House Concerts update

November 17, 2010

My last blog, way too many months ago, concerned house concerts.  This time I’m going to do a follow up, as I was able to convince my beautiful daughter and super awesome son in law to go with me this time, and they were pleasantly surprised by what they found,.. er.. heard. 

We attended the same Firefly Concert Series, hosted by Jeniffer Kallen, but this time the artist was an amazing artist who goes by the simple name Ellis.  Folk-pop, with handcrafted heartfelt songs, and with vocals, guitar playing and stage prescence that really does surpass the cliche “she lit up the room”.  Amazing.  She played a number of cuts from her new album “Right on Time” as well as some from her previous albums.  She’s one of those artists, and I know there are others, that are so good and right on the cusp of stardome, that makes you wonder “Why doesn’t everybody know about her?” If I have anything to do with it, everybody will some day, but I can tell from her songs and from talking to her between sets, that she’ll be OK either way. While there I purchased the album “Break the Spell” and pre-ordered “Right on Time” (which came personally autographed to me late this summer) My daughter bought “Evidence of Joy”. All are great, although, for me, “Break the Spell” is an instant classic (and award winner). Go here to learn more about Ellis.

A few weeks later, we were back, this time to see Storyhill, an incredibly talented singer/sonwriter duo from Montana. Again, song lyrics and musicianship and harmonies to die for. They played songs from their new album, “Shade of the Trees”, plus others from their own treasure trove of albums. I purchased the album entitled “Storyhill” (another instant classic, IMHO), as well as the newest one. Go here for Storyhill.

All of these artists were not just born yesterday – they are hardworking, ‘where the rubber meets the road’ folks, who have been touring and working and recording for over a decade, with a bag of beautifully well crafted tunes that describe and reflect on their lives and those around them. Can’t recommend them enough.

Well, so I’ve moved and I’m making big changes to my hi-fi. Much more about my latest adventure next time. Till then, thanks for listening.

House Concerts

February 18, 2010

Last fall I had the opportunity to attend my first House Concert.  The idea of a house concert first crossed my attention a few years ago, while I was visiting the website of one of my favorite artists.  I noticed several upcoming show dates that said “solo house concerts”.  But it wasn’t until my friend, Jerry, in California, ever the calendar keeper of all good live music, told me in September, that he had just been to one!  So, I had to ask him ‘What the heck is a house concert?”

Well, the idea is that a host and artist agree on a day and a time when a concert-length performance can be offered before a select audience in the host’s HOME!  Then they arrive at some mutually agreeable fee that might also take into account lodging for a night or two. The price of admission is therefore determined by the number of listeners the host feels certain of attracting to the event, and whatever fee the audience members might be presumed to be willing to pay. All proceeds go to the artist, of course, and house-concert etiquette requires that all audience members pay, including the host.

The benefits, to all concerned, are obvious. For listeners, it’s a rare chance to see and hear some favorite musicians from literally a few feet away, as well as to meet them and perhaps gain new insights into their art. For performers, it’s a chance to make a little extra cash by filling in some blank days on the touring schedule, and to perform for a handpicked audience of real fans.

For listeners and performers alike, the house-concert experience provides a unique opportunity for music without disturbance—from waitresses, busboys, cash registers, pagers, cell phones, or the conversations of drunks or uninterested socialites. More important, there is no crappy sound system: Chances are, no one needs to use a microphone to be heard in your living room.  (See http://www.stereophile.com/artdudleylistening/listening_82/index.html)

Looking in the Seattle area, where I live, I found one.  It’s called the Firefly Concert Series, hosted by Jennifer Kallen -http://www.fireflyconcertseries.com/theconcert.html.

I contacted Jennifer as there was an upcoming show the next weekend.  She said there were only a few tickets left.  I swiftly contacted everyone I knew and found out that no one shared my excitement over the prospect of seeing real performers from 10 feet away in someone’s living room.  So, I went by myself.  I showed up the following Saturday with a bottle of wine, some veggies and some trepidation over going somewhere I’d never been before with a group of people I’d never met.  The idea is that everyone brings something for a pre-performance potluck.

The people were generally friendly and the venue and view were impeccable – West Seattle/Alki Beach area, right on Puget Sound.  The ‘stage’ was sitting in front of a picture window with the Sound and the Olympics directly behind them. Wow!  With the sun setting, our performers, Sweet Talk Radio, began their first set.  It was just a fantastic experience.  I sat in a folding chair in this woman’s living room, 2 rows back, 10 feet from the performers!  No microphone needed here!  I encourage you to check them out -http://www.sweettalkradio.com/.  They are a husband and wife team, featuring well crafted folk-pop songs with poignant moods and lyrics. I really enjoyed the first set, and was able to really talk and get to know them during the intermission.  I also bought their new CD and a T-shirt, which appropriately enough, feature three output tubes on the front.  This tube hound couldn’t resist THAT – how’d they know?

Anyway, House Concerts are held all over the country.  There are several websites that try to keep up with the ever-changing venues, like http://www.concertsinyourhome.com/.  Also try http://jrp-graphics.com/houseconcerts/resources.html.  You’re almost sure to find one near you.  They’re cheap, clean, fun and the sound quality and intimate experience can’t be beat!

Thanks for listening!

Well, this is way overdue.  I was asked several months ago by the VP of my local audio enthusisast club to write about my experience setting up a high resolution music server.  Compared to my previous posts, this is much more detailed and probably meant for a more ‘sophisticated’ audience.  Consider this my first draft –

My foray into music servers began in the fall of 2006- actually, as I think about it, it was the fall of 1999, though I did not realize it at the time.  You see, I had, at one time, been a very active audiophile and had been ‘in the biz’ back in the salad days of the 70’s and on into the 80’s.  But life called and priorities changed and soon enough I was completely out of date.  I’d had to sell my Linn table as a result of my divorce, leaving me with the first table I’d ever owned- a 1975 model Thorens TD-160.  I’d almost entirely missed the CD era, having used a string of cheap players, just so I’d have something on which to play the occasional CD.

In the fall of 1999, I stumbled on to the technical recruiting field and found myself working with a bunch of twenty something’s, helping find software developers and other assorted engineering types new jobs.  I befriended what turned out to be my first geek friend and he helped me upgrade my seriously outdated home PC into something that would at least allow me to obtain broadband internet in my home.  In the process of installing a new hard drive, he, noting that I had lots of records in a homemade cabinet I’d built 25 years before and had schlepped across country, said that he could put an image of his music folder onto my new hard drive.  I said “sure, but how much room will it take?”  He said “not much, really, each song’s about 3 megabytes or so”.  I really didn’t know if that was a lot or not.  (These were MP3’s.)  Anyway, he introduced me to Napster, Winamp a few other ‘applications’ and soon enough I was downloading music as fast as I could remember the name of an artist who’s record I’d lost over the years. Of course, Napster’s landmark case made it all illegal, and for awhile I tried some of the upcoming pay for applications, but my new music additions slowed to a snail’s pace again.

Meanwhile, my audio system had deteriorated and pieces had been sold off, leaving me with, along side the Thorens, a bedroom system consisting of a NAD integrated and a pair of slowly disintegrating Dahlquist Monitors (from their latter, or maybe I should say last days).  But, out of necessity, and thanks to the “not nearly as helpful as they used to be” folks at Radio Shack, I cobbled together a system for my ‘digital’ music.  Actually, all I did was connect my sound card’s output to the NAD’s Aux in via a long pair of RCA’s with the help of a thing called a Ground Loop Isolator (I had massive hum at first).  Now I had ‘hi-fi’ music coming from my computer.  I thought, “very cool”.

But, had it not been for a couple of unrelated incidents I might have never come back to my audiophile passion.  First, in the spring on 2006, I decided I wanted to learn piano.  I found a cheap upright on Craigslist and a guy to teach me in Kirkland, who used to be with the 80’s ‘new wave’ group, The Motels.  He’d written a couple of songs that became modest hits and between the royalties and teaching piano, he was getting along.  The interesting thing about those lessons is that somehow this reignited my passion for recorded music playback.  I think it was because after hearing myself stumble through the first few lines of “Let It Be” for 5 months or so with no improvement, there was no comparison between my version and my old record.  So, by September, I’d decided to take the lesson money and start applying it toward new gear.  Or, to be more accurate, new old gear.  Starting with a used pair of Vandersteen’s, also purchased on Craigslist, I began to resurrect my hobby.  The telling of this story is something for another time, but as I began telling friends about my renewed interest, one of them, who is not an audio buff at all, mentioned a device he’d read about called the Squeezebox.  For me, at the time, it was a no brainer to add this, since I already had files on my computer and had recently learned how to rip CD’s onto my hard drive, using WAV or FLAC.  I won’t go into this installation – it was full of difficulties, but it works now and I still use it for more casual listening and for streaming music from stations all over athe world!  Currently, I listen to Radio Svizerra (from Switzerland, of course) – when I’m not listening to anything specific.  Nice sound.  As for the Squeezebox, the thing that attracted me to it more than anything was its convenience – now I had a remote control with which I could access all my music from my ‘listening couch’.  But, alas, I also noticed that music played from it, while‘quite good’, was not great, and there was also beginning to be a lot of chatter about the higher resolution formats coming out.  I HAD installed an outboard DAC, from Promitheus Audio (this is the little Malaysian company that also makes the TVC preamp that Sam Tellig of Stereophile liked so much.  I still use the TVC, at least for now – best $340 I’ve ever spent). Nicholas Chua, of Promitheus, talked me into the DAC too– he’s pretty good at that- and for awhile, talked me out of hi rez music in general.  Bottom line is that now my digital music, coming from my Squeezebox with an upgraded power supply and outboard DAC, sounded pretty darn good, but…..  what of higher than cd resolution music, I wondered?  For example, I’d completely missed SACD.  Sorry!  I have no SACD’s, no SACD player.  Nothing.  This all bothered me, and I began to become more and more aware that my system was maxed out, resolution-wise, at Red Book 16/44.1.  The rest of my system was improving all the time, and it and my ears’ ability to resolve was getting better and returning to form.  I’d come so far with my system, and yet, in the summer of 2008, my digital had become passé.

This is probably where the Madness set in, as I almost overnight determined to resolve this issue.  I’d read about the Benchmark DAC 1, but in my ignorance and haste in catching back up with the rest of the world, had not even considered any resolution beyond CD, and, in my best hair-shirt audiophile manner, thought I’d save money with the Promitheus, a non-oversampler.  Now, it’s June 2008 and I’m attending my first PNWAS meeting, standing with and talking to an obviously very knowledgeable guy who I later find out is Gary Koh (of Genesis Advanced Technologies).  He says “well, you gotta get the Benchmark”.  (Later, our club had a shootout of DACs in which the Benchmark was easily unseated as King – see ‘comparing dacs’ later in this article, but back then it was and in some circles still is considerted something of a ‘benchark’.  Post Script – that Promitheus DAC, to my ears, now that I’ve had more prolonged listening experience, produces sound that is, quite possibly still superior to the Benchmark that replaced it, at CD resolution).  Anyway,  I began reading about music servers in more detail.  I read all about sound cards that I could install into my own music server (I forgot to mention earlier, that with a great deal of assistance from my son in law, over months and months, I’d -more like “we’d”- turned an old PC into a dedicated music server back in 2006 – it was sitting up in my record closet, connected wirelessly to the network and my Squeezebox.  I thought I was pretty cool!).  I had decided that homemade was the way to go for me.  I listened to other inbox servers – the Linn, the Sooloos (which used the RME Hammerfall sound card), but I’m way too cheap for that, and I wanted to control my own destiny, if you will.  By the way, one of the places that I turned to over and over again was the Computer Audiophile, http://computeraudiophile.com.  Oh, and Bruce Brown of Puget Sound Studios and VP of the PNWAS.   Bruce, owner of Puget Sound Mastering, is very knowledgable about both the Pro and consumer audiophile side of this equation.  His gentle suggestions proved extremely helpful.  I also was consulting Reference Recordings. Reference Recordings masters their hi- resoltuion HRx recordings – at 176.4 Khz/ 24 bit resolution, and they have a section in which they describe their “Reference System” that they use for playing back these files.  I was shooting, as I always tend to do, for a poor man’s HRx playback system.  So, instead of the Lynx AES 16 sound card and Berkley Audio DAC that they recommended, I thought I’d found a good facsimile with an M-Audio Audiophile 192 sound card and Benchmark DAC 1.  At the next PNWAS, I ran into Bruce.  I’d just received the M Audio card that day.  I showed it to him, rather proudly, and suggested that I’d found a way into hi-rez heaven for less money.  I had decided that I would be happy with a system that could resolve 24 bit/192kHz. I’d leave 352.8 and 384 for another time.  I’d read all I could about the card, talked to a dealer on the phone and everything pointed to it being able to do this level of resolution.  Well, this became my first setback.  It COULD do 24/192, through its analog outs.  However, through digital outs (which was S/PDIF), it was reduced to 24/96, meaning the highest resolution that I could send to an outboard DAC was 24/96.

Arrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrggggggggggggggggggggggghhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!
At this point, I’d like to make a point about the level of mania that had gripped me.  I was, in all manner, Ralphie, from the move A Christmas Story, and his desire for “an official Red Ryder carbine action two-hundred shot range model air rifle with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time”, such was the level of my hi –rez music server mania!  If you’ve seen this movie, you know exactly what I’m talking about.  If not, I’m sorry your childhood was so bereft.  It comes on 12 times in a row every year at Christmas on TBS.  Watch it, for crying out loud!

So, I make a call to the place I purchased the sound card from.  This is also the place from which I purchased the DAC 1.  This is quite informative in learning who is knowledgeable in these diverse disciplines – pro versus consumer audio.  In general, what I found is that there are not many people who know both home and pro audio applications, and you may find yourself, as I did, educating my sales rep, at least, in this case, in the subject of (consumer) audiophile high resolution playback systems.  Fortunately, my contact there provides a very high level of customer service.  So, even though he was unaware of this shortcoming, he was more than willing to help me find a remedy.  In the end, he informed me that that he had a Lynx AES 16, used, that would save me a couple of hundred dollars.  By the way, Lynx has two versions of this card, one is PCIe bus based and the other is the older (and larger connector) PCI version.  My old computer’s motherboard is PCI.  Either one will work the same.  By the way, Lynx makes other cards that are very nice, but if you want 24/192 in digital to go out to an outboard DAC, this is the only one that will work at this time.  The L22, for example offers 24/192 through analog out, but if you want to make use of an outboard DAC, it’s gotta be the AES 16.  Meanwhile, I’d become somewhat smitten with the DAC1; so much so that I decided that I’d rather have the new DAC 1 Pre, as this would provide me, at the least, a backup preamp in the future if I ever needed it, even if I decide to just use it as a DAC for now.  So, he agrees to allow me to return the DAC1 for a full refund toward the DAC 1 Pre AND a full refund of the M-Audio card for the Lynx.  So, I send it all back in and wait.  I also decide that if I use it strictly as a preamp (instead of my Promitheus) I want to use the XLR outputs of the Benchmark to go to my main power amp (Conrad Johnson) and the unbalanced RCA outs to a secondary amp that I use to power speakers in my kitchen and deck.  However, Benchmark warns in their manual that their XLR grounding is different than most and, if not done properly, will damage my components.  I relay this to the sales rep, who verifies the pin assignments with Benchmark, and sets out to make XLR to RCA adapter cables.  This will not be the only time in which “unusually” spec’d adapter cables will come into play.  More on that later.

Eventually, the Lynx sound card arrives, with the DAC 1 Pre on order from Benchmark.  So, while waiting I install the AES 16 into my PC, and, while I’m at it, I upgrade my PC’s processor and memory.  It runs Windows XP and has an old AMD Thunderbird 1.3 Ghz processor in it.  (That’s AFTER I upgraded it!).  So, the AES 16 comes with a ‘medusa’ looking set of cables – 8 in and 8 out, XLR/balanced (CBL-AES1604).  Both my original DAC (the Promitheus) and, I quickly discover, Benchmark’s DAC 1 Pre, has unbalanced (S/PDIF) and optical (Toslink) inputs,  but no XLR/Balanced ones. (By the way, the DAC 1 DOES have balanced/XLR inputs, but with the additional analog input on the DAC 1 Pre, they just ran out of real estate on the back of the unit).  However, the AES 16 also comes with an XLR/RCA adapter cable.  I connect the PC with AES 16 to the Promitheus DAC and we’re off……..  well, not really.  No sound.  I mention this to my sales rep.  We decide to wait for the new Benchmark.  Finally it arrives.  I open the box, read a little of the manual and off we go!……  well, not exactly.  Still no sound, only this time, the Benchmark, which comes with status lights, shows a series of flashes that correspond to a problem.  Bottom line is that the Benchmark does not like the signal it’s receiving.  Now, I’m back on the phone with the rep.  He’s got nuthin’.  But he calls Benchmark and relays my setup to them.  He also talks to Lynx and gives me the name and phone number of a technical support rep there.  Several days go by.  I call Lynx and talk to this very knowledgeable tech support guy.  We go through all the software set ups- making sure that I have things right.  Another problem I’m having is getting the card to work with the preferred ASIO drivers – these audio drivers bypass all the bad windows voodoo – K mixer for example- which sullies our hoped for ‘bit for bit’ hi-rez sound.   I’m using Media Monkey for the media player software because this is what Reference Recording suggested.  We revisit all of this, the Lynx tech and I, and it slowly becomes clear that Reference Recordings is not using ASIO themselves(!).  They’re using standard Windows Media stuff and the reason they have recommended a specific revision of the Wave Out driver is because it is the older version that does the least harm.  For now, it’s the least of my problems.  There is sound in the mixer and sound in the media player (Media Monkey).  So, I try and retry different things, but still the Benchmark does not like the Lynx card.  NO SOUND from the speakers.  Finally I revisit the Benchmark owner’s manual again, and I have an idea.  The next day I call Paul, Lynx’s tech guy, again.  We verify that the software is happy and begin to explore hardware related issues.  I’ve just read in the Benchmark manual that it is looking for a 75 Ohm signal, but the Lynx is sending out 110 Ohms.  75 Ohms is the SPDIF standard, while 110 is considered standard for XLR.  At this point he verifies that the adapter cable that came with the card, while it does convert from XLR to SPDIF physically, it does NOT convert the signal from 110 to 75 Ohms.  Paul says that 75 ohms is not a standard spec, but I read him the info from the Benchmark manual and we immediately agree that what I need is a what I eventually learn is called an impedance transformer.  He finds a couple of somewhat expensive devices that look as though they would work, and I relay the information back to Eric – my rep at JRR Music Store.  By the way, I must stop here and say what a great help Eric Dahlberg at JRR Music shop was.  I have strings and strings of emails back and forth.  He answered them all and did everything humanly possible to figure out what the problem was.  Meanwhile, I keep looking and, eventually I find exactly what I need.  It’s a simple 2 inch long and 1 inch around device that is XLR 110 ohm on one end and 75 Ohm BNC on the other –    Female XLR to Female BNC.  Close enough.  The Benchmark comes with a BNC to SPDIF adapter, so it can take it from there.  It’s made by Canare.  It is called a Canare BCJ-XJ-TRB – an Impedance Transformer, Digital Audio, 110 to 75 Ohm, Female XLR to Female BNC.  Twenty-five bucks.  I ordered it myself, but Eric ordered me one as well.  Mine gets here first.  It came from Full Compass –  http://www.fullcompass.com/product/258528.html.   I connect the medusa like cable to the adapter, the adapter to the BNC to SPDIF adapter and finally to the Benchmark.  Voila!!!  Musica!!!!  Finally, it works.  By the way, a few days later the one ordered by Eric arrives but it’s the wrong gender.  I don’t have the heart to tell him.  It’s sitting here on my desk as I type this.

So, for about two months, I listen to my new high resolution music server.  It’s good, but I can’t help but think I’m still not getting everything I could out of it.  I keep trying to get the ASIO drivers to work.  (My audiophile friend Bruce still says they’re the best.)  Then one night I attend another PNWAS meeting.  (I don’t get to nearly as many of these as I’d like because Thursday’s, the day it meets, is also the same night that my recently married daughter and son in law come over for spaghetti and a couple of their favorite TV shows.  It’s a tradition that’s obviously important to me.)  Anyway, we’re comparing DAC’s.  And we’re listening through Gary Koh’s server that he’s brought from home.  During a break I approach the server.  And I notice that Gary is not using Media Monkey, but FooBar as his media player.  I ask him what audio driver he is using – ASIO, of course.  Anyway, like a light bulb that had been nearly blinding me only to just now be recognized for what it is, I go home, and immediately download FooBar.  I install the ASIO drivers, turn up the hi-fi and………… success!! By the time I go to bed that same night, I’m finally listening to my music server at its best, as it was meant to be heard.  Since then I’ve purchased some high resolution music from 2L, Linn Records and Reference Recordings.

This has been quite the project, spanning almost half a year!  There are a number of people who are responsible, whether they know it or not, for finally bringing this to fruition.  And now, I’m going to attempt to name them!

Eric Dahlberg, JRR Shop, Irvine California
PH: 949-553-1022
FX: 949-263-1818
http://www.jrrshop.com
Eric is the unsuspecting sales rep who showed truly unbelievable patience, humility and knowledge. There were times when I was sure he was thinking “Oh, man, it’s the crazy audiophile from Seattle again!”  Five Stars!!

Paul Erlandson, Lynx Studio Technology, Inc.
(714) 545-4700 X 206
Paul is the extremely knowledgeable technical support guy at Lynx.  He’s worked with the Pro audio folks, of course, but he’s also very knowledgeable about all things audiophile.  He worked with Reference Recordings in getting their set up going and, I’m sure he’s helped dozens of others as well.

Peter Bell
Peter’s my son in law, and a desktop/network administrator by trade, and real geek.  He’s also becoming quite knowledgeable about music server construction and setup.  He has handled any computer related situation I’ve had in building a dedicated music server from an old desktop that had been put out to pasture, and answered every question I’ve asked with tireless patience.  There were some things I could handle since I first started setting all this up, but a lot  was over my head, and without him, I’d most likely still be trying to get it all set up!

Bruce Brown, President, Owner, Engineer
Puget Sound Studios
http://pugetsoundstudios.com/

Bruce runs and owns the most advanced mastering and recording studio in Puget Sound.  He has some of the most coveted equipment, both pro and audiophile right in that studio.  It’s amazing!  PSS is the only purpose-built Mastering facility in the Pacific Northwest that can Record, Edit and Master multichannel DSD/DXD projects for SACD/DVD-A/Blu-ray for Stereo and Surround.  Among other work, I know he’s done some serious mastering for Chesky Records.  He’s also Vice President of the Pacific Northwest Audio Society.  He lent me cables, processors, motherboards, gave me a great tour of his amazing facility and was a source of an enormous amount of information and encouragement.

Gary Koh
CEO and Managing Director, Genesis Advanced Technologies

I’m not sure Gary’s aware of his influence, but he was the person who made the simple observation about the Benchmark and high resolution music, he answered several simple questions from time to time and, finally, HE WAS THE GUY RUNNING FOO BAR WITH ASIO!

Paul Edwards
Paul is that first geek friend who introduced me to computer hard drive based music.   I haven’t seen Paul since 2000.

Brent Willen
Brent is my non audiophile buddy who told me about the Squeezebox.  And the rest is history!

Katie Bell, my daughter.  She’s my biggest inspiration for everything I do, not to mention she has a good set of ears too!

I’m sure I’m leaving some people out, and for that I’m sorry, but I’m going to stop here and proof this thing and get it published!

Thanks for listening,

Daina

Stocking Stuffers

December 18, 2008

Well, it IS the Season, after all, and since hair shirts are always looking for something for nearly nothing, here are some things, most of which will fit in a stocking, that could improve the sound of your system.

This was not planned to be my next post – if anything I was planning on getting a little further into the definition of the elusive Hair Shirt Audiophile and what that entails. But, honestly, explaining the whole audiophile thing has turned out to be a bigger burden to carry than I expected. So much to say – so many audiophiles to protect and honor, blah blah blah… AND, I’m still trying to figure out who my audience is, but hey, I’m working on it. So, instead, here are some simple, relatively cheap things you can buy to improve the sound of a higher end audio system.

There is a theory that nothing in the reproduction of music can sound any better than the source itself, and that each step up the chain to the actual reproduction of sound in the air can only make it a little worse. An example of this for a vinyl lover would start with the turntable itself, probably going all the way back to its power supply and how well it turns the table, then on to the platter and plinth (base) and how well it keeps unwanted vibrations out of the path before it reaches the cartridge (which is essentially a VERY SENSITIVE microphone – it will pick up not only all the information in the groove of the record but all the external vibrations that you don’t want as well. Of course, there’s how well the arm lets the cartridge ride in that groove). Next up the chain is the phono preamplifier, then the main preamplifier (if the phono preamp is not built in to the main preamp- more rare these days), then to the amplifier and finally the speakers. Whew! In the old days, and still today, there is a “myth” that ‘the speakers make the biggest difference’, and, in a very big macro way, in systems in which the individual components vary widely, I guess it’s true that a a really good pair of speakers would sound better than a really bad pair. But, in a carefully constructed system of components, the inside out rule RULES. Start with a really good source and move out from there, leaving room for improvement along the way.

Getting back to the source and the subject of this post (Remember? Stocking stuffers?), if you really want to get back to the source, you might want to go ALL THE WAY BACK. To the power itself – the stuff coming out of the wall from your local power supplier. I won’t go into the debate about whether power conditioning can not only protect your components but also help them sound better too. I’ll just say that, to a certain degree, I’m a believer. I feel good about protecting my components and if it can make them sound better, it’s icing on the cake. There are many fine companies that make “power” products. One such company is PS Audio. Founded in 1974, PS Audio was the brainchild of audio designers Paul McGowan (the P) and Stan Warren (the S). PS soon became known as a company that was passionate in designing products with better sound, higher value and lower costs to their customers. Well, I like THAT! They’re located in Boulder, Co, a bit of a hotbed for the hi end audio cottage industry that it is. Other companies nearby include Ayre Acoustics, Boulder Amplifiers, and Grace Designs and down I-25 in Colorado Springs is Jeff Rowland Design Group.

PS Audio makes products in about 4 general categories:

Power, Audio, Cables, Assessories.

In the Power category, they make products, from the $2,200 Power Plant Premier, an AC power REGNERATOR that provides regulated, low distortion sine waves from the AC wall socket that can power your entire system, with its 10 outlets on the back, to more humble power conditioning “strips”, like the Quintet and Duet to a simple, hospital grade receptacle.

Something that caught MY attention is another one of the company’s notoriously innovative products. It’s called the Soloist. The Soloist is the only in-wall full featured power conditioner made. It fits into a double gang receptacle box (A ‘double ganger’ is one that accepts four sockets, as opposed to the standard two). If you can replace a receptacle, you can probably install the Soloist. The Soloist provides surge and spike protection as well as full zero-restriction AC filtering, right at the source of power – in your wall. I have one, and I have two 10 receptacle power strips plugged into it, providing power for all my components. This provides a nice building block – something PS Audio recommends. Later, I can upgrade my power strips, or even put the big Power Plant in there. It’ll only get better. But, for me, for now, THIS is a good start. ($199 – www.psaudio.com).

I live in an apartment, and I’ve already discovered some quirks in the in-wall wiring, that cause unusual ground loops that don’t happen in correctly wired settings. For example, my power amplifier, which I purchased used through Audiogon, from a local source, produced 60 cycle (hertz) hum out of my speakers when I first hooked it up (along with a LITTLE music). I’d just heard it an hour before in the other guy’s house playing perfectly. Naturally, I called him and the manufacturer (Conrad Johnson) and they both said the same thing – ‘sounds like you got something wired backwards in your wall – you COULD just use a cheater plug’. Cheater plugs are those little 3 prong to 2 prong adapters that you can buy at Home Depot for 69 cents. That’s exactly what I did and the problem went away, but this is not the best solution – as your product may be more at risk to other unwanted side effects if you leave it like this. Happily, I discovered that PS Audio’s power cables – all of them – are built with a very useful innovation – a removable ground pin. Designed to remove the grounding in a way that has no effect on the performance of the cable at all. I bought one of their more reasonably priced cables – used, on Ebay. And it’s another great stocking stuffer. I own and recommend the cable, the PS Audio xStream Power Prelude-SC. (Recently discontinued, but still available, used for about $100. Try www.audiogon.com or Ebay)

Well, I think I’ve plugged PS Audio enough. While they DO also make speaker cables and interconnects, I went a different direction there. I upgraded my speaker cables from the standard ‘zip cord’ type to ones made by a nice family owned business from Minnesota. Paul (and Judy) Speltz’s Anti Cables, as they are known, are not your father’s speaker cables. They are made of one solid piece of highly annealed, super long drawn, Continuously Cast Oxygen Free Copper (whew!). They’re not much thicker than spaghetti, but that is because the insulation (dielectric material) is a very thin red coating instead of the typical thick plastic variety. They are actually a heavy 12 gauge wire, even though they look much smaller. They feel and handle somewhat like a coat hanger, which makes them a little awkward to set up, but there are some advantages to this design as well. You can spend tens of thousands of dollars these days on the latest and greatest speaker wire. This makes $60 for a six foot pair seem like the bargain that they really are. I’ve been quite happy. They come coiled up, so, technically they WILL fit into a stocking! Check them out at http://www.anticables.com.

Another thing that fits nicely in ANYONE’S stocking is the humble interconnect. Whether you are connecting digital components (through S/PDIF Digital Coax or Optical/Toslink) analog components or Video components, there is something for everyone, and another small business I’ve discovered is Frank Dai’s company Signal Cable (http://www.signalcable.com). He hand makes all this as well as power cables, speaker cables and Home Theater cables with alacrity and precision, delivered very promptly and without fanfare in a nice zip lock bag. I have his Magic Power Power Cord ($59) powering my Phono Preamp and his Magic Power Digital Reference Power Cord ($69) for my outboard Digital to Analog converter (DAC). And I have two of his Silver Resolution Reference Digital Interconnects (introductory priced at $69 each) connecting two of my digital sources (music servers) to my DAC. I also have my phono preamp connected to my preamp with a pair of his Analog Two interconnects ($49). I’ve been extremely happy with his service and his products. Everything comes with a 30 day in home Money Back Guarantee. Thanks Frank!

Well, next time, maybe I’ll walk you through my own system. We’ll see!

Thanks for listening.

Daina

Hello world!

November 12, 2008

Welcome to The Hair Shirt Audiophile!  This blog is devoted to the passionate persual of high quality sound reproduction and the components that produce it.  As the blog begins to ‘breathe’, I’m sure it will stretch out to include other issues like, for example, the appreciation of music, in general, and it’s positive contribution to our lives.  It is my intention to eventually include discussions of current recordings, as well as recording and musical trends.  In short, if it creates, reproduces or honors music, this is the site for you!

So, what is a “Hair-Shirt Audiophile”?  Well, let’s start with the easy part – Webster’s says that an audiophile is “a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction”.  But the term “Hair-shirt” is a little more complicated.  Again, we find in Webster’s: “a shirt made of rough animal hair worn next to the skin as a penance”.  Further observation uncovers that the word dates at least back to biblical times. To show deep repentance, it was the custom in the Hebrew religion to wear a hair shirt (sackcloth) and ashes as a sign of repentance and atonement. This is more formally known as a Cilice. Furthermore, used as an adjective, the term hair-shirt is defined as: “Self sacrificing or austere”.  And this gives us a clue as to its seemingly far-fetched usage in audiophile circles.  The term is used quite regularly in the audio press and refers to an audiophile who is ESPECIALLY ENTHUSIASTIC about high quality sound reproduction from components which are simple in design, usually containing fewer convenience features (buttons, knobs etc) and/or simpler circuitry and, in many cases, at a significantly lower price than the current ‘state of the art’.  Occasionally, a minimally designed component will actually BE the current state of the art AND lower in price, but generally not.  But a hair-shirt audiophile is willing to give up some convenience, style, even prestige to obtain near state of the art performance, especially if it’s at a lower price.  Having said that, price is NOT necessarily the defining characteristic. For example, a simpler signal path, with less resistors, capacitors etc. for the musical signal to traverse may produce superior sound, but, alas, may actually prove more expensive to design and build.  I would only say, from my own perspective, if it’s simpler AND better sounding AND less expensive, then you have achieved Hair-Shirt Nirvana!  There are many flavors of Hair Shirts out there- some merely give up a few conveniences, while some turn to doing it themselves, which, while, it HAS to be considered part of the bigger whole, is not the main thrust of this blog.  Having said that, do-it-yourselfers are welcomed here!  Besides, while I’m not much a do-it yourselfer MYSELF, there are many home-made ways to improve the sound of your system that don’t require a soldering gun, much less a degree in Electrical Engineering.  And, in that regard, I’m DEFINITELY a DIY guy!

Well, there is much, much more to come.  I hope you will find this site either informative or entertaining, or both! – audiophiles are notoriously neurotic about our hobby, and that alone can be entertaining – even to ourselves!

Thanks for listening..

Daina