Bragging about my system

hifi-impianto_hifiI assembled my current system around the English loudspeakers TDL Studio 0.5 I bought in late 1991. The loudspeakers are the main responsible of a system’s sound, therefore they should be chosen first and should be paired to the right amplifier. I strongly believe a HiFi system should be able to reproduce the whole audible range correctly. At the same time, I’m aware the content of most recording lacks much of the lower frequency range (under 40 Hz). Bookshelves, so fashionable for many years, just cannot do it because of their limited size. The TDL loudspeakers use the “transmission line” technology to charge the low frequency drivers in order to obtain a low range of notable quality and extension in rather small boxes. The TDL Studio 0.5 can reproduce the audio range from 30 Hz on in an exceptional way. In doing so, in no way they affect the mid-high range as many bookshelves fan would fear. Lower frequencies are seldom heard but felt – in your body, in your “guts”: a “full range” loudspeaker system has a different impact. One should start assembling a system from the loudspeakers, so I had chosen mine. I found that the amplifier they would deserve was an Italian integrated: the Unison Research Mood who’s playing the English boxes rather well since the end of 1991, still cheering my listening session today.

The beginnings

hifi-augustaMy passion for High Fidelity started when I was rather young, around 12 years of age. An uncle of mine bought a stereo system from the Italian brand Augusta, an amplified turntable with two small speakers (at left). Thinking of it today, it was certainly not a well sounding system, but when I was at my uncle’s I never ceased listening to their records as I was fascinated by the stereo sound “producing different sounds from two speakers”. hifi-technicsM7When they upgraded their system with a Technics coordinate (not yet real HiFi but still working at their home), they gave the old Augusta turntable to me and suddenly I was the happiest teenager around. I could load several records at once, stacked one above the other. The Augusta would have put them down in sequence. It was fully automatic and could also play 78 RPM records. It had a double stylus: by moving a small lever turning it on the other side of the cartridge, the 78 RPM stylus was exposed. It also sported some DIN inputs. In fact, a few years later I added up a Technics M7 cassette deck, also still working at a friend of mine’s (at right). 23058861396_29e238ef15_oAfter a while, the same couple of uncles gave me an Eagle T2008 tuner. At their place, I had experienced my first radio listenings. I still remember it well, with its beautiful blue backlights, the small arrows that would light up when the station was tuned correctly, the elegant wooden lateral bars at its sides. That was my first system. Hours and hours of uninterrupted listening, spoiled records, beautiful memories.

hifi-mitsubishidp5Then it was my father’s turn to make gifts: he bought me a real separates system. Finally, each module of a different brand. usually this is done by choosing the best affordable module for each task, a source, an amplifier and a pair of loudspeakers. In our case it was just about choosing the most affordable units. That’s it. After long hours of negotiations, we got out of the shop with a Mitsubishi DP-5 turntable (at right), fully automatic, direct drive, strobo light speed control; if I remember well the cartridge was from AKG. The integrated amp was even cheaper than the turntable: it was a humble Kenwood KA-30 (at left)
kenwood ka30that would have driven a pair of cheap speakers by Formula 80 (unknown Roman manufacturer). I remember they had a safety system against misuse: a small red button jumped out when they were forced beyond limits; by pushing it they would resume functioning. The cassette deck was still the Technics, that lived longer than the whole system. Again, a lot of music and beautiful youth memories. The quality was low, but it didn’t matter then. Good times…

I took the system with me when my family moved 250 km northeast from the city of Campobasso to Rome, as I started my university studies. There I had a couple of friends to discuss about High Fidelity, visiting shops for listening and dreaming about it. From those discussions I understood that maybe my system’s the weaker point were the loudspeakers. I couldn’t afford new ones, so one of those friends of mine, a very good technician, convinced me to try the DIY way. Unfortunately, I took the inspiration from an ancient project by Genesis. My father built the wooden boxes which, although sturdy, were larger than deeper, as it was common in the 70s. The modern idea is making them as narrow as possible (I mean deeper than larger). Furthermore, I undertook a complicated 3-way crossover design using a dedicated software on a Commodore 64. The project included a large Ciare woofer in a closed box, a Pearless midrange and a Seas tweeter. The components were really good, except I had to live with a cheap Pioneer tweeter for budget reasons. But the crossover maintained the same design (and some mistake I wasn’t aware of) in the hope one day I could have afforded the Seas; so I never completed the project and I’ll never know how it would have sounded.

My second system

hifi-philips_cd16

Then the CD players came! All around me the first units were appearing. Being on a budget as usual, I was the last among my friends to buy one. Like many at the time, I didn’t imagine the Compact Disc was not that miracle it was supposed to be. Like many, I had a cheap turntable placed on a desk to carry out its hard work of extracting music from the grooves; I made no attempt whatsoever to adjusting, tuning, setting up. Like most people, I didn’t know anything about it. Therefore, the lacking of background noises when playing a CD captured me too. I happened to buy a cheap (again) Philips CD-16 player. I was an avid reader of HiFi magazines and I tried to read between the lines to understand what products really distinguished themselves among the plethora of entry-level units sold at the time. hifi-jvc_xl_z431It appeared that a new technology developed by Philips for the D/A conversion sections was able to deliver an amazingly good sound from low priced CD players. It was the “bitstream” technology of the so-called 1 bit converters. It really seemed their performance was really good if compared to the price of the CD players fitted with those converters. I put my eyes on a JVC player someone believed a giant killer. hifi-onkyo a-8200 blogaIt was the XL-Z431 (at right), with Philips bitstream DAC for less than 200 thousand lire! I also bought an Onkyo A-8200 integrated amp (at left) critics were praising for its value at a price around 400 thousands, if I remember well. I found a buyer for the CD-16 but the Kenwood amp was unsellable. Finally I had a player-amp pair worth the name! The quality advance was enormous, in spite of the naive DIY loudspeakers project and for many years I enjoyed it a lot.

Today

After my graduation I collected a lot of tips from several happy relatives. I invested them in a MIDI keyboard that was flying off the shelves at the time: the Korg M1. I play guitar and I used to do jam sessions with friends in rented basements we got out from with our cassette demo. Nothing special, really. I was planning to create MIDI bases on the computer to play them through the keyboard/sampler so I could play guitar along with a virtual band. I am no keyboard player, but I had some fun for a couple of months. After a promising job interview, I was planning to move to Milan. I figured that a new job wouldn’t have left me much time to work on MIDI bases, nor playing and programming. Maybe it would have been smarted to focus on a really good HiFi system, my real passion, by trying to upgrade the loudspeakers, the real weak point.

I started my search by browsing the usual magazines, too. I stumbled upon a rather entusiastic review of a pair of transimission line loudspeakersfrom the English manufacturer TDL (Transducers Development Limited): the Studio 1, which had a shocking frequency response for their size. The whole audible range from 20 to 20000 hz was included and with an embarassing quality for a less than 1 m tall box. Unbelievable! A thorough transmission line design was making this possible: a labyrinth inside the wooden box allows an ideal low frequancy charge with no need for a very large box. The price was really good for that kind of project and the level of quality achieved, but by no means I could afford it. Like magic, a month later, in the same magazine, I found an even more entusiastic review about the lesser TDL model, the Studio 0.5. They were even smaller (!), extending “only” down to 30 hz – almost a miracle. The price was still high, but I could make it. I had to listen to them! I went around Rome in search for HiFi stores. Finding them was not easy. I quickly found the Studio 1 in a couple of stores but they immediately explained me how my small Onkyo was not in the same league as the Studio 0.5. They were not easy to drive loudspeakers, they would need an amplifier capable of high currents. They showed me fine English amps like Mission Cyrus, Naim Nait, Audiolab, Musical Fidelity, Arcam.I sold the keyboard at he same price I’d bought it and finally I found a place where to listen to the Studio 0.5, by chance the same where I bought my CD Player and amp. Unfortunately, they didn’t have all those amps I had been advised to listen to. They hooked the TDLs to the only one from the list thay had at disposal, a Musical Fidelity, if I remember well. I really liked what I heard. Yes, it should have been obvious since there was no comparison to the units they were supposed to replace at home. But the seller, good at his own job, told me such classy loudspeakers deserved even more. hifi-studio05They showed me an Italian amplifier I often saw in the HiFi shops I visited. Its shape was unmistakable, with its very elegant wooden chassis. It was the Unison Research Mood, which I had never considered since it was more than I could afford. Naturally, they made me listen to it, no obligations. The trick worked, since my father, who was with me, saw me smiling while listening to the set up and offered to pay for the difference. The TDLs really impressed me. I like a good, extended, not pumped and unrealistic low range. The Studio 0.5’s performance in that was astonishing. The key was the right amplifier. Miss the right combination and you’re in trouble. The whole system performance will be jeopardized. This is fundamental. The elegant Italian integrated amp drove the TDLs with comfort, never perturbed even during the most demanding tracks. Some workers of the sector later told me that the Mood was one of the few integrates that really was able to make the even bigger TDL Studio 1 sing well. I sold the small but honest Onkyo and since December 1991 my HiFi system is centered around this British-Italian couple.

As digital source many players alternated in my system. I had to upgrade my CD player almost immediately. At first I had to be satisfied with a Pioneer PD-8500 Reference, than the very good Cambridge Audio CD6. Today the digital tasks are carried out by the Oppo 980H multiplayer and the main source has become the old and gorgeous Thorens TD-160 turntable, as I’m back into vinyl since several years ago. However, as the bribing scandal known as “Tangentopoli” exploded in Italy, I lost my first job and I never moved to Milan. A long, sad period of unemployment was beginning, alternating to small jobs. Anyway, I have a very good system going today, I’m very satisfied even if it has a certain age. The old turntable from the 70s aside (those decks do not suffer aging) amp and speakers are from late 1991! What ages with time are capacitors and coils, but it wouldn’t be expensive to have them replaced. The most delicate part are the subwoofer suspensions made of rubber that can often be corroded by humidity. It is easily replaced, too, no big deal. A of now, nothing really happened to my units. It is almost certain that modern technology would allow for a good system update. I’m sure the general sound quality would improve with newer components. But until I’ll have to cope with serious problems I don’t feel like messing with the December 1991 core of my system, unless unlikely occasions should arise.