YC's Equipment Review Section
Vansevers Model 12 Analog Power Conditioner
For more details, please check out Mike Vansever's informative website.
I've been looking for a power conditioner for a long time. I've tried the local 'AFA' power distributor ($140), and I've even purchased the cheapest Castle power conditioner ($101). The Castle uses a coil to do filtering and therefore, inevitable current limiting takes place. Whatever it is, I still preferred my Power Amp direct to wall outlet. (it sounds too dead plugged into the Castle)
In looking for a power conditioner, I'm was not interested in multiple outlets since I have a minimalist system, especially since these extra outlets undoubtedly added to the cost. In addition, I wanted a power conditioner that did serious filtering, and that would exclude most of the entry level power conditioners. For example, the Power Pack IIp, the Chang 3200, the Audioprism Foundation I. These products, though they undoubtedly work, don't really do the kind of serious filtering that I was looking for - in fact, they would probably sound about the same as the $140 AFA power distributor.
Though I was sorely tempted to buy the Chang 3200 at $390, (a few of my readers have either the 3200 or 6400 and they give it the thumbs up) I hesitated because I would be paying for things I didn't need - extra outlets, and a long thick non-detachable power cord (my system is nearly next to the wall outlet).
Anyway, when I read about Vansever's products in Soundstage! I was very impressed with the single outlet Model 11 and Model 12 (Model 11 is the standard version with non-detachable cord, Model 12 is the reference version with the IEC outlet and a few extra tweaks) power conditioners. Here was a product whose design philosophy I could relate to. I e-mailed Mike Vansevers about whether there were local agents and I got a prompt e-mail saying no, but he would ship it to me and all I had to do was pay the list price. I took the plunge and ordered.
When I first started out, I let the Model 12 run in using my TV set (this is also to check reliability, if it nukes my TV set, while, TVs are cheap, hi-fi isn't :)) No problems, then I went to A/B testing mainly with my Amp. The Model 12 also works on my CD player but to a lesser extent.
What I've consistently noticed is that vocals become better 'formed' and more 3-dimensional, its almost as if you can see the outline of the head/face of the singer now. Perhaps I should call in 'micro-soundstaging' which could refer to the detailing in terms of depth and width of objects within the soundstage. This is quite worth the price of admission. And remember, I had already run in my pair of Nordost Blue Heavens which had already improved midrange imaging by tightening it up a bit. But here, I'm starting to see the outlines of the singer's head. Its almost like, say: you have a singer in the soundstage, there will be reflections on the wall behind the singer that bounce back up to the listener. But because the singer is there, some of the reflections will be absorbed by the singer and you can't hear those particular reflections, so there will be that 'gap' that roughly describes the outlines of the singer. I'm just guessing, but the effect the Model 12 highlights is a bit like that. One big surprise for me was Tina Arena's 'Burn' album. Previously I said 'though mastered by Doug Sax, too much damage was done for him to rescue it' But listening with the Model 12, I discovered how Doug did a great job rescuing the vocals and keeping a 3 dimensional 'bloom' in the vocals though the rest of the music is flat and 2-dimensional.
As for other improvements, well, I suppose its system dependent. US reviewers love to talk about the noise floor lowered, and how they were surprised that the noise floor went down cos' they believed that their system didn't have any noise etc. Well, I don't have much system noise to start with, so I can't really say that the noise floor went down, though there is definitely a impression of cleaner sound. Perhaps Singapore has much cleaner electricity, because our substations are so close by, and our cables are all underground.
Transient Impedance Swtiches: The Model 12 features 2 transient impedance switches designed to change the 'speed' of the lower and upper treble. I have to say that I found the effect extremely subtle. On some CDs I think I can hear the difference, on others, not really. Normally, I would set it on the 'faster' setting, though for overbright CDs, the other setting would be preferable. But really, a bit too subtle given my present system.
Limited Dynamics: I can't really detect any, but perhaps I have a small room (in Singapore- who doesn't?) and I don't really push my McCormack hard (I mean, to get 90dB would probably need only 5 watts!)
Enthusiastically Endorsed by Anthony Lim from Audiofiles, these are tube trap lookalikes at a fraction of the cost. Of course, the internal construction is very different and of the inexpensive sort, but externally, thanks to the fabric covering, it all looks quite pleasant.
Basically, since the Audiofiles review, CCAudio (I'm under the impression that they are not only the distributors but are the ones making them) has come up with ATT v1.1 which is physically larger and has .. spikes. They are also directional in respect of the treble (aka tubetraps - 1 side absorbs treble, 1 side reflects). Sold by AudioLab at 4th floor Adelphi, the price is reasonable (its probably still cheaper to drive to KL to buy 4, ). However, they looked a bit big for my 12'x13' room. Also, they only had the dull grey colour. 1 pair of nice light-forest green went to Focus 88. But they had a pair of peach/pink v1.0s left - the demo set. Because of the colour, I took the 1.0s.
Placing them in my already treated room, I found most importantly, no 'deadening' of sound that indicates overtreatment. In fact, because they were placed in the front wall corners, no audible treble 'deadening' took place (which is the reason why tubetraps come with surfaces that reflect treble). The main sonic advantage was a deeper soundstage and the pushing back of vocals deeper into the soundstage by a few inches. The change is of the significant kind in the sense that it can be easily detected on an A/B test.
I didn't really find imaging significantly improved (I've already spent like ages tweaking imaging), but perhaps the sweetspot got a bit wider. Anyway, the ATT also allows me to play music a little bit louder if I want to, and as mentioned, on weekends I like listening to music a bit louder (around 85dB, as opposed as say 82dB on weekdays). As to how the ATT allows louder levels, for some reason, the music doesn't get too overbearing, I suppose without treatment, if you play too loud, excited room modes start to kick in and become really obvious. The ATT then, helps to 'smooth' out the bumps in room response.
McCormack DNA-0.5 Deluxe
I haven't read TJN's DNA-0.5 and ST's DNA-0.5 deluxe reviews in Stereophile, but I've read the review in Audio Files where SH basically damned it with faint praise :) However, Hansen, the ex-DNA-1 owner and now happy C-J owner, has praised the McCormacks highly. Listening to the DNA-0.5/Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1/McCormack TLC-1 (passive)/JM Alcors/Tara RSC Masters, I noted the laid-back characteristic alluded to by SH, but also noted the enormous amount of detail which was presented in a gentle, unforced manner. I heard things in Mary Black's Shine that I didn't notice previously.
The N.E.W A.60 [about $2600] sounded sweeter, but it occasionally had a hardness or 'glare' in the midrange. Further the N.E.W was a hot class A and a bit too large to place in my rack [no space left for a pre-amp] The McCormack is a very cool running class AB amp. So I have to admit that in this buying decision, I took into account other factors. [if it don't fit, no matter how good it sounds, it don't fit]
The $2,100 price tag was reasonable. The alternatives seem to be power hungry, hot running amps like the Aragon 8008 and the N.E.W A.60 or tube amps. But if I get into tube amps, I don't think I would want to purchase a $2,000 one. The good ones start at considerably higher prices.
Comments refer to DNA driven directly by the Sony XA7ES (i.e. passively):
The DNA sounds more laidback in the sense that:
Because of this, I thought that rhythm and pace was affected, and that is why A/B comparisons are important. After A/B comparisons with the Quad 77 (which being British, ought to have good rhythm and pace), I don't feel that that the DNA is worse in this regard. However, I detected colourations on the part of the Quad which may have led to this impression. The Quad presents vocals in a more forward and vivid manner; its a bit coloured and the vocals are sometimes 'larger than life' [Mary Chapin Carpenter's Come on Come on a case in point - which I initially blamed on the recording] The DNA has a far more 'natural' sound. I thought that the Quad 77 sounded fine, but when I A/Bed against the DNA, the Quad 77 had a transistorised electronic haze obscuring the finer details. In this respect, the DNA is a cut above the typical British Integrated amp. If I hadn't heard the McCormack A/B, I wouldn't have known that this haze existed. Now I know what people mean by the 'transistorised' sound. Can I go back the Quad, or any of those British 'buget' mid-fi again?
It does so many things well, I don't think I'll bother. You can read the glowing reviews printed in Stereophile. However, I want to comment about some 'apparent' shortcomings, which may in fact be due to me driving the amp passively. The sound doesn't have that much 'jump' and kick in it and lacks a bit of warmth (but its certainly not transistorised sounding). However, that only occurs in some borderline recordings. Overall, the sound is a significant improvement, and as I've said, higher quality hi-fi makes new music accessible, and I think I'm going to re-evaluate jazz recordings after hearing how magical the jazz samples on my Chesky test disc sounds. With fantastic dynamics, classical music sounds just as good as ever, though quite often, I feel that the sound of stringed instruments are not sweet enough. (aarrgh, been listening to too much tubed equipment).
Anyway, how about some examples of recordings that sound magical:
After I save up for a pre-amp, I report on the DNA again. Right now, the C-J PV-12 /PF2 are the front-runners, not least because Desmond of Kingsley also has a XA7ES and he can demo the difference between running the amp direct from the XA7ES and with a pre-amp in between.
Tannoy M2, Mordaunt Short Ms05/10i, Mission 731Pro
I think I'll dispose with the worst first: The Mission 731Pro is 1 level below the M2 and Ms due to its totally awful and uninspiring treble. The speaker is bland and boring and lacks rhythm and pace. Never have I heard Nancy Bryan's Blood Song sound worse. Big, big yawn. Hi-Fi Choice basically speaks the truth about it though of course, it inexplicably awarded it a 'Bet Buy' award.
The real contest in the under $300 speaker race is betwen the M2 and the Ms10i. To put it simply:
Personally, I would say that the Ms10i is the safe well-rounded choice. If you're confident of your auditioning skills, you can listen to the M2 and see if you like it despite its compromises. More bass, bigger box = resonance/slight boxiness, cheap plastic tweeter=not so good treble. But it does scale and bass pretty well. If I were getting a music speaker, I would get a Ms. My office speakers are Ms05s. My surround speakers are M2s because basically, they do bass really well, and their darkness is an asset as tooo much treble would make the speakers too directional.
Quad 77 Integrated Amplifier
Cost: Slightly over US$1000
Wow! Quad's first ever Integrated Amplifier, released in 1995, promptly won the European Amplifier of the year award, and garnered a 5 star rating from What Hi-Fi?
A whole lot of music in a tiny box. Gee, does the small size prevent American Audio Enthusiasts (why do they like calling themselves Audiophiles? They buy a Rotel amp, CD player, and some watt-sucking speaker and call it an audiophile set-up [I have nothing against Rotel, if their new HDCD CD player is better than the Marantz CD-17KI, I'll be a Rotel owner soon]) from taking it seriously? I look at the Mark Levinsons and wonder sometimes. How did Quad do it? One of its greatest strength is its musicality. It plays music. It doesn't colour it or impose its character on it. If Amanda McBroom's Sheffield Labs Vacuum tubed recordings sound rich and warm, thats cos' they are. If her later Gecko recordings sound a bit lean, thats cos' they are. So very often, its sounds lively, simply because many recordings are lively (I can't imagine anyone deliberately making "boring" recordings [Karajan excepted]). Of course, some might like an even more livelier sound, but to me, the Quad is just right.
Along with this lack of colouration is great detail (for its price that is -- it definitely beats any amp cheaper than it in this department) and instrument seperation. Further, it beats a lot of its competition in terms of power. 84wpc at 8 ohms with 11A max current makes this a monster integrated (European style -- don't talk to me about 200wpc Adcoms etc). When you play Beethoven's symphonies, the sound is effortless and unrestrained. Given its lack of idiosyncrasies, its compatible with a wide range of speakers, so choose a pair that gives you more of the music as a particular Hi-Fi mag might say. Its a pure class B amp, but with interesting design features to keep distortion the same at all levels. I listen to my music soft quite often (especially at night), and I say "what distortion?" The amp runs very cool and its totally sealed -- no cooling vents -- and no dust getting into the amp as well!
p.s I found it cool that there was a handwritten note inside the box stating who were the people who assembled, tested, & packed this particular.
Anyway, I believe the Quad 77 to be one league higher than the Audiolab 8000S and those British amps reviewed in the January 1997 Stereophile. I'm pretty annoyed that the reviewer dismissed those amps even though they're incredible value for money and recommending instead a much more expensive YBA integre. At the very least he could've compared the YBA integre with the still cheaper Quad 77, the Exposures, or the NVAs. Though of course, in the general money-no-object world of Audiophilia, who needs reasonably priced amps? (gee, is that sacarsm?)
The Zephyrs are small floorstanders. A basic 2 way design with a tuned bass port firing forward. Sensitivity is 91dbm with 4 ohm impednace. For the price, you could get a bookshelf speaker + stands, but when you listen to what a Zephyr can do, you'll wonder why you should bother with bookshelves in the first place. Competition amongst small floorstanders is arguably keener, but in my opinion, the Zephyrs are only outclassed by the $600 more Monitor Audio PMC 703 which I almost bought but I didn't feel the $600 worth spending considering my current finances :).
The Zephyr is typically European (Around the place there are Dutch BNS SoundColumn IIIs and JBL XPL 90s for comparison). There is a marvellous sense of space, as compared to the JBLs which sound a bit claustrophobic at times. But imaging and soundstaging are not sacrificed. What Hi-Fi comments about it being one of the fastest speakers around. I don't have a single-ended amp lying around to test it out, so I can't say its faster than say, speakers like the Monitor Audio PMC series. What strikes me most is the ability to locate the music in space and not give the impression that the music is coming from the speakers, it beats small floorstanders in this regard. Just listen to some major symphony. Coupled with this is the usual high level of detail found in the best speakers in this price band. Further, in typical French fashion, these are very neutral sounding speakers. This makes them extremely versatile as they can play all kinds of music. Admittedly, the "noisiest" music I listen to is the Cranberries, but the drums and electric guitars there are superbly seperated and reproduced. You may criticise them for being bass-lean, compared to similarly priced Missions, but theres so much more the Missions can't do. If you want more bass, theres always the S$1600 3-way Triangle Antal, but actually, I found the midrange emphasis of the Zephyrs more pleasing, especially in smaller rooms.
The Tannoys are tiny little monitors that has garnered rave reviews from Hi-Fi Choice and What? Hi-Fi. After listening to them, I'm sure they deserve serious consideration when picking out speakers for your 2nd system for the kitchen or office. Whereas quite a few monitors make me think of the "mini-compo" sound, the Tannoys make me think of big serious speakers. Rather than sound bright, airy and punchy (but ultimately lacking in substance), the Tannoys attempt to present a big, refined and controlled view of the music. There is quite a lot of midrange emphasis, but thats to be expected from a mini-monitor. However, the sound that comes out of it is weighty and substantial. Amanda McBroom on "Dreaming" still sounded like Amanda McBroom and most of the detail of this superb album was still heard, though you had to look out for it to notice it. My only criticism is that the treble is a bit muted and music doesn't sound as brilliant as it does through my dear Zephyrs. At this price range though, is to get mini-compo like brightness. Better treble can't be found at this level for some reason. The ancillaries were Musical Fidelity's Typhoon Pre/Power and the dull grey Phillips player with the centre drawer that I've seen being used as the demo CD player in 2 shops in Adelphi.
Mission 731 Pro
The Mission 731 Pro garnered along with quite a few other speakers, a Hi-Fi Choice 'Best Buy'. Other best buys include the Mordaunt Short Ms10i, the Tannoy M2, and the B&W DM302. I was shopping for a pair of speakers to replace my office Ms05 as I want to use them as surround speakers. The Tannoy 631SE is too expensive as mere office speakers IMHO.
The speakers come with a silk dome, and the treble is definitely shaved off. This leads to a dull, closed in presentation. There is a reasonable stereo image, and soundstaging is average and there is minimal bloom' around vocals or instruments. I cannot get over the dull tonal balance.
Then I think about the Tannoy 631SE, which I called 'laid-back' but which I was very impressed with. What is the difference between the 'dullness' of the Mission and the 'laid-backness' of the Tannoy? Am I just using pejorative emotive language to prejudice the minds of readings (like some Stereophile reviewers).
The point is, though the Tannoy sounds 'laid-back', it has far more treble detail than the Mission; the Tannoy just presents this detail in a laid-back manner. With the Mission, the detail appears to be missing. Further, the Tannoy really exudes class in its presentation; it sounds like an expensive speaker.
The justification for the best-buy Hi-Fi Choice rating is that the 731 sounds great when paired with their budget best buys. i.e. bright CD player and amplifier. Personally, I think all components should be reasonably well balanced rather than needing to get components with extreme colourations to compensate for colourations in other components. However, if you like the tonal balance of the 731, by all means get it.
Black Diamond Racing Pyramid
Cones Mk. 3
Ahh, I think we're all past the stage of arguing whether or not there is a difference in sound with respect to isolation measures in general. The more important question is:Is it an improvement??
Having said that I didn't really like the Mk 4s because of the harshness, I have acquired 8 Mk 3 cones. I use 4 each on a shelf (I only have a CD player and integrated amp) to decouple the glass shelf of my Target Stand from the stand. Then I place the equipment of the shelf. I'm still using the sorbothane feet under the CD player.
I hear a tiny smoothening of the treble; theres supposed to be no roll-off, but to me, this smoothening is an improvement. Suprisingly, the bass gets tighter and better defined! This was totally unexpected as I thought that the initial gains in improved bass by placing the equipment on the Target Racks were so great that there couldn't possibly be any more gains to be had. Of course, the soundstage improved, the air around voices and instruments were greater, and the notes of instruments, like banjoes and guitars, were crisper. Overall, this also contributed to a greater sense of pace and rhythm. Electric guitars acquired a visceral edge. This is the kind of change that haves you rummaging through your CDs and listening to them anew. Highly Recommended.
With my system tweaked as it is, I now see the need to reduce the noise floor further. Yes, my next great tweak will be Power conditioners! Probably a budget one, either the Chang Lightspeed 3200 or the Power Pack II...
DH squares come from the same company that makes DH cones but are made of an entirely different material, so my comments on the Squares are inapplicable to the cones. The squares are made of a softish material, much harder than sorbothane though. They're supposed to complement DH cones. However, I bought them because I was trying out things to put under my speakers.
However, they're a bit squishy and I think that the stability of my speakers was affected, so I removed them. I noted that the squares didn't do much to the sound; the treble was smoothened and that was about it.
Placing the squares under my CD player, I found that the differences would the same, treble was smoothened a bit without any significant improvement. My CD player rests on a glass shelf decoupled from the rack by 4 BDR Mk.3 cones. I recently acquired 3 more Mk.3's to place under the CD player and I decided to place the squares under these Mk.3's. I lived with this set-up for a couple of months. Then I took out the squares leaving only the Mk.3's. I have to say that the sound was an improvement.
The was more treble detail (expected), and this made the music sound more 'alive' without sounding etched (the Mk.3 was probably smoothing the sound). It somehow also appeared clearer. Trisha Yearwood's voice in 'How do I Live', was definitely clearer without the DH squares and with only the Mk.3s. Moral? Don't mix Black Diamond cones with DH squares :)
Given the minimal effect of DH squares, I can't really recommend it especially when Black Diamond Cones assist. I suppose DH cones would provide similar improvements compared to the BDRs, but in Singapore, BDRs are cheaper :)
Rel Strata II Subwoofer
Coincidences? I was lamenting the fact that my Zephyrs cannot reproduce the wonderful bass on the Nancy Bryan XRCD (especially the first track, Blood Song). The Platinum Trio (along with the Wadia 850/New A.60 at Muiscbox) is totally awesome in this regard. The BNS sound column III (with an additional downward firing woofer) downstairs is awesome as well (not as much absolute bass extension, but easier to make out the pitch of the bass).
Along came the glowing Stereophile review by RH, and off I went during lunch to see Desmond at Kingsley for a demo. He obliged and the CD he used for the demo was Amanda McBroom's Dreaming (if you notice the CDs he has at the store, there're a lot of female vocals). I bought it later that day after work.
I think we already know this, but Richard Lord of REL (are REL his initials? :)) has pointed out in e-mails to me:
As the manual emphasises, running in should be done at moderate levels. After 8 hours (not continuous), the sound does change for the better. At this point, the fun part of dialing in the 'proper' cross-over frequency and the volume level starts. For this, I used the Nancy Bryan XRCD (what else?). There are 2 important things - the opening bass drum, and later, the bass line. In the end, I settled for a cross-over frequency of 39Hz with gain at 9 o'clock. 43 Hz overemphasised the bass guitars indicating that my speakers were in fact producing 40-50Hz notes. 36 Hz actually sounded fine too, but it left a tiny gap with the opening bass drum track [vis-a-viz what I heard the Platinum Trio and my BNS soundcolumn do]. So 39 Hz it was. However, on some bass-happy CDs like Mo-Fi remasters, 36Hz sounds better.
The Strata II is placed along the right wall of the listening room in front and to the right of the right speaker. It was the only space available. I had no opportunity to consider different positions. I had to reverse the phase. The floor is parquet.
Lets take the comments one at a time:
Well, let me highlight some tracks you might want to try:
Its hard to find fault with something that improves the sound of your hi-fi like this. And yes, I'll lug it downstairs when I decide to watch laserdiscs. The only qualification I can possibly think of is that should you have a larger room, you might want to consider the Rel Storm, a slightly larger big brother to the Strata II. Competition? The KEF30B (forward firing) retails at about $800.
Also, it should be noted, that the final effect should be subtle (i.e. easy on the volume control). You might not hear it at first, but subtlety will bring the greatest satisfaction in the long run. This means that if your intention is to increase the overall loudness level of your hi-fi system, the Strata II is not for you (you might try the Storm or Stadium I suppose). The Strata II is best used for adding some meat to the bottom end of your current system, and to provide plenty of reserve for those occasional timpani rolls :). After you hear it, you can't live without it.
Home Theatre Performance
My 13 year old national 14" TV is slowly fading away (it was my original monitor for my Apple ][+) so I got a cheapo 25" JVC TV with stereo/video inputs/outputs for $548. I plunked it down on the top shelf of my Target rack, brought up my old Sony LD player and popped it some LDs. (my Hi-Fi provided the sound -- i.e. regular 2 channel stereo + the REL)
I am really impressed by the REL. The sound created by a 'proper' hi-fi system far surpasses anything I've heard at the 'cheapo' Home Theatre demos, including the Sony ones (despite the great processors, their speakers suck). I remember them demoing Twister for me and the metallic grating sound coming from the speakers really hurt my ears. Really, if its that bad, having it come from 5 speakers can only make it worse.
Anyway, back to the REL, the star ship battles in Star Trek:First contact, the tornadoes in Twister all sounded fantastic. It is not sheer loudness, but really, how low the sub goes that makes the tornadoes sound ominous. You can really feel the low frequencies. For Home theatre, I set the cross-over a bit higher at 43Hz and the volume knob is just above the 9 o'clock position.