Sunday, June 26, 2011
Although I've heard mbl demonstrations at audio shows going back at least a decade--their multi-channel presentation back at the 2002 CES was the first time I heard more than two channels sound realistic--this time was able to really sit down in the sweet spot and hear what this amazing German system could do.
You see, mbl rooms are usually packed at trade shows, and it's difficult to get a good seat. As you can see in the picture above, there was a line going down the hallway to get into the mbl room at AXPONA NYC; it was the only exhibitor that needed to hire crowd control.
Fortunately, Jeremy Bryan of mbl North America made room for me on Saturday and played a few choice cuts. First of all, this is the first time I've ever seen the mbl gear in white, and I have to admit that it was a stunning choice. One of the subjects discussed at the show was the emergence of white as a new popular color for hi-fi ("White is the new black," in other words), and if it's done right it's something that absolutely exudes opulence and prestige. mbl definitely did it right.
As for the music, Jeremy stuck to rock at my request. If I have to nitpick about mbl, it's that their rooms at audio shows often resemble raves in terms of volume levels. Once I sat in the driver's seat, however, I changed my mind. mbl's sound is characterized by almost unlimited size, dynamics and effortlessness. In other words, if you want to ROCK, there may be no better avenue to travel than mbl.
After a few songs I was impressed almost beyond words. Jeremy approached me and asked me if I wanted to hear Pink Floyd's "Money." I had to think about it for a second--I'm a big Floyd fan but at first it seemed like too obvious of a choice. But I shrugged my shoulders and said sure. All I can say is at the moment David Gilmour switched guitars in the solo, I literally got goosebumps. Tons of 'em. I can't remember the last time I felt goosebumps--maybe it was those Infinity IRS Betas I heard back in 1986--but there you go. Chills down the spines, the whole nine yards. I walked out of the room, my last of the show, with a big smile on my face. Thanks, Jeremy!
Saturday, June 25, 2011
I've listened to the Orion-4s from Siegfrid Linkwitz on a few occasions now, and I have to admit I'm growing fond of these speakers. These are among the rare high-end products that are embraced by more objectivist audio people (the polar opposite of audiophiles, in other words) since they measure beautifully and feature a lot of solid engineering. In fact, one engineer friend of mine who hates the high end bought the Orions in kit form and absolutely loves them.
The Orions are medium-sized active floorstanders with an open baffle for the top half of the speaker and a front woofer that sits in an open lower section and fires upward. This recipe creates an open, airy sound that creates a huge soundstage. Driven by Bryston amplification and using a Marantz SACD player as a source, the Orions sounded natural and expansive and utterly disappeared like few other speakers their size. The Orions are not cheap (they start at $14,750 which includes the active crossover analog signal processor) but they do offer a sound that competes with much more expensive designs.
Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers, both made by the same Italian family just outside of Venice, have returned to the North American market after a two-year hiatus. AXPONA attendees were very enthusiastic about this announcement since many of them own the gear and love it. I've always enjoyed the hybrid Unico integrated amplifiers and came close to pulling the trigger on buying the original model--the only thing that stopped me was that I couldn't find a dealer nearby.
Unison and opera are now being distributed in Canada by Vince Scalzitti of Tri-Cell and by my good friend Colleen Cardas, who has just started CCI in order to be the US distributor. Here's a pic of Colleen and Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison/Opera in the CCI/Tri-Cell room.
Here's a look at the beautiful system they brought to AXPONA. The top component is the beautiful S6 integrated, which has 30 watts per channel of pure class A and is single-ended (parallel). Below that is the Unico Nuovo integrated, and at the bottom is the CDE CD player (which also has tubes--four of them!). The rack was from HRS and I was told it retails for $15,000, which is more than all the Unison components it shelved.
This gorgeous speaker is the Opera Grand Callas, and it sports four 5" magnesium cone woofers and no less than five tweeters--two on the front and three in the back. This unique arrangement gives a normally lush and warm speaker a lot of extension in the treble, making it sound very balanced overall. In other words, the Grand Callas were warm and romantic without sounding rolled off. I really loved their sound.
These are the original Opera Callas loudspeakers, the same ones that got a rave review from Sam Tellig a few years ago. You'll note that even though they're the bookshelf version of the Grand Callas, they still contain five tweeters each. When compared side by side, the smaller Callas sounded very similar to their larger sibling, with just a little less weight. Bartolomeo Nasta told me that in smaller rooms, he actually prefers the sound of the Callas to the Grand Callas.
This is the innards of the Unico Primo integrated, which is the direct descendant of the original Unico. Even though this is Unison's entry-level product (it will sell for around $2200), the layout and the parts quality is exceptional. It even has a nice thick faceplate.
Best of all, thanks to Colleen and Bartolomeo I'm going to get the whole system in for review. From the time I spent with it yesterday, I know I'm going to enjoy their visit.
I promised to start my show reports for AXPONA NYC yesterday, but it was such a whirlwind day that I didn't get a chance to sit down and write it all down. To put it succinctly, AXPONA NYC is busy, busy, busy. New York audiophiles are truly a breed apart--they are knowledgeable in their inimitable in-your-face way--and they showed up in droves for the first day. Most of the rooms were literally packed with people, and some exhibitors found themselves acting as traffic cops and attempting to control the flow of the crowds. This is my first audio trade show in NYC, and I've never seen anything like it...even at CES.
On the first day I heard a lot of great sound, and almost nothing weird, strange or overly-exotic. Compared to the AXPONA show in Atlanta two months ago, I'd say that the exhibitors were much more serious about their gear and really tried to assemble state-of-the-art systems. Again, this may have something to do with the high expectations of an informed NYC crowd.
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
The grimy windows, the police sirens in the distance...it must be New York.
I'm actually excited to be here, and the Affinia Hotel is a great venue. I had about two hours of sleep before I caught the 6:20 out of Austin, and by 11am EST I was taking the Amtrak out of Newark to Penn Station. It's been a surreal day so far, and the nap didn't help, but I'll start my AXPONA NYC reports tomorrow.
Tuesday, June 21, 2011
Trip-hop is an diffusive musical genre that encompasses everything from the smoky, sultry retro-torch of the Supreme Beings of Leisure to the stained, tortured laments of Beth Gibbons. While Portland-based singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman begins her album Rubber Teardrop with a trio of songs that is closer to the former than the latter, it's only after about three songs that she truly finds her true spirit--and it's playfulness, not trippiness. Her innocent and youthful voice hasn't quite developed the edge that comes from years of hard living, so playing it straight and embracing a more light-hearted approach really pays off.
When that fourth song, the title track, appears with its sampled hurdy-gurdy--the winding sound even provides the beat--Rubber Teardrop comes alive and leaves those trip-hop stomping grounds behind. Sure, most of the songs that comprise the last two-thirds of the album boast enough shades of electronica to avoid the feeling of the purest pop, but she's still one of the artists who can be taken in so many different ways--straight pop singer, folkie, goth girl--depending upon how closely you're paying attention.
If you are paying attention, you'll immediately notice the dark, sullen and sexy cover of Elliot Smith's "Between the Bars," which is a smart (same whispery voice) and slightly daring (who else is covering Elliot these days?) choice. "Bridge on Fire" may possess a by-the-book dance beat, but it has a surprising go-your-own-way willingness to rock hard. And every once in a while you'll hear a few seconds of music and voice that remind you something cool like The Notwist or Natalie Merchant.
Finally, the sound quality is absolutely superb (Rubber Teardrop was produced in Portland by Auditory Sculpture)--far from the low-fi grumble of the last Portishead album (which I love, by the way, so that's not a knock). Amid all the electronic noises you'll find bassoons, ukuleles and slide guitars all sounding natural and beautiful. Again, if you listen closely to Rubber Teardrop and gently ignore the trip-hop claims, there's a lot to discover.
Monday, June 20, 2011
This past Saturday, Colleen Cardas and I met with Bob and Stacy Clarke of Profundo, the US distributors for such wonderful audio lines as VivA, Transfiguration, Heed, Silent Source and of course Trenner & Friedl. Bob was visiting some of his dealers in Dallas, including my friend Terry Combs of Sound Mind Audio up in Dallas, while Stacy had sone business here in Austin. Both were very curious to check out the Austin area, and despite the triple-digit temps they took quite a shine to the place.
Bob is a particularly interesting man--he teaches at Berkeley, for instance--and we've been talking about sitting down and discussing turntables for a few weeks now. We took them to Black's BBQ in Lockhart (because the Clarkes deserve the very best, and Black's is it) and it wasn't long before Bob and I started talking about audio.
Profundo doesn't carry a line of turntables right now, but Bob does distribute the outstanding Transfiguration cartridges. I've been very interested in the Axia, which received a very favorable review from Michael Fremer in a recent issue of Stereophile. While it retails for only $1950, Bob feels the Axia competes with everything under $4-$5K. Bob is very high on Transfiguration and points out that cartridge technology has truly advanced in the last four to five years, and many cartridges brands have been relying upon the success of older designs for years. Transfiguration, along with many of the great Japanese brands, keep pushing cartridge design further and further toward perfection.
I mentioned my fondness for the Rega P9, which seems to be growing over the last year or so as I lament the complexity of today's super-tweaked turntables. Bob had his own recommendation at that price point: the Basis 2001. "Just put a Vector tonearm on it, set it up once and it will last forever," Bob said. "There's just something about the life it brings to the music."
I do have some experience with Basis turntables. They're really the first acrylic-based design which sounded musical and natural to my ears. Plexiglas 'tables can often sound smooth, glossed over and a little analytical to me; I prefer 'tables made of woods and metals. But the Basis seem to circumvent these sonic characteristics thanks to a superb suspension and solid engineering. I heard a Basis turntable not too long ago at Dan Muzquiz' house in San Diego--the sound was big, warm and live.
The Clarkes were gone too quickly...I still wanted to talk about so many things with them. I also enjoyed how attuned Stacy was to the high-end audio business and shared Bob's enthusiasm about their products. Hopefully Austin will have made a great impression on them and they'll become a part of My Evil Texas Audio Empire! You can read more about Profundo product lines at http://www.profundo.us/.
Well, I'm off this week to another AXPONA show, this one in New York City. I haven't been in New York since the mid '90s, so I'll be excited to see all of the positive changes I've heard about.
In conjunction with CEA, Home Theater and Stereophile, the AXPONA NYC show takes place June 24-25 at the Affinia Hotel, located at 7th Avenue and 31st right across from Penn Station. Of course I'll be reporting right from the show, and hopefully I'll get some nice scoops.
After I'm done at AXPONA, I'm going to visit Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio at his factory in Long Island. His amazing Perspective speaker is being readied for launch, and I'm hoping to get another listen.
Tickets for AXPONA are $25 per day, and the hours are 1-8 pm on Friday and 9am-5pm on Saturday. You can find out more from the AXPONA NYC website at http://www.axponanyc.com/.
Friday, June 17, 2011
Trenner & Friedl, who are currently making my favorite speakers in the entire world, are all set to introduce their latest creation--the Pharoah. As you can see, the Pharoah is a slightly scaled-down version of their awesome $25,000 RA Box, a high-efficiency design that offers almost unlimited dynamics in a gorgeous, room-friendly enclosure.
My good friend Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery is all set receive one of the first pairs available in the US, and this is what he has to say about the design:
"It just looks like [a single-driver speaker] with the single, round grill. It's covering a compression driver tweeter and 8" mid/bass driver. The design is still very efficient and capable of impressive volume levels when one is so inclined. We've had the larger RA Box here before and they are awesome -and responsible for this design."
Here's one of T&F's employees putting the finishing touches on the first production run. I know that Andreas Friedl is a proud papa, and I take him very seriously when he says the Pharoah "sounds incredible!" Every aspect of production shows a considerable attention to the smallest of details.
Here's another shot of the T&F factory in Austria as they assemble the first run. Considering I have yet to hear a T&F speaker that didn't completely win me over, I'm quite eager to hear the Pharoah.
Thursday, June 9, 2011
I just received an email from Jody Stephens of Big Star concerning the "final show," which will be available from Ardent on June 21. Here's what Jody said:
"For our last performance as Big Star, Jon, Ken and I had some very good friends join us to celebrate the music and lives of Alex, Andy and Chris on May 15, 2010. The performances really tell the story of what happened and how we all felt about that evening at Memphis' Levitt Shell. The idea of trying to release the show in its entirety was overwhelming in the sense of time and effort needed for all performance clearances. So I thought, first artist first: John Davis was the first of many wonderful guest artists to join us on stage. He wailed on three songs: "In The Street," "Don't Lie To Me" and "When My Baby's Beside Me." These were just the right amount songs (and time) for an EP release. So with mastering engineer Larry Nix and Big Star's engineer, John Fry, and our Neumann cutting lathe all residing in the Ardent Studios building how could we not cut vinyl? Click on the following video link for an idea of what the evening was like."
Tuesday, June 7, 2011
A few months ago I blogged about the Palmer turntables from the UK, calling them "audio porn." These turntables are beautiful and the buzz has been strong. Well, I just got an email from my friend Gene Rubin of Gene Rubin Audio in Ventura, California, and he's quite smitten with these analog rigs and has decided to carry them. Gene, who has always had GREAT taste in turntables (he's the one who steered me toward both Regas and Michells), feels that these are the best he's heard--which is high praise indeed.
I'll let Gene take it from here:
"After 32 years of selling, enjoying and hearing practically all of the very best LP turntables, I have finally found a turntable that is so remarkable, it is like entering another world."
"The Palmer 2.5, as you see it here, comes with the Scottish Audio Origami tonearm. I am using it with the Dynavector 20X2 cartridge. I had been hearing incredible reviews about the Palmer from my sources in the UK. Jon Palmer sent this table for me to use at Stereophile Show in Newport Beach. Within minutes after I set this turntable up, I was listening with my jaw dropped. I practically can't describe how incredible it is. Pure silent background, music that is so real you just can't tear yourself away from it. I played nothing but LP's the entire show. Visitors to the room would sigh a breath of relief at finally being able to relax in a room with real music. Some listeners spents hours and came back over and over to revel in the sound of this table with the LFD amp and Harbeth speakers."
Price for the Palmer 2.5 is $5995, and the Audio Origami arm is $3495. You can check them out on Gene's site at www.generubinaudio.com.
I certainly have my work cut out for me. Yes, that's dump truck wallpaper. I'm thinking about keeping it just to prove that audiophiles aren't as serious and humorless as people think. But those yellow walls have to go.
The room is about three feet bigger in each direction than my old listening room. And like I said before, those are ten foot ceilings. I like how the room has nooks and crannies and folds which will help with standing waves.
Monday, June 6, 2011
I won't be blogging over the next few days because I'm moving across town. Once I arrive, I'll be eager to set up my new (and much bigger) listening room. My new house has 10' ceilings, so it will be interesting to see how this affects the sound of my system.
After I've settled, I have a lot on my plate. I'm ready to offer my final reviews of the Heed Obelisk SI integrated amplifier and X2 outboard power supply, which will include evaluations of the DACtilus DAC card. I've also spent the last few days listening to the Obelisk without the X2, so I'll be able to comment on that as well. I'll also wrap up my observations on the Achromat and Achroplat from Funk Firm.
After that, I'm off to New York for the second AXPONA trade show, which will begin on June 24. So by the end of the month, I'll blog plenty of reports from the show. Since I have to send the Heed and Funk Firm gear back to Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery, hopefully I'll be picking up some more gear after AXPONA. I'll give you a hint: it has TOOBS. (Thank God...I've missed the glowing little buggers in my system.)
Friday, June 3, 2011
Here are some great pics of the Trenner & Friedl Duke loudspeakers (as well as a bank of Rowland Research amplifiers) that have been properly set up by Andreas Friedl in his home in Austria.
If I haven't been absolutely clear about this in the past, well, I really love the sound of the Dukes. They seem to play all types of music effortlessly. I spent quite a bit of time with them at CES earlier this year, and while Andreas struggled with the room before the show they still yielded an almost perfect sonic presentation. It boggles the mind to think this room has been carefully tuned by Andreas to bring out the best in the Dukes. I hope to visit Austria and listen for myself one day!
In response to my latest Vinyl Anachronist column at Perfect Sound Forever, I got the following email from David Bosci. He writes:
"As a life long HiFi nutter with more than 35 years of experience and a long trail of turntables: Dual>Fons/JH>Kenwood DD/SME3>Linn/FR>Gyrodec/Syrinx>Rega>Consonance. I finally settled on a highly modified SL1200 because it was much better than any other turntable I have heard. The best way I could describe the difference would be “pitch stability” or the ability to stay in tune.
Mine is based on KAB unit but with extensive further mods, Mike New bearing & platter, SME 309 tonearm, TTWeights Cu mat, Isonoe bearing & booties, Cartridge Clinic tonearm mounting, Thorens stabilizer etc. Why...because I don’t know a way of buying a turntable as good for anywhere near the same price. It is worth a listen."
Mr. Bosci is one of the rare members of the 1200 Army who have actually heard (and owned) high-quality belt-drive turntables and yet feels the 1200 sounds better. Usually it's quite a different scenario: many former 1200 owners switch to belt-drive once they hear a good design and they never go back, and many current 1200 owners don't feel the need to compare and are happy with "the way things are." I know this is a generalization, but in my experience it occurs an overwhelming amount of the time.
In addition, Mr. Bosci points out one of the strengths of the 1200, and that's pitch stability. Most 1200 fans state they hear pitch variation in most belt drive designs (something that is virtually eliminated with the use of electronic speed control devices...and there's still the fact that the servo of the 1200 often "hunts" for the right speed, causing speed variations), and that's why the 1200 is the 'table for them. But in my opinion, I'd rather have soundstaging, imaging, tonal accuracy, dynamics, realistic transients and decay and a relaxed presentation--things the 1200 does poorly. I think the whole pitch stability argument is flawed at best, simply because the measured pitch stability on most belt-drive designs is NOT in the audible range. If you're hearing pitch problems, it's probably just time to buy a new belt.
Still, I'm running into more and more of these 1200 owners who tweak the holy hell out of their turntables and claim to get excellent results. The point of my column, which Mr. Bosci doesn't address directly, is that tweaking is fine for some, but many audiophiles would rather have a stock product that performs well right out of the box. A heavily-modded audio product can be a nightmare if it breaks down and no one is willing to repair it because it's too complicated or there are warranty issues. I've spoken to at least one audio tech who laughs whenever he sees one of these machines and usually tells the owner, "No thanks."
Then again, most tweakers are fairly handy when it comes to these things and can probably fix most of the basic problems that can occur with a turntable. But if you're not, I suggest you steer clear of these "Frankenstein TTs."