June 5, 2020

Nothing Like It Again, Ever! Sony CDP-X7 ESD


Sony CDP-X7 ESD, what a mouthful..... Marantz marketing team is much smarter in terms of  product names.

Here we have a 2nd generation of Sony flagship X7 ES series CD players, launched without much fan fare in 1988. I am not sure of the logic behind the number 7 as flagship naming scheme for Japanese hifi manufacturers, but Sony, and my very own former Marantz CD7 is proof in point. All of Sony's flagship disc players leading up to year 2000, or Y2K Sony SCD1 SACD player, had the familiar X7 ES in various guises for nomenclature as name sake.

In 1988 Sony launched the limited edition of CDP-R1 & DAS-R1, a state of the art 2 box transport & DAC combo to an astonished world. Then towards the later part of the year, when the 2 box flagship combo was at the end of it's run, the CDP-X7ESD came about quietly, with a launch pricing of USD2500 per unit. Sony applied all their digital knowledge from the 2 box flagship in a simplified form, single box solution. Then added a twist in the form of a pair of coupling transformer output for the XLR analog signal, just like some traditional MC phono stage output design! Truly inspiring Sony........
 
     
The internal build quality is first rate, this was the time Sony believed in making things last a life time, and giving their best! Just a few years later, with the demise of Akio Morita, founder of Sony, the bean counters ran wild & took control of the company and Sony's fortunes headed south, slowly but surely.

On the technical side, this CDP came with then flagship KSS-190A CD mechanism and BU-1D laser tracking head combo, which are now extremely hard to find, and worth it's weight in gold if you do find one for sale! On the DAC side, a pair of 18 bit Burr Brown PCM53 is used in balance, dual mono configuration, with 8 times oversampling filter giving a claimed 45 bit resolution(honestly, I am not sure how the math works). The balanced XLR output is very special and rare among CD players, and I believe it was never repeated in any other designs, Sony or otherwise. The RCA output was of normal FET circuit design. So to hear this Sony at it's best sound performance, use the XLR output with balanced cables to pre amp is mandated. I know & read many reviews or audiophiles commenting about this player's performance without checking out the XLR output, which would've entirely mis-represent what this Sony is all about, sound wise........


The Sony KSS-190A CD transport, built in the same mold as Philips CD Pro transport.
The KSS-190A, when stripped off it's metal casing reveals that it's even better built than the Philip CD Pro, with thicker tracking alignment rails, encased laser read head, and heavier built CD puck.

The build quality is a reflection of the WWII era Japanese Naval architect philosophy in line with Yamato class battleship standards! Double layer and in some cases triple layers copper chassis with beam & frame design for maximum rigidity was employed, resulting in it's 18kgs of heft. The off centered CD transport is something that later X7 series designs will gradually be moved to centralized position within the chassis. On the left side is 2 potted power supply tranny for analog & digital requirements. Lots of over sized reservoir capacitors post rectifier stage for storage capacity. The capacitors are all dampened for sound tuning. I tried removing and putting on the dampening hard rubber rings again a few times, and the CD player does sound somewhat different with or without them. Those damn things do work, for better or worst!

On the right side of the CD transport is where all the DAC and analog output circuit resides, including those coupling output transformers mentioned earlier for the XLR signal. Talking about the CD transport, how many CD players have acoustically sealed(a rubber band around the chassis opening for the tray dampens the CD tray from vibrations of any kind) die cast metal CD tray sliding in & out? Ahem......

Even the 4 footers at the bottom of the chassis are the real McCoy, made from potted high density ceramic, and each feet does weight a few hundred grams on it's own! None of those nasty empty plastic jobs here. For this model, Sony left nothing to chance, no technical stone un-turned! If there was a better way of doing things, Sony had already applied it here.

While being the technical tour de-force, 30 odd years or so later, I am somewhat surprised about the collectors reception to this CD player, comparing it's present sale value against it peers in the CD player collect able markets. I feel the Sony marketing department is the weakling here, compared to the more international looking Marantz marketing team. Even Philips LHH series CD players fared better in terms of used collectors value. However, for those who are keen to explore Sony's golden era, here is an opportunity at a low entry price of about USD1000 a pop. Worth every penny and I believe it's value proposition can only improve with years, provided if it's still a mint working unit!


The high density ceramic feet! No plastic con jobs here either.

At the time, circa 2018 in my search for a vintage Japanese flagship Denon CD player, this one somehow landed on my lap through a long lost contact. It was in well kept condition, considering it's 29 year constant usage. The top plate & remote looked well worn, but those are minor issues as they can be fixed or restored.Yes, restoration was my game plan the moment I laid eyes on this pretty boy!

The worst part, YES, there is always a worst part! All part & parcel of playing with classics, be it hifi or automotive, always needs some kind of blood, sweat & tears effort, or elbow grease as they say, to make things right. The KSS-190A transport was in it's last legs of service life. Since Sony no longer produces CD players, they have stopped all CD transport production and closed the factory! It would be near impossible to source for a working unit. That was the numero uno hurdle to this restoration project, that I've now decided to under take!

Ah..... no pain, no gain as they say, and my wonderful journey with this Sony CDP-X7 ESD begins!

Stay tuned...........

May 29, 2020

Re-Introduction To My HiFi Circa January 2019

My simplified 2 rack HiFi system, circa January 2019, to start my journey again after a 3 year plus hiatus

Let me tell you about my reintroduction in to HiFi again, circa January 2019. With a remodeled home many things have changed, except my man cave, whic remains untouched at the same 12ft x 10ft x 9ft(L x W x H). Small room, and the urge to make it 14ft x 10ft x 9ft(L x W x H) was there, but I had resisted as I loved the way the speakers loaded my room, sound wise. So all it got was a fresh new coat of paint & some LED strip lighting. I started with the room because over the years, my HiFi philosophy have come to embrace the room as the starting point, followed by speakers, amplifiers & lastly sources in the order of hierarchy in the degree of sound influence. Allow me to further explain why it all starts with the room. The room as we choose to house our HiFi system in to, will determine how big a speaker pair allowed, which will in turn tell you how big a power amplifier should be, then comes preamp to be the source switch and volume control plus maybe, just maybe add sonic flavours to your source, which ever you choose. Make no mistake, the job of the source is to extract as much musical information from the media medium as possible. My hifi set up reflects just that philosophy as above and a little more as we go along. 

This set up consisted of items that were mothballed from the past, such as my PMC IB2i speakers, ATI Reference 6004 power amp, Kuzma Stabi S turn table and lastly Torus Power conditioner. Add in some new elements such as the Aesthetix Janus preamp/phono stage & Sony CDP X7-ESD CD player. 

PMC IB2i speakers

The PMC IB2i have been in my past system before. They came in to the picture as replacement to the pair of PMC Fact 8. I fell in love with this pair of speakers at the time of it's review in these pages. At the time, budgetary issues prevented them from being mine. However as PMC introduced a newer model in the form of IB2 SE, this pair made it's way from the showroom to my place with some discount. My HiFi philosophy also dictates that speakers should always be British, especially variations or students of the past BBC Technical Dept designs. Those guys really did much research in to all that make great speakers.

In theory, the pair of IB2i speakers are somewhat over sized for my room dimensions, but with careful placements of not only the speakers, but also my throne in avoiding room modes, made it a possibility in practice. These are speakers with a big sound and real beefy bass. Being a 3 way design with a dedicated silk dome mid range, the magical vocal is always there, ever present when playing music. The highs are not extended like newer speaker designs, but that's OK, as with the right source material, it can still relay the amount 'air' required for 'live' recording that is so dependent on the illusion of being there. The Achilles heel of having such a big speaker is the requirement for an equally big, beefy amp, which is the subject coming next!
     
ATI Reference 6004 power amp

ATI is not a new HiFi manufacturer as they have been doing that for other big American high end brands since 30 years or so ago. ATI amplifiers are designed by Morris Kessler, even if not as famous as Nelson Pass, Mark Levinson, Dan D' Agostino or John Curl, he is definitely in the same technical prowess when it comes to amplifier designs. All good designers but different design philosophies & technical implementation. Coming back to my HiFi philosophy for amps, my choice would always be American muscle.

The ATI Reference 600X series is designed as a multi channel high end AV amp. It can be configured for 1-7 channels in a single chassis at time of purchase. I wanted a four channel 350W amp, so I got an ATI Reference 6004, the last numerical denotes the number of channels in a single chassis. Why 4 channels you ask? Bi-amping, ever since I did that with a pair of stereo Magnet amps, I can never go back to normal stereo. So each one of the PMC IB2i speaker is powered by one channel for the bass driver & one channel for the mid range & tweeter.

I found the ATI Reference to be extremely transparent & powerful for an AV multi channel design. Which is all one needs for HiFi, gain on a wire. Some may accuse it of not being the last word in refinement and I agree, but it has a certain mid range texture that's invariably missing on those over refined amp designs too. So in HiFi, you always win some, lose some. It's just what parameter is more important to win or lose only, your choice determines the brand and design.
Asthetix Janus pre-amp, comes with built in phono stage. It is basically a simplified Calypso & Rhea rolled in one box for those who needs to de-clutter their HiFi!

The Aesthetix Janus represents another American amp choice for me even if it's a tube based design. We reviewed the Aesthetix Calypso in these pages before and liked it quite a bit. I felt it's performance came closest my pre-amp reference of sorts, the Audio Research Reference 3. Many argue that this is a decades old design, but to me this tube based pre-amp struck a balance between  being transparent & the way it adds a tinge of golden rose hue to the tonal color of music is nothing short of magical. Newer ARC Reference designs have since improved on linearity, lowered noise floor & higher resolution capability, but lost it's musical soul in the process.

Sorry if I digressed, but the Aesthetix Janus represented just that, as in the very slight tinge of rose gold hue added in to the tonal color does wonders to lift music, give it soul, make it just a little bit more humanized. Partner those sonic qualities with a full function remote and high quality phono stage, then is it any wonder why it deserves to be here?

I know Jim White as an excellent phono stage designer. If one can excel at making 1000X amplification,  preamp design would seemed like childs play, wouldn't it?   
Sony CDP X7-ESD CD player, the best of Sony circa 1988!

The 1988 Sony CDP X7-ESD is a special breed indeed, if you didn't know that? I have not come across another CD player that comes with transformer coupled XLR output! The X7-ESD is the first ES series CD player to include XLR output, and Sony went all out to make it special. While the BB PCM 53 DAC chip is one generation before the best, PCM 63, the sound from this Sony unit is truly something else. I used to have the Marantz CD 7, which was a truly magnificent CD player, if not for it's sound quality, then at least for it's collector's value.

The Sony is from a decade before the Marantz, yet will not lose out anything in terms of sound quality, shows that Sony as the CD format's co-developer was truly ahead of the curve at the period of what could be called the Golden Age of CD players, which is from the late 80's till late 90's. I would almost always favor high end Japanese CD players(the other exception being Philips CD players) as they made the transports, and built them to last a life time. I know mine did, it's more than 30 years now and still plays music like as if it was new!
Kuzma Stabi S, or baby Kuzma as many would come to call it!

This Kuzma Stabi S replaced my Linn LP12 turn table sometime after this pages probably in 2014. In terms of design the Kuzma is totally a different breed altogether. I liked the bare bones design of a solid high mass turn table equipped with a 12 inch unit pivot Stoggi arm, fitted with my trusty, long service Benz Micro LP cartridge.

For a small turn table, the sound is big boned & bold. The design is also very quiet in terms of bearing noise and that double thick cast iron platter gives equally big, ballsy bass. Never mind if it's the cheapest turn table among Franc Kuzma designs. The Kuzma family sound is just as evident here as in his bigger, badder ass designs. it's also a very musical turn table, otherwise it will be difficult to persuade me to move away from the Linn Sondek LP12.
Torus Power RM 8A, yes 8 Amperes is all you need. It's showing 1.6A current draw at idle, when my system hits it's Rock & Roll stride at 104dbs, it would be drawing a little over 4.2A! 

The Torus Power Conditioner needs no introduction as you can catch or revisit my adventures with it here within these pages. That's what buying the best equipment do, it stays with you for a long..... time, and possibly maybe for a lifetime. No further thinking about what ifs or regrets later, years down the road.

So that's all about the equipment, as all cables and accessories are carried over from the past and can be viewed from these pages. All I can say is that after 3 years living without HiFi, I am just glad to be back and have sound, good or bad. My journey starts all over again from here on. 

May 28, 2020

Bose Quietcontrol 30 & Soundsport Earbuds, My Travel Mate


Bose Quietcontrol 30 Noise Cancelling Earbuds

At that point in time, circa sometime in 2016 I decided to refocus on my career path. Got a job as a Regional Sales Manager selling European premium industrial solutions to the defense, education, aerospace, automotive, medical and coating industries. I traveled much in my role, usually to Europe, Middle East, and all over ASEAN & China. Yep, China was the biggest market in the world for anything & everything, so it can't be ignored.

With this change, I lost most of my hifi & AV baggage, as I aim to de-clutter my home, to the happiness of my other half who has always been accusing me of being the hoarder in the family! For more than 3 long years, only my Bose Bluetooth headphones & my Huawei smartphone was my go to musical salvation. As I was always on the move, wireless was the way to go, even if I had to sacrifice some sound quality. I would always have music in the hotels, trains, planes & when I am waiting for someone or something.
Comes wit a nice travel pouch too!
As per my usual habit, I would shortlist a number of suitable candidates to try on. One of my choice earbuds was B&O E8, it was cool looking and had the right credentials, but in my audition, while it did sound plenty good, it's bass wasn't full-filing to my diet of music, mainly 70's, 80's rock and Canto Pop of similar vintage. The B&O would sound great if I had veered towards jazz or classical music. However the matter that would put it out of contention was it's poor Bluetooth compatibility with Android phones, you see B&O only saw fit to optimize the E8 for Apple phones. I heard the current Gen 2 B&O E8 is much better in this regard, but never tried it anyways. 

The next contender was Bose, remember how I've always loved 'em? The Bose Quietcontrol 30 Noise Cancelling Earbuds were on X'mas sale at the Dubai airport, on one occasion when I fly buy Dubai! I tried them on as they were a neckband design, even if I didn't fancy having something on my neck. And boy did it sound good to me, especially with the noise cancellation dialed down to about 10%, while the high frequencies wasn't as refined as the B&O E8, the music flowed with rhythm and that signature Bose beat with meaty bass sealed the deal. With the sale discount thrown in, it was a mighty sweet deal too! 

Happy times with that Bose Quietcontrol 30 didn't last long tough. With constant use, that soft neckband was starting to bother me and felt cumbersome. The noise cancellation feature was effective in shutting out outside noise, but it started to sound eerie with only the music and no background noise accompanying it. Worst is at the airports, I couldn't hear my flight callings, and had a few near flight misses as a result. It was then Bose launched a new line of wireless earbuds called Soundsport! 

The Bose Soundsport have 2 models in the range, the basic which came with a wire connecting between the master and slave buds, and the Soundsport Free, which is pure L & R earbuds, minus the connecting wire. Everything else looks the same, not sure if it sounds the same though, but the Soundsport Free did include a small charging box that is similar to the B&O E8 which could extend play time by a few hours more on a single charge and yet also nearly doubling the cost! As they say, The Price Of Freedom!

I was smitten as soon as I put on the Soundsport(the one with L & R connecting wire!) alas, I was not totally free, but much relived to lose that constricting neckband! That connecting wire didn't feel like anything at all as I've always had wired headphones prior to going Bluetooth. One thing immediately stood out with this BOSE was bass......... lot's a nice meaty BASS, which worked well with my musical diets. Did I mentioned it was also half the price of the discounted Quietcontrol 30? 

The Soundsport had similar top to bottom end sound quality as the Quietcontrol 30, but it had way....... more bass. It was slightly noisier as it didn't have noise cancellation, and would leak in some ambient noise too. But you know what, that means I could still hear my flight being called at the airports, which is a good thing for me! Love it, love it, love it!

Bose Soundsport Wireless Earbuds


Both the Bose Quietcontrol 30 & Soundsport ushered me in to the new hifi-less world, where the act of listening to music was just that, without the distraction of hifi. However a footnote for those looking to make the leap from wired to wireless headphones or earbuds, the price of going to wireless is at the expense of sound quality and musical resolution. If you think MP3 is bad, wait till you lose another 30% from there on! See freedom is never cheap, but for that on the go me at the time in point, I didn't really cared for hifi anyways. I treasured the go anywhere with music(or what's left of it) more than ever. Like I used to say but never really thought I could do it, "I could lose my hifi, but not my music!"

May 27, 2020

Bi-wiring



I'd kick off by saying that bi-wiring is a YMMV practice.

I know, some audiophiles have reported positive improvements from bi-wiring their loudspeakers, while many others have pooh-poohed the practice as they could discern no change or no improvement at all.

I have been wanting to try out bi-wiring between my Pass Labs XA160.5 monoblocks and the TAD-CR1 loudspeakers (incidentally, each  XA160.5 comes with 2 pairs of output binding posts, easily facilitating a bi-wiring arrangement).

The missing bit was another pair of compatible speaker cables to go with my existing JPS Superconductor 3.

I am in the school that cables don't (always) sound the same, so I was concerned that if the 2 runs of cables used in my bi-wiring exercise were of different make, then I could get a ying-yang sound. So, I was adamant from the outset not to mix-and-match speaker cables, and that the 2 pairs of cables must also be of the same length.

What with JPS no longer having a dealer in Malaysia, I had to wait for a pair of Superconductor 3 to turn up the used market. A pair did turn up fortuitously, and I happily became their new owner.

What were the reasons for my interest in bi-wiring?

I thought of these:

- increased contact surface for the connection between amp and speaker, as 2 pairs of connectors are used for each channel instead of 1 pair.

- increased cable cross-section area for the signal path, kinda like giving a wider highway for the signal to pass through.

- reduction in the number of "junctions" in the amp-speaker connection with the elimination of the jumper cables between the bass and the mid/high sections of the speakers. The signal sees a straighter path to pass through.
(With the use of a jumper, the signal path at the speaker side is Speaker cable -> binding post -> jumper -> binding post. Each "->" signifies a "break" in the connection.
Without the jumper, with bi-wiring, the signal path is simply speaker cable -> binding post.)

All these would reduce the impedance in the amp to speaker connection, thus would hopefully better preserve the signal integrity.

Of course, it could be argued whether my thinking is entirely scientific or that the effect is significant enough to be audible, but let's not go down that road for now. 😉

The proof is in the pudding as it is said - so I took off the speaker jumpers linking the bass terminals to the mid/high driver on the TAD-CR1, hooked up the second pair of JPS Superconductor 3 and listened.



From the get-go, I heard a few improvement areas that I liked, which were also somewhat in-line with my expectations:
- There was an impression of increased extension at both ends of the audio frequency
- There was a better grip and improved definition on the bass notes
- Clarity and transparency of the sound from top to bottom improved quite a bit
- A somewhat more expansive and more enveloping sound-stage
- The amount of details in the music improved, low level details could be heard more clearly. This was the most pronounced improvement among the lot.

But this trial did not come with zero downside. I could sense a "discontinuity" between the bass and the mid/high regions (the TAD-CR1 is 3-way. The lower binding posts feed the bass, and the upper ones feed the midrange and high). The character of the sound shifted a bit as the notes traversed the music scale. The sound was relatively more transparent and had better definition and excellent pace and attack as it went up the frequency scale, but as it plowed the depth, there was a tad of added warmth and the proceedings became a tad languid relative to the high, though in absolute sense the bass region had seen significant improvement from before.

So this was not a plug-and-forget kind of tweak. I had to solve this difference in tonal balance.

The Superconductor 3 was factory-fitted with WBT copper spades as standard, but I upgraded my original pair to WBT silver spades on my own. The second pair of Superconductor of course also came with the standard WBT copper spades, and there I suspected was where the culprit lie. The differences in tonal balance I heard were the same as my impression as I moved from copper to silver WBT spades.

So, I had to bite the bullet (i.e., spend money) and changed all the copper spades on the second pair of Superconductor 3 to WBT silver too. And behold, the tonal difference issue was solved.

Things didn't stop there. Thereafter, minor adjustments were still needed to better accommodate the improvements, for example the increase in perceived details would also make the sound a little more forward or slightly bright at certain places, the bass could be a little overbearing on some recordings too. Minor room treatment tuning allowed me to resolve these small issues in my case.

A few audiophile friends also tried out bi-wiring subsequently and shared positive outcomes with me, though a couple also reported tonal difference issue as they didn't have 2 runs of similar cable to try out.

So, bi-wiring is here to stay in my system. It is a winning practice from my point of view.

Things I learned - keep both pairs of cables absolutely the same, in make, in length and even down to the connectors; it is not a plug and forget thing, expect to work a little to resolve some issues that bi-wiring might throw up at the same time as it releases greater capabilities from your system 

I do keep an open mind that bi-wiring would not work in some systems or with some speakers though - so YMMV.

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P.S., I know, bi-amping is even better than bi-wiring. But I have no access to another pair of XA160.5 to experiment, unless some kind souls like to loan me a pair of power amp or a quartet of monoblocks to try out. 😉
And no, I have no desire to try mixing different amplifiers with my Pass Labs for bi-amping, at least not with the TAD-CR1, I don't want to mess with its outstanding top to bottom coherency.

P.S., Before I found my second pair of speaker cables for bi-wiring, I actually tried changing the factory fitted jumpers on the TAD-CR1 to after-market ones from reputable cable companies, costing from a few hundred to a couple of thousand Ringgits. I found none of them could match TAD's factory-fitted jumpers, let alone better them. So,  I had to move on. 

May 25, 2020

The Boys Are Back In Town!

Let's just say we never really left town.....

As per our final post in 2013, we moved to a different model & platform. Much design planning had been done on the new venture and it was launched with much fanfare. Alas, after a while the chemistry among the content providers were just not right, and everyone had their own business priorities. A kind soul once warned me against turning a fine hobby in to business, it will not only consume your friendships but also one's love & passion for the hobby as well! A warning in which I had ignored with at my own peril & regret, I might say. The only saving grace is at the time, both Odioslueth & I decided we'd keep this blog as a reference to people who may need the information here and maybe as sign post for lost souls to our new platform.

I took a hifi sabbatical for almost 3 years, to concentrate on other matters, mainly the kind that put food on the table. I did not even have an AV or a hifi system anywhere in my home or car, a feat that seemed un-fathomable in my life time, as the past 40 years oe so, as I've always had hifi & music in my life since primary school days. My only music source was MP3 files shared from friends which contained music mostly from my childhood years, loaded on to my smartphone and a pair of Bose wireless IEMs(In Ear Modules)............ before you cringe, I know it's Bose & I loved it! It represented my anti audiophile sentiment at the time. I was as far away from audiophilia as one could get. Call it my long and extended mid life crisis if you will.

Last year, 2019 was a turning point of sorts, my mid life crisis spiral have receded, I could see dawn again and skies seemed never more blue as the year went on. Recently more than a few work colleagues mentioned that till this day they still use Hifi-Unlimited as a reference of sorts when shopping for used equipment, and even wondered who those 2 guys writing about their hifi was, & why did HiFi-Unlimited stop?

I kept mum...... but eventually the guys came to know me as Big E....... It is much with their repeated encouragement, coupled to a few exchanges with my long time buddy in crime, Odioslueth who was feeling a little detached from the scene, we decided to come back for a 2nd gig!

Not sure what this second journey of ours will read like, but one thing we've figured out for sure..... We have decided to keep out all commercial aspect with this rebirth, and truly keep these pages as a reflection of own thoughts in this passion of ours.

Stay tuned!