Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Our Quest. Deeply Personal. Full of Joy & Confusion.

I intended this to be a simple message, one pointing out that building a system is based on choices. Choices usually come with trade-offs. Becoming too attached to a flawed component, in this case a pair of loudspeakers that have very forward highs, and then building an entire system around that component, can be a slippery slope. But my message has become a bit more philosophical, and personal.

It all started with an email...

I recently had the opportunity to send a component to a customer for an In-Home Audition. This was a component that I had much experience with, and many others had listened to. The overall consensus was the sound was detailed, powerful, a bit forgiving and laid back.

Much to my surprise the customer emailed a few days after receiving the component, asking what they could do to "tame the highs" that they were experiencing in their system with the new component.

As a dealer, I run across scenarios like this quite a lot. Essentially it is a synergy issue, but at it's core is usually a choice made and a deep attachment to a component that has some amazing strengths sonically, but is simply not a neutral component. Read my response to the customer's email below:

"...Many times I find a customer has carefully "tuned" their system with cables & other components to accomodate a particular component in their system that they are deeply attached to. A component with some great strengths, but perhaps not quite neutral. When when they introduce a new component to this system, the sound of their system changes completely. They usually end up assigning this new sonic characteristic to the new component, but in fact what is happening is the new component is simply throwing off the delicate balance that was created to accomodate the original component for which essentially every other component and accessory was chosen. 
You have probably spent years getting your audio system to sound the way you want it to, and you chose a certain path/methodology to get it to sound the way you like. It sounds to me like the (component) is simply not synergizing with your system, and to get them to synergize might be impractical.
I am thinking this because in every other listening experience that others have had with the (component), no one has felt the desire to tame the high frequencies. Quite the opposite has occured in fact. Listeners describe the sound as a bit laid back and forgiving.
What your experiencing could also be due to the speaker/speaker cable/amp interaction. These three combine to make an electrical circuit, and the resistance, inductance and capacitance of that circuit can affect the sonic balance of the system. A low capacitance circuit might cause the highs to be accentuated. In that case, one could choose a speaker cable with higher capacitance..."
"...I hope I didn't offend you, that was not my intent at all. There are many, many paths to creating a great sounding audio system. It is a deeply personal quest for the audiophile. One with many options, and frought with much confusion. It sounds to me like you have in place a system you like very much. We may be able to improve upon it, but we may not. Either way, it's fun exploring the possibilities. :)..."

What to do? 

Tell the client to scrap their entire system and start over? Probably not. What I decided to do was give them a few options that could possibly tame the high frequencies (the client was using loudspeakers with ribbon tweeters, which I suspect was the culprit, and the subject of deep attachment). They may work, but I suspect ultimately this audition will not result in a sale. The client has a deep attachment to their loudspeakers, and has spent years tuning the system to preserve the strengths he loves in his speakers, and bring into balance the potentially exaggerated high frequencies they may reproduce.

What are the lessons learned? 

1) We are analytical AND emotional creatures,  influenced by opinions, marketing, facts, and of course our senses (in this case hearing and seeing). We make choices based on all of these, and would like to think that we are correct in every aspect, and we are. For ourselves. That should be good enough, and I always tell my customers that your preferences are yours, don't let anyone tell you those preferences are wrong, because they are not you. There are many paths to putting together a musically satisfying audio system. It is my job to keep you on a cost effective path, which most of you are on. It is also my job to discern that path, and help you narrow your choices to components that match your tastes and existing system.

2) There is no one right sound, methodology or way to achieve your particular experience of sonic bliss. BUT, some ways are frought with less long term difficulty than others. It is one of my passions to keep clients from making mistakes, even if it means not making a sale. Sometimes I have to advise a client to consider a product I don't carry, or consider not buying anything at all.  In the short term, I lose a sale. In the long-term, I gain a friend who will continue to seek my advice, which may or may not lead to future business, but at the very least becomes a fulfilling relationship with a fellow music lover whom I can learn from.

3) Since this is a highly personal endeavor, building your system in a "vacuum" can be a slippery, expensive slope. Talk to people, read reviews, get a consensus on a component you are looking at auditioning before contacting a dealer. However, "experts" with strong opinions who attempt to verbally bludgeon others into agreement with them are 1) not fun to deal with and 2) are usually trying to sell you something or 3) validate their own beliefs (and importance). Take their opinions with a grain of salt until you can verify with your own ears what they are trying to persuade you to believe. There is a lot to be learned from other audiophiles. I learn so much from my existing customers. I find my exchanges with my customers to be incredibly valuable.

Over time you will find a few reviewers, dealers and audiophile friends who share the same preferences as you do. They will be a trusted, time and money saving resource for you. Some may even become long term friends. That is the beauty of our hobby in my opinion.

In the end, trust your own ears and intuition. Do your research before auditioning. Seek the advice of your trusted circle of friends. But ultimately YOU have to live with the system you build. Not your friends, forum buddies or reviewers you respect.

Happy listening. Enjoy the journey.

Monday, November 2, 2015

In The Midst Of An Affordable High End Audio Renaissance

This is happening. Right now. There is a rebirth of creative energy in the high end audio industry and it is aimed squarely at the affordable but high end audio market. A slew of highly regarded manufacturers are introducing products that are absolutely breaking the barriers of  old price to performance ratios down.

What is affordable?

Affordable high end audio is not the same as affordable audio. Let me explain. Affordable audio can be found in the mall, at the Apple Store or a Best Buy. It is a mass produced product created by a company that may make TV's, Car Audio and the like. Contrary to that, most high end audio manufacturers are small scale in the realm of consumer electronics. Many still hand build products or at least produce their products in a much smaller quantity. The owners of high end audio companies make only high end audio products. It is their love of music reproduction that started their business venture. Their is a deeper commitment to sound quality over production costs.

Affordable high end audio is the next step in the audiophile journey. One may have enjoyed good sound over their college years with mainstream audio components, and they can now afford something better. They may be exploring the leading online audio magazines, and visiting local high end audio dealers. Their budget ranges from $500 to $2500 for a component and $300-$500 for cables.

The New High End Audio

Below is a list of but a few products I have encountered this year that have rocked my audiophile world.
AcousticImagery Atsah 500 Power Amplifiers - These powerhouse amplifiers offer 400 watts of ultra quiet, low distortion power and sound quality usually reserved for very expensive solid state Class A amplifiers. They are following in the footsteps of their $10,000/pair big brothers, the Atsah 1200. The Atsah 500's have nearly identical specifications to the 1200 into 8 and 4 ohms, with the 1200 being more able to drive a 2 ohm load. The price difference more than makes up for the performance difference in our opinion. The Atsah 500 amplifiers are priced at only $2000 for the pair!

Auralic Aries Mini - Auralic started quite a buzz last year with their Aries wireless music streamer. A component (basically a computer configured for high end audio streaming) capable of streaming high resolution audio files (up to 2xDSD) wirelessly to a DAC. It works with a gigabit enabled wireless router and uses an iPad app called Lightning DS as the interface. They started at $995, turning the high end audio music streamer business on it's ear.

They've done it again this year with the Aries Mini. At $549, the Aries Mini offers the same wireless streaming capability of it's big brother, but also includes a built in DAC. Oh, that $549 price tag also includes a year of Tidal lossless streaming service!
Image 1Image 1

Audience Ohno Speaker Wire & Interconnects - Words really can't describe how good these cables are. One really needs to hear them in their own system to believe a cable at this price point can sound this good. They posses perfect tonal balance, a holographic midrange (HUGE soundstage), extension at both ends of the sonic spectrum, and a relaxed presentation to the music that allows the listener to relax as well. Crazy good cables for the money. I don't know of anything even close to this good at this price or pretty far above it. The interconnects start at $158 for a 1/2 meter pair, and speaker cables start at $329 for a 1 meter pair.

Image 1Wireworld Stratus 7 Power Cords - The Wireworld stratus cable are a giant step up from a stock power cord. They don't really do anything wrong to attract attention to themselves, they simply allow your audio equipment to provide more detail and better extension than a stock cord. Well worth the $90 for a 1 meter cord.

ELAC Debut Loudspeakers by Andrew Jones - I don't even sell these, but I own a pair. Andrew Jones used to design the very good and very expensive TAD monitors for Pioneer's high end audio division. He knows how to design a great sounding speaker. He was hired away by ELAC and given free reign to design an entry level high end loudspeaker. He had control over not just driver selection, but every parameter of the drivers for these speakers. This gave him a huge advantage over many manufacturers that are limited to off the shelf drivers. The performance he wrings out of these inexpensive speakers is breathtaking. When I first heard the F5 at this year's Rocky Mountain Audiofest, I assumed I was listening to a $3000-$4000 loudspeaker. The F5's are Ridiculously good, and cost only $600 per pair delivered by Deal of the century? So far, yes.

Too Cheap To Be Good?

The perception that in order for a component to sound really good it has to be expensive could never be more misguided than at this time. The above products not only make that perception wrong, they make it financially foolish to perpetuate. If you are in the market for great sounding high end audio components, speakers and cables, start your search with these products. I don't care how far down the high end audio rabbit hole you are, there is at lease one item here that will change your perspective on what is possible at this price point.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Treating Difficult Acoustic Spaces With The SteinMusic Blue Suns

My current listening room was a nightmare.  I have an open floor plan, with laminate flooring, vaulted ceilings, asymmetric openings and shapes to deal with. The entire floorplan is an echo chamber and treating it acoustically is a daunting, and ongoing task.

I am just not that motivated to do too much because the room is only temporary. We are adding a dedicated and isolated listening room to the house next year. That and I really don't want to disrupt the decor too much with permanent treatments. This is what I have done so far...
Vaulted Ceilings: The Multi-use room is rife with reflective surfaces.
The wall opposite to the top photo. Open areas, and more reflective surfaces.

Rugs, Art, Plants

Of course there are rugs and art. A good, thick wool rug on the floor is ideal as a floor covering. If your rug isn't terribly thick, one can purchase wool rug pads to add a little more absorption to a thin rug.

Art is another matter, You could probably use wall or floor sculpures as a diffuser, however they will hardly be scientific in their sound scattering capabilities.  Woven textile wall hangings would work as absorbers too. I have hung these on a rod about 3-4" off of a wall and placed acoustic foam behind them for even more absorption.

Taller plants can work well and add life to your surroundings as well.

Serindipity in Window Treatments

The double-cell construction of these blinds is
great for turning a reflective window area into
an absorbant one.

We recently added new window treatments. This was serindipitous as I was not aware of how well the ones we chose would absorb  sound. We had all of the windows treated with double-walled Levelor cellular shades. The double-wall construction was chosen for it's insulating properties, but is also ideal for absorbing sound where an otherwise very reflective surface would be. Now all of the windows became absorptive surfaces where reflective ones used to be. It was noticeable and unobtrusive. Win!

Minimal Acoustic Treatments

I was able to install some bass traps from Acoustic Geometry (consisting of a Curve Diffusor and Corner Trap ) behind the loudspeakers without mounting them to the wall. These had a harmonious coloring that I was able to choose, and were very nicely built, but were not cheap at over $500 each. There are cheaper options available from other manufacturers, but the quality will vary with price. You get what you pay for...
Bass traps in the corners behind the speakers.  GIK diffusers surrounding the flat screen TV.

I also made use of diffusers along the wall behind the speakers. This wall faces across the entire house through the kitchen. The problem here was a massive slap-echo from the sound travelling through the room and hitting the back wall of the kitchen, then bouncing from floor to ceiling all the way back. It was very noticeable at even moderate volumes. It smeared the sound considerably. The GIK Acoustics Gridfusors ($200 for 4).

So far, the results make the room much better. With way less slap echo (it still needs work) better bass response and more accurate imaging.  I think my next step will be an absorbant "cloud" on the ceiling in the opening between the kitchen and living room.

Finally...The Unconventional (Down the Rabbit Hole We Go)

While at RMAF 2015, The SteinMusic Distributor handed me 4 of the Blue Suns. I had been using 2 in my system at the time along with the 4 harmonizers in my sytem. He told me that they would actually work without the harmonizers, but adding the harmonizers would certainly enhance their effectiveness.
The Blue Sun. A mix of mierals/crystals and quantum technology from Holger Stein.
So after returning from RMAF, I decided to do my "system reorganization" exercise. This is where I tear my system down completely, and remove all tweaks from the room. I start fresh with reconnecting the entire system and making sure everything is as dialed in as possible before the tweaks come back in.

The system when assembled and "tweakless" was tonally accurate and imaged fine in-between the speakers, but a little dry and flat sounding without much going on outside the speakers. Definitely not what I was used to.

I took the SteinMusic distributor's advice and started with 4 Blue Suns only. I placed them about 6-7 feet off the ground. One centered between the speakers on the wall behind them, another in the opposite location behind the listening position. This time on the ceiling since there was no wall behind me to place them on. The last two were on the side walls, about 7 feet off the ground and about 1.5 feet in front of the plane that the speakers were lined up on.

Even my wife noticed the change immediately. "That's way better" she said. The sound now expanded beyond the speakers in a very natural way. There was more low level resolution, with trailing notes and decays now filling the entire listening space, not just the space in between the speakers. I had no idea that the Blue Suns would work so well without the Harmonizers. Color me impressed!

Adding the 4 Harmonizers back into the room turbocharged everything.  There was now a sense of air and space that was way beyond the speaker boundaries, coming out into the room and helping the speakers to "disappear". There was a ridiculous amount of low level detail. The subtle sonic cues that transform a system from good to "spooky real" were there. Last there was an organic sweetness to the highs. Much less mechanical and much more organic. No acoustic treatment could pull this off. They definitely helped, but this was in the realm of a new component or set of speakers. Of course the cost was nearly the same as well.... But my point with this is that these are relatively unobtrusive devices that are easy to place and really take your audio system to a new level of enjoyment.

A bit more experimentation

I still had 2 Blue Suns left, and had been experimenting with their placement in the room. I felt like six Blue Suns was too much for the space. Nothing was working. I was a bit relieved actually. But I still had to press on with experimenting.  I decided to try something counterintuitive. I placed one Blue sun on the ceiling in the open area to the right of my listening position. I placed the other on the ceiling in an area of the kitchen that seems to be a vortex for slap echo. 
The yellow arrow indicates the Blue Sun placed in the hallway.
This area seemed to have a real convergence of
slap echo.  I placed a Blue Sun on the ceiling here.
What placing the remaining two Blue Suns in these problem areas seemed to do was further remove the room effects from the soundstage that the speakers were now able to create. What was once flat, lifeless and uninvolving became wrap-around 3D, organic, rich and enveloping.

I understand that the Harmonizers and Blue Suns are not inexpensive items, but if you need to address room issues, or live in an open floorplan with other humans that may not like bulky or unsightly room treatments, these products may help you strike a compromise with the others in your home, and help your system to be musically enjoyable to you. The Stein Harmonizers come in white, and the Blue suns can be painted to closely match your decor (you do need a spray paint made for plastics). They can remain visibly unobtrusive while having a huge sonic impact that compliments your creative efforts at placing a minimum of other more conventional room treatments.

This was a great learning experience for me personally. I was placing tweaks and acoustic treatments in a "real world" space with odd shaped open rooms and lots of reflective surfaces. The end result was a success, both sonically and visually (at least for my family, ymmv). :) 

If you have questions, or might like to try the Stein products in your own home and system, call me at 303-653-6341. I frequently loan these items out and will help you place them in your room for maximum performance.

Happy Listening!

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Acoustic Imagery Atsah 500 Mono Amplifier Review

Acoustic Imagery NC 500

The Class D revolution has been anything but. I was around back when the first "audiophile" class D amps from Nuforce were introduced. The buzz at the time reminded me of the "perfect sound forever" buzz (and disappointment) of CD. Class D amps were supposed to be super quiet, lightweight, low distortion, and very power efficient. It all looked good on paper, but to our ears they left much to be desired. They sounded dry, with a harsh midrange and ragged highs. Much of the harshness and raggedness was due to the switching power supply that the Class D amps made use of. The power supplies were noisy and injected all kinds of grunge into the AC lines. This grunge was supposedly out of the audible bandwidth, but anyone who has good ears knows, there are lower harmonics of that noise that trickle into the audible range...

Enter NCore

A few years ago Hypex (or rather Bruno Putzeys) introduced their NCore series of Class D amplifiers. The NCore was the first class D amplifier that could actually compete with Class A, AB amplifier designs and not make one want to run out of a room.  They retained all of the advantages of Class D, but the dryness, harshness, and raggedness were gone. In fact not only were they gone but the NCore amplifiers improved upon distortion and signal to noise ratios. To my ears, a well designed NCore amp could best a very good solid state Class A amplifier. Not quite Pass Labs, but Luxman and others of their caliber sounded broken by comparison.
With nCore, Hypex has refined their UcD concept to new levels of perfection by improving the modulator for more accurate feedback subtraction and PWM generation. The all-discrete driver and output stage have also been improved for lower open-loop THD as well as lower idling losses, normally conflicting requirements with conventional IC driver circuitry. An added control loop incorporating an integrator with adaptive clipping enables 20dB more feedback to be used across the audio band because of its extremely low-phase shift resulting in a dramatic reduction in distortion across the audio band. - NAD Web Site

Several amplifier manufacturers started buying the NCore amp boards and power supplies, coming out with their own versions of this amplifier at widely ranging prices. 

More recently, a smaller version of the original NCore NC1200 powerhouse OEM board became available, and were put to use by audio giants NAD, with more to follow.  While not quite as powerful, the newer NC500 amp modules were far less expensive than the NC1200. Now you could have an NCore powered amp from a reputable manufacturer starting at $3000 instead of $10,000.

Enter The Atsah 500

Acoustic Imagery was one of the original manufacturers of NCore based amps using the NC1200 modules. They were the least expensive NC1200 amp on the market at $9995 per stereo pair of monoblock amps, setting the bar for audiophile amplifier performance quite high, while keeping the price comparatively low.

Their new NC500 based amplifiers have set the price to performance bar very high once again. In fact, I think they have set a new standard for the industry.

The new Atsah 500 is a monoblock design, with each amp utilizing the same power supply used for  NC1200 amplifiers. That's right, each amp has it's own power supply. Unlike the NAD M22 where both amplifier boards share an NC1200 supply. They are rated at 400 watts into 8 ohms, and 700 into 4 ohms. Leaving plenty of power to drive nearly any loudspeaker, and losing out to the NC 1200's only at low impedence loads (the Atsah 1200 will do 1200 watts into 2 ohms). They have the same low distortion, low phase shift and low noise however. Making them a very formidable amplifier. They have a gain of gain of 26 dB, making them relatively easy to match to any preamp. They are a balanced design, and as such only have one XLR input. One can use RCA to XLR adapters if one's preamp has an unbalanced output. But fully balanced provides the best performance. Along with the balanced input on the rear is one set of binding posts, and a fused iec input connector. The dimensions are 200mm wide (7.87 in.) x 220mm deep (8.66 in.) x 65mm (2.55 in.) high. The weight of each amp is 2kg (4.4 lb.).

The finishes are a carbon fiber or silver finish composite case. The power supply and amp modules are mounted to grounded metal plates.

They are packaged quite nicely in individually fitted boxes that are then placed in a sturdy outer box for shipping. An owner's manual and power cord are included in each box.

The price you are wondering?  What would you expect to pay for monoblock amps utilizing the NC500 module? Considering the NAD retails at $3000 and has one less power supply, you might expect to pay around $4000 per pair, correct? Cut that in half. A pair of Atsah 500's will set you back $1995.


I am going to compare the Atsah NC500 with my tweaked out  Atsah1200's.  The Atsah 1200's have upgraded power and speaker wiring harnesses, fuses and a few other goodies. :)

I have had the Atsah 1200's in my system for the last 2 years, and am very familiar with their sound. When I put the Atsah 500's in the system fresh out of the box they sounded...Good but not near what the 1200's were. To put it bluntly they were dark. The highs were distinctly softer and less present. John Young of AcousticImagery told me his impressions were the amps were warmer in their character than the 1200. But this wasn't warm, this was rolled off.

Flash forward 24 hours and the amps had opened up considerably. They still weren't as airy as the 1200's. But it wasn't a bad thing. It gave the 500's a warm, rich, musical and forgiving nature. This was especially noticeable when streaming Tidal, Spotify, Pandora etc. It made the whole experience of listening to streaming audio much more pleasurable. A very good thing. Streaming high resolution music from my collection, I had slightly less air and extension of the 1200's, but as far as pace, dynamics, slam and low end growl I could not tell much difference at all. I would say the NC500's had a balance and sound similar to the Modwright KWI 200. Very listenable.

Then it occurred to me. I had been listening to my system as optimized for the Atsah 1200s. Meaning the cables I was using were a very nice compliment to the 1200s.  I had been auditioning Audience's latest balanced interconnect, the Ohno, and it was a great fit for the Atsah 1200's. The Ohno is a stunningly good interconnect in the $400 range. Dare I say I liked it better than the AU24SE unbalanced that I had in my system earlier.  The Ohno has body and presence like no interconnect at it's price point should.  It's only perceived weakness was the typical copper top end. It was a wee bit softer than my MG Audio Planus AG interconnects. The Planus AG's had the extension, but lacked the body, presence and a wee bit of the dynamics that the Audience had. With the Atsah 1200's I was using a pair of the Audience Ohno's from source to the Jay-Sho preamp, and from the preamp to the Amps. It was a little too much warmth for the 500's. In went the MG Planus AG from source to preamp. The high frequencies reproduced from the Atsah 500's had more extension, ambiance and decay. The system also maintained the warmth and presence in the lower and mid frequencies. The tradeoff of this combination being there was a slight tradeoff in dynamics. I found this a more listenable combination with the 500's long term than using all Audience Ohno interconnects. 

With all that in place, I continued with my listening. The sound was still warmer, rich and sounding way better than a $2000 pair of amps should.  It had a clarity and quietness that no amp I have heard at or near this price. If you are looking for a musically satisfying amp that will give you 90% of what the big buck solid state Class A amps deliver, without the heat, weight and price of a Class A amp, look no further. The AcousticImagery Atsah 500 sets the bar exceedingly high for the sub-$5000 amplifier category at a price of $1995 per pair. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Further Discoveries On The Ikea Aptitlig Audio Platform: The Birth Of The "Anti-Rack"

My previous post spoke about combining the Ikea Aptitlig butcher blocks with the Agora Acoustics MagicHexas to create an effective platform for audio components. This was spin on the Audio Beat article that originated the idea.

After some thought and corresponding research, I have discovered a way to make this combination even more effective with mass loading.

None of the gear I use in my own system is very heavy. The Bybee Stealth power conditioner only weighs 15 pounds, the Auralic DAC and preamp are lightweights too. That wasn't the inspiration for the idea, the inspiration was lack of space in my home to have each piece of gear on it's own platform, taking up space in my listening room. So I stacked them... I stacked them in a manner that decoupled the components from one another, while using the mass of the above component (s) to help couple the components to the butcher block. Here is how I did it.

The bottom component (in my case the power conditioner) was coupled to the butcher block via the small bamboo blocks. The butcher block was set above the floor on 5 MagicHexas (125 pound capacity). On top of the power conditioner I placed 3 MagicHexas, then the butcher block, then 3 bamboo block, then the Auralic preamp. On top of the preamp I set 3 MagicHexas and repeated the process until I finished with the last component. look at the photo below.

My "Anti-Rack" Note the clear MagicHexas. They work very well with the silver components.

The sound? Quieter, without any tonal shifts. Bass seemed to be less muddy as well. Plus I had the added benefit of my system taking up less floor space. Not bad.

What is happening (IMO)

The mass of the above components adds weight and pressure, helping the bamboo blocks transfer vibrational energy more efficiently into the butcher block below which acts as a "drain" for those vibrations. In addition, the MagicHexas keep vibrations from being transmitted between components. Floor vibrations are not transmitted into the components either since the bottom layer of this stack are the MagicHexas.

Things to note

Start with the physically largest component on the bottom, working your way up to the component with the smallest physical dimensions last. You will need to know the weight of each component to know how many MagicHexas to use underneath each butcher block. The Butcher blocks weigh approximately 7 pounds, and the MagicHexas are rated at 25 pounds per MagicHexa.

If you are looking for a customizeable, affordable and very effective solution for placing gear, the Anti-Rack is worth experimenting with.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Taking the Ikea Aptitlig Cutting Board/Audio Component Platform Further

It's no secret, well at least to us early adopters and audio tweakers, that the Ikea Aptitlig cutting board is a very effectively constructed audio component platform. Some months ago The Audio Beat covered this topic (we highly recommend you read it), and the cutting board from the swedish furniture megastore started flying off the shelf.

Bottom line is they work, and work well.

Photo courtesy of The Audio Beat
Taking the Aptitlig Further
I live in a house with laminate flooring. My Bamboo cutting boards set on the floor, and I wasn't exactly thrilled about components picking up vibrations and resonances from movement on the main level of the house. My components are coupled to the Aptitilig cutting boards via bamboo blocks that I had made from a smaller Ikea cutting board. That seemed to have the best sonic characteristics rather than using the stock footers on my components. But to me the Aptitlig was too coupled to my floors. I started experimenting, keeping in mind I did not want to turn this budget project into something expensive. I set my budget to under $100 per component platform.

Enter MegaHexa
A customer of mine had recommended the Agora Acoustics Magic Hexa footers to me awhile back. He had placed them under his Bybee Stealth power conditioner, and felt strongly enough that they were a worthy improvement that he emailed me to tell me about his discovery.
Agora Acoustics MagicHexas in Black

The Magic Hexas are approximately 3" in diameter and about 1" high. They are made of a visco elastic polymer that combines shock absorption, vibration isolation, and damping. They consist of a honeycomb shape internally that adds to their quality. The great thing about them is the price. $49 for a set of 4.

I ordered several sets for evaluation, and began experimenting.  I liked what I heard with the MagicHexas. I will save you some time and cut right to the chase. The best combination for my system and components was to continue to couple the components to the Aptitlig cutting boards with small bamboo blocks. The next step was to place the MagicHexas between the floor and the cutting boards, thus reducing and dissipating any vibrations from the hard surface floor. Everything gains weight and clarity with the MagicHexas underneath.  

The combination of the bamboo blocks, cutting board and MagicHexas make for a great platform to rest your components on. Coming in at around $100 makes this a great bargain tweak too. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Music Serums Vaccinate Your Audio System From Grain, Grit And Digititus.

The Audio Vaccine Music Serum for Amps & Loudspeakers
I had received a call from a good friend of mine several weeks ago. He is a prodigious audio system tweaker with a great sense of hearing.  He was raving about a product from Slovenia with a very unusual name. Audio Vaccine. "Mike you have to try these, they are different from anything else I have tried. I've tried the Akiko, Walker, Stein and other various tweaks and this one is different in it's purpose and construction."
Lately it seems there has been an explosion of passive signal and power conditioning devices based on crystals, and other elements. Most of these devices offer more tradeoffs than benefits. For example, a larger soundstage for a shift in tonal balance, or squashed dynamics. Anyhow, I was skeptical about the Music Serums, but was willing to keep an open mind. Especially since they had the endorsement from a fellow tweaker whom I respected.

I visited the web site of the Audio Vaccine Music Serum manufacturer and waded through a rough english translation of what these things are & do. I didn't get a whole lot of technical information, but I did manage to contact them and recieved a set of the Speaker, Gold amp and Rhodium amp Music Serums to try for myself.

The Music Serums are comprised of finely woven wires embedded in a proprietary material and crimp terminated to a high quality banana plug. They are then encased in a handsome wooden cylinder, and marked + or -, and amp or speaker. The banana plug termination is meant to be plugged into the binding post of an amplifier (in the case of an Amp Music Serum) or loudspeaker in the case of the Loudspeaker Serum). They are placed parallel to the signal, so no series filtering is taking place. They currently only make a banana terminated version, so if you use banana terminated speaker cables, you may be out of luck.

Three Versions of Music Serum

There are 3 versions of the Music Serum. Two versions for Amplifiers, and one version for loudspeakers.
  1. Gold Loudspeaker Music Serum
  2. Rhodium Amplifier Music Serum - Best for tube amplifiers
  3. Gold Amplifier Music Serum - Best for solid state amplifiers
The external design for all models is nearly identical but the inner details differ. Each MS is accurately marked (there is a sticker on the top) for which position it is intended (loudspeaker or amplifier; connection to terminal + or -). All use high-end quality bananas (Graham Nalty ultimate "Legacy range").
I initially listened to my system for awhile with no Music Serums installed in order to establish a baseline. The first ones I installed were the Gold Amplifier version on my Acoustic Imagery Monoblock amps.
What I noticed immediately were finer sonic textures. A much more delicate and refined sense of speed, nothing in your face, but something that was missing before. The textures were more distinct, but not etched or over hyped.  The soundstage was also larger and more coherent spanning the entire front plane and well outside the speakers. No holes, weak spots or drop outs, just a solid 3 dimensional sonic illusion. Vocal harmonies were simply stunning. All of the separation of different voices, each singing their own part, but combining as harmonies to in a rich and beautiful way.

The Rhodiums Amp Serum on a Solid State amp
Since I didn't have a tube amp to play with, I took a chance an hooked up the Rhodium Amp Serum to my solid state amps.  You could tell it was a slight mismatch, as the sound was a little more etched in the highs and a wee bit more forward than with the Gold Amp Serum. It made perfect sense that these should be used on tube amps.
The Speaker Serum By themselves
The Speaker Serum by itself was slightly different that the Gold Amp Serum by itself. To my ears, there was more emphasis on the big soundstage and cohesive nature of that soundstage. Not quite as much delicacy and refinement of the highs, but close. I think the Amp Serums were slightly more powerful in my situation. That makes sense, because I already have Bybee Speaker Bullets on my speakers. There may have been a diminished effect because of that combination.

Combining Amp and Speaker Music Serum
The familiar theme of delicacy, speed refinement and a huge soundstage came through. Nothing exaggerated or out of balance. There was just more music and low level speed with detail and sweetness that made for a very engaging listening session.

Do these have a place in your system?
Chances are, yes. They make the music less electronic sounding, more refined and more "real" sounding. While not inexpensive, in my opinion they are up there in performance with the likes of the $5500 Bybee Speaker Bullets, $2395 Stein Harmonizer System. Their effect is not just on the sound, but how I listen. They add a great deal of enjoyment to my listening by adding realism, delicacy, and flow. The only question you need to ask yourself is what is that worth to you?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Revisiting High Fidelity Cables: The CT-1 Power Cord

A few months back I wrote a review of my experiences with two power cords. The Bybee Crystal Power Cord, and the High Fidelity Cables CT-1 Ultimate.

My conclusions were that both delivered really high performance for their respective price levels, with the Bybee at $1500 and the High Fidelity at $8500. In retrospect, I don't think I gave the High Fidelity cord enough time in my system to fully blossom, as I have recently found out it takes time, and perhaps a little help from a tweak to really get the High Fidelity power cords to sound their best. I'll tell you why in the paragraphs below.


Rick Introduces A New Power Cord, Lower Price

Rick Schultz contacted me about a month ago and informed me that High Fidelity was coming out with a CT-1 power cord, and it's pricing would be around $2000.  This was great news. Up until now, the least expensive High Fidelity power cord was $6500. Not many audiophiles are going to pony up that kind of money for a component, let alone a power cord without giving it some serious consideration.

I ordered two up, and they arrived a few days later. Packed in foam lined Pelican-Style cases that was commensurate with the cash outlay. The fit and finish, while not as audiophile bling factor of the Ultimates was certainly professional and still quite a step up from the usual black tech-flex we are used to at this price point. Essentially it looked like the same jacketing on the conductors of the Ultimate power cord. Three semi transparent white conductors with the silvery sheen of the shielding visible. All conducters were separate from one another, this made the cable very flexible. The terminations looked identical the Ultimates as well. What was different was that there was no waveguide positioned in the center of the cable. I actually preferred this, especially since I only needed 1.5 meter lengths. The CT-1 Ultimate's waveguide is big and fairly heavy. It needs a platform to rest on, and in many cases that means ordering longer cables because the waveguide would be far too unwieldy hanging free behind your components. It more than likely would pull the cord out of the component. Anyhow, I liked the flexibility and freedom that the CT-1 offerered sans waveguide.

I plugged the CT-1's into my Acoustic Imagery Atsah monoblock amplifiers and made the mistake of listening immediately. I was not impressed. There was a darkness, and not much resolution at first. I knew better, but I still felt a tiny bit disappointed.  I moved on to other activities for the next few hours.

I returned that evening to find the sound had improved considerably. The high frequencies were coming back, as was some of the low level detail. There was hope, but I knew at this point I might have to leave them in my system for a few days in order to really hear what they were about. It wasn't the same level of resolution and ambiance that I was used to.

The sound continued to improve over 3-4 days. I was hearing much more air and detail, microdynamics and distinct harmonics. The great thing was the tone was neutral, and the musical flow was very natural, not electronic. They were not sonic scalpels. They were allowing what my system normaly projects to come through. But now it was cleaner, clearer and even more organic.

At this point, I was really enjoying my system. I could safely say these were the best cords that I have heard on my amps. The Bybee Crystals were a little more forward, a tad bit thinner harmonically.

Then it got crazy good...

I decided on a whim to place a Bybee Quantum Signal Enhancer underneath the IEC connector housing of each CT-1 cord. The Bybee QSE's use the energy in magnetic fields to energize their technology. The CT-1 terminations were chock full o' neodymium magnets. My guess was this would bring out the best in Jack B's tweaks and the CT-1 power cords. BOOM! This opened up the sound in a most unexpected and beautiful way. The sound was even more open and dynamic with gobs of low level resolution and not a hint of etched, unnatural sound. 

This combination took things to a level my system has not performed at before. The cost for 2 1.5 meter cables and 2 QSE's was just under $5000. the total cost of my system is around $60,000. So an investment of around 8% of my system's total value I attained a level of performance I would liken to a serious component upgrade of over $10,000. Not inexpensive, but I think a great value if you have more than $50,000 tied up in your audio system.

In my opinion, the experience these cables helped my system create and the level of emotional engagement I felt when listening to the High Fidelity cables CT-1 Power cords was well worth the expense. I give the new High Fidelity CT-1 power cords my highest recommendation.

What was learned

What I learned about the High Fidelity Cables is that it takes time for them to perform their magic on your system. Plug them in and leave the component they are powering on for 3-4 days in order to really hear what they do for the performance of your system.

I also learned that the Bybee QSE's are an indispensable addition to these cables. The net effect doubles or triples the value I would place on the CT-1 power cords alone. Not bad for a $240f tweak.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A customer Writes: "My system is tweakless and I am thinking about tweaking it a bit."

A customer writes:
My system is tweakless and I am thinking about tweaking it a bit. I have Tekton Enro XL speakers, an esoteric k-03 cd/sacd player, a type 50 SET amp and direct heated triode preamp. What would you recommend that I do first considering that I don't want to break the bank at the beginning.

Dear Tweakless...

My first bits of advice are the same to everyone, and I don't get a dime for it. :)  Get a dedicated 20 amp circuit for your audio system.  Have them run 10 awg conduit. 

Next, acoustically treating your room is always great too. GIK acoustics makes some nice looking and affordable products. Bass traps in the corners of your room, diffusers on the side wall first reflection points, and absorbers behind the speakers and your listening position. Good stuff. 

Once you have that down, you are ready to start experimenting. 

You may want to try some Stillpoints under your loudspeakers, and components. The Ultra Minis will work under your components, You will probably have to go with the Ultra SS under your speakers. Not cheap, but I have another customer who has Tekton Pendragons who absolutely loves the Stillpoints under his speakers. He struggled with the price a bit, but eventually decided they were worth it. 

If that is too much, you may want to try the Bybee Quantum Signal Enhancers under your speaker cables, components and power cords. They are the most inexpensive, cost effective tweak I offer. 
That should get you started on your journey. The next things you might want to consider are cables, and power conditioning. One thing at a time however.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

How to Change the Sound of the Auralic Vega without Cords, Cables, or Tweaks

Auralic Vega

There is no question that the Auralic Vega is one of the best available DACs within it's price range. The multitude of reviews and awards reaveal this to be true time and again. The sound of this gem whether playing PCM or DSD recordings is lively, rich, full bodied with a wide and deep soundstage. 

We have covered how to tweak the Vega for maximum performance, but today I wanted to cover how to change the sound of the Auralic Vega without cords, cables, or tweaks.

What many audiophiles don't realize is that you can tailor the sound of the Vega to your system by using the filter modes. For PCM recordings, you have the choice of 4 filters, each with it's own unique sound.

From the Auralic Vega's owners manual:

1. MODE 1MODE 1 offers best measurement performance with flat frequency response well extended to treble. This mode has very small in-band ripple and best stop-band
attenuation performance. MODE 1 is best for the playback of orchestral music.

OUR COMMENT: I found Mode 1 to have plenty of sparkle and air. On good recordings, massed strings or layered vocals had a nice separation to them. On lesser recordings and streaming lossy music this could get a little edgy and fatiguing. 

2. MODE 2MODE 2 exhibits a gentler roll-off curve of frequencies; it maintains great in-band, stop-band performance while trades off small attenuation at treble. 

OUR COMMENT: Modes 2 and 3 deal with the issue of pre and post ringing, with the tradeoff being slightly rolled off high frequencies. Mode 2 is the less extreme filter of the two, exhibiting a slight softening. This was pleasing for lesser recordings and streaming of lossy music. On better recordings, the separation of instruments and vocals was a little less distinct.

3. MODE 3MODE 3 is designed to minimize the 'pre-ringing' and 'echo' effects. As a result, this mode sounds very smooth. However, due to the slow roll-off at high frequency, it may lose some details in treble for certain kinds of music. 

OUR COMMENT: Mode 3 proved to be the most satisfying when streaming music or listening to some old, thin recordings (Rush Moving Pictures comes to mind). It offered the most musical presentation, exhibiting width, depth and an organic nature to the music that kept me glued to my listening chair on recordings that normally left me reaching for the "off" button. On better recordings, There was a loss of air and subtle detail that you might not miss unless you were really listening without any other distractions.

4. MODE 4 (Default) - All filters in this mode are designed to optimize the subjective listening experience at maximum. By using minimum phase design, there is no 'pre-ringing' effect in this mode, the 'echo' effect is also been reduced as much as possible.

OUR COMMENT: This is our preferred listening mode. It seems to offer the best of all worlds. Resolution, air, great dynamics and best of all musicality.

CONCLUSION: The Auralic Vega is a versatile DAC that can adapt to whatever type of music you are playing through it. Whether streaming Pandora, listening to your favorite artists from the 80's (and the ear-bleedingly thin recordings of the era), or playing back high resolution PCM files, the Vega has a filter mode that will make your listening experience more enjoyable.

We offer in-home auditions of the Auralic Vega to audiophiles with no local dealer. Call us at 303-653-6341 for details.