Wednesday, 7 November 2018

PMC Cor Integrated Amp - Retro In Looks, Fluid In Musicality


If you already have a series of award winning speaker designs and top notch studio capability, what will you do next? PMC, a name heavily associated to the ATL design have come up with its own 25th year anniversary amplifier design, aptly named as Cor.

AV Designs, the sole local distributor of PMC brand, loaned me a unit as I wanted to hear how my PMC Twenty5.24 would sound with this matching amp. I had my doubts as the wattage is lower than my resident MF amp but given its the similar design philosophy with speakers which aims for musicality, transparency and neutrality. The amp aims to neither add nor take away anything from your source,

The Specifications and Built

The COR is a pure analogue Class A/B integrated amplifier which can deliver 95 wpc into 8 ohms and 140 wpc into 4 ohms. Compared to my MF at 200 wpc, it would be interesting to hear how this COR can deliver the music that I listen to. Although there is always that question of what is there in power, but to me it is still very critical to ensure that any model can blend in nicely into a set up.

The chassis looks like a mix of modern and vintage amp. If it was in black, one may mistook it as  new Playstation 5 game console. It may appeal to most but some may have some reservation. Measuring at 432 mm x 87.5 mm x 401 mm and weighs 12 kg, I classify this amp as a moderately sized equipment.

One unique feature that I seldom see on modern amps are the bass, treble and balance function where the slider is actually a motorized version where you can change the settings using the remote. These functions which usually are seen to be a non-purist approach is however designed precisely to give very small step change when being used.

The amp is sturdily built. The chassis is of aluminium and built to precision. However, the industrial look may not appeal to all. On the fron fascia, you get a huge volume knob, a series of input selection buttons, mono and a bypass button for the purest signal.

The treble, bass and balance function works on a small motor where they can even be controlled via the remote and you will see the slider slides left and right. There is a small LED on each to assist you getting back to the 'zero' level.

The remote is made of solid metal and relatively heavy. It does feel a bit industrial operating it. The unit I had for demo had some sensitivity issue as the amp sometimes does not respond immediately. However, I was told that PMC has rectified this in their later production.

My favourite part was actually the big PMC logo on the bottom left of the unit which actually is an on/off/standby touch screen button. It turns blue when on and turns red on standby.

Ins and Outs

Simplicity is part of the COR where there are 1 x balanced, 4 x single ended RCA and 1 x direct inputs.

For the outputs, it comes with a pair of 4 mm binding posts and also a preamp out if you wish to connect to a power amp.

The Session

I decided to only use digital source for this review, mainly from the SONY HAP Z1 ES. This is because in the recent months, there was a debate on how this Hi Res player is not capable to really deliver good sound reproduction due to its lower output level compared to other modern digital sources. 

Fields of Gold by Sting in WAV 16/44
On this track, the Cor delivered quite an airy and huge sound. It emphasizes clarity on the mids. The vocal was engaging and upfront, giving an impression of free flow musicality. It delivers quite an emotional presentation.

Where Did The Children Play by Cat Stevens in AAC 16/44
The simplistic guitar intro was surreal. High level of tranparency. Vocal was again the highlight where Cat Steven's voice was ver engaging. Even the plucking of the bass sounded natural.

La Mer by Kevin Kline in MP3 320 kbps
Another track that really focuses on vocal. The deep voice of Kevin was reproduced with such an energy that I actually forgot that this was in a less superior format of MP3.

Take Five by Dave Brubeck in DSD
What can I say, the fluidity of the Cor was well defined through this track. The wind instrument was full of life and coupled with the punchiness of the percussion provided a very lively presentation. It did not suffer any sign of fatigue to deliver this track.

Japanese Roots by Takedake in WAV 16/44
The ultimate satisfaction came from this track. It hit me with a bang with layer and layer musical instrument can be heard. It was well balanced across a hugh spectrum without comprimising the clarity of any of signature sound.

Way Down Deep by Jennifer Wearnes in DSD
With the PMC Twenty5 24 being driven by the Cor, the bass that came out from this track was really punchy and extended in a certain way. It digs quite deep but without any boominess experienced in my hall. The speakers, given the wrong choice of amp, may sometimes give me a boomy bass. 

The Book of Morris Johnson by Zee Avi in WAV 16/44
This track however sounded a bit thin on the bass. Usually, this would be one of my reference in getting some good but fun bass. However, I did not manage to get the usual experience I get from this track. Somehow, the Cor tamed the bass a bit on this one.

Enter Sandman by Metallica in FLAC 24/192
Now for a more overall observation, I put on this track to see how the Cor performance is when pumping out a speedier and more attacking track. Kirk's shredding guitar sounded ferocious and can really pump up my adrenalin. Lars's drumming sounded bold and authoritative. 




The Conclusion

The purest amp I have heard to date at this price point. It excels in delivering a very musical and engaging presentation and matches with PMC speakers. It does not struggle to allow the PMC speakers to deliver the bass that it is known for.

The transparency and high level of clarity may not appeal to all especially for those systems that are bass shy. You may find the sound is a bit flat and sterile. It is very sensitive to the source that you play with. A bad recording may sounds worst through this amp but feed it with top notch recording, it will sing gracefully. Even by using the Sony, it does not suffer from any dullness in delivering the Hi Res quality music to me. 

It is again an amplifier that deserves a listen if you are looking for a pure and honest sound. It will not make you jump out of your seat for shear wow factor but it will engage you at an emotional level.

For a demo, kindly contact James Tan or Tony Low of AV Designs.









Friday, 26 October 2018

Music For Health: El Hefe, Maxx HeadFi and PETRONAS Collaboration


Back on August 15th, I was requested to give a talk on my health transformation journey and part of that journey involves music and my passion in hifi. For that talk, Maxx HeadFi was gracious enough to provide a sponsorship to promote healthy lifestyle for all PETRONAS MPM staff. Not only PETRONAS staff will get 10% discount on any headphones purchased from Maxx HeadFi but also 2 units of JVC sports earphones were given to award the most improved male and female runners before the big Putrajaya Night Run marathon event on 27th Oct. This marked the very first collaboration between El Hefe, Maxx HeadFi and PETRONAS.



Today, 26th October, the winners of the award were announced in a small informal event in the PETRONAS Twin Towers office. Max Loh of Maxx HeadFi was kind enough to be present in the event where he presented the 2 JVC earphones units to Sharina and Nghi as the top female and male runners with regards to mileage.

Special thanks to Max Loh who came all the way rom Seremban to hand over the gifts to the award receipient. We hope to see more involvement of hifi companies in promoting music as part ofthe health therapy.











Saturday, 13 October 2018

Custom Made Solution - Can It Provide the Satisfaction?


In the local HiFi scene, I am thankful that I have always had the opportunity to review some of the local products such as Stoner Acoustics DACs, KOGA amps, Doc TT SUT, Captain Sph SLAT TT, HiFiCreations Arpaggio, Frank Powerbank etc. Each of the product have its own flavour and I know,  there are many local and international audiophiles have them in their system. But this particular product is one that I have never had my hands on. Mainly due to logistic challenges as the designer is based in Melaka, about 3 hours drive away and his product is huge and heavy. 

Ben's Audio is a name that have been the talk of the local customs made amp group for the past few years. Although I am in contact with the designer off and on, but we have never had the chance to collaborate for a review to be done. One particular lucky audiophile in Melaka went through a custom made journey with Ben and his monoblocks are now residing as a reference to the owner Faisal or fondly known as CB. It is paired with a pre amp, also designed by Ben and Gyrodec TT, Trichord phono and Harbeth and Audio Note speakers to complete the set up.


Last Saturday, 6th October 2018, I had the chance to spend 3 hours listening to these monoblocks. It was not a critical review session but more on a first impression, for fun and giggles with the owner. I also had the pleassure to listen to them with 2 different pair of speakers. 



I didnt bring my recording microphone along, hence the sound quality may not be representative. So, to make it more interesting and fun, I have combined the videos of the 2 speakers being played with Ben's monoblocks and I will let you guess which speakers is represented by my description below.

First up, this Sheila Majid LP was presented in a huge soundstage and airy ambience. You can feel that the monoblocks elevated the overal sound to be a bit more orchestral. The percussion sounds more dispersed rather than splashy or hard hitting. I could do with a little bit more low end bass. But the detail and clarity is of the higher level of transparency.

After about an hour or so, we took a break and enjoyd a cuppa with local curry puffs courtesy of the Mrs. Then the next set of speakers were hooked up. Now, this is acompletely different presentation. With the second speakers, the music flows naturally with a smaller staging but it came with a solid body sound. Bass was tighter with loads of grip. It hits harder and digs deeper while retaining that valve sound. 

Now, both speakers have high-ish sensitivity, 86 and 93. And the monoblocks were delivering 20 wpc. However, I feel that monoblocks was less of a match for the speaker with the higher sensitivity, mainly due to the lack of subtance in low end frequency. 



We played other LPs as well just to ensure the comparison was evident with other higher quality LPs and the similar sound character was experience in both speakers.

On the whole, Ben's Audio monoblocks does match beautifully with one of the speakers. A journey which took the owner Faisal and Ben over a year to get that fine tweaks in the design to match well with his choice of speakers. It provided Faisal the body of the music that he desires and at the end of the day, we let go of any technical approach of the session and just enjoy the music. And at one stage, when I start to get goosebumps and I just close my eyes and let my head shake and feet tap to the rhythm of the music, thats the ultimate satisfaction that I got from this custom made monoblocks and the set up of Faisal. And I am quite sure he enjoys his set up a lot too.










Saturday, 8 September 2018

Exploring The Homes of British HiFi - Part 1 on Audio Note





August 2018 marked the month where yours truly went for a solo trip to fulfill 3 different missions. One of the mission is actually to explore and experience a couple of British brands in their own designer's den. The first stop on 29th August 2018 was in Brighton which coincides with my visit to my alma mater. Brighton is where one audiophile can pay a visit and experience Audio Note. Although I didn't manage to visit the manufacturing or the headquarter itself, I managed to get a couple of hours to visit the Audio Note Lounge, located at No. 25, Montefiore Road, Brighton, East Sussex, BN3 1 RD. Dale Linzey (owner/distributor) carries mainly Audio Note and my favourite brand for a long time, Musical Fidelity. He also carries the Roon Nucleus if you are into streaming.


My jaw literally dropped when I first stepped into the shop as this is actually the first time I see with my own eyes, a huuuuuugggeee record collection. All these whiles it was just on the internet. That alone gave me goosebumps. I am sure Dale was skeptical of the purpose of my visit all the way from Malaysia but after explaining that I am not on any official duty as a reviewer but its more of a social visit, things got relaxed a lot. And I did mention to him that my listening experience to Audio Note during the KLIAV show in the past few years, left me a big question mark  on why people are so hyped up about Audio Note. I was far from impressed with the performance so I decided to really listen to them where it all started.


Since I only had only a couple of hours, we decided to use Roon as our source for the day. Various tracks were played, mostly based on my preferred tracks like Dave Brubeck's Take Five, Jennifer Wearnes etc. What I experience on that day was completely the opposite to what I heard in KLIAV show. Audio Note set up was lively, accurate and fast. Bass was well delivered and had a certain level slam that I am amazed of. The vocals through this set up was sweet and luscious with no sign of sounding too high of a pitch. I could do with a little bit more of mids to have an overall balance experience but that was negligible. 
















We also chatted about our experiences with various Musical Fidelity equipment. Truth be told, I was feeling rather dissapointed that the legendary MF brand was sold to Project recently, loosing its British grounds for the future products. 20 years I have been with this brand ranging from A1, XA1, XA50, XDAC, XACT, XRay, XCAN, V1 to V3 of X Series, KW550 Superchargers, M1 DAC, ViNL, PWR, CDT, M6 DAC and M6i amp. I must say I am currently quite lost with regards to the future of MF quality. But after talking to Dale whom is an MF enthusiast as well, I am well convinced now that I shall stick Musical Fidelity at the moment.

Back to Audio Note, I came out of the venue with a totally 180 degree turn on my perspective of Audio Note. Given the right room and was set up properly, It can sound B-E-A- utiful.

Thanks Dale for accommodating my request. Your CDs are on the way.



Wednesday, 5 September 2018

DA&T QZ DAC Opens It Wide




With hifi companies and designers mushrooming all over the world, consumers are spoilt with choices. While most companies maintain their offerings in the traditional design, some companies tend to go a different route. DA&T, a hifi company from Taiwan decided to go for a modern, minimalist and mini design. However it is not light given the size of their components. During the KLIAV show 2018 recently, the Sky Audio/Doc TT room was featuring an integrated amplifier from this company to drive their set up show case. They also had this QZ DAC unit on static display. Given a quite impressive performance from its amplification brother during the show, I was curious on how their digital side of things would sound like. Having to hear this, Doc TT offered me the unit for review on the last day itself.

The Specifications

The QZ is a fully specced DAC digital pre amp but with some odd options. At the point of summarizing this, there are still some question burning in me to get an answer for them. But the manual is in Taiwanese and the website of minimal information.

It is also a headphone amp which the socket is located at the front fascia.

The Inputs

There are total of 8 inputs.
  1. 1 x USB
  2. 2 x optical
  3. 3 coaxial (1 of them is for DDS which I am not sure what is that)
  4. 1 x RCA analogue
  5. 1 x Bluetooth wireless
The Outputs

There are total of 3 outputs.

  1. 1 pair x RCA stereo
  2. 1 pair x 2.5 mm XLR (Not sure why this size)
  3. 1 x coaxial (to further connect into anothr DAC?)
I was also informed that the DAC chip used for QZ is an ESS Sabre chip similar the one that was used in Oppo SDAC.

It can handle up to 32/384 sampling of raw files and also DSD 256. 




It is a very sturdily built design, weighing up to nearly 4 kg for a small unit like this. Buttons on the side is to change the inputs and also volume control. It feels quite luxurious I might say for a simple design like this. You can feel it that the company did not try to cut corners and produce a shoddy physical design.

But here comes another puzzling issue. Remote control is currently optional. So how do you change inputs and control volume. Well, by using theese 3 side buttons.

The middle button is for you to select the inputs by pressing the button repeatedly and checking the LED indicator atthe front fascia that corresponds to one of the 8 inputs. How do you know which input you are at? By remembering the sequence of the inputs in the rear from left to right. When the LED is at position 1, its USB. Position 2, its RCA in. So on and so on until input 8. Good luck!

The other 2 buttons is to control the volume.

To put the unit on standby, press the middle button for more than 3 seconds.

The Tracks

I will try to show in 4 different videos how the QZ reacts with different quality level of digital source. I have the following 4 tracks:


  1. Turn Me On by Norah Jones on SACD, connected from an ARCAM CDS50 to the QZ via coaxial
  2. Temptation by Diana Krall in AAC 24/96 streamed from the ARCAM via coaxial as well
  3. Somewhere Somebody by Jennifer Wearnes in DSD ripped directly from a vinyl. Connected from SONY HAPZ1 ES via USB
  4. Knockin On Heavan's Door by Guns N Roses in MP3 128 kbps. Connected from SONY via USB as well.

The Session



Turn Me On by Norah Jones on SACD

My emotion ran high on this one. Norah's vocal was exceptionally seductive and there was this sense of huge ambience in the overall presentation. The hissing of frlom the drums was equally clear and spreaded out nicely. The QZ really brings up the mood of this song. A nice balance between the deep lower octave and sweet luscious mids and highs. 




Temptation by Diana Krall 

On this track, the first thing I noticed is that the I lost the zing sense in the intro. Bass was heavy but a bit dry and less musical. Again, vocal seems to benefit most from the QZ. Another trait that is very evident with the QZ is that it opens up the soundstage to sound wider and more dispersed across the listening area. I lost the grip and authority on this track though. Its just not impactful enough as usual.



Someway Somebody by Jennifer Wearnes

Similar to the track above, beautiful luscious presentation of the female vocals was presented here with quite strong on bass as well. But the dryness was still there. Mids and highs were very fluid and just flow beautifully. The low frequency however somehow a bit emotionless. Hard slamming but dry. The soundstaging maintained to be huge and widely spreaded out.  



Knockin On Heavans Door by Guns N Roses

Just to see how the QZ fairs with a low quality input like this one I have. Love the track but this low quality digital files. However, going through the QZ, I gained quite a bit. It brought up this low quality digital file to a level that is listenable. It gave the track some juice and life that it came out quite different than what I expected. Quite lively and rocking. That raw feeling of how rock should feel. Huge sound stage again, hard hitting and nicely spread sound from the drums. Axl's vocals was surprisingly presented witin the tolerance limit of a high pitch presentation. I did not cover my ears at all. But in all seriousness, not too bad in making a crap sourcce sounds quite rocking.

The Conclusion

This was quite a tricky review. While the QZ gave a different presentation than playing these sources directly frlom SONY or ARCAM, its quite difficult to pinpoint what would be the overall character the QZ can offer. If I would to pen it down in a few sentences:
  • The QZ is suitable for someoone who are seeking for a more open presentation from their digital set up. Bigger sound stage with airiness that creates quite an energetic ambience.
  • Also for those who like slamming and hard bass but does not mind of it being less emotional.
  • Important to know that it will reveal the quality of source you are playing. Its quite revealing in another way.
Do contact DocTT or Sky Audio if you are interested to know more.



Tuesday, 7 August 2018

Doc TT Andromeda SUT - One Step Up Indeed




The recent KLIAV Show 2018 witnessed yet another year of local participation. One of the buzz around the show was the Skyaudio/DocTT set up. Doing a joint show, Steve of Skyudio Singapore collaborated with Doc TT a.k.a. Lee Beng Swee to showcase a series of mods and add onn to one analogue set up. One of the highlights was this Andromeda SUT (Step Up Transformer), designed and finished by Doc TT. During the show, the SUT was hooked up to a Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL phonostage and a Hana EL cartridge. It sounded huge and lively to sum it up.


Straight after the show, Doc TT offered me to listen and review this SUT  in the comfort of my home. Have I ever said no to a review? I took it on as I was also curious how would it sound in my set up and with the Hana SL cart. Now, why would a person want to add on an SUT to his MC cart? Why not just use an MM cart instead?

An SUT actually lets you step up a low output MC cart to the correct level without the compromised sound quality. It also suits people with an only MM phono stage in their set up.

BUILT AND DESIGN


The Andromeda is beautifully encased in Baltic Brown Granite stone. The doctor feels that stone over an aluminium chassis resulted in lower floor noise and prouduces darker background music presentation.

In the rear, it is equipped with 2 pairs of RCA sockets; one In and one Out. There is also a Ground socket and a mechanical switch to select a high or low gain and also to turn it off. The off switch is to completely turn off the unit and not a bypass switch of the SUT.  I would prefer it to be a bypass switch personally so that its easier to compare the MC cart with or without the SUT.

The unit is relatively heavy for its size, about 5 kg. Solidly built the unit is.

THE SET UP

You will need 2 pairs of RCA interconnects. One from your TT to the Input of this SUT and the other is from the Output of this SUT into you MM input on your phono.

For this review, I was using:

1. Clearuadio Solutions Wood AMG TT
2. Hana SL MC cart
3. Musical Fidelity M1 ViNL phono stage
4. Musical Fidelity M6i integratde amp
5. Accuphase E470 integrated amp
6. PMC Twenty5. 24 speakers

Do note that you need a fully shielded RCA as my first hook up created a hum on my speakers. After changing to another RCA, the hum was reduced.


THE SESSION


Putting back the SM Salim track from the KLIAV show, Tak Seindah Wajah, the overall presentation was definitely livelier even at a lower volume. Usually I have to crank up the volume to at about 12 o' clock on the knob. It was sufficient at about 10 o' clock. Emotions ran high on this one. Given the expansive and enveloping music surrounding me, it does deliver the emotional connection to listener. The track was delivered with higher energy with emphasis on liveliness. The vocal was 'gemersik' if one to use a Malay term. There was no overwhelming of any particular frequency. My concern initially was purely the fact that the SUT may just be another 'amplifier' that boost the bass. I was wrong. What it does is it opens up the overall presentation and let the cart delivers more detail. However, I do feel that with the given openness and airiness, I lost some of the grunt and dives of the lower end frequency.




Next was Linda Ronstadt's rendition of Perfidia. Boy, this one was a treat. The Andromeda excels when it comes to vocals and this slow ballad type of musical genres. Particularly with wind instrument. It reproduces the sound with a larger soundstage that provides listeners with more engaging experience. Her vocal was delivered in a more energetic manner, suitable for this kind of music. I did loose the grunt again here but its still acceptable given the track.


On this particular track from The Duet LP (cant recall which track now),  the bass was slamming tight. Ok partially it is the PMC Twenty5.24 but given the SUT injected some spaciousness to the sound, the bass was actually still tight and digs really deep. The SUT did not take away that satisfaction compared to the 2 tracks above. The double bass is just crazily presented here and at the same time, it is not restricted as the SUT disperse a bigger ambient to my system.


This one was challenging as the local LP repressings have not been satisfactory. Putting on this May LP, the SUT opens up the presentation as expected. Wider staging but at the same time it brings up the 'flatness' of the LP to be more apparent. It does help on providing that sense of space for a rock kapak sound but at the same time, I didnt get the grunt that I was expecting.




THE CONCLUSION

The DocTT Andormeda SUT is what I call one of those listen to believe upgrades for your MC cart and phono stage. It opens up more the overall presentation and is very detail in producing those dynamics that one set up may have. I experienced on several occasions certain details that I didnt notice before. Going back to my set up without SUT, I did regained the slamming overall bass that I like but the sound stage was a bit restrained compared to with SUT. If I was to sum up this in one sentence - A unit that expands your analogue source with high level of details.  It goes back to your preference whether you prefer a huge and expanded ambience and sound stage or a more focussed and hard thumping presentation. If you have a chance to demo this, please do so with your own MC cart and phono stage. It will definitely give you a different exeperience. It will then just be whether its to your preference of presentation or not.

Contact Doc TT or Lee Beng Swee on Facebook for further details.


Sunday, 22 July 2018

Kuala Lumpur International AV Show 2018 - 2nd Day Round Up


Skyaudio and Doc TT with their VPI mods, Hana cartridges and DA&T amp and dac.


HECO and Soul Note by Audio Arts




KLIAV 2018 show in pictures



Friday, 20 July 2018

Kuala Lumpur International AV Show 2018 - Day 1 Round Up

The many chit chats on the first day...

Make sure you spare some time and come over to KLIAV show.



Official launching of event


Message from Mr. Dick Tan


Interview with Michael and Lars on the Dali Callisto launch


Bryston SP4 processor launch by James Tan of AV Designs


Chit chat with John Yew and Steve Chua of CMY


Various movie format with Chung Wei Tan of Sound Fusion


Epson projector at a bargain with Yen


Bryston and PMC combo by Jo Ki


SVS and Keces by Max Loh



Friday, 13 July 2018

SONY WF-SP700N Wireless Earbuds - Did Sony Did It Right?

After a major dissapointment of the first model, I did not put too much hope on this new model. But my first impression on this unit was actually the opposite.


Tuesday, 3 July 2018

Jacintha To Visit KL International AV Show 2018





Ask any music lover who's Jacintha and they will happily tell you of the singing sensation from Singapore that left a huge impression among audiophiles with two of her CD albums "Here's to Ben' - A Vocal Tribute to Ben Webster ! (1998) and a follow up hit, 'Autumn Leaves:  The Songs of Johnny Mercer' (1999)

Recorded under the audiophile  Groove Note label these two  albums quickly became must have demo discs for virtually every hi-fi showroom here in Kuala Lumpur as well as Singapore and are today regarded as among the better audiophiles recordings ever made. 

Jacintha or Ja as she is known to friends will be making an appearance at the KL International AV Show 2018 at the Groove Shop booth to meet fans as well as present and autograph her latest album ' Fire And Rain' released under the Groove Note label.

Most audiophiles know Jacintha only as an accomplished singer but her actual achievement is not limited  only to her singing and includes a string of distinguished achievements in the  theatre as well. Jacintha is a founding member of a performance company Theatre Works.
             
Do you remember these two, now iconic audiophile CDs?  Every hi-fi outlet here in K.L. and south of the border stocked them.

According to Raja Durai of Groove Shop the entire collection of Jacintha's works will be available in LP form at their booth at the coming KL International AV Show 2018 at the Sunway Putra Hotel July 20-22.

For further details contact:
Groove Shop at 012 3345801