Great deal on the Furman PST-8

One of the top-performing surge protectors according to this Wirecutter review. Now on sale at Amazon for $75 – the absolute lowest price that Camelcamelcamel has tracked. Personally, I’ve had a tracker on it for almost half a year. I also happen to use one myself for a living room system.

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Head-Fi mini meet – November 2018

The focus of this meet was on the new MrSpeakers Ether 2. The outward appearance is similar to its electrostatic sibling, the Voce. Light in weight and polished in feel, I had high hopes for this headphone. Unfortunately, it didn’t quite deliver. The source was a Metrum Onyx with amplification courtesy of a Bryston BHA-1. The Ether 2 was connected to the balanced output via the stock cable. I thought the midrange and treble sounded smooth as silk, though maybe erring just a little on sounding too sweet. The bass response was a bit of a mess, however. The lower octaves came across as artificially boosted and the bump was so broad that it seemed to color the lower registers on male vocalists. The effect was most noticeable on “Get Lucky” from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories. Pharrell’s performance sounded a little ‘chesty’ and more resonant than I’ve heard on other setups. A second headphone on the same system – a Jupiter Audio Research modded HD 650 – exhibited the same sonic aberration as the new Ether, though Pharrell’s vocals this time remained, for the most part, untouched. Of course, this can also be a matter of taste – I prefer bass to be a little more in line with the rest of the frequency spectrum and decently textured, so as they say YMMV. In any case, usually MrSpeakers allows for the frequency response of their headphones to be tweaked somewhat by the end user and hopefully that policy is carried through to this model. If so, maybe Ether 2 owners can have their cake and eat it too.

Etymotic ER4SR

Etymotic Research, Inc. has some impressive staying power within the head-fi industry. In fact, my very first Head-Fi meet happened at their headquarters in Elk Grove. Tyll Hertsens (then of HeadRoom, now of InnerFidelity) was busy crisscrossing the US with his ‘Traveling World of Headphones’ set up – basically a veritable buttload of high-end headphone gear packed up in the back of a van. I bought my first pair of Ety’s that year, reaching what was then the pinnacle of IEM’s. A few years later, I lost them in a move and basically made-do in the meantime with my first pair of ‘audiophile’ headphones (the Alessandro MS-1’s) until the headphone bug bit me again and I scored a newer, but still used, pair off eBay.

I broke them not too long afterwards while on a business trip. As Homer Simpson would so eloquently put it, D’oh!

They do offer a trade-in program for numbskulls like me who, at the time, had a more cavalier attitude towards protecting precious head-fi gear while on a flight. So I took advantage of that and got a brand new pair. What happened to those? Well, I sold them to a local audiophile friend to fund the purchase of the Audeze LCD-XC’s.

Now, even with the fancy protective case, the LCD-XC’s aren’t what I’d call portable. Once again, with more travel looming on the horizon, I found myself wanting another pair of Ety’s and promptly found another pair for sale on Head-Fi. This time they turned out to be the ER4-P’s. Now, if you’re not familiar with the Etymotic lineup, the ER4-P’s are the lower impedance version of the ER4-S, with a concomitant slight bass boost. It does, however, come with a P to S adapter, basically bringing up the total nominal impedance and frequency response back in line with the ER4-S.

In keeping with my longstanding tradition, I lost that pair by leaving them in the seat pocket in front of me while on the actual trip.

Which is how I came to be the owner of a gently used pair of ER4SR’s, the recently updated version of the ER4-S. It uses a new balanced armature driver with a lower 45 ohm nominal impedance while simultaneously boosting sensitivity 8 dB over the ER4-S so it can be easily driven from your portable device. As an added bonus, the bodies housing the drivers are milled from aluminum, which means that breaking them is pretty much a thing of the past.

Luckily, the local audiophile friend still had my ER4-S’s and loaned them out to me for a short comparison. I listened primarily to two tracks – Rilo Kiley’s “Silver Lining” from Under the Blacklight and Tegan and Sara’s “I Was A Fool” from their second to last album, Heartthrob. I thought that for the most part the previous model and the newer one shared the same overall tonal balance and spatial presentation. However, the ER4SR’s sounded a bit smoother in the presence region and I did end up preferring it over the older model. Otherwise, I’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart.

In comparison to other headphones I have on hand, the LCD-XC’s sound a touch more transparent, though with a slightly brighter sound. However, the ER4SR’s can’t stand up to the hefty bottom octaves of the XC’s. The Sennheiser HD 800’s sound warmer, with fleshier vocals that seem to be a result of a slightly more prominent lower midrange / upper bass.

What’s most remarkable is that I find the ER4SR’s to be most like my loudspeakers in terms of the midrange and treble out of all the headphones I own. In other words, after an extended listening session with the Ety’s I can transition to loudspeaker listening after a very short adjustment period. The HD 800’s are fairly close in this regard, the LCD-XC’s less so than either.

The Etymotic ER4SR are certainly a worthy headphone. Reasonably priced with excellent performance, they’re the kind of gear that you can hold on to forever. Unless you’re me, of course.

Corners of the audio mind, part two

Digital audio is still a mystical concept, I think, to most audiophiles. I know it is to me. Yet, if you put in the effort and do some digging on the internet you can turn up some priceless nuggets of information. Hopefully some of the following links will be useful and leave you with a deeper and more nuanced understanding of all the technologies involved. It also made me marvel at all the hard work and engineering that went into creating devices used for the sole purpose of recreating music.

But first, let’s start off with the most basic of things. Is the signal coming out of a DAC really a staircase? What is dither and what is it used for? Do more bits equal more resolution? Chris “Monty” Montgomery explains it all in Xiph.org’s wonderfully practical video Digital Show and Tell. Yes, it’s a few years old, but a recent email from Benchmark Media brought it back to mind recently and I think you’ll find it enlightening as well as entertaining.

If you really want to get into the weeds of digital conversion of analog signals, then what better way to start than with Analog Devices’ Data Conversion handbook? This volume spans nearly every topic an audiophile would be interested in – from the history behind digital conversion to brief overviews of various ADC/DAC architectures and application notes. If you’re ready for a deep dive, check out their equally excellent series of tutorials that provide even more detail on digital systems and digital converter architectures.

Putting all that information together helps you appreciate articles like this excellent look inside the Sabre ES9018 DAC from Benchmark Media even more.

Now for some food for thought. Chris Montgomery also authored an interesting article on ‘high-resolution’ audio, titled “24/192 Music Downloads …and why they make no sense”. I’m sure some of you probably have already read it… and relegated it to the dustbin since you’re positive you can hear a difference. But to illustrate the point of that article better, first have a look and listen to Audiocheck.net’s Dynamic Range, Dither, and Noiseshaping page. Then try out the 16-bit vs. 8-bit blind test. Your reaction might range from surprise to shock to amusement.

The Right Stuff

Chalk one up for progress.

I’ve been a long time fan of the movie, The Right Stuff. I love its portrayal of the US Air Force test pilots and the astronauts of the budding space program. A major contributor to the overall feel of the movie is the soaring score by Bill Conti. In the intervening years, I’ve always wondered why I could never find a decent recording of the soundtrack.

Thanks to HDtracks, now I know why.

When released, the film performed poorly at the box office and the Ladd Company pulled the plans to release a soundtrack. Over time, the master tapes were lost. A double CD with select tracks from The Right Stuff as well as the television miniseries North and South, was produced at Conti’s own expense. However, something like that wouldn’t really satisfy a die-hard fan… like me.

Lo and behold, however, one night I was browsing the soundtrack section of HDtracks and came across The Right Stuff. This was the album that supposed to be released with the movie, resurrected from the dead by the composer himself. (He had kept the tapes produced during the mixing sessions.)

Content-wise, it’s all I could’ve hoped for. Sonically, the release has a few warts – you can clearly hear edits on some tracks and the stirring finale, “Yeager’s Triumph” is decidedly panned off-center.

Despite all that, I love every minute of it. Ok, maybe not the last track with its (now) hilariously outdated 80’s aesthetic, but the rest of it is pure gold.

The Art of Listening

I just came across this excellent documentary on the creative process behind bringing you the music that you enjoy. It covers the perspectives of the instrument makers to the songwriters and artists to the audio engineers. It’s a wonderful film and to do it justice, please listen to it on your big rig, whether it’s speaker or headphone based. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. Oh – and share with your non-audiophile friends too! Maybe you’ll make one or two a convert…

New Border Patrol DAC, Ayre QB-9 double-rate DSD update

Two bits of news:

First, I received an email the other day from Gary Dews, chief designer and sole proprietor of Border Patrol, about a new DAC. I heard this particular unit in prototype form at the last Capital AudioFest and it sounded absolutely spectacular, belying its humble bamboo exterior. Now decked out in a copper metal chassis, it still sports the vintage Philips TDA 1543 to convert the incoming bits using a R-2R resistor ladder. The outputs are coupled directly to the outside world using boutique capacitors. No oversampling or analog brick wall filters need apply. However, the real heart of the DAC might just be the hybrid tube / solid state power supply. Two versions are available, standard and SE. According to Dews, the SE version “has a better power supply featuring BorderPatrol’s low distortion twin transformer system as used in the large BorderPatrol EXS amplifier PSU’s. It uses a Cerafine power supply capacitor instead of Panasonic and has Uptone Audio film and foil signal capacitors rather than Clarity Cap metalized polypropylene.” Pricing starts at $899 for the standard version with either a USB or SPDIF interface (a unit with both inputs can be built at higher cost). More information can be found here.

Second, I noticed in the Computer Audiophile forums that Ayre is offering an update to the QB-9 DSD – even though the DAC is no longer in production. It’s basically new firmware that enables you to play back double-rate DSD as well as PCM files with sampling rates up to 352.8 kHz. No changes to the analog signal path are made. The price for the update is set at $200. The Computer Audiophile post can be found by clicking on this link.