Dust and grime are the enemy of any vinyl playback system. That’s especially true of the phono cartridge – and the stylus, in particular. DS Audio has come up with an ingeniously simple, user-friendly and effective solution.
Keeping the stylus of a phono cartridge clean is one of the most important regimens when it comes to vinyl playback. And while ridding the records themselves of dust and grime is relatively simple, the delicacy of a stylus makes cleaning it a little more challenging.
There are many theories about the best way to do so: from a simple camel hair brush and vibrating carbon fibre pads to a dab of alcohol, or various cleaning solutions and gels.
I’ve been a believer in that simple camel hair brush for decades, and if you use it carefully after each play of a record side, there shouldn’t be any issues. Gunk and fluff never get a chance to accumulate.
That said, it’s a good idea to take a close, careful look at the stylus tip from time to time, ideally through a microscope, or a strong jeweller’s loupe to get an accurate idea of how clean that tip really is.
DS Audio is best known for its innovative optical-based phono cartridges. Unlike conventional moving magnet or moving coil cartridges, which feature coils and magnet arrays to transform the minute movements of the stylus into a signal, the optical cartridge reads the stylus movements optically.
Its protagonists insist that this is a more accurate and less compromised way to extract the musical information form the record’s groove. Be that as it may, it still requires some clever engineering to get right.
I haven’t auditioned a DS Audio optical cartridge yet, but I’ve been using something else from the company’s product catalogue: the ST-50 stylus cleaner. And while it’s nowhere near as complex as an optical cartridge, it does exude both craftsmanship and innovation.
The ST-50 consists of a small pad of transparent, sticky material placed in a compact, lidded aluminium case. And I mean compact: the square case measures 42 x 42 mm, and stands just 13 mm tall.
The two-piece polished aluminium case has a grooved base and a slightly smaller lid that fits snugly onto the base. The bottom of the base has a leather covering, which not only looks smart, but also prevents any scratches when the ST-50 is placed on a turntable platter.
For all the fancy casework and finishing, it’s that small, square, sticky pad that does all the hard work. According to DS Audio, it’s made of a specially developed urethane resin normally used for microdust control in clean rooms.
Using the ST-50 is as simple as placing it on the turntable platter (while it’s immobile, of course!) and lowering the stylus onto the pad. The pressure of the vertical tracking force should be enough to efficiently marry the stylus tip to the pad surface.
Raising the tonearm will lift the stylus from the pad, and if there was any dirt, dust or foreign manner, that remains trapped on the sticky pad while the stylus should emerge perfectly clean. Repeating the process once or twice will ensure that more obstinate bits are dislodged, too.
Because of the low profile of the ST-50’s casework, there’s unlikely to be any issue with clearance between the cartridge and the platter. And since you’re using the tonearm lift and the existing tracking force, the stylus and cantilever are never exposed to excessive force.
I used the ST-50 over a six-week period, in conjunction with two different turntables and a variety of cartridges. As mentioned, I try and keep the stylus of those cartridges as clean as possible.
And yet, as soon as I lowered the tip of an Ortofon Quintet Black S onto the ST-50’s pad and lifted it again, it captured a small piece of crud that I hadn’t noticed. I repeated the exercise, and a bit more was released. So much for keeping my cartridges clean.
I had the same experience with the Van Den Hul Frog that’s usually on duty on my Avid Diva II SP/SME 309 deck. Again, the ST-50 found some gunk that had gone unnoticed before.
And so it went: Ortofon Cadenza Black, Hana SL and Benz Micro Wood L – all ended up cleaner under the ST-50’s auspices than when simply using that trusty brush.
Did they carts sound better? Put it this way: a stylus really has to be dirty before you hear a significant sonic difference, but a grubby needle will never track as well, and it won’t do your records any good, either.
So no, I don’t think any of my cartridges had enough accumulated dirt to benefit sonically from the ST-50’s clean-up regime. But I ended up enjoying listening to my decks even more than usual, knowing that the carts were properly pristine.
The bad news? Owning the ST-50 requires a fair outlay – just more than a grand in South African rand terms. But there’s good news, too: this is an investment that, like an accurate VTF gauge, and a protractor that actually works, should last forever.
But what about all the grime and gunge that must build up on the urethane resin pad? All it takes is some cleaning under running water, 30 minutes of drying time and, voila! Ready for another few months of cleaning.
Of course, there are other, cheaper options. But if you want something that’s thoughtfully engineered, works seamlessly, won’t harm that delicate stylus and promises an extended service life, the ST-50 is well worth investigating.
Construction: Solid aluminium casing, leather-clad base
Cleaning pad material: Proprietary urethane resin
Case dimensions (WxDxH): 42 x 42 x 13 mm
Pad dimensions (WxHxD): 28 x 28 x 3 mm
Weight: 28 grams
Croak Audio Exploration
Linn LP12/Ittok LV II/Ortofon Quintet Black S turntable
Avid Diva !! SP/SME 309/Van Den Hul Frog turntable
Ortofon Cadenza Black, Hana SL, Benz Micro Wood L cartridges
Valve Audio Whisper phono stage
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Electrocompaniet EC4.7 pre-amp
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
The audio world is littered with weird accessories that cost a bomb and do little. One could be tempted to categorise the Furutech NCF Booster as one of those – but as it turns out, there’s more to this support/damping system than meets the eye
By now, even the most cynical audio enthusiasts will agree that cables and interconnects can have an effect on the sound of a system. That’s simply because the enhanced conductivity of a well-designed audio cable, and its ability to reject noise and interference through improved shielding, has to pay sonic dividends.
It’s also true that different cable designs, conductor materials and shielding methods lead to different sonic results – and not always positive ones in the context of a specific system. If the concept of an ideal cable is one that conveys the original signal from end to end unmolested, then too many cables still add an own, specific signature.
End-users may use these inherent traits to fine-tune overall system performance, or to make up for system shortcomings, but it’s a path fraught with compromise. Instead, it would be better to opt for cables and interlinks that get closest to ensuring signal integrity, so that the true performance of a system and its components can be identified and (hopefully) enjoyed.
AT FACE VALUE
But what about an accessory that seeks to enhance what’s already there? The Furutech NCF Booster is just such a device. It aims to improve audio system performance by addressing the potential interaction between cables and their immediate environment.
More specifically, it combines cable support and damping functions in a single, elegantly simple device.
The NCF Booster looks like a broad clamp, located on a heavy base via a pair of extendable stainless steel shafts. The bottom part of the clamp has fasteners that allow it to be fixed at any point along the shafts. The top part fits snugly over it, and is fixed via a pair of rubber O-rings.
The NCF Booster can be used to lift thick power and speaker cables from the floor, and to support power cables at the wall plug and/or component receptacle ends. You’ll need quite a few to achieve this in a typical system.
UNDER THE COVERS
Besides supporting cables, Furutech claims that the NFC Booster performs a damping function by virtue of the NCF (Nano-Crystal2 Formula) material it’s constructed from. According to Furutech, the proprietary compound generates negative ions, which eliminate static. It also converts thermal energy into far infrared.
In the Booster, NCF is combined with tiny, nano-sized ceramic particles and carbon fibre which add piezo-electric damping properties to the device, allowing a high degree of electrical and mechanical damping.
If you want a more detailed description, you can find it on the Furutech website here.
Frankly, I was sceptical about just how effective the NCF Booster would be in practice. That despite the fact that the device has been a huge seller in Japan since being launched last year, delaying its availability in other markets, while being showered with praise from various quarters.
I received an array of six NCF Boosters, and decided to kick off by using three to stabilise the power cables at the component receptacle ends of the Naim Uniti2 (used as a pre-amp), the PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp, and the PS Audio DirectStream DAC in my system.
The remaining three NFC Boosters were then used to support the power cables running from the PS Audio P5 power regenerator to the components in the system. The need for height adjustment became very apparent in practice, as it allowed the cables to be lifted well off the floor while also ensuring optimum alignment with the power receptacles of both the P5 and the various system components.
Later, I used four boosters to elevate the speaker cables from the floor, with the two remaining units on the Uniti2 and the Stellar S300. And finally, I moved those two boosters from the Naim and the Stellar, and used them to elevate the power cables.
Each time, I listened to a selection of tracks without the Furutech boosters, then with them positioned in the system, and then again with the devices removed.
I expected the differences to be subtle, if audible at all, so what followed came as a bit of shock!
SOUNDS LIKE …
In the first configuration, with the focus on the power receptacles and power cables, the sound was immediately more lucid and accessible. The staging width increased, and there the sound picture provided a clearer view of the music, specifically as far as the finer nuances were concerned.
On ‘Mama You Been On My Mind’ from Bettye LaVette’s latest release, Things Have Changed, Bettye’s vocals gained additional traction and colour. The simple piano accompaniment was presented with greater impact, and the subtle electric guitar in the background was more prominent, but without disturbing the delicate balance and cohesion of the music.
But the most marked difference, at least in my system, was the extension of the tonal range, specifically in the lower frequency region. Bass notes were recreated with greater urge and intensity, and the music image gained a more solid tonal foundation.
The percussion on ‘The Times They Are A-Changing’ was presented with real impact, and the electric bass gained extra heft and slam, but with a level of definition that allowed the fuzz-edged solo guitar and LaVette’s seasoned vocals to shine with a particularly appealing glow and clarity.
The mix of Cuban big band Orquesta Akokán’s live, warts-and-all eponymous debut is a good test of system resolution, given the sheer breadth of musical action packed into two channels. From exuberant trumpets to swinging trombones, from intricately rendered percussion to an eloquent bass, and a full cast of enthusiastic vocalist, this is a performance filled to the brim with sound.
Again, the NCF Boosters expanded the stage to more easily accommodate the often frenetic musical action, benefiting overall insight and enjoyment. The lower registers gained additional muscle and definition, while the trebles seemed cleaner and more focussed.
‘Your Mind Is On Vacation’ from Holly Cole’s latest release, <Holly>, features the Canadian jazz singer’s sensuous vocals against a backdrop of deep, driving bass, some snappy percussion, and an engrossing interplay between piano and electric keyboards.
Here, the bass was really lifted by the NCF Boosters, gaining both impact and definition, and allowing the rest of the arrangement to come to the fore with greater tonal range and clarity. The result was a better balanced, more accessible sound and ultimately more engaging sound.
The NCF Booster added authority and stature to Ivo Pogorelich’s insightful readings of Mozart’s piano sonatas K283 and K331, allowing the full majesty of the piano to come to the fore. There were some gains in dynamics and imaging, too, but again, it was the foundation and the substance of the music that benefited most.
The results were less pronounced when I moved some of the boosters away from the power cords to lift the speaker cables. Yes, the soundstage still gained accessibility, and there was an enhanced cohesion to the delivery, but the succinctness and extended tonal range was less noticeable.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Thus, I have to conclude that, in this particular system, the power feeds benefited most from the NFC Boosters’ presence – and more so than I would have believed. Clearly, the NCF resin’s damping properties and anti-static properties aren’t only significant, but also benefit ultimate sonic performance.
Of course, the NCF Boosters also tidy up cable runs, and ensure more secure power cord connections at the component receptacle end. And their adjustable height means they can adapt to a wide range of applications.
The price remains the only obstacle. R5 000 a piece seems like a lot of money, especially when you probably need a least a half-dozen. But then, many audiophiles spend that, and more, on a single speaker cable run or interlink set.
In that context, the Furutech NCF Booster represents a fascinating and effective upgrade to high-end systems. – DEON SCHOEMAN
Reduce noise, add transparency and improve tonal depth – yes really!
A typical system needs at least six, if not more – and they aren’t exactly cheap.
Construction: NCF nylon resin base and clamps, stainless steel locating shafts
Base unit: ABS resin body with counterweighted shock-absorbing plate
Support unit: ABS resin and NCF nylon resin
Top clamp unit: stainless steel block and NCF nylon resin
Dimensions: 94 x 99,7 mm
Height: base level – 80 mm. Extended level -140 mm
R5 000 each
The Audio Visual Boutique
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
PS Audio DirectStream DAC with Bridge II
Esoteric UX-3SE universal player
Avid Diva II SP turntable
Sutherland 20/20 phono stage
Naim Uniti2 all-in-one player
PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp
PS Audio P5 power regenerator
TelluriumQ Black, Nordost Tyr and XLO Reference cables and interlinks
Electrocompaniet PI-2D integrated amp
Synology DS213+ NAS
Bettye Lavette – Things Have Changed (Verve 44/16 FLAC)
Holly Cole – Holly (Universal DSD64)
Mozart – Piano Sonatas K283 and K331 – Ivo Pogorelich (DG 44/16 FLAC)
Orquesta Akokán – Orquesta Akokán (Daptone 44/16 FLAC)
In home theatre installations, long cable runs are a challenge – especially if it’s an HDMI cable that needs to be conduit-fed from an AV receiver to a distant, ceiling-mounted projector, for instance. Inakustik has an elegant solution …
The advent of the High-Definition Media Interface (HDMI) more than a decade ago was a godsend for home entertainment enthusiasts and system installers.
It allows a single cable to carry both multichannel audio and high-resolution video, using a robust connector, and promises seamless digital audio and video data transfer between compatible devices, including TVs and monitors, source components and home cinema processors and receivers.
Since HDMI 1.0 was first introduced in the mid-2000s, the amount of data that HDMI cables are typically required to transfer has increased almost exponentially. In video terms alone, we’ve gone from SD to HD to UHD – and already, 8K is looming.
To put that into perspective, high-definition 720p/1080i video requires three times the data compare to 480i standard-definition video. Move up to 1080p, and the HD data stream is doubled again.
Today’s UHD 4K and even 8K video demand even greater data transfer volumes. Similarly, the digital audio requirement has also become more taxing, both in terms of number of channels, as well as the prevalence of object-based surround sound formats such as Dolby Atmos and DTS:X.
STANDARDS, SPEEDS AND LENGTHS
No wonder that the HDMI specification has undergone a continuous series of upgrades, culminating in the most recent HDMI 2.1 standard. It specifies a rated bandwidth of 48 GBps and the ability to cope with up to 10K resolution at 120 Hz, together with dynamic HDR and enhanced refresh rates, among many other capabilities.
One aspect of HDMI cable capabilities that does not seem to be pertinently addressed by the HDMI specification is cable length. However, it is an accepted fact that the longer the cable, the greater the chance of signal degradation.
By the same token, the greater the data volume and data speed transferred, the shorter the cable needs to be to ensure reliable results. Opinions vary about what the maximum cable length should be for high-res, high-data applications, but 3 metres and below appears be considered reliable for HD-compliant cables.
So, what do you when you need to link two components that are considerably further apart? For instance, connecting a ceiling-mounted digital video projector to an AV processor or receiver can easily entail HDMI cable runs of around 15 metres.
That situation can be made even worse if the cable has to be concealed in conduiting, and has to follow a circuitous route in the interests of a clean, invisible installation. Suddenly, 15 metres can become 25 metres, or more.
Having to conceal the cable also introduces another practical problem: the standard HDMI connector itself is often too bulky to fit through conduits, necessitating either the use of a larger-diameter conduit or an even longer cable run.
One solution to overcome the signal degradation associated with long HDMI cable runs is to use a so-called active cable, which usually entails the use of separately powered in-line boosters and amplifiers, further complicating the installation.
AT FACE VALUE
German cable specialist Inakustik has a more elegant answer to both the signal degradation associated with cable length, and the limitations presented by the standard, bulky HDMI connector in concealed installations.
Its Pro Micro fibre optic-based HDMI 2.0 cable can be used over extended distances, and uses micro-HDMI connectors with adapters to make it easier to feed the cable through narrow conduiting. It also doesn’t require a separate power source.
The Pro Micro is HDMI 2.0 compliant, which means it supports HDCP 2.2, Extended Display ID, and HDR. It is meant to reliably transfer 4K UHD video at 50/60 Hz and 4:4:4 over cable runs of up to 100 metres, at a maximum data rate of 18 GBps. Audio Return Channel functionality is guaranteed, too, but only for runs of up to 50 metres.
The fibre optic cable is directional, and terminated with micro-HDMI plugs that have a compact diameter of only 14,5 mm. The all-metal slimline plugs come with metal adapters that transform the micro-HDMI terminals to standard-sized HDMI versions. These are fitted once the cable has been pushed/pulled through the conduit.
The Pro Micro HDMI cable has been designed to draw its power from the HDMI port of the source component. However the adapter also makes provision for connecting a separate, dedicated power source if required.
I used a 10m length of Inakustik Micro 2.0 HDMI cable between our regular Marantz SR6011 AV receiver and the Optoma HD80 DLP projector installed in a ceiling-mount position in the AVSA listening room. Providing the source signal was an Oppo BDP-95EU universal deck.
The distance between receive rand projector is about 5m, but given the cable path, using conduiting into the ceiling, and then running the cable along the wall before tacking across to the projector, required almost all of the 10m cable reviewed here.
Installation was a simple plug-and-play affair. The cable is provided on a handy reel that keeps it tangle-free during the installation process. Inakustik provides a clever little plastic housing that slips over the actual micro-connector, and protects the termination during the installation procedure.
The actual cable is relatively thin and round, with a smooth, black PVC sheath that was easily pulled through some existing (and cable-crowded) conduiting in the AVSA listening room. As mentioned, the cable is directional, and the connectors are clearly marked ‘source’ and ‘display’.
Tactile quality is impressive. The micro HDMI plugs on either side are made of solid metal, with anodised aluminium housings, and gold-plated connectors. The full-size HDMI adapter slides onto the micro-HDMI connector via an integrated groove that ensures perfect alignment and a snug, positive fit.
If external power is required, the adapter includes a power socket directly below the micro HDMI, which accepts the dedicated jack-to-USB cable provided. The cable can then be coupled to any generic USB charger.
I ran the Inakustik in tandem with the existing cable, made possible by the fact that the Optoma has two HDMI inputs, and that the Marantz offers two HDMI outputs (although the second output doesn’t offer ARC, which is relevant in this set-up anyway). This allowed back-to-back comparisons.
WORKS LIKE …
Once connected, the Optoma instantly recognised the incoming signal and locked onto it – a process that can take 10 to 15 sec with our existing, older generation HDMI cable. That alone was a good indication of signal strength and integrity.
I then used the Inakustik cable to watch a number of favourite Blu-ray titles – unfortunately, we don’t have 4K capability in our evaluation room. I’d be lying if I told you I saw a massive difference in image in quality, compared to the system’s performance with our own cable.
That said, I subjectively found the colour reproduction achieved with the Inakustik slightly more vivid, with subtly improved contrast levels and better low-light detail. This could be proof that the existing cable suffers from some signal degradation to its length, while the Inakustik showed no sign of any untoward artefacts.
For instance, I felt that the many gloomy scenes in Star Wars: The Last Jed’ were delivered with greater clarity and detail, and that fast-moving action sequences in Inception appeared to be rendered with crisper realism.
The improvements were subtle rather than groundbreaking, but still repeatable and noticeable across all the material I compared. In my opinion, that made them significant enough to warrant the investment in the optical cable upgrade – and a must-have scenario where cable runs are even greater than the 10m length tested here.
I’m the first to admit that it makes sense to assume that all HDMI cables compliant with a particular set of measurable standards should deliver performances that are technically and qualitative identical. That’s why the standards are set in the first place.
However, real-world applications can still show up differences – sometimes due to simple variances such as termination, connector fit, shielding etc. The Inakustik Pro Micro’s fibre optic construction should make it more resistant to the potential interference that could plague conventional cables.
Just what impact the Inakustik cable will have when compared to ‘normal’ HDMI cables of the same 2.0 standard will depend on many factors, not least of which will be the quality of the installation, the distances involved, and the capability of the system components.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The InAkustik Pro Micro operated flawlessly in our system. It was easy to install, and both the design and the quality of the connectors was impressive, suggesting both performance and longevity.
The video performance improvements may have been subjective and subtle, but the overall value proposition is compelling. That’s especially true where longer cable runs and inaccessible installations demand a HDMI solution that is bulletproof and technically uncompromised, while consistently delivering the AV goods.
And that’s exactly what the InAkustik Pro Micro does.
Type: Active fibre optic HDMI cable
HDMI standard: V2.0
Review sample length: 10m
Maximum recommended length: 100m
Bandwidth/data rate: 18 GBps
Video performance: 4K @ 50/60 Hz, 4:4:4
Supported features: HDCP 2.0, EDID, HDR, ARC (up to 50m)
Accessories included: Micro-HDMI to HDMI adapter, USB DC power cable
Micro-HDMI connector dimensions (LxWxH): 35,5 x 13,7 x 9,8 mm
Micro-HDMI connector diameter: 14,5 mm
Optoma HD80 DLP projector
Oppo BDP-95EU universal player
Marantz SR-6011 AV receiver
Atlantic Technology 7.1 surround sound speaker system
Eyes Wide Shut (Blu-ray)
Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Blu-ray)
Can a loudspeaker cable really make a difference? While the sceptics may shake their heads, it makes sense that optimising signal transfer will enhance sonic performance. The Inakustik Reference LS-2404 proves the point quite succinctly …
German brand Inakustik might be a relative newcomer to South Africa, but it produces an extensive range of audio and AV cables, interlinks and accessories, all topped by its Reference Series. The Reference LS-2404 Air is a high-end loudspeaker cable available in various terminations.
The key features of the LS-2404 include low capacitance and inductance, and an innovative air helix structure that effectively spaces the individual conductors in a consistent helix pattern. The result is a free-air configuration that uses the air as a dielectric to ensure extremely low capacitance.
Inakustik uses specially designed spacer clips at preset intervals to achieve and maintain the helix structure. Ingeniously, the clip construction also allows exceptional flexibility, despite the considerable 2,5 cm girth of the cable, making it easy to install.
AT FACE VALUE
The LS-2404 Air is a thick but lightweight cable that conceals its complex, air dielectric-based construction under a pliable polyethylene jacket finished in an unusual but attractive metallic brown.
It’s available in various terminations, configurations and lengths, but the 3,0 metre length example tested here was biwire-capable, with a single pair of friction banana connectors on the amplifier side, and a dual pair on the speaker side.
The connectors are rhodium plated and look and feel the top-class part. Other termination options include spades, lugs, adjustable bananas, and more.
UNDER THE COVERS
The LS-2404 Air employs eight high-purity, oxygen-free copper conductors, each consisting of 24 0,25 mm copper wires braided around a polyethylene core. Each individual copper wire features a thin insulating coating to prevent eddy currents.
The braiding of the copper wiring, which arranges the wires in an opposed stranding pattern, addresses the powerful magnetic fields created by the currents flowing through the cables during use.
The dual-layer, multicore arrangement of the cable’s eight conductors means they overlap to further neutralise the magnetic fields created by the individual conductors. This results in low inductance.
Finally, the thin and flexible polyethylene sheath was chosen ahead of other materials, as each additional material affects the cable’s electrical characteristics, according to Inakustik.
By using a polyethylene sheath, the LS-2404 Air uses only copper and PE in its entire construction: a PE core for the eight conductors, and the PE jacket that protects the assembled cable.
For this review, we used the LS-2404 Air in conjunction with Inakustik’s cable supports, which consist of an anodised aluminium alloy support base with twin elastomer bands to hold the cable in place.
The support rests on a gel pad that provides mechanical and capacitave decoupling. The cable can either be supported on top of the elastomer bands, or securely between them, and the bands are height-adjustable in three steps.
The support system is designed to prevent the loudspeaker cable from being exposed to mechanical interference, such as vibrations, from the floor, while isolating it from the floor also reduces capacitance.
Click here for more technical details on the Inakustik Reference cables.
SOUNDS LIKE …
The first impression of these German-made cables was of an ease of flow and a natural rhythm that made listening to even favourite recordings an enjoyable journey of rediscovery. The music gained a new accessibility and appeal that rekindled old friendships and forged new ones.
A key element of the cable’s performance was its ability to foster transparency, allowing the music to shrug off any electronic artefacts or influences, and to be delivered with a natural and almost organic purity.
That transparency also benefited the cable’s penchant for a generously rendered soundstage that allowed the musical image to be presented with vibrancy and vigour. The sonic image wasn’t only finely focussed, but dimensionally precise, ensuring an engaging listening experience.
I particularly enjoyed the way the cable allowed the impetus and intent of the music to be communicated with an easy assurance that never sounded forced or exaggerated, but allowed the essence and vitality of the performance to be highlighted.
Bass notes were reproduced with depth and power, but never to the point of overwhelming the listener, while seamlessly progressing into a smooth and full midrange.
The trebles were clean and revealing, and while there was a slight tendency towards brightness that exposed any edge or brittleness in the original recording, the highs never became uncompromising, focusing on exploring fine detail instead.
The atmospheric ‘When Love Is Not Enough’ from the Ben Harper/Charlie Musselwhite collaboration No Mercy In This Land was rendered with a clarity and sense of purpose that allowed the ambience of the recording, the timbre of the piano, the twang of the lead guitar and the emotive texture of the vocals to be portrayed with spine-tingling realism.
The clarity of the sound picture placed each instrument precisely across a sprawling stage, while the image itself was expansive, spreading the music wide and deep, and inviting the listener to become closely involved in the music.
The cable’s talent for almost surround sound-like, cinematic dimensionality was commendably demonstrated by the admittedly gimmicky but strangely fascinating title track off the Friends Of Mr Cairo set, a collaboration between Yes frontman Jon Anderson and keyboardist extraordinaire Vangelis.
The cables ensured that the Anderson’s falsetto vocals, often multi-tracked, were precisely juxtaposed against the complex melange of special effects and Vangelis’ regal electronic accompaniment.
Arguably one of the most enjoyable and articulate modern readings of Mozart’s No. 25 and 26 Piano Concertos is that by Francesco Piemontesi, in conjunction with conductor Andrew Manze and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra.
Piemontesi’s piano sounds liquid and authoritative in equal measures, while the orchestra perfectly complements the solo instrument’s vivacity and virtuosity. The recording is accurate and inviting, capturing the music without frills or artifice.
The Inakusitik cable was perfectly capable of revealing and presenting both the intricacies and the impetus of the music, while also allowing the accuracy and the scale of the recording to shine through.
Here, the leading edges of the piano’s upper registers tended to reflect the cable’s slightly critical treatment of high frequencies, but never to the overall detriment of the music.
A quick note on the Inakustik cable base supports: while their influence on the sound in my system and listening room was limited, there’s no doubt that they are worth considering, especially in environments such as wooden-floored rooms, where vibration is an issue.
During the review, comparing the sound with and without the supports didn’t yield substantial differences, although I felt that the midrange was more lucid, and there were subtle benefits in terms of soundstage size.
From a purely aesthetic perspective, they certainly benefited the presentation of the cable – and frankly, this isn’t a loudspeaker cable you want to tuck away: it should be proudly displayed!
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Inakustik LS-2404 Air is by no means a cheap loudspeaker cable, but in the rarefied environment of high-end cabling, you’d expect its combination of innovative construction, quality materials and meticulous construction to command an even higher asking price.
More than any other attribute, I liked the cable’s ability to express the flow and pace of the music, which not only allowed it to capture more of the essence of the music, but also opened the door to a greater appreciation of the performance as a whole.
While audio components often focus on dissecting the sound in search of elusive detail and resolution, the Inakustik LS-2404 Air places the emphasis on the total musical experience – and succeeds admirably.
Cable type: Bi-wire loudspeaker cable
Construction: Air Helix, multi-conductor
Conductors: Eight high-purity OFC
Conductor construction: 24-strand cross-braided around PE core
Sheath: Woven polyethylene
Connectors: Bananas, rhodium-plated
Cable length: 3,0 metres
Cable diameter: 25 mm
R58 000 (3 metre pair)
Mark Levinson No. 523 pre-amplifier
PS Audio Stellar M700 monoblocks
PS Audio DirectStream DAC/Bridge II
Vivid Audio V1.5 loudspeakers
Synology DS213+ NAS
TelluriumQ Black speaker cable
TelluriumQ Black and XLO Reference XLR interlinks
PS Audio P10 power conditioner
Ben Harper/Charlie Musselwhite – No Mercy In This Land (Anti- 44/16 FLAC)
Jon and Vangelis – The Friends Of Mr Cairo (Polydor/Universal 44/16 WAV)
WA Mozart – Piano Concerto Nos. 25 & 26 – Francesco Piemontesi/Andrew Manze/Scottish Chamber Orchestra (Linn Records 192/24 FLAC)
The PS Audio LANRover makes it easy to overcome the 5m distance limit between connected USB devices. But there’s a lot more to this little box of tricks …
Anyone who has wanted to a laptop or a desktop computer to a standalone DAC via USB will know that this link-up is often hampered by the 5m cable length limitation between USB connections.
That’s fine if you DAC is a USB DAC/headphone amp parked on your desktop, next to your Mac or PC. But what if the DAC is in an equipment rack on the other side? Or if your computer/music server is actually in a different room altogether?
Because USB often offers the highest-resolution D/A conversion path, it’s often preferred above coaxial, AES/EBU or Toslink options. Yes, you could set up a headless Mac or PC in your audio rack to serve music to the DAC via USB, but that would be considered overkill by many.
Enter the PS Audio LANRover – a USB extender system that comprises a sender and receiver unit. Sender and receiver are linked using CAT5e or CAT6 network cabling, which allows a cable distance of up to 100m between sender and receiver.
In other words, you could have a computer in your study, and an audio system in the lounge, and link the two via your Ethernet-based home network using the LANRover sender/receiver system. Problem solved.
But the LANRover offers more than just a convenient, network-based USB connection. In fact, it’s what it does to the sound that is actually its strongest talent.
AT FACE VALUE
The two units that make up the LANRover system are small and innocuous, but well finished. Both sender and receiver feature all-metal enclosures with ribbed sides, and exude a reassuring air of robust build quality.
The sender unit is self-powered (it draws the 5V it needs from the computer’s USB port) and connects to a laptop via a USB Type B. There’s an RJ45 Ethernet socket at the other end. Four LED indicator lights indicate power, signal lock, host status, and signal transmission status.
The receiver unit is powered by a wall wart-type PSU, and also offers an RJ45 socket for accepting Ethernet-borne signals. It features the same array of indicator LEDs, and a USB Type B socket which outputs the digital audio signal to a USB-equipped DAC.
The LANRover comes with a short Ethernet cable, and a slightly longer USB Type A/B cable. PS Audio says the cable between the source component and the sender unit is less critical than the USB link between the receiver unit and the DAC, so if you have a fancy aftermarket cable, use it between the LANRover receiver and your DAC.
UNDER THE COVERS
There are two reasons to use a LANRover system, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Firstly, it offers a convenient and effective way to use USB connectivity to link a source component (like the MacBook Pro in my system) to a DAC that’s some distance away.
However, perhaps even more importantly, the LANRover gets rid of computer-generated noise in the process. It does so by isolating the source of that noise – the computer – from the DAC. The sender and receiver are galvanically isolated from the source computer and DAC respectively.
In that role, it therefore acts as what PS Audio terms an isolation regenerator. The LANRover creates a new, packetized data stream that doesn’t utilise the usual USB protocols, and thus sheds any noise, jitter or current and voltage spikes present in the data stream.
The clean, newly generated digital data stream is transmitted to the receiver via Ethernet, and is impervious to any interference, regardless of distance. The receiver reconstructs the packetized data stream and feeds it to the DAC – thus ensuring flawless transfer of a pure digital data stream, without any artefacts.
So, you get the convenience of long-range USB-based asynchronous data transfer without the usual 5 m restriction, as well as a cleaner, purer digital data stream.
Even if you don’t need the extended cable distance, then the isolation of source and endpoint, together with the regeneration of the data stream should be more than enough reason to consider the (significant) investment in a LANRover.
I tested the LANRover by hooking up my 13-inch MacBook Pro to the sender unit using a Furutech GT2 USB Type A to Type B cable, and then connecting the sender to my wired listening room network via a D-Link switch located close to my desk with a generic Ethernet cable.
The receiver unit was also connected to the same network via Ethernet, but this time to a TP-Link switch located on the audio equipment rack. A Furutech GT2 Pro USB cable was then used to couple the LANRover receiver to my PS Audio DirectStream DAC.
The DAC in turn fed a Naim Uniti2 operating as a pre-amp, with a PS Audio Stellar 300 power amp delivering the urge to a pair of Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers.
SOUNDS LIKE …
While I initially assumed that the LANRover’s core role would be to overcome the 5m USB cable length limit, it turns out that the system’s real benefit lies in the way it isolates the source computer from the receiving DAC, ridding the digital data stream of all artefacts in the process..
This enhanced signal transfer process, and especially the absence of noise and jitter, makes a substantial, audible difference to the sound. The delivery is smoother, more detailed and more transparent than any conventional USB connection between a computer and a DAC I’ve heard.
I’d wager that anyone who hears the difference will want a LANRover for the sonic improvements it offers alone, regardless of the added convenience provided by an almost unrestricted data transfer distance.
Listening to JazzMeia Horn’s acrobatic vocals on ‘Tight’ off her debut set, A Social Call, the bustling upright bass sounded better defined, with improved detail microdetail, while Horn’s voice soared with greater freedom. The stage gained enhanced three-dimensionality, leading to a greater sense of engagement. The little boxes not only allowed the USB connection to reveal more detail, but also to contextualise that information more effectively, so that the music sounded more authentic.
Steven Wilson’s To The Bone was delivered with an almost visceral intensity that captured the complex harmonies, heroic guitars, crashing percussion and intricate arrangements to thrilling effect. The approach was lean, pacey and muscular, with a strong thread of transparency ensuring full, glorious access to the music.
Tonally, the high frequencies sounded smoother but also more clearly defined, allowing greater insight into the soul and the subtleties of the recording. Tonal linearity appeared to benefit too, and the overall presentation was both more impactful, and more believable.
These traits remained consistent regardless of the material listened to. Large scale recordings with complex arrangements such as the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto became more lucid and approachable, while clarity was a particularly consistent theme throughout.
I thought that DSD files benefited most from the LANRover’s attentions, perhaps because the additional resolution they offer provided greater scope for the system’s revelatory talents. But the improvements were equally unequivocal when listening to normal 16/44 WAV files or 192/24 FLACs.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The LANRover system is an outstanding example of intelligent engineering addressing the inherent shortcomings of USB-based signal transfer in both practical and sonic terms.
While extending USB cable range beyond the usual 5m margin is an attractive feature, it’s the impact the LANRover has on sound performance that is its primary talent. Indeed, it becomes very difficult to live without it once you’ve experienced those sonic benefits.
Yes, the pricing is on the steep side, but think of it this way: many audiophiles spend a lot more on a single pair of interlinks. Given the practical and sonic benefits, investing in a PS Audio LANRover system will always be money well spent. But you’ll have to hurry – according PS Audio, production is ending, due to limited demand. Which makes the LANRover all the more desirable.
Empathically unveils USB-delivered music. Extends USB range, too.
More expensive than expected.
PL Computer Systems.
Late 2011 13-inch MacBook Pro, 2,7 GHz Intel Core i7, 8 GB RAM, 1TB SSD
TP Link and D-Link 10/100/1000 Ethernet switches
PS Audio DirectStream DAC
PS Audio Stellar S300 power amp
Vivid Audio V1.5 speakers
Furutech GT2 and GT2 Pro USB cables
Steven Wilson – To The Bone (Caroline 44/16 FLAC)
Jazzmeia Horn – A Social Call (Prestige 44/16 FLAC)
Tchaikovsky – Violin Concerto – Nemanja Radulovic/Sascha Goetzel/Istanbul Philarmonic (DG 96/24 FLAC)
Boston – Boston (Epic/Sony DSD64)
At face value, the Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 look like stylish wireless speakers. But as it turns out, their talent set extends well beyond that description: they’re part of the MusicCast ecosystem, and they offer some clever surround capabilities, too.
Wireless, Bluetooth-capable lifestyle loudspeakers have become all the rage. They come in a broad range of sizes, applications and capabilities, ranging from small and basic to smarter, larger and more expensive offerings.
The Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 are relative newcomers to the brand’s product line-up and also join the burgeoning MusicCast ecosystem. The latter fact provides some indication that these compact, elegantly styled units are capable of more than their appearance suggests.
As you can see from the accompanying images, the smaller WX-021 is a compact, cylindrical device, while the larger WX-051 has an oval shape. Functionally, the two share virtually identical feature sets.
The major difference relates directly to their size. The WX-021’s more compact form factor makes it easier to place, even in smaller spaces, while the larger WX-051 has a bigger footprint and is heavier too.
However, the WX-051’s more generous dimensions allow it to accommodate different and larger drive units, and more powerful amplifiers, which translates into a bigger sonic performance – better suited to larger spaces, in other words.
It also offers the ability to connect ancillary components via a pair of auxiliary analogue inputs and a Toslink optical digital input, further boosting its versatility.
AT FACE VALUE
Both Yamahas are available in white or black, with the former perhaps the more glamorous choice, while the black looks smart, but in a pragmatic and businesslike way.
A glossy-finished top panel is home to a touch-sensitive control set, while much of the speaker body is enclosed by a fine metal mesh to protect the driver complement.
Concealed at the rear of the base is a receptacle for the supplied AC power cord, as well as an Ethernet port for wired connection to a home network. There’s also a USB port, but it’s meant for service use only, and won’t accept any USB-based storage devices.
As already mentioned, the WX-051 gets additional input options. These include a stereo minijack socket and a stereo RCA input set, as well as a Toslink optical digital input, allowing connection of ancillaries such as a TV set or a CD player, for instance.
Despite their compact size, the two Yamahas are surprisingly heavy, endowing them with a reassuringly solid, quality feel. The bases have a rubberised outline to ensure stability, even on smooth surfaces.
The WX-021 can also be wall mounted, thanks to the provision of a mounting aperture on the rear panel. But given its 2,2 kg weight, make sure the wall mount is sturdy, and screwed deeply enough into the wall to support the speaker.
As mentioned, the WX-21 and WX-051 belong to Yamaha’s MusicCast ecosystem, which means they’re part of a dedicated, networked multiroom system that allows any number of MusicCast-compatible devices to be linked, wired or wirelessly, across a home network.
They can be used to seamlessly share source content, and to be controlled either individually or collectively via Yamaha’s MusicCast app, available for Android and iOS devices.
The MusicCast ecosystem is being expanded continuously and not only includes wireless speakers such as the duo under scrutiny here, but also AV receivers, soundbars and even subwoofers.
Already, it’s possible to put together a completely wireless AV system comprising a MusicCast-compatible AV receiver, soundbar, subwoofer and surrounds – an appealing prospect that I managed to put to the test during this review.
That system could then be one of several MusicCast zones in a home also featuring more WX-021s and WX-051s in other zones around the home.
You can also link two WX-021s or WX-051s together, forming a stereo pair operating in a single zone. Frankly, the possibilities are endless, while the app-based control system is seamless, and user-friendly.
UNDER THE COVERS
One of the reasons for the WX-021’s substantial mass relative to its size is the fact that it contains no less than four drivers: a 30mm soft-dome tweeter, a 90mm mid/bass driver, and a pair of passive radiators.
The bass radiators are a more accurate and effective alternative to a conventional bass port, especially in the context of the compact enclosure, and the fact that it’s also crammed with 40 watts worth of digital amplification.
Each driver gets its own amplifier – a 15-watter for the tweeter, and a 25 watt amp for the mid/bass driver, for 40 watts of total system power.
The WX-051 ups the output ante by linking a pair of 100mm woofers to a duo of 30 mm soft-dome tweeters. Two 35 watt amplifiers – one for the tweeters, one for the woofers – deliver a combined system power output of 70 watts.
Both enclosures feature a lot of sturdy, solid and acoustically inert composites, which ensures the drive units operate off a stable, resonance-free platform.
Remember, this is not a portable, rechargeable speaker, but an altogether more sophisticated device, designed to deliver room-filling sound despite its compact enclosure.
Also not apparent is just how extensive the feature set of these two MusicCast speakers is as far as connectivity, source selection and music file compatibility are concerned. Network connectivity is either via the 10/100 Ethernet port, or wirelessly using the 802.11 Wi-Fi protocol.
I’ve already discussed the Yamahas’ membership of the MusicCast family and the possibilities that opens, but source versatility is impressive.
Unlike the WX-051, the WX-021 can’t be physically connected to any source components such as a CD player or a TV, but the MusicCast app does allow both speakers to be linked to a host of on-line and network-linked sources.
These include Tidal, Deezer and Spotify Connect, as well as Qobuz and Napster (which are not available in SA). Internet radio is well supported, including a powerful search engine, and the ability to store favourite stations.
Since the WX-021 and WX-51 are DLNA and UPnP compatible, they will recognise and play source material saved on network-attached storage (NAS) devices on the same network, as long as the files are compatible with the speakers’ capabilities.
File types supported include WAV, MP3, WMA, MPEG-4, AAC, FLAC, ALAC and AIFF. Lossless formats are supported up to 192 kHz/24-bit resolution, but the Yamahas aren’t compatible with DSD files.
Bluetooth 4.2 using the AAC and SBC codecs (but not apt-X, sadly) makes it easy for any Bluetooth device (smart devices, audio players, laptop computers) to stream content to the Yamaha. It’s also AirPlay2 compatible, which allows iOS devices to serve the Yamaha with content.
Finally, the WX-021 can be controlled using Amazon Alexa voice commands, as long as you have a Connect ID and an Alexa-enabled device.
I ran the WX-021 and WX-051 in various configurations. Local Yamaha importer/distributor Balanced Audio provided a pair of each of the speakers, which allowed me to try them individually, in different zones, and together as a stereo pair.
I was also able to check out their capabilities in a surround sound role, wirelessly linked to a Yamaha RX-A3080 AV receiver (review pending) via the MusicCast app, with the YAS-408 MusicCast-capable soundbar/subwoofer combo (review also pending) taking care of the front and LFE channels.
Connecting and activating the speakers was relatively simple, although getting the Wi-Fi connection to work in the AVSA listening studio was made more difficult by the poor Wi-Fi connectivity. Still, I eventually got it all to work – and in situations where the Wi-Fi signal isn’t compromised the process is quick and simple.
The MusicCast app is intuitive and reasonably well laid out, but enjoys being viewed on a larger screen than my regular iPhone 5S – an iPad Mini 4 was a far better choice, offering ample screen real estate to browse the app’s varied controls and functions.
The app allows rudimentary tone adjustment via sliders for trebles, mids and lows, as well as the choice of a bass boost function. I ran the tone settings flat, but ended up using the bass boost for the extra low-end authority it provided, without muddying the sound.
Starting off with the smaller WX-021, I was taken by surprise by the speaker’s rich, full sound which belied its compact size. It delivered its wares with a real sense of presence that’s unusual for a standalone speaker, let alone one as diminutive as this one.
There was plenty of volume potential for the Yamaha to be used in even larger rooms and open-plan spaces.
The WX-021 is inherently a forgiving speaker, making the most of what it’s offered – including MP3 files, and lossy, low-bandwidth Internet radio. By the same token, it rewarded quality source files with a sound that took on a distinctly hi-fi-esque nature in terms of tonal breadth, headroom and pace.
Indeed, the WX-021 never really sounded like a small, single point-source speaker – there was an omni-directionality to the delivery that allowed for a substantive, tonally saturated and authentic performance.
Of particular note was the ability of the speaker to establish a more than adequate low-frequency foundation, linked to a fattish but well controlled midrange and sweet but detailed tops.
Sound quality apart, it was the sheer ease of use, and the Yamaha’s ability to draw from a wide range of on-line sources, as well as its ability to communicate with other MusicCast components, that made it an impressive example of the wireless music art.
Predictably, the WX-051 eclipsed its more compact sibling in every sonic department – which is saying something, given just how engaging tonally expansive the WX-021 turned out to be. It certainly played louder when required, and reached lower too, while delivering an even fuller, more generous and more immersive sound.
Again, I was struck by the substance of the sound: the fact that I was listening to a single speaker instead of a stereo pair never got in the way of enjoying the music.
There was plenty of pace, too, with good rendition of even finer detail, and an overall sense of clarity that allowed unhindered access to the music’s essence.
If stereo is a must-have, you can pair two WX-051s or WX-021s together to create a compact, stylish and completely wire-free stereo system. The results were astonishingly good, with fine focus, excellent imaging and generous staging.
In smaller spaces, a pair of WX-021s configured in stereo made a compelling case for replacing a more conventional, bulkier and cable-connected set-up. The inconspicuous presence of the two speakers, the convenience of wireless operation, and the versatility of the MusicCast system further added to their appeal.
Replacing the WX-021s with the larger WX-051s further strengthened the concept’s attraction, offering more urge, more muscle and more headroom, together with a meatier sound that ensured enhanced presence, but retained the airy imaging and clear detail of the WX-021s.
Both WX models performed satisfactorily in a wireless surround role, although their appeal relies more on the convenience of their wireless status any specific sonic prowess. Certainly, they were up to the surround job, but in voicing terms, they didn’t seamlessly match the front channel performance of the YS-408.
Granted, the surround sound role is arguably less critical than the front channel delivery, but a system where the WX-021s and WX-051s would be able to perform LCR and surround roles would offer a more sonically seamless performance.
For now, though, the WX speakers can only be implemented in a surround role.
Setting up the WX-021s and WX-051s as individual rooms or zones in a multiroom system – a core feature of the MusicCast ecosystem – was a quick and easy process, and once completed, allowed centralised control of each room/zone from the app.
The only proviso is that all the speakers have to be connected (wirelessly, or via Ethernet) to the same network. You can get all zones to play the same source material simultaneously, or choose different source material for each zone, while also controlling the volume of each room independently.
Again, it’s a case of an elegant solution offering convenient installation and intuitive operation, while delivering decent sound, too.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Yamaha WX-021 and larger WX-051 changed my perception of single-speaker sound in primarily background music applications completely. Both speakers sound dynamic and substantial enough to enjoy the music they’re playing, without feeling short-changed on the sonic front.
Yes, the delivery isn’t stereo, but then, you’re not analysing soundstaging and imaging while pottering around the kitchen, relaxing on the patio, or reading in the family room. In a single-speaker role, they have more than enough presence and momentum to make the music enjoyable.
However, as MusicCast speakers, the ability of these WX models to be linked as stereo pairs, operate as surrounds, and to be incorporated into a user-friendly and aesthetically pleasing multiroom system, elevates their appeal far beyond the single speaker role.
Add to that their ability to draw material from a variety of sources – including Bluetooth and Apple AirPlay – as well as their compatibility with Amazon’s Alexa voice command system, and the Yamaha WX-021 and WX-051 emerge as innovative home entertainment solutions with convenience, versatility, appealing aesthetics and satisfying sonics on their side.
Yamaha WX-021 MusicCast
Power output: 40 watts (1 kHz, 10% THD)
– 1x 30mm soft-dome tweeter
– 1x 90mm mid/bass driver
– 2x 90mm passive radiators
Connectivity: 802,11 Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet
Wireless: Bluetooth V4.2 and Apple AirPlay 2
Supported file formats: WAV, MP3, WMA, MP4 AAC, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF
Dimensions (WxHxD): 150 x 186 x 130 mm
Weight: 2,2 kg
Yamaha WX-051 MusicCast
Power output: 70 watts (1 kHz, 10% THD)
– 2x 30mm soft-dome tweeters
– 2x 100mm mid/bass drivers
Connectivity: 802.11 Wi-Fi, 10/100 Ethernet
Inputs: Toslink digital optical, stereo minijack, stereo RCA
Wireless: Bluetooth V4.2 and Apple AirPlay 2
Supported file formats: WAV, MP3, WMA, MP4 AAC, FLAC, ALAC, AIFF
Dimensions (WxHxD): 400 x 112186 x 200 mm
Weight: 4,5 kg
WX-021: R5 380
WX-051: R8 080