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M6 ENCORE 225

Intuitive Operation, Huge Connectivity, Internal 1TB Upgradeable Hard Disc Drive The Encore 225 is a complete audio solution allowing you to keep all your music in one place. It accepts almost any conceivable analog or digital audio source. Experience it for yourself at your local Musical Fidelity dealer.

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VINYL & RECORD REVIEWS 76

Classical Companion

Christopher Breunig spotlights the recorded work of Gustav Mahler

78

Vinyl Release

80

Vinyl Icon

Steve Sutherland re-assesses the The La’s debut LP, disowned before release but now on 180g vinyl Few vinyl fans will be missing a copy of Tubular Bells, but how was it recorded? Mike Barnes finds out

86

Meet The Producers

92

Music Reviews

Steve Sutherland celebrates the work of Motown founder and ‘mix mechanic’ – Berry Gordy Jr Our pick of the audiophile LPs and hi-res downloads, rock, jazz and classical albums of the month

DEFINITIVE PRODUCT REVIEWS 30

36

NEWS AND OPINION

Métronome Technologie Kalista DreamPlay CD/DAC

Cost-no-object French flagship CD player combines double DACs with arresting styling. And its sound?

Pass Labs INT-250

Bruiser of an integrated presents music in all its room-filling majesty, yet with bags of refinement too

40

Naim Uniti Nova

46

Technics SL-1200GR

50

Dynaudio Contour 20

54

Playful swing meets forceful punch as we hear the company’s flagship Uniti series network music player/amplifier A heady dose of turntable high-life at half the price... we spin the standard version of this iconic direct-drive deck Slim in profile yet built for business this standmount offers a sophisticated sound yet knows how to boogie too

Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro

This USB DAC packs perhaps the most advanced chip around yet comes at a price that makes it a bargain

58

Koetsu Onyx Platinum

62

Spendor A4

66

1MORE H1707

70

Pro-Ject Pre Box DS2 Digital/ Amp Box DS2 Stereo

Boron cantilever, precision-machined stone body, sweetness to die for... this is one pick-up all LP addicts must hear

Welcome

14

News

16

Hi-Fi Show Live 2017

18

Show Blog

24

Investigation

A message from the editor

B&O’s app-controlled BeoLab 50 speakers, Technics’ ‘Reference Class’ motor unit, ELAC’s Adante speakers, plus iFi Audio’s new USB regenerator Final preview of our October show

Spectacular-looking loudspeakers, esoteric electronics, turntables that tempt and tube amps to tantalise... We report from Stockholm High End Does the remixing and repackaging of recordings rob the music of its authenticity or bring us closer to the artist’s intent? Mike Barnes is all ears

103 Opinion

Insider comment on the audio topics of the day from Paul Miller, Barry Fox, Jim Lesurf, Steve Harris and, writing from the US, Barry Willis

112 Sound Off

Best record cleaning machine on a £500 budget, speakers to match new Exposure amp, plus help with the perils of storing pick-ups

138 Off The Leash

When it comes to audio you don’t need presidential ambitions to appreciate the art of the deal. g Ken Kessler offers some insights...

Traditional looks, tried-and-tested tech, but the sound of this pedigree loudspeaker will keep you enthralled New name to the headphone market hopes to make its mark with a novel design that boasts three drivers

We take delivery of the latest pre/ power in the company’s Box Design series with its Hypex Class D amps

VINTAGE 118 Vintage Review

How does the classic kit of yesteryear shape up today? We test a CD player from 1986 – the B&O Beogram CD X

124 From The Vault ABOVE: British reserve at its spellbinding best – the Spendor A4 floorstander. See p62

13

We return to July ’82 as our reviewer takes a look at Trio’s L-08C/M pre/ power amp, with Sigma Drive tech

ABOVE: Remixing to re-market or pursuit of the original sound? We examine the world of definitive re-issues. See p24

BSCRIBE! SUBSCRIBE!

Special Christmas offer: Save 75%issues on digital with£3! a Three for just See p90 print subscription See page 60 82 57 NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 3

NOVEMBER 17

CONTENTS


Distributors of exquisite audio equipment Tel +44 (0)1900 601954


LCDi4 HAVE YOU HEAR Our goal when designing the LCDi4 was to make the absolute best-sounding in-ear experience. We took our award winning LCD-4 planar magnetic design and scaled it down to offer all the performance at a fraction of the size and weight. Designed to deliver a truly wide and accurate soundstage, superior transient response and bass response flat from 900Hz down to 5Hz, the single-driver LCDi4s offer a coherency of sound lacking in multi-driver designs. Using the same ultra-thin diaphragm that is used in the LCD4s and all our patented technologies like the Fluxor magnets and Uniforce voice coil technology, the LCDi4 ushers in a new benchmark for realism in in-ear headphones. The distortion (THD) is less than 0.1% overall even at high volumes, an amazing achievement for in-ear headphone designs. Weighing 12 grams per side, the headphones – handmade in our California lab - come with a new magnesium top housing and premium, braided cable made of silver-plated OCC copper with Kevlar threads for additional strength. A luxury leather travel case completes the LCDi4’s portable perfection.

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STONE AUDIO The Axium Centre, Dorcester Road, Lytchett Minster, Poole BH16 6FE / 01202 630 066

PETER TYSON Kingston Park Avenue, Newcastle upon Tyne NE3 2FP / 01912 857 179

SOUNDSTAGE 8 Heddon Court Parade, Cockfosters Road, Barnet EN4 0DB / 02084 409 509

KJ WEST ONE 26 New Cavendish Street, Marylebone, London W1G 8TY / 02074 868 262

THE AUDIOBARN The Threshing Barn, Feltimores Park, Chalk Lane, Harlow CM17 0PF / 01279 454 860

CASTLE SOUND & VISION 48-50 Maid Marian Way, Nottingham NG1 6GF / 01159 584 404

OXFORD AUDIO CONSULTANTS Cantay House, 36 Park End Street, Oxford OX1 1JD / 01865 790 879

HARROW AUDIO 27 Springfield Road, Harrow, Middlesex HA1 1QF / 02088 610 601

CRITERION AUDIO Criterion House, Oakington Road, Cambridge CB3 0QH / 01223 233 730

MIDLAND AUDIO XCHANGE The Old Chapel, Forge Lane, Belbroughton DY9 9TD / 01562 731 100

AUDIO VENUE EALING 27 Bond Street, Ealing, London W5 5AS / 02085 678 703

GENESIS AV 35 Hilgrove Street, St Helier, Jersey JE2 4SL / 01534 758 518

CLONEY AUDIO 55 Main Street, Blackrock, Co, Dublin / +353 1 288 8477

HIFI CORNER 44 Cow Wynd, Falkirk FK1 1PU / 01324 629 011

AUDIO REPUBLIC 78 Otley Road, West Yorks, Leeds LS6 ABA / 01132 177 294

FANTHORPES HIFI Hepworth Arcade, Silver Street, Hull HU1 1JU / 01482 223 096

UNILET SOUND & VISION 35 High Street, New Malden KT3 4BY 02089 429 567

SENSO SYSTEMS 26 Bobscawen Street, Truro TR1 2QQ / 01872 273 215

JAMES MORROW 1 Home Street, Edinburgh EH3 9JR / 01312 298 777

AUDIO AFFAIR 3 Gibb Street, Birmingham B9 4AA 01212 247 349

MOORGATE ACOUSTICS 643-645 Chesterfield Road, Sheffield S8 0RY / 01142 756 048

AUDIO VENUE MAIDENHEAD 36 Queen Street, Maidenhead, Berkshire SL6 1HZ / 01628 633 995

ADEPT-IS The Old Pound House, London Road, Sunningdale SL5 0DJ / 07939 510 933

HIFI LOUNGE 4 The Granary Buildings, Millow Hall Farm, Millow, Dunton, Bedfordshire SG18 8RH 01767 448 121


dynaudio.com

Close your eyes and see The Contour 20 takes everything we know about loudspeaker technology and puts it in a compact, clean and great-sounding package. Its sweet-toned Esotar2 silk soft-dome tweeter and new 18cm woofer with varying thickness MSP diaphragm, signature aluminium baffle and elegant, multi-layered curved cabinet deliver a precise soundstage with deeper and more defined bass, and expansive dynamic range. Little wonder, then, that it’s picked up an EISA award for Best Product - Standmount Speaker 2017-2018.

Pure, honest, compact. This is Contour 20.


                   

   


NOV/17 RIGHT: Instantly recognisable, but which Koetsu moving-coil pick-up is this? We sit back and bathe in the sonic glow of the flagship Onyx Platinum on p58

arly September is not only the time when you’ll find me hosting the EISA Awards in Berlin, but it’s also the annual launchpad for all things ‘consumer electronic’ at the vast IFA Show. Ten years ago, IFA’s organisers expanded its concept to include domestic appliances, and while fridges, microwaves and security systems initially made uncomfortable bedfellows for the familiar halls of TVs, audio equipment and mobile technologies, this year felt, well, different. But why? Quite simply because more of our modern day utilities – from gadgets to high-end appliances – are becoming interconnected. And nothing says ‘connected’ more than a voiceactivated product. All this is made possible by ‘enabling technologies’ including Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant and Microsoft Cortana. Speak your mind and these networked devices can serve up a favourite film via Netflix, stream music from a number of services and even set the lighting level or temperature of your listening room. I was hugely impressed by a demo of Harman’s forthcoming JBL Link products at IFA, and while not everything is speaking to everything else quite yet, the next decade will see voiceenabled tech insinuate itself into every corner of our lives. So what

E

ABOVE: Super-slim, super-solid and super-impressive – the X-Sabre Pro DAC from Matrix Audio is revealed in our in-depth review on p54

about high-end audio? I asked a senior Harman executive about the possibility of a Mark Levinson media player/streamer complete with speech-driven navigation. ‘Why not?’ came the reply! Back to now and this issue of Hi-Fi News is the last to roll off the presses before our Hi-Fi Show Live winds up the music at the exclusive Beaumont Estate in Old Windsor (21-22 October).

‘Just speak your mind and stream music on demand’

VINYL: Mike Oldfield’s evergreen Tubular Bells is this month’s Vinyl Icon (p80) while Steve Sutherland talks onehit wonders as The La’s debut album is re-released as a 180g LP (p78) RIGHT: Hi-Fi News & RR is the UK’s representative of EISA’s Hi-Fi Expert Group. Editor Paul Miller took over as EISA’s President in June 2016

I talk about our ambitions for great audiophile listening experiences in my Opinion page this month (p103) while you can discover more about the premium hi-fi on demo, our guest presenters, workshops and ticket options on p16 and via our website. I look forward to welcoming you all on that special weekend when the pages of Hi-Fi News come alive to the sound of the best high-end hi-fi! PAUL MILLER EDITOR

HI-FI NEWS’ EXPERT LINE UP: THE FINEST MINDS IN AUDIO JOURNALISM BRING THEIR EXPERIENCE TO BEAR ON ALL AREAS OF HI-FI & MUSIC

BARRY FOX Investigative journalist supreme, Barry is the first with news of the latest developments in hi-fi and music technologies

JOHN BAMFORD JB brings huge industry experience, a penchant for massive speakers and a love of hi-res audio in all its diverse guises

KEN KESSLER is a long-serving contributor, luxury goods writer and champion for the renaissance in valves and ‘vintage hi-fi’

KEITH HOWARD has written about hi-fi for 40 years, and edited Hi-Fi Answers for nine. KH performs our speaker and headphone lab tests

STEVE HARRIS Former Editor of this very title from 1986 through to 2005. A lifetime in audio and a love of jazz makes Steve a goldmine

ANDREW EVERARD has reviewed hi-fi for over 30 years and is still effortlessly enthusiastic about new technology, kit and discovering new music

STEVE SUTHERLAND worked on Melody Maker and then edited NME from 1992-2000, the Britpop years. Steve brings a unique slant to our Vinyl Release pages

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 13


NEWS We reveal the latest products and upcoming events

B&O BeoLab 50 MIGHTY BEOLAB 90 IS DISTILLED INTO THE SLEEK, APP-CONTROLLED BEOLAB 50 When B&O celebrated its 90th birthday with the £54k BeoLab 90 loudspeaker [HFN Dec ’16] it made a very personal statement about the future of high-end speaker design. Each monumental 137kg polyhedron features 18 drive units and 18 Class D power amplifiers while custom internal DSP integrates the output of the drivers, allowing its directivity to be controlled over ‘narrow’, ‘wide’ and ‘omni’ soundfields to suit the assembled listeners. In addition, a proprietary ‘Active Room Compensation’ technology uses the same DSP, and external microphone, to optimise its bass performance in-room. One year on, B&O has trickled down the core of these technologies into a sleeker and arguably more aesthetically pleasing loudspeaker – the £22,930 BeoLab 50. Each of these loudspeakers comprises three 10in woofers and three 4in midrange units, all driven from their own 300W Class D

ICEpower amplifier within the cabinet. A single ¾in dome tweeter applies what B&O describes as ‘double motion Acoustic Lens Technology’ – the driver rising from the top surface of the cabinet in a motorised pod once the speaker is powered-up. A custom app allows remote access to the ‘Beam Width Control’ alongside other features, including selection over the S/PDIF and USB digital audio inputs on the ‘Master’ speaker of the pair (the speakers are interconnected via a ‘Digital Power Link’ in a master-slave configuration). The silver-polished aluminium surfaces and warm oak wood lamellas are B&O hallmarks. Paraphrasing designer André Poulheim, ‘The balance of the BeoLab 50 is light and refined and the speaker’s footprint is relatively small, making it easy to fit into people’s homes’. Bang & Olufsen a/s, Denmark, 0045 9684 5100; www.bang-olufsen.com

Technics SP-10R

Pure Levinson

CLASSIC TURNTABLE MOTOR UNIT REPRISED First introduced in 1970, the Technics SP-10 direct-drive motor unit came to define what was possible from this technology through various iterations over two decades. Now, following the success of its reimagined SL-1200 decks [see p46], Technics has released advance information about a flagship SP-10R motor unit expected to cost around €10,000. This ‘Reference Class’ model features a 7kg diecast aluminium/brass/rubber platter and dual rotor/ dual stator coreless direct-drive motor claimed to offer the greatest rotational stability – and lowest W&F – of any Technics deck. Noise is also further reduced by the use of a new outboard switchmode PSU. A complete turntable system, based on the SP-10R, is anticipated for launch in the summer of 2018. Panasonic Corporation, Osaka, Japan, 0844 844 3899; www.technics.com

14 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER R 20 2017 017 7

TRICKLE-DOWN, ALL-ANALOGUE PRE/POWER

SILVER OVERTURE

Black Rhodium has released details of a new high-end interconnect called the Overture. Employing 4N silver conductors, the symmetrical signal and return cores are insulated in low-loss PTFE and lightly twisted to engage as much air as possible in the surrounding dielectric. A peripheral braid made from fine, silver-plated copper strands provides a screen. The interconnect is available with either rhodium-plated RCA or XLR connectors at £1200 for a 1m pair or £1500 for a 1.5m pair. www.blackrhodium.co.uk

MQA SMARTPHONE

Korean electronics giant LG Electronics showed the latest of its V series smartphones at IFA 2107, including the premium V30 model which will be the first MQA-enabled mobile device to be available globally. With its integrated MQA playback technology, ‘master quality’ audio files can be decoded directly within the V30. www.mqa.co.uk

Free of any digital inputs, Mark Levinson’s ‘all analogue’ No523 preamplifier combines the same very versatile phono stage as the No526 [HFN Dec ’16] with a precision R-2R ladder volume control, Class A headphone amp and balanced (XLR) stereo line outputs. Priced at £16k, the No523 is joined by the £21k No534 power amplifier, a dual-mono design rated at a substantial 250W/8ohm and 500W/4ohm. Audiophile components, including film capacitors and resistors are used in key circuit areas. A full review in HFN will follow. Harman International Ind., USA, 01423 358846; www.marklevinson.com, www.karma-av.co.uk


We reveal the latest products and upcoming events NEWS

VPO record player GLITZY LIMITED EDITION PRO-JECT TURNTABLE Celebratory turntables are not uncommon from Pro-Ject Audio Systems but the 175th anniversary of the Vienna Philharmonic is as good a reason as any! Based on The Classic [HFN Aug ’16], the ‘Vienna Philharmonic Recordplayer’ employs materials found in musical instruments. The lacquered wooden chassis corresponds to that of a violin while the gilded metal top plate is based on the orchestra’s brass instruments. The finger-lift is inspired by a clarinet flap and the on/off and speed change controls by a flute button. A limited edition of just 175 units, this turntable is available in both ‘Dark Cello’ and ‘Bright Violine’ colour schemes. Pro-Ject Audio Systems, Austria, 01235 511166; www.project-audio.com; www.henleydesigns.co.uk

Galvanic a go-go IFI AUDIO S LATEST USB REGENERATOR AUDIO’S Priced at £349 the new iGalvanic3.0 is a combined USB data regenerator/re-clocking interface that also offers galvanic isolation between digital source (host) and sink (device) components. This USB hub-powered unit also claims to be the first ‘audiophile grade’ galvanic isolator to offer compatibility with both USB2.0 and USB3.0 bus standards, the latter supporting superspeed 5.0Gbps data rates. Furthermore, iFi Audio’s ‘Ground Link’ control is said to cater for different system grounding (earth) regimes. A

front-mounted toggle cycles between None/One/Multiple Ground modes helping to combat and isolate the causes of circulating hum and noise. iFi Audio, 01900 601954; www.ifi-audio.com

HI-FI NEWS? JUST ASK...

Dual-concentric Adante ‘CLEAN SHEET’ LOUDSPEAKER SERIES BY ANDREW JONES Speaker supremo Andrew Jones’ tenure at ELAC has resulted in yet another series of bookshelf, floorstanding and surround models. The new Adantes are distinguished by their rigid anodised alloy baffles, concealed driver mounting and novel 5.25in concentric

mid/treble drive unit. The latter features a lightweight black anodised aluminium cone with a 1in silk dome tweeter at its centre. Bass is reinforced by ELAC’s ‘InterportCoupled Cavity’ where an active 6.5in alloy woofer inside the cabinet is acoustically coupled to a front-facing 8in passive radiator. Prices range from £2600 for the AS 61 standmounts to £5200 for the AF 61 floorstanders. ELAC Electroacustic GmbH, 01285 643088; www.elac.com

If you can’t always find a copy of this magazine, help is at hand! Complete this form, hand it in at your local store and they’ll arrange for a copy of each issue to be reserved for you. Some stores may even be able to arrange for it to be delivered to your home. Just ask!

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Upcoming Events IMPORTANT DATES FOR YOUR HI-FI DIARY 29-01 OCT 01 OCT 06-08 OCT 21-22 OCT 04-05 NOV

Tokyo International Audio Show, 3-5-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo Audiojumble 2017, The Angel Leisure Centre, Tonbridge, Kent; www.audiojumble.co.uk Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Denver Tech Center, Colorado The Hi-Fi Show Live 2017, Beaumont Estate, Windsor; www.hifinews.co.uk/show High End Swiss 2017, Moevenpick Hotel, Zurich

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 15


SHOWBLOG Sights and sounds from around the globe

Stockholm High End 2017 Words & pictures: Per Sundell and Mats Meyer-Lie Here a Technics SL-1200 turntable with EMT pick-up shares the spotlight with an Arches 845 integrated valve amp, designed and developed in France by Prâna Audio. Said to deliver 20W per channel into 8ohm, the Class A single-ended Arches 845 measures 45x25x46cm (whd). www.prana-hifi.com

The annual High End show has been held in Stockholm since the late 1990s and takes place in two hotels – the Sheraton and the nearby Lundqvist & Lindqvist. This year’s event saw extra space added next to the entrance to the Sheraton in the form of the Coor rooms, which made the show the largest to date. As well as a chance for Scandinavian manufacturers such as Hegel, Audiovector and Dynaudio to show their wares, keen local distributors ensured there was plenty to tempt from other international audio brands too.

Finnish distributor Nippon Hifi showed these minimalist dipole speakers from PureAudioProject. A modular system with an open baffle, the Trio15 allows users to combine the two stock 15in OB-A15Neo drivers at the top and bottom with a third driver of their choice. Here the speaker has a ‘full-range’ 8in Tang Band W8-1808 unit fitted while alternative PAP-Horn1 drivers can be seen on the floor. www.pureaudioproject.com

18 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

The XS-85 from Gold Note is billed as the Italian company’s most ambitious speaker yet. Each cabinet stands 1.28m tall and houses a 28mm tweeter, twin 150mm mid drivers and two ‘slightly horn-loaded’ 220mm woofers. Available in White Lacquer, Italian Walnut or Piano Finish Black as here. www.goldnote.it

There was no shortage of Dynaudio speakers at the event, including the 225mmtall active Xeo 2. This model packs two internal amplifiers, each said to deliver 65W apiece. It offers Bluetooth connectivity, analogue inputs via RCA and 3.5mm jack, plus digital over S/PDIF (Toslink). www.dynaudio.com


SHOWBLOG Sights and sounds from around the globe This stately stack of kit comes from British company Chord’s Reference line. It is topped by the CPA 5000 preamp, which offers eight stereo inputs – four unbalanced RCA and four balanced XLR – while beneath it sit twin SPM 1400 MkII monoblocks, said to kick out 480W/ch into 8ohm [HFN Sep ’13]. Both pre and power are pictured with Integra legs, which are an optional extra. www. chordelectronics.co.uk

A word in your shell-like... Swedish distributor Audionord wowed visitors with Vivid Audio’s Giya 1 speakers. Each cabinet houses a 26mm metal dome tweeter, 50mm metal dome midrange driver, 50mm mid/bass unit with copper ribbon coil and two 225mm metal-coned woofers. The smaller Giya 4, in white, can be seen to the far right of the picture. Cables were from Swedish company Tarfala Audio. www.vividaudio.com

Gold Note has high hopes for its new PH-10 phono stage. It offers inputs for two turntables, boasts six different correction curves including the Decca London and American CBS Columbia, has nine load impedances, and both balanced and unbalanced outputs. It can also be managed remotely with an app. www.goldnote.it

The Air Force III, which is currently the most affordable turntable offered by Japanese company TechDAS [HFN Sep ’16], drew visitors keen to see the deck’s vacuum hold-down function up close. The tonearm used was a Spiral Groove Universal Centroid while the cartridge was a Lyra Olympos, now discontinued. www.techdas.jp

The spectacular-looking Diapason Dynamis speakers played magically and dynamically, despite being fresh out of their crates from Italy. The sound was also due to the electronics used, and in particular the Line Magnetic LM219IA integrated valve amp on top of the rack, said to deliver 24W per channel using 845 triodes. www.diapason-italia.com

Behold the latest iteration of The Wand tonearm from New Zealand company Design Build Listen Limited. This variant is called the Master Series and, along with various mechanical improvements, now boasts Nordost wiring and a graduated VTA screw for adjustment on the fly. www.designbuildlisten.com

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 19


SHOWBLOG Sights and sounds from around the globe Danish company Gato Audio showed its slimline FM-50 loudspeaker with cabinets clad in a layered laminate. A 3.5-way design, its drivers are custom made and users can adjust the crossover to suit amp, personal taste or listening room. The speakers were driven by Gato’s PRD-3S preamp (centre) and 250W PWR-222 twin-FET monoblocks [HFN Oct ’14 and Jun ’17]. www.gato-audio.com

In the Technics room could be found a system comprising components from its Reference Class R1 series. Just as exciting was the SB-G90 floorstander with its new coaxial driver [see inset]. The new SU-G700 Class D integrated amplifier was also shown. This delivers a claimed 70W/ch and houses a phono stage and DAC. www.technics.com

Swedish importer Hi-Fi Consult combined a Burmester 911 Mk3 power amp and 151 Music Center with AVM’s SA 8.2 power amp and CS 5.2 receiver to drive a pair of Sky High loudspeakers from local company QRS. These traditional-looking boxes were dwarfed, however, by the majestic seven-driver Monitor Audio PL500 II speakers [HFN Jun ’16] flanking them. www.monitoraudio.co.uk

An asymmetrical speaker from France – the manufacturer is Apertura and the model is the Kalya. Each cabinet weighs 40kg (including the stand) and houses an 8in bass/midrange driver designed by SEAS in Norway which is then altered in-house at Apertura. Treble is produced by a 2in ribbon that sits below. www.aperturaaudio.com

A lineup of Line Magnetic’s heavyweight amps. Closest to the camera is the LM-216, a big seller for the company which sees two KT-88 valves used per channel to give a claimed 32W/ch in ultralinear mode. Behind this can be seen the LM-126, a full-blooded beast of a push-pull amp using KT-66s to produce 15W/ch. www.line-magnetic.eu

Brinkmann’s Spyder turntable is modular in that it can be expanded with up to four 9-12in tonearms. In this case it was displayed with two arms: one a 12in design equipped with a fixed-coil Soundsmith The Voice cartridge and the other a 10.5in arm with one of the world’s best-selling pick-ups, the moving-coil Lyra Atlas. www.brinkmann-audio.com

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 21


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SHOWBLOG Sights and sounds from around the globe Mads Klifoth, son of Audiovector founder Ole Klifoth, is pictured about to demo the big SR 6 Avantgarde with treble unit based on Oscar Heil’s Air Motion Transformer. Beneath this sits twin mid drivers, which in turn are supported by a downward-firing woofer housed in the speaker’s plinth. Electronics were the Ultra DAC and 857 power amp from Meridian Audio. www.audiovector.com

KEF’s Blade 2 loudspeakers [HFN Jul ’15] sounded incredible being driven by Hegel’s giant H360 integrated amp (second from top in rack). We can only wonder how they would have sounded wired up to Hegel’s mighty H30 monoblocks [far right] which promise 1.3kW into 8ohm! www.hegel.com

No show is complete without a competition. Here visitors rate different headphones with a prize of a Naim Mu-so Qb compact wireless system going to a lucky entrant chosen at random. Two of the most popular designs were from Meze Audio and Master & Dynamic.

Many curious exhibitors joined visitors in the Sennheiser booth to catch sight of the HE-1 headphone/amplifier combination with its eight ECC803S tubes. At some €50,000 it may be the most expensive of its kind in the world, but so far 26 pairs have been sold and we were told that production has now been increased to 200 units a year. www.sennheiser.com

An oldie but a goodie, thanks to its use of the now sought after Philips CD-Pro2 drive, is Bel Canto’s top-loading CD-2 transport/CD player [HFN Apr ’08]. The player takes the 44.1kHz/ 16-bit data from a CD and upsamples it for the internal 192kHz/24-bit DAC to process. www.belcantodesign.com

Local importer Ljudtemas demonstrated a number of Pro-Ject turntables including the Signature 10, the EISA-Award winning Classic and the RPM 9 Carbon [right] with Ortofon MC Quintet cartridge, which is based on the same teardrop-shaped chassis as its predecessor, the ProJect RPM 9.2 Evolution. www.project-audio.com

Next month Our pick from the best international hi-fi shows of 2017 NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 23


INVESTIGATION

If it ain’t broke, why mix it? Mike Barnes asks if remixing music takes us closer to the original sound RIGHT: Are reissues of classic albums that have been remixed using modern technology a mere exercise in marketing or an attempt to realise the recording artist’s true vision? Musician and producer Jakko Jakszyk (inset) has been remixing classic albums for a decade, in between touring with King Crimson as their lead vocalist BELOW: The definitive article? Mastered from the original tapes, the recent 50th anniversary stereo remix of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s split opinion among diehard fans as to whether it could better the original four-track mono mix in terms of authenticity and dynamic clout

or the last decade it has become increasingly de rigeur for musicians and bands to have their back catalogue not just remastered, but remixed for stereo and for 5.1 surround sound. This way of reselling the catalogue has been particularly popular with progressive rock groups such as Jethro Tull, Yes, King Crimson and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, who all recorded classic albums on analogue tape. Earlier this year, perhaps the most famous album of all time, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was given a 50th anniversary remix by Giles Martin, son of Sir George Martin who had mixed the original with engineer Geoff Emerick and The Beatles.

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DEFINITIVE DEBATE The review of the new vinyl edition of Sgt Pepper’s that appeared in the Sep ’17 issue of HFN highlighted the divisive nature of such remixes. ‘As for the main LP, this should now stand as the definitive version,’ said reviewer Ken Kessler, ‘except among purists who’ll only recognise the original UK mono as “true”.’ ‘Definitive’ is a word used often in these contexts, but there are those who wonder how this can be. Aren’t the original mono and stereo mixes an essential part of the piece of art, the version that for all the shortcomings of recording and production, spoke of its time? And isn’t it heresy to sever the link between the listener and the

music the way its creators originally presented it? It’s done alright on its own for 50 years, so wouldn’t applying contemporary technology to the original mix simply make the timeless sound dated? Giles Martin has said that the idea was to go back to the original tapes to bring the listener ‘closer to the music’. But to some this was a step too far. Taking Amazon reviews as a sort of vox pop is a potential minefield, but interesting nonetheless. For the new Sgt Pepper’s the ‘ayes’ easily have it, but there are criticisms such as, ‘It’s still not as good as the mono, it still has holes that the mono doesn’t, and worse, it adds or brings up effects never intended to be heard like that’.

‘Original wrong notes have been corrected on some remixes’

DEEPLY CYNICAL Some comments are plainly ridiculous, for example, ‘It’s hard to believe it’s even The Beatles singing and performing on this recording, it sounds so artificially processed and enhanced’. And then there’s the deeply cynical, ‘All whimsy, eclecticism, English eccentricity and delight 24 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

have been steamrollered by the sonics of maximum bombastic corporate greed. Avoid’. But before we start becoming too opinionated, we need to find out what actually happens during these remixes. Jakko Jakszyk, currently guitarist and lead vocalist for King Crimson, has been remixing classic albums for stereo and 5.1 surround sound for a decade. For Jakszyk, a large part of it is a restoration process. In the last few years he has remixed Emerson Lake & Palmer’s 1972 album Trilogy and Brain Salad Surgery from 1973. Two-inch multi-track tape was very expensive back in the day, but the group enjoyed a higher recording budget than most, and so rather than the usual three or four 20-minute reels to mix down for each album, they used a total of 42 reels for the two albums. Some of these multi-tracks were in mislabelled boxes and some in new, unlabelled boxes as the originals had perished. Then Jakszyk discovered that the reel with ‘Karn Evil 9 (First Impression – Part 1)’ was missing. It was located in a separate


archive in California. After baking the tapes to make them pliable and playable without shattering, each track on the multi-track was then transferred to a digital file. A further challenge was to identify and forensically reassemble different takes that had been spliced together from two or more sources.

REAL EYE-OPENER Jakszyk has enjoyed a lengthy solo career and has been in a number of other high-profile groups, including Level 42, and has also worked with Dave Stewart of The Eurythmics and Tom Robinson. He explains that, unlike most musicians, he was always fascinated by all aspects of recording and production, right through to cutting. And he was shocked when, back in the early ’80s, he first took a mixed master tape to prepare the cutting master... ‘The cutting engineer said, “Right we are going to have to get rid of that whole bass frequency”. I said, “I’ve put that there for a reason”. He said, “You can’t have it, because vinyl won’t be able to cope with it. It will send the needle off the record.” ‘Then he takes all this EQ out and he puts a multi-compressor on it to stop it going above that level, or a limiter to limit that frequency. He said, “You can’t have that top-end, because on vinyl it will come back as sibilant distortion.” It’s a real

ABOVE: Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Trilogy from 1972 and Brain Salad Surgery, released in 1973. The remixes were ‘a restoration process’ that involved 42 reels of 2in tape RIGHT: Jakko Jakszyk with Tom Robinson with whom he recorded the album We Never Had It So Good, released in 1990 BELOW: Bill Bruford whose solo albums One Of A Kind (far left) and Feels Good To Me (right) were recently remixed by Jakszyk. This time there were tweaks to levels to achieve the sound originally intended

eye-opener and when you listen to the final thing you think, “It doesn’t really sound like the record I made”, because you have to screw with it so much to accommodate vinyl.’ He points out that through ‘laziness and ignorance’, not to mention chaotic archiving, most CD mastering, and subsequent remastering, of vintage material is based on these cutting masters, rather than the mixed ¼in or ½in master tape, which is a generation closer to the original multi-track recordings. He recently remixed Bill Bruford’s albums Feels Good To Me (1978) and One Of A Kind (1979). ‘As a reference I had the CDs which were made from the masters that were created to cut the vinyl,’ he says. ‘And when you pull up the multi-tracks, straight off the bat, with the faders up, I haven’t touched any EQ, suddenly you are thinking,

“This sounds lovely and warm”. You can hear it breathing and it sounds different before I’ve done anything.’ As a self-confessed ‘fanboy’, Jakszyk prefers to try to reconstruct the album with similar reverb and effects to the original, while making sure that the nuances are all present. But there is always room for ‘judgement calls’. He remembers, on albums he’d rather not name, correcting tuning problems and bum notes. And on Feels Good To Me, although he set it up like the album, Annette Peacock’s voice tended to dominate and so he lowered it in the mix. ‘It’s a remix. Do I really want to create it so slavishly that there is no leeway?’ he asks rhetorically.

TOO RADICAL Typically, Jakszyk was working without a brief and in this case Bruford drove to his studio and spent a day doing some minor tweaking of levels, like that of a ride cymbal he’d always thought had been too quiet. So we can safely say that those albums, at least, now sound the way they were always intended to. The overall success of these remixes is variable and subjective. King Crimson’s guitarist Robert Fripp and producer Steven Wilson took great

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 25


INVESTIGATION

liberties reworking the band’s 1970 album, Lizard, in a way that Jakszyk found just too radical. But when Fripp and Jakszyk tackled King Crimson’s 1997 album Thrak, Fripp told me in 2014 that due to the band squabbling around the desk, ‘the final emergence was compromised. For the remix there is only the engineer, Jakko and myself, but I am committed to honesty and truth in presenting the music and those playing it.’

MIDRANGE MURK On his remix of Close To The Edge by Yes, one of Steven Wilson’s judgement calls was to reinstate a vocal line on the title track, which unbalances one particular section. One can immediately see why it was left out back in 1972. That said, his mix of Yes’s Tales From Topographic Oceans, like Jakszyk’s of Brain Salad Surgery, feels just like the original but with some of the midrange murk washed away. Both are pretty much as you always wanted to hear them.

Jakko Jakszyk admits that the impetus for this whole wave of remixing for stereo came from the need to access multi-track tapes to mix for 5.1 surround sound. And those mixes, by definition, will be completely new undertakings. ‘The industry has, over time, tried its best to introduce quad but the trouble with quad is that it requires you to buy a load of new equipment in order to play it,’ he says. ‘And then you have to buy your album collection again, which is why it never worked. ‘In fact, 5.1 is piggy-backing on what’s available for home cinema. I try not to think about it when doing the work but I believe a lot of people buy these remixes because they are completists and never actually hear them in 5.1 surround.’

‘A lot of people buy remixes only because they are completists’

S.BUKLEY / SHUTTERSTOCK.COM

REDUCTION MIXES Returning to the stereo remixes of St Pepper’s, it’s fascinating to hear a mix of the individual separate tracks for the first time. Because the album was recorded on four-track it was necessary to ‘bounce down’, by which two tracks are put onto one in order to free up an extra track for recording, with a subsequent drop in recorded quality. While the engineers at Abbey Road at the

ABOVE: Steve Wilson pictured in 2017. Founder of the band The Porcupine Tree, Wilson has built a formidable reputation as a remixer of iconic prog rock albums. His solo album, To The Bone, recently hit No 1 in the UK TOP LEFT: Close To The Edge and Tales From Topographic Oceans – two prog rock classics by Yes, which were remixed by Steven Wilson – and King Crimson’s 1997 album Thrak (below) which Jakko Jakszyk worked on with Crimson guitarist Robert Fripp

LEFT: The man behind the desk for the 50th anniversary remix of The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s – Giles Martin. He says his stereo remix of the original album aims to take listeners ‘closer to the music’

time were skilled in these ‘reduction mixes’ they would never have been done by choice and the drums, for example, cut through much better on Giles Martin’s new mix. But whether or not greater separation automatically creates a better sound is clearly a moot point. Some buyers prefer the ‘kick’ of the mono version – which took much longer to mix back in 1967 than the stereo version – even though some sonic details may not be as clear. Some of the hard to define ‘oomph’ of a recording may be lost with greater separation. One buyer even specifically preferred the ‘intensity’ produced by bouncing down.

A NEW ERA Of course we don’t have to buy these new mixes and they often form an interesting alternative in dual or multi-disc reissue packages. What upsets many is when only the new mix is presented on some socalled ‘Definitive Editions’ of albums, effectively taking precedence as the original mix becomes relegated to the DVD, with the 5.1 mix and all the extras. All of which mitigates against it being called ‘definitive’. What is indisputable is that we are entering an era where music that we might have deemed sacrosanct is more mutable than we would ever have thought. And it’s not likely to stop here. Back in the ’60s and ’70s some felt that pioneering rock albums like Sgt Pepper’s and Brain Salad Surgery were worthy of comparison with classical music. Ironically, the way in which they are most similar today is that the ‘definitive’ recorded version of a work in either genre is now largely a matter of opinion.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 27


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CD TRANSPORT/DAC

CD transport/outboard DAC Made by: Métronome Technologie, France Supplied by: Absolute Sounds Ltd Telephone: 0208 971 3909 Web: www.kalista.audio/en/collections; www.absolutesounds.com Prices: £35,000/£37,000

Métronome Technologie Kalista DreamPlay CD/DAC With its avant-garde styling and immaculate build quality, this French-made flagship CD transport/DAC combination is the very model of high-end audio artistry Review: David Price Lab: Paul Miller ne glance at this CD transport and DAC combination, and that great Oscar Wilde aphorism, ‘I can resist anything except temptation’ springs to mind. There’s no beating about the bush – this is one of most visually arresting silver disc spinners the world has ever seen. Manufactured by French high-end specialist Métronome Technologie, this digital front-end looks and sounds like nothing else around. Kalista is – as supremo Jean Marie Clauzel tells me – the company’s cost-noobject brand. ‘Two years ago we decided to manage two brands. Métronome has classic design and high-end prices, whereas Kalista stands for absolutely exceptional high-end products…’

O

SCULPTURAL ART The DreamPlay CD transport (or ‘CD turntable’) and Kalista DAC are unalloyed high-end – two sculptural art pieces that play music in an exceptional way. Only those with the princely sum of £72,000 to spend need apply, so you’d better hope that your horse has a good day at the races, or your lifetime of lottery losses finally comes good! There are two things that stand out: the beautiful looking CD transport with its glinting acrylic, and the partnering tripod-esque DAC with its choice of two digital converters and solidstate or tube outputs. This combination hasn’t come from nowhere as four years ago Métronome Technologie brought us its flagship Ultimate Signature/Nausicaa transport/USB DAC [HFN Dec ’13], of which this is a subtle evolution. It works in much the same way with its top-loading CD transport, although this new generation product brings RIGHT: The top-loading DreamPlay CD transport features a Philips CDM12 Pro mechanism modified by Métronome. The acrylic ‘puck’ [pictured overleaf] echoes the aesthetic

30 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

touchscreen control and more refined power supplies, in addition to twin DACs. The DreamPlay transport is one of the most glorious silver disc spinners that I have encountered. It works in an intuitive way – you place the CD on the spindle and pop the acrylic puck on, and the machine is ready to go. There’s a sensor that knows when a disc is in situ, and no further effort is required. It’s faster than many modern transports, not least because this is no tweaked DVD-ROM mechanism. Instead Kalista has chosen the excellent Philips CDM12 Pro mech, with its own custom tweaks for better sound. The only quibble here is that, due to the lack of an integral top cover, it is more likely to suffer from dust contamination than a conventional design. It’s an exquisitely fashioned thing, with a ‘hewn-from-granite’ feel and a 24kg kerb weight to back this up. The chassis is a massive aluminium affair, with a thick acrylic (60mm methacrylate to be precise) sandwich giving both a striking

visual look and a good degree of additional acoustic damping. Three stainless steel columns are inset into the chassis, and these taper down to spike points that fit neatly into corresponding recesses on the Kalista DAC’s own column tops. For those intending to purchase just the transport, there’s an optional ‘silent base’ in a choice of square or triangular shapes, or tripod stand. At the front of the unit a 4.3in fine-pitch display offers touchsensitive control of the transport functions via pictograph symbols. In paper-white, blue and black, it looks crisp and is easy on the eye – although some might still appreciate tactile, ‘physical’ buttons. Track number and time information is shown as well. Round the back, there’s a socket for the matching 15kg Elektra power supply – a redesigned version of that fitted to the Kalista Signature. This is an impressively large and heavy affair with seven regulated lines, but after the ‘surprise and delight’ at the loveliness of the DreamPlay itself,

‘It’s an exquisitely fashioned thing, with hewn-fromgranite build’


LEFT: The frame of both the heavyweight DreamPlay CD transport and DAC includes a 60mmthick slab of acrylic, with alloy chassis and three stainless steel columns for support. The backlit touchscreens are a novel way to facilitate transport controls and DAC options

it’s a bit of a letdown to see that they’re conventional boxes with a rather ordinary industrial finish [see p33].

TEMPTING PERMUTATIONS The transport itself is the star, designed to form the centrepiece of your system, offering digital outputs in S/PDIF, AES/ EBU and Toslink form, which is all you can ask from a CD spinner. The Kalista DAC, though, is more technically interesting and also a lovely thing to behold, sporting two digital converters which were selected – says the company – ‘to obtain our famous analogue sound’. Making life all the more

varied is the choice of analogue outputs, tube and solid-state. The display offers up these combinations in easy-to-understand graphical form, with three columns of options from left to right. The leftmost one lets you select Toslink, USB, S/PDIF and AES/ EBU. The middle column offers up DAC 1 or DAC 2, and the rightmost gives you ‘AOP’ (solid-state) or ‘Tube’. It’s simple and you soon find yourself experimenting with the various permutations of DACs and solidstate or valve output stages. The DAC 1 option is the company’s traditional digital converter, a Japanesemade AKM AK4395 chip that was also used

DOUBLE DACS Aside from the user-selectable triode tube output stage that we’ve seen in earlier Métronome DACs [HFN Dec ’13], this latest Kalista-branded DAC is the first we’ve seen to also include two separate converter options. According to Métronome, ‘DAC 1’ offers the ‘musical sound profile’ while ‘DAC 2’ is the ‘analytic sound profile’. In practice, the former is the AKM AK4395 DAC that’s been tried-andtested in a few generations of Métronome products – a 192kHz/24-bit DAC that includes a traditional linearphase FIR digital filter and offers a very flat response strated by the black (subsequent analogue stages notwithstanding). This is illustrated impulse and frequency response traces [inset Graph] where the Kalista DAC is flat to –0.1dB/20kHz, –0.8dB/45kHz and –2.7dB/90kHz with 44.1/48kHz, 96kHz and 192kHz files respectively. The new selection, ‘DAC 2’, is provided part in reaction to market pressure for DSD replay (from DSD64 to DSD256) as much as for its compatibility with extended resolution 384kHz/32-bit files via USB. This choice of AK4490 DAC is implemented with AKM’s ‘Slow’ digital filter algorithm, further influencing the Kalista’s time and frequency domain performance. The impact on high frequency response [red traces, inset Graph] amounts to a ‘sweetening’ of –1.3dB/10kHz to –3.9dB/20kHz with CD and 48kHz sample rates. PM

in the earlier Nausicaa DAC. DAC 2 is an AKM AK4490, which permits the far higher bit-rates used for DSD via the USB input [see PM’s boxout, below]. Jean Marie Clauzel says that the other main differences between the Kalista DAC and the Nausicaa are the new 15kg Elektra power supply (with 12 lines of regulation), together with the new touchscreen design. Round the back are the usual complement of digital inputs, including asynchronous USB in, power supply connectors and RCA and XLR analogue outputs. The 15kg unit has the same base options as the matching transport.

LISTENING CHOICES This Kalista CD transport/DAC combination rather reminds me of politicians who say, ‘here are my principles – if you don’t like them then I have others’. It is effectively ffour things in one, offering a choice between a very d detailed, etched and iintricate sound (via D DAC 1, solid-state o output) and a softer, m more opaque and e euphonic one (via D DAC 2, tube out), w with two other shades in between. What is ce certain regardless of the way it is configured, is that it sounds superb and is a highly memorable performer across a wide variety of programme material and digital sources. Starting with the CD transport, it’s a revelation to hear this venerable format sound so up-to-date. With machines like this, you realise that CD was unfairly maligned – it is capable of far better sound than is commonly supposed, but then NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 31


CD TRANSPORT/DAC JEAN MARIE CLAUZEL

ABOVE: The Kalista DreamPlay CD transport and DAC both come with outboard Elektra power supplies. Both transport/DAC front displays may be defeated via a switch on each power supply

not everyone can afford a digital source that costs the same as a Range Rover. Mercury Rev’s ‘Holes’ [Deserter’s Songs; V2 VVR1002772] is a beautiful slice of ’90s alt-rock, but it does suffer from a little brightness. Via the DreamPlay, and with DAC 1 selected, things were pretty well lit, yet there was never any harshness. It served up an extremely open and spacious acoustic with an incredibly well-defined soundstage, and a rich sense of timbre.

GLISTENING DETAILS Violins sounded wonderfully wiry and flutes had a vividness that absolutely glistened with harmonic detail. In front of this, the wall of heavily processed electric guitars rang out, along with the singer’s rather anaemic and vulnerable voice. It was a rousing musical event, yet massively detailed as if someone had shone a searchlight right into the centre of the recording. I could delay no longer and duly touched the DAC 2 legend on the screen, and we were off into another world... Doubters who might think two DACs were some sort of hollow marketing gimmick would be surprised to hear the difference. I discerned appreciably less treble energy, with more focus instead on the midband. I could sense the complex layers of instrumentation better, but the real change was in the slightly more rhythmic feel to the sound. The electric piano work in particular seemed to have more of a groove, as things were more fluid and kinetic. Indeed even the vocals became a touch more contemplative, giving a more moody but less detailed feel to the music.

The better interplay between the snare drum and cymbals signposted the difference between the DAC options quite strikingly, with a superior rendition of the musicians’ subtle dynamic accenting. Even the trombone solo seemed more plaintive, making for a very different reading of the recording as a whole. Flicking over to Kraftwerk’s ‘Spacelab’ [The Man Machine; Capitol CDP 7 46039 2], and a similar pattern presented itself, despite this being 1970s electro and not ’90s guitar grunge. Spatially, the DAC 2 option seemed a fraction more effusive, with performers slightly larger and more tangible overall. However, this paled by comparison to toggling-in the tube output stage, which made a more dramatic difference – although whether it was better or not would be open to debate. ‘Market Traders’ by The High Llamas [Santa Barbara; V2 V2CI 0008] showed how the tube stage added space to the proceedings, giving a thicker and chunkier sound especially to the midband, alongside a stronger centre image. There was a subtle sense that all instruments in the mix sounded a little bit better defined and full of body. Yet it did come over as slightly artificial, and fine detail appeared lost in the translation. I was slightly disappointed by the gentle loss of definition to cymbals, which didn’t sound quite as silky or precisely resolved, and a slightly thick upper midband that again rather distracted from the proceedings. The Kalista DAC is clearly a device of many capabilities. The DAC modes offer two subtly different renditions of the source and then there’s the tube stage

‘With machines like this, you realise CD was unfairly maligned’

‘The DreamPlay CD transport and Kalista DAC are targeted at people who really look for top quality analogue-style sound reproduction, and who also want something unique in their auditorium,’ says Métronome Technologie’s Jean Marie Clauzel. ‘I trust that most audiophiles are – may I say – purists. Hedonists, even!’ He explains that this new flagship combination took a fair while in gestation. ‘It’s difficult to quantify exactly how long, since both models are the accumulated result of almost 15 years of different generations of Kalista CD turntables and DACs. But for these precise models it took three to four months of development, prototyping and testing before arriving at the final product. We had two engineers working full time on both projects.’ The reason he chose the Philips Pro CD drive is practical. ‘There is no other CD pick-up mechanism available on the market offering this level of sound reproduction. Furthermore we’ve been using this drive for years in several models and we perfectly know how to get the best from it.’ The decision to employ two DACs was more philosophical. ‘I feel that one should have the possibility to adapt the sound profile to the music, and – why not? – to the listener’s mood! As a designer I prefer two DACs rather than artificial filters. With the Kalista DAC the user has the choice of four different sound profiles with the same high level of sound quality, when you factor in the switchable tube output stage.’

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 33


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LAB REPORT KALISTA DREAMPLAY CD/DAC

ABOVE: The DreamPlay CD transport [top] offers coaxial and optical S/PDIF outputs alongside AES/EBU while the Kalista DAC [bottom] has matching digital inputs plus USB-B. The balanced (XLR) analogue outputs are transformer-coupled

that has a heavier touch – rather more akin to an effects processor. It conferred a sense of greater weight and power to this somewhat effete ’90s indie band, yet I found it harder to sit back and enjoy the subtleties of the recording. It’s an interesting feature, but my preference would have been to make it more subtle.

TOUCH OF ROMANCE Employing DAC 1 mode, with its solid-state output, one never forgets its amazingly clean, explicit, open and crisply etched nature – everything located in space with great accuracy and a wonderful sense of confidence. This DAC appears untroubled by pretty much any type of recording, whether it was the laid-back jazz rock of Steely Dan’s ‘Home At Last’ [Aja; MCA Records MCAD-37214] or the more densely-packed folk rock of ‘Driver 8’ [REM, Fables Of The Reconstruction; IRS Records IRS-5592]. With DAC 2, things got a little softer of focus and more romantic, with the music delivered in a more rhythmically satisfying way. You’ll have to take your own view of Métronome Technologie’s own description of the respective ‘sound colours’ from the two DACs, for I found DAC 2 a little less intense but ultimately more enjoyable.

There’s no doubting that while the Kalista DAC is excellent with plain vanilla CD, things really get interesting when you move up to hi-res via the USB input. Pink Floyd’s ‘Us And Them’ [Dark Side Of The Moon in DSD64; Capitol Records TOGP-15001] was a joy. There was a wondrous sense of space between the instruments, with a vast, cathedral-like recorded acoustic. At the same time, the sound lilts along in a most beguiling and organic way, never sounding forced. Tonally things smooth out and one becomes far less aware that you’re listening to digital audio. Of course, this is all via DAC 2 which is automatically selected when it receives DSD. Hi-res PCM was no less of a treat, the Kalista DAC showing huge potential here too.

As a CD player, the Kalista DreamPlay/DAC combination offers a distinctive performance with a substantial 5.9V maximum (balanced) output from a 20ohm source impedance, a wide 114.0dB A-wtd S/N ratio and flat ±0.1dB response (DAC1 mode). Distortion is ~0.0025% through bass and midrange at this output, falling to a minimum of 0.0002% over the top 30dB of its dynamic range, with some variation depending on your selection of ‘DAC 1’ or ‘DAC 2’ conversion [see boxout, p31]. The ‘Tube’ output mode has a significant (analogue) impact that rather overwhelms either DAC selection, Métronome having beefed-up the output by 0.5dB to 6.2V but adding sufficient noise to reduce the A-wtd S/N by nearly 20dB. Distortion also increases to 0.2%-0.006% [0dBFs down to –30dBFs, see Graph 1 below] while the output impedance surges up to 1.2kohm – making the Kalista DAC more sensitive to (long) interconnect/ amp combinations. Jitter, however, is slightly high at 1200psec in either DAC1 or DAC2 modes thanks primarily to a series of data-induced sidebands [peaks 11, 19, 24, 26, 29 etc, on the red spectrum, Graph 2]. The AES/EBU connection was used here. Tested in isolation, the Kalista DAC achieves a lower 350psec jitter in all modes at all sample rates, although the pattern of sidebands is still complex [black spectrum, Graph 2]. The overall A-wtd S/N ratio improves by about 1dB to ~116dB while the Tube mode is revealed as having a boosted ultrasonic response amounting to +0.4dB/45kHz and +2dB/90kHz with 96kHz and 192kHz data. There are some very subtle differences between DAC 1 and 2 modes beyond their responses [again, see boxout p31] including stereo separation (sl. better in DAC 1 mode) and low-level resolution (sl. better in DAC 2 mode). PM

ABOVE: Distortion versus 48kHz/24-bit digital signal level over a 120dB dynamic range (1kHz, DAC2, red; DAC1, black; tube, grey; 20kHz, tube, blue)

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT Jean Marie Clauzel says the Kalista brand is looking to offer a complete system in the near future – of which the DreamPlay CD transport and Kalista DAC will form the centrepiece. It’s certainly a worthy one – offering both visual flair and truly excellent sound, plus great flexibility in tweaking the end result. It is massively expensive, yet puts in a serious bid to be the finest digital front end around.

Sound Quality: 88% 0

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ABOVE: High resolution jitter spectrum with CD (red, with markers) and 48kHz/24-bit data (red)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Maximum output level / Impedance

5.85Vrms / 20ohm (XLR out)

A-wtd S/N ratio (16-bit / 24-bit / tube)

114.6dB / 115.8dB / 96.0dB

Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.0023% / 0.00015%

Distortion & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.00075% / 0.00060%

Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz/45kHz/90kHz)

+0.0 to –0.1dB/–0.8dB/–2.7dB

Digital jitter (via CD, 16-bit / 24-bit)

1205psec / 350psec

Resolution @ –100dB (CD, 16-bit / 24-bit)

±0.4dB / ±0.3dB

Power consumption (DreamPlay / DAC)

20W / 28W

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight (combined)

450x240x435mm / 39kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 35


INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER

Integrated amplifier. Rated at 250W/8ohm Made by: Pass Laboratories Inc, California, USA Supplied by: Select Audio, Cumbria Telephone: 01900 601954 Web: www.passlabs.com; www.selectaudio.co.uk Price: £11,495

Pass Labs INT-250 Inspired by the brand’s Point 8 series of FET power amps and benefiting from Nelson Pass’s lifetime of audio engineering experience, this big integrated packs a punch Review: Ken Kessler Lab: Paul Miller ntegrated amp? Huh? I thought the box contained a nuke-proof safe, or a complete set of weights. At 105lbs, the Pass Labs INT-250 is as far removed from a NAD 3020 or Naim Audio NAIT as an integrated amp can be. Its 250W/ch rating, dimensions of 483x230x540mm (whd) and a price tag of £11,495 reinforce the observation. It’s an integrated amplifier without compromise. Then again, this isn’t the first extreme high-end integrated and won’t be the last because some people – regardless of budget – want everything in just one box. But not just any box for, two serious flaws notwithstanding, the INT-250 screams luxury and quality. It is handsome, built to the highest standards and requires a lot of mined ore to provide the impressive metalwork. That said, it is DAC-, phonostage- and headphone-output-free, making it curiously minimalist, but for some, that’s the only way to go – source selection, volume control and little else. Not that the amp is frill-free because it comes with a metal-cased remote control handling input selection, level, power on/ off and mute, plus a few redundant buttons applicable to other models.

I

A CHALLENGING LIFT Let’s dispense with the inexcusable flaws and one lesser concern. The unit’s ungainly mass is not a complaint, as Editor PM – once an habitué of the gymnasium and able to lift this by himself – explained, ‘That’s a product of the parts’ combined weight’. However, given that this is a two-person lift for those less familiar with the multi-gym, fitting handles only to the back of the unit is downright sadistic. Manhandling it is difficult enough, aggravated by Inexcusable Flaw No 2 – the lethal heatsinks. An open letter to Pass Labs: this is 2017. There is no excuse for heatsinks that RIGHT: No fewer than ten pairs of power MOSFETs are deployed on massive heatsinks per channel and with sufficient standing current to support a claimed 16W in Class A mode

36 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017 17

can lacerate passers-by, owners, users or lifters. If one chooses to fit what looks like a stock extrusion, it doesn’t take a master of lateral thinking to devise aestheticallypleasing protective strips covering the dangerous corners on each section of heatsink. Equally, if the front had handles, it would partially ameliorate the threat of the heatsinks by making it easy to lift without risking contact with the sides. As for the lesser concern, it’s the blue-lit meter in the middle, the size of a CD, yet our sample, at least, did nothing. I wasted an unrecoverable hour of my life online, trying to find out what it’s supposed to do, and found a half-dozen conflicting and/or glib explanations before deciding that it’s about as vital as the hood ornament on a 1934 Pontiac. (Rant over.)

At the back, it’s all good news because everything is top-grade and clearly marked. The only caution is that you must not have two sources connected at the same time to the inputs that offer both balanced XLR and single-ended RCA sockets – it’s either/or. Also present on the rear panel are the primary power on/off switch (the front activates the unit from standby), an IEC mains input, earth post and the nicest speaker binding posts I’ve seen in years. They’re massive, easy to tighten and wellspaced – nigh on perfect.

MOSFET POWER Pass Labs based this and the smaller INT-60 on, respectively, the X-250.8 and XA60.8 amplifiers. The business end utilises substantial MOSFET power transistors richly


biased into Class A, though our sample did not get especially hot. The company suggests that the noise levels are slightly higher than for the standalone power amplifiers, but Pass wryly points out that, ‘After you figure in the noise of a separate partnering preamp, it comes out about the same, so I don’t think you lose out on the noise performance’. Once you’ve removed your weightlifting belt and recovered your breath, the INT-250 is up and running in minutes. I hooked up the Marantz CD-12 with coax into a Mytek Brooklyn DAC [HFN Aug ’17], with Yter cables in balanced mode to the Pass amp, and drove Sonus faber Amati Heritage speakers [HFN Oct ’17] with Yter speaker cable. For singleended inputs, I used the Marantz DV8300 universal player and the SME 30/12 with Air Tight PC-1 Supreme moving-coil cartridge into an E-Glo phono stage, connected with Crystal Cable. Operation throughout was

faultless, though I gave the unit a wide berth because of those frickin’ heatsinks.

DETAIL GALORE Currently on a Small Faces jag I was working my way through the box set Here Come The Nice [Immediate/Charly BX 170]. ‘Lazy Sunday’ – a mindbender in stereo – was here in mono, yet it was rich with detail and atmosphere despite the lack of any spatial sense. I ended up digging out the stereo version, [Castle CMTCD234], just so I could isolate the constituent parts. Immediately obvious was how it handled Ronnie Lane’s bass, with the kind of authority needed to deal with the abundant wooferage of the Amatis. Control, extension, texture – I was itching to listen to the remastered Sgt Pepper, anything on Stax, The Detroit Emeralds, Kodo Drums or any other discs with virtuoso playing down below.

‘The INT-250 is a bruiser that knows no load it can’t demolish’

PASS PERFORMANCE Without knowing it, I once owned a product possibly designed by Nelson Pass, from his time at ESS loudspeakers as a twenty-something. He’s barely a year older than I am: when he was at ESS, I was a wastrel at university, so his precocity humbles me. Earning a BSc in Physics from the University of California, Davis, he graduated in 1974. After his spell at ESS, Nelson founded Threshold which placed him with the ‘first generation’ of high-end designers at the cusp of the 1960s and 1970s. It was the sea-change when the conservative old guard of the golden age was supplanted by young lions who ignored self-imposed limitations on the power, size and cost of their amplifier designs. An early proponent of marrying subjective listening with objective measurements, Pass poured his ideas into the Threshold Stasis amplifiers. He sold the company in 1997, having established the eponymous Pass Labs in 1991, as well as First Watt [HFN May ’12].

ABOVE: Minimalism means a lack of clutter: buttons for power on/off, source selection, mute and a large rotary volume control. The digital display offers an indication of volume but the large meter is inexplicable

But more ‘musical’ and arresting was Ian McLagan’s piano. His ivories open the piece, tinkling away stage left, supplying the melody behind Steve Marriott at his Cockney best. ‘They’re doin’ me crust in’ ‘Ow’s your bird’s lumbago?’ – too bad Dick Van Dyke didn’t have this CD as a primer before starring in Mary Poppins. And the party noises! The INT-250, for all of its mien as a bruiser that knows no load it can’t demolish, yielded detail galore, with supreme clarity and transparency. This is the sort of amp that invites concentrated listening, and I can see it finding favour with those of an analytical bent.

THE PIANO MAN I felt the need to explore some schmaltz after all that rocking insanity, cracking open Mobile Fidelity’s new box sets of Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Volume I & Volume II, [MFSL 3-418 (LP) and UDSACD 2-2121 (SACD)]. Not that Billy Joel is schmaltzy per se, but ‘Piano Man’ is, if anything, the rock generation’s ‘Melancholy Baby’ and sure to start a flood of weeping in bars. Yes, the harmonica grabs your ear throughout, but equally you want to absorb the ragtime piano stage right. Joel carries you along, the build-up irresistible. The Pass Labs INT-250 tinkles appropriately, rising and falling back, chiming, calming down around four minutes in, you relax… then all hell breaks loose. Love him or hate him, Joel makes great-sounding records and this amp deals with every nuance NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 37


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LAB REPORT PASS LABS INT-250

ABOVE: Four line-level inputs are offered, two on both balanced XLR and singleended RCAs and two on single-ended RCAs only. Balanced and single-ended preamp outs are included alongside superlative binding posts and much-needed handles

with utter poise. Moving on to ‘Just The Way You Are,’ that perfect example of schmaltz in excelsis, the liquid-y synth that plays throughout provides a unique sound to amuse you, but you need something acoustic and recognisable. Then you get the glorious sax at one minute into the tune, a ‘real’ instrument to use as a reference. After a couple of solos, you realise that the INT-250 is able to convey air, breathiness and, most important of all, presence.

TEXTURES AND LAYERS Still feeling dreamy but wanting some bite, I turned to The Runaways’ take on The Beatles’ ‘Eight Days A Week’ from And Now... The Runaways [Anagram CDM GRAM63]. Performed as a plodding ballad, it has heavy metal mass, if slowed down. OK, so there’s something questionable about a 65-year-old pensioner listening to The Runaways, but, hey, Joan Jett turns 60 next year, so gimme a break! Via the INT-250 – and I doubt manager Kim Fowley ever expected this band to be heard through a high-end system – the music had a luscious, languid feel that filled the soundstage with thudding percussion, keyboards way to the back, fuzz guitar and those streetsmart-yet-girly vocals, deadpan but still sincere. Nelson Pass ought to hear this. His amp treats The Runaways like they were Edith Piaf. More in character is the next track, their version of Slade’s ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’, an ideal choice for a band so heavily influenced by early ’70s UK glam. The track has a certain power, and the INT-250 renders it suitably

imposing, while enabling the piano to pop into hearing range while the percussion tries to swamp it. Sticking with the grandiose, I found a copy of Electric Light Orchestra’s Zoom [Epic 502 500 2], a later effort from the turn of this century with the sound intact and identifiable, though it’s basically a Jeff Lynne solo. This particular set also included one of George Harrison’s last performances. Lynne has always been about scale, and he does a better facsimile of Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ than just about anyone else, an ideal counter to the intimacy of Joel’s ‘Piano Man’. Lynne’s specialty is blending straight rock with orchestral majesty, and one suspects he’d be lost without multi-tracking. While he proved that he could do small and cosy with The Traveling Wilburys, huge is his milieu. ‘State Of Mind’ is a perfect example, especially the massed vocals, but the Pass Labs INT-250 wasn’t even remotely challenged. ELO was always about textures and layers – this amplifier deftly reproduces both, and without a hint of sibilance or stress.

One generation on, the INT-250 is very much the bigger brother to Pass’s INT-30A amplifier [HFN Dec ’10] although this is a Class AB design that, strictly, bears closer comparison to the X250.8 power amplifier in design. While the INT-30A vastly exceeded its rated output power, the INT-250’s 250W specification is met at 2x255W/8ohm and 2x397W/4ohm with sufficient headroom to accommodate 325W, 605W and 755W into 8, 4 and 2ohm loads up to 1% THD under dynamic conditions. The 20A current limit is reflected in its maximum 400W/1ohm delivery [see Graph 1, below]. Other features are entirely consistent with earlier Pass amps, notably the bass/midrange distortion trend that increases proportionally with power output from 0.01%/1W to 0.05%/10W and 0.1%/100W. Versus frequency, distortion also betrays the same trend – 0.012%/200Hz, 0.02%/2kHz and 0.12%/20kHz (all at 1W/8ohm in Class A mode). The trend is maintained, albeit at proportionally higher distortion, at higher outputs: 0.03%/200Hz, 0.05%/2kHz and 0.5%/20kHz/10W. This is an ‘engineered’ quality [see Graph 2, below] and a hallmark of Nelson Pass’s innovative ‘SuperSymmetric’ amplifier designs. This fingerprint is also revealed in the INT-250’s output impedance which is a ‘flat’ 0.14ohm from 20Hz-2kHz but increases thereafter to 0.2ohm/10kHz, 0.35ohm/20kHz, 1ohm/50kHz and 2.25ohm/100kHz. This informs the gently rolled-off response that becomes ‘sweeter’ the lower the loudspeaker’s high frequency impedance: –0.15dB/20kHz (unloaded), –0.35dB/20kHz (8ohm), –0.6dB/20kHz (4ohm) and –1dB/20kHz (1ohm). The amplifier’s A-wtd S/N ratio is bang-on the industry average at 84dB (re. 0dBW). PM

ABOVE: Dynamic power output versus distortion into 8ohm (black trace), 4ohm (red), 2ohm (blue) and 1ohm (green) loads. Maximum current is 20A

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT Aside from my issue with the lack of front handles, the useless meter and the ‘deadly’ heatsinks, this is a highly desirable amp with a price that’s almost sensible when you consider that a competitor like the beefier and more feature-rich D’Agostino costs nearly four times as much. Handsome, robust, competent, this amp will never disappoint – once you lift it from the box and out the way of your ankles.

Sound Quality: 85% 0

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- 100

ABOVE: Distortion versus frequency at 1W/8ohm (black, 5Hz-40kHz) and 10W/8ohm (red, 20Hz-20kHz)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Power output (<1% THD, 8/4ohm)

255W / 397W

Dynamic power (<1% THD, 8/4/2/1ohm)

325W / 605W / 755W / 400W

Output impedance (20Hz–20kHz)

0.140-0.350ohm

Freq. resp. (20Hz–20kHz/100kHz)

+0.0dB to –0.34dB/–5.0dB

Input sensitivity (for 0dBW/250W)

106mV / 1655mV (balanced)

A-wtd S/N ratio (re. 0dBW/250W)

84.1dB / 108.1dB

Distortion (20Hz-20kHz, 10W/8ohm)

0.031-0.51%

Power consumption (Idle/Rated o/p)

235W / 1000W

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight

483x230x540mm / 47.6kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 39


ALL-IN-ONE SOLUTION

Integrated streamer/DAC/amplifier. Rated at 80W/8ohm Made by: Naim Audio Ltd, Salisbury Supplied by: Naim Audio Ltd Telephone: 01722 426600 Web: www.naimaudio.com Price: £4100 (£4250 with DAB)

Naim Uniti Nova The flagship model in Naim’s reinvented Uniti network music system range combines flexibility, future-proofing and user-appeal with an entirely persuasive sound Review: Andrew Everard Lab: Paul Miller eplacing a successful model is always a risky business, and consigning an entire range to history doubly so – but that’s just what Naim has done with its Uniti lineup of all-in-one network music systems. Gone are UnitiQute, the NaimUniti itself, the SuperUniti and even the UnitiServe ripper/ storage device. In their place we have the Uniti Atom from £1750, the Uniti Star starting from £3300, and the Nova reviewed here, the flagship model of the new range, from £4100. All those prices are dependent on the configuration you choose. For example, the Atom may be ordered with an HDMI input for hook-up to a video source at a £100 premium, while an extra £150 on the Nova, or £200 on the Star, will get you a built-in DAB radio tuner. Completing the new lineup is the £1800 Naim Core ripper/server, which is supplied without a hard drive to allow the buyer to choose their preferred configuration.

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ability to deliver hi-res music on-demand, not to mention downloads available at everything up to 384kHz PCM. And of course we’ve seen the revival of DSD as a music playback format – just when the whole world thought SACD was as dead and buried as the rival DVD-Audio – and its extension beyond the DSD64/2.8MHz format used on those discs up to DSD128, 256 and even DSD512 iterations. Although Naim worked hard on the original Uniti models during their lifetime, adding features and compatibilities over the years via a mixture of hardware upgrades and (admittedly rather laborious) firmware updates, the company realised some time back that it was reaching the limits of the products to take on new tricks, and that radical changes were required. In our interview sidebar [p43] Naim MD Trevor Wilson explains some of the challenges the company faced in this process – and they turned out to be even greater than it had anticipated – but the short version is that the ‘new Uniti’

‘Naim’s “platform for the future” includes plenty of spare capacity’

TODAY’S CHALLENGES While the wholesale change of what has become one of Naim’s best-selling lineups is certainly brave, there was an inevitability about it, given the way the music landscape has shifted since the original NaimUniti was launched back in 2009. Back then, we were in a world of MP3 files and, for the very adventurous, WAV or FLAC rips at CD quality. I seem to remember I set up a NAS device with a single 1TB drive (and my first iPod!) in order to explore the potential of the first review sample, and was very excited when someone pointed me toward a source of 96kHz/24-bit files. Now we’re in a world of competing streaming services, one or two with the RIGHT: An over-sized mains transformer feeds linear PSUs for the analogue amplifier in addition to the SHARC DSP [centre], streaming board [silver, lower right] and ADC/DAC board [right]. A small switchmode PSU serves standby

40 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

models now on sale, some nine months after originally planned, are the result of a project stretching back some four-and-ahalf years. It also involved a substantial investment, both financially and in terms of development resources, and the construction of a new cell-based production facility in Salisbury, with computer-guided manual assembly and testing based on work the company piloted with the build of its flagship Statement amplifier system [HFN Jun ’15].

FEATURES GALORE The Statement project has informed more than just the way the latest Uniti models are screwed together, for even the briefest inspection reveals the now familiar topmounted volume control (also seen in Naim’s Mu-so one-box systems), heatsink ribs and white Naim logo within the acrylic ‘plinth’ on which the products sit. Also brought in from Mu-so is the hidden Wi-Fi antenna, doing away with the rubber stub aerial used on the original Unitis. Perhaps the most striking feature here, however, is the large LCD display panel on the front of the Atom, Nova and Star


models. This is a huge improvement in ‘across the room’ legibility over the old green displays, not least because it also allows the system to display cover artwork. Beside it are touch buttons to access major functions of the unit, with the display and button illumination dimming when not in use if required, then waking again when the user’s hand approaches to operate it. Naim also supplies the new Uniti models with a radio-frequency remote control in a matching high gloss finish. The handset gives feedback of volume level, and so on, as well as working out of line of sight of the unit, and – at least once one gets one’s head around the iconography used – proves intuitive in use. However, for the smoothest experience I’d stick to Naim’s excellent iOS/Android app, which also allows easy access to music stored on your home network and streaming services. I find it one of the easiest apps of its kind to use, although admittedly it’s the one with which I am most familiar, as it also ‘drives’ my other Naim network devices. The Uniti Nova itself comes with network music playback support, all the way up to 384kHz/32-bit and DSD128,

Tidal and Spotify Connect integration, and Chromecast built-in. This last feature allows it play music directly from a portable device or computer running any Chromecast-enabled apps – Naim says that means almost 500 apps, including the Qobuz hi-res service, and enables the Uniti Nova to add new functionality as and when it appears. That’s also due to the processor ‘headroom’ built into the device, for while the old Unitis were just about reaching the limits of their functionality, the new models, built as they are on Naim’s ‘platform for the future’, have plenty of capacity to spare.

UPRATED WI-FI The Uniti Nova also has both Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth with aptX built-in, along

IN-HOUSE DSP Named after two long-serving engineers, the Sells/Nilsson filter employed in the Uniti Nova comprises a brickwall IIR filter running on a 4th-generation 40-bit SHARC DSP [centre IC on inside shot, adjacent] with a gentle 6th-order analogue filter feeding the output. This IIR filter is a phase-linear type with no pre-ringing [but extended post-ringing – see inset Graph] i the th ‘digital ‘di it l sound’ d’ and, therefore, very little acausal distortion – a suspectt in that irritates many audiophiles. The Burr-Brown PCM1791 DAC, used here in current output mode and with discrete I-to-V conversion, handles 192kHz/24-bit data but the Nova’s response does not stretch out to 45kHz (with 96kHz media) or 90kHz (with 192kHz media). Instead, Naim’s custom IIR filter coefficients cut in earlier, delivering a 60th-order roll-off at 25kHz [see Lab Report, p45]. PM

ABOVE: Substantially built, the Uniti Nova is dominated by a huge top-mount volume dial. Functions can be addressed via the front panel touch screen, remote control or Naim app

with both Wi-Fi and Ethernet network connectivity, with an uprated Wi-Fi section designed to lessen the chance of dropouts and buffering, even when streaming higher-resolution content. In addition, it offers a range of inputs including ttwo sets of lineiins apiece on p pairs of RCAs and N Naim’s preferred D DIN connections, p preouts on bo both RCAs (for a power amp or a subwoofer) an and DINs. Digital inp inputs run to two opt optical, two RCA coaxial and one BNC socket, and the Nova also has an HDMI port able to take audio from a TV with ARC (Audio Return Channel) func functionality. In addition music can be played from both USB storage and portable devices via Type A sockets ffront and back, which can also accept a portable USB CD drive for musicrripping to connected storage, and tthere’s also a slot to the rear of the N Nova to accept an SD memory card for p playback or storage. Furthermore, it can serve music from o other network-connected devices – up to 20,000 tracks from four of them, w which should be adequate for most needs, but if you want more it can be used together with a Naim Core ripper/ store, at which point the Nova will offer almost Roon-like integration of Tidal streaming and locally-stored music. The new Unitis, like the company’s Mu-so systems, are Roon-ready, and I was able NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 41


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ALL-IN-ONE SOLUTION TREVOR WILSON

ABOVE: Full colour display delivers album artwork and content. An inbuilt proximity sensor wakes a ‘sleeping’ display as the user approaches

to play from my computer to the Nova using it as a Roon endpoint. True, there’s neither the disc-ripping and onboard storage of the Convert Technologies Plato [HFN Jan ’17], which starts at around £3350, nor the CD drive and ultimate power of the much more expensive AVM Ovation CS 8.2 [HFN May ’17], but the technology built into the new Naim flagship makes it a pretty compelling – and rather more compact – proposition. Aside from the new digital platform, the audio side of the Nova is very much traditional Naim. While many rival products now use Class D or fully digital amplification, what we have here is a traditional Class AB audio section conservatively rated at 80W/8ohm [see PM’s Lab Report, p45].

Certainly in use the Nova sounds suitably powerful, detailed and effortless across a wide range of music, and you’d have to play your favourites at very high levels into large speakers in a very big room before you’d even start to approach its limits.

WEIGHT AND DEFINITION I mentioned before the big powerful sound of the Nova, and listening to it the day after the death was announced of Walter Becker, I was struck by the clarity and vibrancy with which it played some DSD rips of classic Steely Dan albums, delivering the music with both pace and punch, allied to excellent weight and definition. The drive and speed of ‘Bodhisattva’ [from Countdown To Ecstasy; Geffen UIGY-9566], was as attentiongrabbing as the way the Nova revealed both the character of the instruments and the dynamics of the track. Even in the ‘hell for leather’ rush of the piece the sound was packed with information and detail, making for a compelling listen. Meanwhile the more relaxed sound of ‘Deacon Blues’ [from Aja; Geffen UIGY9026] found me revelling in the harmonies and backing vocals, and enjoying the smooth yet crisp view of both the lead guitar and the weighty, tautly controlled bass. OK, so there was a bit of sadness and nostalgia involved in the listening, but undeniably the Nova did the memories proud with its informative sound and nicely defined soundstaging. It’s a sound that’s very easy to enjoy, but rewards closer listening thanks to the sheer amount of musical detail offered. In simple terms, it’s really rather lovely, and after only a little use, albeit with a sample

‘I failed to find anything the Nova didn’t make fresh and involving’

ABOVE: Analogue inputs are digitised via a TI PCM1804 ADC [top IC] while a companion PCM1791 DAC services the analogue outs

Trevor Wilson has been Managing Director of Naim Audio since 2015, joining the company back in 2007. I asked him about the challenges in developing the company’s ‘Platform for the Future’. ‘As a team, we decided to create these leading streaming systems and, given our delays in getting these products to market it would now be disingenuous for me to say the challenges were all anticipated. We didn’t take into full account the time it would take to gain all the technical product approvals, but we have learned, and it won’t happen again.’ There were physical challenges, too: ‘The new industrial design called for square edges and “no visible fixings”, so we’ve invested heavily in new manufacturing stations and processes. Other design challenges involved efficient space-packing and modelling for heat and ventilation.’ Chromecast built-in was a significant part of the design, as ‘it gives access to apps such as Qobuz where music can be streamed at up to 96kHz+. It’s a huge advantage, so say you like Deezer – it’s there, or SoundCloud – it’s there. And there are more compatible apps every day.’ And Wilson adds that ‘AirPlay is also interesting: Roon was demo’ing its system using AirPlay on a Nova at the recent CEDIA show in the USA’. But he won’t be drawn on where the ‘Platform for the Future’ goes from here, beyond saying that ‘As we call it a platform, that must give some encouragement to our customers who are expecting other products in due course’.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 43


LAB REPORT ALL-IN-ONE SOLUTION

NAIM UNITI NOVA

ABOVE: Optical (x2), coaxial (x3), HDMI (ARC) and two USB-A digital inputs are joined by an SD card slot, wired and wireless LAN plus FM/DAB. Two line inputs are available on RCA/DIN sockets plus pre out on RCA/DIN in addition to 4mm speaker terminals

already very well run-in, the sound gained weight and poise, and settled into something extremely listenable. In fact, comparing the sound of the Nova with my usual Supernait 2, which has a similar output power, fed from the preout DIN of the allin-one system, it wasn’t always easy to hear the benefit of the separate amplifier, which speaks volumes for the quality of the Nova’s onboard preamp and power amp stages. It’s a little less impressive when the Nova is fed with analogue sources, which are digitised [again, see PM’s Lab Report], as I tried using my NDS network player as a source. Here the all-in-one sounds a little softer and less detailed than the straighter path of the Naim integrated. However, I enjoyed using the preamp inputs of the Nova to combine it with my AV system, for which both a unity gain setting and adjustable lipsync delay are provided. Naim has clearly thought through every aspect of what this system can do.

FLEET-FOOTED AGILITY And that’s as obvious from the sound as it is from the functionality. Having tried the Nova with everything from podcasts Bluetoothed in from my iPod to hi-res files played from USB memory and network streaming, I’ve failed to find anything that this Naim system didn’t make fresh and entirely involving. As an aside, the system was able to handle anything up to 384kHz/24-bit FLAC files over Wi-Fi, but I’d still stick to a wired connection, both for ‘belt and braces’ certainty of data transmission, as I have more than a few DSD albums on my server. The Nova will play hard and fast with the likes of Queens Of The

Stone Age’s charging ‘Head Like A Haunted House’ [from Villains; Matador OLE-1125-2], but at the same time its fluidity and precision serves well a close-up recording such as the solo piano of Christian Grøvlen’s Bach – Inside Polyphony set [2L-139], downloaded in the 352.8kHz/24-bit format of the original DXD recording. The presence and ambience of the recording are to 2L’s usual high standards, and the church acoustic shines through, not as a special effect or a gimmick, but as a realistic sense of space. Change to a larger-scale piece, such as Theodore Kuchar’s lovely recording of Shostakovich Jazz And Ballet Suites with the Ukraine National SO [Brilliant Classics 6735], and the Uniti Nova’s combination of dynamic ability and fleet-footed agility is much in evidence in the captivating ‘Waltz No 2’ from the Second Jazz Suite, with its playful swing and forceful punch. The orchestra is clearly having a ball in this, perhaps the finest recording of these pieces, and as well as excellent instrumental tone and fine soundstaging, the performance delights. That’s what the Naim Uniti Nova does so well.

It is possible to change the Nova’s ‘maximum volume’ from a notional ‘85’ to ‘100’ in its set-up menu, a feature that increases the amplifier’s overall gain from +35.1dB to +43.0dB. In most cases the 85 setting will be perfectly adequate. Power output is comfortably in excess of Naim’s 80W rating at 2x96W/8ohm and 2x155W/4ohm, increasing to 114W, 190W and 290W into 8, 4 and 2ohm under dynamic conditions. The output is protected beyond 165W/1ohm, or 12.8A, but is sufficiently load-tolerant to handle any likely partnering loudspeaker [see Graph 1, below]. The performance of the output stage is arguably determined less by distortion – from 0.005-0.013% over its full 80W range through the midband and 0.005-0.038% from 20Hz-20kHz/10W – than by its higher-than-average (white) noise, yielding a 79.2dB A-wtd S/N ratio (re 0dBW). The response and time domain behaviour of all the Nova’s inputs is determined by Naim’s custom upsampling digital filter [see boxout, p41]. Analogue inputs look to be sampled at 48kHz, offering a system response of –1.8dB/20kHz and –9dB/24kHz (all 10W/8ohm), while the digital inputs reach out to –1.2dB/20kHz and –16dB/30kHz (pre output) with all incoming sample rates above 88.2kHz. Tested at a default 2.05V line output level, the Nova’s DAC stage offers a modest 103dB A-wtd S/N ratio while distortion drops to a minimum of 0.001-0.0035% at –20dBFs [see Graph 2, below], increasing to 0.01-0.046% with a 0dBFs digital input (all 20Hz-20kHz). Jitter, as promised by Naim, is the lowest I have measured with this tried-and-tested PCM1791 DAC. At <10psec with all incoming sample rates, this deeply impressive result pays testament to the rigour of Naim’s digital engineering. PM

ABOVE: Dynamic power output versus distortion into 8ohm (black trace), 4ohm (red), 2ohm (blue) and 1ohm (green) loads. Maximum current is 12.8A

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT This top-end Naim Uniti Nova moves the performance on from the old SuperUniti, while also bringing the facilities list bang up to date and leaving scope for future development thanks to the spare processing capacity onboard. It may no longer be the unique proposition the original NaimUniti was back in 2009, but for anyone looking for a ‘just add speakers’ network music solution this is a must-listen.

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ABOVE: OVE Distortion Di i versus di digital i l signal i l llevell over a 120dB range via pre out (1kHz, black and 20kHz, blue)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Continuous power (<1% THD, 8/4ohm)

96W / 155W

Dynamic power (<1% THD, 8/4/2/1ohm)

114W / 190W / 290W / 165W

Output impedance (20Hz–20kHz)

0.16–0.21ohm (68-225ohm, pre)

Freq. resp. (20Hz–20kHz/30kHz)

+0.0 to –1.2dB/–16dB (digital)

Digital jitter (S/PDIF at 48kHz/96kHz)

<5psec / <10psec

A-wtd S/N ratio (re. 0dBW/0dBFs)

79.2dB (Analogue) / 103.1dB (Dig)

Distortion (20Hz-20kHz; 0dBW/0dBFs)

0.005–0.038%/0.009–0.047%

Power consumption (idle/rated o/p)

29W / 260W (19W standby)

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight

432x95x265mm / 13kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 45


TURNTABLE

Direct-drive turntable with electronic speed control Made by: Panasonic Corporation, Osaka, Japan Supplied by: Panasonic UK, Berks Telephone: 0844 844 3899 Web: www.technics.com; http://panasonic.net Price: £1299

Technics SL-1200GR Offering most of the performance of its top direct-drive at less than half its price, Technics’ new affordable version of its classic turntable looks set to cause a stir Review: Nick Tate Lab: Paul Miller ometimes, nature plays a trick on you. The Technics SL-1200 was one of the longest-running turntables in history, its original incarnation dating back to 1972 no less. Throughout the ’80s, ’90s and noughties, it powered trendy nightclubs and village discos alike. Then suddenly Technics discontinued it, just when the much-vaunted vinyl revival was finally gathering speed. The decision to cease production was due to a drop in demand caused by the recession, said Tetsuya Itani, Technics’ Chief Technical Officer, and also because the tooling for the deck had worn out. Recently though, nearly a decade later, the company resurrected the line. The first limited-edition ‘Grand Class’ SL-1200GAE [HFN Jun ’16] proved a real jaw-dropper, the company throwing everything at the deck, including a brand new twin-rotor direct-drive motor. Soon the £2999 SL-1200G followed, the unlimited socalled ‘premium’ version for audiophiles and superstar DJs alike. Now we have the £1299 SL-1200GR, referred to by Technics as the ‘standard’ version – and surely the spiritual heir to the last of the previous generation designs [see boxout, opposite].

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SUPER FAST The GR is substantially lighter than the SL-1200G (11.2kg versus 18kg), making it much easier to haul around in the back of your mate’s Transit van on DJing duties, but I suspect many will still countenance using it as a hi-fi deck, and rightly so… As you might expect given the substantial price drop, quite a lot of cost-cutting has gone on. Whereas the ’G has a twin-rotor motor, the ’GR has a lower torque single-rotor unit. However, it achieves a similar (claimed) super-fast startup time of 0.7s by having a lighter platter – a 332mm aluminium diecast version. Although this looks just like the one RIGHT: The cast alloy platter is damped by a thick rubberised internal layer and rubber mat atop. The coreless direct-drive motor was originally featured in the SL-1200G model

46 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

found on the SL-1200G, which is a 3.5kg brass and aluminium sandwich design, the platter used here weighs just 2.5kg. Despite the penny-pinching, it still achieves impressive measured speed stability [see PM’s Lab Report, p49] and is largely devoid of resonance when compared to previous generations of the Technics SL-1200. The plinth itself looks and feels similar to that of the more expensive ’G, but lacks the latter’s 10mm aluminium top plate. The ’GR is pure cast aluminium and, platter notwithstanding, this accounts for most of the weight difference between the two decks (6kg, approximately). The lower section is a form of silicon rubber, rather prosaically called Bulk Mould Compound, while the isolating feet are essentially the same as those fitted to the pricier ’G, albeit with their damping rate adjusted for the lighter weight of this more humble turntable. These are made from silicon rubber too, chosen for its anti-vibration properties and long-term durability.

The tonearm is a universal S-shaped design of conventional appearance, with gimbal suspension and high precision bearings. It is manually assembled by artisans and adjusted by technicians, says Technics. Crucially, while the SL-1200G sports a matt-finished magnesium alloy tube, the ’GR uses aluminium.

SILKY ACTION Wiring is of good quality but nothing fancy, and is terminated by gold-plated phono plugs. However, the rather hard-to-reach armlead is detachable so aftermarket versions can be fitted. Effective length of the tonearm is quoted as 230mm, with a 15mm overhang. It is height adjustable by 6mm, and gives 4g of tracking force adjustment. The standard SME-style headshell weighs 7.6g while an auxiliary weight allows the tonearm to track cartridges from 5.6g to 16.4g. It proved a breeze to install a Goldring E3 movingmagnet cartridge, and the deck felt lovely


to use. Compared to other turntables at the price, it is beautifully silky in action, yet seems far more robust.

ROCK WITH YOU If you have never heard a Technics SL-1200 new or old, then the sound of this deck will come as a surprise. So much so in fact that it may cause you to question your previous world view of turntables. The old SL1200 was great in many ways, and the SL-1200GR is better still. What underlines its sound is the rock-solid bass, which is as if the music is hewn from granite, the soundstage burnished deep into rock. Instantly, you begin to hear music such as Kraftwerk’s classic ‘Computer World’ [from Computer World; EMI 2C07064370] in a different light. You’re immediately aware of its powerful bottom end, which switches on

and off like a blinking LED, and lightningfast transient notes. Things sound so supple and tight that your feet simply cannot keep still, which is what defines the character of this most special turntable. It isn’t just the instant on-off bass performance that impresses however. The SL-1200GR shows great control of the overall musical picture, everything above the bass snapping into focus too. In a way, it’s like turning up the contrast on a good television: everything is more explicit, with more obvious differences between musical light and shade. Instruments syncopate better with one another, and at the same time the soundstage takes on a super-solid and tangible feel. Put on a fairly average rock

‘Ride cymbals glinted and had a gorgeously shimmering feel’

SL-1200 EVOLUTION ‘Everything is new except the dustcover,’ said Technics’ Chief Technical Officer Tetsuya Itani at the launch of the SL-1200GAE. The SL-1200GR is also largely all-new, the main difference to the old SL-1200mk5 being the motor, which uses newly designed digital circuitry to control it – complete with a service port hidden under the platter. The new deck’s platter is an aluminium design like the original ’1200, but weighs 2.5kg versus the original model’s 1.7kg including mat, and is noticeably less resonant thanks to its underside damping. The tonearm appears similar to the original, lacking the magnesium armtube of the new SL-1200G. Importantly though, it no longer has captive flying leads. Rather, there’s a pair of phono sockets at the base, meaning you can experiment with cables. The feet, which were a criticism of the old deck, are also improved on the new. Sonically, the SL-1200G is much smoother sounding than the SL-1200mk5 and has even tighter bass and a fractionally wider soundstage. It sounds less mechanical and more musical, which is really saying something.

ABOVE: Technics’ rubbery Bulk Mould Compound forms the base. The aluminiumtubed S-shaped arm is where cost-cutting has taken place, but the old clear plastic lid lives on!

recording such as The Smiths’ ‘What Difference Does It Make?’ [from The Smiths; Rough Trade Rough 61] and you’re struck by the sound of the three musicians located in different parts of the recorded acoustic – such as it is – and the strong central location of singer Morrissey. It’s a cliche, but the SL-1200GR really does give a mastertape-like feel to the proceedings. Everything is big, bold and able to live and breathe within its own space, without being crammed into a generic blob between the loudspeakers.

FINELY ETCHED This maps out into a fantastic midband. There’s oodles of detail and it’s wonderfully informative about things that many belt drives seem to gloss over: the sharp sound of steel guitar strings being struck by a plectrum for example. The guitar work on Prefab Sprout’s beautiful ‘Bonnie’ [from Steve McQueen; Kitchenware KWLP3] is a case in point, or the opening arpeggios to Kate Bush’s ‘Babooshka’ [from Never For Ever; EMI F667639]. Both are so much more explicit and finely etched than any conventional turntable at this price, although some rivals are closer than others. At the same time, treble is superb. One cartridge that I used in the SL-1200GR – a Lyra Dorian moving-coil – has a deliciously extended high frequency performance and is also very delicate in nature. This Technics NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 47


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LAB REPORT TECHNICS SL-1200GR

ABOVE: RCA output sockets and a knurled ground connection are fitted under the rear of the chassis. These may be a little fiddly to access, as is the mains inlet also tucked away under the body of the turntable

deck allowed it to render all the atmosphere of Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’ [from Signals, Mercury SRM-1-4063], giving a gorgeously shimmering feel to ride-cymbals which glinted out from the dense mix like stars in a clear night sky. The deck’s drive system seems to influence every aspect of its musical performance, giving a wonderfully detailed yet propulsive feel to the records it plays. It’s a real adrenaline rush.

ESPRESSO LOVE So the new SL-1200GR is the best turntable in the world then? Well no, not quite. Like all SL-1200 series designs old and new, it has issues – and they’re more apparent with this budget version. Compared to a classy belt-drive rival, the ’GR can sound a little frenzied, as if it’s had one cup of coffee too many. It’s not an unpleasant sensation as such, but it lacks subtlety and some may find the ‘poverty spec’ ’GR a little brusque and upfront at times. Tonally it’s not the warmest or richest of performers, and there’s a slight tendency to chrome-plate the midband, meaning it’s not unerringly smooth, especially on bright recordings. There’s another criticism too. Play some classic rock music such as Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ [from the album of the same name; CBS/Sony SKPE-43] and you’re aware that the soundstage is a little more two-dimensional than you might like. The deck gives very well-located images, but they don’t fall back as far as when heard on some rivals and there’s also a slightly constrained left-to-right feel. I suspect this is mostly down to the tonearm [and see PM’s Lab Report], which is somewhat overshadowed by the SL-1200GR’s fine motor unit. The SL-1200GR’s foibles are quite apparent then, all the more so because they’re the polar opposite of the mistakes that most, rather prosaic-sounding similarly priced

belt-drive decks make. Compared to this Technics direct-drive, its rivals sound slow, ponderous and vague, especially in the bass. They lack the joyously rhythmic, sledgehammer bass that this turntable is capable of. The Beatmasters’ ‘Who’s In The House’ [Anywayyawanna; Rhythm King Records LEFT LP10] delivered an endorphin rush the like of which is not expected of a £1300 turntable. With fast-paced, beat-driven music this deck sounds absolutely mesmeric, almost as if it was born to play it. It’s hard to go back, once you’ve heard it. The new SL-1200GR is a wonderful performer at its price then, with only the more expensive SL-1200G making the deck look shabby in any way. It’s a flawed genius, whereas the latter sees the extra money spent in all the right places to deliver a more neutral sound that presents things in a less intense and unsubtle way. Arguably, both versions of the deck are limited by their tonearms which, I suspect, introduce a degree of dynamic compression and a slight lack of focus into the proceedings. This raises the question of whether Technics has plans for a ‘SL-150G’ motor unit anytime soon.

While the SL-1200GR’s coreless direct-drive motor may not quite have the torque of the Grand Class SL-1200GAE [HFN Jun ’16], it still brings its 2.5kg platter up to speed within 1-1.5sec (power consumption peaks at 17W then settles back to 4W). And once spinning at 33.3rpm the platter is pitch-accurate to within –0.044% (or –1.4Hz at 3150Hz) while cyclical speed variations (wow and flutter) amount to just 0.04% (0.02% each, peak wtd). This is clearly illustrated in the sharp, clean peak seen in Graph 1, below. Through bearing – or, in this instance, through spindle/motor – rumble is very low too, and only a smidgen short of the ’1200GAE’s ‘reference class’ of –73.3dB at –72.9dB (DIN-B wtd). Through-groove rumble is a little higher at –70.7dB, indicating that the diecast alloy/rubber platter lacks the ultimate damping properties of the costlier deck’s brass/ aluminium/rubber platter arrangement. Nevertheless, all these figures are peerless at the £1300 asking price. While the ’1200GAE’s cold-drawn magnesium tube delivered one very clear resonant mode at a remarkably high 300Hz, the alloy equivalent here demonstrates a very different and more complex series of resonances more in keeping with other S-shaped tonearms we’ve tested in the past. Bending modes at 85Hz and 150Hz are joined by a trio of higher-Q resonances at 215Hz, 270Hz and 310Hz – the latter showing some ‘reflection’ back from the bearing – and what appears to be the detachable headshell flexing at 590Hz. The gimbal bearings themselves have a very small degree of play while friction is very low at 5-10mg and the 8-9g effective mass renders the arm well suited to moderate-to-high compliance MMs, including the popular Ortofon 2M series. PM

ABOVE: Wow and flutter re. 3150Hz tone at 5cm/sec (plotted ±150Hz, 5Hz per minor division)

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT The Technics SL-1200GR’s technical performance beats most belt-drive turntables at ten times its price, and translates into a wonderfully powerful and authoritative sound. Every type of music it plays is delivered with unerring enthusiasm – fast, frenetic and fun. All this is achieved at less than half the price of the ‘premium’ SL-1200G – which will surely cause headaches for rival turntable manufacturers.

Sound Quality: 85% 0

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ABOVE: Cumulative tonearm resonant decay spectrum, illustrating various bearing, pillar and ‘tube’ vibration modes spanning 100Hz-10kHz over 40msec

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Turntable speed error at 33.33rpm

33.32rpm (–0.044%)

Time to audible stabilisation

1.5sec

Peak Wow/Flutter

0.02% / 0.02%

Rumble (silent groove, DIN B wtd)

–70.7dB

Rumble (through bearing, DIN B wtd)

–72.9dB

Hum & Noise (unwtd, rel. to 5cm/sec)

–62.8dB

Power Consumption

4-17W

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight

453x173x372mm / 11.5kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 49


Two-way standmount loudspeaker Made by: Dynaudio A/S, Denmark Supplied by: Dynaudio UK Ltd, Cambs Telephone: 01638 742427 Web: www.dynaudio.com Price: £3750–£4313

LOUDSPEAKER

Dynaudio Contour 20 The smallest of the new Contour range is also a distillation of Dynaudio’s latest technologies Review: Nick Tate Lab: Keith Howard t’s not easy being an expensive standmount loudspeaker because, subconsciously at least, buyers tend to be more impressed by large boxes than small ones. A tall floorstander with the same ticket confers many apparent advantages – aside from invariably looking more expensive in your home, you are more or less guaranteed to get a deeper, more extended bass, and it may well be easier to drive too. So why pay upwards of £4000 for a relatively small standmount? That’s what potential purchasers of Dynaudio’s Contour 20 will be asking. The answer is that it has a fighting chance of offering good results in the average compact listening room. Too large a speaker will ‘set off’ room boom, whereas this mid-sized standmount is sufficiently sizeable to put out a fair amount of bass, yet is less likely excite the room’s dominant resonant modes.

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FINE FINISHES At this sort of price, buyers will naturally be expecting quality and the Contour 20 – which costs £3750 (in Walnut, Light Satin or Ivory Oak finishes) – does not disappoint. The speaker is beautifully finished and you have the opportunity to light up its looks with a Black or White Piano lacquer at a 10% premium, or 15% for Grey Oak or Rosewood High Gloss finishes. This said, conservative styling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as many more discerning buyers want their hi-fi to be heard and not seen, rather than just being there to impress their friends. Actually, the closer you look at this delightful Danish standmount, the more you begin to appreciate it. Of particular interest is the in-house designed 28mm Esotar2 dome tweeter. At the Contour

20’s price you might expect it to have a fancy ribbon treble unit or suchlike, while this is an ostensibly traditional fabric dome. Yet this high frequency driver has won many plaudits and is greatly respected, and we will soon see why.

ENGINEERING DEPTH The 180mm mid/bass unit is another down-to-earth affair using a Magnesium Silicate Polymer (MSP) for its cone material – something Dynaudio developed way back in 1985. It’s said to give the right combination of stiffness and damping, and the company has varied the diaphragm’s thickness across its surface. It also uses a new larger diameter, lightweight aluminium voice-coil, new asymmetric spider by way of improved suspension and travel, plus a vented dualferrite magnet system. There’s a pattern here. Nothing about the Contour 20 is particularly headlinegrabbing, but look closer and you’ll find real engineering depth. Everything is bespoke built by Dynaudio, even the front baffle. Made of aluminium and set hard into the cabinet, it provides a rigid mounting platform for the two drive units. The company says that its chamfer is included in the driver’s basket, designed to reduce high frequency diffraction. The speaker cabinet itself is constructed from multiple layers of medium density fibreboard, has subtle curves and, as a knuckle knock reveals, is well damped.

‘The Contour 20 made it all sound so effortless, clean and spacious’

50 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

Dynaudio also has a new crossover design for the Contour 20, a 2nd-order affair that splits the action at 2.2kHz – pretty conventional for a two-way design such as this – but the passive components include high quality Mundorf capacitors. The narrower rear section of the speaker contains the largish bass reflex port, and this comes with foam bungs that can be deployed to better tune the box in relation to the boundary wall proximity. Powered by a pair of Devialet Expert 800 monoblocks in editor PM’s listening room we quickly realised these loudspeakers really take some driving. The manufacturer quotes an 86dB sensitivity but our measurements [see KH’s Lab Report, p53] suggest this is optimistic. In truth this speaker will need a powerful


CONTOUR QUARTET The Contour range has been a Dynaudio staple since 1989, and is said to embody everything that the company knows about speaker technology. The latest incarnation has four models – the 60, 30 and 20, plus the 25c centre channel. Prices are £7500, £5750, £3750 and £2750 respectively. All models sport Esotar2 tweeters and MSPconed mid/bass drivers, set into a curved aluminium baffle. The key differences are that the Contour 60 and 30 are floorstanders while the 20 tested here is a standmount design. The 60 is a 3-way design with a single 150mm midrange driver and two 240mm bass drivers; the Contour 30 is a 2.5-way affair with twin 180mm mid/bass drivers. For the two-way Contour 20 Dynaudio recommends its Stand 6 [pictured], costing £350 per pair and available in a choice of Silver and Black/White Satin/High Gloss finishes.

LEFT: The Contour 20’s front baffle is fashioned from a solid piece of alloy and directly supports the diecast alloy driver baskets. Here an Esotar2 soft-dome tweeter is married to an MSP (Magnesium Silicate Polymer) bass/mid unit

solid-state amplifier if you wish to generate decent levels. The good news, however, is that the Contour 20s are very easy to place in most rooms, with no strange dispersion characteristics and a bass port that works discreetly. Those running it any closer than 30cm to the boundary wall may well want to use the supplied bungs, but these don’t unduly impede the sound of the Contour 20 in other respects.

TURBINE SMOOTH There’s something inherently ‘right’ or at least compelling about the sound of this loudspeaker that makes every type of music you put downwind of it an almost certain pleasure. It’s often easy to summarise a speaker’s character by detailing all the different facets of its

character, yet the Contour 20 is largely devoid of anything that jumps out at you. Instead, living with the Contour 20 is simply the process of getting to know its charming and enjoyable nature. After a short period of time, you’re left wondering why most other loudspeakers are so fussy. The Contour 20 seems keen to have fun, yet is totally straight-laced and matter-of-fact. There’s no sense that it prefers one musical genre to another, nor does it seem too fussed about recording quality or the partnering system. Rather, it just gets on with the job in a most unselfconscious way. It’s always interesting to throw a torture track at a loudspeaker you know little about, so with this in mind Propaganda’s ‘Dr Mabuse’ [from A Secret Wish; ZTT CID

126] was duly enlisted to give the Contour 20 a real shakedown. This dramatic slice of mid-’80s electronic pop is an early digital recording and is both hugely compressed and densely layered. A really good loudspeaker can find its way through this sonic obstacle course, yet most will fall at the first hurdle.

DAZZLING JAZZ As it transpired, the Contour 20 made it all sound so effortless, delivering up a clean, open and three-dimensional soundstage that separated all the strands in the mix with ease and precision. There was one great big seamless run from the bass through midrange to the treble, with nothing sticking out or drawing particular attention to itself. Like one of those large, turbine-smooth car engines with no discernible power band, the Contour 20 makes everything seem so effortless without even really having to try. Ordinarily it’s only large floorstanders that give this impression of confidence and authority, so I was surprised to get this same experience from so compact a box. Nothing changes when you jump genres. I found the speaker to be just as dazzling with John Patton’s ‘Alfie’s Theme’ [from Understanding; Blue Note TOCJ-4306]. This classic late-’60s jazz extravaganza is really well recorded and from the golden days of analogue. The contrast with the Propaganda track NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 51


Experience a New Dimension in Sound The Model 15 could be described as "the ultimate in recovery vehicles", allowing the cartridge to retrieve the last nth of recorded material whether digital or analogue, from the vinyl disc and thus approaches the ultimate in perfection. Receiving its inspiration from the superb Model 10 precision turntable the Model 15 seeks to emulate the excellence of our Models 20/3 & 30/2 turntable whilst retaining the more compact footprint preferred by many of our enthusiasts. SME Limited Mill Road Steyning West Sussex BN44 3GY

T +44(0) 1903 814321 F +44(0) 1903 814269 E enquiries@sme-audio.com www.sme-audio.com

The Model 15 has been designed with the same attention to detail combined with simplicity of operation that has come to be expected from all SME products. Its superb performance together with laid back styling make it a glamorous addition to your sound system that will astound and amaze listeners for many years to come.

Call for a demo Audio Lounge 138 Wigmore Street London W1U 3SG 020 7487 4080 www.audiolounge.co.uk


LAB REPORT DYNAUDIO CONTOUR 20 LEFT: The Contour 20’s port comes complete with foam bungs to facilitate its placement close to walls. The 4mm cable terminals are WBT NextGen types, but single pairs only – so no bi-wiring

of course its bass isn’t going to be prodigious – but what there is is highly supple and plays seamlessly with the rest of the music. The speaker always manages to keep the song heading in the right direction, giving it a great sense of purpose. Its bass syncopates beautifully with the snare drum work and indeed the phrasing of the vocals on the Al Jarreau track. Together, things really get going.

SILKY TREBLE

couldn’t be more marked, with the speaker’s inherent transparency showing it be a radically different recording. Here we suddenly had a tonally sweet and super-subtle sound. Lead electric organ was wonderfully rich in harmonics, yet silky with it. At the same time, an almost supernaturally sweetsounding saxophone joined in, as deliciously sonorous cymbals crashed away behind it. The great thing is that everything sounded so cohesive and integrated, yet there was a wonderful life, lustre and sparkle to the entire performance. Don’t think the Contour 20 is just another tinselly-sounding high-end speaker designed to give a good account of itself with cocktail jazz at dinner parties. It can and does do precisely this, yet it also connects to the music’s inner rhythm in a way you wouldn’t expect at the price. Al Jarreau’s ‘Summertime’ [from Tenderness; Reprise Records WPCR28174] is a very smooth, almost sugar-coated slice of jazz funk but somehow the Contour 20 managed to eke out the emotion from the recording and really give the track a purpose in life. It is surely this speaker’s combination of speed and delicacy that makes this possible, for together they make for a wonderfully elastic and fluid sound. This being a mid-sized standmount,

The other key facet of the Contour 20 is its excellent treble quality, which sounds lightning-fast yet silky-smooth. It blends in seamlessly with the mid/bass driver to give a wonderful balance top to bottom. It’s hard not to be impressed by this speaker’s soundstaging, too. Although not quite up there with the very best – and far more expensive – panel designs, the Contour 20 is well able to throw sound around the room, way beyond the confines of its own boxes. It generally has the music hanging back just behind the plane of the speakers, but can fall back a good deal further when called upon so to do, and can project forward very assertively too. Image location is extremely good, leaving the listener in no doubt about precisely where instruments in the mix are supposed to be. Overall, its performance in this respect far exceeds most of its price rivals.

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT

Dynaudio claims 86dB sensitivity for the Contour 20 but our measurements indicate that this is a case of wishful thinking. Our pink noise figure of 83.1dB may seem on the low side even for a relatively compact reflex-loaded loudspeaker but there are mitigating circumstances. The first of these is that while its nominal impedance is 4ohm the Contour 20 doesn’t exploit low impedance to boost sensitivity to the degree that it becomes a notably tough load to drive. We recorded a minimum impedance modulus of 4.0ohm and though the impedance phase angle is high at low frequencies the EPDR (equivalent peak dissipation resistance) bottomed out at 2.0ohm/115Hz – around 0.3ohm higher than we see from many modern speakers. So the Contour 20 is, relatively speaking, quite amplifierfriendly and has good bass extension for its size – another attribute bought at some cost to sensitivity. Our diffractioncorrected nearfield measurement recorded a bass extension of 45Hz (–6dB re. 200Hz), and deeper in-room with careful exploitation of boundary gain. Forward frequency response, measured at 1m on the tweeter axis, is flat in trend with only small deviations and a slight shelving down towards 1kHz [see Graph 1, below]. Indeed, the response errors are low for a passive speaker at ±2.8dB and ±2.9dB, respectively, while the pair matching error is more impressive still at just ±0.6dB over the same 200Hz-20kHz. This all indicates tight factory quality control procedures. The CSD waterfall [Graph 2, below] shows good cabinet damping and a few mild treble resonances, the worst at around 4kHz. KH

ABOVE: Forward response is generally flat in trend, bass extension good and pair matching is excellent

dB

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-6

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5.0 msec 200

1000

10000

Don’t let the conservative looks deceive you for the Contour 20 is an exceptionally sophisticated loudspeaker that breathes quality. Devoid of gimmicks, it’s not a natural winner in terms of showroom appeal, yet live with it at home and one will soon fall in love. You can’t expect subterranean bass, but this aside it’s a highly balanced performer. Partner it with serious ancillaries and it proves tremendous fun.

Sensitivity (SPL/1m/2.83Vrms – Mean/IEC/Music)

83.2dB/83.1dB/82.7dB

Impedance modulus min/max (20Hz–20kHz)

4.0ohm @ 272Hz 32.5ohm @ 21Hz

Impedance phase min/max (20Hz–20kHz)

–63o @ 76Hz 26o @ 656Hz

Sound Quality: 87% 0

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Frequency in Hz >>

ABOVE: Cabinet resonances are broadly controlled but there’s a cone mode at 4-5kHz, with harmonics

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS

Pair matching/Response Error (200Hz–20kHz)

±0.6dB / ±2.8dB/±2.9dB

LF/HF extension (–6dB ref 200Hz/10kHz)

45Hz / 32.6kHz/32.4kHz

THD 100Hz/1kHz/10kHz (for 90dB SPL/1m)

1.5% / 0.3% / 0.3%

Dimensions (HWD)

440x215x396mm

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 53


USB DAC

USB DAC Made by: Matrix Electronic Technology Co. Ltd, China Supplied by: Elite Audio (Distribution) Ltd, Fife Telephone: 01334 570 666 Web: www.matrix-digi.com/en; www.eliteaudiouk.com Price: £1699

Matrix Audio X-Sabre Pro If first impressions matter, Matrix Audio’s new DAC ticks all the right boxes for looks and construction quality. But, as always, what’s behind the facade matters more Review: Keith Howard Lab: Paul Miller s the owner of a Matrix Audio M-Stage HP-3B headphone amplifier – which despite its bargain price has impressively solid build quality – I had some inkling of what to expect when I unpacked the X-Sabre Pro. But what emerged from the box nevertheless exceeded my expectations, and by some measure. I anticipated chunky; I didn’t quite expect a thin, modestly sized slab that feels for all the world like an immaculately finished block of aluminium. Which actually is how the enclosure starts out, before being machined from solid. In itself this is impressive for a DAC that dangles a price tag of just £1699 but the X-Sabre Pro is much more than a classy case. Inside it features the latest incarnation of the ESS Sabre DAC chip, the ES9038 Pro, and this confers capabilities to make any digital audiophile’s mouth water. Ultimately the X-Sabre Pro is capable of reproducing 768kHz (4x192kHz) PCM and, wait for it, DSD1024 – that’s quad-quad DSD with a 45.1584MHz sampling rate.

A

FUTURE-PROOFED You can’t buy any 768kHz music files that I know of, and the highest-rate DSD downloads are DSD256. But if you like the feeling of being future-proofed, the X-Sabre Pro provides it – albeit with two obvious exceptions. It is not, as yet anyway, MQA-compatible, and it doesn’t offer an Ethernet input, which some contend is the obvious interface to use for high-rate digital audio, inherently superior to USB not least because galvanic isolation is standard. But it has an I2S (aka I2S or IIS) input, of which more in a moment. Some of the DACs I’ve reviewed recently have been more than that: DACs which double as headphone amps and basic preamps. The X-Sabre Pro does not. It has RIGHT: The underside of the X-Sabre Pro reveals the CNC-machined ‘compartments’ of its alloy case, offering some screening of its toroidal PSU transformer, the main digital/analogue PCB [large dark board] and display section [top]

54 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

what Matrix calls a PRE mode, but that just means a variable rather than fixed analogue out, permitting direct connection to a power amp. It has no analogue input, and there’s no headphone output either. The facetted fascia has a small central circular display which shows the selected interface and, when locked to an incoming digital signal, its format (DSD or PCM), sampling rate, bit depth and, in the case of DSD, whether the data format is native DSD or DoP. The same display also shows menu settings during set-up. Arms to either side of the centre circle house LED indicators showing power status, the selected digital input, and (when in PRE mode) volume up/down in response to button presses on the supplied remote control handset, which also provides power on/off, mute and input selection [see p57]. A range of digital filter options is selectable via the menu. For DSD you can choose between corner frequencies of 47, 50, 60 and 70kHz – a pretty odd selection, and not just the first two. If 50kHz, say, is appropriate with DSD64, then surely 100kHz would be appropriate for DSD128,

200kHz for DSD256, etc? Unfortunately, it’s one size fits all and whatever corner frequency you select is applied to all DSD inputs whatever their sampling frequency. It’s a similar story with the PCM filters where the seven options offer a choice of linear-phase, minimum-phase and corner frequency [see PM’s boxout, p55], but whichever filter type you choose is applied regardless of sampling frequency.

DEFAULT SETTING Matrix is also guilty of offering a number of menu options for which the manual provides inadequate user guidance, including dither on/off, jitter reducer on/ off, asynchronous/synchronous mode. Most users will play safe and use the default setting for each (the first option as listed), so you have to question why they are offered at all. (Answer: because we can!) Round the back, the rear panel is packed with connectors, beginning (left to right, facing the panel) with the analogue outputs including unbalanced on RCAs and balanced on XLRs. Next come the digital inputs – balanced AES/EBU via XLR, coaxial


S/PDIF via an RCA, Toslink optical, I2S via an HDMI socket and USB via a Type B socket. I2S was developed over 30 years ago by Philips as an interface for use internally, between digital audio chips. Later it was used, fitfully, as a short-range external digital audio interface, principally because it avoided the embedded clock of the S/PDIF interface. We haven’t seen much of it in recent years, but perhaps there’s an attempt to revive it. But it’s useless, of course, unless you have a digital source with a compatible output. A pair of M-link control sockets and IEC mains inlet complete the connections. The input options are not all equally capable, of course. On PCM signals the upper limits of sampling rate are 192kHz on AES/ EBU, coaxial S/PDIF and Toslink, and 768kHz on I2S and USB (with Matrix’s ASIO driver installed on Windows machines). The AES/ EBU, coaxial S/PDIF and Toslink interfaces can also carry DSD64 using DoP. Via USB and I2S up to DSD256 is possible using DoP,

achieved by increasing the sampling rate of the pseudo-PCM signal from 176.4kHz to 352.8kHz for DSD128 and 705.6kHz for DSD256. With DSD in native form the USB interface can handle up to DSD512 and the I2S interface up to DSD1024, should DSD ever be stretched that far.

INTAKES OF BREATH For listening I used a Windows 7 PC with JRiver Media Center v22 as the music source. USB connection was via an Ideon 3R Renaissance isolator and S/PDIF signals were generated via a TC Electronic Impact Twin FireWire audio interface. Headphone listening was via a Teac HA-501 headphone amp [HFN Apr ’14] and Sony MDRMA900 headphones [HFN Oct ’12] with the main system comprising a Naim NAP300 power amp and Thiel CS1.6 speakers [HFN Mar ’09]. The Ideon, TC, Teac and X-Sabre Pro were powered using a PS Audio P10 mains regenerator [HFN Apr ’13].

‘The DAC can dig into murky old recordings and revive them’

SABRE SOFTWARE As we saw with Oppo’s UDP-205 player, the ES9038 Pro Sabre DAC offers the designer seven alternate digital filter modes – five with ‘fast’ (sharp) roll-off characteristics and two with ‘slow’ (gentler) treble roll-offs. The fast filters – minimum phase (MOD1 in Matrix Audio’s vernacular), linear phase (MOD3), brickwall (MOD5), hybrid minimum phase (MOD6) and apodising (MOD7) – all offer a similar 53dB attenuation of digital aliasing images with 48kHz media. The fast linear phase, brickwall and apodising types show pre/post ringing on impulses and a flat imum phase has response to 20kHz [red traces, inset Graph], while fast minimum an equally flat response but with fairly aggressive post-event ringing. The hybrid minimum phase type has some limited pre-ringing but reduced post-ringing, albeit with a more severe –12dB/20kHz roll-off. The ‘slow’ (MOD2) minimum phase [black traces, above] and linear phase (MOD4) types have a poorer 1418dB rejection of aliasing distortions with gentle treble roll-offs of –5dB/20kHz and –3.5dB/20kHz, respectively. Slow filter types are arguably better suited to high (88.2kHz+) sample rate media where the audioband response can remain flat and where the subjective impact of poor alias rejection is likely to be outweighed by the benefits of reduced time domain distortion. PM

ABOVE: Built into a machined-from-solid alloy case, the X-Sabre Pro’s inputs and volume are selected by soft-touch fascia controls. The menu is accessed after putting the unit into standby

For reasons I’ll outline in a moment, I extracted the best performance from the X-Sabre Pro on hi-res PCM material. Hi-res in this context means topping out at DXD (352.8kHz/24-bit), delivered via USB. (I was unable to assess or compare the I2S interface for lack of an equivalently equipped source.) On such material the X-Sabre Pro proved itself to be a very fine performer indeed – open, dynamically adroit and thoroughly engaging. I began by comparing 192kHz/24-bit and DXD files from the selection offered free by 2L (www.2l.no). It’s all very well the X-Sabre Pro offering extreme sampling rate capability, but does this translate into superior sound? I chose three of the 2L tracks to compare, two of which I already knew (the Presto from Haydn’s String Quartet in D, Op.76 and Britten’s Simple Symphony) and a jazz piece that was new to me (‘Blågutten’ by the Hoff Ensemble). I’m not going to claim that the d differences were night and day but tthey were there to be heard in careful llistening. In the Haydn e even the three intakes o of breath which p punctuate the opening b bars sounded more re real playing the DXD file, and the violin – w which can easily sound de dense and harsh at lower sampling rates – while still forceful was smoother yet not sounding in the least smoothed over.

BLOWING ITS TRUMPET I didn’t find the difference as marked with ‘Blågutten’ but the trumpet sound was a little more natural from DXD. The biggest difference of all was with the Britten, where the strings tend to sound amorphous and NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 55


BOWERS & WILKINS 800 SERIES OPEN DAY

SATURDAY 7TH OCTOBER                         

     

        


LAB REPORT USB/STREAMING DAC

MATRIX AUDIO X-SABRE PRO

ABOVE: AES/EBU and optical/coaxial S/PDIF inputs support 192kHz/24-bit LPCM and DSD64 while the HDMI (I2S) and USB ports handle up to 768kHz/32-bit LPCM and DSD512 (native mode). Fixed/variable line outputs are offered on RCA and XLRs

dense at lower sampling rates but opened up in DXD, and the interplay of orchestra and acoustic was significantly different too. Moving to lower sampling rates, I of course performed my habitual comparison of the USB and S/PDIF inputs. And, true to form, I preferred the sound quality of S/PDIF on music as diverse as Marco Beasley’s singing of Marini’s ‘Meraviglia d’Amore’ [44.1kHz/16-bit rip from Accent ACC 24330] and Gretchen Peters’ ‘Hello Cruel World’ [44.1kHz/16-bit rip from Proper Records PRPCD124]. The S/PDIF sound was simply more open, both spatially and dynamically, even with the Ideon isolator helping out the USB interface. Were I to own the X-Sabre Pro, then, I’d use the S/PDIF input unless and until sampling rate forced a switch to USB. Of course, the I2S interface might make this exercise redundant by bettering both S/PDIF and USB, but that remains to be established. Good news if so.

ROLLERCOASTER RIDE Once I’d chosen my favoured output filter (slow roll-off, minimum phase), the X-Sabre Pro made absorbing music via S/PDIF. Chris Jones’ ‘Fender Bender’ [Stockfisch SFR 357.6027.2], for instance, was exactly the energetic rollercoaster ride of guitar virtuosity that it should be, and the X-Sabre Pro had powers of resolution enough to dig into murky old recordings like Janis Ian’s Stars [from Sony Music SICP 20250] and revive them – quite an achievement. Assessing the X-Sabre Pro on DSD programme put me in an invidious position, for reasons I’ve mentioned before. My touchstone for DSD sound quality, particularly high-rate

DSD, is the Teac NT-503DAB I bought specifically for the purpose of DSD replay. I’ve no reason to believe that it is inherently better than any other DAC at reproducing DSD, but in combination with Teac’s bespoke player software – which, needless to say, works only with Teac converters – it achieves DSD sound quality I’ve yet to experience equalled, particularly at the price. With the X-Sabre Pro I was forced to use JRiver Media Center instead, and I know from using this with the Teac that it doesn’t achieve the same transcendent sound quality. So all I can tell you about the X-Sabre Pro’s DSD performance is that, using JRMC as the player, it sounded as good as the Teac, but not as good as the latter in combination with its own player software. The inevitable conclusion is that JMRC was a limiting factor, and that the X-Sabre Pro might well match or better the Teac when used with player software capable of exploiting its full potential. If the X-Sabre Pro’s excellent performance on hi-res PCM is anything to go by, and I’m sure it is, it will turn in outstanding sound quality on DSD too when driven from a blameless source.

Comparisons with Oppo’s Sonica DAC [HFN Oct ’17] are instructive, for Matrix Audio’s X-Sabre Pro shares the same flagship ES9038 Pro 8-channel, 32-bit Sabre DAC while also enabling the seven alternative digital filter options we saw in Oppo’s UDP-205 universal player [HFN Jul ’17]. Both the Oppo and Matrix Audio solutions are distinguished by their respective power supplies and analogue output circuits, but they remain very similar. Both offer a 116dB A-wtd S/N ratio (with 4.23V and 4.40V maximum outputs, respectively) and distortion as low as 0.00005% over the top 20dB of their dynamic range through bass and midrange, increasing to 0.0001% at 20kHz [see Graph 1, below], and with low-level linearity true to within ±0.3dB over a phenomenal 120dB range. Interestingly the pattern of jitter is also very similar, between different digital inputs and at different sample rates, within both the UDP-205 and X-Sabre Pro. These are not super-low jitter player/DACs like other Sabre-equipped products including the Pro-Ject Pre Box S2 Digital [HFN Aug ’17] or the Mark Levinson No519 [HFN Jul ’17] with their sub-10psec suppression. In practice, the relatively ‘untidy’ X-Sabre Pro reaches 200psec via S/PDIF and 150psec via USB [red and black spectra, Graph 2]. Differences in the UDP-205 and X-Sabre’s analogue stages are reflected in the 97ohm and 240ohm output impedances, respectively, while the frequency responses are determined by choice of digital filter [see boxout, p55]. The ‘fast’ filters are flat to 20kHz within ±0.1dB with 48kHz files (though the ‘brickwall’ acts above 19kHz) while 96kHz media reaches –0.3dB/45kHz (MOD1), –7.2dB (MOD2), –0.6dB (MOD3), –5.1dB (MOD4), –14dB (MOD5), –24dB (MOD6) and –7.6dB/45kHz (MOD7). PM

ABOVE: Distortion versus 48kHz/24-bit digital signal level over a 120dB dynamic range (1kHz, S/PDIF, red; 1kHz, USB, black; 20kHz, USB, blue)

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT Aside from the open questions of the X-Sabre Pro’s future MQA compatibility and the utility of its I2S input, I can’t see what would discourage anyone from buying it. It is built like a brick outhouse, is compatible with extreme PCM and DSD sampling rates, packs perhaps the most advanced DAC chip currently available, and sounds great, effortlessly combining spaciousness, resolution and drive. A bargain.

Sound Quality: 86% 0

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ABOVE: High resolution jitter spectrum with 48kHz/ 24-bit data (USB, black; S/PDIF optical, red)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Maximum output level / Impedance

4.40Vrms / 215ohm (XLR out)

A-wtd S/N ratio (S/PDIF / USB)

116.6dB / 116.6dB

Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.00006% / 0.00075%

Distortion & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.00048% / 0.00070%

Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz/45kHz/90kHz)

+0.0 to –0.1dB/–0.3dB/–0.7dB

Digital jitter (48kHz/96kHz / USB)

202psec / 110psec / 150psec

Resolution @ –100dB (S/PDIF / USB)

±0.1dB / ±0.1dB

Power consumption

9W (2W standby)

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight

300x45x218mm / 3.7kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 57


CARTRIDGE

Medium output moving-coil pick-up cartridge Made by: Koetsu, Tokyo, Japan Supplied by: Absolute Sounds Ltd Telephone: 0208 971 3909 Web: www.koetsuaudio.com; www.absolutesounds.com Price: £7998

Koetsu Onyx Platinum Renewing his love affair with this iconic moving-coil brand – not that he ever strayed far – our 30-year-plus veteran Koetsu user falls in love with the flagship Onyx Platinum Review: Ken Kessler Lab: Paul Miller hose who recall the arrival on these shores of the first cult Japanese moving-coil cartridges in the late 1970s will also remember the shock of their prices. Kiseki, Miyabi and the rest arrived with king’s ransom tickets. That hasn’t changed, but if you’re as irked as I am about the price/parts/labour versus reality disparity, know that £500 from 1979 is £2650 in 2017 pounds. However, with the entry-level Koetsu Black Goldline selling for £1998, perhaps relative prices have actually dropped! Koetsu’s premium Platinum range MCs – including the Onyx reviewed here – sell for £7998 apiece regardless of body material, with the optional diamond cantilever adding a further, inexcusable £3888. From this point on, I am biting my tongue for as with cables, one either accepts the avaricious prices, artificial exclusivity and fairy tales or one looks elsewhere. For the sake of this review, let’s just agree that MCs with high-four-figure stickers are now commonplace.

T

SERVICE PLAN There is, however, a virtue that must be cited – the fact that Koetsu offers a comprehensive rebuild of all its cartridges, protecting the audiophile’s investment in an MC for the long run. Personally, I think I’ve tried something like 150-200 cartridges since I first used early, Sugano Senior-era Koetsus, including the firstgeneration Red, Black and Urushi. While I maintain a perverse worship of Deccas, which still deliver a scintillating treble not available elsewhere, I admit without shame that Koetsus always pull me back, like Michael Corleone in Godfather III. Koetsus, then as now, possess poise, naturalness, warmth and, yes, a sense of RIGHT: This shot clearly shows Koetsu’s rigid boron cantilever with a fine, micro-line stylus firmly cemented into place [see magnified shot, overleaf]. The onyx body brings its total weight to 12.5g

58 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER MBER M BER R 2017

grandeur as unmistakable as a Shure V15’s detail or a Denon DL103’s soundstaging. And as much as I adore Lyras, Air-Tights and other MCs, Koetsus are still the ones with the undeniable je ne sais quoi. What is unfathomable, even to vendors of Koetsus, is the deliberately cryptic smokescreen surrounding the various flavours. There are currently six Urushis and ten Platinums in the UK catalogue, differing only in body materials. All of the Urushis feature boron cantilevers, silver-plated copper coils and samarium cobalt magnets, while all Platinums employ the same coils and cantilevers, but boost the ‘engine’ with platinum-based magnets. One can only go by distributor Absolute Sounds’ catalogue, which illustrates how that any differences within the ranges (diamond cantilever option aside) are strictly down to body materials. Because I do not have all ten Platinums at my disposal, I am at a loss to tell you quite what the sonic differences are between, say, this cartridge with its semi-precious-stone onyx carcass and its jade- or rhodonitebodied siblings.

Otherwise their specifications are identical, save for weight. This varies between 12g and 13.5g according to body – the Urushis and Standards are typically 3g-4g lighter than the stone-bodied Platinums, and all share the same compliance figures.

YOUR BIRTHSTONE Here’s where speculation joins subjectivity and inconsistency to make choosing a matter of each stone’s visual appeal. As editor PM pointed out in my commission, ‘Ironically, the essential performance of this Onyx-bodied version is little different from the Urushi Sky Blue that you reviewed a few years ago [HFN Jul ’13]. It has a slightly higher output and lower compliance to offset the higher bodyweight but otherwise has the same “sweetened” treble, etc.’ That ‘etc’ refers to a rich overall sound, substantial bass – not too over-damped – a cavernous, Denon-esque soundstage and a euphonic, non-aggressive top end. What one soon realises is that they could make a Koetsu with a body of petrified chopped liver and it would still sound, well, like a Koetsu. Present across the entire catalogue, since the dawn of the brand, whether Standard, Urushi or Platinum, is the ideal body shape for straightforward, pain-free set-up. It’s rectangular, with parallel sides, a flat top and underside, with a substantial sub-frame that encourages tight fixing to the headshell. It positively inspires accurate installation. For the review, it was fitted to 9in and 12in SME Series V arms on, respectively, an SME 30/2 and SME 30/12, achieved in seconds.

‘It sounded like a trio of guitars in the room – a three-way battle’


LEFT: The two-part body comprises an alloy frame to which the magnets, etc, are bolted, and includes fully-enclosed lugs. The decorative onyx stone ‘overcoat’ is machined from a solid block. Recessed cantilever is no boon to easy cueing!

Thanks to the absence of curvy bits, its straight sides acting as guides, it’s a doddle to set VTA and overhang. The nervous among you will rejoice in a cantilever that exits the body from underneath, neither unprotected nor protruding in a manner that encourages disaster. As for the Onyx’s external form, the only thing I can fault is Koetsu’s refusal to colour-code its connector pins. I know – you can all recite by rote what red/green/ white/blue equal in left/right and +/–, but I can’t. So it was out with torch and loupe.

GOLDEN AGE Feeding both SMEs into an E-Glo phono stage, the review set-up also included an Audio Research REF 6 [HFN May ’16]/REF

75SE pre/power combination with Quad ’57s, Rogers 15ohm LS3/5As and KEF LS50s [HFN Jul ’12], with wire from Transparent and Crystal Cable. John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia’s Passion, Grace & Fire [Audio Fidelity AFZLP 261] had just arrived, and, as I’m hooked on 45rpm transfers, I fed it a pile of high-speed releases. These also included Julie London’s mono debut, Julie Is Her Name [Boxstar Records BSR 3006-45], Billy Joel’s Greatest Hits Vol. I & II [Mobile Fidelity MFSL 3-418] and Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue [MFSL 2-45011]. With no desire to encourage the debate that recordings from the golden age of Mercury, RCA and

A FAMILY BUSINESS Norbert Schmied, from Koetsu’s USA distributor, agrees that extracting information from Japan is akin to revealing the secrets of Scientologists, but here is what he was able to tell HFN: ‘As you know, the senior Sugano passed away some years ago. Since then, his two sons have taken over the running of the business and they are both involved with building the products.’ I was not able to discover just how big the company is these days or how many cartridges it currently manufactures on a yearly basis. But we do know there are currently 17 models in its comprehensive range with separate mono versions available for all of them. In addition, all the ‘Stone’ body cartridges may also be ordered with a diamond rather than boron cantilever, though this is a costly upgrade. Says Norbert, ‘There are also, from time to time, special one-off bodies available in super limited quantities. I can also say from our experience, we have never had long delays in getting anything that we order, or on the rebuilding of existing customers’ cartridges.’

Capitol automatically endow a system with a silky sound, further abetted by an all-valve chain of electronics and a pair of speakers so ear-friendly as to be sinful, I should also point out that prior to wiring up the Onyx, I had played with cartridges from Air Tight, TechDAS and Ortofon through the same system. It reaffirmed my belief that so strong is the Koetsu family sound that it transcends the systems’ sonic signature. To make sure I wasn’t just hearing the ARC/Quad romance, I also used the Onyx Platinum in a Linn LP12 with a PrimaLuna Prologue amp, EAR 834P and JBL minimonitors. The Koetsu’s karma remained intact, varying only in degrees or intensity. The Miles Davis box was nearest the system when I switched on, and the opening moments of bass and piano were delivered with such a vivid sense of atmosphere that I had to switch speakers momentarily – again, I did not want to be manipulated by those glorious Quad ’57s.

IN THE GROOVE Richness blended with airiness, punctuated by attack: however many times one might have this masterpiece, the Onyx brought out that little bit more, bringing the listener closer to the group. It made me laugh at those oddball EQ settings on some AV receivers that let you dial in moods like ‘Jazz Club’ – because it’s all there, in the grooves. Better still, the openness, the lack of processing and crud, beg you to focus on each and every performer. Now in a chilled mood, I turned to mono Julie London. Has there ever been a more astounding opening track on a vocalist’s debut LP than ‘Cry Me A River’? As with Kind Of Blue, this session has an uncluttered ambience, with even fewer performers: just Julie, backed by the astounding Barney Kessel on guitar and Ray Leatherwood on bass. And while I realise that there are devotees of mono who insist on using dedicated mono cartridges as appropriate, a flick of the mode button on the REF 6 ensured that the solidity of the central event was unlikely to be bettered. Again, it was a showpiece for the known Koetsu virtues, adding a voice to Miles’ milestone for those – like me – who find vocals the most testing of sounds to NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 59


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LAB REPORT KOETSU ONYX PLATINUM LEFT: Another view of Koetsu’s precisely aligned boron cantilever and precisionmachined stone body. Although colour-coding would be useful, the cartridge pins are still sufficiently well-spaced to accommodate most tonearm leads/tags

reproduce. The sultry, breathy Ms London slithered out of the Quads, dangerously sexy even with lighter numbers like ‘S’Wonderful’. Kessel’s guitar fills were so fluid that they could even serve as a test for VTA and the gorgeous liquidity was absolutely faultless. One thing leads to another, and if one guitar – like a Martini – isn’t enough, maybe three would be too much. The massed trio of John McLaughlin, Al Di Meola and Paco De Lucia, playing acoustic guitars with utter ferocity, proved a trying challenge for speed, transient attack and decay, imaging and detail. Because the guitarists are positioned across the soundstage (and each is identified on the LP sleeve), precise siting is crucial to transporting the listener to the event.

BLISTERING GUITAR No muddling, no smearing, no haze, no artifice – and, yes, I know this LP was recorded digitally. It simply sounded like a trio of guitars was in the room, in a three-way battle that the Onyx ensured would leave the listener drained. I can only imagine the effect it would have on a guitarist in awe of any of the three. The sheer velocity of the notes was a testimony to how Koetsu balances the suavity of a natural-sounding acoustic with the demands of transient capabilities, precision and retrieval of tiny details.

With the heavily-engineered studio recordings of Billy Joel, I was less concerned with some cod atmospherics than I was with the overall sound per se. And yet... so lush-sounding was ‘Piano Man’ that the desired effect, that of transporting the listener to a smoke-filled bar in the wee hours, was achieved with ease. Joel’s piano playing is always forceful, and he loves building up to crescendos – the Onyx simply went along as bidden. That track has a few notorious moments that swing from the quiet to the vociferous, and the transition was as flawless as the slides from Kessel’s guitar on the London LP. Via the Koetsu Onyx Platinum, it redefined ‘intimacy’.

The graphs and test table [below] illustrate how Koetsu achieves its typically rich, lush balance and uniformly wide and deep soundstaging with its top MC models. Suggesting more in common with the Urushi Sky Blue [HFN Jul ’13] than the Black [HFN Sep ’06] or Red K [HFN Oct ’09], our sample of the Onyx Platinum displayed a gentle presence and high treble roll-off amounting to –6dB/20kHz. Nevertheless there is a good symmetry between both in-phase and anti-phase responses [see Graph 1, below], suggesting the Onyx Platinum will offer a very broad and uniform soundstage. Furthermore, the excellent symmetry between both in-phase and anti-phase distortion trends [see Graph 2] also suggests this uniform soundstaging will be blessed with an equally uniform ‘colour’. These same responses indicate the Onyx will offer a strong bass, although the high-ish 25° VTA and sweetened treble suggest a slightly downwards-sloping armtube will benefit its overall balance. While both the Urushi Sky Blue and Onyx Platinum feature silver-plated copper coils they have different magnets and, contrary to Koetsu’s own specification, it’s the latter that offers the higher output – 530μV versus 410μV at 1kHz/5cm/sec into a high-ish 1kohm load. The symmetry of the mechanism has already been discussed but the compliance is a lower 13cu in this heavy-bodied model, maintaining its match with medium/heavy tonearms – but it’s not a perfect tracker. Groove modulations up to 65μm were tracked while the right channel let go at +15dB (re. 5cm/sec) at 300Hz. Distortion is typical for the breed at 1-2% (vertical) and 0.3-2% (lateral) up to 5kHz, and almost entirely an innocuous 2nd harmonic. PM

ABOVE: Frequency response curves (–8dB re. 5cm/ sec) lateral (L+R, black) versus vertical (L–R, red)

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT As much as it pains me to sanction the ludicrous pricing of high-end MCs, there is no escaping the stunning sonic experience afforded by Koetsu’s Onyx. It is less forgiving than an Urushi but not quite as clinical as some of its like-priced rivals from the EU or Japan. It was, from the opening bars of Miles’ ‘So What’, an invitation to stay up late, and to keep digging out favourite LPs until the sun rose. It’s magical.

Sound Quality: 89% 0

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ABOVE: Lateral (L+R, black infill) and vertical (L–R, red) tracing and generator distortion (2nd-4th harmonics) vs. frequency from 20Hz-20kHz (–8dB re. 5cm/sec)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Generator type/weight

Moving-coil / 12.5g

Recommended tracking force

1.8-2.0mN (1.9mN)

Sensitivity/balance (re. 5cm/sec)

530μV / 0.25dB

Compliance (vertical/lateral)

13cu / 13cu

Vertical tracking angle

25 degrees

L/R Tracking ability

70μm / 65μm

L/R Distortion (–8dB, 20Hz-20kHz)

0.25–12% / 0.28–19%

L/R Frequency resp. (20Hz-20kHz)

+0.5 to –5.8dB / +0.8 to –1.8dB

Stereo separation (1kHz / 20kHz)

33dB / 24dB

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 61


Compact, two-way floorstanding loudspeaker Made by: Spendor Audio Systems Ltd, East Sussex Supplied by: Spendor Audio Systems Telephone: 01323 843474 Web: www.spendoraudio.com Price: £2195

LOUDSPEAKER

Spendor A4 Top of the ‘A-Line’, this compact and unassuming-looking floorstander boasts a deal of hidden refinements Review: David Price Lab: Keith Howard generation or so ago, the British prided themselves on having subtle, understated good taste. But now, like the rest of the world it seems, many of us have developed a taste for all that is big, bright and shiny. Indeed, we have even adopted a new slang word for it – ‘bling’. Hi-fi has not been immune to this new aesthetic, and loudspeakers – always a weathervane for the nation’s cultural leanings – have played their part. The breed has become ever glossier and shinier, drawing our attention rather than blending harmoniously with domestic surroundings…

A

BRITISH RESERVE However, for those wishing to stop the world and get off, there is Spendor. This company does not produce loudspeakers in exotic, heavily radiused shapes, with gallons of gloss lacquer sprayed all over, and festooned with sparkly silvery trim rings. The £2195 A4 floorstander under review here is the epitome of traditional British reserve and its box-like cabinet comes in a choice of black ash, dark walnut and natural oak real wood finishes, while its plinth is finished in contrasting black satin. Unobtrusively compact, and built in the UK, the A4 is a conventional reflex-ported two-way floorstander with Spendor’s triedand-trusted ‘EP77’ polymer used for the cone of its mid/bass unit. Alongside this, the 22mm polyamide dome tweeter is said to combine the extended frequency response of a small diaphragm, while its wide surround promises the low frequency characteristics of a larger diaphragm. It sports a protective mesh grille to stop little fingers wreaking havoc, making it child – or grandchild – friendly. Both units are firmly bolted on to the speaker’s baffle – again, no rebate, no rounded edges and all very reminiscent of designs from the UK speaker industry’s golden years. Standing just over 83cm tall and weighing a mere

16kg, the speaker presents itself as short but sturdy. The asymmetrically braced cabinet is obviously well made, with dense sidewalls that sport Spendor’s so-called Dynamic Damping inside. These are small, low mass constrained polymer dampers located at key ‘energy points’ within the cabinet while bonded viscoelastic damping panels are also used to dissipate vibration. The base of the A4’s cabinet accommodates four machined steel spikes that screw and secure directly into the main structure of the enclosure, keeping it very stable while also raising it another inch or so from the floor. The company claims an 86dB sensitivity for the A4 [but see KH’s Lab Report, p65] and while this isn’t a stellar figure even for a smallish floorstander this loudspeaker certainly took a fair amount of power for it to get really going. So it’s not an ideal partner for a low-powered valve amp (to put it kindly), and hence you really need a sturdy solid-state design with a ready 100W per side here. Spendor also says that the speaker can be used quite close to a rear wall, although we found that it was at its best at least 30cm away. Set much closer, and you’re opening the door to room-boom!

‘In a world of glitzy and showy speakers, the A4 remains desirable’

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NATURAL CHARM We used Devialet Expert 800s in editor PM’s listening room, which was not the overkill you might imagine. Moreover – and considering the A4’s limited cabinet volume – the loudspeaker sounds more than reasonably extended at the low end. There’s no mistaking Spendor’s new A4 for an equivalently priced KEF, Focal or B&W. It has its own distinct family sound RIGHT: Spendor’s A4 cabinet employs small ‘constrained polymer dampers’ at key points to control panel resonances. The 180mm mid/bass unit has an EP77 polymer cone and is matched to a 22mm polyamide dome tweeter


HOME ON THE RANGE Sussex-based Spendor has three loudspeaker ranges, all of which are designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom. These are the ‘A-Line’, ‘D-Line’ and ‘Classic-Line’. The latter comprises the company’s traditional range, apparently very popular in Far Eastern export markets, and although ostensibly ‘1970s’ in appearance, this Classic-Line still employs the company’s latest technology and manufacturing practices [HFN Aug ’16]. The D-line is the flagship range of modern Spendor loudspeakers, while the A-line is the affordable, contemporary-styled range. The A4 reviewed here is the larger floorstander in a three-strong lineup that also includes the two-way A1 standmount at £1095 and £1595 ‘mini two-way floorstanding’ A2. The £2195 A4 is still reasonably diminutive by contemporary standards but its compact dimensions are aimed to provide a good fit with modestly-sized UK listening rooms.

and one which is really rather nice, in an unerringly pleasing way. This loudspeaker never seeks to impress you, to flirt with you or bowl you over. Instead it has a natural, understated charm that makes pretty much any type of music agreeable and enjoyable. Rather like a well-made pair of walking boots, it falls into the role of being a utilitarian object that performs an important task without attracting attention. In today’s world of glitzy, glamorous, showy or even overblown loudspeakers, that makes the Spendor A4 quite unusual, but no less desirable for many prospective purchasers.

SEAMLESS AND BALANCED It is easy to detail the A4’s various limitations – the lack of very deep bass, the limited maximum loudness and also the slight lack of brilliance to the treble. Neither is its imaging exceptional or its soundstage especially deep or ambient. There’s also a degree of boxy coloration to the sound – just a little – and the speaker has a tendency to sound compressed at high volumes. Yet one gets the sense that these were all compromises the designer was prepared to make, to achieve the immensely enjoyable midband that the A4 delivers, and its pleasing sense of seamlessness and balance. As with most things in life, every loudspeaker is a compromise – but the trick is knowing when and how to rob Peter to pay Paul. Here, it’s very clear that Spendor has got the balance right – considering the sort of audiophile it is selling to. So while my first few minutes with the A4 proved a tad underwhelming, this was most certainly not my long-term impression. The A4, you see, is a real grower. For example, Peter Gabriel’s ‘Slowburn’

[from Peter Gabriel; Virgin PGCDP 1], which is a very dry sounding rock recording from the mid-1970s, initially seemed a little dull and unremarkable through the A4s, but as the track progressed I found myself settling down and enjoying it rather more than I had previously thought I would. There was a lot of midband detail and a pleasant, liltingly musical gait to the way the rhythms were handled. The upper bass was a little warm and there was a subtle sense of coloration to the sound – it was slightly boxy, as I’ve said, but in a pleasant sort of way. Peter Gabriel’s voice was delivered in a surprisingly intimate manner, the speaker giving a real feel for his phrasing and intonation, gliding engagingly through the song. Yet when I tried to steal my attention back to the ‘hi-fi’ aspects of the sound, things took a turn for the worse. The tambourine sounded rather generic and cymbals lacked sheen. The triangle playing was enjoyably rhythmic but didn’t sparkle. Again though, I was drawn back to the song’s emotional power, the singer’s voice and the melodic and expressive electric guitar sound. Better recordings – and I listened, for example, to the jazzy strains of Fourplay’s ‘Turnabout’ [from X; Bluebird 82876 86399-2] – tell us more about the A4. Bear in mind that Spendor’s A4 is a fairly open and detailed sounding speaker, but is no more incisively transparent than many other designs at this price point. It has that pleasant, gentle, warm coloration – almost as if you’ve turned the heating up a touch and things suddenly feel rather warm and sumptuous. So while Fourplay’s recording is very smooth, the A4 added a dash more colour in the upper bass, helping the

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LAB REPORT SPENDOR A4 LEFT: Precision-wound inductors and ‘audio grade’ capacitors are used in the (3.7kHz) crossover but this is not split to allow bi-wiring or bi-amping

Night Nurse; Island Records RRCD 9] proved this with its bouncy, sunny slice of early-’80s reggae and shuffling rhythms, courtesy of the legendary Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare. The A4 really became enjoyable, even at fairly high sound pressure levels. True, bass was a little light right low-down, but that aside the A4 proved great fun with Isaacs’ vocal carried in a close and intimate way, beautifully syncopated with the lead keyboards. The song came over just as it should: a sweet, enjoyable foottapper with a wonderful groove that pulls you right in.

Rarely at HFN do we encounter passive loudspeakers with on-axis frequency responses anywhere near as flat as Spendor’s A4 [Graph 1, below]. Response errors for the review pair were just ±2.2dB and ±2.0dB, respectively, and but for the narrow dip at 3kHz would have been more like ±1.5dB, making the A4’s frequency response the flattest we’ve measured from any loudspeaker in recent years, whether passive or active. It’s a remarkable achievement, backed up by a tight pair matching error of ±0.8dB over the same 200Hz-20kHz. Spendor claims an 86dB sensitivity for the A4 but our measured pink noise figure of 84.0dB, averaged for the two speakers, suggests that this is about 2dB optimistic. But payback comes in two ways... First, the A4 is a notably easy loudspeaker to drive compared to most of its competitors. It is a true 8ohm design, with a minimum modulus of 6.0ohm. The impedance phase angles are quite high but this high modulus ensures that the EPDR (equivalent peak dissipation resistance) never drops below 3.0ohm, dipping to a minimum of 3.1ohm at 96Hz and again to 3.2ohm at 927Hz. Compare this with the 1.7ohm we typically measure from high-sensitivity floorstanders. Second, the A4 has excellent bass extension for its modest size. Our diffraction-corrected nearfield measurement showed the LF extension to be a fine 38Hz (–6dB re. 200Hz) whereas many higher-sensitivity competitors average around 55Hz, half an octave higher. Harmonic distortion was audible at 100Hz at 90dB SPL and the cumulative spectral decay waterfall [Graph 2] indicates that the aforementioned 3kHz response dip is associated with a bass-mid driver breakup resonance. KH

ALL OF A PIECE

bass guitar line underpin things just a bit more than with some rivals – a not unpleasant effect. Indeed the midband shone out as this speaker’s crowning jewel, for it really seemed to relish throwing out a good deal of rhythmically coherent detail. You’d never call the A4 a ‘mid-forward’ design but I found the sound to be articulate and tonally polished – just as it should be. Pushing up the volume let me focus in on the fine, expressive guitar work, but as things got louder that slight sense of compression began to set in. The A4 can do high volumes in a largish room with some small complaint, but it’s not its natural habitat. That’s not to say it’s an overpolite, dynamically limited loudspeaker in the mould of some designs from the ’70s. Gregory Isaacs’ ‘Cool Down The Pace’ [from

This is the A4’s stock-in trade and a pleasant dalliance with Dexy’s Midnight Runners’ ‘Geno’ [from Searching For The Young Soul Rebels; EMI DEXYS 20] showed the same. It served up a great lead vocal, smooth yet vibrant saxophone sound and had a highly satisfying musical flow. It fared pretty well with a short classical selection too, including Mahler’s Symphony No 9 [LSO/ Gergiev; LSO Live LSO0730] which still sounded convincingly all of a piece despite lacking some depth and breadth. Indeed, for most of the time you won’t find yourself focusing on the ‘hi-fi’ aspects of the sound, because the little Spendor A4 simply locks you into the wonderful natural flow of the music, and keeps you there transfixed.

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT

ABOVE: The A4’s forward response is one of the flattest we’ve measured. Bass extension is good too

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The Spendor A4 does what it says on the tin, so to speak. It’s a compact floorstander with no gimmicks or pretence. It doesn’t try to be a radical new departure in speaker design, sticking instead to the classic Spendor formula of making a pleasingly lyrical sound that pulls you into whatever type of music you choose, and keeps you entertained. It looks discreet and unprepossessing, yet oozes quality through and through.

Sensitivity (SPL/1m/2.83Vrms – Mean/IEC/Music)

84.2dB/84.0dB/84.1dB

Impedance modulus min/max (20Hz–20kHz)

6.0ohm @ 213Hz 56.4ohm @ 62Hz

Impedance phase min/max (20Hz–20kHz)

–57o @ 72Hz 57o @ 1.4kHz

Sound Quality: 83% 0

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Frequency in Hz >>

ABOVE: Cabinet resonances are mild but a mode in the bass/mid driver at 3kHz shows in the response

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS

Pair matching/Response error (200Hz–20kHz)

±0.8dB / ±2.2dB/±2.0dB

LF/HF extension (–6dB ref 200Hz/10kHz)

38Hz / 27.8kHz/36.6kHz

THD 100Hz/1kHz/10kHz (for 90dB SPL/1m)

1.9% / 0.4% / 0.4%

Dimensions (HWD)

831x165x275mm

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 65


Closed-back, ABR-loaded circumaural headphone Made by: 1MORE Acoustic Technology, San Diego, California Supplied by: 1More UK Headphones Ltd, London Telephone: 07521 498352 Web: http://uk.1more.com Price: £210

HEADPHONES

1MORE H1707 Touted as a three-driver design, this technically and visually adventurous headphone isn’t quite as described but it’s assuredly novel – and its manufacturer has attitude Review & Lab: Keith Howard ighting talk from the 1MORE web site: ‘Our mission is to deliver superior quality headphones at an amazing value to customers, disrupting an industry where price-hiking and design shortcuts are the norm’. From a newcomer to an old specialism – however many have joined it of late – that’s either chutzpah or hubris. On the face of it, the H1707 lives up to its maker’s claims of quality and value. This made-in-China headphone is the first I’ve encountered to incorporate what 1MORE terms triple drivers, although strictly speaking that’s inaccurate. Rather, the H1707 has two drivers – a 40mm main driver and tiny ceramic tweeter – supplemented by a passive radiator (an auxiliary bass radiator, or ABR, see boxout, p67). Still, nobody is going to suggest that this headphone is anything other than novel. It’s also well-constructed and, at a smidge under £210, makes obvious claim to being value for money.

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PIEZO TWEETER Yet why three diaphragms? It’s a good question, and not one which 1MORE addresses on its website, presumably on the assumption that customers will take more to equal better. But most headphones, including those many times the price of the H1707, make do very nicely with a single, full-range diaphragm. So why elaborate? Given 1MORE’s reticence on the subject it’s a moot question, but here are some feasible answers. First, it’s impossible to miss that the H1707 carries the Hi-Res logo from Japan’s High-Resolution Association. To merit this a product must have a bandwidth of at least 40kHz, which just happens to be the upper end of 1MORE’s claimed 20-40,000Hz frequency range. No response limits are specified but perhaps the 40kHz requirement was too difficult RIGHT: A transparent closure panel at the back of each capsule allows you to look in on the auxiliary bass radiator, which is mounted immediately behind the 40mm main driver

66 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

to meet with a traditional single full-range driver, so a piezo tweeter was added to the mix. At the other end of the frequency range, many modern headphones reach down to the lowest audible octaves – actually, lower than the H1707 does – without any need of reflex loading via an ABR. But reflex loading reduces driver excursion requirements and cuts distortion as a corollary, not just at low frequencies. This might be a valid reason for the H1707 using an ABR but for the fact that our lab testing [see p69] showed it to have slightly high distortion at 100Hz – a little poorer than many single-driver headphones. The H1707’s ABR is placed concentrically with and immediately behind the main driver and is visible from without, courtesy of a transparent plastic window at the back of the capsule. (If you’ve got it, flaunt it.) The capsule is therefore closed-back, and the H1707 offers useful isolation from external sounds. It’s a pity that 1MORE says little

about the main drive unit, other than it is 40mm in diameter and variously described as ‘titanium’ or ‘metal composite’. Metaldiaphragm ’phones are still relatively rare so it would be interesting to know more.

PROTEIN CAPSULES Although it’s nothing to compare with the recently reviewed, much costlier Master & Dynamic MH40 [HFN Oct ’17] in respect of perceived construction quality, the H1707 feels solidly enough built for its price. But it doesn’t succeed in eliminating audible headband vibrational effects. When I wore it for the impedance test, which plays pink-spectrum noise through the left capsule only, a low-frequency rumble could be heard crossing over to the right capsule, and which was quelled when I pressed the headband against my skull. I’ve heard much less well controlled headband resonance, to be fair, but this is an area 1MORE would do well to attend to in the future. A 1.35m Y-cable connects the capsules to the music source, terminated in 2.5mm TRS mini-jack plugs at the capsule ends and a 3.5mm TRS mini-jack plug at the other. A sleeve adapter is provided for compatibility with 6.35mm jack sockets. Unlike some headphones I’ve reviewed recently, the H1707 goes to some pains to distinguish the left and right capsules. The connection sockets are colour-coded, there is L and R lettering on the inside of the headband immediately above each capsule slide, and the protective filter material within each capsule has large L/R lettering on it too. Supplied accessories, apart from the cable and aforementioned 6.35mm adapter, are a zip-up hard shell carrying case and alternative soft drawstring bag. Use on the hoof is made more feasible by the capsules hinging up into the headband. The H1707’s protein leather earpads are circumaural but only just if you have larger ears, and this compromises comfort somewhat. However,

‘The H1707 has two drivers, supplemented by an ABR’


LEFT: Hidden away, a tiny ceramic tweeter [see exploded view, below] extends the ultrasonic response out to a claimed 40kHz and earns the H1707 an official ‘Hi-Res’ badge

Very few of the headphones that come HFN’s way these days are tonally neutral. Many have too much lower midrange and bass (the current fashion), and many of those compound their LF/HF imbalance by also being reticent in the lower treble – the presence band that, if AWOL, robs the sound of that live, ‘being there’ quality. As the DF-corrected frequency response [green trace] in our lab report suggests, the H1707 is a little different. Yes, it too has an LF/HF imbalance, with too much of the former relative to the latter, but it isn’t a bass rise per se, although the upper bass is certainly emphasised. Instead the response is reminiscent of a shelf filter, with a centre frequency of about 1.5kHz and attenuation of about 7dB, beyond which there is sudden excess of energy around 10kHz.

NO HARSHNESS HERE

it’s quite light and head clamping force is modest. A good seal to the head is needed to achieve the intended bass output.

A DIFFERENT TAKE Listening was conducted using my resident Teac HA-501 headphone amp [HFN Apr ’14] with music from a Matrix Audio X-Sabre

Pro DAC [see p54], itself fed USB signals via an Ideon 3R Renaissance isolator and S/PDIF from a TC Electronic Impact Twin FireWire audio interface. The computer was a Windows 7 machine with JRiver Media Centre v22. The HA-501, X-Sabre Pro and TC were all powered from a PS Audio P10 mains regenerator [HFN Apr ’13].

MORE THE MERRIER? Reflex bass loading exploits the Helmholtz resonance between a mass and the compliance (springiness) of an enclosed volume of air. In a ported loudspeaker, the mass is provided by the plug of air within the port tube but it can also be the moving mass of an auxiliary bass radiator (ABR), which is effectively a drive unit without any means of drive. Comprising just a diaphragm and suspension, with no motor components (voice coil or magnet assembly), an ABR’s action is entirely passive – it responds to pressure variations within the cabinet. In a loudspeaker the upside of an ABR compared to a port is that, because there is no flow of air, there can be no chuffing noises, compression/ distortion effects caused by turbulent airflow. But an ABR is costlier, and it has to be carefully designed to obviate distortion caused by nonlinear suspension compliance. ABRs are only rarely used in headphones. The most famous example is the AKG K240 studio monitor, introduced in the 1970s, which used six small ABRs within each capsule, arrayed in an annulus around the central drive unit. It is still made today.

The subjective result is that 1MORE’s top headphone delivers rather enervated music, with slightly reduced energy, clarity and joie de vivre. However, the upside to this is a reluctance to sound harsh, even on material with criminal levels of dynamic range compression (probably why the H1707 is balanced as it is), but for that high treble peak, caused by a high-Q resonance at 8.5kHz, which might add some audible emphasis to vocal sibilants. To establish that last point I turned, as I always do, to two female vocalists – Sabina Sciubba singing ‘Take Five’ from her and Antonio Forcione’s Meet Me In London [192kHz/24-bit download; Naim label], and Diana Krall singing the title track from The Girl In The Other Room [96kHz/24-bit rip from the DualDisc Verve B0003758-82]. Both have a tendency to ‘spit’ on sibilants if the 8-10kHz frequency range is at all emphasised. On this occasion Sciubba’s had some very mild sibilant emphasis but Krall’s voice only hardened up a little. This issue you will encounter only occasionally in general listening, but the LF/HF imbalance is inescapable because it

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 67






August 2017

Dual-mono, class AB hybrid integrated amplifier with zero feedback. The heart of the Unico 90 circuit is found in its hybrid structure. With only two active stages for a technically perfect performance, all of the character is determined by a sophisticated tube stage. Unico combines valve mastery with solid-state power.

Distributed by Henley Audio T: +44 (0)1235 511 166 | E: sales@henleyaudio.co.uk | W: www.henleyaudio.co.uk


LAB REPORT 1MORE H1707

infuses everything played over the H1707. It’s fundamental to its DNA, and for that reason you must be sure it’s a characteristic you can live with if you’re contemplating a long-term relationship with this headphone. Here’s how it manifested itself on some of the music I sampled. I’ve been shelling out again on hi-res music, one of the tracks that I was pleased to find – yes, sorry, I purchased the track rather than the album, digital sinner that I occasionally am – being the 192kHz/24-bit download (from Qobuz) of ‘Double Trouble’ from Eric Clapton’s Just One Night. I’ve always thought this a great live rock recording because it has the edgy sound of a live performance but still offers warmth and detail. ‘Double Trouble’ was only slightly lacklustre via the H1707, for despite the download being distinctly better than the CD rip, its sins here were of omission rather than commission. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t especially below par even if some ‘specialness’ was bled from the recording and performance – the tonal balance was a tad thickened and the ambience of the Budokan Theatre faintly diminished.

TRAD JAZZ ROMP If I had to choose one word to describe what the H1707’s LF/HF imbalance could at times strip from the sound, it would be ‘character’. If you are familiar with the idiosyncratic Swedish label Opus3 you’ll know that its purist, simplymiked recordings have a distinctive sound quality. ‘Black Beauty’ from the DSD128 version of the Opus3 Showcase 1 collection [www. dsdfile.com download, converted by me to 88.2kHz/24-bit] is a case in point. It’s a fun trad jazz romp that has all the Opus3 hallmarks of

ABOVE: The connecting lead is a Y-cable but possible channel confusion is averted by its non-symmetric design, colour coding and prominent L/R lettering

natural tone colours and spacious, believable imaging. Anyone who knows the Opus3 sound would normally recognise it blindfold, but they might hesitate if they heard it via the H1707 because its presencelight sound can suppress those cues. To my ears, ‘Black Beauty’ came over as perhaps too ordinary, rather than extraordinary, via the H1707. The good news for computer audiophiles, or anyone else able to apply equalisation, is that the H1707 can be transformed with a dose of EQ. Of course, it won’t be so easy for 1MORE to achieve such changes acoustically, but were it to then I’d do handsprings in print. Using JRiver’s distinctly crude graphic equaliser, I found that around 4dB boost at 3kHz and 6kHz was enough to restore life to the sound, and parametric EQ could probably quell the sibilance issue. Then you have a headphone worthy of that corporate braggadocio.

Many headphone manufacturers continue to quote sensitivity as SPL for 1mW, which requires a conversion to get to the more practically relevant voltage sensitivity figure we measure. 1MORE quotes 104dB sensitivity for the H1707, omitting the ‘for 1mW’ (which I’ve assumed). At the H1707’s nominal impedance of 32ohm, this equates to 119.0dB SPL for 1Vrms input, which is extremely close to the 119.1dB we measured at 1kHz, averaged for the two capsules. This figure puts the H1707 towards the top end of the sensitivity range of modern headphones, so no headphone amp worth its salt should have any issues driving it to output levels sufficient to accommodate the transient peaks of high dynamic range music signals. We measured the impedance of the left capsule as ranging between 29.9-38.3ohm across the audible range (20Hz20kHz), which is sufficient variation to introduce a 0.49dB alteration in frequency response when driven from an amp of 10ohm source impedance, or 0.98dB with a 30ohm source. The uncorrected frequency responses [see Graph 1] for the left and right capsules are measured on a GRAS 43AG ear and cheek simulator, using KEMAR large left and large right artificial pinnae, respectively. Notable features include the relatively large disparities between the grey [left] and red [right] traces, the dip in output below 1kHz, little evidence of the usual 2-3kHz peak, and a large switchback in the octave between 5kHz and 10kHz. How these ‘features’ affect the perceived tonal balance are indicated in our corrected responses [Graph 2]. All show a reasonably even response below 1kHz but a big dip in output immediately thereafter, followed by a large over-recovery at 10kHz. These suggest that the H1707 may lack presence band energy while still posessing a sting in its tail with vocal sibilants and other sounds having strong upper-HF content. KH

ABOVE: Unequalised responses (L/R, grey/red; average 3rd-octave, black) show quite poor capsule matching and a response with the potential for brightness

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT For all its arresting looks and technical wizardry the H1707, like so many modern headphones, fails to deliver an entirely neutral tonal balance. If you like a tonally warm, but emotionally cool sound then it may appeal but don’t expect any great insight. And if you are sensitive to sibilant excess, avoid altogether. The frustration is that, with a little LF/ HF rebalancing, the H1707 could be a fine headphone indeed...

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ABOVE: Third-octave freq. resp. (red = Harman corrected; cyan = FF corrected; green = DF corrected)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Sensitivity (SPL at 1kHz for 1Vrms input)

119.1dB

Impedance modulus min/max (20Hz-20kHz)

29.9ohm @ 16.3kHz 38.3ohm @ 51Hz

Capsule matching (40Hz-10kHz)

±8.1dB

LF extension (–6dB ref. 200Hz)

21Hz

Distortion 100Hz/1kHz (for 90dB SPL)

0.9% / <0.1%

Weight (inc cable and 0.25in connector)

310g

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 69


PRE/POWER AMPLIFIER

Pre/Power amplifier with digital inputs. Rated at 100W/8ohm Made by: Pro-Ject Audio Systems, Austria Supplied by: Henley Designs Ltd, UK Telephone: 01235 511166 Web: www.project-audio.com; www.henleydesigns.co.uk Price(s): £785/£520

Pro-Ject Pre Box DS2 Digital/ Amp Box DS2 Stereo The world’s most prolific producer of turntables also offers an extensive range of bijou hi-fi separates. We look at the latest pre/power in its ‘mid-range’ Box Design series Review: Cliff Joseph Lab: Paul Miller ro-Ject doesn’t do things by halves. With an already intimidating array of amps, preamps and DACs in its Box Design range, the Viennabased company has recently given its entire mid-range DS Line a complete revamp, with nine new products now available here in the UK and more to come as we head into 2018. The flagship of the new range is the updated Pre Box DS2 Digital, a compact but versatile preamp priced at £785. By way of partner, the company has also released the new Amp Box DS2, a Class-D powered stereo amplifier, rated at 100W/8ohm and priced at just £520. Both devices are attractively compact, with the same dimensions – 240mm wide, 72mm high and 194mm deep – so you can easily stack them if space is a bit tight (the 220mm depth listed for the Pre Box includes the Bluetooth aerial at the back). You can choose either silver or black metal casings for each device, finished off with walnut or darker eucalyptus wood panels, to suit your taste. However, our two black test units would have benefitted from some sort of non-smudge coating to help reduce finger marks…

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THE ULTIMATE HUB The Pre Box DS2 has much in common with the company’s DAC Box DS2 Ultra [HFN Jul ’16]. The designs of both devices pre-date the recent arrival of John Westlake from Audiolab, and they share the same ‘Velvet Sound’ AK4490 DAC from Asahi Kasei, rather than the ESS Sabre DACs used in some of Pro-Ject’s other recent releases. This supports audio formats up to 768kHz/32-bit via USB input, or 192kHz/ 24-bit via S/PDIF, and up to DSD256. RIGHT: The Pre Box DS2 Digital’s Wi-Fi/ Bluetooth module [left] is from Shanghai Ehong Technology Ltd while the upsampler and DSDready DAC are both from AKM’s high-end 32-bit Verita ‘Velvet Sound’ series

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There’s also an AK4137 upsampler on board as well, which works up to 768kHz. However, the Pre Box DS2 casts its net a little wider than the DAC Box DS2. The UK distributors at Henley Audio describe it as ‘the ultimate system hub’, and the Pre Box DS2 includes both USB input for computers and Bluetooth wireless for streaming from mobile devices, along with support for the higher-quality AptX codec (although, of course, your mobile devices will also need to support AptX in order to use that option). Alongside the digital inputs are an RCA phono input for MM/MC turntables and an RCA line-in. Output options include two pairs of RCA connectors for variable and fixed output, one subwoofer and – on the front panel – a 6.35mm headphone jack

socket. And, if you’re using Pro-Ject devices like the Pre Box and Amp Box together, there are ‘trigger’ connectors on both devices that allow you to connect and turn them all on at the same time.

BLUETOOTH BLUES It’s certainly an impressive list of features, but there are some rough edges, both in technical terms and in presentation and ease of use. The lack of 3.5mm input won’t be a deal-breaker for too many people, but the choice of a USB-B interface on the Pre Box effectively limits the use of the USB audio input to just Mac and PC computers, whereas many smartphones and other mobile devices use cables with the more common USB-A interface. It’s true that Bluetooth is available for mobile devices,


LEFT: Optional eucalyptus and walnut wood sidecheeks are available to complement the Black and Silver box finishes. Inputs, Sound Mode and Digital Filters are selected by small buttons, but the LED indicators are pin-hole sized!

but Bluetooth is always a compromise and I’d have liked the option to connect my iPad via USB so that I could play hi-res audio from the online Qobuz streaming service without having to compress it all over again via Bluetooth. Sure, there are USB adapters available, but compatibility with some DACs and preamps can be a bit hit-and-miss. The controls on the front of the Pre Box leave some room for improvement, too. The three sets of LED indicators that show the input source, filters, and ‘sound modes’ (the unhelpful term used for the various upsampling options) are very small and difficult to see clearly. You can adjust these settings from across the room with the hand-held remote control [p73],

but you won’t be able to see them unless you lean forward and peer right at the front panel. Thankfully, with fewer features and controls to worry about, the Amp Box DS2 suffers no such problems. This simply includes two pairs of input and output connectors on the back, and a single power button and LED up front.

‘Exploring the Sound and Filter modes can get complicated!’

VELVET SOUNDS

The external controls and documentation for the Pre Box DS2 might occasionally leave you scratching your head, but the sound quality of this affordable two-piece set-up doesn’t disappoint. The combination of the Pre Box DS2 and Amp Box DS2 copes admirably with a range of musical genres, although the gentle acoustic sound of ‘The Blower’s

RINGING THE CHANGES It’s all change for Pro-Ject inside its DS2 Box Design n series as the Flying Mole Class D modules used in its ts DS series [HFN Mar ’16] are replaced here by Hypex x UcD180LP amplifiers [concealed in the inset picture re by two C-sections of alloy heatsinking]. Still Class D in execution, but driven via a robust outboard PSU,, the Amp Box DS2 benefits from Hypex’s superior speaker load tolerance – so the frequency response dips by an imperceptible –0.1dB/–0.2dB at 20kHz with each halving of load from 8 to 4 to 2ohm. The partnering Pre Box DS2 also features the high-end ‘Verita’ AK4137 upsampler x DS2 and AK4490 DAC that we saw in Pro-Ject’s DAC Box ptions utilised ultra [HFN Jul ’16]. The key ‘Filter 1’ and ‘Filter 2’ options espectively, the latter with here are linear phase and minimum phase types, respectively, no pre-ringing on transient signals. In conjunction,, ‘Sound Mode 2’ invokes a sharp roll-off characteristic while Sound Modes 1 and 3 offer a slow treble rolloff. Sound Mode 2 is certainly the most ‘distinctive’ of Pro-Ject’s options. PM

Daughter’ by Damien Rice [from O; 14th Floor Records 5050466-4788-5-6] is an easy-going curtain raiser. Here the DS2-duo takes a calm, unfussy approach, allowing the hesitation in Rice’s voice to show through in the opening sections of the song, while the strings ring out more emphatically to convey the lingering regret behind his words. It’s quite forgiving of the album’s lo-fi production too. By contrast, Pro-Ject’s less expensive Pre Box S2 [HFN Aug ’17] seemed to mercilessly highlight every finger-scratch on Rice’s guitar playing, but the DS2 version manages to focus its attention on the rich acoustic guitar sound and discreetly allows all but the worst finger slips to step into the background. After the simple intimate ballads of Rice, the more complex, intertwining choruses of ‘Spem In Alium’, performed by Pro Cantione A Antiqua [Tallis – Spem In Alium; Alto – A ALC1082] are certainly a step up. The vocal warmth of Damien Ri Rice is repeated 40-fold, but there’s precision too in the DS2’s handling as e each distinct voice takes it its place in the mounting ch chorus, creating a towering sen sense of space worthy of the loft loftiest cathedrals.

CANNED GOODS CAN Out of o curiosity, I took this opportunity to plug my reliable opport old Sen Sennheiser headphones into Pro-Ject Pro-Ject’s Pre Box DS2. In this instance the closer confines of the head headphones actually seemed to intensify the impact of the music, making it clear that the headphone option provided here is no mere afterthought. NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 71


LAB REPORT PRO-JECT BOX DS2 DIGITAL/STEREO

ABOVE: Line and phono analogue ins are offered alongside coax, USB, wireless Bluetooth and two Toslink optical digital ins, with fixed/variable analogue, sub plus optical outs [Pre Box, top]. The Amp Box [below] has line in/loop outs on RCAs and 4mm speaker terminals. Note the three-pin DIN 48V PSU connection

Switching from the sacred to the (frequently) profane, ‘This Is How I Disappear’ by My Chemical Romance [Welcome To The Black Parade; 44.1kHz/24-bit; Reprise 9362 4427-2] found the Pro-Ject pairing really flexing its muscles. There was great power and attack in the thrashing guitar riffs, yet the pre/power never lost sight of Ray Toro’s precise, controlled playing – it’s death by a thousand cuts rather than simply bludgeoning you unconscious with noise. If you are in need of something a little more calming, then the ambient sound of Max Richter’s ‘Shadow Journal’ [The Blue Notebooks; Deutsche Grammophon 479-4443] is just perfect. The ProJect team gets the balance just right here, keeping the deep electronic bass firm and taut and with enough weight to underpin the delicate violin and ambient electronics that hover above. This is also a fine piece of music with which to explore the numerous filters and sound modes built into the Pre Box DS2 – although things can get a little complicated!

FILTER EFFECTS There are five filters, and three ‘sound modes’ – which actually refer to the upsampling options provided by the Pre Box. However, the upsampling modes available depend on both the input source and sampling rate of the original audio file, and not all filters are available

in all three modes. In fact, even with my 44.1kHz/24-bit tracks, only the first two filters were generally available [see PM’s boxout, p71], and neither exerted any substantial impact on the simple, sparse sound of ‘The Blower’s Daughter’. Turning off the upsampling (Sound Mode 3) provides access to four of the filters, and it’s the fourth that proves most effective, adding a subtle but audible broadening of the deep bass on ‘Shadow Journal’. Ultimately, the default Sound Mode/ Filter 1 seems like the most sensible starting point for day-to-day use. My only real disappointment is the inability to connect my iPad via USB, my choice when listening to online services such as Qobuz and Spotify. Listening to my mobile devices via Bluetooth does produce good sound quality, but it still can’t escape the inevitable air-brush effect that smooths out those subtle details. Inevitably, the Pre Box/Amp Box DS2 comes into its own with uncompressed hi-res sources.

The move to adopt Hypex Class D modules for its Amp Box series ensures Pro-Ject a very reliable and fairly predictable performance [see boxout, p71], although the Amp Box DS2’s S/N, in particular, would improve by some 6dB over the measured 81dB (re. 0dBW) if the spuriae around 19kHz could be removed. Power output is well over the 100W/140W 8/4ohm specification at 120W/210W, respectively, with some very slight increase under dynamic conditions [see Graph 1, below]. Low impedance drive is limited by protection to 9A but the Amp Box DS2 will still go plenty loud with sensitive 8/6ohm nominal loudspeakers. Distortion increases with output and decreasing load, from 0.013%/1W to 0.03%/10W and 0.2%/ 100W at midrange frequencies, and increases still further at bass frequencies to 0.14%/20Hz at 1-10W/8ohm [see Graph 2]. The accompanying Pre Box DS2 Digital offers a gain of +5.4dB or –0.5dB (in +6dB/0dB modes) with a maximum output of 6V (analogue in) or 2.3V (fixed output, 0dBFs digital in). The output impedance is a usefully low 9.3ohm via the buffered variable output or a higher 46ohm via the fixed outputs. Under ideal conditions (200mV-2V out) distortion is a low 0.0003-0.008% (20Hz-20kHz), increasing to 0.02%/40kHz, while the inherent response is flat to within ±0.1dB from 40Hz100kHz. Via the digital inputs, distortion is as low as 0.00008% (1kHz) and 0.0002% (20kHz) over the top 30dB of its dynamic range. Noise is much lower, relatively and absolutely, than via the Amp Box, resulting in wide A-wtd S/Ns of 97.3dB (re. 0dBV) and 109.3dB (re. 0dBFs). Jitter suppression is especially impressive with no more than 10psec recorded at any sample rate from 44.1kHz to 192kHz. PM

ABOVE: Dynamic power output versus distortion into 8ohm (black), 4ohm (red), 2ohm (blue) and 1ohm (green) loads. Maximum current is 8.9A

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT The Pre Box DS2 and Amp Box DS2 are available separately, but there’s no denying that they make an impressive team. With a combined price of around £1300, they provide a compelling sound, with power and precision that allow them to adapt to a variety of different musical genres. The compact design is both smart and versatile, and our only complaint is the reliance on Bluetooth for connecting mobile devices.

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ABOVE: Distortion vs. extended 5Hz-40kHz frequency (black, Pre Box at 0dBV; red, Amp Box at 1W/8ohm)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Power output (<1% THD, 8/4ohm)

120W / 210W

Dynamic power (<1% THD, 8/4/2/1ohm)

125W / 225W / 130W / 80W

Output impedance (20Hz-20kHz)

0.001–0.065ohm (9ohm/Pre Box)

Freq. resp. (20Hz-20kHz, Digital/Amp)

+0.0 to –0.3dB / –0.6 to –0.75dB

A-wtd S/N ratio (Digital/Amp Box)

109.3dB (0dBFs) / 81.0dB (0dBW)

Dist. (20Hz-20kHz, Digital/Amp Box)

0.0004–0.001%/ 0.023–0.13%

Digital jitter (48kHz/96kHz)

<10psec / <10psec

Power consump. (Idle/Rated o/p)

10W/233W (6W, Pre Box)

Dimensions (WHD, each) / Weight

240x69x194mm / 2.1kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 73


Classical Companion BEHIND THE MUSIC WITH HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

Gustav Mahler Composer and conductor ‘My time will come’, he wrote. But it only happened in the 1960s. And one writer thinks it’s time ‘he went’. Christopher Breunig can’t wait for more to come our way… eethoven greatly expanded the scope of the symphony, his First a step on from Haydn’s, his Ninth ending by rejecting earlier themes then, with soloists and chorus, praising the brotherhood of man. The Sixth, meanwhile, had introduced pastoral imagery. His successors mostly living in Vienna – Brahms, Bruckner, Schubert, Schumann – kept the four-movement format and their compositions remained abstract. But Gustav Mahler increasingly made his music ‘autobiographical’, culminating in the anguished outpouring of his unfinished Tenth. He had come from a modest Bohemian Jewish home and sent to study at the Vienna Conservatory aged 15 (1875), having fallen in love with his grandparents’ upright piano at only four. Even as a young man he had ambitions to compose (eg,

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FischerDieskau’s memorable 1955 Kindertotenlieder with Rudolf Kempe

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The composer Gustav Mahler in 1907 – pencil drawing by artist unknown

Muskete’s famous satirical cartoon where a distraught Mahler says ‘My god, I forgot the car horn! Now I will have to write another symphony!’. The ‘correct’ order for its inner movements, Scherzo and Andante, has been hotly debated, and the Barbirolli LPs (for which I wrote the sleeve notes) had these reversed for the CD reissue. EMI had first followed the Critical Edition score but Barbirolli himself preferred the more conventional placing of slow movement second. an opera when his younger brother died) and he conducted and played in the student orchestra. He took up an early role as a piano teacher and his first major work, Das Klagende Lied, was finished in 1880. It is based on the retributive Grimm tale of the ‘Singing Bone’. Later he suppressed the opening section and this was not rediscovered until 1969, when it was recorded by conductor Pierre Boulez for CBS. Boulez took an unexpected interest in Mahler, even recording the original Totenfeier from Symphony No 2 [Chicago SO; DG 457 649-2]. Completed in 1888 while Mahler was working at the Leipzig Opera, Symphony No 1 also had one movement, entitled ‘Blumine’, which he later withdrew – this time first recorded by the conductor Ormandy, also in 1969. Mahler frequently revised his scores, with the hindsight of performance: notably his masterly ‘Tragic’ Symphony (No 6), where the orchestration included cowbells, rute (bundled twigs used as a percussion stick) and mallet strikes. This sort of thing prompted Die

MAHLER PIANO-ROLLS The composer made no recordings as such – although when he died in 1911, falling sick after to-ing and fro-ing to The Met, New York, the phonograph had been in existence for 34 years. But he did make four Welte piano-rolls: excerpts from Symphonies 4 and 5 and songs, and these can be heard via the Internet. But imagine if we had 78s of the Rachmaninov Third Concerto from Nov 1909, Mahler conducting a New York orchestra with Rachmaninov as soloist! ‘The accompaniment, which is rather complicated, was practiced to perfection,’ he said. ‘According to Mahler, every detail of the score was important – an attitude too rare amongst conductors.’ As discussed in these pages [HFN Apr ’15 and Mar ’17], two of Mahler’s assistants, conductors Otto Klemperer and Bruno Walter, added substantially to the early discography – although German conductor Oskar Fried’s ‘Resurrection Symphony’ (No 2) dates right back to 1924 [Naxos 8.110152-53]. Listen to Walter in, say, Symphony No 1 and you find

‘“I forgot the car horn – I’ll have to write another symphony!”’

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he liked to make everything sing. He disliked the more pessimistic, harsher elements, whereas Klemperer’s more severe approach worked so well in No 9. In a letter complaining about Richard Strauss’s money obsessions, Mahler suggested that ‘my time will come’. This didn’t really happen until the 1960s when Leonard Bernstein and Bernard Haitink completed, neck and neck, recordings of all nine symphonies – neither tempted by the fine completion of the Tenth by English musicologist Deryck Cooke. I think that Bernstein believed he ‘became’ Mahler in his performances, seizing upon and moulding the phrases uniquely. His one eccentricity was casting a boy soprano for Symphony No 4 on DG although the Amsterdam, New York and Vienna remakes for DG are mostly preferable – No 7 excepted – to his previous CBS/Sony versions. Haitink’s Dutch orchestra had a tradition dating from Mengelberg’s

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A good place to start: Channel Classics’ SACD of Symphony No 4 with Iván Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra [CCSSA 26109]

requires the first violinist to tune his instrument up a whole tone in a Totentanz, while the Poco Adagio, a set of variations, builds to heaven’s gates opening in splendour. So plenty that’s unique here – a good starting point, and the version I’d suggest is the beautifully recorded Channel Classics SACD shown above.

TEMPTING PROVIDENCE

PHOTO: SONY CLASSICAL

ë tenure and friendship with the composer but Haitink’s later Dresden ‘Resurrection’ [Profil PH07040], his recent Third, my Jun ’17 Album Choice [see boxout], and the Berlin No 5 [Philips 422 3552] I think supersede the Amsterdam ones. Anyone collecting in the ’50s would probably have started with the Philips cheap label transfer of Bruno Walter’s 1945 New York Philharmonic 78rpm set of Symphony No 4. In seven alternative performances on CD the conductor had better singers than soprano Desi Halban, who gives a child’s eye view of heaven in the finale, ‘Das Himmlische Leben’ – its texts taken from the Knaben Wunderhorn folk poems much preoccupying Mahler in his first phase of composing. The symphony begins with sleighbells and complicated tempo changes, the second movement

Bruno Walter – assistant to Mahler as a young man – with Rodin’s bust of the composer in the background

When Mahler completed settings of poems by Rückert on the deaths of children, Kindertotenlieder, his own second daughter had just been born and his wife Alma thought his choice ‘tempted Providence’ (as proved to be the case). This is perhaps his most touching work, and as a young student I was urged to buy the Fischer-Dieskau 10in HMV recording. It’s still available along with the ‘Wayfarer’ song-cycle, Lieder Eines

Fahrenden Gesellen – the only Mahler recorded by Furtwängler – on Warner Classics [5675562]. His Kindertotenlieder DG remake with Böhm I enjoy less but the later ‘Wayfarer’ with Kubelík [see boxout] is even more satisfying. I mention Furtwängler prompted by a July Spectator piece by Michael Tanner (which quotes the German conductor), ‘When will his [Mahler’s] time go?’. Tanner thinks the music mostly ‘peddles sentimentality’ and describes the much-loved Adagietto from Symphony No 5 (see this month’s reviews) as ‘emetic’. Contrast this with Tom Service’s admirable Guardian ‘Symphony Guide’ essay on Mahler’s First. That long opening movement with huntsmen and bird calls, and sundappled woodlands was perhaps the most perfect piece he ever wrote.

ESSENTIAL RECORDINGS Das Lied von der Erde Warner Classics 2564607598; DG 469 5262 Otto Klemperer, with Christa Ludwig/Fritz Wunderlich and the NPO/Philharmonia. Boulez with Violeta Urmana/Michael Schade and the VPO makes a more modern choice.

Symphony No 3 BR Klassik 900149 (two discs) A 2016 live recording with Gerhild Romberger. Symphony No 5 DG 4 776334; 4795807 (LP) Bernstein and the Vienna Philharmonic.

Symphony No 1 DG 449 7352; 479 4703 (LP) Rafael Kubelík and his Bavarian RSO, the CD including Fischer-Dieskau’s later Lieder Eines Fahrenden Gesellen recording [see text].

Symphony No 8 Decca 4757521; 4788551 (two LPs) Solti and his Chicago SO but recorded in Vienna with a fine cast/chorus.

Symphony No 2 ‘Resurrection’ Decca 425 9702 (mono) With Kathleen Ferrier, et al, Klemperer and the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, live 1951.

Symphony No 9 DG 471 6242; Accentus Music ACC20214 (DVD) Abbado’s London concert performance with the BPO (2CDs), and the Lucerne Festival film.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 77


Vinyl Release BEHIND THE MUSIC WITH HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

STEVE SUTHERLAND Steve edited NME from 1992-2000, the Britpop years, launching NME.com and reviving the NME Awards. Previously he was Assistant Editor on Melody Maker. Among his many adventures he has been physically threatened by Axl Rose, hung out awhile with Jerry Garcia and had a drink or two with Keith Richards...

The La’s The La’s (180g vinyl) A tale of the perils of perfectionism, this debut LP was disowned by the band who believed it would never be released. Steve Sutherland hears the 180g reissue... ack in 1979, in a desperate attempt to control its exploding population and the strain it was putting on vital resources, the Chinese government decreed that each family should be legally limited to producing just one child. Now imagine what would happen if, for some strange reason – I dunno, good taste or lack of vinyl or precious time or something – that a law had been passed internationally in – I dunno, 1967 or thereabouts – that limited every band or musical artist to releasing one LP and one LP only. Wouldn’t that be incredible?

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BIG AND BLOATY Television wouldn’t have had to labour in vain to follow up their magnificent Marquee Moon. The Stone Roses would never have dumped The Second Coming upon us. The Vines wouldn’t have gotten all gnarled up under the strain of matching Highly Evolved. Patti Smith would have graced us with Horses and then not waffled on. Guns N’ Roses could have returned to the gutter after their magnificent Appetite

For Destruction instead of getting all big and bloaty. And MGMT could have delivered Oracular Spectacular out of nowhere then disappeared again. There are countless groups who pretty much did what they were born to do and said all they had to say on album numero uno then mucked it all up ever after. And then there are others, like The B-52’s, Ramones, Velvet Underground, Jesus & Mary Chain, Killers, Eminem, The Doors and Arcade Fire who ploughed gallantly on, and sometimes did really great stuff. But let’s face it, we’d have revered them every bit as much if their stunning debut albums, indisputably their defining moments, were all the recorded evidence we’d ever had to go on. The argument, though, is moot ladies and gentlemen, when it comes to The La’s, a bunch of Liverpool beatniks who, in 1990, recorded what was released as their one and only LP. I say ‘what was released’ because, actually, they didn’t want it out

at all, declaring to all and sundry that they actually hated the tracks, had never given their permission for them to be compiled into an LP, and pretty much wished the whole thing out of existence. Or at least, the band’s songwriter, singer, guvnor and all round visionary Lee Mavers did. Actually what he said was, it was ‘like a snake with a broken back’, which is kind of brilliant in its own way but quite wrong. The La’s is a thing of rare beauty and the fact Mr Mavers has so steadfastly disowned it, retreating into silence for over two decadesand-counting is the very weird stuff of which indie legends are made. Many an apocryphal tale accompanies its making. Some say that Mavers refused to work with a vintage mixing desk he’d requested because it didn’t have original ’60s dust on it. Others maintain that, on the contrary, Mavers overcame such petty obstacles by carrying round a bag of ’60s dust which he sprinkled over all the equipment the band were to use in the studio in their search for something like the sound of the early Who.

‘Go! Discs was frantic to recoup its crippling investment’

CLARE MULLER

TORTUOUS TASK

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The La’s pose in 1990 for a Go! Discs publicity shot (l-r) guitarist Peter ‘Cammy’ Cammell, singer Lee Mavers, brother Neil Mavers who played drums, and bass player John Power

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I can’t say I’m sure what ’60s dust actually is but whatever the truth – should there be any – the fact remains that the making of The La’s was one tortuous task lasting, on and off, the best – or worst – part of two years, and involving several studios, a number of band fallings-out and quittings, at least four highly renowned and exasperated producers hired, then fired, and a lot more money than their label, the fledgling Go! Discs, could really afford. Some say it cost a million. The producers who had a crack at it were John Porter, who did The Smiths’ debut album, John Leckie (Stone Roses), Mike Hedges (The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees) and, finally, Steve Lillywhite (U2). Not too shabby, right? Hedges recalls recording the band in the living room


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Priced £19.99, the 180g vinyl reissue of The La’s self-titled debut album is available from www.banquetrecords.com

of label boss Andy MacDonald’s parents’ house near the Devon coast on some ’60s equipment he’d just purchased from Abbey Road Studios. It sounded great to him. It didn’t work out. ‘His (Mavers’) standards were so high that you’re never going to reach them. At some point you have to say, “That’s it, it’s finished,” and move on to something else. I’ve never been 100% on anything I’ve ever done. I don’t think you can be, because how do you measure perfection? ‘I think he got so stuck on what they should sound like that he didn’t know what they should sound like. But just listening to them play in that room sent the tingles down my spine.’

LOST THE PLOT It’s widely accepted that, during their many attempts to create their debut, Mavers lost the plot. At the end of it all, nothing the band committed to tape seemed to come out the way Mavers wanted it, the way he heard it in his head. So the band walked away, scrapped it and that was that. Or so they thought. Go! Discs had other ideas. It was frantic to recoup on their crippling investment so Steve Lillywhite – who Mavers later claimed to have hated so much that he and the band deliberately sang and played badly – put it all together and out it came, to ecstatic reviews because the music.... Oh, the music! You can trace where this stuff came from but no other band has ever really sounded remotely like this. Oasis kind of tried, Noel Gallagher being a true acolyte. But Oasis were rocky while The La’s drew inspiration from the well of raw, early Merseybeat, before all the skiffle had been bullied out of it by R&B and psychedelia. Certainly it has a home made quality. ‘Organic’, is how Mavers put it in one of his rare pronouncements, which is spot on enough to suggest not all of his marbles went rattling down the road.

Most people will know ‘There She Goes’, the Top 20 single that preceded the album. It’s an absolute indie classic – no verses, repeat chorus, chiming riff, heavenly vibe, an elusive lyric that, like his idol Hendrix was wont to compose, might be about drugs, might be about love, might be about both. I was at a dinner party once when an actual fight broke out over this song, its champion declaring that anyone who didn’t love it had no soul.

DAMAGED POP Then there’s ‘Timeless Melody’, more acoustic-based, as great a statement of intent as any record ever. ‘Doledrum’ is a gas, a clarion call to get out and make something of your life, Mavers’ voice blissfully smoke-cracked. ‘Feelin’’ continues the vibe; ‘Son Of A Gun’ gave birth to the band The Coral; ‘Liberty Ship’, a hip sea shanty, sired Shack; ‘I Can’t Sleep Tonight’ a damaged pop gem. It all sounds so easy, like – as Mavers has insisted – the music just flows through him. This is spirited, spiritual stuff, as invigorating today as it was when we first clapped ears on it. Not that Mavers is for turning. When the album came out, he vowed he wouldn’t record any new music until he gets round to re-recording the debut the way he wants it. Which, according to ex-La’s core member John Power some years on, may not be any time real soon. ‘Whatever he

does,’ he says, ‘whether it’s in this lifetime or the next, it can’t be rushed.’ Mavers has wavered from his promise only once, declaring that the next music we’ll hear from him will sound like, ‘a tank, near the pyramids, in Egypt somewhere. A Nazi tank with these weird symbols on the side of it…’ I wouldn’t hold your breath on that one either. Those quotes are from an interview he did with NME’s Paul Moody way back in 1995. Besides a handful of shambolic live forays, there’ve been no new words or music ever since.

RE-RELEASE VERDICT For the curious, all the documented yet abandoned attempts by the various producers at recording this set can be found on YouTube, one commentator on the Lillywhite mix that actually made it to the record declaring ‘best heard loud on a high-end hi-fi’. Wise words indeed. And we can think of no better place to start than with this sparkling, dynamic and punchy pressing from the Universal Music Group [UMC 4789746] which comes in a heavy cardboard sleeve with original artwork. A steal at a penny under £20. HFN

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NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 79


VINYL ICONS BEHIND THE MUSIC WITH HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

Mike Oldfield Tubular Bells Few albums conjure up the halcyon hippy days of early â&#x20AC;&#x2122;70s Britain as this debut from a multi-instrumentalist who was aged just 19 years old when he committed it to tape. But what have a claw hammer and the radio masts near Rugby to do with it? Words: Mike Barnes 80 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017


n the 1970s rock music was expanding in all directions. Not only was it becoming louder but it was fusing with jazz, with folk and with classical music, with some progressive rock groups even playing specially composed pieces with orchestras. But in a work that he began in his teens, guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Mike Oldfield broke new ground by turning that whole process inside out, exploring an interior dialogue by making music in which he played all the instruments himself. Overdubbing had been used in studios ever since the advent of magnetic tape, but no one had done it for a entire record and Oldfield’s almost entirely solo debut, Tubular Bells, was made up of hundreds of overdubs. On the face of it, the album may have seemed a typical statement of ’70s grandiosity, a haughty ‘beat that’ challenge. But its genesis couldn’t have been further from those notions.

I

BRIAN ARIS

PAINFUL SITUATION Oldfield was born in Reading in 1953 and had two older siblings, Sally and Terry. Home life was particularly difficult, due to their mother’s health problems. To try to escape this painful situation, young Mike would habitually shut himself in his room practising guitar and by the age of 12 could play with considerable facility. ‘I used to write these little songs. They weren’t very good at all, but then I would make long instrumentals on steel-stringed acoustic,’ he told me in 2013. On the cusp of his teens, Oldfield played in folk clubs with his vocalist sister. They formed a duo, The Sallyangie, and recorded one album, Children Of The Sun, which was released in 1969, the year that they split. Oldfield then joined Kevin Ayers And

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Label of the first UK LP release and ‘Mike Oldfield’s Single’ from 1974

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Oldfield in a press shot from the ’70s

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Posing with a punch ball and cigarette in the ’80s

The Whole World in 1970, playing bass and guitar in a lineup with classical composer David Bedford on keyboards and jazz saxophonist Lol Coxhill. During some of that group’s unruly live improvisations, Oldfield would introduce some Celticsounding themes on guitar that he would later rework for Tubular Bells. Oldfield shared a flat in north London with Ayers, who had been experimenting with tape music on a two-track reelto-reel recorder. Ayers disbanded The Whole World in 1972 and left the tape recorder at Oldfield’s disposal. Mike Oldfield borrowed Bedford’s Farfisa organ and started recording in his room, spontaneously playing a keyboard motif he now recognises was influenced by experimental music artist Terry Riley’s 1969 piece ‘A Rainbow In Curved Air’ on which Riley plays both electric keyboards and percussion. ‘I just sat down and played that little introductory piano motif; I didn’t have to work it out,’ Oldfield explained to me. ‘Oh, that’s nice, I’ll just play that loads of times, then. And then I added a bass, which I didn’t have

to think about. I had to do a bit of homework, like where can I go from there? Alright, I’ll do a little key change and have a nice tune going over the top.’ Whereas Riley delivers a top line of dazzling speed, Oldfield plays a recurrent theme in 15/8. In effect, the theme is split into one bar of seven followed by a bar of eight, and it’s the irregularity of the figure that captures the imagination and makes it the most memorable on Tubular Bells. Oldfield took the first demo recordings of his intricate instrumental piece to EMI – who seemed interested but never got back to him – and to CBS, who bemoaned its lack of vocals or even drums. It looked as if the album was going to require a specialist outlet.

‘Branson stopped Oldfield pulling out by promising him his Bentley’

VIRGIN ON SUCCESS Luckily, a young entrepreneur by the name of Richard Branson was in the process of expanding his business interests. Branson had been running a mail order company, Virgin, since 1970. Virgin had a hip image with a whiff of the counterculture about it and offered discounts of 10-20% on the commercial price of all LPs.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 81


VINYL ICONS

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PRODUCTION NOTES

Virgin press shot shows Oldfield in an early video editing studio

BRIAN ARIS

Before Oldfield began recording the album at The Manor he gave Virgin a list of instruments that he needed hiring in, including an acoustic guitar, Spanish guitar, concert timpani, glockenspiel and mandolin. John Cale had been recording at the studio and when the session ended, Oldfield noticed a set of tubular bells being removed and asked for them to be left for use on his work in progress. Oldfield then found out that hit with standard mallets, the bells didn’t cut through the way he wanted. This gave rise to a fractious all night session trying to give them more presence without unbalancing the mix. In the end the desired metallic clang that can be heard on the record came from playing them with a standard claw hammer. All the electric guitar on the album was recorded using a Fender Telecaster that had previously belonged to Marc Bolan while some effects came courtesy of the Glorfindel Box (named after an elf in JRR Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings). This was a homemade effects unit that had been given to David Bedford and which he passed on to Oldfield. Oldfield took a pragmatic approach to the vocal choruses, his

Branson and his business partner Simon Draper decided to also open record shops in 1971, firstly on London’s Oxford Street and then at Notting Hill Gate. Through a loan from an aunt, Branson bought a 16th century country pile in Shipton-on-Cherwell in Oxfordshire and began renovating it as The Manor, claiming it to be Britain’s first residential recording studio – although Rockfield Studios near Monmouth had been operating in that way since 1965.

PLUMMY TONES Branson, Draper and associates had been talking of starting an independent record label and in 1972, after playing some sessions at The Manor, Oldfield handed engineer Tom Newman a reel-to-reel demo of his solo music. Newman was captivated. A deal with Virgin was agreed, although after hearing the tapes of the album in early 1973, Branson tried unsuccessfully to arrange a release through an established label. He was left wondering if he had made the right decision to launch Virgin Records with an experimental album that had no lead vocals. There are some wordless choral vocals, though, and on ‘Part 2’ of the album, Oldfield bellows out gobbledegook in a made-up urlanguage as ‘Piltdown Man’. Vivian Stanshall of The Bonzo Dog Band had been recording at The Manor and Oldfield asked him to be ‘Master of Ceremonies’ on the final section of ‘Part 1’. Over

a repetitive bass line, instruments are gradually added, each playing a ten-bar melody and each in turn introduced by Stanshall in his trademark plummy tones. The section climaxes with his dramatic announcement, ‘Plus… tubular bells!’ and they clank out the tune. Virgin released the album on the 25th of May 1973 along with Flying Teapot by Gong, but the former was officially first in the label’s catalogue as V2001. It was the quintessential sleeper. While there were many music reviewers who latched onto it, the album proved to be more of a cult release at first, though it eventually made it to No 7 on its initial run up the UK charts. However, it then re-entered the chart, and in October 1974 took the No 1 spot, by which time it seemed everyone owned a copy. The album’s success was helped by its opening theme being used as the soundtrack to William Friedkin’s notorious horror film The Exorcist, which came out in late 1973. But there was another reasons why this album became

‘Hit with mallets, the tubular bells weren’t cutting through the mix’

sister Sally accompanied by Manor manager Mundy Ellis providing ‘Girlie Chorus’ while the ‘Nasal Choir’, who hum on Side One, comprise a number of The Manor kitchen staff. Part Two’s climactic sailors hornpipe was initially a different version, playing in the background while an audibly inebriated Vivian Stanshall took the listener on a late night guided tour of The Manor. At the time of the recording, the equipment at the studio wasn’t properly shielded and so transmissions from the masts at Rugby Radio Station in the form of its call sign made their way onto the tape. Fortunately, they are inaudible to the human ear and a spectrum analyser is needed to reveal them.

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Richard Branson was knighted in 2002

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The Manor at Shipton-onCherwell in Oxfordshire. It was closed as a studio in 1995 and is now home to the Marquess of Headfort

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‘Master of Ceremonies’ Vivian Stanshall pictured in 1980 at Shepperton

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 83


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Alternate Format Discography Italian LP commands no premium, though owners can amuse themselves with the typo that has side one printed on the record label as ‘Tabular Bells’ [VIL 12001]. In 1978 a picture disc was released in the UK, with the stereo remix that Oldfield had done for the 1976 vinyl box set Boxed [VBOX1] with a minute of model aircraft noise at the end of side two [VP2001].

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Oldfield poses in front of a gong in this mid-’70s shot

such a phenomenon, aside from this exposure and the novelty of Oldfield playing nearly all the instruments. It was due to the fact that something about the 49-minute suite really resonated with so many people. With its success Virgin was hoping to get Oldfield to tour, but although he had done so with Ayers, Tubular Bells was such a personal statement that he didn’t want to tour it or even talk about it. He appeared looking reasonably relaxed on the BBC Two arts programme 2nd House in November 1973, leading a lineup of musicians from labelmates Gong and Henry Cow, with The Rolling Stones’ Mick Taylor on lead guitar. But for the June 1973 concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, Branson had only stopped Oldfield pulling out at the last minute by promising him his Bentley.

MUSICAL BRAND Tubular Bells has sold 16 million copies worldwide and has become a musical brand. Firstly Branson had David Bedford score an orchestral Tubular Bells in 1974. ‘He was milking it for all he was worth,’ Bedford has said. Oldfield has since recorded Tubular Bells II (1992), Tubular Bells III (1998) and The Millennium Bell (1999), re-recorded the album on its 30th anniversary as Tubular Bells 2003 and remixed the original in 2009. He also arranged sections for the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. This year saw the release of a version arranged for brass instruments. It’s no exaggeration to say that the album is woven into the cultural fabric of contemporary society. Back in 1974 Oldfield recorded a follow-up, Hergest Ridge, which reached No 1 that autumn, but was then knocked off the top spot by a resurgent Tubular Bells. As Oldfield said in 2014, ‘There was pressure to do the big one. I didn’t realise I’d already done the big one.’

Tubular Bells was such a worldwide phenomenon that it has been released in a comprehensive range of formats, with multiple repressings across a wide range of territories. These include any number of bootlegged ‘unofficial’ versions and even a free giveaway with the Irish Mail On Sunday [UPT 001] in 2009, so this is very much a discography of edited highlights. ORIGINAL LP (2003) The 1973 LP was released on Virgin on UK [V2001] and in the US [VR13105], where it was distributed by Atlantic. All releases are on Virgin unless noted otherwise. The cover proclaimed ‘In Glorious Stereophonic Sound. Can also be played on mono equipment at a pinch’. At the time it was common to use recycled vinyl including off-cuts from pressings. But after hearing the results on that lower quality medium, Virgin chose to press the album on virgin vinyl. Such was the demand for the album that Tubular Bells had reached its fourth UK pressing by 1975 and these LPs appeared with the rare beige and purple Virgin labels. The UK quadraphonic version was released in 1975 with the catalogue number QV 2001, bearing the sticker: ‘For people with four ears. A quadraphonic recording at no extra cost’. While postage stamp misprints can be worth a fortune, the 1978

CD (1983) The first release on CD came in 1983, in both the UK [CDV2001] and US [V2-86007]. The latter came with an eight-page booklet. A limited edition gold CD appeared in Australia in 1992 [CDVG2001] while a 25th anniversary gold edition appeared in Europe in 1998 [CDVX 2001]. From the sublime to the ridiculous... Warsaw-based Selles Recordes reissued the album on CD in 1999, with different cover artwork, as Tabular Beels [Sell 101].

The first remastering of the CD for HDCD came in 2000 [CDVR 2001] for UK, Canadian, Australian and European markets [pictured above], remastered by one of the original sessions engineers, Simon Heyworth. This was followed in 2001 by a multichannel SACD based on the 1975 quadraphonic version remastered by Heyworth. BOX SETS (2009) In 2009, Mercury released a box set with new stereo mixes by Oldfield of Tubular Bells with extra tracks ‘Mike Oldfield’s Single’ and the Stanshall ‘Sailor’s Hornpipe’. A second CD featured the original 1973 mixes while a third included demos and rough mixes recorded at The Manor in 1972. Also featured in this Mercury box set was a DVD with 5.1 surround sound mixes and the live

performance from BBC Two’s 2nd House TV programme from 1973, plus a 180g vinyl LP that came with a gatefold sleeve. The box was limited to 500 copies and sold out via Oldfield’s website in 24 hours. This was followed by the Ultimate Edition box set with all the above content, plus a hardback book and memorabilia. Both have the catalogue number 270 353-9. Meanwhile, a version for European territories in an eightpanel digipak in a plastic case was released the same year on Mercury/ Universal [270 354-1]. AUDIOPHILE VINYL A 180g vinyl LP appeared in 1997 on Virgin via the EMI 100 series [Virgin 724384280017/ EMI LPCENT18] but the great Tubular Bells collectors’ item is a clear LP pressed on 200g ‘Clarity Vinyl’ [VS 2001]. A run by Classic Records was mooted, but in the end only a batch of 25 were manufactured. Vinyl fans are well catered for with the 2009 180g LP in the Mercury Back To Black Series [0602527035314], remastered by Paschal Byrne at the Audio Archiving Company. The most recent 180g reissue came in 2016. A double album, half-speed mastered at Abbey Road studios, it features both the original mix and Oldfield’s 2009 remix [Virgin/Universal 0600753695036].

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 85


Meet the Producers

MEET THE PRODUCERS BEHIND THE MUSIC WITH HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

Berry Gordy Jr Founder of Motown Records, this US-born producer once said that it felt like he’d spent half his life behind the mixing board. But then he is owner of the most brilliant ears pop music has ever known. Steve Sutherland on the man they called ‘the mix mechanic’ hances are you’ve never heard of North Cotswold Community Radio so here’s a quick heads up. It’s a local Internet radio station run out of The Cooler below the Old Police Station on the High Street in the village of Chipping Campden. The Cooler is where they used to chuck the drunks to sober up. Anyway, my daughter Molly and I host our Theme Time Show from there every Sunday afternoon at five – a couple of hours conceptually nicked from Bob Dylan’s rare communicative foray when he played songs based thematically on trains, robberies, rain… that kind of thing.

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Berry Gordy Jr at Paramount Studios in Los Angeles, 2011

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Jackie Wilson’s ‘Reet Petite’, co-written by Berry Gordy Jr

Anyway again, at least twice a year we’ll find ourselves engaged in that most futile but fascinating debate: what’s the greatest record ever made? We usually won’t be talking albums here, we’ll be talking singles, or 45s as they used to be known. Perennial inevitable nominees include The Beatles’ ‘Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields’ psychedelic double A-side, Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, Gene Vincent’s ‘Be-Bop-A-Lula’, The Who’s ‘My Generation’, The Sex Pistols’ ‘Anarchy In The UK’, The Beach

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SHEER PERFECTION

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On US TV in 1970, the year ‘I Want You Back’ went to No 1, The Jackson 5

86 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’, The Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ and on and on… But great as these – and many others – unquestionably are, I always end up sticking to my guns and arguing for that little slab of magical vinyl, ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson 5, a record every millisecond of which is sheer perfection. And I’m not alone in my admiration. Go online and you’ll discover reams about the miraculous chord sequence, like ascending a mini-stairway to heaven, the way it softened and ushered funk into pop, the way Michael Jackson’s squeals at the end burst through choreography to attain the spontaneous, the intricate balance between the happy lightness of the tune and the dark despair of the lyrics. Some even go so far as to imagine a psychological yearning to the song, its subject matter steeped in experience, its lead vocal delivery shimmering with innocence which

allows the younger listener to feel sophisticated and the older listener wistful. Peter Pan-esque indeed. Michael Jackson was only 11 at the time of recording and the way he just throws himself into it, the very acme of composure unleashed, is simply incredible. As was the fact that this was the family group’s debut nationally-released single and the first of four consecutive No 1s from the same fount of inspiration – ‘ABC’, ‘The Love You Save’ and ‘I’ll Be There’ being the others – all of which are utterly gorgeous but not quite the match of ‘...Back’.

SOMETHING CLICKS So let’s briefly recount the story of our celebrated little beauty by way of introducing the hero of this piece and the forward-thinking methods he employed to become one of the most successful and legendary figures in the entire history of popular music. The song


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Bassist James Jamerson, one of 13 members of The Funk Brothers who played on most Motown recordings between ’59 and ’72 was originally conceived and pitched to Berry Gordy Jr’s Motown label as a prospective number for Gladys Knight & The Pips by three musician/ songwriters – Freddie Perren, Alphonso Mizell and Deke Richards. It was called ‘I Wanna Be Free’. Berry Gordy heard it and pondered whether it should, in fact, be a vehicle for Diana Ross instead, before something clicked and he changed his mind, crafted it around and gave it a new title. Having worked closely with Stevie Wonder, Gordy knew all about young artists who would appeal to their peer group so, bringing the three original composers on board as a team he dubbed The Corporation, he proceeded to fashion ‘I Want You Back’ into the first release for his latest signings, a group comprising five brothers from Gary, Indiana. The rest, as they say, is genius.

VESTED INTEREST OK, let’s look at the themes here: teamwork, recycling of material, committee decisions, perfectionism, market research... What should be immediately obvious is that, unlike most of the producers we usually deal with in this monthly feature, Mr Gordy had a vested interest in the recording process way beyond

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The vocal group The Temptations perform on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969 (l-r): Otis Williams, Melvin Franklin, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, and Dennis Edwards

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Stevie Wonder rehearses for a Dutch TV show in 1967

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The Miracles with Smokey Robinson third from left

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Marvin Gaye’s The Soulful Moods Of... from 1961

that of the actual studio artistry. He was first and foremost a songwriter (he penned ‘Reet Petite’ for Jackie Wilson) who formed his own record company to maximise his financial benefit from the whole recording and selling process, solely interested in making pop music as in literally music that would prove popular. To this end, he applied disciplines he learned from a previous stint working in an automobile assembly line for Ford Motors, Detroit’s major industry and a crucial source of employment for the black community, of which Gordy was one. His Motown (short for Motor Town) was in essence a factory set up to manufacture hits to a proven formula. Berry was fanatical about success and his art was in selling, his senses scrupulously attuned to prevailing trends and those who could predict and deliver them. ‘We weren’t concerned if it was right or wrong, we just wanted to know if it sounded

good… Everything was in the grooves,’ was how he put it.

TALENTED TEAM Quality and quantity were the engines behind Motown and, in order to keep the hits a-coming, Gordy employed ace production/ writing teams to work alongside him, creating tracks which would then be assessed by himself and his panel of trusted advisers to make sure they passed muster. Smokey Robinson, the prodigy who composed and produced numbers for his own group, The Miracles, was one of Gordy’s go-to studio guys. The extraordinarily talented team of Lamont Dozier, Brian Holland (composition and production) and Eddie Holland (lyrics/vocal arrangements) mostly took care of The Supremes and Four Tops for him, while Norman Whitfield crafted those wonderful psychedelic soul pieces for The

‘Gordy applied disciplines he’d learnt in a car assembly line’

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MEET THE PRODUCERS BEHIND THE MUSIC WITH HI-FI NEWS & RECORD REVIEW

1958

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Co-written by Gordy, Jackie Wilson’s ‘Lonely Teardrops’ is a Top 10 smash hit. The song writing royalties enable Gordy to found Motown Records within a year

The Miracles’ ‘Bad Girl’ is both co-written and produced by Gordy. It goes on to become the group’s first national chart hit and is now a doo-wop classic

Barrett Strong’s ‘Money (That’s What I Want)’ is released on the Tamla label in 1959 and in June 1960 becomes the first hit for Gordy’s Motown enterprise

Written by Gordy and Smoky Robinson, The Miracles’ ‘Shop Around’ becomes the first Motown single to appear in the UK

Gordy decides to release ‘Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide’ as Marvin Gaye’s debut single. It doesn’t make it to the charts

Recorded during a live Motortown Revue, Little Stevie Wonder’s ‘Fingertips’ goes on to become his first hit single. On the drums is Marvin Gaye

Produced by Gordy and The Corporation, The Jackson’s ‘I Want You Back’ sells 6m copies worldwide. It is said to have the finest pop chord progression ever

Temptations (and had a hand in the small matter of Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’). Berry also acquired a posse of studio musicians, every brilliant note the match of the legendary LA Wrecking Crew, the Mar-Keys and Booker T’s MGs at Stax or the Swampers of Muscle Shoals. The Funk Brothers were hand-picked, the toppermost of the poppermost.

THREE DRUMMERS Berry and his co-producers would have them innovate and experiment in search of that essential marketability and it wasn’t uncommon to find two or three drummers playing simultaneously alongside twin pianists or bassists. With all this talent at his label’s disposal, and with Gordy orchestrating the overall collaborative ethos, it’s tough to assess exactly what he brought to the party production-wise beyond a pair of the most brilliant ears pop music has ever known. His name appears as sole producer on such splendid discs as The Soulful Moods Of Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Fingertips’ and Cookin’ With The Miracles. His co-production credits run into the hundreds, many of them worldwide smashes that still remain popular today. Uncharacteristically, he once boasted to a Rolling Stone reporter: ‘You probably haven’t any voice,

but there are probably three notes that you can sing. I can take those three notes and give them an arrangement and some lyrics. That makes a song. And your song will sell.’ Certainly he was a stickler for achieving the right mix. Smokey Robinson called him a ‘mix maniac’ and he himself has admitted that, ‘it seemed I spent half my life at the board’. Experts in this sort of thing have also pointed out the quality of the midrange on Gordy’s productions, and a distinctive harmonic distortion in the upper portion of the frequency spectrum which produces a brightness in tone, the Motown sizzle which, although not strictly technically acceptable, manages to project the energy of a performance. It also, of course, leaps out of the radio.

‘He’d calibrate mic distances to get the sound the kids wanted’

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Cookin’ With The Miracles, produced by Gordy in ’61

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Hitsville Studio in Detroit, nicknamed Hitsville USA, is now a museum

each individual song sound great booming through it. Anecdotally, Gordy was also fastidious about studio space and how it was used, carefully calibrating microphone distances and that kind of thing in order to get the sound he and the kids were after. His homemade Hitsville Studio at number 2648 on Detroit’s West Grand Boulevard, which he bought in 1959, is as sonically revered as Spector’s Gold Star or Chess Studios and he would often tell the story of how once, dissatisfied for some reason with what he was getting at home, he shipped The Miracles into a new, state-of-the-art facility in Chicago. The resulting record bombed, lacking what he recognised as the attractive ‘honesty’ of the Detroit version. It was a mistake Gordy never made again.

TUNE UP Like the great Phil Spector, Gordy was fascinated by how people were increasingly listening to music in their cars, or on small tinnysounding transistors. So he had his chief engineer, Mike McLean, build him a small radio that closely approximated the sound coming out of car radios and he mixed, and remixed, and remixed again until he found the exact sound that made NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 89


ALBUM REVIEWS ALBUM REVIEWS: VINYL DONOVAN Barabajagal Sundazed LP4533

Donovan’s finest? This monster of an album featured ten original compositions and guest spots from Jeff Beck, Ronnie Wood and Big Jim Sullivan on guitar, John Paul Jones on bass, Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, along with singers Madeline Bell and Rod Stewart. With hindsight, it was like a mash-up of The Jeff Beck Group and Led Zeppelin. By this time (1969) Donovan had shed the unfair Dylanesque troubadour image and shown equal prowess in hard rock, psychedelia, kiddies’ ditties, et al. This album covered the lot. Standouts included ‘To Susan On the West Coast Waiting’, the fiery title track and the evocative yet achingly gentle ‘Atlantis’. And the sound? I’d forgotten how good it is. KK

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THE FLYING BURRITO BROTHERS

ELVIS COSTELLO/BURT BACHARACH

GEORGIE FAME & THE BLUE FLAMES

The Gilded Palace Of Sin

Painted From Memory

Rhythm And Blues At The Ricky Tick ‘65

Intervention IR 012 (180g vinyl)

Mobile Fidelity MFSL 1-475 (180g vinyl)

Rhythm & Blues R&B11 (mono)

A country-rock milestone, the Burritos’ staggering 1969 debut did emphasise the C&W element. With three ex-Byrds among its members, the album went much further than that band’s Sweetheart Of The Rodeo in realising Gram Parsons’ dream of making ‘cosmic American music’. Cynics thus could argue this was just country with long hair, but the sound enjoyed a hot, rocking tang that had nothing to do with Nashville. Ironically, two of the finest moments are soul classics from Chips Moman and Dan Penn: ‘Do Right Woman’ and ‘Dark End Of The Street’, but the original compositions sparkle. Tragically, of this classic lineup, only Chris Hillman is still with us. KK

Elvis loved collaborating, and his turn with Tony Bennett in 1994, as well as earlier covers of Bacharach songs, foreshadowed this LP – an indicator that he was as enamoured of the Great American Songbook as of soul, country or other genres. The pair came together to record ‘God Give Me Strength’ (which became the LP’s closer) for the film Grace Of My Heart, and got on so well that an entire album followed. All of the songs are co-authored (but sung by Costello), so this isn’t a case of ‘Elvis Sings Burt’ or vice versa, but that’s what makes this a fascinating project. Fans of either or both with have fun determining how much each influenced the other. KK

Sometimes, you have to accept that the music is more important than the sound quality, and here again we have some great archive dredging that dug up rare performances culled from mono radio broadcasts. By no means unlistenable, this LP does beg acceptance from those of you wedded to audiophile-grade releases because Fame and his Blue Flames are in rousing good form here, covering both his then recent hits – including his two biggest, ‘Yeh, Yah’ and ‘Point of No Return’ – and showing his prowess with R&B classics like ‘Walking The Dog’ and ‘Night Train’. For those with an ear to history, a priceless taste of the ’60s London club scene. KK

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AUDIOPHILE: DIGITAL

COMPACT DISC

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NICK LOWE

VARIOUS ARTISTS

VARIOUS ARTISTS

Nick The Knife

40th Anniversary Celebration Album

60s Summer Of Love

Yep Roc YE-2401; LP YEP-2401

Opus 3 CD26000 (stereo SACD)

Universal Music 5378160 (three discs)

Relegated to cult status after a few hits in the post-punk era, Lowe consistently delivered witty, thoughtful, musical albums, many being reissued by Yep Roc. This gem, his third solo, dates from 1982 and included a dozen originals and cocompositions, including one with then-wife, Carlene Carter, and one with The Fabulous Thunderbirds’ Kim Wilson. Although chart action was limited, this sounds like it’s full of hits because tunes like ‘Heart’ are so catchy. Nick The Knife also benefited from the inclusion of two fellow ex-members of Rockpile, which split the year before. Lowe deserves reassessment, so maybe these reissues will inspire it. KK

Not just a ‘40th Anniversary Celebration Album’ or a run-of-the-mill sampler, this set from one of the labels with the finestsounding recordings includes both tracks from Opus 3’s past and seven from four forthcoming albums: two from Blues Bam, with BB Leon and Triple Treat recorded live in the studio; two from a release that will fascinate Beatles fans, Opus 3 Artists Sing Tony Sheridan, whom they backed in their Hamburg days; two from Tiny Island Vol II, the group that back Eric Bibb on two of the titles; and one from the band Kustbandet, which Opus 3 recorded back in 1975. Previously released blues and classical tracks complete a 18-track listing. KK

Ordinarily, the pedant in me would crucify this 60-track set because it has little to do with the ‘Summer of Love’ – which means 1967. Ignore the bogus claims for it being ‘official’, yadayadayada: it actually covers 1964 to 1970. So why am I giving it a pass? 1) It contains a deliciously eclectic mix of smash hits that conveys the period and 2) the sound is superb. Unless you’ve been listening to clean LPs of this stuff, you probably don’t recall how spectacular were the recordings of The Small Faces’ ‘Itchycoo Park’, The Box Tops’ ‘The Letter’ or The Silkie’s ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’. UK and US chart toppers, some semiobscure tracks... a joy. KK

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BOB DYLAN Bob Dylan Mobile Fidelity UDSACD 2177 (mono)

Despite my fear of incurring your wrath about limited editions (and this is limited to 3000), the SACD of the 20-year-old Bob Dylan’s debut represents a second shot at the release for those who missed the mono LP. Believe me: this is so damned close to the vinyl that it will scare you. Perhaps, because it is utterly minimalist, there is less to have to reproduce. Some, however, would argue that its sheer nakedness is a different sort of challenge, a test of replicating acoustic guitar and harmonica. With hindsight, we know it to be the birth of the career of a giant. It’s mainly traditional songs but with two superlative originals, ‘Talkin’ New York’ and ‘Song To Woody’ that bely his youth. A crucial piece of history. KK

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ALBUM REVIEWS HI-RES DOWNLOADS

ARIEL POCOCK Living In Twilight (96Hz/24-bit, FLAC) www.highresaudio.com; Just In Time Records 68944026128

A TRIBUTE TO JANET – BRITTEN/ FRANÇAIX/KNUSSEN/MOZART Oboe Qts; Britten Oboe Qt (96kHz/24-bit, FLAC) www.highresaudio.com; Harmonia Mundi HMM 907672

The album title refers to oboist Nicholas Daniel’s teacher Janet Craxton, whose London Oboe Quartet premiered the Knussen Cantata, Op.15, and Françaix’s Cor Anglais Quartet here. Besides the familiar Mozart Qt, there’s a completion of his fragment K580a, Adagio For English Horn, and – not mentioned in the booklet – a bonus track, Colin Matthews’ arrangement of Schumann’s song ‘Mondnacht’. It is a programme of extremely wide

OUR PROMISE Following our Investigation feature [HFN, Jun ’11] where we examined the claimed quality of high-resolution downloads, Hi-Fi News & Record Review is now measuring the true sample rate and bit-depth of the HD music downloads reviewed on these pages. These unique reviews will be a regular source of information for those seeking new and re-mastered recordings offered at high sample rates and with the promise of delivering the very best sound quality. (Note: asterisk in headings denotes technical reservation explained below.) PM

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contrasts – the Mozart classic fresh as new paint, the Françaix (Daniel playing a cor anglais) the epitome of Twenties Gallic sophistication and the Britten precociously clever (he was 19). Oliver Knussen’s 1977 Cantata was a memorial to Craxton’s group’s cellist Kenneth Heath. Perhaps best savoured a piece at a time, these are beautifully recorded performances, Daniel sitting (perhaps unexpectedly) to the right. CB

There’s a beguiling immature quality in Ariel Pocock’s voice – she’s in her mid-twenties but sounds much younger – that contrasts with the sophistication of her musical arrangements and the band backing her on this recording. Her vocalisations evoke a sweet innocence that older jazz singers can’t and shouldn’t try to imitate. The title track comes off almost like a college girl’s improvisation-on-the-spot – a really good one that succeeds so well it surprises even its creator. Amusingly, she tackles more than she can handle with Cole Porter’s ‘So In Love’, but it’s a valiant attempt, and the extended instrumental break is wonderful. As with Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’, she understands the lyrics, but lacks the experience to fully interpret them. Pocock is immensely talented, and this is a charming recording. One wonders how she’ll sound after a few more laps around the block. BW

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LAB REPORT

Recorded at The Apex Bury, St Edmunds it’s the violin harmonics that carry most significantly up the ~45kHz bandwidth of this genuine 96kHz recording. The available dynamic range is well used, but pity about the spurious 20kHz tone. PM

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LAB REPORT

Recorded in Montréal this is a genuine 96kHz rendering. Ariel Pocock’s piano and vocal feeds are clean and low in noise, but there are some discrete spectral lines in and out of the audioband associated with the percussion feed. PM


COMPACT DISC

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THE PASSION OF CHARLIE PARKER

SIBELIUS

NORTH MISSISSIPPI ALLSTARS

Various Artists (96Hz/24-bit, FLAC)

Symphonies Nos 1 and 6; BBC Nat Orch Wales/ Thomas Søndergård (96kHz & 192kHz/24-bit, FLAC)*

Prayer For Peace (96Hz/24-bit, FLAC)*

www.highresaudio.com; Impulse! Records 5744167

Fifty minutes of Charlie Parker’s hard bop could induce trepidation in some listeners, but that’s not what this intriguing collection is all about. Instead of Parker retreads or outtakes, it’s an assortment of all-star reinterpretations of Bird’s compositions, some of them superbly soulful and engaging (Madeleine Peyroux’s opener, for example) and others requiring true-believer enthusiasm for bebop (Barbara Hannigan’s ‘Epitaph Of Charlie Parker’, Jeffrey Wright’s ‘So Long’). The band features veterans from David Bowie’s Blackstar, with Craig Taborn on keyboards and musicianship is beyond reproach, as is the recording quality. This album will grab your attention – listen to it once, then maybe via the ‘random play’ function on your player. Despite its ambitious concept and sonic excellence, repeated end-to-end playings would be tough duty. BW

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Recorded at seven different studios, but mixed at ’62 Studios, Texas, the high noise suggests this was an analogue process with 96kHz mastering. Tracks 6 and 11 were mixed at another studio and have ~20dB lower noise [black trace]. PM

www.highresaudio.com; Sony Legacy 88985423992

Sibelius’s First Symphony has long attracted hi-fi enthusiasts with landmark recordings by Collins, Maazel, and Vänskä that showed off your system – not least in the exciting scherzo with its textural contrasts. The Sixth, by contrast, was his most austere symphony, described by the composer as offering ‘pure cold spring water’. This new recording certainly fits that description with its clarity and judicious tempi. No 1 is even finer with a wonderful opening clarinet solo, pp, that raises great expectations for what follows – a performance that’s absorbing right through. This Dec ’14 Cardiff pairing, from BBC Hoddinott Hall, is Søndergård’s second coupling in Linn’s cycle (we reviewed Nos 2 and 7 in HFN Aug ’15). It’s not the most sumptuous of orchestras but detail is explicit and the acoustic warm and generous. CB

Remember Ten Years After? This is the sort of ‘roots music’ that inspired that band, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Golden Earring, Little Feat, and countless others. Heavy white-boy blues, simple lyrics, extremely repetitive rock arrangements with almost no rhythmic variation, an exaggerated bottom octave, and too much slide guitar all add up to minimal interest for this reviewer, but despite its utter familiarity, or perhaps because of it, lots of blues-rock fans will likely devour this album. Opinions vary, and that’s a very good thing. Many of its songs have been done better by other bands (‘You Got To Move,’ ‘Bid You Goodnight’) and fortunately, none of them runs longer than five minutes. Some tracks might work well as late-night driving music, but ‘Prayer For Peace’ is another collection that would serve better in an eclectic mix than as a stand-alone recording. BW

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www.linnrecords.com; Linn CKD572

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Available in 192kHz and 96kHz guises, the latter is a sharply downsampled rendering, though mercifully free of the severe sampling distortion seen with Linn’s Stravinsky, The Soldier’s Tale [HFN Sep ’17]. One spurious tone at 20kHz. PM

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Recorded in no fewer than six different studios, most of the tracks are mixed ‘hot’ and up to the 0dBFs endstops, and most show evidence of mixed sample rate content. ‘Deep Ellum’, trk 6, looks like a bad upsample from 44.1kHz. PM

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ALBUM REVIEWS ROCK SIMIAN GHOST S/T Heist Or Hit Records HEIST109

This Swedish bunch have been writing wonderful music for six years now but this time they’ve gone shamelessly pop. Not the kind that clutters up the increasingly irrelevant pop charts, but the kind that makes devotees of anything from The Beach Boys to Scritti Politti to Saint Etienne swoon at first listen. Mainman Sebastian Arnstrom’s songs are ingeniously constructed, rich in unlikely sounds, and bursting at the seams with summer sun. Analysing why they work is not easy, especially when a cut like ‘Ephemere’ is little more than a delicate 1m 40s of interwoven basslines, echoing atmospheric effects, a lightly strummed electric guitar and someone singing ‘la las’. Suffice to say, this is pure pop magic. JBk

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MARRY WATERSON AND DAVID A JAYCOCK

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JAWS OF LOVE

SON LITTLE

Tasha Sits Close To The Piano

New Magic

House Arrest Records KRR01-2

Anti- Records EPIT 7529-2a

Marry Waterson is descended from the revered Waterson-Knight-Carthy folk music dynasty, but her approach to songwriting and to the recording of her songs is decidedly modern. Working with Portishead’s Adrian Utley gives her and guitarist Jaycock a producer not only sympathetic to the idea of blending old and new but also knowing how to achieve a satisfactory balance between them. A good example here is ‘The Vain Jackdaw’ (after Aesop’s Fables), which Utley recorded with Marry singing a cappella on the studio roof so she could ‘sing into the air like a bird’. Superior folk with a contemporary vibe. JBk

Kelsey Ayer of LA band Local Natives evidently loves his dog Tasha. That presumably explains not only his solo album’s title but also its cover, above. That, however, is where the cutesiness ends because this is a set of intensely emotional piano ballads composed and performed by Ayer under his Jaws Of Love banner. Local Natives are a rock band sharing some common ground with Vampire Weekend or Band Of Horses, but Jaws Of Love is a considerably darker proposition with Ayer often sounding like Radiohead’s Thom York in a particularly down mood. If that sounds like a recommendation, this is for you. Otherwise, maybe back off. JBk

Son Little is the nom-du-disque of the talented Philadelphia-based singer and songwriter Aaron Livingston. That pseudonym gives him a sheen of bluesy cool, but he’s much more than just a traditional straight-ahead bluesman. I’d place him roughly somewhere between Robert Cray and John Legend, although he’s not yet the consummate artist either of those are. Nevertheless, Little’s soulblues musings are exceptionally enjoyable, especially when he abandons the navelgazing of depressing songs like ‘The Middle’ and lightens up with eminently singable cuts like ‘Blue Magic’ and ‘O Me O My’, or when he chills out on ‘Mad About You’. JBk

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Death Had Quicker Wings Than Love One Little Indian TPLP 1419CDP

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JAZZ

COMPACT DISC

SUPERAUDIO

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DAVE O’HIGGINS

WOLFGANG HAFFNER

LIZZ WRIGHT

It’s Always 9.30 In Zog

Kind Of Spain

Grace

JVG Records JVG018CD

ACT 9848-2; LP: ACTLP 9848-1

Concord Records 7202865; LP 7203318

Saxophonist O’Higgins enjoys a stellar international career, while at home in the UK he’s often worked with like-minded wife Judith in their double-headed ‘tough tenors’ band. But for his 19th album as leader, he fronts his long-established quartet, pianist Graham Harvey ringing the changes with some gently appealing work on the fashionable-again Fender Rhodes. And O’Higgins continues to come up with fresh and tuneful originals in the straightahead idiom, making them memorable with his big sound and fluid, endlessly inventive soloing. Recorded with an attractive, immediate sound in his own studio, it’s all stimulating and thoroughly enjoyable. SH

Following his 2015 retro-jazz album Kind Of Cool, the German drummer/leader explores different territory with, apart from vibraphonist Christopher Dell, a different band. Dell sounds just right on Haffner’s Flamenco-tinged originals, as does trumpeter Sebastian Studnitzky, who also leads the way through Chick Corea’s ‘Spain’. But in an obligatory ‘Concierto de Aranjuez’ it’s guitarist Daniel Stelter who picks out the Rodrigo theme in the manner of Miles, while pianist Jan Lundgren omits the usual tremolo effect but displays a beautiful touch to create a wistful ballad from Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra. An unusual recipe that’s turned out well. SH

Having come to fame in a Billie Holiday tribute show and later having paid beautiful vocal homage to Ella, she’s tagged as a jazz and gospel singer. But this wide-ranging album, produced by singer/songwriter Joe Henry, really wants to be filed under ‘Americana’ and reflects Lizz Wright’s return to her Southern rural roots. She’s sonorous and often thrilling in interpretations that are deeply felt and illuminating, from Dylan’s ‘Every Grain Of Sand’ to k d lang’s ‘Wash Me Clean’ to the title song, written by Canadian folk/pop singer Rose Cousins. Concord’s blurb calls Wright ‘a steward of American music’ and she more than proves it in this great collection. SH

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CHRISTIAN McBRIDE BIG BAND Bringin’ It Mack Avenue MAC1115

Bassist, leader, arranger and driving force McBride put together his first big band for The Good Feeling in 2011, and this time it’s even more spectacular. ‘Gettin’ To It’, with former Gillespie sideman Rodney Jones guesting on funky rhythm guitar, is a rousing opener for a rousing album. After this James Brown-tinged bash, you get brilliant uptempo playing, a kaleidoscope of big-band colours, and excellent solos from Ron Blake, Freddie Hendrix, Steve Wilson and others. There’s a quiet interlude when McBride creates a classic moody ballad score for ‘I Thought About You’, a feature for trumpeter Brandon Lee, but then comes an inventive, exciting treatment for McCoy Tyner’s ‘Sahara’. And a good time is had by all. SH

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ALBUM REVIEWS CLASSICAL

COMPACT DISC

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MAHLER Symphony No 5 Minnesota Orchestra/Osmo Vänskä BIS BIS2226 (downloads up to 96kHz/24-bit resolution)

You have to go back to 1935 and Ormandy’s ‘Resurrection’ Symphony to find any Mahler recorded by this orchestra. Vänskä himself did the chamber transcription of Das Lied von der Erde for BIS (1994) and now commences a cycle of the symphonies – Nos 2 and 6 will come next. The sound here is rich and wide in dynamic range – Vänskä has divided violins, cellos in front of him and double-basses extreme left [Google ‘Vänskä Mahler 5’], as you find too with the Kubelík/DG. It’s an exhaustive reading, by no means an easy listen, and at 12m 36 the Adagietto (at times near inaudible) will be a stumbling-block for some. No doubts, though, about the thrilling finale! CB

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DEBUSSY

HAYDN

WALTON

La Mer; Three Nocturnes Philharmonia Orchestra and Choir/Carlo Maria Giulini

Keyboard Sonatas in B-flat, Hob.2; in E-flat, Hob.28; in A-flat, Hob.43; in D, Hob.33; in C, Hob.21

Violin Concerto; Partita for Orchestra; Variations on a Theme by Hindemith; Spitfire Prelude & Fugue

Hi-Q HIQLP046 (180g vinyl)

Jean-Efflam Bavouzet

Anthony Marwood, BBC Scottish SO/Martyn Brabbins

Chandos CHAN 10942 (downloads up to 96kHz/24-bit resolution)

Hyperion CDA 67986 (downloads up to 96kHz/24-bit resolution)

Vol 6 brings unfamiliar keyboard sonatas, their three cataloguing systems and musical details outlined in the booklet, where Bavouzet himself also adds comments. With the completion of his Beethoven cycle he happily reverts to a composer whose humour helped with the early Beethoven, but not at all with the later works, he says. He certainly seems to enjoy playing – repeats have varied dynamics and ornamentation – and the Yamaha concert grand allows a tonal range hinting at the earlier harpsichord. These are clean recordings from Potton Hall. CB

Anthony Marwood reveals hidden depths in a score written for the icy Heifetz, and with excellent support (and his own infallible technique) provides a Violin Concerto that stands ahead of other recent versions. The Spitfire music (from The First Of The Few) is excellent too, Brabbins exposing a wealth of incidental scoring. However, there’s no escaping the fact that in the Variations and Partita, Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra are supreme [Sony], only the sound dating. Hyperion’s Partita is good but the Hindemith, while perfectly respectable, I found less than comparably involving. CB

Sound Quality: 80%

Sound Quality: 85%

Recorded at Kingsway Hall in Apr ’62 for EMI’s Columbia label, the Nocturnes show the warmth and sensitivity of Giulini in a compellingly profound reading. But it’s very distantly balanced and Hi-Q’s low-level cut means a high replay level where any surface clicks become damaging to one’s concentration (my pressing was certainly not free of such irritants). Better perhaps to compromise on sound with the CD-quality download. With La Mer there are various Giulini alternatives – the later LAPO/DG, for example, has more vitality and presence than this version, which shows only intermittent flashes of inspiration. CB

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OPINION

Paul Miller Editor

Technician and writer on all things audio for some 30 years, Paul Miller took over the editor’s chair in 2006. He invented the QC Suite, used across the audio industry

Sound planning Audiophiles have any number of reasons for journeying to a hi-fi show although, as Paul Miller contemplates, fulfilling our passion for excellent sound quality should be given topmost priority hy do we love hi-fi shows? The real answer is not necessarily the most obvious, because so much depends on our expectations as visitors. Nevertheless, we all instinctively know the difference between a mere event and an experience – and listening to the best hi-fi in the world should always be the latter! For our globe-trotting contributors, reporting on local hi-fi shows is part-andparcel of the job description – to seek out and snap everything from the iconic to the cutting-edge, the affordable to the downright outrageous. And every month we do just that, as HFN offers a window on a hi-fi happening somewhere in the world. Rarely, however, do I hear from one of our overseas colleagues waxing lyrical about just how good everything sounded. Which is a pity, bearing in mind great sound is our ultimate goal.

W

BIGGER THE BETTER? The very largest international hi-fi events are typically stuck between a rock (the desire to demonstrate as much equipment from as many brands as humanly possible) and a hard place (the fact there’s nowhere with 100 or even 50 idealised listening suites in one location). Munich’s annual High End comprises quite the most magnificent collection of luxury hi-fi on the planet.

ABOVE: Demonstrating high-end hi-fi outside of a domestic or purpose-built environment takes a lot of experience. Here’s a packed presentation in Symmetry’s suite at last year’s Hi-Fi Show Live

There really is nothing to top this high-end extravaganza even if, in the words of a fellow hi-fi casualty, ‘it’s quite the best live equipment brochure in the world, but I don’t visit for the sound’. In reality, modern exhibition spaces are designed to host publicfacing and corporate events in a typically light, airy and accessible fashion. They are not typically crafted with favourable acoustics in mind! Hotel bedrooms, by contrast, are designed for sleeping in, not shoe-horning in hi-fi, while the AC mains has been known to collapse into a muddy heap once a corridor-full of power amps is switched on...

for the annual Hi-Fi Show Live. We are never going to be knocking on the door of the global spectaculars but we can offer a wealth of audiophile intrigue to occupy a full weekend. You’ll have presentations from leading industry designers and company owners, vintage demos and audio workshops plus the opportunity to hear the world’s most iconic high-end hi-fi in genuinely sympathetic surroundings. What you won’t hear by way of introduction to any high-end demo at the Hi-Fi Show Live is ‘before we start, I need to make the customary excuses about the room acoustics, mains quality and noise coming from next door...’ A hi-fi show where the systems really sound like a million dollars? A novelty, perhaps, but one that keeps us and our exhibitors burning the midnight oil to meet your expectations of a specialist high-end audio celebration. My highlight? Greeting as many of our readers as possible on Oct 21-22 [p16].

‘Modern exhibition spaces are rarely designed for sound quality’

ALL ABOUT THE SOUND Providing a memorable listening experience was, and remains, front and centre of our ambitions LEFT: Massive hi-fi (KEF and Chord Electronics) typically requires equally massive rooms, with thick walls and a super-clean AC mains supply to match

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 103


OPINION

Barry Fox Paul Miller

Technology journalist Editor

Barry Fox trained in electronics withaudio the RAF as aPaul patent agent, Technician and writer on all things for and someworked 30 years, Miller tookbut overhe gave that upchair to enter journalism. He is one world’s technology writers the editor’s in 2006. He invented the of QCthe Suite, usedtop across the audio industry

Boys are black in town... Barry Fox attends the pre-launch of Black Sabbath’s The Ten Year War reissue project, but asks why release 50-year-old heavy metal music, with all its inherent distortions, encoded in MQA? ‘

ou mean that all that work has been for this?’ said a techie friend when I told him that BMG was releasing The Ten Year War, the first eight Black Sabbath albums crushed onto a ‘CruciStix’ crucifix-shaped USB stick coded with MQA (Master Quality Authenticated). ‘You mean the purpose of MQA is to authenticate the audio quality of Ozzy Osbourne’s vocals and Tony Iommi’s guitar fuzz?’ I have to admit that pretty much summed up my sentiments. But opening my mind and donning investigative hat I booked into a pre-launch listening session, held at the Gibson Showrooms in central London.

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MARKETING NAME ‘The Sabbath project took two years of preparation,’ Steve Bunyan, BMG Director Marketing for Catalogue Recordings, told an audience of mainly hairy rock press. ‘There is no unreleased material and Sabbath fans will already have all the material so they say “why should we buy?”. We needed another element. Someone said, “how about using MQA?”. And that was what we did.’ Which suggests that BMG is using MQA as a marketing name, rather than a carefully chosen audio tool. MQA’s Director of Content Services, Spencer Chrislu explained: ‘MQA is all about getting high quality music into a file size that’s small enough to stream. Anyone with a regular DAC will still hear quality that is higher than CD. Anyone with MQA product will hear the full hi-res experience opened up.’ I wondered how many of the attendant rockers would be listening at home on a system like that used for the demo – a Mytek Brooklyn DAC, decoding the folded-down 48kHz/24-bit MQA file

to 96kHz/24-bit PCM, and feeding it to a high-end Pioneer amp and speakers. Tom Allom, who engineered Sabbath’s first three albums at the (now defunct) Regent Sounds studio in Denmark Street in the early ’70s, gave some colourful insight into how the music was recorded. ‘The band were incredibly tight, like session musicians, because they had been playing live so much and were so well rehearsed,’ he recalled, while admitting that he did not initially ‘get’ what the music had to offer. ‘These were live albums made in a studio. No-one was giving them any money. So they had to get it done quickly and get back on the road to earn. We kept it all very simple. ‘There were four mics on the drum kit, two overhead, one on the bass drum and one on the snare. There was no mic on the bass because the bass amp was so loud we were getting complaints from a film studio upstairs. So we DI’d (direct injected) the bass into the mixing desk. We just added a bit of Elvis Presley delay on Ozzy Osbourne’s vocal and that was it. ‘We recorded the first album in two full days and mixed in two short days, using two 1in 4-track Studer J37 valve recorders, double tracking vocals and sub-mixing by copying several tracks from one machine to a single track on the other machine, and so on. So some of the final tracks were third, fourth and even fifth generation mix copies.’ Which means there was a lot of distortion on the original tapes… ‘I had to sign my kneecaps away to get access to the original ¼in (stereo) master tapes,’ says mastering engineer Andy Pearce, of Wired Masters in South London. ‘We had to align the playback heads to match the heads on the original

‘“The amp was so loud we were getting complaints from upstairs”’

ABOVE: Tony Iommi, Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler of Black Sabbath in 2013

recorders and so hear exactly what was put down on the original tape. Most of the tapes were in good condition. But we really want access to the original studio tapes and mixes, and these have usually not been filed. ‘So what we get are the production masters, which are often copies of EQ’d copies. For the Sabbath project we only got access to one original studio mix.’ Which means more distortion...

EVERY NUANCE So cut to the chase. Why – other than as a marketing gimmick – release near-50year-old heavy metal music, replete with musical, recording and mix distortion, in MQA? Says Andy Pearce: ‘You are capturing every nuance of the original, everything that’s there, and faithfully recreating it.’ ‘Our job is to reveal more of what’s there on the master tape,’ says Spencer Chrislu. ‘Very few people ever get to hear a master tape. That’s what the technology achieves.’ OK. Message heard, although not entirely swallowed. What I would like to hear now is some oldish jazz and big band material, with reverb-free vocals, crushed onto a Jazzstick with MQA.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 105




 

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OPINION

Paul Miller Barry Willis

Editor Journalist for top American audio-video publications

Technician andinterest writer on all things audio, audio for some 30also years, Paulabout Millerthe tookculinary over While his main is high-end Barry Willis writes the editor’s chair 2006. He invented thevariety QC Suite, across the audio industry industry, visual artinand theatre for a huge of USused newspapers and magazines

A plateau for vinyl? While the demand for vinyl remains robust in the UK and other parts of the world, growth in sales in the US appears to be slowing. Barry Willis digs beneath the stats in search of the reasons why o less a market authority than The Wall Street Journal states that the surge in consumer interest in vinyl records may be hitting a plateau in the US, the world’s largest market for recorded music. Not a wall – at least, not yet – but a plateau. In a piece by Neil Shah (‘Why Vinyl’s Latest Boom Is Over’, July the 24th), the Journal presents unambiguous statistics from Neilsen Music Data to bolster this argument: 5.6 million units sold in the first half of 2015, representing 38% growth compared to the same period the prior year. A year later, in 2016, the growth rate slowed to 12%. This year the US growth rate was just 2%.

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FLATTENING OUT Vinyl is still strong elsewhere. In the UK in late 2016, vinyl sales outpaced digital downloads, a format that has largely yielded to the streaming alternative. Whether vinyl’s growth can be sustained is a loaded question for the recording industry and the audio community alike. Slowing American interest in vinyl was described to Shah as a ‘flattening out’ by Steve Sheldon, president of Los Angeles pressing plant Rainbo Records – a fascinating observation in view of the late June announcement by Sony Music Entertainment that it intends to produce vinyl records for the first time since 1989. Sony Music is the parent company of the Columbia and RCA labels, and plans to begin pressing records at a plant in central Japan next year. News announcements mentioned that Sony was following the lead of Panasonic, which last year revived its legendary Technics SL-1200 DJ turntable with both standard and limited edition premium versions. The past decade has been a boon for vinyl fans and various industries that serve

RIGHT: With the young unlikely to build massive record libraries of the kind many of us older audiophiles assembled the first time around, is vinyl as a format inevitably doomed?

them: recording studios, pressing plants, distribution companies, makers of record playing equipment, and hi-fi retailers. Issuing new releases on vinyl is a matter of artistic integrity for many musicians, who insist that vinyl versions of their recordings hit the market weeks ahead of any digital formats. This artistic integrity is mirrored by music fans who feel that they don’t really own a recording unless it’s on vinyl. The vinyl resurgence has helped re-ignite interest in music and audio for some older consumers, and has been a way into the joint interests for many 20- and 30somethings. In some cases, it’s even been a bridge between different generations. But vinyl’s slowdown may be an inevitability in that only a small number of treasured recordings will be purchased by older music lovers, and that only a minority of younger ones will be sufficiently seduced to treat the format as anything other than a novelty. It’s unlikely that any of them will build massive record libraries of the kind many of us assembled the first time around.

‘Whether vinyl’s growth can be sustained is a loaded question’

Then there are complaints about high prices and poor quality, mentioned by the Journal and reiterated elsewhere. Record bins have popped up everywhere in the US – at mass-market discount stores, in big bookstores, even in organic food markets – bins full of audiophile-approved ‘180 gram pure virgin vinyl’ discs at prices ranging from $30 each to more than $60 for rarities. Complaints about price gouging are valid. Reissues of dubious provenance are flooding the market. Taking advantage of what may prove to be a fad, unscrupulous record labels are putting out reissues made from CDs (or worse) without supervision by a mastering engineer.

SOUND BARRIER But complaints about sound quality as a factor in vinyl’s slowdown come only from a handful of perfectionists. Sound quality has never been a barrier to sales of recordings. In fact, few music-loving consumers have ever exhibited any concern at all for sound quality in any format. How else to explain the long run enjoyed by the pre-recorded cassette tape, the overwhelming popularity of MP3, or the persistent sales of cheap junk all-in-one record players masquerading as vintage console radios?

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 107


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OPINION

Jim Lesurf

Science Journalist

Jim Lesurf has spent a lifetime in audio, both as an engineer at UK hi-fi company Armstrong and reader in Physics and Electronics at St Andrew’s University

How high the hi-res? A set recorded in a New York jazz club in 1978 catches Jim Lesurf’s eye, but the appeal lies not in the music but the disc of hi-res files accompanying the main CD. So what did he actually receive? ecently I was reading though a series of music reviews in a jazz magazine. One in particular caught my attention. This concerned a release on the Artistshare label entitled Valse Hot: Sweet Basil 1978 by Jim Hall & Red Mitchell. I should confess here that while I find his work of interest, Jim Hall hasn’t been among my favourite jazz performers, so in isolation, the musical details were ones I’d usually have run my eye over and moved on. However, what stood out was a mention that the release provided an audio CD and a disc of 96kHz/24-bit files.

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ABOVE: Part of the Jim Hall & Red Mitchell gatefold sleeve showing the bit rate as ‘28BIT/96 K’

RARE EXAMPLE Now, for some time I’ve really been wishing that musicians and music labels would do this. I much prefer the idea of buying hi-res files on an optical disc as opposed to downloading them. It gives me something I own and can’t accidentally lose due to any kind of computer (user) error. It also gives me printed information of some kind to go with the music. This was a rare example of what I want companies to do. So I couldn’t resist buying a copy. A few days later my order arrived and I began by inserting the ‘data’ disc

provided into my Cambridge Audio CXU universal player. At this point I wasn’t even sure if the disc was a data CD, DVD or BD. The CXU displayed the list of files... whose names told me they were 192kHz/ 24-bit WAV files. Yes, 192kHz, not 96kHz. I played the disc and checked the S/PDIF output from the CXU to make sure. This confirmed they were 192kHz. So the review I had read was wrong and was under-selling the content. However, this is unsurprising because when I looked at the packaging and the label on the disc the information was also incorrect on both accounts. The package stated that the files were ‘28BIT/96 K’ (sic) while the disc label stated ‘24bit/96k’ (sic). So I guess the reviewer took the spec for granted. And the graphic designer who produced the artwork for the disc presumably didn’t know 28 from 24 when it comes to audio files. The music is fine. And the files are plain WAV files on a standard DVD style disc so can be loaded onto a computer, etc, as the buyer prefers. Nice and simple. But the muddle is disappointing and

makes me wonder if the people creating the packaging actually checked with the ones who supplied the recording.

SLICE ’N’ DICE Despite all the hiccups with this example, I still wish other artists and companies would adopt the same approach. At the same time as the Jim Hall I also bought another two-disc set. This time it was the remastered version of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Here the second disc provides extra takes, etc, that I’d never heard before, and for me that alone made the purchase worth the price. But I’d have loved to have that second disc provide, say, 96kHz/24-bit versions of the music. Given the company was making and selling a two-disc set, the argument that hi-res files are easier and cheaper to provide as downloads doesn’t hold water as these could have been pressed onto the second disc. But this way companies can ‘slice and dice’ the market to re-sell music over and over again. In the process divorcing it from its printed documentation and a physical item you can own.

‘I played the disc and checked the S/PDIF output to make sure...’

ABOVE: Cover of the Jim Hall & Red Mitchell CD on Artistshare – see www.artistshare.com

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 109


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OPINION

Steve Harris

Contributing Editor

Steve Harris edited Hi-Fi News between 1986 and 2005. He loves jazz, blues music, vinyl and vintage hi-fi and anything that makes good music come to life

Making hay Anomalies in copyright legislation in the UK and across the Atlantic mean there’s now a wealth of jazz finding its way onto disc for the first time. Grab it while you can, says Steve Harris or jazz fans, at least, American specialist label Resonance Records is a unique and admirable operation. Its beautifullypresented historic recordings offer previously-unheard material from concert tapes or broadcast archives. Luxurious even by Resonance standards is Truth, Liberty & Soul, reviewed in the Oct issue [HCD-2027]. This 2CD set contains the 1982 New York Kool Jazz Festival concert by Jaco Pastorius and his Word Of Mouth big band, as recorded for National Public Radio, including 40 minutes of music that were recorded but never broadcast. In this case, according to Resonance’s Zev Feldman, the project took six years to come to fruition. And the liner notes for other Resonance productions have often mentioned the care and length of time that’s been taken on legal matters.

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ASTONISHING CATALOGUE Now, Truth, Liberty & Soul is not the only product out there offering material from that 1982 concert. Here in the UK you can find another CD of the same concert, at least of the part that was broadcast. It’s called Jaco Pastorius: Kool Jazz Festival NYC 1982 on the Hi-Hat label [HHCD3055]. It turns out that Hi-Hat offers an astonishing catalogue of jazz from radio broadcasts, from Bill Evans, Coltrane and Miles to Pat Metheny and a host of others. And Hi-Hat is one of a dozen similarly-prolific labels created under the Obiterdictum banner, focusing on different genres from bluegrass to heavy metal. But why is it so easy for a European company to offer recordings of old US radio broadcasts? And much easier than it would be for an American company to do the same? Well, the answer lies in a

ABOVE: It’s ironic, but due to quirks in international copyright laws, US label Resonance offers Bill Evans in Europe (left), while European label Hi Hat has Jaco’s 1982 New York radio broadcast

quirk of legislation, as I learned by talking to the man behind Obiterdictum, record industry stalwart Steven Carr. ‘There are two different scenarios,’ explains Carr. ‘A UK broadcast effectively becomes public domain 50 years after it was broadcast. So we’re doing some Beatles stuff at the moment, from ’63.’ But it’s the second scenario that applies to the majority of the company’s releases, which are from US radio broadcasts. ‘We’re doing them under a piece of legislation that was passed in 2007, which said that any radio broadcasts in America featuring American artists prior to 1996 were public domain in Europe.’ The statutory instrument is the Copyright in Performances (Application to Other Countries) Order 2008. The anomaly arises because English law was only extended to protect US copyright in January 1996, when TRIPs (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property) was implemented into English law.

‘English law was only extended to protect US copyright in ’96’

So, while a European company like Obiterdictum has to pay the usual publishing royalties on the songs, there is no copyright on the broadcast itself. It can happily offer CDs, LPs and downloads of performances archived by US radio stations though these can’t be sold legally in the USA. It’s ironic that California-based Resonance had to work hard to come up with, for example, Another Time [HCD2031], which contains recordings made by the Bill Evans trio at the Hilversum radio studios in Holland in 1968.

POST BREXIT There are plenty of other anomalies in copyright law, as Carr points out. For example, in Canada, studio recordings still only remain in copyright for 50 years, and one small company there has already started to issue 1960s material by The Beatles and Elvis. After Brexit? As Carr says, ‘There have been 10,000 statutory instruments issued over the last 40 years, and whether they will be absorbed into British law wholesale – because to scrutinise 10,000 is going to take them forever – we don’t know.’ So, as he admits, it’s a case of making hay while the sun shines.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 111


Send in your views to: Sound Off, Hi-Fi News, AVTech Media Ltd, Suite 25, Eden House, Enterprise Way, Edenbridge, Kent TN8 6HF or email your views to: letters@hifinews.com – please use ‘Sound Off’ in your subject field

YOUR VIEWS

My star deck

SOUND OF ’70S RECORDER LEAVES READER REELIN’ Correspondents express their own opinions, not those of Hi-Fi News. We reserve the right to edit letters for publication. Correspondents using e-mail are asked to give their full postal address (which won’t be published). Letters seeking advice will be answered in print on our Sound Off pages, but due to time constraints we regret we’re unable to answer questions on buying items of hi-fi or any other hi-fi queries by telephone, post or via e-mail.

CARTRIDGE CONCERNS IS MY PICK-UP NOW TOO HOT TO TROT? I was interested to read Ken Kessler’s reply to the letter from Graham Harfleet in the October Sound Off pages in which Ken shared his experiences with cartridges he has stored and returned to after a long absence. Ken explained that his pick-ups are stored in a tray with dividers, on a shelf below his turntable and that he ensures they are kept cool or at room temperature. As a result, he said that he’s never had a cartridge fail due to its age. Around two years ago, when I was working in the Far East, I bought two cartridges as future replacements for the pick-up I currently use. This was partly due to the tempting price – far more affordable than the cost bought when living in the UK – but also because I could not be sure the particular model I favour would still be available when the time came to buy a new one. Now for the worrying news... Unlike Ken I have simply stored both cartridges in their original boxes at the back of a built-in wardrobe, through which run the

ABOVE: Close up of Koetsu Gold Onyx cartridge showing cantilever [see p58]

hot water pipes carrying heat from the boiler to the radiators in my house. In short, it can get mighty hot in there, even in the depths of winter. So, after reading Ken’s reply to the letter, I broke out one of the cartridges from its box, set it up on my turntable and listened to how it sounded. It was not good. Or to be more precise, the sound lacked sparkle and some presence compared with the original model of its type I have been using for three years. Do you think cartridges can deteriorate if stored unsympathetically or am I judging the sound of the pick-up before it has had time to bed-in? Rhys Edwards, via email Paul Miller replies: Unwittingly, perhaps, you have incurred a doublewhammy of misfortune. Here’s the first: cycling a MM or MC pick-up through hot and cold temperatures can accelerate the decomposition of the pick-up’s rubber/polymer suspension while also reducing the potency of the permanent magnet within. So tracking performance and output can both be compromised if you store a cartridge at anything other than a constant, low-ish temperature in an equally low humidity atmosphere. Whammy number two is not widely recognised but will serve as a warning not to buy ‘grey import’ high-end pick-ups from overseas. Typically, top-end MCs – including Koetsus – are ‘tuned’ for the climate of the countries in which they are destined to be sold. Air conditioning notwithstanding, a flagship MC destined for sale in Singapore will typically have a lower compliance polymer damper than the same MC shipped to Norway. The idea is that each cartridge will offer the ideal dynamic compliance, tracking etc in its country of residence.

112 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

I was interested to read Barry Willis’s Opinion column in the September issue in which he explored the continuing appeal to audiophiles of reel-to-reel tape decks. By coincidence, I have just refurbished my 4-track twin-speed Dokorder 1120 deck, which hadn’t been switched on since the mid-’90s and had been in storage while I lived overseas. I bought it in January 1976 and paid £299 for it. (I’m sad, I still have the receipt.) Amazingly, it works, despite my fear that the capacitors would have dried out and the drive belts deteriorated. Not a bit. I listened to a Heifetz recording of the Korngold Violin Concerto that I recorded in December 1976 on standard BASF tape using a normal bias setting. It’s perfect. Outstanding sound – no hiss, all four tracks. Most of my tapes are 10½in back-coated Maxell 35-180B, which give 192 minutes of play in both directions. Onkyo knew how to build a good solid product. Remarkable after all these years. Robert Hawkins, via email Barry Willis replies: Robert, you got lucky with that Dokorder! Some gear stored less than 20 years can become inoperable. There’s no doubt that open-reel can sound excellent – in fact, it’s the source of choice by some exhibitors at big audio shows.

WhitWorld

OUR HI-FI WORLD THROUGH THE EYES OF WHITWORTH


JITTE RBUG USB Filter

YOUR VIEWS

Machine learning

READER SEEKS BEST RECORD CLEANER TO RID HIS GROOVES OF GRIME

I’ve been using a Disco-Antistat to clean my LPs for years, but as my collection of vinyl has grown and I’ve found myself buying increasing numbers of 180g vinyl LPs – often after reading your Vinyl Release feature each month – I think it’s time to invest in something more robust. The Moth MkII obviously appeals due to its price (£540), especially in kit form (£399). Then there’s the Okki Nokki, which is more affordable than the pre-built Moth by around £100 if bought on Amazon. The third model I’m considering is the Nitty Gritty 1.0, which comes in at pennies under £500. Of the three, which do you think I should consider given that noise and space limitations are not a concern? Kevin Dawes, via email Ken Kessler replies: Let’s dispense with one crucial fact before worrying about choices: all of the machines you have mentioned do an admirable job, so what you’re asking is how to choose between Coke Light, Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi. As noise and space considerations are not an issue (all of the machines are noisy), I will offer the following observations: As important as are the machines is how carefully you use them, eg, blowing off visible surface dust before cleaning them with the machines, keeping the velvet brushes clean, applying the fluids correctly. My advice is to go a charity

Can a £39 insect make all your CD files sound better than Hi-Res?

ABOVE: The Okki Nokki record cleaning machine, see www.okkinokki.co.uk

shop, pick up knackered LPs for 50p each and experiment with them. As for fluids, stick to the machine manufacturers’ recommendations, as the wrong fluids (eg, sudsier types) can foul the works. Machines that take care of nearly all the operational worry and handling concerns, with hit-a-button-and-gomake-a-cup-of-tea automation, are far more expensive: the phenomenal KL Audio machine, Clearaudio’s Double Matrix (which I use) and other ultrasonic hardware. Inevitably, the convenience-vscost-ratio is inescapable. Nitty Gritty has been around the longest, Moth is British while the Okki Nokki has a full platter to support the LP during cleaning. I’m guessing £450-£500 is your target and you’ve narrowed it down to the three best. Whichever you choose will do the trick.

Yes and no: Using the same equipment and a quality DAC, a 24/96 file (for example) will always sound better than a CD 16/44.1 file … but, even a single JitterBug will often allow a CD file to be more musical and more emotionally stimulating than a Hi-Res file without the benefit of a JitterBug. Noise is the problem. Real noise— the kind you can’t hear directly. Most often, the word “noise” is used to describe tape hiss or a scratch on a record, but these sounds aren’t noise; they are properly reproduced sounds that we wish weren’t there. Problem noise is essentially random, resonant or parasitic energy, which has no meaning. It can’t be turned into discrete sounds, but it does compromise signal integrity and the performance of everything it touches. JitterBug’s dual-function lineconditioning circuitry greatly reduces the noise and ringing that plague both the data and power lines of USB ports, whether on a computer, streamer, home stereo or car audio front-panel USB input. A single JitterBug is used in between devices (i.e., in series) as shown below. For an additional “wow” experience, try a second JitterBug into another USB port on the same device (such as a computer). Whether the second port is vacant, or is feeding a printer or charging a phone, JitterBug’s noise-reduction ability is likely to surprise you. No, the printer won’t be affected—only the audio! While a JitterBug helps MP3s sound a lot more like music, high-sample-rate files have the most noise vulnerability. Try a JitterBug or two on all your equipment, but never more than two per USB bus. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

ABOVE: The Moth MkII comes pre-built or in kit form – see www.britishaudiostore.com

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 113


New DragonFlys! YOUR VIEWS

£89 Black & £169 Red

Speakers for Exposure amp

Powerful, Immersive Sound fromComputers and Mobile Devices!

READER CELEBRATES ‘A PURPLE PATCH’ FOR HI-FI BY UPGRADING HIS CHERISHED MISSIONS

I wrote to you in late 2015 about my becoming reacquainted with HFN and how I was once again bitten by the hi-fi bug. I now buy Hi-Fi News and sister magazine Hi-Fi Choice regularly and both are great reads. They have enabled me to select and audition new amplifiers over the past year. The standard of the latest big integrateds up to £3k – the Rotels, Naims, Denon, Rogue, Rega, Moon,

ABOVE: The £1200 683 S2 from B&W

Hegel and Exposure – have me amazed. I have been lucky to have heard them all and could easily live with any of them. This seems to be a purple patch for hi-fi. I’ve also been impressed by the standard of service from dealers. One delivered an amp to my home on a handshake, left it with me for a fortnight, set up my system and left me a selection of cabling to try. On their return they spent most of the day with me just listening. All this for the cost of a cup of coffee! In the end I selected an Exposure 3010S2D integrated. It knocks my old Exposure 15 amplifier into touch. Now I want to upgrade my speakers. Can you recommend floorstanders I should audition with the Exposure? They will replace my old, but loved, Mission 782s? Thank you for kickstarting my love of music again. Steve Hollingbery, via email Adam Smith replies: Steve, as you rightly say, the integrated amplifier is staging something of a comeback and there are many tempting models around. You’ve chosen an excellent one in the Exposure 3010S2D and it will definitely give a better account of itself through something a little more upmarket than your Mission 782s. You don’t specify a target price so I’ll assume somewhere between ‘budget’ and ‘exotic’, but this still gives you plenty of choice when it comes to floorstanders. The Exposure is a neutral-sounding amp so will work well with loudspeakers that are a bit more up-front and exciting, such as Monitor Audio’s £1300 Silver 8 or the £1200 B&W 683 S2 [HFN Nov ’14]. Both of these will make excellent starting points. If you fancy something a little more polished and suave, then KEF’s £1500 R500 [HFN Nov ’14] is worth auditioning – but watch out for HFN’s forthcoming reviews of B&W’s new 700 series! If you can push the boat out a bit further, however, then I reviewed the pre/ power version of your Exposure – the Exposure 3010S2 units – using my own PMC twenty.24 loudspeakers [HFN Dec ’14] and the combination gelled beautifully. The smaller PMC twenty.23s will set you back just over £2200 and sound expansive and dynamic. So this is another option to explore.

Four years ago, AudioQuest shook the hi-fi world with our first DragonFly DAC–Preamp–Headphone Amp—the rare audio product that brought more compelling sound to all music lovers, playing high-res files to MP3s on perfectionist systems and modest laptops. Now, the new DragonFly Black and DragonFly Red exceed their predecessor in every way, delivering more beautiful music, boasting software upgradability, and providing compatibility with Android and Apple iOS mobile devices. While Black offers more clarity, depth and category-defining value than ever before, the take-no-prisoners Red provides even more finesse, resolution, torque and more than enough power to drive even the most demanding headphones. The word is out: DigitalAudioReview. net’s John Darko calls DragonFly Red and Black “the finest examples of everyman hifi to ever grace these pages. Their value quotients explode the dial.” Let the joyful experience begin!

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 115


YOUR VIEWS

A greater choice of brands? WHY DO NOT ALL MANUFACTURERS’ PRODUCTS MAKE IT INTO THE PAGES OF HI-FI NEWS?

Am I wrong to say that it seems some brands are favoured above others in the pages of Hi-Fi News? For instance, almost every new speaker from Sonus faber, Wilson Audio, B&W and Focal is reviewed in your excellent magazine, of which I have been a keen reader for over 35 years. The same goes for amplifiers by Audio Research and Dan D’Agostino. All superb brands, of course, but is this coverage to the detriment of other manufacturers? Or are other companies unwilling to provide products for testing? The reviews in HFN have always influenced me when looking for a new amplifier or speakers. In my case, Ken Kessler’s reviews have proved particularly persuasive over the years,

ABOVE: Sonus faber’s three-way Olympica III

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ever since I bought a Beard P100 power amp – a favourite of Ken’s as I recall. My current system consists of a complete Audio Research REF set, Oracle Delphi/ SME/Koetsu turntable and, until last year, a pair of Quad ESL 2905 speakers. A year ago I began to look for other speakers because in truth the Quads were difficult to place properly in my living room. As a result they were never really able to perform at their best (not that they aren’t great speakers). After some reading and listening to different alternatives, I planned to go for the Sonus faber Olympica III, which received a very good review from Ken Kessler [HFN May ’14]. I went to listen to these speakers in one of the best hi-fi stores in the Netherlands – De Hifiwinkel in Beek. First impressions were pleasing indeed and I almost decided to buy a pair. However, the store also had two pairs of the Accordo by Franco Serblin, the late founder of Sonus faber, in stock. They looked fabulous and so I asked to hear those in order to compare. After just a few seconds I was convinced that these small speakers were going to replace the Quads. With this in mind I went through several years of HFN back issues but never found a review of the Serblin speakers. The only reference I found was a picture of the Accordo in a report from the 2013 Milan Top Audio Show. Have I missed a review? Meanwhile, my ears have made the decision to purchase the Accordos and so far I have no regrets. Martin Zwart, The Netherlands Paul Miller replies: Martin is quite correct in identifying the very highest quality brands that regularly appear in Hi-Fi News. Largely, these are the marques that define the stateof-the-art in high-end engineering within their respective niches. But while I maintain an entirely open door policy at HFN many brands are simply very difficult to get hold of. The gorgeous Pass Labs INT-250 [p36] took literally years of organising while the Matrix Audio DAC [p54] arrived within a week! Naim’s top-end music server solution [p40] was promised to HFN as an exclusive a year ago – so we work very hard to deliver our readers truly independent and in-depth reviews of the most exciting new equipment. Also, as Martin identifies, there are a very few brands that shy away from our

ABOVE: The late Franco Serblin’s two-way Accordo in walnut, with dedicated stands

rigorous review regime, even if you do see them popping up elsewhere. Sadly there are manufacturers that will only supply equipment on the basis that the reviewer listens at their factory or a choice dealer and/ or demands the right to see and alter any text before we go to press. Our independence is key to our relationship with our muchvalued readers, so you will never see these particular names appearing in HFN... Ken Kessler replies: What gets reviewed and what doesn’t is a complex mix of availability in the UK (hence the nonappearance of some makes), the brands’ willingness to supply samples, timing, price and other variables. As to what I review, all equipment is selected by the editor; I do not choose. As for the Serblin speakers, I have been trying to get these for review ever since the late Franco Serblin launched the brand. To my despair, they seem to have no representation in this country. From what I have heard of them at shows around the world, I think they would slaughter most competitors. And I say that regardless of my personal affection and respect for Franco. To understand his designs, and the importance of his criminally-ignored eponymous speakers, one must appreciate his focus on presentation in both senses of the word. Obviously, given his attack on loudspeaker styling with the first Sonus fabers, the visual mattered: he abhorred ugly boxes. The second aspect of presentation – the listener’s relationship to the stage – defined the Ktema’s and Accordo’s sound beyond even his last works for Sonus faber.


Roll over Beethoven...

CLASSICAL LABEL WAS NO SLOUCH WHEN IT CAME TO PRESSING ROCK ’N’ ROLL

Thank you for printing my letter in the August issue concerning Barry Fox’s visit to Nimbus. There was also an unexpected link to Johnny Black’s ‘Vinyl Icons’ feature in the same issue, about Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight. I saw Berry live in 1976 and have some ancient ‘processed for stereo’ LPs, so I took Johnny Black’s advice and looked for this album. I found a good used CD for £4.16 from musicMagpie via the Amazon website. It’s a single CD issued by MCA in 1984 [CHLD 19116] and sounds much better than my old LPs. On the CD is the explanation: ‘Mastered by Nimbus’. Chester Willey, via email Johnny Black replies: Thanks for getting in touch, Chester. Very glad to have been able to help you on your way to finding a decent recording of The Great TwentyEight. I’ve long been a fan of Nimbus,

ABOVE: Glass-mastered by Nimbus – the late Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight

especially in the early days when they took a bit of a flyer and invested in CD mastering when the big multinationals were still dithering about. Always good to see a small company showing the big boys how it should be done.

Journey to the A1

YAMAHA NOT THE FIRST TO USE PARALLELED TRANSISTOR RIAA SOLUTION

In your August Vintage Review, Tim Jarman and Adam Smith discussed the Yamaha A-1 amplifier. I know this is a small point, but the comments on the moving-coil noise reduction technique – that of paralleling transistors – suggest Yamaha freshly devised this method. It is, of course, a standard technique. The noise figure formula is proportional to the effective base resistance (Rb) and paralleling devices has the effect of directly reducing this figure. The use of four devices will reduce Rb to a quarter of the basic device figure. Nick Willans, via email

Tim Jarman replies: As you identify, this is a well known technique but it was seldom seen in midrange Japanese amps such as the Yamaha A-1. For reasons of production efficiency it was commonplace to see a single low-noise device used, so this feature was highlighted as it was usually the preserve of top-of-the-range models. The peak of phono stage development in Japanese integrated amps of this era was probably seen in the Sony TA-5650, which as well as having V-FET devices in its power amp also used one in its RIAA equaliser. The supply voltage to the stage was nearly 100V to provide the headroom needed to prevent the circuits becoming upset by clicks from the vinyl surface.

EXTREME? IT IS NOW!

ABOVE: From 1978 – Yamaha’s A-1 amp was designed to extract the best from vinyl

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 117


VINTAGE HI-FI

B&O Beogram CD X With components sourced from Dutch giant Philips, does this slick-looking CD player from 1986 still represent the ‘last word’ in 14-bit sound? We take it to the test bench Review: Tim Jarman Lab: Paul Miller he step change in technology that came with the introduction of CD was too great for all but the largest hi-fi manufacturers to handle alone. As a result, those that lacked the resources to design and produce their own machines had instead to buy completed assemblies from either Philips or one of the larger Japanese brands. Bang & Olufsen was unusual in this respect in that it turned to two companies for components when designing its first range of CD players: Aiwa for the Beogram CD50 [HFN May ’15] and Philips for the Beogram CD X we have here.

T

NOT JUST A BIT PLAYER B&O’s strategy at the time was to sell complete systems, each comprising units whose cost, appearance and technical performance were matched. The CD50 was designed to be used with the Beosystem 5000 and was styled to complement it perfectly. The CD X, on the other hand, was for everything else, both old and current. Released in 1986, the CD X was initially viewed as relatively conservative due to its use of 14-bit architecture when Philips had already moved on to 16-bit processing with the CD450 [HFN Aug ’14]. The CD X, on the other hand, was built using an earlier group of components,

ABOVE: Elegance abounds in B&O’s 1986 brochure, where the Beogram CD X is shown with the Beocenter 4000 dual tape casceiver. CD players and turntables are shown together on later pages

the servo and decoder printed circuits (as Philips referred to them) and the CDM 1 transport being those used for Philips’ CD104 [HFN Apr ’14]. Going back even further, the aluminium chassis casting had first been used in the original Philips CD100 model [HFN Oct ’11]. Although

the complete machine was produced in a Philips factory in Belgium there was never an equivalent Philips model to the CD X, nor was the same package ever sold to another manufacturer. It can therefore be considered a B&O original. What’s more, the use of well tried and well regarded technology assured reliability and high levels of performance – the 14-bit Philips machines had been considered the ones to beat in the early days of CD.

NEAR MAGICAL Although conventional inside, the outer appearance of the Beogram CD X set it apart from all other CD players. Ignoring the drawer-loading black box format that was rapidly becoming the norm, B&O went for a powered top-loading arrangement. On command, the aluminium and clear plastic lid swung upwards under motor power after which a small disc-shaped tray, LEFT: Stunning presentation with powered lid and touch sensitive glass control panel – note disc illumination. No other CD player looked like this in 1986, the rest were just black boxes

118 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017


bathed in light from a concealed lamp, raised itself into position to accept the disc. The process reversed itself once the machine was instructed to play but the disc remained visible at all times. Not content with this near-magical feat, B&O also made nearly all the controls of the CD X touch sensitive, using a proprietary technique first seen in the Beomaster 1900 receiver some ten years previously. This had used touch pads where the user’s finger was detected by the disruption it caused to a small high frequency electric field. Originally the pads had been indentations in plastic but the CD X introduced a new medium – glass. Such things are commonplace today, but in 1986 the effect was astounding, the lightest pressure on the unyielding and unbroken surface instantly engaging the chosen function, positively and unerringly. Traditional touch-sensitive switches could be upset by a build up of dirt or by the static charge being carried by the

user, but B&O’s ‘Sensi-Touch’ arrangement was immune to both these things. Later the glass panel technique would be used across the range, but the CD X was the first model to employ it. Of the models current when the CD X was launched, perhaps the most relevant to it was the Beomaster 3000 receiver. The CD X looked broadly similar to the Beogram 3000 turntable, which matched this receiver and continued the theme of a red line running through the under-lid section. Within this, the CD X included the words ‘Laser Optical Turntable’, which goes to show how confusing CD technology could be in those early days. The CD X was also a good match for the Beomaster 6000 tuner/amplifier. Both this and the Beomaster 3000 had RCA inputs for a second tape recorder into which the CD X could be directly connected. Older models lacked these inputs, so B&O made available a useful little device called a CD/Tape adapter. This fitted neatly

‘The CD X could be the perfect player for fans of female vocal’

ABOVE: With the lid shut, the CD X appears slim and to be floating in space on its concealed plinth. The disc remained visible at all times, other manufacturers hid it inside the machine

under the overhang at one side of the CD X and allowed the player to share a cassette deck input with an existing recorder. Cleverly designed, it allowed CD-to-cassette transcription and even took into account the differing DIN and line-level sensitivities used by B&O cassette decks over the years. The CD X was available until 1988, when it was replaced by the CD X II. Similar in appearance, this version used the Philips OEM 16-bit package and CDM2 transport, still mounted on the old CD100 chassis. The need for a standalone B&O CD player had been largely met by this stage and the CD X II was not as popular as the first. But it did sell well in modified form as the Beogram CD3300, the matching CD unit for B&O’s 3300 system.

ERGONOMIC QUIRKS Using the CD X today is still a wonder and a pleasure, the endless modern touch-screen appliances having failed to dull its impact. Unlike many other B&O components, connecting the CD X to units from other makers is simple as the output comes via a tethered lead having standard RCA plugs on the end. The output level is close to the nominal 2V standard, as one would expect from a Philips design [see PM’s Lab Report]. There are one or two ergonomic quirks, however. The power switch, for example, is also marked ‘play’ because playback starts as soon as the machine is switched on if there is a disc loaded. Meanwhile, opening the lid is easy once one locates the slim ‘eject’ button, but closing it is another matter. This can either be done manually by pushing it down a little (which is not recommended) or by touching the ‘play’ LEFT: This exploded view shows the CD100 chassis casting, visible at the bottom right. B&O prepared its own manuals, even though Philips constructed the players itself in Belgium NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 119


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VINTAGE HI-FI RIGHT: The CD100 underpinnings are clearly visible in natural grey alloy in this picture. The electronics around the perimeter are for the touch-sensitive switches and to control the lid

legend. Pressing and holding ‘stop’ has the same effect if one does not want the music to start right away. The available tracks appear as a row of green lights once the disc has been read. These lights are touch-sensitive too and choosing a number makes the legend ‘order’ appear in red. This means ‘what would you like me to do?’ to which you can either respond with ‘play’, whereupon playback skips instantly to that point, or with ‘store’ or ‘clear’. ‘Store’ starts to build up a programmed track sequence, whereas ‘clear’ removes the selected track from the normal run of the disc. Unusually, these operations can be done during playback. The ‘stop’ key engages pause mode if only touched briefly. One has to hold it for a second or two to enter true stop mode, which is worth remembering to avoid needless wear on the motor and laser.

TIM LISTENS Philips is well known for its policy of continuous development – any complete service manual for one of its players is invariably bursting with addenda. The performance of the CD X therefore represents the ‘last word’ on the 14-bit/ x4 oversampled sound – ignoring the budget Philips CD150 and related models. What I discovered is that the sound is still recognisable as early Philips, but toned down. The voluptuous bass and wilting treble is largely gone, being replaced by a leaner and more conventional approach to music-making.

The CD X uses identical integrated circuits in its analogue stages, as did the Philips CD104, yet some incremental gain in performance is still apparent, especially when it comes to the bass. But the distinctive sound that Philips players typically give to gently strummed guitars and softly played percussion remains an obvious and instantly identifiable trait. This was evident with the Dire Straits material used to promote the Philips models when new – Brothers In Arms [Vertigo 824499-2] – and with ‘Voices On The Wind’ by Little Feat [from the B&O sampler Different Waves, originally released on the album Let It Rool – WB 925750-2] which was also used here for my listening. Also still very much in evidence is the soft, easygoing character that is often described as ‘LP like’. Like most cliches this one is at least partly true, certainly the CD X would have been a tonic for those who found other 1980s CD players too bright and stark-sounding.

‘The breadth and depth paid dividends with classical music’

PARTICULAR PLEASURE Another key virtue is the wide and continuous soundstage that these players, including the CD X, can deliver. This LEFT: This platform looks like a turntable but it does not rotate. Its function is to hold the disc while it is being loaded and when lowered it drops away below the level of the spindle

ABOVE: Philips’ first-generation SAA7030 4x oversampling digital filter pushed aliasing images out to 176.4kHz and improved resolution within the audioband, but the frequency response showed an obvious rippling

is thanks, no doubt, to the simple and phase-linear analogue stages that fourfold oversampling made possible, along with the use of a separate DAC for each channel. This paid real dividends when listening to orchestral music, where a sense of breadth, depth and spaciousness helped create an impression of involvement rather than one just of observation. Wagner’s Lohengrin [Deutsche Grammophon 453 485-2] was a particular pleasure when played on the CD X. The tighter low registers helped keep things in order and offer a better sense of clarity than was achieved by earlier models in the series. As the strengths remain, so sadly does the greatest weakness of the early Philips players – the slightly diffuse sense of focus. Again, improvements have certainly been made here, but even so, the CD X lacks NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 121


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LAB REPORT VINTAGE HI-FI

B&O BEOGRAM CD X (Vintage)

ABOVE: As is the case with most early CD players, the CD X requires a large heatsink to cool the linear regulators that feed the power-hungry early digital electronics

the super-fine resolution of, say, the Technics SL-P1200 [HFN Aug ’13]. The effect is to rob some sounds of their ultimate texture and detail, notably reed instruments and woodwind. Female vocal remains sublime however. The CD X could be the perfect player for those who enjoy listening to the likes of Kate Bush and Tori Amos.

BUYING SECONDHAND Since the bulk of the working parts of the Beogram CD X are the same as those of the Philips CD104 it follows that most of the fault patterns are the same. To recap, the laser and transport unit are some of the most durable ever to have been used in a domestic machine, but the main weakness concerns the use of small rivets to join the ground planes of the two main PCBs to the trackwork beneath. Soldering each one through with a short piece of fine wire solves many problems and is always worth trying first. One still

encounters examples which, even after all these years, have not had this attended to. Defective or poorly soldered voltage regulators and breaks in the signal cable are the main issues, although faulty reed relays in the analogue stages are sometimes the cause of a missing channel in an otherwise working player. Of the B&O specific parts, the lid hinge and catch mechanism is fragile and easily broken. Check carefully that this works as replacement parts are no longer available. There is a small drive belt within the gearing. It can become slack but replacing it is sadly far from straightforward. Some lid problems are caused by the small rubber buffers on which it rests degrading and becoming sticky. The machine will still work correctly if they are simply removed, however. The only recurring problem encountered with the touch sensors is the occasional loss of some of the track indicator lamps. However, cracked soldering rather than failed components tends to be the cause of the issue here.

As Tim describes in our review, this exquisite CD player from yesteryear employs the same diecast CDM1 swingarm transport, servo, decoder and oversampling/DAC boards as the Philips CD104 [HFN Apr ’14]. Both these players were based on the seminal SAA7030/TDA1540 14-bit/4x oversampling chipset, the DAC itself proving to be very linear down to –70dBFs (within ±0.1dB) but showed a slightly compressive trend thereafter with signals at –80dBFs emerging at –77.2dB and those at –90dBFs at –86.6dB, etc. B&O’s improved PSU shielding ensured the Beogram CD X offered a superior 107.3dB A-wtd S/N ratio but the practical resolution of the player is still closer to 15- rather than 16-bits. There are two TDA1540 DACs in this player, one for each channel, and its interchannel phase matching and stereo separation improve accordingly, the latter >90dB (20Hz-20kHz). Meanwhile, the limited number of taps in its first-generation SAA7030 linear phase FIR digital filter offer a reasonable 51dB suppression of aliasing images and a frequency response just –0.45dB down at 20kHz (–0.75dB/20kHz with pre-emphasised CDs) but also produces in-band ripples amounting to 0.25dB [see Graph, p121]. Distortion is low for a 14-bit architecture at 0.002-0.003% at its peak 2.09V output (20Hz-20kHz) but the trend of THD versus digital level is much more erratic than the smooth ‘textbook’ diagonal achieved by modern DACs [see Graph 1, below, and compare with the X-Sabre, p57]. Digital jitter – not measurable back in the day – is a very respectable 350psec [see Graph 2] although the spectrum is highly complex and populated with low-level PSU, data-induced and other sidebands related to digital processes within the CD X. PM

ABOVE: Distortion versus 16-bit digital signal level over a 120dB range (1kHz = black; 20kHz = blue)

HI-FI NEWS VERDICT Appealing on many levels, the Beogram CD X offers an interesting twist on the leading CD technology of the day. Still striking to look at, fascinating to use and a joy to listen to, its attractions remain undiminished today. Recommended for use both with B&O and with other equipment, this player fully lives up to its original design concept and purpose. There are plenty about, so be selective.

Sound Quality: 88% ABOVE: The typically quirky B&O user manual is simple but clear in all respects

0

-

-

-

-

-

-

-

- 100

ABOVE: High res. CD jitter spectrum (mkrs show 45 discrete jitter patterns amounting to a low 350psec)

HI-FI NEWS SPECIFICATIONS Maximum output level / Impedance

2.09Vrms at 47-515ohm

A-wtd S/N ratio

107.3dB

Distortion (1kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.0022% / 0.025%

Distortion & Noise (20kHz, 0dBFs/–30dBFs)

0.0030% / 0.0070%

Frequency response (20Hz-20kHz)

+0.05dB to –0.45dB

Digital jitter

350psec

Resolution @ –90dB/–100dB

+3.4dB / +3.5dB

Power consumption

16W

Dimensions (WHD) / Weight

420x75x310mm / 5.6kg

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 123


FROM FR ROM MT THE HE V VAULT AULT

Trio L-08C/M amplifiers

Martin Colloms takes stock of an exotic-looking pre/power amplifier from Japan promising ultimate control over any loudspeaker via its ‘Sigma Drive’ his amplifier pairing is the latest in Trio’s established ‘L-0’ series, which enjoys a respectable reputation among up-market Japanese designs. The L-08M power amp is said to be capable of 200W per channel into 8ohm loads, with the manufacturer’s data suggesting that 4ohm loads would also present little difficulty. Elements of the ‘straight line’ approach to design are evident, the partnering L-08C preamp having no tone controls in the accepted form. Instead, it includes a versatile, switch-selected loudness compensation to augment bass during low-level listening. Comprehensive input and output facilities are provided, including a built-in moving-coil preamplifier section, and the system has a headphone socket – rarely offered on separate power amps and often omitted from modern preamps. Meanwhile, the L-08M duo has a somewhat flashy appearance,

T Hi-Fi News July 1982 Each month HFN will bring you an article from our vast archive of features and reviews from yesteryear

possibly reflecting the company’s technically orientated parentage. It stands out and draws attention to itself – perhaps a conscious recognition of the fact that the amp could hardly be inconspicuous anyway, due to the need for locating the large power amp units remotely, adjacent to the speakers.

COMPLETE SYSTEM For listening tests the following speakers were used: Quad ESL63, KEF R105.4 and Celestion SL6, in conjunction with a Koetsu ‘Black’ cartridge, Linn Ittok arm and a rebuilt Thorens TD 125 II turntable. Amplifier references included a Meridian 101B, Mission 776/777 (current hammer silver series), the Tandberg 3002 and Electrocompaniet preamp/25W power amplifiers. The L-08C/ L-08M pre/power combination was auditioned as a complete system and also individually to assess their contribution to the whole. In common with previous reviews of this type, the listening sessions were not double-blind using a panel. Considerations of time, expense 124 | www.hifi hifi i news.co.uk k | NOVEMBER 2017

ABOVE: The Trio L-08M power amps, designed to ‘directly drive’ the speakers to which they were connected. They bore Kenwood branding outside the UK

and method dictated otherwise. Instead, the findings represent the opinion and comments of the author using his good quality listening environment, assisted by a colleague who possesses reliable judgement and a high level of aural discrimination. I have found the establishment of a top-class system in my listening room to be of great value, though in this instance the reader has to rely on the reviewer’s judgement and experience. With this current method, subtle differences which can be obscured by the complexities and artificiality of procedure and hardware involved in ‘blind’ panel tests seem to be more readily audible, though no doubt some sceptics will argue that this is wishful thinking. The L-0 series has headed Trio’s amplifier range for some years, and the latest models incorporate all the technological innovations that the company was able to muster


at a price the consumer is believed to be prepared to pay. Several design features have in fact been perpetuated throughout the series, so these latest models represent an evolution rather than a revolution in design philosophy. An early feature of the series was Trio’s solution to the problem of dynamic and other crosstalks, which often occur between the left and right channels of a stereo power amplifier. It simply involved the use of two separate mono power amps, one for each channel, realised here as the L-08M. The output impedance of power amplifiers has become something of an obsession with this company’s designers, and for this latest model they proudly claim a minimum of 15,000 for the damping factor at the speaker terminals. Furthermore, as part of its plan, early on in the L-0 series the manufacturer recommended a power amplifier location adjacent to the speakers, coupled by a very short (1m) length of super quality Litz speaker cable.

There is, however, some question as to the ultimate merits of this solution to the problem of cable and amplifier connection. Poor connections can undoubtedly result in an odd kind of distortion where low-level detail can be lost but loud sections remain unimpaired, this being due to variable oxidisation and rectification at the contacts. Meanwhile, a cable possessing significant series resistance – say 0.5ohm – can slightly alter the frequency response of a loudspeaker due to the variation of impedance with frequency which is typical of most speakers, as the LS forms the bottom link of a potential divider. Trio goes still further and claims that with Sigma Drive they have also reduced distortion at the speaker terminals. For a manufacturer committed to exceedingly low distortion levels such as a specified maximum limit of 0.01% full power, it must have been very frustrating to discover typically 0.2% distortion, 20Hz, at the speaker terminal end of the amplifier connector cable! In fact, according to Trio’s own figures the speaker cable link apparently increases amplifier distortion by some 50 times. The causes are well-known and result from non-linearities in the varying magnetic flux in the drive units due to movingcoil excitation and excursion. The current fed to a movingcoil driver is quite non-linear, but since the acoustic output is essentially controlled by

‘The power amp is a top-class performer; it’s in the super-fi class’

CABLE CANCELLING For what it’s worth, this practice improved the damping factor at the speaker terminals by a factor of ten times or more as compared with normal extended runs of cabling. The short cable idea is retained for the L-08M, but with the addition of remote sensing feedback on both the feed and return line. Effectively, the amplifier output is extended directly to the speaker terminals by this ‘cabling cancelling’ technique, which Trio calls ‘Sigma Drive’.

ABOVE: A comparison of a conventional negative feedback circuit (NFB) with that of the Sigma Drive arrangement. According to Trio, the latter (right) extends the amplifier’s NFB loop right up to the speaker input terminals by means of a fourcable layout

BELOW: Internal view of the L-08M power amp from beneath. Speaker terminals can be seen to the bottom right of the picture

the applied voltage, this current distortion is normally kept within acceptable bounds. However, stray impedance in the speaker circuit including the connector cable will inevitably develop a small distorted voltage due to the current flow, and it is this residual effect which Sigma Drive is claimed to suppress.

INTERNAL WIRING In my view, however, Trio has grossly overestimated the importance of this effect, since the distortion in any case reappears on the other side of the speaker terminals in the internal wiring and crossover, and most of all in the equivalent series resistance of the motor coils themselves (typically 6.4ohm). The magnetic distortion in the loudspeakers is a ‘natural’ effect believed at present to be comparatively harmless at levels of around 0.3%, and which Trio has spent so much time and money in eliminating from its ‘non-magnetic’ power amplifiers. Conventional mild-steel boxes encasing power amplifiers also result in magnetic distortion, albeit at a minuscule level. With 2.5A flowing in a copper foil conductor at 10kHz, the reference level of third harmonic was measured at around –108dB. The proximity of a steel plate at 1.5cm increased the third harmonic to –86dB (0.005%), the effect becoming increasingly negligible at lower frequencies and currents. In fact, typical steel-clad amplifiers have a magnetic distortion contribution of less than 5.0% of that due to other causes. However, in order to eliminate the distortion resulting from the proximity of conventional steel chassis to signal cables, the

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 125


Abyss AB-1266 headphones Bel Canto DAC3.7/VBL1 Bel Canto REF500M power amplifier (pair) Bel Canto REFStream streamer Burson Audio HA160D headphone amp/DAC Burson Audio Timekeeper Burson Audio Soloist B&W Nautilus (Dark Grey) Chord Chordette Maxx amplifier Cyrus 8-2 DAC QX (Quartz Silver) Denon DVD-A1UD universal player Devialet 200 Companion Devialet 250 Pro Focal Diablo Utopia + stands (White Carrara) Focal Scala Utopia V2 (Black Lacquer) Grace M903 headphone amplifier KEF Reference 3 (Walnut) KEF Reference 5 (Gloss Black) KEF R700 (Rosewood) Lavry AD122-96 MKIII (A to D converter)

Retail Clearance £5,200 £4,149 £4,399 £3,299 £3,998 £2,199 £2,200 £1,749 £549 £249 £1,950 £1,199 £799 £679 £55,000 £39,999 £989 £799 £1,970 £1,549 £4,500 £1,199 £4,490 £2,899 £12,490 £9,399 £9,898 £6,499 £21,399 £12,749 £2,150 £1,599 £7,500 £6,399 £10,500 £8,899 £2,000 £1,549 £6,360 £3,199

Retail Clearance £2,099 Lavry 3000S (sample rate/bit depth converter) £4,248 £5,270 £3,849 Linn Akurate 4200 (Silver) £2,410 £1,899 Linn Majik 4100 (Black) £2,999 £1,499 Marantz AV8802 AV processor £799 £499 Moon 180 MiND streamer £4,500 £2,999 Moon 380D MiND DAC streamer £6,500 £5,850 Moon 600i integrated amplifier £3,699 £3,149 Naim NDX network music player £3,100 £2,599 Naim Supernait integrated amplifier £5,199 £3,499 Nordost Valhalla XLR-XLR cable (3m pair) £12,000 £6,499 Pass Labs XP-25 phono stage £17,000 £11,999 Plinius SA-Reference power amplifier £12,995 £9,749 PMC Fact 12 (Tiger Ebony) £4,750 £3,749 Proac D30R (Cherry) £15,125 £10,599 Raidho D1 + stands (Walnut Burl) £1,099 £799 Sennheiser HD800 headphones £42,500 £7,499 Sim2 HT5000 projector £6,398 £5,049 Sonus Faber Olympica II (Graphite) Spendor A5R (Walnut) £1,995 £1,399 Torus RM16 power conditioner £7,900 £1,999

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FROM FR ROM T THE HE V VAULT AU ULT L-08s have been largely fabricated from plastic and aluminium alloy mouldings sprayed in a rather fragile satin-silver finish. Consequently the L-08C preamplifier, with its bottom panel made of resin card material, feels rather insubstantial.

POINT OF PHILOSOPHY By siting the power amps remotely, long cables are of course necessary to connect the preamplifier, this requiring a low-impedance drive from the latter. Accordingly, the L-0 series has incorporated this feature, enhanced in the latest L-08M by the addition of Sigma Drive, and special 12m lengths of remote sensing cable are included for this purpose, coupled by phono connectors at the power unit together with special six-pin plugs at the preamplifier. Normal cables may also be used. Examining the power amp circuitry, a pertinent philosophical point is illustrated in the circuit diagram of the power supply. The power reservoir electrolytics, which are present in the total current loop for the output stage of most amplifiers but are often relegated to a remote power supply ‘area’, are here drawn in at the output stage section, where they belong. As is common these days, the L-08M employs an emitter-follower output configuration using six power transistors per channel in a paralleled complementary grouping.

The output stage is supplied by ±71V DC from the 15,000μF reservoir capacitors, the latter theoretically capable of delivering over 250W into 8ohm on transients. Overcurrent protection is provided in the form of clamping transistors across the driver transistor bases, which are estimated to operate at around 20A peak or about 15A rms, and this should prove sufficient for full power peaks on loads to a little below 3ohm, ie, for both 4 and 8ohm speaker types. The overall circuit is symmetrical throughout and fully DC coupled, appearing inordinately complex in consuming two FETS and 29 transistors in the input and voltage amplifier stages alone. Many of these are tied up in elaborate constant-current sources for the remaining active devices. This is a very high slew-rate design, ±200V/μS is claimed, the circuit free of the dominant pole or stability capacitors commonly encountered, which speaks much for Trio’s expertise in this particularly tricky field of fast amplifier design. The claimed 0 to 600kHz, +0/–3dB response is in fact largely limited at high frequencies by the two-pole ultrasonic filter at the input. Turning now to the L-08C preamp internals, a new technique has been employed to cope with earth line impedances which can cause errors in feedback amplifiers. A substantial

RIGHT: ‘Group shot’ of L-08M power amps and the matching if more conventionallooking L-08C preamplifier. In a bid to eliminate the distortion resulting from (ferromagnetic) steel chassis, the L-08s were largely fabricated from plastic and aluminium alloy

‘The duo was of rather better than average quality when driven hard’

BELOW: The L-08C preamp with its hidden knobs for loudness control, balance, recording selector and cartridge input shown. Note the back-lit display, though the reviewer found this to be near invisible in daylight!

copper earth plane is used together with a special type of supply regulator current absorbing circuit. A group of four extra transistors arranged in push-pull draw current from the equaliser output in such a way as to balance the supply current virtually to DC, thus minimising voltage fluctuations in the reservoir capacitors, the latter said to be a source of distortion. The expression ‘DC coupled’ appears at times in the preamp specification, but in fact many capacitor couplings are evident, as for example at the input and output of the head amplifier, at the output of the RIAA MM equaliser amplifier, and optionally at the input selection switch. Thus the only true DC path is via the auxiliary socket. The preamp is also extremely complex, and from head amp to output the signal passes through no fewer than 27 transistors while being affected by many more. The MC head amp alone has 13 devices per channel, and further ICs not normally in the signal path are responsible for the variable bass loudness when acting as Millereffect capacitors, and in the power fader option, where they work as controlled gain amplifiers.

HIDDEN DRAWER The front panel of the L-08C has no visible controls, simply three push-buttons for power, selectorlogic controller and fader, with an easily missed slider to control volume. However, a push on a panel section releases a hidden drawer (a current favourite Japanese feature) to reveal an array of knobs. These control loudness, balance, recording selector and cartridge input. Meanwhile, a back-lit panel NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 127


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FROM FR ROM T THE HE V VAULT AU ULT shows the state of the selector buttons via a display sufficiently pale as to be nearly invisible in daylight. I found the controls something of a nuisance and would have preferred less ambiguous ergonomics. Presumably some of the preamp’s high price is consumed by the provision of these (to my way of thinking) unnecessary complications. Furthermore, serious audiophiles and those engineers like myself are likely to consider a power fader with all its extra contacts and signal relays to be suspect.

SOUND QUALITY The L-08 combination delivered an impressive sound which did not become oppressive with prolonged listening. What’s more, it could be played extremely loudly and was of rather better than average quality when driven hard, indicating substantial dynamic capabilities on the part of the power amplifiers. Sounding powerful and ‘easy’ with an essentially neutral tonal balance, the latter progressively altered towards full clipping, where an increasing hardness and brittleness developed, but this was not as severe as some examples tried in previous reviews. The bass demonstrated good evenness and extension, while the treble was transparent with little exaggeration or particular character, and the midrange was clean and clear. Stereo presentation was to a high standard, with good focus and stability, plus substantial depth on appropriate programme material. Disabling Sigma Drive on the power amps produced a subtle modification which made the SL6s, for example, sound a little thickened and more mid forward, with apparently slightly reduced treble and fractionally less bass definition. In musical terms, however, the difference was not very great. Alone, the L-08Ms were felt to provide a very good standard, markedly above that of the usual high power grouping. The performance was well balanced over the audio range and this, together with the good stereo and solid bass, proved to be strong points. Also alone, the L-08C preamplifier was felt to offer a slightly weaker

performance in that the tonal balance was mildly awry, and the treble register did not seem entirely natural, lacking sparkle while lending a trace of rounding and dulling in the midrange – an intriguing contrast. In the mid a degree of focus and impact was missing, with some loss of depth and space. While better than average, the L-08C’s performance was not that good in view of its high price.

TRIO CONCLUSION At a little under £1000 for a stereo power amplifier the L-08M has got to be good – fortunately it was a top-class performer definitely in the ‘super-fi’ class. Provided that it is not clipped – a condition where the Sigma Drive appears to accelerate tonal deterioration – the L-08M is powerful, tolerant and neutral, providing very good stereo with a powerful extended bass, and high sound levels are possible. The preamp is expensive, and while well above average it does not really justify its price. Although the two units go well together – rather better than their separately assessed performances might otherwise indicate – at £1650 the pair they do not offer very good value. Aside from the L-08’s notable attribute of a high unclipped peak power potential, a recently reviewed pair of units from another manufacturer that cost around half the price of the Trios was felt to outperform the L-08C/M combination in subjective terms, although admittedly not by a dramatic margin.

Also in HFN this month in 1982 ABOVE: Original pages from the July 1982 issue of HFN which saw reviewer Martin Colloms probe the performance of two ‘high-tech amplifiers’, the second being the Armstrong 700 system. The cover illustration was designed to symbolise the world of in-car entertainment, with reviews of seven in-car systems carried inside the issue

HI-FI AT THE ROCKS Paul Messenger reports from an April show at the Avon Gorge. THE LOGIC OF IT Geoff Jeanes turns the tables on a well-known turntable. AUDIO AWARDS Ivor Humphreys introduces this year’s recipients. PETER WALKER The founding father of Quad discusses both his ideas and ideals with John Crabbe and John Atkinson. AUDIO PATENTS By Barry Fox. ACOUSTICS AND THE CAR Peter Mapp examines the in-car setting to provide a background for this month’s ICE reviews. SEVEN IN-CAR SYSTEMS John Atkinson assesses units from Mitsubishi, Luxman, Uher, Clarion, Marantz, Bose and Pioneer with measurements by Noel Keywood. ARMSTRONG 732/730 Martin Colloms hears this all-Brit pre/power combination. MUSIC ON RECORD An extended look at the work of Vernon Handley.

NOVEMBER 2017 | www.hifinews.co.uk | 129


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THE PLACE TO BUY & SELL AUDIO EQUIPMENT & ACCESSORIES

are in as new condition and come complete with original boxes. Offers please. Tel: 01234 764147

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MUSICAL Fidelity A3.2 RDS

1. ACCESSORIES SENNHEISER HDVD800 amplifier and HD800 headphones, both items in excellent condition, boxed with manuals. Buyer collects or arranges postage. £1100 for the pair. Tel: 07572 272939 Email: richardkirk57@gmx.com

MUSIC Tools ISOstatic two-shelf, 27.5 + 38cm, £650 each. Email: mark.hanna@virgin.net

2. AMPLIFIERS QUAD 303 amp, refurbished by Quad Nov 2016, not used since. Will accept £200. Includes new din-tophono and power leads. Boxed. Tel: 07960 986984

NAIM NAC122x control, NAP150x power and Flatcap 2x. With Stageline head amp. All interconnects, boxes and manuals. Mint condition. No split. Cost £2300. Sell for £1400 ono. Email: mcleodian43@yahoo.co.uk. Tel: 07748 320549

PRIMARE BD32 Mk1 universal player in excellent condition. Remote control/set-up guide and packing. £750. Would prefer collection. Tel: 020 855 46199. Email: pip.appleton@btinternet.com

BRENNAN JB7 CD player/ hard disc store (312GB). Blue finish. Excellent condition. £200 ono. Tel: 07818 696904

5. DACS AUDIOLAB Q-DAC. Silver. Perfect condition, boxed, under 24 hours’ use. Can demonstrate, pictures available if required. £160. Tel: 07976 407863

AUDIOLAB M-DAC Plus. Excellent condition, only four months old. With remote control, instruction book, Original boxes. £450 including P&P. Email: dave.drew@talktalk.net. Tel: 07549 603398

6. SOFTWARE

GOODMANS 150 tuner/

CLASSICAL CDs, large

amplifier, 75W per channel. Superb specification. Teak case and black fascia. Getting on in years, but a heavyweight performer. £135 ono. Tel: 0771 045 3050

collection, all in excellent condition, open to all sensible offers please. Tel: 0184434849

3. CABLES

QUAD ESL57 recently refurbished

AUDIENCE Au24 interconnect, 1.5m pair, mint, £450. Audience Au24 interconnect, 3m pair, mint, £650. Audience Maestro interconnect 1m pair, mint, £115. Liveline speaker cables, 2.4m bi-wire, mint, £1305. Liveline XLR cables, 1m pair, mint, £375. Liveline power cord cable, 1.8m, mint x 3, £495. Liveline power cord cable, 2m, mint, £552. Email: mark.hanna@virgin.net

AUDIOQUEST Gibraltar 2m speaker cable, spades, £650. Sky 1m XLR interconnect £780. Eagle Eye 1m RCA digital cable £450. Isotek Syncro 1 mains lead £680. Tel: 01772 314151. Email: jamesmckendrick@btinternet.com

4. CD/DVD PLAYERS DCS Verdi Encore CD/SACD transport, mint, £2548. Bladelius Embla Classic, mint, £1638. Email: mark.hanna@virgin.net

7. SPEAKERS in Germany. With Gradient SW57 subwoofers and crossover electronics. All black. £1000. Will demo. Buyer collects. Email: nick. willans@blueyonder.co.uk

MARTIN Logan Spires, gloss maple, mint, £2360. Email: mark.hanna@virgin.net

SONUS faber Cremona M in natural maple. These speakers are in mint condition and have had only very light use. Offers please. Tel: 01234 764147

8. TUNERS tuner, £150. Absolutely spotless, remote, original box. No smoke or pets. Kept covered and clean. Beautiful. Tel: 07500 804700. Email: imeldayates@hotmail.com

9. TURNTABLES PINK Triangle Little Pink Thing,

ono. Sorry cannot split. Tel: 07771 508444/01205 872155

12. MISCELLANEOUS NAKAMICHI RX505 unidirectional tape deck, £720. Email: mark.hanna@virgin.net

PIONEER PDR-609 compact disc recorder, complete with full operating instructions. Only used three times from new. £60 or ono. Tel: 0161 4834956 or 07899 941291

LPT, Rega RB 301 tonearm with Rega Elys 2 MM cartridge. Original pink lid. Full working order. Can demonstrate. Buyer collects from Harlow. £650. Tel: 01279 433026. Email: t.clarke123tesco.net

PIONEER CT- F9191 stereo

TECHNICS SL-150Mk2 Quartz

REVOX B77 MK II. Must be in very

direct-drive turntable with SME arm. Please make me a realistic offer. Tel: 07710 453050

good condition with instruction manual, original box, etc. Send year purchased and details please. Email: wag@iname.com

ACOUSTIC Solid Bubinga

cassette tape deck in original packaging. Sensible offers please. Tel: 07710 453050

13. WANTED

Hochglanz WTB 303 turntable. Virtually unused. Super sound. Packaging and manuals. £2200. Also Acoustic Solid Kirche 113 turntable. Same condition. £1900. Email: norman@birches.myzen.co.uk Tel: 07854 588693

TECHNICS turntables wanted,

MICHELL Orbe SE (silver). SME

FAULTY or non-working Quad 44

309 arm, spare headshell. Furutech AG 12 tonearm lead. SME and Rega armplate for Orbe. Owned from new, A1 condition. Buyer collects. £2350. Tel: 01376 332186

preamp, later model preferred. Cash paid. Tel: 01758 613790

11. SYSTEMS MERIDIAN system comprising G92 preamp/processor, DVD, CD, FM/DAB; DSP5000s and 5000c all 96kHz/24-bit. M33 active rears, all in black, all VGC. Cost £11,000. £2500

SL-150MK2 SL-151MK2 SL-1500MK2, SL-1510MK2. Working or not. Tonearms. Anything considered, vintage/modern, fixed/detachable headshell. Tel: 07963 457609 Email: zen57@rocketmail.com

HI-FI NEWS Issues 1 and 3 to 9, of Volume 1. Also February 1996. Email: jcgl@audiomisc.co.uk

SONUS FABER Amati Anniversario Homage, Guarneri Memento, Amati Futura or Guarneri Evolution loudspeakers. Still looking. Must be in absolutely mint condition and red. Tel: 01269 595271

PLACING AN ADVERTISEMENT IN THE HI-FI NEWS CLASSIFIEDS SECTION Fill in your advertisement copy here... Please write the product category number that best suits your equipment in the first square. The product categories are: 1 – Accessories; 2 – Amps; 3 – Cables; 4 – CD/DVD players; 5 – DACS; 6 – Software (CDs, records etc.); 7 – Speakers; 8 – Tuners; 9 – Turntables; 11 – Complete Systems; 12 – Miscellaneous; 13 – Wanted We will insert the telephone number you want to appear in your advertisement(s) as many times as is needed. You only need to fill it in once and it only counts as one word – even if you run multiple adverts.

ATC SCM 19 loudspeakers in cherry. One year old. New type. Perfect. Boxed. £1200. Tel: 01981 242067

Q ACOUSTICS Concept 20, Monitor Audio Bronze 2, Q Acoustics 3020, Q Acoustics 2020. All boxed. Open to offers. Tel: 01977 695385

LIVING Voice Auditorium IBXR2 in satin walnut finish. These speakers

132 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017

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LAST WORD

OFF THE

To Make A Profit. If you need an illustration of the mind-numbing ignorance of most consumers when it comes to retail, just watch any episode of the American reality TV series Pawn Stars, when a customer learns that his WWII bayonet is worth $100 and expects the pawn shop to give that amount for it. The guy behind the counter then has to recite by rote the spiel about the need for a mark-up: wages, lights and heating, ad infinitum.

LEASH! KEN KESSLER ER TE TELLS ELLS IT LIKE IT IS... .

When buying hi-fi do you haggle over the price? Ken Kessler explores the psychology behind this... or all of my ranting about the insanity of cable pricing, it was interesting to hear an alternate view. No, not from a cable manufacturer but from a fellow journalist with long experience in retail. I shall not name him, because I do not wish to put him in an invidious position, but his words did take hold… although I still maintain my stance.

F

GIVE ME A BREAK This will offend many of you, but it must be said: in hi-fi, everyone is after ‘a deal’. The most oft-heard words in hi-fi shops after ‘How does it sound?’ are: ‘How much will you knock off the price?’. To take this away from audio, so as not to paint us as the only ones hustling for a deal, I have lost count of the number of fabulously wealthy people who have asked me to get them ‘a break’ on a watch, just because I write in that field. What’s so odious is they could afford to pay double and not even notice. However, as my father informed me: The Rich Do Not Get Rich By Giving It Away. Any hi-fi retailer will tell you that customers who scrounge the most for discounts are those who don’t need one. Awareness sets in and you accept that most people buying highend audio, if not wealthy, are not on welfare. My learned friend excused the high prices of cables (and moving-coil cartridges) in

ART OF NEGOTIATION

two ways. The first I will dismiss outright as it ends up in Big Lebowski territory: ‘Well, that’s just your opinion, dude’. My colleague argued that you can’t put a price on sound quality, and if the cartridge that delivers the magic costs £8000, so be it. No-one is forcing you to buy it. I get that. But equally, my friend refused even to try to contemplate the notion of ‘perceived value’, eg, highlighting the utter absurdity of a piece of wire selling for the same money as a loaded Audi A3. He almost went into nanananana-I’m-not-listening mode. So I gave up on that tack, having failed to convince him that non-audiophiles who should be customers for decent hi-fi are driven away by the high price of cabling. Instead, he defended the cost with that-whichmust-not-be-uttered. Because the margins on all high-end hi-fi are huge, with a few exceptions, you assume there is leeway for discounts. But that is to disregard unfairly the high cost of running a shop, buying the stock (or financing it), staff wages, warrantees, no sale-or-return safety net, etc. All luxury items have high mark-ups because they share these same risks, whereas a newsagent knows he’s going to sell out of that day’s papers. That is simply a fact of commerce, and you accept it, or move to some remote island and live off the land: Retailers Have

‘This may offend some of you, but in hi-fi everyone is after “a deal”’

Yearbook issue on sale 27

Back to the £10,000 cable. The illustration I was given, to cover the risible pricing, was all about negotiations. He described a customer – audiophile or non-audiophile – who enters a high-end emporium to buy a £100,000 system. He is rightly informed that you don’t take it home and hook it up with bell wire and the cheesy interconnects that came with his old £99 CD player. He’s then advised to spend around 10% of the system on cables. The customer freaks out. Then he calms down. Finally, he says, OK, but asks for a discount, the natural assumption – regardless of the goods being purchased – is the default of a feasible 10%. (Only those within the specific trade, or those utterly devoid of shame or a sense of proportion have the gall to haggle vehemently for more.) The retailer then says the following: ‘Here’s what I can do. The system comes to £100,000, while the cables add £10,000. How about I throw in the cables for free?’ The customer is overjoyed: he sees a £10,000 savings. The retailer has to control himself from going into full-on Meg-Ryan-inWhen-Harry-Met-Sally-ecstasy because that £10,000 ‘gift’ cost him less than £5000. The customer leaves happy and the retailer makes his margin. As cynical as that sounds, it is the way of the world. In part, it’s our fault because we insist on ‘a deal’. Sadly, hi-fi shops aren’t like Marks & Spencer, where nobody has the nerve to ask for a discount. Something about hi-fi (and, for that matter, watches) so antagonises customers with cartoonish prices that insisting on a reduction takes on a non-financial need. It’s no longer about saving money. It’s about revenge.

IN THIS SPECIAL ISSUE:

î Hardware: Finely-honed reviews of 2017’s finest equipment î Music: Our critics reveal the best LPs, CDs, SACDs and hi-res downloads of 2017 th î Vintage: Unique ‘re-reviews’ of the best in vintage hi-fi OCT î Opinion: Our columnists discuss the high points of a year in music and hi-fi î Show Blog: We pick the stand-out products launched across the World in 2017

138 | www.hifinews.co.uk | NOVEMBER 2017


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