Sitting In

An Audio Journey

Issue 120

Copper reader Adrian Wu lives in Hong Kong and has spent time in the UK and elsewhere, as you will see. He is a contributor to the Asia Audio Society website, dedicated to reference-quality sound and reproduction. As you will also see, Adrian, like so many of us, has had quite an audio journey, which he is kind enough to share with us and which we will run in two parts, to be concluded in Issue 121.

I would like to say thank you to everyone involved in Copper. For me, this is the one true magazine for music and audio lovers, devoid of commercial interests and packed full of practical information, learned opinion and thought-provoking comments. Looking back at my audio journey of almost 40 years, I have made many friends and continue to learn new things every day that I will treasure for the rest of my life. And I get to use the stuff I learned in my physics and math classes at school!

I have been a music lover all my life. I started learning the piano at the age of eight, and I was very fortunate to encounter my second teacher after I started boarding school in the UK. He was a retired concert pianist with a mind-boggling repertoire, but he also taught me a lot about how to be a decent and honorable human being. From that day on, music became a major focus of my life.

My introduction into audio came after I joined the electronics club organized by my high school physics teacher. One day after our club session, he asked for volunteers to help him with a project in his home. My friend and I volunteered, and that was the first time I laid my eyes on the Quad ESL electrostatic loudspeaker (or any audiophile equipment for that matter). At the time, the ESL was still available new from the factory, but being a high school teacher, he could only afford a second hand pair. He wanted to upgrade the EHT power supply unit, and we helped him remove the covers. Not having allowed them enough time for their membranes to adequately discharge, he stuck his hand in and was promptly thrown back several feet onto his butt by the 6000 volts (thankfully of high source resistance) still lurking around.  Having witnessed this debacle, I knew that instant that these were the speakers for me.

Quad advertisement from Audio, October 1959.

During my university years living in Edinburgh, I eagerly awaited every new issue of Hi-Fi News & Record Review. I saved up my allowance (not having a girlfriend helped) and bought my first stereo, which was made up of the Dunlop Systemdek II turntable (aka the “pressure cooker”), Mission 774 arm (designer John Bicht’s classic) and Audio-Technica AT33 cartridge.  Amplification was an Arcam integrated, driving KEF Coda 3 speakers. A Frenchman operated a used record store at his wine shop in New Town, and I bought the wide- and narrow-band Deccas (the wide band issues were the early premium releases, including the whole SXL2000 series, and the early SXL6000 series from 1962 until 1970. These were mostly produced with tube electronics. The later SXL6000 narrow band issues were all produced with solid state electronics), EMI ASDs and SAXs, French Pathé Marconis and Lyritas etc. that nobody wanted because the CD offered perfect sound forever. As the Scots were frugal and took great care of their possessions, the LPs I bought were mostly pristine. These still make up the core of my record collection. I investigated CD audio, and decided it was not for me.  CDs cost 10 pounds in those days, whereas I could pick up a mint second hand Decca LP for about 2 pounds.

“Narrow band” Decca label.

 

“Wide band” Decca label.

My classmate Neil was a Linn evangelist. After he saved up enough money, we went to the Linn dealer in Edinburgh to audition the Linn Sondek LP12 turntable. The salesman (barely out of high school) was shocked that someone wanted to actually listen to the thing. What was the point of auditioning since the product’s superiority was cast in stone? He took one out of storage, got it out of the box, plonked it on top of the box, hooked it up and put on a record. It might have been Steely Dan’s Gaucho if I remember correctly.

The record player had an Ittok arm and a Karma cartridge, top level in those days, but we could see the suspension bouncing in every direction except vertically. The cartridge mistracked every few revolutions and the sound was awful. After a few minutes, my friend leapt up from his seat and exclaimed, “That’s wonderful. I want one now.” And he parted with his cash, hard-earned during years of summer jobs (and no girlfriend), just like that.  Talk about Ivor worshipping!  The next time I visited Neil, he proudly played his copy of Gaucho through his officially approved system consisting of the LP12 with Naim Nait electronics and Linn Kan loudspeakers.

I credit Mr. Winston Ma (better known outside Hong Kong as the founder of the record label First Impression Music) for my early education in all things audio. During my holidays when I would go back to Hong Kong, I loved to hang around his shop, Golden String, in the Central business district. He was already very well-known and well-respected within the industry in those days, but he and his staff would spend hours explaining things to me, someone who couldn’t even afford the cheapest merchandise in his shop. He was the agent for brands such as Cabasse, Burmester and Koetsu, not exactly equipment that a university student could aspire to buying.

One day, a customer walked into the shop in the middle of the afternoon. He was dressed in the type of clothes worn by men who pulled rickshaws and by dock laborers, and he was wearing dirty old canvas shoes (way before those became fashionable). He did not know who Mr. Ma was, but nevertheless, Mr. Ma greeted him warmly and spent a lot of time introducing him to various products. At the end, he pulled out a pile of cash from his pocket and bought a top Koetsu cartridge. I was totally amazed and said so to Mr. Ma. I will always remember his response. “To be successful in selling hi-fi is no different from what you need to do to be successful in life,” he said, “and that is to treat everyone as equal and with respect, no matter if you think they are rich or poor, smart or dumb, well or poorly educated.” This advice has served me well.

A current Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum cartridge.

Many years later, after he had emigrated to Seattle, we worked together on a project to release a series of recordings I had made for a Chinese violin prodigy (and that is another long story). Unfortunately, this project did not come to fruition due to his illness and untimely demise. I still go past that building from time to time, and the large window on the first floor is still the same after 35 years, only without the large Golden String logo. It still brings back fond memories.

After graduation and actually living off the fruits of my own labor, I saved enough money to buy an “antique” Bösendorfer (1928, to be exact) piano. A few years later, I sold my original system to a friend (who had been coveting it for some time), and upgraded to a Roksan Xerxes turntable with Artemis arm, Mission Cyrus integrated amplifier and Linn Tukan speakers. A chance encounter led me to move to the US for postgraduate training. I arrived with just a suitcase and rented a studio apartment, the only criteria being that it was large enough to accommodate my piano.

I bought a futon that folded into a sofa, which was the extent of my furniture. Fortunately, my piano arrived soon afterwards, having been sent away ahead of time for an overhaul, and then directly from the workshop to my new address. It also became my writing desk and dining table for the next year.

I was afflicted by the common audiophile malady of upgrade-itis, and soon ditched the Cyrus (since it had no option for 110 volts and needed a transformer to operate in the US) for a used conrad-johnson PV10a preamplifier (tubes!) and Aragon 4004 power amp. I didn’t go for a tube power amp after considering the potential maintenance cost. Being in an extremely busy job with a brutal call schedule meant not much time for music, but I did manage to start taking weekly piano lessons from a professor at The University of California, San Diego (and falling asleep during the lessons).  She (in fact, her husband) had extremely impressive wall to wall shelves loaded with LPs along the corridor and the living room.

Another six years went by, and after landing an academic job back in Hong Kong, I moved back after having been away for 19 years. I soon picked up old friendships and made new ones. An old family friend introduced me to someone who had been into music recording since he was at university in Los Angeles during the late 1970s. Having known noted recording engineer and producer Allen Sides for a long time, he had a nice collection of vintage microphones (being a top investment banker in Hong Kong helped) and recorders.  We could therefore play with his Neumann U47, U67, M49, M50 and AKG C12 mics, and even a mint condition Telefunken ELA-M251.

My new friend also needed a few able bodies who were willing to help him haul around tons of equipment. Together with another friend (a real estate guy) who had set up a mastering studio to keep himself amused, we managed to get a contract (pro-bono) with the Hong Kong Philharmonic to record some of their dress rehearsals and concerts for their archives. (Their employment contracts with musicians in those days excluded permission to make commercial recordings.)

We would set up the microphones early in the morning (usually on a weekend) for the afternoon rehearsal, and then the evening concert. We usually limited ourselves to eight microphones (to lighten somewhat the back-breaking labor), arranged in a “Decca tree” configuration behind the conductor, with two flanking mics and a few spot mics for the percussion, basses and wind instruments depending on the program. At my friend’s urging, I found a Nagra IV-S stereo analog recorder with a QGB 10.5-inch reel adapter in a BBC sale in London for 2,000 pounds. Another 800 francs for new heads and a once-over at Nagra, and it was good to go. I was also offered a Telefunken M21 tape recorder for 800 Euros, which I turned down due to a lack of space. They were throwing these out of radio stations in Europe to replace with DAT machines in those days. Apparently, the same stations were buying them back a few years later when they realized that some of the DAT recordings were having dropouts and becoming completely useless. I would have bought a Studer A820 deck if I had space; they didn’t go for that much in those days! We would feed the mics into a Studer analogue mixer, and the stereo out into a splitter to feed our two Nagras, and line level outputs from the mixer would be fed to a digital multitrack recorder for use by our real estate friend. For monitoring, we used active Tannoy loudspeakers.

Nagra IV-S recorder.

All that ended when the now-current director of the orchestra came in and did not want to continue with the arrangement, but it was fun when it lasted. At least, we got almost all the Mahler symphonies on tape (but not the 8th, sadly).

Back on the hi-fi front – the subchassis of my Roksan turntable warped after less than a year spent in Hong Kong. Apparently, this was a common problem in humid climates. Therefore, off I went to buy a new turntable from Excel Hi-Fi (now defunct), the biggest dealer (at the time) in Hong Kong. I decided to buy a Michell Orbe turntable with a Graham 2.2 arm and Lyra Helikon cartridge. The salesman was an industry veteran whom pretty much every audiophile in Hong Kong knew. When I enquired if he was going to set up the player for me, he sneered and said, “if you can’t set up a turntable yourself, you shouldn’t be in this hobby!” Having had 15 years of experience with turntables by then (and still having reasonable eyesight), I could of course set up the rig, but I expected some service after having spent that much money (which was of course peanuts from his perspective). In any case, we became good friends nevertheless, even though I never bought anything else from the shop.

After some time I was able to buy a flat. I finally had a chance to indulge in my childhood dream – the Quad ESL! During a trip to visit my sister in Leicester, England, I came across an ad in the local newspaper for a pair of Quad ESL loudspeakers and Quad II amplifiers. I borrowed my sister’s car and drove to meet the seller at a council estate. The ESLs were in excellent cosmetic condition, and at a very low price (something like 200 pounds). The amps were a bit beaten up but the price was also low. I bought the whole lot and spent the next few days packing them up to ship back home.

After the gear arrived at my home, my old electronics skills came in handy. I went shopping for a soldering station, oscilloscope, multimeter and tools. My recording partner was a wellspring of information, having been introduced to the world of vintage audio by his friend, legendary audio publisher and manufacturer Jean Hiraga, and having a collection of vintage gear to rival his mic collection (Western Electric amps, tubes, drivers and transformers etc.). He came over and we checked out the speakers. The voltage was weak, and the panels had faded. I therefore had to order new EHT units and panels from One Thing Audio, and the two of us rebuilt the speakers over the Easter holidays. The hardest part was installing the panels, and having to remove uncountable numbers of splinters from my fingers afterwards.

The amps were in their original state, which means wax leaking out of the transformers and components with badly drifted values. When researching about restoring these pieces, I came across a local chat group that provided a lot of information. I made friends with the administrator Tim, another banker. He is a walking encyclopedia of vacuum tubes and vintage hi-fi, especially British products, since like me, he went to boarding school in the UK.  He can recite all the structural variances of different vintages of most of the common audio tubes from Mullard, Telefunken, Amperex and so on. He is a great one to consult on the authenticity of NOS (New Old Stock) tubes. He and two partners own a vintage hi-fi shop called Vintage Sound, which is really an excuse for them to buy stuff. Tim had collected pretty much every make and vintage of the classic BBC LS3/5a studio monitor speaker over a couple of decades (another anomaly of British audiophiles of our vintage, thanks to Ken Kessler), including a pair of rare prototypes with screwed-in back panels, until thieves broke in and stole the whole collection one weekend. They didn’t steal anything else, not even the rare tubes in the display cabinets. I guess they were too busy trying to remove the haul without being caught. I had never seen my friend so distraught, and he spent the next few years going around the second hand shops in Hong Kong and Guangzhou trying to buy back whatever he could.

Jean Hiraga with Adrian’s friend Tim at Vintage Sound.

In his shop, I have experienced some of the weirdest and most wonderful things: Quad corner horn loudspeakers, Lowther back-loaded horns, the original Williamson amp with Partridge transformers as well as pretty much every amplifier ever made by Leak, Radford and Pye, and all the vintage Tannoy drivers (one of his partners’ nicknames is “Tannoy Silver”).

One of the friends in our group was a German named Dieter. Dieter started working at Siemens when he was still in high school (his mom worked in the vacuum tube division of AEG), and stayed with the company until his retirement as the general manager of its medical business in Hong Kong ten years ago. A properly trained electronics engineer (meaning he studied vacuum tubes and analogue electronics), he had kept a copy of any datasheet, manual and schematic that he had ever come across at work, filed away in the typical meticulous German manner. He could recite off the top of his head the specifications of many Siemens tubes and parts. He had an enviable collection of C3M, AD1, EL156, F2A11 and other rare tubes, as well as Sikatrop capacitors and other vintage parts, and introduced these to me via the lovely amplifiers he built in his spare time. Sadly, he left Hong Kong and went back to Hamburg after his retirement, rented a garage and started rebuilding vintage Mercedes sports cars.

Having been bitten by the vintage bug, I started to look into this side of audio. Those were the days when one could still find good stuff on eBay. Having restored the Quad II amplifiers, I then realized that contrary to popular belief, they were not the best mates for the ESL speakers. One listen to my friend’s Mark Levinson ML2s driving the ESL put that myth to rest. I went off hunting for deals, and managed to score a pair of Leak TL12.1 amplifiers and a pair of Brook 12A and Telefunken V69a amps over the next few years. I started researching into vintage components, such as antique carbon composition resistors and their modern equivalents (like Kiwame carbon film resistors and so on), antique oil capacitors (TCC Super Metalpacks) vs. modern ones (Jensen and Audio Note PIO or paper in oil caps), chassis wires and other components.

Telefunken V69a amplifier with new chrome face plate.

Looking at the construction of the three amps sort of tells you the very different approaches the manufacturers took in building the amps. The Leak is very neat, with all the components mounted on a tag board. That might mean an unnecessarily long signal path, but it makes working on the amps very easy. All the wiring is in looms, tucked into the corners. In fact, having worked on these amps, I can tell you that any deviation from the original wiring arrangement could result in extra noise.

Telefunken V69a interior. Note the original wirewound resistors and ceramic-encased Siemens Sikatrop capacitors. Extreme quality here.

The original TCC oil coupling caps that came with those amps were electrically leaky. They had rubber end caps, unlike their superior military grade “Super Metalpack” cousins. The rubber had all hardened after decades. I put in some industrial polypropylene and foil caps  and replaced all the resistors, which had all drifted in value, with Kiwame carbon films, to make sure the amps worked before investing in more expensive caps. Everything measured correctly, and indeed the amps sounded fine. I then ordered some copper foil PIO caps from Jensen and put those in.

The difference was obvious and can be summed up this way: with the plastic caps, I was listening to Carol Kidd singing. With the PIO caps, Carol Kidd was singing to me. I could experience more emotion and nuances, the little inflections in tone, the little mannerisms.  The Super Metalpacks sounded a little more laid back but again had that organic quality missing from the plastic caps.

Leak TL12.1 amplifier. Note the open mains transformer signifying an earlier generation model. The author is using the older black base GEC KT66 rather than the more common brown base.

One issue with vintage amps like these is the difficulty in getting the old (no longer legal by today’s standards) power connectors. No IEC sockets on these. Fortunately, an old wireless (radio) shop in Kowloon still had a stock of these now-illegal connectors in their warehouse, which they were happy to sell to me, as well as some octal plugs that have also become hard to find. They also had a stash of NOS vacuum tubes for TV sets (the audio tubes were long gone) that they still displayed on their shop window, but that probably nobody had bought for 40 years. The shop was packed top to bottom with parts, but the two ladies who ran the store always knew where everything was. After having been in business for more than 60 years, it sadly closed its doors about 10 years ago.

 

Leak TL12.1 interior. The author has substituted the original carbon composition resistors with Kiwame carbon film capacitors, the original TCC Metalpack coupling capacitors with the TCC Super Metalpack capacitors, and the cathode bypass electrolytic capacitors with Solen polypropylene film capacitors. The author is allergic to electrolytic caps, and would not allow any to contaminate his system.

 

In the next installment, Adrian Wu’s audio journey continues with loudspeakers, amplifier and turntable comparisons, designing a dedicated listening space and much more.

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