Tuesday, December 31, 2013
It's time once again for the Consumer Electronic Show in Las Vegas. This is always a frantic time of year for people in the industry--we've just gotten through the holidays and now we have to pack up all our gear and head to Vegas for the most important trade event of the year. As I've said before, CES has a very different feel than other audio shows because it's not open to the public. The people coming into my room are there to do business, not to sit and listen to music all day. Still, we're always proud of the systems we assemble at CES. Since we're always at CES to represent Unison Research and Opera--it's their room and not ours, per se--we're usually introducing some cool new gear. We also get to hang out with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison/Opera, one of our favorite people in the whole world.
Here's the press release I sent out to everyone:
"CCI, Unison Research, Opera Loudspeakers and Furutech are excited to announce our system for the upcoming 2014 Consumer Electronics Show. We will be debuting the Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier ($3495) and the Opera Quinta SE loudspeakers ($6995/pair) along with the Unison Research Unico CDE CD player ($4495), with all cabling and power management by Furutech. The Triode 25 is the new tubed integrated slotted between the Simply Italy and S6; it is rated 22wpc in triode and 45wpc in pentode. The Quinta SE is a ported version of the Quinta with upgraded drivers. We will be featuring this system in Room 29-110 of the Venetian on January 7-10. We hope to see you there!"
I've been listening to this system in my home for the last three or four days and I'm pretty excited about the sound. The new Quinta SE is delivering the deepest bass I've heard in this large room, and the Triode 25 is a beautiful little jewel of an amp. I'm looking forward to spending more time with this gear after the show, but I think most of it's already sold.
At any rate, the CES is being held January 7-10, so if you're attending please stop by Room 29-110 and say hello to Colleen, Bart and me!
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Saturday, December 21, 2013
It seems silly for me to declare that Remote Galaxy, the new symphonic recording from 2L Recordings, is this Norwegian label's most ambitious project yet. Nearly every time I receive a new 2L release in the mail, I'm astonished that Morten Lindberg continues to outdo himself each time--whether it's a gorgeous recording, a novel performance, a unique programme theme or just gut-wrenchingly beautiful music. But Remote Galaxy is truly ambitious in so many ways.
Flint Juventino Beppe, a young Norwegian composer who was previously known as Fred Jonny Berg, has followed up his Grammy-nominated 2L recording Flute Mystery with this amazing 2-LP set that contains the expansive title piece as well as "Distant Words" and "Tightrope Walking Beneath Heaven" on the first album, and his Flute Concerto No.2 and the gentle, wistful "Lost in September" on the second. There's a lot of music here--in both size and scope.
Instead of the usual intimate recordings of Norwegian ensembles captured in old Norwegian churches, Remote Galaxy was performed by Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Watford Colosseum in England. That means you get a slightly different sonic presentation from other 2L recordings. Instead of that rare combination of warmth and Nordic precision, you get a big and powerful and almost limitless sound that seems to stretch in all directions at once. That's because Morten Lindberg has introduced a new surround sound technology, known as Auro-3D, which adds "height channels" to the recording process. People with stunning hi-fi systems know that it's relatively easy to reproduce soundstage width and just a little more difficult to reproduce realistic soundstage depth. Soundstage height, however, is a rarity that is usually only heard in exceptional orchestral recordings--I'd been an audiophile for decades before I noticed it for the first time, and it was on a very expensive system. (Big panel speakers tend to do this well.) With this recording, however, it's obvious that Auro-3D accurately captures the room reflections that come off the ceiling, especially when it comes to the solo performances from the viola da gamba, clarinet and flute. That adds a new, utterly lifelike dimension to the performance.
In fact, that's where Remote Galaxy shines the brightest--those solos are so textured and well-defined in space that you're compelled to point to an empty spot between your speakers and declare, "That's what a live instrument would sound like if the musician was here in my room with me right now." There's such an amazing wholeness and clarity to the sound of these stunning solo performances, and a total lack of any type of veil that would get between you and the musicians. Even when the orchestra is playing at full steam and the dynamics are limited by the hardware--and unless you've spent a fortune, there will be at least some limitations--it's still a heart-pounding experience to hear those individual instruments sing within that pulsing tidal wave of music.
Since I received both the Blu-ray Audio disc and the LP, it was fun to compare the differences on two entirely different systems. (Both, by the way, are sold separately--and the CD/SACD hybrid disc is not part of the package this time.) The vinyl was played on my reference system, which is located in a large room that's approximately 24' by 18' by 8'. The Blu-ray was played on my desktop/headphone system which has recently been enhanced with an exceptional little DAC that allows more music to flow from my cheap Blu-ray transport. That made the vinyl sound like a living and breathing thing, something that could burst free from the speakers and stampede around the room at will. The Blu-ray experience with the headphone system was a little more like jumping into the ocean during a huge storm--you're completely immersed in an infinite, churning thing. I think I prefer the LP experience, but both were exciting beyond belief in very different ways.
Remote Galaxy, according to the composer, was written to answer the question: Can the dualism of life, nature and art be expressed in pure music? He describes these pieces as journeys in time and space, and it's an ambition that's been attempted before. But 2L's use of the Auro-3D technology makes these philosophical issues far more concrete to the listener--you are traveling through space when you listen to this music. Whether you have a portable player with earbuds or a million dollar system, you will be immersed in a truly spatial experience.
Monday, December 16, 2013
I just reviewed Sherman Baker's new eponymous CD on this blog a few days ago, and I have to admit that I found it difficult to categorize this wonderful music. I came up with a number of comparisons--Al Stewart, The Bongos, etc.--but the best way to convey Sherman's sound is to let you hear this new video which landed on YouTube today:
I haven't gone off on a true rant in this blog lately, and this is going to be a relatively minor rant--something the kids are calling "first world problems" these days. But it's something that's starting to annoy the heck out of me lately. Let me provide an example:
Last week we had one of our products reviewed on an audio/video website. The reviewer then went onto a well-known discussion forum and promoted the product. His angle on the thread focused on the fact that our product could be the center of a great $1500 audio system. Instead of commenting on the product in question or asking questions about what made the product so special, hundreds of forum members started chiming in with their choices for the perfect $1500 music system. Pages and pages and pages of recommendations were made--and not one single response addressed the reviewer's original recommendation.
Now I know that's me being sensitive about my product, and lamenting a marketing opportunity gone to waste. But let me give you another example. The very next day I posted a link on my Facebook page. It was a YouTube clip of the opening credit sequence for the 2000 film Shadow of the Vampire with John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe. It's a great film that too few people have seen. The opening credit sequence is truly one-of-a-kind--it starts off with a panorama of a rather Gothic mural and slowly moves in to reveal all of the amazing and very creepy details, all to a powerful musical score. I saw this film in the theater, and the opening credit sequence was so intense and beautiful that it made quite the impression.
So when the film was shown on HBO on Halloween, I was reminded of the wonderful opening. A few weeks later I found it on YouTube and decided to post it on Facebook with the caption, "My favorite opening credit sequence of all time." I truly wanted to turn people onto this very cool clip and have them comment on it as well. But--you guessed it--it only inspired people to post their favorite opening credit sequences of all time. One guy said he preferred The Player, another mentioned that he'd vote for Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That's all fine and dandy--but I really was trying to share something with people and not have it dismissed like that. Delete, delete, delete.
I've been guilty of this mindset as well. Once a relative of mine made a couple of R&B recommendations on her Facebook page, and I felt compelled to call her on a couple of omissions to her list. Her rather terse response was, "Why does it always have to be a competition?" Her comment pissed me off at the time, but she was right. Why do we always feel compelled to bring our own tastes and experiences to someone else's observations? Why can't we let these comments stand as is, or perhaps offer a little encouragement?
This all reminds me of a talk show host who worked in LA in the late '90s. His name was Ed Tyll and he was obnoxious and irascible. He would introduce a topic, state his opinion on it and then ask people to call in and talk about it. The next twenty minutes of the show would consist of Ed yelling at people and hanging up on them--because they simply couldn't stick to the topic. They'd elaborate, extrapolate and go off on weird tangents, and it would piss off Ed to no end. "Just answer the question!" "Just stick to the topic!" "Stop trying to change the subject!"
It made for bad radio--Ed wasn't around LA for more than a year or two--but I'm starting to think Ed had a good point. When someone asks us a question, or shows us a YouTube clip, or makes a specific recommendation for something they like, they're not asking you to tell them your life story. They're not asking you to best them. They want to know what you think about what they just said, or what they just showed you. What the "Internet Discussion Group Mindset" shows us is that we're still far better talkers than listeners. Maybe we need a few more Ed Tylls in the world, keeping us relevant and on topic.
Monday, December 9, 2013
In my year-end wrap up for Perfect Sound Forever, which you can read here, I spoke briefly about the $179 U-Turn Audio Orbit turntable in the "Turntable of the Year" section. No, it didn't win the award--I disqualified it because I hadn't heard one yet and I was worried that U-Turn was having issues getting the initial production run delivered to customers. We first heard about this minimalist turntable about a year ago--U-Turn employed Kickstarter to fund the project--and the buzz in the industry steadily grew throughout the year. Understandably there were a few delays, but now the Orbit seems to be shipping worldwide.
Steve Guttenberg, aka The Audiophiliac, has just reviewed the Orbit in his CNET column, and he's given it a rave review. Well, it's a qualified rave--he still gives the edge to previous entry-level audiophile 'tables such as the Rega RP1 and the Pro-Ject Debut, which cost more than twice as much. But for $179, the Orbit seems to be a winner.
You can read the review here.
Friday, December 6, 2013
Just this afternoon I was asked to submit my year-end Top 20 list to Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever. Once I compiled everything, I was pleasantly surprised to see how highly I ranked this new eponymous CD from singer-songwriter Sherman Baker. My first impression was this: Al Stewart was feeling in a mellow, laid-back mood, so he hired Velvet Underground and recorded some Moody Blues songs. Of course these comparisons didn't hold up over the second and third listening--the Stewart-esque voice still languished between the layers of acoustic guitars, but now I heard more Nick Drake and even a little Elliot Smith. In fact, the guitar in "Ducks in a Row" sounds like it was inspired by "Needle in the Hay." I wouldn't be surprised if Sherman intended it as a homage.
But here's a relatively obscure comparison that's a little more eerie and a little more accurate, even if fleetingly so. Do you remember a band in the early '80s named The Bongos? I have an EP of theirs titled Numbers with Wings and it's friggin' fantastic in an '80s mainstream New Wave way. That crisply produced recording won't necessarily remind you of Baker's reverb-drenched effort which seems to celebrate the late '60s on some songs and then jump strangely into the present on others...except when it comes to the vocals. Richard Barone, the front man for the Bongos, just might be Sherman Baker's long-lost dad...if Al Stewart isn't, that is. Maury Povich, are you listening?
All of these comparisons don't quite get to the heart of why I like Sherman Baker's CD so much. Once again I'm reduced to time machines and RIYLs (recommended if you like) and I've already talked about that in far too many other reviews. So what if modern indie rock is infatuated with the past--it takes me to happy places and at my age that's becoming more and more important. Okay, a lot of new bands in 2013 do that, but what's surprising about Baker is that he seems to take you to different places within the same song, even after repeated listenings. Indeed, he's a bit of a shapeshifter. Did I just hear Happy Jack-era Who there for a second? Or did that song just sound like an outtake from Forever Changes? I think the point isn't that Sherman Baker likes to borrow from sources--excellent and varied sources, by the way--it's that it doesn't make him unoriginal as much as it just puts him in a class of traditional songwriters who value melody, decent and poetic lyrics and a willingness to bounce around amid different genres and succeed at each one.
By the way, the Bongos recently reunited and played a few gigs at their old Hoboken haunts. Richard Barone announced that an unreleased 1986 album titled Phantom Train would be released in October 2013, but I haven't checked to see if he followed through on that yet. After listening to Sherman Baker, I pulled out Numbers with Wings and traveled to some more happy places and wondered how fun it would be to see Sherman open for Richard. Would they nod knowingly at each other? I'd like to be there just to find out.
Saturday, November 30, 2013
My latest column is now online in the latest issue of Perfect Sound Forever. It's time for my annual wrap-up issue, where I choose the best LP releases and reissues, as well as Cartridge, Phono Stage and Turntable of the Year. You can read it here. Enjoy!
Friday, November 29, 2013
Fellow music scribe Kurt Wildermuth, who also writes for Perfect Sound Forever among many other publications, just emailed me to let me know his latest article has just gone live on the Pop Matters website. Titled "Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector," this piece is one of the most insightful and well-written articles I've read about why people like Kurt and me still listen to vinyl.
What I wasn't expecting is the final section of the article, which talks about some of the email exchanges Kurt and I've had over the last year or two about finding an ideal vintage turntable and getting it up to spec. I'm proud and thrilled to have helped Kurt out with his project!
You can read the article here, and I hope you'll take the time to explore Kurt's writings on the Perfect Sound Forever website!
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
When the gentleman in the FIM room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest pointed to the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach CD and told me I should grab it because they were going fast, I suspected it was mere salesmanship. "There are only a couple left!" he exclaimed. Since I wasn't familiar with Jacques Loussier, much less this recording, I smiled politely and made another selection. When Dan Muzquiz visited the FIM room later that day and returned with it, I said, "Oh, that's the one I was supposed to buy...let's give it a spin and see what I missed out on."
Dan, of course, was familiar with the Play Bach recordings--J.S. Bach standards such as Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Air on a G String and Joy of Man's Desiring played by a jazz trio--and was surprised that I opted to purchase something else. After just a few seconds of listening, I realized my mistake and headed back to the FIM room and purchased the second to last copy. That's when I realized that no salesmanship was involved, and that The Best of Play Bach was the hot recording to play at RMAF.
To be succinct, the hi-rez FIM version of this already stellar recording is flat-out one of the best reference CDs I've ever heard...dynamic, realistic, intimate and exciting. Loussier started recording his take on Bach classics in 1959, and this recording is a compilation that was originally released by Telarc in 2004. Despite the long timespan involved, these recording sound so consistent from one selection to the next--as if they were collected in the same sessions. While the novelty of the arrangements is probably the most noteworthy aspect of these recordings, what really impresses me the forward, robust sound of the piano and how everything--the pedal work, the decay, the sweep of the board--is captured so well. If you're one of those audiophiles who evaluates gear by how well the sound of a grand piano is reproduced, this will quickly become your standard.
As I said in my review of the other FIM recording I bought at RMAF, Happy Coat, this recording is a flashy show-stopper rather than a piece to relax by, and I slightly prefer the Shota Osabe recording for its warmth and comforting sound. But if you want to impress your audiophile buddies, The Best of Play Bach, will certainly get the job done. These FIM recordings are simply amazing when it comes to proving that there's still hope for redbook CD playback in 2013.
Friday, November 22, 2013
It's taken me a whole week to post photos of last weekend's Music Night Event at Blackbird Audio Gallery. First of all, I was exhausted by a series of connecting flights from Western Colorado to San Diego that included everything from massive turbulence over the Rockies to sitting on the tarmac for a couple of hours while the pilot and the tower argued about the best flight path. I love to fly, but this trip aged me. I needed a few days to decompress.
Add a busy work week, a laptop virus and snowy weather, and that's why it's taken me so long to post photos. The first photo above was taken a couple of days before the event, just after Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio had everything set up and running. He decided to match the PureAudio Reference monoblock amplifiers (65-70wpc, pure Class A) with the Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh loudspeakers, with Cardas Audio Clear cabling all around. Dan has many excellent speakers in his showroom, but he felt the amazing Pharaohs were the best overall match. Once I arrived in San Diego, I totally agreed.
Here's a close-up of our beautiful PureAudio References. All of PureAudio's current line of amplifiers are pure Class A with true dual-mono construction, non-magnetic and non-resonant chasses as well as a fascinating mix of simple circuits and sophisticated features. For instance, you might think that a pair of 70wpc Class A monoblock amplifiers might run very hot, but two large and completely silent fans just beneath the faceplate keeps these amplifiers relatively cool, with only those slanted heat sinks in front getting warm.
Along with the amps and speakers, Dan chose a system that included a Bel Canto CD transport and DAC, a Basis Signature turntable with matching tonearm and the new flagship cartridge from Transfiguration, the Proteus. We used a Basis/Transfiguration Proteus combo at Rocky Mountain last month, so I'm very familiar with this analog rig's high level of performance. On the right you can see the PureAudio Control preamplifier and Vinyl preamplifer.
The Control and the Vinyl also feature that mix of simplicity and sophistication. You'll notice that the Control has only one knob on the front--for volume. The four line level inputs are selected automatically according to the presence of a signal. If you have two sources running simultaneously, the Control prioritizes them according to number (input 1, input 2, etc.). I've spoken about the Vinyl a number of times, but one feature I love is the gain setting, or lack thereof. The Vinyl offers 62 dB of gain with plenty of headroom, so the amount of gain seems perfect for almost every cartridge. In fact, I've switched between a high-output moving magnet with an output of 3.5mV to a low-output moving coil with an output of 0.4mV and didn't have to change any of the settings, even the loading (both cartridges, amazing enough, loved to be run wide open at 47K ohms). There are plenty of loading options on the Vinyl, however--47 ohms to 47K.
One more feature is the series of 12V triggers that can be used between the Control and the Reference monoblocks. This allows for home theater bypass as well as a synch-ing up the three amps so that you can power everything on with one power button.
Here's a close-up of the Basis and the Transfiguration. The Vinyl is absolutely one of my favorite phono preamps of all time--that's why we decided to carry the PureAudio line. (I know, I've said that before, but I really believe in this gear!) The Basis/Configuration/PureAudio combo is an exquisite match. as I discovered last year when I put a Transfiguration Phoenix on my Unison Research Giro turntable back home.
The event wasn't just about PureAudio and me. Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic brought their little Geek to the event. The Geek is an interface between your headphones and your laptop (they're also ready to introduce a larger desktop version of the Geek)--it's basically an amp and a DAC in a very small package. Here's Gavin demonstrating the Geek for Dave Clark of Positive Feedback Online.
Here's a photo to give you an idea of how small the Geek is. Listening through a pair of the Cardas Audio EM5813 ear speakers, I found that the Geek provided a huge, powerful sound with plenty of bass and an amazing level of clarity. I also listen to a pair of Ultrasone headphones and found the combination comfortable, relaxing and incredibly open.
Here's host Dan Muzquiz cueing up the Basis. He was incredibly pleased that we had a full house for most of the evening, but there was still plenty of room to sit, relax and listen to this outstanding hi-fi system. The food, by the way, was excellent.
The PureAudio products, with their distinct styling, beg to be touched and fondled. Here's San Diego audiophile Erik Tracy getting a closer look at the Reference monoblocks. I invited members of the Steve Hoffman Forum to stop by, and Erik was the only one who came up and introduced himself. I was far too busy to really spend time with Erik, but he seemed to enjoy the food, the music and the gear.
Finally, I was amazed at how many of my good friends in the industry showed up and supported our event. That's me seated, probably smoking one of the three cigars I had that evening, surrounded by audio reviewer Andre Marc, Dave Clark, cigar buddy/audiophile David Aitken, Audio Strata's David Neilson and audio reviewer Steve Lefkowicz. I look forward to doing many more dealer events in the coming year--they're easily the best part of my job!
Wednesday, November 13, 2013
We've firmed up some of the details for Saturday's Music Night event at Blackbird Audio Gallery in the San Diego area. First of all, the event will start at 3pm and run until midnight or so. That means you can stop by anytime, check out the PureAudio gear, grab some snacks and perhaps an adult beverage and listen to some fantastic music. I always try to avoid promoting my business too much on my blog, but I absolutely love the pure Class A PureAudio gear. I'm proud to represent it and I can't wait to hear it all at Dan's.
These first two photos are of the stunning PureAudio Reference monoblocks--65 watts per channel of pure Class A sound--all set up at Blackbird Audio Gallery. We'll also have the Control preamp which sports a single knob on its faceplate--volume--because the inputs are automatically selected based on the signal. PureAudio gear is amazing for both its technical sophistication AND its minimalist design. We'll also have the Vinyl phono preamp in the system, which is my absolute favorite phono pre under $10K. Dan Muzquiz has everything hooked up to Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh speakers right now, and he's in love with the sound.
We're going to be joined by our good friends Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic (that's Dan and Gavin in the photo). Light Harmonic makes the incredible Da Vinci DAC and transport, which I think is easily one of the best digital playback systems available, if not THE best. Light Harmonic has also been developing some very, very innovative products of late, including the Geek--a DSD-capable USB DAC that's just a little bit bigger than a thumb drive.
If you are in the San Diego area and you want to attend Music Night this Saturday, November 16, check out the event page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/vinyl.anachronist#!/events/767885326570852/. I hope to see everyone there!
Dean Peer just sent me an email to inform me that his new website is up and running. You can check it out at www.deanpeerbass.com.
Dean's been actively performing over the last few months with his drummer Bret Mann. The new website has details on upcoming shows, and you can directly order some of Dean's amazing recordings. He's currently working on a new project, and I've heard some of the tracks he's laid down...they're very different than his past work. You can get updates on this project through the website as well!
Saturday, November 9, 2013
Next Saturday night, November 16th, I will be visiting with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery in Santee, California, to demonstrate the entire line of PureAudio amplifiers from New Zealand. This is another one of Dan's fantastic Music Night events--the last time we did this I was just a blogger from Texas and not the US distributor of six different brands of hi-fi equipment. (That event, held back in 2011, was to debut Dean Peer's album Airborne). We will have the Vinyl phono preamplifier, Control preamplifier and Reference monoblocks that see you in the picture above. Dan will also have additional guests there...TBA.
Dan was our first PureAudio dealer in the US, and we're proud to have him as a partner for this event. This is the first time we've had all of the PureAudio products in one room since the New York show last June, so I'm looking forward to hearing these extraordinary products before we have to send send them back to John Atkinson--he needs to finish his Stereophile review!
If you live in the San Diego area--or anywhere in Southern California and beyond--and you want to attend Music Night, contact Dan at 619-449-2787 to RSVP, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also check the Blackbird Audio Gallery website for more updates on the event over the next few days.
Thursday, November 7, 2013
Oh, the temptation of having a convenient source of high-quality audiophile music just a couple of doors down from your exhibit room. That was my dilemma at last month's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest--the First Impression Music (FIM) room was two doors down, and it was so easy to run down there for a few minutes and choose a title to play in our system. I've talked about FIM before--I've reviewed both the hi-rez redbook CD versions of the Three Blind Mice sampler and Getz/Gilberto here and here. In the last two years I've brought both of those amazing CDs to every trade show I've attended. They're spectatcular demo pieces that never fail to hypnotize the show attendees.
I kept it down to two FIM CDs--The Shota Osabe Piano Trio's Happy Coat and the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach. I could have easily bought every title they had for sale--easily 40 or 50--but that would have cost a fortune. (They were on sale at the show for $30 to $60 each.) Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, our dealer that we were representing at the show, wound up buying at least six or seven. Once you listen to the smooth yet extraordinarily detailed sound quality of these hi-rez redbook CDs, it's hard to keep your credit card in your wallet. They're downright addictive.
I bought the Jacques Lossier Trio CD (which I'll review next) because it was the recommendation du jour--so many rooms at RMAF were using it. Sure, it's spectacularly dynamic and the performance is legendary, but Happy Coat was the one that ultimately won my heart. At first the Shota Osabe Piano Trio sounds like a typical Three Blind Mice group...until you see that pianist Osabe-san is joined by Ray Brown on bass and Harold Jones on drums. What makes this 2002 resording so special is that it was Ray Brown's second to last recorded performance--he died 123 days after this was captured in a Japanese studio. This album of standards (including "In the Still of the Night," "This Is All I Ask," and even "I Saw Her Standing There") is full of warmth and richness, so much so that the first thought that popped in my head upon my initial listen was "round as a plum." Happy Coat is absolutely juicy and sweet and comforting.
Here's how good the sound quality of this 2008 remastered version of Happy Coat is: it became a default disc for me at RMAF. Whenever I couldn't decide what I wanted to play next, I just put it in. I knew it would sound great, it would mesmerize the crowds and I could concentrate on other business. In most cases, however, I was compelled to forget about business and sit down and listen and enjoy. Happy Coat makes me very happy indeed.
Friday, November 1, 2013
I didn't have high hopes for Arcade Fire's new double album, Reflektor, after I heard a few snippets during a recent NPR news feature. As far as I was concerned, this Montreal band was on a downward spiral after the empty Grammy-winning success of 2010's The Suburbs. Their 2004 debut, Funeral, was so emotionally satisfying that it instantly became a personal favorite. 2006's Neon Bible had quite a few high points but didn't quite match the stunning consistency of its predecessor. The Suburbs started off with a couple of memorable tunes, but everything afterward was forgettable. I started to sense that the band was harboring a dark secret, that a dozen musicians playing three-chord songs could make the music seem much more complex than it really was.
Then Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the married couple that fronts Arcade Fire, did an interesting thing--they went down to Regine's native country, Haiti, and soaked it all in for a while. They came back invigorated in a way that reminds me of David Bowie and his Berlin Trilogy, namely, that we traveled the world and hear a lot and soaked it all up like a sponge and now here it is--new, unlike anything you've heard, albeit made up of familiar parts. Reflektor is equal parts disco and Haitian rara music. I'm not talking about the bad disco we all hated back in the '70s, but rich and distinctive dance music that made you forget about dance music and just made you want to dance.
Think of albums such as Fear of Music and early New Order and you'll know what I mean. Reflektor might be locked into a groove, but that doesn't mean the music is bereft of great musical ideas and deep thoughts. This new album is unusually dense, despite the fact that Arcade has pared their unusually large collaboration down to six band members and rely more on studio effects than big, busy arrangements. Each member now has to step it up and make everything sound more like a tight, talented ensemble--take the Johnny Marr-esque guitars in songs such as "You Already Know" and "Joan of Arc," for instance, or the increased vocal interplay between Win and Regine.
If Reflektor does have a glaring fault, it's in the lyrics. I suspect the band is suffering from Coldplayitis--stunning music that's designed to cover up some downright banal phrasing. You can't come up with couplets like "You're down on your knees/and begging us please" or repeatedly sing "Here comes the night" without taking some flak. I know they have it in 'em--just revisit Funeral for a multitude of examples. But it's a happy event when an intriguing band re-invents themselves and challenges long-time fans to keep up the pace a la Kid A. It's even better when it has a good beat and you can dance to it.
Monday, October 28, 2013
"Mono kicks ass!"
Bob Clarke was right. As soon as I brought the Analogue Production CD/SACD reissue of Ella and Louis Again into our room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest earlier this month, I knew Chad Kassem had another winner on his hands. Between Chad's Analogue Productions record label, 2L Recordings and FIM, the audiophile market is flooded with great reissues right now. It's certainly risky to play mono recordings at trade shows--one of those sit-down-for-three-and-a-half-seconds audiophiles might drop by and then proceed to tell his all his buddies that the sound in the room was compressed and that the soundstage seemed awfully narrow. For me it takes a few seconds for a mono recording to register in my brain--especially one that sounds as good as this one. Listening to a beautiful mono recording like Ella and Louis Again is like viewing an Ansel Adams print. Sure, it's in black and white, but look at all that amazing detail!
I've been joking for the last few weeks that among audiophiles, this seems to be the Year of Ella Fitzgerald. Once I purchased the Analogue Productions CD/SACD of Clap Hands Here Comes Charlie! a few months ago, it seems like I've been hearing her everywhere--not just at trade shows. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because there are so many great Ella reissues out on audiophile labels right now--including this disc's predecessor, 1956's Ella and Louis, which Chad released not too long ago. I've jumped on the Ella bandwagon as well, and I've been a sucker for all things Satchmo for at least the last decade, so buying this exquisite 1957 mono recording seemed to make perfect sense even if the occasional show attendee didn't quite get it.
Yes, this album kicks ass. Look at the line-up...aside from Ella and Mr. Armstrong, you have Ray Brown on bass, Oscar Peterson on piano, Louis Bellson on drums and Herb Ellis on guitar. Does it get any better than this? When you hear an excellent recording with stellar performers creating one-of-a-kind performances, you're instantly shoved into a time machine and transported to back to the recording event. When the recording is in mono (or even on a pristine 78 rpm disc), those quaint technologies add a stunning patina to the surface. It's like seeing a daguerrotype of a long-dead historical figure and seeing through the scratches and the blemishes and saying to yourself, "My God, that's really them!"
It certainly helps when someone comes along a squeezes even more life out of the artifact while gently wiping off a layer of dust. I'm sure there are plenty of vinylphiles like me who would rather have a mint copy of the first Verve pressing of Ella and Louis Again, but I'm sure that would cost a fortune. For $30, you can have something that either comes awfully close, or completely
surpasses the original, depending on your format prejudices.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
It's a real thrill to be contacted directly by a musician about an upcoming release, as opposed to publicists or record labels. Case in point: a couple of weeks ago I received a Facebook message from folk singer Robert Sarazin Black about his new semi-eponymous album, accompanied by a friend request. Would I send him my address? Hell yes! I reviewed his 2009 album, The Air Your Lungs Forced Out, for TONEAudio at the behest of one of my favorite publicists (which you can read here). Last year, Robert contacted me directly to review his amazing beat-poet manifesto Put It All Down in a Letter, and I later chose it as one of my favorite albums of 2012 for Perfect Sound Forever. Fortunately he remembered my praise and asked if I would check out his newest release. A simple manila envelope was in my mailbox when I returned from RMAF last week.
Here's how real Robert Sarazin Blake is--the CD was accompanied by a note. Not a form letter from the record company or a publicist, but an actual note that was typed out on a manual typewriter--as you can see below. Listening to these three albums, and many others he has recorded over the years, you'll get the sense that he's a throwback just like his typewriter, a man who still travels constantly in search of the next gig. Via email, Robert wasn't content to say thanks for the review--he asked my about my newly adopted Colorado town and asked if there were any decent places to play. I'd love to see him perform on the sparsely-populated Western Slope, and I'm sure he's played in many places with far fewer people.
Robt Sarazin Blake, the new album, is a huge surprise. In his last few albums, Blake has stressed his collaboration with his backing band and created an impromptu yet fleshed out sound. Here he's largely alone, just him and his trusty 1978 Martin D-35, with the most spare of accompaniment (most notably Jacob Silver on double bass, Jefferson Hamer and Daniel Zane Maroti on guitars, Robin McMillan on congas, Eamon O'Leary on bouzouki and Anais Mitchell's lovely backing vocals on the touching "Our Winter on New York"). While his singing style remains influenced by the Phil Ochs School of Dry, Plaintive and Political, there's a relaxed loveliness to it that suggests a renewed confidence in his striking vision.
The surprise, of course, is what a beautiful collection of music this is. Blake seems to be traveling backward through time on the last few albums--The Air Your Lungs Forced Out seemed very much a product of the Portland music scene's 2009 infatuation with all things Americana, but Put It All Down in a Letter reached backward toward Ferlinghetti, Kerouac and Ginsberg and was clearly evocative of the day when traveling musicians played to survive and eat their next meal or two. This album, however, resurrects the ghost of Woody Guthrie with its purity and commitment. The nostalgic aspect of Blake's music is gone and he feels as if he's truly singing for the New Depression.
If I had to pick out one stand-out tune, it would be "Sister." Blake laments the fact that his sister went off to fight in the Army, putting a perverse spin on the equal-opportunity joy that was fostered by long-awaited okay of women in combat. There's a sad flip-side to it all, exemplified by a chorus that states "when my sister joined the Army, my mother's heart'd fell/down to the bottom of a dark ancient well." And for those looking for another one of Blake's epic trademark poems there's "Ghosts on Bedford Ave," where he continually wonders if he's chasing the old ghosts of his pasts or if they're chasing him.
It's with amazement that I note it's almost November and I'll have to start thinking about my favorite releases of 2013. Quite frankly, there have been very few. For all of its unheralded beauty and honesty, Robt Sarazin Blake sits at the top of the heap. While there's no current release date, it would be a shame if people had to wait until 2014 to hear Blake at his most serene and inspired.
Friday, October 18, 2013
One of my relatives just donated 20 or so unwanted CDs to my collection; it was mostly classical titles, so I figured why not. Amid those classical CDs I found a lone Kenny G CD and I recoiled in horror. "I now have a Kenny G CD in my collection!" I exclaimed, breaking out into a cold sweat and wondering if I should just bury it in my backyard before anyone noticed. I instantly traveled back in time to 1987, when I still lived in Virginia Beach. A friend of mine, upon seeing my eclectic music collection, told me he also liked jazz, you know, "like Kenny G." I recoiled in horror then as well. I'm sure Kenny G is a nice enough guy--he's in one of those funny "feel better?" Snickers commercials and he does that awesome circular breathing thing--but lite jazz is definitely not my thing. I even have a couple of awesome Kenny G jokes at my disposal for when the subject comes up.
I'm only mentioning all this because Jane Ira Bloom is, perhaps, the anti-Kenny G. I've listened to a couple of seasoned musicians discuss why they liked Kenny G so intensely, and one of them mentioned how easy it was to play the soprano sax. "It takes relatively little air to hit the notes," he explained, which seemed to suggest that Kenny G didn't put forth an effort. I don't buy that; it's a matter of taste and that's it. Listening to Jane Ira Bloom will convince you otherwise--she infuses so many complex emotions into her music that you simply can't absorb its sheer loveliness into your being, you have to ponder it deeply. On her new album, Sixteen Sunsets, Bloom tricks you into thinking you're listening to serene, gorgeous selections from the "Great American Songbook" that are meant to be listened at dusk. But the silence that surrounds her gorgeous notes are brimming with an unease and longing you won't discover while listening to something like "Songbird."
In other words, Bloom is the thinking person's soprano sax player. While her playing on Sixteen Sunsets is presented in a pure, straightforward manner, she does have a reputation for manipulating the sounds of her sax through electronic means. She also famous for her novel interactions with the band that surrounds her--in this case it's pianist Dominic Fallacaro, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Matt Wilson--and she has once said that "Sometimes I throw sound around the band like paint and at other times I play and feel as if I was carving silence like a sculptor." That's a pretty helpful guide to approaching the 14 cuts on Sixteen Sunsets--Bloom constantly moves while she performs, and her performances here were captured in a rare hi-rez 5.1 surround recording session that included an array of microphones placed to track her movements.
That's the real news here. Sixteen Sunsets is a truly 3D sound experience that is meant to elevate Bloom and her band through the latest technologies--Blu-ray, surround, DTS, etc.--without sacrificing the beauty of the core performances. Pure Audio Records, who just released the Blu-ray Audio version a couple of weeks ago and also offers Sixteen Sunsets in FLAC, WAV and MP3 files, is known for employing cutting edge recording technologies. It's a singular thrill to hear classic songs as "The Way You Look Tonight" and "I Loves You Porgy" delivered with such a pristine, magical and downright futuristic presence. If I could travel back to 1987 and meet with my jazz-loving friend from Virginia, I'd play Sixteen Sunsets for him and show him the infinite possibilities of the soprano sax.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
I'm back from the 2013 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver. This year's meet--the tenth annual, by the way--seemed a little quiet compared to past years, but perhaps that's because we were on the second floor of the tower, which seemed like an orphan since it was so isolated from the action on the seventh through the eleventh floors. Still, CCI had a productive show...we added a dealer or two as well as a new product line. I'll elaborate on that in a couple of days on the CCI website.
Once again we shared our room with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and Bob Clarke of Profundo, so we set up two systems side by side and switched them every hour on the hour. It never failed that as soon as we switched over, someone would come into the room and request a tune or two on the other system. In addition, I was without Colleen's help for the first two days of the show--it's getting busy at CCI these days--so I had to rely on Dan and Bob's help more than usual.
With every trade show that we do--and this was our sixth of 2013--there's always one particular component that emerges as the star. This year it was the Opera Callas loudspeaker, which seemed to defy physics in terms of low bass output. Last year we used the floorstanding Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers and were vexed by the lack of deep bass in the room--it was almost as if someone disconnected the woofers. It took plenty of tweaking late into the night before the show to coax the lowest frequencies from those five-inch woofers. With the Callas speakers, however, the bass was deep and impressive as soon as they were plugged in. Since we were once again sharing with Blackbird Audio Gallery and Profundo, we had to place the Operas in front of the big floorstanding Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs--and everyone was convinced that they were subwoofers. No, all that bass (the Callas is rated down to 32 Hz, amazingly enough) was coming from the little Operas.
Quite a few show attendees were curious and initially critical of the five--count 'em, five--tweeters on the small but beautifully finished Callas. Most visitors were very aware of the Callas review a couple of months ago in Stereophile, and John Atkinson's follow-up in this month's issue as well. JA was very skeptical of the use of two tweeters above and below the SEAS woofer, and of the "triplet" array of tweeters on the back panel--I think his exact words were "It shouldn't work!"--but his measurements supported reviewer John marks' enthusiastic review. As a result, almost every "serious" visitor to the room walked behind the Callas to see those extra drivers.
Here's the crazy thing--the Callas has been around since the '90s. It was reviewed in Stereophile by Sam Tellig many years ago. It hasn't changed that much since then...perhaps new drivers and a few improvements here and there, but it's been the same basic design for close to two decades. Yet everyone thinks the Callas (and its big brother, the Grand Callas) is sporting some revolutionary new design.
Finding an amp for the Callas proved to be the real challenge. We planned on debuting the new Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier at RMAF, but it didn't quite make it to CCI headquarters on time. We plan on showing it at CES in January, complete with its optional USB DAC feature. So we decided to bring in the gorgeous push-pull P40 integrated amplifier instead. This is the first one we've brought into the US, although it's been selling well in Europe for several years. It features a stunning Murano glass faceplate that really captures and reflects the light when placed properly in the room. Since the glass is hand-blown, each faceplate is slightly different from the next one. Unfortunately, a bad EL34 tube flared up and we didn't have a replacement tube until our Denver dealer, Blu Note Audio, helped out. By the time we got the new tube in, the P40's replacement was already impressing the crowds--so we left everything as is and showed the P40 in a static display right at the entrance of the room.
The P40's replacement was a seemingly modest Unison Research Unico Nuovo, part of the hybrid amplifier line. I brought it as a back-up amp, yet it shined in the RMAF spotlight. The Nuovo was just reviewed by Marvin Bolden of StereoMojo (review to appear very soon); he was so impressed he bought the unit. Here you see the Nuovo paired with my trusty Unico CDE CD player--the same one I've been using in my system for over two years, and the same one we've used at probably a dozen shows. I know CDs are fading away, but this is still one of my favorite players out there.
One of the highlights of the show occured when Dean Peer popped into our room, plugged in his bass and started playing for the attendees. Too bad he was only there for about twenty minutes.
The other system in the room was also very impressive. Bob Clarke brought in his usual battery of pint-sized Heed Audio components from Hungary--preamp, power supplies, phono stage, monoblock amps, DAC and transport, all small enough to take up a single shelf. But if you know Heed, you know that it's small but mighty. The turntable is the awesome Basis 2500 Signature, mated with the Basis unipivot arm and the new flagship Transfiguration Proteus cartridge. The speakers, like last year, are the Trenner & Friedl Pharaohs, but this time they're in a striking pure white finish.
Before we left Denver, Colleen and I headed over to Blu Note Audio for a visit with Brandon Howell, the owner. Blu Note is our Unison Research dealer in Denver, and they've spent the last year building a state-of-the-art home entertainment and automation store that's truly impressive. I immediately saw two of our Unison amps--the S6 and the Simply Italy--sitting in a place of honor along the main wall of the showroom. I've never seen the Simply Italy with the cherry faceplate before...this was the first one we brought into the US. The S6, also in cherry, looked great right next to it. I told Brandon about the new Triode 25, and he's getting one of the first units. I told him to place it right between the two other amps.
The nicest thing about RMAF 2013 is that we only had to drive five hours back to Western Colorado, as opposed to 20 hours back to Texas. It snowed while we headed over Vail Pass, but it wasn't dangerous--just breathtakingly beautiful. Now that we're back home, Colleen and I are already planning CES as well as a PureAudio dealer event next month at Blackbird Audio Gallery. In addition, we have a new product line to promote. But I do want to thank Dan and Bob for making this year's RMAF run so smoothly, and I can't wait until next year!