Of Music, eBay Charlatans and Letters to Friends
OK, all you fellow audio wackos. If you've endured my 2010-that-was, as described in Part I and Part II this is about the reward. This is about what is likely my last major stereo upgrade and reconfiguration.
Why last? Because I'm 54 years old with short-life genes and I'm fresh-out of trust funds (not that I ever had any). What, no confidence Congress will set our economic picture straight, you ask? Not in this lifetime. I covered politics in my latter-day reincarnation as a reporter and take my word for it: They don't have the slightest idea of what to do. Republicans, Democrats—it doesn't make any difference. The system isn't set-up to encourage meaningful change swiftly, with congressmen running again six months after taking office. Want real change? Change their terms of service to six years, like senators. Of course, there would be the other slight bug-a-boo of campaign cash and believe me: These guys are addicted to it.
A few generations from now, folks might realize the only way to fix Congress is to end Congress – and replace it with a parliamentary style government. But I guess I retired from newspapers before I could change the world... another dream shot-to-hell.
In the meantime, though, I'm going to re-focus on the only fun I had in 2010—and do so in a way I promise won't be similar to what I recently read in an Audiogon ad. This might have provided my largest audio belly-laugh ever. In describing his used pair of Wyetech Labs Topaz 211C amplifiers, the seller had this to say:
"...I also find the Bartolucci transformers to be very special—smooth and suave presentation yet authoritative with excellent details and dynamics."
Holy mackerel, are you full of shit. Smooth and suave transformers? I'll bet every last dollar I have—and whatever I can steal at the closest bank—you couldn't pick from an array of six which transformers sounded more "smooth and suave" and detail why in a way that anyone in the world with an above-room-temperature IQ would believe.
So no, you won't be getting any smooth-and-suave descriptions from me. That said, just a couple of notations:
If evaluating whether my upgrades are worth considering for your own system, you need to know my decisions were made without regard to insider pricing. In the spirit of full disclosure, though, I did get an industry accommodation (50 percent of retail) for one piece: the YBA Design WD-202 DAC, which has an MSRP of $849. But I would've bought it for full-boat and done without something else if I had to. I'll discuss its sonic merits in due course, but I bought it without prior evaluation for a few very specific reasons: a) balanced outputs, which make it of-a-feather with my amplification; b) a second set of unbalanced outputs, perfect for running to my main headphone system; and most importantly, c) a full array of digital inputs with a volume control—via remote, no less—that make it available to use as a pre-amp, should my Sonic Frontiers Line One bite the dust again. After 40 years in this hobby (and nearly a lifetime of shoestring household budgets) you learn to make Plan B a high priority.
So yes, in that particular decision, functionality was emphasized more than sonics. In a perfect world, that wouldn't be the case; if the advantage of asynchronous USB DACs is as strong as I've read, I should've dropped all other considerations and found a way to shoe-horn such a design into my budget. I'd also like to play nude Twister with the Dixie Chicks, but I don't think it's going to happen. Additionally, I was confident anything YBA sent out the door was going to sound good—if not great—and a couple of reviewers whose opinions I trust confirmed it.
Still, there will be those who'll say a $3000 budget, including repair costs, isn't sufficient to qualify as significant, regardless of any unassociated set-backs it helped soothe. To them, I say: a) I'm happy for you; and b) to borrow a line from one helluva movie, "Sometimes nothing is a pretty cool hand" —or at least it is when you can play poker like Paul Newman's Luke.
So making something out of nearly-nothing by modern standards, maybe you might be interested in what worked for me. By system, then? Here ya go:
My sun and planets (a.k.a. speakers and amplification) had to remain the same because there's nothing—new or used—I believe can touch them, for the dollars I had to work with. That meant sticking with my two-way, floor-standing Usher CP-6311s and repairing both my aforementioned Sonic Frontiers Line One vacuum tube pre-amp and a pair of Class A Monarchy SM-70s run in bridged-balanced mode.
Some may think it difficult to get excited about new gear when the central pieces remain the same. If you're one of them, I'd ask you to hold off on that judgment until I outline the whole kit (and I'd add a caboodle, if a wooden tub was of use). I've already written at length (Part I) about how visualization has allowed me to remain happy while resisting upgrade fever, but the other, obvious factor is making sure to buy right at the outset. I had done so with these speakers and amps, so I already knew they had terrific synergy.
Sure, I'd like to try something different; I always wanted to live with a pair of panel speakers like Maggies or Quads, for example, but that would likely mean changing amplification as well – the former requiring gobs more power than I currently use and the latter sounding better with tubes every time I've had the chance to lust after them. And yeah, the proliferation of SET amps in the past decade is enough to make me curious about giving horns or other hi-efficiency speakers a chance. But again, it's an all-or-nothing proposition and I can't afford the former. So when I consider what these Ushers offer—at just north of two-grand—I know I already have the most performance for my tastes, in my price range. They have listenable information down to an octave or two of anything, remain mostly uncolored throughout, image beautifully, can throw as large a soundstage as the amplification will allow and present a smooth-sailing load. Sonically, they're kinda like that one friend you have that everybody seems to like.
But if their sound is easy-going, their physique is bold—particularly in the automotive white finish that looks like pearl and with wood accents, to boot. It seems I've always been sonically attracted to speakers with time-aligned drivers, which the Ushers accomplish with a slanted baffle throughout most of their line-up. As a parallelogram, a heavy base is required and the 6311s take a back seat to nothing in that area, using a cast-iron base more than two feet deep, with floor spikes big enough to open the eyes of any vampire.
My Monarchy SM-70s don't have the preferred "Pro" suffix, but sending them to company honcho C.C. Poon for fixing damage done by a previous owner who thought he knew how to perform modifications—a detail not divulged when purchased through Audiogon—resulted in amps at least as good, if not better. That end result was achieved because Mr. Poon executed some real mods now available to SM-70 owners that yielded amplification I nearly didn't recognize.
The SM-70's roof-high value (approximately $1500/pair when new) is near-legend, reviewers having emptied their inventory of positive descriptors long ago, particularly when used in the bridged-balanced mode. But this Mark 2 version—a delineation Mr. Poon validated—provided even greater performance. What I now have are truly wide-bandwidth amps with a rock-solid bottom end, deeper soundstage and a spooky resolution of both macro and micro detail. The new parts took a little burn-in (100 hours maybe? ...I'm not positive because I didn't track it), but when they kicked-in, it nearly knocked me off my chair, which isn't easy with the Firestone I wear around my belly.
I'm sure my Nordost Blue Thunder XLR interconnects didn't hurt, but I had used them previous to the upgrade too. And after repairs to the protection circuitry of my Sonic Frontiers preamp—restoring my favored amplification preference of combining small-signal tubes with Class A power—I had an apples-to-apples comparison. As such, I can sleep just fine after recommending that every SM-70 owner contact Monarchy to see what this upgrade can do for you. I can't give you a price because my final bill was complicated by the repair work, but Mr. Poon has built himself a successful operation by offering strong value to working-class audiophiles. These mods are no different and are therefore highly recommended... make that "very-highly" recommended... hold it, make that: "It would be an idiotic money-bath to buy new amplifiers without first investing a fraction of that cost on upgrading your SM-70s if already in possession of them." OK, that's better.
Before leaving the amp/speaker paradigm, I'm downright excited (downright excitement being rare since The Lettermen broke up) to tell all my fellow have-nots about how to accurately extend bass response as if you had the money of a CEO whose company benefitted from the Supreme Court's decision in the Citizens United case. The approximately $400 DSPeaker Anti-Mode 8033s from Finland—a nation I've previously associated only with brooding—is as close to a damn miracle as you'll find from an industry that usually generates more disappointment than that of mail-order brides.
If, like me, it's always a dreaded part of recommending stereo to a neophyte, to explain why musical, lower-bass reproduction remains mostly out-of-range below a five-figure system (if that), this device smaller than your hand is The Answer. And in fact, I'd bet a short beer those who've invested five figures in their subwoofer alone would be equally impressed—although I'd want the odds of a large beer in return.
Back when we were living in the house we lost (the one with a 15 x 25-foot sound-room) I bought a 10-inch mid-fi sub by Polk Audio, to fool around with. And of course, it turned out that the "fool" part of that idea best described the user. I would sometimes switch it in for a given song or to pull the wool over the eyes of a guest easily impressed by inaccurate reproduction. But since I regard home theater—to paraphrase Seinfeld's Kosmo Kramer—as the biggest scam since One-Hour Martinizing, I kept it in storage while living with the 13 x 13-foot sound-room of our rental house.
But returning to the comfort of a 12 x 27-foot sound-room—and armed with the Anti-Mode – I am now luxuriating in all the extension for which I could reasonably hope. And making that Polk Audio sub sound like it had an extra zero (or two) on its $300 price tag took all of a matter of seconds. Just place the supplied microphone at the listening position, allow the unit to decide what digital signal processing is required, unplug the mic and keep the unit as a set-and-forget component. Beautiful, just beautiful. It's enough to restore your faith in stereo-kind.
Moving right along, let's talk DACs—or if stated as a commodity, the one stereo category I wish I could've treated like pork bellies back when we had investment money. Computer sourcing has made the damn things so commonplace, kids are now playing "DAC, DAC, Goose." When discussing why the functionality of the YBA Design 202 made it my choice sound-unheard, a secondary, somewhat-contrived justification could've been that enough time in this business provides the suspicion damn-near any DAC bought today will be obsolete in short order, given it is the leading growth category we have. That said, the YBA Design has been wonderful.
If you haven't seen up-close any of the products from YBA's new division of moderately-priced components, they definitely don't disappoint in industrial design. With a sleek face just shy of 13 inches wide and only about 2.5 inches high, precision manufacture of the chassis makes it appear like the front, sides and top are cut from a single billet of aluminum with razor-like edges and a three-point suspension of integral tabs at the rear corners and middle-front. A silver strip along the bottom is the perfect accent to buttons, LED source/volume indication and a headphone jack that blend so well visually, the unit can almost seem without front-panel controls from the listening position. And plenty of firms can learn how to build a remote from its long, slim design with an aluminum face and enough heft to know this is no toy you're controlling.
I've written several times in previous efforts for PFO about how becoming computer-centric in my listening has—and I know how shallow this sounds—changed my life. Regardless of what the truth makes me seem like, though, it's indeed the case. One need look no further than my television viewing habits to realize it, which is to say, I virtually don't have television viewing habits any longer. Other than football and the news, I don't watch television... and I used to despise people who said that while checking out the slope of their own nose. But the combination of discovering new music through Sirius-XM Radio and then jumping on iTunes to buy it for 99 cents (or hark, $1.29) has made it so I have one stereo system or another pumping tunes at nearly every waking moment.
The YBA's 24-bit/96KHz USB connection seems to be plenty for my enjoyment, particularly since higher sampling rates aren't available for the popular music that dominates my library. I use a dedicated Mac Mini in the main stereo rack (a birch five-shelfer from Usher that was an absolute steal at a few hundred dollars), with a 42-inch Vizio flat-panel TV wall-mounted above as its monitor, along with a wireless keyboard, mouse and new 5-inch-square Apple Magic Trackpad I can use for the remote selection of playlists and songs.
All that said, there is one more item that has made the whole computer she-bang more fun than a barrel of, well, pickles (more fun than monkeys... and they taste better too): a Cardas Clear USB interconnect. For a shade more than one C-note (for a half-meter length), I'm hoping you'll let me get away with one succinct comment for folks comfortable in that price range, which I can state without wasting time on the cable-talk that can lose an audience faster than passing wind in a theater balcony: Buy this frickin' cable.
Or if I was to take my New Jersey upbringing one step further, but ask you to be literal in your reading: I've got your USB cable right here, pal. I can't tell you I auditioned every moderately priced USB cable available; I'll admit to not having much of a life, but it's not that bad. That said, I just can't imagine anything topping the difference I heard with the Cardas, compared to decently made generics. It really was something to behold—and I consider myself one of the more eagle-eyed watchdogs for spotting emperors without clothes, particularly in the royal nudist colony that's the world of cables.
Two spinners remain with the main system. For when I occasionally grab a CD, I have an E-Sound E5—no, not an error on the third baseman (for all you baseball score-keepers out there), although it was a typical life-error for the owner, given I bought it just months before getting into computer audio three years ago. It's branded a "Signature Edition," but since I've never seen one that wasn't, I assume that's just hype. What isn't hype, though, is that for about $500 (I sincerely don't remember exactly, but that sounds about my speed), this thing is seriously over-built. It has an 11-mm faceplate, XLR connectors (not truly balanced, but convenient for me), counter-sunk chassis screws (in the few places where screws are visible at all) and the prettiest remote I've ever owned. The Mod Squad at Underwood was using them as a base unit some time ago. And the sound? Works for me.
I also have one of those ridiculously low-priced, early Oppo universals (Model DV-970HD... just rolls off the tongue, doesn't it?) for something to which I've recently taken a liking: concert DVDs. Even funneling the sound through the YBA DAC, the concept flies in the face of everything I hold dear about music in the home, seeing how I'd need a screen as wide as my speakers to make sense of the image. But for music I know as well as the performers, I must admit it's a fun way to seek enjoyment of a different sort. Two recent cases in point:
1) I can't stop watching Billy Joel Live at Shea Stadium. I've seen him in concert three times—max for someone who doesn't tolerate crowds real well—and have all his live CDs anyway. (Yeah, I know: critics hate him. Well of course they do; he has the temerity to write songs people actually like. Do I regain any snoot-appeal by saying I also saw the Movin' Out dance show on Broadway? ... I won't hold my breath.) But this particular 2-CD/1-DVD set appealed to me on historical grounds, if nothing else. It took place in 2008 and was billed as Billy Joel closing the now-demolished 55,000-seater that the Beatles opened (musically speaking), with their landmark 1964 concert. There are several guest appearances, but my favorites are Tony Bennett for "New York State of Mind" (does that guy ever age?) and Sir Paul himself closes the show with "Let It Be." Not even hard-boiled Mets fans could keep their eyes dry for that one.
2) A DVD of Bruce and the E-Streeters at London's Hammersmith Odeon in 1975 compensates for awful lighting with performances that... Rock... My... World. If Clarence Clemons ever performed his "Jungleland" sax solo any better, I haven't heard it.
Beyond the Cardas Clear USB interconnect recommended above, there are a couple more cables worth your attention. My welcome-home gift for when the Monarchy monos returned with significant upgrades is my choice for "King of the Budget-AC Hill." The Pangea AC-9 (only $49 for a half-meter length) would put garden hoses to shame in a thickness contest. The entertaining part of my application was bending and twisting their short length into a horseshoe—for plugging into my Furman AC strip one shelf above the amps—but looking like a circus strongman who picked a phone book too thick for his capabilities while doing so. I got them to go, but needed a 16-oz. Gatorade afterward. A pair of damn-good generics I'd bet carry somebody's brand name in a different incarnation supplied the listening competition for comparison. It was close, but the Pangeas had slightly better bass and image definition, which might have been the simple benefit of being a half-meter instead of the 2-meter generic. I'll never know apples-for-apples for sure, but the Pangeas sure look impressive as all hell.
I haven't really done a sonic justification for Wire World's 1-meter Stratus AC and half-meter Oasis XLR interconnects (about $150 combined) that adorn the YBA DAC, but they look so damn cool in what I categorize as "metallic-cobalt"—particularly the flat power cord—that nothing else in their price range would interest me anyway. I wanted cables that did justice to the YBA's beautiful form-factor and that mission is accomplished.
My choice for what I view as the two most important cable assignments—speakers and linking pre to power—are both holdovers, but now discontinued. My Audio Art SC-3 speaker cables (finished with bananas) have been solid performers that have resisted the abuse of two housing moves and countless system changes. And I sure hope Nordost offers a worthy successor to the previously mentioned Blue Thunder because this little taste of the high-life has been an easy recommendation in my approximately five years of ownership.
I'm not much on tweaks, but two from Mapleshade are worth mentioning. I tried one of their thick, maple platforms with a set of Isol-blocks for the E-Sound CD. It helps a bit on bass (and much more on appearance). But what really surprised me were a set of three large "Radiused Triplepoint" footers under the Sonic Frontiers preamp (the "radiused" designation meaning a curved bottom instead of a point, to avoid scratching furniture). The difference was immediate and reminds me of a vacuum sealer for food, completely sucking any wobble out of the image. The two together make me feel like I haven't been lying when people have asked what components benefit most from isolation. Just as I recommend splitting only aces and eights when playing blackjack, I've generally answered, "Tubes and transports."
And if you're wondering why people ask for my advice on gambling, it's because selling stereo and covering the news weren't my only occupations. In a superb example of putting the funk in a dysfunctional life—perhaps more so than any of the dumb-ass moves you may be starting to realize were legion in number—I dealt craps in Vegas for about a year. I went to school for it and everything, after burning all my bridges in the electronics business and before moving to Arkansas to resurrect a newspaper career. My thinking ("thinking" being a relative term)? Well, without a primer on craps, it's by far the toughest game to deal, with the possibility of paying off more than a dozen bets of different amounts, at different odds, on one roll of the dice. I figured a couple of years in Vegas and I could travel the world, dealing at exotic locales around the globe—Monaco, the Caribbean, the Far East, etc. Only one problem: about 50,000 people a year have the same idea and the only ones who get to execute it have relatives in the State Department. Last I looked, there were no Rodmans in all of D.C., much less one tiny nook of it.
Yep, just when you were convinced your brother-in-law (or whoever) is the strangest bastard you ever met, you just smacked head-first into 20,000 words from me. So who does that make nuttier, you or me? Of course, you still have time to get while the gettin's good. If not, we can debate in another few thousand of those words, and actually, I'm rooting for you.
Back at my main stereo, the final problem for me was that given the dimensions of what qualifies as contemporary audio—a 13-inch DAC, the tiny Anti-mode, a Mac Mini, a cable box, an iPod stand, a fire-wire back-up device, etc.—it took me quite some time to come up with an arrangement I liked, appearance being as important to me as functionality. When I finally had it figured out, I asked my wife, Nancy, what she thought of it. She said, "It looks nice." And of course, I replied, "Nice? Nice? I don't want it to look nice. I want it to scare the hell out of you." ...Where is Jim Bongiorno when you need him?
Main Headphone System
I wouldn't call myself a headphone maven, given my favorite part of listening to recorded music is picturing the artists on a stage in front of me, but I would say my Sennheiser HD-600s are one of my favorite audio components.
A contradiction? Hell, I lead the league in contradictions and damn-near pursue them. But this one is easy to justify because who says I can't have a second-favorite aspect? Assuming nobody has raised their hand, the extraordinary resolution of detail with the HD-600s is the best to which I've ever owned access. People I trust have written that the new 800s are even better—and by an appreciative difference. I'll take their word for it, but I expect the 600s to last me to life's end, making for a neat symmetry because the first headphones I ever owned were Sennheiser 414s... approximately one million years ago.
Putting aside all that man-love for the big Senns, though, I'm getting as big a kick out of my new headphone rig as the ‘phones themselves. Taking a bow for that entertainment is a blast from the past (in DJ-speak from an oldies station): I'm using the power section of a Sansui Six receiver, which was from my former employer's first series of receivers. Its personality? Bass, bass and more bass. It's amazing to hear such a rock-solid bottom end from a 1970s receiver, but that was true of most initial landings by the big Japanese brands on our shores—before the wattage wars made it more about horse power than accuracy. I think the Six was rated at about 35-watts per channel (or thereabouts), but it has more cajones than most mid-fi receivers rated at three or four times that amount in the decades since.
Controls for the Six need a major cleaning and I'll get that done at some point, but in the meantime, I'm simply going main-in from a Channel Islands Audio passive pre-amp. As stated previously, I'm running the second pair of outputs from the YBA DAC, providing access to my computer library without turning on my main amplification—and using the YBA's remote for volume adjustment. I'm supplementing source selection with both a Cambridge Audio D-500SE (vintage about ten years ago and the best entry-level CD player I've ever heard) and a 300-CD Sony that makes a great storage system, eliminating the need to futz with CD cases.
(The CD is nearly 30 years old, and still, nobody has invented a better case for them. It kinda reminds me of the country's "War on Drugs" ...I've been meaning to ask my local congressman how that's going.)
This is not only a good use of survivors from previous systems, but is necessary to prevent moving furniture every time I want to throw a change-up and don the Sennheisers. My listening chair is too far from my main rack to use the fine headphone amp built into the Sonic Frontiers pre-amp (which I've been told is the same circuit used by HeadRoom for one of their own models at the time of initial design, in the 1990s). My alternatives would be to use one of those giant Radio Shack extensions (too much signal loss) or spend hundreds on a long, upscale replacement cable. And you already know I'm not going to skip making Paella Valencia for a half-dozen friends, to buy a headphone cable. It's not only against my religion, but what would I do with this extra gear? Sell it on eBay? Not in this lifetime—that's a hassle I don't need and one almost certain to produce a future moment when I could've used whatever I sold for lunch money, therefore inducing the creation of my own concussion.
Credenza and Desktop (or maybe, the other way around)
Good sound and features here were critical for a few reasons: a) with my desk at the other end of a 27-foot sound-room, I needed to stop running my main stereo all day, to prevent unnecessary wear-and-tear; b) this would be the hub for dispatching music around the house; and c) I have no life.
My desk faces a window on the side wall, with the credenza against the opposite wall 12 feet away. The desk is a three-piece, modular deal with my iMac on the corner unit, putting the music at a rear-diagonal much of the time—not really a problem for background sound and I lucked-out for when I hear something to which I want to pay more attention. Spinning around from my computer puts me dead-center between the wall-mounted speakers, which are 5.5 feet apart.
To make sense of this system, it's best to start with the sources. The most important challenge was a Sirius-XM radio that would give me quick reference for artist and song, allowing me to jot it down for later purchase on iTunes, when so moved. I previously used a Polk Audio home component unit, with video-out for reading the pertinent info on the TV above my main system. But that wasn't practical here and I was hoping to avoid using a second television.
(Musical artist heads-up: With each piece I write for PFO in which I discuss this XM-iTunes relationship, I try to pass along the name of an artist I've come to like, but wouldn't know without satellite radio. To understand how I'd be otherwise oblivious, just spend 20 minutes in Fayetteville, Ark., trying to find a good radio station. My money says you'll want to slit your wrists before finding one. And as for Internet radio, well, OK, maybe—maybe that could work for me. But after satellite radio, I find any kind of conventional radio to pale in comparison, even with my choice of cities from throughout the nation. So the lucky winner this time is Beth Hart. In particular, check out her live performances, which are electric (although with a bit of vulgarity, if that's of a concern for you). It's likely you'll immediately think Janis Joplin, but I agree with one review I read: That's not fair because she's better than Janis Joplin. Original material, "Leave the Light On" and "L.A. Song" are my favorites so far; ya gotta know I'm going to like anybody who writes the line, "She drank so hard, the bottle ached." She's also fearless on stage. How do I know? Well, who was the last female you heard cover Zeppelin and set the audience on fire? That's exactly what she does with a rousing, eight-minute version of "Whole Lotta Love." If you're a rock—or even, blues—fan, do yourself a favor and check her out.)
Back to gear, my prayer for the perfect satellite radio model – a streamlined process for atheists— was answered when I found a cooler-than-all-shit model with Sirius branding called, "The Conductor." Its tuner is just a few inches tall (with both analog and digital-Toslink outputs; call the latter Bonus Advantage No. 1), but the remote is the serious part of this model. At nine inches long, it has room for a small screen and runs not via infra-red, but via radio frequencies instead. Being an RF remote was Bonus Advantage No. 2 because I can take it into the kitchen—or even, outside to the back deck—and not only change stations, but also see artist and title on its built-in screen, for songs I might want to buy. Was I living right or what? And by adding a couple of dollars/month to my subscription, I also get the online service, to use with the main stereo.
Source Numero Dos is to bring up iTunes on the iMac, via the new Home-Sharing feature. Getting it across the room is where the gear interacts because one of my neatest installation features came by way of spending $129 on the NuForce U-DAC2, a wonderful-sounding, palm-sized USB DAC and earphone amp with a front-mounted, rotary volume control. Pinning the Cool-Meter far-right came during a rare moment of clarity when I used a new, generic form of Velcro that is plastic hooks on both sides (no unsightly wool)—with a tab that sticks out for easy, repetitive removal—and installed it on the side of my iMac. Facing forward less than one-inch-wide, therefore, is both the earphone jack and volume control.
I originally thought I might want to use it in two places, although that hasn't been necessary yet. However, removal is necessary when used with earphones because, as stated in the owner's manual, the U-DAC's amp will not work well when placed against other metal casings. Only a hunch, but this might be exacerbated in my case because I have it hooked up like a porn star (every hole is... well, use your imagination). I use its analog outputs for connection to my Creek OBH-11 headphone amp (eliminating the whole earphone problem anyway), which I placed next to it and allows better sound from the Sennheisers, should I choose to use them while at the computer. This can happen often because I like to write in the calm of the graveyard shift—while Nancy is sleeping about 20 feet away—and sometimes I find it more comfortable to switch between earphones and headphones in the course of eight hours. I'm also using the digital-coaxial output via a long cable to the credenza system DAC, which is the two-piece Channel Islands Audio with separate power supply I had modified by Modwright's Dan Wright and previously used in my main system (with a Hagermann USB adaptor I no longer need).
But the U-DAC2 is only one of two terrific NuForce products I purchased from their personal electronics category. The other is a new top-end model of earphones—in fact, I'm wearing them as I'm typing these words—called the NE-700X. Although only $65 (add $10 for the NE-700Ms, which include a microphone and pick-up button for use with iPhones and the like), my short and unscientific study vs. other earphones would have me shout from the tallest of buildings (about four stories here in Fayetteville... kidding): "HEY YOU—YOU WITH THE iPOD—BUY THESE EARPHONES." And as opposed to no comparison to other products, as with the Cardas USB cable, I can cite an example here because these weren't my first attempt at filling this need. That was instead a $100 mistake called "Klipsch Image S4i" that I'd compare to tin cans with a string, but I don't want to insult the tin industry. They had more different tips than Bayer has aspirin, but none of them provided a lick of decent bass response. In a battle against these Category Killers from NuForce, they'd look like Henry Cooper after the Ali fight (believe an old sportswriter: It wasn't pretty).
As for how I made this mistake, hell, I don't know. Other than the earphones that came with my iPod Nano, I've never owned another pair and didn't figure I'd want to demo earphones that had been worn by somebody else, even if that's possible. I didn't return them because I don't return anything. No bullshit—I don't. I either give it away or save it in hopes of a different, more acceptable usage. For instance, I use the Klipsch for when I take the iPod to a doctor's appointment, saving wear-and-tear on the NuForce. Maybe that's my retail upbringing at work, but don't even get me started on people who return gifts. Suffice to say, they don't deserve gifts... from anybody.
When originally planning this system, I didn't think critical listening would be a factor. I had a pair of inexpensive mini-monitors from Infinity (USB-1s) that did a fine job when supported by a subwoofer in a custom media wall I had designed for our old lake house. They sound shockingly good for their cost (around $150? I'm not positive; it was more than ten years ago) and have terrific brackets that are adjustable for toe-in. I figured they'd work just fine and they did... until I found myself occasionally turning around because I heard a song while working that tickled my fancy—my fancy being hard to find these days. And at that point, they just didn't cut it.
My search for an affordable, easy-to-drive, small speaker with wall brackets (this last element being absolutely non-negotiable, thereby requiring either an acoustic suspension cabinet or front porting) wasn't easy. But I soon sold myself on buying a single-driver speaker—two-way coaxial in all likelihood—because I figured a true point-source might compensate for how wall-mounting challenges imaging and soundstage. I reached my "Eureka" moment when I saw a pair of teardrop-shaped KEF iQ-10s that not only fit the bill, but looked beautiful in a dark apple finish. I called a friend of mine still working the salt mines of retail stereo, who I knew sold KEF at one time and I figured would still have a wholesale connection. I was right; he did. Only one problem: the iQ-10s were discontinued.
After screaming for my mother (not my actual mother, but a different mother with a last name that wouldn't be a compliment to any son she may have), I looked at different KEF models. The direct replacement was a box shape and would thereby bracket directly against the wall—not a good situation in my experience. I then leaned toward a lifestyle type speaker that still had the upscale coaxial driver, but looked like a real disappointment. I floundered for a couple of weeks, but then looked for a used pair of iQ-10s only to find a new pair still available from an Amazon third-party seller, in the dark apple finish, no less. I bought those $299 suckers faster than Usain Bolt running 100 meters.
They arrived in fine shape, but with two problems: a) its bracket was very poorly designed – it provided nice separation from the wall, but attached to the top-rear of the speaker, making it droop badly; and b) although my tiny, 8 watt-per-channel Antique Sound Lab Waves could sound like two or three times their power, it still wasn't enough. The first problem was taken care of by my friend, Steve, who in a moment of handyman brilliance, put two wine corks back-to-back at the bottom-rear of the speaker, providing an exact—and I mean, "exact"—upright angle for the speaker, with no need for attachment because the pressure provides all the stability it needs. Amazing.
The problem of amplification is currently in for repair. I'm resurrecting my Dynaco ST-70 that already had some decent modifications for modern use (binding posts, better power cord, gold-plated terminals, etc.), but needs a new board and whatever else the technician deems necessary. Being quite familiar with its sound, I do believe those sweet EL-34s are going to be perfect for these KEFs, which are just a bit brighter than what I normally associate with the British sound. In the meantime, the iQ-10s sound quite good at volumes the ASL Waves can supply without clipping. And the pre-amp? I'm using my old Adcom GTP-500 II pre-amp/tuner that just won't die. This thing is far too valuable from a stand-in perspective for me to ever get rid of it and I kinda picture that Charlton Heston "cold, dead hands" thing with it.
Not only is the Adcom workmanlike, but it has the two extra outputs (one from a tape monitor) I need to run wireless transmitters for speakers elsewhere. An old Advent transmitter with powered speakers didn't perform well enough—given the restrictions of the 900MHz frequency available at its time of design more than ten years ago—to work in the kitchen/dining room where I absolutely MUST have music. That said, it does work just fine for the bathroom across the hall from my office, which serves as my shower area and we all know that tunes you can hear in the shower is a luxury no American should be without.
I did indeed find the answer for that kitchen/dining room problem, though, with the first flawless transmitter-receiver I've ever experienced. JBL's WEM-1 – although not cheap at $359 retail ($329 in the Harman International online company store)—has the advantage of an actual amplifier in the receiver unit. Its 50 watts per channel are great for those Infinitys that didn't work well in what was almost a near-field application in my office, but seem to sound great in wide-open spaces. That was my experience when I put them into that media wall I mentioned from a decade ago—in what was a main room with vaulted ceilings—and are again performing like champs with vaulted ceilings. And not only that, but I can move the JBL receiver outside, for use with a pair of easy-on/easy-off bracketed KLHs I have that work just fine for grilling to music and sitting outside for after-dinner drinks when the meal and weather dictate it.
Living Room Vintage System
Can't afford to upgrade your main system, but would love to do some modest gear-jockeying? Get yourself into the vintage market. And yes, mine is Sansui—where I once worked as an eastern regional sales manager, but for the worst bastards on the audio planet. Don't believe me? They wound up running the company into the ground a year or so after I left and it doesn't exist anymore. And that's a damn shame... for real.
I wrote lovingly of my Sansui SP-2700 speakers in a previous piece for PFO way back in Issue 37—complete with more venom for the company's former top-dog (now just half of that) in the U.S.—and you can find it here http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue37/sansui.htm
I never considered anything but modern sourcing (it's only for the occasional kick-in-the-pants or entertaining guests), using either an Airport Express or iPod connection. But the missing link that's always bothered me has been the absence of an amplifier made at the same time and for which complementary voicing was likely. We're talking mid to late-1960s here—well before the onslaught of Japanese-made receivers—thus my Sansui Six receiver always having too much power for them.
My experience in finding said amp on eBay—an AU-555a (second edition)—was ruined, at first, by not scoring the matching tuner from the same auctioneer. My set-to with him was detailed in Part II and led to my new definition of what an audiophile truly is (or isn't, in his case). That said, I left sonic remarks for this final part of the trilogy.
The AU-555 was among Sansui's first line of solid-state amps, but I challenge 90 percent of the listening public to note a difference between it and mid-fi tube amps of the day. Its sound is as soft as moccasins without apologizing for having more curves. Screw accuracy—this is flat-out fun. My second edition AU-555a was rated at 25-watts per channel, but I sincerely doubt that would fly as an RMS spec today. It sounds about 3dB down to my ears, but I couldn't care less because the Sansui speakers could run off my old Admiral table radio (and boy, do I wish I still had that). It is indeed the perfect complement to the Sansui speakers, taming that rude piezo-electric tweeter.
Finally, a Sansui marriage made at the hands—and voice—of its original craftsmen. The missing offspring will continue to be the TU-666 tuner that matched the second-edition amp from a model number below. But what can you expect from an eBay gear-head? Proper reverence for audio history? Yeah, right.
And if you hear me on that—or read this entire Part III word-for-word—believe me: You're an audiophile.
Sorry if that's bad news, but remember I used to be a newspaper reporter and I have absolutely no sympathy for you... although I do have thanks. Many thanks.
Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org