#1319. EMEI review. Parallels in HiFi and photography.

By pascaljappy | Opinion

Oct 29

How can a HiFi amplifier review relate in any way to the pursuit of creative photography? This post explores three parallels useful for many togs.

 

As recent high-end camera releases have failed to capture my heart and my dinero, realistic exploration of downsizing options has taken precedence. This may seem like a shame to the gear-oriented, but recent experiences in HiFi show that smaller can indeed be more beautiful, not just more affordable. Here’s the backstory.

A couple of years ago, searching through mainstream media, along with my long history of enjoying the British flavour of HiFi equipment, led me to the purchase of a Naim SN3 amplifier, with external power supply, power conditioner, high end Innuos streamer and Metrum DAC. All of this to feed my 75 ish sq meter main room.

At its best, the sound was lovely, with a soundstage depth that extended well into the garden and a refinement and fruitiness of the midrange that caused many visitors to stop and listen to a good recording of piano music, or female voices.

 

Most of the time, though, flaws in the room acoustics and technical incompatibilities between my hard to drive speakers and the frankly diva-like attitude of the Naim, meant that listening became an exercise in forced smiling and in ignoring the obvious dissatisfaction of yours truly. Until faking it became too much, and I flogged the lot, promising myself never to venture again into the perilous land of audiophilia.

For many months, Youtube thus provided content, and my Macbook Pro acted as conduit to cheap, old and battered Beyedynamic headphones. And thence, my love of music resurfaced, unhindered by the tyranny of sound “quality”.

By now, you should be finding analogies with the popular and traumatic debate of image quality vs photograph quality. Much as in the HiFi universe, photo manufacturers have herded us towards ever greater performance, resolution, ISO and … in my case … utter boredom, while a large part of the community simply aspires to make interesting photographs. It’s been years since anyone in the photographic world has offered anything fun, fresh, innovative, desirable. Judging by the massive exodus to both smartphones and film cameras, I’m not alone in feeling this way.

 

The most fun I’ve had with photo gear since buying my X1D has come from a cheap cheap cheap Canon printer with large tanks and a healthy disregard for clogging, misaligning or any other type of irksome gremlins of my previous “Pro” models.

Cheap, here, is indeed beautiful. Very beautiful.

And an equally unreasonable price/joy proposition has recently reignited my love of all things audio, obliterating my vows to never again think about HiFi, read about HiFi, let alone spend on HiFi. Enter CHoco Sound’s EMEI, the main protagonist in this post and sexy model for the illustrating photographs.

 

It’s tempting, but probably misguided to attempt to state parallels between audio equipment and photographic equipment. But, if pressed to, I would equate the speakers to the lens. Both give more flavour to the image/musical reproduction than any other element in the chain. But the amplifier isn’t far behind in that personality shaping role and is probably the element I find most pleasure in choosing.

Sitting in my room, along with an old Node 2i streamer of far lesser quality than my previous Innuos / Metrum duo, the EMEI just sounds wonderful. Bass is tighter, treble is airier, the sound exhibits a palpable quality that actually made my wife – who cares as little about my HiFi equipment as about my photographic gear – sit down and listen in awe. Music just feels real, right there. The level of detail is nowhere near what my previous system presented, the best amp in the world cannot invent information the source isn’t passing on to it. But the general experience is one of being right there with the musicians rather than staring at an 8k display of the band. I feel the same way about large format photography vs high-resolution digital.

No, I will not write that the 1600 euro EMEI is better than the SN3 + HiCap DR combo costing over thrice the outlay. Mainly because I believe I’ve never heard an SN3 as it should sound (even after demoing it at a big UK dealer). What I can write in all objectivity is that the SN3 was thrown off course by”difficult” speaker loads and needed hours to warm up, that I had to pray the Old Gods of electricity and the New that the day’s current wouldn’t spark off transformer humming, that its tolerance to speaker and interconnect cables was lower than mine to political discourse and that eliminating the last micro-vibrations was key to unleashing the best sound. While EMEI doesn’t give a rat’s arse about any of these. She just works, effortlessly, silently, and makes me smile, day-in, day-out.

 

I think one of the keys to enjoying any hobby is to train your instincts, and follow them. I bought the SN3 intellectually, based on the huge number of awards it won and undoubtedly deserves. It’s an excellent amplifier, but not one that appeals to me. Deep down, I always knew, but didn’t trust my gut.

I first read about EMEI and CHoco Sound during a regular check of the 6moons website, a blog made for people who prefer to read rather than watch videos. CHoco Sound is a sub-brand of house Kinki, which hails from CHina and has received many accolades for overachieving performance and quality at a given price point. Lower costs in CHina, cheap distribution channels, no advertising, no unneeded features, all add up to welcome savings or, at a given outlay, to a greater level of quality.

The feel is superb, the sound is superb, the build quality is superb, the ordering process is easy, the team is super friendly and sent me multiple personalised (non-automated) messages, packaging makes an Apple MBP feel like a pack of nachos. I didn’t know that before purchasing, but Srajan, over at 6moons described EMEI as a more tube-like, more feminine version of past Kinki powerhouses, and that was enough for me. At that instant, I knew, deep down, this would correspond to my tastes. And this time, I acted on this gut feeling and am loving the result.

 

So, what are the bridges between audio and photography that can bring insights from one to the other?

One topic that is largely ignored (and often lied about) in photography, and seems alien to amateur audio circles, is MTF. Modulation transfer function describes the contrast with which details of various sizes are transmitted to the sensor (in a lens) or the ear (in an audio system).

In both arenas, we tend to think of detail in a dualistic way: it’s there or it isn’t. That’s not how the biological world works. Finer detail tends to be reproduced with lower contrast. At a certain point, very fine detail is transcribed with such low contrast that it gets lost in noise (digital, electronic, room, ear …) Some lenses – typically the best and most expensive lenses in the world – are designed NOT to systematically have the highest possible MTF (greatest contrast) but to degrade gracefully and consistently. This is particularly essential for cinema lenses where any unnatural characteristic of lens or sensor will instantly kill the vital suspension of disbelief. Whereas some consumer lenses will push visible detail as far as possible and look unnatural in doing so. Ever seen the term mini Otus about a lens costing 80% less and nowhere near as nice looking? Yup …

 

Well, the same goes with audio. Some brands go all out for detail. It’s impressive in a demo, and after 20 minutes of listening, I’m looking for a bridge to jump off. Others prefer the low-contrast, heavy, low MTF sound of some tube contraptions. Some attempt to create timing and a detail decay structure that feels natural and lifelike, like cine lenses. If you listen carefully, you can hear lots of detail but, mostly, the detail is not there to reveal the bassoon player in the 17th row cracked a finger, but to reproduce lifelike ambiance, weight, timbre, echo, …

To my ears, this is what EMEI does. There’s a level of realism to the listening experience that can only come from a decent level of detail, but there’s no detail explicitly assaulting your senses. Everything is clean, accurate and ever so slightly warm. Kinki chose MTFs that favour that lifelike decay. And I love that.

You already know what you like, in audio and in photography. Detail freak? Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. Lens baby low res addict? No prob. Zeiss, in their Loxia, Milvus and some of its ZM range come closest to what I’m hearing here. There’s detail everywhere, but it’s integrated and discreet and lifelike, never in your face. Know what you like, and study MTFs to understand the underlying principle.

 

Secondly. Building a system in either hobby can also benefit from some cross pollination. And here, I believe the audio community can probably learn more from photographers than vice versa.

We tend to build our systems with additive principles in mind. Get this streamer and this DAC, then add this DDC, then this cable to get a better sound. Or get this lens and add this filter for a better image, add pixels, add stabilisation …

In reality, photography is a subtractive process. By framing, we eliminate 90% of a scene. Through exposure settings, we choose to favour highlights (or shadows) at the peril of the other end of the spectrum. By walking, we get that fence out of the way. By using a filter, we get rid of reflections or of whole swathes of the visible spectrum. By processing in monochrome, we get rid of the distraction of colour. We eliminate, eliminate, and eliminate some more until the photograph becomes what we want it to be. At least, outside of a studio.

 

And I believe we should think in the same way about system building. Not through addition of components but the elimination of unwanted nasties. For you, that could be weight, or lens swapping in the field. For me, it’s burnt highlights, baked-in looks of RAW files, ergonomics “designed” by nutheads who’ve never been in the field …

Which leads to the third insight that too often goes neglected: the room is the light. If we admit that the recorded music is akin to the photographic subject, we can agree that we’re trying to render both in a way that pleases us, and possibly others.

Unless you are listening through headphones or a nearfield loudspeaker configuration, chances are you are hearing reverberation from your room more than sound from your speakers. Don’t quote me on this, as I’m no expert, but some suggest that 80% of the sound you’re hearing when seated 3m away from speakers is from the room, not directly from the speakers. 80%. You spend so much time, money and effort building a system and it only contributes 20% to the vibes reaching your mimis.

 

You can’t escape good light or bad light, outside a studio. But you can build yourself a listening studio to escape the nasties of bad rooms.

Cinema movies have been made using cheap cameras, cheap lenses (such as Interstellar using a 300$ film lens for many outdoors scenes), but rarely cheap lighting. There’s a reason for it. Lighting sets the mood. So does your room.

The saying goes that a 1 grand system in a good room will sound much better than the 10 grand system in a bad one. I’m guessing room treatment specialists are spreading this type of message πŸ˜‰ But I also believe them. So step one for me, in a subtractive HiFi build, is making the room sound nice. The good news today is that we can now also make it look nice in the process.

I may have run out of pics of the amp, so let’s pretend these are tubes πŸ˜‰
 

What’s step 1 in a photo system build ? I don’t know. That probably depends on your style and priorities: light for some of us, who wake up at sparrow to capture blue and golden hours. But possibly also the choice between film / digital / smartphone / sensor format, as those condition what we can do, and can’t with the system.

In audio, subsequent steps would be speakers, amp, and finally DAC & streamer or turntable or CD player. In all of those cases, learning to understand the link between design choices, measured performance and real-life performance is key to building intuition about what you want. This done, find a couple of reviewers who speak your language, and trust your gut. Unless you can arrange complete home demos of all the possible gear you want to try out, that is πŸ™‚ But do think about removing nastis rather than adding performance. Also note that some nasties may be desirable to you. The last pic on this page is made with an Otus 85 using an extension ring on an overlarge sensor, so well out of its comfort zone. I just love the degradation here. Much like monotriodes bring their load of distortions that many find delightful. Understand the nasties, and choose which ones to remove from your system.

In photography, I’d choose lenses first, then sensor size. Both push me towards medium or large format film, but I’m too much of a wuss to embrace my desires. Baring those, convenience would be my next highest priority: handling, ergonomics, simplicity, integration with the rest of my life. Here, the phone has no peer.

Well, I don’t even know what to pretend, now πŸ˜‰
 

Home audio is about consuming and collecting music. Photography is about creating and collecting images. That create/consume distinction explains why light cannot be #1 priority for everyone even though it has the greatest impact on the appearance of our shots. For some photographers, journalists in particular, subject is far more important than how subject is lighted. In all cases, it’s important to find the #1 topic that can eliminate issues from your craft. Issues such as lack of clarity, boring images, practical difficulties in shot execution (don’t bring a view camera to a phone fight), bad exposure (yes, training should be a real part of your spend) , and so on.

In audio, the spectrum between those focusing on the content exclusively (musicians, typically) and those focusing on the sound (audiophiles) is huge. Many pretend to focus on both equally, more power to their elbow, though I find that hard to believe. But, if some modicum of fidelity is to be achieved, I still believe the room plays an important role at either end of that spectrum.

Step 1 done, focus on what brings you joy. I do not know what EMEI means in CHinese, but my personal translation of EMEI is JOY. EMEI has eliminated worries about current quality, component compatibility and buyer’s remorse. That blend of elegant simplicity, bullet proof appearance, refined, natural, flowing sound, and fuss-free experience at a price that doesn’t get you onto the first step of many brands, that’s a tough promise to keep. EMEI sure has πŸ™‚

 

PS: All pics of the amp (except for the 1rst) were made with my XCD 120 Macro, as a final hurrah. I am now selling it for Β£2500. If anyone is interested, just drop me a line or leave a comment πŸ™‚ The last two are made with my XCD 21, which is also being sold.

 

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  • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

    HA HA HA – how long have you got??? This is where my relationship with my oldest brother disintegrated! Being older, he had the opportunity to start earning before I did. So he chased after what HE thought was the answer to all your questions. Some means to reproduce classical music at home – short of going to a concert and listening to what I regard as “real” music. And then cameras – nothing that wasn’t Leica.

    Then I came along – denigrating all his efforts – refusing to listen to his “advice” (AKA bigotry – ignorance, even).

    Where did we split? Well you started with music, so I’ll do the opposite. Little brothers are often like that – LOL! After an introduction on a Kodak Brownie, I branched out into second hand gear (affordable – unlike Leica), like a Voiglander Bessa II or a Zeiss Super Ikonta – both 120 roll film folding cameras. And eventually to my beloved Zeiss Contarex. Only to find elder brother sneering at it and telling me I didn’t know what I was talking about and his camera was “better”. Well – the lens on mine was scaled up, stuck on one of your Hassy’s, and became the first lens ever used on the moon! So at least NASA agreed with me. Anyway – by that stage, we had little in common and nothing to discuss (we’ve long since split and gone our own separate ways – I haven’t even set eyes on him for over 3 decades!) Mine was a camera that did what I wanted. It had interchangeable magazine backs – I would have needed three Leica bodies to achieve the same result, and the cost would have been absurd. I had a wide angle, a standard and a 135 tele, all the filters I ever needed, everything. Took tens of thousands of photos with it (a couple of which I’ll share with you once I get my scanner going).

    And we had much the same schism over stereo. I studied classical music (starting with the piano) from the age of 10, till eventually I spent 5 years at the Conservatorium – even matriculated in music (amongst 9 other subjects). Haunted concert halls, bands, music groups etc etc. One of my best friends had a concert grand and I used to go round to Ann’s house and play on it for hours. The family “know-all” did NONE of that. But hurled abuse at me when I decided not to follow his example, and plunged into CDs, stereo unit from the UK, speakers the same as they used at one of London’s leading concert halls, for those who arrived late to listen, while they sat around in the hallways, waiting for interval so they could get inside.

    Eventually I had a technical problem. So we took my entire system to the HiFi specialist store, thinking it might be the speakers, but let’s test it all. And they had speakers ranging up to $80 grand for the pair! But after trying everything they had, they couldn’t find a thing that outperformed my speakers. My entire system originally cost me $8 grand, with two amplifiers, CD player, two speakers etc

    The village idiot frothed – claimed he got better sound with a vinyl disc player. Well – maybe – but he got “snap, crackle, hiss” and lift the needle, clean it again, clean the disc again, restart, and see if you can make it to the end of the track THIS time. I got none of that any longer, with CDs.

    And I still couldn’t converse with him. One thing which is fundamentally different – and will resonate with you, because it applies to both my music and my photography – his reasons, his interests, are totally different from mine. Watching him take a photo is beyond belief tedious – boring! When he tries to photograph people, they get fed up waiting for him to finish, and walk out. I plan my shots – sort my gear – and when I’m ready, I start shooting. And I’d have put my gear way anything up to an hour before he presses the button. My “music” is played on a real instrument (these days, just my grand piano – years ago, woodwinds as well – LOVED the oboe, but our concert group already had one so I settled on a piccolo!) But here’s the real point of departure. He listens to LP records with a more restricted appreciation of classical music than mine, and he does it because he can’t play a musical instrument & never goes to concerts to hear real live performances. In my “mind”, he simply doesn’t know what “music” really is! And I don’t listen to records as a substitute for the real thing – I do it to continue enhancing my education & musical appreciation, by listening to – analysing – and comparing, different performers & performances.

    In short – we have little or nothing in common.

    And when I see “arguments” and – commonly – “negative comments” in the photographic press, I get much the same impression. It’s all very well telling the world you think the rest of us should ignore zooms, for example – and that (instead) we should all buy a 100, a 200, a 300, a 400, a 500, a 600, and an 800 – oh, and MAYBE! – a 1.4x teleconverter – but don’t buy the 2xTC, it’s not as sharp as the 1.4xTC. So, what are you saying? – I can’t have a 1.6 metre combination? – just 1,120mm? – and I have to stand closer? Oh rats!

    Seriously – I have better things to do with my life than waste time in discussion with such people. We’re ALL entitled to choose what WE want – and to hell with their “opinions”, when they’re all as one-sided as that! What on earth is wrong with saying – “this is what I do, and here’s why – but you might prefer to do that, instead, and here’s how it would be different – why you might like it better!” That is cool – polite – and intelligent. None of which could I apply to the bigots!

    • B says:

      Cemeteries are also full with people who had opinions of their own, forever silent. This sounds to me like a long preaching into the desert… interesting from someone who says he utterly dismisses other people’s opinion, all because of an unresolved family problem. Kinda amusing.

      • jean pierre (pete) guaron says:

        Oh heavens – I hope you don’t imagine I’M “preaching” – I’m just observing the passing traffic – I gave up on “‘opinions” decades ago! And went back to just doing my own thing & enjoying myself. Here’s something might make you laugh – one of the lenses I’ve seen “criticised” lately (because it’s a zoom, not a prime) – stuck on a 2x teleconverter, and plugged into a Nikon Z9. And it took a perfectly acceptable and passably good photo of SATURN, with all its rings! NASA takes better ones with their telescopes. But who amongst us would be unhappy if WE could do that with one of our zooms! I’d be rushing to get a suitable print of it, to hang on the wall of my study!

  • philberphoto says:

    Both audio and photo gear need to provide some form of suspension of disbelief. For that to work, it requires 3 dimensions IMHO. One obviously is performance. What the gear does -or not-, in objective ways, and in what performance envelope. Then, what choices one makes from an individual perspective, some prefer this, others that. It doesn’t mean better in the absolute sense, unlike the previous category, but better for its owner. The third category is how the gear resonates with its owner. Which involves the brand, the price, the trust, the tactile aspects, the aesthetics, the special bond one forms -or not- with this piece of gear or that. That very bond that was obviously missing for PJ with his Naim. And, while many will talk about their choices being highly rational, I surmise that the third category is the one most often decisive for gear choice.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Couldn’t agree more. We make emotional decisions, then look for rational clues to justify them πŸ˜‰

      I think the performance dimension you mention is the one in which we should look for elimination of nasties. For instance, output impedance can tell us something about potential nasties coupled with other gear. One element among many.

      I liked the build of the Naim, though the EMEI’s is even better, but mostly the fruity, super transparent midrange. And I’d love to find that again in an amp that doesn’t come with all the other compromises and complications (cables, current, warm up, speaker matching …) I do hope CHoco move up the range as they did with Kinki to provide a glimpse of that free, non electronic midrange. One can dream πŸ˜‰

  • Kristian Wannebo says:

    Pascal,
    I do like your comparison, especially your discourse on details – and I agree when you give lens and speakers similar roles.

    Re. lenses that are not clinical.
    I’ve for some time considered the
    Kamlan 50mm F1.1 MK II…
    ( – for APS-C, though.)
    [https://dustinabbott.net/2019/06/kamlan-50mm-f1-1-mk-ii-review/ ]
    ( Also for e.g. nights with an IBIS camera…)

    Re. room acoustics.
    I think our hearing to a great extent adapts and compensates, e.g. friends’ voices sound the same outdoors and at home – until one begins to listen for the acoustics.
    And I’ve read tests that confirms this so long as the speakers don’t stand too close to walls – so that the reflections are enough delayed for our hearing to be able to disregard them – and are well positioned.

    I agree, though, that the room base resonances may have to be dampened and that some amount of textiles is needed – but I believe an equaliser can do more harm than good.

    And, of course, there are difficult rooms!
    – – * – –

    Pascal, If you ever want really good (enough) audio for a small room – on a budget…:

    Also I found my gear through 6moons (and through TNT-audio).
    The broadband speakers JohnBlue jb3f intrigued me, but weren’t available in Europe.

    ( The only not astronomically expensive – for me – speakers I’ve heard where voices sounded really natural were the Manger broadband drivers I built baffles for around 1975 – in those days they were very affordable. The first time I switched them on I heard a voice and hastily turned towards the door – I thought a stranger had entered the room!
    So I prefer to avoid crossover filters.)

    But I was lucky to find a used similar alternative, Markaudio Alpair 7″ gen.3 broadband drivers in beautifully home built open custom boxes.
    ( The wife didn’t like their looks in the nicely furnished living room…)
    They are (of course) not quite up to my lost Mangers, but sometimes a male of female voice sounds (well, almost) as IRL. And instruments’ attacks are very much there.

    6moons also showed me the amp, Kingrex T20U (U for a good USB DAC), a Tripath amp!
    It has been described as sounding just a little tube like with a little bit of warmth.
    ( It’s said to sound even better when run from a fast 12 V battery – as soon as I find the moving box with my charger…)

    So long as I don’t feel the need to experience the full volume of an orchestral tutti or a great organ this combo is really loud enough in 20 m^2 – and I have neighbours…
    And it sounds more than natural enough!

    My S/PDIF DAC is from Swedish Harmony Design, a DA9 v.2, and sounds just as good and natural.
    ( The new D90 model is supposed to sound even better – the designer told me the only problem with it was that owners of the older one found that so good that they were reluctant to upgrade!)

    [ I added a simple sub (closed Bowers & Wilkins ASW608 – but kept the speakers open), quite good enough for a lot of orchestral & organ music within sensible volumes – but sometimes I’d prefer a better one.]

    Aah, that Beyer Dynamic! Great!
    I opted for the first Deva from Hifiman – discounted when model 2 came.
    With the T20U (bridge coupled, 4-stranded cable necessary) it sounds great.
    The included miniBlue adapter has high end Bluetooth codecs (and a good USB DAC!) so with an Objective2 amp + a Qualcomm aptX HD sender it sounds just (almost) as good.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Ah, we have similar backstories πŸ˜‰ I own a little tripath amp, the Winsome Labs, which does have its limitations, but is wonderful for the price. And I’ve built wide band speakers in the past, and have been considering the Pearl Acoustics Sibelius for my home. No filter is as good as no filter, right? πŸ˜‰

      Swedish Harmony Design is new to me, I’ll take a look.

      As for room acoustics, there are many schools of thoughts. My rooms is as much a home cinema as a hifi room. In fact, I bought the EMEI specifically for movies, but am enojoyinh it tremendously with music. When listening to movies, I find that voices are blurred, even with very high end gear, if the room has not been treated. And, on music, even though our ears can adapt, the room adds its signature to the sound, masking what the sound engineer had in mind. Sometimes, the sound engineer has done a wonderful job of recreating an atmosphere, and it’s good to do that work justice by listening in a more neutral environment πŸ™‚

      The enjoyable part of the current setup is that it’s the simplest I’ve ever owned. A streaming dac (the tiny cheapo Node 2i) and an amp. Both are small and fit on a single shelf. Compared to the jungle of cables, filters, external power supplies … that used to be everywhere, it’s wonderfully uncluttered and easy to live with. The rest of the money goes to eliminating the influence of the room, and I might just call it a day and stop there. Who would have thought that a Node 2i would keep me happy after what it replaces …

      Cheers

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