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  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

Updated: Mar 25, 2023

Happy New Year. As we drive into a new year, I am shifting gears a bit ( pun intended). Posting an update about my 1976 MGB Roadster, which has been in the makeover for the past year.

Although much of the basics are the same as home audio, car audio has significantly more challenges, especially with the after-market and retrofit of a vintage car. The listening room, cockpit in this case, is like a fishbowl with not only glass but a variety of materials and angles not conducive to the best audio performance. These challenges do not include complications from a convertible car.

The challenges continue with limited areas for ideal speaker placement or space for the right speakers. Even with custom modifications, the environment will be harsh. Where possible, treat the cockpit with dampening materials on the floors and walls, similar to what you would do with an in-home listening room. Modify other materials where possible, like the seating, dash, ceiling, and flooring, similar to a home where you need to manage reflection points. Custom speaker pods will provide flexibility in the speaker positions and the chance to raise the tweeter and mid-range to ear level or close to it. The absolute must is an amp with DSP capability and lots of power.

Because of the limitations in a car, managing the audio waves can only be done via a DSP. I would frown on 2-channel audio in a home environment, but not with a surround-sound system or, in this case, a car; it's a must.

Like all stereos, the starting point is power; lots of consistent, clean power. And in combustion automotive, the sources are your battery/alternator. Power, the source and cables often get overlooked in a DIY car audio retrofit. Often, we don't look at the alternator's amp capacity, the power cable, the health of the car wire harness(es) or the car battery and the need to separate that for the audio system. If you have a project with a vintage car, start with the power, just like a home audio system. Is the installed alternator producing enough amps for the car systems like the heater, headlights, electric radiator fan, heating/air conditioning fan, heated/cooled seats, etc? Then add what you need for the new stereo and those hungry new amps. There are many websites to check how to calculate the amps. But in the end, you may find that the alternator and cabling need to be replaced. And given the amp and distance, what is the wire gauge needed? When in doubt, go to a smaller gauge; my default is 0 gauge with oxygen-free cable. Yes, it's big, but it will have the least resistance.

I currently have an MGB Roadster in the middle of a restoration, and the original alternator was a small 45 amp capability. In addition, the battery is in the back of the car, and the new stereo amps would be in the trunk. Had to upgrade the alternator to 135 amps and replace the cable to the battery for a 15' run to a 0 gauge cable. That should be plenty of headroom for the stereo and the car electronics, but to ensure clean power, a dedicated battery will be wired in for the stereo to draw upon. Hence, unlimited power at any peak draw moment and the option to run the stereo without running the car engine or putting the car battery at risk. This should also eliminate any electrical noise from the car electronics or car battery. Also replaced the three wiring harnesses in the car; they needed to be replaced based on age and would surely have introduced noise if they were left in.

Yes, what you're thinking is right; complete overkill on the power. However, it will give the best power option for the stereo and provides additional flexibility if I add to the system later. There will be lots of power headroom for future stereo expansion and electric car upgrades. And the need for more power has already arrived. The initial test system did not have the performance I expected, so moving to bigger amplifiers, speakers, and subwoofers required additional power.

The 2nd system going in has the following key specs:

· 1976 MGB Roadster (The actual car I drove in high school).

· Front Speakers: Focal ES 165KX3 Elite K2 Power Series 6 1/2" 3-way component speakers

· Rear Speakers: Focal EC 165K K2 Power Series 6 1/2" 2-way car speakers

· Amplifier for Front and Rear Speakers: JL Audio VX800/8i 8-channel car amplifier with DSP 75 watts

· RMS x 8 Subwoofer: JL Audio 10W6v3-D4 Series 10" dual 4-ohm voice coils.

· Subwoofer Amplifier: JL Audio VX600/1i Mono Amplifier with DSP 600 watts RMS x 1 at 3 ohms.

It will be challenging to finalize the speaker placements for all the speakers, given the small size of the MG. The front will probably have a split where the footwell side walls and a part of the door will collectively accommodate the 3 component speakers. The passive crossovers will be eliminated and replaced by driving each speaker directly from the JL Audio VX800/8i, which can be an active crossover with user-selected frequencies. The rear speakers will find a home in a false wall on the bulkhead between the cockpit and trunk. It's expected to share that location with the subwoofer, provided the vibration can be managed with Sorbothane.

The front and rear speakers will require some fabrication so that the speakers will disappear in the car and produce audio with no visible or limited visible appearance. The dedicated stereo battery, amplifiers/DSPs will all be in the trunk attached to the bulkhead wall between the cockpit and trunk.

I will post an update once the final audio system is installed and include all the components, performance, and reference links. Posting some pics meanwhile that I managed to click at the garage.

Note: the cockpit and trunk floors and walls have all been treated with sound-dampening material before carpeting with Dynamat and Thermozite where needed for heat dissipation.

  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

The 4th of July weekend required I break out the vintage McIntosh MC275 amps not from a historical perspective but out of necessity. The Acoustic Research Reference 160M seemed flat after a proper warm-up and system test. Flat enough, that motivated several tests, followed by swapping the amps with the previous champions of my system, the MC275s. However, for this quick swap, I used 2 of the MC275s in mono-block mode or a straight swap-out with no changes to the speaker driving regarding horizontal or vertical Bi-amping.

The vintage MC275s played well, in fact, better than I remembered, so I took the time to run a few sound tests and reference sources. And yes, it was better in detail and just as strong in the realization of the music. The imaging and the resulting sound stage were also at par. Remember, the system with the vintage MC275s had 4 driving the ATC 150 speakers; 2 in mono-block mode for each of the low-frequency drivers in each speaker, a 3rd amp driving both mid range drivers and a 4th driving both speaker tweeters and super tweeters coupled with the vintage C22 preamp. What changed? What made the MC275s produce an improved performance? Perhaps the MC275s just wanted to show off after being on the shelf so long and watching the ARC Reference 160M perform 😊.

Nope, not jealousy; less is more in this case as it relates to detail and the ability to match and balance 2amps vs. 4amps. But there is another change I did not test in the past, the coupling of the outstanding Nagra HD Preamp and the vintage MC275 amps. That is a significant upgrade you can clearly hear, and the pairing of the devices is spot-on perfect; they perform very well together, delivering sound you can feel.

The performance was good, I will test this again with the ARC Reference 160M after I roll the tubes. I suspect; the ARC amps need all tubes tested and ultimately replaced, which I will do next week. After I get those replaced, I will make the comparison again and post the results. Perhaps the MC275 amps will jump back into the system…..hard to predict that given the ARC performance I remember from before.

Jim Cathey set up. Nagra HD Preamp. Mc275
Nagra HD Preamp with MC275

One big takeaway; the Nagra HD Preamp is a killer with vintage MC275 amps with the correct tubes, capacitors and resistors.

  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

No doubt, Vinyl has made a long-term comeback from the abyss, growing from an annual 1.2 m units in 2001 to over 47.7 m units in 2021; (source: Luminate). RIAA states the Year-over-Year growth was 61% reaching $1B in revenue for 2021. But will this continue as consumers begin to leave the house to engage in other entertainment activities under the headwinds of inflation and a pending economic slowdown? Having been an analog music fan, I have been following this market very closely and I made some observations over the last few months.

First, I was pleased to see the investments in vinyl manufacturing, improved quality, and the launch of many catalog albums. But these cannot be the only enablers for sustainable market growth in the near term. Second, I do see the Vinyl market continuing to grow, but perhaps at a slower pace than the past 2 years that was fueled by COVID. It will be interesting to see how the vinyl market continues in demand, but also if it’s limited to special/limited releases or dominated by popular new releases and how catalog/re-issues continue.

It is likely, that we will see a more bifurcated market between high-quality records for audiophiles, ~$75 to $150 albums, and the larger pop-driven market by the younger generation where the price/cost pressures will play a larger role in the selection, ~<$25/album. Both markets will serve new releases and catalogs and the margin of the Audiophile albums will be much higher, but the unit TAM (Total Addressable Market) can be expected to decline, given the older generation that dominates that consumption may have changes in preferences in the post-pandemic area.

At this stage, I don’t think we see the record labels get back into the production of records to relieve the production shortage, but they could get into the cutting of the master discs used for the production; it will help them squeeze more costs, provide higher control on the quality of the mastering, and more control of the licensed material.

Ultimately the manufacturers will face real challenges if any significant slack in the overwhelming demand is realized given the new facility investments that have been made, rising variable costs, and ultimately increased retail pricing which will press down on volume. Hopefully, those vinyl factories invested vertically in their supply chain, built up strategic manufacturing advantages for yield and quality, and diversified their customer portfolios that will allow for a flagship margin audiophile product coupled with a volume mid-tier for the masses. Notice I did not say low end, I don’t see that prevailing. The customers of today are buying the packaging and the experience. A thin floppy record with low-cost packaging will struggle since that look and feel plays a big part in the decision to buy coupled of course with the artist’s image.

If the demand does not blink in 2022 and 2023, and no new capacity is brought in, then the vinyl manufacturers face a continuation of 12-month delays in backlog production. This may serve a few of the labels and artists but not the many that are waiting to include their fans and will motivate other solutions to serve that demand. Vinyl availability should not determine a new album release date. In the current environment, it is tough to invest in more production, given the risks unless those vinyl production profits were put to good use.

This year will be interesting as we move through the summer and towards the holiday season of 2022. It will be a litmus test for the return of Vinyl. Stabilizing the vinyl market in both demand and supply will play a bigger role as this come-back story plays out in a digitally dominated world.

The vinyl manufacturers can perhaps focus on providing audiophile quality at mass-market costs/prices, perhaps adopting some manufacturing techniques from semi-conductor brands, (more on this in my previous blog) It can help differentiate their products and services to the labels/artists and future-proof the consumers purchases as they upgrade their listening systems over the years to come. It can also help grow the consumption market and keep it sticky, so they return for decades and not just a few years, and allow the vinyl market to grow out of its niche existence. Finally, vinyl manufacturers can seriously start looking at some advertising and marketing to drive loyalty and sales with the existing and the new fan base by mixing nostalgia with lifestyle. Vinyl manufacturers and the surrounding industry now play a key role in the future of vinyl and are at crucial juncture of overturning the pages in history, if executed well.

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