Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Major Stereo Changes Coming

I've sold off my Eico HF-60 monoblocks, Quicksilver preamplifier, and, most important of all, the VPI Aries 1 turntable.  As to why this large step was made, it was a matter of listening habit.  My main system, which was located in the basement, just wasn't getting the airtime that it needed.  Instead I've been doing most of my listening upstairs on my family orientated stereo.  Yes, this second system does not have the high fidelity bonafides of my main rig, but it certainly is more enjoyable over a wide variety of music.  What it does lack is some sort of soundstaging and ultimate dynamics.
Instead of fruitlessly trying to pursue the impossible dream of an ultimate stereo - and all the trouble that brings - I've decided to scale back my aspirations and concentrate on the joys of music.

With that in mind, I will be using the Dynavector 10X5 cartridge paired with the Dual CS-5000 turntable.  I will then replace the Nakamichi receiver with a McIntosh 2100 amplifier and some sort of preamplifier, possibly the McIntosh C-27.  These older pieces will not have the definition of my old main system, but I am hoping to reach a happy medium of musicality and audiophile sound quality - truly a difficult balancing act.

More later!

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Review: Nagaoka MP-110 phono cartridge

Since my Audio Technica AT95E phono cartridge mysteriously suffered a cantilever bend, and, even after adjusting for this minor metal tweak, began to suffer from bothersome inner-groove distortion, I thought it was time for something new.  With the B&W speakers and the very nice (for the price) performance of the Nakamichi SR-3A receiver, I wanted a decent jump up in sound quality.  In the sub-$100 category, there are several popular choices - the Ortofon OM10 and 2M Red, the Audio Technica AT-100E and AT-110E, the Shure 97xE, the Sumiko Oyster, and two Grado cartridges.

One brand, however, begin to stick out, Nagaoka.  They offer several models ranging from the $80 MP-100 to the $655 MP-500.  Since this is a budget rig, I decided on the MP-110 with its strong 5mV output, a reputation for tracking and low noise, and the replaceable stylus.  The cartridge came in a funky little UFO-shaped container along with screws and even a little screwdriver.

A quick visual inspection showed a cantilever that was mounted straight without any slop to the left or right.  Construction quality was high - it felt more substantial than the budget Audio Technica AT95E - though some threaded holes would be nice instead of juggling with tiny nuts and screws (please no sexual jokes).  Installation on my Dual CS5000 removable headshell wasn't too bad, provided my big Norgie cat stopped getting in the way.  Apparently she likes shiny things.  After that a protractor was used for alignment and digital gauge to determine the stylus force, which was set at 1.8g.

With no break-in, the sound was a little strange - diffuse and with some minor midrange suckout.  Tracking, however, was very, very good.  With some cartridges, the MFSL re-issue of Frank Sinatra - Nice 'n' Easy, the last track could start to show some serious inner-groove distortion.  Listening intently with the Nagaoka I had a hard time hearing any mistracking or added grittiness to the vocals.  Very impressive considering the low price point of this cartridge.

A few hours and many records later it was time to do some serious listening.

Listening to the re-issue of Dead Can Dance - The Serpent's Egg revealed a cartridge that sounded surprisingly refined for this price level.  The midrange was on the warm sound of neutrality and the treble was slightly forward with a bit of a metallic sheen, but the music was reproduced without any of the roughness or congestion that I normally associate with cheap cartridges.  Bass definition - at least through the small woofers of the B&W Matrix 805s - was very good.  It was also easy to pick out the different instruments in the mix. 

One of my rarer records is the album Turquoise Fields from the French Coldwave act Little Nemo.  My copy isn't exactly mint and normally has some offending ticks and pops that distract from the music.  The Nagaoka MP-110, however really reduces this noise quite a bit.  I also found this to be true with my beat up Japanese copy of This Mortal Coil - It'll End In Tears.   In short, the cartridge is a godsend for vinyl collectors of obscure music who can't always find the cleanest copy.

My second system is mainly used for background - not for serious listening.  The speakers are too far apart and too close to the wall for good imaging.  The soundstaging, therefore, is not a strong point.  I can't comment too much on the Nagaoka MP-110 here, but the imaging is a bit diffuse and a little less solid than my CD player.  I am, however, too lazy to install this cartridge in my main system, replacing the Dynavector 10X5.  Maybe someday once the Dynavector needs to be re-tipped.

Nonetheless, I can highly recommend the Nagaoka MP-110 within the confines of a budget system.  That refinement I mentioned earlier gives a real "taste of the high-end".  In comparison, my memory of the Ortofon 2M Red (on a different table, mind you) was of a rougher sound.  This finesses of the MP-110, and the ability to reduce vinyl noise while tracking the inner groove makes it a budget winner.

Second System:
Dual CS5000 turntable
Pioneer DVD-V7400
Nakamichi SR-3A receiver
B&W Matrix 805s on stands
Wire: Various brands

Monday, February 24, 2014

Tube Review: The Mullard XF2 EL34 pentode

The Mullard EL34 - though perhaps not the best sounding of this family of tubes - is famous for a big and rich sound favored by guitarists and hi-fi nuts.  The XF2 version, like many early tubes, has welded plates, along with that thick, dark getter that is a trademark of the valves that rolled out from the Blackburn factory.  Later ones have similar construction but used crimped plates - I've never sat down and compared the different XF models, but needless to say they're all pretty good.

 The Mullard "sound", for whatever reason, has always been on the darker scale than neutrality.  Perhaps there is some secret mojo in the cathode chemistry or the metal quality, but this sound difference is easily noticeable in comparison to an original Philips EL34 or even any modern EL34.  This romantic sound, in the wrong amplifier, can lead to a syrupy sound - I'm thinking of something like a stock Dynaco 70 or any vintage amplifier with weak power supply capacitors and/or oil coupling capacitors.  So, like anything else, system balance is important.

The pair of Mullard XF2 EL34s I'm reviewing here are high mileage units pulled from my Eico HF-60 monoblocks.  Though they have plenty of hours on them, they still test almost as new - longevity is something that vintage tubes seem to do well and is needed, especially when running in something as abusive as the HF-60.  For this amplifier with a plate voltage of 400VDC and a screen of 250VDC, 60mA was chosen as a nice cruising speed.

Listening Tests:
The Immortal Otis Redding has a nice and punchy sound, albeit a tad stripped down.  The Mullards conveyed this simple recording with excellent clarity, depth, and dynamics.  Otis's voice sounded very natural as did the instrumentation.  The sound never became harsh or strident with this output tube.  There was also a nice projection to the vocals, pushing the sound beyond the speakers.  This seems to be a trait of vintage tubes - an enveloping sound with a 3-D effect: layered depth, wide and stable imaging, and a sense of being tangibly involved in the music.

Frank Sinatra - Sinatra at the Sands appears to be a three channel recording with instrumentation on the left and right with Frank right in the middle of the action.  The dynamics - on the right system - are truly breathtaking.  The Mullard EL34 excelled here, sounding almost as big as the Tung Sol 6550.  On the quieter songs like Don't Worry 'bout Me, all the emotion came through with the sensitivity that only Sinatra could surprisingly pull from that playboy act.

The last record in this listening test was Steely Dan - Aja which is a modern recording with deep bass, shifting dynamics, and crafty compositions.  The Mullard EL34 wonderfully captured the trailing edges of the reverberation and gave a soundstage that was big and organic.  The instruments floated nicely in space too.  There was a touch of darkness to the music, giving a not quite neutral sound compared to a Tung Sol 6550 or the ultra-vividness of the Philips metal base.

The Mullard EL34, compared to the new production tubes I've heard, has a real magic.  The music flows with more ease - a naturalness that is hard to describe, but the sound that is reproduced is cut from the same cloth in a grain-free way that makes me forget that I'm listening to a stereo.  Even the Shuguang GEKT88 - which is very good - doesn't capture this ability of convey the real soul of the recording.

However, the Mullard is not the most hyper-detailed and bends the signal to a darker, more romantic spectrum.  But this is a nice place to be - especially in the world of hot digital recordings and aggressive moving-coils.  If you're searching for the most transparent or an abundance of detail, then this may not be the tube for you.  But - and this varies from listener to listener - any sins are easy to forgive.  This is a tube for the music lover, not the nitpicker. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Review: Nakamichi SR-3A receiver

For some strange reason I decided to simplify the second system, replacing the odd couple Rotel integrated and Sansui tuner with a receiver.  Now I've never been a big fan of the "all in one box" approach to audio components, but having a single device handle the amplification chain and radio certainly takes up less space than all separates.  After cruising through several hundred items on Ebay, I finally zeroed in on a Nakamichi SR-3A receiver.  Why?  It uses a "Stasis" output stage, the very same topology that my now departed Threshold S/500 had.  This circuit was designed by the great Nelson Pass who continues to make some of the most interesting amplifiers around.  Though obviously built to a price point and lacking the muscular grunt of the Threshold, I thought the Nakimichi would provide good enough service for less intensive listening.

When I received the package, I opened the box and found a rather Plain-Jane receiver in that most boring of colors: black.  Hooking it up was a bit of a nightmare - the receiver depth is larger than expected, making speaker and RCA cables with large jacks almost impossible to fit because of the limited Ikea Expedit shelf space.  Also the banana jacks in the back really don't have any metal contact and are too small for the banana plug(!).  So in the end I ended up using insulated wire twisted together.  Other than that, build quality is pretty good - though not exactly McIntosh.

Once I finally had everything in place, I could finally turn the Nakamichi on.  There is a fairly dim display for the radio station, tuner signal strength, and that's about it for the light display.  There is an input for turntable (with a switch for MM and MC), CD, Video, and Radio.  The tuner portion is switchable between AM and FM (no surprise there) and stations can be programmed into memory.  Bass and Treble controls are defeatable.  There is a loudness contour button and two speaker selections: A or B.  The right side is dominated by a volume and balance combination - the inner ring controlling the former while the outer ring does the latter.

Listening to a record, the sound coming out of my B&W Matrix 805 speakers took on a different character.  The mids were cleaner and leaner, but, strangely enough, the lowest bass seemed to have more depth and control.  The top end had real "presence" - ie, slightly forward in it's presentation.  The phono section itself seemed to be very good with excellent overload characteristics and lacking that op-amp etch that many receivers have.  Though only rated at 45WPC, the Nakamichi SR-3A seemed to punch much higher than one would expect.  There was more than enough volume for my not-quite efficient B&W speakers and mid-sized room.   Dynamic contrasts were also more evident, making this receiver a good match for these classic monitors.

The tuner - which is popular for listening to classical music - was excellent.  I'm normally not a fan of digital tuning, but the Nakamichi really locked into the signal, easily bettering my analog Sansui AU-777.  Music from the radio also seemed more lively compared to my old integrated/tuner combination.

In conclusion, the Nakamichi SR-3A is one of the better "vintage" receivers I've heard.  It certainly doesn't sound overly warm or suffer from solid-state harness.  Instead, it's quite even-handed, even with my finicky B&W tweeters.  The Stasis output circuit really does remind me of a mini-Threshold amplifier; giving the user a taste of the real high-end.  Highly recommended.

Second System:
Analog: Dual CS5000 turntable
Digital :Pioneer DVD-V7400
Speakers: B&W Matrix 805s on stands
Wire: Various brands

Tube Review: The Shuguang EL34B pentode

Ah - the legendary EL34 pentode which has been the heart and soul for classic guitar rigs and my first ever tube amplifier, the Dynaco 70.  Developed (with several ancestors) by Philips for PA use, this slim bottle cannot be mistaken for any other tube out there.  Lately this tube - at least in some quarters - has gotten a bad rap as being too warm or not a real audiophile contender, unlike the 6550/KT88 or even (ha!) the 6L6 family.  I strongly disagree with this, thinking the EL34 is one of the most musical tubes out there, walking a fine line between a triode romance and warmth, and the more dynamic sound of the 6550.

The Shuguang "B" version of the EL34 is the stock tube in countless amplifiers and has been labeled Ruby, Valve Art, and who know what else.  It's quite common for new owners to ditch these tubes for something more upscale from the Russians, like the EH, Tung Sol or Genalex "re-issues", or even something NOS like Siemens or Mullards.

There is also the conception that Chinese tubes are prone to blowing up - perhaps a leftover memory from the days of the Jadis JA200 when the Golden Dragon KT88s were referred to as firecrackers.  At least with my experience using the EL34B tube, I've put the hurt on them with the Eico HF-60 monoblocks.  Each tube was consistently taking 500VDC on the plate at 60mA.  That's right on the edge of max dissipation but I never had one blow up.  I'm not sure what modern tube I would trust to take that kind of abuse.

Just for fun, replaced the GEKT88's in the Multi-Valve amplifier with a pair of used and abused Shuguang EL34s from my junk box.  I set the bias point at 60mA which seemed to be the sweet spot.

Listening Test:
For amplifier warmup I listened to my very rare copy of These Immortal Souls - Get Lost (Don't Lie) which has big heavy drums and the chilling guitar work of the ex-Birthday Party member Rowland S. Howard.  The sound is naturally dark and dirgey - this is no audiophile recording - but still incredibly enjoyable.  The bass was big with tons of impact and slam while the midrange had a nice tube "glow" that added to the musical experience.  The treble did, however, seem a tad rolled-off which may or may not be a good thing depending on your speakers.

Neil Young - Live at Massey Hall is a great sounding record.  With the EL34Bs in place I heard plenty of warmth - a bit excessive - that could be a rough analog of the classic Mullard sound.  Where the Mullard still manages to have good detail, the Shuguang lacked in this department.  It wasn't actively annoying - more a sin of omission - but just don't expect to hear everything on the recording.  Nonetheless, Neil Young's voice and guitar work were very natural sounding.  It was the hall reflection and some of the minor audience sound that went missing.

For something more dynamic, I tried out Classic Records re-issue of The Who - Tommy.  The bass and dynamics were very good, but the darkness/warmth was enough to cloud the instrument shimmer, resulting in a less exciting sound.  Depth and instrument placement weren't bad, but nothing close to a vintage Tung Sol 6550 where the images float beyond the boundary of the speakers.  Instead you are left with a closed experience - reminding me of a stock Dynaco 70 that needs to be re-tubed and re-capped - still pleasant but not the ultimate in fidelity.

The Shuguang EL34B makes no pretenses of being state of the art, but it is a good working man's tube - and being available at ridiculously low prices can be used and abused without too much concern.  These obviously don't have the greatest cathode or metallurgy so tube life on these isn't the longest either.  However if you have an old Dynaco 70 laying around or need to retube a friend's Marshall, the Shuguang EL34B is not a bad choice.  I certainly prefer its presentation over that of the Electro-Harmonix (thin bottle) EL34 which, in comparison, sounds like a bad solid-state amplifier.  As always, YMMV.

Review System:
VPI Aries with JMW 10.5i tonearm and SDS Power Supply
Dynavector 10X5
Cardas Cross 1M interconnects
Quicksilver preamplifier with Mullard short-plate 12AX7s, RCA 12FQ7s, Amperex 12AU7
Cardas Quadlink 5C 1M interconnects
Multi-Valve Stereo amplifier
Cardas Hexlink speaker cable
UREI 813A monitor speakers
VTI BL503 equipment rack