Pandemic Silver Lining | An Audio Journey



The music had a three dimensional quality I was never cognizant of before. I was gobsmacked.

Music for sanity

When I was five years old, I would sit in the basement of our house on Cascade street and play records by myself. “Me and My Shadow” on 45 RPM, was one of my favorite Peter Pan songs. I also had Aesop's Fables, narrated by a woman with an amazing voice. The stories thrilled and fascinated. I have had no success finding a copy. Another favorite was, “Just So Stories” I have a copy on vinyl gifted by my son. Another favorite was, “The Bible” I have a digital copy. Wow. Amazing voice acting and a little scary. 

When I was a teenager, I migrated to David Bowie, Cheap Trick, Steve Miller Band, Ohio Players, and Led Zeppelin. My audio equipment as a kid and as a teen, and then as a college student, was never sophisticated. In college I moved to portable cassette players and tapes, with cheap headphones. Might explain some of my current hearing problems.

As an adult, married and then with our son, I never put much money or attention on my audio purchases. I did switch to Compact Disks, but used portable players and more cheap headphones. In the back of my mind, I thought of researching and investing in a surround sound system of some kind. But I had no clear plan or idea how to proceed. It was not a priority.

Everything changed with the Covid-19 Global Pandemic. 

For Christmas 2019, my son bought me a little audio amplifier. Kinter K2020A+ Class T Digital Amplifier with a Tripath chip. This amplifier was recommended by Steve Guttenberg, the Audiophiliac, on his youtube channel. I have been a fan of Steve Guttenberg for many years when he was on CNET. His enthusiasm is contagious and he honestly shares his thoughts. There is trust in that.

This amplifier was not very expensive. But I would not buy it for myself. Steve recommended it for the type of sound signature it has. Evidently, it had a bit of a following because of the chipset and they were also discontinued. At home I had an old Sony surround sound amplifier. It did not thrill. And I was not happy with how it played music. I knew something needed changing. But what?

Kinter K202A+ Digital Amplifier.
Kinter K2020A+ Digital Amplifier.

At home I also have a pair of Micah MB42 bookshelf speakers. Tiny things, which Steve also recommended about 10 years ago. In my office, I connected the little amplifier to my little Micah MB42 speakers. I plugged in my Sony portable CD player, popped in Pink Floyd, "Dark Side of the Moon" and smiled. This was the beginning of my audio journey during Covid.

    *Kinter K2020A+ Specifications: "Known for producing sound as warm and vibrant as tube amplifiers, Tripath amplifiers have earned a solid reputation for sound quality from budget-minded audiophiles." Specifications: • Power output: 2 x 20 watts RMS • Input impedance: 47k ohms • Frequency response: 20 Hz - 20 kHz • Input sensitivity: 200 mV • Minimum THD: <0.5% •


In my small Covid bubble
Feeling isolated in a Covid bubble.


2020 SIP = Stuck at Home and No Employment

What do you remember about 2020?

I remember attending the Portland Wine Symposium in late February. I remember working my last regular day at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center on March 14th. And then I remember we were told to "Shelter In Place" (SIP.) We never opened on March 15th. 

Like you, I was stuck at home. For me, I was living alone with the dog, my employment on hold. My wife was working on the east coast on a 3 years job assignment. My son was away at college. So, I was left to stew in my own juices. Eventually, I was climbing the figurative walls. What helped, what I fell into, what kept me sane, was music. Big time for me.

This was my epiphany moment. The world of Hi-Fi Stereo, 3D imaging, focused sound stage, and details in music I had never heard was revealed to me. I wanted more.

The Audiophile Triumvirate

Steve Guttenberg (Audiophiliac), John Darko (Darko Audio), Randy (Cheap Audioman). These are the main three audiophiles I follow and trust. They have very different styles and focus on different niches. Most of the equipment I now have at home, they have recommended in part. 

John Darko | Darko Audio

In January 2020, I stumbled on John Darko, Darko Audio on YouTube. John is what is referred to as an, “Audiophile.” The real deal. He is a Brit living in Germany. Intelligent, articulate, detailed, with a voice that instills confidence and he has a taste for Electronica. I watched and listened to John with rapt attention. 

One of his episodes, the one below, caught my attention. He mentioned an American company called, “Schiit Audio.” He even counted how many times he used the word, “Schiit.” Great episode. What got me was his description of the Schiit Modi 3 DAC. What and what? I played that episode many times. The Audiophiliac also mentioned this Schiit Modi 3 DAC. As did other audiophiles on YouTube. I had to have one.


The Schiit Modi 3 DAC. An Epiphany

This was my first “audiophile” piece of kit. It takes digital audio from digital devices (computer, DVD player, TV) and converts the digital signal to analog audio (connect to an amplifier and to speakers or headphones.) Schiit Audio is based in California and Texas. They are a direct to consumer (DTC) company. Which means no middle man, you purchase direct from them. They design and build their products in the United States. Like John said, "They make good Schiit." And it was an easy buy at $100.

The small Modi 3 DAC, connected to my little Kinter amplifier, connected to those Micah bookshelf speakers never sounded better. Another big smile on my face. At first, I used my 2011 iMac for playback. I ripped a bunch of music from CD. Then played back via the USB port to the Schiit Modi 3, to the Kinter amplifier, to the Micah speakers. The Modi 3 DAC did something almost magical to the quality of music playback. It brought forth details in the music I had never heard before. There was more clarity to vocals. The music had a three dimensional quality I was never cognizant of before. I was gobsmacked. Great word, "gobsmacked."

A music epiphany
A musical epiphany.

This was my epiphany moment. The world of Hi-Fi Stereo, 3D imaging, focused sound stage, and details in music I had never heard was revealed to me. I wanted more. 

A New Obsession

My new found obsession collided with the onset of the Covid Pandemic. March 14, 2020 was my last normal day of work at the Walter Clore Wine and Culinary Center. Little did I know that the Clore Center would be permanently shuttered seven months later. The money ran out. You cannot operate a non-profit without funds. 

With a lot of time on my hands, I watched a lot of YouTube and I listened to a lot of music. My new audiophile friends introduced me to a new world of music and audio equipment. My wish list grew and grew. Gradually, I began to slowly build a quality Hi-Fi system. I trusted their advice and purchased according to their opinions and my budget. 

New Speakers

My first “splurge” was for a pair of Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ speakers. The Audiophiliac raved about these. Others did too. But I trust Steve. He’s earned it over more than a decade of reading and listening. And they are as good as he said. Detailed. Detailed. Detailed. Clean and focused. Love these speakers. And they are reasonably priced. At the time of purchase, I also received a 30% credit for future purchase. Which I used of course. I will expand on the sound of these speakers down the page. See his review below.

Emotiva is located in Tennessee. They are another DTC company. You purchase direct from them. Their products are designed in Tennessee. Some of their high end amplifiers are built in Tennessee. Many of their products are manufactured to their specification in China. With no middle man, you save money on a premium product. Big smile.

New Amplifier

That little Kinter amplifier was working hard. But, I knew I needed more power. I knew that the new speakers could deliver more, with more. So I kept researching and watching amplifier reviews. The Triumverate helped me again. 

Steve Guttenberg strongly recommended the Emotiva TA-100 integrated stereo amplifier. When he likes something, he gushes. See the video below. 

The TA-100 is also designed in the U.S. and manufactured in China. Other audiophile reviews I found also recommended the TA-100 amplifier. Another favorite audio reviewer I discovered in 2020 was the “Cheap Audioman” on YouTube. Randy is a cool dude. He lives in the Midwest and is down to earth. I like his style. And I now trust his opinions too. 

After much research, I used that 30% Emotiva store credit and applied it to purchasing the TA-100 integrated stereo amplifier. What a beauty. Looks cool and sounds great. The only negative, was that the remote was confusing to use. It is not intuitive. It is small and plastic. But, hey,  I figured it out, so no worries today. And it sounds sweet paired with the B1+ speakers.

    *EMOTIVA TA-100 Specifications: 

Analog and digital inputs, 50 watts/channel Class A/B amplifier, Bluetooth option (aptX) and FM tuner, headphone, line level stereo outs and two subwoofer outs.

50 watts RMS per channel (20Hz – 20kHz; THD < 0.02%; into 8 Ohms)

90 watts RMS per channel (1kHz; THD < 1%; into 4 Ohms)

Broadband frequency response: 20Hz to 80kHz + 0dB / – 3dB

THD+noise: < 0.05% (A-weighted)

S/N ratio: > 100dB (A-weighted; ref full power)

Spiritual Experience

One album I have consistently carried with me over the years is, Joni Mitchell, "Blue" 1971. Around 1975 in Seattle, Washington, I first purchased this album, used, on vinyl. It was eventually replaced by cassette tape in the 1980’s. My current copy is on CD. 

Joni Mitchell Blue
My "first time" hearing Joni Mitchell "Blue."

My Christmas gift for 2020 was a pair of Triangle Borrea 3 speakers. These speakers are designed in France and manufactured to their specifications in China. I spent all of 2020 researching speakers. Even as much as I love the Airmotiv B1+ speakers, I wanted something different. It is part of the obsession. Speakers, I learned, are all different. And they work differently with different types of amplifiers. I'll expand on this below. After many hours of research, the one Audiophile who won me over to the Triangle speakers was Thomas.

In January 2021, I heard Joni Mitchell "Blue" for the first time. Yes, an album I have played since the mid 1970s. An album I thought I knew. It was a revelation listening to this album on my new stereo. I nearly wept as tears welled in my eyes. Her voice, the range, the sound of her lips and breath, her piano and guitar playing. The detail. The depth. The quality of sound through the Triangle Bro3 speakers was almost a spiritual experience. What a revelation. 

Thomas & Stereo

No, Thomas is not part of the Audiophile Triumverate. Thomas tends to review audio equipment outside of my budget. He is also passionate and articulate. A bit softer in presentation than the Triumverate, but very detailed. I value his opinions and enjoy how he compares and contrasts audio equipment. He often shares the views of his audiophile friends. They don't always agree. His friends, he has nicknames for each, also lend their gear for Thomas to review in his listening room. Thomas has a very high-end setup. Outside my budget. Great information. Thomas gave the Triangle Borrea 3's a glowing review. And he said, it is a speaker that will "grow" with your system as you improve your amplifier. That sealed the deal for me. See his review below. 

My audio journey continued through 2021.


Pandemic stress in photo
Pandemic stress.

2021 Another Year, Same Pandemic

Watching all those audiophile reviews, you eventually realize that the reviewers collect a variety of audio equipment. Not just to collect, but to compare how different components behave with different equipment. How speakers are affected by different types of amplifiers. How an amplifier sounds, is directly affected by the connected speakers. And DAC's...so many...so many prices...and so many different descriptors.

Yes, amplifiers and speakers have different qualities of sound. This is something I was beginning to figure out. The Triangle Borrea 3 speakers sound different from the Emotiva Airmotiv B1+ speakers. In 2021 I also purchased a Sabaj a10a Class D amplifier and a Geshelli Labs J2 DAC. They have different  audio characteristics from the other equipment I own. All these components, and how they are connected, affect the sound of the music. During the pandemic, I have spent some time playing around with speaker, amplifier and DAC configurations. Here’s some of what I have learned.

Mini stereo configuration
One of many stereo configurations, Sabaj, Schiit, Fosi Audio.


Class A/B amplifiers vs Class D amplifiers

Many audiophile reviewers talk about “neutral” sounding speakers and amplifiers. It seems the “purists” don’t like to adjust treble or bass. They want a “neutral” sound with as little extra coloration to the music as possible. However, each component you add and connect, does affect the sound out of the speakers or headphones. They display a “style” or “type” of playback which directly affects the impression of the music you play. Rock, Jazz, Vocal, Acoustic, some configurations are better and some are not. 

The Emotiva TA-100 amplifier is a Class A/B integrated amplifier. This amplifier has an integrated DAC and multiple inputs, Phono, Aux, CD, USB and FM Radio. It has a large, heavy toroidal transformer, and heavy heatsinks to dissipate all the heat it generates. It is a “classic” type of amplifier, similar to the Realistic integrated amplifiers my father used to own when I was growing up. Class A/B amplifiers tend to have a “warmer” sound. 

Sabaj a10a and Schiit Modi 3.
Sabaj a10a and Schiit Modi 3.

Sabaj a10a Amplifier

The Sabaj a10a amplifier is a Class D amplifier. It uses a digital chip for amplification. It has an integrated power supply which powers the audio amplification. This amplifier has only one input. It is small and light. Class D amplifiers tend to have a “crisp” and “bright” sound. They are also, usually, smaller and less expensive than Class A/B amplifiers. They can deliver good, clean sound. I thoroughly enjoy the music the Sabaj a10a, in combination with the Schiit Modi 3 DAC and Emotiva B1+ speakers can produce. Swap out speakers, change the sound profile. This has become my office stereo. 

    *Sabaj a10a Specifications:

Input: RCA THD+N: 0.0045%

SNR: 98dB

Channel Separation: 89dB

Input Sensitivity: 350mV

Input Impedance: 47kΩ

Output Power: 80Wx2(4Ω), 50Wx2(8Ω)

Power Consumption: 40W

Standby Power: <0.6W

When you pair amplifiers with speakers, the sound quality from your speakers and type of amplifier will obviously affect the sound of the music and type of music you play. 

* Note: I should mention that speaker break-in is a thing. Many audio reviewers will mention that speakers need at least 40 hours of use for them to “break-in” to sound how they should sound. Last year, after a year of use, I noticed that my Triangle Borrea 3 speakers changed. They lost some of the “warmth” and “texture” I had grown to like. They now seem to have a bit more detail. Consequently, I put the speaker grills back on to “soften” the detail a touch.

Emotiva TA-100 amplifier with Emotiva B1+ speakers.

The B1+ speakers are not large, but they are solid and heavier than you expect. With the Emotiva TA-100 and B1+ speakers in place, the music has an “airy” more “open” and detailed sound. Music seems to have more focus and clarity. One of my favorite albums to play, besides Joni Mitchell, "Blue," is Alice Phoebe Lou, "Orbit" 2016. This album, to my ears, is holographic. When I close my eyes, it is like she is performing just for me. It brings her music to life. See below.

Another album that I love to listen to in this configuration is Avi Kaplan, "I'll Get By" 2020. Detail, power and passion. His voice dead center, about 6 feet above the floor and his clapping hands about 2 feet below. Dead center. So much fun. Avi used to perform with Pentatonix. See below.

Steve Guttenberg recommended an album I love listening to: Anna Von Hauswolff, "All Thoughts Fly" 2020. Her organ music fills the room. And sometimes the music wraps around behind me. Vocals, electronica and pipe organ. I never expected to enjoy this style of music. Chills. See below.


So much fun. Eventually, I should note, the B1+ speakers can seem a little “light” in the living room where my stereo is located. It is a large room with 20 foot high ceilings. When I want a bit more “punch” and “fullness” I go back to the Triangle speakers. Then the B1+ speakers go back to the office, with the Sabaj a10a and Schiit Modi 3. 

Emotiva TA-100 with Triangle Borrea 3 speakers

My default configuration in the living room is the Emotiva amplifier with the Triangle speakers. They deliver a “bigger” sound. When I play Avi Kaplan, his voice “booms” and impresses. He has a big voice which deserves a big sound. This configuration has a little less “focus” and I noticed that the clapping from Avi is a little “smeared” and wider sounding. 

Makes sense that bigger speakers deliver bigger sound. The Triangle speakers also need more room away from the walls. I have speaker stands in the living room. The stands raise the speakers to ear height when sitting down. The stands are always at least 22” away from the wall. Some audiophiles strongly recommend placing these speakers 32” away from the wall, if you have the room. Speaker positioning, toe-in and alignment is another topic. I have played around with toe-in a bit, and I adjust according to the music I am playing. There are many videos on speaker placement you can find on your own. 

Geshelli Labs J2 DAC
My custom Geshelli Labs J2 DAC.
Case: Black/Blue Mist. Front plate: Purple.


Geshelli Labs DAC

I mentioned above the Geshelli Labs J2 DAC. It was another addition in 2021. This is another direct to consumer company. You can only purchase direct from them. They assemble and ship their products out of Florida. Yep, another made in the USA company. When you order this DAC, you can choose the color of your case and the color of the cover plate. You can also add USB input for extra, which I did. So cool that they give you the option of customizing their product to your own taste. Just cool.

How does the J2 sound? It sounds great! See the Cheap Audioman review below.

I still use my Schiit Modi 3 DAC. It is connected to the Sabaj a10a and usually the Emotiva B1+ and a TV in my office. It is my second stereo. The Schiit Modi 3 has a sound I enjoy. But the Geshelli Labs J2 DAC supports more inputs, looks cooler, and has a “richer” and more “musical” type of sound. At least to my ears. Remember, this is all subjective. And I do not have good hearing. The J2 is connected to the Emotiva TA-100 with the Triangle Borrea 3 speakers. Sweet.

Turntable

For Christmas I added a Fluance RT 85 turntable with an iFi Zen phono pre-amplifier. This configuration is a bit sharp and “sterile” for my taste. So, I connected a small tube pre-amplifier I purchased in 2020 to add some “warmth” and turned up the bass a notch for some low end thump. Sweet. As much fun, and nostalgic, as it is to spin vinyl...my true passion is for the CD format. 

Audio Stack
Laura Marling, "Once I Was An Eagle"


Emotiva ERC-4 CD Player

In January 2022, an Emotiva CD Transport was added to my now complete system. Over the years, I have been using a few different DVD players as my CD player. What I noticed was that some DVD players did a better job than others. Even with my poor hearing, I could tell the difference. In particular, I noticed that the Toshiba DVD player I bought for my wife (region free) did the best job. And I was using it a lot. I also began worrying that I would wear it out. Enter the Emotiva ERC-4 CD player.

*Note: The image above is of my ERC-4 and TA-100 stack and you can just see the iFi Zen phono pre-amp and the Geshelli Labs J2 DAC. The Laura Marling CD is a favorite album. Moody. But delicious. 

This thing is a beast. Solid. Heavy. Metal remote, yes metal. It screams quality. It can also double as a DAC. One of these days, I will try out the built-in DAC on the ERC-4. The sound it outputs as just a CD player is quality. The first time I popped a CD on this thing I had a huge smile on my face. It over delivered. I had to turn down the volume on the amplifier. It just delivers more sound. If you have moved away from the CD format, I suggest you give this piece of equipment a try. You will find yourself digging up disks you have not played for years, just to hear them again for the first time. I sure have been doing that. See the Cheap Audioman review below.


Okay, I think I have caught you up on my Pandemic audiophile journey. Am I done? No way. I am still watching the audiophile triumvirate, and taking notes. They keep sharing and I keep caring. John Darko just introduced me to “Boren for Beginners” and my CD arrived last week. Randy keeps introducing me to new components and I continue to consider whether I need them. The Audiophiliac is regularly showing “viewer systems of the day.” These are systems his viewers own. Consequently, I try to make my setup look good too. I am researching furniture for the best way to display my components and to store vinyl and CD media. 

Also, I am considering adding a power amplifier to the TA-100. The TA-100 can be used as a pre-amplifier (interface) when connected to a dedicated power amplifier, like the Schiit Vidar. This should give my system a bit more powerful sound, low end oomph, and fullness. And would allow me to consider adding different speakers with greater power requirements. Or just getting more bang from my Triangle speakers.

Music is one of the tools that has kept me mostly sane over the last two years of the Pandemic. It was truly a "silver lining." The hobby has become more than just a hobby. I spend hours appreciating music. There is a tremendous amount of amazing music out there. I encourage you to give a listen to the many artists I have mentioned and linked to. They have brought me much pleasure. 

Thank you Steve, John and Randy.

The journey continues.

You can follow my audio, food and wine posts on Instagram: @williampollardjr

Be safe. Be kind. Listen to music that makes you happy.

Comments

  1. Your writing style just took me on a journey. From envisioning you as a young child appreciating your vinyl records to the delight of an adult feeling like a kid again experiencing new gear. Great read. Thank you and we're glad you found us.-Sherri

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Me too. It is a real pleasure for music playback. You are in the joy business.

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