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Thread: A visit to Infinitely Baffled

  1. #1
    Join Date: Oct 2012

    Location: The Black Country

    Posts: 3,500
    I'm Alan.

    Default A visit to Infinitely Baffled, plus PHONO SHOOTOUT

    What a FABULOUS day.

    Waited until today so we had a bright sunny day, tick.
    Visiting Wales with some great scenery, tick.
    A wonderful host who provided a very enjoyable lunch, tick.
    Listened to some very good kit that was new to me, tick.
    Ran through a great selection of brilliant music/musicians, tick.
    Had a planned phono shootout with some very interesting results, BIG TICK.

    What's not to like?

    Continued shortly ............
    Last edited by Firebottle; 26-01-2017 at 12:29.

  2. #2
    Join Date: Jul 2016

    Location: Welsh Borders

    Posts: 206
    I'm Gary.

    Default

    Yes, I definitely endorse all that!
    Some truly enjoyable listening, and some important findings.
    I'm going to let you shoot first, Alan, and describe what your take-aways were. Then I'll add my observations. Enough for the moment to thank you and Shirley for making the journey out to wild mid Wales to illuminate my day. It was super to make your acquaintance - both of you. Much appreciated.
    Gary.
    p.s. don't forget that the BaffledBarn is up for sale if you are interested in sunrises, sunsets ... and sheep!
    IB.

  3. #3
    Join Date: Oct 2012

    Location: The Black Country

    Posts: 3,500
    I'm Alan.

    Default

    OK, quite a lot to report on.

    As I said it was a very enjoyable trip out in the car on a nice bright sunny day, always better when the sun is out.

    We arrived at Gary's at about 9:45 and having taken all the kit in we had a bit of a chin wag over a welcome mug of coffee.
    Gary explained that he was putting together a simple system for the workshop so we went into the 'snug' to see what was what.



    Turns out to be a mono system with a home brew OB, driven from a Dynatron valve amp with a Leak Troughline Mk 2 tuner.

    Tuner:


    Goodmans Axiom speaker:


    Sounded pretty good too, certainly good for a workshop system.
    ________

    We then took all the kit up to the lounge/music room and started by listening to Gary's current set-up.
    I have to say Gary is enthusiastic about different equipment and has constructed an Audio Note KIT1 300B SET from a kit of parts



    This was the set-up with the 300B in the middle and Audio Note AN-J speakers on either side.
    A very impressive smooth sound was to be had. We were quite taken with the performance and sound of the AN-J's, they are not a budget speaker but they have a very engaging quality, plus they are quite sensitive so can be matched to a wide range of amplifiers.

    The 'front end' was of a commendable quality, a Garrard 401 (I like the idler drive sound) with a Fidelity Research MC702 cartridge fitted to a Fidelity Research FR54 arm. I'n not showing off my knowledge of kit here, i did have to ask Gary what all the kit/model numbers were

    From the very first vinyl that was played I could tell that this was a top notch source giving a very good representation of what was on the disc.

    The equipment shootout was conducted on a logical basis with only one part of the gig-saw being changed at a time.

    The various records that were sampled included:
    Gerry Rafferty - 'Whatever's written in your heart', from the album City to City. Shirley and myself know this track very well so it was used on continuous repeat through out the phono stage shoot out section.
    London Grammar - 'Hey now', from the album If You Wait. Think this went down well with Gary, certainly sounded impressive through the AN-J's.
    Paul Simon - 'The Boy in The Bubble', from the album Graceland. Superb production values.
    Dire Straits - 'Down to the water line', from the album Dire Straits.
    Dave Brubeck's Greatest Hits, particularly 'Time Out'.
    Patricia Barber - Modern Cool album.
    Paul Simon - Hearts and Bones album.
    Lightning Hopkins - 'Mojo Hand', from the Lightning Strikes album.

    Actually we played all of side one of Lightning Hopkins, I have used the first track as a test track on a few occasions but it was great to listen to more of the album.
    He is part of a quintet on this and sounds so effortless for talent and musicality.

    The front end set-up:


    For the phono part of the bake off the rest of the system comprised the Jez Arkless MC head amp, then through whichever MM phono section was in circuit,
    then through the line stage of the Croft Epoch out to the Audio Note 300B SET power amp.

    [Pay attention at the back, there will be a test later ]

    OK, phono stages on the shoot out list (All MM or set as):

    Croft Epoch stage
    Audio Note L3
    NVA Phono 2 - Single PSU
    Firebottle KIN stage (output before the line stage)
    _________________________________________

    As the Croft Epoch was already in circuit we started with that.
    Very good sound, certainly one you won't want to be tipping out with the bath water. As with most Croft kit a balanced overall sound, though personally I'm not keen on the equalisation of the 25 series.

    Next the Audio Note L3.
    Underwhelming sound, for what is supposedly 'second to none' according to the AN web site.
    I had a nose inside the box afterwards and guessed that the topology was feedback equalisation, this at least would have accounted for the lack lustre performance. On looking on the web site I'm surprised to find it is passive RIAA eq, it was quite 'soft' and closed in sound wise.

    I discussed with Gary that the design of phono stages comprises the balancing act of a lot of compromises. You can't achieve everything you want from a particular topology by concentrating on one aspect of the performance without affecting one or more other aspects.
    Studying the AN L3 circuit I could immediately see some of the design choices/compromises that could be improved on.

    Onto the NVA Phono 2. This was one stage I was keen to hear.
    Much better clarity and 'air' compared to the first two, this was Gary's favourite of his stages. A good solid performer, particularly for an SS unit.

    Finally the Firebotle KIN phono section.
    A significant jump in overall tonal balance, more space, 'air' and depth to the soundstage.
    ________________________________________

    We now tried exchanging the Jez Arkless head amp for my own Firebottle 2000 battery head amp, into the KIN still set for MM input.

    Gary's feeling was that it was a little more 'etched' at the top end, a bit more sparkle/clarity, but slightly lacking at the bottom end, with a loss of dynamics.
    This was very good feedback for me as I think it is down to the fact of including bypass capacitors in the design, perhaps requiring a better quality cap or bigger value. Jez's head amp was very good, low noise, a very open and clear sound.
    ________________________________________

    We then opted for the MC cartridge to go direct to the Firebottle KIN input, set for MC.

    This definitely gave better dynamics and a very well balanced and punchy sound with plenty of 'air' and clarity. The KIN circuit design is devoid of any bypass capacitors that can degrade the ultimate performance, so No. 1 from this list of contenders. Rather chuffed at the outcome of the comparison
    _________________________________________

    Changes were then made to the power amp part of the equation, starting with swapping out the 300B for the Firebottle AIR.



    This certainly hit the spot, better grip, better depth, a very enjoyable sound. My own though was . You could really hear what a fantastic cartridge the FR MC702 is.

    Next for the power amps were the Firebottle Monoblocks:



    They fitted Gary's Aerolam base perfectly. This was a double , I leave it to Gary to fill in on this combination.

    Lastly for the afternoon Gary inserted his Radford STA25 valve power amp:



    It was great to get to hear one, I have heard the Radford Revival version which is superb.
    Compared to the last full Firebottle set-up it was a little curtailed at each end of the spectrum, not quite so much shimmer in the treble and you could tell the bass was a little less taut, but very smooth and 'effortless' in its presentation.
    ______________________________________

    I checked the bias settings on the Radford before leaving and found them very low.
    Adjusting the settings didn't reveal anything untoward, so they were increased but left on the low side to give valve longevity.


    Overall an extremely enjoyable day with some fantastic kit to play with. Meeting another AoS member was great, so a fantastic day out

    [I lied about the test later on]
    Last edited by Firebottle; 27-01-2017 at 06:57. Reason: Grammar and further thoughts and details added.

  4. #4
    Join Date: Jul 2016

    Location: Welsh Borders

    Posts: 206
    I'm Gary.

    Default

    Cheers, Alan. I'll take up the next chunk of the story.

    My aim at this point was to establish a datum point: a reference standard against which we could evaluate the changes we would make subsequently. Through wild optimism and naiveté, I had managed to amass no fewer than three phono stages over the previous nine months (five, actually, if you count the one in the Leak 1800 receiver destined for the workshop, and the one in my all-purpose back-up amp, a NAD 3020: but only really three hi-fi main system contenders). I had sort of lost my way a bit with vinyl, but was feeling that things had started to shape up again after I had acquired and put into service a NVA Phono 2 unit. But more of that later. The reference point, the jumping-off point, for today's adventure was to be my Garrard front end, with Fidelity Research arm/cartridge, played through my newly-acquired Arkless Mkll Head Amp into the phono and line stages of my Croft pre-amp. The Croft is an "Epoch" model from the late 80s/early 90s. It is standard apart from some mods suggested to me by Len Gregory ("The Cartridge Man") back in 2005 when I got it. They are 1. silver wiring in the signal path, 2. NOS Mullard CV4004s in place of the anonymous ECC83s and 3. some stepped attenuators in place of Glenn Croft's original volume controls (I used DACT ones - very nice!). Downstream of the Croft is my self-built (from a kit) Audio Note SET 300B power amp and my Audio Note AN-J loudspeakers. So off we went!

    I have used this combination of components in one form or another for a long time, so I am very accustomed to its sound: the Croft is very clean sounding - perhaps a little on lean side, but fast, articulate and detailed. This is offset by the voluptuousness of the AN Kit 1 power amp. They make a very good pairing which has kept me happy for many years. We started with some Gerry Rafferty, and the three of us listened intently, trying to embed the sound in our memories. Alan's wife, Shirley, turns out to have very keen ears for this sort of thing and was the principal contributor to our evaluations. I had assumed from an earlier PM exchange that Alan was a major Croft fan. Turns out that this is only partly true. Alan likes Croft (who doesn't?) but with reservations. But there we were, we had our datum point. We had absorbed the sound, so time to move on to the next phono stage: an Audio Note L3.

    This is a dedicated phono stage, usually built from a kit, though my example was factory-built for customer, who subsequently cancelled the order. I was therefore able to pick it up new. I'll put my cards on the table: I'm not crazy about this phono stage. I am quite a fan of Audio Note, but I find this bit of kit to be just a bit too "Audio Note-ey". Too rich, very euphonious, and not enough bite in my system (which involves playing through an Audio Note amplifier and loudspeakers - maybe too much of a good thing). So at this stage, my loyalties remain with the Croft.

    Next up is the NVA Phono 2. This is the one with the single dedicated off-board power supply. I have been extremely pleased with this stage since it arrived. It seems to me to combine the best of the Croft and the AN. It has the timing and speed and sparkle of the Croft, allied to the weight, euphony, and richness of the AN. I have always thought it quite a bargain for a £500 phono stage, particularly since it is upgradeable by the addition of a second power supply, making it truly dual mono. It is a very satisfying listen. Extremely "musical" in that it knows how to balance weight and lightness, dark and shade, has very fine dynamics, good detail and a heck of a wallop at the lower end when required. I am a fan! Ok, at this stage it is game, set and match to the NVA. Crucially, Shirley's golden ears agreed. So we have arrived at the end of Phase 1 of the comparison with a clear direction ... all good.

    Over to Alan for his take on the comparison so far ... and to take up the story on the next, very exciting stage: the introduction of the Firebottle kit.
    IB
    Last edited by Infinitely Baffled; 25-01-2017 at 22:14.

  5. #5
    Join Date: Oct 2012

    Location: The Black Country

    Posts: 3,500
    I'm Alan.

    Default

    Ahh, I see you've posted in the break between updating the post, but I'm sure everyone can work it out

    I'm liking your descriptions of the 'Infinitely Baffled' phono conundrum, and the setting of the datum point.

  6. #6
    Join Date: Jul 2016

    Location: Welsh Borders

    Posts: 206
    I'm Gary.

    Default

    Firebottle wrote: "I leave it to Gary to fill in on this combination." [referring to an evalation of my front end into Alan's KIN pre and Air / Air-derived monoblock power amps into the AN-Js.]

    Yes, indeed! Alan's reaction to hearing this was "WOW" and "double WOW". I'll add a third "WOW" to these. What a pleasure this was! In fact, it is fair to say that my main take-away of the day was a big question mark over whether my hitherto solid alliegance to valve power amps was maybe misplaced. I have read much in forums, blogs, magazines etc over the years about the supposed sonic superiority of valves: you know, all the stuff about transistors sounding hard, grainy, grey, cold and so on. Well, listening to Alan's hybrid confections just reduced all that to so much nonsense. They sounded absolutely wonderful! Air, space, delicacy, liquid presentation - the whole lexicon of valve descriptions - they were all there, together with a tremendous rhythm, grip, tautness and punch in the bass. But all so well integrated from top to bottom - no one part of the sound spectrum was asking for more attention than the others. It was a revelation to me. I have to concede that both the Air and the Monos made my system sound better than either of my power amps have previously done. Should I be downhearted? Not a bit. You just have to hold up your hands and say "well done - this is special".

    I'm now listening to "Late Junction" back on my Radford, and still enthralled with it. It is what it is, an artefact from a different age and still capable of giving immense pleasure. You don't discard a Bugatti Type 35 just because a well-designed modern sportscar has the legs on it. But I am very grateful to Alan (and Shirley) for bringing over all that lovely kit and letting me hear power-amp performance that I had not come across before. A great addition to my bank of experience. And isn't that what getting involved with a forum like this is all about?
    IB

  7. #7
    Join Date: Jan 2013

    Location: Birmingham

    Posts: 2,957
    I'm James.

    Default

    Great write up chaps and very nicely presented, felt I was almost there. The bake off highlighted spot on very much what I would have expected reading the roll call of kit.

    Not surprised Alan's amps sounded WOW, they are superb and one of the best bargains in HIFI out there at the moment.
    Looks like you have a very nice environment there for listening Gary and great to see such a splendid selection of kit.
    VPI Scout 1.1 / JMW 9T Tonearm / 2M Black /Croft 25R+ / Croft 7 / Spendor SP2

  8. #8
    Join Date: May 2012

    Location: Toulouse

    Posts: 3,698
    I'm GettingFunky.

    Default

    I am jealous.
    It sounds like a great day out, during which I was stuck at work, having to endure the cold weather at times.

    There was some interesting kit there that I would love to hear.
    Kevin

    Funkified Technics SL1200 Mk2 (Funk FX-1200+, Hana SL/AT33PTG/II/, Funk Firm "Strata" platter, "Spin" bearing and BO!NG Isolation feet, MCRU/LDA PSU). Pioneer PD-S703. Caiman II. Firebottle KIN. Firebottle Monoblocks, Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear Headphone amp. Electric Beach FH3 with Taket BatPure super tweeters. Sennheiser HD540 Reference II & HD650. DIY Klotz MC5000/MS Audio interconnects. Talk cable 3 speaker cable. Power Inspired AG1500

  9. #9
    Join Date: Oct 2012

    Location: The Black Country

    Posts: 3,500
    I'm Alan.

    Default

    You would have enjoyed it Kevin (not that you wouldn't have James).

    I have now added further thoughts and comment to the main posting.


  10. #10
    Join Date: May 2012

    Location: Toulouse

    Posts: 3,698
    I'm GettingFunky.

    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by Firebottle View Post
    You would have enjoyed it Kevin (not that you wouldn't have James).

    I have now added further thoughts and comment to the main posting.

    I just wish you would stop gallivanting around the UK and finish my mono blocks.
    As of today, I am slumming it with an Arcam Alpha 10P.
    Kevin

    Funkified Technics SL1200 Mk2 (Funk FX-1200+, Hana SL/AT33PTG/II/, Funk Firm "Strata" platter, "Spin" bearing and BO!NG Isolation feet, MCRU/LDA PSU). Pioneer PD-S703. Caiman II. Firebottle KIN. Firebottle Monoblocks, Graham Slee Solo Ultra Linear Headphone amp. Electric Beach FH3 with Taket BatPure super tweeters. Sennheiser HD540 Reference II & HD650. DIY Klotz MC5000/MS Audio interconnects. Talk cable 3 speaker cable. Power Inspired AG1500

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