Ancient history I

I should ‘fess up. I have history with NAD. I played some small role in the remarkable success of the NAD3020 amplifier…here’s how.

I owned a pair of New Acoustic Dimension electrostatic headphones long before becoming a professional hi-fi reviewer in the late 1970s. Some years later – landed with four behemoth tuner amps for review as a freelance contributor to Hi-Fi Sound magazine – it slowly dawned on me that the NAD 7060 was from the same stable.

I didn’t give the 7060 an overly critical review. Or so I thought. Until the letter questioning my parentage arrived with the publisher from Malcolm Blockley (the NAD distributor). I gave back as good as I got in print and seemed to gain Mr Blockley’s respect for standing my ground. We agreed it politic to start over and that  I should look at their interesting small amp – the NAD 3030 – in a system context review in Sound‘s sister magazine Hi-Fi Answers. Luckily the distributor’s confidence in this amp turned out to be justified.

Low finance

Low finance high fidelity – started a ball rolling that is in motion today. About this time PR legend Andy Giles left the Haymarket Publishing advertising team to set up his public relations company. I think it was Andy who had the smart idea of introducing the hi-fi rabble to NAD amp designer Bjorn Erik Edvardsen who was of a not dissimilar age and disposition. At least on HFA we saw and agreed with what Erik was striving to achieve – at its remarkable price point – with the 3020. The over-featured, power-metered £89 NAD 3030 gave way to the stripped down £69 NAD 3020 and history was made.

NAD3020

A footnote has to deal with the central role played by the 3020 in the infamous Linn/NAD/Minimax system, which caused grown men to faint and blood to boil in various quarters. I’ve been told more than once this system didn’t exist, that it was a marketing figment of a corrupt magazine’s imagination. All that money on a turntable and such tiny speakers – utter madness.

Sorry to disappoint but I installed one Linn/NAD/Minimax system for our good colleague Terry of Greetings magazine with whom we shared an office. She was certainly happy with the money she spent on her system. And to bring it back to the digital era, the importance of source and of clean power delivery can never be underestimated. My ‘bonkers’ office system could be the ultimate expression of that philosophy.

 

 

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The office system

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Shortly after buying my Stream Magic 6, Cambridge Audio discontinued their award-winning Sonata NP-30 streamer on which the SM6 was based. Discounted to £180 I snapped one up for my office. (I’ll post a separate review some time…)

I had been listening in the office to CDs on a Marantz CD-94MkII. I initially tried an Audiolab 8000A and Acoustic Energy AE1 bi-wires but really didn’t like the sound I was getting in my ‘half an attic’. (If you can imagine half a Toblerone cut down the length of 4 or 5 pieces as the shape and volume of my office space you get the grim acoustic picture.)

I’d put this all away before the NP-30 arrived. No problem with Ethernet – that was there from a long removed iMac workstation. So I dug out a big old Lentek amp, which hadn’t been powered for 25 years and a pair of Tannoy ICT contractor CPA5s – theatre reinforcement speakers I’d used very successfully in my cellar office at a previous house. I was on the point of giving up as the Lentek sizzled through 15 minutes of capacitor charging before waking up. Two 1m-lengths of Teflon wrapped silver-plated cable (amazing what you find lying around) completed the sonic picture.

A fantastic transparency was apparent from the off and got better as the amp ‘cleared its head’. But I needed to think differently for imagery. After some experimentation, the toed-out, close speakers and central ‘baffle’ provide good stereo in a difficult acoustic – though the balance control needs to favour the side with more ‘air’.

Hit the right replay level and the back wall dissolves – imagery and musical coherence are exceptional. But you can’t go loud and there’s no bass, so the system is pretty much dependent on the right source material. Hi-res Baroque, guitar, folk-rock work brilliantly – the 24/96 Chesky binaural Amber Rubarth Sessions from the 17th Ward is magical. Oddities like Ghislain Potvlieghe’s CD recording of Friederich Wilhelm Rust sonatas on tangent piano are truly stunning; Martin Simpson’s Dives And Lazarus from The Definitive Collection on Highpoint CD is excellent. Roy Harper and Duncan Browne are meat and drink. Yet the system does make a fist (albeit lightweight) of material like Indiscipline from King Crimson’s Discipline (24-bit remaster). Sadly the NP-30 cannot stream 88.2 or 48kHz sources (which is a lot of SACD material and my vinyl rips – shame).

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(This is one of the most communicative systems I’ve put together, possibly bettered only by a Marantz CD-65SE, Pm-4 Class A amp into Acoustic Energy AE1s used in my ‘den’ during my stay in America.)

Monitoring

I thought I needed a new set of cans. I’ve been using a vintage pair of Sanyo E888 lightweight phones that the hi-fi press were given with a Sanyo ‘Walkman’ to keep us quiet on a long press trip sometime in the early 1980s. The E888s are brash with little deep bass but are detailed and fairly dynamic.

Online research and my micro budget threw up the Sony MDR-V150. Sony calls them DJ monitoring phones. £10 on Amazon plus delivery; Sony Centre price is £17 (£18 rrp). So I checked out the local Sony Centre, which like my local HMV was selling the phones for £19.99. (HMV had a half-price sale on most phones, except the MDR-V150, which was encouraging).

They are not comfortable. I wanted on-ear phones but the unpadded headband was too much for my bald head. Two 10 x 1cm strips of camera light seal foam later I have a comfortable padded headband.

IMG_0025.jpgThey are well enough made with a good 2m lead and -praise be – a mini-jack housing that doesn’t foul iPad cases. Low impedance means loud on iPad and über loud on iMac and laptop.

I’ve professionally reviewed tens, if not hundreds, of headphones in a previous life – and yet I’ve never heard anything quite like these Sonys before. They have the oddest frequency response and sound quality. The sound is not exactly dull but its heavy it as though the designers wanted a ‘presence’ boost but put it too low down. There’s certainly no tizz or splash as they really lack any top-end dynamics or punch. Completely inoffensive the Sonys don’t seem to facilitate any musical insight into what’s playing, only occasionally coming alive with an unusually balanced recording like the Midori/van Immerseel Beethoven Sonatas for Violin and Pianoforte (Zig-Zag Territoire B0083T0Y0Q).

Main use will be to de-click and edit vinyl rips. One thing in favour of the MDR-V150s is that they do not make a meal of surface noise or clicks and pops. The present the kind of detail balance you’d hear from loudspeakers (treble is certainly not over emphasised) and they have made me less paranoid about removing ever tick and click from my vinyl rips. I’d be keen to know what would have been a better choice…

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Sony MDR-V150 with custom padded headband

 

 

mconnect player HD

Playing music on the iPad was a low priority when I put together my music streaming system. I bought an iPad primarily as a remote for the Cambridge Audio StreamMagic 6 streamer. Soon I wanted to sample tracks stored on the NAS drive without converting them to another format or invovling iTunes and so the search was on for a player.

The answer came in the shape of the mconnect player from ConversDigital. After trying the free player is was clear that the HD version especially designed for the wide iPad view was a bargain at £2.99. Initially the player wouldn’t find my UPnP AV music server (MinimSever – more of which some other time) without it first being ‘seen’ by another app – namely the CA Connect app for the StreamMagic but with the next version upgrade mconnect finds the server with alacrity. I’m currently running ver 1.3.9. mconnect also handles music from cloud services from One Drive and Dropbox and apparently services like Deezer (though I’ve not discovered how).

IMG_0023.jpgThere is a ‘Play To’ mode which streams to other devices – I can send music from my iPad to my Roberts Internet radio with a single touch. This would be useful for users with an iPad stored library but as all my music is on my NAS drive the Roberts radio can happily find its own way to the source. ‘Play To’ will be a good and useful feature for some users.

In browser mode you can swipe through the album list, pick from an alphabet ‘scroll bar’ or use the very fast search box, which gives instantly updated results as you type. You can create and retrieve playlists in browser mode; mconnect picking up playlists from the iTunes library (which it disturbingly called the iPod library – I don’t have one!) The blue, grey, black and red interface colours are classy with only grey track subtitles being hard to read against the blue ‘this track playing’ bar. Cover art display is first class and can be put in full screen, full screen plus main player controls or artwork, browser/queue and player view.

The main player controls at the bottom of the screen are joined by an info box to the left, which displays file type, sampling frequency and bitrate. There’s the expected volume control, pause, play/stop and track skip functions while the popup arrow to the right reveals a very useful interactive track time display, shuffle and repeat functions.

Can’t say much about sound quality as I’ve nothing for comparison and I’m really looking for functionality and convenience for iPad replay – on which fronts mconnect player scores highly.

 

Playlists

One of the frustrations of owning a Cambridge Audio Stream Magic has been the inability to create playlists. (I must say immediately that the pleasures of ownership on the musical front outweigh any frustrations.) I was on the look out for a piece of software that could – if not capture the playlist or queue from the Stream Magic – at least allow me to create playlists offline. Which is when I met Clementine.

Clementine is a free multiplatform music player and library organiser. Instead of the usual ransom-ware or PayPal requests there is an extraordinary statement on the website: “Currently, we do not need money and as so we do not accept money donation. If you like our software and want to help us, you can support us and spread the word.” They go onto suggest three charities that need the money more. BRAVO!

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I now use Clementine to listen to NAS drive tracks on my iMac at night without waking either my hi-fi systems or my wife. I can also fine-tune any metadata entries I’ve screwed up when ripping and initially editing tracks. The screen grab above shows what has become the most addictive feature – ’50 random track’ playlists. With my catholic taste in music (no big band, no C&W but everything else) this is a hoot. ‘Least favourite tracks’ is an ear-opener too.

Generate a playlist in Clementine – it can export in various formats but I use .m3u for editing convenience. To use this on the CA Stream Magic a little editing is required in TextEdit and then popping the file in the appropriate folder on the NAS drive before serving it to the streamer.

Get the tracks together in Clementine and Save the playlist from the Playlist > Save Playlist Menu… (in M3U playlist format). Open this in TextEdit and you’ll see a bunch of entries:

#EXTM3U
#EXTINF:403,Anima Eterna Brugge/Jos van Immerseel – Symphony No.40 in G minor, K550 – I. Allegro molto
/Volumes/Recordings/CLASSICAL/MOZART, Wolfgang Amadeus/Symphonies, Concertos, Sonatas – Midori, van Imerseel, Anima Eterna Brugge/CD1 – Symphonies Nos.39 & 40/01-05 – Mozart – Symphonies_ Concertos_ Sonatas – CD1 – Symphony No.40 in G minor_ K550 – I. Allegro molto – Anima Eterna Brugge_Jos van Immerseel.flac

I’ve emboldened the bit you’re interested in – this is the path for Clementine to find the track on my mounted NAS drive partition, which I’ve called Recordings. This path needs to be changed for the streamer to find the track from its point of view. It’s a very simple edit to make. In TextEdit I search and replace /Volumes/ with /share/ which is how the streamer ‘sees’ the NAS drive. So the full path to the playable flac file above will now read:

/share/Recordings/CLASSICAL/MOZART, Wolfgang Amadeus/Symphonies, Concertos, Sonatas – Midori, van Imerseel, Anima Eterna Brugge/CD1 – Symphonies Nos.39 & 40/01-05 – Mozart – Symphonies_ Concertos_ Sonatas – CD1 – Symphony No.40 in G minor_ K550 – I. Allegro molto – Anima Eterna Brugge_Jos van Immerseel.flac

Save the editied file as a text file and put it in the PLAYLISTS folder in the mulitmedia folder – mine’s the ‘Recordings’ folder. Refresh or rescan your media server and you’ve a Playlist available.

NAD PP4 unbox and install

Exported images.jpgConveniently, the NAD USB phono/preamp outer box has quick install instructions on the back as no manual is supplied. Inside in the card tray is the wrapped preamp, a power supply (prefitted with a UK plug for my market) and a USB lead. The supplied software comes on a mini CD – so I downloaded Vinyl Studio Lite from NAD directly. Quicker than faffing with adaptors and a bang up-to-date copy too.

From photos online you’d think the PP4 was in a cut-price plastics case but it comes in a surprisingly well-finished and hefty black spatter-finish metal case. You’d be advised to attach the power supply to the preamp before plugging in – I got an unwelcome snap and sparks by doing things the other way round.

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Back of the unit has gold-plated RCA phonos for moving coil or moving magnet cartridges, selected with the small slider switch between them. Phono or line input are selected with a similar switch beneath the hefty ground post – something I like to see. The PP4 also has Line Out RCA phono sockets. The front panel has a simple ‘Wake’ button to the left, the USB type B socet and two LEDs for power and USB connection.

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I picked a quiet corner in my workroom to setup my Linn LP12 fitted with a Fidelity Research FR-64fx arm and Koetsu Black K cartridge. This produced a heathy noise- and hum-free signal when monitored through the NAD on the attached Mac Book Pro. To avoid all possibility of feedback I used headphone monitoring. While I’d intended using the Mac Book on battery power I could detect no hums or noise with the mains transformer attached so I used mains power to record.

No setup on the Mac required – two hours later, never having used Vinyl Studio, I am the proud owner of four very fine 16-bit 48kHz WAV representing the sides of two test albums. More about sound quality, Vinyl Studio Lite, track splitting and click elimination in a later post…let’s hope it stays this easy.