Letters • October 2011

Which analog rig?

October 28, 2011


I've written to you on previous occasions and found your insights/impressions very helpful. I hope you might be able to provide me with more of the same regarding the sound of two analog combos: the TW-Acustic Raven / Graham Phantom II / Dynavector XV-1s, and the Basis Signature / Vector 4 / Dynavector XV-1s. I currently own the Dynavector XV-1s cartridge, but I am looking to move from my old VPI HW-19 Mk 3 'table to either a Raven One or Basis Signature 2200. I listen almost exclusively to classical music, so it is important for me to have a turntable that can resolve low-level detail and provide the kind of presence that illuminates instruments at the rear of the soundstage. Perhaps I like a bit closer or more up-front perspective on the orchestra, while retaining a sense of layered depth. I also favor a sound that approaches what I usually hear live in the concert hall; that is, non-fatiguing, with instrumental contours sounding a bit more rounded rather than sharp or excessively tight, and a presentation with an easy, natural flow. That's mainly it!

Jeff Lee

I can't give you much feedback on Basis products -- I've never used a Basis turntable or tonearm in my system. I have heard both at shows, and in the past they've been part of very good demo systems. I will say that I'm somewhat suspect of turntables that use acrylic heavily, as they seem to share a sonic signature that's more about quickness and sharp transients than tonal color and musical flow.

Of course, the TW-Acustic turntables use no acrylic. Instead, their plinths and platters are made of a dense proprietary composite material that, to my ears, has very good sonic properties. I have used a Raven AC with a Graham tonearm for a few years and love it. It presents music with a good ratio of weight to speed, and this meshes well with the Dynavector XV-1s, which I also use. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that this 'table, 'arm and cartridge are a synergistic combination. It presents a robust musical picture that would satisfy your desire for instrumental color and rounded images, although your phono stage will also have influence here. -Marc Mickelson

Ranking the M1.2s

October 26, 2011


A follow-up question on your top-five amp list. I was surprised to see that there is no mention of your long-term reference, the Lamm M1.2 Reference. Does this mean that you feel their sound is outdated by more modern designs as the ones you mentioned?

Thimios Bouloutas

No, I don't think the sound of the M1.2s is "outdated." The amps continue to be my reviewing reference. My informal list, as compiled in my review of the Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks, collects an arbitrary number of amps, with the five I've limited myself to (Convergent Audio Technology JL2 Signature Mk 2 stereo amp, Lamm ML3 Signature monoblocks, Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1 monoblocks, Luxman B-1000F monoblocks, Ayre MX-R monoblocks) being the very best of those I've heard. If the list were expanded to ten, for instance, the Lamm M1.2s, would be on it. By the way, Vladimir Lamm would agree with my ranking of his amps, as he also considers the ML3 Signature the best amp he makes.

What may complicate the list -- possibly requiring that some additions and omissions be made -- is if I get to hear the Audio Research Reference 250, CAT Statement, and VTL Siegfried monoblocks in my system. All are very promising amplifiers. -Marc Mickelson

David Gilmour's "greatness"

October 24, 2011


From your Rocky Mountain Audio Fest report: "This demo was a potent reminder of how innovative and expertly constructed this music was -- and that David Gilmour's greatness cannot be overestimated." Although Gilmour was an unquestionably talented songwriter and guitarist, I would question whether he achieved "greatness." It was only within the context of his collaborations with Roger Waters, the principle songwriter and leader of Pink Floyd, that Gilmour achieved anything approaching greatness. Waters' genius and vision fueled Floyd, with Gilmour playing the role as an exceptionally talented contributor. Waters composed nearly all of Floyd’s music and lyrics, with some minor contribution from Gilmour. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” Floyd's tribute to former band member Syd Barrett (another amazingly creative thinker), is a good case in point. We certainly hear Gilmour’s exceptional prowess as a lead guitarist on "Shine On. . . ," but as was the case for most of Floyd's music, Waters compositionally led this song, with contribution on some sections from Glimour and Richard Wright. On The Wall, Waters wrote most of the songs, with Gilmour sharing credit only on "Comfortably Numb," "Run Like Hell," and "Young Lust." "Comfortably Numb" is a great example of how Gilmour only achieved near-greatness when collaborating with Waters. Gilmour wrote the music for "Comfortably Numb," Waters the lyrics. It's a great song, and it showcases Gilmour’s ability as a songwriter. It also contains one of Gilmour’s most musically beguiling guitar solos. But this song is so hauntingly beautiful because of the counterpoint between Waters and Gilmour -- Gilmour’s music paired with Waters' dark lyrics. The counterpoint continues on the recorded performance; Waters' voice a neurotic, angst-ridden contrast to Gilmour's soothing vocal style; Gilmour singing the chorus ("There is no pain / you are receding. . ."), Waters the verse ("...just a little pinprick / there will be no more (screams) ahhhhhh"). By The Final Cut, Waters was listed as the sole composer. Indeed, the album was subtitled: "A requiem for the post-war dream by Roger Waters, performed by Pink Floyd."

My respect for Gilmour was greatly diminished when he took on the Pink Floyd name sans Waters (one of four founding members of Pink Floyd along with Syd Barrett, Nick Mason, and Richard Wright). Waters left the band believing that Floyd had run its creative course. He had also become disillusioned with Gilmour, contending that he was driven more by ambition than by artistic integrity. Waters initiated a lawsuit against Gilmour and the band in attempt to, among other things, stop them from using the name Pink Floyd. Waters saw Gilmour as a creative hijacker, arguing that he was not an original member of Pink Floyd. With an arrogance that typified Waters, he reasoned that without him as a member, the band was no longer Pink Floyd. He was Pink Floyd. Literally. He pointed out that the character “Pink” central to the theme album The Wall was autobiographically based on Waters. It was during this post-Waters, pseudo-Floyd era that it became apparent to me that Gilmour was disingenuous and opportunistic, exploiting the equity of his old band's name for his own gain, and in the process implicitly attributing to himself Water's creative energy. It is perhaps because of Gilmour's leading role in the post-Waters Floyd that Waters' greatness (and Waters was indeed great) seems to be consistently underestimated -- if not overlooked. In some circles, it was assumed that Waters was dispensable. In reality, in its live performances, Floyd had become a cover band performing music Waters either composed or co-composed. Then came the Pink Floyd albums with musical direction now left to Gilmour. Tom Graves in Rolling Stone perhaps put it best: “. . . ironically enough, [the new Pink Floyd under Gilmour] seems to cry out for someone with an overriding zeal and passion -- in short, a nettlesome, overbearing visionary like Roger Waters.”

To be fair, Waters also struggled as he searched for new creative direction outside the confines of Pink Floyd. His first two solo albums, Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking and Radio K.A.O.S., were strange and idiosyncratic at best. But it finally came together for him on Amused to Death, an album that reached a level of greatness equal to any in the pantheon of Floyd music.

John Giolas

You point out (without stating it) that I should have qualified my statement by saying "Gilmour's greatness as a guitarist cannot be overestimated. . . ." This is, in truth, what I meant. Sorry for being unclear. He has some amazing solos on Wish You Were Here -- amazing for the slow, restrained way they build tension and then release it. -Marc Mickelson

Ranking the Reference 250s

October 20, 2011


Where would you place the Audio Research Reference 250 in the hierarchy of the best tube amps you have heard, such as with the Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1?

Tracy Hill

As I was writing the review of the Atma-Sphere MA-2 Mk 3.1s, I honestly wondered how long it would take to get a question about the Audio Research Reference 250s. Your message came in about a half hour after the review went live.

As I noted in my blog on the Reference 250s, I heard the amps at Audio Research, so how exactly they would fare versus my amplifier "top five" list, all of which I've heard in my system, is guesswork at best. So I will refrain from speculating, other than to say that the Audio Research amps are very strong contenders. I've discussed writing about the Reference 250s with the people at Audio Research, so I may be able to answer your question definitively at some point. Sorry for not being able to do so right now. -Marc Mickelson


October 12, 2011


Well, it started several years back, doctor -- say, seven or eight years ago, when I stumbled on an ad in the back of an old Stereophile magazine. It was for a futuristic-looking, acrylic-and-metal-clad, science-laden equipment rack that had all the glitz and shine of a high-end Krell amp. I was captivated, and so my research began. I read everything that I could about vibration isolation and the various types of vibrations that could significantly diminish the performance of the audio gear I was investing so much money in acquiring. There were floor-borne vibrations, air-borne vibrations, intra-equipment and inter-equipment vibrations. I was warned that without a proper equipment rack that isolated my electronics, I'd never hear the music as it was intended to be heard.

After much adieu and great trepidation, I parted with a few thousand dollars to purchase a Grand Prix Audio (GPA) Monaco rack. Oh, yes, it was revolutionary. It gave me a clearer look into the music. GPA was all I knew then, but was this the best rack offered? Did I make a hasty decision? Is there another rack manufacturer that I'd overlooked? Aren't we all plagued by these questions in this hobby of ours, which is plagued with snake-oil salesmen?

But then, after having been piqued by previous correspondence, I decided to scour the Internet to find all of your reviews, and you sing the praises of Silent Running Audio (SRA) products. Ignorance is truly bliss, but, alas, the horror. In all the reading, I discover that sorbothane deteriorates over time, ensuring the return of your equipment to the vibration hell from whence it was delivered. On the other hand, SRA has a pad under the shelves that can withstand temperature swings like those in the Northeast for up to 200 years.

So now I'm a prisoner of this new knowledge and have returned to seek your help, doctor. Have you any experience with GPA? If so, what are your opinions regarding GPA versus the SRA offerings?

Ray Hendrickson

My experience with Gran Prix Audio comes much the way yours does with Silent Running Audio: secondhand and through the various materials I've read. I have seen Gran Prix Audio products at CES and heard systems in which they were used, but it was impossible to speculate on their contributions. There is real science behind GPA products, and I admire that, but unfortunately I can't say anything substantive about their performance.

On the other hand, I have a great deal of firsthand experience with Silent Running Audio products and think they are thoroughly state of the art. I honestly can't imagine my system without them, so profound is their contribution to the sonic outcome, especially since I've become more engrossed in analog. To further pique your interest, we'll be publishing a review of SRA's newest rack, the lower-priced Scuttle, very soon, so you'll get to find out what another TAB writer thinks about SRA and its products. -Marc Mickelson

45s worth it?

October 6, 2011


I moved my racks around a few months ago, and this has enabled me to get to my turntable easier, and I am now playing more records than ever before. I have been playing only 33s on my 'table, but I can play 45s if I want to. The spindle has two notches -- one for 33 and one for 45. I only need to move the drive string to the larger notch to play 45s. I have yet to try this, however. What are your thoughts on 45rpm LPs available? Do they sound better than 33s?

Mike Doukas

There's an important technical advantage to the 45rpm speed. Each portion of groove has to hold less information when the record is spinning faster, resulting in better sound. There is also the matter of the groove's width. At 45rpm, an LP generally has more room, as the program is limited to around 12 minutes, and the mastering engineer can use that space to produce a record that's truer to the sound of the master tape, especially the bass.

The 45s from Music Matters, Analogue Productions and Original Recordings Group are created with extreme care at every step, including tracking down the very best source tape. Because of this, as well as the technical advantages and care at the time of pressing, these records are state of the art and really the highest-fidelity way to hear music here and now. Of course, all of this means a higher price as well -- $50 to $60 -- but many audiophiles believe that the end product is worth the extra cost. -Marc Mickelson

Tubes vs. solid state for guitarists

October 3, 2011


Here's an interesting question from my son, who is studying guitar. Many guitar players use tube amps; also, of course, many use solid-state amps. Wouldn't a musician playing live prefer solid state in the event that a tube blows in the middle of, say the solo in "Comfortably Numb"? What does one do? I would think tubes may be the choice for a studio-recording's controlled environment, but live I would think most artists would go solid state. Any thoughts?

Sheldon Simon

I have been playing plugged in and out for many, many years and have never lost a tube and can't think of an instance where a friend has either. Guitar amps are a fairly benevolent environment for tubes, it seems, and I really don't think failure is a consideration. Old tubes just get better before fading gently away. Having said that, it is of course worth having a couple of replacements in your kit bag.

The much more important point is the difference in sound quality between tube and solid-state guitar amps. Obviously this is personal, but for me there is no comparison. I'll take tubes all day, every day. In an audio system, you might want a completely neutral, colorless amp, but in a guitar system you want completely the opposite. Tube amps have a soft, warm clipping sound and plenty of tone and sustain. Solid-state amps have gotten better, but I only use them as practice amps. When you take them into clipping and distortion they have a nasty, square-wave-type edgy distortion that tires listeners very quickly. Of course, if you are a merciless thrash-metal axeman, you like to make ears bleed.

So, for what it is worth, go tube and let the solos flow. -Chris Thomas

Speaker-amp interface

October 1, 2011


I am writing because I have a technical question that was sparked based on some recent threads that appeared in online discussion forums. The threads touched on the advantages of using high-current amps for certain types of speakers. This reminded of a white paper that Ralph Karsten of Atma-Sphere wrote some time back about the so-called Power Paradigm versus the Voltage Paradigm.

So here's my question. I own Paradigm Signature S8 v2 speakers. My electronic gear includes an Audio Research Reference 5 preamp and Audio Research VS115 amp. Do you think that tube amps in general and my VS115 in particular are a good, bad or neutral amp to match with the Signature S8s? To help with your answer, I am attaching a link to some S8 test results that report on impedance and phase across the frequency range. I realize that these values vary quite a bit over the frequency range for pretty much all speakers for technical reasons relating to the crossover attributes, back EMF, cabinet resonance and so forth. But in the case of the S8s, its impedance and phase graphs look like roller coasters.

For what it's worth, to my ears, my system sounds great. No apparent distortion, clipping or strain that I can hear. But what do I know? Maybe ignorance is bliss. I was thinking about hooking up my recently factory-refurbished Crown Series II D150A amp for fun to hear how solid-state amplification sounds, but I realized that my Reference 5 and VS115 are balanced and I don't have the correct cables to use the Crown amp.

So, bottom line, what do you think? I think my question obviously has relevance and application for pretty much all amp/speaker matches.

Bruce Feinstein

First, regarding the measurements you cite, while they do indicate something about the speakers and subwoofer measured, they aren't particularly useful, because they were taken in room, not in an anechoic chamber or even under quasi-anechoic conditions. They even undercut themselves by mentioning the existence of "room effects" without giving any indication of their severity or where they might occur. In this case, you literally can't separate the speakers from the effect of the room in which they were measured, so you can't tell exactly what the speakers are doing. These measurements are a curiosity and hardly definitive.

I am very familiar with Ralph Karsten's paper on the Power and Voltage Paradigms. I've read it closely and even quoted from it in the past. Additionally, I'm reviewing Atma-Sphere amps right now. For your purposes, however, the relationship between speaker impedance and amplifier output is pertinent. Speakers that present a low-impedance load need an amplifier with a low output impedance, so the combination of the two products doesn't create a sonic outcome that's seriously colored. Regarding current, the issue here is the impedance and the phase angle of the impedance plot. Low-impedance speakers with a steep phase angle theoretically require a high-current amplifier.

Theoretically. I think you actually answer your own question with "to my ears, my system sounds great." Ralph Karsten answers it as well with the distinction he makes between the Voltage and Power Paradigms. Your Audio Research amp has the power output and low impedance that make it suitable for use with most speakers, and not surprisingly your Paradigm Signature S8s. When it comes to audio, I don't trust what I see (in measurements, that is) over what I hear, and I likewise don't trust anyone who does. There are plenty of audiophiles (and, sadly, audio reviewers) who, at best, listen to sound, not music. They are seriously misguided, because no one buys speakers in order to admire their measurements. If you like what you hear, this matters over and above what any measurements or theories on what's "proper" seem to indicate. -Marc Mickelson


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