Thursday, February 28, 2013

Tweak Studio Grand Opening in the Hyatt Regency Chicago

CCI will be attending the grand opening for the Tweak Studio's brand new showroom, located in the lobby of the beautiful Hyatt Regency Chicago. The Tweak Studio, along with proprietor Arnold Martinez, is our exclusive Chicago dealer for both Unison Research and My Audio Design and we will be showing off some amazing products as well as providing some interesting door prizes. The grand opening will take place on Thursday, March 7, 2013 from 9pm until midnight at 151 East Wacker Drive, Chicago--in Suite 1 on the Concourse Level. This event is by invitation, and an RSVP is required. Please contact Tweak Studio at (312) 235-6561 or send an email to for more information.

Monday, February 25, 2013

PureAudio from New Zealand Has Arrived...

Colleen and I just received the full line of amplification from PureAudio of New Zealand just in time for the AXPONA show, which is in Chicago in just less than two weeks. I've been eagerly awaiting these pieces for quite a while--I've had some seat time with the Vinyl phono preamplifier already and I was hoping the Control preamplifier and Reference monoblock power amplifiers would be equally good. They are. In just a few minutes I had the four components unpacked and hooked up in my system. The first song I played, of course, was "Yulunga" from the MFSL pressing of Dead Can Dance's Into the Labyrinth. It's what I always play first when I make changes to the system.

The Control preamp, pictured here, is unusual in that it's so simple--you'll find just one knob on the front panel (volume), making it look more like a power amp. You might notice the lack of a selector switch. You don't need one--the Control automatically senses a music signal and switches to that input. I haven't seen what happens when you play music through two inputs at once. As you may have noticed, this is a vinyl only system right now--my Unison Research CDE CD player is on its way to Chicago as I write.

This is one of the Reference monoblocks. It provides 65 wpc of pure Class A amplification. I have some support cones underneath them so all that heat from the amplifier won't singe my carpet--or, in turn, so that the carpet won't block ventilation from underneath the amp. Again, the Trellis equipment rack is on its way to AXPONA and I had to improvise. There are hefty fans underneath the chassis of the amp as well, keeping everything relatively cool so far.

The remote is also minimalist in design--just two buttons for up and down on the volume. It's sleek and sexy and the little vertical bar glows when you push a button. That vertical bar is found on all of the PureAudio products--it glows a soft white when everything is in stand-by mode and turns off when music is playing.

Gotta love those Cardas binding posts. I wish every amp used them. You can hook up a speaker cable with one hand.

I only have a couple days to put some hours on the PureAudio gear. You can hear the entire system in Room 813 at AXPONA along with a SOTA turntable, Soundsmith cartridge and the My Audio Design Duke Royal Limited loudspeakers. Cabling and power management is provided by WyWires. See you there!

Top Album Releases for 2012 in Perfect Sound Forever

I've just noticed that Perfect Sound Forever, the e-zine that has hosted 91 of my Vinyl Anachronist columns since 1998, has just put up its writers' picks for the best albums of 2012. I've included mine below, but you can visit PSF to see all of the lists.

1. Scott Walker Bish Bosch

2. Jack White Blunderbuss

3. Fiona Apple The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do

4. Patti Smith Banga

5. TrondheimSolistene Souvenir

6. Barry Brusseau The Royal Violent Birds

7. Eivind Buene Possible Cities/Essential Landscapes

8. Electric Shepherd The Imitation Garden

9. Janet Feder Songs With Words

10. Boy Eats Drum Machine The Battle

11. Robert Sarazin Blake Put It All Down in a Letter

12. The Ready Stance Damndest

13. Vacant Fever Kill Kill Kill

14. Burial Kindred

15. Joyce Manor Of All Things I Will Soon Grow Tired

16. Hoff Ensemble Quiet Winter Night

17. The English Beat The Complete Beat

18. The Memorials Delirium

19. The Satin Chaps Might I Suggest...the Satin Chaps?

20. The Shins Port of Morrow

Thursday, February 21, 2013

CCI at the AXPONA Chicago Show in Two Weeks!

Colleen and I are gearing for our biggest trade show yet...two complete rooms at the upcoming AXPONA show in Chicago. Chicago hasn't had a high-end audio trade show since the Winter CES was cancelled fifteen years ago, so everyone is expecting a huge and enthusiastic turnout.

Here's a rundown of our two rooms and the systems we will be featuring:

In room 817 we will be featuring the Unison Research Simply Italy integrated amplifier coupled with the new Unison Research Unico Upower booster amp–48 wpc channel of beautiful single-ended EL34 sound. We will also have the Unison Research CDE CD player, the Opera Quinta loudspeakers, all on a Trellis rack from Splintr Designs and cabling and power management courtesy of MIT.

The second CCI room at the Chicago AXPONA show, room 813, will feature an extraordinary system that includes the US debut of the PureAudio Control preamplifier and the PureAudio Reference monoblock amplifiers, along with the outstanding PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier we debuted at RMAF last October. We will also be using a SOTA Millenium turntable with a Soundsmith cartridge, and all cables and power management will be provided by WyWires. The loudspeakers are the incredible My Audio Design Duke Royal Limited which appeared at CES.

Special thanks goes to Arnold Martinez of Tweak Studio, our Chicago dealer for Unison Research and My Audio Design. Arnold has been instrumental in helping us organize and run both rooms, while at the same time he's planning a grand opening for his new store at the Hyatt Regency--which will be held right before the show. Colleen and I will be attending that event as well, and I'll have more information soon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

2L Recordings: The Schubert Connection on Blu-ray Audio and SACD/CD Hybrid

So what is the Schubert Connection? Reading through the extensive liner notes from 2L Recordings' new release on Blu-ray Audio, it might take a while for you to realize the purpose of this disc since much is said about Claude Debussy's String Quartet, which is not included on this disc, and Edvard Grieg's String Quartet in G minor, which is. Cutting to the chase, the Debussy quartet has often been compared in both theme and structure to the Grieg, despite the fact that Debussy was generally dismissive about the Norwegian conductor's work. This disc, performed by the Oslo String Quartet at the Sofienberg Church in Norway, ostensibly makes the case that Grieg's distinctive piece is far more similar to Schubert's Sting Quartet No. 14 in D minor, and offers a performance of both as proof. While it is pointed out that Grieg may have never listened to the Schubert piece, discerning listeners should be able to listen intently and form a strong opinion one way of another.

I don't have a copy of the Debussy on hand, so I'm not going to presume to tell you what I think on the matter. Suffice it to say that the Grieg quartet is so unique among string quartets that I find it difficult to compare it to anything else. Upon listening to this passionate, one-of-a-kind quartet, I'm reminded of the word feverish, and then I'm again reminded that I've used this adjective perhaps once too often in other reviews--I should have saved it for the Grieg. In addition, this quartet possesses a sound that's startling in its wholeness and unity, as if each of the four members of the quartet are moving and breathing as one. This will sound a bit crazy, but as I listen to this piece I can easily imagine it played from beginning to end on an accordion. It has an utterly organic feel, an inhaling and exhaling of the notes that must have been far ahead of its time (it was written in 1877-1878).

Schubert's quartet, written sixty years prior, is the far more conventional and delicate of the two. It is a performance, however, that is filled with a confident beauty. On this particular 2L recording, the string instruments sound far more woody and resonant than on other Morten Lindberg recordings in the catalog. Since Morten has recorded in the Sofienberg Church before, these instrumental timbres must be solely the result of the Oslo Quartet's actual instruments. This is the mark of a great recording, that the harmonic richness of a violin, viola or cello is singularly dependent on the make and construction of each musical instrument. Anyone who favors recordings with period instruments, for example, can tell you those differences are often be profound.

It's strange, however, that these timbres change so drastically during the Grieg quartet. This is undoubtedly due to the increased energy that the musicians exert onto the strings. 2L excels at capturing the human aspect of a performance, and during the Grieg it's easy to hear how the musicians throw themselves into the storm--through their breathing the listener can surmise that they're either growing exhausted or they're really getting fired up. If The Schubert Connection accomplishes one thing, it's convincing me that Grieg's String Quartet in G minor is one of the absolute greatest string quartets I've heard. Take that, Claude Debussy!

Monday, February 18, 2013

2L Recordings: Fartein Valen String Quartets on Blu-ray Audio and SACD/CD Hybrid

I was very pleased to receive the two latest Blu-ray audio/SACD/CD disc sets, Fartein Valen String Quartets and The Schubert Connection, from Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings in Norway because they're both recordings of string quartets. My love for intimate classical ensembles harkens back to my formative years as an audiophile living in a small apartment, when I discovered that British mini-monitors and small-scale jazz and classical recordings were the key to enjoying great sound quality without pissing off the neighbors. As a sheer listening exercise, string quartets are also a great and informative tool for evaluating micro-dynamics; it's exciting to follow individual musicians through a particular piece, and decent hi-fi equipment allows you to do that with uncommon ease. (Truly great audio equipment allows you to do the same exercise with large symphonies, but in my early years I had to settle for "better than average.")

The liner notes of Fartein Valen String Quartets open with a fascinating quote from conductor Issay Dobrowen: "If Valen had not been such a shy, self-effacing person, he would have won fame throughout Europe." That's one of the keys to enjoying this recording--by listening to these primarily atonal pieces and putting them into a temporal context (String Quartets Nos. 1 and 2, along with the three brief Goethe poems that close the programme, were composed between 1925 to 1931), one wonders why Valen isn't as celebrated as Bartok, Berg, Schoenborn and Webern, among other modernists. While Valen was well-known in Norway, his output was not widely embraced in his home country due to the conservative musical tastes of the time. That excluded him from the admiration bestowed on Grieg, among other Norwegian composers, at least until the end of his life when performers such as Glenn Gould started to champion his work.

While Valen is famous for his atonal polyphonics, his earlier work built heavily upon the counterpoints of J.S. Bach. That's why it's particularly intriguing that this recording also includes String Quartet Op. 0, which was written back in 1908. This piece, with its sweet melodic themes and lingering allegiance to the Romantic Era, and to my ears only fleetingly to Bach, stands in stark contrast to the rest of this disc; it's positioned toward the middle and acts as a wonderful, lyrical interlude to the signature pieces.

Where this disc excels is in its ability to provide the listener with a true definition of musical dissonance. It's easy to pound clumsily on a piano and call the result atonal. It's quite another to demonstrate how the individual musical lines of each performer--in this case, the Hansa Quartet, and soprano Hilde Haraldsen Sveen, who sings on the final three Goethe poems--can express such beauty and only provide dissonance with the other members of the ensemble. This typically amazing 2L recording illustrates this comparison with more clarity than I've heard before; this is the classical recording for fully realizing each member of a string quartet within the context of the whole ensemble.

I have to admit that I've stacked the deck for this review. I listened to Fartein Valen String Quartets on an extraordinary audio system built around those incredible Duke Royal Limited speakers from My Audio Designs (disclaimer: I'm the US distributor of MAD). This is the first time I've listened to one of my 2L discs while the Dukes were set up, and it was a rare treat to hear a recording of this caliber reproduced on a world-class transducer. I'll bring this recording, along with plenty of other 2L recordings, to the upcoming AXPONA show in Chicago--so you can hear what I'm hearing.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Gunslinger's Breaking Through on CD

Gunslinger bills itself as a "genre-jumping group of musicians/producers and DJs...pairing past with present, blending classical song structure and vocal with years of professional electronic dance experience." That description could fit most up-and-coming alternative bands these days, but where Gunslinger excels is in the seamless blending of these two realms, of avoiding the trap of sounding like a '70s rock band drowned in goofy electronic effects. Gunslinger, which is actually an international duo (Anthem is from SoCal while Vidal is from Lisbon, Portugal), keeps the songs on Breaking Through strong, lean and tight without the constant gear-shifting and strange ambient tangents that define most indie bands these days.

Stripped down to their skivvies, these songs are basic rock and roll, slanted perhaps to prog and maybe even glam (the opening title track will probably remind you of T. Rex), but catchy and anthemic and more suited to arenas than the local underground club. The electronic peripherals are just that, framing devices, and you won't walk into a room during a random moment of Breaking Through and wonder "What kind of music is this?" It won't take you long to realize it's contemporary with its manufactured beats and deftly layered ambience, but you'll feel at home. Gunslinger sounds like a less manic and drama-ridden version of Muse, and if you're the kind of person who hears Muse and thinks about Sweet, these two guys will drop you off at the same bus stop.

Out in the real world, Gunslinger is making a name for themselves. Their live gigs can either be a DJ set or a stage show with drums, guitars and keyboards. Anthem and Vidal are even planning a remix of The Doors' Waiting for the Sun, which shows they have strong ties and a healthy amount of respect for the stuff baby Boomers hold dear--which is obvious when you listen to Breaking Through. Look at it this way...I know lots of people my age who are looking for an entry into the DJ scene and perhaps jump too readily into the deep end and find themselves quickly dog-pedaling back to the edge of the pool. (There's a friend of mine who nearly drowned a couple of weeks ago while listening to the latest from Shackleton--too soon, too soon!) Gunslinger might be a good lesson #1 for those cautious soles who want to explore what the kids are listening while still basking on dry land, listening to Electric Warrior and Desolation Boulevard.