Done for Now. Yeah, right, who was I kidding to put my system in that category back in 2002 ?! Well, now it really IS Done for Now as of early 2009, in part because I lost my job, but primarily because I dont know how I could improve this system without starting from scratch or paying out some big bucks for a new analog front end, or a dedicated listening room, though both will happen at some point. Also, I got so burned-out on auditioning stuff, and I can now just sit back and enjoy the *music* without concerning myself about system shortcomings.
All in all, there is nothing exotic or even out-of-the-mainstream in this system. Well-known and well-regarded stuff that in many cases Ive tweaked to maximize their performance. In particular, the power amp, tuner, DAC, headphone amp and phono stage all have substantially improved electronics inside their pedestrian chassis.
I have a lot of equipment, and I use it all, so theres a disproportionate amount of money into interconnects, which I admit Ive used as tone controls to a degree. Ive had the same listening environment since I started this system, which does many things well (the speakers are placed 8 apart with no walls anywhere near them, 9 from the listening couch, I can get good sound anywhere in the room, its reasonably absorptive and reflection-free), but is an open floor plan so theres no real bass-loading, and unpredictable (though minor) bass nodes and suckouts.
The pictures show both pairs of Thiels next to each other. Theyve been like this for a couple years now, only the outside pair of 2.4s active, but the inside pair of 2.3s (set back a few inches) have very little to no effect on the sound from a dispersion or resonance perspective. Nevertheless once I put them up for sale the WAF will go up substantially. I feel I have to get a final handle on the 2.3 vs 2.4 differences before I let them go, and it's a lot easier doing that when the speakers are next to each other and wired up.
My last text entry was above in 2005, though Ive been keeping the virtual system template up to date regularly just so I can keep track of it. Over four years later a lot more has happened, but Ill try to just touch the highlights.
SPEAKERS: I pulled the trigger and finally bought the Thiel 2.4 to replace my 2.3. The Audioquest Bedrocks that worked so well with the 2.3 sounded dead with the 2.4, so after a lot more Cable Company auditioning I ultimately arrived at Wireworld Polaris 5 which I remain very happy with. I acknowledge there are a lot of great speakers out there, and I'm not a die-hard committed Thiel enthusiast. But they do some things really well, and I had spent years voicing this system for the more-finicky 2.3, so the 2.4 only sounds better with my existing cables and electronics.
However, the 2.3 does offer greater image dimensionality and slightly better soundstaging than the 2.4. The 2.3s coax mid/tweet is mounted in a waveguide in a smooth rounded baffle with a wraparound cloth grille. The 2.4 puts form over function with the flush grille, which requires the coax to be mounted on a flat baffle with sharp discontinuities on both the baffle edges and the grilles metal surrounding the coax. The 2.4 frequency balance is better in my case all the time, and their 2-dimensional imaging is as good as the 2.3; the 2.3 soundstages better only with the right material when Im listening in audiophile mode. So the 2.4 stays and the 2.3 sells, its just a shame to see a company as dedicated to soundstaging as Thiel give up a little for a better looking grille!
TURNTABLE: As mentioned above, my 1980 Thorens TD115 with Ortofon VMS20e MkII sounded better than the modded Rega P25 + Grado Reference Reference. So I further modded the Thorens with Cardas Golden Cross Phono cable, bought a VMS30 fineline (vs straight elliptical) stylus to alternate with, along with the tweaks listed in the item description above. Ive compared this to a number of rigs and dont think Ill get substantively better sound until I move up to the likes of a VPI Classic and Shelter 501 II or better. For now it does all one could ask for mid-line vinyl playback with a remarkable synergy between tonearm and cart, plus gives me auto shutoff, a sprung dust cover, bi-directionally damped cueing, effective suspension and replaceable styli. A good phono stage pulls a remarkable amount of information out of the Ortofon.
PHONO STAGE: I succumbed to the initial Whest reviews and was generally very satisfied with the results, wonderful image dimensionality, dynamics, textures, detail retrieval. Then I picked up the MkII version of the PS.20 (not made available in this country) and wow, it just improved on all aspects of the original with a cleaner circuit board layout and better parts, tolerances and component matching in select areas. The slightly forward midrange is now dead neutral, the top end is reigned in just a bit with better definition, bass control is even better, and textural resolution improved too. It may not be a PS.30R, or any of the more recent $5K pricepoint designs Id like to hear, but does more than I expected with a 30yo MM cartridge!
PREAMP: Still fully committed to the Sonic Frontiers Line 1 SE with the 'right' mix of tubes, newer Burr-Brown PGA-2311 volume control chips, and now Pearl tube coolers (giant heat sinks designed for tubes that are said to triple tube life). I just recently replaced my tubes that had well over 5000 hours on them and 5 of them were still fine. The new mix of newer tubes *is* an improvement however. Control flexibility, adequate I/Os, and still-fabulous sonics keep this unit in the system indefinitely, though Id like to hear a VTL 6.5 or any of the current SOTA preamps to hear how much more is possible
POWER AMP: No changes to the highly-tuned McCormack DNA 0.5 as described in 2005. 125/250/500Wpc into 8/4/2 ohms, 60A peak current, no trouble controlling a pair of Thiels. Has compared favorably to a recent BAT VK250 SE, but would also like to hear vs a Pass XA150 and a variety of today's $5K power amps.
HEADPHONE AMP: I swapped out my earlier Headroom for a 2003 MAX model ($1887 MSRP) that was inside the cheaper maxed out home faceplates. Pleasant surprise upon opening it up for the first time and finding the "Max" circuit board components! I had Headroom install their still-current top-of-their-line amplifier modules, substituted 16 HEXFREDs for the generic power supply diodes, fitted a better power cord, vibrapods and expensive fuse to it and am totally happy with the end result. Works great as a backup preamp too!
HEADPHONES: So much has gone on in the headphone world in the past decade, but Ive kept my Sennheiser HD600s with Equinox cord. I bought HD650s but after extensive A/B preferred the more neutral HD600s, that offered tauter bass and more presence, pop and detail through the mids. There are dozens of new headphone designs on the market, and I'd like to audition the $1000+ headphones at home, but Ill take Head-Fiers word that the 600s remain a fine phone.
DAC: I had my Bel Canto DAC 2 modded by Great Northern Sound, another Minneapolis shop with personnel from Wadia, Audio Research, Bel Canto. They had an interesting multi-faceted approach to improving the DAC2 that went beyond the usual stuff a dozen mainstream modders do for DACs. This modded DAC is in every way at least as good as the latest Benchmark DAC1Pre, a little better than the current Marantz SA11S2, and still a very satisfying long-term listen, though I will acknowledge that by now there must be many better sounding CDPs and DACs out there. Data comes from the Proceed CDD transport via a Kimber D60 or from the Yamaha CDR via a Wireworld Supernova III glass toslink. Added an expensive fuse, a couple vibrapods, and a very good Kimber PK14 Gold AC cord and all is well.
TUNER: As mentioned previously, MagnumDynalab upgraded my FT101A chassis with a factory-modded MD100 circuit board, added their latest 20-preset analog remote control, flywheel tuning assy, WBT RCA jacks, overkill output stage components, some upgraded IF filters, much more power supply capacitance. One might wonder why, but there are a lot of good and good-sounding FM stations in my area, the tuner is the source Im probably using the most, though one could question the $439 Harmonic Tech Pro Silway MkII interconnects to the preamp! Cant complain about the sound or RF performance of this tuner, but still frustrated by their inability to design a functioning multipath meter, a useful signal strength meter, a refined FM muting circuit, or a useable MPX noise filter in any of their tuners. All the other analog tuner manufacturers perfected those user-friendly features many decades ago!
UNIVERSAL PLAYER: I bought a Yamaha DVD-S1800 primarily for video duty with my new Sony KDL26S3000 hi-rez LCD TV, but it has exceeded all expectations with 2ch audio playback. Even with CDs its not that far removed from my Proceed/BelCanto combo, and does a convincing job with SACD and DVD-A. I've added a decent C7 AC power cord and vibrapods for an incremental sonic improvement. Compared to a $3500 dedicated 2ch SACD player, its outclassed, but still demonstrates the potential of hi-rez digital. Enough so that Ive started buying select SACDs and a handful of used DVD-As. Does a mighty fine job with video too. MSRP is $450, Amazon was blowing them out for $79.95(!) so I bought another simply as a backup. It's still in Yamaha's current lineup, I gotta imagine manufacturing cost is well above $80. Hell, you can barely buy a decent set of used interconnects for that price!
AC POWER: I swapped out my PS Audio High Current Ultimate Outlet for their new Duet. Sonically not a huge improvement, but I liked that it offered more protection from over-/under-voltage conditions and better surge protection, as well as having two separated zones with four outlets. Picked up an audio-specific outlet strip from Wireworld along with my existing PS Audio Juice Bar as I have so many components now, and have added some better AC power cables as needed. With all the money I put into interconnects, I want to keep the whole AC power cords and conditioners at a minimum for safety and sonics and I think Im there now. Ive also added HiFiTuning fuses to most of my components to good effect.
TAPE DECKS: I still remain committed to analog tape (ie cassette) as a recording medium, though finding good tape now is harder than finding good vacuum tubes. The final generation Nakamichis may not be the tour-de-force they were in their late-'80s prime, but they took all the tricks they learned and put them into these less-elaborate decks to good effect. Plus theyre both new enough I dont have to worry about internals being mechanically or electrically worn out. My Tandbergs were plain worn out and I was tired of repairing them. These Naks definitely make a better tape in large part due to less than half the flutter spec as well as more modern heads, transports and tape-specific electronics. Just recently I got a remote control that controls the transports of both decks individually or in parallel, which is a luxury I hadnt anticipated. I can tape a SACD with more resolution (obviously) than my Yamaha CD recorder funneling it down to 16/44. Having said that, the CDR gets plenty of use burning CDRs and CD-RWs that sound at least as good as the original and saving my ever-more-precious music-budget money.
So thats pretty much the new and updated system components. The sound is at least half an order of magnitude beyond 2005. Ive succeeded in assembling hardware behind the Thiels that provide them with all the power and resolution they need to do what they do best, while mitigating their forward analytical nature through a hard-sought combination of amp-tuning, tube-rolling, speaker cables, interconnects and AC cables, all the way down to just on the warm side of neutral source components. One has to wonder how this system would have evolved if I started out with Vandersteens or Magneplanars instead of Thiels! Or how all this hard work will sound if I move to Avalons or Dynaudios or nearly anything non-Thiel
I have no immediate interest in iTunes, computer-based audio, satellite radio, USB dacs, etc, though I acknowledge thats the direction a lot of this is heading, and if done right may be a good thing for audio. Im not an early adopter of any of this though. I would like to see SACD keep more than a tenuous grip on the marketplace, am heartened that vinyl is here to stay and sounds better than ever, that CDs can sound really good these days if not dynamically compressed, that people are rediscovering high-end headphone listening (that started me on all of this in the early 70s!), and am always following the trends of new equipment and their engineering. After all, I am an electrical engineer by education and career, until Feb 09. Which is, perhaps, why this missive is so long.
Comments and critiques welcome. By clicking on any component in the virtual system youll get a lot more additional information that Ive been keeping up to date incrementally over the past 8 years. The pictures are new as of this year.
(4) Vibrapod-Vibracone pairs between preamp and power amp;
Current mix of Tungsram Yellow 7DJ8 (V1) and Telefunken 7DJ8 (V2 & V3) mix of 6922 tube types have replaced previous combinations with satisfying results;
Mono switch converted to 'true mono' rather than their as-delivered 8dB 'blend';
SE upgrade (minus their Kimber Silver Streak internal wiring) a notable step up in clarity and air -- all resistors and caps in the signal path (and tube sockets) upgraded to the best they could find;
BurrBrown PGA-2311 volume control chips, drop-in replacements to the 20-year-old Crystal CS3310;
Pearl tube coolers make my tubes immortal!;
Kimber PK10 AC Power Cord;
HiFiTuning line fuse
+: Incredible build and parts quality for the price;
the best sonic attributes of transistors (speed, detail and clean extension at the frequency extremes) and tubes (harmonic integrity, smoothness and dimensionality), even today (2019);
great attention to details;
great flexibility, nice remote and control layouts;
thoughtful circuit design and execution;
handsome appearance that avoids pretentious High End 'styling';
SSP input (home theater pass-thru) ideal for A/Bing preamps by remote control: unlike many preamps, engaging SSP routes the dedicated SSP source directly to the preamp outputs, one relay and a PCB trace is all the circuitry involved;
good solid dedicated opamp-based headphone amp sounds fine, but lacks power and ultimate resolution vs today's better preamp headphone outputs;
new replacement volume control ICs nearly as much a sonic improvement as the entire SE upgrade!
This topology sounds substantially better with true balanced sources. Unfortunately all my sources are SE. SE doesn't sound 'bad' but once I've heard how it sounds balanced, it's difficult to unremember hearing it balanced. Luckily, the two 'weakest' components currently are my DAC and phono stage that would sound best balanced. Eventual replacements will certainly be balanced, and substantially better than the already very-good pieces. But those will cost big bucks and require more auditioning than I have time for now.
four preamp outputs are flexibility or overkill - could really use a 2nd buffered tape output;
the optical-encoder-type volume control is too sensitive -- it would seem an easy re-program to double the number of rotations of the knob to cover the same min-to-max range.
Despite ECOs to address it, the unit remains very sensitive to static electricity from finger to front panel. Always ground yourself to something else before touching the preamp or prepare for a 42-second reboot cycle.
another EPROM rev could make it functionally more flexible (user-set mute level, alter rate of volume control depending on knob speed, less balance control resolution at extremes, etc).
This is the best preamp I could find in 2002 for design, flexibility and sound for my needs anywhere near this used price. BAT VK51, ML #380S, VTL 6.5 and others might fit my requirements but at a much higher price. Used Line 1&2 are a bargain. I was originally hoping to find the modern-day equivalent of the Apt Holman preamp, a full-function control preamp with solid build and innovative circuitry, full tape flexibility and tone controls. I got as far as an Adcom GFP-710 and a Tandberg 4000-series preamp before having to give up on the feature set I wanted so I could get the sonics required. 2017 has more options on the market that fit my needs, but Line1 has proved 100% reliable and sonically timeless.
Previously: Pass X2.5; '08 Benchmark DAC1Pre; Adcom GFP-710, GFP-750; VanAlstine Transcendence 7; Mcintosh C15; Creek OBH-12; Headroom '99 Maxed Out Home and '03 Max with '07 'Max' modules; NO preamp (ie an interconnect, and volume-controlled DACs and such direct to power amp);
McCormack DNA-0.5 SMC Audio Custom 'Rev B+ Gold' Power Amp
MFG'D: '99, last production run
PURCHASED: '02 audiogon
PROBLEMS: An internal control signal wire broke soon after receiving it back from a rev B upgrade, fixed immediately and then further modified to its current state -- 100% reliable since 2006 of near-daily use.
PAID: $750 + $450 rev C ('02) + $1060 rev B+ Gold ('04) ($1795 MSRP basic amp in 1999)
REPLACED: modified Advent 300 receiver
TWEAKS: '04 SMC Audio rev B+: in addition to all rev B circuit topology and component upgrades: massive Plitron custom toroidal power transformer spec'd for his bigger amps; soft recovery diode bridges for the output stages; bigger better power supply caps; WBT input jacks; carbon (!) wiring from inputs to circuit board; various SMC tweaks and select rev A mods specifically voiced for my system and sonic requests.
PS Audio Plus SC 1m AC power cord;
HiFi Tuning fuses at AC input and the four high-power L&R output stage rail fuses.
+: fine mid '90s solid state sound stock for the price, but a total sonic transformation into this decade after rev B+: effortless creamy grain-free mids;
ideal balance of midrange weight, presence and forwardness; fine soundstaging and air; smoother faster top end; "blacker blacks"; articulate, nuanced and Center-of-the-Earth bass; greatly increased transparency and detail; much better S/N ratio; fabulous customer service; utilitarian appearance; compact for ~125Wpc into 8 ohms; power doubling = 125, 250, 500Wpc into 8-4-2 ohms; alleged 60A peak current delivery tames any speaker; absolute stability into a 1-ohm load; only 4dB global negative feedback and no local feedback; carefully vetted quality parts and attention to layout throughout by the designer who knows the sonic responses to his circuit intimately.
-: none, really! Well, it's hardly audio eye candy. Pretty basic chassis, though good attempts at vibration isolation.
I could have bought a lot of good used amps for the price I've into this amp by now, but they wouldn't have the "hand-tuned performance by Steve McCormack" that provides great system synergy and near-SOTA sonics in my setup, having worked together with Steve for final dialing-in. Direct comparisons with all the below show it to be clearly superior across-the-board against them all -- remarkable.
Thiel Audio CS2.4 Speakers with Upgraded Crossovers
PURCHASED: '06, Audiogon
PAID: $2800 incl shipping, paypal & outriggers ($7000 MSRP at end of life 2013)
REPLACED: Thiel CS2.3
TWEAKS: Replaced the two Axon crossover caps in series with the coax with Clarity Cap ESA series, with Vishay bypass caps: these are a grade above the 'ultra-fine grade boutique capacitors' Thiel advertises for their $8K 2.4 'Special Edition' models. This allows the coax to be all that it can be without any veiling caused by the lesser crossover caps, and opens up the speaker nicely.
Hand-built coax drivers by the only person on Earth who can assemble them from the basket up. They DO sound better than the stamped-out production units.
+: Solid design and nice appearance; Great build quality and finish; Wide dispersion for a box speaker; Not particularly placement-critical; Fine resolution and lateral imaging; Reasonably compact; Good bass extension for a 6.5" cone-diameter woofer; Very good dynamics to the limits of the coax driver described below; The hardest-working midrange driver in the hi-fi world; Much improved frequency balance over 2.3;
Surprisingly, exceeds the highly-regarded Dynaudio Confidence C1 (stand-mount large 'monitor') in every possible way, often dramatically so, and proves against my initial beliefs that the wonderful Esotar soft-domed tweeter is no better than Thiel's aluminum dome buried inside a midrange cone... A good mix of cone speaker punch, dispersion and precise imaging with electrostatic coherence, microdynamics and speed. But, yes, short of the "best" of any type of speaker out there!
-: The midrange driver is inadequately small for this speaker, further challenged by the first-order crossover, asking a 2.5" cone to put out substantial SPLs below 250Hz (-12dB from nominal 1kHz crossover frequency, so 100dB at 1kHz still is 88dB expected from the mid at 250Hz, 82dB at 125Hz, just too much energy for such a small radiating area that then must depend on excursion to generate its SPLs, and this equals component fatigue over time);
Soundstaging a step down from 2.3 due to sharp baffle edges around the HF-coax driver to facilitate a flush grille, music remains 'in the box' moreso than the 2.3's dimensionality from its smoothly contoured baffle -- rare Thiel form over function; A challenging load requires a modern SS amp with a lot of current delivery into < 4 ohms; The coax driver is a great idea on paper but flawed in practice as they can fail every few years with no warning when played loud but well within speaker and amp spec, apparently due to fatigue from long cone excursions and/or insufficient internal heat dissipation -- the 2.3 coax drivers seem more robust due to larger magnets better dissipating heat buildup?; The 1" dome tweeter voice coil and motor assembly to also drive the 2.5" midrange cone to well below 1kHz is a challenge with dynamic music played <100dB even in a smallish room, even with infinite amp power; Requiring the 2.5" cone midrange to generate expected SPLs through excursion rather than surface area adds to the difficulties the coax has in filling just a moderate-sized room with realistic SPLs even with plenty of watts; Wide dispersion a double-edged sword to tame room reflections; 22(!!) crossover components for a 2-way 1st-order crossover to tailor impedance curve and driver response; Careful attention to all elements of stereo components and listening room to keep them from sounding too forward (but *much* better than the 2.3 in this respect).
There are many great speakers out there, and Thiels aren't the only answer to the sound I'm looking for, but the work I've put into all the electronics and cables to get them to sound their best is my reward by having better source-to-room sound than I would have with a less-demanding speaker. It also means I'll be keeping them indefinitely, when better speaker designs for similar money often come to mind.
Thiel 1.6, 2.3, 3.6, 3.7; B&W CDM7NT, 9NT, 804; Audio Physic Tempo 3; Dynaudio Audience 82, Contour 1.8 MkII; Boston Acoustics VRM90, A200; Vandersteen 2ce signature; Paradigm Studio 60, 80, 100; Avalon Eidolon; Dali 400-series; Dunlavy SC 2 & 3a; tons more over the years...
Thorens TD-115 Turntable, fully rebuilt and upgraded
PAID: $280, Cambridge MA Tech HiFi ($450 MSRP 1979)
REPLACED: Modified '02 Rega Planar25
TWEAKS: Cardas Golden Cross Phono cable custom connected from tonearm base; 10lbs inert clay added inside base for greater resonance control; MusicMat Sorbothane platter mat; record clamp; Audioquest NRG-1 AC power cord; Recently dialed-in exact cart position; Picked up a donor TD-155 with 0.01% the number of hours on it as mine and transplanted all the wearable parts into mine: platter, sub-platter, bearing ass'y; motor; motor controller circuit boards; the four sub-platter isolators; electrical switches and pot; auto-lift solenoid; wearing trim strips and controls; then cleaned out, tweaked, adjusted and calibrated everything from scratch.
+: Sounds as good as the VPI Prime with a low-output Dynavector in a $100,000 high-end audio shop -- before the complete makeover and transplant -- to the surprise and consternation of the various salespeople. Low-mass TP30 tonearm a perfect synergistic match for Ortofon VMS20e MkII cart;
Tonearm years ahead of VPI's 3D printer tonearm as it's all composites or plastics tuned to remove any resonances;
Underslung decoupled counterweight in-line with stylus tip; Functionality all current turntable manufacturers have forgotten about: auto-shutoff, sprung dustcover, front-panel controls, cueing damped in both directions; electronic speed and pitch control via pretty sophisticated for its era analog servo; Sophisticated isolation damping; Has played a bazillion records by now, non-stop since 1979 w/o any problems; Fine industrial design and style.
-: After hearing it up against the VPI Prime, there are no negatives to this piece.
AUDITIONED: VPI Prime, Rega P25, VPI TNT, Music Hall MMF-7, none other worthy of mention.
Ortofon VMS20e Mk II Phono Cartridge
PAID: $55 new! Cambridge MA Tech HiFi ($150 MSRP 1979)
REPLACED: '02 Grado The Reference ($1200, 4.5mV)
+: Very low effective tip mass plus very high compliance plus 5mV output in a low-mass tonearm equals great dynamics and tracking; synergistic match with Thorens TP30 tonearm, perfectly aligned; replacement styli still available from Ortofon until 2013 underscores how well-regarded this cart remains even today; detail, space, HF definition and air exceeds most high-output MCs and equals a few low-output MCs; fine soundstaging, solid bass and natural mids leave little to be desired from a MM.
-: Good as it sounds, it's not the equal of a major manufacturer's $3000 MC. Duh.
AUDITIONED (recently, vs ortofon): Dynavector DV20X2, 0.3mv MC, Grado The Reference, Shelter 501, Audioquest 7000, Goldring Eroica, Sumiko Blue Point, Ortofon VMS30, more to come...
Whest PS.20 MkII Phono Pre, Factory Mods
PURCHASED: 2008, audiogon
PAID: $1250 ($2600 MSRP 2006) (+ too much to think about for upgrades)
REPLACED: Whest PS.20 MkI, Audio Research PH3-SE, BelCanto Phono 1
TWEAKS: upgraded by the designer to a PS.20 + PS.30R hybrid with an altered topology and some choice PS.30R parts, much the same as the current Whest Three; (1) #1 Vibrapod; the factory's latest power supply umbilical cord; Harmonic Tech Pro AC-11 1.5m cryo-treated ACPC; HiFi Tuning AC line fuse.
+: All the nice things Fremer et al have said about it: immense and precise soundstaging, effortless dynamics, smooth yet resolving, a rich palette of textures, usefully compact 2-box design. Dual +-37 volt rails, >20,000uF power supply storage, 12 discrete 24V regulators guarantee huge dynamics and drive capability. The MkII version (never marketed in the US) has a cleaner PCB layout, select parts have been upgraded, matched and closer toleranced -- sounds better in every way than original PS.20: improvement is subtle but very worthwhile. After the factory mods to my MkII topology and further parts upgrades, the improvement is anything but subtle: a very smooth presentation with further improvements to grip, speed, dynamics, soundstaging and detail. WooHoo! Reliable, has stayed on 24/7 for years without issue.
-: cartridge loading plugs are a PITA and essentially impossible to adjust, why not DIP switches like everyone else?
The Parasound JC3+ is a distinct improvement wrt a more liquid dimensional midrange presentation and a better-organized soundstage, though all other attributes are equaled or exceeded by the Whest. But the Parasound's advantages do make for a better overall unit.
AUDITIONED: Parasound JC3+, BelCanto Phono1, Audio Research PH3-SE, Pass Ono, Phonomena, Pass Pearl, Black Cube, Simaudio LP5.3 with huge external power supply, lots of lesser stages.
Proceed CDD CD Transport, Factory Refurbished
PURCHASED: '04, GTT audio
PAID: $1100, includes GTT paying $500 for a Madrigal factory complete replacement of the drive assembly and upgrade to the latest hardware and software revisions - thanks! ($2500 MSRP 1999)
REPLACED: Philips CD60 & CD80 CDPs used as CDPs, then transports
TWEAKS: brass isolation cones; SignalCable Magic Power Digital ACPC; HiFiTuning Line Fuse; Gutwire 'Notepad2' vibration damping bag above drive mechanism.
+: This is one good-sounding transport compared to even modern CD players: the same designers, architecture, drive mechanism and circuit elements as the Mark Levinson No.37, sound is indistinguishable; careful attention to creating the ideal SPDIF signal packets w/o jitter; flawlessly plays all CDRs and CDRWs; lightning-fast index times; giant OLED display can be read across the room; some neat features not on many other CD players (extended pause (like a DVD 'resume' function), direct-time access to anywhere on disc, track delete programming, index track indication); attractive, distinctive industrial design.
-: plastic non-ergonomic remote; plastic front-panel buttons and light bleed-through from status LEDs; display lacks useful operational information; lacks the comprehensive feature-set and seamless operation of my old Philips CDPs.
MFG'D: '02 (the second unit assembled off their production line!)
PURCHASED: '02, BelCanto direct (no local dealer)
PAID: $1300 MSRP
REPLACED: Adcom GDA-600
TWEAKS: Kimber PK14 Gold AC power cord; HiFi Tuning Fuse (2) #1 Vibrapod feet; Great Northern Sound DAC2-specific upgrade voiced by BelCanto and Wadia engineers ($500) takes a broad multi-faceted approach that goes far beyond the usual 'modder' fare with remarkable results.
+: As neutral and non-fatiguing as the best digital out there, see below; Very clever circuit design for 2002, lots of digital horsepower, now the template for a lot of today's DAC architectures; Highly miniaturized SMT layout; FPGA does all digital filtering and jitter reduction algorithms; Microprocessor control of PLLs, input buffering, housekeeping; Nicely implemented IC + discrete output stage, high slew-rate (51V/uS) I/V TI opamps, DC servo into driver buffer means no output capacitors; 24/192 upsampling, 24/96 pro-audio input receiver; Lots of regulation and even more local filtering using Black Gates; Compact and unassuming appearance; Sounds insanely good and holds its own in direct comparisons to some of the latest and greatest DACs and CDPs (see below) (yes, the dCS does sound better; the Berkeley sounds better in some areas but a draw in many others; Overall it sounds nearly identical to the PS Audio Perfect Wave DAC series II that I spent a month A/Bing with. The GNS mods are a big reason for this performance); Bargain price for its technology in 2002; Has the bass and treble sonics of good modern solid state (fast, extended, detailed) but the entire midrange of classic tube gear (bloomy, wider images, congestion on complex passages, smooooth and grain-free, though lacks the tonal saturation of tubes and the best DACs).
-: Doesn't have the depth rendition of the best DACs on the few CDs that contain that information; The better current DACs have a more-open and coherent soundstage;
Macrodynamics aren't up to the very best fully-discrete analog output DACs, but few CDs are challenging enough to note a difference;
The best modern DACs have a little more tonal color and saturation.
(originally): Arcam CD92; Adcom GCD-750; Theta Casablanca II; MSB Gold Link; Krell KAV280; NAD C541i; Cary CD 306/200; Mark Levinson No. 360S;
Tascam CD-RW900 MkII CD Recorder
PURCHASED: '17, Boynton Studio, Norwich, NY
PAID: $289, (MSRP $349)
REPLACED: Yamaha CDR-S1000 from 2001 that was a really nice piece but I gave up when its 2nd complex proprietary transport mechanism started flaking out again.
TWEAKS: GTT AC power cord actually does make a nice improvement on an otherwise budget piece of gear.
+: Lots of features, some very useful, others not at all;
copies and creates CD Text with or without an external keyboard;
no SCMS to limit number of copies that can be burned;
uses generic CD-Rs and CD-RWs, not the 'music-only' type my Yamaha needed;
a remarkably good A/D/A codec implemented reasonably well for the ridiculously low price;
-: tiny icons on small oversaturated display make viewing close-up essential;
no USB capabilities or inputs -- in this day and age, why?? ;
really junky-responding CD tray better suited to a $49 DVD player despite decent modern Teac transport the CD eventually lands in;
some surprisingly bone-headed counter-intuitive displays and settings;
crappy non-ergonomic square remote control no fun at all to have to use;
as a pure CD player it sounds surprisingly good -- especially for the price and functionality - except for a purely 1-dimensional soundstage: no height or depth.
Magnum Dynalab MD100 Factory-Modded FM Tuner
MFG'D: '01, started life as the last production run of the FT101a before the MD90 replaced it.
PURCHASED: '02 audiogon, 3mo old.
PAID: $750 + $300 for MD100 upgrade & PCB replacement plus flywheel tuning ass'y + $275 latest factory-installed 20-station remote control setup + $150 for factory alignment using better IF filters and some custom tweakage I requested. ($2000 MSRP for MD100 in 2010)
REPLACED: Advent 300 receiver
TWEAKS: FT101a on the outside but factory-upgraded MD100 inside. They also installed their latest ('04) 20-preset analog remote control, which is actually a pretty trick piece of engineering and very convenient. They optimized their bogus stereo blend circuitry to work more like a proper stereo blend - fortunately the FT101A chassis retains the blend on/off switch unlike their current models. I replaced the power supply filter caps with 2x4700uF Nichicon Gold Tunes, and the chassis feet with EAR sorbothane feet. GTT Absolute AC power cord. I'm using an FM-specific yagi antenna and the Magnum-Dynalab ST-2 loaded omni whip antenna selectable by an RF switchbox.
+: Fine sound and sensitivity; Utilitarian, almost Heathkit-like, appearance; Incredible customer service; RF performance exceeds and audio performance at least equals a fully-modded Kenwood KT-8300 late-'70s supertuner; Seems MD is associated with FM today the way McIntosh was in the '70s -- minus the build quality and UX.
-: There sure doesn't seem to be $2000 worth of parts, engineering or build quality inside; Multipath meter is useless by design, factory acknowledges it doesn't really work; Signal strength meter saturates around 50uV and is thus useless for either tuning or determining true signal strength FM muting circuit totally amateur, doesn't mute the tuner when tuning rapidly along the band; The stereo blend circuit is a bad joke that is useless 99% of the time as they attempt to engage it progressively over a very narrow range based purely on signal strength, not noise, so you either get noisy stereo or premature mono; The above shortcuts make for an unsatisfying user experience with something that should be tactile and engaging; Sloppy-looking kit-like internal layout with too much point-to-point wiring; I could have bought a lot of good-performing '80s japanese analog tuners with mods and alignments for the money I have into this MD tuner -- but the Kenwood shootout shows that MD really does know how to design fully competent RF circuitry despite the board appearance and parts count!
REPLACED: Worn-out Tandberg TCD-440A, now relegated to fast FF/REW duties
TWEAKS: I've added on an aftermarket wireless remote that controls the transport functions of both Nak decks either separately or in parallel -- very convenient, as I was spoiled by the remote on my Tandberg TCD440A for the past 20 years. Elna Cerafine output capacitors replacing generic electrolytics. The left playback channel went dead recently, so a top Nak shop has done a full refurbishment of the deck (full cleaning, lube and alignment, internal trim of R/P frequency response; new belts; measurements to confirm it exceeds factory specs; repaired playback amp).
+: Straightforward controls with minimal bells and whistles; Very low flutter gives stable soundstage and very good resolution of detail; Fine analog sound, the best cassettes still as good or better than Redbook recording formats;
Nak has figured out what it takes for top sound from the cassette format and has provided only that needed to do the job well -- as such, a deceptively simple feature set but 20+ years of internal tricks and refinement that make for the best recordings without excess complexity: in fact they went too far with this series removing features and complexity :-(
-: Only adequate internal build quality (but better than DR10); Narcotically slow wind times (C100: 190 seconds vs 58 on my Tandbergs); Why don't all of the better cassette decks (this included) have a DC motor behind each reel as per Tandberg?? Small markings on monochromatic display hard to read at any distance; No peak-hold on meters; Meter segments too coarse; Tiny same-size black-on-black controls tedious to check settings; No microphone inputs; Generic japanese appearance; Not nearly the tour-de-force of the best previous-generation Naks and other top decks; Most importantly, for their final-generation top of the line deck, they really cheaped out in the dumbest places, notably no output stage, the Dolby chip drives the outputs! hence a 2200 ohm Zout and no drive capability; Why not use the more-robust better-spec transport of their CR7A and make the improvements of gear drive and the local head amp PCB of the DR series?
AUDITIONED: NAD 6300
Nakamichi DR-10 Tape Deck
PURCHASED: '02, ebay, new
PAID: $460 ($899 MSRP 2001)
REPLACED: wearing-out Tandberg TCD-310 MkII, still used for its great microphone preamps and live-concert recordings I bought the DR series Naks cos they were new(er) and I wouldn't have to worry about worn out electrical and mechanical internal parts, gear instead of belt drive, the decks pared down to just the essentials that Nak has dialed-in for near-SOTA cassette deck sound
+: see DR1 +s: it sounds just as good as the DR1.
-: see DR1 -s as well as: no output level control; mediocre build quality (worse than DR1); $900 is overpriced for internals, which is why they were so heavily discounted; Nak could have done more for their last-hurrah cassette deck than make a poor copy of their early-'90s DR2, as well as it works and leverages most of their design tricks over the decades.
Tandberg TCD-440A Very Fast Rewind & Fast Forward Cassette Winder
PAID: $125 ($1600 MSRP 1980)
REPLACED: Harmon Kardon 1500
MODS: RC-20 remote control; colored LEDs to better differentiate settings across the room; many times tweaked or fixed by good Tandberg man
+: Classic design: an early '80s electromechanical engineering tour de force; very smooth switching and solid transport mechanism with AC motor driving dual capstans; dyneq + actilinear do make for better recordings; elegant unique styling; equalized peak reading meters; compact size allows many placement options; great microphone preamp circuitry; superfast wind times still the best out there, with silky transport control logic;
remote control sure is useful.
-: 30 years of operation have taken its toll on the transport; parts no longer available; what was trick in 1980 isn't so much in 2017; flutter not nearly as low as the best last-gen decks affecting soundstaging and detail; dark ages metal tape technology; dolby FM??
Retired from active duty due to transport alignment wear problems that are no longer worth trying to refurbish, but in use to quickly FF/REW cassettes (C100: 59 seconds vs 189 seconds on Nakamichi!) and index the tape counter to the written track locations on my 25-years worth of Tandberg-recorded cassettes. I've seen less-used examples of 440As currently available cheap, but been there done that.
Phase Linear 1000 Series Two Dynamic Expander & Noise Reduction
PURCHASED: '81, Tech HiFi Cambridge MA
PAID: $330 ($450 MSRP 1981)
TWEAKS: Full upgrade and calibration in 2017 by Audioproz who seem to be the only shop that understands and cares enough about the brilliance of this design to replace parts that affect calibration drift and effectiveness, better-sounding op-amps in the signal path, lowering noise floor, general refurbish. Nice!
REPLACED: Burwen DNF1201A dynamic noise filter
+: another clever inspired piece of work by Bob Carver -- this is an *all analog* design that likely sounds and works better than most of the digital 'plug-in' equivalents on people's PCs and is implemented with actual hardware, not lines of code...; surprisingly high parts quality and build with no electrolytic caps beyond the power supply; to this day works really well with essentially no sonic degradation, esp w/ good cables, even moreso after the Audioproz signal path upgrades; remarkably transparent even with all electronics switched in, especially so when used just as a dynamic range expander; separately switchable 1.1:1 + 1.5dB expander and 10dB 'auto-correlation' single-ended noise reduction actually performs as advertised, significantly cutting all forms of hiss and hash w/o 'breathing' or otherwise calling any attention to itself;
an effective passive infrasonic filter when just switched into the tape loop w/o engaging its electronics; effective at improving material and FM that has been dynamically compressed through the use of its 1.5dB peak unlimiter and gentle expander capabilities, but nothing can help the too-many CDs that are unlistenably brickwalled.
Having said all that, it's engaged in the system perhaps 10% of the time over the last decade for noisy tapes and compressed CDs...
-: none really considering its age and intent, especially now with the audibly-cleaner opamps and refined calibration.
AUDITIONED: Burwen dynamic noise limiter, dbx, Dolby C and S, high filters
Headroom Max Reference Headphone Amp
MFG'D: '03, 2nd-generation Max circuit board and parts with Maxed-Out-Home F&R faceplates
PURCHASED: '07, AudiogoN
PAID: $700 + $536 for '07 'Max' electronics modules and 16 HEXFREDs in power supply. (Equivalent MAX MSRP ~$2000 in 2003)
REPLACED: '99 Headroom Maxed-Out Home w/ 2004 Reference electronics modules
TWEAKS: PS Audio Prelude SC AC power cord; (2) HiFi Tuning AC line fuses 3M vibration damping sheet inside chassis; '07 'Max' electronics modules; optional factory stepped attenuator, 24 steps, ~1.5dB per step; 16 HEXFREDs in power supply; 4 #1 vibrapods.
+: Really short signal path; Outstanding parts and build quality; 627 opamps as buffers for discrete transistor output stage, all implemented on dual mono SMT daughter boards; Their best stepped attenuator; Four overkill discrete 15V power supplies, one each for each channel's plus and minus rail, these after a huge dual-transformer 22,000uF, 16 HEXFRED primary supply; Switchable 'headroom' crossfeed circuitry is one of the best of its type; Makes a good sounding, albeit limited, line-stage preamp, nearly on par with my modded Sonic Frontiers Line1 SE -- but not quite; Plenty of current drive and very low output impedance can really take charge of the most difficult (?) headphone loads; Quite a lot of flexibility compared to many current headphone amps.
Flawless (?) sound with headphones: indistinguishable with a good source, interconnects and Audeze LCD-3 'phones from the Bryston BHA-1 dedicated headphone amp: maybe not the ultimate comparison but still a well-regarded modern solid-state dedicated headphone amp.
-: None, really, a complete piece of well-executed design before the company started losing its way a few years ago. The input selector switch is hard to get at between the RCA jack pairs on the rear...
AUDITIONED: Bryston BHA-1; Woo Audio WA-3; '08 Benchmark DAC1Pre; Wadia 121; Musical Fidelity XCANS V2; Audio Alchemy dd1.0 headphone amp; previous-generation Headroom (basic) Home and new '02 Maxed Out Home Reference;plenty of headphone jacks attached to non-dedicated headphone amps. Really not all that many compared to what is now on the market. Many more auditions vs current headphone amps to come...
Sennheiser HD600 Headphones, Equinox Cabled
PURCHASED: '01, audiogon
PAID: $200 ($400 MSRP 2017)
REPLACED: Sennheiser HD580, AKG K240, Koss Pro4AA
TWEAKS: 15' Stefan AudioArt Equinox phone plug to earcups cable ($369!) makes a huge improvement over the stock cable; DiMarzio Silver and Grado headphone extension cables; New earpads and headband cushion.
+: all-day comfort; satisfying headphone sound in most respects to this headphone geek;
unambiguously better than HD650s in my system with my tastes -- more neutral, transients 'pop', better vocals and tighter bass; still regarded as of 2017 as one of the better headphones on the market for anywhere near the price after twenty years of production.
-: give me a smidge more bass below 100Hz;
more transparency wouldn't hurt;
there are better-sounding headphones on the market 20 years later - duh. muzzled by stock headphone cable, at least with this 2000 model year - why can't they use the HD650 cord on the 600s too? (maybe they do by now?)
AUDITIONED: Audeze LCD-X, XC, 3; Audioquest Nighthawk; NAD HP50; PSB M4U; Sony MDRZ7; AKG K340, K240, K601, K701; Sennheiser Orpheus, HD280, HD650, HD580; Grado SR325e, GS1000, RS2. I admit to falling behind on all the great headphones (and amps) that are now out there. As I spend so much time with headphones, I really should get to a head-fi meet, but if I'm happy with what I have, would that be a good way to spend my time and perhaps more money??
Yamaha DVD-S1800 Univeral Player
PURCHASED: 2008, 2010 new
PAID: $380 (ABT), $80 (amazon) ($450 MSRP)
REPLACED: Yamaha DVD-S1700
TWEAKS: 4 vibrapods, AQ NRG-1 ACPC, HiFiTuning AC line fuse, 3M vibration absorbing strips
+: sounds better than it has any right to, esp SACD which is native DSD laser to output; surprisingly good audio section parts, tons of local regulation, Elna Cerafine caps; excellent GUI and flexibility for moderately-priced DVD player; great picture quality so far as I can tell; sounds as good or better than any of the pre-BD105 Oppos; quick-loading & quiet transport; lo & hi rez PCM sounds pretty good too.
-: SACD programming flexibility limited; cheap opamps used for post-DAC chip I/V is the bottleneck for better sound from the output stage;
not much to complain about for the price and manufacturer and original intent!
AUDITIONED: Marantz SA11S2; NAD M55; all kinds of CD players and DACs.
Audioquest Dragonfly V1.2 and Jitterbug
Part of the recent foray into 'computer audio'. IBM Thinkpad T560 running Win10 and 320kbps Spotify Premium (and a number of 24/96 downloads) over WiFi placed atop the big rig and plugged in to the preamp gives me access to 4 million songs at a level of sound quality that makes me wonder why I spent so many tens of thousands of dollars on everything else here. Also using VLC media player for various downloads, hi-rez and otherwise. Dragonfly also feeds my cheap powered desktop loudspeakers to good effect and does a commendable job at driving my HD600 headphones with half-decent fidelity.
Actually preferred this model to current Dragonfly Red in a variety of processing formats and configurations. Red's bass is 'pinched' and doesn't 'flow' as well as V1.2; Red's high-end ruthlessly revealing of high-bit-rate mp3 streams but doesn't significantly upgrade 24/96 decoding.
Prices are MSRP when last available or current (2015) prices marked with * if still available. Lengths are 1m unless otherwise specified. ($8400 MSRP!)
Cardas Golden Cross: preamp out to pwr amp in ($1149)
Cardas Golden Cross: phono stage to preamp in ($1149/pr) Cardas Golden Cross Phono (1.25m): turntable to phono stage in ($661)
Harmonic Technology Pro-Silway Mk II: DAC out to preamp in ($465)
(2) Audioquest Emerald X1: preamp tape-out to processor line in; processor line-out to preamp tape input ($300/pr * 2)
*DH Labs Silver Sonics II (0.5m): processor tape out to CDR analog input ($110)
*Kimber Silver Streak (10", 3rd party): tape1 out to tape2 record in ($40)
Audioquest Topaz X2: FM tuner out to preamp in ($80)
Audioquest Coral: processor tape-out to tape deck line-in ($120)
*Kimber PBJ: CD recorder analog out to preamp in ($117)
*Straightwire FlexConnect II stereo mini plug to L&R phono plugs (0.5m) ($50)
Straightwire FlexConnect II (0.5m): from adapter cable above to preamp ($50)
Audioquest Viper (0.5m): Preamp tape out to headphone amp input ($195)
*DiMarzio High Definition (4.5'): tape1 out to processor tape in ($109)
*Audioquest King Cobra: Nakamichi DR1 tape out to power amp in via preamp SSP input ($249)
Tara RSC Prime: Universal Player out to preamp line in ($185)
(2) Straightwire Flexconnect II (2*1m): video/aux to preamp ($50 * 2)
*(2) Straightwire Musicable II (2*1m): video to preamp ($32 * 2)
*Generic $1.79 RCA patch cords: reference interconnects to confirm the amount I paid for all the above is justified!!
*Kimber Illuminati D60 digital coax: Proceed transport to DAC ($397)
Wireworld Supernova III+ glass fiber toslink: CDR transport optical digital output to DAC ($100)
Wireworld Supernova 6 glass fiber toslink: Bluetooth receiver out to DAC in ($220)
*Canare Digiflex Gold digital coax: Proceed transport to CD recorder coax digital input ($45)
Wireworld Polaris 5 (12'): power amp to speakers ($1200)
Audioquest HDMI-X: DVD out to TV in ($60)
*Audioquest YIQ-X: DVD component out to TV in ($80)
Wireworld Polaris 5 Speaker Cable
PURCHASED: '07, The Cable Co, new
PAID: $600 for 12' pair, factory half-price closeout as they moved to their new-gen flat speaker cables
REPLACED: Audioquest Bedrock
+: Very neutral frequency balance, just a hint of warmth; relatively small and flexible; these are the single cables (non bi-wireable) identical to the oft-reviewed highly-regarded Wireworld Eclipse speaker cables which are two Polaris in a single wide sheath; the closeout price was right; bested 12+ other top-notch cables overall I rented from Cable Company for exhaustive comparisons -- years later no regrets about my final choice.
-: Other cables did something 'better': Syn Research had a wider soundstage, Analysis+ more low bass, Cardas more organic vocals, etc
AUDITIONED: Over a dozen speaker cables thoroughly auditioned to mate 2.4s with cables & equipment voiced for 2.3s. Ultimately came down to Cardas Neutral Reference vs these, REALLY tough call, but these were more 'neutral' despite Cardas' incredible midrange presentation.
Various AC Power Cords
lengths are 3' or 1m unless otherwise specified; prices are MSRP when last available, or current (2017) prices if marked with an *. ($1900 MSRP total)
*(3) Signal Cable MagicPower Cords from wall to PS Audio Duet Power Conditioner, and from two of its outlets to the PS Audio Juice Bar 6-outlet strip and Wireworld Tundra 6-outlet strip. ($69*3=$207)
Harmonic Technology Pro AC-11, cryo-treated, to Whest phono stage, 1.5m. ($330)
PS Audio Plus SC to McCormack power amp. ($280)
*Audioquest NRG-1 to (electronically controlled) Thorens turntable. ($74)
*Signal Cable MagicPower Digital to Proceed CD transport. ($79)
*Kimber PK-14 Gold to Bel Canto DAC. 4' ($358)
PS Audio Prelude SC to Headroom headphone amp, 1.5m. ($150)
GTT Absolute Power Cord Mk 2 to tuner, 8'. ($100);
GTT Absolute Power Cord Mk 1 to CD recorder, 8'. ($60)
*Kimber PK-10 to Sonic Frontiers preamplifier. ($268);
*Audioquest NRG-1 to Yamaha DVD-S1800 universal player, 6'. ($89)
Nakamichi cassette decks, Phase Linear processor have captive power cords.
Finally took the plunge into AC power conditioning and cords with pleasing results.
The $295 Duet replaces their high-current Ultimate Outlet ($400, a great unit on its own) and feeds all my gear from two isolated zones of two outlets each: the Juice Bar ($200) supplies the analog gear and a Wireworld Tundra ($70) outlet strip feeds the digital. The power amp is plugged directly into the spare analog outlet of the Duet.
A quality extension cord with four outlets feeds my video gear from the second digital outlet on the Duet, and a good metal Belden outlet strip feeds everything else.
The wall to the Duet and the Duet to both outlet strips each have their own 10ga 3' Signal Cable power cords.
Replaced my existing wall outlet with a Hubbell 8300 ($23) and called it quits. Except for spending twice as much on power cords :-(
Nitty Gritty Record Doctor II vacuum cleaner;
RRL Deep Cleaner;
Audioquest carbon fiber record brush;
LAST stylus cleaners 4&5;
Shure stylus pressure gauge;
Realistic standalone amplifier power meters;
Realistic SPL meter;
Realistic AC timer for cassette decks;
Teac tape head demagnetizer;
cassette tape splicer;
AudioPrism CD Stoplight;
Auric Illuminator II CD treatment;
Caig Pro Gold liquid contact cleaner;
Archer FM-specific Yagi antenna and Magnum Dynalab ST-2 base-loaded whip antenna, A/B selectable
(2) AKG D125e professional cardioid dynamic microphones, stands, cabling
Tivoli Model One table radio to honor Henry Kloss and the Advent 300 (and New Large Advents) I listened to for so long...
CWD Woodmore Lowboy Equipment Rack
$440 MSRP in 1984
Plenty solid finished wood stand holds all of my electronics and most of my LPs.
This was specifically an audio system rack setup of the 1980s. The wood is MUCH heavier and more-inert than modern-day MDF.
It would cost me thousands to get this amount of surface area with various tweaky isolation racks, and I'm skeptical the sonic improvement would be worth it or even noticeable - I've got no audible feedback or noise issues. My turntable is fully suspended, so no benefit to a massive base.
Sony KDL26S3000 TV,JVC HR-VP780U VCR,Yamaha DVD-S1800,Tivax STB-T8
Even though I watch broadcast TV perhaps a couple hours a month, may as well list the TV, DVD player and VCR as it makes for a token HT system when its audio outputs are selected on the preamp. Roll them on their cart between the Thiels and enhance the soundtrack on anything from The Simpsons to The Matrix. Didn't want anything larger due to the size and weight of something I rarely use and don't particularly value.
>> 26-inch LCD TV with big high-gain UHF antenna bought new in '08 for $640. Don't pay for cable but get higher-def from broadcast signals for free. Not that there's much to watch though. Comprehensive feature set and remote, nice picture quality once dialed in. Paid the big bucks for a 3-hour home calibration. Now wish I had gone up one size to the 32" :-(
>> Top of their line full-function VCR bought new in '01 for $130. Plays, records, jogs, shuttles, used to receive (analog) broadcast stations, adjusts tracking, switches stereo/mono/L/R, good slow-mo, thorough remote capability, has a clock. Whatever. Does a fine job as a VCR for less than the price of a used interconnect.
The scary thing is how well it records music: I used good cables and recorded some tracks off the big rig at high tape speed and it was essentially a toss-up sonically to the same tracks recorded on my $900 Nakamichi decks! Yikes.
>> Bought a good DTV tuner-converter that feeds into the VCR so I can record over-the-air broadcasts as the VCR has only an analog tuner. The Tivax tuner has better RF performance than the Sony TV, so I use that on weak stations even if it only outputs standard def on a composite cable.
>> In 2008 bought a Yamaha DVD-S1800 'universal player', my first DVD player, $450. Plays SACD, DVD-A and everything else, and sounds disarmingly close to CD played on the big rig. Hi-rez audio sounds truly good, if not quite in the same league as dedicated 2ch audio-only rigs at 10X the price (duh). A step above the cheaper Oppos. Oh, and a good picture, too.
0.5m pair of Flexconnect II from DVD analog 2ch outs to VCR line in;
1m pair of Whest SignalShield One from VCR to TV audio in.
Monster composite video cable from DVD to VCR in and from VCR out to TV in.
(2) 1m pairs of Straightwire Flexconnect II and
(2) 1m pairs of Straightwire Musicable II from TV audio out to preamp.
Tara RSC Prime from DVD analog out to TV audio in or preamp line stage;
Audioquest HDMI-X and YIQ-X from DVD to TV HDMI and component video inputs respectively.
Supplied detachable ACPCs to a dedicated outlet on the PS Audio Duet via a long thick extension cord.
Stuff I Can't Sell Despite Not Being in the Big Rig
These items I've collected over time but cannot bring myself to sell. They either make up a bedroom system or are in storage for future use.
ADVENT 300 Receiver. Bought this new in 1979 ($300 MSRP), a couple years later modded it up with top-level film caps everywhere and a bigger power supply. Perhaps the best-sounding solid state power amp of the era (quality, not quantity!), ditto the phono stage, a remarkably good FM tuner, and a decent, flexible preamp. Has been in 25 years of 'shootouts' and was the centerpiece of my system until 2002. Has worked flawlessly for 37 years. My current electronics should serve me so well.
PHILIPS CD80 single disc CD player. 1990 MSRP $800, bought in 2004 for $75 in perfect condition. The best sounding CDP of its time, and still built like a tank, with Philips best-ever transport, plenty of high-quality parts, their best 1541 chipset. This still sounds really good in absolute terms as stock and can get to a new level with a set of specific parts upgrades I haven't bothered with yet. Still the most comprehensive and flexible feature set on a CD player and totally seamless operation.
BEL CANTO PHONO 1 phono preamp. [SOLD] Bought new from the factory ($1200 MSRP, paid $700) and used to be something of a personal reference. Perfectly voiced, neutral frequency balance throughout; The very best passive components to make the very best sound possible from a pair of BurrBrown 2134 and a pair of AD797 opamps; four high quality discrete regulator stages right next to the chips; Compact size and layout; Dozens of MC loading values; 40, 54, 60 dB gain; Still sounds decent, but lacks speed, dynamics and the top octave or two against the Whest and other more-modern more-expensive phono stages; Responds well to a good ACPC and vibrapods.
AUDIOQUEST BEDROCK speaker cable: $700/15' pair, a distinctly warm cable, with great bass, moderated mids yet extended treble that doesn't get in your face but has decent resolution and a focused soundstage. Just the thing for my Thiel 2.3s, but the 2.4s benefit from something a bit more neutral the way the rest of my system is voiced.
TANDBERG TCD310 MkII cassette deck: Bought this in 1979 for $600 and the TCD440A a few years later. At this stage after a dozen transport rebuilds the 310 has problems playing, the 440 problems recording. Have made perhaps 1000 tapes on each. The 310 still gets used for remote live recordings, and sometimes I use it just for the quality of its microphone preamplifiers feeding another unit. The 440A is in the big rig for its fast winding motors, but unlike the 310, I can play back the tape reliably to index where I am...
Radio Shack Bluetooth Receiver 120-1799
PURCHASED: uh, Radio Shack 2017
PAID: $30 ($70 msrp)
Pure convenience to play streaming audio from laptop, phone, tablet to the big rig. Internal DAC functional, but toslink output allows connection to my 'real' DAC for an order of magnitude improvement even for the limited fidelity of BT.
Use of high-end Wireworld Supernova glass-fiber toslink cables transform the sound from the plastic toslinks I thought had adequate resolution for Bluetooth. Now streaming from my PC over BT to this unit into the DAC makes for excellent non-critical listening and even enjoyable sonics when focused on the music.
Note this doesn't use the better-sounding APT-X protocol. But it links quickly and reliably, and sounds better than its price, manufacturer and format would suggest. Offers up all kinds of flexibility previously untapped for 'background' music.
that's a fantastic setup! I've never had the chance to hear a Magnum Dynalab tuner but my friends who have say they are marvelous. You mentioned a few frustrations with it above -- Have you found any other FM tuner that came close? Cheers and thanks for all the insights in your descriptions
Play on play on. Be it old or new, nice collection of some solid gear. Fun using the old and new equipment. The Nak decks do sound good. Enjoyed reading your comments as I listen to some cool jazz. Cheers to you for the next twenty years.
System Edited: upgraded the capacitors in the speaker crossovers; Whest reworked my PS.20 MkII into a hybrid PS.20/PS.30R to great effect. Several big audio shows, high-end dealers and various shootouts and A/Bs with more-modern CDPs, headphones, etc confirm I'm still in a satisfying sonic space with no upgraditis gnawing at my conscience...
After reading your comments concerning the Thorens V. Rega, I can confidently say it is obvious the Thorens was the better sounding TT . . . it is because of that bike tire you are using for a platter on the Thorens, that is genious!!
Seriously, I enoyed reading your post, informative and entertaining. I went through a similiar experience with my TT's as well. I ended up selling the Thorens. I agree with the characteristics you described hearing in the Thorens. I could never get over the amount of time and energy that went into the set-up. You clearly have more patience.
Hello again Ray. Updating the FT101A to MD100 status I think depends on the vintage of your unit. I'd say 'definitely' if it's before the late '90s. MD had ongoing factory tweaks throughout that tuner's life so for a later FT101a the diff may not be huge. MD will hand-tune your existing tuner for notably better RF performance for a lot less than an MD100 upgrade, that may be the better step. Half the reason I upgraded to the hand-tuned MD100 was the killer deal they gave me, and no question it's a better layout despite being of similar design. They're straight-shooters, I'd call them and ask if an MD100 upgrade would make any more sense than hand-tuning your FT101a for that much difference in price...
In my case it was less the 'high level' of upgrade of my McCormack amp, than the unique combination of known upgrades to meet my needs followed by the customer-specific tweaking to match my speakers and sonic desires. The personal availability of a top audio engineer, intimate knowledge of his amps' characteristics and willingness to listen to and commit to satisfying his customers is what makes SMC Audio a class act in my experience.
Hello Scott,I really enjoyed reading about your audio journey! I have a stock MD FT101A ,do you feel the mods you had done were worthwhile? Ive been thinking of having some work done to mine for a while now.I like the analog sound of the FT101A,and also have some good FM stations where i live.Sounds like you did well with the McCormack mods,i came close to buying a McCormack amp,and still wonder how it would sound in my system,i really like the fact that you can have Steves amps upgraded to such a high level! Ray
It's been over two years since I last posted that this system was 'Done For Now'. Well, now I'm a whole lot closer to saying that. Lots of updates, though the philosophy I started out with remains: flexibility, durability and proven utilitarian design rather than minimalist cottage-industry components that may do a couple things great vs everything well. So I'll write as quick a review as I can here, and the tedious details can be had by clicking on each component link above. I have been keeping those descriptions and the pictures current over the years.
PREAMP: A local Sonic Frontiers guru had tried all combinations of tubes in his Line 1 and I just took his word for it. Various combinations of NOS Tungsrams and new Electro-Harmonix 6922s add a dimensionality and presence to the soundstage plus a rounder, deeper bass and silky treble. The EH have speed, bass weight and detail. Together they enhance the otherwise very solid state-sounding Line 1. This preamp best espouses my flexibility over ultimate sonics mentality.
I sent it back to the factory for an 'SE' upgrade at their $399 fire-sale pricing, asking them not to change the tubes or the internal wiring, but every passive component in the signal path is significantly upgraded. Improved detail and microdynamics, certainly not night and day, nor worth their original $800 asking price!
I got nearly as much improvement by replacing the decade-old-design Crystal 3310 volume control chips with the latest BurrBrown drop-in replacements. At $14 each, the sonics were akin to going from a company's $100 to $250 interconnect -- similar house sound but noticeably better in most ways, esp soundstaging. Huge bang for the buck.
POWER AMP: As mentioned earlier, I had the last of the McCormack DNA0.5 Deluxes to come off the assembly lines upgraded to an SMc Audio Rev C early on, sonically slightly better than the current DNA125. Very happy with the results until I compared it to a fully-modded $6K DNA-1. Back it went to SMc for a combination of upgrades Steve McCormack hadn't quite done previously, though all part of his options: Rev B upgrades with several Rev A additions, plus a Plitron transformer and soft recovery diodes for the output stages. I was underwhelmed with the result, sounding compressed and bright with my Thiels, amusical and fatiguing to listen to for long or loud. After a couple weeks the amp quit, victim of a broken internal wire. Once it broke I let Steve know all I didn't like about the sound (who am I to tell him his amp upgrade sucked?), being as specific as I could with the audiophile vocabulary, my listening tastes, room acoustics and partnering equipment.
What came back was a remarkable transformation and proves his "Hand-Tuned Performance" motto as correct -- if you ask for it. He changed out a number of components, altered the transformer polarities, added some more rev A parts, carbon wiring, all in an attempt to better voice the amp for my Thiels and tastes. And all for free to boot! But the guy has been tweaking his amps for 15 years, and the results were better than I could have imagined: a frequency balance that seemed ideal for my speakers, which allowed all the revision 'A-' improvements in detail, dynamics and transparency to reveal themselves. In particular, the mids are silky, effortless and entirely grain-free, which remove the last traces of electronic hardness from the Thiel coax. His reference speaker is the $3500 Vandersteen 3A Sig, nearly the opposite sound of my Thiel 2.3, but we arrived at a great synergy, and I wonder how many of his other upgrades could be voiced specifically for his customers' systems. I also wonder how this amp now sounds vs a high-quality neutral amp, ie how much different does it sound because of the Thiel-specific revoicing. Steve suggests just a slight variation on the same theme, it's easy enough for me to compare sometime soon. This upgrade also provides a LOT more current available for the Thiels as well as power doubling all the way down to 2ohms. 220Wpc into 4ohms and 40A peak current are plenty for the speaker and my semi-nearfield listening in a 3000 cu ft room.
TURNTABLES: I had bought the $1200 Grado Reference cartridge and installed it in my Thorens tonearm, but even after I added mass to match it never sounded as good as I felt it could. So I bought a Rega P25, though not a reference table, it's highly regarded and a fine match for this cart. I immediately did all the standard P25 upgrades: offset counterweight, platter mat, set the speed accurately and tightened down the tonearm nut to the plinth. For months this combo sounded great.
Until I compared it to my (slightly modded) Thorens with my original Ortofon cart. Whoa. They sounded nearly identical in many aspects, with the Thorens trouncing it in percussives and microdynamics. I put a new stylus in the Ortofon, did a very careful tonearm setup, oiled the bearing, new belt and the 1980 Thorens TD115 and Ortofon VMS20e MkII was clearly the better rig, giving up nothing to the Rega/Grado. And I retained the auto-shutoff, electronically-controlled DC motor, front-panel bi-directionally-damped cueing, sprung dustcover, and far better suspension that doesn't benefit from a massive base. This combo has since acquitted itself quite well against some very expensive TTs, though I'll acknowledge it's not the ultimate vinyl playback machine. Sold the Rega with the Grado and haven't looked back. Hard to believe? It spawned quite a thread: Why Can't I Hear 20 Years of Phono Progress??
I've wanted to get a killer phono preamp to bring out all the Ortofon has to deliver, but the BelCanto has held up well with what I've compared it to -- that doesn't yet include a Whest, Steelhead, PhD et al. Smarter money would probably go towards a much-better TT/cart, despite the poor showing of the respected mid-range Rega/Grado combo.
TRANSPORTS: I was using a 1990 Philips CD60 cdp to feed my BelCanto DAC2. I had borrowed a Denon DVD-2900 universal player and found it sounded substantially better as a CD transport with the same Kimber D60 digital interconnect. This started a many-month search for a new transport that ended with a Proceed CDD, just refurbished by Madrigal including an entirely new drive unit so I put it on four brass cones, gave it a good power cord and called it a year. It's a cheaper version of the Mark Levinson No. 37, but the architecture and many of the parts are identical, as is the sound after a long A/B in an excellent store system.
Along the way I picked up a mint Philips CD80, the sota cdp from 1989, for $75! Its transport mechanism is the best Philips has ever made, and the tank of a cdp built around it still sounds great with unmatched control flexibility. But its top-notch transport is let down by a dark ages SPDIF implementation. Perhaps wiser money would have gone to the popular modding of the CD80 as a transport, or buying a good modern 1-box cdp, rather than buying the CDD.
I've not heard a Really Good Transport in my system, ie Burmeister, Wadia, Theta et al, but I'm at the point of diminishing digital dollar returns I think. More money into the analog front end would yield more-significant results I think. And yes, Auric Illuminator CD fluid *does* make a nice improvement even with a good transport.
TUNERS: I had bought one of the last Magnum Dynalab FT-101a tuners before they switched over to the MD90. I fell victim to their upgrade program and ultimately wound up with an MD100 ($1600 msrp) inside the FT101a exterior, though for a LOT less than their advertised upgrade price. Then they hand-tuned it with better IF filters and coils, and installed their latest 20-preset analog remote control.
But reading the trashing older MagnumDynalab tuners took on FMTunerInfo.com, and how good some of the classic Japanese analog tuners of the late-70s can be once modded, I had to know how they compared. FM is important to me, there are a number of good stations where I live, and reception can sometimes be challenging even with a good antenna system. I got a mint Kenwood KT-8300 fully modded by Components Plus, one of the top tuners for sonics and reception of its time. To my great surprise the MD sounded at least as good as the Kenwood on strong stations and consistently pulled in weaker stations with less noise and interference. The Kenwood's noise was harsher and coarser as well, the mpx filter doing little to relieve it. Generally these differences were slight, but always noticeable and a confirmation that MD actually *does* know what they're doing with tuner design, something I doubted looking at the internals. Too bad MD doesn't pay attention to the little stuff: their multipath metering doesn't work, their signal strength meter saturates at 10uV, the mpx filter is nearly useless, the FM muting noisy and unrefined, all stuff that the Kenwood excelled at, as well as looking far more handsome. Nonetheless, I resold the Kenwood...
POWER CONDITIONING: I hadn't wanted to venture down the slippery slope of power cords and conditioners, but found a good ACPC made a notable difference when critically comparing CD transports. Chose to just go for it and bought a variety of lesser-priced power cords for the major components along with a PS Audio high-current Ultimate Outlet and Juice Bar power strip.
And I gotta say, all the improvements that people spout on about: wider soundstage, better microdynamics, more accurate timbres, a freer flowing bass, a somewhat toned-down treble with more shimmer and resolution; faster leading edges and better-defined decays. None of this night-and-day, but discernable and overall more musical. Why ask why?
TWEAKS: > Have optimized the Thiel placement -- further apart from each other (8') and further away from the couch (9') and played with toe-out a bit;
> Stefan AudioArt Equinox cabling for my Sennheiser HD600s;
> Added an omnidirectional whip antenna switchable with my directional FM Yagi to better pick up more stations;
> Just recently had Headroom install their latest 2005 'reference' amplifier modules in my 1st-gen Maxed-Out headphone amplifier. Along with a better volume pot and reducing the overall gain of the unit. Can't say how much better it sounds, just that it sounds great to my ears.
So that's where things have been at for a few months now, and I don't feel compelled to change anything. The sound is engaging, detailed, balanced, pinpoint imaging without any Thiel sizzle or hardness, helped a lot by great room acoustics and the amp upgrade. Though I do wonder if the whole is more 'hifi' than 'musical'. Nonetheless I have nothing to complain about with any format, but I acknowledge some might prefer a slightly warmer frequency balance, myself included at times. Non-audiophile music-lovers have been stunned by the sound, fellow audiophiles agree the sound is as good as the components can make it, I'm definitely in the 'high-end'.
I've A/B'd nearly everything I have with more-expensive or newer stuff over the years to ward off obsolescence anxiety to my satisfaction including 2.3 vs 2.4, DAC2 vs everything, Phono1 vs Pass Ono and ARC PH3-SE, CDD vs 37, HD600 vs 650, as well as the tuner and turntable shootouts discussed above.
If I had any more energy, time, money or interest, I'd like to hear a wider variety of speakers in my own room, some Really Expensive Interconnects, different headphones driven by a tubed headphone amp, and at some point end up with a SOTA analog front end. But everything is in something of an equilibrium right now, and to be honest I'm too burned-out to change anything out for awhile. As you likely are too after reading this far :-)
Hi Scott, Wish I had the common sence you posess in your audio quest. You have put together a system that should give you another 20 years of enjoyment. Sc53 (one of my favorite posters) and Gunbei have given you excellent advice. Using Sc53s advice should not be taken lightly. You won't believe what your TT is capable of. Congratulations on putting together such a fine system. I wish you another 20 years of audio enjoyment.
What a great journey and a great system! I definitely agree though you could benefit from some component isolation and vibration control. You might be surprised what improvements in these areas might yield, possibly eliminating the need to upgrade components in order to get the sound to a more satisfying level. You've really built yourself a sonic sanctuary. Have fun.
You have put so much thought and energy into this system! I'm impressed that you got such great balance out of the Thiels. I understand you don't want to invest in "audiophile" racks, but I BEG you, PLEASE at least put your turntable on its own stand!!! I just can't stand to see it suffer on a thin wooden shelf over your albums like that.