Monday, 6 July 2015

ProJect MaiA Review – the shrunken integrated amp / DAC



I like to listen to music most of the time, sometimes its in the background, sometimes it makes a car journey more tolerable, sometimes I’m in the audience and sometimes I sit in front of the main hifi and just focus on listening.  Listening to the artists’ works, sometimes carried away, sometimes confused, sometimes just enjoying the flow, sometimes trying to “get” the message in the lyrics.

And sometimes, I’m away from home (quite frequently, actually).  When travelling by train or plane, I use an iPod or FiiO X3 and earbuds or phones and occasionally I have room in my suitcase for a Logitech Purefi Anywhere 2 for the hotel room.

But when travelling by car, I can take something a little more substantial to the hotel room, and have a large camera case that currently contains a pair of tiny but well made Tangent Evo speakers (no relationship to Evolution Audio, the dealer mentioned in this thread), a Trends TA 10.1 integrated t-amp and the necessary speaker and interconnects to fit to an old-style 30-pin 160GB iPod Classic or anything with a 3.5mm output (such as the FiiO or a phone).  I also carry a work laptop, sometimes used for iPlayer / other catch up services, but not currently for music.  It’s a decent listen and I prefer to listen to music through speakers rather than being tied to a device or location by a device and headphone cables.  Last thing at night, some chill tunes on a 30 minute timer on the iPod often help me get off to sleep in a strange location / room – speakers are far better for this than the need to take off headphones as I drop off to sleep.

Now that the laptop and the phone are part of the entertainment package, something with better connectivity would be useful.  In steps a HiFi Wigwam post from Evolution Audio announcing the Pro-Ject MaiA integrated amp, with analogue, digital (up to 24bit/192kHz), Bluetooth and phono (turntable) inputs.  It probably makes the toast too.  Given that Evo Audio offer a 10 day sale or return service, I thought I’d give it a go.
Now the Trends TA10.1 amp has done very well for me in this system for probably around 5 or 6 years.  Its small, runs cool, its light and has been very robust.  In the camera bag it nestles quite well wrapped in a soft wool scarf, nicely wedged between the speakers – keeping everything tightly packed but not scratching each other.  It does a decent enough job too – way better than most high street “midi” or “mini” systems.  Limitations?  Well, power, but that doesn’t matter in an hotel room when volume is necessarily limited.  Inputs? Yep – there’s only one pair of line level RCA sockets.  Remote control?  Nope.


Unboxing

Evo Audio had shipped the Pro-Ject box, wrapped in a couple of layers of bubble wrap, inside another cardboard box, along with the receipt and an Evo Audio branded pen.  Delivered in reasonable time, it even managed to survive the Hermes courier system undamaged.  Opening the Pro-Ject box revealed the amp, in a plastic bag, contained by “waffle” sponge padding on all 6 sides.  The mains cable, PSU with captive DC output lead and remote control were in a separate sub-box, with no padding around these components.  There is an 8 page instruction leaflet that’s low on content and quality, but is sufficient to get you up and running.  Clearly, the budget needed some corners to be cut, but this is a good place to do so.  The amp itself is very slim (only about 35mm high), around 200mm deep and 210mm wide,  It feels substantial though – the folded steel case and flat alu front panel are decent quality and its very well screwed together.  It gives a good first impression.  Four small rubber feet protect surfaces and help to keep the amp steady on that surface.

Around the back, there are a pair of phono sockets and a binding post for a turntable (yep, there’s and RIAA phono stage crammed in there), 2x pairs of phono sockets for line level inputs, 1x 3.5mm line level input, 1x coax RCA digital input, 2x optical digital inputs and a USB socket (for a PC, rather than an iPod or similar).  Outputs are volume controlled line level 3.5mm, and a pair of small combined binding posts and 4mm banana sockets (which are crammed close together at one end of the panel).  There’s an input for connecting the PSU’s DC cable too.  A lot going on, but clearly labelled, straight forward etc.  I used plastic shrouded 4mm bananas for speaker connections – it’s what I had already, but Paul from Evo advised this type of connection as metal bananas and bare wires are a bit risky with such closely packed connectors.  Generally, those who hoped to use in-your-face mega chunky interconnects / RCAs will be a bit disappointed, and needing to shell out for something more practical.  Bluetooth pairing was straightforward with my Android Samsung phone (Lollipop OS version).

image from ProJect Audio
image from custom-cable.co.uk


Control

Across the front there is a soft touch power on/off (tiny blue LED indicator), headphone socket, rotary volume control and a row of tiny blue LEDs indicating which source is selected – these are flanked left and right by cursor keys that move the source selection across the row of options.  Clear, simple.  The credit card sized remote gives volume control, source selection, power on/off and the ability to activate Bluetooth pairing.  Its responsive enough, but is necessarily light in weight and functional rather than a pleasure to use.  The main rotary volume control on the amp itself is a little stiff (maybe it will loosen slightly with use – hopefully not too much), but is very smooth and not so stiff that it causes the box to move on a desk.

System

For my first try with the amp (it was on 10 days sale or return remember), I used the following equipment which seems appropriate to the type of use I will put the amp to, and perhaps others will too:


  • FiiO X3 (internal DAC line out and digital coax output)
  • £8 3.5mm to 2x phono interconnect from Amazon (decent build quality, nice tight gold plated connections)
  • 99.99 OFC copper pretty standard speaker cables from Maplin – roughly 42 strand and fitted with soldered on “Shark” 4mm gold plated banana plugs
  • Tangent Evo bookshelf speakers (the ones I would intend to use the amp with) and Mission 773e floorstanders (to better expose differences between line and digital inputs)
  • Music included “Tears Run Dry” by Malia and Boris Blank; “Gaia” by James Taylor; “King” by Tuung; “Rise” by Samantha James; “Doors Unlocked and Open” by Death Cab For Cutie

Listening

I left the amp playing to itself at low volume for about 2 hours – using the FiiO line out and the Evos, just to make sure it was at least warmed through, if not exactly “burnt in”, if that’s necessary at all – its not something I’ve tested so far and won’t be bothering as it seems a bit of an overkill for this kind of product.

Kicking off with the TA10.1 amp, I reminded myself of its capabilities.  Its fast, a touch on the bright side (but not excessively so), and its best listened to at medium volumes – it gets harsh quite quickly as the volume is cranked up, but is a rather dull affair at the lower volume levels.  So about right for the job really, and good value at £110 about 5 years ago.  It has been reviewed in some quarters as a “giant killer” and paired with very exotic speakers on some web sites.  It is astonishingly good for its size and price, but that’s all.  A healthy NAD 3120 from the 1980s shows it a clean pair of heels in terms of musical enjoyment and information extraction, if not exactly neutrality.  Lets just say the TA is great for what it is and is very neutral (with the exception of that slight uplift in the higher frequencies).  But its also rather “grey” to listen to – it doesn’t have much verve or life to it.

Swapping over to the MaiA and it was initially difficult to try and get a perceptually similar volume level.  And that’s because it has a greater perceived (or real, who knows?) dynamic range – the quieter bits are that much quieter than the Trends, but equally, the louder bits are that much louder too.  It better shows through the subtleties the artist has put into the emphasis or de-emphasis of a phrase.  Nice.  So a quick switch back and forth helps to work out where to position each volume control to get as close as I could to something like equality.  Next thing to notice is what appears to be a flatter response – its easy to note that it has less emphasis at the top end, but it is still a touch bright.  Its showing the splashy nature of the FiiO’s DAC well too – this is something I noted when working out which system to go with at Scalford this year – the FiiO’s top end is pretty unruly on the internal DAC.

The MaiA manages somewhat better separation of instruments too – its not epically etching them out, but they are easier to distinguish, as is the location in the image and the stability of that image.  A welcome improvement over the TA.  What of the bass – well, there seems to be a little more of that with the Pro-Ject, and its worth having with the tiny little Tangent speakers.  Music bounces along with a reasonable sense of pace and rhythm.  Its not the last word in refinement, but you can tell the intention is to provide a bit of fun with the music.

DAC

What of the internal DAC?  Well, in this appraisal, I only had the FiiO to hand to compare, but that’s OK, because that’s what I’ll be mostly listening to.  Comparing the FiiO’s internal DAC and line out to the MaiA’s internal DAC again gave some volume control setting challenges.  I didn’t use any equipment to sort this, just a number of back to back comparisons to get a feel for where the control needed to be set.  This comparison did reveal one thing very quickly indeed – the MaiA has a much better controlled and smoother sounding DAC in comparison with the X3.  But it doesn’t image or separate the instruments any better, and has a tendency to suppress female vocals a touch.  Rhythm and pace are still good, with bass perhaps a touch more fulsome than with the X3.  I think it’s a bit swings and roundabouts really, but with the Tangent Evos being a lightweight sounding speaker, the better controlled top end and weightier bottom notes won out for me.  You might come to a different conclusion, so it’s a preferences thing rather than anything clear cut.
Proper Speakers

And what of the performance with the Mission 773e?  These were used at Scalford to reasonably good effect in 2014 and whilst not the last word in lower end speaker technology, they’re effective and enjoyable to listen to.  Normally they are fed by an SBT / MF V-DAC1 / MF V-PSU2 and a Cyrus 6 integrated amp when they’re pretty fast, boogie well and deliver a good performance.  On the MaiA, however, it was quickly noted that all wasn’t what it could be.  That fuller lower end, which worked so well when working with the little Tangents, became somewhat unruly, fat and a bit woolly.  Not great.  The effect was the same with the FiiO’s DAC back in action – slightly less noticeable, but still not really something I’d want to spend a long time listening to.  And the splashiness was back too.

£400

So all this tech and connectivity, squeezed into a small box comes at a very reasonable price.  It would be good to compare this amp with a NAD D3020, and that might be on the agenda at some point in the future.  It fits my use case for it very well, brings a useful increase in sound quality and a massive step up in connectivity and usability.  When the 10 day trial is over, it won’t be going back to the helpful team at Evolution Audio – it already has its place in the camera bag.

So to use this in a kitchen / bedroom / study or as a semi-portable system with a small set of (not too good at lots of bass) budget bookshelf speakers, I would say this amp is a success.  For me, that’s where it does a great job, just don’t expect it to cope as a main system centre piece with a pair of full range speakers.

One final thought – if all that modern connectivity, compact size and sensible pricing gets it into a good number of student bedsits, perhaps a TT connected to some of them, it might well be the way to generate a new set of audio enthusiasts.  Lets just hope they don’t get underwhelmed and miss out on the capabilities of this amp by feeding it a load of compressed MP3 junk data!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

What’s In A Room? In This Case, Lots Of Attention To Detail. Sir David Brailsford Would Be Proud.

Quite a busy room containing this system, and much attention to detail. But so what? Does it matter?

Tucked away upstairs in a substantial brick built house in the South East of the UK is this particular music den which features one of the most complex and unusual room configurations I’ve seen. If you have a loft conversion and you think it has some interesting sloping ceilings, think again – you’ve probably got it easy. How about sloping ceilings of different lengths on each side, a door on each side wall, a ceiling that has steps / supporting beams, a half-width room divider / book shelf behind which is a desk, book shelves etc? The system and speakers are across the shorter wall, firing down the length with the listening position just after the side doors and before the partial room divider. Just to add to the fun, there’s a big flat screen TV between the speakers, possibly because the room itself isn’t enough to be getting on with?

So what? Well, all of that is a bit of a challenge, acoustically. If you try to select components based on how it performs for the standing waves at one height of the room, it won’t work for the other heights. What about side reflections that are not consistent side to side? And who’s up for that challenge? Well let’s call him Peter, for now, a member of a number of on-line forums, a retired IT techie and seemingly a man who likes to not only face a challenge, but successfully overcome that challenge, in between an extensive and frequent range of holidays. You might sense a slight note of jealously in these ramblings… Peter is retired. I’m not. Enough said.

Peter was invited on the same evening at another forum member’s home about 18 months ago – that’s the first time we met. He brought along his Linn Klimax DSM streamer / pre-amp which we compared with Andrew’s Klimax DS/0 Renew – an evening that lead to me saving and saving the saving a bit more so my then streamer (an Akurate DS/0/1) would eventually be replaced by the then current Klimax DS/1. At the time, Peter invited Andrew and I to another evening - time to be determined - when we would get together to listen to Peter’s complete system in his own place. And, as is the way, with work commitments, family commitments and the very limited windows between Peter’s holidays, it took us all of that 18 months to make the follow up session happen. Inevitably, Peter’s system moved on in that time too.

So after a tasty meal (we’ll not go into the pitfalls of surprising vegetarian visitors who thought they were going to contribute a take away to the evening’s proceedings with a spicy chicken dish…) which Peter had generously put together, glasses were appropriately charged and we headed off to the listening room, described above.
Nestled under the (cloth covered, to reduce acoustic reflections – watch out for more on the attention to detail as we go through these notes) flat screen TV are the following:
Control is from an iPad using the Lumin control point app, the NAS is loaded with the lossless FLAC tracks. The Lumin interface is pretty much the best I’ve seen – intuitive, fast, easy to navigate, great hi-res album art etc. Its certainly on a par with BubbleDS, but unfortunately not available for Android at the moment. A joy to use.


What about the music? Is that a joy too? Well this system presents the music in a very different way to my own system, and other Linn systems I’ve had the chance to listen to. And it takes some time to “tune-in” to what’s going on. Let’s be very clear though – this is not a NAIM system at one extreme, but neither is it of the polite to the point of boredom of some systems that often feature turntables, or valves, or horns, or some combination. So that puts it somewhere between forthright and overly dull. Doesn’t narrow it down much does it? Something that I thought might be a feature was a lack of integration. Sub-woofer (whoops, sorry WB!), isobaric loading in the standmounts, and super tweeters would suggest that there might be peaks and troughs associated with each of these components and any gaps between them. Nope. Not here. Lets listen to some more tracks. In hifi terms, there’s good imaging and stability, the full frequency range seems present and even, vocals are clear and instrument separation is fine.

Emotionally, is the music connecting? Well my foot is tapping voluntarily, so timing is working – I’m getting the feeling of passion from the vocals at appropriate times when the times are good, there is the sense of shock when its due on sudden dynamic peaks and relaxing tunes are, well, relaxing. Do the angry tunes make me feel angry? Not so much. When a song is about bad times, do I feel for the singer – again, not so much. Cranking the system up for Stanley Clarke’s “School Days” from the “Live At The Greek” album shows that the sub can both kick hard on the kick drums whilst not suffering from any notable hangover (more on this later, when discussing the room acoustics). We mess with switching the sub in and out a few times. This is one very impressive piece of kit – for me its just slightly too dominant, but it is by a tiny margin, in terms of the frequency spectrum, but there’s no doubt it adds much in terms of building a picture of the recorded acoustics. On top of this, it adds slam to the system – a neat trick, subs often adding wallow and uncertainty. A fine product when used with these WB standmounts.

So, back to the room. What to do with such a challenge? Well, lets dive right into all those details. There are acoustic panels strategically placed on various aspects of the ceiling(s) – we didn’t mess about with them, but Peter will undoubtedly put time and effort into getting them into the best place, within the physical constraints. The Klimax EDSM is equipped with Linn’s room optimisation software – SPACE. This only deals with frequencies in the lower regions that are affected by room dimensions – those below 200Hz, so it doesn’t mess with the important vocal range, for example. It uses a set of dimensions such as room height, length, ceiling height, speaker position in the room (ideal and actual), position and size of windows etc. Which, in my experience, is a good tool to get good results, as long as you don’t accept the defaults it calculates, but follow the instructions on how to get the best settings once the defaults give you a starting point. But my room is rectangular so the measurements are easy to input. But what of Peter’s complex room? Where to start? Well Peter had put the major parameters into the system (Linn recommend using the largest dimension in the room. If there are irregularities (e.g. a bay window) in a wall, then the advice is to use the largest dimension, if the irregularity is more than 1/3 of that wall). Helpful, but still no use for Peter’s room. He’s solved this by using response measuring equipment (microphone, software) and then used the SPACE filters to tailor his own implementation of room optimisation. Again, through experimentation and careful research and thought, much attention to the details. Peter’s SPACE “picture” of the filters has many overlapping filters with gentle slopes, leading to an overall curve that looks very much like a flattened version of Gartner’s hype cycle curve – from left (lower frequencies) to right (higher frequencies), it climbs quite quickly, reaches a peak, then drops significantly before rounding out back to flat with a gentle slope.

Does such a curve work? Well, switching SPACE off gives a flabby, boomy sound. Not really very pleasant. Cut it back in and everything snaps back into a tight groove, making music enjoyable. So yes, it works, and works extremely well. Could it have been done better? I don’t know, we didn’t have time to step through options, but I suspect that Peter’s got it as good as it can be with the current tech, system and room. Impressive.

So what else? Well, Peter made a few tweaks over the course of the evening – I’m not sure if this was to demo differences or to test me to see if I was able to observe and comment on differences heard.  These amounted to changing from QNAP to Melco, from Twonky software to Minim Server, inserting and removing the Audio Revive Ethernet filter, leaving the Melco connected to the network and using as a standalone server etc. So what? Well, some of these were noticeable tweaks (I like what Minim server does), some were in the category of possibly just being debatable or imagined (disconnecting the Melco from the network) and in between (Audio Revive filter). Were these worthwhile? Well, compared to the room optimisation they were, at best, marginal. But here’s the point of the post title. Marginal benefits are cumulative. That’s what Sir Dave Brailsford did with the Sky procycling team. He drove through intensive examination of every aspect of team and individual performance that the team found for consideration. Then they took that aspect and found a better way to deal with it, to improve the performance of that one parameter. But if you do that with enough small parameters, and add them together then at worst they are cumulative, but at best they are compounded - the effects stack up and the whole improvement can be more than just adding up the little tiny improvements.

And that’s how I felt after the evening at Peter’s. So much time to look into and experiment with all the little bits and pieces, try them, compare them, choose them. Is this the best system I’ve heard? No, but its nowhere near the most expensive I’ve heard either and its seriously impressive compared to some very expensive systems out there. Would it be something I could live with? Absolutely. Would I choose this particular combination of components? Probably not – there’s just a touch of excitement missing, for me - perhaps its the system, maybe the software in the DS, maybe SPACE processing, maybe something else - there is much to consider when considering a system - its and end to end thing, not just a pair of speakers. Is it an achievement? Yep – consider it as a system, it does a lot of great things. Put it into that room, and it becomes more than an achievement – it becomes something unexpectedly good.

Thanks Peter – a very enjoyable evening!

Sorry - no pictures this time - they might've helped explain the room somewhat.

P.S.  Peter later went back from Davaar version 25 software to version 17.797 (see, detail!) which he reports added a bit of life back into the system, but prevented the use of SPACE.  Now, with the latest Davaar 32, Peter is back on track as he reports that this sounds like 17.797 but with the benefit of SPACE.