Resurrecting my HiFi

Choosing to spend more intentional time with music.

I used to spend a lot of time listening to music. I don’t mean music in the background while working. I don’t mean a Walkman/iPod/iPhone while traveling. I don’t mean the radio while driving. Instead I mean intently and intentionally listening to music with no distractions. Usually alone.

When’s the last time you did that?

For me it used to be several hours most days. It was a kind of meditation, but it was also a kind of escape. Great music takes you places in powerful ways.

This turned into a side business of selling gear and setting up systems for clients. I was pretty good at it. Some of those systems are still in use today. I met a lot of great people along the way.

Then there were kids, and work, and home ownership, and all of that … stuff. No regrets.

About 10 years and three or four houses ago, I boxed up my system. It was a lovely thing. While I had owned many iterations of equipment, and while this configuration was far from the most expensive, it was its own thing — it was good, and it worked together, and I felt like it was *complete* in a way that few systems are. I really never intended for it to remain boxed up for so long.

Time passed. I got into home theater and its challenges. While listening to music is mostly solitary, watching video is better shared with friends and family, and so this was better aligned to having kids. Here’s one of those projects from almost 10 years ago, styled like a Moroccan tent — the screen is a 10.5' wide, 2.35:1, curved, and acoustically transparent:

Our Moroccan tent for film viewing c. 2007.

The latest house has enough rooms I can call one of them my own. Acoustically, it is a bit of a nightmare — stone floors, lots of windows, no back wall. Certainly one of the most challenging rooms I’ve worked with. But after a lot of experimentation, I’m quite happy with the way things are coming along.

I am absolutely thrilled to have my HiFi back. It is wonderful to take an hour or two to listen to an old favorite, or something new.

But getting here took a few months, and I had a few stumbles along the way:

Cleaning tube sockets. When I first turned everything on, I got nothing. Zero sound, but also the filaments on the amps weren’t lighting up. I called the designer Bruce Wenger of BWS Audio after ten years of lost contact, and he was as terrific as always. He suggested I clean the tube sockets by inserting/removing the tubes several times. That did the trick. I also rebiased the power tubes to 3.1V.

Replacing the ProAc woofer surrounds. These speakers are nearly 20 years old. A few minutes after hooking them up I noticed a poof of dust and all the bass fall out of Drake’s 9. Taking a closer look, the dreaded woofer surround rot. I had never seen this first hand, but a little Googling told me everything I needed to know. This is a relatively easy fix. I ordered the kits, opened up the speakers, removed the old surrounds, and added the new ones. Unfortunately, I misaligned the voice coil gap on one, so I had to order a second kit and redo it. Good as new, but they needed to break in again, and I think after a few hundred hours we are getting close.

Speaker placement. The ProAc 2 has an uncanny ability to cast an enormous soundstage, and to sound great from many listening positions. At this house I actually started in a different room before ultimately feeling like I could make the current room work. I’ve worked with this speaker in at least a dozen different rooms over the years, and knew nearfield listening, with tweeters on the inside edge, and toe-in straight at the listening position would be best for this room. The room is about 15 feet wide and almost 30 feet deep, and consists of two adjoining 15' x 15' rooms, with the music room six inches lower. The final location of the speakers is about 7.5 feet apart and about 10 feet from the listening area. Each is about 40 inches from the rear wall and 50 inches from the side walls. Some recordings place instruments — especially percussion — well into the yard beyond the windows. It is eery, and wonderful.

Acoustic treatments. In its raw state, recordings with lots of decay (eg, vocal pieces recorded in a church) sounded startlingly real. But studio recordings of most genres sounded dead wrong. It’s easy to overdamp a room, but if you work a step at a time you can land on an effective minimum. I started with a shag rug and thick padding that would complement the stone floor. That wasn’t quite enough, so now I’m working with these cotton bats from ATS which are very effective, easy to work with, and easy to handle.

Sub. With a room this reactive, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the ideal speaker placement is pretty far off the walls. The ProAcs overperform for their size in terms of bass, but the further they are from the walls, the less beneficial wall and floor loading will be. I’ve only ever heard a few systems where I felt the sub was effectively integrated, including the Avantgarde models (for the Unos we disconnected one of the drivers to great effect). Bruce suggested I find a sub model capable of being driven off the amplifier’s outputs, which significantly limits the options. I am pretty happy with the REL S/5 SHO. You should never hear your sub. Instead, you should miss it when it’s gone.

Making Sonos a source. Sonos is a great product. We have 7 or 8 rooms at this point. The convenience is terrific, even if we mostly listen to just one of the many supported sources. Sonos is primarily a fully-integrated product (software+hardware), but they give you a way to make it part of an existing system as a source with their Connect product. It has analog and digital outputs.

I love the way my custom CD player sounds, and wanted to make the Sonos feed through its inboard DAC, which brings us to…

Adding a digital input to my CD player

Bruce had been working on his digital front end for years. There was a harmon/kardon CD player he had modified to great success, and then a modified Bel Canto DAC that went through many iterations. I fell in love with that modified Bel Canto and one day had the opportunity to buy my all-time favorite transport, the CEC TL1.

Modified CEC TL1 w/ inboard Bel Canto DAC

This is a ridiculous thing. 40+ pounds of aluminum and steel; a belt-driven spindle mechanism; it requires two hands to operate: you slide a glass door open on top, pick up a 1 pound puck with one hand, place the CD on the spindle with the other; nearly $5k; it only reads a digital signal, you still need a DAC; and it’s gold! Of course this was made in Japan.

Years ago I had the idea of putting the outboard Bel Canto DAC inside the CEC. It seemed like there was just enough room for the board and a dedicated supply for the output stage. Bruce accepted the challenge and worked his magic. It is awesome.

But 10 years later, all my music is in the cloud, and I discover new things all the time as part of a subscription. I am wedded to the cloud. It only makes sense to bring the convenience of Sonos into the remarkable sound of this CD player.

So I first opened up the player and simply routed a 75 ohm cable from the Sonos digital out to the input on the Bel Canto board. No dice. Looking at his modifications, there was a coax hookup cable connecting the CEC’s output signal from its sub-board to the input circuit on the DAC. Once I disconnected this, the original input on the DAC worked fine. I was now listening to my music via Sonos through the CD player!

But obviously this wasn’t a long term solution — the player was in parts and I have an impetuous 3 year old. I discussed with Bruce and he agreed that I could make a switch on the outside to toggle between the Sonos and transport as digital sources. I asked him to send me some more of the coax hookup cable and a DPDT switch, which he graciously dropped in the mail a few days later.

Yes, there was a moment where I held my breath and drilled a hole into the back of the chassis. After all, in case it isn’t obvious at this point, I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM DOING! There was an existing hole for the original AES/EBU output I used for the new digital input. In the end, the switch is convenient and looks not-awful. When I want to listen to music from the internet, I just flip the switch up (cloud-wise), and when I want to listen from the CD player, I switch down. I can A/B between them pretty easily.

On the inside, the hookup was pretty simple. I soldered a bus across one side of the DPDT to make grounding easy. Middle post of the other side is the output and connects to the DAC input; outer posts connect to the input signals: you can see the new input on the far right, and the transport digital out sub-board just to the left of the switch.

Close up of the new digital input switch hookup.

In this picture you can see the full DAC board, and the coax hookup going from the switch to the digital input.

Inboard Bel Canto DAC

Stepping back, here’s what the whole thing looks like before putting it all back together. On the bottom of the image you can see the left hand side of the transport where Bruce located the regulated power supply and transformer for the DAC.

What’s next?

These projects never really end, and that’s half the fun. I still have a few things to keep me busy.

Seating. In case you missed it, there’s nowhere to sit! I still need to sort that out. While I finally got approval to get a leather sofa, I think I’ll instead go for waxed cotton. Cococo has some nice options.

Acoustics. I want to fine tune the acoustics. Those last bits of tuning can make a massive difference. I have the resources now, just need to make the time.

Digital. There’s an entirely new world of DAC options today with the advent of USB async. Is it better than what I have? That’s hard to imagine, but I want to explore.

Speakers. With a room this large, my 13 or so watts isn’t really enough for the ProAcs. I loved my Avantgarde Unos (>100dB). There are two other options that have caught my attention: the Living Voice Avatar OBX RW (94dB) and the Devore Fidelity O/96 (96 dB). All three very different designs, all three excellent options. One benefit to the Devore and the Avantgarde is that I could move back to the Bendix 6384 tube in these amps, which is a more delicate and nuanced profile than the Tung-Sol 6528A I’m using right now. They’re both great, but I recall liking the 6384 more. Would be nice to have both options.