Saturday, July 11, 2015

Top Tuners

I have a winning bid on a Scott 310D as I am writing this, though I may not win the final contest since usually at least half of the action, if not more, happens in the last 3 seconds.  (Update: I won, and now I'm wondering if I'm nuts in having bought two new tuners in a week, the other one being an analog tuner with motorized control--the Kenwood KT-413.  But anyway here is a great Scott Tuner history to show the 310D as Scott's best ever mono tuner.)

But I've been thinking about the inherent superiority of analog tuning via variable air capacitors, and  it occurs to me that at it's time, the 310D was the best tuner made.  OK, well there was also the REL Precedent, so maybe not quite.  But compared to anything not rare beyond unknowium.

Then after that, I skip the 10B which I consider beautiful tuner with a few technical deficiencies, and zoom up to the Marantz 20B, which I consider the best Marantz tuner.  Interestingly the 20B is a very wideband tuner for a single IF width tuner.  It relies as much on capture ratio as selectivity.  Same was true of the Scott, but I wonder about the 10B.  So I'm thinking the 20 (which became 20B) was Dick Sequerra's 2nd(or 3rd) try for the ring, and he tried a bit differently, more like the Scott had…, and won, in the eyes of revisionist 20b-is-the-best-Marantz/Sequerra'ers like me, with only his 20B on the list of best sounding and performing tuners.

So the next I'd nominate would be the Sansui Tu 9900, a gem, followed by their TuX1.  After that, the Pioneer F-26--a tuner barely appreciated at the time, barely advertised, only available for in instant and then replaced by a series of successively worse F models.

Kenwood in this accounting is slightly behind at first, finally producing the very well performing KT-8300 following the 9900 but not exceeding it, and not being as good as TuX1, and their pulse count tuners 600T and KT917 being a design mistake…poor signal capture and sound.   But at leas the KT-8300 was a fine tuner, and then the L-02T and L-1000T were Kenwoods winners, with the L-02T being possibly still the best tuner ever, and the L-1000T not far behind for a "digital" tuner (using varactor diodes, sadly, being somewhat behind the ultimate performance of air capacitor analog tuners in principle).  Latter Magnum's I have not heard good things about, but the big Accuphases with far superior pulse-count system might be OK, I'm still suspicious of that as with any delta sigma system.

Of these, I now own 310D, 20B, 9900, F-26, KT-8300, L-1000T, a short list of many one-time neglected best-at-the-time tuners.  (Plus many others perhaps less neglected, but not a 10B or Sequerra.)  Only one on that list, the L-1000T, uses varactors, but in such a high end design that their limitations are finally accommodated.

For the 310D, I have a Fisher MPX-100, considered a better sounding MPX than the ones made by Scott, though I consider all tube MPX to be somewhat limited, and a repurposed analog multiplier from a Yamaha T-85 tuner might do better (Katz does this, connecting his REL to a Yamaha MPX).  With the 310D/MPX-100 I have a potential 10B killer, and certainly with the 310D/T-85.

Along with the 10B, another mistaken effort was the Sequerra, in which Dick failed to recognize the inherent inferiority of varactors.  It seems almost no one did at the time, except perhaps McIntosh which was still doing analog air-capacitor tuning in the 1980's with the MR80.  The benefit is not obvious with test signals, only with real world reception, where the front end noise reduction--air capacitors have about zero noise and infinite overload--becomes enormously important in preserving the integrity of each signal.  Analog tuning had died in the vine primarily to the success of DIGITAL! over all marketing of the 1980's and 90's.  But it had already started a comeback with Magnum Dynalab, and is now in full swing with the unending lives of classic tuners, with guides such as fmtunerinfo (to which even I have contributed a bit).

(The Absolute Sound, in perhaps the first issue I picked up, #5 or #6, reviewed top tuners of the time, including the Sequerra Model One.  They declared the Sequerra the winner.  But here is the catch: they used closed circuit FM transmitter, not real world reception.  Then, interestingly, they published a page of heresay about the 10B, all of it negative, not unlike the negative comments at fmtunerinfo: overload, birdies, noise, bloated bass, softened highs, just not that good.  But those were *not* based on the closed circuit listening test which the Sequerra had won.)

Now one thing I wonder.  Frequent blogger and one time radio station engineer John Byrnes bought a 10B as soon as they came on the market.  He took it home and found overload problems all over the dial, and took it back to Marantz.  They made some changes, he took it home, same problem.  He ended up returning the 10B (or was it 10???).  Meanwhile he never had any problems with his Scott tuners until he finally replaced his 4310 (or was it 310e?) with a McIntosh MR80.

Well, the adjustment of the 10B didn't work for Byrnes, but what if it did work for a few others?  What if Marantz actually upgraded the alignment formula, and/or had different formulas for different problems.  Well in that case, even from the factory, there wasn't just one 10B.  I wonder about that possibility, and also Saul Marantz's claim that it was the development of the 10B which lead to Marantz the company running out of money, and part of the reason behind his decision to sell the company, just after the 10B came to market.  I'm sure Dick Sequerra was well paid, but not THAT well paid.  But what if part of that "Development" cost was the readjustment of tuners, and given that Marantz did sell the company, and if he may have thought of that before, or not, it would be best to be sure everyone was happy one way or another with their 10B, even if that required some extra "service" because of certain touchy aspects of the design, aspects which Dick Sequerra would have been motivated to fix in the next version.  Well the 10B and it's reputation did the job, Saul got his price for the company, but for latter day users, it may not be, and generally is not considered, the solution to common urban reception problems.  If you want the classic Marantz Sound by Sid Smith, then it works, but not as the ultimate tuning machine…according to reports I hear…and I have bid on many 10B's anyway.

It seems like the Sumo Charlie is another attempt, like the Sequerra, the re-create the 10B's greatness (on a signal it is capable of receiving well) with high Q tuned LC filters.  But the high Q tuned filters are much more sensitive than lossy filters to the noise in the varactor front end, the same problem Dick had with the Sequerra tuner, and have reachable overload levels.  Bongiorno said to me once that he also used a single 280 kHz ceramic filter "to get all the crap way out there."  But I see that as not being enough.  I would have expected a Bongiorno-adjusted (rack handled) Charlie to have very low distortion on a good clear channel however.  It just has the usual problems caused by weak front end in the presence of difficult reception.  The 10B had a relatively poor front end actually, the 20B was much improved.  But even the 10B had a weak capacitor front end, which is still better than a midrange varactor front end.

Just this weekend I removed my non-handled Sumo Charlie from the pile, hoping to sell next weekend.  It's a fine tuner, actually.  It sounds perfectly fine on all the stations I normally listen to, including weak college stations.  I have second thoughts about selling it.  But for the same price on eBay nowadays you can get many fine tuners, such as a Pioneer F90 I see tonight.

Meanwhile, my newly acquired 310D is obviously a station puller, but needs a little work.

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