Sunday, 13 March 2016

Canadian Systems - A Visit To Vancouver

It's a long way to go to listen to some hifi, but that's not really why I was there.  Or maybe it was.  I was there due to hifi, but not because of hifi.  P lives in Vancouver and he's been over to the UK a couple of times for Linn product announcements and that's where we met.  He's a very amiable type of chap (do they have "chaps" in Canada?) and gets on with folks very quickly.  An opportunity arose to call in on P in Vancouver, when I happened to be in North America on business - the trip was extended and a few days holidays booked.  We did the tourist thing and fitted in some music listening too.

In P's apartment, there lives the very latest in Linn systems - featuring Linn's current best speaker (IMHO), the Akubarik.  Here they are fed from an Akurate Exakt DSM streamer and they have the integrated Exakt DAC / amp module bolted to the back.  So one box of electronics and a pair of pretty elegant speakers and you're done.  Unless you're P.  When you're P, you need an Oppo multi-format disc player, a substantial Classe surround processor, another couple of power amps and centre 225 and rear 212 speakers.  But P is "famous" on the Linn forum for another aspect of his system too, and that's a bordering-on-the-obsessive attention to mains power supplies.  So the total system is powered from an Environmental Potentials 2460 waveform corrector, the sources and processor add to this an Shunyata Triton conditioner and all parts are connected by several Shunyata pythonesque (actually, Zitron Cobra) mains cables.  They're big. And chunky, and its a good job there's a fair chunk of furniture to hide them behind.   Then Netgear 108T switch has been treated to a Friwo SMPS power supply and the NAS and its associated UPS are fed from an Environment Potentials portable digiplug wave form corrector too. Anyway, much more on that system later.

Exakt Akubarik system
Whist out and about in Vancouver, taking in the sights, we happened across a newly opened record shop.  Whilst neither of us use a turntable as a primary source (P doesn't even have a turntable), we both thought it is a healthy development for Vancouver.  They have four turntable so that punters can check out the latest in vinyl.

New Vancouver record shop

HIFI SHOP VISITS

We visited P's usual dealer (The Hifi Center) who did actually have some Linn kit in stock - a nice top spec LP12 turntable and Akurate electronics which were connected to some B&W speakers.  We were offered the chance to listen to whichever system we liked, from a choice of 6 listening rooms - this is one big shop.  An additional room was in use with a customer, a further dem room dedicated to built-in home cinema.

The shop is very well presented - the front desk is first up, with a huge array of (mainly Audioquest) cables and other accessories.  Moving into the main part of the shop, there are central glass cases (rather like a museum) with smaller items of kit such as headphones, small DACs, cartridges etc. Along one wall of this main area is a row of floorstanding speakers and wall mounted turntables on display, all readily available to roll into one of the dem rooms that radiate off this main area.  As you can see in the following pictures, each of the dem rooms has been given a heavy dose of room treatment.

Colourful decks on display
Dem Room with LP12, Linn Akurate, some Classe and B&W's latest Diamond Range speakers
P had been at the shop a few days earlier for a B&W Diamond Series 3 launch evening, but wasn't impressed with the sound - but he had been near the back of the room which had about 25 people sitting in it.  So we chose to go to the B&W 802D3 room to give them another chance.  I must admit I've not been a fan of the look of these new speakers, but they do look better in the flesh than in the pictures. They're beautifully finished and although better in the flesh, still not to my taste.  Our host moved a set of speakers out of the way, then left us to get on with listening to some music - selected from the touch panel on the room wall.

B&W 802D3 - better in reality than it looks in the pictures
We listened using this Bryston Streamer and admired the new Marantz turntable's looks

Serious Bryston monoblocks driving the B&Ws

Bryston Amp, B&Ws and polystyrene room treatment
So what did we make of this system?  Well, it was, to put it politely, a mess - but keep reading. Treble was sweet and vocals were in there somewhere, but the whole thing was absolutely swamped by massive, bloated, unruly and muddy bass.  Yuk.  I asked P if we had much lee-way to mess about, and it seemed that it would be OK.  First up, we dragged the sofa (that was hard up against the rear wall), about 4ft into the room towards the speakers.  A major step forward, but still too much loose bass.  We then made the best of the B&W's wheeled bases and moved them from about 1ft from the front wall to about 3ft from the wall and brought them a couple of feet closer together.
This was real progress so we sat down to listen to some choons.  The system still wasn't gelling perfectly with the room, but now it was listenable and you could hear a tune in the bass.  This was about 10 minutes worth of adjustment, so I suspect there was more to come.  Using tracks such as "In For the Kill" by La Roux and some London Grammar meant that the bass never really had a great deal of chance without more work, but at least we could hear the crystal clear top end and female vocals were absolutely stunning.  Imaging of the mid-range was top drawer too - as it should be in such a heavily treated room.

Discovering new (to me) music on the control panel
So not exactly conclusive, but a reasonable introduction to these new speakers.  Oh for more time, or a Linn front end with SPACE adjustability.

Also in the B&W / Bryston Room
A closer shot of the new Marantz deck
Pro-ject Carbon
More Bryston - note each shelf of the rack is suspended on coil springs

One of the rooms was adorned with trad US brand McIntosh:


Some pretty chunky Rotel kit in the "more affordable" dem room


The shop also has a purpose built home cinema room, equipped with an acoustically transparent screen and a 5.5 system that has a subwoofer per channel - they're in-wall (custom install) versions of the B&W 800 series speakers CT8LR, CT8 CC, each with the CT8 SW subs.  All of this is built into the room, and apart from the screen and projector, the speakers are all hidden behind black cloth normally - but they're all flood lit for those times when you flick on the lights and impress your mates!  The audio kit is all in a rack in the main shop space.


We got a completely different reception at the other smaller hifi shop we called in on.  We went to listen to some Magico speakers, but they'd been sold.  We weren't offered an alternative listen, so after a quick browse around the shelves (there weren't many of them), we left after about 5 minutes - I didn't feel very welcome here.  Good luck to them :(


FORUM VISITS

We managed to squeeze in visits to a couple of Linn forum members systems too.  It was a busy weekend!
The first visit was to L who doesn't normally live in Vancouver, but visits frequently and stays with a relative in the city.  Back home, it sounds like L has some impressive systems spread across his home. Here in Vancouver, things are a little more modest given the "visitor" status of L - its impressive that he's allowed a system in the Vancouver house at all really.  He must be a very welcome house guest.
That visitor status is important, as it completely dominates the choice of system we listen to.  A Linn Klimax DS/2 is tucked under a couch, lying on its top, there's a Manley tube pre-amp and a very rare power amp, a First Watt SIT-2. Design pursuit is of Class A single-ended, zero feedback amp with a single gain stage (the simplest circuit ever in a solid state amp).  This system feeds into a pair of Omega single full range driver speakers - the .  The mid-bass section of this driver is made of hemp and there's a "whizzer" cone in the centre to produce the higher frequencies.  The whizzer section is unusual in its size - its not far short of the main cone in size, and in the way it curves to almost run parallel with that main cone.  In a nod to the visitor status, this are quite small floorstanding boxes, very shallow and placed close to the wall, despite their rear port. They're MaxHemp Alnico with 8" drivers:

omega alnico 6.5 inch driver showing front and rear
From www.omegaloudspeakers.com
The speakers were sited in what seemed a less than ideal position, and I'm sure L would find a better position if the circumstances would allow.  But here's the great thing about this system.  At low volumes (ie in the way it has to be used), it's dynamic, the music flows well, there's absolutely no shoutiness nor harshness and there's surprising quantities of both frequency extremes.  Turn the volume up and things are less coherent. L didn't demonstrate this, but if you go up to what most audiophile listeners would say is starting to get to a listenable volume, apparently things don't go so well with the cones struggling with higher power inputs.  But that's really not at all important here. What L has achieved is a fantastic sounding system that works exceptionally well at low volumes, it's very discrete, plays music and keeps the home owner happy.  Marvellous.

Apparently, according to L, the system has a flaw - its incapable of distinguishing the difference between speaker cables of under 100ft in length.  Sometimes it's difficult to spot when L is being controversial or when he's just winding you up!

We are joined, during this session, by another forum member F.  We listen to some music from various sources - CD rips, high res and vinyl drops, before moving out to the curry house.  Over a very good and flavoursome spicy meal, we discuss audio technology, music, the forum, some specific threads and member inputs and the time goes very quickly.  We say our farewells to L and head over to F's place for some more tunes.

Now here we find a complete contrast to L's system.  We have what is pretty much a large dedicated listening room, vinyl as a source (LP12 - Kore, Cirkus, Ekos2, Trampolin, Lyra Kleos cartridge, t-kable, Lingo, Linto), plenty of amps, big fat cables and a pair of Linn Keltik speakers.  A long way from the wall, large, black, and dominating the space.  But they're no ordinary Keltik - they're what's known on the forum as Killer Keltiks, rather modestly.  Being a facsimile of a pair developed in Scotland by another frequent forum contributor, they feature the standard Linn isobaric bass drivers, but much more modern mids and tweeters.  Being driven actively allows for the power amp attached to each driver to be tweaked in output to allow for the new drivers having different sensitivities to the originals.  Pre-amp is Classe CP-800 Power amps are Bryston 9b sst for the bass, Lejonklou Tundra Stereo v1.2 on the mids with the treble being driven by a Tundra Stereo v2.  We also listened to some digital via  Ifi ilink and Ipower (USB digital correction) from a Windows PC based source running foobar2000.

It wasn't too long ago that I heard a fairly standard pair of Keltiks (albeit with the later model 038/2 tweeter that was never fitted to production Keltiks) at the Linn factory event, but they were driven there by Klimax electronics and ended up using the Linn Exakt system.  So a very different front end and amp to F's more traditional incarnation of an active system.  Recent changes have been to positioning - winding the spikes out to provide full clearance from the floor covering, and bringing the speakers further out from the wall. We listen to a few discs and this is a very different experience to P's and L's systems - maybe sitting somewhere between the two.  Not the immediacy and speed of the Exakt Akubariks, but neither the gentle politeness of L's system running the Omegas.  The Keltiks are much more "solid" to listen to and carry real weight to the bass - probably more than the Akubariks, but its a softer, more rounded sound.  The mid drivers deliver some great, smooth vocals and the tweeters avoid some of the slight grittiness of the original drivers. It would've been good to stay a bit longer here, but it was late and F has a family to prioritise.

It was great to meet L and F - both very different characters, rather like their systems.  It only dawned on me later that their systems did reflect something of their personalities, or maybe the beer at the curry house had me imagining this!  A very enjoyable evening and really good to put faces and characters to the names on the forum.  When you meet these guys, its much easier to understand their forum posts and you can map the words to the character and therefore much better understand the intent they are trying to purvey.

MEANWHILE, BACK IN EXAKT LAND...

So the rest of this post won't be in any particular chronological order of what happened when - mainly because I can't really remember, but also because it doesn't really matter.  The subject will be P's Akubarik Exakt system pictured below.  In the main, we listened to music a number of times of the weekend, but also dabbled with some surround sound music too.  Sessions ranged from about an hour, up to the longest which was about 4.5 hours.  4.5 hours of uninterrupted music listening - what a luxury!

P's Neat Looking System - after tidying of disks from floor :)

Each time, before listening, the system was played for about 20 to 30 minutes and the room was "treated".  This involves covering the TV with towels, moving the acoustic panel (seen leaning against the window in the picture above) to the left of the left speaker, and, when its going to be a long session, a blanket on the coffee table.   The room extends well beyond the left speaker and the acoustic panel helps to simulate a more "regular" room shape.  More on this later when considering room optimisation stuff.

Paul has put much effort into his system, and used the David Brailsford approach, which I very much approve of.  David Brailsford (and his team of coaches, nutritionists etc.) have been responsible for the very rapid rise of world class cycling in the UK - both the national team and Team Sky, taking several Olympic Golds and a few wins at the Tour de France.  Much of this success is attributed to optimising every single small aspect of the team's approach to the sport.  Training, diet, team coherence, every nuance of the bikes, stage by stage analysis and tactics, measuring, monitoring testing etc.  And its been very effective.  Small optimisations all add up in a compound way, effectively making the whole approach more than the some of its parts.  So what's this got to do with P's system?  Have a look at the "full frontal" picture below, consider the use of towels on the TV screen, the portable acoustic panel and you'll start to get the picture.  How much of this is effective I can't say because we didn't tweak this stuff whilst I was there, but P has messed about with it extensively.

Some examples can be seen in the picture.  The most obvious is the mains cleaning equipment. Being a condo probably makes this is potentially more important than in other types of accommodation. Bottom left under the cabinet is the medical grade Environmental Potentials wave correction box that feeds the whole system.  The AEDSM, Oppo and Classe processor feed from this via the lower centre mains conditioner which is from Shunyata.  The power amps and the Akubarik modules are fed directly from the EP box, not using the Shunyata. Not seen in the picture are the upgraded mains cords from Shunyata.
Under many of the components there are P's isolation devices - they're IKEA bamboo chopping boards, no less.  Inspired by the proliferation of bamboo in hifi at the moment (for example Quadraspire racks, the Booplinth for the LP12), P gave these a try and is happy with the changes they make to the sound.  But there's more - how they are supported in the cabinet has also being experimented with - a number of materials tried, but the current "hook side only" of some chunky Velcro strips are the preferred solution for the electronics - for the centre speaker it's 4 discs of Sorbothane.  It the picture above, its possible to see the isolation platforms underneath each of the speakers - these are essential for P to be able to turn up the wick a bit.  The condo structure has a habit of transmitting bass into the other apartments - in particular the apartment 2 floors directly below.  So the platforms are Subdudes - essentially 2 cloth covered boards with a sponge type absorber between them.  P reports that not only do they help the neighbours, but they improve the system sound too.  Result!  Apparently the position and toe-in of the speakers has been amended a number of times too - partially as a result of the speakers "running in" and partially in response to some of the software updates Linn have applied to the Exakt filters that determine how the speakers behave in terms of crossover points and slopes, phase correction of the drive units etc,

Full Frontal Exposure

So how does it all sound?  Well, in a nutshell, its stunning.  The seating position isn't very far from the speakers and fairly close to the rear wall which has some curtains and some absorbent treatment, so its not something I'm aware of when listening (unlike the B&W room at the hifi shop!).  The Akubariks tend to be pretty good at keeping control of the base in a more conventional active system, their downward firing driver being good at dispersing the bass rather than firing it at walls and therefore emphasising standing waves.
I'm very familiar with the Akubariks in their original analogue active configuration - having heard them in numerous systems and locations - and I'm very fond of the way they sound.  However, in Exakt terms, they've been OK, but not the huge step on from analogue active that I was expecting. Until now. P's system simply demonstrates that Exakt and SPACE room optimisation really have to be set up with some care and attention to deliver their potential.  I'm not sure Linn have got their heads around how to get this message out to dealers as yet, or to train them fully in the benefits of spending some time on this stuff.  P's boxes are loaded up with the latest in firmware from Linn on the DSM and the Exakt filters and whatever Phil Budd has done with those bass roll-off filters just before Christmas 2015 is staggeringly effective.  Bass is amazingly deep for such compact floorstanders (I'm pleased P doesn't use a subwoofer - it would be overkill and probably unpleasant in this compact space) but it is also very very well controlled - punchy, tight, tuneful, full of subtleties and nuances.  I select a good few tracks over the weekend in an attempt to find a way to trip-up the bass, but its just great, all the time.  The tightness, slam and tune of (what appears to be) a bass guitar in Funkerman's "Speed Up (ATFC Remix)" is both driving and compelling to listen to.
Add on to this the expected sophistication of the 3K array and that's the frequency extremes and female vocals sorted. As usual with the array, there's oodles of detail, but it has this great balance of immediacy and speed, mixed with a subtle sense of delicacy.  No nasty edges, no shoutiness.  The complex cymbals in "Dark Day" by Blues Company are clear, distinct and shimmery.  And there, right there.  That's right the imaging is the best I've heard from any pair of speakers.  With the right recording the vocals stand proud of the mix and hang in the air above the coffee table.  Its almost surreal. And, just to note, P is essentially teetotal, so there was little to no additional relaxant involved in these listening sessions!
We listened a lot to music as the system delivers just that.  I know there are those that are concerned about all the processing going on, and they've probably heard some less than well set up systems that will reinforce those concerns.  But here it is all about the music and the emotional messaging.  Great stuff.  Is this the best system I've heard?  No, but then it does have a lot to compete with, particularly the Exakt and Solo powered Linn Komris, or the Exakt and Solo driven Kudos T-808.  But it wipes the floor with so many much more expensive (and less expensive!) systems I've heard at shows in the past.

P asked a number of times over the weekend about what I thought needed tweaking.  I couldn't think of anything - but then that's often the way when you hear a great system for the first time.  Its only over the weeks that sometimes flaws gradually work their way into the listeners conciousness.  We did mess with a couple of areas though.  First it was the ethernet cable to the streamer.  P uses some cables built locally but they're essentially unbranded but selected components - connectors and cable and I think they're Cat 6.  I'd taken along my Chord Anthem cable and we tried that in and out of the system a couple of times.  It drops the noise floor (one of those noise floors that you don't really notice is there until something takes it away), adds some more subtle details to vocals and bass lines and takes nothing away.  For me, this was a success.  We also tried a number of combinations of Audioquest Jitterbugs in the USB ports on the NAS.  If these made any changes they were extremely subtle and perceived changes weren't repeatable.  We conclude that there's no benefit from those devices in this system. The blanket on the coffee table makes a nice difference too.

We talked extensively too about how to get the best out of Linn's SPACE room optimisation tool. It does an adequate job of calculating room bass nodes and then notching out the appropriate frequencies to negate the boominess they cause.  But it really is only a starting point and P has spent a lot of time and effort changing and gradually improving the way they work in his room.  The room is an awkward shape and doesn't fit easily into Linn's room measurement requirements.  The left side of the listening space is open to the rest of the room which is essentially L shaped, but the far wall isn't a straight wall and has steps in it, plus there's a kitchen area that adds complexity.  So P has gone with some basic set ups, then performed tone sweeps from 30 to 250Hz, measuring the relative volume across those 1Hz steps. This has lead to some changes to the node frequency centre points, the width of the notches in addition to the depth of those notches. Also some ability to play with custom filters in the 120 to 140Hz range to experiment with the effect on vocals and any upper bass / lower mid harshness.  By way of demonstration, P tweaked a couple of settings by very very small amounts - such as 0.01 of an octive combined with 0.3dB of notch depth.  Its surprising how much difference these small adjustments make to the sound.  I need to get stuck into this with my own system.  At the same time, it emphasises the need for Linn to ensure their dealers understand this stuff and the impact it has as the potential for awful sounding systems is enormous, matched only by the potential for some great results too.

Environmental Potentials

Apart from the fantastic sound of this system, the main thing that has stuck in my head of the past couple of weeks since returning home, is the 4.5 hours solid listening time. Completely immersed, enjoying the music, the time flew by and at the end of it, absolutely no sense of fatigue or "that's enough".  It was a case of being dragged away really.

What of the other bits of kit then?  Those Linn Akurate 212 rears and 225 centre in particular?  P likes to listen to music recorded in surround whenever the format is available an these speakers, combined with the Oppo player, the Classe processor (upper centre) and additional Linn Akurate 4200 power amps (far right in the cabinet) provide those extra dimensions.  They will do a great job with movies too of course.  The rears are probably a little compromised by the dimensions of the room, being essentially next to the listener rather than behind, so sitting forward onto the edge of the sofa helps a little with the overall effect (see picture below).

Bringing Up The Rear - Linn's 212 Speaker
P spins up some surround discs of concerts, DSOTM, some studio tracks and I try to get dialled in.  It works best with the eyes closed, to remove visual distractions to help with the illusion.  In some tracks I really get this - for example a Steely Dan track where the extra dimension is used to spread the band front to back in front of the listener - this really works well.  But on the very next Steely Dan track you're plunged into the middle of the band and I just don't get this, it feels very false.  And the worst is when you're plunged into the middle of the band, as if you're on stage with them, but the band is the wrong way around.  An example is where the singer is in front and the drum kit is behind me  (so I'm behind the singer, facing the audience then) - yet the drum kit is still arranged as though it's in front of me, with the hi-hat on my right and the toms on my left.  Maybe I'm too picky, but that's just a distraction from the music for me.  P really loves it though, and its great that he's found a system that does this for him.

But lets not end on that note, lets go back to the stereo music and the day I was due to fly back.  P likes to ensure there's plenty of contingency time when doing stuff like catching planes and had decided when we needed to leave for the airport to make sure I would be there with oodles of spare time to spend my cash in the terminal.  But we didn't stick to that.  We were very much into the "one more track" groove.  I still got away on time to catch my flight, but not with P's very generous amount of contingency time.  It was difficult to drag ourselves away.  And that's a big compliment for any system.  Well done P, your set up, tweaking and tuning has paid handsome dividends.

With many thanks to L, F, Hifi Center and particularly to P for their welcomes and warm hospitality. An excellent weekend of visiting and music. And to P, L and F for their excellent editing duties on this post.