Monday, November 30, 2015
It's that time of year again, time for my annual year-end wrap-up for Perfect Sound Forever! Find out what I've chosen as the year's best new vinyl releases, best LP reissues and best analog accessories--as well as the Cartridge of the Year and the Turntable of the Year.
Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
Many years ago, J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile remarked--and I'm paraphrasing liberally--that many modern horn recordings made brass instruments sound smoothed out and polished, and that during a live performance, horns have a bite and edginess to them that can be startling. JGH had a strong belief that listening to live performances of unamplified musical instruments was essential to becoming an informed listener (i.e., an audiophile), and his comments about horns referred specifically to the fact that so many modern hi-fis, not to mention recordings, take that edge off of horns so that they are smooth and listenable and therefore not at all realistic.
Those observations were confirmed a few years ago when I found myself at a jazz club in Austin during SXSW with no more than eight or ten feet separating my head from the bell of a trumpet. While it wasn't quite as punishing as it sounds, it did prove to me that the proper staging of brass instruments during recording requires a modicum of restraint--especially when it comes to proximity. Most horns have a startling timbre, but at the same time such instruments are capable of an incredibly expressive and dynamic sound, one that shows off the interaction between musician and instrument. Finding a balance between a horn performance and the rather isolated tone that is common in modern recordings can be quite the challenge.
Morten Lindberg of Norway's 2L Recordings has figured it out. His new recording, Early Romantic Horn Sonatas, provides such a naked and detailed portrayal of the sound of the natural horn that at first it sounds like nothing else you've experienced. Granted, natural horn recordings aren't that common these days, especially when accompanied by another somewhat ancient instrument such as the fortepiano. But Morten has the insight to know that the secret to capturing the true and excitingly primitive sound of a natural horn without peeling back the ears of the audience is to place the instrument in a vast space--an old Norwegian church, for instance--so that those macrodynamics can bloom and develop into a completely pleasurable experience.
Featuring Steinar Granmo Nilsen on horn and Kristin Fossheim on fortepiano, Early Romantic Horn Sonatas features three separate sonatas from Ferdinand Ries, Franz Danzi and Nikolaus von Krufft that focus on the musical expressions that evolved in the early 19th century forging art with nature--the dawn of the Romantic Era in claasical music. Gone are the rigid structures that existed in the decades prior, resulting in a wonderfully loose interplay between these two performers. The result is music that is lively and poetic and full of virtuosity, but I found myself more impressed with the way this recording captures the somewhat mechanical characters of these two instruments. Not only will you hear Nilsen's controlled breaths amid the blasts of buzzing metal, but you'll also hear the delicate fingerwork of Fossheim, and how every press of the key makes a somewhat distinctive clicking sound along the ancient soundboard that at times sounds like a third instrument.
The genius of this recording, of course, is in the way these two performers are placed in such a vast space that allows all these details to emerge, along the walls and open beams, on a such a grand physical scale. Compared to most 2L Recordings, this one has a soundstage that is far more laid back and almost makes it seems as if the listener is sitting in a back pew. This distance enhances those unique timbres, however, without obscuring detail. It proves, to me at least, that Morten does not have a "one size fits all" approach to making recordings--he considers everything to make some of the finest classical recordings in history.
Wednesday, November 11, 2015
All my endless blathering about my Australian trip has obscured the fact that I went to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last month, and I did intend to write several blog entries about what I saw at the show. This was the first high-end audio show in years where I went as a show attendee instead of an exhibitor, and it was truly enjoyable and informative to check out many new products that I've only heard about to this point. While I felt that this year's RMAF was relatively quiet in comparison to previous years--a minority sentiment, by the way--I did see plenty of great things.
Despite my intrepid attitude about seeing absolutely everything, my best memory from this year's show took place in somewhat familiar surroundings--the exhibit room that featured Endeavor Audio E-5 loudspeakers, a Triangle Arts turntable and much more, all wired with Skogrand cable. We shared a room with Leif Swanson's wonderful, dynamic E-5 loudspeakers at the Newport show earlier this year--they were a perfect match with the PureAudio amplification. So I feel I know those speakers pretty well. In addition, Colleen and I have known Knut Skogrand for some time now, and I have to say that every room I've experienced that features his premium cables has wonderful, wonderful sound.
Colleen and I spent many hours in Knut and Leif's room, drinking Knut's whiskey and listening to lots of vinyl. A show attendee wandered in, and within a few minutes he asked Knut to play an LP that he brought to the show. It turned out to be the new 45rpm Analogue productions reissue of Dean Martin's Dream with Dean--the Intimate Dean Martin. Knut looked unsure of the album when the gentleman handed him the cover--the gentleman, in return, said "Don't worry, you'll be glad you played it!"
I really didn't know that particular Dean Martin album. I could only think of how I was ultimately disappointed with the MFSL CD reissue of Dean's This Time I'm Swinging, which I purchased in January at CES. I was hoping for a reference recording that I could play at the show, but instead I got one of those MFSL reissues that merely make an awful recording sound acceptable. I really wanted a recording that could resurrect Dean and place him in the room right between the speakers. As it turns out, Dream with Dean is that album.
The Endeavor/Skogrand room certainly played a part, but for my money this is the most thrilling rendering of Dean's voice I've ever heard. Remember how everyone was raving about the MFSL reissue of Frank Sinatra's Nice N' Easy a few years ago, and how it was the finest-sounding Sinatra LP ever? Well, Dream with Dean is better in my opinion. After a few seconds of the first song we heard, "If You Were the Only Girl," I swore I could tell what brand of cigarettes Dean was smoking in the studio. I heard a real, live human voice singing in that familiar tone, seemingly free of studio artifacts used to polish things up a bit. It's Dean as if he was hanging out at your house one night, and someone kept asking him to sing something for the hell of it and he finally acquiesced. I could hear the tenderness in his voice, the slight breaking around the edges of that mellow tone, an extraordinarily talented voice captured in a casual, relaxed setting.
Of course I left the room and immediately went downstairs to the ballroom to see if this LP was available at the Acoustic Sounds booth. I found it in the bins within seconds. Once we returned home, I played Dream with Dean over and over on my system, and I heard the same magic. My only initial criticism of the sound quality was that while Dean's voice sounded amazingly real and present, the band was rather low in the mix. Dean's voice was front and center, way out in front, and the small and intimate band (guitarist Barney Kessel, pianist Ken Lane, bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Irv Cottler) were relegated almost out of the room, way past the rear wall. I also noticed a serious center-fill issue among the musicians, especially when Dean's vocal tracks were taken out of the mix. It wasn't a big deal--that channel separation was fairly typical in 1964, when this recording was made.
Then an amazing thing happened. As I mentioned in my last blog, I received those CLD sheets from Les Davis and placed them under all my components. I even placed an additional footer underneath the motor of my Unison Research Giro turntable. That created a more coherent overall sound, with Dean integrated more into his backing band than ever before. That means a fairly resolving system is somewhat necessary to truly appreciate what Analogue Productions has accomplished with this LP.
I think about all the other Analogue Productions 45rpm 2-LP sets I own and how they are all absolute reference recordings, the kind I like to play at shows and wow the crowds. I'm talking about Belafonte Live at the Carnegie Hall, Sam Cooke's Night Beat, Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingue Lovers and more. Dream with Dean might be the best one yet. I just finished my year-end column for my Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever and I chose this recording as the Best Reissue in the Analog Format.
It won by a mile. Highly recommended.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Mere moments after I finished my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, where I mentioned Les Davis' CLD material, I received a package in the mail from Australia with the first batch of footers that I will try to bring to CES next January. Les Davis sent me 32 pre-cut footers in two different sizes. The smaller round set, I presume, are for placing under the feet of components, and the larger square pieces are probably meant for placing under loudspeakers, especially between bookshelf speakers and their stands.
Again, these are prototypes, just the actual CLD sheets Les manufacturers and not a finished product. After hearing the sonic improvements of these sheets back in Sydney, I recommended that Les find a way to package them in an attractive way, perhaps sandwiched between pieces of wood, aluminum--anything attractive so that audiophiles won't mind placing them in a visible location on their equipment racks. My only concern was, of course, that the outer casing did not diminish the effects of the CLD material.
Now that I have them on my rack, I think they're visually interesting in their raw form. When you place them under amplifiers and CD players and basically anything in a big rectangular chassis, the thin footers disappear from view. When placed where they can easily be seen--in this case under my Unison Research Giro turntable and the Unison Research Phono One phono pre--they're still not obtrusive and I don't mind their presence at all. Perhaps an outer ring may enhance their appearance, but I don't want the price of these footers to increase exponentially just so they'll be pretty.
After just a couple of hours of listening, I still heard the same exact sonic improvements in my current system that I did with the Einstein/Brigadiers Audio/Arcam system back in Sydney. Using the wonderful, lovely-sounding Analogue Productions reissue of Dean Martin's Dream with Dean, I noticed a rather disjointed feeling between Dean and his backing band, which to me suggested that they were not recorded in the same space. There's a real center-fill problem with the band itself--guitar way over to the right, drums and bass way over to the left, with Dino smack dab in the middle.
Once the CLD footers were placed under the amp, turntable and phono stage, Dean and his band returned to the same studio space. The overall sound became more coherent, and more seamlessly blended from top to bottom. The footers also fleshed out the bass in the recording with more woodiness, more bloom. I removed the footers and listened once more (this is the best way to detect sonic improvements through changes in the system as well as minor tweaks) and I immediately felt like I was missing something. Dean's voice was a little drier, a little more distant.
I'm going to experiment with these footers a little more, testing their effects on system combinations that are both more resolving and less so. I'll come back with more findings in a few days.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
My latest cigar column is now available at Part-Time Audiophile. This one, "Born to Be Mild," talks about milder cigars for newbies, or cigar smokers who just prefer something smooth and mellow. Enjoy!
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
I'm currently fulfilling my own prediction that I'll be talking about my trip to Australia for the rest of my life. Here it is, nearly two months to the day after I returned to the US, and I'm still acting like one of those '50s dads who invites everyone over for twenty minutes of drinks and three hours of vacation slides. I'm ready to wrap it up now, although my trip will influence the direction of CCI over the next year.
For me, the single biggest reason to travel to Australia--outside of getting that first official passport stamp--was to hear Brad Serhan and David Allen's masterpiece, the Brigadiers Audio BA1 loudspeaker. I didn't even get a chance to hear it until about two weeks into my trip. I'd heard plenty about them beforehand, however. One of the many things I learned about Aussies was that they consider bragging to be poor form. (An American friend of mine has sarcastically noted, however, that Aussies like to brag about their modesty.) Brad wasn't telling me that he had made his masterpiece, a speaker so good that I should travel 8,167 miles just to hear it.
Instead, he said things like "we're anxious to have you over for a listen" and "we think it's really good but we want your feedback" and "we've had some reviewers and dealers here give it a listen and they really love it, but let's not get ahead of ourselves."
Here it is in all its glory. The Brigadiers Audio BA1 is much like its creators, understated and modest on the outside and utterly engaging while going about its daily business. Featuring two of those famous SEAS magnesium mid/bass drivers per side as well as a Raal ribbon tweeter, the BA1 seems very much like a traditional 2.5-way design--albeit one using the finest parts and materials. With this speaker, God is in the details with its birch-ply cabinet construction, constrained layer damping cabinet design using a new adhesive between the layers, and a remarkably refined crossover that is the culmination of Brad's thirty-plus years in speaker design.
In addition, Brigadiers can customize the BA1 and the BA2 in a number of different ways. An outboard crossover will be an option, for example, as well as driver gaskets made from additional constrained layer damping material from Les Davis. But one of the most unique aspects of these two speakers are their almost bespoke quality. When a customer decides to order a pair of BA1s or BA2s from a dealer, they will begin a relationship with that speaker. They can decide between exotic hand-oiled Australian veneers such as brushbox (seen in the completed BA1 we evaluated) and Australian rosewood and much more. Toby Hogpin, the master carpenter who is making the complex and beautifully-made cabinets for these speakers, can also encase them in dozens of different Corian finishes.
Then, once an order is placed, the entire team will send the customer video updates of the speaker being made. The customer will literally know his speaker inside and out before it even arrives. And while many manufacturers would use this custom approach to stretch out the delivery time of the finished product, Brad figures he can build a pair of these in just a few weeks.
Brad and David and I visited Toby at his shop in Sydney about a week into my visit, and to tell you the truth I had been looking forward to it for days. I have kind of a fetish about wooden loudspeaker veneers, and I'll be the first to admit that a gorgeous wooden finish is very, very important to me when I'm making a loudspeaker buying decision. I want something breathtakingly beautiful, something that no one else has. So I love the idea that you can discuss options with your dealer based on hi-rez photos supplied on the Brigadiers Audio website and choose a unique pair of speakers that no one else will have.
In other words, if your buddy buys a pair of custom BA1s or BA2s and you listen to them and decide you also want a pair, your speakers will not look exactly the same even if you choose the same veneer. Toby is always on the hunt for exciting and beautiful veneers, and he knows that the variations from tree to tree are profound enough to create a distinctive look for each pair of speakers. Then again, if you want a pair of speakers exactly like your buddy's, then it can probably be done. But what fun is that?
For instance, Toby showed me these blocks, which are all Australian rosewood. You can see the differences in color and grain patterns. That's why Toby will supply Brigadiers Audio with hi-rez photos so that the potential customers can see close-ups of the wood grain. The photos have to be hi-rez, of course; I don't know about you, but I've received speakers that looked completely different than they did on the website, thanks to these differences in veneers. Hi-rez photos are the best way to give the customer an almost exact idea of the final product.
Once a veneer is chosen, Toby gets started on the construction of the cabinets. With all of the layers of birch play, these speakers are very heavy for their size. I've had the 2-way BA2s since January and they're heavier, in my opinion, than any other wooden speaker of its size--more than 40 lbs. each. The BA1, despite having a relatively compact footprint and height, is a monster. It took two of us to carry each one of the empty cabinets back to Brad's house. They're not one of those behemoth loudspeakers that require you to place hydraulic jacks under your suspended floor, but they are surprisingly hefty.
As an additional choice, Toby can make the BA1 and BA2 with a Corian finish instead of the wood veneer for customers who want a more modern, streamlined look. Corian is a really interesting material for loudspeaker cabinets because, unlike wooden cabinets, Corian cabinets are repairable. If you scratch the cabinets of your BA1 or BA2, anyone who is a certified Corian installer can buff out the scratch and make your speakers look like new again. If you knock a chunk out of your loudspeaker cabinet, a Corian technician can merely shape a new chunk, fit it to size, and work it into the cabinet. You'll be able to see where these bigger repairs were made from up close, but not from your listening position. Minor scratches and dings, however, will not be detectable after repair.
Toby also has the ability to produce different combinations of veneers, so you can have brushbox on the outer sides and Corian on the front baffle, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Toby has more than 30 different colors available in Corian.
Once we carefully packed up the empty cabinets in the back of Brad's wagon, we returned to Brigadiers to assemble the speakers. For my initial listening impressions, we left the crossovers on the floor behind the speakers so that we could change resistor values if needed. (This is what we did with the BA2s, by the way.) Within a couple of hours, our BA1 was ready for my approval.
My input, as it turned out, wasn't really needed. Unlike the smaller BA2, which was still an unfinished prototype when I arrived in Sydney, the BA1 was a finished design and was already making the rounds. Indeed, this pair wasn't even serial number #001. With that Einstein integrated, the BA1 was an incredibly complete speaker, one that did everything I wanted it to do. After spending more than a week fine-tuning the BA2, I was beginning to think that my quest for the perfect two-way speaker was over. The BA2s were, in its final reiteration, so solid in the lower bass that I could not imagine needing more. When I heard the BA1, however, I heard that more and knew I had to have this speaker. Natural, detailed, extended and the frequency extremes--I knew that Brad had made his masterpiece. The perfect speaker for me, in other words, is a 2.5-way.
I'm going to stop right now with the hyperbole and the marketing talk because I don't want this to be about sales. It's just that this has been one of the highlights of my audiophile life, actually working with designers and consulting with them and getting results that are far better than I ever expected.
The challenge, of course, is bringing these two wonderful speakers to the US market and beyond. In just a short time, Brad and David have found a couple of dealers in Australia, and they're already talking about New Zealand distribution. But the US has become a very tricky market for high-end audio. It's not enough to say here, listen to this, you'll like it and want to buy it. As an importer and distributor, my main obstacle is usually bringing in brands to the US that represent good value, something that can be tough to do when you have to work in the cost of global shipping and still pay the bills. That has become one of the main requirements for CCI carrying a brand--when someone asks me how much a product is, I want them to say "Oh, is that all?" and not "Why is it so expensive?"
With this level of design, however, every little thing makes a difference in the final product, and everything costs money. These two speakers will not be cheap. That means Brad and Davis and Morris Swift (a third partner I haven't mentioned yet...sorry, Morris!) will have to ensure that they are running their operation as lean as possible without affecting the results. Plus, there are hundreds and hundreds of new speaker companies trying to get a foothold in the US market. They all want to be the next KEF or Harbeth or Quad or whatever.
All I can say is that this is the speaker I want when I retire, when I get off the audio merry-go-round. Is that enough to make people notice? Well, I aim to find out. Right now I'm trying to get all of these Down Under brands together at a US high-end audio show, possibly next year's show at Newport, so people can listen for themselves and decide whether or not I know what I'm talking about when it comes to good sound. I'm talking PureAudio, Axis, Redgum Audio, Brigadiers Audio--and let's not forget Les Davis' intriguing new CLD material--all in one room, or maybe two.
Australia and New Zealand are hot spots for high-end audio. They know good sound, and they are serious about achieving it. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. And I can't wait to go back.
Saturday, October 24, 2015
As high-end audio importers and distributors, Colleen and I currently service 23 dealers in the US. As far as business models go, CCI has an even mix of brick-and-mortar stores and dealers working out of their homes. We even have one or two dealers who rely primarily on internet sales, even though we are an old-fashioned distributor and strenuously protect our dealers' territories. The latter group, of course, is reserved for customers who do not have a local dealer nearby. All of these dealer types have their pros and cons--home-based dealers, for instance, don't have to deal with the high overhead of a store and are able to offer demonstrations that closely approximate the customer's home environment, and more and more of these dealers are popping up all over the world.
This flexible model, which usually operates on an appointment-only basis, is certainly the way I shopped for years with Gene Rubin Audio--I really appreciated the one-on-one attention I received from Gene and I felt I made better buying decisions in such an environment. But I miss the old hi-fi stores, and the ability to stroll into a showroom and see all the equipment I've heard about in person. I still love to walk up to equipment and see it up close and perhaps even touch it--especially if no one is watching.
That's one of the reasons why Len Wallis Audio in Sydney was such a genuine treat, a well-needed respite toward the end of my Australian trip.
Walking in the front door, I felt chills as I saw the sales floor filled with tons of high-end audio equipment spread out everywhere, with listening rooms carefully positioned along the perimeter of the store for more careful auditioning. Suddenly I was transported back to the late '70s and early '80s, during my audiophile apprenticeship, where I could wandering among the set-ups and experience all these lovely machines in all their glory.
Brad Serhan wanted me to meet Len Wallis, who has been part of the Australian hi-fi scene for decades. In fact, I even knew who Len Wallis was before Brad even mentioned his name. So on the second-to-last day of my Sydney excursion, Brad and I headed out, unannounced, to Len Wallis Audio.
When was the last time you went to a hi-fi store in the US and saw dozens of beautiful turntables in a static display right when you walked in? And I'm not just talking about budget turntables. For instance, Len Wallis had the entire Rega turntable line sitting front and center, even the new RP10. Brad was amused as I darted all over the showroom saying, "Oh, they have this!" and "Wow, I've never seen one of these in person before!"
The first listening room I entered, just off to the right as we entered the store, featured a system that used the Axis VoiceBox S speaker. I mentioned that our trip was unannounced because Brad was so happy that one of his designs was featured so prominently in the store. "Len had no idea we were coming today," Brad explained. "So he didn't put these here just to make me happy!"
As it turns out, Len Wallis is the Australian distributor for Axis, and he told us that the speaker was really starting to take off in Sydney as THE 2-way monitor for his customers. We even spoke to one of Len's salesmen, who told us that he and the rest of the sales staff were discussing the most interesting new products in audio over the last few years and four out of the five salesmen said, "The Axis VoiceBox." That's comforting to Colleen and me since we've been working hard over the last year to spread the word.
Len, of course, was the exact opposite of the snobby high-end dealer so many audiophiles despise. Warm, friendly and full of enthusiasm, Len loved talking about audio as much as I do. He'd even been reading about my adventures in Oz and was hoping he'd get to meet me while I was there. We chatted for a while even though Brad and I had arrived unannounced and he was in the middle of a very busy day.
This, of course, underlined something I already knew: Australians as a group are friendly and outgoing and so nice to deal with. I'm certainly not saying you don't get that level of attention from US dealers, or that you won't have as much fun with a dealer who works from home. But between Len Wallis and Jeff Knox, I knew that if I ever moved to Australia my high-end audio needs would be met. (And trust me, that subject came up several times!)
If anything, visiting Len Wallis and Jeff Knox was the realization of a subject I've been writing about all year in my articles for Perfect Sound Forever and Part-Time Audiophile--that a good hi-fi dealer is an audiophile's best friend, even 8000 miles away in a foreign country. Not equipment reviewers. Not other audiophiles on internet discussion forums. A high-end audio dealer, the type that isn't just making a sale but is trying to get you as a customer for life by steering you right.
In Len Wallis Audio, I was able to see some of my favorite gear just sitting around. I even saw a Continuum turntable just sitting on a table near the back of the store! I made Brad snap this photo of me with a Linn Sondek LP12 for a couple of nebulous reasons. First of all, I've always wanted to own a Linn ever since I first heard one back when I was in college and they still retailed for $795. These days Linns just aren't as prevalent in the US as they are in the rest of the world. That's too bad because I still find them to be exceptional turntables that offer a unique sound that may not be the last word in accuracy, but it's compelling and musical nonetheless. It reminded me of one of my favorite dealers in the US, Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, who is one of the last few of the US dealers who can still set-up and extract optimum performance from one of these classics.
While there, Brad had another treat--Len Wallis still sells loudspeakers from Orpheus Audio, one of Brad's earlier designs. As I glanced around the store and talked to some of the staff, I wondered how often hi-fi stores are visited by the actual manufacturers and designers who make the gear being sold. I'm not talking about planned dealer events, just an impromptu visit to hang out and perhaps talk a little about audio.
Again, I'm not trying to make a general point about the paucity of brick-and-mortar high-end audio stores in the US because I do visit plenty of them. Many of them are just as impressive as Len Wallis Audio. I'm just saying that I long for a return for this type of store in the US. Maybe that's not realistic in 2015, but I still get goosebumps when I see an old-fashioned hi-fi store still thriving in the Age of the Internet.