Thursday, April 17, 2014

SOTA LP Record Cleaning Machine Has Arrived!

It's been almost a year since I met Kirk and Donna Bodinet of SOTA. We shared a room with SOTA at the 2013 AXPONA Show in Chicago, and I was duly impressed with their flagship Millenia turntable as well as the entry-level Moonbeam and Comet. We talked about their record cleaning machine, known by most as the RCM; after almost 30 years with Nitty Gritty record cleaning machines I was ready for a change, but I couldn't afford the monster machines from the likes of Loricraft or even Keith Monks.

The RCM is $950. There's an option for an exhaust fan, which my unit has, and that brings the price to an even $1000. That's more than the entry level units from VPI and Nitty Gritty, but far less than those aforementioned super machines. In fact, the RCM is priced about halfway between a VPI 16.5 and a VPI 17, and the features contained in the RCM are also somewhere halfway between the two machines from New Jersey. So you get the smooth, automatic operation and convenience of more expensive machines, but not the silence. Fortunately the cleaning process works so flawlessly with the SOTA that it's easier to step away from the noise while the LP is being cleaned.

The optional exhaust fan should be considered essential for audiophiles. This keeps the motor from overheating when you're on a cleaning spree, or if you use a multiple-step method such as the Walker Audio Prelude system. (Of course you get a bottle of the SOTA cleaner, along with a beautiful wood-handled cleaning brush, when you buy an RCM.)

So far I'm really enjoying the SOTA LP RCM. It's a much more substantial unit than my old Nitty Gritty machines, and it's far easier to use. My only issue so far is that I have to get into the habit of using less fluid during cleaning, otherwise it takes a while for the vacuum wand to completely dry the record. I'll get the hang of it. I'll give the RCM a complete, thorough review in the next few weeks.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Katzenberger Music Productions' 02 on CD/SACD Hybrid

This one is for me.

I'm referring to the fact that I reviewed Katzenberger Music Productions' 01 with certain audiophiles in mind--the ones who need the female voice to evaluate audio gear. 02, however, is a stupendous reproduction of solo harp, and for years I've been using the harp as one of my many tools to gauge the sound of an audio system. The problem I've had, up until now, is that I don't really own that killer harp recording that clearly measures the space a harp occupies and how, like a piano, the notes come from precise locations along the instrument as the musician moves up and down the scales. (In some cases, depending on how the microphones are placed, those notes may move back and forth instead of side to side.) The closest thing I have to a decent harp recording demo is Joanna Newsom's The Milk-Eyed Mender or even the epic Ys, and I've learned that while her harp playing is utterly transcendent, her voice polarizes listeners to the point of distraction. Personally, I love Ms. Newsom's Lisa Simpson-esque voice, but there are songs in her catalog that may clear a room.

Anne-Sophie Bertrand, for what it's worth, does not sing along while she plays the harp. She's not a pop singer, for one, and these musical selections from Albeniz, Faure, Bach, Mendelssohn, Handel, Debussy and Prokofiev wouldn't be favorably enhanced by such modern embellishments. In addition, 02 sounds distant and remote in terms of soundstage and imaging, just like 01 did--and like Joanna Newsom doesn't. 01, however, succeeded at capturing the illusion of two performers creating music in a relatively large space. 02 was recorded in another large space, the Festeburg Church in Frankfurt-Preungeshime, which is renown for its excellent acoustics. You won't hear the same vast room boundaries, but you will hear the same distant perspective--a seat several rows back, more specifically--coupled to a clean, pristine and intimate point in three-dimensional space.

None of this spaciousness and perspective matters if the content isn't extraordinary, which it is. I knew I was in for a different type of harp recording after just a few seconds of the opening piece, Isaac Albeniz' Suite Espagnole. I've heard this piece many times before, but never on a harp. Miss Bertrand infuses a liquid, wavelike momentum into the piece that may remind you of the opening movement of La Mer. The music rises, falls, swells and bursts, and the usually demure timbre of the harp does not quell the excitement one iota. I've heard so many harp recordings focus on quaint beauty rather than real emotions, but Suite Espagnole possesses so much sheer drama that your heartbeat might increase before the end of the piece. Good harp recordings may induce goosebumps, but how many of them will get your motor running? This one will.

The rest of the album is equally exquisite--particularly a world premiere recording of Jean Francaix's Suite pour Harpe that makes you wonder why anyone waited to present this to the world. The rest of the programme spans three centuries and seeks to illustrate the harp's history--the adoption of polyphonic patterns, for example, as well as the continued popularity of the instrument well into the 20th century. In 02 you have that rarity, a stunning performance of striking material that sounds incredibly real. For now, it's my reference harp recording, the one I want to play when I need to hear what a harp would sound like in my listening room. Highly recommended.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Available at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now live on the Perfect Sound Forever website. In this installment I interview Dave Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana and ask him about the art of vintage turntable restorations in 2014. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Katzenberger Music Productions' 01 on CD/SACD Hybrid

"What are those speakers called, Opera? Yeah, you should be playing only opera on them if you're gonna call 'em that. No, I'm serious. Don't laugh. That's how I evaluate audio gear, by listening to sopranos only. Do you have any sopranos I can listen to? Okay, thanks. Hmmm. I don't know this music. I can't tell if these speakers are any good or not. I'm going to have to go back home and get my CDs."

Ah, my favorite show attendee from last year's AXPONA Show in Chicago. A short thin man in his seventies, this guy darted around my exhibit room like a hummingbird, nervously cradling his chin in his hand while he constantly shook his head. He made Dr. Sheldon Cooper seem like that Ty Webb guy in Caddyshack. He never came back with his music--I'm not even sure if he made it out of the parking lot of the hotel in one piece. As strange as that guy was, however, I still feel like I let him down by not having a proper recording of a soprano to wow him and make him buy my stuff. Now I do.

I've already previewed these new recordings from Katzenberger Music Productions of Germany, so you can read about their uniquely elegant packaging and overall approach to digital recordings. KMP specializes in the use of "natural sound recording and mixing techniques" to achieve an "organically pure sound quality." This means they focus on purist recording techniques and avoid filters, compression and other effects. While that almost sounds like KMP creates recordings that should remind you of your treasured Living Presences and RCA Shaded Dogs, modern digital recording technologies present a sharper, more focused and slightly distant perspective in comparison--sort of like 2L Recordings of Norway has done over the last couple of years. All of KMP's recordings, by the way, are 192kHz/24-bit and are also available as hi-rez downloads.

In 01, the first KMP recording, we are treated to a lovely survey of the Lied genre, a German musical form founded by Franz Schubert. Mezzo-soprano Barbara Hofling and pianist Grainne Dunne float through a slightly dreamy yet distinctly Teutonic program of Mendelssohn, Schubert, Schumann and Faure. The former composer is French, of course, but he quietly brought his own influences into the Lied catalog.

What I noticed first while listening to these lush, romantic pieces, is that the perspective is very relaxed and laid-back and, like I said, distant. You might be surprised by this placement--both performers sound like they are suspended in a large, almost liquid environment. It took me a minute or so to sort it out, but I eventually realized that this was a recording of two performers in a very large space--something that is confirmed in those thorough liner notes. In this recording you can hear those vast room boundaries defined with each shift into the high register. That's when you really appreciate that somewhat distant perspective--this is an extremely dynamic record and you should probably set your volume levels in advance.

This, of course, is all very good news. Listening to such a lovely voice--I've always preferred the more vulnerable, delicate sound of a mezzo-soprano to a soprano, especially when the work is in German--is a huge treat in its own way. With this recording, however, KMP has proven what a lot of people already know--a vocal recording without compression can be incredibly lifelike, and it's hard to imagine sometimes why anyone would want to do this differently. Once you start taking away those peaks and valleys, you've made the leap from "live" to "Memorex" and all the excitement is gone. This purist approach is equally welcome with the amazing Schimmel-Piano K 280 T--you can easily hear those wonderful spatial cues from the piano's soundboard that can be buried in the mix on inferior recordings.

That means, of course, that the very first release from Katzenberger is an unqualified hit, an instant sonic reference. I've already listened to 02 and 03 quite a number of times, and I can tell you that all three of these KMP are consistent spectacular, and for slightly different reasons. But it's safe to say that with 01, I feel like I now have the definitive trade show recording for those souls who need a soprano in order to hear the music.

All photos were taken from the Katzenberger Music Productions website.

Monday, March 17, 2014

2L Recordings' Symphonies of Wind Instruments on CD, SACD and Blu-ray Audio

On the surface, this new 2L Recording of the Royal Norwegian Navy Band is a primer for dynamics. You know, I'm talking about one of those recordings audiophiles use to demonstrate how exciting their systems are. Everything is dramatic, percussive and in your face, and if your heart is leaping then it must be a great recording. Reference Recordings and Sheffield both had similar releases by wind orchestras back in the '80s and they both became audiophile standards--I think I still hear recordings played at trade shows. Heck, this release is even called Symphonies of Wind Instruments--direct, plain and to the point.

As I'm settling in and judging this record by the first selection, Paul Hindemith's Konzertmusik, I'm thinking I have a handle on everything it's doing. This is a giant, spacious 3-D recording where large groups of instruments interact on an even larger stage, and everything is so crystal clear and lifelike. And again, on the surface, the Hindemith piece is played with the energy and exuberance of a skilled military band--but I couldn't imagine what parade what fit with this kind of music, which is the first hint that this isn't just another demo disc. What a whimsically desolate event that parade would be, I think.

Once the nearly twenty-minute Hindemith piece ended, it hit, one of those unfamiliar musical pieces from a favorite composer that just reminds you that there's so much beautiful music out there that I, or anyone else, will never hear. This is from a guy, of course, who's lucky enough to spend large chunks of the day listening to music, and I'm melancholy about this fact. That, of course, is the feeling this music drew out: Arnold Schoenberg's Theme and Variations. I love Schoenberg for the same reason I love Scott Walker--they were both on the cusp of something, and then they turned the corner and found something else. It's fascinating to gather up a wide selection of Schoenberg recordings and just randomly listen to snippets and guess where the composer's head was along that big progressive arc of discovery.

Theme and Variations stands out as an oasis of delicacy in this album, and for complicated reasons. It's no less bracing than the other selections on the album, which also include an additional piece by Hindemith, Symphony in B flat and two relatively brief pieces by Igor Stravinsky and Rolf Wallin. It's just that there are emotions and images in this music that seem to gain an additional level of meaning when played by a disciplined military band. It's not that the two pieces don't fit together--it's just that you're surprised when you see the final result. I would imagine that credit goes to conductor Ingar Bergby, and of course 2L's Morten Lindberg, for creating this musical challenge.

Needless to say, this is a 2L recording so it sounds completely wonderful. If you're looking for the "air around the instruments," you won't find a better example. Just be prepared that there's a point where this unusual recording stops being what you think it's being, and then becomes something else. And that's exciting.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

The Very Tall Band on FIM UltraHD

I'm not sure what to make of this disc. If you've been keeping up with this blog over the last few months, you may have noticed that I've fallen in love with the digital releases--mostly redbook CDs mastered from hi-rez files--from First Impression Music. So last month, I made a casual commitment to order one FIM CD per month. I had found the FIM website and had noted on this blog entry that the whole ordering process from FIM went smoothly and I had my order delivered in about four days.

So this is Month Two, and I settled this time on FIM's remastering of the Telarc recording of The Very Tall Band. The Very Tall Band, of course, consists of Oscar Peterson on piano, Ray Brown on bass and Milt Jackson on vibes. That's three very good reasons right there to buy this CD. (Oh yeah, Karriem Riggins plays on drums, but for some reason he isn't credited on the front cover with the other three. Maybe he was too short? I don't know.) Anyway, this sounded like a slam-dunk--great performers getting together in their golden years. This recording captured a live performance at the Blue Note in 1998, and it's sad to think that all three of the principles had passed away within eight years or so afterward.

When I slipped this CD into the Unico CDE and pressed play, however, things didn't sound quite right at first. The opening track, "Ja-da," sounded indistinct and muffled, with a definite midrange suckout. (Celestion SL-600 owners will know what I mean by that term.) At first I thought it was the system--I've been swapping so many speakers in and out of the system over the last few weeks that I assumed I had found a match that wasn't quite, well, a match. But no, it sounded the same on a couple of different systems.

So I kicked back and listened to the rest of this album and found that the sound slowly comes into focus as the album progresses. I came up with a few theories, such as my ears had adjusted to the sound after 20 or 30 minutes--something that can definitely happen while listening. Then I started thinking about the size and shape of the soundstage. It was somewhat irregular, which made me start thinking about the recording venue--which, of course, is a very famous place. The next theory: maybe they placed the mikes in weird locations, because there's this sense that you're sitting toward the back of the room and there are a multitude of sonic obstacles in the way--columns, corners or maybe even the three NFL linebackers who just walked into the Blue Note and have sat down right in front of you.

I'd like to hear from some knowledgeable jazz people who know the circumstances surrounding this recording, and why it might sound so...irregular. It's not necessarily a bad thing, since the recording does eventually balance out and sound magnificent just like all of the other FIM and Telarc recordings I have. Perhaps--and here's the next theory--the sound guys had some technical issues pop up as the performance started, and they had to tweak the knobs a bit to control the room acoustics. Anyone? Anyone?

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Electric Recording Company: Perfection or Audiophilia Nervosa?

All right, I admit that I'm dying to hear how good these LPs sound. I've been hearing about Pete Hutchison and his lofty and hyper-expensive Electric Recording Company releases for the last year or so. No, I'm not going to spend hundreds, or even thousands, to find out. But damn, I'm curious!

Here's an article in the Guardian about Pete and his crazy ambition to remaster some of the great classical titles of all time. Has anyone out there taken the plunge? I'd like to find out your impressions if you have!