Friday, March 13, 2015

Review: Adcom GFT-555 tuner

I'm not a radio guy since most of the program material in my area is pretty bad - overplayed classic rock and a plethora of bro country stations.  But I do fancy some classical music once in a while, and perhaps a little sports radio if I'm in the mood to experience some Red Wings hockey.  So with that in mind, and to keep the rest of my family happy, I purchased an Adcom GFT-555 tuner to match the GFP-555 preamplifier.

Together they make a handsome pair with black metalwork, red LEDs, and matching dials.  Such a setup would have been common for an entry-level audiophile of the early 1990s.  Inputs are for separate AM and FM antennas, while the output is a single pair of RCA jacks.  Digital tuning between station is using tap-a tap-a buttons, and there are also buttons for presets and whatnot.

Sound quality is nothing to get excited about - this is, after all, a compressed, eq'd, and limited format - but what does come through has that Adcom trademark sound: slightly warm, inoffensive, and just a tad grayed out.  This is no Marantz 10B or McIntosh MR78, but is instead a good working man's tuner.   Reception is better than the (probably misaligned) Sansui AU-777 in my collection, but the latter does have an even warmer sound and one of the coolest dials around.

Old school radio is a dying format versus satellite and Internet services, but there still is a nostalgic place for a peace of gear like this.  So if you need a tuner, then the Adcom GFT-555 tuner is worth it provided you don't pay more than $100.

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 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?) dc-blocking electrolytic capacitor on the input stage.  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