October 18, 2020

Chasing A Childhood Dream, Nakamichi DR-2 Cassette Deck

 

The Nakamichi DR-2. Love those amber display illumination!

If you have followed my hifi journey long enough, I had always talked about one particular childhood experience that started me on the road to audiophilia. That was when I was a young teenager, visiting my friend's house for the first time, he played Papa bear's hifi system, which was set up in the family lounge. It was a simple set up comprising a Nakamichi(an RX series I think) cassette deck, a Sansui amplifier and a pair of Bose 901 speakers. That system really sounded out of this world to me then. Since then, I always wanted 2 items from that system, a pair of Bose 901 speakers, checked! And that elusive Nakamichi cassette deck.

I could never bring myself to afford one and eventually settled on the Teac V-670 that I wrote about sometime ago. For more than 30 years, that Teac 3 head cassette deck had served me well. My recent refurbished Teac had gave me hours of fun, rekindling with the cassette format. I was a happy bunny until I saw this Nakamichi DR-2 on a local hifi classifieds, which I told my self, it's now or never. 
The simple line in and output RCAs typical of a cassette deck. The rear panel and chassis bottom is double layered!

And so here I am, a proud owner of a Nakamichi DR-2. It had all the right specs I wanted in a cassette deck, like 3 heads(a must), 3 motor, dual capstan transport design, illuminated cassette compartment and if possible a remote control! Dolby S never featured highly on my wish list, as B & C was more then enough for noise reduction. This Nakamichi is a 90's product, made from 1992 till 1996. The DR series comes after the well loved CR series from the 80's. In the Nakamichi scheme of things, the DR-2 wasn't considered particularly high end either. Well, it certainly was no Dragon, or the 1000ZXL or the ZX-9, BX-300(a.k.a. baby Dragon) or the CR-7 either. Those are just some of the best tape decks ever produced by Nakamichi, not forgetting to mention the RX-505 which was an auto reverse playback stunner, but as a recorder, not so great. 
The 3 head, 3 motor, dual capstan transport is originally developed by Nakamichi in the 70's and first appeared on the 1000ZXL model. 

The Nakamichi DR-2 had great build quality, not flagship level but luxurious enough to include a metal cassette door, the opening action of the said door is well dampened, satin black finished aluminum face plate, dual layer back plate & chassis. Weighting at 5.6kg, it's almost twice as heavy compared to my Teac V-670. Some of the flagship feature omissions include lack of peak hold VU meter, no auto tape type selector(only the flagship DR-1 had that), non-motorized cassette door and a remote control. I would say this DR-2 had all the basic requirements of a good tape recorder & playback, but gave up on luxurious features for market price point. In cassette time line, the 90's was already sun setting for the format, so if one wanted a top player, the 80's would be a good time line to start. Mid 80's flagship cassette decks from Japan like Teac V-980 & Aiwa AD-F990 had all the best features that looked like a dream list.   
The 3 motors that drive the transport can be clearly seen here!

As with any Nakamichi, the tape transport is an in house design, and not one of those standard of the shelf Sankyo solutions used by many other manufacturers. The 3 motor design, incorporating idler wheel for tape spool is very complicated and the transport design is multi layered. Also new in this generation of Nakamichi is the pressure pad lifter system. What's this you ask? If you look at the cassette on the side with the exposed tape holes, you'll find a sponge like pad in the middle as the tape head contact area. Nakamichi believes this pressure pad contribute to variable sound quality as each tape is using different material and density for the pad! Nakamichi was very confident that their dual capstan transport drive was powerful and accurate enough to give proper & constant pressure to the tape in contact with tape head, that the pressure pad was no longer needed during playback. This gives the DR-2 very low wow & flutter during playback as direct result. You can see from the naked photo below, the power supply transformer is over sized and has more than a few regulator circuits in a separate PCB from the audio section on the left. The internal build quality is typical 80's -90's Japanese thru hole PCB type for easy repair. And no, for some reason Nakamichi didn't see fit to give gold plated RCA sockets either!
The internals of the Nakamichi DR-2 cassette deck shows much attention to detail.

Lastly we come to the sound, I was not disappointed at all, once I plugged the DR-2 in to my system and start the first tape playback. The first thing I notice was a total lack of hiss or white noise, which is always good for sound quality. Next comes the rich, layered with full bodied tonality and that dynamic transient of the snare drum! Bass was ripe, full and tuneful. In comparison, the Teac V-670 sounded neutral in tonality, and offering more clarity yet conjured a more 2D version of the musical proceedings. The Nakamichi does lives up to it's sonic superiority promise. Every cassette I put in sounded good, even those pre-recorded original tapes. The better the tape type, the better it sounded.

The Nakamichi DR-2 is a very nice addition to my hifi collection indeed and it enhances my cassette playback experience too. Simply love it!

October 9, 2020

A Hi-Fi Trip to Ipoh - Part 2 - ACOUSTIC SIGNATURE / EAR / AUDIO RESEARCH / WILSON AUDIO

Mr. Pung's place was our second stop on our Ipoh trip. He is a respected veteran in the Ipoh HiFi scene and has an extensive audiophile network there. Our one-day trip was organized via him, so we'd very much like to thank him for his time and effort. 


Pung's system was also located in a dedicated audio room. He had paid particular attention to acoustic treatment of his room lately. Just as many of us know, room acoustic could make or break a system's performance. In addition, Pung was also diligent in loudspeaker positioning, you could see markings on the floor of the various positions that he had tried.

The photos below demonstrate the extensive effort Pung put into treating his room. He did it with a myriad of absorbing (soft) and diffusing (hard and uneven) materials. Having a good mix of both is a correct approach as this would avoid the pitfall of having the sound skewing too much to one particular direction, for example a lot of absorptive material would give a quiet room but the sound could be dull as the high frequency is curtailed.   

The acoustic treatment was not all done in one go. He experimented with the quantity and placement over time. Sometime he would reverse what he did previously. That is definitely a good strategy that I'd also endorse. Flexibility is important for acoustic treatment as the treatment must be suitable for the character of that particular room and the system that is used in it. 

Our listening session borne out Pung's effort. The room had no discernable echo nor was it overly reverberant, both are things that mess up the sound when playing music. Neither were there boominess in the bass region nor over-brightness in the highs too.

Acoustic treatment on the ceiling, the front wall and the corners 

Acoustic treatment on the side wall's first reflection point and the rest of the wall 


Let's take a tour of Pung's system:




The source we listened to was exclusively analog, it was a Acoustic Signature turntable and arm, fitted with a ZYX cartridge. Pung told us he was waiting for his dCS digital stack to be delivered soon

EAR 324 phono pre-amplifier

Audio Research Reference 6 Preamplifier

Audio Research Reference 150 power amp


The Wilson Audio WATT/Puppy 7

The WATT
The Puppy

I think Audio Research and Wilson are a very good match. This was the second time that I heard this combination producing great sound, so I think this was not a fluke. This system avoided all the pitfalls of Wilson speakers when they were not well matched, where they would sound aggressive, sharp, hard and/or harsh. And it retained all the good traits of these Wilsons, sounding big, free with dynamics, and lightning fast with attack. In addition to the amp-speaker pairing. I believe Pung's effort in doing acoustic treatment also contributed substantially to this performance. 

That was not all, it was a balanced performance from top to bottom in terms of highs, mid, lows, and I wondered whether it was the LP frontend, that the tonal color was rather vivid, definitely not the dull or washed-out kind. All sorts of music replay was also imbued with a certain warmth, so the musicality of each recording came through very well. 

This was an enjoyable listening session. It goes to show that putting some tender loving care in the room treatment department, speaker positioning and smart equipment matching can pay huge dividends. Hats off to Pung!

September 29, 2020

A HiFi Trip to Ipoh - Part 1 - ESOTERIC / AUDIO NOTE / AVANTGARDE

I joined a few audiophile friends on a day trip to Ipoh a couple of weeks ago. It was a nice HiFi trip in that we got to meet up with our Ipoh friends, listen to their systems and have some great food. 

I'll write about the 3 systems that we visited in 3 separate posts. 

This is the first one, Mr. Pui's system, which is located in a dedicated HiFi room. 


If anyone needs any proof that system warm-up can have a profound, day-and-night effect on the performance of some, if not all, systems, this is it. 

We arrived at Pui's home after a nice dim sum brunch with him and the Ipoh gang. That was also when he first switched on his system. Unfortunately, for the first few songs, many of us were left nonchalant with the music presentation. 

From the pictures below, many of you would have gathered that Pui's system consisted of very high quality gear. The Esoteric frontend was top notch (being second down from the top of Esoteric's integrated disc player line-up). The pairing of an Audio Note SET amplifier which has single digit power output with very high sensitivity Avantgarde loudspeakers (in the +-100dB/w range I gathered) could not have been the problem. However, the overall presentation was flat, closed-in, and with reduced dynamic contrast. The saving grace was the tonal colour, it was vivid and had very good saturation, which was simply outstanding  (must be that 300B SET tube magic).  

If anyone were to think that that was the sound characteristics of this system, that would have been a big mistake! (well, in the past I had people telling me that they could judge a system within the first 30 seconds of the first song 😅)

As time went by, by the 30 minutes mark, the system bloomed. Finally, the SET plus high sensitivity horn sound was on full display!

Esoteric K-01Xs CD/SACD player

A Cybershaft external clock was connectd to the Esoteric player

Audio Note Meishu Silver Signature integrated amplifier

Avantgarde Duo horn loudspeakers with active woofer section

Just like a normal subwoofer, the Avantgarde woofer section has all the requisite adjustments  
The Avantgarde loudspeaker has an input each on its tweeter, midrange and woofer sections. In this photo, you can see that the loudspeaker cable is fed to the tweeter section, then routed to the midrange and woofer with jumpers (the white-coloured cables)
  
There was a Brinkmann LP system which was not played during our visit.

So, as I said earlier, the system bloomed after 30 minutes or so of warm-up. The sound was big, the presentation was rich, lush and colourful. Vocal recordings were especially well served - warm, sweet, sultry. The micro-dynamics and nuances in the music were nicely presented. The combination was quite capable of dynamic swing too. Initially, we thought the bass part was a little overblown on certain bass heavy tracks, so we did a little experimentation (that is what's great with an adjustable woofer section), a couple of clicks down on the woofer volume level was ear-opening, I felt this little adjustment brought the bass section more in-line with the other frequency ranges, which allowed the overall volume level to be brought up further, with the music coming alive and more exciting to listen to to an even greater extent. I really like this kind of flexibility and responsiveness in any system.

This was both an enjoyable and educational listening session for me, much thanks to Pui's hospitality. We are sure to return to savour this system further! (remember that silent LP rig?). 

September 20, 2020

Rebooting The Final Frontier! Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1

The Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 was produced from 1995 till 2001. It's probably one of the most musical sounding CD players ever made at any price, even by today's standards! One listening an you'll fall in love with it's charms. By today's standard noise floor & resolution would be it's Achilles' heels, but it's golden colored tonality, rhythm & pace,  sheer musicality will get you hooked.


Here is a Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 which I used to own sometime back in 2005 till 2007, then I sold it to a friend who loved it so much, he sent the unit to Chris Johnson's Parts Connection in Canada to have it retro fitted with SE Plus mods to the player during 2011. In all he blew a cool MYR 10 thousand bucks or so to do it. Worth every single Agung faced Ringgit, he said, upon the return of the SFCD-1 about 3 months later!

Me? The SFCD-1 was actually my first high end CD player. It sounded great in my system, but I took it for granted, I wanted more........... My next CD player was a Marantz CD 16-D which served as an interim player until I lay my hands on a Marantz CD 7, which was the unit I've always wanted. You can read about my adventures or mis-adventures with the Marantz CD 7 in these pages too.

Back to end year 2019, my friend came for a home visit when I told him I had restarted my hifi hobby. He was inspired and went home looking to restart his too. Like me, he too had moth balled his hifi set for a couple of years. Then he told me his system wouldn't start.up. Chiefly, the Sonic Forntiers SFCD-1 wouldn't turn on! He brought the unit to me in hope I could fix it. 

I opened up the player, and found that the main board still powered up, but the control board behind the face plate with the display wasn't. I had deduced my findings to him, that unless I could find a donor board with the E-prom chip still intact. There wasn't anything further I could do for him. He then told me it's OK and I can keep the carcass. The SFCD-1 laid in my place for a few months, until recently I heard that our chief hifi mechanic Mr Oh of Old Klang Road have a working unit of SFT-1(a transport only version of the SFCD-1) for sale. And so I sprung in to action. Looking to buy the SFT-1 to use as a donor machine, or to shop for parts. Mr Oh learned about my intentions and offered to help me with the parts transfer task. Below is a pictoria guide with photos provided by Mr Oh as he did the transfer job!      

The Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1(black face) and SFT-1(gold face) being wheeled in to Mr Oh's surgery room for parts transplant!

Inside the SFT-1, compared to the SFCD-1 below.

Inside the SFCD-1, note the balanced(XLR) output board and the pair of 6922 tubes(NOS Siemens matched pair), and the added on jitter board on top of the Ultra Jitter module as part of the SE Plus upgrade package performed by Chris Johnson, formerly boss & designer of Sonic Frontiers products.

The 2 round stacks of fast recovery diodes in between the blue & gold colored capacitors are also part of the elaborate SE Plus upgrade package! 

Audio output section of the SFCD-1 beefed up with ceramic tube sockets, MCaps and gold pin XLR connectors for the SE Plus upgrade package!

The SE Plus upgrades also includes more power regulators in the power supply section.

After the control board swap, the SFCD-1 came alive again!

While it didn't affect my SFCD-1, a very common problem with these CD players are the board socket pins as circled in red by Mr Oh. Over the years of usage, the pins can become loose and cause shorting of boards, or just becomes loose and the unit stops working! One way is to tightened the socket pins by using a cable tie, or better yet ask Mr Oh to individually remove the pins from the socket, give it a good press to tightened the contact points. A lot of work though. 

During testing of the SFCD-1, Mr Oh also found the CD transport needed replacement, along with the servo board, which is non-standard Philips CDM 12.4. Sonic Frontiers had modified the servo board.

Thankfully, the SFT-1 again provide the required donor CD transport mechanism servo board.....

All fixed and under going final test.

Finally, the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 is now singing in my audio cave again.
 

I shall take my time to enjoy my new found SFCD-1. As I listen more to it, the more I love it's golden tonal colors, it's rhythm & pace and slam dunk musical qualities. These are the very things you can't find in modern CD player designs or CAS audio. That's why I believe the Sonic Frontiers SFCD-1 will live on for many, many years to come, and their used resell values will go up, despite their troublesome reputation. They just sound so...... musically good, compared to most modern digital designs which excels mostly in technical parameters, like specifications & measured results!

Now, latest development, my friend just learned that I have rebooted his SFCD-1 and is keen to have it back after he listened to it in my place. Knowing how much he loved his Sonic Frontiers products, I'll let it go back to it's rightful owner for the cost of repairs. What did I get? if you asked, the sheer joy of being reminded why I liked this CD player so much back then! A lovely ending, don't you think so? 

September 13, 2020

Another Classic Restoration, Acoustic Research M6 Holographic Tower Speakers

Acoustic Research M6 Holographic Tower spekaers 

This pair of Acoustic Research M6 Holographic Tower speakers has been in Papa bear's hifi system since 1990. Recently Papa bear decide he wants to spring clean his AV room and ill' bear got this as his heir loom! A visual inspection of the speakers reveal that it's dusty and in need of some tender loving care, especially that 5 inch mid driver with a rotten voice coil cap. I did some Googling and found some information about this pair of speakers. This speaker was designed using time alignment combined with direct/reflected sound theory ala Bose as it's development basis for better sound staging & improved spatial cues, for that "life like" musical feel.

This speaker design is unique as it came coupled to that mat black pyramid shaped top module, with a dual 8 inch internal sub woofer, built in to a high gloss piano black finished tower box! A pair jumper cable connects the top pyramid shaped module to that tower box below. The top module locks to the bottom sub woofer box with 3 tight fitting pins.  I remembered being mesmerized by the sound of this pair of speakers growing up as a teenager, until I got my own system, that is.

Hence I would like to put in some effort and TLC DIY elbow grease to make this pair of Acoustic Research M6 Holographic speakers come alive again! The following picture guide depicts the work that went in to restoring this pair of beauties!


First step is to unplug the pyramid shaped top module from the bass tower box.

Looking around to access the speaker driver, I found 6 screws at the back of the pyramid module, made from molded plastic. 

Once the six screws are removed, I had to carefully pry open the plastic case as it was glued shut all round to prevent leakage of air. The glue around the front & back housing were removed with a pen knife with gentle scraping motions. The 2 way speaker drivers are revealed once the casing is opened.

The back housing have some acoustic foam stuck on inside to dampened the plastic module. Also in the back housing is the 2-way passive x-over for the tweeter & mid drivers. Yeah, I work on my kitchen table too!

The 5 inch mid driver was removed and revealed a rotten voice coil cover. I brought the drivers to a speaker repair expert to check on the condition. He took a good look, made a few presses on the cone, and then told me they mid range driver is fine, and all I had to do was get the replacement voice coil dust cap, and glue it back on my self. 

And so the speaker expert revealed to me that what we've been calling speaker glue is actually Araldite 2 part glue, available from any good hardware stores!

The surface of the mid driver was give a proper cleaning and vacuum out all the bits of rotten material from the old voice coil dust cap. The 2 part Araldite glue mixed, and applied to both the paper cone & new dust cap surface before joining up and leave for a couple of hours to cure.  

Once the glue had settle and cured, I just repeat the whole process removal process above in reverse and whoala! the speakers are fixed and awaiting a new musical life!


 After that, I gave the piano black gloss finish at the bottom sub woofer box an nice polish to return to shiny look. I haven't hooked up the speaker to test for sound yet, but I can't wait to do that. Stay tuned!