Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Visit with the Grado SR-60i headphones

Okay, I'll first have to admit that I'm not a headphone kinda guy.  I use them grudgingly - mostly with MP3s at work and for mastering & mix-down, but I've never liked the experience of having such poor transducers so close to my head.  Sure, headphones don't have room interactions and some of the ills of speakers, but I've never heard a pair - even electrostatic models - that sound as good as a great speaker.  For example, with my Magnepans, voices have more realism, instruments have body and impact, which all sound closer to the real event.  With headphones, it's a shrunken version of life.  And with speakers, I can almost fall into the illusion of music, but with headphones, I always know I'm missing something.

So now that I've complained enough, where do the Grado SR-60i fit into all of this?  Well, in my little PC-based studio, I use Sennheiser HD570 headphones and a set of budget Pioneer BS-21 loudspeakers to do my monitoring and recording.  The headphones are great for those times when I don't want to bother my family or when adding the finishing touches on a recording.  I've had the 570s for quite a number of years and never really cottoned to the sound - they were always a little bass-heavy, muddy, and lacking in clarity and top-end sparkle.  So it was no great heartache when they finally broke with the right channel no longer making any noise.  This is probably just a cord issue, but I decided to buy something else with the budget open-back Grado's finally making the cut.

At $79 from Amazon, this is hardly an expensive pair of headphones.  And upon arrival, I can see why.  The mostly plastic construction feels cheap, but at least the signal wiring is quite thick.  They also don't look particularly sturdy, so we shall see how they hold up in the long run.  Comfort is okay, even with my big noggin' but I don't wear them all day.  Here I would probably give the nod to the Sennheisers which are quite easy to wear for long stretches of time.

At a 32-ohm impedance, an amplifier with some moxy will be required.  For example, some tube-only designs may not have the ability to drive these well.  But I've found the stock Focusrite Saffire 6 USB headphone amplifier and even my ancient Asus Netbook had no issue.  Listening to sources of various quality, I've found that the sound is quite 'clear' - I hate that word - compared to the muddiness of the Sennheisers.  Bass response isn't as low, but I'm no fan on the 'thump-a-thump' Stygian depths that some other listeners crave.  Where the Grado really shines is the even-handed midrange and sweet 'n' easy treble.  Music just has a more natural sound with a low listening fatigue factor.  If it wasn't for the open back design, I would gladly switch these out with my lowly work Sennheiser HD-201s - which are only used for their known cheapness, closed transducers, and comfort factor.

Highly recommended, but audition before you buy since headphones are highly personal items in both comfort and sonics.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Review: Pioneer SP-BS21-LR Bookshelf speaker

Speakers at any price point are always a matter of trade-offs, and the lesser the budget, the more compromises the designer has to make.  Designed by Andrew Jones of TAD fame, the Pioneer SP-BS21-LR is a compact rear-ported mini-monitor utilizing a 1" soft dome tweeter and a small 4" woofer.  According to online resources, Jones tried to maximize the sonic results with a custom cabinet, a multi-component crossover design, and OEM drivers.  Efficiency is an extremely low 84dB, meaning some good solid-state amplification may be the best thing around when driving these speakers.  Prices for the pair range from $49 or more, depending on the vendor.  This is hardly the dollar amount that audiophile wonders are made out of, but more on this later.

Small stands or placement on a large bookshelf would be suggested.  I use mine sitting on a table in a small recording studio, suitable for playback while playing synth, or for monitoring mix-downs.  I basically wanted something cheap, fairly neutral - or at least with a coloration that was easy to hear around - and enough toughness to handle a sudden sonic overload.  The SB21s delivered this at a price point that made my wallet breathe a sigh of relief.  Using the Dun Mei LM3886 amplifier, sonics for mix-downs was surprisingly good, sounding much like my Sennheiser 570 headpones.  The treble was smooth, the midrange fairly good, and the bass had a nice growl.  I was curious enough to give these a listen with some more serious amplification.

I pulled out a B&K ST-140 down from the shelf.  Preamp duty was done by my retired Audio Research SP-7.  Signal source was a Sony SCD-CE595 SACD player.  Wiring was Belden interconnects and Canare speaker wire.  Hardly a upscale system, but better than your average receiver.

First up was a SACD - David Bowie's Scary Monsters - a classic 1980 gem that was the last burst of Bowie's creativity before his plummet to more pedestrian pop.  Through the Pioneer Speakers, the sound was quite dynamic with good (for the speaker size) bass definition.  It is also clean and with an easy,  non-aggressive treble.  Soundstaging depth is fairly flat, but left-to-right sound placement was quite good.  Sure, the sonic results weren't close to my Magnepans or even my lowly KEF speakers, but any problems were sins of omission.  Some detail was missing and the more dynamic parts of the music were slightly congested, with a bit of wooden chestiness.  There was also some minor 'blurriness' to the images, but I've heard much worse at higher price points.  A few more discs later, and my thoughts were extremely positive about this speaker.  Sonically it reminded me of some older Dynaudio kit speakers I once owned in college, or even of some older Wharfedale Diamond Vs.

When I finally came upstairs, I mentioned to my wife that I was listening to the Pioneer speakers.  She looked surprised, commenting that she could feel the bass coming through the floor.  She thought I had been listening to the Magnepans!   Not bad at all for just a 4" woofer. 

So highly recommended - but within their limitations.  A perfect dorm or teenage speaker, it will also work well for a second system.  I would also recommend some amplification that can deliver some current, since the low-efficiency will eat up power.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Review: Dun Mei hybrid chip amplifier

(pic from Ebay)

The Chinese audio scene is certainly interesting, with quite a number of products flooding the Ebay market.  I was initially skeptical of this gear, but the experience I had with the Yaqin MS-22B piqued my interest further, leading me to buy a Yaqin MC-10T.  So far, I've found the metalwork to be quiet good, and only find fault with some of the 'interesting' design decisions and parts quality - which I often suspect of being counterfeit.

I think the Sino tube gear market could really take off, but only if they started designing gear that was not only sensibly priced, but much more palatable to the worldwide market.  They seem to have a real love for integrated amplifiers, including ones with onboard DACs, but often lacking phono stages.  I would really prefer to see basic power amps, linestages, full-function preamps including phono circuitry, and tubed DACs - all using standard tubes.  Some of the products strike close to this ideal, but many of them are strange beasts, which could possibly turn off some Western buyers.

(pic from Ebay)

Okay then, so what exactly is the Dun Mei?  It's essentially a basic amplifier with a pair of RCAs for input, a cheap volume pot, and a 6N11/6DJ8/6922 cathode follower (aka tube buffer) driving a LM3886 chip amplifier.  Capable of 50WPC into 8-ohms, and only 68WPC into 4-ohm, this little unit won't exactly win any horsepower wars.  But in the real world there is always room for such minimal wattage - second or cottage systems, dorm rooms, and running larger desktop stereos.

Build quality is so-so.  The front panel is certainly nice looking, including a hefty volume knob and LED power light.  But the metalwork, and especially the back panel, is a little er, underwhelming.  It looks like a generic case that has been used across many different lines - capable of being a preamp, DAC, or amp.  The speaker jacks through the back lettering doesn't exactly inspire confidence either.  The interior work is a little better with some half-decent wiring layout, a blue PCB with various parts, a toroidal power transformer, and even an AC filter.  However, I wasn't too keen on the generic clear speaker wire, the use of hot glue, or the RCA jacks that were installed incorrectly, with red being left and white being right.

I admit bought this unit on a whim - a chance to check out yet another budget piece from China, and as an opportunity to hear a LM3886 chip amplifier.  The results were surprising.

(pic from Ebay)

Initial listening was done on my second system, replacing my now defunct Audio Research D-52B.  First impressions showed an amplifier with relatively light bass weight, a fairly decent midrange, and a bit of a glarey top-end.  Not great, but again, not bad.  But wait, dear listeners, the stock Chinese 6N11 tube is easily replaceable with a better 6DJ8, 6922, or 6N23P.  Since I have a few of these in my stash, I first plucked out a Russian 6N23P - a budget favorite.  The sound definitely took a turn for the better - a little warmer, but the top-end still had a tizziness that was a little annoying.  Next up was an inexpensive Matsushita 6DJ8 - basically a Japanese copy of a Mullard tube.  The rest of my listening notes was through this tube.

(pic from Ebay)

As stated before, this amplifier lacks the ultimate bass extension - perhaps I'm asking too much out of only 50Ws of power, but even the Audio Research D-52B had more weight and punch.  But the midrange is clear, erring on the leaner side of the spectrum.  This is, of course, somewhat dependent on tube selection, but so far, I wouldn't call this amp "tubey" sounding.  The top-end, though lacking the shimmer and airiness of the best I've heard, is fairly good, though perhaps a touch sterile.  I also wouldn't call this amplifier hyper-detailed.  It also doesn't envelope you with a huge 3-D soundstage or have massive depth, but it isn't flat like a pancake either.  Again, I haven't bought a vintage Amperex 6DJ8 to use here since I don't think many buyers of this budget amplifier will be using expensive NOS tubes with the Dun Mei, but perhaps a different tube would yield better results.

Okay, I'm nitpicking, comparing a very inexpensive power amplifier to some heavy-hitters, but that's life in the audiophile world.  What this amplifier does excel at is being a quiet, fairly neutral reproducer of music.  It would be great starter amp for any beginner audiophile, or anyone who needs more than basic T-amp power in a small(ish) package.  My Dun Mei ended up in my home studio, driving a pair of budget Pioneer BS-21 speakers.  The volume control is perfect for dialing in sound levels while playing, track playback, or mastering.  The sound here is neutral enough for me to hear the effects of adding reverb or effects to the final sound.

Second System:
Preamplifier: Audio Research SP-7
Amplifier: Audio Research D-52B
Analog: Dual CS-5000 turntable - Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge
Digital: Pioneer DVD-V7400
Speakers: KEF iQ30
Speaker Cable: Kimber 8PR/4PR bi-wire
Interconnects: Cardas Crosslink

Saturday, March 10, 2012

A Visit with the Audio Analogue Puccini SE

Sadly, in my second system, the Audio Research D-52B started having issues.  The right channel started distorting - leading me to believe there is some electrolytic capacitor issue or problem with the discrete op-amp module.  Since this amplifier is built so compactly, getting into the guts requires a lot of difficult disassembling.  With that in mind, the ARC amplifier and SP-7 preamplifier have been relegated to the shelf.  Searching for a replacement, I came across the Italian-made Audio Analogue Puccini SE.

How did I choose this particular integrated amplifier?  Well, a few years ago, I was taking a small vacation with my wife, staying at a very fine downtown hotel in Ann Arbor.  After visiting the local records stores, I agreed to go to a yarn shop with her.  While she went over the goods, I had nothing to do but stare off into space.  Some background classical music was playing and I noticed the fidelity out of the little wall-mounted Polk speakers was quite good.  In the corner, I saw a nicely constructed silver-faced integrated amplifier.  Some closer inspection revealed the manufacturer - Audio Analogue.  Somehow that experience stuck with me and was filed away.

I bought my Puccini through Saturday Audio Exchange, which is, coincidentally, the place in 1989 that I bought my first ever preamp - a SAE Mark XXX.  Shipping was very prompt and I soon had the double-boxed amplifier in my hands.  Opening the box revealed an extremely well-built amplifier with a thick face plate and a nice heft.  With only two front controls, this is about as simple as you can get - a selector switch that includes a phono input (!), and a volume control that also puts the amplifier into standby mode when turned all the way down.  It's nice to see something so well made, especially made in Italy - which adds an additional cachet.

Setup was silly easy with two sets of speaker jacks per channel and a row of RCA jacks.  Turning the amplifier on and there was zero - and I mean zero - hum or noise.  Even the phono stage is dead quiet.  Initial impressions while listening to a Japanese pressing of  Haircut 100 - Pelican West revealed an extremely smooth sound.  The treble doesn't sound aggressive or forced, reminding me of some much more expensive amplifiers.  Bass output and dynamics seem a shade lighter than some other units I've heard - for example, the B&K ST-140 and ARC D-52 have more weight with the KEF iQ30 speakers.

A quick perusal of the schematic - not that I'm all that good with solid-state stuff - reveals an 5534 op-amp bootstrapped to the power supply, driving a quad of Darlington output transistors.  Power supply is dual-mono, with a toroidal power transformer for each channel. 

The phono-stage uses a 5532, with the linestage duties done by a TLE2072CP.  Not that I have anything against op-amps, since my beloved Audio Sector Phono Stage uses OPA627s, but I really was surprised by the quality of audio they managed to squeeze out of these devices.  I guess this shows the importance of layout, power supply, and circuit design, instead of just the amplifying devices themselves.

Letting this integrated warm up and I was quite pleased with the results.  As mentioned before, this unit has a real smooth musical sound. Though lacking in ultimate dynamics, the Puccini never disappoints in the finesse department.  This is a music lovers amplifier, made for a wide variety of recordings and it speaks to the heart, not the analytical head.  Soundstaging is good with a wide and fairly deep presentation, but that last bit of ultimate detail is missing.  Still, at this price point, I have no complaints.  Very recommended - especially for those who just like to spin records or CDs with maximum enjoyment, not worrying about audiophile nervosa.

Just one additional note: Some reviewers have compared this amplifier to tubes.  Beyond the smoothness, I don't quite hear it.  The Puccini is just very good solid-state, but lacks some of the dimensionality and life-like attributes I hear with some of the better tube units.

Second System:
Integrated: Audio Analogue Puccini SE
Analog: Dual CS-5000 turntable - Audio-Technica AT95E cartridge
Digital: Pioneer DVD-V7400
Speakers: KEF iQ30 on VTI UF stands
Speaker Cable: Kimber 8PR/4PR bi-wire
Interconnects: generic