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June 2010 issue
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ANALOGUE ODYSSEY

Over the last few years I have been on something of an analogue odyssey, perhaps to the exclusion of the rest of my system. In the intervening time, things seem to have moved on apace. I have been spurred to write to you by a number of recent reviews in Hi-Fi World of seemingly outstanding gear around the £2,000-£4,000 price band that you seemed to imply could compete with genuinely hi-end gear, whether it be electrostatic speakers or valve amps. Now I know that with the best will in the world, an understanding wife, and a relatively high income, I am never going to be able to spend the £5,000-£10,000 per item that the high-end now seems to demand, so I’m hoping you can help with a 'weakest link' kind of problem.

 

Over the last twenty years or so, I have built up by careful purchasing of new and classic equipment, what I think most of us would consider to be a pretty fair system, as follows.

 

CD is a TEAC T1 with heavily modded input and output stages and reclocked and recently revised, Audio Synthesis DAX Decade, Black Gate Balanced (with volume control), direct into a Chord 1200B amplifier. Record decks are:

1) Roksan Xerxes I with rewired/reweighted Rega RB300 and Dynavector DV20H on a Townshend isolation platform.

2) Technics SP10 Mk2, custom two-arm plinth, SME 312S and Van den Hul Colibri XCM, and my own 12” carbon fibre unipivot arm + Van den Hul Colibri XCM.

3) Garrard 401, Lorricraft-restored in 12” Lorricraft plinth with my own titanium 12” unipivot, or a SME 3012 and Zu Denon 103.

4) Garrard 401, Lorricraft-restored in solid 9” plinth with high and low compliance cartridges (Denon 103s, 304, Shure 140HE, Audio Technicas, etc.) and appropriate arms (BBC and Sedco broadcast gimbaled arms, and Mayware, Formula, etc., unipivots, everything mint – God bless eBay).

With either Sonneteer Sedley USB MM/MC phonostage or Quicksilver valve MM phonostage (so nice they’ve stopped making it!) into Audio Synthesis Passion passive preamp, and then single-ended into the Chord.

 

Loudspeakers are Quad ESL-63s with One Thing Widgets and mains leads, on custom 'Townshend' type stands and other speakers including DIY BBC-type monitors.

 

I’m lucky enough to have a dedicated room for this lot. The whole system is on a separate mains spur, and wired end to end with short lengths of van den Hul Carbon and Revelation Series and a Russ Andrews Ultra Purifier mains block, on custom-made stands and plinths with a silly amount of isolator widgets under everything, and I have to say, it all sounds pretty good.

 

So I’m a happy bunny, right? Well, yes and no. I used to come home from hi-fi shows, rather smug, if I’m honest, thinking “there was nothing there at any price that would make me change anything I’ve got!”, but just recently I’ve occasionally started to hear (and in show conditions) systems which although much more expensive, if I could afford them, I’d buy. The steady march of progress, I guess.

 

Also, I recognise that, even though much of my gear will be forever repairable, some of it is elderly (and I don’t mean the obviously classic bits). My Roksan, that I’ve had since new, will be celebrating its 25th anniversary soon, and I bought the TEAC in 1993! I know that digital technology, in particular, has moved on. So, it seems to me that I have a choice: try to identify new gear that would improve on my core system, within my £3,000ish per item constraints, and/or treat the weak links in the existing system. Things I have been thinking about include subwoofers and/or Digital Signal Processing for my slightly bass-shy and lumpy room (21’x23’ and plaster-boarded over stone, suspended oak floor); an entire set of specialist mains cables to complement the Russ Andrews U-P block; a PS Audio PPP to replace the U-P block; additional and better phono stage(s); an unsprung high-mass belt-drive turntable (the only type I haven’t tried - I hope that you’ve seen the method in my turntable madness by now!); and, lastly, but possibly most urgently, a new CD transport and/or DAC (it has to be said that it is only recently with the purchase of the SME and the Van den Huls, that the LP side has improved on the CD – heresy I know, but I have no philosophy in this regard, only my ears).

 

If you think I can achieve a better synergy between 'speakers and amp, by changing either (or a clearly better result by changing both) within my budget, I’m open to suggestions.

 

I started more than twenty years ago with a Mission/Cyrus system, and found that I had to pay between five and ten times as much to really noticeably improve on each element. So I realise that this is a big ask – since I’m asking you to identify as a minimum any hole in my system and how to plug it, and as a maximum a sort of roadmap for the future – for basically the same per-item budget that I have already spent.

 

Neither am I asking to radically change the system’s sound, only more of the best bits and less of the worst, please.

You may be surprised to learn that this is a slightly warm-sounding system, with the great tonal discrimination, transparency, and imaging that comes with the Quads, and the dynamics and bass control of the Chord.

 

If I am super critical of the sound I’ve got in relation to the very best, I would say that it is a little intellectual, slightly rolled-off at the top end, and lacking some air (despite trying supertweeters without success). There are more impactful systems (mostly horn-based and too coloured), and really low bass, whilst present, lacks volume and impact. In short, it won’t really rock'n’roll, although it has to play all music genres without favour.

 

You ought to know, equally, that I strongly dislike the bright and shiny hi-fi sound that I associate with certain American brands, and the quality I prize most is 'suspension of disbelief'.

 

If I’m being totally unrealistic, and your reaction is “we can’t suggest anything within your budget” I will still be grateful, as it will settle my mind. Thanks for whatever help you can provide.

Ross Heyward

 

Cripes Ross! Reading down that little list of items in your system had my eyeballs well exercised. So much to consider, I thought my head may explode. However, it is still on my shoulders and in one piece. Why? Because I can tell from my own experiences and long labours your sound is dominated by the Quad ESL-63s. As fabulous as they are in oh-so-many ways, they are also quite constrained, mainly by layers of protection grilles and protection circuits of so-so quality (I presume you have the later high voltage diode protection and not the earlier, self powered compressor circuits that produced muddle).

 

quad63

 

A modern incarnation of the Quad ESL-63 from Quad Musikwiedegabe, just one way to upgrade an original.

 

If you insist on keeping the ESL-63s – and they are very accurate and revealing – take a long look at the One Thing Audio site at www.onethingaudio.net or the fabulous Quad Musikwiedegabe site www.quad-musik.de and lovely pictures in the Refurbishing section. At the High End Show in Munich last year (i.e. 2009) Quad Musikwiedegabe were demo’ing new ESL-57s and ESL-63s and very lovely they sounded too. These two companies are able to fulfill all your Quad requirements, if you wish to stay close to the sound you are used to.

 

The ESL-63 will forever have (slightly) rolled off top though and feeble bass. You can sub-woofer them, using a small fast type, but the crossover between dipole Quad and monopole subwoofer will always be obvious, if something that you can acclimatise to.

 

Many alternatives are available to you. Your room is large enough to accommodate Quad 2905s, Princesound Prince IIs or Martin Logan CLXs, all full range electrostatics. I have made it my duty (!) to hear all of them and they are all fabulous. The Prince IIs however, are very insensitive and need huge voltage swing to go loud, meaning 100W amplifiers minimum (Quad II-eighty), but they have a very pure sound from their open panels. I strongly suggest you demo all three; there isn’t so much between them.

 

Both Editor David Price and I are Martin Logan fans too. I have no problem with the box bass unit of their lesser models, because the ML open electrostatic panel is so delicious. Spend time listening to these if you do not want full range ‘statics. If by the “bright and shiny sound that I associate with certain American brands” you mean Martin Logans, rather than JBLs (say), then stay with Quads.

 

 

cara_21x23ft_room_74hz

A 21ft x 23ft room can be modal, at 74Hz here, with loudspeakers close to a wall. Moving them into the room is a cure.

 

And finally you say your 21ft x 23ft room is “lumpy”. Cara, a three dimensional ray tracing programme that plots room modes, confirms this if you have the loudspeakers close to rear wall (see the 3D picture). Pull them one third the way down the room (i.e. 7ft from the rear wall) and angle in slightly and the heavy modal patterning lessens as energy distributes better, Cara suggests. Bass dipoles are very ‘difficult’ like this; try rotating the Quads a little and see whether the lumpiness changes at your listening position. You likely need to spend time with positioning to minimise lumpiness.

 

I hope all this helps; yours really is a good system. NK

 

HOT OR NOT

Noel, do you think that I can use other tubes than the EL34s on the Marantz 9s? The amps themselves and the manuals are marked with those specific tubes. So I don’t know if tube rolling would create problems. If you feel it is technically possible and advantageous, what would you recommend in connection with the Quads?

 

Also, a phase issue with XLR pin determination, when pin 3 is hot instead of pin 2: my Rowland Coherence preamp has pins 3 hot.  So when I had amps with pin 2 hot, I ordered my expensive Synergistic interconnects from pin 3 hot to pin 2 hot.

 

Now that I have the Rowland amps which are also pin 3 hot, I still use the same interconnects and it seems that there is no problem. How is that? Further pressing the phase button on the preamp hardly makes any difference that I can hear.

 

So what is going on? Why would the interconnect with phase 3 to 2, not be out of phase when connected to the amps with hot in pin 3? This is confusing. Should I resolder the termination of the cable at the amp side to pin 3 hot, which I am not too eager to since it would do an amateur job on an expensive cable. Will I see a difference?

Thanks once more for any help,

John Demos

 

I do not know the internal conditions under which your Marantz 9 amplifiers drive EL34s (HT voltage, plate current, etc) and so cannot recommend alternative tube types, I’m sorry to say. Others may work, or may damage the amplifier (if excessive current is drawn and the amp cannot handle it). But you can try different brands of EL34 of course.

The ‘hot’ and ‘cold’ or +ve and -ve of balanced connections are relative. As long as you keep both channels connected the same way around they will be in-phase. You can check for in-phase condition simply by swapping the connection to one loudspeaker around: if the sound stage goes all phasey and weirdo then the channels were in phase and correctly connected. If you suddenly get focused centre stage images then the channels were out of phase. NK

 

SWEET SURRENDER?

I wonder if you can help me on a topic that has bugged me for a while. I currently run Quad ESL-57s and Horning Eufrodite speakers depending on mood, and my Leak Stereo 20 or Quad IIs. The Leak is used with a passive pre; the Quad is usually driven by my venerable Audible Illusions Modulus.

 

Living in the sticks, going to dealers to compare is a big business and I personally hate having wasted people’s time if I find a purchase unnecessary.

Over the years I have heard and even owned many modern valve designs from Horning, Viva and other manufacturers, without being convinced that any were better than the classic designs. I note your latest rave is the Icon MB845s and wonder whether you feel these may topple one of these venerable designs. In my opinion both are outstanding but very different with the ESL-57s; I’m much less happy with the sound I get from the Hornings but that may not be the fault of either amp. I know I shall have to dem at the end of the day but don’t fancy an unnecessary round trip of 160 miles with the ESL-57s in my boot only to find I’ve wasted my time, if you feel I should be happy I have what I have! Are there any other brands I should look out for?

 

The Modulus has always been a U.S. niche preamp and I hope you’ll review it now that it’s back in the UK so to speak. It’s embarrassed more than one dealer trying to sell me a five or six thousand pound replacement.

Stefan Herber.

 

Hi Stefan. By “out in the sticks” I’m guessing you mean the U.S. sticks, as you don’t reveal your location, but you have an AOL e-mail account and talk of a preamp unknown in the U.K. (by the way, my other name is Sherlock Holmes!). Yet you refer to your car's 'boot' where Americans use 'trunk', so perhaps you are in Canada?

 

quad_ii_classic

Quad II Classic uses KT66 valves to give the original sound.

 

The Leak Stereo 20 and Quad IIs are very gentle natured, if pure and sweet. And neither produce much power, so I guess it is nice and quiet where you live (ah, the thought of it to a besieged Londoner).

 

Anyway, dreaming apart, the Icons are not really quite the same, having a lot more heft in their sound. I would direct you to the new Quad II-Classic valve amplifier with its KT66s and beefed up transformers and parts, relative to the original. Modern valve amplifiers are otherwise altogether less gentle than your classics and may not be to your liking. Seems to me you live in a little piece of heaven. NK



 

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