Interconnects: rolling my own!

I amaze myself sometimes. I’ll fuss over some purchases for weeks, months even. When I got the new audio rack, I felt as though I deserved to get some new interconnects, seeing that my system was held together with a collection of interconnects that was haphazard at best.

2015-04-16 02.33.40-1The Audioquest Evergreens I purchased were not very good–the sonics seemed OK, if a bit thin, but they were picking up noise.  At $34-ish each, I was not happy with the outcome.  Even some cheap older cables of mine were dead quiet.

So I looked at others.  Blue Jeans Cable was at first an option, but since it was simply Belden coaxial video cable with gold plated RCA plugs on each end, I felt I could do better.  I came to the conclusion that I could make my own cables, with my choice of interconnect cable and connectors, and save a bit in the process.

It was shopping for cabling that took some time.  While some would claim a wire sounded good, others would say it was thin or bright.  A second wire would sound good to some, and others would say it was dark and muddy.  Just opinions!  But I did get an overall idea that pure silver cable could be on the bright side, whereas some all-copper cables could be the opposite direction and come across as dark.

Cardas had some nice copper Litz wire (stranded copper, where each conductor is insulated by a lacquer, similar to the windings in a transformer), but it was hard to find it in stock.  Kimber had some of their braided cable used in the PBJ interconnects, so that was an option.  Finally I decided to give the DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 cable a try.  The strands have a copper core with a silver cladding, so it theoretically could have the best of both worlds.

I also shopped around for RCA phono plugs, and finally decided to give the Neutrik ProFi plugs a try.  They have a unique design.  The ground connector is spring-loaded, and is even with the tip, so that you can safely unplug it while your equipment is live.  (The idea is that your ground connection is made first when inserting, and broken last when removing.)  The strain relief is unique also, using a cinching collar that tightens onto the cable.  They give you spare collars in the package for a different diameter of wire.

One thing I should have done, and may still do, is buy some braided sleeving and heat shrink tubing to give the cables a better finish.  Not necessary, but it does give them a nicer look and feel.  One thing, though, is that the cable does have directional arrows on it so I likely would use a different heat shrink tubing on each end to tell them apart. One minor complaint about the cable–the lettering rubs off.  Normally I wouldn’t mind, but that might eradicate the directional arrows, which could be a problem down the road.

I can’t answer the question that the wire itself is directional, but the way I wired these cables does require that the correct end is connected at the source, and the other at the destination.

I used what is called a floating shield.  The BL-1 wire has two conductors, plus the shield. It could be used for balanced interconnects.  In this case, however, one conductor is connected to the tip, the other to the ground, and on only the source end of the cable, the shield is also connected to the ground.  (Your source would be like the CD player end of the cable connecting to a preamp.)

The result came out rather well.  The cables look professionally finished.  The Neutrik plugs clamped down tightly on the cable, so I would probably destroy the wire before I’d ever pull it out of the plug.  The collars did take a bit to tighten down though.  And if I did go with the heat shrink tubing, I would have to use a larger collar.

As for the sound, the cables are dead quiet.  The floating shield works perfectly.  Sonically, they may still be breaking in, but I can’t quite put my finger on what is different.  Things just sound….cleaner?  I know the silver might be adding a little more detail, but the midrange, especially vocal, sounds very clean and open.  The sound bites of the children playing at the beginning of “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls”, by Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays, struck me as sounding particularly lifelike.)  Reverb trails are also nicely rendered.

Bass did seem a bit thin on some days, but on others, it is no different from how it was represented with my other cables.  (I often sit in a corner of the room working at a desk where bass is somewhat amplified, so it’s a bit sensitive to bass levels.)  Even if the cables do turn out to be slightly on the bright side, that will compensate for the speakers I’m working on.

So overall, I’m pleased with the outcome, and the total cost for each cable came out between one half to one third what DH Labs sells their finished cables for.  Do the phono plugs make a difference?  Perhaps, but I doubt I’d hear it.  The Neutriks are heavy, solid, and gold plated.  I have only made two sets so far (Oppo 105 to preamp, preamp to amp), and have one more to go (moving coil pre-preamp to preamp).

If you are at all handy with a soldering iron, making your own interconnects is quite rewarding, and can save a bit of money.  Quite a bang for the buck!

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Can new cables suck? My brief Audioquest experience…

While moving my equipment around, I decided to upgrade a few interconnects in the system.  Rather than reuse some of my older cables of varying ages and quality, I decided to try some of the more affordable Audioquest interconnects, these being the Evergreens.  I also have one of the G-Snake interconnects, an earlier generation.

AudioQuest Evergreen 1m 3.28 feet RCA to RCA 1m 3'4"Ever since installing them, I have noticed two things–a slight lack in bass drive, and increased noise. These interconnects are thin, and the vague explanation on their site does not lead me to believe that there is any substantial shielding inside these.  Even the crappy Monster brand cables are much quieter, poorly built as some of them are.  (I’ve had the RCA plugs come apart on two separate cable sets. Shameful.)  I also have no-name cables that are quieter, if not as transparent.

Thankfully, Amazon has a gracious return policy, and all of the Evergreens are going back.  The G-Snake I will either keep (as it seems a little more robust), or will resell it (as I bought it used).

I am looking at other options that aren’t in “snake oil” territory (or in other words, hundreds of dollars).  Yet it is hard to find any that aren’t silver plated, as those tend to make the sound brighter.  I do not tolerate bright.  Stay tuned.

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Hafler DH-101 gets new capacitors.

After 33-1/3 years (give or take a couple of weeks…seriously!), I finally refreshed the capacitors in the DH-101.  A year or two ago, I swapped out the DH-110 for a handful of reasons.  First, I always thought it was a little “softer” sounding, maybe even mushy.  Second, I bought it used, and the front panel and knobs tend to chip off.  Third, I hated the stepped volume control with a passion–at lower volumes, it was impossible to set to the desired level.  Fourth, the switches and potentiometers were quite noisy, and got noisy faster after a good cleaning.

That drove me to put the DH-101 back into the system.  I’d read comments from some owners preferring the 101’s sound over the 110, the background being “blacker.”  And upon hooking it back up, I noticed it was not only quiet, but sounded a touch more precise.  Faster, maybe?  At any rate, the 101, and the 110 for that matter, were both overdue for a refresh.  Time for some new capacitors in the 101!

Rather than buy them individually, I wound up buying a complete capacitor kit.  I might have preferred caps that were a little more high-end, but the advantage here was that these were electrically paired and matched for a much closer tolerance than what I could have bought on my own.  All of the electrolytics are now Nichicon.

The kit was only for PC4, the main audio board.  It did not include power supply caps.  No problem, as I had other plans.  The process went rather well, I’m happy to say, and it did not take long to replace everything.  A couple of days later, I was finally able to give it a listen.

Was there a huge difference?  No.  But I did notice the sound was cleaner and clearer than before, and the tonal balance was subtly better.  It also seems the highs lost a slight bit of roughness.  It did come out quieter than before, although I was also battling some substandard Audioquest cables at the time.

The power supply caps I ordered from Mouser.  The 101 originally had capacitors before and after the 7818/7918 voltage regulators.  Before the regulators were 1000µF 35 volt capacitors, and after were 100µF 35 volt.

Or, so I thought.  Many years ago, I had a similar problem where the power was intermittent, the preamp would only turn halfway on–the sound was distorted, and the LED was dimly lit.  Back then, I had replaced the caps on one side of the power supply.  That fixed it, for a while.

Only after I took the caps out did I realize I’d replaced the originals with 25 volt capacitors.  Which might explain why they failed again!

Nichicon Muse series capacitor

We’re good now, though.  The new caps are 50 volts vs. 35 (or, oops, 25).  I also read that increasing the value could help the sound, so I bumped them up–the 1000µF are now 3300µF, and the 100µF are 330µF.  What are the advantages?  Better filtering (lower noise), and more importantly, increased storage capacity, as that is one function that capacitors provide.  Luckily I found capacitors with the same lead spacing and diameter, as it’s a tight fit.

So, what happened to the sound?  The noise level is very slightly better, to the point of almost not noticing it (as it is already very quiet).  But the drive…the bass is subtly stronger and clearer now that the voltage does not sag.  Very nice!  The heft of the bass improved with the Nak PA-7 in the system (which has, I think, about 132,000µF total capacitance in its power supply), and this helped it along even more.  It’s subtle again, but the preamp has an even more effortless quality than it did before.  I can turn it up and hear no straining whatsoever.

I bypassed the external processor loop.  Doing so freed up a set of RCA jacks.  I have long wanted to have an attenuated output, so I could regain more of the volume control’s range.  One output is still full power, while on the other, I have two resistors per channel (33k, and 8.2k) in an L-pad configuration, giving me ~12dB-15dB attenuation.  Due to the power output of the preamp, I went with 1-watt resistors.

I will likely not take modifications much further, beyond some mechanical changes.  I may change to a star grounding arrangement to get rid of some stray EMI/RFI.  I might rewire it with premium wiring (even though I did a nice job of routing it when I originally built it up) from DH Labs.

Most notoriously are the horrid RCA jacks on the back.  Made of aluminum, the are quiet dull, and they are also loose to the point of rattling.  I need 22 panel mount gold-plated RCA jacks to make a change here, not so much for sound, but to prevent future problems.  All of my cables are now gold plated, so there will be no metal mismatch.

Despite its age, the little DH-101 still holds its own, and is refreshed for another couple of decades.  I am leaning towards a tubed preamp, but this 101 will not leave my possession.  I might match it back up with the M-500t, or I may find a Hafler DH-220 power amp to pair it with.  That would make for a nice-sounding system.


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One amp “killing” another? Nelson Pass vs. Bob Carver vs. Rotel

For years I’d used a Carver M500t. Definitely not an ideal amplifier, but it served its purpose, and was reasonably musical. Late last summer, I’d introduced a Rotel RB-1070 into the system. It was one of those issues where it sounded OK, but…well, more on that shortly.

After several months of searching and researching, I narrowed down my amplifier choices to a select few, and narrowed in on a couple that were available for an affordable sum, but were “sleepers” in terms of popularity or partly due to age, yet had sonics that were the equal of others more costly.

Nakamichi PA-7.

What I came into was a Nakamichi PA-7. I am not a big fan of Nakamichi (after some really bad experiences with an OMS-7 CD player, and the ensuing runaround), but I came across this via a note on the ToneAUDIO web site. The original PA-7 (not its later revisions) is a Nelson Pass “Stasis” design–the design was used by Nakamichi under license from Threshold, the high-end amplifier manufacturer. The design is very stable into all impedances, and uses no overall negative feedback. It also has a lot of energy storage–over 130,000 µF of capacitance in the power supply. Pass himself recommends this PA-7.

The PA-7 is a formidable unit. It has machined aluminum handles and heat sinks, and is a bit weighty to lug around. The familiar “STASIS” logo adorns the front. The rear is unassuming as well–a pair of RCA inputs, left and right sets of binding posts, and a receptacle for the power cord. Four tall feet allow you to rest the amp on its back.  Despite my modest speakers (my Martin Logan project is still on hold), I immediately heard a difference.

The M500t, as a refresher, was an amplifier whose “transfer function” was modified to sound like an expensive high-end amplifier. (It was one of two models which won two high end magazines’ “amplifier challenge shootouts”, where Bob Carver successfully modified the amplifiers to sound exactly like a specific model of high-end amplifier.) I will admit that the amp did have sort of a musical, flowing quality to it, but it was plagued by a few minor issues, like noise, and possibly not delivering its full power. Age was working against it–the amp is in need of a new set of capacitors, and a full adjustment.

Vintage Threshold Stasis power amplifier.

The PA-7 comes across as a very dynamic and musical amp. Right out of gate, I heard an openness to the tonal quality, and excellent soundstaging. After it had warmed up (and it does get warm!), playing a few specific tracks stressed the amp’s dynamic abilities, effortlessly processing those spikes in the signal without missing a beat (literally).

What really stood out was that flowing, musical quality that was inviting to listen to. The inner details really become evident as well, little nuances and textures I hadn’t heard before. The PA-7 upped the game that the M500t was dealing, besting it in all ways possible. But, to the Carver’s credit, I would not say the PA-7 embarrassed it: if anything, the Carver’s basic sound signature (*cough* Conrad Johnson *cough*) made a stretch towards the higher end, but lacking primarily those last few levels of refinement and detail.

And power delivery…the PA-7 seems very effortless, where the M500t seemed to run out of gas sooner, despite both having similar power ratings (in fact, the PA-7 is “only” 200 watts per channel, where the M-500t is 251). The PA-7 at higher levels does not sound as loud–perhaps because it is not straining. One startling aspect of the PA-7 is that it sounds as though a subwoofer is present. It does not boost the bass, but what I am noticing is how powerful the lowest bass notes are. The power reserves of this amplifier are able to deliver those low notes as intended. The M500t could come close at times, and often did, but at the lack of overusing the term, the PA-7 delivers this bass very effortlessly.

The Rotel? This is one of those rare instances where I will say the PA-7 kills the RB-1070 in just about every aspect. Even before the PA-7, I felt the Rotel to be rather unremarkable and bland, and anemic in power. I know it is rated at 130 w/ch vs. the Carver’s 251w/ch (and the PA-7’s 200w/ch), but still, that level of difference should have played out with just under a 3dB difference in volume. The Rotel just couldn’t keep up, and even at lower volumes it came across as being somewhat flat in dynamics. Not only that, I never felt the Rotel to be all that musical of an amp. Analytic? Maybe, if one is trying to be kind. More like bland and lifeless. I never enjoyed this amplifier. Some others have complained about the Rotel amps being bright. Yet I would not even say it was bright. It was…uninteresting. Not engaging at all; some nights, I couldn’t wait to turn the bloody thing off. That effortless bass quality was non-existent in this amp, and bass in general was anemic.  Was it just this particular model? Perhaps. Others really like their Rotels.

My next step is to replace the preamp. The Hafler DH-101 is no slouch (and is better since I recapped it recently), but I know I can improve on it. Audio Research is one such candidate–I like the SP-16 (primarily due to the remote), but may settle for a few of the others. Reportedly, the matching Nakamichi CA-7 control amplifier has fantastic sonics as well.  Yet I am looking towards a tubed preamp, possibly something by Audio Research, Conrad Johnson, VTA or a few others that won’t break the bank.  Some, like Audio Research, still rebuild and service vintage units, even some of their oldest models, so I really can’t go wrong if that’s the case.

For now, I can say that the PA-7 certainly lives up to its reputation, and is worthy of a spot in any high-end system. Yet, it will not break the budget. If you are in the market for one, find one with good cosmetics–I have seen a few in less than stellar condition, and keep in mind that you will not find a new faceplate, or any other parts, available. To step up from this amp at its current price would probably require a tenfold increase in cost.

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Cartridge Woes (the Ortofon 2M Black’s many failings)

Earlier this year I had posted some impressions of the Ortofon 2M Black. I was a bit more enthusiastic about the cartridge back then, than I am now.  Whoa, is that an understatement.

In fact, I now want to throw the blasted thing out the window, into the path of the nearest bus…only, it’s not fair to the bus.

First of all, I’d like to thank the so-called “reviewers” out there who were claiming how great of a tracker this cartridge is. The “heir apparent” to the decades-old Shure V15 Type V with MR stylus. My question to them: did you ever bother to run this through any of the commonly available trackability test records to arrive at this so-called opinion? I think not.

Truth of the matter is, this cartridge tracks no better than the $55 Grado F3E+ I bought in 1981 while I was still in high school.

I can hear some of you now: “You didn’t align it right.” So sure about that? Were you present during the weeks I spent aligning it and fussing over it?  Let’s see…USB microscope. Checked the azimuth angle, and the cantilever was rotated a degree or two, to where the stylus was not sitting at a 90 degree angle to the surface. I rotated the arm tube to fix it. The stylus rake angle was off quite a bit, not at the ideal 92° which mimics the cutting head of the lathe. Fixed that also. How about zenith angle (the actual alignment looking from the top of the cart, and how it is “rotated” in the headshell)? Yep, fixed that also, thanks to Mr. Oscilloscope, and to Mr. USB Microscope which showed the stylus mounted sloppily. Two highly accurate protractors also verified the overhang was set correctly.

So. I did align it correctly. Deal.

Some will say it’s an arm/cartridge mismatch.  Sorry, wrong again.  Both Ortofon and Pro-Ject have assured me it’s a nearly perfect match.

What gives, Ortofon? Care to explain why a cartridge costing over $700 US can’t even make it past level 3 on Shure’s “Obstacle Course” LP? Care to tell us all how sloppy these are manufactured, to where the stylus mount isn’t even square in two different dimensions, and SRA is all over the map (something others have complained about)?  Is this what $700 buys us in this modern era of cartridges?

I must say this all comes at a huge disappointment. I haven’t even spun much vinyl in recent months since I can’t stand this wretched thing. It mistracks constantly. It is subtle, yet I can hear it. On the Elvis 45RPM 24 Karat Hits, you can hear this as a “grit” to the louder parts of Elvis’s voice, and in the guitar, especially in a bright song such as “Jailhouse Rock”.  This is not there on the Analogue Productions SACD.  Percussion on anything is not as clean as it was with the V15; some cymbals sound more like white noise now, and some electronic music sounds like my vinyl being shredded.  In addition, since the cartridge has settled in, the sound has turned out to be on the bright/forward side, which is not in any way similar to the flatter response of the Shure.  Granted the Shure didn’t quite pull out quite as much inner detail, but still, it does a lot more right than this 2M Black ever has.

So, why would this cartridge be mistracking?  One thing that caught my attention at purchase was the cantilever.  It is nothing more than a big, fat aluminum tube.  That is a lot of mass, especially being concentrated at the tip.  Essentially what you have is this wonderful Shibata diamond stylus mounted on a cheap cantilever, one that cannot move as quickly as required by the music it is trying to reproduce.  Yet on the better Ortofon cartridges, you’re looking at the same diamond mounted in a very skinny boron cantilever.  Take a look at the Quintet Black and compare–the lightweight cantilever would treat that Shibata stylus the way it should be treated.

Keep in mind that the Shibata was originally created in the 1970s to track the 38,000Hz subcarrier signal for CD4 quad LPs.  So it is certainly capable of reproducing high frequencies…but only if it is on a cantilever that allows it to work those frequencies properly.

The forward and bright sound characteristics come via this aluminum cantilever as well–the resonance peak in the metal is what is causing the bright sound I am not fond of.  The thin beryllium cantilever on the V15 had a resonance peak up above the audible band, which is why it had such a ruler-flat response.

I’ve heard the replacement I want to purchase, and it’s far better.  It is a moving coil, which will finally take the reproduction up to a level worthy of the turntable it is mounted on.  It has a MicroRidge stylus, which is similar in profile to a Shibata, but the cantilever is very short and rigid, and able to track those high frequencies well beyond our range of hearing.  Because of this, the response in the audible band is ruler flat, and the low tip mass more easily tracks my records.

This 2M Black is headed to Audiogon in a few weeks.  Fine for someone who wants to live with its shortcomings but for me, it has been a major disappointment.  It certainly hasn’t improved my already low opinion of Ortofon’s moving magnet cartridges (the nasty-sounding OM-series carts, the even more lousy tracking 2M Red, etc.).  I would love to hear one of their top cartridges (the MC Anna, the Cadenza Black, etc.) but I doubt I’ll ever afford those in my lifetime.

Bring on its replacement.  I’m shopping for one as we speak.

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