by, 01-13-2012 at 10:17 AM (1680 Views)
I've been a keen audiophile for over thirty years, though, in that era, the word audiophile was not used. In many ways a much simpler world where all amplifiers sounded the same, turntables rumbled and wowed, unless you had lots of money to spend, tapes came on reels, and valve amplifiers were available in the local junk shop for a few pounds...
In my impoverished teenage years I built amplifiers, speakers and turntables from kits and from articles in the press, and had many hours of pleasure and frustration extracting more and more from my growing vinyl collection.
My working life began at a time when the hifi press realised that some things sounded better than others even when the measured parameters were similar. Subjectivism was the new rationalism. My TD160 made way for a Rega 3 (though I should have kept my obscure Audiocraft arm) and the Rega soon made way for a Linn LP12 and the Basik Arm was quickly replaced by an Ittok. I'd used Decca cartridges, but after a brief journey through Linn/AT MM carts, I discovered the moving coil, and the Naim Pre-Amp, but still kept faith with my various power amplifiers; a Leak Stereo 20, home made MOSFET monoblocks, and a lovely home built Linsley Hood class A amp.
Whilst trying to improve on my Naim 62, which lead to my building a completely new preamp, I happened to discover that the Linn Isobarik that I had always coveted had become relatively affordable on the used market, and my obsession with active Isobariks began. I used Linn amps and crossovers, and then Naim, but would have really loved a combination of the two, but a change to a much smaller house made the Isobariks difficult to live with (they sounded fine in a tiny room, but were difficult to squeeze past!) so I thought I'd try my other fantasy speaker, the Quad ESL57. This proved my suspicion that the Isobariks lacked transparency and the holographic imagery that I said I didn't need, did make music more real.
I remained faithful to vinyl for many years but eventually was forced to get into CD replay. A Meridian 200 transport looked, felt and sounded lovely, and the Arcam black box gave the CD playing experience some semblance of musicality, though never that final edge that LPs delivered. A few mods helped a bit, but an Audio Alchemy DDE helped a lot more. Then I heard the Naim CDS.
So, about six years ago, my system was Linn LP12 Lingo, ARO, Lyra Lydian, Naim CDS/CDPS, Naim 82, 2xHICAP, Naim 250, Quad ESL57 and Linn Sizmik Sub. It sounded pretty good.
A friend who likes a decent stereo, but is not a fanatic had a problem with a scratched CD, which was difficult to replace, and being a computer programmer, he decided that he should back up his CD collection to HDD just in case. He did a lot of painstaking research, and settled on EAC as a ripping system, and FLAC as his file format. I needed to get MP3s for my portable player, so I emulated his set up, and started collecting FLAC and MP3 rips of my favourite CDs.
I was using my laptop as a signal generator to track down an annoying room resonance and so, when I thought I'd fixed it, I played a familiar track, but used the FLAC file so as to avoid the cable swap. It sounded remarkably good. It lacked the substance of the CD via the CDS, but in terms of detail its was at least as good, maybe better.
I acquired a used mini Mac, with a non-apple PSU, but it worked ok, and was cheap, but it didn't sound any better than my laptop, though fitted in the rack better. I got a M-Audio USB to SPDIF interface, and got a Behringer DEQ2496 to try to fix the room/speaker interaction issues. The Behringer worked as a DAC, so I could play 24/96 high res, through my system. a Linn studio master was bought, and suddenly I had better sound quality than anything previously encountered. The CDS still had more "guts" and LPs still had more "soul" but in a slightly sanitised way the sound from the computer was more real.
I was invited to my local dealer to hear the Linn DS range. I was interested, if only to turn a multi-box system into a one box solution, but the Linn, from Klimax all the way down to Sneaky was resolving things way beyond my Mac/M-Audio/Behringer setup. The Sneaky and Majik sounded identical to me, the Akurate was only slightly better and the Klimax, a bit better yet, but way beyond my budget, so I bought the Sneaky as it would also serve as my kitchen music system. The Mac was passed on to my son, the M-Audio went into the drawer. The Behringer went into retirement, as we'd gone mad and replaced the Quads with Martin Logan Summits, solving all the room issues, and expanding the system bandwidth and transparency by an order of magnitude.
The CDS went to Hong Kong via eBay, and FLAC was now my primary digital source. The Linn DS was working well, and we finally got a Squeezebox touch, which we thought may be useful and I secretly hoped it would be as good as the Linn, so I could sell the Sneaky to provide funds for a new cartridge. One evening with the Touch/Behringer in place was enough to make my wife veto that idea, but we did discover that the Behringer DAC was better than the Linn Dac by a small but noticeable margin.
So, best sound so far... Linn DS with Behringer, next Squeezebox Touch with Behringer, then Mini Mac M-Audio Behringer bringing up the rear. All though my Naim amps.
It was all sounding good, but I felt I wasn't getting the last ounce of performance from my Summits and occasional over enthusiasm with the volume knob would cause the NAP250 to go into current limit shut down. I'd heard the Summits on the end of a NC552/NAP500 so I knew there was more to come.
I spotted an EAR890 used, at a good price, and so decided to try the valve world again. Many years ago I had heard EAR549s and was stunned by the non-valve sound and arresting clarity, hoping the 890 would be similar, I took the plunge, sold the NAP250 (for a very good price!) and was really taken aback by how much clearer the EAR890 was than the NAP250, whilst losing none of the power and slam that the 250 does so well.
Next job was improving my ageing NAC82 preamp - servicing it proved expensive, and actually made little or no difference to the sound, but whilst it was away, I was forced to use a passive pot between DAC and power amp, and when I slotted the NAC82 back in, I lost some transparency, fine details disappearing and an overall loss of realism. So, eBay it was for the NAC82 and I was in search of a DAC and better preamp. Naim DAC and NAC252 looked a viable combo, though the potential costs made my eyes water, even secondhand, but a demo at my dealer proved that the naim DAC was much, much better than the Behringer, so that went on the wish list and I started saving up.
A chance email call from a friend about computer audio led him, on my recommendation, to try a Squeezebox Touch, and he tried this through the DAC of his Mark Levinson CD player, but this wouldn't allow 24/96 play that I recommended very highly, so he looked for a new CD player with the sort of budget most of us only dream of. He finally settled on the Audiolab 8200CD, as that gave him the best CD player he could audition, and high resolution DAC all in one box. The fact he'd gone for something so "cheap" (for him) rather amazed me... "just listen" was his response.
I started lurking on PinkFish forums hoping to find a good preamp to go with the Naim DAC I was looking forward to, and started hearing things about the Audiolab stuff, particularly the MDAC, which appealed because it was small (fits on my rack I had built for NAIM PSUs) had volume control, and the design ideas seemed to be pretty sound. It was also relatively cheap, very hyped (so easy to sell on if no good) and also had balanced outputs so could drive my EAR890 via long cables, making room layout a bit easier.
The MDAC eventually hit my system late last year. In terms of sound quality improvement, it is probably one of the biggest single step changes in quality I have experienced. It is better than the Naim DAC (with a moderately good Naim preamp) by quite a large margin. It may not better a naim DAC into NAC552, but it is only £600, that difference buys a lot of music.
So, my system is now:
Linn LP12/Lingo, Naim ARO, Zu DL-103, Naim Prefix, Naim HICAP, EMU 404 ADC, Linn Sneaky DS, Audiolab MDAC, EAR890, ML Summits.
If you have read this far, I should reward you with some things I think I have learned.
I think my conclusions about digital streaming sources are flawed. My assertion that the mini Mac is relatively poor may be as much to do with the interference that the PSU made with the Naim amps, than any judgement on the Mac itself. Naim amps are very sensitive to mains quality, and I've always found that switching off my Lingo PSU improved the sound of CDs, so I suspect the PSU was affecting the overall sound.
Into the same Behringer DAC the Squeezebox Touch was notably worse than the Linn DS, whereas my friend with the Audiolab was happy, and used to some very high end kit... but I now know that the Touch has high jitter on its digital output. The MDAC copes well with jitter, so I suspect a re-match into the MDAC may give a less conclusive result.
Thirty years ago I had a system where the turnatble cost twice as much as the amp, which cost twice as much as the speakers, that was the way on those days. I now have speaker that would cost twice as much as my power amp, a preamp/dac that cost not much more than a tenth of the cost of the power amp, and could be happy with a source that costs less than the price of ten CDs...
The world has changed.