Life as I see it episode #15. Sometimes the theory doesn’t work

 

Why in the world did systems with single ended tube amps sound good? By all rights they should sound terrible. Anything with that much distortion should only have made things sound worse. And yet, opinions are sharply divided. Why? Turns out there is a reasonable, if complicated possible explanation. This is a geeky story but I think it has some potential lessons outside the audio world… I actually recorded this a week ago but am just now publishing it. Gotta stay up to date!

 

 

Here’s the article on how second harmonic distortion could potentially be beneficial.

 

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Life as I see it podcast #13 I got new speakers!

 

Yes, I got a new system. This time the system is mostly just the speakers. I have ditched my vacuum tubes (gasp) and ton to an active speaker system. A regular system gets a small signal from a source (CD player, computer, etc.), goes to an amplifier, gets sent to the speaker where it is split between the woofer and tweeter and then you hear sound. That is how 99% of all systems work. An active system does it slightly differently. You still get a small signal from a source but you send that to the seekers directly. It is then split into the different frequency ranges. Each driver in the speaker has its own amplifier, amplifying only the frequencies that are given to it. This has a lot of technical advantages, most of them revolving around the ability to have a sharper distinction of the frequencies going to each driver (steeper slope in the crossover) and much better control over the drivers (the amplifiers are directly coupled to the voice coil). The result is a much more dynamic, clearer, and more accurate speaker. Plus, this particular speaker uses Digital Signal Processing (DSP) to correct for some of the inevitable issues and compromises that are involved with every speaker design. I’ve gone from WWII vintage technology to 21st century!

 

I got a pair of Equator Audio D8 speakers.

D8

It’s a coaxial speaker, much like my long time favorites KEF. It shares the open, wide soundstage and wonderful tonality. It adds fantastic clarity and dynamics. I think this has been a great upgrade. Anyone looking for some kick ass single ended tube amps?

 

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Welcome to Night Vale

 

The Idea Channel on YouTube is always interesting but I think its real value to me is how it exposes me to things that I wouldn’t know about otherwise. It was the first to clue me into Adventure Time (I still need to watch some more before coming to a conclusion about that). Tonight I learned about Welcome to Night Vale, an apparently very popular podcast about casual horror and weirdness. It consists of a local radio news show reporting on events in the town. That wouldn’t be so interesting but Night Vale is one weird place. “A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights cross the sky as we pretend to sleep. Welcome to Night Vale.” A typical PSA on the radio would be something like this… “The city council announces a new dog park at the corner of Earl and Summorset. They would like to remind everyone that dogs are not allowed in the dog park, people are not allowed in the dog park. It is possible that you will see hooded figures in the dog park, do not approach them. DO NOT APPROACH THE DOG PARK. The fence is electrified and highly dangerous. Try not to look at the dog park and especially do not look for any period of time at the hooded creatures. The dog park will not harm you.” I also liked the reminder that, “It’s election time again! We all know what that means, you will receive paperwork designating which family members will be held to insure you vote correctly…”

 

It’s a dystopian, Lovecraft inspired Monty Pythonesque dose of the absurd with a dash of Buffy humor thrown in for good measure. It’s a free podcast and comes out twice a month, I recommend it highly.

 

Stereo overhaul

OK, Last stereo post for a while, I swear…

 

I have been willing to put up with a lot over the years in order to get the sound I wanted from my stereo. My goal has always been to get an equivalent emotional response as I would to a live show. It wouldn’t be the same experience of course, but the effect should have the same emotional/experiential value. In some ways, recorded music is superior to live events. No worries about mistakes or bad performances. The acoustics are much more controllable, etc.

My stereo has usually involved lots of boxes, cables strewn all over the place, and lots of fiddly things to do. Before I played any record, I cleaned the stylus and cleaned the record. I had to allow the tubes to warm up. I spent weeks experimenting with the angle and positioning of the speakers. I messed around with adjusting the acoustics of the room. I was constantly on the look out for better tubes, cables, and whatever was being made new. 

As I’ve gotten older, several things have happened. I live in smaller places now. Some of the speakers I’ve owned were 5 feet tall and weighed over 110 pounds. My current amplifiers weigh 50 pounds apiece, the custom granite stands they sit on are another 20 each. It’s just too much. I’ve also become weary of going through all of the little rituals to keep records in the best shape possible, hell, I don’t even want to deal with CDs anymore. I have gotten much more realistic about what I can actually hear. The top end response of my ears aren’t anything like they were when I was younger.

Maybe more importantly, the quality of sound vs. hassle ratio has gotten to be so much better. Even inexpensive AV receivers have DACs (Digital to Analog Convertor) that are pretty damn good. There have been great strides in speaker design, especially in regards to active systems. The vast majority of people have always had “passive” systems. That means you have a separate amplifier and there is a crossover in the speaker that splits the sound out to the various drivers in the speaker. Active speakers split the frequencies before they are amplified. The amplifiers only amplify a small range of frequencies and attached directly to the voice coil of the speakers. There are tremendous advantages to this approach and it obviates a lot of the stuff that I used to obsess over. 

Three years ago I bought a Squeezebox. You can think of it as a network music player. I was able to stream music from my computer to the stereo and from online services like Slacker Radio, Spotify, etc. Completely changed how I listened to music. I was able to control it from the computer or my iPhone/ipad. heaven. The sound quality was miles better than my old (and expensive) CD player. 

Logitech has announced that they are discontinuing the Squeezebox line. I had been hoping that they would come out with something that would fix the various little things that made me crazy. Spent the better part of a year trying to find something that would allow me to play music from my computer as well as all of the other services I love. Felt really stupid when I realized all I needed was an Apple Airport Express. That allows me to use airplay from any of my devices and play any music I want. So simple, and so cheap!

I think next year I am going to purchase my first pair of active speakers and get rid of my amps. My most complicated system had a turntable/cartridge and a CD player as sources. The turntable plugged into a phono preamp and then into a preamp. The CD player plugged into the preamp. The preamp plugged into the amp(s) and then they were plugged into the speakers. Next year I could very well have my computer, an Airport Express, and a pair of speakers all connected wirelessly. The amps would be inside the speakers. The DAC could be too depending on which ones I go with. Much less hassle, cost, and I shouldn’t give anything up sound-wise. I do love how technology is making our lives simpler and improving the overall quality as well. Exciting times. 

If you read my last post about amps, you might have a good idea about what a big change this will be for me. Looking forward to it! As I get older I crave simplification. Hell, it’ll be nice to get the space back:)

Stereo journey

 For those of you that haven’t been keeping up with me for a while, I need to make a confession that may prove to be shocking to some. I am recovering from Audiophillia Nervousa. This has actually become a bit of a rare condition. Starting in college, I became obsessed with the idea of “sound quality.” My first job out of college was selling so called high end audio systems and home theaters. I have spent a serious amount of money over the years on equipment and music. For most of those years, every different thing I bought was to eke out another bit of performance out of the system.

A lot of people, well, I say people but I really mean guys, claim to want a really “nice” system. There is a huge range of opinion about what that actually means. For many it is all about bass and volume. I value tonal accuracy and dynamics. I like to be able to hear the mix, the mics, and the decisions that were made in recording when it comes to mic placement, recording philosophy, etc. I went to some crazy lengths to get those things. At one point I had well over 7 grand worth of gear in my system. That would have included the turntable, cartridge, preamp (possibly a separate phono preamp), CD player, amplifiers, and speakers. Sad thing is that’s nothing in the high end world. 

The flashiest things I ever own are my amps. I have been a tube (or valve as my friends across the pond call them) amp lover from the beginning. Hope you’ll forgive a quick history of my tube amps, I’m feeling nostalgic:)

 

I went big for my first set. And when I say set, I mean a pair of amps. One for the left side and another for the right. I had a pair of Golden Tube Audio SE-40 amps. Looked like this:

 

NewImage

 

Yeah, I had two of these. That meant I had 12 output tubes cooking away. It used 6l6 type tubes and had a very “Chocolate cake” kind of presentation. Sweet, sticky, and addictive. When I moved up to Northern Virginia, I had to scale my system way back because I couldn’t afford the space for that kind of system any more. I ended up with a little Jolida amp.

 

 

 

NewImage

 

Pretty sure that’s the one, don’t remember the model number but it did use EL84 output tubes. A tiny thing, about a third the size of one of the Golden Tube amps! I then went into the wilderness and had solid state amps for a while. When I got back into tubes, once again I went big:) Audio Mirror was what I went with this time.

 

 

NewImage

 

These are also mono blocks so I have 2 of them. The front is about 9 inches across and they are about 1 3/4 feet deep. Big sound, big, impressive amps. I still have these. About a year ago, a friend bought me an amp, totally out of the blue!

 

 

IMG 0229

 

This one isn’t nearly as flashy as the others but in some ways it is probably the best amp I’ve ever had. This was actually a kit and was put together by a hobbyist. You might not think that’s a recipe for a good product but it turns out that one of the biggest expenses with tube amps is the labor putting them together. If you spend the money on parts alone, you can get much better quality components. this is an interesting amp (to tube nerds at least) because it is able to use two totally different tube types. It can use Pentodes like 6l6 or KT88 as well as 300b tubes! Wild. 

Between this amp and the acoustics of my current room, I have never had better sound. I still have the urge to upgrade though, but my upgrade path is going to take me down the road of simplification. I’ll be very happy if I can keep the same sound quality. I’ll bore you with those ideas next:)

Best Buy

While I was waiting for my stereo to be installed, I wandered around Best Buy. I hadn’t done a full store tour in a while, and it was illuminating. After hearing about all of the tablets released at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (I think it was 40!) I wanted to see what a non-Apple one looked like. I could only find one tablet computer, the iPad. I think the competitors are going to have a difficult time, the iPad has a significant lead right now and it doesn’t sound like a lot of them will be out before the middle of the year. There was a lady getting some information about the iPad there. I was pleasantly surprised to hear the Best Buy guy not talking nonsense. I deliberated a little, but decided not to be the jerk that cost him a sale by mentioning the free set-up at the Apple store:-)

Best Buy might as well be called the TV store. TVs were easily the biggest part of their sales floor. Once again, I was blown away at how good some of them looked. I had to keep repeating the mantra “You don’t watch TV, you don’t watch TV” in order to avoid buying one. I caught myself thinking that $2000 really wasn’t too bad a price for that TV… Yes, Hockey would be amazing on one of those, but really, I can spend my money on better things. If I were a bigger movie kind of guy I probably would already own one… I checked out the 3d TVs too. Some of them, especially from Panasonic, were impressive. I really can’t see wearing glasses all the time though. The LED backlit displays really do seem to be worth saving up for, there does seem to be a real difference.

Of course, places like that have always played games with TVs in order to mover certain ones. It was fairly obvious as I walked down the aisles that some TVs had their saturation turned down, brightness lowered, etc. There were several others that had the video equivalent of “boom and tizz.” In the audio world, speakers that have impressive bass and sizzling highs really stand out. Of course if you listen to them for a while, you get tired of them. The most natural speakers sound boring when you first hear them. People tend to buy the speakers that get their attention, subtle loudness adjustments are all it takes to steer people towards certain speakers. The same goes with TVs. The classic ploy was to bias the pictures towards blue, guys seem to be attracted to that. Nowadays, excessive brightness, garish colors, and lousy comparisons are the things used to get people to pick one TV over another. The TV section was the only place where people made eye contact with me, let alone offer any help.

What else… I saw several audio bits that were interesting. They sell Martin Logan and B&W speakers, both brands have long been high end audio staples. While I know that the models they sell at Best Buy aren’t their best models, it’s good to know that you can get decent speakers there. I also saw a pair of active speakers I had briefly considered getting called Rokit. They have gotten pretty good reviews… They are also carrying electronics that have always been considered solid mid-fi brands like Denon, Marantz, and Yamaha. Pioneer is still there, but I no longer see any Onkyo, or Kenwood. It looks like you can get a nice sounding system there. When I used to sell this kind of equipment, you really couldn’t.

 

I was shocked at how many of their electronic displays simply weren’t working. All of the cameras I picked up were dead, and all of the smart phones were static displays only. You couldn’t try any of them out, they just had a sticker showing you what it could look like. Pretty lousy way to show stuff. Honestly, after walking through there, I’m saddened at how low the bar is set in electronics retail. No wonder Apple is kicking tail. I don’t think I’d go there for anything but a TV. Even then, I’d have to have my guard up so that I’m not unduly influenced by their display antics. Are there any other big electronic stores around anymore?

New car stereo!

I have been enjoying playing my iPod in my car ever since I got it. The factory CD player had an auxilery port in it and it allowed me to listen to whatever I wanted. After some early issues, I got the sound quality to as good as it was going to get. It was miles ahead of using an FM transmitter, but there were still a few problems. Factory systems are never any good. Even if you get a decent sounding one, you pay way too much for it. The amplifiers in those things are anemic and lead to irritating and headache inducing distortion when you turn them up. I was also using the headphone output from the iPod which while it worked, was hardly ideal from a sound quality perspective. Going though the iPod’s amp before the main one just added to the noise. The biggest issue was a control one. The only way to really change stuff was to pick up the iPod and fiddle with it while I drove. Hardly a safe situation. Well, all of that has changed…

 

deck2.png

This thing is awesome. There is no CD player in it. Along with plugging in my iPod, I could use the analog input, or pop in an SD card. It sounds like I could potentially plug a flash drive or portable hard drive into it as well, I’ll have to explore that a little bit more. The sound quality has gone up a ton, tighter bass, louder, cleaner, and more understandable. I can control the iPod with it, so no more fiddling with touch controls while driving. It also has some sound shaping controls, their “sound retriever” really does smooth out some of the rough edges that you get with compressed audio. I’m also looking into getting a microphone they make. Using it, the deck can create a custom EQ for your car. For $20 or so, it is probably worth it.

 

I had considered installing this, along with a pair of speakers, myself… for about 10 seconds. Crutchfield has assured me that it was no problem, but after looking at the instructions I decided that discretion was the better part of valor. I had Best Buy install it instead. Good thing too, they had to do a few things to make stuff fit, I wouldn’t have had the ability to do it. it’s funny, in these days of $300 headphones for iPods, installing a stereo that can control it in your car would seem like a no brainer. All told, the deck, a pair of new speakers, the hardware for installing it, and the install came to a total of $350 or so. If you didn’t get new speakers, it would probably only run a little over $200. Very, very excited about this. Oh, and thanks mom for the great Christmas present!

 

My stereo

I know you’ve all been waiting with bated breath waiting to hear what I’ll be doing next with my audio gear… Well, you’ll be able to rest easy now, now more sleepless nights worrying!

I’m still enjoying the heck out of my Squeezebox Touch. It is the digital front end I have always wanted in a system. Instant access to all of my music, and really good sound quality to boot. It is capable of playing back up to 24 bit recordings, so if I ever get any of those, I can go to the realm of hi-rez playback…

The problem is that my system is “too big.” My room is small, too small for my amplifiers and CD player. Now that I’ve replaced my CD player (and with something that outperforms it…finally), the speakers and amps were the issues. I had originally thought of getting some active speakers. having the amps and speakers in the same enclosure would really improve the space problem. There are also some potential technical advantages to them as well. I was coveting some speakers that were a little over 2 grand. I had rationalized that the price wasn’t too bad considering that I would be getting a good quality set of speakers, a good DAC (Digital to Analog convertor), and a good preamp. That was all true, but it was still 2 grand…

So I started thinking about some single driver speakers and a really cheap amp. That combo would give me some sound that was decent, would be small, and would satisfy an audiophile itch. That was going to run about $400. Better, but it would be a pretty limited system. The speakers wouldn’t have any real bass, and single driver speakers have a rather unique sound. I was worried about them only being good for certain types of music.

Going back to the active speaker sites, I found some active monitors that were in the $300-$400 range. These would not have any of the limitations of the other speakers, but they would still have the limitations of being cheap speakers. Considering that my speakers were in the $1500 range when I bought them, I didn’t really want to take such a big step down.

And then it occurred to me. I had discounted using my speakers because they were too big. True, they are on the large side as far as monitors go, but they would be on stands. Here’s the thing, once you put speakers on stands, they all take up the same amount of space.

So, I am going to use my old speakers, but with a new, smaller and cooler amp. It is what as known as a gainclone amp. Yet another piece of equipment that I have wanted to hear. I hope to have a good sounding system up within a week! I’ll let you know how it goes.

I have music again!

So, my Squeezebox Touch got here today. In a lucky break, so did my switch and ethernet bridge. To recap, the SB Touch is a network/internet music player you can hook up to your stereo. I can stream the music from my computer via the network to it, or I can use it independently to listen to internet radio stations.

Here’s how I set it up. Since I’m on FIOS, I was able to use a MOCA ethernet bridge to get the internet from the coax cable in my room. I took that ethernet cable and attached it to a 5 port switch. That gave me 4 more ethernet ports. I then simply hooked the computer and the SB Touch into the switch and I was done. I now have the music from my computer going over our network in the house.

I have been enjoying listening to my music without having it bog down my computer. I’ve also been enjoying the radio. I listened to my college’s radio station WICB for hours, they are still one of the best college stations I have heard. I can also get all the worthwhile local stations like WTOP for news, and the Public stations too. I need to figure out when a Prairie Home Companion comes on so I can start listening to it again… All of these sound much better than regular FM, and as far as I can tell I can get damn near any station in the US.

Of course the other great thing that internet radio allows is the ability to use services like Pandora or Slacker. Slacker is a really good internet service. They sound great and have a lot of diverse stations. Pandora is a service that allows you to make your own stations based on an artist or song. It will pick others like the one you picked and then you can tell it what you like and don’t like to narrow the view down. So far, I have made Buddy Holly radio, Silversun Pickups radio, Tito Puente radio, Beck radio, and Where is My Mind radio (from the Pixies song).

I overspent on all of this, but I am already really enjoying the experience and plan on taking the radio around the house since it ties into the wireless network as well. My iPod touch controls it through the wireless as well. This is the first audio toy I’ve bought in years, and it’s a winner. I’ll let you know if I find any hidden gems out there while “twisting the dial….”

You never know when you’re going to be an idiot

I’m a huge audio geek. I’ve been pouring over amp schematics for years, I’ve listened to more systems than I can remember, and I love reading about all the new tech in audio. I’ve been troubleshooting audio problems for oh, 20 years or so.

I had been mildly disappointed in the audio quality of my iPod touch hooked up to my car’s stereo. It was still better than FM, but there were problems. There were times that I just didn’t have enough gain, I couldn’t turn it up loud enough to get the volume I was looking for. Plus, when I did crank it up, I heard all of the nastiness in my car’s stereo, including engine whine as I accelerated.

Well, imagine my surprise when I hooked it up the other day. I had been demoing it to a customer in the store and had to turn up the volume all the way. Guess what? If you TURN THE VOLUME UP, it gets louder. Sheesh, audio 101. Now there is decent bass response, there is no engine whine, and I can play plenty loud.

 

Moral of the story, even if you’re an expert in something, it doesn’t mean that you won’t overlook the obvious from time to time. I’ll remember this until the next time I catch myself being stupid…