Monthly Archives: August 2012

The littlest Pro Ac, the original Tablette or how much bass is enough?

We take for granted the number and variety of small monitors available in the hi-end market today, but it was not always so. Back in “The Day”, small speakers also had to be cheap (who would pay big bucks for a small speaker, the logic went), so you generally didn’t get well-built cabinets or premium drivers and the speakers weren’t usually very good. Unless…

You looked into the pro market at the BBC-designed LS3/5A, which was designed to be, as the Brits’ would say, a “high quality miniature loudspeaker”. It was also designed for what we would now call near field monitoring, but worked OK as a home speaker and increasingly found favor in the hi-end home audio market.

Eventually, the home audio oriented speaker companies noticed this emerging market and started to develop products to cater to it. The ProAc Tablette came along at the right time (early ’80’s) and happened to catch the eye (ear?) of The Absolute Sound magazine and its legendary editor Harry Pearson. Harry gave it a quite complimentary review and ProAc, which previously had only a minimal presence in the US market, was off and running.

After the reviews came out, I made it my business to hear them for myself. I worked in NYC at the time and took the train to the nearest ProAc dealer, a now long gone store in New Brunswick, N.J. Sure enough, quite a nice sound came out of those diminutive boxes. I wanted a pair, but never bought them for reasons lost in the mists of time. A few years ago, a pair of the originals showed up on Audiogon for a reasonable price so I righted that wrong from long ago.

The reason to talk about this speaker (besides its good sound) is its status as one of the first and best of these early mini-monitors (as they came to be called). It can be fairly said that the BBC monitor and the Tablette opened up this market to the mainstream. The premise was that they offered competitively hi-end sound for relatively low-end dollars, assuming you were willing to give up bass and high output levels.

Today, like back in 1981, it’s still amazing to hear what comes out of such small boxes, especially in terms of dynamics and loudness in a reasonably sized room. Obviously, they will not out do larger speakers in some ways, but to me they play just loud enough and have just enough bass to be fairly satisfying on these fronts.

The glory here, as you would hope, is the midrange. Even now, it does a fine job, better than many modestly priced speakers on the market today. As with most small monitors, the imaging is fairly precise, but limited in size and height. The treble is a bit accentuated, but not so much as to scream, at least when played at reasonable playback levels. The drivers show their age a bit, being a bit more rough and ready than the better drivers today. But you don’t get that quality of drivers in modestly priced speakers and you can pick up a pair of used Tablettes for around $300. This math looks good to me.

With mini monitors, bass is always the elephant in the room. Here is where their enclosure size works against the Tabs. Listening to the Decca/Fruhbeck de Burgos Albeniz Suite Espanola, the music is accented by tympani strikes. On a larger speaker (or live music) the tymp powerfully cuts through the orchestra, on the ProAc it sits back as just a component of the orchestra. But it’s there at least, and you can understand the composer’s intent. The lowest open string on the Bass is around 40 Hz and the lowest on the Cello is around 60 Hz, so the ProAc’s in a sympathetic room can at least begin to reproduce these instruments (without really capturing them in full). But it must be said that, bottom line, their approximately 1/3 cubic foot enclosure is just not large enough to get convincingly to the lowest string of the Bass.

A speaker with an enclosure volume of  around 1 cubic foot (3 times as much) is large enough to reasonably get down to that magic 40 Hz figure in room. Again, not to say that response even lower than 40 Hz wouldn’t be desirable, but it’s less of a limitation since that’s mostly the province of the last handful of pipe organ pedals, synthesized electronic music and movie soundtrack effects and the like that are not generally of major musical significance, for classical music especially.

But then again, having the frequencies below 40 Hz also helps bring out concert hall room ambience (which certainly does help create the illusion of a live music venue) and can add to the sense of power on rock music, so they can’t be ignored completely. The problem is, as you descend below 40hz, reproducing this deep bass well becomes expensive, requiring large speakers, large rooms and powerful amplifiers. Sometimes I ask myself if it isn’t more trouble than it’s payoff. But I used to own Infinity IRS V’s, so I guess my arm can be twisted on this point.

Oh well, enough bass theorizing, back to the Tablettes. You can hear why they made waves, both positive and not so positive all those years ago. I do believe that the original Tablette sounds better than the sum of its parts, an example of the magic a wily speaker designer can conjure up.

So I still like them, and with their tiny size it’s no problem to store them when not in use. I guess, truth be told, as my only speaker their limitations would be just too, errr… limiting. Even ProAc eventually increased the size of the Tablettes in their later iterations. Perhaps a comparison between the original and the current Tablette will be possible at some point.

At the end of the day, there are many larger speakers I prefer less despite their low-frequency advantages. It turns out that what the original Tabs do well is not such an easy act to follow.


The “Back Seat” system

I just “celebrated” my 60th birthday (BTW, it’s popular to say “60 is today’s 50”, but forget it, 60 is still 60). It’s a time for contemplation about life, love and, yes, audio and how it all fits into one’s future. Retirement looms with the life-style changes that follow along, often meaning moving into smaller quarters or even frequent moves to follow the weather, etc. So I thought it would be interesting to work on what I call a “back seat” system.

I define a back seat system as a system of very high quality all of whose components will fit on the back seat of a car. This rules out 6 foot tall speakers, 200 pound amplifiers, 4 chassis preamps and the like. Not necessarily cheap, but thrifty with regards to size, weight and complexity without sacrificing performance as much as possible.

And this may come to the fore even more as time goes on for people not of retirement age as tight economic conditions enforce smaller living spaces and may require more “following the sun” from place to place to stay employed. Not to mention that some people just prefer a less obtrusive stereo or to have music in family shared spaces where big, hot and complex systems just would not be appropriate.

So I am going to try to investigate this as time goes by. I hope, besides satisfying my own personal curiosity, this will be of interest and use to readers of this log. Equipment that is part of this survey will be tagged with “Back seat stereo”.

What’s up, Vandersteen?

Vandersteen Audio is one of the most enduring and respected speaker companies in the current scene, so a new model would tend to arouse one’s curiosity. Especially considering that they are a company that does not release new models lightly, tending towards refining its existing products.

So I decided that a visit to my friend (and Vandersteen dealer) John Rutan of Audio Connection in Verona, N.J. to give the new Treo a listen would be in order. But first, a conflict of interest alert. Years ago, I did repairs of tube audio gear for his store. That said, the real conflict is that I like John personally and enjoy hanging and listening with him. If you are one who believes that the world and everyone in it is basically corrupt, I won’t be offended if you take these musings with a massive grain of salt. And if you believe that one should only talk about gear that you have listened to under controlled conditions in your own system, I’ll point out that I am just some dude with a blog, so relax. With that said, let’s continue.

The Treo, despite the three-ness of its name, does not replace the Vandersteen 3A Signature (which continues in the line). In fact, I would say it compliments the 3A. The Trio is smaller and with its greater expanse of wood veneer, more attractive than the 3A. This happens to result in the 3A’s having deeper bass and being $1500 cheaper than the Treo. But the Treo compensates with a bit better midrange and a more exacting soundfield. I would also suspect that it would work better in rooms that the larger 3A tends to overpower.

This does not mean that the Treo is bass shy. It actually did quite well and the bass seemed well aligned, but it doesn’t have the bass depth that the 3A has. I could understand some preferring the 3A for this reason, but to me, the Treo sounds better than the 3A overall. The Treo is an intriguing speaker I hope to hear more of and another well-judged Vandersteen design.

Next up was the revision of the 1C, the 1Ci. The Vandy 1 series may be one of the more unjustly ignored speakers in audio, being overshadowed by the 2 and 3 series over the years (though it got an excellent review in TAS many years ago). It’s also Richard Vandersteen’s idea of a minimonitor! His concept is, why put a small speaker on a stand and waste all that area that could be used to add to the enclosure volume and give the customer more bass and more efficiency? Hard to argue…

I gave them a short listen and found them to be quite good.  Whether you should buy a small stand mount or the 1Ci is a matter of taste, but to me they had most of the finesse of small monitors in their price range with better bass and the ability to play louder. They do not have the detail, imaging or overall precision of some of the premium priced small monitors out there, but I don’t suspect that many people are trying to decide between a pair of 1Ci’s and a pair of, oh let’s say, Magico Q1’s anyway…

Next was a trip to hear the Vandersteen 7’s in the large listening room. This room has a quite nice system with Aesthetix Atlas Signature Mono blocks and Aesthetix CD playback. The 7 is Vandersteen’s flagship and retail for $48,000. A lot of money but, in this age, not unreasonable for a major company’s flagship.

The sound was excellent overall. Especially noteworthy was its performance on piano which was, to me, absolutely first-rate. Right up there with a pair of Focal Utopia’s I heard at a Stereophile show years ago that fooled me into thinking a live concert was happening inside from outside the room. A speaker like the MBL Radialstrahler 101 may do more imaging “tricks” and my old pair of Bill Legall rebuilt and modded IRS Series V had more authority, but the 7, in its own way, sound to be fully competitive with the other flagship/big buck systems I have heard over the years.

So John, thanks for the “taste” of the latest from Vandersteen.

The Magnepan 3.7 and aspects of reality

It’s almost embarrassing to talk about the basic concepts of the Magnepan line. They have been around for so long (early ’70’s) and have stayed so true to their original concept that it seems almost impossible that anyone remotely interested in Quality Audio isn’t already aware of the company and their products. In fact, if you saw a picture of their original MG-3’s and then pictures of the succeeding models, you would suspect that more has stayed the same than has changed, and there is some truth to that.

Still, there have been incremental improvements since the original MG-3’s, intended to address the original designs perceived weaknesses. The biggest problems were in the area of low-level resolution and detail. One had to play the MG-3’s louder than one would expect for a given level of life and detail. And due to this, dynamics tended to suffer (as did the amplifiers driven beyond their limits in the process).

As the years went by, the succeeding models diminished these problems slowly but surely (by tweaking the mass of the drivers, partly) until the 3.6 were a real improvement over the originals. But some of the problems remained and Magnepan stayed on the case.

It took a while, but the result is the new MG 3.7 which takes an even greater leap towards solving these issues by introducing a wrinkle new to the MG-3 series, the Quasi-Ribbon. This variation on the original planar driver appeared earlier in the smaller MC 1.7, proving to be a significant upgrade for that speaker and it provides similar benefits in the 3.7.

Here are some specs…

Freq. Resp. 35Hz- 40 kHz
Sensitivity 86dB/500Hz /2.83v
Impedance 4 Ohm
Dimensions 24 x 71 x 1.625 inches
Shipping Weight 125 lbs

Well, Magnepan does not exactly overwhelm you with specifications! But the manual tells you most of what you need to know to get the best out of these speakers. I suspect that most folks will use solid state amplification since tube amps with enough power and quality to get what the Maggies have to give would be expensive beyond what most would pair with an under $6000 speaker. In a moderate size room, you may be able to get away with a good 100 watt amp, but I would think a 200 watt amp would be more appropriate. I used the fine Rogue Medusa to good effect. Other equipment included a Motif MC-8 preamp, a Yamaha GT-2000 turntable with Koetsu Black phono cart, Pioneer PD-9D SACD/CD player and an Apple Mac Mini based server.

One of the glories of the Magnepan line has been their true ribbon tweeter. The deployment of the Quasi-Ribbon has brought the rest of the speaker more in line with the outstanding tweeter. Coherency top to bottom is better and the speaker sounds much better when played at lower volumes than its predecessors. And since one can listen at lower levels without losing the Maggie quality, in a backdoor way the demands on the amplifier are lessened (as are the demands of ticked off neighbors).

The presentation of the MG 3.7 is different from typical box speakers and how you react to that will go a long way to determining how you react to this speaker. The tall line-source style radiation results in taller images and the dipole figure 8 radiation interacts with the back walls of the room (though lessens the involvement of the side walls) to make larger sounding images in general. Of course, this is a bit of an artifact, the sound of your room superimposed with the sound of the hall as captured on the recording. But it can be argued that this “artifact” replaces the aspects of the original hall sound that mics just don’t capture, enhancing the sense of the Gestalt of a concert hall, if not the concert hall. This subject is worthy of a longer write-up (and will get one eventually in the Philosophy section of this log), but hopefully, you get the idea.

This presentation is tailor-made for some music. For example, The Legendary Pink Dots “The Whispering Wall” sounds as large and atmospheric as this music would seem to demand. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” benefits similarly. Here, the sounds were engineered in the studio and there is no “original venue” to deal with, so all is well with regard to the soundfield presentation.

With acoustic music, things are less straightforward. Here there is often an original venue to deal with, and the Magnepan’s interaction with the room has a significant effect. But, to me, this does not at all disqualify the 3.7 from doing well on this music. First of all, I have never heard music live in the vast majority of venues, so I have no idea how live music sounds in them to know how severe the dual venue effect for a given recording really is. And recordings do not really capture the sound as it would have sounded for a listener at the recording session in all its aspects, so the added room sound, it can be argued, may add back some of what was lost.

Tonally, the Magnepans do pretty well. To get what they have to offer here, one has to take some care in room placement (distance from rear wall and toe-in). Treble balance can be adjusted by using a feature that allows a resistor to be inserted in the path to the ribbon tweeter. A shorting wire can be removed from the appropriate terminals mounted on the speaker wire connection plate on the lower rear of the speaker and an included 1 ohm resistor put in its place to lower the tweeter output a bit. I preferred the sound in my not overly live room with this resistor in place, deader rooms may benefit by leaving the short in place and very lively rooms may benefit from larger value resistors. A bit of experimentation is the byword here.

If you demand absolute faithfulness to the recording above all, it must be said that the Maggies play a bit fast and loose, not providing the more completely flat monitor sound that some speakers can exhibit under ideal conditions. But these other speakers arguably fall short on providing the concert hall Gestalt mentioned earlier and, as these things go, the 3.7 are still pretty good tonally providing this enhanced sense of venue without too much collateral damage.

Overall, the MG 3.7’s are a lot of speaker for a moderate price. If you have the room, and you like their general presentation, they are hard to beat. I am not the first to proclaim them a relative bargain in today’s market place, but so they are.

The Harbeth Monitor 40

If time-tested tradition is important to you, the Harbeth M-40 will have a leg up right from the start. It is largely an improved descendent of the BBC LS 5/8 and, more so, the Spendor BC-3 dating from the mid 1970’s. Well in the grand tradition, and veddy British.

It should be mentioned up front that the M-40’s have been replaced by the M-40.1. According to Harbeth, the change was necessitated not so much by any pressing need to improve the speaker, but by the original woofer being discontinued. At the same time, the midbass was tamed a bit, to make the speaker a bit more friendly to typical domestic rooms and the midrange driver changed to the newer Radial2 material, which should also be an improvement (in theory). I haven’t heard the new version, but according to word on the street, it’s better but not wildly different. So assume the new version is somewhat better than my review indicates.

These are relatively large stand-mount speakers and are not of a style that is currently in fashion, being wide and chunky. I like their purposeful look, but many may not. At any rate, the wide baffle is integral to their performance. All and all, a well thought out design where form follows function.

No discussion of Harbeth would be complete with out a discussion of Radial material and owner Alan Shaw. The Radial material is their trump card. Developed by Harbeth, its successor (Radial2 material) is employed as cone material in all their current speakers, as the midrange driver of the M-40.1 and the woofers of the rest of their line. It is well suited to the purpose. It has low coloration compared to most of the plastic and paper woofer/midranges generally found in contemporary speakers and its only current competition as a low coloration cone material may come from some of the recent high-tech sandwich cone materials now available.

It’s pretty apparent that Alan Shaw is the main auteur of the Harbeth designs, being responsible for the design and voicing of the line. Actually, he might object to the term voicing, since his goal is a speaker largely without “voice”, one that substantively reproduces the signal applied to its terminals. He has succeeded to a great degree and I suspect what you will hear is his personal philosophy on how music should best be reproduced.

These are relatively large stand-mount speakers and are not of a style that is currently in fashion, being wide and chunky. I like their purposeful look, but many may not. At any rate, the wide baffle is integral to their performance. This is a well thought out design.

There performance is from the general “reproduce the recording” school. You won’t find the expansive images or enhanced sense of image height that planars provide (or some of their coloration, either). You will get the sense that what you are hearing is generally what is on the recording, but with some alterations relating to how recordings tend to be made and the characteristics of real-world rooms.

Most of these deviations are intentional. The transition from the midrange to the treble tilts down a bit, not a bad choice considering that most recordings are made up close and can easily become bright sounding. And the midbass to bass transition has a bit extra, again not unreasonable considering the effects of floor bounce (but see my article “John Dunlavy and the Room” for more on this). In many rooms, depending on your point of view, this may result in a pleasing sense of warmth or a bit of a plodding bass (I come down on the side of the warmth, myself).

There are also some unintentional things, mainly a bit of congestion from the cabinet. As well tuned as its “lossy design” is, its effect can be heard as added thickness on some instruments and male voice. But I think it’s not severe and can be safely filed under the category “nothing’s perfect”. Many other speakers have cabinets with effects much worse and further up in frequency where those effects are more noticeable.

Listening to a few of the Mercury Living Presence series recordings, the somewhat forgiving top end of these speakers did not invite them to produce ear-biting strings. The Merc’s treble emphasis is less in evidence on the Decca/Fruhbeck de Burgos Albeniz Suite Espanola. In either case, the imaging was good if somewhat limited in height and depth and the tonality quite fine.

The vocals on the SACD of Beck’s “Sea Changes”  track “Already Dead” were commendably smooth and the guitars tracked in both channels rang out convincingly if with out the very last word in transient attack. Pink Floyd’s “Echoes” also came through beautifully but, in my view, suffered somewhat from the smaller soundstage that the M-40’s (and, to be fair, most other cone/dome/box speakers) produce. Here a planar can produce a more etherial sound that, to me, is more appropriate to this atmospheric piece.

As associated equipment, I used the Lectron JH-50 (tube) and the Electrocompaniet Ampliwire  (SS) amplifiers and the Motif MC-8 as preamp. For vinyl playback, the Goldmund Studio TT with Well Tempered Arm and Clearaudio Goldmund cartridge was employed. The Ampliwire usefully controlled the bass better, but the JH-50 sounded a bit better overall with a bit more flow and beauty. But overall, both circa 50 watt amps handled the speaker well and the difference in amps was more a difference in “seasoning” rather than any fundamental difference. I suspect that the M-40 would respond to even better amps in kind.

Of course, the Harbeths M-40’s were not cheap and the new 40.1’s are now priced at almost $13,000 (and require stands). But in my view, these are one of the best speakers that espouse their philosophy of music reproduction and one of my personal favorites (For whatever THAT’S worth…). They are what I call an “accountant audiophile” type of speaker, taking only a few liberties and producing a sober, predictable sound that, while it may not completely spark the imagination in the short-term, provides much of the inherent beauty of music in the long.

Floor Bounce and the messy world of home audio

The late John Dunlavy was castigated on another site for a) being concerned with phase response in his speakers (which I won’t deal with here) and b) not compensating for the “usual” floor bounce (by introducing deviations from anachoically flat in his speakers through the affected range). The purpose here is not to defend Dunlavy particularly, but to look at just one of the many phenomena that affect home music reproduction.

Floor bounce is caused by the sound that bounces off the floor between the listener and the speakers being out of phase at certain frequencies (usually between 100 and 300 Hz.) and partially canceling the direct sound, causing a dip in the frequency response at those frequencies.

Dunlavy’s argument here was that the floor bounce is present in the concert hall so it should be at home, the counter argument was made that the floor bounce is already present on a “properly made recording”, so the floor bounce at home would be double compensation. Sounds reasonable but…

Let’s look at how recordings ARE made rather than how we might WISH they were made. Generally, they employ a) a few mics high in the air and fairly close to the orchestra or b) a bunch of mics quite close to the musicians or c) direct feeds off of musical instrument amplifiers. So they are either far from hall boundaries or very close to the musicians. Given this, it’s safe to say that not much floor bounce is actually caught by the recording mics.

So, if “concert hall realism” is our goal, leaving the bounce in could be seen as necessary to compensate for the missing bounce (as related to a listener’s experience in a hall) in most recordings. So Dunlavy, in that sense, might have been right!

Of course, when we invoke “concert hall realism”, the can is open and the worms are crawling all over the room. Where in the concert hall? Some people like to sit mid hall, some in the back, some in the balcony and some in the first few rows. The sound is quite different, though that is partially compensated for by the fact that it is a live concert and wherever you sit, that comes through. And, on point with floor bounce, that also changes at different location in the hall. How do you compensate for a moving target?

Recording engineers (for various reasons) generally give us a quite close perspective on the orchestra. If the goal, rather than “concert hall realism” is to “reproduce what’s on the recording”, the close perspective is what you should hear, except on those relatively few recordings made from a more distant perspective. Interesting that many who espouse the “reproduce what’s on the recording” philosophy select and set up their speakers to eliminate the room as much as possible, buy a room compensation unit, but set that to a “target curve” rather than flat (now that flat at the listener is something we can accomplish). I know why they do it, and I don’t think it’s the wrong thing to do, but that’s not reproducing what’s on the recording, is it…

The point is that music reproduction in the home is a bit of a messy business and not as simple and obvious as we might like. We will look further into this as time goes on.

Bill L. and my AR3A’s

Two of my favorite people are Bill and Loretta Legall of MillerSound. Bill is one of the best when it comes to repairing and refoaming loudspeakers and is a knowledgeable and unassuming guy in general. One day I brought a pair of drivers for Bill to do his magic on when he excitedly told me that I had to hear a speaker he had acquired. But first, the story…

Bill and Loretta were driving around one day and cut into a neighborhood to escape some heavy traffic. In front of a house intended for the trash man was a pair of speakers. They looked rough and forlorn, but like seeing a bird with a broken wing or a wet, disheveled cat in the cold, Bill had to take them in.

Testing showed that, while the woofer foam had rotted out, the drivers were functional. But the rough cabinets were a problem, until Loretta remembered some matching veneer she had stashed away. Well, the woofers were re-foamed, the cabinets sanded and re-veneered, the crossover tested and capacitors replaced and a few other tweaks applied and it was time to listen to the new-old speaker.

“Kevin, you have to hear this, you won’t believe it”. So I entered Bill’s listening room to behold a speaker seemingly out of a time warp, a mint pair of Acoustic Research AR3A’s. And Bill wasn’t kidding, I didn’t believe it. Rich, beautiful music from a pair of speakers manufactured between 1967 and 1975 and rescued from the scrap heap. I realized immediately that this was a speaker that, like the Quad 57, Spendor BC-1, BBC LS3/5A and their ilk, ones’ knowledge of vintage speakers was incomplete without. So I asked Bill to look around for a pair for me (and I would look for myself).

A few days later, I got a call. “Hey Kevin, your AR3A’s are in” Bill had done it again, and I made arrangements to come by after work. When I got there, craftsman Bill had not only re-foamed the woofers, but refinished the cabinets and cleaned up the badges and, while they were not quite the thing of beauty that Bill’s pair are, they looked great!

Acoustic Research pioneered the use of the Acoustic Suspension loudspeaker which traded efficiency for deep bass from a small box and, in its day, the AR3 series was the biggest selling and arguably most successful speaker of its kind. The ascent of the Acoustic Suspension loudspeaker was helped by the ascent of the high power amplifier (a development necessary due to the lower efficiency of the newer design), which, depending on your point of view, led to a bright new future or consigned audio to a modern hell of inefficient speakers and high-powered solid state amplifiers. But that’s another story for another time…

So I have chosen the AR3A’s as my first speaker musing on Audiolog because a) I wanted to tell you a story about Bill and b) they are a classic and historic speaker that augured big changes in the audio marketplace in their day. There’s a pair on permanent display at the Smithsonian and not for nothing!

How do the AR3A’s stand up today? Well, certainly it’s a different kind of sound than we are used to. The treble is not exactly extended and the speakers do not have the level of detail we expect these days. The imaging doesn’t “do tricks” and there is a bit of residual roughness. You can hear the cabinets (not as bad as it sounds, they used ply rather than MDF back then). But there is plenty of bass compared to the typical bookshelf today and a generally warm, rounded sound that is simply more that the sum of its parts. You can hear what’s wrong, but the enveloping sound on classical is like a bath in warm Caribbean waters and the punchy sound on Rock and Roll gives you the feeling that this is how the musicians expected it to sound.

It feels almost wrong to pick the sound apart since it obviously wasn’t designed to cater to prevailing expectations, so I won’t. In my view, it was designed as a holistic unity and is unique to itself, I doubt anyone would design a speaker that sounds like this today and much is the pity. There is more than one way to skin the musical cat, and this is the current path less chosen.

But a music lover who is not a “hi end audiophile” could buy these, refurbish them and live happily ever after. Many did, back between 1967 and 1975…

The one that got away or how I learned to live without the Sony R-10’s

This is a story about the “one that got away”. Do you have an audio related product that has always just managed to elude your grasp? Here’s my story. It’s about the Bo Derek, the perfect 10 of headphones, the Sony R-10.

Back around 1994, the availability of good portable CD players stoked my interest in portable hi-fi. I had a Denon walkman-type CD player and a pair of Beyer DT-990’s and that system worked pretty well. But as always, audiophiles want to see what’s better around the corner.

As it happened, I was doing some part-time audio tech work at that time and one of my clients was an early importer of the Sony R-10 and CD-XXXX phones into the country. There were models at about $300 and $600 and, of course, the $4000 R-10.

On one of my visits I decided to audition the non-R-10 Sony’s as an improvement over the DT-990. The $300 seemed to be a lateral move but the $600 CD-3000 had potential. But the R-10 beckoned like Bo running on the beach from their perch on the shelf. I had to listen and the rest was history. I was smitten!

I left with no new headphones. The others seemed irrelevant after the R-10, but they were $4000! What kind of idiot would spend 4000 (1994) bucks on a headphone!

I told my audio buddy John about my discovery and rather than calling me crazy, he opined that if I sold this and this and this, devoted all my part-time job money and put it all in a shoe-box, eventually I would have the money. Idiocy turned into scheming.

The DT-990’s sold along with a few other items and my efforts filled the box up to $2000 pretty quickly, so I called the importer to let him know my intentions. He had two pairs in stock, so I was covered!

Finally the day came and the shoe-box was full so I called to pick up my treasure. Only he had just sold the last of his remaining stock. But don’t worry, he said, more are on order. Arrrggghhh! Months went by. The importer said they are on back order, be patient! I have a better idea, sell me your demo pair! He declined…

Of course, no R-10’s would be forthcoming. A year or so went by and I gave up, though they remained in my mind.

One evening during a trip to John’s place, headphones came up and I told my sad story. Oh, I have a pair said John. He had bought a pair based on my enthusiasm (I didn’t know). From my friend, the importer. One of his last two. MY PAIR!!!! Arrrggghhh again!

The Sennheiser Orpheus seemed a good alternative, but would have required two more shoe-boxes and was hardly portable. I bought a pair of Grado HP-1000, good, but not the same. Eventually, I called the importer on the off-chance that he would sell his demo R-10’s since they were by then officially discontinued. Oops, he had already sold them.

We fast forward to about two years ago. Thoughts of my old flame were far from my mind, but looking around on Audiogon one morning, my heart skipped a beat. There it was; SONY R-10 FS! Gulp! I quickly clicked off the ‘Gon, shut off the computer and went to work. Would Bo have aged gracefully in the ensuing years? Should I spend the money?

Upon returning home from work I knew what I had to do. I went to Audiogon and found the ad only to be greeted by an ominous red SOLD! No, it can’t be! Not again! My eye then caught the zip code. Could it be? Yep, John had finally decided to sell his Sony’s. I swung and missed again.

Sometimes the fates have their own agenda and we have to learn to accept that. We all have our R-10s, our old girlfriends, the car we should have bought and so forth. The R-10 is my audio product that got away. And like old girlfriends and cars, the art is in knowing when to give up and get over it…

AKG K-3003 comparative review

The AKG 3003 stands as one of the most expensive Universal IEM’s available and has therefore been the target of no little derision in some circles. Why spend $1300 on a Universal when you can get a Custom, many sniff. Well, there is nothing in a Custom that a priori guaranties better sound, just like in a Universal the skill of the designer and the quality of ingredients are the determining factors. Customs, at least for now, are not for me.

I have a reasonable assortment of good quality Universal IEM’s including the Sony MDR-EX1000, the ER4-P, the CK-10, the EQ-7, Final Heaven S (FI-BA-SB) and Final FI-DC1601SB and have owned IE-8, Shure 530, MDR-EX600.  I have also heard but not owned the JH-3A and JH-13 universals. I have also owned some high end full size phones such as the HD-800, Stax Lambda Pro’s, K-1000, Sony CD-3000 (I call them R-10 Juniors) AKG-701 and various others and have heard Sony R-10’s extensively (having a month loan a number of years ago) and many others over the years just to give some context.  

Obviously, for the money asked, the 3003 must perform at the top levels, at least of IEM’s. So let’s investigate. I used as comparisons in the listening tests the Sony MDR-1000 and Final DC1601 as these are, in my view, the best overall of what I have.

Listening notes:

British Band Classics – Mercury Living Presence – Fennell, ESWE

EX-1000 – Decent presentation, noticeable upper mid emphasis and a bit bright at the top. Typical IEM soundstage.

DC1601 – Blunted at extreme top with noticeable midrange emphasis. Less flat in response, but more dynamic and open with a soundstage presentation more “out of the head” than the Sony’s. Handles dynamic peaks significantly better. A bit less low bass, but a bit better midbass.

K-3003 – Best detail with less of the 1000’s treble peak but without the top end dullness of the Final’s. Better overall foundation in the bass and more clear and open. Dynamics at least as good as the Final’s. Best at low level info and holds together best at the dynamic peaks

Farewell, Farewell – Fairport Convention

EX-1000 – More very high treble, but a bit recessed on Sandy Denny’s vocals. Bass OK. Lack of separation of instruments (at least in comparison to the others tested).

DC1601 – A bit more recessed vocal and bit rougher sounding on the voice (only a little). Drums not bad, good over all detail (especially considering the somewhat subdued treble).

K-3003 – Beautiful vocal, very ethereal, typical of Denny’s voice. Wonderful detail, very clear and open with a better musical foundation provided by the bass without being overblown or shadowing the rest of the spectrum in any way. Very impressive.

Beethoven Piano Sonata #8 – Moravec – VAI music

EX-1000 – A bit “tinkly” in treble. Well balanced overall, but not as pure sounding  on the notes and a bit of blurring in fast passages.

DC1601 – Treble recess more noticeable here and the less flat overall response is more noticeable on the solo piano. But the notes are well separated and loud passages have more power and impact than the Sony. Less accurate, but more exciting.

K-3003 – Best dynamics, and best balanced sound. Piano sounds very coherent through its range and excellently dynamic. Hall sound comes through best of all. Personal note, I only listened through this piece halfway to save time between IEM changes, I didn’t want to stop listening to this one when I reached that point!

Search and Destroy – The Stooges

EX-1000 – A bit acid-y sounding on guitar and vocal peaks, did OK overall on this less than subtle, compressed recording.

DC1601 – Focus on mids and recessed treble actually beneficial on this recording. But a bit of shortfall on the voice. Handles the louder level better than the 1000.

K-3003 – Better balance allowed this admittedly mediocre recording to make its best impression. Easier to hear what details are there in the mix. Best balance of excitement and tonal balance.

Bizet – Carmen Fantasy – Ricci – Gamba – LSO

EX-1000 – A nice match for this recording overall. Violin almost over the top, but not quite.

DC1601 – Bigger orchestral soundstage than the EX-1000. The somewhat lackluster treble detracts a bit but the orchestral power comes through better.

K-3003 – Best, most atmospheric and balanced presentation with good orchestral size and spread. Only IEM that I noticed London’s subway system rumbling in the background at the end of the introduction. But still no bass bloat.

Overall impressions.

The EX-1000 is an excellent product in the top rank of “reasonably” priced Universal IEM’s on the market, but I must admit that the AKG 3003 outpoints it on almost all counts. Overall, it reminds me a bit of a Sennheiser HD-800 with more bass foundation and a bit less treble peaks but a smaller soundstage and a bit less ability to stay composed on absolutely loud peaks. This strikes me as quite exemplary performance for a Universal IEM or portable headphone. I could understand some who are very sensitive to treble wishing they were toned down just a bit, however. I also think there is a bit of a midrange recess, but I think that is appropriate for the close-up perspective that tends to come with the IEM’s territory!

My short exposure to the Universal versions of the JH-3A and the JH-13 lead me to believe the AKG is at least at that level. Would be nice to find out, for sure. But I don’t dig customs, man.

Is the K3003 worth the not inconsiderable price? If you want top rank performance and can reasonably swing the money without too much pain, I say yes!


Amused to death with the Sony MDR EX-1000 IEM

When it comes to portable audio, it just doesn’t get much more portable than an IEM and a Ipod/Cowan/Sansa mp3 player. Even tethered to one of the small battery-powered headphone amps, we are talking about something that fits in a coat pocket. And if, like me, you commute 2 – 3 hours a day, anything that amuses during this “dead time” is a good thing.

Recent years have seen an explosion of new IEM’s upping the ante in sound quality (and price). So I decided to investigate what level of quality is attainable. I tried some of the low driver count Balanced Armature (BA) units such as the Etymotic Research ER-4 and a Shure 530 and Westone 3 and found them competent, but uninspiring.

So why not customs? To me, there is generally no way to hear them before you commit to them in full and suppressed resale value due to the need to re-shell (assuming the original manufacturer will even do this) if you decide to move on later. I also don’t like the idea of my ear being completely filled up and don’t think they would ultimately be comfortable (for me). So, at least for now, they are non-starters for me.

Hearing about the Sony EX-1000 with their large dynamic drivers made them a natural to test. The EX-1000 aren’t cheap, but not unreasonable, in the circa $400 street price range. They come nicely packed with a comprehensive assortment of tips, a shorter replacement cable and a nice leather carrying case. The magnesium driver housing is light but appears sturdy. There is a general sense of high quality and technology here with their 16mm drivers employing Neodymium magnets and Liquid Crystal Polymer Film diaphragms and their oxygen-free copper cables. I found them to be comfortable with the supplied ear-buds and easy to route for over ear cable routing.  

The first listening impression is of a vivid, clean sound. The bass, while not as strong as devoted “bass heads” may prefer, is noteworthy for its sophistication and subjective lack of distortion (for an IEM). Treble is extended and generally smooth with a bit extra on top which fortunately manifests itself less as brightness than an enhanced sense of clarity. Certainly, it’s not forgiving of bad recordings. The midrange is quite good. Clean, yet lively and reasonably faithful to the unique texture and color of the individual instruments. Detail is good without being forcefully thrust at the listener. You can really hear this as Howard Hanson takes you through the instrumentation of his composition “Merry Mount” (The Composer and His Orchestra, Mercury). The extremes of dynamics here are also tracked pretty well without much in the way of compression or information loss as things get busy.  

Beethoven’s Egmont Overture with Rene Leibowitz and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on an excellent Chesky release (originally a Kenneth Wilkenson recording) comes through both in its quiet moments and its riotous ending with its natural timbres (mostly) intact. The sound-field is excellent for an IEM, second in my experience only to the FAD 1610’s (review coming). The news is also good with popular music. Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever” tricks and multitracks are there to be heard without fracturing the musical whole. Procol Harum’s atmospheric “A Salty Dog” is very well served here as well. The percussive new age-y sound of Conrad Praetzel’s “EnTrance” is evocative and enticing. For something a bit more hard-edged, the vocal and guitar pyrotechnics of Iggy and the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” inspire excited air play-along (guitar or drum as you prefer), just as you would hope.  

Obviously, I like the EX-1000. They are one of the best overall IEM’s I have owned or heard in the moderate price range.  I used my Sansa Fuze, my Cowan combo and my home system with Schiit Asgard amp all to good effect. The better the signal fed, the better the results, but the EX-1000/Sansa Fuse system was very worthy for its small size and the Sansa’s cost effectiveness.

 Now, if you are a confirmed bass-head or find any sense of sibilance anathema, these may not be the phones for you. But for me, while they are certainly not perfect (the treble could be smoother yet and the sound-field even more expansive, etc.) they are quite good for their price class. And I still think there is something to be said for large dynamic IEM drivers…