Thursday, October 20, 2011

Optimising J River


Finally I bought the J.River V 16 music player. I had been using the free trial version for quite some time.


One day recently, I decided not to be a cheapskate and clicked the purchase button and within minutes I became a licensed user of J. River V 16 at a cost of US49.98 (RM159.93).


However, before you proceed to play music, you need to tweak it a bit to optimise its performance.


I optimised mine after getting advice from other users and I will share the tweaks for the benefit of all those who are keen on CAS (Computer As Source or Computer Audio System).


In 'Tools' click 'Options'

In 'Audio Output' click 'Output Mode' and click 'WASAPI - Event Style'. This depends on the Windows OS. If you are using Windows XP, then you will have to click 'Direct Sound'. I am using Windows 7, so I can click either 'Kernel Streaming' or 'WASAPI' or 'WASAPI - Event Style'. In my experience, the music stuttered when I used the 'WASAPI' setting. I googled and found out that it depends on the DAC. With some DACs, you need the 'WASAPI - Event Style' setting and that's what I did. I have no more issues with stuttering music. 'WASAPI' sounds better than 'Kernel Streaming' setting.
In 'Audio Output', click 'Output mode settings' and in 'Buffering' 100 milliseconds is recommended. I set mine to 250 milliseconds.

In 'Settings' click 'Prebuffering'. Six seconds is recommended, but I was advised to set it to max - 20 seconds.

In 'Settings' click 'Play file from memory'. This is vital otherwise you may encounter data drop-outs. Playing from memory also makes music sound smoother and less 'stressed'.

In 'Track change' unclick 'Do not play silence (leading and trailing)'. I have always found it annoying that digital music players would start playing a song before the previous one has ended. Unlike playing a CD, there is no silent gap between songs. With other players I could not find any command that could include silence between songs. J. River has this command and when you unclick (the default setting is not to play the silence) this, there will be silence between tracks (thankfully).




Monday, October 17, 2011

Coming soon: Wyred 4 Sound Music Server


This product was showcased at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) which was held from October 14-16.


Now we know why the W4S DAC2 comes with a HDMI port.


From http://www.head-case.org/forums/topic/9835-new-wyred-4-sound-goodies-at-rmaf/: "The limitations that can come with wireless streaming are no longer an issue. The design starts with a ultra reliable, maintenance free OS based on Linux and a customized output board that feeds S/PDIF to your existing DAC or direct I²S into the W4S DAC-­2 via HDMI. The server can be configured with up to 3TB of hard‐drive storage. The server is accessible/controllable using Logitech Squeezebox, Sonos and many other common controlling software. 


"You can control the server with: Apple devices such as iTouch, iPhone and iPad as well as Android devices and phones. This is convenient for wireless control and the direct digital connection meaning that files can be streamed up to 24/192 with ease and no wireless compression! Internet and a wireless network is required. 


"The server has been simplified to avoid the need for customizations and to eliminate the learning curve that comes with traditional computer streaming. As a result of this direct approach and digital output there are no concerns about properly setting up DSP’s or output modes such as kernel streaming or integer playback. The most difficult decision will be what CD to rip next! 


• Easy one time set-­‐up! 
• Compatible with ANY DAC 
• Coax, Toslink, and I²S Digital outputs 
• USB or Network file uploading 
• On­‐board Tag editor 
• Auto­‐rips CDs with internal drive! 
• Compatible with Logitech and Sonos* software 
• Ethernet connection to allow for wireless control, internet radio and tag editing 
• Internet radio and 3rd party apps* such as Pandora, Rhapsody, Spotify, and more! 
• Optional high performance power supply to be released at a later date 
• New Chassis Design 
*planned to be ready for product release but currently under development 

Friday, October 14, 2011

B&W showroom: Sale on

The B&W showroom in Jaya One, Petaling Jaya, is having a sale from Oct 12 to 16.


B&W speakers; Rotel, Classe and Arcam components; BDI cabinets; XLO cables, Yamaha AV amps; T+A products and Olive music servers will be sold at discounted prices.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Sony recalls Bravia LCD TVs


Sony Malaysia is recalling certain Bravia LCD TVs because "it has come to our attention through reports in Japan that in rare cases a particular component incorporated in certain models of 40” BRAVIA LCD TVs mostly launched between 2007 and 2008, was damaged and as a result may overheat and at times ignite inside the TV set, possibly melting a part of the cabinet ceiling due to the heat."


"We have no reports of any resulting damage to other property or any of bodily injury," said a statement on http://www.sony.com.my/support/announcement/474840


Sony is offering a free check of the affected products.


In the meantime, if you have an affected TV and if you notice any abnormality in your TV unit (e.g. unusual noise, unusual smell or smoking), please immediately turn it off, pull out the plug, cease using the TV unit, and contact us. We have confirmed that this symptom does not occur when power is off, the Sony Malaysia statement said.


[AFFECTED MODELS]
KDL-40W3000


KDL-40W3100


KDL-40W3500


KDL-40X3100


KDL-40XBR


KLV-40W300A


KLV-40X300A


KLV-40X350A


Bloomberg reported that Sony Corp. has recalled 1.6 million Bravia flat-panel TVs sold worldwide since 2007 because a faulty component may cause them to melt or catch fire.


Sony recalled the liquid-crystal display TVs after a September incident in which a customer noticed a small fire and smoke, said Yuki Shima, a Tokyo-based spokeswoman for the world’s third-largest maker of televisions. Eleven incidents have been reported in Japan since 2008, according to a company statement, and no injuries have been reported.


A faulty component in the backlight systems may be the source of overheating that can melt the top of the TV set, Shima said. It’s the second recall involving Sony products in a month, with KDDI Corp., Japan’s second-largest mobile-phone operator, saying it would replace Sony-made batteries in as many as 2 million handsets because they may overheat and melt, Bloomberg reported.


“Sony-related recalls are following one another, and that may ruin the company’s brand image,” said Keita Wakabayashi, an analyst at Mito Securities Co. with a “neutral plus” rating on the stock. “Considering Sony’s overall business size, the TV recalls won’t shake the company’s grounding.”


The same transformer is used in the five Bravia models in Japan being recalled, according to a Sony statement.


The recalled sets, 40-inch models sold in regions including China, the Americas, the Middle East and Europe, will be repaired if faulty parts are found. Sony will dispatch a service crew to inspect sets, Shima said. The company won’t offer refunds or replacement TVs, she said.


There haven’t been any reports of overheating incidents outside Japan, the statement said. The recalls are carried out globally.


This is the company’s first recall of flat-screen televisions, though not the first associated with the Bravia line. In April 2010, Sony offered to repair the stands attached to two models because the screws weren’t strong enough and the stands could collapse.


Later that month, the company recalled 535,000 Vaio personal computers because of possible overheating caused by a temperature-control defect.


In Malaysia, another Sony announcement dated 20 April 2011 said they would provide for free inspection and repair of BRAVIA Television Models (KDL-40CX520 and KDL-46CX520).


"Recently, we became aware of a potential issue affecting a small number of units of BRAVIA Televisions - models KDL-40CX520 and KDL-46CX520, which were sold since March 2011 onwards. These affected units did not meet Sony’s design requirements for part of its insulation material and as such, when the units are subject to certain rare conditions (such as high temperature, high humidity and continuous usage for a prolonged period of time),customers who come into contact with the metal parts of the affected units or metal parts of a product connected to the affected units, may possibly experience a very slight irritation with no harmful effects on the body.


"To ensure customer satisfaction, we will provide free inspection and repair for the affected units.


"In order to determine if your unit is affected, we need to verify this through a serial number check. Please click http://www.sony.com.my/pressrelease/asset/449226/section/productpressreleases to find out how to check and note down the serial number of your TV set.


"If you own the affected models, please contact your local Sony service centre for detailed information regarding the free inspection and repair."

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

PMC - Pure Musical Charm

Just seconds after pressing 'play' on the CD player, I knew my pair of ATC SCM40 floorstanders had been outclassed by the PMC PB1i speakers.

The differences were quite startling - immediately the soundstage was bigger vertically and the images were hovering higher than I was used to. The images were also better defined in a deeper soundstage.

While the ATC's soundstage was just as wide, it easily lost out in terms of height and depth.

And the bass? Like most - if not all - PMC speakers, the bass went much lower.


The PMC PB1i uses a tweeter developed by PMC and SEAS.


When I reviewed the PMC OB1i speakers (see http://hi-fi-avenue.blogspot.com/2010/09/british-sound-with-unbritish-bass.html) I thought my speakers could match them except for the OB1i’s lower bass. But the PB1i was in a different league - it outclassed the ATCs in almost all aspects.

Perhaps the ATC SCM40’s  midrange was a tad smoother since it uses a so-called studio version of the famed SM150S dome mid while the PMC PB1i uses a Vifa dome mid.

But overall, the PB1i was way ahead of the SCM40 and it is  closer to the SCM50 in performance. But bear in mind that the SCM50 is about  three times the price of the SCM40 and perhaps RM10k more expensive than the PMC PB1i, which lists at RM44,300.
In fact, it would be fairer to compare the ATC SCM50 with the PMC IB2i, which uses PMC’s own dome mid.


The PMC PB1i speakers were taller than the ATC SCM40s and they had one more speaker unit in each box - twin 6 ½-inch (170mm) woofers are used in the PB1i. These woofers ensure that the bass goes down to a rated 24Hz with the help of PMC’s proprietary Advanced Transmission Line.


The twin woofers.
The PMC PB1i speaker is taller than the ATC SCM40.

There were times when I thought the bass was a bit loose and uncontrolled, but when I played songs with lots of bass like White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army from its Elephant album, the bass was tight, deep and full of impact.

I think it’s all about the quality of the bass recorded on the CD. It just reveals the studio monitor pedigree of the PMCs - they will just play what’s on the CD. If the song is well recorded, it will sound good; if it’s not, well, it will sound bad. If the bass recorded on the CD sounds loose, the PMC will reproduce the bass as loose.

Since the PMC PB1i are such honest and revealing speakers, you will need to partner them with good components and play well-recorded material.

PMCs have always been a good match with Bryston amps - even their active speakers use Brystons amps - and my Bryston 4B SST drove them well.

During the listening sessions, I changed the cables from MIT to Kimber and the PMCs could reveal the differences between the brands. The PB1i sounded good with either - the MIT Shotgun biwire  revealed more etched-out images while the Kimber 12TC sounded fuller.

The magic about the PMCs is that whenever I press ‘play’ a sizeable, stable and ‘solid’ soundstage is projected. I can think of only one way to describe it - it’s like a slide projector. Press a button and an image is projected on the screen. While a slide projector is about vision, the PMCs - of course - are about sound.

While the PMC PB1i speakers are tall, they are slim enough not to be too intrusive in the home environment.


You can triwire the PMC speakers.

The PB1i speakers are fourth from the top (the EB1i has been discontinued) of the PMC range and are among the best at its price level.

Would I buy them? Frankly, no. Why? Because I want more. The PB1i floorstanders are good, but I want something even better than that. The PMC IB2i standmount monitors seem to be waving ‘hello’ in my direction, but - sigh- I have to ignore that urge to embrace them till I find the moolah.

PMC speakers 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



Sunday, October 2, 2011

CAS: Tips and tweaks


Just the other day someone asked me how he could enter the world of Computer Audio Systems (CAS) with an old laptop and little knowledge about such set-ups.


From the outset, I must state that I am not an expert in CAS as there are many audiophiles who have ventured further than I have into CAS and have uncovered mysterious things which cannot be explained - at least by me. For example, these audiophiles told me that CDs ripped with dBpoweramp and Exact Audio Copy (EAC) do not sound the same. But why should bit-perfect rips sound different? I don’t know, but I must add that I have not checked it out for myself.


However, for the benefit of all those who are keen to enter the exciting world of CAS, I shall try to give a few pointers.


Laptop or standalone digital music player?


Let's put it this way - if you have the cash, get a good digital music player like the Bryston BDP-1. That way you don’t have to worry about which Operating System (OS) and music player to use.


But most audiophiles own laptops/notebooks for office use, so they might as well save some money and use the laptops/notebooks for streaming music at home.


Should the audiophile buy a laptop solely for playing music? That’s the ideal thing to do, but most of us would use the ‘office’ laptop for playing music. And there’s nothing wrong with that.


Mac or Windows?


I don't think there's a clear winner as far as music streaming and sound quality are concerned. Both Mac OS and Windows OS can sound good with the right software and add-ons, but iTunes works better with Mac OS.


There's also Linux OS, but I'm not familiar with it.



My advice is this - if you already own a Mac laptop, proceed with a Mac-based CAS. And if you already own a Windows-based laptop, go ahead and use it to play music.

However, if money is not an issue and if you want the best of both worlds, I would recommend that you buy a Mac Book Pro or a Mac Mini as these have USB plus Firewire ports.


Most external DACs these days have USB ports except for Weiss which uses Firewire (Weiss has other ports, but the Firewire port offers the best performance). Thus to ensure that you need not worry about the music source in case you decide to buy a Weiss DAC any time in the future, get a laptop with a Firewire port.



Mac Book Pro


Also, the Mac Book Pro and Mac Mini will allow you to have the best of both OSes too - the Mac OS and Windows OS can be installed in the same computer via Boot Camp. But there are certain criteria to be met.


From http://support.apple.com/: "Apple's Boot Camp software, included with Mac OS X v10.5 Leopard, v10.6 Snow Leopard and Mac OS X v10.7 Lion, lets you install and run Microsoft Windows and Windows-based applications on your Intel-based Mac.


"Boot Camp supports Microsoft Windows XP with Service Pack 2, Windows Vista, or Windows 7 (requires Mac OS X v10.6 or later and Boot Camp 3.1 or later)."


Installing 64-bit Windows requires other criteria to be met. Go to http://support.apple.com/ to find out more.


Which music player to use?


For Mac users: iTunes is bundled with the Mac OS. By itself it is a decent music player, but audiophiles have reported excellent results with add-ons like Amarra (http://www.sonicstudio.com/amarra/amarrasupport.html) and Pure Music (http://www.channld.com/puremusic/). Some prefer other music players like Songbird (http://getsongbird.com/ ), Clementine (http://www.clementine-player.org/about), Fidelia (http://www.audiofile-engineering.com/fidelia/), VLC (http://www.videolan.org/vlc/#download) and Vox (http://www.macupdate.com/app/mac/24852/vox).


For Windows users: There is a Windows version of iTunes, but it sounds bad. Please use other music players like Foobar (http://www.foobar2000.org/download), Winamp (http://www.winamp.com/), MediaMonkey (http://www.mediamonkey.com/) and J. River (http://www.jriver.com/). VLC, Songbird and Clementine also have versions for the Windows platform.


Currently, I think J River V.16 is the best-sounding music player for Windows. Some prefer Foobar and good comments have been made about Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net/) which also offers vinyl ripping. Audacity can also be installed in Mac and Linux-based computers. I used to like MediaMonkey till I heard the latest version of J. River.


Some music players are free, some offer free trial periods and others you have to pay.


Bear in mind that the list of music players is not complete - there are more out there.


Upgrading your laptop


If you are starting from scratch, go for the most powerful laptop with the fastest processor, largest RAM and biggest internal memory. If you can afford it, go for solid-state memory as, according to the experts, it provides for a smoother sound.


For some reason unknown to me, CAS sound quality improves with more RAM (than necessary) and faster processors. For example, the experts told me that when 4GB RAM is upgraded to 8GB, sound quality improves even though 4GB RAM is surely more than enough to handle even a large hi-res file.

In most cases, music sounds better when streamed from internal memory than from an external hard disk (unless a buffer is activated). Data drop-outs are also a non-issue with bigger RAM and when playing from internal memory.


I upgraded my six-year-old Toshiba laptop by increasing the RAM from 1GB to 2.5GB (the max for the type of RAM drive used) and the internal memory from 80GB to 500GB. Hi-res songs in WAV format and 24/192 files are huge and just a few album downloads will result in small-capacity internal memory being filled up very quickly.


I also upgraded the OS from Windows XP to Windows 7 64-bit. Again for reasons unknown to me, 64-bit Windows results in better sound quality compared with 32-bit Windows.


So if you are buying a new laptop with RAM of, say, 4GB and internal memory of 320GB, get the RAM maxed out to 8GB and the internal memory to at least 500GB.


Of all the recent Windows OSes, Vista is the worst sounding - that’s what the experts told me. If your laptop uses Windows Vista, get it upgraded.


Ripping CDs


There are two popular CD-ripping softwares - dBpoweramp (http://www.dbpoweramp.com/) and Exact Audio Copy (http://www.exactaudiocopy.de/).

The experts told me that dBpoweramp rips sound better. I don’t know why but for sure dBpoweramp offers better metadata and more album art. EAC is free while dBpoweramp offers a free trial.


iTunes can also be used to rip files. In theory, all ripped bit-perfect files should sound similar, but the experts have told me otherwise.


What format to use?


The most common formats are MP3, FLAC, WAV, AIFF and Apple Lossless (the last two for Mac platform).


iTunes can play MP3, AIFF, WAV, MPEG-4, AAC (.m4a) and Apple Lossless. iTunes cannot play FLAC without add-ons.


Thus to be on the safe side, use WAV for hi-res files because it can be played on both Mac and Windows platforms.


FLAC is a compressed lossless file and the file size is much smaller. This format should be used for downloads as the smaller file size results in shorter download time.


If necessary, a file converter can be used to convert FLAC to WAV format.

(Update 4/10/11: Sujesh alerted me that there is an Uncompressed FLAC format. So I googled around and found out that the latest version of dBpoweramp - V 14.2 - offers ripping to the Uncompressed FLAC format, which stores audio uncompressed for those who want WAVE PCM but with better ID Tagging. The file size is the same as WAV.)

WAV is a lossless uncompressed file and the file size is huge, but then again memory space is cheap these days. You can get a 1TB hard disk for a couple of hundred ringgit.


MP3 is a lossy file with a lot of data thrown out and the sound quality is not so good. It is good enough for MP3 players, handphones and iPods, but not for the serious CAS audiophile.


Thus when you rip a CD, it’s always better to rip to a WAV file which can be used as the master copy that can then be downsized to an MP3 file for your iPod.


Which DAC to buy?


I am of the view that the latest generation of USB DACs which accept 24/192 sound very good and if you are starting from scratch, you might as well check out the latest DACs available in the market.


LIke computers, DAC designs advance very quickly. Some DACs are already offering 32bit 384 KHz sampling capabilities even though there is no 32/384 music file commercially available.


My advice would be to stick to 24/192 USB DACs as even DAC technology at this level of resolution has yet to mature. And music websites like HDtracks are starting to roll out great albums from the past in hi-res files up to 24/192.

Bladelius USB 24/192 DAC

The new Ayre QB-9 is 24/192 capable.
Wyred4Sound DAC-2 is a 24/192 USB DAC.

Though the USB connector is not designed for and is not ideal for music streaming, chances are that the CAS audiophile will end up using USB simply because all new laptops have USB ports.

And to cater to demand, manufacturers of DACs included the USB input but have put in much effort to make the USB port good enough for music streaming.

There are at least three generations of USB DACs - so buyers have to beware.

A couple of years ago, some DACs were marketed as USB-capable, but nothing in the brochure or website revealed that the USB could accept only 16/48.


So you will have to do some detective work before buying a DAC. Google around and search for comments in forums or read reviews.


Whenever you come across a DAC that has 16/48-capable USB, it is likely to be using the Burr-Brown PCM2704 USB chip.


Manufacturers use this chip because it is cheap, it does not require a driver and there is no licensing fee to pay for higher-res capability.


In some cases, manufacturers launched CD players with USB input, loudly proclaiming that its DAC was 24/192, but consumers were misled to believe that the USB input was connected to the 24/192 DAC when in fact the USB was connected to a 16/48 DAC chip.


That was why many audiophiles complained that their CD player sounded better playing CDs rather than when streaming music files from a laptop via its USB port.


I have read of a CD player with USB input which used a USB DAC chip meant for car audio. Of course, there’s no mention of that in the brochure or website.


The next step up is the 24/96 capable USB DAC. Most of the higher-end DACs released a few years ago are in this category. Even the much-praised Ayre QB-9 (first generation) and Benchmark DACs are 24/96 capable via USB.


At this level, you will have to take another factor into consideration - whether the DAC is asynchronous or adaptive.


In layman’s terms, asynchronous means the DAC is the master clock while adaptive means the laptop is the master clock.


Essentially this affects the amount of jitter reaching the DAC which affects sound quality.


I am of the view that asynchronous DACs sound better than adaptive DACs. The different technologies have different sonic signatures - asynchronous DACs tend to sound richer, fuller and warmer while adaptive DACs tend to sound leaner, edgier and analytical.


USB DACs which are 24/96 capable use USB 1 specs while the newer 24/192 ones use USB 2 specs.

From Ayre’s website: “Standard computer audio with files up to 96 kHz typically operate under what is called ‘Class One Audio’ which is a subset of USB 1.1. The transmission rate for Class One Audio is 12 MHz. To go beyond 96 kHz requires the use of a protocol called ‘Class Two Audio’, which operates in conjunction with USB 2.0. Class Two Audio uses a transmission rate of 480 MHz, or forty times faster than standard USB computer audio.”

24/192 capable USB DACs come with their own drivers downloadable from the manufacturer’s website or from a CD or thumbdrive.

These drivers enable the music files to bypass the sound cards of the laptops. Sound cards typically can handle only up to 24/96.

From the middle of 2010, the third generation 24/192 USB DACs began to enter the market and these sound much better than the older DACs.

They are also comparatively cheaper too and outperform higher-end and more expensive models from the previous generation. For example, a new 24/192 USB DAC which costs around RM6,500 sounds better than a previous-generation DAC that costs more than RM20,000 - at least that’s what the experts told me


So if you are entering the world of CAS now, you might as well go for the latest in the market.


USB cables


Again for some reason unknown to me, USB cables matter. Some sound bright, some sound dark. So you will have to shop around, but in the meantime you can use the stock USB cable till you find something that you like.


What next?


Launch the music player, open music file, click ‘play’. Relax and enjoy....