Tuesday, January 31, 2012
It's that time again, time for a new Vinyl Anachronist column (number 84!) at the e-zine Perfect Sound Forever. This one concerns the wonderful record label Light in the Attic and how they have succeeded in the marketplace through great re-issues at great prices.
You can read it at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl84.html. Enjoy!
Monday, January 30, 2012
I first met Arnie Sanders at our Whetstone Audio Hootenanny last December. Actually, I had received an email from Arnie several months before and he had invited Colleen and me over to his house in Austin to hear his system. I tentatively accepted his invitation and proceeded to forget about it for months. When I met him at the Hootenanny, I was quietly informed by others in the room that Arnie had perhaps the greatest audio system in all of Austin, and that I should arrange for a visit at once. It was by mere accident that I discovered Arnie's old email--I was looking for an old message from someone else--and was chagrined when I put two and two together.
I kept running into Arnie at the various trade shows such as the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October, and by the time he visited our room at CES I felt like he was an old friend. I told him about forgetting about his email. That's when Colleen and I made definite plans to visit Arnie, and now I can totally confirm that Arnie has one of the best privately-owned systems--and listening rooms--I've ever seen.
I say "privately-owned" because my frame of reference is the sound room at Avalon Acoustics in Boulder, Colorado, which I visited last October. That room, the size of a small movie theater, was so big that the space behind the speakers was as big as most people's living rooms. What made it so special was that the soundstage seemed to occupy that entire space and had an almost unlimited sense of air, layering and depth. It was built at an enormous expense to Avalon, and it was worth it. Well, Arnie's room is just slightly smaller. This is an audiophile who had a dream to build the perfect room for his system, and he succeeded.
It's almost unsettling to walk into the room for the first time. It's so unexpectedly big that it takes your breath away. Arnie has a beautiful home in a beautiful Austin neighborhood, yet when you walk around downstairs you have no idea of the scope of what's upstairs in that room above the garage. It was only after Colleen and I left that we stopped at the curb, stared back at the house, and noticed the large and seamless extension on the top floor. Our sense of spatial relation was restored. I can't imagine what this cost Arnie, and I know better than to come out and ask.
The room, with its twelve-foot ceilings, featured room treatments that rivaled those at the Avalon room. Arnie has literally thought of everything, from an HVAC system that is almost silent to acoustic panels that drop down over the large video screen. Despite all the engineering employed, the room avoids that ultra-modern look that so many dedicated listening rooms. It's warm, comfortable and welcoming in there.
None of this would matter if Arnie didn't have the hardware to back it up. I can't remember every piece in Arnie's system--too much gear to count--but the most salient components were the huge VTL Siegfried monoblock amps, the gorgeous Magico M5 speakers and the rare Steve Dobbins direct-drive turntable which sported a copper platter that weighs 33 lbs. (I'd never heard of Dobbins before, but it's clear from the sound quality that I should.) Digital sources were primarily Esoteric. Arnie's the type of audiophile who is so well-known and respected that manufacturers send him gear just to try out. Of course he's glad to do it.
Yes, Arnie has the hardware, but he also has the software. Colleen and I were treated to stellar recording after stellar recording--it's amazing how we would talk about a specific artist or recording and Arnie would simply walk over to his collection, pull it out and play it for us. Aside from an amazing sense of size and space that Arnie's system delivered, I was struck by the amount of sheer detail I was hearing from even familiar recordings. Simply stated, this is one of the top two or three systems I have heard, and that includes the Avalon room.
I was reluctant to blog about this; I know many top-tier audiophiles who don't want people to know what they have in their homes. Arnie doesn't mind. What sets him apart is his enthusiasm for the hobby and his willingness to expose as many people to it as possible. From talking to other audiophiles in Austin, I've gathered that a visit to Arnie Sanders' house is a rite of passage for music lovers throughout Central Texas. And if you're an unvited guest, Arnie has two giant dogs that will eat you.
Thanks again, Arnie, for a wonderful visit.
Wednesday, January 25, 2012
First the bad news: my LP copy of the new Kate Bush album, 50 Words for Snow, is one of the worst pressings I've purchased since I stopped buying used records on eBay. The surface noise levels are appalling, the records themselves are warped, and on the first disc the needle keeps going past the dead wax and swiftly across the label until my tonearm crashes into the spindle. In what third world country was this pressed? Even after a thorough and meticulous cleaning on the Walker Prelude LP Cleaning System, it was still borderline unlistenable. What a waste of $25.
Fortunately the folks at Anti, the record label, saw fit to include the entire CD in the package. So--and it pains a vinyl anachronist like me to say this--I actually felt happy when I switched to the digital rendering of this challenging release and gave Kate's latest effort a second chance. While at first I was ready to give 50 Words a pass from a critical standpoint, I begrudgingly let it sink it and now I'm enthralled by it. It's not for the faint-hearted...this 2-LP/CD release has only seven songs in its 65-minute playing time, so Kate is definitely in an epic mode. But after repeated listenings, the excess turns to a sublime maturity that is based on this hyper-intelligent artist's willingness to let songs develop and fulfill their divine purpose.
Sometimes I have to question my love for Kate. For me, the enthusiasm is contained to both sides of The Dreaming, the first side of Hounds of Love and the first two songs of her last fully original studio effort, 2005's Aerial. (I haven't yet heard The Director's Cut, the set of remixes she released earlier this year, because they were culled from two earlier albums I didn't really like.) On many of her releases, Kate switches from more conventional song arrangements and structures (well, conventional for her) to Kate-singing-while-playing-piano-and-little-more, and the first two sides of the new album start with nearly 35 minutes--almost an entire album for most performers--of that rambling, reflective and overly-mellow type of music. While listening to this LP for the first time, I didn't start paying attention to its craft until the Bowie-esque "Wild Man" kicks in with its turgid, fevered chorus (which features backing vocals by Andy Fairweather Low).
Once I popped in the CD, however, the more silent passages were fleshed out, and suddenly I was put under Kate's spell. I said Kate was hyper-intelligent, and this often means that she leaves more casual listeners in the gully when it comes to fully connecting with her somewhat lofty ambitions. But Kate is also passionate, romantic and supremely artful when you're paying close attention. The quiet opener, "Snowflake," features her son Albert as a snowflake who wants to ensure that he is discovered once he hits the ground. His classic choirboy soprano, which may remind you of the dishwasher in the film The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, is a profound and somber counterpoint to Kate's lovely insistence in the chorus that "the world is so loud/keep falling/I'll find you."
"Misty," the longest track on the album at thirteen-and-a-half minutes, concerns a woman who has a passionate tryst with a snowman only to discover he has melted the next day--silly yet heady stuff. The aforementioned "Wild Man" is about the discovery of a yeti's footprints in the snow by an expedition, followed by Kate's assurances that "you're not an animal," and that his cry is a signal to her that "you sound lonely." Her duet with Elton John, "Snowed in at Wheeler Street," is remarkable in that his voice is more gently and husky with age and almost unrecognizable at first; it's unremarkable in that this is the most conventional song on the album and its lyrics are no more poetic than the average ballad sung by almost any two famous pop stars.
For me, the stand-out track is the title track which consists of Kate counting off the numbers one through fifty while Professor Joseph Yupik (voiced by British actor Stephen Fry) comes up with increasingly goofy words to describe snow such as anklebreaker, shnamistoflopp'n and the Klingon phrase peDtaH 'ej chIS qo. Propelled by Stev Gadd's exquisite turn on the drums, this song combines a trance-like momentum with Kate's shrieking pleas to the professor: "Come on Joe, you've got 32 to go/Don't you know it's not just the Eskimo." It's sounds light-hearted in print, but it's an intensive, almost addictive track. I keep playing this eight-and-a-half minute fever dream over and over.
All in all I wished I had saved a few bucks and just bought the CD, which is a real let-down for me considering my love for the analog formats. I've also wandered onto a few music forums where others have lamented the sad state of the vinyl, so it's not just my copy. But pushing that disappointment aside, I have to say that Kate is still as vital of an artist as ever, and I'm enjoying the second wind of her unique performing career. If you're a fan, this is a must-have; if you're not, you might still be surprised at the nerve it took to make this uncommon and sometimes difficult LP in an age where musical genius and a love for the obscure can be perceived as a character flaw.
Last Friday, Colleen and I headed out to Whetstone Audio to attend Brian Di Frank's second hootenanny, which honored Zu. Sean Casey of Zu was there to display many of his amazing high-efficiency speaker models such as the Soul Superfly, Essence and Definition Mk. 4. If you've ever visited a Zu room at a trade show, you know that Sean always brings the coolest music along, and this night was no exception. The Zuhootenanny had more of a rockin' feel--as well as a younger demographic in regards to the attendees--than our event last December, although I did spot a few of the same people as before.
My biggest goal for the evening was to hear the Zu version of the Technics SL-1200, which I've blogged about before, but alas, it was not meant to be due to some unforseen issue during shipment. The turntable in question sat off to the side, still in its box (which looked like any normal everyday SL1200 box). I still hope to check it out one day--if anyone can uncover the hidden potential of the best-selling turntable of all time, it's Zu Audio.
As usual, the Zu speakers were dynamic and punchy, even with relatively low-powered (but superb) amplification from Leben. I can't wait for Brian's next event--these hootenannies are really entertaining, and I always manage to find at least one worthwhile LP to buy every time I visit!
Saturday, January 21, 2012
It's amusing to me that I heard a prototype for the upcoming Moos Mini loudspeakers just a few short hours after watching one of my favorite film scenes of all time back at the hotel. The scene is from Arthur, and Dudley Moore is having a brief discussion with the father of his fiancee in the latter's library--and Dudley is utterly obsessed with the moose head trophy over the fireplace. That scene is responsible for some of my favorite funny movie lines such as "Where's the rest of this moose?" and, more importantly, "This is a tough room...(looking up at the moose)...I don't have to tell you that."
Despite its cute name, the Moos Mini is a serious product. At first glance it looks like a typical small two-way mini-monitor, nicely finished in a variety of bright colors such as red, black and white. The particular model I auditioned in a remote suite at the Venetian, far away from the bustling action at CES, was finished in a sunny "Lamborghini" yellow--or that's at least what the Moos designers called it. When I suggested that the red version might be evocative of another famous Italian automobile marque, they politely declined. These Australians are Lambo men through and through.
When you explore what makes this tiny speaker tick, you'll start to understand what makes it so special. Designed by Australian acoustic design guru Brad Serhan, the Mini uses very high-quality Revelator drivers from Scan-speak (the 5.5" 15W-8530 for the bass and midrange and the ring radiator R2904 for the treble), an enclosure built from the highest quality birch ply and acoustic damping that was designed by NASA for the Space Shuttle so that the astronauts could be protected from the extreme amount of noise during missions. While the prototype I heard at the Venetian was the passive version, Brad wants to introduce the Mini in an active version. The projected price for all of this...just $999 per pair.
For this price, you might think that the Mini is assembled in China. Nope...it's actually assembled by Scan-Speak in Denmark. You might wonder how Moos Audio is going to make a profit at this price; Brad told me that his margins are relatively slim and he's betting the farm that the Mini will be a huge hit. Volume, volume, volume, in other words. After listening to the Mini, I'm convinced it will be a great solution for computer-savvy audiophiles who like their Sound Engine loudspeakers but want something a little more revealing and musical.
An extended listened revealed a mini-monitor that throws up a monster soundstage full of detail. Bass is full and taut, and the imaging is as precise as it gets. Powered by modest amplification and an Oppo BDP-95 digital player, the passive version of the Mini was extremely competitive with other $1000 monitors--so having them powered for the same price ups the ante considerably. Brad told me that there's still a bit of work to do in terms of refining the overall sound and ensuring that the amplification fits into the Mini without affecting the existing enclosure, but he's already been working on this design for a couple of years and it shows. This is a great little speaker.
It's going to be a few more months before the Mini hits the market, but I hope to get an active pair to try out in a few weeks. I really want to test the Moos out as a nearfield/desktop monitor for my software-based music server. I suspect many future Moos customers will be using the Mini in such an arrangement. But even as a stand-alone, this is an exceptional little speaker with a big sound, a sound that will prevent you from asking "Where's the rest of this Moos?"
You can find out more about Moos and the Moos Mini at their website.
Friday, January 20, 2012
It takes a lot of nerve to introduce a $150,000 turntable to the audio world, even more so when you're a new company with no prior track record. Aleks Bakman, an engineer who "designs and builds airplanes" at his day job, had done exactly that. (Think SME, which got its start in aviation engineering as well.) I've been Facebook friends with Aleks--a kind, thoughtful and enthusiastic man--for a while now, and he made sure I listened to this precious and impressive gem while I was at CES 2012.
At first glance, the ONEDOF turntable (which stands for One Degree of Freedom) doesn't look like a $150,000 turntable. Most of the super 'tables from the likes of Continuum, Clearaudio, Rockport and Goldmund are massive pieces of machinery with integral stands and additional components such as huge power supplies and speed controls. The ONEDOF is a self-contained TT, one that fits neatly on the top of most equipment racks. This is not to dismiss the ONEDOF as small or simple or overpriced--Aleks has informed us that the cost of making the ONEDOF is quite high, and the figure he quoted implies that his margins are not inflated one bit. In addition, the ONEDOF is a beautiful, gleaming machine that contains quite a bit of new technology under those shiny surfaces.
The ONEDOF was placed in a system that was quite impressive, even by CES standards. You know you have a hell of a system when the Wilson speakers you're using (the $68,000 Maxx3) are one of the most affordable components in the chain. Imagine this: over $197,000 worth of LAMM amplification, over $92,000 worth of Kubala-Sosna cabling and over $55,000 worth of HRS equipment stands. Surprisingly, Aleks kept it relatively modest when he chose the arm (a $4900 Graham Phantom II) and cartridge (a $6500 ZYX Omega). I'd be tempted to use a Breuer arm and maybe a Koetsu, but I'm convinced Aleks has tested the ONEDOF with a large variety of arms and cartridges and knows best.
When I came into the room, Aleks was playing none other than "Stairway to Heaven"--at astonishingly low volumes. If I had a single reservation about the sound, it would be that the music was played at too low of a volume, something that Aleks said was under the control of the other people running the room. I kept wanting him to turn it up! But the paltry listening levels underlined the true strength of the system, since I was able to hear amazing levels of detail even at lower volumes.
It's hard for me to say, from my limited exposure to the system, that the ONEDOF was the reason why everything sounded so good. Every time I've heard a system with LAMM amplification, it was absolutely world-class in its ability to preserve musicality. The MAXX3s were so powerful and dynamic that I was surprised to learn they weren't the more massive Alexandrias or X-2s (they all sort of look the same). But when they switched to the digital front end--an impressive looking $25,000 DAC/transport combo from NeoDio, the entire system shrunk a bit and lost some of its presence, warmth and inner detail. The ONEDOF was definitely elevating this system into the stratosphere.
I had promised to visit Aleks before the end of the show and spend more time putting the ONEDOF through its paces, but alas, I was busy running my room and couldn't return. Aleks, who follows this blog, even prodded me to bring my favorite LP of the year (The Black Keys' El Camino) for a listen, but I'm sure that lo-fi masterpiece wouldn't even begin to let the ONEDOF truly shine. He did offer to let me review the ONEDOF, but Colleen and I were hesitant since it just didn't seem fair to evaluate a $150,000 turntable with the $30,000 or so worth of equipment we have on hand. Perhaps I can convince Bartolomeo Nasta to send me his Unison Research Absolute 845 amplifier and his gigantic Malibran speakers for the task.
Aleks hopes to get more coverage of the ONEDOF, so we'll wait and see how the reviewers with the supersystems react to this superb 'table. Do I want the ONEDOF in my listening room? Hell yes. Should I have one? We'll see. But even with my limited exposure to the ONEDOF, I can say it's one of the best-sounding analog rigs I've heard. The ease in which it lets the music flow is utterly rare, and I hope Aleks is able to take more time off from building airplanes to truly explore his talent for designing incredible and beautiful music-making machines.
For more information on the ONEDOF, please check out Alek's website at www.onedof.com. And if you're wondering what "One Degree of Freedom" means, Aleks says:
"The only one degree of freedom that my One Degree Of Freedom bearing leaves to the platter is the rotation about the straight line passing through the center of the Earth (which is my own definition of a vertical axis)."
Thursday, January 19, 2012
Since this was my first year at CES as an exhibitor, my coverage of the show is somewhat limited by the fact that I spent four days inside room 29-117 showing off gear from Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers. I did venture out occasionally, but for the most part I was working--and having the time of my life--all through the show. You can read the Positive Feedback Online article for more on that.
My CES adventure actually lasted ten days since Colleen and I were responsible for driving--not shipping--all of our equipment to the show. As you can see above, we barely had enough room for our own luggage. Schlepping two pairs of floorstanding loudspeakers in your SUV definitely sucks up cargo space.
It's about 1300 miles from my front door to Vegas. So Day 1 got us to Tucson, Arizona, where we able to procure our second In-N-Out Double Double in as many weeks--not bad for two displaced native Southern Californians who ordinarily have to drive 200 miles to reach In-N-Out Land (i.e. Dallas). On Day 2 we hit Vegas just after noon since we had a very early start, and we picked up our Italian manufacturer, Bartolomeo Nasta, at McCarran at 3. We all checked into our vacation condo at the Wyndham, which was much bigger and cheaper than a room at the Venetian, and relaxed. Day 3 was set-up day, days 4 through 7 were show days, day 8 was breaking-down-the-room-and-then-going-shopping-day, and days 9 and 10 were spent driving back. We took a more northernly route on the way back home because we probably would have stopped overnight in El Paso, and if you've ever driven through El Paso on I-10 you'll know why we didn't want to leave $30,000 worth of audio gear in our SUV in a hotel parking lot overnight.
On set-up day I was amazed at the amount of product boxed up in the hallways of the Venetian. I saw a couple of pallets stacked with crates of Magico speakers, and I wondered how much the retail was on those two skids--a quarter million? More? It's one thing to see a ton of expensive gear at a trade show, it's quite another to see it all boxed up and ready to go.
As I mentioned, we brought two pairs of floorstanding speakers and they consumed most of our set-up time. I've gotten to the point where I can unpack an amp of a CD player and have it running in three or four minutes; 110 lb. speakers, on the other hand, require a bit more planning and a little more tenacity to retrieve the tiny yet important bits stuck to the bottom of the carton.
Seriously...I'm going to have to buy one of those poles with a "claw" on the end of it--you know, the ones short people buy to reach things on the top shelf. Those boxes are deep. (That's Bartolomeo, by the way, and not me. Everyone seems to love this pic.)
Surprisingly, it only took us about two hours to set-up the room and get everything dialed in. There were three of us, of course, and the other two have been doing this kind of work for decades. We were a finely-tuned audio machine. In other words, we were done by noon and had the rest of the day to ourselves. We did have one concern: the two speakers we demonstrated, the Opera Quinta and the Opera Seconda, were brand spanking new right out of the box. In fact, they are the first two pairs in the US ever. We had to get those puppies broken in as quickly as possible. Fortunately our room partners at Audience, who supplied the cables and power conditioner, had an XLO Sweep CD that worked wonders overnight.
We brought two systems' worth of gear, but only one would be actually playing in our room. What you see here is our $4495 Unison Research Unico 50 integrated amplifier (also brand new for the US), the $3895 Unison Research Unico CDE CD player (that one's my personal player, so it had plenty of hours on it) and the $5495 per pair Opera Quinta loudspeakers. Speaker cables, interconnects and power cords were all Audience Au24, and the power conditioner was the $5000 Audience aR6-TS. For about $20K, less than the equipment racks in some rooms, this system sounded fantastic.
The other equipment in the room, which could have formed another whole system and a half, included (from left to right) the $2150 Unico Primo integrated, the $2295 Unico CD Primo and the $2450 Simply Italy integrated--the latter which was also all-new for CES and the US. The other speakers, the $3995 per pair Secondas, were finished in a beautiful white veneer...and everyone forgot to photograph them because they were tucked in a corner. I'll see if someone else has a pic so I can post it. They're sitting in my dining room right now all packed up and ready to head out to a dealer, so I can't set them up real fast and fake it. You'd know.
The Audience guys--President John McDonald, National Sales Mananger Richard Colburn and design engineer Roger Sheker--also had their gear displays set-up in the room. It was funny how visitors to our room were split up between the Unison faithful and the Audience faithful. Nevertheless, the Audience cabling and power conditioning worked extremely well with our gear, and we've decided to share once again at the Jacksonville AXPONA show in March. They were absolutely great room partners and were enormously helpful. And Richard has great taste in music.
I know what you're thinking...no vinyl in the room? Aren't you the Vinyl Anachronist? WTF, Marc? Hold on there...we did bring our Giro turntable to the show. You just had to head down the hall to the Joseph Audio room to hear it. Most of you know I'm a huge fan of Jeff Joseph's loudspeakers, and I looked forward to hearing how the Giro would do in a non-Unison/Opera system. As usual, Jeff used Bel Canto electronics and digital sources, mated to his flagship Pearl2 speakers with Cardas Audio Clear Beyond cables.
But what's that cartridge on the Giro? Could it be...why yes, it is...the Hyperion cartridge from Soundsmith! That's the cartridge I've raved about, the one with the cactus needle cantilever. I've been thinking about buying another cartridge for my Giro (the Transfiguration Axia is probably leading the field right now), but I'm glad I got to hear this exquisite cartridge, one of my absolute faves right now, taking the Giro to the limit.
Most people wouldn't put a $7000 cartridge on a $3995 turntable/arm combo, but the Giro received a lot of love and respect in the Joseph room. I spoke with Soundsmith's Peter Ledermann again, and he's a warm, friendly yet brilliant man who makes a killer product. While I set up the turntable for Jeff, Peter came in afterward and mounted the Hyperion. I'm glad I didn't have to do it--I get a little nervous when I'm dealing with super-expensive cartridges. I'd hate to screw it all up with all those people watching me.
Once the show was underway, I did my best (along with Bart and Colleen) to show off our system. Feedback was uniformly positive, with many visitors remarking how great are system sounded for a relatively reasonable price. CES is different from most trade shows since the general public can't attend, so fewer people were coming in, sitting down and listening to music. Most of the time we were talking to prospective dealers, supplying product information to journalists and just hanging out with our industry friends. But nearly every visitor stopped at some point, looked at the system, and said something like "Wow, that's really nice!"
When the show was over, Colleen and I had several new dealers, some very productive meetings and quite a deal of coverage from the audio press. Bart was very happy at the end of Day 4, and told his father back in Italy that it was one of the best CES shows ever. For Colleen and I, it's on to New Jersey at the beginning of March for a dealer event at Audio Doctor, then straight to Jacksonville for AXPONA. This time, however, we're flying.
I'll have a few more blog entries concerning some of the things I saw at the 2012, so check back.
Tuesday, January 17, 2012
My first piece for Positive Feedback Online, which chronicles CCI's adventures at CES 2012, is now online.
I'll have more posts documenting my adventures at CES 2012 as an exhibitor, and they will appear over the next few days. I have lots of news and a few interesting stories to tell, so check back.
Monday, January 9, 2012
Our room at CES is set up and ready to go! In this pic we have the Unison Research Unico 50 integrated, Unico CDE CD player, Opera Loudspeakers Quinta, Audience adeptResponse power conditioner, Quadraspire rack and cabling by Audience.
Here's another pic of our room with the Unison Research Unico Primo integrated, Unison Research Unico Primo CD player and the Unison Research Simply Italy integrated.
If you're attending CES, please stop by and visit us at room 29-117 at the Venetian. You can also meet Colleen Cardas, my partner at CCI, and Bartolomeo Nasta or Unison and Opera.
Thursday, January 5, 2012
David Archimbault of Vinyl Nirvana has just posted his ten favorite vintage turntable projects of 2011 here.
If you follow David's work at Vinyl Nirvana, you'll know he's one of the premier turntable restorers in the world. His list is full of the usual suspects from AR, Thorens and more. Unfortunately all of these beauties have been sold, but you can certainly reserve a 'table for 2012 by checking out his list of current projects which is listed on his website.