Saturday, March 8, 2014
All right, I admit that I'm dying to hear how good these LPs sound. I've been hearing about Pete Hutchison and his lofty and hyper-expensive Electric Recording Company releases for the last year or so. No, I'm not going to spend hundreds, or even thousands, to find out. But damn, I'm curious!
Here's an article in the Guardian about Pete and his crazy ambition to remaster some of the great classical titles of all time. Has anyone out there taken the plunge? I'd like to find out your impressions if you have!
Friday, March 7, 2014
An interesting package from Germany landed in my mailbox yesterday. (I'll date myself by saying that I kept telling everyone it was from West Germany. I don't know why.) Katzenberger Music Productions, which released three new digital recordings late last year in Germany, is set for a launch in the US at the end of this month. These first three recordings, titled 01, 02 and 03, are presented in the opulent hardcover booklets you see in the photos. The packaging is gorgeous, right down to the rubbery pucks that hold the discs in place (no more broken bits of clear plastic!), and the little booklets themselves contain pages and pages of liner notes and photographs. In other words, this is a first class production in every way.
I'll review each of these three titles separately in the near future, but after listening to each one I can say that the sound quality is absolutely state-of-the-art, and the performances are very, very lovely. The first CD features mezzo-soprano Barbara Hofling backed up by pianist Grainne Dunne. The second CD--my favorite so far--features Anne-Sophie Bertrand on harp. The final CD is a collective of four musicians--Heinrich von Kalnein, Sebastian Gille, Henning Sieverts and Jonas Burgwinkel--playing a very loose, very un-German set of improvisations that are primarily jazz yet meld into blues and even classical. The level of detail in this final disc is nothing short of breathtaking.
What's even more interesting is the varying choices of digital format offered with each disc. 01 and 02 are offered in CD/SACD hybrid formats, while 03 includes both a hybrid disc and a Blu-ray audio disc--presumably to take advantage of the surround sound technologies used in that particular recording. Each of the titles are 192 kHz, 24 bit recordings that have those silky, effortless high frequencies that only hi-rez digital possesses. I can't wait to spend more time with each of these discs--so far they're winners.
Thursday, March 6, 2014
Have you ever heard of Hastings? I'm not talking about the battle that took place between the Normans and the Anglo-Saxons in the year 1066, but the chain of video, music and book stores that are spread lightly throughout the middle of the United States. We had them in Texas, but I never stepped foot in one the entire four years I was there. We do have one here in Montrose, just a few blocks away from my house, and I have been in that one several times. Until last night, I was batting .000 when it came to leaving that store with a DVD, CD or book in my hands. When Scottish writer Iain Banks died last year, I wanted to find a copy of The Wasp Factory. No dice. When I wanted to buy Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady and Neko Case's The More I Fight... on CD, they didn't have either despite the fact that they both entered the Billboard 100 the week they were released. When I wanted a great price on three specific DVDs I needed for a birthday gift--The Descendants, Life of Pi and Silver Linings Playbook, they didn't even have one of them--and all have been released in the last two years. I had to go to Amazon, instead of giving my money to a local business.
Hastings, for better or worse, isn't the type of store I'd normally patronize. It's sort of a mess, the Ross of home entertainment stores--although if you're into Frisbee Golf, this appears to be the place to stock up on those kind of discs. I'd pretty much given up on Hastings as a source for CDs, DVDs or books until I found myself there last night, looking for something in particular with unusually low expectations. That's when I discovered their LP section.
At first I found three LPs--new pressings of the latest Vampire Weekend, Arctic Monkeys and some remix compilation--on a single shelf above the new CD releases. (Even the new CD section is pretty spartan, unless you like new country.) I toyed with getting something, just to say I did it, just so that the buyer for Hastings could say, "Hey, LP sales are suddenly hot--we should get some more!" Fortunately I browsed through the music section and found an addition bin toward the back of the store. Where else, after all, would new LPs be merchandised in 2014? I found everything from a copy of Sgt. Pepper's, one of those recently remastered LPs that came out about a year ago, to some strange 10" Jimi Hendrix pressing I'd never seen before, to a smattering of cool jazz and easy listening titles. What I did find, much to my surprise, was a Sundazed pressing of The Left Banke's Walk Away Renee/Pretty Ballerina for $15. The last time I surfed the Sundazed site, I almost bought this. A friend of mine recently told me about rediscovering the Left Banke, and how he felt they were just like Love, only better. I promised him I would check it out...one day.
I've written about this subject before in a Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. I had found a pretty decent little LP section in Fred Meyer, my local grocery store, and thought it was convincing proof that the Vinyl Renaissance was in full swing. After a few months, however, the section vanished and I thought, oh well, so much for that. But I still continue to be amazed at how many retailers are putting LPs out on the sales floor just to see what happens.
The bad news is that this album is simply horrible sound-wise. I've always enjoyed the Sundazed reissues--the prices are usually under $20 per disc and they have great taste in music, but in most cases they're more interested in remastering LPs until they're merely listenable, as opposed to creating a new catalog of audiophile reference discs. This Left Banke album is a clean pressing with almost no surface noise, but it sounds like it was remastered from an old cassette that was left in someone's pickup truck for a few years. It sounds tinny, compressed and small, like someone hooked a cheap transistor radio to a pair of old Klipsch Cornwalls.
Oh well, you can't win them all. I haven't lost the faith, however--I plan on buying a few more LPs from my local Hastings and totally messing with the store manager. "I don't know what it is, boss, but Montrose seems to be a sudden hotspot for LP sales!" Nope, it's not really a hotspot, but the Vinyl Anachronist did move in a few blocks away. Make him happy and buy some more.
Saturday, February 22, 2014
"All ways lead to rome. I agree, the expedit is shit. But that's for aesthetic reasons. The problem with your self-destroying setup wasn't the expedit quality - you did it wrong. The long boards are supposed to run horizontally, not vertically as your picture suggests. So your expedit did not stand on its supposed bottom, but on its side. I'm sorry anyway!"
I get at least a half-dozen of these kind of comments per week, all in response to this blog entry: http://thevinylanachronist.blogspot.com/2011/03/for-all-you-using-ikea-expedit-shelving.html. It's amusing to me that I still have to moderate--and delete--these comments since I've repeatedly explained the following:
1. That's not my IKEA Expedit. It's a common image you can find in Google Images. I made an explicit reference to this in the original blog and provided the proper credit. People seem to ignore this and comment on my poor IKEA-building skills anyway.
2. I know the right way to assemble the Expedit. I had two--a 1X5 and a 4X4. They still started coming apart after just a few years. Others have written me saying they had the same exact problem even when assembled correctly. (I do have another one, the 2X2 version, which I use for my record cleaning machine and accessories.)
3. I explain all of this in a follow-up blog entry here. Now I've had to go back and edit the previous two blogs so that readers will be able to see the entire story, and not just comment on the photo. It's not quite working.
That said, the original blog entry has taken on a life of its own. It is currently my most read entry in this blog--by far. Apparently it's being linked to by a variety of websites, blogs and discussion forums. Hundreds and hundreds of Expedit fans keep telling me that the Expedit in the pic was assembled incorrectly (albeit per the manufacturer's instructions). My favorite response came in an article in an audio e-zine--one I used to work for, by the way--where the publisher says I'm wrong to diss the Expedit. He then goes on to tell his readers to add brackets and screws and fasteners and more glue and it should work just fine.
In other words, I'm not wrong about the Expedit.
Needless to say, I have been ignoring all comments regarding the Expedit. They do not get approved and published on my blog. So don't bother to write a 2000 word essay on the subject (something that has occurred). Sorry if this sounds so abrupt...but please pay attention before making the effort to respond. Besides, the Expedit has been discontinued--maybe IKEA has decided to make its replacement more suitable for LPs. ALL MY ORIGINAL COMMENTS STAND.
[EDIT: The author of the comment at the top of this blog article wrote a lengthy and angry response after reading this--exactly what I asked people not to do. He also wants me to credit him for the quote, which is obviously why he signed all his correspondence as "Anonymous." So there, Mr. Anonymous, you've been credited. A few minutes later I received yet another comment from someone telling me the rack isn't assembled correctly for LPs.]
Monday, February 17, 2014
I just spoke with Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, and he told me that for the first time in a long time he actually has quite a bit of stock on hand. (It's the slow time of the year for everyone.) In order to clear out room for future products, Dave has been offering free shipping--but it ends tonight, February 17, at midnight. If you've been thinking of buying one of Dave's beautifully restored vintage turntables from Thorens, AR and more, today is the day.
You might think that free shipping isn't a big deal, but as someone who ships high-end audio for a living I can tell you that Dave's offering a significant discount. No one is better than Vinyl Nirvana when it comes to safely shipping these somewhat delicate machines, so this is a very valuable service Dave is giving away.
Dave has plenty of amazing turntables on hand for sale. First, he has another one of his Thorens TD-125 long base turntables with 12" SME arm, which you can see at the top of this page. Dave builds a handful of these amazing TTs each year, and this one is still available at $2995. Dave even offers this turntable in a variety of exotic wood plinths, so you can customize it to your heart's content. If you're looking for a great, classic turntable that none of your audiophile buddies also have, this is the one.
The second photo is of an old-fashioned AR XA turntable--one of the best-selling turntables of all time--it was the king throughout the '60s and '70s. I owned one for a while in the late '90s, but it was terribly beat up and I never got it working perfectly. I should have sent it to Dave! If you're looking for a solid, beautiful vintage 'table that doesn't cost a lot of money, you should look into the AR XA. This one is just $695, and that includes a Rega RB-250 arm. This is an AR that was modded by Steve Frosten, and it even has a Linn power supply.
Finally we have a beautiful Thorens TD-160 Super with a custom zebrawood plinth and a new SME M2-9 arm for just $1995. Dave is also a dealer for Ortofon, Dynavector and Grado cartridges, which means you have great plenty of great choices for any AR, Merrill or Thorens 'table Dave restores. Plus, Dave will mount the cartridge for free when you buy one of his turntables!
Once again, the free shipping deal ends today, so visit the Vinyl Nirvana website for more information!
Friday, February 14, 2014
"I am Pichet!"
Pichet is a distributor and importer from Thailand who always comes to visit Colleen and me in our room at CES. The quote above is how he always announces his arrival. I'm not going to ask why his business card says Chen Paul with PICHET scrawled along the top in block letters--it just reminds me too much of that scene in Barton Fink where Chet the hotel clerk hands his business card to the titular guest, and it just says CHET in, mysteriously, the same handwriting as Pichet.
That's not to say Pichet isn't legitimate in any way. He's very well known in the audio industry. Colleen's known him forever. He represents such brands as Wilson Benesch, Usher, LAMM, Hansen Audio, Playback Designs and more. He's the real deal. But he is truly a salesman in the best sense of the word, and he's usually visiting us to see if we're interested in any of his products. I'm not talking about Wilson Benesch or LAMM, brands I'd normally jump at, but the stuff coming from the other direction--the Far East--and I'm still a little skittish on that subject. But he's insistent, and he likes to tell me to keep things and get back to him later. I once bought a new car I didn't need in the same exact way.
To his credit he brought a small two-way bookshelf speaker that was actually made in Denmark. It was well-made and attractive...for a two-way bookshelf. (You know I keeeed. I love two-way monitors and think they're beautiful.) We didn't have a chance to listen to it, mostly because there was only the one, but I'd welcome an audition some day. But then he gave me a little acrylic box packed with these four little equipment supports.
You know, equipment supports. Footers. Thingies you stick underneath your components. Whatever you want to call them. I haven't really used them in years. Back in the '90s I used the Black Diamond Racing cones under all my gear, but I got out of the habit of sticking them under all those heavy boxes when I became an audio reviewer because I was always swapping things in and out, something that continues to this day--albeit for a different reason. Most of the electronic components I represent already have substantial support feet that were designed specifically for the product. So I don't think about it much these days. Just ensure you're using a decent equipment rack and you'll probably be fine, according to me.
Probably. But then there's these things, Pichet's little footers. They're nicely machined and shiny, but as Pichet says, they're not insanely expensive for what they are. In fact, they're downright cheap. I think he said "Something like $80 for a set of four, that's all!" Then he mentioned another equipment support manufacturer who "charges $1000 for basically the same thing!" Now I'm not going to say that these little metal pucks, which retail for a mere $20 each (same as a single Black Diamond Racing cone back in the '90s) outperform something that costs $250 per puck. But I will say that for $80, these look really nice.
So I placed them under my Unison Research Unico CDE CD player, where I thought it would do the most good--I've always heard the biggest differences when placing footers or vibration control devices under source components like CD players and turntables. And while I'm far from the tweakiest audiophile on the planet, I did hear a rather subtle difference almost immediately. The sound was slightly more relaxed and organized, and the soundstage expanded in the rear. (That's what she said.)
You've probably noticed that I haven't mentioned the manufacturer or even the brand name of these footers. That's because I'm supposed to call Pichet if I "like what I hear." Then I can get "more information." For now, I do have a few clues. First of all, it says Tombo Audio Products on the acrylic case. I also have Pichet's website address, which is www.audiocomgroup.com. His company's name is ACG, for the record.
But I do like these. So for now, I'm going to leave these in place under the CDE.
Monday, February 10, 2014
I didn't know what to think about the latest 2L Recordings release, Torbjorn Dyrud's Out of Darkness, when I first listened to it. Dyrud's take on the passion and the resurrection of Jesus is odd and haunting with its English readings, spare and mostly percussive arrangements and its penchant for the more macabre aspects of this two-thousand year old story. Add a liberal dose of heavy breathing--Christ dragging the cross up the hill--along with the sound of whipping and flogging, and you have the antithesis of a soothing evening at home while listening to your hi-fi.
On the other hand, this recording is from 2L. That generally means that in addition to novel thematic elements, Morten Lindberg is going to challenge you along the way with the sheer beauty of the performance. The strength of this recording is in the judicious use of sound effects as punctuation for the story--the patient slap of the bass drum, ethereal whistling from the choir and that disconcerting crack of the whip. Morten has really been spending a lot of time with new surround-sound technologies in the last few 2L recordings, and his strategy of this recording was to place the performers in as big of a space as possible--in this case the Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim--to isolate them from reflections and room boundaries. This is certainly a change of pace from past 2L recordings where the venue, usually a Norwegian church that offers unusually warm and open acoustics, acts as one of the performers. The Nidaros Cathedral is evidently so big, and Morten's microphone placement so precise, that the room reflections aren't reinforced in the usual ways.
As I've learned from the wealth of 2L recordings I've reviewed, this amazing sound quality is often paired with challenging, unusual and atonal music in a manner that forces the listener to re-evaluate the relationship between performer and musical instruments. Here the most stunning work is done with the human voice, as the Nidaros Cathedral Choir (as conducted by Vivianne Sydnes) steps far outside of where moat church choirs operate. Along with the aforementioned heavy breathing, there's also plenty of whispering (the crowd around Jesus) and an utterly strange drone whistle that bends in space as if it's a reluctant, plaintive siren. This re-imagines the church choir in the same way Kevin Volans' White Man Sleeps re-imagines the string quartet. Could you imagine what would happen if this had been performed back in the Baroque Era? Madness! Blasphemy!
This versatility in the choir also adds so many textures to the music that you might think there are more musicians on the stage than there are. For the record, there's only two trumpeters (Geir Morten Oien and Erlend Aagaard Nilsen) and one very busy percussionist (Lars Sitter) and that's it. The rest of the sound you hear is from the Nidaros Cathedral Choir, with Sarah Head performing the English readings. But even with all the physical space Out of Darkness defines, it's still unusually intimate. It pulls you in, and then it places you at the edge of the abyss.
Finally, I am happy that 2L has once again included both the CD/SACD hybrid disc with the Blu-ray Audio disc--even though Out of Darkness comes in a standard double CD jewel case instead of the larger blue clamshell cases as with other Blu-ray audio releases. In this case, however, the Blu-ray disc does a slightly better job of recreating the quite yet very spacious Nidaros Cathedral.