Unboxing the Pinebook64

So last week a package was delivered to my work place. It came in a padded envelope and was addressed to me from someone in Hongkong. That’s usually a good thing. As it turns out, is was.

Mmmmh. What could it be?

Aha! The long awaited Pinebook64. As the team from PINE sensibly only orders the hardware to be built once enough orders are in, I had to wait 4 weeks for my particular  unit to be built, but for this price was happy to be built.

 

Certainly a new take on packaging a laptop for a 9000km journey, but it worked, as the plastic minicase was broken, but the Pinebook arrived in perfect shape.

 

 

Pretty thing, innit?

All connectors present and accounted for.

Two USB2 connectors, headphone connector, micro ssd slot and power. What else do you need?

 

The unit came with a completely depleted battery (which we were warned about on the Pinebook forum – apparently an issue during quality control), but after two hours it happily started up. It immediately booted into this special Ubuntu remix, running on a board supported package (BSP) linux kernel, making it possible for this Allwinner board to run this OS. Hardware specs are not particularly exciting, as you would expect from a machine for £75.

It’s got a 4 core Arm A53 CPU on an Allwinner board with a Mali 400 MP2 graphics unit, a 16GB EMMC and 2gb DDR2 Ram. It’s pretty much a low-specced mobile phone in a (well designed) plastic laptop case. But, the display is gorgeous, it looks and feels pretty sturdy, and it’s perfectly usable.  The GUI is responsive and easy to use (previous Ubuntu use will help), Libre-Office runs well and Chromium is acceptable to use. Even that terrible slog on browser resources, Apple’s iCloud website, is usable. Youtube and Vimeo work well on Chromium. The speakers are very very tinny, but the DAC is of acceptable quality, so headphone use is ok. I haven’t yet checked battery performance, but I’m expecting good results from a solid state machine like this.

The PINE community has  a few different OSs you can try, but at present I’m quite happy with the current OS. Only bugbear is the inability to switch GUI’s, as I’m pretty sure at these specs would benefit from using LXDE instead of MATE, but I’ll be happily tinker away until I got it sorted. For this price (it’s actually more 160£ with import tax and postage) you can get a used chrome book or modestly specced used Windows laptop, but what’s the fun in that? The future is definitely in low priced, low specced machines like this. Will it replace my Macbook Pro for day to day use? Of course not. Would I take it on holiday for some light browsing, emailing and watching movies? Yes.

Jazz Under The Dome

It often astonishes me how much good music is out there, lying around in charity shops, often for sale for a pittance. I often wondered what it must feel like as an artist to find the product of  years of hard graft in a bargain bin in a charity shop, for sale for 50 pence. Probably a bit dejected, I would assume.  A few weeks ago I purchased about 20 or so Jazz records from a charity shop (paying a few bob more than was expected of me) and took them home for sorting. The vast majority turned out to be the usual dixie albums by various pop and mum’s cousin from down the road bands that somehow scraped enough money together to make a record, but a few where genuine discoveries. One of them is the impressive ‘Jazz Under The Dome‘ by the Freddy Merkle group. Stylistically to be found around Miles Davis’s ‘Birth of the Cool’ (though harmonically a bit more conservative), this is a collection of songs composed, arranged, conducted (from the piano, which he plays on the sessions) by one Bill Potts. An excellent feature on Bill Potts by Eddie Dean in the Washington City Paper gave me a bit of background and led me to discover a whole range of amazing jazz from the late fifties: Lester Young’s sessions with Pott’s trio in some dingy nightclub in D.C. Potts recorded with his own gear, and ‘The Jazz Soul of Porgy and Bess‘, a commission from United Artists. The guy had some serious jazz chops, and as I’ve been listening to his music for the last 4 hours I can thoroughly recommend his oeuvre.

That’s where the true fun lies when taking old second hand vinyl home: one album will open up a narnia of cool new stories, biographies and much more music. So for tonight the house is swinging to the tunes of Bill Potts and his various co-conspirators.  And thanks to the much maligned Spotify I didn’t even have to go through baskets of second hand vinyl to find them.

 

 

China delivers. Again.

Hello!

The tubification of the household continues. After the introduction of one of Aric Audio‘s pre-amplifiers to the livingroom’s audio chain I was on a roll: what I needed now was similar tubey, valvey goodness for the man cave upstairs. I already had a lovely little pre-amplifier from the nice man at BTE-Design and another chunky Marantz SM-80 to drive the rather power hungry KEF LS-50s, but what was missing was a DAC that could deliver tubey, valvey goodness and decode the bits and bytes coming from the computers in the man cave.  Many audio forums were scrutinised, hours were spend on ebay, and in the end the Xiang Sheng DAC 01-A, a tube DAC and headphone amp was chosen. Recently updated with a new XMOS-U8 USB interface supporting DSD64 and 128, this was future proof for more high res music and backwards compatible enough to play my old 128k MP3s from 2001. Doukmall from Ebay again delivered on time and on budget and for £150 there was really not that much risk.

As promised, ten days later a package from China arrived, direct from the manufacturer,  XiangSheng Electronic Co in Hefei. DHL get around, don’t they?

Well packaged, with a moderately readable instruction booklet its compact and has loads of inputs:

USB, optical, coax and two analog inputs. The outputs are straight analog or tube enhanced.

Sorry, didn’t have a banana at hand.

If you want to, you can open it up and switch the jumpers to turn it into a pre-amp instead, rendering the headphone amp obsolete. Xiang Shen’s custumer service was quick to help with any questions and the unit has been working faultlessly ever since it arrived. To play higher resolution tracks via the USB 2.0 interface, you’ll have to download XMOS’s driver which is ubiquitous on the net and which works well on Windows 10.  It sounds brillant, with significant improvement to my last DAC, even though that was significantly more expensive. Another win for China MidFi. I certainly bow to our new Chinese MidFi Overlords.

 

 

Adventures in Mid-Fi Valve Goodness

As you undoubtedly know and vividly remember, I purchased a rather unwieldy and monstrous early nineties power amp last year: the glorious and terrribly powerful Marantz SM-80. Remember the beast? P1030333

Serviced and repaired by the impressive Mr Phil Good from PG Electronics (email me for the contact details) it turned out to be a veritable and lovely sounding chunky piece of rather uneconomic electronics. All it needed was a pre-amplifier.

Ha!

The choices are of course endless. One could go for a modern digital pre/pro and prepare ones household for Dolby Atmos, THX multiquadular systems or whatever modern home cinema sound setups are called these days. Or go back in time/back to your roots/back to life to re-introduce some stereo enjoyment in ones life. Having dabbled with tube harmonics before, I thought it might be a good idea to pair the SM-80 with a straightforward valve/tube pre-amplifier.

Boy, was I ignorant.

The current choice for people who don’t want to spend thousands of pounds on a tube pre-amp is ebay, who currently has literally dozens of choices of different chinese copies of classic tube-amps. DoukMall seems to be the current provider of choice, but you can of course spend thousands (and indeed tens of thousands) of pounds/euros/dollars on tube audio of your choice. But having read a few reviews of these clones of famous tube preamps of the past, I wasn’t sure whether I want to have one of them explode in my living room.

Here’s the moment were the lovely Aric Kimball comes to the rescue. Owner, proprietor and sole engineer at Aric Audio, he produces tube gear for people with slim wallets, all hand soldered on his workbench in Brimfield, USA. I have to admit that I was rather disinclined to prop up the American mid-fi industry due to their current obnoxious commander in chief, but Aric’s reviews were excellent and he was a pleasure to communicate with.

Ordered via email and paypal, the ‘Expression‘ arrived in time and on budget with a transformer adapted to UK’s 230V electricity. It has 4 RCA connects for line input and two RCA stereo outputs, giving you lots of choices for both inputs and outputs.

outside

That’s mine, during its testing phase. Picture by Aric Audio

innards

Proper point to point soldering here. No PCB boards. Picture by Aric Audio

So, out does it sound?

Impressive.

A buddy of mine and myself chose 8 tracks and compared it to my all digital audio chain, a Denon DBT 3313 and AVR-X5200 (good, solid japanese made mid-hifi). The analog and digital chain were seperated by a Beresford switch and hooked up to the very mid-fi Klipsch RF-52 II. We chose chamber music, symphonic classical music, electronica, acoustic pop, rock, female voices, male voices and jazz. Most of the tracks were from SACDs, but it didn’t matter what we played: the little tube pre-amp and the SM-80 blew the all digital audio chain out of the water. The biggest difference was soundstage: switching to the tube gear, the whole performance jumped forward into the room, with a much more palpable 3d aspect to the music. Highs were much more defined. I was a bit upset by that, as I genuinely thought that my Denon gear would much more hold its own.

Oh well, that’s psychoacoustics for you.

Summary: I am ecstatic with the new addition to the setup. It just shows that for a truly amazing piece of audio kit you don’t have to spend thousands of (insert Western currency here) to reproduce music to an utterly enjoyable level.

 

 

Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp

Quite the title, innit? This is the official (well, the seller’s) title of the newest piece in my one of my audio chains. Do I have more than one? Embarassingly, yes. I know. The best girlfriend ever fortunately has never been able to identify the small black boxes that appear and disappear on the IKEA shelf next to the TV and usually doesn’t notice when there’s one more or less. At present there’s one more. The “Douk Audio Mini Valve Tube Phono Turntable Preamplifier MM Stereo Class A Preamp”. Which it, I can reassure you, it is what it says on the tin. I wasn’t aware that there were class A preamps (with tubes no less) but a quick Google search confirmed that this wasn’t a marketing gag. On the other hand, I have seen catchier pre-amp names. Saga or Lync come to mind.

Anyway, the above mentioned piece of kit has been available for on ebay and various retailers of Chinese Hi-Fi and for £54 is not so expensive that when it explodes it leaves a particular bitter taste in your mouth (apart from the chemicals and the small glass tube pieces in your chin) but dear enough to be moderately reassuring. Douk Audio is one of the  brands of Shenzhen Cavins Technology ( Nobsound [yes, really] being the other one), and they seem to be flooding the market with affordable tube gear for tube-curious . Read the classic audio geek/nerd/anorak sites like DIYaudio or Audiokarma , and you get the impression that these things are walking, er, delivered death traps, full of unsafe soldiering, incomplete grounding, dodgy contacts. Well, this one didn’t have point to point soldering but – as far as I can see – comes on a PCB board. Delivery took reasonable 5 days and after unboxing, this was what I found in the little package:

p1030925

…which, after a bit more unpacking, revealed this (sorry, didn’t have a banana available):

p1030926

p1030929

The tubes are 2 small 6J1 (apparently not the bee’s knees in the audio world).  p1030928

Putting the little pre-amp together and hooking it up between my turntable and my amplifier (the lovely Musical Paradise MP-301 MkIII) suddenly gave me an all tube audio chain.

First impressions: it works. And it’s silent. Having had issues with noisy tubes before, the little preamp was completely quiet, and even turning the amp up to max didn’t reveal any extra noisiness. So far so good.

Second impression: listening to my vinyl test panel (ABC: Show Me; Matt Bianco: Summer Song; Donald Fagen: Century’s End) it turns out they are bit bright. Not in an unpleasant way, but you can definitely tell they favour the upper frequencies. This improved after a few hours (and with higher volume) but according to the lore web one is supposed to exchange them with some higher quality tubes which I will do. For the moment the thing works and I have no qualms about the purchase and the best girlfriend is happy because she likes tubes (she likes the glow).

Phew.

p1030931