Thursday, March 25, 2010

Musical Rega

Many years ago, I listened to a pair of Rega Elas and thought they sounded good and if I had money back then, I would have bought a pair.

A couple of weeks ago, I was in Asia Sound in Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, and I saw a pair of Rega RS7 floorstanders and thought it would be interesting to find out how Rega speakers sound like these days. And so the speakers ended up in my house for a while.

Rega Research from England is well known for its turntables that deliver the goods at low cost. Remember the Rega Planar 2 and 3? Almost as good as the Linn Sondek but much cheaper. These have been replaced by the P2 and P3 and the top turntable is now the P9 with the RB1000 tonearm.

Unfortunately, its range of speakers is not even as well known as its CD players such as the Planet and Apollo, but that does not mean that they are dismissable.

Rega have always based their speakers on the quarter wave transmission line loading system which is supposed to have good bass and high sensitivity. Thus instead of bass being augmented by sound waves being generated at a port like the bass-reflex loading system, the back waves of the speaker units travel along a labyrinth to an opening either on the front baffle or side of the cabinet.

The tweeter is below the mid which is
reminiscent of the Mission speakers.
Note the side-firing bass and labyrinth opening.

In the case of the Rega RS7, the opening is at the side just beside the bass driver. This is covered with a black grille which together with the front angular grille covering the tweeter and mid driver gives the Rega an instantly recognisable look.

The Rega RS7 speakers are floorstanders which measure 98.8cm tall(without spikes), 34.6cm deep and 24.6cm wide. Since they are quite slim, they have outrigger spikes for stability. 

When I had these speakers, I was still using the Bryston 3B SST and 3B SST2 power amps. The preamp was the Sugden C28 while the CEC 3300 spun the discs.

Switching from the resident ATC SCM40s to the Rega RS7s revealed the latter's strengths and weaknesses - the Rega speakers were good at creating a huge soundstage especially vertically. When playing classical music, the scale and size of the orchestra were quite realistically recreated.

Note the acoustic wadding inside the labyrinth.

The speakers also had the ability to reproduce crescendoes and fortissimos realistically and effortlessly.

But the Rega RS7s sounded a bit lean in the mid-bass region which gave the music less body. Also, the images were smaller - instead of a mid-row presentation, it was as if the listener was a few rows further back.

However, like other Rega products they sounded 'musical' and if you are not the type to nitpick, they can sound quite satisfying.

Rega recommends placing the speakers with the side-firing woofers facing outwards and that was what I did and there was no problem with the sound. But I decided to face the woofers inwards to find out what would happen and I was shocked by the sudden collapse of the soundstage and imaging - it was as it I had wired them out of phase.

Unlike some other speakers, bi-wiring them did not make much difference and a single run of speaker cables should suffice.

When I spoke to Phil Freeman, who is effectively the CEO of Rega Research, in February, he said there are two types of audiophiles - one who would fiddle around with the components to get what he thinks is the right sound and the other who just plays music and enjoys himself.

If you are the latter type, the Rega RS7 should suffice and would provide many years of enjoyment. 

Friday, March 19, 2010

Wadia remains relevant in iPod era

James Shannon, Wadia's vice-president of 
international sales, revealing more about Wadia's 
new products. Next to him is the boss of CMY Audio John Yew.

James Shannon, Wadia's vice-president of international sales, was in a major New York music store a few weeks ago when he overheard the young store manager trying to convince a group of even younger walk-in customers to buy some stuff.

The store manager told the would-be buyers all about the sound system in the store - the speakers, the amp, the CD player...and the group of youths said something like: "Huh, CD player? Why do you need that?"

Welcome to the new world of music in which the kids, who would become the buyers of high-end hi-fi later, are growing up with iPods and music downloads and Internet streaming.
James said we are witnessing a paradigm shift in the music industry.

"When the CD was introduced, it was a totally different medium from the LPs that people were playing. The CD was convenient, could last longer, was easy to use and it soon became popular. That was a paradigm shift.

"When new formats like SACD and HDCD were introduced, people thought of them as better-quality CDs and they never caught on.

"But now the Internet is causing another paradigm shift - iTunes and music downloads are changing the industry," he said.

And Wadia, the American firm famed for making top-end CD players and Decoding Computers (other companies would call them DACs), has made the right moves to make its products relevant and appealing to the new generation of iPod and MP3 kids.

James, who was at CMY Audio & Visual in Damansara Utama, PJ, on Thursday for a presentation of new Wadia products, said Wadia is working with several partners to come up with products for the iPod generation.

The first product in collaboration with Apple was the Wadia 170iTransport which turns the iPod into a music file server that has the potential to sound good with a top-flight DAC. This was followed by the 171iTransport which can be docked with the iPhone.

He said Wadia is now working with another partner to come up with solutions - he thinks the future for Wadia is not so much a network or hard-disk player, but a file manager with a good user-interface.

"People already have lots of downloaded songs in their computers which are already linked (wired or wireless) and they may have replicated titles in the computers. They won't want to load all their music files to another server. So I think a good file manager would work. It will be like a librarian working fulltime to keep things organised," he said.

James said the issue of unreliable transports of Wadia's CD players has been solved following its collaboration with an Austrian CD transport specialist called StreamUnlimited to design and make Wadia's best-sounding transport ever which is used in the 381i and S7i CD players, and 171 transport.

The demo system.

The Wadia components on demo.

During the demo session, the Wadia 171 transport was used together with the three-box 931 Digital Controller and 921 Mono Decoding Computers. Amplification comprised the Jeff Rowland Criterion pre and the 301 Monoblocks feeding a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C2s.
Plus the 170iTransport was also used to play a few Apple Lossless files.

James said the Wadia 151 PowerDAC mini, a DAC-cum-digital amp (made with input from a Korean partner that makes the PCM chips) featuring Hewlett-Packard output devices, will be in CMY showrooms soon. The PowerDAC mini is a 50-watter with one USB, one Toslink and two Coax inputs in a box the same size as the iPod dock.

He added that the 9 series transport, which will supersede the 171, is still a work in progress as the designers are trying to make it the best Wadia transport ever. It will also use a transport mechanism made by StreamUnlimited.

Audiophiles looking at the circuitry
of the Wadia 381i CD player.

On why Wadia chose a new distributor in Malaysia, James said it was the right time for Wadia to be represented by a dedicated partner to improve market presence instead of being treated as an appendage of a company based in Singapore.

"Malaysia is a growing market with an increasing number of middle-class buyers who are getting sophisticated," he said.

On whether the CD player was doomed, he said it will still be around as there are millions of people with millions of CDs who will play them on CD players. The situation is just like people still playing LPs with turntables. Ironically, he heard two of the best turntables only recently - almost three decades after everybody predicted that turntables would fade away when the CD player was introduced.

Related post

Sunday, March 14, 2010

JBL Everest: Summit of sound?

Manager of Flagship AV Koh Yee Phok
standing next to the JBL Everest.

They lack finesse, sibilants are emphasised, the high notes can be too sharp, the tempo is too fast and the images are much larger than life.

But they can give you the sonic equivalent of a roller-coaster ride - the thrills and spills and sonic booms that only a pair of big, loud and fast speakers can create.

The JBL Project Everests 66000 II are not for the faint-hearted and you can expect to be shaken and stirred when you hop on board for a wild ride on the sonic roller-coaster.

I had the privilege to listen to the first and only pair (so far) of JBL Everests in Malaysia on Friday at Flagship AV in The Waterfront@Parkcity, Desa Park City, Kuala Lumpur, and was thankful that I remembered to take my high-blood pressure medication in the morning. The speakers are like sonic Shinkansens (Japanese bullet trains) and the musical journey is simply exhilirating and will leave you breathless. 

I had with me two CDs - Eva Cassidy's Time After Time and Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms and some Frank Sinatra songs burnt to a Taiyo Yuden CD-R.

I had never heard Eva Cassidy's songs rendered so fast before - the tempo seemed to have picked up and everything just seemed snappier and quicker - from the guitar picking to the drumbeats.

Everything seemed bigger too - the singer, the drums, the bass guitar, the cymbals, the lead guitar, the piano and all other instruments recorded on the CD were magnified and the perceived size of their images were gigantic.

Some speakers offer a back-row presentation, some a front-row presentation. The JBL Everests make the listener feel as if he is mingling with the band on stage. Not only that but he is listening to the instruments up close - like inches away. Imagine that you are standing next to a percussionist playing the congas and you lean forward and turn your head so that your ear is maybe a few inches from the drum-skin - that is the kind of sound that comes from the JBL Everest.

The music just leaps out in an explosive and impactful manner in an ultra-dynamic way. There is no overhang, no prolonged notes - just quick, sudden spurts of music.

The sound stage is big horizontally and vertically, but depth is limited. In fact, the soundstage seems pushed forward and the music can sometimes be in your face.

If you are from the valve amp, especially the SET, camp, don't attempt to 'conquer' the Everest. It's way too fast and furious.

The Everests, now in Mark II version, are JBL's top model and represent the best that the renowned speaker manufacturer's engineers could do in conjunction with the firm's 60th anniversary.

They are huge speakers, measuring (H x W x D)965mm x 1109mm x 469mm / 38" x 43-11/16" x 18-1/2", and are as large as cupboards.

 Koh explaining the frequency response of
 the drivers of the JBL Everest.

Sporting two 15-inch Aquaplas-treated-pulp cone woofers (one handling 20Hz to 150Hz and the other from 20Hz to 700Hz), a 4" beryllium compression driver (handling frequences from 700Hz to 20kHz and a 1" beryllium compression driver handling frequencies from 20kHz to 55kHz, the Everests have a sensitivity of 96dB and amps up to 500-watts can be used with it. The compression drivers operate in conjunction with Bi-Radial horns that are made from dense and inert SonoGlass.

Despite its size, its bass is rated to go down to only 45Hz (–6dB). And don't attempt to carry one by yourself - each speaker weigns 142kg (312 lbs).

Manager of Flagship AV Koh Yee Phok said the JBL Everest costs from RM253,999 (rosewood finish) to RM275,999 (beech finish) per pair.

In his showroom, which BTW was previously located in Mont Kiara, the JBL Everests were driven by Bel Canto Reference 1000 monoblock power amps connected to a Pioneer SC-LX90 Susano AV amp used as preamp and a Pioneer BDP LX91 BluRay player. Speaker cables were Van den Hul Clearwater.

There are two large ports at the back.

For HT demos, two SVS sub-woofers - the PB 13 Ultra and PC 13 Ultra - and Pioneer rear speakers were used with phantom centre setting.

To round up the demo session, Koh played the Top Gun BluRay disk and when the fighter jet took off, the sound level was deafening and the sofa I was sitting on vibrated.

And he also slipped in a Japanese percussion CD and when the taiko drum was hit, the sheer impact of the BOOM startled me and I actually jumped a little.

Koh said the JBL Everests will soon be moved to The Celebrities Club, a jazz joint, in Soho, Kuala Lumpur. But he has ordered another pair which should arrive in time (there's a six-month waiting list) for the KL International AV show.

Flagship AV can be reached at 03-6280 7966.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Music presentation by Wadia

Want to find out the latest innovations in CD technology?

Go to CMY Audio & Visual in Damansara Utama, PJ, at 3pm on Thursday (March 18) for a presentation on music listening by vice-president of Wadia Digital James Shannon.

Wadia is famed for making some of the world's best CD players and DACs which are distributed in Malaysia by CMY.

Call: 03-77272419 or 016-2861000 for more information.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Rip and burn: Part II

A forumer called 'watchdog' in a Singapore hi-fi forum commented that his ripped songs have consistently sounded better than the original CDs.

"FWIW, my rips using EAC with Verbatim / Mitsubishi Metal AZO blue discs burnt at 1X on my Yamaha external SCSI drive consistently sound better than the original disc. Doubting audiophile claimed it was impossible and was surprised when I demo-ed the difference."

This comment inspired me to delve deeper into the mysteries of digital data.

After I used MediaMonkey to burn the Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms xrcd CD to the Taiyo Yuden That's CD-R For Audio (see previous post), there was unused space which I filled up with some Frank Sinatra songs from his The Heart of the Matter CD that I had ripped earlier to FLAC files using Exact Audio Copy (EAC).

When I compared the ripped-and-burnt Frank Sinatra songs using the Benchmark DAC Pre through the Sennheiser HD600 headphones and through the Bryston 4BSST/ATC SCM40 sound system, I could hear that the ripped versions sounded cleaner and clearer than the original CD. The ripped songs had better separation with more space around individual instruments and voices and the high notes had more clarity and detail. The tonal balance was not changed, but the clarity was improved.

This improvement was not detected when I compared the ripped Dire Straits songs to the original, but with the Frank Sinatra songs, the improvement in quality was quite discernible.

What's going on? How can a cloned copy of a CD sound better than the original? How can a bit perfect copy sound different compared with the source?

I have a hypothesis and if any reader out there thinks he/she can slice it to pieces, please feel free to do so. Like many others, I am still on the road of discovery as far as this hobby is concerned.

My hypothesis is this: With ripping software like EAC and dbPowerAmp having "Secure Ripping" which has the programme re-reading the tracks several times to ensure there are no errors when ripping and "AccurateRip" which has the programme comparing your rip with an online database of rips of the same album done by other people around the world, the errors in the ripped file are drastically reduced to none or just a few.

It is well known that quality-control during the process of pressing a CD greatly influences the sound quality. For example, many audiophiles claim that Germany makes the best CDs while locally-pressed ones are lousy.

So if you rip a low-quality CD, AccurateRip compares the file with the Internet database which may contain rips from better quality CDs from other parts of the world and corrects the errors.

Also, modern DVD drives have the 'AccurateStream' feature which ensures that the bit stream is jitter free.

All these will add up to a ripped file that contains no error or fewer errors than the original CD. Thus when this file is burnt to a high-quality CD-R (at slow speed to ensure fewer errors when burning), the cloned CD-R can have music files with no error or fewer errors than the original CD.

Audio-grade CD-Rs like those made by Taiyo Yuden and Mitsubishi have high-quality dyes which could form better defined pits and the plastic used is also of higher quality enabling the laser to read the data with fewer errors when played.

The end result of no error or fewer errors? Better sound quality.

When I compared the Dire Straits rips with the original CD, I could not detect any differences because the original CD is an xrcd version which already has very few errors. Thus I was comparing a cloned copy containing few errors with an original with few errors.

But when I compared the Frank Sinatra tracks, I was comparing rips with few errors with a commercial-grade CD that has more errors. Thus the burnt CD-R sounded better.

Anyone out there with other views?

Related post:

Monday, March 8, 2010

Rip and burn

This post was inspired by this thread in hifi4sale -

One forumer said he could not get his burnt CD-Rs to sound like the original CDs while another said there could be errors when ripping the CD.

I was of the opinion that with today's hardware and software, ripping is bit perfect. Just google around and you will find that with "Secure Rip" and "AccurateRip", ripping softwares can make perfect clones of CDs.

Most computer audiophiles recommend using Exact Audio Copy (EAC) freeware to rip. Some recommend dbPoweramp while Mac users use Apple iTunes.

I was curious to find out if the forumer was right and the burnt CD-R would sound inferior - in the words of the forumer, it could sound brighter or bassier or 'harder' or 'softer' than the original CD. If that is true, then the ripping software is not extracting a bit perfect clone of the original CD and it is either adding or subtracting something from the data.

Starting off with an xrcd version of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms, I used EAC (version V0.99 prebeta 5) to rip the songs to FLAC files to my Compaq Presario SR5790D PC with Intel Core 2 Duo Processor E7300 (2.66GHz ).
Then I used MediaMonkey (version to burn the CD-R with "level volume" unchecked. I have a feeling that this feature messes things up - by ensuring that the songs are played at the same volume, I think it reduces the dynamics and some data goes haywire. It is best to leave this feature unchecked. Burning speed was set at the lowest - 2X.

Using a CD-R that I have in stock at home, an Imation Platinum Disc, I burnt a copy of the Dire Straits' album.

Then I recalled reading about how different types of CD-Rs can affect sound quality due to the quality and type of dye used.

So I made a trip to Plaza Low Yat in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur, on Friday where to kill two birds with one stone, I picked up a Benchmark DAC Pre from Tong Lee for review as well as look around the IT mall for good-quality CD-Rs.

On the second floor, I walked into a shop that sold only CD-R/RWs and DVD-R/RWs. The shopkeeper advised me to go for audio-quality CD-Rs. He had in stock TDK, Mitsubishi and That's CD-R by Taiyo Yuden, said to be the best around for burning music files. I asked about Verbatim because I know some music producers use this brand, but the shopkeeper insisted that I should buy either the Mitsubishi or Taiyo Yuden. That's CD-R for Audio by Taiyo Yuden was the most expensive in his shop - RM50 for 10 disks.

I remembered reading in some forum that Taiyo Yuden is the best for audio and so I left the shop with a box of That's CD-R.

Back home, I burnt the Brothers In Arms album to the Taiyo Yuden CD-R from FLAC files.

Then I read the hifi4sale thread again and found out that the forumer had complained about not getting the right sound from WAV files and I also recalled some debate going on about differences in sound quality between FLAC (a lossless compressed file) and WAV (lossless uncompressed) files So I thought that to ensure that all the bases were covered, I ripped the Dire Straits CD using EAC into WAV files and burnt them to an Imation Platinum CD-R.

Thus I had four CDs to compare - the original CD, the Imation burnt from FLAC files, the Imation burnt from WAV files and the Taiyo Yuden burnt from FLAC files.

And so I spent the weekend listening to the four CDs through the resident system comprising CEC3300 CD player, a Sugden C28 preamp, a Bryston 4B SST power amp and a pair of ATC SCM40s. On Saturday evening, the Benchmark DAC Pre was used instead of the Sugden. I also listened using a pair of Sennheiser HD600s plugged into the headphone jacks of the CEC CD player and the Benchmark DAC Pre which was also fed digital data from the CD player used as transport. Interconnects were Rega's Couple, the coax was an MIT Terminator 3 and all power cords were connected to a Furutech e-TP60/20 Power Distributor.

And the conclusion? Frankly I heard no difference - they did not sound brighter, bassier, harder or softer than the original xrcd CD. This means the tonal balance was not changed by the ripping and burning and the copies are bit-perfect clones of the original but, admittedly, this is a very subjective and totally unscientific method.

I found the Taiyo Yuden CD-R to sound a bit cleaner and clearer than the Imation, but it took many rounds of listening of the same track with the Sennheiser headphones plugged to the Benchmark DAC Pre using the Benchmark's DAC to pick out the differences.

Bear in mind, these cloned CD-Rs were only days old and what they would sound like years from now is another story. What I can confirm is that photo files (JPEG) that I burnt to the Imation CD-Rs four to five years ago can no longer be opened. I presume the Taiyo Yuden would be better for archiving purposes. The Plaza Low Yat shopkeeper told me that Mitsubishi CD-Rs (Japanese-made) that he burnt about 10 years ago can still be used today.

Will the cloned CD-Rs sound similar to the original CD years from now? Only time will tell...

Related posts:

Friday, March 5, 2010

Maxx-imum entertainment

Maxx Audio Visual in Seremban is now open for business and since it is very near Quinn Beef Noodle as well as Lucky Restaurant, you might as well plan for a day out to the capital of Negri Sembilan, check out the AV systems in the showroom and tuck into the beef noodles.

Owner of Maxx Audio Visual, Max Loh, said his showroom will open on Sundays and close on Wednesdays

He has set up a Home Theatre system comprising SV Sound speakers (better known as SVS) and sub-woofers.

He has been spending a lot of time tuning the demo room, so now that he has fixed the sonic problems it should be a treat for HT enthusiasts to pay him a visit.

The demo systems

Maxx Audio Visual also sells Atlantic Technology and Klipsch loudspeakers, Panasonic LCD TVs and XLO cables.

His showroom is in a commercial area called Kemayan Square about one km from the Seremban toll.

Related posts: 

Monday, March 1, 2010

'Mo' good music

CD mats have been around for years - some are glued onto the discs, some are placed on them and at least one is 'charged' by exposing it to light and it glows in the darkness of the CD compartment.

Some months ago, Khwang of Smart Home Solution in Puchong, Selangor, played a CD for me and then opened the tray and slipped in a black mat and played the same track again. There were some improvements and he handed me the Mo Audio mat for review.

The Mo Audio mat, sourced from Taiwan, is simply a thin sheet of black material, which feels like some kind of vinyl. Both sides look the same and either side can be used - simply put the CD on the tray, place the Mo Audio mat on top of the CD and press the 'play' button.

Some CD mats are too thick and the tray cannot close or they are too soft and fold up when the tray closes. I did not encounter these problems with the Mo Audio mat on the CEC CD player.

When using CD mats, the main complaints are that they cause the laser to skip, they shorten the lifespan of the motor since the load is increased and, of course, there is no difference in sound quality.

The Mo Audio mat did not cause any skipping in the past few months that I have been using it. There is no way I can comment on the lifespan on the motor but what I can say is that I have not heard any whirring sound or any indication of the motor in distress.

As for sound quality, I must say there is some improvement in the bass region and there is less high frequency hardness. Images become more 'solid' and stable and the sound quality is generally smoother, especially the vocals.

I tested CDs of various thicknesses and types and found that it worked particularly well with hybrid CD/SACD discs. When playing the CD layer of the hybrid disc, I always get the feeling that the CD player's laser is straining to read the pits and often details that I hear when I use the Sennheiser HD600 headphones are missing when I play music through the speakers. With the Mo Audio mat, more details are heard and the music sounds more relaxed.

I also noted that there was less difference in sound quality when I used the headphones and played the same track with and without the mat.

The least difference in sound quality was when I played the HD Mastering CD which already has a damping layer. It appears that over-damping is not the right thing to do.

I also played a DVD with the Mo Audio mat and the colours were slightly more saturated and distortions on diagonal lines when the camera was panning were reduced.

Khwang said they tested several CD mats before deciding to market the Mo Audio mat. The retail price is RM288 each.