N.B. The following are my personal experiences of buying Hi-Fi as a customer over the years before making a business out of audio.
My name is Adrian Parsons and I have been a Hi-Fi enthusiast since the age of 15 when I purchased a Dual 505-2, Nad 3020 and Mission 700 system package. As a teenager I would play Michael Schenker’s Rockbottom solo loudly in my bedroom to ‘educate’ my parents but it wasn’t long before my music tastes widened to the point where I now listen predominantly to World music.
Example of a Classic NAD 3020 – my first Hi-Fi amplifier.
My first upgrade was when I discovered the wonderful Croft Micro pre-amp which was initially used in conjunction with the Nad power amp section thanks to the nifty pre/power horseshoe links on the back of the 3020.
I then tried the Linn K9 cartridge followed by the K18 which were clearly inferior to the standard issue Nagaoka MP11 Boron cartridge the Dual 505-2 package had come with!
By experimentation, I ‘externalised’ and bi-wired my Mission crossovers into outboard boxes (before bi-wiring existed to my knowledge) and rang Mission to tell them what a big improvement it had made to those particular speakers and after feeling pressurised into giving a detailed description of what I’d done, they said, ‘not practical for mass-production…’
Later, I bought a Thorens TD 150 with SME 3009 arm from a junk shop and realised the greatness of some classic audio.
Thorens TD 150 – a great audio classic.
A friend swapped my new K19 for a worn out Decca Gold and it was the single biggest upgrade I had yet made! I eventually had it re-tipped with a VDH tip and it lost its magic! The swings and roundabouts of upgrading started to sting.
At least I had learned that Moving Iron is my favourite cartridge type: Pickering, ADC, Shure, Decca, Grado, Nagaoka etc.
At that time the Rega RB300 came into existence and every reviewer was shouting about it. I bought one for the Thorens and immediately lost bass focus while the midrange became forward! It obviously didn’t suit the deck and cartridge as well as the SME 3009 had done.
Incidentally, that knife-edge bearing on the 3009 works very well with a Decca despite what some say.
I was later to discover that the bass speed and all round transparency of a good unipivot arm is usually my favourite type of design.
I owned an early Nottingham Analogue Dais Reference for a while which relied on a really heavy platter to improve pitch control and used a simple mains-powered AC motor. I had picked-up a Linn Valhalla board cheaply and to my surprise found it made the Dais deck sound more rhythmic and engaging! I was surprised because I tend to find ‘mechanical’ solutions nearly always superior to ‘electrical’ ones.
My first foray into CD replay was a Pioneer PD9700 with its stable-platter mechanism. It was an above average player for the time and yet I remember a Hi-Fi dealer in Wolverhampton – called Midland HiFi Studio – explaining to me how, ‘Phillips have written a technical document explaining why the Stable-platter mechanism cannot work!’ What nonsense… Apart from anything else, the Pioneer mechanisms are the only truly reliable ones I know of long-term. Synchronisation of drawer mechanism and speed of loading are superb.
I felt that CD replay in general reproduced the very simple passages quite well until the music got slightly more complex and layered and then the sound would become confused and far less natural than vinyl. The primary layer would be OK, each subsequent layer more ill-defined in space. Rather like an SE amp in complex passages when it runs out of power to properly drive many speakers for anything other than simple Jazz.
Auditioning other CD player types, I found I preferred Delta Sigma designs which had a far more natural midrange to Multibit etc. The problem with Delta Sigma was that the timing was often poorer and bass rather thicker. E.g. Quad 67 which was a great player nonetheless.
Midrange and vocal naturalness is what the ear recognises best, in my view, and so Delta-Sigma was a fair compromise of what was on offer at the time.
I was loaned a ‘battleship’ construction Accuphase transport once and felt it timed poorly – as if its enormous mass stored energy. Hearing a top end system in New York with the same transport and top of the range Lamm amps and Focal Grande Utopias, I noticed this same characteristic, the timing was ponderous. I realised I am very fussy about timing and lose interest if it is not spot on!
When the first Cambridge Dacmagic came out and it became a ‘Must Buy’ I did. The bass was somewhat overblown and thick and the mid and top slightly harder-sounding than the built-in Dac in the Pioneer PD-9700 – more ‘Hi-Fi ish’ to my mind. (It was good value to be fair.) I then began to realise that what many people, including ‘What Hi-Fi’, mean by ‘good bass’ is usually big, thick and overbearing to my tastes.
Similar story for Optimus LX5 – ‘run to your local Maplins’ the reviewer Ken Kessler had said – but what an average midband, average bass and rather rolled off top from the Linaeum tweeter – very nice tweeter tonally though.
I then acquired two brilliantly musical mono-ed Leak Stereo 20’s with valve regulation mods by Glenn Croft. These would drive SD Acoustics SD1’s very nicely.
There came a period when speakers would fascinate me most in a system; the different presentations they conveyed were amazing. Dahlquist DQ 10, Klipsch LaScala, Rogers LS5/8 (with homemade passive crossover), stacked Quad 57’s all sounded brilliant but were unaffordable at the time. Impulse H2 was also good but that inverted dome glass fibre Focal tweeter was seriously overrated IMO. The Rogers LS5/8 34mm silk dome was far superior.
So I started experimenting with open-baffle speakers in the early 80’s. Inspired by speaker designer friend Richard Moore. I designed a pair of 3 way open baffles based on a pair of original Triangle Comete E’s I had lying around on a small free-standing toilet seat-sized baffle rolling off acoustically at about 400Hz (no extra crossover needed to the lower roll-off point as they were bass/mid drivers.) They had a lower section comprised of 2 x 10inch drivers (1 unit per side was a Wharfedale 10 inch DDRS) on ‘H’ open baffles. Top baffles were de-coupled from the bass section and had no sides. Sound was fast and transparent if not particularly deep. I loved the ‘speed’ of the cloth surrounds on the Triangle and Wharfedale drivers. I find foam surround bass drivers often time very averagely (as do SE amps in my opinion – even the more powerful ones such as 211s…). Over 10 inches and they usually sound slow to me. Rubber faster, pleated cloth surround fastest. With any speaker technology I like to play to its advantages. Open baffles are the best in terms of bass transparency, delicacy and 3 dimensionality. Those are my 3 favourite qualities in a speaker. If you make a design all things to all men I feel you miss the magic of a particular technology. Avantgarde for me are a little guilty of this.
If you’re going for an open-baffle sound why use a bass-reflex bass for the bottom end? It compromises the coherence of what open-baffles do so well.
If you have a ribbon tweeter, how will it match tonally to a conventional bass-mid? Often unconvincingly is the answer in my experience. The same goes for cutting-edge materials such as Aerogel, carbon fibre and ceramic for drive units. Each sounding unnatural in some way. I still prefer paper or polypropylene drivers.
I was very disappointed to discover that MDF racks and stands substitute a lumpy hump around male midrange/upper bass where typical glass/steel racks and stands give a stridency higher up the spectrum in the upper female midrange. I was disappointed with my Clearlight Audio Aspekt rack for this reason. The frame itself turned out to be just cheap MDF. All I had achieved was to exchange a spotlit upper mid on a cheap Target rack for a lumpier lower mid with the expensive and raved about Clearlight! Thank you reviewer Roy Gregory… A better result was achieved using the Target’s steel frame with birch-ply 12-15mm shelves in place of the original glass ones. At least birch-ply has a more random structure than MDF. Even chipboard is superior to MDF when it comes to random structure. A great sounding solution is to buy a nest of real oak tables second-hand to put your equipment on. This will outperform anything up to about Finite Elemente level. (Oops, giving away some industry secrets there…)
I once loaned a few pairs of monitoring headphones from Stanley Beresford and felt that most that tried to produce deep bass were surprisingly fake-sounding. I rather go for a mid-priced design that doesn’t try to do too much in that area. Also, to my surprise, studio engineer’s headphones vary enormously in tonal balance and most don’t sound at all flat in their frequency response. (Nor musically engaging – but that was less surprising…)
A friend of mine called Lee was very attached to his Triangle TE-60 integrated amp and it did indeed image very well, was fast and clean though rather bright. (He effectively cured this by building gold-plated interconnects and speaker cables using jeweller’s grade wires to keep costs down.) His speakers were Rogers LS5/9, CD was Trichord Digital transport and Pulsar DAC. We would meet up as he went through a period of trying various amps at home and it was amazing how few could topple the TE-60 in his system.
The Musical Fidelity A1001 was very disappointing after the A1000 had been so good. The highly reviewed Primare A30 was really bland to my mind – playing safe, neither fish nor fowl. Albarry PP1 and some Arcam amps had a falsely warmish mid and top end – supposedly emulating a valve amp – but not ultimately insightful like a decent valve amp can often be. A Leak Stereo 20 would easily show them all a clean pair of heels for midrange and top end.
A dealer from Scotland who was very voracious towards customers – and as I later discovered, aggressive to the trade – would send him multiple amps in the hope he would cave-in and buy one but still his TE-60 shone through. When he wanted a refund they would coax him into trying yet another amp and so we reviewed quite a few…
We felt that Chord Flatline speaker cable and the more expensive Nordost versions were not so musical sounding. The fact that they were so physically microphonic and undamped (the Chord Flatline in particular) should have been a clue! They also stripped back tonality in an attempt to give more leading edge detail. For me at least they marked the start of a movement in Hi-Fi where ‘cleaner’ – as in more-etched – represented ‘what the studio engineers supposedly intended’… There are many who think this way. A clear divide at Hi-Fi Shows where the 2 camps are in stark contrast. Audio Note at one extreme, the Audiolab 8000A-type sound in the other. As if zero overhang, zero resonance was the aim, after which anything is deemed coloured. Have they forgotten the Number Line in maths where you have minus numbers too? There are natural resonances and reverberations in music which are easily lost. Negative Colouration I call it.
Likewise, a surprising number of the newer turntable manufacturers seem to design with the aim of creating a super CD player rather than playing to the strengths of vinyl.
The original Harbeth Compact 7s were launched around this time with their ‘radical’ cone material, yet we were very surprised to prefer the openness and speed of the polypropylene bass/mid predecessor the H.L. Monitor MK3 – and the original Spendor SP1/SP2 too for that matter. That new cone material on the Compact 7s seemed a touch dark and slow sounding.
To be continued…