Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Wand Tonearm at the 2016 Newport Show

I'm proud to announce that we will be using The Wand Tonearm as part of our Down Under Audio exhibit rooms at the 2016 Newport Show which will be held in Southern California from June 3-5. The Wand Tonearm comes from New Zealand and is designed by Simon Brown of Design Build Listen Audio Components. Simon and his tonearm received the highest recommendation from fellow Kiwi Gary Morrison of PureAudio--one of the brands we represent at Colleen Cardas Imports. That says a lot, since Gary's amplifiers are among the finest I've heard and feature amazing engineering and design.

The Wand Tonearm is a unipivot that is available in 9.5", 10.3" and 12" lengths. It's designed to work with most cartridges and most turntables--everything from the Technics SL1200 to a Linn LP12 to more exotic turntables (hint, hint). It's considered an ideal match with the Denon 103 (one of my favorites) and the Ortofon 2M line, but it can also be used with expensive cartridges such as Lyra, Dynavector and even my beloved Transfiguration. Its distinctive extra-thick carbon fiber arm tube was designed for maximum rigidity and is much stiffer than more traditional arms.

The most amazing aspect of The Wand Tonearm is its cost. Simon sells the basic Classic model direct from the website, and the Plus version through retailers. The price of the 9.5" Classic arms starts at just NZ$705, which as of this writing is just under $500. You'll have to pay for shipping from New Zealand, and you may have to spend a little extra on a custom armboard, but you'll still be paying less than a grand for an extremely well-made tonearm that has been garnering some impressive reviews and awards.

You can see and hear The Wand Tonearm in Room 1012 at the Newport Show. For more details on the show, check out the website.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Down Under Audio

I know what you're thinking. All this talk about Australia has to lead to something. Well, it does.

For the better part of the last year I've been planning to do an audio show in the US where I feature a lot of the high-end audio products I've been discussing here and in other places. While I worked with Brad Serhan, David Allen and Morris Swift on the final design of the Brigadiers Audio speakers, I spent the entire time bugging everyone to finalize production by June 2016. That, of course, is when the Newport Show takes place in Southern California.

As soon as we returned from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas in early January, Colleen and I have been working overtime to bring together a consortium of manufacturers from both Australia and New Zealand to feature their gear at the show. And that was the beginning of "Down Under Audio," the theme of the two rooms we will promote at the show, which will be held on June 3-5.

The first choices were obviously PureAudio, Axis and REDGUM Audio--the three "Down Under" brands that we already represent at Colleen Cardas Imports. John Reilly (Axis) and Ian Robinson (REDGUM) quickly came on board--they manufacture from the same factory and their products obviously mate well together. From the swiftness of their actions, it became quite obvious to me that they've done this all before. So Room 1011 at the Newport Show will be an all Axis/REDGUM room. Of course we will be featuring the Axis VoiceBox S loudspeakers, but everything else will be REDGUM since this Australian company known for its high-current amplifiers also makes digital sources, cables and even equipment racks. John and Ian are all ready to go.

Of course Colleen and I wanted to spotlight PureAudio from New Zealand in the other room. We've represented the line since 2012; this brand has always been close to my heart and I really want people to know about it. The most exciting thing for me about including PureAudio is that I finally get to meet Gary Morrison in person. We've been Skyping for years, but I've never been able to shake his hand. I've met everyone else in person--John Reilly, Ian Robinson, Brad Serhan, David Allen, Morris Swift--but not Gary.

That, of course, brings up all the other brands we're featuring. But here's the deal--I'm going to have to hold up my promotion of those products for different reasons. One manufacturer is busy getting his legal doo-dads in order for trademarking and patenting and whatever else he needs to do, so mum's the word for a few more weeks. We're still working with another manufacturer on all the fine details, so I don't want to jeopardize this involvement because it will be awesome if it happens as planned.

One more manufacturer is involved, and I want to wait just a little bit to announce it because this is a really cool product that's been in production for a while. I've just recently been introduced to it, and it's the kind of product I love--great performance, solid engineering, amazingly low price. I want to give this company its own separate place in the sun.

But I'm not worried about announcing the US debut of the Brigadiers Audio BA2 bookshelf speakers. These are obviously the two-way monitor speakers that prompted me to go to Sydney and work with Brad, David and Morris. You know how I kept talking about the perfect 2-way speaker? In its final production form, I believe it's as close to perfect as it gets. This two-way stand-mounted monitor has evolved into something unusually impressive and satisfying for its size, and I left Sydney last September thinking it was absolutely amazing in every way.

We talked about bringing the BA1 floorstanders instead, but I think the excellence of the BA2s will act as sort of a lead-in for those speakers. I'll bring a pair of those into the US sometime this year, and I'll probably drag them around the country for a while and have people listen to them. Or maybe I'll keep them to myself. Mine! Mine! Mine!

So that's the scoop for now. Room 1011 will feature Axis and REDGUM Audio, and next door in Room 1012 we'll have PureAudio, Brigadiers Audio, Furutech and a few surprises to be announced. I'll keep everyone updated, and I hope to see everyone at the show!

Monday, April 11, 2016

On the Move Again

"Well, you know Marc. He never stays in one place for very long."

That's my almost 85-year-old father reacting to Colleen's news that we would be leaving Montrose and moving to Central New York State.

To tell you the truth, I was starting to honestly believe that the Western Slope of Colorado was the place where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. But as most of you know, money and the ability to make it can sometimes lead to decisions that may not sound right in your heart, but they do make absolute sense on paper.

In a nutshell, trying to run an international importing and distribution company can be costly when you live 250 miles from the nearest international airport, and we tried to comfort ourselves with the idea that being surrounded by breathtaking beauty could somehow pay the bills. But, unfortunately, it doesn't.

So we moved to a pretty little hamlet north of Syracuse, close to Oneida lake, for a number of logical reasons. First of all, it's easy to jump in our SUV and pick up a shipment in the Newark Port of Entry, a four hour drive away. In our three years in Colorado, we've had to physically intercept and process shipments in Denver, Los Angeles, Houston and yes, Newark, so that four hour drive seems like nothing now.

"Why Syracuse?" you ask. That's amusing, since every time we tell someone here that we just moved from Colorado, they look at us incredulously and wonder why we would do such a foolish thing. Our natural reaction, of course, is to wonder what's so wrong with the 'Cuse. But we have a lot of friends in the area, and we'd be very close to one of our very best dealers, Shayne Tenace of Tenacious Sound, who is ambitious and optimistic and excited about the high-end audio industry. That's a rare combination of strengths in our industry, which tends to be somewhat pessimistic about current sales trends and technologies. In fact, several dealers are now a short drive away--something we couldn't say back in Colorado.

Once again I have to apologize for life getting in the way of this blog. I have so much music to review and insights to reveal, but I'm still unpacking and I need to hunker down and get everything in its right place.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column for Perfect Sound Forever Now Online

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online. In this installment, I talk about my encounter with the new Technics SL-1200 turntable at the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

2L Recordings' Carola Bauckholt: Ich muss mit Dir reden, Performed by the Cikada Ensemble

I'm saving the best for last. I've been wanting to talk about this album for a while now.

As I've already mentioned once or twice, I've received quite a few 2L Recordings to review over the last few months and now the pile is gone. This lone title, with Cikada written prominently across the front cover, arrived shortly after I returned from CES at the beginning of the year so it was last to be reviewed. That means I really couldn't discuss it in the same context of a trade show as I did with the others. That's unfortunate, because I'd really love to see the crowds respond to it. My gut says I'd clear the room, but at least a couple of people might stay and declare this one of the most intriguing recordings they've ever heard.

To the unadventurous, Cikada might sound like a recording of random sound effects and an occasional BIG moment that makes you leap out of your chair. (For now, I'm just going to call this album Cikada--Carola Bauckholt is the composer, Ich muss mit Dir reden is the title of the album and the piece is performed by the Cikada Ensemble, the same intriguing group responsible for Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes.) Perhaps that's why this recording might not work at an audio show or a dealer event. You can't just listen casually. You have to crawl inside these sounds and inhabit the same space.

Once you do this, you start to notice that there are structures and rhythms to these strange sounds. You start to recognize these patterns as somewhat musical. Then you start to notice how many of these sounds are produced by somewhat conventional musical instruments, and how the startling blast of a siren can slowly reveal itself to be a clarinet or a violin. Next, you'll hear a sound rumbling under the floor boards that might be a double bass and it might be a didgeradoo. And is that someone trying to stop a desk fan with their front teeth?

Then, after you make enough of these connections, the music starts to rise out of the chaos as an actual melody, a beautiful one, played with emotion. The surprising part is that these epiphanies, which never appear for more than a minute or so, start to connect to the sound effects until you realize something.

It's all music. It's been so all along.

What I'm describing, of course, is a musical challenge, one that many won't accept. You do have to dig deep into Cikada, and that means reading some of the most descriptive and helpful liner notes I've ever seen. The album contains four lengthy pieces totaling more than 54 minutes, but the music changes its structure so often that the entire experience resembles a suite. In the liner notes, however, you get very specific insights into the meaning of each section, and what images these sounds should evoke. These insights come from two different perspectives--that of Kenneth Karlsson, the pianist and artistic leader of Cikada, and composer Carola Bauckholt. If you feel that Cikada is too overwhelming to digest all at once, these insights will help to bring everything into focus.

I have plenty of experimental music in my record collection. At this point of my life, I'm starting to understand that I really dig most of it. What separates Cikada from the majority of those other albums is the way it is recorded. I've said over and over that these titles from 2L Recordings are state-of-the-art when it comes to sound quality. But this album may win the blue ribbon for its enveloping 3-D presentation--and I'm not even listening to this amazing disc through one of the available surround-sound formats supported by 2L through their innovative recording technologies. There's unprecedented soundstage depth, at least in my experience.

But what's most amazing is how well each performer and each instrument is highlighted on the stage, and how the resonances coming from one instrument interacts with its immediate environment, especially when it comes to the other instruments. You can hear all of that here. You can hear everything. That's why I enjoy this album so much, and why I have to play it in its entirety each time. This is difficult material and it's obviously not for everyone, but reviewing this album has resulted in some of the most memorable listening sessions in quite some time.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Calisse's Farewell Blacksheep on CD

I like bands that take you for a ride, and by ride I mean like in the trunk of a car where you have absolutely no idea where you're going. A good example of this, perhaps, is Arcade Fire's Funeral, where a majority of the songs have a break midway and morph into a different song--connected in theme to the first half but different nonetheless. Calisse, a Portland quintet, takes this concept to a different level on their debut album Farewell Blacksheep." These nine songs take up just a little over 23 minutes, but from the back of that trunk it feels like you've gone all over town.

Starting off with a moody, downright creepy instrumental overture, Calisse steers into all sorts of neighborhoods--'70s power pop, '90s post-grunge and even a brief flirtation with old-school punk (on "Amberwood Drive"). You can even hear a bit of Neutral Milk Hotel in the way lead singer Jason Collette stands apart, vulnerable and honest, from the rest of the band. That comparison isn't accidental--the band got its start playing NMH covers, and much of Calisse's energy is created from that juxtaposition of imaginative musical arrangements and stark, somewhat isolated vocals.

You even get a couple of cuts, "Whole Again" and "Stay," that might even qualify as radio-friendly hits--which is meant as a compliment. The former is a quieter acoustic song that is the sonic jewel of the album--it's the one that will remind you the most of NMH's "King of Carrot Flowers" suite. The latter is as pure and as catchy of a power pop song as you can get, with its memorable guitar riff and a chorus that repeatedly asks the question, "Won't you stay?" In the land of rock and roll, you should know exactly what that means.

Having these two focused songs in the middle of the album creates an intriguing structure. Farewell Blacksheep starts off murky, snaps into place and then slowly starts to tip off the rails. As I mentioned, it's a crazy, fun-filled 23 minutes of indie rock bliss.

If I had one reservation about Farewell Blacksheep, it's the lo-fi sound motif. With a band this willing to explore, I think you have to give them just a little more space to accomplish their mission. It's that whole Loudness Wars thing, how the recording sounds open and full of depth during the quiet times, only to become congealed and blurred when the entire band gets going. If this band takes off, and it deserves to do so, then maybe the second album is the one where they rent the big studio and the hotshot producer and then they get to be ambitious and "discover" themselves and make the music they've always wanted to make. That's when the purist fans will start raving about Farewell Blacksheep, and how it's their greatest album because it is so raw and unfettered by rock star trappings that, for better or worse, no longer exist.

You can order Calisse's Farewell Blacksheep through the band's website.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

2L Recordings' Tartini-Secondo Natura

Who is Giuseppe Tartini?

I ask this question because I've never heard of this composer before. I'd like to think I'm knowledgeable about most of the classical composers who bridge the gap between the Baroque era and the Classical era, but this prolific gentleman, who wrote 135 violin concertos and 200 sonatas during the early and mid 18th century, is a pleasant surprise in one of those where-have-you-been-all-my-life sort of ways. On the 2L Recordings' website, it's mentioned that Tartini's music is rarely performed today--it's considered somewhat "enigmatic--impalpable and mysterious." I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I responded so favorably to this new Blu-ray audio disc.

Playing it for the first time, shortly before I headed off to CES, I was mesmerized by this music and the way it seemed to expand on more common baroque themes. But instead of offering a more direct, streamlined version of these ornate musical motifs that were preferred by his contemporaries, Tartini ventured further away from the mainstream with strange and challenging tangents that will remind you of compositions created 100 to 150 years later.

Part of the reason the three Tartini pieces on this disc are so intriguing is the choice of instrumentation, with Sigurd Imsen using a baroque violin and Hardanger fiddle (which has an open, woody and resonant sound compared to conventional violins), Tormod Dalen playing a baroque cello and Hans Knut Sveen sitting at the cembalo (a German harpsichord). Normally a more conventional trio would approach this music in a more straightforward manner, but these rarer instruments have such a delightfully sonorous sound that they can venture further away from Tartini's beautiful melodies and extract an unusually exotic result. In addition, the violin features a scordatura tuning, which means that it's purposely altered to include "non-conventional" notes that combine the familiar with the experimental.

With all these novel and fascinating elements in place, Tartini becomes so much more than a well-recorded program of chamber music. I finally got around to reading up on Tartini, and it turns out he's not held in the same high regard as fellow composers such as Handel and Hayden and, of course, Mozart. Mr. Tartini was known for his writings on nature as much, if not more, than he was known for his music. That seems to suggest two things--either that means more scholarly writers than I will criticize me for enjoying this music so much, or that the 2L magic has elevated this album into something special. I'm leaning toward the later, since I get goosebumps whenever I play it.

This is the disc I really wanted to bring to CES, the kind of disc filled with memorable, extraordinary music recorded by 2L's Morten Lindberg with his innovative technologies. But alas, this disc is only offered in the Blu-ray format, and the digital source we used at the show doesn't do Blu-ray. That's too bad for me--I was gobsmacked by this beautiful, wondrous music and I know that show attendees would have loved hearing it.

So who is Tartini? If you have the means to play Blu-ray audio discs on a high-quality audio system, you need to find out. Of all the 2L discs I've been reviewing over the last few weeks, this one is my favorite for pure musical enjoyment. Highly recommended.