Monthly Archives: January 2011

Power conditioners play a crucial role in the performance of audio and video systems, especially for those of us who reside in the middle of the urban jungle. Our systems are constantly being bombarded by radio frequencies (RF) and electromagnetic interference (EMI). Some of this radio and electromagnetic pollution comes from sources external to our audio video systems, but some of it originates from our own AV components. In order to extract the maximum performance from any system, we need to protect the gear from external and internal contamination.

Audience, a US based manufacturer, has long been known for their high performance, non-current limiting Adept Response line-up of power conditioners. The company’s most decorated performers are the Adept Response aR12 (a 12 outlet model) and the aR6 (a 6 outlet model) power conditioners which have garnered a reputation for dramatically improving the performance of audio/video systems without the drawbacks often associated with power conditioners. The aR12 and aR6 retail for $4600 and $3100 respectively. For audio video enthusiasts with a smaller budget Audience offers the aR2p power conditioner priced at $695. Ultra-high performance versions of each of these models, denoted by a “-TS” suffix in the model name, include Teflon capacitors and retail for $8,600 (aR12-TS), $5000 (aR6-TS) and $1600 (aR2p-TO). Both versions of the aR2p share the qualities and features of the big brothers but with just two outlets. The subject of this review is the Adept Response aR2p model.

The features that separate Audience power conditioners from the competition are the short, low impedance signal paths with an absolute minimum of DC resistance even from their inductive components. This translates into maximum power protection and audio/video performance with minimal current limiting. As a result, amplifiers will still be able to draw and deliver current to their maximum capabilities but with a much lower noise floor. Audience conditioners provide surge suppression up to 20,000 amps and accomplish this without using sound degrading MOVs (Metal Oxide Varistors) which are often found in surge suppression devices. MOVs are designed to act somewhat like a fuse and will either burn out or gradually degrade as they take high current hits in defense of the connected gear. Audience does not go into great detail as to how they accomplish suppression of large transient surges in the aR2p but does describe it as “sonically transparent and non-wearing”.

Conditioners must provide power line noise filtration and still maintain the wide bandwidth/low impedance signal path. To accomplish this, Audience utilizes the highest quality parts in its units from the readily observable Marinco power plug and Hubbell outlets to internal components such as the high-end Auricap high resolution capacitors for the RF/noise filter networks. All internal components are hand-wired with 10 gauge wire for extremely low DC resistance. There are no printed circuit boards. All the electrical circuits are cryogenically treated and the units are mechanically dampened for resonance control.

The power coming out of the wall outlet has voltage and current which are out of phase and prevent your gear from drawing high current during peak transient moments. Utility companies try to offset this issue by applying an opposing load to the incoming AC signal which is based on estimated use in your neighbourhood and is not an exact science. To address this issue the aR2p performs partial power factor correction which brings the AC voltage and current into a better phase relationship allowing a more efficient transfer of power. This feature ensures that your equipment will have a stable current source, resulting in a maximum dynamic range even when your neighbours’ AC units are kicking in and drawing current. High build quality standards and cutting edge technology allows for Audience to provide a 10 year warranty on all of its power conditioning products.

So how does the Adept Response aR2p pack all these features into such a compact box, measuring a mere 6 x 3 x 3 inches? And does it maintain the reputation of its larger brothers? The aR2p is a two outlet power conditioner which eschews the use of a power cord and instead has a Marinco three prong AC plug built right into the unit. Therefore the entire power conditioner plugs directly into a wall outlet. Think of a large wall wart and you’ll get the idea. A magnetic breaker on/off power switch is housed on the side of the unit. The Hubbell outlets on the bottom of the unit can accommodate two separate components or power strips which will enable you to plug in more gear. One caveat here is that your wall outlets must have the third ground pin and the outlet has to be oriented with the ground pin on the bottom. The aR2p will not sit properly if you have a wall outlet that has the ground pin at the top, especially if you are using heavy power cords. However, Audience will build with reverse pin orientation upon request. Of course these are issues that may be encountered mostly in older homes. When plugged into a proper outlet, a rubber bumper at the bottom of the unit will provide stability and reduce wall borne resonance.

The challenge in reviewing the aR2p was that only two components could be evaluated at one time. This is because I chose not to plug my existing conditioners into the aR2p as that would not provide a clear picture as to how the aR2p was affecting the performance of the system.

I started off with the Esoteric X-05 CD/SACD player and the Modwright LS36.5 preamp plugged into the aR2p. I should point out that like many Toronto residents, I live in a radio frequency maelstrom with a clear line of sight to the CN Tower. For some time now, I have been pleased with how my existing power conditioners protect and condition the power that reaches my components. The noise level in my system was always under control. However when playing the Muddy Waters “Folk Singer” SACD, the noise floor appeared to be somewhat lower with the aR2p and the dynamics were slightly improved. Guitar notes and Muddy’s vocals literally exploded from a specific point within the soundstage. A very young Buddy Guy on guitar was clearly sitting off to Muddy’s right. The timbre differences and plucking of strings between the two guitars were distinctly audible. The stand up bass player behind Muddy and the drummer off to the left made for a truly holographic experience from a recording that’s almost 50 years old. Popping in Charlotte Gainsbourg’s “IRM” album (written and produced by Beck) the sound experienced similar benefits – a touch more growl and heft as well as a wider more detailed soundstage compared to my existing power conditioners.

I proceeded to unplug the preamp and plug in another source component, the Marantz DV9600 universal player, into the aR2p. Playing Neil Young’s “Live at Massey Hall” album at 24-bit/96 kHz linear PCM, I had a chance to hear what the aR2p can do for source devices only. The preamp was now plugged back into my Isotek power conditioner and there was a slight reduction in dynamics and narrowing of the soundstage right off the top. Neil Young’s acoustic performance on this disc is revelatory and one can clearly ascertain height and depth whether Neil is sitting on his stool strumming or at his piano tinkling. The presentation now had more inner detail with the aR2p. The transient attack and decay also seemed more life-like. Up to this point in my review, I had plugged in two channel transformer-based power supply sources and a preamp which allowed me to verify only the audio benefits of the aR2p.

The next step was to determine what the aR2p could do for multi-channel audio and video, and more significantly switched mode power supply (SMPS) based components. Components such as cable boxes, projectors, plasma TVs, LCD TVs, the PlayStation 3 and inexpensive disc players all use a SMPS. Normally, all of my SMPS gear is plugged into a separate IsoTek Mira power center which deals specifically with the issues of these types of power supplies such as the dumping of nasty artifacts back into the circuit (and in turn contaminating other components). I immediately noticed a benefit from plugging these components into the aR2p as opposed to straight into the wall outlet. The Marantz SR6001 AV receiver, with its E-type transformer, and the Marantz DV 9600 disc player both showed audio and video improvements although not as dramatic as with my two channel setup. The power section did come across as more lively and dynamic with a touch more tonality in the bottom end with multi-channel SACD recordings. The image quality from the AV receiver looked noise free with very good depth and proper colour rendition. With that being said, the aR2p did not perform as well with these devices as my IsoTek Mira power center – I did notice a slight overall drop in audio and visual resolution as compared to my reference setup.

The Audience Adept Response aR2p power conditioner can provide an exceptional value for any audiophile that has a high quality two channel system with transformer-based power supplies. Power amps, preamps, phono stages and source devices will benefit significantly. Plugging in a high quality power strip into one of the outlets of the aR2p will make it more versatile and allow a full home theatre setup to benefit. If you want your system to be unshackled from the nasty AC power coming out of the wall outlet and hear what your system is truly capable of – try this reasonably priced high quality power conditioner from Audience. You will never plug any of your gear directly into a wall outlet ever again.

Manufacturer:
Audience
www.audience-av.com
Distributed in Canada by Tri-Cell Enterprises Inc. 1-800-263-8151 or 905-265-7870 www.tricell-ent.com

Audience Adept Response aR2p Power Conditioner
Price: $695 CAD

Some view power conditioners as a system tweak or enhancer but I like to think of them as a necessary component in any mid to high level audio/videos system aiming to reach its full potential. That’s because in order for your system to achieve peak performance, you need to provide each of your components with clean, stable power. The trouble is that power from a typical power outlet isn’t exactly clean – most outlets are usually connected as part of a circuit with other outlets and even light fixtures. Each device plugged into the same circuit generates nasty power anomalies that play havoc with the power supplies in our AV gear – appliances and computers are perfect examples. If we can help reduce these anomalies without constricting AC current delivery then part of the mission is accomplished. And that’s where a power conditioner comes into play. The acknowledged role of a power conditioner is to provide an EMI/RFI-free environment to plug your gear into, coupled with clean 60 Hertz current delivery that is stable and linear.

The other key factor in designing an effective power conditioning device is resonance control because resonance is generated by several different sources in an audio or video system. The primary sources of resonance are loudspeaker drivers which create mechanical air and floor-borne vibrations that negatively impact equipment performance. Loudspeakers also transfer electromechanical feedback through the speaker cables to the amplifier. Transformers in equipment are also a source of micro resonance as there is considerable electromechanical energy built-up as a result of converting AC to DC.

In this review, I take a look at the Furutech Daytona 303 Multi Mode Power Filter, priced at $3500, which promises to clean up power anomalies and provide superior reduction of resonance. The Daytona landed in my hands at just the right time as I’ve spent the last several months focusing my efforts on controlling resonance issues in the cables, equipment and power supplies in my AV system. The most dramatic improvement which convinced me that resonance may be of equal or greater concern then contaminated AC power was the opportunity to implement the Daytona in my system. I’ve been using an active IsoTek GII Mini Sub power distributor in my system for some time now but compared to the Daytona, it has a relatively flimsy chassis and cover.

Furutech has established a reputation for superb designs that place function before form but are still visually elegant. Its power products to date have taken the passive approach utilizing the company’s Formula GC-303 material which rejects EMI and RFI. Furutech’s power distributors also include high grade resonance dampened Axial Locked Furutech AC receptacles with Furutech’s unique Two Stage Cryogenic and Demagnetizing Super Alpha Treatment applied to all signal carrying components.

The Daytona is Furutech’s new top of the line power filter/distributor with looks to match. The front panel is a gorgeous thick aluminum brushed slab affixed to a steel chassis, which not only scores high in aesthetics but is designed to reject RFI. This component is much heavier than other similar components and built like a tank, all in an effort to control resonance. All internal wiring is 10 gauge Furutech Alpha 10 copper wire with the conductors insulated by resonance absorbing tubing. A displayed, centred in the middle of the front panel, shows the incoming voltage level and the total current draw of the attached gear, in large red LED numerals. This is a useful feature for monitoring hydro and gear related anomalies. From the moment I set up the Daytona, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity in its appearance to my Esoteric disc player. The display also contains small green LEDs that will turn red if the voltage gets too high or low, or if the breaker is tripped. The only quibble I found with the Daytona is the inability to turn the main display off (it can however be dimmed) as the big red LED numerals can change rather frequently and can be distracting while listening to music or watching movies. The rear panel of the unit showcases a bank of 10 Furutech rhodium-plated, Axial Locked AC receptacles. These include 4 unfiltered (2 high current for amps, 2 for low current analog devices) and 6 filtered for digital gear. Also present are 3 each of surge protected coaxial and phone jack connections. Finally there are also a 12 volt remote trigger, a master on/off switch and a detachable articulating LED lamp which is very useful when plugging or swapping any cables. The Daytona clearly offers a superior build quality and great features but does it have an impact on the AV system sonically and visually?

My AV system consists of an Esoteric X-05 CD/SACD player, a Modwright LS36.5 preamp, Red Wine Audio 70.2 mono blocks and ELAC 208A speakers for two channel sources. With a flip of the Home Theatre Bypass switch on my preamp, I can engage my 5.1 gear: a Marantz SR6001 AVR, a Marantz DV9600 universal player, PS3, Scientific Atlanta 8300 HD PVR, Mitsubishi HC4900 1080P LCD projector, ELAC 201 center speaker, and Mirage sub and surround speakers.

As noted above, Furutech uses a passive approach to distributing power. The Daytona utilizes the RFI-rejecting GC-303 material which is bonded in a layer on the bottom plate of the chassis for passive protection and LC network filtering to six of the outlets for digital gear. When I plugged my Modwright preamp into an unfiltered outlet and the Esoteric player into a filtered outlet, the impact on music was immediately noticeable. The renewed life and sparkle in the music were difficult to miss. I haven’t heard this dramatic of a shift in performance of my system since upgrading to the Esoteric player. The noise floor dropped and the width, depth and height of the image increased to what now sounded like life-like proportions. The Dead Can Dance SACD “Into the Labyrinth” provides a number of system challenges from subtle percussive elements to growling bass and the old cliché applies. It was like listening to the disc for the first time. Radiohead’s CD “In Rainbows” was presented like a sonic tapestry with all the abstract elements firmly in their own three dimensional space within the soundstage. My gear was disseminating this very difficult production with ease. Every CD and SACD sounded invigorated – even the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan SACDs took on new life.

Multi-channel DVD-Audio discs such as the Talking Heads and Donald Fagen’s “Morph the Cat” absolutely blew me away. The effect the Daytona had on both my universal player and the AVR was spectacular. SACD multi-channel via HDMI on the PS3 was so well balanced and life-like, it sounded like Knopfler was in my living room when listening to Dire Straits’ “Brother in Arms”. The LC filter network used by Furutech didn’t exhibit any of the negative attributes usually associated with this approach – likely as a result of being housed in an inert resonant-free chassis. The Daytona is clearly the most resolving dynamic sounding conditioner I have had the opportunity to audition. This is Furutech R&D and engineering at its best!

Video improvements were just as dramatic – the black levels from my HD cable box became noticeably inkier. The audio from the cable box benefited from better dialogue intelligibility and better dynamics. The audio from Blu-ray soundtracks took on an effortless and natural aura and the picture became more 3D-like. The video aspect that everyone will notice is the added shades/tints of blue and green and the clear ability to differentiate reds and oranges. The projector’s overall colour palette was extended beyond what I’m normally used to.

The Furutech Daytona 303 Multi Mode Power Filter is by far the best product I have encountered in this category. It provided substantial improvements in certain aspects of both music and video playback. The attention to resonance control and passive AC conditioning techniques allowed for a huge soundstage, visceral bass and subtle musical details to be presented. Build quality is second to none, musicality is superb and the visual improvements are eye boggling. A must buy for truly dedicated music and home theatre fans.

Manufacturer:
Furutech
www.furutech.com
Distributed in Canada by Audiyo 647-448-2267 www.audiyo.com

Furutech Daytona 303 Multi Mode Power Filter
Price: $3500 CAD

Clean AC power can go a long way to improving the performance of a home theatre in some cases. Just as importantly it can vastly extend the life of your beloved gear. Unfortunately, the power straight out of a household power outlet is not very clean. The electrical lines throughout your house or apartment are shared among many devices which contaminate the lines, create power surges and interfere with each other. Worse yet, a significant power surge, such as one caused by a lighting strike, can completely damage your equipment. If you would like to learn more about power for your home theatre, I invite you to read an article that appeared in one of our past issues “Power Protection for the Home Theatre”. You can now find it online at www.canadahifi.com/ in the A/V Articles section.

So how can you provide clean power to your components? You’ll need a power management solution like the Panamax M5300-PM. At $599, this reasonably priced power management centre can purify the power delivered to your components and protect them from power spikes and surges.

The M5300-PM offers Panamax’s Level 4 power cleaning and filtration which can eliminate common symptoms associated with contaminated power. These include loss of detail, pops and hisses in audio as well as hums and visual artifacts in video. The M5300-PM will automatically shut down the power to the connected components if the incoming power dips below 90 volts or exceeds 142 volts. It has a rating of 2125 joules. A joule measures how much energy the unit can absorb and dissipate. The M5300-PM offers L-N, L-G and N-G protection modes, which means that it is equipped to absorb surges between any pair of the three wires: Positive, negative and ground. In addition to all of this, the M5300-PM also provides noise isolation between all its outlets so that one component cannot contaminate the power that is sent to any other plugged in component.

The M5300-PM offers a suite of 11 AC power outlets: 4 that are always on, 5 that can be switched on and off (with the front power button) and 2 high current outlets. The high current outlets are designed for power hungry amplifiers, receivers or subwoofers and feature a five second turn on delay to guard against blown fuses and potentially damaging speaker thumps. The total current capacity of the M5300-PM is 15 amps. Three pairs of coaxial connectors provide protection for cable, satellite and antenna signal lines. Two sets of LAN jacks and one phone jack are also present. The LAN jacks are ideal for protecting the LAN connections for Blu-ray and HD DVD players or gaming consoles. The phone jack can protect the phone line which goes into a satellite or digital cable box. A 12 volt trigger rounds out the package. Aside from various indicators and buttons, the front panel contains a power outlet, LAN port and USB port. The USB port can be used to charge any USB device while protecting it from potential harmful voltages.

Visually, the M5300-PM looks as slick as any good looking home theatre component. The front panel has indicators for each of the power outlet banks as well as digital number indicators for incoming voltage and amperage draw. A single power outlet as well as USB and LAN connectors are also located on the front panel. Its solid chassis and front panel are constructed out of metal, giving it a weight of 30 pounds. An Ethernet cable, a telephone cable and coaxial TV cable are included in the box.

I plugged the M5300-PM’s power cord directly into the wall outlet. The unit’s removable power cord is held securely in place by a sturdy metal cage. The initial power cycle took a few seconds and numerous front panel indicators came to life in a vibrant blue. The voltage meter measured an incoming voltage of 122 volts and 0.3 amperes being drawn with nothing plugged into the outlets. A button on the front panel allows all of the blue indicators to be dimmed but doesn’t allow them to be turned off completely, which would have been a nice feature. These indicators draw unnecessary power and can be disturbing while watching video in a dark room. During my testing I noticed the incoming voltage reading to fluctuate between 121 and 125 volts.

I tested the M5300-PM with the following components connected: Pioneer Elite VSX-84TXSi A/V receiver, Axiom Audio A1400-8 amplifier, Pioneer PDP-5010FD plasma TV and my Starchoice satellite box. I also connected an analogue TV cable to it. After plugging all of these components in, the amp meter reading increased slightly to 0.5 amps letting me know that this equipment sips about 0.2 amps when in stand-by mode (each component was turned off). As expected, the amp consumption jumped significantly when I powered all of the gear on. Power conscious consumers like myself will certainly enjoy having this information readily available. By the way, the power outlets of the M5300-PM appeared to be of high grade and held all of my power cords securely in place.

During the course of the next several weeks, I conducted audio and video tests with the components plugged into the M5300-PM as well as a regular power strip. Although I did not immediately notice improvements, over the course of time a couple of benefits did become apparent. First, I noticed that the M5300-PM was able to eliminate the hum bars (in some instances) that are occasionally present when watching analogue cable TV channels. Hum bars are lines that slowly creep up across the TV screen. I also noticed a slight reduction in the digital noise of some of the poorer quality channels.

The power outlets in my home theatre are installed on a shared circuit with my kitchen’s fluorescent light (unfortunately). Occasionally, when the kitchen light is turned on or off, interference bars momentarily appear on my TV. I tested to see whether the M5300-PM could eliminate these interference bars but it did not. However, this is not to say that the M5300-PM doesn’t actually do anything when the light is turned on or off. Much of its functionality actually happens behind the scenes so-to-speak. In a scenario such as this, if the voltage momentarily reached out of the 90 to 142 volt range, the M5300-PM would have prevented it from reaching the connected components. This is one of the true benefits of connecting your equipment to a power management centre. Power surges or spikes like this can occur when any electrical devices such as lights, hair dryers, microwaves, refrigerators, furnaces or air conditioners turn on or off. To my knowledge, the only guaranteed way to eliminate the interference bars on your display is to install a dedicated circuit from the electrical panel to the outlet in your home theatre, one that is not shared with any other outlets or lighting fixtures.

I should mention that the next model up in the Panamax power management centre line-up, the M5400-PM, may be able to eliminate some of these above mentioned conditions thanks to its additional voltage regulator feature. The voltage regulator ensures that the optimal voltage of 120 (plus/minus a few volts) reaches its connected equipment at all times. The M5400-PM retails for $699, only $100 more than the M5300-PM.

In addition to the power protection and slight improvements in certain aspects of audio and video, the M5300-PM is also a very effective solution for cleaning up the mess of cables plugged into power strips on the floor. Each power outlet in the back has a label for a suggested component which makes it very easy to locate the power cable for each piece of equipment. This is very useful for anyone that regularly tweaks their system. Everyone will appreciate eliminating unsightly power strips from the floor.

In most cases, you should be rewarded by slight improvements in audio and video performance by adding a power management centre, such as the Panamax M5300-PM, to your home theatre. The exact benefits will certainly vary based on your exact setup. Something that you will achieve in every case when using a power management centre is peace of mind. The Panamax M5300-PM gets the seal of approval from me, although if you have the extra $100, I would recommend getting the M5400-PM model.

Manufacturer:
Panamax
www.panamax.com
Distributed in Canada by Lenbrook Canada 905-831-6555

Panamax M5300-PM Power Management Centre
Price: $599 CAD

Just like a high performance engine requires high octane gasoline to run as it was designed, a high-end home theatre needs clean power to perform at its peak. And just like having your car insured, it is critical to have some kind of protection for your audio video gear. A power conditioner, like the Furman Elite-15 DMi, will do just that for your precious electronics; it will provide clean power and surge suppression. After investing hundreds or thousands of dollars into your gear, it’s simply silly to not have a power conditioner/surge suppressor in your equipment rack.

What exactly does clean power mean? In a North American household outlet, the standard voltage is 120 volts AC. Unfortunately these power lines are contaminated with radio frequency (RF) and electromagnetic interference (EMI) noise caused by other devices connected to the power outlets inside and outside your house. This noise can couple into your audio video components and mask low level signals, in turn compromising the performance of your gear. Low level signals are crucial because they relay the harmonics and ambience in audio, as well as the depth and clarity in video.

In addition to noise, voltage spikes and surges also occur commonly in power lines. These variations in the electrical potential energy can be caused by power-hungry electrical devices such as refrigerators, air-conditioners and microwaves as well as faulty home wiring, short circuits, blackouts, power company load switching and lightning storms. A brief increase in voltage (for less than two nanoseconds) is called a spike; if the increase lasts any longer it is referred to as a surge. Both spikes and surges can lead to premature demise of equipment and in worst cases immediate damage to equipment. As electronic components and circuit boards continue to get smaller, they also become much more sensitive than larger, older components. High voltages can literally fry electronic components in their path.

In other words, the power lines feeding your precious audio video gear can be a huge mess and can substantially compromise the performance of your home theatre.

The Furman Elite-15 DMi linear filtering AC power source can take care of both deficiencies of the power lines; it will significantly reduce RF and EMI noise as well as protect your equipment from spikes and surges. It offers a clamping voltage of 188 V (at 6000 V, 3000 A input), which is the peak voltage that it will pass to the connected devices if an extreme over-voltage occurs. It will also completely eliminate all ground contamination that can be placed in the ground by other devices. The Elite-15 DMi offers 13 power outlets, 3 satellite/cable TV connections and a single telephone line connection. Priced at $599, this is the second most affordable model in the new Furman Elite “i” Series.

The front panel of the unit contains AC voltage and current meters, which provide measurements of the incoming AC line and current loads. Both meters together with a middle horizontal bar light up in a cool blue and can be dimmed with a rear mounted switch. Personally, I think that the meters are a great feature to have – I’ve always been curious about how much current my equipment draws. However, I wish that the meters could be turned off completely because they meddled slightly with my viewing experience (the Elite-15 DMi was placed at the bottom of my open-face A/V rack). Even when dimmed, they are still quite bright. Obviously, this would not be an issue if I placed the unit inside a cabinet or a closed A/V rack. If you plan to use a unit like this in an open-face rack, I suggest considering a different Furman model that doesn’t have the meters (in fact, most of their models don’t have meters). Also present in the front are an on/off switch, extreme voltage and remote turn-on LED indicators, and a single power jack. The front mounted on/off switch is a nice feature that allows the energy conscious user to turn off their entire home theatre system very easily when not in use.

For custom installations, the Elite-15 DMi allows remote control capability via 12V triggering, compatible with modern receivers and pre-amp processors.

The rear panel of the Elite-15 DMi is where all the action is, so-to-speak. There you will find 12 linearly filtered outlets, which should be a sufficient number for an average home theatre. The outlets are divided up into three groups of four outlets, each group designed for a specific type of home theatre component: audio, video and audio/video. The audio outlets provide more juice than any of the other outlets to accommodate power hungry components such as A/V receivers, amplifiers and subwoofers. The video outlets feature additional ultrasonic filtering which helps to deliver the best performance from components such as DVD/Blu-ray/HD DVD players, LCD/Plasma TVs and satellite/digital cable boxes. For home automation, 8 of these outlets can be switched on or off by a 12V trigger. The rear panel also provides 3 coaxial inputs/outputs as well as a single telephone input/output (for surge protection).

To test the effects of the Elite-15 DMi power source, I watched a few chapters from the spectacular BBC Planet Earth series on Blu-ray disc; first with my gear plugged into a $120 Monster Cable power bar and then with the gear plugged into the Furman power source. When plugging power cables into the Elite-15 DMi, I took the time to inspect the unit’s build quality. The enclosure itself is constructed out of solid steel and the front power switch is firm and of high grade. Each power cable fit snuggly into the power inlets.

After numerous times of switching between my gear plugged into the wall outlet and the Elite-15 DMi, I cannot say that the Elite-15 DMi did actually improve any video or audio characteristics of my home theatre. This was not surprising since I don’t normally experience anything visually or audibly unusual with my equipment, except during the occasional power surge. Depending on the state of the electrical wiring in your home, your experience may vary.

But the most important benefits of using a power protector/conditioner are not visible or audible. By far the most crucial job of the Elite-15 DMi is to protect your precious audio video gear from power spikes and surges. It is not uncommon for power protection equipment to sacrifice itself when an extreme over-voltage occurs, in order to protect your equipment. But the Elite-15 DMi was designed to stop power spikes and surges in their tracks, without causing any damage to itself. Protecting your components from dangerous electrical conditions will not only save your components, it will also significantly prolong the life of your components. Even small over-voltages cause damage to internal components in your gear, which accumulates over time, leading to a premature failure of the component.

The coaxial and telephone cable protection is also non-sacrificial. Thanks to a minimal signal loss of 0.1 dB through its coaxial and telephone connections, the Elite-15 DMi did not degrade the video quality of my connected satellite box – something that many less expensive surge protectors are notorious for.

When a power spike or a surge happens, some power protection devices contaminate the ground in the power outlets when protecting the connected devices – unfortunately this method can damage other components that are not connected to the power protection device. The Elite-15 DMi provides its protection with zero contamination sent to the ground.

There are many products in stores that promise to protect your valuable audio video components from various electrical conditions. But the truth is that unless you actually spend a few hundred dollars on a good-quality power conditioning/protection product, your components are not getting the protection that they should be. The Furman Elite-15 DMi provides the proper protection and offers the potential of improving certain performance aspects of a home theatre system. For $599, it offers an excellent value. I strongly recommend one of these units in every home theatre. Furman offers a wide range of power conditioning/protection products that can meet the demands of any home theatre. If you need advice on which product is best suited for your specific home theatre, there is a helpful guide to assist with this in the “Tech Corner” of the Furman website found at www.furmansound.com.

Manufacturer:
Furman
www.furmansound.com
Distributed in Canada by SF Marketing 1-800-363-8855

Furman Elite-15 DMi Linear Filtering AC Power Source
Price: $599 CAD
• Current rating: input: 15 amps, output: 15 amps RMS
• Linear Noise Attenuation: >40 dB from 10Khz – 100 kHz and >80 dB from 2 Khz – 100 kHz – 1GHz
• Outlets:9 (linearly filtered outlet), 4 (linearly filtered outlets with additional ultrasonic filtering for diital or video components)
• Transient Voltage Surge Suppression: 120 VAC – series multi-stage protection – non- sacrificial with zero ground contamination

It is an interesting time for audio enthusiasts, a time when old world vinyl maintains an ever evolving co-existence with the new age hard drive-based audio world. Today, a growing number of music lovers own both a vinyl audio system and a computer that’s loaded with digital music. To keep up with this trend, audio manufacturers are introducing increasingly innovative, cost effective devices which cater to both the analog and digital audio categories.

One such company is Furutech, a Japanese-based world-class manufacturer of high-end audio cables, accessories and system enhancers, which recently opened a new division called Alpha Design Labs (ADL) dedicated to designing affordable audiophile products with the same quality that Furutech has long been known for. The first ADL product to hit the market is the highly versatile GT40 USB DAC (Digital to Analog Converter), priced at $499, which has a built-in phono stage and a headphone amplifier – features not normally found in DACs. Sometimes great things come in small packages. Could this be one of those times? You’ll have to read on.

The GT40 is a tiny but solid, audiophile grade device built to Furutech’s outstanding standards, measuring 150 mm wide by 111 mm deep by 57 mm high. The rigid chassis is carefully shielded and features thick brushed aluminium plates in the front and rear. The front panel sports a power button, a machined volume control dial, a 1/4-inch headphone jack and a source selection button which allows you to switch between Phone/Line and USB. The rear panel has a tiny sliding switch which tells the GT40 what kind of signal to expect – MM, MC or Line – through its single gold-plated, Teflon-insulated analog RCA input. Then there is the analog RCA output, a USB 2.0 port, a phono grounding terminal and a 9V AC power supply input (the device is powered by an external wall wart power supply). The GT40 sits on four rubber feet and weighs a paltry 785 grams.

Now let’s take a look at what the GT40 can do for you and what makes it distinct from other DACs at this price point. At its heart the GT40 is a top-notch USB DAC. Those with music collections on their computers or laptops can send a digital signal to the GT40’s USB input (via a USB cable) and enjoy analog output at data rates up to 24-bit/96 kHz. Furutech utilizes a low latency USB 2.0 audio driver that will allow playback and recording up to 24-bit/96 kHz. All USB connections are self powered but in order to accommodate the higher data rates Furutech has utilized an outboard power supply to provide enough power. The external power supply also provides a noise free environment for the built-in, sensitive phono stage.

But the GT40’s DAC functionality is only the beginning. The GT40 also has a high quality Analog to Digital Converter (ADC) built-in which will accept analog line (like a tuner) and phono signals. Yes, it is a very pleasant surprise to see a phono stage (switchable for moving magnet and moving coil turntable cartridges) in a DAC at this price point. What will this feature allow you to do? You’ll be able to convert and record analog line-level and phono sources to digital and output the signal up to 24-bit/96 kHz via the USB port. This means that you can archive your valuable LPs and other analog sources in the digital domain and then play them back through the GT40 when connected to a preamp or integrated amp.

Still, it doesn’t stop there. The GT40 offers a built-in headphone amplifier capable of driving most high performance headphones.

So it’s easy to see that the GT40 has a very well rounded feature list but how does it all come together when listening to and recording music?

My system for this review included a of a pair of Elac Anniversary 208 floor standing speakers, Red Wine Audio Signature 70 mono blocks, a Modwright LS36.5 preamp, an Esoteric X-05 CD/SACD player, a Goldring GR1.2 turntable (with an Elektra MM cartridge) and a Windows-based Toshiba laptop. I connected the GT40’s RCA output to the Modwright LS36.5 preamp.

I began by evaluating the GT40’s main function, namely its USB DAC performance. Without an upgraded soundcard, most computers leave much to be desired from their audio playback. A typical soundcard’s analog output sounds muddy in the mids, crushes many musical details, lacks any definition in the bass and has a fizzy treble. But it doesn’t have to be this way my friend – a device like the GT40 by-passes the computer soundcard by grabbing the digital signal from the computer’s USB connection and does a much better job of converting it to analog before it’s sent to the amplifier.

Setting up the GT40 should be a snap whether you have a Windows or Mac based OS. I used the provided USB cable to connect the GT40 to a USB port on the Toshiba and the necessary drivers installed themselves automatically on the laptop. I confirmed in the Windows control panel that the volume output was set to 100 percent and that the audio output was set to USB (as instructed by the manual), and I was ready to roll. Playing digital music files through the GT40 was like discovering the songs all over again. Suddenly the midrange offered a substantially cleaner presentation and was filled with details that were previously completely obscured. Much of the digital haze was lifted and I instantly began enjoying a much expanded, better defined soundstage. The lower frequencies had good definition and extended into much lower registers than previously. The highs benefited from a cleaner, more natural presentation.

Completely satisfied with the USB DAC performance, I decided to record a couple of LPs through the GT40. I had an unopened vinyl copy of the Decca Albeniz: Suite Espanola that I put on the Goldring platter, which seemed ideal for digital archiving. When I initially connected the GT40 to the laptop I was given the opportunity to choose the recording resolution from 16 and 24-bit and 32/44.1/48 and 96 kHz. I went ahead with 24-bit/96 kHz. While monitoring the recording via the analog RCA outputs into the two channel system I was staggered by the dynamics on this virgin slab of vinyl and had a great reference to gauge the quality of the recording and playback via the laptop. I played back the first side from the newly recorded digital files at 24-bit/96 kHz and was instantly drawn into the music. Using a laptop gave me the extra benefit of operating the source “off the grid” (since I was using the battery power) which contributed to the clean, effortless sound that I was presented with. Despite the transcription of the LP surface noise, the digital files sounded cleaner than the original analog playback. I recorded the same side at 16-bit/44.1 kHz and the presentation was flatter, lacking in relative dynamics, but still offered a decent red book performance. This is one killer sounding USB DAC that will be right at home in modest or high-end digital music playback systems.

Next, I proceed to evaluate the GT40’s phono stage performance. Thanks to the fact that I had several LPs and their matching SACD versions, I was also able to make some direct comparisons between them. I set the GT40’s volume control at about 2 o’clock on the dial which closely matched the output level of my reference Esoteric X-05 disc player. The GT40’s phono stage offers a very clean sound, without any hiss or hum, likely as a result of using an outboard power supply. I started with Coldplay’s Viva la Vida LP, a recent recording and pressing, and quite frankly was stunned with the sound. I was immediately presented with music that had an expansive soundstage, decent spatiality and impressive dynamics. I then pulled out an old 1980s LP soundtrack to “Cat People” by Giorgio Moroder and this disk had even more dynamics then the Coldplay disk. This made me wonder what some classic 60s and 70s LP’s would sound like. I popped The Rolling Stones “Out Of Our Heads” Decca French mono pressing LP onto the platter and despite the snap, crackle and pop of an older, well-played disc I was drawn into the music, tapping my feet and singing along. It’s amazing how the brain tunes out the extraneous noise and focuses on the music. Next I played a very clean copy of Elton John’s “Tumbleweed Connection” LP of which I also have the SACD version. Again I was extremely impressed with the overall musicality of the GT40’s phono stage and the analog output stage. This is a country-tinged homage to Elton’s favourite performers at the time, like The Band, so there is lots of virtuoso interplay between the musicians. I cued up the SACD and switched back and forth comparing the vinyl presentation to the high rez SACD version. I was initially drawn to the apparent richness of the mid range of the LP, which I concluded was due to the more forward presentation of the mid frequencies from the vinyl. The SACD offered more air around the instruments and a more defined and extended bottom end. But the LP was competitive as far as dynamics, decay and overall musicality went. The GT40’s phono stage more than held it’s own against an extremely well regarded digital source, the Esoteric X-05.

For the final part of this review, I reached for a pair of open-back Grado SR125 headphones which I plugged into the headphone jack in the front of the GT40. I evaluated the headphone amp section by listening to various selections on vinyl and high rez digital files from my PC. After an extended listening session, I concluded that the headphone amp in the GT40 offers lots of headroom, a satisfying bass response and a well defined soundstage. The performance was extremely clean and musical via the Grado headphones, earning the GT40 a top spot in my books.

The Alpha Design Labs GT40 USB DAC with Phono Stage (by Furutech) is a masterful little device with a long list of features and strengths – all at a price of just $495. Given its build quality and performance, this is one of the best bargains I’ve come across in a long time in the audio world.

Click here to discuss this review on the CANADA HiFi Forum

Manufacturer:
Furutech
www.furutech.com
Distributed in Canada by AuDIYo Inc., 416-704-0105, www.audiyo.com

Alpha Design Labs GT40 USB DAC with Phono Stage (by Furutech)
Price: $495 CAD

If the expensive holiday season has you looking for value, this may redefine the meaning. My two-channel system is sprawling with sources: phono, CD and digital audio. So electronics that have the potential to improve the sound of all my sources has a pretty good shot at providing me with good value. With that in mind, I came across the Behringer Ultramatch Pro SRC2496 – a high-resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz A/D – D/A, sample rate and format converter. Simply put, the SRC2496 is an up-sampling DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) and an ADC (Analogue to Digital Converter). Aside from the obvious uses as an up-sampling DAC, the ADC can be used to transfer LP albums to high resolution digital audio. Musicians can use the ADC to record their performances as high resolution digital recordings. To top it off, the SRC2496 also contains a built-in headphone amplifier so one could also use this unit as a DAC and headphone amplifier with a computer and headphones. Reasonably priced at $299 US, the SRC2496 isn’t going to break anyone’s bank.

You may have observed that the SRC2496 does not look like your typical DAC that is marketed at the home audio crowd. That is because Behringer targets the professional audio industry where sound and functionality are the priority. The average home audio enthusiast will not use many of the pro-audio features on the SRC2496, but rest assured that they do not affect the sonic performance of the DAC. While this is my first hands-on experience with a Behringer product, I’ve heard a few nice sounding systems that put their digital crossover (DCX2496) to good use in bi-amped and tri-amped two-channel systems.

On the technical side, the A/D and D/A converters are 24-bit / 96 kHz. The signal output can be set at a resolution of 16, 20 or 24-bit and the sample rate can be converted into 32, 44.1, 48, 88.2 or 96 kHz. The sample rate of a normal CD is 44.1 kHz and setting the sample rate of a DAC higher than the source is typically referred to as up-sampling (not to be mistaken with oversampling). The internal high-precision quartz clock generator can be used to remove jitter and correct off-tune and incorrect sample rates. External clocks can also be used with the SRC2496.

From the exterior, the SRC2496 appears to be well built. It is housed in a 1U rack-mount enclosure that measures approximately 43 cm wide by 4.5 cm high and 19 cm deep (with the rack-mount brackets removed) and weighs about 2 kg. The front panel is made of aluminum and contains a number of controls and a series of LED indicators. At times I found the displays to be distracting so I made a small flap out of black card stock to hide them. The remainder of the chassis is black powder-coated steel. Aside from the headphone connection which is located on the front panel, all hookups are at the rear of the unit. The analogue connections are through a stereo set of balanced XLR jacks, one set for input and another for output. If your audio components do not use balanced connections you can use an RCA to XLR (female) cable which is what I used. On the digital end the inputs consist of RCA and optical (Toslink) connections for S/PDIF signals and an XLR connection for AES/EBU signals. A separate trio of connections is used for the digital output. All of the connectors appear to be durable. Power is supplied to the unit through an IEC connection. I swapped the stock power cord for one that is shielded. This is a personal cable preference of mine as I don’t like to use unshielded power cables near signal cables. A thorough but compact user’s manual is included which describes operation of the SRC2496 and gives application examples. Also included in the manual are cable schematics for unbalanced cables such as RCA to XLR which came in handy.

Once I unpacked the SRC2496 and looked through the documentation, I decided to first try it with my home computer. Actually, I was very eager to try it with my computer as I had recently purchased a couple high resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz albums from HDTracks only to find out that my Squeezebox is incapable of playing high resolution formats. The SRC2496 was connected to receive S/PDIF signals from the RCA output of the computer. In this application I made use of the SRC2496 as a DAC and the built-in headphone amplifier was used to drive a pair of Sennheiser HD 595 headphones. I began my listening with a high resolution 24-bit / 96 kHz offering of Rebecca Pidgeon – Four Marys [Chesky Records | hdtracks.com]. The level of detail and transparency from this Celtic inspired recording were remarkable – as if there was nothing between the music and myself. Next I tried my other high resolution recording, Ana Caram – Hollywood Rio [Chesky Records | hdtracks.com]. Despite not being able to understand most of what Ana is singing about, if I had not been tethered to the headphones I would have been dancing to this very musical and upbeat album. This is a great recording full of rich, deep natural sound. When paired with a nice set of headphones, the SRC2496 DAC / headphone amplifier combo made for a very satisfying computer headphone system. I found the built-in headphone amp on the SRC2496 to be comparable with the headphone amp on an NAD C162 preamp. Of course you could also use an external headphone amplifier with the SRC2496 if you prefer. The DAC in the SRC2496 is superior to that found on most mainstream computer soundcards which makes for a significant sonic upgrade.

While the SRC2496 was connected to the computer I took the opportunity to transfer a few LP albums into high resolution digital recordings. The setup was a Rega P1 turntable into the phono stage of a NAD C162 preamplifier into the SRC2496 set at 24-bit / 96 kHz, S/PDIF into the coax digital input of my computer. The turntable will pick up noise so the setup and environment will need attention for good results. AC power, RFI, grounding and vibrations are just some potential sources for unwanted noise. On my first attempt the recordings turned out very good and I’m sure the settings and setup used were not optimal. The recordings do capture the sonic signature of the turntable and preamp so this could make for an interesting method to make A/B comparisons between phono components. With the right equipment, environment and setup the SRC2496 makes it possible for home audio enthusiasts to create their own high quality digital recordings – be it from analog media or a live performance.

Next I moved the SRC2496 into my two-channel system where I used it as an up-sampling DAC with two sources: an NAD C521i CD player and a first generation Squeezebox. Both of these source units are getting up in age and using them with a newer and higher resolution DAC is sound thinking. The SRC2496 can be used to select between the CD player and the Squeezebox and the signal level was controlled using a Lightspeed Passive Attenuator into a pair of OddWatt Audio KT88 monoblock amplifiers (25W class-A, push-pull). The speakers were high-sensitivity Fostex FE206E drivers in a back-loaded horn enclosure. Musical selections were either CDs or lossless FLAC media files, both with sample rates of 44.1 kHz. I quickly cycled through a few familiar tracks so I could compare the difference with and without up-sampling. Listening to the up-sampled music was like a breath of fresh air. I found that the best results were achieved by up-sampling to 88.2 kHz which is a whole number multiple of the source sample rate. There seems to be some technical merit to this which is over my head so I can’t elaborate. One of my favourite albums is Natalie Merchant – Tiger Lily [MFSL UDCD 771] which features a number of standout vocal gems like San Andreas Fault, Wonder, Carnival and Jealousy. On San Andreas Fault every tender nuance and detail was present and they helped bring forth deep emotional feeling on this intimate track. The subtle vocal inflections were clearly presented and the music sounded very natural through the SRC2496. As my ears mature, I’ve found myself listening to more jazz and The Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out [Columbia CK 52860] is a classic album that sounds great. Through the SRC2496 music was just wonderful. There were layers of sound, piano decay and drum nuances which were only hinted at before, but now shined through. Even a glass of wine to accompany music tasted better!

Normally I am not fond of “magic box devices” that manipulate music and I tend to lean towards the simple/less-is-better approach. But on the mater of up-sampling, I’m buying it. The biggest overall improvements observed were with the naturalness of music which is the most natural sounding that I have been able to achieve from digital sources so far.

For those of you who are not afraid to break out a soldering iron, you can stretch this value even further as there are a number of modifications and upgrades that can be competed to the power supply and output stage. You can search for examples on the web. If you are not that brave, Audiosmile [audiosmile.co.uk] offers a modified Behringer SRC2496 with an improved power supply and output stage.

The low cost, very good performance and flexibility make the Behringer SRC2496 a truly exceptional value. If you have not tried an up-sampling DAC this is a really good one to start with.

Manufacturer:
BEHRINGER USA Inc.
www.behringer.com
(425) 672-0816

Behringer Ultramatch Pro SRC2496 24-Bit/96 kHz A/D-D/A & Sample Rate Converter
Price: $299 US

The digital age has provided us with many innovations both in the audio and video world over the past several years. The most dramatic and accessible improvements have been in the video domain with the advent of affordable high definition displays and a wide variety of high definition material courtesy of HD broadcasts and the Blu-ray format. The HD standard brings with it a new set of performance parameters that need to be optimized in order to unlock the full potential of HD video. In order to optimize your TV or projector you will need to use appropriate calibration material.

For the better part of the last two decades, various video calibration discs have been available for this purpose, starting with the original Video Essentials disc on the now defunct laser disc format. This original NTSC test disc was brought to us by video guru Joe Kane who, in conjunction with Joel Silver, helped establish a set of video standards that evolved into what is now known as the ISF or Imaging Science Foundation. The mandate for ISF is to optimize the performance of video displays in the home environment with a significant boost in picture quality as well as prolonging the life of our video displays. Back in the day of analog NTSC televisions, standard definition broadcasts and VHS tape, the benefits derived from proper calibration were still clear for all to see. Our old TVs were big and clunky because they were based on a vacuum tube with phosphors painted on the inside of the screen that were excited by an electron gun. Proper calibration of these designs not only improved performance but also prolonged the life of the TV as all TV sets had incorrect settings out of the box. The TVs’ images needed to jump out at the consumer on the brightly lit retail sales floor so manufacturers had the contrast or white levels set very high. Leaving the TV in this mode meant the phosphors were literally being burnt off at a rapid pace, shortening the optimal performance capability of the TVs by a significant margin. Remember the dull, washed out images one experienced on our TVs after a few years?

Fast forward to the late ’90s and the incredible jump in home video performance brought to us courtesy of the DVD format. Our TVs were still NTSC and analog but the improvements in picture and sound quality from the DVD were phenomenal, making the DVD the most rapidly adopted new format in the history of the electronics industry. The Video Essentials DVD and Avia DVD calibration discs made their appearance providing an even more precise tool to optimize our video displays. The goal was to achieve as film-like an image as possible given the superior encoding capabilities of the DVD format.

The next logical step was to develop new display technologies as the DVD format exceeded the capabilities of most tube based TVs. We simply were not seeing all the potential benefits of the digital software. Plasma televisions provided the first digital video display technology available for the home viewer with LCD and DLP technologies following shortly thereafter. The displays were prohibitively expensive but for the few early adopters the benefits were huge. Proper calibration of digital displays again resulted in huge improvements in picture quality and extended their lifespan especially for the phosphor based plasmas. But we were still dealing with the 480 i/p NTSC standard DVD. Now the software had to catch up to the digital display’s 720p/768p capabilities.

As we strolled into the new millennium it was out with the old NTSC format and in with the new ATSC HD standard. High definition 720p/1080i broadcasts via cable, satellite and over the air transmissions meant we could finally experience digital video with cutting edge performance. Today we are on the verge of phasing out the NTSC format and finally on the doorstep of full digital and HD display standard. Try to find an old style analog tube based TV in a retail environment these days, not that you would want to!

Which brings us to the present day with full 1080p TVs, the Blu-ray format and, of course, new 1080p Blu-ray calibration discs.

In this review, we’ll take a look at the most recently released Blu-ray based calibration disc from Stacey Spears and Don Munsil, the Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition. Mastered at 1080p with Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio audio options, this is the most user friendly and accurate 1080p calibration disc that we have used to date. Do I have your attention yet?

Having the experience of calibrating video displays over the last twenty years I can sympathize with the average enthusiast when it comes to trying to figure out how in the world one uses the test patterns in conjunction with the video displays controls to achieve the desired result. This has been the main failure of all previous calibration discs. They were difficult to navigate through the menu options and once one located the desired test pattern there was little guidance as to how to properly utilize the pattern and the TV’s controls.

The Spears and Munsil disc surprised us with a series of new test patterns that we have never seen before. The patterns are easily accessible via the on-screen menu and are logically laid out in the proper sequence. Most importantly the disc comes with a small, well written manual that clearly explains how to use every test pattern found on the disc. This is a tool anyone with an interest in optimizing their video display can use, not just those that have calibration training.

The video display used for this review was a Mitsubishi HC4900 LCD 1080p front projector firing onto an 80-inch screen with a PS3 as the source connected via HDMI. We had previously calibrated the projector with a Digital Video Essentials: HD Basics Blu-ray calibration disc. The room lights were turned off and the projector was already set to the warm colour temperature setting. All “enhancement” settings were previously defeated so as to provide a clean slate for calibration.

The two key elements that need to be accurately set are the contrast and brightness settings on your display’s controls. The contrast (or gain) setting establishes the correct white level of the image. The brightness (or bias) setting controls the black level of the picture. Inaccurate black and white levels result in inaccurate levels of grey from pure white to pure black which in turn means incorrect colour rendition. The Spears and Munsil disc provides two different patterns for setting black levels, a PLUGE Low and High. PLUGE stands for Picture Line-Up Generator, a long established pattern used for setting accurate levels on displays. These were very simple to use with a detailed set of instructions guiding me what to look for. Our original settings required just a slight decrease in the brightness level.

Once black levels were set we now moved onto the first truly unique pattern used to set contrast or white levels. The pattern consisted of a series of numbered black and white bars as well as two ramps going from black to white and back to black again and vice versa. This pattern showed how inaccurate our previous test disc was in setting white levels. The contrast level needs to be adjusted until ALL the numbered white bars are visible. Our previous settings allowed for only a third of the bars to be visible, meaning that our display was clipping or essentially merging the highest levels of white into one white blob. We popped the DVE test disc in again as we were shocked at the variance. The DVE calibration disc was substantially off relative to the Spears and Munsil test pattern. We went from a -2 setting of contrast to a -12! Since the contrast and brightness settings interact with each other, we again verified that the black levels were correct and we moved to the next pattern.

The colour bar patterns the Spears and Munsil disc include the standard SMPTE and the newer HD SMPTE set of colour bars showing the primary and secondary colours. This pattern represents the only omission that Spears and Munsil are guilty of. In order to properly evaluate the colour bar pattern you need to view it through a blue filter, which is not included with this disc for some inexplicable reason. One can acquire the blue filter by ordering it from the THX site for a grand total of $1.99 plus $5-10 shipping. The blue filter can be purchased at this link: http://www.costore.com/THX/productenlarged.asp?peid=87&pid=930793

Viewing both the standard SMPTE and HD SMPTE bars showed that our original colour settings were accurate. These patterns also test the tint or hue settings and again they were bang on.

The next pattern again represented a large variance from the old settings. The sharpness control is often the most abused and misunderstood pattern as individuals think more is better or sharper in this case. The opposite usually holds true as most displays benefit from the sharpness being turned down from the factory setting. The sharpness control when increased will add a halo effect around solid lines which is detrimental to the overall image quality. Our previous setting of 0 had to be further reduced to -5 as this unique sharpness pattern clearly showed ghosting around the solid lines at the old setting. This was the fastest sharpness calibration we have ever undertaken as it usually takes a lot of peering up close to the screen to determine halos or ghosting. Very impressive!

These first six patterns are the fundamental patterns that are used in conjunction with your display’s brightness, contrast, tint and sharpness controls to effectively calibrate your display. The remaining patterns on this disc are used to fine-tune and evaluate your display and your Blu-ray player.

Among these, is a unique Clipping pattern, which shows whether your display or player is capable of rendering the full range of luma or white and Red, Green & Blue(RGB). The instructions state that a slight adjustment of the contrast would help offset any clipping issues.

The Image Cropping pattern lets you know if all 1080 x 1920 pixels are being displayed. Check to see if your “Overscan” feature is turned off on the display if you are encountering pixel cropping.

Chroma Alignment is next up with a pattern that utilizes crosshairs distributed around the screen that should be pure white with no colour fringing.

The Dynamic Range (both high and low) is determined in the next two patterns ensuring that full dynamic range of the signal is being processed by the display and delivered by the player to the display respectively. Again the instructions are clear and concise as to how to adjust the display accordingly.

The final pattern that allows for fine-tuning is the 11 Step Crossed Gray Scale pattern. All 11 levels should be clearly visible and adjusting contrast will fine-tune your gray scale rendition.

There are also a series of luma and chroma patterns for resolution and bandwidth evaluation with the first section of patterns ending with Geometry patterns enabling you to verify that your display is not distorting the image (handy for aligning front projectors) and a unique Picture In Picture geometry pattern verifying accurate PIP performance.

The next two chapters involve patterns designed to evaluate your display’s capability to de-interlace standard and HD material. Also included are test patterns with video material interspersed with film (i.e. titles or captions present on film based source material) as well as the edge adaptive deinterlacing capabilities. Again, this section is clearly explained, simple to comprehend and is effective in evaluating your display and your video source.

There is a brief audio section that allows for evaluation of PCM, Dolby TrueHD and DTS-HD Master Audio but the main focus of this disc is on video performance.

The Spears and Munsil High Definition Benchmark Blu-ray Edition is exactly as stated, a true benchmark for all other calibration discs. Our projector has never looked better with a more 3D and film-like image with absolutely no viewing fatigue in a pitch black room, a major improvement over the previous calibration settings. This is a disc for anyone who owns a 1080p display and wishes to attain maximum performance with minimum headache. Very highly recommended!

For more information about this disc, please visit www.spearsandmunsil.com.

Update (June 2010): It was just brought to our attention that the Spears & Munsil disc now comes supplied with a blue calibration filter (at 1X, 2X, and 3X) to help adjust the colour and tint controls of your display.

Many vinyl enthusiasts start with a $500 turntable because a good number of models are available from well respected manufacturers at this attractive price point. Another reason is that virtually all turntables at this price point come ready to play out of the box, fitted with an aligned cartridge. There’s no question that for someone with a small budget just getting into vinyl this is a great place to start. But like all entry level audio components, we all know that a $500 turntable barely scratches the surface of how fantastic a good vinyl system can sound. Hence it should come as no surprise that many owners of a $500 turntable eventually look to upgrade. So where do you go from here?

Turntable and accessory manufacturer Clearaudio would like one of its turntables to be your next step up. This German manufacturer has the most diverse turntable model line-up that I’ve ever encountered, ranging from the attainable Concept ($1595) all the way to the ultra exotic Statement ($160,000 and no, this is not a misprint). So whether you wear a Fossil watch or a Rolex, Clearaudio has a turntable suitable for your budget. The topic of this review is the recently introduced Concept turntable, a reasonably priced model for those looking for their first turntable or those upgrading from an entry-level model. Like all other the Clearaudio turntables, the Concept was designed and is manufactured in Germany.

What makes the Concept appealing to potential buyers is that it is ready to play out of the box. The Concept uses a belt-drive system and comes with both a tonearm and a moving magnet cartridge installed. All adjustments are made at the Clearaudio factory, including the tracking and anti-scating force. Some of the components of the Concept are not what you would expect to find in similarly priced turntables such as a decoupled, three-speed DC motor and a precision milled 1.2-inch Delrin platter. Even more importantly the Concept has a couple of unique design features which set it miles apart from the competition. First is the direct-wired tonearm which floats on a magnetic bearing that claims to be completely friction free. The result is improved tonearm tracking and stability over standard designs. Secondly, the chassis of the turntable is made of MDF which is wrapped around in a thick brushed aluminium trim to give the chassis extra stiffness and reduce resonance. Other features that round out the Concept include a high quality cable and gold-plated RCA connectors (hardwired to the chassis) as well as three adjustable, spiked feet. The power supply is separated from the turntable and comes in the form of a wall wart. The only thing that I didn’t enjoy about the Concept is that it doesn’t come with a dust lid. However, Clearaudio recently released a matching lid for the Concept which is sold separately for approximately $140.

Visually, the Concept is as sleek and modern as they come. Its fit and finish are simply superb. Sitting atop my audio rack it did not go unnoticed to family and friends. In fact, its brushed aluminium finish and rounded corners were almost a perfect match to my Classé Audio CP-500 preamplifier and CA-2100 amplifier, which I used to evaluate the performance of this turntable with. My reference Focal Electra 1008 Be II speakers completed the system.

The setup of the Concept couldn’t be simpler. Once you place the platter on the chassis and plug in the power supply, the only thing left to do is make sure that the turntable sits level wherever you choose to place it – Clearaudio includes a little bubble level in the box precisely for this purpose.

The Concept will gladly play 33-1/3, 45 and 78 RPM records – the speed control is selected with a large knob on the left of the chassis, which also serves as the ON/OFF button. I began with the Beatles Let It Be Naked album on the platter. It was instantly apparent that I was listening to a very clean, highly detailed presentation. The sound was nearly pitch-perfect and so engaging that I often found myself singing along, which rather got in the way of what I should have been doing , namely evaluating the sound performance. But perhaps this was a good thing! So I decided to settle on a compromise: I would only sing the parts that I know and focus on evaluating the performance the rest of the time. The Concept faithfully revealed the various layers of sound on Let It Be Naked and drew me into the music so much that it renewed my appreciation for this album.

Coldplay’s Vida La Vida album sounded just as remarkable. The Concept had no trouble sorting through and making sonic sense of Chris Martin’s vocals, electric guitar riffs, piano passages and orchestral movements. Its precise timing and speed played with effortlessness through the trickiest parts of this album, never losing focus. Low frequencies had good extension and played with great attack, but always exhibited subtle variances and control. Martin’s vocals were filled with real-life passion that at times sent chills running through my body, taking me back to when I saw breathtaking performance of Coldplay in a small venue in Toronto a few years ago. The Concept played with a natural tonality and solid composure through the midrange – not once did I notice any blurring. The high frequencies sounded brilliantly crisp and never strained or overwhelmed.

Then I moved on to a classic selection, Respighi: The Birds, Brazilian Impressions (Mercury Records SR90153). Italian composer Respighi may be best known for the Roman Trilogy but The Birds and Brazilian Impressions are regarded to be just as immersive, if not more so, by many classical fans. The Concept reproduced these masterful compositions with the delicacy and all the emotional nuances which they deserve. The openness and excellent imaging of the Concept produced a grandiose, three-dimensional soundstage. The dynamics and attack were never in short supply, especially in the last movement of Brazilian Impressions.

The Clearaudio Concept is decisively one of my favourite sounding turntables in the under $2000 price point. It offers a delightful, full-bodied sound that is highly detailed and has plentiful dynamics. Without question, Clearaudio’s innovative, friction free tonearm mount and extra attention to resonance control resulted in a turntable that outshines most similarly priced competitors. The Clearaudio Concept is a clear winner in this category.

Click here to discuss this review on the CANADA HiFi Forum

Manufacturer:
Clearaudio
www.clearaudio.de
Distributed in Canada by Tri-Cell Enterprises 905-265-7870 or 1-800-263-8151, www.tricell-ent.com

Clearaudio Concept Turntable
Price: $1595 CAD

If your last experience with vinyl was way back when the compact disc was displaying it’s dominance as the popular audio media format or if you have only known digital sound formats, we have some good news. For the past several years vinyl records have been making a comeback by showing increasing sales figures while CD sales continue to sag. Of course while we don’t expect that the vinyl record sales will ever approach the status that they enjoyed in the past, the continued upward sales trends do tell us something – more and more people are retuning to or discovering the vinyl media.

So you’re probably wondering – how is that good news? The increasing sales figures mean that more and more artists are releasing their music on vinyl and if you are already a vinyl addict, you have more music to choose from on vinyl. You may be still wondering – how does that help me? With more and more people discovering the vinyl media, it means that there is a growing market for entry-level turntables and where there is a market, there is competition for a share of that market. Competition is good, it translates to better prices, offers us more choices and companies strive to deliver better products to get that edge on the competitors. One only has to look at the number of companies that are now offering several turntable models that span from entry-level to mid-priced units. One such company is Pro-Ject Audio Systems, which arguably is the largest supplier of consumer grade turntables. The Pro-Ject Audio Systems line of turntable products are imported and distributed in Canada by Planet of Sound Distribution. In this review I evaluate the entry-level Pro-Ject Debut III turntable which retails for $379 in the flat black finish. The Debut III is also available in a glossy finish ($429) in seven different colours: black, white, silver, red, yellow, blue and green.

If you are new to records you should be aware that there can be a lot of issues with them. Most of them are typical of what one would expect from any analog media source – surface noise, dust, static and lets not forget rumble as well as wow and flutter. In addition, there is also the inconvenience of having to physically turn over the album every 20 minutes or so. Another nuisance can be the special care and attention that the records will inevitably require – they will need to be stored properly and they will also require the occasional cleaning. This may all seem like a lot of work and let me assure you that it sure can be. When I think of the effort required for even modest record collections and good vinyl playback, the phrase that comes to mind is “a labour of love”. Your reward for all that hard work – more music, warmth and naturalness which are far too often absent from digital media sources.

Like most entry-level turntables in this price range, the Debut III is no-frills and entirely manual. For those of you who are not familiar with turntables, a manual turntable comes equipped with a power switch to start the turntable and a lever to raise and lower the tonearm – that is about it. For instance, after placing a record on the platter, the motor is turned on by flipping the power switch (hidden on the underside of the plinth), manually positioning the tonearm over the record and lowering the tonearm to begin playback. After some 20 minutes or so, you will manually need to lift the tonearm off the end of the record as there is no automatic return mechanism. Furthermore, should you ever get the urge to spin a 45, there is no simple switch that you can flip. To change the playback speed of the turntable you need to lift the platter and manually move the belt to a different step on the motor pulley. All of this is very simple to do, but worth mentioning for those unfamiliar with manual turntables. I should also mention that a manual turntable is generally able to achieve a higher quality sound than an automatic turntable.

Pro-Ject has arguably been the leader in providing inexpensive entry-level turntables of good quality for the past several years. The Czech-built Debut III is the latest iteration of its popular entry-level offering. It comes packaged as a complete turntable which is pretty much ready to play out of the box. The turntable comes equipped with the Pro-Ject 8.6 tonearm and is fitted with an Ortofon OM5e high-output (4 mV) moving magnet cartridge. The Ortofon OM5e is a modest OEM cartridge which can be easily upgraded by simply swapping out the stylus. The 1.3 kg platter is constructed from sandwiched sheet-steel and is topped with a removable felt mat. It is worth noting that a steel platter cannot be used with a moving-coil (MC) cartridge. However, an upgraded acrylic platter is available from Pro-Ject for the Debut III if you’d like to use a MC cartridge. The design of the turntable has been well thought out as is evidenced by the way that the motor is decoupled from the plinth using a rubber band suspension to help reduce vibrations. The plinth is constructed from MDF and rests on four shock absorbing feet. The plinth of the tested turntable had a matt black finish and for a little more money you can purchase the Debut III in a number of stylish colors or in a high gloss finish. For an entry-level model, the fit and finish of the Debut III is impressive and cosmetically it can fit into most environments so the WAF (wife acceptance factor) should not be an issue. The acrylic clear plastic dust cover rounds off the turntable and is removable. The total weight of the turntable is 5.5 kg and the overall build quality is good.

Setup of the Debut III is fairly simple given that the tonearm and cartridge have been factory installed and aligned. After reading through the instructions that are provided there are a few simple setup items that need to be completed. These include removing a couple of screws which secured the motor, arm balancing and placement of the anti-skating weight. Following the instructions, a novice can setup the turntable in under twenty minutes.

If this is your first turntable, you may not already have a phono preamplifier so you will need to budget for one. We used the Pro-Ject Phono Box II ($169) – an op-amp based preamp that offers a gain of 40 dB for moving magnet cartridges and 60 dB for moving coil cartridges. To evaluate the Debut III we listened to a number of musical selections that ranged from some great European pressed classical recordings to modern releases on 180 gram vinyl. For those accustomed to listening to lossy digital media formats, the Debut III is likely to be a revelation. You will find yourself listening more and hearing more music. Relative to a CD player in the same price range and playing the same tracks, the Debut III was more musical and enjoyable – a welcome trade for the superior extension at the extremes and the resolution that the CD player had to offer.

When evaluating audio gear, one of the first albums I usually listen to is Steely Dan’s Aja. I use Aja to check for accurate reproduction of vocals. The album also offers fine percussion, especially the snare drum. The Debut III did a very good job of reproducing the vocals. However, on the title track I like to listen for Timothy B. Schmit’s backing vocals which at times seemed a little difficult to locate.

Another album I like to use is Joe Jackson’s Body and Soul. With a little luck you can often find a 1984 pressing of this album in used record stores for just a few dollars. This is an excellent recording, full of rich detail and where the music and vocals decay very naturally. Other cues to listen for are the cymbals which should be very crisp, deep bass guitar and rich resonant sound from the piano and saxophone. Again the Debut III did an excellent job with the vocals and the music which was dynamic and with strong images. Where the Debut III was lacking the most was in the bass notes which sounded loose. Also, at the high end of the audio spectrum, the cymbals were not as crisp as they should be.

In general, the Debut III offered quiet backgrounds and added no unpleasant colorations to the music. There was a wide soundstage with good depth and impressive solid images. Playing on the Debut III, music had good rhythm and dynamics which made for a natural and involving performance. Of course there have to be some compromises for a turntable in the price range and this is evident at the extremes of the low and high response. While the bass was pleasant and natural, the low bass notes seemed less controlled and loose which is not surprising from an entry-level offering. While the Debut III will not be able to compete with higher-end tables, it does a great job of creating a pleasant performance that keeps you engaged to the music and that makes it easy to look past any of its minor faults – especially at this price.

The Debut III is an affordable and great-sounding entry-level turntable that provides exceptional value. The beauty of the Debut III is that can be used by vinyl virgins or analogue addicts (and everyone in between) to fill many different roles – your first turntable, a turntable to resurrect your old collection or perhaps a good inexpensive turntable for a secondary system. One thing is for certain, you will be hard pressed to find a better sounding turntable and cartridge for less.

Manufacturer:
Pro-Ject Audio Systems
www.project-audio.com
Distributed in Canada by Planet of Sound Distribution, 613-731-4439

Pro-Ject Debut III Turntable
Price: $379 (flat black), $429 (glossy finishes)

We are now well entrenched into the digital age – yet it is not uncommon to come across headlines like this: Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD’s Coffin (Wired, October 29, 2007), Vinyl Gets Its Groove Back (Time, January 10, 2008), Sagging CD Sales Put Vinyl Back In The Groove (City News, Toronto, March 26, 2008), How Vinyl Got Its Groove Back (CBS News, August 19, 2008).

Now of course you would expect to see these sorts of headlines in hi-fi audio magazines, but the mainstream media? “Nostalgia” and “retro kick” may be what you are thinking, but you only need to spend a little time in a used music shop to realize this does not seem to be the case. For the past year, the used CD and DVD shop down the road from me has had up a sign that reads, “We want your vinyl”. It is teenagers, born in the 1990s that are flipping through the used records, not baby boomers. The RIAA reported that 2007 sales in the American music industry sold 36.6 percent more Extended Play (EP) and Long Play (LP) records than the previous year while CD unit sales declined 11.7 percent. Is it a fad? It could be, but 2008 sales are continuing to show more sales growth and major online retailer Amazon continues to add more new vinyl to their catalog.

My interest in music began as a teenager in the mid 1980s and a few years later I had moved from analogue cassettes and LPs to compact discs. In a few more years the all of the cassettes were gone, but for some reason I decided to hang on to the LPs and into storage they went.

Over the past two years an increased presence of new and used vinyl in the local and online music stores has brought forth a renewed interest in records for me. Out came the old turntable and the love-hate relationship began. If you are not familiar with records, there can be a lot of problems with them – rumble, wow and flutter, static, surface noise and dust as well as the inconvenience of having to flip the album every 20 minutes. Despite all of these problems – some of which drive me crazy, the idea of an improved analogue system continued to grow on me and I eventually decided to treat myself to a new turntable.

My LP collection is not large, and I would consider myself as a casual listener of vinyl who appreciates good playback. On that basis, I felt that an inexpensive entry-level turntable of good quality would be an appropriate choice for me. The local marketplace had two inexpensive entry-level turntable options – the Rega P1 ($399) and the Pro-Ject Debut III ($349). Both the Rega P1 and the Pro-Ject Debut III are well-regarded entry-level turntables and they seemed to fit what I looking for in terms of style, playback and cost. I decided to try the slightly more expensive Rega P1 as I was well aware of the excellent reputation that Rega has developed over the numerous years that they have been developing turntables.

The Rega P1 is a fully manual turntable. For those new to turntables or those that are familiar with the automatic ones, a fully manual turntable means that aside from the power switch to start the turntable and a lever to raise and lower the tonearm everything else is manual. For instance, after starting the turntable you will need to place the tonearm at the beginning of the record to start playback. After some 20 minutes or so, you will manually need to lift the tonearm off the end of the record as there is no automatic mechanism that will return the tonearm. Furthermore, if you would ever like to change the speed of the turntable, there is no simple switch that you can flip. To change the playback speed of the turntable you need to lift off the platter and then move the belt to the other pulley step. All of this is very simple to do, but it is worth mentioning for those who are not familiar with how manual turntables operate.

The P1 is a relatively new entry-level turntable offering from famed British turntable manufacturer Rega Research Limited. Since 1973, Rega has been developing turntables that are well known to deliver quality sound and performance at an unrivalled price. However, the P1 is a new venture for Rega in that it is the least expensive turntable ever offered by the company. Consistent with the traditional design of Rega turntables, the P1 consists of a solid, but lightweight plinth and a good quality AC motor and main bearing. The P1 comes with a completely new tonearm, the RB100. The new RB100 is a lower cost replacement for the similar RB250 and RB300 tonearms. The RB100 features a simplified alloy arm tube that is fitted with a plastic headshell, plastic counterweight stub and an adjustable counterweight. The tonearm comes ready-fitted with an Ortofon OM5e high-output moving magnet cartridge. The Ortofon OM5e is a modest OEM cartridge. The cartridge has already been aligned for you and this makes setup of the turntable ultra simple. Armed with the simple setup instructions that are provided, a complete novice can setup this turntable up in about ten minutes. Instead of a glass platter for which Rega is famous for, the platter for the P1 is constructed from 11/16″ medium density fiber (MDF) that has been sprayed black and will not be winning any fashion awards. Now while the MDF platter is clearly a compromise, it should be appreciated that it would be impossible to make this entry-level price point with a glass platter. A removable black felt mat tops off the platter. The plinth is constructed using lightweight wood and sits on three rubber pods that are common to the Rega Planar turntables. The appearance of the P1 is plain and the fit and finish is good. The plinth is nicely made and finished with a dark semi-gloss laminate. The acrylic clear plastic dust cover is also well made and is removable.

As the P1 became a replacement for my older mid-fi turntable, the excellent sound quality from the entry-level Rega P1 turntable made a strong positive first impression. It produced a rich, warm sound, solid images and a large soundstage that engages one with the music. It is no wonder why some of the younger generation who has been accustomed to the thin sound of MP3 are discovering and enjoying the vinyl medium.

The listening setup consisted of a NAD C162 preamplifier, a DIY gainclone amplifier (do-it-yourself clone of the 47 Laboratory 4706 Gaincard) and DIY speakers with either Fostex FX120 or Jordan JX92S drivers. The records that were auditioned with the P1 ranged from Cold Play and Kate Bush on new 180 gram vinyl to releases from the mid 1980s. Let’s be clear, the Rega P1 is no giant killer and it would be unreasonable to expect that level of performance from an entry-level player. However, I found the P1 to be an excellent turntable that did of great job of engaging one with the music with a sense of liveliness, emotion and character that made for hours of enjoyable listening. The P1 is fairly quiet, in particular with regards to surface noise when compared to similarly priced tables. This for me is a big deal as the music I prefer often has quiet passages and I hate surface noise. At the extreme lower and upper limits the sound was a little rough, but very natural throughout the midrange. Music had a good rhythm and pace with good detail and dynamics. The soundstage was also good – wide with good depth, but the imaging at times seemed slightly out of focus.

The Cold Play vinyl came in a bundle with the CD. It only took a minute or so to cue the two together so I could switch between vinyl and CD with the remote. Unfortunately the CD player (NAD C521i) was louder so a true blind comparison could not be made. It is not difficult to note the differences between the analogue and digital sources. The analogue setup does not have the extension at the extremes nor the resolution that a CD can offer. However, to my ears there is no doubt that the P1 provided a more natural and involving performance that to me is what listening to reproduced music is all about.

A turntable is not for everyone. If you are new to vinyl, you should give consideration to the problems previously noted, surface noise, inconveniences, etc. If you can look beyond that (and some can’t), you owe it to yourself to audition one at a hi-fi shop – you may like what you hear. I found the P1 to be a significant improvement over my older mid-fi unit. For the very modest price of $399, the Rega P1 is the perfect turntable for those just discovering vinyl or those looking to replace an older turntable.

Manufacturer:
Rega
www.rega.co.uk
Distributed in Canada by Plurison, 1-866-271-5689

Rega P1 Turntable
Price: $399 CDN

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