Sunday, April 30, 2017

Black Cat Cable - The Tube Extreme RCA cable

Introduction

A very long time ago when I was a wee little audiophile, there lived a cable designer. His name was Chris Sommovigo and he designed a really famous digital cable that become the go-to cable for SPDIF use - The Illuminati D-60. 

Now, wee little audiophiles don't have a lot of money, especially ones that did not have a part-time job, nor rich parents. Hence, I never got that D-60, and after much sleepless nights worrying about signal reflections as a result of impedance mismatches, I took the cheap way out and purchased some 75 ohm coaxial cable used for TV aerial use and soldered some RCA connectors on them. 

Illuminati eventually got acquired by Kimber cable, and Chris ended up starting a few other companies such as Stereovox and Black Cat Cable. I finished school, got a job and can thankfully afford some audiophile toys for myself from tome to time.

Recently, Black Cat Cable offered a limited run of a modestly priced RCA cable, "The Tube" with the very sexy XOX connectors. To a weak-minded audiophile like me, this was like dangling fish before a very hungry cat. My brain is programmed similarly to that of a cat, and I never say no to food. 

A short while later, a package arrived and the unboxing ceremony was an event in itself. I am very fond of Japanese packaging, and as far as I am concerned, this cable box could very well pass itself off as a presentation box for my many beautiful Japanese fountain pens.

I ended up loving this cable as much as my many fountain pens, except that this cable actually cost much less ! 

Black Cat Cable - The Company  

I had read about Chris's move to Japan - a small seaside town in Kanagawa prefecture. A move from an American city to a small town in Japan - that's really quite a change ! 

Chris was kind enough to answer some questions for me, and here is his verbatim reply (except for obvious typo corrections) - 

Q - Chris, your approach is really different from other industry participants. You choose to run your own winding machines, and even terminate all your cables yourself. This is really different from the new world order of getting an OEM manufacturer to fabricate a cable for you in bulk. Any insights as to why you choose to pursue this route that is a lot more difficult - both in terms of resources and scalability ?

A - The traditional methods of manufacturing cable from the industrial segment rely on big thermoplastic extrusions being squeezed out over bare wires, and this more or less limits the expressions of design that one can indulge in. There’s nothing inherently terrible about that approach - 99.9999% of cables sold in the consumer electronics industry are produced in this way.

The industrial model relies upon routine processes, and so when it comes to cable designs most companies have to shoehorn their intentions and desires into the existing paradigm of the industrial routine. I wanted to do some unusual things that were not really plausible from within the industrial model of manufacturing, so I had to figure out how to do them in my own workshop by creating and adapting processes and machines for my purposes. This has taken several years of continuous development, and evolutions in my thinking about how to approach the basic architecture of building a cable from raw materials. I’m at a point now where I’m satisfied that the processes are fine tuned and I can express my design motifs confidently.

In terms of scalability, these processes can be scaled up, but I’m not certain that I want to expand too much. My intention is not to be fighting for market share in all the top distributors and dealers around the world. To do that effectively and compete against the well known brands you have to do what they do: offer 80%+ margins, spiffs, free product, and on and on. I’m just a little guy … I can’t play those games. I can’t get in that race to the bottom.

What I do is highly specialized, and so I think it is better to keep the scale modest. Yes, there is room for some expansion, but this is High End Audio … not general consumer electronics. For my own philosophy, I think that there needs to be a degree of art and artisanship in what we do. We have to earn our keep in this way by producing authentic and specialized products for people who appreciate fine things. By the nature of that philosophy, this can’t be done on a large scale and it can’t be done cheaply. 

Q - I feel that your move to Japan really resonates with your product ethos. The culture there really believes in pride of workmanship, regardless of whether the job is simple or complex / highly skilled. Any comments ?

A - I think of Japan’s traditions of artisanal expertise coupled with the reputation for precision as a kind of ideal mix of characteristics. There’s a world of extraordinary craftsmanship here that connects past and present in ways that are really quite nourishing and enriching to the soul. I don’t dare think of myself in these terms, but I deeply appreciate and somewhat idolize people here who have mastered their crafts and who preserve their traditions. I’m in an environment that suits my way of thinking when it comes to my products and my art, and it’s quite nourishing to be immersed in this world.

Q - You are one of the very few in the industry to use proprietary in-house designed connectors. The Lovecraft and XOX connectors. Could you tell us a bit about these connectors ? I noticed that you don't follow the current trend of low-mass designs.

These are neither low mass not high mass, really. They are suitable for what I need them for, and there is an advantage to the way in which I execute the pin designs: they are a direct-gold plated copper hollow pin with a set screw. There are raised edges inside the pin so that when I use the set screw to tack down the conductor, the edges bite into the conductors and ensure a very low contact-resistance. I then flow solder into the joint so that there is some strain relief and also so that it forms a proper hermetic seal.

This approach is fundamentally excellent for making electrical connections such as these, but I never found any connectors available that had all of these attributes together. So I designed my own. These are quite a departure from my old Xhadow designs. Most obviously I am not using silver-plating any longer. I do like it better than gold plating, but the problems of tarnishing over time were problematic and erased the benefits of using silver plating. Although I retain the set-screw approach that I designed into the Xhadow connectors, the obvious departure is the hollow pin and the raised internal ridges (which I think is original and a bit clever). 

Q - Your geometries are quite complex. I guess that simple geometries didn't quite cut it for you ?

A - Simple geometries are effective to a degree, and they certainly fit into the industrial routines. I had different ideas that I really wanted to express, ways of ensuring high velocities inside the cable, and ways of making certain that they weren’t suffering from skin effect and proximity effect. The Matrix and The Matrix Mk. II are probably my most complicated builds that are in production, but upcoming will be my Super-Reference “Indigo” and that adds a new dimension of complexity to the approach I use with The Matrix.

But there’s also something positive to be said about distilling ideas into very simple and elegant forms, and to this end I have a project, called “AIRWAVE”, that is based upon the distillation and simplification of something that was designed during the Indigo development cycle. It’s not nearly the same as what’s being done for Indigo, but it benefits by the approach and allows me to create something very good and yet quite inexpensive. I’m quite excite about AIRWAVE because it’s going to bring some seriously high performance to folks who want entry-level products. 

Q - Any chance we will see power cords in the future ? 


A - Perhaps. Probably. Possibly. I don’t know … lots of folks ask me about them. Maybe it’s time.

The Tube Extreme Cable





The XOX RCA plug up close. Puts most connectors out there to shame.


Since we are on the topic of artisan produced works of art from Japan, here is a picture of my Nakaya Piccolo Arai-shu fountain pen. Ebonite body and urushi lacquer finished.


To be continued ...


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Nagra BPS Phono Stage - Brief Impressions

Introduction

As luck would have it, a kind soul lent me a Nagra BPS phono stage for a week to conduct an analog workshop for a small group. The BPS was handed over to me in a small plastic flightcase, which was a refreshing change from the equipment I have had to handle recently (which could double up as weights in the gym !)




Description

The Nagra BPS is slightly larger than the palm of my hand, and operates from a single 9V battery. It has a variety of loading and gain options, which should make it easy to mate with a variety of cartridges. MC gain is partly accomplished using in-house wound transformers.

The top cover of the BPS removes easily using the supplied hex key, giving access to various jumpers and the loading board. A separate hatch allows you to swop the 9V battery easily without having to open the top cover. 

The front panel has a single toggle switch with three positions, "on", "off" and "test" (for battery life). The rear panel has two pairs of RCA sockets and an incredibly small grounding post. A DC socket allows you to use the BPS with an external power supply (7-10 V DC). I used this feature only to keep the circuit warmed-up and switched to the battery for listening sessions.




Gain is a very healthy 53 db for MM and 64 db for MC. Jumpers allow you to attenuate the gain by 16 db if you require. The resistive load settings for the BPS are 100, 150, 220, 330, 470 and 1000 ohms. 

I was a bit concerned about battery life in use, but the manual states that the battery life is 100 hours, and in the 4-5 hours that I used the unit, the dealer installed battery held up fine.

Sound Quality

I tried it first with my high output MC cartridge, a Sumiko Blackbird. The high frequencies were distorted, but using the 16db attenuator fixed all of that. Compared to my Whest Two phonostage, the Nagra had a lighter and faster tone. 

The workshop host was using a midrange Pro-ject deck with an Ortofon 2M Blue MM cartridge. The differences between the Nagra and Whest were clearly audible, with some members of the audience preferring the more linear and extended sound of the Nagra and some preferring the more romantic tone of the Whest. The Nagra had a more neutral tone, with a very tight and fast bass line, and a drier but more extended top end. I also felt that the Nagra's soundstage presentation was more distant, but with better separation and more precise imaging.

Moving the Nagra back home, I tried it with my main rig, a Soulines Kubrick DCX with Jelco SA-750 tonearm. I tried a Hana SH cartridge - a high output MC cartridge (review coming) and a Shelter 5000 MC cartridge. I used my Graham Slee Reflex M and Elevator as a comparison phono stage. The Nagra sounded quite different in this setup. On both cartridges, midrange had a more laidback and subtly creamy quality to it, while both frequency extremes were clean and tightly controlled. The Graham Slee had a much more dynamic presentation, with a more vibrant and tonally dense delivery. Staging wise, the Graham Slee projected a more three dimensional stage, with a greater sense of depth and height. In comparison, you could describe the Nagra as being subtly expressive, but with a more restrained delivery.

Conclusion

Performance wise, I would put the Nagra to be on par with the Graham Slee duo, although their tonal balance are quite different. As a matter of reference, both phono stages are in a similar price bracket locally. Assuming that you like a more neutral tone, the Nagra is an impressive phono stage.
   



Thursday, March 9, 2017

Hifiman Shangri-La Private Event at AV One

Introduction

You got to give it to Hifiman. It takes guts to launch a headphone system with a USD 50,000 price tag.

Clearly aimed into Sennheiser Orpheus II territory, the Shangri-La headphone system consists of a fully balanced drive tube amplifier / energizer and a Electrostatic headphone.

AV One, the local dealer for Hifiman arranged a private event to showcase the Shangri-La. Dr. Fang Bian, CEO and founder of Hifiman graced the event and answered any questions posed by the audience.

Description

The Shangri-La headphone amplifier is very large, with four 6SN7 tubes in the input stage, and four 300B tubes in the output stage. The amplifier is designed to offer balanced drive, and the microprocessor controlled volume knob activates a series of relay controlled resistors to set the volume level.

Dr. Fang mentioned that they enjoy a very special relationship with TJ Fullmusic, the tube manufacturer, which is located just a short distance away from them in the Chinese city of Tianjin. A vigorous selection process is employed - only a handful are selected from each batch sent (consisting of a few hundred tubes).






According to Dr. Fang, tube amplifiers are a perfect design for electrostatic headphones due to their high voltage design. Unlike speaker loads, an electrostatic headphone load requires very little current, and an output transformer is not required. 

The driver membrane of the headphones are treated with a nano coating that ensures that performance is not adversely affected by humidity levels (a bane in Singapore with it's tropical humidity). He acknowledged that nano coating is not new, but he felt that the coating employed in the Shangri-La had no adverse effect on the sound, unlike those used by competitors.

I asked Dr. Fang about the cost of the amplifier and headphone. Dr. Fang said that the amplifier cost more to build from a materials point of view. However for Hifiman, the amplifier was relatively easier to design compared to the headphones which required a lot more effort in research and development.

Sound Quality

I spent about 15 minutes alone with the Shangri-La listening to a variety of music that was installed on the supplied notebook computer that was in turned hooked up to a Chord Dave DAC.

The Shangri-La has quite a unique sound signature. It has an immediately recognisable warm and liquid signature. However, it also has a high detailed presentation and very extended top-end. It also has an effortless feel to it, with an easy going sound signature that should make long listening sessions comfortable. Think lightning fast transients with a natural leading edge and decay and that's the Shangri-La for you.

Tonally, it sits somewhere in between the Sennheiser HD600 and 800. Dynamics wise, it is not the most impactful headphone I've heard, but I would say that details wise, it is up there with the best. 

If we disregard the price tag, these are very nice sounding headphones - I could easily live with these. But the price tag on these make these unobtainable for all but a select few. Statement-fi products like the Shangri-La do not follow the usual rules on performance vs cost. They exist simply because they can - there will always be the customer that demands the very best, at any cost.

I asked Dr. Fang whether we could expect any trickle-down products at something mere mortals like myself could afford. He said that something is being planned, and left it at that. Don't keep us waiting too long !

Conclusion

Listening to the Shangri-La was an experience. Let's hope we get a more affordable Shangri-La lite model soon.

Thank you to AV One for inviting me for this exclusive event, and also a big thanks to Dr. Fang of Hifiman for patiently answering my questions.

AV One 
http://av1group.com.sg

Hifiman
http://www.hifiman.com




Sunday, February 26, 2017

Holo Spring Level 3 DAC - A mini review

Introduction

I recently spent a few quality days with the Holo Spring Level 3 DAC, courtesy of Sound Affairs, Singapore distributor for Holo. There is plenty of chatter in various audio forums on the Holo Spring DAC, especially on the high level of performance it delivers for it's price.

Description

The Holo Spring is a really nice looking DAC (I adore those copper side panels), and is solidly built. It probably has the largest display I've ever seen, and the dot matrix panel is fully legible even from my listening position. 

The Spring DAC is a R2R DAC design. What differentiates the Spring from the rest of it's competition is that fact that DSD is decoded using a R2R circuit too. This is achieved by having two separate R2R circuits - one for PCM and the other for DSD.

The front panel has four buttons. The first button puts the DAC in standby mode, while the rest of the buttons control the display intensity, oversampling mode and source. There are four oversampling modes, NOS (no over-sampling), OS (both PCM and DSD are oversampled in their native format), OS PCM (oversampled PCM - DSD is converted to PCM), and OS DSD (oversampled DSD - PCM is converted to DSD).





The rear panel has both single-ended and balanced analog outputs, while a total of 6 digital inputs are offered - USB (galvanically isolated), coaxial, BNC, AES, Toslink and I2S via HDMI (PS Audio standard).

In use, the Spring DAC runs quite warm. It was left powered on for the few days I had it in my system. 

Dimensions wise, the Spring DAC measures 430 mm x 300 mm x 55 mm, and weighs 8.5 kg. 

Sound Quality

I was not able to do detailed comparisons of the Spring DAC using various digital inputs or its oversampling modes due to the short evaluation period I had. However, I did find that NOS mode sounded the most pleasing to my ears, while the tone of the unit was similar via SPDIF and I2S. I had a slight preference for I2S (fed via a Singxer SU-1 USB / SPDIF bridge) and stuck to that.

To be continued ...



X Audio - Entreq event on 14 January 2017

Frankie Pang, representative of Entreq Asia was in town recently to meet up with Entreq users. Frankie spent an afternoon at X-Audio, the Singapore dealer for Entreq, mingling with both Entreq customers and prospective ones.



I have been using Entreq products for a while now, having owned and used the Minimus and Tellus grounding box (together with Eartha Silver grounding cables) for a few years now. I did a review on the Olympus Ground Box, Tellus and Eartha Silver grounding cables (click here for the Olympus Review, and here for the Tellus / Eartha review).

Frankie shared with me information on some new products, in particular the K2, Everest and Tellus 2.

The K2 and Everest are upgrades available to any Entreq grounding box user - you simply need to replace one or more of the binding posts with either the K2 or Everest. Frankie was confident that the use of either could significantly improve the performance of the ground box in question. He suggested that using one or two pieces should give the most significant gains.

Frankie explained that the K2 uses a basic alloy of metals, while the Everest utilises a more complex composition. According to Entreq, the addition of a K2 or Everest to the Minimus ground box (which has a single binding post), would allow it to outperform a Silver Minimum. 



Moving on to the Tellus II, this is a significant redesign of the original Tellus grounding box, and is in fact three grounding boxes in a single case - a Silver Minimus for the right and left binding posts, and a Silver Minimus and Atlantis Minimum for the centre binding post. Unlike the original Tellus, all three binding posts for the Tellus II are electrically isolated from one another.

I left the event with a K2 and Everest for experimentation. Stay tuned for the results !

Monday, January 23, 2017

Vinshine Audio DAC-R2R Ref

Introduction

R2R DACs seem to be all the rage nowadays. However, not everyone can afford the DACs from MSB or Totaldac. Luckily we do have some more affordable options now. Soekris Engineering brought discrete resistor R2R to the masses, with an affordable full populated board - just add a suitable power transformer and you were effectively good to go. Wait a minute - can't read a circuit diagram to save your life, and scared of handling potentially lethal voltages ? Have no fear - our very own local company, Vinshine Audio has come up with a ready made product utilising a Soekris board. My review model came with the Rev 3 0.02 % board.

To an oldie audiophile like me, the fuss about R2R is quite amusing. When I started out in the hobby, all CD players utilised R2R DACs. A short while later, Philips started extolling the virtues of bitstream DACs. In fact, I secretly lusted after a Marantz CD 10 that used a bitstream DAC.

Fast forward to the present, and the DAC in my main setup is an R2R DAC, while the DAC in my second setup is a Delta Sigma design. The rest of my spare DACs are an even mix of both. You can get great and truly awful sounding DACs that fall into both camps. A DAC is built from far more from the decoding chip alone - the technical implementation, power supply and output stage etc. all play an important part in the quality of the finished product.

Some history about Vinshine Audio - this is a Singapore company started by Alvin Chee. Alvin is quite active in our local audio forum and has been helping us to get our hands on affordable audio products for a while. He has a long standing collaboration with Jay's Audio in China, and this DAC is designed by Vinshine but manufactured by Jay's Audio.

The heart of this DAC is the Soekris R2R board - you can read all about the Soekris board here

Description

The Vinshine Audio DAC-R2R Ref is finished in satin black and feels solid - it is much heavier than it looks. It has compact dimensions at 300 (W) x 290 (D) x 80 (H) mm (excluding feet and the sockets / knobs) and weighs 6.4 kg.  




The unit feels sturdy and solidly finished. I really like the design. The silver knobs and name plate on the fascia looks very classy and elegant, with a nice contrast to the black colour of the unit. The knob on the left is the input selector, while the knob on the right is the volume control. A toggle switch on the right switches the DAC between fixed volume and variable volume mode. Twin 6.3 mm sockets allow headphone listening with your favourite person (just remember to use headphones of similar sensitivity since there is only one volume knob). The four blue LED lights indicate the selected input and variable volume mode.




The back panel has a pair of single ended and balanced analog outputs, three digital inputs (USB, AES and coaxial - the latter two inputs are transformer isolated), and the power switch. You also have an RS-232 female DB-9 socket, which allows you to upgrade the firmware of the Soekris board and upload new digital filters. Despite the labeling, there is no I2S input. Another oddity is the orientation of the analog outputs, which place the right channel on the left, instead of the conventional placement of using the right side. No instructions or cables are provided for the firmware upgrades and filter uploads, so you are left to your own devices to fiddle around. 


Parts quality used is high, with twin Noratel transformers for the internal linear power supply - one each for the DAC board and headamp circuit board. A super regulated circuit is used to supply the DC voltage rails for the DAC board which should result in very low ripple, while the headamp board relies on LT137/337 precision regulators. Premium capacitors in selected areas are used such as Nichicon Muse and Rubycon ZLH.

The asynchronous USB input is handled by an Amanero board. It played all my test files without any issue, including DSD. 

The analog outputs are taken from the buffered audio output circuit on the Soekris board (the Soekris board also offers a direct output, trading off drive and output impedance).

The headphone amp board has a socketed opamp, so feel free to experiment to get the tone you like. The stock opamp provided is the Burr Brown OPA2134P.

Some words on the volume control, the toggle should be activated with the unit powered down, to avoid the Soekris board latching on to it's +10 db mode (a built-in feature). I forgot to do that and ended up clipping my preamp input. Also, note that the volume pot directly accesses the volume control in the Soekris board which is a digital-domain volume control. 28 bit resolution allows a little bit of headroom for digital attenuation before you start to have data loss.

I inserted the Vinshine into my main system, replacing my Totaldac D1-dual. I used the AES digital input most of the time, and the balanced analog outputs (converted to single ended using Totaldac converters, which are transformer based).

Sound Quality

The review unit was kindly burnt-in by Alvin. For good measure, I put another 48 hours of continuous play through my preferred digital input and analog outputs for good measure. I found that the Vinshine reached an optimal state of performance after extended warm-up time - at least a day or two. The casing was just slightly warm to the touch, you should leave this continuously powered up.

Listening over several days, I found the Vinshine to have an inverted "smiley-face" frequency curve - with a lack of extension of both frequency extremes. This is quite subtle, and I noticed this as reduced slam on large scale orchestral works, as well as subdued energy in the shimmering of cymbals and ambience. There was some smoothing over of detail in the midrange, but otherwise the Vinshine was quite detailed and resolving. 

Tonally, the Vinshine is a sweet and laidback performer. It has an easy-going and relaxed demeanour which should make it a perfect companion to enjoy an evening unwinding (with your beverage of choice). It's polite presentation will also take a bit of edge off spitty and more raw sounding recordings. 

Soundstaging is spot-on with appropriate width and depth, with accurate placement of instruments and vocals. I did find that the Vinshine sounded smaller in scale compared to my reference equipment, so perhaps it is not the first choice if you like listening to larger scale works like orchestral pieces or rock concerts.

The Vinshine's headphone stage is quite good. It had plenty of drive, and had no problem with either my Beyer DT-880 (250 ohm version) or Sennheiser Massdrop HD6xx headphones. However, hiss was quite noticeable with my Ultimate Ears Superfi 5 IEMs.

From a value perspective, the Vinshine is outstanding. You get very competent performance from both the DAC and headphone stage. It punches well above it's weight and compares very favourably to it's competitors. 

Conclusion

The Vinshine is a very nice piece of kit at it's asking price. It has a likeable character, although it tends to favour certain genres of music more. Recommended.

Vinshine Audio

http://www.vinshine.audio
Email : vinshineaudio@gmail.com
Recommended Retail Price : USD 1,480




Sunday, January 1, 2017

Neutral Cable - USB Reference I (Improved)

Introduction

Italian hand-made things are beautiful - artistic, and made with passion and flair. You may not necessarily agree with their aesthetics, but they invariably make a statement !

Neutral Cable are a Rome based company that makes their cables by hand. The cable on test here is the USB Reference I (Improved) and is their flagship USB cable. The conductors used for data are made of teflon insulated 7N purity solid core silver wires. Meanwhile, the power supply conductors are shielded and spaced from the data cables to avoid interference.

The new improved version promises better separation between instruments, better dynamics and articulation of low frequencies compared to the USB Reference.

My review sample came in a nice velvet case. The 1.2m cable was sheathed in a nice bright yellow jacket and was neatly and well-made with a single USB head (Neutral Cable's website mentions that a double-head type cable can be made upon request). 






The USB Reference I is Neutral Cable's flagship USB cable and is priced at EUR 500/600 for 0.8 / 1.2 m lengths. That puts it comfortably in the territory of other highly regarded cables like the Wireworld Platinum Starlight, or the JCAT Reference USB.

Sound Quality

According to conventional audiophile wisdom, silver cables have a fast, bright and detailed tone. My own experience with silver suggests otherwise, with pure silver cables sounding detailed, very smooth and full. Some people say that silver cables have very weak low frequencies. I personally think this is a result of using very thin silver conductors to keep costs low. 

In any event, the Reference I is a highly detailed, full sounding and very musical sounding cable. It is quite smooth too, with a fluidity that is totally free from grain. How about that, from a silver cable ?

Tonally, the Reference I avoids the precision razor sharp sound of some cables that emphasise the leading edge of notes, but usually end up sounding fatiguing in the long run. Instead, the Reference I has a full bodied sound, with fleshed-out images. More importantly, it does this without sounding dark, smoothing over details, or rolling-off the top-end of the frequency spectrum. Some users may find that the transients are slightly soft-sounding and lacking in snap though - it depends on your musical diet and preferences. 

Low frequencies have a nice bloom and wetness to it, with some fullness in the midbass. Compared to my Wireworld Platinum Starlight (Series 6), it lacks some punch in the lowest registers. 

Both the midrange and high frequencies of the Reference I are balanced, with a highly detailed and controlled sound. There is a sweet and effortless presentation that makes vocals very easy to listen to. The Wireworld in comparison sounded aggressive and a bit bright.

Imaging is well-sorted out, although image sizes are slightly larger than usual, with a subtle forward projection of the soundstage.

The character of the Reference I was consistent - I tried it in two different setups and my listening notes for both were generally similar. 

Conclusion

It is really easy to like the Reference I - it's relaxed, sweet and very natural sounding. It has a wholesome sound that is highly detailed yet effortless. It's certainly not a cheap cable, but I consider the asking price to be well justified by it's performance - Recommended. 


Neutral Cable

USB Reference I - EUR 500 (0.8m) / EUR 600 (1.2m)
http://www.neutralcable.it/