Happy New Year! Hopefully your holiday season was enjoyable considering it fell on a weekend this year. Mine certainly was, as I received my VacuumState 300B amplifier back from being repaired and the system has been up and running since. I was without music for three weeks as a 300B blew up and took out several components in one of my five 300B amps. The amp had to be shipped to Bill Thalmann at Music Technology Inc. in Springfield, Virginia, the official repair person in the United States for all things VacuumState. I must say they did a superb job keeping me informed on progress and shipped the unit back in a very timely manner and at a reasonable charge. Thank you Bill.
Interestingly, after being down for three weeks, upon turning on the system and allowing it to warm up for a couple of hours, the sound was phenomenal, possibly the best ever. Over the next several days, the sound was still excellent but never quite came up to the level heard that first night. This has happened in the past when I've gone on vacation but never to this extent. The noise floor was such that ambiance information previously not heard blossomed out and filled my room.
The question in my mind is what was the cause of such great sound? The only two things I can think of are:
1. The system actually sounded the same but my listening to regular sound through car radio, my small computer system in the study and portable radios had made my brain become accustomed to low fi, and the system just sounded so much better that the brain accentuated the quality. Then as it became adjusted to the quality, it dropped my relative level of approval of it. This would not account for the lowered noise floor and improved ambiance.
It is amazing though how our ears so rapidly accommodate to sound. For instance, there is a small muscle attached to our middle ear that responds to sound intensity and lowers volume reaching the inner ear when sounds become too loud, very similar to what the eye's iris does to bright light. This is why when one is evaluating equipment, one has to take into account when there are time intervals between trials of even a few seconds.
2. Leaving the equipment disconnected from the household AC allowed something in the equipment or cables to work better, thus actually improving what it was delivering. After being connected again, degradation of the signal began again. This of course would go against the high end feeling that equipment left on tends to sound better over time. But there is a buildup of static electricity on parts that are not properly grounded that may lead to distortions.
3. That night was one of the very rare in my area with the electric company providing a perfect 60 Hz. Sine wave without distortions. NAH!!! Not Possible.
Anybody out there who can explain this phenomenon will get recognition in a future column.
Matter of fact, even with the recession various companies have come out with more exorbitantly priced products for which they all should be ashamed, as servers are just moderately priced computer components with some additional software working on top of Windows or Linux. In this day and age of $500 computers with $100 1.5 terabyte drives and $50 to 100 programs, I find it absurd that someone would continue to foist upon the unsuspecting, eager public servers that cost several thousand dollars with inadequate storage and less than up to date software playback potential.
Take for instance, the new Kaleidescape Mini System. For the ridiculous price of $7995, one gets a component in a nice cabinet with video output for one room, possible transmission of audio to two other rooms via Ethernet, and 500 gigs of storage. Yes, its software does allow you to get information on CDs and DVDs from the web, but the thing won't play back or store high definition discs and only has the ability to add a pair of 500 gig hard drives for a total of 1.5 terabytes of storage. Each of these 500 gig drives costs $595, or about ten times the going rate. For the $595 for one drive, one could purchase a whole HP home server with two terabytes of storage with the ability to add up to 8 terabytes more at $60 per terabyte. Then, if one wishes, one may add their MiniPlayers at $1995 for each additional room.
And the sound will be in less than high end Dolby Digital 5.1. That's because they are using outmoded motherboards and software that will only work with the old less than adequate codecs. I understand that the lead times for systems such as these may be years and computer science seems to advance in hours, but come on. While it's difficult to replace the motherboard and software, if they just used a Blu-ray transport and Xonar audio card they'd be up to the latest standards that any of you could add in an hour. Total extra cost maybe $300.
A Steal. Not!
The unit cannot even store encrypted DVDs without adding semi-illegal DVD decryption software from a third party. But worst of all, the unit will not be able to play Blu-ray or DVD-Audio discs and outputs only Dolby Digital 5.1, standard DTS or low bit PCM through its HDMI output for the same reason as the Kaleidescape; out of date hardware. Thus, even if one has high definition 24/88 or 96 downloads from the web, one can't play them back. And of course one cannot copy encrypted DVD's without loading an unencrypter program. Thus, one could be arrested by the Feds for breaking the copyright rules.
Internal storage maxes out at 1 TB. For additional storage one needs the TGM-HDC Theater Grand Hard Drive Chassis at $6400 and either the 3 TB TGM-HD3 or 6 TB. TGM-HD6 hard drive systems at $2700 or $7200. Thus the total price for the system without any loaded software maxes out at north of $23,000.
I could possibly understand these prices if the units were built to high end standards with excellent internal D/A and A/D converters, and were able to store and play back the newest Blu-Ray and DVD-A codecs, but all have only the ability to do this with the 10 year old DVD and 30 year old CD standards. Highway Robbery!!
So do yourself a favor, review my previous articles and build your own unit that will work just as well, with the ability to play back Blu-ray and DVD-A discs at full 24/96 or even upsample to 192 kHz, and download high definition files from the web for 1/10th the price. Nowthat's a steal.
I wanted to get the news out before CES on the next two products, but since I am going on vacation for a couple of weeks, I haven't had time to completely evaluate them; just enough to let you know that they are winners, and definitely worth spending your Christmas present dollars on.
BDP 83 Special Edition Universal Player
So what did they do to improve on it?
First they replaced the Cirrus Logic CS4382A chip with an ESS Technology's Sabre Premier ES 9006 8 channel DAC for its 7.1 analog output. Most important for audiophiles, for two channel analog playback they replaced the Cirrus Logic CS4398 single DAC per channel with an ESS 9016 chip using four of the DACS for each channel. Then they beefed up the power supply using linear voltage regulators with dynamic servo for lower jitter. This boosts the signal to noise ratio from 110 to 117 dB. Frequency range for 44 kHz signals goes from 20 to 20 kHz. It also includes an RS-232 port which is an extra price feature on the original unit. Finally, they thought of their early purchasers and instead of leaving them to rot, have offered to rebuild their original units with the upgraded boards for $299 plus shipping, $100 less than the difference in price between the two. Unhappily this offer is supposed to end Dec. 31, 2009. Perhaps I can convince them to continue it for a month for our readers. Just how many other companies would do that for their clients at less than a premium? Damn few!!
Of course, the improvements are primarily for those audiophiles using the unit's analog outputs rather than running bitstream through the HDMI output to a pre-pro, so they feel it would probably not be worthwhile for those using HDMI alone, as we all know that “bits are bits!!” We'll see about that.
First, the only want I still have for the unit. Considering that they went to all the trouble to use four DACS per channel for stereo, why didn't they do it balanced all the way through to the analog output? It may have added a few dollars, but it would have brought the unit up to top audiophile standards. Maybe next time!
Now for the good news. For the added $300 to your old unit to 400 for a new one, one gets what I consider to be the biggest improvement for the money that my system has gotten over the past several years in two channel playback For those who listen to two track recordings, the changes wrought bring the level of playback up to CD players I've heard in the $3000 to $5000 range, plus you get the best Blu-ray and SACD playback I've heard yet!
For instance, last night I listened to a Blu-ray of the Berlin Philharmonic with Ozawa doing the Beethoven Violin Conceerto and Tchaikowsky Sym. # 6. The Integra pre-pro has the ability to immediately shift from multi-track direct analog input which made evaluation of the two DACS and analog output of the OPPO quick and easy. Even having my wife do the switching in a double blind fashion, while the ambiance information collapsed from the back channels, I still preferred the stereo output of the unit for its ambiance recovery, but especially for it significant improvement on macro- dynamics and impact. The sound was far livelier and for the first time I actually continued to listen to the stereo tracks.
Of course I've not had the several thousand dollar Denon and other Blu-Ray players yet to evaluate, but you'd have to seek far and wide for a better priced player that can do what this OPPO does. I'll be testing whether there are any improvements in multi-track or video in my next article. More to follow.
Ravioli BIG FEET
Thus there were only four of the dual risers available for review in the US, and all were on the "Leftist" Coast at one of the super high end stores there for review. Anyway, Derrick Ethell, owner of Sailforth, which produces the Black Ravioli products, arranged for me to get them for review as soon as they became available and they arrived four days ago. Now came the tricky part. Where should I place them in my system to get their optimal effect? I put all four under my Integra 9.8 pre-pro first, then under the OPPO Blu-ray player and finally one each under my four VacuumState 300B amps, using the original Single risers as the remaining footers.
In each case, there was a distinct improvement in soundstage width, depth and coalescence over the originals, which were the best units I've had in my system for vibration control. So much so, that removing them made me want to put them right back in. I've already sent out an order for 24 of them, not a small investment at somewhere north of $120 each list, price to be decided at a later date, but from what I've heard with the four, well worth the investment.
Again, more next month when I should have enough Big Feet to complete the review in my full system.
By the way, if there are any dealers out there at CES look up Clark Johnsen who'll be running around with his usual tweaks and will be willing to demo them He's not gaining a penny from this, but merely demo'ing a product he and I highly believe in for the sake of improving high-end audio. That's why he's still my top mentor after almost 30 years.