June 2007

Around the World: DIY Systems from the Other Side of the Globe

Globalization. How many times a day do we hear that term bandied about in the news, in advertising, in political rhetoric? As a concept, it may be valid and worth considering, but the word itself is worn out.

Too bad, because globalization (read: the world s getting smaller, making it easier to trade ideas and goods between far corners of the sphere [do spheres have corners?]) can be a vitalizing force in jazz as well as in macroeconomics. For example, we get a Vietnamese guitarist interpreting Jimi Hendrix, a Dutch band swinging through the Little Rascals theme, or an Indian mandolinist creating a typhoon from Bird riffs. You get the idea.

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Level Three Lady Day Signature 300B SET Amplifiers
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Supratek Chardonnay Preamp

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Audio is going through the same sort of—gulp—globalization, and last month we examined some of the ways the Internet is facilitating this process. Among the new trails that have opened up for consumers of high-performance gear are those leading to the many boutique manufacturers now dotting the globe in such far-flung places as Cincinnati, Hong Kong, Germany, Poland and Western Australia. In the old days of strictly brick-and-mortar retailing, a small designer of fine amplifiers producing a couple of units per week had little chance of making his or her product known outside his or her immediate geographic area. But that’s all changed with the onslaught of Web-based marketing: Artisan component builders located anywhere on Earth can sell their products to anyone with an Internet connection, regardless of location.

So, here I am, somewhere in Middle America surfing the Web for new and interesting audio equipment. There’s some questionable junk out there, to be sure, but some high-value, highperformance equipment as well.

George Wright of Kent, Wash., has been building some very affordable, high-quality tube amps and preamps for decades via his Wright Sound Company (wright-sound.com), while Gordon Rankin of Wavelength Audio (wavelengthaudio.com) has become a legend doing the same thing in Cincinnati, Ohio. In the wilds of Connecticut, Louis Chochos cranks out his handsome and efficient Omega speakers (omegaloudspeakers.com).

I recently stumbled upon two dedicated souls during my own Web searching, two craftsmen who satisfy my tastes for oft-esoteric tube stuff: One is a former crayfisherman on the west coast of Australia, the other is a displaced Canadian apparently thriving in the former Crown Colony of Hong Kong.

Nearly 10 years ago, when his Hong Kong-born wife could no longer tolerate Canadian winters, Brian Cherry left Toronto for the Chinese island-city in order to give his spouse some relief from the cold, and to see how the other half of the planet lived. After a couple of years, he resolved to convert his long-standing hobby of building audio equipment—begun when he was only 10—into a business. And so was born DIY HiFi Supply, initially aimed at supplying kits to the do-it-yourself market.

Cherry grew up in a musical household: “Lots of live music at home, mostly fiddle, accordion, guitar and piano,” he says. “Plus, I was privileged to attend many live concerts in Toronto, especially at the old Massey Hall where it was all unamplified acoustic music, mostly classical and jazz.”

Because he felt a parallel between the expressiveness of jazz and that of his simple tube designs, Cherry decided to name his products after notable jazz musicians. “It’s only my opinion, but of all the music types, none better reveals the virtuosity of a performer and the tonality of a musical instrument than jazz,” he says. Right on. So we get the Basie preamp, the Ella integrated amp, the Bix turntable, the Billie monoblock amps, the Tram preamp and so on.

All of these and several others are still available in kit form, but Cherry admits that about half of his sales go out as preassembled, finished components, the assembly stage adding only a modest amount to the final cost of the equipment. In this way, even the soldergun-impaired among us can take advantage of the interesting array of value laden gear offered by Cherry and his crew at DIY. But confident beginners can usually tackle and conquer many of Cherry’s kits, though with some caution. “Some experience in soldering is needed,” Cherry explains. “We use picturebased assembly manuals. Difficulty ranges from easy to difficult depending on the kit. A novice who can solder, understands basic electricity and the inherent danger of high voltage, and has basic hand skills should be OK to build the Lady Day Level One as a first kit.

Ah, Lady Day! How she can sing! And sing she does, right in my living room. Cherry sent me the Level Three Lady Day Signature 300B SET Premium 91 monoblock amplifiers, one each for left and right ($2,790/pair, assembled, including shipping). The amps use the hallowed 300B output tube to deliver a walloping 8-9 watts, but utilize a nearly forgotten circuit variation that allows for a bit more punch in the sound than the soft qualities attributed to the sonics of 300B-based amps. Cherry explains: “Well, the 300B, although it has a strong personality, can render music in many ways, depending on how it’s driven and how the power supply is designed. This so-called Western Electric 91 version uses the 310a pentode that must be controlled by a tube rectifier in the power supply to really bloom. For many it was what turned the world on to high fidelity after WWI. The basic circuit is quite unique and was very advanced for its time. For me, the 91 excels in presence. I think it captures more of the fundamentals of music as opposed to\ emphasizing air and such. It’s like a really old and rich-tasting cognac—the flavor and fragrance just won’t quit.”

Well, with the supplied TJ Mesh Plate 300B output tubes, a slight upgrade to the basic unit, I found the amps to be totally spellbinding. A certain magic came into the music; the instruments became real instead of just accurate portraits of instruments, and the feeling of music being played just for me was there. I played disc after disc, ranging from Brazilian samba to Glenn Gould pouring out Mozart piano sonatas and everything in between. It all just seemed right, believable and a joy to listen to.

By the way, though the amps only produce about nine watts, I got earsplitting results from three different speakers including the notvery-efficient Almarro M33As and the easier-to-drive DeVore Fidelity Super 8s. But the best marriage was with the recently debuted Sonist Concerto 2s (sonist.com) whose 95db sensitivity rating allowed me to nearly bust out the windows with some amazing music. More on these speakers in the near future, but be aware that one must take care in matching any lowpowered amp with the proper speaker.

In fitting with the theme of globalization, I tried to concentrate on music from other places. I started with the brand new CD by Canadian vocalist Holly Cole. Though recorded in NYC, my copy was pressed in Japan and, ironically, the disc seems unlikely to see a U.S. release. That’s a shame, because the music—from beginning to end—absolutely rocks. Well, no, it swings. On the super-uptempo “Charade,” Cole propels the band through a 100-mph roller-coaster ride of a song. Each measure, each beat is easy to follow. In fact, she pulls the listener along at the same speed; one can’t resist her deft vocal treatment of this Johnny Mercer standard, particularly since the Lady Day allows every tiny nuance of her distinctive style to exude a liquid sensuousness. The timbre of every horn, the drums, the piano and the bass in this nonet is reproduced perfectly, and each is maintained as a clearly discernible thread through the music, not something many systems can do with this level of refinement, especially at this price.

For a couple of years, I’ve lusted after an Australian preamp produced by the little-known outfit called Supratek (supratek.biz). Each model is named for a quality wine, outfitted with a striking jarrah wood case, and presents a visual impression like no other preamp I’ve ever seen. How could I resist such temptation? After reading countless positive reviews, both from audio critics and from happy consumers, I resolved to get my hands on one. So contact was made with the iconoclastic designer, Mick Maloney, the former crayfisherman who now lives in Western Australia in a small bohemian coastal wine-producing town.

Like Cherry, Maloney, who shyly admits that “Kind of Blue still does it for me,” was a hi-fi hobbyist for many, many years before he managed to evolve that love into a business. He encapsulates the transition this way: “When I quit fishing I decided to do what I loved and started an audio business called Micrex. I aimed for the Asian market, as I figured it would be next to impossible to make a living from the Australian scene, and produced a tube preamp and hybrid power amp. However, dealing with retailers was a challenge, and Micrex wasn’t successful financially for me, so I sold it. I did a few years building boats for a living and developing my phono preamps and building lots of tube amps in my spare time.

“Around that time, the Internet bubble was expanding and I had one of the first tube DIY-based Web sites with pages and pages of my designs, mostly phono preamps, but also preamps and power amps. That got international attention and I actually sold a couple of phono pres overseas.”

He continues: “This galvanized me back into the audio business and Supratek was born, initially working from the basement of a house in Perth. It took quite a while to get a good international presence as a worldclass manufacturer. The Web presence works exponentially, taking a long time to start, but eventually word of mouth can produce a lot of interest. However, as in all niche businesses, success comes from quality.”

For good reason, Supratek and Maloney are highly regarded for the quality of the hand-built products they ship out of Australia, mostly to the United States. The preamp lineup starts at $2,195 for the Chardonnay (without phono) and ranges up to the $9,000 Grange. What sets these apart from other preamps is Maloney’s belief that the preamp is the most vital link in the audio chain. “Lots of my customers haven’t believed me at first when I’ve said the preamp is the most important component in your system. Because it’s acting at the lowest signal levels, its influence is the most profound and will have the greatest effect on the sound. But not necessarily for the better if it is not designed to transfer, and if necessary, amplify the signal so that it is passed to the power amp with absolutely no response degradation. This is much harder than it would seem and some preamps just don’t have the drive to push the signal up the hill and into the furnace, the power amp. When properly designed, the signal goes through to the power amp just as it is supposed to and the result is that you hear the full potential of the recording.”

But Maloney insists it’s not just the design that sets Supratek apart, it’s the fact that each piece is lovingly built by an almost family-like group. “They’re made by a small team, listening to good music, in a very sociable environment. No shortcuts, no compromise,” he says. “All my workers are music lovers and usually musicians, and are treated as craftsmen, rather than as factory workers. You could take one of our designs and have it built in a mass production factory in China, but I guarantee it would not sound anything like we build them. We’re trying to build true classics: the sound you can comment on.”

And comment I will. When put into the system with the Lady Day amps, the Chenin preamp ($2,900 with phono pre) made the sensation of listening to music even more engaging, more seductive.

Back to the global music. In 1974 Wayne Shorter released the remarkable Native Dancer, which featured Brazilian singer and composer Milton Nascimento. Soon thereafter, Nascimento recorded his own LP, very jazz inspired, and very much his own counterpart to the Shorter disc. It features Nascimento’s Corner Gang, with whom he recorded regularly in the 1970s, including saxist Nivaldo Ornelas, who sounds very Shorter-like on the record. Of course there is lots of percussion and haunting vocals, all laid down in thick layers designed to achieve a certain harmonic and textural richness. I’ve heard the disc at least 500 times (I swear), but it never sounded as good as it did through the Supratek. All those individual element, the jingles, clangs, voices and more voices could be easily delineated within the complex mix, while new sounds I’d never noticed before jumped out at me, even startling me, during the audition. The sense of reality was that pronounced.

On another Brazilian CD, we’ll examine the Chenin’s phono section in a future column by super samba composer Paulinho da Viola, the instrumental textures were again easy to dissect. And his voice could have been produced across the room from my chair, I could hear his breathing as he sang each verse, so clear was the vocal line. Dino Sete Cordas, the master and progenitor of the Brazilian sevenstring guitar, plays on this disc, and his fascinating running bass lines nearly pop out of the mix. For the fi rst time listening to this disc, I could really hear what he was playing.

The short time I’ve spent with the Supratek has convinced me that Maloney is correct about the importance of the preamp in the chain. And when the vintage is as good as this Chenin, you just want to drink more and more.

Combine that heady cup with the DIY HiFi Supply Lady Day Premium 91 and it’s hard to imagine that music could sound any better. I cannot recommend both of these highly reasonable gems enough.

Maloney himself puts it all in perspective: “Can I finish off by saying that music is in the ear of the beholder, or the way we turn those musical vibrations, via our auditory nerves, into a stream of consciousness that gives us joy, or sadness, or happiness or whatever emotion the music conveys. Look after yourself as well as your hi-fi system. A happy man with a $200 hi-fi is going to get much more from his music than a rich, unhappy man with a $50,000 system. Enjoy life, keep fit, keep happy and enjoy the music.”

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