Thursday, October 2, 2014

Review: Adcom GFP-555 preamplifier

 (Image from Google)

Note:  This review is of the original incarnation of this model, not the latter Series II model.  The "Series 1", for lack of a better term, features a moving-coil head-amp that can be turned on via a switch on the back.

History: Adcom.  There's a company that brings memories of the late 80s and early 90s, back when their gear seemed to be everywhere.  The famed GFA-555 amplifier drove a lot of high-end speakers, and as proof of their longevity, one of these amplifiers has been in continuous service at my father's house for over twenty years.  My very first "high-end" preamplifier was the Adcom GFP-565 which was once on Stereophile's Class B list.  I never liked the unit, or, to be fair, I never liked the sound I got out of it when matched with a Harman Kardon Citation V.  I've also owned the GTP-400 tuner-preamplifier; not exactly a stellar performer but good for mid-fi duty.

So how did I end up with a GFP-555 in my system?  It was mostly a matter of need since I recently bought a McIntosh 2100 amplifer.  For now I decided to wait until a good McIntosh preamplifier comes along but I required something serviceable until then.  For $129 via Ebay, the Adcom GFP-555 is certainly affordable, and, as I was to find out, is actually quite listenable.

Ins & Outs: A rather boring, er, conservative black metal case.  The tone controls that are defeatable.  A Mono button.  Two outputs - one with capacitors on the output and a "Lab" output that is DC coupled.  Switchable MC (with a 100ohm load) head amp, and a regular ol' MM phono stage.  Dual tape outs - hey, you remember cassette tapes! - and, more important for the McIntosh 2100, switchable two-prong AC jacks.  No video switching or subwoofer outs.

The Sound: Paired with the McIntosh 2100 - a rather strange combination in terms of years - the sound is actually quite good.  Fairly warm without that upper midrange/lower treble grit that I normally associate with solid-state gear.  The bass goes down low with nice control and the treble is fairly clean too, at least not intrusive with the transparent B&W tweeters.  Not bad for a bunch of op-amps.  However, compared to the departed Quicksilver tube preamplifier, the Adcom suffers from less detail, a flatter, more 2-D sound, and, for lack of a better word, some greying of the musical palette.  But such weaknesses are only obvious with active "between the speakers" listening, and does not normally interfere with my current listening habits.

For us vinylphiles, the phono stage is very good - quiet is the first word that comes to mind.  Perhaps I'm too used to tube gear, but with the Adcom the music comes out of the speakers from a black background.  There is no tube hiss or rush anymore.

Conclusion: The Adcom GFP-555 is a sensible - but perhaps a touch boring - option for any entry-level system.  Where it fails - definition, detail, and dimensionality - will only be noticeable as the quality of the front-end and speakers begin to outpace this classic piece.  So this preamplifier does get a recommendation, but only within the confines of the partnering gear.  For example I certainly wouldn't use the GFP-555 to drive a pair of Eico HF-60s into the UREI loudspeakers because only then would I start to hear the deficiencies of this budget piece.  But partnered up with an Adcom amplifier, or any other budget solid-state powerhouse, and some decent speakers, this preamplifier is a good starting point. 

Dual CS5000 turntable with Nagaoka MP-110
Pioneer DVD-V7400
McIntosh MC2100
B&W Matrix 805s on stands
Wire: Various brands

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Review: McIntosh MC2100 power amplifier

It was vintage McIntosh tube gear that launched my interest in high-end audio which is a bit funny since - and I'll be sure to get some flack for this - these older preamplifiers and amps aren't necessarily the greatest in the world.  But I will give them credit for making a piece of gear that is certainly memorable; the lit glass fronts and layouts are visually striking while the sound coming out of the speakers is certainly warm and robust.

As I already mentioned in the previous post, I've sold off my previous system, retaining only the UREI 813A loudspeakers - for now.  Part of this was due to the location of the system - the dark basement isn't exactly my favorite place to hang out - and the realization that I was spending thousands of dollars on something that was only being used a few hours a month.  So with that in mind, I decided to simplify; concentrating on the musical aspects of reproduction instead of the ultimate fidelity.  Since the B&W 805 speakers like power I thought it best to replace the Nakimichi receiver in my upstairs system with something with a little more drive.

I remembered how much I liked my departed McIntosh MC-250.  I also noticed that prices are rising on these vintage amplifiers.  But my luck held out and I managed to find the 250's big brother, the heavy-duty MC2100 for only six hundred dollars.  It has twice the power and the same utilitarian (some might say industrial) look of its smaller sibling.  When funds permit, I may go for a matching McIntosh preamplifier - though of a later vintage - and tuner, but for now I've gone the budget route with a first-generation Adcom GFP-555.

The McIntosh MC2100 is rated - very conservatively - at 105WPC and features autoformers on the output.  It can, at least according to various sources, easily exceed that value.  And after hooking it up to my B&W Matrix 805 speakers, the first thing that I noticed was more bass oomph and dynamic drive.  The little 5" woofer of 805s don't exactly move a lot of air, so this was a pleasant surprise over the Nak receiver.  Perhaps it is the nature of having an autoformer on the transistor output stage, but this bass had a slight (and I mean very, very small) loosey-goosey nature.  It wasn't sloppy, but was just a touch less tight and less sterile than the Japanese receiver.  In my book that's a good thing.

With these early SS pieced of McIntosh there have been many comparisons to tubes.  The midrange, with well-recorded pieces like Steve Forbert's Jackrabbit Slim, or Gary Numan's Splinter had a warm character, but lacked that ultimate finesse and clarity that the best tube amplifiers have.  Instead I'm vaguely reminded of the venerable B&K ST-140, which has a (non-linear?) electrolytic capacitor on the input.  It adds some "FM Radio" character that is pleasant and conducive to long-term listening but should not be mistaken for uber-fidelity.  Of course that's not what I'm striving for here so there are no disappointments in this area, but just something to be noted for any readers looking for the "ultimate" amplifier.

It is the upper-mids and treble where most solid-state amps fall on their face.  I would give the McIntosh MC2100 a high passing grade here.  It suffers from the sins of omission, clouding some detail and rolling off the treble.  Again we are talking about musicality over the ultimate extension and pin-point imaging.  A rough analog: perhaps the MC2100 is closer to a good moving magnet instead of a hyper-detailed moving-coil cartridge.  As a side note: when I had a MC250 around, I noticed some grain in the texture, but, at least with this current setup, I'm not hearing that same kind of effect

Imaging and depth are good but not superlative.  Of course some of this is the fault of my speaker setup, the limitations of the Dual CS5000 turntable and Nagaoka MP-110, and perhaps the use of an Adcom preamplifier, which isn't exactly the best in the world.  Future upgrades will give a clearer picture of the limitations of this amplifier.

At least to my ears, the McIntosh MC2100 is a fine solid-state piece of gear if - and this is an important point - one is not reaching for the ultimate fidelity, but instead prefers emotion.  It is here where this amplifier shines, being a sort of "poor man's tube amp."   No, it doesn't sound like a Dynaco 70 or even come close to my departed Eico HF-60s, but it does capture the essence of the musical performance and minimizes the worst aspects of a budget system.  So in that regard, the McIntosh MC2100 is a clear winner.

Dual CS5000 turntable with Nagaoka MP-110
Pioneer DVD-V7400
Adcom GFP-555
B&W Matrix 805s on stands
Wire: Various brands

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.