Monday, August 23, 2010

Cleaning up the power supply

Isotek's managing director Keith Martin
showing the new Aquarius power conditioner.
It's more vital to deal with EMI and RFI in power supply than voltage fluctuations, said Isotek's managing director Keith Martin.

In advanced countries, the voltage will not fluctuate very much. Unless you are in, say, Ukraine where the voltage fluctuation is really great you should not worry too much about it, he said.

Components like amps and CD players are nowadays designed to cope with plus minus 10 per cent fluctuation in voltage, so unless the fluctuations are really bad they will still work within specifications.

Dealing with EMI and RFI is more important because we are all bathing in high frequency radio waves with mobile phone networks, wi-fi systems and satellite television available in many parts of the world.

Holding up a power cord, he said it is actually a good antenna that picks up RFI and EMI which will end up messing up the power supply to the components in your stereo system.

"Just like Linn said back in the 1970s - rubbish in, rubbish out," he said.

Keith said the first upgrade any audiophile ought to make is not to buy a better interconnect or speaker cable, but a power conditioner.

“A better interconnect will improve the connection between components while a better speaker cable will improve the signal to the speakers. A power conditioner will benefit the entire system because all the components plugged to it will enjoy improved performance,” he said.

Keith was at Centre Circle Audio in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, last Wednesday to demonstrate the effectiveness of Isotek’s products and also to launch its latest power conditioner, the Aquarius, which replaces the GII Mini Sub.

To show how Isotek improves the sound quality by improving the quality of the power supply, Keith first compared a stock power cord with an Isotek power cord plugged into a normal power distributor.

Then he plugged the Isotek power cord to a Sirius power strip and then to the Aquarius. To complete his demo, he plugged the power amp to a Titan.

The sound system used for the demo was an Esoteric CD player, Parasound P3/A23 pre-power amps and Egglestonworks Diane speakers.

The Aquarius has six outlets and offers 16 amps in its two high-current plugs for unlimited transient requirements.

It also provides great instantaneous protection of 67,500 amps and better independent filter stages throughout.

It is also the cheapest power conditioner to feature the Isotek Adaptive Gating technology which auto-senses the load of each component connected to it and tailors the filtering process.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Active ATCs on demo

Hi-Way Laser branch manager Kenny Sin
next to the huge ATC active speaker
For the first time in Malaysia, audiophiles can listen to a pair of active ATCs.

ATC is famed for its studio monitors and for making the best midrange dome unit - the SM 75-150S - in the world. It is also one of the top active speaker manufacturers in the world.

Hi-Way Laser has brought in a pair of SCM 100SL AT and they have already been 'warmed up' since they arrived about a week ago.

The amps are at the rear of the speaker.
Note the heat-sink.

The ATC SCM 100 SL AT is
as big as a small fridge.

Branch manager of Hi-Way Laser Kenny Sin said he is so impressed by the sound quality that he will no longer bring in passive ATCs other than the entry-level models like the SCM7, SCM11, SCM19 and SCM40.

He has one last pair of passive SCM50 in his showroom and once they are sold, he will bring in only active models.

I had a quick listen on Wednesday and I can say the SCM 100SL AT were most impressive sonically, but visually they are not the sexiest speakers around.

They are huge, big and 'fat' boxes that look like small fridges and do not appear to be able to please the wife, but the sound quality may just 'seduce' her to overlook the unattractiveness of the 'obese' speakers.

I hope to spend more time listening to them and post a proper review, but you can always drop by Hi-Way Laser in SS2 Petaling Jaya and find out for yourself whether ATC deserves all that praise.

Kenny Sin said a pair of SCM 100SL AT in Yew finish would make you RM92,499 poorer while a pair in Black Ash is cheaper at RM85,899 (list price).

"They are made to order and you have to place an order three months in advance," he said.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

JBL Array: Unexpectedly civilised

Manager of Flagship AV Koh Yee Phok posing
next to a JBL Project Array 1000 speaker.

After having heard the 'sonic rollercoasters' called JBL Everests, the JBL Project Array 1000 speakers seem rather civilised in comparison

In fact, they are very suitable for two-channel listening. I spent only a short time listening to them at Flagship AV in The Waterfront@Parkcity, Desa Park City, Kuala Lumpur, but I was already quite convinced that they were not larger than life like the Everests.

Essentially, the JBL Project Array 1000 speakers have horn-loaded mid- to high-frequency compression drivers placed vertically instead of horizontally above the woofers.

When placed horizontally, the emphasis is on widening the dispersion of sound and enlarging the sweet spot and is perfect for huge halls, but when placed vertically on top of the cabinet to make it almost free-standing, the aim is to reduce baffle diffractions and side-wall primary reflections and is great for smaller rooms.

The horn-loaded mid is placed vertically
 Note the horn-loaded tweeter on top.

The result is a much smaller soundstage, smaller images and less in-your-face sound (compared to the JBL Everests) that is actually quite pleasant.

However, the extreme transparency and detail of the mids and highs mean top-notch amplifiers and music source must be used. The Array 1000 speakers are that revealing.

Manager of Flagship AV Koh Yee Phok said the Array 1000, which costs RM30,999 a pair, comes with a matching sub-woofer that is sold separately. And they are part of an AV set-up with rear and centre speakers.

At the moment, the JBL Array 1000 speakers are hooked up to a stereo system, so if you are keen to find out if a vertical horn placed on top of a box with a woofer works, head to Flagship AV for an audition.

Related post:

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Voiced to be musical

Egglestonworks' director of sales
Jim Thompson posing next to the Andra III.

There was no conscious intention to make Egglestonworks speakers work especially well with rock songs, said Jim Thompson, the director of sales and owner of the American speaker firm.

"We voice the speakers using a variety of music," he said in reply to my observation that the Egglestonworks Andra III sounded great with rock songs but lacked finesse for classical.

At the Kuala Lumpur International AV show, the Andra IIIs were driven by Parasound pre/power amps with CDs spun by a Pathos CD player and while this system did not exhibit the rock attitude that I had noted when I heard the speakers driven by Modwright pre/power amps and an Esoteric CD player at Centre Circle Audio's showroom, it was pretty obvious that they seemed very at home with rock stuff.

Even Jim agreed when I pointed out to him that the rock demo songs being played sounded particularly good compared with other tracks.

"Yes, I can see where that is coming from..but it was not intentional," he said.

Jim added that Egglestonworks speakers are voiced to sound accurate, musical and balanced.

The speakers use bass and mid units from Morel and tweeters from Dynaudio while Egglestonworks make the boxes and crossovers.

On how the industry is faring, he said the US market is not as strong as before while Asia is strong.

In Europe sales in some countries like Russia, Italy. Germany and United Kingdom are quite good.

I told him that PSB ( are working on wireless connections and active speakers and I asked if Egglestonworks was heading that way too.

He replied that they had talked about making an active speaker once, but it never took off from there and wi-fi is not in the list of things to do at Egglestonworks.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Rega P2 turntable to be phased out soon

Rega's founder Roy Gandy having dinner at a Japanese
restaurant in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday night. Next to
him is Kim S Tay, Rega's head of marketing for Asia.
 The Rega range of turntables will be smaller soon - the P2 turntable will be phased out simply because the new Rega RP1 sounds better than it.

Rega founder and owner Roy Gandy, who is in Kuala Lumpur for a short visit, said the RP1, which will be launched soon will be priced higher than the P1 it replaces.

Does that mean it will be the end of the legendary RB250 (called RB251 in the P2) tonearm?

"Not really," said Roy. Rega will still make the RB251 tone arm on an OEM basis for other manufacturers like Origin Live and Michell.

However, he added that OEM orders come only once a while. "A company may order 100 tone arms and you don't hear from them for a few years," he said.

The RP1, which will have a platter made of phenolic resin instead of the HDF (high-density fibreboard) used to make the P1's platter, also features numerous improvements in other areas especially its tonearm which has only one joint instead of four in the previous model.

Its counterweight will also be easily slipped into the end stub for convenient adjustment of tracking force.

Roy has very strong views on lots of things concerning hi-fi and turntables - his opinion on VTA, for example, is well known.

But during the dinner on Wednesday at a Japanese restaurant in Starhill Gallery, much of the discussion centred on the definitions of an audiophile and a music lover.

Roy stressed that his turntables and other products are for the music lovers while turntables built like oil rigs are for "people who don't want to listen to music".

Hi-fi followers who like to tweak their equipment are audiophiles who are possibly "neurotic" and want to get the perfect sound which is unattainable. "Is there a perfect turntable? Is there a perfect woman?" he asked.

"Engineering a turntable is about compromising to achieve a goal. It's about the best compromise," he said.

Roy also has strong views about tangential arms which he called "a red herring" and BBC-designed speakers.

Since the lathe cuts the grooves of a record in a straight line, some people feel a tangential arm tracks the grooves more accurately. Tangential arms do not have a strong and stable pivot point (since some have an air bearing) and the tracking error of plus-minus 1.5 per cent is not much better than a normal tone arm.

As for BBC-inspired speakers like the famed LS3/5A, he finds them sounding dull and undynamic.

He's also against the numerous after-market products touted to improve the performance of Rega turntables.

"Almost all the tweaks we have tried have worsened the sound of Rega turntables. Rewiring the tone arm is definitely not recommended as the wire is too stiff.

"Underslung counterweights are also not recommended. They are meant for unipivot tone arms," he said. Unipivots are also not good designs as they do not have stable pivot points.

Expectedly, the conversation drifted to iPods and MP3 music.

Roy felt that CDs produced quite good music quality but iPods and MP3 players sounded bad, but that was actually good for his business because people started to want better quality music.

About two years ago, more turntables were sold than CD players, according to industry reports.

Just a few weeks ago, he heard of teenagers aged 16 and 18 who bought turntables. One of them had inherited his parents' record collection but the turntable was broken. It was the first time in years that he had heard of people so young buying turntables.

Asked about hires files, he said they sound as good as CDs.

"Will Rega manufacture digital streaming players (like Linn)?"

"It's beyond my understanding why anybody would want to buy a digital streaming player. What's wrong with a laptop as a digital music streamer?"

Roy, who is known to probably all the turntable manufacturers in the world, somehow found it hard to name one of his rivals that he respects.

After much scratching of his head, he said: "Michell...Linn in the 1970s (when they launched the LP12). Turntables from Garrard and Lenco had the engineering done right. Connoisseur was also a good turntable."

Roy was reluctant to talk about the successor to the Rega P9 (reportedly named P10 in several websites and online forums) even though Rega's CEO Phil Freeman, who was in Kuala Lumpur in February, had divulged some details.

"We're working on numerous projects at the same time and some will make it to the market like the RP1 and the DAC," he said.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Good vibes

Franck Tchang of Acoustic System International.
Note the 'Sugarcubes' - wooden cubes to control
tonality - on the wall behind him.

There we were having a chat at the cafe at J.W. Marriott hotel during the Kuala Lumpur International AV Show recently when Franck Tchang of Acoustic System International, the designer of acoustic resonators using precious metals, took out one of his tiny trophy-shaped gadgets to prove a point.

He took an empty glass, overturned it, cupped the resonator with it and told us to listen to the ambient noise and he wanted to know whether it was muted and enabled us to hear each other's voices better.

His concept of tuning a room is unlike the conventional way - instead of using foam panels and fibre-filled bass traps to absorb the sound waves to prevent bass boom and unwanted reflections, he uses his acoustic resonators to convert the low frequencies into high frequencies - 30kHz and beyond - to cancel unwanted resonances.

To achieve that, the metals used - copper, silver, yellow gold, red gold and platinum - must be of high purity and moulded into a special shape of a certain density. Even the little 'wings' can be turned to tune the room.

"The room is a box and movement of air is only at low frequencies. These low frequencies cannot be absorbed. If you use bass traps to absorb the low frequencies, you will hear the tone of the absorbing material," he said.

The best way to fight it is to 'recycle' the bass frequencies into another frequency beyond human hearing so that they would not affect the music.

He uses the metal harmonic resonators to fine-tune a room's harmonic response like tuning a musical instrument. Sometimes, he uses SugarCubes, which are made of Rosewood with holes bored in them in a specific design. These wooden cubes are to control tonality.

He said the acoustic resonators are small but powerful tools for room tuning, noise reduction and to minimise air turbulences especially at the corners of rooms.

They have powerful effects on soundstage focus, virtual stage width and depth, bass clarity, treble extension and tonality.

"You need vibrations, but they must be good vibrations," he said.

Franck Tchang's acoustic resonators are distributed in Malaysia by CMY Audio & Visual.

Monday, August 9, 2010

KEF has not gone paperless

KEF is one company that has not gone paperless in this new world of e-mails, SMSes and tweeting.

The respected British manufacturer of speakers is still utilising paper to make many of its speaker units, even those used in its high-end models.

While other companies are using ceramics, carbon fibre, diamond, titanium and beryllium, KEF still believes that paper is very suitable for the cones of speaker units.

"Paper is best. It is light and stiff," said Franco Lock, senior business manager of GP Acoustics (HK) Ltd, who is in charge of marketing KEF speakers in the Asia-Pacific region.

He said KEF will continue to develop its Uni-Q technology as it has worked very well.

Franco Lock, senior business manager of GP Acoustics (HK) Ltd,
showing the range of colours that the customised
KEF reference series speakers will be available in.
Franco added that the audio market in the region is divided into two categories - stereo and AV. Malaysians, for example are more involved in two-channel listening while Singapore is an AV market.

"Malaysians are more traditional - they enjoy listening to music," he said.

South Korea is another country where two-channel listening is strong while Australia is more of an AV market.

India, which has an increasingly large number of affluent people, is also an AV market, but audiophiles there tend to invest in a pair of high-end KEF speakers - something from its reference series - first before buying the rear and centre speakers.

Franco, who was in KL for the recent Kuala Lumpur International AV Show to meet his Malaysian distributor Andy Tan of Perfect Hi-Fi, said KEF will offer its reference series in 12 bright and breezy colours reminiscent of the Rega P3-24 turntables.

He said people now don't just want good sound but they want the speakers to fit into their interior decor schemes.

However, there will be a 15% premium for the customised speakers.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Vinyl will be around for a long time

Robert Suchy of Clearaudio showing off the
largest ever collection of turntables at the KLIAV.
Turntables and vinyl will still survive for another 200 years, declared Robert Suchy of Clearaudio.

"People who love music and are looking for quality will always use the turntable and spin records," he said.

I had asked him why turntables and vinyl did not die out even though it was widely speculated that they would spin the final groove when the Compact Disc (CD) was introduced in the US and European markets in 1983, and even today, when the CD format is on the decline, high-end turntables are still being launched.

The big players in the industry who had the technology to make the CDs and CD players wanted to kill off vinyl so that they could make plenty of money, said Robert, who is in charge of export and marketing.

They carried out a massive media campaign to promote the new medium - the CD - and said it was convenient, small, light, portable, affordable, indestructible and the music had no clicks and pops.

But they underestimated the turntable and vinyl.

"There are 500 billion records all over the world and people still want to play them," he said.

And also, vinyl is sonically unbeaten because CDs contain signals from only 20Hz to 22.05kHz (the CD player has a filter that cuts off everything above 20kHz) while the grooves of records contain signals from 16Hz to 28kHz.

"So you hear more frequencies and more information with vinyl. You hear more overtones that make music richer sounding," he said. Some overtones are above the limit of human hearing which, in theory, is 20kHz but they contribute to the timbre of the instrument.

For example, without overtones, a good violin may not sound like a good violin. The highest overtone of a violin, said Robert, is at a very high frequency way above human hearing, but adds to the timbre and tone of the instrument.

Clearaudio's Robert Suchy (right) with CMY Audio & Visual's boss
John Yew. CMY is the new distributor of Clearaudio's products.
The topic of discussion switched to hires files which are becoming increasingly popular these days.

"Hires files have information from 18Hz to 24kHz, but it is digital. In nature, everything is analogue. Sound is analogue. Music is analogue. Your ear is analogue.

"Do you know that the best DAC chip can convert accurately only up to around 7kHz?"

Robert was in town last weekend for the Kuala Lumpur International AV Show and he held demos on how to set up Clearaudio turntables at CMY Audio & Visual's main room.

Later, he talked about the silica acrylic used to make the heavy platters ("normal acrylic is too hard and rings"), the motors, the compressed plywood used for the skeletal plinths, the ceramic spindle and the magnetic bearing used for the Innovation series.

Of course, I tried to dig out information from him to figure out how the magnetic bearing works but with the limited knowledge that I have - despite some hints from Robert regarding the magnetic properties of mu-metal - I have to admit that I have absolutely no idea how it functions.

If I did, I would be designing Clearaudio's turntables and not Robert's father, Peter.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Getting accepted as top regional show

Though there were comments that this year's crowd at the Kuala Lumpur International AV (KLIAV) show was smaller than last year's, the show organiser stated that statistics showed otherwise.

"We sold 650 more tickets than last year. More than 10,000 tickets were sold and we gave out 3,000 complimentary tickets," said Dick Tan of 3Dot Events Sdn Bhd, the organiser of KLIAV.

He said the turn-out on Friday (the opening day) was better than last year while there were fewer people on Saturday.

"I was told there was a traffic gridlock in the Bukit Bintang area on Saturday. But the turn-out on Sunday was the same as last year," he said.

Overall, the 17th edition of the show was quite successful as it featured more exhibitors and there was a record number of principals who turned up which suggests that manufacturers are beginning to view the KLIAV as a top hi-fi and AV trade show in the region.

One major AV projector manufacturer event tried to get into the show at the last minute, but all rooms were sold out.

"Epson called up just before the show, but it was not possible to accommodate them. But they said they are keen to take part in next year's show," Dick said.

As for sales, Dick said one AV exhibitor reported more than a million ringgit worth of components sold while a hi-fi dealer said he sold about RM60,000 worth of turntables and amps.

Dealers have been reporting sluggish sales so far this year, so the KLIAV gave them a chance to boost their sales and improve their presence. It also provided them with the platform to launch their new products.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Linn: Enough spare parts for CD players

Linn Products Ltd's Sales Director Steve Croft.
Every audiophile should know by now that Linn has stopped making CD players from the end of last year and is now promoting its digital stream players as the nexgen 'must-have' components.

However, for the benefit of owners of Linn CD players Linn has kept supplies of spare parts which should last for a minimum of seven years. So you can rest assured that your high-end Linn CD player would not become an expensive paper weight when its motor or laser breaks down. 

This assurance came from Linn Products Ltd's Director of Sales Steve Croft who was in KL last week for the Kuala Lumpur International AV show.

He said Linn stopped making CD players simply because hires music files sounded better than music from CDs.

In 2007, a demo was held in Japan during which a Linn CD12 was used to play a CD after which ripped copies of the same songs were played from a hard disk. Everyone agreed that the ripped files sounded better.

This is because there are no moving parts and less RFI/EMI when playing a music file, said Steve.

Digital stream players consistently outperforms CD players, he said.

Last year, CD player sales had declined by 30 per cent and Linn then decided to offer hires files for downloads and invest heavily in digital streaming.

"I would still buy a CD, but I would rip it and play it with the digital stream player. It sounds better that way," he said.

The Linn Klimax digital stream player.
Linn's digital stream players are ethernet based unlike other media players like Sonos or Logitech Squeezebox which are wi-fi compatible.

"Wireless is subject to interference and we don't recommend it. Wi-fi is not robust enough, but the technology is still developing," said Steve.

Linn's music player OS is open source and third-party firms are already developing apps for the iPad and iPod Touch.

"Linn offers free software, but there are other companies offering their own software," he said.

At Perfect Hi-Fi's Linn room, Steve demonstrated how he could change the play-list and even change systems simply by touching the screen of an iPad.

Commands were transmitted wirelessly and Steve could control the music and systems from any part of the room.

This was because the system was set up in such a way that the Klimax and other Digital Stream players on demo were connected by ethernet to a wi-fi router which received the commands from the iPad wirelessly.

Many audiophiles were impressed by the display of nexgen technology and the demo on the future of hi-fi (according to Linn, of course).

Many people were heard exclaiming: "Waah..."

Monday, August 2, 2010

The future is wireless

 Founder and Chief Designer of
PSB Speakers, Paul Barton.
The future of hi-fi and Home Theatre, according to Founder and Chief Designer of PSB Speakers International, Paul Barton, will be wireless.

PSB's visionary designers are already working on a 5.1 system that will receive signals wirelessly from a control box that will be linked via HDMI cable to a BluRay player, Paul said.

The control box will transmit the 5.1 channels to the speakers which will be 'intelligent' enough to sense the listener's position via a command on the remote control and communicate with each other to calibrate the individual speaker's volume so that the listener will get the full 5.1 effects in a balanced way. It will also be possible to include the Audyssey MultEQ room correction feature in the wireless system.

The wireless network will be in the 5 GigaHz region and the bandwidth is wide enough to handle hi-res uncompressed files.

"Since the system is for 5.1 signals, it can certainly be used for two-channel listening. The trend is for active speakers and wireless connections," said Paul.

PSB's active speakers will make use of the Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier technology developed by British semiconductor company, Diodes Zetex Ltd, which is already implemented in the NAD M2 Direct Digital amplifier.

"You are talking about a system that does not need speaker cables or interconnects. What will happen to companies that make speaker cables and interconnects?" I asked.

"Well, they can still make power cords. You still need power cords," Paul said.

The founder of PSB Speakers was in town last week for the Kuala Lumpur International AV show and when I spoke to him, he was with his Malaysian distributor Aiven Liew, managing director of A & L Audio Station.

Paul added that while music file downloads are changing the industry and there may come a day when optical storage media become obsolete, he is not too worried as he makes speakers.

"The source may change, but people will still need speakers," he said.