No, I am not imagining it!

I have had my vinyl system for a couple of years now, and have gone through a couple of different cartridges to arrive where I am at right now.  While I do like the sound I am getting for the most part, I still wondered if I was really hearing a difference, or falling to the placebo effect.  On records I have owned for decades, and even more so on some recent audiophile reissues, I have never heard the records sound this good.  On many, the system is revealing details I hadn’t heard before.

While going through CDs this past week, I found a CD-R someone had sent me many years ago, a needle drop of an album that is nearly impossible to find today.  I can’t even remember who sent it, and even then it was another party who had sent this person the needle drop.  I had considered cleaning up the numerous pops and ticks in an audio editor, since this record was pressed on lousy vinyl and any copy that I have known anyone to own (even a sealed copy) has had these flaws in the vinyl.

Having ripped the CD, I played it back on my computer-based system (tube amp, DacMagic DAC, etc.).  What surprised me after about 30 seconds is that the quality of the needle drop sounded, for lack of a better word, “cheap.”  While the cartridge wasn’t blatantly mistracking, you could hear it was less than capable, with a rather odd balance to the highs and a somewhat thumpy quality to the bass.  The background noise, that “vinyl noise” or “turntable noise” that lurks as an undercurrent to the music, was plainly audible.  While it is not of such a poor quality, it reminded me of going from my rather modest high school mid-fi system to one of the many Panasonic “Thrusters” systems that friends owned.

I have not yet really “converted” anyone from digital to vinyl, nor do I really want to, but this whole exercise makes me want to demonstrate to others how a well-made, properly set up turntable system can extract so much more of the music out of the grooves than typical mid-fi setups.  Or even just show the non-believers how good it can sound.  The real haters will still nitpick everything to death (“See? I heard a tick! Right there!!“)  But anyone with an open mind can certainly grasp the concept.

I could do the same for high-res vs. CD, but that is a harder sell than vinyl vs. CD.  Still, I do hear differences between CD and high-res, and am slowly getting a few sample tracks together to demonstrate it clearly.

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Speaker upgrade: Vandersteen 2Ce

I keep an eye on a handful of web sites that list audio equipment for sale.  Mostly it is casual browsing, watching pricing trends on certain items I am interested in.  Every so often, I will hear of a component that has good value for the money, and tell myself I might pounce on a “too good to be true” deal should it come along.

Thanks to a local seller who was moving out of state within a few days, I scored a really inexpensive pair of Vandersteen 2Ces.  I was watching prices on these for several months.  When these came up, I emailed, paid a visit, and drove away with a bargain.

Cosmetically the “socks” (the speaker cloth that surrounds the 2Ces on all four sides) have a few tiny holes, and some dust/dirt I cannot remove.  So I might want to replace that. The wooden end caps could also stand some refinishing but really, they are not all that bad.  The speakers did not come with stands, although I may see about getting some used Sound Anchor stands so that I might properly spike these to the floor.

So, what is the Vandersteen 2Ce all about?

It is a floorstanding speaker (some might call it a “tower,” which it really is not).  The drivers are time- and phase-aligned, so the sound from all three front-facing drivers (tweeter, midrange, 8″ mid-woofer) arrives at your ears coherently.  In the rear at the bottom of the cabinet is a 10-inch “acoustic coupler” that adds the very lowest octave of bass.  The drivers are arranged on minimally-sized baffles, so that sound can easily disperse into the room. This enhances the soundstaging and imaging.  (As such, it is recommended they be placed away from the walls in the room.)  They are designed to be aimed straight into the room, not “toed in” unless there is an issue with room acoustics and you cannot achieve a solid phantom center image.

My initial impression upon first hooking them up was that they were a bit dull, and lacking highs.  It didn’t take but 15-20 minutes to realize that the highs are there, but just not falsely accentuated (or just a bit bright, as the Dahlquist speakers were).  In other words, once I threw more of a variety of music at them, I realized it just sounded right.  They do throw a nice soundstage, but if you are off-axis or in another room, they can tend to sound less bright than when you sit at or near the sweet spot.

Since I only listened briefly that first day, I decided to bi-wire the speakers, per Vandersteen’s recommendation.  So, just about all listening has been done with the bi-wiring in place.  (And that means I had no way to do a direct comparison using just a single run of wire to the speaker.)

I am still playing with the positioning of the speakers in the room.  For now I have settled on having them only slightly toed in, with the acoustical centers just over 22 inches from the back wall.  The saddest part of this room is that due to the size and the furnishings, the sweet spot happens to be in an area that has a low level of bass.  I would prefer sitting further back, but it is not possible.  I may rearrange the room if I get a chance.

So despite the positioning, these speakers do have a strong, deep bass response.  I suppose one could use a subwoofer with these, but I would find it unnecessary–they cover all of the important octaves of the music.

And the soundstage is just as advertised–it can be wider than the speakers themselves.  I have yet to hear much in the way of front-to-back imaging, but I am still dialing in their positioning in the room.  Once I lock that in, possibly adding some room treatments, that will fall into place.

Given the cost, these were quite a deal.  The Martin Logan project of mine is still on the sidelines.  It will be interesting to compare the two different types of speakers once I get those completed.  At least these Vandersteens are enough of a step upward to hear what my other components are capable of.

 

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Final thoughts on the Dahlquist DQM-9

The Dahlquist DQM-9 pair have been a pleasant speaker to listen to.  In today’s dollars, they would have sat cost-wise in the $3,000 range.  It’s hard to imagine that, given its construction.  It is not at all laid out like the DQ-10 with its five time-aligned drivers set on individual small baffles; instead, it is more like a traditional “bookshelf” speaker.

Since I have replaced them, I thought I’d give a couple of closing comments.

First, the dynamics and the bass were very healthy in these speakers.  Despite their being smaller than the Grafyx speakers I had in the system for decades, these actually sounded like they had more powerful bass, and handled any dynamics I threw at it.  They easily put out sound that belied their somewhat diminutive dimensions.

The midrange had no issues.  The highs, however, were strange.  Not a bad strange, but just not what I thought was completely true to life.  They occasionally seemed a bit “peaky,” accentuating already bright material a bit too much.  Strings recorded on the bright side (such as the biting strings in some of the Reference Recordings SACDs) came across a little too ragged.  The big issue here–were the tweeters intact?  They sounded mechanically fine (no rattles from voice coils rubbing, or odd colorations from being previously overdriven), yet slightly “off.”  Not a major complaint, as these speakers presented a lot of the music really well.

They do render the music more accurately than the Grafyx, especially in imaging and soundscape.  I’ve heard better on other speakers (I still don’t get that complete “holographic” effect with the imaging), but they were still an improvement in that regard.  It also showed a little more inner detail to the music.

The capacitors in the crossovers were left alone–they are not electrolytics, so, no worries there.  Cosmetically they need work.  The one grille is still broken at the corners.  The cabinets could use some new finish rubbed onto them (or a complete strip and re-stain).  And, I would have liked a good polishing of the aluminum trim on the three drivers.  But for now, they’re retired.

They’ve been a really good speaker for ten months, a welcome change to what I’d heard for decades.

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Dahlquist DQM-9

I had a chance to move on a pair of Dahlquist DQM-9 monitors recently, so I took advantage and have them in my listening room now.

PhotoGrid_1462237735594-01They came about locally, with woofer surrounds that were shot, and cabinets and grilles needing some TLC.  The tops of the cabinets have some minor flaws.  The veneered wood sides of the cabinets are in decent condition, although one of the sides has some of the stain missing in tiny spots lower down; it really is not that noticeable unless you are close.  The one grille frame was cracked on opposite corners and I have it perched on the mounting pegs for now.  It will need angle brackets and gluing to bring it back. The aluminum trim around the drivers needs cleaning and polishing but behind the grilles, only the outlines are noticeable.

The construction is all Magnat (Germany) drivers; I’ve even read rumors that the entire systems were made by Magnat and branded Dahlquist. Nothing officially verified though, but I have seen entire systems made by Magnat from the same era (Magnat All-Ribbon series, etc.) that have similar cabinet construction, with the same “velvet” front baffle material.  The DQM-9 came in two versions–the larger one that I own, and a slightly scaled down “Compact” version with an 8″ woofer, which had a butyl rubber surround.  The woofer in the DQM-9 is a 10″ with foam surround.  Midrange, 5″ with rubber surround.  Tweeter is a treated fabric dome type.  Cabinet is a reflex design with dual ports facing rearward.

List price on the DQM-9, circa 1982, was $1200 for the pair, climbing to $1400 for the pair by the mid 80s. These were, therefore, a couple of notches above the speakers I’ve had in recent years (the Grafyx, and the Boston A-150s).

When local audio emporium Absolute Sound carried the DQM series in the 1980s, I remember them having a somewhat “chesty” resonance to the mid-bass that wasn’t too pleasant.  When I removed the woofers to redo the surrounds, I noticed that the bottom half of each cabinet had no insulation whatsoever.  The top half uses fiberglass.

I ended up putting some polyester fiberfill into the bottom halves of the cabinets before reinstalling the woofers.  I have not heard that resonance at all.  I thought maybe there was no internal bracing, but there was–a brace runs between the two sidewalls against the rear panel of the cabinet, which is the dividing line between the top and bottom halves.  I had considered using Dynamat inside as well, but it won’t be needed.  It is interesting to note that the left and right sides of the cabinet are a double thickness of MDF, so they are sturdy to begin with.

Beyond doing a full cosmetic restoration, one tweak or improvement I thought of making would be to redo the crossovers with new components.  However, the crossover uses more expensive film capacitors, so they are not prone to age like electrolytics.  I would possibly redo the cheap hookup wire with some OFC copper wiring.  An interesting design feature is that the crossover is split across three modules inside the bottom half of the cabinet.

The sound?  Quite good, and clearly a step above both the Grafyx speakers I have had for decades, and the Boston A-150s I had for several years.  Imaging is rock solid left to right, yet I do not yet hear much in the way of depth or a soundstage spread beyond the speakers.  I have not tinkered with positioning much yet.  I settled for now on having them halfway between toed in directly at the listening seat and facing straight ahead.  My stands tilt them back slightly, and I am thinking to have them tilt just a little more forward.  I also need to spike the stands to the floor (there is a concrete slab beneath the carpeting and padding), and the speakers to the stands.  I am even at the point of possibly making some stands for these.

Tonally the bass is deceptive–while it does not seem as deep the Grafyx at lower volume, they really fill out nicely when the volume is kicked up.  It takes a little volume to fully wake them up.  In fact, they may go a bit deeper; they grab the 32Hz notes easily when called upon, and orchestral crescendos are taken in stride, with no stress or strain.  The highs are not completely as smooth as I’d have thought, but that may again be due to the aged crossovers; what is there, however, is not at all bright, and that lower treble/upper midrange glare I had from the Philips tweeters in the Grafyx is all but gone now.  These are easy to listen to for hours, and while I haven’t tried them fully with rock music (which I don’t listen to much anymore), it holds up well with large-scale classical, acoustic jazz, vocals and even electronic jazz.

These will be in my system until the Martin Logan refurb project is completed.

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Tube amplifiers

With a tube-based preamp in place, I am somewhat tentatively taking a look at some tubed power amplifiers to go with it.  I’m nowhere near a buying phase yet (unless an incredible deal comes along), but it helps to get familar with brands, models and price ranges for completed sales, to have a point of reference.

The tubes have a specific lifespan, so that is the first consideration.  How many output tubes will the amp have, how hard are they to find, and what do they cost?   Are they common tubes, or something unusual (which can be both good and bad)?  The small signal tubes have a longer lifespan but there, too, eventual replacement will be lurking in the future.

Next, what about power consumption?  At idle, tube amps can use a lot of power.  Some days if I am working from my home office, I may have the power amp running twelve hours per day.  If it is idling at 500 watts, that is quite a substantial amount of power…and heat.

Finally, to get a hefty amount of output power, will I need to find a larger stereo amp, or switch over to monoblocks?

As for brands, there are a lot of choices. Given my experience with Conrad-Johnson, I may want to stick with their products.  I passed up the MV60SE that the seller of my preamp had, but I didn’t feel 60 watts per channel was adequate for electrostatics.  It still might be a good entry point.  The Classic Sixty is another, similar model that would fit the same bill.  I really like the Premier 140, or even a Premier 11, the latter being around 70 watts per channel and the former being around 140/channel.

VTL (Vacuum Tube Logic) is another manufacturer I’ve kept an eye on.  I had to pass by a ST-150 that was several years old, yet was hardly used.  One neat feature about many of VTL’s amps is that you can use the amp in two different modes–an ultralinear tetrode mode that is faster and more accurate, or the triode mode which has the “tubey” characteristics that many like, albeit at half the output power.  A rear panel switch changes modes.

One other interesting option is a VTA M125 monoblock–it is a kit-built amp based on the old Dynaco circuitry, yet greatly enhanced.  It, too, has a dual-mode switch, and it can also run in a half-power mode with only two output tubes vs. four.  The only drawback is that these are built on a raw chassis and have no cages, something I would prefer to have with an amp.  I tend to buy most of my equipment second hand, and pricing these out, the cost is about the same as some of the other amps I have mentioned above.

Given the few drawbacks of tube amps, I sometimes wonder if sticking with a better solid state amp might be a better choice.  My current amp needs some new capacitors and a couple of small modifications which would make it into a top notch amp.  Likewise, I can get ahold of a Conrad-Johnson MF-2300 that gives me about the same amount of power I have now, but would maybe be a better match to my C-J preamp.

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