Friday, November 2, 2012

International Sound & Sight Exhibition 2012

It's that time of the year again - for Singapore's major hi-fi show, International Sound  & Sight Exhibition (ISSE for short).

Being somewhat crowd adverse, I paid a visit on the first day of ISSE, which would be less crowded, being a Friday.

The reception level contained the larger exhibition halls, with the bigger systems usually setup in larger acoustic spaces.



First visit was to High End Research's room.

The Wilson Audio Alexia standing guard over the Pass Lab monoblocks
Wilson Audio's Alexia was being driven by Pass Lab monoblocks paired with an Audio Research Reference 10 preamplifier. The source was a Mac computer, feeding an EMM Labs DAC. In fact, quite a number of exhibitors were showcasing computer audio based setups.

The system was being played a bit too loud for my liking, with the usual hi-fi demonstration type of tracks. It was very dynamic and incisive, perhaps a bit too much so for my taste.

As it was close to a scheduled live performance, I made a detour for Z Yan's live performance.


She has a lovely rich voice that belies her petite frame. Her bossa nova style of singing in Chinese is quite unique. I truly enjoyed the experience, and picked up a copy of her CD on the way out.

Back to the lobby rooms for a quick look-see.

Voxativ speakers with an analogue front end




The TAD speakers were playing some choral music when I walked in, and the purity of tone and effortless reproduction was breath taking. Some other tracks were not so convincing, and the simpler types of music fared better in my short time there.

Going off to the 7th floor, where the smaller exhibition rooms were, I was impressed by the more consistent quality of the systems compared to past shows, where exhibitors persistently showcased large speakers that overwhelmed the acoustic space of the tight hotel rooms.

Poon of Horizon Acoustics gamely posing for a photo

Amplification duties handled by Modwright

Source duties handled by an Ayon CD player fed into an Antelope DAC. The Resonessence Labs Invicta DAC on the right was not playing when I was in the room.
The Nola speakers in Horizon Acoustic's room were performing well and left a good starting impression for me as I started my tour of the seventh floor.

Sky Audio - ALR Jordan speakers, D & T electronics and a Macbook playing computer audio
Sky Audio's room get's honourable mention for most surprising system. The D & T amplifiers were only rated at 60 watts per channel. Somehow, the ALR conveniently forgot that it was a small speaker and sounded big with more bass than it's dimunitive size would suggest. Steve Sai shared with me some of his views on tweaking, as well as the principles behind the latest version of his self-built range of cabling.

ASI electronics and Entreq power distributor and ground conditioner. Speakers are aliens from a far away planet standing very still and hoping to blend into the environment.
Sound Decisions - Da Vinci DAC, Electrocompaniet amplification and Thiel CS 2.7 speakers
Sound Decisions was demonstrating the brand new Thiel CS 2.7, which sounded significantly better than the CS 2.4 as well as I remember.Sammy Low, principal of Sound Decisions admonished me gently for not visiting for a while. In typical Thiel fashion, the 2.7 was clean, detailed, and simply passing on the message from upstream components. Sound Decisions is an official distributor of Stressless recliners that seemed to captivate many a listener, some of which ended up seemingly stuck to the chair on a molecular level.

X Audio - Brodmann speakers matched with MSB DAC and Octave amplification.

X Audio's second room - Accustic Arts electronics with Brodmann speakers.
Audio Basic - Aurelia speakers with the Calyx Femto DAC paired with Trigon electronics.

Steven Cheah of Audio Basic posing with the Aurelia Cerica. Perched behind, on the shelf is the Telos Alpha Wave generator.
Audio Basic had a very nicely tuned system with the Aurelia Cerica sounding excellent - far better than the previous two occasions I head them at Audio Basic's showroom. Steven also demonstrated the just launched Telos Alpha Wave generator. The crowd was suitably impressed, with a flattening of perspectives, and the soundstage moving forward and shrinking each time the Alpha Wave generator was switched off.

Some other very good sounding setups were also heard, with the Verity Audio speakers impressing with its excellent level of detail and naturalness.

Unfortunately, a scheduled appointment meant that I could not spend time listening to all the systems in detail, and I wrapped things up after 2 and a half hours at ISSE.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Aurelia Cerica - Quick Impressions

The first things that strikes you about the Aurelia Cerica is its unusual looks.Unlike most speakers, the Aurelia is slim and quite attractive to the eye - both for the Audiophile and the unafflicted. The sample I saw one early afternoon at the local dealer was finished in gloss white.

The next thing you will notice is its unusual driver arrangement, which has a symmetrical array of two mid-bass units flanking a cluster of three tweeters. The tweeters appeared to be recessed in a shallow wave guide.

On the rear panel of the speakers,are a single pair of high quality binding terminals, and a presence switch. The dealer explained that this controlled the high frequency output, with the "hi" position recommended for tube amplification, and the "lo" position for solid state systems.




Firing up the Cerica, the immediate impression is one of both coherence and immediacy. The full range driver crowd will feel right at home here. The second thing that impresses is the size of the speaker's imaging and soundstaging.

The Cerica has a very "live" and fast sound, and is quite different from the typical audiophile speaker which sounds more damped, and drier. Vocals take center stage, with a big emphasis on vocal texture and inflection. Listeners who like their vocals presented with laser focused precision are advised to look elsewhere. Music is presented with a very big and dynamic feel, more akin to a live performance, compared to listening to a recording over studio monitors.

Detail retrieval is excellent, with low level spatial clues coming across clearly. High frequencies are "wetter" than normal, with a strong emphasis on reproduction of acoustic space. I felt that its presentation was a little bit too bright, which could be an issue with partnering equipment - I heard them driven by a full set of Trigon electronics. Perhaps, a longer audition with softer sounding equipment is in order.

The Cerica has limited bass though, with no sonic illusions that the Cerica is a bookshelf speaker. Fortunately, the limited bass on offer is at all times, fast, tuneful and tight.

In conclusion, the Cerica is quite different in its presentation from the typical audiophile speaker, and may not suit all taste. However, listeners who demand a lively, dynamic and detailed speaker, with looks that need no excuses are well advised to give the Cerica a serious audition. In gloss white, the Cerica would blend in perfectly in modern styled homes.

Pricing is also competitive. My guesstimate of the Cerica's price pleasantly turned out to be more than 30 % off the mark.

Part Two

A week after the initial audition, I returned to the dealer who had re-positioned the speaker as well as the spare equipment around it. It happened to be playing when I dropped by and I immediately noticed that the speaker sounded totally different from my first audition.

The speaker sounded neutral, without any hint of brightness which I experienced earlier. The partnering equipment was identical - looks like this speaker requires a bit of setup to make it sing. Bass output was much more, far more than its cabinet size would suggest. On the downside, I felt that the immediacy and vibrancy was better the first time round.

Part Three

I just heard this at the International Sight and Sound Exhibition 2012. It sounded really great in the small hotel room, with both deep, extended bass, and an immediate midrange coupled with extended high frequencies. In fact, the Cerica sounded much better compared to the earlier two occasions I listened to it.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Darkz Footer (updated on 21 April 2014)



The Darkz footer is a new footer from Ansuz Acoustics. The footer is made out of 3 stacked circular aluminium discs with 3 ceramic ball bearings coupling the discs, i.e. there is a total of 6 ceramic ball bearings per footer.

The top and bottom discs have a further 3 circular depressions, to aid stacking if you wish to do so. You will obviously need to find an additional 3 ball bearings to do so, although none are provided. The whole assembly is sealed and the discs and ball bearings all stay in place.

The assembly can be opened by carefully applying some pressure to the central column and rotating the top and bottom halves in opposite directions. The two halves are coupled via a finely threaded rod.


The footer on test here is the base aluminium model in the line-up. More expensive models include a ceramic coated model, and a diamond coated one. In any event, the aluminium model sells for a not modest sum - S$500 for a set of four.

I initially intended to use all four footers, but settled on using three instead. Using four footers was an uphill battle, involving copious amounts of paper as shims to try and balance out the footers perfectly. In this respect, I am far fonder of height adjustable footers, like the Finite Elemente Cerabase.

My evaluation of this footer ended up taking far longer than usual, as it ended up under a whole  variety of equipment, including my mains distributor, DAC, preamp, poweramp, and even my Entreq Tellus grounding conditioner.

The Darkz consistently added a focused precision to music, with instruments and voices being very specific and pin point. There was also an increased sense of texture and decay. Soundstaging was presented in a more distant manner, which helped increase the feeling of depth in the system. On the downside, the overall tonal balance was leaner. The reduction of midrange warmth, together with the accentuation of leading edges tended to emphasize sibilance in my system. I also felt that the increased decay resulted in a perception of reduction of speed. In simpler tracks, with just a female singer, accompanied by a Piano, this was observed as a reduction is impact and scale of left hand notes, and a leanness in the female voice.

The above observations generally held true for most of the equipment I tried the Darkz with. After extended listening sessions, I eventually preferred my system without the Darkz, as I did not feel that the tonal balance of my system was going the right way.

After some head scratching, I decided to disassemble the Darkz and place small strips of fo.Q (TA-52) damping tape on the inner facing sides of the top and bottom discs. This reduced the slight glare and leanness of the stock Darkz. As like all other tweaks, your mileage may vary.

Close two years after the initial review, the local distributor for Ansuz, Giraffe Signature suggested that I give a five and four tier Darkz a try, as well as experiment with additional ceramic balls between the footer and the component being supported. To facilitate this, I was passed a bag full of ceramic balls (plenty to try out almost every configuration possible), and a five tier Darkz.

Four tiers with additional ceramic balls on top

Four tiers - make your own by disassembling your spare Darkz footer

Five tiers - the unfinished central column suggests that this is a prototype rather than a finished product
As I have long given up trying to balance 4 pieces of Darkz, I instead tried a set of three under my Cary CD-500. I also tried some of these configurations under a friend's tube integrated amp in his setup.

Stock Footer (Three tiers)

I tried this again to refresh my memory and my impressions were not changed. The stock footer was simply too analytical for my taste.

Three Tiers with additional ceramic balls

Add in three ceramic balls on top of each footer and this is a wholly different ball game (pun intended). There is an improvement in smoothness, bloom and length of decay. I still felt that there was a slight bit of an edge to music, but it was still a massive improvement over the stock footer.

Four Tiers

A lower noise floor with a smooth, articulate and nice bloomy sound. Any previous complaints were now complete forgotten.

Five Tiers

Even longer decay and shockingly low noise floor. This is my favourite configuration. It worked very well also in my friend's setup.

Five Tiers with additional ceramic balls

I felt that this improved edge definition but that slight hardness was back. Some guys would like this combination, as it offered the best of both worlds (at a price), but I preferred the glare free sound of the Four Tier and Five Tier configuration. So did my friend when we tried it in his setup.

Final Thoughts

The above configurations are well worth exploring for Darkz users. Moving from one stack level to the next mainly affected the noise floor, resolution, articulation and length of decay. It was interesting to note also that the staging and tonal balance was quite similar once you hit a three tier level with additional ceramic balls.

Perhaps Ansuz should have launched the product as a four or five tier footer from the beginning ? Well, better late than never.




Thursday, July 19, 2012

Schitt Lyr Headamp

Holy Schitt !

I just put some money down for the Schitt Lyr. The distributor, Audio Iconic is presently out of stock, with a new shipment coming in at the end of the month.

Owners of hard-to-drive orthodynamic headphones are probably already very familiar with the Lyr, which boasts 6 watts of power, and 40 volts output capability into a 32 ohm load. Actually my Audeze LCD-2 Rev 1 is relatively easy to drive as far orthodynamic headphones go, but the Audeze / Lyr pairing is quite often recommended on forums, so I thought I would check it out.

A quick listen (across 3 tracks) with the distributor's LCD-2 Rev 2, to the bottom rung Asgard and the Lyr indicated that the Lyr was the way to go. I was hoping to save a bit of money, but it was not meant to be. The Asgard sounded too smooth and flat, with a lack of dynamics and bite. The Lyr had a wetter and more prominent bass, with a relatively dry top end sparkle that matches well with the Audeze which can sometimes sound a little bit dark. I love tube equipment, so secretly, maybe I was hoping that I would be "forced" to choose the Lyr. Well, as a matter of clarification, the Lyr is a hybrid unit, combining a MOSFET stage and two dual triode ECC88 tubes.

Both units had no problem with volume. Even with the Asgard, I never made it past the 12 o'clock mark. Strangely, the Asgard had a faint high pitched whine that could be heard during faint passages. It was not a grounding issue, because the unit is dead silent when no music was being played. The Lyr was problem free during the short audition.

Of notable mention for the Lyr, is its ability to be used as a preamp. I will be sure to put the Lyr through its paces when I eventually receive mine. It was due to arrive a few weeks after my audition, but is probably more like to arrive sometime at the end of September.

Fast forward to mid October, and after considerable delay, stock of the Schitt finally arrived in Singapore. There was momentary panic at the dealer's shop, when I opened up my Schitt Lyr box, only to find a Valhalla unit inside. Luckily, there was another box of the Lyr available, which had been packed without mishap.

After considerable run-in, the Lyr was put through its paces with my Beyer DT-880 (250 ohm version) and my Audeze. The most striking impression of the Lyr is heat. This is one hot amp ! The heat is primarily on the right side of the unit, and you could probably toast marshmallows at the same time while listening to music. The second most striking thing is unlimited drive capability. No jokes about the current and voltage dumping capability. You will toast your cans and ears way before you run out of juice.

Pairing with the Beyer is pleasant. Beyer users will know that the DT-880 can sometimes sound overly analytical and bright. The slight richness of the Lyr will put that right, as well as adding a nice wallop to the bass where it it sorely needed. I was not able to compare the Lyr with the competition, having only an ageing Original Master headamp for comparison. The Lyr easily smoked the Original Master on all usual audiophile aspects such as dynamics, resolution and staging.

Moving on to the Audeze, things really start cooking (metaphorically, not literally). Despite the creamy and slightly rich balance of the Lyr, the Audeze pairs nicely with the Lyr. Let's face it - the Audeze is dark sounding. Switching between the Beyer and Audeze always needs a few minutes of adjustment. Once you are over that, you get the most impressive and natural drum and piano notes. The sense of soundstaging which is far beyond the confines of your head remind you of why you started loving ortho cans in the first place.

With my limited experience in the headphone world, there could be better matches with the Audeze, but the Lyr suits me just fine.

Oh, and before I forget, the preamp function is merely functional - get a proper preamp.







Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Calyx Femto DAC


Introduction




The Calyx Femto is the latest DAC from Digital & Analogue, the wonderful Korean company that brought us the 24/192 DAC and the Coffee DAC and headamp.

I loved my 24/192 DAC, but wished it had more inputs. The Femto is obviously the answer to that and much more. Based on the ESS Sabre 9018 DAC chip, the Femto is a full sized component  with all the inputs that you could ask for.

At a price multiple of the 24/192, the Femto has to deliver much more to earn its share of the Audiophile wallet.

Features

The Femto is a massively chunky and heavy unit. You need to personally lift it to feel its 18.5 kg weight and massive solid aluminum panels. Somehow, pictures do not convey the true size of the unit - it is much bigger than it looks. Measure your rack space carefully before purchasing !

Of particular interest are its feet, which are lined with cork, and its power button, which is discreetly located on the left hand side of the unit. I seldom switch off my digital equipment, and relocating the power button from the front panel leaves the fascia of the Femto looking clean, sleek and uncluttered.



The Femto is beautiful, elegant and sophisticated in a very understated way. With matching beauty and brains, my Femto would be ideal marriage material if she were human (I’ve decided my Femto is female).

Lest I forget, the matching remote control is also finished from solid aluminum, and has sufficient weight to cause serious damage to intruders. I wonder sometimes whether Calyx has some secret deal with an aluminium mining company and/or a CNC factory, because they are certainly liberal in their use of material.

As suggested by its name, the Femto’s main feature is its super accurate clock that has its accuracy measured in femtoseconds. A femtosecond is one quadrillionth, or one millionth of one billionth of a second. Mathematics was never my forte, so I will leave you to ponder exactly how miniscule that is.

Instead of a single Sabre 9018 chip as used in the 24/192, the Femto uses twin 9018 chips. The Femto also gains two onboard linear power supplies that separately power the digital and analogue sections of the Femto. In comparison, the 24/192 relies on either the 5V supply from the source’s USB bus (never a good idea!), or a switched mode wall wart. Calyx must have realised that, since the 24/192 now ships with an in-house designed linear power supply as standard.

The Femto has enough digital inputs to cater for almost every need. Twin inputs are provided for coaxial ,optical and AES/EBU, while a sole BNC input is also provided. Computer audiophiles are taken care off by a single USB input which accepts signals up to 24/192 resolution and sampling rate.



The front panel buttons manipulate a digital volume control, phase inversion and digital filter settings (which actually sets the low pass filter at 50, 60 or 70 kHz - 50 kHz was used throughout my listening sessions).

On the output side, both single ended and balanced outputs are provided.

The front display thoughtfully displays all relevant information, such as the input selected, sampling rate (a very important and often overlooked function), volume and polarity.




First Impressions

Unboxing the Femto was a pleasure. The double boxed packaging and accompanying foam lining are sturdy enough to withstand serious punishment and can be re-used a number of times without too much issue.

The manual is a bit sparse though, with no explanation of the digital filter settings, as well as obvious errors, such as reference to installing drivers on the supplied CD-ROM (which could not be found after some frantic searching). In any event, Mac users do not need to install any.

The Femto needs plenty of run-in. Out of the box, it sounded decent enough, although a bit lacking in bass authority. On the top end, it also sounded a bit dry.

Detailed Impressions

After about 100 hours under its belt, the Femto was put through its paces. Both its USB and BNC inputs were used, with the computer audio source being a 2011 Mac Mini (with 8 GB of RAM) running Pure Music 1.84. Traditional disc spinning duties were tasked to my Cary CD-500. The Cary’s upsampling feature is sent through its digital output, so this feature was disabled to eliminate unnecessary variables.

I noticed that the 24/192 truly shines through its USB input, with its coaxial input a distant second. In respect of the Femto, this is still the case, although the gap in performance is less. No need to make excuses for SPDIF performance here.

Coming from the 24/192, the differences are immediately discernible. After extended listening, and time for the brain and ears to become comfortable and process the information, it is obvious that the Femto is not a case of a DAC cut from the same cloth of its sibling, but is altogether a different animal.

The first thing that grabs you is the precision of soundstage, and the acoustic reverberation surrounding each instrument and voice. The depth and height of the soundstage are exceptional. The Femto excels in both microdetail and dynamics. Its focus and grip are never lost, and the finest touches are clearly discernible even during busy mixes.

The tonal balance of the Femto would be best described as slightly sweet, with a solid bass foundation. It can also be said to be “brilliant” sounding, with a certain shine and airiness in the upper frequencies. I would not consider it to be bright, but the Femto would never be described as dull sounding ! Subjectively, the Femto gives the impression of having no constraints at either end of the frequency spectrum, with an open and unforced quality.

Low frequencies are well controlled and extended. In terms of slam, the Femto shows you its pedigree compared to the 24/192 with more authority, bloom and warmth in the bass. 

In conveying the human voice, the Femto continues in the family mould, with both detail and the right amount of sweetness and warmth.

In my system, the high frequencies were incredibly extended, and the combination with the inverted beryllium dome tweeter in my Focal speakers were clean and free from strain and harshness.

I believe that any further comparisons between the 24/192 and the Femto would be meaningless. The 24/192 should not be treated as a Femto-lite at a lower price. Both units are in totally different classes, and a side-by-side audition should not be made between the two, unless you are willing to commit to the budget required for the Femto.

The Femto, despite its sheer amount of micro detail, cleverly sounds natural at all times and is fatigue free. I felt that it was able to put recordings in their best light, and not be constrained by the quality of the recording. That being said, it is by no means veiled – give it a well recorded high resolution file, and it simply shines !

I like to listen to jazz , classical music and vocal works. The Femto is especially suited for my music taste. Two artists that I am particular fond of, are Patricia Barber and the late Eva Cassidy.

Patricia Barber's performance of Santana's Black Magic Woman (from her album - Companion) is electrifying and hair raising. The intricacy of the drum and electric guitar work, especially the solo parts are laid out with great transparency and energy. Eva Cassidy's recording of her live performance at the Blues Alley is one of my favourite albums and never fails to move me emotionally.I am happy to report that the Femto sounds incredible with both, from a technical and artistic viewpoint. 

As clich├ęd as it may sound, the Femto allowed me to rediscover my music collection. Simply put, the Femto makes recordings sound real and lifelike. The immediately emotional response is not about the usual hi-fi superlatives, but more the feeling of being at the recording venue, immersed in the music.

Conclusion

I was somewhat apprehensive that the move from the 24/192 to the Femto would bring only marginal improvements. After all, we are all familiar with the law of diminishing returns – and the 24/192 already brings so much to the table. A short session at the dealer with a side-by-side comparison was sufficient for me to take the plunge.

It was a pleasant surprise, that the Femto would bring such a substantial improvement to my system. I would generally be hesitant to describe a product of this price as a bargain, but the Femto truly is one.

So far, in my hi-fi journey, I’ve had two breakthrough moments. 

The first was my acquisition of my Focal Micro Utopia Be – it changed my idea of the limits of dynamic driver performance, especially in respect of its tweeter performance. 

The second was the basic room treatment done to my listening room – it made me realize the strong influence of the room, and its importance relative to the equipment sitting in the rack. 

You may put down the Femto as my third  – an elevation of source quality to unimagined heights.

I cannot speak of how the Femto compares to other high-end players in the digital space, but do check out the Femto if you are looking in that price range.


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Elgar Cello Concerto, Sea Pictures - Jacqueline Du Pre / Dame Janet Baker

Elgar: Cello Concerto; Sea Pictures

I have had this CD for almost 20 years, and without a doubt, this would be my single "desert island disc". Now, I am sure desert islands have neither electricity, nor hifi equipment, but let us not get distracted.


This is probably Jacqueline Du Pre's most well known recording, and its commercial popularity probably means that many of you readers would already have a copy.


Despite its less than stellar recording, the sure emotive power of the performance has always captivated me, and after the first few bars, you ceased to care about the recording quality (which is actually decent but not excellent).


HD Tacks is now offering a 2012 remastered version in high resolution. After having been burnt by some of their high resolution offerings that sounded far worse than my red book CD versions, I had two minds about buying this.


Eventually curiosity took the better of me, and I made the plunge. Thankfully, the remastered version is wonderful ! Apart from the improved clarity and dynamics, the noise floor is so much lower. From a soundstaging perspective, it is also a lot closer and intimate. Du Pre's cello occupies a far bigger acoustic space, compared to the distant pin point imaging of the original recording.






Mercury Living Presence - Boxed Set


I got a mail from my lovely receptionist girls on a package that has just arrived for me. Talk about fast. Nine days - from the time of placing my order to delivery from the UK to Singapore.


Despite already owning some of the recordings in this set, the pricing at GBP 66 (inclusive of delivery to Singapore) from Amazon UK, was simply too good to resist. Just a handful of the recordings in this set would already justify the asking price. Considering that many have been out of print, and were being sold for ransom-like figures, this is a god send to classical music lovers.

50 CDs are included in the set, including a bonus CD which includes an interview with Wilma Cozart Fine, the vice president of Mercury responsible for production of the series in the past.


Whether you are just starting out in classical music, or you are serious enthusiast, this set is simply a must have.

You can have a look at the complete list of recordings (and even sample some of the tracks) at http://www.deccaclassics.com/cat/single?PRODUCT_NR=4783566



Sunday, May 27, 2012

Acrolink 7N-S1000III and 7N-S1400III Speaker Cable

Introduction

The Acrolink 7N-S1000III and 7N S-1400III are part of Acrolink's new line up of cables for 2011, and also an introduction of 7N purity copper into their lower range of cabling.

Utilising similar geometry to their predecessors, the S-1000 / S-1400 have two widely spaced conductors in a flat shaped dielectric. Looking at the design, this will most likely result in fairly high inductance but very low capacitance.

The main difference between the S-1000 and S-1400 is conductor gauge, the S-1400 having more than double the number of strands of copper in each conductor leg.

S-1000III - Picture from official website

S-1400III - Picture from official website


Sound Quality

Acrolink users are unlikely to encounter any surprises here. Great midrange, with excellent high frequency extension and control, with emphasis on the "air" around instruments and the sense of acoustic space.

The S-1000III subjectively sounds faster than the S-1400III. The latter has a harmonically rich mid-bass and fuller human voice. Image sizes are also larger compared to the S-1000III which is more pin point. On female vocals in particular, sibilance is well handled by the S-1400III, which has a smoothness that tends to reduce sibilance.

In terms of setup, the S-1000III is easier to match partnering equipment in most setups. Care is needed with the S-1400III to avoid a loss of speed and excessive mid-bass.

I never had the 6N S-1000II in my setup, but based on the S-1400, the change from 6N to 7N conductors brings about improvement in micro detail, high frequency extension and control. Otherwise, the cables are more an evolution than a revolution in character.

Termination

A word of warning on termination. I bought the S-1400III pre-owned. The previous owner had terminated it in gold banana plugs (the manufacturer of which shall remain un-named). I thought that the cable sounded rythmically slow and overly warm. High frequency detail and extension were also obscured compared to the S-1000III and even my old set of 6N S-1400II.

Re-terminating the connections with Oyaide spade (SPSL) and banana plugs (SRBN) brought speed and clarity back to the cable. The SPSL spades are made of brass, and plated with silver, followed by platinum. The SRBN are also made of brass, but plated with silver, followed by rhodium.

The only other experience I had with dramatic differences in termination, was with the Mogami 2803, which greatly favoured Eichmann Bullet Plugs over other quality terminations like the Neutrik Pro-Fi.

So folks, please pay attention to your terminations for this cable.

Conclusion

The 7N series is a great upgrade for existing users of the older 6N series. If you are new to the Acrolink line, a trial before purchase is warranted as the balance and character may not be for everyone.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Footer shootout - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Revised on 4 Nov 2014)




On test here are the following gunslingers,

1. Aurio's Classic
2. Cold Rays
3. Finite Elemente Ceraball Universal
4. Finite Elemente Cerabase Classic
5. Finite Elemente Cerabase Compact 
6. Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic
7. Golden Sound's DH Cones and Squares
8. Herbie's Tenderfoot
9. Herbie's Isocup with Black Lamp Ball
10. Kryna C-PROP Mini / D-PROP Mini
11. Magic Hexa
12. Stillpoints Ultra Mini
13. Stillpoints Ultra SS (New) 
14. TAOC TITE-46GP
15. Valab ball bearing footer
16. Yamamoto Sound Craft PB-09 / PB-10 Ebony base

Aurios Classic



Unlike its namesake, the Aurios cannot be dunked in milk, or eaten. But like Oreo cookies, the Aurios are made out of two circular halves, with the goodstuff in between. 3 steel ball bearings take the place of the sweetened white cream in the cookie version.The steel bearings sit in a circular race, with a plastic triangular guide to hold the 3 ball bearings in place.

Out of all the devices featured here, the Aurios have the dubious honour of being the most unstable. Components are able to roll around a fair bit, and I’ve had to dive to save some equipment when I placed the Aurios a bit too close for comfort near the perimeter of the equipment’s chassis. This does pose a problem if you place it under a CD player, as pushing buttons results in a bit of wobbly jelly effect, although the problem is less noticeable under heavy equipment.

The Aurios are very extended at both ends of the frequency spectrum. Bass is superbly tight and defined, and ambience retrieval at the top end is outstanding. Overall, the sound takes on a very projected and focussed quality. Its fly in the ointment is its high frequency quality, which can be artificial and fatiguing. Separation and control is also a bit lacking with cymbal work sounding a bit messy. The other ball bearing footers on test here, the Cold Rays and the Ceraball have both extension and better control.

Cold Rays




This is a ball bearing footer with a difference. The Cold Ray features a bell shaped top that sits on top of a ball bearing (you have a choice of either a steel or ceramic ball - the on test here is the ceramic ball version). The lower assembly is a solid flat topped cone. The manufacturer claims that the bell shaped top acts as a resonator and limits the amount of vibration that can pass through the footer.

In terms of physical stability, the Cold Ray is most comfortable under heavy loads. With its high center of gravity, the Cold Rays were not stable under lighter equipment. Of other notable interest is that the Cold Rays are the only footer in my system that sounds better with a quartet deployed. This makes levelling the footers a bit difficult, but nothing that cannot be fixed with a bit of 3M post it notes.

Using the Cold Ray can be a bit of a hit-and-miss affair. It did not work well under my tube amp, or DAC, but was great under my Cary CD Player. Balanced throughout the frequency spectrum, it had excellent definition, extension and control. Instrument separation and composure under heavy mixes were outstanding.

Honourable mention should go towards the sense of extension brought by the Cold Ray. It avoids sounding artificial, and has both speed, and natural decay and reverb - which cannot be said for some of the other footers on test here. When it works, the Cold Rays are one of the most impressive footers in this shoot-out.



Finite Elemente Ceraball Universal




A regularly recommended ball bearing footer, the Ceraball from Finite Elemente of Germany is probably one of the most well-known of its breed. Finite Elemente has a whole range of footers based on ball bearing support, including some mean footers that are probably strong enough to support the weight of a very large sized sumo wrestler.

Each model in the Finite Elemente range is suited for a specified range of loads. The Ceraball is the smallest model in their line-up and is suitable for lighter components although each individual footer is able to support up to 40 kg of load. The next model up, the Cerapuc is also a single ball bearing model but designed for heavier loads. The top model, the Cerabase utilises 3 ball bearings. As the name suggests, the ball bearings used in all of Finite Elemente's footers are ceramic. The Ceraball is made of aluminum while its bigger siblings are made of stainless steel.

The Ceraball brings immediate focus and solidity to music. Besides tightening up the bass, midrange becomes clearer. High frequencies are neater also and more extended. Improvements in both transient attack and decay are observed. Compared to the Cold Rays, the Ceraball is drier, with less bloom and weight.

I also had a trio of the top range Cerabase on hand for comparison. The Cerabase has greater potential than the Ceraball. It outperforms the Ceraball but only under heavier loads (in excess of 20 kg). Used under my Cary CD-500 (10 kg load) , its performance was close to its cheaper sibling.

The Cold Rays have greater potential, but the Ceraball delivers more consistent results across a variety of equipment.

In liberal doses, the Ceraball can sound too sharp and clinical. In my system, I usually use no more than one set in a a system.

Finite Elemente Cerabase Classic

The Cerabase Classic is the bigger and meaner version of the Ceraball. The Cerabase is made from stainless steel and uses 3 ceramic balls. It has an optimum weight loading of between 40 to 500 kg of weight (125 kg per footer). The Cerabase Classic is height adjustable which is essential if you are using 4 footers.

The packaging is very comprehensive, including provision of various threaded bolts to allow the Cerabase to replace your stock spike underneath your speakers or equipment rack.

Sound wise, the Cerabase Classic sounds like a grown-up version of the Ceraball, with additional focus, separation and refinement.

Finite Elemente Cerabase Compact

The Cerabase compact is similar to the Cerabase Classic, with a stainless steel assembly and 3 ceramic balls. It has a smaller base, and is shorter. This is useful for large components with limited height clearance.Optimal weight loading is from 20 kg to 150 kg weight. My Conrad Johnson power amp despite being close to 20 kg in weight sounded better on the Cerabase Classic compared to the Cerabase Compact. The house sound is there, but the Compact sounds slightly brighter than the Classic, with slightly less bass and a midrange that is a touch more forward.

Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic

The Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic is a relatively new offering from a young Polish company. It is mechanically quite complex with a top disc with a firm elastomer surface that makes direct contact with the component. The disc in turn is coupled to a single 8mm ceramic ball that rests on a three point holder. Internally, the 8 mm ceramic ball is coupled to an aluminum disc that in turn rests on three 6 mm ceramic balls. The internal construction is quite complex and deserves a separate write-up.

Compared to the Cerabase, the Franc Audio offers a smoother midrange and more organic sounding bass lines. However, separation and focus are as good as the Cerabase. Slightly richer and more "wet" sounding than the Cerabase, the Franc is perfect for those who want detail but a richer and more fluid presentation. Tonality wise, it reminds me of a bigger sounding version of the Stillpoints Ultra Mini.


Golden Sound DH Cones / Squares

An oldie but goodie, the Golden Sound DH Cones / Squares are made from near diamond hardness (hence the name “DH”) ceramic and a graphite composite material respectively.

They can be used separately, but are claimed by the manufacturer to work best together.

You have to experiment with them facing upwards or downwards. I’ve found that using 3 cones almost always works better than 4. They are available in a variety of sizes, but my personal collection consists of the larger sizes, i.e. jumbo and super.

The DH Cones / Squares have in the past served me well under tube amplifiers. However, during tests, they failed to perform under the Calyx 24/192 DAC, sounding thin and confused.

Used under the Cary CD-500, the cones alone resulted in a forward sound, with voices moved closer towards the listener. There were gains in midrange coherence and high end extension. But the bass took on a lean and rhythmically disconnected feel. In the long run, I found the high frequency extension to be metallic and fatiguing. Pairing the cones with the pads brought everything together in harmony. The metallic sheen disappeared and bass bloom and warmth were restored. 

As a combination, the DH Cones / Squares bring gains across the frequency range. They are system dependent and do not work well with lighter equipment.Although they work well when optimised, they are comfortably outperformed by the Ceraball and Cold Rays.

Herbie's Tenderfoot




The Tenderfoot is a square shaped footer made out of a silicon based elastomer formulation. The model here is made out of the older white coloured material. The current model is black in colour.

The Tenderfoot lends a nice roundness and density to the bass and midrange. It generally leaves the top end intact, and does little to add focus and improve microdetail. It is a fairly average performer, which is in line with its low price.

Nothing particularly offensive about the Tenderfoot, but little to write home about either. Its bigger sibling, the Isocup is a much better performer.

Herbie's Isocup with Black Lamp Ball

The Isocup is a circular shaped footer with a concave depression in the center (much like an egg cup), in which sits a matching one inch diameter ball. It used to be available with a variety of ball options, but the current offering is limited to a "Supersonic Hardball".

Equipment does have a tendency to slide a bit with the Isocup. The manufacturer recommends a bit of liquid silicon gasket maker underneath the equipment at point of contact to stop the sliding.

Contrary to my experience with compliant and squishy footers which can sound muffled and slow, the Isocup is bold and vibrant sounding. The Isocup has good dynamics and bass is both more extended and more pronounced. Midrange is smooth but also quite laidback. The Isocup also has modest improvement in high frequency extension. Decent gains are also observed in separation between instruments.

Kryna C-PROP mini / D-PROP mini



A rather interesting footer from Japan, the Kryna is unique in featuring a silicon fluid damped spike resting in a sealed housing. The D-PROP is based on a double metal spike, while the C-PROP is based on a single metal spike in a plastic housing.

Both the D-PROP and C-PROP are sold individually and can be mixed and matched according to your liking. The brochure (only in Japanese) suggests a number of placement configurations based on typical applications. Being unable to read Japanese, I also spoke to the distributor and the instructions seem to suggest use of either the D-PROP or C-PROP depending on whether the footer is being asked to absorb vibration within the component (e.g. transformers, motor spindles), or to prevent shelf vibrations from reaching the component. The D-PROP is suggested to tackle the former, and the C-PROP, the latter.

The brochure I took from a shop in Japan suggests various combinations of the C-PROP and D-PROP under different types of equipment.

Used under my DAC, the Kryna has a refined sound that is quite different from the rest of the footers here. It  has a clear sound that avoids the razor sharp focus of some of its competitors. Initially it sounds somewhat soft, but over long term listening, it becomes obvious that it trades a bit of impact and leading edge definition for body and smoothness. Listeners who find cones and spikes too "sharp" sounding, and compliant footers too slow and mushy would probably like the Kryna - it takes the middle ground between the two.

Magic Hexa

I generally don't like squishy products, but the Magic Hexa is quite firm and large (76mm in diameter and 23mm tall). The honeycomb structure flexes very little when placed under moderate loads (each single disc is rated for a maximum of 12 kg) and its anti-skid surface makes placement easy and fuss-free.

Sound wise, the Magic Hexa adds a good level of focus and increase in resolution. It manages to do this without adding any softness or reduced dynamics. It is also very affordably priced (S$85 for 4). I especially like the fact that the disc is so large that I can use a single piece for brick power supplies and the like. It is by no means the best performer on test but easily the best value for money item.

Stillpoints Ultra Mini

The Stillpoints utilise multiple tiers of ceramic balls inside a sealed housing. They offer moderate height adjustment which is extremely useful when trying to level four cones under equipment.

They are highly sensitive to placement, and it took me months to find an ideal placement under my Conrad Johnson preamp. When used correctly, they offer a marked increase in focus and clarity. Unlike most ball bearing devices, the Stillpoints sound smooth and warm on the top end.

Stillpoints Ultra SS

This is larger version of the Ultra Mini. I found them easier to place compared to the Ultra Mini. Think of it as an even more refined and higher performing version of the Ultra Mini. The price tag is on the wallet unfriendly side though.

TAOC TITE-46GP



Easily the heaviest amongst all the footers on test here, the TAOC weighs a massive 800g per piece. TAOC specialises in the manufacture of high carbon content cast iron parts, and is actually a member of the Toyota group. You could end up in hospital if you accidentally dropped one on your foot.

The TAOC served as a brutal reminder on the perils of hasty judgement and "settling time" for footers.

Quick insertion brought bone crunching bass and slam, with increased separation and control, at the expense of a lack of high frequency extension and air. After a few days of settling time, this went away, and the high frequencies took on both extension and control. This was particularly noticeable during heavy mixes, where previously blurred lines and messy details took on organised precision. The TAOC lacks the ultimate 3D quality and natural ease of the Cold Rays but was otherwise very impressive.

If you are looking for a "jump" factor, these footers are likely to please provided that you give them plenty of time to settle down..

Valab footer



Looking very much inspired by the Finite Elemente’s Ceraball, this footer from Valab, Taiwan, similarly relies on a single ball bearing, albeit steel. Fit and finish are not exactly the best, the prime offender being a rubber O-ring that is a little bit too big. As a result, the top cover of the Valab will not sit tight against the ball bearing unless the component is of sufficient mass to compress the O-ring.

Is this a cheap and cheerful clone, or just cheap and nasty ?

The Valab adds some clarity to the music, and has nice improvement to the high-frequencies, which are more distinct, and more extended. On the downside, the overall presentation is quite dry.

The midrange and low frequencies are where the Valab comes apart. Bass notes are lightweight and hollow, compared to stock. Midrange is small sounding and lacking in density.

Taking out the Valab and substituting it with the Ceraball shows that the Valab may be much cheaper, but is actually false economy. Valab may want to go back to the drawing board and take another shot at this.

Yamamoto Soundcraft Ebony footers



Yamamoto Soundcraft is not particularly well-known outside of Japan, although there is some limited distribution of their products globally, especially their amplifiers. They have an intriguing range of footers, ranging from simple cherry wood cubes, to their top-of-the-range magnetic levitation bases.

Their rather modest ebony footers are in the spotlight today. The PB-09 and PB-10 are intended to be used together, with the PB-09 being male, and the PB-10 being female. African ebony wood is used in the manufacture of these footers, presumably for their density and musical properties (ebony is used in many musical instruments for their tone). Ebony wood is of such high density, that it sinks if you put it in water.

The Yamamoto has above average bass, with some useful low frequency extension. It's strength lies in mid-bass and the midrange, where there is a good balance of clarity, sweetness and warmth. Piano notes have realistic timbre with impressive weight, especially on the left-hand notes. Vocal lovers would be very taken by the Yamamoto. High frequency wise, it lacks a bit of extension.

Test Bed

I originally intended to try each footer under  two different components, a relatively light DAC, the Audio-Gd DAC 19 DSP, and my CD Player, the Cary CD-500. Halfway during the test, I realised that the stock footers of the Cary were quite high, and a number of footers were not tall enough. Instead, my Almarro A318B and Calyx Femto DAC were used. I also tried some of these footers under my power supplies and my Conrad Johnson power amp.

As no footer works best in exactly the same location, I experimented with placement. Each footer would be evaluated in isolation over a few days, before the stronger contenders were pit against each other.

Conclusions

Readers hoping that I would crown one of the contenders here as being the best, will be sorely disappointed. None of the footers here performed consistently across all equipment, and weight loads. Some had a preference for lighter equipment, while some only shone under heavy loads.

That being said, it would be impossible to come out from such a test without a few favourites.

The Magic Hexa deserves special mention for best bang for the buck.

For lighter equipment, I especially like the Ceraball and Stillpoints Ultra Mini.

For moderate loads, I like the Stillpoints Ultra SS.

For heavy loads, it is a toss-up between the Franc Audio Ceramic Disc Classic and the Finite Elemente Cerabase, depending on the tonality sought.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Okki Nokki Record Cleaning Machine



Photos from official website


Introduction

The Okki Nokki record cleaning machine is probably one of the most affordable vacuum based record cleaning machines on the market. Locally, it costs a shade under S$ 900.

The Okki Nokki has a bi-directional motor (a useful function to brush the grooves of the record in both directions), and comes supplied with a small battle of record cleaning concentrate, and a goat's hair brush.

Operation

The Okki Nokki is quite idiot proof to operate. Two switches control the unit. The top switch toggles between clockwise and anti-clockwise rotation. The bottom switch controls the vacuum.

The vacuum motor has a useful automatic shut-off feature in case the reservoir becomes full. A visit to the kitchen sink, pull out the tube behind the unit, and drain the dirty fluid out.

With a bit of practice, you can apply the cleaning fluid, brush the surface over a few revolutions in both directions, and vacuum up the dirty fluid, all in about a minute a side. The vacuum arm is spring loaded and you push it down while engaging the motor switch. When you switch it off, the arm will lift off the record automatically. The arm is lined with replaceable velvet strips to prevent damage to the record surface.

Thankfully, the motor is relatively quiet (as far as vacuum motors go), and you should be able to vacuum your records in the late evenings, without risking a visit from your irate neighbour.

Even during relatively long record cleaning sessions, the unit was never more than warm to the touch.

Although the machine is sturdy and solidly constructed, it also shows signs of being rather rough in appearance and assembly. The metal panels do not line up perfectly, and some dings and dents are visible in certain areas (my machine was brand new !).

Of particular consternation was the fiddly record clamp. The spindle threads continued to flake off metal filings over many record cleaning sessions - a visit with the house vacuum cleaner proved necessary to remove the debris.

Also, no cover is supplied. A suitable acrylic cover is available as an optional extra. You would not want dust all over your platter, so you will need to find some way to keep the dust off.

Operation was flawless though, although there was a tendency for the velvet strips on the record cleaning arm to become saturated and to deposit liquid on to the records as it lifts up after the vacuum motor is switched off.

Results

Prior to the Okki Nokki, I was using a spray-on cleaner that requires a simple wipe off after application, without any brushing. While the spray was somewhat effective, it was expensive, and a chore to use. The Okki Nokki also had much better results.

Anyone with more than a handful of records really needs a good record cleaning machine. Many of my records were picked up from dusty piles yonks ago. I had written off almost all of those records - they sounded dull, lacking in dynamics - just awful.

After a clean, the records were quieter, clearer and more dynamic. Given our tropical weather and humidity, some of the records in question could qualify as fungus production farms. I am eternally grateful to the Hi-Fi Gods that I gave my records a spin in the Okki Nokki before binning them.

Conclusion

Give the Okki Nokki a try if you are looking for a decent budget record cleaning machine. It may not be the last word in finish and aesthetics, but it works well and is effective.

Given how much good vinyl costs nowadays, this is a must have investment if you are even remotely serious about vinyl.

Final recomendation - Okki Nokki ! (Thumbs up in Dutch)