Is vintage audio better than modern releases? (post 2000)
This reminds me of the first argument I had regarding the merits of mechanical VU meters over LED.
Yeah, we like vintage stuff, especially with those big VU meters. Hell, I was looking at the specs of the Pioneer SX-1980 the other evening and thought what a beast this must have been in the 1980s. At 270W this is certainly by no stretch of the imagination much in modern times thanks to PWM, Class D and mounted on a one inch square heatsink.
What to look for when starting out – Electronic circuits for beginners
What is the attraction behind electronics? This is a sore topic in many South African circles chiefly because the architects of education are failing the academia, the principals and the teachers. This in turn fails the learners, our future. This article, “Electronic Circuits for beginners” was written for grade 8 learners and in subsequent articles will hopefully add some value and direction to your schooling. Education does not stop when you leave the classroom.
Anybody whom loves reading should get a copy of the book “Elon Musk – How the Billionaire CEO of SpaceX and Tesla is shaping our Future” by Ashlee Vance. Musk has all the makings of not just a great scientist and entrepreneur but a great leader. He is regarded somewhat as an opportunist. Ditto Bill Gates and the gone but never forgotten Steve Jobs.
Although SEO is all about well written material sometimes we do need to veer off this patch of oasis and not re-invent the wheel. Audio circuitry, your own equipment, testing, listening and boasting is all part of the job. Here we list some awesome websites which should get your own creative juices flowing.
There is a gem of a website call Audio Check which allows you to test your sound system, DACs, headphones as well as hearing. I recommend all those interested in audio to pop over there, light a cigar, grab a cup of tea or your favourite brew and do some reading.
Look, it has all but gotten pretty boring over the years. When in my early 20s and in the 80s I had a sound system which I would rate as pretty powerful, about 100W per channel into a 4 Ohm load. When it came to parties and the venue owner’s system ran out of steam we’d plug in this baby and crank the volume. The quality of the sound was proportional to the amount of alcohol. It probably deserved to have a rating of about 2/10 compared to modern lower powered systems.
What I have learnt through the ages is i) to take your time to build an amplifier ii) use the best components possible in the power supply, cooling, consumer controls, jacks and plugs iii) we now have a much wider access to and better quality patch cables and connectors iv) electronic consumer goods have become much more reliable generating some pretty exotic powers. Oh, this list goes on.
Good looks until it opens it’s mouth
A good looking amplifier doesn’t mean it was well built. It’s under the hood that counts. Also, knobs and good quality pots cost good money.
Don’t be hood-winked into buying an amplifier or any component for that matter without doing your homework. In South Africa, unless it’s very high end audio, the retail store is not going to do a delivery and then a collection again after you have done a test over the week-end.
Brands we know and trust
Most of the better known amplifiers (and pre-amps) which would include Yamaha, NAD, Harmon-Cardon, Denon, Onkyo, Rotel are well designed, are great for normal listening and more. Get something which likes your speakers and the speakers like the amplifier. Reading up about ‘which’ loudspeaker is crucial and is always the best bet – it’s going to cost. Be warned again, a set of loudspeakers may sound good with one amp but not the other. In South Africa Mission is often partnered with NAD. I don’t know about this match but there’s thousands of people out there raving about the dimension, the colour, the warmth, the depth, the ooh, ooh, the orgasm of things.
Headphones are a touch more personal – each one to their own of course. I don’t believe most of the marketing hype. A set of LG headphones which I received as a gift about 15 years back astonished me in the quality (excellent). I like Senheisser. That does not mean you have to.
Bitrates and Sampling
Too many articles pointing to the hazards of dubious marketing – our hearing is only 20Hz. to 20kHz. Mine is maybe 30 Hz to 14 kHz. 24 Bit / 192kHz may not sound better than 44.1kHz at 16 Bits. Maybe 8, but not 16.
Milking the snake of all it’s oils
What does all of this mean of course? Have you seen the advertisements adorning Hi-Fi mags promoting audio and power cables? R 1 000/m or more. In a magazine years back the fundis tested numerous cables and the one they thought sounded best was telephone cable. (yep ma’am, that cable running to your house, not to your telephone). Now we get told how good CAT-5 cable can sound, both on the input and output. Kettle plugs? Just make sure the L is Live. Some aren’t and don’t ask me where they come from.
Changing the Ambience with quality voltage control – the Preamplifier
One of the biggest advantages of having separate preamplifier and power amplifier stages is that the user can swap between the two either for upgrading or listening purposes. The pro audio world may see this in powered mixers versus the un-powered variety but it is a step invariably anyone interested in sound systems will eventually take.
Of course the so called best preamplifiers are supposedly just attenuators so here I need to tread carefully.
The path without a circuit is best
The shortest distance between two paths is invariably the straight wire so presumably we should ban the pre-amp entirely. Not so quick though, the power amplifier usually needs about 1V at it’s input which does mean we need some sort of voltage amplifier of sorts. The attentuation is fine if one is feeding off a CD Player for instance which has a high enough voltage output sufficient to drive most consumer audio amplifiers. Not if one is using a phono cartridge without preamplifier of course. Attentuation is just that, usually a high quality potentiometer used in a passive setup which means less transistors, capacitors, noisy resistors and a hummin’ power supply.
Phono preamplifiers come in all shapes and sizes but is a necessity to amplify the very low mV values from the humble turntable cartridge, moving coil or moving magnet. The MC output, more popular amongst turntable junkies and audiophiles has an output often measured below 1 mV at full amplitude. This means in the wrong setup we are going to get a lot of noise, poor compensation and a very poor listening experience. Didn’t the supplier warn you that the cartridge was not MM? Normally the cost alone is the “verboten’ element. Then we have the preamplifier or phono-preamplifier often advertised as MC ready but is not really, in fact it’s a bloody mess. High quality preamplifiers with MC input are simply put, rather expensive. But you can make your own then…
Our article title, “sneaky world of preamplification” is really another way of looking at preamplification because in it’s simplest configuration would be a straight wire. We pay lots of money for high quality equipment and the one which we should be monitoring is this little voltage amplifier, with or without gain, levels and tone controls. Here we need to become aware of some interesting facts:
Building your own preamplifier will always sound better than any other – pseudo acoustic syndrome. But hang on, there’s merit to this. You can chop and change, make modular, run off batteries and even bypass for line use. And of course we have those that roll their tubes, why not the ICs.
Often the price you pay is for cosmetic appearance – what it looks like. Nothing better than having fancy looking gear in the sound room. I think the ART Digital MPA 2 is a typical example of very good looking gear – and the build and sonic quality is exceptional as well. ART are known for this.
Looking at the Dynaco ST-70 amplifier which was by no means the best looking amplifier (compared to MacIntosh methinks) in the world but having more than 300 000 avid owners bears testament to David Hafler’s technical know how and experience.
The low noise instrument preamplifier INA217 [pdf spec sheet](replacement for the SSM2017). This little chip in a ludicrously simple configuration outperformed many costly preamplifiers.
The essential recipe to the success of any circuit is simplicity, ease of design and cost. Your cost will nearly always come down to what the end result should look like.
A vintage catch: I had the option to purchase either the NAD 1020 or Hitachi HCA-6500 in the early 1980s. Although I opted for the NAD which I used solely as a preamp in a DJ mixing console I was put off by how weak the pre-amp input board was – the RCA inputs felt weak and pressed in when exchanging input sources, which was quite often. The Hitachi was a more expensive piece of gear and to my ear was a better piece of equipment sonic wise. You can pick the NADs up for over R2 000.00 on eBay, not a bad return on a preamp which I paid R200.00 for. Both, as you will know are very much in demand, the HCA-6500 is known as a sleeper (hidden away, not to be sold), the NAD a workhorse. Also, the NAD, if you do own one, has the same board as the 3020.
Article photo, the ART MPA II Digital
This is the digital version of the older PRO and it has a remarkably quiet front end and even with entry level microphones the sonic output quality is remarkably like, umm, well, tube like. Remember that this is a tube microphone/instrument preamplifier but it reproduces phono (MM) with the proper RIAA compensation and preamplification front end (before the line in) in a remarkably civilised manner. As this was never intended to be used for this purpose I can vouch that the quality is exceptional. (the RIAA circuit is the one sold by Yebo Electronics – due to be upgraded to the one linked above, the Rod Elliott link).
Speculation about Vinyl – is it really better quality than your cheap CD
There is lots of speculation as to whether vinyl is really better than CD quality when it comes to audio reproduction. To put more simply, are analog presses or recordings psycho-acoustic? Modern television standards have become so advanced that 4K already shows it’s limitations. Where do we draw the line between marketing and reality? Is our eyesight really all that good? How about those that can hear 384kHz.
If the shortest distance between two points is a straight line and the best electronic circuits are the simplest, which does imply a straight line then CD can never sound better than a straight analog sound system. But…
The problem is that the digital media/medium used is cheaper, from raw material to transfer of data to resale and now we have the marketing department.
My first CD player was a Sony CDP1, purchased I think in 1984 at a cost of about R800.00. (off the shelf in Yokohama but going stale by then). By modern standards it was pretty modest but the sound quality was amazing. Sadly it went bust when some geek forgot to use the 220:110V step-down.
Cue’ing a CD
DJs in the 80s must have seen the beauty of these devices from the outset. Quick setup, no feedback, fast access and no scratches. We had endless blasts, the Sony was reliable but the disks weren’t. The backing started to flake off two disks, both Island Records – Grace Jones and if I recollect, Jimmy Cliff. So they weren’t indestructible after all.
So, when is a CD a mastercopy?
The big issue with CDs and DVDs from an audio standpoint is the processing which takes place. Sampling, bitrates, DACs – all to get an analog signal. Logic tells us that a digital copy is a perfect copy. Right? Not really but it certainly should be better than a copy of a vinyl to tape recording.
Modern CD players have become throwaway cheap – not the turntable though. Turntables, even modest units are starting to become expensive. Reel to reel tape recorders which were virtually thrown away ten years back are now are now sold as rare high fidelity devices. And now our problems start.
Good quality analog recording and vinyl reproduction is exorbitantly expensive. Digital may have its drawbacks but it will always outperform an entry level or even mildly expensive cassette or reel to reel deck in quality and bang for buck. What analog sound does have is depth creating that warm fuzzy feeling, that feeling of time travel and His Master’s Voice. Maybe noise, pops, crackles and a few other bits and pieces not tied into the original but we just love it. Or so we should.
Our motto: “the more things change, the more they stay the same”
From bits to bytes to sampling, over-sampling and converters. The outcome will always be analog. Portable media in digital format will always be the winner.