Cables

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Always follow the directions

Speaker cable – one of the things I avoided reviewing professionally. I was regularly loaned pieces of Monster Cable ‘this’ or Audioquest ‘that’ when these companies were start-ups but I never settled on using an audiophile cable. I experimented with solid core, used some heavyweight QED, but ended up using what was to become Cable Talk 3.1.

With the need to rewire my main system I read around, looking for a ‘non-foo’ solution. This came in the form of two 10m lengths of Van Damme 6mm Hi-Fi Speaker Cable terminated with gold spades by Mark Grant (whose work, presentation and packaging is superb) priced at £158.

To put a TV screen into my sound system I’ve had to re-orientate the furniture in my listening room. This meant I could now cut the cable runs down from 10m to 4m or under. I ordered a new set of Van Damme from Mark Grant which were terminated and supplied within the week for £88. I very quickly swapped out the 10m lengths in the system for the 4m lengths sat back with the same track, same volume setting – and was disappointed – no, quite unsettled – by the change in sound quality. Not what I’d expected. Vocals weren’t in the right place, the whole thing sounded lop-sided, the stereo decided ‘odd’. So much so I thought I’d wired the system out-of-phase or in inverted phase. I checked and the polarity was correct and as before.

Now I know about cable directionality and have always followed instructions when using directional interconnects but never given it much credence. Then the thought struck me…Van Damme is directional. Sure enough I’d got the left channel cable wired ‘backwards’. Quick change round and everything was back to how it should be. I genuinely would not have believed a) it would make that kind and degree of difference and b) it would be a big enough difference to make me think right off there was something wrong with the system. You live and learn…

(Oh! the two 10m length are now doing stirling work in my office system. It was if I’d planned that all along.)

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Late Seventies nostalgia

Just found another system picture from the late seventies. This was taken in our basement flat in Green Lanes, London N16 – we had a reasonably understanding landlord who lived above. Same turntable bracket and record cabinet but everything else has changed. I’d heard the Gales at Harman Radio in Manchester and had sold the IMFs before our move to London. The stands looked beautiful but were utterly useless on carpet. The Gales lasted a couple of years before being replaced by passive Linn Isobariks which I used with Meridian and then Lentek amps just to be annoying.

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Pre- and power-amp were a Radford SC-22 and STA-25 that I’d bought through Hampstead hi-fi where it had been PX-ed. There was a Radford FM2 tuner with an indoor aerial that didn’t do it any justice. Speaker cable was Litz as was the fashion – I didn’t use it for long. There’s a Stax headphone energiser as I’d just bought a pair of Sigmas (would I ever learn?).

I was already writing for Haymarket Publishing’s hi-fi titles when this was covered as a reader’s system – such was the way in those days! The system featured in Hi-Fi Sound with my wife sporting a bubble perm and the said Stax ‘phones and who has threatened a certain part of my anatomy if that picture ever sees the light of day again.

The turntable was a black plinth Linn LP12 supplied by Howard Popeck at Subjective Audio a few miles up the road from where we lived. It was fitted with an SME III damped with a Decca London Gold imported from Valois in France by my long-suffering, French speaking wife. (This is the unit that was stolen and replaced by my Aformosia plinth LP12.) I was in awe of the SME’s design and engineering but not the sound with anything other than high-compliance moving magnets from Shure or ADC. After the burglary I finally ended up with a classic Ittok/Asak (via a Syrinx) which was replaced by my FR64fx itself partnered with an MC-201, MC-702 and Koetsu Black K in the next four or five years. I used that deck until earlier this month.

Just to put the record straight (no pun intended) the picture on the wall is a hand-painted copy of a German circus poster from between the wars – it is nothing to do with black magic!

1980s supplement

Digging in old back issues of Hi-Fi Answers I found a picture from 1980 very shortly before we moved from our London N16 basement to a flat in the Barbican. This system shows my replacement Linn with Ittok and Asak feeding a Meridian 101 (Asak module) and a pair of 103s driving DMS Linn Isobariks on very short speaker leads. There is a Meridian 104 tuner and a pair of Aurex casette decks lost in the murk too. Clearly paying journalists too much – judging by the growth in the record collection now housed in a custom CubeStore cabinet.

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TEAC ampDAC AI-301DA

It’s been an interesting few months. I had been intending to write a review of  the Spendor D9s in the time-honoured way giving examples of how they sounded with various pieces of music and how they sounded better than this and different from that. But I have to say that they have fundamentally changed the way I listen – which is saying something after my years as a professional reviewer! And something for another time.

Meanwhile back in the office I decided to turn my focus away from streamers to Mac/DAC solutions. I still spend a good deal of my day at the computer. It is inconvenient using my iPad or the front controls on the Cambridge Audio StreamMagic 6 or its remote to select tracks. So I started using Audirvana to access my NAS drive and just listened through the iMac speakers – which I have to say are surprisingly good.

It wasn’t going to last and so I decided on the tidiest Mac/DAC solution was to get and ampDAC and feed a pair of passive speakers. I initially toyed with going active and looked at KEF LS50 and Adam Artist 5 as potential solutions but I wanted a DAC with greater capability than those included in these packages.

I’d looked at TEAC DACs when I first started down the digital road but dismissed them thinking streamers were the best solution for me. What grabbed my attention this time round was the book-sized TEAC Integrated Amplifier AI-301DA. This would give me everything for my office system: quality headphone output, capable power amplifier for near-field monitors, remote control, USB connectivity, DSD, 2 digital inputs, 2 line inputs and Bluetooth. With the AI-301DA currently on offer at £319 I couldn’t resist. So the lovely Lentek and StreamMagic have gone to auction.

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Changes on the corner of my desk – the TEAC AI-301DA

Just to be unkind, I first sampled the TEAC with headphones only but I was truly taken by the compelling sound with my Focal Spirit Pros. The DSD128 version of the Eric Bibb track Meeting at the Building was all I needed to hear – all the power, placement and dynamics you could wish for without any harshness, shout or brittleness. Now headphones will be a lot, lot more than just convenience listening. This track is available as a free dowload from DSDfile.com. It’s an Opus 3 analogue single-mic master tape with the singers moving into the mic as they take solos and the intrumentalists positioned behind, the bass being reinforced with a ribbon mic – brilliantly atmospheric and dynamic.

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I next tried the TEAC in my main system where it made a surpsingly good fist of driving the D9 to silly levels (it’s techincally a Class D 30watt/8ohm amp) with the track Like a Dog Chasing Cars from The Dark Knight score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard.

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Installed back on my office deck, the TEAC is currently driving my venerable Tannoy CPA-5s but I will probably upgrade to passive near-field monitors in good time. For the moment everything is sounding big, spacious and confident with the TEAC being fed by Audirvana Plus 3.1.7 on the iMac. There’s an intriguing difference in sound quality on some tracks however between Audirvana and the supplied TEAC HR Audio Player app but more about that another time.

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 valve mic plus one ribbon mic). 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.


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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.