Thursday, October 2, 2014
I believe a vast majority of audiophiles are aware of Harry Belafonte's 1959 recording Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. As far as live recordings go, it sits at the head of its class in terms of sound quality. In fact, I can't think of a better recording from this era that captures the sound of a live audience so well and firmly positions you, the listener, among the crowd. Most live recordings position the microphones near the performers on stage so that the audience sounds distant and even canned. I'm not sure what the recording engineers did to make this particular crowd sound so immediate and lifelike, but they should have written a book about it and handed it out to all of their contemporaries.
I've been a huge fan of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall for many years--I chose it at "Best LP Reissue" in my 1999 year-end Vinyl Anachronist column when Classic Records released it in an 45rpm 8-LP set. I never even bought that version--I was po' back then and it cost close to $100--so I had to borrow it from a fellow audiophile. Years later I found an original copy at a thrift store, and as you might imagine it was thrashed and sounded like crap. Just a couple of years ago Colleen surprised me during a road trip by playing a ripped CD of the 45rpm version. "Matilda" has been one of "our" songs ever since.
Flash forward to last week, when I was browsing through the Acoustic Sounds website to see what was new. Colleen and I are exhibiting at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a little over a week and I always like to have something exciting and new to play for show attendees. This year we're doing two rooms--one room includes the Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and a pair of our new Axis VoiceBox S speakers, and in the other I'm doing an all-analog room with probably the most ambitious system I've ever set up. The pic below shows it in all its glory, right there in the VA listening room--PureAudio amplification, Opera Grand Callas 2014 speakers and my Unison Research Giro turntable with one of my favorite cartridges, the Transfiguration Axia. (I don't think any other cartridge comes close to it at its relatively modest price point.)
Anyway, I noticed that Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds had just released another version of Carnegie Hall, this one sourced from the original 3-track master tapes and pressed on 200 gram vinyl. Here's the thing about Chad lately: it seems like he's coming out with HIS version of all the audiophile standards such as Tea for the Tlllerman, Fragile and even the first Ted Nugent LP. (I'll pass on that one.) So while part of me says "Do we really need another version of this record?" the other part of me says "If it's from Chad we do." After buying Sam Cooke's Night Beat from Chad a while ago, I'm starting to think that he can do no wrong.
So how is this version compared to the 45rpm version released more than 15 years ago? I wish I still had a copy for comparison. I had a much more modest system back then, so it's not fair to rely upon my memory. But here are some of the distinct advantages to Chad's new version:
1. It's on two LPs instead of eight. (The Classic Records version did have a double LP version, but it didn't sound nearly as good.)
2. It's $50, not $100. In fact, you might not even find a decent copy of the older version for a reasonable amount of money anymore. It's very collectible.
3. The brass section of the orchestra is more edgy and dynamic without peeling your ears back.
4. The crowd noise is even more impressive and natural than before.
5. Everything sounds bigger--the stage, the hall and Harry's voice. At the same time, everything sounds more laid-back and slightly less immersive (not a bad thing, just different as if you're sitting a few more rows away from the stage and the performers.)
This new version of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, in other words, is a big yes. If you're curious about it and you're not sure if you want to drop $50 on it--especially if you already own one version or another, just drop by my room at RMAF and listen for yourself. I'll probably be playing it constantly.
Wednesday, October 1, 2014
This morning I woke up to a pleasant surprise--my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column was live at Perfect Sound Forever! I knew it was coming out today, as I was responsible for creating much of the content. What was surprising, however, was the way in which PSF editor Jason Gross packaged the whole thing, from his very complimentary introduction to the fact that he posted my photo on the home page in the space that's usually reserved for the musicians and performers who are featured in the articles.
Colleen was happy to see it as well, especially since one of our favorite photos of the two of us graces the top of the article instead of the usual Technics SL1200 image that you see above. I feel kind of special today, like it's my birthday or something, and I thank Jason for making this something to truly celebrate!
Sunday, September 21, 2014
Is there anything more ridiculous than the current feud between Dan Auerbach and Jack White? On the surface there are a lot of similarities between the Black Keys and the White Stripes--their names, the fact that each band consists of just a guitarist/singer and a drummer, and that they're both evocative of the hard rock and blues of the early '70s. But beyond that, the Stripes and the Keys have such a different vibe; the former band is minimalist and the latter relies on heavy production in the studio. I can come up with many more examples, but suffice it to say that the first time I heard the Stripes ("Fell in Love With a Girl" on KROQ in LA in 2001) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" The first time I heard the Keys ("Tighten Up" on KGSR in Austin in 2010) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" I took me a long time to make the connection between the two bands, and it had nothing to do with music.
I'm bringing this up because yes, Kool Stuff Katie consists of just a guy guitarist and a girl drummer. Knowing that, you might roll your eyes a little. But once again, there's little to suggest imitation once you listen to the music. KSK, made up of the slightly nerdy Shane Blem and the quirky but very lovely Saren Oliver, have also gone back to the '70s for inspiration--but they're more content with Cheap Trick and the Ramones than the blues. Listening to their eponymous debut album's opener, "Hard Girl to Know," a simple and catchy mini-anthem, I'm reminded of the main reason I look those two earlier bands so much. It has something to do with momentum, about finding a catchy pop hook, roughing it up around the edges and stomping on the gas pedal until something start clanging under the hood.
Another important distinction is that unlike the other two bands, much of the vocal magic in Kool Stuff Katie is that Shane and Saren both sing, often blending innocent and exuberant harmonies into the majority of songs. This balances out the fact that both are rather workmanlike with their instruments--they're creating a fun, noisy whole rather than showing off their musical talent. Saren does occasionally jump over to the keyboards and adds a few extra layers of texture to mix it all up, but they're rockin' out--not making specific and lofty statements about our shared musical past.
That's why you shouldn't judge a band by the number of its members, I suppose. I think one of the reasons why these guitar/drum rock duos are so varied from each other is because each member has to throw more of himself or herself into the whole sonic picture to cover all the bases, so to speak. That means Meg White's drumming sounds nothing like Saren Oliver's, just like Dan Auerbach's singing voice, not to mention his guitar playing, sounds nothing like Jack White's. So kiss and make up, everybody, and maybe work on something together.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
I recently finished my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. PSF editor and publisher Jason Gross came up with the idea to choose my ten favorite columns over the last 17 years, and number 10 was my famously misplaced 2001 column where I raved about the Classic Records reissue of the Led Zeppelin catalog on 180 gram vinyl. As it turned out my column came exactly one issue before Will Shade's excellent article, "Dazed and Confused: The Incredibly Strange Saga of Jake Holmes," which carefully lays out how Jimmy Page stole Holmes' songs over the years. After that my column vanished in the ether, excluded from the archives, and can only be found via a Google search. It took me a while to figure it all out, but after all these years I totally get why Jason did it. It was just bad timing. (Years later Jason told me that he didn't hate Zep--but what they did was pretty sleazy.)
The day after I finished the column, I headed out to the local Hastings to check out their newly remodeled vinyl section, which was still small but growing steadily. I found the latest Zeppelin box sets, remastered by Jimmy Page and released just a few weeks ago, all sitting on a shelf and priced at $134.99 each. (At this point they've released the first three albums, with the rest to follow soon.) I've been really curious about these because I've always lamented the horrible sound quality of the Zep catalog, even the Classic reissues which were expensive and still not quite there sound-wise. I've always used the CD box set, the one released in the '90s, as my reference, but these are merely the lesser of all evils.
But $134.98? I'll pass. I'm not a box set kind of person. I don't need all the outtakes and unreleased materials--that's for fanboys who want an entire disc of their rock idols coughing and scratching their balls in the studio while the engineers finish their coffee breaks. I just want to hear the original releases remastered so the sound quality is as realistic and/or goosebump-inducing as possible.
Fortunately, these new LPs have been released in a basic version which just contains the original album. I first saw these at Fidelis, our dealer in New Hampshire, a couple of weeks ago. I would have grabbed them all right there but I hate bringing LPs on a plane. So there I was in Hastings, a week or so later, and they had a copy of the newly remastered III right there, below the big box sets, for just $24.98. I grabbed it without thinking and headed to the register.
Along with the first three sides of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin III has always been my favorite Zep album because it stands apart from the others in so many ways. It's softer, more acoustic and more psychedelic than any of the others and showed that the band wanted to grow and evolve into something more than a killer blues-rock band. It's also downright weird in places--"The Immigrant Song," for example, belongs in a genre of one. Yet III also contains some of Led Zeppelin's most beautiful music, the country-tinged "Tangerine," the reflective "That's the Way" and the very unusual yet very traditional "Gallow's Pole."
So how does Jimmy Page's reissue measure up to the others? Well, to start off, this pressing is incredibly good. The surface of the LP is almost perfectly silent. Starting off with "The Immigrant's Song," which always sounded like it was recorded in a dungeon with two paper cups and a string, this remaster is decidedly modern-sounding with an expansive soundstage and plenty of air around the instruments. Moving on through the album, you'll notice that Page paid particular attention to bringing out the sound of his acoustic guitars so you can hear the individual strings resonate against the wood. Never has the band sound more live, more there in the room with you.
On the other hand, I wanted more of a visceral impact--starting with fuller and deeper low frequencies. Zep is a band that should knock your proverbial socks off with dynamics and power and sheer rock and roll head-rushes but I always thought they were hamstrung by crappy, muddy production values. So this new version excels at bringing out more details from the grooves, but it still lacks that headbanging magic I find routinely from other hard rock bands from the era.
Still, this is good enough to supplant all other versions of the catalog. To make these better, more of what I truly want, someone would have to cheat and add things that weren't originally there in the studio. As any purist will tell you, that's a big no-no. The real question is whether I'm going to collect each album as they're released, and that's a tougher decision. I don't feel particularly compelled to go out and get the first two albums--I already have the Classic Records versions of those and they cost me too much money to just cast them aside because something shinier came along.
But Physical Graffiti? Houses of the Holy? You bet I'll lay down the cash for those.
Friday, September 5, 2014
"Thanks to articles like this I wasted a bunch of time and money testing out phono preamps from 50.00 to 1600. And you know what? A 100.00 one sounds as good as the 1600 tube. This was with a MMC2 cartridge. Money is best put into speakers as I think this is like wine testing, some people will swear this is a great whine (really boonsfarm) some of this has to be in peoples head. The Cartridge is 80% or more of the equation, a phono pre amp will not magically make up the difference.
The phono preamps in the 70s amplifiers is not a 15.00 part. They are better than those cheap ones you were talking about. Why? think about it, back then everyone had a turntable so they had better put a good phono stage in the amp. Today its an afterthought and now turntables are much rarer than back then. So the market is smaller which means high prices on today phono preamps that are not much better. They might be ok for a really low output mc cart but for MM carts my findings are you don't need to spend 1,000 on one. Take that money and buy better speakers, will give you a much better WOW effect."
"Bullshit. Just because you can't hear the differences doesn't mean everyone else can't either. Maybe Q-tips will help. Don't email me again."
"Not saying there is not a difference just not a WOW. Why get angry over differing opinions? Many others think the same as me via their own testing. Raging at opinions makes me think yours is a bit biased for one reason or another."
"I'm biased because I'm the US importer and distributor of three phono amplifiers from two different companies. But you email me to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about and you only offer your personal opinions as a retort, and then you wonder why I would take offense? You're kidding, right? All future emails from you will be deleted unread."
"Well you have a poor attitude. Now that article makes sense, financial interests."
"What article are you talking about? I stopped doing equipment reviews in 2011, when I became a distributor. I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest. Now, if the article to which you are referring was published after July 1, 2011, then you can say I was motivated by financial interests. But if it was published before that, and I'll bet you any amount of money that it was, then I'll expect an apology."
"I will have to look at my history. But I will apologize now for upsetting you, I did not mean that. It was a black background and started with you trying different phono preamplifier s. At some point you started hicking the amount to spend up and up. From 300.00 to 800 then to over 1k. And seemed to be pushing people to spend more. Well like you I have done the same but I did not find a WOW at the higher price points. I will say I do think the Tube ones are cool looking and have better on paper specs but they did not sound 1,000 better.
I put a lower price MM phone preamp with 2,000 speakers and $1500 one on 500.00 speakers. Then swapped it. I found having better speakers with lower priced phone was much more of a WOW. The phones were almost the same sounding, different but not really better, very subtle. This was with a micro moving cross $700.00 cartridge. Its a low output 2mv that still uses MM part of say a IA or external phono. Not the MC inputs. I think if I had a MC cartridge it might make much more of a difference as they can be very low output and need much more signal boost from the preamp.
So at least for mmc cartridge owners (soundsmith makes them) it appears the phono preamp does not make as much difference.
I would like to be proven wrong, maybe there is a phono preamp that would do better. I did not try to adjust the 47k to a higher or lower level. Maybe that would have made the difference. If I tried another one it would have to have adjustable impedance control so I could tune it better. What phono preamps do you deal with?"
"Here's the article you're referring to: http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl43.html. It's from March 2003, as you can see from archived date at the top of the article. In March of 2003, I was not in the audio industry. I was in telecommunications. You're all hyped up about an article I wrote more than 11 years ago. Don't you have better things to do?
I'm not pushing people to spend more. But there is a price/performance ratio in audio that is undeniable and linear. As with most market segments, more money buys more product, whether it's more quality or more quantity. The Law of Diminishing Returns is highly overrated in high-end audio. The really nice stuff, which happens to be very expensive more often than not, sounds a LOT better than the affordable stuff. "Giant Killers" really don't exist. Everyone who complains about the prices of high-end audio gear are nothing but sore losers--if you can't afford it, don't worry about it. Would you write a letter to Enzo Ferrari saying his automobiles are rip-offs because you can't afford them? Same concept here.
I sell three phono preamps. One is $2450, one is $3250 and one is $4500. All sound very different, all are worth it. All sound far better than any $1000 phono preamp. I know, because I own a $1000 phono preamp as a back-up, and it sounds very different than the other ones. I wouldn't suggest any one of them for people with modest systems because you can't hear the differences unless the rest of your system is highly resolving. I'm gonna say the rest of your system probably isn't highly resolving if you can't hear the differences between phono preamps.
Also, providing me with ONE example of a time when you switched components does not constitute a fact. It's anecdotal evidence, which means its useless information to everyone but you. After four years of distributing high-end audio, after 16 years of being an equipment reviewer and audio writer and after 40 years of being an audiophile, how many comparisons do you think I've made? Would it be more than one?
Worst of all, you haven't even heard a great low-output MC in your system. If you had, you'd know that the phono pre makes a huge difference."
Monday, September 1, 2014
Over the weekend I've been working on my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, which just so happens to be the 100th. PSF editor Jason Gross and I have been talking about doing something special for the 100th column since last year, and initially he thought it would be great if HE could interview ME. I thought sure, it would be great to let someone else do all the work for once! As the milestone approached, however, he had more ideas, such as me writing yet another column where I could choose my favorite columns over the years.
The more I thought about this idea, the more I liked it. So this weekend I sat down and reviewed all 99 columns, dating back to February 1998, and I chose ten columns that had a special meaning for me, or at least had an interesting back story. I always knew what would wind up as my #1 choice, and #2 wasn't much of a surprise either. But the other eight were very interesting for a number of reasons, which you'll find out about once the issue appears.
So that's the plan for now--I'll have a retrospect as my 100th column, and Jason Gross will interview me. These will appear in the next issue of Perfect Sound Forever, the October/November issue, which will appear at the end of September. I'm looking forward to it!
Saturday, August 30, 2014
Pawn or Kings are a folk rock band from the Ozarks, which is a rather genuine place to be from if you're going to make music like this. If you read all of the press about POK, however, you'll see endless comparisons to Mumford & Sons, which made me put off the writing of this review. I'm not the biggest fan of POK's more famous British brethren; it occurs to me they're a band that has become less genuine as the years and the record sales go on. A cursory listen to POK's new album, Pomme de Terre, certainly reveals the same affinity for Irish roots rock mixed with Americana, along with a banjo that's presented up front and personal just like a lead singer. I had a feeling, in other words, that I had heard this all before.
It's a good thing I gave Pomme de Terre a second chance in my main system, where I discovered a quartet of musicians much more willing to take chances and stray from that somewhat limiting musical genre. POK achieves this by manipulating the pace of their album, juxtaposing the knee-slapping Irish tunes with moody, atypical instrumentals ("The First Rain," subtitled an interlude) to a mid-tempo rambling epic ("Black Clouds") that brushes up against The Fleet Foxes once or twice with its forlorn 3-part harmonies and an attitude that flirts with the medieval.
Despite these adventurous mini-excursions, Pomme de Terre doesn't drop you off at the bus stop halfway through while the band members stretch out and improvise. The instrumental breaks are a welcome feature up until the end of this varied and confident album, the band's second after their 2011 debut Letters to Lucy, until this quartet lands into an introspective yet invigorating cover of an actual Fleet Foxes' tune, "He Doesn't Know Why." Any musician who can cover the Foxes and not make you run for the original deserves a nice slap on the back and a pint. By the way, the song is misspelled on the back cover as "He Doensn't Know Why"--I'm not sure if this is intentional or if it will be corrected later and my copy will be worth tons of money one day.
I actually loved the way this album loosened up as it went, finding different pathways to explore along the way. It's as if Pomme de Terre is an all-night party that starts off raucous until a few cocktails are consumed and a few hearts are broken. And the sound quality is quite nice once you get past the rather thinly-balanced opener "Names and Maps." I have a new, BIG pair of speakers in the system and the bass guitar in this album had a warm yet dynamic sound that drives each song.
For more information on Pawns or Kings, check out their Bandcamp website.