to compare the two amplifiers with a standardised DAC front end.

Another use for the Benchmark is for headphone comparisons. Two separate 1/4" plugs enable two different headphones to share the same input / tracks and enable genuine evaluations on the fly. Should help remove the 'memory effect' of swapping / unplugging 'phones when comparing.

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US v Japanese craftsmanship - Benchmark & Yamamoto - 2011

Is there anything not to like about the Benchmark? After a few hours, frankly, not yet. I have read quibbles about the texture of the volume control knob (are you kidding me?), the input selector is slow to lock on (get over it) and the obvious flaw that the product delivers output that is 'uncoloured' (unforgivable...).

There is much to learn about the many features and options built into this compact device. More details and listening impressions to come.

A formal (if a little quirky) Benchmark DAC1 USB review by Home Theatre Hi Fi can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.

My First Watt Aleph J Review

While my beloved valve power amps are off being repaired, I thought I should have a 'reliable' standby power amp for everyday listening / backup. So after some searching and a stroke of luck I was able to purchase a second-hand, factory configured 240v First Watt Aleph J solid state stereo power amplifier from the very pleasant folks at John's Hi Fi Exchange in Melbourne. For an older amplifier (Serial number 011 of 100) which was first introduced in 2005, it is in mint condition with original manual and box and is a credit to the original Sydney owner.

An imposing product, weighing over 10 kilos, sporting two serious side mounted heat sinks and simply purposeful to behold, it contains some 25 Class A watts per channel (30 watts at clipping) this beast runs very warm and sounds, not surprisingly, very much different to my Red Rose Music and Supratek EL34 push / pull amps. But not in the ways you might imagine. And I should add that this is the first solid state amplifier I have had in my system for over a decade.

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Simple front plate - 2011

My current system configuration is the Wadia 861SE, balanced into a Supratek Sauvignon (tube) pre-amplifier running single-ended into the First Watt Aleph J. Cables are Kimber Select interconnects, Kimber Monocle X speaker cables with a Furman providing the power conditioning.

So what is good about the Aleph J? The Aleph J is extremely quiet with a very low noise floor allowing it to dredge the very last ounce of detail out of my recordings. A big plus. This transparency also seems to assist in rendering the intonation of voices extremely nuanced, with even well known discs giving something a little extra with greater vocal articulation. There is no sign of any solid state grain or top end harshness at all. The mid-range is almost tube-like (didn't want to really use that cliche) rendering an overall sound that is extremely smooth and musical. In comparison to my valve amps which can leave the listener with the job of re-creating the musical event in their head (I had previously blamed this sonic trait on the Zu's, my apologies), the Aleph brings the detailed and disparate parts of the recording back to a whole engaging presentation leaving the listener with the simple task of enjoying the music.

Anything not so good? While vocals are extremely detailed, Phil Manning 'Two Roads' sounds a little more hi fi-ish and less like Phil sounds 'live'. Some timbre & richness is missing. Update 1: This has been partially resolved today by increasing the pre-amp gain on the Supratek and the vocals are now slightly warmer with greater timbre and just a bit less articulation. No detail has been lost and the net result is a significant step forward. Surprisingly the Aleph also lacks the PRAT of my previous valve amps. The finger snaps on Patricia Barber 'Ode to Billie Joe' lack sparkle, the guitar and drum attack on SRV's 'Tin Pan Alley' is more reserved. I was expecting more top end clarity and extension lending the feeling of greater dynamics. Maybe this may be improved by some system synergy tweaks as well. Update 2: A change of the Wadia decoding algorithm (from B to A for those in the know 'wink') has improved this area of performance tangibly as well.

Imaging is excellent with plenty of space around the instruments while I would say that the soundstage is only marginally smaller in both width and depth than previously experienced.

Bass response is similar to what I am used to, probably no surprise given the powered drivers on the Zu's.

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Serious heatsinks - 2011

All in all, a very nice, inexpensive, 'collectible' solid state amplifier. It does somethings better and some things worse, and some things different to what I have been used to. My wife Robin sat down with me for a few tracks last night and immediately heard the same differences as I did. We agreed that the overall sound was probably less flattering to good recordings but gave a fairer presentation of lesser ones.

In summary, the overall sound is (now) extremely good, but clearly different to what we had become used to over the last twelve years. What I can say with certainty is that it is a very engaging and listenable amplifier which connects you to the music and doesn't rely on any audiophile pyrotechnics to deliver the goods.

Follow Up - Interestingly, the Aleph J reviews that I have read indicate that speed and top end are strengths of the amplifier. There must be something in the synergy of my rig limiting this. I look forward to fixing it. Time for some serious tuning methinks. Some options include:

- Supratek Sauvignon Pre-amplifier changes

  • Replace SE connectors to Balanced from the pre-amp to Aleph;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Wadia CD player changes
  • Increase the output voltage on the Wadia to lessen the load on the pre-amp;
  • Add caps/plugs to the unused RCA points;

- Environmental changes
  • Run the Wadia direct to the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Aleph;
  • Add some vibration control / cones under the Supratek;
  • Add some speaker spike cups under the Zu's to stabilise the speakers further;

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An early serial number - 2011

A formal review of the First Watt Aleph J by Michael Lavorgna of SixMoons can be found here.

Disclaimer: I have no financial interest in any of the companies / products mentioned. Also my findings and thoughts are based on my ears, my music, in my room, with my BAC level and mental state. YMMV.

Australian A/V & Audio Show

There has not been a dedicated Audio show is Melbourne in recent memory, so a large number of people made their way to the Marriott Hotel in the city over Friday, Saturday, Sunday to get a peek and a listen to some decent audio gear. Also there were some audio royalty in attendance as well. Mr Cabasse, showing off his latest orb-ish / eyeball looking speakers, and Dan D'Agostino, was demoing his new Class D amps and signing autographs as well! It was a very good event I thought. Well organised, reasonably well spread out given the hotel-style restrictions, and feedback I got from several exhibitors was very positive about interest levels, response etc.

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Forget all that fluff, was there anything good?

Well, let me say, without any exaggeration at all, I saw and heard the most impressive piece of audio technology that I have ever seen. The start up company is from the outer suburbs of Melbourne, Kyron Audio, and it was their first product, Gaia Speaker System. Recommend you take a tour of their website. A Dipole design, over five feet tall, twelve bass drivers, four mids and four dome tweeters. Five thousand watts of DEQX DSP managed amplification. Price? About $A160,000. The sound was spectacular, not so much what it did, but what it didn't do. The sound stage and imaging was so vivid, placing the voices and instruments on such a completely black background with seemingly unlimited space and air around. Like nothing I have ever heard before. Music was played via hi-res files from a server.

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Kyron Audio jewellery, poorly represented by an iPhone pic - 2011

Like many of these shows, the music is often played too loud, and tends to be too strident and / or too bass boomy. So the second best room was by Audio Note. Playing some vinyl-based jazz, through big tube mono blocks and their latest Alnico monitors the sound was so cool and smooth, like an oasis in the desert.

I very much enjoyed the Vivid Audio room, with their little B1 I think. Strange, oval looking stand mount thingys, driven by an Esoteric integrated amp and CD player. Very smooth, effortless and engaging. 

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Cute and ccol Vivid Audio speakers - 2011

Best of the rest? One of my favourite local dealers is selling Japanese spec JBL horns, with Ypsilon electronics and a pretty impressive Kuzma Stabi XL2 turntable. A very rich and immersive sound. 

Unfortunately I missed a demo of the Wilson Sashas driven by those D'Agostino amps. Shucks.

All in all an enjoyable three hours spent wandering and listening and chatting. Rumour has it that if successful, the show will alternate annually between Melbourne and Sydney. Sounds like a good reason to take a trip to Sin City every second year.

audiophilleo2

As I explore the complex world of computer-based hi-res audio, the limitations of USB become more obvious. Somewhat DAC and source (computer type / age dependent) but it is not always to get the expected resolution from your source files.

Enter products from companies like JKenny and Audiophilleo. I decided to buy an audiophileo2 low jitter USB S/PDIF transport / converter.

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The audiophilleo2 package (Image source - audiophilleo Website)

Very easy to install, literally plug & play, it effectively mates with the software (in my case Fidelia), the computer (Apple MacBook Pro) and DAC (Cambridge DacMagic) to ensure each track's native bit / sample rate is transferred to your amp then either speakers or in my case, headphones.

The manufacturer / designer who takes a personal interest in his customer's installations, recommends some 200 hours burn-in before the device hits full stride. So I will follow his instructions and delay my thoughts until around that rolls around.

Early listening impressions are promising, with the digital sound presented in a very natural and smooth fashion, making my Grado GS-1000 sound very mellow indeed. Stay tuned!

New Music

While my main system has been idle, my music purchasing has not!

My first stop was to try some high resolution music download sites. Easier said than done from Australia I found. The major site, HDTracks unfortunately does not allow purchases outside the US, but I may have found a workaround and tried a download a 96/24 version of SRV / Albert King 'In Session'... BTW, it is 96/24 AIFF file weighing in at 2.24 GB! Then I tried Linn Records. I had more immediate success and downloaded Pete Alderton's 'Cover My Blues', still only a 44/20 bit recording but outstanding sound quality and a nice acoustic blues set.

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I have discovered SecondSpin.com and CDwow.com as suppliers of discount used and new CDs respectively. Second Spin is US-based but offers really cheap shipping ($6.99 to Oz), while CDWow have keen pricing and free shipping. After several orders from both companies I have not had a single ordering / purchasing / shipping problem. A happy customer!

Because both suppliers have a wide range of products, you can indulge some of your wider musical tastes and come up with just about anything. Here is a sample of my recent purchases by genre:

  • Pop / Rock - Squirrel Nut Zippers, The New Pornographers, Walter Becker, Drive-By Truckers
  • Blues - Walter Trout, Michael Hill's Blues Mob, Delbert McClinton, Bettye Lavette, Chris Whitley
  • Jazz - Ginger Baker Trio, Melody Gardot
Also I found an interesting remastered / reissue of 'The Best of Apple Records' featuring a number of names from the early 70s - including Mary Hopkins, Jackie Lomax, Biliy Preston and Badfinger. And it has an awesome cover image too!

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Updated Headphone System Configuration

With the main rig experiencing some reliability issues, my attention has returned to enjoying some tunes through headphones of music stored on my Apple systems. With the renewed focus has come some new products, configuration and tuning.

My rack is still the three shelf Spider Rack, using just two shelves which have granite blocks resting on the rubber 'feet'. The top shelf has three VibraPods supporting the laptop, with the Yamamoto and DacMagic side by side on the second granite shelf below, again resting on rubber 'feet'.

A late 2009 Apple MacBook Pro (Intel Core2Duo) is my source for ALAC files (stored in iTunes) and for higher resolution music stored in a separate library, accessible by other programs. As reported a week ago, my preferred music player for the Mac is Fidelia. It handles both iTunes and other hi-res file types and is very simple to use.

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Kimber Silver USB (left) and Red Rose Music Silver RCA (right)

I connect the MBP to a Cambridge DacMagic via USB. This has been another change in as much as I used to use a 'vanilla' (meaning cheap) computer USB cable. Thought I would experiment with a 'better' one so bought a Belkin 'Gold' USB cable for less than $A20 and it probably sounded better but not much. Fortunately I was speaking to a Kimber Cable distributor buddy who gave me Kimber 'Silver' USB cable to try. For a reasonable cost ($A150-ish from memory) it sounds much better, especially in the bass. It is a keeper.

I had reasonable after-market RCA connectors between the DacMagic and the Yamamoto power amp, but I was able to free up my 'old' Red Rose Music Silver Litz cables and they added a degree of speed and clarity over the previous copper RCAs. Another worthwhile change.

All the listening up to this point was with the new AKG K 702 headphones as I am trying to understand their strengths and weaknesses in my system, to my ears. Also I have only been using the stock cable, which according to the seller, had only about 10 hours on it before it arrived here, but must be getting closer to 25 hours now I am guessing. Observations over at Head-Fi suggest the K701/702s need 300 hours to sound their best...

So I think there is more to come with the Kimber USB cable to burn in a little and the stock cable also to get a little better with more hours on it. Then I can plug in the AudioMinor silver AKG cable to see where that leaves me with the overall sound.

So far the sound is pretty good. The K 702s strength is one overall competence. Good balance from top to bottom, they are an easy 62 ohm load to drive (although they supposedly sound even better when fed by more powerful amps) and are very comfortable to wear for extended sessions. My major gripes with the AKGs are that they can be a bit 'bland' (the flip side of broad competence, no highlights) and they don't seem to project a large image so far. Once I believe there is nothing more to come from the AKGs, I look forward to comparing them with my Sennheiser 600s and Grado GS-1000, both of whose sound I am much more familiar with.

Future changes? I have some work to do to get the hi-res files playing via USB out of the MBP. So I have ordered an Audiophilleo 2 USB/S/PDIF converter which will give me up to 192/24 from my DAC. Should sound pretty good. Another obvious upgrade would be to try some improved power supply / conditioning / isolation for the Yamamoto & DacMagic. A very 'easy' tweak to test would be to remove the power cord from the laptop to assess if running on battery power alone does anything to the computer's output signal. Finally to be honest, the DacMagic is probably the weakest link in my headphone system chain, but what to replace it with is the $A1500 to $6500 question. Sensible upgrades could start with a Benchmark, DAC1 then you could step up to a battery powered Red Wine Audio Isabella or go the whole hog and get a Weiss DAC 202 with firewire connection and an inbuilt solid state headphone amplifier. How deep are my pockets...

I see lots of enjoyable headphone listening in my future!

Hi Res - The Decision

Following on from my original post in December, I have continued to review my options for adding high resolution audio playback from my Apple MacBook Pro laptop and for audio files of greater resolution than 44.1 kHz / 16 bit.

After a little more listening and much more guesswork, I dropped a lazy $A20 on the program 'Fidelia' by Audiofile Engineering. Why I hear you ask?
  • Fidelia is tangibly cheaper than all of the other 'paid' applications (Amarra, Pure Music)
  • A far simpler licensing scheme than the complexity / upgrade limitations of Amarra
  • Fidelia is actively developed and far better supported than all of the 'free' applications (Decibel, Play, AyreWave etc)
  • Overall, the SQ is clearly superior to iTunes and very similar to the major competitors to my ears
  • Native FLAC support means simple 'Click and Play' for FLAC & other hi-res formats
  • Built on OS X foundations and integration and delivers a very simple and intuitive interface with adequate iTunes integration
  • The Fidelia architecture allows Apple (AU) & VST plug-ins to be used as and when required

Fidelia Screen Shot

Having tried many alternatives over the last six months or more, I find Fidelia clearly the best option for me.

I loaded and tested the trial versions of the other products and had great trouble in the trial window period, understanding the interface, finding my tracks, ensuring the Apple MIDI interface switched correctly etc. To be honest, my objective listening tests of Amarra and Pure Music were impacted by my subjective assessments of their usability.

I have not optioned up to the Advanced version of Fidelia as I manage the environment on my laptop (HOG mode less important) and as I listen via headphones, many or most of the plug ins are less relevant (e.g, room correction) to me.

AKG K 702 Headphones

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There is a danger of surfing Flea Bay as temptation awaits at very click...

One of my longer term headphone ambitions is to explore a balanced audio solution from source to DAC to amplifier to headphone. I can support the source / DAC side with my Wadia 861SE, the amp today is an unknown and from a 'phones POV, my Sennheiser 600 have a removable cable which can be replaced with a balanced version. But I wanted more options!

A pair of AKG K 702 came up for bid with an after market (single ended) silver cable from AudioMinor. Short answer, I made a bid and I won. Early days but my observations are 'interesting'.

Straight out of the MacBook Pro, the sound was extremely fine. Smooth, balanced, punchy a real treat. Not what I was expecting frankly. The comfort of these 'phones is a delight also. Firm enough to feel like they wouldn't flap around, but loose enough to make extended listening sessions pleasant indeed. Some AKG fans don't like the black finish of the 702, but I find them attractive and the quality materials I am sure will be long wearing.

With my expectations re SQ now through the roof, I plugged the MBP/Fidelia combo into the DacMagic and the Yamamoto, and... what happened? The whole sound was 'flatter', slower and less engaging. More work to evaluate and understand I'm afraid. I did try the 702s with my HeadRoom Cosmic portable solid state amp out of the MBP as well. No better. Hmmmm.

I haven't tried the aftermarket cable yet. I would rather get my hands and head around the basic AKG K 702 signature first.