Dedicated to design and performance of databases and audio systems.

Stereo Review

I have been promising everyone to re-review my main system after some upgrades. The time has finally come for me to make that happen. It just took some hours of break-in to occur and get to the point where I was finally happy with everything and the sound was captivating again.

First, let's set the baseline. In the new addition room I have the Musical Fidelity X-150 integrated amp (105W per channel @ 8 ohms) powering two Blumnestein Orca speakers and their original subwoofer. I say original because they do not sell it anymore. Their latest sub has a built-in 25W amp. Mine has the external 200W amp. Speaker wires are from the Blumensteins and match their internal wiring.

Fronting the integrated amp is Karen's turntable with the Dynavector 20X2 cartridge from Dave at Vinyl Nirvana. It is so smooth and liquid sounding. :-) Digital sources include a Denon DVD player that provides DVD-Audio and SACD capabilities. Also, the most frequently used source is the Apple Airport Express fed from my iMac. Stereophile has reported that the digital signal out of the Airport Express is 16-bit/44.1KHz, bit-for-bit equivalent to its source--CD Red Book standard.

The DAC is the Musical Fidelity X-DACv3 powered by the X-PSU power supply. The third part of the front-end is the X-10Dv3 tube buffer. Since music sounds sweeter and more open with tubes, the idea here is to run the analog output from the DAC to the tube buffer and then onto the integrated amplifier. The DAC up-samples the digital PCM 16/44.1 stream to a 24-bit/192KHz signal via an algorithm which fills in the blanks of the smaller signal with assumed music values. Think of it kind of like software that takes a lower resolution picture and smooths it out for a larger print.

The tube buffer has always piqued my interest. From the first time I heard it I was sold. Now I'm addicted. I have scoured eBay and bought two other v3 buffers and two of the original cylindrical X-10D buffers. The earlier ones use the 6DJ8 tubes while the v3's use the sub-miniture 6112 tubes that were originally intended for military missiles. Hey, you can't make this stuff up. The intent was that the 6112's were meant to last a long time and provide many years of listening pleasure.

I was happy with my system the way it was. Really, I was. But I have a problem. I'm an addict--I freely admit it. I can't leave well enough alone. Don't know why--just can't.

You already know the next part of the story. Yup, I had to buy some new stuff and modify my system. The risk is I could spend money and not be happy with the new result. But those are the tumbling dice. Roll 'em.

The first thing that happened was the Blumensteins offered a new Orca Deluxe speaker. It promised more bass and a more solid overall sound. Now the originals were light in the bass--Mrs. Golden Ear will attest to that, thus the sub-woofer. Additionally, the new Oracs used 1"-thick Bamboo with a different port than the original's 3/4" walls. Now how much would you pay for it? Wait, don't answer yet because we will also take your original speakers in trade, swap the drivers into the new cabinets so that you don't have to break in a new set, and charge you the difference. Wow! What's not to like? More on that in a minute.

The original Orca speakers were on metal stands that Bob, Karen's dad, had lent me. They worked very well. But being an addict had me hooked on the idea of using some solid maple stands. With Mrs. Golden Ear being a woodturner now, I asked her if she would be interested in making them. The problem is that they're not round. Round, round, round. I guess I forgot that turner requirement. ;-) Oh well. So, I ordered a pair of 18" stands from Mapleshade Audio in Maryland. They're made by an Amish father and son team.

The stands are beautiful. They have solid brass footers and are rock solid. The first thing I did was place the original Orcas on them. Wow! The stands brought out a far more solid sound from them. Not night and day difference, mind you, but a noticeable difference. But alas, it was time to ship the original Orcas back to the Blumensteins for the new pair of the DeLuxe version.

Next, since I am an addict, with audio ADD to boot, I have been watching Rock Grotto's site for some tube buffer modifications. The two additional v3 buffers I bought were for that someday modification. That day had come. One of the buffers had a bad left channel so modifying it was worthwhile. Mike Grierson of Rock Grotto had a new mini tube that he highly recommended to me--the 6948. He said it was incredible. I bought a set of the 6948's and the cap and diode upgrade kit as well. Oh boy! The hardest part is always waiting for them to arrive. It's only a week, but I'm like a kid at Christmas.

Mike is very helpful and responsive! I have previously bought handmade power supplies and power cables from him. All high quality. He is up on the top of Scotland. Pretty awesome to think of the worldwide connections. Extra cool points since both my grandfathers were of Scottish decent. :-)

Now I needed to find someone to do the electrical work. I reached out to Fidelis AV in nearby Nashua, NH. They have a guy, Dan Cheever, who did the mods, swapped the tubes, and upgraded the output connections with solid-core, soft silver wire. Say that three times fast. ;-) Dan is awesome. E-mailed me with options, ideas, you name it. I need to get back to him sometime on the option to add transformers on the output stage. Soon. Soon. Soon. 'Cause, you know, I'm an addict.

New tubes are in. But now it's break-in time. Still waiting on the Orca DeLuxes to come in. In the meantime, I was playing the NHT Classic Threes. I used to love those speakers. Now they sound like someone draped a blanket over the top of them. Not that there is anything wrong with them. Nothing at all--it's just that I am spoiled. I have tasted the next level and I can't go back. 'Cause I'm an addict. It's an awful affliction. ;-) But I digress. The tubes are going to need roughly 50 hours of break-in. But so are the caps, and some of the caps were additional mods that Dan did. Mrs. Golden Ear, bless her heart, understands me. She ran my stereo every day for a week-plus to get the break-in process well underway. She's the best! :-)

The Orca DeLuxes arrived. But then tragedy struck. My integrated amp's phono amp died. Well, it went kicking, or popping is more like it, and screaming. Back to see Dan-the-man. The phono board had a vertical orientation that was supported by the audio path connections. Not good. Dan fixed the connections, built a grounded brace for the daughter board and upgraded my caps. More caps to break in, but hey it works and sounds great. Thanks Dan!

Now I have the system back together. The sound? Hmm. Well. Um. Geez. I don't know. It just doesn't sound the same. Stiff. Etched. The Orca DeLuxes certainly put out lower notes. However, they are still not what I would call low-reaching. Sub still required. But that's okay. I love that sub. It's very musical.

It's time to adjust the volume of the sub and the cross-over frequency. Plus, based on Vinyl Nirvana Dave's recommendation, I moved the sub into the left corner of the room. Next, I raised the Orcas up on small brass pointed footers that Bob lent me. Better. But we're still not there.

Time. Time. Time. All it takes is time and patience. But the problem is I'm an addict. My musical gratification is not being fully satisfied. Not yet anyway. Well it has been a couple of months now and everything has broken in nicely. I mean it is so sweet to my ears. I don't doubt that it will get even better.

Scientifically I broke the cardinal rule. Changing too many variables at the same time. Tsk. Tsk. Bad. But, I'm not after the science. I'm after the art.

Now I couldn't help but do one further experiment. Listen to some music I am familiar with--the Rolling Stones' Get Yer Ya Ya's Out. (I have been listening to a lot of Stones lately thanks to Captain Lou!) First on the new tubes. And then, on the original tube buffer. Were these new tubes really that much better? I had to know. 'Cause I'm an addict.

What do you think? Could I hear the difference? If so, how much of a difference would it be? The answer is, OMG is there ever a difference! Mike Grierson, you are a genius, my Scottish brother from another mother! Thank you!

My sincere thanks to

  • Dave Archambault (Vinyl Nirvana) for setting up our turntables and the great Dynavector cartridge recommendations
  • Mike Grierson (Rock Grotto) for the Musical Fidelity mods and the tube recommendations
  • Dan Cheever for modifying the tube buffer, the caps, and repairing the phono amp
  • Captain Lou for hooking me up with Stones bootlegs and Pixies. And, always teaching me more about rock history than I ever knew.