Sunday, March 31, 2013

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever is now online at In this installment I interview Aleks Bakman, designer of the amazing Onedof turntable! Enjoy!

Friday, March 29, 2013

Who the @%&$# Is Billy Eckstine?

My audio buddy looked at me like I had two heads. "You don't know who Billy Eckstine is?" Yeah, I know, I know, I told him. Just someone who slipped through the cracks. I'd just ransacked my buddy's LP collection, which is currently so large that he has it all boxed up in storage, and I walked away with about 150 titles. After cleaning and playing each one, I determined the winner by far was a Mercury Stereo pressing of the 1961 album Billy Eckstine & Quincy Jones at Basin Street East. Billy's rich baritone on the album is something to behold, his warm vibrato sent chills down my spine. Who was this guy and why hadn't I heard of him? I checked out his Wikipedia entry, and sure enough Billy Eckstine was huge in the '40s and '50s. I should have known who he was.

"I was the Fabian of the '40s," he actually tells the crowd at Basin Street East at one point, and the audience laughs appreciatively in response. Yes, Billy Eckstine was somebody, a big and confidence voice that shouldn't have been forgotten twenty years after his prime, or even now. One of the most interesting stories I found about Billy concerned Miles Davis and his descent into substance abuse. Billy, who was famous for being a snappy dresser, saw Miles at a low point, looked him over and said, "Lookin' good, Miles." Miles cleaned up shortly after that.

This album's performance, which is presented as sort of a recap of Billy's career, is structured around two medleys: one condenses Billy's biggest hits such as "I'm Falling for You," "Fool That I Am" and "In the Still of the Night," and the other features Billy's favorite Duke Ellington compositions such as "Don't Get Around Much Anymore" and "Sophisticated Lady." The most thrilling aspect of Billy's voice is his range; his famous deep baritone is sort of like an idling engine that draws the listener in, and then he steps on the gas and hits the higher notes with remarkable ease. Quincy Jones, in turn, reminds me that he had a respectable career before he became a record industry mogul and pop music icon. His band sounds tight, focused and yet still there to have fun.

This record isn't perfect. The crowd sounds canned and distant and lacks the spontaneity you might hear on other recordings of the time--Harry Belafonte comes to mind. And there's just a tad too much surface noise on this copy (not my buddy's fault--there was still a price tag on the front cover so he got it second hand as well). But I'd love to see this album reissued by someone like Chad Kassem or MoFi. It's a lost treasure and I highly recommend you keep an eye out for it.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Anne Bisson's Blue Mind on LP

Imagine if Diana Krall started attending high-end audio trade shows. It would be pandemonium. The hallways of the venue would fill up with Mrs. Costello's fans, asking for autographs, snapping copious photos with their iPhones and sending them to their audiophile buddies saying, "See? She's really here! Too bad you're not, Hank...neener neener neener!"

Now imagine another female singer, a potential darling of hi-fi nuts as well, arguably even more expressive and talented, her releases even more astonishing in terms of sound quality, walking up and down those same halls without the same fanfare. Well, it's been happening. Colleen and I have seen a lot of Canadian singer Anne Bisson at these trade shows over the last few months, and I think audiophiles are missing out on a real treat. Ms. Bisson is one of those rare performers who seems to be absolutely thrilled that people are listening to her albums, and she's more than happy to spend a few moments to talk about her music. While I can't speak for Diana Krall's demeanor in the same situation, I do have to say that Anne Bisson is remarkably gracious and grateful. Her enthusiasm and infectious smile are worth the price of admission.

Okay, I know what you're saying. I'm Krallbashing again. As I've said before, I have nothing against her personally; my beef is with her rather snobby audiophile fans who think she's the lone gold standard for female vocalists. Today's audiophiles seem to be obsessed with female vocals as the supreme criterion for judging the fidelity of an audio system, while I tend to agree with Profundo distributor Bob Clarke who feels that a grand piano is a more useful tool. (I also find myself gravitating more toward percussion while evaluating gear, but that's just a personal preference based on my love for great rock drummers.) When it comes to female vocalists, however, I crave someone who veers dangerously away from the norm, someone with an edge that makes them original. I'm talking Halie Loren, whose imaginative cover choices always challenge the more conventional beauty of her singing voice. I'm talking about Holly Cole, who is even more daring in her set lists and knows how to inject a playful attitude into her performances. I'm talking about Madeliene Peyroux, who is funny and self-deprecating and knows how to stand aside and let her band take over the musical adventure for a spell. Anne Bisson belongs in that group.

When we spoke to Anne at the AXPONA show in Chicago earlier this month, she hooked me up with two of her LPs: Blue Mind and Portraits and Perfumes. She asked me to focus on the latter because it consisted of her own songs and was therefore closer to her heart. I haven't even listened to Portraits yet, so I don't know if one towers over the other as she seemed to imply. All I know at this point is that Blue Mind is an exceptional pressing of an exceptional performance. It's important that the sound quality of this LP is so exemplary and so quiet because Anne's performances are equally quiet and epitomize the idea of a singer being intimate with her audience. This stunning pressing allows her emotional commitment to these songs really shine through; these are her songs in every sense and you can alternately hear the joy, pain and vulnerability in her voice as she sings. It's one thing for a singer to "make a song their own," but I'll always give the edge to the singer-songwriter that has created something this personal.

While these are certainly original pieces (except for Steve Hackett's "Hoping Love Will Last"), Anne isn't shy about her inspirations. She started off using sources as diverse as Ned Rorem, Stefano Donaudy, Mozart and Brahms as building blocks for her song structures, but wound up scratching this approach after she delivered the simple and delicate opening track, "Little Black Lake." These songs are straightforward in their themes of romance, love lost and "what could have been," but I like the way some of these themes, such as the lake itself, keep re-emerging in subsequent songs. This clearly evokes a specific period of her life and makes the album all the more cohesive and meaningful.

As for her piano playing, she reminds me so much of Kate Bush--not in voice, obviously, but the way her melodies are strong yet sparingly presented in an almost impressionistic manner. Accompanied by Paul Brochu on drums and Normand Guilbeault on double bass, her trio can hide in the shadows and yet leap out and sound full and reassured when it needs to. Again, this is a dynamic, well-recorded album that should impress audiophiles in many ways. Should.

I'm not saying that those audiophiles who perplex me so at audio shows should abandon Diana Krall entirely; those expensive ORG reissues of Krall sound absolutely great and I enjoyed them a lot before I sold them on eBay a few years ago. There are just so many options. I feel like I'm doing a disservice to Anne Bisson by even mentioning any other singers--it reminds me of the hazards of comparing two pieces of audio gear, and how someone has to lose. It's just that there is so much music out there to enjoy, and it makes no sense to limit yourself. I just witnessed an audiophile saying the following on a music forum: "I'm sixty years old, and if I haven't discovered a band or a singer already, I probably don't need to." My God, I thought. How does someone go through life like that? Discovering new music is one of the rare joys in life, and I'm happy to have discovered Anne Bisson.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

2L Recordings' Nodebog on Blu-ray Audio and Hybrid CD/SACD

"It's Friday night, I'm alone, and I'm listening to 18th century Norwegian folk music. I rock."

While my Facebook post from a few days ago may seem a little snarky, it isn't. I'm reminded of an old girlfriend who once told me that when she first met me, she assumed I was "a quiet guy who went home alone and listened to classical music all night." I've railed against that assumption for most of my life, but there's a part of me that wouldn't mind such an existence. But as Shannon Hoon once sang, "That Cadillac that's sitting in the back, it isn't me." First of all, my many years in retail management cured me of being a weekend person, so I couldn't care less that I was alone on a Friday night. I'd make up for it on Tuesday, when all the amateurs were home in bed. The idea that I would spend a Friday night listening to Norwegian folk music--replete with images of wood sprites and fairies--was also ameliorated by the fact that I was listening to yet another brilliant 2L recording, and on a stunning audio system. I felt like apologizing to Morten Lindberg, head honcho at 2L Recordings and Facebook friend, for seeming like I'd rather be anywhere else.

Nodebog is quite different from the other 2L discs I've heard. Performed by Hans Olav Gorset & Friends at the Jar Church in Norway, this recording features such period instruments as recorders, baroque flutes, theorbos, Norwegian folk drums and harpsichords. The music, made up of Halling dances, Pols dances, minuets and English country dances, was taken from handwritten music books that were compilations of European folk music used by the musicians of the time. As a result, much of these songs aren't well-known in the 21st century; the liner notes make a point of repeatedly holding these tunes up as "undiscovered treasures." Back in 18th century Europe, however, they were the Top 40.

I have listened to a wealth of recordings that feature period instruments, and all of them do a fantastic job of transporting the listener to another time. But the overall excellence of the 2L catalog brings additional depth to this venture by placing these performances in a venue that's alive, warm and preternaturally now. If you've ever been curious to hear what music sounded like 300 years ago, Nodebog will deliver an ample approximation. Gorset takes this one step further by insisting on a pure reconstruction of a group of rogue musicians who have been talked into an impromptu concert. There's a looseness and informality to this disc that brings the listener far closer to the musicians than expected.

I received this disc in the mail just a day or two before deaprting for the AXPONA Show in Chicago. I brought it along, still in its shrink wrap, and decided to bring it out to play for a trio of gentlemen who wanted to hear something "different." With the opening notes of the recorder on "Air La Lovis," one of the gentlemen proclaimed, "Ah, this is what I needed." Exhibitors often play pounding, dynamic tracks to lure visitors into their rooms, but more often than not attendees are looking for a gentle oasis--a place that resembles home. Nodebog should be listened on a cold night, somewhere in proximity to a warm fire, indeed the very definition of a Norwegian oasis.

Friday, March 15, 2013

My Fourth Annual Random SXSW Photos

This year one of our trade shows actually overlapped South by Southwest, so when we arrived home the festivities were already in full swing. Once again I'm utterly unprepared to see anyone at SXSW, so I did what I've done for four years straight--I just drove down to Sixth Street, parked my car in a public garage and started soaking it all in. This year Colleen and I were joined by Steve Lefkowicz, a reviewer for Positive Feedback Online who just happened to be in town. The three of us were scheduled to see Charlotte Church and her band but we arrived late and saw this UK band instead. Not bad, but loud. This photo underlines the fact that at SXSW, you can accidentally walk through a door and wind up backstage.

The point about SXSW is that music is everywhere. My first year I saw a band playing a gig on someone's front lawn in a residential neighborhood off Congress Ave. If you walk down legendary Sixth Street, you'll see plenty of lone drummers, lone guitarists, lone hammered dulcimer players, whatever.

While the majority of bands performing outside of the main venues are metal and hardcore, you will occasionally see something different. These guys were the highlight of the evening; they played whatever came to mind.

But of course the noise in the street was so loud that they had to jump up on trash cans in order to be heard.

Only on Sixth Street can you see two women practicing the middle of an intersection.

"Sure, dude, I'll listen to your mix CD as soon as I get home."

I'm headed back out Saturday to hang with Perfect Sound Forever editors Jason Gross and Robin Cook, so there might be more crappy cell phone pics to come. Where is the Part-Time Audiophile and his wonderful photographs when you need him?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The 2013 AXPONA Show Report

The reviews are in, and AXPONA 2013 was a hit. For months everyone in the industry had been talking about AXPONA--mostly because it was the first high-end audio trade show in Chicago since 1999. Chicago used to host the Summer CES back in the 20th century (that sounds so weird, doesn't it?), and the Windy City has always been a strong market for audiophiles. It seems strange that Chicago has been neglected for so long, and all of the AXPONA exhibitors were anticipating a very strong turnout despite the fact that the show was being held in early March, when Mother Nature likes to play cruel tricks on the entire Great Lakes region. It did snow for a couple of days before the show, but for the most part the weather wasn't too severe for Colleen and me. We were reminded once or twice from the folks back home that Texas was in the 60s and 70s while we were gone, however.

For CCI, the AXPONA show was full of blood, sweat and tears. Blood: the day before we left, I burnt the hell out of my right index finger while making breakfast for Colleen (yes, it was bacon). A couple of days later at the show, I sliced open my left right index finger while opening a recalcitrant wooden crate carrying the MAD Duke Royal Limited speaker. I had to work the show with just eight fingers.

Sweat: Colleen and I had to supervise two rooms instead of one, and there was a lot of gear this time. We had plenty of room partners helping out from Tweak Studio (our Chicago dealer), SOTA turntables (who graciously manned our second room) and Steve Holt from MIT Cables. But a funny thing happened to Steve on the way to the show--first he lost his phone on set-up day, and then he didn't show up for the first day of the show at all. We were worried and couldn't get a hold of him. Then we found out--on Facebook, of all places--that Steve was quite busy having his appendix removed. (For all of those customers who came into our first room to talk about MIT cables, Colleen and I are sorry for not being more prepared. But shit happens, especially in the world of high-end audio.)

Tears: This is the good part, because we managed to get great results in both rooms. In room one (Unison Research, Opera, MIT) we had attendee after attendee come in and ask, "Are these the Opera speakers I've been hearing about?" We decided to show the Quintas ($5495/pair) since we hadn't had a pair in our possession since we debuted it at the 2012 CES, and we even had to drive down to Indiana the day before the show to pick them up from a reviewer. With the exception of the Quintas, we used pretty much the same system we used at CES in January: Unison Research Simply Italy, Unison Research Unico Upower booster amp, Unison Research Unico CDE...with the MIT cables being the main difference. But there was something about those Quintas. They made love to that room, and people noticed. Arnold Martinez, owner of the Tweak Studio, came in to listen and tears starting coming to his eyes. "I'm sorry," he said, "but I get emotional when I hear something this beautiful!" Two reviewers came in and said this system was one of the best in the show (and this included Constantine Soo of Dagogo, who took the above photograph.)

The second room was a bit more ambitious. We featured the My Audio Design Duke Royal Limited loudspeakers ($48,000/pair), the US debut of the PureAudio Reference monoblock power amps ($15,500/pair) and Control preamplifier ($9500), the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier ($4500), the SOTA Millenia turntable ($9500) with SME iV.Vi tonearm ($4000) and Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge ($7500), all tied together with the wonderful cables and power conditioning from WyWires. Scot Hull, the Part-Time Audiophile, covered our room for The Absolute Sound (that's his photo above) and said the Duke was "putting out some of the most elegant sound on display at AXPONA." Colleen and I were a little nervous about the room for several reasons: the PureAudio amps were brand-new and I hadn't spent much time with them in advance, and the price of the Dukes might seem prohibitive to Chicago audiophiles who might not want to pay that kind of money for the stunning Union Jacks on the sides of the cabinets that take almost a month to create. (The Dukes sell very well in places like Hong Kong and the UK, where they are considered true works of art.) I'm very glad Scot "got" the system--I was certainly thrilled with the end result.

Aside from Steve Holt's mad dash to the hospital, as well as an unexpected fire alarm at the Doubletree on the second day of the show (see pic above), AXPONA far exceeded our expectations. The show was such a success that Steve Davis, who heads AXPONA North America, has already announced that the 2014 AXPONA will take place in Chicago as well. The Doubletree was a great venue--good sounding rooms, an attentive staff and the legendary Gibson's Steak House on the ground floor (where I had one of the best slabs o' meat in my life)--and Colleen and I definitely have plans to return.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Partnering with SOTA for the 2013 AXPONA Show

For years now I've been paraphrasing a quote from Stereophile founder J. Gordon Holt when I talk about analog in general; something about technologies becoming obsolete just as they become perfected. I even used that quote in my very first Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever in February 1998. Holt originally used that quote way back in 1985 when he reviewed the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable and the SME V tonearm. Holt felt that the SOTA/SME combo was the new analog king of the mountain upon its introduction, but worried that the new digital format--the CD--would relegate this remarkable achievement into the margins of audio history. Well, both the SOTA and the SME are still being made nearly 30 years later, and they are still among the best. Holt was wrong, but I still like his quote.

I mention all this because it's 2013, and I'm finally getting to meet the wonderful folks from SOTA turntables. Kirk and Donna Bodinet have been running SOTA since the '90s, and Colleen and I have partnered with them at the AXPONA show here in Chicago. We're using their wonderful flagship turntable, the Millenia, with our PureAudio amplification and My Audio Design speakers. The Millenia, pictured above, is fitted with the SME iV.Vi tonearm (almost as good as J. Gordon's SME V, a tonearm I also owned for many years) and the Soundsmith Hyperion cartridge (the famous one with the cactus needle cantilever that I used with out Unison Research Giro turntable back at CES 2012). We're also using the excellent line of cables from WyWires.

Kirk and Donna are fantastic people, warm and friendly and down-to-earth. They're also humble about their contribution to analog history--while I'm a bit starstruck by them. They were both surprised about the fact that I assisted with the TONEAudio review of the Comet turntable a few years ago. Many of us at the magazine felt that the Comet was the real champ among sub-$1000 turntables. Now I feel kind of bad that I pushed Regas so hard for all of those years when I was truly, truly impressed with the Comet and should have been reminding everyone that SOTA was still around, making great affordable turntables right here in the US. Now that I've spent time chatting with Kirk and Donna, that will change.

Speaking of the Comet, it's still around. It's a bit more than $1000 but comes with an excellent Rega OEM tonearm called the S301. It also comes with a beautiful wood plinth that really elevates the appearance into something special. The Comets I've always seen were black-on-black...well-built and sturdy, but they could blend into the background visually. Now they're very attractive as well as affordable.

They've also given the entry-level Moonbeam, now in a Series II version, the same wood treatment. In its standard finish, however, the Moonbeam is just $750. Is this the new champion for less than $1000? I'd love to take both the Comet and the Moonbeam home and find out. I'm just happy I got to meet the Bodinets, listen extensively to the wonderful Millenia and be reminded that SOTA Turntables are alive and well.