FAQs

FAQs

Welcome to our comprehensive, categorised and regularly updated FAQs.

Frequently asked questions or FAQs refer to questions about a topic or theme that are often asked. Our FAQs answer over 130 questions I’m commonly asked about amplifiers, turntables, vintage vs modern equipment, Liquid Audio and more.

Organised into categories grouping questions thematically, I go into detail, providing valuable information to help people make more informed decisions. Many of the answers are significant articles in their own right and make interesting reading. Some of the most popular include:

Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have a question I’ve not answered here. Suggestions are always welcome!

FAQs
Marantz 2270

FAQ Categories

Can I send text messages out of hours asking for advice?

You can, just don’t expect me to answer them!

I avoid using text messages for business, but even more so when they come out of hours, from people I don’t know! Please stop before messaging and consider that we all need time off and that SMS messages are a really bad first point of contact, for anything.

What’s the deal with capacitors?

Capacitors are important and I have thousands in my parts inventory. Let’s dig into why.

To answer this we perhaps need to look first at what they do and how they are made. Capacitors store charge, like little reservoirs. They also block the flow of direct current and therefore DC voltages. Some are made of aluminium foil and are polarized, some of metalised plastic, some of ceramic materials or tantalum.

The Best Cap is No Cap

Well, where they can be avoided, and very often that isn’t possible. A good rule of thumb is that any capacitor in the signal path is best avoided. There are some you would rather have in the signal path than others, and sometimes they must be there, to block DC from being passed on to the next stage in a circuit, for example.

Often, manufacturers will use cheap aluminium electrolytic capacitors in this role, but polarized capacitors can never be symmetrical in their operation, because they are polarized. This means they introduce distortion into AC signals – the signals we want to be able to hear.

Capacitors_Various
A selection of capacitors. The larger can-types in the top row are electrolytic capacitors and have huge capacitance for their size, but poor high-frequency performance. The first four capacitors on the bottom row are also electrolytics of smaller capacitance. The final six capacitors on the bottom are film and ceramic types which have much better HF performance, but much smaller capacitance per unit volume.

Signal Path

Signal path capacitors are best when they are metalised plastic or polyester, oil filled or other non-polarized types. Still, these are more expensive and are often omitted for this reason. I often change out the aluminium electrolytic signal path capacitors for types that sound far better for my customers. They cost more, hundreds of times more sometimes, hence the reason they are often not used as original equipment from the factory.

Silver_mica_capacitors
These silver mica capacitors have excellent high-frequency performance and are often used in RF applications like radios and old tube TV sets, as well as premium audio gear, most notably Accuphase, and laboratory equipment, where cost is not a factor.

Because capacitors store charge they are used in power supplies to smooth out the ripple in the rectified AC and remove the noise. Here we need high capacitance for a given size and aluminium electrolytic types are perfect because of their very high capacitance to volume ratio.

The problem is again one of cost though. Manufacturers need to save money so they often use economy parts to boost margins, but in turn, this reduces reliability and longevity. Cheap parts are rated for shorter working life and lower operating temperatures.

They also have poorer electrical characteristics such as higher equivalent series resistance or ESR. In effect, this wastes energy and reduces the performance of equipment that needs high power, and low impedance supplies, like amplifiers.

jensen 022
Paper in oil capacitors are great for use in the signal path to warm things up a little.

Replacing Capacitors

This topic is more poorly understood than most in hi-fi, largely thanks to the internet, forums etc. Capacitors age, some more quickly than others. Aluminium electrolytic capacitors wear out fastest, their performance gradually degrades over time, resulting in increased ESR, increased leakage and decreased C. The key is to understand this aging process, what influences it and how to measure the life remaining in capacitors.

Capacitors

This reduced performance over time is due to the gradual increase in internal resistance inside the capacitor, usually due to a gradual deterioration of electrolyte. This is all bad, but all easily fixed. Good electrolytic power supply caps can cost $10 – $100 EACH depending on size. You can see that in a DAC that has to sell for say $1500, you can’t possibly have several hundred dollars worth of capacitors in the power supply when the WHOLE DAC has to cost no more than that price to manufacture.

Herein lies the great conundrum – designers would of course rather use the best parts. If they did, the DAC that should sell for $1500 would have to sell for $5000, and this is not an option in almost every case. Instead, the manufacturer’s marketing and production droobs will work out how to save money and this will mean trimming each part down to the most basic spec that will get the job done.

In terms of how all this applies to hi-fi gear, we can replace old capacitors that wear out, and use better quality parts at the same time, where necessary or beneficial, and kill at least two birds with one stone.

Decoupling

Finally, we need to consider decoupling, which is where small-value solid capacitors are often used to reduce high-frequency noise. Again, better capacitors sound and perform better. I often use military parts bought in surplus, in large quantities. These military caps are fantastic because they are not made for the ‘audiophile’ market, and so there is no marketing bullshit involved.

What you DO get with mil-spec parts is parts that are the best performers, and have the best lifespan. Remember – these parts are made to operate under military conditions of extreme heat, vibration, and humidity. Knowing this, you can probably see why these parts are best and why I use them where I can.

To summarise, capacitors have a huge impact on the sonic performance of audio gear and the measured technical performance as well. Almost any piece of equipment – even brand new – will benefit from carefully considering the capacitors installed and alternative replacements.

Can you show more details of your work?

I try to create a balance of technical information, details and general info, without boring the majority of readers to death!

It’s always a fine line, but there is a ton of detail in most articles. I reckon I put more detail and effort into my articles than most professional repairers I’ve come across, most don’t even write articles! Given that work of a technical nature should generally be undertaken by a specialist though anyway, too much detail is of no benefit to most readers.

On the flip side, the details are of very real benefit to my competitors, some of whom emulate what I do to their advantage. As you might imagine, this is both irritating and counter-productive!

Why do you work from home?

There are various reasons, but like many new millennium businesses, I’ve broken the mould in terms of “needing” a store, because it turns out I don’t need a store at all!

We don’t offer parts only retail sales thank goodness, so I don’t need the added costs and complexity of a retail shopfront or dealing with the general public dropping in. This gives me much more flexibility in terms of where I can work and much greater focus.

It suits me to work from home, for many reasons. All my stock, test and measurement equipment is here, along with tools, parts, reference materials, etc. I also can free up my time, I have no daily commute, parking, or fuel costs. I take a break when I feel like or need one, etc.

In running a small, specialist business like this one, there is simply no advantage to retaining a shopfront, and many disadvantages. My reduced costs can be passed on to customers too, so that’s another bonus from running a business from home.

Occasionally people will expect me to work from a shop, but that’s just a hangover from another time and an oldworldly way of viewing things. Times have changed!

Does being a musician help you with the work you do with hi-fi gear?

Very much so!

Knowing what real instruments sound like in a live music environment is both unusual and incredibly helpful when appraising hi-fi equipment and systems. Unlike many, I know what real drums, guitars, basses, keyboards and other instruments do sound like, and should sound like. I still have my drum kit.

On the flip side, being a musician and having played the drums and attended so many live music events, my ears have suffered over the years and I am paying the price for it now, despite having used hearing protection for decades. Strangely and despite having damaged my hearing, I’m somehow still able to make very subtle observations about sound and sonic differences between hi-fi gear. Go figure. There will be a scientific explanation for this, but I don’t know what it is.

Do CD transports sound different from one another?

Yes, they do, and it’s one of the more puzzling hi-fi truths and paths to improving your Redbook CD playback.

If you need to get in and out quickly, let me assure you that transports sound different, dramatically so in some cases. Even I was surprised by this in the case I describe below, so if you want to hear more about that, read on!

Transports

First, let’s clarify what the term ‘CD transport’ means. A CD transport is a CD player used as a digital source only or a dedicated player that can only output a digital signal. Either way, when we use the term transport, we are referring to a player used to extract a digital signal from a Redbook CD, which can then feed an external DAC.

Ones and Zeros

You’d think that CD players and transports, outputting a digital bitstream as they do, would all sound much the same, given that they read the same data off the disc. They should, and I use that term carefully, generate the same bitstream, in theory. They don’t though. For various reasons, they all sound a bit different, reading the same data, off the same disc. Curious.

For those wondering why they all sound a bit different, I think it comes down to differences in error correction, timing accuracy and a related aspect of that, jitter. There are some obvious contributors to this in the form of build quality, laser quality, health and precision of adjustment, power supply isolation, and so on. These factors generally correlate with cost, so it’s perhaps no surprise what I discovered recently.

I’ve always known that CD transports sound different from one another, even if the reasons why are less obvious than they are with turntables for example. But, these sonic differences between CD transports have never been more apparent to me than when I changed my transport from my beloved Sony CDP-X7ESD to my recently acquired Accuphase DP-90.

Sony CDP-X7ESD
The spectacular Sony CDP-X7ESD CD player, my main transport on and off for the last few years.
Accuphase DP-90
This NOS condition Accuphase DP-90 has replaced it and is the most beautiful-looking and the best-sounding CD transport I’ve used.

The differences between these two transports in terms of the sound output by my DAC are night and day. The Sony is a great-sounding super-smooth operating transport in its own right. It’s also perhaps even nicer in terms of the loader action and smoothness than the much more expensive Accuphase, but there’s not much in it. In terms of sound though, the Accuphase DP-90 takes everything to 11.

With the DP-90 feeding my DAC, the bass is massively extended, mids are more real and everything is better fleshed out and resolved in a way that’s obvious when not even in the listening room. As soon as I hit play I was stunned, and I was prepared for the worst after importing this baby from Japan.

I was hoping for improvements, not necessarily expecting anything major, but from the first track of the first disc, my best possible hopes were confirmed by a night and day improvement over an already outstanding transport. Who knew?! Perhaps I should have, but not many people get to use, let alone own gear like this, so cut me some slack on this one! None of my hi-fi friends and colleagues have a transport this good.

Sony CDP-XA20ES
This gorgeous Sony CDP-XA20ES was my CD player and later my transport for at least ten years. I bought it new in around 1998. There’s a reason I use and recommend Sony CD players and players that contain Sony mechs.
Meridian 506
This gorgeous Meridian 506 CD player is an amazing-sounding non-Sony transport and was the heart of my system for a good five years. The 506, 507 and 508 all sound spectacularly good whether used as integrated players or transports.

Bottom Line

Forget what you think you know in terms of CD transports and just know that transports sound different. These differences are more subtle at the lower end of the spectrum but paradoxically become more pronounced as you go up the food chain. I suggest that if you love Redbook CD despite its limitations as I do, you get yourself a really good transport, the best you can afford.

A great transport will be made by one of the great manufacturers, built like a tank and might even be quite old by modern standards. It will likely contain a classic Philips or Sony mech, or maybe a Sanyo in the case of some of the classic Krell CD players. Most importantly, a great transport will transform your playback of CDs, in a high-resolution system of course.

Again, I have nothing to sell you, no secret stash of Accuphase DP-90s, though I wish I did! Enjoy the journey.

Try these FAQs for more about CD players:

Read many other articles I’ve written about CD players and DACs:

Why do you have these FAQs?

The FAQs save everyone time, by addressing questions I’m most commonly asked.

Honestly, there are questions I’ve probably been asked hundreds of times now over the last 10+ years. Answering commonly asked questions like these takes a chunk of time and, without a good alternative, I’d almost never get any work done!

I write each FAQ and its answer based on something I’ve been asked recently, or previously. Writing carefully worded responses allows me to give you precisely the right information, in a way that saves your time and mine ultimately.

Yes, I invest a lot of my own time creating these often very detailed FAQs, but they generate a lot of goodwill too, so everyone wins!

I’ve read that I should replace any capacitors measuring 10% under spec – is this correct?

No, this is misinformation typically spread by folks lacking the knowledge needed to parse it.

Reality Check

I need to preface this FAQ by noting that with all technical concepts, the real answers are layered. Understanding the layering comes with education and experience. Just as most people lack the experience and knowledge needed to rebuild their car’s engine or diagnose human illnesses, so it is with working on complex electronic equipment. Common sense, to the sensible.

With this in mind, DIY attempts to replace electronic parts that probably measure well within spec are a recipe for trouble. Not only are these attempts unlikely to resolve faults but they dramatically increase the risk of damage and the introduction of additional faults, as well as the risk of electrocution.

While this may not be a popular message, I’m a science educator and technician interested in passing on factual information and keeping classic hi-fi equipment running well. People will either think they know better or be pleased to have found me and it’s all good, but we’re here mostly for the second group!

Dunning-Kruger

The Dunning-Kruger effect is when people over-rate their level of understanding of topics they understand little about, yielding the classic: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, the Darwin Awards, etc. It plays out when folks read something in a forum for example and then believe themselves to be experts based on a snippet of likely incorrect information that they don’t realise is incorrect.

The following example concerns misinformation about capacitors, a misunderstood topic in general, using a reader’s comment on an article I wrote about the wonderful Kenwood KD-500 turntable. This commenter presented something he thought he understood well but didn’t and again this is no big deal but a learning point from my perspective.

We need to be critical of what we read and the sources we trust. We also need to be mindful that time spent reading comments in forums does not an expert make. Too much time spent in the wrong places can prevent legitimate learning through missed opportunities and the need to unlearn incorrect stuff later.

Capacitors

The comment, made about speed issues with a turntable that were unrelated to capacitors:

A simple fix can be changing any electrolytic caps.. Always good to remove then and check there [sic] capacitance. 10% below should be changed.

Mark, commenting on one of my KD-500 articles

Mark’s statement is incorrect in several ways and I replied as follows:

Thanks for your comment, Mark. I appreciate those trying to assist others, but given that your comment highlights general misinformation regarding technical electronics repair and only encourages capacitor replacement rather than finding and fixing the issues, it’s helpful if I explain why.

Capacitors are much maligned and generally poorly understood. Capacitors should be checked, but rarely cause speed issues with these decks. New caps are typically specified to be within +/- 20% of rated capacitance, like these excellent Panasonic parts for example https://industrial.panasonic.com/cdbs/www-data/pdf/RDF0000/ABA0000C1209.pdf.

A reading of within +/- 20% is within new part specs and measurement error. Replacing capacitors that measure within 10% of spec is not only a waste of time and money, but it will not fix anything unless those parts also have a measurably very high ESR.

Most end-users also don’t have the test equipment needed to make these measurements accurately, or the experience to interpret the results and therefore should definitely not remove or change parts they cannot properly measure and assess.

Liquid Mike

Did You Know..?

Did you know that brand-new capacitors that have been sitting around for a while typically measure low for C and high for ESR? There’s nothing wrong with them, they simply need to reform, a process that happens when they are charged. According to the theory above, even brand-new capacitors that have just been sitting for a while should be thrown away and this is, of course, nonsense.

Capacitors can fail and must be replaced when they do. They can also be replaced, with the right technical understanding, to significantly improve performance, depending on where they are in a circuit. However, a 10% variance from rated spec does not constitute failure and may well be within the measurement error of the typically ordinary test gear most owners will have access to.

img 3150
That being said, I always replace ‘Swell-Long’, ‘Hung-Long’ and ‘Long-Dong’ brand caps…

TLDR

All too often though, perfectly good parts are binned and replaced with inferior parts that don’t fix anything, because they weren’t broken! ESR is a more important measurement than C in terms of capacitor health. Most don’t have the equipment needed to properly test capacitors, or interpret the results even if they did.

Replacing parts can cause circuit board damage and introduce new faults. This is especially true for those working with cheap hobbyist soldering and re-work tools and lacking the experience and skill needed to work neatly. Again, a glance through the Hall of Shame shows that even people calling themselves technicians damage boards, all the time.

As always, the best advice I can give is: if you’re not sure, leave it alone, unless you are prepared to lose it!

How much will my service or repair cost?

Generally just as much as necessary to complete the work you’ve asked us to do, and no more.

A Liquid Audio service, repair or restoration always delivers exceptional attention to detail, technical excellence and value. Below, I’ve outlined our pricing structure and other important considerations. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any questions.

Basics

Job TypeCost/Rate
Small jobs, 30 minutes or less$95
Standard jobs, 30 – 60 minutes$120
Standard jobs, 60 minutes plus$120/hr
1/2 day blocks$480

Our economy rate of just $95 (plus parts) is perfect for small jobs of up to 30 minutes duration.

Our standard minimum of $120 (plus parts) covers work up to 60 minutes in duration, including assessment, testing, diagnosis, cost estimation, service and repair work.

Work of 1 – 3 hours duration is charged at our standard rate of $120 per hour. This usually proceeds automatically, expediting the completion of routine maintenance on equipment we care for.

Work exceeding 3 hours is charged at our standard rate and we’ll let you know beforehand or contact you with an estimate once we have it.

Options

We offer advice and learning, pre and post-purchase equipment inspections, service and repair work, overhaul and ground-up restorations to suit most requirements and budgets. We also offer stackable 4-hour/half-day workshop blocks, perfect when working with fixed budgets or equipment and systems with an unknown number of issues.

Best Practice

  • We champion industry best practices in fault diagnosis, repair and rework and component replacement
  • We inspect equipment to eliminate guesswork regarding its condition, faults and repair cost estimates
  • We advise where equipment is damaged or not viable to repair
  • We offer a fixed workshop rate, Akai or Accuphase, Kenwood or Krell
  • We specialise in component-level repair with thousands of premium parts in stock
  • We maintain excellent relationships with manufacturers, distributors and customers!
  • We operate ethically, responsibly and with the intent to preserve and cherish classic hi-fi gear
  • We eschew questionable practices like ‘recapping’ rather than finding and fixing faults
  • We advocate for improved industry standards and the closure of bad businesses
  • Most importantly, we love, live and breathe classic hi-fi, as if you couldn’t tell!

Quality

If you prioritize exceptional results, selecting the right professionals to assist you is paramount. Shortcuts and subpar workmanship generally accompany blind “quotes” and rock-bottom rates, ultimately resulting in unsatisfactory results and increased long-term expenses. Such practices are not aligned with our ethos.

Mike … you, of course, are a gem. We are so lucky to have someone as passionate, intelligent, ethical and hardworking in little ol’ Perth.

David H

At Liquid Audio, we’re focused on meticulous attention to detail, technical best practice, and delivering exceptional service, outcomes, and value for discerning customers.

This commitment to best practice and excellence, often emulated, is the driving force behind our consistently busy schedule. If this resonates with you, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

More…

Find out more with these repair-related FAQs:

Do you listen to everything you work on?

Yes! When you run a business like this and have a reputation built on care and attention to detail, listening to every piece is an essential part of quality control.

What are system resolution limitations and why are they important?

System resolution limitations or ‘bottlenecks’ are critically important as they define the maximum performance attainable with a given set of equipment.

Think of it this way: You could have the best pair of speakers and source equipment in the world, but if your amplifier can only support a certain level of performance, maybe it has a cloudy or opaque sound, limited power, limited bass performance or midrange resolution, you will never be able to hear beyond that limit. Everything you play will be defined and limited by that weakest link. That’s why system optimisation as a whole is so vitally important.

Dirty Windows

Another way to think of this is using the classic ‘dirty window’ scenario. Imagine the sharpest, most detailed image in the world being held just behind a slightly dirty pane of glass. It doesn’t matter how good that image is technically, because you will only even be able to see the amount of detail limited by that dirty window and what can be observed through it. The only solutions are to clean the glass, replace it or remove it altogether.

What this means in the real world of hi-fi systems is that sometimes people upgrade elements of their system but then perhaps don’t hear much of an improvement or cannot get the most out of the improved equipment because of these existing system bottlenecks. The only way to substantially improve the system is to remove the bottleneck, or resolution limitation. This is why getting excellent advice about systems as a whole is so important.

Know Your Limits

Examples of system resolution limits and being surprised the results aren’t better include fitting really good cartridges to average turntables, using high-end MC cartridges with cheap phono preamps, connecting high-quality sources to opaque-sounding amplifiers or connecting high-quality balanced equipment through single-ended connections where the system is not balanced end-to-end. The key to removing system resolution limits is to first identify that they exist, and then precisely where they are. We can help with this through our advisory service.

You might be thinking: “Mike, this is obvious!” Good, but as obvious as it might seem to you, most people are not very good at identifying and eliminating system resolution limitations. Speak to those who really understand this concept and avoid those just looking to sell you equipment, that part really should be obvious!!

Can you contact me when you are accepting new bookings?

If there was an easy way to arrange this for the many who ask, I promise I would. Unfortunately, this is rarely possible.

This is simply a logistical limitation resulting from the volume of enquiries we receive. With no easy way to keep track of who wants to book what, when multiplied by some large number and spread out over time, it’s neither logistically possible nor even sensible for me to try to manage that! Sorry.

Using the booking status table on the contact page and staying in touch via email or voice are the best ways to ensure we look at your equipment. Send an enquiry even if we’re full. That puts us in contact and gets the ball rolling.

There will of course be some we simply cannot assist due to urgency, lack of booking availability, etc and to those folks, I apologise in advance.

What motorcycles have you owned?

A few of my customers ride motorcycles and this question always comes up, so here they are, in chronological order, with my rough year of ownership noted:

Motobecane 50cc moped, circa 1984

Yamaha RZ250, circa 1988

Yamaha RD250, circa 1989

Yamaha RD400, circa 1989

Kawasaki KH400

Suzuki GSX1100ESD

Suzuki GSX400 Four, circa 1990

Suzuki GSX550 Four, circa 1990

Suzuki GSX1100EFE, circa 1992

Suzuki Bandit 1200, purchased new, circa 1996

Suzuki TL1000S, purchased new, circa 1997

Kawasaki GPZ750A1, circa 2000

Yamaha YZF1000R, purchased new, circa 2004

Kawasaki ZX12R, purchased new, circa 2006

BMW R1200R, purchased at 5000km, circa 2011

Yamaha MT09 purchased new in 2018

BMW R1250R purchased new in June 2023 and returned due to service damage in August 2023

BMW R1250R triple black purchased new in September 2023

img 8037

Why don’t you like working on equipment others have worked on?

Because in many cases the equipment will have been damaged or otherwise compromised, creating headaches for the next person.

This is a shame but it’s really just a reflection of what many working in technical fields know well – that the best equipment is unmolested equipment, in original condition, ready for someone to work on it who really knows how to care for it.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that equipment shouldn’t be worked on, only that it just has to be worked on by the right people and sadly, they are few and far between. Most attempts at maintenance introduce faults like damaged printed circuit boards, compromised wiring and low-quality parts.

Undoing much of this can be very time-consuming and tedious. It’s actually not part of my job description, nor is it something I enjoy. Thankfully, as the owner of my business, I can choose what I work on.

Should I send my equipment overseas instead of booking with a reputable local repairer?

I hope the answer to this one is obvious.

A guy contacted me recently and was really annoyed that he couldn’t get his equipment in for attention immediately. He went on to tell me that he would no longer support local businesses and that he would instead send his equipment away for service. OK.

Nobody likes waiting, but busy schedules tell you a lot. I think most people would rather wait for a booking with an excellent, busy local repairer, than send their equipment overseas, to an unknown fate, with the costs of shipping and insurance and all the risks that shipping entails. I know I would, but I also get that we are all different.

Good repairers are busy for a reason and I would be worried if someone wasn’t busy. You can’t blame people for being busy, and Perth residents are actually very lucky to have several really highly regarded repairers based here in Perth. This is a win for local equipment owners and for the classic hi-fi scene in general.

Can you fast-track my repair if I pay more?!

No, all customers and equipment are treated equally at Liquid Audio.

I’ve been asked this a number of times, with the clear imputation that these potential customers would like to push their way to the front of my customer queue. I can only assume it’s worked for them before, but I don’t work in that way. Everyone is treated fairly here and jobs are fast-tracked only where there are legitimate reasons, such as health concerns or mission-critical time constraints.

Is it safe to buy hi-fi equipment on Gumtree?

Generally no, unless you are able to have equipment inspected and you understand that PayPal offers no buyer protection on Gumtree.

You need to be careful when buying anything like this on Gumtree, a local classifieds selling platform here in Australia. Did you know sellers can circumvent the buyer protection that normally exists when you use PayPal

Gumtree Warning

I wanted to purchase something recently and the seller, a guy called Suso who then quickly changed his name to jackypl, said he accepted PayPal. The item I was looking at cost around $4.5K AUD and when you buy something expensive sight unseen, you need all the protection you can get.

So, I asked if I could pay with PayPal. The seller took a long time to reply (warning #1) and then said I could, but that it would cost more (warning #2), despite the listing claiming that PaPayPal was accepted, at the asking price. Anyway, I agreed and asked for the invoice to be sent. I was about to pay the PayPal invoice when I read the fine print:

“NOTE: Buyer protection is not available on this transaction.”PayPal payment window

Buyer Protection

That’s right, you pay to use PayPal and then discover that the main reason for using it isn’t available. What’s the point if there’s no buyer protection? You just pay more, for no reason.

I followed up with Gumtree who told me they didn’t offer buyer protection, and PayPal, who told me they did AND they didn’t (warning #3). One of the PayPal agents told me they did, as long as the seller invoices you a proper goods and services invoice rather than using the family and friends option. The other agent told me they didn’t offer buyer protection on any Gumtree transactions.

The seller stopped responding when I asked about this (warning #4). To me, this behaviour indicated he had something to hide and I decided the guy and his gear were too dodgy. It seems like he may have used a payment option that negated buyer protection. 

I bailed on this transaction and bought a better model directly from Japan. My advice is to avoid PayPal on Gumtree, and probably to avoid Suso / jackpyl.

Should I work on my own equipment?

The answer depends on your skill level, access to tools, parts, etc. and understanding of the work required.

Working on your own equipment can be very rewarding and can save money and enhance the ownership experience. For some, basic maintenance may be quite straightforward and yet for others, the results can be disastrous, so as always, pick your battles!

Know What You Are Doing!

There’s a simple truth that I believe applies to all situations like this and is eloquently expressed by one of my favourite YouTubers:

If you know what you are are doing, you have a tendancy to KNOW that you know what you are doing!

Ed Ting

If you know that you know what you are doing, excellent. Be aware though that most owners do not know what they are doing and most dangerous of all, don’t know that they don’t know.

Skills

Working on electronics requires very specific knowledge, skills and tools that the average person simply won’t possess. The particular skill sets needed to do a job well take years to acquire. Desoldering, for example, is done poorly by most technicians, let alone first-timers. Bad re-work can quickly destroy a piece of equipment.

Tougher jobs, requiring access to mission-critical information, experience, tools and techniques can slow you down, increase the risk of inflicting damage and place you at the mercy of the forums and armchair experts. This is where things can really go wrong and one piece of bad advice can turn things upside down.

Horses for Courses

It’s sensible to get the best and most experienced person to do a job. This guarantees the best result, assuming you go to someone good, and it frees you up to earn money doing what you are good at. We all want to save money, yet paradoxically, attempting highly specialised work like electronics repair can often end up costing a lot more money in the long run.

Why can’t general electronics repairers properly cater for hi-fi stereo equipment?

Because hi-fi stereo equipment is specialised, quite different from appliances, and requires a specialist approach to fault-finding and repair.

Hi-fi equipment contains unique components and mechanical designs. A unique set of knowledge and skills accompanies working on this type of gear. General electronics repairers, musical instrument techs and whitegoods repair guys do not have the requisite knowledge, skills and tools to expediently and expertly repair this gear.

Many pieces of equipment I’ve worked on had visited general electronics repairers beforehand and usually, it’s just a waste of time and money. Occasionally it’s much worse. One really important aspect of this work is the parts used in hi-fi gear and the tools used to repair it.

What are intermittent faults and why are they a pain?

What

Intermittent faults are the most annoying type of faults one comes across when working on electronics. They are commonly found in the domain of electronics and can be a right royal PITA!

Intermittent faults are best described as faults that:

  • Come and go, ie are not always present
  • Can be difficult to trigger or replicate
  • Maybe modulated by triggers like temperature or voltage

Why

There are a few reasons for the appearance of intermittent faults:

  • Solder joints may degrade over time and become electrically or thermally intermittent
  • Capacitors and resistors change both as they age and as they warm up during operation, altering their performance
  • Transistors and diodes may develop internal leakage, causing gain changes and noise. This may present as popping, rushing, crackling, whistling and even silence. They may also cause DC offsets, tripping equipment protection circuits.
  • Electronic parts don’t generally show obvious signs of deterioration as they age. They must be tested, often under dynamic conditions, to establish functionality and health. There may be hundreds of electronic parts in a piece of equipment…

Transistors

Transistors are most likely to cause painful intermittent faults and some types are more prone to doing so, a list of which I keep both electronically and in my brain! You don’t want to replace every transistor in the hope of resolving something like this. That’s a costly, wasteful process that may even change the sonic character of the equipment.

With the component level repair approach necessary when working on older hi-fi equipment, one should always find the culprit/s and replace them, and others like them, where necessary. In other words, we always want to find the cause of the problem and eliminate it. Paradoxically, even reworking the dry joints associated with a bad transistor can sometimes ‘cure’ it for days or weeks, only for the problem to reappear. Fixing these problems is where we earn our money.

Pleasure & Pain

Resolving these faults can be technically challenging, especially if the fault disappears for a while as they sometimes can. There are ways and means of ‘coaxing’ these faults out of hiding, but equipment will occasionally need a couple of visits for problematic intermittent faults to be exterminated! Whilst these intermittent faults can be painful, they are also extremely satisfying to resolve and you have to resolve them to keep the gear that we love alive.

How do I choose a better amplifier?

Amplification is the heart of any system and to improve it, I suggest you focus on three main areas.

These can be broadly grouped into: reducing integration, obtaining better-engineered/built equipment, and better bang-per-buck, meaning pre-owned, older equipment. Let’s examine each of these.

Integration

Integration refers to the level of stuffing of a box of electronics with different functions. Let’s look at amplifiers for example. The simplest solution is called a receiver. This is a power amplifier, preamplifier and tuner, all in one box. Some are small and heavily compromised and these tend to be the most affordable. Others are epic and huge like this Sansui G-8000! These are less compromised but still compromised as compared to separating the elements.

img 3221

One level less amplifier integration is to get rid of the radio, leaving you with an integrated amplifier – a combined preamplifier and power amplifier in a box. Examples include these two beauties and hundreds of others.

Stunning Accuphase E-303 Amplifier Repair & Overhaul
Beautiful Yamaha CA-2010 Integrated Amplifier Repair & Restoration

The least integrated and therefore best-performing amplifiers are separate preamplifier/power amplifier combinations, like my Accuphase C-280V and P-360 for example.

img 7464 1

If there’s one takeaway here I want you to understand that integration is the enemy of performance. The best solutions are always the least integrated ones. So if you want to improve your amplification, reduce its level of integration.

Build & Engineering

I’ve written about this a lot over the years but there is no special new technology that makes a modern amplifier in 2023 any better than a vintage amplifier from the ’70s or ’80s. There are lots of reductions in build quality and engineering though that make the older gear often significantly more desirable, better performing and longer lasting.

In terms of design, engineering and build though, you want features like separate transformers for each channel, or even for different parts of the amplifier like the phono preamp for example. Output devices are important and MOSFETs often tend to sound warmer and smoother than bipolar devices, other things being equal. Balanced designs are preferable to single-ended ones an offer significant advantages technically and therefore sonically. Class A is also a highly desirable design feature and one I’ve written about separately.

Age

OK, so why do I go on about age in this context? Simply because back in the day, labour costs were lower, and engineering and manufacturing standards were less compromised by the search to build things more cheaply. I’m fortunate to have worked on most equipment from most of the major manufacturers over the years and without exception, I can draw a line through the changes in build quality and engineering and find a broad peak running from the mid-1970s through to the mid-1990s. In some cases, the design and quality were even higher back in the 1950s and 1960s.

Fidelity

Waveform fidelity can be considered the precision with which signals are amplified. Technically, this covers dynamic fidelity too, but it’s worth thinking of them separately, as it allows us to discuss great sounding low powered amplifiers, too. Waveform fidelity is ultimately determined by the quality of design and components used, how many corners are cut, or not cut etc.

Dynamic fidelity relates to the ability to replay the full dynamic range of the music and comes down to how many output devices there are and the rail voltages supplying them, amongst other things. To be able to reproduce the full range of sounds from soft to loud, within your listening envelope, and with the sensitivity of your speakers in mind as this is critical, a certain amplifier power output will be required.

Options

The easiest way forward for most owners of basic receivers and integrated amplifiers is to purchase a better integrated amplifier, like an Accuphase E-202 or E-303, Krell KAV-300i, Luxman L-550, Pioneer SA-9800, Sansui AU-919, Technics SU-V8, Yamaha CA-2010, and there are many, many others.

Krell KAV-300i Integrated Amplifier Repair & Restoration
Sansui AU-919 Integrated Amplifier Service & Review

The very best way forward is a preamplifier/power amplifier combo, again, of which there are many. This will take up more space, but it is the ultimate solution and keeps small signal and large signal circuits largely separate. Wanna go super-ultimate? You’ll need two mono-bloc power amplifiers to go with your high-end preamplifier. The best bang per buck will always come from older gear.

Power

Regarding power, read this: https://liquidaudio.com.au/faq/are-low-power-amplifiers-acceptable-in-hi-fi-systems/ and this: https://liquidaudio.com.au/faq/how-important-is-it-to-match-amplifier-power-output-with-speaker-sensitivity/.

Power is important, there’s no getting away from that, but some of the very best-sounding amplifiers are lowish-powered class-A designs. They have dynamic limits that must be respected though and using one might require a tradeoff of improved fidelity for reduced dynamic capabilities, or more sensitive speakers.

Conventional speakers of around 87 – 89dB/Watt sensitivity will, in most cases, require around 100 Watts per channel to achieve moderate dynamic realism without clipping or compression in most environments. Low-level listening and high-sensitivity speakers change that picture, allowing for less power. Bigger rooms, less sensitive speakers and those that demand realistic sound pressure levels will require much more power.

Regarding amplifier types for different use cases, read this, and this.

What to Look Out For

In terms of what to look out for, this is heavily influenced by budget as this will include some features and exclude others.

  • Avoid very low-powered stuff, except for low-level listening and/or very sensitive (ie non-standard) speakers
  • Avoid very cheap stuff as you get what you pay for and really good gear is never cheap.
  • Look for class-A amplifiers, MOSFET output devices, and seriously heavy equipment.
  • Failing some of these, you still want the heaviest, most serious equipment you can afford. Good equipment is NEVER light.

Regarding equipment you currently own, maintaining gear you love is always worthwhile and spending money on it will improve it, if that work is done by a competent technician. Just keep in mind that, no matter what parts are installed, you cannot make a piece of basic gear into a high-end killer.

Most people should look to a significant equipment improvement, requiring a significant outlay. If budget is the overriding factor, I suggest saving and waiting until your budget allows for the purchase of equipment that significantly improves on your current amplifier.

Summary

  1. Reduce integration, improve quality, engineering
  2. For sonic improvements, you have to move forward, not sideways
  3. To improve on a basic integrated amplifier, you need a better, more expensive design and less integration
  4. Good advice is critical to making the right decisions, bad advice leads to the wrong ones.

Need More Advice?

No problem, we offer more great information for free here @ Liquid Audio than probably any other independent, specialist source, so check out other FAQs, reviews and so on for much more.

For those needing more specific, personalised assistance, we offer an advisory service that lets us discuss your specific set of circumstances. You won’t feel bad for taking up my time because you are paying for it and I allocate as much time as needed to assist people who take advantage of this service.

Mike, what do you think of affordable, modern phono preamplifiers?

Do you mean those ‘affordable’ modern phono preamplifiers that cost $1000 or more, contain about $50 worth of parts if you’re lucky and sound ordinary? Not a lot.

You first need to understand that I’ve been spoiled by great phono preamps made when vinyl was at its peak. Much of the excellent equipment from that era is unsurpassed in terms of build, technical specifications and sonic performance. Cheaper, modern gear simply cannot hold a candle to it, despite all the hype and often impressive on-paper specs.

There isn’t a lot new in terms of analog circuit design and engineering that improves phono preamps. There are improvements in opamp design and miniaturisation though and these things save money. The very high cost of labour and the resulting increased production cost of gear these days mean that reducing construction costs is critically important.

These days we have affordable phono preamplifiers filled mostly with op-amps and cheap, miniature passive parts. Very few affordable discrete designs containing really high-quality parts exist.

Want a really good phono preamp? Get an older high-end preamp with a discrete class-A phono stage, coupled with a step-up transformer. Need advice about what to buy? Use our advisory service!

How good is the Denon DL-103 MC cartridge?

Better than you may have heard but not as good as you may think!

For those looking for the TLDR: The Denon DL-103 MC cartridge is probably the best cartridge available for higher mass arms at the low $400 asking price. It’s very good – great in fact – for the money, on the right tonearm. That said, it isn’t well-suited to many turntables and tonearms, nor is it anywhere near as good as the very best carts available when we remove the price restriction.

It’s important to have factual information on anything like this of course or the results could be less than you hoped for. If there’s one thing we’re known for here @ Liquid Audio, it’s factual information about classic hi-fi, so let’s go.

Denon DL-103
The venerable Denon DL-103 moving coil cartridge. She’s a beaut, on the right deck.

Physics

The Denon DL-103 was designed to work properly on longer, heavier arms, bolted to a nice heavy headshell. That’s because the 103 is an old-school low-output, low-compliance cartridge with a conical stylus. The DL-103 needs a little more mass for the suspension to work properly. Don’t know what this means? You need to because it’s very important.

Understanding cartridge physics is vital to understanding how cartridges interact with headshells and tonearms. Cartridge-tonearm compatibility comes down to simple math and becomes intuitive with experience and a good technical understanding of the mechanics/physics involved.

Whatever else you do, make sure whoever supplies and fits your cartridge can explain this and verify compatibility with your equipment. Walk away from anyone telling you that “this isn’t important” or that “the DL-103 will work on any arm” or is “the best cartridge available”. Comments like these merely highlight the need for better advice and FAQs like this one.

Reality

The DL-103 is a beautifully made and presented low-output moving coil cartridge that sounds great in the right rig. It’s a classic-sounding cartridge because it was designed in a classic time, long ago. Tonearm design philosophies have changed since then though.

We’ve had the era of super low-mass arms, to which a DL-103 should never be fitted. We are now in a medium-mass tonearm era and the DL-103 isn’t well-suited to many of these either. The DL-103 can be used with medium-mass arms as long as the resonant frequency is known and the necessary mass adjustments are made.

How good is the DL-103 in the right set-up? It’s a very good cartridge, especially for the low asking price. The Denon DL-103 sounds balanced, clean and powerful, with no obvious issues anywhere. The DL-103 offers higher resolution than similarly priced MM carts when partnered with a suitable high-gain phono pre-amp (critically important).

Overall, the DL-103 is better than similarly priced MM carts, but perspective is important. People have told me they’ve never heard better than the DL-103 but that’s only because they literally haven’t heard better, they’ve only heard two or three carts in their lifetime! I’ve fitted dozens of 103s over the years and hundreds of cartridges. The DL-103 is a solid performer but there are significantly better-performing cartridges available for not a lot more.

I think everyone loves the idea that a $400 cartridge with an aluminium cantilever and conical diamond might be as good as cartridges costing thousands, but in reality, this is just whimsy. If the DL-103 was as good as my Ortofon MC-A90, MC Jubilee, Supex SDX-1100D, or even my Fidelity Research MC-202 or FR-1 Mk3, I’d only use Denon DL-103s, because I’m only interested in the truth and what’s best based on actual experience.

The DL-103 will never be the most resolving, airy or articulate cartridge, but it is honest and beautifully made, and it will smack around Ortofon 2M Reds, Audio Technica VM95Es, etc all day long, and deliver a better balanced and resolved result than many sub-$1000 carts. As good as the DL-103 is for the money, it’s a stepping stone for anyone seriously invested in vinyl playback. Once you’ve heard a better cart properly set up on a deck that can support it, you’ll get it.

img 4624
It looks like a DL-103, but this ain’t no DL-103, it’s my Supex SDX-1100D, better in every way than the Denon DL-103. It’s better than most other cartridges period, one of the best of all time. It cost as much as a car in the early ’80s. “No way Mike, a car..?” Yep, a medium-sized car.

Knowledge

Remember, salespeople NEED to sell these things. For many, once the sale is complete, that’s it. For many owners, even if the set-up is sub-optimal, the result will often be better than the crappy sub-$100 cartridge most are stepping up from, even if it’s still way out.

Has the retailer explained that the DL-103 is a very low-output moving coil cartridge? Have they explained that it needs a high-gain phono preamp and/or a step-up transformer? Have they mentioned how much more a good high-gain phono pre or transformer costs or how critically important they are in extracting the most from a good MC cart..? Have they explained that the 103 is completely wrong for an SL-1200? Good retailers will have staff on hand who can explain all of these things.

This is the value of knowledge over opinion. It’s my science training at work, but knowledge is everything and better knowledge leads to better choices and better results.

Variants

There are some specced-up versions of the DL-103 available, like the DL-103R for example. The DL-103R is certainly a better-sounding option for most people, though having heard most of the variants available, I think the best bang-per-buck version is the Denon factory original.

Other manufacturers dress up DL-103s in fancy aluminium or wooden bodies and charge hundreds more for them. Does that sound like great value to you? You can take a basic cartridge and wrap it in a fancy metal box, and it’s still a basic cartridge in a fancy metal box, so be mindful of this.

The Bottom Line

So, can you do better than a DL-103? Of course, a good $1500 cartridge like an Ortofon Quintet Black S crushes it and even at $699, Audio Technica’s AT-OC9XEN is better in most setups. A better question would be: Can you do better than a DL-103 for $400, on the right tonearm?

The answer is probably not unless you pick up a really good second-hand cart, because nothing else will touch a DL-103 for the money new, in the right setup. Just know that the right setup isn’t an SME 3009 or Technics SL-1200!

PS

If this information has been helpful to you, you can say thanks by buying me a drink or making a donation using the button in the footer.

What irritates you?!

There aren’t many things that irritate me in my line of work, but since you asked…

People who drain time, energy and goodwill.

For me, the one-way ‘brain drain’ is constant, but a special few will take whatever they can get without ever giving anything back and expect you to always be there to answer questions, often without bringing any business of their own. Frustrating.

People who make bookings and then don’t show up

Wow, this is an annoying one, it happens rarely but when you are stuck waiting for someone who never shows up it can seriously mess up your workflow.

Copycats

Every word, image, and technical detail you see on this website comes from my brain. Sadly, the same cannot be said for some others out there, some of whom borrow heavily from my website and approach.

When people repeatedly ask if I’ve looked at their equipment

I understand everyone wants their equipment looked at quickly, but if I’ve explained that we’re fully booked, please don’t repeatedly call me to ask if it’s ready!

Disrespectful people

Very occasionally, I will deal with a rude or otherwise unpleasant individual. The great thing about running your own business is that you get to decide who your customers will be. My colleagues and I keep a list of people who’ve upset one or more of us and who we will not assist.

Why did you remove the phone number from your contact page?

So I could get more work done! UPDATE: I reverted this, legitimate enquirers want my number so it’s back up. I’ll filter calls more effectively.

Liquid Audio is not a retailer and so, generally speaking, the only calls I want are from people booking service or repairs on their hi-fi equipment, or from folks who’ve purchased time from our advisory service. Many other people want to speak to me though, especially regarding advice and many of them don’t want to follow the procedures we have in place for obtaining it.

We have a great system for handling booking and advice enquiries, via our contact form. I designed it to collect all the necessary information, maximising efficiency and minimising wasted time. If you need to get in touch, the best way is to fill out the contact form, on our contact page.

Alternatively, if you are already a customer or have a business card given to you by one of Perth’s best hi-fi retailers, and you have a booking enquiry, you are welcome to call.

What’s better: a short tonearm or a longer one?

Other things being equal, a longer tonearm is always better, with one exception: linear tracking arms.

The reason you want a long conventional arm, or a linear tracker of any length, is to eliminate tracking error and therefore tracking distortion.

When a tonearm moves across a record, it does so in an arc, because the arm is fixed at a point that becomes the radius for arm motion across the record. Ideally, the tonearm would move in a straight line across the record. That isn’t possible, except in the case of the linear tracking arm, seen on decks like the Technics SL-10 for example.

For conventional arms, the stylus will scribe an arc across the record, the curvature of which is determined by the length of the arm. The longer the arm, the greater the radius, the gentler the arc and the lower the tracking error, and therefore distortion.

This is the single reason why many of the best tonearms are 12 inches long in the old money. Very good arms are usually 10 inches long or close to it and the standard length is around 9 inches. There are some excellent 9-inch arms, but this is about as short as you want to go before tracking error causes significant tracking distortion.

You’ll occasionally find turntables with short tonearms, mostly sold in department stores. I’ve worked on a few Gold Notes for example with 8-inch arms. Short arms allow for small turntables, but the compromises are too great and I strongly suggest you avoid anything with a less than 9-inch tonearm.

Are there customers you won’t work with?

Oh yeah, but thank goodness, not many!

Liquid Audio, in collaboration with a select group of repairers and retailers, manages a list of people who, for various good reasons, will not be assisted by any of us, ever again. We add to this shared list as needed (+1 absolute noodle in 2022, +1 in 2023), but the fact is we enjoy fantastic relationships with 99.9% of our customers. The list is short and new additions are extremely rare.

Liquid Audio is one of Australia’s most trusted repairers and I’m very proud of that because it says everything about our approach. We attract great customers, but as every business owner knows, you cannot please everyone, no matter how well you run a business, nor should you ever try to and I certainly don’t.

I prefer not to work with aggressive, entitled, unreasonable, rude or disrespectful individuals as a general rule. That being said, there exists a further subset, a small fraction of people so unreasonable, problematic and difficult that attempts to work with them must be avoided, even if it causes short-term financial loss to get rid of them. That was our +1 in 2022.

We can accept small financial losses because life is too short. For the miscreants, there is a bigger price to pay and my colleagues and I have a simple zero-tolerance policy for dealing with them:

If someone does the wrong thing, assistance is terminated, details are recorded and shared, and they are permanently banned from our network.

If/when somebody is perma-banned they lose access to all the best repairers in Perth, no matter which one they upset, forever. This suits us of course, but it doesn’t work so well for the banned.


Are remastered records better than originals?

A very good question, with no simple answer, other than no, often they are not.

This varies due to many factors, but remastered records are often worse than early pressings, and very occasionally better.

Here’s what we know about analog recordings made on tape (as almost all analog recordings are): they offer the highest resolution, but deteriorate over time. The very best versions of the masters, mix-down masters, sub-masters and various analogs that make their way to the record pressing facilities are the ones made as close to when the original analog recordings were made.

What this means for records is that the early ones or those closest to the recording are often the best, all other things being equal. Better still, you want an early pressing from one of the first stampers made from the first mother – the moulds used to create the moulds used to press records. That’s because the moulds deteriorate every time they are used and the original master recording deteriorates from the moment they are made and every time they are played.

Add to this the fact that record plants, equipment, technicians and the people who operate the tape machines were all at their peak years ago, not right now, and the tendency for remasters to be produced too hot and you have a combination that renders modern remasters often disappointing. Don’t just take my word for it though, you can read more about this in many great articles online, like this good primer for example.

That being said, if you get the right album, remastered by the right engineer, in the right studio, with really good, intact analog masters as closely as possible to the originals, with good quality, clean vinyl that’s been well pressed, thick and flat, remasters can sometimes sound better than the originals, or at least as good. The problem is, there are not enough like this!

Mike – cassette decks – what’s the deal?

Cassette decks offer a ton of fun and a real ‘blast from the past’ user experience, but there are a few things to consider before you go crazy.

Cassette decks are amongst the most complex of hi-fi gear and generally require the most maintenance due to their electro-mechanical nature, belts, gears, and motors. Think of the VCR you used to own, and you’ll not be far away.

This maintenance is regular and periodic, with some necessary every 10 hours or so in the form of tape path cleaning, if you want to be really picky. It’s also specialised, requiring special tools, lubricants, demagnetisers, calibration/test tapes and more. The work can be time-consuming and technical, and much of it is way beyond most owners. So, the catch-22 with cassette decks is that as fun as they are, they can be costly to maintain.

Whatever, I have several cassette decks and I love playing tapes. It really takes me back and a good three-head dual-capstan machine like my Pioneer CT-A9X sounds excellent. Just remember, compact cassette, to use its correct name, was never intended to be a true hi-fi medium. It became one, and better decks with good tapes can sound excellent, but it’s more about the experience: warmth, VU meters, spinning reels and tactile interaction with these wonderful whirring machines.

If you want a cassette deck, look for a better, three-head, dual-capstan deck, from one of the bigger players like AKAI, Kenwood, Pioneer, Revox, Sony, TEAC, Technics, Yamaha and Nakamichi. Better decks cost more and are worth more, so the inevitable maintenance doesn’t feel so painful.

Full ‘mechanism out’ services have to be done periodically and can take many hours. Many more hours can be spent on calibration. Most decks need major work at this age and the better decks are still very serviceable, but heads, pinch rollers and some other parts may be impossible to obtain, so choose carefully. If in doubt, get good advice from someone who actually works on these wonderful old machines, and consider a specialist forum like TapeHeads.

Why didn’t you repair my equipment?

That depends on the particular circumstances associated with your piece of equipment.

We focus on complex, no longer supported and often ‘unrepairable’ hi-fi equipment and fix almost all of it. This is important because:

  • Much of it is complex, older equipment, generally deemed unrepairable
  • Many pieces have visited others who could not effect repair and are often worse off for it
  • It requires a technically-focussed component-level approach that many don’t or can’t offer

Think of it this way: if these sorts of repairs were easy, there’d be no demand for our services, yet we are almost always fully booked, without advertising. There will always be circumstances where repairs aren’t viable, or even possible within sensible bounds. There are intermittent faults that may be challenging to isolate and completely resolve. These considerations are part of working with older electronic equipment.

Viability

In cases where repair costs are likely to exceed equipment value or customer budget, we may deem the work non-viable. We consider the condition, faults, value and work needed to properly repair a piece of equipment and even the customer when making this call. Let’s look at some examples:

  • A customer doesn’t want or cannot afford to have the equipment properly repaired
  • Critical parts and/or substitutes are no longer available
  • A repair is unlikely to be viable or reliable for technical reasons
  • A repair is not worth pursuing due to equipment condition, value, or customer issues

It’s important to understand that we are not responsible for equipment condition, faults, customer budget, parts or manufacturer support availability, or overall repair viability. These elements are obviously beyond our control.

Example

I recently worked on an old amplifier, in poor condition, with various issues. The owner had emptied an entire can of WD-40 into it, it had been modified without documentation, messed with by various people, and was dirty, damaged and not well cared for. It was brought to us after everyone who shouldn’t have touched it, had.

Mike, why even bother looking at equipment like this?

Level-headed enquirer

Generally, I wouldn’t, but I didn’t know about the internal condition or the customer when I agreed to help. Unfortunately, after several hours of working through issues with the unit, I decided that further work was not viable due to the combination of issues, all of which were not of our doing and beyond our control. This doesn’t mean the amplifier can’t be repaired of course, only that it cannot be economically repaired, given the issues, condition and type of equipment.

Despite doing my best to help this customer, carefully explaining the issues and only charging our minimum, we were blamed for not fixing the amplifier and I was not thanked, despite the terrible condition of the equipment and going out of my way to help the customer. in hindsight, I should never have taken on the equipment or customer and it’s a useful lesson learned.

Realistic Expectations

It’s like an 85-year-old visiting the doctor, wanting to be cured of arthritis. When the doctor examines the patient and determines that the required joint replacements and therapy are beyond viable, does that become the doctor’s fault or responsibility? Should the doctor provide their time and expertise for free, simply because the patient doesn’t like the answer?! Of course not.

There are no miracles, but plenty of affordable gear is viable to repair, especially if it’s in good condition and hasn’t been tinkered with too much.

My high-end amplifier has failed, how much will repairs cost?

To answer that we need to determine precisely what’s gone wrong with it and why.

This concept applies to almost all technical fields, so it’s an important one to understand. Information regarding general service and repair costs can be found in this FAQ.

Speculation

Electronic equipment failures are typically ‘black box’ scenarios, so you cannot look at electronic equipment and know what’s going on inside, sadly. This applies equally to hi-fi equipment and other complex things like bridges, motorcycles and people! The more complex the equipment, the more potential unknowns lie within, so the secret is to dig in and test, measure and assess to get to the root of the problem/s.

The first step for any professional always involves inspection and assessment. Asking for a quote before a technician has looked at the equipment is asking for a non-evidence-based guess as to what’s wrong, what parts will be needed and how long the repair will take, without any of the necessary background or critical information. It’s like asking a mechanic for a quote to fix a mystery fault with a car that they haven’t touched or even seen.

Six Steps

The correct approach involves a logic-based and stepwise appraisal and assessment of the equipment and its faults. There are six steps to electrical fault finding and repair:

  1. Collection of evidence
  2. Analysis of the evidence
  3. Location of the fault
  4. Determination and removal of the cause
  5. Rectification of the fault
  6. Checking, adjustment and calibration

Steps 1 to 3 comprise the assessment phase and generally have to be completed before a cost estimate can be offered. All the steps require a technician to be hands-on with the equipment. Other issues may become evident once work has commenced, which is why reputable repairers typically provide cost estimates, and generally only after this critical assessment phase.

Pretenders

You might wonder what someone has to gain by pretending to know what’s wrong and how much a repair will cost but that’s simple: business. Some folks expect sight-unseen quotes, goodness knows why, and less ethical, and maybe more desperate repairers enable this expectation because it gets them work. I operate with a focus on ethics and I don’t need the work, partly because I don’t work like this!

I could never have guessed what was wrong with a Krell KSA-100S I repaired a couple of years ago for example. I fixed multiple issues only to discover one hidden issue at the very end. It’s an interesting read! Similarly, an Accuphase E-303 I repaired contained five unrelated faults, none of which could have been guessed because they were so odd.

When you have a repairable amplifier, the last thing you want is to end up with a ruined one. Take this beautiful Gryphon DM-100 class-A amplifier for example. Sadly, this lovely amplifier visited the wrong people before I finally saw it and by then it was unfortunately too late.

More…

Find out more with these repair-related FAQs:

What’s better: a good moving magnet cartridge or a cheap moving coil?

I don’t like either very much, but that being said, I’d generally recommend a good moving magnet cartridge over a cheap moving coil, for a variety of reasons.

If you have say around $500 to spend, and assuming you are chasing a medium compliance cartridge for a typical medium mass tonearm, there are lots of choices. Moving coil cartridges are technically better for a number of reasons, but at this low price point (yes, $500 is low priced for cartridges), moving coils are almost always high output types, of basic construction and generally don’t sound great. An exception is the venerable Denon DL-103, but it’s not suited to lower-mass arms.

Why? Cheap cartridges with aluminium cantilevers and spherical or elliptical styli don’t sound amazing, whatever the flavour. A nice moving magnet at this price probably has a better diamond, and better cantilever and is going to sound warmer, punchier and probably a little easier on the ear, even if it does lack resolution. There are no surprises here.

Much beyond $500, moving magnet cartridges don’t get a lot better because they are technically limited by the mass or inertia of the moving elements. Low-output moving coils start to come into their own at around the $750 mark. From here, the advantages of moving coils become critically important and this is why most cartridges I recommend from $750 are MC type. The equally legendary but better Audio Technica AT-OC9, in affordable XEN configuration is available at this price point and crushes most similarly priced MM carts.

This is why basically all high-end cartridges are coils. It’s also why all of my serious carts are and have been moving coils. listen to any good system and you’ll hear it, but it creates that age-old equipment problem of wanting to spend more and more money! Keep in mind though that you need an altogether better playback chain to get the most out of a low-output MC cart.

A classic rookie error involves listening to a good low-output MC cart on a phono preamp that isn’t good enough to extract the best out of these designs. You’ll never hear all that the low-output MC cart can do because of the limited resolution of the phono preamp. The best solution is a better preamp and/or high-quality step-up transformer.

Mike, how do you feel about people seeking your advice and taking their business elsewhere?

It happens to all of us, the trick is to filter out those with a propensity to do this before wasting time and energy on them.

I’m pleased that we’ve become a trusted source of advice and guidance over the years, a lot of hard work has gone into building that reputation and trust.

“Mike, I used your review to learn about and find a vintage Pioneer turntable you recommended, and bought the cartridge and headshell you recommended elsewhere. Can you tell me how to set it all up..?”

Person A

Absolutely, if you purchase a suitable length consult.

Support Small Business

When you support independent, specialists like Liquid Audio, you’re supporting me and my work. Many of us battle zero-service online discounters and grey importers offering nothing other than marginally cheaper products that they buy in bulk. Price is important, but the bigger picture and developing a relationship with local businesses is far more important.

“Mike I read your article about repairing xyz. I don’t want to bring my equipment to you but can you tell me what parts you used and where to get them..?”

Person B

Again, if you purchase a consult of the correct length, I’d be happy to enlighten you.

Relationships

Customers are often inspired to buy interesting equipment and accessories through the website or a chat with me. This ‘organic learning’ is incredibly useful. Building a relationship with someone you can trust is infinitely more beneficial in the long term than saving fifty bucks.

If you enjoy this website, if you’ve found inspiration here or if I’ve taught you something, support my business! You can say thanks by shouting me a drink in the footer. Better still, grab some advice or best of all, support us by giving us your business and engaging us to work on some equipment for you.

By doing these things, you’ll be building a relationship with someone rolling up their sleeves and contributing, educating, and helping, rather than just selling boxes and cashing in on other people’s hard work 😊

What’s the best moving coil phono preamplifier?

Either a good step-up transformer or an exceptional active MC gain stage.

Almost nothing does a better job of taking extraordinarily small signals from a moving coil cartridge and amplifying them than a step-up transformer, with maybe one exception, which we will get to.

A Perfect Match

Technically there’s a bit to know, but step-up transformers are great because they are completely passive, require no power and have no electronic or moving parts to degrade sonics or add noise. They match the impedance of the cartridge to the input impedance of the next stage almost perfectly. They can also be chosen to provide a precise level of gain to suit the cartridge and following electronics.

These virtues combine to reveal a level of micro-dynamic detail and resolution you may have thought didn’t exist until auditioning a good step-up transformer in a high-resolution system. When I got my first transformer, a Fidelity Research FRT-3, in 2005, I was amazed. Moving to an end-game Fidelity Research XF-1 after some very good advice from a friend and colleague was the game changer for me, and I’ve used, recommended and supplied many transformers since.

Fidelity Research XF-1
I own two pristine examples of the XF-1.

Some of the best phono preamplifiers, such as my Cayin Phono 1, use transformers for their moving coil gain stages because they offer the best performance and lowest noise for sensible money.

Alternatives

Whilst good step-up transformers are ideal for most people in most cases, there are a few cases where alternatives should be considered. If you have or have access to an ‘S-tier’ all-active phono preamp, it’s worth comparing it to the best transformers. I recently acquired an S-tier Accuphase preamplifier containing a phono preamplifier so good, that it’s better than a really good step-up transformer.

Mind you, my Accuphase preamp cost as much as a car when it was new and many thousands of dollars even now, 30 years later. I had to find it and then import it from Japan, there were many risks and costs involved and that’s way too hard for most people. That’s why in most systems, and for most people, a really good step-up transformer is the best option. But if you can afford an Accuphase C-47 phono preamplifier, this will be the best way forward.

Accuphase C-47
Nothing else is built like or sounds like Accuphase gear. You pay for it though.

Lost Knowledge

Knowledge and hands-on experience with step-up transformers is something of a lost art. Most people have never even seen a step-up transformer, let alone owned a few of them. They were common in high-end systems in the ’70s and ’80s though.

These days, many discover the almost mythic status of these devices, only to hit their favourite hi-fi store to ask about them and be met with blank stares! Many are left to find someone they can perhaps borrow a transformer from, before placing an order.

I offer this service to my customers who are looking to purchase something through me. The customer who purchased this beautiful Ortofon ST-70 step-up transformer did so before ordering. I had to order the SUT directly from Ortofon and the lead time was months. There wasn’t even one in Australia.

Pros & Cons

The pros:

  • Lowest noise, typically the best impedance matching
  • Greatest resolution and micro-dynamic detail, except for premium all-active stages
  • No parts to wear out, near 100% reliability

The cons:

  • More expensive to manufacture than cheap consumer-grade gear
  • Requires careful matching and should involve a specialist
  • Still needs an excellent MM phono preamp

Bottom Line

As mentioned, you’ll still need a really good MM/EQ pre, so you cannot get away from this completely. The first part of the chain is what the transformer replaces, doing at least 30dB of heavy lifting.

The very best MC step-up transformers are expensive, but once you’ve heard what one can do, it’s almost impossible to use anything else, other than the very best all-active electronic MC gain stages.

Do customers ever fail to pay for or collect their equipment?

Thankfully, almost never.

Good People

Great customers, our high success and satisfaction rates, professionalism, sensible pricing and clear communications combine to deliver a non-payment rate of virtually zero for us.

We operate ethically and this actually generates goodwill that generally shields us from non-payers and other undesirables. I also carefully filter enquiries and avoid assisting those who I think might be flakey. That being said, I’ve had two non-paying customers in a decade.

Bad People

The first was a crooked real estate agent. I repaired his turntable, but he simply failed to respond to emails about collecting it. For months, despite our 7-day collection window. My final warning after 12 long months stated that I would sell his turntable to recoup funds if he did not collect and pay for it immediately, no discussion, do it or lose. He suddenly wanted to collect his equipment 😉

Even the collection was a drama, with a crying baby, a screaming wife and a strange, sweaty man attempting to wiggle out of paying the storage charges he has accrued over 12 months. Luckily, I had customer and neighbour witnesses, none of whom could believe what they had just seen and all happy to support me if needed. He’s very lucky I didn’t sell the deck after a month, as I am entitled to. This ex-customer is now on the blacklist.

The second non-payer asked me to service and repair his turntable as a high-priority job. I did that for him of course and had his deck running perfectly again, but he then disappeared, never responding to attempts to contact him or thanking me for fixing his turntable. We sold his turntable of course and recouped around double what he owed, but what an unnecessary waste of everyone’s time and energy. This gentleman’s is name is Mr J-o-h-n Messina. If you know him, tell him Mike would love to catch up with him.

Takeaway

There are some bad people in this world who, no matter how much you try to help, won’t or maybe can’t behave ethically. My colleagues and I have a simple policy for dealing with people like this which places them on the aforementioned blacklist. Strangely, these guys sometimes see themselves as the victims and those working honestly to help them as the villains. You can’t reason with people like this, you just have to try to identify them before they inflict harm.

I’m having trouble aligning my cartridge, why does each tool seem to give a different result?

This is a really good question, variations of which I hear a lot. Let’s look at this in a little more detail, and bear with me as there’s a bit to unpack with this one.

Alignment Basics

Cartridge alignment is a technical process, but a relatively straightforward one, once you understand it and how to do it. There’s not a lot of room for opinion here, it’s all about understanding geometry and how to accurately measure and set things up. I’ve written more about the key parameters involved in cartridge and tonearm set-up too, so check that out.

There is only one factory-correct alignment and that’s the one made to factory specifications. Note: I’m not saying there is only one possible alignment, I’m saying there is only one factory-correct alignment. This concept needs to be very clearly understood, yet an astonishing number of folks don’t seem to, including many who ought to know better.

Rabbit Holes

Once you get into turntables and vinyl, you can potentially enter one of many rabbit holes from where it can be hard to re-emerge, without help. We provide that help, of course. For example, there’s a guy on a turntable forum telling people not to use Technics’ cartridge alignment geometry and tools because he knows better. Sure. Perhaps Matsushita will give him a job seeing as they got things so wrong with their turntable designs…

The internet is broadly problematic in terms of the Dunning-Kruger effect, where people tend to over-rate their level of understanding of topics they in fact understand very little about. This gives us the classic: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”, “You don’t know what you don’t know”, the Darwin Awards, many humorous memes and tragedies like the space shuttle disasters.

The problem here, one that I’ve been fighting for years, is one of too many opinions and not enough knowledge, facts and science in the world of hi-fi. I have a science background and I’m all about facts, and applying them to this wonderful hobby. One thing you won’t read is me telling you that I know better than the designers or engineers who created this equipment because that would be stupid.

Do folks in hi-fi forums know more about turntables and their alignment than the turntable design engineers? Is it sensible to trust people you don’t know writing from their mum’s basement over the manufacturer and designers? If you have to think about your answers there’s a problem, but it might not be too late!

On that note let me leave you with this fact: Out of maybe 1000 or more turntables that I’ve worked on over the years, only a handful came correctly set up, including many straight from stores. Every deck that left here however left perfectly set up. I don’t mean close or nearly right, I mean spot-on, per the manufacturer’s specifications. Very few can make that claim.

Manufacturer-Specified Alignments

So, what is a factory or manufacturer-specified alignment? It’s an alignment:

  • Done exactly as the tonearm/turntable manufacturer recommends
  • Made to exact, recommended specifications
  • Achieved using a manufacturer-supplied alignment tool, overhang gauge, or protractor, or one that accurately replicates the original design and/or measurement capability.

Factory alignment usually involves setting the correct overhang and cartridge offset at one or two null points. This is most often achieved by setting a stylus tip distance with respect to the headshell-arm junction, which is how Denon, Kenwood, Sony, Technics and almost all manufacturers do it. They achieve this by supplying an overhang specification and/or a paper or plastic gauge or protractor that is unique for the arm.

I use manufacturer-specified alignments and tools wherever possible because the design engineers knew what they were doing and I like to honour those design decisions. In rare cases where the original set-up data and/or tools are not available, I’ll select (or make) an alignment tool appropriate for the job, based on the arm design, its specifications and experience aligning and calibrating thousands of turntables, tonearms and cartridges.

Confusion

Cartridge alignment involves setting the precise geometric and positional relationship of a cartridge in a tonearm. This ensures correct geometry as the stylus traverses the surface of a record. The stylus describes an arc of a precise radius as it moves, calculated to yield the best (or a particular) total area under the curve distortion result.

The factory-prescribed alignment is designed to generate the lowest distortion at a significant place on the record surface, often an outer track, or the inner grooves where distortion tends to be higher. Change the radius or this arc and/or angle of the cartridge, ie its alignment, not to mention tracking force, anti-skate and VTA, and you will change the result, and how the turntable sounds.

I must mention that most owners aren’t the best people to be aligning cartridges. This is simply because it’s a technical process that requires some knowledge, tools and experience to complete successfully.

Generic Alignments

When a cartridge is correctly factory aligned, it may appear misaligned when checked with any of the multitudes of cartridge protractors and alignment gauges available. If you align a cartridge with a Shure paper alignment gauge for example, when you check with a factory tool, the alignment will very likely appear wrong.

Why? Because those others are the wrong tools for the job. The simple answer is that each tool delivers a different alignment. Don’t expect five different alignment tools and methods to get you the same alignment because they won’t. None of them may be correct for your deck.

A generic paper gauge “designed for every turntable” (which is technically impossible) cannot render the correct factory-specified alignment for many turntables. Generic tools deliver generic alignments, approximations based on a ‘generic’ tonearm length, unspecified alignment geometry, mounting distance and type of alignment. A factory-supplied template, tool or protractor on the other hand is designed to give the precise alignment specified for your deck/arm.

An example some might better understand would be getting a car wheel alignment done using data from the wrong vehicle. This happened to me years ago when I took my car to a supposed wheel alignment specialist who had no idea what they were doing. My car’s wheels were technically ‘aligned’, just to the wrong specifications for my vehicle.

Generic protractors have a role to play in ‘quick and dirty’ alignments and work well in situations they were designed for, but there is no substitute for the correct factory alignment, tools, or a custom-made gauge specified with factory alignment parameters for your deck.

Multiple Alignment Syndrome

There are three common alignments – Baervald, Lofgren and Stevenson alignments – each yielding measurably different total ‘area under the curve’ distortion. Your arm will likely use one of these alignments. These alignments each sound different, some good, some not so good and random owner and retailer-made alignments can sound bad!

Which alignment is correct in your case? The factory alignment is technically the correct alignment, as the designers intended. It is always best set with a factory gauge, protractor or tool, or a precisely calculated and printed arc-type protractor. Other alignments are possible as we’ve discussed, but in my opinion, it’s preferable to stick with the factory-specified alignment.

Now, it’s technically true that one can improve on some alignments, in certain circumstances, but this is tweaker’s territory. Some alignments (Stevenson) are designed to perform best on 45s and on the inner grooves of 12-inch vinyl, where classical music crescendos often appear. Is it worth deviating beyond factory recommendations for most users though? No.

We’re interested in getting 99% of turntables working perfectly for 99% of owners. If someone tells you they know better, ask exactly how they know better, and have them explain that to you. This explanation needs to be more than “I read online that blah, blah, blah.”

Summary

There’s a bit to consider before taking a screwdriver to your headshell:

  • A cartridge must be correctly aligned for maximum performance
  • Correct alignment mostly refers to the correct cartridge overhang and offset, but azimuth, VTA, tracking force and anti-skate must also be considered and set correctly as part of the set-up process.
  • The best alignment in most cases is the factory/manufacturer-specified alignment, made with the correct tools.
  • You should only change cartridge alignment if you understand everything so far and can accurately assess the current alignment and any changes made to it.

Need Advice?

No problem, check out other FAQs, and reviews for more. For those needing more specific assistance, I offer an advisory service where I can provide you with factual information tailored to you and your equipment.

Learned something? Good, that’s what articles like this are for and no, we don’t pull punches or indulge in BS here. If you appreciate FAQs like this one, you are welcome to shout me a drink.



Do cables make a difference?

Yes, but there is much more to know.

Let’s get this out of the way: good cables always improve system performance. That said, there is more snake oil and pseudoscience in cables than just about any other aspect of hi-fi, and the hi-fi world is already filled with nonsense. You know my thoughts on nonsense, so let’s clear some up.

Audio ‘Jewellery’

One of the problems here is that buyers often have no idea what makes a good cable and many just want what looks cool. Big mistake.

Thicker is not always better. There are some ridiculously thick interconnects out there for example. Interconnects and mains cables 5cm thick aren’t better, they are just silly. They can damage or even break connectors and can cause serious harm to really expensive gear. I’ve repaired the damage caused by some only recently.

Ask the maker of the cable if they know the loading specifications for the RCA connector they want you to attach their cable to. People imagine thicker must mean better, but it just isn’t.

Likewise, prettier is not better and aesthetics have absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with electrical performance. Cable construction is what matters. Poorly made or incorrectly terminated cables can act as antennas and fry amplifiers and speakers.

The kookier and prettier a cable looks and feels, the more likely it is to sell. Add in a few meaningless marketing phrases like ‘super transconductance shield’ and ‘femto conductive polymer’ and combine them with the average shopper’s gullibility and poor grasp of science and you have a guaranteed seller!

It’s no surprise that there are so many ’boutique’ cable manufacturers out there. There’s a TON of money to be made in this segment of the market.

The Truth

So what IS a better cable? BETTER is better. Technically better, higher-quality cable stock, with higher-purity copper and silver conductors, better solder, better insulation, better shielding, fewer metal types, better connectors, and better construction.

Have folks who understand signal transmission put all that together and you have better cables. It’s pretty straightforward. It’s not expensive to make very good cables, hence the proliferation of excellent DIY cables out there.

Check out what’s used in Abbey Road or Air Studios for example. You’ll find a ton of Canare and Mogami cable in mission-critical applications and these manufacturers make cable stock for the boutique brands people spend big bucks on. I use Mogami cable in my system, custom-made into balanced and single-ended RCA and speaker cables to suit.

Directionality

Are cables directional? No, there is no directionality in properly designed cables or almost any cables for that matter. If cables were directional they’d act like diodes and that would be harmful to sound, rectifying the signal and introducing massive distortion, so you’d better hope your cables aren’t directional.

Surprised that this isn’t what your favourite hi-fi equipment reviewer, retailer or guru said? Don’t be. Have a look at who advertises in their publications, on their websites and the stock they are selling. That’s called a conflict of interest. Do you see me selling any cables..?

Nordost, one of the great science-based (rather than BS-based) cable manufacturers, states that cables have no directionality. That’s not just about their cables, they’ve stuck their collective necks out to state the truth about all cables.

But Mike, my cables are directional, it says so on the jacket and the salesperson told me they were.

Great, but they aren’t. ‘Directionality’ sells, so most cables are simply labelled as directional. The average salesperson’s understanding of the science here will be limited let’s say, so choose your source of information wisely.

Conclusion

Let’s sum up what makes a good cable:

  • Premium conductor materials like high-purity copper or silver
  • Premium insulator materials like Teflon and cotton
  • Premium connectors, Amphenol, WBT or CMC for example
  • Well designed shielding
  • Cable symmetry, balanced or pseudo-balanced
  • Silver and copper-based solders
  • Minimising cable length
  • Low cable resistance and capacitance
  • Technically informed, properly engineered designs

Be especially wary of gurus selling cables. Choose carefully, from known quality manufacturers, based on good science, not what looks ‘cool’.

Can you sell me a belt for my turntable?

We don’t operate a retail shopfront so unfortunately no, we don’t sell service parts to the general public.

But I don’t understand why you won’t sell me a belt! Are you just trying to be difficult..?

Stunned enquirer

This quote is from an actual conversation with a guy who really didn’t like the answer. Another guy hung up on me when I wouldn’t sell him a belt!

To clarify, we don’t operate a retail shopfront and we generally only offer retail parts sales when they form part of a service or repair. We stock thousands of parts, but as a technical services business, we generally only sell parts that we install in the work we do. There are a few exceptions, like cartridges, step-up transformers and other special order parts, but these sales are generally reserved for existing customers.

I don’t have the time or inclination to deal with parts sales and honestly, I can’t think of anything worse than dealing with the “I don’t know how to install it”, “I chose the wrong part” and “My whatever still isn’t running right” follow-up conversations. I will gladly supply and fit any of the thousands of parts we have in stock when you book your equipment in for work, so if you’d like assistance, get in touch via our contact form.

Why don’t all CD players sound the same?

There are so many elements inside a CD player contributing to the sound that no two CD players will ever sound the same, except perhaps two of the same model.

When you play a CD, what you hear is the sum of many complex electronic and mechanical elements working together. This of course applies to any piece of hi-fi equipment, and beyond that to anything really, including guitars, amplifiers, radios, speakers, etc.

Ones and Zeros

A common technical misunderstanding concerning CDs is that:

“It’s digital, it’s all just ones and zeros, things HAVE to sound the same.”

Many people

Yes, CDs contain digital data, ie ones and zeros, but this statement belies a profound misunderstanding of how the sound gets converted from binary words on a compact disc into music you can hear. It also demonstrates no awareness of the variances in digital datastreams CD players produce, and that’s before we even get the digital to analog conversion, which contributes more to the sonics.

Even different CDs of the same recordings don’t sound quite the same in some cases, a story for another FAQ. Likewise, CD transports only extract the digital data from the disc, yet they sound different. The bottom line is that you can’t listen to ones and zeros and an enormous amount of signal processing has to happen before you can hear music from a CD.

The Devil is in the Detail

As with all things technical, you don’t know what you don’t know. Data has to be read from the disc, error corrected, filtered and anti-aliased, converted from digital into analog, amplified and buffered. There are hundreds of components in the signal path between the disc and your ears and hundreds more contributing to the sound, and that’s just inside the player!

Op-amps contain dozens of components and there may be several different op-amps in the signal path! It is worth noting however that CD players have less immediately obvious differences than some other sources and that it takes some experience to be able to describe these differences, at least initially.

Even CD transports that lack any form of DAC can sound dramatically different from one another. I’ve written an entire FAQ about this topic!

img 8007
My precious…

The Sum of the Parts

Each of these elements contributes to the sound of a CD player, along with others I’ve probably forgotten:

  • The CD mechanism or mech, spindle motor and laser
  • The hardware carrying the RF signal – shielded coax or unshielded wire, connectors, termination impedances and reflections
  • DAC type and design – R2R/multibit delta-sigma/chip/discrete
  • Analog and digital filter type and design – HDCD/FPGA/DSP/none
  • Device firmware running the digital filters, PICs, FPGAs etc
  • Inter-stage analog amplifiers and buffers, op-amps
  • The all-important output buffer – discrete/op-amp/class-A/tube/transistor/transformer/balanced/singled-ended etc
  • Power supply – linear/SMPS, filtering details, regulators, wiring
  • Clock – frequency/PPM precision/drift/stability
  • General layout, board design, wiring, shielding, parts quality
  • Condition of the unit, laser power output/health, general state of service
  • Vibration isolation differences between players and isolation hardware

CD players are complex mixed-signal (digital and analog) hardware devices. Unsurprisingly, they sound different, just as turntables sound different.

Is it OK to play CDs in my DVD or BluRay player?

Yes, but your CDs won’t sound as good as they can when played on dedicated CD hardware.

For the very best CD playback, you’ll need a dedicated Redbook CD player, or even better – a transport and DAC. In most cases, CDs will sound better played on this dedicated CD hardware than when played on audio-visual or video hardware. I’ve found they also usually sound better than files streamed at 16-bit / 44.1kHz and sometimes even better than high-res streamed files, where the player/DAC is good enough, ie has the necessary resolution.

Accuphase DP-90
My Accuphase DP-90. No DVD or BluRay player is built like this or sounds like this.

Wondering if this is all just audiophile nonsense? That’s healthy scepticism and I respect you for it because these questions must be asked. You should know that I have a strong scientific background and was a science educator for many years. I have zero interest in audio nonsense. I only pass on factual information I know to be correct, based on personal experience and education.

Frame of Reference

“Mike, I’ve heard that all CD players and DVD players sound the same.”

Many people

I hear this sort of thing often and it comes generally from folks lacking broader experience with a range of better gear. There are BIG differences between CD players. CD players and disc players in general don’t sound the same at all, except in the very broadest sense. Heck, even the same CDs sometimes don’t sound the same!

Appreciating this comes down to experience and you can get that by listening to various machines in high-resolution systems. Understanding why they sound different requires a little technical knowledge though. Comments like “All CD players sound the same” generally stem from a lack of experience and/or understanding.

Experience

If you’ve never heard a great CD player in a high-resolution system, you need to. CDs sound ‘OK’ when played on cheap DVD players, but in a high-resolution system, the sonic differences between a good dedicated CD player and a cheap DVD player are night and day.

If you are listening through a Bluetooth speaker or Sonos, then of course, everything will sound pretty much the same, and bad, due to the resolution limitations of the system. Good hi-fi is all about clean, wide windows – i.e. high resolution. You can only get high-resolution from high-resolution equipment. Bluetooth, Bose and Sonos ain’t it, cheap plastic ain’t it and DVD players ain’t it either.

It’s a bit like beer, wine and coffee. All beer, wine and coffee taste the same when you’re 12, but are they the same? Of course not. As our appreciation and experience grow, we come to learn that no two beers, coffees or wines taste the same. This appreciation applies to audio in the same way it does to guitars, which don’t sound the same either BTW!

Differences

So, why are CD players better than DVD players for playing CDs? Briefly:

  • DVD and Blu-ray players are generally not built with audio in mind. They are made almost entirely of plastic, built to last a few years only and use the cheapest, lowest-grade parts. If you don’t already know that cheap gear sounds cheap, you do now. People buying video disc players are generally not hi-fi enthusiasts nor as picky and manufacturers don’t waste money putting the good stuff inside machines they need to sell cheaply.
  • Extracting and decoding the video signals from a DVD uses different technical solutions and higher processing speeds and frequencies than Redbook CD data. Each system needs to be optimised for its role and, from experience, no DVD or Blu-ray player I’ve heard sounds as good as a really good CD player.

Even the famously over-hyped Oppo BluRay players don’t hold a candle to good dedicated CD players. Yes, they are better than the cheap DVD and BluRay players that many buyers who raved about them were migrating from, but they’re not at the level of an excellent Redbook CD player or transport and DAC. How do I know..? I tested one in my system for several months. I was very disappointed, but I’m fussy and that’s what I’m talking about.

Find Out For Yourself!

You don’t need to take my word for it, just ask anyone who’s compared CD players, DVD and BluRay players and DACs in high-resolution hi-fi systems. No one who has will tell you that DVD players are the best way to play CDs. Better still, visit a specialist hi-fi store and ask to hear two different CD players and a DVD or BluRay player in a high-resolution system. Let me know if you don’t hear the differences between them!

Do you recommend new speaker terminals, RCA connectors and detachable mains cables?

Sometimes, yes and I’m happy to fit these things, but people are often surprised to learn that, from a technical perspective, there is much more to this.

Many of these topics are plagued by misinformation and pseudoscience. Certain “improvements” are not actually improvements at all, and in some cases are retrograde moves. No retailer selling cables will tell you this of course, even if they actually knew or understood why.

‘Audio Jewellery’

I’m interested in getting your equipment sounding as good as it can, within your budget. I also like keeping equipment original where practical, because that retains value. People are drawn to fancy cables and connectors, but there are almost always lower-hanging fruit that should be knocked off first. My question is:

Do you want blingy connectors or the best sonic improvements and best-running equipment?

Liquid Mike

In other words, if you came to me and said “Mike, I want you to spend two hours improving my amplifier,” I can tell you that those two hours would not be spent upgrading connectors. There would be a far better way in almost every case to spend those two hours and the improvements would be far more significant.

Good Connections

Much of what people think they know about connectors is wrong because it’s based on marketing rather than science, so let’s clarify a few things. Good connections are critically important, good connectors might help us get there, but there’s more to it.

For example, did you know the best connections are no connections at all? Failing that, hardwired connections are always better, in terms of sonics. One of the best ways to improve an amplifier for example is to hard-wire a really good power cable to it, or even signal cables.

The best connector is NO CONNECTOR. I agree that this can be very inconvenient though, so we need to be practical.

But Mike, this is sacrilege! Everyone selling cables and who’s spent a fortune on cables tells me that fancy detachable cables are the way to go!

Disbeliever

I’m presenting well-understood and actually very basic science here. You don’t hear about it because it doesn’t suit the retail narrative and most people haven’t the slightest grasp of basic science, which is a shame. Connectors are convenient and sometimes essential. Just know that the fewer connections, the better.

Did you also know that the humble RCA connector is a really poor connector in terms of technical performance? There are many other connector types such as BNC, Camac, Cannon and others that perform measurably better.

I can treat connectors with a product that lowers contact resistance and you’ll hear the difference that makes. I can replace speaker terminals but it may be better to simply change cable-end connectors. If your speaker connectors are broken or awful, then yes, it makes sense to change them.

There are many possibilities that don’t make accessory manufacturers rich though and this feels good. Just ask if you’d like to learn more.

Do Cables Make a Difference?

Yes, of course, they do! Good cables are game changers, so it’s important that you understand exactly what I’m saying and read that FAQ as well.

Because of my science background and experience owning and listening to some of the very best hi-fi gear of all time, and because I’m a musician who knows what real instruments sound like, I’m interested in what’s technically and sonically the best way to go.

Upgrading standard IEC inlets is a really sensible improvement. I can improve an existing IEC inlet with a premium hospital-grade filtered Swiss-made inlet module. They aren’t cheap but you can hear the difference they make. I can also bypass IEC inlets and hard-wire in some heavy-duty cables.

Some of the best-value and highest-performance cables are those sold as cable stock by cable manufacturers like Canare and Mogami, and then rebadged by boutique manufacturers.

Fancy-looking detachable power cables make retailers a ton of money and the biggest markups of all are on cables. If you want fancy detachable cables, no problem, just understand what you are spending money on.

Mini FAQ!

Yes, replacing bad RCA connectors can be very worthwhile when it improves connections. We often upgrade RCA connectors.

No, adding a heavy-duty or very fancy mains cable to a turntable will not make a difference. It simply can’t, because of that wonderful thing, physics. If you want to learn why not, ask me. Changing the signal cable can though.

No, using crazy-thick RCA cables is not a good idea. Want heavy-duty connectors and better sound? Go balanced. All the best gear is balanced and there are many technical reasons why it’s the better way to transmit low-amplitude audio signals.

How do I arrange a consult?

Simply choose the consult length below and click ‘buy now’.

Options
30 minutes $60.00 AUD 60 minutes $120.00 AUD

Alternatively, you can do the same thing over on our contact page, in our advisory service information area.

Once you’ve paid, fill out the contact form and let me know what you want to discuss. I’m happy to chat by video or voice call and, if you are local, you can also visit for a consult with me in the Liquid Audio workshop. If we cannot assist you, we’ll issue an immediate refund. Zero worries, zero hassles. We’re here to help. If you like to find out whether we can assist you with a particular topic though before buying a consult, no problem, let me know.

What are your thoughts on buying equipment in poor condition?

Generally speaking, I suggest you don’t buy equipment in poor condition.

I know that everyone wants a bargain and buying equipment in poor condition is often perceived as a bargain. Sadly, there is no escaping the fact that equipment in poor condition tends to be less reliable and less repairable than similar gear in good condition. It also doesn’t hold value as well and is less collectible down the track.

If you are thinking you’ve snagged a bargain because you’ve found the make and model you’ve been looking for in rough condition, think again. Often, poor condition outside means poor condition inside, and poor maintenance in general. Corrosion is a good example. Once corrosion goes through equipment it can cause endless problems. Likewise, poorly cared-for gear is usually poorly serviced and maintained, even poorly repaired.

Despite the best efforts of skilled repairers later, these issues are usually not reversible. You cannot make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, as they say, something to really keep in mind.

Should I clean my turntable with a cloth..?

No, not without taking a few precautions!

If you quite enjoy your current cartridge, let me give you a little bit of advice, from one long-time lover of all things vinyl to another.

Nothing ruins your day faster than an absent-minded dust down of your turntable with a soft microfibre cloth, that runs a little too close to your stylus. Please DON’T ask me how I know.

The worst thing is I know better, and I’ve lost count of how many customers have done something similar. Each time, it causes great pain and anguish, especially when something like an Ortofon MC-A90 falls victim…

To answer your question, I only suggest cleaning your turntable with a soft cloth with the headshell and cartridge removed.

You’re always full, can you recommend other repairers in Perth?

Yes, two, beyond that, it’s the Wild West!

If we’re fully booked and you can’t wait, rather than have your equipment improperly repaired or potentially ruined, get in touch and let me know about your situation. If we can’t fit you in now or schedule you in later, I’ll recommend a colleague who can hopefully assist sooner.

I only recommend respected colleagues I know and trust, and who care about the quality of their work. If I don’t recommend someone it’s important to read between the lines to understand why. I have no beef with any other repairers, but I will never recommend anyone doing substandard work, and sadly there are a few of those folks out there.

Are dual cassette decks worth repairing?

That depends on whether they need service or repair work. For machines needing repair, it’s often not worth it.

Double Trouble

Dual or double-cassette machines have two cassette bays and were generally the cheapest cassette decks of their time, sold at the end of the cassette golden era. Cassette deck maintenance can be some of the most labour-intensive work. How many cassette deck mechanisms are in a double cassette deck? That’s right, there are two, and they are not usually the nice ones to work on. See the problem?

This doubling of mechanisms means double the heads, double the belts, double the capstans and pinch-rollers, double the cleaning and double the disassembly and reassembly. Doubling the already time-consuming workload usually means more work than these decks are worth, to most people anyway. Ultimately, an owner will need to decide, but I generally avoid working on dual cassette machines for these reasons.

Viability vs Lovability

If both decks need only standard maintenance, then yes, this is probably worth doing. If both decks need repair in the form of idlers, belt replacement, or other deep service work, this is generally something to avoid unless cost is not a concern. The opposite is true of good single-deck machines of course and I still work on those. Single-deck machines are almost always built much better, perform better and are nicer to work on.

Do you repair equipment for hi-fi stores?

Yes, we do.

Some of Perth’s most highly regarded hi-fi stores direct customers to us and use Liquid Audio for their customers’ service and repair work. As an independent repairer, a large portion of our work is a result of direct customer engagement, but helping local businesses is very satisfying and something I’m proud to be able to do.

We’ve been approached several times with offers to be an official repair agent for some very well-known brands, ie an authorised repairer. I have declined these offers to this point though, as I want to remain truly independent and unaffiliated with any brand in particular.

Should I buy a cheap turntable belt on eBay?

If you are going to get a belt, a critically important part of how your turntable runs, at least get a good one.

How will you know if you’re getting a cheap turntable drive belt or a quality belt of the correct size or not? Well, if it’s very cheap, that probably answers your question!

To some, all rubber drive belts look the same. But really, all tyres kinda look the same don’t they, yet they are not. There are technical, sizing and quality aspects to consider that vary from belt to belt, even when belts are specified as being ‘correct’ for their intended purpose.

Fit

I’ve seen many eBay and Alibaba belts. Customers buy them thinking they will save a few dollars and sometimes hi-fi stores fit them, only for owners to find their turntables now run fast, slow or noisily. Owners then have to buy another belt of good quality and the correct size. This only wastes time and money.

Belt diameter, width and thickness are critical. Excessive tightness from belts that are too small is a common problem. Incorrectly sized belts place excessive force on the drive pulley and motor bearings, causing noise, poor running and excessive wear.

Material

Belt material and manufacture are also important. Poorly cut belts cause excessive wow in cassette decks. Poorly joined O-ring belts also cause speed issues. Poor quality belts don’t last either, some lasting only a year, vs up to 10 years for good quality rubber belts. Belts that are too thick or thin will cause your deck to run at the wrong speed. Did you know that?

You can avoid these issues by simply taking your deck to someone who sells premium quality, correctly sized parts that meet OEM specifications. When your belt is being fitted they can also give our deck a health check and perform any other service work or adjustments necessary to make your turntable run at its best.

Which hi-fi stores do you recommend?

I recommend the following stores and staff for their excellent service and range of interesting hi-fi products:

Addicted to Audio in Subiaco

Dan is a great guy and knows his stuff, plus this store has some really interesting brands and loads of personal audio gear. In terms of store layout, quality and range of hi-fi gear, this is one of Perth’s top retailers.

Douglas HiFi in Osborne Park

Chat with my friends Simon and Tony, ethical salespeople who won’t try to pull the wool over your eyes. These two have a wealth of hi-fi and home cinema experience between them. Douglas is ‘evolving’ back into what it always was – a proper hi-fi stereo store and one of the best.

Frank Prowse Hi-Fi in Nedlands

Owner David Prowse is one of the nicest guys in audio and is ably assisted by great staff in one of Perth’s oldest and best-regarded proper hi-fi stores. I know the Prowse family well and even worked there for a short spell. Frank used to help me when I was a hi-fi-crazed teenager, as did the equally wonderful John Negus of Audio Equip fame. Both were true gentlemen and the industry needs more people like them. RIP Frank and John.

Revolution Turntable in Osborne Park

My friend Pierre is the owner, the official Australian Accuphase importer, a real vinyl enthusiast and a genuinely nice guy. He stocks a range of great hi-fi stereo gear and is ably assisted by Jim. This is a sleeper of a hi-fi store and yet contains some of the highest-end gear you’ll find, anywhere!

West Coast Hi-Fi in Joondalup

Speak to Kim, another lovely guy and the owner of this particular store. West Coast has a huge range of hi-fi and home cinema gear and very competitive pricing.

Why don’t you require upfront payments?

Because I trust my customers.

Everything is upfront and transparent with Liquid Audio and as a result, we attract great customers who appreciate our ethical, professional operation. I don’t need to ask people to make upfront payments because they know we undertake work in good faith and I trust them to collect and pay for their equipment.

Naturally, people also want to collect their equipment after we’ve worked on it, so this just isn’t something I worry about. Occasionally though, someone will decide they don’t want to pay a bill. These are interesting cases!

Can you provide me with a service manual?

I’d love to help, but I cannot share service data or service manuals from official sources.

Many older service manuals are available online and you certainly don’t need my help to obtain those. However, much of my service data comes directly from manufacturers. This officially-supplied service data is intended for technicians and is supplied in confidence, with the understanding that it will remain only in the hands of the initial recipient.

As a recipient of support from various manufacturers and distributors, I am legally obliged to honour the usage agreements I have with them. I value these relationships, so you’ll understand why I would never jeopardise them.

Should I buy rare transistors on eBay?

No, almost all rare transistor types on eBay are fakes.

The TLDR here is that some parts are no longer available and that’s a certainty. If unavailable parts suddenly appear on eBay, usually somewhere in mainland China, walk away, unless you like throwing money away.

Dreaming

There are lots of parts that I wish were still available, but they’re not and we move on. Sure, an old guy in Poland may appear every so often with a box of special unavailable parts, but you can usually pick these legitimate listings by looking for a variety of markers and other clues. Everything else, like classic Hitachi 2SJ56 and 2SK176, VFETs, rare STK modules etc listed on eBay are fakes. I don’t mean that these parts are probably fakes, I’m saying with 100% certainty that they are definitely fakes.

How do I know? I’ve been at this a long time now, I’ve had excellent mentors and a ton of my own experience to back it up. I have a couple of specialist semiconductor vendors, one in Japan that is especially good and if they can’t obtain the parts I need, nobody can. I’ve also examined and tested many fake parts over the years.

The Problem

Unscrupulous sellers know that inexperienced buyers are willing to do almost anything to get hold of mythical, unobtainable parts. So, they take existing cheap parts and have them printed with whatever the unavailable part name is. The end-user tinkerer buys a few and installs them and they fail, or the problem remains.

People buying these parts on eBay are not technicians. How will they know, let alone prove the new part is fake? How can they be sure there is not some other reason it failed? Will they even know if the new part or the equipment is performing correctly? You’ll see the rabbit hole here, and it’s just not worth going down.

If you took your equipment to an expert, they could test it for you and let you know if parts are genuine or fake, and what the problem actually is. This is why I generally avoid fitting customer-supplied parts. If the parts are not sourced from large commercial vendors or other specialist parts suppliers, you can’t trust them. There are perhaps one or two good parts sellers on eBay, but that’s it.

Relax

In many cases, you don’t actually need these rare or unobtainable parts. I have stock of and access to many rare NOS parts, parts that are generally unavailable to the average shopper. Then there are modern replacement parts that work perfectly in most cases and I have an extensive database of good substitutions and can engineer a solution where I need to.

Don’t fuel the fake parts industry or pay crazy prices for fake parts.

Can transistors in my vintage amplifier be replaced?

Yes, the good news is that, in almost all cases, transistors can be replaced.

The devil is always in the details though and the bad news is that people often get these details wrong, mostly because they are unaware of or don’t understand them.

Part of the art of repairing electronics involves learning and understanding what replacement parts to use in various scenarios and how to select the most appropriate substitutes where original parts are no longer available (NLA). Good repairers know which transistors can be used where and stock a wide range of parts to accommodate most equipment.

Substitution

Transistors come in thousands of different types, sizes and varieties. You can think of transistors as being like spark plugs or tyres. They all serve the same role, but each type is uniquely tailored to a specific job and use case. Substitute the wrong type and the circuit won’t work, or worse still, may catastrophically fail, taking other parts out with it.

Transistor failures, in the form of noisy or drifty devices, dead shorts or open devices, are a common phenomenon in old and new gear. Resolving transistor failures is commonplace here at Liquid Audio and getting this right, from a technical perspective, sets competent repairers apart. Look at case # 19 in the Hall of Shame for example to see how badly this can go wrong.

rs transistor package

I’ve lost count of the number of pieces I’ve repaired where the problem has been incorrect replacement transistors, rather than dead ones. Incorrect or poorly matched parts can lead to excessive distortion, noise, overheating or premature failure. Therefore, a good working understanding of transistor specifications is critically important.

Stock

To ensure I have parts to suit most of the equipment we work on, I keep stocks of NOS and modern devices, including devices in TO-3 or TO-3P packages, TO-126, TO-220, TO-66 and TO-18 drivers, through to tiny little TO-92 devices, and everything in between.

Good repairers must have a range of such devices on hand, sourced through quality-assured supply chains rather than eBay for example. A quality-assured supply chain minimises warranty issues and maximises repair success rate. There is no point in taking chances here.

img 7028 scaled
Just a tiny sample of my Japan-sourced semiconductor stock acquired in 2023.

It gets trickier when we consider MOSFETs and VFETs, many of which are no longer available and lack any suitable replacements. That being said, I’ve just repaired an amplifier with blown TO-3 MOSFETs and I used new parts from stock that worked perfectly. I have plenty more.

Data

Most older semiconductor devices have modern replacements and I keep a regularly updated database of cross-references. I also keep a ton of old data books containing invaluable and otherwise unobtainable parts specifications, matching and substitution data. This allows us to replace old devices with new and often better than factory original parts.

img 4125

We have replacements for the NLA TO-66 bipolar devices and unobtainable JFET small signal devices used in Accuphase amplifiers, for example, and we keep stock of probably thousands of transistors including high-spec modern replacements for many vintage types that are NLA.

My technician told me cheap Chinese parts are perfectly good, what are your thoughts?

Good for what? A clock radio or Bluetooth speaker maybe, but not valuable hi-fi gear.

Cheap parts are OK in certain places, but not in good hi-fi gear. I’d suggest that a technician advising you that cheap Chinese parts are perfectly good is probably not someone you want to use.

“But Mike, Musical Fidelity uses cheap Chinese parts!”

Yes, they do, as do many manufacturers including Cambridge Audio, NAD and Redgum

The single most important reason a manufacturer would use Chinese parts is to save money. That’s it, there is no other reason. You might want to extrapolate from there and decide what that means to you in terms of a bigger picture view, but there is no good reason to fill a board with the cheapest parts, other than because the person or entity doing that is being cheap.

Do you offer radio and tuner RF alignments?

Yes, we have precision RF alignment equipment and are one of only a few still offering this service.

I’ve always held a strong interest in radio and keep a range of the most important RF test and measurement equipment, cables and connectors necessary to perform alignments of AM and FM broadcast band radios and tuners, and shortwave radios too.

Do you have cassette deck calibration tapes, head demagnetiser etc?

Indeed I do, you cannot do this sort of work properly without them.

In fact, I have some of the coolest cassette deck-specific tools available, custom-made for working with cassette decks. work on cassette decks and these are necessary tools of the trade.

My stash includes various calibration tapes including a custom Pioneer set, special mechanical tools, electronic test and measurement equipment, a TDK electronic tape head demagnetiser, and TEAC hand-held demagnetiser, a hand-made mirrored tape path cassette, and more.

Can you install LED lamps in my equipment?

In most cases yes, no problem.

We have stocks of incandescent and LED lamps, in the most common sizes, so you can choose what suits you. For the ultimate vintage goodness, incandescent lamps are the way to go. For a more modern look, LED illumination is great.

Can I use 100V equipment in Australia?

Yes, as long as you understand a few technical details.

Basics

You can use any voltage thing anywhere you like, but you need to know all the relevant voltage and power consumption ratings and then select a suitable step-down (or step-up transformer). For 100V Japanese equipment that cannot be reconfigured for local voltage, you’ll need a quality step-down transformer with the correct power rating and voltage.

Such a step-down transformer should be sourced from a quality local manufacturer like Tortech. It should be rated to deliver between 1.5x and 3x (or more, just not less) the rated maximum continuous power consumption of the attached equipment. It must also deliver precisely the voltage your equipment requires, again, not more, or less.

This means that 100V-rated equipment needs a 100V step-down transformer, rather than the 110V or 120V offerings commonly available from places like Jaycar. Make sure you know which one you need, as indicated on the placard on the rear of your equipment. Avoid cheap Chinese transformers as these are usually incorrectly rated for voltage and often under-rated for power.

Special Cases

If you have a powerful amplifier, you’ll need a big step-down transformer and these can be expensive. An amplifier rated for 500W maximum power consumption should be matched with a transformer rated for a minimum of 1kW at 100% duty cycle, more if possible. That’s a hefty transformer. The high rating is to minimise power supply source impedance and transformer core saturation. This will maximise amplifier performance and ensure the transformer does not overheat during normal use.

For this reason, and because suitably hefty step-down transformers can be very heavy and quite expensive, whilst it is possible to use them without penalty, amplifiers are the least well-suited for use with step-down transformers. This especially applies to big, heavy current-hungry amplifiers of high power output, or high constant current draw equipment. For low-powered equipment like turntables, DACs and preamps though, step-down transformers work well.

A decent-sized transformer with a higher power rating will safely be able to run several low-power devices. Just make sure that the total continuous power consumption of all the connected equipment is comfortably exceeded (1.5x to 3x, or more) by the continuous maximum rating of the stepdown transformer.

Warning

You must never plug equipment rated to run on 100V or 120V into an Australian 240V mains outlet unless it has been set to run at 240V. This may require internal adjustment, soldering, and new parts and will require new fuses of a different current rating to suit the higher line voltage.

Failure to adhere to this warning will almost certainly result in the death of your equipment.

PS

If you found this FAQ helpful, there are 130 others you might also enjoy, all provided free. You’re welcome to shout me a drink with the donate button in the footer.

Can you provide me with a kit, parts list or BOM?

We neither use nor recommend kits nor do we offer parts lists BOMs, etc.

Repairing and overhauling electronic equipment involves much more than swapping parts. For the average owner, attempting to overhaul a complex piece of hi-fi electronics via a kit is ill-advised and usually creates more problems that it solves.

The reason is the same one the average car owner shouldn’t try to rebuild their engine. I get that people want to, but most lack the skills, tools and experience needed to install electronic parts correctly, diagnose and repair any remaining issues or ensure their equipment runs correctly afterwards. This sort of approach also dramatically increases the risk of introducing faults that were not present beforehand, or even destroying the equipment in the worst cases.

Another problem with kits is that the parts usually have no traceable provenance or warranty. They may not even be genuine, or the right parts for the job, but how would the average person know? If saving money is the goal, it’s usually better for most owners to do nothing than attempt major work on their equipment.

There are no magic kits or BOMs that will fix broken hi-fi gear. Each repair is unique, each must be assessed on its own merits and each will need a unique set of parts, and someone able to install them without causing damage and deal with any remaining issues.

Liquid Audio is focused on keeping classic hi-fi equipment running well. That means tailoring what we do to meet the equipment’s and its owner’s needs. It also means providing advice that is in the broader best interests of the equipment itself.

I purchased equipment from Japan and it blew up, can you help?

Probably, but it comes down to what damage has been done, something that can only be revealed by inspection.

Know Your Voltage

Different regions use different AC supply voltages. For example, Japan uses 100V, the USA uses 120V, and Europe and Asia use 220V, 230V or 240V, depending on the region. Anything other than 230V or 240V presents a big problem for people living in Australia where we have a 240/250V supply. Higher voltage AC supplies are better from a technical perspective which is great for us. More on that another time.

If you plug in a piece of electronic equipment that is set to run on 100V or 120V into a 240V socket here in Australia, IT WILL FAIL, unless a fuse saves it first. Electronic equipment doesn’t “automatically adjust” as one enquirer who blew up his newly acquired equipment told me. He was probably thinking of equipment that uses switching power supplies or SMPS, like phone chargers, USB power supplies etc. Good hi-fi equipment generally doesn’t use this type of power supply.

The Problem…

Transformers ‘transform’ or convert AC voltages proportionally, according to the ratio of turns on their primary and secondary sides. For example, equipment set to run on 120VAC might contain a transformer that steps that voltage down to say 35VAC, which after rectification might be around 50VDC. What do you think happens when you feed that transformer 240V..? Double the input voltage equals double the output voltage and your 50VDC is now 100VDC.

If this happens with a piece of gear typically from Japan or the USA, you can say goodbye to any electrical components that were rated at 50 – 60VDC. If you are lucky, fast-acting fuses might save the equipment and I have seen this happen. In most cases though, the damage is more substantial, sometimes even terminal.

Configurability

Some hi-fi equipment can be set to run on a variety of line voltages and some cannot. It depends on the market the equipment was originally destined for and can vary among examples of the same model, dependent on production date and market. The adjustment may be a straightforward external one, or it may involve working inside a chassis, soldering unmarked jumpers into new positions in some cases. Some equipment cannot be reconfigured for other line voltages.

Manufacturers have a variety of models, years, markets and voltage reconfigurability. I’ve come to better understand these relationships over the years, but there remain many examples where voltage adjustability cannot be known until physically inspecting the equipment. Equipment that is input voltage configurable is like gold though, as it can be used anywhere in the world without a step-up or step-down transformer and commands premium prices as a result. This is what you want!

Incredibly, I’ve seen locally supplied equipment set incorrectly, many times. The Mark Levinson ML-7 preamp I recently repaired and a pair of Accuphase M-60 amplifiers are just two examples of gear that was set to run on 220V. Therefore, all equipment should be checked to ensure it is configured to run on the line voltage where it is to be used. This is especially important for equipment purchased outside its originally intended market.

False Economy

Everyone likes to save money but how many times have you tried to and it just ended up costing you more in the end..? This particular topic is one of those, for most people. If you know how to check and make the necessary changes to your new hi-fi equipment without risking its health or longevity, or yours, do it. For most owners though, having this work done professionally is the best and safest option.

In addition to line voltage reconfiguration, new fuses of the correct current rating will be required. Even if Dick next door reckons he can do it for you, it might be wise to ask how much Accuphase equipment he’s worked on, and what his warranty is if something goes wrong.

But Mike, it will cost money to have my equipment checked and reconfigured.

Enquirer

Correct, and this certainty must be balanced by the certainty that it will cost a lot more if newly acquired equipment is destroyed in an attempt to save a few dollars. Some will want to gamble and contribute to the steady stream of enquiries I receive about blown equipment. For everyone else, just pay the small amount needed to have your equipment inspected/reconfigured.

Our pre and post-purchase inspections have saved customers thousands of dollars and are one of the most sensible things one can do with newly purchased pre-owned equipment. We usually find other things that need attention and this can often be leveraged into a price reduction/partial refund. It’s one of many benefits of engaging a specialist, especially with a brand like Accuphase.

TLDR

I receive a steady stream of enquiries from people who’ve killed newly acquired imported hi-fi equipment with incorrect line voltage. This failure mode is completely avoidable by having your equipment assessed. If equipment cannot be reconfigured, a step-down transformer will be needed. More specific and detailed advice, as always, is available via our advisory service.

Should I buy an AM/FM tuner from Japan?

No, you should never do this.

Japan has a different FM band frequency allocation, spanning 76 – 90 MHz. The Australasian, European and North American FM broadcast band spans 88 – 108 MHz. That means that with a Japanese FM tuner, you’ll see a tiny 2 MHz overlap. You’ll be lucky if you can pick up one station in that slice and this often cannot be changed, especially in the older analog style tuners.

Does hi-fi gear really need to be serviced?

Yes, all electronic and electromechanical equipment needs maintenance.

Actually, pretty much everything made by humans needs some form of periodic maintenance or service. When we think about complex electronic equipment, often operating decades beyond its intended design life though, the need for maintenance is obvious.

Design Life

The manufacturer-specified maintenance information is usually found in the service documentation and takes the form of cleaning, electronic and mechanical adjustment and parts replacement necessary to keep equipment running reliably. This maintenance is what was thought would be needed over the projected design life of the equipment. When this equipment was designed and built though, nobody imagined that it would still be working, let alone cherished and sought after, 30, 40, or even 50 years later.

Often there’s very little maintenance information, a reflection of the consumer nature of this equipment and its projected lifespan. The extended life that much of this equipment sees is well past the intended design life in most cases though and much of the maintenance it needs now is simply not covered by service data. Keeping these pieces running requires experience and an understanding of how equipment ages. Many of these techniques have been pioneered and developed by Liquid Audio and others over the years.

Magic Smoke

Owners of hi-fi equipment are often unaware of these maintenance requirements, or that electronic components degrade over time. Eventually, mechanical parts seize or fail and the ‘magic smoke’ is released from electronic components, leaving hi-fi equipment no longer functional. *

Having established that all hi-fi equipment needs maintenance, the more complex it is, the more maintenance it needs. Turntables and cassette decks are generally the most maintenance-intensive, followed by amplifiers, CD players, tuners, preamps and then things without knobs, like DACs, roughly in that order.

I’ve written more about how and why electronic equipment needs periodic maintenance here and here. Periodic maintenance reduces the likelihood and potential severity of equipment failure and dramatically improves its performance. Whatever you do, just have the work done by someone competent. Your equipment will eventually fail if you don’t maintain it.

* What’s magic smoke, you ask? Well, just like magic, when the magic smoke is released from an electronic part, that part and your equipment no longer work. Magic smoke appears out of nowhere and may be almost impossible to trace. Magic smoke cannot be ‘re-installed’, only new components containing their factory original magic smoke perform to specification.

Should I spray contact cleaner into my equipment?

That very much depends on what the ‘contact cleaner’ is and where you are spraying it!

If you have access to quality commercial products and you know how to use them, go for it. But if you don’t know what/how much/how/where/why or if you think that WD-40 and CRC 5.56 are contact cleaners and safe to spray on sensitive electronic equipment, then STOP, put the can down and slowly back away from the equipment!

The contact cleaners and treatments I use are commercial, laboratory-grade chemicals, some of them applied in a two-stage process and some used as part of a custom regimen I’ve actually designed, specifically for use on older electronics where no such service procedures even existed previously.

These products are very different from the low-quality products often found in hobbyist electronics stores that leave oily residues. Do you want to know what to use and how? My procedures are so effective that even my competitors want to know what I do. I don’t give this information away, but I will of course apply these processes to your equipment, if needed.

WD-40

WD-40 and CRC 5.56 are aerosol-delivered, low-viscosity, penetrating lubricants, water dispersers and corrosion inhibitors. They consist of light oils suspended in volatile carriers that evaporate, leaving oily residues that protect metallic surfaces. These residues attract dust and dirt, less important on nuts and bolts perhaps, but a very significant problem in sensitive switches, relays and potentiometers with human hair thin gold wipers, for example.

WD 40.2
Note the uses listed by the manufacturer. You won’t see contact cleaning.

In these delicate structures, dusty, oily residues trap dirt, increasing friction and turning it into a kind of abrasive paste, making them dirtier and less reliable over time. The use of pressurised aerosols containing oleophilic solvents can also flush out greases and oils that are part of the smooth mechanical operation of the switch/pot/etc.

At some point, deep cleaning and re-lubrication will be needed to restore proper functionality, as long as permanent damage has not been caused. This follow-up work is time-consuming and technical, and sometimes too late.

Misinformation

Some of the most problematic equipment I come across has been doused in products that are not contact cleaners like WD-40, so it’s important to understand what a contact cleaner is, its purpose, and how and where to use it. WD-40 is not a contact cleaner, nor is it marketed as one, but I’ve had people tell me that WD-40 is a contact cleaner because they read it in a forum.

Forums are generally not great places for learning because they are typically filled with opinion, misinformation, pseudo-science and worse. When you need facts, opinions are about as useful as a box of hair, hence the popularity of our advisory service.

But Mike, WD-40 was developed for NASA, for use on rockets!

Someone, somewhere

That’s great and maybe it was, but again that doesn’t make it a contact cleaner or treatment. Don’t believe me? No problem, spray it all over you and your hi-fi equipment, just don’t bring it to me afterwards!

How should I clean my hi-fi gear?

For most exteriors, I recommend a damp microfibre cloth and mild detergent/water mix as a starting point. Be careful with older gear. Fascias are sometimes printed with ink that becomes fragile over time. Solvents other than water, or occasionally even just water, can remove this fragile ink, so check a small inconspicuous area first.

Wooden exteriors can be cleaned with wood soap, or a damp microfibre cloth and then oiled or waxed. I use a special furniture oil for most kinds of wood finishes and beeswax for others.

Knobs can be removed and soaked in a mild detergent/water mix and then finished with a toothbrush followed by fresh water. Plastic lenses can be cleaned with mild detergent/water and microfibre, and a little plastic polish can be used where necessary.

Interiors get a little more technical. There are electronic parts and mechanical parts to consider, high voltages and one must be very careful not to damage anything. High-pressure/high-velocity air works well, but use this judiciously. I use a cordless blower to loose dust from the pieces I work with.

Be very careful with turntables. Turntables and cloths don’t mix well, especially not styluses and microfibre cloths. Please don’t ask me how I know or any of the other countless thousands of folks who’ve learned the hard way, either through not knowing, or accidentally because of not concentrating like in my case!

From there it gets more involved, and I recommend booking your equipment for deep cleaning. I use a special deep cleaning regimen I’ve developed and adapted from techniques we use to clean laboratory test and measurement equipment. This involves high-pressure air, cleaners and solvents and a drying oven.

I’m often asked for these details but my process is proprietary and my competitors would love to get their hands on it. Not only that but there are risks involved, especially where high voltages are concerned, so it’s best that you book equipment in for specialist deep-cleaning.

What’s the highest-fidelity amplifier design?

Class A, whether tube or solid-state, is the gold standard.

Simply based on sonics and assuming it suits your system, speaker sensitivity and use case, the highest-fidelity amplifier design is class A. Speaker sensitivity combined with your amplifier’s power output determines the system dynamic range, an important consideration not to be overlooked.

No Compromise

Nothing sounds better than a well-designed, well-built class A amplifier because it’s the least compromised topology. This is why you will always find class A designs where cost is no object, and always in low-power circuits like preamps and headphone amplifiers, where class A can be implemented without great cost.

This is a nice little test for the class D fanboys because think about this: If class D designs were sonically the best performers, they’d be used everywhere, in preamplifiers, headphone amplifiers, phono amplifiers etc, especially given their efficiency and low cost. But they’re not.

Why not? Because nothing beats discrete, inefficient, linear class A designs for signal purity and sonority. Spend some time processing this because these little engineering truths can teach us a lot. Another one is that cutting lathes are direct-drive.

We can refine this even further by stating that the very best solid-state class A amplifiers are generally MOSFET types, for various reasons. FETs behave more like tubes than bipolar devices do and they simplify the circuit design and number of parts needed. For this reason, cost-no-object class A designs like the Accuphase A-75 and A-300 for example, and all the Accuphase class A designs, use MOSFETs.

Drawbacks

That being said, class A speaker amplifiers are hot, heavy and very expensive, because of their need to output significant power. For this reason, they often lack power, because of the need to make them at least somewhat affordable. Even low-powered class A amplifiers are heavy and much more expensive to make than equivalently specified class AB gear.

High-powered class A amplifiers like my old Krell KSA-150 or the to-die-for Accuphase A-100 monoblocks are crazy-heavy and expensive. But, when sound quality is priority number one and you have the free space to site a large, expensive, heat-generating amplifier, class A is always the way.

Oils Ain’t Oils

Note that being designated or described as a class A amplifier does not guarantee that it will sound great. The plethora of cheap Chinese class A designs out there bears testament to this and you do get what you pay for, never forget that. There are many good reasons why an Accuphase A-75 class A stereo power amplifier costs $35,000 AUD and a Vincent costs $3,000!

Keep in mind that dynamics and the ability to generate realistic sound pressure levels are as important as smoothness and low distortion in hi-fi terms. By these measures, some class A amplifiers may struggle with less sensitive speakers, simply because they lack power. Get the power/sensitivity match right though and you will be winning.

Also, keep in mind you can get nearly all the way there, and get better dynamic fidelity with high-bias class AB designs, like my 500 Watt per channel Perreaux 5150B or my new 200 Watt per channel Accuphase P-360. Both offer a smaller amount of class A power – 30 Watts for the Perreaux and maybe 5 Watts for the Accuphase. For most normal listening, these are class A amplifiers, but with the punch of something much bigger.

What are the advantages of class B amplifiers?

For hi-fi purposes, none.

Class B is often used for radiofrequency broadcast amplifiers, where high power and low spurious RF emissions (sorry, no class-D in radio!) make it a great choice. On its own though, class B suffers from relatively high (crossover) distortion and is unsuitable for audio for that reason.

Combined with a little class-A though, you get the best of both worlds. When a little quiescent current is applied to the output devices, they are biased on past the zero-cross point, and you then have a class AB amplifier. This dramatically reduces distortion and is what most proper consumer-grade hi-fi amplifiers use these days.

What are the advantages of class AB amplifiers?

Class AB amplifiers offer particular advantages that make them the most commonly found designs in the consumer market.

Class-AB amplifiers offer the lower cost and cooler operation of class-B designs, with some of the finesse and high fidelity of class-A designs, all wrapped up in one relatively affordable package. You get the best of both worlds here, but only up to a point.

Class B operation is not good for audio because of non-linearity around the output device crossover point, resulting in crossover distortion. Class-B designs offer more power, lower weight and lower cost than a class A design of similar power, but it is a brute force design, intended for extremely high power output and efficiency rather than sonic high performance.

Class-A amplifiers have no crossover distortion and offer the highest fidelity and greatest sonic performance. The flip side is that Class-A designs are heavy and run hot, even for very modest power outputs, because they dissipate their maximum rated power, all the time, even with no signal.

Class AB amplifiers operate in class A up to a few Watts and then revert to class B for the rest of the power envelope. At lower levels, you’ll have the sweet sound of class A. You’ll have the punch of class B for dynamic swings and higher volumes. The more class A power on hand, the better the sound, because the more of the envelope is reproduced via class A operation, other things being equal.

Almost all consumer-grade amplifiers operate in class AB because of this design topology’s cost-effective yet relatively high-fidelity nature. That being said, most consumer amplifiers run very little class-A power, sometimes only a couple of Watts, or less!

What are the advantages of class A amplifiers?

The one key advantage of class A topology is high fidelity, ie the best sonic performance.

Basics

Class A amplifiers deliver the smoothest, most euphonic sonic performance and the lowest objectionable distortion. That’s why class A is used in high-end designs despite its shortcomings and why the very best amplifiers are class A, where cost is no object. There is no disputing this, nobody with any education or understanding of amplifier design would argue this and so that’s an important point to note.

But Mike, I heard a cheap Chinese class-A tube amplifier and it sounded like sh%t!

Typical enquirer

I said that class A is the best design where cost is no option. This immediately excludes the myriad of cheap, low-quality designs, poorly built and filled with bad parts flooding the market. These sound bad, no matter what amplifier class they are, because garbage is garbage.

Compromises

There are no free lunches though and, as per my discussions on class AB, class B and class D, each mode has its advantages and drawbacks. Class A amplifiers draw and dissipate their maximum rated power, whether playing music or just idling. Like a car engine running at the redline, things run hot and wear out faster at full power, there is no avoiding this.

This is all well and good where the required power output is very small, such as a headphone amplifier or preamplifier like my Accuphase C-280V, which operates in class A, but at low power. Dissipating such low power is relatively easy. Big amplifiers running in class A have to be large and very substantially built to cope with this constant high power demand, 100% duty cycle and high heat dissipation.

As a result, class A amplifiers are big, heavy and need excellent ventilation. This means that some environments won’t be well suited to class A amplifiers. My power amplifier delivers only about 10 Watts per channel of class A and the Liquid Audio listening room gets a bit warm in summer, let me tell you! Good A/C is essential when running class A amplification.

Bottom Line

With these overbuilt designs come advantages though, like massive power supplies and premium, heavy-duty parts that can cope with the load. These build factors also deliver sonic advantages of their own, so class-A amplifiers tend to just be better all around.

So, the disadvantages of class-A amplifiers such as high cost, constant high power dissipation, electricity bills, carbon footprint, size and weight must also be taken into account. Class A amplifiers have the highest cost per Watt, so cheap consumer designs avoid the use of class A.

For the best sound, whether it be using tubes or transistors, class A is the gold standard.

What are the advantages of class D amplifiers?

Class D offers advantages in terms of high efficiency, small size and low cost, allowing small, powerful amplifiers to be produced cheaply.

Pros & Cons

High power and low cost are desirable amplifier traits and help explain the popularity of class D amplifiers in the low-cost, high-value sectors of the market. Class D delivers very high efficiency compared to class AB amplifiers, meaning more Watts per $. Class D also simplifies construction and allows the use of fewer and smaller parts, reducing build costs. This is great for those wanting smaller, cheaper amplifiers.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch though and class D trade-offs include higher distortion and noise, and unwanted RF byproducts. Class D amplifiers also often don’t perform as well as conventional designs into tough low-impedance loads either and for ultimate sonic performance, class D is not the right choice. As with all things technical, there’s a bit to understand, so let’s dig.

Conflicts of Interest

Many will try to convince you that class D is inherently sonically superior to class A or class AB, but there is nothing from a technical perspective that would make class D superior and various technical reasons why it is inferior. It doesn’t sound better either, but there are many reasons why some hearing for the first time might jump to that incorrect conclusion, which I’ll cover below.

Class D is cheaper and more efficient, so it suits the fancy one-box solutions dressed up as high-end gear (Devaliet etc) and it works very well for less critical home cinema, AVR and subwoofer duties for example. Engineers and experienced audiophiles know this of course but manufacturers and retailers need to sell new equipment, so we have a conflict of interest problem.

Think about it. Retailers advising people about new hi-fi equipment NEED to sell that equipment you can’t expect anything other than a sales push. Imagine taking your old car to the dealership and asking the salesperson if they think you should keep it or get one of the new ones they sell. Imagine asking them about a brand they don’t sell. Do you honestly think the advice you’d receive would be worth anything? My point here is to be very critical about where you source information.

But Mike, if class D is no good, why do manufacturers use it?

Bemused enquirer

This is a better question. I’m not saying class D is “no good”. Class D is great in certain use cases and, perhaps more significantly, offers big savings on production costs, which means greater margins and therefore bigger profits for manufacturers. Sadly, the mainstream hi-fi media and retail industry receive kickbacks, junkets and deals and they’re hardly going to tell people this because it jeopardises their ability to get the gear and therefore make money.

Plastic

Class D is like plastic. Given the choice, most designers would build things out of metal and wood rather than plastic. These are more beautiful and durable materials, but also more expensive. Plastic knives and forks anyone? You can make some really fancy and very affordable parts out of plastic though, like car and motorcycle parts for example. Plastic = lighter, faster, cheaper. This is good if you need lighter, faster and cheaper!

Likewise, given the choice, class A is the best option where cost is not a factor, but cost is always a factor. You can’t build 500 Watt class A PA amplifiers because they would cost $100,000 and 200kg each, and nobody would buy them! Plastic dashboards crack and fade too, and you won’t find too much plastic on a tank or in an aeroplane wing. You’ll see where this is going.

I remember chatting with a retailer about speakers. He told me that a famous loudspeaker manufacturer’s drivers now used injection moulded plastic baskets and frames and that this was better than metal because the marketing materials said so. I explained some engineering and pointed out that this manufacturer’s most expensive speakers still used drivers with cast metal chassis.

Is plastic ever the best choice? If you need to save money and weight, sure it is. Is class D ever the best choice? Again, if you need to save money and weight, or if low cost and high power are the overriding considerations then yes, class D is the best choice.

Use-Cases

Class D amps are great for subwoofers and home cinema amplifiers where high power density and low cost are critical. Who doesn’t want a small, affordable 1000W subwoofer?! Manufacturers like NuForce and B&O have produced class D amplifiers for the hi-fi market, whilst B&O’s ICEpower class D modules find use in concert, club and live venue environments where high power, efficiency and ruggedness are more important than absolute sound quality.

All-in-one amplifier/DAC/streamer things, sound bars, subs, PA amplifiers and AV receivers use class D amplifiers for one set of reasons: low cost/small size/high power/high efficiency/high margins. In these roles, class D performs perfectly.

Power

Powerful amplifiers sound impressive, especially to hi-fi enthusiasts who’ve previously only owned low-powered amplifiers. It’s even more impressive when they are affordable and tap into the ‘upgrader’ market of people moving up from basic gear. People taking that next step are impressed by the punch and drama that only powerful amplifiers can create and many of these folks are the ones raving about class D.

Bull$hit

Here’s what HiFi+ reckons about the ‘new’ class D amplification in NAD’s plastic C-298 power amplifier, with nonsense underlined:

NAD has moved away from the old fashioned and very power-hungry linear power supplies and Class AB output stages that waste nearly half of the energy consumed, producing heat rather than sound. Instead, the company has developed even better performing circuits based on switch mode (sic) power supplies and Class D output stages. Once thought to be inferior to traditional topologies, NAD’s advanced work in this area has created some of the best performing amplifiers regardless of basic design principle. These new designs are very linear over a wide bandwidth and provide consistent performance into all speaker loads, providing a dramatic advance over previous models.

HiFi+ ‘staff’

Here’s the de-marketingBSed translation, HiFi+ needs to do better:

NAD has abandoned the tried and tested, more expensive and better performing linear power supplies and Class AB output stages that use some of the energy consumed to improve sonic performance. Instead, the company has recycled existing, poorer performing but cheaper to make circuits based on switching power supplies and Class D output stages. Known to be inferior to traditional topologies, NAD has used designs that have been around since the 1950s and saved a ton of money on transformers, metal and therefore production and shipping costs, helping an ailing manufacturer. These designs are not as linear over a wide bandwidth as Class AB designs (but we can’t say that). They provide consistent performance into all speaker loads as any good amplifier does (oops), providing no advance over previous models, (again oops).

Liquid Mike

High-End

Class D was the flavour of the month in the naughties when people like Srajan Ebaen at 6 Moons pumped brands nobody had ever heard of and people lapped it up. Many products turned out to be unreliable due to their use of SMD components, cheap, off-the-shelf modules and low-cost build and manufacturing.

True high-end gear doesn’t need to be small, lightweight, efficient or affordable, it just needs to sound and perform THE BEST. Therefore, one should always look to these real high-end use cases to see what “the best” looks like. Note: real high-end does not include NuForce, Bakoon, B&O, NAD, or Bel Canto.

At the real high end, there are no advantages to using class D and many disadvantages. For this reason, you won’t find class D in high-end products, and there’s your answer.

Where cost is not a factor, there is almost no class D, except the Mark Levinson No 53 class D monoblocks for example, and Stereophile described them as “disappointing and flat-sounding” despite their extraordinarily high cost. Good on Stereophile for being brave enough to call it. I’m sure ML was not pleased.

But Mike, lots of hi-fi gear is class D and I’ve read that it’s just fantastic. Guys on Audiogon reckon its great and a guy on YouTube says they are the best amplifiers in the world!

Bemused enquirer

Reality

Much of what you read is nonsense. People trying to save money or receiving a kickback you don’t know about usually aren’t the best sources of impartial advice and rarely have the listening experience with serious gear to offer useful opinions on it. Be wary of clickbait like “Build the best amplifier in the world for $500”. You don’t need me to explain why.

For the record, please know that I want a $500 class D amplifier to be better than a $50,000 class A amplifier like everyone else does, but it isn’t, it won’t ever be and it’s foolish to imagine that it could be. Come on people.

Class D is not bad. A class D amplifier may turn out to be the best amplifier you’ve heard and if so, great. Just be sure you listen to a range of products before forming an opinion and maintain a very sceptical eye, and ear!

What parts wear out in hi-fi electronics?

Both electronic and mechanical components experience wear and other changes over time.

Electronic Components

Capacitors are common wearable electronic parts, specifically wet aluminium electrolytic types. Wear rates vary according to type, quality of construction, thermal loading, age and hours of use. I’ve seen capacitors fail after 5 years and older parts that are still perfect after 50 years, which is extraordinary and common for Elna capacitors for example.

Transistors, diodes and resistors also deteriorate and can fail, sometimes catastrophically. Failure tends to follow certain types, scenarios and the old nemesis – heat. Some resistors are prone to increasing in value or becoming noisy. Likewise, certain small signal transistors and diodes are ‘fragile’ and commonly fail, others fail when pushed close to their voltage or thermal limits.

Testing is the only accurate way to determine deterioration and wear. Parts can be tested, measured and replaced with new ones that meet or exceed OE specs in most cases.

Mechanical Components

Belts, gears, switches, potentiometers, knobs, meters and connectors are the most common mechanical parts that suffer from deterioration and wear. This includes rotary and linear controls and switches, speaker terminals, RCA connectors and so on.

Many of these components can be replaced and others are serviceable and can be brought back from non-functional to working perfectly, with the correct service techniques. Other parts like connectors can be replaced with new parts.

Is buying old hi-fi gear hi-fi risky?

Yes, on some level it is, but I would argue that it can be riskier buying modern, chip and firmware driven equipment that will fail and be obsolete long before gear from the 1970s.

As long as you mitigate your risk, buying older hi-fi gear should not be riskier than buying new. In some ways, there can be less risky buying well-cared-for older gear than newer stuff in terms of long-term reliability. Much of the gear I work on from the ’70s and ’80s hasn’t even technically failed, in 40+ years. It might need cleaning, service and adjustment, but everything does. A lot of newer gear (Cambridge, Marantz, NAD etc) fails after such a short time that it’s embarrassing, for everyone.

To some extent, you need to know what you are looking for and how to test it when buying older gear of course. This will involve listening to and operating it. Beyond that, an inspection either pre or post-purchase is a very sensible idea and can potentially save a lot of money. I run through every little detail of equipment you’ve bought, or are about to buy. Potential or new owners can leverage my findings to end up way in front in most cases, often saving far more than the cost of the inspection!

There are, unfortunately, people knowingly selling faulty gear, especially on GumTree. Be very careful and if in doubt, seek good advice.

Do headshells, wires and mounting hardware make a difference?

They do, everything in the signal path and attached to a transducer like a cartridge makes a difference.

Materials and construction improve as one spends more on headshells, wires and mounting hardware. This translates to better detail retrieval and micro-resolution. Naturally, the higher your system resolution, the more noticeable these differences will be, which is why I focus on improving system resolution in consults with customers for example.

Wire

If you are spending decent money on a cartridge, you ought to put it on a decent headshell, with premium wires and have it perfectly, and correctly aligned. Note that these are not the same thing. I’ve found headshell wiring to be especially important and currently use SME silver headshell wires. They are the best I’ve found out of trying various Litz, 99.9999.% pure copper, and other wires.

Silver wire is generally a game changer wherever you use it, but it is costly. Other wires work well too, like Ortofon’s silver wires, Jelco’s Litz wires and some Audio Technica wires. I supply basic sets of wires that work very well, through to high-end wires, whatever you might like to use with your deck.

Headshells

I always suggest using the best headshell you can afford and ensuring that it matches the mass of the tonearm and the range of cart/headshell weight that your arm can support. Headshells are made from a variety of materials, some of them good and some not so good.

Ideally, you want materials that have a high stiffness-to-mass ratio and that can be perfectly accurately machined. This is why various alloys of aluminium and magnesium are commonly used and excellent materials for the job. Wood on the other hand cannot be precisely machined at these dimensions and has a poor stiffness to mass ratio. It is, therefore, a silly material for a headshell, but popular with hipsters.

Want to see what the best headshells are made of? Find some of the best headshells from the golden age of vinyl and see if you find a wooden one…

Fasteners

Fasteners and even the rubber gaskets at the headshell/tonearm interface are important and all of them contribute to the final result. There are two common materials for the fasteners: aluminium alloy and stainless steel. The materials have different densities and so fasteners of the same dimensions will have different masses.

This becomes important when looking at headshell mass and cartridge-tonearm matching. Part of my precision turntable setup process involves assessing the fasteners and replacing them with typoes better-optimised for the turntable and tonearm in question.

Structural Stuff

The general condition of the fixings, arm-headshell interface, turntable feet, miscellaneous screws, fasteners, cable dress, nearby equipment etc all play a part in overall performance, so these things should be considered. Likewise, the record-turntable interface is important which is why I recommend a quality peripheral record clamp, and central collet or mass-style clamps.

Advice

Good advice ties all this together as part of the system as a whole. There is so much pseudoscience and misinformation especially in the turntable space because many are new to it, even some of those working with turntables. Many turntables are hobbled by poor cartridge-tonearm matching, poor headshell, wires and fasteners, and of course poor setup and calibration.

How important is cartridge-tonearm matching?

Cartridge-tonearm matching is very important!

In fact, the match is so critical that improperly matched elements can lead to a dangerous condition that can damage vinyl and even potentially break a cartridge.

Why are there so many new belt-drive turntables?

A smart question to ask, belt-drive turntables are much cheaper to make.

Even small manufacturers can tool up to make a basic belt-drive turntable. You could just about make your own at home and that’s how many small manufacturers start out.

Direct-drive turntable manufacture is quite different though. It requires considerably more engineering and capital investment. Motors tend to be custom-made and need more than just a capacitor to drive them. There are benefits of course, but to the average person wanting a cheap turntable, these extra costs don’t make for cheap turntables.

Are low-power amplifiers acceptable in hi-fi systems?

It depends on the system, sometimes yes, usually no.

The sound pressure levels achievable with a hi-fi system are down to two parameters: amplifier power output and speaker sensitivity. Low-power amplifiers can create realistic sound pressures and dynamics, but only when matched with sensitive speakers.

Do not expect a 30W per channel amplifier to offer high fidelity dynamics and sound pressures with normal sensitivity speakers though. It’s not physically possible, no matter what anyone might tell you. Hi-fi listening at low levels may be possible here, but scale and gravitas will be missing.

This FAQ covers the concept in more detail.

Do you charge to install cartridges?

That depends on the circumstances.

Properly installing and setting up a cartridge with the right hardware and precisely calibrating overhang, azimuth, tracking force, anti-skate, VTA, arm lifter position and height using the correct tools is never a 5-minute job. It can take significant time with a complex deck/installation but no matter what the scenario, doing this work properly takes time and expertise.

With this in mind, we cannot fit and precision align all cartridges or customer-supplied cartridges for free. Doing so would cause us to lose money and that’s not sensible. We have a system that works well though.

We offer free precision installation and alignment of cartridges we supply with an RRP of $300 or more when you book your deck for any kind of maintenance. We absorb the cost of the installation and alignment, giving customers a better deal and encouraging the precision fitment of better cartridges. Try getting that from an online discounter!

We charge to install customer-supplied and low-cost cartridges we supply but you get a precision alignment and an opportunity to have your deck carefully inspected and precisely serviced and adjusted if you so wish, something that may never have been done before.

Keep in mind that many retailers cannot correctly install and set up cartridges and tonearms. I’ve lost track of the number of turntable set-ups I’ve corrected after being set up by major retailers.

I like your approach, you seem unafraid to call things as they are.

Not really a question but I genuinely appreciate the feedback!

I honestly believe life is too short to be anything other than authentic and decent and it’s definitely too short to be afraid of what others think of us.

A long time ago, I realised that I didn’t need to worry about trying to keep everyone happy or appealing to everyone. It’s a waste of time and energy. Instead, I embrace what I’m good at, that’s likely why you are here. I’ve also learned that none of us need tolerate with rudeness, disrespect or ingratitude from people and I embrace that in dealing with people.

People seem to appreciate this ‘straight shooter’ approach and I’m glad they do. It seems to attract genuinely decent visitors and amazing customers and out of 1000+ actual customers, I’ve just a handful of doozies. I’m also pretty good at filtering people and if they sneak through, they aren’t tolerated for long. I’m really only interested in what sensible, respectful people who appreciate my approach have to say. Others, I really don’t care!

I value and act on feedback and overwhelmingly, people tell me they love the website and my approach to business. This helps me to improve the content and create things that I know people will appreciate. Running an independent business and having strong partnerships with other local businesses also means I can call out BS and nonsense where I find it, without fear or favour.

This site is an advertising, favour and marketing-free zone. Manufacturers don’t offer me products that I can keep. I deliberately don’t do any warranty work and nobody tells me what to write, what to say or who to speak to.

Are second-hand cartridges worth buying?

Many of the best cartridges ever made hail from the golden era of analog, so yes, the right carts are definitely worth chasing down.

Types

To recap, there are two main types of cartridges: moving magnet and moving coil. The best cartridges tend to be moving coil designs and these are usually more expensive and better sounding. There are some great moving magnet designs too, but these are generally less worth a hard chase if you know what I mean.

Retipping

Cartridges wear out, so you need a way of establishing their current state of wear. That way you’ll know whether you’ve found a good deal or not. We inspect cartridges and an inspection and deep clean is often a great starting point.

If it is a moving magnet cartridge, can you still get a new stylus? Many stylus types haven’t been available for years. Old styli can be retipped, but this is less common with magnets.

Retipping starts at around $300 and goes up from there. Moving magnet cartridges are often worth less than this, so the availability of styli has always been a critical factor with moving magnet cartridges.

It’s a little different with moving coil cartridges. These must be retipped to rejuvenate them, they don’t have removable styli. Most MC carts are worth more than $300, new or vintage though, so the retipping becomes much more viable, especially when you consider that some moving coil cartridges cost as much as a car.

Cartridge suspensions also age and the rubber elements can harden. When this happens, that stylus (MM) or cartridge (MC) is finished. At that point, current manufacturers can rebuild the cartridge, with a new suspension, cantilever and stylus, for around 75% of the new replacement cartridge cost.

Value & Chasability

Because of their less disposable nature and greater purchase price, MC carts tend to be better made and it’s less common for their suspensions to harden with age, making vintage coils generally more viable prospects and well worth hunting down.

Not only that, but better MC designs tend to feature line contact, Microline or Shibata-type gems that last much longer. Putting all this together, MC carts are likelier to have life left in them. They are more worth re-tipping when they wear out. They last longer when they are retipped.

As an example, I own and use moving coil cartridges from the 1980s that work perfectly and sound amazing. Vintage cartridges came from the golden era of cartridge design and manufacture, so it’s worth considering that some of the very best cartridges of all time are those really good ones from the ’70s and ’80s.

Are second-hand records worth buying?

You bet, there are some awesome second-hand bargains to be had!

Sadly though, the golden days of $1, $2 and 5 records from the smoky second-hand record store in North Perth are long gone. Yes, you’ll still find $1 Engelbert Humperdinck records, but you’ll come across all sorts of other bargains second hand. Some will be relatively new releases, on heavy vinyl, from the record and hi-fi stores, and online sellers. Others will be older, lightweight pressings, but don’t let that put you off. Some of the best records I own are 120-gram pressings from the last 50 years.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking remasters are the only or best way to go either. Early pressings, from close to the original album release date, when all the copies in the analog chain were freshest, are often the most sought-after and best sounding of all.

What you want to do is check second-hand records carefully for scratches, flatness and clean them in most cases. Warped records can be flattened. Dirty records can be cleaned. How should you clean them? That’s the topic of another question..!

What are your thoughts about audio gurus?

This depends on your definition of gurus, but for those implying they possess magical powers concerning designing or repairing audio gear, I advise you to slowly back away and then run when safe to do so!

Magic

Audio gurus are generally associated with pseudoscience and nonsense, often claiming magical powers through ‘secret’ wiring skills, ‘special’ ultra-bad construction techniques and dollops of mystical horse-$hit. Goodness knows there’s enough bogus nonsense in this world. What’s needed is sound, reliable, fact/experience/science-based sources of information.

guru
A heavily criticised lifestyle rather than audio guru, but you get the idea.

A customer very kindly told me that he thought I “work magic on turntables.” This is lovely feedback (thanks Rod), but nothing I do is even remotely magical. I’m anti-guru, anti-BS and pro-science and pro-expertise.

The results I achieve come from a scientific foundation and an understanding of what to do and how to do it. There’s no magic, snake oil, or white beard (yet). You might consider me knowledgable or skilled, but I have no special powers, I’m not a guru, and I don’t claim to be better than anyone else. I’m competent in my sphere of operation and learning all the time. There’s a big difference.

Audio Guru BS

There are self-proclaimed audio gurus everywhere. They generally propagate snake oil, nonsense and badly made hi-fi gear. If you want to buy a homemade valve amp or guru-made cables, that’s OK, but don’t expect a good technician to look at them when they don’t work properly, break or break something else in your system! Been there, never again, I refuse all such garbage as a blanket rule.

Let me help you identify these people so you can save yourself time and money. These audio guru – ie audio numpty – utterings should ring alarm bells:

  • Precision instruments, tools, soldering equipment etc are “unnecessary”
  • Technical documentation is unnecessary
  • Cables either don’t matter or matter more than life itself and must be made by gurus
  • Neatness and precision are “over-rated”
  • Build quality is also over-rated
  • Build quality does matter, but our gear looks so bad because it has been “modified by someone else”
  • Engineering, science, measurement etc are overrated
  • The more terribly wired something is the more skillfully wired it is
  • Properly engineered, name-brand products are no good or part of a “conspiracy”
  • Calling out poorly made equipment or terrible repairers is somehow “bad”
  • The best cables are directional and need special magic supports
  • Guru-made gear is essential to reach audio nirvana, etc, etc

You’ll note the pattern of ‘guru thinking’ here: all the critically important things like care, effort, neatness, knowledge and skill, don’t seem to matter to these guys, and yes, they are always guys. This thinking is beyond stupid, it’s idiocy. I won’t share details of the conversations my colleagues and I have about such things, but you can guess the gist.

Ask anyone with real expertise and skill if quality parts, tools and neat work are overrated. Ask someone working in the aerospace industry if wiring neatness and tool quality “matter”. I don’t know how those pedalling BS like this survive, but people are gullible and these gurus prey on folks like this.

How can vintage audio gear and formats sound so good?

I’d like you to consider something: we put men on the Moon in 1969, more than 50 years ago.

There are three key elements here:

Take a moment to process that, and no, it wasn’t a hoax. Do you reckon we could do it now..? I seriously have my doubts, but either way, it tells you a great deal about the state of design and engineering in the ’60s and ’70s.

I should add that Voyager space probes with their gold-plated records have already left the solar system. One of these probes still works, sending signals back to Earth from nearly 20 BILLION km away. Probes also landed on Mars. In the ’70s…

Think about these achievements. Ponder the materials, science, electronics and all-around engineering genius necessary to achieve these feats. Analog audio is fairly straightforward by comparison and a quick scan of the annals of hi-fi history shows that some spectacularly good equipment came out around this time and even earlier.

You see, people often incorrectly assume that all the technological improvements we’ve made since we put people on the Moon directly correlate with improvements in audio. Some do, but many, even most, don’t. We had the technology and engineering to make extraordinary equipment and recordings, way back in the 1950s.

Some of the very best recordings were made with valve microphones, direct-to-tape in the ’50s and ’60s. The audio spectrum is quite narrow and technically not that hard to reproduce. Dynamic range is where things get trickier, but magnetic tape running at 15IPS can do it and vinyl does an admirable job of reproducing it.

Sure, consoles and equipment have continued to improve, but the formats – reel-to-reel tape and vinyl – remain as good as they always were. Arguably the hardware, ie tape machines, valve microphones, cabling etc was better then.

There have undoubtedly been some major improvements in transistors, integrated circuits, DACs and so on. But there have also been increases in wages and conditions which have seen the need to automate and simplify production and move away from expensive metal and glass construction, in favour of cheaper plastic-based materials and machine assembly. Stuff costs less but doesn’t last as long either.

I’m not for a moment saying all old gear and formats sound better, because they don’t. The Compact Cassette is a good example. It’s fundamentally flawed and really only sounded good towards the end of its life. Vinyl on the other hand has always sounded great and always will.

I have a few of my Mum’s records from the ’50s and they are some of the very best recordings I own. Again, think about that. My system sounds unbelievable and some of my best recordings are from the 1950s. Extraordinary, but true.

High-resolution digital is where things have really come a long way, but even good old Redbook CD can sound excellent, with the right equipment.

What’s the highest fidelity, highest resolution music source I can access at home?

As of 2023, it’s either magnetic tape running at 15 IPS, an excellent vinyl playback system, or the best hi-resolution digital files played back through seriously good DACs.

People are often upset to learn that their favourite digital files were originally recorded onto analog tape, but there is more obscuring of the provenance of digital files than just about anywhere else in hi-fi. Why? Because there is money to be made by people NOT understanding this point. Do I need to mention the Mofi lawsuit to jog people’s memories..?

Digital sound involves sampling, whereby resolution is lost when a digital copy is made of an analog file. The highest resolution source you can access is the highest quality non-sampled analog source file. The highest-resolution analog medium is high-speed reel-to-reel tape, closely followed by vinyl.

Reel to Reel Tape – The Ultimate #1

Not cassette tape, I’m talking proper reel-to-reel tape running at high speed. Let’s not forget that most of your favourite recordings were made on tape and the very best recordings of all time were made on tape. Anyone who’s ever heard a good reel-to-reel tape played on a good machine will know what I’m talking about. There’s a richness, fluidity and power in the tape that has to be heard to be believed. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll immediately understand.

Herein lies the problem though – how do you hear this? You need a high-quality reel-to-reel tape machine and some extraordinary and very expensive Tape Project tapes, or similar. There are very few tape releases available and really, this is almost a dead end unless you can access the tapes. So for most people, this is a dead end.

Vinyl – the Ultimate #2

The second top-tier source is vinyl. Vinyl is another analog medium, ie it presents a copy of the original file, not a sampled version. Good vinyl played on a great turntable, arm and cartridge is close to reel-to-reel in terms of resolution and detail retrieval. The limiting factors are the hardware and pressings. With analog sources and gear, you get what you pay for and it’s a sliding scale. The resolution possible with a good vinyl set-up though is incredible.

Hi-Res Digital – the Ultimate #3

Some readers will be bemused by the fact that I’ve listed this as the third level of ultimate, but that’s only because source files are so variable and their provenance so guarded that one often doesn’t know what one is getting. It’s also because the sound of these files is very hardware-dependent. That being said, high-resolution digital files can sound excellent or even outstanding and hard on the heels of analog. By high-resolution, I’m referring to files with 24-bit/192kHz, DSD, SACD resolution or greater and MQA encoding for example.

Lossless is a misused term, however, because all digital methodologies involve some loss, through how they sample the original. Most streaming services like Apple have switched to lossless for their entire catalogue and many files are now also offered at high-res lossless quality. Whilst it’s unclear what constitutes ‘high-res’ over at Apple, we can assume it to mean source files where the data is encoded at greater than Redbook CD, ie 16-bit 44.1kHz resolution.

Redbook (CD)

Next comes Redbook CD. Not quite an ultimate source, CD still has a lot to offer and I’m amazed by how much one can get from 16-bit / 44.1kHz files. I have some superb-sounding CDs and played on a good transport and DAC, they can sound fantastic. Many would argue, myself included, that CDs played back via a really good CD player and or DAC sound better than many/most streamed hi-res files. If you haven’t done so, this is worth investigating and CDs are becoming quite collectible for this and other reasons.

Cassette & FM Radio

Compact cassette tapes and analog FM radio are probably the last in terms of being real hi-fi. Both offer good to excellent performance but are very hardware-dependent. A good FM tuner can sound fantastic though.

What should I look for when buying second-hand hi-fi gear?

Mostly its overall condition, control functionality and service history.

It might sound obvious, but the physical condition of a piece of second-hand hi-fi gear tells us a lot about how it’s been looked after. Gear that has been well cared for is almost always a better bet than gear that’s been neglected, other things being equal.

This extends to service history. All equipment needs periodic maintenance and parts replacement. Can the seller show you any records or invoices for past work? Has this work been done by a reputable technician? Older gear can need extensive maintenance. Don’t let this put you off, it’s still often much better value than buying new, but the work HAS to be done.

Performance – I suggest almost never buying something you can’t see and hear running. Anyone who says they can’t show you something running should be avoided – like the plague. Are you going to just take the word of a random seller that the equipment works well..? I wouldn’t.

Does the equipment turn on and run smoothly? Does it sound good? Do all the controls and switches work as they should? These are all things that can be checked prior to purchase. How about a warranty? If buying from a business, there will be some kind of warranty against defects. This can be very helpful. Some non-business sellers will offer returns if there are problems but this is rare.

Hi-fi equipment purchases should be made with a cool head. It might be rare and collectible, but if it’s broken, it might also be the world’s most expensive doorstop, and we don’t want that!

Why are you so often fully booked?

I’m honoured to be entrusted with so much lovely hi-fi equipment and I apologise for any frustration our being fully booked may cause.

I was only today (7 March 2024) chatting with a customer about this and he commented that my being so busy was an endorsement of the way I do business. He’s right in the sense that I’ve specifically designed the business to deliver what many others can’t, so I should be busy, but there’s a bit more to it.

Liquid. Audio. Different.

Liquid Audio is different. This level of customer engagement results from a unique approach and a lot of long hours and hard work. I started this business back in 2009, wanting to address issues I’d found with electronics repair and repairers, including a lack of care, knowledge and specialisation with the hi-fi equipment I love. The ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘near enough is good enough’ approaches so common in the broader repairer community remain a problem and are not how we do business.

I was a bit green back then, but I had a great mentor and have slowly grown the business into what you see today. My background as a science educator, musician and detail freak gives me a unique way of working with hi-fi electronics. Our focus on quality and meticulous attention to detail makes us unusual within the hi-fi electronics repair space and a sea of mediocre work.

This does mean we work more slowly though, this is unavoidable if we are to deliver the quality of work we are known for. Working conservatively, driven by my painful but very useful perfectionist’s obsession with detail drives most people nuts, except the owners of the equipment I work on. I’m lucky to have been gifted this skill set by my parents!

I also run Liquid Audio without fear or favour. I’m not afraid to point out bad workmanship or the silliness of sight-unseen quotes and people choosing technicians based only on price. I try to preserve the beauty and originality of the wonderful, classic hi-fi equipment we love and educate people as to why that’s important.

Bottom Line

I’m not interested in being the fastest, cheapest, or most popular repairer. My only goal is to run the most trusted and respected business for discerning customers who appreciate this difference.

I understand that being fully booked creates issues and again, I apologise for any inconvenience. We try to help everyone but I acknowledge that this is, of course, impossible. I appreciate your business and hope you will use the booking status table on my contact page to assist you. With patience, hopefully, I can help you with your hi-fi equipment!

I’m thinking of using the cheapest repairer, what are your thoughts?

I suspect most people intuitively understand that ‘cheap’ rarely equates to ‘good’.

As my Dad used to say:

“You get what you pay for, Mike.”

Arthur Fitzpatrick

Dad was right and this truism has stayed with me and is reflected in Liquid Audio’s foundations. Surely, a better question must be: Do you want the work done cheaply, or do you want it done well?

The overall quality of work, service and information you receive should be more important than chasing the lowest cost and I make no apologies for pointing out what I hope is obvious. I see lots of equipment that’s been repaired cheaply. It comes here to be rectified so that it works properly, with owners paying twice for what should have been done correctly the first time.

If you care about your equipment, I guarantee you will come to regret prioritising cheap repairs over work well done and having it done properly often doesn’t cost any more anyway. Cutting corners is never worth it and the cheapest repairs often end up being the most expensive, because of collateral damage, poor parts and work that has to be rectified later. Ironically some of the worst repairers charge the same or more than we do, so engaging a good repairer is simply a no-brainer for most people.

Are there any decent, affordable new turntables?

Yes, though this answer somewhat depends on what you consider decent and affordable!

Those looking for new high-performance machines for under $1,000 will find very little of interest. High-performance turntabling can’t be done for $1K new, spend a little more though and things start to improve. If you broaden your horizons to include pre-owned equipment, then $1,000 gets you something much more interesting.

Decent, New

  • The Pioneer PLX-1000, at around $1100 and weighing in at 15kg is one of the best value new options available. No, it’s not high-end, but it’s a little over a grand. It’s cheap and cheerful, like some of the Audio Technica decks.
  • You might find the occasional Technics SL-1200 Mk7 on special from online sellers, though by now these have probably dried up. For around $1600, this is the best deal up to about $3K.
  • A new Technics SL-1210GR at around $2,700 AUD is good value if you want a new deck. Just keep in mind that you will get a far better machine on the secondhand market for around $3K.
  • The new Technics SL-1500 is worth considering at around $2,000 AUD, discounted to $1,500 at times. It’s a basic deck, but solid value.
  • The MoFi StudioDeck for around $2,000 is also a decent value. Be careful of the loose bearings I’ve found in a few of these now though.
  • The MoFi UltraDeck is a much better turntable, though perhaps not what most consider affordable.
  • The Rega Planar 3 is a belt-drive classic and can be had for around $1,500. This is a solid value, not a high-precision deck by any means but they do sound decent. Don’t go lower than a Planar 3 in Rega’s lineup though.
  • Cheap ProJect, Thorens, Denon and other $500 or less turntables are not worth buying if you want something decent.
  • Non-brand name gear like Crosley, Marley and other such equipment is junk and should avoided if you care about your records and how they sound.

Best Options

The only new deck I could live with here is the SL-1210GR. Spending around three grand gets you a heck of a lot of second-hand golden-age vinyl goodness, so keep this in mind. You could find a Kenwood KD-650 for much less than that or even a Yamaha GT-2000 for that money and these are altogether better options. The real value, as always, is on the second-hand market.

TechnicsSL
The Technics SL-1210GR ‘grand class’ turntable is far from grand class in the overall scheme of things and not as good as the KD-650 below, but this decent 11kg deck destroys many cheaper new offerings.
img 2350
The iconic Kenwood KD-650 is certainly in another universe compared to anything you can buy new for $2,000!

What do you recommend in terms of power supplies for hi-fi gear in older premises?

Power can be a real issue in older houses, so here are a few suggestions.

The first might seem obvious, but have everything checked and tested by a qualified electrician. This can identify and rectify wiring and ground issues, broken outlets etc. Power outlet testers like this one allow end-users to identify miswired outlets, ground problems and so on and are a good starting point.

Next, assuming you have safe, correctly wired outlets, you need quality power distribution. Multiple wall outlets are best, so ask an electrician or your landlord if this is a possibility. Failing that, I suggest the best powerboard you can afford. One bigger one is better than daisy-chaining them, which should be avoided.

Amplifiers and other high current equipment should ideally be plugged into the wall directly, rather than through a power board, where possible. Older gear may have grounds/earths lifted or removed, so this must also be carefully checked for safety and performance reasons.

Mains filters are useful in some cases and can be purchased from hi-fi stores. These may reduce noise and improve system performance. Regenerators offer the best performance but are also very expensive and usually not suited to high current devices.

How long does a stylus last?

Anywhere from 200 to 2000 hours, depending on the cartridge design and stylus profile.

I’ve written about this elsewhere, but the increased contact area of line contact gems leads to lower contact pressure, less friction, lower wear and better sound. The best line-contact types can last 2000 hours or more, but line-contact styli are more expensive to manufacture, so there is a price to pay. By contrast, cheap spherical/conical and elliptical styli generally only last for 200 – 300 hours. So you could get 5 – 10 times more life from a really good cartridge/stylus, which can more than offset their increased cost.

Other factors must be considered, including poorly designed, low-quality turntables and older types with excessive tracking force. These can experience more rapid stylus wear, and cause accelerated record wear. Even the best cartridges, tracked at lower than recommended tracking forces, can experience accelerated record and stylus wear.

It’s important to replace a stylus before it becomes worn or it will destroy your records. For moving magnet cartridges, this is fairly straightforward, as long as a quality replacement can be sourced. I often supply quality Japanese JICO and Nagaoka styli for older cartridges.

For moving coil cartridges, stylus replacement involves bonding a new diamond to the existing cantilever or installing a new cantilever and diamond. Several vendors provide this service.

Does hi-fi equipment need to be overhauled?

The simple answer is yes if you want to keep it running.

Ask yourself: do watches, power tools and motorcycles eventually need to be overhauled and/or restored? The answer, of course, is yes and this applies to everything built by human hands. I don’t need more overhaul work and many people are prepared to throw old things away when they fail, but this is rare.

Older hi-fi gear is generally reliable and lasts a lot longer than newer gear. However, there is no escaping the fact that eventually, someone HAS to spend money to have it overhauled or restored. That should preferably be done before it fails, taking out speakers, output devices, catching fire etc.

Parts get hot, change, wear out and eventually fail, even in the most expensive equipment. If you love a piece of equipment, consider giving it some TLC before it fails.

Why don’t you repair home cinema equipment?

Very simply, this type of equipment is often almost worthless after just a few years and therefore not worth repairing.

If you add in poor serviceability and poor audio performance, compared to even modest hi-fi stereo gear, you end up with very few reasons to repair this stuff and why mjuch of it is simply thrown away when it breaks. Don’t shoot the messenger, these are facts.

I always ask one critical question about equipment being considered for repair:

“Is repair economically viable?”

Even some of the cheapest hi-fi gear from the ’70s is sought after for its performance, reliability and serviceability. The same cannot be said for the plethora of average sounding, cheaply-made and obsolete home cinema equipment from the last 30 years or so.

Most of it is essentially worthless after just a few years due to useless feature creep and poor serviceability which kill retained value and therefore repair viability. Most of this gear is at best only marginally serviceable, because:

  • Much of it is so cheap or now worth so little that it’s barely worth opening, let alone repairing
  • Critical parts are often no longer available and SMD chip-based boards like HDMI controllers are not designed to be repaired

There are some notable exceptions, but generally, I’d suggest you forget about repairing home cinema gear.

Are analog AM/FM tuners still a viable hi-fi source?

They definitely are in the case of analog FM, but there are four key considerations.

The first and most obvious one is the contingency that broadcasters continue to use the analog 88 – 108 MHz FM band in Australia and elsewhere. Once these broadcasts cease, that’s it.

The second is less obvious and that’s source material quality. With good, uncompressed source material, the quality achievable with really good FM tuners is extraordinary. Stations like ABC Classical and some of the smaller independent stations playing CDs and records can deliver excellent sound quality via a quality analog tuner, much better than the compressed, lossy streams on DAB or digital radio.

My beloved Marantz 125 tuner never ceases to amaze me with its richness and space, playing stations like these, even when they are sometimes digital streams being re-broadcast. It has a lot to do with how they are produced. However, many commercial stations, run compressed, thin-sounding streams that sound bad on whatever you play them – DAB or analog FM.

Third, the antenna is critically important with analog FM tuners. A proper roof-mounted FM antenna will boost signal strength, reducing distortion, multipath signal issues and noise for the cleanest reception and best sound quality. Without a good rooftop antenna, you will not achieve full quieting and maximum noise and distortion performance.

The fourth consideration is tuner alignment. AM/FM tuners often have between 10, 20 or even 30 separate alignment stages that require high-performance RF alignment equipment, and a deep knowledge of how to use it. These alignments need to be done periodically, say every 10 – 20 years, as components age and change.

Good tuners, properly aligned often have 0.1% distortion or less. If you haven’t heard a really good, well-aligned and well-fed analog FM tuner playing a good broadcast, you need to before it’s too late! As you might expect, being a radio nut, I have this equipment. The work is involved though and utilises some fairly kooky test and measurement gear. Whilst I have most of what’s needed in most cases, I may not be able to align every tuner.

Can I get hi-fi sound from streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify?

Not from Spotify, but with Apple’s new Lossless services, yes you can!

Apple has finally updated its streaming music service and released Apple Lossless files across the board, with at least CD quality uncompressed, lossless 16-bit / 44.1kHz files, with some offered at up to 24-bit / 192kHz. You can now get hi-fi sound from streaming services without any additional cost in Apple’s case.

You’ll need wifi and/or a hard-wired connection to a phone or streamer to access the high-resolution files. A streamer, computer/DAC or phone/DAC combo as I use will work well. Bluetooth won’t pass these high-resolution files due to the bandwidth limits. Bluetooth sucks anyway, best off to use a hardwired connection I reckon.

I currently use my iPhone 13 Pro Max connected to a Gustard A26 High-Performance DAC with MQA decoding. This combo sounds phenomenal, as you might expect. Many are still surprised to learn that lower-resolution 16-bit / 44.1kHz Redbook files can sound better than streamed high-resolution files, but discovering all this is part of the fun. If you access really good high-res files though and have a DAC capable of extracting that resolution, and many are not, the results can be amazing.

Tidal High Resolution also offers true high fidelity, though it’s a bit more expensive. The standard 256kbps files you’ll find from providers like Spotify are not hi-fi. Their limitations are obvious, sounding thin, grainy and lifeless.

Do you offer in-home auditions on equipment for sale?

Generally not, though it depends on the circumstances.

Much of the equipment in the Store is on consignment and, as you might imagine, I look after such equipment very carefully for my customers! That being said, every case is unique and there is some room to move with equipment you are seriously considering purchasing, where an in-home audition is important and where payment is made upfront.

What’s the deal with inner groove distortion?

Without getting too technical, as a cartridge mounted to a radially tracking tonearm moves across the record, playback distortion characteristics change with changing tracking error.

Generally, the highest distortion is found playing the innermost grooves of a record. There will be two points with the lowest distortion, where the radial arc traced by the arm intersects a radius from the centre of the record. On either side of those two points, distortion will rapidly increase.

What you may not know is that certain stylus profiles and cartridge alignments minimise inner groove distortion. In fact, you can ask me to specifically align your cartridge so that it minimises inner groove distortion, though I generally recommend using the manufacturer’s specified alignment in most cases.

Note that linear tracking tonearms don’t suffer from this positionally variable distortion as they don’t trace an arc as they move across the record surface. This is a key benefit of linear tracking arms. It’s also why longer tonearms are preferable. The arc they trace has a greater radius and is, therefore, closer to a straight line, leading to lower variation in distortion across the record.

Can I bring my equipment to Liquid Audio if it’s already been to other repairers?

In most cases, yes, but it comes down to whether your equipment has been damaged, and if it has, how badly.

Unfortunately, certain repairers do such poor work that I may decline to look at the equipment they’ve touched. Why? Because the damage inflicted by certain individuals often renders further work difficult, not viable or even impossible in the worst cases. It’s not reasonable for these issues to become the next well-intentioned repairers problem and unfortunately, all good repairers will know exactly what I’m talking about.

Take a look around the Hall of Shame to better understand what I mean. All of the equipment featured there was very repairable before someone ruined it. If circuit boards have been destroyed, for example, I will often decline to work on a piece of equipment.

What’s better: a vintage turntable or a new one?

Assuming you have around $1000 to spend, this gets you a far better vintage turntable than a new one, assuming the vintage deck is in good working order.

There actually isn’t anything I can strongly recommend for $1000 new, unfortunately. But, that same amount of money would get you a decent Technics SL-23, SL-120, SL-1200, SL-1300, SL-1500, Kenwood KD-500, KD550, Sony PS-4750, maybe even a PS-6750, Sonab 85S, Yamaha YP-701, Rega Planar 3 with decent cartridge, and on it goes.

As I often tell people, the golden age of vinyl has already happened and, even though there are some great new turntables and vinyl coming out, the real value is in these classic and beautifully made vintage machines from years past. For now anyway!

What’s better: an older CD player or a new one?

A VERY good question, with an answer that depends on what you value, but for most people, it will be an older CD player.

Let me instead ask you this: What’s better: a CD player that is beautifully built, reliable over decades and sounds great, or a player that only sounds great, but lacks the beautiful build quality of older machines and will almost certainly fail after only a handful of years?

Carefully consider this question because, in a nutshell, it reflects where we’ve arrived in consumer CD player land. Even two grand these days buys you fancy-looking plastic garbage, so deciding what’s better for you means understanding what’s changed. You ain’t going to get that from a salesperson, unfortunately, so as we do here @ Liquid Audio, allow me to assist.

I realise that CD lovers have become aware of this article via the renewed interest in CDs and perhaps because this article has been linked somewhere on the interwebs. This article and others like it are written specifically for people like you who appreciate these enduring little silver discs and the hardware that plays them.

The Golden Era

In terms of build quality, serviceability, service life and ‘vintage goodness’, older CD players are almost always better and nicer to own than new ones. Even in terms of sound quality, older players often sound superb, sometimes better than expensive new ones. When you consider that CD playback technology was matured by the naughties, this is not incredibly surprising.

Just as I keep saying that you want a turntable from the golden age of analog, you should try to find a really good CD player from the golden age of CD. It makes sense when you think about it. And when is the golden age of CD? For me, it’s a roughly 20-year period from the late ’80s through to around 2007.

Newer players can sound great if you spend decent money. This is mostly due to improvements in DAC architecture, but that’s about all that’s improved in terms of Redbook CD playback. It’s not easy to find great-sounding affordable players, and I’ve noticed that many newer players sound thin, etched and lack body. There’s nothing worse than a thin-sounding source, even if it is as smooth as you like, so keep this in mind.

Whether old or new, a CD player + stand-alone DAC are almost always the best way to go anyway. Other things like lasers, power supplies, loaders (mechanism), build quality, and serviceability are critically important in a CD player. These elements are rarely as well designed and implemented as they were in older players. Newer CD players often don’t last much more than five years, vs. sometimes 40 years for players I work on that still run well and herein lies the point: older players are generally much better built, more reliable and longer-lasting.

Let’s look at a few examples:

A Modern CD player…

Cambridge AXC25 Packshots IMG 1223r 0
That’s not a CD player, it’s cheaply made, throw-away when it breaks, plastic garbage.

THIS is a CD Player:

Sony CDP-X7ESD
What a beautiful machine…
Sony CDP-X7ESD
Here’s what it looks like inside a player like this. Barely any plastic to be found in this 17kg beauty, the Sony CDP-X7ESD.

The Sony CDP-X7ESD features transformers for balanced audio outputs, separate analog and digital power transformers, premium parts and metal construction. It is fully serviceable and still runs perfectly, all these years later in 2024. This was a high water mark and I assure you that NO modern players are built like this. They don’t manufacture bespoke laser mechanisms like this anymore.

It’s worth noting that when used as an integrated player via its onboard DAC, it sounds veiled and lacks resolution compared to the best Redbook CD equipment I’ve heard. These limitations are easily resolved with a nice modern DAC though. See how easy this is?!

img 9215
Another statement older CD player I’ve recently repaired and serviced (March 2024), the TEAC VRDS-25 is a superbly built and sublime-sounding player. Replacing this with something new that isn’t as well built would cost more than $10K.
Have a look at this wonderful 30-year-old Kenwood DP-1100SG CD player I repaired for example. Almost nothing is built like this now.
Likewise, check out this lovely Krell KPS-30i, again, no plastic here and almost nothing else is built like this, then or now! Used as an integrated player, this sounds better than most players of this era.
Marantz CD-84
Another classic example of an old, repairable and great-sounding player, is the beautiful Marantz CD-84. These machines sound unique, nothing else sounds like a TDA1541, for better and for worse.
Or how about this stunning TEAC VRDS-10? Again, superbly built like its VRDS-25 brother and sounds fantastic.
Accuphase DP-90
Lastly, this is my recently acquired Accuphase DP-90, truly one of the greatest CD players of all time, though a transport strictly speaking. I can’t easily describe the build or sound quality of this machine except to say that I’ve never seen or heard better. This 23kg beauty uses Sony’s best linear drive laser from the time and makes even the most expensive modern players look like toys.

Look at these examples of wonderful older CD players and try to convince me that modern players that fail after three years are better.

But Mike, my Cambridge Audio whatever CD player has a Wolfson DAC!

Someone…

Great but tell me what good is that Wolfson DAC when the player can’t load or read a disc because the junk plastic transport and capacitors failed? It’s a serious question because I hear things like this all the time. Who cares what DAC chip it uses if it’s made of the worst plastic and uses a switching power supply filled with Long Dong capacitors?

Decreasing Build Quality

I’d never thought I’d be saying this but, just as the golden age of turntables passed long ago and the best turntables are already out there, so it is now with CD players. Modern players are cheaply built with lasers that don’t last long. Some players need a new laser after just a couple of years, which is unacceptable.

I constantly see CD players from the ’80s and ’90s, running their original lasers. Yes, some of these players need repair, but for reasons often relating to their 30+ year vintage and failing capacitors and mechanical issues rather than lasers. I work on modern players too and I’ve replaced lasers and entire mechs that are three years old or less. THREE YEARS! This is how far we’ve come, all that “new technology”.

New technology isn’t much use if the device containing it is made of the world’s shitiest plastic. I’ve had customers tell me they wanted to throw their new CD players in the bin when they’ve failed after a few years. Do you think hi-fi store sales staff are going to tell you about this..? They NEED to sell it to you to put food on the table so we have a classic conflict of interest here. Conversely, I’m not selling you anything.

Please let me know if you’ve ever walked into a hi-fi store and the salesperson told you that the classic CD player you own is much better than any of the new affordable shite they have in the store because that person and the store they work in deserve medals!

Compromise

The sound of a CD player depends on many elements: the CD drive used, error correction, power supply, analog output buffer design, internal layout, build quality and DAC architecture all contribute to the sound. This is how some older players can sound better than newer ones despite DAC architecture improvements – it’s not only about the DAC, and I’ve written about this.

Don’t get me wrong though, a good modern CD player, like the Accuphase DP-450, is a stunning-sounding machine, better than most older players, for sure. They also have multiple digital inputs which enhance flexibility and, being an Accuphase, this one is certainly well-built. But it’s also $11,000 AUD.

Accuphase DP 450
What a beautiful thing, the Accuphase DP-450, yours for a smidge over $10K AUD. Worth it? You bet.

That being said, an older Accuphase CD player like the incredible 20kg Accuphase DP-75 for example is even better-built and probably sounds nearly as good.

Accuphase DP-75
The beauty, the joy, the Accuphase DP-75. This was the pinnacle era of Accuphase and why my three Accuphase pieces are all from this era. You’re welcome.

Best of Both Worlds

Integrated CD players, ie players containing both transport and DAC are always a compromise, in the sense that anything integrated is. A good, modern DAC, where the focus is more on the DAC itself, the power supply and the output buffer can significantly lift an older player that might have outstanding build quality, laser and mechanics but a dated DAC architecture. Want the best of both worlds? Get a classic player and a really good standalone DAC.

That’s what I’ve done with my Redbook CD and digital source playback chain and it’s breathed wonders into old and new source material. I use my Accuphase DP-90 (previously my Sony CDP-X7ESD) and iPhone 15 Pro Max as file sources or ‘transports’ and a superb new stand-alone DAC based on the AKM AK4499EX chipset, with discrete, balanced outputs.

This combination comfortably bests my previous Sony CDP-X7ESD as a stand-alone machine or used with the DAC. It has transformed my digital playback, and I still get to use an incredible classic CD player. It’s a win-win!

Accuphase DP-90
I’m thrilled to own this CD player

The Bottom Line

So it depends on what you want. Most people want something that will last – is that a new Marantz CD-6006 like the one I re-lasered in 2021 after just over two years of service? Or is it a 25-year-old Sony CDP XA-20ES for example, that still plays a disc as well as it did when it was new? I know which I’d rather own.

More

Read other FAQs I’ve written about CD players:

Read other articles I’ve written about CD players and DACs:

How important is it to match amplifier power output with speaker sensitivity?

Very important for proper hi-fi system performance and dynamic range.

This combination of technical parameters determines the actual sound pressure level you can attain without distortion and also tells us a lot about the dynamic capabilities of the system. As usual, science provides the answers.

For example, let’s say you have a low-powered amplifier, say something up to around 30 Watts per channel. To achieve realistic dynamics and sound pressure levels, you’ll need sensitive speakers, over 90dB/Watt sensitivity, preferably a lot more, to be able to play loudly, with realistic dynamics. If that amplifier is matched up with speakers with relatively normal sensitivity, the result will be a system that sounds strained and lacking in dynamics at anything but very low levels. It can work, but only just, and in the right context, ie mellow music, small room, no desire for realistic sound pressures.

Conversely, let’s say you have a very powerful amplifier, something like 300 – 500 Watts per channel or more. This gives you a lot more room to move and means you can use speakers down to relatively insensitive 83 to 85dB/Watt. This gives you more choice and allows crushingly high sound pressure of course with speakers of 88 – 90dB/Watt sensitivity or more. It also gives you great dynamic range and headroom which means your amplifier is almost always coasting. Coasting tends to sound good, straining, not so much.

Is one approach better than the other? Not really, both have merit. I use a powerful amplifier (200 Watts/channel) to drive speakers of ‘normal’ 90dB/Watt sensitivity. This allows for a good mix of everything, micro dynamics, punch and bass control and high sound pressure levels if needed.

I’ve also heard amazing sounds from super low-powered valve amplifiers, say 7 Watts/channel, and super-sensitive horn speakers at around 100dB/Watt, which can yield similar or even greater dynamics in some cases, and often better micro-resolution, because sensitive speakers tend to give you that. Then again, sensitive speakers are often more coloured, so swings and roundabouts.

What you don’t want is a low-powered amp driving speakers of average or low-ish sensitivity. This is always an unfavourable marriage.

Why are good phono preamplifiers expensive?

Because in order to faithfully amplify the minuscule signals generated by a phono cartridge, they must have the highest precision and lowest noise of any amplifier in your system.

It’s no mean feat to take a 0.3mV signal and amplify it to the level needed by a regular line-level preamplifier. One millivolt or 1mV is one one-thousandth of a volt. Moving coil cartridges typically have outputs of less than 1mV, a tiny signal.

This has to be amplified up to a volt or so, that’s a gain of over 1000x. This amplification has to be made whilst adding as little noise and distortion as possible. The phono preamp also has to EQ the signal to RIAA specs, reversing the EQ applied to the signal embedded in the record grooves.

Audio Microscopes…

I studied botany and zoology at uni and am well-versed in microscopy. The microscope is a perfect analogy in optical terms, to a phono preamplifier. Ever used a bad microscope? The image is distorted, lacking resolution and opaque. It’s exactly the same, only in sonic terms, when you use a bad phono preamp.

The job these instruments do requires not only huge gain (magnification in optical terms) but ultimate precision in terms of parts, circuit design, layout and adjustment (lens quality and figure, low optical distortion). This is why there is such a gulf between cheap op-amp-based phono preamplifiers and discrete class-A tube-type phono preamplifiers. Its also why a kid’s microscope is $50, vs tens of thousands for a really good one.

Step up (no pun intended) to a good moving coil step-up transformer for example and the price hike is considerable, likewise, to a good class-A phono preamp, or a really good microscope. Parts like JFETs, big film capacitors, precision resistors and premium wiring all add to the cost of these instrument-grade amplifiers.

I should mention that some of the op-amp-based solutions aren’t even that cheap, but moving to a precision, discrete design always improves things. Likewise, ramping up parts quality and grading has a profound effect on performance. Using 1% silver mica and polystyrene film capacitors vs using 5% green caps and other cheap types greatly affects the final result’s accuracy. When you are dealing with such small signals, you need accuracy.

The best phono preamplifiers use MKP (polypropylene film), silver mica, polystyrene film, discrete transistor networks and tube gain stages. The very best use transformers for the critical job of boosting moving coil signal levels.

Should I buy a cheap phono preamp?

Not if you care about hum, noise and sound quality!

The only time you would buy a cheap phono preamplifier is to add vinyl playback to a cheap system that doesn’t have it and where you don’t care too much about the results. Whilst that use case does not reflect most of my customers or their scenarios, it’s worth making the point.

Now, if you DO care about the sonic results, cheap phono preamps are just never the way to go. They tend to be coarse, noisy, unrefined, veiled, lacking dynamics and possessing narrow soundstages and poor imaging. There is a reason why the best phono preamps are expensive!

What are the important adjustments to make when setting up a cartridge?

A number of critical adjustments must be made each time a cartridge is fitted to a tonearm.

These adjustments are vitally important in getting the most out of your records and stylus. Let’s look at them in the order I normally set them, this is a sequence I apply to all turntables that visit the workshop.

Note: most end users and many retailers don’t have the necessary alignment tools or knowledge to correctly set up cartridges. This is not a judgment, merely an observation and something to be considered if you wish to extract the highest possible performance.

Cartridge alignment can be thought of as optimising two sets of parameters: geometry and forces at the stylus tip.

Geometry

The first adjustment is called overhang, which describes the location of the stylus tip with respect to the tonearm mounting point and the spindle. This specification is provided by the tonearm manufacturer and measured, on deck, with either a headshell gauge or an on-platter overhang gauge.

Next is the cartridge offset angle when viewed from above. This is usually specified as correct when the cartridge body, and/or cantilever, are parallel with the headshell’s long axis when the correct overhang has been set.

Azimuth describes the parallel alignment of the cartridge with respect to the record surface when viewed from the front. This is typically measured with a mirror under the stylus, viewed from the front.

Vertical tracking angle or VTA affects the angle of the stylus contact point with respect to the record surface. It can be thought of as approximating the angle between the cantilever and the record surface. It’s usually measured with a VTA gauge and set initially so that the headshell top surface is parallel with the record surface when viewed from the side. This is the starting point and adjustment from there is by ear.

Forces

Lateral balance is a feature offered on some tonearms and should be set at or around this point in the process.

Tracking force, which describes the downforce at the stylus tip. This is typically measured with a digital stylus ‘pressure’ gauge. Note that this isn’t technically a pressure measurement, the common name is incorrect, strictly speaking!

Lastly, anti-skate is a counterforce to the asymmetrical forces that pull the stylus tip toward the centre of the record and place added force on the inner groove wall. It is set to counteract that force as closely as possible.

There is some iteration in the set-up process and I generally go back and check everything again as some adjustments will slightly affect others.

Is it normal to hear hum when playing records?

No, a good quality, correctly set up vinyl playback system should be almost silent and exhibit no noticeable hum.

This is one of the great revelations about vinyl that you get to appreciate in the typical journey from basic gear to more aspirational equipment.

What is Hum?

The term ‘hum’ describes continuous low-frequency tones of a constant frequency or pitch, usually centred around 50/60Hz or 100/120Hz. Hum can be mechanical or electrical in origin and usually indicates a problem in the playback system. Whatever the origin, wherever possible, hum should be tracked down to the source and eliminated.

Electrical Hum

Bad earths or grounds are a common cause of electrical hum, especially in vinyl playback systems. The high sensitivity and gain of a vinyl playback chain takes tiny signals like hum and amplifies them to the point where it can become an audible problem. The trick to ensure a quiet system is to ensure the turntable/pre-amp/amplifier combination is effectively grounded together and that at least one piece is ground-referenced.

Ground loops occur where two elements in the playback chain reference different grounds and therefore sit at slightly different potentials. This causes small currents to flow between them which are heard as hum. Bad cables can play a part here, as some do not have an effective ground linking both ends of the cable structure.

Mechanical Hum

Mechanical hum can originate from turntable motors and mains transformers. The hum from both sources can often be resolved with the right attention and some new parts, with specific attention paid to damping and isolation.

Cheap phono preamps, cartridges and cables will always be noisier than good ones and active preamps will always be noisier than transformers. An English brand of turntables that shall remain nameless opts not to use a separate headshell/arm ground. These decks are generally always noisier than turntables with better, separated ground arrangements. Equipment type, set-up and installation can all contribute to hum.

Feedback

Mechanical vibration from the turntable itself or other equipment can be coupled through a turntable, back into speakers, creating what’s called a positive feedback loop. These loops can occur through shelving for example shared by speakers and turntables, wooden floors and other resonant structures.

In these cases, the hum makes its way to the speakers, which energises the turntable, arm, and record and it is then fed back into the signal chain and further amplified. Positive feedback loops can very quickly go out of control and destroy speakers and even amplifiers, so if you have a hum that appears to be coupled through your turntable, resolve it or seek expert help immediately!

Rumble

Rumble is another source of low-frequency noise generated by a turntable’s spindle and/or motor bearings. This is a broader-spectrum LF noise than hum and may have several fundamentals. Rumble is generally inversely correlated with turntable price. In other words, the cheaper the turntable, the greater the rumble. This is because cheaper decks have poorer mechanical quality, looser bearing tolerances and greater bearing surface roughness. Consequently, cheap turntables are often rumbly and irritating to listen to.

Quiet

In good, well-set-up vinyl playback systems like the Liquid Audio reference system, for example, there is no audible hum. The predominant noise in systems like this is groove noise, a residual component of the cutting lathe, and the friction between the stylus and the groove itself, and some phono preamplifier white noise. Some white noise is present in all systems, but hum is absent in good ones.

Mike, by no hum, do you mean just a little hum..?

No, I mean no hum. If you are curious about how quiet a serious vinyl playback system can be, let me know and if I’m not too busy, you may be able to hear my set-up so that you have a sonic reference point.

Should I play my records on radiograms and stereograms?

Not if you care about sound quality and the life of your vinyl!

Funky Furniture

Radiograms and stereograms, with a handful of exceptions, are not hi-fi equipment, they are furniture pieces that play music. This was their original design intent and in this role, they work well, but don’t expect more of them.

The problems are varied, but generally speaking the turntables in these units range from bad to terrible. They usually use ceramic cartridges that run very high tracking forces and conical styli that don’t treat records well. This combination causes accelerated record wear and will result in noisy, distorted-sounding records after not very many plays.

The electronics and speakers are designed to fill the room with a warm, ‘easy listening’ sound, typical of AM radio stations of the day. There’s nothing high-resolution about systems like these so you’ll never hear most of what’s on your records. If this is your jam, cool, but if you care about your records, there is still a significant problem.

Vinyl Care

But I play all my records on this and I don’t care!

Owner of the worst one-box unit I’ve ever seen

Someone told me this recently and I could only reiterate my general advice on this topic which he didn’t seem to understand: I’m simply providing information that most people who DO care will find useful! Not everyone cares, I get that.

Almost all record owners should avoid playing precious vinyl on radiograms, stereograms and cheap integrated music systems. If you own precious vinyl or even a modest record collection you care about, get yourself a decent hi-fi turntable with an elliptical stylus, or better. The reduced tracking force and better stylus profile will extend the life of your records and produce far superior sound quality when combined with a decent amplifier and speakers.

Why does vintage hi-fi gear last longer?

This is a good question with a simple answer: it was designed and built to last longer.

We need to start this brief discussion by acknowledging the shift in product design life and public expectations around this. Back in the day, people saved and bought hi-fi gear, with a view to keeping it for a long time. Manufacturers built gear to align with this general philosophy.

The longer life of older equipment generally comes down to better mechanical design, use of higher quality switches, longer-lasting through-hole capacitors, greater serviceability through component level board repairability and so on. I often see equipment from 1970 with a full set of electrically perfect Elna electrolytic capacitors. Fifty years from what are nominally 2000 hour-rated parts is extraordinary, and yet this is common.

Modern capacitors found in affordable new equipment rarely last this long. Good modern capacitors are excellent, but you need to spend a lot to get an amplifier filled with good Nichicon, Nippon Chemi-Con or Panasonic capacitors. Add to this the through-hole nature of older caps and other parts, which were designed to be serviceable.

Then there is the physical build quality. Older gear tended to use less plastic, heavier grade metal, metal switches and so on. These parts tend to be serviceable. If metal bends, for example, it can often be bent back. Plastic breaks and becomes brittle with age.

The simple fact is that older gear from the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s was designed with serviceability in mind. Production values and the way we view our equipment have changed. Modern gear is often designed to be thrown away rather than serviced when it fails, so it often cannot be viably kept running.

Home cinema equipment and modern TVs are classic examples of this. Ever wonder where all the old TV repairers went? It’s not that modern TVs don’t fail, they do, but try taking your 65-inch TV anywhere if it breaks.

Why does electronic equipment need to be serviced?

Because all hi-fi equipment and electronic devices contain parts that change over time, wear and need periodic cleaning, lubrication and adjustment.

When you combine the sometimes hundreds of electronic parts with mechanical components like the levers, switches, belts, gears, pulleys and connectors found in many types of hi-fi gear, you have a combination of parts and systems that wear and need periodic attention and maintenance, over time.

Mechanical linkages, pulleys, gears, idlers, pinch rollers and motors need cleaning and lubrication and this is fairly easily understood. But electronic parts also change over time, most notably electrolytic capacitors, some semiconductors and resistors.  One thing is for certain though: your hi-fi equipment will need money spent on maintenance if it is to keep running reliably.

Proper periodic maintenance prevents premature failure, improves performance and reliability and therefore enjoyment of your equipment. It’s a quirk of human nature that we sometimes purchase things and expect that they will run without attention. This isn’t even true even for a kettle, let alone complex equipment like turntables, amplifiers and cassette decks.

I’m not in Perth, how do I choose a good local technician?

Try to find someone technically focused, offering sensible prices and advice and able to provide examples of their good work.

When trying to find a good local technician:

  • Find out who’s busy and recommended by others in the know
  • Try to find the best technician rather than the lowest hourly rate
  • Beware of those promising sight-unseen quotes
  • Look at reviews and read the bad ones
  • Be wary of recappers, there are no miracles, only skilled people doing good work

A Tip

One of the best pieces of advice I can offer here is to find the very best hi-fi stores in the largest city near you. Ask who they use to service and repair equipment of the type you own. These stores use technicians they can rely on and should be able to recommend someone who can assist you, or even arrange the repair through their store.

Considerations

Find someone who inspires confidence and who doesn’t try to quote without inspecting and testing equipment. It may seem tempting to go with such a ‘magic quote’, but stop and ask yourself how that technician knows what’s wrong with your equipment or what condition it’s in.

Also, many or even most faults are not capacitor-related. Replacing a ton of parts might sound like a good idea and many offer this as it seems like they are doing a lot of work, but what if that work isn’t needed and doesn’t solve the problem? Tracing and resolving electronic faults is hard. Look for someone interested in finding the cause of a problem and resolving it.

Can I pick your brains for advice, tips and recommendations?

Yes, I’m always happy to assist advice-seekers.

We have an advisory service specifically for these sorts of scenarios where people want reality good advice, rather than just advice, accessible via the contact page. Just select the amount of time that best suits your enquiry.

Does a cartridge really affect the sound of a turntable?

Yes, it’s a critically important part of the chain, just as important as the turntable itself.

Cartridges are transducers, like microphones, headphones and speakers and you probably already know just how much each of these contribute to the sound you hear. In the case of cartridges, these tiny little transducers do incredible work, converting groove modulations into movement via the stylus and cantilever, then into tiny electrical signals, via magnets and wire.

These miniscule signals must then be amplified, which is another story. All of this work requires a staggering level of precision and materials engineering to achieve the best results. That’s why my Ortofon MC-A90 for example is so bloody expensive! You absolutely get what you pay for with anything that relies on this level of precision and expensive materials. The cost vs. performance correlation is fairly linear; the more you pay, the better the results.

Cartridges can cost anything from $10 to $10 000 and their sonic performance varies from unlistenable to sublime. Spend as much as you can on a good cartridge. It’s a big part of the sound of a turntable, and better cartridges will last anywhere from 1000 – 2000 hours, compared to just 200 – 500 hours for a cheapy.

A good cartridge will also help preserve your vinyl by causing much less record wear than a cheap. The larger contact area of a Shibata or line-contact diamond exerts lower pressure at the interface between the stylus and vinyl groove. This causes less friction, and therefore less heat and record wear.

Cheap playback systems like Crosleys for example will actually wear away your records before your eyes! Don’t EVER play your records on something like this if you care about them.

Should I buy a Crosley?

No!

Never buy or use Crosleys or other cheap plastic record players if you care about your records and how they sound.

Cheap plastic turntables like Crosleys destroy vinyl due to their crude engineering and super-low-quality cartridge. The gems in these cheap styli – diamond or sometimes sapphire, have terrible profiles, are often poorly polished and rely on high tracking force to even play a record.

Then have you heard one of these things? They sound appallingly bad and really are a complete waste of money, even as a child’s gift. You are much better off saving for a decent secondhand or cheap new hi-fi turntable. You can pick up $50 secondhand turntables that are better. Almost anything is better than a Crosley!

Do I feel bad about bagging these things out? Nope, not at all. The manufacturers of these things are cashing in on the vinyl revival and preying on the average buyer’s lack of knowledge. That’s bad.

What’s the best turntable?

There isn’t one best turntable, just the best one you can afford.

All the really good machines are heavy, for various engineering reasons. Therefore, aim for something solid, well built, preferably costing over $1000AUD new if you want a good first turntable. Alternatively, you’ll get better performance in almost all cases from a second-hand classic turntable from the 1970s and ’80s.

Remember, for many years, vinyl was the highest resolution source that most hi-fi lovers had easy access to. One could argue this still is the case. This is important because the golden age of vinyl and record players was the ’70s and ’80s, so that’s when some of the greatest machines were made.

What’s better: belt-drive or direct-drive?

There is a long-standing myth amongst an admittedly ever smaller cohort these days that belt-drive is a superior drive methodology for turntables. It isn’t.

There’s a bit to know of course, but the TLDR is that the drive method is only one of many factors determining turntable performance. Direct-drive (DD) has many advantages, as does idler-drive, but DD is also more expensive and if you read no further, that’s the end of the story.

Science (Myths vs Facts)

I have a direct-drive washing machine and it’s a much better machine than the belt-drive washer it replaced, but, like a washing machine, a turntable’s performance is the sum of many parts and systems working together, and there are great examples within each drive type.

The notion the belt drive is inherently superior is perpetuated by certain manufacturers who are so ensconced in propagating this myth that they simply cannot now say anything different. The technically uninformed mainstream media and equipment owners swallow this up like gospel, fuelled by a desire to support these manufacturers who pay for spots in these media. All of this, compounded by a general lack of experience on the part of the hi-fi-consuming mainstream leads to the misinformation you’ll often find regurgitated in forums and elsewhere.

One critically important goal of any good turntable is to spin the platter as close to the perfect speed as possible, with as little variation and vibration as possible. Belt-drive offers no inherent advantages in any of these areas and disadvantages in most cases and implementations. It IS cheaper to implement though and this is, without a doubt, why it’s so widely adopted.

The best performers by these metrics are direct-drive turntables. This is science and the data is measurable. That being said, there are exceptional belt-drive and direct-drive turntables. I’m lucky enough to own an end-game example of each and I can confirm that the drive method is not the most important factor to consider.

Costs

Design and manufacturing costs are the overriding reason why you don’t see many new direct-drive machines these days. It’s cheaper to make decent belt-drive turntables and this is why most affordable decks tend to be belt-driven. This suits small manufacturers who can build a belt-drive turntable using readily available, low-cost motors. It also suits the buying public who generally don’t want to spend $20K USD on a turntable, hence the preponderance of good reviews of cheap belt-drive machines.

Direct-drive machines are much more expensive to design and manufacture, but direct-drive has advantages in terms of torque and speed consistency, so where cost is no object, you’ll generally find direct-drive. The performance advantages of direct-drive systems explain why some of the best and most expensive turntables, tape machines and cutting lathes utilise direct-drive. That being said, there are some killer, high-end belt-drive turntables from the golden era and they shouldn’t be discounted.

The bottom line is that you get what you pay for, always. A good turntable, no matter what drive method, is expensive, like all good things.

Apex Use Cases

As I mentioned, most of your records were recorded, mastered and cut on direct-drive tape machines and cutting lathes. Did you know that? Have you thought about why that is? Ponder it for a moment because it vapourises arguments about which drive type is preferable.

People far smarter than you or I choose what’s best in cost-no-object scenarios like record-cutting lathes. It’s their job to pick the best option. Record-cutting lathes are direct-drive for several very good reasons that apply not only to making records but to playing them, as is hopefully obvious.

Superior methods are always used where performance is critical and cost is no option. This explains why many of the great turntables are direct-drive and why those machines are so highly sought after.

Some folks get upset about this, but most of them haven’t owned or even heard a genuinely high-end machine like an L-07D, SP-10/SL-1000 or GT-2000. My perspective, being only interested in what’s best and having worked on and listened to thousands of turntables over the years is simple: show me an excellent turntable and I’ll enjoy it, belt, idler or direct-drive.

My current working reference is a belt-drive Luxman (Micro Seiki) PD-350 and it’s a phenomenal turntable, as you’d expect of something weighing 30kg and costing as much as a motorcycle when new. My best turntable is my direct-drive Kenwood L-07D though.

The Sum of the Parts

As I’ve mentioned in other FAQs, the performance of a piece of equipment is rarely defined by just one part of it. This is certainly true with turntables where the drive method is rarely the defining factor in turntable performance, but merely an element of it.

One must look at all factors, including drive method, chassis construction, platter and tonearm mass and design when evaluating a turntable. Great turntables come in various flavours, belt-drive and direct-drive. You need to choose which aspects of the design and performance matter most, to you!

But the record store guy says belt-drives are better!

Ah yes, the record store guy, who paradoxically often knows very little about record players!

Record store guys know more about records and less about turntables. This isn’t a judgement BTW, just an observation. There are excellent belt-drive and direct-drive turntables, it’s not the drive method alone that determines system performance. Unfortunately, most people aren’t interested in the technical details, nor have they been exposed to the range of equipment necessary to form a valid opinion on this, but some of us are and have.

How many record store guys do you think have listened to an SL-1000, PD-350 or L-07D for example, let alone owned one of these grail machines? Simply put, most people will never hear an end-game turntable and this lack of experience and knowledge lies at the heart of rumours and misinformation everywhere.

As we always say here at Liquid Audio: knowledge is power. You want the truth? Speak to someone who actually knows what it is, from personal experience owning and using these grail turntables!

Do you dislike belt-drive turntables?

No, not at all. I dislike overpriced, underperforming turntables. Most of them are newer belt-drive decks.

There are many amazing belt-drive turntables and one of my two reference decks is a golden-age, end-game Luxman PD-350 (ie Micro Seiki) belt-drive turntable. Yes, the other is a direct-drive machine, but I wouldn’t use or own the PD-350 if I didn’t like it, trust me on this!

That being said, the Luxman PD-350 isn’t your regular belt-drive turntable and this is important. Good belt-drive decks are excellent, but many are ordinary and far surpassed by direct-drive machines. Far too many people have spent far too long reading about hi-fi rather than experiencing it and as a result, have no clue about what’s actually good.

I really enjoy the simplicity and honesty of the lower and older Rega Planar machines. I love decks like the PL-514, SL-23 and KD-2055, just to name a few. What I don’t like is bad turntables, no matter how their platters are driven. This especially extends to overpriced underperformers and unfortunately, most of those are belt-driven, many from the famous brands you’d be familiar with…

What’s better: moving magnet or moving coil?

Ultimately, moving coil, but it depends on how much you have to spend. If your limit is $150, a moving magnet is all you’ve got baby!

That isn’t to say there aren’t some great moving magnet cartridges, especially vintage models. Rather, the best solution – technically – is the moving coil design, because of its reduced moving mass and therefore greater linearity and micro-dynamic accuracy.

Lower mass means lower inertia and therefore better transient response and high-frequency performance. All of that translates to better dynamics, detail, lower distortion and more of that elusive ‘air’. I’ve written quite a bit about this here.

Marketing departments everywhere have tried to convince people that lower-cost moving magnets are “as good” or “nearly as good” as moving coils, but the fact that they even need to try to convince people of this tells you something. They still have these inherent design limitations and speaking from experience, they simply aren’t as good.

Because coils are technically better, manufacturers also tend to spend more on these designs, using better diamonds, more expensive boron or even diamond cantilevers and better coil wire. This means you can spend a ton on a good MC cartridge, but remember that a really good moving magnet cartridge will be better than a cheap moving coil. You get what you pay for.

The caveat here is that because moving coil designs generally have much lower outputs, you need higher quality electronics and even a step-up transformer to get the most from them. People who audition really good MC carts in systems limited by a basic phono preamp might say something like “it didn’t sound that good” or similar.

Don’t expect a really good moving coil cartridge to sound its best on a built-in or cheap external phono preamp. You’ll need a step-up transformer to get the most from a moving coil cartridge.

What equipment does Liquid Audio care for?

We service, repair and restore hi-fi stereo equipment, with a focus on turntables and amplifiers.

Equipment We Work On

Discrete hi-fi stereo equipment ONLY including pre, power, phono and integrated amplifiers, receivers, turntables, CD players, DACs, cassette decks and tuners. We care for all major brands and equipment produced from 1968 onwards.

Brands we commonly see include Accuphase, Akai, Kenwood, Luxman, NAD, Pioneer, Sansui, Rotel, Sony, TEAC, Technics, Quad and Yamaha. We specialise in amplifiers, preamplifiers, turntables, CD players, DACs, cassette decks and tuners.

Equipment We Don’t Work On

AV, PA, DJ, home cinema equipment, AVRs, BluRay/DVD/Laser Disc players, VHS, portable, computer or car audio gear, soundbars, streamers, Crosleys, micro/mini/midi/Bluetooth systems, 3-in-1s/radiograms/stereograms, 4-track, reel-to-reel, headphones/subwoofers/speakers, cheap Chinese tube gear or equipment manufactured prior to 1968.

We carry out major overhaul and restoration work, as well as offer on-site work, consults and inspections. Check out the Services page for more.

Why do you need to inspect equipment before providing repair cost estimates?

Because anything else involves guesswork based on incomplete information and there is no place for this in a technical field like electronics.

Guesswork

I’m proud of our reputation for precision and the trust people have for Liquid Audio, but it’s not by accident. Diagnosing exactly what a piece of equipment needs and why is part of our repair process, and guesswork plays no part in this. Everything is determined by careful, hands-on assessment, testing and measurement. Sight-unseen estimates are rarely possible due to the inherent uncertainties involved.

guessing
This isn’t how I became a trusted specialist!

Your amplifier won’t turn on for example. Is it a blown fuse or blown output devices? There is simply no way to know without inspecting the equipment. The repair costs are hugely different too, so this isn’t something you’d want to get wrong. See where this is going?

How would you feel if you threw away a perfectly repairable piece of equipment because of someone’s bad guess? This has happened so many times to customers I’ve later done work for and they’ve all kicked themselves over it, repeatedly. Do you want advice from someone who thinks guessing is a good idea?

Common Sense

Nobody can know what your particular equipment needs or precisely how long that unknown work will take, any more than they can tell you why your car runs roughly, without inspecting it. Each piece is unique, no two examples of the same model have the same service history, condition, modifications or fault presentation.

What faults are present? What are their causes? Does it contain work like this? Has it been regularly serviced or previously repaired? These and other details can only be ascertained through hands-on examination, and this is the only way to generate an accurate estimate of the work needed and final costs.

‘Quotes’

There is an unrealistic expectation amongst some that quotes should be provided before someone has even seen or assessed a complex piece of electronics. This is partly driven by the mistaken view that the lowest quote is the most important element when selecting a repairer. There are, of course, far more important considerations.

Some businesses provide guesstimates dressed up as quotes because it gets work through the door where customers expect them. Perhaps they need the work more than I do, but this is effectively a ruse to accrue work and only fuels this unrealistic expectation.

Delivering what must by definition be the lowest ‘quotes’ or the customer goes elsewhere leads to corner-cutting, poor workmanship and poor results. Our honest, transparent approach may lose us the occasional job, but most people respect and value it.

Service and routine maintenance are different and there is some scope for pre-inspection estimates in these cases.

More…

Find out more with these repair-related FAQs:

Everyone has a different opinion, where can I find good advice?

There’s misinformation, nonsense and pseudoscience in every technical field, but hi-fi is unfortunately one of the worst.

Opinions

Finding good advice isn’t easy. I often speak with advice seekers who’ll say things like:

“Mike, I read in a forum that I should buy XYZ, what do you think…?”

Typical advice-seeker

The overwhelming problem is that many, or even most commenters in forums can’t help you. People generally lack the understanding and experience to offer any real help and as a result, forums are often filled with subjective and conflicting opinions, technically incorrect ‘facts’ and pseudo-scientific nonsense.

I’m not talking about all forums of course. Some, like my old favourite Tektronix Yahoo group, are a literal goldmine of great people and information, but this is very different from your typical hi-fi forum. In most consumer-focused forums, you’ll find discussions about people’s opinions of things they own, technical speculation and even dangerous misinformation.

Then you have retailers, often blinded by marketing spiels and almost always heavily conflicted by the need to sell you what they sell. Again, there are some excellent retailers out there, but most don’t know which information is important, right, wrong etc, creating rabbit holes of wasted time, energy and money.

Specialists

When you need factual information, opinions are as useful as a box of hair! For the best advice, you need technically and experientially informed sources that aren’t tainted by the need to sell products. In most cases, these will be specialists working in the field rather than sitting in a basement arguing in forums.

Our advisory service is one such example, accessible via our contact page. As a specialist service provider rather than a retailer, you pay for the time you need and for that precise reason, you get a completely different type of information from a specialist, rather than a sales pitch.

Can you help me fix my equipment without me bringing it to you?

Maybe, though it really depends on the equipment, the fault and your skills and equipment.

You must have realistic expectations though. If you’ve ever tried to help Grandma fix her computer over the phone, you’ll know exactly what I am talking about! Does the person have the right tools, do they have a multimeter and know how to use it, desoldering equipment, parts on hand, etc, etc, etc.

This sort of remote assistance can be one of the most challenging tasks humans are faced with, so we need to pick our battles. I also don’t want to guide you into a situation where, because you lack the requisite situational awareness to work on electronic equipment, you hurt yourself.

If you are a novice and expect me to guide you through fixing your blown amplifier, this is simply not a realistic expectation. In most cases, it’s not sensible for owners to attempt to repair their equipment, but with the right guidance, many simple problems can be identified and sometimes even fixed.

We offer more great information for free here @ Liquid Audio than probably any other independent, specialist source, so check out other FAQsreviews and so on for much more.

For those needing more specific assistance and who cannot bring equipment to me, I offer a personalised advisory service consisting of advice blocks and consults. These allow us to have a proper discussion I can allocate time to and where both parties benefit. A win-win!

Can you sell me service parts?

No, we don’t operate a retail store or sell service parts like belts, integrated circuits, and capacitors directly to the public.

We do however stock thousands of electronic parts, belts, cartridges, headshells and turntable mats. We fit these parts as needed when you book your equipment in for service, repair or improvement.

How is Liquid Audio different?

There are many aspects of our approach that make us different.

I have a genuine love of hi-fi gear. I love working on it, love the history and classic designs and find it incredibly satisfying to focus on the tiny details necessary to have it running at its absolute best.

Quality is our ultimate focus and there aren’t many who can make that claim. There are a heck of a lot of pretenders and copy-cats out there, but go back to my oldest articles and you’ll see we’ve been actually doing this work for over a decade.

Everything from our premium tools and test equipment to the way we approach things is different. But it’s not just this. I’m old-fashioned, I believe in courtesy, professionalism and being straightforward with people.

I own this business and I service and repair everything, run the website and write the articles. I’ve been contributing to the hi-fi community for more than a decade. These are just some of the things that make Liquid Audio different and so busy!

You take on some big jobs, are there any you won’t take on?

We generally avoid equipment in poor physical condition, damaged by other repairers, heavily modified or equipment that isn’t serviceable.

Don’t get me wrong, the challenging jobs can be very rewarding, but we’re not interested in trying to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear or charging you for trying to.

These days we filter equipment in poor condition because it becomes a problem for us this shouldn’t really become our problem if you think about it. We’re here to help, but ultimately we also want good outcomes for everyone and that means not taking on jobs where the odds are stacked against all of us.

Do you sell pre-owned hi-fi equipment?

Yes, we sell pre-owned hi-fi equipment via our store.

Purchasing pre-owned hi-fi from Liquid Audio has many benefits, including:

  • Equipment is professionally inspected, serviced and repaired
  • Equipment is also expertly cleaned and detailed
  • Most pieces come with a three-month peace-of-mind warranty

Selling on consignment with us is great too because we:

  • Carefully select customers and equipment
  • Take care of cleaning, photography advertising
  • Add value to your equipment
  • Remove the stress and hassle of selling

Visit our store and view our sold equipment gallery 1, 2, 3 and 4 for more!

Why should I purchase an advice bite or consult?

Expertise

Most people seeking specialist assistance via a consult of some sort do so because they value expertise and all that goes with it. Expertise brings many benefits and folks who’ve often invested decades into their craft can deliver experience, insight and knowledge simply unavailable elsewhere.

Get the best advice you can find from Mike, and please, stop quoting forum posts as authorities. Only the guys who actually work, live and breathe this stuff really know.

Jon S

Expectation

People don’t front up to a doctor or lawyer expecting free help and visits with my accountant and doctor certainly aren’t free. Why so many seem to expect our assistance for free is strange, especially given how much I’ve contributed for free over more than a decade!

Unlike many retailers, forums and other non-specialist sources, we provide informed, independent advice free from conflicts of interest, delivering many benefits to those seeking a higher calibre of assistance. Those expecting help often fail to consider that they are one of many or that ‘quick questions’ often become 15 – 30-minute conversations, dozens of times a week. It’s not possible to sustain the loss of that much valuable and otherwise productive time, on top of all that we already do.

Examples

Here’s a snapshot of what expectation and entitlement look like. The TLDR: it costs nothing to be reasonable and respectful!

Example 1: ‘G’ sought technical assistance with his valuable Sansui amplifier. I assisted him, but when I suggested he purchase time to address his follow-up questions, G exploded: “F*** you, I’m not going to pay you for a simple question, that speaks to how miserable you are.” Me, or you, G..?

Example 2: ‘K’ wanted KD-600 turntable improvement advice after enjoying several long conversations and our unique KD-600 articles. When I mentioned he’d need to purchase a consult, K threatened: “I know someone in the Australian Tax Office”. Ironically, K contacted me again years later, wanting more advice and hoping I’d forgotten. I haven’t.

Example 3: ‘M’ purchased a 30-minute consult leading to an end-game Accuphase amplifier purchase from Japan. He kept asking questions after his consult ended though, claiming he’d “paid for 60 minutes”, “only received 20” and that my records would prove it. They didn’t. I sent proof of his 30-minute purchase, our 34-minute call and the bonus 15 minutes he’d received by email, expecting the apology any reasonable person would offer, especially given his appallingly ungrateful behaviour. You can guess what happened, which is why you’re reading about it.

entitled

Mike … you, of course, are a gem. We are so lucky to have someone as passionate, intelligent, ethical and hardworking in little ol’ Perth.

David H

The Solution

Our pre-paid advisory service helps me focus on helping people who really appreciate it. Advice seekers can pre-purchase customised blocks of time tailored to their needs, and extra time can be added as needed, aligning with our core values of maximum value and minimum wastage.

The ‘pre’ + ‘payment’ combination is the perfect filter, significantly reducing time/energy/goodwill-draining interactions whilst fostering positive, productive, mutually beneficial exchanges with nice people 🙂

Do you sell belts, styli and cartridges?

Yes, we keep thousands of parts in stock and have speedy access to many more.

We don’t operate a retail shopfront though, so we don’t sell bare service parts for example. Instead, we supply and fit them as part of the services we offer.

How long will my repair take?

This depends on your equipment, what’s wrong with it and how many jobs are in the pipeline.

Each job will be done in turn and according to workflow considerations. All jobs are in a queue for attention and some take longer than others to process. Some jobs require parts to be ordered and some suppliers take longer than others to deliver.

Do you offer hi-fi equipment inspections?

Yes, we offer pre and post-purchase hi-fi equipment inspections, cartridge inspections and more.

A Liquid Audio report can save people hundreds or even thousands of dollars and a great deal of pain.

Imagine for example having an expensive amplifier inspected prior to purchase. I find that many hundreds of dollars of work and repairs are needed. You take my detailed report to the seller and negotiate a fair price, based on my findings, that saves you far more than the cost of the inspection. This is a great result.

Is my equipment repairable?

Probably, but this always comes down to what your equipment is and exactly what’s wrong with it.

Various factors come into play here, including the make and model, its general condition, fault/s, your budget and so on. Most faults are repairable, but some combinations of equipment/fault/condition may render repairs difficult, or non-viable. Inspection is the only way to know that and, naturally, as soon as we know, we will let you know!

Do you provide a warranty?

Yes, we offer an industry-standard 3-month warranty on parts and workmanship.

In the rare event that you experience an issue related to any of the work we’ve done for you, we will fix it, where it’s viable to do so or refund you where it’s not.

Why repair vintage equipment when I can buy new?

Because the vintage gear you already own is almost certainly better than any decent new gear you can afford!

Nothing you can buy for sensible money now is built like vintage hi-fi equipment, or made in Japan. Nor is much of it very sonically inspiring either, something those of us who don’t make a living selling new hi-fi gear are not afraid to tell you.

I regularly see 40-year-old hi-fi equipment that has come in for its first maintenance. Do you think your BOSE or Sonos ‘thingo’ will be working in 4 years time, let alone 40?! No, and I can guarantee the crappy dock, soundbar or Bluetooth whatever doesn’t sound as good as proper vintage hi-fi gear either.

Experience shows that $500 vintage amplifiers regularly crush $2000 new ones in terms of build and sound quality. If your vintage amplifier only needs some routine maintenance, why wouldn’t you get that done?!

The the hi-fi store guy promised a new turntable would kill my classic deck, is this true?

Ah, this old chestnut. No, generally these statements are made simply to sell you new equipment.

Manufacturers, retailers and salespeople need to sell you stuff to stay in business. It makes sense right? Imagine walking into a hi-fi store, telling them what you have and the sales guy saying:

“Wow, your turntable is awesome, probably better than anything here up to around $3000!”

Rare honest salesperson

Sales staff are generally paid a commission. This reward for selling creates a very real conflict of interest inescapable by all but the most ethical salespeople, strangely often overlooked or not even considered by consumers.

Remember, there is NOTHING new in turntables except styling. The very best turntables have mostly all been made, somewhere between 1970 and 1985. There are a few notable exceptions, but you get my point. The industry needs you to believe that new gear is better, otherwise, everyone’s out of a job.

Consider this: I don’t have a turntable to sell you and I don’t operate a retail shopfront. In fact, I’m not trying to sell you anything, nor do I mind whether or not you believe me. I fix and service equipment, old and new, that’s my core business. But others are trying to sell you something, aren’t they? Do they have new turntables to sell by any chance..?

By the way, I’m not suggesting that all salespeople are dishonest. Ethical salespeople exist, like my friends Simon and Tony @ Douglas Hi-Fi and Pierre @ Revolution Turntable. Make sure you ask your hi-fi store guy what turntable he owns. This will help ensure there’s some credibility to the advice you are being given.

But surely new technology must sound better?

What new technology? Modern analog gear uses the same classic circuits, but often with lower-quality parts and construction.

There is very little ‘new technology’ in analog audio. Most analog electronic circuit designs date back to the earliest days of tubes and transistors. Even things like class-D and class-T amps are not new.

Yes, there are some superb new op-amps, transistors and low-distortion circuits that utilise them. A strong argument can be made for the fact that the best analog audio engineering is all discrete component design though, with as few op-amps as possible.

My Tektronix SG505 ultra-low distortion audio signal generator that I use in the workshop is a great example. This wonderful piece of gear dates back to the 1980s and yet boasts < 0.0008% distortion, using ‘old’ NE5532 and similar op-amps! This thing is an order of magnitude better than most gear I ever test, but it uses old technology!

High-end gear often contains tubes and… oh that’s right, all the best tubes are old ones, from the ’50s and ’60s. They certainly aren’t new. Actually, this ‘new technology’ thing is grossly overstated and misunderstood.

Digital is different, but it’s an emergent technology, so you can’t really compare them. Things have certainly improved, so newer DACs often sound better.

I bet your hi-fi system contains lots of new gear..?

It doesn’t and I get industry discounts and access to whatever I might want. Think about that for a moment…

My amplifier, preamplifier, turntable, headshell, transformer and speakers are all from the ’70s and ’80s. I also own a tuner from 1975, a cassette deck from 1983, a CD player, preamplifier and amplifier all from the ’90s and my cartridges are from 1980 – 2009. My speaker cable is relatively new, but that’s it!

So the entire retail machine is designed to get people to ‘trade-up’ to new equipment..?

Yep, but come on, are you really surprised..?

Ask owners of newer gear how they feel about their expensive “superior modern equipment” that often dies just outside of warranty and is then deemed non-viable to repair.

Read the reviews. Every new piece of gear sounds “significantly better” than the one preceding it, right? OK, so how then is it possible for a 40-year-old amplifier to sound better than a new one?

Seriously, try explaining that. If each year brought significant improvements, older gear would sound awful compared with gear with 40 years of continuous improvement. But it doesn’t and anyone with decent rears and experience will confirm this.

Unfortunately, there are some tricks being played on the average consumer and that’s a shame.

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