Thursday, June 30, 2016

Little Things That Make A Big Difference: AudioMagic SHD Fuses


I received an email the other day from Jerry Ramsey of AudioMagic. He had come up with another idea for a fuse. This time incorporating not only beeswax internally (which dampens vibrations) but also incorporating his Super Blackout liquid that blocks RFI. He dubbed it The AudioMagic SHD Fuse. The theory being the fuse "wire" acts like a small antenna, picking up noise which masks subtle musical cues. The wire also vibrates, these vibrations can affect the sonic signature of the component. Usually making the high frequencies slightly less transparent. A stock fuse is exposed to these sonically detrimental factors. And why would a fuse maker care? They make fuses for autos, computers, and a multitude of non audio electronics where such damping and RFI blocking simply don't affect the performance to a degree where it is worthwhile for them to address.

Jerry had sent me 3 fuses upon my request. One for my Aqua La Scala (which already had one of the previous version beeswax fuses inside), and two for my Acoustic Imagery Atsah 500 amplifiers which had stock fuses in them.

Old vs. New Beeswax

First the La Scala. The difference between the old and new version of Premium Super Fuse was not subtle and took about 2 seconds to hear. MUCH more low level information was pouring through, and the clarity/transparency of the high frequencies was greatly improved. This was comparing to an already fantastic AudioMagic fuse inside an already amazing sounding Aqua La Scala DAC.

SHD vs. Stock Fuse

The Atsah 500's fuse upgrade produced much smoother high frequencies, again with quite a bit more low level information coming through. More air and space was evident, speed and dynamics seemed to have gotten a boost as well.

Overall, the $525 spent on 3 fuses sounded like a major component upgrade. I had more clarity in the highs, a more liquid sound, with a wider and deeper soundstage. Granted the system is already pretty tweaked out and noise floor is already quite low, but adding these three fuses made me realize there is still more music locked up in the recordings, and the fuses helped release it.  I highly recommend the AudioMagic SHD fuses. In fact, if you buy an AudioMagic SHD Fuse from Tweek Geek and you feel it doesn't give you more than a $175 performance upgrade, I will give you your money back.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

REVIEW: Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition Preamp

Modwright SWL 9 Anniversary Edition
Modwright is celebrating their first component offering over 13 years ago with an updated remake. 

Modwright has been in business for over 17 years. Their bread and butter used to be (and still is to a degree) mods to existing products like the Oppo BDP95 & 105, as well as the Sony XA-5400 EX & HAP-Z1ES. 4 years after they opened up shop, Dan Wright introduced their first component, the SWL 9.0 preamplifier. It was a huge success. Putting Modwright on the map as a manufacturer of high quality, high value audio components. They now have a full line of amplifiers, preamplifiers, a phono stage (recently raved about in TAS and Stereophile),  an integrated amplifier and a new headphone amp destined to be an audio classic.

13 years later, the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition seeks to continue and build upon the tradition of high value, US made audio components. Dubbed the SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition, this new/old preamplifier adds a built-in (and very nice I might add) headphone amp and optional phono stage. It also improves upon the old power supply and adds home theater bypass. There are 4 RCA inputs (sorry, no XLR), one tape loop, and two RCA outputs. Price: $2900. $3200 with optional built-in phono stage.
Rear view of the Modwright SWL 9.0 Anniversary Edition

Build Quality

What you see in the photos is a preamp with a thick milled aluminum faceplate, aluminum knobs, power and selector buttons, and a stamped steel chassis cover. What you don't see is that the stamped steel chassis is considerably thicker than most, leading to a very solidly constructed piece. I was quite surprised at the rigidity and solid feel, as it is not typical of components at this price point. Usually the top cover can be easily warped if one is not careful when removing it. GOT's The Mountain would have a tough time doing harm to the Modwright's top cover.

The modwright logo is set into the center of the faceplate, and is illuminated when powered on. The left knob is the input selector, with the power and mute buttons located at the bottom and to the right of it. On the right side is the volume knob, with the 1/4" headphone  jack and home theater bypass below and to the left of it. There is a retro coolness factor to the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed that harkens back to a day when all hifi gear was made to last instead of thrown into a landfill.

Inside the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed is no different. You will find high quality parts throughout, including custom made Modwright capacitors, also used in their top of the line LS 36.5 DM. The power supply is, in my opinion, spectacular for a component at this price point. With a single toroidal transformer, 2 l-cores, and a super regulator to keep voltage drift at bay. This to me is what separates real audiophile gear from mass produced toys. After all, your music is nothing more than the incoming AC waveform that is modulated. If there is garbage from the outside or inside, it will appear as distortion in the music. That is also why I am a big proponent of dedicated AC lines and power conditioning.

This is considered their "entry level", but you'd be hard pressed to find this type of build quality manufactured in the US for this price anywhere else.

Sound

I patched the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed (as I will call it) into my current system, which consists of the following:
  • Aqua La Scala DAC
  • Lumin D1 Streamer/DAC - Used only as a streamer
  • SBooster power supply for the Lumin D1
  • AcousticImagery Atsah 1200 mono amplifiers
  • Tweek Geek BMF loudspeakers (98dB, 12" midbass, 9" horn-loaded AMT, 4x12" powered Subwoofers)
  • Bybee Stealth Power Purifier
  • Entreq Olympus Minimus with Apollo cable attached to an open RCA on the preamp
  • Tweek Geek Furutech NCF power cables
  • Cover: Radiohead, A Moon Shaped Pool
  • Audience AU24 SX interconnects and speaker cables
I started out with a couple of my current favorite recordings, Radiohead's A Moon Shaped Pool, and Steven Wilson's 4 1/2. Radiohead's recording is thick, and can come across as a bit muddy.  The Modwright/La Scala/Atsah combination was outstanding. Creating a very visceral, powerful sense of presence, slam and dynamics that had me reaching for "11" on the volume knob. Absolutely no listening fatigue, regardless of the music or the volume level. 

The Steven Wilson recording was excellent. The first song 
"Book of Regrets" opens up with a Yes Roundabout-like fade in that flows into a bombastic guitar riff that later flows into a Rush like flurry of bass guitar and rapid fire drums. "Speed" "Energy" and "impact" were the words that I wrote in my notes. The bass simply growled when called for as well. Indeed a very satisfying listening session.

Cover: Steven Wilson, 4 1/2
For something a bit milder, I queued up Chris Jones' Roadhouses & Automobiles. Another excellent recording, a little more on the Blues and Country side of things. the first song starts with an acoustic guitar, and the very, very subtle sound of crickets in the background. You pick up the space around the acoustic guitar immediately, with the crickets filling in the silence. Chris Jone's voice is right there in front of you, giving a feeling of a very intimate performance. The thought that was going through my mind was Texture. The textures of the guitar and of Jones' vocals gave the music a "stop whatever you are doing and listen" type of quality. The vocal harmonies kick in on the chorus and you hear the other musicians, layered, each singing their own part. This is a recording that stirs emotion, and the Modwright pre does nothing to get in the way of that.  I felt the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed slightly outperformed my other preamp (balanced, autoformer based) I had in my system in terms of texture and what I call "soul". It might also be due to the synergy the Modwright had with the Aqua Hifi DAC and class D amps I was using. There was magic happening, and I was having a shitload of fun listening. 

Cover: Punch Bros, Who's Feeling Young 
Going more acoustic, I queued up the Punch Brothers version of Radiohead's "Kid A" from their album "Who's Feeling Young Now". I not only heard, I also felt the tension and sadness in the music. I heard the textures of the stringed instruments as well as the bodies of the resonating. I heard and felt the bow on the cello, the pick on the mandolin, everything came through in glorious detail with life-like energy, but not overemphasized or drawing attention to itself. Just a harmonious blend of music the way I could imagine hearing it if it were live.

Conclusion

What you get with the SWL 9.0 Ann Ed is what  you get with all Modwright preamps. Tremendous build quality, musicality, resolution, micro/macro dynamic impact, texture, energy and great tone. What you don't get is overexaggerated warmth or bloom typical of most audio components we consider to be "tubey". You not only hear the music sound right, you feel it. If you want your music rich, engaging and un altered, this is a fantastic component. If you are looking for something tubey to warm up the sound of your existing system, you might want to consider re-evaluating your system, as you are probably trying to "fix" an issue with a component mismatch.

Features Recap

  • Four sets of RCA inputs, one of which doubles as Home Theater Bypass.
  • Two sets of RCA Main Outputs. Adding a powered subwoofer is easy.
  • One set of RCA Tape Outputs.
  • Front panel controls: Power, volume, mute, input select, HT/BP select, headphone input.
  • Hybrid headphone amp: 1.5 Watts (25 ohm to 600 ohm load)
  • MWI remote: Volume and mute.
  • Optional MM/High Output MC SS phono stage ($300).
  • Tube Complement: (2) 5687 driver tubes (may also use 7044/6900/7119 and equivalents).

Specifications

  • Gain: 11dB
  • Input Impedance: 30K
  • Output Impedance: 800 ohms
  • Frequency Response: 20Hz to 100Khz
  • Max Output Signal: 20V
  • Distortion: .03% THD
  • Noise: -110dB
  • Dimensions: 17W x 12D x 4.5H
  • Weight: 28.5 lbs (35 lbs shipped)
  • Price: $2900. $3200 with optional phono stage added

Monday, June 27, 2016

Planting Seeds For Future Audiophiles:

Why not pick up an older receiver and give it to a
kid/young adult who shows a passion for music?

Do you remember how you discovered hifi? Perhaps it was an older sibling, or friend, or adult that introduced you to HiFi. Whatever it was, that experience left you hungry for more. It is increasingly difficult for younger people to find this experience, but perhaps there is a way for us as audiiophiles to be catalysts for creating this experience.


Fast forward to today

The reality is, most young people haven't experienced decent sound in their lifetime. Many haven't heard better than MP3 sound out of a pair of white plastic earbuds or a cheap plastic speaker. Why not help them discover what you already know about great sound?





Sharing The Love: The Idea

Here's an idea. Want to share your love of good sound and music? I've been buying receivers at yard sales, cleaning them up, and giving them to young people who express interest in good sound. All they need are speakers after that, and I point them to the Elac Debut B5 or B6 on Amazon. It's a great way to introduce someone to better sound than earbuds and Beats Pills!
ELAC Debut B6

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Curiosity: The Force That Drives Us As Audiophiles


Every few months, I tear my system down completely. I do it to discern the efficacy of the various tweaks I use, and also to test new components.

This time, my teardown goal was to create a very good, but minimal system. I had been listening to my regular system for quite some time, but had recently replaced the BMF's with the Audience ClairAudient 1+1 V2+ speakers. I needed to break the ClairAudient's in for a customer's upcoming audition, and it created the opportunity to design a small but extremely musical system.

The Original System

The gear

This is the system I initially listened to for several days before moving on to the first test system. It gave me a sense of what was possible with the ClairAudient speakers.

I placed the Audience V2+  were 8 feet from the back wall, and a minimum of 5 feet from the side walls. The room is 39 feet long, so the wall behind my listening position was not an issue either. 

The original system was super quiet and exhibited the best characteristics of the Audience speakers, as it should (for more on that, here is the link to my review of the ClairAudient V2+). The detail level, tone and textures were mesmerizing. The soundstage width, depth and height were equally astounding. There is a purity to the sound of a full range speaker with no crossover that is hard to put into words. It creates a very emotional experience with the right music. This system exhibited a lifelike representation of music that one would normally have to spend CONSIDERABLY more money to attain. The absence of  a crossover allowed for a purity of dynamics, resolution and tone that made you stop whatever you were doing and just listen.

The Cables & Power Conditioning (these will remain in the system)

Beginning "Minimalist" System

Acoustic Imagery Atsah 500 Mono Amplifier. It uses
NCore technology and produces 700 watts into 4 ohms.

I used the built in DAC and volume control on the Aries Mini in my effort to simplify the system. Trying to see what the minimum configuration might sound like. I let the new configuration warm up for a couple hours before listening. It most certainly was not as good as the original system, but if someone were looking to build a system over time, the above components would certainly provide a very satisfactory sound. It was slightly edgier, with a smaller soundstage and less detail. The tone was a little warmer in the midbass, and it added a slight coloration to male vocals. Adding the Bybee Gold Crystal RCA adapters to the amp inputs smoothed out the edges and added more width and depth to the soundstage. A pair of High Fidelity Cable Magnetic RCA adapters at the source end (a second set of Bybee adapters will not fit on the narrow RCA outputs of the Aries Mini) adds a tiny bit more transparency and overall dynamic snap.

But the real insanity was this...
I didn't use speaker cables to connect the Atsah amps to the ClairAudient speakers. Instead, I used a single Bybee SE speaker purifier to connect speaker to amp. The binding posts were spaced well enough to accomplish this task, and the results were spectacular.
Speaker setting atop Acoustic Imagery Atsah 500,
Agora Acoustic Magic Hexas separating the two.

Bybee Connection from amp to Speaker..
No speaker cable required.
The Bybees added even more  resolution and musicality to the already great sound. Most noteable was the sense of openness and the incredible disappearing act the speakers did. The spacing is nearly perfect when you place a set of Agora Acoustics MagicHexas between the Atsah 500 and ClairAudient speakers. Eliminating the need for speaker cables entirely.  Not bad for a sub $5000 system*.

The coherance, textures, imaging and soundstaging were first rate. Downright shocking. This system excels at acoustic and vocal music, but can play anything short of dubstep. You are not going to have deep bass in this setup unless you invest in a subwoofer. But what you do get with this system is music that will draw you in with life like tone and energy.

So now the question became "what would happen if I added the Auralic Linear Power Supply and bypassed the internal volume control on the Aries Mini for a regular preamp"? These were the obvious weak links in the system, and the next step in the evolution of the system. This will have to wait for our next episode however... Stay Tuned!


*Sub $5000 for Audience V2+ speakers, Auralic Aries Mini, and 2 Acoustic Imagery Atsah 500 Amplifiers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

What Is The Sound Of A Low Noise Floor?


What Is The Sound Of A Low Noise Floor?

There are many adjectives we as audiophiles use to describe our experience of listening to music through an audio system. We use these terms to describe our experience. But what is it we ultimately want? I submit that ultimately we want to be engaged, drawn in, and entertained. We also want to decompress, be transported away from our current mindset, and seek a thereapeutic catharsis. How do we get there? The path each of us take is different, and very personal. But I believe the end result, the end experience, is very similar for all of us.  

So how do we get "there"?
I think much of what we try to do to achieve great sound is commonly associated with lowering the level of noise in our audio system. By reducing noise we reveal more of the signal or music. 

What does that sound like? 
The following is my attempt to describe and put as a series of "stages" the effects of a low noise floor on an audio system. This is by no means complete, as I am still travelling down this path. There may be others out there who can describe it better than I can, and I encourage you to contribute with your comments.

My assumption is that the system creating this experience already has correct tonal balance, and better than average resolution.

Stage 1: Detail, Air, Space & Soundstage

This is the stage where the audiophile to be usually becomes hooked upon experience. Hearing a soundstage that expands to the front, behind, and outside the physical plane of  the loudspeakers' front baffles is mezmerizing and addictive.  This is the first stage of lowering a system's noise floor and can be accomplished in many ways. Usually this is discovered by the listener with their first high performance audio system. 

Stage 2: Separation

Along with the attributes of Stage 1, Stage 2 (Separation) simply means that there the listener now experiences more separation between instruments and performers. Instead of one amorphous sound there are layers of instruments and vocals. All distinct, but making beautiful harmonies and music together. 

Your System Can Still Suck At Stage 2

Your system can have Stage 1 and Stage 2 sonic attributes, and still not have satisfactory sound. This is usually where the discussion of "musicality" vs. "resolution" comes in to play. Your system can have Stage 1 & 2 sound yet be very analytical, dry and cold. This is where most audiophiles start looking for components, cables, etc that will "warm up" the sound. Usually by introducing a tonal shift that favors the midbass to low midrange frequencies. My advice is to keep trying to lower the noise floor further, unless there is a component, cable, etc. in your system with the reputation of being analytical. But don't seek "warmth", seek neutrality.

Stage 3: Musicality & Flow

This stage is where the music moves from being a layered series of individual performances (a technical experience) to becoming a harmonious cohesive sum of individual instruments and performers (an emotional experience) . It sounds like music. There is a smoothness, a flow to the performance that makes you stop, sit, and listen. You are drawn in to the performance.

Stage 4: Delicacy & Texture

At this stage, the lowered noise floor unmasks the very subtle details in the recording (provided they are there). the sound of a finger plucking or strumming an acoustic guitar, the body of the guitar resonating, the rasp in a singer's voice. Very subtle details that make the music more human and real. Even more separation is heard in the extremely high frequencies, and the sense of musical flow is preserved.

Some Final Thoughts

I will say this; Without quiet power it is more difficult to get to this level and beyond. Pay an Electrician $250 to install a dedicated line in your audio system if you live in a place where you can indeed have a dedicated line installed. Vince Galbo of MSB Technology published a great article on this.

Achieving a Low Noise Floor With Power Conditioning


Power conditioning is tricky, and frought with tradeoffs.  You can lower noise, but sometimes as the expense of loss of speed, dynamics or tonal shifts. My rule of thumb is always use high quality, audiophile grade power conditioning for the source components and preamp. Sometimes use power conditioning on power amplifiers but only after listening with and without. 

After all, your entire audio system is modulating the AC waveform coming out of the wall in order to make music. If there is garbage on that AC waveform you will hear it as veiling, edginess and a thin compressed midrange. By cleaning up your AC, your audio components have a better AC waveform from which to construct the musical signal being sent to your speakers. 

Below are a few power conditioners I recommend.

Budget: Audience aR2p "wall brick" conditioners. These filter the AC and you don't need a power cord. The "bricks" plug directly into your wall receptacle, and have a duplex AC receptacle on the bottom for plugging in your source and preamp. These will land you solidly in Stage 1 territory, and have you venturing deep into Stage 2.
Better performance: Bybee AC Adapters. 2 models fit into this price point. To get started, one can use one on a power distributor to send clean power to your whole system. Better yet, use them on individual components. These place the power conditioning elements as close as possible to the audio components, and you can hear the difference. Plunge deep into Stage 2 with the Original, and venture into Stage 3 with the SE.
The Original Bybee AC Adapter

Top performance: 
  • The Bybee Dark Matter AC adapter - For individual components you can't do better. One on the preamp and one on your digital source and you are well on the way to stages 3 & 4.
  • Bybee Stealth - 8 receptacles, and one of the best power conditioners you can own at any price. Recent additions to the Stealth for 2016 are High Fidelity magnetic wave guides, Furutech NCF AC receptacles, and a grounding lug to attach an Entreq Silver Minimus or Olympus Minimus. It just doesn't get better than this.
The Bybee Stealth Power Purifier


Entreq Olympus Minimus - Takes the performance of the Stealth to new heights