Sunday, December 30, 2012
Speakers, speakers, speakers. I have no less than four pairs of speakers that I need to break in before CES next month. Fortunately those $48,000 MAD Duke Royal Limited speakers were just used at a trade show in Hong Kong, so they're pretty much broken in. I spent two days listening to them, loving them, caressing those beautiful cabinets into the wee hours. They do everything you'd expect a speaker at that price point to do--bottomless bass response, crystalline highs, extraordinary midrange. It's almost scary that they do it all while being surprisingly compact and lightweight. Most $50K speakers resemble coffins and weigh hundreds of pounds; I could pick the Dukes up by myself and move them around.
Now I'm playing with a more modest design from MAD--the $11,000 Grand MS Maestro Supreme--and they're larger and heavier than the Dukes. They lack the exquisite cabinetry of their big brothers as you can see, although they are still obviously made with great care and skill. The MS features the proprietary MAD SFC coaxial drivers which are designed to be coherent and offer exceedingly low levels of distortion. The crossovers use pure silver solder, 99.99997% pure copper cabling and "ESA silver diamond" capacitors.
Compared to the Royal Duke, these speakers don't quite plumb the same depths and are slightly less dynamic, but let's face it--the former speaker is quite a tough act to follow (and more than four times the price). Plus, the Supremes still needs some break-in before I can evaluate them fairly. As it stands, they image like crazy and possess a silky, extended treble that's addictive.
After this, I still have a pair of Opera Mezzas to break-in, as well as another pair of MAD 1920s that I haven't even removed from the box. Plus I have a Unison Research Simply Italy to warm up, and we have yet to receive the Unison Research Unico Upower booster amp from Italy. The Upower quadruples the power of low-powered tube amplifiers up to 100wpc, so the Simply Italy will go from 12wpc to 48wpc. This will be the first Upower in the US, and it's making its debut at CES (in Room 29-117). I'll have more info on the MAD room in a few days. Until then, I'm switching out components and listening to everything from Sam Cooke to Tool in an effort to get this equipment sounding its best.
Friday, December 28, 2012
It's been a long time since I've had a pair of $48,000 speakers to play with...okay, I've never had a chance to play with speakers anywhere near this price point. I used a pair of $13,000 Harbeth 40.1s for a few weeks, and that's probably it. No, these are the My Audio Design (MAD) Duke Royal Limited Edition speakers, and I get to break them in for a few days on their way to CES.
I apologize for the troublesome pics--these babies are so glossy and dark that it's hard to capture the absolutely breathtaking finish on them. Turn on the lights and they become virtual mirrors, and I'm pretty much taking a pic of myself standing in awe of the MADs while holding my iPhone. Turn down the lights and they look pure black. But they're not gloss black. This is a very dark-stained wood that appears translucent up close. Yes, that is the Union Jack on the side panels (these are made in the UK), lovingly assembled with different shades of veneer. It takes a month to make these cabinets. I believe it.
They're also much more compact than they look in the photos. They're only about waist-high, and I can easily pick them up and move them around. Despite their modest dimensions, they produce a GIANT sound with deep, powerful bass that shakes the room. $48K is a lot of money--I could have purchased that BMW 1-series M I really wanted for around the same amount of money--but once you see, feel and hear the Dukes you'll have no doubt that they are serious world-class loudspeakers.
I've listened extensively to a MAD speaker once before--I reviewed the entry-level 1920 a few months ago and found them to be the perfect mini-monitor for those who want a modern, updated and improved version of the classic BBC LS3/5a. I spent a few weeks with them before sending them off to TONEAudio, where they received a very favorable review in Issue #49.
The Royal Dukes share that same sense of refinement, and that same smooooth midrange, but with almost unlimited dynamics. Can it get any better than this? It's possible, since MAD has an addition line called the Royal Salute that has models ranging from $96,000 to $150,000. Colleen and I are helping the designer and founder of MAD, Timothy Jung, get a foothold into the US. MAD is already huge in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and their home base in England, and after my review of the 1920s I received several emails from people who wanted to know where they could hear them in the US. After CES in a couple of weeks, I may have an answer.
Wednesday, December 26, 2012
With the arrival of the stunning VPI Traveler turntable earlier this year, there's suddenly a lot of activity in the $1000 to $1500 TT market. At the end of 2012, you'll discover three spectacular analog rigs at that price point: the VPI, the Rega RP6 and the Clearaudio Concept. All three of these 'tables offer the kind of performance that were once only available from a $2000+ set-up, and all three are selling like hotcakes.
Now you can add a fourth 'table to this group of over-achievers, and it comes from an unlikely source: Merrill. Just recently announced by David Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, the new Merrill Replica ES-R1 is based on George Merrill's now-legendary modifications of the classic AR turntable. Merrill has gone on to create some great--and sometimes very expensive--turntables of his own over the years, so it's exciting to see him offer his excellent designs to those who are just getting started in this fascinating hobby.
The ES-R1 offers the same type of suspension used in such decks as Linn, Thorens and of course AR, and for a very reasonable price. Two versions of the ES-R1 will be available: an unfinished wood version without arm or cartridge for a mere $995, and a "ready to play" model that comes with a beautiful wood finish, a Jelco SA-250 tonearm (a favorite of the Technics SL-1200 crowd) and an Ortofon 2M Red, which is probably the best $99 cartridge available today. This latter version will be available for an amazing $1595 plus shipping.
Both versions come with the following features:
*Decoupled inner and outer poly platters.
*Oversized record support platter that can be configured to accommodate a clamping ring.
*Spring suspended poly sub-chassis with arm board.
*Poly drive pulley
*Oil well bearing
*Level Adjustable Damping feet
*Rubber cork mat
*Handcrafted wooden base
*Custom manufactured motor
*Base top black
Dave has been testing out the first model he received and is excitedly reporting the results on the various analog forums. He bought the unfinished version, and he is taking videos of the project as he completes each step. (You can see the progress here.)
If you're a fan of AR or Merrill turntables and you're looking for an analog rig that won't cost you a fortune, check out the Vinyl Nirvana site and then shoot Dave an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Wednesday, December 19, 2012
After reviewing Barry Brusseau's wonderful new LP, The Royal Violent Birds, I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about the album, his love for vinyl and his plans for the future. As I expected, Barry's answers were thoughtful and illuminating.
Vinyl Anachronist: First of all, congratulations on the quality of the LP pressing for The Royal Violent Birds. I was able to enjoy it on a high-end system and I can report that the overall sound quality is superb, particularly for a first-time effort. How happy are you with the end result? What challenges were you able to overcome to produce these excellent results?
Barry Brusseau: Marc, thank you for taking the time to listen, and write about the album. The biggest obstacle to overcome is that negative voice that says "you're not good enough to do this," or "you should be spending your money on more important things instead of throwing it down the drain." You know that kid in you that's afraid he'll fall flat on his face and fail. Once you get over that "fear" then it's just a matter of time, money, and commitment. I'm very happy with my effort, and holding the final vinyl result is like Christmas morn as a child.
VA: Deep down, it's obvious you're a vinyl lover and that you "get it." You've talked about how pressing records is an art form in itself, and that the aesthetics of the vinyl format is unique--right down to being able to read the lyrics sheet. Could you elaborate on your love of vinyl?
BB: My mother gave me her old mono phonograph, and all her 45s from the '50s. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and my imagination ran wild. I remember turning up the volume as high as it would go, putting my ear up to the single speaker, and listening to "Peggy Sue" or "Hound Dog." I fell in love with the excitement of rock and roll, and the escape I found. That launched me into the world of countless hours listening, and loving records. The format of the vinyl LP is perfection. For someone that wants to absorb the entire soul of their musical purchase, it has not been topped. I like to compare it to how you enjoy coffee. In a pinch I drink it in a paper cup, and it's still a pleasurable experience. But nothing beats sitting down in your favorite chair, and drinking that coffee in a ceramic mug. It tastes a little better, and smells a little better. You slow down and savor the whole experience.
VA: You've written that you financed this record by saving $50 from your paycheck for over two years. You've also said that you cut absolutely no corners during the entire process, and that this album is a labor of love--one that required an extraordinary amount of effort and commitment. Now that it's completed, how do you feel? Are you relieved or are you feeling the effects of post-partum depression?
BB: I was listening to some of the old punk 7" that my old band "The Jimmies" put out. I realized the sound was not real good. It was too quiet and kind of over-compressed. Why didn't we get the most out of what vinyl had to offer? So when decided to do a solo 12" LP I reached out to vinyl freaks here in Portland (both label guys and fellow musicians). I asked them what was the proper process of getting the best-sounding vinyl record. Doing it right involved more attention to detail than I realized (and more money). Of course it begins with the source (getting the best sound to tape), but I didn't realize how important the mastering and lacquer cutting process was. So all down the line I enlisted analog masterers who had experience in making vinyl. I didn't gamble and that meant being patient and saving money. After it's all done and the record comes out I do have some depression. After expending all that energy there's a bit of a let down. My imagination gets the best of me and I see all my work leading me to some new recognition. Then it's back to my day job.
VA: You wrote: "Turn up the volume and listen to the sound of the felt on the end of the drum stick hitting the drum, the sound of a creaky piano chair." I've recently written about the need to hear the interaction between musician and instrument, and how cues such as audible breathing, the creaking of floorboards on the stage and even the shifting of an instrument from one hand to the other are vital to the recording, barely secondary to the notes themselves. On The Royal Violent Birds, there are plenty of secondary sounds going on in the recording, plenty of human interactions in the background. How deliberate was this?
BB: This is where it's important to listen to the person you've enlisted to record you. I think I could get carried away with letting all the secondary sounds that can happen stay in the recording. The creak of a chair might be nice, but you kicking over that glass might sound like you just don't give a shit. If it adds some atmosphere and serves the song (adds to that atmosphere), then it should stay. It must be organic, and not play into your own self indulgent need to be "avant garde."
VA: You open and close the album with "Pig Frost," first a wild, manic and chaotic version and then an extended, quieter version. The song only has three lines of lyrics: "An open sore, sugar poured out of the sky/Black dawn with pink rain/The scent of pork rinds on the breeze." Should this make me think of Pink Floyd's "Pigs on the Wing" or am I nuts?
BB: I love your comparison to "Pigs on the Wing". It was not my intent, and never was given a thought 'til I read your question. I love the fact that with art each individual can use there own perspective and imagination to interpret. This is why I think David Lynch never gives into the question, "what does that mean?" "Pig Frost" is a short poem that a friend of mine wrote. I liked it and it just came out in a song. I also like the idea of starting the album with a chaotic boom, and then melting into this soft thing.
VA: I live in central Texas, where vultures continuously circle above in the sky. I thought of this when I heard the title cut of the album, but your birds sound more like angels to me than their Texas counterparts. Can you tell us more about your feathered friends?
BB: Is there a god? What happens when you die? If you don't bat these questions around in your head once in awhile you're not human. I guess there's only one thing I'm sure of is that there's nothing to fear. No one has ever seen the birds, and you shouldn't have any misgivings about the word "Violent". It's no stranger than other ideas I've heard about dying. So I'm not sure what happens when the birds "send you on your way," but I'm sure there's nothing to be afraid of.
VA: Tell me more about the special "canvas" edition of the LP. What will it include?
BB: I sat down and learned to sew. My mom gave me a few lessons, and I went to work on this idea. I wanted to make a special package for the LP release show. It's a canvas-sewn cover that's a color reverse of the actual LP. It's the kind of aesthetic I want "Gorbie International Records" to be known for. Attention to detail and how thing feel in your hand. A real home-crafted touch. This can only be realized in the vinyl format. I worked real hard to make these special. I only did about 35, and I've sold out of these limited edition already. I will not be making more.
VA: What's next for you? Are you going on the road at all?
BB: I have no plans to tour. I'm not opposed to it, but don't know if it would be worth the time. There's only so much a 47-year-old man who has a full time job, is a husband, a son, a brother and a friend can do to climb the mountain of obscurity that sits before all dreamers. Responsibility doesn't leave a lot of time to work with. So I do the best I can and try and be grateful for what I have.
VA: Thank you so much for your time, Barry! Good luck with The Royal Violent Birds.
I'd also like to thank Alex Steininger of In Music We Trust for putting this all together. And if you'd like to check out Barry and The Royal Violent Birds--and I strongly suggest that you do before all the LPs are gone--just visit Barry's website.
Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Every so often something worthwhile slips through the cracks and goes unnoticed, especially in the world of music. Think about the distribution foul-ups that relegated Big Star into oblivion through most of the '70s and '80s, or the record label greed that destroyed Badfinger, and it's not too surprising when you find a great album that absolutely no one knows about. A friend of mine, Chris Perez, slipped me this CD of Daniel Louis White's True Communication, which was released back in 2011. He personally knows Daniel Louis White, a young jazz composer and tenor saxophonist from Texas, and informed me that Daniel was currently working on a vinyl project for his second release. The note from Chris read:
Natural Consequences [the new album]
2 180 gram 45rpm disks
Mastering done Capsule Labs (LA)
7 track LP
All original work
Sounds like my cup of tea, so I took True Communication home and gave it a listen. I was immediately floored. First, the sound quality was absolutely stellar for a redbook CD. The sound of Jonathan Fisher's bass was full, clean and deep. Daniel's tenor sax is soulful, unique and masterful. Best of all, the compositions, all written by Daniel, were spellbinding and powerfully original. Truly innovative contemporary jazz, in my humble opinion, is much rarer than it was forty or fifty years ago, and it's remarkable to find a new recording that combines a deep knowledge of jazz fundamentals with a forward-thinking vision. These four pieces combine breathtaking solo improvisation with a 21st century feel--Justin Heaverin's drumming, for instance, can almost sound like rapid-fire sampling at times, but it's not. Top it off with Chris Villanueva's keyboards and Kathryn Stachitus' wonderfully anachronist vocal improvs on two songs, and you have an album that would be an instant classic--if it was released a few decades ago.
Daniel is nothing if not utterly ambitious. He begins True Communication with the titular five-part suite, an audacious journey that contains sections named "Birth of Disillusion," "Unique Consolations" and more. The connection between these themes is subtle and requires repeated listening to connect the dots, but the lines are definitely there. It's amazing how timeless this all sounds, especially when Villanueva introduces a solo that features an electric piano that sounds straight out of a Miles Davis session in the '70s. The remaining cuts retain all of the melody and cohesion of all the great standards; it's mind-boggling when you realize there's not a cover tune in the lot.
So what happened? First of all, when's the last time you heard a modern jazz album gain any momentum and make a real impact in the commercial marketplace? Once you remove all that tinkly "lite jazz," the real stuff is far out of the realm of the mainstream. There is great jazz that has been released in the 21st century, but it's difficult to discover the clues. The answer to the above question, therefore, probably resides somewhere in the late '60s or early '70s, a phenomenon that was probably accomplished by someone long gone. I did hear from Daniel the other day, and he provided some insight:
"I composed much of it while I was still in college (I studied jazz at UNT). While I feel that Natural Consequences (my current project) is more of an artistic statement, I am very proud of what I accomplished with True Communication. I believe that wherever my art takes me I can look back on my debut album with a since of accomplishment.
"That being said, I feel the greatest failure with True Communication was that it was not promoted properly. I believe the album's musicality was a solid but my efforts to promote it and find genuine support were stifled beneath my lack of maturity and foresight. The individuals that I found to promote the project ended up leaving a trail of dead ends and false promises. My group played a few sparse gigs around the Dallas area (where I am originally from) and despite how well we played I had a difficult time gaining momentum to find other locations for my group to play. At the time, I could not understand how our group of world-class musicians with a world-class product were failing to gain a reach in the jazz community."
Daniel's strategy to address this, and to ensure it wouldn't happen to Natural Consequences, was to move to Austin. With its vibrant music scene, Austin is a far more productive environment to finish the second album. Daniel told me that about half of it is finished. In fact, he provided me with a list of his goals for Natural Consequences:
1) To make the best modern jazz album I possibly can.
2) The sonics must be world-class (45 rpm dual disc, 9 min max on each side, big clean sound)
3) Analog mixed/Analog mastered
4) Target audiences: 1. Audiophiles, 2. Vinyl Collectors, 3. Jazz Listeners
5) By the first of June 2013 - Everything recorded, Mixed, Mastered
6) By the first of October 2013 - First Pressing - 100 count, dual disc, white labels, 135 gram, virgin vinyl
7) By 2014 - Full production 180g (500 count, full color, dual gatefold, violet colored vinyl)
Once you've heard True Communication, you can't help but be impressed by these objectives, and by the possibilities. I plan on talking further to Daniel about his progress, so stay tuned. Until then, I urge you to check out True Communication, which can be purchased on Daniels's website. If you're a jazz fan who is looking for an undiscovered masterpiece, this should top your shopping list.
Wednesday, December 12, 2012
Nearly two years ago I reviewed Campfire OK's Strange Like We Are on CD, and wound up putting it on my 2010 Top Ten list for Perfect Sound Forever. I compared them favorably to another outstanding Seattle band, Fleet Foxes, but I ultimately concluded that "the debut CD from this quartet blazes its own trail and sounds rich, calm and mature in a way that few new bands do."
Just a few days ago I heard from Mychal Goodweather, Campfire OK's frontman, who told me that the band has been releasing new videos on their website at a rate of one per month. (They started in September, so that means you can currently watch three.) You can check it out at http://campfireok.com/. These videos are being culled from Strange Like We Are as well as their sophomore album, When You Have Arrived--which I haven't heard yet.
As much as I liked the debut album, I really should get When You Have Arrived. Until then, we have this videos to enjoy!
Tuesday, December 11, 2012
As I work my way through the 2L catalog, I notice that each singular title becomes a benchmark in one audiophile criteria or another, whether it be dynamics, detail or just a complete deconstruction of the sound-making qualities of a specific musical instrument. In the latest disc from this spectacular Norwegian label, the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble, lead by conductor Tonu Kaljuste, offer an illuminating performance of Stale Klieberg's opera David and Bathsheba, and the listener is treated to a virtual tutorial on how an orchestra can energize a room and define its spaces. Since Morten Lindberg of 2L has already re-written the book on the room interactions within a recording--exhibited by his preference for recording his projects in the warm, natural embrace of Norwegian churches--it's noteworthy that David and Bathsheba is such a stand-out in this regard.
If I assigned one single word to the bulk of the 2L releases, it would be detail. The sheer amount of musical details that come through each of these recordings is nothing short of astonishing, and you will hear spatial clues that are often excluded in lesser discs. Where the 2L catalog shines over the vast majority of labels is the ability of these recordings to include the fine details that inform the listener that this splendid music is being delivered by real live human beings--a quality that has become extremely important to me over the last year or so. When it comes to the hi-rez formats--Blu-ray audio in particular--it's very easy for the flesh and bone elements to be obscured in a smooth haze of perfection. Not so with 2L; I routinely hear the movements of the musicians and they way their bodies connect with their instruments. Anyone lucky enough to experience live music on a regular basis takes these sonic cues for granted. For those confined to reproduction, these cues are often lost--and that's one of the primary qualities that makes it so easy to tell the difference between the two.
On David and Bathsheba, you'll notice this first in the sibilances uttered by the vocal ensemble. If you're listening to a live choir, you'll immediate hear the "s" sounds of the words and note how they stand apart from the other sounds, almost as if they're somehow isolated in the soundstage. You may hear some audiophiles complain about excessive sibilance, and how it may be a symptom of a problem within a sound system (often due to a misaligned cartridge or a worn stylus). But sibiliance exists in the real world, and it has a rare quality that is hard to capture correctly on a recording. It should stand out; you should pay attention to it. This is the first way in which David and Bathsheba is accurately recorded.
The second quality I noticed is the richness of the bass, specifically of the string bass and cello section. Smooth, warm and forming a perfectly measured foundation for the rest of the sound, this low frequency information interacts with the recording space in nearly magical ways. The transients and the decay achieve more than visceral satisfaction--they are balanced. I've heard classical recordings where the basses are either turbo-charged in the studio or over-mic'ed on the stage. I've also heard live orchestra performances where the sound of a single double bass can get completely lost in the room...you're watching the bow slide across the strings and nothing comes out. With this recording, the basses can be somewhat reticent against the more dynamic sections of the orchestra--when it's called for. When a statement needs to be made, they step out of the shadows and sing in an absolutely natural way, a way that is delivered from additional pressure from the strings and then travels organically through a room--not from a turn of a knob in the mastering suite.
Stepping back from the technical aspects from the performance, I must admit that I'm not the biggest opera fan in the world. While I was studying music in college, I heard one classically-trained violinist say that he hated opera and oratorios and chorals because he considered the human voice to be such an imperfect thing, especially when compared to the sound of musical instruments (such as the violin, I'm sure). While I've consciously fought that viewpoint for most of my life, it did color my perspective to the point where I often find myself listening to vocal works with impatience. David and Bathsheba emerges as an exception; it is so beautifully performed and so musical (the melodies, in particular, are lush and hypnotic and complex), that I can genuinely relax and let the notes flow through me. Coming from someone who believes that they play Stephen Sondheim musicals in hell, that's high praise indeed.
(Once more, this Blu-ray audio disc also comes with a hybrid CD/SACD disc.)
Monday, December 10, 2012
I've been a big fan of Janet Feder's since she walked into our room at the California Audio Show in August and asked us to play her superb new LP, Songs with Words. (You can read more about that album here.) In fact, I just turned in my list for the Top 20 Albums of 2012 to Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever and Janet's album was near the top. There's something about the sound of prepared instruments such as pianos and guitars that takes me somewhere both alien and comforting, and I could spend hours listening to the unique and haunting sounds she extracts from her acoustic guitar.
As it turns out, Songs with Words is not Janet's first album. She's been recording and releasing albums for many years, albeit at a very slow pace (roughly one every six years, judging from her discography). Working backwards from 2012, the next addition to my Janet Feder collection is 2006's Ironic Universe, which she recorded with avant-garde guitar legend Fred Frith. Mr. Frith appears on roughly half of the twelve tracks here, and he's the perfect complement to her lyrical yet deliberate--and sometimes folk-oriented--playing. On these duets, all live studio recordings without effects or overdubs, Frith shows off his fascination with the various genres of Americana by picking with the appropriate amounts of lonesoneness and soul, something that emerges as an illuminating contrast to Janet. The album's closer, "Closing," is a trembling whirlwind of decay and echo, a musically precise version of random metallic objects being blown about a junkyard during a hurricane. It builds to a swirling, crashing crescendo before it slowly fades over the horizon.
Frith is noted for dropping objects such as ball bearings and other found objects onto the strings of his guitar, usually as it lays flat on his lap. This is an interesting counterpoint to Janet, who places key ring curlicues onto the strings of her guitar to achieve a distinctly plucked metallic sound. On the songs without Frith, Janet explores similar landscapes as she would in the future for Songs with Words, but with a more fluid, intricate style. On the later album, she is more willing to explore the empty spaces between her ideas, something that comes with experience and confidence. On Ironic Universe, she is swifter and more willing to wow the listener with her talent. It almost makes more sense to start with Ironic Universe and then move on to Songs with Words so you can see the arc of her artistic expression.
The only downside to Ironic Universe is that I would love to own this on LP. I downloaded it from her bandcamp site (http://janetfeder.bandcamp.com/yum) in a FLAC file, which sounded fantastic, but I really love the sense of space and air on my beautiful LP pressing of Songs. At the same time, I continue to be amazed at just how good hi-rez downloads can sound, and how much they can engage my interest. In other words, this is an incredible marriage between an artist pushing the boundaries of a musical instrument, and a commitment to celebrate that instrument with stunning clarity and realism. Highly recommended.
(By the way, several YouTube videos can be found of Janet Feder and Fred Frith performing these tunes. Originally Ironic Universe was released as a CD/DVD combo package.)