Behind The Scenes (Apr. 1987)

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NEON NOTIONS


If you can believe official figures, more than 103,000 people attended the Winter Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Insiders say these numbers are optimistic. The same sources indicate that this WCES was another "wheel-spinning," "marking time" type of show.

Oh yes, there was a lot of hype and hoopla about R-DAT. The "in" joke in the audio press corps was the bulletin we all received from a manufacturer who urged us to "be sure and hear our second-generation prototype R-DAT recorder"! To be sure, there were quite a number of R-DAT prototypes displayed, and some were even demonstrated. Sony, in fact, was playing pre recorded R-DAT tapes with music sup plied by Sheffield and Telarc. I spoke to Jack Renner of Telarc and Doug Sax of Sheffield; both indicated that if a market developed, they would offer prerecorded tapes in the R-DAT for mat. Their attitude would seem to reflect the opinion of most of the smaller independent record labels. This is in marked contrast to the major labels, who are vehemently opposed to prerecorded R-DAT tapes. As usual in the ongoing R-DAT saga, none of the companies showing prototype recorders at the CES would commit themselves to furnishing prices or delivery dates.

However, this time around, there were enough signs and portents to indicate that at the Summer CES, R-DAT recorders will be swarming like locusts ... and in some circles, they'll be just about as welcome! In the midst of all this R-DAT hoopla, Compact Disc continues to flourish.

New models of CD players offer some worthwhile refinements, and there have been some significant advances in CD technology as well. For example, GE has found a way to considerably reduce the problem of birefringence in the injection molding of Compact Discs. It seems that the polycarbonate from which CDs are molded can cool too rapidly, shrinking away from the sides of the mold and creating stress marks. These marks cause the birefringence, a refraction of the laser beam, bending it away from the digital signal pits and thereby causing mistracking.

GE has developed a mold which senses the degree of cooling and automatically adjusts mold diameter to avoid shrinkage and stress marks.

Among the more notable CD players was Denon's $1,600 Model DCD-3300.

Denon considers this unit their "reference" model, and they have made an all-out effort to make it a major competitor in the high-end market. Particular attention has been paid to the suppression and diffusion of resonances.

Thus, a subchassis of steel and plastic is copper-plated and then enclosed in a thick, extruded-aluminum chassis.

This assembly is then suspended on heavy brass isolation feet. The laser tracking mechanism is suspended with coil springs and visco-elastic dampers, while the mechanism itself uses ceramics, high-density polymers and synthetic rubber to reduce resonance.

The DCD-3300 uses one of Denon's proprietary "Super Linear" D/A converters for each channel. Digital and analog sections are completely separated, each with its own transformer, and they are coupled by fiber optics.

In addition to fixed and variable analog RCA output jacks and a digital output port, the DCD-3300 features balanced 600-ohm XLR outputs for professional use. Deliveries of this CD player should have commenced by the time you read this.

Sony made a continued big commitment to CD with the introduction of 16 new CD players in the portable, auto motive, and home-component categories. Among the more interesting models is their CDP-05F "Disc Jockey" CD changer. This unique unit incorporates a carousel in its front-loading drawer; it can be loaded with up to five CDs for nearly six continuous hours of unrepeated music. Any of the discs can be changed within 2 to 3 seconds. Up to 32 selections can be programmed in any sequence, and the unit also has a "Shuffle" mode that can randomly play disc tracks with endless variations of sequence. A wireless remote control is provided. The CDP-05F will be avail able this spring at a price of $450.

As always, Sony's top-of-the-line model is a distillation of their research at the cutting edge of the art. I read a Sony "white paper" about the research involved in the development of the CDP-705ESD, and the thoroughness of their investigation into every parameter that can affect CD playback is mind-boggling! The new $1,500 player is a technological tour de force, with features that reflect some very basic changes in the company's CD design philosophy. For example, Sony now employs 176.4-kHz quadruple over-sampling along with their 16-bit quantization. They have also eliminated the sample-and-hold circuit usually employed after D/A conversion. In addition, new materials have been developed for this player. Its "G-Chassis," made of a nonmagnetic calcium-carbonate compound reinforced with glass fiber, is claimed to have great rigidity and low resonance. Sony has also developed new C-MOS digital LSI chips, and is using new D/A converters in dual configuration. There is a new aspheric lens, an ultra-lightweight la ser pickup, a new servo system, a new "Error Prediction Logic" circuit, and a new transport-sled design. Even the digital output port has been changed to incorporate time-base error correction for any "jitter" that may be present.

One cannot summarily dismiss the bright ideas and dedication of original thinkers, so the brainchildren of The Mod Squad and Analogic deserve consideration. Essentially, the CD players shown by these companies at CES are extensively modified Philips units which are highly regarded by the high-end fraternity. I will be auditioning these players in the near future, and a comparison should be interesting.

As a final note on CD, and apropos to testing, I visited the high-end specialty group at the Golden Nugget.

There I found Bob Stuart demonstrating his innovative new Meridian 207 CD player, which he tells me is now in full production. Also at the Golden Nugget, the Levinson folks were showing their new No. 23 amplifier, which may reasonably be thought of as two No. 20s on a single chassis. The 23 is a completely independent dual-mono design, including the power supply, and forgoes some of the sophistication of the No. 20s to achieve the more efficient and cost-effective package.

And Doug Sax of Sheffield Lab was kind enough to play digital tapes of the remarkable recordings his company made in Moscow last August with the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. As you can imagine, the vicissitudes of recording in Russia make quite a story, so all the more credit is deserved for the stunning sound and exemplary performances of these recordings. I hope to give you a full report on them very soon.

Conrad-Johnson was proudly displaying their new flagship preamplifier, the Premier 7. Designed with an open disregard for cost, the unit is intended to be the ultimate expression of a pure tube preamplifier. It has separate mono left and right preamplifiers, and each has its own outboard power sup ply. No details yet on circuit topology.

The Premier 7 should be available this summer for around $6,000.

At Audio Research, Bill Johnson was demonstrating his massive M-300 monoblock power amplifiers. Using his renowned SP-11 preamp with a Well Tempered arm and turntable and a van den Hul cartridge, Johnson had these 300-watt, $4,900 amplifiers driving Infinity RS 1B speakers, and I must say this was clearly the best reproduction I have ever heard from these particular loudspeakers.

Another new amplifier, the Hafler XL-280 Excelinear, was used to drive the remarkable new Acoustat Spectra 3 loudspeakers, which would seem to be the answer to a lot of the problems that have plagued electrostatic designs for many years. Most specifically, electro static loudspeakers have been limited in dynamic range, have had trouble playing at high levels, and have had notoriously poor low-frequency response. Acoustat engineer Jim Strick land has taken an idea that is more than 50 years old, and by applying some modern technology has finally made it work. The principle involved is what is known as "variable area" or "variable width" electrostatic transduction. It has many theoretical advantages, but apparently no one ever succeeded in driving this type of electrostatic element to practical sound pres sure levels, and low-frequency response was very limited. The Spectra 3 is 5 1/2 feet high, 31 3/4 inches wide, and 2 1/2 inches deep. An array of three electrically independent electrostatic panels are used; these measure 9 inches wide and 46 inches high, and have sheathed conductors. They are driven by Acoustat's Magna-Kinetic 2000 interface transformer and an appropriate amplifier, in this case the new Hafler XL-280, which into the 4-ohm impedance of the Spectra 3 delivers 200 watts. In this "variable width" electrostatic configuration, the entire area is driven at the lowest frequencies; as frequencies rise, the driven area continuously becomes smaller, until at the highest frequencies only a 3-inch strip at one side is driven. This is why the Spectra 3 is made in mirror-image pairs. The electrostatic array sits on top of a curved base which contains an integral subwoofer. The subwoofer operates below 100 Hz and can be selectively employed.

What I heard, using some Telarc organ recordings, was solid, immaculately clean bass from the big pedals below 30 Hz. Bass arums tuned at 31 to 35 Hz were reproduced with impressive impact and accurate timbre. The midrange was well projected into the rooms, and high frequencies had that crystalline clarity of which aficionados of electrostatic loudspeakers are so enamored. Imaging, stage width, and the sense of depth provided by these speakers gave music a most pleasing three-dimensional quality. In short, this Acoustat Spectra 3, at $3,000 per pair, sets a new high standard for electro static transducers.

Many people who read my November 1986 column about the Duntech Sovereign 2001 loudspeaker have subsequently auditioned a pair. Many whom I met at the CES were kind enough to tell me they concurred with my findings but said that the Sovereigns were too big or too costly to install in their homes. Thus they were very pleased to find that Duntech was demonstrating a junior version of the Sovereign, the Crown Prince. This speaker certainly is more physically manageable than the Sovereign. It is 71 inches high, 12 inches wide and 19 inches deep, obviously rather columnar in shape. This column rests on an 18-by-24-inch base and has a wood "cap." The base and cap are available in white ash or African rosewood, and the acoustically transparent wrap around fabric grille is available in black or off-white. The speakers weigh approximately 130 pounds each.

The characteristics of the Crown Prince are very much like those of the Sovereign. It works on the same wave-guide principles and has the same ultra-flat frequency and phase response, time path alignment, diffraction suppression, and point-source radiation pattern. Power handling is almost on a par with the Sovereign. While bass response extends well below 30 Hz, the Crown Prince doesn't probe the sub basement of the musical spectrum.

Still, driven by a Rowland Coherence One preamp and Model 7 monoblock amplifiers, and using the new Analogic CD player, the Crown Prince almost mirrored the performance of its big brother, reproducing music with majestic power and convincing accuracy.

Happily, consumers will find that the Crown Prince is also more financially manageable than the Sovereign. Selling at $5,975 per pair (and available through W & W Audio of Charlotte, N.C. as you read this), they represent a most viable alternative to the Sovereign 2001 loudspeakers.

(adapted from Audio magazine, Apr. 1987; Bert Whyte)

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