Monthly Archives: September 2012

HP resigns from The Absolute Sound

Per TAS website:

On August 31, 2012, TAS founder Harry Pearson officially resigned from the staff of The Absolute Sound. As some of you may know, HP has had very serious health issues this year, which is the reason why you haven’t seen his contributions in our pages over the past seven or eight issues. He has now decided to pursue his own personal projects rather than return to the monthly grind of TAS.

Truly the end of an era. For many audiophiles, especially during the height of HP’s editorship, The Absolute Sound was eagerly anticipated from issue to issue. Not just for the equipment reviews, but for the music reviews and coverage such as interviews with the conductors, performers and recording engineers and for the many “thought pieces” on anything to do with reproduced sound. It seemed HP wanted to create not just a great audio magazine, but a great magazine by any measure, and he largely succeeded.

Back in the day, he also expected the same high standards of his writers and was not afraid to let that be known in print. I’m sure that some of them didn’t like it, but I suspect that many of their writing skills improved because of his criticism.

Since HP was replaced as Editor at TAS, the magazine has evolved somewhat away from its direction when Harry ran things, for better or worse. But this is not the place to mourn whatever was lost, but to wish Harry the best in the future. I selfishly hope that someday we will be able to read more from the man who is, in my view, the best to ever write about hi-end audio.

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KEF LS50 loudspeakers, a bow to the past and a nod to the future (part 1)

Any company in any field that can claim 50 years in business is doing something right. But the UK’s KEF has a vibrant history both in terms of their own finished speakers and the products that the fruits of their research made possible. The drivers that KEF designed back in the day were classic and many of the speakers that employed them are enjoyed in homes to this day. BBC researchers, who designed monitors without commercial intentions but only to provide as faithful as possible monitoring of their transmitted signals, used KEF’s drivers liberally, most notably in the LS3/5A.

If all the KEF drivers inspired were the legendary LS3/5A, they would hold an honored position in audio history. But many other classics used the B-110 and T-27 and the other KEF designs. In addition to numerous KEF designs, the Linn Kan and Isobarik, JR- 149, various IMF’s and TDL’s, various Celef’s, various Tangent’s, early Meridian, ProAc and Monitor Audio’s, employed KEF drivers.

Now 50 years later we have the LS50 where the “LS” is a nod to KEF’s BBC legacy. But that’s pretty much where the similarity ends. While they do still employ KEF designed drivers, the drivers are nothing like the Bextrene coned units of yesteryear. KEF calls the new drivers “Uni-Q”, and they are a concentric design with the tweeter mounted in the middle of the driver where the dustcap would be in normal drivers. The concept of a concentric driver actually goes way back to the old Tannoy drive units from the late ’40’s, but KEF started their investigation into their technology in the mid ’80’s with the benefit of modern technology and materials. The first KEF speaker to employ the Uni-Q was introduced in 1988 and the driver has evolved quite a bit since then.

The latest versions of the Uni-Q were produced for the “Blade” project, which finally saw the light of day as a commercial product in 2011. The Blade is an excellent design, but sells for $30,000. I was going to say “unfortunately sells for $30,000”, but when you consider what flagship speaker designs from established (and non-established!) companies sells for these days, the $30,000 almost seems reasonable…

So when the LS50 was announced, the first thought prompted by its looks was “mini-Blade”. I am not sure it’s quite that, but it does seem apparent that it benefitted from the Blade’s research in its design. I also think it looks pretty cool, the piano black, curvaceous cabinet and Rose-Copper colored concentric driver making a nice looking modern style package, in my view (though it might not go with your Chippendale sofa and Tudor balustrades). So this looked like a likely prospect for my small speaker project.

My first move upon obtaining a pair was to deploy them in my bedroom system for break-in. In the bedroom I mostly listen to FM radio through a small Job Amplifier, itself an intriguing Swiss design that inspired some of the later Goldmund amplifier designs (unfortunately, the Job is discontinued now).

First listens were intriguing, the announcers voices on my local Classical music station (WWFM) sounded quite natural without excessive chestiness. It was interesting to me that LS50 tonality was good enough to let me guess that an unfamiliar piece of music (it turned out to be Adventures in a Perambulator by John Alden Carpenter) was a Mercury Living Presence recording and a Beethoven 7th was a Deutsche Grammophon (Carlos Kleiber). So far so good!

But the two things that struck me right away were the speakers disappearing act and the low-level of cabinet coloration. The imaging, even under the less than optimum conditions they were operating under, was quite fine. And there was this sense of purity, as though you were hearing the driver talking for itself without influence of the cabinet. Now this might be expected from a small speaker with a highly engineered cabinet, but it’s unusual to hear none the less.

Part two will give further impressions after break-in and in my main system. Stay tuned.

London…is a little bit of all right

In a few hours, I will be getting on a flight to London UK for a week’s vacation. This is one of my favorite places to go, as an audiophile I can hear live music at the concert halls there, shop for records (especially Decca’s) and just drink in the atmosphere where the music of my early teens was produced.

I have two must-shop record stores there. The first is the Classical Music exchange on Notting Hill Gate. This is a quiet, somewhat studious place with a deep stock of records. There are unsorted bargain records for 1 pound or less downstairs (in varying condition) and more expensive stock sorted in Composer order upstairs. There is also a section of “collectables” priced as such and usually a couple of rows of new arrivals. One interesting feature is that non-collectable stock that doesn’t sell at its original price will eventually be marked down until it does sell, sometimes you can find a bargain this way. Of course, a lot of these records are old hat to the British collector, but from across the pond these look most alluring! Down the street are affiliated stores for Rock, Soundtracks and the like if you are so inclined.

The other is sometimes less productive, but always more fun! That’s Gramex, near Waterloo Station on Lower Marsh. Roger, the owner, is a great guy. An eccentric, but knowledgable guy in his 80’s, who seems more interested in talking to you about whatever comes up than selling product. I have been to his store about 6 times and he always seems genuinely happy to see you. These days, the store leans more to used CD’s but there is usually a nice stock of records in the basement area. Classical, Opera and Jazz can be found here. As I type this, I am thinking how cool it will be to see Roger again…

There is Harold Moores on Great Marlborough Street, but I usually don’t waste my time. At least when I have been there, high prices on even common LP’s. Maybe a bit better on CD’s.

On Portobello road there are a few Rock shops for vinyl and you might also want to check out Oxfam’s. This is sort of like a Salvation Army type of used goods store with outlets all over the city, but only some of them have records so you will have to do some research. In past years, I found some stuff here, but recently its been a bit fallow.

I have three concerts on tap this time, so that’s exciting, two at the Barbican and one at Cadogan Hall. Other times of the year find a busier concerts schedule, if you go to London, you might want to time it for the “Proms” which is a month or so of non-stop concert activity in August (it coincided with the Olympics this year, so not for me). The Southbank Center has concert halls (including the Royal Festival Hall and the Queen Elizabeth Hall) and is also a cool place to hang out with stores and small restaurants right on the banks of the Thames. I went to the Meltdown Festival there one year (that particular year featured groups picked by Ray Davies) and saw a great concert featuring The Crazy World of Arthur Brown and the Legendary Pink Dots, one of the best concerts I have attended, so there is lots of action here. Check out http://meltdown.southbankcentre.co.uk/archives/ And don’t forget the Royal Albert Hall (of which we now know how many holes it takes to fill), Wigmore Hall etc. Lots of musical fun to be had in London.

This year, I will be in town the week of the National Audio Show, sponsored by the Chester Group, which I will be covering for http://www.avshowrooms.com/ . Looks like 40 plus room featuring UK manufacturers, distributors and retailers, so it should be fun.

But what I really like is to walk around in the evening listening to early Genesis, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull and the like on my mp3 player on the streets that were the cradle of this music. Evocative of another era and my youth…

AudioNote AN-E/Lexus Speakers, the gateway drug?

One of the roads less traveled in quality audio is the world of vintage and vintage-based-technology equipment. Usually tube based, often very low power mated with high-efficiency loudspeaker designs, it generally makes the more mainstream audio community go right into grid current (a little tube joke for the ham operators out there).

It’s also characterized by a seeming disregard for technical measurements (by the retro-audiophiles and sometimes even the designers) and for decent, moral regard for the sacredness of accuracy and neutrality. These musically horny tarts are so depraved as to…oops, lapsed into a Monty Python bit. Sorry.

All seriousness aside, the retro-phile (as it were) prizes emotional response and musical satisfaction over the usual concerns about accuracy (to whatever one thinks playback should be accurate to, I guess). Dissecting music into pieces for analysis is anathema to them, akin to testing wines through chemical analysis. One thing I admire is their insistence on assessing audio gear without the reassuring recourse to measurements to back their opinions up. That’s a tightrope with no net and, for many audiophiles, really just to dangerous.

For the most part, this equipment is not seen that often in mainstream print audio (remember when they were called the “underground audio press”? Meet the new boss…), except for the past writings of Peter Breuninger for TAS and Stereophile and currently by Art Dudley of Stereophile, who have, I am sure, suffered slings and arrows from the establishment for their apostasy.  But it WAS championed in print by “Sound Practices” and “Positive Feedback” back in the day and in print and later on line by the late Harvey Rosenberg, who the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality loved to hate. BTW, go check out Harvey’s legacy website http://www.meta-gizmo.net/. Now THERE was a dude who loved to write, especially about his beloved audio interests. And with a sense of humor, which was a big reason why “the grim-faced arbiters of audio morality” (is it OK to quote yourself, especially in the same paragraph?) were so outraged.

But once the seeds are sown, like forbidden fruit, this subculture beckons. Is it for you? Is it for me? I certainly don’t think it’s for everyone. But you’ll never know till you dip your toe in the water and find out for yourself. One way to ease into this is with Audio Note speakers. The AN-E/Lexus is not representative of the very latest or even the very best Audio Note has to offer, but it can give a healthy bite of the AN sound. And, although it has more in common with the audio hedonists rather than the traditionalists, it’s not too scary to the uninitiated as this speaker derives from the Snell E designed back in the early 1980’s by the late Peter Snell (who was firmly in the audio mainstream).

The AN-E/Lexus is a fairly large 2 way, designed to be elevated on a short stand. It’s also a bit unique, in that it is designed with corner placement as an option. In fact, corner placement is how Audio Note shows the speakers at audio shows and really, the design appears to be more optimum for this placement, the anechoic response starts to shelve down in the midbass and the reenforcement the corner placement provides brings the bass up closer to the midrange in level.

I tried the speaker both ways, in my den system, an approximately 12 X 14 foot room in the corners and out in the room in my main room which is larger, but has no realistic way to employ corner placement. I did prefer the corner placement as the tonal balance was indeed better this way, the midbass especially thinning out under these circumstances. But what I really liked was that, in a small room where speakers placed out in the room can seem physically (and sonically) in your face, the corner placement made the room look much less cluttered and created an expansive, if more distant than typical, soundfield. Maybe corner placement should come back into vogue a bit, for both sonic and esthetic considerations.

Overall, the tonal balance tends to the mid-centric and if your ideal is Harbeth/Spendor flatness of response, you won’t find it here. Not that it’s wildly bizarre, though. This is a sound that emphasizes a somewhat more “organic” sound at the cost of what some may consider accuracy. But in many ways, it does tend to bring an alluring sound to a great number of recordings, not requiring the best recordings for musical enjoyment and helping to ensure that relatively poor recordings are not heard at their worst, either.

To really hear all of what Audio Note can do would require exposure to their currently manufactured more costly designs which I have only heard at shows. You can spend anywhere from $6000 to $20,000 on what’s basically the same speaker with tweaks as you go up the line, the top models employ Alnico magnets, hemp cones, silver voice coils and external crossovers with higher quality components. The Audio Note show systems I have heard have sounded quite fine. I can’t tell you where the optimum cost/benefit line is, but I will say that if you don’t dig what you hear from the lower levels of this model, I doubt that going for the throat will make the difference. On the other hand, if you do like the basic design, I suspect that as you move up you do get more, Audio Note has stayed steadfast to this design over the years so they should have a pretty good idea what’s going on with it at this point.

Audio Note speakers make a persuasive argument that classic “neutrality” (whatever that really is) as aspired to by more mainstream designs may not be the only way to musical satisfaction. Certainly, this road can exist in parallel with the currently more established paradigms, I think.

Keep it quiet, but here’s the Lectron JH-50 amplifier

There are some things that it’s tempting to just keep to yourself. This is a story about one such audio product.

From about 1984 to 1999, I performed repairs on tube audio gear for various clients. There are some benefits to this beyond making a few bucks outside of your day job. One of the biggest is getting to hear equipment you otherwise wouldn’t (you have to test it out to make sure it won’t fail when you return it to the customer, after all). That’s how I first came to hear the Lectron JH-50.

It looked cool and sounded excellent, but was beyond my price range at the time. It was also not that common here in the US, being designed in France by one of the legends of the French audiophile community, Jean Hiraga. Mr. Hiraga was one of the seminal figures in the tube/triode/horn renaissance in Europe through his magazine l’Audiophile, so the amp had an excellent pedigree. I was determined to keep my eye out for one when finances allowed.

My next experience with the Lectron came at a friend’s audio store, years later. He had one of these in his personal collection and we were listening to it on a number of different speakers. We both decided that, somehow, this amp seemed to make whatever speaker we hooked up sound about as well as it could sound, it just had this uncanny ability to bring the best out of whatever it fed. My offer to buy it was rebuffed, but my determination to find one was re-energized.

Perhaps the magic of the JH-50 is in the (British) Partridge output transformers (that have always enjoyed a good sonic reputation). It employs EL-34 output tubes, always a pretty sweet sounding tube and that may help, as may the use of octal based drivers rather than the more common miniature tubes. Or maybe some synergy with the circuit design and the parts used. Whatever it is, it’s one of the best medium power (about 40 watt) tube amplifiers I have ever heard. Creamy without sounding fat, clear and beautiful, and in control.

Of course, like all tube amps, it is not completely “neutral” from a technical standpoint. But our speakers and our room are not perfectly neutral either, so how the sum of the parts of the Amp/Speaker/Room interface align is always up for question. This without questioning whether a “neutral” system is really desirable in the first place (he said provocatively).

So we fast forward to about 2004. I had finally found a JH-50 on Audiogon for a reasonable price and was waiting for it to arrive when an audiophile buddy of mine, who favors the tube/horn path, called late one afternoon. In our conversation, he lamented how hard it was for him to find an amplifier he was really happy with. In an unthinking moment, I mentioned the JH-50 and how it might be worthy of his attention. Now understand, my friend can be driven when it comes to his interests, so he went out a found a JH-50, liked what he heard, found another to have a spare and told all his friends who put on full court presses to find their own. Suddenly, the Lectron’s prices on the used market seemed to shoot up. Never content to leave well enough alone, folks started having their JH-50’s modified, which made $2000 amplifiers into $3000 amplifiers. Luckily, I already had mine.

So I am almost afraid to mention the JH-50. Not that I am so egotistical to think that just a mention on my blog is all that, but hey, it happened once before…

From the Square to the Hip on an audio trip

Generally, audiophiles exist on a smooth continuum from the Square to the Hip (meaning no disrespect to either group, as the great Huey Lewis pointed out, it’s hip to be square). Here’s how to tell them apart in the wild…

The first group is the “I only want to reproduce what’s on the recording” folks. They want that outcome no matter how bad it actually sounds. They owe their loyalty simply to the recording, anything else isn’t “high fidelity”. They firmly believe in A/B tests and sniff that anyone who doesn’t is “not being scientific”. They often claim that things they happen to think are not possible are because of “laws of physics” (whether they understand them or not). They would never buy a product without seeing frequency response curves first. They always take everything seriously.

Hair: Short/Bald

Clothes: Suit and Tie

Favorite Music: Bach died and music went to hell

Temperament: Violently Square

Favorite speakers: B & W, KEF (till they brought out the Blade). Vintage, Quad 57’s

From there you have the “fidelity to the recording, but with some allowance made for the vagaries of recordings” types. Did you know that every recording is too bright? As are all speakers. And all cartridges. They would also never buy a product without seeing frequency response curves first, but don’t think they should necessarily be flat. They buy room correction boxes (to make the system “accurate”), then pick an arbitrary target curve. They think they are the “one true church”, but can laugh about it a bit. They only buy solid state amps.

Hair: Short, combed neat

Clothes: Shirt, tie and nice slacks

Favorite Music: Small Classical, String Quartets some Popular Oldies, Showtunes (in some neighborhoods).

Temperament: Square, but careful, they are secret swingers when no one is looking

Favorite speakers: Harbeth, Spendor. For vintage, Spendor, Harbeth.

Next the “magaziner”. Has no fixed opinion on how equipment should sound, but can quote every review from the last 5 years of TAS and Stereophile. They read the Measurements section of the Stereophile reviews, but only the part where John Atkinson explains what they really mean. Believes that the greatest thing was when Robert Harley was appointed TAS Editor, now there are TWO magazines with “Recommended Component” issues. They buy tube amps (new only) when they feel non-conformist. They love audio shows above all else.

Hair: touches the collar between haircuts

Clothes: Short sleeved button down shirt, collar open and dockers

Favorite Music: Diana Krall, say no more!

Temperament: Earnestly Square

Favorite speakers: Vandersteen, Thiel, maybe Revel. If they are monied, Magico. For vintage, none. They are not listed in “Recommended Components.”

Then you get to the “Absolute Aficionado”. Thinks that recordings are nothing like a concert, and a concert in their living room is what they so passionately desire. No image is too big, no depth too cavernous for their lusts. They would NEVER listen to a small monitor. Vinyl with MC cartridge only, please. Would never sully their system with room correction, but might buy expensive room treatments. Loves big-ass tube amps.

Hair: long enough to be unfashionable

Clothes: T-shirt, Jeans

Favorite Music: Shostakovich, Mahler, Pink Floyd (especially “Meddle”)

Temperament: Frustrated ex-hippy

Favorite speakers: Magnepan, Martin Logan, Sound labs. Vintage, whatever HP had 10 to 35 years ago.

Finally, the “do your own thingers”. They believe the best sound is the sound they have in their mind’s eye (ear?). No equipment is too Avant-Garde, or too retrograde. They venerate tube equipment designers as present day saints, the more it looks “vintage”, the better. It’s invariably expensive and out of the main stream. Love having small get-togethers with those of their kind, which they call “tastings” (pretentious, moi?).

Hair: long, or bald with long sides

Clothes: whatever, man

Favorite Music: Anything obscure

Temperament: Any character from Kerouac’s “On the Road”

Favorite speakers: Large, retro, obscure. Extra credit for single-driver designs. Vintage, old horns, Quad 57’s.

Of course, over the years many of us have morphed through many of these cultures…

The Celestion SL-600, first of the luxury compact monitors

Earlier, I wrote about the ProAc Tablette mini-monitor. This was a tiny speaker that used generally tried and true technology to produce a fine miniature loudspeaker. A bit later, Celestion came up with a completely different approach to the small monitor, the SL-600. The difference was the technology that was brought to bear. The acquisition of Laser Interferometry equipment allowed Celestion’s designers to examine the action of drivers and what was discovered was that most speaker drivers operated in “break-up mode” through significant parts of their ranges where different parts of the diaphragm were moving independently rather the ideal of “pistonic action”, that is, the driver moving as one piece.

This resulted in development of all new drivers for the SL-600 (and its little brother, the SL-6). The woofer looked fairly conventional, but it did benefit from the new measurement technology. But the really obvious thing was the tweeter. It sported a copper (!) dome and did indeed act much more pistonic than typical domes of the day, at least up to about 19 Khz, where its fundamental resonance resulted in a large peak. In practice, a notch filter was introduced into the crossover to remove this. The copper dome also had another effect. Since it was relatively heavy, it lowered the sensitivity of the tweeter. Enough that, had the woofer sensitivity been lowered to match, the system would have been almost impractically inefficient. So what was finally accepted was a tweeter that was around 2 db down from the level of the woofer. Keep this in mind for later.

For the premium SL-600, there were more tricks up Celestion’s sleeve, mainly involving the cabinet. It was always known that resonances in speaker cabinets had an effect on the sound, but around this time speaker designers started to seriously attack this problem. Within a few years, the Wilson WATT would come out which used methacrylic material to deaden the cabinets and cabinets generally became thicker, heavier and better braced.

Well, Celestion took a different tack. Unlike the SL-6, which employed a more normal MDF cabinet, they decided to design a LIGHTER yet still stiff cabinet using a metal honeycomb material called Aerolam, commonly used in airplanes. The idea was that the material would not store and re-release energy and what resonance they had would be high enough in frequency to be out of the most critical range. They also employed mounting plates to attach the drivers to the front baffle, further stiffening the cabinet. These plates were serrated vertically with small channels to break up sound diffusion off their surface. All in all, it must be said that they started this design off with a clean sheet of paper. So how does this speaker sound today and how successful was its design in retrospect?

One thing the SL-600 was always celebrated for was its disappearing act and disappear it does. The image is vertically challenged as are most small speakers (though not as much as the original ProAc Tablettes), but, beyond that, the images are quite holographic. Mainly, I suspect, because the boxes radiate almost no sound from themselves to confuse the imaging issue. These cabinets also do not have serious resonances that color the sound of the drivers in tonal terms, either. And this results in a clarity through the midrange that is good even by current standards.

But there is another factor, controversial at the time, less so today, that factors into the sound of this speaker. That speakers should not measure dead flat in the treble is a commonly held view today, but back in the ’80’s this was not so much the case. Remember the less sensitive tweeter we talked about earlier? Well this resulted in a response tilted down somewhat from the mids into the treble. So you had a speaker that sounded less bright and more velvety than the norm of the day due to this tilt (and truthfully, by the lack of break-up artifacts in the Celestion tweeter that most tweeters added that contributed spurious treble energy to most conventional speakers). Many listeners of the day rejected the SL-600 for this characteristic, feeling they were slow and dark. Ironically, that “problem” with the tweeter resulted in a speaker more in keeping (in my view) with a natural tonal balance on the largest variety of recordings.

Of course, there are problems here, the worst of which involves the bass/midbass. It’s extended enough for the cabinet size, but sounds a bit vague, as though the woofer runs out of low-distortion steam as you go into the mid-bass. This has the effect of making a discontinuity in the sound, instruments whose fundamentals are higher sound very clear while the lower voiced instruments can sound less so. This is not a world-shattering effect, but it’s there and the louder you play the SL-600, the more this effect can be noted.

Due to the small size of the drivers and the cabinet, dynamics are good rather than great. Here it’s hard to single out the SL-600, most small speakers suffer from this. But some newer designs its size do somewhat better in this area. There is also a bit of a sense of hollowness to the sound, I suspect from the residual cabinet resonances. This is not a severe effect, fortunately. And there is not quite the silken beauty of the best of today’s drivers here.

The intent of the SL-600 at the time was a no-holds-barred assault on the ideal small monitor. It retailed for a high price for its time, but, especially in the context of the mid ’80’s, it was pretty much a successful design. And if you aren’t too troubled by its modest failings, this is still excellent performance in many ways for a small monitor speaker even by today’s standards. Of course, if you are willing to go for the throat, you can certainly outdo the SL-600, but not for near their price on the current used market…