"What a refreshingly honest blog about listening to music through hi-fi. So happy to see views based upon the enjoyment of music rather than so-called sound 'quality'." - Peter Comeau, Director of Acoustic Design at Mission / Wharfedale

Tuesday 9 December 2014

I Feel For You, Chaka

Chaka Khan. A blast from my 80s past and one of my first 12" singles, no doubt annoying my parents as it blasted out from my Thorens / Mayware / Nagaoka / NAD / Mission bedroom combo.

And there it is again, playing on vinyl and valves in a London pub. Beer to hand is a bit different this time. Back when I bought my first system on proceeds from my college part time job at Fine Fare there was no beer to be seen at the age of 17. Honest.

So a second visit to Spiritland.com in Shoreditch. The pub with hifi and a different music theme every night.  Last time was bonfire night, a subdued evening of folk and ethereal stuff which kind of suggested the early onset of drunkeness,  even when sober - a bit trippy in a gently olde worlde kind of way.  The audience was equally subdued. Chilled rather than cool, comfortable and vaguely familiar whilst been strangers. Maybe the evening was a bit like borrowing someone else's old but comfortable slippers for  few hours.

Tonight, I should've brought my baseball cap. To wear sideways. Or backwardz. But probably best not to. Mutton dressed as lamb and all that.  So as you can see from the post title, tonight is much more lively.  A contrast and probably an excellent way to show exactly how Spiritland hopes to do something different and to offer either choice, or the opportunity to widen perspectives and broadend musical tastes. You choose.

Who's tonight's guest vinyl spinner? Young Guru, who has been Jay-Z's DJ since 1999. So kind of well known without many folks knowing him at all. DJs tend to be out of the limelight with that kind of artist, but I'm sure those in the know are well aware of him.

Things are a little louder tonight, suiting the much younger audience in baggy Ts and ripped jeans. But its still not loud and conversation is possible if you raise your voice.  The music is mainly disco and dance oriented with some fusion and jazz funk here and there. I walk into the pub to the theme tune to Starsky and Hutch.  Unfortunately I've left my massive knitted cream cardigan at home, and I've never really been a fan of the wallowy old Ford Torino. Even with a white Nike stripe...

So another, but again very enjoyable couple of hours in Spiritland.  A very different place to my last visit.  And yet, one and the same place. A place of quality music, quality sounds and an amiable atmosphere.   For someone as old as I'm getting, that counts as cool ;-)

Friday 5 December 2014

Meridian Squashes Hi-Res Files

Meridian have announced a new lossless format aimed at making hi-res music more compact for streaming purposes - MQA. 4.6Mbps drops to 1Mbps.

Meridian MQA Press Release at WHF

Is seems as though this can be carried inside a standard FLAC, WAV or ALAC type container. No mention of who they are partnered with on the content provider side, but it looks interesting.

The article at Stuff seems to suggest that a compatible device is needed, but non-compatible devices will play the file at CD quality.

Stuff Mag

The "A" in MQA stands for authenticated.  Which is a bit worrying, but if it is only used for streaming, I guess the ability to use the music across multiple devices is about apps not about portability of encrypted files.

Monday 24 November 2014

Preparation For The Hifi Show 2015

Been thinking through what I would like to exhibit if given the opportunity at The Hifi Show in March 2015.  Many options and configs have lead to this. I wanted to go with as compact an Linn active system as possible, so it starts with a FiiO x3 and finishes with Katans. Shame the amp has to be so big, but there are active crossovers and 4 power amps in there.

Sunday 16 November 2014

Acitvating Katans With AV5125

In this post there's a pictorial explanation of changing Linn's 2-way Katan speaker from passive operation to bi-active using stereo active cards inside a Linn AV5125 power amp.  They're in sequence order.



In original single wired passive form.  By removing all the collars on the terminals, the configuration cards that are recessed into the back of the speaker cabinet can be lifted out

Collars removed - each side of the configuration card there is a recess in the speaker cabinet, allowing for access to lift the cards out
There are 2 configuration cards.  Each one has a different configuration on each side - in this case 'single wire passive' is on one side of both cards.  Put the unwanted configurations back onto the connection terminals first, then the card you require with the required configuration facing outwards, then refit the terminal collars.
This is the reverse side of the 2 cards shown in the picture above.  Choices here are 'Katan active' and 'Katan bi-wire passive'
The 'Katan bi-wire passive' card has been fitted onto the terminals, then this 'Katan active' card has been laid on top
Collars are fastened back on and tightened.  Any blanking plugs inside the terminals need to be moved to new positions, freeing up the appropriate connections for active use.  Here I've used red = bass +ve; black = bass -ve; yellow = treble +ve, grey = treble -ve
Now to the amp.  Switch off and unplug the amp and disconnect the mains cable! Laying on a firm but covered surface (to protect the finish) top downwards, the amp looks like this.  There are 4 self tapping screws along the silver section which need to be removed.
The cover of the amp can then be slid off - the amp chassis slides out of the back of the cover.  Once removed, place the cover out of the way and somewhere where it won't get damaged.  Place the amp chassis on your work surface, base side down.

This is the amp chassis without any active cards or support fittings.  The stereo active cards are going to be fitted top left in this picture - across the back of the amp
To fit the cards, the plastic circuit board stand-offs and screw are required.  These are usually inside the amplifier.  However, many amps will not have these installed as they have gone missing over the lifetime of the amp.  If your amp is missing these, or the ones for the mono card, please get in touch as I have complete sets available for purchase.
In the full kit there are long, medium and short stand-offs with a protruding thread at one end and a recessed thread at the other.  There is also one very small stand-off with recessed threads at each end.  The tall stand-off and the very small stand-off with recessed threads at both ends are used only for the mono card.  Fitting the stereo cards as described here uses the medium and short stand-offs that have a protruding thread at one end and recessed thread at the other, along with a short screw.  These are the stand-offs shown above

Fit the medium stand-off as shown above, into the threaded hole at the rear left of the amp.  Finger tight is enough - the threads are only plastic, so please take care.  A second picture of the medium stand-off is shown below.


A stereo active card.  This is the bass card for a Tukan (or a Katan, or a Sekrit)
For the first card being fitted, fit the short connection cable as shown above
Now slide the card into the lower set of slots in the back of the amp (you can see the green tabs of the card peeping through the amp's back panel).  The slots are the same height in the amp as the top of the medium stand-off fitted earlier
Another view of the first card sitting in situ.  Note that the card sits neatly on top of the medium stand-off fitted earlier
Now connect the connecting cable into the amp board as shown - channels 4 & 5.  In my install this is the bass card, so now Channels 4 and 5 will output bass information

Now fit the short standoff by feeding it through the installed card and then tightening into the thread of the medium stand-off.  Again, finger tight only - take it gently!

Now, repeat the last few steps with the top card, fitting the longer cable and sliding the card into the top slots in the back panel of the amp.  Connect the cable into the port on the amp labelled Channel 2 & 3.  In my install this is the treble card, so now Channels 2 and 3 will output treble information

If the card is fitted with the treble adjustment control, push out the black blanking plug to allow the control to protrude through the back panel.  Here the cards are both installed, the green tabs can be seen through the back panel, as can be the white treble control knob

Now fit the short screw through the top card and into the short stand-off.  Again, tighten enough just to hold the card in place - don't strip the thread or put the card under any pressure

Put the case back on the amp and refit the 4 screws in the bottom of the amp casing


The way I installed the cards means:

Channels 2 and 3 are Treble
Channels 4 and 5 are Bass
If you have the labels that come with the active cards, now is the time to label up each channel on the back panel!

Connect an interconnect from Channel 2 output (in this case, this is Treble right) to Channel 4 input (in this case, Bass right).  If your interconnect claims to be directional, the arrows should point from Channel 2 to Channel 4

Repeat this with an interconnect from Channel 3 output (in this case, this is Treble left) to Channel 5 input (in this case, Bass left).  If your interconnect claims to be directional, the arrows should point from Channel 3 to Channel 5 

Now fit the interconnects from the pre-amplifier.  Here, Channels 2 and 4 serve the right speaker and so the right interconnect is connected to the input on Channel 2.
Channels 3 and 5 serve the left speaker so the left interconnect from the pre-amp is connected to the input on Channel 3.

Now connect up the speaker cables.  Note that they must match the outputs from the amp:  treble to treble, bass to bass.  Following through the colour coding I connected to the Katans, here Channel 2 yellow / grey go to the right Katan treble input, Channel 3 yellow / grey go to the left Katan treble, Channel 4 red / black go to right Katan bass; Channel 5 red / black go to left Katan bass.  Be careful to observe the correct polarity of connection throughout.

And thats the job done.


Now disconnect your anti-static strap and refit the cover (by reversing the removal procedure).

Before you switch on your system, ensure the volume control is set to zero.  Now, play a track very very very quietly.  Check each speaker - make sure treble sounds are coming out of the tweeter and bass sounds are coming out of the bass driver on both speakers.  If not, immediately switch off and re-check all the connection paths.

Once you're sure that you're hearing the right sounds from the right drivers, turn up a little and re-check.  If its still all OK, enjoy your music!

Saturday 8 November 2014

Sneeker Part 2

A couple of weeks back a post on the Linn forum inspired me to dig out some Linn ceiling speakers that had been in the garage for a while, and build a "portable" Linn based box.

It filled a couple of hours, but the results weren't too good - cardboard might be quick to use, but its not too good structurally, nor sonically.  Not a surprise really.

The blog post is at Sneeker Part 1.

A few days ago I dismantled the box.  The plan was to think about Part 2 and turning the box into something more substantial.  When taking out the Linn Diskreet speakers, I found I could remove the crossovers and drivers from the frame quite easily.  Turns out they're only 100mm coaxials inside, looking rather like car speakers.  They're the same size as the woefully cheap speakers in my touring caravan, so that's where they're going.

So what next?  Well, there are few bits and pieces in the garage, so I dug out some old Linn tweeters (probably from the Index 2, but not sure really) and some Mission 100mm mid-bass drivers.  I've also found a cabinet on ebay - more of which later.  But its going to be a luggable solution rather than a portable one, methinks.

So I've used some scrap board from the garage which is now cut to the same size as the cabinet that's on its way, so I can experiment with speaker layouts.  Below are the options I've considered:

Imagine that there's this config at each end of the board - as a mirrored layout.  I'll ask around on the forums now to find out if anyone has any opinions on which layout will work best.  Imaging will be difficult in such a small space, but that's what I'd like to optimise - might just have to cut the scrap boards and give each a try.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Home From Home At The Pub - Spiritland

A visit to a "temporary takeover" club tonight, deep in the heart of achingly hip Shoreditch, East London.

Thanks to hifiwigwam.com, my attention was brought to the transformation of a East London pub into a music listening venue.  Kind of DJs without a dance floor.  Or "my favourite tunes".  But to differentiate itself, this 3 month "takeover" night uses hifi modified Technics turntables, valve amps and massive Tannoy speakers.  Intriguing.

On the way, I called in at the The Book Club Bar on Leonard Street for a veggie platter. Good grub,  interesting decor. 
Some less than cheerful (but very good) artwork at The Book Club - yours for £1400
Is it a crow?  Is it a robot?  Dunno, somehow reminds me of the really grumpy blue bloke in the Muppets
So the transformed pub lounge is at the Merchants Tavern on Charlotte Road, just around the corner from The Book Club.  It's blessed with a high ceiling and almost floor to ceiling front windows.  As you enter the central door, there's a U-shaped (predominantly cocktail) bar on the right, the restaurant straight ahead across the back of the building and the lounge area to the left.  The decor is robust and wooden.  The lounge area a mix of comfy chairs and tables & chairs somewhat more cafe-like. There's a wood burning stove at the back of the lounge.
Tonight the place is surprisingly busy for a Tuesday evening.  Pretty much every chair is occupied and the restaurant looks like its generating brisk business too.  There's a buzz, but its of relaxed chat rather than anything raucous.  This is not a place where you need to shout to your mates to be heard.

Merchants Tavern in Charlotte Road
Even when there's not a resident hifi, the background music is taken care of by respected hifi brand Quad
Straight to the bar of course - there's a cocktail menu, which seems to be the favourite style of drink here, only 3 electrically pumped beers and lots of choice of stuff in bottles.  Beer is £4.90 a pint, cocktails from £8.50, wine from £5 a glass and Scottish malt from £6 to £40. So, pretty much normal London pub prices really - there's no entrance fee.  The bar staff are friendly and helpful, but the bar would be significantly enhanced by a selection of traditional ales.  I choose a Pilsner and settle down at the end of the bar on a high stool to check out the view of the lounge area and the main attraction - the music system.

The customers in the lounge are a mix of 20 to 35 years olds in the main, with a smattering of olders such as myself.  The music system is arranged across the back wall of the lounge and there's no missing those imposing Tannoy speakers.  The music is on pretty quietly, so really the system is not being shown off.  The DJs are choosing their vinyl and playing what they want to play.  Every night is themed and the schedule can be found on the www.spiritland.club website.  Tonight its mainly folk and ethereal type stuff, including some of medieval style tracks.  The DJs are helpfully placing the album covers on a stand so you know what's playing.  There's no dance floor, there's no banter from the DJs, its about the music.

View from the wood burning stove
Around the back of the decks is the resident vinyl collection, supplemented by the DJs' own records.

Tonight, the DJ pairing is Will Hodgkinson, rock & pop critic at The Times and Julian Mash.  I don't think they used the pair of broadcast standard CD players whilst I was there, preferring to get their hands on the modified Technics turntables - sporting Isonoe modifications including the tonearms which look like they're based on the very popular Rega products.

Pair of Technics 1210 turntables, modified by Isonoe and fitted with Rega based tonearms
The decks fed into a mixer which passes the signal along to a fine looking pair of Canary valve amps, given pride of place on top of the vinyl racks - these have been supplied by www.definitiveaudio.com

  • Canary M500 Mono Blocks with 300B Triode Tubes
The Tannoy Westminster GR speakers finished the system off - and its a good job that the pub is spacious!  A kit list here.
Tannoys.  A domestic loudspeaker, apparently
Being very restrained, and appropriate to the type of music being played tonight, the system was on pretty quietly to allow the punters to chat rather than shout.  The volume seems to be inversely proportional to the number of customers - as the bar thinned out, so the volume became louder. But it was never loud.

How did all this sound?  Well, that's a tough one to answer - other than to say it was super smooth with no edges nor reasons to wince.  I'm not really a fan of the big Tannoys - I've heard various variants over the years and they always seem to be smooth and slightly over polite - to the point of lacking excitement.  But its not fair to draw conclusions here tonight on this system - its too noisy in the room, and the music choice is deliberately low key and laid back.  Pleasant enough sounds a bit like faint praise, but it isn't meant that way - it was entirely appropriate to tonight's music, tonight's customers and the vibe in the venue.  Hopefully one of my subsequent visits will demonstrate the Tannoys in a different light - it will depend on the music and the willingness of the audience to "crank it up a little".

I had a quick chat with Will about the concept of the "club" and he suggested that the promoter might like some feedback - so we were introduced.  Paul Noble is an ex-BBC radio producer, really nice bloke, and now a club promoter with a difference - a focus on high quality music reproduction.  His day job is with www.monocle.com, looking after music consultancy for a number of well known brands.  Paul introduces himself - he's Creative Director at Spiritland - with the above history / background and explains that the idea for Spiritland came from his love of music, hearing it well produced, his personal audiophile journey and the lack of anything similar - I'm guessing he's creating the kind of venue and vibe he'd enjoy when choosing a venue for a night out.  Music will range across jazz, folk, classic rock, soul, funk and more from the past 60 years.
We talk a little about hifi - audiophilemusings.co.uk, hifiwigwam.com and my own system,   preferences for vinyl vs CD vs streaming and such. Looks like Paul will be planning to visit The Hifi Show next year if he can make it.  Paul's clearly very enthusiastic about what he's created here at the Merchants Tavern and he has both an impressive and eclectic line up of music and DJs planned over the next couple of months.  Its a mix of friends, personal favourites and willing volunteers that form the line up, including the likes of Franz Ferdinand and Hot Chip.  Future spinners include a label A&R guy, producers, DJs, band members, Radio 3 presenter and an immersive night of Prince's music.
The club at the Merchants is a taster / trial / trail of the future plan - a members club in a more central part of London with a restaurant, bar and lounge.  The common theme across the 3 rooms will be high quality music playing through high quality systems - with the volume appropriate to each room. The bar will likely be the chatting room with the lounge more focussed on listening to the music with the focus on the best system in the house.  We muse a bit on the idea of a headphone bar - playing the same music as that in the room - but with different brands and models to be trialled.  Perhaps there will be "guest systems" in one of the rooms too.

I wish Paul well with his venture.  Its something different, refreshing and deserves to succeed.  I've got an easy choice of venue when down in London on business now - Spiritland will be my default evening of choice during its 3 month run.

Even the loos have a well respected budget speaker brand

Wednesday 22 October 2014

Column Inches

Thanks to Rococo Systems in London, I had the chance to listen to Linn's new Akudorik Exakt stands and speakers fed from the new Akurate Exakt DSM recently.  Here are some musings on the experience.

First, the venue. Our hosts Peter and Mary were very welcoming with snacks and a selection of drinks offerered and frequently refreshed. This particular part of Rococo systems is a couple of largish ground floor rooms in a substantial terraced property. Not quite Rococo in style, the fully panelled rooms and deep sofa are welcoming without being pretentious.  A wood floor is covered by a very large but thin rug. The speakers sat either side of a table upon which a large tv displayed the Kinsky control app (not Kazoo I noted) including the relevant artwork.  The Exakt Cat 5 cables disappeared out of the room to the AEDSM next door.

Its quite amazing to think that its now a year since Linn launched their Exakt technology and dome of the earliest pictures (and most accurate descriptions) were published here and plagrised on sites around the World.  Linn have gone through many explanations of the tech and are still doing so. From that initial KEDSM / Exakt 350 launch, the tech has been launched in Akubarik, Akurate and Klimax Exaktboxes, Akurate DSM and now addresses speakers such as the Komri, Keltik and 242. Further launches continue apace and the new Akudorik Exakt standmount speaker and the Akudorik Exakt stands (which combine Exakt engine, DACs and power amps suitable for the new speaker and soon to be usable with the older Akurate 212 and Majik 109 speakers) are the latest in the range. A lot of new products in just 12 months.

Alan Williams was the evening's host from Linn. Alan has many years of experience with Linn and has seen many changes and upgrades over the years. As such he's happy to talk about pretty much anything regarding the company and its products, the industry in general and, of course,  the music.  With about 10 of us in the room (including a record producer) the event was relaxed and casual. Alan's clearly presented Exakt many times now and remembers facts such as jitter rates in various products without the use of notes. For some in the room the Exakt technology pitch is a refresher, for others its an opportunity to learn anew. I think it takes most people 2 or 3 runs through to fully understand, some never will understand and some don't see the need to understand.

There was a talk through the basics of keeping everything digital for as long as possible, how phase and timing errors are corrected and how the drive units are measured and tolerances corrected.  Then some music. Then an explanation of the room optimisation feature, including showing the graphs of the room modes, then music with and without the room optimisation enabled.

So how did this system sound? Well, its not one of those systems that makes you go 'wow' the moment you hear it. That's not necessarily a bad thing as those systems are often something you wouldn't want to listen to for hours on end. I found it took me a while to settle into the sound. I'm used to floor standing speakers and it takes a while to stop being distracted by the lack of depth and weight to the sound. This was especially the case with 'Georgio by Moroder' by Daft Punk, but what is there was driving along very well and the fairly complex bass line carried the boogie factor well.  Simpler music such as The Beatles in 24bit was stunningly good - real insight into the sound of the instuments and nuances in the voices. Until now, I've been sceptical of the benefit of those releases, but now I've heard it I'm going to have to invest.

Metallica, also in 24 bit, was a revelation to those who haven't heard this before. Clarity and separation benefits heavy metal too.  Some baroque orchestral with organ showed that Linn haven't broken the laws of physics and the sheer scale and majesty of this kind of performance is still restricted with this pair of standmounts.

Vocals are very sweet and easy to follow, demonstrated with some Loudon Wainwright and London Grammar. The sophistication of cymbal work on Blues Company's Dark Day was rendered very well indeed.

The verdict? If you like standmounts (or your living accommodation and/or neighbours dictate them) then this combination of AEDSM and Exakt Akudorik will be worth a listen. Sophisticated, musical, easy to enjoy over a long listening session. However, for me, there's too much of a compromise. For not a huge %age extra cost, a Linn streamer with non-Exakt Akubarik floorstanders will fill that gap in pretty much the same footprint to bring scale and additional 'all enveloping' soundscapes.  Or wait for the possibility of an Exakt enabled subwoofer and see how that pans out in support of the Akudorik. I think I would prefer the wider range sound offered by the non-Exakt floorstanders over the greater apparent accuracy of the Exakt Akudoriks.

Thanks again to Alan, Peter and Mary at Rococo and Linn. I believe the speakers will now be back in their normal home playing in the local pub near Epping Forest.  Might be worth seeking out for a pint and a few tunes!

POST SCRIPT: Listening to London Grammar on my own system this morning helped put the Akudoriks in context a little more.  Compared to the Akudoriks, my own system has a touch of edge on the vocals and there's definitely some muddying of the instruments.  However, the depth and weight makes for a more "sumptuous" listen.  On balance I prefer the apparent accuracy of the Exakt Akudoriks but with the warmth and depth of the active Majik 140s.  So that'll still be the Exakt Akubarik then....  :-)

Saturday 18 October 2014

Majik Stress Relief

The Majik 109 is a small (9 litre to be precise) standmount speaker that I use as rears for surround duty, although they're very capable as main duty speakers too.  When using them in active mode (as I do), they need 3 pairs of loudspeaker cables to bring the signal from the power amps to each of the 3 drive units in each cabinet.  The obvious way to do this (at the time, about 18 months ago) was to use lengths of Linn's K600 speaker cable.  3 twisted pairs of cables are moulded into a very substantial black sheath that keeps the 3 pairs of signal cables a good 12mm apart.

This is what I also use on the main and centre speaker too.  For the main speakers, it stands on edge along the skirting boards and hides all the other cable mess behind it.  That's not the main reason for using it of course - its a high quality, solidly constructed cable with high purity copper, but is nothing more exotic than that and comes in at a relatively affordable price - unlike some cables out there!  Linn discontinued it during 2013, which is a shame, now only offering the bi-wire K400 cable that has a very similar construction, but only 2 pairs of cables rather than the 3 pairs.

Anyway, the point here is that K600 is very very heavy.  And when plugged into the back of the Majik 109s, right up there on top of their stands, the weight of the cable puts quite some stress on the soldered joints between the cable and the 4mm plugs.  I wasn't really very happy about this, but in the 18 months since they were installed, the connections are still going strong.

Here its clear to see the stress (particularly on the white supertweeter connection) on the connectors

Having many more things to be getting on with and, curiously, still being able to sleep well most nights, this never got any further attention, other than to ask on the Linn Forum if anyone had solved this.  There was collective shoulder shrugging.

So I put some thought into last week and started searching for an appropriate solution.  There was nothing obvious, so a bit of lateral thinking was applied.  A search on ebay for brakets gave a gazillion results, but adding "stainless steel" and -"shelf" into the mix narrowed it down somewhat.  I needed something that would either clamp the K600 to the lower part of the cabinet or allow for cable ties or something.  If it allowed me to utilised the existing screw holes for the "brakit" mounting system, even better.

Back panel of the Majik 109 showing the 6 sockets and below that the 4 pilot holes for the "brakit" mounting system

Took a while, but eventually I found something that might work.  So tonight they've been installed and work well.  They're actually described as L-shaped stainless steel cubicle brackets, so I guess they're intended for the lavatory installation industry.  But whatever, here's one fitted using a 6mm countersunk stainless steel screw and cup washer:

I was particularly keen on this design because it allows for 2 x cable ties to be fitted around the K600 cable, thereby providing a good support to the cable.  And it works, as can be seen below - the cable is now supported by the bracket and ties and the connectors are free to get on with their job with no physical stress.  A good solution at 99p per speaker.  Additional benefit - the cables are held flat to the backs of the stands too, so keep themselves that bit tidier.