Friday, July 17, 2015
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
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
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.
Wednesday, July 8, 2015
My latest installment of The Smoking Jacket is now online at Part-Time Audiophile! This month I discuss the ins and outs of ordering premium cigars from online sources, and how I found a great new source for stogies in Tennessee. You can read it here.
Monday, July 6, 2015
Positive Feedback, a high-end audio publication that occasionally publishes my articles, made me smile today by reprinting a wonderful review of the Trenner & Friedl ART monitors by Marek Dyba. I usually praise these speakers to the skies without concern for conflict of interest--they are the loudspeakers I've used in my own personal system for several years, and I'll gladly recommend them to anyone who wants a high-performance premium two-way monitor that offers a huge sound from a little box. Plus, they are absolutely beautiful--they are built by hand in Austria using the finest materials and exemplary craftsmanship. I am proud to own these.
I guess I'm excited about this review because the ARTs haven't had many reviews...other than mine, of course. It blows my mind that everyone isn't familiar with the ARTs and what they can do. Over the last few years, I've met a handful of fellow ART owners within the US, and we tend to act like one of those guys who discover a great band in a small club, conflicted and hesitant to spread the word because we don't want everyone to come along and make them popular, making us feel less special. Actually, we should be doing the opposite--telling every audiophile we know that they need to sit down and audition a pair before they die.
In Texas, I hosted a few audiophiles at my house--audiophiles who just wanted to hear the ARTs. At least one of those audiophiles wound up buying a pair, and another keeps telling me he's saving up. So this review is most welcome--not because audio journalism can make or break a product as much in 2015 as in 2005, but because this speaker deserves the buzz.
You can view the review right here.
Friday, June 26, 2015
One of the first things I've learned about Australians from dealing with them is that modestly is a always a prerequisite. I've always generalized Aussies as outgoing, fun and full of brio, and a little braggadocio seems par for the course. But no. Patting yourself on the back, tooting your own horn and otherwise propping yourself up in front of your mates is considered very poor form.
That's why it's been so difficult, and amusing, to convince Brad Serhan--the Australian speaker designer known for Orpheus Audio, the Axis VoiceBox and much more--that his speaker designs are something quite special. We've been good friends for a long time, but it's only been over the last couple of years that I've become familiar with his designs--which, of course, led us to represent Axis VoiceBox (pictured above) in the US. Every time I talk about how much I enjoy his designs, he gets all aw, shucks with me and acts a little embarrassed. But despite our friendship, I still truly and objectively dig his speakers.
Brad and I have something in common--we both love two-way monitors. We both love the simplicity, the coherence and lack of complicated crossover networks that are common with most premium two-way speakers. For the last few months I've been evaluating one of Brad's new designs--a very ambitious and well-executed two-way tentatively called the Brigadiers Audio Group (BAG) Compact loudspeaker, which is pictured below. I'm ready to send this prototype back for some minor tweaking--we want to see how low we can get the lower frequencies in this fantastic design for the US market. Brad and his partner in BAG, David Allen, were all set to send me the larger 2.5 way floorstanding version of the Compact, known for now as the McQuade. Suddenly, I had an idea--instead of paying all of the shipping on these rather heavy speakers, perhaps I could just come to Sydney and help them finalize these two products for market.
I was very surprised that everyone thought I had a great idea!
Let me first tell you about my wanderlust. I've only been out of the country twice--Tijuana back in 1984, and Toronto in 2001. Each international visit lasted less than a day. I got a passport in 2006 for a trip to London that never panned out, and to this day my passport is still a virgin. (I didn't need a passport when I visited Mexico and Canada.) I've traveled extensively throughout the US--I'm currently up to 46 states and only need Alaska, Montana and the Dakotas. But I've been chomping at the bit to travel outside the US ever since we started CCI in 2011. That's right, I'm the importer and distributor of five brands from all over the world, but I've never been off the continent other than the two times I went to Hawaii which doesn't really count, I guess.
So I'm crossing my fingers that this all will happen--at the end of next month. We want my visit to coincide with the Australian Hi-fi Show held in Sydney on July 31 through August 2, and hopefully I will be spending my birthday, August 6, in a land I've always wanted to see. I'm also hoping to meet other new friends while I'm there such as John Reilly (who co-designed and manufactures the Axis VoiceBox with Brad.) I will dub this journey "My Search for the Perfect Two-Way," and I hope I can write plenty about every single moment!
Wednesday, June 17, 2015
"Excuse me, do you have any Sami folk music you can play?"
If the recent audio show at Newport beach is any indication, I'm starting to be well-known for despising musical requests from show attendees, despite the fact that I still pretty much say yes to everyone. Everyone kept coming in to give me ridiculous requests such as Black Flag, Diamanda Galas and more, just to see how I'd react.
On the other hand, reality never fails to meet my expectations when it comes to making me grouchy. I had one rather pushy gentleman, sporting the same Reyn Spooner shirt everyone else was wearing in south Orange County that weekend, come into my room and immediately ask me to put something on with "more bass." At the time I was honoring someone else's request, "Amado Mio" from Pink Martini, an absolutely lovely recording with realistic low frequencies and plenty of warmth and bloom. The problem was that I was using PureAudio amplification with Leif Swanson's fantastic Endeavor Audio E-5 loudspeakers, which do go down to 20 Hz, and this guy wanted to hear 20 Hz.
When I hesitated about honoring his request until the current song was over, he got all huffy. He sat for a few moments and then left with his two buddies, saying something about how he didn't like the sound. Of course he didn't, because I was playing real music instead or organizing a fireworks show. I want to play beautiful music that captures imaginations, not confirm the frequency response specs for my products. I almost followed the Pink Martini track with one from Spes, the new disc set from 2L Recordings in Norway, just to aggravate that guy just a little more. Spes employs the chorale group Cantus to expose the world to Sami folk music from Scandinavia, and while this is an exciting recording that's very dynamic and very spacious and full of occasional yet thundering percussion, something told me this guy wouldn't have appreciated it because it's delicate instead of bombastic.
I wish someone would walk into my room and request Sami folk music. It's amazing.
Upon first listen, Spes reminds me of Magnificat, which I reviewed here. It's a warm, enveloping choral experience that is both melodically soothing and off the beaten path. The difference, however, is that Magnificat focuses on sacred music while Spes is more of a living document of Sami folk music. Its deep rhythmic drumming, however, will constantly remind you of Native American folk music to the point where it seems deliberate, an ethnocentric conceit. In reality, Sami music is characterized mostly by jolks, which are a capella songs that are sung with deep emotional commitment usually imbued with sorrow or anger from man's constant conflict with nature. Only recently have musical instruments become part of jolks, and the Sami culture dictates fairly simply accompaniments from flutes and hand drums and the like. That description, of course, does not differ strongly from that of Native American folk music.
If you're going to listen to this album, and a stunningly beautiful recording it is, you should treat yourself to a quick history of the Sami people and their culture. Also known as Laplanders, the Sami live in the more rural areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They have their own language and have fought to preserve it in recent years, and they are indigenous peoples who have also experienced discrimination at the hands of settlers from other European nations. Again, this story sounds familiar. I only bring this up, however, because listening to these songs in the Sami language is nothing short of illuminating in a way that only a previously unheard thing can be. Often these choral chants resemble birdsong, expressing the deep connection between indigenous people and the land they call home.
Once you wrap your head around that, Spes takes on a deeper, more fulfilling meaning that broadens and enhances this wonderful music.