Tuesday, June 25, 2013
Vinyl Anachronist: Let me just start off by saying thanks to Colleen, who saw me bitching on Facebook about the loss of my Edith Frost Telescopic CD and then jumped onto Amazon.com and bought me a new copy.
New Edith Frost Telescopic CD: Yes...you don't deserve her.
VA: I know, I know.
EF: Shame on you anyway for losing your original Edith Frost Telescopic CD. Haven't you learned anything about lending CDs to friends? Have you ever gotten a CD back from a friend? There was the girl back at Frank's Nursery & Crafts who borrowed your Alanis Morrisette Jagged Little Pill CD back in the early '90s, but that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
VA:Yeah, I just liked the one song.
EF: Then you lent your ex-father-in-law your Bill Hicks CDs and suddenly he decided they were his. That was fun.
VA: I still have trouble watching old clips of Bill--I always think of my CDs and how I'll never laugh again.
EF: So, once again, what do you say when someone wants to borrow a CD?
VA: "Support the artist! Buy your own copy!"
EF: Exactly. So now that you're lucky enough to own me once again, what questions do you have?
VA: Well, I suppose the first is obvious. What happened to Edith? Why didn't she become a huge star, or at least develop a nice cult following?
EF: I suppose that had something to do with you losing your CD those many years ago, so you haven't been playing it for random people at trade shows and having them say, "Wow! Who's that? Where can I get a copy?" But Edith's still around, making music. She's likes to hang out on YouTube and make videos of herself composing songs and trying them out for her fans. It's pretty darned cute.
VA: I bet. Did she come out with any other albums than Telescopic?
EF: Four albums, three EPs and a compilation disc. But if you're going to discover the greatness of Edith Frost, Telescopic is the best place to start. You remember the first time you heard that CD back in 1998?
VA: Of course! I subscribed to CMJ back then and one of the songs from the album--"Are You Sure?"--was on the CD sampler and I went bonkers for that. Back then my allergic reaction to hearing country-and-western music was intense; I was still a few months away from hearing Lucinda Williams' Car Wheels on a Gravel Road for the first time. Telescopic was such an easy entry point for me, super-psychedelic and trippy but the songs followed a basic country formula that was true and honest and sincere. When I embraced that album, I felt like a whole world of music had opened up for me.
EF: You should see her live. She played in Longmont, Colorado earlier this year. On her website she said, "I'm practicing like crazy. Haven't played live in about 25 years, but the pipes and the hands still seem to be working." She has a website, you know. You should probably follow it.
VA: I will.
EF: By the way, I noticed you've played me twice in a row. Maybe you should just stick the CD in the player in the car and listen to it for a year-and-a-half, like you did with Janelle Monae and the Black Keys.
VA: Well, I missed you!
EF: I missed you, too. Just don't lend me out again. Make everyone buy their own copy, okay?
EF: Any other questions?
VA: Uh...can I get you on LP?
EF: Shut up.
It's been quite a while since I received some vinyl from 2L Recordings in Norway--which is a shame because there's so darned good. Not that I'm complaining about the Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD hybrid discs I've been getting on a regular basis. These new digital formats sound so good that I've stopped thinking "Boy, I bet this would sound great on LP." But I'm obviously a vinyl guy--hence the name of this blog--and I do have my biases. In addition, 2L does an exceptional job with their vinyl releases, thanks to pressings that are "DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180g audiophile grade vinyl 33 1/3 rpm" versions.
So far I've received three LPs from Morten Lindberg of 2L: the two volumes of the exceptional Souvenir recordings (see my reviews here and here) and the splendid Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night (which you can read about here). It's no surprise that all three of these recordings were nominated for Grammys.
Needless to say, I was elated when the latest shipment from "Norge" came in a big, flat piece of cardboard as opposed to a padded shipping envelope. Records! When I looked inside, I found new copies of Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations (which I reviewed here) and Jan Gunnar Hoff's Living (which I reviewed here). Of course my first response was "format comparison time!" That's what I've done every time I've received a 2L recording in more than one format, whether it be LP, redbook CD, CD/SACD hybrid or Blu-ray.
I did the comparisons, of course, and came to the same conclusions as before. The Blu-ray sounds dead silent, eerily so, and has a smoothness through the treble that's almost preternatural. If you've been listening to redbook CDs and then you switch to Blu-ray, you might think that you're losing and gaining something simultaneously. You're losing a bit of air and presence, especially in the upper ranges, but at the same time the entire presentation sounds so more relaxed, soothing and surprisingly detailed. The CD/SACD hybrid discs gain a little more air in the treble of course. Also--and this may be far more relevant to me than to anyone else--the CD/SACD has a balance that's just more familiar to my ears. When I listen to Blu-ray, my first impression is to feel like there's something alien about the experience, that it's different to the very core. It's how I felt the first time I heard a CD back in 1982. This is cool, but different. I'm not used to this.
Going from the little discs to the big black discs, the differences are surprisingly minimal--especially when it comes to the ol' rematch of CD vs. LP. I'm going to go out on a limb here--and perhaps ask Morten Lindberg for an assist--but they're using these amazingly hi-rez files for the LP masters, so wouldn't these files sound pretty much the same in any format? You know, it's the old "bits are bits are bits" argument. I know that converting to an analog format should make a very basic sonic difference, but remember a few years ago when it was revealed that some new LP pressings were actually sourced from a CD "master"? If you heard one of these, you'll know what I mean when I say they sounded like CDs--but with surface noise.
With these 2L LP recordings, it's the flip side. We're now talking about a very superior-sounding digital mastering that has been transferred to LP through a direct metal master--direct to disc, which is the best way to cut an LP. The sound quality is simply astonishing on every level, although--and I have mentioned this before--that these 2L LPs will sound nothing like your original RCA Shaded Dogs. The 2Ls offer incredible, almost infinite detail and equally extended dynamics. These are LPs for those lost souls who sold their record collections before anyone else, in the mid-'80s when CDs first arrived, and are now wondering if it's time to rediscover LPs. The 2Ls will drive that point home like nothing else in the marketplace.
My observation, however, is this: I think the LP and the CD/SACD hybrid discs of these two titles sound almost identical. I went back and forth, and with the exception of surface noise (note: there is generally very little of that on a new 2L pressing, so it's not an issue) it's hard to tell the difference. If I did manage to hear a sonic difference, I suspect it was because of the hardware and not the software. In other words, my digital player and my analog rigs are made by the same company, but that doesn't mean they sound the same. Those, I believe, are the only differences I heard, the ones due to the machines playing the music.
What does that mean? Should you just buy the Blu-ray/CD/SACD package and forget about the vinyl? Absolutely not! If you have a monster analog rig, you should go with the LP and never look back. These are some of the best LP pressings ever. But unless your digital rig and your analog rig offer very different sonic presentations, I'm not sure that you need to run out and buy both--although it would definitely help 2L Recordings if you did. So don't sweat which format to buy--just make yourself happy. And these fascinating recordings will do just that.
Saturday, June 22, 2013
Remember the photo at the very bottom? That was the crazy, beautiful vinyl LP I received from the Portland band White Orange about two-and-a-half years ago--I reviewed it here. I just received the band's new EP titled Onawa--which features just three songs but still clocks in at 25 minutes long--but unfortunately it's just a CD. Kaytea, the band's publicist, did tell me that it will be available on vinyl. Maybe I read it wrong, but I think she said it will be available only on vinyl, which makes me wonder why I now have a CD of it. Nevertheless, the LP will come out on my birthday, August 6, so happy birthday to me--if I get a big, flat cardboard package sent to me, that is.
When I reviewed that last LP back in 2011, I didn't really know who White Orange was. They were one of those bands that surrounded themselves with mystery, and I remember having a tough time writing the review because there simply wasn't very much information on them online. I definitely sensed a "we're a band who wants the music to speak for us" vibe, so I left it alone. Afterward, I heard from a lot of people who told me they were HUGE fans of White Orange, and that I really needed to see them live to "get it." I never did see them, but I have noticed that the ranks of White Orange fans have grown considerably over the last couple of years. Part of that is because singer Dustin Hill and drummer Dean Carroll also play for Black Pussy, another Portland band that has been reviewed in this blog. (For the record, Ryan McIntyre and Adam Pike handle guitars and bass, respectively.) Both bands seem to be developing parallel yet symbiotic followings.
Overall, the two bands both embrace hard rock, psychedelia, a '70s feel and healthy appetite for weed (look at all those lovely potted plants in the profile pic on White Orange's Facebook page). The difference is that Black Pussy has an almost punk sound straight from the late '70s, lean and aggressive and basic and fast, while White Orange is a big, turgid maelstrom of fist-pumping power. It's a matter of tempo, perhaps, but Black Pussy has more of an immediate appeal, while White Orange requires that you be consumed with the enormous, million-gallon tank of sound--you'll have it all sorted out by the time you float to the top.
In other words, the three songs on Onawa are dense yet simple, basic riffs, a minimal melody that's differentiated more by licks than scales. It is a wall of sound at first, but repeated listenings do pay off. You'll be tested on the final track of three, the epic eleven-minute plus "...and I Leave the Circus," where you'll wonder just how long the band can repeat that riff, and how ballsy it is to do so, but then you'll noticed the slowly evolving textures and realize something much deeper is going on.
I've said this before, but this is heavy and somewhat primitive stuff, but primitive in an extremely clever way. I know that White Orange isn't being especially subtle about the fact that they're making stoner music in 2013--good old fashioned stoner music, that is--but there's something valiant in that. I'm watching so many people I know freak out under the stress of our crazy world--terrorist bombings, political divisiveness, mass killings--and so maybe we're repeating the '60s and tearing everything to pieces before we grab a few roles of duct tape. White Orange seems to be saying c'mon everybody, let's just skip ahead to 1972 or so and kick back and chill out for a while. It's gonna be okay.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
I can't believe it's been more than six weeks since Colleen and I visited with Jeremy and Carolina Kipnis at their home in rural Connecticut. That home, of course, is the location of the famous Kipnis Studio Standard (KSS) facility, perhaps the most awesome home theater installment on the face of the earth. Colleen and I had stopped by after the New York Audio Show at the beginning of May to drop off a pair of MAD Baron loudspeakers for Jeremy to review. We hooked them up, made sure everything sounded right, and then the four of us headed to back patio for some breakfast.
If you know Jeremy and Carolina, whether it's personally or from their very entertaining Facebook pages, you'll know that they're fun, fun people. Jeremy, of course, is the son of piano and harpsichord legend Igor Kipnis, and is well-established on his own as a writer, music and film producer and the proud designer of KSS. Carolina is an opera singer and well-known voice instructor. She also happens to share Colleen's obsession with bacon, and we were treated to a porcine masterpiece for breakfast--beautiful, lean center-cut bacon brushed with real maple syrup and lovingly cooked in an oven. It was perhaps the best bacon I've eaten, and I've gorged on some damn fine pork belly in my life.
We were also joined by the equally famous Nero Von Barky Schanuzer, the Kipnis' miniature schnauzer who also manages his own Facebook page. Since Colleen and I have a very gifted and famous miniature schnauzer as well, it appeared that the four of us had plenty in common.
Before breakfast was over, Jeremy had retrieved a stack of seven CDs and set them on the table. He worked on all seven for both Chesky and Epiphany Recordings throughout the 1990s--as either producer, remastering engineer, editor or transferring engineer--and he wanted us to have them as a thank you for stopping by. Both Chesky and Epiphany have a stellar reputation for sound quality (many of these CDs are currently available in hi-rez versions for download on HDTracks, which of course is connected with David Chesky), and I had already mentioned to Jeremy back at the show that I was struggling to find decent source material for our Unison Research Unico CDE CD player when we exhibited at shows. Once the Unison Research DAC comes out later in the year, we'll have more options. Jeremy's CDs, in other words, were a very welcome gift.
Light Classics: Volume II. I started off with this recording, despite the fact that "light classics" is usually a euphemism for elevator music. After reviewing the song selections on the back of the case--Puccini, Moussorgsky, Dvorak, Verdi, Smetana and others--I knew this wasn't going to be a Mantovani festival. I suppose these pieces are titled "light classics" because they are melodic, familiar and fluid, but this isn't superfluous or capricious music. Conductor Charles Gerhardt, working with several orchestras including the London Pops and the Royal Philharmonic, infuses this CD with deep, soothing and ultimately delicate selections. In fact, if I was to apply one single word to Jeremy's bulk of work, it would be that--delicate.
Mongo Santamaria and Friends: Mambo Mongo. I do remember this one when it came out during Chesky's earlier years--it was part of a handful of releases that focused on Latin music. Jeremy warned me, "there isn't a lot of deep bass in this recording--because there's isn't a lot of deep bass in the performance." That said, it's a very dynamic recording with plenty of percussion and brass, and it will get you tapping your feet.
Epiphany Recordings Concert & Test Sampler. I'm gaining a new respect for music samplers, which usually contain so many wonderful demo tracks that I can use at trade shows. This sampler, however, offers close to an hour of consistently beautiful recordings of pieces from Handel, Franck, Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven and Telemann before launching into the test program with tools for assessing channel balance, phase, absolute polarity, variable bit depth and frequency response. Plenty of products exist that will help you achieve better sound, but few contain music as gorgeous and as plentiful as this one.
Vivaldi" The Four Seasons--The Connecticut Early Music Festival Ensemble. I have plenty of recordings of The Four Seasons, to tell you the truth; this was the piece that introduced a teenage me, along with countless others on this planet, to the wonders of classical music. My go-to performance is from the BIS recording of the Drottningholm Ensemble, but this offers a more delicate--there's that word again--counterpoint to the more bombastic Swedish performance. The perspective is very different from what I'm used to, and conductor Igor Kipnis is intent on creating something original and thoughtful from a piece that needs an alternative perspective in order to be worthwhile--at least in my opinion. This recording will be fun to employ in an A/B comparison to the BIS recording. Both are splendid, yet worlds apart.
The Instrument of Kings: 18th Century Music for Flute and Keyboard. This one took me by complete surprise; it has the stodgiest cover but the music inside is light and airy and transcendent. This recording features John Solum on flutes, Igor Kipnis on keyboards and Arthur Fiacco on cello, and the pieces from Baroque composers such as Handel, Scarlatti, Telemann and Vinci are really what I've been searching for lately--stunning Baroque performances that are captured well in the studio. It was raining cats and dogs in Texas the first time I listened to this CD; is there any better way to listen to Baroque music like this?
The Yale Russian Chorus: Chants and Carols. Different from most choral recordings I own, which seek to envelop you in a homogenized wall of human sound, this recording is quiet and intropsective and truly draws you inside its cavernous spaces. Featuring no less than 26 choral works from Russian composers, followed by a choral imaging test and a dynamic range demostration, this recording is so consistently soft and subtle that the music actually disappears when you go to the next room. This is music that requires dedicated concentration, which will then be rewarded.
The Young Beethoven: Igor Kipnis, Fortepiano. The first time I played this CD, I thought my hi-fi was busted. That's because I'm woefully ignorant of the fortepiano. Compared to modern pianos, the older fortepiano sounds clunky and buzzy and thin--that's perhaps one of the reasons why the more dynamic and fluid modern piano gained favor and caused the fortepiano to fade into near oblivion by the beginning of the 19th century. Fortunately, Igor Kipnis was a true modern master of the fortepiano and he could easily extract the beauty from its distinctive, somewhat primitive sound. This recording, featuring early works by another fortepiano player named Beethoven, serves as a definitive introduction to this instrument, something I reluctantly admit that I needed.
Once again, thanks goes out to Jeremy and Carolina for a wonderful spring day in Connecticut, and for this wonderful music!
Wednesday, June 12, 2013
It's not that I'm jaded or have low expectations when it comes to listening to a CD from someone new, but it's gotten to the point where I'm floored when I discover someone with true talent and originality. Such is the case with the new album from the Smoking Flowers, 2 Guns. Perhaps it's because Kim and Scott Collins, a Nashville-based singing duo who draw obvious comparisons to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, have been around for a while, opening for such groups as the Black Keys, Ben Folds Five, Ziggy Marley, Concrete Blonde and the Strokes. They've been performing since shortly after they met in 1998, so they're seasoned and not the typical twenty-year-olds who dream of hitting it big while struggling with the pitfalls of such naivety.
The first thing you'll notice about 2 Guns is Kim's voice--despite the aforementioned comparisons she doesn't have Emmylou's delicate warble. She has big pipes and sounds a lot like Ann Wilson from Heart (although on "Something I Said," she seems to channel Hope Sandoval from Mazzy Star in the quieter moments of the song). She has a beautiful, impressive voice. Scott, on the other hand, has a more casual grumble that grounds her to the music and keeps her from flying away. They have a loving, familiar way with harmonies that illuminates the years they've spent together. Second, they're damn fine songwriters, and these 13 songs are rich with confidence and craft. You won't find any filler here.
Adding to the poignancy of 2 Guns is the revelation that Kim just emerged victoriously from a battle with breast cancer--the album was actually recorded last year and was delayed until she recovered. None of this leaks into the hard-bitten spirit of the album, for obviously temporal reasons, and what emerges is a Western adventure of sorts, inspired by a Route 66 roadtrip. We're talking about the real 66, the dirt road itself and not the fractured sections of I-40 we know today, and the evidence is there on the cover of the album. Kim took this from the hood of their car. That's them, and that's the road, and that's a real and heartfelt kiss that's captured. In fact, 2 Guns is the name of an Arizona ghost town the couple visited. The lonely surreal atmosphere of that visit permeates the album, where their love is the biggest thing on the horizon.
It's rare that an album captures this kind of unabashed emotion without resorting to hip distancing devices or a wall of sound. On songs like "El Matador" and "The Juggler," you hear the celebration of a couple in love. This is not the couple who embarrasses everyone else in the room with their unbridled PDAs, but a couple of poets who can express such things in a way you haven't heard before. Oh, and I haven't even mentioned how much this album rocks--just in case you were under the impression that this was an album of soulful ballads. ("Pistol Whip," for instance, sounds like a countryfied version of Queen's "Sheer Heart Attack," if you can imagine that!)
This is great stuff, and I highly recommend it.
Monday, June 10, 2013
When I arrived in Texas four years ago, I was a little bit apprehensive about the music scene. Sure, I was moving to Austin, the Live Music Capital of the World, but growing up in hard rockin' Southern California made me more than a little allergic to country music in my formative years. One of my close friends told me, just before I moved, that I was going to have to buy several huge belt buckles and a pair of cowboy boots if I wanted to hit the clubs downtown and not get my ass kicked. Suffice it to say that I experienced the opposite when I actually arrived in the City of the Violet Crown. The music scene on Sixth Street and SoCo was skewed more toward metal and hardcore and anything-goes, and the country-ish music I did hear was so genuine and heartfelt and intelligent--the opposite of what would be considered mainstream these days--that I immediately embraced it. There's country music, and there's music from Texas--whether it's swing, Tejano or friggin' dubstep. They ain't the same thing, so put that silly big belt buckle away.
Sweet Felony is an alt-country band from San Francisco, but they could easily stroll into the Continental Club off South Congress, plug in their guitar amps and no one would blink. The formula is simple: two cute tattooed girls in boots sing stripped-down country pop songs that seem innocent at first but ultimately reveal layers of hurt, regret and resolve. Christa DiBiase and Amanda Guilbeaux strum their guitars and sing in polished harmonies that have just the right amount of ache to them, an amount that cuts the sweetness like a teaspoonful of vinegar. On their new album, Split Ends Mend, the duo starts off with straightforward rockers such as the opener "Us Again," and then sneakily shift to more frenzied and dissonant tunes that kept reminding me that cowpunk masterpiece of the '80s, X's More Fun in the New World. It's amazing how close these two can get to Exene and John Doe while still sounding completely accessible to the country masses. The last three songs on the album, "Just Friends, "Dream" and "At Night," are slightly mournful, beautiful and ruffled up, like the end of all-night party where things didn't quite go as you planned and now you're sitting on a park bench, alone, with an empty Lone Star (or Anchor Steam) bottle in your hand. Where the hell is your car?
Backed up by Carl Horne on bass, Mike Ingram on lead guitar and Paulo Baldi on drums, Sweet Felony knows how to balance the humor and the heartbreak in their songs--which also makes them a shoo-in for the Austin life. (Or, as a stuffy old geezer from Houston once told me, Austin is the only American city without parental supervision.) That, of course, makes me wonder about the current music scene in the Bay Area--are bands like Sweet Felony praised for their irony, for producing Texas-friendly music with a wink, or are they recognized for their emotional sincerity, simplicity and soulfulness? What causes a tear in Austin may prompt a knowing smirk in San Francisco, or perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, some of the best and most original country-rock came out of Northern California in the '70s, so the scene can't be as buttoned down and snarky as I imagine. But I imagine the reception to Split Ends Mend in these two cities differs in subtle but interesting ways.
Regardless of the audience, Sweet Felony still possesses the warm, grateful countenance of a band who knows how to stand on a stage and connect on an emotional level. It's the most basic reason to perform music, to deliver sounds that make couples sway, loners sigh and drinkers order another cold longneck.
Split Ends Mend is available from Sweet Felony's Bandcamp site. It only contains seven songs, but it's just $7. It's money well-spent for sweet, relaxed and memorable tunes for those long Texas summer nights--even if you're in San Francisco.
Thursday, June 6, 2013
As I said in part one of this report, CCI partnered with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery for the Newport Beach show last week. Dan also partnered with our good friend Bob Clarke of Profundo--US distributor of VivA, Trenner & Friedl, Transfiguration and Heed--in two additional rooms next door at the Atrium. Colleen and I didn't get a chance to see many other rooms during the show, but we did get to spend a lot of time on set-up day with Dan, Bob, Alpar Huszti of Heed Audio, Alan Fong of Syncopation (a dealer in Stockton, California) and Edwin, one of Alan's favorite clients. In other words, I did get to hear some great sound at the show--other than mine, of course, heh heh--courtesy of these guys.
You might remember that CCI, Blackbird and Profundo partnered up at last year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. We had two separate systems in that room and offered kind of a "dueling distributors" theme--we played our system for an hour, and then Bob would play his system. Dan acted as sort of the mediator and kept the music flowing. Well, we all had such a great time doing that room that we may repeat the set-up at this year's RMAF in October. In fact, it felt sort of odd to be at the same show with Dan and Bob this time--but separated by a parking lot.
Of course it helps that Dan and Bob are both vinyl lovers, which is why we all get along so well. Dan is a Basis Audio dealer, and Bob is a huge Basis fan--and owner. I'm pretty sure he'd be the US distributor if they weren't already made here in the US. In one of their two rooms at the Atrium, Bob and Dan included this Basis 2200 Signature turntable, with a Basis arm and the new flagship Proteus cartridge from Transfiguration--my current favorite manufacturer when it comes to cartridges. I'm also a big fan of the Basis turntabes--ordinarily I'm not in love with acrylic plinths, but Basis TTs always extract the light from the music in a masterful, confident way.
The big news at Profundo, however, is the introduction of the latest speaker from Trenner & Friedl, the Isis. The Isis is cut from the same cloth as the Pharaoh and the RA Box--wide, shallow cabinets and efficient designs--but the Isis is a 3-way design with a 15-inch woofer. It offered a sonic presentation that seemed without boundaries, effortless and thoroughly engaging. It reminded me of Trenner & Friedl's flagship, the Duke, which I heard at the 2011 CES. That's saying a lot, because the Isis costs less than one-fourth the amount of the $175,000 Duke. More than one person in the room commented that the Isis gives you a big hunk of the Duke's sound in a much smaller footprint. But as you can see from the photos, the Isis is still an imposing loudspeaker.
Amplification in the room was by VivA, another stellar brand imported by Bob. The VivA amplfiers offer some of the most beautiful designs available among tube amps, with rich, sexy curves, big tubes and gleaming surfaces. Of course they do--they're made in Italy! Cables were from Cardas Audio--enough said. This was an absolutely amazing room.
In the second room was an all Heed Audio system. As great as the first room was, this room really caught my attention because it made such a compelling sound from relatively affordable equipment. Those unique-looking Heed Enigma speakers are only $3800 per pair, but they offered full, impressive bass response and a huge soundstage--the kind of sound that you usually expect from speakers over $10K. You know how I feel about Heed electronics--the Obelisk integrated amplifier with X2 power supply is my first choice for solid state amplification for less than $5K. Here, Bob and Alpar brought their top-of-the-line monoblocks, preamp, phono preamp and digital transport and DAC. Dan also included his excellent Funk Firm turntable and arm with another Transfiguration cartridge. This was a system I could easily live with for the rest of my life.
These new equipment racks from Audio Strata were gorgeous as well. Dave Neilson, formerly of Splintr Design, made these racks specifically for the show. He was going to make one for us, but we all ran out of time. We should have one for Rocky Mountain and CES, so come on by and see these lovely pieces of furniture in person. (That's an in-joke--Colleen thinks racks should always be called racks, while Dave prefers audio furniture.)
I've said it before and I'll say it again--Bob Clarke has exquisite taste when it comes to representing product lines in the US. Although I don't have any seat time with VivA, I do own a pair of Trenner & Friedl speakers, I've reviewed Heed Audio and I've used Transfiguration at other trade shows. All four of his lines are just musical beyond belief, and that's coming from a "competitor" in an industry where "if I don't carry it, it must be crap" is almost a motto. And this speaks doubly well for Dan Muzquiz, who carries Bob's lines as well as ours--lines that I'm very proud of, too.
I recently had someone call me on this at a recent trade show--he was listening in as I told a retail customer that I carried the lines I did because I loved them. I'm not a salesman by trade, and I don't think I could sell something I didn't like. "That's a great sales line," that person said, and we laughed. But it's absolutely true. I think Bob is the same way--he loves his brands, and his system at home (which I've heard a few times) is made up of these brands and it sounds great.
As I've said more than once, I have the best job in the world. And I get to hang out with the best people.
Wednesday, June 5, 2013
"I bet you thought you were coming to Newport Beach."
That was sort of the running joke at this year's T.H.E. Show, which has been dubbed "the Newport Beach show" for some time--despite the fact that it's not actually held in Newport Beach. It's actually held at the Hilton and Atrium hotels near John Wayne Airport, whioh means they're actually in Costa Mesa...or Santa Ana, or Irvine. You know, the place where all those cities congeal. I was born and raised in Orange County, so I know the Newport Beach show isn't actually in Newport Beach, but nevertheless many show attendees and exhibitors seemed a bit distressed when they looked out the windows of their show rooms and saw no ocean, no port and no beach.
This was the third annual T.H.E. Show in Newport. Colleen and I missed the first two--we just couldn't fit the show into our schedules in 2011 and 2012. We were told repeatedly that we had made a horrible mistake because the first two shows were reportedly well-attended and lots of fun. Maybe the bloom has come off the rose this year, but the show was merely good--no different than any other show we've attended this year (and we've done five in the first five months of 2013).
The pros of the show were great weather, of course, and well-mannered and well-informed attendees. (On that note, I don't think I've seen so many German cars or Reyn Spooner shirts in one place in all my life.) I also enjoyed the cigar booth in the lobby, and the fact that I could enjoy one of those cigars out by the swimming pool.
The cons, however, centered around the exhibit rooms at the Hilton, where CCI was located. There were no power outlets near the front of the room, where the system needed to be set-up--hence the strange equipment rack configuration you see in these photos. In addition, the floors of the room tended to be either concave or convex, which meant that even when my bird's-eye level said my speakers were sitting flat, my eye-crometer told me that they were actually tilting toward each other. Finally, the rooms were NOISY. The halls were NOISY. The AC unit in the room was NOISY. The walls between the rooms were obviously thin, which meant it was very difficult to audition our equipment in a reasonably quiet environment. We spent most of the show competing with the PBN room across the hall, and those speakers were almost seven feet tall. In other words, we lost that battle.
In the Atrium, where our partner Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery and our friend Bob Clarke of Profundo were exhibiting new products from Heed, Trenner & Friedl, Viva, Transfiguration, Basis and Cardas Audio, they fared a bit better. The power outlets were located all over the room, the proportions of the room were more complementary to a sound system--despite floors that were far more lumpy and uneven. If we come back next year, I want to be at the Atrium.
Here's a shot of our basic system. We used the Unison Research Giro turntable with arm and UN1 cartridge ($3995 complete), PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500), Unison Research Unico CDE CD player ($4120), Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier ($6495) and the Opera Seconda loudspeakers ($3995/pair). All cabling and power management was from Furutech of Japan. Those of you who read this blog regularly or know me from Facebook have probably already recognized this system as my own. Yup, that's right--that's pretty much what I've had in my listening room over the last year. I do rotate the Trenner & Friedl ART monitors and the My Audio Design Grand MS speakers whenever I can, and the PureAudio Vinyl preamplifiers tend to get sold as soon as they arrive which means I have to use my back-up Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE more than I'd like (it's a wonderful $1000 phono pre but it's NOT the PureAudio). But when it comes to the turntable, arm, cartridge, CD player and amp, those are my daily drivers. And they sounded very nice at the show.
Here's a shot of the Secondas. People at the show dug them in white. Of the four finishes Opera provides (black, white, cherry and mahogany), white used to be ranked choice #4. In the last couple of years, it's now #2. White audio components are HUGE in Europe right now, and getting bigger in Asia. It's getting more and more popular in the USA lately as well.
Here's a pic of the system I stole from Dan Muzquiz. Here you can see the strange set-up, which did prompt some queries from the attendies. We tried to put everything along the side wall, where the power outlets were located, but it sounded terrible. So what you're seeing is the result of power cords being stretched out as far as they would reach so the speakers could fire out from the front wall. I was typically unhappy with the sound on set-up day, but by the time the first attendee walked through our door, the sound was much closer to what I experience every day in my listening room.
Here's a close-up of the Furutech power filter and the power cords. Man, this is gorgeous stuff--beautifully constructed, classy looks and great sound. Most of it was hidden behind the rack in the corner, which was a shame--these cables deserve to be front and center. When Peter Breuninger of A/V Showrooms came into our room to shoot a video, I almost forgot to mention Furutech. When the video is posted, you can hear me scrambling to mention Furutech before he leaves the room.
Colleen and I were trapped in the room for almost all three days. Dan Muzquiz did relieve us for an hour or two, but for the most part I saw very little in other rooms. Fortunately, everyone seemed to come and visit us--including Mat Weisfield of VPI. He was carrying around the revolutionary new VPI 3D tonearm which has been created out of epoxy by a 3D printer. The photo above is of Colleen and Mat, sharing the 3D love. I talked to Mat briefly about a future interview for my Vinyl Anachronist column in Perfect Sound Forever, and he's up for it!
At every trade show, John Atkinson from Stereophile always stops by on the last day about 15 minutes before the show ends. This year he came about three hours early, catching us off-guard. On the first day of the show Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds dropped off some test pressings of new releases, and I spent a big chunk of the show playing Stevie Ray Vaughan's "Tin Pan Alley." That's what we played for JA, and I'm pretty sure he dug it--his head and body were swaying from side to side. JA currently has the PureAudio Control preamp and Reference monoblock power amps for review, so he enjoyed a chance to listen to the matching Vinyl phono preamp.
By the way, that's Dave Neilson to JA's left. Dave was one of the two guys who started Splintr Designs, makers of the wonderful Trellis equipment racks we've used at the last few shows. Dave has started a new audio furniture company, Audio Strata, and we hope to use his beautiful new products at the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Show and at CES 2014. The new racks are quite a bit more advanced than the Trellis racks, using new composite materials.
Finally, I'll wrap it all up with a photo of the PBN Groovemaster turntable from across the hall. These guys offered amazing sound all during the show--even from across the hall. We kidded them a lot about their volume levels, but they had a huge system and they needed to show it off. I spoke with PBN's founder and designer, Peter B. Noerbaek, and he's designed one hell of a beautiful turntable--which sounds great as well.
I'll have a part two to this report in a day or two, where I'll cover the happenings at the Blackbird Audio/Profundo rooms. Lots of good stuff over there, including an amazing new speaker from Trenner & Friedl!
Saturday, June 1, 2013
The latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl92.html. This is my interview with Daniel Louis White, jazz musician/composer extraordinaire. Enjoy!