Friday, August 31, 2012

Another visit to Whetstone...with the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamp

First things first...Colleen Cardas and I just announced that we are now the US distributors of PureAudio of New Zealand. We have been so impressed with the Vinyl phono preamplifier I talked about last night that we jumped at the opportunity to represent this brand in the US. We also set the US retail price of this unit at $4500.

The day before we made the announcement, we brought the Vinyl over to Brian Di Frank at Whetstone Audio, our Austin dealer for Unison Research. Brian had already heard the buzz about PureAudio months ago, and when I posted on Facebook that we had the unit, he immediately responded "I want to hear it!" So we scheduled a visit and put the Vinyl into his showroom system that consisted of a Line Magnetic integrated amplifier, Well-Tempered Amadeus turntable, Dynavector 20X2 cartridge and Harbeth HL5 speakers.

After just a few tunes, Brian was impressed with the performance of the Vinyl. I'm going to give him a few days with it, and then get it back into my system so I can keep breaking in that Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge in time for the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October. In the Vinyl's absence, I went back to my old Lehmann Audio Black Cube SE phono pre. (I had to give up my Unison Research Phono One phono preamp for a couple of months so it could be reviewed in TONEAudio.) While the Lehmann is my favorite phono preamp in the $1000 to $1500 range, phono stages such as the Phono One and the Vinyl simply trounce it in terms of texture, 3-D imaging, deep bass response and detail.

Just a few hours after we left the Vinyl at Whetstone, Brian blogged about it on his website. He called it "flippin' great!" We agree. We're so enamored with the Vinyl that we decided to take it to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest as well, where it will be mated with the Unison Research Giro turntable, Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge, the new Opera Grand Mezza speakers and a Unison Research amplifier TBD (either the Simply Italy or the Sinfonia, or maybe both).

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Transfiguration Phoenix--First Impressions

I mounted and aligned the Transfiguration Phoenix earlier today, and I've been listening for the last few hours. It was a bit more difficult to mount this cartridge for two reasons. First, it has sort of a large body and a rather small cantilever, so it was harder to see where the tip of the stylus was landing on my alignment protractor. Second, it's a $4250 cartridge, and I get a little nervous when mounting the big-dollar carts. I'm reminded of my Koetsu days, where I nearly had a heart attack every time I swapped cartridges. I busted a cantilever once due to carelessness, and I still have nightmares about having to write the $880 check for a re-tip.

That said, all went well today. My only real obstacle came when I tried to remove the stylus guard from the Phoenix. It's a stubborn little mofo. I wound up calling Colleen into the room; she has longer fingernails.

Once installed, the Transfiguration Phoenix immediately impressed me. The first thing I noticed was that surface noise was significantly reduced. That's one of the magical things about the nicer low-output moving coils, they tend to relegate surface noise deeper into the background so it's less noticeable. My Koetsus did that, and so does the Phoenix.

So what was the first LP I played? My Nautilus Half-Speed version of Ghost in the Machine by The Police. It was the last LP I'd listened to with the Unison Research UN1...just last night. While the Phoenix is going to need about 100 hours of break-in--which is why I have it in the first place--it still had an open, relaxed and effortless feel to it. This is an album notable for the black, velevety silences between the notes (I talk about this further in my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever), and the Phoenix's low noise floor really brought these qualities to the forefront. There's still a little harshness in the upper treble, but this will go away after a few more LPs.

Together with the PureAudio Vinyl preamplifier and the Giro turntable, this is probably the best analog rig I've used for a long time--maybe even ever. As great as my old Michell Gyro SE, SME V and Koetsu Rosewood were, mated to whatever phono stage I was using at the time, this rig is less fiddly and much more solid in both sound and in build quality. Colleen sat down for a while and listened to one of our favorite reference tracks, "Yulunga" from my MoFi pressing of Into the Labyrinth from Dead Can Dance, and she said, "This is the best our system has ever sounded." I agree wholeheartedly.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Transfiguration Phoenix Has Stopped By for a Visit...

It's been an interesting week at CCI headquarters. First we get the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier in for evaluation (and after four days, it's getting better and better), and now I just received a Transfiguration Phoenix cartridge from Bob Clarke. Bob runs Profundo, the US distributor of Heed, Trenner & Friedl, VivA and Transfiguration, and we're teaming up with him, as well as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, for the upcoming Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in October.

Even though we're sharing a room with Bob, we'll each have a separate system that shows off our latest gear. Profundo will be showcasing such new arrivals as the Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh loudspeakers and the recently updated Phoenix, and Colleen and I will be showing off the Unison Research Simply Italy integrated and perhaps the upcoming Opera Grand Mezza loudspeakers. It'll be similar to the Hootenanny we had last year at Whetstone Audio, where Bob and I took turns playing music, but we've already agreed to forego the "you've been served" back-and-forth musical challenges.

Here's where the Transfiguration comes in: Profundo doesn't import a turntable (although Bob is very fond of Basis, a US company), and CCI doesn't import a cartridge other than the Unison Research UN1 that comes with the Giro turntable. The UN1 is a fantastic cartridge for the money, but it's basically a $550 moving-magnet. We wanted to up the ante for RMAF and feature a first-class analog rig, so we're pooling our resources and going with a much more ambitious moving-coil. I've been given the job of breaking this Phoenix in. I know, it's a hard job but I'll manage.

I'll mount this tomorrow and give initial impressions in a few days. I'm expecting great things, especially with the Phoenix matched to that utterly fantastic phono stage from New Zealand.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Patti Smith's Banga on LP

My first encounter with Patti Smith was confrontational; I was a teenager and discovered Easter in the record bins at the local Licorice Pizza. The rawness of the image--no bra, those armpits, is she attractive or not, can't tell--was perplexing and I wasn't mature enough to decipher the message she was sending. It was my loss that I put it back into the bins, my suburban values preventing me from understanding that Patti wanted to challenge me and my pubescent ideals concerning sex appeal and sexism. All I could think of was what my mother would do if I brought this LP home. This was the woman, after all, who confiscated my paperback copy of Jaws and returned it only after she stapled together the chapter where Hooper and Mrs. Brody have an affair.

Because of this awkward introduction, I find it oddly charming that Patti Smith is such a comforting, almost maternal presence in 2012. Her new album, Banga, is more than a landmark album from an artist who has been vital to rock music for more than 40 years. At 65, she has bloomed into a nurturing force of beauty. Her voice has never sounded so lovely and confident. You won't hear primal screams in Banga, but you will hear someone who has gained wisdom and calm during an amazing, challenging life, and even her harshest admonishments can be delivered in lullaby form and still be totally convincing in thier urgency. While many of these songs are infused with a mysticism that suggest she's been studying Native American cultures with uncommon scrutiny, there's a grounded feel to these songs that are so committed to the joys of rock and roll that it seems like the last thirty years of pop music never happened.

In the past I've resisted becoming a full-fledged Patti Smith fan, and one of my main obstacles to truly appreciating her has been her penchant for including long, rambling spoken-word pieces in her albums that tend to stress ugliness, decay and chaos. She's first and foremost a poet, even a beat poet by the strictest standards, but I feel something's lost when you hear a poetic recitation and you can't see the poet's emphatic, animated delivery. Poems are words, and they have a flow and structure on the page that can get lost in a mere voice. A face brings back the humanity. In Banga, however, she's able to reconcile this gap with a strong musical foundation in the spoken-word pieces. In fact, she often departs from just speaking these words and impulsively sings the occasional syllable or two as if she can't fight the feeling that inspired her to do so. On the best of these cuts, "Tarkovsky (the Second Stop Is Jupiter)," the band plays dreamily behind her, inducing jazz-influenced overtones and phrases that are downright hypnotic. Only one time does she ramble for longer than ten minutes, on "Constantine's Dream," yet the band starts jamming as if they're auditioning for Abraxas. It works.

When she sticks to more straightforward song structures, Patti accomplishes something rare: she connects to the past in a way that seems more than just timeless. She actually grabs your hand and takes you back. Much has been said about her contributions to the punk movement, but her real roots go back further, to the late '60s and early '70s, when musicians played as if every note was going to be examined under a microscope. There's no artifice in songs like "Amerigo" and "April Fool," just music. This is rock and roll in its best guise, and it feels like it's been missing in action for quite some time. Patti even travels further back in time, before the British Invasion, to sing the deliriously poppy and appropriately girlish "This Is a Girl," and you almost expect a doo-wop or two in the chorus.

The only misstep on the album, in my opinion, is closing Banga out with a rather straightforward cover of "After the Gold Rush." Other than having a children's choir take over the verses in the song's closing moments, there's nothing novel or even necessary about it. Just a few years ago I watched Thom Yorke sing a passionate, unique version of this song at Neil Young's Bridge Concert Benefit, and Neil came out afterward and hugged him and could only manage a feeble "Wow." I think in the right mood, Patti could hit this kind of high. Even with this relatively mild-mannered coda, however, Banga is still a remarkable album. After Easter and Horses, this is the Patti Smith album to get.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

PureAudio Vinyl Preamplifier in the House!

A package arrived at the doorstep of CCI today from halfway around the world--New Zealand to be exact. We've just received the PureAudio Vinyl Preamplifier, a phono preamp, for evaluation. PureAudio is the new company from Gary Morrison and Ross Stevens who are best known for their years with Plinius. During Gary's tenure at Plinius he designed some of their most legendary products such as the 8150 and 8200 integrated amplifiers and the SB-300 amplifier. Gary was responsible for the "Plinius" sound from 1987 to 2004, and Ross worked closely with him from 2000 to 2004.

PureAudio takes a slightly different approach than Plinius--everything they make (a pair of monoblocks, a preamplifier and the Vinyl) runs on pure Class A and features impressive and innovative construction techniques. The strikingly beautiful chasses are non-magnetic, and made from aluminum and steel mesh. The Vinyl may look small in these pics, but it is a heavy, substantial beast.

Within a few minutes, I had the Vinyl hooked up and playing music. My only reservation is that the small light on the front panel only stays on for the 30 seconds it takes to warm up, then it turns off. It's a soft white light that glows hypnotically, and I wouldn't mind seeing it stay on. Fortunately, you can remove the Vinyl's cover and adjust a clip on the jumper marked "Light ON." I may just do that.

I'm not going to make any judgments after just a couple of hours of listening, but suffice it to say that the Vinyl extracts an amazing amount of information from the grooves of my LPs. The last time I heard this much detail, delivered with this much ease, was with a phono preamp with a price in the five-figure range. I'm very excited to play with a phono preamp that offers this high level of performance. Price in the US has not been set since there is currently no distribution here, but I'm estimating it at somewhere between $4000 and $6000. (The New Zealand price is NZ$4195.) At the higher price, it might be a class leader; at the lower price it will be a game-changer. I'm going to listen for a few weeks, and hopefully I'll have more info before I have to send it on to the next lucky audiophile.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Janet Feder's Songs with Words on LP

"Can you play my record?"

As an exhibitor, I'm used to hearing that at trade shows. Show attendees bring their favorite CDs along and hope they'll have a familiar recording played so they can accurately judge a specific audio system. I've discovered a lot of great music this way, and I've heard some strange stuff as well. This was the first time, however, that the person in question meant "Can you play my record?" as in, you know, the one that I actually recorded, featuring me?

Janet Feder, a singer-songwriter based in Boulder, Colorado, quietly entered our room at the California Audio Show and made the request. In one arm she carried the SACD of her new album, Songs with Words, and in the other she carried the LP. She was game to let us play either format, but I opted for the SACD because the turntable in the room, a Clearaudio Ovation, wasn't quite dialed in yet. (Also, to be perfectly pragmatic, the SACD would require that we used our Unison Research CD player as opposed to someone else's analog rig.)

She played the first track, "Heater," which started off with a collection of seemingly disjointed sounds, beautifully recorded, presented in a huge space between the speakers. Slowly and deliberately these sounds, which were made by a prepared acoustic guitar and a toy piano, congealed into a melody and gained momentum. While I think the other attendees in the room had more mainstream tastes and didn't quite get what she was trying to achieve, they did give her an enthusiastic ovation after the song was over and she graciously grabbed her little disc and went on to the next room. Personally, I was intrigued and wanted to hear the entire album. I made a note to track her down and buy the LP, which I did.

Songs with Words sounds like an ordinary title for an album, but it's far more unusual than that. The sound quality is immense; the album was recorded by 15 microphones that were placed completely around Janet as she performed. Her prepared guitar, which will remind you of Arvo Part's prepared piano works with their slightly alien, percussive tones, was recorded live along with her vocals and piano. She achieves these otherwordly sounds by placing small metal rings--the same as you'd find on a key ring--on the strings as she plays. Other additional effects were added later using "analog plates, reverbs and tape-based manipulations." The liner notes state, in bold type, that "There are no digital effects in this recording." Everything was recorded on the largest SONOMA system in the world--32 tracks of surround sound. That's why Songs with Words sounds so huge and intimate at the same time.

Janet's songs are so unique because they exist in a singular logic that eschews normal melodies, song structures and sounds. Even when she performs a cover, such as "Blowin' in the Wind", or steals a few verses from Nirvana's "Come As You Are" on "Plan to Live," you'll be hard-pressed to identify it until you hear those familiar lyrics. The melodies, keys and tempos come from her and her alone.

You can get Songs with Words directly from Janet's website--the LP is only $20 and includes a DVD with hi-rez files, and the SACD is only $15. I'm definitely happy that Janet Feder walked into my room and asked me to play her record.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Very Special Thorens from Vinyl Nirvana

David of Vinyl Nirvana has a very special Thorens ready for a lucky vinyl lover--this "long base" TD-125! Designed for 12-inch tonearms (which are becoming more and more popular these days), this one comes with an SME M2-12R already mounted. As you can see, this beautiful turntable comes with a rare African mahogany plinth that David has installed himself.

As David himself says: "In the back of my mind I knew that there was a Thorens TD-125 turntable that accommodated a 12 inch tonearm, however, it wasn’t until a faithful customer named Scott D started talking about the “Long Base” model that I realized it was something that Thorens actually produced themselves, direct from the factory. At first, I spent a few weeks trying to search out a TD-125 Long Base that Scott could purchase. There were various owners who had pictures of their prized possession on various forums and websites. One long base model even came up for sale on eBay, but it turned out to be just a chassis, with no plinth.

"In my research, I began to realize that there was very little difference between the stock TD – 125 in the Long Base model: 1) larger plinth; 2) larger armboard; 3) larger aluminum switch/fascia plate. The first two differences were very minor, a matter of woodworking. However, the larger switch/fascia plate was going to take some planning to implement. First there was the actual manufacturer of the plate, and then there was the reproduction of the silk-screening. After three months, working with a variety of companies getting estimates and discussing various plans for implementation, the switch/facia plates were done and looked fantastic.

"While that process carried onward, I had extended plinths made and a series of extended armboards. The plinths were three-quarter inch mahogany, African mahogany, and black walnut. The armboards were three-eighths birch plywood painted satin black. As a final touch, because I have always hated the battleship gray/green color of the 125’s top plate, I had the tops sandblasted and then powder coated in what’s called 'Grey Sparkle.'"

David plans on restoring more of these, but on a very limited basis. This one is just $3395 shipped, which is a great price considering that cosmetically it is nearly perfect. David, who grades very, very tough, ranks it as a 9.5 on a scale of 10. He plans on building just one more this year, so contact him now if you're interested.

You can find out more about the Thorens TD-125 Long Base here.

A Visit to Amoeba Berkeley

No visit to the Bay Area would be complete without a visit to one of the greatest record stores in America, Amoeba Records in Berkeley. I visited the Amoeba store in Hollywood on several occasions, but I'd never wandered into the original location to the north. After receiving the somewhat distressing news that my favorite record store in the world, Millenium Records in Portland, may be closing its doors, it's comforting to know that this vinyl landmark is still thriving and offering an insanely complete collection of LPs to its customers.

Colleen and I had a couple of hours to kill before heading over to Yoshi's in Oakland's Jack London Square for some sushi and an evening of jazz with the Ravi Coltrane Quartet. That was torture, because I could spend days rummaging through Amoeba's aisles and two hours was quite simply NOT ENOUGH TIME. I had to ask myself the difficult question, "What LPs have I been looking for?" My first two choices, Wheedle's Groove and the new reissue of Neutral Milk Hotel's On an Aeroplane Over the Sea, were nowhere to be found, so I started speed shopping and came up with a handful of choices.

I wound up with the following LPs: Icky Thump by the White Stripes (I only had the CD version, and the LP version was remastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray at RTI), Attack and Release by the Black Keys (I'm working my way backward through their catalog) and Patti Smith's new album, Banga. I flirted with the idea of paying through the nose for a mono Parlophone pressing of Sgt. Pepper, but I ran out of time and had no idea where to look. (I hate asking for a help in a record store about as much as I hate asking a stranger for directions in the middle of nowhere.)

As I said, Amoeba is huge, and it would take dozens of visits to get a reasonable survey of their stock. I was impressed by their punk selection and toyed with the idea of grabbing a couple of LPs for my younger brother, but he doesn't have a turntable. (If it was on CD, he told me when I returned, he probably already had in it his massive music server files.)

Yes, Amoeba sells turntables according to numerous signs. But before you get all excited, I found three turntables--a $149 Numark DJ turntable, a $149 Audio-Technica and a $249 Music Hall USB turntable. Even Millenium offers a handful of Regas and Pro-Jects. That, however, was the only disappointing things about Amoeba. I can't wait to go back there with a little more time on my hands and a little more green in my wallet.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

The Third Annual California Audio Show

It's nice to take a break from the Texas heat in the middle of the summer to attend an audio trade show somewhere cool, oh like San Francisco perhaps. The Third Annual California Audio Show from Dagogo certainly fit the bill, and we soaked in the cool temps and listened to some outstanding stereo systems. Based on the attendance, I'd say the show was a huge hit--our room was consistently packed. The steady stream of audiophiles in the Cypress I room was undoubtedly due to the US debut of the Kef LS50 nearfield monitor speakers, a remarkable speaker for just $1499 per pair.

While our dealer took several orders in advance for these little gems, I felt a surge of pride when someone bought our Unison Research Simply Italy integrated at the end of the show. Relatively few audiophiles can "hear through" a pair of speakers to recognize the excellence of the amplification that is driving them, but thank goodness a handful of seasoned listeners were able to identify just how well the Simply Italy, as well as the more powerful Unico Seconda hybrid integrated, powered both the LS50s and the larger Kef R700s in the room. Credit is also due for the outstanding Clearaudio Ovation turntable and Talisman cartridge, the Musical Surroundings phono preamp, the Nordost cabling and power management and of course our Unison Research CD Primo CD player. I really like the black faceplates; we've been mostly selling the standard silver.

Our system certainly delivered the goods, but Colleen and I did hear at least one other system that really satisfied. What you see here is the more modest Corona system from mbl, which featured a C31 CD player, C32 power amplifier, C11 preamplifier and Radialstrahler 120 monitor speakers for a total system price of $49,000. That's not chicken feed, but when you're talking about mbl, whose larger individual components generally cost way more than that, it's an amazing system that sounded powerful and detailed--all you could ever want for first-class sound. I could easily live with this system for the rest of my life (as long as I could include the turntable of my choice).

The only downside is the vaguely religious appearance of the small mbl speakers--perhaps this is the perfect system to listen to recordings of Arvo Part, the Mormon Tabernacle choir and Virgil Fox. We were, however, treated to two extraordinary pieces of music--the California Guitar Trio performing "Bohemian Rhapsody" and a German children's choir singing their version of Metallica's "In the End It Doesn't Even Matter." Thanks, Jeremy!

Remember this turntable? It's a working version of the Margules Audio Torna I've been talking about for a couple of years now. Now it's called the Magenta TT-10 and with a modest Rega arm and Elys cartridge it offered a nicely solid sound that will make it a true bargain. I can't wait for the final version!

I also caught up with one of my favorite speakers in the world, the Tannoy Prestige Royal Westminsters, in the Blue Moon Audio room. Powered by mostly Cary amps and sources, these giant speakers are beautiful and delivered a GIANT sound in a GIANT room. When I finally buy that estate in the English countryside, these will be the speakers I purchase.

I also heard excellent sound from the diminutive Magico Q1 monitors driven by Constellation amplification and sources--nearly perfect from about 60 Hz on up--as well as a system featuring the new $200K Wilson Audio Alexandria XLF speakers. Cap it all off with seeing the Ravi Coltrane at Yoshi's in Oakland, and it was definitely a show to remember.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Day One of the California Audio Show...

Full system ready to go in the Cypress I Room at the California Audio Show. Our Unison Research amps and CD players are doing a magnificent job at making these new Kef speakers sound their best. We're using both the Simply Italy and the Unico Secondo amps, which sound very different from each other, and I'm very happy with the sound.

I'll make a full show report after I'm done. As an exhibitor, I don't get to tour the rooms as I used to, but there are so many people involved in our rooms (Kef, Nordost, Musical Surroundings and our dealer, AudioVision SF) that Colleen and I have some freedom to see the other gear at the show. For instance, I finally got to hear the Magico Q1 speakers--small stand mounted monitors that cost $27,000 per pair--and was pretty amazed at what they could do.

More to follow...