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)

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New AKGs are in…

It’s been a while since I last added to my already sizeable (and frankly unnecessary) collection of headphones, but now was the time.

Although new models come on the market regularly, the one “top of the line” model that I really wanted to get was the AKG K812. Up until a few months ago they have been very expensive and were only sold at RRP, but as they have started appearing at discounted prices I’ve renewed my interest. Although I’ve been eyeing them for a while now, it wasn’t until last week the stars finally aligned (or at least the combination of bank balance and foreign exchange rates 🙂 ) and I could finally press the “buy” button.

When it came on the market some of the first reviews of the K812 mentioned harsh treble, but on the few occasions I’ve demoed them it didn’t sound particularly harsh to me. To be on the safe side I’ve bought one of the later-model “Made in Slovakia” ones, mainly on an assumption that any treble issues might have been teething problems in the first production runs of the original “Made in Austria” series.

I’m quite a big fan of the AKG house sound – and I have been since I first bought the K501 model when it was “flavour of the month” on head-fi a little over 15 years ago (yes, time flies…). I also own the K701, K550, K495NC and a few others and just as I expected my initial impressions of the K812 are that they are “more of the same” but better. As is the case with most other large AKG models (at least for me) the K812s are very, very comfortable once properly adjusted and I think I can wear them for a long time before they start being uncomfotable. For someone who wears glasses, this is definitely not a given when you buy a high-end headphone.

Obviously this purchase impacts the audio-related budget for my next big trip (in a couple of weeks) a little bit, but that’s ok – I’m sure it’ll be worth it once I get to spend a bit more time with these new AKGs 😀

k812

One-button listening…

I know I’m not supposed to admit this, but over the last months I’ve become more and more aware that sound quality isn’t the only factor in deciding how much I listen to my system.

I’ve mentioned this in a previous post, but my first “real” audio system was a Harman-Kardon CD and integrated amp. One of the things I still remember – more than 20 years on – is that I could get music just by turning on the two components and there was next to no waiting time. By contrast I am now using a MacMini as my primary music source, which means having to wait 30-40 secs. for the computer to start up and then controlling the sound either from an iPad app or by having to turn on the TV, selecting the right input etc. It’s a much more complicated process, not to mention that I still need a separate remote to control the integrated amplifier and so on.

Part of my response to this incredible hardship obvious first-world problem ( 😀 ) was to start listening more to vinyl, but something still wasn’t perfect. Vinyl is great for “serious” listening – I enjoy the involvement in the process – but for background music while I’m doing something else I find vinyl is less than ideal.

All this changed a bit when I recently sold the Musical Fidelity integrated amplifier that I was using in my main system. Instead I went back to using some of my DIY-stuff together with a newly-acquired Arcam IRdac (the “old” version as Arcam has just announced the IRdac II). The original IRdac has an input for an Apple-device to which I’ve connected a 160GB iPod Classic filled with lossless files (officially the Classic isn’t supported by the IRdac but I can report it works fine 🙂 ).

This is excellent for background music even if the MacMini with iTunes/Amarra does mean a step up in sound quality. The remote for the IRdac can control play/pause and forward/backwards skipping on both the iPod and in iTunes which means my whole system can be operated with a single remote. When using the iPod the whole thing is ready to play in the time it takes to switch on the three components as the iPod turns on immediately.

Soundwise the new setup is is a bit better than the Musical Fidelity integrated, but from a usability perspective it’s honestly miles ahead – I can use a “simple” source (the iPod) when I just listen to background music, and I can use a more “complicated” source (computer or vinyl) if I want to. The only thing I need now is that the IRdac remote can control volume as well. Sadly this isn’t possible with a stepped attenuator (for obvious reasons) but this could be the starting point for another project 😀

So, you might ask – what’s the point of this post? Well, I don’t know if there is one, only that this part of the “customer experience” with a product should not be forgotten and might play a bigger role (even subconsciously) in how a product is perceived than most people might think.

Back from Japan…

I am now back again (physically at least) from two weeks in Japan. As the trip was a holiday and I could set the pace myself there was plenty of time to explore audio-related stuff 🙂

My credit card statement tells me I have managed to take full advantage of the fact that there is a good selection of DIY parts shops in both Tokyo and Osaka – and while domestic prices in Japan tend to be lower than where I am that’s easily fixed by simply buying more stuff 😀

Special thanks to Pete Millett for providing a useful page of links for where to go shopping. Although I found most of these places on my last trip to Tokyo, Pete’s page has been very useful to me both in Tokyo and Taipei so definitely worth a mention here.

As was the case last year, this year’s expensive souvenir was also a pair of expensive Japanese-made headphones, namely these:

th900

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 😀

vinylaction

A comment on audio reviews

No, it’s not me making it….

I normally don’t just link to contents like this, but if you’ve ever read an audio review and been annoyed/frustrated/puzzled about how reviews are written then this post by Srajan Ebaen (the owner and founder of 6moons.com) is well worth a read. You may not agree with the man, but he does make some important points I think.

Incidentally, both 6moons and digitalaudioreview.net where the post is published are well worth following if you aren’t already 🙂

Changing of the guard…

Normally I wouldn’t really post updates about my non-DIY gear, but today is an exception. Because today I have gone from this:

Elac Air Motion Transformer tweeter

Elac in-house built “Air Motion Transformer” tweeter

 

to this!

Sonus Faber "ring radiator" tweeter by Vifa/Scan Speak

Sonus Faber “Ring Radiator” tweeter by Vifa/Scan Speak

 

It is a pre-owned pair of Sonus Faber Cremona Auditor Ms in graphite finish. The speakers are app. 4 years old (based on the serial number, I don’t know it exactly) but in immaculate condition and bought from a German dealer for what I think is a very reasonable price. I have been lusting over these for a long time now (since before the “M” version was introduced) because not only are these superb speakers, they are also in my opinion little works of art 🙂 The craftsmanship clearly shows when you look at the finish.

I’ll still keep the Elacs (and enjoy them) for surround sound, but in my stereo setup (which accounts for by far the majority of my listening hours at the moment), the Sonus Fabers will be moving in instead. This probably also means that some of my ongoing DIY speaker projects and part of my “collection” of unused drivers will be moving out over the next couple of months, but let’s see. For now I am really looking forward to listening more over the weekend and the coming weeks.

And as for the obvious question: Do they sound as glorious as they look? – Well, so far the answer is a resounding “yes”! 😀

My hifi-gear (non-DIY)

If I only had DIY gear, I would probably never listen to any music because it is either in the process of being assembled or being disassembled again to be improved 😉 Here is a (non-exhaustive) list of the main non-DIY gear I use in my various systems.

 

Sources: 

  • MacMini with Apple Lossless files and iTunes/Amarra Hi-Fi software (only used as Audio/Video source).
  • Pro-Ject Debut Carbon turntable with Ortofon OM30 cartridge and Mitchell low-mass record clamp (seldom used)
  • iPod classics (several) with Apple Lossless files and Cambridge ID100/Pure i20 docks
  • iMac 21.5″ (desktop)

Surround:

  • Audiolab 8000AP processor (connected to MacMini via optical connection)

Stereo:

Speakers:

Headphones:

  • Grado SR325 (the original version)
  • AKG K501
  • AKG K701
  • AKG K550
  • Sennheiser HD330 (computer)
  • B&W P5 (travel)
  • Beyerdynamic T50p (travel)

Misc:

“Behringer stack” made up of the SRC2496 ADC/DAC, the DEQ2496 digital equalizer and the DCX2496 crossover modified with a built-in volume control. This setup  is used (sparingly) for various speaker-related experiments where the powerful DSP equalizer and the electronic crossover makes it easy to experiment with different configurations. Unfortunately I don’t often have the time (or the available space) to build speakers.
The SRC2496 DAC is also very handy to have around since will work as a sample-rate converter, a DAC and an ADC depending on how you configure it. It also accepts more or less all input formats and will output analog audio as well as digital audio in both TOSLINK and AES/EBU formats.