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Friday, July 23, 2010

Welcome to Soundevaluations


My earliest musical memories reach back to the early 1970's. Like many I'm sure, I was first influenced by my parents' musical choices; classic Burt Bacharach along with protégé Dionne Warwick shared Garrard platter time with Progressive Big Band leader Stan Kenton. My attention soon turned to the emerging Disco movement and it's forerunner/close cousins Philly Sound & Symphonic Soul. Perhaps to counterbalance this new found love for the steady thump and lush arrangements, my best friend introduced me to the hard & heavy sounds of Deep Purple, Led Zep, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Slade and Kiss (the Alive! period).

As the decade(s) progressed so did my LP collection and openness to new sounds to include names like Donna Summer, Giorgio, Cerrone, Costandinos, James Brown, Motown, Marvin Gaye, Isaac Hayes, Curtis Mayfield, Kool & The Gang, Manu Dibango, Kraftwerk, Yes, Genesis, King Crimson, ELP, Babe Ruth, Rush, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, J. & R. Strauss (thank you Stanley Kubrick), Schoenberg, Ravel, Stravinsky, Glass, Ella, Billie, Franky, King, Duke, Dizzy, Bird, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Art Pepper, Steve Coleman, Metallica, Slayer, John Zorn, Nils Petter Molvaer, Murcof, etc, etc.

Without even trying, call it second nature if you prefer, certain records just seemed to sound better than others, same case with certain labels - Supertramp's dynamic Crime of the Century (1974) on A&M vs Bowie's rather muffled 1975 single "Fame" on RCA sowed the seeds to a lifetime of Audiophile discontent (kidding). 'No big deal' I hear you say? Well keep in mind I was only ten years old at the time.

My very first sound system (Xmas 1976) was a Pro Linear AT-1200 turntable, a Jelco cart that was soon replaced by a 35$ Shure, an Akai AA-1010 receiver and a pair of 'no name' 2-way thick-grilled speakers. At first I was in Heaven, but of course a few years later I got bitten by the Audiophile bug and you know the story too well...I had to upgrade in order to stay hi (fi). Two Technics SL-1710 + Stanton series 500, plugged into a Pioneer MA-62 A mixer served time during my heavy disco mixing period. After high school, I completed my studies with a college degree in Electronics. Got hooked on reading anything related to HiFi such as acoustics and sound physics.

Eventually around 1987 this gave way to a more respectable audiophile entry kit sporting a Rega Planar3/RB300 with Grado M+ cart, a Conrad-Johnson PV6 preamp, Sugden P28 power amp and a pair of Rega-Camber 2.5 speakers on stands. The latter would yield it's place to the Apogee Stage (+ sandfilled bases) planar/ribbon dipoles in spring 1990. Soon I started recording live Jazz and Classical direct to 2-track cassette on a NAD 6155 deck and also reel to reel tape on the (70 lbs)Tascam. Around 2000, I got involved in Loudspeaker Design and Sound Mastering for mainly independant music labels which come to think of it, are not that far apart in that both these fields can be viewed as sound manipulation or phrased differently, voicing. In 1999-2000 I did a weekly disco show called Flashback on the FM dial and later the equivalent on radio-internet streaming. For a few years, I gave music appreciation conferences at a nearby college. Oh! and one last thing, I always wear ear protection at clubs and loud concerts to preserve my hearing and 'eq' the sound to a certain extent more to my taste.



Primary Analog:

Custom DIY Pasja, intelligent-rechargeable battery-powered, twin-DC motor belt-drive turntable, with 30 pound aluminum platter topped by leather/suede record mat, resting on plywood subchassis hidden under 'free-floating' main hand-assembled, glued rosewood plinth.

Custom DIY Pasja true straight 16 inch effective lenght, rosewood tonearm and headshell with VTA ajustable during play, dual conterweight; no anti-skating required.

Stanton 'classic gold body' Broadcast Series 500 MM (D5107 AL) Normarch replacement conical white tip cartridge; VTF@3.63g. with added a speck of wadding stuffed in removable plastic stylus tip cavity or MusiKraft S-AlLi103-PO MC wood-inserted Magnesium conical tip cartridge; VTF@2.63g

Secondary Analog (rarely used):

Sota Star Sapphire turntable (suspension tightened by rubber feet mostly screwed in max).

Eminent Technology ET2 straight tracking air-bearing tonearm with Wisa air pump & Airtech Surge Tank Air Reservoir.

Denon DL103 MC, conical tip cartridge. VTF@ 2.64g. VTA graduated and adjustable on the fly while playing if needed. Thin (self adhesive) cork applied on cartridge body sides, front and a tiny bit below to absorb or reduce plastic resonances.

Duelund 1.0 silver flat conductor in oil-impregnated silk tonearm interconnect; non-shielded.

Denon AU-310 step-up transformer. 1:10 ratio (20dB gain). Fixed output cable bypassed by 2 inch Duelund 1.0 silver flat conductor w/female RCA + custom copper + Mogami shield interconnect to preamp.

NAD 6155 cassette deck with Dolby B-C NR HX PRO

Tascam BR-20T 'broadcast' 1/4 inch 2 track half track reel 2 reel analog deck.

Ampex AG-440B (vintage 1969) 1/2 inch 2 track half track analog mastering deck.

NEC CDR-602 cd-rom reader as transport. SPDIF out on custom multi-solid core copper.

ART DI/O A/D-D/A converter (stock but tube taken out) 7V output on 1/4 jack. Cheap plastic (better than 'full chromed') male 1/4 jack to fem. RCA adapters. Custom multi solid core copper RCA terminated.

Custom all tube preamp with separate power supply: CETRON "Potato Masher" JAN 5R4 WGB (presently) or 5Y3 WGTA USA or RCA 5Y4 GT (all three, long black plates) rectifier + 20H choke. ASC PIO, Cerafine caps Signal path: 12BZ7 GE grey plate (presently) or 12ax7 RCA long black plate or Baldwin 12ax7 black plate or Amperex 7025 + two (1 per channel) 6c45pi (Russian high transconductance triode) for phono section - passive RIAA correction EQ curve - followed by RCA 6gu7 for line section. Allen Bradley 2w carbon resistors throughout, P.E.C. 100k potentiometer, Jensen 'pure copper foil silver leadout paper in oil type' output cap.

Custom multi solid core copper short preamp to amp interconnect.

Custom all tube power amp: modified Audio Note KIT ONE. Supply: Audio Note mains, GE 5u4G rectifier, 10H choke, Mundorf , LCR caps. Signal path: single RCA 6SL7 input/driver, 0.22uf Russian K40Y-9 PIO coupling cap, direct to 300BC Shuguang DHT+ 'EI core' Audio Note output trannies. Allen Bradley 2w carbon resistors. 7W/ch. at less than 1% THD, mainly 2nd harmonic, bandwidth: -0.8dB @ 10Hz & -0.7dB @ 20kHz (-1.3dB @ 30kHz). No feedback.

Audio Note Kit One 300B before mods

Shuguang 300BC solid carbon black plates 
Secondary Amplification:

Nelson Pass First Watt F4 'Class A push-pull impedance converting ('current follower') solid state power amp. Signal path: one JFET input + 3 parallel complementary pairs of MOSFET outputs, DC coupled, no feedback design. 25W/ch./8ohm & 40 to 50W/ch./4ohm. A plastic sand-filled 2.5 pound dumbbell weight, sits atop front chassis for more authoritative low frequencies.

Custom 'shotgun' bi-wire Carol copper speaker cable (12 ga equivalent).

Custom mid-sized (50 pound) birch ply 2-way Jensen-Onken inspired vented monitor loudspeakers with 8-inch woofer and 1-inch silk dome tweeter. Matching stands. External passive x-over. Impedance: 8ohm nom., 6ohm min. Sensitivity: 92.5dB/2.83V/1W @ 1m. Anechoic frequency response: 37Hz to 30kHz +/- 2dB. In room response: flat down to 30Hz, -3dB @ 27.5Hz, -6dB @ 25Hz. Listening chair position: 1 inch thick 'rippled' mattress foam pad partially-covered back wall at 14 inches from ears, front baffle at 92 inches toed in to cross at 'nose tip'; separated 80 inches between centre of baffles. Loosely based or inspired on 'reverse LEDE' principle where only the back wall has acoustical treatment with the front wall left non-treated and thus livelier. Total basement open area measures approx. 34' x 18' x 7'; main listening area close to 20' x 18' x 7' with quasi-central furnace separating the latter from the former. An 8' x 7' rug sits under and in front of the speakers. Ceiling is lined with 2x8 inch wooden beams running every 2' apart. Minor corner absorption.

Preamp and power amps use identical custom 10 ga manually braided fine multi strand Carol copper cable terminated with Wattgate (cryo treated) male and female 'IEC' connectors.

Turntable/arm sit on 'sandboxed' top shelf of custom equipment stand. Latter is very sturdy, made out of real wood sporting four 4 X 4 inch posts and two other removable shelves; preamp in middle with solid state amp on the bottom. Tube amp sits alone on shelf on bricks on 'spongy' orange hockey pucks on bricks on concrete floor.


The ratings represent my personal appreciations & are separated  in 2 distinct categories; the sonics & the music.  To lessen confusion & get a 'snapshot opinion' of a record, I've decided to assign numbers for the sound & letters for the music.  Slight revisions may follow at a later date.

The sonics

10 - Outstanding in every way.  Major DEMO material.  From the musicians to the recording venue, be it the miking, mixing (if any), mastering, cutting, plating and pressing; everyone got it right.  It also means that I wouldn't alter any parameter even if I had access to the Master Tape myself and believe me I'm finicky!  Between multiple versions of the same recording, this one would be my first choice.  Dynamic, little or no compression, wide bandwidth full body sound, natural tonal balance, detailed but sweet highs, immediate, intimate, big & airy soundstage and low listener fatigue would justify (but not necessarily regroup all) in large part this perfect score.

9.5 - Close to perfection with only a very slight caveat to keep it from the top.  Could maybe reach a '10' if minor adjustment made to reference system or upgrade somewhere in chain.  DEMO-worthy nonetheless.

9.0 - Excellent sound with a few minor re-adjustments would be welcomed but still impressive stuff.

8.0 - Very good sound but an invitation for a competing reissue.

7.0 - Good to fair but far from 'showcase material' & begging for an improved version.

6.0 - Barely passable.  Lots of irritating qualifiers.

5.0 - At this point (and below) the sonic flaws outweigh the positive qualities & are probably embedded in the original sound take and/or subsequent mix down stage.  Unfortunately if so is the case, a remastering will yield only modest or limited gains.

4.0 down to 1.0. - Going downhill...Heavy handed Compression, 'brick wall' Limiting.  Listener fatigue.  Tendency to lower volume.  Trouble listening all through the end.

0.5 - Absolutely the Pitts, the WORSE you can imagine.  Nothing can save this piece of crap from the can.  LOUD, HEAVILY COMPRESSED, HARD LIMITED, THIN, AGGRESSIVE, EXTREMELY BRIGHT or (less commonly) EXTREMELY DULL and VEILED.  Instant EAR FATIGUE.  

The Music

Listed below are some of the descriptions that can encapsulate the major music scores:

A+  Masterpiece; Extraordinary music; Captivating singing; Sublime compositions; Supreme musicianship; Superb arrangements; A definite 'Must Have'; Instant 'CLASSIC'; Historically important/relevant.

A    Great music, impressive musicianship/singing, etc...Worthy of any record collection and well worth searching for.

B+  Excellent, strong material. Worth looking into closer. Keeper for sure.

B    Good and still relevant but mixed in with lesser or 'filler up' material. Lacks some polishing or direction.

C    Slightly disappointing, look out for discount price only.

D    Mostly boring. Pass on this one.

E    Approaching 'rock bottom'.

F    Total Failure. You can't get lower than this.

If an album varies a lot in sound quality with certain tracks stunning & the remainder just 'so-so' then a combined rating will be applied; same goes for the music aspects. For example: 6.0-9.0/C-A could be applied. I find this combined rating a better reflection of the album's true merit rather than the other solution which would average everything to a 7.5/B in the above case. If only one or two tracks on a lenghty album are subpar, I may decide to discard them; especially if their short or 'non important' (filler up) so as not too bring down an otherwise outstanding recording.

Take note that no company can sway me or 'buy a favorable outcome' but if you - be it a label, distributor, etc - wish to send me lp's or cd's for FORMAL REVIEW, I will diligently do so. Just don't expect an automatic rave review. I strive to be the fairest possible with 'no strings attached'. You can contact me by Email for details and arrangements.



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