Casual Listening


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fullsizeoutput_16fcAudiophiles are often fiddling with their system to wring out the very best sound possible. I know the drill. And it can be frustrating. But let us not forget why we have all this expensive hardware. It is for the software – I mean the music. There are days when you just want to sit back and enjoy the music without any fuss. (I will always clean my vinyl and dust the stylus.) Let us call it casual listening.

Can casual listening be enjoyable? Yes! Can such listening compete with high-definition sound? Well, not quite. But I have found that it can come very close to the point that I can imagine myself at a live concern if I turnoff the super critical OCD mindset. Yes, casual listening can be fun. And it can reproduce realistic sound with a little experimentation. (There goes that OCD again.)

I finally upgraded my audio system. I bought a used MacBook Pro laptop at a very good price from my local computer store. What a beauty as you can see. I still like to use a mouse though. (Old habits are hard to break.)

I love iTunes. It is easy to use. I love Apple Music even more. It is now easier to navigate after some recent tweaking by Apple. I subscribe. It is a great way to discover new music or get re-acquainted with some old classics. I have been able to locate some wonderful classic recordings.

What Apple has done is significantly improve the sound of iTunes. Yes, it is compressed. If, however, the original master tapes or digital recordings are carefully transferred, the sound can be quite good. Apple has done that with its “Mastered for iTunes” program. In fact, Apple has asked that all music producers submit their recordings in a high resolution format. This has enabled Apple to improve the sound on many recordings, whether labeled as “Mastered for iTunes” or not.

Now here is where the fun comes in. I just upgraded my audio system for the unheard of price of ten dollars. (Well, I did spend $650 on the used MacBook Pro. I already had an Apple Airport Express which connects to the AudioEngine speakers. This is needed to establish a home network so that one can airplay directly from a laptop.) Remembering that we are still talking about casual listening, I have discovered the joy of having great music at my finger tips for an unheard of price.

With a Mac laptop, using the latest operating system, one can airplay his or her music to the great AudioEngine A2+’s. This could be done from an iPad or iPhone, but the laptop provides more flexibility and the use of additional software.

The audio playback can sound wonderful, even from iTunes.  But first a little tweaking is necessary. (Always the tweaking!) The bits need to be cleaned up. This is where a $10 program comes in. Download the BitPerfect app from the Mac App Store. The beautiful part of this app is that it is compatible with airplay (after a little fiddling) and that it just sits in the background without changing the iTunes user interface in any way. But what is does do is to, somehow, play any type of files whether high-resolution or not. The amazing thing is that it greatly improves Apple’s AAC files as well.

Just using it plug and play, one will discover a significant improvement in the sound. There is a little digital glare so to speak. However, this can almost be eliminated with a little playing around with app’s preferences. Here are the settings I arrived at for my particular system for music recorded in ACC at 256 kbits/s:


I did not do this scientifically. Do not ask me why I chose certain settings. It was all done by ear. I encourage you to do the same. Your settings might be different.

What about the sound with this app in the system? Bass is more solid, resolution seems to be improved, and the high-end is sweeter. Coloration? Maybe, but a significant improvement to my listening experience.

I reviewed this app along with several others. See iTunes Audiophile Software Comparisons. The Amarra HiFi was a bit better at a cost of $50 (no pun intended). Nevertheless, what we are talking about here is casual listening. The Amarra app is not as easy to use and it does not play as well with iTunes. Not only that, but the latest version of BitPerfect has been significantly improved from the version I reviewed previously. It just sits in the system in the background and stays out-of-the-way, while it busily cleans up all those little bits. It is nearly bit perfect.

It will work with high res. downloads, but the beauty is that it will greatly improve the sound of iTunes and Apple Music. Try this for a test. Download or stream:

screen-shot-2017-02-25-at-9-27-23-pmI know what a live cello concert sounds like. Emmanuelle Bertrand plays beautifully and, on my AudioEngines’s, she is right in the room. If you love the sound of the cello and you love great playing, get this album. The wonder is that this music is reproduced in ACC at 256 kbits/s.

Good luck with your own experimentation. You only have ten dollars to lose. Let me know in the comments what you think. I encourage your sharing of info and insights.


Self Reflection


Wanted to share a few things on my mind concerning our beloved audio.

Should I upgrade my components?

Hmm. It is easy to believe that the newest thing I hear is a breakthrough product. If it were, why is it so easily traded for something newer?

Maybe the best way to upgrade my sound is to buy better recorded music. I have found that as I have upgraded my program material I have also upgraded my enjoyment of music.

Should I buy expensive headphones?

Maybe? If I am going to use them for casual listening then I am not going to be able to hear the improvement in the sound. Maybe I need them because I am a recording engineer? Hah, I am not a recording engineer. But aren’t they more accurate than speakers because the best phones have lower distortion and more resolving power. Yes, but I am not a recording engineer. I want my music in the room and not my head. I like to feel the low notes as well as hear them. Besides there are so many great sounding headphones at very reasonable prices. But I like those Earspeakers!

Aren’t there new models of bookshelf speakers that sound as good as or better than the little AudioEngines. and are similarly priced?

Maybe, but most of them do not include a built-in class A/B amplifier that is matched perfectly to the speakers. Getting the right amplifier is an important part in selecting a speaker system. The amps often cost more than the speakers. And if they are any good, they cost way more than the speakers. Yes, but I need an excuse to spend more money.

What is all this about sound quality? Why cannot you enjoy a piece of music regardless of that?

When I go to a live concert, do I say to myself: “I wish I had a worse seat in the hall so that the sound would not be as good?” People spend more money on tickets that offer better seating. Why would they do that? They want to hear a great performance but they want to hear as much of it as possible. Could be that these are audiophiles without knowing it. Well I can just make it official and declare them to be audiophiles anyway.

How about a double blind A/B comparison to make the best determination about what component sounds best?

Nah, I really do not listen to music that way. Maybe I could just see how much I enjoy the music for a reasonable length of time if I substituted a new component into my audio system. Of course, if I am listening to a low quality recording will I be able to determine if a new amp adds to the fidelity of the recording? But what if I have great ears and this amp goes all the way to eleven?

Magnepan Magic on a Beer Budget


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My first real audiophile loudspeakers were the Magneplanar Tympani 1’s. (Before these I owned a pair of Rectilinear III’s which were quite nice for their day.) The Tympani 1’s were so good that I pursued recordings to reveal just how good they were. in doing so, the speakers revealed to me just how wonderful music could be. They helped to start my love affair with classical and Jazz recordings. I first fell in love with the music of Bach by listening to it through the Tympani 1’s.

The speakers were far from perfect, but they presented a certain allusion of live music being played in one’s home, provided that the recording was up to snuff. A wall of sound washed over the listener. One could close his or her eyes and imagine being at a live concert. Precise pinpoint stereo imaging was not their forte, but they never failed to bring across the idea that the music to which one was listening was indeed music. Their midrange was clear and transparent, while highs and lows were lacking. The bass was tight, but lacked weight, and the highs were rolled off and overly damped. Bells simply did not ring enough.

Fortunately, over the years Magnepan speakers grew smaller in size but far better in sound, The latest models of Magnepan are significantly improved at both the high and low end of the frequency spectrum. Today the speakers stand at the peak of their performance. Only very expensive speakers can revival them or exceed them, but the “Maggies” still excel at presenting the allusion of live music being played in the home.

You say that their bass does not play loud enough? They are not able to reproduce the impact of a rock concert? You are right! Just buy some other speakers. Get some top grade cabinet speakers. These will be very expensive if they are to compete with Magnepan. I like rock music – some of it anyway. But I am not willing to compromise certain qualities I hear in the Maggies for the sake of reproducing loud rock music. The Maggies just cannot do it. You will need other speakers for loud rock.

If you are ready to audition Magneplanar speakers you are surely going to run into some difficult choices. The speakers are not as big as they used to be but they are still dipoles. They must be kept away from the back and side walls. In other words, they need to be out in the room. They may simply dominate the room decor. The speakers are lovely to look at but they can be obtrusive. Better not to install them in too small a room.

Not every amplifier can drive the Maggies. The speakers are inefficient and they require an amplifiers that high current capabilities. Power alone is not enough. The amp must also be unconditionally stable. Some amplifiers may drive the speakers but they will not sound at their best. In truth, though this may be controversial, they really come alive when driven by excellent tube amplifiers which are very expensive.

AUDIOGRAM II is about buying sensible products. We love extravagant music reproduction but not extravagant prices. We are going to recommend a relatively inexpensive Magnepan system for your hone without loosing too much of the total Magnepan experience.

We will need to pass on the most expensive Magnepan. It is a magnificent loudspeaker but very expensive. Not only that, but its true ribbon tweeter, though very quick and extended, just does not integrate with the midrange and bass drivers as well as it should. Two lower priced models do a better job of driver integration: the Models 1.7i, and the Model .7. These speaker models use what is called quasi-ribbons for all of their drivers. The drivers blend together well and produce a very smooth and transparent wave front.

Which model should one chose? For a medium sized room chose the $1,995 Magnepan 1.7i.


For a slightly smaller room chose the $1395 Magnepan .7i. They give up some bass response but still have the overall Magnepan sound. A quality subwoofer could augment them and not muck up their sound if cut off very low.


For a small room, forget it. Stay with the AudioEngine 2A+’s. Magnepan’s smaller models are just too difficult to set up in a small room and are not that cost effective.

Which power amp should drive them? That is the question! Do amplifiers sound differently? Yes, and especially on the Magnepan’s. Partly it is a matter that Magnepan’s are difficult to drive. But largely it is a matter that the Maggies are just so revealing. There is no question that David Berning or Audio Research amps make the Maggies come alive, and I mean alive! But the prices of these amps are absurd for a “budget” audio system. So don’t listen to the Maggies on these amplifiers please. But what if you could come close to the capabilities of the Maggies without them?

We are talking quality used tubes? Quality used tubes can be expensive to bring up to speed and maintain, not to mention that they are not cheap at the starting line. (Paoli 60M’s may be an exception if you can find them.)

How about solid state? They will not sound like quality tubes driving Magnepan. Too much of the magic of the speakers might be lost. But I am thinking about a solid state amp that sounds like tubes and does not cost a bundle. There is only one candidate. The very first solid state amp that did not sound like solid state at all. Why it is the QUAD 303 power amp, Peter Walker’s masterpiece!


Yes, it is a rated at only 45 watts RMS per channel. That is a conservative rating. It is a high current amplifier that has rock solid stability. These amps are still being used in the field, but they are no longer produced. However, a used reconditioned one may be obtained for less than $500. That is the good news.

Here is the best news. This amp makes the Maggies sing such beautiful songs. It reproduces such a wonderful sound stage. Voices are crystal clear. Instruments are separated. There is air around them. And the amp has such a sweetness about it. Yes, the sweetness might be a coloration, but that does not seem to hurt the typical CD sound. Good vinyl comes through unscathed. Ultimately, I listen to music and not audio equipment. If you love music and live on a budget, pick up the 303 even if you don’t have Maggies. The amp gets along very well with many other speakers as well.

I must admit that we have bought some rather expensive beer here. But the sound is more like champaign. No need to give up your treasured 2A+’s if you would rather spend the money on vinyl.

Audio Legends: Matt Polk & Sandy Gross


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A Trip Down Memory Lane: Speakers That Rivaled the Greats


I was introduced to the Polk Model 10 loudspeakers at a CES in Chicago many years ago. It was, for me, the first American speaker that rivaled the best from England. Up to that time most American box speakers lacked stereo imaging. The Model 10 did not! The imaging was there and so was the low coloration on voices. This was the American version of a Spendor BC1. I raved about the speakers but had very little circulation at the time. Fortunately for Polk, good word of mouth carried the day.


Polk initially headquartered in a beautiful old house in a suburb of Baltimore. Here the principles of the company lived and worked. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the Polk compound. I had little circulation but Polk and company were very gracious to me. (I was traveling with my genius audio friend Murray Zeligman and that may have been the reason I got inside the compound.)

Matt Polk was listening to some Model 10’s that sounded even better than I remembered. On the floor behind the speakers were two banks of custom-built tube power amplifiers pumping out the sound. Yes, amplifiers do controll the sound of a loudspeaker! A good monitor speaker will reveal all that is in the audio chain ahead of it.

The Model 10’s were an amazing set of speakers. It is a classic that will hold its own even to this day. If you can find a pair in good condition, buy them!


Sandy Gross, the marketing guru of Polk, graciously took me to one of his listening rooms. On the floor were a pair of the original Quad ESL’s – speakers that I greatly admired as well. Sandy eventually left Polk and started two high-end loudspeaker companies of his own, first Definitive Technology and then Golden Ear Audio – aptly named. Sandy has a golden ear indeed and his speakers sound great.

My hero is Matt Polk, however. He has designed and sold so many excellent products – from subwoofers to headphones. They are very competitive with high-end products but are offered at what must be considered budget prices by today’s standards. Matt has a been able to translate his technical training at John’s Hopkins into highly practical products. He is able to zero in on what contributes to excellent sound reproduction while eliminating the frills.


Polk and Definitive Technology are now owned by the company that owns Denon, Marantz and Boston Acoustics. Yes, Saul Marantz products are still going strong and Polk is right up there with the best.

ELAC Debut B5 Bookshelf Loudspeakers


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Andrew Jones is a very famous loudspeaker designer and rightfully so. He designed the TAD $80,000 Reference One loudspeakers. But it is much easier to design a great sounding speaker when price is no object. Mr. Jones did not stop there, however. He designed some great budget priced speakers for Pioneer. Now he has moved on to ELAC, a respected German loudspeaker manufacture. And there he has done it again, designed budget sounding speakers that most anyone can enjoy if they love the accurate reproduction of live music.

Mr. Jones has designed several models for ELAC. We have chosen the new ELAC Debut B5 Bookshelf Loudspeakers because we want to compare it to the AudioEngine A2+’s. These speakers are about equal in price. There are obvious similarities. In each case, the individual drivers in these speakers are made in-house. AudioEngine assembles their own speakers while the Debut B5’s are assembled in China. The mid/base drivers in both speakers are made of similar materials – a woven aramid-fiber for greater stiffness and lower distortion. The B5’sw are priced at $230 while the A2+’s are priced at $250. Both of these speakers offer outstanding clarity for the price.

The comparison breaks down when it comes to lower bass reproduction however. The A2+’s clearly need a subwoofer, particularly when placed on stands in a medium-sized room. The Debut B5’s are better in the lower end. They have 5.25 inch woofers compared to the A2+’s 2.5 inch woofers. This also means that B5’s have greater power handling which could prove significant in playing louder in a medium-sized room.


Let us look at the prices again. The A2+’s cost a little more and really need a subwoofer. That will add at least a $100 to their overall cost. But the A2+’s have a built-in dual class AB monolithic power amp that is superbly matched to the speakers. In order for the Debut B5’s to play at their best they need to be mated with a very good power amp and not some generic receiver.

Which ones win? They both do. When it comes to stereo imaging the A2+’s are hard to beat. Their small-sized baffles have something to do with that. The B5’s are much larger speakers. They carry more weight in the low-end. Are they as nimble as the A2+’s? An extended period of listening will be necessary to complete any meaningful comparison. Perhaps you might want to share any experiences you have in auditioning these speakers. They are beauties and the price is right!