Thursday, January 26, 2012

More USB cables - more differences

Please go ahead and read the first and the third and last article about USB cables - especially the last one is important.

Just like I´m looking above with a lot hairy sausages on my head from the lovely movie "Kismet" I also feel like that inside my head: twisted and taut. The sausages I refer to are obviously more USB cables. My last test revealed measurable differences between two USB cables with similary striking audible results - at least in my opinion. Furthermore I wondered how other USB cables would measure but I couldn´t do test with my other cables because the SoundBlaster X-Fi USB HD required a cable with a Micro USB plug. And yesterday another thing happened: the wonderful Vincent Kars from thewelltemperedcomputer referred to my tests not only on his website (thanks again, Vincent) but also on the Whatsbestforum. One member there made me think about effects related to the power supply and that different cables perhaps would supply power better then others so I was curious since 1. I changed my USB connections since the last test and 2. today I bought an adapter so that every cable can be used now with the SoundBlaster.

I said that I changed the configuration of my USB connections. What I meant by that is that I bought a USB bracket - I wanted to use an additional internal USB hub that has been laying dormant since I got my PC in 2010. Why? Because on my first test the SoundBlaster was connected to one particular internal hub that shared its port with several other devices: a USB flash drive for ReadyBoost, my printer, my external USB DVD drive and my keyboard. Thanks to the new USB bracket there is just one other device beside the SoundBlaster connected to this internal hub now: my DVD drive (which is self-powered). All other devices now either use the new bracket (and by that the previously dormant internal hub) or the third internal hub that has been present before but wasn´t used (stupid me). Oh, before I forget: when I´m talking about internal USB Hubs I´m referring to the ones already built onto the mainboard - not to some external hub that can be bought everywhere. Every PC has a built-in USB controller, to that several internal hubs are connected and these hubs extend to the USB-ports you can see at the back or at the front. In my case I now use four seperate internal hubs. But on to the cables, shall we?

From left to right: NuForce Impulse, Monster USB, a cheap Belkin,
Oehlbach USB and the Audioquest

All cables are relatively inexpensive and all cables - the Belkin being the exception - have the audiophile crowd in mind. The NuForce Impulse was reviewed in the german audio magazine "Audio" some months ago and subsequently was awared their BestBuy. The Monster Cable has been in my possession since 2005 and is the most expensive cable (I paid roughly 60,- Euros but it has dropped in price considerably since then) and it is not even USB 2.0 certified. The Belkin is a cable I bought for the cheapest money possible and it has been used with my scanner only after testing it. The Oehlbach was bought in 2010 for connecting my E-MU but for quite some time now it has been used with my external DVD drive, the E-MU now is connected to the NuForce. The Oehlbach, the Audioquest and the NuForce each cost around 30,- Euros. Despite its price the Monster started to disintegrate a few years ago (the mesh that covers the cable has become very brittle) but it still functions well. For this test I also ignored the cable that came with my SoundBlaster since I was more interested in how these other cables would compare to the Audioquest. Secondly I have not been doing any listening tests with these cables. But I can tell you that I´ve thouroughly reviewed them for myself over the years with my E-MU: the NuForce "sounds" the best, very far away is the Oehlbach that "sounds" relatively similar to the standard cable (only slightly more precision), then comes the Monster that adds too much bass and shows wrong timing while the Belkin sits firmly on the last place by being the worst cable of them all (worse then the standard cable).

NuForce Impulse

Monster USB

Belkin USB

Oehlbach USB

Audioquest Forest USB

An alert reader will by now have discovered that the measurments for the Audioquest have changed since my last test: the noise levels have been improved considerably. This is very interesting since the SoundBlaster is still connected to the same USB port - but I also disconnected three other devices from the same internal hub. Since the other devices are now missing the Audioquest fares visibly better which could mean that USB interfaces in general are susceptible to other devices connected to the same internal hub, an effect possibly amplified by more expensive boutique cables. BTW, the test conditions have not been changed (apart from the disconnected USB devices) since the last test. The recording device still is the ASUS Xonar Essence ST, the levels are the same as are the used driver interfaces and the Windows configuration. So, by looking at those charts you´d think that nothing interesting has happened, right? Because with the exception of the Belkin all cables appear to measure more or less the same, the small differences can be ignored because of a possible error margin coming from the used soundcards (although I again repeated these tests five times each and the results were always consistent (differences were +/- 0.2 dB at max)) - or can they not?  
And because it´s so important for you to understand what I´m really doing here I´ll repeat these sentences again: when I talk about "measurments" you cannot take that literally! From a scientific standpoint my results are nothing more then nice looking pictures. I don´t know how RMAA "measures" but the pictures you can see most likely are several separate results taken over an unspecified period of time that have been middled or averaged for the picture (in essence, the pictures are all graphs). For showing a real difference I would have to take my five "measurments" of one cable, average them, then take the other cable to do the same. Finally I would have to do a statistically valid comparison or calculation between those two averages to express the differences in percentages. But since I´m not a scientist and since I´m a jerk with statistics I won´t be (cannot) doing this, I´m just Marlene D. and I like to play around a lot.

Noisefloor NuForce Impulse

Noisefloor Monster USB

Noisefloor Belkin USB

Noisefloor Oehlbach USB
Noisefloor Audioquest Forest

As you can see the RMAA charts above don´t show everything. RMAA also misinterprets noise as distortions, I´ll show that during the next pictures. The plots however reveal that the Audioquest still shows roughly the same noisefloor response just like last time: deep frequency noise is visibly higher when compared to the other cables even though the overall noisefloor has been decreased. The NuForce and the Monster show the same noisefloor while the Oehlbach is a mixture of those two and the Audioquest. The Belkin however is another case: high frequency noise has been increased roughly 10 dB. Now to the THD (Total Harmonic Distortions) measurments:

THD NuForce Impulse

THD Monster USB

THD Belkin USB

THD Oehlbach USB

THD Audioquest Forest

There we have it again: the Belkin cable shows the highest high frequency noise whereas all other cables behave quite normal - the Belkin also shows the highest distortions. The Audioquest again shows more low frequency noise but distortions of the Audioquest/Soundblaster combination are slightly lower (especially the peak at 2.000 Hz). I´m at a loss here, dear reader, because I don´t know what that means. Perhaps the more expensive cables deliver power from the USB port a bit "better" in a way that shows faults of the PC power supply. Or they submit errors produced by other connected devices better or worse (maybe the standard cable has something built-in that rejects those errors). Anyhow, one thing is for sure: when you connect a USB sound interface to your computer you should make sure that - if possible - no other device is connected to the same internal hub (you can have a look at the usage of the internal hubs with the Device Manager in Windows) because it appears that the more expensive boutique cables reveal USB errors or shortcomings of currently unknown kind different then standard cables. Phew, now I´m going to have a smoke, a coffee and a piece of sweet cake... ;)

Last update: 09.01.2013

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Hot Voodoo: Audio differences between USB cables - yes, they do exist!

Before you even start I also recommend reading the continuation of this article and also the final conclusion about my USB tests, they are quite interesting and shed an embarrasing light onto the first two.

You might find it ridiculous that I´m talking about sonic differences between USB cables but let me assure that they exist. In theory though - and the audiophile objectivists will tell you that I´m obviously insane, mad or the devil - there shouldn´t be differences at all. I mean, a USB cable is just a digital cable that works inside a computer environment and - unlike an analogue cable affected by magnetism, distortions, noise, etc. - follows a certain set of rules and is unaffected by usual cable defects just like any digital cable. But countless people have claimed that if they connect their USB soundcard to a (usually much) more expensive high-end cable from a boutique manufacturer the sound of this soundcard will be improved considerably. Yes, some of these people are really mad: would you, dear reader, connect a USB soundcard for $ 500 to a USB cable for another $ 500? Yeah, me neither... oh wait, I´m gonna do the same - albeit on a much smaller scale. Gosh, I´m turning into one of those nincompoops full of bigotry ;). And I never was a bigot, I am Marlene Dietrich, an angel, a saint... oh, shut up.

Beautiful, isn´t it? (Copyright by Audioquest)

Anyway, today I´m gonna review or look at an inexpensive USB cable, the Audioquest Forest USB (you can see it above) cable which I bought especially for my SoundBlaster X-Fi USB HD. I´ve owned a special USB cable before which I also bought for my first soundcard, the SoundBlaster Live! 24 Bit external. It was from Monster Cable, looked and felt cheap and was bought in 2004 for little money. The quality of this cable doesn´t seem to be good: after almost eight years in constant use it now starts to disintigrate, the plastic of the plugs looks coloured, the always blinking LED at one end has stopped blinking (which actually is a relief since the blinking was ennerving). That´s when I bought a USB cable from german manufacturer Oehlbach, much better build quality but almost no sonic difference to a standard cable. Then just a few months ago I bought the Impulse USB cable from NuForce and that one finally delivered the audio quality I expected from my external E-MU 0202. Finally a few weeks ago I bought the new Audioquest Forest because I couldnt´find an adapter in order to connect the NuForce Impulse to the Soundblaster (I needed a Micro plug). You can see by that little backstory that I quite believe in different sounding USB cables. Rather unusual as I pride myself in not being prone to audiophile bullshit. Even worse: all those years I have been trusting my ears only - but now with my new and wonderful SoundBlaster and the new cable from Audioquest I finally decided to do some measurments. And here is an important information that I´d like you to read very carefully: when I talk about "measurements" you cannot take that literally! From a scientific standpoint my results are nothing more then nice looking pictures. I don´t know how RMAA "measures" but the pictures you can see most likely are several separate results taken over an unspecified period of time that have been middled or averaged for the picture (in essence, the pictures are all graphs). For showing a real difference I would have to take my five "measurments" of one cable, average them, then take the other cable to do the same. Finally I would have to do a statistically valid comparison or calculation between those two averages to express the differences in percentages. But since I´m not a scientist and since I´m a jerk with statistics I won´t be (cannot) doing this, I´m just Marlene D. and I like to play around a lot.

This is how the cable looks from the inside
according to Audioquest (copyright by Audioquest)

As you can see above the cable uses solid copper conductors, just like every Audioquest cable. I also made very good experiences with my Audioquest Topaz (bought in the '90s) and my King Cobra (the silver connectors are awful though - because silver corrodes) so the decision for a cheap Audioquest cable was easy, it cost 29,- Euros (incl. shipping), half of what my SoundBlaster did cost. Yeah, paying half the money necessary for a brand new SoundBlaster - but for a cable instead.

For this cable to be exact
Overkill, you say? Stupid? Maybe... but I´m gonna show you that my SoundBlaster measures different with this cable and I´m also gonna show you that it sounds different - much different in fact. And just like in my last review I will present to you some excerpts from some tracks I recorded from the SoundBlaster, the first time connected to the standard USB cable, the second time to the Audioquest cable. In case of the SoundBlaster playing back the music I recorded its output with my ASUS Xonar Essence ST (via ASIO with WaveLab), connected with the King Cobra RCA cable of course. On every recording the configuration and the playback / recording levels were exactly the same (on both cards: 0 dBfs) - only the USB cable was different. Samplerates were the same every time, playback was done with WASAPI Event Style on JRiver Media Center when the SoundBlaster was used and with ASIO when the ASUS was used for playback. And just in case: Windows was configured to use the samplerate of 96 kHz only in both cases (as was the ASUS). I even repeated the measurments five times with each cable because I couldn´t believe my eyes: I never expected the SoundBlaster to measure any different when used with different USB cables. But on to the measurments:

IMD, standard cable,
from SoundBlaster to ASUS

IMD, Audioquest cable, from SoundBlaster to ASUS:
the noise floor is much higher and more consistent

Result general performance, standard cable, SoundBlaster to ASUS:
pretty much like my first tests

Result general performance, Audioquest cable, SoundBlaster to ASUS:
much worse. Noisefloor increased for +6 dB, more distortions, more crosstalk.

Surprised? Yeah, me too. I don´t know if the cables is broken. I only know that after seeing those results I tested it with my Sansa Clip+ and an external HDD - no errors or slower speed (because of re-reading faulty data) during data transmission. I assume it has something to do with the power supply unit in my PC, which would explain why these results only show when the SoundBlaster is connected to the ASUS. It´s curious because my power supply is a rather good one from Enermax, a well regarded manufacturer of power supplies. Or it´s my mainboard that is doing something wrong. Or something inside the cable isn´t connected and it´s on the brink of not functioning. I don´t really know, I can only guess. In any case, the SoundBlaster measures worse when connected to the Audioquest cable. Here are now my two ratings for the X-Fi HD USB with the standard cable and the Audioquest:

Standard cable:

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

Audioquest Forest USB

Sonic Balance:
Stage / Ambiance:

For testing I used two scores by Jerry Goldsmith: "Looney Tunes: Back in Action" from 2003 and "Dennis" from 1993. Since you will be able to download those two 30-seconds excerpts from these scores I´m going to explain to what things you have to pay attention to: on the Looney-tunes track there is a percussion group mixed to the front. Behind it you can hear the full orchestra performing. With the Audioquest cable the attacking sforzandos of the orchestra are more noticeable, especially their reverb tails. After one third into the excerpt a plucky synthesizer will join the two groups, mixed to the center area: it can be perceived better with the Audioquest cable. Overall, the sound with the Audioquest has more warmth and more punch - although some people might prefer the more slimmer, seemingly crisper sound when the SoundBlaster is used with its standard cable.
On the Dennis-tracks the virtual stage is not so flat with the Audioquest. Again you can observe a more punchier, warmer sound with an improved perceived dynamic: the deep bass hits of the orchestra are more impressive. With the standard cable the strings sound more like metal, almost gritty. With the Audioquest they have more gloss (which was preferred by J. Goldsmith in the '90s). You should do - as I did - an additional DBT, it too will reveal differences because they simply are big enough to be perceived everytime.

Oh come on, it´s beautiful - for a cable
Which cable do I prefer? I really don´t know. Does the Audioquest fake something? Does the standard cable lie? I´m at a loss here, I cannot answer that question. It appears that I have to continue my testing - I have to get an adapter so that I can use my other USB cables with the SoundBlaster in order to find out if it´s just the Audioquest creating errors/improvements and if the other cables are doing the same - or not. Until then I´m going to enjoy a sound with my SoundBlaster that defies its price of roughly 100,- Euros (incl. the cable) - even if it is not the truth or a somehow faked sound signature.

Latest update: 09.01.2013

Monday, January 23, 2012

Wahoo: Portable CD players shootout!

Half a year ago I became interested in owning my first CD player again, a Technics SL-XP 300. I´ve described everything in a post made for so I´ll spare you the details. But my interest continued and I also discovered that many people collect vintage portable CD players. Somehow I´ve started doing the same and right now I own the aforementionend Technics SL-XP 300, a Technics SL-VP 50, a Sony D-220, a Sony D-465 and also a Sony MZ-R 30 (a portable MD recorder) with a continued interest in purchasing used PCDPs (I´d like to own either the Sony D-90 or the Sony D-99 and the Technics SL-XP 700). But today I´ll review the first four PCDPs, focusing solely on the sound quality of their line-outs. I´m ignoring their headphone outputs because they are mostly crap, not very loud and change the sound of an attached headphone. BTW, I´m recommending to you to do the same as their line-outs sound much better. You could amplify these line-outs with a FIIO E6 (NwAVGuy has written a lovely review about it) and subsequently you would get much better sound.

Why am I fascinated in these little CD players? Well, I don´t really know... it´s probably because I love that they are so small compared to fully sized CD players and still sound gorgeous. Judging from their sound they easily beat much more modern, fully portable mp3 players like the iPod. They suck of course in everything else: they are comparatively bulky, prone to skipping, cannot play mp3, etc. But on with the tour: two of the four players I´m gonna review today are not very famous, the other two are recommended regularly. Especially the last one, the Sony D-465, got a very good review by Duncan from in this thread: Personal CD players through the Ages. I will show that this review isn´t particularly close to the truth and I´ll also show how important level-mateched listening tests are - as stated in my article "Why Comparisons between Components usually suck".

And in order to proof my findings that CD players aren´t that much different in sound I´ll also provide fully legal samples which contain several examples of their recorded outputs. I´ll also introduce a slightly odd method of showing how I perceive sonic differences with frequency response and staging, instead of describing them with text I´ll turn to pictures instead. Furthermore, I measured them as good as I could with RMAA (the E-MU 0202 USB was extremely helpful).I won´t need to tell you that every recording (either music or test signals) was done with the same cable (Audioquest King Cobra), the same soundcard (E-MU 0202 USB) and exactly the same configuration. I increased the volume afterwards so that every test signal and every musical piece had exactly the same volume as the original files. Please note: I compared their outputs with several pieces of music and the results to the digitally ripped originals from which the CD I used for the players was derived. I didn´t use some fancy, expensive and dubious reference player no one can own - I turned to the originals instead. So my comparison is extremely hard and unfair to these players because several factors are in favor of the digital originals: they havn´t been converted to analogue and back to digital again and they didn´t have to go through an analogue RCA-cable. For the audiophile readers: please be aware that the E-MU 0202 USB is an excellent recording device, especially when used with 24/192 as in my tests, therefore there is no need to doubt the quality of these recordings. To offer the possibility of blind testing I downsampled my recordings to 96 kHz while I upsampled the digital original to 96 kHz, both times with the Weiss Saracon. So every file in my archive has the same bit-depth, samplerate and volume. For comparison how a fully sized CD player from those years sounds I also included samples derived from a Sony CDP 470.

I used the following albums for my listening tests: the first track "Banning back Home" from John Williams' score to Hook because it sounds very good; the player must be able to present the correct combination of timing, crispness, warmth, dynamic and staging. The second track ("Swim") is from Madonna's Ray of Light from 1998 - it was mastered too loud and therefore shows a lot of clipped peaks. The players have to play these more than 0 dBfs peaks without showing distortions of their own. This track also shows a wonderful, round and tight bass which the players have to show with the correct timing. The third track is the Presto from Mozart´s Symphony No. 1, recorded in 1990 by Jack Renner for TELARC. Besides being a fabulous interpretation the player has to show impeccable timing between the players, the most realistic staging (the recording was done with just two microphones) and also a certain amount of crispness: with mediocre components the recording sounds either dull without microdynamics or overly crisp with too much gloss on the strings. The fourth and last track is "Flying Ballet" from Supergirl, composed and conducted by Jerry Goldsmith in 1984 with engineering done by Eric Tomlinson. True to Tomlinson´s style of engineering the recording shows extremely crisp high frequencies and a warm bass - the timing isn´t an issue here, more important is its crispness: the strings and the brass sound extremely brilliant but they shouldn´t sound biting or harsh. The staging is important too because this recording can easily sound flat on the wrong players.

Recordings used for the listening tests

Sony D-220

This player was released in 1993 and it´s one of the more cheaper portable CD players Sony offered around that time. Despite the low price the build quality is good (apart from the plasticky drive), the sound is more than ok and it´s fast and durable. And I think that it also looks nice:

The Sony D-220 from above

Closeup of the D-220

D-220 Measurments

Jitter Performance of the Sony D-220

As you can see it looks and measures nice apart from the slightly odd jitter performance. What about the sound? Well, it sounds as nice as it looks: with the track "Swim" upper bass is a bit hollow or pronounced, highs are smooth, the staging with Supergirl is impressive. However, it sounds a bit slow on Swim and Mozart´s Presto, the timing isn´t particularly good, especially the bass seems to "follow" the rest. With this player I´m always wondering about monaural signals (like voices, solo instruments, etc.): they are standing very clear and elevated and have a beautiful articulation. Voices are sounding like they are standing right in front of you while the rest of the stage is very close to the stage of the digital original (even though it´s not very stable and a bit flatter). It also adds a glowing sheen of additional colour to every audio material, it sounds more beautiful then the original. In general, the lower frequencies seem to be blown up on all examples in combination with a slightly unstable spatial impression at those frequency areas. Compared to the original the Presto sounds a bit muffled and less fast while Supergirl sound a bit too cozy. Still, I´d say that this player does sound relatively good and although it doesn´t present the original sound its warm, pleasant and coloured sonic signature will probably make many people happy (including me).

Technics SL-XP 300

This player was released in 1991 and is the only one of this quartet that´s using true 18 bit multi-bit converters (all others are using 1-Bit converters). The drive is different too: it contains many parts made out of metal and includes a true glass laser lens (the Sonys use much more plastic in their drives in combination with a plastic lens). The drive can play everything, from overly long CDs to CD-Rs and is a prime example of reliability. Which sadly cannot be said about the rest: from my experience I know that parts used on the circuit board tend to age faster then usual when exposed to old age or heat. But any of this doesn´t matter because as my first player it still has a place in my heart.

Technics SL-XP 300, playing DG ReComposed Vol. II
(connected to my HD-448 for the picture only)

Technics SL-XP 300: still a beauty IMO

I know... this photo isn´t much different... have I told you yet that I love it? ;)

Technics SL-XP 300 measurments

Technics SL-XP 300 Jitter performance

Measurments are ok but not mind boggling. Jitter is low enough, it won´t be discernible (below -110 dB) although it does show a bit more than usual high frequency jitter. Still, this is a portable player - I think it measures well, especially regarding its age of 21 years. What about the sound? Yes... I´m afraid it isn´t as good as I remembered it for all those years. The sound I remember was like this: dynamic, a bit too loose, pleasant with a nice golden sheen. After listening with my HD-600 though I became aware that it doesn´t do anything wrong really, it just sounds a bit too friendly. My impression is that every track I tested it with sounded a bit weak on the mids without really deep bass while having a tiny bit too much gloss on high frequencies (could be wrong about that because of the perceived recessed mids). The decreased mids are also the reason for missing sonic colour, the dynamic spark is missing. Staging is a bit flat and distant but otherwise correct while (despite diminished frequency ends) the dynamic seems to be a bit too explosive. Overall the sound is pleasant, smooth, friendly and sadly not very truthful.


Sony D-465

The build quality on this one is a bit better then usual - it has a metal lid and offers the best "Hold"-function one can imagine: you simply cover its buttons by moving a metal slider. This also is the only one of the bunch to offer Electronic Shock Protection (ESP) so it won´t skip when you go around with or decide to do some sports with it. It even offers a digital output via Toslink so it can be connected to a digital amp or a digital recorder. Compared to the former two it is relatively bulky and not very beautiful. Sadly the true build quality is awful: after I finished my tests the drive broke apart (the clamp holding the CD in place deattached itself which seems to be quite common with this drive, the adhesive for the clamp isn´t very durable). Therefore I´ve purchased a used replacement drive but I haven´t built it in yet. I expected more from this player after the glowing review at Head-Fi.

Sony D-465

Sony D-465: slider opened

Closeup of the D-465

The D-465 with its leather case

Sony D-465 measurments

Jitter performance of the Sony D-465

Yikes! Jitter is bad even though it measures extremely well on everything else. The sound... well, it´s not very good. It´s in fact the worst sounding player of my quartet: deep bass is flaccid on Swim and Supergirl, upper bass is boomy on every track, mids sound pinched and unpleasant (Madonna sounds thinner, the Mozart recording looses its appeal), voices are too forward and much too crisp. Highs in general are rather tinny while the stage impression seems constricted and flat (not counting the forward voices). Example: the very balanced recording of Mozart's Presto gets too thin and too brittle. The only track that sounded ok with all the added, aggressive & artificial colour was Madonna's Swim: because of the slight loudness-y sound it seemed to be more dynamic, engaging and impressive. But then Supergirl came and the impressive dynamic turned into zippy, sharp and piercing high frequencies. This player is a huge disappointment, its reputation is far from being deserved. For me this one is a personal flop.

Technics SL-VP 50

Two words: huge and bulky. This "portable" player is enormous! Not many people know it, probably because it also can play Video-CDs (yes, it has a video-output) and the one test I´ve read (from german magazine STEREOPLAY) wasn´t very favourable - one reason for this probably was that they didn´t do level-matched testing. I´m also guessing that not many people can take a player serious if it can play visual media too. Technics probably assumed that because of its size it wouldn´t be used much on the go so they equipped it with an infrared remote in order to be used at home. Build quality is impressive, it has the same drive as my Technics SL-XP 300 (only updated a bit) and even the lid is made out of metal. Inside one can find two mainboards: one for audio and one for video (this explains the size and the weight). Today everything would fit on one tiny mainboard but this player was released in 1995 when video decoding via hardware wasn´t as efficient as it is today. Back then it also was a very expensive piece of hardware: it did cost a whopping 450,- Euros when it was released to the market. I only payed 22,- Euros for it (incl. shipping) - and this was for a brand-new and unused exemplar! The person who offered it on eBay sold roughly 20 brand-new pieces of this player and thank God I was one of the lucky ones.

The Technics SL-VP 50

From the left

Technics SL-VP 50: rear closeup - and what a fat ass that is!

Yes, the Technics SL-VP 50 is huge!

Measurments of the Technics SL-VP 50

Technics SL-VP 50 jitter performance

Just as with the XP-300 the measurments are ok but not awesome though the jitter performance is excellent. As is the sound: of all reviewed players this is the one that sounds the closest to the digital original. Precision is good, staging is a bit too compact but apart from this it´s a virtually identical clone of the original, the overall frequency response is a bit light on deepest bass and highest high frequencies. The overall timing is a bit slower but consistent over every frequency band. Yes, the only major thing I´d critisize is that it sounds a bit boring. It sounds as if being bored just so slightly by any kind of music (if it would be alive) and it also sounds a bit inflexible or static. But it never lies, it doesn´t sound thin or constricted, there is plenty of space around instruments in the orchestral recordings. On Swim the punch is diminished and the Presto from Mozart sounds a tiny bit too muffled but Banning Back Home from Hook almost sounds like the original. This is an impressive little (big) portable player!

Sound "pictures"

And now, as I promised above, I´m gonna show you some pictures, pictures of how I perceive the sound of these players to be. Two categories will be mentionend: perceived frequency response and perceived staging or room impression. The expression "perceived" is important here as you will be seeing plots that don´t have anything to do with the reality, it´s just what I hear. But words are an imprecise instrument for explaining sound when pictures can do so much better. So I try to explain the perceived sound with the usual frequency plots but manipulated them to show what I hear instead (not what I measured!). The stage impression will be visualized by a photograph of an orchestra in front of a stylized human head. The orchestra is then morphed into an appropiate form to describe what I´m hearing. I´d like to show you the perceived timing too but I haven´t found a simple, visual expression for it yet.

The perceived differences between the players, visualized with frequency plots

The reference stage impression: the perceived virtual orchestra
sounds wide with appropriate depth

Sony D-220: slightly forward monaural signals
and a tiny bit flatter

Technics SL-XP 300: flatter and more distant sounding

Sony D-465: constricted perceived stage impression
with very forward voices and overall flat room

Technics SL-VP 50: just a bit more compact

I hope that you, dear reader, find those pictures as amusing as I did while creating them. And didn´t I make the loveliest pictures of these portable CD players? Anyway, the result of my little article is that the Technics SL-VP 50 is the winner when all differences regarding voltage outputs are removed and the players all have the same amplitude. Under these circumstances the Sony D-465 is a most disappointing looser. Oh, I forgot: all players were at their best because I cleaned their drives (including the several laser lenses) and cleaned every flat cable inside them and also every plug of the RCA connection I used (on the players, the soundcard and the cable). I think my results are even more impressive because the SL-VP 50 had to fight against the original file - that it managed to sound so very close to it was a surprise even to me. BTW, I mentioned a fully sized CD player from Sony, you probably ask yourself "Where did that one go?" Well, it had the most horrible sound of them all, it did everything wrong and sounded flat and uninvolving so I wasn´t in the mood of displaying its results here. But you can listen to it yourself with the files I´m now gonna provide to you. Attention, illegal file downloaders: this archive isn´t for you! You won´t find not one full track in it, only fully legal 30-seconds-excerpts of the tracks I mentionend during my review. To anyone else: you´ll find the mentionend examples and also my RMAA-measurments, just click on the properly named HTML-files and you´re gonna see all the plots and fitting decriptions. For the DBT lovers out there: most of the tracks are properly aligned so you can play them with foobar2000 and find out if you can hear a difference (Mozart cannot be used since I made some editing mistakes there). To everyone else expecting huge differences in sound: don´t be disappointed; while my descriptions are accurate you probably won´t hear anything when you give those files a first listen. There are two reasons for it: 1. you have to be experienced to hear those differences and 2. the differences between HiFi components are not that big once amplitude differences are removed (as is shown by comparing them to the original files).

P.S.: Do I have a personal favourite? Yes, I do. It is the Sony D-220 because its sound is very pleasant, with a colourful timbre and I can listen to it for hours. It´s also relatively small, not very heavy and can be moved around with ease. The winner of this test, the Technics SL-VP 50, may be the best but it´s bulky and not played in. Then, because it´s so good and precious to me, I don´t want to stress it much. I´d like to keep it in pristine condition for many years and therefore I use the more readily (for cheap money) available Sony D-220. It may not be the most truthful player out there but sometimes even I love a player that lies so enjoyable. And there goes my pseudo-objectivism... :)

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