Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column Is Up...

The latest Vinyl Anachronist column in up on the Perfect Sound Forever website at http://www.furious.com/perfect/vinyl87.html. This one is about Blu-ray Audio and whether or not it's a viable format in 2012. I also speak some more about 2L Recordings from Norway, and how they are leading the Blu-Ray charge. Enjoy!

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Colleen Cardas Imports at the 3rd Annual California Audio Show

Here's my official press release:

"Colleen Cardas Imports will partner with our San Francisco dealer, Audio Vision SF, at the 3rd Annual Dagogo California Audio Show in San Francisco on August 3-5, 2012. We will be showing the spectacular Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amplifier, fresh from its rave review in the August 2012 issue of Stereophile, in the Cypress II room. We will also have the Unico Secondo hybrid integrated and the Unico CD Primo on display. The event will be held at the Crowne Plaza SFO, 1177 Airport Blvd, Burlingame, CA 94010. Phone: 650-342-9200. See more at http://dagogo.com/View-Article.asp?hArticle=1056."

I haven't been to San Francisco in quite a while, and it will be a pleasure to escape the Texas heat for a week. Plus, it's my birthday (one of the Big Ones, ugh), and I can't think of a better way to spend it than hanging out in SF, eating Zachary's Pizza and even heading out to see Ravi Coltrane at Yoshi's.

Colleen and I will both be in attendance at the show, so come on out and visit and hear some great tunes!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel Is Wiser than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More than Ropes Will Ever Do...on LP

Right now I'm kicking myself for not having discovered Fiona Apple sooner than now. She's been on my radar since her 1996 debut Tidal, and I found her first single "Criminal" intriguing, but evidently not enough to merit a purchase. I have friends, male and female, who think she's a goddess--and these are generally people with excellent taste. When her new album The Idler Wheel... started receiving over-the-top praise, I checked out if it was available on vinyl. It was, and after a couple of weeks with this wholly original and fascinating album I'm totally under her spell.

The Idler Wheel...was "recorded in secret," starting back in 2008. Fiona was disappointed with the reception her last album, 2005's Extraordinary Machine. Two versions had emerged, one favored by her longtime collaborator Jon Brion, and the result was a promotional nightmare. It didn't help that the commercial appeal of the album was somewhat restricted compared to her other releases (I find myself thinking of Kid A once again), so she decided to make this album a more private and guarded affair. It's clear upon the first listen that The Idler Wheel is a personal effort from an uncompromising artist, and the simplicity and purity of these ten songs are breathtakingly unique.

What you get here are ten songs that are little more than Fiona, her piano and some grungy, earthy and muted percussion from another longtime collaborator, Charley Drayton (who co-produced the album with Fiona instead of Brion). While it's certainly difficult to upstage Fiona's sultry, tense and emotional voice, Drayton nearly does it with a varied selection of hittable objects--possibly bells, cardboard boxes, vibes, 55-gallon drums and even what sounds like a pair of muddy combat boots being dragged along a concrete slab ("Periphery").

The strength of Fiona's voice, as always, is augmented by her soul-baring lyrics. She keeps it simple, sexy and honest. "How can I ask anyone to love me/when all I do is beg to be loved?" from "Left Alone" is delivered in a manic growl that betrays a wealth of conflicted emotions. "Periphery" opens with the thought provoking declaration: "Oh, the periphery/They throw good parties there." She's definitely a songwriter who knows how to make even her throwaway lines stick like glue.

Fiona saves the best for last; the last three songs on the album are the most memorable. "Regret" features a piano chord progression so somber, dissonant and yet strangely playful that those thundering notes will stay in your head for the rest of the day. "Anything We Want" is probably the closest the album comes to a radio-friendly single, which is not a bad thing in a decidedly non-commercial album such as this. The last song, "Hot Knife" is certainly the most light-hearted track on the album--it's funnier than hell to listen to Fiona compare herself endlessly to a hot knife and her lover a tab of butter, and vice versa.

Sound quality of the LP is a minor concern. For an album that took four years of focus and hard labor, the overall sonics are a bit claustrophobic and dark. It's not a severe flaw, however. This slightly closed-in feeling reminds me of my audiophile LP pressing of Carole King's Tapestry in that it's warm and inviting if not quite state-of-the-art. Still, I'd like Drayton's flourishes to be fleshed out a little more and not relegated to the background. It's a minor quibble for a great record, one that I'll listen to over and over for quite some time.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Unison Research Phono One phono preamplifier

Darn that Mike Mercer. No sooner had he completed his review in Positive Feedback Online on my Unison Research Simply phono preamplifier--my Simply Phono, the one that I used in my own system--he said those words. "I love it! I want to buy it!" On one hand, it's a great thing when a reviewer loves your product so much that he wants to own it (suffice it to say that his review, which will be appearing very soon, is a rave). On the other hand, I loved it too.

It's an occupational hazard that as an importer/distributor, anything I have is up for grabs, even when I've already purchased it for myself. But the silver lining, of course, is this: as the distributor it is my job to familiarize myself with every single product in the Unison Research line-up so that I can doff my expert's hat and answer questions. Unison has a rather extensive line-up--14 integrated amplifiers, two power amplifiers, two preamplifiers, two CD players, a turntable, a cartridge and even an FM tuner. Oh yes, and two phono preamplifiers. The Simply Phono, as wonderful as it is, is actually the smaller phono stage in the line. Selling my personal preamp to Mike meant I got to try out the more ambitious model in the stable...the Unison Research Phono One.

Today, my new Phono One arrived, clad in a beautiful mahogany veneer that could only come from Northern Italy. On paper, the differences between the two phono stages are small--both are all-tube stages that run in Class A and have zero feedback. The Phono One has five ECC83 (12AX7) tubes in it while the Simply Phono has only four. Both units come with the hefty external power supply. (In our literature we list the power supply as a $795 option, but you can only forego it if you are plugging the unit into a handful of Unison Research amplifiers.) Even the price differential is far from staggering: the Simply Phono is $1650 and the Phono One is $2450.

But the Phono One possesses a far more impresssive appearance. The Simply Phono, while still incredibly attractive, is small, a half-width chassis that is approximately the size of the old Naim NAIT. The Phono One is more of a full-size component and needs its own shelf on my rack. It's not as big as a full-sized power amplifier or preamplifier, but it's probably about as big as a classic Advent 300 receiver.

The extra cost of the Phono One is more than worth it, however; you get more flexibility with loading and matching cartridges than the Simply Phono, a circuit layout that offers better separation and interference rejection, a interior circuit that has an elastic suspension for less vibration and nearly non-existent low-frequency cross-talk (less than -90 dB).

The downside, however, is that I only have a few weeks to play with the Phono One before it too gets shipped off for review. It's mine when it comes back, however. I'll have another phono preamp to play with in the meantime (more on that later), but for now I'll be enjoying the warm, tubey goodness of the Phono One.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A 1200 for $1200?

I just noticed that Amazon is selling new Technics SL1200s for...get this..."starting at $999." They even have a refurbished one, whatever that means, for sale for $1300. Checking another online source, I found that they were selling 1200s for--you guessed it--$1200.

The prices of these 'tables went up once Panasonic announced they were discontinuing the 1200 a couple of years ago. Before that, they had a retail price of $500. I couldn't recommend this 'table at THAT price, much less the new "collectible" price. I'd always try to steer people toward something like the venerable Rega Planar 2, which cost $495 back then. While I obviously drew the ire of the 1200 Army when I made that recommendation, most knowledgeable audiophiles were quick to agree that the Rega had a much airier and energetic presentation and just sounded more musical. But the Technics fans are vocal and sometimes downright nasty, and they have a million reasons to buy a direct-drive 1200 over a belt-drive anything--and very few of those reasons have anything to do with sound quality.

But for around $1200 you can buy a friggin' amazing turntable such as a Rega RP6 ($1295) or the new VPI Traveler ($1300). Why in the world would you buy a new Technics SL1200 for that much?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Morten Lindberg's Comments on Souvenir Part II's Orchestration

Just as I'd hoped, Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings read my review below of Souvenir Part II and clarified the orchestration. It is NOT a mixed voice orchestration. Mr. Lindberg replied:

"Thank you, Marc! I can confirm that for the recording of this Part II the orchestra was not in mixed voices. Here's the drawings of the stage layout and session photos:"

The notes accompanying this diagram say the following:

"Preparing for recording Tchaikovsky’s “Souvenir de Florence” with TrondheimSolistene next week. Originally composed for a string sextet, Øyvind Gimse has expanded the score to chamber orchestra. Our planned stage layout will hopefully capture the dynamic between the sextet in the inner circle and the full orchestra surrounding them in an outer raised circle."

— with Beatrice Johannessen, Rolf Hoff Baltzersen, Dpa Denmark, Ole Wuttudal, Øyvind Gimse, TrondheimSolistene and TrondheimSolistene at Lindberg Lyd A/S.

For comparison, here is the layout for Souvenir Part I, which is indeed a mixed voice orchestration:

Thanks for the clarification, and congratulations on such an amazing sonic achievement!

TrondheimSolistene - Souvenir Part II on LP

No sooner than I had posted my blog review of 2L Recordings' Souvenir Part I from the Norwegian chamber orchestra TrondheimSolistene, Part II was announced on the 2L website. With their nearly identical front covers (the ears are mirror images, as if to suggest both ears from the same head), it's fairly obvious that these two albums were meant to be considered as a single piece; the sides on Part II are even labeled "C" and "D." Both LPs also feature a Tchaikovsky/Nielsen programme, although the second entry in the series offers the latter composer's Ved en Ung Kunsters Baare as more of a lyrical coda taking up just four minutes at the end of Side D.

So why do I prefer Part II over Part I? Both offer simply astounding sound quality--these are, as I've reported before, 180 gram LPs made from "audiophile grade vinyl" and cut from direct metal masters of hi-rez DXD 352.8kHz/24 bit files. As I stated in my first review:

"...there's the extremely high quality of the recording. When I first heard hi-rez recordings that cracked the 300kHz barrier (or even the 192kHz barrier), my first observation was how high and extended the treble sounded. Okay, that sounds obvious, but what was even more impressive was the pure and unadulterated sweetness of those high frequencies. As resolution capabilities extend into the stratosphere, I think many audiophiles--especially those who favor tubed amplification that softens the frequency extremes--expect and fear harshness, stridency and brightness. In my experience, this is usually not the case."

Yet with Part II, which is mostly comprised of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence (op.70), I'm even more transfixed by the quality of this recording. It sounds much softer, warmer and textured, despite the fact that the performances have been recorded in virtually identical way, using the same people. Even the venue is the same, the Selbu Church in Norway, althought the recordings were captured roughly five months apart.

It all comes down to the music, I've decided. Tchaikovski's Serenade for Strings in C (Op. 48), which graces most of Part I, is a more jarring and confrontational work. Full of dynamic contrasts, the Serenade will make you jump out of your seat repeatedly with its bracing crescendos, especially if you're not used to the extended, stratospheric treble of extreme hi-rez. Souvenir de Florence, while possessing an ample share of energy and vitality, is a piece of music that is more consistently pitched toward the listener. Its crescendos are approached with an almost Hitchcockian manner of suspense rather than outright and sudden punctuation. You'll feel like you're on a deliberate, tense journey as opposed to jumping off into an abyss. To illustrate this further, I was constantly sitting on the edge of my listening chair while listening to Part I. On Part II I was relaxed, utterly enchanted and embraced by this sweet yet passionate music.

My only question about Part II--and I may be revealing my ignorance about classical recording--is that I'm not absolutely positive that it's a mixed voice orchestration as in Part I. In the splendid liner notes that grace the gatefold (Part I does not have a gatefold cover, curiously enough), the brilliance of mixed voice orchestration is discussed thoroughly by Erik Fosnes Hansen...but only in relation to Part I. As he explains, "To the listening ear [mixed voice orchestration] makes for a startingly different experience. The melodic lines come at you from every side, detached from any fixed sense of direction."

Mixed voice orchestrations, as I've previously described, break up the "sections" of an orchestra and ensure that no musician is sitting next to someone who is playing the same instrument. In Part I, this arrangement was obvious. The sound really does sound more united, congealed and powerful. With Part II, this is less obvious. There are more traditional examples of counterpoint, for example, and a delicacy that suggests a more conventional setting. But despite the fact that I can't confirm or deny mixed voice orchestration on Part II, if I had to bet money I'd say it was mixed. Although I'm sure I'll receive confirmation from Morton Lindberg, the producer and genius behind 2L Recordings, I'd also like to hunker down and study this recording further and educate myself to notice these things with greater ease. Perhaps the only difference, once again, is the music and how it inhabits the space between your loudspeakers.

The very fact that I've spent so much time pondering both Souvenirs speaks volumes about their accomplishments. If you're an audiophile who is still obsessed with classical recordings, and I truly hope that you are, then these 2L Recordings should be considered mandatory for your music collection. They are so different from nearly everything else out there that you'll conclude that a)the recording of classical music in the 21st century is still and admirable and necessary endeavor and b)when it comes to classical recordings, you haven't heard everything yet. The mixture of hi-rez technology and old-school vinyl stamping yields such a fascinating artifact that you'll sit up nights thinking about it, as I have.

Just when I thought Morten Lindberg couldn't challenge me any further, he sent me two more 2L titles to review--on Blu-ray audio. My first impressions are very favorable--especially in the context of the Patricia Barber Blu-ray title I just reviewed--and I have to keep wondering what's around the next corner when it comes to musical formats and my personal preferences. That said, I'm more than content to continue listening to LPs, even if they are of the "DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180g audiophile grade vinyl 33 1/3 rpm" kind.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Boy Eats Drum Machine new CD, The Battle, coming out soon...

I've you've been reading my blog for a while, you'll know I'm a big fan of Boy Eats Drum Machine, aka Jon Ragel. Jon, who is based in Portland, has been firmly established in the vanguard of the alternative breaks genre for years, so it's always fun to hear his latest release.

Jon's getting ready to release his latest, The Battle, and you can preview and preorder it right here. For those who aren't into some of the newer dub genres, BEDM is an excellent starting point since Jon melds crazy and unique samples, awesome beats and a pop-friendly song structure. A virtual one-man band--he performs alone with two turntables and a microphone plus drums and a saxophone--he has a powerful yet classic crooner's voice that makes him different from everyone else out there.

I've sampled a few of the songs from The Battle and was immediately charmed by the tight song structures and romantic yet edgy beats. He's hard to classify, but his talents will put a smile on your face. As usual, I will strive to get his latest on vinyl. I already have Booomboxxx and Hoop & Wire on both CD and LP, and his vinyl is always special because each album cover is a unique, hand-painted work of art. The Battle will be available on September 3, but I hope you'll check it out now and pre-order!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

My Audio Design 1920 Loudspeakers

When I first announced that I had received the My Audio Design (MAD) 1920 loudspeakers from Timothy Jung, the CEO of this UK speaker company, I wrote it like this: "My Audio Design 1920 Loudspeakers are in the house!" Of course this sounds like the name of the company is Audio Design (a rather boring name), and I was telling the world I had just bought a pair and they were mine, all mine. But the name of the company is actually My Audio Design, also known as MAD, which is a bit more interesting. Their website is www.madengland.com, which peripherally suggests either Mad England ("they've gone bloody berserk on that side of The Pond!") or Made in England--again, a bit dull. I vote for MAD England! (add as many exclamation marks as you feel appropriate) as my favorite name for this relatively new manufacturer, but Timothy is fond of just My Audio Design, which delivers the message that these hand-crafted speakers are bespoke and designed to fit your listening room perfectly. Yours, not mine or anyone else's.

The 1920 is their smallest and least expensive speaker to date. It's been plugged by a few others as a "tribute" to the classic LS3/5a, but it's far more than just an updated version like the Stirling Broadcast LS3/5a monitors that were introduced just a few years ago. While the front baffle is roughly the same size as an LS3/5a, which is to say very small indeed, the 1920 is probably about 50% deeper, more in line with modern speaker dimensions. The 1920 is also ported in the back, unlike the sealed LS3/5a, and it is far more efficient at 90 dB. (The older speaker had an efficiency of just 82-83 dB, but there were versions with impedances of up to 16 Ohms, making them fairly easy to drive.)

So adding some cabinet depth, a port and a little more efficiency sounds like a recipe for "LS3/5as on steroids," and I have to admit that my first impressions of the 1920 did remind me somewhat of the BBC classic. There's that gorgeous, clear and lifelike midrange, coupled with imaging and soundstaging that epitomize the reasons why so many audiophiles still choose small two-way monitors for fairly expensive systems. What the 1920 offers over the BBC monitor, not surprisingly, is deeper bass, better dynamics and a larger soundstage. The LS3/5a was famous for its "boosted" upper bass frequencies that made the tiny speaker appear to go much further down in the bass than they did. The 1920 delivers its low frequencies--they are rated down to 58 Hz--more honestly. (In comparison, the BBC monitors went down to about 80 Hz or so, depending upon vintage.)

That's not surprising considering the 1920's woofer is more than an inch larger than the older speaker, and the enclosure is so much deeper. But when facing the 1920s in your listening chair, you will still be surprised at how big they sound for such a small speaker. In a nutshell, that fans of the older BBC monitors who are looking for a modern-day equivalent of the LS3/5a with more guts, more glory and more bass will be supremely thrilled with the 1920. I do admit that it's tough to make this assertion without a pair of the old Rogers, Chartwells, Goodmans, Spendors or Harbeths also sitting in my listening room, awaiting their turns, but the 1920s did a fabulous job of reminding me why those old BBC monitors are still prized--and very expensive on the used market.

The 1920s give you everything those speakers did right--midrange clarity, beautiful imaging and soundstaging and amazing nearfield monitor capabilities--and add dynamics, deep bass response and a much better level of fit and finish. The 1920s eschew the sloppy, Velcro-riddled baffle of the BBC designs for a sleek felt surface and very high-quality custom drivers. The cabinet itself is understated yet gorgeous, with thick sides and a rich walnut veneer that are beautifully finished.

My only reservation about these speakers are their rather polite high frequencies. They really do sound like the classic, refined British monitors they are, and if you've been listening to something else more dramatic and expressive you might be put off by that stiff upper lip. I also found that despite their 90 dB sensitivity, the 1920s needed a little extra juice to really open up. With my 27wpc Unison Research Sinfonia tubed amplifier, the 1920s sounded a little congested through the mid to lower treble. Once I switched to the 90wpc Unison Unico Nuovo hybrid integrated, the 1920s cleared their sinuses and relaxed.

That, of course, brings up the price of the 1920s. They are not an inexpensive solution for people who want pristine LS3/5as and can't afford them. They are a true made-in-the-UK monitor that surpasses the original speaker in almost every way. To judge the 1920s based on price, you have to research how much a pair of flawless LS3/5as cost on the used market, which can be $1500, $2000 or more. I once saw a pair on eBay that were rare and special for one reason or another, and they sold for over $3000. The Stirling Broadcast LS3/5as, introduced in 2007 or so, retailed for $2000 per pair--plus you had to add on an extra $1000 for the Cicable external crossovers which added more depth and air to the presentation. That's $3000--probably around the price the 1920s will sell for when they hit the United States. For that kind of money some audiophiles may choose bigger speakers that offer more fireworks. But those listeners never really got the classic British sound in the first place, and scoff at the very idea of a mini-monitor that can actually perform better than a big loudspeaker in a wide variety of ways.

But if you're Jonesin' for a bigger, beefier version of the classic BBC monitor sound, you need to get MAD. The MAD 1920s, I mean. They're evocative and sexy, in a David Niven sort of way.