December 31, 2011

2011 Going Out with A Bang!

I think there isn't a more fitting way for us at Hifi Unlimited to bid farewell to 2011 than having an awesome listening session with an awesome system.

On the eve of the New Year's eve, AV Designs' James gamely carted his entire TAD system over for us to have a go. I also would like to thank JoKi, Felix, and Big E who came over to help with set up and listening.

The TAD Compact Reference loudspeakers were already playing in my room. To the TAD-CR1, we added the TAD-D600 SACD/CD player, the TAD-C2000 pre-amp and the TAD-M2500 power amp.

As usual, the TADs had to sit on the floor as I did not have the rack space. I also doubted my Finite Elemente Signature rack would take kindly to their total weight (circa 100kg). They sit prettily on the Finite Elemente Master Reference rack in AV Designs' showroom though.

On the floor, front - from left, TAD-M2500 power amp, TAD-D600 SACD/CD player, TAD-C2000 pre-amp

Didn't my place look like a TAD warehouse?

The TAD components were added one by one into the hifi chain. Putting in the TAD-D600 player added heft and scale. The sound became more sure-footed, more poised. Adding the TAD-C2000 preamp evinced a big jump to the system's overall performance. The sound opened up, with transparency going up a few notches; it also expanded in terms of frequency extension and soundstage dimensions. The fond memory of listening to the TAD-D600 - TAD-C2000 combo for the first time a few months ago came back with a vengeance. I was really enjoying myself.

However, TAD was not done yet. The coup de grace came when the TAD-M2500 power amplifier went in. After the initial warming up period, it took a grip on the proceedings and never let go (the TAD-M2500 is rated at 25ow/8ohms, double that into 4 ohms). Unlike some big amp I heard in the past that stamped their authority all over the place, like they were saying, "look at me, I am big!", the TAD-M2500 was most graceful instead. Quiet passages were handled with delicacy and fine strokes, but when the big ones came, the TAD-M2500 just followed suit, pumping up the sound like a big yet smooth V8. The total ease of this amplifier in dealing with any type of music was unnerving. Yes, 'total ease' would be the right words to describe the TAD-M2500.

What a way to close the curtain on 2011.


December 29, 2011

Riding The Wave! Wave Kinetics A10-U8 Component Control System.

The Wave Kinetics A10-U8 Component Control System is a high tech combination of semi hard clear compound, imbued with an internal pyramid cone like structure of ball bearings, and machined stainless steel cup base.

Wave Kinetics is a relatively new company, specialising in vibration control products. They are suppliers to the aerospace and defence industries. With a back ground like that, their products can certainly be credible in the world of audiophile voodoo tweaks. Our high end buddy Mark, brought in a few sets to try out.

Our other buddy, Jo Ki who is amongst the most supportive member of this product told me to try this Wave Kinetics A10-U8 Component Control System, because it took the performance of the Bryston BDP-1 Digital Media Player up by a few notches. I was initially daunted by the A10-U8's retail price of USD$700/set of 4, now factor that to the current USD$ exchange rate, plus freight and taxes(if applicable) to arrive at the total landed cost. Now that our buddy Mark's system is all over the place, I took the set of A10-8U from him to have go.

Jo advised that I should try it using 3 pieces of the A10-8U. Putting one piece each under the front panel corners of my Bryston BDP-1, and one at the middle, under the back panel, forming a triangle point of contact if viewed from plan perspective. One can try using up side down, or just as shown on picture, with the bearings facing up wards towards the hifi component's under side. I tried both and ended up using the 3 pieces of Wave Kinetics A10-U8 up side down, in which this review's sonic description is based upon.

The Wave Kinetics A10-U8 comes in a boxed set of 4 pieces.
Once the positions of the 3 pieces of A10-U8 are finalised, based on tweaking the vocalist mouth focus and balancing between the backing instrument's separation, I started the listening session. The most immediate thing that took my focus was the bass end of the music. With the A10-U8's under my Bryston BDP-1, the bass took on a very driven and propulsive quality. Bass lines tightened up, yet extending lower without sounding bloated. I also heard lowered noise floor and less digital hash in the already quiet back grounds of the the music. With less noise and digital hash, subtle tail end harmonic reverberations, timbre and texture were totally fleshed out from wood bodied string instruments like violin, viola and especially the grand piano, where the "grandness" became more prominent, just like the real thing. I found the rendering vocals improved too, where there's real body, lungs, throat and heft, compared to just a mouth! Male vocals especially sound more forceful and manly. However, all these were just the subtle improvements.

The main area of sonic improvement actually lies in the imaging and sound staging factor, where a combination of improved stage depth layering, spaces between instruments and vocal fore/instrument aft projection combined to elevate the whole effect more relief and close to 3D live likeness in musical experience. This is especially true with "live" recordings.

Using the Wave Kinetics A10-U8 is like using spikes without their inherent sonic signature, or vibrapod like semi soft compound devices without their bloated bass type ill effects. I found them to be very sonically balanced examples of high tech, yet easy to use vibrational control devices, if admittedly pricey too. However, as they say in high end audio circles, chasing for the last 2Hz of lower bass extension, the last ounce of "air" or the last 5% of performance envelope is never a cheap affair!

Now, it's up to one's self to decide if chasing the mile is worth while, but that last 5% for me is like the forbidden fruit! You know what they say about the forbidden fruit? It just taste sweeter, if you're privileged enough to have it!

Thanks again to our hifi buddy Mark, for generously sharing his toys with us.

Note: There are currently no Malaysian distributors for Wave Kinetics.

December 27, 2011

10 Qs For Ivor Tiefenbrun Of Linn Products Ltd.

Ivor Tiefenbrun was in KL earlier this month to promote the stable of Linn products. Perfect Hi-Fi, the local dealer hosted Ivor at their Jalan Maroff, Bangsar showroom. Ivor gave a philosophical talk about why music is so important for humanity's well being, whose origins may have well started in the form a worm with vertebrae, which only had a sense of pressure, sensitive only to vibrational movements and rhythm, much like a fossil found in the Canadian Shale. He emphasized that proves that rhythm has the most profound effect on humanity compared to our other senses. Which is why, a hifi system that excels in maintaining rhythm and pace will always be considered superior.

He also did a demo asking the audience to listen to short burst of MP3 comparing to hi rez file formats, played back on a full Linn Klimax system. The reason for using short, 30 seconds burst of music for the basis of comparison is that our ears can adapt and our minds easily forgets, said Ivor. The system that sound closest and most like "live" music is the better one. Ivor adds that one should always use un-amplified music as a source for comparison.

Ivor insist that each and every human being has that ability to tell the difference in sound quality, but most did not know how to. With a bit of practice, it's easy to evaluate audio systems.

Ivor Tiefenbrun, the legendary LP12 designer and Linn founder.

Some of the crowd attending to the "Sell By Demo" session, conducted by Ivor Tiefenbrun.

At the end of the talk, the press people were invited to a Chinese dinner, and over some Macallan single malt scotch, Ivor mellowed down and was a perfect candidate for 10 Qs. There was too long a list of questions from all quarters of the hifi press, but I choosed 10 Qs of which I thought was best for your reading pleasure!

Big E: Ivor, when was the last time you were in Malaysia?

IT: I think I was last here 22 years ago. So this may well be the last time you'd meet me as I may take another 22 years, which I obviously may not have, to come round again! Ha! Ha!

Big E: How did you get in to the hifi industry?

IT: I was a young man working in the kitchen of a restaurant. One day, it dawned upon me about my goals in life, call it the awakening if you want. I asked the owner of the restaurant if I could achieve my life's goals in his place, and he told me that I should go else where. It was easy to join Linn, as my father owns the engineering company.

Big E: How did you came about with the LP12's design?

IT: Now we're getting in to controversial territory here. I was trying to make a turntable based around a bearing that my father designed for some of his projects, and by the eleventh revision, I was fairly satisfied with the results, and thus the Ariston RD11 turn table was born. It was initially marketed by Hamish Robertson who later registered the Ariston company, without my knowledge at the time. Sad to say that in a series of events, it all erupted in to by then a highly controversial court case, which ruled the origin of design in Linn's favour. The LP12 is in fact a revision, based on the Ariston RD11 design.

Big E: How many of the Ariston RD11 turn table was sold then?

IT: Linn made about 180 of the first batch of Ariston RD11. Hamish sourced the remaining later batches of RD11 elsewhere.

Big E: What are the main difference between the Linn LP12 compared to the Ariston RD11?

IT: For one, the main bearing is different. The LP12 uses bearing designed that is further refined from that of the RD11. The plinth has been completely re-worked with corner bracing as well, which by now the horizontal lines were added on to the deck for a more distinct look, now a classic.

Big E: Do you now still use an LP12, or a Linn Klimax DS at home for musical pleasure?

IT: I have both at home now, plus I've not given up on the CD12 yet. I still have lots of CDs to spin at home.

Big E: You've mentioned that music as an important foundation to humanity, because we respond most to pressure, as a kind of rhythmic vibrational sensation, justified by in the early days of human civilisation, that song and music came before speech and languages. With the current decline in today's popular music quality and creativity, does it reflect upon humanity's general decline as a species?

IT: That's a pretty bleak picture scenario you've painted there! I beg to differ, with the advantage of hindsight, having being in the business for the last 40 years or so. I see it this way, The hifi and music industry inter wined in more ways than one would assume. Every quarter of a century or so, the hifi, and hence the music industry takes paradigm shift. The hifi industry started in the fifties, coinciding with the introduction of stereo recordings. By the seventies, the LP took prominence, the LP12 design was introduced by then. By the nineties, the compact disc became the de-facto music carrier format. And now, digital down loads is the latest evolution, with LP's making a surprising comeback. You see, every time a paradigm shift occurs, the music and hifi industry under goes a transformation, weeding out the weaker players, while the strong and innovative companies(like Linn) propels to the fore front. What we are going thru now is a period of paradigm shift.

Big E: That's an interesting way of looking at things, but one that certainly holds water, coming from an esteemed industry veteran. Now we move on to another spicy question. Knowing the history of French/British diplomacy, what's your personal view on the JM Lab/Naim merger?

IT: Hmm.......... Having known Julian Vereker, founder of Naim, since it's earliest days, I doubt that's a move he'd approve off. Just so you know, we've worked with Naim since their amplifiers have proven to be excellent partners for our original Isobarik speakers.

Big E: Are you sad to see more and more British hifi brands falling in to foreign hands?

IT: Of course it is a sad, sad situation, when there's only a handful of British companies still manufacturing in the UK. I blame the UK government's business and tax policies for it. It has created an environment that does not encourage young entrepreneurs or new business start ups.   

Ivor, making a point!

Big E: What keeps you working everyday?

IT: First, I like music. I also like traveling and meeting people. It doesn't really feel like work, at least not like now, when we having this nice conversation over an indulgent meal. I spend like at least eight months of a year travelling, doing exactly the same as I did this afternoon, which is a sell by demo session. Some people told me that there are easier ways to sell hifi products. However, by doing it this way, even if it's more difficult, is very rewarding for the long term. I am slowly but surely selling more products one demo at a time. This more personal approach is surely more sustainable for the company's growth in the longer term.

There were many, many more questions and I can assure you, where some of the answers are just so shocking, we just cannot divulge. It's been an honour getting to know Ivor.

I wish to thanks Andy Tan and Perfect Hi-Fi for organising this session.

December 25, 2011

Magneplan Mini, Now On Demo In Absolute AV Gallery.

The Magneplan Mini has arrived our shores and are now on demo in Absolute AV Gallery, located on the first floor of Amcorp Mall. Going by the reports of a few sifus in the high end scene, the RM$6k speaker is a steal, considering it's sound quality and price! I heard they're going fast and there's only a limited consignment, before the customary introductory price offer ends.

Call Ong at 012-3210488 for a demo appointment, to avoid disappointment.

December 23, 2011

The Audio Store Grand Opening

We attended the opening of The Audio Store in Petaling Jaya last Saturday. There were good food, good company and good music.

True to its names, The Audio Store focuses on pure 2-channel audio only, with no AV component on show.

In the big demo room, the main system consists of Kuzma, Aesthetix and YG Acoustics:

Kuzma Stabi XL turntable...

...with Kuzma Air Line tonearm and an Air Tight cartridge

Aesthetix Romulus CD Player

Aesthetix Callisto Pre-amp

Aesthetix Atlas monoblock

The thicker-than-a-water-hose NBS loudspeaker cables

The YG Anat III Main Module

The back of the YG Anat III Studio Sub. It is active and has all the requisite subwoofer adjustments

In another, smaller, demo room, we have another system consists of Kuzma, Sutherland, NuForce, Aesthetix and YG Acoustics:

Kuzma Stabi Reference turnable

Air Tight PC-3 cartridge on a Kuzma 4Point tonearm

Sutherland phono stage

A NuForce CD player on the left and the power supply for the Kuzma turntable on the right

The YG Carmel loudspeaker

The Audio Store is also the distributor for NuForce:
NuForce P8S pre-amp on top, and the NuForce BDP-93 Xtreme Edition Bluray player below which is based on a Oppo player

NuForce Reference 18 monoblocks

Elsewhere, a pair of Wilson Audio WAMM can be seen on display:

Call Mr Aw or Antiq Low at 03-78872233 to arrange an audition at The Audio Store.

December 20, 2011

Mojo. Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers.

My very first exposure to Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers was way back in the eighties, with the track called, I Won't Back Down. It had a catchy enough tune and a rather laid back vocal style. Over the years, I never heard much about Tom or his band mates, you can say that it's as if I had almost forgotten about them. Until this 2010 re-issue album called Mojo, that is. I've been spinning this album in the past few months regularly.

This album was re-issued on both LP and Blu-ray formats. Purchase either and they come with a code to unlock this stereo only 24/48 hi rez music file, available from the Official Tom Petty website. Some may sneeze at the lowly 48kHz sampling rate, but I can tell you that this recording is stunning in sound quality, much better than many of the over rated 24/96 files that I've heard. So don't be mislead by the numbers game! There's an almost analog like feel to this digital file, much favoured by 80's rock music recordings. The tone, texture and harmonic overtones of the amplified electric guitars are just beautifully reproduced with life like quality. There's enough bandwidth and unrestricted yet propulsive dynamic range in the recording to encourage toe tapping while listening. The analog like feel of the recording also captures much of the studio "air" and ambiance, real or otherwise.

Now for me good recording quality alone does not exactly maketh an excellent album. The music matters just as much, if not more! And I love the music by Tom Petty here. There's a typical 80's throwback in the scheme of  arrangement and vocal style of radio friendly rock genre(remember Yes, Journey and Boston amongst them?). There are a total of 15 tracks here of which there's more than a few to keep me from losing interest. The following are my favorite tracks, it starts with track 3, titled Running Man's Bible, followed by a very dreamy sounding The Trip To Pirate's Cove, then the very dynamic and hard hitting Candy.

Tom retreats in to a more sombre mood with No Reason To Cry(that softly, softly cymbal play here is highly addictive for an audiophile), before exploding in to a full blown hard rocking I Should Have Known It. From there onwards there's a Reggae inspired, I Shot The Sherif like cop caper titled Don't Pull Me Over.

I was so impressed by this Tom Petty album, that I went on to explore further by downloading another album, titled Damn The Torpedoes as 24/96 hi rez file from HD Tracks.  How's that for rediscovering Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?

December 17, 2011

Quintessentially Tube - VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature Preamp

If you are a regular follower of this blog, you’d know that we are having a roll with pre-amplifiers. It started with the Ayre KX-R in the beginning of the year, then we went through a number of others from Pass Labs, Jeff Rowland and TAD in the intervening months. This latest pre-amp that came our way has a twist in that it is the first tube unit in this long line of pre-amps. How does it compare to those solid state units? In short, it sounds quintessentially tube. Having the tube magic is what I’d call it. Read on and I shall elaborate.

The VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature amplifier is the third from the top in VTL’s pre-amp line-up. It is a fully balanced differential linestage. The circuit is all tube, its tube complement consists of 2 X 12AU7 and 4 X 12AT7. The inputs are 2 pairs of XLR/RCA, and 6 pairs of RCA. The outputs are 1 pair each of XLR and RCA, plus a record out. Input impedance is 35k Ohms and output impedance is 150 Ohms. Power consumption is 60w.

The review unit had the black fascia, though VTL produces a silver version too. This black version does look rather classy especially if the rest of your equipment is also black.

The TL-5.5 Series II Signature lists at RM31,815. The review unit is the line-only version. If you take a peep inside, only half of the real estate is occupied by the circuit board. This also means that the weight distribution is lopsided, so be a little careful in your handling. The weight is a 30lbs (13.6kg).

There is a good reason for the unused space. You can opt to add a phono board later, which will be bolted onto the unit taking up the space.

The TL-5.5 II Sig has 2 additional features that are rarely found on other pre-amps. One is Phase setting, which I found to be having audible effect on some recordings, these recordings sounded lifeless when phase was switched to the 'wrong' setting. The other is the ability for the user to select gain. The normal setting is 11dB single ended, 17dB balanced, switchable to low gain 6dB single ended and 11dB balanced. To access the gain setting, you have to open up the cover to set the toggle switches inside.

The TL-5.5 II Signature has a very useful 117 steps volume control

The unit was the distributor’s demo unit, so no long run-in period was required. I left the unit on overnight and there was no change to the sound quality, so subsequently the unit was left on standby when not playing. Upon switch on, the unit went into a count down, and about a minute later, it was ready to play.

Did I say that the VTL had the tube magic? The VTL TL-5.5 Series II Signature had a sound with a rich, melodious and delicate quality that tube equipment does so easily and so matter-of-factly, which many solid staters try to imitate but end up a poor cousin.

The highs was glorious, it was ethereal and so sweet that your heart melted and you just wanted to wallow in it. The mids was creamy and it embraced vocals like nobody’s business, voice has a humanness that made it very relaxing and beautiful to listen to. The bass was rounded and had warmth, and it was here that opinion might be divided - if you value bass articulation and tunefulness, the VTL would be the winner; if you wanted more bass slam and impact, then some solid state pre-amps would prove to be a better bet. The thing is that the VTL’s bass had excellent body and not the anaemic kind, so the sound remained balanced throughout the audio band all the time.

One of my long term reference, the 2V1G CD incorporated a lot of ambient information in the recordings (my favourites are tracks 4 & 8). This CD played right into the VTL’s hands. The voices were honeyed and breathy, like a beautiful girl whispering sweet nothing into your ears. The soundscape was swirling with air, illuminating the space in the recording studio. Roger Wang’s guitar surrounded the voices, the guitar plucks were clear and harmonically rich. Turn the light down, close your eyes, and the whole intimate performance would be transported into your room.

I turned to another excellent acoustic recording, Nils Lofgren’s Acoustic Live CD. The track ‘Keith Don’t Go’ is at the top of my list. It consists of just Nils’ fast and furious guitar playing and his vocal, together with a responsive and appreciative live audience. If I were to nit pick, I’d say that the VTL perhaps just sacrificed a little bit of snap and bite on Nils Lofgren’s guitar plucks compared to the solid state units I heard in my system before. However, the VTL turned in a performance that pulled ahead of the others in terms of atmosphere and airiness, capturing in a coherent manner the feel of the performance and the venue. It brought the space and its actors into my room. When the audience interacted with Nils, I could almost feel that I was looking into event itself, that was how palpable the portrayal was.

The well-built remote

The TL-5.5 II Sig flies the tube brigade flag proudly. The sound I heard from it was always smooth, rich and non-aggressive. The VTL is transparent enough to reveal the recording quality of CDs, however, its mission was to make the most out of anything it was fed with. Focusing and delivering on the musical message is its purpose in life. The VTL TL5.5 Series II Signature will let you enjoy your music collection tremendously, yes, musicality is at the heart of this pre-amp.

This is a sound that has music as its soul.

VTL is carried by A&L Audio Station, Ph: 03-7958 2884

December 15, 2011

Zu Now At Asia Sound Equipment.

Zu is now distributed in Malaysia by Asia Sound Equipment. The budget brand of of high value audio engineered products like cables and loudspeakers have been making waves in the last few years, by winning many audio accolades.

Asia Sound Equipment will focus on Zu's unique speaker range and now have selected models on demo in their Amcorp Mall showroom.

Please contact Eddie Tan at 03-79552091 for more info on Zu.

December 13, 2011

The Audio Store Invites, A Grand Opening Ceremony!

There's a new player in the high end hifi retail business, unlike most The Audio Store only sells high end stereo equipment only. AV types can look else where for amusement. With a new player comes new brands to our shores. The Audio Shop carries brands like Air Tight, Aesthetix, Kuzma, NBS, Nu Force, SRA, Sound Lab, Sutherland, Walker Audio and YG Acoustics. As if all those are not enough, the store also has a wide selection of used quality high end gears too.

The Audio Store, located at B-G-27, Merchant Square, Jalan Tropicana Selatan 1, PJU 3, 47410 Petaling Jaya, Selangor D.E. The new showroom, which has been operating since last month, will have it's "Grand Opening Ceremony" from 12.00pm noon onwards, this Saturday, 17th December 2011. Food and drinks will be served for the occasion.

Here's a little sneak preview of what you can expect from The Audio Store:
Some hifi fans awaiting The Audio Store's opening as I was there last weekend.

A range of merchandise on display in the main foyer.

The flagship demo room, uses Air Tight cartridge, Kuzma turn table, Nu Force CD player, Aesthetix amps and YG Acoustics speakers.

Another demo room with SME turn table, Sutherland phono stage, Krell mono block amps and Sound Labs flat panel speakers.

The main foyer counter indicating all the brands The Audio Store carries. 

The Audio Store is manned by two very experience audiophiles par excellence, namely Mr Aw and Antiq(Taiko) Low. Their showroom set ups reflects dedication to detail and attention to sense of good sound. One should be there, even if there is no intention to purchase, but to get to know these two fine gentlemen, just to pick on their hifi knowledge(kung fu), so to speak.

In case you need directions to the location, or to R.S.V.P. kindly call Mr Aw or Antiq Low at 03-78872233.

December 10, 2011

The Vinyl Shop, By CMY Audio & Visual.

John Yew invited me to CMY Audio & Visual in Sungei Wang Plaza, Kuala Lumpur. He said there's a surprise for me. When I arrived to his showroom at the Lower Ground Floor, he took me up to his new venture at Lot F014 & F015, First Floor in Sungei Wang Plaza, and there we were, standing in front of what he called "The Vinyl Shop". He asked "What do you think?". I was speechless.

John is that kind of person who puts his plans in to action and make things a reality. The reality is what you see here, John's vision for a vinyl hang out especially designed for connoisseurs of the "black arts". Eevry thing a turn table man needs, is available here. Let's see what's on offer:

The entrance to The Vinyl Shop.
More window displays of Clearaudio turn tables.
The vinyl section is immense in choice! You have a choice of NOS, new or used LPs. Through John's contacts in Europe, he has managed to raid some of best original pressings from RCA, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips and Teldec amongst others from the 50's and 60's, all sealed NOS copies. CMY prices them very reasonably too. Go check them out before they're gone. John tells me he has another shipment of 10,000 LPs on way from Europe!

Some high -end demos too. The usual suspects includes brands like Usher, Proac, Wadia, Clearaudio and JRDG as seen here. 
Naim is also featured prominently too. Check out the new Ovator series speakers, they quite outstanding compare to Naim's previous speaker models.
Clearaudio Performance on demo.
Clearaudio Master Solution on demo.

Clearaudio Ambient on display.

Clearaudio Champion on demo
Clearaudio Solution on display

Goldring Elektra cartridge, I used to have this on my Rega P3 when I was much younger. Excellent budget cartridge.

There's also an AV demo room with lazy chairs.

The AV demo room is equipped with 2.35 screen and anamorphic lens based projector system. John tells me this is a budget anamorphic lens set up.   
The main foyer and reception area.

CMY Audio & Visual means business!

I browsed for a few hours in the shop for LPs. Like a kid in a candy store, I had a problem, which LP not to buy? That's due to the enormous choice of LPs available and not enough budget to accommodate. I had further narrow down my picks over and over again just to stay within budget. This is certainly a change from the days that I'd browse for LP's and not finding anything that tickles my fancy!

Just in case you can't find The Vinyl Shop, call Dicky, Astley or John at 03-21439206 for directions.