Friday, December 12, 2014

Pioneer SP-BS22-LR Speakers

Introduction



There is a high chance you would have heard of the SP-BS22-LR speaker - this speaker has been creating a lot of buzz since it's release.

Designed by Andrew Jones (who spends most of his time designing the delectable TAD speakers), the SP-BS22-LR is a compact 2-way bookshelf speaker. The woofer is a 4 inch structured surface woofer, while the 1 inch fabric tweeter handles high frequencies. This is a bass-reflex design, with the port located on the rear of the speaker.





Nominal impedance is stated as 6 ohms, and sensitivity at 85 db. Frequency response is listed as 55 Hz - 20 kHz (no limits stated).

5 way binding posts are provided, and the crossover is specified as a 6 element crossover. Looking at the photos of the crossover on the internet, this appears to consist of 2 sandcast resistors, one air core inductor, one iron core inductor, one plastic capacitor and one electrolytic capacitor.

Physically, the Pioneer is well built with the boat shaped MDF enclosure feeling solid and much better than suggested by it's price tag.

This is a small speaker, with dimensions of 7 1/8 " (W) by 12 9/16 " (height) and 8 7/16 " (depth) and a weight of 9 lbs and 2 oz each. For the metricised world, that is approximately 18 cm x 32 cm x 21 cm and 4.14 kg.

Coming back to the price tag, this speaker retails for the shockingly low figure of USD 129 per pair. If that is not enough to floor you, do be aware that this speaker regularly sells for far less than that, with Amazon offering these speakers a shade below USD 60 when it is feeling especially generous. Based on the bill of materials in this speaker, I am not too sure how Pioneer makes any money on this, especially after taking into account distribution costs and the like.

Herein lies the biggest problem with this speaker - it sells for SGD 399 in Singapore. This becomes a problem for reasons that will be explained later.

Sound Quality

I set up the Pioneer on my partially filled Partington Dreadnought Broadside 24 " speaker stands. The ideal position ended up with the speakers about 6 feet apart, and 2 1/2 feet from the back wall. The speakers were toed-in, firing almost directly at my ears.

The Pioneer was paired with my Gryphon Diablo integrated amp, and hooked up with Acrolink 7N-S1400III speaker cables. The source was my Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC, fed either with a Oppo 103D, or a Mac mini. 

Admittedly, the partnering equipment is not representative at all of what the Pioneer will be used with, but I wanted to see how well the Pioneer could perform, without having to second guess whether the rest of the chain was holding it back.

The Pioneer was fresh from the box, and I gave it a burn-in of 48 hours at fairly low volume, and then a further 3-4 hours at higher than average volumes.

Listening to a variety of music, I was struck by the quantity of bass produced by these tiny speakers. They had a full and warm bass, and sounded much larger than suggested by physical dimensions or driver cone size. Turning up the volume didn't faze these speakers one bit. On the contrary, they really came alive at louder than average volumes.

The grills darkened the sound noticeably, and I did most of my listening with the grills off.

Midrange was smooth and pleasant. This helped temper harsh recordings but smoothed over microdetail such as the vocalist's breathing or subtle voice texture. There was also an occasional touch of nasality, but this was very much dependent on the recording.

I found the treble to be a bit recessed. The information was all there, but with less prominence and presence. On drumwork, the Pioneer emphasized the kick-drum, rather than the cymbals. 

Detail wise, this is a big picture speaker. As an example, Double Bass could be felt and heard, but without the definition of the strings and resonance from the body of the instrument. 

Imaging and staging were done reasonably well, although by absolute standards, soundstage depth was a bit lacking, and imaging specificity could be better.

Moving away from absolute performance, these speakers were a lot of fun to listen to. They sounded big and pleasant, and took a good stab at a wide genre of music. From a value perspective, these speakers are excellent. I can see a lot of these being used in small bedroom setups, or as a replacement to the afterthought speakers supplied with most micro component systems. They certainly hold their own and would likely be competitive with most speakers below USD 250. 

Based on the local price of SGD 399 (that is about USD 300 at time of writing), the value proposition becomes less compelling. You could do a lot worse, but the Pioneer ends up competing with a lot of other attractive options, such as the Usher S-520, or the Monitor Audio BX2 for just a little bit more money. The Usher does sound a lot leaner than the Pioneer, but both the Usher and Monitor Audio have the edge in terms of detail, staging and overall refinement.  

Conclusion

The Pioneer is certainly the finest speaker I have heard below USD 150. However, it is far from perfect, and not the answer to all speaker problems in life.

It is definitely a slam dunk at the prices offered in the United States, but purchasers should be realistic and reasonable as to the performance of these speakers. At local prices, it becomes a bit of a tough call. 
 
The review sample was kindly loaned by Chris L. Thanks Chris ! 





Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sony MAP-S1 Multi Audio Player System and SS-HW1 Speakers

Introduction

The Sony MAP-S1 is a compact all-singing and dancing micro component system. 


As tiny as they come - the MAP-S1 is nevertheless functionally fully loaded.



The MAP-S1 consists of a 50 watt per channel (into 4 ohms loads) receiver integrated with a front loading CD slot. The built in DAC is capable of decoding high resolution audio files of up to 24 bit resolution and a sampling rate of 192 kHz. 

Input flexibility is excellent with a front panel high current (2.1 A) type A USB port for thumb drives / hard drives and a rear type B USB port for connection to a computer. DLNA support is provided via Wi-Fi or ethernet. All major file formats are supported, including DSD. Airplay and Bluetooth are also supported. On the analogue front, a pair of line level input and output jacks are also provided. 

The lacquer finish on the SS-HW1 is good enough to pass off as fine furniture.

A close-up shot of the top-mounted super tweeter.

Rear facing port and 5 way binding posts.
The SS-HW1 is a small bookshelf speaker, sporting 4 drive units, in a 3-way reflex loaded design. The drive complement consists of a 13 cm mica loaded woofer, a 25 mm soft dome tweeter, and a pair of 19 mm super tweeters. One of the super tweeters is forward firing, and the other unit fires upward.

Specifications wise, the SS-HW1 has a rated frequency response of 50 Hz - 50 kHz (no limits stated), 4 ohm nominal impedance and 83db sensitivity. Compared to it's peers, the SS-HW1 could be considered to be an inefficient and difficult to drive load. 

A detachable grill is provided, although in a rather daring move, the top mounter super tweeter is left fully exposed. I certainly hope Sony has a large stock of super tweeters on hand - itchy fingers are bound to result in a lot of dented units.

The reflex port is located on the rear of the speaker, together with a single pair of 5-way binding posts. The circular shape of the terminal block may present a bit of difficulty if your speaker cables are terminated with large spades.

The SS-HW1 is 171mm wide, 273 mm deep and 309 mm tall. A single speaker weighs in at 5.1 kg. 


Operation

Using the MAP-S1 out of the box was not too difficult. In fact, most of my time was spent removing the plastic inserts out of the speaker binding posts in order to use my banana plug terminated speaker cables.

Accessing the unit's functions via the various buttons and knobs on the front panel was a bit fiddly. It was far more efficient to download the recommended Sony app, "SongPal". Once I had the app running on my iPhone, I connected my phone to the MAP-S1 via Bluetooth. The app then prompted exporting the wireless settings of my home network to the MAP-S1, and established a connection within seconds. SongPal supports Deezer, and internet radio via TuneIn. SongPal definitely gets top marks from me for ease-of-use and stability. 










For purposes of this review, I set up the SS-HW1 on 24 inch tall Partington Dreadnought Broadside stands, with the speakers placed about 6 feet apart, and well away from the side and back walls. The speakers were toed-in with the speakers firing to a point a few feet behind me.

Although speaker cable was supplied, I used a 2.5 m pair of Acrolink 7N-S14000III speaker cables terminated with Oyaide SRBN banana plugs.

I tried the various inputs, but for most of this review, I settled for playback via CD, or feeding the MAP-S1 via USB from my Macmini running Pure Music software.

Sound Quality

Paired with the SS-HW1, the MAP-S1 exceeded my expectations given the high feature count and modest price tag.

The SS-HW1 produced a full mid-bass, smooth midrange and an airy top end. Mid to high frequencies showed a bit of restraint, with a slight emphasis on very highest frequencies. On classical music, this translates to sweeter and fuller than usual violin tone, with an increased sense of ambience of the recording venue. 

The Sony speakers also had no issues casting a wide and moderately deep soundstage with a good sense of image height (courtesy of the top mounted super tweeter ?). Image sizes were slightly larger than usual. The listening sweet spot was also generously large, and you probably won't need to fight with other family members for the best seat in the house. 

Resolving power is above average, although the SS-HW1 can be best described as a speaker with a "big-picture" perspective. There is some smoothing over of detail, but this can be quite useful in taming "hot" and poor quality recordings.

Any other downsides ? I noticed a bit of mid-bass colouration especially at louder levels (cabinet resonance perhaps ?). I also found that the SS-HW1 sounded better on smaller scale music like acoustic jazz, female vocals, chamber music, etc. The bass response on the SS-HW1 showed some signs of congestion on louder and fast types of music.   

Although I had some reservations about the ability of the MAP-S1 to drive a difficult load such as the SS-HW1, the combination seemed fine, with sufficient power and control at typical domestic listening levels. 

To further evaluate the quality of the SS-HW1, I hooked them up to my personal equipment, a Gryphon Diablo integrated amp paired with an Antelope Audio Zodiac Gold DAC. 

The generous power on tap (the Gryphon is rated for 500 watts per channel into 4 ohm loads) and grip really helped to keep the bass performance of the SS-HW1 under control. The Antelope / Gryphon lifted the performance of the SS-HW1, with a healthy increase in bass grip, speed, dynamics, staging confidence and overall resolution. 

Conclusion

I really think that Sony got it right with the MAP-S1. It sounds good, and it's internet / network play capabilities offer great flexibility. Performance wise, it punches well above its weight, especially for its asking price. I would highly recommend the MAP-S1 for the budding audiophile, or anyone who is looking for a compact and good sounding all-in-one component.

The SS-HW1 sounds good with the MAP-S1, and it is nice to know that these tiny speakers can grow together with any system upgrades. They are more expensive that I would have liked, but are otherwise a competent performer in a superbly finished package. I found it easy to overlook it's shortcomings and enjoyed it's rich and pleasing reproduction of music.

The recommended consumer price for the MAP-S1 is S$ 1,199, and S$ 999 for the SS-HW1.

I would like to thank Sony Singapore for supplying the review unit, and it's media partner Waggener Edstrom for making all the necessary arrangements.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

AVM (Audio Video Manufaktur) - Udo Besser visits Singapore

Introduction

I confess to having little knowledge about AVM prior to attending this event. A quick flurry of research unearthed some interesting facts about AVM. It has quite a long history, and it's present owner, Mr. Udo Besser has an established track record in the audio industry, being formerly CEO of the well known German high end audio company, Burmester.

Browsing through AVM's website, the impression conveyed was that of elegantly designed products catering to a wide range of customers - from the beginner to the very serious enthusiast.

Products

AVM's exclusive dealer in Singapore, Sound Decisions had arranged for Udo to meet some of it's customers and members of the hi-fi press at it's cosy showroom.

A number of products had been set-up for demonstration including the SD 5.2 Streaming DAC from AVM's Evolution line of products, and the PA8 modular preamp and MA8.2 monoblock amplifiers from it's top range - the Ovation line.

Also on display was a line-up of all-in-one solutions (CD, DAC, tuner, and amplifier - just add speakers !).






The mighty Ovation MA8.2 mono power amplifier.





From top to bottom :- Inspiration C8 CD-Receiver, Evolution SD5.2 Streaming DAC, Evolution C9 CD Receiver. 

Attendees were shown how the SD5.2 could be operated, both using the supplied radio frequency remote control, and with an iPhone running AVM's iOS app (under development). The remote control and the iPhone were able to simultaneously control the SD5.2 seamlessly - selecting tracks from the connected NAS, or from music files stored on the iPhone. It was even possible to power up and power down the system. 



Udo then made a short presentation on AVM, with a description of the different product lines. 




Some points of interest :-

1. AVM manufactures it's products in Malsch, Germany.

2. The vacuum tubes used in it's products are custom designed and manufactured specifically for AVM and then screened and tested for quality by the tube manufacturer.

3. The mono output boards in the Ovation series power amplifier are fed separately by a small dedicated toroidal transformer for each individual board, instead of the common industry practice of using a single massive transformer with multiple voltage taps. 

4. AVM uses UcD Hypex amplifier modules specially customised for AVM in its entry and mid level product lines.

5. Custom finishes are available at extra cost including a stunningly beautiful mirrored chrome finish (I couldn't help but mention this to whet the appetite of all you Burmester fans out there).

I was impressed by the build quality of the products on display, coupled with reasonable pricing. I especially liked the tactile feel in operation of the knobs and switches, and the elegant designs that exuded class.

A close-up of the tube output board, with the custom specified and manufactured tubes.

You can definitely put my name down for the optional chrome finish.


Udo in Conversation

I asked Udo whether he designed his products with a certain philosophy in mind. His answer was that sound quality is his most important objective. Any particular technical design choice would be made based on this. As an example, he cited amplifier power - the end objective was not to make the most powerful amplifier available, but high power output (e.g. in the Ovation series amplifiers) was a by-product of pursuing that objective.

We also discussed the choice of a switched mode power supply in the PA8 preamplifier, which is generally frown upon by audiophiles.  Again, Udo stressed that the best power supply design was chosen for the task, and in this case, a switched mode power supply best achieved his objectives, and  was critical to ensuring low noise in the optional phono stage card.

I was interested to know more about the modularity offered by the PA8 (e.g. choices available include a DAC card, phono stage, tuner card, and a tubed output stage) - did he feel that this would cause interference or somehow degrade performance ? Udo explained how these issues were overcome in the design (the cards are shut down if not required, and powered up again when necessary) , and that simply, he would not launch any product unless it met his exacting standards. Much thought also seems to have been made on the software front, with the PA8's firmware checking each individually installed board. A newer version board installed would automatically update the unit's firmware - very smart indeed.

Sound Quality

Crowds make it quite hard to evaluate sound quality. I cheated somewhat and had a quick audition of the PA8 and the MA8.2 a day prior to the event. I was not familiar with the German Physik paired with the PA8 and MA8.2, but the tone of the system was on the fuller and sweet side. The system at all times sounded natural and effortless (600 watts per channel (into 8 ohms) - power does corrupt !), with excellent bass depth and definition, and spades of detail across the frequency spectrum. I am pretty sure these could hold their own against the rest of the premium names out there.

Conclusion 

Looking at the clean design lines, excellent finish, and ease of operation, you have on hand a product that has purposeful objectives achieved by solid engineering. In that vein, AVM is the epitome of Teutonic values.    
  
AVM may be a relatively new kid on the block internationally, but I would give them serious consideration - whether you are looking for a good-looking all-in-one system, or top drawer electronics.

I would like to thank Sammy and Eugene of Sound Decisions for inviting me for this event.

Sound Decisions

1 Coleman Street
#04-49/62 The Adelphi

Singapore 179803

Tel: (65)6733 8227
Fax: (65)6733 8229


www.sounddecisions.com.sg 

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sony's "Feel the Air" - High-Res Audio Event

Introduction

I remember seeing my schoolmate's Sony Walkman many years ago. There was a hushed silence - a mix of awe and respect when he took it out. The small circle that formed around him handled it carefully. It was heavy, generous with its use of metals and obviously meant business.

Fast forward through the years - I never did manage to own one. But in those days, Sony was associated with top quality, albeit expensive products.

Sony used to make serious high quality audio products, notably, it's CD and SACD players launched under its ES range.

I felt a mix of nostalgia and curiosity when I received the invitation to attend Sony's "Feel the Air" event on the 2nd of October, 2014. Was Sony making a comeback to high-end audio ?

Feel the Air

A variety of products were exhibited, many of which were setup for demonstration purposes. Some of the products were unusual to say the least (do we really need vibrating headphones ?).

Based on the lineup of products on display, it was clear that the market trend was headed towards portable devices (portable music players, earphones / headphones and bluetooth speakers etc).

A variety of short presentations were also made to explain the technology behind the NWZ-A15 digital music player, and the MDR-Z7 headphone.


Home Audio

One of the rooms was set up with the UDA-1 USB DAC Amplifier and the MAP-S1 Multi Audio Player System. The latter was paired with it's recommended matching speaker, the gorgeous gloss finished SS-HW1. 

The MAP-S1 is equipped with a front loading slot for CDs, and plays a variety of file formats too ( as a DLNA renderer), or through NFC / Bluetooth. A built-in 50 watt per channel amplifier completes the picture. The only thing missing is built-in storage.


The MAP-S1 / SS-HW1 impressed me with it's sound quality and clarity. This is well worth taking a second look at. The MAP-S1 retails for S$ 1,199, while the SS-HW1 retails for S$ 999.

I did not get an opportunity to listen to the UDA-1 as it was hooked up to the MDR-Z7.
 

Speakers 

A large sized listening room displayed two speaker models from the "ES" series. An earlier presentation provided a brief background into the design and manufacture of these models - the SS-NA5ES and SS-NA2ES.

These beauties are made out of Scandinavian BIrch Wood and handmade in Japan. The tweeter units are what Sony terms, "I-Array", a triple driver vertical array arranged with a central 25 mm soft-dome tweeter, flanked by smaller 19 mm drive units.

The bookshelf model, the NA5ES, is a 2 way design. The floorstanding model, the NA2ES is a 6 driver, 3 way model. Basic specifications for both models are as follows :-

SS-NA5ES

2-way, 4 drivers, Bass reflex
130 mm aluminum cone woofer
25 mm soft dome tweeter
2 x 19 mm soft dome supertweeter
4 Ohm impedance
86 db sensitivity
45 Hz - 45 kHz frequency response (no limits stated)
10 kg weight

SS-NA2ES


3-way, 6 drivers, Bass reflex
2 x 165 mm aluminum cone woofer
130 mm paper cone midrange
25 mm soft dome tweeter
2 x 19 mm soft dome supertweeter
4 Ohm impedance
90 db sensitivity
45 Hz - 45 kHz frequency response (no limits stated)
32 kg weight





A closer look at the I-Array drive units




























I came away very impressed with the short demonstration (3 tracks were played for each model). The most impressive audition for the day was actually the smaller model, the NA5ES. It had incredibly bass extension for its cabinet size, and a spacious natural top end. Despite being driven by an AV receiver, and matched to a very large acoustic environment, this petite overachiever really delivered the goods. It's larger sibling, the NA2ES had deeper bass extension and a grander scale. 

I noticed some listener height sensitivity, with quite a marked difference when changing my listening position in the vertical plane.

In both cases, the systems were fronted by the HAP-Z1ES. Sony is well aware of the local grumblings about the non-availability of the Z1 in Singapore and they mentioned that they are carefully evaluating the situation. 

Personal Audio and Headphones

When news of the MDR-Z7 first leaked out, internet forums went into overdrive with the rumour mill making all kinds of stories, including the Z7 being the successor to the infamous MDR-R10.

The Z7 is a closed phone featuring a massive 70mm aluminum coated liquid crystal polymer diaphragm. With a bat-pleasing frequency response stated to extend from 4 Hz to 100 kHz, this pair of cans will have high-res audio suitably covered.


A sample of the massive drivers, with a mock-up ear for size comparison.
















Impedance is specified as 70 ohms, and sensitivity at 102db/mW. Detachable headphone cables allow an easy swap to optionally available balanced connection cables. The cables are made by Kimber Kable, which gives it instant audiophile credibility.


Construction is top rate and this has to be one of the most comfortable phones I've tried.













This is not intended to be a successor to the R10, and priced much more modestly (based on overseas pricing - Singapore prices were yet to be fixed at the time of the event).

Why not relaunch the R10 ? Speaking to several Sony executives, as well as Nageno-san, the answer is simple - it can't be done. Many of the components used in the R10 are simply no longer available.

The PHA-3 portable DAC / headphone player is the natural match for the Z7, and both were displayed together for testing purposes. The PHA-3 sports balanced connections, and a claimed output power of 320 mW into a 32 ohm load (balanced), or 100 mW (unbalanced).

I heard the Z7 quite briefly in balanced drive. It has good bass, but probably not enough for bass heads. I found the overall balanced to be slightly on the dark side, with good pleasing midrange, and a slightly laidback treble. Subjectively, it's tone sits between the Audeze LCD 2.2 and the Sennheiser HD600. 

It's top end is more open than the LCD 2.2, but the Audeze has the Sony licked in the area of bass slam and extension. 

It leaks sound a bit (probably through the bottom vents), but at lower and moderate volumes, this is unlikely to disturb nearby people.

Fit and finish was excellent, and top marks were awarded for comfort. Headband pressure was not excessive, and the curvature of the band did not interfere with my spectacles. 

I can't comment on how they heat up in our tropical weather, as the display booth was strategically placed directly beneath the air-con vent. True to Singapore fashion, the thermostat in the venue was set at an ideal temperature for penguins.   


Interview with Koji Nageno and Hideyuki Uemura

I was also given the opportunity to speak to Mr. Koji Nageno (chief engineer for headphones) and Mr. Hideyuki Uemura (engineering team lead for the A15 digital music player). 

Nageno-san shared his thoughts on the challenges of designing headphones and in-ear-monitors (IEMs), the constraints being the distance of the driver from the ear, and the size of the driver.

I asked Nageno-san about the size of the driver vs frequency range, in particular whether there were difficulties in having a large diaphragm reproduce very high frequencies.  He shared some insights into driver design, the materials used for the diaphragm, and the careful shaping of the diaphragm to overcome this. 

Nageno-san seemed to favour closed designs and explained that a typical household has at least 40 dB of ambient noise. He felt that a closed design is better, allowing better clarity in such circumstances. He also explained that a headphone design is not a choice of fully open or fully closed, and a design is always a mixture of open / closed. In respect of the Z7, he described it as being approximately 80 % closed and 20 % open.

I broached the topic of balanced headphone drive. Nageno-san shared that from a technical point of view, the increased voltage swing and non-shared ground are well worth having in a headphone setup.

With respect to choice of driver design, I asked Nageno-san what he thought of other technologies, especially electrostatic driver designs. He replied that he has a lot of respect for his competitor companies, and some of their headphones. He felt that good results could be obtained, regardless of choice of the type of drivers used.

Given Sony's long association with DSD, I mentioned that it would be good if future portable players could decode DSD - especially with it's current popularity. Both Nageno-san and Uemura-san replied that this is currently under consideration. 

Conclusion

Looks like Sony is back on track to make some waves in the audiophile market. Let's hope to see more goodies from Sony. On behalf of all audiophiles in Singapore, I can only say this - "Don't forget about us here in Singapore."

I would like to thank Sony Singapore and it's media partner, Waggener Edstrom for inviting me to this event. 

Monday, September 29, 2014

Totaldac USB cable / filter


Introduction

Totaldac is a company based in France that has been creating a lot of buzz lately with its DAC designs.

The founder of Totaldac is Mr. Vincent Brient, a professional engineer who has worked in a variety of industries before founding Totaldac. Looking at the hand built R2R circuit (utilising 0.01 % precision Vishay resistors) inside his DAC, a certain amount of respect is due for Mr. Brient.

Description

The Totaldac USB cable / filter is stated to improve the sound of any DAC or music server utilising a USB connection. A sealed aluminum box contains more than 30 components, to provide filtering for digital pollution coming from a computer or music server. The box will even protect your DAC from an over voltage situation.






The Totaldac USB cable will operate under both USB 1.0 and 2.0 modes, and transmits bit-perfect data. No drivers were needed in my tests, under both Windows and Mac environments.

Mr. Brient kindly agreed to answer some questions I had about his cable and some other general questions. The questions and answers are reproduced in verbatim below :-

Q1. The totaldac usb cable/filter is described as containing "high performance filters to suppress digital pollutions coming from the computer or the music server.". Are both the data and power lines filtered ? Does the box provide galvanic isolation from the computer ?


A1. It filters both data and power. There is no galvanic isolation as this doesn't exist for high speed USB. It exists only for old non-asynchronous DACs with a 12Mbit/s USB bit rate, unable to do 192KHz/24.

Q2. The totaldac cable uses a single cable instead of the increasingly popular route of using separate cables for the data and power lines. Do you have any thoughts on this ?

A2. The filter box is placed very close to the DAC connector, so the cable separation is no critical. The long part of cable is before the filter.

Q3. Some audiophiles feel that USB (even if asynchronous) does not sound good as other connection methods like AES or coaxial. Many are using separate USB/SPDIF convertors, claiming better sound compared to direct hookup to their DAC's USB input. Do you think think this approach has any merit ?

A3. All computer approach need a computer bus to output the digital audio signal. USB, PCI and so on, all have the same difficulty due to the clock and pollution of the computer. There is no computer with true native spdif output, then can only fill and asynchronous fifo, just like the USB does, even if the fifo can be in the processor itself.

USB, even asynchronous, is a sensitive link, this is why the filter helps. For the best sound my customer use the d1-server using the USB cable/filter for the internal loop, then the signal is rebuilt again in AES-EBU in the asynchronous reclocker, then goes to the DAC via AES-EBU.


A computer straight to a USB DAC is not the best way.


All in all the difficulty is not especially the USB, it is the computer for audio, but optimisation are possible, I think that now the d1-server with its USB filter is better sounding than a CD drive.


Sound Quality

The Totaldac USB cable / filter was deployed in a number of situations, similar to my review on the Astin Trew Concord Powered USB cable system. The supplied review sample was 2 m in length.

Tonally, the Totaldac was very different from the JCAT or the Wireworld Platinum Starlight cables which I had on hand. The Totaldac had a richer, warmer and more organic balance.

Bass lines had a good deal of weight and bloom, positioned between the hard hitting Wireworld, and the neutral JCAT. I found the bass to be subjectively "wetter" and more rounded than the Wireworld.

Midrange had a slight prominence and projection to it, with vocals being pushed forward slightly in the soundstage compared to both the Wireworld and JCAT. There was also a pleasing smoothness and warmth. A little bit of texture was sacrificed in favour of an absence of sibilance on female vocals. 

Treble presentation varied depending on where the cable was deployed. On my main system, linking my Mac Mini to my Calyx Femto DAC, I felt that the treble was almost as extended as the JCAT, but with a slight emphasis towards the initial transient of the instruments compared to the decay and room ambience. The treble was slightly softer in quality, wth the Totaldac linking my Macbook Pro to my Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC, and even more laidback when I deployed the cable to connect bus powered devices like my Calyx Coffee DAC / headamp, or my Bel Canto uLink USB / SPDIF convertor.

From a staging and imaging perspective, the Totaldac had a grander presentation, with a larger sense of scale and bigger image size. The Wireworld, and to a greater degree, the JCAT had more pinpoint imaging and a more distant perspective. 

The contrast between the Totaldac and Wireworld was most stark on my Calyx Coffee. The Totaldac was sumptuous and inviting and almost analog like. The Wireworld was punchy but aggressive on the top end, almost to the point that listener fatigue set-in after a few minutes of listening. 

The Totaldac reminded me in many ways of my Lite DAC-AH DAC, a non-oversampling design that utilised 8 paralleled TDA1541 chips. Coincidence ?

Conclusion

I found the Totaldac to be a more easy going cable compared to both the Wireworld and JCAT. As cliched as it may sound, the Totaldac would likely please the listener who is seeking a more analog like presentation from their computer music. 

The choice of cable would depend very much on the tonal balance sought, and choice of music.

I liked the Totaldac very much - it was the house guest with impeccable charm and manners.  I would put it at the top of my audition list if I was seeking a USB cable with a fuller, smoother and fluid presentation - Highly Recommended.

The review sample was supplied by Mr. K.M. Poon of Horizon Acoustics, the Singapore distributor for Totaldac.

I wish to thank both Mr. Poon of Horinzon Acoustics and Mr. Brient of Totaldac for making this review possible.

Horizon Acoustics

144 Upper Bukit Timah Road
#03-15 Beauty World Centre
Singapore 588177
Tel : 91259149
Email : poon@horizonacoustics.com
Website : http://www.horizonacoustics.com


Totaldac

Email : totaldac@totaldac.com
Website : http://www.totaldac.com

Price

0.25m or 1m: 360euros incl VAT in the EU, 330euros excl VAT outside of the EU.
2m: 390euros incl VAT in the EU, 360euros excl VAT outside of the EU.








Monday, September 1, 2014

Astin Trew Concord Powered USB Cable System

Introduction



The Astin Trew Concord Powered USB Cable System (hereinafter referred to as the "Concord USB") consists of a high quality 5V power supply design based on the patented Never Connected circuit (as seen on Trichord Research and Michell Engineering products), and a cable of your choice to split the data and power lines. You can read more about the Never Connected Circuit at http://www.never-connected.com/concept.html

Two cable options are offered. The first option is a complete USB cable solution - the source end has two heads - one end plugs into your computer / streaming device, and the other end into the power supply box. The destination plug goes into the USB socket of your DAC. The second option consists of a USB B type plug with a piggy back female socket (to use your USB cable of choice), and a second cable to connect to the power supply.

According to Astin Trew, the Concord USB boosts performance to your computer music setup by supplying your DAC (for bus powered DACs), or the USB integrated circuit with a high quality power source. Astin Trew claims that about 80 % of DACs on the market should benefit.

The power supply box couldn't be simpler. An IEC socket permits use of detachable power cords, while a toggle switch switches the device on and off. The rear panel has a proprietary socket to supply the power to the USB cable. The front panel has a solitary LED to indicate power status.

I would really have liked the power supply to offer a USB Type A socket. This would allow the Concord USB to be used with the growing number of twin headed (with power and data lines separated) USB cables out there.


Sound Quality

I was supplied (at my request) with the piggy back USB cable in order for me to use my own USB cables. I tried the Concord USB with three different equipment, 1) an Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC,  2) a Bel Canto uLink USB/SPDIF convertor, and 3) a Resonessence Labs Herus DAC / headamp.

The Antelope has its own power supply, which also feeds its USB input circuit board. In fact, the Antelope is listed by Astin Trew in the supplied user manual as not being able to benefit from the Concord USB.

Notwithstanding Astin Trew's advice, the Antelope gained a small but easily discernible improvement with the Concord USB paired with my Wireworld Platinum Starlight USB cable.

"Live at Blues Alley" by Eva Cassidy is one of my favourite albums. With the Concord USB, the soundstage deepened, and the acoustics of the venue improved in the conveyed sense of air and liveliness. Eva's vocals came through in all it's glory - coupled with a subtle improvement in detail and authority. These improvements were also heard on a wide variety of material. Piano notes in particular, had tighter focus and better attack.

However, the real shocker came from switching off the Concord USB. The Antelope only needed momentary power to be supplied over the USB cable to establish handshaking. After that, power could be removed without incident. My system immediately moved up a notch in dynamics and energy. There was also an increase in top end air and decay. The soundstaging presentation moved a bit forward, which was not really my preferred perspective though.

Moving on, the Bel Canto and Resonessence Labs both draw their power from the computer. Would both benefit greatly from the Concord USB ? I was especially interested in how the Bel Canto would fare. Bel Canto claims that the uLink filters the noisy computer supplied power with L-C filters and multiple dedicated supplies.

The Resonessence offered only slight benefits in utilising the Concord USB. You could argue that there was a slight lift in transparency and dynamics. Truth be told, the differences were quite subtle.

The Bel Canto turned out to be a wholly different story. Going back to "Live at the Blues Alley", the soundstaging deepened considerably. Eva took on a warmer and less harsh tone, and there was an impressive improvement in the system's ability to convey the details and texture of her voice. Notwithstanding its power filtering stages, the performance of the Bel Canto was lifted to such a great degree that I could not help but wonder - would the paired combo would be able to outperform Bel Canto's REFLink, its top model USB / SPDIF convertor ? Then again, the REFLink is cheaper if you factor in the additional cost of the Concord USB.

Conclusion

The Concord USB shone most on bus powered devices. It was a pity that I did not have other USB powered devices to try, especially a device that would have justified the Concord USB's cost.

The benefits with self powered devices were on a more subtle yet discernable level. Ironically, in the case with my Antelope DAC, the best results came from powering down the Concord USB, which suggests that the most benefit was obtained by simply stripping out the bus power. In that respect, I would have loved to see Astin Trew offer their cable for sale separately, terminated with either a DC plug or USB Type A plug for maximum compatibility.

From a value perspective, the Concord USB is undeniably expensive. There are a number of other competing products on the market that offer similar solutions at significantly lower cost. Nevertheless, the Concord USB is still worth investigating. Especially so if your system cost justifies it, or you are seeking to squeeze the very last ounce of performance of your USB DAC.

The Concord USB Cable System costs SGD 1,400 and is available locally from :-

Sky Audio
Block 621, Bukit Batok Central
#20-516
Singapore 650621
 http://www.skyaudio.net/

A word of thanks goes out to Steve Sai of Sky Audio for supplying the review set.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

JCAT USB Cable - The Cat's Meow !




Introduction

JCAT (JPLAY Computer Audio Transport) is the hardware division of JPLAY, the company responsible for bringing you the well-known and highly regarded PC music player software of the same name.

At the time of writing, JCAT offers a number of products, namely a USB card, LAN cable, SATA cable and the product on test here - a USB cable.

Marcin Ostapowicz of JPLAY kindly offered to send me the JCAT USB cable for my evaluation and comments. After making all necessary arrangements, a compact cardboard box arrived at my doorstep by courier service. It took less than a week to arrive from Poland to Singapore !

Description

The JCAT USB cable really does look the part. The solid aluminium connectors are both the finest looking and finished USB connectors I have come across, and connect with a reassuringly firm and tight fit. The braided sleeve should provide a suitable degree of protection and ensure that the cable provides reliable and trouble free service. JCAT is quite open about the fact that this cable is actually produced by Paul Pang Audio, albeit to JCAT's custom specifications.

According to official literature, the cable's conductors are made out of silver plated copper conductors, arranged in a multi-core and multi-stranded fashion. Cable insulation is Teflon. Tight adherence to the official 90 ohm impedance standard for USB is claimed (which is not necessarily a given for audiophile USB cables).

I took the liberty to ask Marcin a few questions about the cable, and the exchange is set out below in verbatim,

Q : USB cables with physically separated power and data lines seem to be in vogue now. Any reason that the JCAT decides to go down the conventional path ?

A : That's because we were not happy with the results we were getting with dual-lead cable designs in the past. The design of JCAT USB sounded better to us. But you should know that we're working on a dual-lead USB cable right now and possibly we will launch it later this year.

Q: It is interesting that JPLAY as a software company has come up with a USB cable. Do you have any insights as to why properly designed USB cables could sound different from one another ?

A:  Frankly speaking and FYI we are not making this cable ourselves :) But I worked very close with the manufacturer and tested many prototypes before final JCAT USB cable was developed. I knew that was it right away when I listened to this cable for the first time :)

Listening Tests

Considerable run-in is required for this cable to sound it's best. I put in about 20 hours of music playback on it, and an additional 48 hours on the power lines of the cable (connected to a computer bus powered portable USB DAC, without any signal). Despite that, the cable continued to improve over the next 48 hours of usage. There you have it, cable burn-in and audiophile USB cables - enough to get the local lynch mob started.

For comparison purposes, I tried the JCAT in both my main and bedroom systems. The JCAT went head-to-head with my Wireworld Platinum Starlight cable in my main system. In the bedroom system, I also compared it with an iFi Gemini cable. Note that the JCAT is 1 m in length, while the Wireworld is 2 m, and the iFi, 1.5 m.

The JCAT in both setups was very close to neutral. I would say that the midrange had a hint of sweetness to it (this is subtle on the main setup, and more obvious on the bedroom setup). Otherwise, there was no undue exaggeration of any part of the frequency spectrum.

Bass articulation was a particularly strong point of the JCAT. Compared to the Wireworld, the JCAT had a leaner bass with less bloom. However, the JCAT exhibited tighter grip, faster speed and a greater level of detail. Double bass and low piano notes were not just heard, but there was a keen sense of the harmonics from the resonances of the instrument body and the decay of each note.

Vocals also had a glare-free clarity. Listeners who prefer their vocals thick and heavy may find the JCAT too lightweight, but I personally felt that an ideal balance between tonal density and clarity was struck.

String instruments like the guitar and violin had a clear incisiveness and leading edge to them. Percussion instruments were rendered with a good crisp tone and convincing decay.

Soundstaging and imaging were superb with the JCAT. Instrument placement was laid precisely, both laterally, and depth wise. Image sizes correspond naturally to the size of the instruments, which may disappoint those who prefer a larger than life presentation.

In comparison, the Wireworld had a fuller bass, and warmer balance (primarily through its solid bass foundation and smoother and more laidback midrange). It tended to portray larger image sizes too. The iFi was on the opposite end of the spectrum, with a faster sounding presentation that sounded a bit harsh and sibilant on the top-end.

The JCAT impressed me throughout my extended auditioning period with its transparency and truthfulness. Its tonal balance on invidual albums very much depended on the recording. Great recordings sounded great while bad recordings came through in all their honesty - warts and all. If you are looking for a straight-talking USB cable (if cables could talk), the JCAT is your candidate.

Conclusion

The JCAT is the cat's meow ! I was very taken with it's performance, as well as its excellent value. I highly recommend the JCAT.

Needless to say, I purchased the review sample.

The JCAT USB cable can be ordered directly from http://jplay.eu/jcat/

A 1 m length is priced at EUR 349 (EUR 299 for JPLAY customers), and worldwide shipping is a flat EUR 10. Longer cables are available upon request.

A big thank you also goes to Marcin Ostapowicz of JPLAY for making all necessary arrangements.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Pop Pulse T-AMP180 integrated amplifier

Introduction

Pop Pulse is a small Hong Kong based company that offers a small but interesting offering of audio products.

The T-AMP180 ("T-180") is a nicely sized integrated amplifier. Based on Tripath chips, the T-180 joins a plethora of similarly equipped electronics available in the market. Bearing in mind that many of such examples are available very cheaply off the internet, the T-180 would need to distinguish itself to stand out to attract audiophile attention.

Features and Specifications

The T-180 is neatly packaged, measuring just 41.2 cm wide, 34 cm in depth and 17.7 cm in depth, and weighing in at 8 kgs.



The black aluminium face plate sports two identical knobs, one for selecting input (via a spring loaded knob), and the other for controlling the volume. A small plastic remote control is provided.

Turning to the rear panel reveals 3 pairs of line level inputs (one of which is 3 pin XLR balanced inputs), WBT style binding posts, an IEC mains inlet, and a rocker mains switch.



The T-180 is based on 2 x Tripath TA2022 chips, which have been bridged to deliver higher output power. Claimed power output is 120 watts into 8 ohm loads, and 180 watts into 4 ohm loads (specified at 0.1 % THD). There is no free lunch in this world, and bridged operation will result in the amplifier seeing half the actual load. Although the Tripath datasheets do not advise outright against low impedance loads, they do warn that amplifier efficiency will be reduced and that the current limiting may be prematurely triggered under such conditions.

Parts quality is good with a 4 channel motorised Alps pot controlling volume, LME 49720 op amps in the preamp section, and Philips,  Panasonic FC and Nichicon Fine Gold electrolytic capacitors spotted throughout the circuit. The circuit design is claimed to be fully balanced, which would explain the 4 channel pot. Lastly, a large toroidal transformer is used in the power supply.

I am guessing that the four large inductors between the heatsink fins are the the output inductors. 

A close-up view of the mains filter, which utilises inductors, capacitors and a single varistor.


Switch both SS1 and SS2 to the right to disable the 12db gain from the preamplifier circuit
Relay controlled inputs.
One interesting feature is the ability to "bypass" the preamplifier section by moving two switches internally. The volume control remains in the signal path and you are supposed to turn the volume control to maximum. This allows you to pair the T-180 with an external preamp, or DAC with volume control.

The LME 49720 chips are mounted onto sockets, so you could tune the T-180 to taste by using other compatible opamps.

Ergonomically, I think the location of the power switch is less than desirable. Apart from the rocker switch being quite small and difficult to feel for, it was blocked by my left speaker cables that were connected to the binding posts via spade terminations.

I also found the gain quite high, with very little range for adjustment on the volume knob, especially when using the balanced input.

Other than that, operation is quite hassle free. The T-180 thoughtfully remembers your last input, and resets the motorised volume back to zero each time you switch on the machine. Yes, it is a hassle if you are using the T-180 as a power amp, but it sure beats blasting your system to bits.

The T-180 ran slightly warm after extended periods of operations. Partnering equipment was the following :-

Oppo 103D (as a transport via coaxial)
Mac Mini with Pure Music 1.88 (as a transport via USB)
Antelope Zodiac Gold with Paul Hynes power supply
KEF LS50 speakers on Partington Dreadnought Broadside speaker stands

Sound Quality

Most of my prior experience with Class-T equipped amps have been with the TA2024 chip which is a low powered design. My memories of it - nice, smooth and warm sounding.

The T-180 was therefore quite a shock during listening tests. It has a neutral balance with a very clean and open mid-band. If you are looking for a euphonic and cuddly amp, this is certainly not one of them.

(Via balanced inputs)

Bass authority was very good, with a tight grip. There was really nice speed here which contributed to a fast and tuneful presentation. A relatively moderate amount of mid-bass bloom meant that the T-180 had a slightly full bass with good weight.

Midrange had good clarity and a slight sweetness. Vocals were grain-free and easy to listen to for extended periods of time.

Treble is good and evenly balanced compared to the rest of the frequencies.

Resolution is well above average, with good retrieval of microdetails. However, a slight reduction of air  made percussion work a little bit more closed-in than I am used to, with some diminishing of cymbal decay.

On the staging front, the T-180 had reasonable depth and width, but presentation had less three dimensionality by absolute standards. Compared to the Job 225 which I own, the T-180 had flatter perspectives.

Control over busy mixes was also good with adequate separation between instrument lines.

In use, I never found the T-180 lacking in power or drive - the moderate efficiency KEF LS50 didn't even make it sweat one bit.

(via single ended inputs)

The T-180 sounds much brighter through it's single ended inputs. You get a livelier sound, with a trade-off in separation, microdetail and a flatter soundstage. I ended up listening to the T-180 during most of the evaluation period through it's balanced inputs, which I preferred.

(with an external preamp)

I also tried driving the T-180 directly through the volume control of my Antelope Zodiac Gold DAC. The Antelope has a very high quality volume control, with attenuation controlled via a relay activated resistor network. I preferred using the the T-180's internal preamp circuit for better soundstage depth and more dynamics and drive. You could say that this is a testament  to the quality of the T-180's line stage. Although the result was not as expected, it is a nice option to have.

Conclusion

I was very impressed with the T-180 in the one month I had it with me. You get very competent performance and generous amounts of power - all for a modest price tag.

I would exercise some caution in matching the T-180 with bright sounding equipment. Apart from that, the T-180 is highly recommended.

The T-180 is available in Singapore from

Horizon Acoustics
144 Upper Bukit Timah Road
#03-15 Beauty World Centre
Singapore 588177


http://www.horizonacoustics.com/

Horizon Acoustics is offering the T-180 for an introductory price of S$ 650 at the time of writing.

A word of thanks to Mr. K.M. Poon of Horizon Acoustics for supplying the review unit.