Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Electrical upgrades: two more steps forward

Yesterday I had two important upgrades to my electrical system for audio.

 #1 my house is now actually grounded (the old ground rod had gotten disconnected decades ago) with a new ground rod connected with 4 gauge wire (twice the diameter of the previous 8 gauge wire which connected to nothing).

#2 I replaced the Oyaide purple/gold outlet with a NOS Pass & Seymore 5262A (the legendary outlet recommended by the late Bob Crump).  The 5262A has much more consistent grip, holds plugs straight into the wall, whereas the Oyaide would always let them sag a bit.

Since these were both done during the same visit by electrician, I can't separate the effects (though I think the outlet upgrade was less important, I had previously found a trick to maximize performance of the Oyade).  But combined, the effect was that a piece I had been listening to previously, the Bach 4 Organ Concertos by E Power Biggs on SACD, went from being rather unlistenable to satisfactory (though it's still pretty noisy).

In addition, I added a new whole-house surge protector.  This is a new Intermatic device which shunts across the power lines (not in series) through a 50A breaker.  I did not expect this to have any positive effects on audio sound quality, but hopefully it will help preserve all my electronic equipment, including amplifiers which I often plug straight-into-the-wall with no surge-protecting outlet strip.  I would certainly not plug my Krell into such a strip, it might blow up under the 20+ amp instantaneous draw of the Krell.  (Just because it's on a 20A line, doesn't mean instantenous draw is limited to 20A.)

At least the whole house surge protector did not have any negative affects on audio I had detected so far.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Big Electrical Upgrade Today!

Bigger than expected, it turns out.  But it's always that way, because the old stuff was always worse than you thought...  Often way worse.  Today, I discover, that my house is not actually grounded.  There was no actual connection to an 8 foot copper ground rod as the electrical code requires.  I was only "grounded" through the wiring from the power company.  That kind of indirect grounding is potentially hazardous, illegal, marginally effective, and electrically noisy.

There was a ground wire, coming out of the power box, but it wasn't actually connected to anything, it was just touching the ground.  Funny, I remember it has been that way since I've owned the house.  I didn't realize that the 10ga ground wire was THE ground wire.  I thought it was just an unnecessary ground for an old and long-since-canceled cable TV line.

The little outside corner where the electrical service connects has been re-fenced 3 times, re-landscaped about countless times, dug up endlessly by my late mother's dogs, etc.  And that's just since we've owned the property.  The old ground rod is probably there, somewhere, but nearly impossible to find without messing up the underground wiring for the cable companies, the phone company, and the electric utility.

I hate underground utilities!  My back yard is marked by a big power company transformer, and cable and phone company wiring is anywhere within a 10 foot easement along the back of my property.  Then there's another 5 foot easement along the back fence leading up to the small corner where the electrical and telecommunications services connect to my house.

As a result of this, whenever a new cable or phone company comes along, or whenever the power company decided they need to upgrade their lines or transformers (which happened a few years ago), or whenever some additional power or telecomm repair is needed, they need to tear up my back yard.  And they usually don't put it back together very well, often leaving big clumps of dirt and open seams that attract weeds and volunteer trees.  I've gotten better at complaining and demanding that they replace destroyed lawn with sod, but then I've got the problem of getting the sod to actually take root, which is nearly impossible in a hot Texas summer.

But despite that, I've had my cable service (now used exclusively for internet) go out many many times.  With the previous cable company this happened annually.  Now I understand why.  It's because the cable company line that actually runs to my house is only allowed to be 3 inches (!) deep so it doesn't interfere with the power company lines which are more than a foot deep.  And often after a heavy rainstorm or hot summer you can see the lines right on the surface, indicating that they didn't even really get it 3 inches deep.  Pull a few weeds and you can break your cable.  (That happened to me last year.)

Anyway, today I'm getting a new 8 foot copper ground rod connected with 4 gauge wire (much bigger than the old 8 gauge wire).  That was not planned, but clearly needed.

What I mainly wanted to do was install a new whole-house surge protector.  Unfortunately the Leviton unit I bought is for indoor use only, so electrician suggested a couple different kinds.  I asked for the best one, and asked that it be installed the best possible way.  (Never the cheapest, here, always the best!)

So he chose a unit, installed inside the existing service box.  That requires moving several breakers to a new sub-box.  The alternate and cheaper method would be to keep the old breakers and add the surge in a new sub-box, but then the surge wouldn't work quite as well.

I'm replacing the existing 20A breaker on my dedicated audio line with a GFCI unit to protect against getting electrically shocked.  My living room system is so complicated, far flung, and sometimes used to experimentally test equipment and modifications.  I'm careful, and haven't gotten shocked in 40 years, but you never know when something might go wrong, so a GFCI is a very good idea.  I wanted to add GFCI breakers to many other circuits (the new standard is to have GFCI on *all* household circuits along with AFI also) but that would require replacing all my electrical service panels because I now use mostly half width breakers and GFCI's are standard width.  Basically, there isn't any more room.

And fixing an outdoor light.

And, replacing the outlet on my dedicated audio line with an even better outlet.  More about that in my next message.

Meanwhile, I suspect that having a new solid ground will make all my electrical lines quieter.  As well as safer.  Surge protectors require a really good ground.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Nothing beats a live Symphony Orchestra !!!!!

Wow !!!  Saturday night I heard the most fantastic music, with the most fabulous sound.  My spine was tingling.  And it was all there in front of me, from my 2nd row center-left seat at the Majestic Theater in San Antonio, Texas for The San Antonio Symphony.

Actually, this happens to me 15 or so times a year because I have a full season subscription, now in its 11th year.  This is the one expenditure I am most proud of, to be both enjoying and supporting such a wonder!  No "affluenza" guilt here!  I think it's important to buy season subcriptions, otherwise you'll forget about it and not go often.  Even if you miss a few, it's still a good deal (and my symphony allows you to exchange subscription tickets for other dates).  Compared with what people like me spend on other things (such as oddball barely working tuners) it's incredibly cheap.  I can't understand why all my music loving friends don't subscribe; they're fools if they don't.  I wonder if some people have trouble justifying paying for just an experience instead of a piece of stuff they'll keep lugging around forever.  But in my experience, it's all experience, even a piece of stuff is really just the set of experiences you have with it (serious audiophiles know that, and treasure every moment, starting with unwrapping the box).  Another argument I hear is the whine that it's better to hear (or re-hear) a classic performance, which may be the best performance ever.  But each different performance has it's unique glories, and once the quality of performance reaches a certain level (which it has here) you don't need more to have a great joy.

There's also something very special about congregating with your friends and soon-to-be acquaintances to hear a live performance with real living musicians.  It's spiritual, like going to church.  In fact, the San Antonio Symphony is my church.  It's the one I attend the most, believe in the most, and proselytize for.

Now I happen to be very lucky in many ways, including living in a city with such a wonderful orchestra.  I'm not kidding or just boasting with tribal pride when I say it is one of the world's best.  Every guest performer, conductor, etc., says that, and they're right.  I've heard some of the greatest, such as the Berlin Philharmonic, which I heard last year in Chicago, ok, I admit, that was the very best performance I've ever heard live, in the best music hall I've been in.  But actually,  my local band is nearly as good.  I believe that global levels of musicianship have never been higher.  So probably the professional orchestra close to you is about as good too.  Did you know more people attend professional classical music performances than professional football?  It's usually a lot cheaper too (though my single ticket to hear the Berlin Philharmonic in Chicago was way up there, but that was a very special treat, once in a lifetime kind of thing, though hopefully not for me).

I've even heard from an insider that many of the musicians are there mainly for one reason: to hear that incredible, truly incredible sound themselves, from right in the middle of it.  Unfortunately, for many of them, the pay may not be all that great.  Considering what we and our stingy-to-arts (but not sports) city government pay, we really do not deserve to have such a wonderful orchestra, but there it is anyway.

Last night's performance feature three fabulous works of music, revealed through the kind of glorious sound no reproduction can match.  There was also a fourth (the first played) that I didn't much care for, but that's just part of the game.  It helps to hear what you don't like to understand what you like.  And eventually, you may like that also; our musical tastes are dynamic, and with music a little familiarity usually helps rather than hurting.

The performance began with Stravinsky's Symphony in C.  Now I'm a fan of Stravinsky's most famous works such as Rite of Spring.  But this piece just seemed way too austere.  I often feel that way about Prokofiev.  When I once made this criticism (wrt a work by Prokofiev) to a great music director, he didn't deny it was austere, but said to me "austerity is one of the essential facets of life we must explore in music".  I think austerity is fine for solo instruments (such as wailing in a cave or huge cathedral) or small groups, but not for an orchestra.  By it's nature, a Symphony Orchestra is over-the-top, larger-than-life, full of potential passion and power.  If it's not reaching the heights of passion, it's a waste.  My favorite composers are the ones who do that best, like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff.

Funny that when I was a kid, I greatly preferred Bach and Mozart to Tchaikovsky.

But then followed the great Concerto for the Left Hand for Piano and Orchestra by Ravel.  The pianist was the incredible (and amazingly small) Ryo Yanagitani, who played with incredible power with just one hand.  That being the left had, it had command of most of the keyboard, but tended to focus on powerful lower mids and bass.

The second half of the concert featured the essential Gershwin pieces Rhapsody in Blue and American in Paris, with Yanagitani playing the piano in Rhapsody.  It was incredibly delightful to hear these pieces with the full power, spaciousness, thereness of a real symphony orchestra.  Gershwin is pure Bad Boy (see 20B review below) in these works, challenging us to give up all our preconceived ideas about rhythm.  He swings and swangs and the same time.

In addition, every time I hear these great Gershwin pieces, the motifs sound a bit different.  Like vocal accents, no two players or orchestras play them exactly alike.  So if you always hear a particular version the live will always sound slightly different, revealing different nuances in its composition.

I once heard a piano roll version which had been originally recorded by Gershwin himself.  (Yes, that was with the San Antonio Symphony a few years back.)  Then, it shocked me how different Gershwin's personal version was from the version in my mind (from some classic recording I can't remember the name of).  Yanagitani's version was closer to Gershwin's than the old classic recording I remember.  But it seems no two performances are exactly alike.  Which is one more reason you have got to be THERE.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My tuner collection with comments

Here is a list of tuners I have with comments about their performance (from a posting earlier this year at AudioKarma before I got Marantz 20B):

Sony XDR-F1HD (x3) one has full RadioXTuners analog output mod (original)
***** This is my current main tuner and the ONLY tuner in my supertuner collection which gets KPAC without a birdie. I pipe this everywhere in house with Sonos and use wireless remote extenders for control (tricky setup in high RFI environment). Main system gets direct feed. I have been thinking about advanced mods based on external tube-buffered passive filter.

McIntosh MR 78 with Modafferi mod (2000) Nice tuner for DX'ing, sound can be annoying (unforgiving).

Fisher MPX-100 multiplex purchased for use with MR78 and others to give more pleasant sound (purchased recently, not yet hooked up).

Sony 730ES very nice sounding tuner, just tested recently. Might be convertable to LA3450 MPX adapter...

Yamaha TX-1000U my previous reference tuner, possibly still sounds nicer than Sony XDR-F1HD sometimes. Very good DX'ing performance also.

Kenwood KT-8300 Nice sounding tuner, seems to have more "passion" than digital tuners, but also way more noise. Good DX'ing.

Kenwood 600T Very nice unflappable mellow and rich sound. Very useful in antenna tuning because it has strength meter calibrated in 10dB increments. This has held fort in my Kitchen for several years now, hope to replace with MR78+Fisher combo. Very impressive looking (you know you've arrived when you see this).

Yamaha T-85. Former bedroom tuner, now needs service. Nicer DX'ing features than TX-1000U, but otherwise similar performance. Mine doesn't sound as good and constantly drops computer lock.

Kenwood KT-7500 This was my reference from 78-90. Unfortunately I grew to hate it's not-quite-good-enough performance, but I can't seem to let go of it either.

Onkyo 9090 MkII. Main tuner from 91-'01. Never has sounded quite right to me, slightly muffled, though it performs very well and has good features, except you can't actual tune new stations on the remote (which has always bugged me).

Sumo Charlie (non-handled) OK, but not much more.

Sony 5000F Mine needs repair because meters are broken and have to tune by ear. Pleasant sound, decent performance for 1-bandwidth tuner. But I wouldn't say it outclasses everything else as some prices would suggest.

Sansui TU-9900. Similar to KT-8300, but nicer looking, possibly slightly better sound, mine needs repair.

Fisher KM-60/61 (x2) Very nice sound, amazingly sometimes sounds quieter than 600T. Local stations only.

Kenwood KT-1000 (1980) Nice sound, clunky controls, currently in donation pile.

What I'd like to try: Marantz 10B, 20B, 150, 2130, 19 receiver (but they always sell for more than I want to pay). Kenwood L-02T (dream), L-1000T, KT-6040 tuner (on the way soon). Sequerra with Panalyzer (Model One or D/S Reference, would prefer later D/S Reference model because I suspect it has better sound quality, but not worth buying w/o panalyzer).

I'm still operating with indoor antennas (sigh). I have APS-13 and others, but not installed. The outdoor construction project is mind boggling for me, though I have most everything picked out.

As it looked like I might never get a Sequerra with Panalyzer, I instead bought RF Spectrum Analyzer cheap, has problems but actually works adequately. It's actually a cell phone tester, but has spectrum analyzer option, HP8922M. Scope barely functions (crooked ebay seller) but video out works. Just purchased recently and was helpful in debugging problems in 413Mhz remote extenders, also noticed small adjacent channel blip which may explain birdie for KPAC.

I also have nice Tektronix 465M (no fan) for use with tuners, but don't use it much. These are great (if you get a working one, mine is rock solid) and I shoulda got a bunch of them when they were cheep. Also have Tek 475, ST1000A, ST1700B, and PC-based sound analyzer with RightMark, SpectraPlus, and Juli@ 192Khz soundcard.

Marantz 20B Service Manual

Ordered 20B service manual from AG Tannenbaum with mail and email delivery.  Also ordered replacement bulb for the stereo indicator (2187D) from ATR lighting.  I've read that replacing the bulb is a big pain, and sometimes the driver transistor goes bad, probably best with changing out load resistor to higher value.

Meanwhile called electrician to install new Leviton whole house surge suppressor I bought from Smarthome.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Fixing Remote Extenders

The remote extender (partly to control my Sony XDR-F1HD tuner from all rooms in my house) saga continues.  I finally worked up the nerve to take apart one of these little quasi-pyramids (the Radio Shack version RF Receiver).  I had read elsewhere on the web that the circuit board is not directly connected to the antenna.  Some guy wired it straight to the antenna and range increased from 8 feet to 50 feet or whatever else he needed.

He was right, sort-of.  Actually, the antenna is connected through a very tiny capacitor, a few picofarads, but it doesn't look like a capacitor, it looks like a piece of zip cord, with one wire of the pair being connected to the circuit board, and the other wire being connected to the antenna, furthermore most of the rest of the zip cord was removed, leaving only about 1 inch in which the two wires overlap.  Thus there is no direct copper connection to the antenna, just a 1 inch stretch where the two wires are in proximity.  This forms a small capacitor, though also with self-inductance, possibly more significant than the capacitance.

It's not clear why they did it this way, but it's clear it's not a manufacturing mistake (as the other poster suspected), this was clearly done intentionally.  Hooking the antenna up with a straight piece of wire did seem to improve reception a little.  But the biggest improvement for me came from relocating the antenna to a very high position on the outside of a kitchen cabinet.   For temporary (which really won't last long) it is held in place with clear duct tape.  I need to nail it in place this week because the duct tape is now sagging after two weeks.  I can also staple the wires, and get the top fitted back on the remote extender with some modifications to the plastic case with a drill or dremel.

One possible reason why the antenna is hooked up indirectly is to minimize RFI emitted by the unit.  One can imagine that the original designer didn't factor that in well enough, but when they were trying to get FCC approval they added this little hack to the design to get it to pass inspection.  Remember that I am modifying the receiver and not the transmitter, but even receivers emit RFI from their superheterodyne oscillator.  Then they didn't bother to change the "100 foot" range claimed specification, even though it could not longer meet that.

Another alternative is the funky piece of zipcord is actually a "balun" which reduces standing waves in the antenna.  In this case, removing the balun and wiring the antenna directly should reduce range, not increase it.  In my case, it did seem like it did increase range slightly even keeping antenna in same place, though I could be mistaken.  But moving the antenna to a position I can't move the whole unit is better still.

I did pull out my 500khz-10Ghz RF meter to check it out.  The RF produced by the modified remote extender receiver is just barely above the background.  I can find much greater RFI generators in my house that are presumably within FCC specifications. So I think this modification is not likely to cause actual interference for anyone.