True to the source – some thoughts

If we discuss the reproduction quality of a given High End system there are basically two philosophies present: One group argues such a reproduction system hast to be true to the source. Furthermore there is always a big claim that the result has to sound real – sometimes those people talk about “live sound”…. The other group is not so much interested in technical data, neutrality and equipment wich is “true to the source” – they want something which make them believe that what they hear trough their HiFi setup brings the music to live. It does not matter if the gear overstates some aspects to achieve this “believable” sound reproduction. Who is right????

Is there something like the real thing banned on any sound storage medium?? 

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Lets analyse a very simple situation which takes place nearly every day in a recording studio….the recording of an acoustic guitar and a voice. If you think about the guitar and its pattern to send sound waves into the room, you will be aware of a tremendous complexity in which that happens. On the other hand we engineers stand there in a desolate fashion with our microphones and it is absolutely not possible to record the guitar as we can hear the instrument performing in our recording room. We have to choose a directional microphone characteristic because the guitar player wants to play guitar and while he is doing that he also sings the song – one take with two signal sources – sounds easy but it is not. If we would choose an omnidirectional microphone, we have not enough separation between the voice of the musician and the guitar – later in the mix there would be rather no possibility to level guitar versus vocals. We call this  crosstalk. So we have to chose a directional microphone to minimise crosstalk. Normally we would opt for a cardioid characteristic. With this choice we have not anymore the chance to capture the guitar in its holistic gestalt – we start to interprete the sound. Think about using a wide angle lens to portray a given scene versus using a telephoto lens….with the tele lens the photographer interpretes the situation – with the use of a the wide angle lens we, as an observer have to separate the important information in the picture from the surrounding atmospheric details. And be aware….. it gets much worse….because with a cardioid characteristic we face a phenomena called proximity effect….as close we would position the microphone towards the sound source as much the low frequencies will be featured. It happens in a way were it is everything else than an easy task to get rid of that bass emphasis later on with our  parametric equaliser during the mixing process. If we place the microphone within a greater distance we will get too much crosstalk again…

Why is crosstalk something we do not want?

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Lets assume that we found the optimal mic position for the guitar at the spot right behind the guitar bridge with a sharp angle in which the microphone is placed….the guitar will sound good…. Now we record at the same time the voice of the guitar player – and therefor we use a large membrane cardioid microphone – lets say a Neumann U87. We “fly” the microphone so that the capsule will point at the section around the nose of our singer….the vocal sounds now also pretty good…

 

BUT….if we listen carefully to both tracks of the recording we will detect crosstalk from the voice on the guitar track and vice versa. This crosstalk signals have a different phase characteristic because of the running time of sound waves and much worse – because of the different angles we put our microphones towards the sound sources….. If we listen to the vocal track solo it sounds very, very good – now we fade up the guitar track and the vocal starts to gain some strange colouration – some frequencies are extinguished by the additional vocal crosstalk on the guitar track. And the same is also true with the guitar itself – the crosstalk from the vocal microphone damage the pure guitar signal also with a good portion of phase anomalies.

It seems to be such a simple task – a voice and a guitar both performed by the same musician at the same time but we face a tremendous amount of technical problems to achieve a clean and natural sound, and we are far away from the real sound event which we are able to hear in the recording room.

What to do??

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A good recording engineer will find a compromise between the perfect guitar sound and the vocal sound – and he always will assess the vocal sound over the guitar sound aesthetic – because everyone can detect any little amount of colouration in the human voice were nobody is able to tell later on how the real guitar sounded.

The guitar itself has basically 3 spots were we can get some characteristic sound aesthetics from. There is the position behind or at the bridge of the instrument, a position were we get al lot of percussive and rich tonal colours from the wooden guitar top. Than we have the sound hole in the middle of the guitars wooden top – there we can get a lot of deep frequencies which reacts much slower that the percussive performance near the bridge – and last but not least there is the neck of the instrument were the left hand is playing the different notes or chords – at this position there is a the largest amount of overtones and harmonics. If you opt for three microphones, than you are in for a real fight against phase anomalies later on in the mix…so you have to listen carefully to the specific instrument and you have to decide at which position  you will get the most of the holistic sound you can hear at some distance in the recording room.

Now lets change the situation – you are not anymore recording a guitar with a vocal performance in one single take – you have now a whole band or an orchestra…..And what I explained till this point is just a basic entry in the much more complicated  field of recording technology and procedere.

The real thing

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As you might realise now – the real thing is already messed up in that moment were the recording took place – and it is not the incompetence of the recording engineer it is the nature of the whole game. Sometimes there is also a complete different situation coming up – the musician has a spontaneous idea – he grabs the guitar and shouts at me – Ekki – start the tape….in such a situation you have no second chance nor time to adjust anything to get the best sound….you just press the damn red button….and – as a matter of fact – this piece of music will make it on the final record you later can buy in the shops…because in was a good atmosphere in the studio and the artist had an amazing  creative moment….you get the picture.

Later in the mixing process we have to correct things like the proximity effect, we have to shape the sound to match  the aesthetic approach of the artist or his producer. And sometimes it is not the technical best piece of music wich is released – because the technical aspect of the music is not as important as the artistic content – yes, dear High End fan….the musical intensity is always more important than a perfect sound – and not infrequently an overly “anal” engineer will kill all the creative atmosphere in the studio – that is, why so many well recorded High End music is boring in terms of  vividness and musical gestalt….( I cannot stand one single track of artists like Rebecca Pidgeon or Diana Krall to name just a few….)

The truth

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As you might see the truth is something rarely existing in music recording…and often the truth is not representable….imagine Michael Jacksons song “Bad” – does the bass sound, which introduces the title have a sort of original??? It is generated by a synthesizer and went through many manipulation stages to sound like it does…This sound does not have an original source – and the bass harmonies of Kraftwerks “Aerodynamic” does not either – are they less important than the string sound of Beethovens Eroica???

NO Hifi, High End or whatever stereo reproduction system – no matter how big, how expensive – made by Western Electric or Wilson Audio is able to reproduce the damn real thing – because we already loose the game in the recording process just to mention the least! It is a sort of unfulfilled dream of the High End scene to reach something like the live event – they spent tons of money, suffer from GAS and “Uprgaditis” to come closer to the real thing – and guess what – the majority of the serious High End freaks had their last life experience 5 years ago… If the real thing can not reproduced – what do we talk about in all the test magazines and online articles???? – Please spent a serious amount of money to get you and your beloved ones into a concert hall, if you will spent just a fraction of the money you already invested in your stereo – you can do that on a monthly base – and guess what – it will make you happy – it will reduce the damn High End System to what it is – just a reproduction system….!!!!

Can you believe it???

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If you sit in front of a full Shindo system you will have a very special experience – this stuff is not true to the source – it is not linear – nor is it the best in technical aspects like sheer power or THD to name just a few parameters….BUT – you will get something your brain is able to process to something you can believe – something which sounds damn real to you. Another piece of audio jewellery from CH precision or Wilson Audio may not able to feed your brain with enough of that stuff which makes you feel, that the listening experience has something to do with the real thing….Technical parameters means nearly nothing – or to be more precise – at a certain level of technical perfection we are not able to justify a given piece of gear just with their technical abilities….! Imagine you sit at your couch to relax and dive into some great music – lets say it is 5pm – the street in front of your house is occupied by the guys from the garbage collection, in the neighbourhood a child is crying and you hear the TV set fron the deaf guy in the floor above your flat…your turntable is spinning Radiohead “In Rainbows” and you try to dive into Thom Yorkes world of sounds and lyrics. I will guess that a system which overdoes the things a little bit in a magical way – might be helpful – it is like a good pantomime – it has to characterise the special mood in a bold way to make your brain and your heart follow the gestalt of the music instead of listeing to the TV set a floor above. This is an art in which Ken Shindo was a magician – and Dan d´ Agostino of Krell was not….

At the end….

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…it does not matter how big your speakers are – how expensive the amplifiers or how perfect the source components – at the end the whole business comes down to arrange a well balanced system, which can deliver the stuff your brain needs to accept the reproduction as something authentic – something real. If your stereo can do that – do not touch it anymore – stay away from audio fairs and High End shops – buy more music – discover new things – try to be open to new insights – and you will be richly rewarded.

Stay tuned

 

E. Strauss

 

 

Air Tight PC1 Coda – “it took us 30 years to reach this point…”

Air Tight is known by most of us audio aficionados  for their outstanding moving coil cartridges, beside that, some of us associate the Japanese company with classic well made and beautiful crafted tube amplifiers. The Air Tight cartridge portfolio got so much praise and awards in the last 15 years s, that this product category almost outstripped the core business of the company. Air Tight is very conservative in bringing new products to the market – product terms of more than 20 years are common and not something special. As Miura San, the founder of A&M ltd.  / Air Tight celebrated the 30th birthday of the company, it was time to bring out something special to amaze us audiophiles – a new reference cartridge. As it was done in the past, he mated up with Matsudaira San (My Sonic Lab) – to create maybe the best moving coil cartridge known today, the Opus One.

The situation

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If we have to describe the character of some of the best regarded carts today, we will come up with attributes like speed and pin point accuracy if we talk about the amazing Lyra cartridges. If we think of a Van den Hul, amazing resolution comes to mind – not seldom mated with a lack of musicality. Thinking about the the Ortofon SPU or the EMT JSD range of carts, we face the opposite character of a Van den Hul – stunning musicality and a rich sound mated with a very satisfying reproduction of our beloved music. Koetsu will give us some of the sweetest midrange in the whole market with a very special realism, which gives us a drug like sound and the amazing DECCA London Reference, is famous for its tremendous ability to render the biggest dynamic swings. – The big question is – can we have it all in one single package without any compromise??

The price

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The answer is – yes we can – and it might be the Air Tight Opus One which stand out in combining all the greatness in the different disciplines in a unique fashion. In my book it is the most complete cart ever created till today. This is a bolt statement, I know – but that is what my ears tell me, if I listened to its stunning performance – and as always in todays high end business it comes also with a bolt price tag. In Germany we have to pay around €15 000,- to own such a jewel. Please think about that – €15 000,- that is a sum, were you are able to buy a nice used BMW or a whole stereo system with some amazing LS3/5a speakers mated with a classic tube amp like the Quad KT66 monoblocks and a very, very musical Garrard 301….I cannot help myself – but I am not ready to spent such a huge amount of money for just one single cartridge – even if it is maybe the best in the world. That being said – Air Tight brought in 2018 the PC1 Coda to the market – which is less than half the price of the Opus One, still a very steep price tag but maybe a little less crazy than buying the top of the line cartridge….  Miura San gave us for half of the price of his reference cart Opus One a slightly stripped down version of this gem with is also the successor of the world famous PC1.

Stablemates

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Opus One and Coda share a compareable  body construction made out of a special 7075 aluminium material. The body structure itself is made out of two rectangular blocks of this dense and light material, which are pressed together using an interleaved pattern. The characteristic of A7075 is very special and addresses the energy transfer as also the amount of absorption in the cartridge housing itself. A7075 is very dense and can transfer energy in the most direct and fast fashion – but at the same time it has a very unique property of absorbing mechanical energy. The PC1 Coda was developed by using the SME V tonearm – a piece of gear which has not a great ability to absorb any initiated mechanical energy because of its overly stiff magnesium arm-tube. This material selection takes care of a wide margin of different tonearms – which makes the Coda a highly versatile cart.

Technical stuff

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The cartridge features a stiffer suspension as we will face it with a Lyra Atlas for example, so it needs to be paired with a tone arm which features an effective mass of around 15g – 18g to get a perfect resonance frequency pattern of 9hz. The cartridge helps lighter armwands with its own weight of nearly 13g.

The biggest technological speciality of the PC1 Coda will be found in its electrical parameters. The cartridge has a DC resistance of 1,7Ohm – which normally results in a very, very low electrical output. But not in this case!!!! – To get a feeling for what Matsudaira and Miura San did here, lets compare the Lyra Etna SL´s electrical figures with the Air Tight PC1 Coda:

 

DC Resistance          Output

Lyra Etna:                    1,52 Ohm                 0,25mV

Air Tight PC1 Coda     1,70 Ohm                0,50mV

As we can see, the Air Tight PC1 Coda doubles the output figure of the Lyra Etna SL while having almost an identical DC resistance. That being said, Air Tight was able to combine two parameters which are normally opposed – a single layer coil structure with its low moving mass AND a healthy output voltage.

Efficiency – a unique construction

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Matsudaira San is the mastermind behind this astonishing, patented technology. But how is all this working??

On different webpages we will find the information that a special coil structur is responsible for the high efficiency of this design – but that is mostly wrong translation from Japanese language into english. The unique principle behind the cartridge “motor” can be found in using a special designed core material, which features high amorphous MU metal! With this material and some very strong neodym magnets together with a high purity copper coil, Matsudaira San was able to create the most efficient cart till today.

That is good news for us record lovers – because a single layer coil structure has a very low mass figure, which enables the cartridge to track the grooves with less inertia resulting in a very accurate transient and dynamic response while giving our (tubed) phonostage an easy task.

The phono stage – and the SUT

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If you mate the PC1 with a full active phono stage, I will recommend with a termination figure of around 100 ohm – if you detect oh so small hint of dynamic compression, raise the figure to 200 Ohm. As every phono stage reacts different to the HF peak every moving coil cart is sending into it – consider my advices as a starting point. It all depends on the capacitance of the used phono cable and the internal construction of the RIAA stage.

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If you are using a step up transformer, things are slightly different….. The Air Tight ATH2A (reference) SUT was designed with the reference cartridges PC1, PC1 Supreme, PC1 Coda and Opus One in mind. The SUT offers a 1:30 turn ratio in its 2 Ohm setting (as also 1:15 switchable) – and gives us 29db of passive gain! It might be a special Japanese philosophy, which also can be found with other manufactures from the land of the rising sun, such as Kondo – that the gain figures of the tubes phono stages are not impressively high. To compensate that, Kondo and also Air Tight mate their moving coil carts with high turn ratios. Please have a look at the Kondo webpage, and you will find step up transformers which offer 1:42 turn ratios with 32db of gain – and offered to be used with carts of 1 – 10 ohm DC resistance. In the case of the PC1 Coda (and also the Opus One) we will gain a almost noise free phono sound with a small amount of active tube gain – because the cartridge sports a tremendous efficiency and is mated with a SUT which has a relatively high turn ratio for that kind of output voltage. IN pother words the whole phono setup acts like a complex gain chain….To gain an amazing signal to noise ratio from the classic Air Tight SRPP phono circuit, Miura San created with Matsudairas help a very, very efficient moving coil cartridge, which a very low DC resistance that can be mated with a high turn ratio.

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If you co not own such a “low gain” phono stage – please be sure, that you choose a lower turn ratio – like 1:20 or 1:15 otherwise both components, SUT and cart might overdrive your phono input. A side note for all Air Tight users who already have an amplifier setup with a phono stage from the same brand – the whole setup will be only completed, if you mate it with such a cartridge. The synergistic effect of the whole phono chain from Air Tight is truly amazing, which does not imply that these outstanding carts do not perform dreamlike also in other environments.

More technical stuff

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Other ingredients if the Coda are a boron needle with a semi line contact stylus, which tracks even the most demanding passages of your vinyl collection with an astonishing quiet performance. So this little jewel is not only for your 10 high end reissues – it can also be used with less than perfect vinyl! – Well done Air Tight!!!! The contact surface – as also the whole upper block of the housing is hard chrome plated to generate the most intimate contact between the headshell and the cartridge as also to feature the hardest surface possible to give the mechanical energy the fastest route away from the needle tracking the groove. Of course we get al the bells an whistles which can be found on any high end cart today, as rhodium plates contact pins, which are colour coded, as also a very, very luxurious packing, which is in itself a pice of art!

The Sound

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But how does a €8000,- cart of this calibre sound??? In one word – it is the a truly once in a lifetime experience!!!! – If I had to use just one depiction – it would be the word DYNAMIC…. This thing is better than any DECCA cart – it is the most dynamic sound I ever got from my vinyl rig. The Quad ESL57 electrostats did not know what they are able to bring to the table in this regard. I was completely floored from the ability to follow even the biggest or smallest dynamic swings – this is world class performance – and maybe the best you will achieve beyond the Opus One! But it is not as easy as this – because the Coda delivers so much more that the incredible ability to create a frightening dynamic. It has a fantastic resolution without any harshness – I would call it natural – the sound is created in such an easy and unforced way that it seems to be as natural as breathing. The Coda features a holistic sound – it does not that sort of separation we can detect with a lot of high end carts today. The ability to let the music speak with one voice reminds me of the classic studio carts like the Ortofon SPU or the EMT JSD. The PC1 Coda is able to give you all the different shades, all the colours and a fantastic pinpoint accuracy without dissect the music. The amazing quiet ride of the cartridges enables the tiniest microdynamic shades to come to life, which makes this thing oh so real! The ability to render the recorded space is perfect – you get a deep and wide sound with sharp boundaries and a cinematic view to the stage, which is very, very seldom found in such a balanced and realistic fashion. The speed and transient accuracy is nearly on par with the world champion in this discipline, the Lyra Atlas. And there is more…..Air Tight managed to imply an oh so delicate touch of sweetness to the sound, which reproduces vocals in such an amazing way, that they will touch your heart an soul. This cartridge will transform your way of listening to music – because it does everything perfect and in a balanced way. It is not a specialist cart for listening to only classic music or Jazz oder Electro – no – the PC1 Coda is made for any musical style – which is very, very rare in todays high end market.

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This outstanding performance lets me come back to the price of this gem….around €8000,- – which is everything than a special offer….but we have to think about that in a different way: Nearly all of us have more than one cart – because they all give us some special abilities which we like to hear mated with different music. A lot of us have 3 or 4 carts in their collection and maybe 3 tonearms to change them as the vinyl selection demands them….You already guess what I try to say??? – What if one cart fits it all – what if you do not need anymore 4 carts an 3 tonearms – what if you just need the PC1 Coda and a good Mono cartridge???? – If you share this point of view – €8000,- is not anymore as ridiculous as it seems to be – because you spent maybe even more money to own 3 or 4 cartridges, which are – that I can promise you are now obsolete!

If there is one really “complete” cartridge – it might be the Air Tight PC1 Coda – a deep bow to Miura San and Matusdaira san – you made it!

 

 

Stay tuned

E. Strauss

 

 

Amperex Bugle Boy 12AX7 Long Plates

In the history of legendary tube constructions Amperex / Philips must be acknowledged as a forerunner in modern tube technology. Worthwhile to mention are the extraordinary frame grid Amperex 6922 (read pinched waist), the long Plates ECC83 and ECC82 as also the amazing Amperex 7316 to name just a few.

In this essay I will cover the 12AX7 and the 12AU7 Amperex Long Plates Foil D Getter tubes made in the mid of the 50ties (last century). These legendary tubes are nearly vanished from circulation – but if you have the chance to grab such a tube – DO IT!!!!! – nothing compares an Amperex 12AX7 Long Plates Bugle Boy oder the 12AU7 when it comes to render female vocals!

Why is this stuff so special??

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If we measure different tubes in a given circuit with white noise and analyse the outcome with an Audio Precision System One frequency analyser we would not believe what we will observe. The difference in rendering a somewhat flat frequency spectrum from 30 – 20Khz is nearly negligible. One might think our ears poke fun at us – because we can detect tremendous differences if we compare different tubes of one type from different manufacturers, which are all differ in their construction not to forget the different materials which were chosen.

If I do a test with some people who are not into High End audio – and let them hear one specific piece of music with 3 different ECC83 /12AX7 in the gain stage of the power amplifier – all will agree on a different sound and nearly all of those probands will describe those differences in a comparable way. So what is going on….?

Our test method fails at this point – the sound difference of those 3 tubes is not so much in their frequency spectrum while giving them a static signal (white noise) – what changes everything is the dynamic behaviour of them! If we measure the reaction of the same three tubes to a short burst using different frequencies – the picture is completely different. Lets say we compare a Telefunken ECC83 Smooth Plates, a Mullard MC1 Long Plates and an Amperex Bugle Boy 12AX7 Long Plates (Foil D Getter) – we are in for a big surprise….

Tube compression

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The Telefunken is able to render nearly the whole spectrum of short bursts without any compression – there is a slight amount of it detectable in the lowest octave as also some overshooting behaviour in the higher presence (around 4 Khz).

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With the Mullard MC1 we have a complete different specimen, the Mullard compresses a broad section of the presence band beginning at 1,8Khz and reaching 6Khz. The character of the compression is comparable with tape saturation of our 1/4″ master tape recorder working with 19cm/sec. It is a compression character you cannot mimic with any computer plugin nor with anything else other than using a Mullard MC1. The bass as also the deepest frequencies near 20hz are rendered with a great openess and a very lively dynamic. In the deep midrange the Mullard overshoots slightly which gives this tube its sensational warm und 3D character in this frequency spectrum. The Mullard is about the deep midrange, about the base of the music, the fundament!

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The Amperex 12AX7 Bugle Boy is the contrary of the Mullard MC1… The Amperex compresses the lower midrange, where the Mullard overshoots – and in exactly that frequency segment were the Mullard does its tape compression miracle the Amperex is completely open und highly dynamic – no other 12AX7 comes close in rendering the presence and upper presence in such a lively way as the Amperex 12AX7 Bugle Boy (the 12AU7 does this in an equal fashion).

Acoustic Sex

Micro dynamic shades are a kind of resolution we often forget but we must accept that this kind of resolution is very important – it makes us believe that the sound in front of us is real – micro dynamic resolution is the miracle behind a 3D rendering and makes us listening to music in an attentive way. The third dimension in a mix or mastering has nearly nothing to do with high frequency resolution or extension. If you want to prove that – buy some tickets to watch (and listening) an old black and white movie in a good cinema with a proper sound installation. What you will hear is a sound on film process, which has a treble roll off around 8Khz and it is mono – now listen to some of the great movies of the black and white era – and you will prove me right – you have every plane in the third dimension clearly displayed!

The Amperex 12AX7 (12AU7) Bugle Boy Long Plates can do this trick in the important Fletcher Munson frequency spectrum were our ear is very sensitive. Just plug such a tube in ONE single circuit position – lets say the one and only gain stage in your power amplifier and put on a record with a well displayed female vocal – lets listen to Ella solo with just piano…..every breath of her is right in front of you, every labial is rendered so damn real that you think she is with you in your room….The distance between the vocal and the listener is dramatically  reduced – you think you can touch the sound source….a very special experience! I call that acoustic sex….

Now you might think – hey give me more of that – and you use such Amperex tubes throughout any 12AX7 or 12AU7 position – and……it sounds like shit! Tubes like the famous Mullard MC1 or the Bugle Boy 12AX7 Long Plates are so special, that we can use them just in a small dose – we must use them as a top chef in its kitchen – a good meal is made of different spices mixed in a very distinguished way – and not in a fashion of  – one thing fits it all (hello –  do you have ketchup…..???)

The Amperex Bugle Boy 12AU7 Long Plates

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With this tube we have one of the best options in the critical 12AU7 / ECC82 family….be it a phase inverter or a second gain stage – this tube will do a fantastic job. Especially in phase inverter positions this tube sounds amazing….and I know that you think – “it is just the inverter position” – the importance of this section implied in a push pull circuit is not widely understood! If your inverter stage is combined with the driver section for your power tubes, the Amperex 12AU7 is also a very good option which cannot be said of all European super – tubes….With a gain stage things depend on what quality you bought. As these tubes are nearly vanished from any selling platforms as also seldom offered by professional tube dealers, we often get used stuff – they are called “pulls”. Those pulls may be “lived” in an electronic gauge or some gear seldom used – but today heavily used tubes are often sold as nearly NOS… So we will have the same situation as with the Amperex 12AX7 Long Plates – we have to live with what we get….and normally those tubes are not anymore phono grade quality. That does not say anything about their electrical parameters, which might be very, very good….what I am talking about is microphony – and as both tubes feature long plates – there is a great chance that you will detect some microphony in a phono circuit or a line gain stage. It is strange, because a Mullard MC1 or the famous CV 491 (ECC82) are not prone of electromechanical noise – the Amperex is critical in this aspect. So in most cases we can use the 12AU7 Long Plates in a phase inverter stage – if we are lucky and the tube shows no microphony – do whatever you like to do – but keep in mind – the secret of tube rolling is in a balanced mix….

If we think it would be a good idea to pair an Amperex Long Plates with some of the legendary Mullard Long plates – it is not! Amperex long Plates needs something neutral sounding aside of them – so – you might guess what follows now….pair them with some nice Telefunken ECC83 – and you achieved a miracle!

The Amperex Bugle Boy 12AX7 Long Plates

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The 12AX7 is as legendary as its stablemate the 12AU7 – it is an excellent option in an amplifier gain stage or line stage. As the microphony problems are much greater in the 12AX7 family of the Amperex long plates (because of much, much higher gain) the use in a phono stage would mean brad new real NOS stuff….if you find them – you are a lucky guy. However – in a phono stage a tube has a lot more to deliver, than just gain. If you put such an Amperex in your phono stage there might be some tube rush and the presence of clicks and ticks will drive you crazy. The Bugle Boy Long Plates are not as quiet as a Telefunken ECC83 nor are they so damn good in sending all the little nasties away from our perception. In other stages these tubes make much more sense – and will deliver an unforgettable sound. You get this sexy vocal performance and a sensational string tone which has a slight preference to the bow as to the body of a string tone. But its not said that the Amperex 12AX7 will have a weak bass performance – far from that. In fact this tube can deliver a very tight, deep and impactful bass with an amazing dynamic. The deep frequencies are rendered very fast and accurate while the midrange is fleshed out and very natural but on the more neutral (not tubey) side of warm. Because of the phenomenal microdynamic performance in the upper mid section as also the presence the Amperex sounds very meaty in this frequency range. These rich tonal upper midtone colours slightly prohibit a sort of airiness. The tube sounds not rolled off – but it is not the last word in airy sparkling treble performance – these frequencies are there – but a good portion is masked by the frequency spectrum right below the highest treble. From the upper midrange on you will detect a phenomenal richness in texture and tonal content. Amperex Bugle Boys are intoxicating!

The printing on the tube – or how to spot an original

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These Amperex feature the famous treble clef comic printed on the glass of the tube. But there is a good chance that this printing vanished over time – those calc paint is extremely fragile – and often mess the printing up while  trying to liberate the tubes from their boxes. So how can we be sure, that we have an original tube in front of us….

There are some special traits we have to discuss:

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If you observe the upper glas dome of the tube there have to exist 4 segments, divided by small glass ribs. The glas tube is thick and tall – if you compare it with a Telefunken you will discover how skinny the Tele is….;-))) The etched code must have the Delta / Triangle code of all Philips made tubes, and the plant code for Heerlen, because all long plates of these time were made in Holland. The inner structure features 17mm long narrow grey plates. The getter structure is very unique….it is shaped like a capital D with a big foil strip attached to it. This is the reason why tube freaks designate these tubes also as Amperex 12AX7 Long Plates Foil D Getter.

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The same tubes are also in existence with a Philips logo printed on their glas – Amperex was a trademark found for the US American market by Philips – but it is just a trandemark – so there is no difference in sound nor in the built quality! Much later in the history of Amperex / Philips the latter installed production plants in the USA (Amperex New York) as also development departments, so there are pure US American Amperex tubes in existence which feature a different print and etched code. None of the famous long plates were manufactured in the USA.

As the American market was much, much larger than the European one – the chance to get these tubes with the Amperex imprint is much higher than with the Philips logo….in other words – the European market has nearly dried out! In the USA there is some stuff left – very expensive but if you ask me – it is worth the money and the patience to get those legends.

happy listening

E. Strauss

The LS3/5a – a midrange to die for Part II

In part II of the LS3/5a essay I will share some thoughts about choosing the right amplifier as also illuminate some of the specific construction details.

The KEF T27 tweeter

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Looking at the tweeter of a LS3/5a is somewhat strange….after we fought with the velcro fixed Tygan grill of the speaker we will see a strange looking (tea strainer) cover and there is no tweeter visible. But beliefe me – it is there….;-))) First lets talk about the grills….the frequency response of the LS3/5a is measured and constructed with the grills in place – so it is NOT recommended to get rid of them – as the speaker construction behind the grilles is everything else than beautiful it is also a good fashion statement to let the grills where they belong. The same has to be said about the tweeter cover….I once I read in an internet article, that it is necessary to get rid of them to achieve more treble energy – the opposite is true…. The vented covers raise the sensitivity of the tweeter instead of dampening the latter!!!! The KEF T27 is made out of Mylar foil……it is the same material chosen by the microphone manufacturers for their capsule membrane and…..yes – it is the same material our beloved Quad “membranes” are made of. It was not so common at the end of the 60ties (last century) to use synthetic materials for speaker development – so KEF stood out as one of the first manufacturers who thought about new materials. The T27 was nearly 10 years a sort of reference in its segment – a lot of different speaker designs were made around this legendary tweeter. This little gem is able to reproduce frequencies above 40Khz – something which is also not too common in our modern days. With the implementation of the LS3/5a dividing network the speaker features a slight raise toward the highest treble. It is the opposite of what we will find with the Quad ESL 57 which has a frequency roll off starting at 15 Khz which takes care of a slightly rolled off highest treble performance. The LS3/5a renders the treble in a completely different way. If we enjoy to use moving coil carts with a slight emphasis in the region of 15 – 20Khz (high frequency rise typical for most moving coils) with the Quad ESL 57, we will be more satisfied using the LS3/5a with cartridges which domesticate such behaviour. In other words – a top notch Lyra, like the Etna SL is a dream to use together with the Quad ESL 57, in contrast to that the LS3/5a loves cartridges like the Koetsu Urushi Wajima for example. As we are now aware of this special character of the LS3/5a in the treble department – we must avoid any gear – be it an amplifier, preamplifier or source component which has a somewhat tilted up treble performance….

The T27 is surrounded by a thick felt square which prevents the sound waves to become diffracted at the enclosure and the surface of the speaker. That is important as we already discussed in part I of this essay the tremendous omnidirectionality the LS3/5a has to offer.

The tweeter is electrically secured by a resistor in front of the latter (15 Ohm model) – this thing can get really, really hot – and sometimes – if you disassemble a LS3/5a, you will see some burnt damping foam around the position of this resistor. It can happen that those things are burnt – if you are lucky, it is just the resistor and not the whole tweeter…. A blown tweeter will resulting in buying two new (old) ones, because those tweeters were matched as a pair. And if you buy two new ones it is a good idea to measure their resistance (of the functioning one) because as you can read in part I – different tweeters (electrically) could be used with different tabs of the autoformers…..so you have to search for a replacement pair which fits the technical specs of that particular pair originally used in your specific speaker to get the same treble response once adjusted at the crossover board.

The KEF B110 woofer

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The B110 is a legend – it was one of the first speaker chassis made completely with a high damped synthetic material. KEF was searching for a lightweight as also robust material with a very good inner damping. They designed a completely new material to achieve that – and called it Bextrene! The very first B110 chassis had a membrane surrounding made of neoprene – later KEF opted for a rubber surrounding which was more consistent and easier to manufacture. If you look at the B110 woofer of any original LS3/5a, you will observe that it is mounted from the backside, which is totally uncommon in speaker design. If we want to achieve a time aligned behaviour of both speaker systems we would opt normally for the opposite, than mounting the bass chassis behind the plane of the tweeter. The LS3/5a crossover addressed that specific mounting position so that we will hear an astonishing phase coherency between the two speaker systems. In fact the crossover point is located around 3Khz so it is chosen in a very critical frequency region were our ear is very, very sensitive (Fletcher / Munson curve), but we will not detect any phase anomalies while listening to a proper installed LS3/5a. The B110 is a long throw woofer system to compensate for its small surface and size. Do not be afraid if you once observe the woofer moving while you are listening to some deep and strong bass impulses – what you see is normal;-))))…..If you overdo it, you will hear a loud Pock Pock sound, which is the voice coil former that knocks at the inner side of the magnet….so it is time to decrease your listening level.

The B110 gives us in the LS3/5a an amazing midrange performance – you can characterise the LS3/5a as a full range speaker with a tweeter on top….The whole important midrange spectrum is covered only by the B110! The woofers are also matched as a pair in our beloved mini monitor – so if one is defective – you are in for a very, very long search! If your B110 looks dirty – please be advised that it is not a good idea to use any liquid to clean the damn thing. Bextrene reacts not too good if it is mated with windex cleaner or pure water…so let the thing like it is – get rid of the dust and thats it!

The listening height should be adjusted so that your ear is located virtually between the tweeter and woofer position – if you sit too low, you might detect some strange phase anomalies, if the position is to high, the sensational imaging abilities would suffer seriously.

The Crossover

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As I explained in part I – every manufacturer of the 15 Ohm Ls3/5a made its own crossover. Most of the very early models used autoformers which were wound in house by the specific manufacturer. Later on the British company Drake delivered all licensees with their autoformer model leaving out Spendor – they used their own stuff till the 15 Ohm era was at its end. All LS3/5a crossovers share a distinct complexity. If you are a proper High End freak – and peek inside of such a dividing network – most of us would say – that cannot work – nor will it sound good….but the reality shows us every time we listen to these little speakers, that the BBC did an amazing job – the LS3/5a is one if the most important speaker designs of all time – and this is not my humble opinion only….

The parts of the finest LS3/5a 15 Ohm incarnations used throughout the circuit were top class in those years…..do not mess with them! I know that it is easy to find monster High End foil capacitors in the audio accessory shops today – but I can assure you – every moded version does loose its magic – and at the end you have destroyed an original! Let the things like they are – watch out for strongly used parts and try to replace them with the same type once used in your speaker (one of the reasons why in the strong far east scene they collect also parts of the LS3/5a…..). If you disassemble a LS3/5a you will aware of how complicated the whole thing was built. If you change the order of some washers or forget some of the rubber O rings, the little diva will not be air tight anymore….

Everything which is present and mounted in a certain way is not an option, it is very, very important – there is no place for tuning work or trying to better the performance other than using a better position in your room or better equipment to drive the little diva.

The amplifier

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The classic LS3/5a has an impedance of 15 Ohm which is totally unusual today. The maximum power these speakers will handle is around 25 – 30 stable watt. If we buy a little transistor amplifier which is able to produce 50 watt at 8 Ohm – the same amp will deliver 25 watt at 15 Ohm…keep that in mind. A transistor amp which works near its clipping is the best way to destroy any speaker – so you have to search for something a little bit beefier than 50 watt….the impedance figure of the LS3/5a is not so much loved by transistor electronic.

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The opposite is the case if we discuss 15 Ohm impedance together with a tube amplifier. Our tube amp might have output transformer taps which are made for 16 Ohm…. To understand the advantage of a high impedance speaker mated with a tube amp I have to explain things a little bit more. The outputstage of our tube amp has naturally a high impedance, it varies a little bit from tube type to tube type – but generally it is a high impedance figure. The output transformer is used to adjust for the high tube output impedance to be matched to the low speaker impedance. If we use a 4 Ohm speaker a lot more windings are necessary to achieve that as with a high impedance speaker, as the LS3/5a is. Finally a high impedance speaker design is a very good match for any given tube amplifier as also OTL (output transformerless) designs!

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As the LS3/5a is not very sensitive, you might think it is not a good idea to pair the speakers with low powered tube amps – but the opposite is true. The high impedance of the speaker compensates for its restricted sensitivity! A LS3/5a is not a good match for a SET amp like a 300B or even more so a 2A3 – both have too little power to drive the speaker to sufficient sound pressure levels, but a 6L6 GC push pull design or an EL 34 amplifier – may it configured in triode mode or as a penthode works like a charm. Keep in mind the little box is very, very accurate to the source – so if you think of something cheap and mediocre – the whole system will sound accordingly….If you opt for a transistor amplifier there are also great models out there which have a legendary status. The Naim chrome bumper amp range comes to mind or legendary class a amps from Britain (Sugden, Musical Fidelity A 1000) or the US (ML or Cello) as also the amazing Lavardin of our days. The latter is one of the most musical transistor amps that can drive a LS3/5a! But if we have the chance to listen to one of the rare 15 Ohm specimen today I would opt for a nice tube amp!

A tube advice

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With a tube amplifier we have the possibility to voice the amp to our liking – and if we listen to a LS3/5a using tube electronics it is time to praise the legendary Mullard MC1 ECC83. This is one of the oldest European ECC83 type of tubes and it sounds so damn fantastic with the legendary British speakers, if I did not know it better, I would guess they were constructed for each other. The Mullard MC1 features the one of a kind wrinkled glass surface as it also has a square getter construction and long narrow grey plates. To spot an original MC 1 we have to observe the lower segment of the tube – we will find there an etched code with the type MC1 and a number which should start with a capital B for the Blackburn production plant. The MC1 is not the only long plates Mullard ECC83 – the successor was named F92 and has also an amazing sound. To mate the Mullard MC1 with the proper ECC82 Mullard (phase inverter / preamplifier) things get a little bit exotic. The holy grail of all Mullard ECC82 is the military version of their ECC82 called CV 491 – and this is it….A Mullard CV 491 Long Plate together with its stablemate the MC1 is truly amazing. These tubes have a one of a kind bass gestalt. Full and tight as also very, very colourful – the dynamic abilities of the deepest octaves are astonishing. The midrange is reference class with a slight emphasis in the lower midband – which brings vocals in their three dimensional gestalt right in front of our speakers. The presence is somewhat defensive and opens up nicely towards the treble and air – I would call that a classic tube sound. The stage a Mullard is able to render is big and bolt – in this parameter it is one of the best tubes I know. I use them both in My Air Tight ATC2 HQ preamplifier together with a GEC CV 4005 rectifier and this preamp drives the ATM4 which I already described in my essay about the 6L6 GC – both amplifiers are mated with two Chartwell I and the performance is stunning!

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Keep in mind that all the old long plates Mullard sound completely different than the short plates incarnation made from 1960 onwards. The short plates – especially the I63 type is very smooth and even rolled off in the treble department which cannot be said about the long plates Mullard tubes of the ECC83 and ECC82 family. The downside of choosing these legendary British made signal tubes is their rarity and the high prices we have to pay today. But think about it in a different way….if you spent €600,- on a power cable or a signal cable the benefit would be much, much smaller as if you opt for such an outstanding electron tube!!!! These legendary Mullard long plates types are unmatched till today – no modern construction comes even close!

Quad ESL 57 versus LS3/5a

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If you like the sound of a Quad ESL 57 but you cannot place it in your room – than the LS3/5a is the closest thing to the original Quad in existence. It does not sound the same (of course not) – but the most important aspects of the reproduced music is cut from the same cloth. The LS3/5a can reproduce deeper frequencies with more impact if we position them in front of the long wall of our listening room (reed part 1 of this essay), the Quad on the other hand delivers its deepest frequencies with more accuracy and authority. Both are very, very fast reacting speaker systems, but the Quad is able to reproduce the leading edge in a fashion no other speaker can muster (unless we use also a ribbon or electrostatic construction). The LS3/5a can beam the sound into the room with an amazing omnidirectionality while the Quad is very much restricted in this discipline. If you want to listen to your favourite music with your family or friends and not alone, the LS3/5a is the better option, because you can enjoy their beautiful  performance also if you are not located near the sweet spot. Both speakers are able to deliver an astonishing resolution – but they do it in a different way. The LS3/5a is able to reproduce the treble and air section of the reproduced music in a nearly unlimited style, the Quads do not have that outstanding treble performance, instead of that, they are able to deliver the smallest shades of colour as also a tremendous amount of micro dynamic variations without having such an unlimited high frequency performance. Some people opt for a super tweeter in conjunction with the ESL 57 to get exactly that kind of “unlimited” treble performance – but till now I am not aware of any solution which does not destroy the tremendous rightness this speaker has to offer.

The LS3/5a can play a little bit louder than the original Quad ESL but we cannot speak about a real grown performance showing macro dynamic shades – far from that. That brings us to the biggest disadvantage both speaker systems share….the maximum sound pressure level and the rendering of really big dynamic swings. Both speakers will deliver an undistorted signal up to 100 – 104db  (in 1m) – and both are rather insensitive – the figures are nearly equal. If you can live with this restriction you will be payed off by so many seldom found qualities in the whole speaker market today, that it is my strongest advice to listen to one of them – maybe it will be your last pair of speakers……

Both constructions do not change their frequency coherence while played with varying volumes – so you are able to enjoy your favourite music in some intimate nighttime listening session in its full glory. If you are a mixing or mastering engineer this characteristic is highly appreciated and seldom found in any speaker design. The Quad shows even a miraculous feature, because it does not change its loudness proportional (logarithmic function) to the various listening distances – which I never detected with any other speaker system. What makes both constructions very special is the ability to get the complete midrange right. The Quad is in this regard a little bit more unforgiving, If there is any colouration in this frequency section present the electrostatic speakers will show you that in such a clear distinction, that you are amazed and sometimes shocked. Both speaker systems are able to render a soundstage you never will forget, the LS3/5a does that in a more bolt fashion, while the Quad has a more analytical gestalt with a tremendous pin point accuracy. The LS3/5a might be a little more spectacular if you do not listen carefully – maybe that is also achieved by the crazy discrepancy between the acoustic performance and the physical size of the little box.

To mate a LS3/5a with a sub woofer is not a good idea – I never heared till today any implementation of a separate woofer which  lets the masterful voicing of the little gem intact. No sub can react in such a fast way as the little Bextrene B110 chassis can do – so you get heavy phase anomalies in the upper bass – which will destroy a good portion of what a LS3/5a is all about.

Happy listening

 

E. Strauss

 

The LS3/5a – a midrange to die for Part I

I will not repeatedly report all about the history of this legendary BBC monitor again, there is nearly all information about the historical aspect scattered on the internet. My intention is to write about the different  models and incarnations of them, the amplifiers (may it tube or transistor) to drive these little shoeboxes, as also about the very important room placement which implies also some explanation of their construction.

The early period

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If you talk to LS3/5a devotees, you will always educated about the two most outstanding models, namely the Rogers Gold Tag 15 Ohm and the Chartwell I (also15 Ohm)….why is that? Both models are almost the oldest of the whole breed, and both are nearly vanished from the used market – and if you will find one, there is a good chance, that it is not anymore in its original condition, as also very, very expensive.

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There are some facts about the oldest versions of the LS3/5a and their different licensees, namely Rogers, Chartwell and also Audiomaster, which were all together in the forefront of building the BBC mini monitor, that has to be told. In the beginning of the 70ties (last century) all the licensees had to build their own crossover circuit – everything was done to meet the exact BBC specs, but the way it was done was into the responsibility of the different manufactures. So Rogers and Chartwell wound their specific autoformers in house during this period, and they both opted for different parts be it the foil capactitors used  or the brand of the different resistors needed – and even in the layout there were slight differences to be detected. Both used the same chassis delivered from the British manufacturer KEF, the legendary first version of the T27 tweeter identifiable because of the blue and black colour of the connection wires, as also the first version of the B110 woofer. But the implementation was rather different – both came out with a construction precisely matching the BBC specs – but both speakers sound a little bit different. The Rogers Gold Tag might have the warmest bass response of all LS3/5a, as also a magic midrange which is able to render the most three dimensional stage. The Chartwell in comparison had a tight bass response with a delicious rendered treble and higher presence  which is sooo smooth, that you would not detect at first the analytical abilities this model has to offer. The Chartwell is more about the monitor utilization in a control room were the Rogers is perfect for casual listening. Both have a tremendous smoothness in their presence and treble rendering as also the amazing ability to get the midrange right. It is an unforgettable experience to listen to a well recorded vocal trough this mini monitor speakers.

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As KEF always had problems to produce the chassis, be it the B110 woofer or the T27 tweeter, without the slightest variation, all models share a circuit in their crossover, were the bespoke autoformer offered 4 taps to accommodate for variations of the speaker chassis delivered by KEF. One LS3/5a manufacturer stood out, which was Spendor. They opted against such a solution, instead they did the most rigorous selection of the delivered speaker chassis, and used only those, which were compatible with the specs of their crossover. This is maybe the reason for the phenomenal openness this first Spendor Gold Tag 15 Ohm model distinguished itself. It is maybe the most precisious and uncoloured treble performance of all LS3/5a ever built.

All those early models share the same sensitivity of around 83db/1W/1m and they all have nearly the same frequency response (with just very tiny variations) as also the same electrical parameters – but they all differ in their dynamic and micro dynamic abilities – something the BBC had not standardized too much.

The second period

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After the first years a lot of things changed in the history of the LS3/5a – Chartwell broke and was bought up by Rogers which delivered now LS3/5a speakers with a Chartwell Logo as a sort of high end version of the monitor, which was not really profitable, so that they stopped it after the different parts and pre manufactured crossovers (still made by Chartwell) were depleted. These so called Chartwell II is somewhat a mixture of the Rogers White Tag brought out by the latter using their own parts, and an original Chartwell – all of the Chartwell II versions differ in small details may it the crossover construction or the selection of their chassis. All of these Chartwells have in common, that they are built with a Rogers enclosure. Rogers itself used the second generation of the KEF chassis to built their own Black Tag LS3/5a, also very, very rare today, which was the last version were Rogers implied their own autoformers, later White Tag models8 do not no the exact serial number) used Drake manufactured autoformers, Drake delivered them also to any of the other licensees. With the White Tag Rogers, we are facing now a different B110 woofer, which is called the white belly version. The reason for that is a characteristic white glue surrounding we will find around the dust cap of the B110. The White Belly period was maybe the last well regarded epoch, were the best 15 Ohm LS3/5a were manufactured. After that period the different licensees began to deliver a somewhat cheaper quality, which also reflects in a lower price tag, because nobody wanted to pay serious money for such a little speaker except the studio professionals – but on the other hand this little gem was very costly to produce.

The 11 Ohm period

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This is the last period were original LS3/5a were manufactured. As KEF had too much variation in their chassis production, the BBC stopped the traditional way the LS3/5a was produced and opted for one standard crossover, made by KEF for all licensees, and some special selection procedere in which the manufacturers of the LS3/5a had to guarantee a low variation. In those years Harbeth started as a licensee in the LS3/5a scene and delivered as the first company in the history of audio a computer / laser technology to get a precise chassis selection. Harbeth was also the most outstanding company regarding the woodwork of the LS3/5a enclosure. I never had problems with a leaky enclosure of any Harbeth LS3/5a, which can not be said about the Rogers built quality in this period.

A not so well known fact is, that Rogers produced and labeled their speaker enclosures in advance – so they were somewhat surprised by the new BBC “rules” and as they already had a couple of speaker cabinets ready to ship, the kept the 15 Ohm badge at the back of the speakers but put the complete 11 Ohm hardware in those….born was the pseudo 15 Ohm Ls3/5a – which is today something for the collectors…

Another funny story might be the fact, that KEF as the only supplier for the famous chassis for the LS3/5a never made their own model of the little legend until they ceased the production of the B110 and T27 tweeter. KEF produced at the very end of the LS3/5a production their own limited edition – the KEF Raymond Cook Signature model.

The day after tomorrow

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As KEF stopped producing any original chassis for a licensed LS3/5a the different manufacturers went on – for a long, long period of time there was no LS3/5a anymore available. Instead of that the market saw some BBC inspired constructions like the Harbeth P3 ESR or different Spendor models just to name a few. Meanwhile it was the last fashion to discredit the little British monitor, statements like “typical British mid bass bump”, “typical British mini monitor” was en vogue at the end of the 80ties and during the 90ties (last century). The typical British monitor sound was not anymore modern, manufacturers as Dynaudio developed the basic concept to new standards with their Contour 1.3 using their superb Esotar tweeters and the famous Dynaudio bass chassis. But during the 90ties a proper floor standing  speaker was the latest fashion, so that small 2 way monitor speakers were mostly entry level models for those who cannot afford a “proper” speaker. The situation changed with the High End audio scene in the far east. Those HiFi fans in the big metropolis share one big problem, and this is space….It is nearly prohibitively expensive to have a dedicated listening room in the big cities like Tokyo, Hongkong, Kuala Lumpur or Singapore….. The LS3/5a began  to establish a sort of cult status in that particular region of the world. At the specific forums dedicated to the little British queen you might find installations were we western devotees rub our eyes in disbelieve. You will detect Kondo Ongaku amplifiers driving some Chartwell I or vintage Marantz 2 monoblocks doing the same with Rogers Gold Tag speakers. Ultra quality front end products are used, Micro Seiki 5000 turntables with Ikeda carts, tape machines like the little Nagra IVs or top end CD players or DA converters can be observed – amazing….

Here and now

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The industry started to think about the rebirth of the LS3/5a since a couple of years – because all the manufacturers from the past are also aware of the fact, that an original pair of Rogers Gold Tag or Chartwell I will reach prices in the used market which are ridiculous. Sums around 5000,- US dollars for a pair in mint condition is nothing special in our days – such evolution awakes the industry….

We can buy today an original LS3/5a again, and it is made by Falcon Acoustic, which developed in the last years both KEF chassis again and built now the one and only real 15 Ohm incarnation of the little legend. Stirling Broadcast did the same with the 11 Ohm model a couple of years bevor Falcon came up with a proper reincarnation of the 15 Ohm LS3/5a. They use speaker chassis from Scan Speak and SEAS – and they did an amazing job to mimic the original sound which resulted in a BBC approval – so the Stirling are the one and only LS3/5a without original KEF speaker chassis or recreations of them, which ever got the “go” from the BBC. Stirling called their 11 Ohm reincarnation V2, which tells us, that they do not use the original KEF chassis (Stirling had also an older version with used the last KEF chassis available). The modern Falcon also received the blessing of the BBC, so we have two very addictive possibilities today to buy a brad new LS3/5a which is made to the BBC specifications.

If you are not completely into the puzzeling details to differentiate an original LS3/5a against some modified “Frankenstein” types – my advice is – get a new one…. It is far too risky to spent €3000,- – 4000,- for a Chartwell 1 or Rogers Gold Tag were nothing is anymore in its original state moreover the wooden enclosure….

Why is this little dwarf so special???

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If you never listened to a well set up LS3/5a system, you wont believe, what these little shoeboxes are able to achieve. The miniatured size enables them to sound like a true point source speaker system. Hence these little monsters can disappear completely as a sound source, the instruments as also the center stage enfolds in your room in a fashion, that you might think about magic. The omnidirectional performance is one of the best I ever found on any speaker. You can almost enjoy them if they are listened with the back of the speaker pointing toward you….ok – that is a little bit overpraised – but you get, what I try to explain. The phenomenal omnidirectional characteristic means also, that you have to listen to them in a acoustical treated room, because such special behaviour of any given speaker will react in a critical way, if too much early reflections are mated with the direct sound pressure level. If you position them wisely, which I will explain in a minute, you can achieve a bass response you wont believe…. The speed and agility is breathtaking as is the unreal truthful rendering of the whole midrange. The resolution these little speakers are capable of is also astonishing. Mating them with a cheap amplifier and a mediocre CD player does not justice to them!!!!!!! They have the ability to grow with any upgrade you will make in your stereo system – may it the front end, the preamplifier or the amplifier….they are audio microscopes without being nasty – you can listen for hours without getting tiered…

If I should name the three most revealing speaker systems regarding midrange pureness, I would opt for the Quad ESL 57, the Western Electric 755 and the 15 Ohm LS3/5a!

Room placement

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As any high performance speaker system also the little LS3/5a is very demanding about proper implementation in your HiFi system and room placement. If you have a rectangular room at your disposal please choose the long wall to place the speakers on it. In every rectangular room with the speaker positioned at the long wall we will have an energy maxima (room mode) at 40hz around 1 – 1,5m in front of the long walls. This might be a nightmare for an American floorstander like a Wilson Audio Whatt / Puppy system 7 – but it is the chance to do a miracle on a full range sound of a little mini monitor speaker system. The LS3/5a has a frequency response which reaches out to nearly 70hz – than there is a smooth roll off towards the deepest octaves. As the British queen is constructed with a sealed enclosure, the little speaker does not behave like a ported construction, which cuts off its sound pressure level at the resonance frequency of the ports. The LS3/5a will reproduce frequencies till nearly 30hz – but it will do that with no serious sound pressure level anymore – because we have a too little membrane surface and an enclosure with much too restricted volume. But if we can place the LS3a in front of the long wall in our listening room a couple of miracles will happen. First the 40hz mode in our room will be triggered by the speaker – so that we get a frequency response at the listening position, which shows nearly no drop in energy till around 45hz – and – which is even more spectacular – at the position were we have an energy peak around 40hz in our room, we will have a decrease in sound pressure level at around 130hz – and there the LS3/5a has its characteristic bass bump – which is cool for near field listening – but not so much appreciated if we listen to some classic music at mid field distances. So we gain two very important aspects – only with the fact that we choose the long wall of our room – we get bass reinforcement and we get rid of the 130hz bump. The bass reinforcement is also not comparable to the trick Audio Note UK is proclaiming in which their speakers have to be placed in a corner….the LS3/5a placement is much more versatile and elegant!

Now lets talk about the distance towards the rear wall….as I explained in the chapter above, it is nearly fixed, if we want to trigger the 40hz mode – which results in a position around 1,2 – 1,5m in front of the wall. So we do not start without having any clue – but that said – it is not in any way insignificant to dial in the proper distance. The LS3/5a will react in a very, very sensitive way….

Toeing in

The next critical parameter is the angle in which the speaker is pointed towards the listening position. Normally we would angle the speakers at 30° towards us, with a right triangle placement already achieved. But with the LS3/5a it is a different kettle of fish…..You can use a full angled placrment towards your listening position, which is always a good thing, if your room is very reflective. But if you have achieved a somewhat good domestic listening acoustic in you room with not too many reflective surfaces around the speaker – you can choose a different positioning model. In this model we use a toeing in of not more than 7° – which is nearly nothing…..

Now lets listen to some music with a strong center fill – a well recorded vocal surrounded by some natural instruments.  If we compare the 30° method against the 7° method we wont believe, what is now going on. With the 7° model we gain a lot – I mean A LOT more centerfill – a much, much larger stage, a better rendering of the recorded space as also a tremendous directional accuracy!!!!

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Now close your eyes – what you will here is astonishing – and you never, never would believe, that such a small monitor is able to produce this large sized sound performance….The speakers disappear completely, the stage reaches way beyond the position of them, the depth of the stage is breathtaking and the center of the stage with the vocal on them is directly in front of you – right there, three dimensional and real!!! The deepest impact has gained now from around 70hz towards 45hz without any loss of detail or pureness, nor speed, these little monsters will render even Trentemöllers electro music in a fashion you never thought that this would be possible. You coupled the speaker up to your room – in a fashion, that you cared about the efficiency in doing so. You do not waist any of the produced sound pressure level the little monitor is able to give us….instead you use room acoustic phenomena like modes to get the most linear frequency response in your room. Please be patient – after the first listening session one might think it is done – but the size of the speaker base, the distance to the rear wall and the listening distance must be dialed in with a lot of care. At the end of this process you might be achieved a position, were you leave the equilateral triangle in favour of a slightly smaller speaker base – do not worry….

The Stands

The quality of the stands is nearly as important as finding the best position in your room. The LS3/5a are nothing special there, because any little monitor will gain enormous quality if paired with a proper stand. The best one you can buy is the Music Tools LS3/5a stand – and – normally I am no fan of “THE BEST” – but here it is a matter of fact. The Music Tools are reincarnations of the famous Foundation LS3/5a stands which are not anymore available. The speakers are positioned on top of these stands using 4 little balls of blue tack – please read it again – LITTLE BALLS…..;-))) The LS3/5a is constructed with an enclosure that is able to resonate – and this is meant to be like that. The whole enclosure is tuned in a way that those resonances wont effect the clean frequency performance of the speakers – so you must take care of that fact. If you use a big bubble of blue tack the speaker will be dampened – it is also a very bad idea to use any kind of spikes between the speaker and its stand… Please level the speakers precisely – our goal is, that both speakers have the chance to send their soundwaves in a coherent way towards us – if one speaker is tilted to the back, the other vice versa, this is not anymore possible. Please take care also of the indentical position of both speakers in your room….if one speaker is placed  closer to a side wall than the other – ist will destroy the whole balance of the stage! As the LS3/5a have such a tremendous omnidirectional performance, it is a good idea to leave a lot of space between the speaker and the side wall to avoid reflections which will work against the law of the first wavefront….As we use the long wall of the room, this might not be a big problem, if it is, you must decrease the listening distance as also the speaker base to gain more distance to the side walls.

In Part II wie will discuss some amplification possibilities as also some construction details in depth….so

stay tuned

E. Strauss

 

4 Koetsu compared – Japanese art Part II

In this essay I try my very best to describe the difference of 4 of the most famous Koetsu cartridges, namely the Black Goldline, the Rosewood Signature, as well as the Urushi Wajima and the somewhat special Urushi Vermilion.

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The test procedere

All 4 carts were mounted in a Frank Schröder Reference SQ tonearm using two different sorts of headshell plates Frank delivers with his arms to address the different effective mass figures a specific cart needs. More precisely the Koetsu Black Goldline was mounted with the aid of an aluminium plate which delivers with the particular Reference arm a mass figure of 13g. For the Rosewood Signature as also the Koetsu Urushi Wajima I used a brass mounting plate which raises the effective mass to around 18g. The Koetsu Urushi Vermilion got again an aluminium headshell plate, because the whole cart weights a lot more than the two other wood body carts – at the end I could manage to get nearly the same effective mass adjustment as with the other carts.

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All carts were used with the same table and the same step up transformer. I opted for the Michael Ulbrich “Monster Can” with a 1:20 turn ratio, which let the Koetsu “see” 117 Ohm while getting 26db of clean uncoloured gain! As every cart had a slight variation in output voltage, letting alone the Urushi Vermilion, which delivers just half of what the others offer, I had to adjust the volume accordingly. Finally I recorded each cart with specific music examples using a 24bit/96Khz hard disc recording workstation (Pro Tools) which made adjusting for the exact same gain value an easy task. All carts were used with the the Air Tight ATE2 phono stage (read my essay to that specific type of equipment) and were judged using my beloved Quad ESL 57 as also a pair of original Chartwell 1 (restored vintage speakers) LS3/5a 15 Ohm models. During the test sessions I used also my headphone system (Grado) which hides any coloration from the room acoustics.

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I discovered, that Sugano Sans designs needed all their specific,  precise adjustments – the SRA (stylus rake angle) differs slightly between the different carts – it is just a tiny bit – but you have to adjust the VTA accordingly. The Koetsu Black showed its best performance with a VTF just a tad under 2g, while the Rosewood Signature sounded best with 1,95g. Both Urushi models liked an even smaller amount of downforce, were the optimum was found around 1,9g. If the VTF is too high all 4 Koetsus sounded dynamically compressed which also resulted in a restricted bass performance with reduced tonal content. Please do not adjust the VTF with the “help” of a test record – you will end up with a way too high amount of VTF! The same must be said for adjusting the antiskating – all four carts needed just a tiny bit of scating compensation to show a perfect tracking performance. Keep in mind that a deflected cantilever is the last thing we want to have – phase coherence and sound balance will suffer seriously, not to speak about the rubber suspension, which will give up one day – than the expensive cart is ready for a trip to Japan….

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One side note…..such a serious comparison is not done during one day, nor in two days, it needed 12days in total. Without the possibility to record the soundperformance of each cart, you are easily fooled, because hearing has a lot to do with your mood during listening sessions…Also the human ear can adapt in a few seconds to something new – even if that “New” sounds wrong – after a couple of minutes we think – oh – it is not too bad…..our brain will do the trick – and we wonder, that we get tired while listening to our favourite music. It needs time to dial in a cart to perfection, a quick and dirty adjustment is done in 15minutes – but to get the most out of the stuff it needs more music, more time and two good ears….

The Koetsu Black Goldline

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The Black is one of the best selling cartridges of the world – it has a tremendous amount of followers as also people who hate it – it is a very controversial discussed cart, which was a few years ago a good entry into the world of Koetsu. I use intentionally the past tense – because the price of the Black raised from €1600,- 10 years ago (which was a fantastic price performance ratio) – to €1800,- and now we face a price tag of around €2100 – 2500,-. And there is no upgraded technology, no bells and whistles – it is still the same Black Goldline we could buy 10 years ago. Please calculate inflation and all that stuff, and you will never – NEVER come out with an increasement of €900,- in 10 years….. I do not know were this price politic will end – one thing is presumably – with a price tag of €2500,- for the Koetsu Black it is questionable if this cart will continue to be the best selling cart in its class. I mean a Lyra Delos costs in Germany €1300,- and a Kleos under €3000,- so you have the chance to put €500,- on top and get a Kleos – or you save €1200,- and get the amazing Lyra Delos, which is a bargain in my book !

Lets stop that kind of discussion, and start to listen to the little black gem. The Goldline is a sort of sassy Koetsu sound if you compare it with the Rosewood Signature. You get a very sexy up front gesture, a vocal performance which makes you think the singer is right in front of you. A trick managed with a very strong centerfill were the stage is more intimately rendered than big and great. If you listen to Vocal Jazz it could be the last cart you will ever need…..it is in a special way spectacular. That said things change dramatical if you listen to big orchestra compositions. On Mahlers first symphony, third movement (DECCA) you will notice a strong emphasis on the lower mids and upper bass, as also a bump at the lower presence (which makes the vocals so damn sexy). The stage is not illuminated in the way I am used to it, instead of the great size of the orchestra and the recorded space, you get the feeling of a somewhat larger Jazz club. Also the demanding passages towards the end of the third movement is not an exercise the Black Goldline likes too much – it sounds strained and unorganised. If you change your music selection towards Mozart or Hayden – the picture changes dramatically, still there is the uneven frequency response, but in this case you get a warm, sensational string tone with an amazing melodiousness – it sounds soooo real – but it is not. Which brings us to a basic discussion about what is the approach of a HiFi system…is it to be neutral to the source or is it something which can make us believe that what we here is real – even if non linear distortion in any kind is involved??

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The Koetsu range of carts showed me, that both philosophies could work – not with every type of music, but in some cases the outcome was spectacular! The Black is not the right cart for heavy metal, it does not like modern classic and also no big romantic orchestra music – what it does amazingly good are smaller ensembles, singer songwriter, Jazz and especially vocal Jazz, Wiener classic and also baroque music…. We get an intimate, holistic picture with a very strong centerfill, a damn sexy vocal performance as also a warm maybe overly ripe lower midrange, which is contrasted by the fresh also emphasised upper midrange / lower presence – so you have to listen carefully….The gestalt of the presence reminds me a little bit of the DL103 which also colours this particular frequency region to minimise the distance between the singer and the listener. The micro dynamic shades the Black has to offer are very very nicely rendered – the incredible silent tracking performance might be the key to this astonishing performance. With the big dynamic swings it is a different situation – if you compare the Black with a SPU Classic, you will be aware of how big dynamic swings could sound like….and even a SPU is not the last word in this particular discipline.

If you are a listener who scores the beauty of the tone over everything else and you are not interested in romantic orchestra music nor heavy metal – this is it!….if – and this is a big IF – there would be the same price tag as a couple of years ago…I would advice you – buy it – hurry up and get one because you are in for something really special. But for €2500,- there should be a performance which is completely independent of music styles and orchestra sizes….

The Koetsu Rosewood Signature

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Listening to the Rosewood Signature, we are diving into Sugano Sans world in all its glory – it is in my opinion the first real Koetsu cart. And as I wrote in part I of this essay – it is a very steep price tag we have to pay for this experience. The Koetsu Rosewood Signature is cut from another cloth than the Black Goldline. The first thing you will notice is the amazing amount of recorded space, the width of the stage with the exactly rendered sound sources placed on it. The bass has a grown up gestalt, it is still not the sinewy delicate and amazingly fast bass of a top notch Lyra cart – but it is aesthetically fantastic. Full bodied with endless shades of colour and heft. The midsection is world class – I know nothing that can beat a Koetsu in this discepline – again millions of colours which wrap around the listener. There is a very stable center fill – but the amount of the upfront gesture is decreased. Still there is a very intimate contact to the things which are located in the center of the stage, be it a trumpet, saxophone or the still very sexy vocal performance. But the scale is now more real – there is someone standing in front of you with a 3d gestalt and it is a human being – nearly in full size – well done Koetsu!!!

The presence emphasis is hardly detectable anymore – but it is there – a tiny, tiny bit of it enables the Rosewood Signature to produce a string tone you will never forget. The Rosewood Signature has a complete grain free treble section, a very, very smooth performance, you get a good dose of that magic sparcle without any analytical touch, it is enough treble energy to make the whole sound very balanced. Everything is so masterfully voiced, that you do not be aware of all the tiny anomalies which differentiate the Rosewood Signature from the total neutral Lyra carts (Lyra is just an example – you can also use Air Tight, My Sonic Lab or Transfiguration).

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The big dynamic swings are no problem for the Rosewood – it can follow even the most demanding passages with great ease, The Rosewood still favours of the release,of a given tone over its leading edge. The cart is more about the beauty of the tone than the birth of the latter. It shows a tremendous color palette – and the sheer excitement of the music. The micro dynamic redering is amazingly well displayed, again it might be the fantastic silent ride the cart is able to achieve which results is a very, good signal to noise ratio that makes it easy for us to detect all the tiny details in the music. I would call this a totally unforced kind of resolution which does not need a shift in the treble or air region. The Rosewood performs naturally and with a wholeness which puts the gestalt of any composition in front of its molecular structure. The rhythmical performance is voiced in a special sway, which gives you a clear perspective of the groove in the music but at the same time you get this magical flow, which seems to be able to show you to any given time the most important part of the music. That makes the listening experience very easy and relaxed – even with demanding or complex music.

The Rosewood Signature is all about the Koetsu magic – nothing more and nothing less!

 

The Ursuhi Wajima

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The Wajima has a lot of what the Rosewood already brought to the table – but you get nearly in every criteria more… more tightness in the bass, more neutrality in the whole spectrum, a lot more dynamic resolution, and also much more smooth treble. Is it the silver cladded coil wire or is it the Urushi lacquer – or maybe both – but to which degree??? – I cannot tell you – because the Koetsu portfolio avoids a direct comparison of just one of the parameters. It is astonishing in which way those two ingrediences shift the sound performance to a whole new level. The miracle of the Wajimas voicing lays in its ability to show all the beauty the Rosewood is capable of – but garnished with all the High End bells and whistles. If you compare both of these gems, yo will easily detect the increased resolution – and this is not a little bit more, it is a whole new chapter. Sugano San managed to show us all that without loosing the holistic gestalt. The treble and air section is something, nobody would expect from a wood body Koetsu – airy and open, free from any colouration and very, very smooth and grainless. The treble is able to give us a tree dimensional touch, which makes cymbals and a snare drum not a flat event, instead of that, we feel a dimensional corpus sending its sound waves towards us. The bass is also different – gone is the mid bass emphasis, instead of it we get now a deep and fast bass performance which is still very, very colourful and rich in its tonal gestalt. But it acts in a faster fashion, so that the Urushi Wajima does not anymore evaluate melody over rhythmical structures – both is shown in a wonderful balanced performance. The leading edge gets more attention, while at the same time it is not decreasing the ability to render the release of a tone till it is vanished in silence. Amazing!!!! The stage is wide open – as a window and we can see all the details from the far extremes left and right towards the center as also an amazing view into the third dimension. Centerfill is traditionally a Koetsu strength – the Urushi makes no exception here, but the center section is so very well integrated into the whole stage, that I would call it a perfect rendering. What some people will miss is the sexy up front vocal performance – and yes – this is one of the reasons why hard core devotees own more than ONE Koetsu….

The Urushi Wajima leaves the fun segment of the Koetsu line up – we are now accommodated in the adult section….(not what you think….) It is a precise tool, a complete cartridge and beyond this, it is able to give you all the magic a Koetsu is so well known for.

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In my book the Koetsu Urushi carts are the pinnacle of what Koetsu is all about – not ignoring, that a stone body cart might even be a better performer – but this is a complete different chapter which detaches some of the typical sound attributes from this legendary brand.

The Koetsu Urushi Vermilion

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If you opt for this special version of an Urushi cart, you must own a phono stage with a lot of clean gain. If you use a tubed phono stage it has to be one of the high gain models, because if you try to compensate the low 0,2mV output voltage with a higher turn ratio of a step up transformer (1:30 or even higher) you will dampen the cart more heavily. With a 1:20 the cart “sees” 117 Ohm, with a 1:30 SUT the cart will be dampened with 59 Ohm – which will kill most of what the Vermilion is about. Sugano San constructed the cart with a single layer coil structure to reduce the moving mass, so the Vermilion is able to render the leading edge in a different style than the other wood body Koetsu carts will do. And this is the first thing you might detect – the Vermilion is constructed to give us a growth in speed and attack rendition. It is maybe the first Koetsu in the line up which shows the rhythmical aspects in the music with a tremendous accuracy. The miracle is – you loose nothing of the ability to render the beauty of the tone – it is like driving a Mercedes S Class but with a motor designed by Porsche…..I love it!!!! It is like squaring a circle what Sugano San achieved with the Vermilion – chapeau! If you can use a 1:20 Step Up device with a high gain tubed phono section, without any noise, it is like a miracle. All the characteristics of the Urishi Wajima are now paired with a tremendous rhythmical precision. The bass has somewhat more impact and the treble and air are more pronounced – again without the tiniest amount of grain or harshness, this little red devil is sooo smooth – but it shows you an impressive resolution. Mybe it is the first Koetsu in the portfolio which is able to render heavy metal music at its best – there is no stress even in the most compressed wall of sound sections of such music, a full distorted electric guitar sounds amazingly real, as also the lower end of the frequency spectrum punches in our stomach and we will have a big smile on our face. That said – the Vermilion is also a statement in rendering big orchestral work – even the most complex passages are performed in a casual fashion, that is on par with the best carts you can buy.

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The Vermilion is in its special way the most unlimited Koetsu cart of the wood body family – and yes – I do not think that the Platinum Signature does it in a better way – it is just a little bit different. My advice is to get the platinum magnet structure with the stone body carts – this is a suit which fits perfectly. The wood body range has its pinnacle performance in the creation of the Urushi cartridges and something very special can be found with the Vermilion.

Thank you Sugano San for all the great music!

stay tuned

E. Strauss

The Marantz CD 94 Part II – the DA converter

This essay is a follow up to the first part The Marantz CD94 – Part1 (the drive mechanism) which described the outstanding quality of the drive mechanism from Philips (CDM1 Pro). In this part (II) I will share some thoughts and tweaks  around the DA converter section of this classic vintage player.

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Modern days

As you might know the CD 94 MK I is fitted with the Philips TDA 1541 A multibit ladder dac. This is a legendary DA converter – it never got any better, just cheaper. The audiophile magazines told us all the past decades, that every new converter generation gained a much better sound quality, than the previous one – which is completely wrong. The truth is, modern bitstream DA chips already imply everything you need to get a decent analogue signal out of your digital source, be it a CD or streamed digital data. There is not much more to do for the manufacturer as to built a proper power supply, often they use two – one for the analogue section and one for the digital stages. They design some nice casework, a good styling and a tremendous accurate clock – in which some of the more serious companies do a real good job. Any manufacturer uses nearly the same stuff. Some differ in doing excessive upsampling, some offer a different clock design, and most of the serious models do a sort of overkill in the power supply department and multiplying the number of converter chips to get a higher accuracy (Accuphase). Only very, very few models are in existence, which do really something innovative, Playbackdesigns with their FPGA DA converter technology comes to mind, Aqua with its modern implementation of the last multibit DA converter generation (already NOS stuff) and maybe those modern interpreatations of the classic TDA 1541 Philips converter, we will discuss here, done by High End manufactures like Zanden or AMR. Some companies think it is a good idea to construct the analogue output stage with designing a tube circuit –  in most of the cases, it is just a buffer stage, which should colour the sound of the player. Serious tube output stages are very, very rare, companies like Acousticplan and Lampizator must be named here.

Some facts

Lets talk about some “digital lies” first…..rubbish that is repeated thousands of times which makes it not more true. Lets start with some facts:

Any conversion process will degrade the digital signal!!!!

That is hard stuff – because what is meant is every change in the source data integrity will degrade the sound. That is a matter of fact for up sampling, down sampling, oversampling (which is NO interpolation!!!!), changes in bit depth were it does not matter if we try to make out of 16 bit 24 or vice versa….EVERY CHANGE messes up the integrity of the original data.

There is no way – even for streaming services, to better the sound of the 1980ties Eurhythmics Album “Sweet Dreams” – other than a new mastering process with the original master tapes. If the original master is digital, which happened throughout the 90ties (last century) with DAT machines, and later hard disc recording workstations, the game is over – because we once converted analogue to digital – and now it is digital – and there is no way – other than converting the files to higher sampling rates and / or bit depth, which seriously degrades the original file in favour of some streaming clients, who think – “ohhhh my…..now my favourite Prince album is available in pure DSD…..It is customer´s fake!!!!

Most of the stuff at streaming platforms produced in the end of the 80ties and through the 90ties have seen a very poor AD conversion, and is just up sampled (converted) – because most of these productions had only a digital master – so there is no other way than a new mix – if the session tapes or data on a hard drive (end of the 90ties) are still available – otherwise a remastering could only deal with what was AD converted in those years – mostly not worth the money and the work!

But why was there such a bad AD conversion quality present in the first yers of the CD era???

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My own story

Let me tell you a story from my own experience….I worked 25 years in the music business as a producer and engineer. One day – it was 1993, I left my studio with an analogue master under my arm to enter my favourite mastering facility in Hamburg. The mastering engineer took my analogue tape, and told me the record company wants to have, both vinyl and a CD – so we started to measure the Studer A80 mastering machine and routed their outputs to the mastering desc a very, very high end analogue piece of audio jewelry.  I took a seat and enjoyed my mixing work – everything sounded familiar to me – a good sign – because nothing is more confusing, as if you cannot detect your own mixing work while sitting in the mastering process. The competent engineer behind the desc started with some tweaks, correcting mistakes in equalisation I did in my mix, we got rid of some emphasis in the lowest midband, gained some nice sparkle on top, so that the cymbals sounds very open and expensive. It sounded fantastic and I got more and more relaxed, because this guy worked miracles on my mixing work – Ekki was very, very happy.  After the whole sound adjustment process we transferred the the signal to the Neumann cutting lathe – and had a very nice result. Lets call it a day….!

But than the whole mess started – because we also had to create a digital master for the pressing plant…..The industry in those days brought out the CD format, an international standard, which is  in existence till the present day. Everything seems to be fine – but it was not! Because as we would witness two decades later  with the development of the SACD the commercial audio industry forgot the professionals – those people who have to create the content, the industry wanted to sell.

Instead of a very elaborated audio workstation, we had the Sony U Matic system – a technology based on a drive, which Sony originally designed to record video data on it, a processor and a pair of lousy AD and DA converters. We connected the Studer master machine to the U Matic AD converter, the signal went trough the processor and error counter (something which is non existent in modern digital days….) – and digitised the formally analogue master. The output of the Sony U Matic DA converter was now routed to the monitors – and I thought I had to kill myself. Gone was the sparkle, gone was the natural midband, gone was the warmth, gone was the recorded space – I witnessed a flat, cold, dead and ugly sound – but that was the modern high end format of those years – stunning!!!!

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In my example above, I did my mixing in the studio fully analogue – so, there would be a good chance,  with better high resolution converters available today to remaster it again to develop a true high bit, high sample rate digital stream – which would not have been possible if I had used a digital 16bit / 44.1 master. You get the point???

Today it is a matter of seconds to convert any digital signal to something which looks impressive – modern computer technology with the world class audio software on them is able to generate out of a 16bit/44.1Khz file a 196khz, 24bit data stream – but you do not gain anything – instead of that you loose quality. Lets introduce the term “BIT TRANSPARENT”. To have a bit transparent signal in terms of its original source data is the best quality you can get!!!!!!

A lot of people wonder, while the old 1988 Prince CD sounds much better than the high resolution file available at several streaming platforms – now you no why that is the case…..

So why do we choose the CD 94???

The Maranz is very well built, it has a good platine layout, a fantastic drive mechanism and a lot of space for all the tweaks we have to do, to make a giant killer out of this audio grandpa. What that means is – that NO old Marantz CD 94 from the past in its original condition used as an integrated CD player will sound very good or reference class like – far from that! – So how can we unleash the whole potential….????

 

The TDA 1541

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The Marantz is equipped with this DA converter legend – as I said above, it does not get any better than this – but first lets talk about the different TDA 1541 versions.

Philips had a grading system with their DA converters – the worst specs got the name TDA 1541 R – and the R stands for relaxed! – This Chipset was normally sold to companies who made very cheap players – so they wanted to have a nicer price tag on the very expensive TDA 1541 chips (which is way, way more expensive than ANY converter made today).

The next quality level is the TDA 1541 A – which was the standard grade chipset, which Marantz choose for the CD 94 MK I. – If we open the hood of our CD 94 MK I we will find exactly this chip which is soldered directly onto the board.

The high end converter types from Philips were the single and even more so, the double crown TDA 1541….called S1 and S2 and featured a stamped crown on their surface (or two). Be careful – today are a lot of single crown and even more so double crown fakes on disposal at ebay and other sellin platforms…as such a single crown TDA 1541 will set you back of around €250,- it is a good idea to know for sure if it is an original version or a nice artwork of some freaks….

Keep in mind, the double crown TDA 1541 is very, very rare. The one and only CD player ever made with 1541 double crown TDA chips was the Marantz CD7 – which is in my opinion one of the best players ever made – but if we are finished with our Marantz CD 94, we are soundwise very close to this audio legend – in some parameters better, in other the CD7 is unbeatable!

What we need is a single crown TDA 1541 converter – and that means also, that we have to unsolder the old A version, and instead of directly resolder the single crown version onto the board, we should opt for an IC socket, were we can plug and unplug the new converter chip if needed.

 

Recapping

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The change from a TDA 1541 A to S1 status is not the most important tweak, we have to deal with….far from that. Starting from here, you are dealing with serious electric circuitry – a basic knowledge of electric engineering is essential, and all of what you do from now on is on your own risk – please read that twice!!!!! – If you never managed to get a proper solder point forget all of the following modifications and buy a good record player!

The Marantz CD 94 is now 30 yers old – most of its time it was stored in a dark cellar because his owner upgraded it with something new (more correctly, the Marantz shares half of its “celler time” with other old digital players, which are all “upgrade victims”…think about how many CD players you owned….;-)))) All caps – and I mean ALL of them will be far away from their original specs. Most of the players which were retired, had problems with reading a CD – the owner thought it is a worn out laser mechanism – but it is not – in 99 from 100 cases, it is the electrical side of the drive mechanism – not the laser itself or the mechanism. So we have to unsolder EVERY cap and  resolder later on the best quality we can get today, which is not such a complicated task, because the quality of modern electrolytics gained immensely in the last decades. To get the work done in a proper fashion. You need the service manual – which you can find on the web (cost free) and you should be able to read a circuit diagram – of course.

I would opt for Panasonic FC caps in the power supply, in all the digital circuits SANYO OSCON is a very good idea – because they behave very stable at different temperature conditions…Be careful – OSCON cpas are widely available in SMD (surface mounted devices) versions – to find the standard mount version is often not an easy task – but they are existent. In the analogue stage I used Rubicon, and Cerafine, as also Elna Silmic caps – if you can find Black Gates – and have the money – feel free to buy them – but they are nearly vanished even on selling platforms like ebay.

PLEASE – do the recap work section by section…and if you are tired – leave the solder iron alone and go to bed – because every electrolytic capacitor is directional, and if you are tired it happens that……;-)))) Do function tests on a regular basis, if you are finished with one section – if there is a mistake, you will have a much better chance to find the problem fast and easy.

If you replace the big power supply caps (5 of them not only the big twin towers) I would opt for slightly larger capacity – and I mean slightly (10 % ) otherwise the original power transformer cannot handle your nice tuning!

The biggest improvement

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After the recapping is done you have the rare opportunity to listen to a Marantz CD 94 in quasi new condition – and you will be impressed – there are more CD players in existence today which sound much, much worse than that old machine. But until you tweak the player any further there is no chance to play in the same league were the best players are at home….

The Marantz CD 94 – as most of the other TDA 1541 players have one serious problem in common, and this is the power supply regulators – or better, the amount of them. One regulator in the original design handles nearly all digital stages – and here is our biggest problem. The TDA 1541 needs a daughter chip which is called 7220 – and this thing pollutes a lot of digital rubbish in our rail which supplies also the DA converter, the clock and digital periphery. So we have to take care of that. As you might noticed, every Philips design in this period of time had those cooling fins at the back of the players. In the original design there are 3 discrete power regulators attached to those cooling fins – and we have to double that! Our goal is to give the TDA 1541 a separate rail – without any influence of the “dirty” 7220 – and we will do the same with the 7220 itself und the clock.

So we have to design 3 new power regulators (discrete) and connect them with the corresponding parts on our circuit board bypassing the original power traces, so that all 3 devices (TDA 1541, 7220 and clock) are directly fed with their supply voltages. We are must mount the hot transistors of our discrete regulators to the same cooling device as the already existent three original regulators. To distribute the clean supply voltage, use good quality solid core copper cables, and twist them tightly to gain some shielding.

Now we have reached a lot more sound quality – the truth is – you wont think it is still the same player….it is that impressive!

Further improvements

If you like, you can install now  a new high end clock – there are different manufacturers in existence, I would opt for a Tental Labs solution…which fits perfectly into the CD94. They supply their clock with a good manual and it is an easy task, if you already managed our journey to this point.

The analogue output stage

Now things become very interesting again…You can decide if you want to get rid of the whole de emphasis circuit, because (I bet??) you will have not a single CD in you collection, which is coded with emphasis (which was a very old technology in the first years of CD production to gain SR ratio).

What you seriously have to do, is get rid of the 4 poor op amps soldered directly onto the board. To do so, buy some very good quality IC sockets – because (I know you very well) you want to experiment with different OP amp designs. Keep in mind – just pulling out one Op amp and replace it by another one is not the way that game works, because EVERY high bandwith OP amp today needs its proper implementation – so read the papers….and do your homework!

A good choice will be the Burr Brown OPA 627 single (all 4 OP amps are single types). You can also go full throttle and buy some discrete OP amps from companies like Burson Audio – and if that is not enough, you can use Daniel Weiss devices from Switzerland – they are very, very good, but also very expensive – and they need proper implementation, which means a complete redesign of the IV stage and filter design!!!! – Which is a lot of work and needs serious know how.

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I opted for Burson Audio, which are way better than any integrated OP in this player (not always the case) and not even in the same galaxy, than what was used in the original design of the CD94!

All Philips TDA 1541 implementations (there are two exceptions) have a DC offset at the analogue output section of the IV stage – which we have to get rid of. The way to do so ist a coupling capacitor directly in front of our output sockets. Here you have to calculate the capacity of the cap – which determine the lowest frequency your player will be able to produce…a figure around 22mF would be perfect. You can search for some really good caps in the high end accessory market. Keep in mind, that you need for the best of them (and the most expensive ones) a lot of space, which you don´t have. And – if you use a big, big silver foil mega hyper cap – you will have very long connection legs, which is not a good thing! I used Mundorf tin foil caps, which are not so big – and fits very nicely into the player – but there are much more options on the market – do not go mad here – it is just one single detail!

Next step would be to get rid of the RCA terminals Marantz used in this player – do not ask me why – but that is the cheapest rubbish you ever have seen. Buy some good tellur copper RCA sockets and solder the output coupling caps directly to the sockets – and you are done! Further improvements can be achived if you change the diodes in the rectifier section of the player. It is also a good idea to deactivate the headphone amplifier of the CD94.

One last word……as all these modifications means a lot of work that has to be done, do yourself a favour and buy only good original parts, leave out ebay and any cheap offerings, their might be a good chance to get copies of the original stuff…..

The Sound

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Now you experienced what it means to implement a TDA 1541 near to perfection – there are way more tweaks you can do – but what I explained here are the most important ones – to go any further is another story maybe for part III???.

I had the chance to compare the Marantz CD 94 to the lates Naim triple 5 streaming DAC (also a ladder dac design!!!), as also the smaller Aqua DAC and the second best Plaback Designs CD player – and guess what – our old Marantz machine is in the same league. It does not sound equal – of course not – but it is the same level of quality. What we always have, if we implement a TDA 1541 near perfection, is a once in a lifetime digital treble experience. The TDA sounds creamy, smooth and has a tremendous resolution. This resolution has nothing to do, with a tilted up, analytic top end –  this treble is natural, real, and relaxed. I am not a big fan to modify the Marantz CD94 with a tubed output stage, because this modification makes things too soft, too polite – and as I use a full tubed amplifier system behind the player, it would be too much of a good thing. What you also will detect is a tremendous bass performance. The bass gestalt is powerful and deep – really deep, as also tight and very agile – it is one of the most impressive bass performances of any DA converter which is in existence till now. This bass gives your analogue rig a good workout, only the best cartridges (also very expensive) can muster the bass quality of this vintage (modified) CD player. In the midrange we will miss some of the 3D magic our analogue front end is capable of – but that is often a matter of the different mastering techniques used with the media CD – because it has to be very loud (loudness war – another story, I will write about in the future) – so you will face a completely compressed sound on the CD, which is not so much existent on the vinyl mastering of the same production, because such loud and compressed signals are not easy to cut into vinyl. What you also miss is the attack accuracy a Lyra cartridge can give you – but there is a tweak for that at the end of this essay. To make a long story short, the Marantz CD 94 in its modified incarnation sounds close to an EMT TSD 15 cart – BOOOOOM!

The last tweak

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Everyone is talking about Non Over Sampling (NOS) today – it is the newest fashion to get rid of oversampling artefacts, which degrade the pure digital signal (time domain). Oversampling was at the very beginning of the CD era a trick from Philips, as they had just a 14 bit DA converter to offer, while Sony could develop a true 16 bit chip. This is the reason why Philips introduced oversampling – to get 16 bit resolution out of a native 14 bit DAC – and they succeeded. Later on, the situation was comparable to the run for the highest megapixel camera. People do not understand digital technology, they have no knowledge about pixel pitch and all the problems a higher number of megapixel will bring to the game – more is always better – and so we will face in the next years 48mp digital cameras – and nobody knows why a 24mp file looks much better.

The same was going on in the late 80ties and beginning of the 90ties – as multibit DAC technology was the latest fashion. We witnessed the oversampling race…

It starts with 4 times and ends with 16 times oversampling processes…what the people did not realise: With every increase of the oversampling factor, the industry had to work seriously on the speed and accuracy of the clock. DSP technology was not developed in those yers, so instead of that the industry used quarz PLL clock systems. The sound of these  player generation got worse – because of clocking inaccuracy (jitter) – but the consumer had his higher oversampling rate – GREAT!

We can modify the Marantz CD 94 / TDA 1541 to be converted into a NOS DAC without any digital filtering – it is an easy modification, and many, many websites describe, how that modification is done. What you gain is more timing accuracy – because every steep filter (digital or analogue) will deliver a sort of pre ringing (and ripple). You get 3 cycles (worst) in front of the natural leading edge of a tone.  Once you compared the same player with and without oversampling, you will be stunned. Interestingly enough the US company Wadia discovered exactly those phenomena already a long time ago….

But nothing is gained without something we loose –  the frequency linearity of our player will suffer after we converted the CD94 to NOS – which means we get a drop in treble energy around 3db at 20Khz with a soft roll off. So you have to choose, accuracy in the time domain versus frequency linearity in the treble section. I opted for the timing accuracy and did everything I could do, to get the last drop of openes out of the player, which is also the reason, why I did not imply a tubed output stage at this point. Finally you get a very, very serious CD machine with all the above discussed tweaks and modifications. If there is no vinyl available, you can easily buy the CD and enjoy it immensely….and that is, why I did all that work….

Happy listening

 

E. Strauss

 

The Koetsu story – Japanese art Part I

 

There is something special about Japan, tradition and modern high tech are often separated with only a very small distance from each other. The attention to even the smallest detail in some of the best products coming from the land of the rising sun is outstanding – and on the other hand you have mass market products, ugly and very cheaply made. A land full of extremes and contrasts, stuffed cities and beautiful zen gardens amidst them, meditation and extremely noisy gaming rooms, young girls dressed with school uniforms to animate…. and buddhist monks, shinto shrines and fast food…..you get the picture.

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In the past the Japanese industry copied the stuff from the western world – the camera industry comes to mind – and especially German Leica, Rolleiflex and Contax models. But once they got the idea behind a construction, the Japanese engineers had the ability to increase the amount of features as well as the quality and they achieved a better result than the formerly copied product. At that moment there was no German camera industry anymore (Leica survived almost…) and Nikon with their legendary F and F2 models took over the complete professional camera market. If those people do something really seriously, they are able to achieve superlative product qualities.

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Imagine – at the end of the 70ties (last century) Sugano San (the father) came up with something like a Koetsu Red (read Rosewood Signature) cartridge – it was nearly comparable with the presence of the space shuttle in the 19th century….

A line contact stylus, boron cantilever, smarium cobalt magnets, 5 ohm DC resistance and healthy 0.4mV output voltage, bodies made from rosewood, lacquered with Urushi, or even milled out of  solid stone…imagine that at the end of the 70ties…..it was THE ULTIMATE CARTRIDGE!

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If we google Koetsu cartridges today, we will find a lot of forum entries, mostly comprised with misinformation, or completely wrong statements. It is a good source of amusement for the analogue lover….. If wie google Koetsu Black, we will find statements like -“great for voices – rolled off at the top and muddy bass” – than we see a picture of such a Koetsu Black mounted in a Rega RB 300 at the same thread…….on another forum a respected guy is telling us, that the golden flakes dressed upon the Urushi lacquer will result in a much heavier cartridge housing….bullshit!!!!

All forum “informations” have in common that a Koetsu is soft at the treble, has a muddy soft bass and great mid frequency response with a strong emphasis in that section, while it is a bad tracker, which is not able to track the 70 mü torture track on a test record… and is extremely sensitive to VTA adjustment. Some say these cartridges have a ridiculous stiff suspension others claim exactly the opposite, and some others think the VTA must be up at the back of the tonearm – and the majority claims down at the back may be the only way to get a proper sound. Not to mention the different suggestions regarding the termination of the carts – the range goes from 30 Ohm – 1 Kohm or completely open, which means normally 47 Kohm…..Maybe it is time to explain some things???

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The Differences

Lets start with some information regarding the different models…. All Koetsu carts have something in common….They all share 5 Ohm DC resistance, and they all share the same diamond cut, a custom made variation of a line contact stylus,  made to Sugano Sans specification by the Japanese specialist Ogura (which is also used by Lyra with a different profile leaving out the Lyra Delos which uses a Namiki needle). They all use a classic magnetic circuit wich includes a traditional yoke construction.

Here is, in what they differ:

Koetsu Black Goldline

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The only Koetsu with an aluminium body structure today (the original Urushi carts made by Sugano San the father were also based on an aluminium enclosure…) which has also a different form factor compared with the more expensive models. The body is somewhat smaller and has a different gestalt at the front of the enclosure – here we will find a angled cut, which makes us able to observe the cantilever very easy, something which can not be said about the classic Koetsu body shape of the bigger models. The Black has 0.4mV output and 5 Ohm DC resistance, which is achieved with 6n pure copper windings on their coils, and a smarium cobalt magnet. The suspension is somewhat different than the more expensive models – it has a compliance of around 13cu, which makes it compatible to lightweight tonearms, which is also addressed by the aluminium enclosure wich is more heavy than the Rosewood Standrad. The Body has no threaded mounting holes – so you have to deal with tiny screws and even smaller nuts. The cartridge features now silver cartridge pins – older models have golden ones. The modern Black (Goldline) has nicely chamfered golden lines at the edges of the body, which is represented in its name. The bottom of the cart is sealed with the classic thin sheet metal strip with the famous Japanese writing engraved.

The Koetsu Rosewood Standard

The Standard has the same body form factor as the black – we do not get at this point the longer body with the nearly straight edges, which describes a traditional Koetsu model (leaving out the first longbody Koetsu carts) ….but in this case the body is made of rosewood which gives the cartridge its name. The Standard has already the suspension, we will find on the “bigger” Koetsu carts – so it is much stiffer that that of the Black Goldline – between 8 and 9cu….which means, we need a heavier arm! That is very important, because the whole cart is lighter than the Black – so the body structure does not help us with the need of a proper tonearm mass which should reach around 18g (effective mass)! Here we have the first of a long row of common mistakes – a Koetsu Rosewood Standard is not a good match with a SME Series IV or V nor is it in any way compatible to a Rega or a Linn…..if you match the cart with such tonearms – please read the forum entries about rolled off treble and muddy bass…..;-)))) The Rosewood Standard has no threaded mounting holes  either – so you deal again with tiny screws and even tinier nuts….All of its ingredients are equal to the Black Goldline – except for the suspension and the body material.

The Koetsu Rosewood Signature

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With the Signature version of the Rosewood model we get now the traditional Koetsu body shape – gone is the lifted section at the bottom of  cartridge front – but,  be aware – the body is not a straight rectangle construction – the form of the underside is not  parallel to the top of the cart. Again we will get 6n pure copper coils, the stiffer classic Koetsu suspension, 5 Ohm DC resistance and 0.4mV output and again no threaded mounting holes. But Koetsu put on underneath a better quality control and uses more pure materials with the Signature version. What we can see as a costumer is just the traditional body structure which has now the very famous scoop at the bottom plate which protects the enclosure from dust.

In my book the Koetsu Rosewood Signature is the first true Koetsu in the line up – the Standard and even more so the Black Goldline gives you a taste of what you can expect using the Signature. This statement is true for such people, who have a heavier tonearm, for installations which uses an 8 – 12g arm, the Black Goldline would be a much better choice. The bad thing about the Rosewood Signature is its price tag – if I claim that at this point the famous Koetsu sound starts in its purest fashion – it is a very expensive entry level – which it is.

The Koetsu Urushi

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There is no sich thing as THE URUSHI – because Koetsu delivers different models – leaving out the Koetsu Urushi Vermilion, which I will talk about in a minute. All of the other Urushi cartridges are technical equal – what differs is the amazing lacquer artwork in the traditional Japanese Urushi fashion. Some of the models are made with very old techniques, and they are named after the Japanese cities in which these techniques were invented – examples are the Wajima and the Tsugaru. Others use a more modern twist to the old traditional techniques, the Sky Blue comes to mind. Urushi lacquer is a natural product which is won out of tree resin. It needs a long, long time to get fully dry and as it gets dry it gets harder and harder. Underneath the Urushi lacquer – you might guess it already, we will find – a rosewood body….so the Urushi carts use the same material and body form factor as the Rosewood Signature – the difference is the lacquer technique which gives the body a different behaviour regarding mechanical energy transmission and resonances! Technically there is also something new to discover….we still have a 6n pure copper coil but in this case it is caldded with silver. The cladding process could be explained if you imagine your girlfriend or wife putting on her sexy nylon stockings….. So the silver is not melted upon the copper nor is it a hybrid material mixture – it is still pure copper with a very thin cladded silver layer on top. The magnets circuit uses still smarium cobalt material as we get it also from the entry level Black Goldline, but – SURPRISE!!!! we will have now treaded mounting holes – THANK YOU KOETSU!!!!!

The Koetsu Urushi Vermilion

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The only Urushi which differs completely from all the other beautiful carts in this range is the Vermilion….It is easy to detect – because it is the one and only Urushi which is made out of the special red Urushi lacquer which we will also find in traditional Japanese tea equipment, tablets or old jewelry boxes. It has also a slightly different form factor around the engraved section were the mounting bolts are located – the Rosewood Signature as also the other Urushi carts have a straight half tubed engraving  – the Vermilion has a sort of triangular cut out at this section of the body. Technically the Vermilion is a total different beast, than all the other Koetsu carts we already discussed. The DC resistance is still 5 Ohm – but the output drops down to very low 0,2mV – which is caused by a single layer 6n copper coil (no silver cladding is used), were the other Koetsu carts use a double layer coil construction. In addition to that Sugano San opted for a different magnet material – the Vermilion uses an alnico magnet circuit, wich raises the weight of the cart noticeably, compared to the other wood body models. The little red beauty is the Koetsu with the lowest output voltage – so make sure, that your phono stage can handle that thing. If you think about using it with a tubed phono stage together with a step up transformer – you need a high gain phono stage with around 45db of clean gain!

The Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum

With the Rosewood Signature Platinum (RSP) we face a completely new technical chapter in the Koetsu line up because the cartridge uses platinum magnets…Those magnet material has a legendary reputation as all Lyra aficinoados will confirm. Think about the original Lyra Parnassus – and more so the Olympos which used the magnets of the Parnassus and is till the present day a true legend in the world of cost no object cartridges!

Based on this point every Koetsu cart uses this magnet construction. The choose of platinum magnets causes a drop in the output voltage from 0,4mV to 0,3mV, while still having 5 Ohm DC resistance. The housing of the RSP is again Rosewood as the Standard and the Signature uses it either – but in this case Koetsu chooses very old wood qualities. The RSP is the most “cost effective” way to get a platinum magnet Koetsu….which tells you something about the other platinum carts in the portfolio…..

The Stone Body Koetsu

Now we climbed up the ladder to the top, which includes also a price tag, were people, who are not involved in High End audio will buy a nice little car for the same money we have to spent at this point. If you tell your family members, that you bought a Koetsu Blue Lace Diamond Platinum for € 15 000,- there is a good chance, that your wife will incapacitate you….a white jacket and a nice soft cell included….

The complete motor system is equal to the Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum, which we already discussed above – the big difference is the material of the enclosure. Koetsu uses semiprecious stone. The price range differs with the rareness of the material and the expenditure to mould a cartridge enclosure out of the stone. We will find at the “bottom” of the stone body range the Onyx – and at the absolute top we have the legendary Blue Lace and the Coral Stone – the letter is so beautiful, that I cannot avert my eyes if I have the chance to look at such a damn sexy thing!!!!

The Diamond Cantilever

The Koetsu customer can order a diamond cantilever as an upgrade with every Koetsu model – while such an option will cost around €4000,- it makes no sense to think about it until you reached the stone body range – and even there it is a tough decision…..I mean 4000,- …..there are people who buy a complete HiFi system with far less, than we have to spent for this diamond cantilever!

Mono

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Another option is the opportunity to order every Koetsu cartridge as a mono version – in such a case the output voltage will be halved, which might be a serious problem with the Urushi Vermilion model (0,1mV). Koetsu uses the same construction with the mono models as with the stereo carts, but there are naturally only 2 coils in the horizontal plane. So it is not a fully dedicated mono cart regarding the sensitivity of the cantilever, which is able to move also in the vertical plane.

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If you read all the differences till that point you might think – there are only 4 different models in existence – the Black Goldline with its softer suspension, the wood bodies including the Urushi models, the Vermilion with its single layer coil structure and the platinum magnet types. And yes if you do not look close enough at the tiny differences that might be true. At the end Koetsu offers us a very, very scaled product portfolio.

If you read my article about the Lyra Etna, one thing is more than obvious:

Koetsu detected as one of the first cartridge designers the influence of different body materials. And Koetsu was also one of the first designers who found different possibilities in voicing a cartridge with coil materials and different magnet structures. A direct comparison of the various models to detect the influence of the body material or finish (read lacquer) is not possible  – because Koetsu changed also other parameters. The Rosewood Signature has a pure copper coil while the Urushi models use a silver cladded coil structure, and the Vermilion features a single layer coil as also different magnet materials.

The end of the myths

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Lets talk about some facts and get rid of the myths, presumptions and special stories…..

Effective Mass

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A lot of people who own a Linn, Rega or SME tonearm to name just a few – claim that it is not worth to buy anything better in the Koetsu lineup than the Black Goldline – which might be true from their personal perspective – because they do not own a tonearm which is able to function flawless with the other models in the lineup. If you pair a 9g effective mass arm with a Koetsu Urushi than you will detect, that the treble is rolled off and the bass is muddy and does not reach out to the deepest octave. The cartridge with its suspension reacts with the effective mass of the tonearm as a dog and its its tail….if the dog is too lightweight and the tail is heavy the dog is not anymore moving his tail – the tail is also moving the dog….you get it???? – So if we use a cart with a 9cu compliance with a 9g tonearm ist is not only the resonance frequency which gets now up to around 13hz – which might not be the biggest problem – more important is how the mechanical energy which is send from the cart into the tonearm is handled. The wood body carts help us there, because the rosewood damps a good portion of the implied energy – but if the body structure gets harder – read more direct coupling, the things get worse. A stone body Koetsu does not damp any serious amount of mechanical energy with its body structure – it acts in this parameter nearly as a Lyra cart. The Urushi carts are in between the rosewood and the stone bodies – if the body is old and the lacquer did harden over the years you have a glas like coating above your cart. Sugano San the elder used a Fidelity Research FR64S Tonearm with his creations, this beast has an effective mass of over 35g….!!!! – Todays Koetsus are not anymore as demanding in this regard – but from the Rosewood Standard on – it is not a good idea to use a Tonearm with 9 – 11g – ist is recommended to push that figure up to around 18g – and gone is the muddy bass, and the rolled off treble!!!!! The dynamic abilities gain even a greater amount of quality, and the whole thing tracks very, very good. I never got any mis – tracking from a Koetsu cartridge dropped on everything else than a test record. even the most demanding soprano voices are rendered without any harshness or stress!

Termination

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A lot of people use 1Kohm and even 47 Kohm for the Koetsu carts – in most of the cases to compensate for the soft treble gestalt (incompatible tonearms)….What you will get now is a human voice were the body has a certain natural distance to your listening position, but whenever the vocalist sings some treble implemented syllables, like S or SCH or T – than you have a miraculous beaming of the whole performance towards you – the singer is moving front to back dependant from the frequency….this is not anywhere near the real thing – nor is it nice to get such isolated, synthetic treble energy. In my book a Koetsu needs something around 100 Ohm – by the way –  the cart reacts immensely on proper termination. Do not concentrate just on the treble excitement – the bass is also heavily affected – with 1 Kohm it sounds mostly uncontrolled and muddy – so you get both horror stories with just one parameter – in your face sibiliants and a muddy uncontrolled bass….Please keep in mind – if a tonearm is not compatible with its effective mass and energy distribution, there is NOTHING you can gain – it es if you put a very big Garrett turbocharger in your 1,5 l Diesel….and wonder why there is this ugly black smoke coming out of your exhaust…. If the basic things are not addressed you can stop your attempt to get a proper sound out of your Koetsu – look elsewhere.

The critical VTA

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Yes it is true a Koetsu reacts in a distinct way if you change the VTA – but it is also true for every other cart which uses such a sharp cut….so the Koetsu is nothing special here!. Put a record on your table, it should be music with a voice in the mono centre of the soundstage and some naturally recorded instruments, which reaches out to the far right and left of the panorama. Now listen….with the tonearm leveled parallel to the record surface.

What you will hear is:

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The Bass is on the lightweight side of neutral – less impact, soft tone and very difficult to follow.

The upper mids and lower presence is rendered in a unnatural forward sounding way, the singer stands directly in front of you – it is very very up front – a thing – some people like…

The treble and air is nearly completely masked with the lower presence around 4Khz – so there is no real sparkle and no air….

What we normally would do is to rise the tail of the arm to get more treble – but raising the arm gives us no real treble and no air – it gives us more presence – first it starts with the lower presence and as much we raise the tail of the arm we gain more higher presence – we can tune the presence section of the spectrum – but we cannot gain real treble – nor air!!!!! – As we do so, the soundstage suffers seriously – we have no real width anymore leaving alone some pin point accuracy at the extreme edges of the stage. And the bass will suffer – it is now woody and not deep anymore…..

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So – raising the VTA is not the right direction – lets try it the other way round….and BOOOOOOOOOOOM!!!!!! – There it is – a slightly tilted down rear end of the tonearm and the sound becomes wide, and the bass shows now heft and structure, the emphasis in the presence  is now much more domesticated – and we are able to detect a good amount of natural treble and air, as also a dramatical improvement in resolution. Now you have to find the sweet spot which depends on speaker position, your room acoustic (hard but true – we spent so much money on carts and phono stages – but the real deal is the room acoustic) – their will be a point were you get the widest stage AND a clear center focus – no high mid and lower presence emphasis and a full bodied bass with a nice tonal structure. The sound is now very, very natural and realistic, and in a special way seductive and immensely beautiful. And yes a Koetsu is not a Lyra or a Transfiguration – it is something else, which is in itself fascinating, delicious and very, unique – this carts could generate a drug like sound. Nothing sounds as a Koetsu – and I mean NOTHING!!!!

Further adjustments

As with every sharp stylus cut the Koetsu reacts very  sensitive about all the typical parameters. So take your time to adjust the cart in a proper way. That is more easy said than done, because you cannot see the damn cantilever. Use a good protractor and different magnifying glasses to get the geometry spot on. Do not use the body with its straight lines – the cantilever is the only thing that counts!!!! With the azimuth use as a starting point a pencil mine which you should place on top of the headshell and not on top of the body – it might work with the Black Goldline and also the Stone bodies and the Rosewood models – but with the Urushi carts, there is a great chance, that the lacquer is much too uneven to get a proper result. After you have adjusted the azimuth basically, put on a mono record on your turntable – switch the cartridge connection cables of one channel and swith your preamplifier to mono…..Now you should here nearly nothing – because the two channels should be 180° out of phase and canceling out any sound coming from the two channels. You will here some treble signals coming through – that is normal and nothing to worry about. But if you detect some serious signals in the mid spectrum or more problematic the bass, you have to dial in the azimuth in a way, that you get the maximum of cancelation between both channels. As you see, you do not need a Fozgometer or a measuring computer….you can do it with just a mono recording. And you know now, why a mono switch wich your preamp is hopefully equipped with is something very, very useful. After you are finished with your azimuth adjustment – do not forget to reconnect the tonearm cables in the proper way….;-))))

 The little details:

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Please do not use any aluminium cartridge screws as also no Delrin or heavy dampening plastic stuff – a good idea is brass, copper (even better) or – the screws Lyra sells – which are amazingly good. Please avoid also nuts made out of aluminium, which is important if you use Koetsu carts with no threaded mounting holes.

If you mount the cart – please do not overtighten the mounting bolts – you can deform the body structure and it is seldom conductive soundwise to use brutish force!

If you use a step up transformer  a 1:20 might be the best choice – if you already bought the Urushi Vermilion – make sure, that your tubes phono MM stage can handle the small amount of output this specific carts has to offer. Talking about SUT´s – the Michael Ulbrich “Monster Can” (see my Lyra Etna SL essay) will be an amazing performer – I must confess, that I never had a SUT which mated so well with any of the Koetsu cartridges – it is amazing – in particular the bass performance is astonishing! – THANK YOU MICHAEL – WELL DONE!!!!

Use a cable with a very low capacity from the SUT to your phono stage  – which is also important for your tonearm cable (in one future essay I will come bak to that…)!

One last word

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Maybe you observed on the used market some very nice Koetsu carts – mostly the mega expensive stone body carts are on offer for a big, big discount. You start reading the description of the used cart (hopefully given in a truthful way)…. “Koetsu Burma Jade – only played 100 hours, retipped by VdH – better than new…..”

Please be aware that no retipped Koetsu will sound like the original one – not a remake from Benz Micro nor one from VdH. I do not say that this carts are bad or worthless – but it is not anymore what it was. There is just one retipping company which is able to get as close to the original as possible, that is Ana Mighty Sound from France! But why should I use a retipping service if Sugano San is still alive and happy to take your order for a complete overhaul of you beloved Koetsu??? – Koetsu does not do any retippings – they do a complete remake – which is a fine thing – because you get after the procedere a brad new cart with a new unused suspension, new cantilever, new stylus – everything is brad new – they just leave your body like it is (which is also a good thing….). And they have a fair price politic for such a complete remake – and it does not need a year – it is done in 2 or 3 months. If I have spent €10 000,- on a stone body, I would not hesitate to give the cart to those, who once built it. That is the only chance to get back, what you have payed for – because – once again – no different stylus shape, no different cantilever material, length and shape and no variation in coil material and thickness will recreate what the cart once was. You get something which might plays music – but it is not anymore a Koetsu!

Which brings us to a different kind of online offerings…..an original Koetsu Urushi made by Sugano the father from 1984 in brad new condition – never played – and the price is…….ta ta ta taaa €6000,-!!!! Why would I buy a cart from 1984 – if we all know that a suspension will harden over the time – even if the cart was never used (which is a very common term today – may it a description which says  ” never played” or “not even burnt in” – or “150 hours but 5 years old” because the owner has several carts….and so on….) keep in mind every cartridge changes its technical parameters in the suspension over the time. Such an old Urushi might have a compliance of 5cu – and can hardly track any piano tone…..

There is no other cartridge type were we can observe so much bullshit as with the famous Japanese Koetsu!

If you want to have one – wait until you have the funds to buy a new one. In most of the cases it turns out as a much cheaper solution and it is even more delightful to start your journey with an original and masterfully build gem!

At the end it is one of the very rare true classic carts which offers a one of a kind sound aesthetic and is unmatched till today, because no other manufacturer comes even close to that particular sound experience.

…..happy listening

E. Strauss

Air Tight ATE 2 – a full tubed full function preamplifier

The company:

With the Japanese company Air Tight there is a lot to discover which is completely absent in todays High End scene. Product running times of more than thirty years without any MK II or upgraded version of a given amplifier is something we wont find at any other company today. If a piece of gear is developed, than it IS developed, there is no reason for any change, which says something about the quality of the development. Miura San is one of the last living legends in the audio scene, meanwhile in his mid eighties, he has a lifetime of experience in building tubed audio equipment, a sort of deep understanding seldom found in todays fast changing market were every year new completely unknown people want to tell us, they found a new technology in amplifying an audio signal. With some new technologies, like digital amplifiers, that might be true, but with tube technology???

Miura has a sort of calm style in managing his company and developing audio gear. Things need time, countless listening tests, which was very clearly seen with his Opus 1 cartridge, which Air Tight brought out two  years ago as a cooperation project between Matsudaira San (My Sonic Lab) and Miura San of Air Tight (A&M ltd.) to celebrate the 30. birthday of the company. Miura needed more than 3 years from the first prototype, shown to the press and some “insiders” for listening tests, till the final product entered the market. And between the first prototype and the final candidate, there was much more different, than just the styling of its beautiful appearance. Instead of that Miura changed a lot of details which had a tremendous impact on the sound of the final product. It is astonishing how a man in his mid eighties could achieve such a good hearing as also spending so much attention to the finest details. The fruit of his restless work was once again, as we witnessed it more than 10 years ago with the legendary PC1 Supreme cartridge, a place at the very top of todays cartridge designs. The portfolio of the small company near Osaka, which counts around 6 employees, is dedicated to the analogue music lover. There are no CD players or DA converters in existence, instead of those kind of products, Miura offers a wide range of tube pre, phono and power amplifiers, which use nearly every single famous power tube concept in existence, as the 300B, 211, EL 34, EL84, 6L6 GC and the KT88. The output power varies between 2X 8 Watts of the ATM300 to 2X 110 Watts of the ATM3 EL 34 monoblocks and is finely graduated. Not only this wide variation of power tube concepts reminds me of one of the other legends in the Japanese art of building tube equipment – …Shindo.

An indication of both companies is the fact, that the price of an amplifier has no direct influence on his sound. The smallest amp Air Tight has in their portfolio, the ATM1s is one of the finest EL 34 amplifiers I know.

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The difference in money you have to spent for the power amplifiers has more to do with the size of transformers (and their price tag) and power supplies, because a KT88 in ultra linear operation with its 2X 75 Watts needs more expensive iron, than an EL 34 amplifier, the exception of this rule concerns all single ended amplifiers. What I want to say is – in the Air Tight amplifier lineup there is no such thing as entry level and reference level in their ability to give you a maximum in soundquality! That said, things change quite a bit with the portfolio of preamplifiers – here we face a difference in fittings, be it the existence or absence of a phono sections, or the kind of outlay in which the gear is made. And even if there is a sort of range describing the quality of the different preamplifiers, there might be also some exceptions from that rule. If the little full function preamp ATC1 is mated with the previously mentioned ATM1s, (a pairing which was made for each other and was also developed together), you are in for a treat!!

The lineup includes pure line stages and full function preamplifiers with on board phono sections, as also stand alone phono preamps. The more basic (which does not mean simple or bad sounding) gear share a transistor, diode rectified power supply, as we climb up the range, we get tube rectifiers and full tube stabilisation with some of the most elaborated hybrid power supplies you will find on the market,

The Air Tight ATE2:

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Miura had the Chuzpe as an analogue lover to bring a full function preamplifier to the market, which has a full blown phono section with all bells and whistles – but he equipped the ATE2 just with one single line input. So the ATE2 is not for those audiophiles, who have a tremendous number of gear….just ONE nice FM tuner or CD player, maybe a DAC with switchable inputs (which gains the flexibility if you have more than one digital source) and you are done with the number of line inputs. On the other hand, you will find two MM inputs, switchable from the front plate, and a pair of phono direct outputs, bypassing the whole line stage with all switches, volume control and of course the tubed line gain stage.

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This additional pair of output jacks are very special and offer us different operation modes. You can plug the phono direct outputs into your favourite line stage, as you can feed the Air Tight amplifiers directly, because they all (not the ATM300) have two  switchable pairs of inputs and sensitivity potentiometers, to adjust the volume or gain. The latter will be the most pure signal flow you can achieve. With its 200 Ohm output impedance the ATE2 has no problems to drive nearly every power amplifier on the market directly. If you have a second amplifier setup in your room, those extra pair of direct phono outputs can also be used to feed a different system, while the whole full function preamplifier resides in his setup, it can distribute the phono signal fully processed (RIAA eq and gain) to another device.

The power supply:

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Miura San opted for tube rectifiers and tube stabilisatation in the power supply of the ATE2. Together with the in house produced power tranny with its 8 different outlets, we will find a single 6X4 full wave rectifier tube. Stabilistation is done with a 12BH7 double triode and a EF 86 penthode. The regulation is accomplished fully discrete using the finest components available. Miura replaces electrolytic capacities as fast as possible in favour to high voltage foil caps in the signal chain and supply voltages.  Therefor he uses the excellent  Audience (Auri Caps). Electrolytics will be found just  in the first stage of the power supply and in some regulation circuits, together with ASC paper in oil caps a reminiscence to the golden time of tube technology.

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After careful listening sessions, I opted for a GEC CV 4005 black plates in the rectifier stage, which is a British military version of the 6X4 or EZ90 (the European designation for the same tube). The two stabilisation tubes EF 86 and 12BH7 were selected with RCA 12BH7 black Plates foil d getter from the end of the fifties (last century;-)) and the legendary Telefunken EF 806S, which got this status from its use in the well known Neumann U67 microphone.

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The phonosection:

A novelty in the Air Tight portfolio is the fact, that Miura uses in each of his phono section exactly the same design – what differs is just the expenditure in its layout. The basic design features a 2 stage gain section made with 3X 12AX7 (or ECC83) double triodes. The first gain stage is made with one single 12AX7 which does just gain at this point – subsequently we will find the bass emphasis part of the RIAA curve in the signal flow,

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which is located between the first and the second gain stage to avoid noise. The second gain stage uses just one respective section of the two remaining 12AX7 double triodes, after which the signal passes the treble processing of the RIAA curve.The complete equaliser section is made by using a CR circuit, one of the simplest ways to achieve a highly accurate equalisation with a minimum of fuss and parts.

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To get a preferably low output impedance Miura designed a SRPP circuit in the decoupling stage of the ATE2 using the two remaining section of the 12AX7 (ECC83). So all in all we have 3 12AX7 (ECC83) in the phono section of all Air Tight preamplifiers with exactly the previously explained implementation. What differs is the kind of execution, the quality of the parts and the power supply. The whole amplifier is point to point wired, which also applies also to the phono section. The whole circuit is placed on a smooth copper plate, which is treated with Zappon lacquer to avoid oxidation. This copper plate has two functions, on the one hand it shields the small signals from electromagnetic pollution, on the other hand it acts as a mechanical isolation device.

The line stage:

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In the line stage of the ATE2 Miura choose ECC88 frame grid tubes . Those are naturally superior to any 12AX7 (ECC83) or 12AU7 (ECC82). With the frame grid technology the Philips group found at the pinnacle of the tube age one of the most dramatic progression in the sound quality of electron tubes. If you have the chance to peek into such a construction, you will understand that this technology signified a whole new chapter in tube design – those tubes are made like a piece of mechanical and electro mechanical art! The ATE2 uses a two stage design in their line section implemented with two ECC88 and decouples the signal with a SRPP design we already discussed with the phono section to achieve also 200 Ohm output impedance.

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The volume tracking is accomplished with one of the best possibilities next to a ladder switch, by using the very famous ALPS Japan RK 501 pot….A haptic enjoyment! This thing is extremely transparent and does not ad any coloration to the sound, as it gives you a very precise tool to adjust volume, even in very, very small increments. The stunningly even channel balance of this pot is amazing – even if it does not work in its optimal range – amazing!

Controls:

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Next to the ALPS RK 501 volume potentiometer, we will find a stereo/mono switch on the front plate of the ATE2, as also balance control and two switches for the different sources. The latter is made in a special way – you have a switch which selects line or phono, and an additional one for selecting one of the two phono MM inputs. All switches are easy maintainable if one day they need some cleaning. Both switches  do react without any noise! Last but not least we will find the power button on the right side of the front plate, which is typical for any Air Tight gear. Miura designs every piece of gear with a certain legality, the power supply sections are always at the right side of the gear as it is the power inlet.

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It is very easy to built up an Air Tight system without getting a big mess behind the gear with signal and power cables twisted together – very, well done Mr Miura! The principle of design means also, that we have to place the gear in a certain way – our goal is to get the largest distance between the power supply of our amplifier and the input section of the phono stage – and as the gear is made as it is – it is an easy task.

Tube rolling:

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As I use my beloved Quad ESL 57 with the ATE2 it is not recommended to mess up the incredible resolution and pureness of this preamp. So I opted against some very exciting Mullard long plates (MC1 long plates square getter) – because those type of tubes work perfectly with a speaker like the LS3/5a – but not with the restricted amount of highest treble energy the Quad has to offer. The KEF T50 tweeter in the LS3/5a together with the deviding network means a slight treble rise with a tremendous resolution – the T50 is able to react on frequencies over 40Khz with ease. The Quad is a different breed – the treble starts to roll off at 15Khz – and is nearly absent at 18Khz – a Mullard – as beautiful it might sound, is the last thing we need with this speaker system. One might think an Amperex would be a good choice – and yes, I tried this…. I use Amperex long plates 12Au7 and 12AX7 Foil D Getter in another preamplifier in my Quad room – but in this case, i could detect a pronounced emphasis in the prenence, which is typical for the Amperex long plates and one of the reasons for their amazing 3D abilities…. But with this specific preamplifier it was too much of a good thing…

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With the decision of proper NOS phono tubes, we also decide what kind of performance we will get regarding the noise coming from the record – all this little nasties like clicks and pops could be amplified in a way, that we will get crazy or we have a lucky smile on our face. There are NOS tubes in existence, which set these noisy signals far away from the music – they perform in such a quick way, that a click is just a short signal, with a Mullard (MC1) in a phono stage, such a click will be a real event, something I cannot live with;-))))

That does not mean, this legendary Mullard is a bad tube – far from it – but in a phono stage ist is everything else than a perfect solution!

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As you might guess – I opted for a triplet of equally numbered Telefunken ECC83 smooth plates. A tube which is sooo quiet, one of the most silent ECC83 I know. And the Telefunken can transfer those clicks and pops in something you are able to ignore – a miracle! The ECC83 Telefunken has such a balanced sound, which lets the ESL 57 shine. The bass is tight and well rendered, the mids are outstanding – maybe the reference point in this tube class (read my essay about the Telefunken ECC83 on this blog) – and last but not least we get a high unforced treble resolution, something the Quad needs so urgently! At the whole frequency spectrum the Telefunken is almost neutral – especially in the midband, which is is a MUST, if you listen to a pair of Quad ESL 57 – this little divas are able to show you the slightest amount of coloration.

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With the line tubes it was not such a clear decision, and even today, I can live with more than the single solution I finally choosed. I had some of the finest ECC88 to play with, and every single one of them has such a tremendous sound quality with some special colours, the others miss. My stash included Siemens Halske CCA, Telefunken E88CC, Amperex Bugle Boy 6922 Gold Pins and Valvo Red Label E88CC. The Siemens had the finest resolution and the tightest bass – the air this tube can deliver is outstanding, the whole amplifier starts to breathe – amazing! – But the Siemens has a slight defensive midband section, a little bit of the classic HiFi coloration. That is easy, if you listen to Jazz or Vocals as also Pop music – but if you choose one day a very good classic recording – you will detect what I mean. It is still acceptable if you listen to small orchestra music – but if you choose romantic music, like Mahler or Bruckner – it does not work…..massed strings get a synthetic touch, the overtone spectrum sounds not natural anymore….

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The Amperex has an amazing 3D rendering – it is one of the rare tubes which can tell you something about the third dimension in a given recording – you will get a real nice picture! BUT – the Amperex is also coloured –  here it is the presence area of the spectrum. This makes vocals super sexy – female singers are a sort of an erotic experience – but than you listen to some distorted guitars – and it is all over….;-)))) – The presence emphasis transfers a Metallica record to more or less something we would call noise…..yes I hear you – you think IT IS NOISE – but It is not….The guitar sound produced on this specific album is like jumping in a warm swimming pool…. It is arranged in a style comparable with a church organ – listen carefully, and you might detect this album is far from being just noise – even it is Heavy Metal!!!!!!

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The Valvo Red was amazing – as was the Telefunken E88CC – both are maybe my favourite E88CC in THIS PARTICULAR preamplifier..both share a neutral midband, both have a natural unforced resolution, the Valvo Red being a little bit recessed in rendering the highest frequencies – but not in a way, that I missed something. The Telefunken was more open, and acted quicker at the leading edge. In opposite the Valvo had a slightly more impressive bass…..if I am bored – I can change those two E88CC tubes back and forth – one month is Valvo month – followed by a Telefunken month….I started with the Telefunken E88CC!

The enclosure:

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Miura San built his gear like it was made in the golden age of tube amplifiers. There is no cheap aluminium box screwed together, instead he uses a steel enclosure of 1.3 – 1,6mm thickness welded together! After that procedere the chassis gets some solid layers of automobile paint in a baked finish. The reason for such a tremendous outlay is on one hand the perfect shielding such a faraday cage is able to accomplish, on the other hand we will detect that steel is a fantastic resonance absorber. The aluminium frontplate is just screwed on top of the steel enclosure to get a nice an stylish appearance.

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The bottom of the ATE2 is made of copper – that means that gear which stands underneath the ATE2 cannot radiate electromagnetic pollution into the fragile circuits. The whole preamp enclosure is divided into 3 main sections. One section is reserved for the power supply and separates the top deck of the ATE2 in two section using a massive copper plate.  If we turn the ATE2 over, we will find the bottom main deck, in which the complete line section is located.

The Sound:

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I own from Air Tight also the ATE 2005 stand alone phono stage, which uses the same circuit and layout as the ATE2 in its phono section. They both just differ in their power supply (and a very special MC head amp the ATE2005 features). Were the ATE 2005 uses a transistor power supply and diode rectification, as also full discrete transistor regulation, the ATE2 uses a full tubed power department.

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Both differ also in their gain layout, a consequence of the built in MC head amp in the ATE 2005…(another story…)

The ATE2 features 36db of MM phono gain, the ATE 2005 just 30db. For any comparison I had to adjust the volume accordingly – which I did. The impact of tubes in a well built power supply is clearly detectable – the ATE 2005 has a drier bass response, very tight and limitless, while the ATE2 brings a certain agility on the table with an aesthetic which is completely different from the ATE 2005. On Dancefloor, Electronic and some Pop music pieces I like this tight, deep and impactful behaviour  of the ATE 2005 very much. If we change the music style to Classic or Jazz, the ATE2 sounds more real, the bass ist more articulate, even if it is not as tight. The music beginnst to breathe, there is a sort of beauty in the bass rendering, which the transistor power supply equipped ATE 2005 cannot counter. On the other hand the ATE 2005 has a sort of openess, which the ATE2 can not muster. The Air and resolution is astonishing – while the ATE2 reacts in a smoother warmer style! Both are some of the finest tubed phono stages in existence today – and both are everything else than equal!

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The ATE2 os able to render a jet black background, the micro dynamic abilities are stunning, even the slightest shades of dynamic contrast is presented in all its glory, which is also a form of resolution, nobody speaks about today….but it is a very important type of resolution. Treble and Air resolution, which we get in spades since a couple of yers even if the whole picture drifts into analytic insignificance is one part of the story –  but what makes you sit and listen while forgetting to breathe are the finest differences in dynamic shades…I could (and do) waive the last ounce of treble and air resolution with my choice of speaker (the ESL57) but I cannot live without the finest dynamic shades – which brings – in my opinion – music to life. The ATE2 shows this ability with tremendous realism, and the ESL can transduce the whole picture in all its complexity in a very accurate way.

This preamplifier reacts very, very fast to the leading edge of a sound or instrument, and all the Quad lovers will agree, this is one of the skills were our beloved “vintage” speaker shows to most of all modern designs what attack speed is all about. You can witness the birth of a tone – what could be more beautiful….???

It is stunning what Peter Walker designed sixty years ago, which we can enjoy in all its beauty and perfection with todays elaborated moving coil transducers and high resolution (in a good way) electronics.  It reminds me of an old Leica screw mount camera with its famous Elmar 1:3.5 mated with a modern black and white film….The picture (sound picture) is in both examples a long forgotten type of aesthetics, which touches our heart. It is not a photoshopped high resolution digital picture with all its arbitrariness!!

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The ATE2 could be your last preamplifier, if you can live with just one line input, it is THAT GOOD. There might be more resolution, more bass, more treble or more macro dynamic today in the most modern and elaborated designs – but the wholeness, the natural kind of rendering this thing is capable off, differentiate real music played by real human beings from a sort of an effect dilution.

Its comparable to movie films – one needs hundreds of Avid and computer –  rendering effects to get the plot through – the other movie has just a perfect and tasteful camera mated with a fantastic script. If you have really something to say  – you just need a quiet audience…..

Think about that….

Stay tuned

 

E. Strauss

 

Lyra Etna – a pristine beauty

The construction:

If we compare the Lyra Etna SL with its more expensive stablemate, the Atlas SL, we will discover that both cartridges share the same basic technical ingredients. Both feature the same line contact stylus cut, the same diamond coated cantilever as also the same coil technology and stylus material. They even have the exact same technical data except the weight of the whole cartridge. While the Atlas is made from one solid billet of Titanium, the Etna uses just a core structure made from this very rigid material. The side elements are made of special grade aircraft aluminium press fitted with the inner Titanium core structure additionally damped with some bronze inlets, a technology that Lyra started to use in a slightly different way with the Kleos cartridge.

The Sound:

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It is somewhat a once in a lifetime experience to get the chance of comparing the sound difference between two cartridges which differs just in one single construction parameter – the body structure. This is a mindblowing experience, because it is hard to believe that just a body structure could make such a tremendous difference in the sound aesthetic which we will detect comparing the Atlas SL with the Etna SL. While the Atlas stretches the frequency extremes like no other cartridge I know, the Etna features one of the most natural mid band spectrums I am aware off. Do not think the Etna SL is rolled off at the top or has any weakness in showing anything less than the deepest octave of recorded music – far from that. But the Etna SL has such a pure and natural midband performance, that you are more aware of what happens in this frequency section, than listening to the explosive bass or treble performance the Atlas is capable off. The Etna breathes the tone, the Atlas trows it at you – both is an amazing experience. If I listen to Pop music, Electro, even Jazz, the Atlas sucks you into the performance with his sheer heft and tremendous speed and agility. The Etna SL in comparison has more flow, more natural Gestalt and an amazing integrity of the whole frequency spectrum. The dynamic abilities are also outstanding, but the sound does not so much explode in front of you, instead it unfolds a never ending colour scheme of tones and moods. There is a wide and deep stage, a tremendous realistic rendering of the recorded space – and on top of that you get a string tone to die for. The vocal performance is more integrated, than with the Atlas – there is more a human being in front of you – what you loose is the last drop of resolution and a very, very tiny bit of air around the singer. What you get instead is the body of the artist – you get a different kind of resolution – a resolution, were tiny shades of different moods, while the recording session took place, vary the vocals. Every tiny bit of feeling  – or – the soul of the music!

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Lyra does not offer a small Atlas with the introduction of the Etna – Lyra gave us audiophiles a different view of the same picture. You can choose if you want to have the thrilling experience of the Atlas or the richness in midband colours of the Etna. It is unbelievable that just the different body structure could alter the sound of an otherwise identical cartridge. Jonathan Carr showed us, that body material and the structure can “voice” a cart in very different way. I think the monoblock Titanium structure of the Atlas allowed the cartridge motor to get the highest attack precision without any kind of smoothing out those first few milliseconds, while the Aluminium / Titan structure of the Etna emphases the resolution in the mid band – and rounds even so slightly the the leading edge.

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Mating the Etna SL with a phono stage – tubed or transistor, as well as finding the right step up transformer might be challenging. If a cart has such a fantastic mid band purity, the last thing we would want is any colouration in this very important range. I opted for a tubed phono stage, and with this decision, you start to think about the right tubes to choose in this regard. Mullard and Amperex are well known for their low midband emphasis (Mullard MC1 Long Plates) and a certain offensive character in the presence department of the sound  spectrum(Amperex Foil D Getter Long Plates). To find really uncoloured tubes of the ECC family lets you think about Telefunken and very old Valvo ECC83 (M1 or MC2). Both tubes can give you an uncoloured midband performance while also having a tight grip on the bass and a sweet unforced treble aesthetic. With a tubes phono stage there is in most cases the need for a step up transformer – the Etna SL has a very low inner resistance and give us just 0,25mV, which calls for a 1:20 or 1:30 step up device depending on the gain of your phono mm section.

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That brings me to one still relatively unknown transformer made here in Berlin by Michael Ulbrich and his company Consolidated Audio. At the beginning of 2019 I got my copper wound nano 1:20 transformer – and the pairing with the Lyra Etna SL is nothing short of spectacular. Michael succeeded in designing a SUT which is very, very transparent to the source. All starts with a speed this device is capable off, so that you get the last ounce of the leading edge – and – very important, the clicks and crackles are just very, very short signals – there is no tendency to lengthen those on the time axis. A short click is, what it is – there is no rounding, no smoothing and no side effects. This ultra fast reaction lets us “hear trough” all the clicks an crackles on our beloved vinyl. As I also work on vinyl restoration, I did some tests and comparisons regarding this aspect with other well regarded step up devices. If you transcribe the vinyl record to a digital workstation, you can measure the attack performance versus the timeline. What I found out is, that most of the SUT I had in for comparison do a more or less rounding on the leading edge of a click or the signal. With the Consolidated Audio SUT all those little nasties are clearly differentiable from the music – they get out of our musical awareness – awesome!

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The “Monster Can” is shielded very well against electromagnetic interference – you can place it wherever you want – even near a power transformer there is no hum. All the typical High End rituals, like dressing the cables, finding the right position in your rack (most often the hum is gone if you hold the SUT in your hand, were no rack shelf is in existence;-)) are forgotten…Just find a place were you have enough height in your audio furniture, because the thing is big – really big!

With the “Monster Can” Michael Ulbrich also gave us the possibility to terminate our cartridge with resistor plugs. Between the input and output section you will find one extra RCA terminal per channel to plug in those resistor equipped RCA connectors. The built quality is outstanding – and the attention to detail second to none. The “Monser Can” comes with very smooth rubber feet – so any isolation platform is obsolete – and those feet hold the heavy thing securely in its place. All terminals are of the finest quality as is the built finish of the whole enclosure.

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Sound-wise this thing is close to a wire with gain – do not expect an overly warm and coloured SUT sound – the Consolidated Audio device is very, very transparent – maybe the most spectacular aspect is the pureness of the mid frequencies as well as the unlimited bass fundament which it is able to produce. There is a complete absence of any harshness or artefacts – just music. Well done Micha Ulbrich, WELL DONE!!

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If you pair the “Monster Can” with a low capacitance cable between the SUT and the input of your phono MM section, you are in for a treat. The Lyra Phonopipe does an impressive job in this regard, and the Etna SL begins to breathe. The string tone is spookily realistic, creating a 3D impression of the musical performance. Listen to a well recorded piano and you might think the damn thing is standing in your room – amazing!  If someone would have told us 15 years ago, that such mega performing carts, step up devices and tonearms would be available…..

It is very interesting what a huge step some of the cartridge manufacturers are meanwhile able to muster. The biggest downside is a very steep price tag such beauties have in our days – the race towards the € 20.000 is on – and we will see if this limit will be reached this or the next year. That is one of the biggest problems in the serious music reproduction industry – because young people, listening to music via their mobile phone and a docking station will be shocked if they enter a HiFi shop today and become aware of the sometimes completely over the top price tags. Lyra created one big exception from this course – they brought the Delos onto the market, the fist cart in the line up with the new specific damper technology. The Delos is also not cheap, but what J. Carr developed for €1300 is amazing! – In other words – it needs a very, very fine record player and tonearm to unleash what the Delos has to offer. And the price tag – a hint for all the crazy “what´s best” guys….the price tag says nothing about the quality of this awesome cart. If J. Carr would double the price – it would still punch above his weight.

Happy listening

 

E Strauss