Apr 192016
 

This sort of odd pairing could only happen in a post cold war world.  I am talking about replacing tubes in a British made headphone amplifier with vacuum tubes originally designed for the former Soviet military and space programme.

Resurrecting an Old X-Cans Headphone Amplifier

I was curious to see if these Soviet-era tubes would tame some of the brightness and sibilance of my headphone amplifier.  I have an ageing Musical Fidelity X-Cans V1 headphone amplifier that has served me quite well over the years.   When it was released, back in the the mid-nineties, it was well regarded as an affordable dedicated headphone amplifier which offered better sound than headphone jacks built in to amplifiers and AV receivers.  Although X-Cans are not considered high-end, they are most certainly better than cheap headphone circuits built in to any integrated amp or AV receiver I have owned.

Musical Fidelity X-Cans. Class A tube headphone amplifier

Musical Fidelity X-Cans. Tube headphone amplifier, a bit old and still sounds good.

In the evenings, I now listen to music through headphones and back in 2015, I pulled the X-Cans out of a storage bin and discovered the original Phillips JAN 6922 tubes were kaput.  There was a loud hum and barely any audio signal going through.  I ordered some common Electro-Harmonix 6922 tubes and got the X-Cans working again.  The sound is decent and it is good enough for lower end and “laid back” headphones.

Taming Brightness Caused by Electro-Harmonix “Black Box” Tubes

Now comes the rub, with higher quality headphones, the X-Cans can sound bright and there seems to be some artificial colouring to the higher registers in music.  Especially with my Grado 325Es, which are very revealing with a forward midrange and a big sound stage.  Just like a pair of electrostatic speakers, the Grado’s will accentuate any flaws in your system.  When I plug the Grados into the headphone stage of my Asus Xonar STX soundcard, they sound more balanced.  The Xonar has a really good headphone stage, but lacks the punch, power and sound stage of the X-Cans.  Grado headphones are known for a prominent mid-range and some critics also find them a tad bright.  They really need the right headphone stage to sound their best, namely something warm and not too forward.

I figured the generic Electro-Harmonix 6922 tubes could be the culprit.  I seem to recall the X-Cans sounding less bright with the original Philips JAN 6922 tubes.  After some googling, I discovered a common complaint against  Electro-Harmonix tubes in hi-fi systems is the sound can be harsh and bright.  These tubes are better suited to guitar amplifiers.  Moreover, guitarists seeking a warmer sound are told to stay away from entry level Electro-Harmonix tubes.  No worries, they are inexpensive, so no great loss.

Time to roll some tubes.

Time to roll some tubes.  These Electro Harmonix tubes are too aggressive and bright.

Ideally, the best solution would be to dig deep into my pockets and get some vintage NOS tubes from Mullard or Telefunken.  People with tube based headphone amps or pre-amps often give them glowing reviews.  Alas, a set of those tubes would cost as much as buying a new and better headphone amp. It does not make sense to spend hundreds on rolling tubes for a budget component.

Vintage Soviet Era Tubes, An Affordable Solution

On some audio forums I was reading good reviews for Soviet-Era Voskhod “rocket label” 6922 tubes.   Any available stock of those tubes will be used or “new old stock” (NOS).  On Ebay, I found a Ukrainian vendor who is selling matched pairs of NOS 6922 Voskhod Rocket tubes for under $25 CAD shipped.  His feedback rating is 100% for over 2300 transactions, so, I know I’m getting the real deal.

Soviet-Era packaging. At least 20 years old. Notice the Rocket Logo?

Soviet-Era packaging. At least 30 years old. Notice the Rocket Logo?

It took just over a month for the tubes to arrive and look decades old.  I would fathom a guess these tubes were made any time between the late 1960’s and early 1980’s.   They are military grade and for all I know, may be been designed for use in rockets or missiles.  This means they should be immune to microphonic ringing caused by sound waves from speakers.  Any space exploration geek knows that Voskhod rockets were used to send the first humans into orbit and deploy Zenit satellites.  They flew from 1963 to 1976, so if the Soviet space programme ever used this series of vacuum tubes, that’s very cool in my books.

So, in a bizarre twist of old cold war enemies, I went to work to rip out modern Russian vacuum tubes from a British headphone amplifier and replace them with good old-fashioned communist tubes from the former USSR.

6N1P-EV ~= E88CC ~= 6DJ8 ~= 6922 Matched Pair Voskhod Rocket

6N1P-EV ~= E88CC ~= 6DJ8 ~= 6922 Matched Pair Voskhod Rocket NOS

So, How Does it Sound

In short, they sound great!

Before evaluating new tubes, I keep them powered on for at least a day.  This gives them time to break in a bit and provide a good indication of how they will sound over time.  So after leaving the Voskhods on for 48 hours, it I decided to given them a listen and play a variety of music over a 3 hour period.

Gone is the harshness and exaggerated treble of the Electro-Harmonix tubes.  The Voskhods sound fuller, warmer, detailed and less fatiguing.   Even after a prolonged listening session, my ears were not tired.  They have transformed the X-Cans into a better sounding headphone amplifier…one that I will be inclined to keep indefinitely.

The Voskhod tubes also tamed the brightness of the Grado 325E headphones.  I really like those headphones, not only are they very comfortable, the midrange is fantastic and they render sound in a very detailed and musical way.  The Grados allow me to hear sounds and music veiled by other headphones I own, such as the Focal Spirt One S and the Sennheiser HD-558.   That said, the Grados are not perfect, some find them too bright around 2 to 3 Khz range.   One solution is to modify or replace the pads and the other is to look for a warmer sounding headphone amp.  I opted to do both.  I wrapped the pads with electrical tape which took some edge off the high end and also added a bit more bass.   I reasoned that tube rolling could help warm up my headphone amplifier and with the Voskhods I struck gold on a budget.

Now, I love my Grado 325E’s more than ever.  The Voskhod tubes roll off the high end in a very pleasant way without sacrificing any soundstage or detail.   To my ears, they sound more neutral than the Electro-Harmonix tubes, whilst retaining the fullness and three dimensional sound stage one would expect from a good tube amplifier.

Highly Recommended!

Mar 152016
 
Excellent Analog Sound Has Set the Bar High

Thanks to a rediscovery of vinyl records, I have been listening to a lot more music.  Consequently, I upgraded my phono pre-amp to a Pro-Ject Tube Box S and purchased an audiophile quality phono cartridge, a Grado Statement Sonata 1.  Normally I would not consider such an expensive cartridge, but I was lucky enough to buy it for nearly half price from a high end hi-fi shop who is no longer a Grado dealer and is liquidating old stock.  This analog combination sounds fantastic and has taken my enjoyment of music to new heights.   It is warm, detailed, dynamic, clear, engaging and does not cause listener fatigue.

Grado Statement Sonata 1

Grado Statement Sonata 1 – Makes me prefer vinyl records over digital music even with a good DAC

Digital Audio Has Lost its Lustre

My turntable and phono cartridge combination have caused a problem.  When I listen to digital audio on my system, it lacks “something” compared to a well produced vinyl recording.  As a first step to getting better digital audio, I purchased a good DAC, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, which has earned many positive professional reviews.  Ken Rockwell, says it is one of the best DACs he has tested and I do not doubt that it surpasses the quality of some much costlier units.  The DACMagic Plus is a definite upgrade over the aging Asus Xonar HDAV 1.3 sound card in my PC.  It is a fine sounding piece of gear, but there is room for improvement.

Compared to listening to vinyl records on my system, the DAC’s sound stage is less three dimensional, there is a somewhat brittle and recessed sound signature that lets you know that you are listening to CD audio. Namely some of detail, warmth and dynamics are missing and listener fatigue quickly sets in.  The DacMagic Plus is doing its job very well and is revealing the shortcomings of CD audio.

Before audiophiles attack my statements, I believe that I am doing all the right things to maximize the quality of my digital source.  Most of my music files are ripped in lossless FLAC format from CD’s.  I also have a collection of MP3 files in 320 kbps, 24 bit/96 Khz re-mastered albums and a number of SACD albums on my server.  The latter two formats definitely sound better than CD audio or MP3.  I play the files through JRiver or Foobar2000 using the ASIO driver for the DacMagic Plus, so everything is output bit perfect output via asynchronous USB 2.0, which should be immune from jitter.  I am using a very good quality USB cable, so I know the DAC is performing optimally.

I am not going to get into a debate of whether CD’s or vinyl sounds better.  That issue has been beaten to death on the internet.  A well mastered CD can sound great and is better than a poorly produced record.  Conversely, A well mastered record on 180g vinyl will sound much better than a poorly mastered CD.  Also, I find with a good DAC, 24 bit/96 Khz audio sounds amazing, much better than CD audio.  I think many of the perceived differences can be traced back to the quality of source equipment (ie: DACs, turntables and cartridges).

Digital To Analog Converters are Not Acoustically Neutral

Converting the bits in digital music to an analog signal involves a considerable array of converging technologies, all of which can alter and shape the acoustical characteristics of the sound.  For example, the quality of the DAC chips, the on-board filtering and anti-aliasing algorithms, over sampling rates and perhaps most importantly, the final analog output stage, all play a role here.  Most DAC output stages use one or more op-amps that can have their own acoustical signatures.  Some DACs use tube output stages and that can also affect the sound.

Engineers have some leeway in how a DAC shape the final waveform via digital output filters.  The Cambridge DACMagic Plus allows one to select among three digital filtering algorithms which make subtle changes to the sound.  Turns out digital is not such a pure thing as one thinks.  With DACs, just like turntables and phono cartridges, you tend to get what you pay for.  For example, my Grado cartridge sounds a lot warmer and fuller than the “analytical” Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge it replaced.  Just like analog sources, DACs can have their own signature sounds.  Question is, which one do you like?  That will depend on your taste in music, speakers, amplifiers, room acoustics, etc.

A Budget Solution to Better Digital Sound

Since I do not have thousands of dollars to spend on a high-end DAC, I was wondering if there is anything I can do to improve the sound of the modestly priced DacMagic Plus.  Perhaps, if one shapes and alters the analog output signal, it could make a positive improvement.

I happen to like the sound of vacuum tubes.  My phono pre-amp uses tubes and it sounds fantastic.  My headphone amps are tube based and I prefer their sound over solid state.  In a perfect world, my pre-amp and power amplifier would all be tube driven, but I cannot afford it.  A high quality tube based amplification system which can drive my power thirsty Martin-Logan SL-3’s speakers under load would cost me well over $7000 (even if buy used).  I have to find a budget solution, one that will cost me between $200 and $300.  This is where tube buffers may come in handy.

About 20 years ago I owned a Musical Fidelity X-10D vacuum tube buffer, which is a line level pre-amplifier device that hooks up between a CD player and preamp.  Back then, most CD players had mediocre output stages, the X-10D promised to improve sound by buffering the analog signal and passing it through a vacuum tube circuit.  No gain is applied in the circuit, so input and output volume are the same.  It made a noticeable difference on cheap CD players, but its benefits tended to vanish with a good CD player.  When I got my first “audiophile” CD player, the X-10D was relegated to gathering dust.  Eventually it died and I tossed it in the garbage, so the search was on for a new alternative.

Getting Some Vacuum Tube Goodness Into The DAC’s Output

Tube buffer stages are still manufactured and two popular units are the Chinese Yaqin SD-CD2 and SD-CD3, which are typically sold on Ebay.  I opted to consider the SD-CD3 since it is the better of the two units. The Yaqin SD-CD3 has received some positive online reviews, so I ordered one from Ebay for $195 USD shipped.

I am not going to do a technical review here.  The specs for the SD-CD3 are found online.  I am more interested in how it will affect the sound of my stereo system.  It will be hooked up between the Cambridge Audio DACMagic Plus and a Marantz SR-6007 AV receiver, which serves as a pre-amp to an Emotiva XPA-2 Gen 2 power amplifier.  Some people connect tube buffers between their pre-amp and power amp, however, for now I will connect it to the DAC.  The online community consensus suggests that is the best solution.

All the way from Hong Kong

Only 10 days from Hong Kong to Canada

The Yaqin CD3 arrived in a large, generic looking box, about three times the size of the unit.  It is very well padded and can survive some abuse in transit.  Since Yaqin is a small company, they spend their money on technology, not translation services, as evidenced by the chinglish manual.  There is also a weird smell, like stale manufacturing oil, that tells you this is a budget component.  Right out of the box, this thing has some character.

Chinglish Manual

Yaqin CD3 Chinglish manual.  I can’t wait for the electrolysis special.

Everything looked intact on the CD3 and for a $200 component, it is surprisingly well made.  It has a solid aluminum chassis, a hefty transformer and some funky looking metal shields around the 68NP tubes.

Out of the box

Yaqin SD-CD3 straight out of the box.  Ready for some tube rolling.

The SD-CD3 is shipped with a pair of generic Chinese 68NP vacuum tubes.  I suppose they do a decent job, but I know there are better tubes out there.  Ideally, the best upgrade would be pair of matched “new old stock” (NOS) tubes.  NOS is unused stock of vintage tubes manufactured in the USA, Canada, Britain, Germany, Holland, Japan, Russia, etc.  Although decades old, NOS tubes, especially from Britain or the USA, command high prices due to their rarity and excellent sound.   I am not going to spend hundreds on a pair of tubes for a budget component.  There are affordable alternatives.

Russian Tung-Sol

Russian Re-Issued Tung-Sol 6SN7

Before the Yaqin SD-CD3 arrived, I wanted to have better tubes on hand.  I did a fair bit of online research and decided on a pair of matched Tung-Sol 6SN7s, ordered from The Tube Store in Hamilton, Ontario.  The quality of Russian made tubes has come a long way in the last decade.  Tube connoisseurs will argue they are not as good as NOS, which they probably aren’t, but at 1/4 to 1/3 the price of premium NOS tubes, they are still superior to the tubes shipped with the SD-CD3.

Read for Testing

Yaqin SD-CD3 with Tung Sol 6SN7 – The lovely warm glow of tubes

First Impressions

Once the Tung-Sol tubes were in place, it was time to power up the Yaqin SD-CD3 and test it.  At first I was horrified, because there was a loud hum and thought it was a lemon!  Thankfully, the problem was the result of some defective RCA cables.  As soon as I replaced the cables, the hum vanished and the unit is completely silent.

I let the tubes burn in for an hour and tested music with and without the Yaqin CD-3 connected.  My first impression is generally positive.  The sound stage is wider, the instruments seem to be present in a 3d space, just like I am used to with good vinyl records.  The sound is a bit warmer and detail on acoustical instruments has been given a slight boost.  I found it counter-intuitive that the most apparent improvement seems to be with higher resolution music files, such as 24bit/96 Khz and SACD audio.  If anything, the differences it has made to the sound are subtle and good.  I think I will keep it.

This is by no means my final assessment of the Yaqin CD3.  Vacuum tubes require dozens of hours to break in and sound their best.  I am leaving it powered on for a week and then after several hours of listening, I will post my review on how it has changed the sound of my DAC.

Maybe I will start listening to digital music all over again and enjoy it as much as I do vinyl records.

Jan 132016
 

Vinyl records are experiencing 40% or so annual growth in sales, yet true record stores are still few and far between. Only two such stores are within a reasonable driving distance from my home: Star Records in Oshawa and Zap Records in Cobourg. Recently I published a post about my experience at Star Records who maintain a very strict adherence to old school principles.

My fiancé has family in Cobourg and I went along for the ride in order to check out Zap Records while she went shopping with her Mother.  Being a typical male, I only like shopping in motorcycle, cigar, camera, butchers and record stores. So, naturally, this was a fine way to spend an afternoon.   My first impression of Zap Records was very positive and I have no hesitation recommending them to any music lover or vinyl record collector.

Zap Records manifests the best aspects of a true record store, such as a non-corporate culture, a quirky, unique and relaxed atmosphere as well as being tailored for music geeks by a music geek. Unlike Star Records, Zap Records makes some concessions to the 21st century. Specifically, they run a website, a facebook page and accept credit and debit cards as payment.  Personally I like this balance and it creates a more convenient experience.

Zap Records

The location is for rent as they are moving to larger store in February 2016

Zap’s facebook page is very nicely done and contains a wealth of music information, trivia, history and nostalgia. It’s more than just marketing, it is the manifestation of someone who truly loves music.  It’s a great resource that I will check out from time to time.

The store is relatively small and contains a sprawling treasure trove of new and used records and some used CD’s.  They also have a good selection of counter culture t-shirts and assorted mementos.  Over a dozen customers filled the narrow aisles and they were a mixture of old, young and middle aged people.  I think it’s great to see several generations literally rub shoulders together as they shuffle around looking for their own musical nuggets.

In my brief time at Zap’s, I was impressed by the owner’s encyclopedic knowledge of various musical genres which became apparent as he talked with customers. He strikes me as the sort of person who establishes long term relationships and trust with his regular clientele. This is exactly the sort of experience completely absent from digital downloads, purchasing CD’s from a big box store (ugh!) or Amazon. I would rather get insight from an experienced human expert instead of some algorithm that makes suggestions based on one’s online purchases and web browsing habits. Pattern matching software has its benefits, but has absolutely no soul, understanding or intuition.  Another nice human touch was the owner’s beagle asleep near the cash register. Any business a proprietor or employee can bring their pet to work gets a big thumbs up from me.

Zap Records

Zap Records – My Kind of Place

Although millennials are driving up record sales, there must be countless retirees who have not embraced the digital age and still live in an analog world.  No doubt they would still see vinyl records as a familiar way to listen to music.  There was a distinguished British man, apparently in his early 70’s shopping around for classical music. His apparel and accent bespoke of a man who is cultured, educated and worldly. This was quite a contrast in style from the 20 something year olds looking for music from earlier generations — yet there is still some convergence. I overhead the British gentleman and the owner discussing music from the 1960’s. As turns out he was living in England during the height of the “British Invasion” and psychedelic scene. In his younger years, he had the privilege of seeing live performances by Jimmy Hendrix, the Beatles, The Kinks and more. This impressed the owner who also wanted to know if the gentleman had original rock and roll records from the 1960’s in good condition and offered to buy them at top dollar. Such recordings will fetch hundreds per album among well heeled collectors.

My budget is far more modest and I picked up some great used vinyl for my own eclectic collection.

  • The Stranglers – Feline (1983)
  • The Edgar Winter Group – They Only Come Out At Night (1972)
  • Los Lobos – By The Light Of The Moon (1987)
  • Leon Redbone – Double Time (1977)
  • Les Paul and Mary Ford – Lover’s Luau (1959)
  • The Ventures – A Go Go (1965)
  • Buddy Rich – Drummer’s Drummer (1979)
  • Fontanna And His Orchestra, René Duval ‎– Cafe Continental (1965)
Jan 112016
 

One of the perks of listening to vinyl records is analog audio equipment. Unlike digital sources and integrated circuit amplifiers, analog gear allows a certain degree of tinkering and easy improvements for anyone adept with a soldering iron or the ability to replace op-amps or tubes in their sockets.

The Search for a Vacuum Tube Phono Preamp

Recently I decided to retire my 19 year old Rotel RQ-970BX phono preamp and treat myself to something better.  I wanted to try out a modern phono stage based on vacuum tubes (valves).  It’s not secret that well-engineered tube equipment can sound fantastic with a huge sound stage and a warm, non-fatiguing tone. Unlike many vintage designs, modern tube equipment does not suffer from excessive noise, hum or distortion. On paper, they feature very low distortion, low noise and a wide frequency response.  What is hard to capture through measured specifications is how they sound, that’s the subjective part.  However, it’s the overall subjective sound quality that can make or break good analog gear.  One of the advantages of tube based designs is that one can try out different tubes which will improve and tailor the sound to one’s preference.  The challenge was to get something significantly better than the Rotel, but under $500.  A tall order since many top “audiophile recommended” phono stages cost over $1000.

I was going to try my hand at building a high quality valve based phono preamp and looked at a number of kits on from various online vendors including Ebay. There are some excellent tube based kits for DIY hobbyists, however, they do not come cheap (over $500). Moreover, with the anemic Canadian dollar, purchasing such a kit from the USA adds about 35% to the cost, not to mention shipping fees.

On the other hand, one can find budget tube kits on Ebay. There’s a rub, though, most of them are Chinese products of dubious quality. They often use garden variety Chinese valves that are as common as muck and quality control is not consistent.  Many of these kits are based on old 1960’s and ’70s designs which were copied from vintage equipment and that means noise is an issue.  The Chinese Ebay kits cost between $100 and $300 shipped, not to mention a significant amount of time to build one.  After reading a number of less than stellar reviews on hi-fi sites, I decided against it.

After a fair bit of research and reading several online reviews, I finally decided on the German designed Pro-Ject Tube Box S.  Luckily, I found one for sale at Whitby Audio. I was also fortunate enough to purchase it at the same price before the Canadian dollar took a nose dive and that saved me $200. I expect it was older stock that was sourced when the Canadian dollar was still strong.

As soon as I was home, I connected my turntable, let the tubes warm up for an hour and spun a record.  It sounded fantastic, compared the solid state Rotel RQ-970BX. The Tube Box S has a wider soundstage, greater dynamics, better bass and an overall fullness that really surpasses Rotel.  Moreover, there are dip switch adjustments to meet the exact electrical requirements of just about any moving magnet or moving coil phono cartridge.  Money well spent and it was within my $500 budget.

Pro-Ject Tube Box S

Pro-Ject Tube Box S

Tube Rolling on the Pro-Ject Tube Box S

The factory installed tubes on the Pro-Ject Tube Box S are generic ECC88’s made in Czechoslovakia. They are decent enough, better than many cheap Chinese tubes, but there is room for improvement.   I noticed they tended to be a bit noisy, when the amp is running at high volumes – the tubes were prone to picking up a small amount of hum and hiss. I was able to minimize this by plugging the power supply into another outlet and installing a ferrite coil on the power supply wire.  As good as this unit is, I want silent valves and better sound.

Stock Tubes from Pro-Ject Tube Box S

Stock ECC88 Tubes from Pro-Ject Tube Box S – Inexpensive, Common and Good Enough

Knowing full well the sound of the Tube Box S could be improved with better valves, I visited a number of audio enthusiast web sites and made a list of potential replacements. Many of the best valves cost as much, if not more, than the purchase price of the Tube Box S. A single vintage audiophile class tube could cost anywhere between $150 and $300. The reason is that these tubes were made by now defunct valve manufacturers such as G.E., Telefunken, Mullard, Philips, etc. They are referred to as New Old Stock (NOS), meaning they are unused, still in original boxes and culled from old unsold stock. These historic valves are bought and sold like rare vintage wines. On the other hand, one can purchase brand new valves made in Russia, China or Czechoslovakia. Generally, Russian tubes are favoured and the prices are quite reasonable.  A good Russian preamp tube costs about $12 and better ones start at $25.

Mullard 12AX7 – Russian Recreation of a British Classic

My criteria was to find a valve known for very low noise, excellent hi-fi performance, musical warmth, energetic bass response and a long life. Each valve had to be under $30, so based on my research, I bought a pair of Mullard 12AX7s.   These are Russian copies of famous Mullard tubes made by the legendary and now defunct British manufacturer bearing the same name.

Mullard 12AX7 Vacuum Tube

Mullard 12AX7 Vacuum Tube – A great Hi-Fi Valve

Among audiophiles, original Mullard tubes have a cult status and now command a wallet draining price. The Russian copies get you about 90% of the performance, but at 1/9 to 1/10 the cost. Back in the day, Mullard manufacturing maintained strict quality control and engineering excellence. There is a historic video on youtube that shows how their valves were made with the greatest care and meticulous craftsmanship. The original version of the Mullard 12AX7’s were known for very low noise and excellent audio performance.  Since the Russian copies are based on the same design, I expected a similar result.

Replacing the original tubes in my Pro-Ject Tube Box S took about 30 minutes. I had to remove the fiddly cages around the stock tubes and then carefully pull out the ECC88’s, replace them with the Mullards and reassemble the cages.  I was anxious to try them out, however, brand new tubes can sound harsh until they have warmed up for a few hours.

Getting Ready to Replace the Stock Tubes

Getting Ready to Replace the Stock Tubes

I tested the Tube Box S to make sure the new valves worked and played a record. Naturally it sounded a bit harsh, but after the tubes warmed up for a two hours, they sounded great. Much better than the stock tubes and the valve noise is gone. There is virtually no hum or hiss, even at the highest listening volumes.

Bass is better, with more punch and better decay on the notes. The sound stage is outstanding, you can close your eyes and easily visualize the position of each instrument as if they were right in front of you.  The sound stage takes on a whole new dimension and invites deep listening.  Vocals sound more natural, sibilants have improved and there is more detail on the higher frequencies without any audible harshness or distortion. In other words, it sounds more musical.

New Mullard Tubes Ready to Go

New Mullard 12AX7 Tubes Ready to Go

The Russian Mullards have had several hours play to break in and sound even better.  I expect they will continue to improve slightly after a few more weeks use. It was a worthwhile and modest investment to improve an already excellent phono pre-amp. Tubes rule and records have never sounded better on my system.

Dec 242015
 

Last Saturday marked the first time I purchased vinyl records in over 15 years. As per my previous post, I visited Star Records in Oshawa, one of the last true record stores still standing in Southern Ontario. I had a good haul consisting of new and old albums. Yes, vinyl records are still being issued today and have seen a 40% surge in sales since 2013.  A lot of new recordings can be found in both analog and digital formats.  What is old is new again.

A new LP will run about $25 CAD, somewhat more expensive than a CD, but a much better value in my opinion. These records are pressed on 180 gram vinyl, which is heavy, durable and acoustically superior to those thin shitty records that were sold in the 1980’s and early 90’s. As CD’s become more popular, record companies made LPs thinner and pressed them on inferior vinyl to save money on a dying medium.  180 gram vinyl is very high quality, however, the real kicker on this deal is new records contain a voucher for a digital download of the same album. This is a great idea and once home, I downloaded the 320 KBPS MP3 files of the new records.   I prefer the sound of the record, yet I really appreciate the convenience of getting the MP3 files for use in my car, motorcycle and NAS drive for streaming music, etc.  I would prefer lossless FLAC files, however, 320 KBPS is practically CD quality anyway.

It was really good to rediscover the joy of record shopping again. There is a sense of anticipation when arriving home because you really want to give them a spin. That is an experience I do not get with digital downloads.  It is far more gratifying to find obscure or well known records by hand instead of typing a phrase into a search engine.  What digital has going for it is convenience and predictability, a proper MP3 or FLAC file made from a digital source will invariably be clean and noiseless.  The same cannot always be said when buying used records though. I gave all the used records a deep cleaning before playing them and only one of them was in poor condition. The rest sounded great.

Los Straitjackets – Jet Set

Los Straitjackets Jet SetJet-Set-2-picture

This is a brand new record that was recorded in 2012. Los Straitjackets is an instrumental combo consisting of 3 guitar players, bass and drums. I have seen them perform many times when I lived in the USA and they rank as one of my favourite live bands.  They have a great tongue in cheek sense of humour, the Mexican wrestling masks are very cool and head honcho, Danny Amis, always introduces the band and songs in anglo accented Spanish. They are top shelf musicians with a deep respect for the roots of American rock and roll.  Straightforward good times rock and roll without any darkness or maliciousness.

The record sounds fantastic, warm, full and true with a big sound stage. The retro themed album cover is also great for a smile and chuckle.

The Pogues – If I Should Fall From Grace with God

pogues_-_if_i_should_fall_from_grace_with_god

The seminal album from a legendary Irish band fronted by Shane McGowan, a notorious brawling drunkard with famously bad teeth. Over the years, I enjoyed listening to this band, but often on radio or crappy 128 KBPS MP3’s downloaded from the internet.   This album is a modern re-issue of what is arguably their best known recording. It was time to finally listen to this music as it was meant to be heard.  The instruments are all acoustic, so it is perfect for playing on a good analog source.  Hearing it this way took me into a different world, I was totally enveloped by every instrument heard, each in perfect detail against a lush and rhythmic background. I must have downed three shots of whiskey while listening to it, somehow the music gets to you that way.  Time to buy some more whiskey and raise a toast to Shane McGowan.

Los Muchucambos – Mucho Gusto

london-sp44117-los-machucambos-mucho-gusto

Here’s a creepy blast from the past.  I vividly remember this album cover from my Dad’s record collection.

As a kid, the cover always creeped me out, there is something very eerie about these dolls. I almost expected them to come to life and terrorize the house. In hindsight, they would have been a Spanish version of Chuckie the murderous doll in “Child’s Play”. Except these three figures would taunt you with castanets and then kill you with razor sharp Tortillas Espaniola.

I found this album in the “Audiophile” section of Star Records, priced at a paltry $5 I could not resist. The LP is in good condition and was recorded on the famous “Phase 4” label based in London, England.  Phase 4 Stereo albums were known for very high quality pressings and offered up the best audio quality of the 1960’s and early ‘70s.  They were sought out by old school audiophiles, like my father, and today have seen something of a renaissance with resurgence of vinyl.  Why it cost only $5 is probably because nobody else knows about this obscure music, or those who bought it mysteriously vanished in a bloody mess.

Once I got past the album cover and gave it spin, my jaw hit the floor.  Not only did it evoke a flood of childhood memories, it was also in nearly mint condition and sounded amazing.  Phase 4 records are top notch quality.

Robert Gordon – Rock Billy Boogie

Robert Gordon 1280x1280

A true rockabilly legend and a classic album.  I saw Robert Gordon perform at This Ain’t Hollywood in Hamilton two years ago and the years have not treated him well.  He shows the marks of a hard life and a pickled liver, but his baritone voice was still in good form for a man in his sixties.  It has dropped an octave or two and he can no longer croon those high notes.  No matter, he’s still a fine performer.

Back in the day, his voice was moving, versatile and powerful.  This 1978 album was on the cutting edge of the early ’80s rockabilly revival.  Today it is still masterful work of voice, guitar, slap bass and drums.  Why Robert Gordon never became a big legend is beyond me.  That said, he is a cult favourite of rockabilly fans.

Moe Koffman – Plays Bach

Moe Koffman Plays Bach

Now we head into the land of relative obscurity.  If you are a Canadian jazz fan, there is a chance you  have heard Moe Koffman.  Among hard core jazz fans, he is a legend.  If you not Canadian or a hard core jazz aficionado, I doubt his name rings any bells.  Moe was a very talented sax and flute player who would often cross musical boundaries whilst retaining a solid jazz anchor.  In the 1960’s some of his recordings seemed to herald jazz fusion, such as Moe Koffman Goes Electric, and later on he recorded two albums playing Bach’s compositions with his jazz band.

This is a recording that probably never made it to CD and even if it did, it was worth $5 to listen to this slice of historic Canadiana on a well preserved record.

Gordon Lightfoot – Summertime Dream

 

Gordon Lightfoot Summertime Dream

Unlike Moe Koffman, Gordon Lightfoot is a world famous Canadian whose songs are still heard on radio.  His best known composition is the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” which is why I bought this album.  Shame on me as a Canadian as this is my first Gordon Lightfoot purchase.  I have always enjoyed listening to his songs on radio and this album finally brings it home.

I am really pleased this legendary album is in excellent condition.   The production values and engineering are top notch and Lightfoot penned some hauntingly beautiful songs.

The Guess Who – So Long, Bannatyne

Guess Who So Long Bannatyne

A quintessential Canadian band famous around the world.  However, this is one of their lesser known albums.  Unlike earlier Guess Who recordings, Randy Bachman is absent from this incarnation of the band.  Only one song really made it big from this record, namely “Rain Dance” and the other songs are lesser known and appreciated.  I have to confess that it was the striking retro cover and cool Chevrolet that lured me to this relatively rare album.

Unfortunately, the album is in poor condition. Even after a deep cleaning in a record washing machine, it is full of pops and clicks.  Only during the loudest passages is it tolerable.  I wish there was a way to remove the audio fuzz from it.

Gino Vanelli – Brother to Brother

Gino Vanelli 1280x1280

As I was rummaging through the Canadian section of Star Records, I stumbled on Gino Vanelli’s “Brother to Brother” album (1978).  Hitherto, I never bought any Gino Vanelli, because in my mind I had unjustly condemned him to the realm of bad pop music. However, I thought it might be worth purchasing because the cheese factor could make this worth a listen and it was only $10.  Also, it is the album with the hit, “I Just Wanna Stop” that was brilliantly satirized by Eugene Levy on SCTV. Check out the linked video about 3 minutes in.

Well, this album surprised me, it’s actually quite good.  It has some great session players from the era, including percussionist Manolo Badrena, who played with Weather Report and jazz horn master Ernie Watts who played with the likes of Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Marvin Gaye, Doc Severinsen and Frank Zappa. The music is really tight, with a jazzy feel that reminds one of Steely Dan’s albums from the same era, such as “Peg” and “Gaucho”. Maybe Gino Vanelli has more depth than I thought or my wop genes are getting stronger as I get older.

“I Just Wanna Stop” is the most commercial song on the record and it’s best for satire and cheese. The other tunes are much better and show some real musical talent and depth.  Give it a listen and keep an eye on your hair.

I find it sad that music has become so devalued these days.  Many downloaded songs are often obtained illegally, we are all guilty of that (myself included).  The real travesty is that they seldom get a meaningful listen, songs are treated as acoustical wallpaper or just skipped over after several seconds of play.  The music has been ripped out of its home, namely the album and orphaned into arbitrary playlists.  Not so with records, they have intrinsic value and are complete bodies of work, besides buying them is heaps of fun 🙂

Dec 212015
 

Every now and then one can find a true Luddite.

Yesterday was the first time I have been to a record store in over 15 years, namely Star Records in Oshawa. I was itching to rediscover the essence of shopping for music in an old school way. Little did I know that being old school was more than a mantra for Star Records, it is virtually elevated to the status of religion.

Star Records. Oshawa, Ontario

Star Records. Oshawa, Ontario

From the moment you walk in, you know that Star Records belongs to a different world and a different time. It is located on Simcoe St South in Oshawa, in a old section of a town which has seen better days. Once inside, the first thing you notice is that musty record store smell and then a bewildering array of record racks, dozens and dozens of album covers affixed to the walls, posters and rare edition records, with three figure price tags, proudly displayed out of easy reach. The store is really cramped, so one is constantly saying “excuse me” to shuffle between the aisles as there is room for only one person.

Like many record stores, the vinyl is triaged with the least worthy relegated to unsorted boxes strewn on the floor, where prices range from about $1 to $5. The next tier is used records alphabetized and segmented by category. The price of these recordings range from $5 to $20. Then you have your new records and valuable used records, the majority hover around $25 and go up from there. There are no electronic tools to help you find your titles, you need to know the lay of the land and have a sense of what your are seeking. The staff are remarkably helpful and seem to have an eidetic memory of their filing system.

Surprisingly, most customers are not middle aged geeks like myself, instead, they are in their late 20’s and early 30’s. A few would fall into the hipster category and the others are regular folk and a few old timers who were looking for traditional Christmas music.

From what little of Star’s history I could glean from google, the store was founded by a local legend, Mike Shulga aka Mike Star who passed away earlier this year. The store is now run by his brother Steve who strives to maintain the analog spirit that Mike initiated and curated.

http://www.thestar.com/…/mike-star-was-a-godfather-of-canad…

I brought a camera, so I asked told the owner, Steve, for permission to post an article about the store on my blog and take some photos. He paused and said, “Would you be offended if I say no? My brother, Mike, refused all forms of digital footprint, that’s why we do not have a website, will never advertise online and want to stay off the internet as much as possible. We want to keep everything traditional and authentic here.” I was a bit taken aback, however, I must respect those wishes and part of me admires that kind of integrity and stubbornness. I really wish I could share some photos of Star Records as it is such an amazing little store. You can google for images and there are a few hits. I am sure most were taken without permission and the few that appear sanctioned are images with founder, Mike Star.

Hand Written Receipt. No Automation Here.

Hand Written Receipt. No Automation Here.

When it came time to pay, I had a sinking feeling that Star Records is so retro, they do not accept debit or credit. I was right, the twenty something clerk said there was a bank machine around the corner. When I came back with cash to pay for my haul, I was fully expecting that the bill would be hand written and manually summed. Again, I was right and also delighted that they gave me a 10% discount. This means there is no electronic inventory system, no computerized cash registers. The store has functioned for decades in a manner befitting the 1950’s, they will not change and that’s a good thing. I’ll be back.

Dec 202015
 

Last week I posted on Facebook, that I am trying to find a balancing act somewhere between Frank Zappa’s dictum that “a mind is like a parachute, it doesn’t work unless it’s open” and the notion that a new and radical idea, however exciting, may prove to be complete bullshit.

So how does this work in practice? I think I may have found a practical case and it involves music. It’s time to open up my mind anew and visit a local record store in Oshawa, one that sells new and used vinyl as well as CD’s.

In the past, such places were instrumental to expanding one’s musical horizons. It is pretty much guaranteed that people who own such places or work there are true music geeks. Sometimes when you would walk into the store, there was disc playing on a turntable or CD player that would blow your mind. It was some artist or band you never heard of before and then in an instant, you wanted to know who it is and buy it on the spot. In such a way, you would begin a personal relationship with the staff, and in some cases, other customers.

bens-collectors-records-places-to-shop-medium

Over time, the owner or staff would get to know you and when you’d walk into the store, they would point you in the right direction to new music you would enjoy. Every now that then, they would throw you a curve ball and blow your mind once more. The number of times this happened to me in old privately owned record shops is uncountable. What to do I have to show for it? Several hundred albums and CD’s still enjoyed to this day.

I find it paradoxical that with all the convenience of downloading music, whether legally or illegally, my music world has stagnated. Generally I download tunes from artists or genres I already know. What is missing is that spark of inspiration or the passion of another music geek sharing something new or different. Those “if you liked…..” suggestions on Amazon just don’t cut it. There is no passion, no insight, no humanity to it. Just data mining trends mindlessly posted back to a buyer. Moreover, what online downloads cannot replace are those rare gems out of print that can be found in record shops.

This weekend I was deep cleaning dozens of old albums, so I can play them anew and in some cases for the first time. Many of them date back to the seventies, sixties and fifties. As I was removing the records from their sleeves, it was cool to rediscover those sleeves with advertising for other recordings of the same genre. On each side of a sleeve there was over a dozen suggestions from a record label’s catalog. The recommendations were handpicked in accordance to the genre of the record contained therein. What makes it different is that a human suggested those lists instead of an algorithm. Many a times these sleeves would inspire me to seek out new records. Today, they do the same, once the wave of nostalgia receded, I made some mental notes of records to find in the used bins. Quite effective marketing back in the day and even now.

Record-Store-Day

I am really excited about rediscovering recorded music in its most human form and begin shopping again in a REAL record store. I know over the next few months my mind will be blown away with new artists and recordings.

This weekend, I went shopping at Star Records in Oshawa and I will have more to say on that in another post.

Dec 202015
 

This week I have been doing something every night that I have not done in years. It is something I did nearly every day as a teenager, somewhat less frequently in my twenties. In my thirties I started doing it again, at least a few times each week, then somewhere in my forties it came to a grinding halt. Now here I am in my fifties and I am rediscovering just how good it is.

I am listening to records, honest to goodness old vinyl records. I had forgotten just how good they can be when played through the right gear. Back in my thirties I had invested a good sum of money in a high quality turntable, cartridge and phono preamp. In the last few years that gear was all but neglected, as was a few hundred albums wedged into two bookshelves. Odd how good analog tech can survive the test of time, whereas digital sources suffer from digital rot and are always disposable things. Digital sounds great as well and technically speaking it should be better than vinyl, but that is not what matters. It is the music that matters and how you connect with it.

Playing a record is a wonderfully tactile and engaging experience. You must make a commitment to play an album, it involves scouring your collection to find just the right music for the moment, carefully extracting a record from its sleeve, cleaning it and then actually listening to a whole side or album. You are truly involved with the music both in sound and touch. Those old album covers and lyrics printed on the inner sleeve are far more connected to the artist’s vision of their music than some insipid thumbnail image on your iPod or computer. A record means you need to SLOW DOWN, sit in a chair and really listen deeply. Vinyl compels you do this, there is no shuffle or play list, just a singular work of art in and of itself. You can also experience something similar with a digital source, but its convenience and instant access does require the same commitment to listen and stay in one place.

Rega P25 Turntable

Rega P25 Turntable

It seems to me that music streaming off digital sources often becomes just a form of acoustical wallpaper, nothing more than a background pleasantry to accompany some daily activity. Same goes for people listening through earbuds or headphones via mobile sources, where the music is interwoven with mundane tasks such as commuting or typing away in a cubicle. The music does not have your full attention. Somehow “music as data” fits our shortened attention spans and multitasking lifestyles where we are increasingly disconnected from each other and also real art.

I dare say I am not rediscovering vinyl as much as I am rediscovering a true love of music. Playing records anew means that I am totally engaged with music I have loved and at times forgotten over the years. As such, listening to music becomes the only activity to occupy a few hours of my free time. No movies, no Youtube, no streaming, no screens, no smartphone or other digital distractions. There is just a beautiful warm analog sound washing over me and leading to a state of bliss.