Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Why Most 1960s Era 45 RPM Original Pressings Don’t Sound Good?

From a 21st Century audiophile’s perspective, why most 45 RPM vinyl singles from the 1960s are not as they are cracked up to be in terms of sound quality?

By: Ringo Bones

Even though some of them may fetch thousands of dollars if their cardboard box are in pristine condition, have you noticed that original pressings – i.e. those run-of-the-mill original standard pressings sold in record stores all over – of 45 RPM vinyl singles and EPs from the 1960s tend to not sound as they are cracked up to be from an audiophile perspective, although there are exceptions like those from Capitol Records were assured of better sound quality than most competing products. While 45 RPM vinyl reissues of 1960s era music that were released during the 1990s more often than not sound much better than Redbook Specification CDs – even better than HDCD and Sony Super Bit Mapping Redbook Specification CDs – an overwhelming majority of 1960s era 45 RPM vinyl singles and EPs sound terrible and if you don’t completely know what you are doing when you are setting up your turntable, could end up irreparably damaging the stylus assembly of your 1990s era 500 US dollar moving coil vinyl cartridge. But why do most of them sound bad? 

During the 1960s, many 45 RPM popular music singles – and even some 33 1/3 RPM LPs – were cut “hot”, as in at highly modulated levels. It almost seemed as though there were a contest among the major record labels / major record companies to produce the loudest sounding records. Some original pressing vinyl discs of the era will never sound good because the signal level is so high that the cutting stylus actually damaged the very grooves it was producing via overmodulation. Fortunately during the 1990s, conscientious vinyl mastering / cutting engineers with an eye for sound quality had noted the excesses of 1960s era vinyl mastering and cutting to produce a way better 45 RPM vinyl reissue since then in comparison to the overmodulation plagued 1960s era original pressings. And better still, if you own original 1960s era 45 RPM vinyl pressings, there are ways to make them sound better on your current turntable set up – and without damaging the stylus of the vinyl replay cartridge you currently have. 

To cope with such discs, set the tracking force for your cartridge a bit heavier than that recommended by the manufacturer. Too light a tracking pressure will result in mistracking of highly modulated vinyl discs. Mistracking means that the stylus, rather than following the undulations in the grooves, will tend to take shortcuts. It will bang against the groove walls, etching the distortion permanently into the walls. Tracking at a somewhat heavier stylus force will produce less damage in the long run than using too light a force. 

Are 45 RPM Vinyl Better Than The 33 1/3 RPM Vinyl Long Play Record?

A truism it may be, but why is it that in the audiophile / high fidelity audio world that anything bigger than necessary and run faster than necessary always result in better sound quality? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Some say the propensity of over-engineering everything – i.e. building something bigger than necessary and running it faster than necessary - in the high fidelity audio / audiophile world is nothing more than hype over common sense, but we with the requisite ears begs to differ. As in open reel master tapes run at the manufacturer’s maximum recommended speeds tend to sound way better than master tapes recorded at a much slower speed in inches per second. On the subject of turning a band’s / musician’s master tape into something that the general public can play in their homes – i.e. music playback medium may they be vinyl LPs, CDs, cassettes, MP3s, etc. – being a little more conscientious than your typical egotistical big wig record label owner when it comes paying attention in the mastering and pressing phase really pays dividends when you aim for a good sounding product whose sound quality is way better than average.  And when it comes to the subject of vinyl releases, does the 45 RPM record really sound better than the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl LP? 

During the latter half of the 1990s when I was involved in one of our local punk rock band’s toe-in-the-water exercise to release their master tapes in vinyl form, I’ve noticed that the 45 RPM singles sound much closer to the original master tape compared to the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl LP compilation pressing – especially at the frequency extremes of the audio band. Strange how something I’ve read a few years earlier in The Absolute Sound magazine seems to jibe with my first ear witness experience. 

Back in March 1994, The Absolute Sound magazine’s editor-in-chief Harry Pearson was one of the first folks to listen to Michael Hobson’s initial 45 RPM test pressings of iconic the Golden Age of Stereo era Classical music recordings – i.e. the Reiner recording of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. At the time, Hobson was wont to dispense 45 RPM versions of the RCA reissues to record critics, which then included Pearson. As vinyl enthusiasts now know, the 45 RPM vinyl record contain about half of the music per side of an equivalent 33 1/3 RPM and are, for all practical purposes, makes the 45 RPM sounds as close to the original master tapes as ordinary mortals are ever likely to get. 

As Harry Pearson went into Bernie Grundman’s mastering room that has an audio system that allowed one to A/B comparison between the original work parts – as in the original open reel master tape - and a master disc being cut from those recordings. At 33 and 1/3 RPM, the difference between what was on the vinyl and what was on the master tape were so pronounced – notes Pearson – that it was laughable, the 33 and 1/3 RPM pressing being a pale imitation, like a faded movie print from a visual perspective, when heard directly against the original master tape. Pearson notes that the amount of musical information that was lost was, poetically speaking, more than an order of magnitude and he also notes that certainly part of these differences could be attributed to the old Shure V-15 Type Whatever vinyl replay cartridge Grundman was using at the time, but there was no denying that the vinyl LP at 33 1/3 RPM was simply not an acceptable replica. However, a simple switch of the cutting lathe from 33 and 1/3 RPM to 45 RPM and out of blue from Pearson’s perspective, the differences between the original RCA master tapes and the vinyl pressing disc were reduced to the minor. So does a faster running speed more often than not result in improved sound quality? 

As a further insight into why 45 RPM vinyl sounds better than its 33 1/3 RPM long-playing counterpart, consider this intriguing explanation of the 45’s advantage from Mary Cardas – daughter of the great George Cardas – and one of the first record critics who got one of Michael Hobson’s first 45 RPM test pressings. According to Mary Cardas: “As the stylus moves through the groove, it makes an attempt to precisely trace each `peak’ and `valley’ it comes across, given the same one-second section of music cut at the same level, the amount of groove modulation is the same whether the lathe is moving at 33, 45 or 79. The difference is in the slope of those modulations. The best analogy is that of a ski slope. Compare a 500-foot drop over a distance of 1,000 feet (a more pleasant slope). My own recovery in order take the next drop would be substantially different – whether or not you factored in a 25 percent increase in speed. For a cartridge, there may not be enough time after finishing one slope to mechanically recover and be able to completely track the next, By cutting at a faster speed, we are able to `soften the terrain’ with precisely the same information being transferred. The audible differences between a record cut at 45 and the same at 33 are generally heard in more clearly delineated instrument placement and sizing, and greater low-level detail (one of the first things to suffer in mistracking). The drawback is that the amount of music one can press on one side of a record is cut by almost 50 percent.” 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Farewell John Tavener

More well known to audiophiles on his Technics adverts than his contemporary Classical compositions that barely goes louder than 60 decibels, sometimes I wonder if the music industry had done enough to made John Tavener more well known to the music buying public? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Unless if you are praised / commended during your stint in a military / defense outfit modeled after the United States Marine Corp’s Force Recon by your ability to hear a sleeping person snoring softly 100 feet away from you in a non-electrifired village somewhere in the poor parts of the globe whose average ambient noise at night barely rises above 30 decibels sound pressure level – chances are, you may criticize most of contemporary British Classical music composer John Tavener’s Eastern Christian Orthodox themed liturgical works as “too quiet” . I mean as an audiophile, I find some of his 1990s era recordings released on CD easily swamped by the ambient noise of your home audio system with a signal-to-noise ratio rated at around 90 decibels. Thus his now (in) famous to the audiophile world the Technics SU-A107 Integrated Amplifier advert from around 1999 – as in the advert for Technics’ SU range of Variable Gain Control Amplifier slated to be quiet enough for the 144 dB signal-to-noise ratio capable next generation of ultra-high resolution 24-Bit 192-KHz sampling rate digital recordings.  

Even though John Tavener played his Songs of Angels during the funeral of the late Princess Diana back in 1997, it was that “notorious” reworked Candle in the Wind by Elton John that would forever be remembered of the much beloved Princess Diana’s passing. Born in January 28, 1944, he wasn’t like one of those Vienese w√ľnderkinders who’s Classical music composition prowess made them popular at a relatively young age. Even though only a few remembered this little factoid, it was The Beatles who thrusted Tavener into wider popularity back in 1968 after the Fab Four confessed their admiration of the contemporary British Classical Music composer during an interview back then. And by the way, John Tavener also won a Grammy for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. Sadly, he passed away back in November 12, 2013 aged 69. Even if I’ve only discovered John Tavener’s music during the middle of the 1990s when I got seriously into high fidelity audio, his loss would surely be missed by both the recently curious and long-time hardcore fans alike.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Natural Materials: Better Sound Quality For Hi-Fi Interconnects And Speaker Cables?

Despite the wide availability and low cost of petroleum sourced synthetic materials, are natural materials provides better sound quality when used in speaker cables and interconnects?

By: Ringo Bones 

Maybe there’s something to this using natural materials in hi-fi speaker cables and interconnects that could result in sound quality despite the alleged hype surrounding the practice. Believe it or not, around the middle of the 1920s when the first commercially produced electrical music recordings became widely available, audio power amplifiers that use the PX-25 vacuum tube has wiring that’s more likely than not insulated using cloth or gutta-percha – as in a tough plastic substance from the latex of several Malaysian trees of the sapodilla family resembling rubber but containing more resin and used during the early days of electrification as a electrical wiring insulation in household electrical wiring and in dentistry. But does using natural materials often sourced from plants instead of crude oil / petroleum – truly result in better sound quality in audiophile applications? Or is it just a marketing ploy for a period-correct zero feedback single-ended triode vacuum tube hi-fi audio amplifiers that were originally designed around the middle of the 1920s? 

Millennium cables and accessories and the Yamamura / Churchill hi-fi products, designed by Be Yamamura in Italy and manufactured in Japan has been admired for their exceptional sound quality in comparison to comparable mainstream hi-fi products that use crude oil / petroleum sourced synthetics in their insulation. The Millennium line is distinguished by its use – when possible – of such natural materials as lacquer, linen, paper, silk and cloth for insulation and shielding instead of the more commonly used petroleum / crude oil sourced synthetic materials. 

One of Mr. Yamamura’s design goals is to eliminate the effects of stray capacitance from his cables. For that he uses a proprietary material called Trigard – a paper impregnated with the purest form of carbon Yamamura could find, which turned out to be charcoal manufactured from coconut shells. The wire itself is made of ultrapure copper. During the second half of the 19th Century, coconut shell charcoal produced in the Philippines was admired by artisans in the region as a matt-black pigment used in paining. Even Dr. Jose Rizal at the time was searching for other more useful applications of coconut shell sourced charcoal.
Yamamura’s Millennium line also includes Ciabatta (which means “slipper” in Italian) mains boxes; passive line conditioners that make extensive use of Trigard to shield the plug / jack interface from RFI (radio frequency interference) and to absorb stray capacitance. Each Ciabatta mains box contains four AC jacks which can be configured for analog or digital sources. Does it also come with gutta-percha insulated audiophile AC chords that block mains-born RFI? 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Do All Digital Interconnect Cables Sound The Same?

Despite the axiom of “bits is bits”, does various brands and makes of digital interconnect cables have their own “distinctive” sound when subjected to empirical listening tests?

By: Ringo Bones 

Even though “civilians” might balk at us audiophiles for what we have known first hand since being fortunate enough to afford our very own two-box CD player / DAC combo that we can toy around with various makes and models of digital interconnect cables, each of our very own empirical testing experiences had revealed that digital interconnect cables don’t sound the same – at least to most of us hardened audiophiles. Compared to vinyl LP playback cartridges of old, the differences between various make s and models – and especially price ranges – of various digital interconnect cables may be subtle, but nonetheless, a difference between them do exist. But why is it so, after all, digital ones and zeroes as in bits is bits, right? 

If only digital telecommunications engineering were as simple as bits is bits in actual practice, but its not. Let’s start at the digital data read optic assembly of a typical CD / DVD or universal digital disc player when it reads a typical CD or other digital audio playback disc, in truth the optical assembly doesn’t output a digital data signal that can readily be deciphered by the player’s digital to analog converter – or the outboard DAC – as streams of ones and zeroes. In reality, it is composed of a rather roughly square wave shaped but actually complex radio-frequency analog waveform that had to be deciphered into digital code that would later be converted into an analog music signal. The fidelity of this RF signal is very dependent not just on the transport and its support, but also – in the case of two box player/outboard DAC systems – the shielding and electrical characteristics of the digital interconnect cable in use. 

During the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to buy second hand bargain samples of Kimber’s Illuminati D-30 digital interconnect cable which I readily compared head-to-head with the cable, I was using on my system back then (even now!) the Monster Cable Interlink Datalink 100. In short, the sound of the two is quite different from each other – the Illuminati DV-30 is rhythmically fast yet tonally threadbare when auditioned in my Audio Alchemy based two box CD rig. While the Monster Cable is tonally full yet somewhat plodding in the rhythm and pace department compared to the Illuminati at almost twice the price. 

Sadly, the only digital interconnect cable that allows me to have my cake and eat it two as a perfect blend of both Kimber Illuminati DV-30 and the Monster Cable Interlink Datalink 100’s strengths was the XLO Limited Edition The Digital Interconnect which I managed to borrow from a well-off fellow audiophile. But with the 0.5 meter RCA terminated set at 750 US dollars when new, it was too rich for my blood. Fortunately a few days ago, my audio-buddy lent it to me in a more or less permanent basis cause he was “too busy” to listen to his hi-fi rig for more than three weekends a month. 

Though Stereophile magazine reviewer Jonathan Scull was spot on – journalism wise – in praising it when he reviewed the XLO Limited Edition The Digital Interconnect back in the August 1998 issue of Stereophile magazine. Cable guru Roger Skoff’s iconic late 1990s creation just can’t be beat that uses proprietary Teflon AF insulation – a licensed product for special military and aerospace applications that sells for more than 7,000 US dollars per kilogram – virtually as expensive as pure gold. 

In real world telecommunications engineering terms, the impact of different cables on the transmission of digital data might seem minimal in practice but they can be quite audible. The digital data representing the music signal need not be directly corrupted in a manner that would have a typical personal computer program to crash, for example, because the analogy between personal computer operating system data integrity and transmission rates only holds so far for digital audio. 

For example, differences in the construction of a digital audio cable will affect both screening and characteristic impedance which, in turn, influence both the interference and the “shape” of the recovered data waveform, respectively. In all this respects, it is important to appreciate that digital data will eventually be converted into analog signals and that any modification – in the form of jitter – or RF noise interference will have an impact on the player’s analog circuitry and the music that flows. Remember, data integrity of the operating system’s ones and zeros may be everything to a typical personal computer, but in digital audio – especially the jitter infested Redbook spec 16-Bit 44.1-KHz sampled digital audio – data integrity of the bitstream is just the beginning. 

Audiophilia Geographica And The British Sound

Even though hi-fi is a rather global phenomena do folks around the world set-up their hi-fi rigs for best sound quality quite distinctively different from one another? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Speak of hi-fi enthusiasts as a global community and the term British Sound seems to loom large, but what is it? Does it have something to do with hi-fi guru Malcolm Steward and is obsession with the synergistic relationship between Linn and Naim hi-fi gear back in the 1980s with Thomas Dolby’s Flat Earth philosophy? Even though other nationalities do tend to optimize the sound quality of their hi-fi rigs endemic to their various regions and nation-states and yet all of this seems to revolve around the term “British Sound” – is this just mere “media hype” cobbled up by Madison Avenue ad men? 

Peculiar as it may seem to the uninitiated, there does appear to be a “British Sound”. The term might have come about because the British had been making hi-fi kit for longer and in greater variety than other “competing” nations. And musical imports – in the form of musicians – also play a part on the evolution of what is now known as the British Sound. Or a more likely reason is that the British have a certain size and construction of what constitutes as the average listening room – medium sized in world terms, wooden floored with plaster on brick wall construction. Either way, British hi-fi enthusiasts seems to prefer a more upbeat sound – i.e. pace, rhythm and timing - to nations outside of Europe.

Basing on my fortunate experience visiting various hi-fi shows all over the world, American hi-fi enthusiasts seem to go for firepower above all thus explaining their love of muscle amps with telephone number price tags. While the Japanese prefer a silky relaxed balanced – just like the sound of entry level Audio Note kit. The French prefer a bright, detailed sound that can be quite captivating to first-time prospective audiophiles while Germans prefer a relatively mid-forward sound that could sound very realistic when playing a recording of a horn ensemble.