Sunday, September 27, 2009

Thiel's legacy


Thiel's masterpiece, the CS3.7

The late great speaker designer Jim Thiel should be remembered for some of the most unique and cutting-edge techniques that he utilised in his speaker units.
Topping his achievements should be his coincident tweeter/midrange unit used in the Thiel CS6, CS3.7 and CS2.4.
In the Thiel CS2.4, for example, it was a one-inch tweeter in the middle of a 3.5-inch midrange while in the CS3.7, it was a one-inch tweeter in a 4.5-inch midrange.
While coincident speaker units have been used before by British marques Tannoy and KEF and also the Canadian Coincident Speaker Technology (in its earlier Troubador range), Thiel's were unique as there was no electrical crossover between the midrange speaker and the tweeter.

The coincident midrange-tweeter used in the Thiel CS3.7.

This is from Thiel's website: "The CS2.4’s most innovative design feature is the coincident 1-inch tweeter/3.5-inch midrange driver where the two drivers’ diaphragms share the same voice coil.
"This technique allows for the elimination of the midrange/tweeter section of the electrical crossover network as the drivers incorporate a mechanical crossover, and it eliminates the need for two driver magnet structures."
The surround that connected the tweeter to the midrange acted as the crossover.
Thiel felt this design allows drivers to achieve better time coherence. Such drivers can provide superior time alignment because the sound sources of both drivers are in the same location, and therefore the outputs of both reach the listener at the same time.
Another thing that he should be remembered for was the wave-shaped aluminium diaphragm that he used for the speaker units on the CS3.7, which was arguably his best design.


The woofer used in the CS3.7. Note the wave-shaped aluminium cone.


Other manufacturers had used aluminium cones before, but Thiel shaped the diaphragm like a wave to reduce cone resonances and for extra rigidity. Nobody had seen anything like that before.
I recall auditioning Thiel speakers at Centre Circle Audio in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, and at one time was contemplating buying a used pair of CS2.4s.
I heard two models at Centre Circle - the CS3.7 and the MCS1. Of the two, the CS3.7 was obviously the better - and more expensive - model.
I remember Pass Labs pre and power amps were used to power the CS3.7 (I can't recall which CD player was used).
Both the Thiel MCS1 and CS3.7 shared a similar sonic signature - they sounded upfront, dynamic and a bit on the bright side.
The CS3.7s were among the most hyper-detailed, transparent and clean-sounding speakers I had ever heard. They reminded me of Magneplanars except that the Maggies were not quite as bright.
Every rasp, breathing in and licking of lips by the singer could be heard - it was sonic bliss for those who craved for such detail and clarity.
However, I felt the bass could have been weightier and more muscular. But if you are not a rock or hip-hop lover and listen mostly to acoustic songs, jazz, country and classical music, the Thiel CS3.7s are up there among the megabuck luminaries.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Another hi-fi legend dies

James Edward Thiel 1947-2009

Jim Thiel co-founded THIEL Audio Products of Lexington, KY in 1976, and the company has grown to become one of the most respected manufacturers of loudspeakers in the world. Jim’s passion for music and his interest in electronics can both be traced back to childhood, when he began a lifelong love affair with the piano and also began to build and repair radios and other electronic gear. His academic background in physics and mathematics along with his naturally creative and inquisitive nature led him to pioneer the principle of time and phase accuracy in loudspeaker design. Over the last three decades, Jim Thiel’s speakers have received countless awards from the most prestigious audio publications worldwide, highlighted by Stereophile Magazine having adorned the THIEL CS3.6 as one of the Hot 100 – a group of the most important and influential audiophile components of all time.

"Not only was Jim Thiel a supremely talented and inventive speaker engineer, he was one of high-end audio's true gentlemen, a gentle man. Had we not been divided by the gulf between reviewer and manufacturer, I would have been proud to have counted Jim Thiel as a friend." - John Atkinson, Editor, Stereophile Magazine

When THIEL would host their dealers for training events in Lexington, many remarked that their favorite moments were spent with Jim in his lab, where he would detail his complex work in friendly and digestible language. Jim was known to listen thoughtfully and challenge gracefully, and he garnered a deep level of respect and affection from those who worked at his company. His employees remarked that he was so genuine—he was always fair, kind and reasonable. Jim was a man of science, possessing a profound respect for individuality and personal freedoms.

“Anyone who dealt with Jim Thiel had to admire his integrity, his firm dedication to real-world engineering, and his equal concern that the end result sound as much like live music as possible. He was truly dedicated to advancing the state of the art in loudspeakers, and he made steady breakthroughs during his career without ever losing a sense of quiet modesty and being unwilling to listen to comments and criticism. Virtually every new design he created marked a further step forward in his personal approach to the absolute sound, and it is a real tribute to him that his last major design—the Thiel C3.7—was not only his best speaker yet, but is one of the most outstanding speakers ever made. Jim will be deeply missed for his qualities as a person, his integrity, and his constant search to perfect his designs. He exemplified all the best in the high end.” —Anthony Cordesman, The Absolute Sound
Jim is survived by everyone who ever loved him and a legion of devoted THIEL fans around the world…
THIEL welcomes everyone to share their thoughts or memories of Jim at www.thielaudio.com
Jim Thiel died on Sept 17, of cancer.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Free hires downloads

Those who are starting out on hires music downloads should take advantage of free high-quality music currently offered by numerous companies.

These downloads come in MP3, 16-bit ALAC, AIFF or FLAC, and 24-bit FLAC or WAV formats.

I have been surfing around and found several websites to explore listed in Kent Poon's blog and Weiss Engineering's home page www.weiss-highend.ch.

Several of these offer hires downloads for free. I have in my hard disk tracks from Bowers & Wilkins, reference recordings (24/176.4 HRx!), blue coast records, linn and others.

It is a great way to start a downloaded hires music library so that budding computer audiophiles can compare the quality of the downloads with their CDs and enjoy great music before going all the way and start paying for downloads of individual tracks or the entire album.

Music downloads have shot up even as sales of CDs has gone down. The trend is very obvious...

For the benefit of audiophiles, I have listed the websites below. You will have to surf around to check out the offers.

Websites for uncompressed music downloads and/or hires media:

www.itrax.com

www.highdeftapetransfers.com

www.linnrecords.com


www.dgmlive.com


www.hdtracks.com


www2.deutschegrammophon.com


music.e-onkyo.com/contents/hd.asp


www.classicrecords.com


www.2l.no/hires/index.html


www.shockwave-sound.com


www.referencerecordings.com


www.magnatune.com


www.unipheyemusic.com


http://boomkat.com


http://dancemusichub.com


www.junodownload.com


www.stompy.com


www.trackitdown.net


www.turntablelab.com/digital


www.acousence.de/index.html


www.hifitrack.com/en


www.bowers-wilkins.co.uk


http://www.bluecoastrecords.com

http://www.pristineclassical.com/More/DownloadFormats.html

http://www.mapleshaderecords.com/index.php

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Learning curve

The Exact Audio Copy (EAC) may be freeware but it is extremely sophisticated.
I have learnt that you have to configure it correctly before it can give the results that it is capable of.
I have also learnt that there are numerous websites on how to configure EAC properly but many are for older versions of EAC.
There is also lots of debate going on about whether to enable certain functions especially on the Extraction Method Tab.
Everyone will tell you to select ‘Secure mode’.
The ‘Drive Has Accurate Stream’ feature is controversial. One website said to check 'no' even if the drive has accurate stream just to force EAC to do jitter control even though it will slow down the ripping process. Others said if the drive has accurate stream, it is okay to check this box.
The next ‘Drive Caches Audio Data’ is also controversial. Some say to check it just in case while the others say if the drive does not cache audio to leave it unchecked.
The third feature: 'Drive is capable of retrieving C2 error information' is even more controversial and most will tell you to leave it unchecked.
After spending much time going through several websites including hydrogenaudio and numerous 'how-to' tips, I found the best configuration method for the latest version of EAC to be from this website:
http://filesharefreak.com/tutorials/properly-ripping-to-flac-with-eac-099/
This website even includes some commands on the right way to rip. Its configuration does result in longer ripping times, but the end product is excellent.
Now that I am quite confident I have clicked the right buttons, I am planning to rip my CD collection, some of which already have fungus growing on them.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Not so EAC-y

Every website or online forum I surfed to stated the same thing - the best ripping software is Exact Audio Copy (EAC). It is also supposed to be the best sounding too.
So I had no choice but to download EAC even though MediaMonkey also has a ripping function. Downloading EAC was quite easy - just go to www.exactaudiocopy.de and click the download version V0.99 prebeta 5 button.
It was when I tried to configure the settings that I realised that I knew very little about all this hitech mumbo-jumbo.
For example - what is the Fraunhofer Codec (or the LAME/Blade/Gogo DLL)?
What is Accurate Streaming, Audio Caching or C2 Error Info? What is "retrieve UPC/ISRC codes in CUE sheet generation? What is a 'Big Endian' byte order?
What is the difference if I were to use bit rate of 32 kBit/s instead of 1024 kBit/s?
What does "Delete WAV after compression" mean?
I am not sure what I clicked but somehow I managed to get EAC to copy the tracks of Simon & Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage Rosemary and Thyme CD. They may not have been of the highest resolution, but they sounded okay on the Altec Lansing computer speakers.
That was when I started googling and found lots of sites on step-by-step guides to secure CD ripping and how to configure the options available in EAC, how to verify the drive options, how to set the encoder options, etc.
EAC has options for beginners and for the experts. I'm sure it is good enough for the pros.
After much clicking here and there, I managed to configure it (hopefully) correctly and ripped KD Lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel which I am listening to even as I am writing this.
It was ripped in FLAC format (to get that codec I had to download it) and it was a bit perfect copy of the CD.
It certainly sounds better than most of the MP3 downloads that I have in my library.
This is another step forward in my journey of discovery of this new medium called computer audio which I believe is the future of the music industry and hi-fi.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

My first hires download

In life there is always a first time for anything.
I have just downloaded a hires album for the first time. I had surfed to the Linn Records website http://www.linnrecords.com/ and browsed around and found Handel's Messiah by Dunedin Consort which "recreates the freshness, excitement and spontaneity of the work's first public performance in 1742 and unlike the 30 singers used in some later performances, this version features only 12 of whom 7 are soloists, all performing in the choruses."
I have always liked Messiah and suddenly I had the itch to attempt a download for the first time. Linn Records offers several formats - MP3, CD-quality WMA and FLAC (16bit 44.1 kHz) and Studio Master-quality FLAC and WMA files (24bit 88.2 kHz). You can also buy the CD or the LP in 180-gm vinyl and you can play samples of the songs in all the formats before making the decison to buy.
I thought I might as well go all the way and downloaded the 24bit 88.2kHz FLAC Studio Master copy which cost US$24.
I clicked the download button at 2.45pm and the downloading started and continued and continued....(bear in mind I am using Streamyx at 1 Mbps)
Along the way my wife sent some e-mails and spoke to her cousin in Zurich via Skype which must have made the downloading somewhat slower.
At 2.45am when I went off to sleep, it was still downloading.
At 4.45am, my youngest son entered my room and happily climbed onto the bed and slept in the space between my wife and I (most Asian parents would know all about this...) and woke me up.
I decided to check the computer and it stated: "Download complete."
Thus it took between 12 and 14 hours for the entire 2,503.6 Mb music file plus album art to be downloaded.
Was it worth it? Even with the Altec Lansing computer speakers, the songs sound really great. Now my problem is trying to figure out a way to play it on the big rig...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Furutech vs Oyaide

There are some audiophiles who say that Furutech is a poor man's Oyaide.
I beg to differ. After using the Furutech FI-11M(G) and FI-11G American plug and IEC connector for a DIY power cable project, I can state with some amount of certainty that Furutech ain't nobody's poor cousin. I think that reputation came about because Oyaide's plugs are more expensive than Furutech's.
I have with me the Oyaide Tunami GPX and the Furutech Reference 111-N1 power cords. Both are top-of-the-range models; both have won many awards; and both have been highly praised. Fans of the Tunami even claim that it is the best power cord in the world.


The Oyaide Tunami GPX power cord

I spent the past two days testing the two, switching them from CD player to power amp and found that the two are excellent power cords but had different characters.
The system I used comprised: CEC3300 CD player used as transport, MIT Terminator 3 coax, Musical Fidelity A3-24 DAC, Alphacore Micropurl Silver interconnects to the Sugden C28 preamp (which has a fixed power cord), DH Labs Air Matrix interconnects to the Bryston 3B SST power amplifier and Mapleshade Clearview Double Helix speaker cables to the ATC SCM40 floorstanders.
I used the DH Labs Power Plus for the CEC CD player and the Isotek Elite power cord for the DAC.
Using Eva Cassidy's Live At Blues Alley's first three tracks - Cheek to Cheek, Stormy Monday and Bridge Over Troubled Water - and the second and third track of Songs of Janis Joplin All Blues'd Up (a HDCD CD) - Move Over by Tad Robinson and Ball And Chain by Etta James - I tried hard to pick out the differences.


The Furutech Reference 111-N1 power cord


The Formula GC-303 EMI-Absorbent
Module on the Furutech cable

First I alternately used the Furutech and Oyaide cords to power the 150-watter Bryston. Using the cords for the power amp showed up quite discernible differences.
The Oyaide Tunami had a darker tonal balance with more emphasis on the mid-bass and low bass. This had the effect of smearing some micro details, but the sound was richer.
Vocals were rendered with a richness that seemed valve-like and the mids seemed thickly textured which led to micro details getting somewhat hidden in the smooth presentation. Leading edges of electric guitar, horns, piano and cymbals were rounder and less "explosive".
The highs were there, but seemed slightly darker than the Furutech and had the effect of merging with the music instead of standing out. Cymbals and electric guitar sounded a bit dim.
Both power cords were dynamic and open, but the Tunami's bassy lushness made it sound less transparent than the Furutech.
With the Furutech Reference 111-N1, the sound quality was immediately noticeably very transparent and open. Low bass and mid-bass were rendered well, with double bass and bass guitar notes rendered with sufficient weight and punch, but it did not have a bassy emphasis like the Tunami.
Tonally, the Furutech was neutral - the mids and vocals were natural with no lushness and the leading edges of electric guitars, horns, piano and cymbals were sharper and more "explosive" - everything sounded more like live music.
Since the highs were clean and clear and extended, the timbres of instruments were more accurate, especially the high notes on the piano.
Both cords had very low noise floors and neither power cord projected the vocals forward like some other makes do. The soundstage was just right with the singer in the middle perhaps just a bit in front of the speakers. At this moment, I am listening to The Heart of the Matter: Frank Sinatra sings about love, a compilation that I bought from Starbucks and ol' Blue Eyes is just a few feet in front of me serenading about the old black magic called love...
Then I decided to plug the DH Labs Power Plus to the Bryston and test the Oyaide and Furutech on the CEC CD player. Some people opine that differences between power cords are more apparent with CD players.
However, in this instance switching power cords on the CD player showed fewer differences with the Tunami sounding more like the Furutech. In fact with the Tunami, the mids became clearer and less mushy, the leading edges of music became sharper and the highs were cleaner and clearer when it powered the CD player than when it was plugged to the power amp.
With the Furutech, all the qualities that it revealed when it was used with the power amp were still there when it was plugged to the CD player.
In the end, I used the Tunami for the CD player, the Furutech for the power amp and the DH Labs for the DAC and spent the rest of the afternoon just listening to great music.
So, which one should you buy? In terms of price the Tunami costs a grand plus while the Furutech costs four times more.
As for sound quality, would the outstanding neutrality, timbral accuracy and transparency of the Furutech be worth the extra cost?
Test both before deciding...

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Brave new world

I must admit I am a dinosaur when it comes to this new branch of hi-fi called hard disk players and hires song downloads and all sorts of files like WAV, FLAC, WMA, AAC/M4A and others.
But I am ever willing to jump into this brave new world where the iPod generation reigns and as usual learn as much as I can.
Today I downloaded MediaMonkey version 3.1.1 and had a pleasant surprise - it sounded so much better than the player in LimeWire and even the Windows Media Player.
I have been spending the past couple of hours just playing the MP3 songs that I have in my library.
Even the normal MP3 songs downloaded from LimeWire sounded better when played with Media Monkey and when I played the high-quality recordings from Mapleshade Records and Reference Recordings, there was a certain degree of sonic nirvana even though the images and soundstage were reduced because of the small Altec Lansing computer speakers.
But it goes to show that there is great potential in hires downloads and some people in the industry are already predicting the decline of the CD player and the rise of the hard disk player.
Looks like I have lots more to learn...