possibly the best solid state amp in the world

what the c-j 350 is:

huge sound, lively, vivacious, snappy, foot-tapping, pacy, rhythmic, big headroom, huge soundstage (depth and width), refined, exuberant, humougous energy reserves, neutral, natural midrange (not solid-state-ty), sensible sound (vs romantic), fantastic bass, open highs, lifelike images, fresh, clear, upbeat, communicative, DIMENSIONAL, powerful, imperturbable, resolving, controlled, kick-ass, rich tonally, punchy, dynamic, articulate, textured, vibrant, expressive, gripping, agile, extended

conclusion: in short, best solid-state amp i have ever tried!

what c-j 350 is NOT:

romantic, delicate, intimate, light shining from within (a la tube), midrange bloom is missing, highs are not so magical as my ARC, not magically emotive (as my ARC)...it does not do female vocals (e.g Le Mon & Janice) as well as my ARC, neither does it convey the intimacy of small-scale works, or music that does not require power.

conclusion: these are indeed minor grouses against the overwhelming list of positive attributes!

next trial - PASS LAB XA100 mono block and BLADELIUS GRENDEL

guess i need to give up high-end hi-fi and see a psychiatrist for treatment of audiophilia nervosa.
i have been without my hi-fi for more than 2 months hence my lack of blogging.

what is suspected to be a sure case of weak power tubes has turned out to be.......

1st suspect - bad power tubes

so the frantic search for the best 6550s in the world sees me contacting jim mcshane (the tube guru in audio asylum), the tube store (an online tube supplier), martin electronics (s'pore), frankie (well audio lab, s'pore) and many other tube suppliers. i did 3 days of intense research on the internet on the availability of 6550s in the market. in the beginning, i was partial towards the new tungsol reissue 6550. both martin and jim have them in stock. but later i found out that this new tungsol comes from the same russian factory (owned by new sensor, US) that produces the grossly inferior svetlana 6550 and EH-6550. i was too scared to try new sensor tubes again. way too scared.

i was also tempted to buy the svetlana winged-c 6550 from the tube store; this being the more superior svetlana that audio research has been using for years. svetlana winged-c is produced by st.petersburg factory in russia and it is much better than new sensor's svetlana.

in the end, i took a gamble and settled for electro harmonix EH-KT90 for a change. according to ah chee of audio art, ipoh, KT-90s are direct plug-n-play with 6550s, all it takes is to rebias the tubes once. he claimed that KT-90s have sweet-tops and powerful bass. since i am an adventurous audiophile, i am game to try these new tubes, afterall audio research once used them in their amplifiers (eg. V140) in the mid-90s.

that was a month ago, i am still waiting for my tubes! damn it.

2nd suspect - ARC preamp

while waiting for the tubes to arrive, i took the trouble to do a proper isolation test by borrowing the same amplifiers - ARC classic 120 monoblock - from my friend. and horror of horror, i found out that my ARC power amps (and its tubes) are perfectly ok!!!! it was the ARC LS-25MkII preamp that is causing the slow and lethargic sound!!!

so i immediately sent the preamp to audio art, ipoh (where i bought it from) for a thorough check. it took ah chee two weeks before he could do a A/B comparison with another ARC LS-25MkII preamp from his customer. he said the preamp is perfectly OK too!!!

damn it. where is f**k is the problem then? audiophile nervosa can cause someone who seldom swears to swear a lot.

3rd suspect - loose power cords

when i brought home the preamp today, i immediately hooked it up and listen attentively again. fuck, the sound is still lethargic and slow! i leave it on for about one hour then suddenly, the sound gained energy and speed, but the overall sound is still very "moong" (blur), lacking the fantastic definition that my system used to have.

so i decided to check my various power cord connections.... damn it, the connection to the richard gray box seemed to be loose.... the hubbell 20A female plug of my harmonic tech AC-11 power cord doesn't quite grip tightly with the richard gray male IEC...could be this the real culprit that has eluded me for 2 months????

i tightened the contact and switched the system on again. omfg!!!! it was back, this is the normal sound of my system!!! omfg!!! omfg!!! i solved the problem, after 2 months of frantic and sleepless nights!!!!

omfg. i could not believe that i was so careless and neurotic to have omitted checking the basic things first.

i called ah chee and told him how i solved the problem on my own. ah chee broke into chuckles and warned me that the higher end you hi-fi is, the more susceptible it is to little little deviations. i think i have to give up high-end for good.

but first i am going to see a psychiatrist tomorrow.


afterthoughts...2 days later

after listening to my system for 2 days, it is true that the sound never quite attains 100% of its optimal level. it does not sound lethargic but rather it has lost its sparkles and tightness. sure, it must be the weak tubes again so i wasn't over-reacting in the first instance. the 2nd instance of the preamp sounding slow was a genuine case of negligence. so i have no choice but to wait for my EH-KT90. what a bummer.

hope 2006 will be a better year for hi-fi!

double take's christmas album has plenty of audiophilia credentials

the last double take's album (their debut) was such a marvellous recording that even audiophiles picked them up without a complaint.

returning with their 2nd album, a christmas album, this recording is even better than the first. roger wang, the sabahan guitarist and recording engineer, must have been an audiophile in his previous life to come out with such a gem of recording.

very warm, vivid, airy and pristine guitar sound, coupled with mia palencia's (the female vocalist) honey-toasted and smokey voice, you have a combination that never fails to entertain. if you system has good presence, you should have mia presented in a very palpable manner. it is as good as hearing her sing live! also, if your system fails to capture the liveliness, crispiness and attack of the guitar, then something is definitely wrong.

roger has refreshing arrangements for some of these old-time christmas songs, while mia penned two very sweet songs specially about christmas in malaysia.

something that all malaysians should be proud of.

you are going to thank me profusely if you follow my advice diligently:

call audio art, ipoh (05-2432339) and ask them to install the stage III concepts jumper into your MCB (circuit breaker), that's assuming you have a dedicated audiophile-grade MCB for your hifi. (note: MCB is the "fuse" installed in your ELCB)

the results are nothing but astounding. imagine adding 2-3 times the impact of a richard gray power delivery box. the improvement are shocking, surreal, tangible, across the board, covering the full spectrum - transparency enhanced, mids density thickens, lows more tactile and bouncy, ambience and air more apparent, harmonic textures become richer, highs more refined.... i would have willingly paid RM5-10K for this sort of improvement in my system. but no, a single unit of stage III jumper only costs less than RM1K.

the improvement i derive far exceeds the change of interconnects, speaker cables or power cords. it will probably makes sense since we are talking about the source of your power supply. over the last few months, i have become a fervert believer that power supply makes or breaks the system. power corrupts, as they say.

of course, you can use other make top-grade jumpers like AQ, but you won't derive the full pleasure if you don't use stage III.

people who know my system well know how exquisite the highs are. now i have upped the ante. it is quite a sound to behold. damn shiok and damn fun too.

listen up, hurry up, do yourself a great favour.

over the last 12 months, i have been helping a friend to assemble a high-end system. it takes longer than necessary because my friend is a decent listener himself and he doesn't take all my recommendations and advice wholesale. because of this half-hearted approach, he has been going in circles.

finally, with the recent purchase of a 2nd hand ARC classic 120 monoblock and the imminent purchase of a 2nd hand CAT SL-1 preamp, both with my endorsement, he completes his audio milestone and sees the merits behind all my advice in the past.

eventho' he bought mostly the same components as me, the sound is slightly different due to the speakers we use. he is using maggie 1.6/QR with quasi ribbons whereas i am using the larger maggie 3.6R with true ribbons. the quasi ribbons give softer highs thus rendering softer attack of instruments, lacking of presence and a general tamer presentation. overall, a "yin" sound rather than a "yang'" sound. due to this, i have asked him many times to get equipment (encompassing amp, preamp, cdp) or ancillaries (encompassing cables, power cords, conditioner) that are bolder, livelier and has more grunt to balance off the softness.

he finally sold away his ARC VT100MkII power amp last week and replaced it with the older-but-definitely-better ARC classic 120 monoblock and what a step in the right direction! the classic 120s exert a tight grip and control on the maggie that the VT100 failed to do. besides, the sound is more alive and has more kicks and presence. and finally, CAT SL-1 preamp is the last missing link to all his concerns. though it is not the most refined of preamp (by today's standards) and it does lack details but it packs a lot of grunt and rawness and the most crucial of all is the presence factor, which it egdes over my much more expensive and modern preamp, ARC LS25MkII. in his system, that is.

the moral of the story is - the proverbial system matching and synergy is paramount in hi-fi. use a yang to balance a yin. hi-fi is all about balance.

i am happy that he is a happy man now and i am happy that he has finally seen the light.

making stage III concepts affordable

you don't need an insider to tell you that the hi-fi market conditions in kl now are bad. yet, in difficult times like these, i came across courageous dealers who dare to move the market and bring back some life into this seemingly declining market.

i am talking about the people behind mobile audio technology (mat). mat has one foot in car audio business and another in hi-fi business. they are the importer of the very expensive but fabulously sounding stage III concepts cables www.stage3concepts.com in malaysia. mat appointed ipoh's audio art as the national dealer for stage III products. due to the agressiveness of audio art's promotional efforts, stage III is an overnight success in ipoh and now the success has spilled over to over places in malaysia. mat's director, liew, sees the potential in this brand and started thinking outside the box. true, stage III are marvellous products but the entry price is way too high for typical audiophiles in malaysia. we are talking about RM2K for an entry level silver interconnect and with that kind of money, you are not short of choices.

so, liew decided to restructure the lower end of stage III products in an attempt to make it more affordable. he then commissions stage III concepts to produce the cables based on his own specs. "fair", the manufacturer said to liew, "i can do it for you provided you give me a large order quantity". liew is not the kind of dealer who suffers stage fright (pun intended) so he agreed to give a big order to the stage III manufacturer and lucky audiophiles (you, you & you) in malaysia will soon be exposed to more affordable and down-to-earth stage III products.

just imagine having silver interconnects at the price of the equivalent copper ones? this is going to change the audiophile cable market in malaysia for sure.

i really want to applaud far-sighted dealers like liew. we need more dealers like him to move and revitalize this lifeless hi-fi market in malaysia. bravo to liew!

scratching your head as to why the sound has deteriorated for no reasons?
When your have worked so hard to make your system sounding tip-top, occasionally you can hear the slightest deterioration in sound. An audiophile with sensitive hearing is always wondering why his system sounds poorer than before..... here's the quick checklist:

1] Check the DBS battery (if you are using Audioquest DBS cables)

If it falls below 10V (max 12V), time to replace batteries

2] Check bias (if you are using tube amp)

If the bias has drifted, normally the highs become unnatural

3] Check cable arrangement

Don’t lift up cables. Don’t let it cross with power cords. Don’t put it near power conditioner. Reorganize cables if need be.

4] Check channel identification using XLO disc

This is especially important when you don’t get pinpoint imaging. You can still identify the channels (albeit faintly) when the polarity is reversed! So the check on polarity is also important

5] Check polarity of UK/US plug

This is especially important when you don’t get pinpoint imaging

6] Check TNB supply

This normally results in bad sound for the whole night. Nothing you can do about it. Switch off the system and go to sleep! Switch it on the next morning and listen again.

7] Check for loose connection

This is especially important after system re-organization

8] Re-terminate IEC plugs every few years

This is to prevent corrosion and oxidation which may affect the sound especially in sensitive systems. Use the best plugs you can afford.

9] Check preamp especially those with memory

The preamp could have been jolted by a surge. Switch off the mains supply to preamp for 10 minutes. Restart again.

10] If all else fails, time to upgrade!

the ultimate - erecting TNB pole right infront of your house!

a lot of audiophiles think the ultimate frontier in hi-fi is room acoustics. i would like to add another, that's power supply.

as my hearing improves and my system getting more and more revealing, i find that the electricity supplied to my house practically makes or breaks the system. on some nights, it sounded fabulous whereas on other nights it just sounded awful. never mind that i have richard gray power delivery system, never mind that the voltage doesn't actually fluctuate much (it is pretty stable at 230V after midnight, when i do most of my listening), what actually matters is the quality of your electricity. my house being the end of the distribution block in a row of terrace houses, this technically means i get the worst or leftover of electricity.

some veteran sifu had advised me moons ago to do up my power supply but i didn't heed the advice. now i am the one suffering. i tell you, the worst night in the week is sunday night, when everyone is at home with their aircond on... that's when i get the worst sound, not suprisingly.

so, the solution, which is going to cost me RM4K, is to get TNB to build a pole right infront of my house so that they could "fly" the mains direct into my house. that would make sure that i get dedicated and clean supply of electricity. i guess this is the ultimate next to getting a 3-phase direct connection.

but i dont have RM4K to spare now so i have to persevere and subject myself to the vagaries of TNB supply. if i feel that the sound is shitty, i just switch the system off and go to bed!

tube magic at the end of its life - glorious, sublime and stunning sound

solid state supporters would never experience what i call "the last hurrah" of tubes.

just moments before any tube dies/degrades, if will emanate the most glorious of sound, the best ever you can get in your system!

let me describe the dying moments - all of a sudden the sound acquires extreme liquidity; everything just floats in a thick cloud of ambience; the rhythm and pace improves tremendously and the soundstage opens up like there is no tomorrow. it was like nirvana right infront of you.

this is the 2nd time i experience this right infront of my eyes. this time it happened around 2am on monday morning, after yee re-terminated my power cord.

i sat there speechless, stunned, at the same time, getting excited that i could experience this amazing phenomenon for the 2nd time. i sms-ed everyone.

but sadly, it didn't last for long. from that moment onwards, it was downhill all the way!

but, god, it was glorious and sublime while it lasted!

hamonic tech fanstasy ac-10 - perfect cord to power up richard gray

maybe i am the only one who dabbles so much on the power cord for richard gray. not happy with the stock cord, i replaced it with 2nd hand harmonic tech ac-11 and wow! the improvement is worth the RM500 i spent on. look, this is an example where cheap cables DO stand out more than costly ones.

being greedy, i tried powering up the richard gray with my ps audio xstream statement. no good at all! the ps audio "drags" down the sound. very sluggish. the thick 6-gauge power cord does not mean it will carry current more efficiently. hypothesis failed. back to the drawing board.

my ARC LS25MKII preamp also hates the ps audio, again resulting in a sluggish and draggy sound. looks like ps audio only works for digital source. so that's where i keep it now, hooked onto my meridian cdp.

i tried some other cables like fadel art, audience and JPS. none suits the richard gray as well as the harmonic tech ac-11. so owners of richard gray, please take heed of my advice.

then kc brought his harmonic tech fantasy AC-10, a step higher than my AC-11, to my house to pit against my brandless cord i bought from absolute hi-fi for RM450(another point to prove that, budget cord DOES work for me). yes, the fantasy is so refined, with exquisite highs and good lows but the mids are too soft for my liking. it takes away the BIG SPOTLIGHTING effect from my centre image/vocalist's mouth spot. in this respect, the brandless cord is better. though rougher and less refined, the brandless cord has presence and ruggedness that NO cord can touch or come close. so, it has to remain.

then we pitted the fantasy against ps audio xstream statement for my meridian. suprising results! the refinement of fantasy does not work here. my system prefers the weightier and rougher but solidier foundation of ps audio. so, it goes to show that ps audio is a great cord in the right place.

bouyed by kc's experiment with his harmonic tech fantasy ac-10 plugged to richard gray, i took a gamble to upgrade to fantasy (RM1,400) and lo and behold, the performance jumps by 3-5 percentage points (note. that's a lot to me, mind you). the mids are still soft but they are not so obvious now, compared to powering up the preamp.

so my final power cord combi:

richard gray - harmonic tech fantasy ac-10 (RM1,400)
meridian cdp - ps audio xstream statemen (RM2,400)
ARC LS25 preamp - absolute hi-fi brandless cord (RM450)

this gives me the best sound (all-time-high score, like what martin colloms like to say) i can ever muster out of my humble system.

high-end cables - a boon or a bane?

despite my self-imposed zen status (snigger, snigger), i feel compelled to debate on the merits of high-end cables cos it is fun to debate on this issue.

people who value the contribution of cables (hence people who pay top bucks for expensive cables) are normally fussy-pots PERFECTIONISTS who value top-quality, exquisite tonal colour and tonal quality. (i think the word 'tonality' is often misused here. tonality is a musical term, it describes the use of a particular key, especially as the basis of a melody or composition)

tonal colour, or timbre, is YUM SIK in cantonese. whereas tonal quality is YUM CHAT in cantonese.both are different but overlapping.

a good cable can let you manipulate both the tonal colour and tonal quality. normally system which use cheap cables have poor tonal colour and tonal quality. i said "normally". i find it funny when people call cables as "tone controls" or "seasoning". they are not. they are part of the ingredients to make a great system. good cable is integral to any great system.

to me, like some highly regarded audiophile sifu i know (wong tat yew and lau eng teik are but two), these two qualities ranks top of my list. much more than soundstaging, imaging etc. etc. the reason why ongaku commands such astronomical price is because it has the most exquisite YUM SIK in the world. you can be drown in that kind of YUM SIK forever.

sadly, most audiophiles don't even come close to understand what YUM SIK and YUM CHAT really means. when my young friend kc said his stealth cloude 9 power cords improves the midrange density, that means in cantonese, MUT DOU, it also implies that it improves the YUM CHAT of the system. i recently listend to a RM400K system using 3 runs of top-of-the-line stage III vacuum gold reference interconnect and was astounded by the midrange density of the system. the vocals are rounded, almost spherical in 3-d space and the density is very very high. it is to die for. there is NO WAY you can get this level of YUM CHAT with cheap cables.

when you have the hang of playing (mix and match) with cables, you are not unlike the master chef, being able to cook any AURAL dishes of your liking. it is so fun because everything is under your control. people who don't play cables will never understand or appreciate the fun.

true, it is not always that top-notch cables are suitable for top-notch system but show me a high-end system with DIY cables that sings like nightingale and i will show you a man who doesn't like sex.

mixing and matching of cables is a skill that requires highly discerning listening skills. and highly discerning listening skills is as rare as a man who doesn't like sex. so what if you buy the top models of transparent, audioquest and nordost, it still does not guarantee good sound. for example, siltech is known to be not suitable for SS gear. nordost sound is clean and a tad cool. cardas is coloured and woolly and thick. transparent is thick of the mids but no lows nor highs. why i am so thrilled with stage III is because stage III gives me both exquisite YUM SIK and YUM CHAT that i can't find in other cables.

generally, malaysian audiophiles don't believe in cables. if you want to segregate, i find that ipoh audiophiles invest the most on cables because (1) the dealers there promote high-end cables aggressively hence education is important (2) ipoh audiophiles are older retirees who have plenty of money and time to play hifi (3) ipoh audiophiles who listen to more vocals value YUM SIK and YUM CHAT more than anything else. you also find audiophiles that emphasize on bang-wham-thank-you-mam kind of sound don't play cables as much as those who listen to vocals.

seriously, not until you understand what is truly meant by YUM SIK (tonal color) and YUM CHAT (tonal quality), you will never understand why people are ever so willing to spend top dollars on good cables.

isn't hi-fi about sharing with like-minded people?

are you a genuine audiophile? don't you share your hobby with only like-minded people?

for whatever reasons, i always argue with my friend chee kee. not the kind of fierce arguments that involves temper-flaring but gentlemanly and educated arguments. maybe we are born with the opposite star signs, we always argue.

both of us are passionately into this very subjective hobby called hi-fi. hi-fi is very subjective because human being's hearing ability differs from individual to individual. i am blessed because my hearing ability (hence listening skills) are better than average. i can tell whether a voice sounds like a voice, a cymbal sounds like a cymbal or put in another way, i am sensitive to tonal accuracy. most people aren't.

besides being highly subjective, hi-fi is also a very political hobby in malaysia. political in the sense that there are camps and cult groups supporting different brands/makes and often they accuse each other of being poor listeners (e.g. "this guy has cotton ears!". "this chap is blur like sotong"), cheapskates and other unpleasant terms. i used to be guilty of both the giving and receiving end.

to cut a long story short, nowadays i have distanced myself away from all these politics simply because i feel that i belong to the different echelon of hi-fi and i need not waste my time mingling or arguing with people who don't share my views. chee kee, however, feels that, hi-fi can only flourish if there is a diverse group of people sharing and exchanging views and learn from each other as they progress. and learned people like me should lead in the education of hi-fi to the masses. he is just being idealistic. what he has in mind is a hi-fi utopia that i too dream of. i told him that's not possible in malaysia because the malaysian hi-fi enthusiasts in general are poor listeners, highly bigoted and a bunch of sour-grapes. chee kee then argued that i should not just befriend like-minded people - i should broaden my scope and share with people with opposing views. I was exasperated! Isn't a hobby about sharing with like-minded people? This is not dewan rakyat where I need to have a verbal battle with the opposition all the time! If you think spending only RM2,000 can get better sound than spending RM200,000 then let it be (and congratulations) but we are not like-minded, that's all. and i doubt i will have time to educate you.

i have acquired a zen-like belief in my hobby. yes, it is lonely when you are up there. but it is also so peaceful and tranquil. if you are like-minded, do join me in the club, no matter how small it is. you will find many joys and treasures in sharing with people of the same interest, zest and intellect.

james blunt - familiar tunes but still worth a listen

i didn't bother to google james blunt but i heard he is an ex-army.

his music, tho' not totally original and fresh, has plenty of infectious hooks. simply and effective. it doesn't have the melancholia and darkness of damien rice; it is sunnier and more poppish.

the highlight of the cd is the hit single you're beautiful. the 1st five songs are gems but the rest of the secondhalf are fillers.

oh, don't ask me about the recording. with music this good, i don't normally care about the recording :-)

stealth cloude nine power cord - sending you to cloud nine literally!

i have always been lamenting about the scarcity of true hi-fi enthusiasts in malaysia. i mean, those who have good ears, adventurous spirits and have a healthy bank account to keep spending on hi-fi. let's face it - too few people are spending on hi-fi in malaysia. i am not sure if it is because hi-fi is too expensive here or simply the average malaysians don't earn enough to afford hi-fi. whatever the case, you can't deny that hi-fi (two channel hifi, that is) is seriously on the decline in malaysia. (and globally, i suppose)

but i know someone close to me who proves to be the opposite of the trend, and it is heartening and inspiring to know that there are still people like him in malaysia.

my young friend is only 26 year-old and holds a demanding but well-paying job in an IT firm. a true believer in the adage "you pay peanuts you get monkey" when it comes to hi-fi, he has bought some very serious gear over the last 2 years. and the last i visted him, the sound of his system is very very good. no other 26 year-old i know spent Rm20K on a hi-fi system. he must enter into the guinness record of malaysia.

and the latest i heard is, he wants to buy stealth power cords. if you haven't heard of the brand stealth, go google and read about it. simply put, stealth is one of the lowest profile high-end cable manufacturer in USA. local importer is audiomatic, located at the 1st floor in amcorp mall.

i am very encouraged to see such passion from such a young enthusiast. if only the local hi-fi dealers can incubate this young group of enthusiasts, then hi-fi has a future in malaysia.

that's a direct translation from the chinese proverb, pak fa chai fong. which means hi-fi in HK is really like a hundred types of flowers blossoming at the same time. i am not exaggerating, i think what we have in malaysia (in terms of brands and variety) is only 10% of what you get in HK. from the established names to the totally obscure, from the very expensive esoteric stuff to the mass-market, HK has everything you can ever think of.

because hi-fi has a critical mass in HK, you find a healthy and robust primary market which in turn spins off a very vibrant secondary (secondhand) market. secondhand hi-fi shops in HK always stock high-end stuff that's barely a couple of months' old from general global release. we find the recently released audio research reference 3 preamp on sale in one of them! talking about how fickle-minded HK audiophiles are! these are the people that spur the hi-fi economy in HK!

vintage audio is big too in HK. HK is also a paradise for D.I.Yers, as witnessed from the variety of electronic shops in ap liu kai (in sham shui po). our pasar road simply pales in comparison to ap liu kai! there are also a lot of DIY cables on sale for a song in ap liu kai.

most high-end shops can be found in central district. here, you really need a local to guide you because all these shops are hidden in high-rise commercial buildings. the most interesting thing is once the elevator opens, you are already in the shop, not a chance to peer thru the glass like in most shops in kl! i find most of the sales staff very professional and friendly.

audiophile cables are also big business in HK. you can find 3 dedicated cable dealers in grandcastle (tim chi) building at the end of sai yeung choi street in mongkok. HK audiophiles actually believe that cables do make a difference and they are willing to invest in them. grandcastle houses more than 20 hi-fi shops under one roof, some of which are secondhand shops. it is a delight to visit this unassuming building.

my impression on the hi-fi scene in HK is a positive one. things here are cheaper compared to malaysia. the hi-fi population is relatively large and eventho' they have many camps, they seldom step into each other's toes. audiophiles here are definitely more mature as more people can afford the high-end stuff so very little inferiority complex exists. also, the audiophiles in HK are more online savvy. you can even find high-enders participating in online forums. there are many online hi-fi camps/clubs supporting different brands/makes and they can co-exist and live in harmony. it sounds every bit like a hi-fi utopia for me. i am envious.

unfortunately, all these are missing in the malaysian hi-fi scene. hi-fi is, and will remain, a luxury in malaysia.

acknowledgement: this blog entry is contributed by my hi-fi buddy in HK, guan, who writes better and knows much more about hi-fi than me! thanks, guan.

I rarely visit audio showrooms nowadays and didn't even attend the HK AV Show held a few weeks ago. It takes a rather special occasion to kick start me into audiophool mode. And what better reason as Les is in town! We had a fun time last Saturday visiting quite a few audio establishments in Central. The rain gods also decided to have a party and it was really pouring buckets, non-stop. But did the heavy rain dampen our zest for fine audio? Certainly not! ;)

a van carrying some high-end hi-fi stuff - a rare sight in HK

odyssey audio using a pc front-end

We first wandered into the Odyssey Audio showroom to sample a unique PC based audio system. We heard stored WAV music files direct from the hard disc of the PC, converted to analogue by either a Dack! 2.0 or the Benchmark DAC1, which in turn fed the Odyssey Tempest pre-amp/Dual Mono Stratos amp and Lorelei speakers. The sound was open, dimensional, detailed and of surprisingly high quality. I learnt that WAV files played from a computer hard disc sounds significantly better than a CD played on a PC CD-ROM. Using the PC as CD transport produced terrible results. So is PC audio and storing music in hard disc WAV format the future of high quality digital? Perhaps...the jury is still out on this one

audio space showroom in central

We then mooched into the HK Audio Space showroom nearby. These guys specialise in tube amps and we heard a KT88 stereo amp and a 300B parallel push pull amp driving Dynaudio Focus 112 and Special 25 speakers. The sound was reasonably pleasant on both amps but I much preferred the refinement and midrange body of the 300B amp. The KT88 was somewhat rough and lacking in cohesiveness although it produced tighter bass and more extended highs. Les commented that the treble sticks out too much. Audio Space seems to be going upmarket too as I spotted a pair of gigantic Reference One 845 tube monoblocks going for a princely RM75K!

audio space showroom in central

av consigment centre in central

Moving on, we popped into a new second-hand shop I've not visited before. This was HK AV Consignment Centre (a branch of the famous shop in Mongkok) and it held a veritable Aladdin's cave of hifi goodies. I was surprised to find lots of new stuff being sold second-hand such as a barely used ARC Reference 3, MF Tri-Vista sacd player, Pass Lab 150.5, MBL radial speakers, dCS stack and cables galore. I directed Les' attention to an immense 4-chassis, 800lbs, JadisJA800 tube amp that should be 'adequate' to drive his Maggies ;P He demurred saying that he prefers ARC...This man has excellent brand loyalty!

av consignment centre in central

pacific audio in central

Next up was Pacific Audio to listen to angular Talon Khorus X MkII speakers driven by a Sim Audio i5 LE integrated amp and Equinox cd player. The sound was reasonably balanced but rather dull and boring, exacerbated by a lack of high frequency detail and soggy dynamics. Hmm...Btw Les was thrilled to see that Pacific Audio is the HK dealer for his current favourite Stage III cables and he had a lengthy yawn...err...yarn with the dealer on the numerous merits of this allegedly fab cable.

Our next jaunt took us into Reference Audio, another second-hand dealer. Not much luck here as the equipment available was not up to the quality of AV Consignment apart from some big, aluminium skinned Piega and Burmester speakers. Les was more interested in the specialist CD store directly opposite. The shop mainly sells esoteric audiophile jazz recordings from Europe, US, right up to South America including whole CD sections from Argentina, Brazil and Spain. No mainstream pop in sight!

We then moved on to Duddell Street which houses many of the big name audio dealers in HK. First up was the Nagra/Golmund dealer. The lift opens and you literally walk right into the shop. No chance to peer in from outside or getting cold feet :) I invited ourselves into the listening room and we got to hear a very decent system made up of Nagra tube pre-amp and monoblocks including a Nagra DAC/ Goldmund transport driving Sonus Faber Guarneri speakers. Lovely bloom, nice layered soundstage and decent musicality although it was overall a little laid back for my taste.

Next up was Excel where we clapped our earlugs on a Meridian G08, Krell KAV 400xi driving some post modernist Vivid Audio K1 floorstanders shaped like big Zulu war shields. The system was lively, detailed with decent tonality (for an integrated Krell) but the sound stayed firmly within the speakers and refused to image properly. We also eyeballed the new 4-chassis megabuck Krell Evolution series momo amps and Meridian 808 reference cd player but unfortunately they weren't hooked up. I could see Les lusting after the Maggie 20.1 speakers on silent display. They are waaaay too large, my good chap!

sweet dreams are made of these - ARC reference 610T

impressive display at sound chamber

We popped into the next building and headed straight for the HK ARC dealer (The Sound Chamber). Upon entering the listening room...Wow! All we could do was shake our heads and exclaim at the sheer impractical size of the latest ARC Reference 610T monoblocks. They really look like big laboratory/medical equipment towers. Standing next to them was the equally imposing Wilson Alexandria X2 speakers. Unfortunately this dream system was not turned on and it would need at least half an hour to warm up from cold. Don't blame the dealer as the 610T draws 800 watts per side at idle!! So we listened to a 47Labs pit tracer and non-oversampling DAC with about 4 Power Humpty(?) supplies, Spectral pre/power (bleargh!) driving Wilson System 7 speakers. Cost aside, the sound was ok but a little cold and uninvolving to my ears. I attribute this to the Spectral gear. In the next room there were the older Reference 600 amps lying on trolleys for servicing and a big Ongaku with a sticker tag of 'only' RM400K!! By this time, most of the other dealers were shut, so we adjourned for coffee and had a chat about the crazy HK audio market.

me and guan chilling out in a cafe in the famous landmark building

Les and I went for a final (audio) fling over lunch today and covered a surprising number of hifi outlets, some of which I'd even forgotten about. But the main point of this post is that I have finally heard a digital front end that I really enjoyed. At Stereo Kingdom, we were relaxed, cosseted and cajoled by the delicious sound of the Reimyo CDP-777. Now, imagine plain-vanilla CD sounding as seamless, cohesive and grain free as vinyl yet with a negligible noise floor. Imagine CDs not even sounding 'digital' as we know it; more free from glare, etch, spiky transients, overdone sibilance and ragged edges than any other source (digital or vinyl) I have heard. Contemplate a sound that is utterly fatigue free, totally involving and wonderfully musical and you may just have some idea of the exceptional building blocks that form the basis of the Reimyo player.Unmitigated rave? Perhaps.

How to describe the sound? It does not impress with overtly 'flash-bang-I'm-your-man' kind of sonic fireworks that initially thrills but is ultimately fatiguing. The Reimyo's natural, unrushed, engagingly wholesome presentation of what's recorded on the silver disc, complete with gorgeous detail and unforced contrasts, is what won me over. Granted, it's not as incisive, stunningly dynamic and detailed as a big Wadia or dCS. Regardless, the sound of the Reimyo is so different and refreshing that it defies my rather rigid paradigm of digital sound. System was a pair of ATC SCM50 speakers driven by Gamut M200 MkIII monoblocks, a First Sound Paramount MkII linestage with Harmonix cables throughout. Les commented that the system could do with more "bloom" but admitted that it still produced a"classy" sound. For me, the Reimyo simply sets the benchmark for CD reproduction. In a sympathetic system, I cannot imagine it being bettered by much. The Meridian Reference 808 cd player may be a strong contender but I've not heard it. Thank goodness I'm getting out of the game :)

janice wai lan - good music with good looks to boot

it is quite unprecedented - i have been spinning this cd non-stop since the day i bought it in HK.

janice's (chinese name: wai lan) voice has a way to penetrate my inner soul. the kind of husky voice that seems to have a perpetual flu on it. it is so raw, so sexy and sensuous to my discerning ears. since the launch of this debut album, everyone has been talking about janice in HK.

janice, an eurasian with a chinese descent who is based in HK, is the protege of leon lai and his ace producer mark lui. janice covers all leon's hits with a new twist - the songs are penned in english lyrics and all rearranged into jazz and r&b. refreshing and invigorating. those tired of soulless audiophile singers should now listen to real singer singing real music.

the recording is nothing to shout about (tho' it is DSD) but the music is the reason you buy this cd. i saw so many chinese audiophile cds in HK selling for only RM22 each, i didn't buy any because i am seriously tired of those stale chinese audiophile singers. and yet i bought 4 copies of janice to give them to all my close friends.

you may have to wait for another few months before this arrives in malaysia (if at all). if you do have friends in s'pore, ask them to get it for you there.

for me, this is simply delicious pop.

the most high-end cd shop in HK!
i am currently holidaying in HK. i will be visiting most of the hi-fi shop in HK in the next few days.

as i was roaming in time square mall, causeway bay, i chanced upon this cd shop. not suspecting anything special, i stepped into the shop just to browse with no intention to buy. i saw plenty of audiophile cds with tags like "limited edition", "virgin press". curious, i turned the cd around to check the price tag, hold your breath - HKD2000 a piece! holy cow, i was stunned! speechless! it took me only 2 minutes to finish my browsing before i made my exit.

outside the shop, i studied some of the posters pasted on the shopfront. apparently, sam, the proprietor, has been selling virgin-pressed japanese-pressed cd since 1987. they are so bloody expensive because virgin pressing coupled with japanese pressing is supposedly the best recording ever. it offers the best sonic quality. these cds are all considered as NOS, new old stock, just like vacuum tubes. so, once they are sold, there won't be anymore left.

what an eye-opener. this is the first time i heard a cd costing more than RM200.

if you open a shop like this in kl, you are bound to close shop within months.

local gem - promitheus audio balanced power supply
i don't personally know the designer, nick chua, yet from all the brouhaha generated in the audio circles about locally-made promitheus audio products, i gather that at his age (late twenties, i guess), he must be a darn talented bloke.

basheer delivered the BPS (balanced power supply) t0 me last saturday and i had it running-in for 48 hours before serious listening.

i won't go into the technical implementation of BPS, it is not my forte. suffice to say that by splitting the voltage into two, you get common mode rejection which is supposed to eliminate noise and bring about all the resultant sonic benefits that audiophiles crave for.

the 500VA BPS looks uncannily like the richard gray 400s power delivery system. i guess nick must be inspired by it. it is built like a tank, with a single US-type female receptable (you can choose UK-type and even a duplex, i was told) and an IEC outlet for power cord.

using the BPS is a breeze. power it up and it works without any fuss or complaints. i used the BPS dedicatedly on my meridian 508.24 cdp.

if you had never used a power conditioner before, your "wow!" factor is 10 times of those who have. it is really impressive, compared to the untreated and polluted power supply from TNB. first impression is - clean, clean, clean! the sound is almost dirt-free and you could identify individual instruments and vocalists much more easily. separation is great and the sound also gathers dimensionality. the whole frequency spectrum benefits - highs are delicate and smooth; mids are made much more palpable and lows are tighter and less bloated. the background is dead silent too. it is better than upgrading to a high-end interconnect or speaker cables!

compared to the 4 times more expensive richard gray 600s power delivery system that i am using (yes, i know i am not comparing apple to apple but what the heck), BPS is easily humbled. richard gray has much more air and ambience than BPS, and music is allowed much more freedom to breathe and flow. but at 4 times the price, can you expect anything less?

suffice to say that i am positively impressed with BPS and i would recommend anyone who has yet to install a conditioner in his system to really give it a go. nick has higher models for more power hungry equipment like your power amps.
the only local product that has impressed me so far is frankie's pipit phono stage. now, i would like to add promitheus audio BPS along side.

my fantasy comes true with harmonic tech power cord

staunch supporter of d.i.y power cords and non-believers alike, i urge you to try the harmonic tech fantasy ac-10 power cord. it only took 20 seconds to trash my brandless power cord from UK! mind you, my power cord cost me RM450 from absolute-hifi in taman megah (3 years ago) and it has beaten many branded power cords including audience and JPS. this brandless power cord from absolute has plenty of "zing" and punch which makes the competitors sound too nice, too tame, too sedate and unexciting by comparison. until harmonic tech came, that is.

kc brought back the power cord from HK and it costs him only RM1,250. real bargain. if only there is an agent for harmonic tech cables in malaysia.

as it is, the highs are exquisite, the soundstage too has expanded laterally and depth-wise by a big margin. more air, too. also, important to me is - it sounds lively and exciting. i am expecting better things to come after another 100 hours of so burning-in. until then, i would not pit it against my megabuck PS audio xstream statement, which i use to power up my cdp.

power cords have really come a long way. it has now become an important conduit in the whole chain. well, its importance is still less than an interconnect but in a highend system where every little thing counts, power cord plays a paramount role.

it is quite likely i will ditch my brandless power cords in the near term ;-)

let me from the outset state that i am here NOT primarily for the money. my lilvelihood does not depend on hifi lah. this desirable audio boutique (dab, for short) concept has been on my mind for some time. i have always been wanting to know the audiophiles in my neighbourhood and form a small clique. since i get exposed to 2nd hand equipment on a daily basis and always get requests from my audiophile friends to source hi-fi components for them, why not combine these two objectives into a hobby-business? kinda cool; sort of killing two birds with one stone.

i define desirable as:

  • a piece of equipment that has a good secondhand value in the market and is constantly sought after. i don't mean marantz cd63SE KI version or musical fidelity A1 integrated, for that, please go to music matters (see the link on the right)
  • it must be of mid-end to high-end (price range, brand, pedigree as well as aspiration-wise). you won't find Greatwall or Panda power amp from MIC here. no disrespect but just to prove a point

i define boutique as:

  • a small and intimate setup which carries selected items of high-quality. i would post not more than 5 desirable items every week. so please mark this URL and come back to this blog often. I am not of guru status yet but whatever i know i will impart to you, if you ask nicely :-) I am pretty cool in speaker positioning, you know ;-)
so, all in all, desirable audio boutique is a cosy and comfortabe place to enjoy fine audio in home setting without the pressure of buying. at the moment, you have to make do with 100plus and mineral water but i may comtemplate red wine later if we can really clique and the response is good :-)

since i am using a private residence as a meeting place, i have the ultimate say on who i want to admit. people who come with the genuine intent to share and foster friendship, who know how to behave... generally educated gentlemen who are passionate about audio are most welcome. OTOH, people who come with a chip on their shoulders, with the malicious intent to bad-mouth, criticize, compare, put-down and in general make a nuisance of himself and not forgetting low-ballers, are strictly not welcome.

In my 15 years in audio journey, I have been called all sorts of names. But those who know me well can assure you that I am a nice, down-to-earth, sincere, passionate, knowleageable bloke with decent listening and tweaking skills and a generous heart to educate.

if you want to communicate via email, leslieloh2003@yahoo.com. oh, btw, i also sell on behalf, i.e. consignment basis.

even if i don't manage to sell a single thing, i will still be happy to know you ;-)

richard gray 400s power delivery system - RM1,800 (New RM2,800)

leslie's comments:

there's a lot of misundertanding about richard gray being an active component in the circuit which invariably means adding its own sonic signature and adding compression. fact is, richard gray is a parallel device and it does no harm to the sound. i am using model 600s myself. the results are blacker black, crystalline highs, better separation, more air, more layered soundstage, tighter bass.

this unit is a mint unit with low usage.

stage III concepts baron silver interconnect 1.5m RCA - RM2,300 (New - RM3,200)

leslie's comments:

stage III cables is the biggest discovery in my last 15 years in audio. a cottage industry cable maker based in NYC, USA, stage III produces one of the best silver cables in the market. amongst its greatest virtues are shimmering highs, textured mids and a very tight and tactile lows. It is unlike any silver cables you'd listened in the past which tend to be thin and shrilly and devoid of emotions. i am using higher models of stage III i/c in my systems with great success.