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.