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 an 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, instrument 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 D9s 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.

Supplement

Upsampling 16/44.1 CD rips to 32/88.2 with the latest iteration of Audirvana opens up the sound of the TEAC. The sound quality improvement is substantial and proving to be a delight revisiting older Redbook recordings.