Champagne Music On Beer Budget

There is a way to great really great music streaming in your home without it costing just under $5,000. (Photo left – Audeze LCD-X)LCD-X-3Q-Left

Sure a $1500 DAC paired with $2000 headphones makes for a pretty good start but you can get 80-85 per cent of the same quality for under $200!51T9W65jR0L._SY355_

The cheapest audiophile quality headphones I know of are Grado 60s (Photo right). They’re available from a few top-end retailers for under $100 and worth every penny.

As for a decent DAC/AMP you can’t go wrong with Fiio which is available online for around $100. I’ve got a couple of them.41o+llXS8cL

Both the Fiio line and the Grado headphones of all types are available from Headphoneshop on Yonge Street south of the 401 and worth the visit. Just keep control of your wallet. I went in a couple of weeks ago to buy a DAC for around $75 (my secret high price was no more than $300) and I came back after a few trips with what I paid for my first car!

839353Of course with equipment this good you’ll want to get a subscription to Spotify for $10 a month which streams CD quality audio or Tidal at $20 a month which streams lossless files more than twice the size.

Regardless of which way you go, you will be treated to some of the best listening you’ve every heard. I’ve setup my downstairs stereo and a second stereo in my upstairs music room to accept streaming audio which I can access using a computer, tablet or smartphone.Side Bronze

My last purchase (or I’m going to start going to meetings…I’m an audiophile and I am helpless upon entering audio stores) is a set of Shure 535 in-ear monitors. I’m still getting used to them but there is a secret to putting them on. Use a mirror. It speeds up the process. They sound amazing.

Duelling QRP Rigs

The Oakville Amateur Radio Club had a QRP rig build day at my QTH on Saturday. We had four guys building and two guys coaching (one guy visiting) as we put together the CRK-10a 3-watt CW xtal-controlled on 7030 (I already had one so I build the 30-meter version)._DSC5231

To say we had a great time wouldn’t even be close. And we all learned a lot about building and to take any estimate on build time and multiple it by three 🙂

Any way I now have duelling QRP rigs running simultaneously on 7030 (into the 40-meter loaded dipole on the Hy-Gain beam) and 10.106 (into a Butternut vertical).


Thanks to Jim VE3AJ, and Denny, VE3OKD for their excellent coaching. Waiting to hear the guys pop up on 7030. Maybe tonight around 7pm or so have a listen to the signals from the Oakville club.

Introduction To Contesting

Despite the sub-zero temperatures the members of the Oakville Amateur Radio Club were treated to a red hot presentation on Contesting by our own world-class contester Dennis, VE3JAQ.

Dennis has won his category in some of the big international contests and trust me, as a long-time contester myself, Dennis taught me a thing or two about improving my contesting abilities.

Here’s a link to a PDF of Dennis’s talk. So you wanna try contesting

After Dennis’s presentation I offered a quick overview of contesting quality software and hardware.

Here’s a link to a PDF of my talk. Contesting Resources

Coincidentally the ARRL Contest Update newsletter has links to several other contest-related PDFs that I think you’ll find worthwhile:

Adding an SDR to an SO2R Station – Google Slides






Emergency Preparedness – Halton Region

(This post originally appeared on the Oakville Amateur Radio Club’s blog VE3HB.)

A big Ham Radio thank you to our Halton Region Chair Gary Carr and the municipal mayors of Halton communities for their mention of Amateur Radio in their new publication “Emergency Preparedness – Your Personal Guide.”63d9645a4871b47b946695f0b13b-635×423
As members of the Oakville Amateur Radio Club know all so well, Amateur Radio works when all else has failed.63d9645a4871b47b946695f0b13b-635x423

Time and time again in municipalities around the world it’s been Amateur Radio that often provided critical local, regional even national communications services in the face of overwhelming disasters.

Ham Radio operators have the unique ability to deploy from within affected disaster areas setting up communications links independent of power and infrastructure. The Canadian Red Cross Society recognized this and signed a memorandum of understanding with our national organization that calls upon Amateur Radio Emergency Service groups to send volunteers equipped with their radio equipment to provide communications services to the Society in times of need.

Too often we feel that it can’t happen here. But that’s not true. It does happen here and when it does so often it’s Amateur Radio operators like those of us in the Oakville Amateur Radio Emergency Service (which is supported and sponsored by the Oakville Amateur Radio Club) who find themselves providing much needed communications.

We grow so used to communicating via our cellphones and computers using social media that when the power fails we’re gobsmacked to discover we’re unable to do anything especially something so simple as just calling for help.

Normally power outages, especially in southern Ontario, are usually momentary to at most a few days inconvenience but a massive snowstorm like the one that hit Buffalo late last year could isolate parts of our communities for days causing particular hardship to seniors and shut-ins.

In these situations, working with the Canadian Red Cross Society and municipal officials, it’s often Amateur Radio with our ability to communicate across town or across the country with little or no forewarning or existing infrastructure that comes to the rescue.

And now with our exciting new venture into creating a wireless MESH network on Amateur Radio frequencies we are very soon going to be able to provide this wireless, high-speed private Internet-type service that’s a resilient and robust data-based communications tool to our local municipal authorities in time of need.

A few of us in Amateur Radio (and just about nobody outside of our hobby) are starting to realize the power of this new communications tool. Essentially someday very soon, we will be able to provide portable self-powered computer terminals to police, fire and ambulance services as well as municipal authorities and our regional hospital that will work independently of power and again, infrastructure.

Why would they need such a service?

If the power fails like it did when New Orleans was hit by Katrina, backup power generators will run for 10-12 hours before needing refilling. But once the backup fuel is used up there’s no more as gas stations need power to run their pumps. Cell systems are not designed to work under the assault of hundreds of thousands of calls and their infrastructure collapses just before their backup batteries fail.flooding1-1024×768
Now we’re cold, in the dark and without an ability to communicate. Sure we can call in the army but they’re going to take a couple of days to take over.flooding1-1024x768

Can’t happen in Ontario, you say?

It happened here when the tornado that struck Barrie in 1985 first ripped through Grand Valley. Nobody knew until a Ham Radio operator driving through the area alerted authorities that there was heavy damage in the valley.sn_ts_031711_hdr
We won’t even talk about nuclear power in Pickering but maybe we should. Nobody knows what would happen if we had to evacuate several million people.

The people living near Chernobyl and Fukushima might have something to say to us as they aren’t going back home again…ever.sn_ts_031711_hdr

Ham Radio is like a free insurance policy. It doesn’t cost anything to add it to the community plan and for years you might not even think about it. And then comes the day which none of us can imagine and suddenly Amateur Radio becomes invaluable.

Thanks again to Gary Carr and the municipal mayors for remembering us because over the years (and the decades) ARES groups in municipalities just like ours formed groups, did some self-training and stood ready to perform when all else fails.

And Now For Something Completely Different

One of my other hobbies is high-end audio. I love to listen to music of all sorts on really decent headphones.

Why headphones? Well a decent set of headphones can easily compete with stereo system speakers costing way way more and aren’t affected by less than ideal room settings.

So what’s a decent set of headphones cost?

Well it depends 🙂

If we’re talking about IPhones, IPads and IPod type units then a really decent set of in-ear headphones will cost around $200. I’ve got a set of Monster in-ears which I’ve repaired rather than replace because (a) they’re very comfortable; and (b) because they make a decent seal inside the ear they develop a decent level of bass without being way too boomy. A lot of the popular headphones aimed at teens are geared toward bass and are not musical and balanced at all. Sennheiser HD590

A really good set of over-the-ear headphones like my Senniheiser HD-590s will run you couple of hundred and anything under $1,000 will make most folks very happy.

All nice stuff but not up to true audiophile requirements…you can guess where this is going.

So I went to my favour headphone shop in Toronto Headphoneshop to buy a $75 to maybe $300 tops digital/audio convertor. The DACs in MacBooks are okay but an external DAC that bypasses the Mac audio card can really make online music sing.87e49046b8e688c588b2fba83832b2ae

My new best friend Charles, the owner, who has ably directed me into buying a really nice headphone amp and DAC from Fiio for my upstairs music room and an IPad Fiio external amp that makes watching movies on the IPad a theatre-like experience with decent headphones and now he dragged out the DACs.51T9W65jR0L._SY355_

(See above and for really good cheap headphones I recommend the Grado SR60s at $90 for IPads as they can be driven by just about any device…the amp just makes them better. They’re so good I bought a set for my teenage niece.)

There’s a bunch of DACs at $300 or so that are superb but Charles wanted to show me a Fostex which at $500 had lots more inputs and outputs and was really nice to listen to. I said I’d take it and he said he was sold out but he did have the Fostex HPA8 DAC/headphone amp in stock at $1400 all in. I just about coughed up a fur ball.

There’s no way I was going to by a $1400 DAC despite the dual optical in plugs and the RCA in and out plus and the USB from the computer input. So feeling pretty safe I said I’d give it a try.HPA8_Top-main

Charles brought out a set of Grado 60s which I was used to hearing at home and fired up the Fostex.

Let’s make a long story short. I bought it and took it home. Using my Sennheiser 590s and my Grado 60s all of my CDs and online music sounded more wonderful than I’d ever heard it.

I was in audiophile heaven so with headphones affixed firmly to my head I started to read the online reviews which suggest my listening experience could be so much more if I bought a really good set of headphones.

Let’s define really good. We’re talking reference type headphones that start around $1500 and soar upwards into the stratosphere. I made the trip back to Toronto and tried on everything in the shop.

Charle’s place, BTW is a little hard to find as he rents a wall from a tiny post office on Yonge Street south of York Mills on top of the hill. By as they say about a clothing store in Acton, Ontario, it’s worth the trip.LCD-X-3Q-Left

And to make a long story short I came home with a set of Audeze LCD-X headphones which come in just under $2K.

I know what all my Ham Radio friends are saying right now: I’m well into the kind of money that buys a high-end FlexRadio or an Elecraft K3. True, too true but my Flex 1500 and my Flex 3000 plus a box of QRP dedicated rigs are really doing the job for me right now and a Ham Radio upgrade isn’t in the cards for a couple of years.

Anyway I’m back home and I’m listening to my new DAC and Audeze’s and I’m in heaven. I’m downloading music from Spotify and it all sounds wonderful. So as I’m listening I go back to reading the reviews on this equipment and everybody, almost without exception, is saying this is one of the finest listening experiences short of $30,000.

How wonderful but one guy says he added a Fiio music player to replace his IPhone which doesn’t play back all the various lossless audio file types so I thought, well why not. I’m in so deep now what could go wrong?AK100-II

So I drive to Toronto again to see my buddy Charles who is just opening up on Saturday morning. He’s got the Fiios in stock and they’re lovely little units but as I about to buy one for a couple of hundred bucks, Marion says to Charles how much is the one you’re using.

Charles says the Askell and Kern (this is the old Korean company IRiver and I still have one of their excellent flash-drive FM portable players from 10 years ago) he’s using is $900. Marion says we’ll take it.

I figure by now that Marion has got to be having an affair and this is her way of making me feel better before she drops the news. (I’ve asked. There’s no affair and Marion says she’s stuck with me.)

The Askell and Kern AK100 II follows us home and despite being an Android device I’ve figured out how to upload my ripped CD library of albums into it and I’m listening to it now as it’s optically coupled through the Fostex HPA8 and outputting into the Audeze LCD-X headphones.

So you’d think I’d be done? Well you would be wrong.

You see with this really excellent hardware I need some decent music to listen to. I ripped all my CDs in lossless format to ITunes and I got a free subscription to Spotify and started to download tons of music.

And then I started to read the online reviews which said while Spotiy is okay the dowloads aren’t in lossless format. And besides that the free subscription keeps bothering you with ads about every third tune.

I was going to buy a subscription to get rid of the ads for $10/month when I read a reviewer who said that if you’ve got a high-end audio system another streaming service called TIDAL at lossless download format (and twice the money at $20/month) is the only way to go.

So I downloaded the same song from Spotify and Tidal and the reviewer was absolutely correct. If you’re going to listen to the music on an IPhone or IPad with the supplied earbuds it doesn’t matter which one you listen to as you won’t be able to tell the difference.

However hook up a Fostex HPA8 with Audeze LCD-X headphones and load up your Askell and Kern player and…well…$20/month isn’t too much. It’s one big dinner with wine at one of Oakville’e finer restaurants.

Oh yes it’s also my allowance being cut by 3/5 for the rest of 2015 and I am now charged with cleaning the house from top to bottom every third week.

The good news is I’ll be able to listen to lossless, never-ending, flawless music.