Wednesday, July 30, 2014

This Says It All....

Monday, July 28, 2014

Premium Two-Way Monitors and Why They Exist: the Axis VoiceBox S


I've said it many times before, but I have a special place in my heart for small two-way monitors. That was my entry point for high-end audio, tiny stand-mounted speakers that offered far better imaging and midrange purity than big, floorstanding speakers. Sure, small speakers don't offer the same low frequency response as their larger brethren, but the true joy of listening to such monitors is finding one that does. For example, I have a pair of Opera Callas monitors in our house that have a frequency response that goes down to 32 Hz...all with just a 5.5" woofer. I've owned/evaluated/reviewed many monitors that were more than satisfying with many different musical genres--the Trenner & Friedl ART monitor, My Audio Design 1920S, Harbeth Monitor 30, WLM La Scala monitor...the list goes on and on.

As you can see, my house is filled to the brim with little two-ways. They're everywhere. I love them all, for different reasons.


I'm bringing this up because I've just allowed an unusually intriguing little monitor into my home...the Axis VoiceBox S. The VoiceBox is the result of two famous Australian speaker designers, Brad Serhan and John Reilly. For years these two gentlemen were friendly rivals in the industry. One day they decided to join forces and build an exceptional studio monitor, and the VoiceBox was born. It was named for its ability to recreate the human voice with stunning accuracy and realism. Benchmark Mastering in Australia uses these speakers for studio mastering, which is something that looks very nice on Brad and John's resumes.

So how did I get a pair? Well, we've been friends with Brad for a long time. We worked with him on the Moos Audio project, a wireless active speaker project that didn't quite make it to the global marketplace but still allowed all the involved parties to move forward with the revolutionary technologies that were developed. Brad's been a bit of a hired gun in the last few years. He came up with all of the speaker designs for Orpheus Audio, a very respected marque in Oz. He bills himself as "Australia's Leading Custom Speaker Designer," which allows him the flexibility to design as his imagination dictates.

One day I was talking to Brad and I realized that outside of the Moos Audio speaker, which sounded fantastic, I had never truly heard one of his established designs. So at CES last January, Brad brought the VoiceBox into our room and we hooked it up to our room system. There were a few seasoned vets in the room, and we all liked what we heard. I asked Brad and John to send me a pair, and they did.


John is a very interesting fellow as well. He's been running Axis as a joint Australian-Chinese venture for a few years, which is logical since he's half-Chinese and half-Australian himself. He has residences in both China and Australia, and he closely supervises all operations in his Chinese factory. John set out to prove that high-quality audio products can be designed and manufactured in China, and the VoiceBox is proof that he's succeeded. Despite its rather ordinary appearance--it's a little box with a 5" Peerless woofer and a ribbon tweeter, finished in gloss black--it took me by surprise. Unlike most studio monitors, which can be so revealing of source material that they're no longer fun, the VoiceBox is a very detailed yet very lovely-sounding speaker.


I had three initial concerns with the VoiceBox when I first unpacked the pair. First, the binding posts are set vertically on the back of the speakers as opposed to the horizontal norm. That made it difficult to properly attach my big, heavy Furutech cables with spade terminations without the weight of the cable putting too much stress on the posts. Brad told me that he prefers to use banana plug terminations, which would definitely make it easier to dress the cabling. Second, both the rear of the speaker and the speaker grille are emblazoned with red Chinese characters, which may turn off North American audiophiles who only buy Chinese audio gear to save big bucks. But John is very proud of his Chinese heritage--on every box you'll see "Designed in Australia, Proudly Made in China." He's challenging our preconceptions, in other words. Finally, the grilles are not functional--they're formed like a metallic grate that will block sound coming from the drivers. They look very cool, but I think most audiophiles want the option of a functioning grille for listening in the vicinity of pets, kids and the occasional clumsy party guest. (As if the majority of audiophiles had parties.) I can understand why John did this--these speakers are meant to be listened to while naked (the speaker, not the listener)--but not every audiophile will agree.

Those concerns all seemed utterly insignificant once the pair of VoiceBox S broke in. For the first three days I loved the huge, revealing soundstage and all the inner detail--it was easy to see why Benchmark chose them as studio monitors--but there was a definite lack of weight in the low end that made the overall balance seem thin. On the fourth day the heavens parted and the bass made its first appearance, and that transformed the overall balance of the speaker. The VoiceBox should go down to 55 Hz or so, which is excellent for a tiny speaker such as this, and for the first time I felt they were delivering the goods. While the bass wasn't as deep as some of the floorstanders I have sitting around, it was tight and well-defined. Every note of Ray Brown's bass in the hi-rez FIM release of Happy Coat was present and delivered with the appropriate weight and woodiness. The VoiceBox excelled at revealing new musical details--one on particular recording I heard foot-tapping for the first time, despite the fact that I've heard this LP on at least a dozen different loudspeakers.


These speakers are so good, in fact, that I'm going to keep them in my system until the brand new Opera Grand Callas, which weighs 180 lbs. each and costs $12,000 a pair, arrives next month. (We're going to show them at the New York Audio Show in September, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October and CES 2015 in January.) And yes, we're thinking about becoming the Axis distributor for the US, which means I'll have to shut up about how good they are on this blog. But until that happens, I'm going to enjoy the heck out of these speakers and congratulate Brad and John on a job well done. Whether or not I'm involved with Axis in the future, I think people outside of China and Australia should know about this fantastic little speaker. I'm keeping these either way.



Sunday, July 27, 2014

Hawks Do Not Share on CD


This one's been sneaking into my head lately, a combination of Supreme Beings of Leisure and the Notwist, a dreamy album that it perhaps so memorable because it's so different from so much of guitar-driven, angular music out there. This is smooth stuff, more ethereal than danceable, yet it draws from so many unlikely sources--most of them from just fifteen or twenty years ago.

Hawks Do Not Share, which consists of multi-instrumentalists George Lewis III, Jeremy Wilkins and Britt White, is the result of longtime musician friends who delved into a more acoustic sound independently but found that their collaboration yielded a more spacy, programmed vibe. This, their debut album, is filled with many nods to synth-rock from the late '80s and early '90s, from a twangy New Order guitar riff in "Over Our Shoulders" to a straight, piano-laden ballad ("Christmas Eve, Montmartre") that sounds like it might have been written for Morrissey, or perhaps even Alison Moyet. (Lewis' sometimes dramatic vocals are only slightly huskier than the latter, especially when White sings backing vocals.) You'll even recognize a little mid-90s Yo La Tengo, with drum samples of course, in the instrumental ("Forgiveness") that opens the album. With Georgia Hubley on drums, it could sound like an actual outtake from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.


The real stand-out song on the album, released as the first single, is the tense "Break Even." Its spy-film aura is pasted to a meaty, arrogant synthesizer riff that could be lifted from a dozen bands from the '80s--you know, the cool ones that have aged well. The clangy, spacious background is straight out of the 4AD instruction booklet, making this catchy song sound like it was recorded in the same space as Cocteau Twins' Blue Bell Knoll. (It's been a few years since I've worked in a BBK reference!)

Hawks Do Not Share is something relative rare in this day and age--a band that works in the darker corners of the room, immortalizing the music you've forgotten over the last few years. Even better, it's performed without the nasty edge that characterizes so much modern music--something that's calculated to trick you into thinking you're listening to something contemporary. The HDNS Express will take you straight to where you want to go, especially if you're in the mood for something that's, well, moody.



Saturday, July 19, 2014

Ingvild Koksvik's Nattapent on LP


"Not surprised that you like it, even though she sings in Norwegian."

That's my Facebook friend Trond Torgnesskar, who connected me with Norwegian singer/songwriter Ingvild Koksvik so that I could hear her latest LP, Nattapent, on Norway's Fyrlyd Records. Trond, a fellow music scribe and audio reviewer from Oslo, had noticed my now numerous reviews of albums from Norway's 2L Recordings and thought I should hear this tremendously well-recorded album immediately. "I have come across one that might just be one of the finest recordings I have ever heard," Trond said, "not to mention that it is stunningly beautiful music. Might be right up your street!"

Within a few days of saying yes, I was exchanging emails with a certain Ms. Koksvik. She explained that she was a Norwegian singer and songwriter, and Nattapent was her debut release for Fyrlyd. I also learned that nattapent was Norwegian for "night open" and fyrlyd is Norwegian for "lighthouse sound." These are evocative phrases that wind up imbued in every single note of the album, a spaciousness that is both mysterious and invigorating like a moonlit walk on the beach.


Upon first listen, I was reminded of the Grammy nominated Quiet Winter Night from 2L, which I reviewed here. Perhaps that's because Ingvild's voice is superficially similar to Helene Boksle's. (I hope that's not just me thinking that all female Norwegian singers sound the same.) This recording features a much smaller ensemble than the 2L recording, however, and there's more of a consistency with the tunes; the 2L recording is more of an exploration of several genres while Ingvild is a traditional songwriter who stays true to her muse.

This more intimate sound, however, allows the listener to focus effortlessly on the distinct musical threads within the songs. You can certainly zero in on Ingvild's beautiful voice, the way she lets a little nervous energy to creep in at just the right moments so that you know she's singing about something that truly matters to her, something that touches her and makes her revisit real emotions. You can also focus on the way Nils Okland's violin and Sigrun Eng's cello intertwine and create a stunning, complex sound that can fool you into thinking that you're listening to a larger string ensemble. Or, you can concentrate on the sound of Lars Rudjord's deep, resonant piano notes that sometimes take forever to completely vanish.


The timing of this review coincided with the arrival of the Axis Voice Box S monitors from Australia. Designed by John Reilly and my good buddy Brad Serhan, these diminutive speakers are named for their ability to reproduce the human voice accurately. These speakers are used for mastering at the Benchmark Studios in Australia, and indeed they are extremely revealing and they let you hear every single detail in the recording. But unlike most studio monitors, which can be relentlessly revealing of mistakes during the recording process, the Voice Box S produces a fun and enjoyable sound.

As you can imagine, hearing Ingvild's voice through these little gems was a real treat--I felt like she was standing there in the room, looking around, wondering when I was going to unpack the last few boxes after my move last month. One of the strengths of the Voice Boxes are that while they are very small, they throw up and amazingly wide and deep soundstage. One of the loveliest things about the sound of this album is how there's plenty of space between Ingvild, the piano, the cello and the Hardanger fiddle, and that allows each voice to bloom and develop in space on its own. You get that wondrous feeling like you can get up and walk around in that soundstage, between all the musicians, and feel all that immediate energy bouncing off your body. In other words, this amazing sonic experience was brought to me through a Norwegian and Australian partnership.

So Trond, the answer is yes, I love this album even though it is sung in Norwegian. I've listened to so much Norwegian music in the last couple of years that the language no longer sounds alien to my ears--even though I only know what nattapent and fyrlyd means at this point in time. I don't know what Ingvild is singing about in these truly beautiful songs, but I can detect the feeling and emotion in every word and I can selfishly come up with my own narrative, and that's really all I need.

You can learn more about this album at Ingvild's website. If I've made you curious, you can check her out on YouTube as well.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

New Review of the SOTA RCM Record Cleaning Machine on Positive Feedback


It's been a while since I've done an equipment review, but Positive Feedback just published my thoughts on the awesome SOTA RCM record cleaning machine. You can read it here.

Enjoy!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Alejandra O'Leary and the Champions of the West's Heartspace Timepiece on CD


I've had to learn this lesson more than once--you can't form an opinion about a certain piece of music if you're driving in your car the first time you listen to it. I remember doing this more than a decade ago when I first listened to Yo La Tengo's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. My synopsis? Quiet, and not enough going on--or as Janet Dudley once wrote in her Listener review, "there's not enough there there." Then of course I listened to it on my home rig and immediately fell in love with it. The same exact thing happened with Scott Walker's Drift ("what a pretentious, odious, artsy-fartsy mess"), Neutral Milk Hotel's In An Aeroplane Over the Sea ("what's with the musical saw, guys?") and, most recently, Swans' The Seer ("am I in hell?"). Let them get under your skin, however, and they'll eventually own you.

I'm not going to lump Detroit singer Alejandra O'Leary's latest album with those somewhat difficult yet fascinating works because this, in comparison, is just a upbeat collection of '80s pop songs. But when I first listened to it last month on a road trip to Denver, I got a little grumpy because it sounded like another cute but quirky girl channeling songs from the likes of 'Til Tuesday, The Motels and perhaps even such '90s passing fancies as Lisa Loeb and Natalie Imbruglia. I didn't even play it for very long--I was in a carload full of people who are less adventurous than I am when it comes to new music, and I thought I'd be torturing them if I didn't press EJECT. I wound up replacing it with the Solid Gold Balls CD I just reviewed, which was a relative success.


I gave it another listen when I got home, on my main rig. Strangely enough, it sounded completely different as if someone switched CDs on me. I even invited one of my fellow erstwhile travelers into the room and asked, "Do you remember that CD I played in the car that no one seemed to like? This is it!" The response, of course, was "Really? It didn't sound anything like this. This is good." So it's the strangest thing, and I don't know why this happened unless it's another case of an artist who's a bit too thoughtful and a bit too poetic for a casual listen on a crappy car CD player.

So what was quirky and stringent in an almost foreign way--Alejandra's voice--became smooth and sexy and exuberant. Her band, which seemed merely competent on the road, became a collective of uncanny impressionists who could play just like all your favorite bands from the '80s and even the '90s without a shred of disrespect. Even the rare touches of country-rock, found buried in songs like "Beat Ohio," suggest that the Champions of the West may be the first band to successfully pay homage to the sound of the '90s by fleshing it out and pointing towards what will define that time in the coming years. I've been waiting for someone to do that for a while.

So the morale is not to judge a book by its cover, or something vague like that. The very reason why we audiophiles own such nice audio equipment is so that we can hear deep into the recordings. We scoff at those who listen to music as just "something in the background." So if you happen upon Heartspace Timepiece in the near future, give it a close listen and you'll be rewarded.

Monday, June 30, 2014

The Black Keys' Turn Blue on LP (and CD)


Ah, this is the way I like to do album reviews. Play it for weeks. Get to know it well. Put the LP on your turntable and then don't take it off for a month. Stick the CD in your car's player and play it until people tell you if they have to listen to it one more time they're going to eject it and throw it out the window. Yeah, I know the Black Keys' new album, Turn Blue, pretty well by now. I've gotten to the point where I know which song is going to come up next. I even know what musical note is coming up next. It's like the summer of 2010, where I listened to nothing but Brothers and Janelle Monae's The Archandroid over and over and over again.

Is the picture clear yet?

Well, let's stop for a moment. Turn Blue isn't my favorite LP of all time. It's not even my favorite Black Keys album. I think they reached their creative peak with Brothers, and perhaps 2008's Attack and Release. Their monster breakthrough 2011 album, El Camino, might have been my favorite album for that year but in retrospect I'm starting to think that's when they lost their edge, sold out, became slick and overproduced and polished, or whatever. Turn Blue is a continuation of that trend, an album that no longer sounds all stripped down, an album from a band with two members playing everything. It sounds like a recording from an established band who now possesses the power to make any album they want to, and this one happens to be dense, ornate psychedelic rock with a little Motown thrown in. If you're saying to yourself, yeah, that sounds like the other albums, you'll need to push the time machine needle forward a few years, where Pink Floyd and the Delfonics intersect--if they intersect at all.


My opinions of this album have evolved with each listen. My first reaction was that it's a great new direction for Dan Auerback and Patrick Carney, a rich and complex soundscape that has far more layers of sound than you expect with a Black Keys album. The opener, "Weight of Love," is the closest thing the Keys have ever come to an epic song--at almost seven minutes it is by far the longest song the duo has ever recorded. It's also an amazing Track One, a calling card of sorts that reeks of ambition and weight and complete mastery of the recording studio. That's partially due to the extraordinary talents of Danger Mouse, who acts as producer and as an "equal songwriting partner" to Auerbach and Carney. He also produced El Camino, which was noteworthy to Keys' fans because of its lush production values--at least in comparison to Brothers, which was an exercise in lo-fi.

(I once visited the Avalon Acoustics factory in Boulder, Colorado and listened to an amazing system in their million dollar room. When asked if I wanted to play something, the only music I had on me was Brothers. Avalon's Neil Patel came in, sat down, and asked me if I broke his system.)


Those opinions, as I said, shifted through the evaluation process. I started thinking that the first two songs, the aforementioned "Weight of Love" and "In Time" were by far the strongest cuts, and that the album sort of blended together and the songs are started to sound the same as the album progressed. It's not as much of a criticism as you think; it reminds me of a review I once read of the Strokes' first album that said, and I paraphrase, "it's the same song over and over, but man, what a great song!" But that specific opinion of Turn Blue, as I said, changed over time. It's not so much that I started fleshing out each song and noticing all the little flourishes and touches that make the music so good and so varied. It's just that the Black Keys, more than any other contemporary band I like, get into your head and stay there and become as natural as taking your next breath.

I've played this album for a number of people and the common reaction has been, "What is this?" "The new Black Keys," I tell them. "It's great!" they reply. It's an immediately likeable album, in a big way, one made by people who know who they are and what their fans expect. But I would like them to get back to basics on the next one.

(One final note: the LP is $25, but it does come with the CD. Score! I compared the sound quality of the two and it sounded like they were sourced from the same digital masters. But as one of my Facebook friends recently posted, does it matter if an LP is sourced from a digital master when the digital master sounds so good? I think he may have a point, so I'm not going to sweat this anymore.)