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Riddle Me This: Readers Ask Questions of Our Audiophile Guru

There is no question that the arena of home entertainment equipment is, like so many other specialist hobbies, littered with esoteric concepts, language and trinkets. Such that, to most outsiders it’s hard to traverse much ground without stumbling over the detritus of D’Appolito speaker configurations, air-suspension turntables, spade lugs, upsampling digital-to-analog converters and countless other yummies that only ordained audiophiles can, and do, drool over.

But the amount of techno-babble, not to mention the inherent complexities of new digital-and even analog-technologies confuses even yours truly. Trying to keep up can be a full-time job, and for most it just isn’t worth it.

Because of all this confusion, consumers can have a pretty rough time of it when trying to upgrade or purchase a new system. I know this to be true because many of you have emailed me your questions about what to buy and how to solve the component-matching game made so difficult by the glut of choices now on the market. And though we try to cover a wide variety of topics in this column, we are not always able to get as specific as some readers want, or, we may miss some issues altogether.

So here is a collection of some of the most common and the most intriguing questions I’ve received in the past several months in hopes that the solutions offered may be of help to others in the quest for better sound. We always welcome your questions or suggestions of topics for future columns (sent to [email protected]). We’ll gather the best in these pages once or twice a year as space allows.

Our first question comes from reader Glenn Junkert in Montana:

Mike, I’m taking you up on your offer for “sound advice.” My wife and I began our 32-year association with each other partly because of our common love for music/jazz, often stretching our budget for the sake of our music (I’m a retired public school teacher). We both read your column regularly and recently decided to dramatically upgrade our speakers, selecting a pair of Magnepan 3.6s, after reading your complimentary comments, over B&W, MartinLogan and Meadowlark. In short, we love the Maggies, if it weren’t for vexing listening problems.

We can no longer listen to certain music on the 3.6s (big band, orchestral music, CDs with wide dynamic range) because the fuses (for both mids and tweeters) on the Maggies blow, blow, blow and blow again. We are not listening at excessive volume (moderately loud…much lower than our previous Polks or any other speaker we auditioned). We took them back to our dealer (a 400-mile round trip) who said they tested perfectly, and told us we couldn’t hurt the speakers, and to give them some time to mellow out. So we took them back home because we want them to work for us.

So now we can no longer listen to Chico O’Farrill’s “Carambola” brass shouts, nor the Carmina Burana, nor any music with a wide dynamic range, nor any music at moderately loud levels. We own Adcom (GFA-5500) power and preamps (which we’ve never had problems with) but would upgrade those if necessary. But is that the problem? Or are the Maggies simply incapable of reasonable room-filling volume? I can’t imagine speakers being incapable of merely moderate volume (we can speak over them). And if so, I know most music lovers would not pay $4,200 for them. Magnepan has a warning about playing their speakers (and burning them up) with blown fuses. Now, I jump at any “irregularity” and turn the volume down. What a pain. We’re losing our ability to luxuriate in the music as you so frequently describe. Help!

The answer to this is relatively easy because I experienced the same problem when I owned those same Magnepan speakers. Like you I tried to power them with an Adcom amplifier, and I was constantly blowing fuses and was never able to achieve reasonable volume levels. The problem does in fact lie with the Adcom amp; it just can’t provide the current needed to drive these fairly finicky speakers. Don’t be confused by output ratings measured in watts. Though the Adcom can produce 200 watts of power, the current is still not adequate for the demands for power made by the Maggies. I would suggest talking to your dealer about auditioning another amplifier that is capable of delivering more current, not necessarily more watts, to your speakers, and I’ll bet you solve your problem.

As a follow up, here is what happened next according to Mr. Junkert:

You might be interested to hear that my Montana Magnepan dealer shipped me a Rotel RB-1080 amp and an RC-1070 preamp out of the blue over the weekend. The result was another (this time a two-stage) musical epiphany. I replaced the components in stages, starting first with the power amp, where the most significant improvement in quality-sound stage, detail, translucence, warmth and just pure ability to deliver the signal-took place. I know it’s no miracle, but improvements that drastic can seem so. I then hooked up the RC-1070 and experienced another significant upgrade in detail, accuracy and enjoyed many subtle nuances of “observing” sound as music, of hearing information I’d never previously heard.

Problem solved.

Pete Peterson from California was having radio reception problems when listening to his favorite jazz station:

I live in Santa Barbara, in an area right on the fringe of reception of KLON (24-hour jazz station from Long Beach State [now KKJZ]). I can get this station in my car at home but not on the FM. Is there some kind of FM antenna you know of that may work?

A couple of years ago I did a column on tuners and antennas and found the Magnum Dynalab ST-2 “whip” antenna to be very good (your car radio antenna is probably a whip antenna), but install it outdoors if possible; hang it from a tree if you have to, or attach it to the side of the house, as high as you can get it, and on the side of the house, if possible, facing the station’s tower. An outdoor location with no metal obstructions between the antenna and the station are key elements. This antenna isn’t very expensive, but try to purchase it from a dealer who will take it back if it doesn’t do what you want it to.

Rick Teller, also in California was experiencing something I imagine is all too common among jazz fans:

First let me say that while I’m hardly an audiophile, I enjoy reading your monthly column. I have neither the budget to afford most of the equipment you describe, nor do I think I have sensitive enough ears to aspire to be a true audiophile. On the other hand, maybe I’ve just never heard a really good system. Nonetheless, I enjoy good jazz, and appreciate the occasional musical tips you sprinkle in your column-I bought Bennie Wallace’s Moodsville recently after you mentioned it. But I do have a question.

Several of my favorites-Keith Jarrett, Charles Lloyd, Dave Holland-record on ECM, as you know. I’ve noticed that when I play some of their CDs, the last track or two exhibits an inability to track correctly. I hear the music speeding up or skipping. If I watch the digital readout it jumps as well. I haven’t done a lot of careful investigation on this, but I believe it occurs most frequently on my home player (an old Denon DCD-520). I’ve also noticed it with less regularity on the player in my car and a portable I use at work. There are no obvious scratches on the CDs. The problem seems to occur most frequently with CDs from ECM, although I’ve had the occasional problems with others.

Does this ring any bells with you? Can you think of a reason that a particular manufacturer’s CD would exhibit such behavior? Is it time to replace my venerable Denon player? Thanks in advance for any insights you might send my way.

Rick, at first I was not sure what to tell you. It would seem odd that only ECM discs had the problem, and that the skipping was occurring with several machines. But, my first guess was that it was your Denon and that opinion was shared by Joe Harley who works for AudioQuest and has worked for JVC and ECM producing CDs-he produced the last few Charles Lloyd titles.

Here is his response:

I know this problem…it isn’t ECM, it’s the classic Denon skipping problem. I think they’ve fixed this now, but their older CD players are notorious for skipping.

So, yeah, Rick, it’s time to replace the Denon. Let me know what you can spend and I will recommend a couple machines-but to get a decent sound, shoot for $300 to $400 as a minimum. NAD, Rotel and Cambridge Audio are good starting points.

Here is a question from reader Steve Post that is probably popping up more frequently these days as new formats continue to emerge.

Just finished your article in the August 2002 issue. I have a Sony DVP-S560D DVD player. Will it play DVD-Audio, or do I need a dedicated player? Keep up the good work. Thanks.

The answer to your question is easy and not so easy: your Sony cannot extract the high-resolution information from DVD-Audio discs, nor will any Sony DVD player at this point because Sony is promoting its own high-resolution solution, the SACD. To derive the maximum resolution for which the new DVD-Audio discs are being touted, you need a DVD player with DVD-A capability, though of course such a player will play standard DVD discs as well. However, some DVD-A discs, though not all of them, are playable on standard DVD players, but you’ll be listening to a low-resolution audio track in lieu of that available with DVD-Audio encoding. And your Sony can play those discs, but will not play the DVD-A layer. This is all so confusing right now, so good luck!

Reader John King brought up a point I was unaware of regarding the digitization of audio signals entering his audio/video receiver:

I’m a long-time reader; your column is always interesting. I need help with one question. I have a B&K AVR-305 A/V receiver. Beefy, nice, heavy, no complaints. Until now. I use it about 80 percent of the time for two-channel listening. I spent a goodly amount of money on a Rotel CD player not long ago, which I connect to the analog inputs with standard RCA-jack interconnects to the B&K as opposed to the digital input. I recently found out that, no matter how you send the CD signal into the B&K (analog or digital) the B&K DACs [digital-to-analog converters] have the final conversion. So, by using the Rotel DACs and sending an analog signal to the B&K, the signal is “redigitized” in the B&K for its internal processing and then gets converted back to analog a second time! I found this hard to believe, but the B&K guys confirmed this. My question is, Why would I ever pay good money for a CD player with costly DACs if they are not what I will ultimately hear? It seems I would only need a good transport, go digital out of the player and have the signal converted to analog only one time-the end product (the sound) will still be the same. The only difference is that I would be eliminating an additional digital-to-analog conversion, which is unnecessary anyway since the B&K redigitizes everything no matter what. The only analog output option is labeled “direct,” but the sub is completely eliminated using this option. Is there a great transport out there I can buy so I won’t be paying for the player’s DACs. I want a Rega Planet, but what’s the use, the B&K is just going to reconvert that signal to digital and back again. Please help. Thank you very much.

John, your question raised issues I was not really aware of when I wrote the January 2003 column on A/V receivers, so I did some investigating and discovered that, indeed, all A/V receivers (all except the ones that don’t; there is always an exception)-anyway, most receivers do in fact redigitize the signals that come in because they can handle bass management (meaning the filtering necessary to send the correct information to your subwoofer) only in the digital domain. And any other DSP stuff (digital signal processing like synthesizing a variety of concert space ambiences) has to be handled in the digital domain as well, so they automatically digitize any signal coming in and then feed it out again through the receiver’s own internal DACs just like you mentioned. So, indeed, there is some compromise made with all the digitizing and redigitizing if you are feeding a more sophisticated output, say from the Planet or my Bel Canto DAC2 for example, into the B&K (or most, if not all, other receivers) since we’ll assume the DACs in most receivers are going to be inferior.

And as you found out, if you go the “direct” route-and most receivers offer this option-you bypass the digitizing stuff, but that eliminates bass management functions-meaning no signal will be fed to the sub-and that is why you are unable to utilize your sub. If you absolutely need to use the sub for music-you didn’t mention what main speakers you are using-high quality, full-range speakers don’t really need a sub for most music anyway-then you might be able to rig up a system incorporating a passive crossover and your sub, but you would need to consult a knowledgeable dealer and external crossovers are very hard to find these days.

You have opened a can of worms I will try to address in a future column. In the meantime, any transport you use (except going the “direct” route) will still be at the mercy of the B&K DACs, which, though I am sure they are fine, certainly don’t equal those in the Planet, or my Bel Canto, or maybe even in the Rotel you have. Though you are probably correct that the signal might suffer less if only going through one set of DACs. I would imagine you can take a digital out from your Rotel and use that as a transport; get a good, dedicated digital cable-the Analysis Plus cable I mentioned in the December 2002 issue is pretty reasonable-but there are many to choose from. Just remember: 75-ohm cable is the key.

For best music reproduction, you would be well advised to forgo the sub for now and go “direct.” Based on the equipment you have told me you already own, I will assume you have speakers that can handle most low frequency information anyway, though I realize sometimes that extra thump can be fun!

I hope that helps. I certainly learned something from your question. And it is something I will share with readers down the line.

Perhaps some of these questions will help in making your next component purchase.

But as I’ve said in the past, the best way to navigate these ever-more complex mazes is to develop a relationship with a reliable, well-informed dealer who can do the keeping-up for you and explain it to you as you need it. A proper dealer will take the time, no matter how long, to walk through the vagaries of audio and home theater with each customer without a trace of condescension or impatience. Informing the client is 99 percent of a trustworthy dealer’s job, so keep that in mind when shopping.

In the meantime, keep those cards and letters coming.

Originally Published