Friday, 30 September 2011

Some equipment Audition

Had the opportunity to go to a local Hifi shop and demo some equipment this afternoon. The gentleman assisting me was very helpful and friendly. The equipment that I had the chance to audition was:
  1. HD800 with Duson HA160D, Violectric V200 and Sugden Masterclass HA4.
  2. Sugden Masterclass HA4 with the T1, Ultrasone Edition 10 and Audeze LCD-2.
The session last just under an hour and the majority of time was spent with the Sugden as the amp. The source was an old Luxman tube CD player and the CD was Coldplay's Viva La Vida.
The easy ones first. I found both the Burson and the Violectric to be not as good as my HD650 and Elekit. The difference was in engagement and 'musicality'. The Burson had wider soundstage than the Violectric, one being beyond my ears and the latter being between my ears. The V200 sounded actually a little boring, nice sound, a little less bass than the Burson. The Burson had a very heavy stepped attenuator, which was great, except that it may clicking noises through the headphones every time I changed volume. This was quite annoying. So after around 5 minutes with each of the Burson and Violectric, I moved onto the Sugden.
Never have heard of the Sugden, but was told this was a hand-made amp in the UK. This amp is class A, and having a look through the brochure, it appears to be discrete Class A with a very laid out PCB. Anyway, the amp was cold initially and was initially connected to the HD800. This was a very nice combination. The voices and vocals were very well focused, the bass tight and the overall sonic balance and presentation was very good. I started to warm to this amp. Compare with the other two, this amp felt like it had more control over the headphones.
Over the course of the next half and hour or so, I swapped to different headphones. The first being the T1. Less bass than the HD800, different sonic presentation, a little on the neutral (maybe sterile) side. Similar to the differences I found between the HD650 and the DT880. I then tried the Edition 10. Wow, they certainly are a different sound to the rest! Light weight, well built and quite comfortable on the ear. The Edition 10 had almost overwhelming bass for me on the Sugden. It dominated the sonic presentation. The vocals had a distinct clarity/sparkle to it, that I was not used to, and perhaps I could call it 'edgy', whilst the T1 and HD800 was 'smooth'. I don't think its' a bad paid of headphones, but definitely not my cup of tea. Finally, I tried on the LCD2. Again, what a difference. Massive and heavy; quite the contrast to the Edition 10. I found that it wasn't a great match. The sound was a little flat and one dimensional. It also seemed far away, even though the soundstage was in my head. Nice balance, but probably a little weak in the bass regions.
Finally, I put the HD800 back on, and I was immediately smitten with the combo. Perhaps it was the fact that I am so used to the HD650, that the sound was so much more easy on my ears. Good balance between the lower and upper ranges. Also, the vocals didn't seem as focused or coming from a smaller source than either the T1 or the Edition 10 (which sound like a small point source). Perhaps sonically the Edition 10 and LCD-2 are very good, but for my own ears, through the Sudgen, I'd rate the HD800 the best, with the T1 second, followed by Edition 10 and LCD-2.
Coming home, I immediately turned on my current setup and listened to the same music. Though it was through a completely difference source (Mac and Calyx Coffee) into the Elekit. I'd have to say that I still prefer this setup! Even with the hum, which in contrast to the other amps, which were all dead silent. Even though this was an exercise in testing headphone amps, it appears that it may have turned out to be more of a headphone selection, and it might be worthwhile to bring my own setup to the same place and try out the HD800 and the other headphones to see how it all goes.

Hi Resolution Audio

Just a few more notes about my research into higher resolution audio than the standard 'Red Book' CD of 44.1 kHz at 16 bit. Reading a little about SACD/DSD, implies that the maximum possible with that format is around 20 bits, 96 kHz. But given my desire to run everything from the computer, means it is not really part of my audio landscape. Looking at a few HD audio websites, primarily HD Tracks, appears that 96 kHz at 24 bit is readily available. There was limited offerings at 24 bit 192 kHz. However, the range of music available is still limited, and only a few of the artists that I like to listen to are available. It would be interesting to see if the 192/24 becomes more readily available with a larger selection of artists, otherwise, it would seem moot at this point in time, to invest in hardware and tracks in this much higher resolution.

Again, my choice in the Calyx Coffee, which is limited to 96/24 would be a good choice for the short and perhaps medium term. The next step is to make available some of this high resolution tracks, and compare that against the standard Red Book versions.

The other question of over sampling is coming up. I am pretty sure that the Calyx oversamples 44.1/16 into its native resolution, due to the Block diagram with a component "Oversampling Filter". This would suggest that whatever sampling frequency is fed into the DAC, is samples it into its native frequency. Which I would presum is 96 kHZ. Again, going back to various historical threads, people seem to say a lot of positive things about Non oversampled DAC. Perhaps this is an area to do some more reading on.

Another reason why I chose the Calyx is because it used an ESS chip. As I have a full Twisted Pear Audio kit for the Buffalo II (using the ESS9018) along with the Legato and relevant PSU, I'd like to sample the audio signature of the ESS chips before I embark on the build. Given my limited time and space, I'd like to know whether this is something that I can live with, or live without. Hopefully, I can get a decent session tonight, and provide some more thoughts.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Updates and Digital Audio

It has been an awful long time since my last post; but things have been pretty hectic of late. Primarily is our decision to relocate our family to another country, which will be taking place within a few months. This event, along side other life things, has meant very little, if any, time to blog. At the moment, I barely get any good audio sessions in...

In light of the relocation, this has spurred me to look into portable solutions. Having a good assortment of headphones already is a good start, but this has forced me to look into the weakest part of the chain. At present, all my music is run through iTunes (AAC Lossless) and played to the headphone amps via the standard audio out on my Mac Pro or Macbook Pro. Note an ideal solution. This then started to get me looking into improving the digital connection between the computer and the amp.

Welcome to the world of USB Audio... Initially, there were a catch up in the USB Audio technology. The way I understand it is, there is USB Audio 1 and USB Audio 2. USBA-1 only allows for 48kHz/16 bit. But the newer standard of USBA-2, can support high sampling and bit depth. The highest I have seen so far is 384kHz/32 bit. However USB1.1 can support stereo 96kHz/24 bit in terms of its band width, and USB2 can obviously go higher. On top of this limitation are the limitations in drivers in the various OS. Add further to this is whether or not the USB device is asynchronous or not. More technical terms and more technical information to digest.

The long and short of it, I decided that the best place to start would be a USB device that had RCA outputs that can handle up to 96kHz/24 bit. And in this market, there was plenty of choice. Being able to handle the higher resolution allows me to explore HD audio tracks, which would not be possible had I stuck with something simplier with only 44/48kHz at 16 bit. Through the various web pages, etc, I was able to gleem that there was an awful lot of South Korean and Scandanvian companies making USB audio devices. Alongside that, the standard Chinese offerings and others from US and Germany. Some of the companies that I came across includes: Calyx, Bel Canto, M2Tech, Lead Audio, Lindemann, HRT, April Music, Anedio, Bladeius, CEntrance, SoTM, Halide Design and a few otherse. Where possible, I tried to avoid the Chinese companies. When I get the change, I hope to write some notes about the various units that I looked at over the last few weeks.

Again, without boring everyone, I settled on a Calyx Coffee. An asynchronous 96kHz/24 bit USD DAC using a lower version of the ESS DAC Chips the ESS9023. I chose this because it was relatively good price (middle of the pack), had the ESS DAC chip, looked good and has external control buttons. This was brought from Wicked Digital and the unit arrived yesterday, and has started the burning in process. The main difference I can see from this chip and the top of the line ESS9018 is that it only has 1 DAC circuit for each channel (whereas the 9018 has 8 circuits that can be customised in various configurations) and it also has voltage output (as opposed to current output).

Well, hopefully, I can provide more insight into this DAC, which is currently hooked up to the Elekit and HD650.