Tube time: Fisher 500C

•June 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Fisher 500C Receiver

Fisher 500C Receiver

This was a long time coming.

With all my tinkering and trying of new stereo equipment I’ve tried to maintain objectivity in the face of what is a very subjective hobby. The internet is full of people who swear by multi thousand-dollar runs of speaker wire, while others maintain lamp cord sounds the same. Class A vs Class B vs Class D vs Tripath amplification – people swear up and down the sides of each. Subwoofers and monitors beat full-range speakers, or vise versa.

There are a few tropes:

Vinyl is more lifelike and warmer

MP3s just suck

Tubes are warmer and richer

Solid state is tinny

I couldn’t even get through writing those without coming up with a million challenges to each one out of my own limited experience.

So it was with a high degree of skepticism and anticipation that I tried one of the heralded heavyweights of vintage hi-fi – the Fisher 500C receiver.

These are tube-powered 35 watt per channel receivers from the 1960s. Search the web- people love these things and they reportedly perform right up there with newer audiophile tube rigs costing thousands more.

The one that came to me has been restored and upgraded with audiophile-caliber parts by local tube audio specialist Bill Thalman of Music Technology Inc (formerly of Conrad-Johnson) and sports Telefunken 12AX7s and a band new matched quad of Electro-Harmonix 7591 tubes.In addition to the recapping, the speaker terminals were upgraded to Cardas gold-plated binding posts and the old ungrounded power cord was replaced with a grounded socket. Sweet.

So this is not a stock example, but one that has had some care and attention lavished on it. And it looks great with a brushed aluminum face, real glass faceplate with immaculate blue “The Fisher” lettering and bird logos, and thick walnut cabinet.

Fisher 500C Receiver top view

Fisher 500C Receiver top view

I was really excited to try it out. At first I hooked it up to my CF-4s and plugged in my iPod for some quick demos. It was neat. I played a few songs and was getting used to the sound. the one real first impression I made was how strong and clear the FM tuner was – hah! Then I went to plug in my CD player to sling some discs and there was a flash and smoke came out of the chassis.

Oh no! Did I just kill this amazing receiver? How? This has never happened before with one of my transistorized amps.

So the 500C went on the bench for a few months while other projects took precedent. But once I opened up the bottom and looked in at the spaghetti mess of capacitors and resistors, I saw some obvious burn damage along the right side of the chassis – the conduit carrying wiring from the front-mounted power and volume switch back to the auxiliary sockets on the back of the amp was burned – somehow the wires had shorted and caused the blackout, maybe taking one capacitor with them.

Fisher 500C receiver. View from the underside. No circuit boards here!

Fisher 500C receiver. View from the underside. No circuit boards here! The blue and white wires running at the top side of the receiver are the new ones from the switch.

Once I replaced the three wires and the capacitor I switched on the receiver and now everything seems to be OK. I’m still a little worried that there may be some more trouble in there and I’m watching for weird behavior or smoke now constantly, but I had it running for an hour the other day with no issues whatsoever.

Detail of the fried power line conduit.

Detail of the fried power line conduit. The new wires are the blue and white ones to the right. They are crossed to limit interference.

And I finally had a chance to listen a bit more closely. Very impressive!

Detail of blown capacitor

Detail of blown capacitor

With the efficient CF-4s, the Fisher doesn’t have to push too hard. Bass is round but not sloppy and displays accuracy. What’s most interesting to me is the soundstage and imaging. Treble is not rounded or cut down – every note is there. It’s not shrill either. Most interestingly I’m picking new notes and elements out of music that I’ve never ever heard before, and in a new way. Some super-accurate solid state amps wow you with the detail but the way this Fisher puts every note, instrument and voice in the right perspective is something different – everything is where it should be, not just highlighted for you to check off the list -“yep, I heard that cymbal, this is a good amp.”

The Fisher lets you listen critically and still enjoy the music, which are often mutually-exclusive things for me.

Interestingly enough when I switched from the iPod Classic to my Sony ES Blu-Ray player the sound changed a bit. Imaging, soundstage and detail were still there. But there seemed to be more forwardness to the treble. I actually turned down the treble knob a bit on the Fisher. Surprising. I wonder now if the accuracy of the Fisher is bringing out a stridency in my CF-4’s horns. I’ve never heard it before but the Klipsch forum is full of mods for damping the resonance in this particular horn and bi-amping the speakers to bring the horns in a more acceptable level with the woofers. So now maybe I have more work to do.

Lots of room to work on everything.

Lots of room to work on everything.

Even my wife was impressed – she was blown away by the Fisher’s performance on CD with the big Klipsches, and remarked that a bit of forwardness in the horns was acceptable for the quality of sound we were getting. She also made a very good observation – it’s a mark of the Fisher’s excellent sound quality that it’s bringing out these deficiencies in such amazing speakers as the CF-4s. We played some of the same CDs then back on my Marantz NR-1403 AVR and there was a definite change in the sound – I heard it as flatter, however perhaps with a slightly wider overall soundstage (at least on CD). My wife heard no comparison whatsoever. She said the Fisher justified whatever price I paid for it.

I love that woman!!!

 

Fisher 500C reveiver. Rear view with the walnut case removed

Fisher 500C reveiver. Rear view with the walnut case removed

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Updates – Tubes, transistors and other things

•June 19, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I’m writing up a few longer posts right now but here’s a quick update of recent developments:

My Fisher 500C was resurrected and I’m playing with it now. More detailed write-up to follow.

Fisher 500C back from the dead and sounding great

Fisher 500C back from the dead and sounding great

I just picked up another Pioneer SA-6500ii that wasn’t working. After some TLC it seems to be doing fine. It needs a cleaning then I’ll play with it some more. it also came with a dirty TX-606 tuner, which looks cool.

Interior of Pioneer SA-6500ii integrated amplifier. Pretty simple and easy to work on.

Interior of Pioneer SA-6500ii integrated amplifier. Pretty simple and easy to work on.

 

 

I also just picked up some Electro-Voice LS-12 Wolverine 12″ full-range speakers in some original-equipment enclosures. they look neat. And when I opened them up the Wolverines are in time-warp condition. My initial testing found everything was OK but I’m not sold on the sound yet – in the enclosures there’s a lot less low end than I was expecting. Maybe this is a good time to experiment with open baffles.

Epic – Klipsch CF-4

•May 13, 2015 • 6 Comments
Klipsch CF-4s with the grilles off.

Klipsch CF-4s with the grilles off.

 

These came home with me shortly after the Klipschorns and my KG-4s left. The Klipschorns were bigger than life in everything – sound, presence, weight – and even though these are speakers of a lifetime for many, I couldn’t warm to them in the end. They were awesome but required a lot of compromises, at least for me in my space. The KG-4s were harder to part with and after I bid them goodbye I regretted it almost immediately. The KG-4s are really ideal for background listening – their lively horn dynamics and ability to hit hard and low compromise them as critical listening speakers at higher levels but do the opposite at low levels. I’ve replaced them with my restored Polk Monitor 7s which I love but don’t project as much bass.

CF-4. Courtesy of Klipsch

CF-4. Courtesy of Klipsch

 

But then I found the CF-4s. As I started with the Klipschorns I became a lurker on the Klipsch Community forum. Klipsch Community is great – nice folks full of great advice on Klipsch sound systems and many other things. It’s similar to the Polk Forum (which I’ve lauded before) in that aspect. But as much as the Polk folks love to mod their speakers, Klipsch people do too, and they take it even further – replacing components, remodeling horns and tweeter diaphragms, testing new cabinet and speaker reinforcement and damping techniques. Very impressive. But sometimes all of these mods introduce a bit of the ‘Grandpa’s Axe’ paradox – after 5 new handles and a couple new heads, is Grandpa’s axe still the same old tool he’s always had?

CF-4s have a legendary following among Klipsch aficionados. They were envisioned by the legendary Klipsch designer Roy Delgado, who reportedly considered these his favorite design of his career. The legend is that the CF-4, while amazing, strayed too far from the traditional Klipsch Heritage sound, and dealers wouldn’t or didn’t know how to sell them to their clientele. Eventual mods in subsequent model years added sizzle to the tone in a bid to get the dealers back on their side, but high cost (they were almost $4,000 new), expensive components, and low sales numbers led to new models replacing them in 1996, after only 3 model years. CF-4s were the flagship of the Epic line, which also included the CF-3 (dual 10″ two-way, same horn) the CF-2 (8″, different horn) and the CF-1 (6.5″ woofers, 1″ horn)

Closeup of Cherry veneer on my CF-4s. Very thick and nice. A little oil and they gleam

Closeup of Cherry veneer on my CF-4s. Very thick and nice. A little oil and they gleam

The CF-4s paired two 12″ neodynium graphite-cone woofers with a massive 2″ aluminum-domed compression driver in an equally-large tractix horn placed between the woofers. The woofers crossed over at 1500hz into the horn. Klipsch reported a Klipschorn-rivalling 102dB @ 1watt/1meter efficiency, which may not be accurate – these things bump on little watts, but not that little.

The three drivers are housed in stately 44″ x 17″ x 19″ cabinets, which are only dwarfed  by Klipschorns. They weigh about 60lb apiece, which is surprisingly light for their size. And they come with two port holes at the bottom that are big enough to stuff your fist into.

When I first brought these home they were going right into the spot that the Klipschorns had been. Any my first impression was how much smaller they were than the corner horns. When I plugged them in to my trusty Lepai 2020+ amp I was blown away – other than being smaller than the Klipschorns, these speakers gave up absolutely nothing – CF-4s hit harder and lower and provided a much more even tone across the spectrum – no cut outs in the upper bass area like the Klipschorns. Even with almost no experimentation with placement, imaging was uncanny. I was in love.

These are forever speakers for me. I’m not giving these up. They just do everything too well. Well, that’s not entirely the truth. The fact of the matter is, I picked up two pairs at the same time when I found these – both pairs were made at about the same time in the end of 1994, with both having sequential serial numbers for their pairs. I ended up keeping the pair with the earlier serial numbers and the slightly more-dinged cabinets and I traded the other pair for a Fisher 500C receiver. But that’s when the mysteries began.

Remember how I said that Klipsch changed the CF-4s along the way in their 3-year run? Klipsch devotees refer to these as Series 1, 2, and 3 speakers. Series 1 were made how God and Roy Delgado intended, with a balanced sound, 6″ bass tubes in the ports, and a crossover set up to match. They also had Monster wiring inside. Series 2 got shorter ports to raise the box tuning and efficiency to make them hotter. Series 3 got different woofers of lesser quality and standard small-gauge colored wiring inside the cabinet. This all according to legend. Series 1 speakers are revered, Series 2 less so, and Series 3 denigrated. At least on the forums.

The Monolith Beckons

The Monolith Beckons

I thought my speakers’ serial numbers placing them in 1994 automatically made them Series 1, Series 2 didn’t start until 1995. But here’s where things get weird. The pair I traded (with the later serial number) has the Monster wire of Series 1 but it has the shorter ports of Series 2. And it’s hard to tell but it may even have the lighter woofers of Series 3 – one of the woofers died and the new owner replaced it with an identical woofer reportedly taken out of a pair of CF-4 Series 3 speakers. My pair has the longer port tubes but has colored internal wiring. And the woofers look the same as in the other pair. Both sets of speakers also have horn material which is a dark color, as opposed to the grey reportedly used on the earliest CF-4s.

People who know CF-4s know all of these little details like it is gospel. Amazing, I know. But that doesn’t explain how my speakers became such a mismatch according to the lore.

So I really don’t have any idea what series speaker I have. And at this point I don’t care. I’ve stopped reading the forum posts which say one pair is better or worse than another. I know that these speakers are something very very special. And when I’m ready there are a host of very cool mods that I can employ to take these to the next level, including cabinet damping, dynamat on horns and baskets, crossovers, and even new (even more humongous) horns. I’ll be ready.

 

UPDATE: I looked inside the other speaker and it has the clear-coated wiring reportedly used in the Series 1 CF-4s. So now who knows what these are. they still sound great.

 

KLH 32 in and out

•May 11, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I picked up a derelict trio of KLH 32s about a year ago at Goodwill. They were largely intact with their tweed grilles and grown walnut veneers present, if a bit scratched and punctured. I took pity and adopted them, think that between the three of them there must be a pair of good speakers.

KLH 32s in more or less presentable shape. Dented but functional

KLH 32s in more or less presentable shape. Dented but functional

Then I looked up the model 32. It’s the runt of the classic KLH litter, with a smaller size and weight, making these ‘bookshelf’ speakers actually bookshelf-friendly. They are a two-way with an 8″ woofer and a smaller 1.75″ tweeter than the usual tweeters in the KLH 5, 6, 17, 20, and 23. It also employed an interesting sound management device – a layer of fiberglass insulation stapled over the tweeter to attenuate the higher frequencies. This I guess helped mitigate the simplicity of the crossover, which consists of a single 4uF capacitor and a coil. The 8″ woofer looks like its larger brethren.

 

KLH 32 under the grille. Note use of fiberglass for tweeter attenuation It's cheaper than crossover components

KLH 32 under the grille. Note use of fiberglass for tweeter attenuation It’s cheaper than crossover components

The cabinets also look similar to the bigger, more expensive members of the KLH family but are decidedly cheaper. The veneers are thinner and the cabinet overall feels a little lighter. The rear panel, instead of having a metal plate holding the screw-in wire plugs, is a sticker with two cheap nubs sticking through. there is no tweeter tone control as on the 6s and other full-sizers.

And when I plugged them in the first time I wasn’t too impressed – kind of dull really. But the more I played with them the more I liked them. I’ve learned that KLHs both benefit from new crossover capacitors to wake up the tweeters, and to extended listening – they seem rolled off on the extremes but what that takes away from audiophile-level tone examination it adds to general music enjoyment – these speakers are never going to annoy you with harsh top end of massive thumping. They’re going to blend in to the background and provide pleasant music at low levels. They actually fall apart a bit when you crank them up – the combination of a smallish cabinet, largish 8″ woofer and little damping conspire to add a lot of boxiness and coloration to the sound.

But after a recap they were definitely listenable. My wife really liked them, commenting on how pleasant vocals sound, and the surprising presence of bass given the small size. It helped that we had them elevated pretty high (on top of a pair of Klipsch Cornwalls – more on them another time).

KLH 32s after a polish, recap, and new grilles. Much nicer!

KLH 32s after a polish, recap, and new grilles. Much nicer!

The best application I found for these KLHs was for outdoor parties – out in nature their lack of extreme high and low-end was less of an issue and they faded into the background very well. But I was always nagged by the thought that this was not their best or fairest application – just because they were the most expendable speakers in my stable didn’t mean it was right to keep them outside. So they’re going to go into a neighbor’s basement for more use and enjoyment.

KLH 32 rear with new binding posts

KLH 32 rear with new binding posts and little hanging hooks

Just in – Polk Lsi7

•February 4, 2015 • Leave a Comment
Polk Lsi7

Polk Lsi7

These were too good of a deal to pass up, so home they came. The Polk Lsi7s are the smallest in the Lsi family, which debuted in the early 2000s as a return to Polk’s 2-channel audiophile roots. Using a 5.25″ midbass woofer and a 1″ ring radiator tweeter, the 7s have a very tigh, accurate sound. The ring radiator tweeter is very interesting – it’s suspended at the outside ring and in the inside, with the voice coil between. it sounds like a complicated and expensive design, and my research indicates it’s usually seen in higher-end brands.

Also interesting are the ports- there’s a 1″ port next to the offset tweeter on the front and another 2″ port on the back hidden behind a special diffuser, which allows you to hang the Polks or place them against the wall without losing the benefit of the rear port.

Polk Lsi7 Power Port diffuser

Polk Lsi7 Power Port diffuser

Polk Lsi7 rear panel

Polk Lsi7 rear panel

the Polks are also mirror matched for more precise imaging. each one says ‘left’ or ‘right’ on the back. Neat.

For small two-way monitors, they’re also pretty heavy – easily 20 lb apiece. This is likely due in part to the hefty drivers, but the cabinet is also very sturdy. It’s made of MDF with beautiful piano-black finish on the top and bottom, and two real wood veneer panels on the sides, ostensibly to damp the cabinet, and definitely to class it up. My pair is in the ebony finish – they also came in cherry.

Polk Lsi7 Speakers. Mirror-Imaged

Polk Lsi7 Speakers. Mirror-Imaged

When I picked my pair up, the wooden sides were scratched and dented but some Howard’s Restore a Finish cleaned up most of the abuse. Then they went on for a demonstration with my NAD 7100 Monitor receiver. I was seriously impressed.

I am always brought back to the original Polk Monitor 7 speakers because they do everything pretty well – great imaging, decent bass, good highs, at least with the Peerless tweeter. The Lsi7 is more of the same. The imaging and soundstage was cast very wide and these speakers disappeared much better in my small space than the Klipsch Epic Cf-4s behind. That’s the advantage of placement flexibility that a small speaker affords.

Bass was also surprisingly full – the dual ports and my placement far from the rear wall allowed for good resonance and extension. There may have been a upper bass bump fooling my ears into being more impressed than they should be but it was very nice all the same- controlled and hefty.

Detail of ring radiator tweeter and front panel

Detail of ring radiator tweeter and front panel

The tweeters did sound like ‘ring radiators’ – no harshness or metallic twinge, no softness or laid-back character that I sometimes found with my Peerless Monitor 7s. Just right.

I then tried them on my new Marantz Nr1403 receiver as a point-counterpoint to the Cf-4s I had hooked up there. Big mistake. The Polks sounded really lifeless and dull on the Marantz. So much so I was pretty down on the Marantz, which I had bought expecting sound quality to surpass my 20 year-old NAD. It was only later I looked on the back of the Polks and saw their strict 4-ohm rating – my Marantz is only rated at 50 watts per channel into 6 ohms. While it seems to do fine with the big and much more efficient Klipsches, I’m think it was likely the Marantz just couldn’t push the little Polks hard enough to open them up. I’ve since used the Marantz’ pre-outs for the front channels to hook up an Adcom GFA-535 which is stable down through 4ohms, which seems to open up the Klipsches and the Polks alike just fine.

Polk Lsi7. Hefty ebony side veneers. Top and bottom are piano-black

Polk Lsi7. Hefty ebony side veneers. Top and bottom are piano-black

Overall, these Polks are very impressive. I’m kind of in love with them. They’re actually just right for my living space and where I could place them. I’m not sure I’m ready to move the Klipsches, my ‘forever speakers’ (more on them later) but these Polks definitely deserve a rotation somewhere in the house. They also deserve more testing than I’ve given them. Hopefully soon when I have some more suitable stands I’ll give them that chance.

Klipscherific: Klipschorns

•November 19, 2014 • Leave a Comment
Klipschorn!

Klipschorn!

 

How many products introduced in 1940s are still in production today?

AK-47s?

Anything else?

Klipschorns!

Paul W. Klipsch introduced his revolutionary Klipschorn corner horns in 1947. His guiding vision for these speakers was to bring the sound and dynamics of live music performances to people’s homes for the first time. Keep in mind that back in 1946 most people were getting their music from tube AM radios with one small speaker in the middle. Not much fidelity.

The Klipschorns today stick to the same design principles of the original model: it’s a three-way design, with a large 15″ woofer in the bottom compartment, a 2″ midrange compression driver and horn (formerly known as the ‘squawker’), and a 1″ tweeter compression driver and horn. All three drivers were horn-loaded – that is, they use horns beyond the drivers to focus and amplify the sound. The 15″ woofer is entirely concealed in the bottom 2/3 of the speaker assembly, aimed back at the internal construction of the box and the external walls that the speaker was intended to be set in to – the speaker uses a room’s corner as an active part of the speaker assembly. This placement and the horns result in extremely high efficiency – 105db/watt at a meter. Paul Klipsch said that these speakers could be driven to concert levels by as little as one watt. To this day they’re favorites with users running low-wattage tube amps.

I can say that my initial demo was with my little Lepai amplifier and I was very impressed with the clean sound I could get out of that little amp while not even turning the knob past ‘2’.

So how do they sound?

Well, the first thing I can say is that due to their design they are very placement sensitive. To get the most out of them they both need to be in the corners of a room, mounted flush against the back walls to make a seal and ensure sufficient bass. My listening setup was far from ideal, with only one speaker enjoying a full corner, and both being about an inch from the walls with a large open space behind both. Despite this shortcoming I could get a full range of sound out of the Klipschorns, with sufficient low and immediate bass.

Klipschorn midrange horn

Klipschorn midrange horn

Immediate, by the way is the best word to describe the Klipschorns overall. Perhaps due to their extremely high sensitivity, these speakers feel alive like few others. The attack of notes and dynamic changes are half a step quicker with these other many other speakers I’ve tried. Music is more alive.

This is definitely a design characteristic of these speakers, but it can get addictive. In my configuration (and some may say by design) these Klipschorns were not imaging very much at all but I wasn’t bothered by it because the music all sounded different, with more feeling.

One shortcoming of the Klipschorns (and some say of many Klipsch designs) is a squawking or resonance in the mids and highs, caused by ringing in the horns. This can be a grating and unpleasant sound. I can say that with some amps and songs  the highs were too forward to me, but this can be mitigated by a different amplifier.

The Klipschorns are sensitive to inputs and amplification to a very high degree. I played 4 different amps through the Klipschorns: my little Lepai, my Pioneer SX-1250, the Kenwood KR4400, and a NAD 7240PE. Each had its own flavor with the Klipschorns. I think that the one I liked the best was the Lepai, to be honest…

The Klipschorns that I had were made in 1990, and came in the oiled oak finish, which was absolutely beautiful.  The crossovers were the AK-3 version.

Klipschorns, and other speakers in the Klipsch Heritage line (La Scala, Cornwall, Heresy) are made in the same way as the Klipschorn, according to the decades-old designs. They’re made in Hope AK to order, and still command a dedicated following.

And like many older made-in-America items (muscle cars come immediately to mind) there is a large aftermarket of designers and tinkerers ready to help you restore old components or modify new ones to reach a higher level of performance. The Klipsch Community website forum is a great resource in this regard.

I think the sound is utterly beguiling, and if you ever have the chance to try out a pair of Klipschorns (or bring one home), I definitely recommend you do so.

 

Update on life

•September 5, 2014 • Leave a Comment

I haven’t been writing regular updates for a while. Life has gotten in the way but now I’m back on the ball. Here’s what I’ve been doing stereo-wise this summer:

– The Klipschorns spent the summer in my living room. I listened to them almost every evening, just for fun. They’ve moved on now but I won’t forget them. And I promise to post a more in-depth review soon.

– My venerable Pioneer SX-1250 is also gone. I just wasn’t using it. It sounded warm with the Klipschorns but just wasn’t integrating into any of my speaker setups. It’s now with a new, very happy home.

– I found a pair of KLH Model 33s in very nice condition. I’ll write these up in a separate short post as well. Bottom line – impressive.

– Along with the KLHs came a Kenwood KR4400 receiver that I’m still playing with. I’ll post some pictures soon. This is a giant-killer in my opinion – great sound and good looks.

– I pulled apart my little Lepai 2020+ amp after being super-impressed with how it sounded with the Klipschorns. I have half a mind to make some mods to it and see what it can do. More to come here.

– I’ve been playing with a pair of Klipsch Epic CF-4s at home. Epic is the right word. A full accounting will definitely be in order.