Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Ultra Budget Stereo - NuForce Icon uDAC + Topping TP20 + Cambridge Audio S30

While consumer-grade stereo systems as we have known them (2400w PMPO etc.,) are inexorably moving towards extinction, they are being replaced by an even more lamentable invention known as the 'home theater in a box' (HTIB).  HTIBs, while serviceable for films, do such an awful job of reproducing music that one wonders if humankind is collectively going deaf.  But when Joe Consumer sets out to buy a sound system with 15,000 rupees in his wallet, chances are that he'll come home with an HTIB and feel utterly satisfied because he has acquired a minimum of 6 speakers and a right mess of wires.  Surely something so elaborate and complicated can't sound bad.

One can't blame Joe Consumer entirely.  When he walks into a big-box retailer, he has very few options.  If he wants audio, an HTIB is what will be thrust in his face.  Even if he were to be particularly enterprising, he would at best come home with one of a mere handful of stereo systems from companies like Sony or LG.  Poor Mr. Consumer would have almost certainly missed out on a much better use of his Rs. 15,000, namely the setup that is under review here.

Readers of Play It Clear (all two of you...hi mom) will be familiar with the Topping TP20 amplifier.  This 80 USD giant-killer has been reviewed extensively and has also become quite a rage among the users of HiFiVision. With its frankly ridiculous price-performance ratio, you'd really have to think of a reason NOT to spend about Rs. 3600 on this pint-sized performer.

The challenge was to find a source and speakers that could come close to the Topping in terms of value, and match with the Topping to make a cohesive and good-sounding stereo system.  Enter the Cambridge Audio Sirocco S30 speakers and the NuForce Icon uDAC.  The S30 retails for Rs. 8000, while the uDAC retails for Rs. 3500. That totals to just a touch over the magic Rs. 15,000 figure.  But does this ultra-cheap combination cut the mustard? It was always going to be fun finding out.  

Brief Descriptions and Specs     

The Topping has been described in detail in the original review. But in short it is a digital amplifier using the Tripath TA2020 chip and putting out about 7 clean watts of power (13W maximum continuous power). With a single pair of RCA inputs and no remote, this is very much a no-frills amplifier.    

The Cambridge Audio S30 are easily the cheapest pair of speakers available off-the-shelf from a reputed hi fi brand.  At Rs. 8,000 they really have no competition, with its closest rivals being the entry level Wharfedale Diamonds that go for about Rs. 12,000.   The S30s are rated to handle up to 100 watts but have a sensitivity of 90dB making them suited for pairing with low power amplifiers like the Topping.  The fact that its impedance varies between 4 Ohms and 8 Ohms is however a matter of concern when you're looking to pair it with amps that don't put out gobs of current.  The woofer is a 4.5" woven composite cone, and the tweeter is of the soft-dome variety. The S30s are deeper than they are tall and feature a port at the rear, so one would be well advised to give it as much distance from the rear wall as possible.  

The uDAC is available in India for less than its US RSP of USD 99.  For Rs. 3,500 this diminutive black box (and the pictures can't truly convey how tiny this thing is) will take the digital audio out of your laptop or other computer/device with a USB output, bypassing the computer's analogue stage entirely, and carrying out the Digital to Analog conversion within itself using a Texas Instruments PCM 2706 chip as a USB receiver and an ESS Sabre chip as the DAC. It offers a pair of RCA outputs and a headphone out, with a volume control that affects the output of both (there are no line-level outputs).

Build Quality etc.,

The S30s feature a build quality that belie their bargain-basement price.  They are beautifully finished with a wood-veneer MDF enclosure and a silver-grey baffle (They are also available in black).  Gold-plated bi-wire binding posts finish up the rear of this smart looking pair of speakers.  Knocking on the enclosure provides a reassuring thump.  

The uDAC appears to be solidly built in spite of its light weight and features an all-metal construction with no flex at all.  Gold plated RCAs and a minuscule volume knob round off the unit.  While this little black box is not going to win any beauty contests, its unremarkable appearance will blend in with its surroundings with ease.  


The uDAC was hooked up to my Dell Inspiron 1420 laptop with the supplied USB cable.  Bandridge RCA interconnects were used to hook up the uDAC to the Topping TP20, and Usher/Rapport speaker wire was used to connect the TP20 to the S30s.  Except for one FLAC file, all the other music was played off the DVD-RW drive of the Inspiron using foobar2000.  The laptop was running on battery without mains power connected.


After warming the speakers up with some music for some time, I kicked off the serious listening with Yodhakaa's debut album.  Yodhakaa is a Chennai based band that describes its music as "contemporary Indian music."  Singing in Sanskrit and combining strains of Indian music with elements of blues and jazz, topped off with eclectic percussion and guitarwork, Yodhakaa is easily the finest new musical act to come out of India in some time.  In addition to their great music, Yodhakaa has achieved something that few Indian bands can boast of, a record that is well recorded and produced.

The vocals and guitars on Shri Hari Vallabhe come out full and strong from this combination.  While one would perhaps need to look elsewhere for the last word in detail and separation, the combination dug out enough of the nuances of this delicately recorded track for it to be immersive and enjoyable.  Voices and guitar have beautiful realism and texture in the slow and sensuous Mudaakaraatta.  The percussion is tight and well-defined, and the combination digs deep to do justice to the upright bass on Poorvam, albeit without all of the nuances that a much more expensive setup would have conveyed.

Morph the Cat

Moving on to an old favourite, I slipped in Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat.  The sheer quantity of bass that these speakers dig out is commendable, considering how small they are.  The kick drums and bass on the intro to the title track throb with energy and immediately tell you that this system has the right ideas about sound reproduction.  Snare hits are crisp and the the tone and texture of the horns and electric guitars would befit speakers much more expensive than these.  In fact, it's the middle of the audio-spectrum where these speakers truly shine.  Voices and melodic instruments shine with convincing texture and tremendous coherence.

Love over Gold

The Dire Straits classic, as with other Dire Straits records, is fabulously recorded and the title track is one of my favourite Dire Straits songs and once again this combination did a commendable job of reproducing this track.  The tom hits sounded substantial and realistic, the guitars crackled with life and Mark Knopfler's low rumble was authentic.  However, this track did bring to the fore one of the chief areas of weakness with this setup (which I would primarily blame the speakers for), which is its inability to separate the various instruments and sounds in a mix as well as more expensive setups can.  While the sound is always clean and enjoyable, each instrument is not etched in stone.  But we're talking not about speakers costing Rs. 25,000 here, in fact we're not even talking about speakers costing Rs. 15,000, we're talking of an entire system that costs Rs. 15,000 and when viewed in this light, the failing appears somewhat minor.

Usher Demo CD (v. 1)              

This is one of my favourite audiophile test discs because in addition to featuring some superb recordings, it also features some great music that I truly love. (All tracks on the disc appear to be version recordings of the original songs). The opening track is a version of Cai Qing’s Bei Yi Wang De Shi Guang, made immortal by the hi fi shop scene in Infernal Affairs.  This and others songs on the recording including versions of Astrid Gilberto's "So Nice", Danielle Messia's De La Main Gauche and a couple of songs whose origins I have not been able to trace ("Night in the Moscow Suburbs" and "My Heart and I") all feature exquisite vocal performances and superlative recording.  This ultra-budget setup rises to the occasion so magnificently that I almost felt like applauding during some of the passages.  As mentioned earlier voices and melodic instruments are treated with immense care by this combination, resulting in a very emotional connect with the music.  Especially with small and spare arrangements this combination dazzles and can easily rival combinations costing several times their price.  

G3 - Live  

If you thought live hard rock cannot be recorded well then you haven't heard this record.  Joe Satriani, Eric Johnson and Steve Vai come together to put out one of the finest live recordings I've ever heard.  My favourite track off the record is Eric Johnson's 'Manhattan.'  The combination puts out this up-tempo track with great gusto, with tight, precise drums and a faithful reproduction of Eric Johnson's liquid guitar tone.  This is a combination that seems to be as comfortable with rock music as it is with jazz and blues.  

Stimela - Hugh Masekela    

This was the only FLAC that I used during this review.  Hugh Masekela's Stimela is a glorious roller-coaster ride of folk-jazz that features the raspy voice of Masekela himself accompanied by an accomplished jazz band , in a performance of simply staggering verve and scale.  The dynamic swings on this track are immense and are usually a stern test of the dynamic ability of any system.  Our ultra-budget combination while serving up an immersive and convincing version of this classic, did lose some steam in the dynamics department.  Both macro and micro-dynamics are slightly compromised, but it is to the combination's credit that in spite of this the song sounds immensely enjoyable.


So is this Rs. 15,000 combination the true answer for good sound on the cheap? I would have to answer in the affirmative.  It may lack the last word in detail or separation and might lose out in terms of dynamic ability to its (much) more expensive competitors, but it punches well above its weight when it comes to the tone and texture of the mid-range, the even tonality across the frequency spectrum and the sheer brio with which it tackles any music that is thrown at it.  Even aspects like detail only suffer in comparison to combinations that would easily cost double the amount of cash you would shell out for this one.      This combination does so many things right that these failings appear to be relatively minor on an absolute scale and utterly irrelevant at this price.  This is a combination that offers excellent sound reproduction, tremendous coherence and musicality and an ability to draw you into the music. It also manages to avoids the brightness and harshness that budget sound systems typically tend to suffer from.  The overall sound is refined and sophisticated and you could easily fool your blindfolded friends into believing you spent Rs. 40,000 on this combination.  

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Emoti-Wah: Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player Reviewed

There are CD players and then there are CD players.  Since Play It Clear is an affordable audio site (by and large), the likes of the dCS Scarlati are not likely to find its way into the Play It Clear labs (aka my bedroom).  But that doesn't mean we deprive ourselves of quality digital sources in our quest for budget audio nirvana.  

One CD player that has been attracting a lot of chatter on the interwebs and among the audiophile community is the Emotiva ERC-1, from the relatively new internet-direct American company known primarily for its amplification products.  On the one hand are its die-hard loyalists who claim this is the finest digital source since sliced bread, and on the other are a group of people determined to knock Emotiva's credentials by means fair and foul.  

Such a polarising company and product would mean a reviewer would need to detach himself from all his biases before embarking upon a review.  I am incapable of doing that.  So i'll do the next best thing.  I'll disclose my biases.  Before setting eyes on the Emotiva ERC-1 I'd never seen, touched, felt or heard an Emotiva product, and had no views on it, but what has shaped a bias in their favour is the fact that most of the people trying to run them down on internet forums appear to be morons.  Their arguments are illogical, their positions untenable and their approach stinks of an ulterior motive.  So, quite illogically, I was inclined to believe that Emotiva was probably doing a few things right.

Packaging and Appearance

Unfortunately I was not able to see the packaging in which the ERC-1 is provided, but I understand that it is well packed in a solid box with enough damping material to ensure that you can check in the unit at the airport without too much concern.   The unit itself is hefty, weighing in at about 8 kgs (and not 10 as I mistakenly mentioned in my video preview).   The construction is solid, with the panels not showing any signs of flex, and the materials and surfaces exuding a quality feel.  

The appearance is a bit of a divisive topic.  I am not a fan of the extreme looks of the device and the Emotiva line-up in general, all blue LEDs and flashing lights, but I know people who have described it as gorgeous, so I guess it's highly subjective.  It's not going to please everyone, that's for sure.  The remote on the other hand is a thing of beauty.  It's a chunky piece of aluminium that's a joy to see, hold and operate.  The only un-joyful aspect is having to unscrew the six screws on the backplate with a philips screwdriver, to install the batteries.  

The back has a couple of RCA outs, a set of balanced outs, optical and coaxial digital outs and an IEC power socket, for you to use your schmancy after-market power cord that costs more than the ERC-1 itself.  


This is where this player departs from every CD player I've ever used.  Firstly it's a slot loader.  I have a slot-loading CD player in my car.  It acts up,  scratches CDs, swallows them and refuses to spit them out.  I don't like slot-loaders.  The mavens at Emotiva claim that this is no ordinary slot-loader.  They claim that upon the CD being placed in the slot, 12 vestal virgins gently caress the disc into place for playing.  Or something like that.  The short point being that it won't scratch your CDs. Ever.  I have no way of verifying that but I can tell you that operating it feels quite odd.  

Firstly, unlike my car stereo there's some felt material at the slot, so as soon as you put the CD in it's already touching something, so that's odd feeling no. 1.  Then the CD comes up against an obstacle of some sort, and there's a split second between encountering the obstacle and the vestal virgins doing their thing, so that is odd feeling no. 2.  Then it makes a noise while dragging the CD in and then flashes a 'loading' message for what seems like an eternity.  On some discs as much as 20+ seconds.  That's odd feeling no. 3.  

So overall, it feels strange to operate.  Perhaps once you get used to it you'll be comfortable.  But it definitely takes some getting used to. No deal-breaker, but worth keeping in mind.


The ERC-1 uses an Analog Devices AD1955 DAC chip, which is the top of the heap among the audio DAC chips offerred by Analog Devices, one of the leaders in the field.  It supports a 24-bits, 192 kHz sample rate, and SACD playback.  The former is utilised in the ERC-1 while the latter is not.  In addition to this, Emotiva claims to have used top quality op-amps and components, and discrete power supplies for the transport, display, and the digital and analogue sections.  The specs aside let's move on to the listening.

The following test CDs (among others) were used to evaluate the Emotiva ERC-1.

Donald Fagen - Morph the Cat
Michael Jackson - Thriller
Usher Demo CD 1 and 2
Dire Straits - Love Over Gold
Haydn's Symphony No. 104 - Vienna Philharmonic - Herbert Von Karajan
Steely Dan - Aja
First things first.  This is a FAST CD player.  The Pace Rhythm and Timing on this player is something else.  The notes don't hang around for a micro-second longer than they need to, the leading edges of notes are sharp and well defined and the timing and assuredness on offer are exceptional.  You just need to switch back to another CD  player (such as my fully modded CD63SE which is a very good CD player in itself) to understand the contrast.  This makes the sound tremendously realistic and well defined.  

Add to this some superb dynamics.  Both macro and micro dynamics are handled with consummate ease, whether it's the subtle nuances of a solo vocal performance or the immense adventures of a philharmonic orchestra, the sheer natural-ness of the dynamics of the performance as reproduced by the ERC-1 is soul-stirring.  While the idea of 'taking you closer to the live performance' is a much abused and somewhat misguided goal among audiophiles, the ERC-1 does accomplish some of it and boy is it fun!

Add to this the prodigious levels of detail, the superb imaging and soundstage and beautifully well-defined textures of all the notes from the cellos and kick drums, through the voices and guitars right up to the cymbals and hi-hats, and it's really really hard to find a flaw in this player.  The sound is transparent, no 'warmth' or added 'body', but at the same time the voices are substantial and life-like.  Cellos sound deep and melancholy, mark knopfler's electric guitar crackles with life and energy, and everything is good in the world.  

I could really go on and on about the sound of this CD player, but I'd be repeating myself.  The short point is that this is a glorious sounding CD player with fabulous PRaT, dynamics, detail, sonic texture and imaging.  When you consider the fact that this sells for 399 USD (369 this very moment on account of a holiday discount), it's quite something.  This is a CD player that sounds like it's worth at least a 1000 USD, if not much more!  It handily bested my fully-modded CD63SE and left me with a very strong upgrade-itch that I need to combat.  I have heard many budget CD players including the stalwarts from Marantz, NAD and Cambridge Audio and while they are all quite good in their own ways, they don't quite hold a candle to the Emotiva ERC-1 (i haven't compared them all in the same setup, but I think with a number of reference points, it's not hard to make this evaluation, the ERC-1 is that good).  If you imported all the way to India paying shipping and duty it would still be value for money.  Perhaps not the screaming steal it is like if you can get a friend or relative to bring it down from the US, but still an excellent deal. 

 So what are you waiting for?     

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player - Video Preview

This is a quick video preview of the Emotiva ERC-1 CD Player.  The review will follow over the weekend.  Apologies for the execrable quality of the production and the video itself.  Hopefully things will improve as I get a bit more experience doing this.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Review : Topping TP20 Mark 2 - Audiophile Amplifier for Rs. 4000 / 80 USD

The Topping TP 20 Mark 2 - Front View

The headline sounds about as ambitious and unrealistic as some of the spam that you receive that promises to 'enhance your manhood' in '6 weeks flat.'  Audiophile amplification is meant to cost at the very least tens of thousands of rupees at the 'budget end'.  When a budget minded audiophile sets out to put together a stereo setup he will be led by the 'experts' to look at either a Marantz PM5003,  a Cambridge Audio 350A, an NAD C316BEE, or a Denon PMA510-AE, in the amplifier department.  All these are beautifully built units with in-built linear power supplies, multiple inputs, a remote control, and they all cost in the region of Rs. 15,000 to Rs. 20,000.   
They are all good performers in their own right, providing good sonic value along the traditional parameters.  You would be forgiven if you believed that this is as cheap, and as good as stereo amplification gets.   

This is where the Tripath chip comes in.  Tripath was a company started by inventor-entrepreneur Adya Tripathi in the USA, that manufactured these revolutionary digital amplification chips that provided very high levels of efficiency and performance at a very low cost.  These chips found their way into many consumer electronics products by the big-box brands, but more importantly found a passionate fan following amongst the audiophile community.  Tripath, unfortunately, went out of business, with a large inventory of the chips still lying with them.

This large inventory was snapped up by various people including several Chinese companies, for peanuts.  

Enter Topping.  These guys evidently picked up a whole bunch of tripath chips including the celebrated TA2020 chip, that has found its way into the Topping TP20 amplifier.   The TP20 is available for order on ebay, for roughly 80 USD including a 12v, 5A power supply and shipping to your doorstep anywhere in the world.    

Packaging and Appearance

The amp comes by air mail from Hong Kong, well packed in a cardboard box with foam lining.  The amp itself is very well constructed. It's shockingly tiny. About 5 inches deep, 3 inches wide and an inch and half tall on its four rubber feet. The unit features a well built metal case, machined aluminium faceplate, good looking volume pot and power switch, and gold plated RCAs and binding posts. The binding posts are clear plasic on the outside and are not the easiest things to turn because they're smoooth, a slightly textured and less pretty binding post would have been nicer, but hey, it's a 4000 buck amp,you should be happy they're not spring clips. The binding posts accept banana plugs and bare wire.  

The power supply is a fairly robust looking switching supply rated at 12v, 5A. I held it up to my ear and didn't hear any noise, which was encouraging.


Some size perspective
The Topping TP20 produces a rated 13W maximum per channel into 8 ohms. But since that is with a 10% THD figure, we'll take the 7W per channel figure which is the maximum power into 8 ohms with a THD of 0.01% as the more relevant figure.  It also uses a not very beefy outboard switching PSU.  
What this means is that some care needs to be exercised in pairing these with speakers.  You cannot put something with an 82 dB sensitivity and and a 4 ohm impedance load in front of this amp.  That would be stupidity.  Make sure that the speakers are rated at least at 86 dB sensitivity (the more the better), and a relatively steady impedance load of at least 6 ohms.  Speakers that have worked well with this amp include the Usher S520, the Odyssey Epiphony and the Cambridge Audio S30.  


I won't beat around the bush here.  This is a dazzling amplifier.  Full disclosure here, that I own this baby, but prior to this I was using an NAD C320BEE (the equivalent of which now costs in the region of Rs. 28,000) and I sold off the NAD after hearing this.  Paired with the Odyssey Epiphony (86 dB, 8 ohms) and a fully modded CD63SE, it paints a revealing and involving sonic potrtait. Superb detail, excellent soundstaging and imaging. Excellent transients, nice airy extended highs, tight, tuneful bass, and some seriously liquid midrange.  

The test tracks I used for this review are:

Steely Dan - Aja, Deacon Blues
Dire Straits - Heavy Fuel, Fade to Black
Usher Demo CD - Track 9 (the chinese drums), Track 10 (vocal and cello)
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos - Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Herbert von Karajan (Deutsche Gramophon) 

The Topping is a light and nimble performer.  The dry, detailed Steely Dan sound is reproduced with unnerring accuracy.  The snare hits are crisp and full bodied.  You can hear the beater strike the skins on the kick drum, rather than hearing a glorified thud.  The guitars and vocals are life-like and engaging.  Each instrument in the mix is distinct and well defined, and stereo image and soundstage are convincingly lifelike.   The transient response is rapid and the leading edges of the notes pop with realism.  Do remember here that this is out-and-out a solid-state amp, and while the mid-range is beautiful and detailed there is none of the enhanced 'body' and 'warmth' of a tube amplifier.  So if that is what you seek, you must look elsewhere.  

Note the gold plated RCA's and the smooth binding posts
Testing the amplifier with demanding percussion reveals that this little creature can really dig deep to put out some convincing low-frequencies, while retaining the detail and musicality of the bass notes.  This is something that several more expensive amplifiers try to do and fail.  What is also impressive is the sheer body and depth of the cello notes on the Usher demo CD.  This amplifier is not just for rock and roll, it works beautifully for jazz and small-ensemble classical  music as well.   To do justice to a philharmonic orchestra of course you need equipment costing at least 10 times the cost of this unit, but even so, the Topping manages to create a musical and involving presentation of the Brandenburg Concertos, without of course being able to do full justice to the sheer scale and dynamic swings of the music.  But hey, remember, how much this amplifier costs!

Pros and Cons


- Detailed, airy, dynamic sound
- Superb imaging and soundstaging
- Ridiculous price-to-performance ratio


- Needs sensitive speakers
- No remote
- Only one input


What can you say about an amplifier that costs Rs. 4000 and can do so many things so well? Paired with the right speakers they handily outperform the budget integrateds mentioned earlier, as well amplifiers costing more.  In fact, I can state with some confidence that you'd be hard pressed to find an amplifier that costs less than Rs. 30,000 that can compete sonically with the Topping TP20 provided you exercise some care in choosing the speakers.  Just for a lark I've tested it with speakers costing over Rs. 2 lakhs (the Usher  Mini Dancer) and it's staggering how impressive the performance of this amplifier is.  The detail, imaging and soundstaging are all in place, it's in the low frequency tightness and grip that it loses out.  

Bottomline, if you can live with only one input and no remote control, and you are looking to spend less than Rs. 30,000 on a stereo amplifier, you owe it to yourself to at least consider the Topping TP20 seriously.