Thursday, January 31, 2013
My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live at the Perfect Sound Forever website with my interview of Steve Guttenberg. I ask him questions about his blog, The Audiophiliac and the state of high-end audio in general. Check it out at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl90.html. Enjoy!
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
We're big fans of audio reviewer Andre Marc here at CCI, and not just because he's a big fan, in turn, of Opera Loudspeakers and Unison Research. Andre, who writes for such publications as Positive Feedback Online, Audio/Video Revolution and TONEAudio, is one of those guys who truly loves audio. He loves to write about it, he loves to talk about it and he loves music. I've talked to him many times on the phone, and his enthusiasm for all things audio is contagious. He's also very knowledgeable about the technologies behind audio, and yet he's always able to discuss these advances in an engaging and friendly manner.
Andre has started a new website, Serving the Music, where he has collected all of his equipment reviews and music reviews over the years. He also provides updates and previews on gear he's currently evaluating (as of today he's raving about the new Opera Mezza loudspeakers we just sent him) and he's employing other special features such as a section on long forgotten musical releases, concert reviews and more. If you're curious about the latest crop of music servers, streamers and file players, then Andre is your guy. Check it out today!
Saturday, January 26, 2013
If someone hands you an audiophile-quality recording of a military band, you usually know what you're in for--big cymbal crashes, blaring brass instruments, pomp, circumstance, ONE-two ONE-two ONE-two. We had a few of these discs floating around in the '80s, and they were primarily used to demonstrate the dynamics of an audio system. These weren't late night discs meant to be enjoyed with a glass of brandy with your favorite canine at your feet, unless of course you like the idea of your startled dog suddenly jumping up and barking at the empty space between your speakers.
When Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings first announced that he was releasing La Voie Triomphale from the Staff Band of the Norwegian Armed Forces, I figured it was going to be one of those discs. I was intrigued that he and conductor Ole Kristian Ruud wanted to focus on French composers, specifically ones that contributed to the "evolvement of the wind orchestra" such as Berlioz, Saint-Saens, Dukas, Milhaud, Henri Tomasi and Eugene Rozza. French composers, at least in my mind, are known more for their lyricism than their bombast. So while you do get healthy amounts of percussive flourishes, heart-stopping crescendos and occasional glimpses of fevered battle cries in La Voie Triomphe, you also get unexpected doses of real emotion and beauty, tempered with a melancholia, regret and even delicacy not usually associated with soldiers.
As is typical for 2L, this recording was captured in Jar Church in Norway--not on an open airfield next to a grandstand filled with ecstatic patriots. This environment, along with Morten's unconventional microphone arrangements, adds another layer to the music, a richer texture that lessens the bright leading edges and ultimately lets you follow the musical threads of individual musicians. As I've said before, each 2L recording I've reviewed excels in a singular way, and the calling card of La Voie Triomphale is its ability to carefully delineate each musician within a particularly powerful and sometimes chaotic context. You can easily latch onto a single flute and escort it through entire movement despite the presence of louder and more demonstrative instruments. Perhaps that's because the soundstage in this recording, accentuated by that Norwegian church, is so utterly gigantic. You can almost picture the precise geometrical spacing of the members of the band.
My enjoyment of this disc, by the way, was enhanced by two new additions to my sound system. First, I've been breaking in a pair of My Audio Design Duke Royal Limited loudspeakers for the last few weeks. First I had to get them ready for CES, and I left them in afterward because I'm an audiophile first and foremost, and for God's sake I have a $48,000 pair of loudspeakers at my disposal. The Dukes are surprisingly compact for a megaspeaker, but they are full-range speakers in every way and produce the widest frequency response of any speaker I've ever used in my own home. Not only does the soundstage go from side to side and front to back, it goes up and down, down, well under my feet deep into the Texas flagstone. If I've been missing any information from these wonderful 2L recordings in the past, the Dukes can certainly retrieve those details in all their glory.
Secondly, and this is a more minor and futzy point, I've added another equipment rack to my system from Splintr Designs, and this allows me a little more flexibility when jumping between formats. That means I can set my $4200 CD player and my $68 Blu-ray player next to each other and perform quick comparisons (again, you get both the Blu-ray audio disc and the CD/SACD with La Voie Triomphale). It allows me to extract a bit more performance from the lowly Samsung since the shelves of the new rack are more effectively decoupled from the rest of the room; I even placed some old Black Diamond Racing Cones underneath the flimsy casework for extra vibration control. As a result, the Blu-ray disc sounds even nicer than usual, with a smoother and easier presentation than the occasionally hyper-detailed hybrid CD/SACD. The Samsung, as usual, is probably responsible for neglecting some of those details, but it does so in a relatively pleasing and inoffensive manner.
After several months, I've finally gotten to the bottom of my 2L pile. That certainly doesn't mean Morten Lindberg is slowing down--on his website I see announcements for new releases on an almost weekly basis. There's an upcoming recoding of a harmonica and organ duo, reminiscent of that old audiophile chestnut Antiphone Blues. There's some Beethoven string quartets coming in the near future, along with some new folk songs from TrondheimSolistene, the group responsible for the Grammy-nominated Souvenir discs I've raved about right here. I'm looking forward to exploring each one.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Last night Colleen and I attended the first Vinyl Hunt at the North Door club in downtown Austin. We were invited by Brian DiFrank of Whetstone Audio; he was one of the main participants and organizers of this brand new LP swap meet event. While the first Vinyl Hunt was somewhat modest in terms of vendors--Brian, who recently obtained a huge vinyl collection for sale in his store, dominated the sales floor--hopefully it will grow into a much larger event as future hunts are organized.
That said, Colleen and I had a great time--despite the DJ in the back who didn't quite understand the meaning of the words "volume restraint" or "high-fidelity sound." We brought along the protoype of an old-fashioned milk/LP crate from our friends at Splintr Design called the Kreyt, and it received plenty of positive comments from the crowd. (One vendor pointed at it and said, "Cool, you brought your own shopping cart!")
I walked away with a few LPs including a great-sounding percussion record from Columbia--Sorcery! by Sabu, a $2 copy of Steely Dan's Gaucho in excellent condition and the soundtrack from A Clockwork Orange, something I'd always wanted. I also managed to score two newly remastered and sealed Ike Turner mono LPs from a Spanish label called Jerome Records. These were remastered by Mike Mariconda and were sold to me by a guy named...Mike Mariconda. He left Barcelona with a few extra copies in his backpacked (he joked that he was paid for his services in LPs) and was selling them at the event. These are archival recordings, which means the sound quality is "historic" at best, but the pressing is beautifully silent and the performances are rare and exciting.
Brian is confident that Vinyl Hunt will grow into something bigger. Austin's the right town for it; the crowd was mostly young people and curiously free of the typical middle-aged record geek (except for me, of course). I didn't have enough notice (or organizational skills) to promote Vinyl Hunt this time, but I'll be sure to let everyone know when the next gathering will be held.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
My review of Scott Walker's Bish Bosch LP is now up at Positive Feedback Online. Despite the fact that Colleen leaves the house whenever I play it, I begged her to buy it for me while we were at CES and she did. I had downloaded it previously, which allowed me to pick it as my favorite album of 2012, but you really need to get this on vinyl if you can.
You can read the review here.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Just some quick love here (a quickie?) for Ane Brun's 2011 CD, It All Starts with Nothing, because it's been in my CD player since I got back from CES. Bartolomeo Nasta and I visited the CH Precision/Zellaton room at CES, as I mentioned in my last blog, and Gideon Schwartz from Audio Arts, the US distributor, played the song "Worship" for us during the demonstration. Both Bart and I looked at each other and I said, "this is really good" and he agreed. I asked Gideon who it was, and he said "Ane Brun" about five times because I said "Huh?" four times. He finally handed me the CD, and somehow I was surprised that he wowed us with redbook CD as opposed to some fancy-schmancy hi-rez digital download running the through the mega-buck CH Precision DAC. That says a lot about the sound quality, which is rich and lifelike.
Ane Brun, who hails from Norway, has been around for a while; It All Starts with One is actually her eighth album since 2003. She's also been touring with Peter Gabriel and she runs her own record label, Balloon Ranger. So it's one more time that the Vinyl Anachronist is behind the curve and recommending one more thing that everyone else has known about for years. I'm just happy that I have a new CD that I can use to wow the crowds at trade shows.
Wednesday, January 16, 2013
At this year's CES I was far too busy to get out and see other rooms, but I did make a special trip (with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison/Opera) to hear two products, both DACs that retail for more than $30,000. The first, Light Harmonic's DaVinci, was the hit of the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October. I'm good friends with Gavin Fish of Light Harmonic, and I regretted missing his room at RMAF so I made sure I listened at CES. The second DAC, the CH Precision C1 Digital to Analog Controller (which also contains a preamp), was recommended to me by a group of well-heeled Austin audiophiles who claimed it was so good that they were trading in their $100K dcs digital stacks for a chance to own this Swiss beauty.
What was most surprising about these two very expensive systems was how different they sounded from each other. The Light Harmonic system, which included Wilson Sasha speakers and that gorgeous Momentum amplifier from Dan D'Agostino of Krell fame, offered a warm, rich and enveloping sound that completely immersed the listener in sound. The CH Precision system, which featured the new A1 monoblocks (which retail for about $75,000 per set) and Zellaton speakers from Germany, had a much more laid back and revealing presentation. While both systems were utterly captivating, I found myself leaning toward the CH Precision gear while Bartolomeo preferred the Light Harmonic system.
Unfortunately I was unable to get decent photos from the CH room because it was so dark (I've included one pic from the CH website), but Bart was able to capture several images of the DaVinci. What's most remarkable about the Light Harmonic is the sheer size of the DAC. Bart asked Gavin, "Why is it so big?" Gavin explained that the unit, which is extremely heavy as well, contains no less than five power supplies. As you can see from the pics, the DaVinci was flanked by two other similar units--one is a digital streamer and the other is a digital transport/server. A lot has been said about the polarizing style of the Light Harmonic gear (one scribe called it the Darth Vader of high-end audio), but in person this gear is impressive, substantial and very well-made.
So why is the Vinyl Anachronist suddenly obsessed with $30,000 DACs? Well, I'm the first to admit that digital playback has gotten so good over the last few years that I'm no longer a staunch vinyl "bigot." I would be deliriously happy with either the CH Precision or Light Harmonic gear. Those knowledgeable about high-end audio are also keenly aware that this year's $30,000 DAC is next year's $10,000 DAC, and so on. I've gone on record (pun intended) that I will play LPs for the rest of my life, but it's nice to know that I can still be satisfied with digital technology in case all those LPs and turntables disappear in the coming years. I'm very thankful that companies such as Light Harmonic and CH Precision push the performance envelope in the manner that they do, and that the hi-fi future looks incredibly bright.
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
I was able to borrow the Trellis equipment rack we used in the Unison/Opera room at CES last week. We're using two Trellis racks at our next trade show--the AXPONA show in Chicago in March--so it made sense to break down the CES rack and take it back to Texas for a couple of months. While we struggled to make the entire rack and hardware fit into the two smallish supplied boxes (we forgot to watch the guys from Splintr Designs unpack the rack and set it up), once I got back to Texas and unpacked it I found the rack incredibly easy to reassemble.
The Trellis racks are unusually attractive and well-designed. Because they are manufactured with a CNC machine, tolerances are tight and everything fits together with uncommon precision. Each shelf insert, made from heavy wood, has small rubber plugs at the corners to decouple it from the rack. Small cones are then used to control vibrations between each section of the rack, and larger, beautifully machined cones rest under the bottom section, which can also be used as an amp stand.
After unpacking all the pieces, I had the rack assembled and leveled in less than ten minutes. This particular rack is in maple. The Trellis equipment racks start at $1950, so with the upgrades this four-shelf rack will retail for roughly $2900. Splintr makes the Trellis racks in a wide variety of finishes, including some very exotic types, all which will increase the price. The shelf inserts are also available in a choice of woods, manufactured rock and granite which again drives up the price. But while the Trellis racks may seem pricey to those still using Expedit furniture from IKEA for their sound systems, these racks are actually a great value compared to some high-end audio racks that can cost well into the five-figure range.
We used the Trellis racks at both CES and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last October, and the majority of show attendees commented that the prices were extremely reasonable. I did have one gentleman in Vegas ask me point-blank why the racks were so expensive. I started off by explaining the high cost of a CNC machine, and his eyes seem to glaze over. So I wound up saying "They're not expensive at all."
As you can see, the additional Trellis rack gives me a lot of flexibility in my listening room. I've had a ton of equipment flow in and out of my system in the weeks leading up to CES, and it's been a royal pain to store this equipment all over the house when it's not in use. Now I can just leave it all on the rack. I'm set to receive the new preamplifier and monoblock amplifiers from PureAudio in the next few days, and now I have the room for all those amps.
If you'd like more information about Splintr Designs and the Trellis equipment racks, just visit their website.
Tuesday, January 8, 2013
Last year I blogged about the MOOS Mini from MOOS Audio, a fantastic little speaker that is designed in Australia and built in the Scanspeak factory in Denmark. Using the finest Revelator drivers, these brightly-colored little speakers offered a big sound in a big room, a task at which small monitors usually fail. I heard a passive version last year, but I was told that these speakers would ultimately be active and feature a unique combination of features.
Well, a year has passed and the little MOOS has really matured into an exciting product that does so much for a relatively affordable price. While it looks pretty much the same as it did in January 2012, a lot of technology has been been packed inside such as multiple DACs, DSP anbd wireless capabilities. Since the Mini is now an active design, all you really need to add is a laptop and iTunes to achieve a truly high-end sound for the 21st century.
The sound quality of the MOOS has also improved considerably over the last year. In its passive version it was a competent and likable monitor speaker which projected a fairly deep and believable soundstage. In its full-tech guise, it offers sound quality that far surpasses anything I have heard from a wireless speaker. While it was possible to create static and break-up in one channel while walking directly in front of the speakers, it was brief and not too distracting. (Most of this was due to the huge amount of wi-fi saturation at CES, and would never happen in a home environment.) While sitting in the sweet spot, I heard nothing but clarity, detail with the right balance of warmth--something I consider rare for a product so jam-packed with technology.
The MOOS will be available soon in the US for $2500, which includes the wireless transmitter, a pair of speakers and all the goodies inside (which you can see in the photo to the left). I've been looking for a simple, elegant way to listen to downloads on my computer, and this is the best-sounding solution I've heard so far. You can find out more information on Moos Audio at http://www.moosaudio.com/.
Monday, January 7, 2013
Today was set-up day for 2013, and like last year we were finished before noon in the Unison Research/Opera Loudspeakers/Cardas Audio/CCI room. In our main system we have the Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amplifier, Unison Research Unico Upower booster amplifier, Unico CDE CD player, Opera Mezza and Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers. This is the US debut of the Upower, which can quadruple the output power of low-powered tube amplification without significantly changing the sonic signature of the original amp. So the 12wpc Simply Italy now becomes a 48wpc powerhouse that can work with most speakers.
CES starts tomorrow at 10am at the Venetian in Las Vegas, and I'll be taking more photographs and posting them later. The Unison/Opera room is 29-117, and the My Audio Design (MAD) room (which is sharing with Viola Audio and ZenSATI cables) is located on the next floor in room 30-228. Please stop by and say hellow to me, Colleen Cardas, Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison/Opera and Timothy Jung of MAD.
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Does this speaker look familiar? Well, it should look like the My Audio Design 1920 loudspeaker I reviewed earlier this year, but in a gloss white finish. Same exact size, same drivers, same everything. Except this isn't the MAD 1920, it's the MAD 1920S, and it's slightly different than its little brother. As the MAD website says: "The 1920S is the signature version of our renowned 'World Standard' 1920 monitor. We have reconstructed the cabinet with a more advanced version of our proprietary DRC (Damping Resonance Control) and SWC technology. You can expect a sound that is smooth, open, natural, clear, detailed and unexaggerated. It all adds up to a package that is involving and coherent — like the original 1920 — but with more accuracy, clarity and even better bass."
In high-end audio, a "signature" version usually implies better parts, or a few tweaks here and there that lead to subtle yet noticeable improvements in the sound. But the difference between the 1920 and the 1920S is far from subtle. I don't want to take anything away from the 1920--it is a superb mini-monitor and an outstanding value--but I absolutely love the 1920S. It sounds so much bigger than the 1920 that it's hard to believe it only goes about 3 Hz deeper (55 Hz vs. 58 Hz). The price for this improvement is substantial--the 1920 is sold direct in the US from the MAD website for about $2575 (the price will vary slightly with the exchange rates), while the 1920S will retail in the US for $3450/pair. But it's worth it.
Of the three MAD speakers I've played with this week--the $48,000 Duke Royal Limiteds, the $11,000 Grand MS Maestro Supreme and now the 1920S--the latter pair is by far the most surprising. It's hard to listen to a $48K pair of loudspeakers without having extraordinarily high expectations. But these tiny little speakers shocked me at first listen. They sounded great right out of the box. They retain the smoothness and the refinement of all the other MAD speakers, but they excel at disappearing into the room and creating the type of soundstage that seems to expand well beyond the boundaries of my listening room. With an efficiency of 90dB, they also seemed to be the perfect match for the 12wpc Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amplifier. (Today I also plugged in the Unison Upower, a booster amp that quadruples the power to 48wpc.)
This is the last MAD speaker I get to play with before we head off to CES next week. I've had a lot of fun playing with all these goodies, and it will be tough to pack them up and send them on their way.