Sony PHA-2 Named Best of Innovations at the CES 2014

Sony PHA-2

Sony PHA-2

Sony’s PHA-2 headphone amplifier was named Best of Innovations at the International CES Innovations 2014 Design and Engineering Awards event for its effectiveness and great listening experience when used with portable audio players or smartphones.

The PHA-2 headphone DAC/amplifier is part of Sony’s new line of High Resolution Audio products introduced in October 2013, along with the TA-A1ES integrated stereo amplifier. Both products offer superior sound reproduction and have been specifically designed to support the latest high-resolution music sources.

The new PHA-2 portable headphone amplifier is the first portable DAC/amplifier to be compatible with virtually every high-resolution digital file format, including up to 192 kHz/24-bit PCM and both DSD (2.8 MHz) and double DSD (5.6 MHz). It features a variety of advanced technologies, including refinements such as an Asynchronous Transport Mode using a dedicated signal generator to reduce timing errors for more accurate, jitter-free converter performance. It also incorporates a high-precision D/A converter, along with devices such as a custom headphone amplifier IC with high slew rate and ultra-low distortion operation; output capacitor-less (OCL) current feedback architecture; and a dual power supply operation for more stable and accurate reproduction.

All of these select components are enclosed in a durable aluminum chassis, fully protected from external interference. The PHA-2 headphone amplifier also has a variable gain headphone input that supports a wide range of impedances. It also has  Zinc die-cast bumpers to protect the volume control and headphone connector from external shock and vibration.

The PHA-2 can be easily connected to PC and Macintosh computers via its USB 2.0 interface, and also includes a dedicated digital input for iPod, iPhone and iPad products. Other portable audio sources such as Android smartphones and digital music players can be connected via the analog audio input. The PHA-2 comes with a built-in Lithium-ion battery, which runs up to 6.5 hours with a digital connection and up to 17 hours with an analog connection on a single charge.

The PHA-2 portable headphones amplifier will be available beginning March 2014 for $599 at Sony stores and other national electronics retailers.

www.sony.com

Q&A: Daniel Weiss – Audio Engineer Focuses on the “Masters”

Daniel Weiss founded Weiss Engineering in 1985. The company designs and manufactures digital audio equipment for mastering studios.

Daniel Weiss founded Weiss Engineering in 1985. The company designs and manufactures digital audio equipment for mastering studios.

SHANNON BECKER: Tell us a little about your background and where you live.

DANIEL WEISS: I live in Uster, a small city close to Zurich in Switzerland. In the 1970s and 1980s, I played music in a band, first as a violin player and later as the bass guitarist, which seemed preferable to the other band members. I also built various synthesizers, amplifiers, and speakers. I did a four-year apprenticeship as an electronics technician and during that time two friends and I formed a company called “White Amplifiers.” We built amplifiers and speakers for musicians in our spare time. After the apprenticeship, I studied electronics engineering and eventually graduated with a BSEE.

SHANNON: In 1979, you joined Studer-Revox as an electronics engineer working in the digital audio lab. Can you share details regarding your work on the sampling frequency converter design?

DANIEL: In 1979, Willi Studer decided to enter the digital audio era and established the “PCM laboratory” with almost all the lab members being newly recruited engineers and technicians. We were kind of an isolated group as the other labs were slightly suspicious of digital audio technology. We also had a hard time (at least it seemed to me) defining digital audio products that would make sense in a mainly analog world.

There were several digital audio recorders around at the beginning of the 1980s (e.g., Sony, 3M, Soundstream, JVC, Mitsubishi, etc.). There wasn’t much standardization back then so the sampling rates and interface formats greatly varied. Thus, it made sense to create a universal sampling rate converter with custom wired interfaces. This became the SFC16, and I did most of the hardware design. It was a 6HU/19” unit with digital filters built in so-called distributed arithmetic. It is a very clever architecture that avoids the need for DSP or multiplier chips. For most of the units sold—I think 30 of them were manufactured—I also did custom interfaces.

One of the largest setups of a 102 Series system was used at Sony Music in New York in the form of the IBIS digital mixing console.

One of the largest setups of a 102 Series system was used at Sony Music in New York in the form of the IBIS digital mixing console.

SHANNON: What other types of audio products did you design? Can you share some of the challenges involved with the design(s)?

DANIEL: My colleagues at the PCM lab pursued various other projects, such as A/D and D/A design, analog reconstruction filter design (I also was involved), research in de-noising, and a preview unit for the delay required in vinyl cutting. This resulted in a A/D and D/A 6HU box, with enough memory to do the delay. It was not a simple task back then.

As Studer was mainly a tape recorder company, the design of a digital tape recorder was inevitable. The first model was an eight-channel unit using the newly established Digital Audio Stationary Head (DASH) format, which enabled you to interchange tapes with ones recorded on other DASH recorders. I did the audio processing unit for that eight-channel recorder, which was required for interpolation in case the data read from the tape could not be reconstructed via the error correction scheme employed.

Those were interesting times at Studer, as we were pioneers in the pulse code modulation (PCM) audio field. We did many side projects, such as a digital sine generator for measuring purposes (Audio Precision did not exist back then) or a study on TIM measurements with a new approach or a PWM-based analog track on the digital tape and so forth.

SHANNON: In 1985 you founded your own company, Weiss Engineering (www.weiss.ch). Initially, your company focused solely on designing and manufacturing digital audio equipment for mastering studios. How and why did you select that specific market niche?

DANIEL: One day in 1984, when I still was at Studer, a customer came to our lab and asked for an interface between a Sony F1 portable digital audio recorder and a Sony 1610 digital audio recorder. The F1 did not have any digital I/O, so it had to be a custom made interface box. Studer does not do such custom work, so I made that interface for the customer in my spare time. The customer was Ben Bernfeld, a recording and mastering engineer from Harmonia Mundi Acustica in Germany. He knew exactly what was required in terms of equipment for CD mastering (or pre-mastering to be exact). So we decided to build a modular digital audio system to interface and process digital audio. I did the design and manufacturing while he organized the sales. CD pre-mastering was popular in the US mainly, so we concentrated on that market.

SHANNON: Tell us about Weiss’s first product. Is it still being sold today?

The potential of a Weiss Engineering Mastering Studio “Mastering Mansion Madrid” uses  Weiss Gambit Series equipment, which are the white faceplate units on the left.

The potential of a Weiss Engineering Mastering Studio “Mastering Mansion Madrid” uses Weiss Gambit Series equipment, which are the white faceplate units on the left.

DANIEL: The first system became the Harmonia Mundi Acustica BW-102 unit, starting with modules for F1, 1610 interfacing, a digital high-pass filter for DC offset elimination, a digital de-emphasis and a digital level control module.

Over the years, dozens of modules were added. We even did digital mixing consoles based on the BW-102. The largest one was a 32-channel console with four auxiliary buses. Another one was a 24-channel configuration with GML fader automation used by Sony Classical in New York. Those consoles were a bit awkward in terms of hardware requirements, because the BW-102 initially was designed for two-channel applications. Later, we also upgraded most of the modules to handle 96 kHz. Quite a few customers still use the BW-102, we even occasionally sell modules. Technically it is still up-to-date with 96/24 capability and 32-bit floating point processing.

After the BW-102, we started the Gambit Series with 19” units (e.g., analog to digital, digital to analog, parametric equalizer, dynamics processor, de-noiser/de-clicker, sampling rate converter, and more).

SHANNON: In 2000, Weiss entered the high-end consumer audio market with a new product line. What was the impetus behind that decision?

DANIEL: We thought that our DAC1 DAC could find a market within the high-end community. So we built the Medea DAC, based on the DAC1, to test the waters. The Medea became a huge success and it did not take long for customers to ask for more. So we built the Jason CD transport to complement the Medea. Other high-end products followed, up to the latest one, the MAN301 network player.

SHANNON: With the two separate aspects of your company—professional equipment for mastering studios and high-end consumer products—you are in the unique position of controlling, in part, the “production” of the masters and their reproductions. Do you think there is a direct correlation between the two “worlds?”

The Weiss 102 Series consists of digital audio processing modules suited for CD mastering, mixing, and digital audio signal processing. You can configure a system according to your requirements.

The Weiss 102 Series consists of digital audio processing modules suited for CD mastering, mixing, and digital audio signal processing. You can configure a system according to your requirements.

DANIEL: Correlation maybe in that both mastering engineers and audiophiles are interested in getting topnotch sonic quality and ergonomics. We can use our design philosophy—with the utmost transparency—with both markets. But in the end, we simply supply tools. The mastering engineer needs to know how to use them properly.

SHANNON: To what do you attribute your company’s continuing success?

DANIEL: At first, it was the fact that we built the right product at the right time (i.e., when the CD took off there was a huge demand for decent audio processing in the digital domain). In the consumer market, I think our customers like our “no bull” approach. I don’t hold back with my opinions about $1,000 mains cords, gold-plated fuses, small wood blocks for acoustics treatment, or CD demagnetizing, and so forth. I wrote some white papers firmly based on the laws of physics on various audio topics in an attempt to fight the snake oil with facts. This is something I like about the pro audio people, they are down-to-earth guys.

SHANNON: Tell us about your favorite high-end consumer product? What makes it different from other products on the market today?

DANIEL: One of my favorites is the MAN301 network player—from our product line, of course. It is an incredibly versatile unit for CD playback and ripping, and metadata tagging/artwork. It uses the Gracenote database and this is hardly seen on any other high-end network player. It also includes file playback (including DSD), DAC, preamplifier functions, and so forth. I use one at home and enjoy it every day. We continue to develop additional software for the MAN301 (e.g., for room equalization, creative equalization, vinyl simulation, and so on).

I also like to listen to as many different speakers as possible to explore the various philosophies and designs. I think the speaker/room system has, by far, the greatest potential for improvement of the whole audio chain. Audiophiles should acknowledge that and stop messing around with mains cords. The industry still has a long way to go when it comes to speaker/room optimization.

SHANNON: Could you share your opinion on mastering for digital file distribution and, in particular, the mastering for iTunes initiative?

DANIEL: If it is mastering for an uncompressed format, then the procedure should not be different from a standard CD mastering—except maybe if the format is at a higher sampling rate and/or word length than for a CD.

Mastering for iTunes is different, as it means mastering for a lossy format (for the time being at least). But I think the best thing about that initiative is Apple imposes specific criteria on the technical quality of the supplied music, in particular that the music must not be clipped. There are also a number of recommendations available at http://images.apple.com/itunes/mastered-for-itunes/docs/mastered_for_itunes.pdf.

The Weiss-designed MAN301 network player’s front boasts a sleek design. It is a versatile unit that uses the Gracenote database.

The Weiss-designed MAN301 network player’s front boasts a sleek design. It is a versatile unit that uses the Gracenote database.

SHANNON: Where do you see the audio market headed in the next five years? Do you think we will eventually evolve to “high-end” streaming audio services rather than downloading files?

DANIEL: There always will be both variants. Many people like to “own” the music so they can play it anytime and anywhere. And, I think the emotional relationship to the music is different if you’ve got it “on file” and not just via a stream.

Streaming services are great to check out new music. They should have a “buy” button on their websites though. Streaming during travel can get expensive and/or can be annoying when the stream gets disrupted in the tunnel or because of too many people try to get streams on a train, for instance.

Also it seems that for artists streaming services are far from lucrative. That could be changed maybe if they would simplify the buying process right from the streaming site.

In any case, the majority of high-end playback systems will use computer-based playback devices because it is so much more convenient and easily enables people to discover new music from streaming services or even in their own libraries.

Tascam’s High-End Master Recorder and ADDA Converter

Tascamda-3000_p_frIt is good to see new product launches from the TEAC group’s pro audio brand after its recent acquisition by Gibson, especially this upgrade to the legendary DV-RA1000HD recorder. The new Tascam DA-3000 offers the same famous Burr-Brown (now Texas Instruments) ADCs but it comes with a high-quality op-amp (NE5532), optimum condensers, and high-specification resistors for low-noise, high-accuracy, and high-heat capacity in a sleeker, more modern design. This new high-definition master recorder/ADDA converter is designed to fit in any professional or home recording studio, for recording, mastering, broadcasting, replacing a DAT machine, or for audiophiles who want to upgrade their files. This recorder supports high sampling rates up to 192 kHz pulse code modulation (PCM) and 5.6 MHz direct-stream digital (DSD), with the option of recording to SDHC and compact flash with support for USB memory playback.

Tascamda-3000_w_boThe high-precision TCXO fan-less design ensures pristine audio quality. The dual-monaural DACs help eliminate any interference. A balanced XLR I/O, unbalanced RCA I/O along with digital audio I/F AES-EBU, S/PDIF for PCM, and SDIF-3/DSD-raw for DSD is located in the rear of the unit. The DA-3000 warrants a clock frequency accuracy of 1 ppm by TCXO and uses a crystal direct system for low jitter.

The dual-monaural DAC is configured with Texas Instruments (TI) ICs (PCM1795) for each channel and uses TI’s PCM4202 on the A/D conversion, adding an E-I core power transformer with separated coils for digital and analog circuits.

TEAC Corp.
www.tascam.com

January Products: HiWave Wireless Speaker, Power Amp Kit, Wolfson DAC

HiWave develops new wireless speaker platform

HiWave offers a Bluetooth wireless speaker demonstrator that runs for 100 hours at normal levels from a single charge cycle.

HiWave Technologies, a provider of innovative audio amplifier ICs, full-frequency range speaker drivers, and next-generation haptic-touch devices, has developed a new product called Endfire. Endfire is an efficient wireless stereo speaker reference platform that delivers 100 hours of high-quality audio playback at typical listening levels.

Endfire uses Bluetooth to pair with tablet PCs, smartphones, and laptops and outputs 30-W audio from its two full-frequency range, wide-dispersion HiBM36S12-8 BMR speakers. These are combined with HiWave’s DyadBA3 module, which supports both AVRCP and A2DP Bluetooth audio profiles and uses the HiAS2002 stereo amplifier. The system is powered by three 2,200-mAh Li-ion batteries and charged via a micro-USB connection.

The reference platform consumes less than 300 mW during typical playback and its onboard HiWave HiAS2002 (Audium) amplifier can switch voltage rails to reproduce peaks without any detectable artefacts. The system automatically enters standby when not in use and waking. Device pairing and battery check are controlled via Endfire’s volume control dial.

The HiAS2002 amplifier IC and BMR speaker drivers are available from HiWave. Visit www.hiwave.com for more information.

 

Akitika’s complete stereo power amplifier kit

Akitika’s GT-101 contains everything you need to build a stereo power amplifier.

Akitika’s GT-101 is a complete stereo power amplifier kit that supplies everything but the solder. It produces greater than 50-W RMS per channel into 8 Ω with low distortion and low noise. The kit includes a toroidal power transformer, film, COG capacitors, metal film resistors, heavy-duty extruded aluminum heatsinks, isolated input jacks, double sided FR-4 PC boards, five-way speaker binding posts, and a fully regulated power supply. It’s contained in a black custom chassis. The component quality is characteristic of high-end equipment, at a cost of a little more than $300. Akitika’s GT-101 stereo power amplifier sounds better because you build it. Visit www.akitika.com for more information.

Caption: Akitika’s GT-101 contains everything you need to build a stereo power amplifier.

 

Wolfson’s newest DAC delivers great sound

Wolfson Microelectronics has introduced its latest stereo digital-to-analog converter (DAC), the WM8533, which provides audio performance in a small package for a wide range of consumer electronic applications.

The WM8533 delivers 106-dB signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) and features an integral charge pump, a software control interface, and offers 2 Vrms line driver outputs where a 3.3-V power supply rail is used. The WM8533 is suitable for a wide range of consumer digital audio applications including set top boxes, digital televisions, DVD players, and games consoles.

The WM8533 also features ground-referenced outputs and a DC servo to eliminate the need for line driving coupling capacitors and effectively eliminate pops and clicks at power on. The device also supports all common audio sampling rates between 8 and 192 kHz. For more information, visit www.wolfsonmicro.com.

Munich High-End Audio Fair 2012

Did you make it to the 2012 Munich High-End Audio Fair? If not, don’t worry. Audio aficionado Ward Maas attended the event and took notes on the best products on display.

An abridged version of his report follows. The entire article appears audioXpress October 2012.

The 2012 Munich High End Audio Fair took place earlier than usual, running from May 3 to May 6, 2012 at the Munich Order Center (MOC). A total of 366 exhibitors from 33 countries represented more than 900 brands, and 4,427 visitors—a 4% increase over last year—came from more than 70 countries (see Photo 1).

Photo 1: The Munich fair drew 366 exhibitors.

All the ingredients were set for a fantastic happening, and it was. But, it differed somehow compared to prior years.

Some companies with well-known brands chose not to participate and new alliances were formed. There was also a great deal of competition among suppliers. For instance, the fair’s catalog listed seven pages of just connection cable and plug suppliers. There were also manufacturers, OEM suppliers, distributors, and sales houses competing for visitors by promoting everything from best products to best value for money to color.

There was also a change in the manner new products were offered. Some manufacturers chose to be more modest, just showing last year’s products. Luckily, quite a few other manufacturers also showed their new products.

New speaker Products

Backes & Mueller (www.backesmueller.de) is a company that has been on the scene for decades, but never seems to get the breakthrough it deserves. Not only is it very competent when it comes to technology, but it also has the know-how to produce extremely good-sounding loudspeakers. It is an “ear-opener” to hear a  voice in a familiar recording as “background mumbling” become clearly understandable. At the fair, Backes & Müller showcased its BMline100 speaker on the Atrium floor next to its listening room. I got the impression many visitors regarded the speaker as a piece of art, nicely matched with the MOC (see Photo 2).

Photo 2: The MB100

While the Backes & Mueller system was large, the new Nola Grand Reference Series VI was very large (see Photo 3).

Photo 3: Four-tower system with 23 drivers per side

Accent Speaker Technology (www.nolaspeakers.com) presented this massive four-tower system with 23 drivers per side is as a major upgrade to its previous system, which the company described as “breathtaking.” Of course, the external passive crossovers and the ball-bearing crossover isolation platforms  are also needed.

Silbatone (www.silbatoneacoustics.com) was apparently afraid someone was going to top last year’s gigantic system, so it brought an even larger system this year: a WE-15A horn set with field coil drivers, field coil tweeters, and a subwoofer that I mistook for a shielded crew area. I only discovered it to be a subwoofer when I left the room and saw an EV30 (one of two) in a window reflection. Yes, it sounded very pleasant, but I do not think a single system component will fit in my living room.

What will fit is the KEF LS50 mini monitor speaker, which is KEF’s 50th year anniversary product. Inside it is a coaxial driver similar to its “Blade” system. It has special cabinet damping, an optimized baffle shape, a nice price tag, and it sounds great. I’ve seldom heard a precise bass that low and loud from such a small system. This is definitely going to be a hit (www.kef.com).

It is easy to get overwhelmed attending a fair like this. So, sometimes a product or a company can get overlooked. Luckily, I did not overlook the products of ADN Acoustics (www.adnacoustics.com). A casted, aluminum thing on the floor of the booth, which turned out to be a loudspeaker system segment, was on the floor of its booth (see Photo 4).

Photo 4: Aluminum segment of speaker cabinet

A number of the segments are bolted together with a top and bottom plate to form a stack. A front plate is welded onto the stack, then sanded and polished to form a loudspeaker cabinet (see Photo 5).

Photo 5: ADN segments stacked to form a speaker cabinet

The walls are then filled with a special damping material. Using Scan-Speak drivers and Mundorf crossover parts, it has everything needed to form an interesting speaker. Unfortunately, ADN Acoustics did not demonstrate this system at the show. But, even ADN Acoustics’s smallest variant “The Secret” is a backbreaker, weighing 46 kg (101.2 lb) and measuring 57 cm (22.4″) a piece. Its larger brother “The Column” weighs 90 kg (198 lb) and is 110 cm (43.3″) high. It was interesting to see this Spanish high-end initiative.

Horn Systems

Of course, the horn systems always attract attention. This year, a few companies showed milled plywood horn systems. Among them were Cessaro (www.cessaro-horn-acoustics.com) and TuneAudio (www.tuneaudio.com), a Greek company that showcased its Anima. It was worth a look and a listen.

In the horn section, Autotech’s products (www.horns.pl) could not be overlooked. It makes a wide range of multilayer composite horns and waveguides. The standard version comes in white, but all RAL (a color-matching system used in Europe) colors are available on request. Also, for the DIYer, it offers products in eye-catching colors (see Photo 6).

Photo 6: Bright red Autotech horn

MSB Technology (www.msbtech.com) impressed me with a series of high-tech products. They were really showing  off the Platinum Signature DAC IV with its Space Shuttle ceramic tile-style casing for the clock oscillator, modular approach to inputs (just plug in the kind of input you need), and its ability to be updated in many aspects. I have to admit I loved it. Besides having impressive specifications, its appearance is impressive as well (see Photo 7).

Photo 7: MSB Technology’s Platinum Signature DAC IV

Just before the show ended, MSB Technology debuted its new “affordable” DAC, the Analog, which is “just” a black/natural-colored 22-mm aluminum slab, with a rather minimalist user interface (one button, one knob), but, what an impression. For me, it confirms this is one of the most prestigious new products on the block (see Photo 8).

Photo 8: The MSB “Analog”

Refer to the October issue for the complete article in which Maas also covers media players, future technology, and more.