Over the past few months many little tweaks, gadgets, and other goodies have been delivered to my abode. Call it the CES / T.H.E. Show aftermath, or an onslaught if you will, of various items. Naturally many manufacturers seek to get their items reviewed and while there are simply not enough hours in the day to cover them all, after months of careful listening to various tweaks and gadgets i felt it was time to sum them all up here.
First up will be the Harmonix TU-800EXi Tuning Mat and TU-812 Tuning Clamp. Then comes Cardas who was kind enough to appease my iPod/XM2GO/portable CD cable desire, and they snuck in a headphone cable for my Sennheiser HD600 for good measure. Of course what really matters is the music, so after many inquiries the great folks at Classic records finally sent me a press release vinyl copy of Neil Young's Greatest Hits [48935-1].
Digital Foci's Media Buddy
Digital Foci's Media Buddy ($219 on up depending on internal hard drive storage size) is about the size of ye ol' cassette walkman and handles CompactFlash I & II, MicroDrive, SmartMedia, MultiMedia Card, SD Card Memory Stick, MS PRO, MS Duo, and MS PRO Duo. The internal hard drive can be from 20GB up to 80GB and data transfer can be done from memory cards to the hard drive, or off the hard drive on to any card. Of course a standard USB2 cable (included) can hook to your computer for data transfer. The internal rechargeable battery provides a few hours of usage while a monochrome 2.4-inch LCD screen and various buttons allows you to control the unit (plus scroll through MP3 files of course). So you are probably asking yourself what does any of this have to do with audiophiles?
The answer, for me, is easy. Imagine being able to take uncompressed, or lossy compressed, music with you, but not having to deal with the very limited iPod. Instead, you can easily swap your files using memory cards of virtually any type! Think of it as a data vault with nearly unlimited capabilities! Sure it plays MP3 files, though wish it also handled WMA. As for actual use, the moment you insert a memory card all you need to do is press one button and all data from the card is copies to the internal hard drive. Of course you can transfer the data to another memory card of a different type as well. So why am i so hyped up on this device? Because it allows full freedom to transfer my music files from/to anywhere. No need for external software, no fuss, no muss. Imagine having eight journalists at a show, each with their own digital camera, and you need their files. Or how about wanting to hear uncompressed audio files at shows using a USB-enabled DAC. As we all know, more and more audiophile DACs will be featuring USB2 jacks and the Digital Foci Media Buddy has a staggering fast transfer rate with plenty of hard drive storage! With that said, hopefully now you can see why i am so enthusiastic about this unit. Digital Foci's Media Buddy is a lifesaver for this audiophile and computer geek! Call is a must buy for those who deal with multiple formats of memory cards and need plenty of hard drive storage.
Harmonix TU-800EXi Tuning Matte
Harmonix's TU-800EXi Tuning Matte (the small i standing for improved) appears to be made from various layers of material and has a slight upward dishing about it. This means that it does not lay down flat like most others, nor does it have an center label inset. What it does have is a dampened, lightweight construction that appears to be very purpose-built for the task at hand. After many hours of comparing it to the Boston Audio mat that was used within my review of Clearaudio's Ambient turntable, Satisfy CF tonearm, and Stradivari cartridge, i would have to say the difference is akin to small measures of preference. In fact some recordings favored one matt over the other. The Harmonix unit provides a bit sharper, hint of augmented upper register 'sound.' So if you have vinyl records that lean towards the overly romantic, use this unit to bring some details into the sound. Like those who enjoy tube swapping, the vinyl junkie could easily do some mat swapping... and this is precisely what i plan to do.
Moving on to the Harmonix TU-812 Tuning Clamp, unlike the stock Clearaudio lightweight plastic hold down, this baby is heavy metal! No, not the genre of music but in actual weight. Unlike other units that demand you tighten a center piece, the sheer weight of this unit easily suffices at insuring the center of the vinyl lays flat against the table. Of note is a special wood, not metal, touches the records center label. While i can not say what the difference of metal versus vinyl, i can say the Harmonix TU-812 successfully flattened those few records in my collection that bow a bit. In fact i can see that the Tuning Clamp, when combined with the Tuning Matte, provide a system approach. This is something a situation i have long been a fan of, as when one goes with a system approach you can rest assured that each piece is made to work well with each other. It is also why we have Linnies, Naimmers, and Audio Note worshippers.
Of course this unit may be too heavy to use with a suspended (spring dampened) turntable, so the Clearaudio is once again put to good use while the Voyd reference is left out of the fun. The clamp provides, in my system, a slight addition in solidity. A touch more 'thereness' as it were. Pristine, perfectly flat vinyl records also had a touch more depth. Of course the Harmonix system greatly reduces the sound wobbling (speed distortion) of those few dished/warped vinyl records in my collection. Call it a tweakers delight!
Kimber Kable GQ & Cardas iLink Plus
The Sennheiser Headphone Cable
For over 30 hours a week i toil away here in my office. The system consists of the Linn Classik (reviewed here) AM/FM/CD integrated amplifier and a pair of Reference 3A MM De Capo-i (reviewed here). Linn's Classik has been here since 2000 and has never ceased to amaze me how good it can deliver the goods. Various versions of the Reference 3A have been in my stable since 1997(!), with the MM De Capo-i version entering in 2002. It makes me wonder how any reviewer can truly assess how a component produces music if they are constantly changing their entire system every year. But hey, that is my personal gripe. i, along with many scientists, would probably choose to call it a 'controlled' environment. If you subject yourself to too many variables to outcome can easily be skewed.
About a year ago the joys of XM Radio came into my office. You see, changing CDs every 60 minutes, or turning vinyl every 20, can be a chore. Sorry and all, but it is true and i admit it. Some days i simply want to, well, enjoy the music. Add to that my love of portable CD players (see review here) and other chachkies and there is a need for am 1/8-inch stereo headphone jack to right/left RCA jacks. So during the 2006 Las Vegas shows i decided to hit up Cardas and Kimber for their versions of said cable. Since the iPod has become very popular, these cables are now standard form and easily obtainable from cable manufacturers. i did ask a few other manufacturers, but no cable ever appeared.
i'll briefly sum up the sound as follows, the Kimber GQ-Mini comes in all copper (CU, $75/meter), copper/silver (HB, $240/meter) and all silver (AG, $360/meter) versions. Being the extremist, i went with the all copper (lowest priced) and all silver (highest priced) versions. The copper version is much like Kimber's basic cables while the all silver is akin with the company's top-line Select series. Both cables employ four runs of wire, braided in their 'GyroQuadratic' geometry, and WBT connectors for upper line units. The CU has basic RCA and 1/8-inch stereo jacks while the AG has top-range gold-plated 1/8-inch stereo jack and WBT locking RCA barrels.
As for sound, after many hours in my cable burn-in device plus a week within my office system previously described, the CU was clear and clean, if lacking a bit in smoothness. Of course the Kimber Kable CU is a vast improvement over those crappy throw-away cables that most portable audio devices include. Still, perhaps i am too damn demanding plus the fact i enjoy over 6 hours of music each and every weekday through this system, so a cable had better be all days listenable! After about an hour with the CU it was obvious there was an improvement in clarity over a freebie, yet there was still a hint of harshness.
Enter the Kimber Cable QC-Mini AG all silver cable. Wow! The difference was not subtle, and i'd bet this is true even to the ABX'ers out there. The midrange has a wonderful smoothness while frequency extremes sounded more extended. At not time did the music ever become harsh. Of course clarity, imaging and the usual audiophile stuff was vastly improved over a stock throwaway cable. So is the all silver AG worth nearly five times the price of the basic CU? That is your call. For me, once i heard the AG there is no going back.
Cardas iLink Cable
The iLink ($130/meter) uses pure copper Litz wire, with four conductor in the 'Golden Ratio.' Cardas says there is a constant Q and Crossfield used within this design. The dielectric is Teflon and cable's AWG is18.5.
Quite a few of my friends have been telling me that Cardas cables are very musical. Call it tube-like versus the negative connotations early solid-state earned. What arrived at my door was the company's iLink with 1/8-inch stereo jack on one end and a pair of RCA jacks on the other. After the usual burn-in and week in my system, i must agree the Cardas was indeed very musical sounding. There was not a hint of strain, grain, or harshness to be found! While the system before this cable is far from tube-like or vintage solid-state harshness, i would say it is neutral with only a very small smidgen of tube-like smoothness. Make no mistake about it, the Linn Classic and Reference 3A work very well together.
So did i fall in love with the Cardas iLink? Yes and no, and here is the how and why of it all. There is yet another wildcard stacked in this deck! That wildcard in my new tow vehicle! Steve's wha??? Well, during 2006 there will be thousands of miles spent driving the new Ford truck with Featherlite trailer hauling that red car to many track events as i hope to take the title within my classification. Now before you scoff at car audio, like some closed-minded audiophile bigots, car audio can sound very good. You may have to give up some factors of imaging and depth, yet tonally and harmonically there are no excuses!
So the XM Radio and perhaps my vintage Sony D-25 will be within the truck while music is enjoyed for hours on end. And now you are probably wondering what this has to do with the Cardas iLink cable. The reason is, for the truck the Cardas iLink was pure magic! My custom installed (by Yours Truly) N.O.S. tweaked Nakamichi 1-inch silk soft-dome tweeter and 6.5-inch midrange/woofer is mated with rear bass drivers and tweaked crossover. With the Cardas, the result was pure unadulterated music! Now if my home system was a bit on the sterile side i can easily see how the Cardas would have been the cat's meow. Yet my home system in it's natural form needed zero taming. But the truck system had that ever so slight midrange augmentation and the Cardas iLink was like having a Priest performing an exorcist.
Cardas Sennheiser Headphone Cable
Classic Records Neil Young Greatest Hits
So how big a fan am i of Neil Young? Well, let us just say one of the prized LPs here is the Harvest release of Nautilus. The Nautilus Super Disc Half Speed Master version of Harvest is not easily found, though a brief search found a NM one for $75 (a bargain in my opinion). In any event, it is the Gold Standard that is used to compare any other remaster, and here the Classic Records' version compares quite favorably. While the Nautilus wraps you up in a glorious, smooth sound with amazing clarity, dynamics, and detail, the Classic Records (with Clearaudio table rig and Boston Audio Mat) is a bit more defines and solid-state-like. It favors clarity over, say, a tube-like romantic smoothness as found on the Harvest release.
Of course the Greatest Hits release offers so much more than Harvest with many additional songs. This two LP release (plus 7-inch bonus record) is a must-have for any fan of rock music. Neil Young is one of the very few legendary musical artists i could enjoy today, tomorrow... and twenty years from now. Like many other Classical Records releases, you better hurry and buy it now before it goes out of print.
Cardas Audio, Ltd.
Voice: (800) 457-2577
Digital Foci, Inc.
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