Brief History Of HiFi Part 1

Brief History of HiFi Part 2

See Also - Retro & Vintage.

Getting the Best Out of LPs - The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Facts

How do we get the best results from LPs? What sort of gear does the best job? What upgrades should you do?

The first thing to realise about LPs is that the sound on them is enormously variable. I have LPs ranging from the 1950s onwards, in classical, jazz and popular, plus some stage shows and various folk music that's now called World Music. I have some special editions on Mobile Fidelity, Crystal Clear, Reference Recordings and Sheffield Lab. Some of them are direct to disc recordings, where the master is cut directly from the recording session, with no adjustment at all.

The variability stems from either the original recording or the mastering, but in some cases might be the quality of the vinyl itself - but that is more about surface noise issues with some "grainy" vinyl batches.

It's a fact not often enough stated that mastering for LP means assessing the recorded material in the light of limitations of the LP medium itself, and making adjustments to the overall frequency range. If you doubt me on this, have a read of the article Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than LPs, where recording engineers discuss this hot topic in detail. To get full frequency range (bass) and dynamics down onto vinyl you need to have larger excursions of the stylus, and this means (a) you take up more space on the side of the record, and reduce the time you can fit in, but (b) perhaps more importantly, it puts more load on the playback system - some pickups may not cope. But let's assume we have a good setup. What next?

Here we are, with a beautifully mastered LP and a stereo system that can do a great job. What are the important variables in the playback system? High up on my hit list is the pickup cartridge. These are almost as variable as the LPs themselves, and can make a huge difference to how your LPs sound. This was brought home to me again just recently when on one of my several turntables I replaced a quite good MM cartridge with a middle-quality MC one, and used a fairly nondescript MC transformer to boost its low output. The improvement wasn't just noticeable, it was startling! Highs, lows, dynamic range, all improved. To make things even better, it seemed to be picking up less surface noise, probably due to the particular diamond profile.

There are two main groups, the more common and more affordable Moving Magnet (MM) type, and the more expensive Moving Coil (MC) type. Within each group there are more variables, and the most basic of these is the output level, measured in millivolts. MM cartridges are anywhere from around 4mV to 7mV, which can make a big difference to how they sound (subjectively) and how well your amplifier's phono stage copes with the low-level signal. MC cartridges can be low output (.3mV) or as much as 2.5 - 3mV for high output models. Low output models need an extra stage to lift them up to higher output, and this can be done with a passive (non-powered) transformer or a powered phono stage with the additional settings to cope with low output MC cartridges.

True Story: I once had a customer (a young couple) return a perfectly good amplifier because their LPs weren't playing at the same volume as their CDs. No amount of explanation of the difference in signal levels would satisfy them, and turning up the volume a bit for LP was out of the question.

So what's the next most important bit? The arm on the turntable. Arms vary a lot, and they are an important part of the transfer mechanism of vibes on the disc to electronic pulses that try to replicate the audio laid down in those grooves. As a rule, the quality of the arm improves as you go up the price scale of turntables. But most audio enthusiasts know that upgrading the arm is a sure way to improve the performance of a turntable. There are plenty of examples of turntables that were very well built in respect of the platter, motor and chassis, but were let down by their arm. I did some arm changing in the past, like many others, and put a Grace 707 arm on my old Thorens TD160 II.

I went a step further later and put a Dynavector 505 arm on a Rotel direct drive. Later still I did that again, but with a Technics SL1100 turntable, and the results were so good that in recent years I've revisited that combo with another SL1100 plus a Dynavector 501 arm, similar to the 505 but with a different mounting arrangement. It works like a charm, only needs a good cartridge to finish the picture, and I have a couple of very good MC cartridges.

So, underneath all that fine detail stuff, what are we using to actually spin the record and insulate against vibrations that interfere with the purity of the LP/electronics interface? Here, opinions are quite divided. For starters, I've just pledged allegiance to a direct drive turntable, which some so-called audiophiles will heap disdain on. Many in that group will only countenance belt drive. Never mind that even high-end manufacturer Goldmund used direct drive in at least some models. You may not be aware that Dual's 700'series turntables used the same DD motor as Goldmund - see their 701 and 702 models. Don't look too hard at the arms on those, however, they were pretty ordinary. Most of the famous old Duals had arms that most of us will not get too enthusiastic about, and likewise Thorens.

Thorens did superb suspended sub-chassis and very heavy platters, belt driven, quite similar in overall design to Linn, who some say based their design on another similarly inclined mob who made the Ariston turntables. Thorens had better arms than Dual, but that's not saying much. (Note: I'm talking about older classic Thorens, not the current crop)

Your arm has adjustments for tracking weight and anti-skate, and these have to be set correctly. The arm might have height adjustment as well, which may need to alter depending on the way the cartridge/stylus presents to the record's surface. This is vertical tracking angle or VTA. Ideally the stylus should be presenting itself to the groove vertically or a couple of degrees over vertical - the manufacturer may have a recommendation here. Cartridges should be aligned in the headshell so that they present at as close to ninety degrees to the centre spindle for as much of their travel across the playing surface as possible. This can only be optimised for part of the travel across the LP, as the cartridge moves in an arc unless you have a tangential tracking arm. Logic dictates that the "ideal" 90 degree point should be reached halfway across the LP.

When it comes to vibration isolation, heavy construction including a very heavy platter has been the answer for a lot of manufacturers, with or without the suspended sub-chassis approach used by Linn, Thorens and even SME - although SME's suspension system is nothing like the others. Rega have taken a different tack and gone for lightweight plinths and no suspension. Some of their recent models have even cut down to a skeleton inner plinth, making the outer plinth and lid decouple completely from the moving parts.

If your turntable is on a piece of furniture that's on a wooden floor, someone walking through the room might upset things. Depends on the floor and the state of the bearers. A wall bracket for the turntable can avoid this, or placing the furniture in whichever corner of the room is least subject to floor vibes! There are even equipment stands with pneumatic (air filled) suspension that you can buy, but they cost quite a bit.

In closing, I'll make a few basic points by way of a summary. (1) Inexpensive and basic turntables have most to gain by getting a better cartridge. (2) A half decent turntable, including older models which are good value secondhand, can sometimes (depends on their structure) be upgraded by using a better arm, such as a Rega or SME arm. Dynavector arms even secondhand cost between $1000 and $1500 and are not really suitable for suspended-chassis turntables. (3) Higher-priced turntables should have all the bases covered, but cartridges still need to be chosen carefully, and physical setup matters. (5) Once you've got things sounding good turntable-wise, seeking out the best LPs is where the fun is.

17/11/2015 UHD TV - What You Need To Know

I had been thinking of upgrading from a 50"/127cm TV to a 60"/150cm for quite a while - about two years in fact! Initially I was going to go for a good HD screen, the Panasonic TH-60AS700A at around $2000 which could eventually be bought as a remainder or run-out at $1499. I didn't move fast enough and they all sold through.

The positive side of this was that the new UHD TV TH-60CX700A started to sell for $2000, so I got that instead. Yes, I know it will go for even less as it nears the end of its run, but I had to have it now. It has performed very well indeed, making our theatre room more theatre-like and giving superb pictures. I have no 4k sources as yet, but it does a great job on everything else, from DVD or blu-ray, Netflix or iTunes.

Since the sets have reached the more affordable level and are readily available, you might like to read this piece from Techradar on what you need to know. It gives a very clear explanation of all the aspects. There's now no reason why you should buy anything of a lesser standard if you're shopping for a new set of 55" or larger. Unless money is really tight and you just need a new set and HD will do! I understand these things.

29/10/2015 Multi-Room Streaming Audio - How to make it sound better!

I've just noticed that Bluesound and Sonos have shared the honours in this year's WHAT*HIFI Awards for multi-room audio, and we continue to see more brands joining the rush. Yamaha and Panasonic have various products now which will integrate into your home while being regular stereo components or mini-systems.

Most of the advertisements for the tsunami of streaming systems I see emphasise the powered speakers. They're fine in some situations - I use a Play:5 in the kitchen - but I reckon there's not enough attention being given to the pieces which can deliver superior sound, and that's regardless of whether it's with or without the much vaunted "HD audio" capability. More on that below.

Those bits which I have most of are typified by the Connect and the Connect:Amp. They may go by other names in other brands, but essentially we're talking about a streaming device which may also have an amplifier in it. I'm using Sonos so I'll refer to their names. Why am I going on about these components? We'll get there in a couple of steps.

It's the speakers that are the critical part of your music system. The other bits are just there to support them. I've found that the right speaker makes an immense difference whether we're talking entry level, mid-fi or high end.

I've achieved brilliant results with Connect:Amps (including the older ZP100) driving efficient speakers, and with Connects feeding my mid-fi and my best stereo system. The results are astonishing. After all the efforts over years of trialling this and that I put in to get my large system just right, and it's pretty damn good, I'm finding that my lesser setups are delivering amazingly good quality music. And it's not because I'm using HD sources, although some systems will allow you to go that extra step. You might, like me, find that it's not spoiling your enjoyment to listen to mere CD quality, or even 256k-320k streams, which I use regularly. But HD Audio is an option for those who want to go the extra mile. I have SACD capability but I don't feel I have to use it to get good sound.

Powered speakers these days are good, and convenient. But there's no way they give you the quality that you can achieve through the separate component approach. It's also likely that a lot of home installations have been done over the years which - again for convenience - use speakers which don't show the full potential of units like the Connect:Amp. To tell the truth, I only heard how well they can perform when I started trialling various speakers at home, including some I have built myself. I'd listened to them in the store and thought they were ok, but not stunning. There must be so many of them wired in to ceiling speakers that are ok and a neat solution, but which will not deliver what I'm hearing.

As for the Connect type of component, well, they can be feeding a system of whatever quality you like. My point is that this phenomenon shouldn't be judges by what you can get out of powered speakers, just as HD Audio shouldn't be just about portables and headphones, good as they can be. I know why the marketing people are into those things, to capture as many new converts as possible. Hopefully it will work!

5/2/2015 - More Articles Questioning Fidelity, LPs, HD Audio

Here are some recent articles that make interesting (although probably controversial to some) reading on the subject of HD Audio and the incredible reverence for LPs.

Time To Reassess HD Audio.

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than LPs.

24/192 Downloads - Why They Make No Sense.

What Standard is High Resolution Audio? Not LP!

This question will continue to arise as the term becomes commonly used.

Given that so many people are using something below CD quality, some argue that even CD quality is high-res! In a comparative sense, it is. The shocking follow-on (for some) from this, however, will be that LP is certainly not high-res since the restriction of dynamic range and frequency range that mastering for LP involves does in fact render it lower than CD. If you doubt me on this, have a read of the article Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than LPs, where recording engineers discuss this hot topic in detail.

Having thrown that hand grenade, let's get back to the chase. The probable baseline for high resolution will be recordings made from a master of higher than CD quality (such as 48kHz/20bit or higher) which will typically be 96kHz/24 bit or 192kHz/24 bit. The other standard which will be relevant will be DSD or DSF recordings, which use one-bit and 2.8MHz or 5.6MHz sampling rates.

Whether a lot of people with average to good systems will be able to hear the difference is another question. Audio quality is greatly improved by using better equipment, even when using 256k or 320k files - somewhat compressed but not badly. Apple Lossless is by definition of lesser quality than CD, but again is very good to listen to and improves greatly as the gear you use gets better.

With so many of the high-res players being portables, and the market so ardent these days about headphones, there's a lot of scope for the performance to be variable depending on either the portable device or the headphones. But given the push to get the younger, more mobile users into the stream that might eventually lead them to some good hifi gear, this is understandable.

My own experimentation over decades with sources from LP and cassette through to MP3, AAC, CD and SACD leads me to conclude that speaker quality trumps everything else if you're trying to make music sound more alive and real. But that's another story and I'll leave it at that for now.

Getting The Best Out of Digital Collections - We'll All Be Roon'd!

Meridian's Sooloos system was devised by some pretty smart guys. Once your CD library was ripped into it, it could sort things in various user-friendly orders, and even give you selective slices of genre such as "Jazz from 1951-1961" - or whatever you specified. It also had a heap of metadata that could be interrogated - like reading the label on an old LP, if it was well written and quite detailed, anyway.

Once Sooloos was sold to Meridian, the chaps who developed it looked for the next challenge, and Computer Audiophile reports that they have a software package called Roon, which promises to do wonders for your music library, or at least your use of it.

There's too much to explain here, so I'll send you right over to the relevant page, where there's even a 32 minute video you can watch to detail the whole thing. Is this the hottest thing to hit hifi in years? Maybe. Read on.


The 1930s - Alan Blumlein and All That

A ceremony was held at Abbey Road Studios on April 1st, 2015, to honour the memory of Alan Blumlein, the inventor of stereo recording - among other things! The stereo LP as we know it today uses the principles he laid down way back then. It's easy to overlook how much pioneering electronic work was done in this period between the wars, by an assortment of brilliant inventors. Let's have a look at them, starting with with Alan Blumlein.

It's said that he was frustrated by the mono sound at cinemas, and wanted to sound to move across the screen as the actors did. This meant using two crossed microphones, still known as a Blumlein pair, to capture the sound and add a special ingredient as the source moved. His early demonstrations were (i) a film with the sound following him as he walked across the stage, and (ii) trains! We were still listening to trains (and ping pong) in the late 1950s as stereo became mass-market. What took it so long to go from the initial idea in 1931 to the marketplace in the mid 1950s?

Blumlein knew that he had to do more than just have a pair of microphones, and he demonstrated that a groove in a record could carry the dual modulations to allow for the two streams, left and right. This was essential in order to achieve compatibility with existing mono record players and to keep the stereo solution relatively simple. Blumlein is credited with thinking right through the processes required to take stereo (originally called binaural) recording from the start through the production phases to the eventual consumer. WW2 did, of course, get in the way of this project, and Britain's best brains were engaged in wartime tasks ranging across radio, radar and code-breaking. Blumlein was killed in a plane crash in 1942 when an engine on a Halifax bomber caught fire during a radar test flight, that failure being traced in due course to a bit of poor maintenance work only hours earlier. During the 1930s he was also involved in another mass-market project, and contributed refinements to the developing thing called Television.

Television had been in the serious R&D phase since the mid-1920s by inventors like John Logie Baird, and during the 1930s it was getting to the broadcast phase, although not on a massive scale. Resolution gradually rose to 180, then 200 and 240 line pictures. Once again WW2 got in the way of TV becoming a mass-market phenomenon.

Australian cities didn't see TV until the mid-1950s, and the regions lagged behind by another ten years or more. So that and stereo recordings, under development in the 1930s, took until the 1950s to get to the mass market. There was another 1930s invention that had difficulty being born, and once again took a long time to get to us, even though it was used overseas. FM radio.

AM and FM radio both owe their usefulness to another brilliant mind, that of Edwin Armstrong. Back at the start of the radio era, which came to fruition after WW1, it was hampered by being a fairly inefficient technology. It was Armstrong who firstly examined the Audion Tube (which Lee De Forest took credit for), understood it properly and made adjustments involving positive feedback (or regenerative) circuits in order for it to work properly. He also found that it could be made to go into oscillation and transmit as well as receive. He's then credited with developing the superheterodyne circuit, which improved selectivity and made tuning easy, still in use today. By the 1930s AM radio was all the go, but it was subject to interference by even distant electrical storms and by local electrical noise - noisy devices in the home or nearby, such as noisy power transformers in your street!

Armstrong set to work and invented FM (frequency modulation) to replace AM (amplitude modulation) in the broadcast radio industry. He demonstrated it to his RCA company (he was a major shareholder) only to be told that they wouldn't go along with it. He was disappointed, but resolute in his determination to see FM start. He built the first transmitting tower himself, and set about licensing radio stations to use his superior system. His story is a long one, and ends in tragedy, but I'll leave that to another time, or you might watch Empires of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio (free on You Tube) to see the full radio drama involving De Forest, Armstrong, and others.

This photo, scanned from my ancient magazine (April, 1939) shows the first FM tower that Armstrong built, near New York. FM, developed in the 1930s, did not arrive in Australia until the 1970s. It was thought to be unnecessary. But that's another story.

26/2/2015 - LP vs. CD and Valves vs. Solid State

There have been two long-festering arguments in the world of hifi for as long as I have been involved in it. Firstly, analogue versus digital audio. Secondly valves/tubes versus solid state amplifiers.

Part One

Certainly, our experience with digital recordings showed some shortcomings in the earliest CD players, the early remasters of analogue material onto CD, and some of the early digital masters. As professional DACs and recording techniques improved, so did the circuitry in consumer models of CD players. By the end of the 1990s the early rash of add-on external DACs had faded, and more players appeared in the early 2000s with ever-improving specs, including upscaling. Even during the 1990s, Marantz had players from entry level that performed to a much higher standard than my first Yamaha CDX1 clone with a Rotel brand on it!

In the industry, as we moved into the new century, we waited for the outcome of the SACD vs. DVD-A battle. It was never resolved fully, and marketing of software didn't take off to sufficient extent to make these HD Audio formats successful, but at least players were developed which could do CD, SACD, DVD and DVD-A. Universal Players are still with us, now also coping with Blu-ray.

There was also confusion about the principle role that the new HD Audio format should fill. Was it to be multi-channel or stereo? Given all the confusion and lack of a coherent approach to marketing and software supply, it's hardly surprising that they failed to ignite. It's ironic that we are now going through a new growth phase of HD Audio ten or more years later, and one of the formats looked upon favourably is DSD (Direct Stream Digital), as used by SACD.

Really, by the time DSD appeared on the scene the analogue v. digital argument should have been over. Maybe the fact that SACD wasn't taken up widely meant that CD remained the main audio format, and critics could go on saying much the same things they were saying in the 1980s and 90s, even though they were no longer true. I've read a lot of articles on this subject, and some time ago came across one that said you can get good and bad in both LP and CD. That's a fair compromise position, being true, but it avoids the ugly truth which has now been published, where a number of eminent recording engineers spill the beans on the restrictions that LP mastering inevitably places on the sound quality.

This article from LA Weekly is called Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl. There are so many quotable quotes in it from audio engineers at the top echelon of the recording business that I'll have to ask you to read the whole thing. Otherwise I'll be filling a lot of space with it, or by being too spare with extracts not doing it justice. It is the best explanation of how things work that you will find. These guys know what they're talking about to a far greater degree than the ardent vinyl fans who'll never admit that digital has the goods.

The trick is that LP cannot contain all the highs, lows and dynamics of the master tape. The grooves could be made bigger, but then tracking them becomes an issue (remember the Telarc 1812?), and you might need more than two sides to accommodate the program, since the excursions mean that the grooves have to be more widely spaced. There have been special box sets of some titles issued to do a better job in that regard. I think Jennifer Warnes "Famous Blue Raincoat" ran to six sides in a special box set reissue.

I've heard those LP limitations for myself over many years, particularly the centre-of-disc issues, but also the lack of overall frequency range and dynamic range. The EQ used back in the 1960s was often tailored to the duller-sounding, bass heavy radiograms of that era, so they upped the treble and reduced the bass. Now a lot of them sound thin and unpleasantly balanced. Lower dynamic range means lower signal to noise, and turning up the volume turns up the surface noise too.

LPs mastered for better systems with more capable turntable/pickups can safely add more signal, hence there's the more lively sound of direct-to-disc LPs. I can remember back in pre-CD times hearing some people say they only buy direct-to-disc records.

In case you think I'm being too anti, I still use LP and CD - and reel to reel, MD, cassette (rarely), as well as various streaming services. I have SACDs, which are the equivalent to the now more trendy HD Audio. I haven't gone into HD Audio downloads, and will not unless they find a way to make the catalogue a lot more comprehensive. That will require the record companies to really get behind it.

For years I've listened to people being adamant, strident, even belligerent about LP always sounding better. As one of those top engineers says in the linked article, there are certain traits of mastered-for-LP sound which some may enjoy, even prefer. But spare us the all-encompassing "it's always better", or even worse, the "I can't stand the sound of digital".

Part Two

Now for valves (or tubes) against solid state. Once again we have the situation whereby some audiophiles, and subsequently quite a few up and coming acolytes, decide that because they've heard some nice valve amps and some not-as-nice solid state amps, the former must be inherently better. Once again, I have to say that there's good and bad in both, and that while there are differences, those differences don't always mean that one is superior.

One thing's for certain: I'm not one of those who say that all amplifiers sound the same! I've tried out and lived with a lot of different setups in my forty plus years of private use and professional exploration while in the industry. Life would be a lot simpler if that was the case, but I've changed amps enough times to know that their influence on the speaker can vary quite markedly.

As a rather fascinating side trip, this article from Stereophile details a challenge they issued to Bob Carver back in 2009. He was to try and duplicate the sound of a very expensive and heavy-weight power amplifier by tweaking his basic $700 model 1.0 and letting the Stereophile people judge the results. They hadn't met him until then, but as they watched and listened they had to admit that the guy is a genius. He can make an amp sound the way he wants it to sound, or the way someone else's amp sounds. It's worthy reading the whole thing. I particularly enjoyed the discomfort Stereophile went through when they realised how damaging it could be if Carver succeeded.

I've heard valve amps sound warm and woofy, or bright and a bit too detailed. I've heard the same variations in solid state amps. It is within a good designer's capability to produce a good result, an amplifier that does everything well. What tends to happen is that personal taste comes into the picture right there, or a set of components is selected based on the price the accountants will allow. So what we end up with is a lot of amplifiers that do not sound the same, for various reasons.

Some years ago I was in another shop and ran into a former customer of mine from Canberra. He looked a bit sheepish, but being a forthright sort of guy, he said "Look, I don't come to where you work now, because you've got amp brand A which is too bright, and brand B which is too soft." I knew there was no point arguing with him, because he was a man of strong opinions, and I could sort of see where he was coming from anyway.

At least some of my readers will know how enthusiastic I am about McIntosh amplifiers. I can't afford new ones, but have had three different secondhand ones over the past 15 years. I currently have a MC2100 power amp in the main system driving my Alon V speakers. I've had various other amplifiers, some very good, some fairly good, some a bit on the weak side during those years. Each of the McIntosh ones, even the little old 50w monoblocks from 45 years ago, have delivered a solid and winning performance for my taste. There is a consistent sound from this company which is based on good design, including some things which other companies just do not do, and patents may play a part in that. But the key fact is that they make my speakers sound the way I want them too, and the success of this company - reflected also in the way their amps hold value over time - means that there are a hell of a lot of people who share that taste.

Getting back to the main subject however, I was attracted to read an article in The Absolute Sound of April/May 2004 by Paul Seydor because it dealt with this comparison of valves and solid state, and the test was of McIntosh pre-power combinations from that time. Just as the Stereophile crew ended up having trouble distinguishing the Carver amp from their much higher priced beast, Paul Seydor found that McIntosh's designers have come up with superb sound from both valves and solid state. Once again I recommend that you read the article in full, as it's very informative. But here's where he concludes:

" … this much I can say with fair confidence: no matter how much you spend, you're unlikely to find better amps and preamps on the planet. Day in, day out these McIntoshes are the most completely pleasurable electronics I've used in nearly four decades of pursuing high-end Audio".

And what about the differences between them? For the most part he found them quite interchangeable. There were moments on big orchestral chords where the solid state scored better, and other moments where he felt the valves were more kind in smoothing voices, although he conceded that it may not have been as realistic. He marginally prefers the valve model, but says the Mac C46 and MC402 "project solidity and its associated roundness to a greater degree than any other solid-state electronics in my experience and come awfully close to the best tubes".

Part of the McIntosh secret is their use of transformer-coupled output to the speakers. This is not common in solid state design, but has advantages. The Autoformer "allows the transistors to transfer power with maximum efficiency, resulting in flatter frequency response, far lower distortion, and far longer life".

I probably won't change to a valve amplifier, as what I've got now does the job so well with little or no heat dissipation. At the end of the day I know that some will choose valves and enjoy the ride, because they can sound very good and look fab as well. But a good solid state design can do a very musical job too, so I have to say that in both areas, be it analogue recordings or valve hardware, those adages about one being so much better than the other do not convince me. But like old cars and motorbikes, which I do have a soft spot for, classic amps and turntables have an appeal which you should feel free to indulge yourself with if you want to!

15/1/2015 - HD Audio Update - Doubts Expressed

The Audio and Video market is driven by improvements, and often these improvements are expressed in numbers. When we went to HD screens at 1920x1080 pixels the improvement was noticeable on larger screens, say 42"/105cm and upwards. But even a 1280x720 looked good at 42" or below. Now that 4k is all the go, the benefits will probably be noticed on bigger screens, say 60"/150cm upwards, but not so much below that.

Some have been expressing doubts about the need for HD audio, saying it's more about marketing. Dangerous to say such things given the tendency of audiophiles to arc up and bite when their holy grails are said to be a little tarnished. Who's been saying these things? Well, according to this New York Post article, even some of the experts within the Pono camp, and also our new guru Lukasz Fikus of Lampizator, a boutique high-end manufacturer whose products we linked to on the Products Page just recently. He's in with the Computer Audiophile crowd, although they may see this as fighting words. We'll be interested to follow this and gauge the responses.

I've had reservations about HD audio (24/96, 24/192, DSD) being pushed for portable use. Surely the benefits will be more appreciable on a really good home system. But portables seem to be where the action is. Neil Young saying that Pono sounds like God is a bit OTT however. He once pushed DVD-A, fair enough, but why the silence of everyone on SACD, which is easily played on a lot of Universal Players - Marantz and others have built this in to lots of players for a long time.

So what's being said? Here are a couple of quotes by Fikus from the linked article:

"I think Neil is barking up the wrong tree," says Lukasz Fikus, a digital audio designer whose high-priced Lampizator components have earned a following among hard-core enthusiasts.

The benefits of hi-res files may be detectable on high-dollar stereo systems, but "the difference is so miniscule that it's not even worth talking about," according to Fikus.

The sound quality on Led Zeppelin's second album is notoriously poor, Fikus notes. A hi-res version of it won't change that, he says, although a recent remastering by Jimmy Page helped.

"There are many, many factors that contribute to the final pleasure (of digital music)," Fikus adds. "The density of the media file is only one of those factors - and probably not the first priority, but almost the last."

OK, we have all heard better sound from better source material, so let's not get carried away along the old "there's no difference" path. There are differences, but the crucial issue with both video and audio is how good does it have to be for the device and the usage you are putting it to on a daily basis. I switch from CD to LP and sometimes SACD (which is truly HD audio), but also use Apple Lossless from my iTunes library, 256k from Jazz Radio streams, and 320k from Spotify Premium. They all do a good job! Only poorer MP3 settings sound bad, not the better ones. It was those lossy MP3 settings below 128k which gave MP3 such a bad name.

But marketing will continue, and progress will be made. We'll see 4k become commonplace and higher res audio will become more readily available. Even some of the budget box set reissues of music I bought last year came along on hybrid CD/SACD discs at no extra charge. But the differences between those formats are small compared to the differences I get by using high quality amps and speakers. That's where the dividends are. Everything sounds better on a better system.


High-End Extravaganza: The Naim Statement Amplifier

The first thing you notice about the Naim Statement amplifier is its size, (resembling a modern three-part tower block, the pre-amp in the middle, flanked by two monoblocks) then on closer inspection the beautiful industrial design and many precise finishing touches. They have left nothing out when it comes to merging practical audiophile design - such as separating the transformers down to the ground floor level, with spacing in the shape of those clear and illuminated blocks with "Naim" etched on them. Speaking of etching, the source indicator (top dead centre) and the volume control's lit indications are also laser etched.

The heat sinks are milled from solid blocks of aluminium, not just grooved but contoured in a graceful curve. Each of these elegant heatsinks takes a day to make. Inside the power sections - the two monoblocks - each has 24 very special power transformers, specifically manufactured for Naim at huge expense - 300stg. ea! They wanted to make these not just powerful, but extremely fast. Fast transient response is essential to recreating a "live" sound, so the design brief was to make the fastest amplifier possible, even though this meant designing new state-of-the-art transistors and making them in quite limited quantities.

There are two limiting factors on whether you can get one of these amplifiers - firstly, the price of somewhere over $A200,000, and secondly the waiting time of about seven or eight months! They can only build about two a week!

Fresh from their stint at the Melbourne Audio and AV show in October, the Naim team (Chris Murphy and Debbie Stanton) were at Len Wallis Audio for a special presentation and audition on Wednesday evening, 12th November 2014. Len always puts on excellent catering for these events, and this one was no exception. Settling in for a listen, we had Chris Murphy explain the genesis of the amplifier, and then we moved on to the audition proper, with a selection of tracks he had selected and DJ'd via a the Naim App and through a bank of Naim Server/Streamer and power supplies before the Statement did its thing - which, depending on the load and the volume asked for could be pumping 700-900w per channel - and it's not fussed at all by vanishingly small impedances!

The speakers were Focal Utopia Maestros, third in the line up and a pretty substantial pair of speakers, at around $A66k per pair! How did it all sound? Very fine indeed. Huge sound stage, performers right there in the room, a superb balance of detail through the entire range, but totally lacking in harshness, just a pleasure to listen to for extended periods, like having your own concert hall, jazz club or smoky blues bar. Perhaps I'm a bit spoilt, having sat in the same room and listened to the Grande Utopia EM powered by two Krell 600w monoblocks and playing a famous Decca LP of Respighi on the $A92k Continuum Criterion turntable! I haven't heard anything that sounded more completely in charge of a performance anywhere, any time. But on the night I can confidently say that any shortcoming was not the amp's fault, and the shortcoming was relatively small - just that the Maestro is not equal to the higher Utopia models - and I like the Maestro a great deal. It's a speaker that delivers an amazing amount of performance (quality and quantity) while being relatively easier to fit into your listening room - and budget. Everything's relative, but it did prove yet again that the top speakers are made because they deliver the top performance!

And that's where the Statement amp belongs: with the absolutely best speakers available. Depending on who you ask, you will get a different split on what you should spend for amp/speakers/source. But whichever way you cut it, a $200k amp requires some pretty hefty speakers and high-class source to show its full capabilities, just as speakers at any level require the right amp to show theirs. Putting together a really high-end system is a bit like match-making for the wealthy aristocracy of old - a delicate subject requiring careful consideration and expert judgement! Fortunately there are experts to advise on this, and The LWA sales team can help you there, whatever level you want to go to.


Bar & Restaurant with HiFi Theme

This looks fabulous, and I do hope it catches on. The choice of music will be critical - maybe they'll have to have different styles different evenings.

HD Audio - Portables

If this is to be the year of Hi Res audio, it is the year of Hi Res portables. That is what we're seeing, from the Pono to the Fiio and the iBasso, the Sony, and onwards/upwards to the Astell & Kern offerings - Update: they have now added streaming from a NAS. The price range is anywhere from $250 to $3400, which will beg the usual question about how much better the top models are for the extra money. Not ten times better, you can safely assume. As always, it's about how much extra you'll pay for how much improvement.

I have to admit to still having some problems with the idea of Hi Res portables as the vanguard of the new age. I like having portable music, and have always advocated that people use at least Apple Lossless rather than lower methods when importing their CDs into iTunes libraries. I find that or CD quality to be fine as a portable standard. Even using WAV or AIFF you can fit 200+ albums onto an iPod Classic (160GB).

But let's go onwards, and say we have filled our Hi Res portable with HD music - leaving aside the definition of where this "standard" commences, something not yet conclusively settled. We might be commuting, or on a trip away from home. What are we using as headphones? They better be pretty good, or that extra quality will be wasted. They better be efficient, or the portable might not drive them too well. I we're in transit via planes, trains or buses, they better be noise reducing as well.

Is using HD audio on portables over-egging the pudding just a tad? Maybe, depends on your aspirations. To me it seems like overkill to insist on the very best quality for that purpose. But assuming you must have it, how much are you going to have to pay to get the benefit? Some of the lower priced offerings are quite good, while others get less than enthusiastic reviews. One appears to be a standout in the value-for-money stakes.

It's not the $300-400 iBasso, which gets a bit of a caning from What*HIFI for its interface, look and feel. http://www.whathifi.com/ibasso/dx50/review

It's the Fiio X3, which you can pick up for $250. Both Andrew Everard ("one of the significant audio bargains of the moment")and Steve Guttenberg ("The FiiO X3 is the one to get if you, like me, have been waiting for a music player to take your sound to the next level.")have given it very favourable reviews, and if I had a need for this level of technology, this is where I'd start.

The $400-500 Fiio X5 is also praised for its sound quality when using hi-res tracks. It's large, they say, and it doesn't have any internal memory, but can take 2 x 64GB cards, and this will be upgraded to double that with a firmware change. A common criticism of players is that they show up lower res files badly, but if you get one of these it's intended for higher res files, so I'm not altogether swayed by that one.

Sony's Walkman NWZ-ZX1 ($699) with 128GB is praised for its build standard and sound quality, as is the cheaper NWZ-F886, although the latter has only 32GB of storage. Both are regarded as the best in their price ranges.

Update: Stereonet's John Danko reviews the Sony NWZ-ZX1 very favourably, and notes that it's very well priced in Australia.

At nearly twice as much as the better Sony, and with some issues re the interface and volume knob, the Astell & Kern AK100 MkII has to rely on a fantastic midrange performance to get points on the board, as well as being able to play DSD files, although not in native mode.

From here upwards in the A&K range you get more storage and better DACs, and the top model AK240 (with two DACs) can do native DSD playback. But the prices are very high, with the AK240 being $3399. At that level you'd want to be using them as a primary source into your high-quality audio system at home rather than on a plane or in a hotel room somewhere. And you can do just that, as they are great performers.

Fortunately there are now a number of devices on the market at various prices, so anyone who's interested can dip a toe in the water at a price that suits them and get an idea of how they're going to like this new level of performance. How much better it sounds will not just depend on the device you buy, but also on the file quality, and how it was mastered.

Unless the mastering is at a significantly higher standard than CD, say 24bit/96khz, and the master is not dynamically compressed for general usage, there wouldn't be much point. Most who go into this HD audio thing will want 24bit/192khz, and may find that it isn't always available, or that the new HD file isn't so much better due to indifferent remastering. All of this remains to be seen as the catalogue expands. The HD audio market, like SACD years ago, will succeed or fail on the software support, the catalogue.

Note - not a lot around re Pono yet, so I haven't addressed it here, but I do note that it's going to be at the lower end of pricing.

Pono Update: First review by Steve Guttenberg - he likes the sound, good value, not as good as A&K (no surprises there) but has reservations about user interface, to be addressed later!

Fiio X1 - a really affordable HD Audio portable at $A129. Reviewed here. A more detailed review can be found at Headphonics.


Bi-amping with Sonos

I know, this is just me mucking around with stuff I have on hand, and serious audio people will blanch at the suggestion: try bi-amping your speakers with two Sonos Connect:Amps. I did it because I could! Having a couple of these (actually they're the older ZP100 models, still working well) around the house suggested itself to me when I wanted to see how changing the balance (relative levels) between the top and the bottom frequencies of a bi-wired speaker would work out. This concept works well for me because I make a lot of use of the Premium Service (256k) from JazzRadio.com, and with Sonos I can listen to it on any of my various stereo systems, including the old Quad 33/303 amps with Neat speakers. But essentially, a Connect:Amp and a pair of decent speakers is a pretty potent music delivery system.

Right. Down to the details. Lots of speakers have the separate inputs for treble and bass, but only a small percentage of users make any use of them. There are two ways you can do this. The first one is bi-wiring from your amplifier, using bi-wire speaker cables. These have two sets of attachments at the speaker end. Does it work? Perhaps, but most of the time it isn't a sensational difference.

The real benefit comes when you use two amplifiers, known as bi-amping. Bass is more demanding of current, so a stronger amp on bass and a more refined one on treble and midrange would be ideal. For some this will mean a solid state, high-power amp for the bass and a valve amp for the treble-mid. Muscle for one, refinement for the other.

Here's where things can become a bit complicated. To do it properly, you'll need a pre-amp with two sets of pre-outs, and two power amplifiers. One of those power amps will have to have its own level controls, so you can adjust the level relative to the other power amp - it doesn't matter which one.

Or, if you don't need a lot of power, say 50w per channel, my two Sonos Connect:Amps solution is really easy to implement, and the results have been fascinating.

After you've connected the two ZP units, start the music of your choice on one, then "group" the other one to play the same program. Volume control via Sonos controls both units, but you can adjust each one separately, and when doing the overall volume up/down that relative level between the two is maintained until you alter it.

I've used this method on my modified Sonab OA6 II speakers. The top end is essentially like the OA5 II, using 4 x Peerless tweeters and a Philips 9710 mid-bass then there's a separate bass speaker, downward-firing. It has made them come alive rather well. Giving top and bottom the same volume is pretty good, but I've made some further adjustments and settled on a bit extra for the top, which makes the presentation more "live" sounding, which is what we want speakers to do.

Then, to get a bit further out, I've tried what always used to seem to me to be quite unnecessary: ran two pairs of speakers simultaneously. It's the sort of thing you tell customers "stop it at once", and buy one decent pair of speakers! Well, I have one very decent set of speakers and some high-class gear to match, and it does everything I want it to do. But this is a separate hobby, just mucking around. The thing is, the results so far have exceeded my expectations by a long margin. I used to regard the theatre room as ok for music, mainly for movies. But after playing around with these combinations I now find myself going back for more, as the music down there is like my own private jazz club! It really is very lively and engaging, and I can also play it nice and loud without imposing on the other members of the household.

That combination, the winning one, is the Hybrid Heretic System. It sounds extraordinary:(i)KEF C75 floor standers, which have a nice rounded sound, good bass extension, and (ii) Sonab OA5 II, which have all the top-end covered in a very lively fashion, but no great depth of bass - acceptable, but limited. The two together, each running off a ZP100, (with just a bit more volume on the OA5 II) has been so much fun I can't stop!

Next up, I'll try the OA5 II with a Velodyne subwoofer. Should be excellent.

What makes Dynavector Arms Superior?

There are more opinionated people in the hifi game than you get in just about any other industry. Some are quite happy to bag things which don't follow their particular formula for audio bliss, and they may even have technical-sounding reasons for their statements. Closer examination can lead you to question their wisdom.

I was talking to someone recently who has been in the industry for many years, and is a died-in-the-wool LP perfectionist. He took issue with my contention that a Dynavector arm was superior to a Rega-based arm, and when I asked why, he said the Dynavector had too many bits, too many joints, and that it would therefore introduce resonances that the simpler arm would avoid.

I've mentioned before that I've done transfers of direct-to-disc LPs to CD for a guy who produced them, ran the recording sessions, and in fact owns the label! He was very impressed with the results, saying that they were better than he had received from a pro studio. He promptly got me to transfer another batch.

The results are down to the quality of the arm, cartridge and table itself. I've reconstructed a setup that I had years ago and really liked. It's a heavy Technics SL 1100 direct drive (another no-no for the perfectionistas, despite even Goldmund having produced some) with a DV 501 arm. Over the years I've used Sumiko, Fidelity Research, Dynavector and Supex cartridges, all MC.

I have no aspirations to go ever higher, and like what I've got. Just to test the technical accuracy of the perfectionist's opinion, I did a quick search. Here is the review that popped up. It goes into the technical/engineering reasons why the Dynavector design is superior to a gimballed arm. Worth a read if you're into this sort of thing. He gave the DV 507 the highest score he's given any piece of gear.

So there ...

CD Illumination Works

Did you realise that a special copy of your favourite CDs could provide not just a backup, but a better sound from the copy than from the original? These are the claims of company CD Illumination, who offer a service "vivifying" your CDs onto Gold or silver archival quality discs for $25 or $30 respectively.

How do they do it? The process is described at their website as follows, although they first explain the benefits of eliminating jitter, which is nowadays taken for granted to be a good thing, and is at the heart of USB DACs which use asynchronous links. Computers are notorious for dispensing jittery audio via the USB, and the widespread use of the latest asynchronous DACs has lifted their performance markedly. The premise of the CD Illumination people is that many CDs are also made less than perfectly, so they fix up all the errors using every device known to man!

"What does CD Illumination do in this jitter ridden world? CD Illumination will back up your selected CDs or entire CD collection so that (1) The backup copy will have every known and verifiable CD sound improvement performed on it, and (2) You have a backup copy of your invaluable music. Due to copyright and IP laws only one copy can be made for the original purchaser of the CD.

Improvements include: Electronic Jitter and Error Correction * By using battery power during ripping and burning, we mitigate electronic noise corruption of the music * Vastly fewer physical errors on the disc * Slow recording speed to minimize errors and jitter * Use of the highest quality professional blank CDs with a much longer life expectancy * Physical treatment of the disc surface to reduce optical reflection and refraction * Use of technology to improve the physical digital coding on the new CD making it easier for your CD player to read the information.

The Result for the Music Lover/Audiophile: Maximization of audio fidelity with improvement in Musicality, Tonality, Dynamics, Clarity, Soundstaging and Imaging! Increase lifespan of audio CDs - Reduce skips and pops on mobile CD players - Increased compatibility with other CD players - Backup copy of your music."

Having just listened to a standard CD of Jazz At The Pawnshop, followed by a reprocessed one from CD Illumination, I can verify that it certainly brought more life to it: detail and presence, better definition all round, including bass as well as the finer things like instrument tone, and ambience (the venue).

Hi-Res Audio: Do The Numbers Stack Up?

WhatHIFI blogger Ketan Bharadia has done a careful explanation of the gains and losses involved in going from 16 bit to 24 bit, and using higher sampling rates. It's not always as startling as you'd reckon it ought to be. By the time the music has been through all the processing it has to go through, such as multi-track mix-downs, the net result might be way less impressive than the theoretical maxima of the technology. It's a common sense appraisal, and he does come down in favour of hi-res audio in the end! Well worth reading the whole piece.

The Aragon 4004 Power Amplifier

OK, my "Digital Damascus Road Conversion" has been superseded. Here's how it happened. If you read down the page, I told how I was looking for a cooler running but nice power amplifier to take the place of the too-hot Krell KSA-80. Purists will have been sneering at that point, but this story takes an interesting turn back, in a sense, as the great amp designer himself, Dan D'Agostino was involved in the amp that's now replaced the Bel Canto Evo2.

Even Krell knew that the older full-bias class A KSA hot-hounds had to be tamed, and they did just that with later KSA models, giving them a bias reduction mode that clamped power when no signal was present. Anyway, back to the serial amp changes.

The Bel Canto Evo2 won out against the first post-Krell amp, the Bryston 4B/NRB, because of its smoother treble, although not as brutal in the bass department. The dark horse in this race appeared soon after, but was not installed until recently. It's an Aragon 4004, which delivers 200w x 2 into 8 ohms and 400w x 2 into 4 ohms, making it fairly impervious to the tricks put up by various speakers with varying impedance figures. In short, it's a high-current design. I have it on good authority that it can drive some Apogees, so my Alon V are pussy cats by comparison.

As I write, it's been running all day and is hardly warm to the touch, as opposed to the KSA-80 which would just about boil a saucepan of water on a hot day. The sound is a little softer than the KSA-80, but not much (nicely so), and once again I have that bass authority which only comes with large amounts of current in reserve.

Note: I'm also told that this amp has no protection whatsoever, and it's going to melt down some output transistors if a short circuit happens. I wish they'd put the binding posts a bit further apart, but I think the leads are fairly well attached, so fingers crossed! But for the price, having something akin to a Krell 2250 running things again is nice!

CD Lens Cleaning - Vain Hope?

I've never really believed the old "lens cleaner" for CD would work, but have just demonstrated to myself that it can. Of course it's only going to work if the lens in question really is blurred or somehow impeded by fine dust - which must come in when the drawer is opened and closed, but during the life of most CD players this wouldn't amount to much.

I have an old, heavy, and in its day quite advanced - using optical digital circuitry to send data around internally - player, the Onkyo DX-7500. You can read a review of it here, but the salient point is that this is 20+ years old. That review dates from 1989. I know a lot has changed in the digital realm since 1989, but back then using twin 18-bit DACs was a full-on approach.

Being a bit of a retro freak I love this old thing, and it has one of the most impressive arrays of buttons on the front panel, plus a lovely bright and comprehensive display, something it shares with the T-9090 FM tuner from the same company, which I used to have as well!

Some time back it started to mistrack, making a clicking sound as it lost its way. To begin with this was more on later tracks, but had become so bad it commenced on track 1 and persisted. I though it might be the rails on which the laser runs, so cleaned those. It seemed to help, but that was months ago. By this morning it seemed like it was destined for the junk heap.

I've searched the internet in vain over many months for a new laser mechanism, but no go. Looked like others were doing the same. I hope they read this. Today I opened it up, thinking this might be the last time I bothered to take the lid off. I was desperate. Checked the laser was moving freely, motor spinning freely. Couldn't think what else to do - so cleaned the lens of the laser reader with a cotton bud. Instant fix. Breezed through a 73 minute disc - twice - without skipping at all. I may be premature here, but for now I'm declaring this a win. To all those DX-7500 fanciers out there, give it a try!

UPDATE 27/5/2015 - over a year later! Nope. Back to click-click-clik and mistracking so badly it's been pulled out of the stack.

Headphones - How Good Are They?

Do you like headphones? Lots do. I'm not a huge fan, but here's my take.

They are useful and they've become increasingly popular. Everyone seems to be having a go at producing them these days. There's a huge range of sizes, types and price points. You can get in-ear, on-ear, around-the-ear, wireless, noise reducing, sporty models, electrostatics, and at prices ranging from a few dollars to $10,000 or more.

But let's not go to extremes. Even the humble earbuds can these days set you back phenomenal amounts of money. For my part, I think $100 is a good starting point, and even $5,000 is high. I'll get to what I actually use, eventually.

OK, so we can get ourselves some quite good lightweight headphones for around $100, or some pretty good earbuds. The lightweight I've always used as a benchmark is the Koss Porta Pro, which you can find easily for $90-140 (there are several versions). Sennheiser's HD218i at around the same level will also fill the lightweight requirement well, and then you have to jump to the B&W P3 at $299 - nicely styled but lacking the leather finish and higher grade sound of the P5($449) and P7 ($499).

But I'll veer off here and recount a bit of my history under headphones. Going way back, my first experience was revelatory, probably due as much to how poor the speakers we listened to back then were, but also the novelty of the "inside your head" sound, and that fact that you could blast your anti-social music at whatever volume you liked, all hours.

But I have to admit that as I've progressed through life I've usually preferred to listen to speakers rather than headphones, if I could. Yes, I know they say that you can get much higher performance per dollar spend and all that, but why have something sitting on your ears if you don't have to?

But there have been times when I've used some quite good ones, such as my first pair of Stax, the old electret SR34, which were very reasonably priced and got a lot of use while we had young children. I'd listen to all sorts of things after they'd gone to bed and not have to worry about waking them. The SR34 had good detail, enough bass, and only one failing - they did press on the ears a bit. But I used them for a good ten years.

Next came the Sennheiser HD580, which have a richer sound and a fuller circum-aural soft padding. Very good for the money. They didn't get so much use, as the kids were more grown and a bit of noise was less of an issue. I might have gone on to get the HD600 or HD650, but something else came up!

The current market in high-end headphones includes the various Stax Electrostatics, which give you that seamless and finely defined instrumental or vocal texture, in the same way that electrostatic speakers do. They have a keen band of followers, and start at around the $1,500 mark, getting more serious at $2,500-4,000. That includes their special amplifier, though. It was a surprise, then, to find that the Sennheiser HD800 came along, and delivered superb sound from a non-electro can for a high but not ridiculously high price, currently $1,799. Of course to get the best out of them costs a bit more too by the time you add a good headphone amp, but they certainly staked a claim to high-end stardom.

Now I'm too stingy to outlay that sort of cash for something I try to avoid using! So, what's my compromise? The current top headphone in the house is the AKG K702. It's the same as the K701 except for the addition of a detachable cord. You can also get some garish green ones which bear the endorsement of recording guru Quincy Jones. You know, the guy who started out as a muso, then became a producer and made Michael Jackson's records sound extra good. According to cnet.au they are $1099, but they seem to commonly go for around $500, but as I mention, often less if you search around. You can pick these up for under $400, even at times around $300-330. Best value I could find. They are very detailed, accurate, close to electrostatic, and they keep the bass tightly controlled. Some find them bass-light, but that's just personal preference. For some, headphones have to have the sort of bass they're unable to crank up in polite company.

I'm not so much sold on noise reduction models or wireless ones - I suppose they are good for travellers, and wireless are great for the hard-of-hearing, it being kind to all in the house to have Dad able to hear the TV or his music without turning the volume way up. But they are all more "convenience" items rather than hifi, so I'll leave it at that for now.

Initial Reactions to UltraHD 4k TV

See item on the TV page

Getting the Best Out of Your Ripped CDs

When talking to customers I still find that a lot of people are unaware of the "Import Preferences" settings in their iTunes program. Many of them have already imported their CD collections or part of it into iTunes at the basic MP3 setting. You can do better! In the import preferences section (under Edit-preferences-general) you can go up a step to AAC encoder, which doubles the resolution, or go to Apple Lossless, which gives you close to CD quality while still saving on disc space used. You can go further to WAV, which is uncompressed and takes up the same amount of space as is on the CD itself (anything up to around 800mb, depending on how long it is) or you can use the ultimate AIFF which is uncompressed and bit-perfect, or verified, error corrected.

As I mentioned in discussing the book "The 100 Best Albums of All Time" on the music page, I've been helping somebody put all those albums, plus another 100 favourites of his, into his iTunes library. I did this at AIFF level, which makes bit-perfect copies of the CDs. That entire collection fits onto a 160GB iPod Classic, although it takes a while to sync!

But that makes it possible for him to give family members a fantastic collection of music (via an iPod Classic each) in very good audio quality. They can then play it back through whatever system they have. What a great idea! It still cost him quite a bit, of course, for all the CDs and the iPods, but the feedback from the family has been worth it. They love it.

I'm aware that not everyone likes iTunes or the evil Apple empire, and there are other systems around that you can use, such as j-river. But for ease of use and syncing with iPods, it has to be iTunes.

RIP Ray Dolby (18 January, 1933 - 12 September, 2013)

Those of us who reached adulthood at about the same time as cassette decks became viable as quality audio devices, all of us have the word Dolby imprinted on our consciousness to the maximum degree. Our kids who started out loving Star Wars have it imprinted from that era, while those of today will see it on every surround sound amplifier and most of the movie discs they use.

But Ray Dolby's story started back when Ampex were developing video recorders, and the young student was involved in that great venture - by a company partly funded, incidentally, by no less than Bing Crosby.

Dolby was a very clever man himself, but he also knew the value of gathering around him as many smart young scientists and engineers to "get the technology right". He is referred to as the artists' inventor, since his inventions have aided the producers of countless works in music and film.

He was really as much an outdoors adventurer, and his wife of 47 years recounts how he was never happier than when on his boat, with the waves getting larger and the weather turning nastier, just to add to the challenge. He piloted planes, and drove across various countries, loving the landscape of the national parks in America.

He said that he would have been thrilled to be a mechanical engineer - I'm sure he would have been a big fan of Brunel.

I've often thought that I would have made a great 19th century engineer, because I love machinery.

I would have liked to have been in a position to make a better steam engine, or to invent the first internal combustion engine; to work on the first car. All my life, I've loved everything that goes; I mean bicycles, motorcycles, cars, jeeps, boats, sail or power, airplanes, helicopters.

I love all of these things and I just regret that I was born in a time when most of those mechanical problems had already been solved and what remained were electronic problems.

Remember that most of my life was that of an adventurer, not of somebody who is trying to invent something all the time. I wanted the experience of travelling to many parts of the world.

Inventions were part of my life, but they didn't overtake everything that I was doing.

In quick succession we've lost Amar Bose (see my Retro page) and now Ray Dolby. It's something like The Twilight of the Gods - Gotterdammerung. That idea also figures in my forthcoming piece on Edgar Rietz's Heimat 3.

For more reading, here's an obituary by Andrew Everard, and at the end of that there's a good short video - which shows up very well in full-screen.

Ribbons, Electrostatics and Me

I've noticed that Steve Guttenberg (@Audiophiliacman), who has a long history of involvement in the recording and hifi industries, and writes for cnet.com and various magazines, is fond of Magnepan speakers. He's just setting up a pair according to his tweets, and I'm sure we'll be hearing more about that. I've known a number of fairly cluey people over several decades who share this liking for ribbons or electrostatics (I tend to call them all panels for brevity's sake), but they have never captured me to the same degree.

Using light, fast panels or membranes that vibrate in a dipole fashion, be they ribbons or electrostatics, has advantages in terms of smooth textures and lifelike attack and imaging - provided everything is set up well. But there are disadvantages too, such as lack of bass dynamics unless you use quite large panels. Hybrid designs which match cone woofers to a panel mid and top end have had some success, but integrating the two can be problematic, and you still end up with a fairly large profile item - which is anything but wife-friendly. Martin Logan have done a lot with this hybrid format.

Early Quad ESL57 speakers are still highly regarded, but are notorious for "beaming" so your sweet spot is limited. Maintenance is also a headache, as very few technicians are into them and charge like wounded bulls. I recall that the head of SME loved Quad ESL 63s and used them in his factory's main listening room, but stacked a couple of pairs to get more oomph.

My experience to date in retail (around 25 years) is that it takes total commitment to sell ribbons or electrostatics, and there's only a certain percentage of people you're going to win anyway. I have already confessed to liking speakers which fire forward and aft, or even further afield, such as Alon, Mirage and Sonab, all of which I use at home. But all of these use conventional drivers - it's just the orientation of them which provides the dipole or reflected sound element. I get the spacious sound plus the bass dynamics, while sacrificing a bit of finesse on the top.

Note: If you'd like to enjoy a blast from the past which uses some direct and a lot of reflected sound, Len Wallis Audio currently have a pair of Bose 901 Series IV speakers in the second hand section for around $900 - and they have just been refurbished, so the driver surrounds are all good. That's something you have to watch in a speaker that's older and has eighteen cones - nine in each box!

The 901 is a piece of history - Series 1 kicked off in 1968 - although still in production, selling here for around $A2700 a pair, only about double the USA price of $US1400! Never the last word in precise stereo imaging, but a nice retro look and loads of go, an easy-listening speaker for the loungeroom or den.


My Digital Damascus Road Conversion

A bit more than halfway down this page you'll find my piece on digital amplifiers breeding fast. As I noted there, the first full-on hifi product from Sharp cost around $20k here, $US15k in the USA. The more recent and highly regarded NAD M2 (250w x 2) is a lot cheaper, but still around $7k here. Their "more affordable" offering is the C390DD, which is $3k and pumps out up to 160w per channel.

Digital amplifiers have become widely used in subwoofers and lots of other things due to their efficiency, which means smaller size and next to no heat generated, but my main interest is hifi amps. There's no mistaking the fact that digital amplifiers have hit the highest echelons of high fidelity. The NAD M2 scored Product of The Year award and Editors Award from no less an authority than The Absolute Sound magazine. Stereophile has it in Class A in the 2013 Recommended Components list, which means it is of the highest standard available.

My digital Damascus road conversion came recently, when I tried out a Bel Canto Evo2 digital power amplifier in my system. It stayed. I'd been on the lookout for alternative amplification for a while, since the Krell KSA-80 (beautiful though it is) became a bit testing in terms of heat generated and power consumed. It also didn't fit into the new furniture, which would have been less of an issue without the other things, but in total it made me yearn for a more compact, still powerful, cooler running power amp. I tried out an older Bryston 4B/NRB, and found it to be very good. Loads of power, pretty clean sound, not too much heat, compact size.

But curiosity got the better of me when I saw the Bel Canto Evo2 and did some reading about it.

Stereophile's Kalman Robinson had used the amplifier in one of his comparative reviews, and found it to be very good. So I did a shoot out between it and the Bryston 4B/NRB. The results were fascinating, in that while the Bryston won on brute force, the Evo2 won on its ability to resolve detail more completely and nicely, with a finer edge on strings, vocals, acoustic instruments, and better space around the performers, what you might call ambience. In a word, it was more refined, and that refinement showed up easily on my Alon V speakers, which are fairly accurate. I can live with the slightly lower power, as 120w x 2 is enough to drive the speakers, and the amp will raise its maximum to 2 x 240w into a 4 ohm load. This is good, since the Alons are only 87dB and the impedance can dip to 4 ohms.

From the manual:

"The Bel Canto Design eVo digital output stage is of unique simplicity. The output uses 2 N channel MOSFET switches switching between the power supply rails. These switches turn on and off within 30 billionths of a second and provide an on resistance path to the supplies of a few thousandths of an ohm. These switches switch alternately between the supplies at a rate over 600,000 cycles per second (600 kHz). When no audio signal is present, the ratio between the time at the positive supply and the negative is balanced to provide no audio frequency output.

The switching stage is isolated from the loudspeaker by a single LC filter stage. This 80kHz second order filter is used to reject high frequency energy and maintain linear phase response.

Furthermore, the digital power processor adds small levels of high frequency dither to insure that an inherently linear output stage characteristicis maintained from very low to very high output levels. The audio frequency information modulates the output stage by changing the time relationship between the positive and negative supply rails. The critical timing information is controlled by the digital power processor and the effective switching frequency is changed over a 200 kHz to 1500 kHz range. This spreads the digital energy created by the amplifier over a wide bandwidth, greatly reducing the energy at any one frequency. This permits using a simple LC filter to remove the high frequency energy and maintains excellent phase response."

(Note: I bought one of two available, the other one might still be there at Len Wallis Audio in the second hand department, for $1199.) UPDATE: Sold!

In conclusion, digital amplifiers have come of age and are used extensively by Peachtree as well as Bel Canto and NAD. Subwoofers by Velodyne and Sunfire, particularly those with high power, have been using them for some time. This may not be the last power amplifier I use (being often tempted to try something else!), but it's an interesting change from what I've used previously. It's a safe bet that digital amplifiers will take over from conventional designs, but how soon is the question. The advantages are there, but, as is usually the case with the hifi establishment and the opinion leaders, it's a conservative environment. Change is not always welcomed as soon as it could be, and we are now in the "transition period" for streaming - and digital amps.

P.S. The Evo2 runs cool even when on and playing for extended periods. They recommend that it be left on. At idle it consumes just 15w!

My Current Hifi System

Alon V Speakers, Audio Research SP14 Pre amp, Bel Canto Evo2 power amp (update - now Aragon 4004! - see new article above), Technics SL1100 t/t with Dynavector 501 arm and Supex 900 Mk.4 MC, Denon HA-1000 Phono stage, Magnum Dynalab MD100 FM tuner, Theta DS Pro basic II DAC, Marantz Universal Player DV7600, Yamaha CDR-HD1500 HDD/CD Burner, Aiwa Cassette 3-Head AD-F810.

Home Theatre System

Yamaha RX-V3900 and BD-S1000, both controlled via the Yamaha app. Beyonwiz HDD recorder/streamer. Panasonic 50" plasma screen, Boxee box, Apple TV. Front speakers: Mirage M790, Centre: Axis, Rears: Acculab 450 floor standing, Subwoofer: Velodyne FSR12.

The Lowdown on UpnP & DLNA

Now we're up to our ears in the future of hifi, we have to know what all those acronyms mean. Computer Audiophile has a page explaining it all. I thought a renderer was a guy who applied a concrete coating to the outside of your 1950s red brick bungalow to make it look more modern and saleable, but no, a renderer is a device that either converts and/or reproduces audio.

In my ignorance I'd have just called that a streaming device. I guess your Sonos Connect is a renderer. Anyway, have a read and catch up with the terminology!

Do We Need Perfection?

When a hifi guru like Steve Guttenberg says (or, to be accurate, tweets) this, you have to stop and think about it:

Quote: "We don't really want perfect sound reproduction, we want sound that sounds good to us. That's what I've learned from 30 years in the biz."

Is that right? I've been "in the biz" for about 25 years, but have been listening to reasonably good systems for longer than that. I've met people who love the nth degree of accuracy - although some of them qualify as at least borderline obsessive, if not full-blown. Then there are the ones where "good enough" is ok.

They say that a beautiful face, when analysed, comes back to symmetry. But there's still an amazing variety in the style of faces. Beyond beauty alone, there's something extra, something that adds a frisson of excitement - sexiness.

When you're showing people a lineup of loudspeakers, you have to be sensitive to their inbuilt preferences (or prejudices), but at the same time be able to point out tactfully the benefits of one speaker over another. For some, a treble response that you find more lifelike and accurate can sound too bright, even tinny, to them - at least to begin with.

You can fall back on "giving the customer what they want", and let them go for the more comfortable sounding, warm, slightly rolled-off treble and midrange that allows for relaxed listening. To be truthful, I have a set of speakers like that in my living room, not for primary listening, but for relaxed listening while reading or doing other things around the house. They are a bit like a big valve radio, very easy on the ear. But realistic? No. They probably fail on some of the issues Ralph Waters outlines in his Truth About Loudspeakers - Chapter 4. But they suit the room in many ways.

I'm happy to let people choose the style they enjoy, but will offer the opportunity for them to change their mind by continuing to audition speakers A versus B by switching between then on a few varying tracks of music. It sometimes leads to a change of mind, and the customer can hear the benefits of the well-balanced and more detailed speaker over the warm, bassy and not-so-detailed. But if they don't, that's fine too. All the speakers in the comparator lineup have their own character, and all meet the basic criterion of being well above average. If you have no rubbish on offer, then regardless of the customer's final choice, they'll get a speaker they can enjoy.

So, yes, I have to agree with Steve Guttenberg. It's not necessary to be perfect, all that's necessary is to enjoy the music. If we can show more enjoyment by choosing A over B, the customer will usually be happy to buy it. Besides, perfection, if it is really achievable, costs heaps!

It's About Face

Well, interface actually. It's all about the interface these days, when streaming audio and video is growing at a great rate, and more devices are being offered across the whole cost spectrum from $599 shelf systems (for the electronics anyway) up to whatever you can afford in terms of thousands.

I'm reminded of how fast things have moved by having a bit of a fiddle with the Logitech Transporter, which hit the Australian market some five years ago at around $3000. It has a good DAC onboard and is well built, in a gleaming silver metal chassis, complete with balanced and unbalanced outputs, and three digital inputs plus Ethernet or wifi. You could now buy this (it's a secondhand bargain, more of that later) just to use as a DAC if you already have the streaming side organized the way you like it.

I set the unit up at home to have a look at how it runs. First establishing contact with my network, then selecting a piece to play form my stored music, the virtual Vu-meters started to dance, but no sound! The internet is such a blessing when you have atechnical question these days, and sure enough there was a fix, be it ever so esoteric. I learned that if I unplugged it and then reconnected it while holding down the "1" on the remote, it would reprogram itself to a newer, alternative operating system, which it did. This worked whereas the standard update had not.

Music flowed. OK, so far I've had to download the Slimserver software, which came with two other nuisance programs that took over my web browsing and PC performance monitoring. Go into Control Panel and delete those!

Now we have an onscreen display that enables music browsing on the computer rather than the little front panel. How about Internet Radio? I use that a lot, so tried to get to my favourite stations. Gave up. It seems to only want to let you browse through set lists. But then there's an onscreen window for entering in the URL of the station you're after. Do that, hit enter, name of station appears in the front panel, nothing more. Name then disappears. Not very encouraging. I'm not infinitely patient with any system that doesn't seem to want to play ball, so I'm putting this one aside. For my less critical requirements the Sonos system playing through decent gear makes things happen fairly painlessly, while the new Naim gear does the sort of onscreen display via your touch-screen that is modern and fully user-friendly. So whether you want the cheap and cheerful or the higher echelon of modernity, it's there for the asking.

The technical limitations of storing and streaming have been overcome, and all that remains is to put the gloss on it that the better audio companies can do. This includes all the subtle tricks pertaining to digital-analogue conversion, but also - and this is essential - includes making the user comfortable with the experience. It's all going to be about the interface, and even if you offer superior DACs and so on, the user will forego that for ease of use in so many cases.

This superbly built Transporter can be purchased for a fraction of new price, like $500 (bargain!) at this shop. I note that there are quite a few people at Computer Audiophile who use it and love it.

UPDATE: BBC Technology has a five minute video on the way interfaces now dominate manufacturers' thinking and marketing efforts.

The End of Physical Media

Music has almost completed its transition away from physical media - discs - to hard drives or streaming services. Those of us who still use CD are increasingly looked upon as old-fashioned, although paradoxically those who use LP are more often seen as hip.

This transition started with MP3 players and accelerated with the Apple iPod and iTunes.

In recent years the growth area has been online libraries, which are now plentiful even here in Australia, which has traditionally lagged years behind the USA and Europe in accessing such things.

We are seeing an explosion of new releases in devices which are simply DACs, or are stereo components with DAC onboard and streaming capability. You can now buy a small "shelf system" stereo amplifier/receiver which includes a 500GB hard drive and network streaming for $599.

Accessing alternative sources as well as your own music library has been made easy by Sonos, which can integrate your iTunes library plus any attached source plus any online music service, internet radio, and present them to you in any room in the house which has a zone player.

I'm listening to sax player Scott Hamilton's album right now, Remembering Billie, via Spotify at 320k level. It's not genuine hifi, but what it misses in ultimate fidelity it makes up for in easy presentation of most of the recordings an artist has done. I've been finding a lot of great music this way - one that's special is Oscar Peterson's trio with Lester Young. Marvellous playing from Young - who was a bit of a character, and had special names for all the musos of his time. He was the one who christened Billie Holiday as Lady Day.

But I digress again!

For ultimate fidelity, you can now go for any number of high-end DACs and streaming devices. Peachtree were into this early and have a great range of amplifier with high end DACs onboard - and these guys get good reviews from magazines like Stereophile. But they are now being outnumbered by the offerings of the English Naim company, who originally were partnered with Linn as analog-meisters, but embraced digital with gusto and now have a very full range of options. I think the UnitiQute and UnitiLite, which offer a mix of streaming, CD (in the Unitilite), DAB+ radio, FM, Internet Radio and amplifier, all in the one chassis, are going to be very successful in the higher fidelity stakes. There is going to be a special Naim evening at Len Wallis Audio, 64 Burns Bay Road, Lane Cove, on 3rd April starting at 6pm - reservations 02 94276755. The Len Wallis website has current pricing and links through to details of quite a few Naim products on the New Products page.

I agree that this is the future of hifi, as they say. As much as I enjoy playing with all the legacy formats, most of which I still have up and running at home, the new way of accessing and listening is compelling, and is taking over. I note also that Hard Drives are now getting to be quite big on the SanDisk Solid state front. The other day I got an email from a supplier offering 120GB SanDisk Extreme Solid State drives for $139, 240GB for $239 and 480GB for $419. Not cheap, but I'm sure they too will take over in due course.

Note Added: There's a report that the next Xbox will no longer support optical discs.

Is DSD The Future of HD Audio?

Just when you thought I'd never shut up about bloody soundbars ... !

Now that we're into the HD Audio era, with gradual releases of High Definition trackas and albums, some people have been asking me (and I see from the web that the question's been around for a year or more) about DACs that can handle DSD, which has an awesome 2.8Mhz sampling rate. But at one-bit resolution. If you're a perfectionist and want to play back the original one-bit stream instead of a PCM conversion (more about that later), the answer is yes, you can do it. But why?

One person I know has had his SACDs converted to hard drive files, like any HD file, but in DSD one-bit. He doesn't want to have to play the SACD discs any more, but wants to play them back as close as possible to the original. I've also read that some people are favouring DSD when converting their LPs to digital, and getting great results - with the proviso that there are still some converters that do a better job than others.

Here's a view from a commenter Daneinspain at Audiostream.com: "So, where is the DSD-music? Well, there would be three sources, I guess. First, using the PlayStation-ripping method any SACD can now be put on a music server. Second, the easiest thing would be if HDtracks and others began to offer SACDs' DSD-layer as downloads (whenever originally recorded in DSD). The third, and slightly overlooked source, are vinyl enthusiasts' own needledrops. I have digitized +300 lps using a Korg DSD-recorder and AudioGate-software. I experimented with loan-samples of different high-end ADC's before settling on the Korg unit, as the latter makes completely indestinguishable transcriptions (to my ears). The PCM-converters either messed up the air surrounding instruments, their timbre or other important musical cues. As I can live with a bit of hiss, pops and clicks I don't need to edit the files beyond the capabilities of the AudioGate software."

Eloise at a naimaudio forum also favoured it for any analogue conversion, and further noted that you can then convert to whatever PCM suits the device you're actually going to play the file on.

"Actually there is an argument (depending how you want to use the files) of capturing vinyl (or any analogue) to DSD then converting it. IIRC the way DSD works makes conversion to an PCM format very transparent, so if you want a 16/44.1 version for your iPod and a 24/192 version for your music server (and onto DAC) then if you've captured via DSD your 16/44.1 version will be better than a conversion from 24/192. You can even convert the DSD version to 24/384 on a memory stick for use with the nDAC."

Korg (as mentioned) and TASCAM make units suitable for use in this way. The DSD files are then transferred to PC for manipulation and conversion to PCM."

Audiostream has a list of DSD-ready DACs which I'm sure is expanding all the time. But it has also been observed that multi-bit has gone on improving, so you can already do very high definition recordings that are not inferior. The file size of a DSD one-bit recording will be similar to that of a 24/96khz one. Go figure. Does that mean no inherent increase in information? Any way, if you're going to convert to a multi-bit format, then follow this lead, also from a commenter - called Resolution - at Audiostream.com:

"File sizes are similar to 96/24, which doesn't mean you shouldn't produce a higher sample-rate PCM if transcoding, though. Usually you will find explanations that 176.4 is the best-sounding PCM-rate for this as it's an integer of the 2.8Mhz DSD-rate. Actually DCS's new DSD-over-USB solution carries the DSD-signal embedded in a 176.4/24-bit signal fed to compatible DACs from the computer."

After giving all this some consideration, I guess I'm more torn than ripped over the whole thing. There's a big spread of prices for these DACs, as usual. But at least there are some for the less flush characters (like me, if I decide to do something about it) to get started on. But I have to admit I'm not a perfectionist, and am more concerned with getting the right performance rather than the ultimate audio. This is a facet of the audio world that is going to become a regular talking point though, I'm sure. But I'd be surprised if only DSD delivered the goods for HD audio into the future.

Sonos Home Theatre

As you'd be aware, the Sonos Playbar is now available, although the first shipment is all but sold out, I hear. I've written about Soundbars before, and this time I'd like to concentrate on the potential for the Playbar to grow into a full surround system. Full? Well, fuller than the surround offered by just a soundbar and subwoofer, anyway.

The Playbar can be used on its own, but will be a lot more impressive when used with the matching Sonos Sub. This relieves the Playbar of the need to do the deep bass, adds a lot of bass impact to the sound, as you'd expect, and actually adds clarity - perhaps by relieveing the small drives of the struggle to do deeper bass. This is not just to annoy the neighbours or impress you mates, but makes a more realistic impression of reality, whatever style of music or type of soundtrack it is doing.

The Playbar in surround mode will take the place of all of the speakers, and do a spacious facsimile of surround. It might sound a bit too obvious, but to get proper surround sound you really do need rear effects speakers. Presto! The Sonos designers have anticipated this and have made it possible for you to designate two Play:3 powered speakers as rear effects. To add value to this proposition, they are a long way ahead of the "wireless" speakers offered by a lot of one-brand-home-theatre-in-a-box systems. They are not at all bad for music as a stereo pair, so being rear effects is easy for them.

To add more value, you can re-designate them back to whatever zone they normally run in, and use them as music speakers whenever you aren't watching movies. As long as you're comfortable with the control/management system, that is. It'll involve re-naming the Play:3 again and again, so you might be driven mad by that and need to buy a dedicated pair after all. UPDATE: Trevor Rooney of Sonos advises that they revert to whatever role they had before you use them as rears, so that solves that issue! So smart! The good news then is that a pair of Play:3 only cost something similar to a decent pair of rear effects anyway.

A full Sonos surround system then, will be as follows: the Playbar does front left, centre and right speakers, the two Play:3 do the rear left and right, and the Sub does … the low frequencies, of course. The cost of this system in round figures is $2800. That is not expensive, being about the same as buying a wired system such as a Yamaha or Marantz receiver in the vicinity of $800-$1000 (not the cheapest or the most expensive) and a set of say, Focal Sib & Cub at $1999. Both options, Sonos or the conventional setup, will deliver a good result sonically. Which way you go will probably depend on the aesthetics and the simple operation of the Sonos (it will suit many) versus the preferences of others for a component approach, more channel separation at the front, with mix and match capability and upgrades easy to do over time.

Home Invasion of The Soundbars

Soundbars have been on a growth trajectory recently, as have headphones, and wireless linkages taking the place of the ubiquitous iPod dock. So what are they, why are they popular, and are they any good?

There have been various names for these beasts: Front Surround, Sound Projection, and more recently Audio Entertainment Console. But what they all try to do is house a group of speakers in one conveniently sized enclosure as a complement to the modern flat-screen TV. The Soundbar name has stuck, and I intend to use it, despite the protestations of the manufacturers or their marketing departments.

Like all audio products they come in a range of sizes and at wildly varying prices. I'm not going to bother with the cheap and forgettable models. There's plenty that you can buy for under $1000, but it's upwards of that where things get interesting, in fact probably closer to the $2000 mark. I guess even a $999 setup will improve the sound of the modern thin TV - hell, even the Bose Solo at $549 will probably do that for a lot of them - but that's a bit too easy. What we want to look at is systems which will do a good job for the TV and enable you to listen to music at a quality level that you'd otherwise need a component stereo or surround system to achieve.

That narrows the field down considerably, and we have to do that. The main class of soundbar is the long, narrow enclosure, designed to go under the screen, possibly wall-mounted, and with a subwoofer that is nowadays linked wirelessly. The only drawback with this style is that it can block your remote's access to the IR receiver on the TV, and some are taller in height, which means they could block the bottom part of the picture if placed on the same surface as a pedestal-mounted TV.

Models like the Yamaha YSP-4100 (2499) and YSP-5100 ($2999) are in this "taller" category, as is the new B&W Panorama 2 ($2499, without subwoofer). Other recent models like the Yamaha YSP-4300 ($1999) keep their height low, and also include an IR relay to pass the remote signal through to the TV.

Bose also have a model called the Cinemate 1 SR at $2199. B&W have a new Panorama 2 ($2499)(picture above) which has updated speaker drivers and added HDMI inputs/output, and excellent sound.

Unless you're wall mounting the TV at a height which is compatible with these types of soundbars, another new model from AudioXperts, the 4TV 2112 (2.1 channel) at $1999 or the larger 4TV 5122 (5.1 channel) at $3999 may be preferable. These are in a flat format, starting at a mere 56mm in the case of the 2112. They need no additional subwoofer, and virtually disappear under the pedestal TV stand. See our Products Page for more details.

Why are they so popular? Simplicity would have to be a large part of the answer. Appearances are also important, particularly to wives and interior dιcor consultants, who are recommending this sort of product a lot these days. Ease of installation - it couldn't get much easier than just plugging it in and placing it. No need for installation of a separate amplifier and five speakers, two of which have to be found a spot at the rear of the room. Will they sound like full-on surround? No, but they do go part of the way there by bouncing rear effects audio off the walls and other available surfaces to simulate a surround system. Some have fairly clever setup program that "sweep" the room and register where rebounds can be found, then they direct the rear channel info accordingly.

This sort of capability would have been dream material ten years ago - getting some degree of surround sound out of one speaker.

While to some the soundbar phenomenon will look like the fast food of the hifi world, to others it will be just right for them. The good news is that there are now a number of them on the market with pretty reasonable sound. Would I usually prefer the sound of a $2k stereo? Yes, but we're talking practicality here. These systems are designed to fit where a pair of speakers and an amplifier are a clumsy alternative. They have a job to do and a place to be, and they're getting better. Much better. In fact Sonos have just announced one as well!

Sony Stops Minidisc Production

I didn't know they were still making them, but since the death of minidisc has been announced by Sony, I would like to say a bit about it. Firstly, it appeared at a time when recordable CD was still expensive and hard to get hold of. Legitimate CD burners were scarce, even in computers, and the blanks were fiendishly expensive. My store in Canberra conducted, with Marantz, the first demonstration of their recordable CD machine back about 1992-93. The recorder was around $10k and the blanks $50ea.

Despite the use of compression, minidisc came along and sounded pretty good. The discs were not only recordable, they were re-recordable! CD-RW were not, at that stage, available at all. Clearly, minidiscs were regarded as a threat to the status quo, and as a result were not given the support they deserved within the hardware industry, or the record companies. Philips wanted their digital compact cassette (DCC) to succeed and minidisc to fail, I guess. DCC went over like a lead balloon, but minidisc was damaged in the process.

This didn't stop them being popular in a lot of areas. Bands could use them to record, audiences could make bootlegs! Journalists used them to record interviews. Radio stations could use them to store and quickly access ads and promos. The ABC had what they called the D-cart system based on this technology. Personal portables were all the go, giving superior sound compared to cassette walkmans, and less miss-tracking on the move when compared to portable CD players. They would have been great as an in-car source.

Over time the compression methods improved too, and higher quality recorders appeared. But even the Sony MDS-JE510/520 series achieved good results. I now have a MDS-JB940, a high-end model with ATRAC3, and for various purposes it does a great job. It's not there to replace my Yamaha CDR-HD1500, but gets allocated other tasks where a good second-string will do, such as off-air monitoring - it has a timer function which the Yamaha doesn't.

I know that the world has moved on, and I'm a bit of a museum piece myself, but I can't help regretting that this useful bit of audio technology didn't get its place in the sun to the degree it should have.

Unexpected Classic Loudspeakers

I've not been a fan of Bose 901 direct-reflecting speakers, although I know many were. They have the majority of their (midrange) drivers pointing backwards, angled for dispersion of sound and intended to bounce it off walls. Only one driver faces forward. Then, to push to top and bottom frequencies, the signal has to go via a tailor-made EQ device so that a presentable frequency response can be achieved.

Perhaps the main attraction of them is the retro-scandinavian look, plus the allegedly bullet-proof high power handling. Not so sure about that. I'm eager to hear the 601 though, a differing approach altogether. But there are some older speakers I've come across that work well. You can often pick them up cheaply, and some of them even use a direct-reflecting approach, but one that does work.

Firstly, the conventional-looking Celestion speakers. This brand stands above many of the British brands from yesteryear as far as I'm concerned. There are people still paying $300 or more for things like KEF Concertos, when the money would be better spent on a pair of Celestions. Virtually anything from the Ditton 15 upwards - and I have two pairs of those - will give a good combination of clear top end, good midrange presence, nice imaging and well controlled bass. They regularly sell on ebay for around $150 a pair, and are well worth it. Larger models cost more, but again are worth buying. Similarly, those old Leak Sandwich speakers, the ones the ABC used to use in large numbers, are often around for under $200, and they sound better than old things like Wharfedales or the above mentioned KEF Concerto. Finding them in good condition is the hard part.

But the other brand I've been surprised by is Sonab. I used to have a friend who used one of the larger models, and never thought them anything beyond competent. I was using KEF Reference 105 Series 2 at the time, and preferred them. Why Sonab had upward-firing bass and tweeters pointing every which-way was beyond me. But again, they had a certain retro Scandinavian charm.

But having a couple of pairs of different sizes around the house this year has taught me a bit more about their virtues. The OA5 II has the up-firing woofer plus four tweeters. It has a higher mounting point for the baffle than the earlier one, giving wider dispersion to the treble. What this speaker achieves is pretty amazing - big sound stage, great imaging (not what you'd expect from this arrangement) and adequate bass. Very efficient, so they run easily off my old Sonos ZP100 connect:amp, which is around 50w they say.

The next pair I got and did a bit of cosmetic work on were the little OD11, also known as the Carlsson Cube, after designer Stig Carlsson - there you go, Top Gear, we also have a Stig in the hifi world. These have just the one tweeter, whose orientation you can play around with as it's mounted diagonally across the top baffle. This is a ported enclosure, quite compact, and can also be mounted against or on a wall, firing outwards. They are once again pretty damn good for their size, and you can score a pair for $100-150 from time to time.

My main stereo system uses a pair of Alon V floor standing speakers, which have the tweeter and midrange mounted above the bass enclosure, able to radiate fore and aft. It's a quasi-dipole arrangement, but with the advantage over ribbons of a more dynamic bass. You can pick these up (not all that often) for around $2k, and I think they're a good buy. Then down in the theatre room I have a pair of what used to be a dead common Canadian speaker, Mirage M790. Again they put a midrange driver on the back panel, so it is achieving a spaciousness without damaging the imaging. Bass response is pretty awesome too - I've had audible in-room response down to 30hz from these. Again, not expensive to buy, but not always around any more.

So there may be something in that direct-reflecting thing after all. It certainly works for all those afficionados of electrostatics and ribbons, and they are a dedicated mob.

Surround Receivers' Life Cycle

I had another customer the other day saying he wanted a really good surround sound receiver, and that it should last 10 years. I had to give him the truth about that. I can provide any number of very good receivers, and they may physically and electrically make it to the 10 year mark. But, the pace of technological change means that by the 5 year mark it's probably out of date.

The type of video connections have changed from just composite to include S-VHS, then Component video became the way to go by the time DVD started in the late 1990s. Once Blu-ray came out it was going to be HDMI, and over the last six years or so we've seen this connection grow to the point where all the better new receivers have six or more of them.

Network connections were rare until recently, but are now commonplace, and open up new ways of bringing program material into the system, as well as enabling enhanced remote control from iOs or Android devices using free control apps.

AirPlay and Bluetooth have now taken up residence in many models, and those network connections are already morphing from Ethernet to wireless ones. iPod/iPhone docks will be a thing of the past not just because Apple have changed their connection socket, but because wireless will do it all.

Last year's model is already technically a bit out of date because it's only the lastest arrivals that are future-proofed (well, a bit) in having 4k resolution pass through or upscaling. What's that? Well, your "full HD" is not as full as what's coming next, which is something probably going under the name "Ultra HD", with four times as many pixels as the current full HD - that's around 8 megapixels instead of 2.

How important is this? Right now, not very. And when it does arrive it'll be of importance only to those with "big" screens. These days, anything much under 80"/200cm doesn't qualify; a 65"/163cm is now just a big TV. The bigger theatre screens, such as those at 100"/254cm and above will be the main candidates for the 4k experience, but like good old "full HD" it'll end up on a lot of flat screen TVs anyway, over time.

Blu-ray also ushered in a new level of surround sound quality that was not available on DVD. The top level Dolby or DTS processing became uncompressed multi-channel sound, and so on the better systems delivers higher fidelity.

So, asking me for a good surround receiver that will last 10 years has to be understood in this context. It may still be going, but the chances are you'll have replaced it in five or six years time anyway.

Footnote: My old Yamaha RX-V1 receiver was replaced by an RX-V3900 a while back, but it is still doing good service as a stereo receiver in another room. This is where old surround receivers can have a second life!

My Sonos Audio Addiction

It sneaks up on you. You think just one won't do any harm, just to see what it's like. Then another. You think you can get away with it, then another. "I can stop this any time I choose", I said to myself as I bought the third one. Now there's five zones, and I have to start saying "My name's Geoff, and I am a Sonos addict".

It all started with a secondhand ZP100, similar to the ZP120, what they now call a Connect:Amp. I quite like the earlier version - it's a bit bigger, but has a nice solid feel to it and more importantly a fuller set of connections: both ins and outs, plus subwoofer out. It can be used in place of a ZP90 (Connect), so is multi-role.

That one went into the home theatre room, running either through the Yamaha RX-V3900 or via a set of Sonab OD11 Mk.2 omnidirectional speakers, which sound amazingly good for an old, weird looking design. Then a Bridge was installed, and a ZP90 Connect was added to the main stereo. Control is via the computer, an iTouch, my iPad, wife's iPad, and even the Android phone. At this stage, my wife's interest was engaged, and she lobbied for a Connect to go with her Aktimate powered speakers in the master bedroom, which is also her office. She loves it. No difficulty in learning how to use it, which was a major issue with the PVR, requiring copious written notes, referred to whenever she wants to watch a saved episode of Grand Designs!

Another secondhand ZP100 came next, and this is going to be drafted into a "special project" which will form part two of this report, hopefully by next week.

So that made four zones possible. I have always thought the Play:5 speaker was a nice add-on as a portable zone, but hadn't considered buying one at the regular price. Fate intervened last week when one appeared on ebay at about half the wholesale cost, complete with a bonus Bridge, so what was I to do? It's up and running now as the portable zone, so that makes five zones of bloody Sonos, and yes, I have to admit that the access to so much material so easily is what has done it for me. To some high falutin' audiphiles it may be the equivalent of Chateau Cardboard wine, but I love being able to choose almost any artist, courtesy of Spotify, or get a stream running from JazzRadio.com, or my own iTunes library, in any zone. And she upstairs can listen to Johnny Cash!

Sonos is like a Lego system, there are so many ways you can use the various building blocks to make a setup work for you around the home in just the way that suits. The Connect can be an input to any stereo with a spare line level input, and it also can take output from that stereo (or surround) and make it available to any other zone. So if you want to listen to a CD or LP or Radio in any other zone, you set it going and just select "line in" from that first zone.

The sound quality is fine for a not-so-obsessive audio person, one who's more into musical variety than absolute audio nirvana. But for those guys, perhaps the Cullen Mod version of the ZP90 will do the trick. It ups the audio quality with upgraded digital conversion. All that aside, the system will basically sound as good as what you connect it to, with some variation also in what quality the sourced material is. My iTunes collection is Apple Lossless, the Spotify feed is 320k, while JazzRadio.com (the free version) is a lot lower but still enjoyable.

All of the Sonos bits have at least two Ethernet sockets. This is not because you need to have them all connected by wire, but it gives you the flexibility to do so, or to connect any one of them directly and leave the rest to work wirelessly. In most cases the Bridge is directly connected and the remainder can then be used wirelessly. Additional Bridges are useful in situations where dropouts occur due to building structures - such as concrete constructions, where the reinforcement mesh blocks radio signals - and you use the Bridge as a relay, to strengthen the network. Each piece of Sonos you add also retransmits and backs up the network, so the more you have the more robust your wireless network becomes.

I think I've now achieved an ideal mix of bits: two ZP100, two ZP90, one Play:5, one Bridge, and a Bridge in reserve "just in case". As soon as a small piece of wiring hardware arrives I'll be making a cable adaptor for the Special Project mentioned above. More about that in the next installment!

UPDATE: Part Two, the next installment, is now up on the Retro Gear Page. Why there? Because it involves a frankensteinian, genetic engineering scheme to modify a Grundig Valve Radiogram!

Hi-Res Audio Format Wars

Every time there's a new format there are arguments about standards. This has been going on since Emile Berliner over 100 years ago came up with a flat, circular record that played from the inside out … wait a minute, that's what CDs do too … but it didn't catch on back then, and playing from the outside in became the rule. With LP, 33.3rpm won out over 45rpm in order to get the side lengths up, and CD went with 44.1kHz, probably for similar reasons. The apocryphal story is that Herbert Von Karajan wanted at least 72 minutes in order to get the full Beethoven 9th on a disc.

There was the infamous Beta/VHS episode, and DVD fended off other rivals too. Blu-ray and HD-DVD fought it out for years, thereby delaying its introduction. Now it's High Resolution Audio. But let's backtrack a little.

CD always had its critics, and early recordings and players fell short of what we can now get out of them. There have been improvements on the recording front as well as the processing and reconstruction of the sound by the players. Neil Young was one of the high profile critics, and being a performer he had credibility when he said that DVD-A left CD for dead. He was right, and SACD does too, with its vastly higher sampling rate using the DSD recording process. But where are these two now? You hardly hear of DVD-A any more. SACD is still there, and I've even bought some EMI recording reissued on the format quite recently, at very reasonable prices. You still get quite a few better quality CD players that play both CD and SACD, while the so-called Universal Players now encompass all the audio and video formats up to and including Blu-ray, even doing Neil Young's chosen format back when, DVD-A.

But technology moves on, and discs are passι. The new frontier is Hi-Res Audio, but just what does this mean? The definition is still pretty loose, and might boil down to "better than CD". Some say anything from 24bit/88.2kHz upwards will do, and I have sympathy with that benchmark, even though you can go higher, all the way to 24/192 these days, although not every streaming device copes with it.

ABC Jazz used to be transmitted on the digital TV spectrum at around 24/88 and it sounded superb. But they busted it down to below CD standard in order to find space for another TV channel. DAB+ is not CD standard, in fact FM sounds better. But such is the proliferation of higher quality recording standards now that you can have 24/96, and 24/192, and once the techno-philes get a taste of the higher one they say the lower one is just not good enough any more.

So, we already have quite enough going on when in steps our old friend Neil Young again, saying he's going to remaster recordings in Puretone, renamed POGO, and sell them to people to play back on a special player. Great. Linn have already had a shot at this idea via Gilad Tiefenbrun's blog, and I tend to agree that given the history of sluggishness in bedding down new standards, another "exclusive" competing one is the last thing we need right now.

There are numerous sites around the web now offering higher quality music downloads, and the file types do vary, although media player programs like VLC can cope with that. Once again, it may be time to lay down some sort of standard before things get out of control. One could say that a measure of chaos is just part of the new era, if it wasn't for all that history.

Update: Steve Guttenberg at cnet has a piece mentioning hi-res in the context of what makes recordings sound good. Further link to his longer Stereophile piece Accuracy Is Not The Answer.

Looking At MP3 After 17 Years!

Love it or hate it, this method of compressing and sharing audio files has been a game changer. For those of us who like better quality there are (fortunately) still other means, while to those who just want portability and easy sharing, easy mass storage, it has been a winner.

National Public Radio has a long interview with Prof. Jonathan Sterne, who has written a book examining the MP3 phenomenon. I admit to listening to lesser quality as online music, and it can be quite enjoyable, but that's at the better levels. Your basic MP3 still sounds awfully compressed to me.

But like a lot of other things, including fast food, it has a role to play. You just don't want it all the time!

Digital Audiophiles Rule!

There was a time when among my customers there were quite a few who said straight-out "everything digital is bad, and only analogue can do audiophile hifi". For at least 10 years, maybe 15 or twenty, there has been a hard core of audiophiles clinging not to guns and religion, but to LPs and valves.

I still have a lot of LPs, a few singles, some 78s, and love having a good analogue setup alongside a good digital one. I'll use almost anything to listen to music - I don't have an Elcaset but I still have a functioning 3 head Cassette deck, mini disc, several turntables, a reel-to-reel and even a laserdisc player. I even have some CD players that you could regard as vintage, like a Meridian 506 and a Revox B225.

But here you have it - the guys at Computer Audiophile are now the ones ruling things as midfi or hifi quality, as this review of the PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC Mk.11 shows. Digital technology has continued to evolve long after everyone said that CD stuff is rubbish and digital can never work. The future of high fidelity is firmly in the hands of the technicians who understand all the processes of correctly reconstructing music stored digitally. Have a read and see what's involved.

What's The IQ oF Your Smart TV?

Ever since the flat-panel TV took off and became the must-have upgrade to the living room, TV room or even the home theatre room, the capability has been improving on two fronts, the picture itself and the inbuilt "smarts", which began with a tuner! Early models of plasma didn't have tuners, and presented an opportunity to all sorts of third party suppliers (many of whom we'd never heard of ) to supply the SD or HD tuner.

For several years now there have been network connections appearing on the back of your set, along with all the other sockets. These have offered fairly limited facilities until more recently, things like strictly limited TV or YouTube links. But now, things are moving further towards full web browser capabilities.

And to be honest, that's about as smart as it's going to be. Sure, you have other things like DLNA to help shift and share programs around your local area network, and USB hard drives can be attached to give you a recording facility even if you don't have a PVR.

But just how much is that browser going to change your life? This will vary from fun to none, depending on the individual's viewing habits. The big screen is becoming an extension of your computer or phone or tablet in that it can display the content you might otherwise be looking at on one of the smaller screens. Never mind that most TV monitors now are all but the same size of average TV sets back when colour TV started!

The alternative to buying the latest TV set just because it has a web browser is to connect it to a black box that provides all the services and connects directly to your TV or via the surround receiver using HDMI cable. These can be anything from Boxee boxes to various game consoles, and of course Apple TV.

As things develop, you'll be able to do everything including music services like Spotify and movie services like Netflix with no additional equipment at all. It's just a matter of the browser plus the all-important licensing falling into place for us unfortunate far-away Australians, treated like mushrooms down here at the nether end of the world.

My Panasonic PVR offers a very limited selection of programs via Plus 7, and YouTube. Not very exciting. Apple TV has at least made hiring movies easy. The Boxee box allows browsing and searching various providers for movies which may or may not actually download, but every now and then you jag one. I saw Toy Story 3 that way, but it couldn't cope with some others, which either lagged or froze entirely, so I haven't done much with that.

AS I said on another page, this business about things like The Cloud revolutionising our access to stuff is a bit of a joke if you can't easily procure the programs in the first place. See my comments on Amazon's Cloud Service here.

Matching Speakers & Rooms

As I've said previously, I'm not a hifi perfectionist and enjoy listening to music on all sorts of systems that I have scattered around the home, some of which are mere tabletop ones, others are vintage bits, and I have some pretty good stereo gear as well. So what follows is merely my bumbling into an acoustic and locational minefield - but it may be some help.

It has been brought home to me very clearly in the past week how much "the room is part of the system". I have three pairs of floor standing speakers, in three different rooms - well, I have more than that actually, but these are the main ones. In my innocence (or over-confidence) I thought I'd shuffle the pack and see how the best ones went in another room, and relegate the second best to this room, and so on. I'd been enjoying music sessions in the downstairs mancave-library-theatre room, and thought "hey, if I can shift my best speakers down there I'll get more uninterrupted use out of them", but it wasn't that simple, of course.

It was not an easy exercise, as the Alon V required trolleying out the back door, down the side driveway and in again on the lower level, then careful placement and re-attachment of spikes and tri-wire connections. The Mirage 790s, which perform admirably in that theatre room were relocated to the living/TV/stereo room, where they promptly fell rather flat even though running on an amplifier of similar style to the one where they were before.

The Alons took a performance hit too, but this was partly due to an interim (I thought just interim) amp downgrade from the pre-power. That's when room layout and wiring issues came along to bite me, rather predictably. I tried to force the pace by relocating the speakers, thinking I'd come up with a happy way to use my main power amp to run the front L+R. but this isn't going to work - the damn thing is just too large to fit into the cabinets and stands I have there, and the wiring arrangement was going to drive me mad. As well, the Alons just didn't seem so happy when placed further apart, as they had to be in that theatre room. They are also bigger than the Mirages and so make access around to where all the wires run (behind the cabinet) more difficult.

Then there are all the ancillary arrangements you have to make, relocation of turntables, CD/SACD player, Recorder, classy FM tuner, DAC - on it goes. Having dipped a toe in the water I "went to water" and admitted defeat. The compromise I have been living with to date is the one that I am going to stay with. It's partly acoustic, partly physical.

In the lounge room I had a pair of Acoustic Research TSW510 three-way speakers, somewhat old-fashioned appearance, but a sealed enclosure. Not what you'd call an exciting, sparkly sound. Rather a warm, mellow sound akin to an older B&W DM603. But they serve the purpose so well right where they are. I listen at certain times each day to music in this room, or flowing through to the kitchen, and they are like a big valve radio in sound, but obviously can play louder, driven by an RX-V1 now relegated to stereo work. When you add the fact that they fit neatly just below the window's timber architrave, and their matching (near enough) timber top and bottom plates (the room also has a timber parquetry floor) I was mad to even consider moving them, and they don't sound as good anywhere else, either as TV room or main theatre speakers.

That room has a noticeable echo, being hard surfaced, and the mildness of the AR speaker balances the equation. The theatre room has virtually no echo due to bookshelves and other uneven surfaces, soft lounges and carpet. A more detailed speaker works well there.

So, another half-day of trolley-ing speakers back up the driveway and in the back door, and everything is back where it started. The room is part of the system both in an acoustic sense, and in the physical what-goes-where-and-fits-in sense.

But it's an ill wind, as they say. In the process I also did quite a lot of tidying up and trimming back excess speaker leads, putting away various bits of gear that lay on the floor here and there, and generally getting the rooms back to some sort of orderly presentation visually. Yes, I know, you can modify rooms acoustically. If I had a dedicated stereo room, no wife to object to wall treatments, and so on, maybe I'd go down that route. But the simpler lesson to be learned is that each room has an acoustic plus a layout of its own, and there's probably a speaker that suits the room very well. If you're lucky you already own it!

Moving and Translating Music From iTunes to Linux

Computer Audiophile have a long article explaining how to do this. They even show you how to preserve all the metadata so you don't lose covers, etc. With the growth in higher resolution music files people wnat more options than are offered by closed systems. Open systems are the go from now on, and this is an example of it getting to grips with the big issues.

Transferring LP To CD or HDD

I have a large and diverse LP collection, numbering into the thousands, and from time to time I have a burst of energy and copy some across to CD. Transferring LPs to CD as an archival backup, and then into whatever other device (iTunes etc) you want to store them on, is not always the easy or rewarding task if you want to get a really good sound. People ask how I manage to get such excellent results, and the answer is by good gear, minimal interference with the original LP, and maybe a bit of turbo charging on its way through the step-up section.

I'm not into post-transfer manipulation using clean-up software. A bit of noise is preferable to killing the top end, and I'd prefer to keep it all as straightforward as possible anyway. The trick is in the gear you use. It has to be of a good standard, obviously, but I'm probably cheating a little with this setup.

The turntable is a Technics SL-1100, a heavy direct drive, fitted with a Dynavector 501 arm, and one of several good moving coil pickup cartridges - Supex, Sumiko or Dynavector. This goes through a Denon HA-1000 step up device (24dB) on the way to the pre-amp (Audio Research SP14) which has a phono stage in the shape of a 6922 valve.

The analogue signal goes to a Yamaha CDR-HD1500 recorder and is converted to digital and saved on its internal hard drive. Once there, you can do some basic editing and divide tracks, snip out long lead-ins and make sure everything is the way you want it before dubbing to CD. So far the results have been very good, and I can number at least one record producer and one speaker designer who absolutely love the sound. I transferred some Eureka direct-to-disc LPs for Les Simmons (owner of Eureka Records) and also impressed Ralph Waters of Richter Speaker and Subsonic Subwoofer fame with the output of this setup.

So where am I cheating a bit? Perhaps not so much now, with the current Supex cartridge, which is low output, but previously when I used a 2.5mV Blue Point with the Denon step up, I could be accused of adding a turbo-charger where one was not needed, but I enjoy having plenty of signal strength with phono, not just with line level sources. The secret is really more about the overall quality of the gear and the minimal manipulation of the signal.

Is all this mucking about worth it? To be honest, you have to be careful you're not just making a copy of a poor LP instead of getting a pretty good remaster on CD for $10. The LP needs to be in good condition, and be a good pressing, not from a lower quality sub-master copy sent out to the provinces and stamped out on gritty vinyl at too low a transfer level! I was going to do my nice Telemann Banquet Music box set (6LP) but found a secondhand (not that you'd know it) 4CD box set for about the cost of one new CD, including delivery from USA.

People often think their LPs are (a) not replaceable on CD, and (b) in better shape than they really are! Having been involved in the CD business for some years, I can say that it is really amazing how much has been reissued. When people ask me about doing transfers, I advise them that it can be done, but to be realistic about the time and trouble involved, and to check the various sources, including overseas ones, Amazon & eBay, for the easy way out of a CD reissue.

Alternative methods: (1) You can get small phono stages now with inbuilt analogue to digital converters in them, so you feed the turntable's output through this to the computer's USB input. Once its in there, you can use whatever software you like to edit and prepare it for replay or dubbing to CD if that's what you want to do. I have not gone down this route to date, nor have I considered any of the relatively cheap turntables that have this facility built in - that is phono/USB options. I think my method will remain superior for the time being. (2) Keep playing the LPs!

Digital Amps Now Fast Breeders

I've been mentioning digital amplifiers quite a bit recently, because what started out as a low profile niche market thing is rapidly becoming mainstream, and will continue to push aside conventional amplifiers as we progress to more and more digital transfers of program material instead of physical media. It's not that you can't go on using your analogue connections, but the march of progress is relentless, and higher resolution audio and video both end up requiring not just optical or coaxial digital inputs, but even higher capacity via HDMI, not to mention asynchronously linked USB.

There are three main aspects we talk about regarding digital amplifiers: (i) the amplification itself, often referred to as Class D although there are sub-classes of which some are more "digital" than others, (ii) the connections or inputs, which can be those mentioned above, and (iii) the digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) which has to be there at some point, since the output to the speakers and headphones is still analogue. One of the variables is the DAC itself, and another is how much signal processing is done in the digital domain to get as low a noise floor as possible before kicking it into analogue and out via the speaker connections.

While digital inputs on surround sound receivers have been obligatory for over a decade, it is only relatively recently that they started to become important in stereo systems. This is a flow-on from the growth in hard drive storage and streaming of musical content as the use of the main physical medium, CD. Pundits agree that there will not be another disc-based format for either music or video, and that CD and Blu-ray are the end of the line, with SACD and DVD-A being merely branch lines that failed to do the numbers, good as they were.

Of the four main transfer types (leaving wireless aside for now) the USB was the poor relation quality-wise until the advent over the last couple of years of new re-clocking technologies. These asynchronous links re-process the data stream on the way through, buffering and re-clocking to a low-jitter, high standard of presentation before the DAC does its conversion. Most new DACs coming onto the market now have to have this as part of their makeup if they are to cut the digital mustard in the new environment. What new environment? Well, the one where resolution is now even higher than anything that went before, dare I say better than analogue?

Apart from the obvious convenience of digital storage, organization and replay of your music, the other big news of recent years is higher resolution or HD music. This will not usually be issued on physical discs, but will be downloaded and replayed from your hard drive. There are already sites online selling tracks and albums in this format, both new recordings and re-processed earlier ones. It's no coincidence that Linn now will produce no further CD players, but will sell you a server and the HD tracks to go with it.

Peachtree have been making class D amplifiers with coaxial, optical and USB inputs for some years now. They have been upgrading their onboard DACs over time, and have also had a spread of power capabilities, from 40w x 2 upwards. This year, however, things got a whole lot more serious as they went into the next level and released separate pre and power amplifiers, ranging up to 220w x 2 and even 400w x 2 in the Grand Integrated. It's no surprise that DACs go on improving, but traditionally it has been a big ask to deliver higher power at reasonable cost. This has been made possible by digital amplification.

How did this sneak up on us, I hear you ask. Aren't digital amps something that are just good for subwoofers or budget products? A little bit of history might help explain this. Back in 2000 Sharp brought to market a $US15,000 high-end digital amplifier called the SM-SX100.

Stereophile probably thought it would be giving it the acid test to have the king of analogue, Michael Fremer, do the review of it. Mikey's review is here, and well worth reading. He loved the amplifier, finding it in no way digital, and in every way pleasing. But there were things in the way of its acceptance back then, including price, but also Sharp are not a specialist, high-end name to conjure with. They are a mass-market company. And right through the 90s and into the noughties, the old "digital is bad" refrain rang out loud and clear throughout the audiophile world. But Sharp had demonstrated convincingly that digital amplifier technology was good, operating at the SACD level of processing, namely a 2.8MHz sampling rate.

Even so, the next groundbreaking product didn't emerge until 2010/2011, when NAD's M2 Digital Integrated amplifier started to win over the top ranking magazine reviewers. It scored a Product of The Year award from The Absolute Sound plus an Editor's Award. Robert Harley, another respected reviewer, had the $US6000 M2 in his system where normally he'd have over $US50,000 worth of gear (with bits like Berkeley Alpha DAC, Pass Labs Amps) and found it just fine. While it fell marginally short of his reference system he said it certainly wasn't by anything like the cost margin! It represented the future of amplification, he said.

The M2 benefitted from years of research and development involving NAD and semiconductor company Diodes Zetex that transcended the groundwork of the Sharp team, who in turn took the best available technology from ten years earlier and did good things with it. In both cases the careful handling of the signals combined with higher resolution processing, and direct conversion from digital to power output, have paid off in speed, accuracy, and low noise floor.

NAD have taken the technology down to a lower price point now with the C390DD Integrated Amplifier ($2999), a move which will bring the virtues of their design approach to bear directly on the mass market at least in so far as quality stereo music remains a healthy sub-sector of the A/V market.

At the same time, Peachtree have stepped up a notch with their offerings, and are about to hit the market with not just the Grand Pre and Grand Integrated in the $4k area, but will have the Nova Pre ($999) and the 220 Power ($1599) ready to rollout soon. This is a real departure for a company that until recently concentrated on the more affordable integrated amp area, and is proof when taken with NAD's moves, that the specialist hifi market is headed in that direction. The only remaining question is what the bigger players will do with this. We will have to wait and see how companies like Marantz and Yamaha respond, and when. But there's no longer any "if" about it.

Small Speakers For Neat Freaks

It's incredibly frustrating to be a hifi salesperson when you just know the best speakers for the customer are not the ones the wife wants - the teensy little hardly visible ones. I want to have a quick run over the target of just what you can do to make the speakers have minimal visual impact while still deserving to be bought and used. Make no mistake about it, small speakers are a compromise, so we need to see what we can do to minimize not only the size but also the downgrading of fidelity.

Bose have built their name firstly on the use of direct/reflecting speakers, and then on the use of very small cube speakers. Both of these approaches have merit, and Bose's success is deserved in the sense that that have delivered systems which work and please a lot of people. My reservation about their "cube" approach is that the small size of the speaker drivers in those cubes tends to limit the information given to the listener to a greater degree than the use of a small two-way speaker does. By making the "satellite" speaker in a sub-sat system just a bit bigger and using a tweeter and a small mid/bass driver, you enrich the audio quality a great deal.

KEF did the two-way thing with their 2005 series by using a concentric arrangement, the tweeter being nested in the centre of the woofer. It was a good system , but eventually was outperformed by the Focal Sib/Cub at the same price, now down to just $1999 for five Sib satellites and the Cub2 subwoofer. Focal followed that up by a completely new design, the Dome, which uses higher grade drivers in a non-resonant metal hemisphere container hardly a "cabinet". While slightly less efficient than the Sib/Cub set, the Dome delivers high quality audio from what is still a very small speaker at $2999 the 5.1 set.

The other area that has become popular with the decorators and interior designers is the flushmount in-wall or in-ceiling types of speaker. This opens up a large range of capabilities, with products ranging from simple entry-level two way designs for a few hundred dollars a pair all the way to higher quality units costing thousands a pair. The major players in this market include Focal, B&W, Speakercraft, Niles, Sonance, and no doubt many others I have not had much to do with. The ultimate results are going to depend partly on the speakers used, but also to a degree on their placement and positioning vis-ΰ-vis the listener and the screen (in the case of surround sound).

For those who want complete invisibility, the speakers like "Stealth", which are set right into the wall and use a flat panel to create the sound as if the wall itself is a speaker, are the last word in minimalism. Forward planning is required to make sure studs are the right distance apart and gyprock is cut in carefully around a "space saver", so that these are both tightly located and neatly finished.

The last category, leaving aside for now the option of building speakers into a cabinet, is the on-wall type. I note that Jamo have just released an on-wall set called D600, which consists of three LCRs (left/centre/right), two dipole design rear effects, and a subwoofer. They have wanted to move more air and get a more dynamic "big speaker" effect going, so you'll notice more drivers and bigger cabinets are involved, while still being relatively compact.

It offers a step up in size from the smaller speakers discussed above, which still keeping the neat and tidy aspect alive. This setup has been favourably reviewed by What HiFi, but I see that they still have reservations about the performance in good old stereo for music. Costing Stg.4790 in the UK these are going to translate into a price in Australia of $7000+, so may not be for everybody anyway. An interesting approach though, and it expands the range of options available to the purchaser of good and neat solutions.

Music - Mastering for iTunes

In the old days it was simple. The studio knew that record players had limitations and they adjusted what went onto the vinyl accordingly. Overall levels were limited, and top and bottom frequencies were compressed. Too much bass created tracking problems. Mastering for CD was easier, as levels could be higher, and the interaction of stylus and groove ceased to be a concern.

The mass market now dictates that music be released in a mix suited to listening on earbuds and in an MP3 or AAC compressed file format that robs the sound of life. Compensations are made that make those files listenable to the average consumer, but also make them sound poor when played back on good equipment, even good car equipment. What to do? Ars Technica has an interesting article here.

Given that the future is going to be about downloaded music played back on various levels of gear for people with varying quality demands, we are now seeing the start of a more complex approach to mastering. Apple have issued guidelines for studios submitting masters to them for sale via the iTunes store. You can read them here. There has been a move on for some time to upgrade the iTunes offerings, but some say it has lost a bit of impetus since the death of Steve Jobs, who was keen on this aspect.

At the top end of the spectrum there are the so-called HD files, which may be 24 bit 96kHz, or 192kHz. These are of interest to all those with high-end gear, and sound noticeably superior to everything except SACD, which has been a minor part of the market despite there being plenty of capable players around from companies like Marantz and Oppo.

Marketing of HD audio is in its early stages, but will ramp up over the next few years. How far it goes remains to be seen, but there's no doubt that it takes high quality music replay to another level. iTunes is trying to improve, but ultimately is limited by the need to accommodate lots of tracks on devices with very limited storage - admittedly much more than when iPods started, but until solid state storage doubles a few more times, high definition is for the home system only.

Netflix Cat Stalking Pidgeons

Australia has been poorly served to date with online movie libraries, but this will almost certainly change as the new broadband packages, even now giving us 100-200GB per month at reasonable rates, continue to evolve. The NBN must be predicated on increased video consumption, since other everyday pursuits are already catered for with ADSL2 and Bigpond cable. The NBN is going to be a big pipe awaiting throughput!

According to some reports, Netflix is eyeing off the Australian market, currently under developed. Why are we always the poor backward relations? The vast bulk of the movies people want to see are not Australian, they're from overseas. There must be some very odd rights issues involved, but large local server banks would be needed too.

But here we are at present with a pathetic offering from Bigpond Movies that's PC-viewing oriented. These things have to improve - better lists and direct availability to your home theatre setup are bedrock requirements, along with reasonable cost. As an indication of the size of the pie waiting to be bitten into, DVD rentals are said to be worth $2 billion per annum. Once companies like Netflix are here properly, not just backdoor accounts, we'll see the revenues move across to them.

What about Fetch TV? Well, a quick look through their "what's on now" list is uninspiring. Anybody who has been renting DVDs on a regular basis will have seen all the stuff in that list that they want to. Another odd thing about it is that it's tied to the ISP, so what you can get and how much it costs is variable. What do they think about Neflix coming into the market in the next 12-18 months? That should concentrate some minds.

Is streaming company Hulu (from the US also) going to be here as well? Some say Nine Entertainment has an agreement with them. Once the infrastructure is in place, there may be a flood of new players, but only if local licensing issues do not get in the road. Ultimately it's a numbers game, and a lot of people paying a bit of money per month adds up. Sure, you can find ways around all this and get a Netflix account by some backdoor method - but we shouldn't have to do that. It's just bizarre that sensible arrangements take so long to be put in place here.

To Project Or Not To ...

The rate of increase in size of LCD screens at very reasonable prices - in fact ridiculously low compared to a few years ago - raises some interesting questions. The gap is closing between the upper size of affordable flat screens and the lower practical size of projection screens. At some point, people are going to go off the idea of installing a projector and screen just do a LCD/LED screen instead. The installation is easier, and the price difference at say 70"/178cm is not worth worrying about - in fact the LCD could be cheaper. Installing a projector for anything below 90"/225cm is now open to serious doubt, and probably doesn't get done any more. From 100" up it's a different story.

Buying a 100"/254cm plasma (no LCD screens at this level yet) has been and remains very pricey at around $A60k plus, so for the larger screen sizes projection is still the go. Projection has gone on improving, added 3D with no price penalty, and can deliver 100"-120" or larger in full HD for say $A8k-10k, to cover the projector and the screen. These are variable costs depending on models of both, so just ballpark figures here, but that gets you much better contrast and clarity than it did five years ago, when the price could have been 50% higher. I'm referring to the better models, not the entry-level HD projectors, which are now dirt cheap.

If you're not so concerned with a really big screen, you can now install a 70"/178cm Sharp Quattron for $4799 (plus bracket and wiring if you want it on the wall). They will have an 80"/200cm before long, and who knows, maybe larger not far down the track. One thing is certain in this industry - things keep changing!

CD Still Selling Well

CDs still accounted for 76% of album sales in 2011 according to the figures relayed via What HiFi. Digital sales were on the increase, reaching 23.5%, and this was probably the main reason why over a four year period CD has lost about 19%, having been up at 95% in 2007. LPs have increased but off a low base, only totalling 0.3% of the market.

Further growth of digital sales is a given, as is the shrinkage of CD sales, but they'll be around for a while yet.

Another New Era - Affordable Audiophile DACs

Cheap DACs have always been with us, and in the early days of CD they helped ordinary folk who were early adopters of the new-fangled CD thing make up for the sometimes uninspiring, dead sound that cheap CD players exuded. In those days you had to spend up big to break out of the "also ran" DACs and get a new-fangled Deltec Bitstream one costing $2500 in 1992 dollars to really make a difference worth chortling about.

These days it's much easier, and as of now the mantle of "best cheap DAC" may have settled on the shoulders of the Peachtree DAC.IT, if the very reliable guys at Computer Audiophile are to be believed. And they are not usually too easy to please, having the best that the digital audio industry can throw at them ... well, thrown at them all the time!

But don't take my word for it. Read the review. It just might make you get one and enjoy your modern streamed music more than you thought possible.

The DAC is Back!

The DAC (digital to analogue converter) is not just making a comeback thanks to increasing use of computer hard-drive music libraries, it's breeding and evolving into ever-smaller and cheaper models. These new miniscule models have, at least in superficial terms, specs that we could only dream of a decade ago. But, like digital cameras flaunting many megapixels, the DAC has to be assessed in overall terms, since all aspects of the construction have an influence on the ultimate sound quality.

Top-tier models are exemplified by items like the Berkeley Alpha at $6500, while the next level at half that price or less includes units by Electrocompaniet and Bryston. Then there are the third tier products at $1k or less such as the Musical Fidelity M1 DAC.

However, as with everything, the mass market is way below that level, and we are seeing DACs now well below $500. Examples include the highly regarded Peachtree DAC.iT ($499) and the Musical Fidelity V-DAC II ($399) - now with asynchronous link included.

I was amazed to read that Audioengine have launched a "portable" computer-oriented D1 DAC at $US169. It's about the size of a cigarette pack, needs no power, and has a claimed capability up to 24bit/192kHz. How much improvement do you get? Don't know, but my experience with all sorts of gear over the years has been that really cheap solutions are seldom impressive! We'll have to wait and see on this one.

HD Tracks - A New Era

This week I've seen - or rather heard - something very exciting. I've heard diehard analogue fans being entranced by the sound of remastered High Resolution digital tracks. These are people who couldn't or wouldn't embrace digital in any form until now, even to the extent of shunning the CD altogether.

We heard old tracks by Elton John and AC/DC which were taken not even from the master tapes but from LP transfers and re-processed into 194kHz/24 bit HD tracks. These were done by a privateer, but it sends a message to the recording companies with access to the master tapes that a good transfer from the analogue masters to the new HD format will deliver the goods and please everyone, even those who had given up on digital.

My honest opinion is that CD-phobia is a self-defeating disease. I use all formats and enjoy music on all sorts of systems, some of them quite old. The good news is that if you enjoy music on cheap and nasty MP3 devices, it's all going to be an upslope from there. As an older music lover I started out listening to some pretty low-fi gear, and have gradually upgraded over many years to now having some amazingly good gear as well as some classic stuff.

The variety of audio now available is vast, and the access to music is also unbelievably vast. For those who want the best, the gear is there at every price range. To get the ultimate performance we need the best possible recording methods, and the best remastering technology for the older recordings. We are at the start of a new era, and if the recording companies can't be bothered to supply HD tracks, someone else probably will. Artists can make their own recordings now, and the gear to do it is not as expensive as it used to be.

Reel-to-Reel Comeback! (updated)

I know, we hear all the time about the LP making a comeback when to most of us it never went away. Reel-to-reel Recorders (RTR) definitely went away for all except the dedicated vintage machine buffs. But recently there have been many sightings at places like the CES Las Vegas - what's going on? High-end dudes doing demos at shows using RTR, businesses based on refurbishing great old machines.

My advice to the average punter is not to get too excited about this, as there are so many things in even the well-known brands of consumer level recorders that can and do go wrong, particularly after long periods in storage, not to mention through fair wear and tear. Heads wear down, belts perish, mechanisms get gunked up with old grease that turns into glue with age. Then there's "sticky-shed". What?

Someone wrote in to guru Stephen Bender's website about the very hard-to-remove brown deposits he got all over the tape path (including heads). Here's some excerpts:

"Best as I can figure, the problem started when the environmentalists caused whale oil to become unavailable. This being used as a chemical in the making of tape binder, is what causes the oxide to stay stuck to the plastic or polyester "tape" part. Tape manufacturers, in substituting a new synthetic chemical as part of the tape binder didn't know it then, but the average readings they were getting for a mix of the amount of short chain to long chain hydrocarbon chemicals within the "mix" was wrong. As a result, in many late 1970's and into the mid-1980's, tape batches that resulted from the bad "mix" over time, became hydroscopic - absorb moisture from the air, and turn to goo! Said goo is called "sticky shed" which easily sheds the oxide, causes excessive friction, and can stop most tape decks dead in their tracks... ( pun intended!)"

I have to confess I do have an old Sony TC-630, and it's on Stephen's list of what not to buy, along with a hell of a lot of others. It's fun to play with, so I'll keep it aound for that. You might be able to score a really good machine and get some great music from it - there are certainly those who find that it takes that "harsh digital edge" off recordings when transferred even from CD. I may be half deaf, but that harsh digital edge has been bothering me not at all - and CD sound has gone on improving despite being "perfect" from the outset! If anything my early players were dull rather than harsh, but my recent ones have been excellent. Anyway, the RTR thing will be interesting to watch.

UDATE: The Sony TC-630 has gone, and I now have a much more satisfactory Teac A-3300SX (see picture here)which not only takes 10" reels, it sounds pretty good too! It needed a bit of repair to the power supply which was literally smoking, but now (touch wood) it is going very well. I particularly wanted to play some rehearsal tapes by a local jazz group (more about them later) which came into my possession recently. I have to say that the playing, in some cases singing, and the sound, are all extremely good! I hope to do some transfers and document them properly. More about all that later.

Cleaning LP Records

If you care to snoop around on the web and see how much information there is about cleaning LP records, you'll find more than you can cope with. Everyone will have an opinion, ranging from the rough & ready through to the totally obsessive and anally retentive.

I recently wrote a small piece extolling the virtues of the Milty DuoPad, which is something I use a lot and can recommend. Getting bit more serious and looking at the various recommended cleaning fluids is a study in itself. I thought it might be useful to pass on a couple of links to sites I came across.

Is this the best? Zen and the Art of Record Cleaning Made Difficult, by Michael Wayne, is billed as the most comprehensive record cleaning article ever!

Another somewhat less organized effort which draws together many of those separate opinions is How to Clean LP Records and CDs at Arts& Media.com.

Then there's this one on how to build your own record cleaning machine, which needs a few DIY skills and some bits and pieces, but again looks very cost-effective.

DIY Music Server?

Some of us remember the old days when magazines offered DIY kits you could build up into amplifiers and all sorts of things, with just a soldering iron and a multi-meter. OK, perhaps an oscilloscope if you were really into it. To a degree, the computer age has seen us move away from all that. Yes, there have been some notable exceptions, and Jobs & Wozniak were among those who virtually emerged from their garages with the original Apple computers. People at trade shows were amazed that they could do colour with so little under the bonnet.

Fast forward to the present, when audiophiles are beaten down into the digital modus operandi, and all they can do is hang out for the next wunderbilt DAC, and pay accordingly. Well, it's Computer Audiophile to the rescue ... sort of ... for now you too can build your own high-class server by following the instructions. I read through this and thought "wow, maybe even an illiterate like myself could give this a go". How about yourself? Are you up to this, or would you wimp out and buy the Apple Mini instead? A fascinating article, either way.

Hi Resolution Audio - A Quick Primer

This is the new frontier in the post-12cm disc world, which is exactly where we're headed. If you haven't been into this subject yet, or are a bit vague on the details, MacWorld have a good introductory article for you. This is one of the reasons why everyone is now bringing out asynchronous USB DACs!

Yamaha CDR-HD1500 Recorder Hard Drive Problems

The Yamaha has been issued in various models over the years with increasing hard drive capacity but essentially the same operating system, at least from the user's point of view. So whichever model you have, the following comments might help just in case you have what looks like a hard drive failure!

Twice since I've owned my unit there's been a "Check Disk" flashing warning and apparently no HDD. Very disturbing, but twice I've been able to bring it back to life relatively simply. The first time I opened the back panel where the disc resides, and prodded the multi-pin drive IDE connection - you know, the same sort of thing as in a PC before e-SATA came in. It felt loose! I made sure it was firmly in place and closed the door again, then tried it. Presto! Back to life.

Today the same thing happened again, so I opened it up to check the connections. Unplugged the IDE lead, pushed it back in. No, still dead. The CDR drive remained ok through all this. So, tried unplugging the power to the drive - again, similar to computer's internal power connections, red,black, yellow wires in a white plug. This time when I powered up I could hear the hard drive revving. Yes, it's back. I'll need to keep it under observation to prove that the solution was once again just a bad contact, but it looks like it.

If all's well I won't need to tell you, but if it falls over again I'll do an update. I love this machine, so hopefully all's well. But if the drive is crook, it can be replaced fairly easily. Here's the instruction for replacing a drive, according to the Yamaha manual for the CDR-HD1300.

Replacing: 1. Open up the back door and slide the disc holder out so you can get at the screws that hold the disc in place - just as you would with a computer drive. 2. Undo the screws and unplug the IDE multi-pin plug and the power plug. 3. Install new disc, a reverse of the above procedure. When you've completed this, the next stage is an easy Format procedure.

Formatting: 1. Turn on power and you should get "Format Start?" in the display. 2. Press "Play/Pause" button. 3. When it asks "Format Really", press Play/Pause again to proceed. 4. Formatting takes about 15 minutes or more, and it will flash "Wait" while this is happening. Of course, that model (CDR-HD1300) only had a 40 or 80GB disc. You can fit larger ones if what I've read on other forums is true - see note below.

Note Re Disc Sizes: I've read that larger discs can be fitted than the original in the case of most models of Yamaha CDR-HD... but the size you end up being able to use will be limited by the software in that model. So you might put a 200GB disc into one that was originally 80GB, and find that the net result is 120GB. I forget the exact numbers, but it's along those lines. Each model increased the size fitted, and also the maximum possible.

Cables Aint Cables

Let's get something straight, first up. I'm more of a music guy than an equipment guy, and certainly not one of those "audiophilia nervosa" obsessives just looking for something to latch on to. I think I may have hurt my employer's feelings once when I said I didn't get involved in this industry to sell TV sets!

I opened a record shop in 1988 because I wanted to spend more time with music rather than at a public service desk. Over several decades I have been gradually improving my stereo system, and feel that Peter Walker (of Quad fame) was wrong to say that "all amplifiers sound the same".

I felt that the anti-CD brigade were wrong to say that LP always sounds better than CD. I still own many LPs that sound awful, despite having an expensive and beautifully engineered turntable/arm combo, but I have LPs that sound good too. CD players have evolved to a very high standard, much better than my first entry-level player. And, I started out doubting that cables would make a difference.

If cables never made a difference, I wouldn't have been able to hear those differences and to make selections between them. I'd have been happy to leave the whole thing to one side, as I get more enjoyment out of hearing a new bit of music than dicking around with the system setup.

Just the other day I was talking to a customer who was buying the Bryston BDA-1 DAC. He's not one to part with cash unnecessarily, but he said that the two things in the last ten or more years that had made the biggest impression on him as easy improvements to his sound were (i) a new set of interconnects for the Marantz CD player he had at that time, and (ii) the new Bryston DAC he was buying now.

Engineers would say that it's all impossible: cables are cables, and digital code is a fixed things and does not change because you change a cable - or a DAC?

The latest round in this ongoing drama that we call the HiFi industry relates to the humble USB cable. Now that they are tied up with high-resolution digital recordings they have become an item of interest. Special USB cables are appearing on the market and the same old arguments are starting up, with the usual belligerence. Can they make a difference? Is it "snake oil", and are the purveyors of these things dishonest?

I've been in the audience for a number of A/B tests of things over the years. There was the chap who insisted that his mobile phone, placed on the table in front of us, would affect the sound. No, not that I could hear. There were the CD treatments that might have made some small difference but were not compelling, certainly not if they were going to cost money. The discs placed on speakers? Couldn't be bothered. Elevating your cables above the floor? Don't know, can't be bothered.

But some things have jumped out at me - nothing subtle about them. Once I was setting up a demo of a relatively everyday pre-power amplifier, and used an ordinary interconnect that was closest to my hand at the time. It sounded duller than I remembered it. I changed the interconnect and it came back to where it should be, livelier and interesting instead of dull.

The first time I used a solid-core speaker wire on a good-average set of two way bookshelf speakers, they immediately picked up in sound over what I had grown used to with common everyday multi-strand. When I change from something like Audioquest Bedrock to QED X-Tube, there is a difference in emphasis. The X-Tube sounds less bright, and may be a better option, depending on which speaker you're using and what you want to achieve with it.

When things make a difference despite my expectation that they will not - I have to take notice. That was how I felt about the Audioquest people coming into the shop with their new "special" USB. I didn't expect it to do anything , and would not have been surprised if I heard no difference at all. When the simple act of changing the USB between source and DAC does make an audible difference, and not a subtle one, I have to say that something is going on. And it was one of our staff that did the demo, not theirs.

This is an emerging subject, and there'll be the acolytes and the skeptics. I'm no elitist, and can happily spend an hour or two listening to Jazztrack playing via FM through my old Yamaha RX-V1 and Mirage 790 speakers in the theatre room, or I can listen to the noticeably superior sound of my Krell KSA-80 and AlonV speakers upstairs, playing whatever LP, CD or SACD takes my fancy. Its all music, and as long as it is communicated at a level which shows you most of the audio that the performers were generating, the music then speaks for itself.

Nor am I so iconoclastic that I have to skate close to abusing those who might make an observation about the performance of particular bits of gear that I disagree with. But it seems that that game is still on, and one might as well accept that this is going to happen.

I've known analogue people who were so vitriolic about digital that I couldn't believe the level of disdain. That seems to have calmed down now. We'll see how the USB thing goes! I'd have trouble being a reviewer who doesn't think things can make a difference.

The Wisdom in Old Hifi Mags

So many magazines, and so little time. I happened on the April/May 2004 issue of The Absolute Sound the other day, and was soon totally absorbed in it. It addressed a couple of things that just happen to coincide with my own prejudices, so of course I mentally applauded them and kept reading. These things don't date! It was so good I have to share it around.

Robert Harley's editorial is an absolute gem! (You can find it via their site) He's talking about the trend at that time for TAS to review more entry-level and mid-price gear. He felt he had to defend the magazine from critics who believed that only the really high-end stuff should be covered in TAS. He says, among other things:

"While this may be disconcerting to some long-time readers, I'll bet that even they started off with modest systems and built them up over the years. Affordable yet highly musical components are what initially convinced all of us that spending time, money and intellectual energy on high-performance music-reproduction equipment paid us back in spades in musical enjoyment", and " … our goal at TAS is to help readers achieve the highest possible fidelity for their given audio budget".

It has long been my opinion that you can enjoy music at various levels of expense, low medium or high. I've been involved in retailing all sorts of gear, and have used all sorts of gear at home over many years. I love the better stuff, of course, and enjoy showing it to people even if I know they are not going to buy it - because it's fun to do, and they get to hear a really top system that they would not normally be able to sample. Hopefully it's a memorable experience - I still remember the time I was able to sample four different vintages of Penfolds Grange Hermitage under the guidance of Max Schubert himself.

I know it may not be quite on that scale for my customers, but even so …

The trick, as Harley indicates, is to get people into an enjoyable system, get them initially into something they can afford that does a good job. Steering people towards an appropriate system for their needs and budget is doing them a favour, and that's what I've tried to do as far as possible. At the other end of the scale I've also had people come in with a budget of ten or twenty thousand for a simple stereo (CD/amp/speakers), but end up spending two or three times that when they hear what the even better stuff can do.

Another subject covered in that edition was that of McIntosh amplifiers, a venerable brand from the USA, and one which has not always been flavour of the month with audiophiles. McIntosh have stayed true to their central philosophies and design approaches through thick and thin. They know how to make a great sounding amplifier in either tube or solid state. Paul Saydor wrote the review starting at page 81, and relates how Ron Cornelius, Mac's Product Manager, told him that "People are always saying our tube units sound like transistors and our transistors sound like tubes." By which he means not that they are bizarro in character, but that both adhere to the principle that amplification should have flat frequency response, low distortion and be tonally neutral - to which he could have added "and kick butt", however we know that Macs always do that too.

Paul relates how McIntosh went through a period where they were thought too old-fashioned, "middlebrow", and not exciting "high-end" like other new kids on the block.

By the time you finish his review of the C2200 & MC2012 (tube) pre/power combo, and the C46 & MC402 (solid state) pre/power, you have the truth laid bare. I know what he means when describing the "ideal combination of warmth and detail", the absence of any stress and edginess, the feeling of vast reserves of power. Some years back I had a C26/MC2105 set - quite old - that made such great music I will probably seek out a more modern pair of Macs or one of their heavy integrateds with the output matching Autoformers at some future date. He finishes up with "… I can say with fair confidence: no matter how much you spend, you're unlikely to find better amps and preamps on the planet. Day in, day out, these McIntoshes are the most completely pleasurable electronics I've used in nearly four decades of pursuing high-end audio."

Just to underline the longevity of good design, this issue also had a tribute to Peter Walker, of Quad fame, who died in December 2003. The electrostatic Quad ESL " … was the first commercially viable, full-range, push-pull electrostatic. To say that it set new standards for speaker performance would be drastically to understate the case. No other speaker of that period is really of anything but historical interest, but almost fifty years later there are many people who believe that the Quad ESL is the best speaker ever made - outside of consideration of deep bass and absolute loudness - and many people continue to use the speaker. This longevity record is almost without peer in audio."

More About USBs, iPods and Digital Transfers

Further to my short piece below about Audioquest's amazing USB cable, here's a new trend which makes it easy for you to transfer music stored on you iPod to your stereo - which means getting it there in better shape. The usual way of connecting to your stereo is via (i) the headphone socket or (ii) a dock. Most docks only take out the analogue signal, so they are using the fairly ordinary digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) in the iPod itself. You can do better, and it won't necessarily cost you much!

One way to get a pure digital transfer happening is to purchase the Wadia iPod dock for $A699. This has a default setting for digital output (but can also output analogue) - you have to then route it through a DAC, so at this point we lose all the average citizens who aren't going to spend up to that extent. But wait! You might have noticed that USB sockets have started to appear on CD players and other items - even on separate DACs too, such as the Musical Fidelity ($A499). What I seem to be taking a long time to get to, is that choosing a CD player with a USB input means that you can take your iPod music into it digitally and have it converted by the DAC in the CD player then played back as if you were playing a CD. This costs no extra!

Yamaha's CD-S300 ($A499) and CD-C600 (a five CD carousel player) at $A699 have the ability to do this digital transfer for you. There are also Marantz CD players that can do the same. Of course the ultimate quality you get still depends on the file type you use in iTunes Preferences when importing your CDs into that system. But there you go - digital transfer can be done as part of your CD player!

Hifi USB Cable From Audioquest

I've just heard something you'd say was incredible: a high-res audio file being played back into a good DAC (from an Apple MacBook to a Musical Fidelity M6CD/DAC) via firstly a common USB lead, then via Audioquest's new Hifi USB lead. The resultant difference was quite marked. It was like going from a smaller to a larger speaker, or from a struggling amplifier to a very capable one; in other words it was not subtle, but bleeding obvious that this cable was making a large difference, and it was a large improvement!

There are people everywhere who disbelieve the "cable" thing. There are even people who work in the same company I do who do not yet believe this one. But hearing is believing. How have Audioquest done this? Well, they aren't saying just yet, and who can blame them? This is the sort of achievement that has engineers scratching their heads and saying "but it's all digital! ...". Yes, we know that, but I've heard too often people say that all CD players should sound the same because they are "all digital", which ignores the differences you get from laser readers, processing, DACs and even the final analogue output stages from the CD player to the amplifier

What Steve from Audioquest was prepared to say was that the "geometry" of the cable's construction was important, and that they'd spent two years working out what made a difference before bringing this to market. There were sceptics in Asia too, a hotbed of audiophilia. They told Steve they'd tried all the USB cables and none made a difference. He replied that this was because they were all basically adaptations of a single design - printer cables. AQ did not do another clone, it did something else. Once it was demonstrated, the Asian sales have gone sky high, and word will get around. Stay tuned, this is big. Why? Because we are all heading for a more "digital" audio future, with transfers of audio from computers or NAS drives or servers becoming what the CD player has been for the last twenty five years or so.

Audioquest have just invented a better mousetrap, and they have not finished yet with the digital transfer domain!