Thursday, August 13, 2015

My Latest Installment of The Smoking Jacket Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

My latest Smoking Jacket column is now online at Part-Time Audiophile, which you can read here. This one is about the little firecrackers, really bold cigars that also happen to be, well, tiny. Enjoy!

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Australia Bound!

My Australia trip is ON. I'll be in Sydney from August 21 to September 6 to visit with my good friends Brad Serhan and David Allen and consult with them and their design team on Brigadiers Audio Group, their new premium brand of loudspeakers. As I've said many times before, I've been evaluating BAG's new Compact 2-way loudspeaker as part of my "search for the perfect two-way." (Or, as SpJ's Judy Spotheim-Koreneeff replied on my Facebook page, "No such thing, and no such creation." I know, which is why I'm searching--halfway around the world.

While there I'll also be visiting the Cohibar at the Watershed Hotel to hopefully smoke some Cuban cigars with some Australian cigar aficionados, and I'm sure I'll probably squeeze out a Smoking Jacket column out of the experience. I hope to enjoy my first Cohiba Behike BHK 52 there--I've been told by a couple of friends that it's the finest cigar ever and I've been hoping to try one for at least a couple of years.

Finally, I'll have a chance to hear BAG's latest creation, a floorstanding 2.5-way speaker tentatively referred to as the McQuade. Once we're happy with the finalized designs, I'm hoping that Colleen Cardas Imports will be the new US importer and distributor for BAG, and that we'll be able to show both the Compact and the McQuade at a trade show very soon!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Redray Frazier's Blood in the Water on CD

Do you remember back in the early to mid '80s, after Thriller had made that once in a lifetime splash on the charts, and suddenly there was a whole new breed of funk/r&b/pop that was edgy, quirky and dynamic? Remember that first album from Rockwell, and how good it actually was, and how everyone thought he'd knock the King of Pop off the top of the mountain? How about Terence Trent D'Arby, and how he was able to cast that darkness into the background of his songs and that made him sound like nobody else? Do you remember that's when The Purple One became huge and everyone was choosing sides between him and Mikey? Do you remember?

I don't. Back then, I was listening to the Minutemen and X and Husker Du and the Meat Puppets and I just didn't get it. I didn't hate that type of music, I respected it, but it just wasn't my thing. In my old age, I've changed. Where once I would have listened to a singer like Red Ray Frazier and said, "It's good, but not my deal," now I'm listening to his new EP, Blood in the Water, and I'm thinking "It's good, really good. I need this music in my life."

Maybe Janelle Monae was the flashpoint for me, but I'm truly welcoming any music that can take me back and help me to connect all the dots of my musical education. Frazier, who was born and raised in New York and started off singing gospel music "in his father's Baptist church," has deftly walked through the door opened by Frank Ocean, the Black Keys and perhaps even Sharon Jones, modern vanguards who have introduced old genres to a new audience. He navigates these six songs through a bright, sunny, '80s pair of shades with the ease of a seasoned vet who's already thinking about releasing a second box set. His soulful voice and his devotion to his very specialized and difficult genre sets him apart from his contemporaries who want to add too much 21st century to an '80s sound. Frazier is, perhaps, adding an '80s sound to classic Motown, and that's cool enough.

His amazing backing band doesn't hide in the shadows, either. They are able to capture those bizarre synthesizer programmings and laid back beats with a confidence that matches that of their front man. Jeff Baxter on keyboards? Matt Brown on guitars? How about folk-rocker Ezra Holbrook, a personal favorite, on drums? In other words, when will they be playing in Colorado? I'm there.

If there's a misstep on this album, it's the somewhat lo-fi approach to the production. It's not muffled and tinny in an attempt to recapture a classic R&B vibe, but it's sort of distorted and super sharp around the edges (although there is plenty of deep bass captured by our new Opera Seconda SE speakers). When the full-length debut album comes out from Redray, and it will be a great injustice if he doesn't follow this up immediately, I think he should make his songs sound as big and as dynamic and as sparkly as the best '80s pop albums. Have you listened to Thriller lately? It still sounds great more than thirty years later. I think Redray Frazier should go big, big as his vision.

(Frazier is selling this EP directly on his website, by the way. Check it out!)

Friday, August 7, 2015

Our 2015 CCI Road Trip

Seven days, thirteen states and four thousand miles.

Our annual CCI summer trip, where Colleen and I intercept a large shipment from Italy at the US port of entry and then ship and/or deliver our products to dealers and customers at the nearest FedEx office, was by far our longest road trip yet. Last year we flew to Newark, New Jersey and rented a car so we could tour most of New England. This year we drove it all--from our home in Colorado we drove to Houston with a pair of our Opera Grand Callas loudspeakers (which weigh nearly 200 pounds a piece), dropped them off at a potential dealer in Houston, visited our dealer in Beaumont TX (Don Penland of Limpia Sound), then picked up the rest of our shipment in a bonded warehouse nearby and shipped everything out. Everything, that is, except for another pair of Opera Grand Callas for one of our customers in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. Then we heard from a close friend of ours in Jacksonville who was sick in the hospital and wanted us to visit. Then, after our visit, we drove all the way home.

For those keeping score at home, that's Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri and Kansas. And now I'm getting ready to fly to Australia for a few weeks. I'm already exhausted.

As many of our friends have already commented, why did we deliver a single pair of speakers all the way in Florida? Well, our customer Joe had been waiting quite some time for his beautiful, mahogany speakers and we wanted him to have them as quickly as possible. Joe is a lifetime audiophile who has several audiophile buddies who'd been giving him a hard time about waiting so long. In addition, Joe recently had hand surgery and was unsure if he could maneuver a 200 lb. behemoth into place without re-injuring himself. Despite an ominous, impending Florida thunderstorm, we were able to get the Grand Callas into his house without a problem. Joe's lovely wife made us spaghetti and meatballs for dinner, and after all was said and done it was definitely worth the trip to make this very special customer happy.

Also, Joe's dealer is our good friend Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery. We'd do anything for Dan--he's absolutely one of the most dedicated and knowledgeable dealers in the US.

We did have one surprise when we arrived--Joe had invited two of his buddies over to watch the installation. These two gentlemen just happened to be Tom Norton of Stereophile, and Tom Tutay, who made a custom run of his highly regarded speaker cable for the Grand Callas. I'd never met either Tom before, but both of these gents were friendly, helpful and great company.

Joe has quite the outstanding system consisting of Spectral amplification, and a J.A. Michell Orbe turntable very similar to the Orbe SE I owned for many years. Once we had the speakers somewhat dialed in, we all sat and listened for a few hours. While the speakers had zero hours on them, which made me a little nervous, they snapped into focus after just a few musical selections. As I told Joe and his buddies, the Operas do get about 90% of the way there after about 48 hours, but they would continue to break in and sound better over weeks, even months. By the time we headed out to Jacksonville, the system was sounding really nice. Joe called us the next day and told us he absolutely loved his new purchase.

This, of course, is my favorite part of the job. I obviously love to travel, and I hadn't been through the Deep South since the '80s. In fact, I hadn't been to Florida since 1987, when my first wife and I went to Orlando for our honeymoon. Despite the fact that Colleen and I were overwhelmed by the heat and humidity--we're used to the 15 to 20% humidity in Western Colorado--I enjoyed the scenery quite a bit. I love to travel, if you don't know--I live for doing trade shows or dealer events or anything that gets me away from this dang computer.

We took a more northerly route on the way home just to switch up the drive, and I wound up in one of my favorite cities in the US--Chattanooga, Tennessee. I spent some time in Chattanooga back in 1998 or so, where I found one of the greatest cigar stores I'd ever patronized. (Plus, Chattanooga gave me my first taste of Steak N Shake.) This time we had lunch in downtown 'Noog at the absolutely spectacular Beast & Barrel, and then checked out Chad's Records a few doors down.

Chad's is a funky used record store with only a few new releases, and I didn't have the time to rummage through the bins, but the selection was extensive and eclectic and the prices seemed fair. Best of all, the store was filled with customers, including many students from the nearby University of Tennessee--Chattanooga. LPs continue to be the cool format for young people.

In addition to records, books and gifts, Chad's had some amazing Chattanooga-themed T-shirts on display. I had to get one, of course. Colleen hated this shirt, but I absolutely fell in love with it. I've only been home a few days, but I've already worn it twice. It's my new favorite T-shirt.

Finally, we almost didn't make it home. See these storm clouds outside of Oakley, Kansas? We drove through the middle of it. Now I've driven in all sorts of crazy weather, but this storm was unbelievable. We hit a wall of rain and hail that had me pulling completely over to the side of the road within a few hundred yards. For a good twenty minutes we were pelted with quarter-sized hail which sounded like someone was throwing rocks at our windshield. Our company vehicle is now dimpled from end to end.

Despite that somewhat scary development, we made it home in one piece. I brought in some new equipment, and my home system is going through the usual bi-monthly changes. I've added one of our entry-level Unison Research Unico Primos, the direct descendant of the original Unico that had Sam Tellig raving more than twenty years ago. I'm also installing a pair of the brand spanking new Opera Seconda SE speakers later this week. I have a lot of record reviews in the coming days--I want to be completely caught up by the time I leave for Sydney.

So there should be some heavy blogging over the next two weeks!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Amp Slummin'

Notice anything wrong with my audio system in this photo? For those of you wondering why I don't have my usual Unison Research or PureAudio amps in the system, I kind of sold them all. That little black box you see on the upper left of the equipment rack wasn't a back-up amp, or even a back-up to the back-up amp. It was almost a paperweight, a decoration. It's the old Rotel RB-930AX integrated amplifier I bought for my parents more than twenty years ago. Last year it started crackling in one channel. I opened the top and found a veritable paradise for dust bunnies inside. Cleaning the inside of the amp didn't fix the problems, so my parents bought a little Dayton Audio T-amp for $100 and gave me the Rotel--perhaps just to dispose of it. So it's been sitting on a bookcase, unused, ever since.

I've been sans amp for the last few weeks, and I just couldn't stand it anymore. I looked at the Rotel and thought, "Maybe it won't be that bad. If it is, maybe I can try to replace caps, resistors, whatever else might be worn out after many years of steady use." So I placed the Rotel on the empty space on my equipment rack that's been mocking me ever since I sold that last demo Triode 25, and I hooked everything up--which wasn't easy since the speaker binding posts on the back of the Rotel were small and flimsy and the only cables I have are big and bulky with heavy-duty spades. I turned everything on and started playing an album--Analogue Productions' reissue of Ben Webster at the Renaissance--and at first everything sounded pretty decent.

Then I heard it--a high-pitched buzz that meant something was going south, a cap, a transformer, whatever. I switched over to CD and the buzz was still there. I sighed, because the buzzing was loud enough so that I just couldn't listen around it. I shut everything down and started to watch something stupid on TV.

Right then, I had an idea. Furutech just sent me some of their newer power management products to try out, and possibly bring to future trade shows. I already have plenty of Furutech cabling and power management products on hand, since we partner with them at shows, but this stuff was new and therefore, hopefully, improved. They sent me the two-outlet GTX-D NCF receptacle box, which you see in the photo below, right next to one of the older versions of the GTX I have for comparison. I plugged it in another outlet on the other wall with Furutech's new FP-S032N power cable. I don't know the price of either product since these haven't been officially introduced yet. In fact, Furutech doesn't like me to talk about their new products in detail in advance of their availability, so I won't.

Suffice it to say that that high-pitched buzz went away immediately. I plugged the Furutech GTX-D box in the same outlet as my other power management equipment to eliminate the wall circuit, and yes, the high-pitched noise was still absent for the most part. The Rotel is still overall a little bit on the noisy side--at $300 MSRP back in the mid-'90s, this ain't quite high-end. But with the Furutech GTX in the system, this little amp became a nice, pleasant little amp. I remember all this budget-priced Rotel gear from twenty years ago and how nice it was for the money, and here's one of those products, a 30wpc integrated that was at the very bottom of the line, sounding more than adequate to this spoiled audiophile.

The 930 lacks the warmth and texture of my reference tube amplification--it sounds glassy and smoothed over and tidied up instead of a living, breathing human thing, but I'm getting plenty of soundstage depth, imaging and a fairly grain-free treble. Fortunately I have a couple of amplifiers returning to me in the next couple of weeks, so I'll take the Rotel out and get back to some serious sound. But until then, I'm going to keep my sanity.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

In Search of the Perfect Two-Way, Part 2

Have I ever told you how much I love two-way monitor speakers? I know I have, at least a few times. In fact, I've found two of my old equipment reviews where I started off by saying how much I love little two-ways. I've also found three old reviews where I start off by saying how much I love integrated amplifiers. So I guess when all is said and done and I retire from this audio thing, I'll probably choose an integrated amp and a pair of two-way bookshelf speakers and fade away into musical bliss.

For the record, I can probably find dozens of reviews from other writers that start off with a sentence declaring unconditional love for either integrateds or two-ways. Maybe they copied it from me, maybe I copied it from them...but if I had to lay money on it, I'd say I probably stole it from Art Dudley back in his days with Listener.

Anyway, when I say I love two-way monitors, I can back that shit up. I have little monitors all over the friggin' place. As you can see in the photo above, I gathered them all together for a group photo. I did this for a few reasons--one, I thought it would be goofy and fun to do so, and second, I'm preparing myself for my upcoming trip to Australia to consult with the fine folks at Brigadiers Audio Group on the final version of their new speaker line. We'll be tweaking and listening to two models--one is a larger 2.5-way floorstander, and the other is the two-way monitor I've had in my system since January.

This is the speaker I'm talking about, the BAG Compact, the biggest, heaviest and potentially most expensive speaker of the lot. As I've mentioned before, this is a very ambitious design that features the highest quality parts and drivers, and an intricate cabinet made from birch ply. That's why they weigh about 45 to 50 pounds each--they're like solid blocks of wood. Heavy wood.

I'm very, very excited about this speaker because it's one of those two-way speaker designs that I could retire with. It's all I need from a speaker--it throws up a giant soundstage, goes satisfying low in the bass and has oodles of air and space in the treble. The only drawback of this speaker is that it has a relatively low sensitivity, and I haven't had a big powerful amp to drive them with. I was able to briefly pair them with the PureAudio Reference monoblocks, which provide 65 watts per channel of beautiful Class A power--and the combo was magnificant. But outside of those ten days or so, the most I've been able to throw on the BAG Compacts is 45 watts per channel. I'm jonesin' for a nice 100-150 wpc amp right now, and then I may discover the true potential of these speakers.

That's why I'm bringing them back to Australia with me--so I can hear them mated to the amplification used in their design.

These little two-ways need no introduction. Okay, they're the Trenner & Friedl ART Monitors from Austria. These are my personal reference speakers and have been for the last four and a half years. These go into my main system whenever I don't have another pair of speakers that I'm evaluating or breaking in--unless, of course, I have a big giant speaker on hand and I want to listen to the bottom octave. Even so, these little speakers with a front baffle around the size of a classic LS3/5a go surprisingly deep--down to about 44 Hz with proper set up.

As a distributor, I make plenty of switches to my system on an almost weekly basis. With all those changes, it's easy to lose that sound with which you're comfortable--prompting a sudden and drastic tearing down and rebuilding of your system, trying to recover that magic. In most cases I can simply insert the ARTs into my system and instantly return to the sound I crave.

These, of course, are the little brother to the ART, the new SUN. As of right now, I believe that this is the only pair in the US. They made a huge splash at the Newport/Irvine/Santa Ana/wherever Show last month, and I'm listening to them now. I love them with all my heart. So small yet so musical. Just astonishing.

In my original blog entry about the SUN, some guy made an absurd comment about the SUN--how they couldn't be that small and that satisfying at the same time. He dragged out a bunch of hoary old tropes about the limitations of little two-ways and came up with a bunch of strange comments that didn't really apply. The biggest mistake he made was assuming these were single-driver speakers--they're not. These are two-ways, since the tweeter is where the dust cap is, mounted concentrically. As a result, the little SUN comes as close to a single-point source as any transducer I've heard.

These, of course, are the Axis VoiceBox S. I import and distribute these in the United States, so I won't go on and on about how good they are. But I am happy that this is my very own pair to have and to hold for as long as I want. Of all the speakers I own, the Axis are perhaps the best at delving deep into a recording and extracting as much musical information as possible, except for the bottom octave, of course, all without sounding analytical or harsh like many other pro recording monitors.

There's a good story behind the middle VoiceBox, the one with the wood veneer. This was a prototype of the current model that sat in the garage of TAS' Neil Gader for a couple of years. After he reviewed the finished version of the speaker for TAS a couple of months ago, he sent this lone speaker back with the review pair. Apparently one speaker had to be sent back to Australia for one reason or another, and, well, who knows. Stuff happens. So I'm thinking about marketing this lone speaker as a Signature Mono Edition of the VoiceBox. Catchy, huh?

Finally, I have these old Rega RS1s sitting around. We originally purchased them for a song from one of our dealers--we wanted to place a modest system in our old cigar lounge back in Texas. This pair had been damaged during shipping, but the dealer was able to get a new replacement set of drivers. The cabinets are scuffed up with a bashed corner or two, but they sound wonderful. These speakers retailed for $795/pair or so when they were new, and to tell you the truth they sound absolutely great for the money. The first time I heard Rega's smallest speaker was back in the '90s during a visit to my old dealer Gene Rubin. They retailed for $495/pair back then, and they became my stock recommendation at that price point for many years.

I've listened to these on a number of occasions, and despite the beat-up cabinets and the seemingly cheap drivers--at least compared to the other monitors I have in the house--I've always been surprised at how musical they are. But at this point, I'm not sure if I really need to have them, especially with all the speaker choices I have in the house. If you're interested, I'd probably sell them for cheap. Just let me know.

My trip to Australia is being planned for August 16-29, or roughly thereabouts. I'll try to keep everyone informed about my work with BAG, and my experiences as an "professional speaker consultant."

Friday, July 10, 2015

Stubborn Son's Birthright on CD

What are the young 'uns listenin' to these days? If my mailbox is any indication, good old-fashioned '70s blues rock is the hot ticket in 2015. It seems like the last handful of CDs I've received from new bands are firmly rooted in the traditions set by Zep, Cream and Hendrix, with dripping hunks of reverb and squirrely doses of feedback set off by minimalist production values, all packaged up and delivered by that most venerated of music machines--the power trio.

Stubborn Son, a Seattle version of said outfit, makes no apologies about its simple yet blistering approach to the blues catalog on their new CD, Birthright. While most musicians who pay homage to purist rock tend to filter their output through a modern, somewhat ironic context (Black Keys are a firm and fine example of this), Stubborn Son is as raw and naked as it gets. Stripped down and full of swagger, Garrett Lamp (guitars, vocals), Andrew Knapp (bass, vocals) and Blair Daly (drums, vocals) are merely on stage to let it rip, to crank things up a notch higher than everyone else.

The album's opener, "The Broken Heart Proof," comes on like classic Cream, loose loud and unafraid to kick out the jams. "Catch Me Runnin'" opens with a gargantuan and meaty beat that will trick you into thinking you're listening to a cover of "When the Levee Breaks" until Garrett Lamp's vocals drop in with all that garage band fuzz you might have heard in that house down the block in the neighborhood where you grew up. And if that opening slide riff on "Thick as Blood" doesn't remind you of Page, or at least Jack White, it's time to watch It Might Get Loud one more time.

While the overall sound quality on Birthright isn't designed to let you hear every last nuance during the recording sessions, it does capture a lot of the more human contributions to the songs--lots of fingers dragging on strings, lots of amp noise, the buzzing of snare drum heads--all those things you'd hear at the club. That's because Martin Feveyear at Jupiter Studios in Seattle recorded this album with a minimum of overdubs. That gives Stubborn Son a chunky, authentic sound that might remind you of a lot of your favorite groups from thirty or forty years ago. The fact that those durned kids are into this kind of music is just icing on the cake, and maybe hope for the future.