Killing The Rega Buzz

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I'm not a fan of the "wall wart". These generic devices supplied with hi-fi equipment are usually under-powered, low quality expressions of manufacturer torpidity. They huddle uncomfortably on crowded power boards, occasionally falling off or dropping dead. And sometimes, they buzz. 

A client recently recounted the sad story of how, having replaced the humming wall wart supplied with a Rega turntable outboard PSU, the new wart droned on just as loud. A little investigation revealed that buzzing Rega warts are a common occurrence. This was not exactly a surprise, as little wall warts do tend to quiver frantically, as if aware of their inevitable demise.

The offending vibrato, soon to become castrate.

The offending vibrato, soon to become castrate.

While I'm using a Rega device as an example here, they are but one of many offenders who have sullied their products with god-awful power supplies. Thorens, Oracle, Linn, Ariston, Linn, Technics, Linn and so many others benefit enormously from power supply improvements, which begs the question; why it wasn't done properly in the first place? Fortunately, at least in the case of the Rega, a simple solution is at hand. Before we go there though, we need to be aware of the extent of the problem, which is more than just an anoying buzz.  

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While the Rega wall wart in question proclaims a 24 volt output, the actual output will vary considerably, depending on the load (load being the amount of current it is being called on to supply). With no load, the output is actually 30 volts AC (measured above) but drops down to 26 volts AC when connected to the PSU box, then  falls again with the turntable motor actually turning. This is because all that resides in the wart is a transformer. Transformers vary their output from no load to full load. The amount of this variation is referred to as regulation, which is expressed as a percentage (the lower the better). A little transformer like this one (under 10 watts) will have regulation worse than 20%, whereas a big transformer, say, 500 watts, will have a regulation figure of around 5%. I don't want to open the can of worms that is transformer design (as I'd like to get this posted before Christmas) but transformer type and quality do have a huge impact on the fidelity of any audio device they power. Manufacturers ignore this at their peril. Which gives me another reason to dislike the wall wart; the transformer is perhaps the most important part of the power supply, it should not be an afterthought. It is also usually the most expensive part of the power supply and hence a prime candidate for cost cutting; enter the wall wart. To be fair, an external wart, rather than integrated transformer, is a cost-effective way of powering products in a global market place where many different local mains voltages exist. 

Back to the Rega. The wart's 26VAC output, once rectified and filtered, is about 36 Volts DC. Hang on, where did all them extra volts come from Cletus? Its because the filter capacitors charge up to the peak of the incoming wave form, not the RMS voltage:

The Ol' Yeller Fluke says 36.74VDC and it's never wrong. After 14 years of being dropped, burned, drowned, crushed, retired, resurrected and retired again it's still going strong. It's outlived numerous other meters and I still use it all day, every day. In fact, it's my 4th most used tool, after the soldering iron, side cutters and sarcasm.

The Ol' Yeller Fluke says 36.74VDC and it's never wrong. After 14 years of being dropped, burned, drowned, crushed, retired, resurrected and retired again it's still going strong. It's outlived numerous other meters and I still use it all day, every day. In fact, it's my 4th most used tool, after the soldering iron, side cutters and sarcasm.

OK, it's 36 volts, so what? Look at the voltage rating on those capacitors (where the red and black probes are connected). It's 35 volts. That is an absolute maximum-thou-shalt-not-exceed-or-explosions-shall-ensue rating. Good practice would be to not exceed 80% of that 35V rating. If you want to push your luck you could go to 90% but any higher and early capacitor death is inevitable. 

So the buzzing wart is not actually our main concern, at least in terms of long term survival of the PSU. The solution to both problems is the same though; replace the transformer. The 1.5 amp transformer above costs less than half the price of the "genuine" 0.35 amp device next to it. It is specifically designed to be silent and being higher power (and quality), will have better regulation as well. Better, but not brilliant. We will use this to our advantage. The new transformer outputs 16VAC, not 24. This translates to about 22VDC after rectification...well it would, if not for that regulation thing, which is just as well because the resulting DC voltage is then reduced by IC regulators down to + and - 20VDC and a margin of only 2VDC isn't enough for them to work with. I'm going to avoid the temptation to stray into a treatise on regulation circuits but I will raise two points; Rega have chosen to "float" these regulators, something I don't do as regulators float almost as well as Natalie Wood, often with the same result. Secondly, the heat dissipated by these devices is reduced dramatically by lowering the input voltage to them, which is good. So, 20VDC isnt enough, but that's OK because the transformer's regulation, or lack of it, results in about 25VDC under load at the IC voltage regulators, which is perfect.  

A large drill and surface mount electronics...What could possibly go wrong! A cable gland will replace the flimsy DC socket when we hard-wire the transformer.

A large drill and surface mount electronics...What could possibly go wrong! A cable gland will replace the flimsy DC socket when we hard-wire the transformer.

Theoretically then, we don't need to change the 35V capacitors, as 25VDC is way within their 35VDC rating. The capacitors are 220 Micro Farad (220µF), which is kinda pathetic. For the pedantic among you, yes I know that two of these capacitors are in parallel (a pair each for the positive and negative voltage rails), so we actually have 440µF per rail, which is not pathetic, just inadequate. Since we are being so punctilious, may I take this opportunity to point out that energy storage and capacitance are not the same thing (which appears to be a common misconception). This is why a 10,000µF capacitor charged to 5 volts will make a wee spark if you short it out with a copper wire while the same capacitor charged to 450 volts will vaporise the wire and copper plate your retinas. If you really want to know how much energy (Joules) a given capacitor is actually harboring the formula is Energy = 1/2 CV^2 (where C is capacitance in Farads and V is voltage).   

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Replacement of these capacitors is easy, inexpensive and effective. In this case, I chose to replace the 4 x 220µF surface mount devices (SMD) with 4 x conventional 2200µF capacitors and an inductor for good measure. Use of inductors is not a worm-can, its a black art and since it isn't a Solstice full moon I'm not going to elaborate now.

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One could go bigger with the filter capacitors. How big? As big as your budjet allows (watch the fuse and rectifier ratings if you go nuts here). If they don't fit upright in the Rega PSU they may be laid down, like so:

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I'm told there are aftermarket linear (as opposed to switch-mode, which should be avoided) power supplies available for the Rega and other devices. That sounds like a good idea to me, however, the above modifications will provide most of the benefits of an external regulated supply at a much lower cost. If this was my turntable, I'd be looking further downstream at the regulators and beyond but the scope of this upgrade was limited by time and cost. As such, it's a cheap and effective way to silence the power supply and improve an already good turntable. 

William Crampton

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Now the RP8 is humming...in a good way.

Turntable Temptation: the pleasures and pitfalls of novelty.

I was thinking about retro hi-fi gear recently when a certain medieval monk came to mind. Perhaps it wasn’t the most obvious of segues, but I happened to recall that Gilbert of Nogent, who was abbot of a monastery in Northern France in the early twelfth century, had railed against a desire for new things.  Gilbert left a large body of works including an autobiography and a history of the First Crusade. Gilbert didn’t like a lot of what was going on around him, especially outpourings of popular enthusiasm like the ‘Peoples Crusade’ and a communal uprising in nearby Laon. He attributed these disturbances to a desire for novelty among the ill-informed; he felt that in their ignorance the common people had lost touch with what was of real value, and had been led into excess, false hope, and sin.

If it sounds half as good as it looks...

If it sounds half as good as it looks...


Are those of us into retro hi-fi gear the modern equivalents of Gilbert? Of course we are. We think that we have avoided thraldom to a demonic late capitalism with its endless cycles of constructed consumerism. We find value beyond fads and fashion – beyond novelty.
But I have to confess that I’m an apostate: I bought the new ‘anniversary-edition’ Miracord 90 turntable by Elac.  It was like the Temptation of Saint Anthony. The svelte Elac, with its beguiling minimalism, is so damned beautiful that merely looking at pictures of it seems to blacken the soul. Its nostalgic links with Elac Miracord turntables of the past also enabled me to tell myself that it wasn’t entirely new anyway. Well, they say that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. But neither, as I found out, is novelty because acquiring the new Elac turned out to be both a pleasing and a disappointing experience – as is more-or-less inevitable, I guess, when, Oscar Wilde style, one resists a temptation by yielding to it.

The Elac/Wand: Art Deco meets Blake's Seven in an unlikely synergy.

The Elac/Wand: Art Deco meets Blake's Seven in an unlikely synergy.


I wasn’t tempted just by the Elac’s looks, either; it’s also appealing because it’s clever. Suspended sub-chassis are no longer fashionable, which means that motor vibrations are potentially more of an issue in belt-drive turntables than they once were. Elac have, however, encased the motor in a high-tech gauzy material, thereby in effect decoupling it from the plinth (and therefore from the platter). The motor itself is also a DC unit, so it should be relatively smooth in any case.

The electronically speed-controlled platter is heavy, too, weighing in at 6.5 kilos. I have, by the way, increasingly come to regard a heavy platter as a – or perhaps the – sine qua non of good turntable performance.
So, buoyed by these impressive design features, and with a potent cocktail of anticipation, trepidation, and guilty apostasy coursing through my veins, I had a listen. How did it sound? Pretty good: it presented a nice sound-stage and the musical instruments were clearly defined. But naturally I had to compare it with something else, so I switched to my old Orpheus turntable. In retrospect, I realise that I was trying to be kind to the beautiful new Elac as the Orpheus doesn’t sound quite as dynamic my other turntables – probably because it’s a hybrid idler-belt unit, rather than a pure idler drive. The Orpheus nevertheless blew the Elac away in terms of pace, excitement, and even detail.

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But the old Orpheus is fitted with a Wand unipivot tonearm from the superbly named Design Build Listen in New Zealand and an Ortofon 2M Black pick-up cartridge. For a comparison between the two turntables to be meaningful, I’d need the same arm-cartridge set-up on the Elac. I had reservations about the Elac arm anyway – it looked like an OEM subcontract job – so I ordered another Wand from Simon at Design Build Listen.
While waiting for the Wand to arrive, Bill from The Factory and I examined the Elac’s main bearing. Bill had suggested this. I was sceptical, but I humoured him. I’m glad I did because we found that there was no lubrication at all in the bearing except for a thin smear of grease. I was shocked, but worse was to come. The sapphire ball bearing had already begun to wear the end of the spindle – after about 30 minutes playing time! We then discovered that the brass thrust plate had a hole in it right under where the bearing sits. I was dumbfounded. For the hole can only have been put there so that any lubricant that happened to be in the bearing would drain out.

The Elac thrust plate and lower spindle sleeve. A ruby ball resides on the thrust plate, between it and the heavy platter's spindle base.

The Elac thrust plate and lower spindle sleeve. A ruby ball resides on the thrust plate, between it and the heavy platter's spindle base.


Fortunately I have some tiny Teflon pads I bought from Italian e-bay seller Audiosilente to upgrade the bearing on my Lenco turntable. I attached one of these to the tip of the Elac spindle to cover the wear and to reduce friction, and I glued another under the thrust plate to block the hole there. I then did something radical: I put oil in the bearing.

The upper sleeve and spindle/sub platter. Combined with the thrust plate and lower sleeve above, it now accommodates a huge oil reservoir.

The upper sleeve and spindle/sub platter. Combined with the thrust plate and lower sleeve above, it now accommodates a huge oil reservoir.


Having recovered from my post-purchase tristesse, with a Wand tonearm and Ortofon cartridge installed, and comforted by knowing that the turntable wasn’t destroying itself as it played records, I felt good. My mood of elation – perhaps that cocktail again – spilled over into my first listening session with the new and now improved Elac. The sound was much better, with excellent space and good, tight bass. For once, you could appreciate the bass on The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet, for example. This gave Sympathy for the Devil even more clout than usual (though I did wonder what Gilbert would have made of the song). But the standout characteristic of the turntable-arm-cartridge combination was its presentation of musical detail. The final song on Beggars Banquet, Salt of the Earth, has always struck me as being rather overblown and shambolic, but I was now able to discern the various components in that song’s wall of sound, and to see them all working together as music. The music itself, too, emerged out of an inky blackness; the ‘noise floor’, without a whiff of rumble or vibration, was subterranean.
But I was about to discover that novelty could be even further improved.

More Wands than Hogwarts...

More Wands than Hogwarts...

A while back Bill made a control box/power supply for me when he installed a DC motor in my old Thorens TD 160 belt-drive turntable. He now suggested that we run the Elac from the same box. I remembered that the DC motor with its power supply had made a huge difference to the Thorens, particularly in terms of rhythm and dynamics, so I thought that something along the same lines would occur with the Elac. Surprisingly, though, that didn’t happen; there was a significant improvement, but it was in musical detail rather than dynamics. In other words, the already existing characteristic strength of the Elac turntable had been further strengthened.


The new and improved Elac can now hold its own against my other turntables. Yet I’ve found that comparing it with the others in any conventional A-B sense tends to undermine the very idea of qualitative comparison because these ‘comparisons’ merely highlight the different characteristics of the various turntables. This is most evident when going from the Elac to my Lenco. The Elac is subtle, detailed, and neutral (in a good way), while the Lenco is so dynamic that it feels like you’re listening to a pile-driver (in a good way). I nevertheless feel that while I’ve probably got the best out of the Lenco already, the seductive neutrality of the Elac means that it still has more to offer; it should, for instance, turn out to be an ideal platform for on-going experimentation with different cartridges.

A Decca London grazing peacefully in its natural habitat; the uni-pivot Wand. 

A Decca London grazing peacefully in its natural habitat; the uni-pivot Wand. 


So the Elac began as a temptation, a flirtation with novelty, and ended up in my turntable pantheon. It’s not better or worse than the other deities there; it’s just different. But that’s what it is now. In contrast, the way it was when fresh out of the box surely vindicates Gilbert of Nogent’s distrust of novelty. Not that I can claim to be in Gilbert’s good books, though, for whichever way I squirm, I can’t deny that by worshipping at the altar of novelty, I have sold my soul to the Devil. But like Faust, I’m happy. For now.

Dr Walter Kudrycz

Old Yeller's Dead

Please forgive this brief digression from audio for the information of my fellow business owners. 

Please forgive this brief digression from audio for the information of my fellow business owners. 

The Aztec god Huitzilopochtli required the sacrifice of some fifty thousand beating human hearts every year. The Aztecs zealously provided them, knowing that failure to do so would result in all manner of disaster, from flood and famine to failure of the sunrise and even the collapse of the universe itself. In Memorial ServiceH. L. Mencken observes that, despite the magnitude of these propitiations, Huitzilopochtli is all but forgotten. Yet the sun continues to rise.

Once a year, those of us who run businesses are likely to receive a visit from another profit of doom; the Yellow Pages rep. Like an Aztec priest, the Yellow Pages rep elicits sacrifice through the employment of fear, uncertainty and doubt. This is such a well known sales technique that it even has an acronym: FUD. Organisations employing FUD do so because their product can't be sold on it's merits. It's an unscrupulous tactic but an effective one (just ask any politician).

Sensis Collections

Sensis Collections

While Yellow Pages advertising has always relied on FUD (think back to their TV ads portraying the dire predicament of those who missed the close date) it once had some basis in fact. Well aware of that, Yellow Pages (Sensis) charged fees so extortionate they made Aztec live heart extraction seem painless. While the charges have been falling as Google, and the web in general, erode Sensis' market share to the point of collapse, Yellow Pages advertising is still expensive. But every year, many businesses still fork over the cash, like they always have, just in case. Its time to stop. The sun will still rise.

The first month I started using Google advertising I was shocked to find it was precisely ten times more effective (in terms of people actually making contact) than Yellow Pages, at a fraction of the cost. A year or so on, the effectiveness of Google AdWords blows the Yellow Pages into well deserved oblivion, so much so that I limit, and frequently suspend, AdWords because it is too effective! Don't swallow the Sensis line that you need them for online advertising; you don't. A few hours spent learning about Google Analytics and other tools can not only save you a lot of money, but it gives you a lot more control over the targeting of your advertising. There's no reason to pay Sensis a cent when one can deal direct with Google.

Sensis call centre drones at work, or rest, sleep maybe, it's hard to tell.

Sensis call centre drones at work, or rest, sleep maybe, it's hard to tell.

Aside from the rapidly diminishing relevance and growing ineffectiveness of the Yellow Pages, on or off line, I will leave you with two more reasons to leave the dinosaur to fossilise. 1: The forest they cut down every year to deliver directories to our recycling bins. Most people, having tripped over the pile left at the front door, either file the directories (undisturbed in a dark place) for a year before they land in the bin, or drop them there on delivery. It's not only all that paper but the fuel used to dump directories at every home and business in the country. One can opt out of Yellow Pages deliveries and save a forest and an icecap here. 2: No more dealing with Sensis Drones. Sensis is infamous for being almost as fun to deal with as the Taliban. Every year that book was delivered, I'd hold my breath in anticipation of what they had managed to cock up this time. Almost every year they would find new ways to lower a bar that wouldn't daunt a centipede.

Thankfully, those days are over. Shares in Sensis now hold almost as much appreciation potential as those in Blockbuster. Many have predicted its final demise in as little as five years. Don't be there when that leaky boat goes down. Old Yeller's dead. And not before time. 

William Crampton

   

Soft Sabotage

NAD manufactured some really good sounding amplifiers. Until the 80's when they stopped making the 3020. While later NAD amps were encumbered with marketing devices such as their "Power Envelope" circuit, the 3020 was afflicted only by a somewhat fragile output stage (despite the fact that low impedance drive capability was claimed; I bet they held their breaths during the demo) and its "Soft Clipping" circuit, activated by a switch on the rear. Other than Soft Clipping, the 3020's limitations should be viewed in context of its low cost and as such are totally forgivable. Almost 40 years on it is still not only a good sounding amp, but an iconic design that NAD never equaled, let alone superseded. While Soft Clipping, in theory, may be useful, (then again Communism works, in theory) the Power Envelope circuit is a rabid basket of amplifier destroying bad ideas. I'm not going to let the PE debacle deflect me too far from the target of this polemic (Soft Clipping), because unlike Soft Clipping, one can't just turn it off (although it's probably already done so itself in a yet undetected Seppuku) so let's just despatch PE quickly and move on. The idea behind PE is that it allows the amplifier to output relatively high power for a short time, reducing to lower continuous power, hopefully before the output transistors are destroyed. The circuit is implemented in a technically cumbersome fashion via a second power supply, another set of power transistors (which got bigger over time as the failures racked up), and some less expensive components. It exists, not so much to provide high peak power and low continuous power, but as a marketing implement. If those extra components, cost and PCB space were allocated to a bigger power supply and a better output stage, the amp could have higher continuous power all the time, with a simpler, more reliable, better sounding circuit to boot. I'm glad we got that out of the way. 

Soft Clipping, on the other hand, sounds rational. I'll try to keep this technically simple, so apologies in advance to any Comrades expecting an in depth treatise, which would bore most folks.

An amplifier can only swing an output signal from its positive power supply rail, through zero to its negative rail and back again, as the signal demands. As the voltage rises and falls, your speaker moves in and out like so:

The chuffing sound you can hear is an air leak, which is why air leaks are bad. Bass ports can make chuffing noises too, which is why passive radiators are good. The speaker is being moved within the limits of the amplifier's supply rails. The + rail pushes it out, via the NPN output transistors, the - rail sucks it back in, via the PNP output transistors. But the output voltage can't rise any higher, or fall any lower, than the limit set by the amplifier's power supply rail voltages, and if we try to force it to, it is stopped in its tracks, unable to rise or fall, a flat line; this is called clipping, and this is what it sounds like:

Ive used this unrealistically low frequency so you can actually see the cone movements, and also so I wasn't deafened; the speaker in the clipping video is dissipating over 120 watts. Its voice coil was starting to smoke after only ten seconds of clipped, square-like waves. It could easily handle much more unclipped power. Why this is so will soon become apparent. The oscilloscope screenshot below shows an amplifier approaching clipping, but still relatively undistorted. The horizontal scale is time, the vertical, amplitude. That yellow line at the top is the scope's second channel displaying the amplifier's + power rail; the signal can't swing higher than that. Note that the rail is a flat line; that's because its DC. The AC signal will be swinging the speaker back and forth, as in the first video.  

This is relatively clean power, although the amp is approaching its limits. In practice, the signal can't swing all the way to the positive and negative rails, due to losses and inefficiencies in the circuit. Unless excessive (which they sometimes are), these losses are not an issue. Lets turn up the volume:

The signal can't swing any higher or lower. It flattens out as it hits the rails; hard clipping. Look at the top and bottom of the wave. Its a flat line; DC, and at a high amplitude. Unlike the previous screenshot, the amplitude at the top and bottom of the wave is not changing along the time scale. During the flat sections of the wave, the speaker is held firmly in place, moving neither forward nor backward, robbed of the cooling air its movement provided, while DC proceeds to melt its voice coil. Sometimes the molten coil will short out, also destroying the amplifier's output stage. An unclipped wave of the same amplitude, or even considerably higher for that matter, will not have the same destructive effect, which is why it is better to err on the side of high, rather than low, power. Clipping is not only speaker destroying, it sounds dreadful. So, soft clipping, which rounds off the top and bottom of the wave somewhat, rather than just shearing them off, must be a good idea then, right? Wrong. Here's why:

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On the scope is a NAD 742 receiver, soft clipping engaged, beginning to clip. The wave is indeed rounded off somewhat. Now let's turn off Soft Clipping and take it to full power again: 

Again the amplifier begins to clip, same load, same channel, same day. But not the same power output! Look at the voltage measurement in the top right of the scope. With Soft Clipping engaged, clipping begins at 25.82 volts. Without it, clipping begins at 33.55 volts; that's about 83 watts RMS with Soft Clipping versus about 140 watts RMS without it! At 80W, Soft Clipping is attempting to mitigate the awful sound and potential damage of clipping, when, without it, clipping wouldn't even begin for another 60 watts (more if you factor in peak power). Soft Clipping is attempting to solve a problem that wouldn't exist without the solution; like invading Iraq! If you choose to engage Soft clipping, you will lose up to half of the amplifier's useful power, depending on the model. One could make the argument that, in purely Decibel terms, the last 60W is not that much. But why pay for a 140W amp when you only get 80? The question we need to ask is; does Soft Clipping provide enough, if any, sonic benefit, to justify such a loss of power? Let's listen to find out. Remember, Soft Clipping will reduce maximum power, hence volume, so the hard clipped signal will be louder:

If you were wondering, the quivering at the top and bottom of the wave sans Soft Clipping is caused by power supply ripple; more energy storage eliminates this. Too many capacitors are barely enough. Transformers are never too big.

Hard clipping sounds bad. Soft clipping sounds bad. Clipping, always, sounds bad. Maybe NAD's Soft Clipping circuit makes clipping less excruciating but it's still an angle grinder exfoliation for the ears. And it happens a lot more often with Soft Clipping engaged. There is also the deleterious effect of the Soft Clipping circuitry itself, which is not all bypassed by switching it off. I haven't covered issues like signal compression, or how failure of the circuit can kill your amp, or how the lower powered NAD's can't afford to lose half their already meagre power, because the case against Soft Clipping is already clear cut. At least you can switch it off. Doing so is the cheapest improvement you can make to any NAD amplifier. If you really love your 3020, and you should, I can excise the Soft Clipping circuit entirely for you, and perhaps upgrade those fragile output transistors while we're at it.

You may wonder, if you buy the odd Hi-Fi magazine, why this entirely empirical dissection of Soft Clipping is the first time you've heard that it may be a problem? We should all keep in mind that magazines (on and offline) do not exist to deliver good Hi-Fi to us. They exist to deliver us to advertisers.   

William Crampton

Fake News

One of these is a Neutrik Speakon connector. The other is Karma.

One of these is a Neutrik Speakon connector. The other is Karma.

New Years Eve. I've settled into an episode of The Man in the High Castle, a tasty burrito and a fine craft beer. Beer, like whisky and hi-fi, is best when truly "craft". It's the worst night of the year to go out; teenage drunks, traffic, crowds, hot, ugly. I will be slaughtering some teenagers tonight though, after dinner, when my rat cunning will trump their youthful reflexes playing Call of Duty online. I've made it through another year. What could possibly go wrong tonight...  

Then the phone rang. Bollocks! I thought it was in flight mode. 

"The DJ is on in half an hour and the whole left side of the PA keeps cutting out when I touch the amp; what should we do?"

"Stop touching the amp... "

"What?

"I don't know, I'll be there in ten minutes."

I look longingly at the cooling burrito, the warming beer, the frozen perfection of Alexa Davalos paused on my TV, and head out.  

In darkness I crouch behind the amp rack, like Gollum contemptuously evaluating an inadequately sized fish: The problem is obvious. The club recently had a major refit, PA included. The contractor has used a knockoff of the excellent Neutrik Speakon connector, obviously to save a buck. The attempted clone keeps unlocking itself, because the latching mechanism is not properly formed. Five minutes later a real Neutrik Speakon is in place, the DJ is up, I'm at the bar being paid with Laphroaig 32 Year Old and the evening has strayed far from my well laid plan. 

Laphroaig 32; I may be easy, but I'm not cheap. 

Laphroaig 32; I may be easy, but I'm not cheap. 

The problem of fake brand name components is getting worse. And a problem it is indeed. This is not confined to the realm of audio, of course. For example, it's likely you have flown in an aircraft containing parts that were, at best, not approved by its manufacturer. A US Senate investigation in 2011 found over over 1 million counterfeit parts had been sold to the military, 70% of which were traced back to China.

Partnair Flight 394 crashed due to counterfeit parts, killing 55 people.

Partnair Flight 394 crashed due to counterfeit parts, killing 55 people.

The Mosfet on the left in the photo below is a genuine Semelab device, made in the UK. It sells for about $20, which is quite reasonable considering what it can do.

The one on the right is a Chinese clone. Well, clone in the Star Trek Nemesis sense of the word. One can buy it on Ebay for about five bucks. Ohhh goody! Just way too good to be true! That thing on the right will be a Mosfet, of sorts, but don't expect it to behave like the venerable BUZ900; don't expect it to behave at all.

Wow, Picard's clone is as indistinguishable from himself as a Chinese BUZ900 is from a real Mosfet! Nemisis: the worst Star Trek ever. Wrath of Kahn: by far the best.

Wow, Picard's clone is as indistinguishable from himself as a Chinese BUZ900 is from a real Mosfet! Nemisis: the worst Star Trek ever. Wrath of Kahn: by far the best.

I saw the charred remains of one of these resistors in an amplifier a few weeks ago:

The resistor at the top of the photo that is. It had been substituted for a real 100 Watt resistor (bottom of the photo) in a soft start circuit. The result was a dead PA amplifier, a ruined live recording and massive embarrassment for the venue. The real resistor cost about $10. The fake can be found on Ebay for around $3. What was the dollar value of the grief it caused? What if the grief it caused was in the form of fire? I could go on; there are literally thousands of examples to choose from, but my point has been made. 

These resistors were blown apart by a dying Mosfet, substituted for the original Hitachi. Its failure mode was completely different, and catastrophic.

These resistors were blown apart by a dying Mosfet, substituted for the original Hitachi. Its failure mode was completely different, and catastrophic.

A component purchased from a reputable supplier will have a pedigree certificate available for one to confirm that it is indeed the device one is paying for. Here is a screenshot from the website of one of our suppliers:   

Not only is the country of origin clearly stated but full documentation verifying its mechanical and electrical specifications, the materials from which it is made and recommended applications is available at a mouse click.   

If you find on Ebay a CD laser that has been obsolete for years, an amplifier chip that just nobody has, or anything else in the "too good to be true" category, don't be surprised when it works as well as Communism, or costs you a lot more than you anticipated.

William Crampton    

MISSING HITCH

It has been five years, my friend.

Five short years since you taught us how to die with wisdom and wit. And five long ones, wherein the world taught us how deeply we would miss you.

Syria. Safe spaces. President Trump.

What would you have made of these horrors?

More times than I can count, strangers have come forward to say, “I miss Hitch.” Their words are always uttered in protest over some new crime against reason or good taste. They are spoken after a bully passes by, smirking and unchallenged, whether on the Left or the Right. They have become a mantra of sorts, intoned without any hope of effect, in the face of dangerous banalities or lies.  Often, I hear in them a note of personal reproach. Sometimes it’s intended.

You are not doing your part.

You don’t speak or write clearly enough.

You are wrong and do not know it—and it matters.

There has been so much to say, and no one to say it in your place.

I, too, miss Hitch.

 

Sam Harris

 

 

If you enjoy challenging and expanding your worldview and exploring contrary opinions you will enjoy the Sam Harris Podcast, here:

"Join neuroscientist, philosopher,and best-selling author Sam Harris as he explores important and controversial questions about the human mind, society, and current events." 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

In with the Old: Hi-fi and the Idea of Progress

Funny how the new things are the old things. Rudyard Kipling.

Funny how the new things are the old things.
Rudyard Kipling.

A story in a recent issue of Hi-Fi News and Record Review led me to reflect on long-term changes in the world of hi-fi – not only changes in equipment, but also changes in how we think about hi-fi.
I was browsing through that glossy magazine when I saw a report on the 2016 Munich High End show. The story was near the front of the magazine but, in a gesture of unconscious obeisance to the god of retro, I tend to start at the back, going straight to the things that interest me most: music stories, vintage-equipment reviews, and those tantalising advertisements from British second-hand dealers where, as though looking through a medieval bestiary, one finds exotic, quasi-mythological hi-fi creatures such as Transcriptors turntables.

mirrabelt.jpg

But speaking of retro, the ‘new releases’ featured in the article about the Munich show included amplifiers by Dynaco and Hafler, and turntables from Perpetuum-Ebner. Until recently all these brands were dead (though apparently not, to quote a recent head of state, buried and cremated). What really caught my eye at Munich, though, was a high-end turntable from Elac, who have got back into vinyl by resurrecting their once popular Miracord range with the striking, limited-edition Miracord 90.

mitacord90.jpg

Naturally enough it occurred to me that a magazine story involving similar products from these manufacturers might have been written about a Munich hi-fi show of 50 years ago or more. But how is this possible when there have been so many changes in hi-fi over the years, and when hi-fi itself, as a branch of science and technology, is predicated on ideas of innovation and progress? It seems that within hi-fi at the moment there are two contradictory historical visions: on the one hand, belief in technological progress surely remains most people’s default position; yet, on the other hand, it is difficult to make sense of the ‘new’ products at Munich without using metaphors of cycles, spirals, and even, to borrow an idea from Nietzsche, eternal return.

And as well as these two contradictory ideas about the overall history of hi-fi, this history can itself be broken down into several distinct stages, each of which was defined by a specific approach to the hi-fi system – in other words, by an idea. For example, when hi-fi as we know it began in the 1950s, it was thought that the speakers were the most important part of the system. This made a lot of sense because, after all, everything you hear comes out of the speakers, and notable developments in speakers such as the Acoustic Research range and Quad ESL 57 electrostatics reflected this thinking.  By the 1970s, however, it was felt that the amplifier, as the ‘heart’ of the system, was the most important component.  This made a lot of sense because, after all, everything you hear comes through the amplifier, and at the time there was a significant R&D emphasis on amplifiers, as seen in innovations such as the widespread use of transistors, and in the emergence of American muscle amps.  But in the 1980s it was felt that the source was the most important component.  This made a lot of sense because, after all, everything you hear comes from whatever source you are using.  The source in question was, of course, ideally a Linn LP 12, which was the standard-bearer of the two dominant concepts of the day: hierarchy, and the quasi-mystical ‘musicality’.

 Hierarchy was, however, eventually replaced by synergy or, to be less mystical, compatibility.  It was now felt that how various components suited each other was more important than any overarching order or pattern.  This also made a lot of sense.  And it still does because it is more or less how things stand today.
The idea of overall progress informed all of these epoch-defining approaches.  We are nevertheless entitled to ask – and the recent emphasis on all things retro casts this question into much sharper relief – whether these changes in approach actually amount to progress, or whether we have just been moving from one conceptual paradigm to another. If the latter is the case, then progress is a myth and we have been chasing will o’ the wisps all this time.
Is it even possible to answer this question?  Strictly speaking, it is not, for to be able to do so would involve possessing a perspective that somehow transcends one’s immediate paradigm. But it is surely permissible to draw upon our own experiences in thinking about such questions. In my case, a comparison between a system I had around 1980 and the one I have now comes to mind. Simply put, is the one I have now better? If I were to answer ‘no’, it would be because of the magnificently wide and precisely positioned sound stage that my old Amcron electrostatic-conventional hybrid speakers presented when I played records on my AR turntable with its JH arm and Nakamichi moving-coil cartridge. I have been attempting to recapture that soundstage ever since, along the way making a virtue out of a necessity by trying to convince myself that musical coherence is more important than the clear separation of instruments, tracks, and channels.

There is, of course, also a ‘yes’ answer.  I’m sure, for example, that my current Merlin-Naquadria amplifiers are much better than my 1980 Amcron-Dynaco combination and, for that matter, everything else I’ve ever had including the celebrated Naim 250 power amp. I also feel that a decent medium-priced modern tonearm represents a significant improvement on even state-of-the-art vintage arms. This opinion was confirmed recently when I replaced the early-model SME 3009 on my vintage Orpheus turntable with a 9” version of The Wand carbon-fibre tonearm from Design Build Listen in New Zealand. One reason for the huge improvement I perceived is the tonearm cabling involved, and I think that cabling in general is an area where one may well speak of progress; I shudder to think that in 1980 I was feeding my Amcron electrostatics with the sort of speaker wire that one buys at Bunnings these days.  Cabling aside, though, current unipivot tonearms like The Wand still seem better than their antecedents such as the once highly regarded JH Formula 4 and even the legendary Naim Aro.

The Wand. Sci-fi Hi-fi.

The Wand. Sci-fi Hi-fi.

But, as I’ve said before, the thing to do is to put something like The Wand on a good vintage turntable.  In fact, my two current favourite turntables, the Orpheus and a souped-up Thorens TD 160, both have Wands.  The Orpheus is from the late 1950s and the Thorens the 1970s.  The Orpheus has an Ortofon 2M Black cartridge, which is a – perhaps the – current cutting-edge moving-magnet design, while the Thorens has a Decca London cartridge, which, although new, is essentially the same design as its Decca predecessors from the 1950s.  Do these various combinations of old and new amount to progress?  Again, there is both a ‘yes’ and a ‘no’ answer.  But perhaps coming to grips with the issue of hi-fi progress means that we need to re-think the very idea of progress, not least because many a hi-fi great leap forward seems also to have involved something being lost.  For now, though, that Elac Miracord 90 turntable, the apotheosis of the whole new-old thing, is mighty tempting.  It’s calling me with its Siren song. Wax, anybody?

Dr Walter Kudrycz 

Not an Echo Chamber

Is this A: An anechoic chamber? B: A porcupine refuge? Or C: An artistic depiction of my ex wife's personality?

Is this A: An anechoic chamber? B: A porcupine refuge? Or C: An artistic depiction of my ex wife's personality?

Comrades; thank you for all your positive comments on the website. I'm so pleased you are finding its content both entertaining and useful. Thanks in particular to those who have contributed content to the three blog pages (blog, whisky and music).

On these pages you will find not only my opinions but those of well experienced hi-fi enthusiasts and music industry professionals. Sometimes I agree with their views, sometimes I dissent. What you can be sure of is that none of these blogs exist to sell you anything. They exist to show you different perspectives. Perspectives you probably haven't heard before. Perspectives that may well guide you to your own Audio Nirvana (perhaps with a little whisky enhancement). 

It has been very gratifying for me to see so many folks get off the upgrade roundabout (spun by magazines and other marketing implements) and into really satisfying, low maintenance, high value systems that get out of the way of the music. Oscar Wilde said "everything popular is wrong". That is nowhere more true than in regards to hi-fi. And whisky, of course. 

William Crampton

    

Big Amps, Little Budget

On a low budget? Let The Kinks provide the soundtrack to your audio emancipation.  Now read on... 

I first became acquainted with Hifi in the late 1970’s. Two work colleagues talked me into building an ETI Series 4000 Amplifier kit. At the time I knew as much about Hifi as I did about electronics. This started a quest to obtain as good a Hifi system as possible for as small an amount of money as possible.  As one piece of equipment failed I would upgrade to the next monetary level but always with prudence, skeptically inspecting the new equipment and its price tag.

Yay! The NAD has started smoking; time for a new amplifier!

Yay! The NAD has started smoking; time for a new amplifier!

 

Jump forward a few years to 2011. My NAD amplifier fell silent and I started looking. I was interested in valve amplifiers but not their $5000 price tags. After some research I obtained a Yaqin MC100B Chinese amp for $1200.

Straight out of the box it was not too flash, but improved somewhat over the next couple of weeks.

After a few months I began looking for someone who could modify this equipment with a view to improving the sound quality. I finally met Bill Crampton of The Factory Audio Engineering.

I liked what he had to say so gave him the amp to work on. After three trips to The Factory I ended up with an amplifier that was much better than I had believed possible. And all this still for far less than $5000. I was totally happy with the results and enjoyed the music for several years with no thoughts of, or desires for, something better.

 

 

On one of my visits to Bill, he made a remark similar to a comment attributed to an Irish farmer, who was asked by a tourist couple for directions to a particular place they wanted to visit.  The farmer thought about it for a while, then said, “Well it would be better if you didn’t start from here.”  Bill’s comment was that if you wanted to do up an amplifier, there were better ones around and that a Perreaux 6000 series would be a good place to start. I had let this comment pass, other than to ask what one of them looked like.

They look a little like this.

They look a little like this.

 

 

In 2014 my son acquired a Perreaux 6000B to use as a subwoofer amp. He hooked it up to his system to see what it sounded like. I went around for a listen and thought “that sounds interesting.”

On to Ebay and I found four amps for sale. No.1 “not working”, No. 2 “1 channel working,” No. 3 “ casing has some damage” No.4 “full working order”. Big mistake, I bought No. 4.

$550 plus $40 freight from Qld, hooked it up. Nothing. Checked the fuses, most of them blown.

I thought about returning it, but heck, I was going to remake it anyway.

In the beginning....

In the beginning....

Off to Bill Crampton, “Please make this work.” $589 later I could listen to it. One recording I have on vinyl, when played with my valve amp, has three instances where there are some quite beautiful sounding brass bells. With the Perreaux they sounded like someone shaking some scrap steel in an aluminium saucepan.

Back to The Factory. Please upgrade all components which have evolved since 1964 into better more suitable components for the job at hand, and do what ever modifications you believe will enhance sound quality. After the modifications, the brass bells returned but were still better with the valve amp.

Then we removed the power supply to a separate box:

A wee power supply...

A wee power supply...

With the power supply in a separate aluminium box, things really got better. The brass bells were not just there on three occasions, they actually went right through the entire track! The valve amp has now been relegated to the television and all is well.

But what would happen if we duplicated the power supply so that each channel had it's own? Two transformers, two sets of capacitors? Let's do it.

Et deux...

Et deux...

With the separated power supplies the sound is way beyond my wildest dreams. Clarity, detail, separation, power, unbelieveable.

My wife and I have only heard three amplifiers which are either regarded as very good, or are expensive enough to be very good. The first we heard was in Sandy Bay Hifi store in Hobart in 1985. It was an Audio Research valve amp and sounded superior to anything we had heard at the time. The second was in 2012 in Mon Kok, Hong Kong. An elderly gentleman in a store spent his time renovating vintage American amplifiers.It was a Macintosh; certainly something to make one stop and listen. The third one we heard was in a salon (the carpet came up to our ankles) in Central,Hong Kong, 2015. We cannot remember the brands but can recall the prices. The sound quality was quite amazing.

It is impossible for us to say which amplifier we think was best as the surroundings on each occasion were different as were the music and the speakers.

So, is our new amplifier any good?  All we can say is that in our room, with our ProAc Response II speakers and the rest of our equipment, some of which we have had since 1979, it very much sounds like what we heard on the previous three occasions. The best part is that this performance has an all up cost of less than $3000.

Colin Carr

 

 

               

Simplicity Is The Ultimate Sophistication

A quote attributed to Da Vinci but more likely the work of playwright Clare Boothe Luce: "the height of sophistication is simplicity.”

A quote attributed to Da Vinci but more likely the work of playwright Clare Boothe Luce: "the height of sophistication is simplicity.”

Once upon a time, high end audio was minimalist audio. By 1980, the metronome had swung from 70's gear bristling with as many controls as could possibly fit on a chunky front panel to exiguous slabs of black metal, eschewing all but the indispensable. The Golden Age of Hi-Fi had begun. 

"Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains." Steve Jobs  

"Simple can be harder than complex: You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it's worth it in the end because once you get there, you can move mountains."

Steve Jobs
 

The first time I saw a Perreaux amplifier I was in my last year of high school. Of course, I couldn't afford to buy one. Even if I had the cash it would have been spent on one of those pretty champagne gold Pioneer or Marantz systems with which I had become, quite justifiably, enamoured. Years later, working on a Carlos Santana gig at Perth Entertainment Centre (the name drop is not gratuitous), I was surprised to see the entire band using Perreauxs as instrument amps on stage. The following day I bought a Perreaux 2150B and I've been recommending them ever since.

"The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity."

Walt Whitman
 

The key to the sonic sophistication of a vintage Perreaux amplifier is not its ridiculously high power or its build quality but its simplicity. Five transistors only are the heart of the circuit. When Hitachi released the Mosfets used as output devices (the device that actually moves the speaker) by Perreaux, Hafler and others, they, like most semiconductor manufacturers, supplied an application circuit. While Perreaux chose to use a variant of this ubiquitous, simple and effective circuit, Hafler reinvented the wheel with their far more complicated iteration; the result being a less reliable, lower powered, competent but sonically lackadaisical product. The red outlined part of the circuit below is common to all older Perreaux amplifiers: 

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."
Albert Einstein. 

Before you all go back to the whisky pages,I'm not going to get too technical here, I just want to point out how simple this incredibly effective circuit is. Ignore what is outside the red box; that is mostly the output stage and could be two to twelve Mosfets. They can be viewed as two devices, regardless of how many are put in parallel to provide more power. One moves your speaker forward, the other backward. They are told what to do by the preceding circuit; five transistors. Just five (the symbols shaded red). Every device, be it bipolar transistor, fet or valve, robbs the fragile audio signal of its fidelity, its subtlety, its integrity. More devices, less integrity. I used to get my students to build a three transistor power amplifier, just to demonstrate the basics of amplifier circuitry. I never actually bothered to listen to one until a former student dropped in to tell me how his project had just blown away a $6K amp in a city hi-fi shop. A mechanic once told me "if you're riding down the road and a part falls off your bike but the bike keeps going, you didn't need that part". Of course, there comes a point where further simplification of a circuit will reduce its effectiveness. The Perreaux is approaching that point and therefore close to the ideal; it's complexity is no more nor less than that which will provide the best result. A Naquadria circuit is even simpler due to its adoption of Fets throughout and that results in another sonic benefit; a very short signal path. This is the pointy end of a Naquadria Aeon:

"Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art."
Frédéric Chopin

Follow the rope from input to output. The signal path is incredibly short for a 140W RMS amplifier. The Perreaux is not far behind. It's not unusual for a big amp to have literally meters of signal path. View that thin copper line in the context of the difference your expensive cables made. In the case of an Aeon, and to a lesser extent a Perreaux, it simply wouldn't work with long signal paths as its speed and bandwidth would render it completely unstable. Yet a Krell with metres of signal track is stable. You will have already drawn the obvious and correct conclusion from those facts if you've made it this far.  

I recently replaced ten, five year old, JBL amplifiers (that had self-immolated) in my favorite local venue, Tilley's, with twentyfive year old refurbished Perreauxs. Why? The Perreauxs are more powerful, far more reliable, at a quarter century old will still have a much longer service life, are sonically vastly superior and are so simple a monkey could be trained to repair one. Unlike the ridiculously complex JBL's they replaced that were inferior by every empirical and subjective measure. I should mention, if you plan to use a professional version of the Perreaux, (6000, 8000, 9000 series) you should bypass the balanced input circuitry and everything associated with it and go straight into the amp boards. This circuitry was absent in the domestic versions. During the 80's, I was doing an average of eight gigs a week in Sydney. Around 1986 I replaced all the Jands J1000 transistor amplifiers in the EV rig I was using with H&H Mosfet amps. I was happy to take the credit for the lush sound that resulted but the real culprits were those Hitachi Mosfets.

So, brothers and sisters, what chance does this Yamaha surround amp have of facilitating that ethereal, illuminatory, sublime paramnesia one often enjoyed via a spartan black metal delivery device in 80's? 

"Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance." Coco Chanel

"Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance."
Coco Chanel

None whatsoever. Before you start throwing tomatoes at the screen, have a look at this simplified schematic which shows half of one of the simplest audio chips in the Yamaha, the ubiquitous NE5532 operational amplifier:  

 

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures. Lao Tzu  

I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

Lao Tzu
 

While the 5532 op-amps (there are dozens of them) in this amplifier may contain hundreds of components, other chips will contain thousands, tens of thousands. This is like taking a spectacular whisky and filtering it a few thousand times. The basic components are still there but the nuance, character and in fact most of the flavour are forever lost. Those of you currently straining your music through an amp such as, hmmmm, so many examples, let's pick on McIntosh, should not be amused to know that the first thing the incoming signal sees is a couple of the 5532 circuits above. There are more transistors, many times more, in these cheap chips, than everything else in the rest of the amplifier combined. Listen: most of the components you paid for in your twelve thousand dollar amplifier reside in these twelve cent chips. This is not my opinion, it is a simple, indisputable fact. And it's killing your music. 

William Crampton

 

"Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, and not in the multiplicity and confusion of things."

Isaac Newton

 


 

Rust Never Sleeps

I'd been interested in trying contact cleaner. Not the kind that makes you see better, but the one for cleaning/lubricating electrical contacts. I'd done so on the basis of manufacturers' claims of improvements to everything audible and I figured that for a few dollars my gear and I wouldn't notice it if I'd thrown my money away. At very least it seemed a sensible preventative measure, a bit like a car service. So I got some stuff recommended by Bill, being a can of spray (non-CFC propellant if that bothers you) with the usual thin plastic tube to finely direct the spray. My gear, if it's useful to know, is ELAC 249s, Bill's Lucien amp, Denon S10 CD player, 1974 vintage Linn.

I did as Bill directed ..... unplugged the gear from the wall, took out each interconnect and sprayed (a bit like "drenched") the male and female bits (RCA, XLR, Speakon, speaker connections, power cords) and reconnected them while wet as I did each one.

 

I'm crap at using hi-fi descriptions like "sweeter, gorgeous, mouth-wateringly even more sublime highs", "fulsome, buxom mids", "deeper than the deepest sea bass", etc. The best you are going to get from me is this:

If you even think of upgrading anything in your system, you really must clean the interconnects with stuff like this, listen and then decide if you really needed that upgrade or perhaps leave it till another day. You will be more than just a little surprised at what you hear .... Damn, it's really worth doing! The "investment" in time (15 minutes) and money (very little) is so small that you really have nothing to lose. And I tell you, the improvement is really there. Trust me, I'm not a lawyer or a politician.

Julian Goldenberg

What goes around comes around: avante-garde music on old turntables

I was browsing in Canberra’s Landspeed Records recently when I saw a CD re-release of John Cale’s 1975 album Helen of Troy. Cale has a firm place in popular-music history on account of having co-founded the legendary proto-indie band The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed in 1965. Cale played in The Velvet Underground until he and Reed parted company in 1968. After that, Cale’s long and varied ‘solo’ career included producing albums for The Stooges and The Modern Lovers, re-visiting his classical-music origins, avant-garde composition, and high-profile collaborations with Brian Eno such as Wrong Way Up (1990). He was also responsible for a rousing version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Halleluiah’ that appeared on a 1991 Cohen-tribute album.

 

But perhaps the most interesting part of the Cale oeuvre is the series of albums he made after his return to his native Britain in the early 1970s. These albums saw Cale immersed in the British art-rock scene, and they feature guest performances by many of that scene’s inner circle including Brian Eno and Roxy Music’s guitarist Phil Manzanera.
Roxy Music’s eponymously titled debut album of 1972 is in my view the first example of commercially acceptable Post-Modern music. Roxy Music’s founder and singer Bryan Ferry wanted to make a pop-music version of the pop-art collages he had learned about at art school in Newcastle. He succeeded brilliantly: a song on the album can take you from Gene Vincent to Wagner and then onto jazz improvisations, accompanied by nostalgic references to Hollywood and the Blitz.

With his classical-music roots and his avant-garde chops, John Cale was entirely at home in this art-rock environment. His best known album from this period is the atmospheric Paris 1919 (1973), which combines lush orchestration with rather bizarre stream-of-consciousness-style lyrics. But my favourite Cale album of the era is Helen of Troy, not least because it added vigorous and relatively conventional rock music to the existing (and perhaps already rather over-egged) art-rock mixture.  This change was, one suspects, largely brought about because at the time Cale recorded and toured with a stable band line-up that included dynamic guitarist Chris Spedding, whose session-work credits ranged from Jack Bruce’s solo albums to The Wombles, and who was apparently asked to join The Rolling Stones when Mick Taylor left, but declined.


So I bought the Helen of Troy CD at Landspeed without hesitation.  It sounded magnificent in musical terms and also – this really surprised me – in respect of its sound quality. It even sounded good on my car stereo, and so when I got home I did something I rarely do these days: rather than playing vinyl, I listened to a CD through my main system.  Naturally I began to think that if the CD sounded so good, vinyl would be even better.  I found out that the Cale albums were available on vinyl, having been re-released by several ‘niche’ labels including the superbly named Wax Cathedral Records. Next time I was at Landspeed I ordered all the Cale albums whose names I could recall at the time and after a tantalising couple-of-weeks wait, I was able to play Helen of Troy the way it should be played: on a turntable. It blew me away. And the music itself seemed both fresh and familiar to me, listening forty years after it was made.
But speaking of time passing, while listening to the Helen of Troy LP I had a thought: I was playing the record on my vintage Orpheus turntable, and it occurred to me that when Helen of Troy was first released, the Orpheus would have been regarded by the hi-fi cognoscenti of the day as a risibly archaic relic from the pre-history of audio.  

Why, then, was I listening to an Orpheus, rather than something more recent?  These thoughts led me to reflect on the history of turntables, and to draw some parallels between that history and the history of pop music. For the 1970s are surely the most important epoch in turntable history insofar as they represent the beginning of now, as it were.  As well as marking Roxy Music’s first album, the year 1972, notably, saw the release of both the Linn Sondek belt-drive turntable and the Technics SL-1200 direct drive. Both turntables went on to have decades-long production runs, with the Linn still going strong. Moreover, virtually every turntable made since 1972 can be seen as a variant or development of either the Linn or the Technics. And in addition, the Technics and especially the Linn brought with them a set of paradigm-shifting ideas about what hi-fi is or should be, and these ideas have remained part of the hi-fi weltanschauung.


It is nevertheless too easy to overlook the effect that the past had on this historically significant, and seemingly so future-directed, era. Someone listening to Helen of Troy in 1975 may well have forgotten how indebted art-rock was to, say, The Beatles and even the Blues. Equally, someone listening to Helen of Troy on an early Linn Sondek and sneering at the stone-age qualities of the idler-wheel-driven Orpheus would not have been aware of the significant historical continuity between the two turntables. It is well known that the Linn is a sub-chassis design with three-point suspension. But so are a number of turntables that preceded the Linn including the (suspiciously similar) Ariston, the Thorens TD 150 that came out in 1965, and the Acoustic Research AR X-A of 1961. And so is the Orpheus. In fact, the Orpheus began its production run in Melbourne in the late 1950s and may well therefore be the world’s first three-point-suspended-sub-chassis hi-fi turntable. Although possessing a crude, stamped-metal upper chassis, the Orpheus also has a main bearing engineered to high tolerances, as well as a very heavy (but well balanced) platter, both of which are characteristic ‘Linn’ traits.


So why listen to an Orpheus now? Well, Post-modernism is no longer avant-garde like it was in the seventies; it is so mainstream and dominant that we barely notice it any more. One important aspect of our post-modern environment is an emphasis on nostalgia – as pioneered in pop music by Bryan Ferry. Whether we’re artists, musicians, hipsters, steam punks, or well adjusted individuals who happen to think that too many old turntables is barely enough, we now increasingly look to the past for inspiration and enjoyment. And within this outlook the Orpheus, with its almost effete art-deco styling, its flecked ‘hammertone’ enamel that invokes the Industrial Revolution, and its crudely constructivist control dials, is very cool. In fact, if retro had a Platonic form, it would have to be the Orpheus. All of that, though, would just make it an interesting piece of furniture. But – here’s the thing – it sounds great as well. Despite and surely because of its age, it gives you a quality experience today, one that transcends the passing of time and serves to unite different eras.  Just like John Cale.

Dr Walter Kudrycz 


The Wile E Coyote award for absurdly complex contraptions 2015

Yes folks its that time of year again! And what a year it's been! So many worthy contenders for the 2015 Wile E but I'm afraid there can be only one winner. 

Before we get to the award though, we must give credit where it is due. Who could forget the amazing exploding speaker base from Sonus Faber?

Primare deserves special commendation for replacing some really good amps with Class D Changelings, publishing a White Paper telling us how good switch mode power supplies are at the same time as the White Paper telling us how evil switch mode power supplies are and then topping it off by replacing the excellent CD 31 with the CD 32. They even managed to deliver brand new amplifiers out of phase. Fortunately, this problem was easily sorted with an angle grinder, a soldering iron and some Super Glue:

Great effort Primare, but not enough for a Wile E.

A big effort too from Linn, who, after telling us for decades that DC motors are the work of the devil and that their AC motors are gifts from the Norse Gods deposited in peat bogs by the light of a full moon, now supply a DC motor upgrade. Here is one of the new Linn Compact DC motors being lifted into an LP 12:

Thanks too goes to X!@*, 00;! and #^&#&%*@ for bribing me not to name them. My kids also thank you as the car now has wheels and their classroom does not. 

The move to China has helped formerly British manufacturers reduce PCB track thickness even further this year. Here we see the quality control team at Arcam using their new electron microscope to find tracks so thin they forgot where they put them:   

Quad, Rotel, Martin Logan and the ever try hard band at NAD have really made a big effort to grab this year's Wile E but still managed to look like prime NASA contractors compared to the winner. And what a thoroughly deserving winner we have. A winner that makes the simple complex, the complex inconceivable. A winner that has made more eardrums bleed than Metallica. A winner that has leaked more toxic chemicals than Union Carbide. A winner that is the Hi-FI equivalent of the Dodge Ram; complete with the same efficiency, agility, lumphammer styling and rear window gun rack. So, without any further ado, the envelope please....

The 2015 Wile E Coyote award winner is:

Krell! What a magnificent effort! The award was accepted by Krell's Product Development Manager. The post-it note they pinned to him was lost in transit so we can't tell you his name but look at that pride:

Krell started production over thirty years ago when their founder, Cleetus Krell and his sister, Cleetus, founded the company by attaching speaker terminals to a faulty welder and presto! The first Krell amplifier was born. Ever since Krell have honoured their founder by conflating the design of an arc welder with that of a device designed to reproduce music.

The Krell sound has been well defined, refined and punctuated with detonations of varying intensity. Here we see the head of Krell's listening panel describing the sonic signature they want to the design department:

"Get it guys? Nails, chalk board? Do I have to do this all day?"

"Get it guys? Nails, chalk board? Do I have to do this all day?"

Krell sales figures are now better than ever. In fact, every fifteen minutes, somewhere in the world, a Krell owner powers up his new pride and joy. Krell are so customer focused that new owners are monitored on power-up by Krellsat:

In the unlikely event that a Krell device functions properly, a crack team of flying Krell Monkeys are immediately despatched to rectify the non-problem:

While many manufacturers have moved to China, Krell still builds everything in the good 'ol US of A. Here are happy comrades working in the Connecticut factory where Krell still find ways to use a hundred transistors when one is enough:

So folks, there you have it; a very worthy winner of the 2015 Wile E.

Ridiculously complicated, obstinately unserviceable, excruciatingly unmusical, wantonly wasteful and obscenely expensive, Krell has everything we look for in a Wile E winner and much, much more.

Well done Krell!

William Crampton




New Adventures In Old Hi-Fi

Everyone knows that vinyl is cool. I was going to say ‘cool again’, but it’s now way cooler than it was back in the day. In fact, it wasn’t actually cool back then because it was mainstream and normal.  It’s the whole retro, hipster thing that has made it cool. That and our crazy, fragmented post-modern environment, which allows the emergence of niche markets like vinyl, and which looks backwards, rather than to the future, for inspiration.
For many of us the essence of the current vinyl craze is the timeless appeal of an old turntable, or at least of a good old turntable.  Many classic turntables are superbly designed and, frankly, beautiful objects. They don’t hide their light under a bushel either; rather than concealing their magic inside a box, they allow you to witness, indeed to participate in, the miracle of turning pressed plastic into music.
There is also the matter of their sound. The analogue-digital war raged for some decades, with flat-earthers like me claiming, against the tide of ‘progress’, that analogue was both different from, and better than digital music. Is the war over because analogue ultimately won?  Probably. Well, certainly for those who care about sound quality, as opposed to convenience and accessibility.
But we have to admit that as with Seinfeld’s good and bad naked, there’s good and bad analogue. Is there also a best analogue? I think there is. And I think that upgrading a classic turntable is the way to this Holy Grail. It’s a fun, rewarding experience in itself. But as well, it’s relatively easy and, if you weigh up the other options, ridiculously cheap. To illustrate this point, allow me to share one experience from my own analogue grail quest.


I owned a Linn Sondek LP 12 for decades – throughout the dark digital forest of the late eighties and the nineties, and beyond the first decade of this century – having moved up from a late 1970s Acoustic Research AR-XB and an eighties Rega Planar 3.  I thought the Linn was the best turntable ever made, and this belief was reinforced when Bill from The Factory upgraded the electrics for me a few years ago. And more recently I thought I’d take things as far as I could, so I bought a refurbished Linn Troika cartridge. The Linn Sondek-Troika was widely regarded as an–or the–ultimate British-minimalist combination, and I was very happy with it.
But I happened to see an old AR-XB on e-bay.  Nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it. Although venerable, the AR is a good turntable.  But its arm is rubbish. I had replaced the arm on my original AR with a JH uni-pivot, and I thought I might do that again. I then read a favourable review of a current uni-pivot arm, a carbon-fibre unit called The Wand made by Design Build Listen in New Zealand. I contacted Simon Brown of Design Build Listen and asked him about putting a Wand on an AR. He was very helpful and he explained how it could be done.  (He also suggested that I might think about old idler-drive turntables such as those made by Lenco and Garrard, but that’s a story for another occasion.)


Around the same time Bill from The Factory told me that he’d acquired a seventies-vintage Thorens TD 160 in good shape. The Thorens is a classic belt-drive suspended-sub-chassis design like the AR and the Linn. Bill was only asking a couple of hundred bucks for it, so I couldn’t resist.  As with the AR, the weak point of the Thorens was the arm.  I therefore decided that I’d get a Wand and have Bill put it straight onto the Thorens instead of the AR, which was relegated to back-burner status.  I’d also been talking to Bill about upgrading the motors of old turntables. He suggested that I try a DC motor, so I ordered one from Decibel Hi-fi. I only needed to buy the motor itself, which was quite cheap, because Bill said he could make a control box/power supply for it.  To finish things off, I bought an Ortofon Cadenza Bronze moving-coil cartridge, which had been receiving excellent reviews.


Listening to the upgraded Thorens Bill put together for me was an amazing experience; I was genuinely shocked when it completely blew the Linn away. And the really interesting thing was that it was vastly superior to the Linn in precisely those areas – pace, rhythm, timing, and bass response–which were regarded as the characteristic strengths of that turntable. I felt as though I had been living in Plato’s cave all those years and I had just come out into the light. Or, to revert to the medieval-grail-quest motif, I realised that on my journey of discovery I had for too long been held in thrall by the spell of British minimalism. But, like a good knight-errant, I had eventually learnt something.


So, to use the currently fashionable newspeak, what are the ‘learnings’? The most obvious is an awareness of the difference a DC motor can make–particularly, I suspect, with any belt-drive turntable. I urge anyone with a Linn Sondek to make the upgrade. The difference will be huge. Even Linn themselves, after decades of claiming that their AC motors were the bee’s knees, now offer a DC upgrade. The more general ‘learning’, however, is an appreciation of just how good an old turntable can be with a service and a couple of sensible modifications. Old turntables can not only sound much better than they themselves used to, but also–of this I’m sure–beat new ones.
You have to pick the right turntable to improve, of course. Something with a heavy-ish platter is needed because platter mass leads to speed stability and (therefore) better sound quality. This goes for other turntable designs such as direct drives and, especially, idler-wheel drives, as well as for belt drives. The real sine qua non of an upgradeable turntable, though, is a good main bearing because everything else is fixable or replaceable. I myself had my fingers burnt here: I bought a classic Ariston on e-bay, only to find upon delivery that it had been running without oil in the bearing and the spindle was ruined.  It’s probably better to buy from a dealer, or from someone who will allow you to examine the bearing. Or just accept that e-bay is a lottery.
But no-one needs to buy a new turntable–whether it’s a bland, built-to-a-cost Pro-ject or Rega, or one of those obscene, mega-expensive ‘statement’ turntables that sound like CDs in any case. It’s much more fun to bring an old turntable back to life.  And it will sound magnificent. 

Dr Walter Kudrycz


Provenance

"Provenance (from the French provenir, "to come from"), is the chronology of the ownership, custody or location of a historical object.The term was originally mostly used in relation to works of art, but is now used in a wide range of fields, including archaeology, paleontology, manuscripts,science, wine, spirits and culinary."

Remember when Naim sounded like Naim? Quad sounded like Quad? Spendor sonics could not be mistaken for Celestion, AR or JBL? Remember the British Sound, the American Sound, the Japanese Sound? I do. I must be so goddam old. Once upon a time, people would meet me and say, "I thought you would be older". Now I am. Which sucks. Then again, I still have a rather fast bike so will probably avoid the nursing home.I digress, again.

When I change any component in any Naquadria design, I agonise over it; I evaluate the supplier, the materials they use, the location in which they manufacture, the specs they provide; in the same way a winemaker would not lightly alter the terroir of their product. In the same way a whisky blender carefully evaluates their contributing distilleries. This is because every single component makes a difference, a contribution, to the final product. 

So, when an iconic hi-fi manufacturer moves its production to China, to India, to Taiwan, Muldovia or Syriana, what happens? Simple. Everything changes.  

china-smokestack.jpg

Except of course, the price. I'm, uncharacteristically, not going to name naims here (only because I have limited time) but one needs to ask the question: 

You moved to Asiana, your production costs plummeted, your component cost and quality followed and yet, you want us pay the same as when you paid real wages to real employees?

The delicious irony here is that we are now seeing numerous manufacturers complaining about Chinese clones of their products, while the clones are often of superior, (or at least equivalent) quality to the "genuine" products. Genuine? A hundred out the front door, twenty five out the back.....yeah, genuine.

If one was to move a whisky distillery ten miles its product would likely be totally different. Build the same amplifiers in Sydney and New York and they will not have the same sonic signatures because everything from the component manufacturers to the solder composition is likely to be different. Different; not necessarily better or worse but different. But throw in molecule thin circuit tracks made from recycled Landcruisers rather than real copper and components that can be labeled whatever the hell their manufacturers think is fashionable because "intellectual property" is whatever one can copy and Provenance, Terroir, Character go up the smokestack to join the rest of the impending fallout over Beijing. 

So, to those manufacturers, I say; reap exactly what you have sown. 

William Crampton

 

Elac Terminal?Bi-wire gone!

Those of you who know me, or have asked, know of my fondness for Elac speakers. Like everyone, they have had their forgettable products but mostly the standard of finish, build quality, reliability, sound quality and sheer value for money puts much of their competition (yes you, Brittain) to shame. So imagine my surprise when they started arriving lacking bi-wire terminals. Not entry level models but 263, 400 series, 249.2, etc. When someone in the Elac boardroom suggested this why didn't they just throw pencils at them?  Yeah, times are tough and companies exist to make money but is it really too much to ask to have an extra pair of binding posts on a $7000+ speaker? 

On the bright side, we can simply put our own on. May as well rewire it and fix that ridiculous attempted sealing of the three midrange chamber holes (Elac use Blu Tack!) while we are at it. This is inside a 249.2 (lucky they don't make aeroplanes):

OK, I pick on Elac here because they have downgraded some really great products and not seen fit to mention it. Those of you who have had me add the missing terminals to your Vienna Acoustics (another fave) and other non bi-wirable speakers know how much of a difference it makes. Of course, in terms of sales, I'm sure it makes nowhere near as much difference as a shiny brochure, a flash website or a complimentary review (with full page paid add on the next page). Yes, I am a cynic. Its experience.

William Crampton