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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Change is good

Looks like the listening room is getting a make-over.  Believe me, it needs it!  Details to follow. . .

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Beast returns

I picked up the STR-GX9ES  receiver on Saturday morning and it just sounds fantastic.  Downside of course, is that everything in the relatively small listening room had to be shifted around and things have piled up.  Even the cats are avoiding the place (hard to believe I know- but keep in mind it's not winter anymore and the felines don't need to lounge on warm amps during the summer).  The bass of the GX9 is especially full and pleasing.  Once again, the folks at In House Repair have worked magic. If you need older gear brought up to operating potential again, you really should follow the link and visit their site. 

The problem with the ringing I heard on sustained/decaying paino notes seems to have been with the "Spontaneous Twin Drive" circuit, which if I understand it correctly controls the amp's bias, and could only be detected at low level (kudos to In House for not thinking I was a nut and taking the time to confirm what I was hearing).  I think the amp functions at very low power in something like Class A operation.  I have the manual, so I will pull it from the files and type up something intelligible at a later point.  Well, I can retype Sony's marketing hype, at least.  I don't recall if that particular circuit was covered on The Vintage Knob site, but it shows up in other Sony amps, I believe.  It seems that the new version of TVK is about to launch so you can't access everything as it was.  I am sure the new version will be even better. On that note, I am continuing to gather research materials to further the discussion regarding the Japanese audio giants in the late eighties, as appeared a few posts ago.  In so doing I came across some old Stereo Review Buying Guides, so here are a few tidbits of possible interest:

February 1986 Stereo Review Buying Guide
Sony TA-F555ES Integrated amplifier. . . $640
Sony TA-F444ES Integrated Amplifier. . .$490
Sony ST-555ES Tuner . . . . . . . . . . . . . . $450
Sony ST-444ES Tuner . . . . . . . . . . . .  .  $340
Sony PS-X555ES Turntable . . . . . . . . . .$420
Sony TC-K666ES Cassette Deck . . . . . .$650
Sony TC-K555ES Cassette Deck . . . . . $500
Sony CDP-650ESD CD Player . . . . . . .$1300
Sony CDP-620ES CD Player . . . . . . . . $950
Sony CDP-520ES CD Player . . . . . . . . $600

Again, all 1986 manufacturer's list prices.  Man, those disc players were pricey!  The 650ESD would cost well over $2000 today!  If you don't believe me, check out the trusty inflation calculator: http://www.westegg.com/inflation/

Friday, June 18, 2010

As promised

Some nude comparison shots of the TA-F444ES and the TA-F630ESD.  444 above. The 444 has been to the experts at In House Stereo Repair for some minor modifications (new binding posts, power cable, caps) but the lay out is essentially the same as when new.  I have only had the 630 for a week or so, no time to really even come to definite conclusions about its sound.  It does have the nice "G" chassis, but no copper like the 444.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Buying or collecting stereo equipment, like other hobbies such as golf, frivolous litigation, autocrossing, travel or elective surgery requires disposable income.  Given that my peer group (late thirties, early forties) is generally out of the day-care expenditure phase (or close to it- I can think of some folks counting the days), one would think that the people I know who are so inclined would generally have more to spend on stereo gear.  Unfortunately, given the current economic climate and the promise of higher taxes on what little is earned in the very near future, we find ourselves in a position relative to consumer electronics purchases not that different from when we first entered the workforce.  As a newly employed college grad in 1989 or 1990, it was unlikely that you were earning enough to purchase new stereo gear from the likes of Conrad Johnson, Mark Levinson or McIntosh (did all of those companies exist in 89?  I know McIntosh did, and I think CJ started in the late seventies) while at the same time renting that first non-slum apartment, replacing Aunt Edna's 67 Volvo wagon that faithfully got you back and forth to school on only 2 quarts of oil a day, and starting to pay off the student loan debt you incurred (for fun and extra-credit, calculate what each slept-through class cost you, with interest).  

So, many of us turned to less-expensive Japanese brands for gear that was a step-above the once-piece rack system with pressboard sides and wood-vinyl decals that could be purchased at Sears or Service Merchandise (remember them?).  For the most part, many of those brands are still with us today, such as Sony, Pioneer, Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo.  Alas, many others, such as Sansui, Nakamichi, Aiwa, Akai and Kenwood no longer have the market presence in home stereo they once had.  Japan had not yet entered into the "Lost Decade," which began when the period of Japan's post-war miraculous economic growth abruptly ended.  A combination of unreasonably high land valuation and very low interest rates leading to excessive speculation and easy availability of credit created a bubble.  After the bubble burst, economic growth ground to a halt (sound familiar?).  Banks disappeared, the Nikkei crashed, and corporations saddled with debt lost the capabilities of capital investment they had formerly enjoyed.  In reality, Japan has still not recovered, which should be a sobering thought for those in the US who watch helplessly as the Federal government blunders and bloviates its way into a Keynesian non-solution to our own problems.

Prior to the massive loss of investment capital at the start of the Lost Decade, Japanese consumer electronics corporations were free to invest in new technologies and design exercises that advanced the state of the art in stereo.  Many masterpieces of audio gear were created during this time, and for the best overview available on the web, I highly recommend: http://www.thevintageknob.org/ if you enjoy reading this site at all, then a visit to TVK should be considered mandatory.  Those "audiophiles" (yes, that's a disparaging usage) who dismiss Japanese stereo equipment of that era are not acknowledging the fact that the Japanese recognized the demand for their products overseas and aggressively pursued it ( in 1984, consumer electronics outpaced car exports- see: Burton and Saelens, (1987). Japanese Strategies for Serving Overseas Markets: The Case for Electronics. In Management International Review [online] available: http://www.jstor.org/pss/40227856).  Government support was available to further the industry's efforts.  More importantly for the budget-minded consumer, the Japanese consumer electronics industry was consciously pursuing a: "value-added" strategy which allowed many expensive, esoteric and innovative technologies in premium stereo gear to trickle-down to lesser product lines.  Which explains my love of almost everything Sony made for their ES (Elevated Standard) line from 1984 to 1990.  Again, check out TVK to see some great examples of what I mean.

Which brings us to D.'s $40 Denon PMA-720 Integrated Amplifier.  As I've mentioned in previous posts, D. has a killer listening room with an all Wharfedale surround system run by a Pioneer Elite AVR.  We have had many listening sessions in D.'s room and typically the sound is very, very good.  But as you may remember from our May 10, 2010 post, we recently learned that a small NAD C350 Integrated Amp really made D.'s Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 towers sing in ways the Pioneer AVR never could, whether in direct mode or with processing.  The NAD was not as powerful nor did it have the measurement clout that the Pioneer had but the evidence was in the listening (alright, alright, in deferrence to subjective reviews MAYBE I will keep my subscription to the Absolute Sound, but I am so sick of Fremer and Dudley's nonsense, that my sub to Stereophile is toast.  It's a good thing- strangers won't see copies of the magazine on the table and think I listen with my pants off).  That night, D. decided he would get a two channel.  I figured he would spend a great deal of time hunting, but that was not to be.

A short while later, D. scored a Denon PMA-720, circa 1988 (although they made them through 1991, I believe, and I don't have the info on where in the production run this particular example was created).  The PMA-720 is a small, 90 wpc amp that is capable (according to the little I could find on it) of driving difficult speaker impedance loads, and uses an optical circuit to optomize its bias current (the optical circuit invented  by the famous Amercian Amp designer, Nelson Pass- the same Pass who licensed his "Stasis" design to Nakamichi, and was used famously in their entry-level two channel receivers of the same era).  For $40, the thing looks like all it really needs is a decent cleaning of the faceplate. It's in that good a condition,  certainly much better than anything one might find at the local thrift shops.  D. hooked it up to a brand new Onkyo C-S5VL SACD player (I will devote an entire post to that machine when I can) which is a very slick piece of kit in and of itself.

We listened for over an hour,  but I'm only going to refer to one piece of music.  In 1988, I saw Wynton Marsalis play at the Niagara University Gallagher Center, and Marcus Roberts was his pianist at the time.  I had never heard of Roberts, but the very next day I went out and bought his album: "Deep In the Shed." Find it here:


This disc has been at every equipment audition I have been on for 20 years, and in that time I have never purchased a new piece of gear without hearing tracks 1 and 4 on the potential purchase first.  The key is, as you may have read in my April 15 post, it's pretty hard to express music in linguistic terms, but there is no denying when you FEEL something.  At that concert I felt blown away by that ensemble, and by the tracks Roberts played from the album.  To this day, when I listen to the disc, I get a little bit of that night back.  At the same time, when I listen to the album played back on a system that is really dialed in, the experience is that much better.  So that's how it was on the Denon/Onkyo combo.  More than when I had heard any of the album on the Pioneer, I felt excited about the music in the way I had when I heard it live.  The million dollar question of course is:  WHY?

Simply, I don't really know.  I can hazard a guess or two, though.  D. and I both agreed that the Denon must have been built with a totally different purpose in mind than any AVR, and no matter how obvious that sounds, it shouldn't be taken for granted.  Denon meant that for the $500 1989 USD that the PMA-720 cost, it should sound as good at playing back 2-channel sources as possible.  The Pioneer, in contrast, has that mission plus the need to process a bazillion different soundfields, decode numerous audio for video formats PLUS the video, and be THX certified as well, for what that's worth.  All designed to meet a particular price-point in a very highly competitive market.  The Pioneer also has to contend with the possibility that the industry will change as home theater often does, so it has to be able to cope with some of this change in order to be considered a viable purchase (not that that is really possible- just anyone who's tried to recoup any of the purchase price of a non -HDMI equipped AV receiver recently).  There simply isn't the real estate inside the Pioneer AVR to have the audio-grade components that are a luxury in even a cheap integrated like the Denon.  Bottom line is, they're different animals.

The complaints of audio snobs about Japanese "Plastic Black Boxes" (or more disparaging labels)  that can't play music that were not justified in the past may be ringing more true today.  It's hard to say.  But in order to clarify things, one needs to compare apples with apples, and the Denon PMA-720 is a pretty rare beast today in the stable of the Japanese giants.  The Yamaha AS series (highly reviewed, BTW), Pioneer Elite A-35R and Onkyo A-V5L are among the few.  There are some digital two channels as well, such as the Onkyo A-9555, and the Sony STR DA1500ES stereo receiver, but overall the inexpensive Japanese 2 channel market is occupied by tumble weeds.  So, for those in the know (and that's now YOU, dear reader), the used market is the only place to turn, but we can't all be as lucky as D. (a $40 amp and the sex appeal of Antonio Banderas.  Some guys have all of the. . .)

Today, globalization and corporate consolidations (Harman kardon, Denon and Marantz are all under the same ownership, for example) have impacted on the pursuit of a market almost completely integrated with video, in the form of home theater.  Consumers have fewer dollars, so home audio equipment is more and more a compromise between quality playback and a comprehensive set of features that will appeal to buyers and include the latest gadgets.  The results have been less than encouraging, as the DVD-A and SACD, BluRay and HD-DVD format wars have shown.  Technologies come to market that are not optomized for sound quality such as earler versions of HDMI or the early adoption of high-jitter USB for the transfer of computer audio files.  The upside is that many of the gems made in the eighties were built to last, and like my TA-F444ES, with a thorough cleaning and a few judicious upgrades can easily hold their own against any reasonably priced AVR.  So if you're interested in hearing your favorite tunes closer to the way they were meant to be heard, cruise eBay for a cheap integrated or 2-channel receiver.  Drop an e-mail if you're looking for some reccomendations.  Just don't expect to win that Sony Champagne TA-F808ES in mint condition.  I'm prepared to set a maximum bid that will make your eyes water.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Simplify, man!

Saw a pretty good movie tonight, a French thriller starring Jean Reno called "Les Rivieres Pourpres."  The soundtrack was very good, and I thought that the director had a Hitchcockian eye.  Fun.  At one point, Reno is crossing a stone bridge over a fast-moving stream, and a dog is barking in the distance.  For a moment, I fell out of imagination mode into critical analysis mode and thought:

"Probably none of the noises I am hearing out of our home theater right now were recorded when this scene was shot.  Even the dog isn't real."

Later on in the film there are gunshots, a car chase and an avalanche.  All movie magic, or at least foley artist magic.  Everything sounded pretty good.  We have a decent home theater set up, A Marantz 6003 AVR, Pioneer Elite DVD player and Pioneer BluRay player (the slowest freaking machine in the universe) Paradigm Monitor series speakers and a Martin Logan sub.  We have a number of concert Blurays, and I enjoy watching them.  Therein is the key term- watching them.  They sound very nice, but I don't use the home theater set up to listen to music.  I am blessed enough to have the luxury to get up, go into an entirely different room, and listen to equipment optomised to do one thing- play music in good old-fashioned 2 channel stereo (or mono, if I'd like or the recording calls for it).

The way a system is set up for movies, and the compromises that go into preamplifiers and amplifiers (or multi-format disc players) set up for doing surround sound applications never hit me as being conducive to high-quality stereo.  Without writing a thesis, nor covering ground covered ad nauseum in the industry publications, I think that the reasons for this are quite simple.  First, a good HiFi should be designed for accuracy and realism.  Despite what advertisers tell you, that is neither necessary nor is it desireable for movies and movie sound.  Movies are meant to either wow you with their sound (think "Avatar") or weave sounds into the visual storytelling experience.  What the hell does a phaser sound like anyway?  Remember the "Alien" movie ad: "In space, no one can hear you scream."  Guess what, in space no one can hear ANYTHING.  No air, no sound.  That cool TIE fighter noise?  Never hear it.  But movies aren't about realism in that way- even some documentaries.  Let's look at a specific example:

My personal reference BluRay is the last Bond film, "Quantum of Solace."  At the beginning of the fim there is a car chase scene where a number of automatic weapons are used, including a light machine gun that appears to me to be an 5.56mm FN SAW.  It's a great car chase, fast, exciting and the machine gun sounds like thunder when it fires, a rapid succesion of booms punctuated by brass casings rattling off of car interiors, rounds puncturing sheet metal  and glass shattering.  The subwoofer is rocking the whole time.  Very cool, but not at all what the weapon sounds like in real life.  A version of that weapon is used by the United States military and I have been in training exercises at the USMC Officer Candidates' School where a SAW has been fired (once suddenly, in the dark from very close by.  If I hadn't been hugging the ground already I would have caught some serious air, it surprised me so much). It has the sound of  a series of sharp, piercing, metallic cracks, in super-fast succession, and you should be wearing hearing protection if you are nearby or you will be sorry.  The metallic sound of the bolt moving in the action is also not inconsiderable.  What there is not is anything that is likely to make your subwoofer break a sweat.  No thunder, no boom.  Of course, if the weapon is fired indoors you have the echoing effect, but any system capable of producing such a noise at realistic volumes would probably cost tens of thousands of dollars and kill many a tweeter, all the while punishing your electric bill.   Bottom line is, movies is fake, and the machines that reproduce their soundtracks don't have to be accurate, they just have to reproduce movie noises efficiently and in a pleasing fashion. I also heard 81mm mortar fire on a range and no movie explosion I have ever heard is even remotely similar.  Anyone who lives in the Bellport, NY area who was home the morning Grucci Fireworks blew up can tell you that.  Does the home theater gear have to be incapable of reproducing music accurately?  No, of course not, and I'll bet many mega-buck systems do both just fine.  If however, you are designing to a budget and know your audience wants bang for their buck and is happy with uber-compressed MP3 files for music listening (ugh), why waste corporate funds on doing both?

So what I'm saying is, stop using your AVR to listen to your favorite live jazz, vocal or classical music recordings (I leave most rock, dance, electronica, goth and rap out because they fall mostly into the category of movie noises as well.  I may also be leaving some rap out for the reason that I can't/won't stretch my personal definition of music far enough to include it.)  Thursday night we had a good example of why this is a recommended course of action.  D. scored a vintage Denon PMA-720 integrated amplifier (2 channel only) for $40, and running an Onkyo C-S5VL SACD player through it made his Wharfedales sound like new speakers.  And his Pioneer Elite AVR is no slouch in the sound department, either- but this 20 year-old Denon SMOKED the AVR.  We listened until midnight and I was mighty impressed. I have some more specific thoughts, but I want to bug D. for a picture and some more info, so more on this topic in the very near future.

Did I mention the GX9 had to go back AGAIN?  But good news- the evening it came back I was listening to some solo piano and I heard a post-tone ringing in the mid-range area, so I called up In House Repair and they had me bring it back in.  (That same day- how's THAT for service?  I'm telling you they are the best.  If you need vintage stuff looked at, call those folks.  See the link on the right.  They are super nice and super good at what they do).  Anyway, at first there seemed to be no replicating what I heard (see my previous post for the cateorization of dead/dying audio gear)- it scoped okay and seemed normal, but shortly thereafter, they discovered there is an issue at low levels- notch distortion, I think?  So a resistor somewhere is to be replaced.  Whew! I thought she was a goner!  Only noticeable at low levels- see?  I don't ALWAYS sit around playing Achilles' Last Stand at levels that could sterilize frogs!


Thursday, June 10, 2010

Working on pictures

Follow the Flickr link as I will post full size shots there, first.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Squint, and you'll see. . .

. . . the "new" integrated.  It's a TA-F630ESD, which was also known as the TA-F303ESD, and is rated at 90watts per channel into 8 ohms at 0.004 percent distortion.  The interesting part is that even though it seems to have been smack-dab in the middle of the line up, between the TA-F530ES and the TA-F730ES, the 630 had a digital to analog converter bolted on the back, with coax and optical in, as well as optical out.  The other models did not.  I am trying to learn more about the DAC, and I believe (according to the 1989 Grammophone review cited below) it uses the Philips Bitstream (PDM to Sony) technology.  It was cleaned up for sale, but in my book only really warrants a 7 or low 8 on cosmetics, but all of the functions are excellent and it plays strongly.  The DAC works well- an indicator on the front panel lights up when you feed it a signal.  I'm assuming the rates other than 44.1 are for DAT (which was the future of recording back in 1989.  Ha!)


That's a nice Ultralink digital cable, which is an appropriate Canadian brand to use with this Canadian model Sony.  Too bad I take really, really bad pictures (I have an entire photo album of Big Foot and Alien Abductions and you can't make out a damn thing).

In other news (not so good) I think the OTHER channel on the GX9ES died or started to die this evening.  Just back from the shop, too, and any repairs will have to be charity work as I can't afford to sink any more money into it.  The best I could see it selling for is around $200 (if it worked) and I'm over that as it is.  Sad, I really like the look of the thing and the right channel sounds great!

Tuesday, June 8, 2010


I incorrectly indicated that I was acquring a TA-F650ESD, when in actuality, it is a TA-F630ESD.  An old review can be found here:


The GX9ES and the GA8ES also showed up today, and everything seems to work fine.  The GA8ES is actually in what I would call: "mint" condition.  Pics tomorrow after I get a chance to set things up.  I'll post a bunch on Flickr first.

Monday, June 7, 2010

No cats or comedy here ("8" on the boring post scale)

Two new pieces of gear are due to arrive this week ( I pray they arrive safely), one of which will be my representative for the (now) annual summer "$100 stereo challenge competition."  As if we had nothing better to do (or spend our money on) D. and I came up with the idea last summer that it would be fun to see who could assemble the best stereo for $100, new or used.  Although D. came up with a nice combo of a vintage Scott receiver and Marantz CD changer, I had mixed luck.  Efforts to procure a decent set of Polk 5jr Monitor speakers (1987 vintage) failed miserably, but I did get a pair of B&W 600i speakers for $10 at the thrift shop.  I even pulled a dent out of one of the aluminum tweeters, and despite looking a little rough they sound pretty good.  They're acoustic suspension, (meaning no port to extend bass response) which is hard to find nowadays.

Back to the original point, I managed to bid $5.50 on a Sony STR- GA8ES receiver with remote and manual- and win!  Total shipped from GA about $40.  I don't know that much about it yet- it was a complete impulse purchase.  I was easily able to rationalize putting it into the upstairs system, as the older STR-GX909ES that used to live upstairs needs to go in for a service, tune-up and cleaning.  More interetingly however (and unfortunately more expensive), is the Sony TA-F650ESD integrated amplifier that should also be here soon (tomorrow?).  I know even less about this amp than I do the GA8, although I believe it is essentially a TA-F700ES with a digital to analog converter bolted on the back.  Google searches bring up very little info, and Sony played so fast and loose with model numbers that it's tough to pin down details until you pull the top off of something and see how the guts are arranged.  So in the near future a big comparo between these two, the old 909 and the GX9 (which is still in the shop).  And maybe we'll throw the 444 in as well.  Speaking of which, D. recently procured an older Denon 2 channel integrated so the 444 and J.'s Cambridge Audio will have to be compared as well.  The list of things I am supposed to have written about alrerady is getting longer and longer!  Add these plans to the discussion of Sony stuff from 1984-1990 and my thoughts on damping factor ratings. . . at least I don't have to do the phono preamp comparo- I sold the Audio Technica already!