Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chance to hear the Grande Utopia EM

Audiophiles will have the chance to listen to one of the best and one of the most expensive speakers in the world by the end of November.

Asia Sound in Amcorp Mall is bringing in the Focal-JM Lab Grande Utopia EM which costs about half a million ringgit.

These speakers use proprietary Electro Magnetic woofers.

The Focal-JM Lab Grande Utopia EM.

From the Focal-JM Lab website: "To go down in frequencies, we can adjust the surround and the spider flexibility, but we should above all increase the cone weight. If we increase the cone weight, the efficiency drops. And to compensate this drop, we have to Increase the magnet power. That’s where the limits of the permanent magnet step in, forcing a compromise between efficiency and resonance frequency.

"Only solution for Focal, reconsidering the very existence of the permanent magnet...
We adopted an Electro-Magnet for our new 16” (40cm) woofer. Thanks to the simulation software and to the existing materials, this extreme solution goes back to the very origins of the driver and was optimized to supply the expected force (patent pending). The magnetic field in the air gap reaches 1.75 Tesla (0.9 for the woofer of the previous Grande Utopia Be that was yet equipped with a Multiferrite magnet) to supply a force factor (the real power of the motor) of 34T.m.

"The goal is reached: the efficiency for 1W @ 1m reaches97dB, whereas the resonance frequency drops to less than 24Hz."

The website adds: "Reintroducing a concept first pioneered in the 1930s by Bell Labs, Focal has replaced the limited magnetic force available from a conventional woofer, with the virtually unlimited and completely flexible force which electromagnetism affords.

"Until the Grande Utopia EM, this 'ancient technology' was seen as being too complex to employ in home audio speakers; too complex, that is, until Focal figured out how to do it!

"The external electromagnetic power supply uses a signal recognition system and offers 6 electrical adjustment levels for a delivered power to the 15.75" woofer of 9 watts to 90 watts permitting virtually unlimited control of the speaker/listening room coupling.

"As a result, the bass is as close to perfect as can be achieved in any environment; big room, small room, live room, dead room, or a completely acoustically neutral setting! In addition to solving bass/room coupling issues."

The EM Electro-Magnet is made of a 15.4lb (7kg) copper coil. The motor including the coil weighs 48.5lb (22kg). The 16” reaches a total weight of 52.9lb (24kg).

The speakers are huge - they are 2.01m tall and weigh 260kg each and the frequency response is rated to be 18Hz to 40kHz.

Asia Sound will also be bringing in two other models from Focal-JM Lab's Utopia range - the Scala and Diablo.

Call Eddie Tan of Asia Sound at 03-79552091 or 016-2733573 for an audition.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Headphones R Us

Headphone enthusiasts will surely act like little boys in Toys R Us when they step into Jaben Audio in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

There are so many models, so many gadgets, so many headphones, so many headphone many 'toys' to play with, so little time.

Jaben's Ma Lik Heng had to e-mail me the list of stuff in his shop because there were just too many of them.

Ma Lik Heng @ Yuheng doing what he does best.

Jaben is the distributor for: Alessandro, Centrance, Lavry, Graham Slee, Futuresonics, Govibe, Ordnance, Hippo earphones, Hippocase, Crossroads, Rudistor, Yamamoto, Maverick, Final Audio, Travagans, Sherwood, Fiio, Head-Direct, Crystal Cables, Whiplash Audio, JH Audio, Livewires, ESI, Corda, Sieveking Headphone Stand, TianYun Zero DAC, Yuin, Firestone, Ortofon, BigonNoise, ALO, TTVJ, RSA, HeadAmp and SPL.

They are the dealer for: Sennheiser, Audio Technica, Denon, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Koss, Westone, Ultimate Ears, Shure, AKG, Grace Design, Zumreed, Jays, Klipsch, JVC, Etymotics, Sony, CEC and Ibasso Audio.

Frankly I have heard and heard of only some of the brands like Sennheiser, AKG, Audio Technica, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Koss, Etymotics and Graham Slee.

And I never knew that the Chinese and South Koreans made pretty good headphones and the Japanese made the best in-ear headphones.

At Jaben, the young staff are enthusiastic and ever willing to give you a complete headphone experience by taking out an assortment of headphones for you to audition with a wide selection of headphone amps.

Ma, who uses Yuheng as his online monicker, said his customers are divided into three categories - college students who want something better than the earphones that came with their iPods and MP3 players, young grads who are starting out in hi-fi and the serious audiophiles who are willing to pay for quality.

Yuheng said Jaben is a Singapore-based company and they actually started selling headphones in Malaysia on the Internet for three to four years before opening a brick-and-mortar store in April.

After testing a few headphones, I left Jaben with a pair of HiFiMan HE5 headphones and its matching EF5 headphone amp and power supply for review.

The nice headphone store is
above the' Nice' shop.

Jaben is at Jalan SS15/8A of Subang Jaya, directly opposite Asia Cafe. It is on the first floor above a shop selling all sorts of stuff called 'Nice'.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

KEF: Back to boxes

For the past few years we had become used to seeing KEF speakers with curved backs. This design was to reduce standing waves inside the cabinet and some B & W speakers also used a similar design.

However, in the new range of Q speakers that were just launched, KEF has gone back to the conventional - the good old simple box.

Paradoxically, while KEF has abandoned a modern cabinet shape for a conventional box, it has abandoned the traditional paper cone for metal - aluminium.

Of course, KEF is not the first speaker manufacturer to discover that aluminium is light and stiff and has break-up resonances higher up the frequency range.

According to Franco Lock, senior business manager of GP Acoustics (HK) Ltd, who is in charge of marketing KEF speakers in the Asia-Pacific region, KEF conducted market research in the past two years in preparation for an upturn in the world economy.

"The feedback was that the people wanted better highs and a stronger bass," he said.

That's why KEF decided to use the box cabinet again - its internal volume is 30% larger than a cabinet with a curved back of the same dimensions and the larger amount of air inside would enable lower bass to be produced.

The KEF Q700. Note the two Auxiliary Bass
Radiators sandwiching the active woofer.
The latest-generation Uni-Q driver is at the top.

To boost the bass, aluminium cones were used for the woofers and in the floorstanding models - Q500, Q700 and Q900 (which will be shipped soon) - two ABRs (Auxiliary Bass Radiators, which are passive bass units) are used with one active bass unit.

And to extend the high frequencies, a new Uni-Q driver was developed. Using an aluminium dome with Stiffened Dome and Vented Tweeter technology that trickled down from the top-end Muon, Concept Blade and Reference series, the tweeters now provide clean highs that go up to 40kHz.

Franco Lock, senior business manager of GP
Acoustics (HK) Ltd (right) and Calvin Yeung, his business
 development executive at Perfect Hi-Fi on Friday.

Franco, who was at Perfect Hi-Fi in Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur, on Friday with Calvin Yeung, his business development executive, to launch the Q and T series in Malaysia, said he conducted launches in Bangkok, Jakarta and India in the past few weeks and everybody was impressed by the sound of the new Q series.

The Q series comprise the Q100 and Q300 bookshelf speakers and the Q500, Q700 and Q900 floorstanders. Centre and dipole speakers, and an active sub-woofer complete the range which can be used for two-channel and home-theatre purposes.

The T series are slim speakers designed to match the slim LCD TVs in the market these days. They can be placed on stands or fixed to walls.

"The T series are not only about sound but home decor as well," said Franco.

Essentially, they comprise woofers and tweeters that have been squashed to 27mm thick.

"Our designer in England said it would be like Superman having squashed a normal woofer," said Franco. Some out-of-box thinking was required and some radical changes were made to the placement of the voice coil and magnet.

The T series can be used for two-channel listening, but it is more of a home-theatre design. It even includes a slim active sub-woofer.

Franco Lock explaining how a normal
 woofer was squashed to become...
...merely 27mm thick for the KEF T series slim speakers.

Owner of Perfect Hi-Fi, Andy Tan, said the Q and T series have been set up for demo in his showroom at 140 Jalan Maarof, Bangsar. Call 03-20921693 for an appointment.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The RM12 tweak

If Rega's Roy Gandy is to be believed, I am neurotic. Roy said audiophiles are those who like to fiddle around and tweak things and they could be "neurotic" (see If that's the case, then I'm an incurable neurotic. And I might as well share another tweak with the other neurotic audiophiles out there.

It was something I had always wanted to do but somehow never got round to doing.

I had always wanted spikes that would not scratch the tiled floor - unlike folks in the West whose homes have carpeted floors, most Malaysians live in homes with tiled floors. It could be terrazo, normal tiles, marble or granite slabs or porcelain tiles, but the spikes of speakers will always scratch them - which is bad for marriages because the wife would be fuming mad.

In my previous house the terrazo floor had holes and scratches where the speakers were placed. I had used one-sen coins as footers, but the maid or the kids would habitually shove the speakers a bit and leave scratches all over. Luckily my wife found out only when we shifted out.

In my new house, there are porcelain tiles on the floor. So I had to use spikes with rounded tips otherwise divorce documents would be coming my way.

I went to ATS Rack in Amcorp Mall and found out that they sold only spikes with sharp tips. I could use them with dimpled footers, but the total cost was a bit too high for me. Also, sharp spikes on footers can still scratch floors if the kids knock the speakers when they are wrestling with each other.

The owner of ATS was kind enough to tell me that I could try shops that sell nuts and bolts.

Since there was one at Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya, I decided to try my luck. The shop is at the end of the row of shops diagonally opposite the EPF building beside the Esso petrol station next to St Francis Xavier church. It's called Gasing Industrial Supply 'Kedai Jual Nat dan Bolt'.

I had with me a spike that came with the ATC SCM40 floorstanders.

A quick check revealed it was M8 size.

I described what I wanted and the shopkeeper gave me the following - cap nuts (with hemispherical caps), set screws (a rod with screw threads) and nuts. All are made of steel.

Set screws (the long things), nuts
and cap nuts (the shiny things).

The 'spikes' that will not scratch floors.

Two nuts were used as spacers.

The cap nut costs 60 sen each; the set screw set me back 70 sen each and the nuts cost all of 10 sen each. Eight cap nuts, eight set screws and 16 nuts cost me all of RM12 (US$1 = RM3.16).

Back home, it took around 15 minutes to screw everything into place. I had to use two nuts as spacers because the holes at the bottom of the speakers were not deep enough. The set screws come in different lengths, so if you measure carefully you may get a perfect fit.

I found out that I did not need to do any levelling because the floor was quite level.

Then I played some music. There was more transparency and the bass seemed tighter and overall the sound was cleaner. The soundstaging vertically also improved somewhat.

There did not seem to be any difference between using sharp-pointed spikes and those with rounded ends.

Now I am thinking of buying six more cap nuts to use as footers on speaker stands when I review bookshelf speakers.

Related posts

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Tweaking the Benchmark (III)

Most audiophiles should know by now that the quality of the power supply affects the sound quality of any stereo system.

That was why I ended up with a Furutech eTP60/20 power distributor with passive EMI/RFI filtering which offers a smooth sound with low noise floor.

A few weeks ago, I was given an MIT Z Strip for review.

The MIT Z Strip features parallel filters. The orange
outlets are isolated and are for digital components.
The MIT Z Strip, which retails at RM4k plus and is available at Tong Lee, provides "multiple parallel tuned filters operating over the widest frequency range, engineered to remove noise from your 50-60 Hz AC power line".

It features six hospital-grade US outlets and two isolated outlets for digital components like CD/DVD player and DAC.

The Z Strip also features Power Factor correction which reduces transmission losses and improves voltage regulation.

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre is not affected by under or over voltage since it is designed to cope with fluctuations from 175V to 285V, but it is quite sensitive to power supply 'dirt'.

While the Furutech eTP60/20 provided a smooth sound quality with low-noise floor and dark background resulting in more details, the MIT Z Strip with the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and CEC 3300 (used as transport) plugged into the isolated outlets created a sound that was filled with details that were finely etched out. I paired the Siltech SPX-20 power cord with the Benchmark and this combination of Benchmark-Siltech-MIT sounded really good.

I heard more details when I used the Furutech, but the MIT somehow made them clearer while keeping the sound smooth. It sounded almost like when I used the huge Furutech Daytona 303 Multi-Mode AC Filter/Power Distributor (see which also has isolated and filtered digital outlets, but the Daytona is more than twice the price of the MIT Z Strip.

I felt that by using the MIT Z Strip, I had tweaked the Benchmark to its limit - at least until I can find some other combination of power filter and power cord that can outperform what I am using now.

Finally I achieved some form of sonic nirvana...and I can enjoy the music (till my fingers get itchy again).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Tweaking the Benchmark (II)

To get the best sound from a Benchmark DAC 1 Pre, you must first adjust the output level of the balanced connections (see

The balanced outputs have passive attenuators that control output levels and when it leaves the factory, the Benchmark's balanced output is set at 20dB which does not offer good sound quality. When set to zero, the balanced outputs will outperform the single-ended ones.

After the Siltech SPX-20 Classic Anniversary power cord (see previous post) provided some warmth and smoothness, I decided to go a step further.

I had been googling around and read that some Benchmark owners who changed the fuses had reported great changes in sound quality. Two brands of audiophile fuses were often mentioned especially by forumers in Hong Kong - Hi-Fi Tuning and Furutech.

Since I could not find any Hi-Fi Tuning fuses in Malaysia (update: a reader said they are available at Octave; another reader said Hi-Fi Tuning fuses are available at Nova Hi-Fi in Jaya One, Section 17, PJ, while Octave sells Argentech silver fuses), I telephoned Eugene Ngoh of Audiomatic in Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, and asked if he had any Furutech fuses. He said he had some in stock and off I went to Amcorp Mall.

Can this little thing improve sound quality?

Furutech's Select Series Pure Transmission Fuses come in two sizes - 20mm and 32mm.
According to Furutech's website: "The fuse is equipped with rhodium-plated OFC copper caps and a special low-inductance copper alloy conductor, ceramic body with special damping filler. All metal parts treated with Furutech’s patented Alpha Super Cryogenic and Demagnetizing process. These audiophile fuses are engineered to withstand 1 nanosecond at a full 1,500 watts, and rated at 125mA/6.3A."

The Benchmark uses 5 X 20 0.5A fuses which cost about RM190 each.

I had never been a believer of audiophile fuses even though I have seen them in showrooms for many years. I remember seeing some German-made silver ones that cost a small fortune.

But the theory is that all links in the signal path are important and the fuse links the power supply from the wall socket to the power supply section of the hi-fi component and an improvement in that connection could improve things.

Furthermore there were lots of audiophiles reporting good results in various online forums.

Back home, I replaced the fuses that came with the Benchmark with the Furutechs which was quite an easy job.

Then I played some music. There were improvements - the imaging immediately became very stable, more details could be heard and the sound was smoother.

The forumers are correct - audiophile fuses do work. And it was another step closer to sonic nirvana for me.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Tweaking the Benchmark (I)

The Benchmark DAC1 Pre is a great component, but it can sound analytical and clinical.

This is simply because Benchmark primarily manufactures studio equipment which emphasises accuracy rather than pleasantries and it has an almost ruler-flat frequency response. Thus it can be very unforgiving - there is no euphonic warmth or tubey mellowness. It is simply a very accurate Digital to Analogue Converter.

When I started using it some time back, I partnered the Supra LoRad power cord with it (connected to a Furutech eTP60/20 power distributor) and my wife commented that she did not like the sound as it was too clinical and lacked 'emotion'.

That started a series of tweaks that made the Benchmark warmer and easier to listen to while still being accurate and analytical.

I replaced the Supra LoRad with DH Labs Power Plus AC, but the sound was 'brightish' and 'shouty'. A DIY power cord fared even worse.

Finally, I plugged in the Oyaide Tunami power cord which is known for its creamy midrange. True enough, the 'creaminess' added smoothness to the sound, but after a while I realised some detail was 'creamed' over.

I contacted CMY Audio & Visual and asked for a Siltech SPX-20 Classic Anniversary (which uses the G7 Siltech silver-gold alloy) power cord to test. I have reviewed Siltech's power cords and speaker cables before and have found that the silver-gold alloy added some 'golden' warmth to the sound quality and I thought it would complement and counteract the Benchmark's clinical and analytical signature. It worked.

The Siltech SPX20 Classic Anniversary power
cord matches well with digital components.

Before I continue, I have to state that there are lots of fake Siltech products - power cords, speaker cables and interconnects - in the market, especially in the Far East and on Internet sites like eBay. So if you are looking for a Siltech, please go to an authorised dealer.

Siltech's SPX-20 is very popular in China, Taiwan and Hongkong as the audiophiles there love it for its warmth and smoothness. The Classic Anniversary edition is the newest version and in Malaysia, it retails at slightly more than RM2k and comes with Furutech FI-11M(G)American plug and FI-11(G) IEC connector.

With the bright blue and flexible Siltech SPX-20 Classic Anniversary power cord, the Benchmark DAC1 Pre sounded smoother and slightly warmer with no loss of the detail that Benchmark is famed for.

Siltech power cords match very well with digital components and if you are having a severe case of 'digititis', I would recommend a dose of G7 silver-gold alloy.

However, owning the Siltech power cord was not the end of the journey in search of sonic nirvana...