Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Digital v Analogue Speakers: the Dream and Reality

So I am a huge fan of Meridian kit for digital reproduction (well Sonos excepted), key leaders in lossless processing. Pretty much the most impressive thing I ever heard whilst working in Hifi were 6 x DSP6000s run through a 568.2mm processor at a Hifi show (might have been an early 800 mule to be honest, but it were the DSP6000s that left the impression).  Despite being in probably the most dreadful possible arena for sound reproduction - massively noisy, fake walls - they sounded stupendous.  Only heard DSP6000s a couple of times afterwards and as long as you have the room always sounded epic; One of my future should-I-win-the-lottery purchases (much prefer the monolith look to DSP8000s).  The 568.2mm is a great box, and I was delighted as they came within purchase range recently, it handles all my movies and digital side.

You don't need to go as far as that as DSP5000s work in a huge variety of rooms, and with a decent digital source, and meridian processor you have to go a long way to find something sounding better.  My brother's all time favourite, and we sold a lot of them over the years.  That combination of moving the digital to the speaker, allowing a digital crossover, control of the whole package, two 24/96 (in the two later versions) DACs and 3x75W individual amplification for each drive unit, just put such power and control together in a actually quite compact, and with the DSP, very tolerant box.   It also gets rid of all the piles of power amps that you quickly end up with otherwise.  You get a neat and beautifully designed (if a little boxy for some in shape) system.   You can get them now for £1800 and when you look at what you get, that looks like a bargain to me.

So why don't I have a pair?  Well I would apart from one thing, you can't turn the digital off.  It just seems wrong to me to spend so much money on getting your turntable to sound wonderful, then digitize it on the fly.  I can understand if people want to record their vinyl to high resolution digital 24/96+ for the portability and get access to those original recordings and improved dynamic range and then playing it back digitally when they want to listen (and protecting that precious disk).  But if I am going to be getting up, opening a beautiful gatefold, cleaning a record, carefully placing the needle, I really don't want to know that it's being digitized on the fly, even if into brilliant 24/96 DSP.  I ran my turntable for a while into the 568mm which is digital only. To be honest it sounded absolutely fine, however it didn't feel right at all, and ADC change the volume digitally and then DAC as I only really listen to music on the 568mm in Direct (DSP off), seemed a huge waste.

So I'd like to be able to say that I have one dream system, unfortunately in that virtual living room - and to be fair, it would need to be a very large one, or preferably two large rooms - there needs to be two: One digital and one analogue.   As I slowly build up what I'm listening to at home, I've quickly come to the same challenge, and who has the room or the budget to maintain two?  At some point you need to compromise and pick the junction point in the system for doing that, and which (no matter how balanced you can be), gets final priority digital or analogue.  Two main positions on this one.

Digital wins: use DSP speakers, and a very high quality digital pre-amp with DAC built in of the sort I was looking at like the Mytek 192 and accept the digitization of the phono signal as high up the chain as possible then digital to as close to the speaker as possible.

Analogue wins: use conventional speakers and shorten the path directly through from the phono through a analogue preamp, then feed in the digital as low down the chain as possible with a separate digital preamp/processor, typically into the preamp, but if possible directly into the power amps and speakers.

I'm going with the latter, and next post is on trying to cut out having two pre-amps to do it.

But if space and money wasn't a constraint, and those systems could be kept separate, what would they be for me?  Well a lot of my choices are for the attachment I have to things, as well as the outright sound quality but both of these would sound awesome.

Digital
Massive room
Meridian DSP6000 x 6, custom 4x 15" cult of the infinitely baffled  style front facing subs
Second massive room for the subs to vent into behind the screen.
Meridian 800 series processing and decoding

Analogue
Massive room
Martin Logan Statement E2
Krell 700 Power Amps
Some sort of Krell PreAmp
A Linn LP12 with a Woodsong plinth, probably a Peter Swain Signature

So starting to work towards those, seems like a massive room is a pre-requisite... not to mention a lottery win, ah well back to looking at how to get my Analogue and Digital to play nicely together.

Not actually Statement E2 but rather Martin Logon CLSii, from the Martin Logon site but I rather like this picture and it's using a creative commons licence allowing reuse.







Monday, 26 May 2014

Unbalanced Power: The Tyranny of Interconnects

So after getting the Cyrus 3 Power Amps happily installed I really wanted to know whether balanced XLR or un-balanced RCA connections were going to sound the best, and secretly I really wanted XLR to win.

I hate interconnects.  They are always too short, too expensive, and never enough of the same type to match. It's a complete tyranny in Hifi circles, you have to have the "Right" cable.  That cable is then ludicrously expensive, and hence short, and short is also supposed to sound better, so some are REALLY short,  then suddenly you can only plug your hifi together in maybe one or two configurations without straining any of the leads, and almost certainly that isn't the configuration which would be naturally ergonomic, or often even practical.  But it's notionally going to sound better, and you've invested all this money in shiny gold, silver, copper and PFTE you aren't going to compromise it just because it makes the the buttons difficult to reach.  By the time I've got a digital system to play nicely with my analogue system and both to play nicely with movies, that is a lot of boxes and cables and I'm fed up with them telling me how to organize my kit instead of the other way around.

So balanced is the great hope, use a technology which makes you less dependent on the type of cable, less dependent on the length.  Buy some good but not silly cable, some nice connectors and make your own the right length.  One nice soldering iron and silver solder (the states type you aren't supposed to use in the EU) and I was ready to give it a go.

So balanced is definitely the way to go if

1) You need long lengths of line level connections (say if you want your amplifier in different rooms)
2) If you have a lot of radio frequency interference (RFI)
3) You have kit which is designed from the start only to use balanced.

Balanced if perfectly implemented should be superior, but it's quite rare in kit in the UK, more common in the States, and on less than very expensive kit often it can be an added on after.

So we have the Cyrus 3 Power Amp - offering a balanced XLR imput and an unbalanced RCA input - which sounds better?

These were my creation of test cables, 2.75m long, Neutrik NC3FXXB and NC3MXXB connectors, Van Damme Tour Grade Classic XKE microphone cable, Qables 6.5mm Y-Splitters (to avoid having to daisy chaining with an RCA)  This is a spec you'll find widely on forums for instance on Hitchhikers here.  Having made a setup I can thoroughly recommend all of it - very nice kit. Probably about £35 of parts.  Most from VDCTrading apart from the splitters which are well recommended by headphone enthusiasts from Qables



These were up against my chosen RCA cable of choice from way back when, the Chord (Silver0 Siren.  Silver plated conductors, Teflon outer, nice RCAs.  I've gone through and reconditioned all of mine recently as some of the RCAs developed intermittent connections.  Taking a deep breath and cutting my limited collection of 1m pairs in order to make some really short ones for daisy chaining and linking power amps and meaning I could use them for all my power side.  Chord Silver Siren was about £65 RRP if I remember.  So expensive, short and a fetching shade of matching.purple which pleased me greatly.


So the Cyrus 3 is quite a popular model, more expensive second hand that some that came after without XLRs.  Is it worth it.

Annoyingly no.

I really wanted the balanced to sound better, but on this amp, in this test it doesn't.  The RCA option is more transparent, more open and fresh.  Not that the balanced is bad, if you weren't doing a back to back you wouldn't notice.  But not a retrograde step back I was prepared to solder a complete set of cables and switches to take.

Yes balanced *should* be better, but in this case, on this amp, it isn't and I'm not alone in thinking this.  Various threads on Cyrus forums here

So if you are buying a Cyrus 3 for the balanced connections for sound quality (rather than dealing with distance runs) don't bother.

So this isn't a hugely precise test.  Ideally it should be exactly the same length and cable type balanced and unbalanced to get a precise answer.   But for me it doesn't matter, balanced was a route to great sound with longer cables, and with more widely available cables at low cost and that I could adjust cables without such a very deep breath before cutting precious materials.  So regardless of which part of the picture, the length, the pure copper rather than silver, the insulation, the internal balancing circuitry in the amp, it doesn't matter the RCA sounds better, and I'm back under interconnect tyranny.

At this point I'd really like to state how nice the balanced materials were to work with..  If anyone is out there designing an amp from scratch, design it to have XLR end to end.  Solid, reassuring, and the right size for my fingers and level of dexterity.  RCA isn't.

The Neutrik and Van Damme stuff is made in huge quantities for stadia, studios, and outdoor broadcast.  It's lower cost because of volume at the same time as being beautifully made.  The plugs have enough space to solder and get a really nice connection on them, even if you aren't a soldering master.   They grip the cable fantastically and support the connection, with a dedicated shield stopping shorting out against the case even if you are stretching and abusing the connection.  The plugs lock in and out of components they have metal solid ends, nice tactile flexible ends.  They are in short friendly, robust and everything most hifi plugs aren't.

 The Van Damme cable is very pure, well shielded, strengthened with really nice string cord internally flexible outer insulation, stiffer inner insulation, strips nicely, cuts nicely, feels nice in the hand.  Again everything Hifi cables often aren't.

Hifi cables almost seem to have to be awkward to use otherwise you aren't sacrificing enough for the sound!






Saturday, 24 May 2014

Changing Allegiance on British Amps

I've always been a big fan of the Arcam Delta 290 (A) Integrated and Power Amps (P), and have since 1996 or so a growing stack of 290Ps until recently biamping left, centre and right, and single amping my rears for music and movies.

There has always been a great British Amplifier tradition amplifiers included and around that time there were three or four in particular which were talked about for somewhere around £500 for the integrated and then powers on top to biamp.

The Audiolab 8000 series, What HiFi raved about these, and ran a stack of 4 mono 8000Ms as their reference system, tonally a bit drier than the Arcams which a lot of people liked, and (IMO) pre the 1998 takeover by TAG Maclaren produced some really fine kit before loosing their way a bit after.

Then there was the Arcam Delta serious, bigger, more space in the boxes, warmer at the bottom and sweeter at the top, though not quite as taught.   I thought it was great, better than the Arcam 8 and 9 that followed (though the 9 is based upon the 290) and that's what I bought into.  Technically you could bridge the 290s for powerful monoblocks, but that wasn't the way they worked best, buying a 290A and then horizontally biamping with a 290P produced a really fine sound and you could argue about which one should power the tweeters and which the woofers all day (to my mind the 290P).

I never got to grips with any of the Mission/Cyrus gear.  Mainly because the shop didn't get on with the rep or the company that well, you had to run the speakers because of the awards at What HiFi but they always made it such hard work compared to the Arcam and Meridian which we were doing a lot of.  But I'd always been intrigued.

All this kit is available at extremely reasonable prices now.  You can pick up a 290A/8000A for £150-180 (watch out for the input selector on the 290As), powers for about the same, Cyrus 3 Amplifiers and Powers in good condition a bit more.  More like £180-220.  Any of these will make extremely fine noises if looked after, whilst processing, DACs have moved on hugely, good amplifiers with decent numbers of the right connections are still flexible and sounding excellent.  You just need the space to stack them up.  So something like this I had on test recently after getting each part reconditioned, really sounded beautiful,



So through April I took a plunge and replaced my set of 4 Arcam Delta 290P Amplifiers with a set of 4 Cyrus 3 Power Amplifiers.   Why?

Mainly space.  4 Cyrus (3) Powers occupy the same space as only 2 Arcam 290Ps, and I want to get everything away and in one rack and when scratching my head with how to do that, they came with a lot of additional stuff.  Flexibility to be biamp or bridged, upgradabale with a PSX-R to have two power suppliers one running the control and audio, one the main power stage which also upped the power from 50 to 70Ws, and also offering Balanced connections.

I've got balanced outputs on my Meridian pre-amps and similarly back when I was selling hifi we had one or two XLR compatibles in the shop, but never really ran an end to end balanced demo system, or had enough of the right cables to do be able to do a detailed back to back.  RCA dominated.   So I was eager to get to grips with Balanced.  Most of the DSD dacs also sport balanced, and if I upgraded I wanted to be able to go balanced end to end.

So initially purchasing 2, then another 2, what did I learn about the Cyrus 3 Power Amplifer?  Well there was quite a lot to learn, so here is a collection of useful things if anyone is thinking about them

Firstly they came with either very annoying 3mm banana plugs of slightly less annoying, but not as nice as 4mm normal banana BFA plugs (the hollow stackable type).  This was because of electrocution concerns over on the continent with 4mm bananas going into plug sockets too sweetly leading to lots of EU grumbling abouts.   There are no binding posts so you have to have the right connectors, I've ended up with an amplification pair of each type.

Moorgate Acoustics sell the best 3mm banana plugs I could find
http://www.moorgateacoustics.co.uk/cyrus/cyrus-3-mm-plugs-set-of-4-1444495-395863-555054.php
You used to be able to get nice bananas just like the 4mm usual ones, and one seller included 2 of them reminding me, but now you only seem to be able to get 3mm bananas is nasty nickel finishes, so these moorgate ones are pricey at £27.50 but good quality.  If anyone out there has any classic gold plated 3mm bananas (socket and screw) I would be interested in buying them! So if buying a 3mm one make sure you factoring into any connectors into the purchase price.  The quality of the connection on the 3mms seems more solid and satisfying than the BFA ones, and some BFA plugs aren't very nice to solder to.  One of my amps the centre pin in the BFAs seems worn as well.   So I'd recommend if you have the choice go for the 3mm ones and plan ahead.  Some forums say you can squeeze down one of the stackable BFAs from 4mm to 3mm carefully with a crimping or pliers.  Whilst you can get something to "work" like this, the connection was highly unsatisfactory and it made a mess - I would leave well alone.  You can also try and remove the 3mm sockets and replace with 4mm, but it's an arkward place in the amp, and the de-soldering risks breaking plastic bits if you aren't precise. Again I'd leave off and buy the Moorgate plugs or similar.

Next up is that (very simple but internal) modifications are needed to use with a PSX-R so depending on how the seller has been using it may just sit and flash the diagnostic lights at you if not compatible with what you are trying to use it for.  The modification is to change around the order of 4 main coloured cables with connector clips on internally.  Taking the case apart and making the swaps is easy, however I haven't got a good guide to post with pictures.   As I had one that worked and one that didn't I changed the one that didn't to have the same order of wires to the one that did....

This was the only picture I took, a little blurry unfortunately, but you can see the 4 pins, near the transformer at the front, which run Yellow, Blue, Grey, and Brown/Red.




You also need to turn the amps off to change between states mono/stereo and balanced/unbalanced which doesn't make very quick back to back comparisons as easy as they could be, though to protect the amps it's understandable.  I have to say the self diagnosis and protection is very good.  Despite shorting on the case trying to sort speaker connections, and plugging them in in wrong modes, no blown fuses, and accurate flashing lights when reading the manual.

They also run a lot hotter than the 290Ps, not painful to the touch hot or enough to trip the protection (even after sustained loud for long), but quite enough that if you have a front on your hifi rack you notice it's getting plenty warm inside.   The classic Cyrus Hark stands with their flush open edges to the cooling fins clearly weren't shaped like that incidentally.  If putting in a closed unit worth considering.  They also seem to idle in standby a lot warmer.  Being noticably warm if not switched off at the back.

So if you press through a surprising amount of setup learning, what do they sound like?

Against the 290s.  Clearly in the same class, but slightly better.  Taughter and bigger at the bottom, not as sweet at the top, but with more overall detail, and more expansive.  Generally very nice.  I think the tone of the 290s I still preferred, but with the space saving and potential upgrade space, I was happy to trade some slight tone for the resolution and scale.

They are also really compact, although that does encourage you to get a large number of the boxes, you could have 8 just for 2 speakers (4 mono powers and 4 PSX-Rs) if you really wanted.

So all in all a worthwhile change, and at the same time I moved from horizontal biamping (one driving the tweeters left and right, and one driving woofers left and right) with the the 290s to vertical biamping (one driving left tweeter, left woofer, one driving right tweeter, right woofer).  I can't say I can notice any difference in sound quality, however that compact footprint lends itself to being place physically nearer the speaker it drives, and seems to lend itself to a vertical stance allowing shorter speaker cables.

Sunday, 13 April 2014

The ThinJetty Coffee Subscription Review Method

Looking at my coffee subscription test method, and thinking about not excluding people from premium coffee, just because they don't do it, just this way or that.

When I started seriously writing I thought it would be a great prompt to keep me doing things to keep having things to write about.  In fact it has launched lots of great things that I need no excuse to keep doing and instead am struggling to write about them and have a backlog.  One of those things has been going through reviews of some subscription services each over a 3 bag test.  The first of these on Pact was both fun, prompted a lovely reaction from the company, and had a good online response.  Since then I've been carrying on and completed a Hasbean test which is waiting writing up and am about half way through a TwoDayCoffee cycle.

So far I haven't bought a similar sort of bag of coffee (by variety or region) twice even from different vendors and have hence had a lot of fun with a very wide variety of coffee.  But that wasn't going to let me, and never was it my intention to, review the coffee as though  "this was the best coffee buy this".  Coffee is generally a hugely personal thing, and people should be able to enjoy it, and have fun making it, without worrying someone is looking down on them.  Fundamentally what I am looking for is a major step up from supermarket both in the coffee and in the buying experience.

So I thought it would be good to define what I was exactly reviewing, and what I've established as my review areas and method:


Purchasing experience 
Generally does it make it easy to order at short notice?  (I always run out) especially does it work on desktop and mobile.
What is the end to end purchasing experience - am I excited to get that coffee?
Does it arrive when it says it is going to, and what sort of state is it in when it arrives?
What was the company like to deal with?
Complexity of the product and accessibility - how hard was the coffee to understand and what to do
I'll also try and give the company chance to reach out and make contact with me through the buying process - is this service adding to the overall coffee community.

Coffee Quality
If given a recommendation with the beans, I'll generally try and follow the advice closely to get a good idea how the vendor sees the coffee.  (often this advice is very good)  But left to my own devices if I am excited about the coffee I'll try and make it in the following 5 ways (and often in this order) before determining my favourite finishing the bag mainly with that method and writing up.  I'm pretty determined not to throw any coffee away and so far haven't had to because I haven't liked it.  Finishing each bag slows down the review process a bit, but I think lends a better result, is more realistic to what a customer will be doing.

1) Very short style Ristretto style espresso using an over-fine griund
2) Full double 60ml style esperesso using a dialed back coarser grind
3) Cappuccino
4) Chemex drip black
5) White with sugar (either Americano or drip)

Why bother?  Surely espresso is the ultimate!, and what on earth am I doing adding milk and sugar...

Well in my experience most people drink coffee with sugar and milk - some studies (here is a nice infographic) say only about 35% drink black. Starbucks are massively successful with their handcrafted, blended drinks and appeal to a very wide audience.  The coffee scene can be incredibly snobby, and by stating that because this is the "best way" to make coffee, that it is the only way (and anyone who does differently is wrong) I think we alienate people that otherwise would embrace discovering something new, and start on a journey that led them to really lovely new coffee.

Different styles of coffee have a time and a place, and part of that fitting into and around life, is one of the things I really like about coffee.

So nailing my colors to the mast how do I drink my coffee?  Well running through the above.

1) Ristretto
I mainly do this because I find it easiest to dial the grind very fine, and then work it back to where works with my machine and the new coffee beans.  Ordering a lot of very random bags I always seem to need to redo this each time, and just accepting it and making a very short shot has become my default way of proceeding.  I find it also gives a really good initial impression of what the major flavour notes of the coffee are going to be separately from the overall acidity and espresso balance.  Generally this is not the way I drink my coffee, and I would not pretend that with my fairly modest Gaggia Classic I can do an artisan Ristretto, but I do think it's very informative on what has arrived in the bag.

2) Espresso
As it's the foundation for all the milk drinks it's then time with the new bag to get the espresso right.  I normally drink espresso when travelling, or after a meal, or in anywhere where you can stand and drink coffee at a bar.  Somehow, it's not a sitting down with people drink for me.  It gives the widest platform for the coffee to perform, leaving oils and all the other complex bits unfiltered.

3) Cappuccino
I like cappuccino in the evening or on slow days like a Sunday and some coffees just make amazing cappuccino, almost more like a dessert than a drink, or how espresso is drunk as a digestive.  I'll often swap a cappuccino with a biscuit for a pudding, and if it was particularly good still go for an Espresso afterwards.  A bit weird, but I can highly recommend it.  Especially with coffees with acidity notess I'm not keen on, seeing if they work with milk is a key stage for me.

4) Black 
If I'm really going to concentrate on my coffee, or have it whilst concentrating hard on another task, I typically like it black.   Americano, V60, Chemex or Areopress all done duties.  Currently the really clean, soft taste that lets the background notes of the coffee come through from the Chemex is my favourite.  It's also the most unlike espresso of the methods and gives the biggest comparison and sometimes something that doesn't work for me at all in Espresso will really shine here.  My only criticism with black drip from the Chemex is that I find it goes stale in the cup (or the warmer) really quickly, I haven't worked out why, but I find not something to leave on the side whilst you are doing jobs.

5) White with sugar.
When ending up buying a random highstreet coffee or when offered at a none coffee friends house more often than not this is how I end up having a coffee I haven't planned for myself.  When I get up in the morning, and I need a cup of coffee, in order to actually be able to make myself coffee, this is how I drink it. Now I'm not going to have an instant, or a Nespresso but I'm also not going to feel bad, about only just being able to work out how to grind the beans, making it quickly with espresso, adding water, milk and sugar, waking up and then working out what actually the day will hold: coffee or otherwise.  Whilst it's not the way to really "appreciate" a specialist coffee, I think that if a premium coffee still doesn't manage to add some value here above supermarket then it's not really worth the extra or going to be applicable to that many people.

If I get through all of the above, and didn't manage to make a coffee that was substantially better than what I would get with buying a tin of Illy from a supermarket, I'll call it a failure as a premium coffee, (or I've messed up somewhere).  Nothing has so far failed to meet that bar, and I've gone back recently and bought a fresh Illy tin and re-baselined just to make sure I've got that firm point set in my head.  For me Illy was the most reliable I could buy in the supermarket, and where I came into coffee seriously so to invest in something more expensive it has to beat this mark.



Re-baselining was really interesting.  The smell when I open an Illy tin is still amazing - it smells how I think amazing coffee should try to taste (sic) I wonder if Illy inject some air or something in at packaging or do something to intensify that moment or if it is just the quality of the tin seal.  I find Illy reliably a good coffee, but after about 2 days of opening, it doesn't really hold my interest.  All of the bags ordered so far have exceeded this bar.

Cost
Specialist coffee will be more than volume beans.  But even within mail order coffees there are some pretty big premiums asked for specialist within specialist types - is that extra investment really making a difference? How much more expensive than a supermarket bag is it

Currently then this is how I've been going about it and current plans are to write up the Hasbean review, which has been a good experience.  The twodaycoffee review (half way through, good so far), and then take stock and see what the common themes and threads are across the 3 completed.

But for anyone who got right to the bottom of this, and wants to know across the 13 bags of beans tested so far what the outright "Best" were (or at least my two favourites)

Drip:  Hasbean provided this done in the Chemex was really interesting, really nice faint but intriguing citrus notes.  Much more muted than done espresso, but still really engaging.

Espresso:  Twoday provided this and just made a really great, really reliable, fresh espresso.  Nothing shocking or new, just really solid.

Friday, 14 March 2014

DSD DAC Research Roundup

Looking at a couple of good DSD DAC options, a whole lot of factors around deciding on a DSD DAC or any DAC for that matter, and deciding against all of them to look at really sorting out my cables instead.

So after a brief foray into JRiver converted on the fly Blue Coast DSD recording which I still love and listen to regularly, I went into some pretty seriously looking for a DSD DAC.  The people at @DSD_Audio tweeted some helpful things, both some DACs and also pointing out that DSD wasn't complicated with this photo



I've got a lot of sympathy for the elegance of the 1bit process DSD is going for.  Better then to say with some certainy that deciding to buy a DSD DAC, or for that matter any DAC at the moment is complicated as we are in the middle of a bit of a format war.  It's not a nice simple Betamaz vs VHS, Vinyl v CD, DCC versus MiniDisc - a this or that physical choice, as an end point source - it's a complex ephemeral mid point choice of dacs, cables, bits and khz, how you are preserving that stream on it's journey back into analogue.

So when faced with a Hifi problem, I like most audiophiles have a couple of go to brands that I've bought a lot of kit off over the years and have a lot of respect for.  If they are doing something, I'm much more inclined to take on faith that they have made some of the best choices for how to do it.  Two of my favorites have released new very well received small, PC targeted DACs: the Arcam irDAC and the Meridian Director.  Many other very good hifi brands are also doing so, and it's clearly a fast moving space.  You can see eBay flooded since Christmas with Musical Fidelity M1s.  In 2012 these were the What Hifi 5 stat, group test winning must have in this space, in 2013 it is now only 3 stars.  That falling in and out of favour volatility always worries me, either a product sounds absolutely great, or it doesn't. I realise that it's a new prodcut area, and that the price point sensitivity for the stars is changing rapidly, but hifi isn't a new field, I have a very good high res DAC already, and a record deck, a purely comparative rating within a small narrow new field isn't helpful to compare something new with those existing things.  So buying with care in the space appears to be recommended.

Meridian especially have a long history with high res digital and I have a lot of faith in what they think in this space. If they were supporting DSD I would probably own a Director right now and there is signficnat interest for DSD support in the Meridian forums.  However Meridian do not seem convinced of it, or likely to supply such support in the near future.  The picture is repeated around other long established respected brands that active in the digital space in the UK, like Naim and Linn, interest on Forums, new high resolution PCM products, and no clear forward view for DSD, often mixed with some skepticism.

Without a comforting brand to help the decisions about a DAC choice get harder.  All of my 3 digital audio PC to external DAC builds have had issues where one thing was messing up at one point and stopping it being all it could be, that required diagnosing and fixing.   Although much better now, plugging together the right PC, Player, Cable, Connection and DAC is much easier to get wrong than right.  The more I've read the more things I found to obsess over, and here is a list of things I was considering when looking at the right DAC.

All these DACs seem to have pre-amps - I have a really good pre-amp already.  Ideally I'd like just a DAC and not to pay for kit I'm not using, or at very least one with the pre-amp stages switchable out

Is the DSD stream really DSD all the way through, is it getting turned into PCM in the middle, or otherwise messed with.  Is a native bitstream better or is DSD over PCM (DoP) going to be fine?

DSD and PCM both need final pass filters, but there seems to be a strong opinions that they benefit from quite different ones, and the top DACs have switchable final filter options.  What filter am I getting, is this optimized for DSD or PCM?

If I'm going to all this trouble, I'd really like it to have balanced outputs to match the rest of the kit.

Is it really necessary to go to native DSD if JRiver converts on the fly to 64/352, and will stick it out into this NAD DAC V-1 which supports up to 24/384?

How much is enough digital resolution, DSD has x2, x4 and x8 versions.   There are big reservations of its 1 bit nature for mixing and editing and there is DSD-Wide with an 8bit hybrid.  On PCM, do you stop at 24/96, 24/192, 32/192... 32/384...

That narrows the list of DACs a lot to chose from, and it's a lot of headache in choosing for potentially a small sonic difference at potentially high cost.  I also made a list of things which could give me as much satisfaction in sound improvement and a completed project than buying a new DAC.  It went like this:

Sort cables to allow optimal placement for electrical and vibration separation.
Sort out cables in general, and tune interconnects and speaker cables.
Go to balanced connections throughout.
Mass load the speakers with fine sand and leadshot (the Ruarks really benefit from this)
Get the positioning and leveling of the speakers absolutely spot on, probably going to three oversize custom spikes rather than the difficult to get how I want, statistically indeterminate, four they have now.
Get an external power supply for the record deck.
Change the power connectors for shielded ones and separate out the audio cables to reduce the background electrical noise.
Route a dedicated spur from the consumer unit for the hifi.
Get a custom cabinet that made everything look neater and positined the centre speaker tweeter at the same height as the left and right.

If only one good thing came out of this, this was a good list to have made and so I decided I'd much prefer to sort out my cables, go fully balanced and have some options on fixing some of the other things, rather than mess with a new DAC right now.

However if I lived in the states, you have some really good audition at home options, and I'd have probably opted already for one of the three below I short listed.

Schiit Loki
15 day 15% return policy.  $150.  Also has a really nice solution to the Filter and conversion questions: it only does DSD, it's optimized for that and that only and it's designed to utilize that DSD elegance from the ground up, not try and convert a PCM product.

If you are reading htis Schiit I liked a lot about the philosophy of thi product, and your view of the format wars, I think the same thing but with the balanced outs and modular USB boards of the Gungnir would be an absolute winner.  Maybe even a Gungir with a DSD and a PCM board in, and the switch between internally.

However for only $22.50 at risk, this sounds like a fantastic box in terms of design purity to try out.

Mytek Stereo192-DSD
After a lot more reading, this consistently seems to be very well regarded.  Balanced connections.  You can switch off the preamp stage in it.  You can also get it on 30 days approval in the US.   Not in Europe.  I don't like the buttons or the look - but would have probably have got one to try if I lived in the US.  $1600

Meitner MA-1
Money-no-object, I'd probably go one for one of these.  I find the quote  "The result is a converter that turns the "you-have-to-spend-a-lot-to-get-a-lot" paradigm on its proverbial ear" pretty risible as it is $7000 for a DAC. But it definitely has the end to end DSD basis (upsampling with it for PCM) and a pretty formidable online reputation, and I like a lot of the design that has gone into it.

Generally this resource page on audiostream is very useful for DSD DACs and links to the reviews.

So with a lot of newer players leading the DSD way, picking something you can try and home with your kit sounds a winner.  Without that option, I've decided to give it a miss at the moment.  It's not that DSD is not going to be worthwhile, but the current escalating war of khz and bits I think will soon start to bottom out at some fairly generally acknowledged way-further-than-it's-worth going top level, and some of those manufacturers will look harder again at DSD support, the reviews and prices will stabilise and you can have more faith you are buying something that will sound good for a decade rather than sounds comparatively better than the direct competitors this year.





Thursday, 13 February 2014

Pact Coffee Review: Subscription Service and Mobile Enabled

Review over three packs of he Pact coffee subscription service, mobile and social enabled business model, and generally mulling on the freshness of coffee.

So over the past 6 weeks I've been systematically going through my coffee armory and trying to weed out the weak links and generally supercharge it.  With a new born in the house, it's been a good time to be drinking a lot of coffee.  So Chemex and V60 for drip, Aero and French press, Gaggia Classic for Espresso, along with Hario and Electric grinders have all been getting a workout, along with replacement Motta accessories.  But far more important than that was to upgrade what I was sticking into the kit the first place.

From a lot of Illy (still love the cans and still a fall back) recently I'd been amazed at how many of the supermarkets had started carrying premium coffee beans, and been cycling idly through seeing what they were like last year.  This was not a very good experience.  Not outright bad, but quality being extremely random.  Probably also not helped by my randomness of purchasing.  Ikea for instance: it's very cheap for apparently decent coffee.  When we were out in Stockholm we found out that Swede's drink A LOT of coffee (mostly all drip and sitting on the warmer).  I can't really recommend the Ikea beans by the way.  Anyhow I had a really good bag of Sainsbury's Fairtrade Taste the Difference Colombian Beans, but the next one wasn't on repeat purchase.  Nothing else really stood out.   So a freshly roasted to the door service, that I could rely on, was the biggest thing I need to find, and coffee friends kept chivying me about.

Pact are actively promoting through Social Media, and I picked up their £1 introductory offer advertising flavour, freshness and flexibility for their subscription service through a promoted tweet, and decided it couldn't hurt to start there.

A subscription service?

So £1 for the first bag and £6.95 each week or each fortnight with premium special editions at £8-9.  Didn't subscription services die with Britannia music in 2007?  I thought this was the bit that I was least going to like, but actually it wasn't a problem at all, as the "service" part was really good and more than mitigated the "subscription" bit.

The buying experience is really nice.  Pact looks great on the web and mobile, and they've clearly gone to a lot of effort to make it simple, clear and direct.  Check out this lovely looking coffee picker: a great mixture of added value in the tasting notes, in understanding the differences of potential clients preferences, and a visual web representation of making a recommendation from a limited selection for clarity without forcing a choice.  Textbook trying to appeal to a wide market, making it very accessible, and generally very nicely done.

The blog, staff profiles, and attitude is really open and approachable, and their Social Media based open feedback approach (every bag prompts you to take a photo and say what you think) brave, and well monitored.  Transparency and personality in a social media promoted company like this really important.

After initial signup (better on the web), the mobile site is the thing that really makes it for me.  You can pause your coffee, delay the delivery date, change what coffee if going to come, and get it dispatched immediately.  I did all of those and each worked really well, communications were good, warnings of dispatch prompted you to make a change if you wanted before actually dispatched and bags turned up exactly when forecast.  So whilst grinding when low on coffee, it was literally: pull the phone out of the pocket, and two clicks on the site to sort new or different coffee, and getting it shipped now.  The coffee available on the site changed enough during my trial to keep me looking.  

So it completely avoided the thing that sucked with Britannia Music back a decade ago which was that things you didn't want turned up in the post, and it was a hassle to send them back.  I only got what I wanted, and actually them having my payment details just made it easier to get the coffee.  Ultimately I do need coffee regularly, so is a subscription that bad?  I'm also wondering what other goods areas could see subscription as a come back model, if facilitated with a really great, lightweight mobile-enabled access model.  Free iPhone if you sign up to buy an iTunes track a day anyone?

Post and Packaging

So it's not a big thing to get right, but I think they really have got this right.  The coffee comes compressed quite flat in a stiff A5 cardboard outer, with a tear open, valved resealable padded inner.  The flat format means it always went through our awkward letter box.  The resealable bag tore or cut open easily and went straight into the fridge.  The reseal was really nicely airtight, and the bag comes with roasting, and packed dates, and tasting notes.

I had three bags during my test out of the service

Coffee Quality

Bag 1: House Espresso Ground
I really wanted to see what a premium service thought a quality ground should be, both what sort of grind, what sort of coffee, and whether that freshness came through, and what difference it made to my espresso.


So this was good coffee, it was pretty fresh, had a nice consistent grind and did indeed make a good espresso.   Opening it up out of the post was a great experience, however on brewing it didn't blow me away as something a lot more special than something I'd freshly ground myself.  The real problem though for me was that after 3-4 days, I really wasn't excited about the coffee at all. Opening the bag had a lost a lot of it's wow, and I quickly pressed the button to accelerate getting some whole beans.  There is quite a lot of this bag still left in the fridge.

What I'm taking from this is that ground premium coffee really not worth the premium.  You've got to be grinding yourself.  I know you read that a lot on the internet, but this really brought it home for me.

I think if you're only getting a bag every fortnight, and buying ground, and especially if it's already say up to a week roasted, even if ground just before shipping, it's probably eating up a lot of the quality difference between this and a good supermarket bag.  So it's a very convenient way to buy coffee, but I'm not sure it's really going to take your coffee to the next level.  This bag didn't for mine, the next was much, much better

Bag 2 Whole Bean Colombia La Joyeria #388

This bag was a joy right from opening.  Amazing smell, beautiful not-too-dark roast, fantastic taste, I had one really sensational coffee out of this (Chemex Drip), some really great cappuccinos, a lot more really good drip, some good espresso, and the bag disappeared really quickly.  I found the tasting notes really accurate, the grape acidity not my thing in espresso, but perfectly described, and the milk chocolate seamless in cap.  Strictly it wasn't primarily recommend as a drip blend, but I pretty much did everything with it - and the Chemex was my favourite, produced some amazing cup aromas.


One really noticeable thing was though that the amazing coffee was made in the first two days, the great coffee in the next few (still much better than supermarket) but just didn't get back to those first two days.  So after the first bag being so so, and this one being great, I was really starting to buy into this freshness thing.



Bag 3: Whole Bean Finca Las Flores

Previous two bags had been at standard prices, this one was a limited edition import premium at a little bit more.  I think the previous bag, and this premium had unfortunately raised my expectation and the bag fell rather flat on me.

Again I found the tasting notes really accurate, which I was impressed with as normally (ok normally with wine labels) I have no idea how they came up with the words written on packs for what you actually find inside.  But mandarin, was a really good description of the espresso, again not necessarily my thing, but that wasn't the issue.


The real issue was I excitedly got it out of the post box, opened it with those raised expectations and just wasn't impressed.  The smell wasn't nearly as good as bag two, and no matter which way I made the coffee it just didn't have that wow factor - especially the aromatics just didn't hang around the cup the way bag two had done.  This bag has been steadily disappearing, it's certainly good coffee, but I wouldn't spend the extra on it.  Either as a special edition, or actually as a premium coffee services.

Looking at the bag, it's very noticeable how much older it was by the time it arrived with me, than the last bag and this is my suspicion of the issue.  Roasted a week ago is certainly a great deal fresher than supermarket coffee, but is doesn't seem to be really enough to make a big difference to the quality of the coffee, especially if you are then going to be keeping it over a week or a fortnight.

Cost

So Pact coffee costs are very similar to other premium roasting internet coffee sites, Hasbean and TwoDayCoffee as two I'm looking at next for instance.  The difference in cost mostly seems to be in the postage: the subscription nature of Pact, means that Pact seem to be able to roll the cost of postage into the weekly, or fortnight pack price.  Where as these other two would ask ~£1.40-1.60 to post.  So an advantage to the subscription service there.

However looking at that Flavour (Good IMO), Flexibility (Very Good), and Freshness (Not so sure) advertising blog from Pact both these other two sites are hanging their hat on coffee roasted within 48 hours.  So for the cost of postage each time, without a subscription, that's something I definitely want to try.

Conclusions

For 
  + Friendly and flexible
  + don't worry about previous hangups on subscription services, if you have a smart phone it isn't a problem
  + Cost competitive, especially for good packaging and posting
  + Good tasting notes
  + Variety of coffee

Against
  - Coffee roasted up to a week ago.

So I liked getting coffee from Pact, but I definitely want to try out a few more delivery sites before I could settle into leaving a subscription service.  So any final view held off, and I'll re-update..

One suggestions though for Pact, if you're reading this:

Suggestions 

Options on Pact's site are for coffee are to have Pact send you one you've chosen repeatedly, or rotate what they send you to let you try coffee.  I think a third option would be great for their site, which would be send me the freshest (i.e the most recently roasted), along with a suggestion along with the tasting notes on each packet, on how the think you make the best coffee with this pack.  I'd be much happier with things just turning up then and trying them out.

Oh and I loved the staff pages about half way down here along with detail on how each of them liked to make their coffee.

Really interesting company.



Monday, 10 February 2014

Blue Coast Collection DSD v HD Audio v CD

Review of the Blue Coast Collection E.S.E sessions DSD DFF download and comparing it to a HD 24bit 96khz and a CD 16bit 44.1khz versions of the same tracks. Using Korg Audiogate and JRiver Media Centre for the conversions, and coming to some conclusions on whether higher definition than CD audio is worth it.

So an end of an era today as my Meridian 565 left to a good new home. This was the lynchpin to my first attempts at computer high fidelity, as well as one of my most aspirational purchases from when I selling hifi, I still remember it being launched. It left the house for £132, originally retailing at about £3000. Happy to see it go to someone who will enjoy it. I think the recent dive in residuals largely due to it not supporting the higher resolution formats (tops out at 48khz). Is that a worthwhile devaluation for that additional resolution?  When I replaced it with a 568 I did that off the back of CD Music/BluRay Films based performance - it's clearly better at both.  But would it be justified just for the 24/96 capability?  If you don't have High Res Audio, are you don't are you missing something special?

 I think today I've got to the bottom of it.

So my last test was with the Beatles White Album, and in Blind ABX listening I couldn't reliably tell apart the CD and Pseudo HD (24bit 48khz) audio versions, but that is a remaster of a 40 year old recording.  Before that I looked at a Bad CD master, against a good HD and Vinyl master, and found the later very close, and the CD very noticably worse, but mostly due to the dynamic range and not the technology.  Today I really wanted to rerun the test with something modern, which was recorded with high definition format and audience in mind, and that the internet really rated the high definition version of.

http://www.computeraudiophile.com/ of great help with picking a record, and that record turned out to be the Blue Coast Collection, nominated in this post by Jud.

I bought it on the Direct Stream Digital (DSD) DFF download ($50) from the nice fast site Blue Coast has.. DSD is the format used on Super Audio CD format (SACD) and is a complex single bit process sampling at 64 times the resolution of CD.  It's actually quite difficult to play like that so JRiver Media Centre  turns it back into PCM audio 64bit 352.8khz which gives you an idea how much more data and resolution there is in the file.  The question being whether I can notice that difference.  The highest JRiver or my Soundcard can output is 24bit/192khz, and the Meridian 568 DAC can only handle is 24/96.  Ok so that's a lot of numbers.  

Essentially though what I've chosen is tracks are recorded and mastered with a target resolution far in excess of what my system can possibly access, and I'm converting down to the highest the system can handle, and to CD quality 16/44.1 as a comparison.

Conversions were done using Korg Audio Gate which is very effective software, but is generating Korg a lot of seriously bad Karma as unless you have some Korg gear, it forces you to tweet each time you use it!  I would have quite happily paid them some small amount of money for a licence, but there wasn't an option.  Really not the way to do social business. 

JRiver can do very good conversion on the fly and sorts the levels out, however I did a 24/96 and 16/44.1 conversion in audiogate to ensure that the levels were identical between the two(-3.5DB to original DSD which can go over 0DB) and making sure JRiver could play them native so there was an absolutely fair back to back without one having a further DSP conversion.

The plan then was to do a set of serious ABX blind tests, and compare how much better 24/96 was than 16/44.1.  But before I come to what actually happened with those results, let me talk briefly about the music


Blue Coast Collection (E.S.E Sessions)

This is the single best sounding album I've ever heard on my setup at home.  The clarity is awesome, the stereo and positioning totally sharp and locked, it's amazingly crisp, beautifully clear, hugely powerful without distortion, with a great dynamic range.  The music is all recorded without headphones, overdubs or digital affects, it's acoustic guitar of different types, banjo and singing.  It's hugely musical throughout with a fantastic sense of performance, and so transparent it's like it's happening in your living room.

So if nothing else, I have found a new set of reference tracks.  If anyone comes round and says: "so all this kit, and xyz khz is it worth it?" I shall pull this out saying: "well I've got this amazing ultra high resolution DSD file, have a listen" and then blow them away with it.  However why it sounds so good bears a little further examination.


Test Method and Equipment

As per original Muse test

Results

This is where it all starts going off script.  Both the WAV (16/44.1) and FLAC (24/96) sound fantastic.  I went back and forward a lot listening overall.  Then I went back and forward dissecting tiny sections and listening to specific parts, and  I get to the point where I convince myself, that I can just hear something little better in the HD version, in the fret noise, the gliss on the guitar strings, in the overall room abience, and distinctions between the vocal harmonies.  (I was particularly listening to the first track - Looking for a home).

I then go into blind tests - I utterly can't back up a difference.  Once again, I'd be as good just randomly guessing which is which.  I haven't included the results sets, as they are all junk.   I'd find myself listening, wowed, convinced it must be the HD version, and it's the WAV version.  Or vice versa, thinking that guitar gliss didn't sound as a "Real" on this WAV version and low and behold it's the FLAC.

End result - I can't tell the difference in any meaningfully repeatable way.

So I'm not saying, that I'm the last word in audiophile listener, nor that there isn't a difference.  Just that as really enthusiastic amateur and with a long relationship with testing and my equipment, I couldn't spot anything that was worth spending the extra money on the higher resolution file.

Discussion

When I was selling HiFi and multiple times since I've done so many back to back tests, and always been comfortable will finding some meaningful difference and normally clear preference.  Especially with speakers I've found the tone is often clearly and obviously different, especially moving between different cabinet designs, tweeter types, or drive configurations.  

But so often even if doing a relatively strict comparison you're changing a lot more than you think you are.  Perhaps you don't have all the same cables between two sources, the speaker positioning is different if speakers are set up in parallel, or probably different if moving each each time, your positioning is slightly different after getting up and changing things, the compatibility of the equipment is different between the pieces being changed, or just the tone of the equipment is different.  As an example if you're going between a SACD player and a different DVD-Audio player you're definitely comparing a lot more than just the format.

But in this test the only thing to switch between the two, was one press on the remote - everything is identical apart from the resolution of the file. I was really surprised, actually make that disappointed, that I couldn't reliably tell a difference.  It makes me qestion how much is Psychosomatic in those other testings I did, especially where listening is minutes or longer apart.  Can I really reliably remember the sort of subtle of difference that often audio tests are full of, if I can so easily convince myself of hearing a difference when aware of which is which, and so unable to distinguish them when I'm not.

So is there a silver lining - undeniably yes.  The WAV sounds fantastic.  I wish that my other CDs sounded this good, if they did I don't think I'd have a record deck, this sort of quality of sound is exactly what I tend to find I have to go to vinyl for, and I'm looking for my vinyl system to recreate.  Apparently though it doesn't have anything to do with the resolution of the underlying technology.

HD releases of audio seem incredibly variable - full in equal measure of insensitive remasters, cynical re-releases in HD (often 5.1 downmixes) to cash in without adding any value, and then some sonic gold.  There are also a lot of competing formats and technologies - nothing has fully come out the mix yet as the way-to-go.  However it's a good thing,  even if you don't have high res audio, as it's forcing a real look at the quality of the recordings on some great music.  CD quality can often be poor.  I've covered one in a detail on this blog, but started both back into vinyl and off into high def because I was frustrated by how often quality on CD was average or outright bad.  Buying on vinyl is much reliably better, buying on HD very hit or miss, but has a lot more releases targeted at the audiophile and has some fantastic things available.

If you're lumbered with a CD you have bought that is bad, and are lusting after a high res release that is being raved about.  Don't think you need to upgrade, the format probably isn't at fault.  Get a downsample of that new release from a friend with high res - or do one yourself!  Don't pirate, pay for that CD, pay for the effort of a remastered version, but if you're paying in my view you should get a version that adequately makes use of the good technology available CD.  So I'd feel totally justified in replacing my Muse 2nd Law WAV from CD which I bought, with a down sample of the HD version, as the CD is just crippled by the mastering, it has nothing to do with the technology.

So it's worth a note that the 568 is up-sampling the CD to 24/96 - but to my mind this isn't relevant, if it sounds as good with the DAC guessing the additional data, you didn't need the additional data in the source,  you're just relying on the quality of the DAC.  Better DACs do sound better, and are probably now built to higher definition.  However it's not perhaps necessary to have the higher resolution file to exclusively access that quality (although if new DACs are only tuned on high resolution material that may start to be the case)

Conclusions:


Should I upgrade my kit just to get high resolution audio?
No, if you have a great 16/44.1 (or 48) digital system stick with it.  Just taking it to 24/96 on it's own isn't going to make a big difference and it will involve changing some fairly fundamental parts of your kit with expensive new things.  Spending that money elsewhere may well give you a bigger difference.  If it sounded great before, it still sounds great now and good news:  You can down-sample those lovely new HD remasters and they will still sound fantastic on your agree.  Certainly don't upgrade your kit until you've tried a downsample of the music you'd be upgrading to get!

If I'm significantly upgrading sources anyway should I get a high resolution component?
If you are upgrading your source anyway, probably you'll end up with a high res one any way if you're spending significant money as this is where the market is moving.  More material will come out for it, and getting a 24/96, or 24/192 or even 32/192 gives you future proofing.  But don't think you need to throw away your CDs.  If your new DAC/Source is to better, it needs to be better with those as well, not just with new files  Back to back it with your current music.

If I'm getting started should I go straight for high res?
If you'll consider second hand, there are a lot of fantastic 44.1/48khz DACs out there on the market that the move to high def is driving into the market.  On the same whole-system-budget of say £1000-2000 buying one of these, and matching carefully with other fantastic second hand components available, I think is going to give you a much better sound overall, than spending a lot more of  the budget on a DAC and source capable of higher res nad having to compromise elsewhere.  Certainly than trying to buy new High Res at this amount of money.   Similarly getting hung up on 96 v 192 khz (or any other numbers) just isn't worth it.  Good quality hifi kit with a lower res, will outperform cheap computer based equipment with a higher res every time. Go for quality kit.

Should I ditch my vinyl for HD? 
No.  Though if you have a CD Quality digital source as well,  you may be pleasantly surprised by how some of the better HD releases sound down sampled to what your system is capable of.  Almost not sounding like CD at all!

Is the DSD premium for Blue Coast worth it?
$20 for 16/44.1, $40 for 24/96, or $50 for DSD DFF or DSF

I can't really answer this authoritatively, so no outright recommendation here, as I didn't buy the 16/44.1 I down-sampled from the DSD.  But if they take such care over the high res, I would expect they haven't messed up the down conversion. 
I also didn't listen in DSD - this requires a special DAC.  I might see in the future if I can borrow one to see.  But there is a lot of controversy out there on whether DSD is worth it - I remain a skepti but don't have the science to back that up at the moment.

My encouragement would be to buy the 24/96, it will encourage people to record this sort of audiophile recording, and you're recognizing that with a premium.  The file is future proofed to a large extent, and will be playable by a lot more things than the DSD.  You also get to know that you're buying a very high quality source and utilizing the maximum affect of your kit if it is compatible with it.

Happy listening.