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No. 93 February 2012
GUILTY PLEASURES

The editorial you are reading I am writing in the moment, when the word “crisis” is probably the most often used word (just after “f..k”) by everyone and everywhere. It forces itself everywhere, feels everywhere at home and it seems, that it rules. But is it really the case? Is the crisis really, in the real and in the medial layer, really on the top of everything? Is there really nothing we can do about its importunity?
When we look anywhere, where people talk about this phenomenon, we can have the impression, that on one hand everybody is convinced as to it being real, and on the other hand, that nobody knows anything. What awaits us? What will be the fate of Euroland? Will we have a job tomorrow? Nobody is even attempting to answer any of those questions. Or any other. But there is one element, that comes out of each prognosis and comment: the most important role in all this is played by psyche. Because the current crisis is a crisis of faith. Bankruptcy of countries is to a large extent the result of the increase of bond interest, which depends on “market moods”, and not on their real value. So it depends on attitude and not on objective measures.
So for the first and last time: psyche. Also in audio, and this is what I am dealing with, psyche does also play a big role in perception of music, in creation of the musical world. Regardless of that, how much we would like to be objective, how much we would like to detach from the examined object, in reality those are only attempts to do that, futile attempts.
This is the reason why I want to say a few words about things, which depart from purism, ignore the rule of internal coherence of audio to a smaller or larger extent, combine together into something, that is most important in our branch – the satisfaction, the pleasure of listening to music, to use the devices that allow us to listen. I would like to tell about “guilty pleasures”. .

I got the thought to write about this when I had to evaluate the amplifier Yamaha A-S300. This is an inexpensive, nicely made device with surprisingly high functionality. One of its characteristics is the presence of a headphone output. Because headphones are for me an equally important way of listening to music as the loudspeakers, I put special attention to this element of the amplifier. To evaluate it well I always try to listen at least one evening to a given amplifier (or CD with headphone output) using headphones and listening to some old and new discs. I did the same with the Yamaha amplifier. Its headphone socket is connected directly to the power amplifier, there is no separate headphone amplifier, what can be heard. This is mostly about hardening of the sound and its slightly light character. This was not audible with loudspeakers and the unit sounded best with the “Pure Direct” mode on, when the tone control and loudness is bypassed. It was different with headphones.
I started the headphone session with the Yamaha as usual, according to the methodology I developed, meaning using the shortest sound path possible. The sound I got that way was precise, spacious, but – like I said – the edges of the attack were hardened and saturation of the sound was lacking. The effects did not really depending on the headphones used – either with the ultra-transparent HD800 from Sennheiser, with the similarly sounding, planar HE-6 but also with the soft AKG K701 listening was not really comfortable. If I would have to evaluate the sound only after this one evening, I would say, that it is passable, at maximum. But it turned out, that in this case the step in the right direction was to “worsen” the sound, at least from the purist point of view – the Yamaha sounded then at ‘good’ level. Taking into account, that this is an inexpensive amplifier and not a headphone amplifier, this is a very good result.
What am I talking about? Well, about disengaging the “Pure Direct” mode and use the tone and loudness controls. Already switching off PD softened the sound a bit, washed it out a little – something undesirable on itself, but here, with the hard attack, it was needed. Finally adding to that slightly, with feeling, some bass and loudness – that was it!

I do not know, how you perceive such manipulations with the sound (and this is what I did), if you think that even unpleasant truth, but still truth, is better or a re-touched falsification, I am struggling with that for a long time, and more and more often the second choice wins. But I want to think then about a certain way of reaching the goal, and not about dwelling. And the goal is Music…
It turns out, that since a long time I am doing something similar with my Leben CS300 Limited (Custom Version). The amplifier was designed for operation with broadband loudspeakers, which have issues in reproducing low frequencies with appropriate pressure and was equipped by Mr. Hyodo, the owner and main constructor from Leben, with a switch, allowing to increase the bass level by 3 or 5dB.
For a long, long time – now I see it was too long – I treated this switch as devil’s seed, planted in an otherwise fantastic product. Apage, Satanas! I thought! Its presence makes the signal path longer by definition, even when the switch is set to ‘0dB’ position, this is why from the purist point of view, of what is strived to in best audio, it was a fault. This lasted until one evening I turned it to the +3dB position. Revelation! I sounded a digital version (mini LP) of the disc 4 from the group Kombi, quite badly re-mastered, without bass. The headphones – Sennheiser HD800 – responded synergistically to my move: they ‘glued’ to this “new” sound. From that moment on I am not sure, if that was really an error, an oversight, by Mr. Hyodo. It rather turned out again, that when I mature enough, when I get rid of prejudice, even the “good” ones, derived from logic, the ideas of the Japanese prove to be something good. Another time I bow before the experience of the people coming from there and their feeling for audio gear…
I am not saying, that this is the ideal solution. After the “initiation” shock, with well recorded discs I contained myself a bit. Upping bass is not always favorable, not always, it can be heard that beside the increase of the lower frequencies this circuit introduces also some distortion to the sound, which were not present before. My intuition was confirmed by measurements made by John Atkinson – the test was made by Art Dudley (Leben CS-300 & RS30-EQ, integrated amp & phono amp, “Stereophile”, November 2011, Vol.34, No. 11, p. 93-105). As it turned out, the amplification is at 30Hz, but is also audible in the upper part of the frequency spectrum. Despite that my Leben works mostly with added bass, in 60/40 proportions and only with a part of the discs the purist approach turns out to be better.

Using the tone controls is seen as an error by a vast majority of the audio journalists. And not without a reason – those circuits introduce distortion to the signal and much more often they harm the sound instead of helping it. But when they are done right, with the right attention (it turns out, that in the mentioned Yamaha and in the Leben those are passive circuits, not as aggressive as active ones) they may be a remedy for the flaws of the discs, headphones, etc.
Using tone control is not the only guilty pleasure, which any one of us can pride oneself about in the context of listening to music (I mean: does not want to pride oneself about…). A large area for such madness is the music itself. I can enter any bet, that everybody, who reads this, has some recordings, some discs in their collection, which they do not show around, but listen to it often – am I right? What we define with this will depend much on how we perceive music – a different list will be quoted by a person listening only to classical music, a different one a rockman, another one a punk, etc. And a completely different one will be presented by a bus driver.
But regardless of how much we would like to hide in our private caves with that, there are things amongst them, which have the “embarrassing” label printed on them upfront and which deserve something better than the lowest (while easily accessible) shelf in our cabinet.

I also have such recordings, I will not write about TaTu or Sandra, everybody can judge it for itself, but I think it is worth to mention another group, the Polish Audiofeels. I mention those guys on purpose – they issued recently their second album called UnFinished(Mystic Productions, MYSTCD 198; premiere – 7.11.2011), maybe not as coherent and well recorded as the debut album UnCovered (Penguin Records, 5907505865005) from 2009, but still keeping a good level and showing a band searching to find their place. It was issued in the form of a nice, double digipack, where one disc contains Audiofeels’ own compositions, while the other one contains covers (the first album had only covers). The discs are not very long, around 35 minutes each, what nicely fits in my postulate of restraint – although a CD can store up to 80 minutes of music, in my opinion only lengths of 35 to 45 minutes make sense. Everything above that is only noise…

Anyway – the Audiofeels have a stigma of primal sin, which was an appearance in the show Mam talent! (2008), presented by TVN, where they reached place three. This is how Poland got to know them. And musical purists ignore such kind of programs with disdain and superiority. And again: not without a reason. Similar to tone control in an amplifier also those shows introduce a lot of noise to the musical space, often distorting music. But from time to time they also bring something valuable and worth sinning. Both Audiofeels discs represent a musical genre called “vocal play”, there are no instruments, only voices, the lead vocal, the background vocals as well as instruments are imitated by vocals. This Polish band is really good, and the recoding quality is also good. If I would have to evaluate those discs is a standard review I would rate the debut as 8-9/10 and the second album 7-8/10. I recommend it!

Such “madness” is needed for our psychic comfort – at least that is my theory. It proves itself most of all in literature. I read quite a lot, but those are not always books like “Il Cimitero Di Praga” Umberto Eco (weak), Suttree Cormac McCarthy (phenomenal), or God is Back John Micklethwait & Adrian Wooldridge (good, good). I interweave such literature with another, I will not write about Philip K. Dick, as this is obvious, but I have to tell about the very good It’s Getting Darker” Dmitry Glukhovsky (the author of Metro 2033) and the not yet read Piter Szymun Wroczek. And there are still Izabela Sowa, the favorite author of my wife and mine. And somewhere in the middle there are the autobiographies of Keith Richards and Marek Niedźwiecki (and for sake of clarity I am mentioning only the newest issues). Everything combines into something more than only “high” and “low” literature, it is just literature.
And it is similar with music. We have to learn it, listen puristically to it, inside the boundaries of genres, performers, bands, etc. But excursions to the outskirts of it are a spice, that makes everything more digestible, that makes us keep shape. This is why we should not discard everything I just wrote without giving it a chance. I am sure that there is a lot of surprises and pleasures waiting for us.

CONVERSATIONS VII

A. In the last editorial I mentioned Srajan Ebaen – I promised an interview with the chief editor from “6moons.com” and now I discharge of that promise. I hope that you will see in him what I saw – an interesting, uncommon person, with whom you may not agree (I have a different opinion on many things Srajan is talking about), but who cannot be ignored. If everything goes right (I mean: “if there will be enough time”) then on January 16th the first review of Srajan will appear in Polish. The articles from “High Fidelity” are regularly published in “6moons.com” since a few years and the agreement between our magazines includes also Polish translations of articles published by our American partner. But there was always not enough time to do that. I would like it very much if this would change and at least once a month Srajan would be able to talk with the language of Adam Mickiewicz and Dorota Masłowska…

B. Finally I could finalize something I wanted for a long time – I acoustically fine tuned my room. And this is not easy, because it is a salon, which is used by the whole family, and not a separated room. For me this is the optimal situation, because it mimics the situation how most of the HF readers listen to music. My room is very good in terms of acoustics, I tested this with hundreds of loudspeakers, but it is not ideal. The main issue was for me the positioning of the couch I am sitting on very close to the back wall. For many years there was a graphical painting there, but it disappeared after refurbishment. Fortunately I found some elements for acoustical correction which look nice (wife), which can be mounted easily (me) and eventually can easily be replaced for different ones (me). Those elements are the Wave Wood panels from the company Vicoustic. I used four of them, and I have two more in stock – just in case. They look nice and sound wise it is much better now, especially in terms of space.

C. Gerhard Hirt promised me some time ago to tune my preamplifier Ayon Polaris III in a way, that it will closer to the sound of the model Spheris II. The main unit went to Austria, and I became the owner of the Signature Edition of the unit, where, beside the signature plaque, the resistors – now all are tantalum ones – and coupling capacitors – not they are Silver Z-Cap from Jantzen Audio were exchanged. The improvement of the sound is clear, everything is deeper and smoother, but this is still not what I thought. This is why I will try the capacitors V-Cap CuTF, I wrote about some time ago. Gerhard tells me that those are too big and do not fit on the PCB, but maybe I can find some solution to that. And I will think about damping the enclosure and exchanging the feet, maybe to finite elemente.

D. There is a new audio salon in Krakow, you may already know that. So I visited Living! Sound and its owner Mr. Piotr Misiewicz. It is good – this is a premium type audio salon, with selected products, brands, which distributors do not have their own salons in Krakow - McIntosh, Tannoy, VPI, Audio Aero etc. It is located in a very good place, at one of the main streets in Krakow city center (Karmelicka street 36) and has all the chances to become a mandatory place to make your purchases. If everything goes right, we may, from time to time, organize there our Krakow Sonic Society meetings, open for all visitors. We have already some initial ideas, we’ll see how things progress from there.

E. I wrote already about the Japanese and their feeling for the sound – I would like to add, that I am continuing my adventure with Acoustic Revive. This time I ordered for testing elements related to internet network: LAN network isolator RLI-1, USB isolator RUI-1 and the cable LAN-2 OPA. I am already happy!

This is everything that comes to me right now. It is January 1st, so it is 2012, the ninth year of issuing “High Fidelity”. Thank you all, that you are with us from the very beginning, and also joined us in the meantime. I would like to wish us all a very good year musical wise and good health, because we have to earn some money for all that!

Wojciech Pacuła
Editor in Chief



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Our reviewers regularly contribute to  “Enjoy the Music.com”, “Positive-Feedback.com”“HiFiStatement.net”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

"High Fidelity" is an online magazine, i.e. it is only published on the web. For the last few years it has been published both in Polish and in English. Thanks to our English section, the magazine has now a worldwide reach - statistics show that we have readers from almost every country in the world.

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