Thursday, August 11, 2011

Playlist Update - Kelly McFarling

Hello again, and welcome back to my infrequent Playlist Update! Last Sunday, my girlfriend and I went to a local fundraiser for local cyclists hosted by some good friends of ours from Yoga. The event was held in the backyard of their apartment complex, and featured a number of local SF bands. Two were real knock-outs in my opinion - Kelly McFarling, and Con Brio.

I'll start with Kelly McFarling. Her debut studio album is "Distractible Child" which is spinning as I write. I talked with her for a little while before and after her performance, and from what I could tell she's a woman who is easy to talk to, who has great style (I loved those metallic gray leggings under a pink short skirt, which somehow worked with the weathered cowboy boots - the same pair she's wearing on the album cover, I think), and who has a musical gift. Her instruments are the banjo and her amazing voice. The music is folksy-country, I guess... I'm not very experienced in those musical styles, so I'm winging it big time. The album is not particularly well-recorded technically, but it manages to convey her emotion and musical beauty. I would say her lyrics and her voice are infused with a certain melancholy. All together, the music makes me feel like it's early in the Fall, when the feeling of summer still lingers in the air but is quickly receding to the coolness and particular pleasures of Autumn. This is not to say that the music is a downer - in fact, it has quite the opposite effect on me - but consider that Autumn is my favorite season. Kelly McFarling is my new favorite local artist. Check her out.

Monday, July 18, 2011

More Coverage of the CA Audio Show to Come!

I have a small handful of more rooms I plan to write about including photos, but please be patient while I keep my day job going in order to support this wonderful audiophile hobby of ours and my blog!


Sunday, July 17, 2011

CA Audio Show - Tannoy and Linn Room

I spent an enjoyable Saturday at the 2011 California Audio Show, hosted by Dagogo. Tracy and I met up at 8am at the local coffee shop, headed over around 8:30, and were in full swing with badges and program booklets by 9am sharp. Eight hours later, I stumbled out of the Crowne Plaza hotel, tired but excited about all the great gear I'd seen as well as some of the cool people I had either re-acquanited myself with or met for the first time.

The first room I'd like to mention was hosted by Steven Lester, who was making music through a Tannoy Definition DC-8 ($3600) "monitor" speakers sitting on Pangea stands which in turn rested on budget stone slabs to keep the whole kit steady on the hotel room carpet. All electronics were Linn Akurate, including the Akurate 2200 power amp ($5200) which in turn was being controlled by the Akurate Kontrol pre-amplifier ($6500).  Feeding the preamp was an Akurate DS ($6990), which is a digital music server and DAC all in one box. A Qnap NAS drive was linked digitally into the Akurate DS, and a iPad running Plugplayer provided the user interface for track selection. Cabling was mostly mid-level MIT. He also had Linn Akurate speakers hooked up, but I didn't hear them.

I thought the Tannoy/Linn room setup was well thought out, with the speakers located against the long wall to the left of the room entrance, and a handful of chairs facing them and located a foot or two away from the rear wall. Almost all other rooms were arranged with the speakers shooting down the long wall at the listener as you entered the room. I felt the Tannoy/Linn room arrangement allowed for enough spacing behind the speakers while letting them breathe to the left and right. In any case, the Tannoy Definition DC8's demonstrated surprising bass extension which was well articulated, controlled and tuneful. On one electronic music track, the deep synthesizer notes moved quickly and powerfully along. One other track featured a male singer whose voice was deep and the system captured its texture and power very well. To these ears, the system sounded overall smooth and surprisingly punchy considering the size of the speakers (though they do have an 8" woofer cone). I felt good PRAT as my foot naturally bounced along to a few tracks. The high frequencies were nicely extended as far as I could tell. Overall it was a fun and enjoyable room!

I also had the pleasure to meet Jason Victor Serinus while listening to music in this room, and we adjourned to the hallway for a brief but interesting chat about this and that audio. What a nice guy.

Friday, July 15, 2011

A High Resolution Room for Your Consideration

Recently I skipped out of work early on a sunny Friday afternoon, and made my over to my audiophile buddy's room for a listen to his most recent setup. He has high-end equipment that he was eager to share with me, and the good fortune of having a dedicated room that he can setup exactly as he pleases, or I should say as his system dictates. I have been to his room before, when he had a similar setup as he has today, except that previously he owned Salk HT3 speakers in a superb black ash finish. In fact, it was through the common touchstone of Salk speakers (I own the HT1-TL in case you missed that) that we originally connected. Anyway, here's a quick rundown of his current equipment along with a photo of his pad.

The digital bits are decoded by a Sony SCD-1 VSE-modded Level 7, which is connected to a Joule-Electra LA-450ME preamp, on to Spectron Musician III Mk. II monoblocks, and ending with the eFicion F300 speakers.

Synergistic Research is used to connect almost all components - interconnects and speaker cables are from the Apex line. Power cords are Hologram D connected to the CD player, with a pair of T-3 cords connected to the monoblocks. The exception to the all-SR lineup is an Elrod Silver Statement power cord attached to the preamp. All power cords hook into a SR Powercell 10SE. The speaker cables are connected via SR Speakercells, and SR Galileo MPCs are employed on all interconnects. All of his cables have been "cooked" using an Audiodharma Cable Cooker 3.0. Various acoustic panels and bass traps are strategically employed to help counteract the usual trouble spots of corner loading and first and second order reflection points, and the floor is covered with a large plush rug. The room is fairly large, with speakers and listening chair placed in what I believe is an equilateral triangle configuration spaced roughly ten feet per side. Speakers are distanced about five feet from either sidewall and the front wall. The back wall behind the listening chair is at least ten feet away. Such was the state of the system as I settled into the Captain's chair (the ONLY chair in this room!) for a listen to my demo CD, which included the following tracks:

  • Damien Rice, "Then Go", from Live From The Union Chapel
  • Pink Martini, "Amado Mio", from Sympathique
  • Rodrigo y Gabriella, "Master Maqui", from 11:11
  • MIDIval PunditZ, "Electric Universe (Acoustic)", from Hello Hello
  • CeU, "Lenda", from CeU
  • Adele, "Set Fire To The Rain", from 21
  • Adele, "He Won't Go", from 21
  • Wild Beasts, "Albatross", from Smother
  • Si*Se, "Mariposa En Havana", from More Shine
  • Ojos De Brujo, "No Somos Maquinas", from Techari
  • Ojos De Brujo, "Respira", from Techari
  • Massive Attack, "Paradise Circus", from Heligoland
    We also listened fairly extensively to some of his recordings. We discussed that his primary goals for audio reproduction are the highest possible fidelity and precision. To that end, his CD selections were not only good music, but are beautiful audiophile recordings as well. I contrast that against my main interests which are for the system to clearly communicate the ebb and flow, the rhythm, of the music. To that end, PRAT is a key component for me.

    From a technical standpoint, one of the first qualities that struck me, even awed me, was the razor quick transients - for example, drum shots were filled with tremendous energy and snappy-ness. To my ears, there was little-to-no rounding of transient information, neither was there pre- or post-ringing in the notes. This was a fun and exciting experience! Interestingly, this did not seem to translate to a strong sense of PRAT. While some songs had me swaying in time which was good, none really set my toes to bouncing along to the music as I would have liked. Another characteristic that was impressive was the extremely black background, which I believe helped contribute to this system's sense of dynamic snap. I believe that the physical separation of the electronics, as well as their high build quality and electrical design, were major contributors, as was the sonically black room. By contrast, in my much smaller space which employs a few key room treatments (due to domestic considerations, as my room is also our living room), where the TacT RCS2.0 shoulders most of the "treatment" duties, my listening couch is situated against the back wall, and the system is asymmetrically placed, I can detect the room interfering with the music in a way I was not as aware of until after this recent visit.

    Instruments and musicians were readily identifiable within the soundstage, their locations well articulated. The soundstage was rendered as nicely as the recording allowed, which means in some cases the acoustic images were constrained to between the speakers, while at other times they pushed far outside to the left and right, and also expanded high and low in height. In the depth direction, the sound reached out as if trying to touch my nose, while it did not extend nearly as far back behind the speakers. In sum, the system generated a large soundstage box with a center of gravity positioned well forward of the speaker plane. While I would have ultimately preferred more depth behind the speaker plane, overall this was an expansive, layered soundstage presentation that was thoroughly enjoyable.

    Powerful and articulate, well-defined bass was present when the recording included it, which is one of my favorite parts. High frequencies were nicely extended with copious air. I thought that the midrange was a touch more forward in the frequency spectrum and at times ever-so-slightly less clear compared with the completely clear remainder of the spectrum. This prompted a discussion during a pause in the music, and my friend mentioned that his speaker manufacturer has a new upper-unit crossover circuit that will be installed in the near future. Perhaps a return visit will help this listener understand what differences, dare I say improvements, the new circuitry may have.

    Technical aspects dispensed with, let's discuss the arguably (for some) more important musical side. Jazz, acoustic, vocal, and what little classical music we listened to, were very well represented. When I put on some of my "rock" recordings (admittedly, and in particular with the American music, these tracks are fairly compressed) the system did its utmost to reveal every detail in the recording. Unfortunately, this rendered some of my more favorite musical selections less interesting to listen to than at my home. My friend confirmed his preference for technically well-recorded jazz, classical, and the like - with that music, his system sings. My preferences are to other musical genres which unfortunately usually include the standard recording flaws, and in that regard his system was not as gracious to those recordings. Nonetheless, some of my rock recordings, particularly the World Music selections, were tremendous fun to listen to, with solid dynamics, punchiness, and deep bass slam. Later at home, listening to the demo tracks in familiar surroundings, I understand some of why this may be true - namely, my system's bass response is slightly elevated below about 150Hz (intentionally, per my TacT correction curve) and there is a small hump between 200-700Hz (part of my natural room/speaker interactions), which together seem to give compressed music a little more life but which are artificial in the sense that the frequency response of my system is not entirely flat (but who's is?). I wager that my friend's system would measure flatter in it's overall frequency response, or at least in these areas of the frequency spectrum. In his system, music had life and breath and let me hear what the musician was communicating, but it was presented in a straightforward way - no bells and whistles, just the facts, ma'am. The soul and swing of the music, the subtle shifts of the musical rhythms, were also there but not conveyed as strongly as I would prefer.

    During three hours we listened and chatted, traded music selections, and generally BS'd about equipment and audio in general. Given what I heard that day, he has progressed down his stated audiophile path admirably and it has opened my eyes to the heights of resolution and purity to which our audiophile hobby aspires. I understand he will be making some key component changes in the upcoming weeks and months, and I am looking forward to a return visit soon. I also look forward to the day when I have a larger dedicated room to spread out my electronics, optimize speaker locations, and apply some more treatment!

    Tuesday, May 31, 2011

    Listening to the BC3000mk2 versus BC21.1

    For the past eight or nine years, I have owned a Blue Circle BC21.1 tubed preamp. This used to be BC's entry level preamp, but is now discontinued and has been for some time. Every once in a while one of these puppies pops up on Audiogon, but not that frequently. Perhaps that attests to the love its owners have for it, that they keep it around for a long time, like I have. Perhaps five years ago, I sent it back to Gilbert at Blue Circle for a few upgrades - namely, a Level 1 outboard power supply, a new selector switch (same as that used in higher models), and to bypass the balance control which I never used anyways. Last year, I had another 10,000uF of cap added inside the chassis. While it is not as tricked out as a BC21.1 can be, it is fairly far along in that department. Certainly, a significant change from its first baby steps in my system.

    Not only has the BC21.1 been trusty and true, but I have loved its beautiful music. The presentation is fairly dynamic in the bass department and full of PRAT (Pacing, Rhythm, and Timing). Put another way, it is full of life and passion. Not without its flaws, it can also tend to get a little bogged down when a musical passage becomes too complex, and it was not the last word in high frequency extension, with cymbals being the most obvious victim. But these errors are forgivable given its modest price point. In my system over time, it had never felt like the weak link. That is, until recent system upgrades such as the discerning and fast Bryston BDA-1 DAC, the TACT RCS 2.0 room correction "computer", the brilliant Salk HT1-TL ribbon speakers, and BC22mk2 POT+LOC monoblock amplifiers, have forced me re-evaluate and consider a more expensive alternative - the BC3000mk2.

    I choose to stay with Blue Circle because I like their house sound, and I like knowing that Gilbert is up early and up late (I assume) working on all manner of pedestrian (read: stock) and exotic (read: as custom as you want to go) gear. I follow the BC blog regularly, and Gilbert is always innovating. And it's all handmade - by Gilbert. Fun.

    So one day, a BC3000mk2 became available on Audiogon, for sale by one of the BC forum members. I leapt and bought it. But before I spend any time describing the differences between my old and new preamplifiers, let me first give a little more history. Since I have been contemplating a preamplifier upgrade, I contacted Gilbert with my likes/dislikes and he suggested a BC109. This is Blue Circle's only solid state preamp, and judging from the BC forum, it's a doozy. The BC109 has so much capacitance that, after a complete charge-up, it can run without connection to the wall for many hours, depending on how much capacitance it has. This supposedly yields an incredibly smooth, grain free, distortion-free sound that is pure heaven to hear. I am paraphrasing what I have read, of course. I haven't heard it yet, but I plan to do so in the not-so-distant future. Before I do, I first wanted to hear what the BC3000 was all about.

    What does a more than doubling of price get you? Well, it offers tremendous technical improvement in almost every area of listening performance. In the bass region, notes are taught, starting and stopping quickly with little or no overhang, and reveal good texture (as the recording allows). In my system and even with the TACT, some low frequencies can suffer at the merciless hands of my room. With the BC21.1, certain bass notes are either lower or higher in volume, or are fast or bloated and slow. Switching to the BC3000mk2, these issues are nearly completely resolved. I am sure there are several reasons why this is the case, including the circuit design itself, but I suspect that the fairly large outboard power supply (roughly twice the size of the BC21.1 power supply) also plays a big role here. This also means that large swells in the music are indeed subjectively louder and more powerful thru the BC3000 than the BC21.1.

    The midrange vocals are also well served, more polished and refined, less grain. High frequencies are clearly and without doubt more extended. Any song with cymbals in it easily demonstrates this fact. Interestingly, the sound from the BC3000mk2 appears to be more dynamic with regards to drums and acoustic guitars. It is as if these instruments hit you in the face, thru the higher level preamp. As they should. I am not saying that the presentation of the BC3000 is necessarily more forward compared with the BC21.1. Instead, it's more like the music is pushing up against the soundstage boundary more forcefully, as if it's filling the acoustic "room" of the recording more fully.

    In my system, the front of the sound stage was a couple feet in front of the speakers, and extends by another couple of feet behind the speakers to the back wall boundary. If music is recorded with good left-right or vertical staging, then the BC3000 easily reproduces that, often extending outside the speaker boundaries. Vocals are well layered, separating the main singer from backup vocals. The sound space is somehow more densely populated in the BC3000 compared with the BC21.1, yet there exists more space between performers and instruments. The background of the BC3000 is extremely quiet - you could hear a pin drop in the recording venue.

    The one drawback I have found is the way BC3000 presents its bass. I contrast this against the very positive bass qualities I commented on above. It's most expedient to say that, with the BC21.1, my feet were bouncing along with the song; with the BC3000 my body was swaying but the feet tended to be more still. Perhaps this is because the BC21.1 is more bass heavy while the BC3000 is more balanced over the frequency range. Probably the BC3000 is more correct in its presentation. But the BC21.1 wins me over in this area.

    The BC3000 is staying in my system for the time being because it offers (nearly) everything. Can the BC109 solid state preamp offer me everything I want.... the best of both the BC3000 and BC21.1 worlds, plus an even more refined presentation? Or, would an even larger outboard power supply (like the Gzpz, or KQ) mated with the BC3000 completely win me over? I don't know yet. Until then, I will continue to enjoy the amazing Blue Circle preamps!

    Sunday, May 8, 2011

    Measuring the TacT RCS 2.0 Performance - Part Two (Time Domain)

    It's been a while since my last post. I chalk it up to an eclectic combination of factors. First and funnest, I received the BC3000mk2 preamp about 6 weeks ago, and have been immersed in listening to my system as if for the first time. More details of the BC3000's capabilities to follow in another post (no, really - I'll get to it!). Second, the work I do that pays the bills has been kicking me in the gnads and my weekends have recently been relegated to Rest & Recovery. While the siren call of adding more blog entries has never ceased - I hear her voice calling insistently - what really pushed me over the edge to continue writing is that a good audio friend recently commented over email "Your blog is getting stale". Wow! He is right!! So, as the dying light of a clear but chilly early summer Sunday evening in San Francisco illuminates my keyboard, I sit in the sweet spot with randomly selected songs streaming in thru Jody's MacBook and will attempt to illuminate you, my reader, with a second installment of TacT measurements. All of these measurements are with the BC21.1 in the system. Since then, of course, I have replaced the BC21.1 with the BC3000, and also subtly altered the TacT target response curve.... that, someday, could constitute another set of comparisons, another blog post. Will it never end!?! Apparently not.

    The first TacT measurement installment concerned the improvements in frequency response that the TacT rendered. But that doesn't tell the whole story. According to the TacT website, their approach is to correct in the time domain, which naturally correlates to frequency domain improvement (I'll let you read more details there if you are so inclined). So let's see how the TacT performs. First set of three graphs are the Impulse Response Envelope (ETC) Traces with a 10mS smoothing applied. The goal of the first two plots is to show what the impulse responses looked like before (Bypass) and after TacT correction. Finally, the third graph demonstrates the left channel before and after correction. I am not showing you the right channel because the before and after responses are fairly similar as expected, but the left speaker, which is shoved (for lack of a better word) into the corner of my room, reveals by far the more dramatic changes.

    Figure 1. Uncorrected (Bypass) left and right channel responses.

    In Fig. 1, notice that there is a good amount of pre-ringing particularly in the left channel. After the impulse is applied, the channel responses do not decay together as the left channel reveals a longer delay.

    Figure 2. Corrected (after TacT) left and right channel responses.
    In Fig. 2, pre-ringing is GONE! The main impulse response is uniform and decays very consistently between channels. There is a some "roughness" evident in the right channel decay, which could be due to the fact that the 2nd order reflection point of the right speaker for the wall to my left was untreated when these measurements were taken. Today, an EchoBusters panel absorbs the reflections at that point, so future measurements may reveal a smoother decay for the right channel.

    Figure 3. Uncorrected (Bypass) vs. corrected (after TacT) left channel response.
    Finally, Fig. 3 is demonstrating the left channel uncorrected versus corrected responses, to highlight the dramatic improvement by the TacT unit.

    The last two figures are the spectrogram frequency vs. time decay plots for the bass region from 20Hz to 200Hz. These graphs are with both channels driven simultaneously. Figure 5 with TacT correction demonstrates reduced pre-ringing, a more evenly distributed frequency response across the range, and superior damping at all frequencies. One more point of interest is that, before TacT (bypass mode), the frequency response extends strongly down to 20Hz. However, after TacT, the bass response begins to drop significantly below about 25Hz. This is by design, and reflects the TacT correction curve that was applied (see the first installment of this series). My system correspondingly has a much faster and cleaner bass response.
    Figure 4. Spectrogram plot of the uncorrected (Bypass) response.

    Figure 5. Spectrogram plot of the corrected (after TacT) response.

    Sunday, March 13, 2011

    Blue Circle BC3000 Mkii To Replace My BC21.1

    So I took the plunge and bought a used BC3000 mkii tubed preamplifier to replace my trusty heavily modded BC21.1. It should arrive in about a week or two. I am psyched!!

    I am writing this painfully slowly on my iPhone so I will keep it short for now. More detailed info on why I made this decision, and where I hope to take my system, in a soon to follow installment.