Tom is the owner of the shop and creator of the modification specifications. He is a master technician. I have taken some liberty with this article to tease him a bit. Please know that he is a fair, honest and generous man with great technical skill who runs a wonderful shop that is the only place I would ever trust with my or any of my friends gear.link to Vintage HiFi of Pittsburgh
The following epic is an account of my continuing quest for audio nirvana and the result of the help I received from Tom at ‘Vintage HiFi of Pittsburgh’ towards reaching my goal.
In 2006 I was visiting my best friend, Rod Nicholas, a retired luthier who in 1994 was responsible for infecting me with this horrid OC audio disease. While at his home, I was presented with a relict that had been banished in the closet of an upstairs bedroom. Rod had replaced his Carver C-19 years before with some trinket from an obscure company in Canada. Bryston I think is the trade name they go by.
Of course I was humbled and grateful to the point of speechlessness, along with now having a great story about the experience of transporting this unit as carry-on baggage during our return flight home from North Carolina.
This wonderful pre amp immediately transformed my system and I have been using it continuously ever since.
I have what I considered a decent system. My priority is vinyl. I also have a See Dee player, FM analog tuner, DVD/SACD player and an A/V Pre-Pro for 4.0 surround duties.
Over the years I have hosted a few get-togethers with local enthusiasts and have been to a few others, too. Between hearing other components demoed in my system, visiting audio shops and hearing what other people’s systems sound like, I have always felt mine was a bit on the bright, almost edgy side, and a bit anemic in the low end. Not good for someone who cherishes the ‘warmth’ that analog is supposed to have.
For the longest time I thought it was my room &/or my speakers that were the culprit. Regardless of the source, whether digital or analog, this characteristic never really changed. I tried some tube rolling in the C-19, and that helped a small amount, but no matter what tweaks I tried, (speaker placement, room treatments, phono cartridges, deferent brands of source equipment, cables, etc.) I could never get my system to mellow out in the HF and tighten up in the LF. Though small incremental improvements were realized, the core issue never went away.
Meanwhile everyone kept saying my system sounded good. But I was beginning to have trouble enjoying my music. All the while I was being menaced by a little voice inside of my head saying, “You know this should sound better, don’t you?”
I had known Tom for about a year. It didn’t take long to realize not only his obsessive passion for good sound, but also the skill he posses for repairing and modifying gear. Especially Carver gear. My confidence in Tom to do some work on my cherish C-19 finally overcame my fear of having someone actually take a soldering iron to this component that once belonged to the same person who has made instruments for the likes of Yo-Yo Ma.
I figured if I were to ever have my system sorted out, I needed to know the C-19 was performing properly. It is more than 25 years old. And aside from a few lonely years in his closet, it has been lovingly used, as it should, playing music almost daily since the day Rod bought it.
So I figured why not; just get a couple of pots cleaned, a few caps replaced here, a few resistors there…….can’t hurt. Right? No big deal. At the very least I will have the satisfaction of knowing the C-19 is working at its best, & I should look elsewhere for the solution to my dilemma.
I got the sense that the C-19 was one of Tom’s favorite pieces. By the time I was ready to bring to the unit in, he had developed a list of improved components & modifications, relocation of this, upgrade for that, IEC power socket installation, conversion to sockets which allow OP amp rolling, new pots, different valves and…….well, you get the idea by know I’m sure. This will be the test mule for Tom’s soon to be standard offering of his “One-of-a-Kind’, Super Duper, Bob Carver Approved C-19 make over.”
“Ok” says I with naïve adulation. Let’s go for the ‘Whole Kahuna!”
…..about how long should this process take, du ya think?
Look, when you’re laying on the operating room table it’s probably not a good idea to tell your neurosurgeon, “Hey! Can you hurry this up? I got a $25 voucher for Jerry’s Used Records that is about to expire today, and I’d like use it if you don’t mind!”
Tom is a craftsman, an artist, & in his own mind, an above average philosopher (but we won’t go there right now). The point is, you don’t rush the maestro. If you do, it’s at your own risk. These creative artisan types can get riled up by the slightest & most mundane things sometimes.
Still, I was forced to conspire …errr….aaah… I mean develop ways of kindly nudging Tom to carry forth with the project. One thing I found was that it never hurts to bring along a nice bottle of wine with two glasses when dropping by the shop.
…….. “Hey Tom. I just happened to find myself near by (every detail of the trip planned and scheduled 5 days earlier) and figured I pop in just to say ‘waz-sup’…... Yeah Yeah, SOL. How’s business and all.”
“Hey? Du ya remember that dirty old black box I dropped off a while ago?
Sooooo….how’s that little project coming along?”
And so it went. Minutes turned to hours, hours turned to days, days to months.
Some parts were hard to find, some couldn’t be found. And the shop was busier than ever. Tom was swamped with repair work and struggling to just to stay in the black.
Don’t get me wrong. It won’t take you a year to get your stuff back from Tom. He will guarantee a seven day turnaround on the C-19 modification. He now has a fantastic new technician to help (Welcome to the funny farm, Anders!). Mine was a special case in many ways. But now that all the Mods are vetted, the process for upgrading the C-19 is V straightforward. He will/does have all the components in inventory. I know cuz he showed me.
Science says your short term audible memory is good for 3-4 seconds. This is the period of time you retain large amounts of auditory information. As soon as you hear something else after this short period, your ability to recall with great detail all the particulars or nuances of that sound are gone.
Funny thing though, when my sister calls from California every month or so, I know it’s her voice right away, even after not hearing it for over 30 days and on the ever so poor fidelity of a phone. Go figure? Bullocks or not?
Anyway, I had been using a nice loner pre-amp Tom was kind enough to lend me. As soon as I got home from dropping off the C-19, I hooked it up. Gee, this isn’t too bad. Ugh….. wait. Hello, soundstage? Where did you go? Depth. I thought I had depth rich enough to allow me to walk 6’ through the wall behind the speakers? Shy, flabby underweight mid & low bass. And the top end was strikingly similar to what I hear when I bump the pot rack in the kitchen. The only problem is I’m listening to music, not an episode of Julia Child’s French Chef. Cling, rattle, and clang. All the little nit-picking issues I had with the old C-19 were now far worse.
My golden eared audio buddy takes a listen and says, “Hope you get the C-19 back soon.”
That was 12 months ago, and since then I actually began to loose interest in listening to my music.
A week and a half ago the C-19 finally makes it home. I was up till 3:00 AM that night.
This doesn’t remotely sound like my system. If someone had given me $15k and said, “Here, go replace your pre-amp, your speakers & your turntable, & make sure you spend it all”, then maybe that can describe what I hear.
I’ve gained what has to be a good octave in deep low end. And it has all the punch, energy and quickness you would expect being backed by my 380 watt dual mono chassis Rotel RB-1090 amp. But this is not boom bass, this is some of the most musical, tonally correct bass I have ever heard.
The top end? Well, one of my favorite references is the very first track ‘Singing Winds, Crying Beasts’, from my Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab 200 gram pressing of the original mastering off of Santana’s Abraxas LP. This is the one with the sparkling wind chimes. Actually, they only genuinely sparkle when everything in your system and the universe are in perfect alignment. With the modified C-19, you don’t have to close your eyes to visualize a wind chime. In fact, it’s your eyes that you don’t believe because your brain is telling you there must be, and is, a wind chime in the room. It is exactly eight feet in front of you, just off to the left by 19 inches, four feet five inches from the floor.
My eight month old shorthaired male Chihuahua who’s name is ‘Not Cho Dawg’ (we usually just call him NotCho) often sits with me in my ‘sweet spot’. When he heard this playing he started growling, head cocked to the side, staring intensely where C-19 was placing the chimes. Poor guy is going think he’s schizophrenic before too long.
But as they say, ‘we live in the mids’. And the mids are alive, alright. The texture of bow on strings, fingers just coming in contact with wildly oscillating acoustic double bass strings. Horns caressed by the lips of angles. But the true test is piano. Known for being extremely difficult enough just to record properly, it’s a complex instrument that has percussive qualities as the hammer slams to the string. Then stringed instrument qualities as they vibrate. Then the resonance quality like an acoustic guitar as all the sounds mingle and writhe then exit the body of the instrument. Then this all interacts with the shape, size and textures of the room it is in. I have a few well-captured recordings of real piano in real rooms. Now I have a real piano in my room.
Soundstage. Meh. I personally put more value in depth and imaging. So the fact that my soundstage is now discernibly wider should be of little consequence. Well, you can’t miss what you never had, they say. But now I know what I was missing!
Concerning depth & imaging, we (plural because all of my observations have been confirmed & validated by my golden eared audio buddy, Dan) agree what was once one of my system’s greatest strengths is now in the range of true high-end rigs. And just as Tom has promised, things are only getting better as all the new components burn in. Image focus & detail are getting tighter and even more precise.
And when you just sit back and stop analyzing every little detail, when you take in all of the parts as a whole, that’s just when all the details come through. The sum is greater than the total of parts. Pure music flows. All the players are watching the same conductor; everyone is in time, on the same page. Your toe is tapping before you even realize it. This must be thing they call PRaT (Pace, Rhythm and Timing). Every once in a while you will hear a system that has it. All the components of the music come through together. The kick drum is simultaneous with the brass rhythm section, with the keyboard, the strings and on and on. These are the systems that make you want to get up on your feet when you’re all comfy cozy, kicked back in you’re well broken in listening chair.
The results are the same regardless of the source. See Dee’s sound like vinyl, the FM radio sounds like vinyl. (When Dan dropped by for a listen I had the Magnum Dynalab FT-11 analog FM tuner on, he thought I was spinning black pie.) Even the vinyl sounds like vinyl. And Oh does it! The phono section is absolutely superb. I have the AT150MLX moving magnet cartridge. Some feel this cart is a bit on the bright, lean side. I used to be Some. Now I think Some should come here and listen to the AT cartridge. Bright and lean are adjectives not used in my home anymore.
Neither is noise. I live one block from radio station WDUQ’s mega watt transmission tower. I could hear the station bleeding into my system anytime I had the volume on zero or when playing at V low level. Now I can crank it to 11 with the selector on phono and it is dead quiet one foot from the speaker. Needless to say, backgrounds are blacker than Pennsylvania bituminous coal.
My wife likes music. Her family has music in their genes. So she tolerates my obsession with understanding. Sometimes she even sits with me & I spin some of her favorites. I love it when we share music. The night I brought the C-19 home I ran a few tracks at low level off of See Dee to test all my connections. She was a bit perplexed that I didn’t go straight to my top 20 vinyl. Once I was sure everything was behaving properly, I pulled her favorite. Beethoven’s 9th on Deutsche Grammophon, Vienna Philharmonic, Arthur Fiedler conducting. She came into the room of her own free will. Sat in her favorite off axis position on the couch and began to listen. After about 30 seconds she says. “This sounds really good, just like last year when we went to Heinz Hall to hear the Pittsburgh Symphony play the 9th. But I don’t think the right speaker is working”. To which I responded with, “Yes dear, that is what a proper stereo is supposed to do”.
The Pay Off
It’s a simple conclusion. Thanks to Tom and Anders, I finally enjoy listening to music again.
For that, I am forever thankful to Tom, Anders and Bob Carver.
.....just an "ON" switch, Please!
Carver C-19, Heavily Modified by Vintage HiFi of Pgh
MMF-7 Turn Table, Pro-Ject Speed Box, AT150MLX Cartridge
Cambridge Audio 640C v2 CDp
Magnum Dynalab FT-11 FM Tuner
Oppo 970 DVD/SACD
Prw Mngt: APC H15
Speakers: "the Twins" - a Jon Marsh design, 1.5" solid poplar baffle, 68 Liter, bottom ported, MTM Towers (DIY)