Sunday, July 31, 2011
It's that time again...time for another Vinyl Anachronist column at Perfect Sound Forever. I was a bit nervous to send this one in because I think it might piss off a person or two writing for high-end magazines and e-zines. This column, you see, is about the current state of audio reviewing, and it calls out a couple of people. I don't name names or anything, unless it's one of the good guys (Stereophile, Positive Feedback Online, etc.), and if you send me an email asking me to name names, I'll politely decline.
You can read it at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl81.html. Enjoy!
The third CD I picked up from the May Audio Marketing room at AXPONA NYC was the Audio Wave XRCD24 version of Sonny Clark's 1958 album Cool Struttin'. I'd been eager to try more of the hi-rez Blue Note jazz albums, and since I was familiar with the recording I gave it a shot. At the show, the CD sounded a bit cooler and more sedate than I remembered, despite sounding exceptionally clean.
When I got home, I compared it to the original Blue Note CD reissue (I wish I had one of the Blue Note LPs, but I don't), the one that's called "The Rudy Van Gelder Edition." There's no doubt about--the two versions so sound different it's almost as if they'd recorded the same session with two different types of microphones. The XRCD version, as I suspected, is the quieter of the two. I strained to hear even a little bit of tape hiss and I couldn't. There's an overall reticence to the recording that, for me, takes away from some of the excitement of the performance. Sonny Clark's piano, in particular, sounds distant and two dimensional--at first I chalked it up to an "archival" sound typical of older recordings. Then again, so many jazz recordings from the late '50s represent the absolute pinnacle of sound quality in my opinion.
The non-XRCD version was at first more brash and dynamic, almost startlingly so. If you're the type of person who wants a more subtle and laid-back presentation in your jazz, this is not the version for you. I started to dismiss the non-XRCD CD as sounding a bit too wild around the edges, and then I noticed how Sonny's piano gained much more depth than with the XRCD, and I could hear much more of the piano's innards and how they fleshed out the sound. Philly Joe Jones' drumming also sounded more splashy and immediate. Overall, the non-XRCD version played louder than the XRCD, so I had to be careful to match listening levels before I made any conclusions.
Which one do I choose as ultimately superior in sound quality? It's tougher than I thought, because I truly think the listener's mood will come into play here. The XRCD is much more calm and relaxed, and as a result I could hear more inner detail. But the non-XRCD version was a bit more fun. My foot tapped more frequently with the latter.
I'm not sure about the cost difference between the two versions, since I can't find a current MSRP for the RVG version. The XRCD, however, was $30, and that's an important consideration when you're trying to state your preferences. The XRCD is a much more pristine view into the original event, but it comes at the price of a modicum of excitement. And any album called Cool Struttin' should be plenty exciting, right?
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
I received this LP as a gift from Jeff Joseph of Joseph Audio when I visited him last month in Long Island. Jeff loves this recording so much that he bought a bunch of sealed copies, and occasionally he gives them out as gifts (I'm one of the lucky ones!). This was on the Harry Pearson's TAS list for many years, and after a few listens it's easy to see why.
At first this recording seems a bit odd; first, it's a Dynagroove pressing and I remember hearing some complaints about these pressings as they were too thin to track correctly. This LP, however, seem perfectly normal in thickness. Second, it's from a 1963 television production from NBC and conducted by Herbert Grossman--someone I've never heard of before. (Later I found out that he studied under Leonard Bernstein, one of my favorite composers/conductors.)
Once you start listening, however, you'll be amazed at the superbly lineated soundstage, especially from front to back. A children's opera about the arrival of the Three Wise Men, Amahl and the Night Visitors is a production that requires a lot of movement on the stage, and I've never heard a recording that tracks its performers with this level of precision. In other words, you'll know EXACTLY where everyone is as they sing and walk and turn and interact with each other.
I first heard this LP at Jeff's factory sound room which consists of a VPI TNT turntable and arm, a Cardas Heart cartridge, Bel Canto electronics and of course a pair of Joseph Audio speakers--in this case Jeff's flagship Pearls. It was a stunning experience, and I was duly impressed in every way. Now that I can listen to this gem in my own system--a perfectly mint version to be exact--I feel blessed. If you find a copy in good condition, I heartily recommend it.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
Another CD I picked up from May Audio Marketing at AXPONA NYC was the iconic Getz/Gilberto, again from FIM (First Impression Music). This CD features K2HD 24-bit 100 kHz mastering and is 99.9999% silver. I was so impressed with FIM's mastering of The TBM Sounds! that I was extremely curious to see how they did with such a classic.
There's a little bit of a backstory to this as well. For the last few years my Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs 200g LP was one of the jewels of my collection, one of the dozen or so LPs I always brought out whenever I made a change in my audio system. I always think it's amazing how "The Girl From Ipanema" is synonymous with elevator music, yet the original is such a cool, cool song. Nowadays, I get a little tingle whenever I hear this song in public, even if it's a watered-down, Muzak-y version.
Then I did a terrible thing. I accidentally put a big scratch in my copy one day--just careless handling. The last minute or so of "Para Machuchar Meu Coracao" now had an audible pop all the way to the fade out. I was bummed. So when I grabbed the FIM CD at AXPONA, I knew it was ostensibly to replace the MFSL.
Still, I decided to compare the two late last night. When I first heard the FIM CD at Axpona, I felt the sound was smooth, full and lifelike, much like my memory of the MFSL. But when compared side to side, the results were surprising. The MFSL kicked the FIM's butt in almost every conceivable way.
With the MFSL, I could simply hear more of the music come through. Milton Banana's soft yet complex brushwork on the cymbals was far more detailed and complex; I could detect his body shifts and the minute little fills around the rims of the drums. Tommy William's bass sounded much more deep on the Lim CD than the MFSL, but it was almost too deep and disembodied in comparison. The bass on the LP was far more nuanced, and I could clearly hear William's fingerwork on the frets.
Stan Getz's sax also sounded too isolated and far forward from the mix with the silver CD. On the MFSL, Stan sounded more like he was in the same room with the other musicians during the recording. Finally, Astrud Gilberto's lovely and relaxed voice was far more restricted to the right channel with the FIM, coming straight out of my speaker and nowhere else. With the MFSL, her voice was still centered on the speaker, but the decay expanded backward into the soundstage in a far more realistic way.
I'm surprised by these results. After hearing how close The TBM Sounds! came to my Three Blind Mice Cisco LP reissues, I had high hopes for the Getz/Gilberto. Alas, it fell short.
As for that scratch, I'd forgotten an important detail. While using the Walker Audio Prelude record cleaning system on the MFSL a few months ago, I was able to relegate the pop to something much more tolerable. While record cleaners certainly can't repair actual scratches, I think that original scratch was just more a scuff. Last night I kept waiting the pop to materialize, and it never did. I've never encountered a record cleaning system that achieves as much as the Walker does.
A couple of weeks ago I ordered a five-pack of the Punisher (or Pvnisher, if you want to take the Romanesque font on the band literally) from Cu-Avana. I've previously smoked a few of the Punisher's little brother, the Intenso, and found them to be spicy but not unusually so, about the same level of boldness as a Man O' War Ruination. The Punisher, which costs more than twice as much as the Intenso, doesn't sport an unusually dark or oily wrapper as some of the spicier blends, but it's by far the spiciest cigar I've ever lit up.
Here's some of the sales copy from Cigar.com:
"Be warned, Punisher is no joke. This full-bodied, potent blend of Nicaraguan ligero tobaccos is one of the strongest cigars we've ever experienced."
And here's the funny part:
"You'll feel the power of Punisher as soon as the stick touches your lips - it's natural to experience a numbing feeling even before you light this firecracker up. Breathe, it'll be ok."
By now I'm asking myself...do I really want to smoke this? What have I gotten myself into? But I lit it anyway and by the time I was finished, I was a fan. My lips weren't quite numb, but it was VERY spicy--almost as if this stick had been infused with Tabasco sauce. Beneath that spicy bite, the Punisher was actually smooth and incredibly well-constructed and put out copious amounts of smoke with each draw.
I've been burned (pardon the pun) by some of the spicier sticks out there; the Diesel Unholy Cocktail, for example, had so many conflicting flavors going on that it confused my palate. Some of the Kristoff Maduros, on the other hand, have a one-note spiciness that is over-simplified--it's like grilling a steak and seasoning it with nothing but a crapload of black pepper. The Punisher is outstanding, complex yet satisfying. I wouldn't want to smoke one every day, but I will order another 5-pack soon.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
On July 8, Brooks Berdan passed away. He was perhaps one of the most knowledgeable men on the planet when it came to turntable set-up. People came to his hi-fi store/analog museum in Monrovia, California, from all over just to hear his wisdom on all things vinyl. I visited Brooks Berdan Ltd. on more than a few occasions, and I regret not buying more from him. He was kind, helpful and above all he loved vinyl playback.
My personal story about Brooks concerns an errant lead on my SME V tonearm. It simply broke off, and I couldn't retrieve the wire from inside the arm tube. Since Brooks was the local SME dealer, I headed over with my arm and my checkbook. He took one look at it, burrowed around in his big tool box for a minute and found a replacement lead. He fished the wire out, crimped the lead and had everything fixed in about three minutes. When I asked him how much, he replied, "No charge...because the part was in my tool box!"
A memorial will be held at Brooks Berdan Ltd. on August 8. I'll be traveling to LA to attend, and I hope to see a few fellow vinyl-lovers as well.
(Image courtesy Positive Feedback Online)
When I visited Terry Combs of Sound Mind Audio last year, we started talking about the Japanese record label Three Blind Mice. TBM made a series of recordings throughout the '70s, mostly jazz, and the sound quality is simply some of the best I've ever heard. Some of their microphone arrangements were a bit unorthodox to be sure, and there's always that grouchy backlash concerning Japanese jazz musicians and how they're all technique and no soul. But there's no disputing the fact that the TBM recordings are breathtakingly realistic and quiet. I still think "Midnight Sugar" from the Tsuyoshi Yamamoto Trio is the best-sounding piece of music I own.
When I told Terry I owned several of the Cisco LP reissues of the TBM on vinyl, his eyes widened as if I just told him I'd found Atlantis, and it was just a few miles off the Texas coast near Port Aransas. I knew they were fairly rare, which is why I scooped up about a half-dozen titles from Elusive Disc close to a decade ago. I paid $40 a piece for them, which seemed like a lot back them. Now they're probably going for ten times that. I feel blessed, but not as I blessed as if I'd bought some of those discounted UHQRs back at Tower Records in 1979--something that still haunts me to this day.
Fast forward to this year's AXPONA NYC show, held in late June, and I needed some CDs to play in our Unison/Opera/Cardas/HRS room. I ran over to the May Audio Marketing room and asked Nabil for something good. I was handed the First Impression Music (FIM) UltraHD 32-bit CD version of The TBM Sounds!, which is basically the sampler from Three Blind Mice. I didn't need to be told twice, especially when I saw that "Midnight Sugar" was the opening cut, so I grabbed it and ran back to the room. (For the record, I ran back to May a couple more times--they had some excellent stuff for sale!)
Now that my new sound room is set up with the Unison/Opera gear (with a greatly improved digital playback system), and I'm back in the habit of listening to music. Even digital music. Even hi-rez digital music. Even hi-rez digital music even though I have the kick-ass LP version. After comparing the cuts from the FIM CD to my various LPs, I have to say that (drum roll please)...the LPs are still better. But not by much!
In fact, I'll go as far as to say that if I didn't already own the LP versions, this sampler would still qualify as one of the best-sounding pieces of music I own. There are subtle differences between the CD and LP version of "Midnight Sugar" such as the feeling that the instruments take up a greater space on the analog version, and that there is more physical interaction with the musicians and their instruments (something I've been paying a lot of attention to lately, thanks to a more resolving system). I'm also hearing more tape hiss on the digital version. But dammit--the FIM CD is still absolutely astonishing in its ability to convey the feel of live, unamplified music.
As a plus, there are a few fun tracks on the sample that I've never heard before. Mari Nakamoto sings a version of "Georgia On My Mind" that is so infused with Southern sultriness and longing that it's tough to imagine someone named Nakamoto is singing it. (I hope that doesn't sound too politically incorrect.) The Shoji Yokouchi Trio's jazzy version of "Greensleeves" is amazingly fragile and elegant. Even the Yamamoto Trio's version of "The Way We Were" avoids all the expected schmaltz and delivers a passionate performance that will make you think you're hearing this hoary ol' chestnut for the first time.
In other words, this is the ideal sampler for audiophiles who really want to show off the resolution of their system, or audio distributors who arrive at their very first trade show and forget to bring music along. It cost me $30--a price I hate to pay for little silver discs--but it's more than worth it.
I'm concerned about the current state of alternative folk, freak folk or whatever you want to call it. Just a few years ago it was by far the most interesting music genre in terms of the arc of its development as well as its diversity--performers as disparate as Joanna Newsom, Sufjan Stevens, Devendra Banhart and Espers all lounged beneath its umbrella. Over the last couple of years, however, the genre has settled into stark, delicate and ethereal acts such as Animal Collective, Grizzly Bear and now Bon Iver, and while taken separately these bands are all making cogent, dreamlike music, but as a whole I'm starting to want more there there.
Bon Iver's eponymous new album is the perfect example. If Justin Vernon, who basically is Bon Iver, had never released 2008's For Emma, Forever Ago, I think this new album wouldn't be the critic's darling it is. Forever was a minimalist and intimate recording performed pretty much by Vernon himself, and its simple honesty and genuine heartbreak created a rare beauty that captured a lot of people's attention. Now we have the new album with its expanded pallette of musicians and suddenly we're faced with singing that is processed and dubbed into a Beach Boys-like soup that's starts to grate on the nerves after about four songs. There are a couple of examples where Vernon drops his voice about an octave just to mix things up, but I found myself wishing for some new harmonies--hell, even new notes--in the mix.
Making matters worse, the LP pressing is troublesome and noisy, and for a few songs I thought it might be time to re-tip my Zu DL-103 cartridge. Nope, that fuzziness and distortion is intentional and somehow accentuated on the vinyl, something I realized when I played other albums. Perhaps I'd be a bit easier on this album--which really is getting rave reviews--if I'd gone straight for the CD. That's what you should do, in my opinion.
A few months ago I received a beautiful and mysterious slab o' vinyl that may be the most gorgeous picture disc I've ever seen. This 12", from an enigmatic Portland band called White Orange, basically featured two versions of the song "Middle of the Riddle"--a long extended psychedelic hyperjam and an edited radio-friendly version that basically extracted the middle section and eschewed the lengthy build-up and fade outs. "Middle" was a playful, grungy '70s style hard rock song, only occasionally top-heavy with thundering prog metal riffs.
Well, I have the new White Orange debut CD courtesy of Kaytea at XO, and it's quite a different animal--even though it inserts the shorter "Middle of the Riddle" in the showcased track 3 position. Judging from the first two tracks, "Where" and "Color Me Black," this is a band that plays on the same jungle gym as bands like Mastodon in a playground just across the street from the guys in Tool. White Orange cites such influences as Dinosaur Jr, Sonic Youth, King Crimson and Syd Barrett, but this suggests a looser, free-form sound. Instead, White Orange's sound is tight, heavy and ornate.
The promo copy provides White Orange with such whimsical descriptors as "psychedelic sludgy doomy stoner rockers" and "full of hazy solos, waffling clean vocals, gauzy druggie guitar figures"--and that's pretty damn close. (Is it bad to put promo copy in your review? Especially when it's this entertaining?) The vocals are processed heavily and border on lugubrious, adding a Gothic tinge to the songs (Nathaniel Hawthorne gothic, not Bauhaus gothic), and the guitar riffs are fuzzy, simple and have all the subtlety of a mudslide. If you're so inclined, your head will bob rhythmically to these paleolithic slabs of arena rock. If we had White Orange back in the '70s (and my memory of a couple of Hot Tuna LPs come close), we'd be wreaking major destruction on Saturday nights with songs like "Dinosaur Bones" and "Wonderful" as our official soundtrack.
If I don't quite embrace this particular wall of sound, it's more a result of my own fading youth than anything else, and perhaps my desire for more precision in my metallurgy and less "sludge" and "haze." But, as someone much younger than me recently said, White Orange is one of the more thoughtful, interesting and inventive prog metals out there. I'm inclined to agree. Perhaps I shouldn't be reviewing something this tumultuous on a Sunday morning, but I'm awake now, and ready to break something.
Friday, July 15, 2011
I've already given a complete review of the Heed Audio Obelisk SI and its matching X2 external power supply, and suffice it to say that I think it's among the very best solid-state amplification you can buy for under $3000. In fact, I'd go as far as to say it's my own first choice for under $5000--high praise indeed for this rather modest-looking combination. The Obelisk and X2 offered a relaxed sound that always seemed right and had very little if no shortcomings in overall sound quality.
That review, of course, begs the question of how the Obelisk SI sounds without the X2. The SI retails for just $1650, which puts it up against such worthy competition as the latest Naim NAIT among others. So I spent a few days with just the Obelisk, and while the X2 is more than worth the extra $1200, I'd have to say that the solo version is equally compelling at its price point.
To use the Obelisk as a standalone, you have to do a couple of things first. You need to use a shorting plug in the five-pin jack on the back of the Obelisk to complete the circuit, something that is obviously included when you buy the Obelisk on its own. (You'll note in the pic that my shorting plug came from Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery with an original piece of Dan's artwork...added value!) Second, if you opt for the DACtilus on-board DAC card, you have to take care to let the combination power down for a sufficient amount of time before plugging it all in (I've documented all this in the full review). Again, if you're buying the Obelisk SI without the X2, this is a non-issue, but if you're switching components you'll still need to be patient. This was obviously an issue with comparing the Obelisk with and without the X2--there were no quick-switching A/B comparisons here.
That said, the sound of the Obelisk without the X2 was significantly but not dramatically different. When stepping down you lose about 10 watts per channel; you now have 40 instead of 50wpc. I certainly didn't hear additional amplifier strain or even a huge difference in SPLs, but the soundstage was predictably smaller in every direction. Most noticeably, I heard a difference in soundstage height, which I found interesting. When judging soundstages, audiophiles often concentrate on width and depth, and heighth isn't usually a major concern. But my new listening room has ten-foot ceilings, and I'm able to detect these differences more readily.
Low bass performance was also slightly changed. I didn't notice a marked difference while using my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, but when I switched to the full-range Opera Callas Grands, I heard a bit less texture in the low frequencies. Using my MFSL LP of Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth, the deep bass drum that is struck periodically in "Yulunga" was less rounded and didn't quite hit me in the chest with the same impact as with the X2 in the system.
Aside from that, the Obelisk SI on its own was still able to deliver that slightly SET-like ability to project voices and distinct sounds in an incredibly natural way. Also, the Obelisk still excelled in producing a sound that was exquisitely and thoroughly without grain--my favorite aspect of the Heed gear. Elimination of these artifacts results in a presentation that is smooth and without noise, yet incredibly incisive and detailed.
To summarize, the Obelisk SI and the X2 is my first choice for solid-state amplification at the $3000 mark, and the Obelisk SI alone is also my first choice at under $2000. When I say "solid-state," that is not to suggest that there is some $3000 tubed integrated that mops the floor with the Heeds--because there isn't. But some SETs in this price range may surpass the Heeds in a couple of categories such as midrange purity or warmth. It all depends on what your preferences are, and if you're looking for a well-balanced presentation the Heeds will certainly top your list.
In other words, the X2 power supply is definitely worth it. If you're buying an Obelisk SI on its own, you should definitely consider the X2 as your most logical and potent upgrade down the line. But on its own, the Obelisk SI will still make you very, very happy, and I give it my highest recommendation.
Thursday, July 7, 2011
The vinyl-loving world is buzzing with the news that Rega is introducing a replacement for the P3-24 turntable--the very one I own--the new RP3. The new RP3 boasts a new "double brace" technology for the plinth that combines a new superlight structure with phenolic resin, controlling vibrations and resonances even further.
A new P3 usually means a new tonearm, and Rega is also introducing the new RB-303 along with the RP3. The new tonearm features a new tube that is more rigid and adds more stability to the headshell, bearing housing and arm carrier.
For now the new RP3 is available in titanium, white and black. Here's to hoping they add the crazy plinth colors at a later date!
In the interest of full disclosure, I'm announcing that I've gone to the dark side. Yes, I've gone over to the business end of high-end audio by joining with Colleen Cardas and helping her with her new venture, Colleen Cardas Imports. We'll be the exclusive US distributors for the Italian audio company Unison Research, and we'll be representing both Unison and Opera Loudspeakers (which are also made by the Nasta family in Italy).
What this means for the Vinyl Anachronist is that I'm retiring from the business of reviewing most types of audio equipment. I'd be pretty sleazy if I told you that a certain amplifier, speaker or CD player (products that Unison carries) were nice, but not as nice as a Opera Grand Callas or a Unison Research S6 integrated. I'm not that kind of guy. I'm also not the kind of audio guy who bashes everything I don't carry.
That said, I'll quickly state that I chose to represent Unison, and not vice versa, because I'm a big fan of their gear. I'm proud to be a part of the Unison family. And I'll be sequestered in my home for the next few weeks listening to the gear you see in the pic above. And that's all I have to say about that.
Rather than letting the Vinyl Anachronist vanish into the ether, I will continue to cover the subjects appropriate for a vinyl anachronist--namely, vinyl. I will even continue to talk about turntables until I represent a line of analog rigs. (Unison does carry one turntable but we have to work on pricing for the US market first.) The minute people think that I'm too biased to continue writing about audio is the day I stop. But I don't want to do that because it's so much fun!
By the way, I still have a few reviews waiting in the wings, especially concerning the Heed gear I recently reviewed. Suffice it to say that these forthcoming reviews were written well in advance of my new status, and they will hopefully be unfettered by bias or other ulterior motives.
Anyway, I hope you will continue to read and support this blog, and if you have any questions feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tuesday, July 5, 2011
After attending the AXPONA NYC show, I was invited to spend a couple of days out on Long Island to visit Joseph Audio's factory and hear more of his upcoming Perspective loudspeaker. Jeff Joseph lives and works out in Melville, NY, creating some of the finest loudspeakers in high end audio. I've been a big fan of his Pulsar monitor, a smaller version of the floorstanding perspective, and I feel that no other small loudspeaker projects quite a big, beefy and refined sound.
The first pair of Perspectives I encountered at Joseph had perhaps the most beautiful wood veneer of any speaker I've seen for quite some time. Here they are, in a brilliant, uniquely grained rosewood.
I was able to compare the Perspectives to the Pearl, Joseph Audio's flagship speaker. The Pearls projected an unbelievably deep soundstage and offered very impressive bass performance in Jeff's large testing room. On LP after LP (Jeff uses a VPI TNT turntable with a Cardas cartridge, mated to Bel Canto amplification), I was treated to an amazingly fine-tuned presentation that was easily one of the best I've heard.
Once the much smaller Perspectives were placed into the system, the sound was remarkably similar, albeit with slightly less bass (the Perspectives reach down to the low 30s while the Pearls hit 25Hz) and a slightly smaller soundstage. Jeff told me that he has strived to maintain a family resemblance in terms of sonic for the Pearl, Perspective and stand-mounted Pulsars. The Perspectives are scheduled to retail for between $11,000 and $12,000 a pair, and they provide a very compelling combination of performance and appearance at that price point.
The Pulsar, in the meantime, seems to be a huge hit. Much of the factory floor space was devoted to outgoing stock, as you can see here. I saw a veritable wall of Pulsar boxes with all types of wood veneers ready to be shipped out.
Here's an unfortunate Pulsar that was shipped back to Jeff after the customer dropped it. You can see the damage to the cabinet on the top right side. While it's heartbreaking to see a beautiful speaker like this damaged, Jeff was confident that it could be repaired. I included this photo to show that even in piano gloss black, the Pulsar is a stunning speaker. (I always prefer wood veneers, and Jeff offers some of the most lustrous and opulent cabinets around.)
Jeff is also an avid collector of vintage audio. He's always looking for the big bargains, the pieces that seem beyond repair, and then he repairs them. I saw at least one of everything from a Linn LP-12 'table to Fisher and Scott receivers to a wealth of open-reel tape decks. At one point Jeff and I discussed all the components we've owned in our life, a popular audiophile pasttime.
Perhaps my favorite of Jeff's vintage pieces were a pair of classic Bozak Bard outdoor speakers that he had set up on the back patio of his home. As we ate delicious burgers (the beef was ground by Jeff in his kitchen just minutes before he placed them on his BBQ grill), he treated me to a series of classic rock cuts. I was completely surprised by the warmth and immediacy of the Bozaks. I think I'm going to have to find a pair on eBay.
I had a great time; it was actually the first time I've ever been to Long Island and I was impressed with how beautiful it was. Thanks, Jeff, for the hospitality!
I just stumbled onto this website for Woodsong Audio, a company that uses beautiful, exotoc woods to make custom plinths for Garrard 301s, 401, Linn LP-12s, Thorens TD-124s and Technics SP-10s. Run by master carpenter Chris Harban, Woodsong creates some of the most beautiful plinths I have ever seen.
Chris is also an audiophile and can perform complete restorations on many of these classic turntables. In addition he can also make equipment racks to your specifications, and even speaker cabinets.
Here is a particularly striking LP-12 with a plinth made of movingui, a rare African wood. Repotedly movingui is one of the very best woods for overall sound quality, imparting a warm yet very lively timbre to music.
If you'd like to see more of Chris' creations, check out the Woodsong website at www.woodsongaudio.com.
It's one thing when an audiophile receives a box in the mail, and it's a piece of gear that he ordered. It's quite another when a whole pallet of boxes arrives, weighing several hundred pounds. That's what happened to me today!
I'll be telling everyone about my new adventure in a few short days. Until then, I have a lot of unpacking to do!
Sunday, July 3, 2011
For the Heed review, I used the Oyaide Tunami GPX power cords on both the Obelisk SI and the X2. Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery urged me to give them a try since he found them to be a synergistic match, something that propelled the Heeds to the next level. The Oyaides are not inexpensive at $540 each (that's for the 1.8 meter lengths with the 046 paladium over gold connectors), and if you're one of those audio guys who scoff at expensive power cords, you may not find them a viable option for a $1650 integrated amplifier and a $1200 power supply. The Heeds, however, are so illuminating in their ability to surpass your expectations that it makes sense to try different things and see just how far you can take their performance.
Admittedly I'm reluctant to review premium-priced power cords since that path is so rife with skepticism. In addition, I've done it once before I was hard-pressed to come up with 1200 words describing what they did for my system. But before I address what the Oyaides did, I have to point out a few things to the naysayers:
First, you have to have a highly resolving system before you hear differences in power cords. Throw a $540 power cord into a $1000 system and you'll hear no differences, which is precisely what a lot of these skeptics have done on their way to complain on the Internet discussion forums. High-priced cables and power cords are what you consider after all your other components are assembled and you're fairly satisfied with the results. Cables and power cords can fine-tune your system, but they will not transform it.
Second, premium power cords offer, at the very minimum, a robust way to hook up your components. Combined with hospital-grade outlets, a well-made power cord will seat firmly into the wall socket and probably never come out on its own. If you've ever friend a pair of speakers due to a loose connection behind your rack (and I have), this is a valuable feature (but admittedly not worth $540).
I compared the Oyaides with both stock power cords and a pair of Golden Reference power cords from Cardas Audio. There was no doubt about it--both the Cardas and Oyaide power cords offered definite sonic advantages over the cheap guys. Usually the sonic benefits of premium power cords are related to the lowering of the noise floor--with richer silences you'll always hear more of the music coming through. I also felt that the regular power cords shrunk the size of the soundstage a couple a feet in every direction, and bass was somewhat more limited (again, more of a function of a lowered noise-floor than any sonic "transformation" that might have occurred).
Comparisons between the Cardas and the Oyaide were a bit tougher. Honestly, I heard very little, if any, differences between the two power cords. Both did an outstanding job of making my system as quiet as it's ever been. Both cords made the little Heeds sound big and powerful and dynamic. I'd really like to say I heard some difference between the two, but I didn't. Both elevated the level of performance of the Heeds in a very tangible way, however, and they made it impossible to go back to the Heeds with the regular power cords.
The only issue left to resolve is your willingness to attach a pair of $540 power cords to $3000 worth of amplification. I look at it this way: the Heed Obelisk SI and X2 external power supply are a screaming deal at their MSRP. Is it worth $4000 to get a more quiet and refined and dynamic performance from them? I think so, and I stand by my opinion that the Heed/Oyaide combination is still my first choice for solid-state amplification at this price point.
As Yo La Tengo once said, today is the day. It’s a day to hang my head low and finally pack up the Heed Audio Obelisk SI integrated amplifier and matching X2 external power supply and send it back to Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery. I checked the date on the original packing slip and was surprised to see it was dated March 24, more than three months ago. My time with the Heed gear flew by. I’m sure the opposite is true for Dan since these are his personal amplifiers, and I’m sure the spring must have dragged by insufferably without these incredible little black boxes in his home. We’re talking treadmill time. We’re talking waiting-in-line-at-the-DMV-time. I feel for you, Dan. I really do.
If Heed Audio isn’t on your radar, then it should be. This Hungarian audio company, quite frankly, is on a lot of people’s radar lately. For the better part of the last year, every time I mentioned that I was in the market for a quality integrated amp, whether it be LFD or Naim or something else, a dedicated contingent of Heed fans emailed me and told me I should check out the Obelisk at once. In fact, every time I mentioned Heed on this blog, every audiophile in Hungary checked in and drove my Google numbers through the roof. Hungarian audio forums were buzzing with the news that some crazy guy in Texas had discovered their audio secret, and they were excited. For them, it seemed, it was a terrible oversight that Heed wasn’t a household name throughout the world. Here in America, however, I have yet to encounter an audiophile who knows about Heed and isn’t head-over-heels in love with this gear.
Hyperbole aside, the Heed gear is at first glance rather modest-looking gear—simple black boxes that are quite small in size. When I first saw a photograph of the Obelisk SI, I instantly thought of the Naim NAIT 2 I owned through the ‘90s. When I saw the matching X2 power supply, I was reminded of the Naim NAP140 power amplifier I later added to the NAIT (although mentioning one of Naim’s power supplies, such as the HiCap, would be much more appropriate for this comparison). Both pairs of gear fit neatly onto a single shelf of your equipment rack. On closer inspection, however, the Heeds are more robust and stylish. In photographs they seem plain and austere, but the faceplates are thick and glossy and the shiny knobs have a luxurious feel to them. When the unit is turned on, blue LEDs glow discreetly and exude calm and grace. Not to bash the old Naim gear, which was attractive in its way, but the Heed is decidedly more modern and substantial in terms of build quality.
The Obelisk SI on its own is basically a 40wpc integrated with five inputs, the first one which has been taken up by the optional DACtilus digital to analog converter. The X2 external power supply, based on the same chassis, actually boosts the output another 10 watts per channel. Both are attached by a 5-pin umbilical. Heed Audio is very strict about using non-DC coupling in all of their designs. Alpar Huszti, who runs Heed Audio along with his brother Zsolt (the designer), explains his brother’s philosophy this way:
“Zsolt is strongly convinced that DC-coupling is the main culprit of the processed, often artificial sound -- that is, "chopped-off", "square-cut" notes instead of naturally decaying notes -- of most solid-state amps. He says, the superiority of valve amps over transistor-based should be attributed more to the way these are coupled to the speakers (not only, but to a large extent) , rather than to the vacuum tube itself. The reason behind it is simple: tones demand natural decay; DC-coupling, however, "tends" to short-circuit the speaker, thus cutting off the notes earlier than they are naturally resolved in performance.
“DC-coupling can be circumvented by 1) using output transformers (all valve amps, plus a famous exception from the 'transistor-camp', the McIntosh), 2) using output capacitors (Ion, Heed), and, finally, 3) using a fully balanced, truly +/- bridge-mode topology with two mirror-like amp stages.”
Because of this choice to avoid DC-coupled designs, Heed Audio enjoys a reputation for being just a little bit different in their approach compared to other audio companies, which may go a long way in explaining why these small boxes produce such a big, surprising sound.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, the first thing I noticed when I put the Heeds into my system (Trenner & Friedl ART monitors, Rega P3-24 turntable/TT-PSU power supply/GrooveTracer subplatter/Funk Firm Achroplat platter/Zu Audio DL-103 cartridge, Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono preamplifier, Blue Computer Solutions music server, Wavelength Brick V3 24/96 DAC, Cardas Clear Light cables) was the absolute lack of any grain. That was one of the shortcomings of the Rega Brio3 that the Heeds replaced, although I need to temper that statement with the fact that the Rega is probably the most satisfying and complete $700 integrated money can buy. But the Obelisk/X2 combination removed any sense of artifice or noise from the system that existed with the Rega, however slightly, and allowed the music to flow into the room unimpeded.
If I had to use just one word to describe the sound of the Heeds, it would be confident. These little amps seemed to proudly state, “We know we’re little. What are you going to do about it?” They were completely unfazed by any type of music (you can see my previous blog entry about my late night Tool-fest here), and they never seemed to implode or run out of gas. This is one aspect where the Obelisk does not resemble the NAIT 2 in the slightest; even with the NAP140 providing extra juice, the Naim always found a way to remind you of its limitations, usually in the form of an alarming and sudden downsizing of the soundstage. The Heeds never quit projecting a fully-realized portrait of the music. Now I’m not saying the Heeds, coupled with the tiny Trenner & Friedl ARTs, are the perfect choice for your next rave. But I am saying that after living with the Heeds in your system, you’ll realize that size doesn’t matter when it comes to delivering an accurate spatial re-creation of the original musical performance.
I’ve also heard from a lot of the Heed faithful who believe that the Obelisk SI is the one solid-state amp that sounds the closest to SET amplifiers. I’ll agree with that to some extent, because the Heeds did excel at the whole voices-hanging-eerily-in-space thing. The midrange was smooth, natural and extended in the same manner as the Yamamoto Sound Craft A-08 45 amplifier I owned just a few years ago. Where the Heeds distance themselves from the classic SET sound, however, is their ability to continue that level of musicality to the frequency extremes. Highs were extended and airy, and I was experiencing an unusually accurate sense of decay in all types of musical instruments. While the ARTs limit my low-frequency output somewhat (they go down to the mid 40s), the Heeds were able to extract a far deeper foundation for the music than the Brio3 (which offer nearly the same output power).
Finally, the Heeds excelled at making all types of music sound good. I can’t remember a single instance with the Heeds where I found myself wincing at a strident, harsh recording. For instance, I have a publicist from Portland who sends me a lot of local music from up-and-coming bands. While the vast majority of these performers are quite good, they’re not hiring Bob Ludwig to master their releases. Nevertheless, the Heeds always managed to unearth the music out of every track and reduce the noise and the grunge. I’m not saying the Heeds rounded corners and applied several coats of lacquer to the music in a McIntosh 275 sort of way, since I was still able to mine an extraordinary amount of detail from the grooves and the bits. It’s just that the Heeds aren’t one of those amps that are always eager, like a puppy who has just encountered a skunk in the backyard, to show you every little ugly thing that’s going on in the rest of your system.
There are two caveats to owning the Heeds, but they are minor. First, since the Heeds are so compact, the back panel is pretty crowded. I use Cardas Audio Clear Light cables throughout my system, and even though they’re “light,” they’re still pretty thick. Along with the beefy and stiff Oyaide Tunami GPX power cords Dan sent along with the Heeds, the back of my rack became quite chaotic. Using the superb Cardas Audio spade-to-banana adapters on the speaker cables helped a bit, but you should be somewhat talented in the area of cable dressing to keep everything organized, separated and clean.
Second, if you’re using the DACtilus card, the Heeds need to be powered down for a significant amount of time before you start swapping components. As Dan told me, the chip can be “potentially confused or damaged if ‘hot plugging’ is going on and likes for the integrated to be off and fully discharged and that the digital source be off as well.” With the other inputs, it’s business as usual. If you’re a set-it-and-forget-it type of person, this is no big deal. But if you’re the type of audiophile who likes to do quick A/B comparisons between DACs, this may slow you down a bit.
I have three more related reviews to conduct on the Heeds before I’m done with them, and hopefully I’ll get them out in the next couple of days. First, I need to talk about the DACtilus DAC option. Second, I want to talk about the Oyaide power cords. Then I want to talk about the sound of the Obelisk SI…without the X2. But those three subjects need their own space, and I’ve already gone on long enough.
As you might have guessed, I highly recommend the Heeds. The Obelisk SI is $1650, the X2 is $1200 and the DACtilus is $400--I can’t think of a better way to spend roughly $3000 on solid-state amplification. The combination of the Heed Audio Obelisk SI integrated amplifier and the X2 external power supply is one of those elusive products that makes you forget about what your system is doing right or wrong…you just shut up and listen to the music. They formed a very synergistic bond with my Trenner & Friedl ART monitors (yet I also tried them with my stand-by Vienna Acoustics Bach Signatures with excellent results), so if you own either one of these products and are looking for its mate, you have your answer.
In other words, if you ask me about Heed, I’ll say yes. Definitely yes. Check them out. Now.