Monday, December 9, 2013
In my year-end wrap up for Perfect Sound Forever, which you can read here, I spoke briefly about the $179 U-Turn Audio Orbit turntable in the "Turntable of the Year" section. No, it didn't win the award--I disqualified it because I hadn't heard one yet and I was worried that U-Turn was having issues getting the initial production run delivered to customers. We first heard about this minimalist turntable about a year ago--U-Turn employed Kickstarter to fund the project--and the buzz in the industry steadily grew throughout the year. Understandably there were a few delays, but now the Orbit seems to be shipping worldwide.
Steve Guttenberg, aka The Audiophiliac, has just reviewed the Orbit in his CNET column, and he's given it a rave review. Well, it's a qualified rave--he still gives the edge to previous entry-level audiophile 'tables such as the Rega RP1 and the Pro-Ject Debut, which cost more than twice as much. But for $179, the Orbit seems to be a winner.
You can read the review here.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Just this afternoon I was asked to submit my year-end Top 20 list to Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever. Once I compiled everything, I was pleasantly surprised to see how highly I ranked this new eponymous CD from singer-songwriter Sherman Baker. My first impression was this: Al Stewart was feeling in a mellow, laid-back mood, so he hired Velvet Underground and recorded some Moody Blues songs. Of course these comparisons didn't hold up over the second and third listening--the Stewart-esque voice still languished between the layers of acoustic guitars, but now I heard more Nick Drake and even a little Elliot Smith. In fact, the guitar in "Ducks in a Row" sounds like it was inspired by "Needle in the Hay." I wouldn't be surprised if Sherman intended it as a homage.
But here's a relatively obscure comparison that's a little more eerie and a little more accurate, even if fleetingly so. Do you remember a band in the early '80s named The Bongos? I have an EP of theirs titled Numbers with Wings and it's friggin' fantastic in an '80s mainstream New Wave way. That crisply produced recording won't necessarily remind you of Baker's reverb-drenched effort which seems to celebrate the late '60s on some songs and then jump strangely into the present on others...except when it comes to the vocals. Richard Barone, the front man for the Bongos, just might be Sherman Baker's long-lost dad...if Al Stewart isn't, that is. Maury Povich, are you listening?
All of these comparisons don't quite get to the heart of why I like Sherman Baker's CD so much. Once again I'm reduced to time machines and RIYLs (recommended if you like) and I've already talked about that in far too many other reviews. So what if modern indie rock is infatuated with the past--it takes me to happy places and at my age that's becoming more and more important. Okay, a lot of new bands in 2013 do that, but what's surprising about Baker is that he seems to take you to different places within the same song, even after repeated listenings. Indeed, he's a bit of a shapeshifter. Did I just hear Happy Jack-era Who there for a second? Or did that song just sound like an outtake from Forever Changes? I think the point isn't that Sherman Baker likes to borrow from sources--excellent and varied sources, by the way--it's that it doesn't make him unoriginal as much as it just puts him in a class of traditional songwriters who value melody, decent and poetic lyrics and a willingness to bounce around amid different genres and succeed at each one.
By the way, the Bongos recently reunited and played a few gigs at their old Hoboken haunts. Richard Barone announced that an unreleased 1986 album titled Phantom Train would be released in October 2013, but I haven't checked to see if he followed through on that yet. After listening to Sherman Baker, I pulled out Numbers with Wings and traveled to some more happy places and wondered how fun it would be to see Sherman open for Richard. Would they nod knowingly at each other? I'd like to be there just to find out.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
My latest column is now online in the latest issue of Perfect Sound Forever. It's time for my annual wrap-up issue, where I choose the best LP releases and reissues, as well as Cartridge, Phono Stage and Turntable of the Year. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, November 29, 2013
Fellow music scribe Kurt Wildermuth, who also writes for Perfect Sound Forever among many other publications, just emailed me to let me know his latest article has just gone live on the Pop Matters website. Titled "Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector," this piece is one of the most insightful and well-written articles I've read about why people like Kurt and me still listen to vinyl.
What I wasn't expecting is the final section of the article, which talks about some of the email exchanges Kurt and I've had over the last year or two about finding an ideal vintage turntable and getting it up to spec. I'm proud and thrilled to have helped Kurt out with his project!
You can read the article here, and I hope you'll take the time to explore Kurt's writings on the Perfect Sound Forever website!
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
When the gentleman in the FIM room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest pointed to the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach CD and told me I should grab it because they were going fast, I suspected it was mere salesmanship. "There are only a couple left!" he exclaimed. Since I wasn't familiar with Jacques Loussier, much less this recording, I smiled politely and made another selection. When Dan Muzquiz visited the FIM room later that day and returned with it, I said, "Oh, that's the one I was supposed to buy...let's give it a spin and see what I missed out on."
Dan, of course, was familiar with the Play Bach recordings--J.S. Bach standards such as Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Air on a G String and Joy of Man's Desiring played by a jazz trio--and was surprised that I opted to purchase something else. After just a few seconds of listening, I realized my mistake and headed back to the FIM room and purchased the second to last copy. That's when I realized that no salesmanship was involved, and that The Best of Play Bach was the hot recording to play at RMAF.
To be succinct, the hi-rez FIM version of this already stellar recording is flat-out one of the best reference CDs I've ever heard...dynamic, realistic, intimate and exciting. Loussier started recording his take on Bach classics in 1959, and this recording is a compilation that was originally released by Telarc in 2004. Despite the long timespan involved, these recording sound so consistent from one selection to the next--as if they were collected in the same sessions. While the novelty of the arrangements is probably the most noteworthy aspect of these recordings, what really impresses me the forward, robust sound of the piano and how everything--the pedal work, the decay, the sweep of the board--is captured so well. If you're one of those audiophiles who evaluates gear by how well the sound of a grand piano is reproduced, this will quickly become your standard.
As I said in my review of the other FIM recording I bought at RMAF, Happy Coat, this recording is a flashy show-stopper rather than a piece to relax by, and I slightly prefer the Shota Osabe recording for its warmth and comforting sound. But if you want to impress your audiophile buddies, The Best of Play Bach, will certainly get the job done. These FIM recordings are simply amazing when it comes to proving that there's still hope for redbook CD playback in 2013.
Friday, November 22, 2013
It's taken me a whole week to post photos of last weekend's Music Night Event at Blackbird Audio Gallery. First of all, I was exhausted by a series of connecting flights from Western Colorado to San Diego that included everything from massive turbulence over the Rockies to sitting on the tarmac for a couple of hours while the pilot and the tower argued about the best flight path. I love to fly, but this trip aged me. I needed a few days to decompress.
Add a busy work week, a laptop virus and snowy weather, and that's why it's taken me so long to post photos. The first photo above was taken a couple of days before the event, just after Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio had everything set up and running. He decided to match the PureAudio Reference monoblock amplifiers (65-70wpc, pure Class A) with the Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh loudspeakers, with Cardas Audio Clear cabling all around. Dan has many excellent speakers in his showroom, but he felt the amazing Pharaohs were the best overall match. Once I arrived in San Diego, I totally agreed.
Here's a close-up of our beautiful PureAudio References. All of PureAudio's current line of amplifiers are pure Class A with true dual-mono construction, non-magnetic and non-resonant chasses as well as a fascinating mix of simple circuits and sophisticated features. For instance, you might think that a pair of 70wpc Class A monoblock amplifiers might run very hot, but two large and completely silent fans just beneath the faceplate keeps these amplifiers relatively cool, with only those slanted heat sinks in front getting warm.
Along with the amps and speakers, Dan chose a system that included a Bel Canto CD transport and DAC, a Basis Signature turntable with matching tonearm and the new flagship cartridge from Transfiguration, the Proteus. We used a Basis/Transfiguration Proteus combo at Rocky Mountain last month, so I'm very familiar with this analog rig's high level of performance. On the right you can see the PureAudio Control preamplifier and Vinyl preamplifer.
The Control and the Vinyl also feature that mix of simplicity and sophistication. You'll notice that the Control has only one knob on the front--for volume. The four line level inputs are selected automatically according to the presence of a signal. If you have two sources running simultaneously, the Control prioritizes them according to number (input 1, input 2, etc.). I've spoken about the Vinyl a number of times, but one feature I love is the gain setting, or lack thereof. The Vinyl offers 62 dB of gain with plenty of headroom, so the amount of gain seems perfect for almost every cartridge. In fact, I've switched between a high-output moving magnet with an output of 3.5mV to a low-output moving coil with an output of 0.4mV and didn't have to change any of the settings, even the loading (both cartridges, amazing enough, loved to be run wide open at 47K ohms). There are plenty of loading options on the Vinyl, however--47 ohms to 47K.
One more feature is the series of 12V triggers that can be used between the Control and the Reference monoblocks. This allows for home theater bypass as well as a synch-ing up the three amps so that you can power everything on with one power button.
Here's a close-up of the Basis and the Transfiguration. The Vinyl is absolutely one of my favorite phono preamps of all time--that's why we decided to carry the PureAudio line. (I know, I've said that before, but I really believe in this gear!) The Basis/Configuration/PureAudio combo is an exquisite match. as I discovered last year when I put a Transfiguration Phoenix on my Unison Research Giro turntable back home.
The event wasn't just about PureAudio and me. Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic brought their little Geek to the event. The Geek is an interface between your headphones and your laptop (they're also ready to introduce a larger desktop version of the Geek)--it's basically an amp and a DAC in a very small package. Here's Gavin demonstrating the Geek for Dave Clark of Positive Feedback Online.
Here's a photo to give you an idea of how small the Geek is. Listening through a pair of the Cardas Audio EM5813 ear speakers, I found that the Geek provided a huge, powerful sound with plenty of bass and an amazing level of clarity. I also listen to a pair of Ultrasone headphones and found the combination comfortable, relaxing and incredibly open.
Here's host Dan Muzquiz cueing up the Basis. He was incredibly pleased that we had a full house for most of the evening, but there was still plenty of room to sit, relax and listen to this outstanding hi-fi system. The food, by the way, was excellent.
The PureAudio products, with their distinct styling, beg to be touched and fondled. Here's San Diego audiophile Erik Tracy getting a closer look at the Reference monoblocks. I invited members of the Steve Hoffman Forum to stop by, and Erik was the only one who came up and introduced himself. I was far too busy to really spend time with Erik, but he seemed to enjoy the food, the music and the gear.
Finally, I was amazed at how many of my good friends in the industry showed up and supported our event. That's me seated, probably smoking one of the three cigars I had that evening, surrounded by audio reviewer Andre Marc, Dave Clark, cigar buddy/audiophile David Aitken, Audio Strata's David Neilson and audio reviewer Steve Lefkowicz. I look forward to doing many more dealer events in the coming year--they're easily the best part of my job!
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
We've firmed up some of the details for Saturday's Music Night event at Blackbird Audio Gallery in the San Diego area. First of all, the event will start at 3pm and run until midnight or so. That means you can stop by anytime, check out the PureAudio gear, grab some snacks and perhaps an adult beverage and listen to some fantastic music. I always try to avoid promoting my business too much on my blog, but I absolutely love the pure Class A PureAudio gear. I'm proud to represent it and I can't wait to hear it all at Dan's.
These first two photos are of the stunning PureAudio Reference monoblocks--65 watts per channel of pure Class A sound--all set up at Blackbird Audio Gallery. We'll also have the Control preamp which sports a single knob on its faceplate--volume--because the inputs are automatically selected based on the signal. PureAudio gear is amazing for both its technical sophistication AND its minimalist design. We'll also have the Vinyl phono preamp in the system, which is my absolute favorite phono pre under $10K. Dan Muzquiz has everything hooked up to Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh speakers right now, and he's in love with the sound.
We're going to be joined by our good friends Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic (that's Dan and Gavin in the photo). Light Harmonic makes the incredible Da Vinci DAC and transport, which I think is easily one of the best digital playback systems available, if not THE best. Light Harmonic has also been developing some very, very innovative products of late, including the Geek--a DSD-capable USB DAC that's just a little bit bigger than a thumb drive.
If you are in the San Diego area and you want to attend Music Night this Saturday, November 16, check out the event page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vinyl.anachronist#!/events/767885326570852/. I hope to see everyone there!