Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Wonderful Hi-Fi Experience.....

There used to be a fantastic haven of exotic audio equipment in Sydney Australia in the mid 1970s.  It was called Kent Hi-Fi  and was in Kent Street, not too far from Town Hall Station. Hi-Fi was a thing and musicians got paid for making music back then.

I used to frequent this place and one particular track, played in one demonstration kind of set the standard for what great Hi-Fi is to me, and what it can invoke in you.

They used to have a large double height room with all the speakers along one wall, the long edge. It would have been at least twice as wide as a normal living room. Don't remember what the speakers were, but I kind of remember they had a set of JBL studio monitors ( 15" woofer, horn tweeter etc)  in there as well, driven from a big power amp, either a Phase Linear 700B or Ampzilla (I remember the big glowing VU meters) with a Technics Direct drive turntable with SME arm and Shure V15 pickup.  The top of the range gear of the time.  Way out of my price range. Still way out of what I would pay, even today.

And it played Edgar Winter Group's Frankenstein. This is a really well recorded, mixed and mastered track and it was fantastic.  There is a drum break, actually a drum kit and a set of tom toms played by two people,  that sounds great on just about anything, but sounded very real in that room.  It also has that wonderful downward sweeping Arp 2600 Synth sound. Part of it was because the speakers were as far apart as in a small hall, and it was at a real life volume.

That demonstrated the point of technology to me, at that point in time.......

Years before that at school I had built my own speakers, using 10" Plessey drivers, assembled a Playmaster Amplifier Kit (From long dead retailer KitSets!) and bought the smallest Panasonic stereo cassette deck from the part time jobs I had while at school.  So I was already on the way to having a technical background in the world of audio. Why and How it worked..

I went on to work in music production systems, then spent 15 years in Japan at a synthesizer manufacturer. Music and Audio has always been important to us, and Hi-Fi was originally a driving force. Not the main thing we do now though......

We can be contacted at Art & Technology

And to show your HiFi interest, how about this shirt?

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The Naim Audio Game...

For the last couple of weeks we have been catching up on what the world of Hi-Fi has been doing for the last 2 or 3 decades.  Now, I have been involved in Studio Sound, or at the least across it for all the same time, and find the differences rather striking.

One brand that has been constant from the mid 1970s till now is Naim Audio.  It seems they kind of invented the current Hi-Fi's networked Streaming Server products.  I've been playing stuff from a computer for so long I hadn't noticed.

The Power Amplifier I currently have in my small studio is a 50W per channel GainClone I put together from modules from ebay with a few modifications. Some $24 for the supply board and 2 stereo amps.  I added to that Zobel networks on the output and a relay speaker protection de-thump circuit. This is based on the LM3886 power opamp and very similar to the  very expensive, Audiophile 47 Laboratory Gaincard amplifier. Sounds great, but only cost around $100 to build using the other parts I had on hand. Well, I have experimented with power amplifiers and their  design since the early 1980s so had heatsinks and other hardware, but not the 2U rack case needed.  I did a blog post on this a year or so ago.

I happened to notice the recent Naim NAP 100 Power Amp , 50W per channel,  (equivalent to my own GainClone) and that these products still seem to have a good reputation like the old NAP160, 120, 140 and 250 amplifiers.   Making things sound "musical", which in the Audiophile world actually doesn't necessarily mean accurate.  I always liked the way they mechanically designed them. Very clean.

Naim Nap 120
I then saw that in Sydney the Naim NAP 100  sells for AUD$1,850..... wow.  How could that be?

Naim NAP 100 rear
Naim NAP 100 Front
Naim NAP 100 internal view

A bit of googling found the type of designs they use and that supply regulation was a key philosophy to Naim. By the way, the NAP 100 doesn't have that additional supply regulation.  All Naim power amp designs use a Quasi Complimentary output stage, based on the original RCA application note, with the Baxandall diode.
NAP 250 Power Amplifier Schematic
They also only ever use single power transistors, never wanting to parallel up devices to obtain higher power handling.  This very traditional design dates from the time that only NPN power transistors were good enough, many decades ago.  The output stage Vbe multiplier transistor is also not mounted on the power transistor heatsink, so thermal runaway is possible. An interesting design choice, but really, nothing special or magical.  They currently make a fuss about special custom power transistors, but they aren't that special, More marketing than reality.  It would seem the multiple regulated supply rails they use, and that for lots of their products they put the power supply in a completely separate box, is what sets them apart from other brands.

Their highest powered Naim NAP 500, some USD$21,950, uses 2 of their power amps in bridged mode per channel, 4 total to make a stereo amplifier to get around their self inflicted need to not parallel output stage transistors.  That is probably a far more complicated approach.

None of these design choices justifies the price, but I think that is part of the wonder of the current world of Hi-Fi.   Prices, claims and reality are only indirectly connected. As much style as technology.  Still, makes any Naim a desirable product.  They are cool and have that X Factor.

Not better than what I have built myself though, for much less $.  You can even buy clones of the NAP 140 power amplifier PCBs on ebay, for very reasonable prices.

And a random comment comparing the GainClone and NAP 140:
Just finished a gainclone type power amp with LM3886 chips and bog-standard circuit as in the National Semiconductor data sheet, plus a 280 VA power supply. With a simple double potentiometer.
Connected it up to a Naim CD3 and speakers and lo, wonder and horror at the same time, it sounds better than my Naim 72/140. In particular, the bass is just as strong, but less woolly, more detailed, more "tactile" if that makes any sense. Like an image in sharper focus. While the treble is gentle and sweet. This is after a few hours use.
Fascinating. Truly fascinating.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Quality Sound and the Decline of Hi Fi

Music and record Albums drove my original interest in electronics and it was all about Amplifiers and Loudspeakers, their design and technology.   And believe it or not, Hi-Fi magazines had stuff you could learn from.  Electronics magazines also covered the latest trends in sound reproduction.

It isn't like that now, and looking at the two issues of Hi-Fi News I have, one from 1984 and the latest 2016 issue shows up why. Hi-Fi really isn't a thing now, or at least it isn't really about good sound. Seems to be more some status thing for the 1%.  $6000 for an Amplifier and CD player is #$%^@%$!!! 

Hi-Fi News 1984 vs 2016
Real engineering in the 1984 issue.
It isn't that I'm not interested in sound and album playback.  It is just the Studio Sound perspective is at great odds with the Woo that has taken over Hi-Fi.

The 2016 issues talks about $3000 CD players and $900 USB cables, and that this is some how justified.  The standard in studios is set by the likes of Genelec with their active crossover powered monitors, and nothing like that is in the Hi-Fi rag.... they have diamond dust coated tweeters instead.

In 1984 there  was real engineering on architecture supported by measurements. In 2016 that is very dumbed down, probably as many of their advertisers don't have real scientific evidence justifying their claims and equipment..

I must say the 2016 issue was quite entertaining to me, even if the authors didn't intend it that way.

I was surprised to read the Vinyl album reviews of  Bowie's Low and Numan's Replicas.   Mostly as  the Numan article was written by an ex Melody Maker editor, and went on at length how this electronic music pioneer, and coming Moogfest hero was "uncool"! Really?!!!    Have always followed bands and music, but that never involved the lowest common denominator celebrity gossip in the likes of Melody Maker, and found it strange this HiFi mag would taint itself with the type of journalist that does stories on the likes of Kardashians...

I'm sure the new equipment does not hurt the enjoyment of music at all, and for the intended audience, works for them.

And what is old is new again.  The gold colored amplifier on the 2016 cover, which must be wonderful, with the numbers to prove it, is an update to the QUAD Current Dumping Amplifier of 1975.  That technology used a very small, high quality Class A amplifier, coupled with a high power Class B design to produce a good designs that's performance was "mostly" that of the small Class A amplifier.  The QUAD 405  100W per channel amplifier was the product that introduced this.
The 2016 version replaces the Class B amp with a Class D amp, to make a 650W per channel amplifier.

It was nostalgic for me to look at what is HiFi today, but see that I'm better off without it.... studio gear is "better" than "HiFi" and MUCH cheaper!