Product: Tjoeb Tjoens and Tjo-Upsampler
US Distributor: Upscale Audio
Approx.cost: $ 27 and $ 299 USD (respectively)
Reviewer: Scott Faller - TNT USA
Published: March, 2003
If you guys keep up with my articles, you know that I have this love affair going on with my Njoe Tjoeb tubed CD player. I became absolutely smitten with this thing when I did the initial review some time back. I liked it so much that I bought the review sample. Since then it's been a mainstay of (almost) all of my articles.
One of my favorite things about this little unit is the way Herman van den Dungen designed the unit with tweaks and upgrades in mind. If you look close at the inside of the unit, the opamps are installed in a socket rather than being soldered to the IC board. Herman knew that guys like me (and a lot of you) would want to experiment with different brands of opamps. Heck, you can roll opamps just like rolling tubes, except it's cheaper (Oouuu, my favorite word :-)
Going back a while, I bought a pair of the replacement Tjoeb Tjoens (Tube Tunes) Analog Device AD-825 opamps from Kevin at Upscale. The Tjoeb comes stock with Burr Brown OPA604A's. Not a bad sounding opamp as opamps go. But me wanting to squeeze every ounce of performance out of the Tjoeb, I decided to try the pair. AD has a reputation for making a really fine sounding opamp, so I went for it.
Kevin sells these for $27 a pair. That's pretty darned cheap for a tweak. The AD-825's are extremely easy to install. Pull the cover off of the Tjoeb, find the opamps, pop the old ones out and slide the new ones in. It's literally that simple (Kevin has complete instructions at his website and also provides them with the Tjoens). One thing, make sure you ground yourself out to something before you handle the opamps. Remember, you are handling (essentially) a computer chip that can die if it gets a sudden jolt of static electricity.
If you notice from the pic, the AD-825 has a pair of Silver Mica de-coupling caps soldered to the micro board. This helps to smooth the sound out quite a bit and absorb stray noises, much in the same manor bypassing your power supply caps works.
After installing the new opamps, within 3-4 hours the AD's settled down a bit and don't sound quite as harsh and grainy. Expect them to completely settle in after 120 hours of playing time (maybe just a bit longer).
George, a friend of mine, and I did some critical listening to the two different opamps. With the AD's in place, we found that the soundstage was much deeper and the high end was far less tizzy. The music was much less aggressive without loosing it's attack on notes. The dynamics were still there but that the edginess of the music was more presentable. I guess the best way to describe the sound is it sounded less digital, still not analog but definitely less digital. I liked the presentation of the Tjoeb with the AD-825 far more than with the Burr Brown opamp. It's well worth the $27 investment.
Next comes the meat of this article.
The Tjoeb Upsampler
Herman's latest tweak for his Njoe Tjoeb adds some pretty serious meat to the backbone of this fine little player. The Upsampler was co-designed by Marcel Croese and Anagram. Though these may not be a household names to most audiophiles, many of Anagrams designs definately are. Anagram has done design work for companies like Audio Aero, Audiomeca, Manley Labs, Nagra, Orpheus Labs, and Talk Electronics. In fact, Marcel (prior to working on the AH! Upsampler) was involved with several of the Goldmund designs in the late 90's. Obviously, none of these companies are slouches. In fact, most of those well respected designs cost loads more money (like 5 to 20 times more money) than the Tjoeb and the Upsampler combined.
Lets talk about Upsampling for a Bit
As I did some serious research into upsampling, I found an audio community pretty heavily divided. These divisions came down to two further subdivisions, Upsampling vs. Oversampling and the You either love it or You hate it crowd.
Lets deal with the techie stuff first. There is a plethora of articles from the ultra geeks and even more position papers from manufacturers regarding Upsampling vs. Oversampling. First let me give you a very basic explanation between the two (with the help of Marcel Croese, the chief designer of the Tjoeb Upsampler).
Music on CD's is currently sampled (in Redbook standard) at a speed of 44.1kHz and at rate of 16bits. Oversampling uses an even integer of the 44.1 base rate i.e. 88.2, 176.4, and so on to produce a 2x, 4x, 8x oversampling at any bit rate like 18, 20 or 24 bits, etc., but there is no bit rate conversion. 16 bits remains 16 bits.
Upsampling uses a re-sampling rate. This rate is derived from the decennia-long standing industry standard of 48kHz (DAT tape etc), ie 96kHz, or even 192kHz. In the case of the Tjoeb Upsampler (192kHz), it has (as such) no relation to the original sample frequency anymore. At the same time, it converts the bit rate to 24 bits as opposed to the original 16 bits. Hence, more detail.
I'm not going to go anywhere near the "which is the best" debate. I'll leave that to the ultra geeks among us and the marketing gurus to fight that one out amongst themselves. I'm only hear to tell you what I hear in the Upsampled Tjoeb. Do yourself a favor, don't be swayed by the statements from that same lot of people (or me for that matter). Go out an listen for yourself. There are plenty of Upsampling and Oversampling units on the market. You should be able to find one somewhere near where you live. Let your ears be your judge. Decide for yourself. Don't let anybody get in the way of you and your audio dollars, they are too hard to come by.
When it comes to the You either love it or You hate it crowd, there could be a bit of truth to what they say. See, here we have an entire new set of compromises that come into play. By choosing to Upsample, we have made a conscience choice to extract more detail from a recorded medium. Upsampling uses a complicated arithmetic algorithm to extrapolate additional information from your existing CD's. Thus, (hopefully) alleviating the need to go to the "new" format of SACD that everybody in the world seems to be pushing. What does this additional detail equate to in terms of music? As our ears initially hear it (psychoacoustically), much of it comes across as midrange detail. As you listen to an upsampled unit next to a non-up or oversampled unit, you begin to hear loads more detail top to bottom, not just in the midrange.
Just as when we listen to a pair of speakers or a system that is much clearer than our own, things change. The depth of soundstage, presentation, dynamics, and overall smoothness (especially in the vocal range) all change. Change is just that, change. It can be good and bad, but that is completely up to the listeners ears, no one else's.
All that said, just how does the Tjoeb Upsampler sound? Well, as you can tell from all that setup, this little player sounds dramatically different. I'm not talking a little different, I'm talking night and day different. The inner resolution of this machine is so much better than it was before, it's damned hard to believe that it comes with such a small price tag.
So lets talk specifics
Since the Arcam 8se and the (unmodified) Tjoeb had very similar characteristics, I decided to do a side by side of the two (here I go picking on my Arcam again :-) I followed (pretty much) the same test parameters that I did when I first compared the two machines.
Installation is pretty easy. Again, Kevin has all of the instructions at his website, plus they come with the unit. Basically, you remove the cover, remove three chips, then install one slide on heatsink, plug the upsampling board in, slide on some tube ribs, replace the cover and you are done. It takes all of about 10 minutes. No soldering, nothing messy, generally easy enough for almost anyone to do. Oh, make sure you unplug the Tjoeb first. We'd like to have you around to read a few more articles :-)
As I sit here and listen to the dynamics specifically, it makes me wonder. Though both player are very dynamic, the Upsampled Tjoeb (UT) sounds dramatically more dynamic than the Arcam. I'm definitely hearing more punch out of the UT. Not just low end punch, I'm talking about punch from snare drums, toms and floor toms. You can definitely "feel" them more with the UT at higher SPL's than you do on the Arcam.
Here's where the gaps widened dramatically. The treble becomes extremely well defined. An example, on Pat Metheny Group's We Live Hear, track three, Paul Wertico does the typical Jazz ride on an 18" or 20" ride cymbal. The shimmer from the taps on that cymbal are so much more well defined and deep. The cymbal sounds much more real now. On another track, one of the guys are playing a tambourine. On the Arcam, it sounds muffled. You can tell its a tambourine without a problem but it's not very clear. Now on the UT, I can actually hear the little cymbals (they are actually called jingles) clank together. The other thing that you begin to hear are things like drumheads, not just "the drum". You can hear the drumstick strike the head of the drum. The definition you get out of this little player is pretty amazing.
In a word, Oh my God!! Everything sounds so much more clear. Veil upon veil has been removed. I'm now hearing miniscule midrange details that I've never heard before, literally.
Another really cool part of this player is the fact that the upsampling runs all the way down the scale (I realize that was a stupid statement :-) That means that while the bass stays very stiff and tight, you now get loads of definition in the upper octaves of the bass register. You can now hear things like a bassists fingers as he plucks the strings on a double bass. Things like the "slap back" of the string against the frets or neck of the bass are now crystal clear.
Now, in all of this detail you might think that you would loose some depth to the soundstage. Well you don't. No doubt I'm going to get some real pushback on that one, but for those of you that own this or have auditioned this unit, hear me out. I contend that the soundstage is just as deep as it was before maybe even a bit deeper.
Take the typical instrument that sits back in our virtual soundstage, say a nice smooth hollow bodied jazz guitar, that or a properly mixed drum kit. After doing some really extensive A/B'ing using my NEC AVX 910 with the same CD in both the Arcam and the UT, I contend that the soundstage stayed at least the same and I 'd venture to say it got slightly deeper. There was no loss of depth at all. The only thing the upsampling has done is (extensively) turned on a light above the performer so we could see them better (with our ears). Another really cool byproduct is the fact that you can clearly hear that "back wall of the studio" that everybody types about so much.
With the increase of the detail, comes a really nice increase in the width of the soundstage. The speakers definitely tend to start throwing their voices, way outside the plane of the speakers.
Absolutely, the height increases too. The added detail effectively adds two to three feet to the virtual height of the stage
This is another wow moment. All the added detail provided from this add on gizmo, tightens up everything. The instruments and performers almost take shape right in front of you.
OK Now for the Critical Vocal Range
I used several CD for this par of the review. Just to mention a few of the CD's I used, for the female voice Lorena McKinnet, Book of Dreams, and for the male vocals I used Bobby McFerrin, Best Of and Buena Vista Social Club. Switching back and forth between the two players, on the UT you notice a definite smoothing of the ch's hard S's and T's. The vocal reproduction is much more natural.
None what so ever. If anything, this little add on board helps to remove those nasty coloration's associated with so many pieces of gear. Here's another cool thing about the UT, if the upsampled sound is just a bit to analytical for you, roll the tubes out for something a bit warmer. In the 6922 tube, you have loads of brands to choose from, plus they are reasonably priced (until you hit the vintage NOS ones).
OK, there is some definite weirdness going on with this thing. I've had some pieces of gear that have taken a long time to break in properly but never anything like this one.
When I first plugged in the board it sounded ...... well ....... God awful. It was harsh and nasty, almost unlistenable. You could tell there was loads of additional detail coming out of the unit but it was horrid to listen to. So I decided to give it some serious break in time. I'm thinking 3-4 days running a signal 24 hours a day. That's about 100 hours or so. Should be plenty of time, right? Not a chance. I checked in nightly on it's progress. Each night it calmed down a bit but still not enough to where I would call it smooth.
So, more time was in order. I doubled the break in time to 200 hours. After this, it did start getting much smoother. Those ragged edges in grainland started to smooth out a bit more but it still wasn't to my liking. At this point, I almost sent the Upsampler back to Kevin thinking that it may never sound any better. One thing lead to another, I got busy at my real job and I just let the thing keep running in.
Then one evening, about 400 hours or so into the new board, I decided to listen to some music. I was playing Mary McPartland. I made it though the disc and switched to some Fourplay. About three songs into the CD I heard something happen. It's really hard to describe, but the player noticeably got smoother. All of the grain was gone. The aggressiveness eased dramatically. Personally, I thought I was hearing things, so I went back to the Mary McPartland CD to confirm what I thought I was hearing. Sure enough, this thing had changed colors right before my ears.
When I break in new gear, the change is usually a slow process that I never get to witness first hand. I turn on a piece of gear, feed it a signal, and walk away. I'll usually check its progress nightly and you can usually hear how much better it sounds on a daily basis. But this is the first time it's happened in front of me and in such a short timeframe.
Now, there are some of you out there that are probably thinking that I was listening late at night and all of the sudden the power grid got better. Well, that could be a distinct possibility, but I don't think so. This was in the early of the evening around 7 PM or so. Plus I have a killer line filter that sucks all of the nasties out of the grid.
Anyway, back to the break in time. This thing finally settled down completely at about 600 hours or so. It smoothed out tremendously compared to it's first playing. Take that into consideration if you decide to upgrade your existing player or buy a new one with the upsampler in it. I'm not the only person that has said this thing takes forever to break in. Kevin and Herman both say they are getting the same feedback from their customers who have purchased the unit.
Back to the You Love It or Hate It Conversation
As I alluded to earlier, with a tweak such as this, it brings on a new set of compromises. By bringing forward the little details of the recording with Upsampling, the Tjoeb can seem to be a little aggressive and forward at times. This may or may not be to your liking (love or hate). Again, this is not isolated to just the Tjoeb. In fact, just a short time ago I had the occasion to listen to the Cary tubed CD player that offers upsampling. This $2600 player suffered the same presentation problems, it was too forward at times, hence, they installed a switch to turn the upsampling on and off. The Shanling player offers the same option (but I haven't listened to this one yet).
That said, this does not mean that you can't help tame that forward beast. How, you ask? Easy, slide in some new tubes. Is it the do all end all? Nope, but it definately helps ease some of the forward aspects of the player. Is it a must that you retube? Absolutely not! That's one of the great things about this player, with the switch of a pair of 6922 tubes, you can effectively change the presentation of your CD player. Is a little too warm for you? Change the tubes. Little to stark? Change the tubes. You have that ultimate flexibility.
So Lets Talk About Rolling Tubes.
Since buying my Tjoeb, I've amassed a small collection of 6922 tubes (or their substitutes). I have the original JAN Philips 6922's, a pair of Seimens 7308's (steel pins), a pair of Ediswan CV292's and finally a pair of Rocket Logo'd 6H23's (the stock tubes for the player).
Each of these tubes have their own presentation. As I describe how each of these sound in the UT, please keep in mind, I'm playing these through a pair of full range (15Hz to 25kHz, you read that right 15Hz) speakers. These have 12" Shiva woofers in a 9.75 cu ft EBS enclosure to bring me down (near flat) to 15 Hz. The bass reproduction on my system is light years different than a pair of mini monitors, a pair of horns or most three way designs.
Also, you have to keep in mind that I use a tubed pre, the Korato KVP-10. Sometimes when you stack tubes upon tubes, things can get a little too warm. So I guess what I'm saying is, take what I am saying here with a grain of salt because it may or may not sound the same in your system, YMMV.
JAN Philips 6922's
An old standby. Warm and lush. Tired of listening to analytical music? Pop a pair of these in prepare to get lost in the music. You forget about cables, interconnects, harshness and all that nonsense and just listen to music. These little (inexpensive) tubes have a dark, very tubey presentation complete with a nice, lower end bloom. Overly accurate? Nope. Smooth top to bottom? Not a chance. Are they a extremely musical tube? You bet. Everybody needs to have a pair of these in their collection when they get bored of listening to lifeless music. These thing are so warm and syrupy, I can almost taste the maple flavor :-)
Still my personal favorite of all the tubes here. For critical listening, it has a nice relaxed presentation. It's not too dark, not overly analytical, nice and even top to bottom. These come with a price, they aren't cheap nor are they easy to find. In fact I need to get ahold of Kevin and stock up on these so that I have some for the future.
These are the tube I used for the vast majority of this review. It's fairly even top to bottom. It provides that tube warmth without being too encumbering. Even though I didn't care for them during the initial review of the Tjoeb, Kevin convinced me to put them in and leave the player turned on so the tubes stayed warm all the time. I do have to say, that changed the character of the tube. Rather than being analytical, it warmed up enough, while still retaining al the detail I like. It's a very good (although) expensive tube. Well worth considering.
Generally a very nice tube. It has some similar characteristics of the JAN Philips. A slightly darker presentation. It has a bit of a bloom on the lower end which could help quite a bit on mini monitors or full range drivers, though not quite as much bloom of the JAN Philips 6922. Guessing here, these could be a really good match for a pair of Lowthers or Fostex horns (I don't have my Medallions finished yet). The mids are just dark enough that if could help offset some of the shout of these speakers. Add that to the lower end bloom and you might just have something here.
In the end, is it a worthy upgrade? Yep, I definitely think so. Consider the fact that it's only $299 US. That's pretty darned reasonable. Kevin sells the Tjoeb with the Upsampler installed for $899. Take a look at the surrounding (tubed) competition. You have the highly regarded Jolida, the Heart and the much more expensive Shanling. Of the three, the only one that Upsamples is the Shanling, but it's more than twice the price of the Upsampled Njoe Tjoeb plus the Shanling uses a weird tube, the 6N3 (oh, I'll get emails over that statement :-)
The already worthy Njoe Tjoeb has just made a transformation. This inexpensive tubed player is already one of the best buys on the market. The added refinement of the Upsampling option has just vaulted this feisty little unit into a new realm of audio company. These improvements designed and built by Herman and his Tjo-elves, bring true HiFi into the hands of we mere (penniless) mortals. I've listened to a lot of really good (and damned expensive) players and the Upsampled Tjoeb definitely holds it's own amongst all of these. I hate to use this tired old phrase, but this could be a real Giant Killer, but it's the truth.
Now, if you are seriously considering a purchase of the Njoe Tjoeb, do yourself a favor and go out and listen to an Upsampled (not oversampled) CD player. You should be able to find a Hi End shop in your area that has one. If you ask the sales guy if he has any upsampled CD players and he gives you a blank look .......run. Do your own A/B of the Upsampled unit verses a standard unit. Make sure the sales guy is using the same interconnects. Also make sure the unit you are listening to is completely broken in (at least 400 hours on it..... ask). Try to do it on a Pre or Integrated that has a remote so you can switch machines without getting up from your listening seat. Take along two of the same CD's to do the A/B test. Either buy a second CD of your favorite music or burn a pair from your master on your computer. Be sure to abuse the volume controls. You need to listen to the Upsampled CD player at high sound pressure levels so you can get a true feel for your intended purchase. Then, let your ears be your guide.
One (slight) after thought, If you have some less than defined speakers and are wanting to update your CD player BEFORE your speakers, consider the upsampled Tjoeb. This little player may just provide you with all of the detail you were hoping to get in a much more expensive speaker upgrade, plus you get the warmth of tubes thrown in for free :-)
I'd like to thank Kevin Deal at Upscale Audio and Herman van den Dungen of AH! for the use of the Tjo-Upsampler for this review.
Dear Mr. Scott ! Thank you for spending so much time with the njoe (new) upgrade for our Njoe Tjoeb 4000 cd-player. I am glad you are such a patient man as the unit does indeed need a "few" hours to open up. That -and a few other things- keeps amazing us. Maybe that makes hifi such a nice hobby? Last week we were doing our final listening tests on our Tjoeb 66 integrated amplifier. In fact we already decided the thing was ready, but we wanted to know for ourselves what it was doing on one of the world's most beautiful speakers, the Lumen White's from Austria (about 40 x the price of the Tjoeb 66 + Njoe Tjoeb 4000). We checked all connections including phase of the AC. The result? Worse than anything else we ever heard! What was wrong? To make the long story short: we reversed the AC plug (while we were "sure" it was in the right position) and suddenly IT WAS ALL THERE! Music in all it's dimensions the way we wanted to have it. We have been talking for hours -again- about little things which we all know and which sometimes keep on confusing us. I am glad that in our case we thought of reversing the AC plug, I am glad you gave the TjoUpsampler the necessary time to settle. Thank you and till the next AH! experience.
Herman van den Dungen, AH!
PS And still you don't know how it sings with ... Siemens E288CC tubes. Find these as long as you can ...
Thanks to Scott and to TNT as a whole for an "in depth" review. Talk about rolling up your sleeves and getting into it! I agree that because a CD player upsamples does not guarantee results. I have had some very expensive units here that bore me to tears. Herman being in the Netherlands has been an advantage in having Anagram to do the digital engineering and assembly in Switzerland. Swiss precision is not something found at this price.
A big thanks to Marcel Croese. His talent fine-tuned the analogue section to perfection. And speaking of fine-tuning, I especially took interest in your comments on tube and op-amp rolling. While many of our customers like to have fun, there are those that have not yet enjoyed that aspect and may read into it some mysticism or voodoo. Of course it is very simple, and the Tjoeb is very easy to tweek by anyone in minutes. No adjustments. We are happy to advise on how to squeeze that last 10% from your system, and have the largest selection of tubes in the USA. A great safety valve if you make a mistake on that next speaker purchase! While there is no "need" to change, it's there if you want it. Perfect tonal balance many times comes from a small nudge. Think about how good you feel when you buy a new tie or shirt that you really like. It's the inexpensive fun that keeps things fresh and makes this player so special.
The Tjoeb is priced to make it an easy purchase for anyone, and we keep it so low by selling direct. We pay for the Tjoebs in Euros, and due to currency fluctuations exceeding 20% the price will go up just a smidge soon unless something changes. Customers can count on us to keep it low.
Kevin Deal, Upscale Audio
© Copyright 2003 Scott Faller - http://www.tnt-audio.com