August 7, 2010

Playlist Week of 8-07-10

* J.S. Bach: Goldberg Variations/Canons (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.1 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* J.S. Bach: The Well-Tempered Clavier, Vol.2 (Egarr) (Harmonia Mundi 2CD)
* Holloway/Mortensen/ter Linden: Garrison Church, Copenhagen 4-08-08 (FM 2CDR)
* Les Muffatti: Eglise Saint-Remacle, Brussels, Belgium 7-19-08 (FM CDR)
* Ensemble Pierre Robert: Les Couperin: Tyska kyran, Stockholm 6-08-07 (FM CDR)
* Miles Davis: Kind of Blue (Columbia SACD)
* Miles Davis & John Coltrane: Complete Columbia Recordings (selections) (Columbia 6CD)
* John Coltrane: Interplay (d.1) (Prestige 6CD)
* Stan Getz: Focus (Verve CD)
* Stan Getz: “Mickey One” (Original Soundtrack) (MGM/Verve CD)
* Sun Ra: Space Is the Place (Blue Thumb/Impulse! CD)
* Sun Ra: Discipline 27-II (Saturn LP>CDR)
* Herbie Hancock & Headhunters: Sun Plaza, Tokyo, Japan 9-28-78 (FM/boot CDR)
* Pat Metheny Group: Still Life (Talking) (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: Letter From Home (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny Group: We Live Here (Geffen CD)
* Pat Metheny: Secret Story (Geffen CD)
* Charlie Haden & Pat Metheny: Beyond the Missouri Sky (Verve CD)
* Curtis Mayfield & The Impressions: The Anthology 1961-1977 (selections) (MCA 2CD)
* The Spinners: One of a Kind Love Affair: The Anthology (selections) (Atlantic 2CD)
* Roberta Flack: Softly with these Songs: The Best of (selections) (Atlantic CD)
* Bob Marley & the Wailers: Catch a Fire (Island/MFSL CD)
* Emmylou Harris: Wrecking Ball (Elektra/Asylum CD)
* Grateful Dead: Madison Square Garden, New York, NY 9/21/82 (SBD 3CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Boston Garden, Boston, MA 9-26-91 (SBD 2CDR)
* Grateful Dead: Deer Creek Music Center, Noblesville, IN 6-23-93 (SBD 3CDR)
* Love: Forever Changes (Elektra/Rhino CD)
* Van Morrison: Moondance (Warner Bros. LP>CDR)
* Joni Mitchell: Congresgebouw, The Hague, Netherlands 4-27-83 (FM CDR)
* Chicago: VII (Columbia 2LP)
* Yes: Fragile (Atlantic/MFSL CD)
* Yes: Close to the Edge (Expanded Edition) (Atlantic/Rhino CD)
* Genesis: Nursery Cryme (Charisma – UK LP)
* Can: Can (Spoon SACD)
* Fleetwood Mac: Rumours (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Steely Dan: Aja (MCA/Cisco LP)
* Big Star: #1 Record (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Big Star: Radio City (Ardent/Classic LP)
* Wilco: Kicking Television (Nonesuch 2CD)
* The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin 5.1 (stereo) (Warner Bros. DVD-A)
* Robert Pollard: Moses On a Snail (GBV, Inc. CD)
* Beck: Sea Change (Geffen/MFSL 2LP)
* Stereolab: Dots and Loops (Drag City 2LP)
* Tortoise: Beacons of Ancestorship (Thrill Jockey LP)
* Animal Collective: Campfire Songs (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Here Comes the Indian (Paw Tracks CD)
* Animal Collective: Sung Tongs (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: Feels (Fat Cat CD)
* Animal Collective: “Grass” (Fat Cat CDEP+DVD)
* Animal Collective (with Vashti Bunyan): Prospect Hummer (Fat Cat CDEP)
* Animal Collective: “People” (Fat Cat CDEP)


My sixteen-year-old Sony receiver finally passed away after a long and painful illness. To be honest, I had been eagerly anticipating its demise for some time, anxious to finally have a legitimate excuse to replace it with something better—a lot better. When I bought the thing back in 1994, I knew nothing and went to Circuit City or some other Big Box store and purchased the most powerful receiver I could afford, even though I rarely listened to the radio and would never take advantage of the multi-speaker surround-sound modes which were, at that time, touted as “the future of hi-fi.” Rather, all that was an excuse for Sony to add expense and degrade sound quality. What a deal! It was, in truth, a piece of commoditized consumer junk. It did the job, but it always sounded brittle and overly bright and, at loud volumes, fatally congested. I chose to live with it since I’ve always been more interested in software than hardware. The problem is: software is worse than useless when the hardware malfunctions.

I should also admit that my loudspeakers were also purchased at some other Big Box store back in 1994 but they are JBL L5 6-ohm floor-standers that are perhaps less than ideal but are at least full-range speakers. I like them well enough and I am not so anxious to replace them. So any new amplifier would have to be powerful enough to drive these big and somewhat inefficient speakers. This has always been a concern. As it turned out, Music Direct was (still is) having a ½-off sale on two well-respected integrated amplifiers: the Marantz PM8003 and the Music Hall A50.2, each boasting around one hundred watts of power and include a phonograph input, which is, of course, essential for my purposes. The Marantz was tempting with its plentiful inputs, bypassable tone controls and big-name credibility. But the Music Hall offered slightly more power and an elegantly simple design that was very appealing. On its sleek, brushed steel faceplate are a mere two buttons (on/off and record monitor) and two knobs (input selector and volume). Nice. Here was truly “high-end” $1200 amp on sale for $599, too good a deal to pass up. I placed my order and nervously awaited its safe delivery.

It finally arrived on Tuesday. I hurriedly unpacked the box and set about re-wiring the system. The first thing I noticed is this thing is heavy for its modest size—almost thirty pounds! I also admired the massive, widely-spaced binding posts for the speaker connections. Very impressive. I plugged everything in and threw on The Flaming Lips: The Soft Bulletin DVD-A, one of my favorite albums of all time presented in a super-high-resolution digital format. I swooned as I spun the delectably viscous, silky smooth volume knob. Sounded great too, the louder the better with deeper bass, smoother highs than I had ever before experienced. I was excited and pleased. But then I decided to put on an LP. After turning the selector knob to “phono,” I encountered an annoying buzzzzzzz! When I increased the volume, the hum became completely overwhelming. WTF?! I changed the input back to “CD” and discovered that the noise was there too; quieter, but still noticeably present. Oh, no…was my fancy new amplifier defective?

Before succumbing to a full-blown panic attack, I decided to ask Mr. Google about my problem. Mr. Google knows everything. Sure enough, he provided answers: that 60-cycle hum was the result of what’s called a ground loop. Huh. I pored over myriad websites and learned about how they occur. (Hint: the new amp has a grounded three-prong plug while my old receiver had regular old ungrounded two-prong plug. This (combined with my cable-TV box) is the sure-fire recipe for ground loops.). Not being an electrician, a lot of what I was looking at was wholly unintelligible. What I wanted to know was this: how the hell do I fix it?

Well, one solution is to use a “cheater plug” which converts a three-prong plug into a two-prong plug by “lifting” (circumventing) the ground. Of course, this creates a serious fire hazard and can potentially damage the equipment with long-term use (whether or not actually being engulfed in flames). This was obviously not the right answer. Another solution is to completely unplug everything and carefully separate all the power cables from all the unbalanced RCA audio cables, taking special care with whichever component is causing the noise to appear. This would be a big job since I have a number of components (including the notoriously recalcitrant cable-TV box). Another solution is a so-called “ground-loop isolator” which can be attached to the audio cables to “break the ground” between the components that are causing the noise. These are apparently effective at reducing hum (or can be) but they necessitate the filtering the audio signal itself which would inevitably affect sound quality. Seems to me this would defeat the purpose of investing in a high-quality amplifier. Then I read about The Hum Exterminator (or “Hum X”) manufactured right here in the U.S.A. by a little boutique audio company called Ebtech. This small (but expensive) device purported to eliminate ground loop hum at the electrical outlet. Essentially, it does the same thing as a “cheater plug” while maintaining the safety of a fully grounded outlet. Online reviews were mixed, but many people reported positive results. It seemed worth investigating.

The next day I popped over to Guitar Center on my lunch hour and discussed my problem with Justin, the friendly and helpful manager of the pro-audio department (I love Nashville!). He suggested that because I did not have a ground loop problem prior to the introduction of the new amp, plugging it into the Hum X could be the simplest solution. “It might work,” he said. But he grinned at me and added, “then again, it might not.” At his suggestion I also picked up some cable straps in case I needed to do a full-blown re-installation (I passed on the fifteen-dollar roll of gaffer’s tape). “If the Hum X doesn’t work, you can return it and we can try some more ‘exotic’ solutions,” said Justin. I laughed uneasily and paid for the gear. Seventy dollars for a souped-up wall-wart seemed a bit steep; but if it did the job it would be more than worth it.

I was skeptical. Indeed I was convinced I had a long night ahead trying to finagle a tangle of wires into a ground-loop-free zone and would still fail to solve the problem. Even so, as soon as I got home from work I eagerly plugged the A50.2 into the Hum X and plugged it into the wall socket. The LED indicated power was present. OK, so far, so good. I held my breath as I turned on the amp. I heard…nothing! Barely the faintest hiss when pressing my ear against a tweeter! I turned the selector knob to “phono.” No buzzing!—even at full volume! It was a miracle! I grabbed the Mobile Fidelity LP of Beck’s luscious-sounding Sea Change album, slapped it on the turntable and cranked it up. It was glorious! I slumped on the sofa and bathed in the marvelous sound. Ahhh. My trusty Thorens TD 280 MK IV had never sounded better. After spinning a bunch of LPs, I decided to see how a plain-vanilla CD would sound. John Coltrane’s Prestige recordings were simply but superbly recorded by Rudy Van Gelder and are as smooth and tasty as sweet cream butter. I put on disc one of Interplay, a collection of sideman dates and jam sessions. The sound through the A50.2 was warm, three-dimensional and utterly lacking in the kind of glassy glaze I was used to with my old receiver, even in its better days. At “realistic” volume, the music really seemed to come alive and at way-too-loud levels, the music still sounded clean and dynamic. Wow! Lovely Lizzy (who was already smitten with the A50.2’s aesthetic beauty) commented that “the sound is more cohesive, less like hearing it coming from two separate speakers.” Yes, exactly!

Well, there you have it. The Music Hall A50.2 has produced an obvious and significant improvement in the sound quality of our humble stereo system. One day I’ll take the time to organize the mess of cables in order to reduce the noise floor even further; in the meantime, I am completely captivated by the exquisite sound coming out of the old JBLs. It’s like having a whole new record collection! Moreover, I’m blown away by the ingenious effectiveness of the Hum X. I unreservedly recommend it to anyone who finds themselves confronted with that gnarly and unpredictable phenomenon called the ground loop. It’s not cheap, but it works!

1 comment:

Sam said...

Pretty suspenseful post, Rodger! Glad to hear it all worked out. Sounds like some amazing sounds will be appearing in your living room!

Here's my lists for last week:

Playlist 2010-08-09

*Duke Ellington: The Ellington Suites
*McKinney's Cotton Pickers: The Complete McKinney's Cotton Pickers, Great Alternatives 1928/31
*Nine Strings Trio: The Sounding Table
*Sun Ra Quartet: Other Voices, Other Blues
*Cecil Taylor Unit: One Too Many Salty Swift and Not Goodbye
*Cecil Taylor Quartet: 1998-12-05 Yoshi's, Oakland (CDR) disc 2
*Cecil Taylor Quartet: 1998-12-06 Yoshi's, Oakland (CDR) disc 1
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-02-11 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR) disc 2
*Henry Threadgill & Zooid: 2010-02-12 Jazz Gallery, NYC (CDR) disc 2
*Kevin Ayers: Shooting at the Moon
*Kevin Ayers: The BBC Sessions 1970-1976, disc 1
*Bollywood compilation, from soundtracks at "Music From the Third Floor" disc 14
*Jeff Byrd: Snag (selections)
*Elvis Costello & the Attractions: Imperial Bedroom
*Dark Carpet: selections
*Grateful Dead: Steppin' Out With the Grateful Dead (discs 2 & 4)
*Grateful Dead: 1972-09-10 Hollywood (CDR)
*Grateful Dead: View From the Vault II (selections)
*Guided By Voices: Human Amusements at Hourly Rates
*Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. (deluxe ed., remastered) disc 1
*Sonny & the Sunsets: Tomorrow is Alright
*Sybyl: selections
*Various artists: The King R&B Box Set, disc 3
*Various artists: Sappy (CDR compilation)
*Yes: 1974-02-18 Madison Square Garden, disc 1 ("Tales" side 1 & 2) (CDR)

Reading log 2010-08-09

*Barth, John: Coming Soon!!! (in progress)
*Tanner, Tony. Prefaces to Shakespeare (in progress)
*Theobald, Lewis. Double Falsehood (Arden Shakespeare ed.) (in progress)
*Heatley, David. My Brain is Hanging Upside Down (in progress)
*Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side (in progress)