Thursday, April 29, 2010

Watching 3-D TV

There I was window-shopping in 1Utama in Petaling Jaya a few days ago when I happened to notice Sony displaying its latest gear at the New Wing concourse.

I sauntered into the fenced-off area and saw several people wearing sporty spectacles and watching two huge LCD TV screens in a large cubicle in the centre.It quickly dawned on me that they were watching 3D TV and I eagerly queued up to see for myself.

The spectacles are not the blue (cyan) and red type that you normally wear to watch 3D movies. These new ones are battery powered and look sporty and cool.

One TV was showing animated scenes and I thought the 3-D effect was good. On the other TV, a scene of a polar bear jumping into a pool of water was shown and everything was sharp, clear and very 3-D. I looked at the screen from various angles and the 3-D effect was very apparent.

I removed the 3-D spectacles and the images on the TV screen were fuzzy. I put the spectacles on and the images were sharp and 3-D again.

I was impressed, but bear in mind that they were demo disks which have to be of high quality. What about normal broadcasts? I am not sure, but I am certain I will be able to find out later as all the big boys like Sony, Panasonic and Samsung are rolling out their 3-D TVs in the next few months.

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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Launch of CMY outlet and jz8 CD

CMY Audio & visual has opened a branch at Sunway Giza Mall, Kota Damansara, Selangor.

And in conjunction with the official opening of the branch, CMY will be teaming up with music producer Leslie Loh to launch his jz8 album on May 15.

"We will be playing the master tape by Doug Sax using CMY's super-duper high-end system," said Leslie.

Jazz maestro Tay Cher Siang will be around to sign autographs and talk about his involvement in the album. jz8 CDs will be on sale that day.

Light refreshments will be served during the event which will be on from 2pm to 4pm.

For reservations, call Chan at 012-2873551.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Exhibitors at KLIAV show

Confirmed Exhibitors at the KL International AV Show 2010 (so far...)


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Thursday, April 22, 2010

Stereo SVS

When I covered the launch of SVS sub-woofers and Home Theatre components last year ( I noticed a pair of handsome floorstanders which I found out later were the SVS MTS-01.

They looked really good with black glossy side panels and matt black sides with a rounded top. They could be used as front speakers for a HT system and also for two-channel serious listening.

I thought it was strange that SVS, which started out making sub-woofers, would venture into the stereo hi-fi market since most sub-woofer manufacturers specialise in making those boxes that pump out sound that can make window panes vibrate.

I felt it would be a good idea to have a listen to the SVS floorstanders since the president of SVS, Ronald Stimpson, started off as a DIY speaker builder. I had a feeling that the MTS-01 would be a refinement of some DIY project.

That it used off-the-shelf speaker units like two 7" Peerless woofers and the famed Scanspeak Aircirc tweeter suggested its DIY heritage as many of the DIY or speaker kits available on the Internet use such easily-available components. Just have a look at

Two 7" Peerless woofers and a
Scanspeak Aircirc tweeter are used.

This is not to look down on the SVS MTS-01 - indeed the SVS sub-woofers began as DIY projects and ended up being critically-acclaimed and commercially-successful products. I was pretty sure the designers in SVS could accomplish a similar feat with floorstanders for stereo purposes.

And the SVS boys went all out to make a statement that they were serious speaker designers - the grille is magnetic and the magnets are hidden beneath the veneer reminiscent of the classy and very expensive PMC Fact 8 that was launched in Malaysia last year; the bi-wireable binding posts are gold-plated; and even the spikes are plated with gold.

They come in matching pairs (boxed separately) with the tweeters facing outwards. The MTS-01s are large speakers and measure 104cm (41") x 25cm (10") x 31cm (12"); they are taller than the resident ATC SCM40s. Each speaker weighs 29kg.

There is a switch at the back near the binding posts to attenuate the treble by -3dB. At the rear are also two ports with foam bungs to tune the bass.

The MTS-01 are a 2 1/2 way design and its frequency response is rated at 38Hz to 27kHz. There is some confusion over its sensitivity as the sheetlet in the box said it was 86.5dB but at the back of the speaker, it was rated at 91dB. Judging by how little I turned the volume knob, the 91dB figure is correct.

Also included in the box are four rubber footers, a frequency response test sheet and a CD containing the subwoofer and speaker manuals.

First observation was that the SVS MTS-01s are power hungry. I started off with a 60-watter Audiolab 8000S and they sounded okay. When I used the 150-watter Bryston 3B SST, they sounded better and when I got hold of the 300-watter Bryston 4B SST, they started to sound quite good.

Being large speakers, they needed space and placing them about three feet from the rear wall should be alright, depending on the room dimensions, of course.

Overall, the MTS-01s, which are priced at RM7,999, sounded quite bright  - this was confirmed by the frequency response test sheet which showed a rise from around 2kHz to 10kHz peaking at 4.5kHz. Switching on the treble attenuater switch made the sound somewhat dull, but this is room dependent. Perhaps SVS should have offered a choice of minus 1.5dB or 3dB.

They were also forward sounding, with a slightly narrow horizontal soundstage reaching to just around the outer edges of the speakers. Soundstage depth was also rather shallow with the images pushed forward.

They showed an energetic character that was well suited for rock. In that sense, they were typical American speakers, but somehow they sounded acceptable when classical music was played.

Though they are meant for the HT market, they are surprisingly good enough for two-channel listening - if you don't mind the bright tonal balance and the rock 'n' roll 'attitude'.

They are worth an audition, but you have to drive all the way to Seremban though. But when you are at Maxx AV showroom, you might as well check out the SVS AV systems on demo and tuck into the beef noodles that Seremban is famous for.

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Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Setting a new Benchmark: Part II

The crowded rear of the Benchmark DAC1 Pre.

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre has lots of features and I had to check them out one at a time to get the complete picture.

Headphone amp

I started off by testing the Benchmark DAC1 Pre's headphone amp.

Recently, when I tested the headphone jack of the Bryston BP-6 preamp ( I felt it sounded too lean. The Benchmark's headphone jack sounded less rich than the CEC 3300's but not as lean as the Bryston's with my pair of Sennheiser HD600.

The high frequencies were more extended with the Benchmark than with the CEC without sounding hard and bright. The bass was tight and deep and the tonal balance was neutral.

It quickly dawned on me that it was one of the best headphone amps I have ever tried.

Preamp section

Compared with the very rich-sounding Sugden c28 preamp that I had been using for the past year or so, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre sounded slightly leaner, though not as lean as the Bryston BP-6 preamp, and had just as much pace and drive as the Bryston.

There was a kind of synergy between the the Bryston BP-6 and the Bryston 3B SST power when I tested them late last year and together, they sounded punchier and pacier than the 3B SST paired with the Sugden preamp.

With the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and the Bryston 4B SST that I am using now to drive a pair of ATC SCM40s, much of that 'Bryston synergy' was apparent while the Benchmark provided a dash of smoothness despite sounding very analytical.

The Benchmark seemed fussy about power cords - when I used a Supra LoRad, the Benchmark sounded 'brightish', thin, very 'digital' and detailed.

But when I used an Oyaide Tunami power cord known for its creamy midrange, the Benchmark sounded smoother and slightly warmer while retaining its analytical character. The Oyaide Tunami was used for the rest of the tests.

If you buy a Benchmark, the first thing to do is to get a warm and rich sounding power cord.

Benchmark's DAC vs CEC

It was quite simple to plug a pair of Rega Couple interconnects linking the CEC 3300 CD player to the analogue inputs of the Benchmark and an MIT Terminator 3 coax from the digital output of the CD player to the Benchmark to compare the sound on the fly just by turning the selector switch.

The Benchmark was connected to the Bryston 4B SST via the balanced connections using an XLR interconnect comprising Neutrik plugs and Gotham cable.

The CEC was easily outclassed.

Benchmark DAC vs Musical Fidelity A3-24 DAC

Next I hooked up the resident MF A3-24 DAC which was highly praised by Stereophile some years back. Using the MIT coax and plugging it alternately to the MF A3-24 and the Benchmark, I listened hard for differences. A pair of Rega Couple interconnects were used to link the MF DAC to the analogue inputs of the Benchmark.

With upsampling set at 96kHz, the Musical Fidelity A3-24 DAC was clearly the loser with the highs sounding closed in and dimmer and the music generally muddier.

Surprisingly, the MF DAC set at 192kHz upsampling could hold its own against the Benchmark for a wide range of the frequency band. It was only at the high frequencies that the Benchmark DAC1 Pre sounded more extended, spacious and airier.

Also, when playing complex and thickly-layered music, the Benchmark could separate the musicians and singers better and the music sounded cleaner with better imaging.

CEC and Wadia as transports

Bear in mind that I am using the cheaper CEC 3300 CD player which is not belt driven, so the comparison can be deemed unfair. But Benchmark claims its Ultralock system works so well that any old CD player can be used as transport.

With the CEC 3300 CD player as transport, the sound quality was much better than the 3300 used as CD player which meant that Benchmark’s Ultralock system worked even with budget and old components.

However, when I used a Wadia 381i as transport, there was an increase in smoothness and detail of the sound. The soundstage was also larger. It just goes to show that despite what Benchmark claims, a better transport does result in better sound.

But one Wadia equals around 10 CEC 3300s in terms of cost.

Single-ended vs XLR outputs

I started this review using Rega Couple and DHLab’s Silver Sonic Air Matrix interconnects. Then I borrowed a pair of XLR interconnects comprising Gotham cable with Neutrik plugs.

With the XLR interconnects, I noticed immediately that the music sounded softer and I had to turn the volume up to make music through the XLR outputs sound as loud as that through the RCA outputs.

Despite the equalisation of volume, I noted a loss of dynamics, punch and pace which was not expected of balanced connections. Frankly it was the first time I had connected a preamp to my Bryston 4B SST with balanced interconnects and I had to call an audiophile friend to find out what was going on. He confirmed that whenever he used balanced connectors in his system, the sound would have more slam, greater dynamic range, lower noise floor and more clarity.

So it was back to reading the 55-page Benchmark instruction manual. I found out that the balanced outputs have passive attenuators that control output levels and have settings at 0dB, 10dB, 20dB and 30dB. The output impedence changes with the setting – at 0dB, the output impedence is 60 Ohms while at the factory-set level of 20dB, it is 135 Ohms.

I also googled and read about a reviewer saying that the Benchmark DAC1 Pre started singing as well as his reference after he had set the output level to 0dB.

And so I unscrewed the casing and changed the XLR output setting to 0dB and played some music again.

Immediately I noticed the differences. The sound was very dynamic, punchy and detailed with great bass slam. The noise floor was also lowered. If you buy the Benchmark DAC1 Pre, the first thing to do is to set the XLR output level to 0dB and buy a good pair of XLR interconnects if you want to the exploit this midget-sized unit to its maximum.

However, you will need to turn the volume down when the XLR output level is set at 0dB. When I used the single-ended interconnects, the volume knob was at around 12 o’clock for normal listening levels. With the XLR setting at 0dB, it was loud enough at around 9 to 10 o’clock and bear in mind the ATC SCM40 floorstanders are 85dB in sensitivity.

Last week, I upgraded to a pair of Audioquest Panther dbs (24v) XLR interconnects and my system has been singing ever since.

The way of the future: a laptop streaming
music files through a USB input.
Note the Buffalo 1TB external drive on the floor.

24/96 USB input

There are quite a few DACs and even CD players which offer USB inputs these days in keeping with the trend. But not all of them boast of being able to support 24bit 96kHz data streams.

A normal USB cable comes with the Benchmark and it is a simple matter of just plugging and playing, thanks to the software solutions programmed in the Benchmark.

Much has been written about the problems with computer hi-fi systems since music players can be affected by the computer’s operating systems (OS). For example, Microsoft XP is notorious for its digital mixer called Kmixer which can degrade data streams. By default all audio streams go though the Kmixer to reach native USB audio devices. The fix, according to several websites, is to download the ASIO4ALL driver which by-passes the Kmixer.

However, Benchmark states that it has investigated this issue thoroughly and has found that the Kmixer can perform with full bit transparency under correct conditions. It dedicates three pages in its manual to explain the issues of OS, Kmixer and ASIO.

After being reassured by that, I plugged the Toshiba Tecra laptop with Centrino Duo chip and Microsoft XP OS to the Benchmark with the supplied USB cable. My music files are stored in a Buffalo 1TB Drive Station with TurboUSB to increase data transfer speed and this was plugged to the laptop via another USB input.

I launched Monkey Media and started playing from the Buffalo external hard drive without having to download any software or configure settings. Indeed, the Benchmark offers plug-and-play convenience.

Clicks, pops and data drop-outs

The MP3 files played without hitches, but when the FLAC files of Dire Straits' Brothers In Arms ripped with EAC from an xrcd edition of the CD was played, I could hear a few clicks and pops.

After about three songs, the music stopped for a few seconds and then continued playing. It was worse when the 24bit 88.2kHz studio master files of Handel's Messiah by Dunedin Consort that I downloaded from Linn Records (( were played. After a few disruptions, I stopped the player and started googling for answers.

Apparently these disruptions are caused by data drop-outs which are quite common in computer hi-fi and I quickly learnt that playing huge music files can use more than 70 per cent of the processing power of the chip and I had to close all other functions while playing music, even the anti-virus software, to free the chip from performing other functions in the background.

So I searched around for functions to turn off and switched off the wi-fi. I started playing and after a few FLAC tracks, the music player stopped again.

The same thing happened when I used a thumbdrive. More googling revealed that the performance of USB inputs can drop when more than one USB component is plugged in at the same time and data may not be transferred fast enough.

Data drop-outs occurred only when the music files were large (the entire Handel's Messiah Studio Master files amount to 2,503.6 Mb of data). MP3 files played smoothly.

Finally I copied the music files from the Buffalo external drive to the laptop and played from its internal hard disk. This solved the problem of data drop-outs and there were no more clicks or pops.

Finally I could hear the 24bit 88.2kHz files of Handel's Messiah in their full glory - they sounded  rich, full-bodied and natural.

Listening to MP3 followed by FLAC rips of 16-bit 44.1kHz CD tracks and 24-bit 88.2kHz files revealed what was missing in the MP3 files - the rich harmonics. MP3 files are stripped of this harmonic richness which make, for example, a good violin sound like a good violin.

The FLAC files of ripped CDs sounded smoother than the CDs themselves, especially the vocals. This has prompted some people to say that computer hi-fi can sound more 'analogue'. Music from CDs seemed to have slightly harder leading edges of vocals and instruments like horns and electric guitar.

Internet radio streamed wirelessly

I have an Aztech 802.11n wireless router upstairs and my Internet provider is Streamyx (1 Mbps speed).

The laptop was connected to the stereo system downstairs and with WinAmp, I listened to several Internet radio stations streamed wirelessly.

I listened mostly to jazz, classical and folk stations offering MP3 and Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) music files. AAC is the better-sounding format that is supposed to replace MP3.

When listening to Internet radio, data drop-outs will depend on the quality and speed of the link. When you get a good link, Internet radio can be a pleasure to listen to especially when there are hundreds of stations in cyber space offering music as diverse as Romanian folk and Chinese music from Malaysia's 988 FM station. It's quite refreshing to listen to something other than your favourite CDs.

Toslink optical vs coax

The Toslink has always been criticised as the weakest of the digital links, but Benchmark claims that their Toslink input performs as well as the other digital inputs.

So I picked up a QED Performance Optical cable from CMY Audio In Damansara Utama, PJ, and fixed it to the Toslink inputs. The coax cable used was the MIT Terminator 3.

It was just a matter of turning the input knob and checking for differences. After a while, I concluded that there was none and I have decided to use the Toslink since it will not be affected by EMI/RFI.



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Benchmark is distributed in Malaysia by Tong Lee at Plaza Low Yat. For more info, call Tong Lee at 03-21414366 or 012-5202988.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

3D experience at KLIAV

Get ready for a 3-D experience at this year's edition of the KL International AV (KLIAV) Show which will be held from July 23-25 at J.W. Marriott hotel, Kuala Lumpur.

Three major TV manufacturers - Samsung, Sony and Panasonic - will be demonstrating their 3D TVs at the show, Organising Chairman of the KLIAV Dick Tan said Wednesday.

Organising Chairman of the KLIAV
Dick Tan (centre) at the launch of the show.

"There will also be great discounts for large-screen LCD and plasma TVs," he said at the official launch of the KLIAV at J.W. Marriott hotel.

Dick said some 90 per cent of the booths has been taken up and among the new brands to exhibit at the show are SVS, an American maker of sub-woofers and home speakers, and Nakamichi, the well-known Japanese brand that has kept a low profile in the Malaysian market for a while.

Dick added that the mood in the industry is very "gung-ho" this year with the recovery in the economy and the introduction of new technology like 3D TV.

Most of the big boys in the audio industry have signed up and audiophiles can expect to check out the latest models from the major marques.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Setting a new Benchmark

This is the first time that I have to do a two-part review of a product. It is simply because the Benchmark DAC1 PRE is such a Swiss army-knife kind of component that including every detail in one article would make it too long.

This first part will describe the Benchmark DAC1 Pre, the much-praised product that has finally reached Malaysian shores via reputable hi-fi dealer Tong Lee based in Plaza Low Yat, Kuala Lumpur.

Retailing at RM6,500, the Benchmark is actually not expensive considering what it can do.

> It is a high-quality preamp.
> It is an excellent headphone amp.
> It is a top-flight DAC that supports 24bit 96KHz data stream through its USB input.
> It can turn your decent CD player into a turbo-charged system.
> It can turn your laptop into a good-sounding music player.
> It enables you to listen to all the hires downloads available on the Internet.
> It enables you to listen to all the Internet radio stations out there in the cyber world.
> It ensures that your CD-based system does not become obsolete as it can act as the DAC for your CD player as well as play rips and music downloads from your computer plus streaming music from the Internet.
> You can also connect your ol' skool turntable to it via the analogue input (you need a phono preamp) and spin some vinyl.

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre is about
 half the size of a normal component.

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre is actually the DAC1, released some years back, with an analogue output plus volume control. According to reviews done by audiophiles who own the DAC1, the DAC1 Pre sounds better - Benchmark must have improved its famed DAC1.

The heart of the component is a 24-bit 192-kHz Analog Devices AD1853 DAC chip around which Benchmark has created proprietary software and hardware solutions.

One of them is Benchmark’s UltraLock clock system which achieves high immunity to jitter even under extreme conditions. UltraLock will block more then 12.5 UI of jitter (@ 1 kHz). With the UltraLock clock system, the D/A conversion-clock in the DAC1 PRE is totally isolated from the clock of the digital audio source. Benchmark claims its UltraLoc clock system outperforms most well-designed two-stage Phase-locked loop designs. 

Another proprietary system is the AdvancedUSB Audio Technology which supports 24-bit audio at sample rates of 44.1, 48, 88.2 and 96 kHz without having to install any drivers or other software. AdvancedUSB responds automatically to sample-rate changes to bypass the computer's operating system’s sample-rate conversion. Benchmark offers a true plug-and-play USB DAC that is compatible with Windows 7/Vista/XP/2000 and Mac OS X and the performance of the USB input is equal to that of the other inputs.

Benchmark says "it is very important to have a 24-bit USB path, even for 16-bit playback, because digital volume controls and other DSP function s can increase 16-bit audio to 24 bits. If a 16-bit USB DAC is used, up to 8 bits of each digital audio sample will be truncated resulting in significant, non-musical digital distortion at audible levels."

Its headphone jacks are (there are two and the one at the left mutes the speakers; that function can be disabled) driven by Benchmark's HPA2 high-current, 0-Ohm headphone amplifier which will deliver the full rated performance of the DAC1 to the headphones even when two pairs are used. The gain can be adjusted to suit the sensitivity of different headphones.

The preamp section features high-current National LM 4562 operational amplifiers that are capable of driving 300-Ohm loads and are suited for driving long or high-capacitance cables (the RCA outputs can drive cables as long as 1,360 feet!). The volume control has a textured knob which has a very reassuring feel about it and features 41 clicks.

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre features six stereo inputs including an analogue input, a USB input, an optical Toslink input, and three coaxial digital inputs. The coax and optical inputs support sample rates from 28 to 195kHz.

The output section includes stereo XLR balanced and RCA unbalanced. Output of the XLR balance can be adjusted. In 'calibrated' mode, trim-pots control the gain of both XLR and RCA outputs.

A 55-page manual (that looks like a scientific document with test-result graphs and charts) is included and reading it with all the instructions and do's and don'ts is like preparing to set up a highly-sensitive and sophisticated piece of equipment for the lab.

Frankly, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre is indeed a sophisticated piece of hitech equipment.
When I brought it home from Tong Lee a few weeks ago, my wife said: "Wah, so small."

In physical size, it is a dwarf and measures 1.725" (44.5mm) high, 9.5" (249mm) wide and 8.5" (216mm) deep. But in terms of sonic performance, it is a sensational giant.

For more info, call Tong Lee at 03-21414366 or 012-5202988.

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