Sunday, December 30, 2012

My Audio Design Grand MS Maestro Supreme Loudspeakers

Speakers, speakers, speakers. I have no less than four pairs of speakers that I need to break in before CES next month. Fortunately those $48,000 MAD Duke Royal Limited speakers were just used at a trade show in Hong Kong, so they're pretty much broken in. I spent two days listening to them, loving them, caressing those beautiful cabinets into the wee hours. They do everything you'd expect a speaker at that price point to do--bottomless bass response, crystalline highs, extraordinary midrange. It's almost scary that they do it all while being surprisingly compact and lightweight. Most $50K speakers resemble coffins and weigh hundreds of pounds; I could pick the Dukes up by myself and move them around.

Now I'm playing with a more modest design from MAD--the $11,000 Grand MS Maestro Supreme--and they're larger and heavier than the Dukes. They lack the exquisite cabinetry of their big brothers as you can see, although they are still obviously made with great care and skill. The MS features the proprietary MAD SFC coaxial drivers which are designed to be coherent and offer exceedingly low levels of distortion. The crossovers use pure silver solder, 99.99997% pure copper cabling and "ESA silver diamond" capacitors.

Compared to the Royal Duke, these speakers don't quite plumb the same depths and are slightly less dynamic, but let's face it--the former speaker is quite a tough act to follow (and more than four times the price). Plus, the Supremes still needs some break-in before I can evaluate them fairly. As it stands, they image like crazy and possess a silky, extended treble that's addictive.

After this, I still have a pair of Opera Mezzas to break-in, as well as another pair of MAD 1920s that I haven't even removed from the box. Plus I have a Unison Research Simply Italy to warm up, and we have yet to receive the Unison Research Unico Upower booster amp from Italy. The Upower quadruples the power of low-powered tube amplifiers up to 100wpc, so the Simply Italy will go from 12wpc to 48wpc. This will be the first Upower in the US, and it's making its debut at CES (in Room 29-117). I'll have more info on the MAD room in a few days. Until then, I'm switching out components and listening to everything from Sam Cooke to Tool in an effort to get this equipment sounding its best.

Friday, December 28, 2012

My Audio Design Duke Royal Limited Edition Speakers

It's been a long time since I've had a pair of $48,000 speakers to play with...okay, I've never had a chance to play with speakers anywhere near this price point. I used a pair of $13,000 Harbeth 40.1s for a few weeks, and that's probably it. No, these are the My Audio Design (MAD) Duke Royal Limited Edition speakers, and I get to break them in for a few days on their way to CES.

I apologize for the troublesome pics--these babies are so glossy and dark that it's hard to capture the absolutely breathtaking finish on them. Turn on the lights and they become virtual mirrors, and I'm pretty much taking a pic of myself standing in awe of the MADs while holding my iPhone. Turn down the lights and they look pure black. But they're not gloss black. This is a very dark-stained wood that appears translucent up close. Yes, that is the Union Jack on the side panels (these are made in the UK), lovingly assembled with different shades of veneer. It takes a month to make these cabinets. I believe it.

They're also much more compact than they look in the photos. They're only about waist-high, and I can easily pick them up and move them around. Despite their modest dimensions, they produce a GIANT sound with deep, powerful bass that shakes the room. $48K is a lot of money--I could have purchased that BMW 1-series M I really wanted for around the same amount of money--but once you see, feel and hear the Dukes you'll have no doubt that they are serious world-class loudspeakers.

I've listened extensively to a MAD speaker once before--I reviewed the entry-level 1920 a few months ago and found them to be the perfect mini-monitor for those who want a modern, updated and improved version of the classic BBC LS3/5a. I spent a few weeks with them before sending them off to TONEAudio, where they received a very favorable review in Issue #49.

The Royal Dukes share that same sense of refinement, and that same smooooth midrange, but with almost unlimited dynamics. Can it get any better than this? It's possible, since MAD has an addition line called the Royal Salute that has models ranging from $96,000 to $150,000. Colleen and I are helping the designer and founder of MAD, Timothy Jung, get a foothold into the US. MAD is already huge in places like Hong Kong, Singapore and their home base in England, and after my review of the 1920s I received several emails from people who wanted to know where they could hear them in the US. After CES in a couple of weeks, I may have an answer.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

New Affordable Merrill Turntable at Vinyl Nirvana

With the arrival of the stunning VPI Traveler turntable earlier this year, there's suddenly a lot of activity in the $1000 to $1500 TT market. At the end of 2012, you'll discover three spectacular analog rigs at that price point: the VPI, the Rega RP6 and the Clearaudio Concept. All three of these 'tables offer the kind of performance that were once only available from a $2000+ set-up, and all three are selling like hotcakes.

Now you can add a fourth 'table to this group of over-achievers, and it comes from an unlikely source: Merrill. Just recently announced by David Archambault of Vinyl Nirvana, the new Merrill Replica ES-R1 is based on George Merrill's now-legendary modifications of the classic AR turntable. Merrill has gone on to create some great--and sometimes very expensive--turntables of his own over the years, so it's exciting to see him offer his excellent designs to those who are just getting started in this fascinating hobby.

The ES-R1 offers the same type of suspension used in such decks as Linn, Thorens and of course AR, and for a very reasonable price. Two versions of the ES-R1 will be available: an unfinished wood version without arm or cartridge for a mere $995, and a "ready to play" model that comes with a beautiful wood finish, a Jelco SA-250 tonearm (a favorite of the Technics SL-1200 crowd) and an Ortofon 2M Red, which is probably the best $99 cartridge available today. This latter version will be available for an amazing $1595 plus shipping.

Both versions come with the following features:

*33/45 RPM
*Decoupled inner and outer poly platters.
*Oversized record support platter that can be configured to accommodate a clamping ring.
*Spring suspended poly sub-chassis with arm board.
*Poly drive pulley
*Laminated Plinth
*Oil well bearing
*Level Adjustable Damping feet
*Rubber cork mat
*Handcrafted wooden base
*Custom manufactured motor
*Base top black

Dave has been testing out the first model he received and is excitedly reporting the results on the various analog forums. He bought the unfinished version, and he is taking videos of the project as he completes each step. (You can see the progress here.)

If you're a fan of AR or Merrill turntables and you're looking for an analog rig that won't cost you a fortune, check out the Vinyl Nirvana site and then shoot Dave an email at!

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Interview with Barry Brusseau

After reviewing Barry Brusseau's wonderful new LP, The Royal Violent Birds, I had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about the album, his love for vinyl and his plans for the future. As I expected, Barry's answers were thoughtful and illuminating.

Vinyl Anachronist: First of all, congratulations on the quality of the LP pressing for The Royal Violent Birds. I was able to enjoy it on a high-end system and I can report that the overall sound quality is superb, particularly for a first-time effort. How happy are you with the end result? What challenges were you able to overcome to produce these excellent results?

Barry Brusseau: Marc, thank you for taking the time to listen, and write about the album. The biggest obstacle to overcome is that negative voice that says "you're not good enough to do this," or "you should be spending your money on more important things instead of throwing it down the drain." You know that kid in you that's afraid he'll fall flat on his face and fail. Once you get over that "fear" then it's just a matter of time, money, and commitment. I'm very happy with my effort, and holding the final vinyl result is like Christmas morn as a child.

VA: Deep down, it's obvious you're a vinyl lover and that you "get it." You've talked about how pressing records is an art form in itself, and that the aesthetics of the vinyl format is unique--right down to being able to read the lyrics sheet. Could you elaborate on your love of vinyl?

BB: My mother gave me her old mono phonograph, and all her 45s from the '50s. I was probably 7 or 8 years old, and my imagination ran wild. I remember turning up the volume as high as it would go, putting my ear up to the single speaker, and listening to "Peggy Sue" or "Hound Dog." I fell in love with the excitement of rock and roll, and the escape I found. That launched me into the world of countless hours listening, and loving records. The format of the vinyl LP is perfection. For someone that wants to absorb the entire soul of their musical purchase, it has not been topped. I like to compare it to how you enjoy coffee. In a pinch I drink it in a paper cup, and it's still a pleasurable experience. But nothing beats sitting down in your favorite chair, and drinking that coffee in a ceramic mug. It tastes a little better, and smells a little better. You slow down and savor the whole experience.

VA: You've written that you financed this record by saving $50 from your paycheck for over two years. You've also said that you cut absolutely no corners during the entire process, and that this album is a labor of love--one that required an extraordinary amount of effort and commitment. Now that it's completed, how do you feel? Are you relieved or are you feeling the effects of post-partum depression?

BB: I was listening to some of the old punk 7" that my old band "The Jimmies" put out. I realized the sound was not real good. It was too quiet and kind of over-compressed. Why didn't we get the most out of what vinyl had to offer? So when decided to do a solo 12" LP I reached out to vinyl freaks here in Portland (both label guys and fellow musicians). I asked them what was the proper process of getting the best-sounding vinyl record. Doing it right involved more attention to detail than I realized (and more money). Of course it begins with the source (getting the best sound to tape), but I didn't realize how important the mastering and lacquer cutting process was. So all down the line I enlisted analog masterers who had experience in making vinyl. I didn't gamble and that meant being patient and saving money. After it's all done and the record comes out I do have some depression. After expending all that energy there's a bit of a let down. My imagination gets the best of me and I see all my work leading me to some new recognition. Then it's back to my day job.

VA: You wrote: "Turn up the volume and listen to the sound of the felt on the end of the drum stick hitting the drum, the sound of a creaky piano chair." I've recently written about the need to hear the interaction between musician and instrument, and how cues such as audible breathing, the creaking of floorboards on the stage and even the shifting of an instrument from one hand to the other are vital to the recording, barely secondary to the notes themselves. On The Royal Violent Birds, there are plenty of secondary sounds going on in the recording, plenty of human interactions in the background. How deliberate was this?

BB: This is where it's important to listen to the person you've enlisted to record you. I think I could get carried away with letting all the secondary sounds that can happen stay in the recording. The creak of a chair might be nice, but you kicking over that glass might sound like you just don't give a shit. If it adds some atmosphere and serves the song (adds to that atmosphere), then it should stay. It must be organic, and not play into your own self indulgent need to be "avant garde."

VA: You open and close the album with "Pig Frost," first a wild, manic and chaotic version and then an extended, quieter version. The song only has three lines of lyrics: "An open sore, sugar poured out of the sky/Black dawn with pink rain/The scent of pork rinds on the breeze." Should this make me think of Pink Floyd's "Pigs on the Wing" or am I nuts?

BB: I love your comparison to "Pigs on the Wing". It was not my intent, and never was given a thought 'til I read your question. I love the fact that with art each individual can use there own perspective and imagination to interpret. This is why I think David Lynch never gives into the question, "what does that mean?" "Pig Frost" is a short poem that a friend of mine wrote. I liked it and it just came out in a song. I also like the idea of starting the album with a chaotic boom, and then melting into this soft thing.

VA: I live in central Texas, where vultures continuously circle above in the sky. I thought of this when I heard the title cut of the album, but your birds sound more like angels to me than their Texas counterparts. Can you tell us more about your feathered friends?

BB: Is there a god? What happens when you die? If you don't bat these questions around in your head once in awhile you're not human. I guess there's only one thing I'm sure of is that there's nothing to fear. No one has ever seen the birds, and you shouldn't have any misgivings about the word "Violent". It's no stranger than other ideas I've heard about dying. So I'm not sure what happens when the birds "send you on your way," but I'm sure there's nothing to be afraid of.

VA: Tell me more about the special "canvas" edition of the LP. What will it include?

BB: I sat down and learned to sew. My mom gave me a few lessons, and I went to work on this idea. I wanted to make a special package for the LP release show. It's a canvas-sewn cover that's a color reverse of the actual LP. It's the kind of aesthetic I want "Gorbie International Records" to be known for. Attention to detail and how thing feel in your hand. A real home-crafted touch. This can only be realized in the vinyl format. I worked real hard to make these special. I only did about 35, and I've sold out of these limited edition already. I will not be making more.

VA: What's next for you? Are you going on the road at all?

BB: I have no plans to tour. I'm not opposed to it, but don't know if it would be worth the time. There's only so much a 47-year-old man who has a full time job, is a husband, a son, a brother and a friend can do to climb the mountain of obscurity that sits before all dreamers. Responsibility doesn't leave a lot of time to work with. So I do the best I can and try and be grateful for what I have.

VA: Thank you so much for your time, Barry! Good luck with The Royal Violent Birds.

I'd also like to thank Alex Steininger of In Music We Trust for putting this all together. And if you'd like to check out Barry and The Royal Violent Birds--and I strongly suggest that you do before all the LPs are gone--just visit Barry's website.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Daniel Louis White's True Communication on CD

Every so often something worthwhile slips through the cracks and goes unnoticed, especially in the world of music. Think about the distribution foul-ups that relegated Big Star into oblivion through most of the '70s and '80s, or the record label greed that destroyed Badfinger, and it's not too surprising when you find a great album that absolutely no one knows about. A friend of mine, Chris Perez, slipped me this CD of Daniel Louis White's True Communication, which was released back in 2011. He personally knows Daniel Louis White, a young jazz composer and tenor saxophonist from Texas, and informed me that Daniel was currently working on a vinyl project for his second release. The note from Chris read:

Natural Consequences [the new album]
2 180 gram 45rpm disks
Mastering done Capsule Labs (LA)
7 track LP
All original work

Sounds like my cup of tea, so I took True Communication home and gave it a listen. I was immediately floored. First, the sound quality was absolutely stellar for a redbook CD. The sound of Jonathan Fisher's bass was full, clean and deep. Daniel's tenor sax is soulful, unique and masterful. Best of all, the compositions, all written by Daniel, were spellbinding and powerfully original. Truly innovative contemporary jazz, in my humble opinion, is much rarer than it was forty or fifty years ago, and it's remarkable to find a new recording that combines a deep knowledge of jazz fundamentals with a forward-thinking vision. These four pieces combine breathtaking solo improvisation with a 21st century feel--Justin Heaverin's drumming, for instance, can almost sound like rapid-fire sampling at times, but it's not. Top it off with Chris Villanueva's keyboards and Kathryn Stachitus' wonderfully anachronist vocal improvs on two songs, and you have an album that would be an instant classic--if it was released a few decades ago.

Daniel is nothing if not utterly ambitious. He begins True Communication with the titular five-part suite, an audacious journey that contains sections named "Birth of Disillusion," "Unique Consolations" and more. The connection between these themes is subtle and requires repeated listening to connect the dots, but the lines are definitely there. It's amazing how timeless this all sounds, especially when Villanueva introduces a solo that features an electric piano that sounds straight out of a Miles Davis session in the '70s. The remaining cuts retain all of the melody and cohesion of all the great standards; it's mind-boggling when you realize there's not a cover tune in the lot.

So what happened? First of all, when's the last time you heard a modern jazz album gain any momentum and make a real impact in the commercial marketplace? Once you remove all that tinkly "lite jazz," the real stuff is far out of the realm of the mainstream. There is great jazz that has been released in the 21st century, but it's difficult to discover the clues. The answer to the above question, therefore, probably resides somewhere in the late '60s or early '70s, a phenomenon that was probably accomplished by someone long gone. I did hear from Daniel the other day, and he provided some insight:

"I composed much of it while I was still in college (I studied jazz at UNT). While I feel that Natural Consequences (my current project) is more of an artistic statement, I am very proud of what I accomplished with True Communication. I believe that wherever my art takes me I can look back on my debut album with a since of accomplishment.

"That being said, I feel the greatest failure with True Communication was that it was not promoted properly. I believe the album's musicality was a solid but my efforts to promote it and find genuine support were stifled beneath my lack of maturity and foresight. The individuals that I found to promote the project ended up leaving a trail of dead ends and false promises. My group played a few sparse gigs around the Dallas area (where I am originally from) and despite how well we played I had a difficult time gaining momentum to find other locations for my group to play. At the time, I could not understand how our group of world-class musicians with a world-class product were failing to gain a reach in the jazz community."

Daniel's strategy to address this, and to ensure it wouldn't happen to Natural Consequences, was to move to Austin. With its vibrant music scene, Austin is a far more productive environment to finish the second album. Daniel told me that about half of it is finished. In fact, he provided me with a list of his goals for Natural Consequences:

1) To make the best modern jazz album I possibly can.
2) The sonics must be world-class (45 rpm dual disc, 9 min max on each side, big clean sound)
3) Analog mixed/Analog mastered
4) Target audiences: 1. Audiophiles, 2. Vinyl Collectors, 3. Jazz Listeners
5) By the first of June 2013 - Everything recorded, Mixed, Mastered
6) By the first of October 2013 - First Pressing - 100 count, dual disc, white labels, 135 gram, virgin vinyl
7) By 2014 - Full production 180g (500 count, full color, dual gatefold, violet colored vinyl)

Once you've heard True Communication, you can't help but be impressed by these objectives, and by the possibilities. I plan on talking further to Daniel about his progress, so stay tuned. Until then, I urge you to check out True Communication, which can be purchased on Daniels's website. If you're a jazz fan who is looking for an undiscovered masterpiece, this should top your shopping list.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

New Videos from Campfire OK

Nearly two years ago I reviewed Campfire OK's Strange Like We Are on CD, and wound up putting it on my 2010 Top Ten list for Perfect Sound Forever. I compared them favorably to another outstanding Seattle band, Fleet Foxes, but I ultimately concluded that "the debut CD from this quartet blazes its own trail and sounds rich, calm and mature in a way that few new bands do."

Just a few days ago I heard from Mychal Goodweather, Campfire OK's frontman, who told me that the band has been releasing new videos on their website at a rate of one per month. (They started in September, so that means you can currently watch three.) You can check it out at These videos are being culled from Strange Like We Are as well as their sophomore album, When You Have Arrived--which I haven't heard yet.

As much as I liked the debut album, I really should get When You Have Arrived. Until then, we have this videos to enjoy!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Stale Kleiberg's David and Bathsheba on Blu-ray Audio

As I work my way through the 2L catalog, I notice that each singular title becomes a benchmark in one audiophile criteria or another, whether it be dynamics, detail or just a complete deconstruction of the sound-making qualities of a specific musical instrument. In the latest disc from this spectacular Norwegian label, the Trondheim Symphony Orchestra and Vocal Ensemble, lead by conductor Tonu Kaljuste, offer an illuminating performance of Stale Klieberg's opera David and Bathsheba, and the listener is treated to a virtual tutorial on how an orchestra can energize a room and define its spaces. Since Morten Lindberg of 2L has already re-written the book on the room interactions within a recording--exhibited by his preference for recording his projects in the warm, natural embrace of Norwegian churches--it's noteworthy that David and Bathsheba is such a stand-out in this regard.

If I assigned one single word to the bulk of the 2L releases, it would be detail. The sheer amount of musical details that come through each of these recordings is nothing short of astonishing, and you will hear spatial clues that are often excluded in lesser discs. Where the 2L catalog shines over the vast majority of labels is the ability of these recordings to include the fine details that inform the listener that this splendid music is being delivered by real live human beings--a quality that has become extremely important to me over the last year or so. When it comes to the hi-rez formats--Blu-ray audio in particular--it's very easy for the flesh and bone elements to be obscured in a smooth haze of perfection. Not so with 2L; I routinely hear the movements of the musicians and they way their bodies connect with their instruments. Anyone lucky enough to experience live music on a regular basis takes these sonic cues for granted. For those confined to reproduction, these cues are often lost--and that's one of the primary qualities that makes it so easy to tell the difference between the two.

On David and Bathsheba, you'll notice this first in the sibilances uttered by the vocal ensemble. If you're listening to a live choir, you'll immediate hear the "s" sounds of the words and note how they stand apart from the other sounds, almost as if they're somehow isolated in the soundstage. You may hear some audiophiles complain about excessive sibilance, and how it may be a symptom of a problem within a sound system (often due to a misaligned cartridge or a worn stylus). But sibiliance exists in the real world, and it has a rare quality that is hard to capture correctly on a recording. It should stand out; you should pay attention to it. This is the first way in which David and Bathsheba is accurately recorded.

The second quality I noticed is the richness of the bass, specifically of the string bass and cello section. Smooth, warm and forming a perfectly measured foundation for the rest of the sound, this low frequency information interacts with the recording space in nearly magical ways. The transients and the decay achieve more than visceral satisfaction--they are balanced. I've heard classical recordings where the basses are either turbo-charged in the studio or over-mic'ed on the stage. I've also heard live orchestra performances where the sound of a single double bass can get completely lost in the're watching the bow slide across the strings and nothing comes out. With this recording, the basses can be somewhat reticent against the more dynamic sections of the orchestra--when it's called for. When a statement needs to be made, they step out of the shadows and sing in an absolutely natural way, a way that is delivered from additional pressure from the strings and then travels organically through a room--not from a turn of a knob in the mastering suite.

Stepping back from the technical aspects from the performance, I must admit that I'm not the biggest opera fan in the world. While I was studying music in college, I heard one classically-trained violinist say that he hated opera and oratorios and chorals because he considered the human voice to be such an imperfect thing, especially when compared to the sound of musical instruments (such as the violin, I'm sure). While I've consciously fought that viewpoint for most of my life, it did color my perspective to the point where I often find myself listening to vocal works with impatience. David and Bathsheba emerges as an exception; it is so beautifully performed and so musical (the melodies, in particular, are lush and hypnotic and complex), that I can genuinely relax and let the notes flow through me. Coming from someone who believes that they play Stephen Sondheim musicals in hell, that's high praise indeed.

(Once more, this Blu-ray audio disc also comes with a hybrid CD/SACD disc.)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Janet Feder + Fred Frith: Ironic Universe

I've been a big fan of Janet Feder's since she walked into our room at the California Audio Show in August and asked us to play her superb new LP, Songs with Words. (You can read more about that album here.) In fact, I just turned in my list for the Top 20 Albums of 2012 to Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever and Janet's album was near the top. There's something about the sound of prepared instruments such as pianos and guitars that takes me somewhere both alien and comforting, and I could spend hours listening to the unique and haunting sounds she extracts from her acoustic guitar.

As it turns out, Songs with Words is not Janet's first album. She's been recording and releasing albums for many years, albeit at a very slow pace (roughly one every six years, judging from her discography). Working backwards from 2012, the next addition to my Janet Feder collection is 2006's Ironic Universe, which she recorded with avant-garde guitar legend Fred Frith. Mr. Frith appears on roughly half of the twelve tracks here, and he's the perfect complement to her lyrical yet deliberate--and sometimes folk-oriented--playing. On these duets, all live studio recordings without effects or overdubs, Frith shows off his fascination with the various genres of Americana by picking with the appropriate amounts of lonesoneness and soul, something that emerges as an illuminating contrast to Janet. The album's closer, "Closing," is a trembling whirlwind of decay and echo, a musically precise version of random metallic objects being blown about a junkyard during a hurricane. It builds to a swirling, crashing crescendo before it slowly fades over the horizon.

Frith is noted for dropping objects such as ball bearings and other found objects onto the strings of his guitar, usually as it lays flat on his lap. This is an interesting counterpoint to Janet, who places key ring curlicues onto the strings of her guitar to achieve a distinctly plucked metallic sound. On the songs without Frith, Janet explores similar landscapes as she would in the future for Songs with Words, but with a more fluid, intricate style. On the later album, she is more willing to explore the empty spaces between her ideas, something that comes with experience and confidence. On Ironic Universe, she is swifter and more willing to wow the listener with her talent. It almost makes more sense to start with Ironic Universe and then move on to Songs with Words so you can see the arc of her artistic expression.

The only downside to Ironic Universe is that I would love to own this on LP. I downloaded it from her bandcamp site ( in a FLAC file, which sounded fantastic, but I really love the sense of space and air on my beautiful LP pressing of Songs. At the same time, I continue to be amazed at just how good hi-rez downloads can sound, and how much they can engage my interest. In other words, this is an incredible marriage between an artist pushing the boundaries of a musical instrument, and a commitment to celebrate that instrument with stunning clarity and realism. Highly recommended.

(By the way, several YouTube videos can be found of Janet Feder and Fred Frith performing these tunes. Originally Ironic Universe was released as a CD/DVD combo package.)

Friday, November 30, 2012

CCI Visits the Arizona Audio Video Club

"Interesting and professional guests!"

That's how Colleen and I were described by the members of the Arizona Audio Video Club after we were the invited guests at their November meeting on the 28th. Both of us thought, "Wow...we've never been called that before." But we'll take it. We've also never attended an event like this before, but I have to admit it was a lot of fun--even though we didn't know what we were going to talk about once we were standing in front of the packed conference room at the Phoenix Airport Marriott. We decided that Colleen would talk about CCI--who we were, how we got started, and what lines we carried--and I would describe the system we brought and play some music. I was warned that there were many engineers in the club so I knew I'd have to be ready to explain all of the technical aspects of the gear we brought. I did a lot of homework.

We kept the system as simple as possible because we knew we'd only have a couple of hours to set-up the system and make it sing in the rather large room. One person seemed surprised that we didn't bring a turntable since I'm a "vinyl guy," but that would have been too much to assemble. Instead, we brought the Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier (27 wpc, single-ended parallel ultralinear pure Class A amplification that uses 6550 valves in the output stage, $6495), the Unison Research CDE CD player ($3895 plus $225 for the optional optical DAC) and the new Secondas from Opera Loudspeakers ($3995 per pair)--finished in a beautiful gloss white. We also had a pair of the new little Opera Mezzas ($1495 per pair) on hand. Both pairs of speakers were the first in the US, so it was a real treat for the members.

The system was wired with Cardas Audio Clear Light speaker cables and interconnects, Cardas Audio Golden Reference power cords, and Audience jumpers for the bi-wireable Secondas. Steve Wooten, president of AAVC, provided a PS Audio line conditioner. The rack was from Quadraspire.

I then played three cuts for the members: "Midnight Sugar" by the Tsuyashi Yamamoto Trio from The TBM Sounds! sampler, "A Whiter Shade of Pale" from Halie Loren's They Oughta Write a Song... and "1 Speed" from Dean Peer's Airborne. The system sounded surprisingly good in such a big room; it's amazing how a group of warm bodies can tame the resonances in a big open space. Then Steve Wooten (pictured here) took over and allowed members to play their music. Bill Coombs of The Sweet Spot, our dealer in Phoenix who helped to put together the event, commented and how quiet and attentive the members were during the demo...much more than usual. Afterward we received several emails from members telling us how nice the system sounded.

Colleen and I would like to thank Bill, Steve (who treated us to a great dinner beforehand) and the members for a wonderful event. Special thanks go to another member, also named Bill, who brought a pumpkin pie cake that was the real hit of the evening. Almost every email we read said, "Great sounding system...and that cake!"

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Up at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is up at Perfect Sound Forever--it's my annual year end wrap-up, the 14th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. Read it here.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

CCI Visiting the Arizona Audio Video Club Next Week

CCI is proud to announce that Colleen and I will be the featured guests at the November 28th meeting of the Arizona Audio Video Club! We are demoing the Unison Research Sinfonia integrated amplifier, the Unison Research Unico CDE CD player and the Opera Secondas (the same white pair that recently received rave reviews in both AV/ and TONEAudio). Guests are welcome as long as they RSVP at Event starts at 7pm at the Phoenix Airport Marriott, 1101 N 44th Street in Phoenix. See you there!

Kenneth Karlsson's The View Was All in Lines on Hybrid CD/SACD

From an unbridled pounding on the keys to gentle, deliberate notes strung singularly and allowed to decay naturally, Kenneth Karlsson's new recording on 2L is a virtual tutorial on how a piano should be reproduced. I've always found it challenging to evaluate hi-fi equipment based on solo piano recordings; you have to search for delicate clues such as the notes traversing across the sound board in a believable way, or the soft pedal work that transforms the nature of the notes and how they interact with the room boundaries of the original venue. Some recordings make this incredibly easy--my Three Blind Mice jazz LPs accomplish this with aplomb--but a vast majority of these recordings often obscure the sounds that a large wooden musical instrument makes and concentrate on the notes and only the notes.

To hear how a piano sounds in a live, unamplified space, you need to hear more than the unfettered notes. You need to hear how the pianist interacts with this large music-making machine, and that's why so many classical music lovers appreciate artists such as Glenn Gould and Keith Jarrett, among others. Breathing, body shifts and grunts are something that are experienced by the listener during a live performance, and these biological additions influence how the notes project into the room. Kenneth Karlsson doesn't hum or squirm in a distracting way, but his measured breathing becomes as vital to these performances as the piano. Throughout this difficult, challenging music, he wrstles with wood and metal and ivory and produces a sound that moves beyond the organic and becomes utterly convincing in every way. You'll hear the music ebb and flow through every breath.

A vast majority of the splendid 2L Recordings are Scandinavian down to their bones, and here Karlsson presents the work of two noted but relatively under-represented Norwegian composers, Asbjorn Schaatun and Rolf Wallin, to expose non-Scandinavian audiences to the terse expressionism of these modern figures. These pieces are the polar opposite of pastoral, and feature jarring, naked atonalities that project agitation, confusion and regret. Karlsson tempers this music with something more familiar--two pieces from Arnold Schoenberg. As Karlsson states in the liner notes: "I felt there was something missing...I wanted something more spontaneous and less premeditated than the rest of the music." He included Schoenberg's Sechs kleine Klavierstucke--a piece that was written in a single day--to celebrate its centennial, and to show the contrasts with the contemporary works by the other two. Those expecting something to cleanse the palate between Schaatun and Wallin will be surprised at the seamlessness in the transitions, and how exemplary of a choice this ultimately was.

This is the first recording I've received from Morten Lindberg that featured neither the Blu-ray audio nor vinyl formats. As I mentioned with the Buene piece I reviewed a few days ago, my playback capabilities concerning redbook CDs are far more sophisticated than with Blu-ray so I'm experiencing a more realistic sound. When it comes to sheer piano, I don't believe I've heard better from CD. My touchstone for realism continues to be a handful of vintage LPs I own (RCA Shaded Dogs and the aforementioned TBMs), but this is an amazing recording that will show off your system and further cement 2L's reputation as the vanguard for 21st century classical recordings.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Barry Brusseau's The Royal Violent Birds on LP

The first song on Barry Brusseau's new album, The Royal Violent Birds, is an unmitigated mess. "Pig Frost" starts off all grungy in a pop-ish way, embellished with a woefully distorted electric guitar, and the song barely gets through the first verse before it collapses in a feedback-saturated heap. It's a surprisingly brave and atypical choice since everything afterward is relatively serene, thoughtful and straightforward. Brusseau, a singer-songwriter based in Portland, is avuncular in both countenance and voice, and his deep and plaintive baritone seems so at odds with his contemporaries that it comes off as completely refreshing and honest. Once you get past the first minute or so of cacophony, you'll be treated to a feast of mature, slightly spacy and disarmingly gentle music.

Brusseau has stated in interviews that he's a bit shy about the "imperfections" in his voice, but since when do we want our folk singers to croon like Perry Como? With the delicate and downright beautiful musical choices that run through the heart of this album, Brusseau is firmly in lullaby mode, even if he seems like the type of bedtime storyteller who may prompt you to sleep with one eye open. He delivers lines such as "Will you get me out of here, and will you rub my feet/Don't you know I will my dear, you are my one complete" (from "Homesick Yawn") with such measured caution that you may wonder if this album is a 45rpm pressing. (Yeah, I checked to make sure, and it isn't.)

Once you acclimate to the sheer innocence of his lyrics and voice--which together are just a stone's throw from Daniel Johnston's neighborhood, in a noticeably saner subdivision--there's the richness of the music. Brusseau firmly believes that less is more, but close inspection of his minimalism reveals unexpected touches, from the Michael Nyman-esque horns in "Love & Adoration" to the hints of synthesized glass harmonica swirling in the velvety black backgrounds and the earthy emotions suggested by Aubrey Webber's cello. Brusseau's guitar playing is also as spare and haunting as his voice. He's enthralled with his pure and simple melodies, and through the repeating of these phrases his music becomes hypnotic--and at the same time always interesting. By the time this relatively brief album has concluded--with a softer and more complete reprise of "Pig Frost" that's available only on the LP--you'll feel like you've taken a midnight stroll through a beautiful garden that may or may not be a cemetery. (The titular feathered friends turn out to be here to collect our souls after we've passed away.)

The LP pressing, which was mastered by Timothy Stollenwerk at Stereophonic in Portland, is also a bit of a revelation. It's not as quiet as some, especially toward the ends of each side, but the sound quality is deep, quiet and natural. Within these quiet songs you'll be able to walk around in the huge soundstage and turn over every stone and see what's underneath. The vinyl itself is also noteworthy--it's thick, possibly 180 grams or fairly close, and the contrasting halves of the disc will remind you of a black-and-white cookie. This is the first LP I've received from the folks at Gorbie International Records, and it's quite an impressive effort. I look forward to hearing more from their catalog.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes on Blu-Ray Audio, CD and SACD

My own journey through classical music followed the proper chronological order. I started with Vivaldi, Bach and Boccherini in college, got caught up in the Mozart craze when Amadeus came out in 1984, skipped completely over Beethoven and Schubert and was deeply into Prokofiev, Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich by the time Reagan left office. By the end of the '80s, I was confronted with the prospect of following those dark, atonal charms of Schoenberg, Bartok and Berg before I stepped back, exhausted, and let my mind wander and relax with the minimalism of Glass, Nyman and Arvo Part (especially Arvo, who understands the secrets of the universe).

But the single piece of modern music that had the greatest impact on me was Kevin Volans' modest and relatively brief White Man Sleeps. The final movement is novel because the conventional string quartet become so guttural and percussive, and therefore so unconventional. The instruments sound like hornets circling a fallen nest, menacing and swirling and trying to figure the next step. That piece showed me how far the boundaries of so-called "classical music" could be stretched. It's been twenty-five years since I first heard that piece, and nothing has sounded that strikingly innovative since--until Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes.

That bold recommendation comes with a plethora of caveats. This is supremely adventurous modern music that will probably appeal to a very narrow range of music lovers; you will not sit back and relax and listen to it with a langorous grin on your face. It's edgy, violent and startling, and you will jump out of your seat at least once. Buene (pictured below) has composed this music with the intention of capturing images of urban decay, stark industrial architecture, chaos and the ultimate surrender to organic forces. I can easily imagine hearing this music while walking through the ruins of an industrial city in the middle of the night, alone, fear rising up through my legs and into my gut. When I hear the slow, agitated bend of the notes played by the string section, I can almost see the rats running along the power lines. When the percussion strikes loudly and suddenly, I imagine rocks being thrown through the windows of an old deserted factory. Maybe it's me, accidentally knocking over some relic that crashes onto the ground, reminding me that I shouldn't be there. If I had composed Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes, I probably would have called it Places You Shouldn't Go at Night by Yourself.

I've made this music sound joyless, frightening, inaccessible and maybe even a tad annoying, but it's actually exhilarating in many ways. Because it's from 2L Recordings in Norway, it sounds spectacular. As performed by Cikada, a ten-member Norwegian ensemble conducted by Christian Eggen, PC/EL is an incredibly detailed recording that will allow you to easily decipher the individual instruments on the stage and how they interact with one another. This level of musical fidelity is absolutely essential to the interactive feeling you'll have while listening. Ten minutes in, you'll be looking over your shoulder to see who's following you. This is a challenging musical piece, and many of you will not get through it. But for those who are constantly searching for the envelope's edge, this will be an exciting, agitating, nerve-wracking and occasionally lyrical experience--and you can also use it to get those last stubborn houseguests to finally go home.

One more note: I've been admiring 2L Recordings and their commitment to delivering truly unique titles that focus on amazing sound quality and exceptional value. Well, Morten Lindberg has upped the value a notch by including an SACD/CD hybrid disc with the Blu-ray disc. I pulled out the rather hefty booklet from the case, and lo and behold there was another disc beneath it! I then went through all of the previous 2L Blu-rays to see if they all had a hidden disc and only one--Ola Gjeilo's Piano Improvisations--had it. (The upcoming David and Bathsheba also has the bonus disc.) That allows me to hear these incredible recordings on my high-quality CD player as opposed to the cheap Samsung Blu-ray player--and yes, the CD rules and yes, it's an unfair comparison. But it's much easier to make the jump to a new digital format such as Blu-ray audio when companies such as 2L give you this many choices.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Electric Shepherd's The Imitation Garden on CD

After checking over my last dozen or so reviews of up-and-coming indie bands, I've noticed a theme. I keep mentioning time machines, more or less, and how most of these young musicians focus on a specific year of rock as an artistic model. It's like all those 21st century teens walking around in Led Zep tees; rock and roll has folded back on itself and all innovation comes from borrowing liberally from the past and hopefully coming up with something distinctive. Once you've picked 1966 or 1971 or 1978, then it's all just a matter of whether you include The Wink. You know, The Wink is that subtle hint that tells your audience that you know it's 2012--usually conveyed through some modern studio trick such as a digital sample--just so you're adding something new to the musical history archives. But is The Wink actually The Flaw? Shouldn't you just commit to the idea that you're retro, and not come up with ways to distance yourself from your obvious influences?

Some bands avoid The Wink better than others, usually by making a particular recording sound like it was accidentally found in the vaults after several decades of obscurity. I don't think I've heard anyone pull off this trick better than Electric Shepherd. On their new album, The Imitation Garden, this psychedelic jam trio from San Francisco has emerged from their chosen time warp so remarkably intact that you'll think this is one of those '60s garage band reissues from Sundazed Records. You can almost smell the oil stains on the concrete. Do you like spacy vocals dripping in reverb, or dramatic cymbal crescendos that frame the sort of lyrical flourishes that bands like Can and The Doors used as signature touches? Well, settle into your beanbag chairs, cuz Electric Shepherd just pulled into the driveway.

I suppose if The Wink exists in The Imitation Garden, it's that Electric Shepherd's music isn't nearly as drugged out as it sounds. It's full of innovation and intelligence. The jams are challenging and metamorphic, drawing from all those decades of sound and cherry-picking those ideas that seem unexpected and yet logical. Sonny Pearce's drumming, in particular, sounds like Nick Mason after a hundred weekends of drum circles in some Hashbury park. While Mark Nelsen's vocals are borrowed from the first chapter of the Blues-Rock Singer's Primer, his guitar sounds are many--he might be one of those collectors with a room full of heavily-played Rickenbackers. Tommy Anderson's bass, reticent and supportive, is as steady as it is fuzzy.

That description sounds like at least five or six new bands I've heard this year, but what sets Electric Shepherd apart is that they are complete submerged in their musical ideas, as opposed to merely using those sounds as a strategy for defining a specific genre. In other words, these guys aren't saying "Listen to us...don't we sound like one of those cool bands your parents listened to in the '70s?" It's more like, well, these three guys started jamming together and this is the music that flowed from their fingers. While it's certainly informed by '70s blues rock and psychedelia, there is no winking in this music--just playing. While their name is an allusion to Philip K. Dick, not Kurt Vonnegut, Electric Shepherd is as unstuck in time as Kilgore Trout.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

An Embarrassment of Riches at Vinyl Nirvana

I stopped by the Vinyl Nirvana website today and was surprised at how many worthy vintage turntables David Archimbault had for sale. As you probably already know, David is one of the leading restoration specialists in the US, and he always has a handful of AR, Thorens and Merrill TTs on sale. But this ridiculous...I could easily own any one of these and be deliriously happy.

First up is this rare red AR The Turntable, which David has dubbed "The Spitfire," with an SME arm and an M-H speed control. This is just $1895 plus shipping.

Next he has a Merrill Heirloom turntable with a Linn Akito arm for just $1495 plus shipping. This is one of the early Merrills, which were based on heavily-modified AR designs. George Merrill went on to make more ambitious designs, many of which are considered the finest turntables ever made.

This one really caught my eye--it's a customized Thorens TD-150 with a tiger maple plinth and an armboard that's made from tiger's maple but stained red. It's stunningly beautiful, especially those dovetail joints. It's just $995 plus shipping and comes with the legendary Rega RB-300 arm.

Finally we have a gorgeous Thorens TD-160 with a perfect African mahogany plinth crafted by David's own plinth-maker. This is about as mint as a TD-160 gets. It comes with a Rega RB-251 tonearm and is just $1295 plus shipping.

David has a few others available such as a beautifully restored AR-XA for $325 plus arm, a Thorens TD-150 with another beautiful custom base and a nearly mint AR ES-1 with a walnut base. You can see them all here. Amazing gear, David, as usual!

Monday, November 5, 2012

Souvenir Parts I & II on Blu-ray Audio

Just a couple of days ago I turned in my annual year-end wrap-up for my Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. If you follow that column, you'll know that I give out awards for Best New Release in the LP Format, Best New Reissue in the LP Format, Best Cartridge and Best Turntable. (Most years I throw in some sort of special one-time category just to make it interesting.)

For this year's Vinyl Anachronist Award for Analog Excellence--spoiler alert--I'm choosing the fantastic "hi-rez" LPs from 2L Recordings in Norway. Here's a preview of what I said in the column, which will appear on the Perfect Sound Forever website around December 1:

"I now own three of [Morton Lindberg's] “DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180 gram audiophile grade vinyl” recordings—Souvenir Part 1, Souvenir Part 2 and Quiet Winter Night—and I can’t say enough about the overall sound quality, the clean and quiet pressings, the outstanding performances, the novel arrangements of the musicians and microphones and even the recording venues, which are primarily Norwegian churches. So I award all three with the award."

I go on to add:

"I’ll also give a brief plug to the Blu-ray audio disc versions of these titles and the incredible value they offer. For instance, the two Souvenir recordings are available on a single Blu-ray at a significantly lower price. One of the Blu-ray titles, Thomas T. A. Tellefsen’s Complete Piano Works, fits over three hours of music on a single disc. Yes, they’re trying to trick you into loving Blu-ray."

In talking about the Blu-ray Audio version of the two Souvenir recordings, I'm not sure what to add. (The review of the first one is here, and the second is here.) These are truly magnificent new classical recordings that stretch the sonic possibilities of the medium. With 2L's Blu-ray recordings, however, I'm noticing the following advantages:

1. These recordings are quiet, ghostly quiet. Even CDs and SACDs sound noisy in comparison. Some audiophiles may think they're hearing less air, presence and detail in these recordings, but the vast improvement in dynamic contrasts--upon careful and measured listening sessions--will reveal the opposite.

2. When I said "Yes, they're trying to trick you into loving Blu-ray," I meant it as a huge compliment. The sheer value you get with these recordings, especially in the context of the two-fer-one deal you get with Souvenir, is staggering. If Blu-ray Audio gains popularity in the coming years, these deals may disappear. You're not going to find this high level of sonic performance for these prices anywhere else. Go Blu-ray now.

There is one minor disadvantage. I still have to make qualifications (aka bitch) about my playback equipment, the now-famous $68 Samsung Blu-ray player. I made an important discovery last week concerning the Samsung: as a redbook CD player, it absolutely sucks. I'd rather use a vintage Sony CDP-101 than the Samsung to play CDs. Unlike the Sony, which was bright and harsh in the worst digital way, the Samsung sounds muddied and muffled and furry and fuzzy with CDs. Throwing one of these Blu-ray Audio discs into the Samsung is like noon on a SoCal day in early June; the overcast skies burn off and the beautiful California sun shines through. But I still have my doubts that the Samsung offers anywhere near the same sound quality as the Oppo universal players, for instance. So the disadvantage is the sudden and expensive urge I have to invest more in this format.

Morten Lindberg of 2L keeps sending Blu-ray discs my way, however, and I don't want him to stop. I just received Stale Kleiberg's David and Bathsheba and Eivind Buene's Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes (a very strange avant-garde piece, and I mean strange in a very wondeful way) on Blu-ray, and even the Samsung can't muddy up the sheer brilliance of these recordings. Morten even sent along a hybrid CD/SACD of Kenneth Karlsson's The View Was All in Lines, so I can enjoy that with my reference Unison Research CDE CD player.

An excellent universal digital player or at least a high-quality DAC is in my near future, and Blu-ray is to blame. If you have the capabilities, take the plunge and buy at least one of 2L's releases. I think the Souvenir is the one that will convince you of the excellence of the format.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Terry Combs

We started our week with some bad news. Bob Clarke of Profundo informed us that Terry Combs, proprietor of Sound Mind Audio in the Dallas area, has passed away.

Terry was easily one of my favorite two or three dealers in the country. He loved music, had a lot of fun with what he was doing and always passed on his enthusiasm to his customers and everyone else he met. That was especially true for 78rpm records--Terry had a wonderful collection and a dedicated system to play them. I interviewed Terry for the March 2011 issue of Perfect Sound Forever (which you can read here), and I also blogged about it right here.

Terry was the only dealer I knew who would get up and dance while customers auditioned systems (back in the adjoining room, so as not to disturb them). He's also responsible for one of my favorite quotes about high-end audio: "If your system doesn't make you cry, it ain't worth that much money!"

Well said, Terry. You were truly one of a kind.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The New Rega RP8: Rega Hootenanny at Whetstone Audio

All I had to do was mention that I was about to hear the new Rega RP8 turntable from Rega at the latest Whetstone Audio Hootenanny and my mail box was suddenly flooded with e-mails. "Let me know what you think!" "I've been waiting to hear this turntable forever and I can't wait for your impressions!" This morning there was even a "Dude, what gives? Let us know what you think already!" Dude, I just woke up. Chillax. It's just a turntable.

Evidently the RP8's appearance at Whetstone was a big deal--we were informed that this was only one of three or four out in the world as of yesterday. Rega UK rep Paul Darwin and US distributor Steve Daniels of Sound Organisation were there to explain the finer design points and then play plenty of music for the sizable crowd. It was probably Brian Di Frank's largest hootenanny to date.

In yesterday's blog, I mentioned that I had some questions about the unique RP8. Here's a quick summary of the answers:

1. The new RP8 will retail for $2995. It will be sold as a package with Rega's Apheta cartridge for $3995--a savings of about $800.

2. The removable outer plinth, which reveals the inner "skeletal" 'table, is designed to support the dust cover. When in place, the outer plinth is completely decoupled from the inner 'table. Paul Darwin reported that "the jury was still out" as to whether there was a sonic difference between the two configurations. He did pass the outer plinth around to the group, and it was exceptionally light. The new material for the plinth weighs slightly more than styrofoam, but it's several times more rigid than the plinths in the current line. It's amazing stuff.

3. The platter is similar to the two-piece glass one found on the current RP6, except that it's made from three concentric pieces. This increases the flywheel effect, which reduced strain on the motor and increases speed stability.

3. While the RP8 replaces the old P7, the venerable P9 has also been removed from the product line. That's because an RP10 is on the way next year. In fact, Paul mentioned that there's a cost-no-object 'table that Rega built solely for research these new designs, and that may or may not make it to the marketplace. There have been rumors of a Rega supertable for some time now, and it was fun to hear Paul confirm this.

4. Someone in the crowd asked how the new RP8 compares to the P9 sonically, and Paul said he didn't want to come out and say that the significantly more affordable RP8 kicks the former flagship "into the weeds." Instead, he urged P9 owners to compare the two 'tables and come to their own conclusions. He also added that despite the fact that the RP8 is the current top-of-the-line, it will eventually be positioned as the entry level model of a premium line of turntables that are very different, in both design and performance, than the traditional RP1, RP3 and RP6. In other words, the difference between the two lines is very distinctive.

So how did it sound already? Well, it's pretty difficult to get a precise feeling for the RP8's performance in a big room full of people. My initial impressions were strong enough for me to say that I want one--or at least I want to spend more time with one in a familiar system. I've owned four Rega turntables in my life, including the P3-24 I currently use as a second 'table, so there's no question I enjoy their products (I have been called a "Rega Fanboy" more than once, most notably from the 1200 Army.) But from my limited time with the RP8, I do suspect this is a major leap forward for Rega designs, and that RP8s will start flying out the doors once dealers get them in (Brian already ordered a few).

The RP8's presentation was clear, strong and forward, with no sense of the leanness you might expect from a 'table with such a lightweight plinth. I suspect it will probably outsell every other Rega 'table model ever made except for the Planar 3 and its variants. You'll be hearing a lot about this turntable in the near future.