September 16, 2021

Reference Master Cassette Deck, Akai GX-95 MKII

Akai GX-95 MKII cassette deck, it's big, bold, yet luxurious

My hifi appetite can be insatiable! There is always an aspiration for top tier stuff if I am ever serious about something. And if you've been reading this blog, you'll notice my craze for cassette decks lately!

In my exploration, I came across this Akai GX-95 MKII model, which was made between 1991-1993 and available only in Japan, Europe and US markets. As part of the Akai Reference Master series components, the line up also includes a matching CD player, tuner & integrated amp. The original GX-95 was developed by Akai to be a Nakamichi killer in 1988, so to speak, and Akai made it the best they could muster, in every way possible. Then in 1991, Akai gave it a MKII facelift, with a slight improvement to specifications.

Let's look at the build quality, it's as luxurious as cassette decks comes, with that brutish, big and bold body in all satin black aluminum facia and side wood cheeks. It feature 4 bunkers inside the 2U all metal box, yep just like the Yamato class battleship. Each bunker or compartment houses different sections of circuitry for best possible isolation. The top left bunker contains the power supply transformer & power supply board behind the cassette mechanism. The top right bunker contains all the operations and logic circuitry. The bottom left bunker contains power regulator board for audio only circuitry which is located in the bottom right bunker. With such construction method, the 2U box becomes super stiff, whilst achieving isolation for each circuitry. 

On the outside, the styling is plain classy restraint and functional to boot. The cassette well door is motorized and can be operated by wireless remote, as per most playback functions. Most body screws and the bottom panel are copper coated for EMI/RFI screening purposes. Those metallic Champaign footers are the real deal, where they feature glazed ceramic underneath. The back panel has an extra pair of RCA CD direct input for recording, other than the usual input & output. All this build leads to a rather heavy 10.2kgs cassette deck, 12.2kgs shipping weight, if came together with original packaging foam & box like mine!  

The back panel, note the copper coated screws and that funny grey power cord! My unit is a 220V unit from Europe, but somehow ended up in China, and now Malaysia....... 

The front facia is typical cassette deck design, but good ergonomics 

The bottom panel is copper coated, and look at those big, heavy real glazed ceramic feet! 

The top panel with wooden side cheeks visible, typical of Japanese high end audio in the 1990's. Somehow, Akai as a audio company faded away shortly after making their best stuff, along with a few other big Japanese brands!

Compatible remote sourced from Mr Oh. Doesn't look very good, but functional nevertheless!

I was looking around to source for a unit of Akai GX-95 MKII for sometime, then a buddy of mine whom I asked to look out in China found this unit in Foshan, Guangzhou for sale. A very quick deal and airfreight saw this unit arrived at my door step 3 weeks later. Alas! this unit came without remote as it was lost by the previous owner in China. So I managed to source a compatible remote from my hifi repair buddy Mr Oh! My search continues for an original matching remote to complete my quest.

The bottom end with it's 2 bunkers, on the left in this picture which is up side down, is the audio circuitry, and on the right is the power supply regulator for the audio PCB 

Seen here from top view and right side up, is the 3 motor, direct drive cassette mechanism is front, with power supply transformer & regulator board. On the right side is logic control PCB

Cassette dampening pad to keep stable pressure on the cassette in play back & recording mode 

The cassette mechanism, which is 3 head. The GX(glass permalloy) heads are proprietary to Akai

The Akai GX-95 MKII was swiftly plugged in to my system to check for function and sound quality. I am lucky to have got a fully functional deck. As for sound quality, it was a total opposite in character compared to my Nakamichi DR-3. The Akai brought out every last musical nuance & detail with every  type of tape used, and obviously for a deck of this status, sounded best with type IV metal tapes. With metal tapes, the Akai sounds full bass bloom and attack, with nicely focused mid range, and extended, yet airy treble & spatial cues. The Akai is able to project a  convincing 3D imaging trick, just like the best CD players can.

With lesser tapes types, such as type II chrome and type i normal ferric, the sound quality gets thinner & thinner, each with lesser bass bloom & energy, depending on recording quality, some type I normal tapes even sounded harsh. I think the Akai deck is just separating the rough stuff from the diamonds, due to it's SOTA of the time status as any respectable hifi piece should do. Also with this Akai deck, it made me realized that I don't have a pair of good enough high end RCA to match! While the beer budget Gotham RCA interconnects that I used all this while sounds decent with the Nakamichi DR-3 & Teac V-670 decks, the Akai just screams for a better pair of interconnects. Not wanting to spend too much hard earned money on what is a low-fi medium, I then procced to try a pair of Van Damme RCA interconnects. The mid centric Van Damme suited Akai much better, but was left wanting in the resolution department, for which I knew the JVC could just do better.

Salvation came in the form of an old friend, a pair of well used Audioquest Sky RCA interconnects. With it's 36V DBS die electric alignment system, the AQ Sky really brought noise floor down by a couple of notches, and with that, more tape resolution capability, and a smooth, wide open space heavenly high frequency reproduction! This is the 4th pair of AQ Sky to be residing in my system! I know, this is a 20 year old cable technology and surely there are better cables out there by now, but at what cost? What ever your opinion, I still hold the AQ Sky in the highest regard amongst all other cable-dom "king" contenders. The AQ Sky, just simply matches the Akai GX-95 MKII like a dog's best friend, that they are meant to be together!

Looking at the 3 cassette decks in my possession at point of writing, I find the Nakamichi to be the warmest of the lot, the Akai at the opposing end of the sound spectrum, and the Teac is just there, hanging on somewhere in between the 2 extremes. The Nakamichi's warm sound character is easy on the ear, sympathetic to system matching, that's why it's universally loved, but at times with poorer recordings, can venture in to the MCC(Mong Cha Cha) territory. The Teac is well balance and very in the neutral sounding character, which can also endear it self in a quite a few systems. The Akai on the other hand, is somewhat analytical, full of details, if slightly lean sounding, and will expose the weakness or lack or synergy in the hifi chain ruthlessly, if not addressed. That could be the reason, that the Akai is just not quite there as a Nakamichi killer, if feed back in the various www.forums indicate. But for me, it's the best deck so far and a keeper for sure. Sort of a last stop to cassette audio nirvana I guess.

Now back to ebay, Yahoo auctions and China buddies to source for that illusive matching remote...........
And do enjoy the video below of the Akai GX-95 MKII play back!

September 12, 2021

Something New For Something Old..........

Now, what's this?

This project has been in the making since April, as all the parts have become available since May but no progress until now. Can you guess what is this item featured on the picture?

Art frame? Or something else?

If the keen eyed amongst you already know, post your answer in the comment section please.

Stay tune for updates on this project as it will start moving soon!


August 22, 2021

A kick-ass hifi system for under RM3000

This is something I always have in the back of my head of what is possible if I put my budget just below RM3000 but I want to have streaming, local media play back and a little bit more if I wanted to have CD player to be added to the mix. Well hifi system can be very simple as one amplifier with one pair of speaker and you are done basically. In the old days, usually be CD player or cassette or even a minidisc player. In more recent times of course digital media is kind of the main stream. Keep that in mind, I just wanted something very simple and affordable which I can just set it up to listen in my living room area. It can be family entertainment and as well as for guest coming to visit.

Now to be realistic with limited budget , it is quite obvious to look into the used market. After all, used hifi gear does have quite many variety to offer. Since this is going to be in the living room area I will pick something not too space consuming. So for speaker, the ideal choice is a bookshelf speaker. It's quite a bit of searching for something that I like and need to be low cost. After some months of going through the search, I came upon a nice pair of Monitor Audio Gold 7. This speaker is the top bookshelf back for its days back in the 90's. Definitely is a very old pair of speaker. The speaker is discontinued back in 2009. I like this speaker very much for the high which makes vocal in music very prominent and not ear piercing at the same time. Well being a bookshelf although the lower end is not comparable to floor stander but it does it very well. The condition of speaker is really good given the years this speaker has seen. I got a good offer this pair for RM600. Quite a fair price to pay.

After picking up this pair of speaker , than the next important part is the amplifier. What should be a good amplifier for it. Being a British speaker is also means is quite the warm sounding speaker. Of course the gold metal tweeter is a bit more forwarding. Probably I am thinking of some British amp probably or even Japanese amp which is more neutral. The selection for me is, I wanted an amplifier that has everything in it with DAC, USB, Coaxial, Optical, RCA. Most old school amp will be rule out for sure. Have to be something a little into the millennium to fit the bill. Most newer generation amp with all build in doesn't come cheap and also not many choices as well to fit the budget. After some long searching, decided to get this little amplifier. The Sony UDA-1  USB DAC amplifier. This unit was launch in 2013 and is discontinued back in 2018. This is a shoebox size amplifier. Is has 2 USB input, one in front and one at the back. The DAC can support up to DSD128 and support hi-res as well up to 192khz. The back it has another USB, with coaxial, optical and 1 pair of RCA input. There is also a pair of RCA output as well. The standard speaker binding post can be use with bi-wire or banana plugs. It has a credit card size remote as well which is pretty cool. This little cost me RM1300.

Now the final piece will be the speaker cable. I am keeping in mind that the speaker is kind of forwarding with the metal tweeter and now with the Sony amplifier it will be on the neutral side. I was thinking a little bit of mix in the cable with copper and silver should be nice. I found this used unit of DH Labs T-14 speaker cable. It is copper cable with silver coating to it. I have this similar cable for my home theater setup which I really like the vocal the cable produce which is clear and sharp. The cable is 2.5 meter pair and it cost RM500 for this pair. Is probably quite a bit of spending here. 

With amplifier and the speaker, I can simply hook up a laptop or even my Ipad / Iphone to the USB and I am ready to play some music. The good thing is it can support hi-res which is good for me as I am using Apple Music which recently have launch the hi-res audio. The total cost of all 3 components cost RM2400. Pretty much it is ready to rock and roll. To make things a little more , I have added into the mix a Asus Tinker board S (Single Board Computer) install with Volumio player as a media player which I can use for streaming spotify, apple air play or even listening to internet radio. This little unit cost less than RM500 which will bring my total cost to RM2900. 

Overall, I am very happy with this setup. It fulfilled all I wanted to get it for listening to music with different sources. Probably I can add in CD player in the future. For now it is covering all that is needed. The overall sound quality is pretty awesome. A short recording of the sound. Recording

August 8, 2021

Mighty Mober For My Linn Sondek LP12, Mober SSP 12 Sub Platter

Julien, my friendly Linn LP12 kaki, who is also my hifi COP, a.k.a. Chief Of Poison, introduced me to the world of Mober, an after market parts vendor for the Linn LP12. In fact, Mober's parts catalog is so complete, that you can actually choose to build a whole LP12 out of Mober parts list! However be warned that if you do that, I suspect the actual end product, an LP12 look a like may not sound much a like the Linn version either.........

Also when reading in to Mober's story, I found that Edmund Chan, the Mober man is also the man behind Hercules PS by Stamford Audio, which I use to repleced the Linn Vahalla PS and still loved till date. That already gave me a healthy dose of confidence on Mober's stuff. At one point, Mober was so controversial in the Linn forums, because there were just as many pro Mober fans vs Linn purist, which resulted in a war on almost every topic posted. It got so bad that Linn decided to shut down the forum totally. Edmund and his henchmen were thrown out and denied membership, forever! Yeah, I know how up tight those Linn purist can be!

As I discussed with Julien, my buddy(who denies his poisoning abilities) about the Linn Karousel bearing option, that everyone is hot over heels about, but the high cost factor remained in my doubt and so in one brilliant stroke, Julien suggested I look in to the Mober alternative. Mober's store is on Ebay and he ships out of Hong Kong. After going thru Mober's Ebay store, I ended up not only with Mober's bearing, but also an Mober SSP12(which is Mober's sub plater) and also Mose+ out board casing kit for my Hercules II Gold PS board. You see, before Linn's Karousel, Mober was already selling his bearing of a similar design. And like the Karousel, Mober's bearing mount is much bigger, so much of the original LP12 inner pieces will either have to be changed or modified! The inner brace bar which holds the Cirkus bearing will need to have the bearing fitting hole enlarged, but Mober sent me a replacement to fit with his bearing instead. The Hercules II Gold PS board won't fit either, so it will be moved outboard with the Mose+ casing kit! 

Now you can see, why I was so hesitant in considering the Karousel bearing! With so much changes, the cost was just adding up big time, if I had stuck to the Linn parts bin! With Mober's more reasonable pricing, that move was a whole lot more palatable, financially. Actually, if you scour the www carefully by searching for Linn LP12 parts, you'll find much after market bit's & pieces for your Linn, some very well designed, others down right wacky & possibly rather tweaky by looks. I am just saying this, that in the Linn LP12 universe, there exist a whole lot of other options other than the original. 

Mober box arrived via FedEx

Inside the Mober box

I ordered all the stuff as mentioned above, made my payment and in about 10 days or so, the Mober box arrived by FedEx. As you can see, the box is very well packed. The first item I can easily play with is the Mober SSP12 sub platter, which does not require me to disassemble the turn table just yet. All the other parts will have to wait until the current MCO to finish, when we come out of the lockdown, as I would like to refinish my black ash plinth too, while at it. So will have to wait until my buddy's furniture workshop re-opens for business.

Mober recommends that when using his bearing, to pair with the SSP12 sub platter for best results, however, the Linn Cirkus LP12 sub platter can still be used. Since the SSP12 sub platter is compatible with the existing Cirkus bearing, it will be an easy swap in. 

The difference the Mober SSP12 and the Cirkus sub platter is obvious. Mober's have a pale gold coating in the center of the top spindle. Where it's not so obvious is where the biggest difference lies, at the tip of the bearing shaft! Linn's patented bearing shaft tip is rounded off versus Mober's which is bearing fused, much like those old Thorens sub platter design from the late 50's and early 60's. Otherwise, nearly all other design aspects of both the sub platter looks identical, save for that matt aluminum finishing on the Linn, and shiny surface of the Mober. So how does that Mober sub platter sound comparatively to the Linn?

From left: Linn sub platter, then the shinny Mober sub platter on the right 

Linn sub platter, look at the rounded tip of the bearing shaft 

Mober SSP12, with the bearing fused at the tip as the focused point of the bearing shaft

The swap over was relatively easy, I pulled the Linn sub platter out from the turn table, wipe clean the shaft from the bearing oil with a piece of tissue, then re-lube the bearing and proceed to drop in the Mober sub platter. Allow some time, about 10-15 minutes to let the bearing shaft sink in by gravity, best not to use force. Once the sub platter sits in nicely, time to fit the outer platter on, and record matt, now your're ready to spin LPs!

From the very first moment the LP started spinning again, I heard a distinct, sharp high mid frequency range poking out of the overall frequency spectrum. While this makes vocals pop out and stabilizes imaging better, I much preferred Linn's overall top to bottom frequency coherence and evenness. I also note that the Mober sub platter is subjectively quieter in the musical background too. Otherwise, all other sound quality character remains largely un-changed. The bass is still solidly filled up and gutsy, the mid range comes with the peak as mentioned, and treble remains airy & refined. 

Over a few weeks, that mid range peak started to be reduced to almost un-detectable, except with certain LPs or songs, I could still hear it. That's the problem with audio, once you've heard it, it's very difficult to unhear it. From time to time or song to song that peak high mid just sticks out enough to remind you about the Mober! I actually find this type of sonic character very much like sitting one's hifi equipment on 3 pieces of downward pointer footings, but the Mober being a whole lot more discreet. One of the main reasons I never use those tipsy downward pointing footers on my hifi equipment. 

I am hoping that once I pair this sub platter to the Mober bearing, this anomaly would disappear totally for a perfect & coherent match. I also suspect that with the neutrality of the Benx Micro LP cartridge also pushed the Mober towards this slight peak in the high mids, and I suspect my other cartridge the warmer sounding Koetsu Black which is more sympathetic, may be a better match with the Mober items.  Let's see......
The Linn sub platter just before removal

The well sit in Mober SSP12 after 15 minutes, fits nicely too

With that being said, I believe that Mober sub platter & bearing kit is best used as a set. The Mober SSP12 when used with an existing Cirkus based Linn LP12 turntable, the compatibility may rest on a few other items too, such as cartridge, cable & turn table set up. That makes this so called up grade a small gamble, and YMMV is all I can tell you at this point. Well, at least till I get all the other Mober items in to my Linn Sondek LP12. Not sure when that is possible in the current pandemic & lockdown situation........................... 
My Linn Sondek LP12 is back in action again. For Linn purist, in which this photo I shared on Linn FB group, the LP clamp used here is a crime punishable by crucifixion! For me, as long as it's floating my boat, who cares?


August 1, 2021

Which channel is more important in Home Theater

 In a typical home theater setup, it will be ranging from 5.1 channel to 11.1 or even more. What does all this channel means ? Each channel is referring to one of the output from receiver or processor to the output to of a speaker. From picture we can see that each channel is also called with specific name. The Center, the stereo left / right, the rear left / right with 1 subwoofer. This is so called the 5.1 where the 5 channels are the center, stereo and rear. The point 1 mean is referring to the subwoofer. 

Taking this simple 5.1 setup, what do we want to pay more attention to ? Especially when you have limited funding or space, what will you go with first. The very first or most critical speaker is the center channel. It is quite obvious that center channel is the one producing speech or dialog in any movie. It will be impossible to watch any movie without dialog. This become apparent this is the critical channel. I will spend my budget as much as possible for the center giving the critical of it. Many a times people will also complaint about not able to hear what the dialog during a movie. So a good center channel will be even more important. 

Center channel is also usually a speaker is design to be place horizontally. This allow clearance of display to have the channel as closely as possible to screen. Having a center channel very close to the center of the screen is also crucial. You do not want to be looking at the screen and the dialog is coming from the bottom or the top or any where else. The sound should be coming from center of the screen. It will certainly be awkward if the sound is coming from other direction.

After center channel, which should be next on the list ? This is the tricky question. As we called our front channel channel as stereo right / left, the reason for this is sometimes it is use for stereo purpose like music. So now we need to take into consideration the stereo purpose of your home theater or simply this purely home theater only. The other consideration is also the front and center channel matching. In surround sound setup, the panning effect is very important. The coherent of the sound will be lost if the sound travelling from one speaker to the other is not right. So now I will say that given the importance of the sound continuity the front channel will be the second on the list.

The next obvious option is the boom box. How can any home theater be without the beast (subwoofer). We are not talking about just the size but any setup of home theater will be needing it to fill in the ambient. Probably will be even more important for some bass lovers. Although LFE or Low Frequency Effect might not be always there is in a movie but when the time comes for it to rock, it will be totally amazing how much ambient will change with the kick of bass. Of course we do want to have proper blend of the subwoofer with the rest of the 5 other speakers. So we need to take into consideration what is the capability of all the speakers to choose the right subwoofer. 

Last but not least will be our surround channels. Surround speakers is also known as filler to the ambient sound. There won't be surround sound without this speakers. Although this is kind of taking the back seat but for some with really big budget this is something that will be good to have to get the best speakers as well to enable the blend in. Remember we talk about panning effect, it will still play an important role as not to loose the sound travelling around the room during the movie. In typical home locally, surround speakers can't be too big as well with limited space. Usually it will be comprise. In ideal situation all speakers should be in the same model and range. 

In the current surround sound format of course now we have atmos or DTS X with in ceiling for the top surround. This is different from the older tech of height surround. This top surround will give the actual feeling of sound over head which can be really exciting of actually knowing a plane or helicopter flying over your head like in real environment. Not many people typical home locally has the luxury of over head speakers. There is so called atmos enabled speakers which is using the same concept of soundbar reflecting sound to create the effect. This will be more to nice to have rather than must have in surround sound given the limitation of homes. 

In summary the center channel play the most important role that will be top priority and the second will be a little more subjective if is either the front or subs dependent of the objective on the home theater setup. So it can be sub first or front channel first. Next step will be the surround which can be back surround or side surround or even both. This is more dependent on room size and the area of coverage. Finally the atmos which is more to nice to have. Hope this little tips helps for someone who is starting out the journey to get you going.