Preamp upgrade: Conrad-Johnson PV-14L

It only took me 34 years, but I finally have a new (to me) preamp in the system, and I am finally a member of the “valve audio” club.  The PV-14L arrived two weeks ago, and I have been getting familiar with it.  My unit has had the “S2” upgrade, which features improved caps, Vishay resistors, etc., and a new spec for the tubes.

Having only seen photos of the front panel, I was afraid it was going to be silver.  Instead, it is a pale gold color, which looks nice with the engraved front panel.  Operation is by pushbutton, with most features available via the remote.  Switching and volume are done internally, so worries about oxidizing potentiometers is eliminated.

The tubes were changed out at some point, as the factory spec Mullard M8080s were replaced with the Philips ECG 6C4WAs. For a quick replacement, I ordered in a pair of Tung-Sol 6C4s which were marked for FAA use.  I have the M8080s shipping from the UK, as they are reportedly less microphonic than these 6C4s are.  The Tung-Sols do sound nice in the system, slightly less bright or “etched” sounding than the Philips pair.

One thing I have noticed with this preamp is that the imaging is rock solid.  Instruments are more clearly placed left to right in the soundstage, and vocals are spookily centered between the speakers.  Clearly my speakers are the weak point (for that “last mile” of improvement), yet I can still hear the differences.  One critique of this preamp was weak bass (boooo….), but the S2 upgrade cured that.  The bass is definitely weighty in the improved version.

It also appears to be a good match to the Nelson Pass-designed Stasis amp (Nakamichi PA-7).

The only thing it does not have is a phono stage.  But, that issue has been solved as well…

I will be back with a long-term update, as well as an update once I get the Cardas interconnects built.

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Interconnect Update

I’ve lived with my Silver Sonic cables for several months, which I wrote about this past April.  While they are a clean sounding cable, I am finding the sound to be somewhat thinned out.  Perhaps the silver in the mix is not to my liking.

I have decided to embark on another cable project and make up a few sets of interconnects usinc Cardas 2×21 interconnect wiring.

This particular Cardas cable uses a “golden ratio” of conductors in an arrangement where the inner strands are smaller than the outer.  More notable is that Cardas produces these using litz wire, where each individual strand is insulated with a clear lacquer coating, similar to how windings in a transformer are insulated.  I won’t go into the technical and electrical advantages, but others who have heard Cardas cables mention that they are less bright (some even say they are dark) while the sound is more full-bodied.

This cable is not so expensive that I need to worry about buying enough to make the interconnects.  With that in mind, I am going to go with the Cardas 2×21 and, again, the Neutrik ProFi RCA plugs.  I had considered the Cardas Silver RCA plugs (their lowest cost plug), but it still uses a similar brass core that the Neutrik uses.  Since my RCA jacks on the new preamp (you’ll find out more in a few days 😉 ) will be gold plated, having gold on both the plug and jack will prevent metal mismatches.

Since it has the separate shield, again I will use the floating shield method of building the cables; my Silver Sonic cables remain dead quiet even today.

What’s nice is that I can mix and match these different sets of cables as needed.  If the phono playback is too dull, I can swap in one of the Silver Sonic cables.  If digital is too bright, I’ll stick with the Cardas over the Silver Sonic.

The only caveat with Cardas litz wire is that it requires special preparation–a rosin flux, and tinning.  I may not invest in a solder pot for this project, but the flux is a necessity to flow the solder and melt the lacquer insulation.  (I need to use a heat sink to prevent melting the insulation further up the wire.)


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Dynavector XX2 Mk. II

XX2-1I was without the 17D3 for a couple of months, as I had returned it for a minor warranty issue.  With no new stock forthcoming, the distributor got in touch and offered me an upgrade to the XX2 Mk. II.  It would be factory rebuilt, and I could either borrow it long-term until the 17D3 came in, or keep it if I liked it; the cart would go into their demo stock for use in trade shows.

Turns out I’ve kept the XX2.  Given that I can now actually see the cantilever, it is juuuust a little bit easier to align. From what I can tell, it uses the same basic cartridge body as the 20X2.  Yet the motor and everything else is improved.

As with the 17D3, the XX2 outtracks that piece of shit Ortofon 2M Black I formerly owned.  I will say that from first impressions, I still think I prefer the sound of the 17D3–it is more neutrally balanced.  Granted, the XX2 has not broken in yet, and I have also not been able to further adjust the cartridge loading in the pre-preamp.  I find it to have a slightly “peaky” sound, almost as though I can hear the resonance of the aluminum body manifesting itself in the music.  Not that it is a glaring problem–it’s subtle. And it very well may go away once it breaks in.

After a few months and a more careful alignment, I will have more impressions on this fine cartridge.


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Cables, cables…

IMG_20150416_023644Ever since I dumped those crappy Audioquest snake oil cables back to Amazon, I needed to find interconnects.  I checked many brands, and let’s just say that the prices are crazy on some of them.  And each company has its own spin on cables.  Some are pure silver.  Others, silver-plated copper.  Some are pure copper.  Many are bundled together.  Some are braided, like the Kimber Cables.  And the RCA plugs…brass or copper base metal, silver plating, copper plating, cryogenically treated, etc.


From the marketing hyperbole, you’d think some of them would make you shit magical rainbows.

Having read around somewhat, I came up with the idea of using the Silver Sonic cables from DH Labs.  They base their cables on a copper core with a silver plating.  The premise is that lower frequencies travel deeper into the core of a wire, while higher frequencies reside closer to the skin.  With that in mind, they use the copper core to provide better conduction of the lower frequencies, with the silver assisting the top end.  The wires arrived with an attractive blue jacket and directional arrows.

For RCA ends, I used the Neutrik ProFi plugs.  They come with a unique pressure-fit strain relief system, as well as a unique spring-loaded grounding shield that contacts the RCA jack first when being plugged in, and loses contact first when being removed.

While I don’t believe that the metals in the wire are directional (it is, after all, non-magnetic), the arrows do come in handy.  These cables come with two conductors, plus shield.  I hooked these up in a floating shield configuration.  The red and white conductors are connected respectively to the hot and ground on each end.  The shield, however, is connected only at the source end of the cable.  This prevents a potential ground loop situation caused by the shielding.  The arrows then help you connect the correct end to the source and destination.

Other than some of the lettering flaking off, the cables turned out nicely.

On first listen, they do have a clean overall presentation, perhaps a little bit leaner than I’m used to.  The RCA plugs fit snugly on the jacks.  As for noise, they are dead quiet.

Time will tell as to how they eventually sound once I am used to them.  I made three sets so far.  Next time, I may order up some cable sleeving to neaten things up a bit, perhaps even combining the two cables into one sleeve for ease of routing.

Stay tuned.


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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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