Thursday, December 24, 2015

2L Recordings' Fingergull on CD/SACD Hybrid

It's Christmas Eve here in Western Colorado, and I'm doing what I'm usually doing this time of year--getting ready for the Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas. It seems like every year the show is held earlier and earlier in January. I think most years we have to leave for the show the day after New Years' Day, and this year is no exception. So while everyone else is gathering around the mistletoe and getting some high-quality holiday lovin', I'm going through boxes in the garage, fretting about last minute shipments and spending an ordinate amount of time selecting music for the show.

I do have one advantage this year--I have a boatload of CD/SACD/Blu-ray audio discs from 2L Recordings in the review pile right now, and most of it sounds like wonderful demo music to share with the Vegas crowds. But after several years of attempting to choose appropriate music for my exhibit rooms, I've learned a few things. First, you have to choose music that will show off your system. Since all of the loudspeakers I'm using at the show are two-way stand-mounted monitors, I probably shouldn't bring Tool, System of a Down and the 1812 Overture to The Venetian.

Second, you have to pick music that keeps people in your room. That part is tricky. Because no matter what type of music you choose to play in your room, somebody's not going to like it. And they're going to tell you they don't like it. Then they're going to tell you to play one of their favorite pieces of music in the world, and they will throw a fit if you didn't bring it along to the show. If you don't even know who the artist/band/performer is, you might have to take a shot in the chops.

I'm thinking about this as I listen to Fingergull, a new album of sacred choral music that's based upon the arrival of a holy blood relic--in this case, a drop of Christ's blood--in 12th century Norway. (Fingergull is subtitled In festo susceptionis sanguinis Domini, which translates to "The blood of our Lord Jesus Christ came to Nidaros.") Anne Kleivset and her Schola Sanctae Sunnivae chorale have joined together to produce the first full recording of what is now known as The Holy Blood office, and even a heathen like me can feel the reverential awe in every single voice. The commitment to such a deep and thorough exploration of this music cycle is far more passionate than in most recordings you'll hear this year, and there's a point where all that emotion comes to the forefront and makes your heart skip a beat.

But will that play in Peoria or, better yet, the noisy and crowded halls during CES? That's certainly a gamble. Morten Lindberg of 2L has sent me numerous chorale recordings over the last few years, and they were all superb and, dare I say it, inspirational. These various recordings convey why I like sacred music so much--it isn't about the message, but the heart and soul of the messenger that matters to me. For the record, I can't think of a single recording that will let you absorb both the individual vocal contributions and the whole so easily. I think much of it has to do with the Ringsaker Church where it was recorded. By now you know that most 2L Recordings are captured in beautiful Norwegian churches, but I think this is the first one I've heard from this specific church. There's a balance to the warmth of the inner walls and Morten's skill at capturing all the detail within that warmth that is absolutely stunning.

I want my fellow CES attendees to get that. In reality, I expect wisecracks like "What, is this is a church?" That's not the point. Every time I review one of these recordings of sacred music, which of course is very different than sacred recordings of music, I tell myself that I probably won't be that into it. I mention the chasm between the purpose of the music and what I will ultimately extract from it. When it comes to these 2L recordings, however, I always leave the experience knowing that I felt something deep, something that's probably better left under the surface.

But if you're at CES and you want to hear massed vocals in an old church that will sound exactly like the real thing, come up to me and say the magic word: Fingergull.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Random and Belated Musings from the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 2

In Part 1, I suggested that I had heard two turntables at the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest that I felt might represent a new level of analog performance--despite the fact that much of the high-end audio industry is starting to get back to reel-to-reel as the ultimate expression of ultimate sound quality. (Wow, I think I finally figured out my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, which I have to complete before Christmas!) These two 'tables excel in ways that few other 'tables do, and they provide two completely different ways to isolate the stylus from its surroundings.

My first scheduled visit was to the Thrax Audio room, where they were showing off the amazing new Helix turntable, the Helix, in the Thrax Audio room. While this new turntable is "only" $40,000 in the US, in many ways it's as just as accomplished and sophisticated as 'tables in the six-figure range.

The Helix is a completely different animal. Mounted with both a Schroder arm and a Swedish Technologies arm, the Helix sounded wonderful and musical every step of the way. I liked the unusual styling, which allows you to peer through the front of the plinth and see the incredibly sophisticated innards, sort of like older EMT turntables. The fellow from Helix did something that freaked me out a little--he grabbed both sides of the rack shelf and shook it back and forth. The LP played perfectly the whole time! The designers at Helix have done what should have been done a long time ago--they've invented a turntable that seems impervious to footfalls.

Did I mention that Helix is from Australia? That certainly feeds into my new theme that "Down Under" Audio is pretty fabulous. I was supposed to meet with the Helix designers during my recent trip to Sydney, but I believe the timing was off. So they extended a invitation to visit them in their RMAF room and hear the Helix. I'm glad I did. The entire system was very, very impressive.

Before I move onto the other turntable, the Saskia, I have to mention audio scribe Mal Kenney. Colleen and I were about to head home across the Rockies and Mal caught us in the hallway. Mal asked us if we had seen anything that impressed us, and I pretty much mentioned what I've reported so far--Endeavor, ModWright, Helix, etc. He told me he wanted me to hear two rooms that he was really impressed with--the Saskia and Exemplar Audio. At this point, I could not take photos since my iPhone was dead and I figured I was done for the day. So I had to steal these last two photographs from Part-time Audiophile. (You can read about the Saskia room here and the Exemplar Audio room here.)

Win Tinnon's Saskia II turntable is, first and foremost, a beast. With a plinth made of solid slate, it weighs 275 pounds. (That makes its $53,000 price tag actually seem reasonable.) Now I'm a person who doesn't necessarily subscribe to the idea that high-mass turntables are automatically better--I point to the wispy Rega RP-10 and its seemingly three-ounce plinth as proof of that--but there was something so solid about the sound of the Saskia coming through the wonderful modded Quad ESL-57s from Dave Slagle. I've never heard imaging more stable and focused in my life. It was a game changer for me, a new reference for analog sound. Solid, stable, fixed in place as with live music. Two months later, I'm still haunted by the exquisite sound in that room.

Finally, Mal dragged us into the Exemplar Audio room where we met founder John Tucker. I was instantly intrigued by the system, which was all Exemplar--a hybrid integrated amplifier, an Oppo that was further modded by John, cables and a pair of large single-driver speakers that were finished in a classic look that suggested the Tannoy Prestige line. Fit and finish were fantastic for such a young company. The prices were actually lower than I thought, considering the sound quality of this system.

I was truly impressed with the single-driver speakers. I love this type of high-efficiency speaker, especially when mated to low-powered SETs, but usually you'll hear limited extension at the frequency extremes. Not so with this speaker. the XL III. I heard bass, lots of it, well-controlled and punchy. I heard beautifully sweet and extended highs. I could not find a flaw in the sound anywhere. And with that, my ears finally satisfied, we headed home.

Now it's time to get back to work and prepare for the next show, the 2016 Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas in two weeks. I do have a stack of LPs and CDs to review over the Christmas holiday, which I will try to get through before I have to leave. If you do go to CES, we'll be in room 29-110 at The Venetian. So stop by and say hello!

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Random and Belated Musings from the 2015 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, Part 1

If you look back on my blog over the last few years, you'll see that this is the time of year, around the holidays, when I start apologizing for not keeping up. To put it succinctly, I'm pretty busy this time of year. Mostly it's because we've just finished the busy season and now we have to prepare for CES. I'm not talking about the holidays per se, because after eighteen years in retail management I learned that life is so much better when you simply ignore those pesky dates. It's quite edifying when some poor retail clerk asks you if you're "ready for the holidays," and the look that you give them clearly communicates that of course you're ready for the holidays, that it's easy to be prepared when absolutely nothing special is planned.


But I really need to apologize to a few people because it's been more than two months since the last RMAF and I haven't talked about anything yet. I was all set to do so--this was the first RMAF in five years where Colleen Cardas Imports wasn't an exhibitor. Since Colleen and I had spent most of the summer traveling all over the country, and I took that big trip to Australia through September. I think there was a point where, about halfway through the summer, we said to ourselves that RMAF just wasn't going to happen. But since it's only a semi-treacherous five-hour drive across the Rocky Mountains to get to Denver in October, we just decided to show up as attendees and visit as many of our industry friends as possible. And I thought hey, I could cover a show just like I used to, back in the B.C.! (Before Colleen.)

The closest thing we had to a home base was the room that featured ModWright amps, Endeavor Audio Engineering speakers, Triangle ART analog and Skogrand Cables. We were eager to meet with Leif Swanson of Endeavor--we shared a room with him back at the Newport Show where our PureAudio amplifiers were paired with his huge E-5 towers. Everyone involved loved that combo, and we talked about doing future shows together. Leif was running several rooms, however, and we never seemed to be in the same one at the same time. Perhaps it was because he saw us first? Hah!

Fortunately, Leif connected with Dan Wright of ModWright Instruments for amplification for this show. I've known Dan since my TONEAudio days when I gave extremely favorable reviews to one of his preamps, and I used one of his phono amps to review some cartridges. In the last few years since I've seen Dan, ModWright has become a major player in the US amplifier market, and the two systems where Dan's amps were used were among the top three or four best-sounding systems at the show. (In another room, Dan's new 845 monoblocks were VERY impressive--you can read about them here.)

One thing that Dan hasn't changed over the years--that lovely blue LED glow that emanates from the top plates of his amps. I always felt that those lights were so soothing to look at while you

Analog was supplied by Triangle ART. I have sort of a connection with Tom Vu and his company as well--Triangle Arts is based in Anaheim, my hometown. It seems that at CES, where we help man the Unison Research and Opera room every year, we're always across the hallway from Tom's room. His turntables are beautiful gleaming metallic sculptures, gigantic and solid in an ultra-industrial sort of way, but more affordable than you'd think. I'm especially interested in his new line of cartridges, which are creating a lot of buzz in the industry right now.

Now it's time to talk about a new favorite person of mine in the industry, Knut Skogrand of Skogrand Cables. Knut is from Norway, and he makes gorgeous-looking cables with some of the most ornate jacket designs I've seen. I don't mean crazy, futuristic looking cables that glow chartreuse, but opulent and silky jackets that are designed to reflect the classic art and architecture in his home country. Knut's cables also sound as good as they look, which is pretty friggin' good.

I've listened carefully to his system at both the Newport Show earlier this year and this RMAF system and I can genuine say that it's easy to relax and not even worry about visiting other rooms at the show, because this will be enough. Sure, Knut shared some wonderful Scotch with me during my visit to his room, but that didn't influence my decision about the sound quality one danged bit. How dare you.

Speaking of Newport back in late May, that's where I first met Knut in person. We'd been Facebook friends for a while, and he and Colleen have been playing Words with Friends on their phones for the last year or more. Knut's one of the few people who can beat her consistently at it, too--except I think Roy Hall might be a badass player as well. (Look at me, droppin' names.) Anyways, we were in a big group of people, and for some rare reason or another I became either assertive, demonstrative or animated making one of my points. Knut leaned into toward me--and probably down as well, since he's one of those really tall guys in high-end audio--and he said, "I thought you were an introvert." I had to laugh, because I can get uncharacteristically nutty talking about audio, and that's when I first suspected he was a very cool dude.

He confirmed that at RMAF. First, I brought up an amazingly obvious question about 2L Recordings, you know, like "Hey Knut, you're from Norway and 2L Recordings are from Norway and have you heard about them?" And that's right when I noticed a sign right next to Knut's arm, on the folding table he was leaning against, that said "2L" right on it in big letters. So yeah, Marc, I've heard of them. So there's THAT.

But here's the coolest part of the story, for me at least. While Knut and Colleen were talking, I turned my attention back to the system and I started paying attention to the weird, funky music Knut was playing. It was instrumental prog rock, more '80s than '90s, but it was so dynamic and wildly imaginative that I just started laughing. I turned to Knut and said, somewhat drunky-drunkily, "What are we listening to?"

"Mike Oldfield," he replied. He stood up and handed me the LP cover. I have a couple of Mike Oldfield LPs, just Tubular Bells and its sequel, but I'd never heard of this one, Amarok, a 1990 release that Oldfield intended as an hour-long instrumental protest song (split up into two thirty minute sides, obviously). I fell in love with this album for a lot of reasons--I love how it's one long song that's constantly evolving, and Oldfield is able to introduce humor and whimsy into this prog rock theme without conjuring up images of elves skipping through the forest. Some of the typically bright and edgy synthesizer sounds of the '80s are present, but in the more frantic and intelligent context it's merely part of the complex texture of this music. And did I say dynamic? This recording will have you constantly fiddling with your volume control because the quiet parts are really quiet, and the loud parts are really loud.

So when I told Knut how much I loved this album, he pulled the LP off of the 'table, put it in its jacket and handed it to me. At first, and i know this sounds terrible, but I thought Norway might be one of those cultures where if you compliment someone on one of their possessions, they have to give it to you. I joked about that with Knut, and he laughed and said, "No, no, just makes me happy to give it to you!" And that's why Knut Skogrand is a cool dude.

Finally, this is a speaker by a guy named Jeff Joseph. I think the name of his company is Joseph Audio, or something like that. Every time I visit his room at a high-end audio show, it sounds really, really good. Everyone who goes into his room comes out of his room and says, that was one of the best rooms we've been in. So I don't think I'm going to tell you anything new about Joseph Audio, other than the fact that this speaker, the Perspective, is probably the Jeff Joseph speaker I'd want to buy for myself. I love its compact dimensions, despite the fact that it's a monster when it comes to soundstage depth and low frequency performance. I'm a big fan of the Perspective's little brother, the two-way Pulsar, and I think it has the most impressive and natural bass of any speaker its size. I also think his flagship, the Pearl3, is one of the world's great loudspeakers, but I don't have the space or the moolah. But the Perspective is just right, in so many ways.

When I started this blog entry, I thought I could get it all in one shot. But I'm getting exhausted and I think I'm dividing into two parts. The second part will mention two new turntables that I heard that might be new contenders for the best analog rigs I've heard!

Monday, November 30, 2015

New Vinyl Anachronist Column Is Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever!

It's that time of year again, time for my annual year-end wrap-up for Perfect Sound Forever! Find out what I've chosen as the year's best new vinyl releases, best LP reissues and best analog accessories--as well as the Cartridge of the Year and the Turntable of the Year.

Enjoy, and Happy Holidays!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

2L Recordings' Early Romantic Horn Sonatas on Blu-ray Audio and CD/SACD Hybrid

Many years ago, J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile remarked--and I'm paraphrasing liberally--that many modern horn recordings made brass instruments sound smoothed out and polished, and that during a live performance, horns have a bite and edginess to them that can be startling. JGH had a strong belief that listening to live performances of unamplified musical instruments was essential to becoming an informed listener (i.e., an audiophile), and his comments about horns referred specifically to the fact that so many modern hi-fis, not to mention recordings, take that edge off of horns so that they are smooth and listenable and therefore not at all realistic.

Those observations were confirmed a few years ago when I found myself at a jazz club in Austin during SXSW with no more than eight or ten feet separating my head from the bell of a trumpet. While it wasn't quite as punishing as it sounds, it did prove to me that the proper staging of brass instruments during recording requires a modicum of restraint--especially when it comes to proximity. Most horns have a startling timbre, but at the same time such instruments are capable of an incredibly expressive and dynamic sound, one that shows off the interaction between musician and instrument. Finding a balance between a horn performance and the rather isolated tone that is common in modern recordings can be quite the challenge.

Morten Lindberg of Norway's 2L Recordings has figured it out. His new recording, Early Romantic Horn Sonatas, provides such a naked and detailed portrayal of the sound of the natural horn that at first it sounds like nothing else you've experienced. Granted, natural horn recordings aren't that common these days, especially when accompanied by another somewhat ancient instrument such as the fortepiano. But Morten has the insight to know that the secret to capturing the true and excitingly primitive sound of a natural horn without peeling back the ears of the audience is to place the instrument in a vast space--an old Norwegian church, for instance--so that those macrodynamics can bloom and develop into a completely pleasurable experience.

Featuring Steinar Granmo Nilsen on horn and Kristin Fossheim on fortepiano, Early Romantic Horn Sonatas features three separate sonatas from Ferdinand Ries, Franz Danzi and Nikolaus von Krufft that focus on the musical expressions that evolved in the early 19th century forging art with nature--the dawn of the Romantic Era in claasical music. Gone are the rigid structures that existed in the decades prior, resulting in a wonderfully loose interplay between these two performers. The result is music that is lively and poetic and full of virtuosity, but I found myself more impressed with the way this recording captures the somewhat mechanical characters of these two instruments. Not only will you hear Nilsen's controlled breaths amid the blasts of buzzing metal, but you'll also hear the delicate fingerwork of Fossheim, and how every press of the key makes a somewhat distinctive clicking sound along the ancient soundboard that at times sounds like a third instrument.

The genius of this recording, of course, is in the way these two performers are placed in such a vast space that allows all these details to emerge, along the walls and open beams, on a such a grand physical scale. Compared to most 2L Recordings, this one has a soundstage that is far more laid back and almost makes it seems as if the listener is sitting in a back pew. This distance enhances those unique timbres, however, without obscuring detail. It proves, to me at least, that Morten does not have a "one size fits all" approach to making recordings--he considers everything to make some of the finest classical recordings in history.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dean Martin's Dream with Dean on Analogue Productions 45rpm LP

All my endless blathering about my Australian trip has obscured the fact that I went to the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest last month, and I did intend to write several blog entries about what I saw at the show. This was the first high-end audio show in years where I went as a show attendee instead of an exhibitor, and it was truly enjoyable and informative to check out many new products that I've only heard about to this point. While I felt that this year's RMAF was relatively quiet in comparison to previous years--a minority sentiment, by the way--I did see plenty of great things.

Despite my intrepid attitude about seeing absolutely everything, my best memory from this year's show took place in somewhat familiar surroundings--the exhibit room that featured Endeavor Audio E-5 loudspeakers, a Triangle Arts turntable and much more, all wired with Skogrand cable. We shared a room with Leif Swanson's wonderful, dynamic E-5 loudspeakers at the Newport show earlier this year--they were a perfect match with the PureAudio amplification. So I feel I know those speakers pretty well. In addition, Colleen and I have known Knut Skogrand for some time now, and I have to say that every room I've experienced that features his premium cables has wonderful, wonderful sound.

Colleen and I spent many hours in Knut and Leif's room, drinking Knut's whiskey and listening to lots of vinyl. A show attendee wandered in, and within a few minutes he asked Knut to play an LP that he brought to the show. It turned out to be the new 45rpm Analogue productions reissue of Dean Martin's Dream with Dean--the Intimate Dean Martin. Knut looked unsure of the album when the gentleman handed him the cover--the gentleman, in return, said "Don't worry, you'll be glad you played it!"

I really didn't know that particular Dean Martin album. I could only think of how I was ultimately disappointed with the MFSL CD reissue of Dean's This Time I'm Swinging, which I purchased in January at CES. I was hoping for a reference recording that I could play at the show, but instead I got one of those MFSL reissues that merely make an awful recording sound acceptable. I really wanted a recording that could resurrect Dean and place him in the room right between the speakers. As it turns out, Dream with Dean is that album.

The Endeavor/Skogrand room certainly played a part, but for my money this is the most thrilling rendering of Dean's voice I've ever heard. Remember how everyone was raving about the MFSL reissue of Frank Sinatra's Nice N' Easy a few years ago, and how it was the finest-sounding Sinatra LP ever? Well, Dream with Dean is better in my opinion. After a few seconds of the first song we heard, "If You Were the Only Girl," I swore I could tell what brand of cigarettes Dean was smoking in the studio. I heard a real, live human voice singing in that familiar tone, seemingly free of studio artifacts used to polish things up a bit. It's Dean as if he was hanging out at your house one night, and someone kept asking him to sing something for the hell of it and he finally acquiesced. I could hear the tenderness in his voice, the slight breaking around the edges of that mellow tone, an extraordinarily talented voice captured in a casual, relaxed setting.

Of course I left the room and immediately went downstairs to the ballroom to see if this LP was available at the Acoustic Sounds booth. I found it in the bins within seconds. Once we returned home, I played Dream with Dean over and over on my system, and I heard the same magic. My only initial criticism of the sound quality was that while Dean's voice sounded amazingly real and present, the band was rather low in the mix. Dean's voice was front and center, way out in front, and the small and intimate band (guitarist Barney Kessel, pianist Ken Lane, bassist Red Mitchell and drummer Irv Cottler) were relegated almost out of the room, way past the rear wall. I also noticed a serious center-fill issue among the musicians, especially when Dean's vocal tracks were taken out of the mix. It wasn't a big deal--that channel separation was fairly typical in 1964, when this recording was made.

Then an amazing thing happened. As I mentioned in my last blog, I received those CLD sheets from Les Davis and placed them under all my components. I even placed an additional footer underneath the motor of my Unison Research Giro turntable. That created a more coherent overall sound, with Dean integrated more into his backing band than ever before. That means a fairly resolving system is somewhat necessary to truly appreciate what Analogue Productions has accomplished with this LP.

I think about all the other Analogue Productions 45rpm 2-LP sets I own and how they are all absolute reference recordings, the kind I like to play at shows and wow the crowds. I'm talking about Belafonte Live at the Carnegie Hall, Sam Cooke's Night Beat, Billie Holiday's Songs for Distingue Lovers and more. Dream with Dean might be the best one yet. I just finished my year-end column for my Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever and I chose this recording as the Best Reissue in the Analog Format.

It won by a mile. Highly recommended.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Just Arrived...Les Davis' CLD Prototypes

Mere moments after I finished my next Vinyl Anachronist column for Perfect Sound Forever, where I mentioned Les Davis' CLD material, I received a package in the mail from Australia with the first batch of footers that I will try to bring to CES next January. Les Davis sent me 32 pre-cut footers in two different sizes. The smaller round set, I presume, are for placing under the feet of components, and the larger square pieces are probably meant for placing under loudspeakers, especially between bookshelf speakers and their stands.

Again, these are prototypes, just the actual CLD sheets Les manufacturers and not a finished product. After hearing the sonic improvements of these sheets back in Sydney, I recommended that Les find a way to package them in an attractive way, perhaps sandwiched between pieces of wood, aluminum--anything attractive so that audiophiles won't mind placing them in a visible location on their equipment racks. My only concern was, of course, that the outer casing did not diminish the effects of the CLD material.

Now that I have them on my rack, I think they're visually interesting in their raw form. When you place them under amplifiers and CD players and basically anything in a big rectangular chassis, the thin footers disappear from view. When placed where they can easily be seen--in this case under my Unison Research Giro turntable and the Unison Research Phono One phono pre--they're still not obtrusive and I don't mind their presence at all. Perhaps an outer ring may enhance their appearance, but I don't want the price of these footers to increase exponentially just so they'll be pretty.

After just a couple of hours of listening, I still heard the same exact sonic improvements in my current system that I did with the Einstein/Brigadiers Audio/Arcam system back in Sydney. Using the wonderful, lovely-sounding Analogue Productions reissue of Dean Martin's Dream with Dean, I noticed a rather disjointed feeling between Dean and his backing band, which to me suggested that they were not recorded in the same space. There's a real center-fill problem with the band itself--guitar way over to the right, drums and bass way over to the left, with Dino smack dab in the middle.

Once the CLD footers were placed under the amp, turntable and phono stage, Dean and his band returned to the same studio space. The overall sound became more coherent, and more seamlessly blended from top to bottom. The footers also fleshed out the bass in the recording with more woodiness, more bloom. I removed the footers and listened once more (this is the best way to detect sonic improvements through changes in the system as well as minor tweaks) and I immediately felt like I was missing something. Dean's voice was a little drier, a little more distant.

I'm going to experiment with these footers a little more, testing their effects on system combinations that are both more resolving and less so. I'll come back with more findings in a few days.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Chronicles of Sydnia, Finale: The Brigadiers Audio BA1 Loudspeaker

I'm currently fulfilling my own prediction that I'll be talking about my trip to Australia for the rest of my life. Here it is, nearly two months to the day after I returned to the US, and I'm still acting like one of those '50s dads who invites everyone over for twenty minutes of drinks and three hours of vacation slides. I'm ready to wrap it up now, although my trip will influence the direction of CCI over the next year.

For me, the single biggest reason to travel to Australia--outside of getting that first official passport stamp--was to hear Brad Serhan and David Allen's masterpiece, the Brigadiers Audio BA1 loudspeaker. I didn't even get a chance to hear it until about two weeks into my trip. I'd heard plenty about them beforehand, however. One of the many things I learned about Aussies was that they consider bragging to be poor form. (An American friend of mine has sarcastically noted, however, that Aussies like to brag about their modesty.) Brad wasn't telling me that he had made his masterpiece, a speaker so good that I should travel 8,167 miles just to hear it.

Instead, he said things like "we're anxious to have you over for a listen" and "we think it's really good but we want your feedback" and "we've had some reviewers and dealers here give it a listen and they really love it, but let's not get ahead of ourselves."

Here it is in all its glory. The Brigadiers Audio BA1 is much like its creators, understated and modest on the outside and utterly engaging while going about its daily business. Featuring two of those famous SEAS magnesium mid/bass drivers per side as well as a Raal ribbon tweeter, the BA1 seems very much like a traditional 2.5-way design--albeit one using the finest parts and materials. With this speaker, God is in the details with its birch-ply cabinet construction, constrained layer damping cabinet design using a new adhesive between the layers, and a remarkably refined crossover that is the culmination of Brad's thirty-plus years in speaker design.

In addition, Brigadiers can customize the BA1 and the BA2 in a number of different ways. An outboard crossover will be an option, for example, as well as driver gaskets made from additional constrained layer damping material from Les Davis. But one of the most unique aspects of these two speakers are their almost bespoke quality. When a customer decides to order a pair of BA1s or BA2s from a dealer, they will begin a relationship with that speaker. They can decide between exotic hand-oiled Australian veneers such as brushbox (seen in the completed BA1 we evaluated) and Australian rosewood and much more. Toby Hogpin, the master carpenter who is making the complex and beautifully-made cabinets for these speakers, can also encase them in dozens of different Corian finishes.

Then, once an order is placed, the entire team will send the customer video updates of the speaker being made. The customer will literally know his speaker inside and out before it even arrives. And while many manufacturers would use this custom approach to stretch out the delivery time of the finished product, Brad figures he can build a pair of these in just a few weeks.

Brad and David and I visited Toby at his shop in Sydney about a week into my visit, and to tell you the truth I had been looking forward to it for days. I have kind of a fetish about wooden loudspeaker veneers, and I'll be the first to admit that a gorgeous wooden finish is very, very important to me when I'm making a loudspeaker buying decision. I want something breathtakingly beautiful, something that no one else has. So I love the idea that you can discuss options with your dealer based on hi-rez photos supplied on the Brigadiers Audio website and choose a unique pair of speakers that no one else will have.

In other words, if your buddy buys a pair of custom BA1s or BA2s and you listen to them and decide you also want a pair, your speakers will not look exactly the same even if you choose the same veneer. Toby is always on the hunt for exciting and beautiful veneers, and he knows that the variations from tree to tree are profound enough to create a distinctive look for each pair of speakers. Then again, if you want a pair of speakers exactly like your buddy's, then it can probably be done. But what fun is that?

For instance, Toby showed me these blocks, which are all Australian rosewood. You can see the differences in color and grain patterns. That's why Toby will supply Brigadiers Audio with hi-rez photos so that the potential customers can see close-ups of the wood grain. The photos have to be hi-rez, of course; I don't know about you, but I've received speakers that looked completely different than they did on the website, thanks to these differences in veneers. Hi-rez photos are the best way to give the customer an almost exact idea of the final product.

Once a veneer is chosen, Toby gets started on the construction of the cabinets. With all of the layers of birch play, these speakers are very heavy for their size. I've had the 2-way BA2s since January and they're heavier, in my opinion, than any other wooden speaker of its size--more than 40 lbs. each. The BA1, despite having a relatively compact footprint and height, is a monster. It took two of us to carry each one of the empty cabinets back to Brad's house. They're not one of those behemoth loudspeakers that require you to place hydraulic jacks under your suspended floor, but they are surprisingly hefty.

As an additional choice, Toby can make the BA1 and BA2 with a Corian finish instead of the wood veneer for customers who want a more modern, streamlined look. Corian is a really interesting material for loudspeaker cabinets because, unlike wooden cabinets, Corian cabinets are repairable. If you scratch the cabinets of your BA1 or BA2, anyone who is a certified Corian installer can buff out the scratch and make your speakers look like new again. If you knock a chunk out of your loudspeaker cabinet, a Corian technician can merely shape a new chunk, fit it to size, and work it into the cabinet. You'll be able to see where these bigger repairs were made from up close, but not from your listening position. Minor scratches and dings, however, will not be detectable after repair.

Toby also has the ability to produce different combinations of veneers, so you can have brushbox on the outer sides and Corian on the front baffle, or anything else that might strike your fancy. Toby has more than 30 different colors available in Corian.

Once we carefully packed up the empty cabinets in the back of Brad's wagon, we returned to Brigadiers to assemble the speakers. For my initial listening impressions, we left the crossovers on the floor behind the speakers so that we could change resistor values if needed. (This is what we did with the BA2s, by the way.) Within a couple of hours, our BA1 was ready for my approval.

My input, as it turned out, wasn't really needed. Unlike the smaller BA2, which was still an unfinished prototype when I arrived in Sydney, the BA1 was a finished design and was already making the rounds. Indeed, this pair wasn't even serial number #001. With that Einstein integrated, the BA1 was an incredibly complete speaker, one that did everything I wanted it to do. After spending more than a week fine-tuning the BA2, I was beginning to think that my quest for the perfect two-way speaker was over. The BA2s were, in its final reiteration, so solid in the lower bass that I could not imagine needing more. When I heard the BA1, however, I heard that more and knew I had to have this speaker. Natural, detailed, extended and the frequency extremes--I knew that Brad had made his masterpiece. The perfect speaker for me, in other words, is a 2.5-way.

I'm going to stop right now with the hyperbole and the marketing talk because I don't want this to be about sales. It's just that this has been one of the highlights of my audiophile life, actually working with designers and consulting with them and getting results that are far better than I ever expected.

The challenge, of course, is bringing these two wonderful speakers to the US market and beyond. In just a short time, Brad and David have found a couple of dealers in Australia, and they're already talking about New Zealand distribution. But the US has become a very tricky market for high-end audio. It's not enough to say here, listen to this, you'll like it and want to buy it. As an importer and distributor, my main obstacle is usually bringing in brands to the US that represent good value, something that can be tough to do when you have to work in the cost of global shipping and still pay the bills. That has become one of the main requirements for CCI carrying a brand--when someone asks me how much a product is, I want them to say "Oh, is that all?" and not "Why is it so expensive?"

With this level of design, however, every little thing makes a difference in the final product, and everything costs money. These two speakers will not be cheap. That means Brad and Davis and Morris Swift (a third partner I haven't mentioned yet...sorry, Morris!) will have to ensure that they are running their operation as lean as possible without affecting the results. Plus, there are hundreds and hundreds of new speaker companies trying to get a foothold in the US market. They all want to be the next KEF or Harbeth or Quad or whatever.

All I can say is that this is the speaker I want when I retire, when I get off the audio merry-go-round. Is that enough to make people notice? Well, I aim to find out. Right now I'm trying to get all of these Down Under brands together at a US high-end audio show, possibly next year's show at Newport, so people can listen for themselves and decide whether or not I know what I'm talking about when it comes to good sound. I'm talking PureAudio, Axis, Redgum Audio, Brigadiers Audio--and let's not forget Les Davis' intriguing new CLD material--all in one room, or maybe two.

Australia and New Zealand are hot spots for high-end audio. They know good sound, and they are serious about achieving it. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. And I can't wait to go back.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Chronicles of Sydnia, Part 7: Len Wallis Audio

As high-end audio importers and distributors, Colleen and I currently service 23 dealers in the US. As far as business models go, CCI has an even mix of brick-and-mortar stores and dealers working out of their homes. We even have one or two dealers who rely primarily on internet sales, even though we are an old-fashioned distributor and strenuously protect our dealers' territories. The latter group, of course, is reserved for customers who do not have a local dealer nearby. All of these dealer types have their pros and cons--home-based dealers, for instance, don't have to deal with the high overhead of a store and are able to offer demonstrations that closely approximate the customer's home environment, and more and more of these dealers are popping up all over the world.

This flexible model, which usually operates on an appointment-only basis, is certainly the way I shopped for years with Gene Rubin Audio--I really appreciated the one-on-one attention I received from Gene and I felt I made better buying decisions in such an environment. But I miss the old hi-fi stores, and the ability to stroll into a showroom and see all the equipment I've heard about in person. I still love to walk up to equipment and see it up close and perhaps even touch it--especially if no one is watching.

That's one of the reasons why Len Wallis Audio in Sydney was such a genuine treat, a well-needed respite toward the end of my Australian trip.

Walking in the front door, I felt chills as I saw the sales floor filled with tons of high-end audio equipment spread out everywhere, with listening rooms carefully positioned along the perimeter of the store for more careful auditioning. Suddenly I was transported back to the late '70s and early '80s, during my audiophile apprenticeship, where I could wandering among the set-ups and experience all these lovely machines in all their glory.

Brad Serhan wanted me to meet Len Wallis, who has been part of the Australian hi-fi scene for decades. In fact, I even knew who Len Wallis was before Brad even mentioned his name. So on the second-to-last day of my Sydney excursion, Brad and I headed out, unannounced, to Len Wallis Audio.

When was the last time you went to a hi-fi store in the US and saw dozens of beautiful turntables in a static display right when you walked in? And I'm not just talking about budget turntables. For instance, Len Wallis had the entire Rega turntable line sitting front and center, even the new RP10. Brad was amused as I darted all over the showroom saying, "Oh, they have this!" and "Wow, I've never seen one of these in person before!"

The first listening room I entered, just off to the right as we entered the store, featured a system that used the Axis VoiceBox S speaker. I mentioned that our trip was unannounced because Brad was so happy that one of his designs was featured so prominently in the store. "Len had no idea we were coming today," Brad explained. "So he didn't put these here just to make me happy!"

As it turns out, Len Wallis is the Australian distributor for Axis, and he told us that the speaker was really starting to take off in Sydney as THE 2-way monitor for his customers. We even spoke to one of Len's salesmen, who told us that he and the rest of the sales staff were discussing the most interesting new products in audio over the last few years and four out of the five salesmen said, "The Axis VoiceBox." That's comforting to Colleen and me since we've been working hard over the last year to spread the word.

Len, of course, was the exact opposite of the snobby high-end dealer so many audiophiles despise. Warm, friendly and full of enthusiasm, Len loved talking about audio as much as I do. He'd even been reading about my adventures in Oz and was hoping he'd get to meet me while I was there. We chatted for a while even though Brad and I had arrived unannounced and he was in the middle of a very busy day.

This, of course, underlined something I already knew: Australians as a group are friendly and outgoing and so nice to deal with. I'm certainly not saying you don't get that level of attention from US dealers, or that you won't have as much fun with a dealer who works from home. But between Len Wallis and Jeff Knox, I knew that if I ever moved to Australia my high-end audio needs would be met. (And trust me, that subject came up several times!)

If anything, visiting Len Wallis and Jeff Knox was the realization of a subject I've been writing about all year in my articles for Perfect Sound Forever and Part-Time Audiophile--that a good hi-fi dealer is an audiophile's best friend, even 8000 miles away in a foreign country. Not equipment reviewers. Not other audiophiles on internet discussion forums. A high-end audio dealer, the type that isn't just making a sale but is trying to get you as a customer for life by steering you right.

In Len Wallis Audio, I was able to see some of my favorite gear just sitting around. I even saw a Continuum turntable just sitting on a table near the back of the store! I made Brad snap this photo of me with a Linn Sondek LP12 for a couple of nebulous reasons. First of all, I've always wanted to own a Linn ever since I first heard one back when I was in college and they still retailed for $795. These days Linns just aren't as prevalent in the US as they are in the rest of the world. That's too bad because I still find them to be exceptional turntables that offer a unique sound that may not be the last word in accuracy, but it's compelling and musical nonetheless. It reminded me of one of my favorite dealers in the US, Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio, who is one of the last few of the US dealers who can still set-up and extract optimum performance from one of these classics.

While there, Brad had another treat--Len Wallis still sells loudspeakers from Orpheus Audio, one of Brad's earlier designs. As I glanced around the store and talked to some of the staff, I wondered how often hi-fi stores are visited by the actual manufacturers and designers who make the gear being sold. I'm not talking about planned dealer events, just an impromptu visit to hang out and perhaps talk a little about audio.

Again, I'm not trying to make a general point about the paucity of brick-and-mortar high-end audio stores in the US because I do visit plenty of them. Many of them are just as impressive as Len Wallis Audio. I'm just saying that I long for a return for this type of store in the US. Maybe that's not realistic in 2015, but I still get goosebumps when I see an old-fashioned hi-fi store still thriving in the Age of the Internet.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

EagleWolfSnake's ZANG! on CD

I have to admit that the cover of EagleWolfSnake's new CD looks like something you might find in a middle school art class, a rather generic wilderness portrait of the three eponymous creatures, apparently penned with a black Sharpie, against a white background. I try not to judge CDs or LPs by their covers, but this minimalist approach to marketing seems to suggest a trio of adolescents who have spent too much time in a garage pissing off the neighbors with folk metal. It's a genuine surprise that when you actually load ZANG! into your CD player, you hear something quite different than you expect, catchy and exuberant power pop that will remind you of Franz Ferdinand, Arctic Monkeys or even a touch of The Jam in their later years.

EagleWolfSnake turns out to be one of those trios that sound bigger than they are, much in the vein of The Police, with Nick Bray's layered and anthemic guitar sound, Eli Meyskens' solid and steady bass and Ryan Malley's super-energetic and dense drumming complementing the dense vocal harmonies from all three. (For the record, Malley is responsible for the cover drawing which really isn't that bad, although it might have been transferred from a cocktail napkin.) As a whole the band captures an early-to-mid-'80s sound that's wet with reverb and earnestness without scratching too deeply into the sheer angst of the indie rock that would dominate the scene over the next twenty years.

All eight tracks on ZANG! are, in the best pop tradition, exciting and brief and chock full of the energy that you might see during one of this San Francisco-based band's live performances. Only the closer, "Olivia," slows the proceedings down despite all the cheerful handclaps and playful guitar riffs. While there is a hidden layer to EWS' delivery, prompted perhaps by their previous incarnation as a soul quartet called Music for Animals, EWS is content to be danceable and singable. When your songs have titles like "We Are What We Are," "Whatever You Say," and "Do What You Want," it's best not to be too ponderous. ZANG! is light and fleeting, infused with a feeling that everything's gonna be okay.

If you actually dig the cover of ZANG!, here's some good news: you can buy a T-shirt from the band that immortalizes said image. It's all about the irony, I know. Forget about the cover, however, stick this CD in your car player and head on down the road. You'll come back home with a big, friendly smile on your face.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Chronicles of Sydnia, Part 6: Redgum Audio, the Axis VoiceBox and Carlton Ale

This is a current photo of my main listening room, where I have substituted a rather basic black box of an integrated amplifier for my usual glowing tube amplifiers. To tell you the truth, I've needed an amplifier like this for a while--something with high current, something that can drive just about anything, especially when I'm entrusted with a loudspeaker with fairly low efficiency--such as the 83 dB, 5-ohm Axis VoiceBox S that we distribute here at CCI.

I'm reminded of my old Naim NAIT 2 amplifier, that diminutive and legendary little black box from the UK that offered about 18wpc. Back in the early '90s, my little NAIT did a pretty decent job of driving my 84 dB Spendor S20s--as long as I didn't crank up the volume too much. (I lived in a small one-bedroom apartment in Encino at the time, so I wanted great sound at low SPLs.) How did this combo work? The NAIT was a high-current design, and the Spendors had a fairly benign 8-ohm impedance. It was my first taste of true high-end sound. It was the perfect apartment system for me.

This particular integrated amplifier is the Redgum Audio RG1 35 ENR. Since my return from Australia, I've spoken with several of my dealers here in the States and many of them remember this venerable brand from a few years ago. What they remember most is the lovely wood--or as they say Down Under, "timber"--faceplates, as well as the novel key that's inserted on the front panel and turned to turn the amplifier on. The RGi 35 ENR doesn't have that same gorgeous front, decked out in the trademark redgum front--it's part of the new Black Series that represents the entry-level line for Redgum. It doesn't have the key, either. But this little 65wpc integrated amplifier has something I need--the ability to drive whatever speakers I have on hand for evaluation. In fact, this amplifier is well-known in Australia for being able to drive the smaller Magnepan speakers to fairly loud listening levels.

So how did I wind up taking this amplifier home with me? John Reilly, who designed the Axis VoiceBox S loudspeaker with Brad Serhan and manufactures it, shares factory space with Ian Robinson of Redgum. While I was meeting with John in Sydney, he suggested that I meet Ian and listen to his products. I remembered Redgum Audio as well, and I once heard a system driven by Redgum amplification and I really liked it. So John called Ian in Melbourne and he headed out to Sydney with the RGi 35 tucked underneath his arm. (Okay, the Redgum isn't small like the NAIT, so a little more effort was required.)

The first question I have to ask an overseas manufacturer when they want me to hear their product is, "What makes your product special, and how can I sell it in the US?" That, of course, mirrors the questions my dealers will ask me about the product, questions such as "How is this different from other similar products in the market?" and "How do I sell this to my customers?" Most of all, dealers want a story to tell, and the answer has to be better than "It sounds really good for the money." At first glance, the Redgum amps are the proverbial black-box amp, simple and a bit of an anachronism--if simple two-channel audio, within the context of its current resurrection, can be called that. As an audiophile, I've always leaned toward simple integrated amplifiers since my system usually just includes speakers, an analog source and a digital source. I don't need a fancy amp, in other words.

This simple black box had some unusual features, however. First of all, when I asked Ian if he had a 110V version for US, he informed me that his amplifiers could do both 110V and 220V--a sensor within the amp uses relays to choose the right power setting. I'm not sure if that's a big selling point for US audiophiles, although I do occasionally have customers who live in more than one country and would love an amp with this feature. As an importer I dig this feature because it means I won't have to wait longer for special "US" versions to be shipped, which can often lead to delays.

The second unusual feature is the way the inputs are marked. Instead of such dated input labels as "tuner" or even "CD," the five inputs are color-coded. Each color is represented on the front panel with a corresponding colored LED on the front panel. Input selection is accessed through the remote control, which leads to a cleaner, more streamlined front panel. You can even ensure that the batteries on the remote are fresh by pushing a button labelled "MAGIC" which makes the relays in the amp click a few times. Other interesting features include passive preamplification with dual volume controls, a massive power transformer with power output MOSFETs and a huge "sine-wave" heatsink on the bottom of the amp that elevates the chassis for better ventilation, and adds a distinctive look that does manage to make this simple black box look like no other. There's even a smart phone app that can replace the remote control's basic operations.

Hanging out with Ian and John was a real pleasure--they're both "blokes" in the true Australian sense of the word. We spent a few hours talking about the Redgum products, and then we set out to put the smallest Redgum through its paces. As I said, the RGi 35, at 65wpc, is the smallest amp in the line. The Black Series also includes the 125wpc RGi 60 ENR and the 175wpc RGi 120 ENR. All three amplifiers are identical on the outside--it's the power inside that's different. Due to my best calculations, performed while the Australian dollar experienced some instability over a period of a couple of weeks, these amps should retail in the US for about $2500, $3500 and $4500.

Paired with their soulmates, John Reilly's Axis VoiceBox S, the RGi 35 ENR was able to extract more bass control from those very revealing studio monitors than the lower-powered tube amplifiers I've used up to this point. Ian has designed his amplifiers specifically for speaker loads that dip below 4 ohms. The Axis sits at 5 ohms, and while I've been able to drive them with as few as 22 watts per channel, I've always felt that the Axis VoiceBox needed a little more juice to realize their true potential. I was right. I've never heard the VoiceBox sound so effortless and dynamic as they did with the Redgum.

During our voicing of the Brigadiers Audio speakers, we had plenty of expensive amplification sitting around. While we kept gravitating toward the AU$16,000 Einstein integrated for its ability to stay out of the way of the music, we kept going back to the modest Redgum for its ability to project a powerful, dynamic and clean sound. Not bad for a $2500 integrated!

So I've brought the Redgum back to the States for further evaluation, which is code for "deep down I'm still an audiophile and nothing thrills me more than to have seat time with a new product." After a few weeks I'm obviously considering bringing Redgum back to the US. The utilitarian looks might not be for audiophiles who are looking for audio jewelry adorned with precious metals, glowing meters and rare wood accents, but Ian still manufacturers his classic Signature Series with the timber (or is it "timbre"?) faceplates for a little more money. But I'll tell you what the Black Series is--it's the Workhorse Series. It's the amplifier for the audiophile who needs to power something like a Magnepan but doesn't want to spend a fortune on the watts needed to make those huge panels sing. And while many in the audio industry say "watts are cheap," implying that you can find a powerful amp for not a lot of money, those amps often lack subtlety and musicality--unlike the Redgum.

After our listening sessions, John asked me if I'd been to an Australian pub yet. When I replied that I hadn't, both Ian and John took me to a local pub where we enjoyed a Carlton ale on draft (or is it "draught"?). I didn't know of Carlton ale--my experience with Australian beer has been confined to those really big cans of Fosters. After a long day of listening, that smooth, creamy Carlton really hit the spot. That's a feeling I could grow to love--a hard day of work, and then a pint or two of Carlton's with a couple of my mates before going home for the evening.

And, as usual, if CCI starts importing Redgum to the States I will stop telling you how great these amps are. But until then, yeah, I really enjoy the power, control and simplicity of the RGi 35 ENR.