Small thing – big difference

I don’t normally write (much) about the commercial gear that I buy, but for once I’ll make an exception.

I’ve actually owned both the previous versions of the Audioquest Dragonfly (DF) USB DACs but sold them after a relatively short time because I did not really need them anyway. Thanks to an ad on a local classifieds page I now find myself as the owner of the third generation DF as well – the Dragonfly Red. Apart from the new looks – which I really like – the new series of DFs also have the benefit of much lower power consumption, meaning they can be used with mobile devices.

I therefore tried hooking up the DF to both my iPhone and iPad. To be honest I wasn’t expecting that much, but it really does make a significant difference to the sound quality. The downside is of course that your phone becomes quite a bit less portable with a couple of extra dongles and adapters hanging off it, but the benefit in sound quality seems worth it. I wouldn’t use it every day, but if I really had to travel light then using the DF would save me packing and carrying a separate music player which could be very handy.

Photo of the device and a “real” red Dragonfly as well for comparison 😉 (that picture was taken by yours truly in Hong Kong – coincidentally exactly two years ago today)


Shopping in Japan (again…)

Yes, I’ve just returned from a two-week trip to Japan – my third in as many years. Apart from a load of sightseeing and general holiday’ing, just as the two previous trips (see here and here) I had a chance to do some shopping. Not the only reason for going, shopping in Japan is in my opinion an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed for any audio and electronics enthusiast 🙂

Although it is no doubt just a shadow of its former self in this respect, Tokyo’s Akihabara district (and it’s less well-known counterpart in Osaka, Nipponbashi or “Den-den”-town) are still interesting places for DIY’ers to walk around and browse. The pictures below are from a couple of the shops I’ve passed on my way and I’m sure you’ll agree it looks interesting 🙂 Finding adresses can be a bit tricky – and not everything in Japan is on the ground floor for all to see – but there are a few good resources available online on where to go, such as Pete Millet’s “Parts in Asia” page that covers Tokyo and various blog posts.

Is it cheaper than buying online? Not always to be honest, but it’s definitely much more fun! 😀

So, what can (or should) you buy in Japan then?

Well, if you are from Europe like me, most Japan-made items will be cheaper there. If you are in the US, the prices might not be all that competitive for everything but it’s still worth having a look around.

Apart from finished electronics that aren’t wall-powered (anything wall-powered is often 100V-only for the Japanese market and so not useable anywhere else), that means headphones and other gear from the likes of Stax, Audio-Technica and all the usual big-name brands like Sony, Pioneer, Denon and Onkyo. Smaller electrical items which use outboard power supplies may also work, provided you factor in the cost of replacing the PSU and of course accept that the warranty on Japanese items usually isn’t valid outside of Japan.

It also means cables and connectors from the likes of Canare, Mogami and Oyaide as well as a heap of excellent-quality tools. I’d especially recommend the Japanese “Engineer” brand where everything I’ve seen and tried seems to be excellent quality. There are several other interesting tool brands as well, but the stuff from Engineer seems to be consistently good and prices in Japan can be 30-50% lower than the EU prices I’ve seen (although the yen has climbed a fair bit against the Euro over the last year).

I also saw several places selling loose connectors of the most well-known series from Molex and JST. These can be hard to get as well, so being able to get singles just off the street might be helpful. There were a few shops with audio-grade parts like ICs, pots and capacitors and again, Japanese brands like Muse capacitors and Alps pots were generally cheaper. A bonus should be that these parts are probably less likely to be fakes than if you shop on ebay etc.

If you are into tubes, there are a few good places for both tubes and accessories such as transformers (see Pete Millets page for details). Don’t expect to find screaming bargains (although you might) and ignore at your own peril that tubes don’t necessarily travel well and transformers will tend to take a big chunk out of your airline luggage allowance 🙂

Oh, and of course regardless of whether your shopping allowance is more limited (or far greater) than mine, Japan is still a phenomenally interesting place that I highly recommend visiting if you get the chance 🙂

Scope creep…

For those not already familiar with the term it is when projects suddenly grow in size and complexity – often without anyone actually realising why. This little teaser is exactly one of those projects 🙂

I recently (and very innocently) found two PCBs that someone was trying to offload cheaply on diyaudio. I decided to buy them because I like the design and because I knew I had most of the parts to build them (no, I’m not telling you what it is just now 😀 ).

However, once I starting thinking about how to actually use the PCBs, what was originally intended as a simple job for a rainy Sunday afternoon quickly grew a bit more complicated. As a result, I’ve already spent more or less the first Sunday afternoon fabricating two slabs of aluminium to mount the boards on and designing the rest of the chassis components. I still need to go through the BoM to validate that I do have all the components and no – I haven’t even started on populating the PCBs yet 🙂

On one hand it’s part of the fun to just take a project and see where it goes – on the other hand I do sometimes wish that I was a little more realistic with my up-front planning 😉


Thoughts on audiophile -isms

The debate between the subjectivist and objectivist camps of the audiophile community is probably about as old as the community itself. (Too) much has been written which there’s no need to repeat here, but if you are new to the game there’s an excellent post on this topic by Schiit audio co-founder Jason Stoddard here.

Incidentally, if you are the kind of diy’er that sometimes consider turning your hobby into a (sideline) business, then I urge you to read through all of Jason’s “blog-book” posts on head-fi as there is lots of useful information there. Anyway, that was a bit of a sidetrack… 🙂

(Also, feel free to skip the rest of this post if you’re the kind of audio diy’er that genuinely only really cares about the music (I’ve heard they exist although I don’t recall ever meeting one 😀 ))

My own position on subjectivism vs. objectivism should hopefully be possible to read in my posts, but very briefly: I have too much of an engineering mind to believe that measurements are pointless, but I have also had plenty of “audiophile” experiences to suggest that measurements don’t necessarily always tell the whole story. Whether this is then complete placebo and wishful thinking on my part I don’t know, but in any case it’s all part of the experience for me 🙂

My main point (and the only thing I want to add to the debate) is that you can be a little of both – but not at the same time. You have to make it clear whether there is objective reasoning behind you decisions and comments and when it is based on subjective opinions – however valid they may seem.

Case in point (and what actually prompted me thinking about this in the first place) – the number of questions I get on whether a specific amplifier needs an input buffer:

In a small number of borderline cases the answer is clear – the buffer is needed to prevent impedance mismatches that cause a significant (and objectively observable) change in the frequency response and loss of output drive capability. However, in most “normal” situations there is objectively no need (with emphasis) to include a buffer – but that does not mean that there isn’t a subjective change if you add it anyway and which might be preferable to you.

That to me is the essence of this debate (and about as far into it as I want to venture) – and hopefully I’ll be able to make it clear enough in my writings when I am being subjectivist and when I am being objectivist.

Anyway, in other (possibly more relevant) news: I’ve just placed my first new PCB order in months 😀 Nothing really ground-breaking I’m afraid, but still something to look forward to in a few weeks 🙂

Going “retro”….

For the past few months I have noticed something: Most of my everyday listening is with a portable rig, either at my desk at work or during the daily commute. When I am at home, while I have my entire 800+ CD-collection ripped to lossless files and a whole dedicated setup for listening to it (dedicated Mac Mini with Audiolab M-DAC etc.) I was actually not using it a lot. It’s not that I don’t like the sound, but it is a bit of a faff having to turn everything on, wait for the computer to start up and then having to either turn on the TV to navigate or get out an iPad/iPod/iPhone to use the remote app etc.

After this (slow) realisation, I started thinking back to when I started playing music on my own. My first “real” system was a simple Harman/Kardon CD-player and integrated amp and I lived happily with that for nearly ten years. There was nothing to wait for, just two on-switches and a play-button and then there was music, and there was a bit more “tactility” to the process overall (if not much). I don’t think I’ll ever really go back to the CDs, but I have actually – slowly but surely – started playing a lot more vinyl at home.

Some would say that I have just succumbed to the first “wave” of accumulated nostalgia when you reach your mid-thirties, but it’s not as if I have a long history of actually using vinyl records. Of course I am old enough to know how they work ( 😉 ) and I can remember playing records when I was younger on my parents’ stereo. But when I started buying my own music in the early nineties, CD was already the format of choice (and cassettes were still common as well, mainly for exchanging music with friends). The only friends that bought vinyl were a couple with older siblings that had turntables and even they switched to CDs very quickly. As a result, I’ve never really had that much affection for the vinyl format so I do challenge the notion that this is just misty-eyed nostalgia at work 🙂

To add to that, the turntable obviously has its share of downsides – I had for instance mostly forgotten just how short the side of a record seems when you are working on something and just playing music in the background. I had also forgotten just how much dust a record is capable of attracting and how annoying scratches can be. My turntable is nothing special (a simple Project Debut Carbon albeit with an upgraded cartridge and an aftermarket plexiglass platter), but even so – it sounds very good and it is definitely more of an “experience” or “occasion” to put on a record, lower the stylus and wait for music to come out of the speakers.

So, there we go – I said it: For me this hobby isn’t really about sound quality (at least not only) but also about the experience. Blasphemy to some audiophiles, but a revelation to others maybe? If nothing else, I guess it provides an explanation (or excuse…) for why I continue to design, build and buy a lot of gear that I may never really get to use 😀