Friday, June 26, 2015

Australia Bound?

One of the first things I've learned about Australians from dealing with them is that modestly is a always a prerequisite. I've always generalized Aussies as outgoing, fun and full of brio, and a little braggadocio seems par for the course. But no. Patting yourself on the back, tooting your own horn and otherwise propping yourself up in front of your mates is considered very poor form.

That's why it's been so difficult, and amusing, to convince Brad Serhan--the Australian speaker designer known for Orpheus Audio, the Axis VoiceBox and much more--that his speaker designs are something quite special. We've been good friends for a long time, but it's only been over the last couple of years that I've become familiar with his designs--which, of course, led us to represent Axis VoiceBox (pictured above) in the US. Every time I talk about how much I enjoy his designs, he gets all aw, shucks with me and acts a little embarrassed. But despite our friendship, I still truly and objectively dig his speakers.

Brad and I have something in common--we both love two-way monitors. We both love the simplicity, the coherence and lack of complicated crossover networks that are common with most premium two-way speakers. For the last few months I've been evaluating one of Brad's new designs--a very ambitious and well-executed two-way tentatively called the Brigadiers Audio Group (BAG) Compact loudspeaker, which is pictured below. I'm ready to send this prototype back for some minor tweaking--we want to see how low we can get the lower frequencies in this fantastic design for the US market. Brad and his partner in BAG, David Allen, were all set to send me the larger 2.5 way floorstanding version of the Compact, known for now as the McQuade. Suddenly, I had an idea--instead of paying all of the shipping on these rather heavy speakers, perhaps I could just come to Sydney and help them finalize these two products for market.

I was very surprised that everyone thought I had a great idea!

Let me first tell you about my wanderlust. I've only been out of the country twice--Tijuana back in 1984, and Toronto in 2001. Each international visit lasted less than a day. I got a passport in 2006 for a trip to London that never panned out, and to this day my passport is still a virgin. (I didn't need a passport when I visited Mexico and Canada.) I've traveled extensively throughout the US--I'm currently up to 46 states and only need Alaska, Montana and the Dakotas. But I've been chomping at the bit to travel outside the US ever since we started CCI in 2011. That's right, I'm the importer and distributor of five brands from all over the world, but I've never been off the continent other than the two times I went to Hawaii which doesn't really count, I guess.

So I'm crossing my fingers that this all will happen--at the end of next month. We want my visit to coincide with the Australian Hi-fi Show held in Sydney on July 31 through August 2, and hopefully I will be spending my birthday, August 6, in a land I've always wanted to see. I'm also hoping to meet other new friends while I'm there such as John Reilly (who co-designed and manufactures the Axis VoiceBox with Brad.) I will dub this journey "My Search for the Perfect Two-Way," and I hope I can write plenty about every single moment!

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

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

"Excuse me, do you have any Sami folk music you can play?"

If the recent audio show at Newport beach is any indication, I'm starting to be well-known for despising musical requests from show attendees, despite the fact that I still pretty much say yes to everyone. Everyone kept coming in to give me ridiculous requests such as Black Flag, Diamanda Galas and more, just to see how I'd react.

On the other hand, reality never fails to meet my expectations when it comes to making me grouchy. I had one rather pushy gentleman, sporting the same Reyn Spooner shirt everyone else was wearing in south Orange County that weekend, come into my room and immediately ask me to put something on with "more bass." At the time I was honoring someone else's request, "Amado Mio" from Pink Martini, an absolutely lovely recording with realistic low frequencies and plenty of warmth and bloom. The problem was that I was using PureAudio amplification with Leif Swanson's fantastic Endeavor Audio E-5 loudspeakers, which do go down to 20 Hz, and this guy wanted to hear 20 Hz.

When I hesitated about honoring his request until the current song was over, he got all huffy. He sat for a few moments and then left with his two buddies, saying something about how he didn't like the sound. Of course he didn't, because I was playing real music instead or organizing a fireworks show. I want to play beautiful music that captures imaginations, not confirm the frequency response specs for my products. I almost followed the Pink Martini track with one from Spes, the new disc set from 2L Recordings in Norway, just to aggravate that guy just a little more. Spes employs the chorale group Cantus to expose the world to Sami folk music from Scandinavia, and while this is an exciting recording that's very dynamic and very spacious and full of occasional yet thundering percussion, something told me this guy wouldn't have appreciated it because it's delicate instead of bombastic.

I wish someone would walk into my room and request Sami folk music. It's amazing.

Upon first listen, Spes reminds me of Magnificat, which I reviewed here. It's a warm, enveloping choral experience that is both melodically soothing and off the beaten path. The difference, however, is that Magnificat focuses on sacred music while Spes is more of a living document of Sami folk music. Its deep rhythmic drumming, however, will constantly remind you of Native American folk music to the point where it seems deliberate, an ethnocentric conceit. In reality, Sami music is characterized mostly by jolks, which are a capella songs that are sung with deep emotional commitment usually imbued with sorrow or anger from man's constant conflict with nature. Only recently have musical instruments become part of jolks, and the Sami culture dictates fairly simply accompaniments from flutes and hand drums and the like. That description, of course, does not differ strongly from that of Native American folk music.

If you're going to listen to this album, and a stunningly beautiful recording it is, you should treat yourself to a quick history of the Sami people and their culture. Also known as Laplanders, the Sami live in the more rural areas of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. They have their own language and have fought to preserve it in recent years, and they are indigenous peoples who have also experienced discrimination at the hands of settlers from other European nations. Again, this story sounds familiar. I only bring this up, however, because listening to these songs in the Sami language is nothing short of illuminating in a way that only a previously unheard thing can be. Often these choral chants resemble birdsong, expressing the deep connection between indigenous people and the land they call home.

Once you wrap your head around that, Spes takes on a deeper, more fulfilling meaning that broadens and enhances this wonderful music.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Carry Illinois' Alabaster on CD

At first listen, Carry Illinois' new album Alabaster sounds like that of many an Austin-based band. Classifying themselves as indie folk-rock, this band starts with a polished and confident amalgam of Americana, Texas C&W and straightforward rock that would play well at The Continental Club on South Congress. The ten songs here are brief and succinct, in a poppy sort of way, resulting in the sort of album a band might release well into their career, long after they've stopped playing in roadhouses for cash that barely covers their pre-show bar tab.

Yet there's something deeper here, something that ushers the music down a stranger road. Singer/guitarist Lizzy Lehman has that same throaty and assertive tone that might remind you of a mix between Neko Case and Stevie Nicks, but it's coated with a slight patina of despair that suggests she's been down this strange road on many other occasions, and even though it's dark and you can't quite see ahead it's okay because you have a competent guide who may or may not care what's found at the end of the cul-de-sac. It's almost a tinge of goth, a Texan Siouxsie Sioux who's witched from absinthe to Shiner Bock.

Much of this distinct tone is created by the production. While most of this album was laid down at Bunker Studio in Brooklyn, there's that empty and reverberant and reminds you of a late night performance that started long after midnight because the opening acts couldn't get their shit together. While I felt like much of the lyrics here are a little on the safe side, a mixture of the literal and the love song cliche, they're delivered with conviction as if they've been lived instead of written down on a legal notepad. The rest of the band, which includes drummer Mathias Kunzli, bassist Benjamin Campbell and keyboardist Frank Locrasto, are solid enough to sound like old session musicians who know the right riff and right fill for any occasion.

This is yet another CD from a burgeoning new band that relies quite heavily on what has gone before, yet knows how to deliver it all in a compelling package.

Monday, June 8, 2015

More on the Trenner & Friedl Suns

Remember those tiny Trenner & Friedl Sun speakers that I loved at the Newport Show? They're at my house right now. On the last day of the show I walked up to Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor for Trenner & Friedl, and said, "So, Bob...what you gonna do with them li'l speakers?"

"I don't know yet," he replied.

"Well then send 'em home with me! I want to see just how good they are."

I didn't expect Bob to give in so easily, but later in the day I checked back into the Profundo/Blackbird Audio room and Bob pointed to a small cardboard box and said, basically, there you go. Take 'em. When I returned home from Southern California last week, however, I realized there was a glitch in my evil plan to bogart these amazing little speakers. I didn't have a single amp in the house to use in our reference system. I sold my last one while I was at the show, my personal reference since at least October, and I had to ship it out to the dealer ASAP.

I really wanted to put some incredible amplification on the Suns. At the show, Bob and Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird paired the Suns with the new Elixir integrated amplifier from Heed Audio, which will cost probably about $1200 once it starts shipping from Hungary. Along with a Heed CD player, this system let everyone at the show utterly gobsmacked. At home I thought about pairing the Suns with a nice tube amplifier with some power--while Bob doesn't have the final specs from Trenner & Friedl yet, he suspects that they have a less than average sensitivity--just like my personal Trenner & Friedl ART monitors. I also thought about pairing them with the PureAudio gear, a full $20,000 worth of amplification. After all, the ARTs paired really well with the PureAudio gear over the last couple of years--one of the best speaker/amplifier matches I've performed among our brands.

But I have nothing, nada. No music for at least a couple of weeks, until my next shipment comes from Europe. So I started thinking about the system my parents have. If you've read any of my old Vinyl Anachronist columns for Perfect Sound Forever, you'll know that I've always maintained a modest but well-chosen system for my parents over the years. I started back in the mid-90s with a Rotel integrated, a Music Hall CD player and a pair of those incredible little $200/pair Optimus Pro-4 speakers from Radio Shack, the ones with the Linaeum tweeters, the ones I actually got for 50% off.

Over the years, the ephemeral Music Hall was replaced with a succession of cheap Sony DVD players, the Optimus Pros were switched out for a pair of Epos ELS-3s when the vinyl veneers started peeling off in big sheets. Finally, just a few months ago, the Rotel started acting up in one channel so I helped them choose one of those inexpensive yet fairly competent little T-class integrated amps from Dayton Audio--another fabulous $100 bargain in the world of hi-fi. For the last couple of years Colleen and I have wired this system with some of the more affordable cables from Cardas Audio.

This system has always sounded relatively great, considering the cost of the components, but I've never been able to get what I would call truly satisfying sound in their house. First of all, they don't really have a good room for it--first they placed this system on an old yet beautiful walnut bookcase, the very same one I now use as a two-way mini-monitor display in my living room, in their bedroom. Over the last year they've redecorated their home, and the bookcase went to me and the stereo migrated to their living room and now resides in a new entertainment hutch/rack/TV stand/thingie. Still, the sound is somewhat small and closed in because my parents like to shove the little Epos as close to the rear wall as possible. Whenever I visit, I pull them out a little. Whenever I return, they've been pushed back.

Yesterday, on my father's 84th birthday, I came over and swapped out the Epos for the Suns. Again, the Suns have an internal enclosure about one-third the size of the Epos. Even my Mom had to chuckle at the diminutive little Suns. Once I hooked them up, however, the sound was transformed. This was anything but subtle. For the first time in my life, I have heard genuine high-end sound at my folks' house.

My father, who probably is an audiophile in some alternative universe--he possesses excellent hearing and often makes the same exact comments about specific pieces of audio gear as I do--instantly heard a profound increase in soundstage depth. For the first time, the wall behind the system dissolved and I heard the original recording venue recreated spatially. I also heard something else equally impressive--solid, tight and well-controlled bass. Both my father and I are sharing a love for Harry Belafonte's music these days, and he played a rather typical '80s live recording, all bright and twinkly and ultra-etched, and yet there was a solid, accurate reproduction of the electric bass on every track. My mom felt compelled to go outside and monitor the volume levels from the front curb--she was worried the neighbors were going to complain.

In nearly every respect, I felt like I was listening to a genuine high-end system comprised of a $100 T-class integrated, a Sony DVD player that probably cost $29 new, and one of the most surprising tiny speakers I've ever heard. Of course the Suns were revealing the weaknesses in the amp and source--there was a dryness throughout the upper midrange during louder passages that's fairly typical of cheap digital and cheap D-class amplification. At the same time, the Sun really took advantage of the Dayton's 100wpc to deliver deep, convincing bass and an unbelievably airy and delicate treble. The imaging and the soundstaging was some of the best I've heard from any speaker of any size.

So I want to keep using these Suns in different applications. We've shown that they can transform a mediocre system into something that approximates totally decent sound. Next, Colleen has a relative who just purchased a super-cute but super-small house in an older neighborhood. The only problem is her living room is about half the size it should be, and my first thought after I crossed her threshold for the first time was "Where would the stereo go?" So I'd like to see if the Suns work in another modest system set in a really small room. (The ARTs are, in my opinion, the best speakers I've used in a small room.)

That would be another good reason to buy these. Finally, let's hook the Suns up to something amazing just to see what they can do. Tiny speakers that sound great have always had a fairly difficult time in the marketplace--think about all the negative comments you heard when the Acoustic Energy AE-1s first appeared, or the Celestion SL-700 SE. The Suns are even smaller, yet they're offering a level of sound quality that I've never experienced with an enclosure this small.

The perfect speakers for tiny apartments? Ivy League dorm rooms? A desktop computer system? Or just something that's small and unobtrusive and still offers high-end sound? I hope I get to find out the answers before I have to send them back.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

The Latest Installment of The Smoking Jacket Now Online at Part-Time Audiophile

My latest cigar smoking column, The Smoking Jacket, is now online at Part-Time Audiophile. In this article I discuss figurados, and why should be smoking them. You can read it here.


New Vinyl Anachronist Column Now Online at Perfect Sound Forever

My latest Vinyl Anachronist column is now online at Perfect Sound Forever. This installment discusses the new ultrasonic record cleaners and how they're poised to change the record cleaning landscape. You can read it here.