Yearly Archives: 2018

The Continuing Saga of Chicago II

I will say right up front that I am not a big fan of Chicago, especially the earlier albums that ramble on for way too long.  (Sorry, all.)  I do like their most popular tunes, however, and will play through a playlist of those when I am in the mood, as it makes for great listening.

Chicago II (Steven Wilson Remix)What really struck me early on, though, was how terrible Chicago II sounded.  Even back when I had crappy sounding Realistic stereo equipment, Chicago II made it sound worse than even those all-in-one stereos that were everywhere back then.  Tweeters apparently aren’t even needed to listen to that sonic trainwreck–it’s that bad.  That to me was a huge turn-off.

I remember buying the DVD-Audio version of Chicago II just to hear something different in surround and was pleasantly surprised to hear that whatever they had done (remastering?), both the 2.0 and 5.1 channel versions actually were listenable, and had some decent response throughout the frequency range.  It made the better songs much easier to listen to.  Yet it still has some strangeness to it–the brass seems kind of “splatty” for one, and there appears to have been some bass synthesis going on.

I borrowed a copy of the Mobile Fidelity SACD version and was appalled that they had simply remastered that old, crappy-sounding 70s version.  For what purpose?  I am surprised enough that it would be the only MoFi product I could ever give one star to in a review/rating situation.  I expect better from them.  If it’s “preserving authenticity,” well…the original sucked, and there was no need to preserve it.

And now, we have the new Steven Wilson remix on hand. This is closer to the DVD-Audio.  There is still a mid-bass hump that makes it sound a bit dumpy, but given how Wilson’s other remixes have been done, he has stuck to the sound that is on the tapes without altering it much.  What impresses me is that this remix has a clarity that the DVD-Audio version does not share–the brass are clear and clean, for example, and the vocals almost actually sound like…voices. I’ve heard a few things in the mix that I have not heard in other versions–it’s not that Wilson specifically boosted them up or changed the mix, but these details were so buried in murk that it is nice to hear them clarified in this mix.

If I had to pick any one out of these versions, I would go with the Steve Wilson remix. It’s still not stellar sounding, but it is far from the sonic turd that was originally released back in the day.  He has worked his magic on yet another classic title and made it subtly but noticeably better.

TV Source Upgrade: NVidia Shield

For a while I was running a WDTV Live Streaming Media Player. While I didn’t use it often, it was handy to have around since it was easy to use.  Another one gets weekly use in a bedroom.  I am going to transfer this one to the TV in the living room, as I can easily set it up to point to the NAS to retrieve movies and TV series.

I replaced my WDTV with a Nexus Player, essentially a Google/Android TV appliance. It worked OK on some media, and it was simple to side load apps so that I could add more functionality. But, the rather limited processing power and a somewhat finicky WiFi radio made it rather choppy.  After adding my HDHomeRun tuner, it would be rare that a program could play without breaking up.

The NVidia Shield arrived today.  It is much, much smaller than I thought it would be!  It’s slim and barely noticeable on a black shelf, until the power is turned on. Plugging in the power and an HDMI cable was all I needed to get it working.

What surprised me right off the bat is how fast this thing is! It downloaded its updates very speedily over WiFi, and I flew through the menus without any lag whatsoever.

After cleaning up the home screen, I loaded in a few needed apps.  Kodi is still as pointless and frustrating as ever (so it may get deleted), but I will sideload BubbleUPnP once I get a chance, and use the VLC player as the default player instead.  I already installed VLC and it was able to connect to my NAS quickly, where I could browse folders and pick out files to play.

Doing some quick tests, the BluRay rips on my server played without any flaws or dropouts.  I could also move backwards and forwards through them easily, again with no lag.

Installing the HDHomeRun app, I was able to play through the DVR recordings with no issues at all, and broadcast TV played without glitches as well, something that gave the Nexus Player fits (unless it was rebooted).  In addition, using the Google TV “Channels” app was able to read all of my channels from the HDHomeRun tuner and display them as a nice program grid on the screen.

I have already installed TinyCam Pro to monitor my home security cameras. I also plan on installing (or sideloading, if necessary) other apps like Chrome, Maps (it is fun to “tour” other areas in Street View), and Weather Underground, and even TripAdvisor.  If not, I can still cast to the Shield, since it acts as a Chromecast endpoint.

I have a spare 5-port gigabit switch which I might deploy at the TV, since I can connect the Shield, a TV, and the devices in the audio system nearby.

This NVidia Shield is a nice bit of hardware.  Once I upgrade my screen to something more modern, it will make for a nice accessory to whatever “smart” features are built into the TV.  Definitely a keeper!  I may even get another one for the living room TV if it remains at its current price.

TubeCube Gone Bad…

I can’t say I was entirely surprised, but the TubeCube started acting up. I normally have it turn on with the rest of my desk–I have a remote switch which turns on the lights, TubeCube and DAC. I noticed the tubes would not light up until maybe 10-15 minutes later.  As the next couple of weeks went on, it would take an hour or two for the tubes to light up.  Finally, it quit turning on altogether.

Crap. The audio circuitry is dead simple, but the power supply? Forget it. It is a switching power supply which utilizes all sorts of SMDs (surface mount devices) that are impossible for me to work on.

I did notice that the capacitors in this unit were all off-brand chinese capacitors. Some were labeled Chong, and I couldn’t help but think of them going “up in smoke.” At any rate, I had read elsewhere that there were two pairs of capacitors in the audio circuit that could stand improvement by changing the values–the cathode capacitor, and the coupling capacitor.

Armed with that idea, and a set of calipers, I went to examining all of the electrolytic caps in this amp. I figured that I wanted to upgrade those two pairs of audio caps, but with the problem I was having, for not much additional money, I could replace all of them with quality Nichicon caps.

Mouser order. Nichicon Muse caps in the upper right, and the eraser-colored caps are the WIMA film caps.

I built up my order at Mouser, had it shipped, and went about replacing the caps. Upon closer inspection as I began removing the old caps, I noticed that I missed one!! A tiny cap tucked behind two large ones, against the side of the case.  And I figured that with my luck, that one might be the capacitor causing the problem.  I tested it in place, and got a reading close enough to its nominal value.  Crisis averted.

Upon removing the original caps, I took to measuring them with the multimeter.  Every one of them was at the very low end of the ±20% tolerance range…just barely within tolerance.  One cap in particular, though, was far out of range, and was (if I recall) about 25%-27% out of range on the low side.  And, that was a cap that was located right next to the IC that is essentially the “brains” of the switching power supply, which is mounted to a heatsink.

So, I soldered in all the new caps.  All Nichicons, except that one pair in the audio circuit were Nichicon Muse caps (their audiophile series), and the other pair was WIMA film caps.  Reassembled the case.  Plugged everything in.

It worked.

Small electrolytic cap just to the left of the heatsink was way out of spec!

My only issue now is that one of my reissue Mullards is getting a little noisy–the left channel occasionally makes a rustling sound, which stops when I tap on the left EL84.  Ah well.  At least it’s working, and if/when that tube gets annoyingly worse, I’ll pick up a new pair.

I also want to pick up a different 12AX7.  This amp ships with a rolled off high end.  The capacitors unfortunately did not change the severe rolloff in the highs, and I noticed almost no change in the sound after replacing all the capacitors. I am writing this off as a design flaw.

Project completed, though. It’s doing nightly duties for anywhere from 4-6 hours.  And it still looks cool up on the desk…

An ARTful change to the ART7

I noticed the last few times that the Dynavector XX2 Mk. II was souding a bit strange.  Oddly, I’d say it sounded “cheap” as it has not been tracking very well, reminding me of the muddy sound of some of the cheap phono cartridges I used to own (like the crap Ortofon I had on a Dual turntable).  It not only has been sounding very congested, there was dull sibilance where I don’t remember it being before.  Something’s up, and I need to send it out to be looked at.

I needed a replacement. I had a few on my short list (like the excellent, musical Hana SL), but ultimately ended up with the Audio Technica ART7.  For the uninitiated, this is a low output moving coil with “special line contact” stylus on a boron cantilever.  I got it lined up using the MintLP protractor, and still have yet to finish dialing in the SRA and azimuth.

Right out of the gate, it is an excellent tracker, the best I’ve had since retiring the old V15 Type V.  It still has a few dozen hours to fully break in, but it has a lot of clarity going for it with the improved tracking ability.

The only achilles heel right now is the phono stage–I am really not liking how noisy the Phonomena II+ is.  I’ve even replaced the $1.50 chinese switching mode power supply with a linear regulated power supply, but the noise remains. This is basically “amplifier rush,” that white noise that comes from high-gain amplification.  I have records so quiet that the noise from this phono stage is audible over the vinyl’s background noise.

I am only afraid that if I replace it, the replacement will also have similar noise. Step-up transformer? Perhaps, but I got this phono stage to eliminate having yet another device in the system, and to have many loading options available.

On my short list is the Pro-Ject Tube Box DS2, largely due to its two selectable outputs, one of which I can sum to mono using a Y adapter at the output and use in a spare input on the preamp.  I can also roll tubes to shape the sound as needed.

No longer an Amazon Prime subscriber

OK, I admit it–I was an Amazon Prime subscriber for a few years.  I took advantage of an attractive student discount where I paid half the normal Prime rate.  When my last renewal came up, it would have been for the full $99/year subscription rate.  Looking at it for more than a few minutes, I realized what a poor offer it really is for me.

Amazon Prime offers both free two-day shipping and now, access to certain video programming.  It offers other benefits I’m sure, but I really only wanted to have access to the fast, free shipping.

The problem is, I never watch video on Amazon, nor do I use any other Prime services, so I am paying for something I never use.  Two day shipping?  Only in rare cases have I ever needed something in two days.  The way Amazon has been opening up distribution centers lately, most of my orders from their warehouses have been arriving in two days anyway.  As for the free shipping, it takes me almost nothing at all to come up with a $25 order to meet their minimum.

If I am in a situation where time is of the essence, I could pony up for a single month’s Prime subscription.  So it is not like it is totally inaccessible.  But otherwise, Amazon has improved enough in other areas that I really don’t need to pay for a full-blown yearly membership.

What I would really like to see is a service called Prime Shipping.  Offer it for $39 or $49/year and I may just resubscribe. And it might bring others on board who feel the $99 price is too steep and, like me, have no use for the other Prime benefits.