Here it is mid May and I am preparing to attend the PRIMEDIA (Stereophile) Show in New York, May 29-31. G-d, the misery we reviewers go through to give you the latest information on product. An hour drive to Boston, a four hour train ride to Manhattan, a 30 minute cab to the Hilton, several hours walking the floors listening to mostly poorly set up systems, before the five hour return trip. Don't you feel sorry for me? No? Anyway, the second half of the article will be a report on the first day of the show, as I can not attend for the full three days. But hopefully my report will get out to you before its over so at least those on the East coast can decide whether it's worth attending.
Was originally just going to report on the show this month, but have had so many products crossing my threshold that I have gotten backed up in my reviewing. Just two months ago I thought I would have to stop reviewing as I was going crazy trying to find something to write about, and now all sorts of equipment has arrived. Since the is a web-zine that prides itself on getting the goods out to you months ahead of the paper rags and feel I owe an early review to those dealers, manufacturers, etc., who trust us with their product... so better discuss a couple of them today.
Extreme Phono Solid State Stylus Cleaner
This is one of the best phono tweaks I have seen in several years. Developer Casey Ng read my review from two years back of the Zero Dust Stylus Cleaner and emailed me to ask if I would be interested in reviewing his new product. "Sure," I said as I'm always interested in tweaks.
Up until now there have been several ways to keep the stylus clean. Why clean in the first place? Because even the very minute buildup of materials on the stylus can influence how the stylus - groove contact - occurs and adds distortion to the signal. What is this buildup? First, obviously, is the dust that lays in and on the groove. While most cleaning fluids remove most of it, there is always some new material that is attracted to the record surface, and this stuff is especially bad with the line-contact styli so prevalent today. Then there are the agents that are added to the vinyl to keep it supple, allow it to lift free of the presses, etc., which become glued to the needle. Finally, the vinyl itself will sometimes fuse to it, really gumming up the works. Thus cleaning the stylus between each side is a must.
Cleaning methods include brushes that can catch the needle and break the cantilever, jewelers paper that over time may change the shape of the stylus, and liquid stylus cleaners that may migrate up the cantilever, especially the hollow ones that act like wicks, and, over time, may gum up the suspension and damage the damping material, of that several thousand dollar cartridge. The Zero Dust has a solid membrane with the ability to adsorb the dust from the stylus without using fluids. It came as a freebie with my IO-J cartridge, and I have seen it advertised for sale on the web. It works as well as the best liquid cleaners, doesn't gum up the works, but I believe it now costs $40-$50, and while the membrane is cleanable, it doesn't work as well once it's been washed.
Casey's new product, which he sells directly for $19 plus shipping on the web at www.extremephono.com, is a high tech high viscosity polymer with both liquid and solid properties. He states that the material has a high affinity for dirt and rapidly lifts it from the stylus and adsorbs it, similar to what the Zero Dust does. The advantage over the solid material is that you can change the position of the vessel and allow the dirty surface material to sink giving a new clean area for the stylus. Plus it's cheaper than most other cleaners available.
One theoretical problem with the stuff is that if you press the stylus with too much force or let it rest on the material for too long a period of time, the stylus can become embedded in the fluid and either become stuck, or on lifting break the stylus off or have it coated with the material, which would really gum up the works.
Happily, I believe this is just a theoretical problem for the average highly intelligent audiophile who has the mechanical ability to set up his own cartridge. I have been using the stuff for two weeks now and have found it to work as well as, if not better than the liquids and Zero Dust. One needs to place the container of the material under the stylus and slowly allow the needle to just make contact then lift. Voila!! The dirt sticks to the stuff, and under a 20 X magnifier I have the stylus looks crystal clear and clean. There is usually a glob of schmutz sitting in the goop, even after playing what appear to be pristinely cleaned records. Just do not let the stylus rest in the stuff as it is not necessary and, in fact, may be harmful if it becomes stuck.
Drawbacks to the method? One is the container it comes in. While it has a cutout to allow the cartridge body not to touch the container before the needle touches the fluid, there isn't a huge amount of play with short cantilevers with cartridges that need to be tilted backwards for proper alignment. I ended up placing the container at a slight angle so that the needle could touch the fluid. Just make sure to flatten out the container again, as the fluid will flow out of it if left at an angle for too long a period, and I am sure it is not the easiest thing to clean up. Second, the directions received, while adequate, were not complete. I have been told that future shipments will have directions on the bottom of the container.
Otherwise, this is a great product that works at least as well as claimed and well worth the price charged. Highly recommended. Buy it before he gets smart and starts selling through dealers at twice the price. Matter of fact, for that price buy two and have enough for the life of your player.
Pioneer DVD-47A Elite Combo Player
I warn you, please read this entire column before making a decision.
This is the second combination DVD-V, DVD-A, SACD player that I have had for review, the first being the Apex 7701 reviewed in Chapter 31. I have had several of the Pioneer Elite series products that I have been very happy with over the years and still have their CLD-99 laser disc player, and DVD-555 DVD unit, and each has been a well-built and functioning unit, giving many years of service. Plus, their styling was beautiful with their Urushi wood end pieces, and their remote controls were both ergonomically and structurally well made.
I purchased this unit with my own funds as I wanted to see what differences there would be between this $1,200 list, $900 purchase price unit, and the $300 Apex 7701. I'll make it short and sweet. After four weeks of breaking in, the video side of the Pioneer was superb, giving the best progressive scan picture I have seen short of my Home theater computer running at 1080P, 72Hz. The audio side sucks, being inferior to the Apex, and sounding much like a cheapo CD player, even with SACD and DVD-A.
This is the first of the Pioneer Elite units I have had that is found to be inferior to other products in its price range or cheaper. The unit is a flat black, without the elegant wood panels, and while heavier than the average DVD player out there, does not have the build quality of previous Elite units. The remote control is of poorer quality than many cheap units I've seen, is ergonomically a disaster, especially the mouse button which is impossible to work properly, and doesn't even have the lighted buttons that are mentioned in the instruction booklet. In its favor, the unit does have component and S-video output, and an IEC plug for AC input, and both optical and digital SPDIF output for external decoding of CD, DD and DTS.
AS stated before, the video is superb. As with other Elite units, there are controls for Contrast, brightness, 0 IRE adjustment, gamma, MPEG noise control, etc., and allows several presets for different configurations in addition to three of Pioneer's own. Unhappily the menu to get to these and other adjustments is a pain in the ass to get through, especially with the poor remote control, but once set up properly the picture comes close to the best I have seen with home theater computers, or high end line doublers costing three times the price. So if you are looking for the best DVD video playback you can't go wrong with the unit if you can get through the menus.
On the other hand, this unit's raison d'etre is supposed to be its ability to decode DVD-Audio and SACD discs, and here it fails miserably, at least the unit I have. Like the Apex, out of the box, both the video and audio are mid level at best. But like the Apex, over three weeks the video improved to its very good level. Unhappily, unlike the Apex, the audio didn't. I have finally given up on it after running the unit continuously on repeat for that time. Maybe five weeks would bring an improvement, but life is too short, especially since the Apex, at $300, has turned out to give some of the best DVD-A and SACD sound I have heard. It has truly matured into a high end sounding unit, and I am ecstatic that I allowed it to break in instead of listening to all those wonder boys on the web who received the unit on Friday, wrote up a report on Saturday on how poor it looked and sounded, and sent the unit back on Monday. Their loss. Of course it was also Apex's loss as the bad publicity caused them to discontinue the unit. Thus, our loss. But I have heard that they will be coming out soon with a model 7702 that will also have a DVD-A and SACD digital output, also at a very reasonable price point. I can't wait.
The Pioneer's audio is mid-fi at best, even the high-bit playback. Even in multi-track surround, the sound field is flat, with no stage depth or feeling of space. While the Apex fleshes out the hall, there is none with the Pioneer, with images coming from each speaker but not coalescing into a whole. It is almost as if the unit is reading 12 bits of information instead of 16 or 24.
The high end is shrill, like early CD at times, and the bass is almost "one-note". The speaker setup is fairly good, allowing one to set the center front and rear speakers for small, thus directing the bass to a subwoofer, adjusting for distance of each speaker in 0.5 meter distances, which is not sufficiently accurate enough, and allowing individual volume control of each speaker + or - 6dB., but one has to go through three menus to get to the volume control, and then there is no MASTER VOLUME control. Thus one still has to run the audio through a pre-processor to change volume, or go through the three menu steps and then adjust all channels up or down equally. While the Apex doesn't allow individual volume control, one can adjust master volume directly from the remote in 2 dB steps. Once a system is set up properly, it would be very rare to have to adjust the volume of individual speakers, but very frequent for master volume changes. I guess Pioneer expects you to buy one of their receivers to do the volume control, as a cheapo unit would just match the sound quality of the Pioneer.
In addition, I have a couple of DVD's that have several chapter markers during one movement of a symphony, and the damn unit mutes for a second or two each time before proceeding. Its quite disconcerting for the hall to suddenly collapse into a Black Hole before exploding again. Sort of like a BIG BANG phenomenon. Also, with multi-track SACD's, there is a tape hiss type distortion in any channel where there is no signal- usually the front center, so your amp for that channel needs to be turned off.
Well, there you have it, one of the few negative reviews I have written. And this product deserves it. Kudo's to Apex and their slave laborers, and boo to Pioneer. If you guys are going to build an all in one Elite unit, at least listen to it before foisting it on an unsuspecting public. If somebody is buying a combination unit rather than a DVD player, they are doing it for the audio, not video. Get your act together Pioneer.
Now for the kicker. After handing in this tome at the beginning of the month, and after talking with Clark Johnsen, I decided to give the Pioneer another try. Since it was my own money that was used to purchase the unit, I decided to just plug it in, leave it in a corner unconnected to anything and leave it on repeat for another week. That's five weeks breaking in time. Well guess what. It now sounds superb, giving some of the best DVD-A and SACD sound I have heard. This caterpillar has molted. The soundstage is wide and deep, and believable on the best discs. The stridency is gone, although the high end is still a little bright. It now beats the Apex for purity of sound, and the video is still superb. And the breaks between chapters in symphony movements have disappeared.
While the problems with the remote, the menus, and the difficulty with no master volume control are still there, the unit is now worth the asking price or more. Boy, am I glad I waited that extra week. This is two combi players now that have needed a very long breaking in time to sound high end. Maybe this is a trend with these units. So a word of advice. Don't make decisions on the audio quality of these players before an extended break in period.
So I guess this is not one of my few negative reviews. I guess I'll have to go look for some piece of junk component to trash to get my believability back. Jonathan, do you still have one of those Richard Gray units that I can evaluate?
On the other hand, stay away from any recordings from a company called Silverline. I purchased a DVD-A from them of Handel's Messiah, 86009-9, which clearly stated on the front that it was a DVD-A 24 bit 6 channel surround recording and is in a DVD-A rather than DVD-V case. Well guess what. The best it gave was lo-bit Dolby Digital and DTS surround, it didn't even have the DVD-V video, and the sound was only mediocre for a DD recording. Avoid these like poison unless you have $20 to kill.
Well that's finally it. Next words will be from the NY Show. See you there.
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Pioneer North America
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