Thursday, December 29, 2011

Another visit with Dean Peer...

For the holidays, Colleen and I visited bass virtuoso Dean Peer at his home north of Austin. This was the first time I've seen Dean's home, which houses the studio in which he recorded last year's stunning album, Airborne. While the studio is tucked away in a corner of his house, it's still quite a sophisticated facility with sand-filled walls, a floating floor (also filled with sand) and plenty of room treatment. Dean uses a combination of a classic mixing board and digital software to achieve his innovative sounds on the bass guitar; he laments that the former will soon be obsolete, but he is determined to mix at least one more project on it.

A few weeks ago, I heard through the grapevine that Dean was working on some new material, and that a new album is probably in the works. Considering that Dean has recorded two albums in about twenty years, this is good news. Dean sat down with me and played a couple of the new songs, and they were quite different from what we've heard on Airborne and Ucross. What I heard was dark, moody and slightly sinister, but with a strong emotional undercurrent. For everyone who was surprised by the difference between his first two albums, you'll be even more surprised by the third.

At one point, Dean handed me a LP copy of the Dixie Dregs' Night of the Living Dregs from 1979 and asked me if I was familiar with it. He told me to take it home and listen to it and tell him what I thought. It turns out that Dean is planning to work with Dixie Dreg's bassist, Andy West, on the new project. It's been a few years since Andy played with the Dregs (he's a big-time software expert now), but it will be interesting to pair Dean's elaborate bass harmonics with Andy's more solid and fundamental sound.

Here are a few more pics from the visit. This is one of Dean's basses, the one featured on the cover of Airborne. You'll notice the "dp" on the fret; that's for Dean Peer, since this was made especially for him.

Notice the knob? Yep, that's a Cardas nautilus shell knob. Dean's association with Cardas Audio goes way back--they currently sponsor his shows, and he uses their cables throughout his gear.

These Meyer Sound studio monitors were interesting to listen to. As Dean said, "They're not much fun to listen to because they're so FLAT, but they're incredibly accurate." As I listened to him playing his bass through the mixing board and the Meyers, I was struck by the pinpoint imaging. It was strange to see Dean play a few feet to my right, and then have the sound from the strings placed so firmly between the speakers to my left. I certainly didn't think they were unpleasant to listen to, but they were very far from warm and romantic.

Here's the more modern side to Dean's recording studio...

...coupled with the more traditional side. As you can tell, Dean has kids.

And a healthy sense of humor.

And now my dog Lucy is famous, too. She was extremely curious yet well-behaved around so much expensive gear. Then again, she's used to it at home.

I'll keep you informed about the new album. I'm really looking forward to it!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Getting Ready for CES

Now that the holidays are pretty much over, it's time to get ready for the 2012 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Professionals in the audio industry are usually quite stressed out this time of year--even more than reg'lar folk--because we have to follow up Christmas with the biggest trade show of the year. I know people in the industry who don't even celebrate the holidays anymore because it just gets in the way of CES preparations. Bah humbug.

Colleen Cardas and I will be there, of course, along with Bartolomeo Nasta of Unison Research. We'll be running the Unison Research Room--it's room 29-117 at The Venetian--so stop on by and say hello. We'll be featuring two systems in the room (one active, one static) that will debut no fewer than four new products from Unison and Opera Loudspeakers: the Unico 50 integrated amplifier, the Simply Italy integrated amplifier, the Opera Quinta loudspeaker and the Opera Seconda loudspeaker. We'll also be featuring such established products as the S6 integrated amplifier, the Unico CDE CD player and the affordable CD Primo CD player.

We'll be sharing the room with Audience, who have supplied us with their premium Au24 line of loudspeaker cables, interconnects and power cords. Everything will be plugged into one of their adeptResponse line conditioners. In fact, I have all the Audience gear here at the house and I've been playing with it over the last couple of weeks. It's truly fine gear, and we're proud to feature it in our room.

You might be asking yourself, "What, no turntable?" While we decided not to feature the Giro turntable in our room, it will be making an appearance in the Joseph Audio room. Jeff Joseph, a good friend of ours, requested to use the Giro in his room (at Room 29-140 at the Venetian), and we didn't hesitate to say yes. Rumor is that he's going to mount one of the fine cartridges from Soundsmith (remember the company that makes cantilevers out of cactus needles?) on the Giro.

The 2012 CES will take place in Las Vegas on January 10-13. Feel free to stop by and say hello to Colleen, Bart and me!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Happy Holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Black Keys' El Camino on LP

It was the middle of December, and I was just sitting down and composing my yearly Top 15 list for Perfect Sound Forever. I was trying to decide between Wilco's The Whole Love and Fleet Foxes' Helplessness Blues. Wilco was edging out, mostly because I'm starting to wonder how I feel about the Foxes' musical output as a whole. What was timeless on their debut album was slowly becoming just "novel" after two albums, and I worry that if they don't start evolving by the arrival of their third album, the antiquated phrasing of their folksy lyrics is really going to start getting on my nerves. But just as I was about to slip Tweedy & Co. into the top slot, The Black Keys burst on the end-of-the-year scene with El Camino. It's a game changer, to say the least.

I don't have to remind you of the innate and sublime coolness of the Keys. But here's an excellent example: the album is called El Camino, but the cover photo is of an old Chrysler Town & Country. I heard someone else ask, "Why is it called El Camino then? What's with the mini-van?" That's absolutely right, and that's why they're so friggin' cool. Put an El Camino on the cover and you think oh, they must like El Caminos. Okay. But put an old mini-van on the cover and you think "Why?" Yep. The Black Keys are already in your head. Cool, cool, absofrigginutely cool.

If it hadn't been for the exquisitely ambitious The ArchAndroid last year, the Black Keys' Brothers would have easily been my favorite album of 2010. I spent most of the summer of '10 with one or the other playing in my car CD player--and I spent a lot of last year behind the wheel. Brothers was so surprising in its stripped-down simplicity (it's just a guitar/singer and a drummer, much like the White Stripes) that it was hard to define what made the album so great. The lyrics were straightforward and based squarely in the blues-rock tradition without being encumbered with poetry, finesse and profundity. The songs were about love, sex and bad relationships--usually all three at once. El Camino doesn't expand upon that basic formula, but it does refine it somewhat.

This sounds like a bad thing, but El Camino is Brothers, only polished up and perfected. That doesn't mean the boys have sold out; they've just taken things up a notch. They know what they do well, and now they're more focused and confident about it. The songs on Brothers, while rooted in rock traditions, had such a warped and skewed feel to the production that it made the songs sound like lost '70s rock classics that existed in a spaced-out parallel universe. The songs on El Camino, by comparison, are from this planet. Listening to this album, you'll have that same sense that every single song (there isn't one iota of filler here--every song is equally strong) should have been a hit in 1967, or 1971...or 2011. The songs might not have survived a year like 1986, when the sheer testosterone in pop and rock music had been neutralized in most quarters, but all the cool people would have rediscovered the Keys once the '90s came around. The Black Keys reconstitute the greatness of classic rock, blues, soul, glam and even disco in the same gifted way as modern performers such as Sharon King and the Dap-Tones, or Raphael Saadiq.

If you're wondering if El Camino has a hit that's the equal of last year's "Tighten Up," that's a big affirmative. In fact, every song on the album hits that high. I especially like the opener, "Lonely Boy," which has one of the most catchy choruses I've heard in years: "Oh, oh-oh...I've got a love that keeps me waiting/I'm a lonely boy." Yeah, I know, I have a woman like that in my past as well. She drove me crazy. What a cool, cool song it is. It's in my head, and I can't get it out.

While Brothers was certainly a breakthrough for the duo, the flawlessness of this album results in the kind of glow that suggests universal appeal. Everyone I know who has heard this album is captivated by it almost immediately. I could use a lot of cliches to describe the Album of the Year--"firing on all cylinders"--comes to mind first. Expect El Camino to invade the collective unconscious of serious music lovers in a big way over the coming months.

Oh, and I'll take the time to dissolve the mystery of the album cover--the van in question was the band's touring vehicle in their early days, and they later sold it by jokingly advertising it as an El Camino. Evidently someone thought it was too cool to pass up. You'll feel the same way about the album.

(BTW, I got the LP because it includes the whole CD as well. I love this marketing trend with all my heart, because I can list to the Keys in my car and my home at the same time!)

Friday, December 16, 2011

Rags & Ribbons' The Glass Masses on CD

Over the last few years I've been deliberate and thorough in my search for new music, resisting that "filling-in-holes-in-my-collection" mentality that comes from getting on in years and becoming locked in the rather misguided view that when it comes to rock, there's absolutely nothing new under the sun. Certainly my first instinct on a first listen to an unknown performer is to find the specific musical genre that fits, mostly so I can introduce a "RIYL" to my reasders, but I'm so tired of that type of thinking. In the last year or so I've noticed that the truly great new performers aren't reinventing the wheel of rock and roll, but devising an alchemy where familiar sounds are combined in a way that's absolutely novel. Think about Fleet Foxes or, even better, the Black Keys.

These thoughts sprinted through my mind about ten minutes into Rags & Ribbon's new CD, The Glass Masses. I couldn't quite resist playing a quick round of "Who does this remind me of?" when I heard this ambitious, theatrical and downright fun album, and I came up with Muse first, and maybe Queen second. The decidedly melodramatic vocals, delivered mostly in harmonies between keyboardist Jonathan Hicks and guitarist Ben Weyerhauser, have that same sort of sad Russian-esque folk strains of the latter while maintaining a fluid litany of Classical-strength piano runs as Freddie Mercury at his most deranged. (Drummer Chris Neff fleshes out the expansive sound of this far-reaching trio.) Yet this exciting sound is evocative of a time than derivative of a style, and it's probably been at least a couple of decades since you heard this all before. In other words, it's a cop-out to call these complex yet accessible songs anything but original.

Where Rags & Ribbons diverges from neo-glam is their earnestness, which in lesser hands can be a curse more than a strength in 2011 (see Coldplay's last three albums, which were truly awful). The vocals in the opening track, "Even Matter," do evoke Chris Martin's repertoire with their unsubtle emotional pleas despite the fact that the music is incredibly layered and ornate and therefore much more compelling. That feeling of hyper-sensitivity and forced poetry will pass once you realize that the second song, "Liar," reveals the boys can rock and weave intricate musical ideas at the same time, much like Muse and Queen. You might even feel a genuine wave of nostalgia when you hear a bit of Big Country in Weyerhauser's guitar yelps in "Abacus Kids," one of the stand-out tracks of the album. By that time you're just being silly, and you just need to drop the comparisons so you can sit back and enjoy this album.

With a few more albums, that earnestness might be replaced with a bit more confidence that might even be viewed as sexy--something Mercury and Matthew Bellamy had (and have) down pat. Despite that minor misgiving, Rags and Ribbons have a real ace up their sleeve, and that's sheer musical talent. It's rare to see young musicians have such mastery of both their instruments and their instincts this early in the game. I can't guess whether this trio will become huge in the coming months, but I won't be surprised if they do. The Glass Masses is an impressive debut, both unexpected and exhilarating in its success at just being a very old-fashioned way.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Unison Research Giro Review at TONEAudio

Our Unison Research Giro turntable--and I mean the actual one I own and play music on in my house--has just been reviewed by Jeff Dorgay of TONEAudio. Jeff, who was my old boss at TONE when I worked there from 2006 to 2009, was eager to review the Giro from the moment I received it and mentioned it on this very blog.

Jeff was even able to rush the turntable back to us in time for the Hootenanny on Friday, which Colleen and I truly appreciate.

You can read the review here. Thanks again, Jeff, for the great review!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Whetstone Audio Hootenanny

It's kind of amazing when an idea pops into your head, you plan for it and you execute it--and it's a success. Our idea for a music event in Austin came from humble beginnings. I've been in Texas for more than two years, Colleen Cardas has been here in Austin since early March, Bob and Stacy Clarke of Profundo moved to Round Rock a couple of months ago and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone has been here the whole time. We've joked about building an Austin Hi-fi Empire ever since we all got together, and I think we set a proper foundation last night by hosting our very first Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio.

The idea was simple. The Clarkes represent such stellar brands as Trenner & Friedl, Heed, Transfiguration and VivA, and Colleen and I represent Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers. What if we each assembled a system in Whetstone Audio and invited everyone in Central Texas to come to Austin, drink some beer, eat some pizza and listen to our best efforts? Although Colleen Cardas Imports and Profundo are technically "competitors" for your high-end audio dollar, we're all good friends and know that there's always room in the marketplace for high-quality music reproduction.

We only had one problem: how many people would show? Although there are a handful of high-end dealers in Austin, this is a music town, and the old audiophile adage that musicians tend to have shitty audio systems (mostly because they're spoiled by the real thing, and partially because many musicians tend to be po') may influence the number of people who would be interested in such an event.

After we all set up our systems and fine tuned them in Whetstone Audio's big yet crowded sales floor (Brian has a ton of great gear on display), we waited for 6pm to arrive with a modicum of nervousness. Brian ordered two Gigantor pizzas and plenty of beer supplied by Jester King Brewery, and the Clarkes brought some amazing wine from their extensive cellar, and we all wondered how much food and drink we would have to take home at the end of the night.

When 6pm arrived, cars started pulling up--much to my surprise. By 7pm, the place was packed. Suddenly, Bob and I were coerced into a stereo war, where he would play one track and I would play one track. Our systems were very different (his was solid state with a lot of power and dynamics, ours was tube-based and airy and delicate), but the crowd was equally thrilled by both types of sound. I will say one thing in the spirit of self-promotion: chicks dig our Giro turntable. There were a handful of women at the event, and every single one of them loved its looks. One even turned to her significant other and said, "We need to get one." Talk about WAF (Wife Acceptance factor).

By the end of the night we were all tired, yet excited and happy. We're even leaving the system at Whetstone for the next week or so because we were too tired to break it all down. (So if you want to come by and check it out, feel free!) We are planning future events at Whetstone, especially since Unison and Opera are introducing so many new products in the coming months--including a music server and a DAC. The Clarkes also want to keep coming to Whetstone. By the way, Brian will be hosting an event next month with Sean Casey of Zu, so check out Whetstone Audio for more details.

Setting up for the Hootenanny

Here are some quick pre-pics of the Hootenanny we held at Whetstone Audio last night. I'll blog about the whole event in a bit, but I thought I'd give you a little insight into what goes into the planning of these events.

Here's a pic of the system as it started to take place. We decided on the Unison Research Giro turntable ($3995) with the matching Unison Research UN1 cartridge ($550), as well as the Unison Research CDE CD player ($3995) as sources. We used the Unison Research Simply Phono phono stage ($1600) and its outboard power supply ($800). It was powered by the incredible Unison Research S6 integrated amplifier ($4895), which is a single-ended (parallel) pure Class A design that creates 30 wpc with EL34s from Tung-Sol. Everything was hooked up to the flagship Opera Callas Grand loudspeakers ($9995 per pair) with Cardas Audio Clear Light cable throughout.

Here's Bob Clarke of Profundo helping out by attaching the feet to the Opera Grand Callas loudspeakers. Bob and Whetstone Audio's Brian Di Frank helped out enormously during setup. Bob had come in earlier in the week and set up his system which included the brand new Trenner & Friedl Pharoah speakers, Heed Audio amplification and a Well-Tempered Amadeus with Dynavector 20X cartridge that was supplied by Brian.

Here's another view of the Callas Grands as they were being prepared. Note that beautiful mahogany veneer on the sides...I think this is the most beautiful wood I've ever seen on a pair of speakers, although the wood grain patterns on the Pharoahs were equally intriguing with their almost Asian appearance.

Even as we were working, Brian still had customers coming in. Here Brian is installing an Ortofon OM-5e cartridge on a customer's old Pioneer turntable. The customer came over and glanced at all the Rega turntables Brian had on display, and I think he talked himself into getting an RP1 turntable down the road. He stopped and admired our Giro turntable and probably said to himself, "One day, one day..."

And here's the system set up and ready to go. I have to admit that I loved hearing the Callas Grands in a much bigger room than mine (which is only about 12' by 14' with 11' ceilings). The rear-firing tweeters on the Operas need plenty of space around them to achieve a truly giant and extended soundstage. By 2pm I had the turntable assembled and the cartridge aligned (the arm on the Giro is exceptionally easy to work with and I had everything dialed in within 20 minutes or so). The system had a full four hours to warm up and play before the first guests started arriving at 6pm.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Hootenanny Is Tonight!

Our Music Event at Whetstone Audio is tonight! It will run from 6-9pm and we'll have plenty of beer and pizza. We will have our Unison Research Giro turntable on hand--the only one currently in the US--as well as plenty of Opera and Unison Research products. Bob Clarke from Profundo will also be there with gear from Trenner & Friedl (including the new Pharoah speakers) and Heed. Whetsone is located at 2401 E. 6th Street, Austin TX. See you there!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New Vinyl Anachronist column up at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever. The 83rd entry is my annual wrap-up, which includes the 13th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Bradley Wik and the Charlatans' Burn What You Can, Bury the Rest...on CD

Do you remember rock and roll?

No, I'm not paraphrasing "American Pie." I'm asking fellow boomers if the music they used to call "rock and roll" is still alive and burrowing between all the fragmented genres that exist in the music scene today. The overexposed musical quagmire that's flippantly referred to as Americana certainly brushes against rock and roll's shirttails every so often, but the straightforward stuff is gone. Do we miss it? Did we need something more? Or do we still secretly listen to our rock and roll albums when no one else is around?

Bradley Wik and the Charlatans' debut album, Burn What You Can, Bury the Rest gives me the same feeling of comfort as when I see a teenager, in 2011, wearing an old Zep or DSOTM t-shirt. It's no secret that the latest generation of musicians is finding solace in Springsteen and Petty and Mellencamp--Ryan Adams certainly backed up his asphalt mixer to that particular stretch of the road a decade ago--and Wik and his band have been staying up late at night, studying these songs, digging around, and finding the emotional core. They're intent on bringing rock back...not the wild, raucous and jubilant type but the introspective, weary and gently redeeming rock that we'd listen to back in the '70s just before it was time to stop partying and go home.

As someone who is bringing up the rear of the Boomer generation, I'm certainly responding to this music differently than someone more typical of Wik's audience: it's not nostalgia I'm feeling as much as comfort, familiarity and a long-neglected urge to light one up. There's an old-fashioned feeling to these songs that permeates every guitar riff, every drum fill, every bit of over-saturated reverb coming from the amps. This filters down to the lyrics, where that always tumultuous marriage of old-time religion and rock makes an appearance or two--when Wik announces on the album's opener, "The Dark Lovely," that the "heavenly choir is singing dirges," you might think of an album such as Slow Train Coming. It certainly takes you back to a place that was, in retrospect, pretty nice.

Wik's songs, propelled by the rough melancholia in his voice, all express a certain level of tired relief. It's not a feeling of giving up or giving in, but rather the break someone takes before they pack up and move on to the next adventure. Bradley Wik and the Charlatans may continue to mine this pure rock and roll for a few more albums, attracting his generation as well as their parents. Then again he could step outside of his very comfortable comfort zone and fall in with his brethren and do something else, something weird or different. But he'd be leaving a very empty room behind, the room where we used to slap on our headphones, light up a joint, sit in our denim beanbag chairs and think about the life ahead.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Bill Roberts, Raw Panda and the Pensacola Music Scene

A few days ago I mentioned that I spoke for quite some time with well-known mastering engineer Bill Roberts. During the course of our phone conversation, Bill mentioned a local record label in Pensacola, Raw Panda, that was really putting out some great-sounding recordings. Bill's pretty excited about Raw Panda and has been spreading the news throughout the music industry.

What's so special about Raw Panda? First of all, Bill sent me some music files of recordings from such artists as Damien Louviere and Paloma, and yes, it's really good stuff. I'm not just talking about sound quality; Paloma, for instance, is a moody straightforward sounding band that is elevated by stunning musicianship and the rare ability (for new bands, anyway) to make every song different. Damien Louviere is more dreamy and relaxed than Paloma, but there's still plenty of details between the notes. The outstanding recording quality adds loads of depth to the overall sound as well, making these two bands stand out considerably from the majority of new music out there. As an audiophile, I listen to a lot of classical and jazz. As a music lover, however, I'm more drawn to alternative and indie rock, and I get excited when the worlds of great music and great sound collide within the more contemporary genres.

Second, Raw Panda is deeply connected to the historic Pensacola music scene. This article from The Voyager discusses how Sean Peterson, the owner and primary sound engineer of Raw Panda, opens his studios to all types of bands so they can get recorded both well and affordably. His new project, a self-described "artist collective," sounds like it could turn his little Florida town into a mecca for honest, hard-working musicians.

Bill's trying to hook me up with Sean so I can listen to more of the Raw Panda catalog. He's been sending me files and photos of Paloma and Damien Louviere, as well as a third band named Imaginary Airshow (which I haven't listened to yet). I'll share everything as soon as I get more info. The mere fact that someone of Bill Roberts' stature is thrilled and excited about a small studio in Pensacola speaks volumes about the quality work being done there. I'm excited to hear more from Raw Panda.

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Little Taste of Cuba

I've been fielding a lot of questions lately about genuine Cuban cigars, and just how easy it is to smoke one in the US these days. Usually I have to invoke the DADT rule: if you're lucky enough to have a reliable source for Cuban cigars, keep it to yourself. If you're smoking one, don't show it to everyone around you. Don't visit reputable cigar stores and ask if they have any in the back or hiding under the counter. Usually if you're a good boy or girl and you eat all your vegetables, eventually one of these babies will find its way into your hands and you'll be able to smoke it without being interrogated by a U.S. Customs Officer.

That said, these Camacho Pre-Embargo (PE) are a nice, legal way to get more of the taste of real Cuban cigars without breaking the law. The wrapper is a rare Jamastran Corojo (Cuban seed) tobacco, the filler actually contains genuine Cuban leaves from the pre-embargo days. That's right--this tobacco is older than I am. As of 2011, four bales of pre-1962 Cuban tobacco are still stored somewhere in a warehouse, and Camacho is rolling cigars with it.

I've been wanting to try one of these for a while, but I was unsure if the whole "pre-embargo" status was just a sales gimmick. We've been hearing about Cuban seeds and even Cuban cigar rollers being imported from Cuba into factories in other places such as Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and even Miami. While that usually makes for a decent smoke, it's not quite the same as smoking a real Cuban cigar. So I waited on the Camacho Pre-Embargo...until last week, when it was included in a very tasty sampler from

The Camacho Pre-Embargo usually costs $25 per 6 x 48 stick. For a limited time, however, you can get one of these included with six other Corojo cigars (including the excellent Joya de Nicaragua Antano Dark Corojo) for just $29.95. I jumped at the chance to try the cigar that the main guy at calls "without a doubt one of the finest cigars I have ever had the privilege of smoking."

After letting it sit in my humidor for a couple of weeks (it should have been longer, but it's already been waiting around to be smoked for fifty friggin' years!), I lit it up this morning. After a few initial puffs, I looked at it and said, "This tastes just like a Cuban cigar." It was exceedingly smooth, rich and well-constructed. The slightest of draws generated huge clouds of smoke. It was lighter in weight than I thought it would be, and the wrapper wasn't that oily or distinctive-looking. It looked like a fairly normal Corojo from the outside. But for all intents and purposes, it smoked exactly like the last three or four Cubans I've tried (in foreign countries, of course, where it's legal to smoke Cuban cigars). I'm not sure if that comparison would hold up if I was simultaneously smoking the Pre-Embargo and a nice Cohiba Behike BHK 52, but it was a truly memorable smoke overall, and a great bargain.

If you're curious about Cuban cigars and don't want to get into trouble, this may be a nice compromise. Order now before they sell out.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Our Hootenanny gets written up by Stereophile!

Our upcoming Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio on December 2 just got a little press coverage on the Stereophile website. As someone who has subscribed to the magazine since 1985, I find this very exciting--even more so than when they started publishing my letters to the editor back in 1990 or so!

As I write this, we're gearing up for the event. It looks like we'll have two separate systems on display at Whetstone. Bob Clarke will have a system showing off the new Trenner & Friedl Pharoahs (pictured above) backed up by a full system of Heed Audio components. For those of you who follow my blog, you'll know how much I love Heed and how well they match up with Trenner & Friedl loudspeakers.

Colleen and I are still planning out our system. Although we intended on featuring the brand new Unico 50 integrated amplifier, the truth is that we're selling almost every unit we can import. We also have one of the first Unico 50s in the US making the rounds with several reviewers. In other words, we may not have one available, but we will have the extraordinary S6 all-tubed integrated instead. This is one of my absolute favorites in the Unico line (I haven't heard the 50 yet), and I think it's really going to be a huge hit at the event.

We're also going to try to bring my Unison Research Giro turntable to the event. It's the only one currently in the US, and right now it's being reviewed by TONEAudio, so I'm hoping to get it back in time.

The Hootenany will be held at Whetstone Audio here in Austin from 6 to 9pm on December 2. Whetstone is located at 2401 East 6th Street #1001, Austin, TX. The phone number is (512)477-8503. Please come out and meet with me, Colleen Cardas, Bob Clarke and Brian Di Frank. If this event is a success, we'll plan on future events at Whetstone on a regular basis.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Heart of the '70s

Earlier today I had a fascinating phone conversation with Bill Roberts, the well-known mastering engineer and loudspeaker designer, and we started talking about great rock recordings in the '70s. Our jumping-off point was obvious--Dark Side of the Moon--and Bill's point was that is today's rock and pop was recorded with the same care, we'd be able to to foster in a whole new generation of audiophiles...or at least people who genuinely cared about sound quality.

I agreed with him wholeheatedly, of course. But Bill mentioned two other classic rock albums that he felt offered incredible sound quality: the first album by Boston, and Heart's Dreamboat Annie. The Boston album is a no-brainer; thanks to Tom Scholz's perfectionist tendencies in the studio this is truly a monster of a recording. I still remember the day my older brother came home on leave from the Air Force in his bitchin' new black Camaro and played that album full blast as we went for a ride around Garden Grove. But Dreamboat Annie? Sure, "Magic Man" always sounded big and awesome when it popped up on the radio, but I'd forgotten about this one. Besides, Little Queen was always my go-to album when it came to Heart.

After our phone call ended, my curiosity got the better of me and I went into the listening room and pulled out my Dreamboat Annie LP. It wasn't just any LP, mind you, but a Nautilus half-speed pressing that I'd probably only played once or twice over the last decade. Once I sat down and started listening, I knew what Bill was talking about. This is a warm, well-recorded LP that sounded much better than I remembered. When that thundering synthesizer comes in during the bridge, I heard deep bass harmonics that I'd never noticed before. The kick drum from "Soul of the Sea" was so deep, smooth and fleshed out that it practically reached out and hugged me.

For comparison, I brought out my copy of Little Queen, which I have played a bit more often over the years. Again, it was no slouch when it came to pressings; it was the CBS Mastersounds half-speed version. And while it certainly sounded punchy and fun, it was no match for Annie. Ann Wilson is definitely a vocalist who can peg the meters when she belts out notes, and when she really lets loose on songs such as "Dream of the Archer," her voice was edgy and peaky and way too aggressive. When she hit the same notes on Dreamboat Annie, the recording engineers were wise to move her powerful voice back into the mix so that it never became overwhelming.

So what's the point? Well, Bill said the reason why these particular albums were so well-recording was because the engineers didn't do what everyone else did at the time. (Remember those disclaimers that said "this album was meant to be played LOUD"?) They knew the equipment, they knew acoustics and they knew they were serving the music first and foremost. Or, as Bill paraphrased from someone else, "Airplanes didn't reach supersonic speeds with propellors." True innovation always comes from radical new thinking in spite of what others claim is "possible" at the time. I know, that's called "thinking outside the box" and it's an overused term to say the least. But I know that it applies to high-end audio as well as music in general, and the most interesting products in audio tend to forge new pathways instead of paving over old ones.

Or, as one engineer once told me after I railed against audio people who claim measurements tell the whole story, "Good engineers never say 'that won't work" when they encounter a new idea. They say, 'Why does it work?'" Dreamboat Annie may not be the most salient cornerstone of this philosophy, but it was certainly nice to redicover it, hiding deep in my LP collection, waiting to be heard one more time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Music Night at Whetstone Audio

Along with Colleen Cardas of CCI, Bob Clarke of Profundo and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone Audio, I'm putting on my first music event on December 2. Here is my press release to Stereophile:

"On December 2, 2011, Whetstone Audio in Austin, Texas will host a Music Night featuring product lines from US distributors Profundo (Heed, Transfiguration, VivA and Trenner & Friedl) and Colleen Cardas Imports (Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers). This event will feature the US premiere of both the new Trenner & Friedl Pharoah loudspeakers and the Unison Research Unico 50 hybrid integrated amplifier.

The event will run from 6pm to 9pm, and food and drink will be served. Whetstone Audio is located at 2401 East 6th St. #1001, Austin, TX 78702. For more information, contact Brian Di Frank of Whetstone Audio at 512-477-8503 or 512-784-8282."

We are all working on making Austin, Texas a true mecca for high-end audio. I've been in Austin for over two years, Colleen has been here since February and Bob Clarke and his wife Stacy just moved here a couple of months ago. Brian, of course, is a Texas native and has run Whetstone for many years. Austin is so well-known for its music scene, and we have some great hi-fi stores here as well. It's about time we pooled our resources together and introduced Texans to some outstanding gear!

I'm hoping we'll have a great turn-out for the event. If it's a success, we'll have more events just like this one. So please show your support by coming on out, indulging in some pizza and beer, and meeting all of us!

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson on LP

If I'm a year late in reviewing the awesome LP reissue of Jim Sullivan's UFO from Light in the Attic Records, I'm two years late in getting Serge Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson from the same folks. I almost grabbed the CD at Waterloo Records here in Austin a few months ago, but a little voice told me to hold out for the vinyl. As a result, the idea of owning this legendary album slipped away, and I didn't think about it again until the other day when I found an new, sealed LP at End of an Ear Records, just down the street from Waterloo. It was between this and She & Him's new Xmas LP, and eventually I came to the conclusion that I hate Christmas songs more than I love Zooey Deschanel. Melody Nelson it was, and I know now that I made the right choice.

If you're not familiar with this 1971 concept album, it's considered Gainsbourg's masterpiece--even though it flopped when first released (an all-too familiar theme in the arts when you think about it). In less than 28 minutes, Serge tells the story of a bored 40-year-old man who hits a teenage girl riding a bike while cruising around in his Rolls. Tu t'appelles comment? he asks. Melody. Melody comment? Melody Nelson. Before you know it, Serge has taken her to a sleazy hotel and has deflowered her. Then she jumps on a flight to Sunderland but her 707 crashes in the jungle of New Guinea. That's a lot of melodrama in less than half an hour, but it's told in a way that's very poetic, very sexual and very melancholic.

When Light in the Attic reissued this two years ago, however, it was the first time it had been released to the US--with the lyrics in both French and English. Until then, you had to know French very well, and Gainsbourge's half-whispered and half-muttered French even better, to know the whole story. Once translated, the extraordinary lyrics begin to rise above the slightly sordid plot:

Adrift on the currents have you already touched?
Those bright corals of the Guinean Coast
Where indiginous magicians act in vain
Who still hope for smashed up planes

The music, of course, has to be equally special when you think about the fact that hipsters have loved this album for almost forty years without knowing all or even most of the words. It takes a few listens to really dig in; the tracks sound like typical 1971 Euro-grooves with funky bass lines, distant and scattered drumming and a guitar that sounds relaxed but ever vigilant. It's dated on the surface, but at the same time it's played with the skill and the textures that only come from the best session musicians available.

And then the orchestra kicks in. Much has been said about the influence of Melody Nelson on Beck's Sea Change, and once you listen to the older album you'll be amazed at how close "Paper Tiger" comes to Gainsbourg's original vision, and what a wonderful homage it is. The soul of this album resides in the string arrangements and the way the disparate pieces come together and float beneath Gainsbourg's voice.

That brings me to the only disappointment I have with this album: Serge's voice is very front and center in the mix, and the band is too far in the background. You're tempted to turn up the volume to hear all the subtleties in the music, only to be overwhelmed with Gainsbourg's immense, God-like French booming over your speakers. I wouldn't mind a little equalizing for once.

That said, this is a hell of an LP, and a hell of a pressing. I was a tiny bit disappointed in the sound quality of the Jim Sullivan LP; they didn't find the original masters and had to deal with a subpar copy. The sound quality here, however, is fantastic, and the 180-gram pressing is very, very quiet. Once again, Light in the Attic comes through by charging $20--not $30 or $50--for a great remaster with great packaging. I need to start ordering their entire catalog now, instead of waiting a year or two to discover what everyone else already knows.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

White Is the New Black...

When it comes to colors in high-end audio, white is definitely the new black. Here is a picture of the latest Opera loudspeakers in white, and they are gorgeous. Over the last year I've attended many audio trade shows, and white components have appeared everywhere.

Traditionally I have resisted white when it comes to decor; I really don't care for white laminate furniture in particular because it always appears cheap, or it looks like belongs in your kids' bedrooms. Plus, this stuff always attracts dirty fingerprints and looks awful in no time. But these latest white veneers are different and look downright opulent when viewed up close.

Some speaker manufacturers have been offering white veneers for many years--think Avantgarde or Wilson for example. I recently wandered onto an audiophile forum where everyone took potshots at some speakers that sported blue, red or even bright green cabinets. While these speakers may not work in your average studio apartment, with the right decor they are nothing short of spectacular. Kudos to hi-fi manufacturers who think outside the speakerbox and come up with something truly different.