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.

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.


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.


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


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

So, out does it sound?


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:


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



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).







So, today’s blog entry is about HiFi. Not High – End with its speakers for £200,000 and cables for € 5000, but High Fidelity. Pieces of technology – new and old – that make music sound like the listener likes it and are a step up from sound bars, transistor radios and sodcasting with your mobile. A part of my personal setup until recently was a magnificent power amp, the mighty Marantz SM-80. I always wanted to own a big piece of solid state eighties hifi, as much for sheer power (150w per channel) as for the aesthetics. Just look at it. Isn’t it gorgeous in its monolithic beauty with it’s magnificent layout?



This magnificent beast has been sitting amicably next to the universal disc player and the audio/video receiver. It’s main purpose is to create enough power to make the speakers sound good, both when played loud or on low volumes. There are some speakers who need that much wattage to perform at their best, but here’s the rub: my don’t. My horn based Klipsch speakers only need a fraction of the power of what the SM-80 has to offer and so it has been bit like a rugby player in charge of tackling a gaggle of ducklings and just wasted a huge amount of energy for not doing much at all. I looked around for an alternative piece of of technology that could take over the role of the Marantz, still sound as brilliant as the monster but with a fraction of the energy usage. Turns out there is such a thing, and it even sounds darn good. So good in fact, that the people of 6Moons (who usually don’t review anything that’s not hand soldered by a farmer in Styria, costs less than 500,000 Swiss Franks and has been made with the blood of a virgin goat) gave it a prize. Yes, it’s that obscure (and good).

And small.


Yes, that’s it. It’s tiny. So if your stereo is all about the looks, this probably won’t do.


What is it ? It’s something called a Class – T amplifier designed with a pretty nifty chip by Tripath (no, me neither), made by Hong Kong outfit Trends Audio and has been reviewed to death by every hi-end website out there (always positive). It costs about as much as 1 cm of high end cable and was with me 3 days after the order, all the way from the Pearl River Estuary.

And it works. Really well. I knew that it wouldn’t have a problem with my highly efficient Klipschs but I wasn’t expecting it to beat the sound of the chunky Marantz, but suck me sideways, it does. I used the work related absence of the best girlfriend ever to crank up the volume and threw it a volley of my favourite tracks, be it Coltrane, Mahler or Matt Bianco: it dealt with all of them beautifully, produced a crisp and competent deep bass and outperformed the Marantz in clarity of the upper registers.

The best girlfriend ever loves it already as it managed to eradicate one big black metal box from her living room, as the Marantz is now in storage and the TA-10.2p (that’s it’s name, though I’m thinking of calling it Tarquin) is hidden by the Calvin and Hobbes collections.

A perfect metaphor.

I rest my case.



The FX-9590: A Whole New Dimension In Madness

While observing me losing against a 14 year old in a Squash game, a friend of mine once commented ‘That Fordie doesn’t have a competetive fibre in his body’. That might be correct when it comes to meaningless things like games in which the main goal of the players seems to sustain a ligamental knee- and/or ankle injury as quickly as possible , but when it comes to the performance of my computer, I do start to get a bit twitchy and keep a virtual eye on the performance of the rest of the users out there. Not that there is a iota of common sense behind behaviour like this, but for goodness’ sake, if a man is not allowed to engage in some primal chest beating about the speed of his computer, what else is there left for us Y chromosome carriers. At least I don’t drive a sports car, have a hair piece or play golf. Fortunately the best girl friend ever (BGE) regards the whole thing as some sort of occupational therapy and is probably quite happy to have me locked away in my play room office for an hour or so, so she can watch Paul O’Grady.


Paul O’Grady and a Dog


An AMD FX-9590






I always thought that my gaming rig office computer had quite a bit of oomph (Sabertooth 990FX 2.0, 16GB Ram, 250 GB SSD, 2x 2 Terabyte HD, R9 290, Asus Sonar Essence for those who really want to know), but it turns out that it’s processor really doesn’t hack it anymore in today’s world of games advanced real word graphic simulations. Because I have a smidgen of loyalty and and I am stuck with an AM3 socket motherboard, there was only one alternative: get a quicker processor from AMD Piledriver’s architecture. So I acquired their quickest one.

The FX-9590 is a bit of a beast. It’s power consumption and heat dissipation is legendary and I was worried that I might overwhelm the local electricity provider but all I did was overwhelm my already massive cooler, as benchmarking resulted in my motherboard shutting things down. So, after getting the only air cooler that apparently handles the heat from the 9590 without it destroying the rest of the motherboard, I spent two very meditative hours trying to hitch the bloody thing up to my motherboard without destroying things (trust me, it has happened).


Before 9590 implant. Note already quite beefy cooler. iPod classic for size comparison.




After successful implantation. That pink thing is a Phantek PH-TC14PE. Sorry for the cable disaster.


Ok, so it’s not pretty, but is it working?

Fortunately I can confirm that everything seems to be working spiffingly. CPU temperature at idling (Word, iTunes, Power Point, Firefox and Outlook running parallel) is 32 Celsius, and so far the maximum temperature recorded was during a session of Titanfall at maximum resolution, and at 52 Celsius that was still pretty balmy (especially as the R9 290 gets really hot as well).

So, I still only have a second-rate processor compared to the new generation of Intel’s products, but at least I don’t have to worry heating the house ever again.