Monday, May 31, 2010

Stello's upsampling DAC

The Stello DA 100 Signature DAC is marketed as a high-end DAC featuring 24bit 192kHz upsampling and is designed as a smallish shoebox which matches the other 100 series components.

It features coax, Toslink, AES-EBU and USB inputs and also I2S digital transmission via a mini-DIN connector to receive I2S signals from the matching CDT 100 transport (see I2S means separate signals are transmitted on individual conductors for master clock, word clock, bit clock and audio data.

The DAC offers both single-ended and fully-balanced analogue outputs. Stello states that it has a jitter-free timing circuit, a 6th order digital filter, discrete Class A analogue output stage and audiophile-quality components like 1% tolerance metal film resistors, WIMA polypropylene capacitors, Cardas RCA connectors and Neutrik balanced connectors.

Though the power switch is at the rear, you still have to press the standby switch on the front panel to power up the unit.

On the front panel, there is an upsampling button - which works for AES/EBU, coax, optical and USB inputs. When upsampling is set at 24/192kHz the light is green; at 24/96kHz it is red and when it is in bypass mode there is no light. 'Bypass' means the digital output is exactly the same as the input up to 24/96. Upsampling can be changed on the fly and April Music, the South Korean manufacturer of Stello products, recommends 192kHz upsampling.

There is another knob to select the input and a green LED lights up to indicate that the input digital signal has been detected by the DAC.

The DA 100 Signature DAC does not support an ASIO driver and it is essentially a plug-and-play component and when the USB is plugged in, the laptop will say "USB device connected" and then it will say that the USB device can be used.

I2S vs coax/toslink

Despite all the hype about the superiority of I2S, there was just a minor difference detected after much switching back and forth between inputs using the Stello transport and DAC to drive the Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as preamp), the Bryston 4B SST power amp and the ATC SCM40 floorstanders.

And it was only when I played an Eva Cassidy CD which had lots of ambient acoustics and high frequency sounds that I could hear that the I2S input sounded more open and extended in the treble region.

Upsample or bypass mode?

If you want to upsample, the 192kHz sounds better than the 96kHz setting. There is greater clarity, but it comes with more sibilance. This was very apparent when I played Paul Simon's Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes from his Graceland album.

When I played a Frank Sinatra CD that had lots of horns, the horns gained a metallic edge that was jarring when upsampled to 192kHz. This CD sounded better on bypass mode.

When using the USB input, MP3 songs generally sounded better upsampled to 192kHz, but again the trade-off was more sibilance on some songs. I played a Carrie Underwood MP3 song and there was more sibilance. Listening to Internet radio was better with 192kHz upsampling,.

When playing 24/88.2 or 24/96 files through the Stello U2 24/96 USB Link, they sounded better on bypass mode.

I played one native 24/192 file and it sounded better when upsampled to 24/192 (since the DAC received 24/96 signals via the U2).

On most songs, I preferred the bypass mode while other songs sounded better upsampled to 192kHz. Songs upsampled to 96kHz tended to sound congested.

Thus it seems as if you will have to experiment with the upsampling as different songs and different files sound different when upsampled.

Sonic signature

The Stello DAC is bright and forward sounding. It tends to 'push' the soundstage a bit more forward than the resident Benchmark DAC1 Pre.

This may sound impressive at first, but when I heard Handel's Messiah (Linn's 24/88.2 Studio Master FLAC download) through the Stello DA 100 Signature DAC's USB input, I realised that the forward-sounding nature of the DAC affected the soundstage.

Through the Benchmark and even the Wadia 381i's DAC section, the chorus had the singers standing in a curved row behind the speakers.

Through the Stello DAC, this depth was flattened. This effect was more apparent through the USB input than the other digital inputs.

USB input

Using the Toshiba laptop and WinAmp, I played a selection of songs ripped with EAC into FLAC files, downloaded MP3 files and the Handel's Messiah Studio Master files from Linn Music at 24/88.2.

Along the way, I tried the J. River music player which was very smooth sounding.

Like I mentioned above, the forward-sounding nature of the DAC was emphasised through the USB input.

I sent an e-mail to April Music asking if a 24/192 signal would be downsampled through the USB input and the reply was that the USB input of the Stello DA 100 Signature DAC only accepts up to 48kHz sampling rate and the USB DAC chip is the Burr-Brown PCM2704 from Texas Instruments.

A quick check of the manual revealed that it is a 16 bit chip that accepts 32kHz, 44.1kHz and 48kHz sampling rates.

Thus when you use the Stello DA 100 Signature DAC's USB input, a native 24/96 or 24/88.2 signal is reduced to 16/48.

The USB input of the Stello DA 100 Signature DAC, in my view, is the weakest of its digital inputs.

And this has led me to opine that the Stello U2 24/96 USB Link is a must-buy component.

The essential U2

If you buy the RM3,300 DA 100 Signature DAC, it is essential for you to spend another RM950 to buy the cigarette-box sized U2 24/96 USB Link.

The U2, an active component that draws power from the USB connection, converts the USB to I2S and coax outputs and it can be used with any DAC that lacks a USB input. It also converts the signals to 24/96 SPDIF.

When you connect the laptop to the U2 with a USB cable and then to the DAC, you will feed the DAC with 24/96 signals.

Playing Handel's Messiah 24/88.2 files through the U2 resulted in a sound quality that equalled the Benchmark DAC1 Pre. The singers were reproduced standing in a curved row behind the speakers. The soundstage was placed more naturally behind the speakers and it was large and deep while the tonal balance became less bright and more neutral.

Most songs played via the laptop through the U2 sounded better on bypass mode since the DAC was already receiving 24/96 signals.

For the heck of it, I tested the U2's output into the Benchmark to check if there was any difference between a signal that went through the U2 and a signal that went direct to the Benchmark's USB input. After a few songs, I felt that there was no difference.

Power cords

The DAC is sensitive to power cords. When I used a DIY power cord, it sounded brighter and harsher and on 96kHz upsampling, the soundstage was very narrow. I switched to the DH Labs Power Plus and the sound was overall better.

Related post:

Stello is distributed in Malaysia by Rave Systems, Level 1, PNB Darby Park, Jalan Binjai, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-21632818

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Stylish Stello transport

Stello? Okay I must admit that I was a bit biased when I heard about stereo components by Stello. It is a South Korean brand made by a company called April Music and, come on, South Koreans don't make good stereo systems. Handphones and LCD TVs, yes; cd players and amps, no.

But I was similarly biased against Taiwanese stereo components until I heard Usher speakers and power amp. And I was also biased against Chinese products until I heard Xindak valve amps and Shanling CD players.

And thus I began reviewing the Stello CDT 100 CD transport and the matching DA 100 Signature DAC with my mind as open as it could possibly be.

I will post about the transport first and the next post will be about the DAC.

The Stello CDT100 transport is a stylish, smallish shoe-box sized (21.2cm wide x 5.5cm high x 29cm deep) well-made component with a top-loading mechanism.

You have to remove the perspex cover which has a knob and then take out the magnetic puck before placing a CD on the motor.

After placing the puck and closing the compartment (the transport plays even if the cover is not fitted on), you have to press the 'Disc' button so that it will read the CD's TOC and duration of songs.

A peculiar thing about this transport is that you have to press the button each time you play a new CD.

An attractive feature is the inclusion of an I2S output, but since there is no standard termination in the industry, Stello used a mini DIN connector which matches the input in the DA 100 Signature DAC. It cannot be used with other components with I2S inputs; there are not very many of them in the market anyway,

It is unfortunate that there is no standard way to connect the I2S signal. PS Audio, for example, uses the HDMI cable for the I2S signal in its PerfectWave transport.

I2S has been around for a long time, but it was not implemented by most manufacturers due to its higher costs. What it does is to separate the word clock, bit clock, master clock and data signals instead of transmitting all the signals in one cable like what the ubiquitous S/PDIF does.

The Stello CDT 100 features three digital S/PDIF outputs, each with isolation pulse transformers. These outputs are coax, AES/EBU and toslink.

The Stello CDT 100 is designed to be placed on top of the matching Stello DA 100 Signature DAC - that's why its feet are small rubber thingeys which do not isolate it very well.

Initially I placed it on top of the Wadia 381i CD player since I was using it as transport feeding the Wadia's DAC section. The Wadia's case is made of thick aluminium and is heavy; so I thought it would be okay to have the transport on top of it.

Connected this way, the Stello created a very transparent, clear, open and lightweight sound. The bass was there, but lacked some heft.

Though the Stello performed quite well, it was the synergy of the Wadia's own transport and its DAC that created the so-called 'Wadia sound' of transparency and pinpoint imaging.

Then I connected the Stello transport to the resident Benchmark DAC1 Pre feeding a Bryston 4B SST power amp driving a pair of ATC SCM40s.

The Stello sonic signature was all too apparent - transparency, clarity, spaciousness and a somewhat lightweight tonal balance.

Having read somewhere that the Stello CDT 100 transport benefited from having Vibrapods placed under it, I fashioned a DIY isolation platform using a piece of plywood sitting on footers made of cork, rubber and earthquake pads (see The sound improved - the bass was stronger and the tonal balance became less lightweight.

If you buy a Stello CDT 100 transport , it is advisable to invest in a good isolation platform or vibration-absorbing footers.

A quick comparison with the CEC 3300 (not the belt-driven model) transport showed the CEC to sound thicker and less transparent but with a bassier tonal balance.

Retailing at RM3,300, the Stello CDT 100 is an affordable way to have a taste of high-quality sound and you can rest assured that its Sanyo mechanism will not be obsolete in the near future. I played all sorts of CDs and a few CD-Rs and the Stello read all of them.

And if you so desire, you can go all the way and buy all four matching Stello 100 series components - the transport, DAC, headphone amp/preamp and 50-watt power amp.

Related post:

Stello is distributed in Malaysia by Rave Systems, Level 1, PNB Darby Park, Jalan Binjai, Kuala Lumpur. Tel: 03-21632818.

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's all about the CD transport

There is a healthy market for used CD players - audiophiles who frequently visit will attest to that.

However, buyers of second-hand CD players have to be aware of the major source of potential problems - the transport.

There are several factors to consider - some transports are no longer made, some are not reliable and some are difficult to find, even from foreign sellers.

Being a moving part, the transport is always the first component to fail - the laser does not read anymore or the tray cannot open or the laser skips.

If you google around, you will find that there is a huge market for old transports. Many of them are on sale on e-bay; some are New Old Stock while others are reconditioned or cannibalised parts from old machines. There are also rumours that there are so-called "OEM" transports being made in China.

The problem with buying from an overseas seller is that there is no compensation when the transport does not work - and more often than not the transport will not work.

Recently, I was attracted to an old Esoteric CD transport and the seller was honest enough to say that the laser seemed a bit weak.

So I googled and found that the transport was a Sony KSS-151A which was widely used in several top-end marques at that time. Sadly, it is out of production.

The Sony KSS-151A transport

I contacted a hi-fi repairer in Kuala Lumpur and he said he had no stock of that transport. He added that he recently bought 10 Philips transports from a Singapore supplier and about half did not work.

The second repairer I contacted said he could e-mail his supplier in Australia and hours later he telephoned me and said he could get the Sony KSS-151A at US$80 each with a mininum order of five units.

"What if the transports don't work?" I asked.

"There is no guarantee," he said.

"What do I do with the other four transports?"

"You can share them with your friends," he said.

"How reliable is this Australian supplier?"

"I have been dealing with him for a long time and he has always been reliable," he said.

I thought about that for a while and later decided not to go ahead with the deal.

About a week later, I met a dealer in Summit shopping mall, Subang Jaya, and he told me that the US$80 Sony transport could have been a "recon" unit because he had just bought a new unused unit for RM800.

Soon after that, I was offered a PS Audio Lambda 2 and a Micromega Duo CD 2.1 transport. Both high-end models use the Philips CDM-9 Pro transport, said to be one of the best that Philips made, which unfortunately is also out of production. Though it is said to be one of the more reliable Philips transports, spares are difficult to find.

Some experts are now advising that if you buy a used CD player which uses a transport that is no longer manufactured, you should buy a spare transport (or laser) just in case. This is a must if you buy a second-hand high-end player using top-quality transports such as the CDM-9 Pro otherwise the expensive machine will end up as another decorative item in your house should it stop reading CDs.

The infamous Philips CDM12.1 transport.

Any discussion on CD transports would be incomplete without mention of the infamous Philips CDM 12.1 which was used in the popular Marantz CD 63SE, 63 Mk II and the 63II KI.

The CDM12.1 is famed for breaking down every two to three years. I should know because I used to own the 63II KI and I changed the transport three times during the 9-10 years that I owned it.

So shopping for a used CD player is just like buying any other thing - the principle is caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

Those who are shopping around for used CD players are advised to have a look at this list of players, transports and DACs first:

Then they should check if spares are readily available.

Friday, May 21, 2010

New MIT distributor

High-end MIT cables from USA are now distributed in Malaysia by Tong Lee at Low Yat Plaza, Kuala Lumpur.

I discovered that when I made my way to the hi-fi outlet to meet Ling, the boss of Tong Lee, to pay for the Benchmark DAC1 Pre that I reviewed and decided to keep.

I saw a stack of boxes containing MIT interconnects and speaker cables on stop of a showcase and I asked Ling whether he was selling them.

He replied that he was appointed the new distributor for MIT recently. I left his shop with speaker cables and interconnects for review. Hopefully, I will not have to go back to meet Ling and pay for them.

So if you are in the Bukit Bintang area, go to Low Yat Plaza and after checking out all the computers and handphones, drop by Tong Lee and audition the MIT cables.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

CMY outlet and jazz CD launched

It was a two-in-one event at CMY Audio & Visual, Sunway Giza Mall, Kota Damansara, last Saturday.

Not only was it the official opening of CMY's seventh outlet, but it also marked the launch of music producer Leslie Loh's jz8 album.

CMY boss John Yew (centre) sharing a light moment
with his guests including music producer Leslie Loh (right).

The artistes featured in jz8 - jazz pianist Tay Cher Siang and vocalist Lydia Chew - graced the event and to make it even more special Lydia sang one song.

Tay, 32, who studied music at West Virginia University, has been very active in the Malaysian music scene and has played at No Black Tie and Alexis, the top jazz joints in Kuala Lumpur.

"The jz8 album features 12 Mandarin and Cantonese pop songs which have been jazzed up.

"Most of them feature Lydia singing and me playing piano while five of them have bass and drums added on.

"Some of the tracks were recorded live," Tay said.

Tay Cher Siang (left), John Yew (centre) and Lydia Chew.

In his free time, Tay leads two bands - WVC Trio in Malaysia (which has recorded two CDs) and Unit Asia (which has one CD and another on the way) in Japan.

The WVC Trio has held concerts in Malaysia, Singapore and China while Unit Asia has played in Kuala Lumpur and Japan, and later this year will perform in India and Middle East.

Lydia Chew singing a song during the event.

Lydia has sung back-up for Sheila Majid and Hong Kong stars like Jackie Cheung, Gary Chaw and Jenny Tseng.

"This is my first time singing lead," she said, referring to jv8.

Both of them have tight schedules - soon after the launch Lydia flew to Hong Kong while Tay went to Tokyo.

The jv8 album marks the third effort of Malaysian music producer Leslie Loh who wants to make his mark as an audiophile music producer. The CD is on sale at leading music stores.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Wadia's digital music centre

The Wadia 381i looks expensive and impressive - it is a huge (17" wide by 16.5" deep and 7" high including the spikes) and heavy chunk (55 lbs; 25kg) of aluminium with a simple design. 

There's nothing much to look at on its face - there are only a slim drawer, five small  buttons and a large screen, but it's what's inside that matters.

Wadia has made moves to stay relevant to the iPod generation in various ways - its 170iTransport iPod dock is one example of its strategy and the upgrading of the Wadia 381 to the 'i' model by including digital outputs and inputs including the popular USB socket is another example.

Thus the Wadia 381i is designed to be used as a digital music centre - it plays normal Red Book CD, CD-R/RW with MP3, FLAC (up to 24/96) and WMA (not lossless) files, and you can plug any digital source to it including a laptop streaming music from the Internet or playlist of files in its hard disk.

Inputs, which accept 24 bit 96kHz sampling, are BNC with coax adapter, toslink, AES/EBU with XLR connector and USB. Wadia states that the inputs in descending order of quality are glass optical (as implemented by Wadia), AES/EBU, BNC with coax adapter, coax with RCA plugs and toslink.

Digital outputs are ST glass fiber optical, BNC with coax adapter, toslink and AES/EBU.

Wadia cautions that when making FLAC files in a data disk with Microsoft Vista, the CD is not properly closed rendering the disk unplayable. Wadia recommends programmes like Easy CD Creator or MediaMonkey instead.

It goes on to say that no problems have been encountered with Windows XP or Mac OSX.

In the manual, Wadia makes two claims - there is no need for exotic and expensive power cords or even power conditioners/stabilisers; and there is no need to use a preamp since the CD player comes with a digital volume control which can be adjusted for the input sensitivities of different power amps.

Power cords

Wadia claims that the 381i sounds best with the stock power cord plugged directly to the wall socket. The review model did not come with the stock power cord; so I used a DIY tri-braided cable with supermarket-quality UK plug and a Schurter IEC plug connected directly to the wall and compared it with a Supra LoRad power cord connected to a Furutech e-TP60 power distributor. After switching the cords a few times, I could not hear any difference and the rest of the listening session was with the DIY power cord. Wadia has designed its power supply section very well which saves you some money - you need not spend a couple of thousand bucks buying a high-end power cord.

Direct to power amp

I did not even bother to connect the Wadia 381i to a preamp since another audiophile had tried it and confirmed that it sounded better without the preamp.

I used a pair of Audioquest Panther dbs (24v) XLR interconnects to connect the Wadia to the resident Bryston 4B SST which drove a pair of ATC SCM40s with Mapleshade speaker cables.

Some people had commented that there was slight lack of slam and treble extension with the Wadia, but after several days of listening to various types of music I can say that the bass slam is there, but the mid-bass can sound a bit lean and the bass on the whole is detailed and tight. As for the treble extension, the Wadia sound is so clean and smooth that the cymbals and horns do not stand out but are simply part of the music. Perhaps that smoothness is perceived as lack of treble extension.

So, you will save even more money as there is no need for a preamp unless you use an analogue source like a turntable. To connect an analogue source to the 381i, Wadia recommends using its analogue-to-digital converters.


Unique to Wadia are three algorithms which are effectively highly-sophisticated equalisers. All three algorithms upsample to 32x the input rate at 24bit 1.4112Mhz DAC sample rate but differ in time and frequency domain.

Algorithm A is Wadia's famed Digimaster v2.5 which delivers a robust sound with good image focus and recreation of recorded space. Algorithm B has a more extended top end with superior time-domain performance while Algorithm C retains high frequency extension and superior detail resolution with a relaxed presentation.

The popular pick is A which is also the default setting. This provides a punchy and solid sound. B makes everything sound bright and light. In my view, this is the worst-sounding option while C is a cross between A and B. My preference is A and it was configured to that setting for the rest of the listening session.

Playing data disks

With MediaMonkey, I burnt some FLAC and MP3 files on an Imation CD-R. The MP3 files sounded okay, but the FLAC files of K.D. Lang's Hymns of the 49th Parallel sounded a bit hard, especially the vocals which also had a nasal colouration, compared with the same FLAC files that I streamed from the Toshiba laptop to the 381i's USB input.

Using the USB input

There are limitations because the sampling rates supported are 44.1kHz, 48kHz and 96kHz. 

The sound quality was acceptable when playing MP3 and FLAC files of native 16/44.1 tracks, but when I played Linn's 24bit 88.2kHz studio master files of Handel's Messiah, the sound was not as rich compared with the Benchmark DAC1 Pre. It was one of the rare moments that the cheaper (RM6,500) Benchmark outperformed the Wadia 381i (retailing at RM33,000).

Using the Wadia's USB input was not as plug-and-play convenient as the Benchmark. The first time I plugged the laptop to Wadia's USB, there was no problem with the laptop recognising it as a music player but somehow when I plugged it in the second time, there was no connection and I had to go to the Control Panel to configure the Wadia as default player before it could accept and play the music files. For some reason, it worked without hitches after that.

Wadia vs Benchmark

I connected the optical and BNC (with coax adapter) digital outputs of the Wadia, using the 381i as transport, with a QED Performance plastic optical cable and MIT Terminator 3 coax cable to the Benchmark.

Benchmark claims that their optical input offers the same performance as its other digital inputs and after some time switching from the optical to the coax, I could not detect any difference even though Wadia claims that from their experience, the ST glass optical fibre gives the best performance followed by the AES-EBU, the BNC connector and lastly the plastic optical fibre.

However, there were differences in the presentation of sound - the Benchmark is more forward-sounding and pushes the vocals nearer the listener and its soundstage is not as cavernous as Wadia's.

There is also less space around the images which though well-shaped and stable can sometimes be lost in the mix of music.

Benchmark's tonal balance is neutral, but leans to the bassy side with the mid-bass sounding thicker compared with the Wadia. This makes Benchmark's presentation seem 'heavier' with more 'solid' body.

381i as transport

The resident CEC 3300 (this is not the belt-driven model) was easily outclassed by the Wadia used as transport connected to the Benchmark DAC1 Pre.

The Wadia, used as a CD player, has the capability of singling out minute details which are otherwise lost in the music. It also can recreate the illusion of the musicians and singers in their proper places which makes the soundstage huge.

With the Benchmark as DAC, the Wadia as transport can create much of the Wadia sound - the spaciousness, the detail and smoothness.

When using the Wadia as transport, you must configure the 'Clocklink' function to be switched on to enable the DAC to be the master clock to elimate jitter.

381i as DAC

I had the Stello CDT100 transport for a few weeks and I connected it via coax to the Wadia 381i using it as the DAC.

The Stello is a fine transport with a highly-transparent sound and the combination of Stello/Wadia resulted in music of great transparency and delicacy.

But the synergy of the Wadia transport and Wadia DAC was hard to beat. Together, they created what one may label "the Wadia sound" - large and deep soundstage, pin-point imaging with lots of space around individual singers and musicians, and a smooth sweet sound with a tonal balance tipped to a 'lighter' and less bassy presentation.

Wadia 381i as Red Book player

When playing Red Book CDs, the Wadia is in its element - it works best as a normal CD player.

The 'Wadia sound' is reproduced in full glory - the spacious soundstage with pin point imaging. Instruments and singers have lots of space around them giving them shape and body and each can be heard clearly even though the mix is thickly layered or complex. The sound is smooth and grainless and you can listen for hours without feeling fatigued. The bass is tight and deep. The slam is there, but the mid-bass is a bit lean which makes the sound seem 'floaty' and 'light'

As you can see, the Wadia 381i is a pretty versatile player and its output level can be adjusted - if the volume setting is below 65 when listening to music at normal loudness, the setting should be changed as the Wadia performs better at higher volume levels.

Did I mention the remote control? It is a solid piece of metal with rows of buttons that looks and feels as impressive as the player itself.

Are there any downsides? It can take some time for commands to take effect after pressing the right buttons on the remote control and some audiophiles have complained that the CD drawer is too shallow and some CDs (even with slight warps) can get stuck. 

When I tested the Wadia 381i, there were a few occasions when CDs got stuck, but when I repositioned the CDs to ensure they were lying perfectly flat on the drawer, they slipped into the player smoothly.

Reliability of Wadia transports

When I met James Shannon, Wadia's vice-president of international sales, during his visit to the CMY outlet in Damansara Utama in March, he told me that there were reliability issues with Wadia's transports previously.

But the reliability issue has been solved with Wadia sourcing the transports from a new manufacturer - Stream Unlimited, an Austrian company specialising in CD transports. Stream Unlimited transports are used in the 381i and S7i CD players, and 171 transport.

Related post:

Wadia is distributed in Malaysia by CMY Audio & Visual.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Fit for elevator music

The music server with hires downloads will never be an audiophile component - thus declared the Master of Tubes Peter Qvortrup of Audio Note.

Music servers will be great for "elevator music, background music".

It is not a case of Peter defending analogue as the all-powerful medium that cannot be replaced - after all he does make CD players, transports and DACs - but he has a strong case against storing hires files in a hard disk drive.

"The file is broken into pieces and stored in various parts of the hard disk and later put back together again. Storing music files that way does not work. Music cannot be broken," he said.

Peter, who was in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday to meet his dealer,Wong Tatt Yew and several Malaysian hi-fi bloggers, at Plaza Mont Kiara, said if CDs were packaged in a nice way that would lure customers to buy them, there would be no downloads.

He said it is possible to store music files digitally but they must be continuous like in a CD, but files in a hard disk are broken up to enable the disk to store huge amounts of data.

"But they are lossless files," said one blogger.

"Lossless doesn't mean anything. There is no such thing as something without a price. There will be a loss of quality. We are breaking into the time continuum and changing things that we don't understand," Peter said.

"Look at the transistor. What is it? A semi-conductor. How the fuck can this be good when half the signal is missing?"

Peter, who is the proud owner of 28,000 LPs and 5,000 CDs, talks in a very animated way and hops from subject to subject like a spoilt CD laser skipping tracks.

During his two-hour chat with the hi-fi bloggers, he talked about C-core transformers, quality of silver ("there is no such thing as 99.99 silver"), watches, the rise of China and the poor quality of products by Chinese manufacturers, German hi-fi ("it's evil sounding"), dictatorship and democracy, the poor state of affairs in England where he lives, the possible outcome of the elections and the terrible anti-business policies of the Labour government, and Ferraris.

"With the trend towards downloads and iPods, what do you think will be the future of hi-fi?" a blogger asked.

"The future? I think the quality market will go back to LPs. Look, I said that 20 years ago and people laughed.

"The CD as a format to store music files will die in five years. There is this new thing concerning storing data in a liquid and it is apparently good to store music files in it," Peter said.

Then he switched to talking about Audio Note products and their astronomical prices. "Everything has a price. You get what you pay for. Pursuit of quality audio is elitist. Democracy is about mediocrity, about going to the level of the masses," he said.

He started talking about an author who wrote on the ideal size of a nation and about how democracy will eventually lead to dictatorship. His interest in politics has led him to enrol for a PhD programme in social political theory in a British university.

Then he revealed that he is working on a tube volume control and that Audio Note stopped advertising since 1998.

"If you have a good-sounding product, people will find it. You don't have to look for them," he said.

He revealed that Audio Note spends a lot of money buying testing equipment and sourcing the best materials like nickel for its transformer cores from various parts of the world and making some exotic parts like tantalum resistors so that the best sound can be achieved.

After telling us all the bullshit other manufacturers have said about balanced inputs, he said he considers Naim to be Audio Note's rival.

Naim is a firm he respects a lot not for their products ("I don't like how they sound") but their business style, philosophy and how they treat their customers.

Then he became philosophical and talked about his legacy. He brightened up and said: "I will be known for the rise of the SET and the rise of prices to stratospheric levels." All of us laughed.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Listening to 'hot' music

Tropical Audio's Sam Chan and Harbeth's Alan Shaw.

In a hot tropical country like Malaysia, it is best for an audiophile to switch on the air-conditioner to cool down the room an hour before listening to music.

This piece of advice comes from Alan Shaw, owner and designer of Harbeth speakers, who said the issue of heat affecting sound quality of speakers has not been investigated sufficiently by the industry.

"The main thing affected by heat is the surround which is made of rubber. When the ambient temperature is hotter, the rubber becomes more compliant and the cone excursions are greater.

"So there will be more bass produced by a speaker in a hot country like Malaysia and audiophiles may complain that it sounds boomy.

"Also, when the temperature rises the cone material becomes closer to its liquid state and the molecules slide against each other which causes heat. When the sound wave travels along the cone, some of it may be lost due to this and the sound may have less details in the mid-range," said Alan, who was in Kuala Lumpur for a short visit.

Thus if an audiophile in a hot tropical country wants the best sound, he should turn on the air-con an hour before listening to music because it takes some time for the surround and cone to cool down. 

Harbeth's distributor in Malaysia, Sam Chan of Tropical Audio, organised a gathering attended by about  100 fans of the British loudspeaker manufacturer at Saujana resort in Petaling Jaya on Tuesday night during which Alan spoke on his company, its products and design concepts. He also took questions from the floor.

Harbeth fans who attended Alan's talk.

Alan said speaker designers in the West generally take measurements at the ambient temperature in their labs which is around 20 degrees Celcius.

"But someone in Beijing with the air conditioning turned off in summer due to the official policy of reducing peak usage can be listening to music at 30 degrees Celcius," he said.

In such a situation, the sound quality would be affected as the surround becomes more compliant, the cone material deforms and the voice coil heats up and changes impedence. All these will change the Q of the speaker and even port resonances of bass reflex speakers will be affected.

"The only constant is the mass of the cone," Alan said.

In other words, the sonic signature of speakers in hot countries would be different from that heard by the designer when he tested it in his lab in a temperate country.

Alan said manufacturers have to decide whether to make different products to suit the conditions of different markets.

He said he did some research and found out that the average ambient temperature of listening rooms around the world was 25.5 degrees Celcius.

He has now made it a rule in Harbeth to measure a speaker unit's Thiele and Small parameters at 24 degrees Celcius.

"I put the speaker unit in a cabinet and heat it up before making the measurements," he said.

When it is hotter, the Fs (free air resonance) is lower.

Harbeth is believed to be the only speaker manufacturer in the world that takes into account the effect of ambient temperature on speaker performance.

A Harbeth fan getting Alan's autograph. 

Alan has strong views on other issues too such as bi-wiring - he does not believe in it and the newer Harbeths do not have bi-wireable terminals.

"The older models have them solely due to market demand," he said.

Alan opined that the biwiring craze started because people needed to do some tweaking since playing the CD required them to do nothing unlike when they used the turntable and they could tweak the anti-skating, shoot anti-static guns, change cartridges or tracking weight.

Since he does not believe in bi-wiring it follows that he does not believe in bi-amping too.

"It's a question of the amps having the same frequency response and gain. Once I wanted to test a component with four amps and I tested the amps. They had similar frequency response but the gain differed by about 1dB, so that would change the sound if the amps were used for bi-amping," he said.

Alan said Harbeth speakers have thin-walled cabinets because BBC engineers discovered during the change from mono to stereo that smaller thin-walled boxes with bitumen damping could be used to reproduce reasonably good bass, neutral mids and highs.

The thin walls vibrated and in effect were 'woofers' and augmented the bass frequencies and added a warm bloom to the sound. These worked very well for BBC broadcast monitoring work which was normally done at around 85dB which was about the same level as home listening.

"However, the thin-walled cabinets were not good for rock 'n' roll and electric guitars," he added.

On whether Harbeth would produce a floorstander, Alan said floorstanders have different design parameters from bookshelf speakers in terms of sound dispersion and also the workbenches in the factory are optimised for making bookshelf speakers.

"Production is running at full capacity at the moment and there is no way the factory can cope with making a new model, even a bookshelf one," he said.

Alan added that the industry is dying and in order to get the iPod generation to invest in good sound, there have to be fewer impediments - like debates over bi-wiring - to encourage them to step into a hi-fi shop.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The first upgrade for everyone

For the past few months I have been using a pair of interconnects that must be one of the best bargains in hi-fi in Malaysia.

Costing only RM390 per pair, they come with original Neutrik plugs and are from a reputable British company famed for making turntables, CD players and speakers.

Anyone who is still using the interconnects that came with the CD player they bought must buy this pair of interconnects as their first upgrade and chances are they may not want to upgrade any further.

These multi-strand copper interconnects have a full and rich sound with a deep bass and wide soundstage. Most importantly, they sound very musical.

The edges of images are not as well defined as more expensive interconnects - the images are stable but not as finely etched. Micro details and micro dynamics could be better rendered, but at this price, there should be no complaints.

They are fit and forget types and the Neutrik plugs are designed such that "the earth shield is designed to contact before the positive centre terminal to eliminate loud 'thumps' if the leads are connected whilst equipment is live".

Capacitance is low at 70pF/meter. When I compared them with a high-capacitance design - the Alphacore Micropurl Silver - I found out that both were good performers. As they say, in hi-fi there are many ways to skin a cat and with the Alphacore, it was the silver that gave it a clearer but leaner sound.

The best-buy interconnects I am raving about are called the Rega Couple.

The double-shielded wire itself is from Klotz, the German manufacturer, which makes phono leads for Rega. In fact, it looks like the Rega Couple interconnects are the phono cables of the Rega P9 fitted with Neutrik plugs. Well, if they work for a turntable, they should work for a CD player - or any other hi-fi component that needs interconnects.

So the next time you are in Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya, walk into Asia Sound and check out the Rega Couple.