"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

Friday 2 November 2018

Being A Dance Test Dummy - Pitch Black, London, October 2018

Did you ever go to a gig not quite knowing what to expect?

Better than you'd hoped for?  Worse than you could've imagined? So bland as to not be worth the bother?

All possible outcomes.  So how was it when Audiophile Musings was subjected to 3 hours of electronic sounds in London, imported for one night only from New Zealand?  Did the experience of being one of Pitch's Dance Test Dummies turn out to be pleasant, euphoric, painful, uplifting or just meh?

There's something about a venue that works. Or it doesn't. And it works or it doesn't, depending on who's playing there and who's in the crowd.  Pete Tong and the orchestra playing Ibiza classics needs a vast space and a few thousand party animals to make the gig work - put it in a venue where the orchestra might outnumber the audience clearly isn't going to work.  But equally, put a solo female singer songwriter in a venue of just a few hundred people doesn't work either, if the audience are only interested in the sounds of their own voices.  So a venue has to work for the gig, and the gig has to work within the venue.  And yet it must be so difficult to know what's going to work.  A while back I went to see/hear Kiasmos at The Royal Festival Hall - a very large venue more commonly known as a classical venue.  But for a duo playing keyboards - that just didn't seem right, yet by the 3rd track in the place was on its feet and it felt more like an superclub in Ibiza.  But without the bar prices.

What's that go to do with being a Dance Test Dummy?  Its about the contrast.  The last duo twiddling knobs and standing behind keyboards I saw live was that Kiasmos gig.  This time around it was the turn of Pitch Black - another duo twiddling knobs and standing behind keyboards playing live.  They formed in New Zealand just over 20 years ago, so I don't know why its taken until 2018 for me to discover their music, which is very much my kind of stuff.  Rather in the manner of PB being from the Southern Hemisphere and Kiasmos originating in the very northern parts of the Northern Hemisphere, so their London venues came from the opposite ends of the spectrum.  PB were choosing a live London gig in October as a chance to run some new tunes past the critics (their audience) and the basement at the Sebright Arms, in the oh-so-cool Northern part of the capital's heart, stretches to an audience of about 160.  That's intimate.  And dark.  A small room with a low ceiling, a small step up about 2/3 of the way back from the stage and a bar with just the essentials across the rear.  The stage is only about 18 inches high.  Very friendly folks at the Sebright Arms, much friendlier than the usual London grumpy pub staff.  The pub's OK, the food was OK, but all the trad ales were off for the evening, which was a bit of a downer.  So I tried the local craft lager which was acceptable, nothing spectacular.

Don't know much about Pitch Black?  Me neither, or at least not up until earlier this year.  I heard about them through one of the forums - in one of those "if you like that you'll like this" kind of threads.  I mention Kiasmos above and I'll mention Yello now too - because if you like either or both of them, then PB are worth a listen.  Take care on the likes of Tidal though, as you might run across their US namesakes who are gangster rap-ish and very different indeed.  You can sample some PB over on Soundcloud too.  A quick chat with Michael Hodgson (the local) and Paddy Free (from NZ), who make up Pitch Black, before the gig proved how easy they are to chat to, both of them also being Yello fans.  Paddy is very easy to talk to and genuinely interested in their audience, and very good at predicting their behaviour.  His prediction: "They'll come in after the gig has started and then gradually fill up the room from the back" was spot-on.

The set was broadly split into 3x 45-50 minute sets.  No support. The first set was the "chill" session, and that was exactly how the audience gently and politely settled into it.  The room gradually filled up, but the space between the stage and the step up filled up in a very relaxed way - almost everyone cross-legged on the floor.  As Paddy put it "welcome to the great Pitch Black sit-in".  Apart from one or two lines like that, the boys just got on with the chill play out for the first 50 minutes.  And its probably about as laid back as it gets.  This isn't ambient as such, there's more direction to the set than that - its possibly better described as ambient sounds but with a beat - sometimes a little dubby, other times trancey, other times rather like a slowed down house style.  And what a fantastic sound system for this kind of music, in such a modest venue.  The PB sound is very reliant upon waves of bass lines and rhythms - something that could very easily have been a massive wallowy mess of sound from a poor sound system.  But this little unassuming venue in London did PB proud.  The bass was massive but decently controlled and filled the venue with waves of sound.  But it didn't drown out the rest of the music, which is essential to the structure of the sounds - there are so many little short sharp chords, injections of quirks, cracks, sparks and subtleties that make the music what it is.

The guys are animated behind their keyboards, pads, screens and other gizmos.  But they're clearly very comfortable working together on whatever it is they're doing with all the gear.  In line with the vibe of the laid back first set, everything was quite calm up on the stage.  The audience swayed along, some with their eyes closed, some chatting quietly.  Perhaps those who have seen PB before already knew that the chill session was the prelude, the amuse bouche rather than anything like a substantial starter, never mind the main course.  As it happens, there were 2 main courses tonight, although I'm pretty sure the first of those could've left a bad taste in the mouth as it was dubbed as the "Dance Test Dummies" set  - essentially all new tunes for 50 minutes, unreleased material, and still not finalised.  A risky business for PB and the audience.

But there was nothing to worry about here. Introduced by a short video, now Hodgson and Free are getting truly animated behind their gear, and you can see that there are tweaks and adjustments going on throughout the set. The backdrop is a mezmerizing set of loop-style visuals. The pace steps up several gears, the audience gets to its feet and I realise that the place is now packed, starting to feel like a sweaty nightclub.  And boy does the pace ramp up - BPM and sheer energy in the room.  Did the Dummies in the audience crash like those in the video?  No, they seemed to love every minute of this set like it was all familiar and favourite stuff.  The tracks rise and fall, build and break, push forward hard but not relentlessly.  There's always a new twist just around the corner and the amount of twiddling and crossing of arms across the gear hinted at the amount of work being put in - there's clearly a mutual trust and spark between Free and Hodgson as they energetically drove the set along.  It feels like this is a new album ready to go - just bottle up that set from Sebright and stick it straight onto a music carrier format of your choice.  Apparently there is more work to finalise some stuff, but it really didn't feel that way - and the whole place was in tune with the new material.  Bring on the new album asap.

And onto the third set - essentially the "greatest hits" portion of the gig, modestly introduced as "some stuff you'll be more familiar with", or words along those lines.  Unfortunately, due to some complex travel plans I had to dip out about 20 minutes in, much to my annoyance (I had apologised for my early departure to the boys before the gig, so they knew my walking out early wasn't an expression of the quality of the gig!).  As I tore myself away (I did, for a short while contemplate missing the train, but the consequence would be a £70 Uber fare so that got the upper hand in the decision making) the place was still bouncing, lost in the moments, feeling the bass lines and full of positive energy.

One further comment on the sound system (as that's the main theme of the blog) - I did notice the physical impact of the bass lines in my stomach and the movement of my clothing, yet on leaving the venue there was no ringing at all in my ears, and impressive achievement.

So a great combination - venue, crowd, atomsphere, sound quality and, of course, superb musical content from Pitch Black.  Bring on the new album.  Bring on the next gig!

Thursday 1 November 2018

North West Audio Show - 2019 Dates Announced

The North West Audio Show for 2019 continues to be at Cranage Hall in Cheshire and is set to run over 2 days on the weekend of 29/30 June.

Audiophile Musings considers this to be the best of the UK commercial shows.

Here are some of the reports from previous years:


2014 starts here but there are many more reviews - just open the twisties for 2014/June in the menu on the right of the pages

Show website HERE

Sunday 23 September 2018

The 4th Generation – Can Less Really Be More When You’re Learning To Drive? Linn vs Lejonklou

What makes us interested in hifi?  

I’m sure there are many reasonable responses to that question but for me it goes back to when I was in my early teen years, that time when many of us began to listen to music that captured our imagination or encouraged to think differently or, for some, to be rebellious.  At that time I was fortunate enough that there was a decent stereo system in our house – nothing particularly fancy, it was a Marconiphone branded Thorn EMI radiogram – but it had a Garrard turntable, Goldring cartridge and separate speakers that were big enough to stand on the floor.  My brother and I played lots of stuff on that equipment – Yes, Sabbath, Floyd, Steely Dan and more.  But I didn’t appreciate that the record player made a difference.  Until, one day, I took an album around to my mate’s home where it was played on a Fidelity UA4 – a plastic box with plastic speakers not much bigger than a hardback book, a BSR turntable and probably a ceramic cart.  It sounded terrible.  And so, for me, there was a realization that the kit could make a difference.

So from there, the possibilities became of interest.  There was a mate of my brother’s who had a Sony music centre that did a better job than our Marconi, and so it went on.  In our small town there were 2 hifi shops (no, really!) and it was a simple transition from looking at Hornby trains in toy shop windows to looking at electronics with lots of controls, VU meters, lights etc.  Then I got a part-time job when I was 16 and the saving started.  Enough to one day venture into one of the hifi shops to see what was what.  I went for the smaller shop, which, I was to learn later, was far more focused on music playing systems, the other being focused on the latest shiny far eastern products.  In there was playing a Linn LP12 turntable (I forget the arm and cart, probably something like a Grace 707 and whatever was flavour of the day) feeding into a Nytech amplifier and on to Heybrook HB3s. Wow, that was an ear opening moment when I first realized what was possible, given the budget.

I’ll get to the point.  Soon.  Ish.

But supermarket Saturday jobs don’t feed LP12 and Heybrook habits. So the budget meant looking at Sony / Pioneer turntables, Pioneer / JVC / Technics entry level amps and speakers at that level seemed to be ubiquitously Wharfedale.  But there was also a thriving specialist press at the time, with lots of black and white magazines with glossy covers seeking attention.  And there I discovered a few things about what was available from dealers and how not everything with flashy finishes, impressive sounding technologies and lots of lights were necessarily the best thing around.  Examples from the speaker world were the AR18s and the original Mission 700 – simple designs, but ones with music in mind.  I also began to understand that a used decent turntable might be more worthy than a brand new plastic model from Japan.  So, cutting the long story a little bit shorter, the first system was a used Thorens TD160 with a Mayware arm and a pair of Mission 700s.

So what sat between source and speakers?  Many of you will probably have worked out where this is going.  In the one shop we have JVC shiny amps with slider controls, sat alongside Technics SUV-something-or-others with the Super Class A circuitry.  Amplifiers with 0.0001% distortion, 50 watts per channel, the ability to connect 2 pairs of speakers, lovely needle or fluorescent VU meters.  In the other shop, a dowdy looking, drab little box with just a set of tone controls and a meagre 20 watts per channel.  Yet the magazines were praising this little box so further investigation was necessary.  Well, as it turns out, and I’m not sure that the same can be said very often today, the magazines were right.  The Japanese amplifiers sounded slow, lacking in sparkle, flat, they played notes not music and they didn’t engage you when you listened.  Yet the little NAD 3020, for all its build quality faults, its slightly over-warm upper bass, a mere 20W per channel and dull looks was full of life, got you involved and created the heart of a system that I wanted to listen to for hours.  Fantastic value for money.

And so, eventually we kind of get to the point.  In the above example, the simple, “less is more” amplifier did a great job of playing music rather than being led by technology claims and objective measurements.  Is that relevant today?  After my visit to an audio dealer in Lisburn, NI, I decided to find out in my own system.  Might be worth a quick look at the report from Lisburn, as it’s a kind of prelude to this post.

So where are we today, in the Musings system?

Source is a combination of the following, in order of where the information starts to where it ends up:
-          Dell laptop with Exact Audio Copy creates FLAC rips of CDs OR purchased downloads from sites like Junodownload, Qobuz, etc.
-          This data is loaded on a Melco N1ZH which is the HDD version
-          The database and media server is MinimServer which runs with the 24-bit WAV up conversion
-          Chord Ethernet cable
-          Linn Akurate Exakt DSM pre-amp / streamer (this adds internet radio and Tidal options to the data from the Melco)
-          Meicord Ethernet cable
-          Linn Akurate Exaktbox6/1 DSP/multi-channel Katalyst equipped DAC

So that lot then sends 3 signals (treble, mid-range and bass) per channel to a pair of Linn Akurate 4200/1 power amps – via Linn Silver interconnects – one channel per driver in the speakers.  Using 6x channels of the 8x available in these amps, I run treble and bass in one amp and mid-range in the other – I’m not sure if this is a general rule, or if its down to the PMCs which have the mid-range at ear height, but I’ve found in this system that any possible improvement should be applied to the mid-range first, hence the amp doing the least work gets to drive the mids. The spare 2x channels then run the centre channel speaker in passive bi-amp mode, which is only used for TV and movies.  A mix of Linn and Naim speaker cables – which will eventually all be Naim - take the signal out to PMC Twenty.26 speakers.  The PMCs have been converted to work in active mode (no passive crossovers in the speakers) and they stand on IsoAcoustics Gaia feet. All equipment is mounted on Mission/Cyrus Isoplats on 2 flavours of Quadraspire.  Linn’s SPACE is used to deal with room modes in a mildly adjusted form, only applied after making sure that the speakers are in their best position in the room to start with.

A while I go I toyed with the idea of trying 3x stereo Naim NAP250DR amps in the system – I’ve heard this amp sound very good in systems that don’t include other Naim stuff and considered it might be worth a try. But what else might be worth a try and would it bring enough improvement without spending very silly money?  Linn’s Klimax Twin would be worth considering, but I’ve been there before and whilst it is a very good amplifier – it does just sound like a more powerful Akurate amp rather than a major step forward.  Linn’s own Solo amps would also be worth a try, but when you need 6 of them, the price and space required becomes a VERY real issue.  I suppose there is a very long list of options, and possibly Audionet should be on that list too.  Finding dealers (or friends) who have 3x amps on demo or available to borrow is a challenge too. One thing I didn’t want to do is leave Exakt behind and go back to a conventional system – I hear too many benefits to think about going in that direction.

So if you’ve read the post about the visitto Lisburn then you’ll have guessed already the path I wanted to explore further.  The Lejonklou (say Lay-on-cloo) Tundra Stereo 2.5 impressed in a Linn Exakt system, with Kudos Titan 707s, but that was just whetting the appetite – there’s no compensation for trying changes in your own system, in your own room.  The room is an intrinsic part of the system, and can’t be ignored.  But 3x amps?  Who was going to be able to help with a demo like that? Well, Kantata-Audio stepped up to the mark – they already have 2x demo amps of their own, but John put the effort in to get a third one lined up and the plan was hatched.  Great service too – amps delivered to home in Wales from over the water in NI.  I guess John would prefer to come along to install the gear, but maybe he felt it was safe enough to let me get on with it on my own, especially this far from base!

Remarkably, despite the best efforts of the couriers, the amps turned up safe and sound, packaged in their very simple, unassuming cardboard boxes.  No box branding as such, just Lejonklou branded sealing tape.  One by one the amps were unboxed and in each box we find an amp, a simple instruction leaflet, a Lejonklou branded box containing the power lead and a multimeter – more of which later.

Simple cartons

A smart box for the power cable

Instructions on setting up using the supplied multimeter

Once all were unboxed, I listened again for a good hour or so to the system as-is (it had being playing quietly for at least 30 mins beforehand), just to get a good feel for what it sounds like, trying to keep that in my most recent memory.  It might not have helped much, but I felt I should try and make the comparison as fair as possible.  Given that it was about to take about 1.5 to 2 hours to disconnect cabling, change over the amps, re-cable, test etc., then this wasn’t a comparison that was going to be of the A to B variety.  In the limitations of the amount of rack space I have, it just wasn’t possible to do this the most ideal way, with all the amps set up ready to just change cables – I don’t have that kind of space.  Even with this last listen, given the set-up procedure for the Tundras, it probably made only a small difference, given it was going to be 30 hours or so before serious listening could be undertaken -  more on set-up soon.

Physically, because 2x 4200s are being swapped out for 3x stereo amps, there was a re-shuffle on the centre rack.  Previously the Exaktbox had a dedicated shelf and sat central with the amps next to each other on the shelf below.  Once done, the Exaktbox was off to one side with a Tundra alongside and two futher Tundras side by side on the shelf below.  Another Isoplat was extracted from the loft too, to keep changes between the systems to a minimum by making sure all the amps were isolated equally.  I normally use ClearerAudio Copper Alpha shielded mains cables for the Linn amps, but stuck with the supplied (very unassuming) mains cables provided with the Tundras, as their designer has strong views on this, so I thought best to stick with the recommendation – if there was any experimenting to be done, that could wait a while.  There’s another significant difference between the Linn and Lejonklou amps – Linn offering 200W per channel (into 4 ohms, but to be fair to the industry norm, most manufacturers would call this 100W into 8 ohms) whereas the Tundra makes do with a seemingly very modest 25W per channel – echoes of those NAD 3020 specs.  In my active system, this means a total of 75W per channel and each amp only has to deal with a direct connection to the speaker drive units with no passive crossover to consume power.

The Exaktbox moved to the left to accomodate the first Tundra.  Linn amps still in place on the bottom shelf

Back to what came out of the boxes.  3x of the latest iteration of the Lejonklou Tundra Stereo 2.5.  v2.5 is probably about the 7th or 8th iteration of the amp, the history of which can be found here.  It was Fredrik Lejonklou’s first amplifier product.  Interestingly it reminds me, at least in the way it looks, of a combination of Linn LK range (the Klout of that range also had twin blue LEDs on the front panel) and the no-nonsense solid engineering of the Naim amps.  These boxes are not heavy (they use SMPS power supplies, not big heavy transformer PSUs like many amps) but they do feel very well built from quality materials.  Everything is black with a nice matt finish that feels like it will be robust – the front features the central company logo flanked by the aforementioned blue LEDs.  One of my favourite non-audio features (probably the amps’ only non-audio feature) is the ability to turn these LEDs off using a simple back panel toggle switch – the less distractions in the room the better when focusing on enjoying the music.

Unassuming, but seems to be well built

 On the underside we find a myriad of allen bolt heads presumably holding boards, components and earth straps in place.  I don’t take a look inside for 2 reasons – first these are not my amps and that would be inappropriate, but secondly because Lejonklou are fastidious about their fasteners – each and every one has been adjusted to a particular torque level where it sounds best to the designer.  I find this fascinating, have no experience of the difference a torque setting for an amp board mounting can make, but I’m quite happy to accept that every little change added up can make for a big change overall.  Other than that there are 4 rubber feet of everyday appearance, each mounted on a metal washer.

Around the back the action doesn’t get any more exciting.  Functional is the approach.  The LED on-off switch, the mains on-off switch, 4 phono socket connections, 4x 4mm speaker output sockets and that’s almost your lot.  Fredrik has tested the amp and signed off on a small label.  The only thing here that’s somewhat unusual is a 3.5mm trim port and a small rubber knob next door. That’s your lot.  The 4x phono connectors are in pairs – a pair for each channel – one is the input, the other an output that can be used to pass the signal along to another amp for passive multi-amping of speakers by duplicating the input signal.  In my system, just the input connections are required. The top plate is even simpler – just a flat panel with a narrow row of cooling vents running just along the back edge.
Connecting up took a while, but I did take the opportunity to do a bit of dusting along the way J.  The usual power-up sequence for an active system was used, music was played and the bass amp powered up first.  Then the mid-range, then the treble.  This sequence means that if, for example, what I expected to be the bass amp was actually outputting treble, the bass driver would have no issue.  Try that the other way around and the tweeters would soon be smoke.  And then was the patient bit.  How patient?  Well, 30 hours or so.  But I managed to do it.  The Tundra has a lower gain compared to the Linn amps – over the weekend it correlated with what I’d read – the pre-amp needs to be 9 or 10 units higher than with the Linn amps to get the same kind of listening level.  So a very quiet 40 volume level with the Akurates is a very quiet 50 with the Tundras.  And so they played for an hour or so before it was time to take a break and get some kip – turning the rig down to a barely audible level 35 to keep things ticking over, but not disturbing the household.

Simple rear panel with the LED toggle far left and the trim port next to that


Next morning they’re back up to 50 to play away to themselves, apart from the essential break for a cuppa when I’d head back into the room and listen for 30 mins or so, just to hear what was going on.  So back to that trim control and port.  That’s where the multimeter comes in too – each amp is supplied with one which is labelled up on the back with the correct mV reading for the amp.  The idea here is that the amp’s idling current can be adjusted to suit it’s set up to make the best of the temperatures that arise from its working location.  This has to be adjusted after the first 24 hours, then again an hour later, one month after installation and then annually there after.  Unless you re-locate the amp to a new environment, when the 24 hour/1 hour process should be repeated.  An amp for the enthusiast audience rather than the mass-market then.

First amp connected up.  Trim port and trim knob just this side of the speaker cables

Well, I said I managed to be patient – but its confession time!  I actually lasted 20 hours of running before I got down to the first adjustment – I figure these are demo amps and have probably had a good few hours running already.  Turning off the Exaktbox meant there is no signal going into the amps – they’re idling. Plugging in the multi-meter and turning to the mV setting the trim knob is adjusted until the correct value is showing.  Very simple, very straightforward, no specialist knowledge required.  I did one amp, then ran some music again for about 15 minutes before going silent and adjusting the next one – hopefully this kept the temperature closest to normal operating.  I repeated this for the third amp.  Two amps needed just a small tweak, the third quite a bit more – it must have been operating in a fairly different type of rack previously.  So then I put in about 2 hours of listening at a modest 50 to 55 listening level, but didn’t make the second trim adjustment until the next morning – another 9 hours of running.  So after breakfast on the Sunday, the final adjustments were made (just one amp actually needed a tweak) and at last, some proper listening can be done.
Sometimes, when listen to music in order to work out what a component is doing in a system (or a complete system, as is usually the case at hifi shows), its difficult to get the words right to describe what’s being heard. And more often than not, they’re questioned, mis-interpreted, inadequate, or need to describe things in terms of characteristics when you’d rather be talking about the way the music is playing or feeling.  Whilst there are “technical” characteristics to what’s heard, they’re a small part of what matters – its what the music does for you rather than the way its presented that’s key.  If it doesn’t stir emotions, then there seems little point in using anything other than the basics and using music as a background rather than a priority.  I’ll try to give a flavour of both technical and musical here, to try and cover the bases.

All 3 Lejonklous in place.  Here with the LEDs switched on - I prefer them off to reduce distractions

So the technical – well, what I’ve noticed, and I found it a little difficult to understand when reading this elsewhere, these amps need 15 to 20 minutes warm-up time.  And by that I don’t mean switched on, that’s not enough, they need 15 to 20 minutes of actual music playing.  At the start they sound very good, but the imaging is flat and there’s nothing particularly special about them. But then, after that time, they wake up significantly.  The left to right imaging opens up enormously, spreading across the full width of the room, and those phase effects used extensively in electronica, where the sound seems to come from beside and sometimes behind, are very effectively delivered.  Depth front to back comes in too, but perhaps never gets quite as deep as with the Linn amps, even after a full warm up.  Bass lines are just a touch softer on the leading edges than with the Linns, as noted in the Lisburn system, yet it has more believable textures and timing.  Goes just as deep, is just as substantial but yet more stable on the Tundra compared to the Akurate. Running with SPACE in my home system to deal with room modes helps to reveal just how good the timing is on the Tundra, in addition to opening up their mid-range clarity.  The rest of the frequency range is handled extremely well, but it’s the treble that has a delicacy almost absent in the 4200.  Spashiness is much reduced, sibilance takes a further step back and there’s yet another level of detail in terms of hearing how a struck cymbal’s note changes as it decays, or the ability to differentiate between the different areas the instrument has been struck.

In the mid-range, I find that instruments take another step towards being clearly defined as individual sounds.  Some tracks reveal multiple instruments taking the lead where before there had been a single, less well defined, tune line.  Notes also last longer – they decay away convincingly and add to the sense of the venue on live recordings.  Vocals are easier to follow, but also carry so much more emotion and expression.  At the end of tracks as the notes fade away, they do so into a much quieter background.

And what about the music? After the initial 15 to 20 minute running time, this is the area that demonstrates a great deal of superiority to the Dynamik power supplied Linns.  Its also the most difficult to describe in words.  The thing that really stands out for me is their timing.  It seems completely counter-intuitive that timing should be a “thing” that might be a challenge for a modern amplifier.  I mentioned it when listening in Lisburn, its about the musicians playing together. On every beat. Every time.  Of course, the Lejonklou’s probably still don’t get it completely right, but there’s a definite sense of the removal of a layer of complexity in the music – note, I don’t say a layer of detail, that’s something completely different.  For example, the 2 guitars on Dire Straits’ “Six Blade Knife” around 2:30 into the track and onwards – what was previously 2 different instrument lines is now an interplay making a complete tune together, yet the 2 instruments are still clearly distinguished.  Another example being the clicks and tricks on Tunng’s “Jenny Again” – they no longer feel like add-ons, but a part of the music.  This integration of “special effects” into the feel and flow of the music, I notice time and time again – another example would be something that sounds like sheets of metal being tapped on Pitch Black’s “Filtered Senses” – the way they impact into the music and then fade away is no longer rather incongruous to the tune.  This track also has some interesting bass depth that rumbles underneath – but now with a sense of tune and flow, not just a rumble.  The complex percussion (finger cymbals, castanets etc.) contribution to Massive Attack’s “Unfinished Sympathy” as an integrated part, not as a seemingly unnecessary distraction.  The bass line in Leftfield’s “Afro Left” introduction kicks solid and stable, building a sense of anticipation of what might be to come.

Kiki Dee’s live rendition of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” from the “Almost Naked” album is a great track.  I’ve enjoyed it on most good systems I’ve had but now we have more emotion in her voice, a greater sense of the venue and something that flows between her vocals and the backing track. Its easier to hear the message Dee wants to put across.  On Yello’s album “Toy”, there are 2 guest female vocalists who have quite a different contribution to make to these tracks.  Malia’s smokey smooth jazz style is contrasted with Fifi Rong’s lighter, mysterious vocals.  Now this contrast is greater still – Malia’s out to convince through gentle persuasion, Rong seems to be out to unsettle, disturb and put doubts in your head.  And talking of unsettling, Mary Gauthier’s seriously unhappy on “Falling Out of Love”, its already pretty obvious really, but here her vocals grab you and almost force you to take notice of just how unhappy she is.  Gripping stuff.

All of this got me thinking about how to describe the effect of the Tundra 2.5s in my Exakt system.  The above kind of tries to get the experience across, but then probably not adequately enough.  So how about comparing the 2 amps to learning to drive?  When you first pass your driving test, its because you are competent and safe on the road.  You know what to do, when to do it and how to do it.  But that’s all.  It still takes a great deal of concentration and it doesn’t come naturally.  You have to think through what you’re doing and you do it sequentially, as per the instructor's directions.  But then, as you get more and more competent as a driver, things start to flow – actions gel together, you start to anticipate traffic, you get smoother with gear changes and clutch engagement, you gradually stop thinking about the mechanics of what you’re doing.  The stuff you have to do all the time almost become subconscious and you can flow into the traffic and start to enjoy the actual journey, perhaps placing the car on the road to get the best out of a corner, to feel the way the car reacts to your inputs etc. Driving is no longer a set of individual motions, actions and set pieces, it becomes a continual flow and blends together as one journey.  Yet you’re still controlling individual functions such as the throttle, steering, gears etc. – they’re still distinct actions.

So that’s what I think the Tundras are doing over and above the Linn Akurate amps.  They give that flow, that sense of an easy to follow musical experience, rather than a set of individually processed notes and voices.  Its also interesting to note, although source first is still true because you can never recover what’s lost at source, there’s a good deal here to learn about how much components further down the line can lose and waste what the source is doing and prevent the musical side getting through to the listener.  A fantastic source can be wasted by not giving it good enough support.

Linn DSM / Exaktbox Source, Lejonklou Amps, PMC Twenty.26 Speakers

So after NAD, Rotel and Linn amplifier generations, a new generation takes over the reins in the system and a seemingly simple amp brings greater enjoyment of the music.  They’re here to stay.

Friday 24 August 2018

Amps, Ireland, Sweden and a Dealer Visit

A recent trip over to Ireland and then Northern Ireland gave an opportunity to catch up with a couple of acquaintances - one a local and one a Swedish import.

The local I've known for a while, but its only recently that John has moved from audio enthusiast to audio dealer when he took the opportunity to make a career change over a year ago.  I've probably known the Swede for a little longer, but not in the current guise as audio manufacturer Lejonklou (say Lay-on-cloo) has made a myriad of changes and additions to its amplifier portfolio since I last had a listen back in August 2015.  John's business has evolved quickly and from starting as a great source of used quality hifi (predominantly Linn) to a mix of used and new equipment.  The roster of manufacturers is still developing, but Innuos, Lejonklou, Kudos and Audioquest are the mainstay for now, with more work to do on adding more options in the coming months.  John seems to be working quite hard at identifying good quality equipment that might not be available elsewhere in NI / Ireland.

So let's start by getting settled into the listening seat at John's Kantata Audio base camp.  2 rooms are available and they're very much typical UK domestic settings and sizes.  We started in the larger room and with the larger / more expensive system.  Here's the starting line up:

Cup of tea
Audioquest Niagara 1000 mains conditioner with standard cables and a Masterplug 4 way extension leading out of the single high current socket for the 2 power amps
Generic Ethernet Cable
Linn Klimax Exakt DSM
Audioquest Diamond 0.75m Ethernet Cable for Exaktlink 
Linn Klimax Exaktbox/1 (Katalyst)
1x Lejonklou Tundra v2.2 Tarandus Stereo Power Amp (treble)
1x Lejonklou Tundra v2.5 Stereo Power Amp (mid-bass) - this is the latest iteration of this amp
Audioquest Castle Rock 6m Speaker Cables
Kudos Titan 707 Speakers

The Titans are aligned along the longest wall of a medium size room which is furnished very much as a typical living room / lounge with a suite, carpets, cabinets etc.  Reassuringly normal, really.  We tried a couple of tunes but I felt that the lower end boom caused by the room was too distracting - deliberately, Linn's SPACE optimisation was not in use tonight.  I did find that shuffling the listening chair forward by a couple of feet improved the situation significantly, moving it another couple of feet forward put it into a bass null in the room and was therefore too much.  Initially it was difficult to understand how the system was delivering bass notes due to the room effects, but once the seat was in a better place it was easier to hear what was happening. So then we settled into some more listening.  Tracks varied from Dire Straits' "Six Bladed Knife" to Malia & Boris Blank's "Magnetic Lies" via Shelby Lynne and Daft Punk.

Here's what struck me about this system - its a sense of effortlessness in terms of the listening experience - its easy to relax into the tune, into the meaning of the musical message and enjoy the experience.  I've heard many iterations of Linn's Klimax Exakt with Katalyst and sometimes the level of detail available almost overwhelms the musical message.  Not so here, the detail was there, but it served the musical message, it wasn't the message in itsself.  Nice.  There's also a natural element to the vocals that I know is a particular forte of the T-707 and one I particularly enjoy, but its better still than I've heard through these speakers before.  
I'm still not fully convinced about articulation in the bass which I think could be tighter and easier to follow, but its something that more time with set up might help to dial out, and I think SPACE could remove it completely.  But not tonight.  I wonder about how this would compare to Linn's own amplification so John's off to find a Linn Akurate 4200/1 power amp - a four channel amp that's in the same pricing ballpark as 2x Tundras.  The amp was cold, but it was very interesting to be able to hear the amps I use at home swapped out directly with the Tundras.  1 thing struck me immediately with this change, the other 2 main differences took 2 or 3 tracks to become clear and understood.  The immediate difference was a taughter "punch" to the sound, particularly noticeable with percussion.  This may seem to be a good thing, but after gradually getting used to the other 2 aspects, its really all about the balance of compromises (as usual in life!).  What took a little longer to notice was the loss of naturalness in the music, in vocals in particular and when coupled with what I would describe as a loss of "sense" in the music - lead guitars, piano in particular - it would be too extreme to say that these aspects became chaotic (they didn't) but they were definitely less organised, the instrumental lines were not playing as well together as they do on the Tundras.  It was harder to keep up with the message in the music.  Hmmm.
But then we changed back to the Tundras and, as is often the case when making these sorts of comparisons, what you've lost is easier to hear when it all comes back again.  So the changes described above, that took a little while, were immediately noticeable on the swap back.  I'm intrigued, and would like to hear this change in my own system.

We chat for a good while about the industry, about dealerships, about the buying experience, seasonal fluctuation in the market, what sells well and why (and why not of course) and how John is going about finding new manufacturers to add to the portfolio.  Very geeky :)

Then on to room 2 - a smaller room, more like a home-office-with-a-sofa kind of set up, but could be a small lounge room.  Entirely appropriate to a number of UK home set ups I would think.  Here we have the following:

Generic Ethernet Cable
Linn Akurate DSM/2 (Katalyst)
Audioquest Water RCA to RCA Interconnect
Lejonklou Boazu Integrated Amp
Audioquest Rocket 33 6m Speaker Cables
Kudos Super 20A Speakers
Power was delivered through a basic Masterplug extension lead with OEM power cables

Again, Linn's SPACE optimisation was deliberately left out of the equation this evening. I'm very familiar with the Kudos Super 20s, having heard them for many hours in a friend's system and had them in my own system when passive and again active with Linn Exakt.  So they're a known quantity.  Given that the Linn streamer in this system uses the same Akurate level Katalyst DACs as my own system, then this too was reasonably familiar (although not in Exakt guise here).  So that left the Lejonklou Boazu as the main unknown for me.  And the room of course.  A touch of boom again here, but not something very distracting and the smaller dimensions of the room meant shuffling of seating was a less practical option, so the furniture all stayed in the same place here.
Well this is quite some system, given its relative simplicity.  If you're after fireworks, slam etc., then look elsewhere.  If you want to enjoy your music then this is a pretty good place to start, although I would say that, despite the relative simplicity of this system, it still not exactly basement money, being around 15k GBP.  We used a number of the same tracks as in room 1 but added some Kiki Dee live into the mix, along with Kris Delmhorst.  Fluid, natural, great timing, a really enjoyable listen.
But John had another trick up his sleeve and the Boazu was quickly swapped out for the Sagatun 1.4 stereo pre-amp and the Tundra 2.5 stereo power amp, the latter imported from the larger room. The interconnects are now Audioquest Water between the DSM and the Sagatun and a pair of Audioquest Yukon RCA to RCA interconnects between the Sagatun and the Tundra.  So given Lejonklou's pursuit of the musical and emotional message in the music, I'm not sure that my initial thoughts on this change will be welcomed, but the separates did bring some good "technical" improvements to the presentation - instrument separation, a sense of the acoustics of the recording environment, greater image stability were all there.  But this paled in comparison to the biggest change here - the emotion in the music.  Kiki Dee's "Don't Go Breaking My Heart" is a live recording on the "Almost Naked" album and is something of a favourite of mine - I listen to it quite often, and we used it here as the A-B comparison track.  In comparison to the very "pop" and somewhat jovial original recording of the song with Elton John, Dee's live version is downtempo and in a much more serious place.  It actually has some meaning, but through the Sagatun / Tundra pairing, the meaning in Dee's vocals was so clear, so much more sincere, and quite stunning.  The little Boazu is very good indeed, but the separates are that much better again.  Sometimes I find the Super 20As a little too forward - too in-your-face, but not here tonight, even with the hard wooden floor in this room.

So there's definitely more to test here, and I'm hoping to hear more in my own system in the not too distant future.  I have to say thanks very much to John for his warm welcome, excellent demonstration session and his ability to listen to my thoughts and not force his own views on to me, my pet hate with some dealers and manufacturer's reps.  He has the solid beginnings of an interesting business in a very good, domestically realistic, setting and his place definitely deserves a visit.

Friday 15 June 2018

Naim ND555 - New Top of the Range Streamer - First Listen

Had the pleasure of the comparison between NDS and ND555 at Acoustica this evening.

System was Core / NAC552 / 300DR into B&W 803D3 with SuperLumina throughout.  NDS / 555DR vs ND555 / 555DR swapping the interconnect between the sources (hence keeping the same input on the pre).  All electronics on Fraim.  Chord C-Stream for ethernet.  Nice to see the continuation of the green logo.  The ND555 and its 555DR PS are on the top shelves in the picture above.  Thankfully, we didn't have to suffer more of the upper range of Focal speakers today.

The ND555 is an evolution of the NDS.  It uses the same B-B DAC but with a different power supply design.  In fact, as you might expect from Naim, there are a number of power supply changes inside the ND555.  Each "stage" (digital, analogue, clock) has its own dedicated and DR fed power supply inside the box (in addition to DR in the physically separate 555PS of course).  The digital section is similar to the new platform in the Uniti range and therefore supports the latest stuff such as Roon.  It is housed in its own dedicated metal box which "floats" inside the ND555's main case - it is mechanically and electrically isolated from the DAC and analogue stages which themselves sit on suspended thick brass plates.  The screen is also shielded internally.  There was also an explanation about how there are two clocks - an input clock that can vary its timing to match the incoming data feed and a second clock to time the DAC.  Not sure about this and how that's a benefit when there's a buffer involved, but there you go.  "Normal" Naim Burndy cables are provided with the ND555 for connection to the power supply (or supplies as there is an option to use 2x 555PS units with the ND555).
Although I'm not a big fan of the B&Ws, this was probably the best I've heard from them.  They have a slightly un-natural treble and a squidgy bass that doesn't appeal to me.  A little boom caused by the room too, but it wasn't excessive nor overwhelming. NDS first of course, then we swapped between the 2 sources a few times before settling in to a longer listen to the ND555.  Jason from Naim was looking after the demo.
First thing to say is that the NDS doesn't "sound broken".  It does a great job, just as it has done for a long while now.  We started with an acoustic guitar track then onto a trio of female folk singers listening to the NDS.  The trio was then played again for 40 seconds or so before switching over to the ND555 and listening to the same track again.  We selected some Shelby Lynne and repeated the process.
Its not a "gob smacking" change for me - its more subtle than that, but that shouldn't de-value the size of the upgrade, its just that you have to think about it rather than have it fed to you on a plate.  The instruments most definitely separate more clearly, the edges of notes are better defined without being edgy, you can hear more of the way in which a note is plucked on a string or how a bass line starts and stops more clearly.  Yet these more clearly defined instruments don't stand alone as the timing seems more coherent, enabling them to make better sense of the "whole" of the tune.  But the biggest impact for me was the added emotional element, particularly in Shelby Lynne's voice.  That was what stood out for me, once we'd settled into the changes.
Worth a longer audition at home, whilst the VFM, as ever, continues to be a personal choice of course.
Thanks to Acoustica and Jason for a very effective and relaxed dem.

Sunday 15 April 2018

Acoustica Chester Show, April 2018

Its come around again - Chester dealer Acoustica's nice little show at the DoubleTree hotel on the outskirts of the city.

A sample of previous reports here:

Acoustica is well known as one of the leading Naim dealers in the UK.  It should come as no surprise then that many of the rooms at the show feature Naim sources and amplification - often only the speakers are the differentiating factor.  There's a decent smattering of other manufacturers too.  The hotel features a number of decent rooms in the original building, with other systems in hotel bedrooms - some of which are a reasonable size, some very small indeed.  Let's get stuck in.

You can click on the images to see a larger version.

Naim ND/555/252/500 and some more power supplies plus the Focal Utopias (I think they are the Maestro Evos) on Fraim and connected by SuperLumina

Positioned in the large function room, this year the system was set up firing across the room, aiming towards the section that has the low ceiling.  The main part of the room has a very high, vaulted ceiling which really is a major challenge for any system.  I can't recall this room being used in recent years, but 5 years ago, with active Ovator 800s firing down the length of the room, it wasn't a great result.

Behind the main listening area here 3 podiums with kit on the top of each - the new "classic" range of streamers.  Unfortunately they weren't in use, but it was nice to see them with the lids off.  They have a mix of surface mount, microchip and tradition pin-through components - as the range progresses from ND5 XS 2 to NDX 2 to ND555, the more traditional components you see.  The ND555 has 2 "floating" brass boards, supporting the main circuit boards - with the digital stuff in its own physically separated and boxed area.  The NDX 2 had a loose yellow wire taped up at each end, so these are clearly late prototypes. A quick word with the Naim team reveals that a production ready small batch has been built and these are going through final comparative testing and tweaking.  June possibly?  Taking them out of the batch testing process for a show delays the testing process too much, so they weren't there on demo.



ND5 XS 2

So how was the system?  Well NDS/252 and 500 with the usual array of power supplies were feeding Focal Maestros in a rather natty metallic mid-blue, all hooked up with SuperLumina cables.  We listened to 5 tracks in the room, all of them fairly simple acoustic or jazz music.  The 3rd row of seats were suffering from some room boom so moving forward a row helped.  This system delivers quite a lot of detail but its all very disjointed and "bitty", with no real imaging - both speakers were very clearly the source of the sound.  We didn't hear any complex music, which is usually a challenge with these speakers.  Anyway, in this combination, in this room, there's no real evidence of the benefit of £100k of hifi.

NAIM and Dynaudio 40th Anniversary Specials

A nice big pile of Naim electronics.  I think the streamer was an NDS/555 with 252/PS and the amp was a 300DR with its PS.  All Fraimed of course.  This system was in the largest of the dem rooms upstairs in the original building - normally we've heard top end electronics with various Focal Utopias in this room, but this year, we didn't need to walk out in relief like those previous years.

Here the little standmounts were doing a decent job in such a large room.  I think they did the electronics justice from a detail resolution perspective - pretty musical too.  They do a decent job on the bass too.  But there was something odd about the imaging - sometimes it was there, sometimes it was lost.  Curious.  Having heard them sounding pretty good at Bristol, they're probably worth further investigation if that's they type of speaker and price you're considering.

NAIM Electronics with B&W 803D3

Normally, I'd expect to be writing "detailed if a little clinical top end and mids, with warm slightly over-blown bass".  Not this time.  Apologies, I never found out what the electronics were in this system, but we weren't in the room long enough to find out.  This system was hard, harsh, piercing and just intolerable.  We had to leave the room.  Surely there was something wrong here???

NAIM 272/555, 300DR, Kudos Titan 505

Well, another Acoustica show and another no-show for the SNAXO active crossover.  Very frustrating for Kudos I would expect.  But no matter, because there was good news in this room anyway.  The "baby" of the Titan range, which debuted at Bristol in February 2018, was making its first showing at the Chester show.  All the electronics were brand new on Friday night and those who know Naim know that there will be more to come from this system once the electronics have some hours on them.
Its really that not easy to describe what the Titan family does so well, but its still present here in the little standmounts.  They kick well above their size with a good, solid, tight sound, making the best of what seems to be the best room at the show.  As I've only heard the other Titans with higher end Naim and Linn electronics, its difficult to tell what's down to the speakers and what's down to the electronics, but these Titans were a little less detailed than previous listens.  But the musicality, the sheer joy of listening is still there.  Good result.


Pretty much the same system as Leema played at Bristol this year, and pretty much the same result - nice enough, rather polite, no glaring problems.  This version of the speaker has a cabinet that doesn't require a stand - apparently the lowest part of the cabinet is not included in part of the cabinet that contains the drivers, so its essentially the same as the cabinet that benefits from the short stands.


Russell K were demonstrating some prototype floorstanding speakers, due for lauch in September or so this year.  I hope there's a lot more development work to come.  Despite finding previous Russell K speakers lively and reasonably enjoyable, these have a long way to go to be even remotely interesting.  Top end percussion sounded like someone randomly dropping teaspoons onto a splash cymbal and there was no real bass to note - even when moving around the room to make sure it wasn't the effect of a null.  At this point, they're not worth anywhere near their projected £6k.


I rather enjoyed this diminutive little system.  I think it was the only turntable in use, at least, it was the only one I heard in action this weekend.  This system was nicely engaging with no real issues of note and the extremely slim little £900 speakers were doing a decent job.  Good to see a manufacturer demonstrating something suitable for the room size available...


Having heard this little all-in-one at Bristol with tiny Amphion speakers, it was interesting to see how it fared today with a more substantial standmount speaker.  And it was reasonably engaging, reasonably detailed and had a good grip on the music.   It didn't have the same "wow" factor that these electronics delivered through the tiny Amphions, its still a decent sounding system.  Both boxes look very modern and well finished.


Another nicely made little box of tricks here - the Auralic combining storage, streaming, pre-amp and power-amp in a very small space.  Here they were feeding the new A3 speakers from Spendor.  I've been critical of recent encounters with the more expensive D series speakers from this manufacturer - too safe, too smooth, a little dull.  But the A3s are differently voiced and are quite a bit of fun to listen to, having more life and dynamics.  Nicely done in this system.  Curiously though, no seats provided in this room, so crouching was required to get a decent idea of what was going on.  Odd.


Here we had £30k of electronics into £3k standmounts, in a small room.  So the standmounts were probably a good idea as there was little to no boom in here.  Lots of detail, very good imaging, but no real musical or emotional involvement in the music.  Odd choice of components.  Note the new Arcam electronics on the rack at the top - unfortunately they weren't being demonstrated when we were in the room, but apparently were in action later. Shame to miss them and they might have been a better mix with the little Revels.


Audiophile Musings awarded the "Sound of The Show" to these speakers at the Bristol Show 2018.  Here, the Leema electronics weren't quite up to the standard of the Linn Exakt electronics at Bristol, the combination here sounding a little thinner and brighter.  Not a bad system though.


 Large, that's what they are, and the styling's not so subtle either.  I think this system was playing too quietly.  It was OK, but I suppose I was expecting a more, given the imposing visuals.  Again, a system with large bass drivers that don't move very much is a little disappointing - it seems, from experience, that smaller drivers that move more a more "friendly" sounding, and better suited to a domestic environment.


This combination made for a much more lively, engaging kind of musical presentation compared to the active floorstanding versions of these speakers.  Worth further investigation


Diminutive little Auralic streamer and DAC/pre-amp feeding into ATC's smallest floorstander, the active SCM40A (thankfully, without their hideous chicken wire grilles).  Well this was a great sounding system - lively without being harsh, detailed without being shouty, warm but articulate in the bass.  Tunes were easily followed and musically engaging.  There was a bit of boom added by the room, but it was possible to ignore this, and it was a pretty small room for this size of speaker.

Whilst the Kudos T-505 room was probably the better sounding system, once price is factored in, this system delivered the sound of the show for me.


The new Uniti stuff seems to be consistently good, when used with the right speaker - and room.  Heard with Kudos Titan or Focal Aria the examples I've heard have been very enjoyable.  However, the room at Bristol meant that the Nova / Kanta combination was impossible to evaluate - just a boomy mess.  At Chester though, the combination was working much better.  Kantas are at Focal's kind of lower mid-range, being more expensive than Aria whilst less expensive than Sopra.  It shares the same mid-bass driver materials of the Aria.  Yet again, the lower priced Focals comprehensively out-played their vastly more expensive breatheren at the same show.  The Kanta / Nova combination being rather enjoyable, although we didn't hear any tracks that might've exposed any aggressiveness from that tweeter.

As usual, the Acoustica Chester show delivered in 2018, in terms of organisation and a relaxed atmosphere in a decent quality venue.  Dominated by Naim, as expected, there were some other gems to enjoy too.  Thanks Acoustica.