Apr 272010
 
In order to give some background to the upcoming tuner comparison review in Adventures in High Fidelity Audio (mentioned here on AIHFA for the first time Link….
http://www.adventuresinhifiaudio.com/category/reviews/vintage-audio-review/ ) Since publishing that preview of the forth coming mega tuner review, I have decided to re-publish in full (with a few revisions) the review that was the precursor/originator of this major project.
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Back in May of last year I wrote the following review for the Art of Sound forum, which was very well received at the time but spawned a number of suggestions, that perhaps the UK centric view that the Leak Troughline tuner was the best sounding tuner available (in part HiFi World magazine is responsible for propagating this viewpoint and myself, to a lesser extent and many others) might not be the case. It was suggested to me that I should compare it to the best that Japan had to offer and this is exactly the nature of the project, that other reviews permitting, I will be embarking on very soon.
Most of the combatants are now in barring a few last minute additions. I keep spotting potential review tuners and obtaining them to boot, hence the shifting date for starting this project.
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To date the Japanese tuners I have begged, borrowed and bought to facilitate this comparison includes the following….Kenwood 7300, 8500, 9900 (to be confirmed), 502oL, 3050L-Sony 5000FW, 5130, 5150, 4950, A6-Akai 580-Pioneer 9100, 9500mk1, 8500 mk2, 9500mk2, 9800-Panasonic 3400-Technics 7300, 8077- Marantz 125-Sansui 5900, 717 517 (if it survives to reach me).  So this is what you have to look forward too….soon !
As way of a taster and pointer I present a Flock Of Tuners……Part One of the Leak Trough-line comparison review. Part Two The Japanese are coming will be published in many parts later in the year, watch Adventures in High Fidelity Audio for updates…..
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A Flock of Tuners.
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As mentioned at the tale end of my write up on the history of the Leak Trough-Line FM tuner ( http://theartofsound.net/forum/showthread.php?t=2837 ), I felt I should do a companion piece on the sound quality of  Leak Trough-Line tuners, well here it is. This was an interesting and challenging project to embark on as it is the first time I have ever compared the various tuners I own.
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The tuners up for comparison were the Leak Trough-Line 2 and Trough-Line 3 which are used in combination with an EAR FM valve stereo decoder, the Leak Trough-Line Stereo (which has its own stereo decoder), The Rodney Hanna Trough-Line Stereo and as a quality reference the Revox 260S FM tuner.
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The system used comprised the following…Chapter Audio Preface Signature pre-amplifier, Chapter Audio Couplet power-amplifier and Anthony Gallo Ref 3.1 speakers. Cabling was Atlas Marvos speaker cable, Audience AU24 rca-rca interconnect, and the fixed cable? that comes with the Trough-Line Stereo (a weakness that can be removed by rewiring and placing rca sockets on the chassis…..a project for another day.) Power cables used included Audience AU24 hooked up to the Chapter electronics, TCI Boa Constrictor to the EAR decoder. Most of the tuners have fixed mains cables so no choice was possible (one of the Trough-Lines has the option, but a technical issue shortened the period of use, so no other make of cable was tried).
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System used for the review.
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The biggest challenge was to find away to do fairly quick swapping between the tuners. In order to facilitate this a number of things were tried. Firstly a T splitter was installed at the end of the aerial cable but after some non-critical listening it was found to compromise aerial voltage too much; so was abandoned. The solution lay in fitting each Trough-Line with a flying lead wired with a 75 Ohm Belling Lee connector from the aerial connection at the back of the tuner. The fitting of these flying leads allowed quick plugging and unplugging between tuners and the coupler used to join aerial to tuners was less of a compromise than the T splitter.
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Another problem (which was solved several years ago, or so I thought) raised its head (since writing this review I now have three aerials. The original Antiference Omni, a new 5 element Yagi and a home made 300 Ohm aerial. I have also rewired the entire aerial feed with high quality co-ax cable)…overall aerial signal strength. It is well known that the Leak Trough-Line tuners lack the sensitivity and selectivity of modern tuners, so the base line quality of the FM aerial must be much better to achieve the best sound quality and keep noise low or absent.
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The sensitivity among the TL tuners varied slightly, with the TL2 having, surprisingly the best (this should not be the case, as the later tuners were improved in this area. I am left with the conclusion that the TL 2 is in the best nick/set up and the others are probably not ? Servicing will be required).
The TL 2 also required the FM booster I use to be switched off for some radio stations and on for others (all the other Tuners bar the Revox needed the booster to be left on). However switching from distant to local solved this problem, thus leaving me free to sit and listen rather than running up and down the stairs (the best place for this booster/amplifier was to place it half way between the aerial [in the roof space] and the downstairs living room, in an upstairs bedroom; just above the living room)….despite this being good exercise it was a pain in the ass.
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First up was the Rodney Hanna Trough-Line Stereo (from here on the RHTLS), you may wonder why, would it not be more logical to start with the TL 2…well the wiring of the aerial made it more convenient to start with the tuners on the Clearlight Audio Aspeckt rack. There was a definite warm up period of about an hour with the sound becoming less congested and more open after this period of time had elapsed.
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I choose Radio 2 as the test station, as it provided the best mix of music plus male and female voices. Unlike other reviews this one is more about the overall sound impression as opposed to a blow by blow comparison of pre selected music choices…with no access to the Radio 2 schedules I was stuck with their choice of tunes.
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Radio 2’s tune selection was on form and a number of songs came up that I know, including Stevie Wonder-Living for the city. The sound from the RHTLS was strong and rhythmic with excellent sound staging and image placement. However the bass was a bit woolly and the treble slightly rolled on this track.
The RHTLS main strength lay in the mid-range and the overall sound was very enjoyable but a little stereo typical of how valves are meant to sound, warm and soft.
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I switched to the Revox next and was immediately struck at how similar the sound between it and the RHTLS was. However after a few minutes it became clear that while there were some similarities in tonality, the bass and treble were different. The Revox had a slightly brighter treble and a slightly more open bass but lacked the magic of the RHTLS mid-range. The sound was also slightly flatter lacking the image depth of the valve tuner. In order to remove the warm up issue, I left it on and left it tuned into Radio 2 for later listening.
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Close up of the Rodney Hanna Trough-Line Stereo and Revox 260S
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I then switched to a TL Stereo (bought recently) and all was well for about 20 minutes until the Gremlins struck again (I will have to banish them from the house, they have been way to active recently) The sound level dropped off…retuning brought it back, but again after about 20 minutes it went off again.
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The volume output had been a bit lower than the RHTLS but not by much so I wasn’t overly concerned. However it now looks like it needs serviced. It should be pointed out that in away, vintage tuners (and these Leak’s are at least 40 plus years old) are like classic cars in that they seem to need lots of initial TLC, to bring them up to speck.
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Sadly I was forced to abandon the TLS and switch attention to the TL 2 (finally) and the TL 3. Both of these tuners need to be used with an external stereo decoder, in this case one by EAR. After moving the aerial cable I hooked the TL 2 up and switched it and the decoder on.  With about half an hour of warm up I had a listen…..very nice, but the afore mention aerial gain issue raised its head as slight distortion. Radio 2 had the most signal strength and initially I solved this by switching the up stairs amplifier off. After discovering that using the local and distant switch could solve this issue I sat back to listen properly and it was clear that this combination was the overall winner.
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The slight thickness in the sound present on the RHTLS and to a lesser extent the Revox was absent.  The sound created by the TL 2 and decoder was open detailed and articulate in the bass, treble and mid-range. However at times I thought I could just detect a slight phasiness in the overall sound…perhaps there is a slight mis-match between the decoder and the tuner. This is nothing another service won’t sort out.
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The TL 3 and decoder was not as good as the TL 2  and decoder pairing. The sound lacked focus and coherence, but not by much. However, and heres that word again a service may solve that…..?
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Trough-Line 3 and Trough-Line 2
Trough-Line 2

EAR valve Stereo decoder
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Despite the things that went wrong, I think its clear that when it comes to Leak tuners that the use of a quality internal (in the case of the Rodney Hanna) or external decoder (EAR) will allow a Trough-Line to compete with a good quality more modern tuner like a Revox and while different (and those differences may be your preference) in my opinion the sound is more musical, enjoyable and kinder to modern compressed music and broadcasting quality; than the Revox was in the context of this review.
At this stage I should mention that the almost ruthless transparency of the Chapter amplification, surprisingly favored the valve tuner. I must confess that I had thought it would be the other way round and the had Revox would be a better match. The lack of any kind of noise in the Chapter Audio amplification will reveal any present from the source, and while the Revox was more *silent* as is the norm with solid state and the Trough-Line had slightly more, as was evident from putting ones ear to the speaker ( background hiss being more obvious); the valve tuner was however to my ears better overall.
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As I wanted to be fair before posting this review I  gave the Revox another listen, allowing it a longer warm up period, so I listened to it again the following day. As I suspected it was better, with some of the slight thickness in the sound having gone and everything was more open and detailed than the previous day. However I also wanted to give the TL 2 and EAR decoder another listen. I made a significant discovery in doing this. I decided to move the Leak tuner to the main rack, from the book case it normally sits on and in doing this the 3m connecting lead I normally use to hook the multiplex output to the decoder was replaced by the lead that is hard wired into the EAR (nothing special or so I thought).
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I took a listen and my mouth hit the floor. The slight phasiness to the sound was gone and a very three dimensional sound reached my ears. A track from the new Pretenders album was playing and Miss Hyde stood in the room, her band playing around her. Tight articulate bass underpinning the song. I switched quickly to the Revox and the sound was two dimensional in comparison, lacking the colour richness and quality of the TL 2.
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Up next was the Kinks and Waterloo Sunset (Radio2 was really ticking all my boxes today), the sound was fabulous as was Michael McDonald’s vocals on the following track from the Doobie Brothers. Ian Dury also sounded wonderful during Hit me with your rhythm stick…heady stuff.
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Trough-Line 2 and EAR Stereo decoder placed on the Clearlight Aspeckt rack.
Rear view of the Trough-Line 2 and Ear decoder…note short wire which carries the mutiplex output signal into the decoder.
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Presenters voices lacked a degree of chestiness that was present on the Revox and the other Trough-Line tuners and studio sounds stood clearly revealed as did a semblance of the Studio acoustic; not much but enough to paint a three dimensional image with the presenters having their own space in a clearly defined acoustic.
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In many ways what I was hearing was similar to the difference in sound between vinyl and digital, but in fairness both of these formats have more musical information present in the signal than FM radio….however the analogy is a good one.
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I thought that I might have to rewrite my conclusion after listening again on day two and indeed I am to an extent but only to reinforce my findings that the TL 2 and EAR decoder combination when connected via a short lead (do remember this factor) offer the best radio I have heard so far (I have not heard the Day Sequera, Naim Nait radio or some of the other well liked tuners . NB Nor as was later pointed out the many offerings Japan made) so I can’t say this is as good as it gets but for me I am very happy with what I was hearing.
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I can’t, however help but wonder what a top flight serviced Leak set, say from the workshop of Graham Tricker might sound like…ummm? Would this be much better ?
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I think its clear that the TL3 and TL Stereo I also used during this test were not up to par. Will they be as good as the TL2 plus EAR stereo decoder ? I suspect the answer is more than likely no, but after a service it will be interesting to do this comparison again, as they say there is more to come.
It is also important to say that if you are going to buy a Leak tuner (indeed any piece of vintage audio) it would be better to buy one thats fully serviced and set up, rather than doing the E-bay thing (unless you get an absolute bargain….do such things exist on E-bay ? That you then have serviced), to guarantee you the best performance.
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Another thing that is clear, regardless of the source of your purchase, you will need an excellent aerial set up (as I mentioned earlier something I have done since writing this review originally and Oh boy does it make a difference) and one that allows tweaking to suit  a vintage tuners needs and particularly a Trough-Lines. My aerial set up covers this (just) but this could be better and it is probably because I am in line of sight of the broadcast mast that I * just* get away with it…you have been warned.
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Neil
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After writing the above review I revisited one of the tuners again….

Additional thoughts……

Shortly after doing the main review I decided to have an additional play around with interconnects, so I tried the following- Audio Note ANV and Kimber KCAG mainly just to see if any of my earlier findings would change with a swap of cables.

Well in regard to the Revox no, but with the Rodney Hanna Trough-Line Stereo the answer is yes. Having re-read my review I now feel that perhaps I damned it with to faint praise. The overall findings haven’t changed the Trough-Line 2 plus EAR valve stereo decoder still give the best sound (changing interconnects here does not change these results, regardless of connecting cable used it is excellent), but the Rodney Hanna gives more with different cables.

Front view. Tuning indicator light on far right of fascia is not original to this Leak but a Rodney Hanna addition.

Rear view

With the Audio Note ANV (two .5 m coupled together, not ideal but the coupler was of very high quality) the sound is more open and detailed with less thickness. The warmth I reported on, is reduced, its still a sweet sound and still musical, but more detail is present and the gap between it and the TL2 +decoder is narrowed. Using the Kimber KCAG makes things slightly to forward and adds a slight edge to treble detail. Once again (for what ever reason) cables make a difference/improvement and in this application I prefer the sound of the Audio Note ANV.

I have been listening to Handel on Radio 3 Richard The Lion Heart, this afternoon and I must admit I like Handel but I am not so keen on high pitched almost Castrato vocals (female in this case, but may have been written for a Castrato originally), the sound is beguiling and magical. String tone is excellent and the harpsichord pure magic. Where it falls behind the TL2 is in the dimension of the acoustic and the clarity/coherence the older Leak tuner creates, but its very close.

Also of interest is that the sensitivity/selectivity of this tuner is much better than the non-modified Leaks. The Motorolla decoder Rodney used needs less signal to give silent performance, this is excellent.

Some of you might be wondering who Rodney Hanna is ? well he is a very talented audio (and lots of other things as well) repair man who builds and mods things in his spare time for his own pleasure, and a select few. I left the Leak in for repair/servicing and got back a thing of magic. Rodney is one of a rare breed, he can look at a circuit and not only understand it, but be able to analyse how it works, if it could be better and know how to do that.

Well he has certainly worked wonders on this Leak Trough-Line Stereo which had not worked in very many years (the condition I got it in). Is this a product you could buy….ummm, I don’t know. I call it the Rodney Hanna TL Stereo because that is what it is now. Being a modest man Rodney would no doubt say he just fixed it…IMHO he had done more, much more.

Not being in great cosmetic condition I have been working on that aspect and have sorted out the black strip below the display (using a Paper Mate W10 Black Permanent Marker rather than black enamel paint as I had planned to. It needs several applications to give a good black), next up is the legends on the fascia. I have also replaced the metal sleeve it came with for a black wood Leak sleeve that came with another Trough-Line Stereo tuner. I must say that I prefer this look.

One last thought/piece of information, that I think is vital and that is the question of ventilation. This is very important with these tuners as they get very warm (lots of valves inside) after a few hours of use, so please make sure you allow plenty of air to circulate around them; other wise you will shorten their life by cooking  the internal components.

Neil

Source of Products Loan….. Reviewer owned items.

Price…..

As the Leak Trough-Line is long out in production, S/H prices will vary. You are at the mercy of factors like condition, functionality, presence of original packaging, instruction/service manuals etc. Recent Trough-Line values have ranged from £50 to £200 and if it is a GT Modified unit you must expect to pay more, as you also will if it comes with a One Thing or EAR FM decoder. However at the end of the day, something is only worth as much as you or others wish to pay…..

© Text and Photos  Copyright 2010 Adventures in High Fidelity Audio.

NB No part or portion of this article may be reproduced or quoted without written permission.

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