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No. 99 August 2012

It’s a girls’ game after all… (coctailAudio X10)

(If you don’t care for technical stuff on preamplifiers – just go straight to the fourth paragraph)

But first, let’s talk about preamplifiers
Preamplifiers reviewed this month are toys for big boys. That’s high-end audio and quite specialized at that – after all we are not talking about ‘speakers’ that everyone knows, but about a ‘preamplifier,’ an audio component only present in complex, thought-out audio systems. What is a preamplifier? According to a dictionary definition, a ‘preamp’ (preamplifier) is “an amplifier used as the first amplification stage in the device, which is fed by low level input signal, e.g. near output noise level” (Encyclopedia of Gazeta Wyborcza, ed. PWN, Warsaw 2005).

The first line already shows what a lame definition it is – “amplifier used as the first amplification stage.” But the same can be said not only of that definition, but almost all other definitions of the word I know. Bah! Even the name itself is flawed (not just in Polish, as it is simply translated from English). What then about passive preamps? What about resistive attenuators, transformer attenuators, etc.? No single gain (‘amplification’) stage, just an attenuator. It seems that the authors of this and all similar encyclopedic definitions are not fully aware of what they write about. For them the most distinguishing feature of a ‘preamp’ is ‘amplification (of low level signal)’. And that is a mistake. The primary role of a preamplifier is volume control. Not even its attenuation, because we would leave out an innovative system from CEC (or actually from Juan Carlos Candeias Isaac, whose Candeias Electronics Co., Ltd. has been responsible for CEC designs over the last few years) called DAPC (Digital / Analog Power Converter), in which signal is not attenuated and volume is directly controlled without any voltage amplifier stage. The current to voltage conversion is passive and therefore dynamically perfect (see Candeias website for more information). Therefore, a better definition of a ‘preamplifier’ would be ‘volume controller’, or possibly ‘pre-controller’ to stay with the Encyclopaedia … wording.

A preamplifier may include: input selector, input buffer, attenuator, gain stage (often multiple) and output buffer. Not to forget power supply and often control systems. And so do almost all preamplifiers featured in this issue of “High Fidelity” (No. 99; next month we are hitting our 100th issue!!!) especially “dedicated” to preamps. Interestingly, the better the device, better-sounding, the less components in signal path, less gain stages. Top purist designs only feature an input selector (although it could be omitted), a single gain stage and an attenuator. However, what they all have in common is an extremely complex oversized power supply and auxiliary systems. In the end, gain stage is just a small part of these devices. Mastery is the art of simplicity.
However, as with everything else, here also we need to simplify as much as possible, but no more than is necessary, to recall a classic. My experience shows that only an active circuit with an attenuator gives the desired result – no passive preamp sounds as good as the best active. That is obviously my own opinion and yours can be different. Even the allegedly superior CD / SACD players with regulated output, such as Ancient Audio CD players, owe their advantages to having an active preamp “on board”, either in the form of an integrated resistor ladder with an active component, or an ordinary attenuator which is driven by output (active) stage. Speaking of “no preamp” is quite misleading in all these cases. The fact is that it is simply integrated into a source device, further simplifying signal path.
There is no denying, however, that all preamps reviewed in this issue of HF are simply expensive, very expensive and damn expensive. It is no secret either that two of the most expensive, the Octave Jubilee PRE and the Soulution 720 are also the best devices of that kind I have ever had in my system. I could easily live with both, though the Octave better matched my system. On the other hand, it is the two least expensive preamps from that review that made the deepest (subjectively) impression on me – the Avantgarde Acoustic PRE and the ModWright LS 36.5. Wonderfully designed and manufactured, with fantastic design ideas, at a relatively low price they show how it should be like.
But hey – they are all fantastic; I chose them precisely because they’re the most expensive preamps from a given manufacturer and as such constitute the “Summa” of engineering knowledge translating into their end price. And that's why the month has been so fascinating to me. I have learnt and experienced a lot. I am left reassured that without a good preamp life escapes from the audio system; that an active gain stage combined with volume attenuator is the salt of the audio system. And that while you can have something really special for relatively little money, if you want the best you have to pay the most.

And finally, the most important – the coctailAudio X10
This editorial isn’t actually about preamplifiers. I just wanted a smooth transition into the topic, but it sort of grew on me. In reality I wanted to write about something completely different. Preamps are more of a topic for audiophiles and the ones “in the know”, while what I want to talk about is meant for a completely different group of people – for little girls. Literally.

A daughter can seem like a common good, but not everyone has one. And for those who do have one (although “having them” does seem slightly chauvinistic…) it is one of the world’s wonders. I know what I’m talking about, because there’s a wonder like that running around my house.
When my daughter went to school, I found myself facing the problem that most parents must face at some point in life – my kid demanded, of course smiling widely, kissing and hugging and making puppy eyes, her own place in the world where she could listen to stories and songs, etc. And problems like that are usually solved quite easily, by buying some small clunker, some music box that looks nice and is capable of making some noise. I understand that, and while I don’t approve of it I will also be the last to throw a stone.
We must realize that doing that is an easy way out, and tricking our child in a way – because when we buy something for ourselves, it has to be worth it, right? And although children love colorful, shiny plastic things that are good-for-nothing hours after purchase, it’s our job as parents to form our children’s tastes and fancies, and part of that education is showing kids what’s “good”, and not letting them be satisfied with just anything.

And in this rather grandiloquent but true way we get to the point – an audio system for a girl. Aged 5 to 50, as you will soon see.
When I was thinking of something for my daughter, it turned out that there are lots of products of that type on the market. Almost every manufacturer – big and small, old and new – literally has an entire catalogue of smaller and larger audio devices. Most of these are only called “audio devices”, though.
I approached the thing very methodically. I had to find answers for very basic questions: what this device should be able to do, how it is to be operated, whether it should be integrated or with stand-alone speakers, etc. However, the most important criterion for it was easy and intuitive handling. But not vulgarly simplistic – we’re talking about devices for a completely different generation. Using computers, browsing the net or playing a game is something natural for them, an ability they’re born with. Playing with small consoles like the PSP is also a daily basis thing. This device should be easy-to-use for a kid of the omnipresent electronics generation. Secondly, it should look nice. Thirdly, it should sound well and should be able to somehow “grow” with the kid, so she’d discover new possibilities as she’d get more skillful.
And as it turns out, there are quite some devices like that on the market. After thinking the whole thing through and consulting a few distributors and retailers, I decided on buying the coctailAudio X10 sound system, which after 3 months of use, seems to be the right buy.

coctailAudio is a brand which belongs to South-Korean company Novatron. It’s distributed in Poland by Human Media, that also distributes the Dune and the Popcorn. At this moment the only coctailAudio products are the X10 sound system and the matching CAP 10 speakers. In one of the headlines, the company writes:
“X10 coctailAudio is, at first glance, a traditional micro Hi-Fi system. However, even after a short while sampling it, you will be really surprised.”
And that is certainly true. At first glance the X10 is yet another “sound-making cube” – it’s small, black and has a display – a colorful display. That’s the first thing to set eyes upon. Above the display is a small crack for CDs. And there are no speakers. You can tell that it’s something different, right?
The coctailAudio X10 is a media player with an integrated hard drive, internet radio, a NAS drive client, a CD player, a CD ripper using popular internet portals providing track titles and CD covers, etc. The device can also do much more (just to mention a built-in stereo amplifier, a headphone amplifier, WiFi connection, etc. – the full list is on the distributor’s website HERE and HERE).
All necessary information is provided on a colorful TFT display. The device supports MP3, FLAC, WAV, WMA, AAC, M4A, PCM, OGG, and M3U and PLS playlist formats. As it turns out, ripping (importing) CDs onto the hard drive is very intuitive. I was unable to import an mp3 CD of “Winnie the Pooh” – it’s an original, but I wanted to have it on the player’s drive. But when the mp3s were on an external drive, the device had no problems playing it.
As I said, this system has no speakers. It does have a built-in amp, but you need to search for the speakers. The natural choice could be the coctailAudio CAP10 speakers. I decided to take another route, though. Since there isn’t much room on my daughter’s desk and I wanted the speakers to correspond to the X10’s size, I chose the Minx Min 11 speakers from Cambridge Audio. I used two 1m Chord Rumour 2 cables to connect them. I then attached the speakers to optional, aluminum CA stands.
The speakers are absolutely wonderful – tiny, but built using the latest technologies, which is what ultimately convinced me to buy them. Instead of a classic speaker driver they have BMR (Balanced Mode Radiator), a driver which is a development of NXT panels. It’s a flat-surface driver which uses controlled deformation of the driver cone. Larger models of this type of drivers are used in the most expensive Naim speakers. Thus these Minx Min11 speakers are pretty, very well-made and fit for the X10, with really sophisticated technology inside.

So how does this setup actually sound? – one must ask. And what criteria should be used to judge? – one must answer. In terms of absolute criteria, it is just a small device with a very pleasant sound. There’s no brightness to it, and the sound is surprisingly clean and dynamic. That’s it – it’s simply good.
The true value of this setup lies somewhere else. My daughter was comfortably operating it in under a minute, basically when she found the right buttons on the remote and on the front panel. She listened to some fairy tales the same evening, and then to a few CDs, including the great soundtrack to Adventures in Paris (Un Monstre a Paris, dir. Bibo Bergeron, 2011), in which Vanessa Paradis sings a few songs. I soon regretted the purchase, because my daughter kept playing one song over and over, but the system definitely did its job…
And then there’s a whole new world in front of her! The X10 can play internet radio, files from the NAS where I keep all my music, and I can even buy a small subwoofer from the Minx series someday. There are really loads of possibilities.
It was a really good buy, to be fair. The player and the speakers look very nice, take up little space, and are really awesome when it comes to technology and ease of use. Can a better setup be made? Probably, but what we now have is definitely sufficient for me – and my daughter, of course. The company keeps upgrading and improving the software; there have been two major updates over the course of three months. And that means good support from the manufacturer. Even if that changes, the form that the X10 is in today is much more than OK.

coctailAudio X10 – 1159 PLN ǀ Cambridge Audio MINX Min11 – 399 PLN ǀ The Chord Company Rumour 2 – 77 PLN/m


The story of the Thorens TD 124
Last month I wrote about the need to note down histories of audio companies, the history of our audio branch. We need the history to be recorded, because it transforms an interest in audio into something more than just an ephemeral hobby. In my report from the High End 2010 show in Munich (read HERE), and in that very context I would like to mention Ken Kessler, the author and co-author of three beautiful monographs on QUAD, McIntosh and KEF. Maybe even a book about Nagra in the future…

And it needs to be said that there are few books on electronic devices so greatly written, so fantastically edited. Only some albums dedicated to painting or architecture, and publications about watches, can match what Ken creates.

That is why I would gladly like to recommend another book for your collection, a monograph on an iconic analog turntable, the Thorens TD124, written by Joachim Bung. The book titled Swiss Precision, the subtitle being The Story of the Thorens TD124 and The Other Classic Turntables (original title: Schweizer Prezision). It was originally published in German, the native language of Mr. Bung who resides in the Swiss town of Schmitten, and was 111 pages long. The current, second edition, is extended and improved and is 290 pages long, and was consulted by… Ken Kessler.

This colorful edition includes an enormous amount of archival photographs, prepared by a real historian. The author tries to look at the nearly-worshipped Thorens turntable from many different angles, to look at the reasons for its current status, describing the brand’s history, the predecessors and successors of the model, and even taking a look at its overseas competitors from Great Britain and beyond. The author contacted many people who were directly engaged in the manufacturing process, and the brand’s owner, its users, and the companies responsible for restoration. The amount of photos, documents, etc. is overwhelming.

The edition might not be as sophisticated as Ken Kessler’s books, but when it comes to its language and the amount of information, it equals Kessler’s works. A mild neglect, in my opinion, is the lack of basic information regarding the time and date of publication, as well as the translator’s name. But they’re just minor editorial errors, I suppose… The book was sent to me by Jürg Schopper, head of Schopper AG, whose presentation room received the Best Sound • High End 2012 award from me this year. Mr. Jürg is one of the experts on the Thorens TD 124, and offers fantastical restorations of both the base and tonearms. His abilities can be seen HERE.

One more thing – along with Swiss Precision I received Tommy Schneider & Friends LP to listen to, The Hidden Port. It was recorded in the Swiss 2 Inch Records Studio in a fully analog way, pressed on a 180g vinyl, and it shows what Kolibri Records can do. Their webpage is worth checking out HERE, because it’s good music, excellently recorded and fresh, outside of the audiophile “canon”. It’s worth it!!!

First Impression Music vs Telarc
I’ve written about First Impression Music many times before, usually in context of one of Mr. Winston Ma’s, its owner, new ideas. Mr. Ma seems to have unending energy reserves. And although he’s actually been ill and on a leave for most of the past two years, he could probably share his ideas and warrior spirit with a dozen audiophile magazines.
As I wrote in my First Impression Music – reactivation editorial, in the 91st issue of “High Fidelity” from November 2011 (read it HERE), one of the latest FIM initiatives was establishing a closed cooperation with Five/Four Productions, and so with people who were previously responsible for recording and mastering Telarc CDs.

As you probably know, the company was bought by Concord Music Group in 2005, and in 2009 due to the corporation’s reorganization, Telarc Records Group laid off twenty six workers and finished manufacturing its own recordings. So the company was pretty much liquidated. Although a huge, mainly digital, archive remained…
Four of the key audio producers created an independent recording-manufacturing company, Five/Four Productions, Ltd. They were: Grammy award winners, sound engineers Michael Bishop and Robert Friedrich, Grammy award winner producer Thomas Moore and chief technician Bill McKinney. And it was with these four people that Mr. Winston Ma prepared a new catalogue, re-editions of Telarc CDs. The CDs were issued by Lasting Impression Music, a sub-group of FIM, and were prepared in the FIM and Five/Four Productions patented UltraHD32 – Bit Mastering CD process. I must say these CDs sound insanely good! Even better than the already great originals! Some of them are available in a limited edition – the first 2,000 copies, with a metal plaque on the front.

The following titles have been published thus far:

  • Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson, Ray Brown, The Very Tall Band, LIM UHD 050
  • André Previn, Joe Pass, Ray Brown, After Hours, LIM UHD 051
  • Tchaikovsky, 1812; Capriccio Italien; Cossack Dance, Erich Kunzel, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, LIM UHD 052
  • Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 5 “Emperor”, Rudolf Serkin, Seiji Ozawa, Boston Symphony Orchestra, LIM UHD 053
  • Liza Minnelli, Carnegie Hall Concerts, LIM UHD 055
  • Mussogorsky, Pictures at an Exhibition, Lorin Maazel, The Cleveland Orchestra, LIM UHD 056
  • Stravinsky, The Firebird, Robert Shaw, The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, LIM UHD 057
  • Holst, The Planets8, André Previn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, LIM UHD 058
  • Bizet, Grieg, Carmen, Peer Gynt, Leonard Slatkin, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, LIM UHD 059
It’ll be quite relevant to mention that among the awards FIM and Mr. Ma received, the first was the one given by “High Fidelity”…

Contact: First Impression Music, Inc.

Head Office
7309 233rd PL NE
Redmond, WA. 98053
Tel.: (425) 868-5326 Fax: (425) 836-9061

Internet Sales Support

For sale
As I wrote before, I have some reviewed components for sale, either my own or offered by companies that after my reviews prefer to sell them here, in Poland, rather than ask me to send them back. Here’s my ‘for sale’ list:

1. Acrolink Mexcel 7N-5100 analog interconnect. Comes from my own system, sent directly from Japan. Mint condition, after a review. It’s the 2 meter version. No box to go with it. The review can be read HERE. Original price per 1 meter – 12,900 PLN. I’m asking 8,000 PLN for the 2 meters cable.

2. SAEC interconnects: SL-4000)/1.2 m (originally 950 Euro) asking 500 Euro, XR-4000)/1.2 m (980 Euro) asking 500 Euro, SLA-500)/1.2 m (245 Euro) asking 150 euro, SUS-480/1.2 m (390 Euro) asking 200 Euro. Review HERE.

3. fo.Q AB-4045R isolation platform, reviewed HERE. Catalog price 570 Euro, asking 300 Euro.

4. Air Cable mains cables: AIR-PC/1,5m (originally 2,250 Euro asking 1,500 Euro), AIR-EX (3,600 Euro) asking 2,000 Euro. Review HERE.

5. KingRex UD384 + U POWER USB DAC with a battery power supply, asking 250 USD (originally 479 USD) + 150 USD (originally 189 USD). Review HERE.

6. KingRex UC192 USB DAC. Best offer.

7. Acoustic Revive RAF-48 isolation platforms (air floating; under CD players and amplifiers). I have two for sale, brand new, still in original boxes. Came straight from Japan. I personally use two of these in my system. The review can be found HERE. Catalog price 6,200 PLN, asking 4,000 PLN. There is also one used, in mint condition for 3,500 PLN.

8. Wireworld Platinum Eclipse RCA-RCA analog interconnect, 2 m long. Catalog price 22,390 PLN, asking 10,000 PLN.

Acoustic Revive – products for a review
And on a finishing note I’d like to say a few words about new products from Acoustic Revive. The company is developing incredibly fast and there are many products available for review. Since that happened at the same time as my search for cabling system –not very cheap one, but not as immensely expensive as my own; a system with which I could test devices that cost up to 50,000 PLN. I searched for a long time, but my final choice fell on Acoustic Revive cables.

Therefore, System I cable system is now made of:

  • interconnects: CD-preamplifier: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-DA6300, article HERE; preamp-power amp: Acrolink 8N-A2080III Evo (review HERE),
  • speaker cables : Tara Labs Omega Onyx
  • power cords: Acrolink Mexcel 7N-PC9300 (main system; review HERE) | Harmonix X-DC350M2R Improved-Version (Leben CS-300 XS [Custom Version] amplifier; review HERE)
System II will consist of:
  • Acoustic Revive RCA and XLR RCA-2.0PA + XLR-2.0PAII (2 m) interconnects
  • Acoustic Revive SPC-PA (RBN-1), 2 x 3,0 m speaker cables
  • Acoustic Revive BWA-4 bi-wire adapter + RBN-1 banana plugs
  • Acoustic Revive Power Reference power cord, see HERE
  • Acoustic Revive RAS-14 power conditioner When I’ll get used to all this, I’ll prepare a review of that system. It’s interesting in that all of the components use solid-core, not twisted pair cables.

Other than the cables, the following components have been delivered for a review, (I unfortunately don’t know when I will be able to review them – for now, everything’s waiting, still in boxes):
  • Acoustic Revive RAF-48H isolation board
  • Acoustic Revive USB-1.0PLS and USB-1.0SPS cables
  • Acoustic Revive RLT-1 LAN port filter


Wojciech Pacuła
Editor in chief

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Our reviewers regularly contribute to  “Enjoy the”, “”“”  and “Hi-Fi Choice & Home Cinema. Edycja Polska” .

"High Fidelity" is a monthly magazine dedicated to high quality sound. It has been published since May 1st, 2004. Up until October 2008, the magazine was called "High Fidelity OnLine", but since November 2008 it has been registered under the new title.

"High Fidelity" is an online magazine, i.e. it is only published on the web. For the last few years it has been published both in Polish and in English. Thanks to our English section, the magazine has now a worldwide reach - statistics show that we have readers from almost every country in the world.

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