Quarter Notes, Volume 2, Issue #2

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Dear Get Better Sound readers,

Welcome to the sixth issue of Quarter Notes!

Quarter Notes is a quarterly newsletter for Get Better Sound readers, expanding on the Get Better Sound manual, as well as introducing new and timely subjects.  From time-to-time, we may have a guest writer on a special topic. But not this issue…

In fact, for this issue, I’ve actually had to pare down the number of topics that I wanted to share with you.  I just have too many for a reasonable-length newsletter.  And the first topic in this issue seemed to be too important to delay. So most will get moved to the next issue, which I’ll get done sooner than the usual three months or so.

Don’t forget, you are invited to e-mail me with your questions and comments.  If appropriate, and with your approval, I may include your note – or a reply to it – in an upcoming newsletter.

 

Best e-mail address

Since you’re reading this, the e-mail address that I used to notify you must have worked.  However, the only e-mail address I have is the one associated with your initial Get Better Sound order.  

If you have an e-mail address that you’d prefer to use to receive Quarter Notes notifications, send it to jim@getbettersound.com. Be sure to list the month of purchase (if possible), and definitely include the address I used originally along with the one that you want to use to replace it.

A reader teaches me a lesson

I was in Fort Worth, TX recently, to voice a reader’s system.  As some of you know, I travel with a collection of CDs that I use for this task, many of which I’ve used to set-up demos at various shows.

The reader, whom I’ll call Joseph, had already prepared me for the fact that he didn’t have an actual CD player, or transport/DAC combo.  He uses an Apple computer as a music server and he has an Ayre QB-9 USB DAC (Digital-to Analog-Converter).

While I had no direct experience with his CD playback system, I decided it was OK to use, since that was what he would be using anyway. Joseph typically uses his MacBook to control the playback, which comes from the ubiquitous Apple iTunes program.  

I use Macs, and among several CD players that I own, I have an Ayre C-5xe-MP CDP.  Even so, I have to admit that I didn’t have particularly high expectations for his CD playback capability.  

The first inkling that something was different
When I got there on Friday evening, one of the first things we had to do was import my most important reference and test CDs into his computer.  We would use them for initial system evaluations that evening.  Then, after I left a few hours later, Joseph imported the rest of them.  That way, everything would be ready when I started voicing in earnest on Saturday morning.

That evening, while performing some preliminary evaluations with the music from the CDs that had been imported, the one thing that consistently struck me was how ridiculously easy it was to use the Mac/QB-9 system, especially when compared to getting up and down to replace various CDs.

I also noticed that, while I had no reference for what his system could sound like at that point, I didn’t seem to have any problem with the ability of each CD’s qualities being reproduced with apparently little degradation.

On Saturday we worked hard, but this time, with all of my CDs at my disposal.  By the time I left, Joseph’s system was greatly improved.  He was visibly excited, a reaction I love to see.  In fact, his account of what happened is on Audiogon:

http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/frr.pl?rspkr&1274459087&openflup&14&4#14

But that’s not what this is about.

It’s about the impact that that Joseph’s digital playback would ultimately have on me – and my preconceived notions.  And perhaps more importantly, its potential impact on you.

Since you’re reading this while using your computer, most likely you could get around well enough to use a computer with a DAC.

By now you might be asking, why would I want to do that?  It’s the same question that I had asked myself many times before my visit to Fort Worth.

I should mention that upon my return, I bought my own Ayre QB-9 USB DAC.  My original reasons (which I’ll explain) for buying it ended up NOT being why I’m telling you this story.  Incidentally, this story is NOT about a product or brand, but a concept.

I’ve been using the QB-9 with my MacBook for about 6 weeks.  I’ll comment on its performance in various places in this article.

Here are a few reasons why I believe that you need to be thinking about Computer-sourced Digital Audio now:

Ease of use
Access to your music is astonishingly easier.  For example, you have no more CDs to drag out.  

You can rate/rank every song in iTunes.  I do this in much the same way I mention in GBS, except now I don’t have to put a self-adhesive label tag on the back of the CD (which will most likely dry up and fall off eventually).  

Honestly speaking, I don’t like every cut on every CD.  With this system, I can delete the songs that I don’t want, leaving only those that I do.  Later, if I change my mind about a cut, it’s no big deal to import that cut again.

You can – with a mouse click or two – set-up play lists of favorites.  You can separate them by musical genre.

You can still use remote control if you wish.  Your remote can be simple with a couple of transport buttons, or it can actually be an iPhone, or even a laptop.

About importing - people say that they can’t take the time to import their music to their computer.  Heck, I used to say that myself!  

But I found out that it is simplicity itself, and can be done just about anytime, along with whatever else you might be doing at the time.  If that was all I was doing, I might get restless.  But I can be on the Internet, doing a spread-sheet, eating lunch, etc. and it’s no big deal.

For me, the biggest issue is still sound quality.  
I have the Zanden 2000/5000, the Ayre C-5xe-MP, and the Arcam FMJ-23.  The first two are among the very best CD playback systems in the world.  And the Arcam is one of those over-achievers, but not in the class of the first two.

As I mentioned, after an extended trial, I bought the Ayre QB-9 USB DAC to use on voicing trips.  After all, I was already traveling with my MacBook for e-mails and GBS order tracking.  Plus, I was lugging around two travel cases of twenty CDs each.  

The QB-9 was 1/3 the size of the two CD cases!  If it sounded good enough, I could travel lighter (and stop leaving my CDs here and there around the country).  A really simple decision.  Win, win.

Unexpected developments
As I was burning in the Ayre/MacBook USB combo, occasionally I’d come into the listening room, sit in the sweet spot and switch over (again, super easy) to some music that I wanted to hear.  Not half bad, I thought.  As time went on, it wasn’t one-quarter bad, and eventually, not bad at all.  Remember, I have two of the highest reviewed CD playback systems on the planet.  Not only that, the previous system I had here was the full dCS stack, including the Verdi clock.  So I have pretty high expectations for CD playback.

At some point, I finally realized that I needed to evaluate this relatively simple playback system at a much higher level.  In some ways – ways that are important to me – it outperformed the best CDP units I’d heard!  

First, I decided that I needed to compare its performance to CD playback as fairly as I could.

So it seemed that the much more expensive Ayre C-5xe-MP CDP should be used to compare the performance of CD playback to the performance of the Ayre QB-9/MacBook combo.  It was actually easy to swap between them.  The levels were very close.

The Asynchronous USB rig was an absolute space champ. Instruments and performers were placed more solidly on the sound stage.  The sound was more expansive.  It was as if there was less grunge to inhibit the recorded spatial cues.

But for me, the most important difference came in dynamics.  As I’ve written before, I believe that dynamics are the primary keys to emotional involvement with reproduced music.  

Begin rant - As an aside, that’s why I abhor the trend to serious compression in recordings, especially pop recordings.  There’s a whole generation that doesn’t get the message that the composer and performers intended. - Rant over

The noise floor was lower with the USB rig.  The result was that details seem to pop out.  Breaths, scrapes and other non-musical events suddenly emerged from a soft veil.  Of course, these sounds are not what I listen for.  In fact, I’ve disparagingly referred to them as “Audiophile Sound Effects”.  But these previously unheard - or barely heard - details are symbolic of a reduced noise floor.  So dynamic contrasts are even greater.

And that’s where I started having problems.  
Unexpectedly, I found the Asynch USB rig more involving, more of the time.

It didn’t have the ease, the sleek sound of the more expensive Ayre C5xe-MP.  I guess that I could say that the CDP sounded more like what you’d expect a fine CDP to sound like.  Maybe more refined is a better description.

But I find myself returning to the QB-9/MacBook more often.  Not just for the ease of use, but for sheer musical involvement.  I would think that this story won’t necessarily please Ayre’s accountants, since the QB-9 retails at $2500, vs. about $6,000 for the C5xe-MP.

FWIW - I ended up using a 2 meter Transparent Audio USB cable, around $200.

But why is this even in the realm of possibility?

Jitter  
The Asynchronous USB technique that Ayre employs is licensed from Wavelength Audio, Gordon Rankin’s company, famed for its excellent vacuum tube SET amplifiers. Wavelength’s Asynch USB technology is called Streamlength™.

The reduction of jitter is the main event with Streamlength. In other words, its primary claim to fame is the near-elimination of word-clock related jitter.  Let me tell you, it works.

Now, a one box player like the Ayre C-5 CDP will have low jitter to start with. And I don’t know if the QB-9 is lower in jitter than the C-5xe-MP.  But the higher resolution of recorded space and the lower noise floor make me think it might be the case.

But what is jitter, and why should we care about it?  I’m going to take a non-technical approach (I’m definitely no expert in this area).  It’s essentially a case of bad timing.  The info hits the DAC too early, too late or somewhere in between.  The resulting sound is a kind of smearing, sometimes too edgy, and lacking in real detail (once you realize that the leading edge “detail” isn’t detail at all, but an unwanted digital artifact).  You might say that too much jitter produces a caricature of all of our notions of “digital” when we are using the term in a negative connotation.

There is little chance that a separate DAC & transport, no matter how highly reviewed, using the standard S/PDIF or AES/EBU digital interface, will be able to even come close to the USB Asynch jitter-elimination technology.  Of course some costly units will employ heroic (expensive) measures to reach low jitter levels, and they may well succeed.  But at many times the price, the complexity,  and the number of pieces involved.

So why didn’t I try a Wavelength vacuum tube USB DAC?  Remember, I bought this item originally for traveling around the country, voicing readers’ systems.  It would occasionally receive rougher handling than I might like, and I feared for the tubes themselves.  

Would a Wavelength Async DAC sound even better than the Ayre? I don’t know.  Possibly.  And there are more Asynchronous USB DACs appearing.  The one lots of folks are talking about is the new dCS model.  Of course, it’s probably more than 4 times the price of the Ayre or some Wavelength models.  But I hear through the grapevine that it sounds fabulous.

Do not confuse the earlier Adaptive USB technology with Asynchronous USB technology.  There is a big difference in favor of the Asynch units.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Weiss DAC2 and 202 units. They use Firewire interfaces between the computer and the DAC.  They have been receiving glowing reports as well.  Coming from the pro market, they are a little more complex in set-up.  Not as “turn-key” as the Asynch USB systems.  And there are others out there as well.

I wrote all of this because I think we are at a fork in the digital road.  CDPs, transports, and the discs themselves have a bleak future, if not immediately, then pretty soon.  The proverbial writing is on the wall.  

If you haven’t started investigating new digital playback options, it’s time to do it.  For a long time, I resisted the idea, because technology was moving fast.  It was like a shooting gallery.  And it’s still moving fast.  But now, some of this technology has come of age, and it needs to be examined, if not embraced.

A few additional points:
1 – Updates are usually the type that you can download.  You don’t need to change hardware as much when you want to update. So it will ultimately cost you less to stay abreast of the latest technology.

2 – I haven’t mentioned a few inexpensive tweaks that can be downloaded.   In fact, I purposely did not try any.  I wanted this article to stand for what the technology is now, not what it can be.

3 – There is lot of info about the best way to import your CDs into your computer.  Or which USB port to use, etc.  I chose not to make this newsletter even longer by outlining them.  Suffice it to say that you can find what you need to know at Wavelength Audio’s or Ayre Acoustics’ websites.  

And there is even more info at Computer Audiophile.  Hey, it’s not rocket science.  You know it’s not, because I did it.  If you are reading this on the Internet, you can learn what you need to know.  And it is the future.  Are you ready?

4 – Hi-Res sources are the icing on the cake.  There are a number of sites that allow downloading of 24/88 or 24/96 music.  In my experience, the higher frequency response is welcome.  But it’s the much higher resolution of 24 bits vs. 16 that makes a huge difference.  

Audiophiles will pay hundreds of dollars for copies of old analog master tapes, because of the sheer beauty of their sound.  But analog copies of used analog master copies do have levels off degradation.  Plus, tapes, tape heads and transports will wear out.

24 bit recordings (when played back at 24 bits) approach if not equal, the best analog master tapes for resolution.  Assuming a good ADC, it is closer to the sound of the mic feed than tape, even 30 IPS tape.  So the promise of master tape quality is higher than ever before.

5 – Now, if you’re still a vinyl-only music lover, I probably wasted your time.  Except to say that 24-bit sources will, assuming a good analog output stage in the DAC, rival your LPs for musical involvement, transparency, and presence.  I wouldn’t throw out my turntable, but the promise of digital is finally coming to fruition.

6 – Even if manufacturers can eliminate jitter, they’ll still have to have good sounding DAC circuitry.  And a good analog output stage in the DAC.  So you’ll still need to listen to these to see which meets your needs and tastes.

7 – There are excellent resources available. My favorite is Computer Audiophile.  Knowledgeable folks inhabit this forum run by Chris Connaker, one of the acknowledged experts in this coming new digital age.  All of the forums at C.A. are a wealth of great info.

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/


New room designs

There are always tons of questions concerning optimum room sizes and dimensions.  It’s not just the ones that I receive here, or those that I get when I speak somewhere.  All of the forums abound with them.  Sadly, there is a HUGE amount of bad information being dispensed out there.

Before I discuss this topic, I do want to acknowledge the excellent design work done by Rives Audio.  I’ve voiced systems in some readers’ rooms that Rives has designed, and they are about the only ones where I can be reasonably sure – before going there – of a predictable outcome.

http://www.rivesaudio.com/

Most of the widely available room layout programs and spreadsheets have a common problem. Rooms are never as perfect as in a spreadsheet.  

Put objects in them (like furniture) and watch the sound change!  Although it’s tongue-in cheek, I always say that the only time a spreadsheet design will work as promised is when the only thing in the room is the spreadsheet!

I would recommend staying away from known problematic room dimensions.  For example, all three dimensions being equal (such as 15 x 15 x 15).  Or dimensions that are exact multiples (for example, 30 x 20 x 10).

I’ve done systems in theoretically optimum rooms and in rooms that were less than optimum.  Most of the time, once items are in the room, all bets are off.  

So I wouldn’t stress too much about it.  If you cannot afford an outfit like Rives Audio, just use the best design you can find and simply work with it.


Set-up diagrams

I’ve seen all of the suggested set-up diagrams offered by the various manufacturers.  Without naming names, just let me say that most of them have a grain of truth, but none of them are actually practical in a real-world room.  And if one is correct, doesn’t that mean that the others are wrong?

Here’s a less-than-uplifting fact - unless they’ve come to your house and put in the time and effort to voice your system in your room, if you simply accept what they say, you’ll fall short of what’s possible.  Every time.  There is no magic formula, no magic bullet.

Now, their advice can be a great starting point.  Of course, most of them assume a totally dedicated room.  Even then, they are not likely to deliver more than maybe 50-60% of what’s possible.  

I can go into a room where one of these generic set-up guides was employed, and it takes me less than 30 minutes to effect a huge improvement in sound.

There is enough info in GBS to move you well ahead of these various suggested generic set-up diagrams. As always, if you have a question, contact me.  I try to reply within 24 hours.


Stereo subs

You know my thoughts on one vs. two subs.  But there is still a caveat.

When you place stereo subs side by side, or stack one on top of the other, you have just converted your stereo subs to mono.  All the problems with random phase cancellation of a single sub will apply. So you still have the problems of a single sub, only now you have spent twice the money, taken twice the space, and gained nothing sonically.

Just say no to adjacent or stacked stereo subs!


Audio forums

I receive questions about interesting and informative audio forums.  I can only vouch for some of the English language forums.  With the possible exception of Computer Audiophile, you have to take some of the posts on these forums with a big grain of salt.

Here are a few that I read:

http://www.audioasylum.com

http://www.avsforum.com/

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/

http://forum.audiogon.com/cgi-bin/fr.pl

http://www.audioenz.co.nz/forums/

http://www.stereo.net.au/forums/index.php

http://www.hifiwigwam.com/

http://forum.stereophile.com/forum/ubbthreads.php

Some others that I read occasionally:

Audio Circle
Audioholics


Back in the saddle again

When I resigned as Avantgarde Acoustics’ North American Distributor in 2005, I decided that particular phase of my audio career had come to an end.  The vagaries with exchange rates had been a bitter pill (the value of the dollar took a huge hit for over four years from 2001 to 2005).  Even my best efforts couldn’t offset a 50% price increase on the same models.

However, after my resignation, I kept receiving inquiries as to whether or not I would consider this line or that.  But nothing lit my fire.  So I figured that the high-end audio distribution era was over for me.

Then, in the spring of this year (2010), I started getting calls and e-mails from a few trusted audio industry friends and associates.  They had fallen in love with the sound of a product, making “best I ever heard” claims, an unusual position for them to take.  These are conservative guys, not given to hyperbole.  I’ve known one of them for over thirty years.  Over the years, if he said something had value, whether it was a recording, a book, a restaurant, or an audio component, I could count on it having real merit.

So I began investigating.  The product prototypes had received some rave reviews and some unrave reviews.  The company was unknown.  The product was priced in the stratosphere.

Frankly, I wasn’t interested.  Too many unanswered questions.  And that price!  Whew!

One day my phone rang, and it was the manufacturer calling from Sweden.  He spoke well, was obviously very bright, and he expressed the rare opinion that he had a lot to learn about the audio industry.  Was this actually a man without guile or pretense?  He felt that he had an extraordinary product, but said that he had no idea about marketing it.

He arranged for me to have a sample of the product to evaluate, no questions asked if I didn’t approve of it.  Finally I agreed to give it a little time, out of respect for him, as well as my buddies, who had urged us to at least talk.

What is it?
It’s a power amp.  When it arrived, it showed evidence of being used and abused as it had traveled around the world. So they sent me a new set of tubes. I let it run for a couple of days.  On about the third day, I went in for a brief listen.

If you’ve ever been confronted with a sound that was so special that you just HAD to tell someone, then you understand why I went running downstairs to ask Pam (my wife) to drop everything and get up to my listening room.  

I had been using a pair of prototype evaluation samples from a speaker manufacturer.  Honestly speaking, Pam – who loved to listen to music with my Avantgardes – had quit coming to listen, because she thought the sound and the music was boring.  I hated to admit it, but I knew she was right.

Anyway, after ONE tune, she looked at me with a smile on her face and said, HOW DID YOU DO THAT?  The old “killer sound” was back, even with much lesser speakers.  

I liked the sound so much that I went on a kind of mini tour.  I took it to a former client, a customer who has arguably the finest system that I know of, price no object.  I had installed this system and knew its sound intimately.  I wanted to see how the amp would sound on a no-holds-barred system.

It had the same transformative effect there as well.  In fact, the client wanted to buy it, scratches and all, right then and there!  It wasn’t mine to sell, but his reaction was duly noted.

Who are they?
Returning to the Atlanta area, I had more discussions with the guy I had been talking to.  His name is Timo Engstrom.  He is a partner in Engstrom & Engstrom, a new Swedish company that has an astounding amplifier waiting to be released.  His uncle, Lars Engstrom, is the engineer who created the electronic design of the amplifier.  Timo is an industrial designer.

Too cut this long story short, I visited them in Sweden.  Having worked with many audio companies, I was shocked at the quality and depth of the team this fledgling company has assembled there in Malmo, Sweden. Frankly, I’ve never seen another company that can equal it.  

I came back home as the US distributor.  The price has been addressed, the sound is even better, the parts and build quality are vastly improved, and the design and functionality are improved in ways that will be especially meaningful to owners.  I can’t wait to begin telling the story of the new Lars Type 2 amplifier from Engstrom & Engstrom to the audiophile community.

Of course, I will not use this newsletter venue to discuss it further.  I felt bound to tell you before anyone else.  Not having any audio products that I sell, it has been easy for readers to trust my impartial opinion.  I think it’s still impartial, because at this price point, it has nothing to do with the needs and desires of 98% of GBS readers.   

E & E agreed that until I could tell the GBS readers, no public mention would take place.  As of July 19, 2010, if you go to the original E&E website, there is no sign of their new products and new direction.   They’ve been waiting for me to tell you first.

So now you know.

Sign off

That’s about all I can fit in this Quarter Notes. Hope you found it helpful, or at least interesting.

Please write with any questions, comments, or suggestions. See you next time!

Best regards,

Jim Smith

Go to Get Better Sound

 
     
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