May 102014
 

I have always held Oppo in high regard based on their extraordinary Bluray players, I have every reason to believe this new headphone amp/pre-amp with HT bypass will operate at the highest quality level.

From Oppo:

Shortly after the successful launch of its PM-1 planar magnetic headphones, OPPO Digital released another member of its family of personal audio products today – the HA-1 headphone amplifier.

Oppo-HA-1-and-PM-1OPPO Digital is well known for its reference quality universal Blu-ray Disc players, and the HA-1 headphone amplifier builds upon the success of the BDP-95 and BDP-105 audiophile players. Drawing upon the proven circuit design of these award-winning players, the HA-1 combines an uncompromising analog audio section with the latest technology in digital audio.
The analog audio section of the HA-1 is a fully balanced design with an emphasis on keeping the audio signal in the analog domain once it leaves the DAC. The HA-1 is anchored by a hefty toroidal power transformer, and linear power regulators and filters with custom made capacitors ensure that the headphone amplifier has a clean power source with plenty of reserve energy. The fully balanced Class A power amplification section uses hand-picked and paired discrete components to ensure symmetry, and a motor-driven precision volume control knob allows for both manual and remote control volume adjustment while keeping the audio in a pure analog audio path.

The HA-1 is especially suitable for high-resolution digital audio playback. Its digital inputs include coaxial, optical, balanced AES/EBU, and an asynchronous USB DAC. It is easy to connect the HA-1 to digital audio players or to a computer running the listener’s favorite playback software. The USB DAC supports PCM audio up to 384 kHz 32-bit resolution and DSD audio up to 256x the CD sample rate. The same ESS 9018 Sabre32 Reference DAC and output driving stage used in OPPO audiophile Blu-ray players ensure extremely low noise and low distortion performance. The HA-1 is compatible with Apple’s iPod, iPhone and iPad for use as an external DAC, enabling the listener to directly tap into digital music played from these devices. For additional convenience, the Bluetooth audio transport with high quality aptX CODEC sets music free from your mobile phones with a performance boost.

OPPO designs the HA-1 headphone amplifier with the same versatile approach as the Blu-ray players. The HA-1 is a high performance headphone amplifier, and it doubles as an asynchronous USB DAC, a stereo pre-amplifier, a digital audio dock for mobile devices, and a Bluetooth audio transport. Users have a choice of using the 4-pin balanced XLR or the traditional quarter-inch headphone jack. Line level analog inputs and outputs are provided with both RCA and balanced XLR sockets.

The HA-1 sports a classic design with contemporary elements. It is a desktop component housed in an aluminum chassis, and the familiar volume and source selection knobs are complemented by a 4.3-inch color screen for easy operation. While music is playing, the screen can show a classic VU meter, a modern spectrum display, or detailed technical information about the audio signal. A supplied IR remote and a smartphone app provide complete control and convenience.

With its exemplary sound quality, versatile connectivity, and energetic driving power, the HA-1 headphone amplifier is a good match with any high performance headphones or stereo sound system. The black version of the HA-1 is available now directly from OPPO Digital’s web site at a retail price of $1199, and the silver version is estimated to be available in June.

Jul 212011
 

Spotify is now available in the United States so it seemed appropriate to do a comparison with iTunes. For serious listening in my main system I do not use iTunes, the sound quality even with lossless files is terrible in my opinion. I do however use it on my computers, day in and day out. It has been a constant companion since the day it was released. For ease of use it has been tough to beat iTunes.

Enter Spotify, a free service that gives you access to a virtually unlimited catalogue of music. Yes, I said free and unlimited. You can also load any of the music you find on Spotify onto your iPod or other MP3 device, stream your and their collection from your iPhone or Android device. In short it does for free what so many, like Rhapsody, have been trying to get paid for.

Like anything online free comes with a couple of gottchas. You will be forced on occasion to listen to short advertisements. This isn’t bad and over the last few weeks I have found them to be fairly unobtrusive. If you are listening to your own library you do not have to listen to the ads, they only appear when you are dipping into the seemingly infinite Spotify catalogue. So let’s get down to business.

iTunes VS Spotify

In order to compare iTunes and Spotify I lived with both, side by side for a couple of weeks. Being so familiar with iTunes I focused more on Spotify for much of the testing, simply trying to see if it would become as second nature as iTunes had. All comparisons were performed on Windows systems, XP and Windows 7.

Installation

Installing either software is as easy as clicking NEXT a few times. Spotify is a much smaller application and thus installs and loads faster, uses fewer resources, and is less likely to mess with the rest of your system. On my slower XP machine I found iTunes to be a sluggish beast but it works.

iTunes and Spotify both want to know where your music is however, Spotify automatically finds your iTunes folder among others and imports them, without moving them. This allows you to continue using iTunes without the fear of changes.

Spotify found and loaded my collection of 40,000+ songs in about 1 minute compared to the hour or more with iTunes. Once either application has found your files, you are ready to rock. Overall, Spotify is faster to install and run than iTunes.

Using the interface

I have been using iTunes for so long it has become second nature, let’s face it, iTunes is simple to use even for my mother. Setting up playlists is a breeze, the Genius feature is brilliant, and you have a lot of options in how you want iTunes to look and behave.

Spotify on the other hand took a little getting used to. Nothing about it was difficult, it was just different, but that isn’t a bad thing. The differences are there because in addition to your own library of music, Spotify lets you listen to just about any piece of music you can think of. You don’t have to go to the Apple Store to add music (and pay for it) you simply search for music and add it to either a playlist or your queue.

Spotify playlists are easy to create and add music to, plus you can mix your own music with songs or albums you find on Spotify. Let me get back to the queue because it rocks. One of the things I love most about the software I use in my main system (Ultimate Jukebox) is that I can create a queue instead of creating a play list. A queue allows you to move songs up and down, insert where you want, add one to the top of the list, and in general control what you hear as you feel like hearing it.

Overall, I give iTunes the edge for simplicity of use while Spotify nudges iTunes out for actual control.

Sound quality

I have to admit it never occurred to me that Spotify might sound different from iTunes. My MP3 files are all 320kbits and Spotify free version uses Vorbis format, 160kbits. I have been vocal about the iTunes software sound quality for some time. Anything you play through iTunes loses life however when you play a file purchased through iTunes on other software, it sounds better, meaning iTunes software sucks for sound quality.

I expected the same, more or less from Spotify but as soon as I played the first song I was shocked. Spotify seemed to bring David “Fathead” Newman to life through my AKG 702 headphones. It sounded much more open, faster, and more detailed. David sounded much closer to the FLAC files I use in my main system. Not perfect by a long shot but much, much better.

To verify all of this I level matched iTunes and Spotify, to remove any possible preference based on the brains preference for louder music. it was night and day as I switched back and forth between the two.

Now I moved to my main system, fired up my XP box feeding an analog signal through my ASUS Xonar STX sound card into my Emotiva USP-1, XPA-1 amps, and sat back to listen through my Magnepan 16QR speakers. Through this system the differences between the two were even greater. iTunes was like nails on a chalkboard. I have never been able to listen to anything, including Apple lossless files on this system, through iTunes.

Spotify on the other hand was smooth, open, listenable, but not audiophile. I would never sit and do any serious listening to either but for background music, Spotify is more than capable. Eventually I will get a premium account and try it again but I am seriously doubtful it can match my lossless FLAC files through Ultimate Jukebox.

Conclusion

If you care even a little bit about the sound quality move to Spotify. It sounded better even on the worst set of earbuds I could find in the house. It sounded better over crappy desktop speakers, it always sounded better. The slight learning curve associated with Spotify is well worth the boost in sound quality.

For a free program to do so much is impressive and the best part is that you will never have to pay the Apple Mind Control Group another penny for music. As an added bonus, it will sound better too.

Mr. HDMI’s Wild Ride

 General Ranting, Home Theater, Home Theater Equipment  Comments Off on Mr. HDMI’s Wild Ride
May 112010
 

Adding new equipment is supposed to be fun, exciting, and if done well, an improvement. I recently upgraded most of my system, new Epson 9500ub projector, Emotiva XPA-3 for the fronts, UPA-2 for the rears and the long anticipated UMC-1 pre/pro. For those of you familiar with the rocky start of the UMC-1, I haven’t had many problems; it has been more of a learning curve. I will be doing a full review of the UMC-1 in the next few weeks.

This is about HDMI, something that sounds so perfect for this hobby, a single cable that handles every connection. I have waited for several years to upgrade to HDMI, I didn’t have a real need or an HDMI capable receiver, so I used alternative connection methods. Now I am ready to step into the modern world and boy am I… terribly disappointed.

HDMI is supposed to simplify my life, clean up the rats nest behind the component stand, and allow everything to communicate in an effort to make things work. It is so simple in theory, it’s a damn cable, you plug it in to each component and pass glorious 1080p images and Dolby TrueHD sound. If only it worked as advertised.

I was ready to blame everything on the UMC-1, and I will admit, it hasn’t made things easier but it isn’t the culprit. Despite every manufacturers promise that their components adhere to the rigorous specifications of HDMI , in this case HDMI 1.3, they don’t play nice with each other. Sony plays nice with Sony, Samsung plays nice with Samsung, but when you start to mix and match within a complicated system it all falls apart.

I set everything up and tested, it was all working beautifully, I basked in the brilliant sound of my Magnepan 1.6qr fronts while streaming FLAC. My wife was out of town and I was confident we would sit down and enjoy a movie when she got home. The first attempt was with my DirecTv HR21-100 DVR. I mashed the remote button and everything came to life, that was the end of my enthusiasm as the picture cut in and out, sound squawked occasionally from each speaker. No matter of playing got it to work until I did a reset on the DVR. After the 10 minute reboot cycle, everything was fine, it played nice but I could see the frustration in my wife’s eyes. This was not something she was willing to tackle on her own.

After considerable research I found that when you place the DVR in standby it continues to output video through HDMI. When turned back on it doesn’t perform a proper handshake and you get a pink image and odd behavior in general. Now I have to leave it on all the time. That doesn’t make me feel all green, even my strict adherence to recycling doesn’t make up for leaving the DVR on 24-7.

I have now convinced my wife that everything is working, the problem has been found and we will be able to enjoy our new Blu-Ray copy of Paul Simon’s Library of Congress show. Again, everything fired up, the flashing lights on the front of the rack were impressive, then the picture and sound vanished, the components all groaned and crackled as they fought to make nice with each other. The picture and sound returned, for a minute and the cycle started again. This continued through the show and ruined what was supposed to be a night we had waited for. My wife’s face said it all, I, the all knowing guru of home theater had let her down. The medals on my shirt were removed, the halo around my head vanished, and I sighed. I had let her down.

I played and researched, swapped cables, swore, tested, retested, swore some more, researched, tested, and swore, and so on. Every time I think it is working, it fails me when I need it most, when the woman I love, and who trusts me to make anything with a power cord easy for her to use.

I bypassed the UMC-1 for testing purposes and quickly found the video problems still existed. HDMI sounds great, it should be great but the manufacturers have fucked things up to the point that it only works in the simplest systems, if at all. I know many people that have no problems with HDMI, most connecting components directly to a TV. I have found HDMI problems discussed with every receiver, pre/pro, from every manufacturer. Unless you get lucky, you are eventually going to have an HDMI induced problem.

So what is a guy to do, component cable and analog multi-channel are an option but using component cables will be an issue soon because of the new copyright restrictions, no more HD over component. The simple fact is that manufacturers need to get their act together and ensure everything works with every other thing. I am hoping I get things figured out soon but I have my doubts.

Jan 072010
 

Fate pushed me into taking the first step towards a complete home theater renovation recently. While the changes are planned for this summer, I suddenly found myself without  front left and right channels. My Magnepan 1.6Q’s suddenly just stopped in the middle of a late night, drunken, music fest with my wife. Once the initial shock had passed, I tracked the culprit down to the demise of the front channel amps in my Kenwood Sovereign receiver.

Emotiva XPA-3

Emotiva XPA-3

The history of the receiver has been one of love/hate for years. Priced with the most expensive receivers when I bought it in 2001, it was a high quality unit with all of the current bells and whistles. I have brought in flagship receivers from Denon, Onkyo, Yamaha, Sunfire, and more, all in an attempt to bring the newer technologies, like HDMI, into my theater. Sadly the sound quality of these other receivers left me flat and the Kenwood always found itself back in the rack.

My wife and I agreed that we should rebuild the system as part of a larger home remodeling. It was then that I decided separates were the way to go. While almost all of the receivers I have tested were adequate (not perfect) for home theater, I was finding myself listening to considerably more music than in the past. This is where the receivers, several costing upwards of $5,000, left me wanting. Even my prized Kenwood (The Sovereign series was an acclaimed product in its day) was never up to the task of serious stereo listening.

I had already started researching options for a pre/pro and amplifiers before the demise of the front amps. I had even brought a few home from a local shop to test and I found a few I really liked. The prices however started around $3,000 for 2 channels, which meant I would have to wait until the summer renovation when it was financially feasible.

I decided to take my own advice from an earlier article and look at the direct online manufacturers. Having already tested the Outlaw Audio 7500, a 5 channel amp with 200W per channel, I knew it wasn’t for me. While the additional power to the Magnepans was welcome, the sound was chaotic, the amp simply wasn’t going to take control of these speakers the way the more expensive amps did.

I jumped over to the Emotiva Audio website and after careful deliberation, selected their XPA-3 amp.  This amp offers 200W into 8 ohm and 300W into 4 ohm. I expected a repeat of my experience with the Outlaw amp and made sure the box was ready for a return trip…Boy was I surprised.  I don’t want to get ahead of myself here, so I will walk you through the entire setup.

Getting Started

When I placed my order, late in the evening, I didn’t expect more than a quick “We received your order” email. I in fact received several emails and they were automated. This isn’t unusual in itself, what was unusual was that they came from the email addresses of real, living, breathing Emotiva employees. This really gave me a good feeling about Emotiva as a company and backed up everything I had heard about their amazing service.

After placing my order, I spent the next few days tearing my system apart to make room for the new amp. I built a flexy rack a few years ago and being as I am not a carpenter; my placement of the supporting rods limited the width of usable space on each shelf more than I had anticipated. After taking careful measurements, I rearranged the components and prayed. I was also worried about the racks ability to house this beast, at 57lbs, without collapsing and making me cry.

When the red faced, FedEx driver kicked at my door (I have no idea why he didn’t use a dolly) I answered and let him quickly unburden himself. Everything I ordered was there in separate boxes. In addition to the amp, I ordered the Emotiva ET-3 trigger module as the Kenwood’s triggers were unreliable with non-Kenwood products. The third box contained the Emotiva X-Series RCA cables, which were offered at 20% off.

I opened the trigger first, mostly because the size of the boxed amp scared me. I was expecting a plastic, light toy inside… it wasn’t. I was immediately impressed with the solid metal heft of this little item. If they build a trigger module like this, what the hell is the amp going to be like?

Next came the cables. They looked fancy and all on the website but they are even more impressive in your hand. I learned a long time ago not to make a determination of cable quality based on looks. These are sure pretty though and I will talk more about them later in the article.

Now it was time, everything was set in place and I spent a few minutes ensuring I had a clear path to the rack, cables handy, and picked up the amp. I should mention that I failed in my first attempt, it seems I am getting old, yet still believe I can toss linemen aside like swatting flies. I can’t. I was ready on the second attempt and waddled through the house to the theater. This thing is heavy!

I generally could care less when a reviewer describes the packaging but in this instance, it is noteworthy. The amp was double boxed and not like every other component I have had delivered over the years. The inner box is designed to fit perfectly into the outer box, no ghost turds (packing peanuts) used in the hope that everything will be alright. There is no chance of movement at all. The inner box opens up to what appears to be a third box, it is however a heavy cardboard cover attached to the molded Styrofoam container. Another nice touch is the inclusion of 2 notches in the base of the packaging, designed to allow your hands to slide under the amp and pull it out. No shaking the component to release it from the package, no swearing, no broken back, I simply bent my knees (highly recommended) and lifted the amp out.

Because of its weight I headed right for the rack and wiggled it into place before looking at it. After a sigh of relief that the rack never even groaned and patting myself on the back for building such a sturdy piece of furniture, I stood back and admired the unit. If nothing else its build quality is breathtaking and in my opinion, so is its understated looks. The traditional Emotiva black with silver trim is elegant and also screams power. I would be proud to display a rack filled with these products based on looks alone.

I unplugged the Kenwood (which will be my temporary pre/pro) and began searching the amp box for the manual. It only took a few seconds to determine, it didn’t come with one. It seems that Emotiva is currently revising their manuals and current editions are available online. This wasn’t a problem but I really like to have a hardcopy of my manuals stored in my very organized manual file. OK, it isn’t organized as much as it is a haphazard stack in the box, but I can always find what I am looking for.

Emotiva did include something I never expected though, an Emotiva T-shirt and even if I wasn’t a sucker for a free T, which I am, it is a very nice touch.

Just to ensure I didn’t do anything stupid in my haste, I pulled up the manual on my netbook. As expected, setup for an amp is very simple and I made the connections in less than 2 minutes, including reading through the included manual for the trigger. I double checked my connections and plugged the amp and Kenwood into the wall. I sighed in relief again at the complete lack of smoke, fireworks, or electronic crackling. Standing back I took a deep breath and pressed “Listen to Music” on my Harmony 670 remote.

I watched the Kenwood light up and awaited the delayed startup of the amp. After several seconds the room filled with a blinding blue glow as the trigger powered up. I am not exaggerating when I say blinding, the LED lights on the trigger could be used for landing airplanes, far too bright for theater application by a thousand fold. When I had regained my sight I stood dumbfounded as the front of the XPA-3 continued to glow orange. I scratched my head for a moment, checked all of the wires and was about to cry when I remembered that the amp has a power button on the back.

I turned everything off and turned the power switch to on and started the process again. I had enough sense to push the trigger behind some other components this time and watched with glee as the amp face began to glow blue. The LED indicator lights for each amp flashed red in turn before all three turned blue.

I verified that the amp was working by pumping 30 seconds of music through it and was immediately amazed. I had promised myself I would do a full calibration for every component before sitting down for serious listening so I turned off the tunes and calibrated the Kenwood followed by my  Sony BDP-550 and Pioneer Elite DV-79AVi. Now it was time for some dedicated listening.

The Experience

I sat down next to the touch screen jukebox I had recently built using an older computer with an added Xonar Essence STX soundcard with ASIO4 drivers to bypass windows completely, providing bit perfect playback of my FLAC collection, all ripped using EAC. The GUI chosen is Ultimate Jukebox and this combination is capable of outstanding audiophile playback. I have heard few dedicated players that can match it and they all cost an arm and a leg.

David ‘Fathead’ Newman’sSkylark, from the Diamondhead CD began. This song is full of breathy saxophone and has become a regular reference song in my collection. The soundstage was forward and wide, pleasantly so. I began to notice more of David’s raspy reed as he held onto the final note of short passages. The intake of his breath was clearly audible and his position in the room was clearly defined. The bass, drums, and other instruments all appeared across the room, separated as I have only heard with the highest quality amps.

The XPA-3 was taking control of the Maggies, and forcing them into submission. By their nature, Magnepans display an incoherence when underpowered or with lower quality amps. The Maggies need an amp that can own them; I would go as far as to say the Emotiva simply made the 1.6Q’s its bitches.

I continued being amazed as I worked my way through Il Divo’s, Hallelujah,and many others. I recently picked up Susan Boyles new CD and was less than impressed with the sound quality. I decided to give I Dreamed a Dream a try and I am glad I did. Susan’s voice swam in front of the orchestra, each note beautifully detailed, filled with life, and powerful. What I had dismissed as a lackluster recording was in fact wonderful and the Kenwood was simply unable to bring it to its full potential.

The speakers themselves had lost the shrill high end and the bass is simply fantastic. I now turned to my reference DVDs, starting with Peter Gabriel’swell recorded, Growing Up concert.  I jumped to Sky Blue, which never fails to impress through quality amps. I can gauge the quality not with my ears alone, when the Blind Boys of Alabama are lifted onto the stage, it is a powerful vocal display that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. The XPA-3 sounded as good on this piece as any amp I have heard, at any price.

Moving on now, I worked through my collection and was thrilled with the quality of sound and improved detail in every scene I selected. Equally important, there was a significant improvement in the sound of the rear channels. Without the need to drive all 5 speakers, the Kenwood was able to drive the MMG rears with authority. The MCC3 center channel was also more intelligible through the Emotiva, adding weight to dialog.

Last night my wife joined me for the first full movie since installation. Inglourious Basterds is a master work in my opinion. The Blu-Ray version offers a DTS-HD Master audio soundtrack that is very dynamic. The heavy dialog that makes up most of the movie is always, eventually, punctuated by the tearing of bullets, the cracking of heads, or bombastic explosions. The XPA-3 displayed the dynamics skillfully, with surgical precision. The dialogue was clean and crisp leading up to the inevitable explosion of violence, which the Emotiva handled with ease and recreated perfectly.

The best way I can describe the difference between the dynamic differences of this amp and any receiver I have tried is to picture a rubber band. Lay the rubber band on a table and draw a series of lines across it to represent dynamic volume levels. In its static form on the table the dynamics are compressed, now stretch the rubber band. The lines spread out and this is how the addition of a high quality amp changes the sound. The range of dynamics are much greater, the changes more defined and realistic.  The better definition of each dynamic point makes the soundtrack come to life.

I did some testing between the X-Series cables from Emotiva VS my Bluejean reference cables. I don’t buy into the high dollar cable market but I do know there is a difference between low end analog cables and the middle market, which is where I place these cables. I found no difference in sound between the two but based on cost and looks, I will be using the X-series cables from now on.

Conclusion

As far as the XPA-3 is concerned, I am keeping it. It easily bests any receiver amps I have ever heard and gives higher dollar amps a real run for their money. I won’t claim that they are as good as the Macintosh, Bryston, or other high dollar amps but unless you really want to pay 3 or 4 times as much, these amps can’t be beat. Truth be told, I would bet that damn few of us have the speakers and other equipment to notice a difference, these amps are simply fantastic and even if it was $2,000 instead of $600, it would be one hell of a bargain.

Emotiva is a solid company with a great reputation. Read their story here and take the time to look over their impressive products. Emotiva also has a forum filled with helpful owners and dreamers. I spent considerable time lurking there and found it both entertaining and insightful.

Emotiva also makes speakers and pre/pros, including the long awaited UMC-1 which began shipping this week. If their pre/pro is anything like their amps, I will be a new owner this summer however I may hold out for the XMC-1, which will be their flagship model. If Emotiva reads this, I would be happy to run the UMC-1 through its paces and offer a review. It can’t hurt to wish you know.

 

Tiered Pricing for Internet Access Must be Stopped!

 Budget, Computers and Technology, General Ranting, Home Theater Equipment  Comments Off on Tiered Pricing for Internet Access Must be Stopped!
Apr 022009
 

Tiered pricing for internet access based on your bandwidth
usage is right around the corner for many, already in place for some, and
bringing big changes for everyone. Time Warner is the largest ISP I have heard
of going this route so far but more will follow soon.

If you are currently or have been planning on streaming
video from online sources such as Netflix or Hulu.com, you better think again. The
pricing I have seen from Time Warner has 40Gb of downloads costing $40 – $50
per month. That sounds like a lot of bandwidth but if you stream video you are going to
blast past your limit in the first week of
the month.

I always said streaming video wasn’t going to take off for
years to come and this is one good reason why. The kind of bandwidth required
means your ISP is going to need to make some dramatic changes. As pricing goes
up, streaming is quickly going to return to the back of the bus.

If you are using the DirecTV On Demand service, as I am, you
will have a problem under this new pricing. I for one will be unhappy, but that
is pretty much my normal state. I am not using Tine Warner but AT&T will
likely follow suit if Time Warner is successful in putting this new pricing in
place.

If you are currently experiencing a change to pay per byte
internet access speak loud and clear when you dump your ISP. Time Warner is in
the awkward position of losing cable customers and watching its bandwidth use
climb but is that really my problem? I dumped Time Warner years ago because of
terrible customer service, outrageous prices and the final nail, they could
never get me a reliable internet connection. Make a stand for progress and fair
business practices and find another ISP.