Friday, August 8, 2008
My Hifi System
Hifi, short for high fidelity, has been a part of my life for the last 16 years and my current system which resides in a living hall measuring roughly 25' (W) x 30' (L) x 12' (H) comprises of Roksan Caspian m-series 1 CD player (digital source), ProJect RPM 5 turntable with Ortofon OM20 mm cartridge (analogue source), a much improved ProJect phono box mk1, SimAudio Moon i-3 integrated amplifier and Sonus Faber Concerto Home loudspeakers. Cables and accessories include vdH First interconnects, vdH Source interconnects, vdH D-502 tonearm cables, vdH CS-122 hybrid speaker cables, Russ Andrews PowerMax AC cables, WireWorld Stratus 5 AC cables, White Carrara marble platform, untempered glass platform, Vibrapods and Isobase copper footers.
I subscribe to Zen values of less is more and in keeping things simple in life; my hifi system also a result of this belief and hence integrated amplifier and CD player instead of separates like pre and power amplifiers, and CD transport with DAC. The golden rule of 40%-30%-30% allocation on loudspeakers-amplifier-source is observed so as not to spend too excessively or too miserly on an equipment and keep my system strictly within context. I believe in the adage of our hifi system being as strong as its weakest link. I listen mainly to vocals and instrumental music of jazz, classical, traditional Chinese and contemporary genres whereby the emotional aspect of music presentation and PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing) are of utmost importance to me. I rarely go for hard hitting rock music.
My hifi system is set up in the living hall (instead of within a dedicated listening room) as I wanted music to be part of my family's lives and all of us to enjoy it rather than me alone. Music would normally be played when we read or attend to the garden just outside the living hall and I am now past the era of sitting alone in the sweet spot listening to details (or to dogs barking in Roger Waters’s Amused to Death CD) or the three dimensional soundstage. And being in the hall, my hifi equipment must not only sound good but look good too, thus their small footprint and esthetic appeal so as to blend in with the interior decoration. I prefer to listen to my equipment in as is where is condition without tweaking in order not to adversely affect their resale value should I opt to dispose them off in future.
I currently owned approximately 250 and 65 different titles of CDs and LPs respectively, enough to cater to my listening needs of a lifetime. I shall only buy more CDs and/or LPs if I do come across very good ones or those which appeal to my music taste. I do not foresee myself embracing SACD format either in the near foreseeable future or beyond that.
Do I consider my hifi system high end? The answer is NO and it is in fact more of a lounge system to enjoy good music.
Sonus Faber Concertino/Concerto Home loudspeakers
Concertino Home is the baby of the previous affordable Concert series of Sonus Faber which also include Concerto Home and Grand Piano Home. Both Concertino Home and Concerto Home are standmount loudspeakers finished in solid Walnut and leatherette. I owned a pair of these loudspeakers for many years after switching over from Epos ES11/12. To me, they are very natural sounding transducers especially in the midrange (tone and timbre of musical instruments) and are about refinement and body which would require substantial yet good power amplifiers to drive them well. I love their sound a lot and could have easily live happily-ever-after with this pair of loudspeakers if only I had not chanced upon a NOS pair of Concerto Home (tagged as poor men' Electa Amator) at a hard-to-resist price which I subsequently picked up, this at a time when these models are no longer in production for many years. Both the 2 models sound alike, obviously cut from the same cloth but with Concerto Home, musical instruments sound even more real, more emotional and more dramatic. The grandeur scale of soundstage width, height and depth together with all three departments of highs, midrange and bass of Concerto Home are audibly much better. Size of string instruments in acoustic guitar, violin, cello, guzheng, pipa and erhu are more lifelike and sound very much like the real things themselves. Very palpable indeed so much so I had goose bumps when I first heard them. A review of Sonus Faber Concerto (Classics) by Martin Colloms in Stereophile in 1998: http://www.technologyfactory.be/reviews/SonusFaber/concerto_stereophile.pdf
SimAudio Moon i-3 integrated amplifier
SimAudio Moon i-3 integrated amplifier, in my opinion, is a remarkable and worthy partner to both my two pairs of Sonus Faber loudspeakers with its substantial power output (2 x 100W rms into 8Ω / 2 x 160W rms into 4Ω / 2 x 200W rms into 2Ω) and excellent sound quality. It has both an active pre-amplifier and power amplifier in a single chassis; the pre-amplifier adopting JFET technology and the first 5W output are in class A. Its overall sound is fast, well-timed, rhythmic yet refined and smooth (with midrange sounding quite liquid) - a blend of only the good sonic attributes from the solid states and valves amplification combined. This integrated amplifier refutes my long time preference for MosFet design (with passive pre-amplifier) over bipolar design (with active pre-amplifier), resolves multiple voices and instruments well and will stay unconfused even during complex music passages. Reviews: http://www.soundstage.com/revequip/simaudio_i3.htm and http://www.stereophile.com/artdudleylistening/945/. And for those who could read the Chinese language, another review: http://www.allhabit.com/thread-93194-1-1.html
Roksan Caspian m-series 1 CD player
Roksan Caspian m-series 1 is my current CD player after having owned several other players such as Marantz CD72IISE / CD63KI / CD19a, Rotel RCD1070, Sony XA5ES, Enlightened Audio Designs T-1000 transport & Theta DSProgenyA DAC, and Wadia CD23 in the past. Internally, it has 2 separate transformers and uses a Burr Brown DAC with 24 bit resolution and 192 kHz sampling rate which translate to a more stable sound with lots of details. A review: http://www.dagogo.com/RoksanCaspianCDplayer.html
Analogue Source - turntable
My parents never owned a single record when I was young and I grew up listening to 8-track cartridges and cassettes much later. I could only afford CDs after I started working. I had often visited my classmates’ home during my school days and heard music being played through turntable setups. The sound struck me then as extremely big in scale and direct sounding so much so I have always sought for these sonic traits in my own hifi system. I could only come close but not able to attain them completely with my digital source spinning the 16 bits / 44.1 kHz CDs.
I went retro and bought my first turntable two years ago after hearing the renowned Linn LP12 turntable playing Holly Cole Trio’s Don’t Smoke in Bed and Carol Kidd’s When I dream records in Linn’s room at KLIAV Show 2006. As I am very familiar with the songs being played (I owned these two albums in CD), I was thoroughly stunned as I had never heard these two ladies sing so well in my own hifi system; no, not even when my Theta DAC or Wadia CD player were in place. The organic richness and texture of their voice (the emotional appeal) were beyond any description with words. The scale of singers and the accompanying instruments were almost lifelike and present in the hotel room.
Another reason I went retro is when I picked up CDs to replace those old cassettes I was listening to during my growing-up days, I discovered the sonic quality of these reissued CDs left much to be desired, a result of recording companies making use of old master tapes that have deteriorated in condition. I was thinking that I could instead hunt for used records in mint condition but alas, Chinese records especially those by Taiwanese artistes are so scarce and hard to come by in Malaysia.
As of now, I owned a ProJect RPM 5 turntable with Ortofon OM20 mm cartridge. This turntable betters the sound of its younger sibling of Xpression II when fitted with the same cartridge by quite a considerable margin especially in the scale of soundstage width, height and depth and is all about refinement and a suarve approach to music making. A review: http://6moons.com/audioreviews/project3/combo.html
I have always perceived Rega turntables as ugly looking with their plain and bigger-than-usual plinth and smaller-than-record platter (I still feel the same now) but after listening to their entry-level P2 with the cheapest yellow-coloured Audio Technica AT-91 mm cartridge, I am totally smitten by their sound which is more immediate with more attack and PRaT than my ProJect RPM 5. A few people have advised me to at least go for their latest P3/24 (its performance in stock form considered to be on par with my ProJect RPM 5) if I were serious in going the Rega route. I have since ordered and shall be receiving my P5 cherry soon. I shall fit my brand new Denon DL-160 high output MC cartridge onto it and post more thoughts and impression in due course upon its run-in. Yes, all equipment need to be run-in.
I may have been too obsessed with my turntable and records hunting for quite a while, so I guess I need to cool off a bit now.
This is picture of the internal of ProJect phono box mk1 (the only equipment I bought used and already modified), its design supposedly an 'Actidamp II' by Dr Sykora, a Czech audio designer who also designed the Clearaudio Basic phono box and these 2 designs are reputed to be almost identical. The original parts used by ProJect are those of inferior quality and some were with unsuitable values but my unit has seen these replaced with audiophile grade parts and tweaked to a spacious and super sweet sound but a tad slow by my standard. In a direct AB shootout with a Vendetta Research phono box, I thought my phono box completely beat the former. I may need to source for a dedicated PSU to further enhance its performance by improving speed and may opt to DIY (a cheaper approach) on this. The diyforum to modify the ProJect phono box mk1: http://www.diyaudio.com/forums/showthread.php?s=e23299f52061859dd16f720492829cad&threadid=21833&highlight=
The cables used in my system now are essentially vdH cables which I perceive as more natural sounding overall than those from Chord Co, KimberKable and XLO Electric that I owned in the past. I like vdH First metalless interconnects best with their slightly darker but refined yet extended highs (as opposed to splashy highs with sibilance), natural midrange and powerful bass with lots of PRaT and I used them to tame the bright sound of digital playback and bring it closer to that of analogue playback. When they are used in lesser systems, others often find vdH First to sound dull and lack airiness and details.
I am of opinion that cables are accessories to fine tune sound of hifi systems once all equipment are in place and had over a long period of time only been using freebies and el-cheapo ones. Although sounding less prestine with lesser grade of copper, they are neutral and will not impart any sonic character onto our hifi systems. Cables have 2 properties which could not be dispensed with - a good electrical connection of the correct electrical parameters for its job, and long enough to reach where they have to. Many knowing aficionados would opt for a decent length interconnects for it is a 'high impedance interface' where we seek low measured Capacitance. Speaker cables ought to be kept as short as possible because amplifier to loudspeaker connection is a 'low impedance interface' and we seek low 'self inductance'.