Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hard disks affected by microphonics?

Audiophiles were mystified during the recent event on Computer Audio Systems (CAS) organised by hifi4sale when LS3/5A guru Jo Ki managed to change the tonality of music simply by changing the platforms and cones beneath an external hard disk drive connected to his Bryston digital music player. (For report on the event, click http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/eye-opening-cas-session.html)

If only 1s and 0s are stored in the hard disk, how can using a piece of glass or plywood or ceramic cones or silicon-damped steel cones or soft-silicon-with-lead-balls cones change the tonality from bright to warm?

So I decided to attempt to solve the mystery by googling around and found this detailed article on the innards of an external hard disk drive written by Artem Rubtsov with excellent pictures taken by the author in hddscan.com. To read it, click http://hddscan.com/doc/HDD_from_inside.html

My hypothesis is that a hard disk, on closer examination, is somewhat like a turntable. It even has a 'tonearm' called the 'Actuator Arm' and a 'cartridge' called the 'Read/Write head'.

It also has a disc called a 'Platter' which stores the data in the form of different magnetic orientations of bits of a magnetic compound. Each bit of the magnetic compound is magnetised either North/South or South/North in a vertical manner by the 'write' head. When the 'read' head passes over it, it reads whether each bit is a 'North' or a 'South'. Thus if a 'North' is '1', then a 'South' is a '0'.

A hard disk drive with the cover removed.
Doesn't it look like a turntable? Pic by Artem Rubtsov.

While in a turntable there is physical contact between the stylus of the cartridge and the grooves of the vinyl, in a hard disk there is no physical contact as the 'Read/Write' head actually floats on a very thin layer of air above the spinning magnetic disc.

Just like the tonearm of a turntable, the Actuator Arm moves across the disc in an arc to locate where the data of a specific file is stored.

Many hard disk drives have multiple platters to increase capacity and
there is one Actuator Arm for each platter. Pic by Artem Rubtsov .

A motor spins the magnetic platter at very high speeds while a voice coil actuator moves the Actuator Arm.

From wikipedia: A typical HDD design consists of a spindle that holds flat circular disks, also called platters, which hold the recorded data. The platters are made from a non-magnetic material, usually aluminum alloy, glass, or ceramic, and are coated with a shallow layer of magnetic material typically 10–20 nm in depth, with an outer layer of carbon for protection. For reference, a standard piece of copy paper is 0.07–0.18 millimetre (70,000–180,000 nm).

Perpendicular recording
The platters are spun at speeds varying from 4,200 rpm in energy-efficient portable devices, to 15,000 rpm for high performance servers. Information is written to, and read from a platter as it rotates past devices called read-and-write heads that operate very close (tens of nanometers in new drives) over the magnetic surface. The read-and-write head is used to detect and modify the magnetization of the material immediately under it. In modern drives there is one head for each magnetic platter surface on the spindle, mounted on a common arm. An actuator arm (or access arm) moves the heads on an arc (roughly radially) across the platters as they spin, allowing each head to access almost the entire surface of the platter as it spins. The arm is moved using a voice coil actuator or in some older designs a stepper motor.

The magnetic surface of each platter is conceptually divided into many small sub-micrometer-sized magnetic regions referred to as magnetic domains. In older disk designs the regions were oriented horizontally and parallel to the disk surface, but beginning about 2005, the orientation was changed to perpendicular to allow for closer magnetic domain spacing. Due to the polycrystalline nature of the magnetic material each of these magnetic regions is composed of a few hundred magnetic grains. Magnetic grains are typically 10 nm in size and each form a single magnetic domain. Each magnetic region in total forms a magnetic dipole which generates a magnetic field.

From http://welloiledpc.com/diskmanager.htm: The hard disk is one of the most sensitive parts of the Computer (Notebook or Desktop), as it contains moving parts with extremely precise movements – almost like a mechanical watch! The platters of the Hard Disk spin at very high speeds – today’s Hard Disks spin at a minimum of 5,600 Revolutions per Minute (RPM), with faster Hard Disks spinning at 7,200, 10,000 or even higher RPMs! The Actuator needs to hunt out the sought data from these high-speed spinning platters! Therefore knocks, jerks, humidity, dust, very high/ very low temperature, heavy weights (placing a 10 Kg weight on your Hard Disk is an easy way to kill it!) – all these damage it very easily!

Many audiophiles have noted that turntables tend to 'reproduce' the 'sound' of the material it is placed on. This is especially the case when the turntable is a non-suspended design like a Rega. I have placed my Rega Planar 3 on Chinese tea cups and the resultant sound was 'porcelainly' while soft rubber footers made the sound 'rubbery'. This, I believe, is due to the resonant frequency of the footers changing the resonant frequency of the entire system (plinth, platter, mat, record, tonearm, cartridge, etc) which affects the sound.

In a turntable, this effect is likely due to the fact that there is physical contact between the stylus and the record and resonances will be picked up by the cartridge and amplified.

However, in a hard disk there is no physical contact and the 'read' head is merely reading the magnetic fields of the stored data while floating above the platter. So I don't think the 'read' head picks up resonances.

The Read/Write head which floats on air above
the spinning platter. Pic by Artem Rubtsov. 

My hypothesis is that in a hard disk, the change in tonality when using different platforms and footers is probably due to microphonics since there are so many moving parts and the circuitry and chips look rather delicate.

From wikipedia: Microphonics (also called microphony) describes the phenomenon where certain components in electronic devices transform mechanical vibrations into an undesired electrical signal (noise).

When electronic equipment was built using vacuum tubes, microphonics were often a serious design problem. The charged elements in the vacuum tubes can vibrate and the motion would change the distance between the elements, producing charge flows in and out of the tube in a manner identical to a capacitor microphone. A system sufficiently susceptible to microphonics could experience feedback. Certain models or grades of vacuum tubes were made with thicker internal insulating plates to minimize these effects.

With the advent of solid state electronics (transistors), this major source of microphonics was eliminated but smaller sources still remain. The ceramic EIA Class 2 dielectrics used in high-K capacitors ("Z5U" and "X7R") are piezoelectric and will directly transform mechanical vibration into a voltage in exactly the same fashion as a ceramic microphone  does. Film capacitors using soft dielectric materials can also be microphonic due to vibrational energy physically moving the plates of the capacitor. Wiring and cables can also exhibit microphonics as charged conductors move around, and various materials can develop triboelectric ("static") charges that couple to the electronic circuits.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

TAD officially launched in Malaysia

There we were listening to a high-end TAD sound system costing more than half a million ringgit at AV Designs' showroom in Kuala Lumpur on Wednesday.

The event was the official launch of TAD components in Malaysia by Kazutoshi Takahashi, managing director of Pioneer Malaysia. TAD is Pioneer's high-end brand.

On demo was a system comprising the TAD D600 SACD/CD player (retailing at RM129,000), TAD C2000 preamp (RM128,000), TAD M2500 amp (RM115,000) and a pair of TAD CR1 standmount speakers (RM148,000).

Audiophiles listening to the TAD system.

The TAD system that costs more than half a million ringgit.

The TAD D600 SACD/CD player (top), its power
supply (middle) and the TAD C2000 Preamp.

The TAD CR1 speaker.

The system had actually been on demo at the Kuala Lumpur International AV show in 2010, but the TAD range was never officially launched.

I recall that many audiophiles were impressed by the sound quality of the TAD system at the KLIAVS 2010 and many opined that it was one of the best-sounding systems at the show.

On Wednesday, the situation was more or less the same - the sound quality was excellent and James Tan of AV Designs slipped in CD after CD with songs ranging from Fleetwood Mac to Chinese music.

AV Designs' James Tan slipping in a Fleetwood Mac CD.

The audiophiles who turned up sipped wine and and nibbled finger food as they were taken on a trip to sonic heaven.

Later Kazutoshi had a chat with hi-fi bloggers.

When asked why TAD launched an SACD/CD player when the trend now is for downloads of hi-res files, he said there is still a market for a high-end SACD/CD player as audiophiles already own high-quality CDs and they want a player that can play them so that they can hear the difference.

He added that while most people think Pioneer is a mass market company, Pioneer had been developing high-end products under the TAD brand for the professional and studio market for a long time.

"Those in the pro business are aware of the TAD brand, but not the consumer market," he said.

Managing Director of Pioneer Malaysia Kazutoshi Takahashi.

TAD had been in the pro/studio market since 1975 but it only entered the consumer market in 2003 with the launch of the TAD R1 speakers.

After that TAD developed the amplifiers, CD players and more speakers.

"TAD will continue to develop products. They are all hand-made in Japan," he said.

TAD's largest market is the United States followed by Japan.

When asked why TAD's Coherent Sound Transducer with midrange cone and tweeter dome made of beryllium is found in the EX range of Pioneer-brand speakers, he said some of the TAD technology has filtered down to Pioneer speakers, but TAD uses the best technology for its range of speakers.

On how many years' worth of spares are kept by TAD, especially parts that break down often like CD transports, he said TAD has sufficient spares to last a long time.

TAD components are available at AV Designs, Unit M-W-1, Mezzanine Floor,West Wing, Rohas Perkasa, No.9, Jalan P. Ramlee, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Tel: +603-2171 2828 E-mail: sales@avdesigns.com.my

Monday, September 19, 2011

Eye-opening CAS session

Computer Audio is now the 'in' thing. Everybody seems to be talking about it - especially the younger iPod generation. Even older audiophiles who grew up with dinosaur turntables are getting interested in it.

Hifi4sale forum organised a CAS event at CMY Sunway Giza, Petaling Jaya, on Saturday which was an eye-opener for some 30 audiophiles.

Some of the audiophiles who turned up for the event.

The audiophiles who turned up were eager to know more about CAS.

The hifi4sale moderator/administrator
talking about the finer points of CAS.

The ProAc/Wadia/Prima Luna system used for the demo.

Kicking off the session was the administrator/moderator of hifi4sale (who declined to be named) who demonstrated the differences in sound quality between the Operating Systems of Windows and Mac using iTunes, and between CD and a ripped CD file streamed from a laptop via USB.

The system he used comprised a pair of ProAc D38r speakers, Prima Luna DiaLogue One tube integrated amp, Wadia 381i CD player (with digital inputs including USB) and his Mac Mini. He also used the Cambridge DACmagic and Brik Audio DACs.

He also tested a US$5 download called Bit Perfect. He used only 16/44.1 files and CDs for his session and streamed the files with an off-the-shelf and a Kimber USB cable.

Later, LS3/5A guru Jo Ki demonstrated the effects of different platforms and cones supporting an external hard disk (placed upside down) on tonality.

The system he used comprised his Bryston BDA1 media player, Wadia 521 DAC, Jeff Rowland Chorus preamp, Jeff Rowland 250 Monoblocks and a pair of Dynaudio Confidence C1 speakers.

Jo Ki with his platforms and cones.
He used sheets of glass and plywood (probably made of birch) and cones from Golden Sound, Goldmund and Wave Kinetics. 

The CAS session was interesting and many of the audiophiles were eager to know more about how to get started.

What was perhaps more interesting was that some audiophiles could not resist using the Clearaudio Concept turntable that was in a demo set-up to spin  a Guns N' Roses album and some of those present commented: "Digital no fight lah."

Hifi4sale should be commended for organising such sessions as it would only serve to improve the knowledge of audiophiles in Malaysia and CMY should be thanked for allowing its premises to be used and also for donating two audiophile CDs for the lucky draw.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

More surprises about the curves

It seems plausible that the RIAA curve, which was supposed to have been adopted as a standard by the recording industry worldwide in 1954, became a global standard only in the 1980s - even as recent as 1989, some Eastern European and Russian recording companies were still using the CCIR equalisation curve. It seems that Western European recording firms started adopting the RIAA curve only in the mid to late-1970s and Asian recording companies adopted it even later.

I discovered these interesting facts in the website of AMR Audio which also makes a phono preamp equaliser with 23 equalisation curves. To read more, click http://www.amr-audio.co.uk/html/faq_ph.html#ref

FAQ: If the RIAA equalisation curve was standardised in the 1950s, why are different equalisation curves required?

The simple answer is that as not all LPs have been equalised using the same RIAA equalisation, additional equalisation curves are needed.

At the introduction of the Long Play record (LP) in 1948, most record companies implemented their own particular equalisation curve and continued to experiment with equalisation in order to extract the best performance from the new medium. This led to a baffling array of different and incompatible equalisation curves being applied worldwide.

In the mid-1950s, most of the record companies agreed to adopt the RCA Orthophonic equalisation curve, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) promulgated this curve as a common standard which became known as the “RIAA equalisation”.

However, as this was essentially an American standard, it had little impact outside of the USA. The RIAA equalisation only became a truly international standard by the mid-to-late 1970s when European recording labels slowly and finally began to adopt the RIAA equalisation. It was even later when some Asian recording labels joined the bandwagon and adopted the RIAA standard. Right up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, many Eastern European recording labels (including Russian recording labels) were still, using their own CCIR equalisation.

To further complicate matters, even after officially agreeing to implement the RIAA equalisation curve, many recording labels still continued to use their own, proprietary equalisation, even well into the 1970s. Columbia is one such prominent example in the USA, Decca/Telefunken/Teldec in Europe is another.

According to Peter Copeland in his excellent “Manual of Analogue Sound Restoration Techniques”:

“I consider the whole subject should be a warning to today’s audio industry; practically everything which could go wrong did go wrong, and it isn’t anybody’s fault. But much worse is everyone’s apparent attempts to hide what happened.”

Related posts: http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/what-is-right-tonal-balance.html

Controversy over RIAA curve

Looks like my review of the FM Acoustics 122 Mk II Phono Linearizer (see previous post) has sparked off much debate and controversy among vinyl addicts.

After some googling around, I discovered that there have already been debates over proper equalisation, RIAA and all the other curves used in the record-cutting industry in other sites.

There was much debate on the subject in The Absolute Sound a couple of years ago. To read the thread, click http://www.avguide.com/forums/adjustable-riaa-curves-necessary

Also, I found a very interesting website on a product called the REK-O-KUT RE-EQUALIZER. The author said you may sometimes find Columbia records with LP (Columbia's own curve) equalisation on one side and RIAA equalisation on the other side! To find out more click http://www.esotericsound.com/Electronics/REQ2MAN.pdf

Related posts: http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/more-surprises-about-curves.html

Monday, September 12, 2011

What is the right tonal balance?

The famous FM Acoustics logo glows
when the component is switched on.

After spending a couple of weeks testing the FM Acoustics FM 122 MKII phono linearizer, you will probably spend a few more weeks - like I did - pondering on whether you have been listening to songs on vinyl with the right or wrong equalisation all your life.

FM Acoustic’s phono linearizer highlighted the fact that much of the music I had heard in the past on the radio, in audiophile friends’ homes, in record shops, in discos, during parties - in any place where an LP was played - was wrongly equalised.

Not only that, but most of the reviews of phono preamps that I have read were inaccurate simply because they did not reproduce the music with the right equalization curve. In other words, comments were made and opinions formed when listening to music with the wrong tonal balance.

In fact, most comments and opinions about turntables, tonearms and cartridges were based on music with the wrong tonal balance.

Questions were reverberating in my mind: “What then is the right tonal balance? What is the right sound?”

The problem is that the answer is not as easy as just turning two knobs on the FM 122 Mk II.

It's not about just turning the two knobs of the
FM Acoustics 122 Mk II Phono Linearizer.

There are simply too many variables at work. For example, I had set the replay curve for a certain record when using my resident system, but when I changed to another pair of speakers, it did not sound the same and I had to reset the knobs.

And LPs from the same label sounded different and required different settings simply because different LPs were cut by different technicians using different systems. Also some systems were probably not calibrated properly.

So it can be said that a majority of LPs out there were cut with the wrong equalisation although the RIAA curve was supposed to have been made a universal standard way back in 1954.

FM Acoustics says you should trust your ears. In that case, a whole new can of worms is opened because what sounds right to me may not sound right to you.

So, what then is the right sound?

Is the FM Acoustics phono linearizer creating more problems than it is solving? If FM Acoustics is doing the right thing by manufacturing a phono linearizer, why aren’t more companies making similar products? Most phono preamps in the market are plain vanilla stuff based on the standard RIAA equalisation curve. Can the majority be wrong?

Yet, there is no denying that the FM Acoustics phono lnearizer does make records sound better.

Sometimes, a lean-sounding album gains richness and body; sometimes music that sounds amorphous suddenly ‘solidifies’ into coherence with a stable soundstage reproduced and sometimes a cymbal that is too in-your-face and tizzy is pushed behind the singer where the drummer ought to be and suddenly you can visualise a band playing behind the speakers; sometimes a dull and lifeless album suddenly sounds lively and cheerful.

Certainly, the FM Acoustics phono linearizer is doing something....right.


It all started soon after the invention of the gramophone and records were pressed for the mass market. In the early days, 78 rpm records were made...

From wikipedia: “RIAA equalization is a specification for the correct playback of gramophone records, established by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The purpose of the equalization is to permit greater playback times, improve sound quality, and to limit the vinyl damage that would otherwise arise from recording analog records without such equalization.

Playing a 10-inch His Master's Voice album from 1954. 

"The RIAA equalization curve was intended to operate as a de facto global industry standard for the recording and playback of vinyl records since 1954. However, it is almost impossible to say when the change actually took place.

"Before then, especially from 1940, each record company applied its own equalization; there were over 100 combinations of turnover and rolloff frequencies in use, the main ones being Columbia-78, Decca-U.S., European (various), Victor-78 (various), Associated, BBC, NAB, Orthacoustic, World, Columbia LP, FFRR-78 and microgroove, and AES.

"RIAA equalization is a form of preemphasis on recording, and deemphasis on playback. A record is cut with the low frequencies reduced and the high frequencies boosted, and on playback the opposite occurs. The result is a flat frequency response, but with noise such as hiss and clicks arising from the surface of the medium itself much attenuated. The other main benefit of the system is that low frequencies, which would otherwise cause the cutter to make large excursions when cutting a groove, are much reduced, so grooves are smaller and more can fit into a given surface area, yielding longer playback times. This also has the benefit of eliminating physical stresses on the playback stylus which might otherwise be hard to cope with, or cause unpleasant distortion.

“Over the years a variety of record equalization practices emerged and there was no industry standard. For example, in Europe, for many years recordings required playback with a bass turnover setting of 250 to 300 Hz and a treble rolloff at 10,000 Hz ranging from 0 to −5 dB, or more. In the United States there were more varied practices and a tendency to use higher bass turnover frequencies, such as 500 Hz, as well as a greater treble rolloff like −8.5 dB, and more. The purpose was to record higher modulation levels on the record.”


The cutting lathes used prior to 1968 were unable to perfectly cut the very high velocities present at frequencies above about 10kHz. To circumvent this problem mastering engineers somewhat attenuated the higher part of the frequency spectrum. This often resulted in a slight lack of airiness on upper frequencies.

FM Acoustics adds: "In the late 1970s and 1980s new cutting lathes finally allowed mastering records with high-level high frequencies. As soon as this was possible, it was promptly overused and some records were mastered with excessive high frequency levels. By increasing the 10 kHz attenuation these records sound more acceptable."

Another factor that made things worse was that some companies like Columbia and Capitol had different equalisation settings for their 45 and 33 ⅓ albums. Also the Columbia 78 albums released in the United States and Europe had different equalisation.


There are only a few phono preamps in the market that offer variable equalisation curves. Boulder, Graham Slee, Zanden, VAS Citation, AMR Audio, Monk Audio and a Malaysian company called AIME make them. But all these models offer only a limited number of preset curves.

Only FM Acoustics phono linearizers offer
constantly variable equalisation curves.

Only FM Acoustics’ phono linearizers offer constantly variable equalisation curves by turning two knobs - one  for ‘Turnover Frequency’ and the other for ‘10kHz Attenuation’.

From the FM Acoustics website: “By varying the ‘10kHz attenuation’ control on the front panel the attenuation at 10 kHz can be reduced to less (or more) than the standard 13.7dB of the RIAA curve. In many recordings 1-3 dB will make quite a noticeable difference (of course with decreased 10kHz attenuation the noise may increase very slightly, this is less objectionable than having attenuated, somewhat muted upper frequencies).

"This feature will revive some records that previously sounded dull and lifeless, suddenly providing a wonderful musical experience. And the opposite also holds true: In the late 1970s and 1980s on some records one can find cuts with excessive high frequency levels. By increasing the 10 kHz attenuation these records sound more realistic.

“Even a recording that lacks in ‘warmth’ (not just bass!) can be corrected by moving up the ‘turnover frequency’ knob to a mildly higher setting. This way the entire frequency band above and below the turnover frequency is affected linearly.”


Even at the normal RIAA curve settings (bass turnover at 500Hz and 10kHz rolloff at 13.7dB), the FM Acoustics FM122 Mk II phono linearizer somehow could infuse the resident system comprising a much-modded Rega Planar 3 with RB250 tonearm and Benz Micro Glider MC cartridge, Benchmark DAC1 Pre (and also the preamp section of the Bladelius Embla), Bryston 4B SST power amp and ATC SCM40 speakers with its sonic signature.

I dug up a variety of records to test the phono linearizer using the suggested settings for more than 40 labels in the FM Acoustics manual.

Evita (MCA, 1976)
I have been listening to this soundtrack for quite a while and I like it for its clean and well-recorded sound and wide range of musical styles.

This sounded better with bass turnover at 400 and 10Khz attenuation at standard RIAA setting of 13.7dB.

The Beatles: A Hard Day’s Night (Parlophone, 1964)

The recommended setting for Parlophone is bass turnover at 300 and 10kHz attenuation at 8.5dB, but it sounded better at 300 and 12.5.

At 8.5, the treble was too pronounced and could sound a bit shrill.

The Beatles: Help (Parlophone, 1965) 

This is a good example of an LP from the same label but with different equalisation applied. This sounded better at the recommended 300 and 8.5 settings.

Paul Simon: One Trick Pony (Warner Bros, 1980) 

Warner Bros is not included in FM Acoustics' list. However, it was known as Warner, Elektra and Atlantic (WEA) previously, and the list included settings for Elektra. So I tried the recommended settings - 630 and 16 - and it sounded better.

One track has the cow-bell being hit in the middle of the track and at the RIAA settings, the cow-bell is pushed forward from the mix as are the cymbals. When set to the recommended 630 and 16, the tonal balance improved and the treble was less forward.

The Doors (Elektra, 1967)

Using the normal RIAA curve, this can sound bright and splashy. It sounded better with the recommended 630 and 16 settings.

Alex Blake: Especially For You (Denon PCM Jazz, 1979) 

This is an interesting LP because it is supposed to be an audiophile recording using PCM technology. Using standard RIAA curve, I felt this sounded clear but bland, dull and uninvolving. When I changed the settings to 400 and 12, the treble opened up and there was greater transparency and the sound was more exciting.

Bill, Miles, Joe, J.J., Phil & Art (Columbia, 1981) 

This is a reissue of an album released in the 1960s while the actual recordings were done from 1957-1959. On standard RIAA curve, I felt that the music was flat and there was no sound stage or depth. On some songs, the cymbals were thrust upfront and I thought it was the result of close-miked recording. The tonal balance was also uneven.

Played with the recommended 750 and 16 settings, a sound stage with good depth emerged and the musicians were at their various spots on the stage with the drummer at the rear. The cymbals were also placed backwards and the entire album sounded more natural with good soundstaging.

Ry Cooder: Paradise and Lunch (Reprise Records, 1974) 

Reprise Records is not in FM Acoustics’ list, but since it was sold to Warner Bros, I decided to use the recommended settings for Elektra which are 630 and 16. It worked.

Ry Cooder: Bop Till You Drop (Warner Bros, 1979) 

This is another interesting album because it is touted as the first digitally-recorded LP. Set at RIAA bass turnover setting and 15, the album sounded much better.

Rolling Stones: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll (Promotone, 1974)

This sounded better set at 400 and 8.5.

Simon & Garfunkel: Sounds of Silence (CBS, 1966)
Sounded better at 400 and 11.

Glenn Miller and His Orchestra: Time For Melody (10-inch LP, His Master’s Voice, 1954)

This 10-inch LP was released in 1954, but the songs were recorded in 1948-49. Played at the recommended 800 and 10 settings for HMV, the album sounded nostalgic and natural.

Louis Armstrong: A Legendary Performer (RCA, 1978) 

This is a 1978 reissue of songs recorded as early as 1932. Some songs were recorded in 1933 while others were from 1946 and 1947. His big hit What A Wonderful World was from 1970.

Played at the recommended settings for RCA Victor - 800 and 10 - it sounded good.

Dvorak: Symphony No. 5 ‘From the New World’ - Berlin Philharmonic; Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Grammophon, 1964)

Many vinyl addicts who owned Deutsche Grammophon records, experienced much difficulty trying to get them to sound right. I heard of one who messed around with the VTA of the tonearm and tracking force to get things right. The fault was actually the peculiar equalisation curve used by the company.

Played at the recommended 300 and 5, the strings emerged from the mix and sounded rich and the soundstage opened up with more depth. And instead of a mosaic of sound, I could visualise the orchestra members spread out in the recording hall.

Frank Sinatra: Songs For Swinging Lovers (Capitol, 1956) 

After I picked up this album earlier this year, I had played it quite often. It sounded clear but a bit thin and ‘hollowish’ and I thought it was the recording.

However, when played with the settings recommended for Capitol - 400 and 12 - there was body to the songs and the entire album sounded rich and full.

Al Kooper and Shuggie Otis: Kooper Session (Columbia, 1970)

On several songs, the female background vocalists are thrust forward and sound screechy on normal RIAA settings.

When played with the recommended settings for Columbia - 750 and 16 - the background vocalists were pushed back to, well, the background and the ‘screechiness’ was gone. Soundstaging improved and there was more depth in the recording.

Miles Davis: The Man With The Horn (Columbia, 1981)

This was recorded 27 years after the RIAA curve was supposed to have been adopted as the standard universally, yet the equalisation was not done right.

On the title track, the cymbals are ‘tizzy’ and can actually be ‘painful’ to hear. I had actually designed my DIY gel isolation platform (see http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/01/new-years-tweak-gel-isolation-platform.html) to curb the ‘splashiness’ as I thought acoustic feedback was causing the treble distortion.

When played at the recommended Columbia settings of 750 and 16, the splashiness was gone and the cymbals were pushed to the rear of the recording venue where it should be along with the rest of the drum-set.

John Coltrane: Lush Life 180gm audiophile pressing (Jazz Wax Records)

This is an audiophile reissue of recordings made in 1957-1958. When played at  RIAA settings, Coltrane’s tenor sax takes the spotlight and the other musicians are reduced to bit players. There is little space between the musicians and there is no semblance of a band playing.

Maybe the mastering engineer wanted to showcase Coltrane’s skills, but the music sounds more like a soloist’s work rather than the collective efforts of a band.

I did not know what setting to use as Jazz Wax Records is not included in FM Acoustics’ list. So I thought it would work with the settings for Blue Note - 400 and 12 - since most jazz recordings done in the 1950s were by Blue Note.

Coltrane’s tenor sax was pushed back to where he was when the recording was done - standing just in front of the other musicians. The other musicians were pushed forward to join him and I could hear a band playing with a mild emphasis on Coltrane. It sounded better this way.

Update 16/9/11: I have found out that this John Coltrane album is actually a reissue of an older album released under the Prestige label. I also found out from this site (http://midimagic.sgc-hosting.com/mixlabls.htm) that Prestige had used the RIAA curve since the 1950s. So it would appear that this album should be played with the RIAA curve. In that case, it was indeed the mastering engineer's intention to showcase Coltrane's skills and downplay the other musicians.
However, I also found out that my album was cut with the Direct Metal Mastering (DMM) process invented in the 1970s by Neumann and Teldec which has a sonic signature because of the process of cutting on metal instead of lacquer.
From http://www.amr-audio.co.uk/html/faq_ph.html#ref : "The sound from DMM records is often perceived as overly bright and forward. While this is not directly a result of the equalisation employed, the tonality of overly bright DMM records can be made more well-balanced or even handed by gently attenuating the upper midrange and lower treble."
AMR Audio's PH-77 Phono Equaliser is the only phono preamp extant that offers a curve specially for DMM records.


Prokofiev: Cinderella; Moscow Radio Symphony Orchesta (Melodiya/Angel, 1967)

For the heck of it, I took out a Russian recording done during the Communist era. I did not know what setting to use and decided to use the recommended settings for Deutsche Grammophon since the German company did a lot of classical recordings - and it worked. Again, I could hear the orchestra instead of just sounds without much of a stage.

Update 16/9/11: I have found out that the Russians (and East Europeans) had used the CCIR curve till the late 1980s.

Jennifer Warnes: Famous Blue Raincoat 20th Anniversary Edition (Cisco Music Inc, 2007)

This is the reissue of the famous album - first released in 1987 - in 45rpm LPs for audiophiles.

It is one of the few from my collection that I tested which sounded best when played at the RIAA equalisation settings.


While the variable equalisation feature is the top selling point of the FM Acoustics phono preamp, there are other features that make it a unique product.

It has an unusual cartridge loading system which offers unlimited combinations with plug-in modules to match any MM or MC cartridge. It also features  switches for adjusting loading resistance as well as loading capacitance.

The unusual cartridge loading feature.

FM Acoustics says: “Phono preamplifiers that are missing variable resistance capacitance loading are unable to extract the full performance from MM or MC cartridges. This is one of the reasons why many phono preamplifiers work acceptably with one or two cartridges but do not provide satisfactory performance with other cartridges.”

The FM acoustics phono preamp also has an unusual grounding system.

Its brochure states: “In the FM 122, a special ‘Groundlift’ switch is located on the back panel. With the switch in the left position, the internal ground is connected to electrical Earth. In the right position, the ‘Groundlift’ switch is providing a break in a potential ground loop. The correct position depends on the installation.

“To the left of the ‘groundlift’ switch is the ‘Shield’ switch. The reason for this is that domestic earth can sometimes contain quite high levels of interference from electrical apparatus in the house (fridge, washing machine, etc) and when used as an interference shield it can induce transients and noise into the system. In the absence of a ‘clean’ Earth the switch can be in the right position connecting the housing to the system ground which when connected to cable broadcasting can provide a more effective shield.”

The unusual grounding and earthing feature.

I had a hum problem which disappeared when I moved the ‘Groundlift’ switch to the left position and the ‘Shield’ switch to the right position.

Every system would require different settings, so you have to experiment. But once there is no hum, you will not hear any hum at all even if you turn the volume knob almost to the max.


Now when I listen to the LPs using my down-to-earth Creek MM/MC phono preamp, and when I hear harsh treble, splashy cymbals, screechy violins, thin-sounding music or music with no coherent soundstaging, I know it’s not the fault of the phono preamp or the cartridge or the tonearm or the turntable.

It’s just that some mastering engineer somewhere did not equalise according to the ‘standard’ RIAA curve or used equipment that was not calibrated properly.

The situation I am in is rather simple - I need the FM Acoustics 122 Phono Linearizer, but I cannot afford it. So what am I supposed to do?

Related posts: http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2011/09/controversy-over-riaa-curve.html