Friday, 28 March 2014

Don't Believe What They Tell You By Default - Mesurements Can Be Subjective Too

I've always been of the opinion that measurements, where they relate to how music is reproduced on an hifi system are only there to give some clues.  There are those who believe that measurements can tell you everything you need to know and you can buy kit based on those measurements.  I'm of the opinion that there are still limits to our knowledge and that measurements only cover some parameters, not all of them.

Recently I've seen forum posts that cite the dynamic range (a measurement of the difference between the quietest sounds and the loudest sounds) of an album definitively proves if an album is going to sound good or not.  Of course, dynamic range is an important measure and an important indicator, but it doesn't tell you anything about distortion levels, the quality of the recording equipment / mixing desk / analogue to digital converters, the care with which the recording was made, the imaging in the mix, the frequency range etc. etc.  So its and indicator, but its not definitive.

So its interesting to see this article on the audiostream.com site which exposes some very specific measurements and how they were taken and why they are not necessarily even indicative of what they claim to be measuring.

http://www.audiostream.com/content/are-measurements-subjective

So, like I suggest above, just listen and decide for yourself - you'll like it or you'll not like it, but you'll be using the most important measuring technique you have available, and the most trustworthy available.  Be confident in your own ability to hear the differences and make a decision.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Global Reach

Interesting debate going on at the sondex.ru forum about my Linn vs Naim streamer comparison:

http://soundex.ru/index.php?showtopic=9564&page=99

And here in the Netherlands:

http://www.htforum.nl/yabbse/index.php?topic=126367.800

And pageviews by country in the last 7 days:
United States
2756
United Kingdom
340
Sweden
184
China
120
France
116
Germany
98
Indonesia
77
Canada
63
Netherlands
62
Poland
46

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

FiiO Fi Fo Fumb

I'm currently on the UK west coast mainline heading for home.  That's good news.

There is more good news, but its not 100% good news.

There's a new portable digital music player on my block and this is its first trip outside Musings Towers.

But what about the iPod?  Well, that's still absolutely going to be my primary portable player - with AAC tracks ripped at 320kbps I get every single one of my 10,000+ tracks onto my 160GB classic, along with lots and lots of interesting podcasts.  As an all in one solution, despite the bloatware that is iTunes, its still pretty much unbeatable.  With 320kbps and the Beyer Dynamic DTX-101 ear buds, it works well, its versatile and sounds more than acceptable.  It also appeals to my lazy side - I don't have to decide which tracks to take with me, or which to leave at home as they're all there all the time.

Under some circumstances, it would be good to take the full fat uncompressed FLAC music experience along for the ride.  This needs a device designed to support this format, with a decent DAC that can handle 24bit files and with sound quality as a fundamental design objective (without which, might as well stick with the reasonable quality available on the iPod).  I could have purchased an iPod and added rockbox, but that would still leave the quality of the headphone amp to be desired, and the inability to play 24 bit tracks.  Astell and Kearn have been producing a decent device, but its price really puts it out of my range in terms of something that's more of a nice to have than a primary device.

So along comes FiiO with the X3, a device that's aiming exactly at what fills this gap for me.  FLAC compatible, 24 bit capable, decent DAC and decent headphone amp.  Add to that the ability to feed a line level output to an amp, or even an electrical SP/DIF signal to a DAC and it starts to look very flexible and worth a try. At a price around 1/3 of existing offerings and it looks like the way to go.  The non-headphone outputs are very interesting from a travelling point of view when I have a car with me, and I'm stopping 2 or more nights somewhere.  The ability to plug into a proper amp and use speakers in an hotel room is very appealling and will the subject of another post soon.  No need to shop around, seems that they're the same price on ebay or Amazon.

Who are FiiO?  They appear to be a Chinese company who are bringing low cost manufacturing to the sector, in addition to nothing particularly innovative, other than stringing some existing technologies into a new and interesting package.

If you're looking for something that's as simple and (relatively) foolproof to work as an iPod, then look away now.  The FiiO X3 isn't there yet, but seems to be making progress...

Its not intuitive like an iPod, the control layout isn't brilliant and the screen brightness &  image quality leave much to be desired. Plus, the process for getting a 64GB micro SD card formatted to work isnt exactly straightforward.  Given that the device has a micro SD slot (there's only 8GB of on board storage), the first thing most owners will want to do is add a card and get it formatted. To have to search the forums so soon is not brilliant.  And theres another challenge.  The firmware is evolving so quickly that the forum discussions are already out of date on some topics. The firmware mine came preloaded with has a menu option to format the card, this seems to be a later addition,  given some of the less that smooth routes some users have had to go through before this option was added to the firmware.  Updating the firmware looks quite straightforward,  but I haven't tried that yet, just getting used to the device first.
Plugging the device into my Dell Latitude Windows 7 PC was painless (using the supplied micro USB cable - some audio cables are also included, but thankfully they don't waste any of your cash on rubbish earbuds, you need to choose your own cans), shows the device storage as drives. Loading music is just a case of copy and paste in Windows Explorer and is a smooth process. Initially I've copied over about 300 tracks, all FLAC format and a mix of mainly 16 bit CD rips and some 24 bit material at different sample rates.
Back on the device and its supposed to recognise new music and update its library automatically.  I'm not sure yet how well it does this as I prompted a refresh of the library via the menu option, just to be sure. Will kerp an eye on this and will report back after a few weeks of use.
Battery life seems decent, running to about 8 hours when using the headphones but seems much longer when using the analogue line out, to the point where it hasn't run down on me yet, before reconnecting to the PC. There is no charger included with the device. I don't have a problem with this as I have USB chargers and cables of a compatible type for my Samsung phone which I carry with me most of the time. It will charge when connected to the PC too.

So to sound quality.  Very briefly, its a major step up from an iPod classic, even when the iPod is playing uncompressed ALAC files. Using either the Beyer Dynamic DTX 101 or the Sennheiser Momentums, the sound is bright, detailed, pacey and dynamic.  Bass goes deep but occasionally is a little boomy, I set the tone controls to -1 on the bass which brings back control. The headphone amp has a switchable high and low output levels so should drive most models adequately.  I find the higher output setting with the volume turned down gives a more substantial sound compared to the lower output with the volume turned up.  Given this excellent sound performance, I was expecting 24 bit to be outstanding.  However, with a bunch of mixed 16 and 24 bit tracks on shuffle, I felt I was remembering which tracks are 24 bit rather than hearing the difference. This difference is much smaller than audible on my Linn streamer in the home system. There are constraints on the capabilities of the headphone output. It will go fairly loud and maintain quality, but well before the volume gets too uncomfortable, the midrange does get congested and vocals become swamped. Bass remains controlled and deep, but the congestion in the mids make for uncomfortable listening. This is similar on the buds and the proper cans, but seems to come in at a slightly earlier point on the cans. But keep the volume reasonable and there's very little to complain about for a device of this small a form factor and price.

Later I'll write about using the line out and digital outs, but for now, I'm going to enjoy some more tunes.

Monday, 10 March 2014

Scalford 2014 - The Wigwam Hifi Show Report

IT'S DIFFERENT

The Hifi Wigwam Hifi show is like no other.  50 rooms of systems set up by enthusiasts in an hotel in the UK Midlands to play music for other enthusiasts.

What's the point of that?  Well variety seems to be the watchword.  There's nowhere else where you'll be able to hear so many different approaches to music playing in one day.  And all of it is independent of the manufacturers.  Don't take that to mean impartial - its far from that as the Wam is famous for the views of its members, and their enthusiasm to express those views.

Every room is very different (although you'll hear lots of ways of hanging vinyl, valves and horn speakers together), and tackles what the exhibitor thinks is a good way of playing music at home.  Some of the rooms are very challenging (think hard walls with no furniture, or tiny hotel bedrooms with bouncy chipboard floorboards and sound bleeding through from the next room), and getting a system working even slightly close to its potential is often many hours of setting up work.  Its a lot of work going to exhibit, lots of kit to be transported across the country, carried up stairs, positioned, re-positioned and then re-positioned again, take it all apart, transport it again.

WHY?

Its a strange thing, trying to figure out why anyone does this.  There's no money in it for the exhibitors, in fact it costs money - as a minimum for the liability insurance, and for those in the larger rooms, the additional fee for a large room plus the cost of getting there, staying in the hotel and, the inevitable, beer money.  Is it the community?  Possibly - despite the outward appearances on the Wigwam forum, they're just a bunch of enthusiasts trying to get the best out of their (perhaps I should be saying "our", being a Wammer myself) music playing kit, and to learn from each other.  Is it to gather affirmation of their ability to build / assemble and excellent solution?  Also a possibility, but given the opportunity to produce a rubbish sound in some of these challenging rooms, it hardly seems likely.  Is it altruism, offering to help others decide how to build a good music playing system?  More possibilities here.  What about just extending the idea of the Wammer gathering when a few get together and compare various bits of kit in one of their homes?  There are probably more reasons too, but I suspect it is mainly a combination of the above for most, with other reasons thrown in (such as an excuse to get away for the weekend with like minded folk and drink beer whilst having a good old natter.  There's certainly a community atmosphere about the place, and there's certainly a chance to help others (e.g. one year there was a Wammer there offering to test valves for correct operation).

TAKING PART

This year was my 3rd pie-fi show (it's near Melton Mowbray).  The first year I attended with Richard and John as visitors.  Some systems we enjoyed, some we hated, some were so-so.  And so it will be every year and for every visitor - but every visitor will have a different list of systems in each of those categories.  In every room, joy for one visitor may well be apathy for the next.  What is a constant is the effort put in by exhibitors, and the risk of a disappointing sound.  So even in the rooms where you're less then enamoured by the sound you hear, its always good to remember all that hard work, and acknowledge or thank each and every exhibitor you encounter.

Last year was the first time exhibiting.  Richard and I took my all-Linn active streamer based system.  Partially this was because I thought there would be interest in this as something different (there had been no all-Linn systems at any of the previous 4 iterations of the show) and partially because I really think that system has a lot to offer in terms of musical enjoyment.  To be fair, there was also the fun part of taking something that many Wammers think has very little to no merit as a solution, nor as a brand.  You can read about the results here.

So what to do this year?  It didn't take long to decide to exhibit again, but with the over-riding attraction of Scalford being variety, it seemed appropriate to do something different to last year.  Having more than one system around the house makes this possible.  So this time I wanted to go for something less expensive, yet something again that was new or different for the show.  What would it be?  In the late Summer of 2013 and idea started to form and it was based around taking a Yello "virtual concert" DVD with me to a fellow Linn forum member's house to watch / listen to on his Linn system.  This DVD is excellent sound quality, superb imagery and Yello is a perennial favourite at hifi shows.  The idea was off and running.  A post up on the Wam indicated that there was some interest in a visual presentation, but it wasn't exactly an overwhelmingly positive response.

Sticking with the cost effective route, I put together the following system, after a bit of a test session (read about it here), and the application for a room went in.  As new exhibitors get preference, and that I was proposing something a little unusual, I kind of expected to not be offered a room this year.  Selection is by a very small committee - its not a democracy, and that's fine.  If it turns into a democracy we'd never see a show happen at all.

Sony BD-S480 Blu-ray as transport
Linn Akurate Kontrol/0 Dynamik as DAC and pre-amp
Rotel RB970BX power amp
Mission 773e speakers
Q Acoustics 2070Si sub
Dell M410HD projector & room whiteboard
Chord Prodac Pro Gold digital coax interconnect
Linn Silver analogue interconnect
Linn K20 speaker cable
Clearer Audio Copper Alpha HDMI cable
Clearer Audio Copper Alpha distribution block and mains cables
Quadraspire and Cyrus / Mission Isoplat system support
Atacama SE20 speaker stand for the projector

I also had a projector screen on stand by, but was hoping to get a room with a large flat wall or a whiteboard to work with.  The Linn DAC / pre-amp probably doesn't qualify as cost effective, but you can't have it all ways when putting something together just for a weekend.

The music choice was easy - we would play the Touch Yello Virtual Concert on a loop all day - it plays for about 40 minutes, but most people only stay in the rooms for 5 minutes or so, so that's not a problem.  Well, at least I thought it was an easy choice, but Richard was a bit less confident, which made me less confident, but it was kind of too late, as the application had gone in.

Having exhibited the previous year, this year was somewhat easier.  Dig out last year's spreadsheet and swap out the kit names etc. Make sure the right spares reflected the system in use and make sure there are adequate boxes to protect the kit in transit.  Having lighter speakers this year seemed to be a good thing - carrying last year's up the 2 staircases was hard work.  Hadn't factored in that they're boxed as a pair though...  We were successful in getting a room (again up on the 2nd floor in the main hotel building), so down to work.  Accommodation booked, Saturday night curry booked and pork pies ordered for my room assistants.

THE WEEKEND ARRIVES

All boxed up by Thursday night before the show, signs printed (room door, kit list in the room, and signs to help visitors actually find the 2nd floor in the main building), stuff like biscuits and water for the room sorted and other sundry practicalities to deal with.  Yet again it all looked like an huge amount of kit, stacked up in the hallway and our lounge.  Was it all going to fit into the car?  Saturday arrived - decent weather and all the kit squeezed into the car at the second attempt.  Actually a bit more space left than last year, Richard came over and we set off on the 2.5 hours cross-country.

When you get to Scalford it all gets a bit surreal.  There's folks and boxes and vans and trollies everywhere.  Its all very purposeful.  There are also plenty of folks already at the bar...  We take about an hour to get everything up to the room and out of its boxes, with the help of brother John and fellow Wammer Rick who happened to be passing and offered to lift n shift - all part of the community spirit.  We spent about 10 minutes discussing the layout of the room then got to setting up.  About 30 minutes later we had music playing and a picture on the very conveniently located whiteboard.  Speakers were moved around several times until they balanced well in the room, then we added a very subtle assistance from the subwoofer - again a few adjustments and we were done in under 2.5 hours.  Still seemed a long time, but worth the effort.  With cables taped down and signs up on the walls we were off to the bar to get refreshments.

On the Saturday evening there's a really relaxed atmosphere about the place as Wammers (with beer in hand) wander around to see who's set up yet and drop in for a listen.  The surreal vibe continues - you don't know which rooms will be ready, where they are (the place is a rabbit warren) and what they'll be playing.  Unlike Sunday when everything is very very busy, Saturday is chilled and easy going.  There's good banter and the occasionally panicking Wammer trying to fix a problem or borrow a bit of cable from somewhere.  Just meander around and drop in - you're always welcome.  Bizarre though - who would ever think of running a pair of Quad ESL 63s in a bedroom for example?  With the bed still in there!  Everyone is both opinionated and friendly at the same time.  Then there's the curry buffet and more beers with more listening to be done.  As an exhibitor this is the best time to get around and hear some music.  Sunday will be a bit manic in comparison.

A few pics of our very simple set up this year:

The kit
Setting Up: Playing Toto
During Sunday (photo courtesy of a Wammer - see the link to the gallery below)
Audience (and sophisticated black-out arrangement!)
All the show pictures posted by Wammers are here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/thehifishow/with/12912104184

SUNDAY

Up around 8am, showered and down for breakfast.  The bedrooms at Scalford are functional.  There's a new owner now (must've been a bit of a shell-shock, taking over the reins on Friday then touring around the rooms over the weekend, seeing what goes on over the Hifi Show weekend) - lets hope it doesn't get too posh.  Whilst a refurb would be a good thing, if it gets too posh it'll get too expensive for many exhibitors and perhaps the economics of the show will no longer stack up.  Lets hope a good balance is maintained.

Breakfast is busy and there's lots more boxes of kit making their way into the hotel.  More helping going on.  There are lots of volunteers about the place - running the show, manning the ticket table, setting up the raffle, handing out the exhibitor badges, just running the whole thing or mucking in wherever required.  And the ever tolerant and helpful hotel staff who probably wonder what's hit them.  We finish off putting a few more signs up on doors and as directions then check out of the bedroom and prepare for the day.  Our first visitors are in at 9:40 (the show opens at 10!) whilst we're still taping up some extra materials to help black-out the windows.

We take turns to look after the room and advise visitors on the kit and the artist (surprisingly, a good number are new to Yello), how much it cost, who makes the projector etc. etc.  We get some good feedback, we get polite nods and we get folk who don't acknowledge that you exist (grrr, you don't have to like what we're playing but you could at least be polite).  We get a few moments of a completely empty room, but that's few and far between.  Most of the time there are between 6 and 10 visitors in the room.  Some put their heads around the door and don't come in, some stay for 5-15 minutes (this is the majority) and some stay for a full cycle of 40 minutes.  We have a good 10 or so who come back for more later in the day (or maybe more, I wasn't in the room all day to know who was a re-visit and who wasn't, in some cases).

Having 2 assistants to look after the room during the day meant a good amount of time to get about the other rooms too, which was really appreciated.  There were many interesting exhibits such as Serge's quadraphonics, the professional reel-to-reel tape decks, fantastic DIY kit, some amazing workmanship in wood etc.  I didn't get around to all the rooms but I particularly enjoyed the Jolida / Muhlidine system, Myrman's Zingalis (suffering from the boominess in the room, but cutting through that), the Wadia / Krell / Wilson Audio system making the best of a very large and reverberant room and the LP12 / Naim / Neat MF7 system.  Hearingisbelieving (Chris) was getting exceptional results in what must be one of the worst excuses for a room ever - the T+A speakers coping well in what is effectively a wide corridor.  I'm sure there were other highlights, but I either missed them, or they've slipped my mind for the moment.

Its amazing how quickly the 7 hours goes by.  But by 16:45 we had an empty room and decided to start packing up.  About 10 minutes in we had to disappoint some visitors who were still making their rounds, so apologies to them.  Took us one hour (6 hands make light work) to get everything into boxes and packed into the car.  Stirling work by Richard and John after a long day, they made the weekend much more enjoyable in terms of a shared experience, good banter, company when touring the rooms etc. - thanks very much to both of them (although I have a sneaking suspicion they had a good time too).  Also many thanks to all the Wammers who make this happen, and to the hotel staff for their cheerfulness and tolerance.  And to the raffle organisers - I came away with a SIM2 projector, so very pleased with that, but also for them raising approx. £2000 for cancer charities.  Excellent.

Another 2.5 hours in the car in torrential rain saw us home again safely, boxes out of the car, then collapse and ready for sleep.  A very exhausting weekend, but somehow very enjoyable.

One final thanks - and the most important one for me - to my wife and kids for letting me spend such valuable weekend time doing something quite so off-beat as the Wam show.

Now, what's the plan for 2015?   :-)

AND FINALLY, SOME FEEDBACK FROM AROUND THE FORUMS

From Cyrusunofficial.co.uk :

abozo: TBH Yello isn't my taste in music but I have to admit that the sound in sunbeamgls's room was startlingly good.  A very nice setup and those Mission speakers were outdoing themselves. 

Moz: I think you got a great sound out of those Missions. Enjoyed my time listening and viewing. Thanks for exhibiting.

callen24: +1 so good where those missions that in the dark I thought they were £15k linn actives, yello isn't my cup of tea, but stop make sense, or some other classic concert film would float my boat.
the whole idea improved the show, still hifi , and not AV

hifinutt: I think sunbeams system was a real hit with many , it was so enjoyable and sounded better for knowing it was such a reasonable cost

Brumjam: The room showing Yello through a Mission system was another highlight.

From forums.linn.co.uk :

Slackboy: Sunbeam's room was cool; nothing like anything else there, which was great in itself. I was surprised at how crisp that Rotel/Mission pairing was, especially on percussion - very nice. I'm not all that much of a Yello fan, but I did enjoy something to look at other than a load of (other) middle-aged blokes with beer bellies. Great idea and well done. Very inspiring!

Dasher: I enjoyed your AV too even though I too am to a great Yello fan.

From hifiwigwam.com :

cobbler: great fun and loved the concept of a themed room.

petethefeet: Loved the setup in there, inspired. A real experience.

Turn It Up!: I think my Yello days are long behind me but fair play to you for the all out Yello only playback. Nice to see some visuals, be good to have a few other exhibitors get some screens running.

Beobloke: Fine sounding setup and I loved the Yello concert – a very novel idea.

sligolad: Met Niall(Neill), John and Friend at the saturday night curry. Great lads and fellow bikers as well but when Niall explained the system I though this is a bit ridiculous why bother doing it. Changed my mind when I saw the quality of picture and sound achieved with a small budget.

JANDL100: Sunbeamgls's Yello Touch virtual DVD concert on permanent repeat. A great idea. Fab.

themadlatvian: Actually I greatly enjoyed your Linn system the previous year, so I wasn't surprised when you came up with a musically pleasing room this time. I know the limitations of the 773es from personal experience, but you got far more out of them than I expected.