Friday, August 22, 2014

A Slice of Analog Heaven: Audio Renaissance in Rochester

Ever since Craig Sypnier of Audio Renaissance in Rochester, New York became an Opera dealer a couple of years ago, it seems like he's been apologizing about his tiny, humble store--or "my little room" as he often calls it. It's taken a while for Colleen and I to visit him and see it for ourselves, and we finally had a chance during our current tour of our Northeastern dealers. Craig's been doing well with Opera--he prefers the entry level bookshelf Mezza since it fits his small space so well. (He's also a dealer for our Carot One line.) During our visit, however, I realized that I had never heard the Mezzas sound so great. Craig definitely attends to the details and really knows how to dial in the sound of our favorite bookshelf monitors.

Audio Renaissance is little off the beaten path. Located at the rear of an industrial park, you can barely spot the signs from the outside. You walk in through a common door on the outside of the building, and the store is located just on the left. You can't even see the inside of the store until you walk in through a single glass door, but once you do you'll be pleasantly surprised at the warmth and coziness of Craig's little room. To put it succinctly, Audio Renaissance resembles an audiophile's heavily stocked listening room, full of records and equipment and lots of album covers on the walls. It really doesn't feel like a store--it just feels like a great place to hang out. If I lived in the Rochester area, I'd be visiting Craig and listening to records with him whenever I could.

In other words, Audio Renaissance is far from a typical high-end retail store. You'll find plenty of turntables there from the likes of SOTA, J. A. Michell, Pro-Ject, Thorens and more, a wide selection of cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Dynavector, Lyra and Denon and cleaning accessories from Nitty Gritty, Audio Desk Systeme and Applied Research and Technology (ART) and lots and lots of vinyl. You won't see countless racks of equipment, however; Craig is fairly loyal to the underrated yet spectacular amplification from Belles. There's a good reason for that--Belles has long been one of the best-kept secrets in audio. Over the years I've known plenty of audiophiles who have only had Belles amps in their systems because nothing else is quite as musical and satisfying.

After spending an afternoon listening to LPs on Craig's main system that included a Belles amp and preamp, our Opera Mezza speakers and both Michell Gyrodec SE and SOTA Sapphire turntables, I can safely say that I agree with Craig wholeheartedly about the quality of sound he achieves in his store.

One of the most remarkable things about the system is just how quiet and pristine his records are. He owes it all to the ultrasonic record cleaner from Audio Desk Systeme. "I can't believe you haven't tried ultrasonic record cleaning," he said to me. "Once you try it, you'll never go back." I have to admit that the results are astonishing, and if I had the money I would buy the Audio Desk Systeme in a heartbeat. If you're in the Rochester area, Craig will clean your records ultrasonically for just $5 a piece. It's a bargain.

I wish there were more audio stores like Audio Renaissance. It's the kind of a store that takes me back to my early days as an audiophile and vinyl lover, where I'd hang out at local record stores and listen to LPs all day. It's a tiny, humble little store, but it's a must-see for any analog enthusiast.

You can check out Audio Renaissance's website for more info, or you can just call Craig at 585-272-7898 or email him at

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Vinyl Anachronist Gets Photo Credit, Hell Freezes Over

For years I've been taking flak on some of the photos in this blog. We're referring to my crappy photos of course, taken proudly with my cell phone with absolutely no attention paid to composition, lighting or even focus. Things have improved in the last couple of years--especially since I started using a smart phone. I even received a nice little Canon digital camera for Christmas last year, and I still haven't gotten in the habit of using it for blog photos. It's on my big long list of things I need to do right now.

To summarize: I'm a writer, dammit, not a photographer.

That's why I was surprised when I received an e-mail a couple of weeks ago from Andreas of the The East Bay Monthly. Apparently he was scanning Google Images for a photo of Amoeba Records in Berkeley for an article titled, "A Rebirth for Telegraph Avenue," which was written by Dave Weinstein. For some strange reason he settled on my photo from this blog entry from almost exactly three years ago.

Now I have been approached for photo permission a few times, but in each instance I had purloined the pic from Google Images myself--generally with credit given but no expressed permission. (I try to avoid that now, since it's viewed upon as kind of douchey. Andreas did it the right way.) This was the very first time that I could honestly say, "Yes, that is my photograph! Use it in good health, young man!"

After I gave my permission to Andreas, he asked me if I wanted him to send me a hard copy of the Monthly. I almost said no, that wasn't necessary, but then I changed my mind, perhaps because I thought it was all so whimsical. Yesterday I received a manila envelope in the mail, and enclosed was two copies of the August 2014 issue. My photo's in there, top of page 8, with credit given. They even spelled my first name with a "c" instead of the usual "k."

So thank you to Andreas and The East Bay Monthly for treating me like a pro, even though I'm the furthest thing from one. They seem to be a extremely classy organization.

Friday, August 1, 2014

New Vinyl Anachronist Column at Perfect Sound Forever

The latest Vinyl Anachronist column--my 99th!--is currently online at Perfect Sound Forever. I finally put the idea that I don't like direct-drive turntables to rest, I hope. You can read it here:

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.