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October 2010 issue

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October 2010 issue
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World Mail    October 2010 issue        

 

Write to us!    E-mail –>     This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

Letters are published first in the magazine, then here in our web archive. We cannot guarantee to answer all mail, but we do manage most!

 

Or  comment in the Comment section at the bottom of each page.

 

Your experts are -

DP David Price, editor; NK Noel Keywood, publisher; PR Paul Rigby, reviewer; TB Tony Bolton, reviewer; RT Rafael Todes, reviewer (Allegri String Quartet); AS Adam Smith, reviewer; DC Dave Cawley, Sound Hi-Fi, World Design, etc.

 


 

cyrus-cd8-se

Upgrade the CD player and consider the ever so svelte Cyrus CD8se player to go with Icon Audio valve amplifiers, says Noel

 

TUBE TALES

Having caught the hi-fi bug a number of years ago I purchased the Rotel RA O4 amplifier (I’m a tight Yorkshireman and refused to pay an extra hundred quid for the model up with a remote control), a Rotel RA 06 CD player, B&W 684 speakers with Atlas interconnects and ten quid-a-metre bi-wire speaker cable.


Having had a serious operation in November last year I had a good number of months to contemplate upgrading. I have always wanted to try valves as everything I read about them seemed to be right up my listening street. I live in the cold wastelands of Northern England and auditioning valves would have meant a three or four hundred mile round trip.

Having had a pay rise and scraped some money together I decided to treat myself to the Icon Audio Stereo 40 Mark 3 with upgraded KT 88 valves. I bought the amplifier direct from Icon Audio and I have to say they are a marvellous company to deal with. I had a few problems which, with me being a valve virgin, they dealt with promptly and they even gave me an upgrade on the KT 88 valve free of charge. It’s fantastic to see a company that has a prompt, effective and friendly after care service and don’t just take your money and run. A really big thank you to David Shaw, the MD of Icon Audio for personally dealing with my insanely stupid questions.


I play the amplifier through the Rotel CD player, a Musical Fidelity V DAC, Chord Interconnects and B&W ‘speakers. The music I listen to varies from Northern Soul to Alt Country leaving out Pop, Rap, Classical and Opera. I particularly like to listen to 60s and 70s Soul and I only have CD as a source.


My question is, I have no clue which piece of kit to upgrade next, the Rotel CD player or the B&W speakers (or both). I rarely listen at high volumes but I do like a rich warm texture that kind of wraps itself around your head. I have probably around a thousand pounds for this upgrade. The room my kit is in is odd shaped, small and above everything the missus hates floorstanders, so a speaker upgrade would have to be a standmount. I don’t mind going second hand but would only buy from a reputable store (I don’t trust auction sites).

Another, and probably the most important pre requisite, is they have to be aesthetically pleasing to keep the little lady in some degree of happiness. I also have the Icon Audio headphone amp (which is also a single ended amplifier), that I use to play my laptop through. I use the B&W Zeppelin speaker, which gives a really nice sound. This has made me think about single-ended amplifiers, which then led me to look at single-ended integrated or valve monoblocks.


I am wondering if it would be best to trade in the integrated amplifier for the Icon Audio MB 25a monoblocks and keep the CD player and 'speakers, or look at the Separo 300B single-ended valve amp. Again, auditioning would be very difficult so I am flying as blind as I did with the Stereo 40.


I have to say though valves are everything and more than I expected and I am really pleased with the Icon and, it being a small British company makes it all the more sweeter.

Thanks a lot.

Mark Wilkinson

South Shields

Tyne & Wear

 

Hi Mark. I’m glad you are enjoying your Icon Audio amplifiers and have had a good experience. David Shaw has been designing for many years now and spends a lot of time in China with his suppliers, so the products are well developed and both sound good and measure well. I would not jump ship to a 9 Watt Single-Ended, quite frankly. SEs are very good when done properly but their transformers must support enormous flux levels because of the high standing d.c. current and it’s a difficult technology to get right. Most SEs are just soft and a little underwhelming I find. Also, you will run out of steam fast unless you use a sensitive loudspeaker, meaning a floorstander. We do say repeatedly that small loudspeakers are insensitive and do not suit low power amplifiers. Do by all means try an SE, but the step up over a good push-pull isn’t night and day, especially as you use a well honed amplifier. I would suggest you upgrade the CD player and consider the ever so svelte Cyrus CD8se. If you can possibly help it, do not move to stand mount loudspeakers as they demand more power and this will not help sound quality one iota. NK

 

VIRTUAL VINYL

Your mention of the Brennan JB7 Music Server in the May 2010 Mail section resurrected my thoughts on making my vinyl collection available for playing on digital portables and the creation of CD copies.


Currently the vinyl system is downstairs and the desktop computer is upstairs – and ne’er the twain shall meet [WAF!].

My thinking is that if I can transfer compact digital audio file copies [WAV - as on a standard compact disc] of the LP tracks on my vinyl to the desktop computer, then I can convert to MP3, AAC etc. to my heart's content before downloading to my digital portable, as well as making CD copies for my second system which does not have a turntable.


I have considered three options to achieving this objective:-

1. Using the Brennan JB7 Music Server

2. Using a second hand Compact Disc recorder [Pioneer PDR-609?]

3. Purchasing a second hand laptop [but with what software for Windows?] and using it with a Russ Andrews XITEL INport Deluxe USB Recording Soundcard or something similar.


Would all of the above achieve my objective and, if they do, are there any sonic advantages to choosing one option above the others?

It would not surprise me if you came up with some whizzy wireless means of transferring my vinyl direct to my desktop but my knowledge of digital wizardry is not great. Perhaps your magazine might consider the occasional article, updated as technology advances, on the ways of converting analogue to digital for old duffers such as myself.

Hoping that you can help and with my thanks in advance,

Wayne Allen

 

sony-mz-rh1

Sony MZ-RH1 Hi-MD portable recorder, little bigger than a MiniDisc and can record in uncompressed WAV format at 16bit/44.1kHz.

 

Another ‘how long’s a piece of string’ type query! The problem is, Wayne, I’m not sure about your domestic situation, and whether you can move your existing computer downstairs to do direct recording on to it, or if you’d even want to? If not, how much money have you got the throw at the problem?


Okay, let’s have a go! First, [1] I don’t think buying a Brennan would be particularly suitable, as you’re limited to its very average analogue to digital convertor, and recording formats (it doesn’t do AAC, for example, although does do WAV, so you could transcode via iTunes). [2] Yes, this is a good idea, inasmuch as it has a semi decent A-D convertor, and produces a CD that you can then digitally extract into a WAV (or compressed) file easily via iTunes, or suchlike. The only downside is that a Pioneer PDR-609 isn’t exactly portable. [3] You could indeed pick up a secondhand laptop, but this is both a pain (and risky, as is any secondhand computer purchase, in my view) and not ideal in sonic terms; the sort of cheap USB A-Ds around on your budget aren’t exactly amazing and certainly not as good as that of a Pioneer hi-fi CD recorder.


So, I’d counsel going for option [3], namely the CD recorder. However, think on this fourth possibility. It’s still possible to buy brand new Sony MZ-RH1 Hi-MD portables; these aren’t much bigger than a MiniDisc and can record in uncompressed WAV format at 16bit/44.1kHz. I know them to have fine quality analogue to digital convertors built in; they make excellent recordings. Spending £250 on one of these, to use for making portable digital recordings which you can then very easily take upstairs to your PC, is a good idea, methinks. Once you’ve made the recording, you can transfer it as a computer file at high speed (i.e. not real time) via USB to your computer, running Sony’s bundled Sonic Studio software. You can then edit the file, label it and transcode it to other formats; a super tool and likely just what you need. DP

 

THE DIGITS IN ANALOGUE

I read with interest your column in the June 2010 issue. To jump to the nub of the issue, in my opinion as you increase sample rates and bit width, all you do is approximate the analogue signal. Therefore to accurately copy an analogue signal you would need an infinite sampling rate which is effectively analogue.


I feel the missed opportunity in recording was not keeping the audio signal analogue. Laserdisc technology was an analogue recording with digital technology controlling the read process. I am sure lasers could be used to replace styluses and track vinyl recordings with no wear on the grooves and as good as the best moving coil. Blue ray technology could be used to record and replay analogue music and side-step the problems of vinyl roar, wow, and non quantised noise.


To conclude, the way forward was a combination of technologies which keeps the music signal analogue while transport and reading technologies are controlled digitally.

regards

William Bramer

 

elp-laser-t_t

The Finial laser turntable, extremely complex and disappointing too.

 

There was scope for modulating a high frequency carrier with baseband audio and transmitting and storing it on high density optical media, as Laservision did. But as lovely as high quality analogue systems sound, they are less flexible in terms of signal processing and more subject to degradation than digital systems.


Sadly, I found the Finial laser turntable was a very disappointing device. It sounded very transistory (i.e. flat and coarse) and read groove dirt and noise, as well as damage. It was not at all like a pickup cartridge and served to remind me that a moving coil cartridge is a perfect generator, with no active devices and almost no wire either! The stylus pushes dirt out of the way too. NK


RELAXED MONITORs

A new 'speaker and amp is needed! My big problem – my room! I can arrange the speaker a maximum 30 cm. before the wall and they have to fill the room up to 3.5 m. to the listening position. I have a square room with 4.8 m. (listening side) to 12m. So I would say a large room. On the one side you have complete glass (to the garden) and on the other side a lot of room (it is a living room with the kitchen inside). You see not easy. I search for a relaxed monitor sound - not too analytic - for hi-fi listening.


I like all kinds of music.... I like sometimes to hear loud, but mostly I listen in moderate volume. I search for smaller 'speaker which must stand on my sideboard or hang on the wall, maybe later with a subwoofer. It is for Stereo Listening. I'm not interested in multiroom. Existing hi-fi equipment: I have an Olive Opus 4 HD (CD-player, Internet radio, CD-Burner), also a turntable dps 2 with dps Rega RB 250, Lyra Dorian and Tom Evans Microgroove +.


What speaker and what amp should I look at? Or do you think active speakers? What would you think? Can you help me?

kind regards from Germany

Gerhard Geipel

 

kef-iq30

KEF iQ30s are a large stand mount loudspeaker able to provide even sound at good volume through a large room

 

Hi Gerhard. I assume you mean a rectangular room 4.8m x 12m, which is big enough to include a kitchen and is a very big space, as you say. To fill this space with good volume, not too loud, you really need large loudspeakers. The smallest you should consider are large volume stand mounters like KEF iQ30s or B&W 685s, both available in Germany for around €500 I believe.


The ideal loudspeaker for you I review in our next issue: it is the Revolver Screen 3 panel. It goes loud, has an easy sound and will hang on a wall. If it is in your budget, do try and listen. Alternatively, look at an Elac AM150. In my experience Elac loudspeakers represent superb German engineering and would be at the top of my list in Germany. If their sound is too bright / vivid, then listen to Spendor SA1s. These offer a gentle monitor sound. NK

 

CLASSIC TURNTABLE ADVICE

My main system consists of EAR Acute CD player, and ATC SCM50 active speakers.

I am now busy putting together a second vinyl based system, primarily because of the resurgence of vinyl and to have a bit of fun.

To this end I have acquired a Thorens TD135 with Ortofon S15T cartridge in good condition. I have also been lucky enough to buy a Tandberg 3002 pre-amp, and Musical Fidelity P180 power amps, with external power supply for next to nothing. I am currently using Arcam Muso speakers with the set-up.

There is some bearing play in the BTD-12S tone arm and it was poorly rewired by the previous owner. Could you advise if an alternative arm could be fitted, and if so what do you recommend?


I would also appreciate advice on a cartridge change. The S15T is still in good condition, but not sure how it would stack up against a modern budget cartridge like the Ortofon 2M Blue for example.


Alternatively, maybe I should cut my losses, sell the Thorens and buy either Planar 3 / Technics SL 1200, or Project RPM5.1.

Your advice will be appreciated.

Douglas Henning

 

technics-sl1200-mk2upgrade

Technics SL1200 with Rega tonearm, an excellent combo.

 

It sounds like the Thorens needs restoring and should find a suitable home. I would advise you to cut your losses and buy a Rega P3-24 and the best of the Ortofon 2M Series cartridges you feel you can afford. Just bear in mind the 2Ms are quite bright and forward, because there is no upper midband droop. More forgiving are the Goldring 1000 Series cartridges, and a 1024 is always a good choice. NK

 

At this price point, my choice would be a Technics SL1200 with a Rega RB251 arm (on OL armboard) fitted and the cartridge of your choice. The Rega is excellent, but when re-armed, as it was, the Technics offers a far more powerful and propulsive presentation, albeit a little less subtle. Either way, these two new decks will be streets ahead of your classic Thorens. Beware, however, as you may stop buying CDs as a result! DP

 

TABLE TALK

Thank you for the review of the Timestep SL1200 MkII / SME V/ Koetsu RS! A gift from a dear friend of a freshly restored Denon DP-45F has prompted my wife and me to get back into vinyl, and this sounds like a great choice.


We appreciate the speed stability of a Direct Drive turntable, but we're also McIntosh fans, and are therefore torn between a DP spec SL1200 and an MT10.

Can you give us any insight as to how these two tables compare sonically? Does the MT10 approach the musicality and midrange beauty of the modded SL1200? Does the SL1200 sound colored in comparison to the MT10, or would you prefer to say that the MT10 sounds artificial or less beautiful or hi-fi?


Does the perceived wow and flutter of the MT10 approach that of the SL1200?


Would you say that the SL1200 ravishes, but the MT10 does not? Or would you say that the MT10 sounds more accurate, and that this is ultimately more satisfying?

Of course these are subjective questions, but that's what I'm looking for: your experience in listening to music with these two turntables.

The difference in price is immaterial to us. Our current system includes the McIntosh 60th Anniversary System amp and preamp, and an MCD1000/MDA1000 Transport/DAC.

Thank you for any guidance you can provide!

Scott Kyle

 

mcintosh-mt10

The Macintosh MT10 turntable "is fluid and tonally warm" says David.

 

Hmmm... what an interesting question! If you’re MacIntosh fans and want to buy yourselves a lovely luxurious piece which will give you large amounts of pleasure, in the same way that buying yourself a high end convertible car would, then get the McIntosh. If it’s no holds barred raw performance you want, then it’s got to be the Technics...


The modded SL1200 sounds very different to the MT10, as you’d expect. It’s not as silky, not as beguiling, not as lyrical, not as sweet, not as cosseting, not as reassuring. But it’s faster, punchier, more dynamic, more explicit, more enthralling, more visceral, more arresting, more unnerving, edgier and sassier. It also makes all music a seat-of-the-pants experience, which is riotously good fun but isn’t so good if all you want to do is kick back and relax with a glass of the hard stuff, cigarette and/or life partner in hand!


It’s always hard to distill out the essence of the two decks without resorting to journalistic cliche, but suffice to say that both belt drives and direct drives have their own distinct sonic signatures, and both the McIntosh and the Technics are excellent examples of their respective technologies. The former is fluid and tonally warm, but ultimately lacks grip and dynamics, whereas the latter is crisper and colder, but has great energy and push. The MT10 seduces, the SL1200 (modded) amazes - hope this helps; now you’re on your own! Me, I’d have the Technics - but then again I like hi-fi to be a visceral experience and don’t collect McIntosh gear, lovely as it is. So you might think differently. DP

 

SQUEEZEBOXED

Recently I have thought a lot about the way I now listen to music and how this has changed quite dramatically over the past thirty or forty years. These days my sources of choice are vinyl and streamed audio, the vinyl being for more serious listening, leaving a collection of over 1000 CDs and a £1500 Naim CD5x all but redundant.


The purchase that pretty much changed everything for me was a Logitech Squeezebox 2, now replaced by a new Logitech Duet system which has completely changed the way I listen to music. It was also very reasonably priced and though not hi-fi in the purest sense, played through my Naim Nait 5i and Shahinnian Super Elf speakers can sound pretty close to the CD5x with a good quality rip.


With a decent DAC this system will sing and be a convenient alternative to my Technics SL1210 when I am cooking, or otherwise less inclined to change vinyl every 30 minutes. What worries me though is the way in which traditional hi-fi companies have jumped onto the bandwagon producing components costing thousands such as the £4500 Naim HDX. I had an opportunity recently to see the innards of one of these and discovered two cheap hard disk drives which retail at about £50 each.


How about the £10,000 AVI AMD9 active speaker combo? I recently read how one hi-fi enthusiast had tracked down the original manufacturer's circuit diagrams and found they had capacitors back to front and an incorrectly implemented protection circuit. The suggestion was the design was suspiciously like an incorrect interpretation of a Wireless World article from the nineteen seventies.


I myself had an issue with a Cambridge Audio Azur 640H music server which despite costing me £650 has been consigned to the attic after failing four times in just over a year, the fourth time being after the guarantee ran out.


I think we are seeing a shift from traditional hi-fi manufacturers to the likes of Logitech, Sonus and Apple who are far more capable of implementing computer technology and are currently making inroads into the hi-fi market. They are producing well made, well implemented and reasonably priced designs which are stealing market share. The Luddites among the hi-fi fraternity still worry about compression (which is optional) or that a Hard Disk Drive isn't as good as a CD mechanism when the opposite is true.

Hard Disk Drives are better because they are more sophisticated. Instead of reading in real time and guessing or muting what they aren’t able to retrieve, they keep reading and feeding information to RAM where a Checksum is done. The computer adds up the binary and when it has them it plays your music, and its exactly the same every time. Streaming music via a computer removes a chain of unnecessary mechanical interfaces compared to when a CD player is used and the less the signal is interfered with, then the better the overall sound.


So that's the science but it's a bit like this; if you fit a turbocharger to your car it will go faster. It might also go faster if you remove the hub caps because it’s lighter but which is the modification you would choose?

Garnet Newton-Wade

Wiltshire

 

logitech-squeezeboxduet

A life changer for Garnet Newton-Wade, the Logitech Duet.

 

Hmmm...  CD always used Reed Soloman error correction and it is quite powerful. Redundancy in the data stream isn't guessing. Granted, disc errors could overwhelm it and the Cambridge error counter in the CD-1 CD player did suggest errors could be high when the plating was dodgy, but the days of 'see through' CDs are over I believe. All the same, modern hard discs are in a different world, one 30 years more advanced where instead of 0.6GBs we have 1000GBs. But I still don't trust 'em!  NK

 

 

I think you're spot on in many respects; the digital world is moving to computers to store its audio, and the likes of the Apple iPad with its 'jazzy' interface will doubtless accelerate the process. Meanwhile, the vinyl revival continues apace, for those who like physical media...


I think the hi-fi industry is very much on a learning curve with computer audio, trying to find a way to 'add value' (to use that dreadful marketing speak) whilst staying cost-competitive. The Naim HDX is actually a very good example of a hybrid between the computer audio and hi-fi; its disk drives are the cheap bits, but rest assured its audio stages are on a level or three above those of your home PC. Whether it catches on or not remains to be seen; I think we're all currently in the process of 'negotiating' our way through the changeover. As for me, I've got so impatient with this snail-like process that I've gone back to cassette and am loving it! DP


STAR STATIONS

I read with interest the Letters section in the latest edition of Hi-Fi World. You were responding to a letter by Roy Chant about stereo receivers and internet radio stations. Roy mentioned a station called http://www.jazz.fm which caught my attention as I like Jazz. I read your answer with interest and a degree of scepticism as you went on to point out to Roy that the sound quality wasn’t very good streaming at 48kbps and that internet radio often sounds dreadful.


Sceptical about your response I decided to check out http://www.jazz.fm for myself. After about 3 minutes of listening to the station I thought, whoops! Noel was right about this one! The sound quality was very disappointing.


I had a HomeTheatre PC custom built for me in 2006. Its been very much part of my hi-fi system and I use it to play CDs and DVDs, plus listen to internet radio stations – now its becoming the norm but I had a Linn Karik 111 which I sold to use the Home Theatre PC as my source instead, in 2006, so I feel like a pioneer! I have saved internet streams which I consider to output high quality sound. One of the 1st stations to do that was The Jazz which lasted only 12 months from 2007 to 2008 due to politics – it was a great station and the internet stream was much better quality than their DAB counterpart.


Another station with excellent sound quality is France International Paris (FIP) which plays a combination of jazz, adult oriented pop, and other eclectic music. http://sites.radiofrance.fr/chaines/fip/endirect. I have been listening to the satellite version of this station on Hotbird, 13 degrees east, and latterly Astra, 19 degrees east, since 2000 and though the internet stream is not quite as good as the satellite station, the sound quality has improved in the last 12 months and is not far off.

 

 

radio-france-paris

France International Paris offers an excellent sound with a variety of music, says Laurie Burnette.

 

Another station I listen to regularly is Radio Monte Carlo, again originally a satellite station http://www.radiomontecarlo.net/home http://www.radiomontecarlo.net/it/multimedia/webradio/rmc_2. It plays a lot of Euro electronic dance music, chill and electro jazz much better than Chill DAB who have a similar remit.


AOL also outputs very high quality radio streams. I regularly listened to the Fusion stream but unfortunately they've stopped streaming to Europe which is a shame. You now get re-routed to http://www.last.fm.


I thought it might be an idea to recommend Hi-Fi World in a future edition maybe doing a feature on Internet Radio and recommending some high quality streams for people to check out. I'm sure there are stations I haven't discovered which I would like to hear.


Just one last thing. I also found your feature on the revival of cassette fascinating as an easy way to record music. I'm the proud owner of a Sharp IMR 420 1 bit Minidisc recorder that  I use it to record off satellite radio, internet streams and transfer CDs. I listen to it on the road and play through my hi-fi when at home. The sound quality is absolutely excellent using ATRAC3 which is highly thought of, I understand. Minidisc could have been a great mass replacement for cassette. I'm amazed Sony missed such a trick because it's reported they try to sell it as a replacement for CD when with its recording facilities it should have been a replacement for cassette decks!

regards

Laurie Burnette

 

VINYL QUEST

I am on a quest for answers (as we all are who write into you at Hi-Fi World) to the ever-plaguing need for partnering perfection. I have done a lot of research, more than I like to admit, yet I cannot find decisive answers to pairing tonearms and pickups. So here I write to you, the experts who I hold in high regards, for some direction.


Before indulging upon my questions, let me fill you in on what I have to work with (i.e. hi-fi system and budget). My system consists of a Roksan Caspian M-Series-1 integrated amplifier, Dali Ikon 5 speakers, a pair of the Chord Carnival Silverscreen speaker cables (which I believe help the Ikon 5s tendency to be bright at the high end), and a Rega P3-24 turntable with the TT-PSU. All of which has been bought second hand, otherwise I would have never been able to afford it.

 

icon-audio-ps1

A good budget phono stage, Icon Audio's PS1

 

Vinyl records are the only source of music I use in my system. The P3-24 is replacing my Pro-Ject Debut III run from the Pro-Jects Speed Box II and linked to the Roksan via the Cambridge Audio Azur 640P phono stage. I understand that my components are not high-end, but feel I've done well with the money I managed to scrape together, spending just over £1,100 on the Roksan, Dalis, and Rega over an extended period of time.


This brings me to my budget and my intentions. Personally, I really like the simplicity of the P3-24 and love the idea of being able to tweak my turntable over time as my cash-flow permits. I plan on upgrading the P3-24's sub-platter, platter, and tonearm. I will also be upgrading my phono stage and interconnect. The sub-platter and platter I am going to use for the upgrades are the ISOkinetiks ISOsub sub-platter and bearing kit and ISOkinetiks ISOplatter 25mm Reference acrylic platter, but any suggestions/alternatives to these are very welcome.


The phono stage upgrade will be determined by what pickup I choose; at the moment I really like the Graham Slee phono stages for price and quality. I am planning on upgrading my tonearm to Rega's RB700 (an OEM version). Again, I am very open to alternatives for the tonearm upgrade. I would like to spend in the region of £400 to £500 on the tonearm and would like to keep the pickup around £200 to £350.


The sound I am hoping to accomplish with my hi-fi system is something detailed/analytical, but a warm and inviting expansive soundstage with a tight, potent low end, a crisp midrange, and a clean, delicate high end. And although my budget may not be extensive I feel this is still feasible (in retrospect to the amount I have to spend).

 

rega-origsubplatteriso

The original Rega sub-platter and ISOsub (top) side by side.


With that out of the way here are my questions... Do you think it is worth upgrading from the RB301 to the RB700? Or, should I just upgrade the tonearm wires/cables? What pickup works well with an RB700 (and/or the RB301) and a P3-24 plinth? Due to the RBs rigid nature and lean tendency, which I have concluded from my research and listening to the RB301; would an MM or MC pickup work better? With that in mind, what MM and/or MC would you recommend? With the tonearm and pickup pairings you recommend, what phono stage do you think would work well in my current system, my desired sound, and with a budget from £200 to £500?


And finally, what interconnects do you recommend with the pickup/tonearm/phono stage partners you listed? Since I only listen to vinyl there is only one interconnect I need to buy (0.5m to 1m), so I am happy to spend anywhere from £50 to £150 on it, but if there is an interconnect you feel is perfect for my hi-fi system and is over this price range, please do not hesitate to let me know.


Some alternatives I am considering: for the pickup Goldring 2500, Ortofon 2M Bronze/Black, Denon 103R, Goldring GX1042, Ortofon Samba/Salsa, and Dynavector DV10X5.

For the phono stage: Graham Slee's Amp 2 Special Edition (MM)/Amp 3Fanfare (MC)/or Era Gold V (MM)/Reflex C (MC), Icon Audio PS2 (though I do not know much about tube amps), and Trichord Dino MkII.


Just a heads up; I have an Ortofon 2M Red I used on my Pro-Ject Debut, and from my understanding the bodies of the 2M Red and Blue are the same with only the stylus being different, so I could save money by getting a 2M Blue replacement stylus  if you believe this tonearm and pickup partnering would be the best option for my system and budget.

Please bear-in-mind buying at the lower end of the budget will be quicker to achieve and will keep my wife smiling with the money saved. While buying at the higher end of the budget will inevitably take longer to achieve but will keep both of us, myself and my wife, smiling with the beautiful sounds the end product produces; this is a quest after all...

thank you,

Joe Kanaan

 

The RB700 is clearly better than the ‘301, offering more focus plus a more natural and less mechanical sound; upgrading the 301 with fancy wires will take you closer to the 700, but is a hassle and you’ll have to live without your arm for a week or two! I have extensive experience of using an AT-OC9 moving coil with a Rega Planar 3, and it works very well on the end of the Rega arms; the AT gives a very crisp and dynamic sound which kicks some life into the gentle warmth of the Rega deck. At the price you’re considering, the Graham Slee phono stages are excellent and have an enthusiastic following if you’re into solid-state stages; alternatively Icon Audio’s new PS1 (£449) will give a fuller, fatter and slightly less detailed sound. There’s a litany of competition; best take your deck and cartridge over and find a good dealer and listen for yourself, in my humble opinion. Personally, I’d recommend a Missing Link ‘Link Cryo’ (£245/0.5m) as an interconnect; it’s a bit over your budget but well worth it in the long run, such is its very open, smooth, sweet and musical sound. DP


ANALOGUE AND DIGITAL

Mr. Noel Keywood has never been less than stimulating and insightful in his monthly OpEd pieces for Hi-Fi World, and nine times out of ten I find myself nodding in agreement at the paragraphs of logic and common sense he writes. However, I feel strongly that his piece in the June edition of the magazine was written either with his tongue in his cheek or was consciously disingenuous. As usual, Mr. Keywood treats us to an apparently impeccable and irrefutable argument: “since all signals are analogue until converted to digital, it’s impossible for digital to be better than analogue...” In making this statement Mr. Keywood conveniently overlooks the fact that in an analogue recording process, signals – which start as sound waves passing through the air – are converted into a grove embedded into a piece of vinyl, which is a pretty radical transformation by any measure.


The process of achieving this transformation involves many separate stages. In the analogue world, each of these stages - recording on to master tape, mixing a master copy, cutting a press tool, making a physical pressing – are all subject to imperfections which, in this domain, are additive and so all will be present in the final analogue representation of the original sound. These imperfections may take the form of noise, distortion, resonance and so on, so that the final representation is the original sound plus the extraneous effects of the analogue process steps. While efforts are made to minimise these effects, they cannot be entirely eliminated.


Some manufactures went to greater lengths than others to reduce these imperfections. Decca for example used a proprietary vinyl compound and a pre-production sintering process so that the vinyl material was pre-stressed before going into the press tool. Decca believed this contributed to the final “Decca sound” and it also meant that Decca’s discs were not prone to warping and the other pressing defects of certain of its rivals (up the road in Hayes especially).


On the whole, industry adopted digital to overcome the additive defect problem present in analogue, and although I would admit that the initial digital standards may have been too low to offer the “perfect sound” claimed, it was undoubtedly the right decision, as anybody who had seen the horrors of record pressing in Hayes in the 1970s would agree.

It is also worth pointing out that the analogue process is not entirely analogue as, for example, the cutting lathes used to make disc masters have been CNC (i.e. digitally controlled) for decades, while the much praised analogue FM stereo radio of the BBC relies on digital transmission over the miles of land lines between studio and transmitter.

 

sacd--blu-ray-discs

The SACD disc at left sounds different to the PCM disc at right. But why?

 

The other objection I have to the purist view of analogue is that an orchestral recording made with a dozen or more microphones, which is then skillfully mixed down to two channels, is no analogue of reality. It is instead an artificial construction of reality, just as digital encoding and decoding is an artificial construction of reality, and it seems to me that one form of artificial construction of reality has no inherent superiority over any other. I personally think that the best we should expect from recorded sound it that it properly represents the timbre of voices and instruments and, in my opinion, the latest digital recordings do that (you guys may be able to spot the difference between digital and analogue, but can any of you spot the difference between a Steinway and a Bosendorfer?).


Also, while it is generally claimed by the analogue purists that digital is not as good as analogue at “imaging”, imaging is part of the artificial construction of reality created by the sound engineers at their mixing desks, and regular attendance of live performances will confirm that much praised imaging of hi-fi systems has no analogue in reality. I think you purists need to get out more.


Meanwhile it seems to me that the BBC must be on to something if they can send digital signals to analogue transmitters without anybody noticing: they must have cracked the “digital problem” sufficiently to make the most ardent analogue supporter happy with digital.


Best regards, and congratulations on producing the best and most interesting hi-fi magazine, even if I do not always agree with everything you write.

Keith Hodgkinson

 

michell_tecnoarm

The holes in a Michell TecnoArm act as wavebreaks. It is also damped internally.

 

Thanks Keith. I don't really disagree with anything you say, but there are problems with the detail. Analogue's additive distortions were a lot easier on the ear than digital's. I recall reading an account of early digital development by a Philips engineer, I think it was, where he admitted that they knew quantisation worked at sub-multiples of the sampling frequency, but they had no idea what happened in-between! This meant that most of the music got mashed, and no one quite appreciates this. But you can hear it.


Higher resolution PCM does seem to do the trick, but it remains the case that SACD sounds different to 24/192 PCM and no one knows why, as far as I am aware (I don't accept that out-of-band noise is somehow responsible).


Imaging a contrivance engineered at the mixing desk? Er, I don't think so. Sound location is an acute ability in humans, as William Yost's researches at the Parmly Hearing Institute so clearly show. Get his book 'Fundamentals of Hearing' from Amazon to read more, or direct from Loyola University, Chicago.


I do sometimes feel that digital better conveys analogue nasties as well, and gets lumbered with them. Many microphones have rising treble and quite a rough top end, and they feed into poor IC preamps, often incorporated into mixing desks. This gives audio a poor start in life and helps explain, I suspect (as does violinist and audiophile Rafael Todes) why strings recorded digitally commonly sound coarse and timbrally anaemic. As impressed as I am by, for example, by the very dedicated 24/192 PCM and SACD recordings being issued by 2L I am still not quite convinced perfection has been reached. But blaming digital is, as you suggest, likely incorrect. NK

 

DENON SOUP

I thought my last e-mail was the last word on the subject of ‘souped up Denons’. However I found that the more I listened, the more there was still a bit of a problem of ‘spit’ and surface noise and a slight edginess and glare to the sound that I could not get rid of. Fitting the metal body to the standard DL 103 cartridge did lift the top treble a bit, but it stayed in balance. However with the Paratrace stylus it could sometimes be edgy and fatiguing. I played around with tracking weight, alignment and electrical loading without success, so I went back to basic engineering principles.


I had noticed that the cartridge and arm seemed to have become more microphonic than previously: when tapped with a screwdriver it clinked and clanked. Maybe the metal body was transmitting high frequencies into the headshell and arm too well and there was not enough damping or energy dissipation?


If this was the problem, then in theory sandwiching a very thin layer of suitable material between the cartridge and the headshell like a gasket could provide a break in the energy path and act as constrained layer damping to dissipate excess high frequency energy. However the material would need to be very thin and reasonably stiff, with good self-damping so that it would not decouple the cartridge body from the headshell and affect mid- and low frequencies.


After a little thought I settled on standard 80g photocopy paper as a good starting point. I carefully cut a piece to fit, tightened up the mounting screws and sat down to listen. My hunch about the cause of the problem must have been correct, because it worked exactly as theory predicted: there was no loss of midrange or bass definition but the ‘glare’ and ‘spit’ had gone and the treble now had excellent definition and clarity.


It seems that the ‘paper gasket’ is a simple and effective solution - and it could help other metal-bodied cartridges where treble ‘spit’ and glare is a problem. Before you scoff too much at the idea, it is based on sound engineering principles, it works, it costs nothing and it isn’t half as drastic or wacky as the Cartridge Man’s Isolator. It is worth considering (and trying?) as a cheap and effective alternative to the latter.

yours sincerely,

Alasdair Beal

 

Scoff? Not at all Alasdair. Our accelerometer measurements of pickup arm vibration clearly show there is a lot going on around 6kHz and moving the accelerometer to different locations on an arm suggests the headshell is responsible. However, Karl Heinz Fink, who uses laser interferometry to assess arm behaviour, tells me these modes exist in the arm tube. Whatever, something is going on. One solution is to wrap a plastic damping sleeve around the arm tube; another is to drill the tube with holes that act as wave breaks; another would be to add ribs, which also dissipate wave motion. So you are likely spot on with your solution! NK


NEW GENERATION

I hope I didn't give you guys the impression that I am a Sony hater. I have all the respect in the world for the company and its many truly great products. The Sony F-66W is an example of a Sony product that was well ahead of its time. Mine is looking at me as I write and still giving great service!


The future of audio publishing belongs to those who realise that to a whole generation the 1812 Overture is simply music for a montage of kids crashing shopping trolleys into brick walls. I read a review in a rival magazine that used this piece of music and shook my head. Yeah, you kids need to forget your iPods and buy a brute of a turntable, to excavate every last molecule of information from your pressing of the 1812.


There has been a paradigm shift in the minds of kids when it comes to music. As Trent Reznor puts it, they don't think they should have to pay for music anymore. This attitude was demonstrated on a recent visit to YouTube to have a look at a Prince video. Prince has been very active keeping his music off the site and the comments on the video (which had its audio track removed) were incredulous in tone; internet users struggling to fathom why he would actually expect to get paid for his music.


The reason that Blu-ray has been embraced while SACD is WTF? People actually sit down and watch films. Only audiophiles put on an album and listen to the whole thing; the very concept of sitting down and listening to an entire album is crazy. This was brought home when I began talking to someone on the train. After discussing various topics from obscure Japanese Cage Fighters to telescopes I mentioned audio and got a puzzled look. Uhh, stereo? Nothing. Hi-Fi? Not a clue what I meant. People, we are truly underground. To quote Rage against the Machine: “We’re the renegades. We’re the people with our own philosophies.”


It's hard to mess with Noel Keywood, the guy really knows his stuff. When I first raided my Dad's audio magazine collection I found his writing a little too objective and preferred the fantastical writing of a journalist who will remain nameless. Well, let's just say he is supposedly single handedly responsible for the revival in vintage audio (excuse me while I explain that to the 300B cults of Japan, manufacturers like Audio Research who never stopped making tube gear and all the audiophiles who hung on to their classic equipment), likes to mention Swiss watch makers ad nauseam and recently wasted a whole column on Steve Jobs follies. These days though I'm not so keen on his writing and prefer Noel's even handed approach. As a kid I found Noel's writing a little dry (no mentions of French hookers or Ferraris) but now I appreciate the measured approach he takes to reviewing.

An area where I feel Hi-Fi World is falling behind is photos of components internals. I want my audio porn! David's recent review of the DCS CD player was underwhelming in this respect.


All audio magazines seem really confused when it comes to MP3 and kids. Column after column of statistics on drops in sales of CD singles etc., and not a clue what to do. The confusion stems mainly I feel from not understanding the distinction between demonstrating value and imposing it. But why don't the kids want a 300 Watt Class A monoblock amplifier? Because they don't care! Get over it and build a better iPod dock a la the Krell Kid. Though David's optimistic view that such products will act as a gateway into real audio is a little confused. They will act as a gateway, but in the other direction i.e. audiophiles getting into MP3 and iPods. Remember the Real Hi-Fi campaign? Yeah, that worked. Again, trying to impose values rather than demonstrating value.

 

the-who-blu-ray

Old generation for a new generation.

 

Oh, how I would love to wave my hand in front of Adam Smith Jedi style and say having 300 mediocre turntables is silly. Perhaps you should ebay them and reprocess the funds into good gear. Keep your Garrard, Alphason and Marantz CD player, the rest can go. How on earth did the Craputrac, uuurgh sorry, Accutrac make its way into the classics section when real, affordable classics like the Thorens TD150 and TD160/super are omitted? I agree with Adam when he says the sky's the limit for upgrading these suspended sub-chassis decks. And Adam, don't be embarrassed by using tracks like Hadaway what is love? Great song.


Whatever happened to the new production of 845M tubes? What's the story with Blackburn's new 12AX7/ECC83 tubes? And why don't Rega make a 12 inch arm?

I was impressed with the resume of turntables you have heard David. My fear was that I might respond with something like Yeah, but my man (to use Bob Dylan speak) uses a Sota Sapphire with vacuum platter, SME IV and Supex 900 and I reference it far too often.


Kicking back with my dad I said "you know there is a model above the TTS8000". His response? There would want to be.

My final confession; I manhandle all the audio magazines but only ever buy Hi-Fi World!

Ben North

 

Thanks Ben. I harbour no illusion that listening to an album on its own is now an outdated pastime, or is seen to be. But equally, having seen fashions come and go and attitudes change, I don't take it all too seriously. Mr iPod – my 10 year old son – is starting to take to big concerts and long guitar solos and even asking about Prog Rock ("you won't like it, so don't ask"!). His eyes popped out at The Who's 'Live At Kilburn' Blu-ray, a real bit of high energy Rock that brought a large smile to his face. And I heard Voodoo Chile issuing from his bedroom the other night. It's disgraceful what kids listen to nowadays! NK

 

Hi Ben - a great letter (or was it a manifesto?); not sure if I agree with you on many of those topics but I must say you put things very lucidly! I think the main point is that real hi-fi is now an elite pastime for a certain kind of music and/or movie fan, and not a mass market movement for everyone. This shouldn't in itself concern us, although I do feel that we should try a lot harder to be more inclusive, and not constantly seek to find ways of deterring 'normal' civilians joining in with our fun. The industry has to reach out to the general public, because it sure as hell isn't going to happen the other way round. DP

 

AFFORDABLE AMP

I’ve built up a system that I think sounds great and spend many happy hours listening to both vinyl and CD, but I’m wondering if it could sound even better and I’d like your advice. I’ve included a couple of photos to show you the speakers are Tannoy Autographs with 15 Gold drivers and Tannoy supertweeters - the original Tannoy crossovers were rebuilt using all new and modern parts (they’d have been 30-40years old and components wear out). I built the cabinets myself from plans on the web  more as a wonder how difficult that would be than anything else (took me 5 months end to end and, yes, it was really difficult!). But the sound they generate is, to my ears, just magnificent. My musical tastes are pretty varied, some classical piano and orchestra pieces, female vocalists, Pink Floyd, Kate Bush, but not towards heavy metal. I like to hear into the music, being able to pick out individual instruments rather than just have a huge wall of sound battering me!


My room is 14ft wide and 21ft long with a vaulted ceiling, plenty of furniture, bookcases, sofas etc. I love the whole turntable and vinyl experience so have two of these,  a Technics SP10 Mk2 in a metal and hardwood plinth, an SME IV arm with a Lyra Argo cartridge.


The other turntable is an Amari (little known, I think they went out of business but there’s still some info on the web), a Wilson Benesch arm and an Audio Technica OC9 cartridge.

Both cartridges feed into a Whest audio PS20/MS20 phono stage.

 

mb845-mkii

 

The new Icon Audio MB845 Super MkII power amplifiers.

 

The CD player is a top loading Chinese import called an Original Leonardo. I loved the look of it and it also has some excellent componentry. The digital signal from this goes into a Musical Fidelity Trivista DAC. As many of us have come to realise, the vinyl side beats the CD side for clarity and depth of sound and gives that feeling the musicians are in the room with you. On their own, CDs sound great, just not as good as the same vinyl albums in back to back comparisons.


I use a valve amplifier from the Affordable Valve Company - triode connected using four KT88 Svetlana output valves. I have always preferred the sound of this to other transistor amplifiers I’ve used, the nearest in sound quality came from a Jungson JA88 Class A amp.


So to my point. It’s the valve amplifier that I think I can improve. It’s not that I can pin-point any particular weakness with the current amp (probably because unlike you hi-fi reviewers, I just haven’t been exposed to the variety of superb sounding equipment that you have). So I’m looking for a better sound in all areas, and I like the idea of having a remote control for the volume, at least with a budget of £2000 what to do?


I have a Creek passive pre-amp so could go for a power amp or monoblocks, or go for another integrated. What I don’t want to do, and this is a situation I’m sure many people face, is spend a lot of money only to find I get something with more or less the same performance. Can you help?

best regards

Simon Taylor

 

If you have the Creek OBH-22 passive preamp with remote volume control an obvious choice are the forthcoming Icon Audio MB845 Super MkII power amplifiers. Price, unfortunately, will be above your budget, I’d guess around £3000 per pair at least and likely more. They will give you close to the ultimate in terms of triode sound quality, having both smoothness and slam.


Within your budget is the Icon Audio Stereo 300, that offers the smooth, smooth sound of 300B triodes. Just be aware that 300Bs are expensive: think £80 apiece minimum. After a few thousand hours of use replacement is expensive. Otherwise, look to KT88s from Icon Audio in the Stereo 40 MkIII, another lovely sounding amplifier at a great price. You’ll get great results with those lovely looking Tannoys. NK


MAC ATTACK

Leigh Penny wrote to us asking whether he should use the optical or USB output of a Mac Mini. He wasn’t happy with Noel’s reply in our September 2010 issue – and nor were other readers! Here’s the saga...

 

LEIGH PENNY WRITES...

I wrote to you with my situation (in the email below), of which I have just read your reply/comments, in the latest issue (September 2010). I don’t feel that you have commented correctly or given much relevant advice on the matter.


Firstly, you say that you are “not aware that Mac Mini’s have an optical audio output”. I think you’ll find most do, well at least for the last few years anyway. Its headphone jack doubles as one giving 24bit-192kHz. You would have to use an optical cable that has TOSLINK to MINIPLUG, i.e. “Van Den Hul Optocoupler MkII (Toslink to Miniplug).”

Then you advise I get a “Musical Fidelity V-DAC” even though I’ve asked for advice on DACs costing £1,000-£1,300.

I feel you have dismissed a lot of what I wrote. I would still very much appreciate any help or advice

Leigh Penny

 

mac-mini-final

New Mac Mini outputs digital audio from USB, optical jack and HDMI.

 

Optical vs. USB

Since the age of 15 (I’m only 25 now) I’ve read hi-fi mags and have come to favour your magazine over the others, based on auditioning a large variety of equipment over the years and tending to agree with a lot of your reviews. So I thought this to be a great opportunity to write in for your opinion on my current dilemma. Since my CD player died, I’ve been seriously researching the best way to incorporate a music server into my hi-fi system. Even though I build PCs and use Microsoft Windows on a daily basis, I’ve decided against this route in favour for an Apple Mac Mini.

 

The problem is that I can’t decide whether to go Optical or USB. My current system consists of: Dynaudio Audience 82 speakers (real wood version), Audio Note L3 preamp (that I built and upgraded with a remote controlled Dact stepped attenuator) and the original Quad IIs (that I’ve sympathetically modified). I know the Quads aren’t ideal to drive the Dyns but I love the sound they produce and I live in a flat, so the low power probably keeps my neighbours happy.

Ideally I’d like to build an AudioNote DAC to connect the Mac Mini to my system, but it doesn’t have an optical input. In my mind I’d prefer to use an optical connection to isolate noise from the Mac.


I have also read that the Mac doesn’t automatically switch between sample rates when outputting to a USB DAC. So I have to change settings in OS X to the correct sample rate of each track to ensure bit-perfect output. But I can’t find information on whether this is an issue when using the optical output.

Most of my music will be ripped from CD to WAV or AIFF format using error correction. But I will want to download higher sample rates in the future when they become more available and I know manually changing the sample rates on the MAC will become tedious. So the questions are: do I use Optical or USB? And if I were to use Optical, what DAC would you recommend for around £1,000-£1,300? Any help/advice would be much appreciated.

Leigh Penny

 

optical-cable-with-adaptor

Maplin's NIKKAI cable and the important bit - an adaptor to fit a  headphone socket (right).

 

AND OUR READERS SAY...

I read with interest the letter from Mr Leigh Penny in the September issue. The Mac Mini does indeed have an optical digital output and has a digital input too. I have never used this but regularly use the output via a Toslink cable connected to a Musical Fidelity V-DAC. Initially, I was puzzled by Apple’s claims that the computer had both a digital input and output (the computer manual is not helpful here) until a little research revealed that what was needed was a Toslink to mini Toslink adaptor. The jack sockets on the computer are dual purpose and when a Toslink cable fitted with the adaptor is used, they give a digital connection.


Like Mr Penny, I too would like to learn about the pros and cons of optical and USB connections and although I find the sound I am getting from computer is generally very good and musically satisfying, I am never sure if everything is set for optimum performance. As someone who became interested in hi-fi in the sixties, I feel at home with matters analogue and although I am familiar with computers and use them on a daily basis, I still feel a bit at sea in the world of computer audio.

I look forward to your magazine every month and always find it an interesting read.

Tom Mercer

Fife

 

optical-out-menu

Sampling rate options for USB were 44.1 and 48kHz with our Intel Mac Mini running Leopard, connected to a Cambridge Audio DAC Magic able to process 96kHz.

 

When it comes to computer audio, I have always regarded your magazine as sort of ‘charmingly misinformed'. But your response to the ‘Optical Mac?’ question however was at best, wrong. At worst it could be described deliberately misleading. Go to - http://support.apple.com/kb/HT4210 for more information on the Mac optical connection.

Mr Penny asked a question about automatic sample rate switching in OSX. The response he got failed to answer the question and was on most individual points incorrect.

Mac Mini’s do have, and always have had, a digital output. Mr Penny is correct when he says that the audio resolution, of sample rate and bit depth, must be preset within Core Audio prior to playback by iTunes. This is set in ‘Audio Midi’ settings. If this is set incorrectly the audio stream will be sample rate converted to match the setting. So, if Core Audio is set to 16/44.1 and Mr Penny plays a 24/96 file, the file will be converted to 16/44.1 prior to being sent to the DAC. There is no automatic way for the sample rate to be matched ‘on the fly’ without investing in additional software and/or hardware.


Mr Penny’s question was to whether this sample rate matching issue was applicable to the optical output. The answer is yes, it is. The issue is one applicable to OSX and will affect all outputs.


I can fully understand that ‘computer audio’, as a whole world if you will, is not the main emphasis of your magazine and that’s fine. Even the slightly patronising tone that is often used, when it comes to things ‘computer’, is okay. The world of audio playback is nothing if not contentious! But incorrect information is unforgivable. You owe Mr Penny an apology.

Bob Hurst

Lincoln

 

In response to Leigh Penny (HFW 20(7) p43) Noel Keywood states that the Mac Mini lacks an optical output. The optical out on a Mac Mini (and the Macbooks and Airport Express) is integrated into the 3.5mm audio out connector and will happily talk to a conventional Toslink socket with the appropriate adaptor plug. Sample rates and bit depth can be tweaked via the Audio Midi application; any additional USB audio devices will show up here too. I’m not sure if all iterations of the Mac Mini have had the optical out so integrated, but I'm fairly sure that all of the Intel based Mac Minis have. Hope this helps. Certainly my three year old MacBook has one as well as my newer machine.

Dr J.D. Atkinson

 

Your statement that Mac Minis do not have an optical output is not correct, as a quick check of the spec sheet on Apple’s website would have shown. The 3.5mm mini-jack on the machine is, in fact, a dual-purpose analogue stereo and mini Toslink output. It is the same interface used on the Airport Express wireless base station and in Apple laptops.

USB may well be a better bet however as the Toslink connection won’t pass sample rates higher than 24 bit/96kHz. FireWire is also a possibility for digital output, as is HDMI on the latest model.

Collin Coleman

Avon

 

usb-control-panel

A USB device declares its identity and must be selected in the Sound control panel within System Preferences.

 

Oh dear oh dear. NK is simply mistaken to claim that the Mac Mini does not have an optical output in the Letters column of Sept ‘10, when replying to Leigh Penny. The headphone socket on the back is a combination socket that also includes optical out.


Then there’s the subject of bit rates, etc. On my Mac Mini using OSX 10.6.4 (and indeed earlier versions) once there is an optical output lead connected to an external DAC, you can alter all sorts of parameters in Utilities > midi > sound input/sound output. I’ve been using my Mac Mini via optical through a DAC for about three years, and I believe (and this personal) that the optical is superior to the USB, to me it just sounds better.

Steve Dixon

 

AND NOEL REPLIES ...

Well, I never knew that! My thanks to all our readers who obviously have Mac Minis and know more about them than me – and even Apple (more later)! And my sincere apologies to all for an inadequate answer.


I bought one of the first Mac Minis and have been using it at home as a ‘silent’ companion ever since, keeping it up to speed with regular DIY disk drive and memory upgrades. So I thought I knew it – and I do. It has no optical output in the headphone socket. Later Macs do, including an Intel Mac Mini I also have (but do not like because the interpretation layer makes it slow), so whilst strictly 'not wrong', I wasn’t usefully right either!


Suitably chastened by your letters I trotted down to Apple’s Mac emporium on London’s Regent Street and asked for an adaptor. “A what?” was the reply from three assistants (I got passed along). After thirty minutes in the stock room a Mac expert sold me a cable that, he assured me, had the adaptor in the box. You can guess the rest. I got the darn thing at Maplin in the end, as an accessory packed with an Nikkai optical cable. So if you want one, try Maplins!


I admit I have never thought of my little, unpretentious and silent companion as having any audio leanings, other than to deliver music from YouTube late at night, when my fingers have reached meltdown. But there’s plenty on the ‘net about Mac Minis being used like this.


Why wouldn’t a Mac Mini deliver music properly? For the usual quoted reasons; noise and jitter. Intrigued by the notion of using a Mac Mini for music (I’ve always associated music and video with my PC) but suspicious that this isn’t the best of ideas, I connected up the Intel Mini’s optical S/PDIF line to our Rohde & Schwarz jitter analyser and saw very little jitter at 44.1kHz sample rate. It looked good. Switching to 48kHz sample rate, jitter and noise rose considerably, suggesting the Mac Mini isn’t ideal. Unfortunately, our analyser doesn’t measure jitter on a 96kHz signal. So it looks like a fair choice of music server, but it’s by no means perfect and hardly purposed for this role. Note that using Optical does not isolate this type of noise. And look at what Naim say about this on their website with regard to the Naim DAC, certified to work with Macs and designed to suppress computer crud.


The Intel Mac Mini has selectable fixed output sample rates of 44.1, 48 and 96kHz via the optical output but only 44.1 and 48kHz via USB, at least with a 96kHz capable Cambridge Audio DAC Magic attached as a test mule, and running OSX Leopard 10.5.8. This may well have risen to 96k in the new Mac Minis, running Snow Leopard, with which I have no experience. It sample rate converted 44.1, 48 and 96k WAV sample rate test files up or down successfully too, meaning 44.1 up to 96k (which is not a multiple) and 96k down to 44.1, without obvious problems. I did not spend to much time on this but the spectrums were clean. Sample rate conversion to non multiples/submultiples can have problems.


optical-out-menu

The 'Format' set is the Mini's output data rate, irrespective of the music file rate. A data rate of 96kHz, shown here is the maximum. 'Digital out' means optical S/PDIF.

 

As readers have pointed out, output rate is set in the Audio tab of the ‘Audio MIDI Setup’ device, found in the Utilities folder, within Applications. Once set, this is the output rate; you do not have to change it. All files are converted to this rate.


Subjectively, optical connection is usually preferred to electrical, if not by everyone. Optical introduces an extra transmitter and receiver which I am told “can have problems”. But there is no signal ground return path to be shared with earth currents and this is the usual quoted advantage, lessening ‘noise’. Optical coupling of S/PDIF invariably gives a less sharp sound than electrical, or one with less temporal definition, according to how you see it. HDMI and USB have the same character as electrical connection, optical having a quite distinct flavour.


All in all then, I suggest you use optical; I usually do. It is a relaxing yet clean listen. The Musical Fidelity V-Dac I recommended is a suitable budget match but a Cyrus DAC-X at £1,200 would be a quality partner. AudioNote’s DAC is quite different in its anti-alias filtering to all others and uses valves of course. You could use a USB-to-S/PDIF converter,  assuming 96k is available from USB in the latest Mac Minis. There’s plenty of music around in 24/96 and it worth having; 24bit resolution especially. I would not worry unduly about 24/192. There’s so little music around at this resolution and my experience to date is that there are no night-and-day advantages over 24/96; generally, it has more intense detailing. And the Mac Mini does not support it yet as far as I am aware, although HDMI on the new Mini has the bandwidth.


I hope this makes all the issues clear – and makes everyone happy too! And my apologies once again for the wonky reply. NK


 

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