a high-end amp like krell fpb700cx offers unparalleled precision and control

if you cheerfully buy a piece of second-hand high-end stuff dated circa 1993, like the krell ksa300 and think that it can equal last gen's krell FBP or current-gen EVO series, then you are really kidding yourself.

high-end has progressed - not dramatically but sufficiently to warrant the extra money to upgrade. based on our experience in reviewing high-end gear of today against what what we used to own 10 years ago, there are significant improvements/changes in the following areas:

[1] tonal colour - high-end gear of yesteryear are coloured to a certain extent. today's gear adopts neutrality as its goal. gone are the colours but here comes naturalness. modern sound, whether it is tube or solid state share this commonality. folks who swear by those colourful and romantic found of tube amps like the old jadis may dislike this new direction. most modern push-pull tube amps operate in ultralinear for its power and stability but older folks (like yours truly) swear by triode sound, for its sweetness and wonderful tonal colour palette. a case in point - the famed china-made ASL hurricane power amp sounds much better in triode mode compared to pentode.

[2] imaging - today's high-end gear images much better. images are much more compact (in size) and precise, without the fuzziness, bloatiness and roundedness of the old high-end. this applies not only to amps but to cables as well. it is as if the sound has gone for slimming and trimming to shed off those excess fat.

[3] resolution - with better parts, this is to be expected. the increase in resolution is particularly relevant for digital gear. we were stunned when we heard the dCS purcell/elgar/verdi combo. the amount of details are just shocking.

[4] accuracy - today's high-end are not about accuracy per se. if you go chasing for accuracy, you will be grossly disappointed. high-end today goes for exquisiteness and beauty at all costs. this exquisiteness is far from accurate but it is tremendously pleasant to the ears! our experience with kharma speakers, goldmund gear, siltech G6 cables, stealth cables and many others shows us that high-end is about beautiful sound, extremely beautiful sound, even to the extent of being slightly unreal. many a times we were gasping "this isn't real but hell we like the sound!".

[5] soundstaging - with a doubt, today's high-end improves in soundstaging by miles. width, depth, layering and separation are hallmarks of today's high-end. we were shown all these exemplary qualities when we auditioned the audio research VT200 power amp.

[6] bass - bass is tauter, goes deeper and better controlled for modern amps. older amps tend to be "fuzzier" and "fatter" and less well-defined.

having said all these, all is not lost for high-end gear of yesterday. it used to be that ARC has its own house sound, krell has its own sound, C-J has its own but now they all seem to converge on neutrality and precision. it is no longer easy to attach a brand to a certain sound. high-end today is that much more homogenous. also, some old timers contend that older gear are more musical, which is really debatable.

plus, sad to say, high-end today is truly exorbitant.

we pay a visit to the spankingly new high-end research showroom in mont kiara and came way truly impressed...

coming soon...


conrad johnson premier 140 pitting against old classic ARC classic 120

i would readily admit that i totally ignored conrad johnson as a premier brand in the last 20 years of my audiophilia journey. i didn't get a chance to listen to their great masterpieces like premier 8, 11 and 12. shame, shame.

now it is time to make amends. you must have remembered how i raved about the solid-state c-j premier 350. but being a tube aficianado, i passed over the c-j 350.

premier 140 is so hernia-inducing (40kg) heavy that my hands were so strained after unloading it from the box. it has an understated beauty about the looks, just like how understated beautiful the sound is. biasing is a breeze; these people in c-j really know how to main tedious task simple. if all tube amps can be so easily biased then more audiophiles would not be fearful of tube amps! audio research should learn a trick or two on how to make biasing simple from c-j.

compared to my reference amp, the trusty ARC classic 120, which is using 16 6550C power tubes (8 per monoblock) to pump out merely 120 watts (triode), the premier 140's use of only 8 6550C to give out 140 watts (ultralinear) is more economical and practical. so no issue about the cost of maintaning tubes; 8 pieces of svetlana winged-c 6550c would cost less than RM1,000.

this connie is a real charmer! sonically, it is sweet and relaxed, musically friendly and smooth. it is far more capable of revealing nuances in music than my classic 120. soundstage capabilities are also superior to my classic 120. the front-to-back layering of musicians are better handled than my ARC, tho' it still loses out to the mighty ARC VT200 in terms of layering, soundtage depth and imaging precision. (this could be due to the extra power of VT200 in pushing my maggie)

i hate to use this - premier 140 is a very "neutral" amp. it does not have the golden yellowish colouration of my ARC. it is interesting comparing the c-j house sound to ARC house sound. the ARC is awlays vivid, lively and high-definition (to the extent of being analytical to some detractors), some kind of solid-state-y, whereas the connie is more down-to-earth sort of tube amp; more human, more organic, less show-off-y and less hi-fi-ish, more well-behaved but also less exciting.

premier 140 has sweet midrange, almost SET-like in its quality. the highs and the bass are sufficiently good. listening to premier 140 is a pleasant feeling. everything is so understated yet so elegant and relaxing.

tonally, it doesn't have the vivacity of the classic 120's triode. timing and rhythm are not its strongest forte. that is not to say the premier 140 is slow but it renders fast-music with a velvety glove - relaxed and in control all the times.

now the real downfall - it has only RCA connections! dang! why manufacturers like c-j, holfi, goldmund only believe in RCA??? i am totally upset by how stubborn these manufacturers are, as i am a staunch believer of XLR balanced connections. with RCA connections, i almost have to turn the volume knob on my preamp close to 12 o'clock or more in order to appreciate the music. the RCA robs the music of some immediacy, dynamic and presence, seriously. this alone may stop me from considering what is otherwise a glorious music maker in the c-j premier 140.

all is not lost, it has been sweet music-making all the way with the connie. i truly revel in the experience!

Omigod, it was a lake last time, now, it’s a hill! Damn, I am in cloud nine, and I don’t want to be awakened and roll down the hill!

Since this Ruby Hill is only 1.5m, I was not able to plug it in to my RGPC. So, I just plugged it in to my pre. With the high expectation set by Forbes Lake’s last visit to my setup, I was again awed by Ruby Hill’s magic.

Ultimate realism! Ultimate coherency! Ultimate delicacy! Ultimate elegance! Ultimate sweetness! Ultimately almost perfect! It gives the best complete harmonic pictures, everything is vividly fleshed out. The presentation is weighty, substantial and compact, giving a sense of tangibility not achievable by the wannabes!

Being the first audiophile in M’sia to have bought a Stealth Cloude 9 Full AC power cord, (dealers not included ar!) it carries respectful calibers to have earned my dough. Can you imagine how stunned I was to realize how fuzzy it was as compared to RH? Man, a silver cable sounding fuzzy, can you imagine that?!

Due to gold’s nature, RH’s silver + gold might sound slightly dry and less colorful than C9’s pure silver. C9 has got a slight upper hand when it comes to wetness and moist. OTOH, C9 is a bit light weighted as compared to RH’s sturdy presence. For ultimate grain-less sound, gold is a must have ingredient!

Forget about elaborative descriptions on the highs, mids and lows, as for cables at this price point, those are already part of the package. If you still insist on asking does it sound lifelike, it’s far more elegant than real. With slightly more than 2 times the price of C9, you sure get your money’s worth!

I’d buy a hill at 7K!

NBS is one of the brands I frequently heard of when I started off, usually, they come in huge price tags and endorsed by hi-enders locally and abroad. I guess with an alias like “No Bull Shit”, they sure worth their salt.

The moment I plugged the Omega Jr in to my RGPC, omigod, it’s like my setup had gone on Viagra! I was very much carried on a roller coaster ride, it just kept on going on and on. The 2 traits that struck me were the authoritive bass and sharp image outline!

The bass was, phew, fast and taut with no excessive fat or bloom. The delivery was nothing short on breath, giving a precise grip on the beat and rhythm. With its clean and crystal clear nature, the image was very well defined. The image focus was spot on and the instruments were vividly anchored in their acoustic space.

With this, you could actually “see” the lips of the singers. There was just no way you could not pick out the lines from the songs, it was that focused! The tight focus might be due to its extended, weighty and forceful highs. Well, this cord really meant business in drive, listen to any drum track and you’ll know what I mean! The visceral impact was just mind boggling!

Across the frequency spectrum, I could only attribute it to clean, pristine, neutral and refined. But does it qualify to be the cord for everyone? Yes and no like usual.

For bloomy, slow and mellow tube setups, it might be the one to bring balance to the overall presentation. It would definitely clean up the bloom to give a precise image, put pace in the setup and bring that extra zing to engage you in the music.

For solid state, I really doubt it would cut it due to its overly fast nature. And cutting more bloom from ss would simply be disastrous! What I really wanted to try is to put it with Naim and see the best rockers perform together!

My quote for it? It makes a French bread out of overnite yau char kwai!

transparent audio reference powerlink 2 - the best compromise so far

after prolonged listening to nbs omega junior, i find something amiss. the mids are a bit hard and dry, the speed is way to fast (hence destroy the gentleness of slow music) and the overall effect is just a tad hi-fi-sh. the nbs initially awed me with its drive, PRaT and its superb bass but these qualities are not be-all and end-all for me. i am demanding other qualities like density, weight, wetness, warmth, organic flow, musicality. (gee, what a fussy pot!) it is really not fair in asking all these in the RM1K cable tho. i definitely have to up my price point.

so the search continues.

with just a couple of phone calls, i have with me the siltech G6 ruby hill (RM7K)and transparent audio reference powerlink 2 (RPL2, at RM3K). now the battle looks more exciting.

at RM7K, the generation-6 siltech, like the previous forbes lake interconnect i tried, again impresses me with its ultra delicate and refined presentation. the silver-gold composite really scores in midrange density and cultured high frequencies. everything is so ultra smooth and defined, to be extent of being a bit dainty and civilised. now, this would be a great cord for systems leaning on the rough side or even perhaps a solid-state system but in my system, i find it too much, too good. but i must maintain that in the right system, the siltech can be the best power cord you will ever need.

i have never really fancied the older generation of transparent cables in the past. to me, it is bloated in the mids with not much highs and lows. but some audiophiles swear by their higher-range cables like the opus MM. RPL2 (reference powerlink 2) is their 3rd-ranked power cord so it is rather high-end.

what can i say but RPL2 is the most balanced power cord in my experience so far! it has everything in the right dosage - not too much, not too little; just right. it doesn't have the bass authority of nbs but it still handles rock pretty well. it doesn't have the dryness of nbs; it has more warmth and moisture in the mids. it doesn't have the bloatiness of the absolute hi-fi's brandless cord or the leanness of the nbs; it has just the right density and weight. it doesn't have the too-delicate-to-touch quality of the siltech but it has enough boldness and drive to rock.

RPL2 seems like the best compromise i could ever ask for.

for the fun of it, i tried replacing my ps audio xstream statement - which has proven to be a firstl-class power cord for digital source - with the transparent. alas, the RPL2 cannot even touch the ps audio in terms of weight and bass solidity. the RPL2 is light-weight and floaty, altho' it has more details and is more refined than the ps audio. it truly justifies my faith on the ps audio xstream statement.

ok, let's make a conclusive remark about power cords: the higher end you go, the more you get in terms of (1) resolution (2) image precision/definition (2) image compactness (reduction of bloatiness). generally cheaper power cords are ill-defined in imaging and they tend to bloat.

can transparent reference powerlink 2 stand the test of time? watch this space.

kharma - exquisiteness rivalling planars and electrostatics

ever heard of 80s cult group culture club's hit single karma chameleon with the line that goes "you come and go, you come and go, karma karma karma chameleon..."?

this kharma speaker that i listened to doesn't come and go but instead it stays rock solid in imaging and creates such a stunning soundstage that you can walk into and wander around with the musicians. the air around the speaker is so intense that you can call it the "air supply" phenomenon.

i have long heard about the rave on dutch-made kharma speakers from reading articles by TAS' john valin, a reviewer whose tastes i trust. john has been living with the kharma exquisite speakers for years until he divorced them and married with mBL speakers recently. so the kharma must be something special.

stationed in high-end research's showroom are the smaller kharma ceramique 3 series and the bigger ceramique 2 series. both exhibit the same trademark quality, that of exquisiteness and refinement which is the guarded territory of planars and electrostatics. i have heard many big high-end box speakers but not many convince me that it can better than planars in terms of highs, refinement and soundstaging but the kharmas surprised me! however, they don't strike me as the typical rocker speakers so naim-proponents can stay elsewhere.

but they don't come cheap yeah. even the mid-range kharma ceramique 2 series is already RM70K, the same price range as eggleston andra, jmlab alto utopia, wilson watt puppy 7 etc. etc.

i have the feeling that many rich audiophiles in malaysia would embrace kharma with open arms.

experienced audiophiles would know that a good power cord for power amp is not necessary the best for preamp and vice versa. also, digital sources always require different power cords. my ps audio xstream statement is a very good cord for cd player but absolutely terrible cord for preamp. normally preamp prefers thinner power cords. in fact, cable company like jps actually have different power cords for different equipment/sources, e.g. digital ac for cd player, analog ac for preamp etc. etc.

my resident power cord for my ARC LS25MKII preamp is the brandless power cord i bought from absolute hifi 4 years ago. altho' it is relatively cheap at RM500, nothing could completely smoke it so far. in the areas of presence factor and PRaT, this UK-made power cord reigns supreme, which truly befits the reputation of those absolute hifi folks who are known to be "rockers".

so far, i have tried audience powerchord, jps analog ac, ps audio xstream statement, shunyata taipan, zu cable and many others. all of them lost to my brandless cord in presence factor and PRaT, two factors which rank high in my criteria. the major shortcomings of this brandless cord is that it is expectedly and sligtly rougher than those audiophile-approved cords; it smudges ever so slightly on imaging and it has a golden yellowish colouration (which could be intoxicating).

being the perfectionist i am, i am never totally at peace with this brandless power cord - i want the best compromise! presence, PRaT and refinement - i want the whole package. i know there is something better out there; i just need to search hard.

my fixation on refinement and resolution came after listening to some truly high-end sound lately, including the krell 700cx and goldmund telos 600 monoblock (which cost over RM200K!). there is two things constant in these systems - refinement and resolution. let's face it, these are the qualities that separate the men from the boys.

my answer came in the form of nbs (nothing but signal) omega junior power cord, the lowest model in the omega series. nbs is known to be exhorbitant but suprising the omega junior is reasonably priced. i got a loaner from high-end research in plaze mont kiara. (i will feature high-end research in my coming blog. watch this space!)

the nbs has 90% of the the UK-made brandless cord's presence factor and PRaT but has 20-30% more refinement. it also has tidier imaging and less colouration than the brandless cord. that's enough to make me draw out my cheque book...

one thing i observe about nbs all these years - the bass is superb!

Actually, ignorance is bliss. I would’ve never thought this would plague me until I heard the best of Leslie’s setup. I would’ve never taken note of my listening level and kept on listening without noticing what’s wrong.

When the current quality is bad due to whatever unknown reason, it’s actually causing havoc on the sound you get. When the current gets so bad to a point where god also cannot help you, even putting Richard Gray or PS Audio also cannot help.

It’s not hard to detect such foe in sound when the electricity is no good. You’ll notice that the harmonic richness has been stripped away, leaving only a thin and glassy sound to torture you. The tonal textures would’ve all gone out of the window, leaving classical guitars to sound like acoustic guitars.

When the electricity is good, you’ll get a sense of saturation that is so rich and vivid in the mids that mimics eerie presence! Everything will gel into a cohesive presentation, with no particular spectrum shouting for attention. You'll be embraced with a calm, effortless and organic presentation.

Of course, it’s easy to get by all this while. I normally would just turn down the volume and listen like normal. Or just let the setup plays something as background music. Silly tube waster!

If you do not notice this, either you are the world luckiest audiophile, or you are as deaf as I am.

kc and i visited our friend, mr.o, for the 2nd time to listen to his megabuck system, which comprises of krell 700cx power amp, dCS combi and apogee duetta signature planar speakers. we are already familiar with the sound but we just wanted to sample it again (now that our listening skills have improved) to see what's the gap between a super-duper system like his and a high-end aspiring system like mine.

we realized that all the differences were contributed mainly by the source, that's his dCS combi. even a top-notch cd source like my meridian G08, pales in comparison to the dCs.

mr.o's system sound so detailed and high-res that my meridian, in contrast, sounds rough and unrefined. can you imagine meridian sounding rough? that's an oxymoron! someone once told me before - the difference between a state-of-the-art cd player (above RM100K) and a class-leader like meridian G08 (RM14K) lies mainly in the resolution and precision, and this is right on the dot.

eventho' my meridian has subjectively more PRaT and presence (always a forte of meridian), it can't match up to dCS' precision and accuracy. all the images are compact and precise, not an ounce of fat and excessive bloom like my ARC. and the vocalist's mouth is very very small, that's the way mr.o wants it to be.

at the end of the day, we were so thrilled to have visited mr.o, knowing that we have learned another important lesson in audiophilia.

oh, btw, mr.o has the best dedicated sound room (done to robert harley's measurement) i have ever seen in malaysia.

readers would have remembered that my house is plagued with inconsistent electricity from TNB. (not so much of insufficiency but the quality of electricity)

recently, i asked TNB to switch to another line of supply (there are 3 lines coming to my house, my house being the last house in the row of terrace houses) and this current line is the best of all 3, with a consistent reading of 240-250V. i also experience on many occasions, fantastic sound from my system, especially after 10pm at night, the later the better.

now i have developed a sure-fire method to test the quality of electricity. chesky test disc, track #4, vivaldi's four seasons, has shimmering and sonorous strings when the system is normal. so when it sounds slightly thin and edgy, i know it is time to switch the system off and do something else instead. from observing the trends, i would say that the electricity is bad from 7pm-9pm, when neighbours come back from work and take shower using heaters, presumably.

after tasting how sublime my system sounds when the electricity is robust, i have finally decided to bite the bullet and commission TNB to build a pole infront of my house, for direct supply of electricity.

my "audiophile-grade" electrician quoted me RM4K last time and i wasn't happy. now i get an alternative quote of RM2.5K from a "normal" electrician.

hopefully, i will get it done by the end of this month and it will be perfect sound forever! whee!

I guess since all the youngsters have gone iPod and MP3, the leftovers who are going to buy CDs are old farts like us. Ops, should be audiophiles like us. 英皇娛樂集團 has realised such untapped market and got one girl to sing for us.

Certain parts of her voice resembles Sandy Lam's, though at higher pitch and less versatility, is no slouch in presenting the songs in a composed manner. Half of the songs are actually catered for audiophiles as they are arranged in jazz, while some are run of the mill pop stuff.

Still, I would highly recommend this to those who love music and appreciate new faces in satisfying our music appetite. The effort in bringing this album out is not to be overlooked, too. Neuman149 mic, Tube-tech tube pre, 192 sampling and Neve Mixing console are utilized to produce this splendid album!

Remember, you see it here first!

audiophiles have various ways to describe how moved they are by the music emanating from their hifi systems at their peak. words such as "goosebumps", "moved to tears", "awe-inspiring" are common to describe the experience. but seriously how many of you have experienced sublime sound reproduction?

I personally have experienced it close to 3 times when my system is/was really sublime. it takes a combination of good electricity, perfect tubes and perfect system synergy to achieve that sort of sound. good electricity is a random thing in my house, depends largely on luck. whereas perfect tubes does not need luck - you need to find the best tubes (e.g. svetlana 6550 winged-C for audio research amps) for your amp and you need to run-in at least 500-1,000 hours before it sounds heavenly. system synergy is the hardest to achieve among the 3 ingredient of heavenly sound aforementioned. it takes years of mix and match, trial and error, and good room acoustics before one finds/assembles a system which is perfectly synergised.

here's how my system sounded when it was at its best: vocalist seems to emerge from a cloud of dense and thick air (a very magical experience no less); and when she opens her mouth, you could feel the movement of her mouth (well, this requires a very very capable cd player! most system only manage to create a fixed spot for vocalist's mouth, never the movement), her articulation, her breathing (inhaling and exhaling) and the gymnastics of her vocal cord - all these minute details will become very very prominent in a very transparent system.

there are other attributes, of course, that make a sublime system, such as tonal beauty, mids density, sparkling highs, tactile basslines, superb layering, 3-D soundstage but we will leave them for another post another time.

can share with us your best experience?