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