Thursday, March 31, 2011
The latest column for the Vinyl Anachronist is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. This one, my 79th, concerns my visit with Terry Combs of Sound Mind Audio and an afternoon of listening to 78rpm records on a state-of-the-art 78rpm analog rig. It's available at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl79.html. Enjoy!
Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Thanks to Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery, I have lots of new toys on hand to review. First up is the Heed Audio Obelisk SI integrated amplifier with the outboard X2 power supply. Dan sent along a pair of Oyaide Tunami power cords to use with the Heeds--he says they provide a synergistic match.
Dan also sent the Achromat and Achroplat mat and platter from the Funk Firm to use on my Rega P3-24. The Achroplat is a new version designed for Rega users like me who have opted to use the machined subplatter from GrooveTracer.
I had everything set up within a half an hour. The only obstacle was the fact that the Heeds are a bit on the small side, and yet I'm hooking up a bunch of very thick power cords, interconnects and speaker cables to the now very crowded back panel. (Aside from the Oyaides, I'm using Cardas Audio Clear Light throughout the system.)
Initial listening tests indicate that this is a spectacular system, as the Heeds are known for making a spectacular pairing with my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors. Or, as someone well-known in the industry said to me after I had everything dialed in, "This is what an extremely expensive system sounds like!"
Now that I have better amplification in my system, I'll be able to provide more formal reviews of the ARTs and the Clear Lights in the near future. That said, my Rega Brio3 integrated (which is now seeing service in the music server system downstairs) did a fantastic job of holding down the fort until the Heeds arrived. I'm still undecided whether the Brio3 is a fantastic little amplifier that outperforms everything at its price point, or if the ARTs are an incredible speaker that makes everything sound great even with modest ancilliaries. I'm sure it's a little of both.
Thanks to my friend Bob Wilson at the Chuck Nash Auto Group in nearby San Marcos, I had a chance to test drive this brand new Chevy Volt this morning. This is a truly amazing car in so many ways in terms of technology, energy efficiency and even luxury. It's a little disconcerting to drive a car that runs absolutely silent while achieving impressive speed and acceleration--all I heard was tire noise, and that was minimal.
The only thing I objected to was a reference to the "high-end Bose sound system"--an oxymoron is there ever was one--but other than that I would love to own one of these electric cars. If you've resisted electric and hybrid cars up to this point, and I know I have, you owe it to yourself to take a drive in one of these. This is the future of automobiles.
Monday, March 28, 2011
And this one is of the classic RCA album of Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony playing Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture. This one however, is the JVC XRCD2 version! Check it out at http://stereolist.com/stereolistnews/fritz-reiner-chicago-symphony-tchaikovsky-1812-overture-jvc-xrcd/.
Despite the fact that it was an unusually cold day here in central Texas (it's been in the 80s for the last week or two), Bailey's Burgers had its grand opening here in Kyle, Texas! I arrived at about 1pm and there were at least thirty to forty people in line the whole time I was there!
I had one of the Texassee burgers, which is the Bailey's version of a BBQ bacon cheeseburger. Even though I was freezing my butt off, it was still more than worth it. Shea and Cheryl Bailey have a winner on their hands with Bailey Burgers. Good luck to them!
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
When it comes to hip-hop, my interest is directly proportional to two things: density, and what has been added to the basic recipe to elevate and distinguish the music. In other words, I need more than a clever rap and deep beat for my head to start bobbing and my feet to start tapping. I need detail. I need depth. I need humor. And I need at least a perfunctory attempt to connect with some sort of melody.
Uriel J. Winfree III, known by his stage name ROCH, knows that the future of hip-hop rests on its ability to expand beyond its borders and to remain musically relevant. On his new album Lightweight Bipolar Mania, he follows in the footsteps of artists such as OutKast and Kanye by discovering the beauty of the musical instrument--and that includes the human voice (i.e. pure singing, a growing and welcome trend in hip-hop). As with Janelle Monae's exquisite The ArchAndroid, the first few tracks of LBM follow a more conventional arc in terms of the genre, and then about a third of the way through everything breaks loose and becomes infused with possibility.
For example, the softly-played electric guitar and piano that drives "No More Stars" is more poignant than you might expect from someone who still has the ego to call out "the Naysayers" in his liner notes. The hypnotic and jittery electric piano riff that runs through "Another Heartbreak," coupled with the plaintive chorus, echoes the more theatrical tracks Big Boi has laid down over the last decade. The straightforward rock drumming that propels the album's closer, "Nothing" seems to finish the affair with an intriguing mix of uncertainty and daring.
I still feel ROCH needs to mature a bit when it comes to lyrics. He's much better than the average rap star yet still lacks the playful sense of humor that characterizes the vanguard. But LBM is noteworthy enough to call one of the best hip-hop albums so far this young year, and I think he can develop into one of the greats if he keeps heading down this path.
This morning I was recruited by my friends Shea and Cheryl Bailey to taste test their offerings at the soon-to-be-open Bailey's Burgers here in Kyle, located at the old snack bar at the Thunderhill Raceway. Somehow the Bailey's heard that I was a bit of a burger connoisseur, and they wanted my opinion before they opened their doors.
When I walked in, I was greeted by the set-up pictured above. The Baileys had narrowed their burger choices down to a few finalists: a patty that was formed from a combination of ground beef and ribeye, one that was made from Kobe beef, one that had a little chorizo mixed in and one that was coated with a thick, peppery rub. All of the burgers were served two types of soft, sweet buns (potato and sourdough), mixed baby greens, real cheddar cheese and thinly sliced red onions.
While almost every burger patty tasted better than 95% of the burgers out there, we settled on the basic ground beef/ribeye combo as the real winner. It was amazingly juicy and rich with beef flavor and easily the equal of some of the best burgers I've ever eaten. If this is the burger that the Bailey's will be serving once they open their doors, then they should have lines around the block.
I'm excited the Baileys are creating this burger just a couple of miles from where I live (but I'll have to control my craving or else I'll weigh 300 lbs. by Christmas). So far Texas has been pretty disappointing when it comes to burgers; as I've said before I thought they'd be much better since this is where all the beef comes from. But Cheryl Bailey confirmed my general opinion of Texas burgers when she said "Everyone wants to burn the meat to a crisp." Bailey's Burgers were literally dripping with juices, despite the fact they're using fairly lean beef. And yes, there was a little pink in the middle of each patty, just the way I like them.
If all goes well, Bailey's Burgers will be open by Monday, March 28th (although they may open a few days early for a dry run, but keep it under your hat). They are located at the Thunderhill Raceway just south of Kyle at 24801 IH-35, Kyle TX. Phone number is 512-268-6894 and their website is www.baileysburgers.com.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
Beware of overloading! I found this photo on the Facebook page for Highend & Vinyl Lovers United. I used the IKEA Expedit for a few years and then discarded it when the dowels and the screws became loose. I currently use a custom-built hardwood rack made of 2" thick shelves. I commissioned it from a local carpenter who was happy to do a quality job for a reasonable price.
You just have to ask yourself...how much is your LP collection worth to you? Do you want to trust it to something you bought on sale for $99?
(Edit: I get hundreds of comments every week about this blog entry--by far my most read. Before you try to fire off a 2000-word comment about the photo used above, please refer to this follow-up and this follow-follow-up. No further comments will be published on this particular blog entry.)
While at SXSW this weekend, I had the distinct pleasure of visiting one of my favorite spots on Sixth Street--Bobalu Cigars. Bobalu rolls all of their own cigars right on the premises, and they have an outstanding selection of different types and blends for every palate.
Cigar rollers can be a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes you get a Cuban roller outside of the homeland who can assemble a first-rate stick, and sometimes you get something sloppy that is not quite up to the standards of the professionals. When I first tried Bobalu for the first time last August, I didn't know what to expect. I thought I'd found something that was on the kitschy side, something that fit into the carnival atmosphere on Sixth Street, But the folks at Bobalu make excellent cigars, and they surpassed my expectations in every way.
Here I am smoking my favorite of theirs--the Oscuro that is dark, rich and peppery. The guy in the window looking into the camera was the actual roller. It was a genuine pleasure to stand in front of Bobalu and smoke that divine cigar as I watched all the people attending SXSW walking on by.
If you'd like to know more about Bobalu, just visit their website at http://www.livecigarrollers.com or check them out in person at 509 E. Sixth St., Austin TX.
I did manage to hear quite a bit of music yesterday at the 2011 SXSW, and if there was one single unifying theme it was "every band needs a great drummer." I heard so many outstanding drummers yesterday, and it pleases me to no end. When I go down the list of my favorite rock musicians of all time, it's never people like Clapton or Hendricks or Page. It's Moon and Copeland and Bonham and Clem Burke.
That said, I was able to catch The Material, a San Diego band, playing at the Dorm Room last night, and within a few seconds I realized I was watching another great drummer in action. Kevin Pintado is actually new to the band, but he was fun, dynamic and showy in the great rock and roll tradition. Singer Colleen D'Agostino added to this classic vibe by channeling a little Pat Benatar in both looks and voice. I'm not sure if this is a put-down in this day and age, but suffice it to say that she had one powerful, expressive voice, even though she said she was a bit hoarse because it was the band's fifth appearance at SXSW. It didn't matter.
The Material, who also consist of Jon Moreaux (guitar, backing vocals), Jordan Meckley (guitar) and Roi Elam (bass), combine that melodic classic hard rock feel with moments of sheer post-punk energy.
I spoke to Jon briefly after the show about SXSW, guitar cables and our mutual friend Nate Muzquiz (son of Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio). I didn't notice until the morning after that Colleen now goes by the name Colleen D'Agostino Moreaux, which in posterity brings a certain sweetness to their songs. The set was altogether too short (only six songs), but I dug them and hope to see them again soon!
You can also download the new album from The Material at wearethematerial.com/sxsw.
Yes, I did go to SXSW this year, but I was hopelessly disorganized compared to last year. I had only one band, the Materials, on my radar. I was looking forward to seeing old friends such as Jon Ragel of Boy Eats Drum Machine (he didn't go) and DJ DUS (he went, but I couldn't track him down). I even missed seeing Jason Gross and Robin Cook of Perfect Sound Forever; we were scheduled to meet up Saturday evening but I couldn't get a cell phone signal and didn't get any of my messages until 11am Sunday morning.
I had a lot going on with Blue Computer Solutions over the last week, and I just didn't have the time to plan anything. But I did have fun hanging out on 6th Street and SoCo. I did manage to meet up with Colleen Cardas as well as Dean Peer and his wife Deborah for drinks at the Hotel San Jose. I also visited Brian Di Frank at Whetstone Audio...he was sponsoring a gathering of bands that performed in the park behind his store.
I've made a promise to myself that next year I will plan ahead, and I will go to the main event and have much more to talk about. Here are some random pics from yesterday...enjoy!
Friday, March 18, 2011
My first review is up on the Stereolist.com site as of today. You can see it at http://stereolist.com/music/. Next week I'll tackle a classical album. Enjoy!
My brother's gonna kill me for blogging about this, but yes--that's a Mac Airbook (or Air Macbook, or Book AirMac, or whatever) hooked up to my system. I ran the borrowed Mac through the Wavelength Brick V3 24/96 DAC and listened to titles using iTunes. The purpose of the Mac is to help break in the new cabling while the laptop for the server is being used as a, well, laptop. Overall, the sound quality was good to excellent and I was able to listen to a series of choice audiophile-y cuts that sounded about the same as a good CD player.
I think that says more about the excellence of the Wavelength DAC (not to mention my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, which truly amazed some guests I had over last night) than the software. When it comes to iTunes, I think the interface is clunky, slow and downright antiquated compared to the Zune software running through the Blue Computer Solutions Music Server Project. (Or, as my brother likes to say, "iTunes looks like it was designed in the '80s.") In my humble opinion, many people love using iTunes because it's the only thing they know. I've used iTunes on PC for the last five years or so, but when I switched to Zune I instantly noted a HUGE difference in ease of use, speed, flexibility, features and overall appearance (the Zune presentation is great-looking and fun).
In the end, however, I think I could be okay with just the Mac BookAir and iTunes. It's not bad at all. The sound quality was much better than I expected (although those new Cardas cables are starting to break in nicely). But I can't wait to give the Blue another shot. The other night I reviewed Sam Cooke's Ain't That Good News from HDtracks for Stereolist.com, and it was my first experience with FLAC files. The sound quality was simply amazing. So I think we're on the right track with the project.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
The latest chapter of the ongoing music server project here at Blue Computer Solutions is the substitution of a high-end DAC for a traditional external sound card to see how it affects overall sound quality. I had a chance to borrow the Wavelength Audio Brick V3 24/96 digital-to-analog converter for the project, which replaced a $125 Creative Labs SB1240. When I first compared our music server (which isn't really a music server, but one of our Acer laptops with Zune software) to my modest Denon CD/DVD player, the sound quality was almost identical. I wanted to see how the $1750 Wavelength tipped the scales.
First I hooked up everything with Cardas Audio cable, including a Golden Reference interconnect linking the DAC to my amp--even the USB cable to the laptop was Cardas Clear. I plugged my laptop in, started the Zune software on my laptop and started playing around. For the first hour or so, I felt that the treble was a little too bright for my tastes. In addition, I thought the output levels from selection to selection were way too varied, much more so than if I was merely playing CDs. Good thing the Zune software let me adjust volume directly from the laptop. After a while, however, the sound softened up, and I was ready to compare the music server files directly to CD.
I listen to quite a few selctions from some of my favorites including The Smiths, Dead Can Dance, Pink Floyd and even a little Adam and the Ants. I finally settled on a cut for A/B comparisons: Neko Case's "Star Witness" from her album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood, one of my favorite songs in the world. I carefully matched the volume for both the music server and the CD player, and started twisting selector knobs back and forth, back and forth.
At first I found it difficult to prefer one format after another. Then, I started to notice that the CD was sounding increasingly bright compared to the server running through the Wavelength DAC. When Neko really starts singing at full power, it could be a little relentless through the Denon CD player and I found myself wanting to turn down the volume. The Wavelength DAC/music server took the edge off and made it less fatiguing. It was almost like switching back and forth between a solid state amp and a tube amp (which makes sense because the DAC is tubed), where the Wavelength sounded softer, warmer and natural. The differences are subtle, however, and I want to spend some more time (and have a few others second my impressions) before I offer my final thoughts...especially since the Cardas cables need to break in further.
Monday, March 14, 2011
Brian Weaver just sent me a link to the Reckon website, where they have just posted a series of photographs from Chris Supranowitz, a researcher at the Optics Institute at the University of Rochester. Chris has used an an electron microscope to take images of a great many things such as insects, hair and of course LP grooves. It's amazing to see how the grooves undulate, but it's also unnerving to see the big chunks of dust of the vinyl surface!
You can see more of these photos at http://reckon.posterous.com/vinyl-record-grooves-under-electron-microscop.
I'm mentioning the Stereolist.com website for a couple of reasons. First, it's a great new site that combines a classified section for used stereo gear with industry news, reviews, discussion forums and much, much more. Second, I'm mentioning it because I'm going to be writing reviews for them on HDTrack titles. Today I received my first download and it's a winner: Sam Cooke's Ain't That Good News.
You'll be able to check out my reviews and others at www.stereolist.com!
Sunday, March 13, 2011
Saturday, March 12, 2011
The Axpona Audio Expo North America is happening in Atlanta next month, and I thought I'd spend a little time discussing why this audio show is noteworthy. First, Axpona is only in its second year and it's already looking like it will be much larger than last year's event. A popular subject among audiophiles these days is whether future generations will continue to listen to two-channel audio and physical formats such as LPs and CDs and heck, even 8-tracks and cassettes. (I keep running into people who are still into the last two, so that wasn't a joke.) Many audio hobbyists like to adopt a "the end is near" attitude when it comes to the simple act of listening to music for pleasure, and the success of new shows such as Axpona certainly gives many of us hope that we will be able to pursue our hobby for decades to come.
Second, Stereophile magazine is sponsoring Axpona. The first audiophile show I ever attended was the Stereophile show in Los Angeles back in 1992, and it really whetted my appetite for audio shows in general. The mood at the Stereophile shows were much more encouraging for novice and casual audiophiles, as opposed to the all-business vibe at professional gatherings such as the Consumer Electronic Show. These shows were a fantastic opportunity for audiophiles to get exposed to a wide variety of high-end equipment. For me, the 1992 show was the first time I really had a chance to listen to world-class equipment. In recent years, Stereophile stopped hosting audio shows, so it's good to see them getting involved once again.
These photos were taken today at the Sheraton in downtown Atlanta, where Axpona will be held on April 14 through 17. As you can see, it's a beautiful venue. I didn't attend last year's show, but I'm really going to try to make this one. If you want to learn more about the show, check out the Axpona website at www.axpona.com
Sunday, March 6, 2011
...is the DAC! I just received this DAC, the Wavelength Brick V3 24/96, to use with our music server project for Blue Computer Solutions. My brother Mat and I will do extended listening tests to determine how a high-quality digital-to-analog converter such as the Wavelength can deliver truly high-end sound in comparison to the stock external sound card I'm currently using. We'll report on our findings later in the week.
I'll be honest and admit that I have little or no experience with DACs. When they started appearing back in the '90s, it took me forever to learn what they did. I've always used one-box CD players throughout my life (albeit great ones such as the Naim CD3 and the Naim CDX2), so I never really had a need to explore what an outboard DAC could do.
When DACs started making a comeback a few years ago, I was a little confused until I realized these new machines weren't being used with CD players...they were being used with music servers and other computer audio sources. When I first unpacked the Wavelength, I immediately wanted to hook it up to my modest Denon CD/DVD player to see how it improved the sound. Unfortunately, they're incompatible since the Denon doesn't have a USB connection. D'oh! So I'll use it with the server and get back to you shortly!