Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Polarity matters

There has been some debate going on as to whether polarity of the power supply affects sound quality.

Previously I was skeptical that polarity matters.

However, when I reviewed the MIT Z Strip (230V model), I felt that  it sounded better with a UK-plugged power cord connected to the wall socket compared with the US-plugged power cord that came with the power filter/distributor.

Like all homes in Malaysia, the electrical wiring in my house is based on British standards and the plugs used are the BS 1363 standard which is a three-pin plug with rectangular pins with ground and a 13-amp fuse on the live pin. This  is simply because Malaysia is a former British colony and the BS 1363 standard is followed in many other former British colonies including Cyprus, Hong Kong, Ireland, Malta and Singapore. UK itself uses similar plugs and sockets.

The problem is that in the United States, the Nema (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) 5-15 standard plugs and sockets, which are also three-pin with ground, have the live and neutral pins in the reverse positions of the BS 1363 plugs.

Since most audiophile power cords come with US plugs, the issue of reversed polarity arises when audiophiles in Malaysia plug them into the UK sockets with normal US/UK adapters.

Audiophile US plug and IEC connector from Oyaide.

There are US/UK adapters in the market which correct polarity and if these are used, then there is no problem arising at all.

Some Malaysian audiophiles have changed their UK sockets to US Nema 5-15 ones and they would not face polarity problems when using US-plugged power cords.

But most would use normal US/UK adapters and they would suffer from polarity problems. But is there a problem in the first place?

Some people say there is no issue because the power supply is AC (Alternating Current) and the stereo system will still function with the live and neutral connections reversed.

It’s true that the system will function, but there is the safety issue - this is because when the live and neutral connections are reversed, the power supply section in the component is still live even though the component’s power supply switch is turned off (with the power cord still attached to the wall socket which is still switched on).

This is due to the fact that the power supply switch is fitted on the live wire. Also, the fuse is fitted to the live wire.

So if you somehow touch the wires inside the component thinking that it would be safe since the component is switched off, you may suffer an electric shock.

Sonically, there seems to be a difference too.

As I said earlier, the MIT Z strip sounded better with the UK-plugged power cord.

Initially I thought the change in sound quality was due to the EMI/RFI passive circuitry and Power Factor correction network in the MIT component and the reversed polarity somehow affected the circuitry.

So I decided to check out the effects of polarity with the resident Furutech eTP60/20 power distributor which has no circuitry at all and uses just a layer of special compound to absorb EMI/RFI. the eTP60/20 comes with its own power cord with US plug. The Roksan Caspian CD player (used as transport), the Benchmark DAC1 Pre and Bryston 4B SST power amp were all plugged to the Furutech with US plugs.

I used a normal US/UK adapter to connect the Furutech’s power cord to the wall socket which meant the live and neutral were reversed for the entire stereo system.

The BS 1363 UK plug commonly used in Malaysia.

It was a simple matter of listening to the system with the live and neutral reversed and then switching the live and neutral wires on the Furutech power cord’s US plug connected to the wall socket to correct the polarity.

There are differences - with reversed polarity, the soundstage becomes narrower, the images are diffused, there is less transparency and the bass is softer.

With polarity corrected, the soundstage widens, the images are more ‘solid’ and have more ‘body’, transparency improves and the bass sounds stronger.

After a few songs I was convinced that polarity matters.

Reversed polarity may not affect other electrical components like fridges and kettles, but for stereo systems, it is a major degrading factor.

So, audiophiles in Malaysia (and other ex-British colonies using the BS 1363 standard) must ensure that polarity is correct when using power cords with US plugs.

Update 6/12/2010

I noticed that there was static build-up when the polarity was reversed and I got zapped when I touched any part of the components.

I did not know why it happened and I posted it in a Malaysian hi-fi forum called www.hifi4sale.net and the best answer was from an expert forumer:

"All transformers (in the equipment) have an optimal polarity of operation.

With the correct polarity, the earth leakage is much less compared to the wrong polarity.

This is because the coils in a transformer are never really perfectly symmetrically wound.

The polarity where u get zapped less, or don't feel zapped, is the correct one.

And the transformer would operate at higher efficiency as well. Less eddy-current losses."

Friday, November 26, 2010

Rega RP1: A cut above

The Rega RP1 (left) and the P1.

The Rega RP1 definitely sounds better than the P1 that it replaces. But I cannot confirm whether it sounds better than the P2 simply because the P2 was not available for comparison when I visited Asia Sound in Amcorp Mall, Petaling Jaya, yesterday.

With Eddie Tan of Asia Sound plugging and unplugging the P1 and RP1, both equipped with the Ortofon OM5e mm cartridge, to the Thorens phono preamp connected to a Rega integrated amp and Rega speakers, it was quickly discerned that the RP1 was certainly a cut above the older model.

The easily discernible differences were less surface noise, cleaner sound, higher definition and better image etching with the RP1.

Priced at RM1,100 with an Ortofon OM5e mm cartridge included, it certainly seems like one of the best deals at this price level and an excellent way to enter (for some older audiophiles it would be a case of re-entering) the world of vinyl.

In terms of design, the differences between the RP1 and P1 are the platter and the tonearm.

Unlike P1's high-density fibreboard platter, RP1's platter is made of phenolic resin, a kind of phenol formaldehyde-based plastic that is also used to make circuit boards, countertops, costume jewellery and billiard balls. Its tradename is Bakelite and was popular in the 1930s and 1940s.

Its top surface is textured, possibly to reduce slippage between the platter and the felt mat. 

It's the underside of the thin platter that is interesting - it's difficult to describe the design and the photograph of it below is worth a thousand words.

The Rega RP1's phenolic resin platter (without felt mat).

The underside of the RP1's platter.

The new arm is also interesting as it has no end stub and the tube behind the bearing housing is effectively an extension of the arm tube. The counterweight is slid along it to balance the tonearm and apply tracking force. The headshell is also a new design.

Other than that, everything else is the same from the plinth to the rubber feet.

The tonearm of the P1. Note the
endstub and bearing housing.

The tonearm of the RP1. Note the new
 bearing housing and absence of endstub.
The headshell of the P1's tonearm.
The headshell of the RP1's tonearm.
When the P1 was introduced, it set the standard for budget good-sounding turntables. With the RP1, Rega has set another standard which its competitors will find hard to match.

And my feeling is that the phenolic resin platter works so well that with improvements to its design and formulation of plastic, the glass platters of the P3 and P5 may one day be replaced.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Limited editions of Rega RB250 & RB300 tonearms

The highly-respected Rega RB250 tonearm.
Rega fans, listen up!

Asia Sound in Amcorp Mall is offering limited editions of the famed Rega RB250 and RB300 tonearms for Rega followers.

Eddie Tan of Asia Sound said: "These tonearms have been specially made for the Malaysian market; they are not available in any other country in the world.

"These are not the new RB251 and RB351; these have solid steel disc-like bases."

Only 20 units of each are available and they are retailing at RM490 for the RB250 and RM690 for the RB300.

Eddie also announced that the new Rega RP1 turntable is now on demo.

The RP1 turntable replaces both the P1 and P2.

It comes fitted with an Ortofon OM5E moving magnet cartridge and is priced at RM1,100.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Triangle makes comeback

Triangle Genese Quartet
Looks like the Malaysian hi-fi scene will be experiencing a French revolution soon.

Triangle, the French speaker manufacturer, will be making a comeback to Malaysia after being absent for several years.

Maxx AV in Seremban has become its Malaysian distributor and it has ordered a shipment of speakers which will arrive next month.

Owner of Maxx AV, Max Loh, said the speakers should be on demo in his showroom by the middle of December just in time for the Christmas shopping period.

Max Loh, who started out in AV and made his mark by bringing in SVS sub-woofers, said he will still concentrate on AV while diversifying to high-end stereo.

He said he will be bringing in the entire Esprit line which comprises seven models including a centre speaker and a sub-woofer, and two models from the Genese line - the Quartet floorstander and the Voce centre speaker.

Prices range from RM2,940 to RM17,600.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Feast on Peanut Butter and Jelly

It is not without reason that Kimber’s PBJ interconnect is often called Peanut Butter and Jelly - it’s because it is so very colourful.

But ‘colourful’ is not the right word to describe its sonic quality. ‘Neutral’ would be apt.

The PBJ is actually a very simple design - it is just a tribraid which is very easy to do if you have the wires and some free time. It’s just like braiding your daughter’s hair.

Braiding has the advantage of increasing common mode noise rejection as the criss-crossing of wires result in noise cancellation.

Kimber has the tradition of continuing to sell models that work well even though they were launched a long time ago.

Even today, its 4TC and 8TC speaker cables are still being sold along with other old designs like the PBJ, Silver Streak and KCAG interconnects but the conductor and dielectric materials have been improved along the way.

The latest version of the PBJ uses Kimber’s VariStrand hyper-pure copper conductors and extruded Teflon dielectric.

Its single-ended range uses Ultraplate RCA connectors while the balanced model uses studio-grade XLR connectors.

It is directional which suggests that the ground is floating i.e. it’s connected only at the source end.

Even though the PBJ is slightly stiff, it is not as stiff as a shirt-hanger and it bends rather gracefully when plugged in.

Sonicaly, the PBJ offers a neutral sound with natural tones. Sibilance is well controlled and the treble is not jarring. Soundstage is relatively large and stereo imaging is quite solid.

Kimber's PBJ is a neutral-sounding colourful cable.

I also had MIT CVT2 Terminator interconnects around and a quick comparison showed the MIT to create a more transparent, spacious and detailed sound, but at many times the price of the PBJ.

I e-mailed Max Loh of Maxx AV in Seremban, who is the authorised reseller of Kimber products, and asked him the retail price.

The reply was: RM420.

Well, what are you waiting for? Being so affordable, the Kimber PBJ should be one of the first upgrades you should invest in after buying your first hi fi system.

In fact, it is good enough even for mid-level systems costing, say, RM10k-RM15k.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Summit of hi-fi

Looks like The Summit shopping mall in Subang Jaya is becoming another place for audiophiles to hang out at a la Amcorp Mall in Petaling Jaya.

There are already two hi-fi outlets there - Acoustic Arts on the first floor and Audio Impression on the second floor.

Soon, there will be another hi-fi shop just a few doors from Acoustic Arts.

To be called Griffin Acoustics, it will have its soft opening on Dec 1 and an official opening on Dec 14.

It is owned by hi-fi enthusiast Andrew Tan who also operates a gem store on the ground floor of Summit.

Andrew Tan at his shop on the first floor of Summit.
He has not put up the signboard yet.
Andrew said he will be bringing in a range of products made by Bada of China such as integrated solid-state amplifiers, CD and BluRay players, power plants and speakers.

He will also sell his own Griffin speakers.

Andrew Tan next to the Griffin speaker (in brown finish);
the large black speaker behind him is a Bada Musician 10.

“The speakers are designed by my architect friend in England while the speaker units are sourced from (HiVi) Swans in America. The boxes are made in China and I assemble the speakers in Malaysia,” he said.

At the moment, he already has the 3-way floorstander on demo, which will retail at RM2,800, while the next project, a 2-way bookshelf speaker, is a work in progress.

Andrew said he started off as a hi-fi enthusiast and even took part in the Kuala Lumpur International AV Show from four years ago selling valve amps and speakers from KEF and B&W.

He currently owns a pair of KEF Reference 105.3 speakers which is his reference when voicing his Griffin speakers.

I asked him if he knew that there was a company called Griffin from the United Kingdom (Scotland, if I'm not wrong) that used to make speakers which were distributed in Malaysia by Trikay back in the 1980s.

He said he had read about it in the Internet, but has never heard the speakers. Apparently the company shut down a long time ago when the founder passed away.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Direct-cut 2v1g CD coming

Malaysian audiophile music outfit pop pop music will be releasing a direct-cut version of the first 2v1g CD which is said to be as good as the master tape.

This involves using an AIFF file as master to burn with a studio-quality burner to a That's CDR by Taiyo Yuden at the slowest speed possible for minimum errors.

It will be a limited edition of 499 copies with a unique serial number and special packaging.
The direct-cut CD should be out in January.

There's more good news for vinyl addicts - Leslie Loh of pop pop music said he plans to issue audiophile pressings in vinyl in collaboration with Stockfisch of Germany.

He has not finalised the release date yet, but it could be sometime next year.

His audiophile efforts have been selling quite well in Malaysia - jz8 has sold more than 3,000 copies while 2v1g (2nd album) has sold more than 2,000. But the first 2v1g is still in demand and it gets repeat orders every month.

Singers Jeffrey Lim and Winnie Ho who
are featured in the 2v1g second album.
2v1g, which stands for two voices and one guitar, comprised Roger Wang (guitar), Winnie Ho (vocalist) and Regine Tai (vocalist). The second 2v1g CD had Jeffrey Lim replacing Regine Tai.

The debut 2v1g album has sold more than 10,000 copies in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan and it has been especially well received by the Taiwanese.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mark Levinson - Return to form

For about a week recently, I had in my house an amplifier that cost about as much as my Toyota Innova.

I joked with Koh Yee Phok of Flagship AV, which is the Mark Levinson distributor in Malaysia, that I would be really worried if thieves broke into my house because I would not be able to compensate him.

He joked that the Mark Levinson No 532 Dual Monaural Power Amplifier would be the last thing the thieves would steal - it weighs 121.5 lb (55.2kg) and it would require at least two strong guys to carry it.

The new series of Mark Levinson amps mark a return to form for the respected American high-end manufacturer and in terms of looks and sound, fans have likened them to the great No 30 series and its No 300 variants of which the No 33H monoblocks are said to be among the best amps that ML built.

The No 532 is huge - it measures  9-9/16" (243mm) high, 17½" (445mm) wide and 21-1/18" (536mm) deep. It may be too big for some racks.

In my house, it was left on the floor since I didn’t want to risk getting a hernia by moving it around. 

The simple front panel of the ML No 532 amp.

It also has heat-sinks at its sides the way that ML fans love so much. And to make things more unusual and interesting, the No 532 has  three ‘piers’ at the rear - it’s the only amp I have seen that is built like that.

Its website states: “To create the optimum power delivery system, the chassis of the No 532 is specially designed to isolate the audio circuits from interference and noise. When viewed from above, the rear portion of the power amplifier has three distinct piers. Control and power circuitry reside in the center pier, separate from the audio circuitry, which resides in the two outer piers – one dedicated to each channel. The power transformers are located at the front of the chassis, away from the audio circuits. This unusual design provides a number of important advantages – isolation of the potentially noisy power and control circuits from the delicate audio circuits, additional heat sink surface area for cooling, and very short signal and power delivery paths.”

The three 'piers' at the rear of the amp.

It s also designed with the modern consumer in mind - its website states: "As music and cinema systems continue to grow more complex, integrating individual components takes on greater importance. To address the increasing demand for more control and communications capabilities, the No 532 features Mark Levinson’s proprietary ML Net and Link2 inter-device communication protocols, allowing the No 532 to be easily integrated and controlled by other Mark Levinson devices. The No 532 also provides a traditional 12V trigger input and output to synchronize on/standby status with other devices that do not include ML Net or Link2. An RS-232 port also allows the No 532 to be controlled by units from industry leaders such as AMX, Crestron and other third party integrated control systems."

It is also the first non-Reference Mark Levinson amplifier to be fully differential and it provides both RCA and XLR connectors that accept balanced signals directly into the input stage of the amplifier with no additional circuitry.

When I used MIT CVT Terminator 2 RCA interconnects, the sound was fabulously detailed, but when I switched to the Audioquest Panther dbs balanced interconnects, there was an immediate and very obvious improvement. It was one of the few amps which showed so very clearly the sonic advantages of balanced connections.

As I noted in an earlier post (http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2010/09/mit-sounds-better-in-cable-loom.html), the Mark Levinson matched so well with the MITs that I called the distributor Tong Lee for a pair of XLR MIT interconnects, but there was no stock and I spent much time with the MIT RCA interconnects plugged in along with the MIT CVT Terminator 2 speaker wires in a ‘cable loom’ which resulted in most satisfying music.

Its power supply section seemed very well designed and did not appear to be that fussy about power cords. After trying a few, I ended up using a DIYed cord with Furutech connectors.

Offering 400 watts per channel, the ML never ran out of juice with the resident system comprising CEC 3300 CD player used as transport, QED optical cable, Benchmark DAC1 Pre, Bryston 4B SST and ATC SCM40 floorstanders. I also used the Toshiba laptop to feed hires music files to the USB input of the Benchmark with Media Monkey as music player. The entire system was plugged to a Furutech eTP60/20 power distributor/ passive RFI filter.

The Bryston is a good amp for its price but the ML No 532 costs as much as maybe five 4B SSTs, and there are differences - there have to be otherwise who would buy the ML?

Against the mighty Mark Levinson No 532, the Bryston - which had shown great control over the proceedings - lost out with the ML showing even more control and poise. The ML made the Bryston sound a bit ‘small’.

Bass had slam and depth while the mids and highs were transparent and smooth. The highs were most spacious and seemed to extend to ‘nothingness’. 

Some AV fans have noted that the ML’s bass was not strong enough to recreate sounds of bomb explosions, but I felt that the ML is too refined for AV and is best used for two-channel listening. The double bass and bass drums that I heard did not lack body or grunt.

The ML also created a huge soundstage and carved out more ‘presence’ from the space behind the speakers, widened the stage horizontally and vertically and placed the singers and musicians in their proper spots. I felt the MIT cables contributed much to the stable stereo imaging and rendition of details.

When I played Susan Boyle’s How Great Thou Art and Amazing Grace the chorus singers were presented in rows behind and above Susan and I could pick out individual voices. I had never heard my humble system sound like that before and I have only heard that kind of presentation in systems costing a couple of hundred grand.

The amp may be too tall for some racks.

The ML has a quite neutral tonal balance that leans to the ‘warmish’ side compared with Bryston’s neutrality that leans towards leanness.

Even after extended listening sessions, I did not feel fatigued and the grainless and holographic presentation was most pleasing to listen to.

 The last Mark Levinson amp I heard was the ML No 331 100-watter and based on what I can recall, the No 532 sounded less warm but more powerful and had better soundstaging ability.

The new Mark Levinson amps are truly the rightful successors of the critically-acclaimed ML No 30 range.