Welcome to another column dedicated to my fellow AUDIOLICS. This has really been an exciting month for yours truly in the world of Audiophilia. First, I realized how valuable this ZAG (my name for a web 'zine rag) really is. I and several other fellow reporters for Enjoy the Music.com wrote to you directly from the May Stereophile Show in New York, with several of the articles (including my own) appearing the same day in print, with the remainder of the twenty odd pages within a week. Hopefully you could tell from our writings, before the show was over, whether it was worth attending. Steven R. Rochlin, our editor in chief, has gone to many other shows in Philadelphia, Montreal, London, Frankfurt, Sao Paulo, etc., over the past year and provided day by day reports.
Guess how long it took Stereophile to report on their own show? Three months. And guess how many pages they deigned to write? Try SIX. Two by Sam Tellig, and four by Michael Fremer. Fremer took two pages to write about his lecture on how to set up a turntable. How's that for letting people know how your own show went and what amazing product there was to hear? Absolute Sound took up two whole pages of editorial by Harry Pearson on the super high end room he designed, and which supposedly had the same equipment that he uses at the magazine's studio. Another seven pages of virtually only photos covered dealers and manufacturers next to their babies. Unhappily he forgot to mention how poorly it sounded compared to other much less expensive setups heard there. So even if I hadn't found several pieces of equipment to evaluate, I think my time and energy were well spent on that weekend, if only to let you readers know what's out there.
This month, I was supposed to write on two high end SET amps, but I didn't receive one while another one other just arrived. So happily I'll be able to revert back to what I enjoy doing best: evaluating so-called tweaks! One cheaply hand-made by a fellow reader, one of very pricey, one low, one middle, and one mucho expensivo type... all of which are worth every penny paid.
Cheaply Hand-made Tweak
First on the list , a great little tweak from LLoyd Smith of Nova Scotia. He had read my review of the Daruma and Aurios feet and came up with the following. Use a large granite plate as shelf. Place three Vibrapods on it. Break the handles off of three plastic spoons (or silver ones if you are into the high-end) and embed the spoons concave side up in some blue tack on the Vibrapods. Borrow (or steal) three marbles from your kids and place on spoons. Place equipment on top and enjoy. Sounds good (and cheap) to me.
Very Inexpensive Tweak -
A couple of months ago, in AA XXIII, I reviewed the Smart Audio Stradivarius Amplifier (www.smartdev.com) who had sent along this neat little unit consisting of a hand held box looking like a remote and a CD with test tones and some music. One places the CD in the system and starts track 1, which sends out two positive and one negative pulse to the loudspeaker. The hand held unit is turned on and placed directly in front of the driver and a green LED blinks with an outward movement of the driver whereas a red LED blinks with an inward movement. One then only has to go to each individual driver and play three tones and one finds out which drivers are out of relative phase. In phase coherent systems with first or fourth order crossovers, all drivers should be the same. Meanwhile loudspeaker with second or third order will probably be out of phase. And at least all of your loudspeakers should be in relative phase to each other, especially in multi-channel systems.
Since all of my crossovers with my seven loudspeaker system are fourth order (seven subwoofers and their 28 drivers), all of the drivers should have been in phase. Well wonder of wonders, three of the ElectroVoice 12L drivers were marked incorrectly! Happily those in the rear channels, so that they were out of phase compared to the rest of the system. So there I was with a slight blush because I have been listening to them like that for two years! Happily, it was a simple thing to reverse the speaker leads to hear the sound stage open up and integrate better with the front. I had a hole sometimes in the "side walls" of the surround space and now that has filled in. Also, once the system is set up, each time you add a piece of equipment it will be an easy thing to test its absolute polarity.
In addition, there are multiple tracks with 20-20K frequency sweeps, pink noise, warbled single frequency sine waves, 20-100 Hz warbled frequency sweep for subwoofer testing, channel identification tracks for surround systems, both Dolby and Circle Surround, and several cuts from classic audiophile recordings. This has to be the nicest CD test recording I've found as I have had to use several different ones to get all of these tests. Just this alone would be worth the $108 asking price. And one of these could be used by an audio club, group of friends, etc. as the polarity testing should be a one time job… unless you change equipment as much as me. They have 28 dealers for this particular unit and you can go to their web page for further information. Well worth the price!
Inexpensive Tweak: Applied Research and Technology DI/O DAC-ADC Converter
I was turned onto this little unit from Applied Research and Technology, www.artproaudio.com my good friend and fellow audiolic Kwami Ofori-Asante (who was turned onto it by one of his net of audiolics). This is a 2" x 4" x 6" two-channel single-ended 24-bit/96 kHz professional digital to analog converter in a cheapo tin case. It used the ubiquitous wall wart, of all things, for power. Interestingly, this little package uses a 12AX7 for the analog stage, but has the typical cheapo pro phono plugs for analog inputs and outputs, and RCA SPDIF digital in and out, and an almost non-existent power supply. But boy does it sing. Sounds better than several mega-thousand dollars D/A converters from high-end manufacturers I won't mention. Unhappily the thing is very expensive for its size and looks ($249.00-(street priced at $189 if you shop the web. You can check various discussion boards for many tweaks to improve further on the sound, such as upgrading the power supply. In addition, it is also a very good analog to digital converter and has controls for input volume and adjusting "warmth" of the sound through the tube stage for those CD's that sound harsh. Works much better than a tone control! So buy two or three, and tweak to your heart's content… or give them away as gifts to other audiolics. I've heard it at Kwami's house and can say the sound rivals some of the better high-end digital to analog converters out there.
Editor Steven R. Rochlin follows up by saying "Folks, the A.R.T. DI-O D/A Converter is the real deal. I have had one here for weeks and it is indeed one of the biggest bargains out there for inexpensive ADC-DAC units. See their website at www.artproaudio.com. Too many tweaks to cover here. For only $189 street price this is a real-world bargain if there ever was one! Full review forthcoming. Stay tuned!
Moderately Expensive Tweak -
In previous articles I have briefly discussed the Walker High Definition Links from Walker Audio. These are 1" x 3" x ˝" wooden boxes with a positive and negative silver wire with silver spade lug that are placed at the loudspeaker posts. Lloyd Walker says they are supposed to short RFI and high frequency noise traveling on the speaker wire from affecting the sound. At $295 per pair, with one for each loudspeaker, they were reasonably cheap by high-end standards. To my ears they certainly did the job as described. In my system they remove a glare to the sound and open up the sound stage so that it becomes more transparent. Each instrument seemed to sound more natural in my system. I'd bet they are some type of R-C network, but they are just a little too expensive to break open and test.
On the other hand, they also work to tighten up the lower frequencies, so they must be doing something else. Lloyd is mum on that subject. Suffice it to say that they are good enough that I've had five sets of two on my various speakers for at least a year without removing them. Once, one became disconnected, and the image changed enough that I went crazy for two days trying to find the cause before I found that it was just one of these suckers out of the system.
So I was very happy when Lloyd asked if I'd like to try his new Ultimate Links, especially when he started talking about nude resistors and capacitors, which immediately tweaked my prurient interests. Of course after having heard what the originals did I couldn't see how he could improve on them. Well, Bunky, he did and they did. I don't know how making pieces of electronic equipment without clothing improves the sound, though last night for the first time in month's I couldn't stop listening to digital, of all things! (Sorry Lloyd, maybe I don't need your $20,000 turntable after all… only kidding.) These things, in combination with the following tweak, have brought standard CD almost to analog's level of purity. I do believe that almost all of digital's grunge has disappeared… at least in my system. And he claims that they get better with time. I'm telling you that's hard to believe considering what I've heard over the past few nights.
And on calling him to order more, he came up with a further tweak for them. A customer of his suggested wrapping them in copper grounding tape to block EMI. Lloyd found that if you ground the tape to the negative wire a significant improvement occurred. I happened to have some computer grade copper foil tape with Teflon backing and grounding wire running through it, so I made some cutouts of it and surrounded the wood blocks with the foil and grounded it to the negative side of the Link. Yes, there was a further improvement in the inter-note silence. So there's another tweak for you to try. Actually you won't have to as Lloyd has just notified me that the foil will be included with all units sold at no additional charge. Such a deal my friends. Their cost is $498 plus shipping. While they don't look like they're worth $49, I think the improvement in any high-end system, especially one where only one set is needed, would be well worth the cost. And Lloyd even offers a 30-day no questions asked refund. Of course I don't expect anybody will get their money back as I doubt anybody will be able to part with them. For those who want to get off a little cheaper, or need some for surround speakers, go for the standard High Definition Links.
Interestingly, I just received an email from a Kye Leslie, who had read my previous article on the original links. He has done some research on how wood affects electronics, and his findings can be found by clicking here.
Mucho Expensivo Tweak -
While all of the improvements I have made in my system over the years has gotten me closer to the sound of live music, optimal listening has occurred only on very rare occasions when the electricity is perfect, which seems only at 11:42 P.M. on Thursday March 13… for about five minutes. This has always driven me crazy as I tend to prefer listening at other times. Otherwise the biggest single constant detractor of my and your systems' sound is the awful, crappy, disgusting A/C that your power company transmits. The supposedly pure 60 Hz. sine wave has enough garbage attached to it in some homes to make the E.P.A list it as a toxic waste site if it were traveling through the ground. Just think of your power wire and how it is acting as an antenna of many miles length from the generator to your power company supplied low-end step-down transformer. Think of all of the RFI, from every radio and television station, CB and Ham operator… not to mention that produced by that big transmitting station in the sky, the Sun, etc. Think of all of the noise that is transmitted through that line from the power company as radio signals, all of the back EMF as motors, inductors, computers, etc., attached to the electrical system screw up that supposedly pristine sine wave. Think of how your equipment is trying to produce something close to DC by finding the peaks of that sine wave among that garbage and how the caps and inductors are trying to filter out the garbage riding on that wave. Think of how some of your equipment with switching power supplies, and digital equipment is spewing out its own RFI to other pieces of equipment in your system, and you get some idea of what sort of crap is riding along as your equipment is trying to reproduce and amplify that supposedly pristine signal on your recorded medium. It's a wonder that any of our systems sound as good as they do at times.
Over the years I've tried home generators (lousy spiky wave), banks of isolation transformers with and without motor run capacitors (dull transients), high-end power cords (expensive for what they do), wood blocks, massive ferrite blockers, wire shields (cheap but minimally effective), capacitor banks (almost electrocuted the cat)… None of these has done anything but scratch the surface at blocking the crap while each has added some sort of problem usually related to starving the system for current. Up until now! The only thing that gave me some relief was to run five 1.5 and 2 KVA AC-DC-AC sine wave uninterruptible power supplies that gave me great sound at night, but still let through some sort of grunge during the day and especially the evening, and compressed the transients somewhat.
Enter the Tweak of the century, no matter what this magazine has written last month about the Product of the Year, the CF-X Line conditioner by James Weil of Sound Application, is the best product out there in my opinion. (Jim would prefer that I call it product of the century, which it may be, but that would ruin the symmetry of the article, so Sorry Jim it remains a tweak.) How's that for ruining the punch line by placing it first? I first heard of this unit about a year ago, through an article by Dick Olsher within these pages and while he loved the unit, its $4,200 selling price put me off a little. Then I heard what it can do at the Stereophile Show in May.
On the Friday press day of the show I went into the Art Audio, Soliloquy, etc. room and thought the sound good but not great. Luckily, Clark Johnsen, Kwami and I got into the show before it opened on Saturday morning with our press passes and went to a private demo at another room. I happened to pass by this same room again and from outside the sound drew me in. They had redone the system and had inserted two of these units. I awarded best sound of the show on the spot as this room now had the best audio I'd heard at any show. While there were probably other things done to the system, I figured the units must have done some of the improvement and that next week I contacted Mr. Weil and begged for a review unit. We conversed back and forth for a while as he didn't know me from Adam and had to wait anyway for more units to be built as he had a huge backlog of orders. I finally received one with its own power cord and 20 amp. AC outlet, for review.
Please go back to Dick's article for a full review of the unit so I won't have to write so much, and I agree with what he said anyway. Over multiple e-mails I've gleaned the following extra information from Mr. Weil. There have been three versions of the units, with this latest one using "extended foil capacitors" (whatever they are) and "high conductivity AC outlets". Each is hand built over an eight-hour two day schedule. All hand wired with true cold welding while soldering done in an Argon environment. This guy has got to be the most anal-retentive engineer in the world, (although he sounds like a regular great guy on the phone)! He only uses 5 ppm Caddock Ultra Precision resistors, 6 Nines 12-gauge copper wire, 8-gauge OFE 4 Nines NASA grade bus bars and cryogenically treated high conductivity outlets.
Each unit also comes with an extra high conductivity 20 amp outlet which is needed as the plug on the CF-X unit is a 20 amp IEC type. Thus, most other high-end power cords cannot be used as the IEC pins are oriented differently compared to the standard 15 amp type. Only Jim's power cord can be used as all other high-end cords that I know of use 15 amp plugs that have a different orientation. Of course you can make one up if you can find the correct plugs and Jim says he will supply them for a nominal charge if you buy one of his units. His cord costs $800 with the unit and $1,000 without. This seems reasonable to me considering what other high-end cords cost.
Jim burns them in for a week at the factory, but he recommends plugging it into a high inductive load such as a table saw for a week (wonder how a high-end table saw sounds with the cord in place. Jim claims that it takes several months for the unit to completely mature. Luckily he had a partially broken in unit that he shipped to me for the review. He also claims that the unit can take a 50 amp load continuously without burning out, or even getting warm, and gives them a 25 to 30 year life. The unit also has a built in 11 stage surge suppresser of his design, which one customer claims allowed his stereo system to survive a direct lightening strike to the home while the stereo was playing. A magnetic circuit breaker rather than a standard thermal type is included which, according to Jim, has less effect on dynamics and has only a few microseconds delay before triggering.
They can be found in systems at the CBS dedicated reference listening suite in evaluation systems at BAT, Avant Garde, Walker Audio, ART Audio, Silverline… Jim states that they were used in 18 high-end rooms at this year's CES. One of his gripes is that his units were not mentioned in any of the write-ups on the rooms and all of the rooms were mentioned very favorably in the articles. Sorry Jim, but that's the problem with tweaks. Manufacturers want everyone to think their amplifiers or speaker is the thing supplying the music, not a "tweak".
The system as shipped to me consists of his power cord ($1,000), a special cryogenically treated high conductance 20 amp wall plug ($125), and the box with 12 outlets plus a circuit breaker on-off surge suppresser switch for a grand total of $4,200. The wall outlet comes free with the unit and the cord is $200 less if bought together.
I have been using it to plug in my entire audio-video system, which had been using 6KVA worth of uninterruptible power supplies, and have only tripped the circuit breaker twice. Once when I accidentally dropped my cartridge onto a record and the Crown Macro-Reference went into overload (and probably also the seismometer at Univ. of N.H.), and once while watching Shadow of the Vampire which had a steam engine chugging through my room. The normal unit's circuit breaker is a 20 amp one, but if you wish they can be supplied with 30 amp ones. Luckily everything, including the stylus on my $15,000 Audio-Note cartridge and my heart and hearing, survived. A quick flick of the switch/circuit breaker on the CF-X got the system up and running again. What has the unit done for my system? Turned day into night. Allowed me to put some of the six power supplies up for sale on an Internet newsgoup which will hopefully give me enough money to purchase another of these units to isolate the digital more from the rest of the system as Jim suggests.
The first time I turned it on was at 11 a.m. on my Thursday off from the office, and the first thing I played was an Opus One CD with Tiden Bar Gar, a recording I have been using for 20 years for evaluation, and which I am somewhat familiar with. First impression: I thought I was listening to analog. The CD sounded as good as it ever had, in any of my late night listening sessions. Not only had the curtains lifted, but the digital nasties were gone. The internote silence was deafening. One cannot understand what the RFI and EMI distortion are causing until one hears the silent background produced by this unit. I felt just like I was listening to analog , and matched how I felt while listening to SACD at the shows with none of that digital tenseness. Analog sounded even better with all of the curtains up, with perfect pitch stability, with the hall sound extending behind me even with the surrounds turned off. At 11 in the morning I was hearing what I usually don't at night. I think I've finally cured the electricity problem with this one unit since over the past three weeks the sound has consistently been as good as I've ever heard from those previous unusual peaks. The unit also worked synergistically with the Walker Ultra Links, as one cleaned up the AC and the other the junk picked up and produced by the equipment, interconnect and speaker wires.
I know this is supposed to be an audio column, but I must mention that there was also a tremendous improvement on the video side. I receive the direct HBO and Showtime C-band HDTV 1080I feed, which is the best available signal in the world, short of sitting in the studio, and project it with an Electrohome 8500 projector onto a 10 ft. 16 x 9 screen. I can say without reservation that my video is now better than anything I've ever seen demo'ed at any showroom or show. Colors are more vibrant; the image is more three dimensional and film-like. I watched the Jurassic Park II DVD on my home HTPC at 960P, 72 Hz., and then went to the premier Friday noon at my local megaplex of III, and can honestly say, that the home reproduction of the audio and video far surpassed what was being reproduced in the theater. Except for my addiction to the artificial butter-coconut oil on the popcorn (I'm not a cardiologist), there is no longer any reason for me to go to the movies.
I have found two problems with the unit, one of which I've solved, and the other that I'm going to need some help on. The first was a 60 cycle low level hum from my Marchand tube crossover for the center channel. I'll discuss this one below. The second one is going to be a little more difficult. An hour after I had put the unit into my system, and was half way through the Beethoven third, I heard some unusual room noises that I hadn't heard before in the recording and thought WOW, surround information without the rear speakers. Then I realized they were coming from behind my chair. Turning around, I actually found my wife sitting there. She had sneaked into the room behind me and was actually listening to the music. She never comes in while I'm listening! Says it hurts her ears. Women are like that -- much better at discerning high pitched anomalies- probably relates to listening for whining babies -- something genetic -- which thank G-d men don't have. Anyway, she now loves the way the stereo sounds and has come in several times since to listen but unhappily also to talk. This is the first time she has ever asked me what I had done to the system to make it sound so good. Thus, I guess this is the first piece of audio equipment I've had that got an A for the WAF (wife acceptance factor). So be forewarned! If you like the solitude that your audio system offers you, don't buy this thing. On the other hand if you want or need a chick magnet, well this is cheaper than a Ferrari. Play a little mood music and see what happens.
The final experiment, for now, was to run my uninterruptible power supplies off of the unit, and use one for the video equipment, one for the digital, one for the surround amps, and the analog and amplifiers directly from the CF-X. While the UPS's total wattage plus the analog stuff probably exceeded the 50 amp limit of the CF-X, the special circuit I have running to the room is rated at 60 amps, and I figured the UPS's wouldn't be running full out anyway, I thought what the hell. Let's see if the unit can actually deal with high loads. So first I turned on all of the analog, then the UPS's and switched them on to battery, which actually continue to draw wall current, warmed up the system, and listened and watched.
Again, there was a jump in level of all of the above improvements. I am truly a happy camper. At mid-day and evening, the normally worst times for listening, the system sounds better than the best I'd ever achieved. Happily, there is no improvement beyond this at night. Conclusion? Maybe I've actually reached the Mount Everest peak of noise suppression in my system. While this is the most expensive tweak I've placed in my system over 21 years, it is actually the cheapest in total cost considering the time and money I've spent in AC tweaks that have failed. Jim claims that two work synergistically, especially if one is used to isolate digital from analog, and I'd have to believe him. Thus, I have a second on order.
Most highly rated tweak I've used and for me PRODUCT OF THE CENTURY.
(Okay Jim? I elevated your unit to a product rather than tweak.) I feel so strongly about this unit that I have to suggest that any reviewer that doesn't have one cannot be giving you the best review possible. Hey, Steve, how about buying each of your writers at least one. (Then I wouldn't have to pay for the second unit.) Steve sez: Sure, and a Ferrari F60 and a personal drive of Ferrari's world champion F1 car too. Let's go for broke :-)
That's enough writing. I'm going back to my system, and may not return for a while to do another column. Besides, I don't think I'll be able to top this find. Sorry Steve, you may have to find another writer. Steve sez: i know your wife and i'll ask her to bug you until you write more for us :-)
Sample Rate: Switchable 44.1/48/88.2/96kHz - 128x oversampling
Applied Research and Technology