Richard @ BitPerfect

In the summer of 1968, when I was 13 years old, my family moved to Leicester, a small industrial city in the heart of the UK’s East Midlands, and there they stayed.  Located close to the geographical centre of England, Nottingham and Derby lie to the north, Birmingham and Coventry to the west, London further to the south.  It was the place where I transitioned from childhood to adulthood, and is therefore the place I think of first when people use the expression “back home”.  When they discovered the body of King Richard III (“My kingdom for a horse!”) under a city parking lot two years ago, it was the event that many hoped would put Leicester on the map.  Which, indeed, it did.  For a while, at least.  Most people still think of it as the curry capital of England.

The local football (i.e. “soccer”) club is Leicester City.  A few matches into the 1968/69 season I hopped onto a bus and took myself off to the decrepit Filbert Street stadium to watch Leicester City play Coventry City.  It was the start of a lifelong love affair.  I barely missed a home match until 1973 when I went off to University and eventually got myself a job in a town 500 miles away, before moving to Canada.

It may come as a surprise to Americans (and Canadians), but sports are organized differently everywhere else in the world.  Leicester City played in the English Football League.  This comprised 96 clubs, divided into four large divisions.  At the end of each season the top teams in each division would be “promoted” to play in the next division up, and the bottom teams would be “relegated” to play in the division below.  It was quite possible (although relatively rare) for teams to work their way from the fourth division all the way up to the first over the course of a few seasons, or vice versa.  Promotion and relegation are cruel masters, and no respecters of reputation.  Big clubs can (and do) go down and little clubs can (and do) go up.  There are no such things as end-of-season playoffs to determine the champions.  Winning the League is the big enchilada.  Today, this concept is extended to at least nine tiers of English football – several hundred football clubs – with automatic promotion and relegation all the way from top to bottom.  Football leagues around the world are mostly organized along the same principles.

As a hangover of Britain’s late and unlamented class-based society, most of the clubs in the Football League know their place.  Leicester City’s place was to hover precariously between the top two tiers.  When playing in the first division their season would be a constant battle to avoid relegation.  When playing in the second division, a constant battle to challenge for promotion.  In many ways, as a fan, it was a lot more fun watching your club doing the latter, even though its objective is to win promotion in order to struggle with the former!

Football clubs like Leicester City are privately owned.  But, unlike in America, ownership is viewed as a sacred trust, a shepherding of the values and fortunes of the club on behalf of its fans.  For example, football clubs cannot simply be moved at the owner’s whim from one city to another like an NFL franchise.  Even attempts to rename (or rebrand) a club can cause a permanent and irreversible breach of trust.  In the long term, an owner will not survive without the support of the fans, which can be a hard thing to come to terms with, because the last thing in the world the fans care about is whether or not the owner loses money.  A fair number of wealthy Americans – experienced owners of major league franchises – have got their fingers badly burned by messing with Premier League ownership.

At the root of this is the nature of the football fan.  Once you become a club’s true fan you are hooked for life.  Being a football fan is not the same as merely being a supporter.  Being a fan is like having children.  It’s a commitment – you can’t change to another team when the going gets tough, although there’s nothing wrong with cheering for multiple teams.  But only one team is ever allowed to break bread with your soul.  “Fan” is an abbreviation of ‘fanatic’, and in times gone by the fanaticism of certain British football fans has taken them down some dark roads.  Thankfully, these problems are firmly in Britain’s past, but in many parts of the world football violence – and, increasingly, racism – is still a shameful problem.

It has always been the case that the bigger clubs are the more successful ones.  After all, bigger means richer, and richer means you can afford better players.  This has always meant that the bigger clubs have gravitated to the higher divisions, and the smaller clubs to the lower ones.  But the size of that financial gulf is what determines whether or not a “have-not’ club can ever dream of playing successfully among the wealthy “haves”.  In 1978, Nottingham Forest – a club with similar ambitions and resources to Leicester City – most famously bridged that gap and powered its way to the top of the English First Division, and even won the über-prestigious European Cup.  To this day, they remain the benchmark for small clubs emerging from nowhere to reach the pinnacle.  The smaller the financial gap, as was the case in 1978, the greater the chances of a minnow emerging to fill it.  But the larger the gap, the less likely that possibility becomes.

Today this financial gulf is huge, and is only widening.  Clubs in the top tier of English football (the “Premier League”) are massively more wealthy than those in the second tier (the “Championship”).  And likewise down the chain.  Since the formation of the Premier League in 1992 only 5 teams have ever won it.  A select handful of clubs are expected to compete for the top spots every season, and for everyone else just breaking into the top five is pretty much the limit to their ambitions.  Furthermore, recently introduced “Financial Fair Play” rules now prevent a wealthy owner of a lowly club from injecting massive amounts of capital to make it competitive.  All of this makes a significant disturbance to the status quo less and less likely.

In 2002, on the back of a short period of minor success in the Premier League, Leicester City built themselves the brand new King Power stadium, one of the nicer, most modern Premier League standard football stadiums in the country.  However, they then found themselves relegated once more, and the resultant financial pressures brought them to the brink of bankruptcy and even relegation to the third tier.  Fortunately, they survived, but the scenario is becoming a common one.  Teams routinely face serious financial hardship following relegation from the Premier League as they, in effect, feel irresistible pressure to bet the farm in an attempt to go straight back up, but learn that the Championship is a much tougher division than they had bargained on.

Two years ago Leicester City finally won promotion to the Premier League.  For their pains, they got to spend the entire season at the foot of the table in a death struggle to avoid occupying one of the three relegation spots.  Miraculously, at the 11th hour, they won 7 out of their last 9 games to escape relegation, a feat that had never previously been accomplished.  And so, as their prize, they got to try the same thing all over again this year.

Bearing in mind that Leicester City’s budgetary limitations are such that their entire team cost them less than the top five powerhouse teams would have paid for any one of half a dozen or more global superstars, bookmakers offered odds of 5,000:1 if you wanted to bet on them winning the Premier League.  By comparison, you could bet on British Prime Minister David Cameron being appointed head coach of Aston Villa (2,500:1 odds), or Celebrity Idol judge Simon Cowell replacing him as Prime Minister (only 500:1 odds).  Or even Elvis being found still alive (5,000:1 odds).  As best as I can tell, no major sporting event has ever paid off at close to such incredible odds.  At the 2004 UEFA Euro Championship, Greece won at the long odds of 150:1.

As I write this, the season is almost over.  Thirty-five games are in the bag, three more to play.  On Sunday morning Leicester City plays the famous Manchester United.  If they win that game they will become Premier League Champions.  I can’t believe I just wrote that.  That’s right, Leicester City stand poised to win the Premier League!  They ride seven points clear at the top, and only Tottenham Hotspurs (“Spurs”) can catch them.  One more win for Leicester, or one defeat for Spurs, and it’s all over.  If you wanted to bet against it, you can get generous odds of 33:1.  Across the globe, Leicester City is the talk of the footballing world.  Which, of course, means not in America.

I can’t begin to tell you what this means to me personally.  Seriously, if I won the lottery I would not be feeling as pumped as I do.  Leicester have led the league, quite comfortably, since the middle of January.  Pundits left, right, and centre, have been unanimous in their expectation that City would choke under the pressure.  Famous ex-Leicester and England superstar Gary Lineker, who presents the BBC’s flagship “Match Of The Day” football program, has vowed that if Leicester wins he will present the show next season in his underpants.  He, like me and thousands upon thousands of Leicester fans worldwide, is not sleeping.  His blood pressure, like mine, is through the roof.  One topic, and one topic alone fills my every waking hour.  I’m starting to dream about it.  I’m even writing a freakin’ blog post about it on a page for Audiophiles!  I cannot believe what I am witnessing.  Not only is the impossible about to happen, but it’s happening to MY TEAM.

Surely nothing can go wrong….  Surely….  Surely….  Surely….

UPDATE!  Fortunately, nothing did go wrong!  On Monday, May 2nd, following Leicester’s 1-1 draw at Manchester United, Spurs could only draw 2-2 at Chelsea.  This combination of results confirmed Leicester City as Premier League Champions of the 2015/16 season, their lead now unassailable with two matches still to play.

 

We have today released v3.0.4 of BitPerfect.  This fixes a bug that caused a crash when playing DSD256 on incompatible audio devices.

We have today released v3.0.3 of BitPerfect. This is a maintenance release and serves to introduce support for DSD256 playback.  This will only impact users who have a DAC capable of supporting DSD256 using DoP.  

Please note that there are a small number of DACs currently on the market which only support DSD256 via ASIO (a method widely used with Windows)BitPerfect will not deliver DSD256 playback on DACs of this type unless the DAC manufacturer can provide a custom ASIO driver for OS/X (something that very few are able to do).  This situation is complicated by the fact that some of those manufacturers do not do a good job of drawing the customer’s attention to this limitation.

Classé CP-800 DAC/Preamp

Classé CP-800 DAC/Preamp

Classé CA-2300 power amplifier

Classé CA-2300 power amplifier

Classé CP-800/CA-2300 combo

Classé CP-800/CA-2300 combo


Here is your chance to acquire my reference amplifier combo.  I am selling my Classé CP-800 DAC/PreAmp and Classé CA-2300 power amplifier.

Unlike current production, which comes from China, these units were manufactured here in Montreal, and in fact were hand-selected for me by Classé’s head of quality.  They both look indistinguishable from new, and perform as flawlessly as the day they arrived.

Selected Technical Specifications (from Classé’s web site):

CP-800 (http://www.classeaudio.com/products/cp-800.php#specifications)
    •    Frequency Response 8Hz – 200kHz (analog bypass)
    •    Frequency Response 8Hz – 20kHz (other sources)
    •    THD + Noise 0.005% (digital, analog bypass)
    •    SNR 105dB (digital), 104dB (analog bypass)
    •    AirPlay support (via ethernet only)
    •    Remote control
    •    DAC supports 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.1kHz, 96kHz, 176.4kHz and 192kHz.
    •    Dimensions 17.5” (W) x 4.8” (H) x 17.5” (D)
    •    Weight 23lb (10kg)

CP-2300 (http://www.classeaudio.com/products/ca-2300.php#specifications)
    •    Frequency response 1Hz – 100kHz (-3dB)
    •    Output power 300W/ch (8?), 600W/ch (4?)
    •    Harmonic distortion <0.002% @ 1kHz (balanced)
    •    Intermodulation distortion >90dB below fundamental (8?)
    •    SNR -116dB at peak output (8?)
    •    Dimensions 17.5” (W) x 8.8” (H) x 17.5” (D)
    •    Weight 88lb (40kg)

These products are clean and articulate sounding, with excellent stereo imaging and deep, powerful bass.  They are a good match for power-hungry full-range floor-standing loudspeakers such as my own B&W 802 Diamond S2s.  The CA-2300 runs notably cool and silent, employing innovative “ICTunnel” technology.  These high quality units will repay careful matching with ancillaries such as interconnects, loudspeaker cables, and AC power regenerators.  I recommend using balanced connections for best performance.

I will be happy to demonstrate these amplifiers to anybody wishing to make the trip to the Montreal (Canada) area!

Price (does not include shipping):
    •    CP-800  US$4,000
    •    CA-2300  US$5,500

If you have a serious interest, please e-mail me directly using richard{at}bitperfectsound{dot}com.  I will be happy to provide any additional information.




If you were a professional orchestra conductor – or even a professional orchestra – it would behoove you to take steps wherever appropriate to promote the public perception of your musical qualities and talents.  As a conductor, if your profile rises you will be retained to conduct ever more prestigious orchestras, on an ever widening basis.  As an orchestra, you will attract higher profile conductors, more discerning musicians, and wider touring opportunities.  And with a bit of luck, more lucrative recording contracts – although, sadly, such days are coming to an end, if they haven’t already arrived.

One of the most established methods of raising one’s profile is to perform the major orchestral warhorses, specifically the more revered ones.  That way you are laying down a body of work that can be compared not only to that of your peers, but also to the greats and not-so-greats who have come before.  If you are lucky you might get a chance to lay down a body of your own recorded performances for posterity, and for the cognoscenti to dissect and compare with the great reference recordings of note.

Orchestral warhorses don’t come any more major than Beethoven.  There is hardly a conductor or orchestra around that hasn’t laid down a marker in the form of a Beethoven Cycle – a cohesive set of performances of the nine symphonies.  In recorded format alone there are hundreds of them.  [I’m listening to a 2008-2012 cycle by J. W. de Vriend conducting the Netherlands Symphony Orchestra as I type this.  It’s very good – and a stunning recording from Challenge Classics to boot.]  Any conductor on a long-term appointment with an orchestra will be itching to embark on a Beethoven Cycle once he feels he has got the orchestra playing the way he wants.  Audiences want it too.

Why Beethoven more than any other?  After all, Brahms is pretty popular; Tchaikovsky and Sibelius too.  What makes a Beethoven cycle the ne plus ultra?  Well, the reasons are complicated and profound, and whole books have been written on the subject.  But in summary, Beethoven’s symphonies lend themselves perfectly as a vehicle for interpretive examination.  They are tightly structured – thematically, harmonically, and tonally.  Beethoven revolutionized the symphony as we understand it today – he transformed it from a glorified sonata to a major compositional undertaking which totally and thoroughly expresses a set of particular musical ideas in a comprehensive and structured manner.  Beethoven established the symphony as the ultimate vehicle of expression for a composer’s music vocabulary, something not to be undertaken lightly, and something which would form the cornerstone of the composer’s eventual legacy.

He took it in new directions too … take the astonishing discordant outburst about 8½ minutes into the first movement of his 3rd Symphony, written as early as 1804.  It was an extraordinarily radical device (although one to which Beethoven himself, curiously, never returned).  And of course we can’t ignore the 9th symphony whose revolutionary elements included a choir and soloists (and much else besides), and which was written when the composer was all but totally deaf.  Sure, Mozart wrote symphonies, and laid the structural groundwork upon which Beethoven built his edifice.  But Mozart penned over 40 of ’em before dying at 32.  Haydn cranked the handle too, churning out over 100 symphonies.  After Beethoven, though, everything changed.  A symphony was now a statement piece.

Arguably, nobody after Beethoven ever mastered the command of the symphonic format so completely (even as they continued to push the boundaries).  Take the famous first movement of the fifth symphony: DA-DA-DA-DAAAAH!  Beethoven took a seriously simple musical motif and asked what can we do with this?  Over the course of just seven minutes he showed exactly what can be done with it.  He played it slow and fast, high and low.  He expanded it into phrases and contrasted it with a more elaborate melodic line.  He wandered from key to key, using the motif to punctuate the changes.  By the end of the seven minutes he had neither short-changed us by a single note, nor over-stated his case.  We feel we have heard all there is to be said about DA-DA-DA-DAAAAH.  It is close to sublime perfection.

Since the dawn of the recording age, the Beethoven Cycle has stood as the standard against which every conductor and orchestra has inevitably been measured.  But something strange has happened over the course of the last 20 years.  Beethoven has been dumped in favour of Mahler.  No longer do conductors and orchestras feel the need to be validated by their Beethoven Cycles; it is now the Mahler Cycle to which they must pay due homage.

The reasons are both simple and complicated, not least of which being the fact that a Mahler Cycle is nearly three times as lengthy as a Beethoven Cycle thereby providing a lot more music to get your chops around.  First of all, there are so many exemplary Beethoven Cycles out there that a new conductor coming to the cycle must wonder what is left for him to contribute to the discussion.  Secondly, there seems (to this listener at least) to be a convergence of style around the interpretive genius of Carlos Kleiber, with so many recent cycles clearly being heavily influenced by Kleiber’s truly legendary recording of the 5th with the Vienna Philharmonic … and with the HIP (Historically Informed Performance) school of thought being mercifully on the wane.  Third, of course, are the attractive merits of the Mahler Cycle itself, and these are compelling indeed.

Whereas a Beethoven Cycle requires the conductor to work within a highly formalized musical structure, allowing (even mandating) the form itself to be a major actor in holding the central elements of the performance together, with Mahler the form is much looser and more nebulous.  Easier seen from 30,000 feet than from 30 feet.   Much has been made of the notion that Mahler’s symphonies can be viewed individually as movements within some sort of greater symphonic whole.  Whereas with Beethoven, form is an attribute of the individual piece – even of the individual movement – with Mahler form can be interpreted across symphonies.  A conductor’s interpretation of Mahler’s 2nd, for example, must arguably inform his interpretation of the 3rd, something that makes relatively little sense in the context of, say, Beethoven’s 5th and 6th symphonies.

Mahler’s symphonies are built upon incredible layers of emotional complexity, going far beyond mere programmatic expression.  Like actors performing Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” a conductor directing a performance of a Mahler symphony teeters on the edge of a razor blade with a failure to convince on one side, and gauche vulgarity on the other.  It is so, so hard to do, and many fall by the wayside.  It is tempting to approach these symphonies as being overtly programmatic, and the composer does indicate programmatic themes in most of them, sometimes explicitly, sometimes indirectly, but for the most part they fail to respond to a formally programmatic treatment, the exceptions being the overarching themes of redemption and resurrection in second and eighth symphonies (which are more themes than programmes per se).  The payload from a Mahler symphony is inevitably delivered emotionally, rather than intellectually.  Or at least with significantly less of an intellectual content than with Beethoven.  We understand Beethoven with our heads, but Mahler with our hearts.

Therein lies both the appeal and the immense challenges in conducting Mahler.  Whereas with Beethoven the challenge is heavy on the musical and technical aspects, with Mahler the weight is on the emotional aspect in harness with the vision to hold together and unite a piece which is apt to wander off in unexpected directions.  Not only are these challenges appealing to modern conductors and orchestras alike, but the appetite of the public to consume Mahler is apparently insatiable.  Modern audiences can’t get enough of it, and as best as I can tell are far more knowledgeable and demanding of a performance than they ever were of Beethoven.  The conductor is also more exposed with Mahler – if I am trying to appeal to your intellect I can get away to a certain extent with telling you how good it was, but if I’m trying to appeal to your heart only you can know the extent to which I was successful (even as my ego fails to permit me to acknowledge that).

Finally, there is no Kleiber looming over today’s putative conductors of Mahler.  There was a time when it was obligatory to genuflect toward’s Bernstein’s benchmark recordings, and in truth ol’ Lenny played a significant role in the rehabilitation and elevation of Mahler’s reputation to the position it occupies today.  But, like a Magnum of Chateau Latour 2010, these incredible symphonies have another 100 years of development left in them, before their interpretations will start to go stale.  Today, there are very few new recordings that don’t have at least something interesting going for them, and there are a number of marvellous cycles already in play.  Which is the best?  Well, there are as many opinions on that as there are people with opinions.  Me, I kind of like Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, at least until I listen to one of the others.  And since I have about 150 recordings of Mahler Symphonies that’s a lot of chopping and changing.

So, roll over, Beethoven … and tell Mahler the news!
 

I recently wrote about our experiences at SSI 2016.  We set up our room with my own PS Audio DirectStream DAC, a PS Audio P10 Power Plant, and the recently-introduced and highly-regarded PS Audio BHK 300 Signature mono block power amplifiers.  Loudspeakers were the Sopra No 2 from Focal, and a wide array of cables, cords, and interconnects from AudioQuest.  The BHK 300 monoblocks in particular caught my attention, so much so that I took them home with me.  If they were able to deliver the captivating performance I heard at the show in my own listening room, then I was willing to consider purchasing them for our reference system.

The Focals were returned directly to Coup de Foudre, the dealer which had kindly lent them to us for the show, but the PS Audio gear and the AudioQuest cables came home with me, where I could pack them and ship them back at my leisure.  The BHK monoblocks and the P10 Power Plant both share the same purposeful-looking chassis, and weigh in at a little over 80lb each – not unusual for high-end audio gear these days (my Classé CA-2300 is about the same size and weight) – but each one requires two people to manhandle it into place.  The P10 went down to the basement to be packed ready for shipping, but the monoblocks were taken directly to the listening room.

I sat the two monoblocks directly on the floor, either side of the incumbent Classé.  Since I had dismantled my equipment rack to use at SSI as well, I decided not to re-assemble it just yet because I use bi-wired runs of Cardas Golden Cross speaker cable.  Heavy duty speaker cable makes the already awkward process of swapping amplifiers doubly difficult if one of them is ensconced in an equipment rack.  Better to leave everything open and accessible on the floor for the time being.

Two years ago I spent the summer trialling a set of über-expensive cables from Transparent Audio.  While there was no doubt that these cables had opened up vistas of clarity, smoothness of delivery, and airy sound staging, their benefits appeared to come at the expense of what I term a “breathless” quality to the sound, and I ultimately decided not to purchase them.  I find it hard to describe this “breathless” quality.  It’s as though reproducing the music is hard work and leaves the equipment panting for breath.  The dynamic quality I expect from crystal clear sound just wasn’t there.  Peaks seem to be – not ‘muffled’ or even ‘veiled’ per se – but somehow lacking a realistic sense of dynamic impact.  I felt a constant need to crank up the volume just a notch, then another notch, then another.  It was as though the musicians were just mailing in their performances.  Like I said, hard to describe, but it left me feeling short of breath.  I sent the cables back.

Imagine my astonishment when I fired up the BHK monoblocks and heard what amounted to the same “breathless” sound quality.  A slightly better “breathless” quality, with a smoother midrange, a more detailed and deeper soundstage, and some of the tantalizingly accurate instrumental textures that I had heard from them at SSI, but that very distinctive “breathlessness” was back for all to hear.  Back to the Classé again just to be sure that something wasn’t wrong with the rest of the system – there wasn’t – and once more to the BHK 300s.  Still the same.  It didn’t seem likely, but I left it to play for a day or so in case some sort of break-in process was under way.

Further break-in was not clearing up the problem.  Had I misheard the qualities I thought I was hearing at SSI?  Or were they actually down to the Focal speakers more than the BHK 300s?  Neither of these seemed too plausible to me, although I wasn’t about to discount them entirely.  I decided I would try to recreate the SSI setup as much as possible, but using my B&W 802 Diamonds in place of the Focals.  Unfortunately, the AudioQuest cables were all neatly packed away and ready to ship, and it was going to be a nuisance to get them all out again.  But the PS Audio P10 Power Plant was still unpacked and sitting nearby.  So the first thing I tried was putting the P10 into the circuit, with the BHK 300 monoblocks and the DirectStream DAC both plugged into it.

Powered everything back up again and … &%$#@#@*&%???!!  What did I just hear?  The sound was utterly transformed.  This was a perfect recreation of all the qualities I had heard at the show.  The “breathless” quality had completely vanished.  Disappeared as if by magic.  The widely-lauded qualities of the BHK 300s now shone through in spades.  The deep, wide, and tactile soundstage.  The tube-like tonal purity of the midrange, the accuracy, presence, and sheer believability of individual instruments and voices, all these things were suddenly there in spades.

How to make sense of this?  Was I hearing a specific synergy between the BHK 300 monoblocks and the P10 Power Plant, and if so, what was I supposed to make of it?  I knew the obvious thing to do was to swap out the monoblocks once more for the Classé CA-2300, this time with the P10 Power Plant in circuit, but I was too busy queuing up a whole bunch of favourite albums and tracks to hear how they sounded in this newly-amazing system.  Eventually, though, I did get round to it.

The PS Audio P10 Power Plant utterly transformed my CA-2300 amplifier.  About 75% of the improvements I was hearing from the BHK 300 monoblocks were now being delivered by the Classé.  The greater ease in dynamics.  The tighter imaging and deeper soundstaging.  The improved sense of presence and palpability.  It has made me seriously re-assess the CA-2300.

I had in the past tried a couple of high-end power conditioners from MIT and Transparent Audio and found that their contribution to the sound had been marginal at best.  I concluded that this was due to the fact that I live in the country and have generally clean, good quality mains power.  I was not expecting the P10 Power Plant to deliver anything very different.  In my listening room, for example, AC power cords tend to have a less obvious impact on the sound than they do in most other setups.  And yet the P10 Power Plant didn’t just make a difference.  It utterly transformed the sound to the extent that I am concerned it will never be possible to go back to how it was before.

For sure my auditioning session with the BHK 300 monoblocks is now an order of magnitude more challenging.  It is still early days here, but if you asked me to choose between the Classé CA-2300 with the P10 and the BHK 300s without it, my feeling is that the P10/CA-2300 combo might win out.  The P10 is that good, and that important.  On the other hand, when plugged into the P10 the BHK 300 monoblocks wipe the floor with anything else I’ve ever spent quality time with.  If money wasn’t an issue, the solution would be trivial.

The P10 has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve.  Its touch-screen front panel gives the immediate impression of being the sort of gimmick that manufacturers feel the need to add to expensive high-end products to help justify the price, but just a little experimentation with the P10 proves the opposite. 

First of all, the P10 has a ’Scope mode which turns the display into an oscilloscope showing a real-time rendering of the actual input mains voltage waveform.  This is very interesting, because the peaks of the waveform show distinct distortions ranging from a flattened top to the appearance of various spikes.  These are caused by the fact that the amplifiers draw most of their mains current during the peaks of the voltage waveform and little to none at any other time.  A further touch on the screen and now the display changes to the waveform of the actual output voltage delivered to the attached equipment.  This comes up as being a clean and very pure sinusoid.  A third touch shows the difference signal between the two.  This is in effect the cumulative distortion which is being removed by the P10.  Well golly gee.

A third touch and we get a screen showing a summary of the P10’s instantaneous performance, including input and output voltage levels, THD levels, and power draw.  Interestingly, the reading I get shows an input THD of only 2.2%, which is quite low and is consistent with my notion that I have reasonably clean mains power.  The output THD is shown as being 0.2%.  That such a small numerical difference can account for such a dramatic improvement in sound quality is not something I would have expected, but I’m sure that’s far from being the whole story.

Also on the P10’s display is a setting which toggles between pure sine wave output and a ‘multi-wave’ output.  The idea behind ‘multi-wave’ is that it adds an element of third harmonic distortion to the P10’s mains output voltage waveform.  Such distortion has the effect of increasing the percentage of time that the waveform spends in the vicinity of its voltage peak, and therefore increases the percentage of time during which your amplifiers’ power supplies can draw current from the mains.  This is said to convey a benefit equivalent to increasing the amount of capacitance in the amplifier’s power supply.  The amount of added ‘multi-wave’ can be set on a scale from 1-6.  For my early listening I am using the pure sine wave setting, and am not noticing any significant change with the multi-wave setting.  But you can imagine that this type of response would be very much device-dependent.

The P10 has an interesting “clean” option, which adds a spectrum of decaying high frequencies to the output voltage waveform for a period of 5, 10, or 60 seconds (user’s choice).  This is said to de-Gauss the input transformers in the power supplies of any connected equipment.  According to Paul McGowan the effect lasts for something in the order of 20-30 minutes.  I have to say that the effect of the “clean” option is surprisingly strong.  After applying a 10-second burst of “clean” an extra layer of image depth was readily apparent, with more ‘air’ around the soundstage of individual instruments located deep in the soundstage.  There was more ‘blackness’ to the background.  I must note that this effect is something that cannot be dialled back out again, and so one must rely on a series of one-off A-B comparisons (as opposed to A-B-A-B) in order to assess it.  But after performing a handful of those comparisons I am convinced that the effect is real, and is not at all subtle.  Having said that, if the effect truly lasts for only 20-30 minutes then one must ponder its ultimate value.  But ponder it I will.

There are other capabilities of the P10 that I have not yet explored.  It can be connected to your home network via ethernet, where you can access additional features, mainly of the command/control/setup nature.  It has a remote control which I have not used in anger [I already have a similar remote control for my DirectStream, and remote controls are like wives – one is a blessing but juggling two or more can be problematic].  The User Manual says the P10 can benefit from being mounted on after-market anti-vibration supports, but I have yet to try that – I don’t believe I have anything to hand that will hold 80lb!

So there you have it.  The PS Audio P10 Power Plant has made a bigger difference, rendered a larger improvement, than any single component change I have EVER made to my reference system, and probably bigger than any I ever will.  It is seriously expensive, no doubt about that.  But so are the BHK 300 monoblock amplifiers.  And I would go so far as to say – and Paul McGowan is going to de-friend me for this – that the BHK 300’s might just represent $15,000 wasted if you’re not going to power them from a P10 Power Plant (although, realistically, the same probably applies to every other $15,000+ power amplifier out there).  The combination, however, is out of this world, and I will write about it separately if I can learn to live with them and without my life savings.

I have very recently been introduced to the American composer Mason Bates, and in particular an album of three of his symphonic works recently released by the San Francisco Symphony.  Indeed, the first of these – “The B-Sides” – was commissioned by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas on behalf of SFS, the commission reportedly being proposed by Tilson Thomas during the intermission of a performance of Tchaikovsky and Brahms symphonies.  The album is called “Mason Bates – Works For Orchestra”, and I highly recommend it.

Mason’s music is possessed of the uneasy sonorities of a movie soundtrack set in the isolation of deep space.  It is both unsettling and captivating at the same time.  At various times it evokes ‘Alien’, ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey’, and ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’.  But a sense of brooding foreboding seems to infuse everything.  Even as it breaks into the gusto and swing of big band jazz, this is quickly interrupted by ominous rumblings of thunder, or howling winds which transform into weirdly gurgling water.  The third movement of “The B-Sides” is some sort of eerie communication between astronauts and ground control, and we feel nervously concerned that the fates can have nothing good lined up for Major Tom.  It’s strangely strange, yet oddly normal.

Is this classical music or something else?  There are times when it is purely orchestral – and fits into the classical mould in both form and structure.  There are other times when only electronic sounds are present, or purely modern ensembles such as big band jazz.  We tend as music consumers to want to categorize our music into neat groups.  Sure, there is crossover music which melds disparate forms, but generally such works adhere to a consistent affectation throughout the piece.  Mason Bates is different.  Taking his inspiration from the way a movie soundtrack is put together he moves seamlessly from one soundscape to another in a style which comes across as remarkably organic and natural.  Still, it fits better in the ‘classical’ box than in any other.

For a conductor who can do Mahler with the very best of them, Michael Tilson Thomas does display a keen sensitivity to the Mason Bates idiom, but overall has a tendency to hold the music back too much.  This music carries an ambiguous yet overt emotional payload.  Tilson Thomas allows the tension to build very well, but doesn’t provide an appropriate release.  The net result is akin to reading a gripping novel, and finding that some swine has torn out the last chapter.

Naturally, for music inspired by the modern idiom, rhythm is a powerful element, and needs to be treated appropriately, unlike with Beethoven, say, where a heavy hand on the rhythmic aspects can overshadow the textural and structural subtleties.  The syncopated rhythms – indeed the overall phrasing – of Bates need to be played in such a way as to emphasize the ‘groove’.  Listen to the second movement “Chicago (2012)” of the ‘Alternative Energy’ symphony, and compare Tilson Thomas’s reading of it to Bernstein’s legendary 1958 performance of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  Now I’m not suggesting that one should expect Tilson Thomas’s Bates to be “legendary”, but it does illustrate very cleanly the areas in which his Bates is wanting.

It is interesting to compare Tilson Thomas’s effort on ‘Works For Orchestra’ with Gil Rose’s interpretation of Bates’ ‘Mothership’ with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project.  This conductor/orchestra pair is more attuned to the contemporary music idiom, and thus the performance is more organic.  But the BMOP does not possess the depth of sonority of the finest orchestras, and as a result the film-score nature of the music is more to the fore, and any more profound emotional message is less apparent.  I expect that I will return to that album less frequently than I will the Tilson Thomas.

While my comments come across as overly critical, let me be clear.  I find “Works For Orchestra” to be deeply compelling.  The recording is crystal clear, the music is brilliantly conceived and finely played, and – for what it’s worth – the cover art is seriously cool!  Bates’ music shows genuinely original compositional skills without appearing to resort to modern artifice for its own sake.  Despite the new electronic sounds his basic orchestration is competent – bordering on the extremely good, actually – but is neither novel nor experimental.  Which is not a bad thing – I rather like it.  “Works For Orchestra” was, naturally, playing while I wrote this.  After the album finished, the next track which popped up randomly up on my playlist was Pohjola’s Daughter by Sibelius.  The transition was remarkably seamless, which I thought was very interesting.

You can download “Mason Bates – Works For Orchestra” in resolutions up to 24/192 from ProStudioMasters.com and others.


In Montreal every year in late March we have our annual HiFi show called Salon Son et Image (SSI). Its name dates back to the turn of the millennium when Home Theatre was the big thing in the larger world of audio (hence the ‘Image’ bit). The last few years though, it has reverted back to a pure audio show. Look for a probable name change next year.

Last year, as the dust of the show settled, the mood among the exhibitors was extremely negative. There were murmurs that there wouldn’t be an SSI in 2016. The reasons are complex, but for sure are not related to attendance – SSI is always a seething event. Anyway, leading up to SSI 2016 the show was still on. But then, on the Wednesday before the show was due to open, the organizers (the Chester Group) suddenly announced that it had been indefinitely ‘postponed’, although no indication was given as to when – or even if – it might be re-scheduled.

Four years ago, before control was assumed by the Chester Group, SSI had been organized every year by a local couple Sarah Tremblay and Michel Plante. So when the rug was summarily pulled out, Sarah and Michel decided to see if it was possible at such a late stage to step in and turn things around. The first thing they found was that there were only 18 exhibitors who had signed up! 18 exhibitors does not a trade show make, so you had to wonder what could possibly be done over the space of a weekend to resurrect it. What indeed?

Very quickly the word got around that (a) the Chester Group had cancelled the show, and (b) Michel and Sarah were going to step in and make sure it went ahead. Tim and I decided that we definitely wanted to support Sarah and Michel. Although we did exhibit once in 2012, trade shows are not a particularly cost-effective promotional tool for a business like ours that sells software exclusively via the Apple App Store. Nonetheless, on the Thursday afternoon I called Sarah and committed to taking a room at the show. After all, we are all part of a larger community. I guess a lot of other people did likewise, because by the time the weekend was over Michel and Sarah had increased the exhibitor count from 18 to 65. I have to tell you, that says extraordinary things about the esteem in which these two individuals are held.

Next, we had to assemble a system to demonstrate. I couldn’t just schlepp my own reference system down to the show. I have B&W 802 Diamond S2 loudspeakers and these are for all practical purposes utterly impossible to transport. Also, my speakers and amplifier are about 5 years old, and you need to be showcasing the latest and greatest equipment. So I got on the phone with Paul McGowan, owner and President of PS Audio. I have been using a PS Audio DirectStream DAC for a couple of years now, and really enjoy listening to it, and have been following the lengthy gestation of Paul’s new power amplifiers the BHK 250 Stereo and BHK 300 monoblocks. In fact, last year at SSI I heard the prototype BHK 250 and was seriously impressed. So I asked Paul if he would be willing to loan me a set of BHK 300 monoblocks to use in our room at the show. Not only did Paul enthusiastically agree, but he also volunteered to send one of his P10 power stations (of which more in another blog post).

Now for loudspeakers. We have for many years enjoyed a friendly relationship with Graeme Humfrey at local audio dealer Coup de Foudre. So I called in to their new showroom and asked if they would be willing to supply me with a pair of loudspeakers that we could use at the show. Graeme casually waved his arm across a room containing something like a million dollars worth of high end loudspeakers and said “Sure, which ones would you like?”. We chose a pair of Focal Sopra No 2 floorstanders, which retail at about $15k.

Another phone call to Steve Silberman at AudioQuest, and a package was soon on its way containing ‘Castle Rock’ speaker cables, ‘Water’ interconnects, ‘NRG-10’ power cords, ‘Diamond’ USB cable, ‘Vodka’ ethernet cables, even three USB ‘Jitterbugs’. Have I forgotten anything?….

There are some seriously nice and seriously helpful people in the high end audio business, and our thanks go out to all of them. But as it would turn out, we would be needing a lot more help before the weekend was over, and there seemed no limit to what people would be willing to do to help out their colleagues … and even their competitors.

When Tim and I visited the hotel on the Tuesday to check out the room, it was being used and so we were unable to inspect it. This became an issue when we showed up on the Thursday morning and found that our room was almost square (30’ x 25’ x 12’) with three walls formed from a very flexible sort of thin particle board, and one comprising sliding glass doors. The suspended ceiling used flimsy polystyrene tiles and the floor was concrete covered by a rather hideous carpet. The overall decor and condition was pretty grim. Setup was going to be very challenging, and we were going to be in need of serious room treatment if we hoped to get things sounding right.

We decided to place the speakers along one of the (slightly) shorter walls, and set everything up accordingly. Immediately we found that the room had a wicked bass hump at around 50-100Hz, which sucked the life out of the music. No matter where we placed the speakers everything sounded awful. What the heck were we going to do?

My first port of call was Michel Plante. He works for the company that distributes Focal loudspeakers in Canada. I dragged him into our room and asked him, based on his experience with the speakers, where he thought they would work best in our room. He went away and came back with a room acoustics expert, who played some music, walked up and down, clapped, shouted, sat and thought. His recommendation was to move the speakers to the opposite wall, which I must admit sounded rather improbable, but since he was the expert we shut the system down and schlepped it across the room.

Meanwhile, Michel came back again bearing curtains to cover the glass wall; a pair of heavy area rugs to cover the area of floor between the listening seats and the system; a whole bunch of acoustic panels that we could arrange around the walls as appropriate; and a selection of spot lamps that we could use to provide mood lighting thereby drawing attention away from the drab decor.

Eventually we got everything set up, and began to test it again. There was no doubt that the sound was better balanced, but still it was uninspiring, and surely nobody who heard it would leave with positive impressions regarding any of the equipment involved in producing it. Then the left channel got noticeably quieter. Then it started to hiss and crackle. Then it went pop and shut down. One of the BHK 300 monoblocks had evidently failed.

Once again Michel Plante came to the rescue. He went off and came back with a Devialet 400 dual-mono integrated amplifier with a built-in DSD-compatible DAC. A cool $20k if you want one. We could use this for the rest of the show, or until we got the BHK 300 repaired. He also brought his acoustic expert back, plus another of his experts – a cellist named Vincent Belanger, who had recorded an album that we played for him to assess the bass response. Between them they got the speaker positioning fine-tuned and finally we were good to go. There was a compromise. We could get very nice and clean imaging, but with a huge bass hump; or we could tame the bass hump at the expense of the holographic imaging. Naturally, we chose the latter.

A phone call to Paul McGowan determined that the most likely cause of the BHK 300 failure was one of the input tubes (yes, the BHK 300 monoblocks are hybrid amplifiers – tube inputs with solid-state outputs). If we could get a pair of replacement tubes we could swap them out and all would be well. The tubes, he told us, are 6229 Golden Lions, and are quite widely used, so there was a good chance we could get hold of a pair. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way. 6229’s turned out to be as common as albino unicorns. Nobody had even heard of them. Thus it was that on Friday, Paul shipped a replacement pair out to us by FedEx, for urgent priority delivery on Saturday morning.

So, by Friday we had a room that was not sounding bad at all. Overall it was still a little on the muddy side, but walking through some of the other rooms it didn’t sound as though anybody else was slaying that particular dragon. Although the BHK 300 monoblocks were looking pretty impressive, they were only holding the carpet in place. By Saturday lunch time, though, we hoped they’d be singing too.

But not so fast. Saturday lunch time came and went, and still no FedEx. We called them up and learned that they had mislaid the shipment! Furthermore it was not going to be delivered until Monday morning, and the show ended on Sunday. It was at this point that the next two heroes entered the picture.

Rick Becker is an audio reviewer with “EnjoyTheMusic.com” and likes his sound tube-based and vinyl-driven. Rick pointed out that there is actually no such thing as a 6229 tube, but there is a 6922 and it is a very common design used in preamplifiers and phono stages. Whipping the suspect tubes out of the deceased BHK 300, he confirmed his suspicion. He then went off with a twinkle in his eye saying “Give me 20 minutes….”. True to his word, he came back at the appointed hour with an introduction to a gentleman named Samuel Furon of l’Atelier Audio, a Canadian dealer and distributor of high-end audio. One of the products he was carrying, a phono preamplifier, uses 6922 tubes, and he had one on display but not in use. These used not just ordinary 6922’s, but NOS Phillips tubes … he just pulled out a pair and gave them to me. Didn’t want them back!

We put the Phillips NOS 6922’s into the BHK 300 and it immediately sprang to life again. So we took the Devialet out of the system and ran the rest of the show with the DirectStream DAC feeding the BHK 300 monoblocks directly. To say that the PS Audio combo dramatically outshone the Devialet sounds like I am being down on the Devialet, and that is not my intention. The euro-chic Devialet worked very well and delivered a nice clean sound with notable bass weight and definition. I’m sure you’d like it – I know I did. But the PS Audio combo really shook my world, and we ran with that setup through the end of the show. It seemed to blow away a large part of the bass-rich mud that pervaded the overall sound, and created a fairly solid stereo image where previously there really wasn’t one. The midrange was to die for – seriously tube-y. For the second half of the show our room really sang!

So that was SSI 2016. It was a resounding success. Everybody I spoke to, without exception, was full of praise for how well the show went and the general atmosphere of conviviality that pervaded the event. Even the fact that the hotel was undergoing significant renovations all around us while the show was going on only seemed to add to the collective sense of camaraderie rather than detract from it. Unlike previous years, admission for the general public was free, and, possibly as a consequence, the attendees seemed to be a slightly different group from the usual suspects. As one long-time exhibitor put it, it was encouraging to “see some new faces”. The mood at the close of the show was diametrically opposed to that of one year ago. Everybody was hyped and looking forward to a bigger and better SSI 2017.

At the end of the show I was supposed to ship the BHK 300 monoblock amplifiers back to PS Audio, but such was the impact the system had on me that I took them home instead. If they can replicate the type of performance we heard at the show in my reference system, then I hope they are going to stay there. I will report in due course on what I find.

One last shout out to Pascal Patry, Tim’s business partner at Spectrum. We had to transport the Focal Sopra No 2’s across town from Coup de Foudre to and from the show. I have an Infinity G35 and Tim a Volvo S60. The Focals simply won’t fit in either of those cars. But Pascal has an Acura SUV, and he ‘volunteered’ to ship the speakers for us. Of course, it turned out that even with the big Acura you could only get one boxed up speaker into it at a time, so he had to do two trips each way. Not to mention all the heavy lifting that we pressed him into service for. But he didn’t once complain.

So, to Sarah Tremblay, Michel Plante, Paul McGowan, Graeme Humfrey, Steve Silberman, Rick Becker, Samuel Furon, Pascal Patry, and many others who never made it into my narrative (but you know who you are), a huge thank you for your contributions to making our little exhibit at SSI 2016 such a success.

AirPlay has undergone a dramatic revamp under El Capitan.  For BitPerfect users it used to be the case that you would select the AirPlay Device from System Sounds and then, within its menu, select a specific AirPlay device.  That has now changed.  With El Capitan, you instead select the specific AirPlay device, all of which now appear as separate devices.

However, there are some oddities in what they have done.  It used to be that the audio devices available in System Sounds were the same as those available in Audio Midi Setup.  But that is no longer the case.  The Audio Midi Setup appears to still function exactly as it did before.  In other words, the individual AirPlay devices do not appear in Audio Midi Setup, only the AirPlay subsystem.  And you still select individual AirPlay device from a drop-down menu, just like before.  There is an additional wrinkle, though.  If you have not selected an AirPlay device in System Sounds, then as often as not, the AirPlay subsystem will not appear in Audio Midi Setup!  You have to go into System Sounds and select an individual AirPlay device there in order to make the AirPlay subsystem appear in Audio Midi setup.  To complicate matters further,  sometimes it takes a while for it to appear …. we don’t yet know why.

All this might not be a big deal, except that when you select an Audio Output Device in BitPerfect, the only devices OS X makes available to BitPerfect are those which show up in Audio Midi Setup, not those that show up in System Sounds!  So if you want to use BitPerfect over AirPlay, your first priority is to persuade the AirPlay device to appear in Audio Midi Setup, as described in the previous paragraph.  Having done so, you then need to wait until OS X decides it wants to make that device available to BitPerfect.  Sometimes this requires you to quit/restart BitPerfect before that will happen.  At this point we don’t know what governs this behaviour.

As before, it is still necessary to select ‘Computer’ from iTunes’ own AirPlay device selector.  However, you then have to go back to System Sounds and re-select the desired AirPlay device again, because OS X will have switched it back.

Finally, having done all that, you can now start to play over AirPlay using BitPerfect.  However, there are still more problems on the horizon.  If the AirPlay signal is briefly dropped, OS X will reconnect it, but with El Capitan OS X assigns a new handle (an internal memory address) to it, and BitPerfect isn’t expecting that.  Therefore BitPerfect finds itself playing to a device using a memory address that is no longer valid.  This causes BitPerfect to crash.  Since AirPlay dropouts are quite common, these crashes can be quite common.

Fortunately, version 3.0.2 of BitPerfect includes a fix for this crash.  With this version we continuously check to see if the AirPlay device still has the same handle as it did previously.  If not, we detect the discrepancy and re-start playback with the new handle.  We therefore recommend that all El Capitan users who wish to use AirPlay with BitPerfect upgrade to the latest version of BitPerfect.

My feeling is that this new AirPlay regime still needs some fine-tuning, both by Apple and by BitPerfect, so you can expect it to see it evolve over the next few update cycles.

We have today released v3.0.2 of BitPerfect. This is a maintenance release and fixes two specific issues:

1. Fixes a crash caused when a brief dropout is encountered when using AirPlay.
2. Fixes an occasional crash when stopping or starting playback.

Version 3.0.2 is a free upgrade for all existing BitPerfect Users.