Tuesday, February 18, 2014

2014 – 60th Anniversary of the Transistor Radio

It may be not be hi-fi and only becomes indispensible during calamities that interrupt the mains AC power supply but did the battery-operated transistor radio help spread Rock N’ Roll and the concept of high fidelity audio?

By: Ringo Bones 

You might be in a minority if – as a hi-fi enthusiast / audiophile – you have no interest whatsoever in the history of the transistor radio, never mind into collecting ones that date back to the mid 1950s. But like it or not, it was the “lowly” battery-operated table-top transistor radio that was very instrumental in spreading post World War II popular music – as in Rock N’ Roll music and inexplicably the concept of high fidelity audio to the general public. 

As the transistor radio turns 60 in 2014 and like the revolutionary solid-state semiconductor active amplification device it was named after, it was as American as Bell Labs (and apple pie?) where the transistor was first developed. The first sets were pricier than most of us today might imagine. Back in 1954, an Acoustic Research AR-2 floorstanding hi-fi loudspeaker sold for 86 US dollars a pair (around 1,000 US dollars in today’s money) while those early transistor radios retailed between 50 to 90 US dollars when new back then. 

Undoubtedly, these early little transistor radio sets offered increased portability due to their battery powered operation and a way lower working voltage than the typical vacuum tube based radio. In reality, the first generation of transistor radio sets weren’t always quite so small than their mid 1950s Madison Avenue admen suggest. When the Japanese made Sony TR-63 pocket transistor radio set arrived in the United States in 1957 and was billed as the “shirt-pocket” radio, but because it was actually a tad bigger than that, Sony’s American affiliates had shirts with oversized pockets tailored for their salesmen. 

Older audiophiles today who were old enough to remember when the first transistor radios became affordable enough by saving parts of their week’s allowance to buy one back then now listen to their premium audiophile pressings of Surfin’ Bird by The Trashmen or other iconic Rock N’ Roll classics– either from Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs or Classic Record reissues on their vacuum tube based single ended triode hi-fi power amplifiers. But it was actually the “lowly” battery-operated AM / FM transistor radio set that made Buddy Holly, Elvis Presley, Ritchie Valens and other of American Rock N’ Roll’s seminal performers “go viral” like the Sputnik scare back in the latter half of the 1950s. 

Is Copper The Best Compact Disc Making Material?

From the perspective of optimum sound quality, is copper – as opposed to the de rigueur aluminum – the best material for making audiophile quality compact discs? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Since its introduction in 1983, it seems that aluminum – as in aluminum alloy containing 2 percent iron – has been the de rigueur material in manufacturing CD albums destined to record stores. Gold plated aluminum – its way distant second place competition – were more often than not used in manufacturing the higher grade sound quality / audiophile versions of its bog-standard aluminum counterparts. But what if there is another compact disc manufacturing material capable of much better sound quality – like offering much reduced jitter. Would the world’s leading CD manufacturers jump upon it? 

In an interview by The Absolute Sound magazine back in 1996 - as in the July/August 1996 Issue 107 of The Absolute Sound magazine - audio-guru and head of Epiphany Recordings, Jeremy R. Kipnis, has experimented in using copper and even brass in making test CD pressings of exceptional sound quality in comparison to their bog-standard aluminum counterparts. According to Kipnis, brass CDs became a part of the continuing evolution of his own ideas about optical recording and playback media. 

As everyone knows, aluminum reflects back equally all frequencies of light, which is why you get that pretty rainbow. CD is an optical carrier and jitter as a destructive entity can be modulated optically, just as it can be electronically. In the case of a CD, the more red-light that we can present to the CD player’s optics – and less of the other frequencies – the cleaner will be the resulting signal. According to the results of his experiments on this Jeremy R. Kipnis says that brass offers better results than aluminum while copper is even better. Gold offered good results but Kipnis says “I don’t think gold sounds nearly as transparent as copper”. So after 18 years of proving that copper sounds better than both aluminum and gold, why is it that not a single audiophile grade CD pressing is manufactured from copper? 

Around 1997, the hi-fi / audio world shifted its attention on making recordable and re-recordable CDs for domestic use – the Orange Book spec consumer grade recordable CDs - an affordable reality. Even though it has been available since the late 1980s, recordable CD systems were about as expensive as an entry-level Ferrari supercar. CD manufacturers concentrated their energies on making consumer friendly – price-wise that is – write once CD-Rs using pthalo-cyanine dye technology CD-RWs using silver, indium, antimony and tellurium alloyed recording layer. Jeremy R. Kipnis’ idea of a copper CD seems to have been chucked into the dustbin of history as the year 2000 approaches. 

Rifling through my CD collection, non-aluminum made CDs seems to be a very, very tiny minority when it comes to manufactured CD pressings. Given that via transmitted light aluminum can act like typical sunglasses filtering the light that tries to pass trough it and gold plated CDs are green via transmitted light, while copper CDs are purple when seen via transmitted light. Using this test it seems that I had only one copper-made CD pressing in my collection. It’s the album Shotgun Wedding by Lydia Lunch and Rowland S. Howard and it was released back in 1991! Unfortunately, this CD sounded no better or worse than its aluminum counterpart - copper CD pressings, anyone?     

The Max Rochlin Memorial DIY Cable: Best DIY Digital Interconnect Cable Under 100 US Dollars?

In a world where high performance can, allegedly, only be achieved by high price – does a digital interconnect cable priced below 100 US dollars still cut it? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Back in the middle of the 1990s where the Clinton era economic expansion was in full swing, hi-fi manufacturers were in constant danger of having their products ignored if they decide to price it too low despite performing above its price range. After all, every audio enthusiast worth their salt wound up making easy IPO money back then. Sadly, in our current post subprime mortgage world, an underpriced high-performance audio component is more often than not seen as a “godsend”. Hence the Max Rochlin Memorial DIY Digital Interconnect Cable. 

Back in 1998, audio “uber-guru” Steve Rochlin chose an unusual way to mark the memory of his brother, Max Rochlin, succumbing to AIDS via a DIY digital interconnect cable. Steve Rochlin, founder of Enjoy The Music, has since then figured highly on the roster of top audiophile “characters” of the hi-fi industry. A group which then includes Harvey “Gizmo” Rosenberg, Russ Andrews, Max Townshend amongst others whose behavior suggests that no aspect of their lives are unrelated to audio in some form. Even when buying all of the required materials and tools new, the finish fully assembled DIY cable still woks out to be just a whisker above 50 US dollars per terminated length. 

The can-do beer-budget DIY digital interconnect cable’s very exceptional performance even got the attention of Hi-Fi News and Record Review magazine and even got covered in their November 1998 issue. Using value-for-money DIY components and assembling it into a sub-100 US dollar digital interconnect cable that can fairly compete with ones priced in the 300 US dollar range is not at all difficult for seasoned hi-fi DIYers who are skilled enough to solder a typical vacuum tube amplifier kit to working order. Who knew that a Caig Pro Gold, Canare RCA RCAP-C4F can be cobbled up into a DIY digital interconnect cable that can give a 300 US dollar Kimber Cable digital interconnect or Monster Cable digital interconnect a run for its money. 

During the holidays, I manage to get hold of this legendary beer-budget cable for first hand auditions on my own system. Sound quality wise, the Max Rochlin Memorial DIY Digital Interconnect cable neither adds nor subtracts anything – which can be a euphemism for that it sounds a wee bit brighter than your typical sub-100 US dollar digital interconnect cable. And the cable, unfortunately, won’t make your typical “digititis afflicted” CD pressing from the early 1980s sound as if it was an HDCD encoded CD pressing. But for the money, as in my money, the Max Rochlin Memorial DIY Digital Interconnect Cable is a very cost effective way to “hook-up” your CD or DVD or Universal Disc Player to the various outboard digital audio components like stand alone jitter-reducers or your digital audio upsampler that converts your Red Book spec CD’s 16-Bit 44.1-KHz data to 24-Bit 192-KHz like the value for money Perpetual Technologies P-1A D/D digital upsampler (made by guys who use to run Audio Alchemy – i.e. Mark Schifter and co.) to your main digital-to-analog converter or outboard DAC like the Perpetual Technologies P-3A D/A.  

Monday, February 17, 2014

HDCD: Making 16-Bit CDs Sound Like Vinyl LPs?

It might be happening more in the rock and pop world than in the Classical music world but is HDCD the most cost effective way to make Red Book spec 16-bit 44.1-kHz sampled CDs sound like vinyl LPs? 

By: Ringo Bones 

Given that DVD-Audio and SACD discs are now about as rare as 78-RPM shellacs in your typical local Tower Records and HMV franchise, it seems that the “lowly” Red Book spec 16-bit 44.1-kHz sampled compact disc had become the new vinyl LP for those whose ears still find those illegal music download files even below par with their 1980s era mix-tapes made in a boom box cassette player. But did you know that there’s already a “technology” out there that can make your Red Book spec 16-bit CDs sound as smooth as vinyl LPs without paying 500 US dollars worth of funds from your credit card on some online store. It’s called HDCD and even those 50-US dollar Mainland Chinese made universal disc players even now has been able to decode one since 2002. 

Even though it is happening more in the mainstream rock and popular music world than in the Classical music world – as Reference Recordings are the only CD manufacturing firm making HDCD encoded Classical music recordings – it seems like HDCD might be the only “hardcore audiophile tweak” that dates back from the 1990s that has gone mainstream. But what is HDCD? 

Before a US government tenured scientific researcher named Richard Fryer established his own hi-fi company known as Spectral Audio, he was luck enough to be privy to some US Army psychoacoustic research that dates back to the days of the Manhattan Project showing results that identifies parts of the human ear capable of detecting audio signals or sounds as high as 80,000 Hz. Then while collaborating with Keith Johnson who later started Pacific Microsonics on how to “encode” 20-bit 88.2-kHz sampled high resolution digital audio data onto a consumer electronic established 16-bit 44.1 kHz audio data carrier, thus creating the first practical High Definition Compatible Digital or HDCD. 

By around 1992, Reference Recordings started offering HDCD encoded Classical music titles on Red Book spec 1-bit CDs that were later coveted by audiophiles due to their relatively wide availability, affordability and most of all – sound quality that’s miles ahead of the CDs made by major record labels. Plus the introduction of the relatively low cost Pacific Microsonics PMD 108 HDCD filter during the mid to late 1990s only increased the HDCD’s appeal as the most cost effective way to make your CDs sound like vinyl LP records. 

When compared to the competing Sony Super Bit Mapping process, Pacific Microsonics’ HDCD system was markedly superior due to its ability for its midrange and upper bass frequencies to sound as smooth as vinyl records. Even HDCD encoded CDs played in a CD player without a HDCD encoder could sound much closer to vinyl records in a side-by-side comparison with a non HDCD encoded version. And the CD titles with HDCD encoding became widespread in the mainstream rock and pop world during the mid and late 1990s. From Paula Cole’s This Fire to Megadeth’s Cryptic Writings albums just to mention a few. And all of them carried no or just a little bit of a price premium over plain-vanilla CDs.  

Given that the HDCD encoding system is such a brand new process during the 1990s that some CD titles got released by their respective record labels without indicating that such titles were HDCD encoded. Back in 1996 Go Kart Records released the CD pressing Pretty Ugly by Lunachicks (GKCD24) which is HDCD encoded since the HDCD indicator lights up whenever I play this particular Lunachicks CD yet there’s no mention of HDCD on the Pretty Ugly CD’s liner notes / inlay cards whatsoever. Another “undocumented” HDCD encoded CD pressing that came my way back in the 1990s is In This World by Olu Dara (Atlantic 83077-2) which is probably one of the few HDCD encoded Jazz CDs that I had the fortune of hearing first hand; Though the liner notes mentioned that it was recorded at the vacuum tube and analog gear laden Sear Sound in NYC by Danny Kopelson.