Saturday, November 30, 2013

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest column is now online in the latest issue of Perfect Sound Forever. It's time for my annual wrap-up issue, where I choose the best LP releases and reissues, as well as Cartridge, Phono Stage and Turntable of the Year. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Friday, November 29, 2013

Kurt Wildermuth's Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector

Fellow music scribe Kurt Wildermuth, who also writes for Perfect Sound Forever among many other publications, just emailed me to let me know his latest article has just gone live on the Pop Matters website. Titled "Black Vinyl: Confessions of a Music Collector," this piece is one of the most insightful and well-written articles I've read about why people like Kurt and me still listen to vinyl.

What I wasn't expecting is the final section of the article, which talks about some of the email exchanges Kurt and I've had over the last year or two about finding an ideal vintage turntable and getting it up to spec. I'm proud and thrilled to have helped Kurt out with his project!

You can read the article here, and I hope you'll take the time to explore Kurt's writings on the Perfect Sound Forever website!

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach on FIM Hi-Rez CD

When the gentleman in the FIM room at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest pointed to the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach CD and told me I should grab it because they were going fast, I suspected it was mere salesmanship. "There are only a couple left!" he exclaimed. Since I wasn't familiar with Jacques Loussier, much less this recording, I smiled politely and made another selection. When Dan Muzquiz visited the FIM room later that day and returned with it, I said, "Oh, that's the one I was supposed to buy...let's give it a spin and see what I missed out on."

Dan, of course, was familiar with the Play Bach recordings--J.S. Bach standards such as Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Air on a G String and Joy of Man's Desiring played by a jazz trio--and was surprised that I opted to purchase something else. After just a few seconds of listening, I realized my mistake and headed back to the FIM room and purchased the second to last copy. That's when I realized that no salesmanship was involved, and that The Best of Play Bach was the hot recording to play at RMAF.

To be succinct, the hi-rez FIM version of this already stellar recording is flat-out one of the best reference CDs I've ever heard...dynamic, realistic, intimate and exciting. Loussier started recording his take on Bach classics in 1959, and this recording is a compilation that was originally released by Telarc in 2004. Despite the long timespan involved, these recording sound so consistent from one selection to the next--as if they were collected in the same sessions. While the novelty of the arrangements is probably the most noteworthy aspect of these recordings, what really impresses me the forward, robust sound of the piano and how everything--the pedal work, the decay, the sweep of the board--is captured so well. If you're one of those audiophiles who evaluates gear by how well the sound of a grand piano is reproduced, this will quickly become your standard.

As I said in my review of the other FIM recording I bought at RMAF, Happy Coat, this recording is a flashy show-stopper rather than a piece to relax by, and I slightly prefer the Shota Osabe recording for its warmth and comforting sound. But if you want to impress your audiophile buddies, The Best of Play Bach, will certainly get the job done. These FIM recordings are simply amazing when it comes to proving that there's still hope for redbook CD playback in 2013.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Music Night at Blackbird Audio Gallery with PureAudio and Light Harmonic

It's taken me a whole week to post photos of last weekend's Music Night Event at Blackbird Audio Gallery. First of all, I was exhausted by a series of connecting flights from Western Colorado to San Diego that included everything from massive turbulence over the Rockies to sitting on the tarmac for a couple of hours while the pilot and the tower argued about the best flight path. I love to fly, but this trip aged me. I needed a few days to decompress.

Add a busy work week, a laptop virus and snowy weather, and that's why it's taken me so long to post photos. The first photo above was taken a couple of days before the event, just after Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio had everything set up and running. He decided to match the PureAudio Reference monoblock amplifiers (65-70wpc, pure Class A) with the Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh loudspeakers, with Cardas Audio Clear cabling all around. Dan has many excellent speakers in his showroom, but he felt the amazing Pharaohs were the best overall match. Once I arrived in San Diego, I totally agreed.

Here's a close-up of our beautiful PureAudio References. All of PureAudio's current line of amplifiers are pure Class A with true dual-mono construction, non-magnetic and non-resonant chasses as well as a fascinating mix of simple circuits and sophisticated features. For instance, you might think that a pair of 70wpc Class A monoblock amplifiers might run very hot, but two large and completely silent fans just beneath the faceplate keeps these amplifiers relatively cool, with only those slanted heat sinks in front getting warm.

Along with the amps and speakers, Dan chose a system that included a Bel Canto CD transport and DAC, a Basis Signature turntable with matching tonearm and the new flagship cartridge from Transfiguration, the Proteus. We used a Basis/Transfiguration Proteus combo at Rocky Mountain last month, so I'm very familiar with this analog rig's high level of performance. On the right you can see the PureAudio Control preamplifier and Vinyl preamplifer.

The Control and the Vinyl also feature that mix of simplicity and sophistication. You'll notice that the Control has only one knob on the front--for volume. The four line level inputs are selected automatically according to the presence of a signal. If you have two sources running simultaneously, the Control prioritizes them according to number (input 1, input 2, etc.). I've spoken about the Vinyl a number of times, but one feature I love is the gain setting, or lack thereof. The Vinyl offers 62 dB of gain with plenty of headroom, so the amount of gain seems perfect for almost every cartridge. In fact, I've switched between a high-output moving magnet with an output of 3.5mV to a low-output moving coil with an output of 0.4mV and didn't have to change any of the settings, even the loading (both cartridges, amazing enough, loved to be run wide open at 47K ohms). There are plenty of loading options on the Vinyl, however--47 ohms to 47K.

One more feature is the series of 12V triggers that can be used between the Control and the Reference monoblocks. This allows for home theater bypass as well as a synch-ing up the three amps so that you can power everything on with one power button.

Here's a close-up of the Basis and the Transfiguration. The Vinyl is absolutely one of my favorite phono preamps of all time--that's why we decided to carry the PureAudio line. (I know, I've said that before, but I really believe in this gear!) The Basis/Configuration/PureAudio combo is an exquisite match. as I discovered last year when I put a Transfiguration Phoenix on my Unison Research Giro turntable back home.

The event wasn't just about PureAudio and me. Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic brought their little Geek to the event. The Geek is an interface between your headphones and your laptop (they're also ready to introduce a larger desktop version of the Geek)--it's basically an amp and a DAC in a very small package. Here's Gavin demonstrating the Geek for Dave Clark of Positive Feedback Online.

Here's a photo to give you an idea of how small the Geek is. Listening through a pair of the Cardas Audio EM5813 ear speakers, I found that the Geek provided a huge, powerful sound with plenty of bass and an amazing level of clarity. I also listen to a pair of Ultrasone headphones and found the combination comfortable, relaxing and incredibly open.

Here's host Dan Muzquiz cueing up the Basis. He was incredibly pleased that we had a full house for most of the evening, but there was still plenty of room to sit, relax and listen to this outstanding hi-fi system. The food, by the way, was excellent.

The PureAudio products, with their distinct styling, beg to be touched and fondled. Here's San Diego audiophile Erik Tracy getting a closer look at the Reference monoblocks. I invited members of the Steve Hoffman Forum to stop by, and Erik was the only one who came up and introduced himself. I was far too busy to really spend time with Erik, but he seemed to enjoy the food, the music and the gear.

Finally, I was amazed at how many of my good friends in the industry showed up and supported our event. That's me seated, probably smoking one of the three cigars I had that evening, surrounded by audio reviewer Andre Marc, Dave Clark, cigar buddy/audiophile David Aitken, Audio Strata's David Neilson and audio reviewer Steve Lefkowicz. I look forward to doing many more dealer events in the coming year--they're easily the best part of my job!

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Updates for Blackbird Audio's Music Night This Saturday

We've firmed up some of the details for Saturday's Music Night event at Blackbird Audio Gallery in the San Diego area. First of all, the event will start at 3pm and run until midnight or so. That means you can stop by anytime, check out the PureAudio gear, grab some snacks and perhaps an adult beverage and listen to some fantastic music. I always try to avoid promoting my business too much on my blog, but I absolutely love the pure Class A PureAudio gear. I'm proud to represent it and I can't wait to hear it all at Dan's.

These first two photos are of the stunning PureAudio Reference monoblocks--65 watts per channel of pure Class A sound--all set up at Blackbird Audio Gallery. We'll also have the Control preamp which sports a single knob on its faceplate--volume--because the inputs are automatically selected based on the signal. PureAudio gear is amazing for both its technical sophistication AND its minimalist design. We'll also have the Vinyl phono preamp in the system, which is my absolute favorite phono pre under $10K. Dan Muzquiz has everything hooked up to Trenner & Friedl Pharaoh speakers right now, and he's in love with the sound.

We're going to be joined by our good friends Gavin Fish and Steve Holt of Light Harmonic (that's Dan and Gavin in the photo). Light Harmonic makes the incredible Da Vinci DAC and transport, which I think is easily one of the best digital playback systems available, if not THE best. Light Harmonic has also been developing some very, very innovative products of late, including the Geek--a DSD-capable USB DAC that's just a little bit bigger than a thumb drive.

If you are in the San Diego area and you want to attend Music Night this Saturday, November 16, check out the event page on Facebook at!/events/767885326570852/. I hope to see everyone there!

Dean Peer's New Website

Dean Peer just sent me an email to inform me that his new website is up and running. You can check it out at

Dean's been actively performing over the last few months with his drummer Bret Mann. The new website has details on upcoming shows, and you can directly order some of Dean's amazing recordings. He's currently working on a new project, and I've heard some of the tracks he's laid down...they're very different than his past work. You can get updates on this project through the website as well!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Music Night at Blackbird Audio Gallery...with PureAudio!

Next Saturday night, November 16th, I will be visiting with Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery in Santee, California, to demonstrate the entire line of PureAudio amplifiers from New Zealand. This is another one of Dan's fantastic Music Night events--the last time we did this I was just a blogger from Texas and not the US distributor of six different brands of hi-fi equipment. (That event, held back in 2011, was to debut Dean Peer's album Airborne). We will have the Vinyl phono preamplifier, Control preamplifier and Reference monoblocks that see you in the picture above. Dan will also have additional guests there...TBA.

Dan was our first PureAudio dealer in the US, and we're proud to have him as a partner for this event. This is the first time we've had all of the PureAudio products in one room since the New York show last June, so I'm looking forward to hearing these extraordinary products before we have to send send them back to John Atkinson--he needs to finish his Stereophile review!

If you live in the San Diego area--or anywhere in Southern California and beyond--and you want to attend Music Night, contact Dan at 619-449-2787 to RSVP, or email him at You can also check the Blackbird Audio Gallery website for more updates on the event over the next few days.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Shota Osabe Piano Trio's Happy Coat on FIM Hi-Rez CD

Oh, the temptation of having a convenient source of high-quality audiophile music just a couple of doors down from your exhibit room. That was my dilemma at last month's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest--the First Impression Music (FIM) room was two doors down, and it was so easy to run down there for a few minutes and choose a title to play in our system. I've talked about FIM before--I've reviewed both the hi-rez redbook CD versions of the Three Blind Mice sampler and Getz/Gilberto here and here. In the last two years I've brought both of those amazing CDs to every trade show I've attended. They're spectatcular demo pieces that never fail to hypnotize the show attendees.

I kept it down to two FIM CDs--The Shota Osabe Piano Trio's Happy Coat and the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach. I could have easily bought every title they had for sale--easily 40 or 50--but that would have cost a fortune. (They were on sale at the show for $30 to $60 each.) Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, our dealer that we were representing at the show, wound up buying at least six or seven. Once you listen to the smooth yet extraordinarily detailed sound quality of these hi-rez redbook CDs, it's hard to keep your credit card in your wallet. They're downright addictive.

I bought the Jacques Lossier Trio CD (which I'll review next) because it was the recommendation du jour--so many rooms at RMAF were using it. Sure, it's spectacularly dynamic and the performance is legendary, but Happy Coat was the one that ultimately won my heart. At first the Shota Osabe Piano Trio sounds like a typical Three Blind Mice group...until you see that pianist Osabe-san is joined by Ray Brown on bass and Harold Jones on drums. What makes this 2002 resording so special is that it was Ray Brown's second to last recorded performance--he died 123 days after this was captured in a Japanese studio. This album of standards (including "In the Still of the Night," "This Is All I Ask," and even "I Saw Her Standing There") is full of warmth and richness, so much so that the first thought that popped in my head upon my initial listen was "round as a plum." Happy Coat is absolutely juicy and sweet and comforting.

Here's how good the sound quality of this 2008 remastered version of Happy Coat is: it became a default disc for me at RMAF. Whenever I couldn't decide what I wanted to play next, I just put it in. I knew it would sound great, it would mesmerize the crowds and I could concentrate on other business. In most cases, however, I was compelled to forget about business and sit down and listen and enjoy. Happy Coat makes me very happy indeed.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Arcade Fire's Reflektor on CD

I didn't have high hopes for Arcade Fire's new double album, Reflektor, after I heard a few snippets during a recent NPR news feature. As far as I was concerned, this Montreal band was on a downward spiral after the empty Grammy-winning success of 2010's The Suburbs. Their 2004 debut, Funeral, was so emotionally satisfying that it instantly became a personal favorite. 2006's Neon Bible had quite a few high points but didn't quite match the stunning consistency of its predecessor. The Suburbs started off with a couple of memorable tunes, but everything afterward was forgettable. I started to sense that the band was harboring a dark secret, that a dozen musicians playing three-chord songs could make the music seem much more complex than it really was.

Then Win Butler and Regine Chassagne, the married couple that fronts Arcade Fire, did an interesting thing--they went down to Regine's native country, Haiti, and soaked it all in for a while. They came back invigorated in a way that reminds me of David Bowie and his Berlin Trilogy, namely, that we traveled the world and hear a lot and soaked it all up like a sponge and now here it is--new, unlike anything you've heard, albeit made up of familiar parts. Reflektor is equal parts disco and Haitian rara music. I'm not talking about the bad disco we all hated back in the '70s, but rich and distinctive dance music that made you forget about dance music and just made you want to dance.

Think of albums such as Fear of Music and early New Order and you'll know what I mean. Reflektor might be locked into a groove, but that doesn't mean the music is bereft of great musical ideas and deep thoughts. This new album is unusually dense, despite the fact that Arcade has pared their unusually large collaboration down to six band members and rely more on studio effects than big, busy arrangements. Each member now has to step it up and make everything sound more like a tight, talented ensemble--take the Johnny Marr-esque guitars in songs such as "You Already Know" and "Joan of Arc," for instance, or the increased vocal interplay between Win and Regine.

If Reflektor does have a glaring fault, it's in the lyrics. I suspect the band is suffering from Coldplayitis--stunning music that's designed to cover up some downright banal phrasing. You can't come up with couplets like "You're down on your knees/and begging us please" or repeatedly sing "Here comes the night" without taking some flak. I know they have it in 'em--just revisit Funeral for a multitude of examples. But it's a happy event when an intriguing band re-invents themselves and challenges long-time fans to keep up the pace a la Kid A. It's even better when it has a good beat and you can dance to it.