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!