Going shopping

It’s very odd being a hi-fi shopper once again. What’s proved unusually difficult is finding dealers where certain comparison can be had. I’ve a very odd shortlist of DAC/amplification I’d like to hear including NAD, Benchmark, Auralic, Devialet and Lyngdorf equipment. Some folk will offer home dems or loans but I don’t think I’m quite there yet. I was combining brand names in an idle Google search when I came across a new Edinburgh dealer who stocks both Benchmark and Lyngdorf products. Well that had to be worth a visit.

Saturday last, unannounced, I pitched up at Audio-philia – a very smartly refitted corner shop 15-20 minutes walk from Edinburgh centre. Owners Carlo and Linda were consummate hosts – a quick chat to establish our interests then no pressure – just ‘here’s the remote go and have a listen’. As their Lyngdorf TDAI-2170 had just been sold we were only able to listen to the Benchmark DAC3 and AHB2 DAC and power amp this time.

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Audio-philia has a unique raised mezzanine listening area which gives near-field conditions but with the speakers almost in free space. We (me and Mrs P) listened first through Quadral Chromium 6s – a German two-way new to me (retailing at £1395). This combination produced etched detail, with wonderful stereo imagery – the whole presentation a vividly detailed, but in no way oppressive, sound. Not a conventional way to divide up a budget with the speakers costing only ⅔rds of the DAC – but this was a sound I could certainly live with – though perhaps not in my current listening room.

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 13.35.31.jpgCarlo suggested – with my current choice of larger floorstanders and the music we’d be playing – we might like to hear Brodmann Festival F2 speakers. These offered a very different presentation. Like my own Tannoys, these are loudspeakers I’d like to power up loud but get out of the near field and hear them with more of the room. On dem in the Audio-philia lounge the sideway-facing drivers gave an oddly intangible quality to the sound at the lowish levels we were using. Unsurprisingly, piano was delightfully rendered, especially a recent BIS recording of Satie’s Gnossienne No.1 by Noriko Ogawa (performing on an 1890 Erard grand piano, built in the same year the piece was written). Tonal subtlety, pedalling and key touch all there as were the instrument dynamics but I didn’t get the same tangible presence from these speakers in this location I had so enjoyed with Quadrals.

Still, we’d come to hear DACs and amplifiers not speakers and I have to say I was deeply impressed by the grip and transparency of the Benchmark combination.

Carlo has emailed today to say the Lyngdorf is back on his shelves so I’ve an appointment to make and another visit to Edinburgh to look forward to.

 

Auralic ARIES Mini – sound

Preamble: I began writing this blog piece as soon as I’d powered up the Auralic ARIES Mini. But then there was an update to write about…and so much to listen to…sorry it took so long.

Shortly after entering the URLs for my favourite high quality Internet radio stations I knew the ARIES Mini was something special. Spoken word was easy on the ear, clear and crisply dynamic. This particular quality was noticeable during more serious listening tests. The ARIES has an easy intelligibility and has reduced any shouty tendency in my Tannoy D500s. It becomes so much easier to seamlessly follow lyrics and musical lines.

It’s always interesting to turn up the volume and listen to how the system gets louder. The ARIES Mini delivers a signal that lets the system get ‘loud over there’ within the image and not ‘loud in your ear’ – it’s proved easy to listen at high levels for extended periods without fatigue. Conversely, when some of the big set-piece demos have failed to deliver the expected slam I’ve found I’ve been listening a much lower levels than usual because of the improved transparency of the sound. (I use the SPLnFFT app on my iPad to keep a check on levels). It’s interesting to speculate that what you’ve got used to is a big slab of distortion hitting you!

That first evening listening with the ARIES Mini was unintentionally instructive. First call was to listen to some old favourite tracks to see what was new and what had changed. It was while shutting down the system for the night that I realised we’d just spent four hours listening to nothing but CD rips of old analogue masters – never having strayed outside my Classic Demos playlist.

folder.jpgI  never tire of Yo Yo Ma’s playing in the lovely Finzi Cello concerto. This is a simple ‘Decca tree’ recording from 1979 by Kenneth Wilkinson in the wonderful acoustic of Watford Town Hall. ‘Wilkie’ was known for his rich orchestral balance with fully detailed lower registers and precise instrumental placement. The ARIES Mini images Ma’s pizzicato cello at the opening of the 3rd movement Adagio so precisely, separate and distinct from the answering side drum. Low strings enter – the initial soft touch of bow to string tangible in a way I’d not previously heard.

In a similar vein, I don’t know how many times I’ve listened to the intro to Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead (a relatively early digital recording from the wonderful Amsterdam Concertgebouw hall) to assess a loudspeaker’s low end resolution. Here again was a clarity that extended into the lowest reaches of the orchestra at the lowest signal levels.

The ARIES Mini has the real ability to surprise you dynamically – not with those big ‘made you jump’ musical moments but the focus it brings to leading edges. For example from a CD rip of an old withdrawn library copy of Martin Simpson – The Collection – (‘The Moth’) the bite and accuracy of the guitar already has your attention but each harmonica or sung entry makes you start.  folder.jpg

And after a few weeks I now realise that what the ARIES Mini does best is to raise the standard of CD rips, Redbook standard files with greatly improved focus and intelligibility. Sure DSD64 and 24/192 files sound superb but the difference between real hi-res files and 16/44.1 CD rips has narrowed very much in favour of the ‘lower quality’ files.

Auralic firmware update

No sooner were things working with the Auralic ARIES Mini that I registered for Beta updates and received firmware 5.0. I was listening to a remastered folder.jpgrecording of Gossec’s Symphonies, settling into the recording never having hear it before, when the unit notfied me on the iPad of a beta update. Within a couple of minute I was able to hear back-to-back firmware 4.1/5.0 with the same track.

Immediately apparent was an improvment in instrument focus, stereo depth and separation. Just like finding that last degree of focus in a lens and getting the right depth of field – everything pops into place. Checking this wasn’t some change to the sophisticated digital filtering settings available on the Auralic units I soon worked out I was still using the Precise setting with Beta 5 as I had been before. (Beta 5.0 now allows all filter setting to be deselected – previous you had the choice between Precise / Dynamic / Balance / Smooth.) I’ve now opted for no filtering and with the handful of albums I’ve now auditioned with the updated unit I’m delighted with the ease, intelligibility and musicality to the sound.

Beta 5.0 also provides Lightning DS Web Admin which means you can log into your Auralic unit using Apple Safari or Google Chrome with its IP address. Web Admin has four main panels for Library, Streamer, Processor and Hardware setup. A column explaining the concepts and setting is to the right of the main window – an excellent idea.

Some users will welcome the Roon Ready support for the ARIES Mini and I was amused to see Auralic offer MQA decoding support with the cheeky note: ‘the MQA decoding method integrated by all AURALiC streaming devices has been developed solely by AURALiC using AURALiC’s proprietary resampling and de-blurring method. This process is not an MQA-created or MQA-licensed process.’

Auralic ARIES Mini – setup

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Big changes in a small way.

I’d been experimenting with Mac and DAC solutions for time before finally settling on Audirvana 2.6.8 on a 8Gb iMac running 10.12.4. I’ve been driving the USB input on my Cambridge Audio Stream Magic 6 for an improved sound over the inbuilt streamer and at the same time retain the advantage of Internet radio and easy remote control. I get on well with the Audirvana user interface but it can be slow and buggy at times driving the Mac system from the iPad, which is frustrating.

The opportunity to move my office system Cambridge Audio NP-30 on to a new home also gave me the chance to rotate systems – improve the office system by installing the Stream Magic 6 and find a new digital front-end for my main system. I still have a bundle of options open for my main system upgrade and am currently looking at Lyngdorf, NAD Master, Auralic, Devialet and Benchmark products to fit the bill. In the meantime I bought an Auralic ARIES Mini from Audio Emotion. I paid £449.00.

There’s little in the box. Even though I’d seen and heard the ARIES Mini at hi-fi shows handing this tiny package comes as a surprise – especially when you realise over a third is fresh air if you don’t opt to fit an HDD or SDD (a kit is provided). Auralic strongly recommends wireless connectivity but having heard of setup issue with the Apple Airport Extreme that I use for my wireless network I decided to go Ethernet. Installation could not be simpler. Two line out connections and power in is all that’s needed at first if like me you wish to use the on-board DAC. (There are USB, co-ax and Toslink optical connections if you opt to drive a DAC with the ARIES Mini.) The installation manual is elegant and brief (I used to design and write them so I should know!) ending on page 6 with a QR code – from here on everything is done via Auralic’s Lightning DS control software on the iPad. (I’ll look at Lighting DS in a separate blog).

Lighting DS neatly guides you through setup initially getting the ARIES Mini to talk through your existing network. Setup is really little more than pointing the device at your music library (in my case on a QNAP NAS driver with MinimStreamer) and choosing which outputs, Line or Digital, you wish to use. You can’t use both. You then need to create an Auralic account and you will receive email confirmation that you have setup and activated your ARIES Mini successfully. I use a 1.25Tb music library on a QNAP NAS drive with MinimServer; Lighting DS seemed to take only moments to index over 3,400 albums. (I could easily incorporate my whole music library on an internal SDD but at the moment a 2Tb drive is about £599 which more than doubles the cost of the ARIES – Lighting Server will present the internal drive for other devices as it acts as a UPnP renderer.)

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The ARIES Mini is always powered up. It can be put into sleep mode from an iPad and can be awoken by pressing any button. Oh yes. There are three control buttons sculpted into the front of the ARIES Mini box. I’ve opted for Mute and Track Up/Down rather than the default Play/Pause and Volume Up/Down. Speaking of powering up the supplied ‘wall wart’ power supply works (obviously) but it is tiny and you can see why aftermarket PSU alternatives and Auralic’s own linear PSU (sadly half the price of the Mini itself) can be used to make sound quality improvements – something I will be looking into. So how does it sound…

Alvin Gold – RIP

I was very sad to hear this weekend of the death of my old friend and hi-fi reviewer Alvin Gold. I first met Alvin when I was running Haymarket magazine’s Technical Consultants’ Service. Jimmy Hughes, already a contributor to the magazines and a TCS stalwart, introduced Alvin. I believe he had been a customer at Grahams where Jimmy then worked. The TCS was like a nursery for magazine writers. Alvin was no sooner contributing query replies to Hi-Fi Answers than he was writing full product reviews.

Alvin was making the transition from photographer to writer/reviewer and we often shared listening tests. Early on he kindly offered to drive my wife and I from London to the Harrogate hi-fi show in Yorkshire, picking us up in the small hours from our flat in Islington and whisking us up and back at extraordinary speed matched by a surprising skill in driving his bright yellow Alphasud.

We shared a broad interest in music from the Stones to Mahler (very much Barbirolli, very not Karajan). Alvin once managed to discover the whereabouts of a London cutout record warehouse; pretending we were record-store owners to get us access. We explained our massive purchase of Nonesuch and Vox Turabout discontinued stock to our spouses on the lines: ‘We had to buy a lot of records to make them believe we were dealers!’ The Paul Jacobs Debussy Preludes reminds me every time of that trip.

Alvin had an infectious sense of humour and a ready laugh. His presence made many a press trip both endurable and enjoyable. And though I didn’t always agree with his views I never doubted his sincerity and welcomed his open and questioning approach. Sadly our careers went separate ways in the late 1980s and I lost regular contact with Alvin. He will be both missed and fondly remembered.

Bristol show 2017 – III (DACs and speakers)

Auralic was one of the exhibitors I wanted to see most at Bristol. Though my interest was primarily in their Aries wireless streaming ‘bridge’ it was their integrated DAC amplifier – the Polaris wireless streaming amplifier that was being demonstrated in the Spendor room through Spendor D7s.

I was a little doubtful about the ‘wireless streaming’ heavily promoted by Auralic until I had a brief chat. The idea is not about convenience and wire free systems but about guaranteed electrical isolation between source (NAS drive for instance) and the music server/processor. I might need to rethink my hardwire approach.

polaris_frontThe Polaris is a 12owatt integrated with a host of input possibilities (even an MM phono stage). It uses the Lightning streaming platform which I’ve dowloaded and tried with my own music library just to check out the usability – the interface is very clean and responsive as far as you can tell without a streamer attached. The Polaris  proved more than capable of driving the 90db/1w/1m Spendor D7 to tremendous levels cleanly and dynamically. I enjoyed two extended listening sessions and was delighted when one visiting trade professional went behind the room screen to look for the power amp or subwoofer he though hidden there! Of course there was neither – just a very satisfying, transparent and lively system with a truly wide range of source material.

d9Of course I had to spoil it all by listening to the Spendor D9s in the next room. This new speaker from Spendor builds on the strengths of the D7 but is in every way a whole step forward in performance. Even though my knowledge of current high-end speakers is limited I would say the D9 gets so much fundamentally right it has moved the performance goal-posts. The systems was being driven by a Devialet 440 Expert which I think was prejudicing some listeners who talked to me about a ‘dry sound’. That’s not what I heard. In fact I’ve not heard a loudspeaker quite so free from cabinet contributions (that rather comforting ‘warmth’). Explosive dynamics; the cleanest treble, incisive yet not harsh; fast bass with extraordinary depth and slam with the right material from twin 180mm bass drivers. There’s so much intriguing and thought-provoking design going on behind the understated elegant front panel: passive wiring only, undamped cabinet, the pressure zone tweeter, the linear-flow reflex porting.  I rather think I’ve found what I was looking for – though I had hoped to have solved the digital front-end riddle before falling in love with a pair of transducers of this quality.

Bristol show 2017 – II (DACs, vinyl and more speakers)

One of the mains reasons for visiting Bristol was to see and hear the new Benchmark DAC3 DX and the AHB2 power amp. These were being demonstrated in the distributor – SCV – room. The downside was that the DAC and amp were being used to drive two pairs of Focal floorstanders in a dem on audio isolation feet for speakers.dac3_dx_silver_remote_1024x1024

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Benchmark DAC3 and AHB2 much smaller in the flesh than expected

Our Benchmark session was soon hi-jacked into a hard-sell for bookshelf speaker isolation platforms. And the A/B speaker dem? Sorry, I thought it was two alternative ‘bads’. The questions I did ask about the DAC – did it have parallel analogue outputs – couldn’t be immediately answered by the rep who was more concerned I get my 15% show discount and that I buy the product now. Nice people but what a shame to get all these product messages confused.

I’d no expectations from the ELAC room as they are better known to me as a loudspeaker drive-unit manufacturer though the company is enjoying a 90th anniversary. I was unexpectedly drawn into a demonstration of its new Element EA101EQ-G amplifier and Discovery music server. To wind the story back at little, ELAC recently acquired Audio Alchemy, the well-regarded Californian hi-fi company and was playing this equipment at the show through the new concentric driver floor-standing speakers which both looked and sounded good. Switching from £6000 of electronics to a £625 integrated may seem a dumb move but the sound retained its fundamental clarity and drive.

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Little bigger than a hard-back book, great sound, flexibility and room EQ

The EA101EQ is a flexible system amplifier for non-hi-fi people. You can label its inputs dynamically – if you want it to read ‘Dad’s TT’ for one of the inputs, no problem. It has built-in adjustable hi-pass filters for subwoofers and a very neat room EQ. Sweep tone the speaker with your iPhone, sweep tone the listening seat and EQ is done. Very quick to do and a clear improvement – in fact the EA101 and UF-5 Slim made one of the best show sounds I heard: clean, articulate with no boom or overhung bass. All for just over £1800.

ELAC’s big surprise for me was the parity of sound from its Miracord turntable – I should say ‘record player’ as it comes fitted with an arm and cartridge (an Audio Technica moving magnet).

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Rega Brio

And though this blog is largely about my journey to the digital side I have to say how impressive Rega’s vinyl system was at making high quality, musical sounds from the new P3 turntable (with I suspect an Elys cartridge) into the very handsome Brio integrated amplifier playing through what I think were RX-3 loudspeakers. Front end about £660 with cartridge, a £550 amp and under £1300 speakers – brilliant vinyl alternative with none of the vinyl paranoia that come with operating so many other turntables.

AVM I got to see but could tell much from the system paired with small box PCM speakers. Hegel too was demonstrating anything other than music every time I dropped into the room (cones under the amplifier, a lecture on circuit topography). Shame I didn’t get to hear what was said by others to be a great sound. At least they use the room on the cross rather than length ways which shows a greater understanding!

More from the show…