From Hi-Fi World - July 2005 issue
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Welcome to Hi-Fi World’s tuner surprise, in which we take a look at the past, present and future of hi-fi radio… First, three absolute classics for your pleasure, then the moderns. David Price and Channa Vithana are at the controls - enjoy!
TUNER: YAMAHA CT-7000
PRICE NEW: £600
The thing that dreams are made of, at least if you believe the talk that surrounds this legendary early nineteen seventies design. Indeed, the very mention of the hallowed name causes some to bow down in deference, as if they’re not worthy. With the possible exception of the Leak Troughline, this is undoubtedly the most hyped tuner in history.
For those not in the loop, who’ve always assumed their Naim NAT-01 or Linn Pekin was the best simply because of the stunning things these two British designs do with BBC Radio 3 live broadcasts, let me introduce you to the CT-7000.
Back in the early 1970s, Japan Inc. was falling over itself to do the best hi-fi yet made, if not to show to the world what its engineers were capable of, then to prove this to rival Japanese companies. The result was that it launched itself, and the world, into a ‘golden age’ of stunning high end products using the best brains and technology of the day. Yamaha was a particularly important player, not least because of its epoch making NS1000 loudspeaker,
Japanese styling has always been faddish; its products often look immensely futuristic and ‘leading edge’ for about six months after launch and then date very badly. Interesting then how disarmingly crisp the CT-7000 looks even now. Aside from the wood casing (which would of course now be silver pressed steel), it’s very well turned out. All the ancillary controls are behind a hinged metal flap, while the tuning dial and meters are beautifully understated.
The CT-7000 isn’t the best equipped tuner ever made, but it includes a useful variable rate switchable FM muting control and a signal meter that doubles as a multipath meter. As is compulsory on Japanese high end, there’s a 6.3mm headphone jack with volume control. Round the back, there are fixed and variable level audio outputs and multipath outputs for an oscilloscope. At nearly 15kg, this is one of the most solidly made Japanese tuners ever.
Inside, it’s textbook high end tuner – in fact, it probably wrote the textbook. Beautifully laid out with separate boards, shielding and cabling, plus high quality discrete componentry, it’s designed to keep interference between sections to a minimum and signal integrity as high as possible. It boasts a 7-gang tuning capacitor with 7 IF filters (mixed ceramic and LC types) and a discrete MPX decoder.
In use I have to say that the CT-7000 shows its age in its (lack of) ability to pick up stations and stay tuned in to them. Its front end is middling by today’s standards, and the likes of Hitachi’s 1983 FT-5500 mk II (see p38-39) would embarrass it the selectivity stakes. It works okay with ‘wet string’ antennas, but don’t expect it to work wonders.
Given a serious signal however, and the Yamaha flies. In 2005, it spends most of its life telling you just how awful most analogue radio broadcasts are. You can hear all the compression, digitisation and various other signal-ruining activities going on by the broadcasters. Hit it with a BBC Radio 3 live broadcast, and suddenly things change however. The Yamaha displays incredible detail, with amazing incision in the treble, a tight, taut bass and wonderful dimensionality. Twiddle the knob to Radio 2 and things are still pretty impressive; full and warm and musically engaging.
I loved it, but I think I would have loved it more if I hadn’t heard so much hype – an old NAD 4020 with a serious aerial wouldn’t be too far behind, at about one hundredth of the price. Methinks the myth and legends surrounding this tuner are partly from its stunning build, ergonomics and aesthetics, but it sure does sound great too...
TUNER: SANSUI TU-9900
PRICE NEW: £500
It’s hard to believe that the Sansui comes from the same year as the Yamaha, displaying – as it does – all the signs of late nineteen sixties styling, cues which incidentally are still prevalent in Japanese high end even today. To wit, it’s big, shiny, button festooned and has chunky wood side-cheeks.
Sansui is a name that’s faded from grace, at least in the UK.Construction quality is superb, giving little away despite its lower price. Still, remember that this was when £86 would buy you a brand new Linn Sondek LP12, so its £400 selling price wasn’t exactly small beer (go figure!)… Most attractive is the large, expansive tuning dial and excellently weighted flywheel tuning knob. It’s easy to forget now, but before the age of presets, the user interface was the beginning and end of a tuner. After all, what was the point of a stunning radio receiver if it has all the delicacy and finesse of a pneumatic drill? The touch and feel of machines was always so important to the Japanese. (Remember this was from an age when – arguably the most stunning Ferrari ever, the Daytona – was as genteel and well behaved as a Massey Ferguson tractor, and it wasn’t until the Japanese arrived with the 1988 Honda NSX that the supercar breed was truly finessed).
The TU-9900 is about as gadget festooned as was possible in 1974 – there’s a row of buttons proffering antenna attenuation, variable selectivity, noise cancelling, muting (fixed level), calibration tone and metering (signal or multipath). There’s switchable FM stereo/mono and variable headphone level, plus the usual power switch. Round the back, there’s the usual analogue audio outs, antennae ins and a ‘scope out.
Inside, the Sansui is nicely detailed, neat and tidy with serious front end boasting with 5 gangs and 3 IF filters (two of which have 4 stages). There aren’t many ‘designer’ passive components, but you’re left with the impression that it’s all been extremely thoroughly engineered, and isn’t an embarrassment after looking under the hood of the much pricier Yamaha. Contrast this to Sony’s rival offerings like the ST-5950, which was a veritable rat’s nest of passive components stuffed in willy-nilly, and the Sansui must have been well regarded in this respect.
Indeed, power it up, let it warm through and you’re not disappointed. I found the TU-9900 more sensitive and selective than the CT-7000, despite it being from virtually the same time in history (you have to remember that, by and large, tuners had improved noticeably in this respect by the end of the seventies). It pulled in weak stations with confidence, and there was an obvious lack of noises which I’d heard from the Yamaha. Certainly it’s superior to the CT-7000 in this respect.
What then of sound quality? Well, surprisingly, I’d say it was better here too. Of course, the caveat is that we’re not listening to three new tuners here, so our subjective findings are contingent on alignment and component durability (basically, whether the Sansui’s electrolytics have gone the distance better than the Yams…). Yet still I found the Sansui to be a warmer and more euphonic sounding device, closer to greats such as the Leak Troughline, than the Yamaha. Indeed, the TU-9900 showed the CT-7000 as a little on the analytical side for my tastes. The latter is certainly detailed, almost forensically so by comparison. It’s easier to discern the four walls of a radio studio (on a Radio 4 speech transmission) through the 7000, while the 9900 is less precise and considerably more expansive in its stage width and depth. Again, the former locates front to back images with greater precision but lacks the sheer depth of field of the latter.
Never let it be said that the Yamaha CT-7000 is a cold and unlovely performer – by today’s standards it’s positively euphonic – but the Sansui TU-9900 was still blessed with a lovely, natural tonality that I came back to time and time again. This was actually of greatest benefit on AM, where its richness (colouration?) made it positively pleasant experience. Factor in the Sansui’s superior front end (i.e. ability to pull in all and sundry from a poor twig) and I find myself surprised to say that, for me, this proved superior. What then of the mighty Revox B760...?
TUNER: REVOX B760
PRICE NEW: £1000
Even the Japanese never managed to make a tuner as visually impressive as the Revox. It was mind bogglingly expensive back then, and boy did it look it. The tuner equivalent of an Aston Martin V8 Vantage, it has massive physical presence, a blue-chip brand name and a finish that even no Japanese high end tuner can match – which is really saying something.
Styling is actually quite successful, despite the profusion of buttons and switches. Indeed the 1977/ 78 model year was a particularly strong period for Revox. Buoyed by the success of the new B77, the replacement to the classic A77 open reel tape recorder, it was on a roll. It boasted extremely high quality matching equipment for this machine, including a massive integrated amplifier, a parallel tracking, direct drive, quartz-locked turntable and this, the tuner.
So plastered in bells and whistles is the B760 that it makes the already well appointed Sansui TU-9900 look like an entry level NAD. Most importantly, it’s notable for being an FM synthesiser design with a large LED digital display of tuning frequency in 50kHz steps to the left of the central tuning knob. Also provided are conventional analogue tuning and signal strength meters, underneath which are push-buttons for preset memory storage and manual tuning selection.
To the left is a volume control knob and a switch for Dolby FM ‘noise reduction’ – one of the great non-events in VHF/FM history (the format was planned, and many high end tuners built with the circuitry in place, but never saw the light of day). To the right, there’s a bank of fifteen presets, switches for Hi Blend (a popular facility at the time, which blends the stereo channels in a bid to lower hiss), a mono switch and an elaborate muting facility. Then there’s the upper flap, which opens to reveal switches for variable FM de-emphasis, preset memory store modes and adjuster pots for output level and threshold controls.
The Revox is a beautiful tuner to use, although still struggles to attain the accessibility of the Yamaha, even if it does boast those ‘new fangled’ presets. Indeed it feels far less intuitive and more fussy, yet in a way one gets the sense that that’s probably what its buyers’ wanted – to be constantly reminded of its complex, technical nature. Construction is peerless- it’s a very nice ‘object’ to have in your front room.
Amusingly, despite all the Revox’s techno wizardry, it struggles to attain the tuning performance of the Yamaha, let alone the Sansui. It has difficulty both receiving and holding on to distant FM stations. Even when given a decent antenna to work with, it was noisier than both (older) Japanese tuners here, a surprising result, and things got progressively worse as the signal deteriorated.
Sonically the B760 was also something of disappointment. It’s good in absolute terms (especially compared to cheap synthesiser tuners), but really isn’t anything special to anyone who’s heard a NAD 4020 or Creek 3140. Bass is warm and full, which is probably its best attribute. It ‘fills’ the speakers, and establishes a sense of presence for itself in the listening room. Yet in this respect it is no better than the Yamaha, which does the rest of the frequency range so much better.
Indeed, the B760 is quite mid-forward. It’s not stridently so, but it projects confidently and assertively into the room, but fails to hang back images in space like either of the Japanese tuners. The result is a slightly two-dimensional sound, which the wonderfully expansive Sansui highlights all the more. The midband is detailed and controlled, but again the Yamaha is obviously more so. Worst of all is the treble, which is pretty perfunctory and lacks the incision and air of either group rival - and the tonal warmth of the Sansui is nowhere to be heard either, despite the obviously curtailed top end. Overall, the Revox is an amazing bit of kit, but not an audiophile dreamboat. It’s something I’d love to own, but I can’t help thinking a well set-up modern day NAD or Creek would cause it real embarrassment. To find out, read on…