Wednesday, December 31, 2014

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

"Do you have any Christmas music?"

We had a lot of visitors to our home over the last couple of weeks. That can be a challenge for me since I don't really celebrate the holidays anymore. Nevertheless the old box of Christmas decorations did get pulled out of the garage rafters, and the next thing I know I had guests checking out my reference audio system and asking me if I had something, well, suitable to play for the occasion. It's not that I don't have Christmas music in my collection--I do, but it's all New Age-y holiday fare from a passing phase in the early '90s. (Hint: a particular woman was involved with those purchasing decisions, and I wish she had taken those CDs with her.) Suffice it to say that the only holiday music I'd even remotely consider is the Vince Guaraldi Trio doing A Charlie Brown Christmas. Chad Kassem at Acoustic Sounds just did a new remaster of that, but I think the deadline for buying that in a timely manner has passed.

Fortunately, one of the new disc sets I'd received from Morten Lindberg of 2L Recordings fit the seasonal bill. Magnificat, a new album of sacred pieces for small orchestra, pipe organ, piano and choir, satisfied the more cerebral and esoteric among us and was the perfect antidote to all of those traditional songs that plague us every December (and November and October). The title piece, composed by a young Norwegian named Kim Andre Arnesen (who was born in 1980, something seemingly odd and rare in the world of classical music composers), specifically addresses the story of "the angel Gabriel visiting Mary with the message that she will be the mother of God's son." The other pieces, Aaron Jay Kernis' "Musica Celestis" and Ola Gjeilo's "Tundra" and "Song of the Universal," are equally evocative of the holiday spirit.

This is one release from 2L that will immediately engage you whether or not you're a fan of contemporary classical music. From the opening notes of "Magnificat" you will be seduced and comforted by the sheer beauty of it all, such gorgeous melodies and ideas framed in that usual warm sound that can only come from Morten Lindberg, some recording equipment and the usual Norwegian church. This music becomes something much more substantial than those hoary old carols--it's music that finds a direct connection to your soul whether you lead a religious life or a largely secular one such as me.

Beyond Morten and the composers, there's so much talent worth addressing on this recording--Ola Gjeilo's stunning and full piano work, powerful yet lovely solos from sopranos Lise Granden Berg and Cecilie Ertzaas Overrein and even masterful pipe organ contributions from Magne H. Draagen. You also get none other than TrondheimSolistene performing the role of the smallish string orchestra--their landmark Souvenir, after all, pretty much put 2L on the map when it comes to the world's most beautiful and realistic recordings.

In a lot of ways, this is my favorite 2L release so far and not just because it's so immediate and accessible. I've always been a huge fan of so-called sacred music, but not because it inspires my "faith," whatever that is. Since I was in college I felt a special bond with those classical composers who felt the hand of God on their shoulders as they put pen to paper--in particular Arvo Part's sacred music makes me feel as if I've discovered hidden keys to the universe. Magnificat elicits those same quiet and peaceful epiphanies, which is far more rewarding than those tired old Christmas songs.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

A Welcome Holiday Respite Courtesy of 2L Recordings

Last week was a rough, troubling week. Monday started off with a health scare that put me into a foul yet unstable frame of mind. The ongoing debate over the political correctness of the term "Wife Acceptance factor" became quite heated and I found myself being criticized on both sides of the argument. All of this happened in the middle of our seasonal rush, with international shipping avenues completely clogged up for the holidays, resulting in delayed shipments and angry customers. And people ask me why I don't celebrate Christmas. Maybe two decades of retail management has something to do with that.

I did receive another welcome package from Norway. Morten Lindberg sent me several 2L recordings to review, and those should appear shortly. In that care package, however, I found two discs that I've already reviewed--TrondheimSolistene's Souvenir and Flint Juventino Beppe's Remote Galaxy. I did notice that the packaging was slightly different--traditional jewel cases had replaced the older clamshell case. When I opened them I discovered that these were merely Blu-Ray audio discs--not the usual two disc set with both Blu-ray and a CD/SACD hybrid. I wasn't quite sure why Morten wanted to send these to me--I already have both of these titles in LP, CD and Blu-ray. Perhaps he wanted to emphasize a more affordable way to own these groundbreaking recordings. I put them aside for a couple of weeks and almost forgot about them.

When I noticed them once again, sitting in my stack or review materials, I suddenly remembered the strengths of each recording and how that would translate to listening on my new high-quality headphone rig. First up was Souvenir, the Grammy-nominated recording that really put 2L on the map in the US. If you remember my original reviews of this recording, you'll know that these are small orchestra performances of pieces from Nielson and Tchaikovsky that are arranged in a way so that no musician sits next to another musician with the same instrument. The result is a blended sound that will challenge what you think you know about classical recording.

With my headphone rig, which consists of a prototype of the upcoming Unison Research SH headphone amplifier, Furutech H128 headphones, a cheap Samsung Blu-ray player and Cardas Audio Clear Light cabling, it was far easier to discern these unique orchestral arrangements and pinpoint the differences in sound. With Remote Galaxy, a wildly dynamic and exciting recording, that different perspective, residing entirely within my noggin, was startling and made my heart race with anticipation more than once. (You can read my original review of Remote Galaxy here.)

Yesterday, I had an idea. I've just received the new high-efficiency (94 dB, 8 ohms) Unison Research Max loudspeakers, which were designed for low-powered tube amps such as Unison's own Simply Italy (12wpc) and Triode 25 (22 wpc triode/45wpc pentode). Needless to say, the Max goes very loud with very little power. These 2L recordings were downright ideal for such a set-up, with plenty of delicacy during the quieter moments and plenty of gusto during crescendos.

Before you know it, my troubles vanished and I starting thinking about how much I've come to love the music coming out of Norway these days. I just submitted my ten top albums for 2014 to Perfect Sound Forever, and three out of the ten are Norwegian recordings. Something tells me that if I visited Norway, even for a week, I'd come back refreshed and ready to write about controversial issues in audio once again.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The "Women in Audio" Debate Continues

The debate has been heating up over the last few days.

The day after my article on women in audio was published on the Part-Time Audiophile website, Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney's piece appeared on the same website. Her article, "No Girls Allowed: Why I Hate 'Wife Acceptance Factor," made a much bigger splash than mine did--probably because she's a woman and that's the point, we want to hear from women on this issue and second, her piece is just brilliant. I went to bed that night and had a weird dream, a dream like none other I've ever had, where I had written and directed a Broadway play (I'm not not a big fan of the theater), and when I stepped out on the stage to thank the audience the lights had already come on, the microphone had been turned off and most of the audience had already left.

I don't know, there might have been a connection. (Oh, and for some strange reason the dream morphed and revealed a new aspect of my play--that I had quietly been on stage the whole time playing a homeless man swaddled in blankets and sleeping on the sidewalk. W. T. F.)

Anyway, a couple of days later Scot Hull, chief bottle washer at Part-Time Audiophile, also published a piece by Cookie Marenco, owner and founder of the awesome label Blue Coast Records. Her piece, "Of WAF and Wimps," is yet another brilliant piece on women in audio, written by a woman. While I'm suddenly feeling a little self-conscious about my article--I'm just another guy writing about what women supposedly think about something--I do feel proud to be a part of something that's gaining momentum.

I've seen a few other men chime in with their thoughts on the subject, even re-hashing old articles they've written on WAF in the past. But let's face it...who cares what the men think? It doesn't matter. The "wimmens," as Kirsten likes to say with her tongue in her cheek, know the answers to all these questions from male audiophiles, and the men simply aren't interested in shutting up and listening. On the original forum discussion that prompted Kirsten and me to write our articles, one man keeps asking for other women to chime in on the subject...women other than Kirsten, of course. It's as if he's saying that he needs a consensus of women to tell him he's part of the problem--one single intelligent and thoughtful woman won't do. In other words, we still have a long way to go.

And to the man who keeps asking me what Colleen thinks about all this, well, Colleen and I wrote an article some time ago for Positive Feedback Online called "He Said, She Said: Pink Turntables on Parade." We often think about writing a follow-up or turning it into a series, but we haven't been able to think of more subjects. Now, thanks to all this renewed interest in women in audio, maybe we will.

But for now I'll take my own advice and stay out of the discussion. Like the old saying goes, we have two ears and only one mouth for a reason.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Another Article on Part-Time Audiophile: How Not to Get Women Interested in Audio

Another one of my articles has just appeared on Part-Time Audiophile, and it addresses a hot topic in audio right now--why women don't seem to be interested in all things least to the average audiophile. I have a unique perspective on this because my significant other is one of the leading women in the audio industry, so I like to think I have a little more insight than the average audiophile on this particular subject. But who knows--I'm just another guy spouting off.

You can read the story here. Hopefully we'll see a companion piece by Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney in a few days--either she'll agree with me, or she'll completely destroy my arguments. Either way, I'll let you know when it appears.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Latest Vinyl Anachronist Column Is Live on Perfect Sound Forever

Seems like just a few days ago I was celebrating my 100th column for Perfect Sound Forever, and now column #101 is already up! This one is my 16th annual year-end wrap-up, where I choose the best vinyl releases, turntables, cartridges and accessories of the year. You can read it here. Enjoy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Lars Jakob Rudjord Ensemble's Clockwork on CD

I really, really like this album a lot. Period. End of review.

I think a few other reviewers have made this joke at least once or twice, and it usually comes after they've heard an album that they like so much that they simply don't want to write about it. It's just too difficult, too personal, to put all those feelings and emotions into mere words and sometimes it takes some time and distance to make sense of what you've just experienced. It's easy to write about something you dislike, especially if you're being paid to critique it. The good stuff, however, is a real challenge because you're not responding to objective elements of the music, you're just making the right synaptic connections in the pleasure center of your brain and now you gotta meet some deadline. But I'll still attempt to tell you why Lark Jakob Ensemble's Clockwork is so up my alley.

When I think about the music I truly, truly love, it's not made up of ornate flourishes and virtuoso performances. It's made up of precise yet beautiful melodies, carefully measured yet constantly in a state of flux. (Think Philip Glass or Michael Nyman, but less repetitive.) While this music can be gorgeous and lush in a mainstream way, there still has to be something there to challenge me, to remind me that I'm not listening to elevator music or another mindless Top 40 hit. It can be dissonant as long as it evokes some sort of fluid imagery for me--if you're going to make noise, it has to take me somewhere. But ultimately it has to create an emotional bond in my brain. I know most people could probably care less about my idea of perfect music, especially since there's really no such thing, but at least I'm on the record.

Little did I know this modest perfection could be contained within a unique trio that consists of a piano, a cello and a double bass. I almost said jazz trio, which wouldn't be necessarily incorrect because pianist Lars Jakob Rudford, cellist Katrine Schiott and bassist Adrian Fiskum Myhr bill themselves as such. Perhaps they're focusing on the improvisational aspect of jazz, but my take is that these ten fascinating song-length pieces are closer to classical impromptus, and to go one step further I'd mention that the aforementioned precision of the songs are not really improvisations or impromptu at all. Perhaps the final word is the album's single-word title, which is far more aligned with the moods presented here.

Rudjord does weigh in on his website, expressing that while his roots are in jazz, his music is also part of "The Nordic Sound," something exemplified by recordings such as The Hoff Ensemble's Quiet Winter Night on 2L Recordings. He states that "I grew up on the windswept Lista peninsula on the southwest coast of Norway, and in many of the songs you can probably feel a whisper of wind, a strip of light or a glimpse of the landscape here." Lars even sent me a postcard from Lista to emphasize the point.

Here's another synaptic connection I've made while listening to Clockwork; I've often that that if I'd been a musician, I would have been the kind who would always insert disparate and surprising elements, such as exotic instrumentation, in order for each song to rise above the ordinary. In many ways this album follows that template--just when things get a little too pretty and familiar, something appears to break it all down and assemble a new whole, a new perspective. That new element can be something as simple as a bow, nervous and heavy against string, making those surreal and cinematic swirling noises that prompted a guest to ask me, "Why are we listening to horror film music?" Or it can be something relatively complex, such as a couple of autoharps being strummed in unison, along with the piano, into an earthy harmonic structure not unlike Meryl Streep's simulated "dial tone" in the film Adaptation. You're not going to necessarily recognize the sounds coming from these three gifted musicians, but they are achieved with honesty.

The story of how I stumbled onto this wonderful, wonderful recording is also interesting. My Norwegian friend Trond Torgnesskar, who sent me the beautiful Ingvild Koksvik LP I reviewed last July, told me he'd be sending me more great-sounding contemporary Norwegian music since I enjoyed Nattapent so much. "It is by Lars Jakob Rudjord, Ingvild's boyfriend, and the guy playing piano on her record," Trond told me. Clockwork, like Nattapent before it, was released by Fyrlyd Records, a label with a reputation for great sound. Indeed, this album was recorded "at IsitArt Studios in the deep Swedish forests." Don't you want to hear Clockwork for that reason alone?

I'll tell you what--I'm probably going to bring this CD with me to every trade show I attend. It's just that great of a demo disc, with amazing sonics and intriguing music. I'll be at CES in Vegas next month, so just ask me to play it for you. It's already late November, so I'm sure I'll be asked for my top ten favorites of 2014 for the Perfect Sound Forever year-end round-up. Unless something even more amazing appears in my mailbox in the next couple of weeks, this is my pick for the best thing I've heard this year.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Frank Lowe Quartet's Out Loud on LP

A few weeks ago I received an email from a publicist, Jazz Promo Services, concerning the LP release of Out Loud by the Frank Lowe Quartet. These days I've been quickly reading and deleting these emails for one particular reason: they're usually offering MP3 downloads instead of actual physical media. As I stated in this blog entry from late last month, I've decided not to respond to any publicists or record label employees who insist on sending me music to review without actually sending me any actual music, you know, in physical formats. As I've already said, when I do music reviews I tend to judge according to sound quality. MP3 files, to me, sound horrible.

This email blast from Triple Points Records caught my attention, however, because the actual product was very intriguing. Saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Frank Lowe was one of those free jazz stalwarts who emerged in the early '70s, a musician who didn't quite make the big name for himself yet still managed to influence an entire generation of jazz musicians who wanted to push the envelope. In 1974 he enlisted trombonist Joseph Bowie, bassist William Parker and drummer Steve Reid for two recording sessions in two separate New York City recording studios, Survival Studio and Studio Rivbea. Basically, every single track ever performed and recorded by these four gentleman is contained in these two LPs.

Also included in this 2-LP set is a 38-page booklet, previously unpublished photos and a link to a 40 minute video from Rivbea. The whole release is limited to just 550 copies, and it was transferred by the mastering team--Ben Young and Joe Lizzi--who were responsible for two of Triple Point's Grammy-nominated releases over the last few years. I said to myself wow, this would probably be a cool thing to have. With a pressing of just 550 copies, however, it seemed very unlikely that I would receive one for review, and I figured that my only chance to hear these rare recordings was through some marginally satisfactory MP3 download. So I passed on the opportunity to review Out Loud and I deleted the email.

A couple of weeks later I received a package in the mail. It was my favorite kind of package, about twelve inches square and very thin. I opened it and lo and behold, I had a copy of Out Loud in my hands. JPS sent it anyway, as if they had read my mind. It took me a while to figure it all out, but I'd received something called a promotional copy. I'm being sarcastic here, but quite honestly it was the first time I'd received one, even though I have a few "promotional copy/not for resale" CDs in my collection courtesy of a less-than-ethical used record store in Northern Virginia that I used to frequent 20 years ago. So my copy didn't include the rare photos and the helpful booklet or the link to the 40 minute video. All I had was these two beautifully pressed slabs of vinyl and the extraordinary music contained in the grooves, which was still a thousand times better than an MP3 download code.

I'm not sure how you feel about free jazz--Colleen generally forbids me to play it in her presence--but in college I had a thing for Ornette Coleman. My brain, for some reason or another, can make sense out of what sounds like measured chaos to the vast majority of jazz fans, and I can allow myself to drift in between the cracks and find the flow and turn it into something trance-like. Frank Lowe's music is slightly more challenging than that--it jumps and it screeches and it doesn't let up for a second. This quartet was on the edge of taking free jazz to the next level where it would sound more exotic, more saturated by percussion, more junkyard dog. Unfortunately this amazing album captures just a fleeting glimpse of that spark; the four members moved on after these recordings were made, and if you weren't hanging out in some of those famous NYC lofts in 1974 you missed it completely. All of these recordings were shelved indefinitely, and it forty years to dig them up, wipe them off and present them in this undoubtedly reverent manner.

Perhaps the most amazing part of this album is the genuinely fantastic sound quality. This pressing is extremely quiet, allowing the musicians to remain separate and distinct and deliberately place in a spotlight with the soundstage. That quality alone makes this dense, noisy celebration more palatable to the uninitiated--there's such a human feel to these performances, all the warts and flaws and spontaneity remind you that Out Loud represents a lost moment in time, a moment only accessible to a lucky 550 people--plus a few humble music reviewers such as myself. Highly recommended for adventurous jazz fans.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My First Article for Part-Time Audiophile/The Audio Traveler: 3 Simple Rules for High-End Audio Show Attendees

Wow! My first article for The Audio Traveler/Part-Time Audiophile is up! This is sort of a companion piece for Scot's article on our room that appeared yesterday I may piss off a few people with this article, but I think these things needed to be said. You can read it here.


Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Greatest Article Ever Written About Me/I Got a New Cartridge

I'm in a pretty good mood today. Minutes after waking up this morning I discovered that Scot Hull, the Part-Time Audiophile, had published an article on our all-analog PureAudio/Opera/Unison Research/Transfiguration/Furutech room at the 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. You can read it here. Don't let the whole The Audio Traveler thing confuse you--it's a new companion website Scot started just to cover all the US audio trade shows like CES and RMAF and AXPONA and T.H.E. Show and Dagogo and all the rest. The Part-Time Audiophile will just focus on equipment reviews, opinion pieces and whatever else comes along.

I say that last part because it's clear that Scot Hull is a rising star among audio journalists. He's expanding, hiring really good writers like Malachi Kenney and Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney (yes, they're married, but they each have very unique writing styles and perspectives). For me, that's what it comes down to--the quality of the writing on the part of Scot Hull and his staff and how they really seem to be the future of audio journalism. The first time I read one of Scot's articles, I said to myself, "Uh oh, this guy's doing what I'm doing, only a hundred times better." I almost deleted this blog that day. When I told that to Scot during the epic 2014 Denver Whiskey and Cigar Fest he describes in his current article, he told me "No dude, you're the one who inspired me to do the Part-Time Audiophile," or something like that. My eyes were spinning pinwheels by then, and cartoon hearts floated above my scalp. "No, my writing sucks compared to yours!" "You're crazy--you're so much better than me!" This went on all night, and then Colleen grounded me for a month for being out too late.

Anyway, Scot is far too kind in this article, and Colleen and I, as well as all the manufacturers involved, appreciate what he wrote. Like I said on Facebook this morning, I smell a Pulitzer. While looking at Scot's photos of the my analog rig, however, I realized I haven't announced that that wonderful, exquisite Transfiguration Axia cartridge is now mine, all mine. I couldn't bear to send it back to Dan Muzquiz--it's just such a wonderful match with the Unison Research Giro 'table and arm, as well as the stupendous PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier, and I told Colleen during the show, "I don't want to send this back." Bob Clarke, who distributes Transfiguration in the USA through his company Profundo (which also represents some of my personal faves such as Trenner & Friedl, Heed and VivA) got involved. We're all good friends and have a lot of respect for each others' brands, and we do a lot of business together--especially during trade shows like RMAF where we often share rooms. In other words, no shenanigans were involved--by now everyone should know I love a lot of brands I don't represent, and I'm more than happy to tell the world about it. Suffice it to say that I'm deliriously happy with this cartridge on my turntable, and I owe a debt of gratitude to Bob, Dan and Colleen.

One reason why I got a great deal was because this isn't the latest Axia--apparently some improvements were made to the design last year. This was Dan's low-mileage demo Axia for Blackbird Audio Gallery, one that I'd heard previously on a Funk Firm table/arm combo. I remember how fantastic this cartridge sounded then, and I've known ever since that I wanted one. I had the great pleasure of breaking in Transfiguration's middle model, the $4200 Phoenix, for RMAF two years ago. That was two months of heaven, and I really wanted to keep that one, too. I'm intrigued with the idea that the new Axia is somehow better than this one, but at the same time I'm totally in love with the way this cartridge allows the music to flow much more freely into my head. I used to pride myself on being a "Koetsu Man," but Transfigurations have all that lush beauty with more detail, presence and energy.

I guess I'm a "Transfiguration Man" now. And that sounds super cool.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Bjorn Bolstad Skjelbred's Waves & Interruptions on Blu-ray Audio

It's tough to review atonal, dissonant music in general because I feel there's a fine line between appealing to those more adventurous classical fans and throwing up your arms and saying, "Look, this is a difficult listen and you might think I'm crazy for recommending it so highly." You start talking about other aspects of the music, such as the recording quality or even the bleak moods and images that are summoned from the deepest recesses of your soul while you're listening. That's why it's such a delight to come across a recording like Bjorn Bolstad Skjelbred's Wave & Interruptions.

Sure this is challenging music, cast in that Scandinavian bleakness that comes from a culture that is characterized by somber emotions and a routine attitude about the value of perseverance. But this new Blu-ray audio disc is a huge surprise because the music is performed by such unlikely combinations of instruments--marimba and viola on the opening "Movements," for instance, or vibraphones, crotales, flutes and guitar on "Lines in Motion, Entwined." That sounds superficial, judging a recording great because you appreciate the exposure to more exotic arrangements with equally exotic musical instruments, but Waves & Interruptions opens a window into unique musical experiences, such as hearing the lowest registers of the marimba and hearing how deep the notes can reach, and how these thunderous flourishes, such as on the closing title track, can shake the floor and bounce off the walls of the recording venue. This is a marimba, after all, not a tympani.

That makes this recording such a wonderful demo disc, to be sure. As usual, Morten Lindberg of 2L has successfully mated unusual and complex music with a recording quality that underlines how instruments such as the marimba and the vibraphone and the bass flute sound in a very real space. How often do you hear these instruments out in the real world? These instruments are often used as embellishments, otherwordly touches that distinguish a piece as unusual and far from the mainstream, and to hear them spotlighted is a rare treat.

The story behind Waves & Interruptions, as is the norm for 2L, is as interesting as the music itself. Composer Skjelbred produced all of these pieces for melodic percussion--a term I really like--from 2001 to 2013, and it's a considerable coup to have enlisted the services of noted Norwegian percussionist Eirik Raude to interpret these gems. The liner notes point out the introspective tone of this music and note how they capture the shy persona of the composer, and that's perhaps why it's easier to digest the more calming aspects of this poetic music than it is to go on an all-night bender of Berg, Bartok and Schoenberg. You can crawl between the quiet spaces of the music and curl up into a fetal position, knowing that you won't jumping at sudden crashes and crescendos. It's strange music, indeed, full of tension and a weird arcane magic that still manages to be soothing in a way you might not have felt before.

This quiet, of course, escorts you deep into the recording where you will easily hear the uncommon physical links between musicians and their instruments--breathing, positioning and the tandem resonances of wood, metal and flesh. I've listened to this disc a few times now on my new headphone rig (Unison Research SH headphone amplifier, ADL H128 headphones and a simple Blu-ray player, all linked with Cardas Clear cabling and power cords), and it's quite wonderful allowing these remarkable sounds into your head. At the same time, it's even more thrilling to play this disc on my reference system just to hear these musicians exist in such an intimate yet isolated spot on the stage.

So it's another amazing sonic experience courtesy of 2L. I will go further and say that Waves & Interruptions goes one step beyond this--of all the fascinating yet difficult recordings I've heard from this Norwegian label, this one is the most accessible and pleasing, all while maintaining its place in the vanguard.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Rocket 3's Burn on CD

Back in 1993 an Australian band known as Clouds released an album, Thunderhead, and I honestly thought they would become huge in the US as a result. The band sounded so unique because it mated baby-doll vocal harmonies from a pair of frontwomen with a very hard, chunky and kick-ass early '90s grunge. While other groups of that time--Letters to Cleo, Elastica and Veruca Salt, for example--wiggled their way into the American rock scene twenty years ago, I still think Clouds had the best template for that sound, and I still bring out my old CD copy of Thunderhead out and play it every few years. Does anyone else do the same, or even have the slightest idea of what I'm talking about? Clouds were super cool, dammit.

I bring them up because it's rare when a new band reminds me of their almost paradoxical sound. Rocket 3, a winning trio from Portland, does. They may not rock quite as consistently hard as Clouds--their debut album Burn does contain some softer, slower songs that make the overall comparison sort of moot--but when they get rolling on songs such as "Good Enough" and "Jealous Girl," that chasm between a straightforward rock band and lovely, sexy vocals (courtesy of guitarist Ramune) is extremely evocative of the rock scene twenty-plus years ago. Backed up by drummer Drew and bassist Tony, Ramune was reportedly late to the music game and only recently learned how to play. That's not a problem--she knows the basics and her uncluttered rhythm lines are reminiscent of early Talking Heads where each member used to treat their instruments like alien and suspicious devices. With this type of band, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.

On their Facebook page the band lists their interests as "playing music, being goofy and laughing so hard it hurts," but that doesn't mean that Rocket 3 is your normal party band from the City of Roses. Upon first listen, I thought the trio's sound was imbued with a bit of the shoegazer spirit, especially considering that Burn ends with a version of My Bloody Valentine's "Only Shallow" that's so reverent that it could only come from true fans, so good that even the most hardcore MBV fans will say, "Oh that's okay, we're not offended by this." This album is lots of fun, but not necessarily in a lighthearted way--it has an almost drone-like momentum hiding within its deepest recesses, and that darkness is worth searching out.

The sound quality of Burn is a little soft and blurry around the edges--it doesn't sound nearly as crispy and tight as Thunderhead--so it probably won't appeal to too many other grumpy middle-aged audiophiles such as me. But I think Rocket 3 is the perfect answer to the question "What kind of music were you listening to twenty years ago?" I, for example, was listening to music like this instead of getting all misty-eyed with my friends watching Clapton play "Tears in Heaven." What's irony for one generation is nostalgia for another. Highly recommended, especially if you listen to it right before you drag out your old Clouds CDs.

Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Headphone System and a New Rule

The 2014 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest was a couple of weeks ago, and Colleen and I wound up doing two rooms almost all by ourselves. I say almost because we did enlist the help of Cora, our friend and first CCI employee, as well as Brad Serhan, the designer of the Axis VoiceBox S speaker that we just started to distribute in the US. Unfortunately, we didn't have our usual RMAF partners--Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio and Bob Clarke of Profundo. Bob had a family emergency (all is well), and Dan's son Nathan decided to get married on the same weekend. You can tell Dan's audiophilia hasn't rubbed off on his sons--when Nate's fiancee first suggested October, he should have immediately said "No way, pop's got RMAF in October." (Just kidding. Congrats to Nate.)

Anyway, I'm bringing this up because a) I haven't had time to blog in the last few weeks and b) since the show I've had a lot of changes to the system--or, more accurately, systems. All the wonderful PureAudio gear is gone to the reviewers, and I'm currently breaking in part of the system we'll be using at CES in January which consists of the Unison Triode 25 integrated amplifier/DAC and the new Opera Callas monitors. My other system, which has magically started to form to the left of my desk in my office, is headphone-based. Now I've had some headphone systems in play over the last year or so, but this one is a bit different--more ambitious, more versatile and hopefully more permanent.

This new system consists of a working prototype of the upcoming Unison Research SH headphone amplifier with DAC (the same DAC as in the Triode 25 in my listening room), a pair of the new ADL H128 headphones (backed up by pairs of earbuds from Cardas Audio and ADL), my trusty $66 Samsung Blu-ray player and--get this--my laptop. I'm going to finally get serious about jumping into the 21st century and all this computer audio stuff. I've just hooked up my laptop to the Unison DAC via a Cardas Audio Clear USB cable (all interconnects and power cords are also Cardas Clear) and I can finally listen to all those hi-rez files I downloaded the last time I tried to get into computer audio. Which, by the way, was not the first time.

Why is this time going to be any different? Well, it's sort of my job now since one of my manufacturers decided to start putting a DAC in all their upcoming products--a serious DAC for 2014, with all the bells and whistles--and now I have to answer questions about sampling rates and DSD and even double DSD, whatever that is. Secondly, the sound kicks major butt. I like it a lot. This is a very impressive system, and it makes me want to re-explore the headphone landscape like I did a few years ago when I owned an amazing pair of Grado GS-1000s with the Stefan Audio Arts cable upgrade and a Woo Audio headphone amp.

That said, I have made myself a promise for this blog--that I really need to refocus on vinyl. Over the last few years I've been getting enthusiastic about other formats. Lately, however, I've been noticing a trend: when I blog about vinyl, more people read it. There's another underlying reason for this new commitment to my favorite music format, and it's a bit of a long story. I'll keep it as brief as possible.

A few months ago I was contacted by a relatively new record label that was reissuing a lot of remastered classics--as well as some new "audiophile-quality" albums from contemporary artists--and they asked me if I would like to review some of their titles. I looked at their catalog and said sure--these were relatively fun and exciting releases. I didn't exactly specify that I preferred vinyl or CDs, but they kept referring to the releases as "albums," which to me means something you can hold in your hand. Over the next few months the label contacted me periodically and asked me if I wanted this title or that title, and the answer was always yes.

Then I noticed something--after several months, none of these releases had been delivered to me even though I was still receiving almost weekly e-mails asking if I want to review this one or that one, this one or that one. I finally asked if there was an ETA on any of these titles, and my record label contact said, "Oh, it's just taking a little more time to get the physical formats together--most reviewers just need downloads." I replied that I preferred physical formats because I also review based on sound, and that my computer audio system was nowhere near my big system in terms of ultimate sound quality. A few weeks later, the contact told me that she couldn't secure the licenses to get me these releases on a physical format. I told her that she was in luck, since my new 21st century computer audio system would make it easier for me to review downloads. I gave her one caveat: only hi-rez, no MP3.

"We only have MP3 downloads to send you," she replied.

Ugh. Sorry, folks, but I blog for fun. I don't get paid. So if you're sending me something to review, I want something for permission to keep the LP or CD I've just reviewed! Hopefully my review will be worth the $20 to you. I know, that makes me sound a little whorish, but I really look at it this way--getting a CD or an LP in my mailbox from a record label or a publicist or even the actual artist and then reviewing it, well, that's a lot of fun. It's fun enough, in fact, to do it for free. But if you set up an account for me on your website so I can listen to files and write reviews from that--well, that's not as fun to me. I might change my mind once I get this computer audio system rolling, but for right now I only review LPs, CDs and other physical formats. (No LaserDisc though. Or Betamax.)

Anyway, I will be blogging about yet another personal journey into the world of computer audio...maybe this time it will stick. I'm crossing my fingers.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Devin Sinha's The Seventh Season on CD

When I first saw the cover for this Devin Sinha CD, The Seventh Season, I started thinking of singer/songwriters such as Sufjan Stevens and Devendra Banhart, folkies who grew up in the middle of the country (in Banhart's case, the country was Venezuela) and later learned how to filter those sensibilities through a more sophisticated life as a musician in a big city. Sinha, who grew up in and around Kansas City, does sound like someone who just stepped out of the tall grasses with a guitar and a notebook. He then settled down in Seattle, and perhaps the heavy, dripping PNW interest in all things Americana starting creeping in around the edges. The two halves of this musical identity fit in seamlessly, so much so that you might not even notice.

When musicians ride that fence between two or three genres as Sinha does, it usually results in a lot of interesting choices. Take the guitar line during the first few minutes of the opener, "Ripcord," and you'll swear that Johnny Marr joined Lampbchop or the Pernice Brothers. The open, rambling tempo of "Whippoorwill Winter" is straight from Alejandro Escovedo's Big Book of Ballads, mixing a spacious and rangy Texan sensibility that might remind you of your last trip to The Continental Club during SXSW. The stand-out for me was the beautiful and melancholy "The Wolves" which reminded me of Neko Case's "Star Witness," one of my absolute favorite songs of all time, more than once.

Sinha's voice is also a wry pleasure, a plaintive yet unusually relaxed style that almost suggests he can sing in a more mainstream manner but won't, a la Lucinda Williams. The band backing him is up for anything, contracting and expanding throughout the tracks, sounding like a collection of Seattle's best session players who were rounded up to make this gifted singer/songwriter sound like an old pro. These songs are mellow and polished, but they're growing-up-in-LA-in-the-'70s-with-all-those-cool-FM stations mellow and polished.

Once again I've been hamstrung by this odd habit I've acquired--listening to CDs for the first time on my car player while driving around--and so I suggest you let this album sink in a bit. My first impression was that it was slick, professional and a little too familiar, but after repeated listening on my reference system the songs added another layer of emotional depth, as well as a dreaminess that allows me to drift along with these songs with incredible ease. The Seventh Season is soothing and gorgeous while still preserving the sort of artistic integrity that will make you tell your friends, "No, there's a lot more here. Trust me."

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Acoustic Sounds' Belafonte at Carnegie Hall on LP

I believe a vast majority of audiophiles are aware of Harry Belafonte's 1959 recording Belafonte at Carnegie Hall. As far as live recordings go, it sits at the head of its class in terms of sound quality. In fact, I can't think of a better recording from this era that captures the sound of a live audience so well and firmly positions you, the listener, among the crowd. Most live recordings position the microphones near the performers on stage so that the audience sounds distant and even canned. I'm not sure what the recording engineers did to make this particular crowd sound so immediate and lifelike, but they should have written a book about it and handed it out to all of their contemporaries.

I've been a huge fan of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall for many years--I chose it at "Best LP Reissue" in my 1999 year-end Vinyl Anachronist column when Classic Records released it in an 45rpm 8-LP set. I never even bought that version--I was po' back then and it cost close to $100--so I had to borrow it from a fellow audiophile. Years later I found an original copy at a thrift store, and as you might imagine it was thrashed and sounded like crap. Just a couple of years ago Colleen surprised me during a road trip by playing a ripped CD of the 45rpm version. "Matilda" has been one of "our" songs ever since.

Flash forward to last week, when I was browsing through the Acoustic Sounds website to see what was new. Colleen and I are exhibiting at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in a little over a week and I always like to have something exciting and new to play for show attendees. This year we're doing two rooms--one room includes the Unison Research Triode 25 integrated amplifier with built-in DAC and a pair of our new Axis VoiceBox S speakers, and in the other I'm doing an all-analog room with probably the most ambitious system I've ever set up. The pic below shows it in all its glory, right there in the VA listening room--PureAudio amplification, Opera Grand Callas 2014 speakers and my Unison Research Giro turntable with one of my favorite cartridges, the Transfiguration Axia. (I don't think any other cartridge comes close to it at its relatively modest price point.)

Anyway, I noticed that Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds had just released another version of Carnegie Hall, this one sourced from the original 3-track master tapes and pressed on 200 gram vinyl. Here's the thing about Chad lately: it seems like he's coming out with HIS version of all the audiophile standards such as Tea for the Tlllerman, Fragile and even the first Ted Nugent LP. (I'll pass on that one.) So while part of me says "Do we really need another version of this record?" the other part of me says "If it's from Chad we do." After buying Sam Cooke's Night Beat from Chad a while ago, I'm starting to think that he can do no wrong.

So how is this version compared to the 45rpm version released more than 15 years ago? I wish I still had a copy for comparison. I had a much more modest system back then, so it's not fair to rely upon my memory. But here are some of the distinct advantages to Chad's new version:

1. It's on two LPs instead of eight. (The Classic Records version did have a double LP version, but it didn't sound nearly as good.)
2. It's $50, not $100. In fact, you might not even find a decent copy of the older version for a reasonable amount of money anymore. It's very collectible.
3. The brass section of the orchestra is more edgy and dynamic without peeling your ears back.
4. The crowd noise is even more impressive and natural than before.
5. Everything sounds bigger--the stage, the hall and Harry's voice. At the same time, everything sounds more laid-back and slightly less immersive (not a bad thing, just different as if you're sitting a few more rows away from the stage and the performers.)

This new version of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall, in other words, is a big yes. If you're curious about it and you're not sure if you want to drop $50 on it--especially if you already own one version or another, just drop by my room at RMAF and listen for yourself. I'll probably be playing it constantly.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The 100th Vinyl Anachronist Column for Perfect Sound Forever Is Now Online!

This morning I woke up to a pleasant surprise--my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column was live at Perfect Sound Forever! I knew it was coming out today, as I was responsible for creating much of the content. What was surprising, however, was the way in which PSF editor Jason Gross packaged the whole thing, from his very complimentary introduction to the fact that he posted my photo on the home page in the space that's usually reserved for the musicians and performers who are featured in the articles.

Colleen was happy to see it as well, especially since one of our favorite photos of the two of us graces the top of the article instead of the usual Technics SL1200 image that you see above. I feel kind of special today, like it's my birthday or something, and I thank Jason for making this something to truly celebrate!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Kool Stuff Katie on CD

Is there anything more ridiculous than the current feud between Dan Auerbach and Jack White? On the surface there are a lot of similarities between the Black Keys and the White Stripes--their names, the fact that each band consists of just a guitarist/singer and a drummer, and that they're both evocative of the hard rock and blues of the early '70s. But beyond that, the Stripes and the Keys have such a different vibe; the former band is minimalist and the latter relies on heavy production in the studio. I can come up with many more examples, but suffice it to say that the first time I heard the Stripes ("Fell in Love With a Girl" on KROQ in LA in 2001) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" The first time I heard the Keys ("Tighten Up" on KGSR in Austin in 2010) I said to myself, "Who are these guys?" I took me a long time to make the connection between the two bands, and it had nothing to do with music.

I'm bringing this up because yes, Kool Stuff Katie consists of just a guy guitarist and a girl drummer. Knowing that, you might roll your eyes a little. But once again, there's little to suggest imitation once you listen to the music. KSK, made up of the slightly nerdy Shane Blem and the quirky but very lovely Saren Oliver, have also gone back to the '70s for inspiration--but they're more content with Cheap Trick and the Ramones than the blues. Listening to their eponymous debut album's opener, "Hard Girl to Know," a simple and catchy mini-anthem, I'm reminded of the main reason I look those two earlier bands so much. It has something to do with momentum, about finding a catchy pop hook, roughing it up around the edges and stomping on the gas pedal until something start clanging under the hood.

Another important distinction is that unlike the other two bands, much of the vocal magic in Kool Stuff Katie is that Shane and Saren both sing, often blending innocent and exuberant harmonies into the majority of songs. This balances out the fact that both are rather workmanlike with their instruments--they're creating a fun, noisy whole rather than showing off their musical talent. Saren does occasionally jump over to the keyboards and adds a few extra layers of texture to mix it all up, but they're rockin' out--not making specific and lofty statements about our shared musical past.

That's why you shouldn't judge a band by the number of its members, I suppose. I think one of the reasons why these guitar/drum rock duos are so varied from each other is because each member has to throw more of himself or herself into the whole sonic picture to cover all the bases, so to speak. That means Meg White's drumming sounds nothing like Saren Oliver's, just like Dan Auerbach's singing voice, not to mention his guitar playing, sounds nothing like Jack White's. So kiss and make up, everybody, and maybe work on something together.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Led Zeppelin III on LP, Remastered by Jimmy Page

I recently finished my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever. PSF editor and publisher Jason Gross came up with the idea to choose my ten favorite columns over the last 17 years, and number 10 was my famously misplaced 2001 column where I raved about the Classic Records reissue of the Led Zeppelin catalog on 180 gram vinyl. As it turned out my column came exactly one issue before Will Shade's excellent article, "Dazed and Confused: The Incredibly Strange Saga of Jake Holmes," which carefully lays out how Jimmy Page stole Holmes' songs over the years. After that my column vanished in the ether, excluded from the archives, and can only be found via a Google search. It took me a while to figure it all out, but after all these years I totally get why Jason did it. It was just bad timing. (Years later Jason told me that he didn't hate Zep--but what they did was pretty sleazy.)

The day after I finished the column, I headed out to the local Hastings to check out their newly remodeled vinyl section, which was still small but growing steadily. I found the latest Zeppelin box sets, remastered by Jimmy Page and released just a few weeks ago, all sitting on a shelf and priced at $134.99 each. (At this point they've released the first three albums, with the rest to follow soon.) I've been really curious about these because I've always lamented the horrible sound quality of the Zep catalog, even the Classic reissues which were expensive and still not quite there sound-wise. I've always used the CD box set, the one released in the '90s, as my reference, but these are merely the lesser of all evils.

But $134.98? I'll pass. I'm not a box set kind of person. I don't need all the outtakes and unreleased materials--that's for fanboys who want an entire disc of their rock idols coughing and scratching their balls in the studio while the engineers finish their coffee breaks. I just want to hear the original releases remastered so the sound quality is as realistic and/or goosebump-inducing as possible.

Fortunately, these new LPs have been released in a basic version which just contains the original album. I first saw these at Fidelis, our dealer in New Hampshire, a couple of weeks ago. I would have grabbed them all right there but I hate bringing LPs on a plane. So there I was in Hastings, a week or so later, and they had a copy of the newly remastered III right there, below the big box sets, for just $24.98. I grabbed it without thinking and headed to the register.

Along with the first three sides of Physical Graffiti, Led Zeppelin III has always been my favorite Zep album because it stands apart from the others in so many ways. It's softer, more acoustic and more psychedelic than any of the others and showed that the band wanted to grow and evolve into something more than a killer blues-rock band. It's also downright weird in places--"The Immigrant Song," for example, belongs in a genre of one. Yet III also contains some of Led Zeppelin's most beautiful music, the country-tinged "Tangerine," the reflective "That's the Way" and the very unusual yet very traditional "Gallow's Pole."

So how does Jimmy Page's reissue measure up to the others? Well, to start off, this pressing is incredibly good. The surface of the LP is almost perfectly silent. Starting off with "The Immigrant's Song," which always sounded like it was recorded in a dungeon with two paper cups and a string, this remaster is decidedly modern-sounding with an expansive soundstage and plenty of air around the instruments. Moving on through the album, you'll notice that Page paid particular attention to bringing out the sound of his acoustic guitars so you can hear the individual strings resonate against the wood. Never has the band sound more live, more there in the room with you.

On the other hand, I wanted more of a visceral impact--starting with fuller and deeper low frequencies. Zep is a band that should knock your proverbial socks off with dynamics and power and sheer rock and roll head-rushes but I always thought they were hamstrung by crappy, muddy production values. So this new version excels at bringing out more details from the grooves, but it still lacks that headbanging magic I find routinely from other hard rock bands from the era.

Still, this is good enough to supplant all other versions of the catalog. To make these better, more of what I truly want, someone would have to cheat and add things that weren't originally there in the studio. As any purist will tell you, that's a big no-no. The real question is whether I'm going to collect each album as they're released, and that's a tougher decision. I don't feel particularly compelled to go out and get the first two albums--I already have the Classic Records versions of those and they cost me too much money to just cast them aside because something shinier came along.

But Physical Graffiti? Houses of the Holy? You bet I'll lay down the cash for those.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Why I May Stop Answering Emails Altogether

"Thanks to articles like this I wasted a bunch of time and money testing out phono preamps from 50.00 to 1600. And you know what? A 100.00 one sounds as good as the 1600 tube. This was with a MMC2 cartridge. Money is best put into speakers as I think this is like wine testing, some people will swear this is a great whine (really boonsfarm) some of this has to be in peoples head. The Cartridge is 80% or more of the equation, a phono pre amp will not magically make up the difference.

The phono preamps in the 70s amplifiers is not a 15.00 part. They are better than those cheap ones you were talking about. Why? think about it, back then everyone had a turntable so they had better put a good phono stage in the amp. Today its an afterthought and now turntables are much rarer than back then. So the market is smaller which means high prices on today phono preamps that are not much better. They might be ok for a really low output mc cart but for MM carts my findings are you don't need to spend 1,000 on one. Take that money and buy better speakers, will give you a much better WOW effect."

"Bullshit. Just because you can't hear the differences doesn't mean everyone else can't either. Maybe Q-tips will help. Don't email me again."

"Not saying there is not a difference just not a WOW. Why get angry over differing opinions? Many others think the same as me via their own testing. Raging at opinions makes me think yours is a bit biased for one reason or another."

"I'm biased because I'm the US importer and distributor of three phono amplifiers from two different companies. But you email me to tell me that I don't know what I'm talking about and you only offer your personal opinions as a retort, and then you wonder why I would take offense? You're kidding, right? All future emails from you will be deleted unread."

"Well you have a poor attitude. Now that article makes sense, financial interests."

"What article are you talking about? I stopped doing equipment reviews in 2011, when I became a distributor. I wanted to avoid any conflict of interest. Now, if the article to which you are referring was published after July 1, 2011, then you can say I was motivated by financial interests. But if it was published before that, and I'll bet you any amount of money that it was, then I'll expect an apology."

"I will have to look at my history. But I will apologize now for upsetting you, I did not mean that. It was a black background and started with you trying different phono preamplifier s. At some point you started hicking the amount to spend up and up. From 300.00 to 800 then to over 1k. And seemed to be pushing people to spend more. Well like you I have done the same but I did not find a WOW at the higher price points. I will say I do think the Tube ones are cool looking and have better on paper specs but they did not sound 1,000 better.

I put a lower price MM phone preamp with 2,000 speakers and $1500 one on 500.00 speakers. Then swapped it. I found having better speakers with lower priced phone was much more of a WOW. The phones were almost the same sounding, different but not really better, very subtle. This was with a micro moving cross $700.00 cartridge. Its a low output 2mv that still uses MM part of say a IA or external phono. Not the MC inputs. I think if I had a MC cartridge it might make much more of a difference as they can be very low output and need much more signal boost from the preamp.

So at least for mmc cartridge owners (soundsmith makes them) it appears the phono preamp does not make as much difference.
I would like to be proven wrong, maybe there is a phono preamp that would do better. I did not try to adjust the 47k to a higher or lower level. Maybe that would have made the difference. If I tried another one it would have to have adjustable impedance control so I could tune it better. What phono preamps do you deal with?"

"Here's the article you're referring to: It's from March 2003, as you can see from archived date at the top of the article. In March of 2003, I was not in the audio industry. I was in telecommunications. You're all hyped up about an article I wrote more than 11 years ago. Don't you have better things to do?

I'm not pushing people to spend more. But there is a price/performance ratio in audio that is undeniable and linear. As with most market segments, more money buys more product, whether it's more quality or more quantity. The Law of Diminishing Returns is highly overrated in high-end audio. The really nice stuff, which happens to be very expensive more often than not, sounds a LOT better than the affordable stuff. "Giant Killers" really don't exist. Everyone who complains about the prices of high-end audio gear are nothing but sore losers--if you can't afford it, don't worry about it. Would you write a letter to Enzo Ferrari saying his automobiles are rip-offs because you can't afford them? Same concept here.

I sell three phono preamps. One is $2450, one is $3250 and one is $4500. All sound very different, all are worth it. All sound far better than any $1000 phono preamp. I know, because I own a $1000 phono preamp as a back-up, and it sounds very different than the other ones. I wouldn't suggest any one of them for people with modest systems because you can't hear the differences unless the rest of your system is highly resolving. I'm gonna say the rest of your system probably isn't highly resolving if you can't hear the differences between phono preamps.

Also, providing me with ONE example of a time when you switched components does not constitute a fact. It's anecdotal evidence, which means its useless information to everyone but you. After four years of distributing high-end audio, after 16 years of being an equipment reviewer and audio writer and after 40 years of being an audiophile, how many comparisons do you think I've made? Would it be more than one?

Worst of all, you haven't even heard a great low-output MC in your system. If you had, you'd know that the phono pre makes a huge difference."

Monday, September 1, 2014

Upcoming 100th Vinyl Anachronist Column for Perfect Sound Forever

Over the weekend I've been working on my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, which just so happens to be the 100th. PSF editor Jason Gross and I have been talking about doing something special for the 100th column since last year, and initially he thought it would be great if HE could interview ME. I thought sure, it would be great to let someone else do all the work for once! As the milestone approached, however, he had more ideas, such as me writing yet another column where I could choose my favorite columns over the years.

The more I thought about this idea, the more I liked it. So this weekend I sat down and reviewed all 99 columns, dating back to February 1998, and I chose ten columns that had a special meaning for me, or at least had an interesting back story. I always knew what would wind up as my #1 choice, and #2 wasn't much of a surprise either. But the other eight were very interesting for a number of reasons, which you'll find out about once the issue appears.

So that's the plan for now--I'll have a retrospect as my 100th column, and Jason Gross will interview me. These will appear in the next issue of Perfect Sound Forever, the October/November issue, which will appear at the end of September. I'm looking forward to it!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pawns or Kings' Pomme De Terre on CD

Pawn or Kings are a folk rock band from the Ozarks, which is a rather genuine place to be from if you're going to make music like this. If you read all of the press about POK, however, you'll see endless comparisons to Mumford & Sons, which made me put off the writing of this review. I'm not the biggest fan of POK's more famous British brethren; it occurs to me they're a band that has become less genuine as the years and the record sales go on. A cursory listen to POK's new album, Pomme de Terre, certainly reveals the same affinity for Irish roots rock mixed with Americana, along with a banjo that's presented up front and personal just like a lead singer. I had a feeling, in other words, that I had heard this all before.

It's a good thing I gave Pomme de Terre a second chance in my main system, where I discovered a quartet of musicians much more willing to take chances and stray from that somewhat limiting musical genre. POK achieves this by manipulating the pace of their album, juxtaposing the knee-slapping Irish tunes with moody, atypical instrumentals ("The First Rain," subtitled an interlude) to a mid-tempo rambling epic ("Black Clouds") that brushes up against The Fleet Foxes once or twice with its forlorn 3-part harmonies and an attitude that flirts with the medieval.

Despite these adventurous mini-excursions, Pomme de Terre doesn't drop you off at the bus stop halfway through while the band members stretch out and improvise. The instrumental breaks are a welcome feature up until the end of this varied and confident album, the band's second after their 2011 debut Letters to Lucy, until this quartet lands into an introspective yet invigorating cover of an actual Fleet Foxes' tune, "He Doesn't Know Why." Any musician who can cover the Foxes and not make you run for the original deserves a nice slap on the back and a pint. By the way, the song is misspelled on the back cover as "He Doensn't Know Why"--I'm not sure if this is intentional or if it will be corrected later and my copy will be worth tons of money one day.

I actually loved the way this album loosened up as it went, finding different pathways to explore along the way. It's as if Pomme de Terre is an all-night party that starts off raucous until a few cocktails are consumed and a few hearts are broken. And the sound quality is quite nice once you get past the rather thinly-balanced opener "Names and Maps." I have a new, BIG pair of speakers in the system and the bass guitar in this album had a warm yet dynamic sound that drives each song.

For more information on Pawns or Kings, check out their Bandcamp website.

Friday, August 22, 2014

A Slice of Analog Heaven: Audio Renaissance in Rochester

Ever since Craig Sypnier of Audio Renaissance in Rochester, New York became an Opera dealer a couple of years ago, it seems like he's been apologizing about his tiny, humble store--or "my little room" as he often calls it. It's taken a while for Colleen and I to visit him and see it for ourselves, and we finally had a chance during our current tour of our Northeastern dealers. Craig's been doing well with Opera--he prefers the entry level bookshelf Mezza since it fits his small space so well. (He's also a dealer for our Carot One line.) During our visit, however, I realized that I had never heard the Mezzas sound so great. Craig definitely attends to the details and really knows how to dial in the sound of our favorite bookshelf monitors.

Audio Renaissance is little off the beaten path. Located at the rear of an industrial park, you can barely spot the signs from the outside. You walk in through a common door on the outside of the building, and the store is located just on the left. You can't even see the inside of the store until you walk in through a single glass door, but once you do you'll be pleasantly surprised at the warmth and coziness of Craig's little room. To put it succinctly, Audio Renaissance resembles an audiophile's heavily stocked listening room, full of records and equipment and lots of album covers on the walls. It really doesn't feel like a store--it just feels like a great place to hang out. If I lived in the Rochester area, I'd be visiting Craig and listening to records with him whenever I could.

In other words, Audio Renaissance is far from a typical high-end retail store. You'll find plenty of turntables there from the likes of SOTA, J. A. Michell, Pro-Ject, Thorens and more, a wide selection of cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Dynavector, Lyra and Denon and cleaning accessories from Nitty Gritty, Audio Desk Systeme and more...and lots and lots of vinyl. You won't see countless racks of equipment, however; Craig is fairly loyal to the underrated yet spectacular amplification from Belles. There's a good reason for that--Belles has long been one of the best-kept secrets in audio. Over the years I've known plenty of audiophiles who have only had Belles amps in their systems because nothing else is quite as musical and satisfying.

After spending an afternoon listening to LPs on Craig's main system that included a Belles amp and preamp, our Opera Mezza speakers and both Michell Gyrodec SE and SOTA Sapphire turntables, I can safely say that I agree with Craig wholeheartedly about the quality of sound he achieves in his store.

One of the most remarkable things about the system is just how quiet and pristine his records are. He owes it all to the ultrasonic record cleaner from Audio Desk Systeme. "I can't believe you haven't tried ultrasonic record cleaning," he said to me. "Once you try it, you'll never go back." I have to admit that the results are astonishing, and if I had the money I would buy the Audio Desk Systeme in a heartbeat. If you're in the Rochester area, Craig will clean your records ultrasonically for just $5 a piece. It's a bargain.

I wish there were more audio stores like Audio Renaissance. It's the kind of a store that takes me back to my early days as an audiophile and vinyl lover, where I'd hang out at local record stores and listen to LPs all day. It's a tiny, humble little store, but it's a must-see for any analog enthusiast.

You can check out Audio Renaissance's website for more info, or you can just call Craig at 585-272-7898 or email him at