Thursday, May 31, 2012
It's time for another Vinyl Anachronist column over at Perfect Sound Forever, and on this one I bravely tackled the controversial subject of premium power cords and powerline conditioning. I tried to offer a no-nonsense approach to the article and aimed it at people who are fairly skeptical about the benefits of these products and need an introduction. It is NOT an overall survey of powerline conditioning. Therefore, I will not host any heated discussions on this blog concerning these products; there are plenty of contentious threads on audio discussion forums that you can explore.
As a companion piece of sorts, I will be offering a mini-review on The Sound Application SA-X6 right here on the blog later today--let me finish my coffee and I'll get started.
The PSF article is available here. Enjoy!
Tuesday, May 29, 2012
This review from AudioEnz of the PureAudio Pure Vinyl Phono Preamplifier is cool for two reasons. First, we know Gary Morrison of PureAudio and he's already told us all about his new New Zealand-based company. Gary was the head of Plinius for many years and was responsible for some of their most celebrated designs, such as the 8150 and 8200 integrated amplifiers. PureAudio will be featuring more ambitious designs than Plinius; the phono preamplifier will probably cost around $4500 or so when it reaches the US. PureAudio also features monoblock amplifiers (running in class A) and a preamplifier. As you can see, the casework on these products is simply stunning.
Second, the review appeared in the New Zealand audio mag AudioEnz. For those of you who have followed the Vinyl Anachronist over the years, you'll know I wrote for AudioEnz for a couple of years. Michael Jones was a great boss, and I enjoyed working for him. It's funny, but people started assuming that I was from New Zealand for a while. Nope, I was an American who happened to write for a New Zealand magazine. I knew Michael from a couple of audio discussion groups, and we bonded over our shared befuddlement over the popularity of the Technics SL-1200.
Perfect Sound Forever, who has published my Vinyl Anachronist column since 1998, was going through some turbulent times including a temporary format switch and a new editor. For a couple of months, PSF disappeared and I assumed it was gone forever. I didn't want the column to die, so I approached Michael. He happily kept it going, but there were a couple of changes--I had to write about products that were available in New Zealand. That became a challenge over the ensuing months, since not everything I wanted to talk about was available in New Zealand. While the New Zealand audio scene was very active and represented by such well-known brands as Perraux, Plinius and a few others, this American was constantly searching for relevant things to write about.
When PSF reappeared in its original format, I started writing two separate Vinyl Anachronist columns for each publication. I found that I was quickly running out of content for columns. When AudioEnz went on hiatus after Michael had eye surgery, we let the association quietly dissolve. But I'm very glad to see the new, refreshed AudioEnz back online. It's also great to see them give such a rave review to Gary's phono preamplifier as well. Or, as reviewer Michael Wong concludes, "The Vinyl squarely hits all its design targets and in my experience is the finest phono stage ever made in New Zealand (and given the directions taken by other local manufacturers, is likely to hold the top spot for a long time to come)."
Congratulations, Gary! Great review.
Sunday, May 27, 2012
I've been resisting blog entries about live shows I've attended here in Austin for several reasons. First, I think it's a waste of copy space to report on concerts that have already happened--I mean, what are you supposed to glean from such articles? The event already happened, so what's the point of gloating about it? And second, it's really hard to take decent photos of darkened stages without a press pass and a high-dollar camera rig.
That said, I wanted to talk about the Madeleine Peyroux concert I attended Friday night at the One World Theatre in Austin because a) Madeleine Peyroux is such a fun performer, and b) the One World Theatre is such an outstanding venue. I'd never been to One World before, but in a nutshell it's an intimate venue with just 300 seats, and those chairs are arranged in a way that guarantees that every seat is a great seat. It's not cheap to attend concerts there, but they consistently attract the type of talent that appeals to those who don't particularly like conventional venues with their vast spaces and overbearing sound systems. If you want to see your favorite performers up close and in a space with excellent acoustics, I can't think of a better place than One World.
A have a couple of Peyroux LPs in my collection, both MoFi pressings, which indicates that she's a performer who values great sound quality on her records. Performing live, she reveals a playful and sanguine approach that suggests she's knocked back a few backstage before the curtain raised and she's ready to hang out with her audience and have some fun. (I know that sounds vaguely troublesome, but the overall effect is of pure charm.) Her banter between the songs is engaging and humorous, and she's not above an obscure joke or two. When she sang the title track of her latest album, Standing on the Rooftop, she explained how it related to her upbringing in Brooklyn and how as a girl she would often retreat to the roof of her apartment building to reflect and suggested to the Texan audience that they may call the song "Standing Outside Your House." It was funnier when she said it.
Her back-up band was talented and seasoned, and nearly every song gave her fellow performers a chance to improvise in the true jazz tradition. I was amazed at how deeply the musicians could dig into her retro-tinged songs and find a unique groove in which to play. I know I like to bash female vocalists and the manner in which audiophile embrace their hipness, but Peyroux is much more quirky and adventurous than women such as Diana Krall, Patricia Barber and Rebecca Pidgeon.
A final shout-out goes to Scott Oliver, an Austin audiophile who invited Colleen and me out for the evening with a group of fellow music lovers. We had a wonderful dinner at the Grove Winebar (which Scott described as the only cool place to hang out on the Westside area of Austin), and we were able to talk audio with a very well-heeled group of audiophiles who championed a very lofty selection of gear that I'd never heard of--CH Precision's $33,000 preamp/DAC, anyone? Thanks goes to Scott, his wife Maria, Bill Blaylock of Concept Electronics and everyone else who came.
Colleen and I plan to return to One World in September to see Bela Fleck, one of Colleen's favorites. I'm looking forward to it!
Friday, May 18, 2012
The first track on the new album from The Memorials might throw you. Titled "Dreams," it's fairly typical pop diva stuff, slick and over-produced, something that might come from any one of a dozen chart-topping pseudo-icons. It even plays that ubiquitous deep-bass synthesiser bend over and over, probably the same one that's sampled gratuitously in the trailer for the new Katy Perry concert movie (which I was subjected to when I saw The Hunger Games last month). I almost yanked Delirium out of the CD player and moved to the next album in the stack.
It's all a ruse, however. The Memorials consist of singer Viveca Hawkins, who usually sings with the likes of Cee Lo Green and The Coups, and Thomas Pridgen, who is best known as the drummer for The Mars Volta. Nick Brewer, who attended the Berklee College of Music along with Hawkins and Pridgen, rounds out the trio with his guitars. Let that sink in a little--prog metal meets R&B diva? What does that sound like? Exactly what you expect it does--manic, mean, edgy and very, very experimental, all with a big helping of soul. Once you get past that orphan of an opening cut, Delirium kicks in like an angry mofo, a thrilling hybrid idea, bolstered by Pridgen's truly phenomenal drumming and programming skills.
This is second album for the Memorials; their 2010 self-titled debut and its follow-up tour in 31 cities garnered them quite a following. With their sophomore release they're trying to accomplish something more confident and chaotic at the same time, the proverbial wall of noise. While this may sound familiar to fans of the Mars Volta, who were musical anarchists who often left their fans behind in a noisy, turbulent wake, the sound of The Memorials is always anchored by Hawkins' lovely yet powerful voice. It's a cross between the gutsy soul of Jill Scott and the straightforward pop sensibilities of Debbie Harry--I challenge you not to be reminded of Blondie at least once during Delirium. It's not obvious, but it's there.
As thoroughly as this album rocks--and most of the cuts are so epic in length that they will wear you out--I'm still perplexed by "Dreams." The rest of Delirium is so very consistent from the grinding rhythms of "Fluorescents" to the flute and keyboard flourishes of the closing cut, "Mr. Entitled." ("I'm So Anti-Me," the penultimate track, starts off much softer and more acoustic than the rest of the songs, but it does make more sense relative to the whole--especially when it gets going.) "Dreams" sounds like it belongs on another album, that the sound mixers at the studio put someone else's track in by mistake. So if you get this album, and I recommend that you do, either jump ahead to track 2 to avoid confusion, or go into Delirium complete informed about its contents. Once you get over that opening cut, you'll be amazed at the balls-out energy, the inventiveness and the soul of Delirium.
Tuesday, May 15, 2012
I have mixed feelings about music samplers given away at audio shows. I do remember one from Burmester Audio a few years ago that featured several remastered cuts from Pink Floyd's The Wall that sounded far better than any version I owned at the time. The Burmester sampler CD became a collectible among audiophiles, something that earned a reputation for offering astounding sound quality, and for free! Other than that exception, I do own a few music sampler CDs from a few audio companies, and not one stands out in my mind. So when I received Legacy Audio's Music Sampler, Volume 1 while visiting the Legacy room at the Lone Star Audio Fest a couple of weeks ago, I placed it in my pile of CDs that I brought to the show and then I promptly forgot about it.
When I finally put my show CDs away a couple of days ago, I noticed it. In fact, I noticed I had two copies--perhaps Colleen grabbed one as well. I checked out the back of the cover and noticed the usual audiophile fare...the sampler opens with a Latin jazz cut from David Chesky, a trio of folk instrumentals from lutenist Ronn McFarlane, three more cuts from the blues duo Carey & Lurrie Bell, two cuts from The Craig Russo Latin Jazz Project and a Duo for Viola and Harp by Quincy Porter and Eliesha Nelson. All of the cuts sounded great and featured worthwhile performances, although the Carey and Lurrie Bell cuts sounded a little harsh and strident to my ears. All in all it was a fine effort, worth dragging to audio shows.
The final cut, as listed on the CD jacket, caught my eye: "Dynamic Drums" by Damien Kaplan, which was recorded at the Legacy Audio Studio. I have to admit a fondness for demo tracks that feature drums--remember that great audiophile chestnut The Sheffield Drum Record from the '80s? That LP kicked major butt. I won't even mention that Kodo CD with the giant drum that falls onto the stage--heard through a pair of Infinity IRS Betas, that was the first time I ever felt the legs of my jeans flap from the low frequency energy. So I hit track number 12, sat back, and waited to be impressed.
Oh my. I was not disappointed by "Dynamic Drums." Dynamic is an understatement. Played on what sounds like a conventional drum kit, this track starts off very quietly, with a majority of the beats done gently with Mr. Kaplan's fingernails on the drum heads. Then we hear some muted work on the cymbals that are glorious in the depth of the decay. Finally, there's a loud whack! as Kaplan strikes his snare with full force. He does it again. Then he launches into full attack for the remainder of the track's five minutes, and all I can say is this is what a real drum kit would sound like if stationed in my listening room. Through my very capable Opera Grand Callas loudspeakers, there were no veils, no sonic compromises. Over the last couple of days I dragged several people into the listening room to hear this--every one walked away in a daze. This is a stunning demo track for percussion.
So how can you get this sampler? That might be a little tricky. You might be able to score one from a Legacy Audio dealer, or you can attend an audio trade show where Legacy is an exhibitor. The easiest way is to join Legacy Audio's Backstage Pass program on their website, and they'll send you one. It's free, so why not? It's worth it just to hear "Dynamic Drums."
Part 2 of my Diary of a Mad Exhibitor series for Positive Feedback Online is now online: it's on the Lone Star Audio Fest. Those of you may remember that the first installment concerned CES, which was all business in comparison to LSAF. The second installment discusses smaller local audio shows and their unique concerns.
Check it out at http://www.positive-feedback.com/Issue61/lsaf.htm.
Monday, May 14, 2012
John Hicks' style of playing the piano is unusual. It's almost as if his wrists can rotate 360 degrees so his fingers can fly over the keys like paint rollers. The notes alternate between a beautiful flow and a halting, truncated churn, and this varying cadence sounds natural and almost animalistic in the way it seems so random and graceful at the same time. On his trio's new album, Sunshower, Hicks pays tribute to several of his favorite jazz pianists such as Bill Evans, Sonny Clark, Kenny Barron and Billy Strayhorn in front of an intimate live audience at the Adobe House just south of San Francisco. While he is able to invoke the spirit of these musicians through these tributes, he maintains his own sense of independence throughout. He's truly a unique and gifted musician.
Sunshower is another release on BluePort Jazz, a fantastic label from Jim Merod that uses minimalist recording techniques to achieve a live, natural sound. I've already reviewed a couple of CDs from BluePort in the last few weeks (which you can find here and here), so you can learn more about Jim and his label from those. Here, I want to concentrate on the music, which is just as sublime as it is on the other titles. You get a lot of it, too: these seven tracks last approximately an hour and twenty minutes, with the shortest song, the final "Strayhorn Melody," clocking in at seven and a half minutes. I'm not commenting on quantity over quality here--I'm just underlining the fact that the trio (which includes Roy McCurdy on drums and Bob Magnusson on bass) takes its sweet time developing the themes of these songs, digging deep and with passion.
It's hypnotic, as a collection of beautiful jazz ballads should be. That means--and I hope I don't get in trouble from Jim Merod for saying this--that I was constantly nodding off toward the end of many of these cuts, only to regroup and focus as each song came to its end. If it helps, I do the same thing every time I listen to Kind of Blue or Someday My Prince Will Come. It's simple enough, that this is dreamy, gorgeous music that makes you feel relaxed, and it's so well-recorded that you'll be thoroughly embraced by its warmth. Couple this lyricism with Hicks' churning, undulating and hesitant piano style and you'll feel like you're on a boat, bobbing up and down on the ocean. Nighty night.
The centerpiece of the album, the 18-minute title track, may be the only time you sit up straight and listen intently. Listen to how McCurdy's drums as they become more and more manic, and the cymbals become agitated and jumpy. This track is surprising in the way it builds and maintains suspense, like a good movie. On the next track, a 12-minute long medley of "Say It (Over & Over Again)" and "My Funny Valentine," really shows off the trademark Hicks sound. Playing solo for the first few minutes, Hicks will astound you with the way he can roll those magic fingers across the ivory like no one else you've heard, even as he's trying to evoke memories of other pianists.
Like every other BluePort Jazz CD I've reviewed, this one sounds magnificent. It's quite remarkable that each one of these CDs sounds so different in terms of music, from Gene Bertoncini's quiet and captivating guitar in 2+2=1 to the ambitious and dynamic merging of Billie Holliday and Dinah Washington in the Anthony Smith Quartet's The Lady & the Queen. At the same time, there's a confident calm that underlies all of them, a commitment to the sound of a live performance. I can't wait to hear more.
"UGH, Cinci SUCKS for Lp's If this was all I could get I would shoot myself!! This is not meant to offend anyone, its not your fault!! Shake It and Everybody's....what a pile of JUNK!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Gonna try Phils on Monday but dont have any real hope...only going, I guess, to satisfy my undying curiosity on how bad it can possibly get."
I'm normally opposed to bringing my copious online battles to this blog, but a recent thread on the Steve Hoffman Forum brings up some interesting points. Jason, aka Shinedaddy, is an avid LP collector who claims to "crisscross the country by car" for his job, and he visits record stores all over the country. According to a Facebook message from a vinyl-collecting buddy of mine, Shinedaddy is well-funded in the sense that he often pays big dollars for rare records. I certainly have no problem with that. What I did have a problem with--hence my involvement in the thread--is people going on Internet forums and trashing businesses because they couldn't find what they wanted.
Shinedaddy went on to characterize Phil's as "NOT my idea of a great record store" and "absolute dreck, totally wastes of time in every possible way." So I responded.
I've written about Phil's in the past, and since then I've received several emails from Phil himself on his goals for his store. By liking his business on Facebook, I am constantly alerted to new arrivals, and I have to say this: Phil's is not full of junk. He gets plenty of rare and valuable LPs all of the time, and because he markets himself well they probably sell rather quickly. That's bad news for collectors who travel the country by car in order to fill the holes in their LP or CD collections, but to those people I say this, which I posted on the thread:
"Why would [this thread] get shut down? There's a lot of important and relevant points being made about judging record stores based on the current stock.
"I've also been here long enough to know that the forum is pro-industry, and that trashing businesses is NOT in everyone's best interests. It's important to support audio companies, record stores and dealers so that we all have choices when it comes to spending our dollars. We can't lament the shrinking amount of brick-and-mortar stores while simultaneously saying that they're full of junk. I'm not sure why people wouldn't get this, or say that it's trolling when someone comes along and objects to the bashing of decent, honest businesspeople who are struggling in a difficult economic climate.
"I know for a fact that Phil's is not full of junk, as Jason/Shinedaddy proclaims. Phil actively promotes his business by advertising the incoming stock, and he often carries very rare and hard to find records. Because he does so, he probably sells the good stuff quite quickly. Shinedaddy needs to reconcile the facts of the situation: the rare stuff he's looking for is available, but driving around the country visiting record stores may not be the best way to fill in the holes in his collection. When I'm looking for something specific, I can usually find it by either going online or by visiting the premier record stores which have what I'm looking for--usually at a high price. When I do what he does--randomly stopping by and rummaging through the bins--it's a different sort of activity, one where I may be surprised to find something I didn't know I was looking for. It's a hunt, a different sort of fun. Just look at all the collectors who go to Goodwill, antique stores, estate sales and other venues and still have a lot of fun.
"My suggestion to Shinedaddy is to "like" Phil's Facebook page and then see all of the cool things he has coming in all the time, things that probably sell rather quickly because they are so special. What he shouldn't do is bash Phil's online and say it's filled with junk when it clearly isn't. He needs to step up his game and join the 21st century, and then maybe he will see just how good Phil's really is."
Shinedaddy objects to all of this, mostly because I have not visited Phil's in person, walked out with an armful of rare and valuable LPs and written a review of my experience that counters his. But my point is a larger one, echoed in my comment about the "shrinking amount of brick-and-mortar stores." I encounter the same ill-mannered behavior when it comes to high-end audio dealers: people lament the shrinking number of old-fashioned stereo stores but at the same time complain publicly about snobby salesmen or paying full retail prices on gear. Many of these people commit the gravest of mistakes--they put a local dealer through his paces and then buy online to save a few bucks. They don't realize that a long and mutually beneficial relationship with a local dealer will eventually save you much more money than searching online for the best price on equipment. Work into this equation the fact that these bargain-seekers often buy gear without hearing it first, and then base their buying decisions on magazine reviews or the comments they find...in online discussion forums. They trust their wallets more than their own ears, in other words.
Maybe it's time to stop complaining online about stores that don't indulge our preoccupation with instant gratification. Another person in the thread challenged me on this particular point: "If someone has a bad experience at a business, they shouldn't let others know about it? Internet discussion is only for praise?" C'mon, did Shinedaddy really have a "bad experience"? My response was:
"If you're making a complaint based upon some serious breach in customer service or safety, then that's fine. Karma doesn't necessarily mean bad--if you drive a crooked business from town then you've done good. Right?
"But if you're complaining online because you didn't get your $200 Humble Pie LP when you came in, and every decent record store should have at least one $200 Humble Pie record in it or else it's all junk, then you aren't doing anyone any good.
"This isn't about identifying companies who are seriously dishonest or provide an extremely inferior product. If those people go out of business it's because they deserve to do so. They took that risk when they didn't pick quality as a priority and went for the quick cash. My comments about karma are reserved for people like Shinedaddy who think they can say that a store has nothing but junk when it's a purely subjective opinion. Do you see the difference?"
Let's face it, as a society we're really becoming good at complaining about customer service. There's nothing wrong with that--heck, my most widely-read blog article in these archives is the one I wrote about poor customer service. But we really need to differentiate between objective reasons to complain and subjective reasons to complain. Our skill at complaining has also been corrupted by services such as Yelp! that are less than truthful and accurate. Or, as I wrote in that Steve Hoffman Forum thread:
"A large percentage of the positive reviews on Yelp! are bought and paid for. I know, because I worked for an SEO company that wrote those reviews. A large percentage of the negative reviews on Yelp! are are bought and paid for as well, by a business's competitiors. Another chunk of negative reviews are posted by people who are what we used to call "pranksters" or "troublemakers." They just want to cause problems. Very few reviews on Yelp! or similar websites are legitimate."
It comes down to this: should we wield this sort of power against honest, hardworking businesspeople? Should we be able to ruin a business by merely bitching on the Internet? Years ago I was in the restaurant business, and we used to fear the fact that one case of food poisoning could put us out of business permanently. It didn't even take an actual case to achieve that result; all somebody had to do is spread a rumor by telling a friend that "The last time I went there, I got salmonella poisoning."
That reminds me of two movie quotes. The first comes from Spiderman: "With great power comes great responsibility." The second comes from Schindler's List: "Power is when we have every justification to kill, and we don't." That might be a little heavy-handed for the situation, but the point remains. In these tough economic times, let's not kill businesses just because our immediate needs weren't met.
Friday, May 11, 2012
Once or twice in the last year, I've referred to the new Paris turntable from Oracle Audio as "looking like a Pro-Ject, but sounding like an Oracle." I certainly didn't intend it as a knock against Oracle--or even Pro-Ject, for that matter, since I've heard one or two of their designs that I really liked. It's just that Oracle has always been known for their stunning, open-architecture turntable designs such as the Delphi and the Alexandria. Audio reviewers often make comments such as "it's a stunning example of industrial sculpture" or "it sounds as good as it looks!"
The new Paris, however, looks a bit ordinary next to the other Oracle products. It has a fairly conventional plinth with a lacquered finish that does come in bold colors such as red and white and yellow--which reminds me of budget turntables from Pro-Ject, Music Hall and even Rega. From a distance, the only sign that the Paris is something special is its neatly sloped corner on the bottom right of the plinth. Get up close, however, and you'll notice the quality of the fit and finish, especially when you actually start playing music on the Paris and can feel all those textures as you cue the arm.
The second part of my comment, where I say that the Paris sounds like an Oracle, is definitely a compliment. When I first heard the Oracle at the AXPONA Show in Atlanta last year, I took back my comments about the looks once I heard the amazing sound. In a mostly Oracle-populated system, the Paris sounded like a very expensive turntable. I remember the deep bass being very impressive for what is basically a low-mass turntable design, and when I learned of the price of the entire Oracle Paris system ($3150 for the 'table, $950 for the arm, $1150 for the cartridge, $5000 complete when bought as one), it started looking like a true bargain.
So when I had a chance to get my hands on a Paris for further evaluation, I jumped at the chance. Colleen and I recently got a call from our friend Dean Peer, who recently received a black Oracle Paris for his home system. He wanted me tostop by and double-check the initial set-up of the 'table. I packed up my protractors, allen wrenches and stylus gauge and we headed out for an evening at Chez Peer.
After fine-tuning the Paris--it was fairly easy and straight-forward to align the cartridge and set the tracking force--we sat back and listened. It's truly interesting to listen to a home audio system with someone like Dean who spends a lot of time in recording studios seated in front of a huge mixing board. He instantly heard sonic changes after I made my adjustments, and thank goodness they were for the better. Dean works with a lot of digital software and a ruthlessly revealing pair of studio monitors, so it's rewarding to have him sit back and hear just how wonderful vinyl can sound. While he can be incredibly demanding when it comes to production quality, he totally gets the warm, humane sound of analog playback.
Colleen and I are planning to return in a couple of weeks with one of our Unison Research amps so that he can hear what we're up to in the world of audio. I'll follow-up once we get the Unison into the mix and I'm able to fine-tune the set-up even further by ear. I also borrowed a Sound Application powerline conditioner from Dean so I could evaluate it...this is probably the most expensive power conditioner I've used but after two days I'm hearing some very noticeable improvements that are taking my system to the next level as well.
Monday, May 7, 2012
It's difficult to go to a small regional trade show such as LSAF and not compare it to the grandaddy of all high-end audio gatherings--the Consumer Electronics Show held every January in Vegas. Regional shows are usually more casual and therefore populated by manufacturers who are more hobbyists than major corporations. In other words, LSAF is organized by audio lovers, men who build amplifiers and speakers and want to share their passion with fellow hobbyists. They freely discuss their designs in detail and never show concern over such things as corporate espionage, reverse engineering or copyright infringement.
I had to remind myself of that since I was representing an established high-end audio company who doesn't necessarily share design secrets. When someone asked me how much voltage was getting to the grid of our Simply Italy amplifier, I had to resist telling him it was none of his business. Instead I told him I didn't have that particular specification available. That gentleman left in a huff.
Colleen and I first visited the Lone Star Audio Fest last year, when Polk Audio marketing guru Russ Gates asked us to stop by and possibly supply him with some cables. Since Colleen still represented Cardas Audio back then, she happily obliged. I tagged along and blogged about it and was entertained by the do-it-yourself vibe and actually had an unexpectedly great time. LSAF is an antidote for those terse, all-business trade shows such as CES--it's free to attend, everyone knows each other and no one really expects to get a 500-piece order from a dealer. It's relaxed and fun, much like Texas.
So when Russ asked CCI to partner with him again this year, we didn't hesitate to say yes. I offered him the Unison Research Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier and the CDE CD player because a) we had them in stock and b) the Nuovo had 90 watts per channel and I had no idea how efficient his Polk speakers were. Last year Russ demonstrated the flagship LMiS707 speakers ($4000), and I was very impressed with them. They would have deserved a Best Sound in Show Award if it hadn't been for the $18,000 YG Acoustics Carmel speakers in the Advanced Home Theater room. Polk is definitely trying to break back into high-end audio, and the 707s are fantastic speakers for the money. This year Russ was showing the slightly smaller LMiS705s ($3000) which appear to offer the same drivers in a slightly smaller enclosure.
The night before the first day of the show, however, Russ was concerned that the system, which also included Chris Sommovigo's excellent and affordable Black Cat interconnect and speaker cables, was a little bright. He wanted to know if he could do some tube-rolling to soften up the sound. While the designers at Unison Research suggest sticking with the stock tubes--Giovanni Sacchetti has tried everything in the world and prefers the sound of the Russian Tung-Sol tubes--I told Russ to give it a try. But by the time we arrived in Dallas the next morning, Russ was much happier with the sound. Colleen and I were worried about the HUGE bass the Polk speakers put out into the room; it was slightly detached and one-note in quality. But we made it through the first day, which saw light attendance, in one piece.
Just before midnight, we received a text from Russ. We had brought the Simply Italy integrated along for a static display; it's brand new and selling like hotcakes. I had already told Russ that we could try it in the system at some point--like I said, I wasn't sure how the little single-ended amp's 12 watts per channel would work with the Polks. Then Russ told me that the Polk had 91 dB efficiency. "Dude," I said, "that's way more than enough!"
So he quietly took the Nuovo out of the system, replaced it with the Simply Italy, and instantly fell in love. "I want to take it home and name it," he texted us. From that point on, we were very happy with the sound of the system. To that stern older woman who told me that Polk Audio and Unison Research was an odd pair, no it's not.
My only reservations about our set-up was the small, squared room with its rather thin walls; deep bass was still rather forceful and there were some bothersome room reflections--in other words, it was a typical hotel display room at an audio trade show. But for anyone who thinks that single-ended, modestly-powered amps are wimpy at the frequency extremes, the Simply Italy will prove them wrong. Our system sounded big, powerful and exceedingly musical.
Thanks to Russ' room-running skills, as well as the rather modest size of the entire show, Colleen and I were able to venture out and visit every room. This year, the show seemed less DIY and more commercial, probably best exemplified by the big Legacy Audio room downstairs just off the lobby. Legacy was showing off their new Whisper XD speakers, and the entire set-up was as big and as impressive as any demo I've seen at shows like CES and the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. The Whispers delivered a GIANT sound but still resisted making the instruments sound larger than life.
It's hard to see these huge electrostatic panels from Crescendo Systems and not instantly think of Wife Acceptance Factor (WAF), although Colleen thought they were pretty cool. (She found out that she could get them in pink.) This photo just doesn't do justice to the immense size of these speakers, especially since owner/designer Kim Beumer is an exceptionally tall gentleman. Nevertheless, his speakers offered an almost delicate sound; it was amazing how different areas of the huge panels seem to produce just the right sonic effect without becoming distorted or overwhelming. Mr. Beumer is also one of those designers who is it in for the love of audio...his magnificent creations can be yours for just $6000. International shipping alone on these puppies might double the very modest price!
This modest system from Paolo Audio really caught my eye as well as my ear. First you'll notice the lack of parallel surfaces on these small single-driver speakers, which are called the Klassika (the drive unit is from Tang Bang in China and offers 93 dB sensitivity and a bass response down to 50 Hz). It's a striking look, one that I really enjoyed. I asked the cost of the speakers, and the final price had not been set; when purchased with the matching $4200 Klassika integrated, also shown in the pic, the system price is an affordable $5900.
Honestly, if these speakers are less than $2000 a pair, then I would have considered taking a pair home for a second system. Both the amp and the speakers, coupled with a modest Pioneer DVD player as a digital source, offered a very pleasing and relaxed sound that was seductive.
What's that, you ask? One of those Mpingo discs? Nope, that's the remote control for the Paolo Audio system. It only controls the volume, but it does so with style and panache. You simply point the bottom at the system and turn it like a big mid-air knob. Very cool.
Arguable the most interesting product offered by Paolo Audio is the Petit speaker pictured here, which is basically a tiny version of the Klassika speaker. Designed for use with your computer, the Petit contains a small 4" driver that has a frequency response from 80 Hz to 20 kHz. That's not bad for something you could easily hold in one hand. This I might buy one day.
This very interesting system was from Seijin Audio, a Utah dealer who is planning a move to Austin, Texas. The system was unusual in that it matched affordable products (Jolida), expensive products (Vitus Audio) and in-between products (Linn). While the sound was excellent, Colleen and I fell in love with the equipment rack. Made by a company called Custom Isolation, these supports feature beautiful acrylic shelves that resemble brushed aluminum at different angles.
Oh yeah, the rack can also change colors. I think Colleen has finally found the equipment support of her dreams.
From the feedback gathered at the end of the show, LSAF 2012 was a big hit. This is definitely a show at a crossroads; half of the people there wanted the show to grow and expand and become something big like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, the other half wanted to keep things modest and casual and friendly. Colleen and I have already spoken with Russ about next year. He wants to do some vinyl, and I'm more than willing to help. He and his girlfriend Cyndi Myers were exceptional hosts (Cyndi told me she reads my blog, so hello, Cyndi!), and we can't wait for next year!
Thursday, May 3, 2012
Here's our system for the Lone Star Audio Fest all set up in the Polk Audio room by our friend Russ Gates. It features our Unison Research Unico Nuovo integrated amplifier, Unison Research CDE CD Player, Polk Audio LSiM705 speakers and Chris Sommovigo's Black Cat Cables.
The Lone Star Audio Fest will be held from May 4-6, 2012, at the Embassy Suites Dallas-Park Central. You can find out more info at http://lonestaraudiofest.com/. Stop by and say hello to Russ, Colleen and me.
If Jack White's Blunderbuss had appeared in 1970 and not 2012, would it have leveled entire cities? Would it have influenced generation after generation of rock musicians? Would it have sold as many copies as Sgt. Pepper's? How high would it rank on Rolling Stone's The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time? Would it have cracked the Top 100? The Top 20? Higher?
Hyperbole aside, the point I'm trying to push is that Blunderbuss is a truly great rock and roll album...but as every rock critic knows time does provide an all-important context for such judgments. I was recently annoyed by an article that claimed Nevermind is so vital because it was the last truly great rock album. I wondered if the author ever listened to a White Stripes album in his life, or a Black Keys album, or any modern release that truly captured the essence of rock and roll. Great rock is still being performed if you only climb down from the Cobain pedestal and take a look around.
That said, Blunderbuss makes me sad for Meg White. For years Jack White had been defending her rudimentary drumming style by declaring her as an all-important muse, that the Stripes wouldn't be the Stripes without her. Yet here Black is, making perhaps the best Stripes album ever, undermining his recent comments in Rolling Stone that "I've put off making records under my own name for a long time but these songs feel like they could only be presented under my name. These songs were written from scratch, had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression, my own colors on my own canvas." I adore Meg as much as the next indie music geek, but it's clear that the songs here come from the man we've always known and admired as the true creative force behind the Stripes. It might be comforting to Jack's ex-wife to know that he needed a talented back-up band, notably consisting of mostly female performers, to carry on in her absence.
He even carries on the remarkable arc of progression the Stripes maintained through six amazing albums--more complex arrangements, a continuous exploration of new instruments in the mix--and yet at the same time he cements his position as one of rock music's most able and skilled historians. White, if anything, has always been a musical sponge, making every song sound like a lost classic by sticking with the most basic of riffs. That usually consists of a blazing guitar sound blended with a unique sensibility when it comes to lyrics, an unexpected innocence that also sounds more edgy than it is thanks to his uncompromising rock and roll voice.
That brings us back to the original question--is timelessness the same as originality after 50 years of rock and roll? It's difficult to deny the sheer power of these songs, from the gutteral and hard-driving squeal of "Sixteen Saltines" (with its youth-angst lyrics beginning with "She's got stickers on her locker/and the boys' numbers there in magic marker"), the swampy, percussion-prompted "Freedom at 21" (which I just watched in awe during last week's performance on The Colbert Report) and even a faithful cover of "I'm Shakin'" that will make you smile less than ten seconds in due to its loose, fun-filled approach. Like last year's El Camino from the Black Keys, Blunderbuss will make you wonder if we're truly finished with good ol' rock and roll, and whether or not there's still more to discover within the genre's somewhat narrow confines. I'm spoiled by the live Austin music scene, where I can go downtown and hear great rock and roll nearly every day of the week--so I know the answer. The real question therefore is whether everyone else can admit it, and champion the saving grace that's personified by Jack White.
I went with the 180gram LP for this. While I was disappointed that the CD version wasn't included for $25, like so many other modern LP releases, I was thrilled when I played it for the first time. The surfaces are pristine, and the whole kit-and-kaboodle is included on one old-fashioned disc. I appreciate the lack of inner-groove distortion on many of these new 2-LP sets, but putting just two or three songs per side will not encourage vinyl newbies to embrace the increased effort of listening to the vinyl. I heard little or no mistracking toward the end of the sides, so it can be done.
Besides, Jack White is mighty fond of recording in older analog formats (The Stripes' Elephant was cut using equipment that was built no more recently than 1961), so Blunderbuss should be heard on vinyl first. It's a win-win situation, despite the fact that you'll probably want to blare this in your car stereo while driving down the road, thinking about the days when rock was king and every album sounded this good.
Tuesday, May 1, 2012
How do you feel about Booker T. and the MGs? The Ventures? The Bar-Kays? Do you get excited when you watch an old movie from the '60s and there's the scene that takes place in a club or a party or a beach and there's some groovy band in the background layin' down the soundtrack? Then might I suggest The Satin Chaps?
That's the name of the album, Might I Suggest the Satin Chaps, and it contains a heavy dollop of instrumental soul, R&B and funky rock and roll, and it's easily the party album of the year. If you're looking to set the mood for a retro-bash, look no further. This Portland-based octet features such indie stalwarts as Luke Strahota of the High Violets, Eric Hedford of the Dandy Warhols and Peter Dean of FastComputers. Throw in a trio of horns, some ecstatic handclaps and big slice of Hammond organ carving up the melodies, and it's time to dance.
While the majority of the tracks are instrumentals, you do get some lively singing and shouting to propel those catchy choruses. On "Jump Shout Shake," for example, the lyrics consist of those three words repeated over and over with half-drunken gusto. It'll remind you of Otis Day and the Knights. Same with "Cry Baby," where the accusatory title is laced with a sexy, drowsy horn melody and a handful of great solos from said horn players. The album's real stand-out is "Funky Matador," an ambitious flamenco-tinged jam that's the only song on the album to break the four minute mark.
If there's a downside, it's that the album was recorded lo-fi in an effort to capture that dated, spontaneous feel. It's not a bad idea, but I have a few Booker T. and the MGs albums from Sundazed and I know how exhilirating this kind of music can be when it's recorded well. Then again, this is NOT audiophile music and if you're sitting alone in a dark room listening to it, it's time to re-evaluate your social life. Before you play this album, invite a few people over. Have some fun. Let the party go on until the sun comes up.
This is available on both CD and LP (which is only $15!). Check it out on the Satin Chaps' website.