Seventies nostalgia

Last week I finally sold my 1979 Linn LP12 to a lovely fella from Manchester. It set me thinking about my early days there and my first independent hi-fi system. I went back to my second year at Uni with the intention of sharing a hi-fi and house with a post-grad friend. I supplied the Thorens TD160 with a Shure 95, he supplied the Goodmans 110 tuneramp and the floorstanding Goodwood speakers.

Summer vac work meant I could afford my own amp and speakers by my final year. And by this time I’d moved into my own attic flat in one of Manchester’s large multiple occupancy houses. The first picture from 1974 shows my TD160 now uprated with an SME3009II and Shure V15III on a wall bracket feeding my newly acquire Cambridge P60 and one of a pair of IMF ALS40s. The laughable stands were considered ideal at the time! My home made music rack is half filled with well-read copies of Hi-Fi News & Record Review and half filled with records.Old system-1.jpg

The second picture must be from summer 1975 after our marriage. (The records have changed to include a number of boxed sets bought as wedding presents!) Headphones are a pair of NAD Electrostatics – the poor man’s Stax – they got far too little use. Not shown, but soon to be added, was a Cambridge T55 tuner. By the time we left for London in 1976 the Cambridge had been traded for a Yamaha CA1000MkII and my first articles had been published…

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DSD128 download

A free download of Eric Bibb’s Opus 3 Meeting at the Building track is available at the DSDShop site. This is an opportunity to hear high bitrate 5.6 MHz DSD with a known-quality analogue recording (crossed pair vale mic plus one ribbon mike). Dynamic range and the independence of each musical line is exceptional. The whole recording has a sharply focused imagery and realism. There are some ineteresting listening notes too.

(Exceptional through the sound is, just to court controversy, I still wouldn’t rate this as a true HD recording as it’s not from a digital source.)

Monitoring – Focal Spirit Pros

I struggled. Working my way through the discrimination tests on the Critical Listening for Studio Production course proved hard without good headphones. Not only did I need isolation from the smallest environmental noise but phones that didn’t have an inherent ‘sound’ and phones with a genuinely wide bandwidth. Then someone recommended Focal Spirit Professional – these phones have a reassuringly solid build quality. They are finished in an attractive black spatter with simple chrome trim rings. Finish, adjustments and fixings all look like they would stand the rigours of the professional mixing desk life. They have, for instance, an extra long coiled lead that fixes with a mini-jack to the left earpiece and could easily be replaced if damaged or worn.

Screen Shot 2016-10-01 at 11.10.50.jpgThe wide, easily adjustable headband has generous padding. As full over-ear phones the ear pads have to seal and be comfortable. The Spirit Pros have generous memory-foam pads that float the weight of the phones well. I have always opted for on-ear phones, disliking the isolation that closed phones bring. However, the Sprit Pros fit to perfection (though anyone with a bigger head or larger earlobes than mine may well find things tight) but with evenly distributed weight and no pressure points to heat up and hurt these phones have been comfortable to wear for extending listening sessions.

The full package includes a cloth bag for the phones and a short alternative lead with an inline remote switch and slim mini-jack (which will fit my cased iPad socket). There is also a quality threaded gold-plated ¼inch socket adapter. As ‘pro’ phones there is no possibility of balanced connection.

The Spirit Pros feature big (40mm diameter) drivers made from Mylar/Titanium membranes that provide stiffness, low mass and optimal damping giving a fast, uncoloured sound. Sound quality is alarmingly honest. The treble register is incisive and has a real clarity that is not bright but is truly revealing – you might not like what’s revealed on every source however! Bass is not what you might expect – with so many phones offering artificial bass boost – or being ‘tuned for emotion’ – the Spirit Pros are a breath of clean, controlled low power. And these phones will go really low.

folder.jpgMacy Gray’s Stripped (Chesky Records) was recorded live in a repurposed church in Brooklyn using a dummy head (binaural) microphone. This makes it ideal for headphone playback. The mix can only be influenced by physical positioning of the musicians on the studio floor relative to the microphone and by the individual levels chosen as they interact with one other. But this is the kind of recording that the Spirit Pros eat up and thrive on. The transparent 24/192 files project you straight to the centre of the musical action. Creaks from the venue and amplifier hiss add to the atmosphere. Bob Marley’s Redemption Song is almost whispered in your ear but there’s no loss of clarity in Gray’s distinctive breathy vocals; most pleasing is the weight and power from very gently played bass.


While sorting through some CD rips late one night I came across a recording I’d rather dismissed as being dull and distant
Masur Leipzig recording of the Max Bruch Symphonies. My evening listening was somewhat extended by the discovery of a rich sonorous quality in this orchestral recording. The first of the Swedish Dances ‘filler’ on CD2 showed a fairly distant perspective on the orchestra and a long dying reverberation but this was so much more like the live concert hall balance than I recall from playing this on loudspeakers. The woodwind and lower brass tonality and the swirling power of the orchestral bass captivated me. It’s a generous sound but clear and powerful in the lower registers even when the orchestra is playing piano. 

The Spirit Pros were principally auditioned with Audirvana and hi-res flacs on a recent Apple iMac; they were also used with an iPad and with an Audiolab 8000C preamplifier on the same sources. They seem to be of average to above average sensitivity judged purely by comparison and they seem easy to drive. That they err on the rich side of neutrality is not something to dislike.

At launch these phones were selling at around £250 – a quick online check shows a £179-£215 spread from major reliable sellers which makes them, frankly, quite a steal. I suspect you would have to double this money to make any substantial improvement in sound quality at the Oppo PM3 level. Having used the Spirit Pros now for the better part of a year I can pay them the best compliment: that they have become a reliable go-to tool for listening, sorting and judging – and more often getting caught up in the music.

D9s in the house

Just arrived initially for a home demonstration – Spendor D9s in light oak finish. Initial listening tests are more than encouraging with the speakers being easy to integrate (weirdly easy) with my odd room acoustics. A loaned Devialet 220Pro made an ideal listening partnership but for the moment the speakers are being driven by one channel each on my two 8000Ps. This gives me twice the power supply heft than a single stereo power amp and sounds significantly better than a lone 8000P serving two channels. There will be much to report in the coming days.

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.


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.