Welcome to our April 2002 meeting of Audiolics Anonymous. Happily, we'll be getting back to our roots today discussing a great new tweak. But before I get into that, I would like to discuss what I find to be the most important factor necessary for a novice (or even a moderately expert individual ) to get the best sound possible. Interestingly as I was writing this, I got the latest Stereophile and the lead editorial was on a similar topic. So what is it?
1. A particular piece of equipment? No, as even the best multi-mega-bucks amplifier, or cartridge, etc., can sound horrible if it does not operate synergistically with the other pieces, or the electricity is not quite right.
2. The quality of the electricity? No, because even if it is optimal, it still needs quality equipment to do its work.
3. The synergy of the whole system working together? No, because its interactions with the room's sound can still degrade the quality.
4. The room? No, because no matter how good the room's acoustics, the quality of the recordings may hold you back?
5. The recordings? No, because if all of the above are not at peak, the best recordings can sound piss poor.
So, after all that, what is the most important determinant of whether a new or even more experienced high ender will obtain optimal sound? Just like any other important experience in your life, your audio dealer, guru, priest or teacher, whatever you want to call him. In any endeavor, it has to be the individual who teaches you right from wrong. They guide you down the proper pathways, and helps you learn to make the proper choices. This is especially important in audio where we have hundreds of variables which all interact.
It is also very important to get the right dealer, one who is willing to spend the time and effort on you. Get the wrong one, who is only there for his/her own pocket book and you will be dead in the water with an empty piggybank. Get the right one, and Nirvana may be obtained.
Of course, the dealer also has an interest in this situation. To feed themselves and their family. No-one (even a "selfless" healer of the sick like myself) can do it for nothing. But he should put your needs, spiritually, physically, mentally and financially, at least on equal footing to his, if not ahead.
Why spiritually? Because high-end audio is a form of religion, which feeds our souls with music. Physically and mentally? Because we have to be able to understand and control our systems for them to work at peak. Do not think so? Try moving around 250 lb. speakers all day if you weigh 12 lb. or are 70 years old. Try to remember every command on multiple remote controls. Financially? Everyone can't afford Krell, Walker, or Audio Note. So you need that expertise to mix and match the components you can afford for the best reproduction possible.
Why has this topic come up today? Because the audio guru may be a dying breed, and it is we who are starving them. Why do I think that? First, because music has been placed in the background of our culture, and the new generation of audio gurus are not being nurtured. How many school programs actually take the time these days to teach a musical instrument? Thus no music appreciation. Or how about teaching electronics? Fat chance, unless its related to computers. Also, music is everywhere, but nowhere. Elevator music and MP-3 have taken over the culture. Mediocrity in music, both in production and reproduction, is more than ever the norm, whether it is pop or classical.
Also, their compensation is suffering. Everyone these days is looking for the quick and cheap deal. We may spend the guru's time, gathering information on product, but we then go to the web, or the discounter up the street for the deal. While this was always a problem, it's even more so today thanks to Internet dealers with no or low overhead. If the teacher can't support himself, his business folds and his expertise is lost. Fess up, we have all done this at one time or another to our gurus. Even me. It's human nature.
I have been very fortunate over the years to have had several high end audio dealers who have been fine teachers, given selflessly of their time and efforts, and have taken only what I consider to be appropriate compensation. My first (you always remember your first) was Roger Cormier, who used to play alto sax, next to my French horn with the Fall River Symphony. Roger sold me my first system while I was attending college. While a mid end dealer, he imparted his knowledge freely, gave me good deals on the equipment, several pieces of which still function to this day in my son's stereo system. Wonder what happened to him? I'll have to look him up and thank him some day.
There was a hiatus from buying for the ten years of college, medical school and training, when I could not afford anything. Thank G-d Roger's equipment stood up. Then I met my guru of gurus, that tweaker of all tweaks, Clark Johnsen, previously of the Listening Studio in Boston. Clark now writes for our web rag. While we have had our ups and downs, I still consider him to be my teacher of all things high end, and still look for his advice and guidance. Others have been Sal Demicco, of Distech, both now deceased, Steve Klein of Sounds of Silence, and Ray Shab, of Arcici. All have worked with and for me, to impart knowledge, improve my system, and at proper compensation. Thank you all!!
What brought on this topic? A good and a bad experience I had this month with equipment deals, from which I have hopefully gained further knowledge.
The good was with The Cable Company, AKA Ultra Systems, of New Hope, Pa. I have an Audio Desk System CD lathe, previously reviewed in this column. I originally heard of it from Clark, and have used on every disc since, it is that good at improving the sound from the spinning silver. Its belt developed multiple cracks and finally broke. As Clark is no longer a dealer, I called The Cable Company and spoke to Robert Stein, explained the belt problem, and he promptly offered to send me one at no charge. When I explained that I had purchased the unit elsewhere, and had only bought a couple of products from him in the past, it made no difference. He even paid for the postage. These are the same people who will send you cables for evaluation and will allow returns within a time period if they don't work in your system. Now, obviously they are not true gurus, as they are not in your town and are not giving you first hand advice, and this does sort of go against my idea of getting a local guru and sticking with him, but Clark suggested them. They are willing to give you advice on what they think is proper cabling for your system, will send them to you, and take them back if they are wrong. That's service.
P.S.: please do not inundate them with requests for free belts. That would definitely put me on their (S)-List.
The bad experience was a deal through the web site, Audiogon. Years ago I had a Curl SCP-2B phono stage which was superb, but for some stupid reason I sold. An SCP-1 was being auctioned on Audiogon, so I jumped and gave the highest bid. Sent in my money by check and received the unit promptly ten days later. Looked in great shape on the outside, but it came with no instruction book, and I couldn't remember what the two replaceable resistors and the adjustable pot inside were for. So I hooked it up, input to my Audio Note IO-J cartridge, output to the line input of my pre-amplifier, plugged it in, and listened... to silence. Neither channel was working. Tried adjusting the pot to see if that adjusted gain - no difference. Measured input impedance - one channel was at 162 ohms, other at 1,200 ohms. Definitely something wrong here. The company I received it from, which will go nameless as they tried to help me out as much as they could, did not have any information either. So up I went to a discussion board to see if anybody else could help. Believe it or not, John Curl himself answered my request. It turned out the unit is only a head amp without RIAA equalization. Since I have plenty of gain from my preamp for my cartridge, I have no need for it. Thus, if I had consulted my local guru, I may have saved myself time and money. Case closed. By the way does anybody want a used SCP-1 unit for a very reasonable price?
Now, on to the topic of interest for the day, another great product from Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio, maker of many top of the line products, including the Walker Proscenium Turntable, Valid Points, Turntable Motor Drive, High Definition Links, all previously reviewed here. I almost did not write this one up, as I thought I had an exclusive on it, but Lloyd also sent some to Srajan Ebaen, who discussed it in his March column. I had already almost finished this column when I saw it, and I also believed it to be a good enough product to write up a second time.
I know, it sounds like I am playing favoritism with the many reviews I have done of his stuff, but each piece is built to the highest specs, does as he states, and never deteriorates or fails to please. So what should I do, start reviewing junk from other companies that break down or blow up frequently, or cost mega-bucks for mini-quality? No sir, I have spent my life's savings over the years chasing from one producer to the next trying to reach the Holy Grail, and I will stick to products I know and trust.
Which brings up his newest creation, Vivid Digital Disc Fluid. This tweak was a real shocker to me, as Lloyd's original work was in systems, not chemical, engineering and all of his products to date have been analog related. Thus, when he called and asked if he could send some for review, I thought "Oh no. Here we go again with another Armor-All fiasco." But he said "Trust me," and I do. He has not steered me wrong yet, and he has two of the best ears in the business.
First let me start by asking all of those out there who believe that CD's are perfect, cannot be improved upon by cleaning, polishing, demagnetizing, etc., to stop reading and go listen to some of your unimproved discs. My fellow Enjoy the Music.com™ writer, Clark Johnsen, has for years been demonstrating, to those who'll listen, what can be done to maximize the information retrieval from their discs. He'd bring his demagnetizer, various fluids and even his disc lathe to various shows, and in rooms where he was treated with deference and respect, he'd whip out the equipment, treat one of the presenter's discs, and sit back and watch the looks as even the previous skeptics would hear the improvement. Nine times out of ten the listeners were astonished at what information is hidden in those pits that is normally lost to reproduction. It always amazed me how frequently that disc would become the presentation medium for that room for the rest of the show. Usually the better the playback equipment, the more improved the sound.
I have tried just about every product out there that claims an improvement, and unhappily ruined many discs with some of them, the names of which will go unmentioned as I don't want to get sued up until now I have used the following regimen to optimize information retrieval:
1. Truing up and beveling the outer edge of the discs with an Audiodesk System CD lathe. This $500 machine, from Germany, which can be purchased from The Cable Company, mentioned above, is a rotating platform with a blade that cuts off the outer edge and leaves a 45-degree bevel. Most of our CD's, just like our good old vinyl, are either out of round or off center. If you don't believe me, just open the top of your player and watch the tracking sled move back and forth as the disc spins. As the disc is doing 200 to 500 RPM you can imagine how difficult it is for the sled to keep the laser lined up with the groove. Truing the edge balance the disc, similar to what occurs when we balance our tires. Thus the disc and sled have a much smoother ride. In addition, the angling of the edge allows the laser light bouncing around inside the CD to exit at the outer edge, thus decreasing interference with the beam. They recommend painting the edge with a black marker, but I prefer to let the laser scatter leave the disc through the edge. I do not know whether the above is the true explanation of how it works or not, but this is the most improving of all silver disc treatments.
2. Spray and wipe the clear side of the CD with Optrix. This is a bluish colored clear liquid, which is supposed to clean off the waxes, put on in the production process and allow the laser beam to track better. By the way, it also works great on glass lenses such as eye glasses and projector tubes.
3. Spray and wipe some Nordost Eco 3 destatisizer on the label side so that it is even and allow it to dry. This gets rid of any static charge built up on the disc surface. Charges are bad because as the disc spins, a magnetic field occurs which can affect the tracking mechanism.
4. Run the disc through a Bedini Ultraclarifier, which is supposed to remove any internal charge on the aluminum-poly interface. I usually combine steps 3 and 4 by spraying the Eco on the spinning disc for a very even distribution and quick drying. Luckily, only this step needs to be used each time you listen. This process also works for Digital Video Discs.
I did not believe the above explanations until I watched a PBS program on paramagnetism where an experimenter spun a non-magnetic disc very similar to the material that our CD's are made of, and watched it be deflected by a magnet. Thus spinning polycarbonate discs do produce a magnetic field that can affect how the CD tracking functions.
Which gets us finally to the Vivid. This stuff is a baby diarrhea colored light brown suspension, which must be shaken each time you use it, otherwise settling occurs. A kit consists of 1-4 ounce storage bottle and 1-1 ounce application bottle, a rubber pad, a pile of the Viva paper towels, and costs $60. Lloyd is selling it directly now, but will have a dealer network for sales soon, which may increase the price. That's certainly cheap for enough of a product to do several hundred discs. Lloyd recommends using Viva paper towels (thus the very clever title of this article) to first wipe a couple of drops of the suspension uniformly over the clear surface, and then wipe it away with another portion of the towel before it dries. Make sure to completely wipe it off as once it dries it is much more difficult to remove and the laser can't read through it. He recommends a second treatment to complete the process.
Why Viva towels? Not because he own stock in the company, although I wouldn't put it past him, but because they are soft with fine fibers, and absorbent, so there is much less risk of scratching the surface. (Tweak Alert: Also a good material to clean dust off other surfaces you don't want scratched, especially if combined with the Eco to get rid of static on the surface which attracts dust.)
What does this stuff do? Lloyd claims a 10% improvement in the sound, but I think its more like 9.6%. (This is an old running joke between Lloyd and me where he gives a % improvement and I contradict him.) It replaces steps 2, 3, and 4 of the above process. I have tried every which way of combining the Vivid with these steps, and they make absolutely no improvement when combined. Only the Audiodesk System need be used in addition to the Vivid. When finished, the aluminum-poly interface produces a beautiful diffraction pattern for incident light. It demagnetizes and destatiscizes at least as well, if not better than the other three products combined. The lathing should be done before using the Vivid, as this process may add some static charge to the disc.
The following discussion of effects of the Vivid is based on the updated suspension Lloyd has sent me. Updated, you say? Already? Yes, Lloyd has already changed the formulation and he feels improved on the original. What has the product done for my digital reproduction?
1. Gets rid of most of the high frequency stridency.
2.Appears to add a couple of digits of low level information making an improvement in microdynamics and the background hall information. The stage widens and deepens.
3. Tightens the deep bass and adds inflection to voices which is normally lost with CD's.
4. Decreases skips and error correction for all disc types.
5. Adds vibrancy to DVD-video discs.
6. Even SACD's and DVD-Audio improve on space retrieval with multi-track discs.
7. Adds vividness of color and improves the PCM sound reproduction of Laser discs, which require 6-7 drops per side.
Did the new improved formula do anything over the original? Not that I could hear. The original Vivid worked so well, that I could discern no difference, even though Lloyd thinks that it improves further on bass retrieval. Again, maybe he has better ears than mine, or maybe I just need to listen closer. Anyway, I am happy with the result. One caveat. Another disc cleaner recommends against using his product with SACD multi-layer discs, but Lloyd says he has not found a problem with his product. You may want to ask him about this if and when you order it.
So what do you do now with the left over Optrix? It's great for cleaning lenses on projectors, television screens, etc. How about the Eco? It works superbly for dusting off electronics, and especially rubbing it on your interconnects, loudspeaker wire and AC cords. Not only does it clean the surface and decrease static and dust buildup, but for some reason also cleans up the sound. I wipe it on all of the cords and chassis once a month.
How long does the Vivid treatment last? I have no idea. Lloyd claims one treatment is effective for quite a while, but he has only been experimenting with it for a few months, so who knows. I'll hold my opinion on that for a generation or two. Anyway it is a very useful inexpensive tweak, which has replaced three steps of my previous regimen, and for that I am grateful.
And now for the punch line. Lloyd offers a no questions asked money-back guarantee on the product. Don't believe it. Well, there was a letter recently from an audiophile from Australia who purchased a couple of products from Lloyd and asked to return them after the warranty period. The Australian was happy to inform the audio community that Lloyd had honored his policy, Can't do better than that. So if you are the devious type, you could use half the bottle to clean all of your CD's and return the rest for a refund. On the other hand you will then lose the ability to improve any new CD's DVD, etc., and I'm sure he will remember your name if you try to order it again. And I am sure you will. Highly Recommended.
I also wanted to revisit my column of last month where I reviewed the Apex 7701 all in one CD, DVD-A, SACD, etc., player. I am still seeing discussions on the web about its unreliability. All I can say is that most of them are from individuals who tried it out for a short period of time and returned the unit. While I at first did have problems with it, since a three week break-in period, it has worked flawlessly. DVD-A and SACD multi-channel discs still sound wonderful, and now, even CD's are sounding very good. Except for a continuing slight weakness in the mid bass, all three playback modes now sound superb, with the CD playback sounding as good as some $1,500 players I have heard. Even the DVD video playback now looks very good, but of course not coming close to my Home Theater computer's quality, but still as good as any $300 DVD player I have seen. So for that price, I still think you can't go wrong. Just break it in for two to three weeks before listening or viewing. This will still give you time under the warranty to return it if you so desire.
That is it for this month. Next time I will be reviewing some video cables. I know, I promised myself I'd never do another cable or cartridge review, but they are just too good not to let you in on them. That ought to keep you on edge for the month. Till then...