Here they are, in the order that I heard, explored and ultimately decided that these components would stay.
But first, some context. Here's a quick Altec 604 Dream Speaker project update and a peek at things to come. In short, yes, I'm still using the 604s as my reference speakers. We have made some refinements since we 'finished' the project though. My partner in audio lunacy, Pete Riggle, keeps reminding me that I'm insatiable but/so the project continues and the speakers get to strut their stuff more and more through each constructive change (which isn't necessarily every alteration). As fellow-moonster Jay Fisher said just the other day, "They are wonderful and cantankerous coaxials."
Aside from two functional and cosmetic improvements -- strong, adjustable stands and custom, homemade grill cloths (talk about a sonic difference when done right!) -- we pursued the basics. Specifically, we persist with experiments related to crossover design and materials, such as replacing the poly pro caps with current production and vintage oil-filled and motor-run variants. The latter were one of the best finds we've made. Excellent! And, we still have other tricks on the drawing board. Maybe we'll call this project complete in mid-2008.
|Then again, maybe not.
The former would be better as already another project is in the works. Pete and I are now committed to building the Po' Boy. This will be a budget (hah!) version of the super-musical Cogent system some of you may have heard at RMAF shows the past two years. Thanks to Jay Fisher and Cogent-True-to-Life good guy Steve Schell, Pete and I have sourced and already purchased a matched pair of vintage RCA midrange compression drivers. Pete's working diligently on the overall design and sourcing drivers for the exponential bass horn.
Back to the business at hand.
Below, you'll see that there have been some significant changes on deck. Among other things, I've gone to a music server; switched preamps; fell hard for a chip amp; and found that my 604s absolutely adore 2A3s.
February: Wavelength Audio Cosecant USB DAC <$3,500>
WTF is a cosecant? The Wikipedia tells us "The cosecant csc(A) is the multiplicative inverse of sin(A), i.e. the ratio of the length of the hypotenuse to the length of the opposite side." What the hell kind of name is that for something that makes beautiful music?
Music is the pleasure the human soul experiences from counting without being aware that it is counting. - Gottfried Leibniz
More Wiki: "The smallest positive period of a periodic function is called the primitive period of the function. The primitive period of the sine, cosine, secant, or cosecant is a full circle, i.e. 2π radians or 360 degrees; the primitive period of the tangent or cotangent is only a half-circle, i.e. π radians or 180 degrees."
Okay, full circle. Something I can wrap my techno-peasant brain around. That's better.
If all art aspires to the condition of music, all the sciences aspire to the condition of mathematics. - George Santanaya
Want something more grounded? Many teachers will confirm that students learn how to solve music and math problems by finding patterns. These teachers also identify connections between fractions and rhythm; sets/intersecting sets and keys/related keys; the relationship between ratios, fractions and decimals and frequency and interval; and, roots and powers and equal temperament tuning.
Anyway, I have the Cosecant. Do I like it? Oh yes! Although it's aesthetically striking (Gordon wrapped mine in ebony), it's on my end-o-the-year list of rec-o-mend-ed gear for more appropriate reasons. Compared to previous experiences with number-crunching gear, I found myself listening through an unusually high level of transparency absent the glare that often is part and parcel of highly resolving digital setups.
In fact, I found quite the opposite: It's delivering the smoothest and most musical digital playback I've experienced in a familiar system. Look ma: no bits-driven migraines! Compared to my Sony 2000 with the Tube Research Labs modifications (which I still covet for its relaxed, flowing character and ability to play SACD), the Cosecant is not quite as dark or chewy but still nourishing - and it excels at shedding the kind of light that allows for more insights without adding any of the toxins that usually come along for the ride. In a word (or three): pretty damn pure.
The Cosecant also conveys exceptionally defined and extended bass; livelier and well lit but not edgier highs; along with wide-ranging (as in more musically proper and better balanced) tonal representations. Piano and vocals and strings and horns and percussion and - well, they all are seriously enthralling but thankfully not due to any of the wow factor that sometimes trips us up.
The instrumental and vocal shadings that make the illusion we pursue more convincing are here, too. This is the kind of higher resolution that lets details unfold like music, not just pop out in some exaggerated form of aural prominence that only grabs your attention but can never win your heart. There is improved nuance to most everything (even timbre), especially with some voices, for example where previously masked quivers (or rolls or trills if you will) now emerge articulately.
As far as tube rolling the single 6GM8, Gordon mentioned that there are really only two types, both branded by many. "Basically Amperex will say made in Holland and is more dynamic but a little on the dry side. The other, Siemens indicated by Made In West Germany, is a little fuller, more rounded but much slower tube." That's his perspective. Things might work out differently in your rig.
Be sure to use as short a USB cable as possible. At first, I tried having the laptop at my listening chair with a five meter run to the DAC on my rack. After all, what's the point of having a music server if you can't access it without leaving your chair when all you want to do is surf and listen? Sadly, the sound with this setup was basically intolerable. I then put the DAC and laptop together on my rack with a one-meter USB cable. Wonderful. Don't look back. That's the ticket.
Just one small problem: Now the laptop (the control center as it were) was no longer on my lap. Dammit! As is often the case, we can learn from our frustrations and things are rarely bad in and of themselves. This actually worked out well as I was forced to discover the Salling Clicker program ($25). After an easy download and install on my iBook, I could then access my growing music library (now stored on dual 500GB Western Digital drives) and control volume via Bluetooth. From a spare cell phone. While in my listening chair. It was actually much easier than balancing the laptop.
Plus, our 'tween and teen grandkids thought cell phone remote was the coolest. And you know how hard it is to outcool the grandkids. Hell, I've had to hire the youngest one (ever since she was eight) to program my new cell phones.
If you prefer the laptop-near-your-seat approach and keep the Cosecant close to it, Gordon approves of using long runs of interconnects from the DAC to your pre. How long? "It can drive 600 feet of cable because of the output transformers." That should work for most of us.
Most outstanding -- and this has nothing to do with the unit itself -- is the amount and variety of music that I'm now listening to. More often. Longer. High tech meets real music making. Highly recommended.
April: deHavilland Electric Amplifier Company UltraVerve 2 preamplifier <$2,495>
Start with the eminent 6SN7 octal vacuum tube. Then add all vacuum tube rectification using the 5AW4/5U4 octal tube rectifier. Yummy. Combine features like 100% hand-wired point-to-point circuitry in the audio as well as the power supply circuit. Stir with various design insights plus Kara Chafee's magic touch and get ready for a sonic feast.
The UV replaced my Herron VTSP-1A, which we all know is no slouch, just different. And not so different - in more ways than you might think. In fact, the latter excels in some areas appreciated by many: it's more neutral and detailed and offers a wider soundstage in my system. The UV, on the other hand, offers blacker backdrops, an appropriately more fleshed-out tone, an ability to communicate textural nuances and does all this while remaining fast and open. Oh yes, that all hits the spot for me. The UV conveys a deeper soundstage and sense of acoustic space as well. It also loves to really root around in the bass (displaying excellent extension and definition) and can bring stringed instruments to life in a way that totally mesmerizes me.
The highest praise I can give this, or any piece of gear, is this: Since the day I put it in, it hasn't called attention to itself and I have not, for one moment, considered looking at something else. I think that's some kind of record already, save for my long-running affair (since 2002) with the Nottingham Space Deck.
June: DIY XTC Speaker Cables (aka: Wal-Mart Yard Master patio chord) <$$0.186/ft, $7.44 per 40ft. standard roll>
You just never know what's going to work well in your system 'til you give it whirl. Part 1: Pete had been bugging me for a year to try this wire on my speakers. I demurred so he took matters into his own hands (literally) and built and brought a completed set over to my place. I was, without delay, hooked. He then took a pair over to Jeff's who appreciated them as well. Enough so that he wrote an excellent article, which you would not want to miss should you desire any assembly tips [above link - Ed.].
One thing that may be of interest to some is that if you use only two of the cable's conductors (white and black) and tape down the third (green), you will get a totally different presentation. Feel free to experiment. Safely, that is. And, maybe write back and tell us what you heard if you try it both ways. I'll disclose my findings at a later date. In the meantime, the cables remain an important part of my arsenal of music-making tools.
|August: AudioSector Patek Amp v2 <$1,300>|
|You just never know what's going to work well in your system 'til you give it whirl. I bought it. Part 2: When paired with the UltraVerve, all is well in the land of image density, tonal saturation and textural palp. While the Patek doesn't deliver 100% of the tube magic of my PX-25, it gets so close that it's creepy, especially when you consider its price, ease of maintenance and 10-year warranty. Plus, it does a|
|few things that some might call better with respect to transparency (absence of an ever-so-slight tube haze), dynamics, linearity and bass response. It's implausibly smooth (as several visitors found after I pointed it out, sitting behind the powered-down tube amp), melodiously resolving and is not leaving my system anytime soon.
|October: Wright Sound Company WPA 3.5 monos <$1,590/pr.>
You just never know what's going to work well in your system 'til you give it whirl. Part 3: I picked up a pair. Again. I had these amps a few years back and even though I had speakers well suited to the circumstances, things just didn't click. This time, I found a match made in heaven with 2A3s and 604s. Not quite the punch some would want in the bass but I lean toward a more macrobiotic transfer of that sort of energy anyway. They are serious yet groovy-good little amps capable of holding me
one very relaxed hostage for hours on end. Excellent transient response combined with a midrange that works for raspy rockers and angelic choirs, plus all the tone and texture and presence that this listener craves. Bordering on the most musically positive meaning of the word psychedelic (with the right vintage tubes), these are highly recommended for sound-tracking your own classical music while watching Saturday morning cartoons or listening to most anything in the dark.
They sound damned good the rest of the time, too...
|So, that's my five. But ... but ... I'm not finished, yet. Please, if it's not too late, lemme tell ya about something special,|
|something small. In fact, let's call this the best stocking stuffer (especially for those non-audiophiles that those of us deep into the addiction need to nudge along) you're gonna find under $100. Make that very well under $100 and then read on and prepare to want to order several for, well ... I already made that suggestion:
Your Xmas?: Audiomagus Swans HiVi S3W T-Amp & Speakers <$69.95>
I first got my hands on this package back in June but set it aside when it didn't sound so stellar straight out of the box. Yeah, I know. What can you expect for that kind of green? You get what you pay for and all that. Several months later, I got back around to it, gave the setup a chance to settle in and then took it for a spin on my desktop computer before trying it for two-channel 'surround' buttressing a small TV in mom's sitting room. I had to smile. You can get this much ... for how much? That's right. And to make things more remarkable, I found out a few days later that the price had been reduced to $70. Wow.
"With a dainty footprint only 2.75 inches in diameter, the integrated amplifier is cased in machined aluminum with a clear plastic base. The entire top half is the volume control knob, using a specially designed potentiometer to shut out dust and moisture. Three LEDs shining through the amplifier's clear base not only indicate if the amp is on or off, they "float" the amp on a cushion of blue light."
Okay, yeah. So what? Bear with me as I can see how this scheme could be easy to dismiss. After all, dismiss it I did. But consider for just one moment that the 3-inch full-range (reportedly 65Hz-20kHz) speakers paired with a tiny amp using the Tripath 2024 chip -- yes, the same one found in the Blue Moon Award winning Trends Audio TA-10 -- actually deliver on several fronts you might not anticipate from such a compact design: tonal balance, a defined soundstage and full sound. It's a freakin' value, okay?
Plus, I understand that the bad boys at Audiomagus are already playing with mods - and, as many of you already know, they're very good when it comes to that. So 2007 was a very good vintage if you know what I mean.