Thursday, March 31, 2011

Linn Sondek LP12 not perfected yet

Although the venerable Linn Sondek LP12 turntable is an almost four-decade-old design that has remained basically the same, it has not reached its maximum performance yet.

"No, the upgrading of the design has not reached the point of diminishing returns yet," said David Williamson, senior product design engineer of Linn who was at Perfect Hi fi in Bangsar last week.

There are always new materials, new components and new methods of doing things, he said.

“So does that mean that Man still has not learnt everything about making turntables?” I asked.

“Do we know all that we should about making cars? It would be a sad day if we knew everything about making something, wouldn’t it?” he said.

Some of the advancements in the LP12 came from other branches of hi fi such as digital components.

“The new DC motor has a clock which we learnt all about when making the Digital Streamer. The clock is to stabilise the speed of the turntable,” he said.

Sometimes, he admitted, the Linn designers can hear a difference when they change some things, but they do not know why.

Some changes can be explained scientifically, but he cannot explain why other changes work.

“Like cables sound better with the signal flowing in one direction compared with the other direction. I’m not sure why. It could be the way the conductor was made. That’s why our cables are directional,” he said.

Earlier David had spent a few hours training the staff of Perfect Hi Fi on how to set up the LP12 turntable properly.

Linn's senior product design engineer David Williamson (centre)
teaching staff of Perfect Hi Fi the finer points of setting up the Keel.

David fixing the Trampoline to the Linn Sondek LP12.

I watched as he tightened the screws on the Keel and plugged in the new phono cable. Then he checked the bounce of the spring suspension before screwing in the Trampoline.
After that, it was setting the VTF and anti-skate of the tonearm. Finally, it was the tough part - getting the geometry of the cartridge right.

David agreed with me that the Linn turntable is fussy and setting it up properly can be difficult.

“Yes, setting it up can be difficult, but the rewards....With each upgrade, it is easier to set up,” he said.

I asked him where the best place is to put the turntable.

The best place is a wall shelf so that it would not be affected by footfalls.

“What about the Ikea Lack table?” I asked. After all, Linn had often recommended that table.

“Yes, that would work. A rigid and light stand would work,” he said.

I had to ask him about after-market mods and tweaks.

“There are lots of them in the market and Internet, but the majority of them don’t work. They may make the sound different but not necessarily better,” he said.

The makers of after-market mods don’t follow Linn’s Tune Dem method of appraising sound systems and they get different results.

At Linn, the reference is the previous generation’s models. If the new models sound better than the old ones, then they are approved to be launched.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

PMC's guru of sound

Peter Thomas, the owner of PMC, looks very much like an ageing rock star - indeed he has sometimes been mistaken for Ozzy Osbourne or Meatloaf.

But his shoulder-length hair and hippie-like attitude belies his stature as one of the leading lights of British hi-fi and the last surviving graduate of the so-called BBC school of speaker-making.

Many experts who honed their skills and picked up knowledge from the R & D department of BBC left and started speaker-manufacturing companies like Spendor, Harbeth, KEF, Rogers and PMC. 

Some of these are now owned by the mainland Chinese, but there's no way that PMC will be sold to the Chinese or anyone else.

"I am still doing some designing for my company, but I have an MD who runs the company and PMC will continue running when I leave. I have a team of designers who know my philosophy and they will continue my work," said Peter, who was at the AV Designs showroom in Kuala Lumpur Tuesday.

Seeing double: PMC owner Peter Thomas
and Jo Ki, Malaysia's LS3/5A expert.

Peter, who is on a tour of the East, was on his first visit to Malaysia and took the opportunity to hand over a certificate of excellence to James Tan of AV Designs for his fine work distributing PMC speakers and also the creation of a listening room specially for PMC speakers.

Over a Chinese dinner at Concorde Hotel, Peter talked about a wide range of topics on hi fi and his views on the differences between vinyl and CD.

He also revealed - rather hilariously - how the naming of some PMC models (like BB and OB) came about, but I think it's best not to reveal the truth and let things remain in the realm of hi-fi folklore and myths.

Peter has deep knowledge of BBC, music and speaker making.

He was the man who actually brought friendly rival ATC into BBC. It was because of him that several pairs of ATC's SCM100s were bought by BBC.

When he left BBC to form PMC, he used ATC's famed dome mid-range for his early speakers and when ATC seemed reluctant to supply him the unit, he used his own soft dome mid-range unit that he had developed and is still in production today.

I asked him about the new trends and whether the CD player would still be around in the near future.

"The CD player will still be around just like the turntable. There will always be some guy who will want to play CDs just like some people still want to play LPs," he said.

But he acknowledged that the industry is changing with hi-res downloads and kids listening to iPods.

I asked him his views on the vinyl vs digital debate.

He said vinyl on a good system will often sound better than a CD especially in the areas of soundstage width, depth and height. However, these are factors that cannot be measured.

"CDs can have no distortion and no noise and these are things that engineers can measure. But digital can sound flat," he said.

At home he has a Michell Orbe with SME V tonearm a Koetsu cartridge and very soon he will the proud owner of a Roksan TMS 3 turntable. He is an admirer of Rega but is not a fan of Linn.

On hi-res files, he feels that a well-recorded CD played on a good CD player can sound as good as a hi-res file.

He does not think that having 24-bit files will make a difference. A well-recorded 16 bit 44.1 file will sound good enough.

"I don't think there was anything wrong with the Red Book specifications. They are good enough for good sound," he said.

I asked him that considering that most modern recordings are made digitally on 24/96 programs, why do vinyl versions of them often sound better than the CD versions.

He said it has a lot to do with quality control. The digital master sounds very good and the person who makes the LPs will listen to the songs on the test lacquer pressing and compare them with the master before making the stamper to make the LPs whilst CDs are made in mass-production factories where the technicians don't bother to check with the digital master under the belief that since it's digital, it should be okay.

But there are small labels which pay more attention to sound quality and they make pretty good-sounding CDs.

Big E of Hifi Unlimited asked if he agreed that there was such a thing as 'British sound' or 'American sound'.

Peter agreed that there was such as thing, but it was due more to how homes are built in different countries rather than the musical tastes of the people.

"In America, the rooms are big and walls are thin, so a lot of bass leaks out," he said. That's why American speakers tend to produce more bass while in England, most homes have brick walls and manufacturers made speakers to sound good in home environments.

"Classical music sounds the same regardless of which country the concert halls are located in, but I think it's more the homes, how they are built, where the sound differs," he said.

Finally I had to ask him something that had been bothering me for a while - what defines an active speaker?

I had to ask that because PMC speakers are unlike those made by ATC or Meridian which have amplifiers built into the speaker cabinets whereas PMC's models have their power amplifiers placed outside just like any other normal system.

He said an active speaker system is one which has an active crossover placed after the preamp which splits the frequencies and feeds them to the power amps.

"It does not matter if the amps are outside or inside the speakers," he said.

Monday, March 21, 2011

KLIAVS 2011 - hi-speed HD video and hi-res music

KLIAVS organising chairman Dick Tan (left) and
 J.W. Marriot Hotel manager Mahmoud Skaf

Some 95 per cent of the space for this year's edition of the Kuala Lumpur International AV show (KLIAVS)  has been sold out.

As usual, the KLIAVS will be held at J.W. Marriot Hotel, Bukit B‭intang, and it will be on from July 29-31. Tickets will still be priced at RM10 each.

Sixty-eight exhibitors have already confirmed their participation and the big boys in the LCD/LED TV sector are in.

Mr LS35A Joki (left) Asia Sound's Eddie (centre)
and Rega's Kim having light refreshments
at the media launch of KLIAVS.

During the media launch last week, Dick Tan of 3Dot Events Sdn Bhd, said the LCD/LED TV manufacturers will take the opportunity to explain more about 3D TV which was launched last year.

"There has been some confusion over 3D TVs. Like can someone use Samsung 3D glasses to watch 3D TV on a Sony TV?" he said.

With the introduction of Astro B.yond, the era of HD TV has arrived and the TV manufacturers will also focus on that.

Streaming HD TV on broadband Internet will also be highlighted especially since the introduction of high-speed UniFi broadband service by Telekom Malaysia has made HD video downloads possible.

Someone from the floor suggested that the hi-fi sector of the KLIAVS could focus on the new trend of computer audiophile music and hi-res files.

Dick Tan said the idea was feasible and he would consider getting experts to hold talks on the trend.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Listening to FM till 2 AM Pt II

After using the FM Acoustics 245 preamp for a week or so, I am now forced to reconfigure my entire view on hi-fi.

The fundamental question is: what is the most important component in a hi-fi system? Many decades ago, I was told that it was the source. It was Linn that said: "Rubbish in, rubbish out."

Later I felt that the power amp was more vital - moving up from the Audiolab 8000S integrated to the Bryston 3B SST power amp to the 4B SST, I could hear the differences in poise and control of the sound with more power. When I had the chance to connect a Mark Levinson No 532 Dual Monaural Power Amplifier to my system, I could hear an even more dramatic improvement.

As for the preamp, I always felt it was just a volume control. For a long time, I was under the impression that "less is more" where preamps are concerned since the less circuitry that a signal passes through means the purity of the signal is better preserved. I have used passive preamps before - a QED passive pre and a McCormack TLC-1. I have also used transformer volume control-based preamps.

After using the FM Acoustics 245, I am now of the view that the preamp is the heart of the system.

The FM Acoustics 245 preamp can impose its character on your sound system and make it sound more high end than it really is.

The FM Acoustics 245 preamp will change
the sonic character of your system.

 What's there to gain?

I found the FM Acoustics 245 to be very sensitive to gain.
With other preamps, you just plug and play, but FM Acoustics must be the only company that specifies that the volume control should be at the 11 o’clock to 2 o’clock position for normal listening level and at the 5 o’clock position for loud sessions. The company says if the volume control is below 11 o’clock, it functions more like an attenuator than a preamp.

Using my much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tone arm/Exact cartridge and Creek OBH-15 phono preamp, it was already very loud at the 10 o’clock position. It was the same when I used the Roksan Caspian CD player and the Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC).

When there is too much overall gain in your system, FM Acoustics recommends engaging the minus 20dB button on the front panel. My Bryston 4B SST has a gain selector switch - 1V and 2V. Even when I switched it to 2V, it was too loud; the Bryston sounds better when gain is set at 1V anyway.

When there's too much gain in your system,
you have to press the -20dB button.

So I pressed the -20dB button on the preamp and played song after song with the volume knob at the 5 o'clock position.

Slow and subtle
If you start auditioning the FM Acoustics 245 preamp with slow music, you may be underwhelmed and you may ask: “So what’s so great about FM Acoustics?”

But after a few songs, you will notice some subtle changes - the sound stage is much wider and deeper, there’s more space between the singer and instruments, the images have more solidity, and some instrument that is in the background gets spotlighted.

I was listening to John Coltrane’s Lush Life on 180gm vinyl on the Rega when I noticed a consistent high frequency mild hiss on one song. Initially I thought it was the sound of distant rain. I walked towards the right speaker and listened carefully - it was the sound of a drum brush gently scraping against the skin of a drum.

The same thing happened when I was listening to Barbra Streisand’s Love is The Answer CD, but this time when I heard the soft hissing sound, I knew I was hearing the drum brushes.

With the FM Acoustics 245 preamp, such little details are highlighted instead of being fused into the mix of sounds.

Fast and furious

When you play a fast-paced song, you will notice after a while that the tempo and pace have picked up somewhat. The rhythm just chugs and chugs along and after a couple of minutes, you will start moving to the beat.

This is the star quality of FM Acoustics components - it is often said they have the speed of Naims and the exquisite richness of top-notch Class A amps.

I often listen to Sarah Brightman's The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection Gold CD and the first song, The Phantom of The Opera (with Michael Crawford) often sounds lacking in rhythmic drive and energy. Somehow, the FM Acoustics 245 preamp could make the song chug along with the right amount of bassy drive.

The FM Acoustics 245 preamp tends to take control of the music like a conductor and ‘commands’ the instruments and singers to perform according to its wishes. It has the capability to impose its character - speed, dynamism, agility and steady rhythmic drive - on your sound system.

I played a wide range of music from Ry Cooder (vinyl), The Doors (CD and vinyl), Evita (vinyl), Miles Davis (vinyl) and Handel’s Messiah (Linn 24/88.2 Studio Master FLAC files played via a Toshiba laptop with Media Monkey, Furutech USB cable, Benchmark DAC1 Pre used as DAC) and regardless of the genre of music played, the character of FM Acoustics was evident.

I found most exciting the way dynamic swings of instruments were rendered. The dynamic range on the whole was great, but the dynamic swings of each instrument and voice added much to the texture and mood of the music and improved the timbres and inflections.

For example, when Miles Davis blows a note on the trumpet,  he does not sustain that note for a long time. Instead, the note sounds slightly lower or higher depending on how hard he blows - the note bends the way he wants it to. And the FM Acoustics preamp renders the bending of notes the way the musicians played them.

It’s all about connections

I found the FM Acoustics preamp to be very sensitive to interconnects.

In my system comprising a Bryston 4B SST power amp, Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC), much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm and Exact mm cartridge, Creek OBH-15 phono preamp and ATC SCM40 floorstanding speakers, I used MIT Shotgun MA interconnects to link the phono preamp to the FM Acoustics preamp and MIT Shotgun MA biwire cables to link power amp to the speakers. I used FM Acoustics XLR interconnects to link the FM Acoustics preamp to the power amp.

I had to use Neutrik adapters because FM Acoustics’ balanced outputs are wired the European way (pin 3 is hot) while the Bryston is wired the American/international way (pin 2 is hot).
FM Acoustics' interconnects
look rather plain.

I also used FM Acoustics RCA interconnects to link the Roksan Caspian CD player to the preamp.

When using Alphacore Silver Micropurl interconnects or the MIT Shotgun MA or FM Acoustics interconnects to link the Creek phono preamp to the preamp, the sonic differences were clearly revealed.
The Alphacore was closer to the FM Acoustics interconnects in character. The FM Acoustics interconnects sounded smooth, neutral and organic. MIT’s Shotgun MA sounded more audiophile in the sense that the music was more detailed and had slimmer images ‘appearing’ as if they had been shaved off a bit and a little more bass definition.

If you are looking out for audiophile qualities, MIT’s Shotgun MA would be the winner, but if you desire more organic sounding music then the FM Acoustics’ interconnects are the winner.

I also switched the interconnects between the Benchmark DAC1 Pre (used as DAC) and the preamp using the MIT Shotgun MA and the FM Acoustics interconnects. Again the same conclusions were drawn, but I noted that the MIT Shotgun MA sounded louder than the FM Acoustics or Alphacore interconnects. When I used the MIT, the volume was quite loud with the volume knob at the 2 o’clock position, but to get the same level of loudness with the FM Acoustics or the Alphacore, I had to turn the knob to the 4-5 o’clock position.

I have yet to encounter a preamp that is so sensitive to interconnects.

After testing the various interconnects, I felt that the FM Acoustics preamp sounded best with its matching FM Acoustics interconnects. That way, the sonic signature of FM Acoustics components is revealed strongly - smooth sounding, never jarring, organic, wide and deep soundstage, lots of space between instruments and singers, choirs placed naturally at the rear of the lead vocalist, solid yet slightly amorphous images with steady rhythm and fabulous dynamic swings, tonal colours and right timbres.

Component matching

I have heard three FM Acoustics-based systems so far - an FM 155 line stage/FM 111monoblocks driving Naim SBL speakers, an FM 268 line stage/FM111 monoblocks driving Avantgarde Uno Nano G2 speakers and my resident system with the FM 245 preamp/Bryston 4B SST driving ATC SCM40s.

I feel the FM Acoustics preamps sound better when matched with FM Acoustics power amps using FM Acoustics interconnects.

It does not mean you cannot use an FM Acoustics preamp with any other brand of power amp - the FM Acoustics preamp will surely impose its character on and take over the ‘steering wheel’ of your system, but when paired with a ‘family’ component there’s extra oomph and speed.

Many audiophiles say FM Acoustics components sound very fast - fast songs sound faster. But it is actually only an impression since a song that is, say, 2 minutes 33 seconds long cannot be played in 2 minutes 32 seconds, using a Red-Book CD or hires file. On a turntable that has speed control, it would be possible but the pitch would change.

The length of the song does not change, but the impression is that it sounds faster. I believe this is due to the incredibly fast rise times of FM Acoustics pre and power amps.

Also the fact that FM Acoustics power amps can drive speakers to below 1 Ohm loads just means that the amps are in full control of the movement of the speaker units regardless of size.

The cones/domes will start and stop faster - that’s why the music sounds faster.

Would I buy FM?

FM Acoustics components are expensive, period. Good things don’t come cheap, period.

Would I buy FM? If I have the money, yes.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Listening to FM till 2 AM Pt I

Who would have thought that one day an FM Acoustics component would end up (not permanently, unfortunately) in my home sound system?

But as fate would have it, one of the world's finest preamps somehow became the proud link in my humble system.

The FM Acoustics 245 line stage.

The FM Acoustics FM 245 Line Stage is now the control centre of the system. The much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 arm/Exact cartridge is linked to the Creek OBH-15 phonopreamp which is linked with MIT Shotgun MA interconnects to the FM 245. The second source is the Roksan Caspian CD player linked to the FM 245 with FM Acoustics interconnects. Later, I will link my laptop with audiophile Furutech USB cable to my Benchmark DAC1 Pre and play some hires files via the FM Acoustics preamp.

Linking the FM 245 Line Stage to the Bryston 4B SST are a pair of FM Acoustics XLR interconnects and the power amp is connected to ATC SCM40 floorstanders with MIT Shotgun MA biwire speaker cables.

The power cable of the FM 245 is not detachable and it has been plugged to a Furutech eTP-60 power distributor. A DIY power cord with Furutech plugs to the Bryston has been fitted with an MIT Magnum Z Trap while a Siltech SPX-20 Classic Anniversary power cord is connected to the CD player.

For the past few nights, I have been listening to the FM till around 2am.

What are my impressions of the FM Acoustics 245 Line Stage? I will write about my views in the next post.

In this post, I will write more about the component itself which I feel is truly revolutionary.

The FM Acoustics FM 245 Line Stage is unique as it accepts single-ended signals and converts them into true balanced and outputs them through true balanced connections. And the true balanced outputs have sensors that check the type of power amp/mono blocks they are connected to and find out if they are single-ended, pseudo balanced or true balanced and automatically adjust the output for optimal performance.

FM Acoustics is the only company in the world that does this.

From its website, "Attractively styled in full-width cabinetry it features the unique true balanced outputs of the FM 255 while the four inputs and the tape loop are single-ended - as on the FM 155.

"This combination is not 'wrong' as some might contend. The large majority of so-called 'balanced outputs' of various source equipment such as DACs, CD & DVD players, phono stages, etc. are not true balanced. This is why the unbalanced outputs of 95% of balanced units actually perform better than their balanced outputs.

"Therefore, it makes good sense to connect the sources to the FM 245 line stage in single-ended mode and then use FM Acoustics' unique balancing circuits for optimal balancing and drive capability."

The FM 245 uses proprietary enhanced Class A circuitry and fully discrete circuitry using special curve-tracer analysed and listening-selected semiconductors.

It has no hum, noise and interference and has tremendous reserves in input signal handling capability (+21dBv). All input and output impedances are perfectly linear over full frequency range. There is zero overall feed-back or feed-forward.

Its outputs can drive any type of load and cables more than 200 meters long.

Precision Balance and Level controls are used; there are no stepped attenuators, relay-type or inferior sounding optical or digital volume / balance controls.

The low-impedance power supply has built-in three-stage stabilisation with a mains transformer that uses a dual shield.

Discrete Class A tape send and return circuits guarantee superior recordings and optimal connection to auxiliary equipment like CD-R's, DVD-R's, tape machines etc.

Modular construction ensures that the FM 245 is upgradeable.

So, does it sound good? Suffice it to say now that the FM 245 line stage has made some subtle and some not-so-subtle changes to the sound. More about them in the next post...

Related post

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Back to Linn school

Linn Sondek turntable fans, take note.

An engineer from Linn will be at Perfect Hi-Fi on Jalan Maarof, Bangsar, on March 24 to show you the right way to set up your Linn turntables.

He will touch on the Linn Majik and the Linn Sondek LP12.

The talk and demo will begin at 1pm. Light refreshments will be served.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Lubricating the turntable

It had been many years since I last sent my Rega Planar 3 for a lube job.

I spent some time reading online forums and found out that vinyl addicts used all types of oil from sewing machine oil to fishing reel oil to car engine oil to lubricate their turntables' bearings.

I discovered that the best oil - according to many - is Van den Hul's Special Turntable Spindle Oil, but it is expensive.

Rega recommends hypoid 80W oil which apparently is a gear oil.

There were some forumers who recommended gear oils rather than engine oils because the additives in the engine oils may corrode some materials like rubber rings and aluminium while gear oils typically have fewer additives.

The Rega spindle and bearing housing are made of metal and I could not spot any rubber ring or bushing and the sub-platter was made of plastic, so I felt I could get away with using engine oil. I did not have any gear oil at home anyway.

In the store room, I found a half-empty bottle of Mobil 1 5W-50 fully synthetic engine oil. Some forumers recommended a thinner oil like the 0W-40, but I swirled the Mobil oil in the bottle and noted that its viscosity was almost like water.

I was thinking that if it did not work, I could just remove the oil and use gear oil instead.

Many vinyl addicts use engine oil to
lubricate their turntables.

I used a straw to draw a little bit of Mobil 1 oil and oiled the spindle and then released a few drops into the bearing housing.

When I inserted the spindle into the bearing housing, the sub-platter floated and it took several minutes for it to slowly descend.

After placing the platter on the sub-platter, I spun it (with the belt removed) and noted that it spun for quite a while.

I have been using the Mobil 1 oil for a while without any issues. As for any detrimental effect in the long term, I don't know but if I notice any corrosion anywhere, I will post about it and change the oil.