Cyrus dAD3 repair – part 3

Not surprisingly, running the CD mechanism dry didn’t last forever. In part 2 I mentioned that the original CDM 12.4 was back in the player with all the old grease removed; since I didn’t have any replacement grease at the time, this is how it has stayed for the last couple of years. Has it really been that long? I’m surprised the player ran without a problem for all that time with lubricant stripped from the laser drive mechanism.

About a month ago it started muting again for a second or two at a time – usually twice, seemingly within the same timeframe regardless of disc, and to a much lesser extent than when the problem first occurred. I needed to get some proper grease for the job.

SPG (Special Plastics Grease) from Electrolube is what I went for as it seems to be aimed towards exactly what I was trying to achieve. It was time to strip the player down again, remove the CDM 12.4 and then totally strip that down into parts. A bit fiddly, but not too difficult a job. There was still a tiny bit of old grease in places and so I totally removed all traces using a small micro fibre cloth and cocktail sticks. Nothing escaped; gear teeth, laser rail, everything was dry. With SPG carefully applied and everything put back together, the time came to test by playing a few discs right through.

Flawless.

And I have enough SPG left to fix a few hundred more.

Cyrus dAD3 repair – part 2

Following on from the previous post, it’s worth pointing out that the original CDM12.4 is back inside the CD player and is working perfectly. The laser diode had not failed, after all.

A few weeks after the surgery to replace the CDM12.4 inside the player, it started to mute in places and, once again, fail to read discs. In the meantime I had stripped down the original CDM12.4 and simply wiped away all the old grease, some of which had hardened. A swap back to the original unit (notably Philips branded, whereas the replacement CDM12.4 is not) and it’s been playing fine for a few months now. It may or may not last because it’s effectively running dry; it probably needs a proper re-grease with the right compound, which is something I can do when required. Nevertheless, it’s been perfect for about three months and counting, and I have spare parts should they ever be needed.

Cyrus dAD3Q CD player repair – part 1

I’ve had my Cyrus dAD3 (later updated with Q module) since 1997. It’s still a very decent player even by today’s standards and it’s been fault-free for many years. Recently, though, CDs started to periodically mute and, before long, failed to play or even be recognised. Realising there was something seriously wrong, I was not a jovial rabbit. I remembered having a warranty repair soon after I’d first bought it, since it failed to recognise a handful of my CDs, yet was fine with all others. It came back unchanged so I sent a couple of the affected CDs off to Cyrus, together with the player again, and this time it came back totally fixed. I remember being vaguely aware at the time that the dAD3 was built around a Philips CD transport/laser mechanism that others – many with different players using the same mechanism – had mentioned they were having trouble with. I assumed the mechanism had been replaced and I soon forgot about it, until the other day. So what to do? Send it to Cyrus to repair (about £300), upgrade to something new (equivalent player now is about £1200) or attempt to fix it myself. I’ve been on a bit of a make-do-and-mend roll lately so I decided on the latter option, based on the assumption that the Philips mechanism (possibly the laser diode) was failing. So the Philips unit in question is the CDM12.4 – this I found out quickly from t’internet. This small unit houses the spinning motor, laser and laser drive motor. It sits within the larger Cyrus tray drive assembly and it is a little fiddly to get out but, with a little coaxing and a few expletives, out it came. There’s a certain order in which things need to be taken out and there are some very small wires and fragile flex cables which need some care, but patience paid off in the end. Firstly, the entire tray drive assembly needs to be taken out and it’s not going to be possible to do that without first pushing the tray out and unclipping the Cyrus tray front piece, then pushing the door closed again. Careful removal of cables and two boards will then allow the drive to be removed. It’s then a case of unhooking wires, carefully pushing out the rubber mounts, opening the drive again and sliding out the Philips unit. This will still have the Cyrus spiring-loaded clamp attached; this is detached from the back, leaving the bare CDM12.4.

Tray drive seen from underneath; boards and cables removed

Replacement CDM12.4 units can be had for £15 on eBay, which all seem to be advertised as being new even though they clearly are not. I didn’t like the sound of some of the feedback comments so I decided to try a reputable electronic spares company instead. OK, twice the price, but no misleading descriptions and I’d like to think that a company such as this would test such things before selling with guarantee. Still, at a tenth of the likely repair cost, had I decided to send the dAD3 away, it had to be worth a shot.

CDM12.4 is lower middle, still with Cyrus clamp attached

So, this morning I began the reverse surgery. After a careful couple of hours the result was… nothing. To cut a long story short, I had mounted the tray drive assembly slightly too far back, so whereas the door closed, it hadn’t properly engaged at the front. Naturally I assumed the Philips unit was another duff one, but by process of elimination I found it simply wasn’t being allowed to engage fully. Once I’d fixed that I powered up, loaded a CD and… the display looked good and I could see tracks playing through. Finally it was done – or so I thought. Hooked back up to the system, I waited for the first CD to play. Nothing. Not a sausage. Although the display was running through properly there was no audio output. Two possibilities: the CDM12.4 was duff after all, or it was fine but something had gone wrong in the analogue stage. A quick check showed that the digital optical out was fine going into an external DAC, so that ruled out the CDM12.4. Oh dear. Had I screwed up the DAC or analogue stage in the player? My unjovial rabbit status had been resumed. I took the Q module out and flipped the connectors to STD from UPG. This meant that the original DAC, which the Q replaces, was put back into service. I had audio! Phew. So, at worst, I’d damaged the Q module but after flipping back to UPG and re-installing the Q, it worked! I guess I must have nudged it somehow, during surgery. So, for £30, a few hours of my time and a little bit of grumpiness, I have my player back. Not long ago I’d have seen this as an excuse to upgrade, but I actually feel much better having fixed what I consider to be all the CD player I’ll ever need. I have, therefore, saved £1170 on the cost of the current model. What shall I buy?

Ortofon 2M Bronze

I’ve had a 2M Blue on my Creek Wyndsor for a couple of years now (since new) and, though the stylus is nowhere near worn yet, I figured it was time to step up from what is essentially a fantastic value you-don’t-want-anything-less-than-this cartridge for the RB300 arm which is fitted to the Wyndsor.

I like the 2M sound and I’m sticking with MMs (rather than fiddling with MCs and extra step-up phono stages) so I pretty much figured it was either the 2M Bronze or the 2M Black. There’s a big price difference between them; the only physical difference being the stylus (they share the same body which is a step up from the body shared between the Red and Blue).

It’s really difficult to find reviews of the Bronze, probably due to its placement in the 2M family; reviews tend to concentrate on the Red and Black at either end of the price range. There’s little doubt that the Black is an astounding cartridge but at £180 less, I got the impression that the Bronze was close enough, if not a bit on the analytical side according to some comments. OK, I like analytical, so I bought it pretty much blind, using my satisfaction with the Blue as a guide.

I’m now listening to it whilst it’s running-in. People tend to say that the 2M family needs around 20 to 50 hours of playing time to fully run-in and, going by my experience with the Blue, I’d tend to agree.

As soon as the stylus hit the grooves I knew this was something special. The Blue is a damned fine cartridge but this is something on another level. Quite literally, I had no idea vinyl could sound this good. The soundstage has opened right up and there is astounding detail that I’ve never heard before, not to mention the tracking, which is impeccable; for the first time the inner grooves sound every bit as detailed and dynamic as the start of a record.

Bearing in mind that the vast majority of my records are second hand (but cleaned well – see earlier post) I’m finding that the Bronze makes them sound more detailed, less worn and less noisy. OK, there will always be a few crackles and pops with any record, and I’m convinced they sound fewer in number now, but background noise seems, otherwise, to have all but gone. I suspect the reason for this is twofold: improved tracking and the actual shape of the stylus (fine line cf. elliptical) resulting in it digging detail from vinyl seldom touched before. Combine that with the improved body/engine and you have a very worthwhile upgrade indeed.

This is the running-in period; the time where the cartridge sounds its worst and I’m sitting here still wowing at how it’s producing blissfully detailed, musical sound. The treble is sweet and the bass is taught and controlled to a degree beyond the Blue’s capability. And the best bit: it’s going to get even better!

Hocus Pocus with vinyl records

Every so often I’m treated to a stack of vinyl which I hope will contain all those taped records I never actually owned back in the ’80s and early ’90s, as well as other interesting nuggets from the ’70s and beyond. Yesterday was one of those days, when I discovered that the nearest decent town does, in fact, have an independent record shop, tucked away in behind an antique shop in a part of the town I don’t normally see.

The problem with used vinyl is, of course, grime and scratches. Nothing much can be done about scratches and dents; visual inspection before buying is a necessity but even that won’t always show up problems within the grooves and so, to a certain extent, it’s a gamble. Dust and grime, though, needs to be carefully removed for obvious reasons but also to minimise further wear. There are expensive solutions to record cleaning with purpose-built machines costing hundreds (there are one or two “cheaper” ones but I’m not convinced of their effectiveness) but I thought I’d come up with my own method, which works very well. Records where the grime in between the grooves would not move with any amount of carbon-fibre brushing and careful wiping are now as good as new.

What I use: two microfibre cloths (it’s important that these are soft microfibre – I use Vileda ones), washing-up liquid, Ilford photographic wetting agent (I have loads of this as I process film), 99.8% (or better) isopropanol and soft cotton pads (which I steal from my wife’s stash).

The record first has a wash in warm water containing a squirt of the detergent and a splash of wetting agent. It’s not immersed but held carefully whilst gently wiped around with plenty of fluid washing over it, using one of the microfibre cloths. After rinsing with clean water it’s dried on both sides with the 2nd microfibre cloth. Finally, in order to get rid of any remaining stubborn marks and water mineral residues from the water rinse, careful wiping with a cotton pad generously moistened with the isopropanol completes the clean.

The result is no more grime, minimal dust, little surface noise and, unless the record had been previously damaged by bad handling or a worn stylus, fantastic sound! It’s taken me a few goes to get the process right but I’m very happy with the results.

I’m currently listening to 90125 by Yes, one of the four I bought yesterday. It was the worst of the lot as far as dust and dirt go – a real state – but, as far as I could tell in the shop, no real physical damage. I’m surprised at how well it cleaned up and at how it sounds now. Pretty much as good as new. I’m back in the 6th Form common room with this blaring away, although it obviously sounds much better now 🙂

Another was Greatest Hits of Focus. I’d been looking for a decent copy of Moving Waves only really because I wanted the track Hocus Pocus; a song I’d heard when I was about 18 but had forgotten about until an advert on TV recently used a snip from it. Yesterday I found a copy of Moving Waves but it was clearly damaged and they wanted £4 for it. Next to it was a Greatest Hits in excellent condition for £3.50 and so, whereas I normally avoid hits albums, I took it because the frankly brilliant Hocus Pocus was there. The album actually contains a number of tracks that take me back to the 1970s and I didn’t even realise they were Focus, including House of the King which I’d thought was Jethro Tull!

The other two? Cyclone by Tangerine Dream and Eliminator by ZZ Top. Spin those guitars!

Creek Wyndsor

CD loudness war

I’m getting really hacked off with CD “brick walling” (Google “CD loudness war” to see the subject of my latest rant). I’ve recently bought a few CDs and the majority are affected by this stupid obsession with making the sound as loud as possible, at the expense of the music itself. What I’m hearing is the potential of good music which is veiled by clipping, distortion, crackling and generally being so loud that everything is at the same volume. There’s practically no dynamic range, at all, with everything being pushed up into the last few available decibels. The result is that waveform peaks get chopped off – so effectively there are no longer any peaks but instead there are “flats”, leading to lost information and distortion. A comparison between your typical, recent CD and a recording released now by B&W’s Society of Sound illustrates the glaring deficiencies of many recent commercial releases. What a difference. Generally speaking, my early CDs sound so much better than later ones, and I’m not talking about the style of music.

It’s getting worse. These days, a “digital remaster” re-release of an older album generally means that it’s louder. So that’s good, isn’t it? Well, no. Record companies need to understand that we’re not all earbud-toting, cloth-eared teenagers and give their mastering engineers some room for manoeuvre. Louder doesn’t equal better, for goodness’ sake. I would rather turn up the volume of something I like, than turn down the volume because it’s a wall of noise.

It’s no wonder the popularity of vinyl is on the increase.

DAK Novo pt. 3

There are optional tweaks mentioned for the Novo and I decided to try a couple of them out. The first, fitting optional twin capacitors, fell at the first hurdle (buying the capacitors – only one in stock!) and so it was time to thermally couple some transistors (oh yes).

I shan’t pretend I really understand why, but it’s theoretically beneficial to have a consistent temperature across each of two pairs of closely facing transistors on the board. In each pair, though, one transistor is likely to get a bit warmer than the other. Having them as closely facing as they are is probably enough but my obsessive nature meant that I was always wondering whether I could/should tie them together somehow. It’s been mentioned that an elastic sleeve should do the trick but I decided to go further: heat-transfer grease and heat-shrink tubing.

With a cocktail stick I applied the special grease to the facing surfaces of the transistors (quite a bit of prodding was necessary as they were close together) until I was satisfied that there was enough between them. This grease is the same stuff as is used between CPUs / GPUs and their heatsinks so the idea is that the warmer transistor transfers heat more efficiently to the cooler transistor in much the same way that a CPU dissipates heat through its heatsink.

I cut some heat-shrink tubing to give two sleeves which were placed over and around each facing pair. The hard part was moving the tip of a hot soldering iron around the sleeve several times, so that it shrank, but without touching anything. Not a job to do with a hangover! I then put a little more grease on top, around the join.

That’s it. It’s questionable whether this will make an audible difference – it’s supposed to but I guess it’s clouded by the fact that my Novo is still burning-in, having been powered for a little over two weeks.

DAK Novo pt. 2

Next in were the rest of the capacitors, followed by the input and output jacks. The potentiometer supplied to take care of volume control needed to be hacked about a bit: first to remove a lug and then to cut the shaft down to size – this was probably the one time I was worried I’d trash something. Thankfully, I didn’t. I started off with a hacksaw and then decided a Dremel with rotary cutter would do the job better. With that finally soldered into place, there were a few odds and ends to connect to the board, including all earths, and the LED.

Almost done...

I powered it up. The green LED lit. Get in!

Nothing blew up or started smoking, so I measured the voltages across several components as described in the booklet. All seemed well. Once mounted in the case (quite straightforward) it was time for the ultimate test: sound.

Case earths connected

It works! And not only that, it sounds good! With a source unit (CD, MD, whatever) set to line-out instead of headphone-out and a decent set of cans, such as the AKG 702 which I happen to have, the sound is noticeably better in every respect compared with the built-in headphone stage of the source unit. The Novo is used in this way instead of the source unit’s own headphone amp or it may be used to provide a headphone out for a system that doesn’t have one. Especially in kit form, this is a bargain for what it does; yes, it was a few hours’ work but there’s the satisfaction of building it thrown in for free. Good stuff!

Listening test

DAK Novo headphone amplifier kit

So I decided to get a dedicated headphone amplifier for the AKGs even though they sound pretty amazing with my portable units. It’s fairly well known that the amplifier stages of most portable units – and also those built in to most full-size separates – are compromises in terms of cost and available size and so I went looking for dedicated amps. They naturally varied in cost from a few tens of pounds to literally thousands and I had to set a limit as to how much I was prepared to spend. One name kept cropping up in the more affordable range: Graham Slee Projects. Graham and his team are U.K.-based audio engineers whose products – mainly headphone amps and phono stages – have been getting rave reviews for some time. Their Novo Discrete Solid State Headphone Amplifier has won awards from What Hi-Fi and can be bought direct for a very reasonable price, but it’s also possible to save a bit of money and buy this amp in kit form. The saving is around £80 and so it’s worth it, but only for those who are confident with electronics and soldering. I’ve messed around with electrics/electronics and soldering on and off since I was fairly young but I’ve never built anything like this from discrete components, from scratch. This was a challenge I had to take.

When bought in complete kit form you get exactly the same components, exactly the same case (except for a couple of cosmetic differences) and exactly the same power supply as for the retail version. The cosmetic differences are visible on the front of the case: the name and font are different (to reflect that this is a DAK – DIY Audio Kits – amplifier) and the front screws are different. That’s it – otherwise exactly the same.

The first thing I needed to do was identify the components, particularly all the resistors. The supplied booklet helps a great deal here, reminding me how to read the colour codes (although I don’t think I’d ever come across a six-band one before so I looked it up just to double check that the bands meant what I thought they did) and a multimeter helps to verify if necessary. I suppose I could have just used the multimeter to read them all off in the first place, but where would be the fun in that? A cross-reference with kit numbers enabled me to identify each one in relation to the board.

Resistors identified and marked
Component kit
Component kit with my adjustable grip holding the PCB

The next step was to insert the resistors and solder them into place. I’d bought some 60/40 tin/lead 0.7mm solder especially for this and it does the job nicely. I’d say my soldering skills are fairly basic but there’s nothing difficult here, given some care and attention.

After snipping off the excess pins underneath, the diodes went in next, followed by ceramic capacitors and transistors. With the bottom of the board becoming more and more busy with soldered joints, some concentration was needed for the transistors – especially as the pins should be soldered in a certain order.

Resistors and diodes in place
Transistors are in
Underneath

To be continued…

AKG K702 headphones

My old Sennheiser HD495 cans were starting to show their age – mainly through the earpads’ and head pad’s disintegration – so I decided it was time to semi-retire them and get something new. I also wanted to take the opportunity to replace them with some higher class headphones and so my search began, albeit without the opportunity to actually hear any.

Before long I had shortlisted a few and kept coming back to the K702, being described as revealing, flat-response reference class headphones. Basically, the descriptions of the sound appealed to me even though some said that the sound was a bit uninvolving (I ignored any comments from obvious “bassheads” who raved about their cans and put these down as I’ve heard the type of overly warm, overblown bass that they like and it’s not what I want). Although the K702 is aimed at studio recording/mixing use, its sibling, the K701, is aimed more at audiophiles and the sound is, apparently, practically the same.

It’s said that the K702 needs around 1000 hours’ running-in time before they really shine. Some say that the sound has settled nicely by about 200 hours. My initial impression was disappointment as the sound seemed distant and light.

Approximately one hour later my opinion had reversed totally and I could hardly believe  what I was hearing. What I hadn’t taken into account, clearly, was that I needed a little time to get used to this sound; all of my music sounded – sounds – different, hence the initial disappointment. It’s night and day. My 595s sound as though they are being pushed into my ears via a pile of old socks, in comparison. There’s just no real detail there but the K702, by contrast, reveals everything – both the good and the bad of any source. On balance this is undoubtedly good since I want to hear what’s there, rather than some veiled “best effort”. Having listened mainly to compressed music – usually no lower than 256 kbps ATRAC or AAC –  I can say that these ‘phones are a definite improvement at every level compared with anything I’ve used before and I’ll say the same for the few 132 kbps ATRAC tracks that I have.

I’m hearing things I never knew were there and everything has opened up considerably. If they are this good virtually out of the box, then I am very happy indeed as I’m having trouble imagining how they could improve with running-in. But that’s what everyone who owns these seems to say, so we’ll see what happens. Incidentally, it’s often said that a decent, dedicated headphone amplifier is pretty much a requirement for these in order to get the best out of them. That I can understand, especially since their sensitivity is lower than all my other ear/head phones, but so far I’ve only used the K702 with portable music systems (iPod, minidisc, etc.).

If there’s one niggle then it’s this: when I first put them on and for a few minutes afterwards, the pads seem to put a little too much pressure on the areas directly below my ears. It starts to feel uncomfortable so I need to pull them away a few times until I get used to them. No big deal, and it doesn’t seem as bad after a few wears as it did at first.

Other than that, I am extremely happy with them and, if they improve with running-in and/or a headphone amp, then happy days.