Saturday, September 8, 2007

Being a Harvard Extension School Student

It may be obvious if you think of it, but in your life, the most important upgrades you can make is to yourself. That is, to upgrade your capabilities mentally or physically. As a result of this kind of thinking I have begun taking courses at the Harvard Extension School (HES).

One of the most frequent difficulties I have is explaining to others what it means to be a student of HES, compared to a "real Harvard student." I'll try to answer this for students, potential students, parents and anyone who wants a quick overview of how the two schools are different.

As the HES website notes, of all the colleges that make up Harvard University, only two grant undergraduate degrees, HES and the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

We can divide the differences between HES and FAS in the following broad categories:
  • Admissions
  • Size
  • Course selection
  • Price
  • Community
  • Props
HES is easy to get into compared to FAS. This is one major reason HES students just don't get the respect. More below. Harvard keeps a severe boundary between admissions to HES and FAS. The only legitimate way to get into FAS is to go through the FAS admissions process. There is no transfer of students between the two schools.

Harvard FAS has approximately 6,000 undergraduate students enrolled in any given year, while HES has about 600. Also, according to my calculations, HES accepts around 120-180 degree applicants per year. So one way to look at it is that HES is a very small college in a huge university. As a student, the relationship you have to the undergraduate office is really intimate. They know you. Your not going to get away with much, so be careful who you flip off while driving or walking through Cambridge, it could have an immediate effect on your academic progress.

Course Selection
Academically, the biggest difference is not in quality, but in quantity. If you look at the picture above you'll see the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences course catalog on the top, with the HES course catalog on the bottom. The difference is HUGE. FAS offers many more courses, and many more degree specialties. While HES offers many areas of "serious" academic study, it offers no practical art class and only 5 music classes, with only one touching on western art music (i.e. classical). If I may launch from the words of Professor Robert Levine, with apologies, who argues that classical music is essential to the educated mind, if not soul, this lack of potential for a classical musical education is a place where I really wish FAS would improve and then promote. It would give the school a richness I think is missing.

As far as academic quality and rigor of study, HES shares many of the professors from other Harvard colleges, including not only FAS but Harvard Medical School as well, and some classes are identical, given by the same teachers, using the same materials and grading. Indeed, in order to get an HES degree, you must complete at least 52 units with Harvard faculty.

There is however a very bright side to all of this. Keep your GPA over 3.33 and you can apply for special student status, allowing you to take courses through FAS (at full FAS prices!) during the day. A major incentive not to ever get an F.

The prices for courses at HES are very reasonable, it's like an expensive community college. Undergraduate, for credit courses are around $700-$900 each.

The other big way in which HES is different than FAS is the sense of community. There are student organizations and student led activities but with the average student working full time and not living on campus it doesn't feel like a college experience to me, and that is a sad thing. I regret not only not having finished my undergrad when I was young but also not having made the lifelong friends people make in college.

What the social standing / pecking order is of HES students compared to FAS students is a huge and real issue. It is too big a topic for this entry but I am going to spend some time researching it and writing on each aspect of it in the future. But, the quick answer is, right now there isn't much consensus even within the university. Students from FAS and HES don't actually know how to act around each other. It's pretty funny sometimes, sometimes it's sad. Do FAS students say they go to Harvard or FAS? Should extension school students say they go to Harvard or HES? Is that discriminatory or honest? See how messy this is? It's like a bad joke that begins:

"Two Harvard students walk into a bar, the bartender looks up and says ......... "

Works Cited
Even though this IS just a blog, Harvard (FAS and HES) takes plagiarism very seriously, so to avoid being accused of not citing sources 50 years from now as I'm about to accept my Ph.D. (hah!) I would like to note my sources. Much of the materials here are from the HES and FAS websites, and catalogs, especially the Harvard Fact Book, and the Harvard at a Glance web page.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

There's no Such Thing as a Good Remote

My perfect remote control is an old Marantz RC2000. It was a hungry beast when it came to batteries, but it was an awesome remote when it came to behaving just like you wanted it to, visibility and reliability.

The Logitech Harmony 520 remote, by comparison, was svelte, a battery miser, and an absolutely selfish, manipulative bitch of an appliance. I took particular glee in recycling it's innards when it froze up on me and no amount of replacing the batteries would work. About a week after I had thrown it out, Logitech sent me a very nice e-mail informing me about the remote's "safe mode" boot process. Sorry, too late. I've moved on. Damned if I want an appliance in my life which needs a "safe mode" to boot. Damnit, would it have cost them that much to include a reset button underneath?

I purchased a new Marantz 1400 from Accessories4Less which made it a bargain, and it arrived promptly, with no fuss.

The good news:

  1. Easy programmability, not only text, and buttons but especially, the MACROS are a breeze compared to the lame ass browser/wizard based interface Logitech uses.
  2. Most devices were built in.
The bad news:
  1. Really poor visibility of the LCD
  2. Won't learn new Samsung TV commands (but built in Samsung codes work), leaving me without the compass buttons.
  3. Theta commands not built in.
Am I happier than I was with the Logitech? Yes! Am I completely satisfied? No.

For those of you out there with remotes which do everything you need, tonight, when you are watching Stargate SG-1 re-runs in Dolby Surround, hold the remote close to your breast, and tell it how lucky you really are.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The New Era of Low Quality Appliances

You know, I hate to say this, but my experience lately with high technology gadgets has been really terrible.

Let me explain. Over the last two years I've invested in the following:

  • Samsung 50" 1080p DLP TV
  • HP PC
  • New NVidia 7600 video card
  • Hauppague WinTV-PVR USB2 TV recorder
  • Logitech Harmony 520 remote.
  • Netgear USB Wireless adapter
  • Netgear WGR614v4 Router (not so new)
  • Pentax Optio pocket digital camera
  • Lumix Digital camera
  • Panasonic 3 station phone system
In almost every case, there was some disappointment involved.

First, I really didn't want a 50" TV, but my GF complained about the 37" TVs we saw being too pixilated, and Samsung was really the only brand she liked. So four hours of arguing later, she sees the latest 50" DLP and says "Oh, that's nice" and I'm so frustrated I say "DONE!" and we buy it, for our tiny living room with the couch 5' away from it! Take it home, lug it up the stairs myself, turn it on, and after it's finished scanning all the cable channels, it's working perfectly. For 6 hours. Call up Samsung on 6/2. 6/9 they call me and tell me that the parts they ordered aren't in yet, will have to wait until 6/15 or so to get the repair person out. I'm out $2k for six hours of TV. Also, now that the TV is in, my GF says she doesn't care if I get a small TV or not. The she tells me in the same breath they aren't as good. Lesson learned: Pay for the delivery, so that if the thing breaks you can have them haul it out and exchange it for you.

The HP PC which I am typing this on was sold to me as having half a gig of memory, expandable to 4. Well, the truth is, it had less than 512 Megs usable because part of that was used by the on-board graphics card. And despite the Staple's salesperson's confident assurance that it would take 4 Gigs, it won't. On the plus side, (probably thanks in part to the diligent work of US Attorney's before the Bush purge) the $50 rebate offer was actually paid in a timely manner.

The WinTV-PVR/USB2 appliance stops working if the CPU gets too hot, which is often unless you add a heatsink and fan.

For better performance with Half-Life 2 I purchased a new NVidia 7600 card at Best Buy. The NVidia card keeps having random stuck thread issues when replaying things recorded in Windows Media Player, it's especially bad if I have other windows open.

The Logitech Harmony 520 remote control is now sitting in the trash, because after having to change a configuration again through the stinking Hell Hole of a web site they use to manage your remote, it froze up on me and there's no way to reset it to the original factory conditions. No real "reset" button on the bleeding thing.

Both networking devices purchased from Netgear also are also having reliability problems. I know for a fact that the router overheats, and suspect the USB adapter does as well. How do I know? Well, after adding heat sinks and fan to the WGR614v4 router, the thing ONLY breaks down when the fan stops working. I would totally throw it out if the Linksys routers worked with my VPN software which I use to teleconference from work. But guess what? Even though Linksys and my VPN software are made by different divisions of Cysco, they actually don't work right. Also, I find Linksys installation software to be buggy, and din't integrate well with Windows XP on my previous PC. So I'm basically F*d.

The funny thing is, the Netgear wireless router appliance is about the same size, shape and has the same basic layout as the Hauppauge! WinTV-PVR appliance. Makes me wonder if they share the same industrial design house. Also, I've been really tempted to buy the new Netgear wireless media devices, so I can hook it up to my new Samsung DLP TV (if it's ever working again) but I read a couple of reviews online that complained about it inexplicably dropping out just like the problems I've had with their router and USB wireless adapter. Makes me want to stay away from it unless I can get an Ethernet cable run to the living room.

The Pentax Optio camera froze during a download and wouldn't come back until after I threw it into the trash. My GF rescued it so it's hers. The Lumix camera on the other hand has worked great, but it's sure bulky by comparison.

The Panasonic wireless phone works fine, but if the power is out for too long the base station forgets what time it is. Crap, it's 2007, don't they have that figured out yet?

So, I guess the point to all of this is, I used to like improvements and upgrades, but damn, with the low reliability of electronics being sold these days, I really am put off on ever upgrading anything again. I don't care if they release 100 Gbyte wireless routers. So long as the one I have works, I'm leaving them alone, because it seems to me that I'm going to have to buy 2 of anything in order to get 1 that works. So from now on, I'll double the price of anything I buy before I decide to purchase a new one or not.

Is it wrong of me to want things that are simple, and reliable? I don't want Microsoft running my refrigerator, I don't want a USB adapter in my car, I don't want an operating system in my camera, and I don't ever, ever want to wait for my phone to boot up. I press the button, and it is waiting for me to dial. End of story! No flashing lights, no slide shows as it figures out that it's a phone, nothing.

Based on all of this, go ahead and ask me how many years it's going to be before I give up my landline telephone.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Ebay Madness

About two months ago I ordered a vintage Yamaha amplifier to use for my surrounds in the home theater setup. I ordered it from a vendor with a fantastic rating who did a lot of business with pro audio gear.

It took him a month to get me the amplifier, and when it got here it had a bad relay. Honestly, I should have given him a negative rating, but since it gave me an excuse to open the amp up and do things to it, I only gave him a neutral rating.

Anyway, the point is, because of this, my next project is upgrading a Yamaha P2075.

I've already replaced most of the power supply caps and by-pass caps. I removed the relay, and replaced it with a relay in a socket. 20 years from now when this relay goes bad, it will take some one 3 minutes to replace it. I've also removed and socketed the op-amps with NE5532. Not top of the line anymore, but they were good enough to give the Benchmark DAC-1 a Class A rating from Stereophile. If this amp wasn't just for the surround speakers I might use the latest op amp from National semi, their much lauded LM4562.

Next week I'll be finishing up the capacitor upgrades, including replacing the coupling caps and also replacing cement resistors with top-of-the-line Mills 5 Watts.

By the way, I really really like the Mills resistors for reliability. I accidentally shorted a Tandberg supply with them in it, and it was only when I noticed smoke coming off one that I realised what I had done. That must have been 10 seconds of severe overload. Once I let everything cool off, the Mills resistor measured exactly the same value as it had started with. Because of this, wherever the reliability of a power resistor is in question, I always use a Mills. Plus, they have a great range of values. If I can't use those, I will use a severely over-speced Vishay Metal Film Power (PR02, 03, etc.)

Next time I'll post before and after pics.


Thursday, March 29, 2007

High End Hi Fidelity: Surviving as an Industry

Lots of interesting things are happening to the Hi Fidelity Industry (HFI). By HFI I mean several different groups:
  • Recording artists, and music labels
  • Hi Fi equipment manufacturers
  • Retail stores of CDs and stereo reproduction equipment
  • Internet Radio
Some is positive, and some is negative, but I think that the negative will eventually become positive.

The advent of MP3 music players and online music providers has begun to destroy the bastion of power that were major record labels. The biggest contributor to this isn't the technology itself, but the ability of consumers to purchase single tracks at a time. While this may mean the end of the concept album in pop-music land, I think in the long run, it will mean the decrease of influence that major record labels will have on our culture and music.

Also, recently record labels have tried to destroy small mom and pop internet radio stations by imposing a flat fee per record played. This is a boneheaded move. The independent artists will quickly find this as an opportunity, and regroup, offering the independent radio stations a sweeter deal than they had before. The indy-radio station will return, only with even LESS pop music/major label influence. Instead of destroying the indy-station, they will just reduce the relevance and power that "major record labels" will weild.

Another interesting trend is that serious music listeners are buying local, and directly from artists. The closing of 800 CD stores in 2006 will mean that music listeners will be buying more from their local symphonies, and jazz ensembles than they did before, meaning at the end of the day that musicians, especially good musicians, will make more money than they ever did before. This coupled with the inddependent radio station revival which will occur, will mean we will at the end of the day get much better modern music than we ever did before.

I also think that we are going to see more classical music being actually recorded. Why? Because with the closing down of major stores keeping back-catalogs dating back 50 years, there will be more immediate demand for the purchase of CD's before, and after concerts today.

I was going to write this all together as a long post, but I think I will stop here, and post more tomorrow about how the equipment industry will survive as well.

Power Conditioners Go Green

A few years ago PS Audio and Richard Gray helped energize the market for power conditioning products. Both seemed to offer real, measurable improvements in sound and video quality. In a way they started a race which continues to this day.

While the Richard Grey appoach has always been inherently "green", the PS Audio approach certainly was not. By using class A/B amplifiers, they would burn a lot of electricity and fossil fuels just by being turned on and they were every expensive per watt. On the other hand, the Power Plants could guarantee the quality of the output signal, something RG's approach, being in parallel with your devices, could not do.

Because of this, when ExactPower showed up with a radical, green approach to generating perfectly clean AC power, I thought surely the Power Plants would have serious competition. By using a buck/boost transformer in the path of the AC, they could blow the Power Plants out of the water in terms of wattage, with efficiency's over 90%, compared to the 50% or so efficient Power Plants.

To my surprise, Exact Power doesn't seem to have made many inroads. They list one dealer and seem to want to do most of their business over the net. I have no idea how many units they sell a year.

In the mean time, PS Audio has come up with a much more efficient design. They aren't giving out many details on how they are doing it, but it sounds a lot like they are borrowing some ideas from Bob Carver's amplifiers. Carver amplifiers would use power supplies with multiple, fixed rails. A switch before the output stage would select one rail or the other based on the incoming waveform, and the output amplifier would be responsible for cushioning these fixed-step changes as well as generating the final output to the speakers.

My point to all of this rambling is just that I'm glad to see that more high-tech approaches to power conditioning are going beyond the brute-force approach and using technology which is not only better sounding, but better for the environment and for the consumer's pocket books as well.

Happy Listening!

Roger Sanders of InnerSound is Back

I found out through the web grapevine that Roger Sanders, founder of InnerSound is back, and has started a new company, focusing on electronics at Sanders Sound Systems.

For a short period of time I was the New England rep for InnerSound. In a way, I was the catalyst for good and bad things to happen to Roger. My girlfriend was producing ads for InnerSound, which ran in Stereophile and The Absolute Sound. When he ran full page ads in TAS, they often complemented Sara by copying the color schemes on the cover.

Anyway, around 2002 I was also the rep for a company I used to do some industrial and PCB design for, Smart Theater Systems (now Smart Devices). Norm from SMART called me up and said he wanted to go to the NY Home Theater Expo held in NY every year, but wanted to share a room with some one. SMART was producing a very nice performing (if industrial looking) line of power conditioners, as well as licensing the Hafler amplifier designs to produce a hybrid tube/solid-state amplifier which was well received. As it turned out, at the time InnerSound and SMART were both located in Georgia, so getting them together was pretty easy.

Anyway, Roger had the speakers, and SMART had the amplifiers, and together we had a budget for a complete room display. At this convention, John Marks from Stereophile spent a long enough time auditioning the InnerSound speakers to agree to finally commit to giving them a real review. You'd think Roger would have been really happy with me. Nope, he ignored me completely, and chose to have dinner with designers of a new tube amp that as far as I know was never sold.

Anyway, Stereophile gave them a great review, which is when Roger's fortune's changed for the worse. At some point Roger met a man with money to invest, who convinced him to move the factory from Georgia to Colorado. After this, as is well known, there was a falling out, and Roger left InnerSound. So, I was good for Roger, and I was bad for Roger.

My point to all of this, however, is that Roger is back in business, and seems to be quickly rebuilding products based on the original philosophy which he built his company on. Now if he can make electrostatics with the same smooth responses at the Eros and Isis with wider dispersion, he'll soon be the talk of the audio world.

Good luck to you Roger!

MK Speakers are No More!

Miller & Kreisel Sound has shut down it's doors. You can find some information at their website, MK Sound as well as the Stereophile article here.

There are allegations of counterfeit, Chinese made speakers being partly responsible for their demise, as well as innuendos of ex-business partners or employees being part of it as well.

I do not know if any of this is true, but I must say, I'm kind of surprised MK made it as far as they did anyway.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE my MK S-1B with the V-1 subwoofer combination that is the heart of my living room's home theater system. When I bought my main speakers, I happened to know the MK rep for the SE US, and since there were no dealers in Georgia, I got a deal. At the time I was a starving student, trying to make a business as an installer. I think they were great sounding, and well priced when I bought them, 15-20 years ago. Since then however, I never bought another pair, and ended up with Monitor Audio RS1s in the home office, and Cambridge Soundworks for surrounds in the home theater.

There were several problems with the MK speaker line for me as a pure consumer. The first was the complete lack of stores. I have run into 2 stores who even carried MK products. The second problem is just the cost. TINY speakers were running around $600-$800 each! And given the fairly standard Vifa tweeters they were using, I had a real trouble paying that much for them. Even when they had discounts and B grade products, I could find too many speakers that were cheaper and as good or better.

In addition, I think MK Sound suffered from another problem: Too many products.

They tried to spread their brand around to every conceivable type of speaker. Cubes to compete with Bose and Cambridge Soundworks, powered studio grade monitors, super sub woofers, and in-wall speakers. They experimented with every conceivable type of surround speaker. Bi-polar, di-polar, tri-polar, upward firing, behind the couch, you name it. Except for co-axial designs, and PA speakers, they did it all. On the innovation scale, they definitely get a 10+ rating. They were producing almost as many different types of speakers as Sony or Panasonic. The only other brands that I knew of that competed with this many speakers were Cambridge Soundworks, which I heard is in the process of closing many of its stores.

I really wondered how MK Sound could possibly control quality, maintain high prices, and get enough sales volume to keep the doors open. Having so many different models of speakers seemed like a nightmare for their reps. What DO you sell a new store? What products are you going to go in with? What are you going to promote to reviewers? To be really successful you need to have multiple good reviews of a single or closely related speaker models. How can you concentrate your marketing focus and generate brand excitement with 100 different models? This is the business model you would use to sell products to WalMart and Sears, not independent, high end stores.

Where MK Sound seems to have followed the high-end/specialty model is in their subwoofers. They got consistently great reviews on them, and they seemed to be a major part of their business as a result, selling to many customers who probably were not going to use MK speakers for the rest of their systems.

Honestly, this is all questions and conjecture on my part. For all I know they had solved all of these problems. I've never met Ken Kreisler, and don't have an MBA, but, if anyone has any ideas about this, please drop me a note, because I'd be fascinated to find out what really happened.

Take care!

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Final Pics of the PV10/PV-Nigel

It's finally happened, I've made all the upgrades I can stand to do to the PV10 before sending it to CJ for measurements.

On the left you see the Power1 upgrade boards. Or their prototypes. Next generation will be smaller and double sided.

I should hold a contest to see who can recognize the most number of upgrades done to the main board, but I can't think of something to give away. Perhaps a 4700uF Black Gate cap with clamp, or my bag of Solen and Cardas capacitors? Well, ok, but only if I get at least 30 different entries. It's no good if only 2 people read my blog. :)

But seriuosly, if you want to try, send me a comment and I'll tell you how many upgrades you missed. I'll give you a hint, there are no audio path upgrades except the tube sockets. Good luck!

The 3001/A Boards go Out

I'm happy to announce that all of the pre-orders have been filled and mailed, and should be arriving in customer's mail boxes by Wednesday.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Tandberg Silver Output Boards

In celebration of the long overdue arrival of the Silver Edition of the output boards, I am posting a complete photo gallery to show just how far things have progressed.

First, apologies for those who have been waiting on boards. My manufacturer is usually very prompt but the high quality of materials which I specified is unusual. When I ordered another customer had just depleted their stock, and they were not prepared. The end result is that I just received the shipment of boards this past Thursday, March 8th.

Orders will be going out this Saturday, March 10th at the latest. Without keeping you in further suspence, here it is, front and back:

Notice the full solder mask and silk screen. You may also notice that the annular rings appear white instead of shiny, this is actually because of the silver content, lead free plating that was used.

Since this is probably the last posting I make about these boards, I'm going to do a full comparison between them and the originals, so please bear with me.

The next picture you see is a composite of the original board. As you can see, while the original used a single side for the ground plane as well as the traces while the 2.0 boards use a double sided board.

By having one side for the traces and another for the ground planes I could design the board with three separate, massive ground planes and optimally routed traces, with better clearances and thicker traces. In combination with the 2.5 oz. copper and silver plating the Silver Edition boards are going to be a large improvement.

I also wanted to share with you were pictures of the Cardas jacks so you can compare them with the originals.

I swiped this picture right off the Cardas web site, I hope they don't mind, but since each board takes 7 of them I think they will be ok with it, so long as I remind you that they have nothing to do with the design, manufacture or sale of the boards.

They look good don't they? Rhodium over silver over brass, oh my!

Here you can see four of the jacks I removed from the original board. Tin and plastic is really all there was to them. Keep in mind that the way these jacks were attached to the board was by bending over the three little tabs onto the board. What has happened a great deal in the years since Tandberg stopped making audio equipment is that male RCA plugs have gotten much tighter and heavier, especially in premium cables. So users would press their new cables into the jacks with all of their might, and unless the tabs were really tight up against the board, there would be just enough motion to literally lift the tabs off of the circuit boards from behind. The Cardas jacks don't use bendable tabs, by the way. The four prongs are thick rhodium/silver/brass which attach with a significant amount of solder.

By the way, sadly, many Tandberg tuners are having problems with the internal connectors separating from the copper on the boards. I think this has a lot to do with the size of the annular rings around them being too small for the solder to get a good grip. My point is, if you are going to replace this board, check all the other connectors you'll be exposing, on the power supply as well as the output stage board. If there is any play, resolder them.

I want to leave you now with two beauty shots.

The first is a picture of the fully assembled prototype board.

While not as professional looking as the Silver boards you can see the ground plane and the beefiness of the jacks. Those of you who have experience looking at the insides of tube gear may feel a twinge of nostalgia.

And this is what the jacks should look like after installation. Please drool carefully.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Logitech Harmony 520 Remote

It was the best of remotes, it was the worst of remotes.....

As part of my households continuing upgrade process, I had the good fortune, or made the horrific mistake of purchasing a Logitech Harmony 520 remote control from Radio Shack.

Like many people, I have a TV, DVD player, CD player, VCR, AM/FM tuner, and home theater processor. None of which were made by the same manufacturer. So becuase of this, I have had a need for a remote with the following features:

  • Fully programmable
  • LCD panel with customizable button names
  • No matter what mode I am in, it needs to use the processor for the volume functions
For about 10 years I have relied on a Marantz RC2000 as the centerpiece of my home theatre system. However, the years have not been kind to it. It has been dropped, immersed in a wave of an orange juice spill, disassembled, cleaned, and brought back to life. Throughout all of this however it has chuged along. Of the minuses of the RC2000 we could list things like:

  • Voracious appetite for batteries that would leave your digital cameras whimpering in fear
  • Lacked a PC interface
  • Labels had to be manually entered, using the number keypads like sending a text message via a cell phone.
  • Limited memory compared to the number of gadgets I now posses.
  • Huge! It is the size and weight of a small man's shoe.
I went to my local 2 channel shop and bought the latest Marantz remote control, for about a hundred bucks, the Marantz RC1200. I thought that given it's heritage, it would surely be a worthy successor to my venerable, greying RC2000. Plus, it had an LCD screen. Perfect, I thought. Sadly, this remote had one major flaw. It didn't really have programmable buttons the way the original did. It had a scroll wheel which allowed you to select among many different "virtual" buttons, but using it was truly a pain. My old one had 8 programmable buttons with 4 screens per device, in addition to 4 macro buttons which I could program with whatever sequence I wanted to.

So, back to the drawing board. My GF noticed the Logitech Harmony remote ads on some TV channel, so after checking them out at my local Radio Shack, I bought one.

This turned out to be one of the biggest mistakes I've ever made. One day later I was having consultations with my therapist and cardiologist. My blood pressure was through the roof and I was angry at the world. It still upsets me to think of what I went through. I imagine that it was somewhat like having your identity stolen and then trying to convince 20 separate legal entities that you did not in fact order 10 large screen TV's and had them shipped to Jamaica. That's how upset and stressed out I was.

"How could any remote control do that to a man?" you may well ask, and the answer is the software you must use to configure the device.

Let me say this without fear of being challenged:

The Harmony remote software is the buggiest piece of crap I have ever seen offered in professional grade software.

Ok, wait, the video game Messiah MIGHT have been close. The difference is that where Messiah probably took the developers years and years of coding, the Harmony Remote software looks like it was specified and developed in a month.

Let me give you a little background on how the Harmony remote is supposed to work, in theory. First, it doesn't really have PC software. What it has is an online service, where the customer should create an account, log in, and configure the remote. Once all the changes are made, you download your settings to the remote via a USB cable.

This software my dear friends, is the gateway to hell.

Not only is the software buggy in the following ways:

  • Communication freezes, and you have no idea whether to wait or continue or restart
  • For no apparent reason, you can loose access to a device you have set up online. You try to make changes to it and you get a message like: Unable to display content. with no choice but to delete that device from your list and start over.
  • There is no straight forward way to delete existing entries or re-organize them in the custom buttons. Once they are there, they seem to be there forever. For the Sony DVD for instance, the actual remote that came with the player only had 40 something buttons. However, the custom buttons take up about 110 entries in the custom pages field, ON TOP of the mapping to the default buttons on the remote. So, what you have to do is delete practically all of them, save them, then go back, and it will delete all the blank entries but ONLY if you have no entries beneath them. Sound complicated? It is.
In addition, there are two major flaws in the software design:

  • It is completely "wizard"-centric.
  • The wizards of course don't tell you what they will do, they just ask you some questions, and then they will go off and do things, often the wrong thing.
  • It is "activity"-centric instead of device-centric.
The wizards are not there to provide assistance to you my friend, they are there to ruin you, to crush your spirit and to take away whatever feeling of power and accomplishment and adequacy you might have scraped together by now. You will weep like a babe at how they curse you with every trap and lie and deception they throw your way. You will never again feel warm, or comforted by your family or friends after having been forced to accept their terms in order to gain control of your stereo again!

Ok, that was melodramatic, BUT my anxiety and fear is real. Imagine the worst voice mail system you've ever been caught in. This will help you understand the way the Harmony software works. It makes large assumptions about how you must want to use the remote, and then forces you to conform, or else.

In particular, it wants to set up "actions" to watch TV or watch a Movie, etc. but the big mistake it tends to make is that it assumes everything is off to begin with, and that your system turns on and off with every activity. I don't know about you, but around here, the stereo stays on most of the day, starting with NPR in the morning, to cable TV in the afternoon, to finally watching a movie on VHS or DVD before finally turning everything off.

As a side problem, it's impossible for you to program your own macro sequences into this thing. You CAN program an activity, but the stupid wizards think they know all the steps you should take to do any particular activity, so if you want to use a different sequence, or whatever, it won't do it. This is infuriating because you KNOW the hardware could do it, but the stupid Wizards are the gate-keepers to the macro programming, so you can't do what you want it to do unless you figure out how to re-program it yourself.

Fortunately, there IS a workaround. You can ignore the activity based options and go straight to adding devices and customizing the buttons, but you don't know this until you've already been tortured by the start up wizards.

It is the best of remotes, it is the worst of remotes. I spent $100 on this thing, and when it is fully configured, and all I have to do is sit in front of my TV and watch a DVD from Netflix, it is reliable, small, easy to understand. But the truth is that even though I can be sitting on the couch with my significant-other for hours, if I play with it too much, I still wake up in a cold sweat, images of their Web software leaving me shivering, afraid, and alone.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Conrad Johnson PV Upgrades Rethink

I've had a hard time convincing others to pay for the upgrades I've made to my Conrad Johnson PV10A, and probably with good reason. I have no reputation for success in this area, and potential customers are rightfully concerned about leaving their precious preamps in my hands.

So I'm going to do a couple of things. First, I'm going to take some oscilloscope pictures of the power supply rails to hopefully demonstrate the improvements made by the additional regulator stages. This will let users visually see the difference in noise and channel separation.

Second, I'm sending my PV10 to Conrad Johnson to be measured against specifications. I'll be posting the results here, good or bad. This may take a while as I'm waiting on a box, and really am not anxious to be without my preamp. God these violins sound good. :)

Also, this may matter only to me, I've decided not to offer these as kit forms, the upgrades are just too complicated for most people to do, and have too many steps. I would have to spend a month with documentation, and then probably spend significant amounts of time supporting the end user.

Lastly, I had originally planned on offering 5 or 6 versions of the Power1 upgrades, including various levels of upgrades on the basic system board. This is too confusing. Instead I'm going to offer 3:

  • Basic upgrade - Replaces important parts on main board power supply, upgrades heater voltage stage. Vishay and Mills resistors, Panasonic FM and Nichicon caps and Gold/Ceramic tube sockets. Specifics may vary according to original.
  • Power1L - L is for Line stage. Basic + upgrades main regulator, adds 2 Power1 Modules for dual-mono operation. Best for those who are using non-vinyl sources like FM, CD's and external DACs.
  • Power1V - V is for Vinyl. Just like the Power1L but converts the phono stage to dual mono operation as well. A little more expensive due to additional board level changes.
Prices to be determined. I'm really more interested in the Power1 upgrades because they are the most dramatic and easily verifiable changes. The basic upgrades help a little, but if you don't have the Power1 modules, you may not even be able to tell. Yeah, they cost more too. However, I have to say, I don't think anyone is offering such significant improvements in sound, who isn't also changing the overall character of the sound. Like I said before, if you want a CJ preamp to sound that much different, go buy an Audio Research preamp instead. If you want to sit around and tweak output capacitors all day, go buy some small value inductors or an equalizer. If on the other hand, you want your precious CJ preamp to sound as glorious as it can, send it to me.

I probably won't get serious about offering these upgrades until the summer, as I am re-designing the Power1 module for a smaller size, and different parts mix. Also, response hasn't been great, so I need to get some better documentation to show people why these are upgrades, not modifications.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Conrad Johnson Preamp Upgrades

Conrad Johnson has the unique distinction in my mind of making not just some of the best sounding preamplifiers ever, but also the most successful lines of preamps ever. In terms of sheer volume, the Conrad Johnson line is as ubiquitous Toyota Corolla or Honda Accord.

Let me explain. We can argue about the sound quality of the Conrad Johnson Premier line, and as to whether or not brand X is better than them or not. Some detractors make good points about them being overly euphonic at times, others feel the Audio Research line sounds best for their tastes. However, when you combine the history of Conrad Johnson Premier preamps being consistently rated in the top echelons of preamps, as well as the tremendous success the PV series has had, I don't think there's another company who can claim better success. There are so many past generations of Premier and PV preamps out there that CJ could stop making new products, and still continue to pay the bills for the next 20 years with the service department alone.

So, based on this, and my own personal experience doing extensive power supply mods for my preamp, I plan to offer these mods for most of the PV line. This includes at least the PV5, PV6, PV7, PV8, PV9 and PV10 and PV11. The upgrades will involve a custom designed power supply board based on the PV12's design with upgraded, high output, high reliability regulator stage, as well as the use of modern low noise, low impedance resistors and capacitors on the board.

In the same way that Conrad Johnson designed their gain stages to be modular, the circuit board I will be installing are also modular and can be used in different ways, depending on the customer's needs and tastes. For instance, with a single board you can upgrade a PV-10 to have dual mono power supplies. With two boards, I can offer dual mono as well as double regulation. The end result is an ultra quiet power supply, and an amazingly silent performance. Another way to use them is to add a separate regulator for the phono section alone. Owners of older PV series preamps would benefit by just substituting the new module for the original altogether.

This in combination with parts upgrades on the main board can lift the performance of most PV preamps to be giant killers for a small outlay in cash. Another benefit is that because you leave the audio circuit in tact, you keep the quality of sound that you fell in love with to begin with.

More on this later, as I have to dig out the board design I used originally, and have to figure out how to charge for it. Also, I need to figure out how to get reviews. I talked to Steve at Enjoy the Music, and he pointed out that reviewers don't like to do reviews for mods, because then they would get requests from every weekend modder in the planet, so before I get a review I'll have to get famous, and I can't get famous until I get a review.... :)

Fortunately while I don't have reviews I do have a PV-10 ready for audition which has 95% of the upgrades in place already. Missing are a few resistor upgrades and replacements of the heater caps. However, you would not believe this is a PV-10 if it were not for the sweet midrange and treble. The deep natural bass and precise sound stage will knock your socks off.

But alas, the trouble at the end of the day is really who will pay for the upgrades? Is it worth it for some one to take a PV-5 and put $400 into it, when they could buy a used PV-12 for $600 on Audiogon, or a used Premier class preamp for around $1500? I don't know. It was worth it for me because I could do the labor myself.

Perhaps I will be better off selling the populated, tested power supply modules for around $75 each. Comments? Suggestions?

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Head Phone Amplifier Upgrades

I'm pleased to offer upgrades for two very popular headphone amps, the Pro-Ject Head Box Mk II and the Rega EAR. Both amps use a high current, discrete output stage which makes them a very good, muscular platform for upgrades compared to the very popular and common IC based designs.

Why Upgrade?
Unfortunately, the reality of mass manufacturing, and sales, means that a manufacturer makes less than 30% of the sales price. This means that compromises in parts must be made in order to get the products to a price point that the target market can afford. Because of this, investing in modestly priced upgrades delivered without distributors and sales people in between can yield benefits that surpass purchasing new kilobuck hardware.

These upgrades are based on respecting the existing designs, and making them perform as well as they possibly can. Each manufacturers have made a different set of compromises. The Rega EAR screams for a quieter, more robust power supply but starts with a decent op amp. The Head Box starts with a quiet power supply, but has a really sub-par op-amp. Both amps share the need for better quality audio caps. We leave the basic design alone, but enhance the areas where each is weak, giving you the best of all worlds.

Pro-Ject Head Box Mk II
Basic upgrade:
  • Replace all electrolytic capacitors with very high quality, low impedance versions
  • Improve reliability with upgraded specs on critical power supply caps
  • Socket Op-amp with gold dipped machined low profile socket
  • Replace Op-amp with same type as used in the stock Rega EAR
Cost: $90 + Shipping

  • Much better midrange and treble
  • Bass opens up completely
  • Low impedance headphones no longer have severely restricted bass
  • Performance exceeds stock Rega EAR in many ways, including lower noise, sweeter midrange through clear effortless treble, and an open easy breathing bass.
Rega EAR
Basic Upgrade:

  • Replace most electrolytic caps with very high quality, low impedance versions (Black Gates by request, for an additional fee)
  • Modify power supply for lowest possible noise, and gutsier performance. This includes a mod to the circuit design as well as adding parts.
  • Add by-pass caps on outputs (subject to space limitations)
  • Noise greatly reduced, especially hum
  • Greatly increased clarity
  • Better midrange through treble, more natural, less restrained.
  • Slightly gutsier bass

Cost: $90 + Shipping

Advanced Mod (for both):
  • Socket op-amp with machined, gold dipped low-profile socket.
  • Replace op-amp with Burr Brown OPA 627s, considered by many to be among the finest available. At $50 per pair, they are certainly among the most expensive!
  • Replace critical power supply resistors with ultra-quiet, Vishay MIL-SPEC metal film versions
  • For Head Box only, replace ceramic disk caps to fit adapter
  • Unbelievably natural and smooth transients and decay. This applies especially to listening to instruments as well as cues about the room space.
  • Treble and midrange appear to be effortless, and unrestrained. You loose the sense of listening to headphones.

  • Basic + Advanced Upgrade: $150 if done at once.
  • Advanced Upgrade: $95 if done after basic


Q: Why is the cost for the basic upgrade so similar for both?
A: Time vs. parts. The Head Box has more parts to replace. The EAR needs a board change to fit the necessary power supply changes, so it takes more time.

Q: Can I get Black Gate caps in the Head Box?
A: Sorry, unfortunately Black Gate caps tend to be physically large, there's only about 19mm of height available in the Head Box. The values that are needed for critical caps like the power supply and coupling caps that are needed are just too tall.

Q: What does the Black Gate upgrade do?
A: Honestly I've never listened to BG's in either of these devices, but there's always some one who wants them in, so yes, it can be done. This would be especially important in the coupling caps. One reasons why I don't usually like to use BG's is that they like to charged for days before sounding good, and I hate wasting electricity. However, the power draw of these amps is so small at idle, this is not an issue.

Q: Is the upgraded Head Box really better than the stock Rega EAR?
A: Clearly. The Head Box starts off weak in the bass, especially with low impedance headphones like the newest Grados. The basic upgrade makes the bass as good as the EAR while surpassing it on the midrange dynamics.

Q: What's the end result of both modified the same way?
A: Honestly, I'm afraid to say that the end result is very similar. Once the basic level is reached, they are very similar in performance. Unfortunately this also means that, in my opinion, if you are starting from scratch your best value is a modified Head Box. On the other hand, if you already bought an EAR and like it, you will be missing out on just how good this amp can be if you don't upgrade it.

Q: Is the Advanced Upgrade really worth it?
A: Yes, completely. When I do the advanced upgrade I socket the op-amps. If you want you can go back and forth between the upgrades I provide and the originals. Request this in advance please so I don't throw the originals out. (Head box op-amps are super cheap, and hard to pull out in one piece though, you may end up with an NE5532 instead of the original, but I promise, it's better than what you had).

Q: Can I get just the Advanced Upgrade?
A: Yes, but...why would you? The stock Head Box won't give you enough bass to drive your high output cans, and the stock Rega EAR won't be quiet enough. Upgrading the op-amp will just make it easier for you to hear how noisy the stock supply is.

Q: Will this void the factory warranty?
A: Yes. However, fixing a future problem with either of them should be a piece of cake. Chances are if anything goes wrong it will be the with the op-amps. The advanced upgrade sockets all of them, so replacing them is a matter of minutes.

Q: Do you offer a warranty?
A: Yes, 90 days parts and labor on parts I actually replace. If both op-amps go however, I'll charge for their replacement, as this tends to only happen after an electrical surge. Also, the Head Box is a very tight tight squeeze for the upgrade parts. If you decide to open it up to look and break off a capacitor, I will charge you for parts and labor. If you are the kind of person who is like that, let me know and I'll ship it to you out of the case, or send you pictures of the upgrade first. :)

Q: Do you have a sample I can listen to?
A: Yes. I have an upgraded Head Box you can listen to if you are in the Boston area.

Q: Do you sell "new upgraded" Head Boxes?
A: Yes, I can source them new. For these I offer 90 Days parts and labor on all parts. Saves you the cost of shipping one to me, but if you can buy one used or at a discount, you can get a better deal.

Q: Can I listen to the upgrade and return it if I don't like it?
A: Honestly I don't like doing this as a lot of people like to reverse engineer a great set of upgrades. If you don't believe the advanced upgrade is worth it, I'll exchange the op-amps and parts for $30.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Tandberg Upgrade Board Pics

For some reason Audiogon is having trouble processing my pictures, so if you are here to look for more information about the Tandberg 3001/A upgrade board, some pics should be here:

Connector Beauty Shots

Saturday, January 20, 2007

The Upgraded Pro-Ject Head Box Mk II

This morning the Pro-Ject underwent a major upgrade. All the electrolytic caps were replaced with Panasonic FM Caps, and the op-amp was socketed and replaced with an NE5532.

First impressions are WOW! :) The treble response is a lot better, the midrange has opened up and sounds absolutely spacious with deep bass, and a very extended treble. The Head Box Mk II plus this upgrade is highly recommended.

There were a few changes from the standard values which were made, here is what you need to do to replicate:

  • 1000uF caps were upgraded from 16V to 25V. This is more of a longevity issue than sound.
  • Input caps C13, 14, 16 and 17 were upgraded from 4.7uF to 22uF. For two reasons. First, they are almost the smallest FM caps I could find. Second, I wanted to beef up the bass response.
  • Output caps C8 and C10 were upgraded from 470uF to 1,000uF. Again, to improve the bass response at the headphones.
  • Op-Amp replaced with an NE5532. I know I dissed it as old, but it was a good old op-amp and I have them lying around.
If you wanted to do this yourself, you could probably do it for around $20 or less, including shipping from Digikey, making the total amount of time, and money well worth the quality of the head phone amp you are left with. This little amp already sounded better than the Rega EAR when I got it, it now sounds absolutely outstanding. The one minor issue that I'm having is that the case is getting a lot warmer than it did with the previous Op-Amp. I may have to put in some vent holes in the case to ventilate the voltage regulator. Especially since I'm still waiting on the pair of OPA617's from Futurelec. They will most likely warm up the regulator a little more.

The one problem is that it's picking up all the noise coming from my PC, which it masked before. I guess the next step is going to be an outboard DAC for it. :)

One tip, make sure you put the 1,000uF caps as close to the board as you possibly can. It's going to be a tight squeeze.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Upgrading the Suzuki

Well, in this case I'm actually downgrading it. At some point around 1989 I acquired a 1978 Yoshimura modified Suzuki GS 1000. It was actually nearly impossible to ride on the street. So I'm having Bikeworx rebuild the engine, repaint it and the frame, and add all the silly things that the DMV requires such as turn signals, horns, that sort of safety nonsense. So for those of you who care, here is a pic of the bottom half of the engine and transmission. With a little luck, when I'm not soldering uber expensive op-amps into inexpensive gear I'll be riding this.  Posted by Picasa

Inside the Pro-Ject Headphone Amplifier

It's only fair that if I show you the insides of the Rega EAR I also show you the insides of the Pro-Ject Mk II. Keep in mind that while the Pro-Ject has more parts in it than the Rega, it's case is half the size. Most of the Rega's ingides is air.

Something I forgot to mention in my last post is that another way in which the build of the Head Box is superior to the EAR is that it uses a double sided board with massive ground and power planes. This means less noise, lower power supply impedance. It also allows the board designer to run direct, short traces from one section to another.

It's clear from looking at the design that the designer worked very hard to keep the audio signal paths optimized, and any radiated EMI from the power supply away from them as much as possible. This is why the power supply caps are crammed in the way they are, and also why there's a mix of 470uF 25V caps and 1,000 uF 16V in there as well. The latter I'm a little worried about, because they are filtering the 15V supply, which gives the caps only about 1V margin of error before they are rated to break down rapidly. A pair of 25 Volt caps would make me feel better about the durability of them. I'll see if I can find some miniatures that will fit. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, January 13, 2007

The Pro-Ject Headphone Amplifier

I'm still looking for good values in headphone amplifiers. As you might recall, I previosly tried the Rega EAR, which was just too expensive and offered too little, and was noisy, so I started looking for something cheap enough that I could leave at work, and maybe give me equal or better value, and maybe be worth modding a little hear and there.

I think I've found it in the Pro-Ject Head Box MKII. The Pro-Ject headphone amplifier has a similar design to the Rega. Meaning, single ended supply, one op-amp driving a discrete amplifier stage. Externally there are two major differences. The price, $99 for the Pro-Ject vs. $299 for the EAR as well as the complete lack of switches on the Head Box. Which I guess makes sense if you are going to put in some BlackGate capacitors that means you'll have to leave the box on all the time anyway. :)

Listening Tests
Right out of the box, the Head Box is significantly quieter than the Rega EAR. I can hear no noise at all except at the loudest setting. It seems to be a little weak on the bass however, and perhaps a little on the treble as well.

Build Quality
The Pro-Ject headphone amp is less expensive than the EAR, but better made, in my opinion. This major difference probably has to do with the power supply filtering. The EAR had about 1,500 uF of filtration, the Head Box around 4,000, with a significant amount of filtration occuring after the voltage regulator.

Just like the EAR, the Pro-Ject amp has to have capacitors at the outputs. They are about half the size of the EAR's so this may account for why I feel the bass just isn't making it all the way through to the headphones.

Future Mods
There are two major areas where you can improve this little box. First is in the capacitors. Replace them all with Panasonic FM's. For the output caps, replace them with 1,000uFs if possible. This should get you some more oomf.

The other area is in the op-amp. There's nothing wrong with the original, but there is nothing great about it either. Socket it and experiment. If you can find an NE5535 to hear what vintage class-A op amps sounded like, I'd recommend it. :)

I'll post as I apply the mods.