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Meridian 808 Signature Reference CD Player
Sue Kraft reviews the new reference model from the company that made
the first-ever musical-sounding CD player. Robert Harley comments.
Six Overachieving Audio Systems You Can Afford
Does high end always mean high-priced? We think not, as these six
affordable systems will demonstrate. Chris Martens leads the way.
Munich High End 2006
Roy Gregory reports from Germany’s premier audio show.
Absolute Analog: Pro-Ject RM-9.1 Turntable System
A very good turntable just got better—Jim Hannon looks at the latest
from Pro-Ject.
DALI IKON 6 Loudspeaker
Affordable excellence from Denmark. Robert E. Greene reports.
A Cable Survey
Neil Gader on winning wires from Crystal Cable, Nordost, and TARA
YBA Design YA201 Integrated Amplifier and
YC201 CD player
Chris Martens finds himself listening with his eyes…as well as his ears.
Aerial Acoustics Model 9 Loudspeaker
The latest offerings from Michael Kelly delivers the goods.
Jacob Heilbrunn reports.
Cary Audio CD 306 CD/SACD Player
Excellent Super Audio sound from Cary, says Robert Harley.
Audio Research 300.2, Classé CA-M400,
and McIntosh MC 501 Power Amplifiers
Tom Martin ponders why amplifiers are so important.
Music-Minded Controllers, Part 3: Attractive Opposites
Can multichannel controllers satisfy the music lover the way a good
preamp can? Alan Taffel listens to Arcam’s FMJ AV9 and Halcro’s SSP100.
MBL 5011 and 6010D Linestage Preamps, 1521A CD
Transport, and 1511E DAC
Can any solid-state and digital components seduce a pair of grumpy ol’
tube ’n’ analog guys? Jon Valin and Wayne Garcia report.
Pass Labs XA160 and X600.5 Monoblock Power
Anthony H. Cordesman spins a tale of two amplifiers.
Manufacturer Comments
Industry News
Future TAS—New Products on the Horizon
START ME UP: Rotel RX-1052 and
Outlaw Audio RR 2150 Stereo Receivers
Rare-bird sightings by Jim Hannon—two stereo receivers that focus on
the music.
Bluegrass, Part 2
David McGee wraps up his two-part journey through the annals of
bluegrass by chronicling bluegrass’ modern manifestations and
recommending the recorded essentials of its new traditions.
Recording of the Issue
Theater of Voices/Fretwork: The Cries of London
Reviews of Golijov’s Ainadamar, Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Foulds’
Dynamic Triptych, Shostakovich’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, a Prokofiev
box set, R. Luke DuBois’ Timelapse, Die Walküre on SACD, and two
Everest classics on LP.
The scoop on the latest from Patricia Barber, Frank Kimbrough, David
Hazeltine, and Kidd Jordan, plus box sets from Fats Waller, Miles Davis,
and John Coltrane, and a new audiophile-grade Nat “King” Cole LP.
Rock, Etc.
Reviews of more than a dozen new albums and reissues, including the
latest from Tom Petty, Thom Yorke, Frank Black, Comets on Fire,
Sonic Youth, Espers, and Rhymefest as well as box sets on Bob Wills,
The Byrds, Gram Parsons, and 50s rockabilly.
founder; chairman, editorial advisory board
Harry Pearson
editor-in-chief Robert Harley
executive editor
managing and
music editor
acquisitions manager
and associate editor
news editor
equipment setup
editorial advisory board
advisor, cutting edge
Wayne Garcia
Jonathan Valin
Bob Gendron
Neil Gader
Chris Martens
Danny Gonzalez
Sallie Reynolds
Atul Kanagat
senior writers
John W. Cooledge, Anthony H. Cordesman,
Gary Giddins, Robert E. Greene, Fred Kaplan,
Andrew Quint, Paul Seydor, Alan Taffel
reviewers and contributing writers
Soren Baker, Greg Cahill, Dan Davis, Andy Downing,
Jim Hannon, Jacob Heilbrunn, John Higgins, Sue
Kraft, Mark Lehman, Ted Libbey, David McGee, Derk
Richardson, Don Saltzman, Aaron M. Shatzman,
Max Shepherd
design/production Design Farm, Inc.
publisher/editor, AVGuide Chris Martens
web producer Ari Koinuma
Absolute Multimedia, Inc.
chairman and ceo Thomas B. Martin, Jr.
vice president/publisher Mark Fisher
advertising reps Cheryl Smith
(512) 891-7775
Marvin Lewis,
MTM Sales
(718) 225-8803
reprints and e-prints: Jennifer Martin, Wrights
Reprints, Toll Free: (877) 652-5295, Outside the
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editorial matters: Address letters to The Editor, The
Absolute Sound, PO Box 1768, Tijeras, New Mexico
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classified advertising: Please use form in back of issue.
newsstand distribution and local dealers: Contact IPD,
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The TAS Back Page
Retrospective: The QUAD ESL-57 by Jonathan Valin.
© 2006 Absolute Multimedia, Inc., Issue 164, September 2006.
The Absolute Sound (ISSN #0097-1138) is published ten times per year,
$42 per year for US residents, Absolute Multimedia, Inc., 4544 S. Lamar,
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Nielsen’s Folly
While a lot of ink has been spilled over
Robert Harley’s editorial from Issue
160, I think far more important issues
were raised by Bob Gendron’s editorial
from Issue 159 and the response in
Issue 160 by Mr. Nielson. Nielson
excoriated BG for having the temerity
to suggest that, to expand the high
end’s customer base, product reviewers
might want to demonstrate that they
listen to different kinds of post-70s
music, including hip-hop.
Nielson did not stop there. He
derided hip-hop as the product of “a
garbage culture” and lamented that
“rich suburban” kids were listening to
it. I’ve waited in vain for someone to
jump into the fray and set Mr. Nielson
straight, but none of The Absolute
Sound’s editors or other subscribers
seems inclined to do so. Permit me to
say a few words.
Nielson’s letter certainly was
racist—what exactly is the “garbage culture” he considers to have birthed hiphop? And why is it a particular problem
that rich suburban kids (read: white) are
listening to that music? But my main
beef is his contention that hip-hop is
uncreative “MIDI patch stuck on repeat”
music. To the contrary, today’s avatars of
hip-hop—such as OutKast, The Roots,
The Neptunes, and Kanye West, among
many others—rely heavily on live
instrumentation, drawing from other
genres like soul, jazz, funk, and rock to
create musical works that are the most
exhilarating, and diverse, in today’s popular music. Don’t take my word for it:
Go and listen to records like Aquemini
and Speakerboxx/The Love Below by
OutKast, Late Registration by Kanye
West, Do You Want More??? or Things
Fall Apart by The Roots, or The Low End
Theory by A Tribe Called Quest. All of
these albums are destined to ascend to
the pantheon of great recorded music of
the last century, and will take their
rightful place besides such hoary chest-
nuts as Abraxas, Kind of Blue, Revolver,
Innervisions, and Are You Experienced?.
BG, Greg Kot, and Soren Baker have
taken great pains to point this out, but
they write only for the music section—
it’s high time the equipment reviewers
joined the party.
Mr. Nielson’s letter proves the central point of Bob Gendron’s editorial:
Too many audiophiles and equipment
reviewers dismiss any music recorded
after the 70s as unworthy of attention
(unless, of course, the music was recorded by an artist who rose to fame in the
70s). I do not mean to denigrate 70s
artists: I have, and listen to frequently, all
of the albums (meaning LPs) mentioned
above. But, as Gendron correctly points
out, to attract new hobbyists we have to
show them—using examples relevant to
them—how playback over a high-end
system would deepen their appreciation
for the music they love (and expand their
musical horizons, to boot). I speak from
experience: The sampled jazz in A Tribe
Called Quest’s records led me to Ron
Carter (and thence to Miles Davis),
Freddie Hubbard, Andrew Hill, and
Horace Silver. You might say that the
strange alchemy of hip-hop and the high
end turned me into a jazz-head. But none
of that would have happened without the
epiphany I experienced hearing The Low-
End Theory played back through an
Audible Illusions preamp, Marsh amplifier, and Aerial Acoustic 7Bs.
So, what is the answer to this conundrum? Nielson also hates today’s movies,
but permit me to answer the question
with a quote from one (Mo’ Better Blues):
“The people don’t come because you
grandiose motherfuckers don’t play shit
that they like. If you played the shit that
they like, then people would come, simple as that.”
Rest in peace, Jay Dee.
Nielsen, Encore
I am writing to you in response to Mr.
Nielson letter, which appeared in the
latest issue of TAS (161). I met the late
lamented English DJ John Peel back in
1996 in Hamburg, Germany, while he
was shooting a feature called “Autobahn
Blues” for BBC Channel 4. While in the
city, he also visited the independent FM
radio station FSK, and then after that,
we all went and checked out a live concert by the John Spencer Blues
Explosion, who were playing that night.
I have been listening to his shows on
BFBS and FSK since then.
Alas, as we all know, John is not
with us anymore. But what I learned
Upcoming in TAS
Our really big 2006 Editors’ Choice List
Ascendo M loudspeaker
Rega Apollo CD player
Paradigm Reference Signature S8 loudspeaker
Arcam FMJ CD 36 and C 31 preamp
Vienna Acoustics Beethoven loudspeaker
from this most gracious and generous of
human beings is that just because you
don’t like other people’s taste in music or
a particular genre that they’re into does
not mean that that music or that genre is
worthless and that you should immediately dismiss them. As Peel himself once
said: “The worst snob is the music snob!”
I am not into hip-hop myself, but I
am pretty sure that I have more adventurous taste in music than Mr. Nielson.
He considers hip-hop to be “garbage
music from a garbage culture that glorifies gangs.” I remember Peel playing
quite a lot of early Fugees records when
they were still hot.
Bob Gendron is the only writer in
the field (hi-fi or even music journals,
for that matter) that I identify with and
can relate to. The records he reviews are
always of great interest to me. Proof?
Just listen to the latest record by Edith
Frost, It’s a Game.
What also makes my day is when I see
great underground records reviewed in
TAS, like Animal Collective’s latest, feels.
Mr. Nielson mentions Neil Young’s
Prairie Wind as an example of great
music. artist whose best work is
behind him. For a younger generation of
music enthusiasts at least, he has nothing
interesting to say anymore, except of
course...nostalgia. While one can surely
enjoy an artist like Young, I can also recommend to you, Mr. Nielson, the work
of Eric Clapton in the 90s. The most boring of all artists, no doubt! ( I am sure
that Peel would agree on this one!)
Nielsen’s Third
I just read [Mr. Nielson’s] letter. What a
pompous, arrogant ass! It’s precisely this
elitism that suffocates the high-end
industry and repels would-be audiophiles.
Generally blanket statements are
indicative of profound ignorance; this
reader’s letter is no exception. Like any
genres, hip-hop, jam rock, electronica,
etc. have their own prodigies and
poseurs. Since when has Phish, one of
the most celebrated improvisational acts
of all time, depended upon a MIDI
patch stuck on repeat?
BTW, MIDI (musical instrument
digital interface) is not synonymous with
looping. It’s just another tool in the creative palette, allowing string players to
explore flute sounds, turn tom-toms into
tympanis, keyboards into brass sections,
etc. If Mozart were alive today he might
very well utilize MIDI technology to
audition parts and conceptual voicing in
a non-destructive environment.
The guy keeps referring to garbage.
Perhaps before passing judgment, he
should first look to his own uniformed,
ignorant, arrogant, useless opinion.
Keep fighting.
behind these Japanese mini-LP CDs? Do
you have any info? Are they considered to
be audiophile-quality recordings or just a
marketing ploy? The artwork and packaging seem to be very nice (much better
than the norm), but what about the actual music on the CD?
More Exotics, Please
I’ve been a long-time reader of both
Stereophile and TAS. I’ve always been fascinated by “exotic” speaker technology,
having gone through Infinity EMIT,
ESS Heil AMT, Apogee ribbons (Slant 6,
Stage), Quad 988, Elac AMT, Elac
Ribbon supertweeters, and Piega
Ribbon Coax mid/tweeters.
How about a discussion and comparison reviews of some exotics?
Obi, Anyone?
I am an avid reader of the magazine and
thoroughly enjoy it. Bravo on adding a
few more issues per year. I have been collecting CDs for the last 20 years.
Though I have auditioned SACD, my
collection is too vast to replace, thus I
soldier on with CDs. In addition to the
standard record store stuff, I seek out
possible—DCC Gold, Sony Mastersound,
MFSL, Rhino Handmade, Reference
Recording, etc.
My question concerns the remasters
coming out of Japan, the so-called “obi”
mini-LPs. Very little information is on
the Net about them (other than that
they are “collectable” and usually marked
200% to 300% above usual CD
markup). I have bought a few, and do
notice differences. Primarily they seem
to be remastered at a higher volume.
Some CDs such as Santana seem to be a
bit clearer, less veiled, more airy around
the instruments; however, I also notice a
bit too much clinical scrubbing to the
voices; they almost seem to loose some
of their harmonic cohesion and warmth.
Aside from the fact that they are a different remastering job, what is the story
Get Off the Couch!
To me at least, an absolute sound must
have the ability to reach out and touch
me physically. Nature has programmed
in us the need to feel the presence of reality. I suspect that stereo components are
one bearer of this role. Secondly, the emotional part of this reality comes from the
musical performance and the recording
from the hands of the engineer. Certainly,
the microphones are a hindrance to capturing the absolute sound, but the HP
list, especially the LP selection, do convey
the joy we witness in a live concert.
At times we are aware of a certain
constriction of the sound waves at the
edge of the frequency range or the smearing of the images on the stage. Here we
experience the problems of an absolute
sound without the natural blending of
dimensionality of a live event.
Of course the absolute sound does
exist. Just get off the couch and go to a
concert. I am sure exposure to a live concert will help the readers appreciate the
essays written in TAS; the magazine is
pushing for a better reality.
SACDs via the Web
The demise of the independent music
stores, combined with large national
stores as the primary source for purchasing recorded music, has severely limited
the choices of music available. The selection of titles at these national retail stores
is primarily limited to a handful of “best
sellers.” I now buy my music online at
large music stores, such as Tower
Records, and small music specialty
stores, such as The Elusive Disc. The
advent of the CD in the early 1980s
prompted me and a multitude of other
music lovers to replace our existing vinyl
records with the CD versions. The advent
of the MP3 player and the ease of downloading music, legally or illegally, have
resulted in a significant negative impact
on the recorded music industry, as well as
on consumers who enjoy listening to
music played back at a higher resolution
than the MP3 format. The SACD format,
especially when the music is recorded in
multichannel using DSD recording, is
astounding. The DVD-A format also provides excellent audio reproduction but is
encumbered by a lack of ease of use. The
high-resolution audio formats are destined to be only a niche product for yuppies who enjoy classical and jazz music
unless a method for increasing the variety
of albums is devised. I’d like to propose a
method of buying specific albums previously released on CD, which are re-mastered and then re-issued in the SACD/CD
format, as well as obtaining current
releases in the SACD/CD format, ideally
including multichannel versions. This
service would hopefully be available from
all record company labels through a specified Web store. An individual would list
an album that he wished to purchase at a
preset price. When enough individuals
committed to purchasing the album to
make its release profitable for the record
label, the album would then be manufactured. Hoping that the new high-definition video formats will also provide a universally accepted platform for high-resolution audio reproduction is foolhardy.
Realism Roundtable
I enjoyed reading your roundtable discussion on the realism of sound reproduction. When reading it a second time,
I realized that the only issues mentioned
related to: 1) speakers; 2) recording; and
3) room.
I can’t agree more, even if I would
put speakers in third position. It’s a big
relief to see that all the analog/digital,
cable, power cords, etc. issues didn’t
come up. They only offer a different coloring of the sound, but don’t influence
realism as much as the above.
You might continue with a discussion of how relevant sonic realism is in
the first place, as most of today’s recordings are artificially constructed in the
studio. As the studios don’t supply the
details of the recording, no one has a clue
how it should sound. Hence the realism
debate comes down to the live recording
of real instruments in a real space.
Keep up the great work.
Basic Repertoire Is Great!
I want to congratulate you and your
editorial team for publishing your Basic
Repertoire columns. It is exactly these
articles, which provide an excellent
short history of composers and their
music, as well as a comparative discography, that distinguishes TAS from
other publications and keeps it tied to
its venerable roots. Where else can you
read about two important twentiethcentury musicians in one edition and
African musicians and their music in
another. How about something on
1960 Latin jazz, or Bartók and his peers
in an upcoming edition? While I suspect that there are many interests competing for space in TAS, if I might
voice one music lover’s opinion: more,
more, more articles on musicians, their
music, and the recordings.
As long as I am writing, I do have
other opinions: I find Future TAS out of
place. Even though Barry Willis is linked
to the column (as writer or organizer?), I
find the writing to be out of character
with the rest of the magazine. It smells
a bit of advertising rather than opinion.
(Is the text submitted by the manufacturer?) I derive little value from it.
I note that TAS will review the
Olive Music Server in an upcoming
edition. [Issue 163, in fact.—Ed.] I
suspect products like this will hold significant marketshare in five years, and
whatever extra attention might be
given to this technology and its application is appreciated. Perhaps it is too
late, but it would be helpful if the
review would provide some information on Codec Lossless compression and
other lossless music-storage options.
For example, are the formats equal to a
common CD? Do they manage 24/96
or other “denser” signals well? How
can one rip a CD to Codec? (I spent a
little time seeking info and downloading a Codec program on the Web, but
I haven’t been able to make it work.)
What are good music-storage programs? As some better for classical
music? Maybe it would not be too late
for a sidebar addressing these types of
questions or even a semi-regular column on the subject.
Congratulations on your latest issue!
From Jonathan Valin’s outstanding
review of the MAGICO Mini—sounds
to me like it’s more than worth its asking price—to HP’s special edition and
extra long Workshop (oh, how I long to
hear that E.A.R. turntable!), to budget
items like the Music Hall, Epos, NHT,
and NAD, to your continued analog coverage, to new items like the Olive server,
you guys are clicking on all cylinders!
But perhaps most of all, I appreciate
your great music overage. Love the ongoing “Basic Repertoire” series, as a jazz
fan, the latest on Free-Jazz Guitar was
most welcome, and each issue helps me
to discover all kinds of new recordings.
Are Audiophiles Really Music Lovers?
Wayne Garcia
his question has probably been around ever
since the term “audiophile” was coined,
but it’s one that deserves re-asking every
now and again. Before I chime in, however, I’m not going to claim that there’s a
right or wrong answer, or even just one
single answer (though naturally I have my
own rather opinionated point of view).
What I can do is share what I’ve observed
over the past 30 odd years in this hobby
(first in high-end audio retailing and for the past dozen or
so on the publishing side), what writers and readers of this
and other audio magazines seem to be listening to, what I
hear manufacturers demo-ing their gear with at shows, and
what I know about dealer showrooms. And based on these
collective observations I’d say that some audiophiles are true
music lovers, with a wide, eclectic, and limitless thirst for
new musical discoveries, and record collections that reflect
their musically adventurous nature, where sound quality is
important but a distant runner up to musical content. Some
audiophiles are sound lovers, with audiophile “approved”
record collections built from the received wisdom of this
and other publications, where musical content is relegated
to a secondary consideration. Some audiophiles are equipment lovers, with limited record collections based almost
solely on audiophile label releases. Here, sonic thrills take
total precedence over the music. But I think most audiophiles fall into another category that I would call limited
music lovers—people who listen to the same stuff, much of
it what they loved when they were growing up, over and
over and over again (with the enthusiastic support of the
audiophile reissue labels, that never seem to tire of reissuing
their reissues over and over and over again). To my way of
thinking this seems backasswards. Presumably (though I
could be wrong), the majority of us got into this hobby
because we love music, and presumably (though here I’m
almost certainly wrong) it’s the constant discovery of new
music that keeps us in this hobby and helps to keep it, and
us, fresh. As an equipment reviewer, even though I’m a selfconfessed serial-binger (when I get into something, say,
Wilco, or Monk, or my current bender, 20th-century classical, I plunge in head first), I get bored to tears listening to
the same tracks all the time. And here I must add this:
When I sit down to listen to music I typically (though as
time dictates not always) play entire albums, not just a few
well-worn tracks. I’m astonished when reviewers write
things like, “Over the XYZ speaker system, the music
sounded so good I listened to the entire album!” Wow.
Really? Sorry, but I just don’t get it. Did Richard Strauss
really have nothing left to say after the opening fanfare of
Also Sprach Zarathustra? Are we so quickly bored that we
need to lift the tonearm or push the stop button as soon as
we’ve had our jollies? Are we listening to music or our stereos? The answer, of course, is both—that’s why we’re audiophiles.
Now, I’m all too aware that evaluating new components
means having a benchmark to gauge with, and at some point
in the process it’s not only natural but necessary to pull out
shopworn favorites. The trap for reviewers, though, is that we
not only risk boring ourselves, we risk boring our readers. And
citing the same limited number of discs review after review
tends to make them all read the same. I don’t think I’m alone
in saying that my eyes start to glaze over when I see certain
warhorse titles listed in a review. (I’m sure you can easily write
your own list.) Oh, I’m guilty, too. If not of listing audiophile
clichés then at the very least of relying a little too heavily on
recordings I’ve listed in previous reviews. So I’m challenging
not only my colleagues but also myself when I say, get thee to
the record store, discover some new treasures, and use them in
future audio reviews.
And where to find them? In this regard, I’m especially
proud of our upfront music features and back of the book
music section, which typically runs a richly informative 18
pages. Under the guidance of our managing and music editor
Bob Gendron, our staff reviews any number of discs in the
classical, pop, and jazz fields that intrigue me. From each section I make a list of the titles that seem of particular interest,
and regularly purchase from it. This is partially because as
TAS editor I feel the need to stay informed, but it’s mainly
because I’m one of those guys who have an insatiable thirst for
new musical pleasures.
i n d u s t r y
n e w s
Chris Martens
Down the Tubes: Leading Tube Manufacturer
Threatened by Russian “Racketeers?”
n the period between mid-May and early
June, 2006, both The New York Times and
NBC News began covering an emerging
news story whose implications are of fundamental concern to all who prize vacuum-tube-powered audio equipment.
Specifically, the story involves the potential hostile takeover by Russian Business
Estates (R.B.E.) of the Saratov, Russiabased tube manufacturer ExpoPUL—a
company that reportedly supplies more
than two-thirds of all vacuum tubes used
in musical/audio applications worldwide.
ExpoPUL builds the popular Sovtekbrand vacuum tubes now featured as standard equipment in multiple musical
instrument amplifiers and high-end audio
products. Sovtek’s OEM customer list
includes high-end audio companies such
as Antique Sound Labs, Atma-Sphere,
Audio Note, Audio Research Corporation, Cary Audio, Manley Laboratories,
Melos, Muse, Pathos, Rogue Audio, Viva,
Unison, VTL, and more.
Today, ExpoPUL is owned by
American Mike Matthews, 64, who is perhaps best known among musicians as the
designer of many of the classic Electro
Harmonix-brand sound-effects boxes used
by guitarists such as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy
Page, and Carlos Santana. Like many TAS
readers, Matthews appreciates the warmth
and harmonic richness that tubes afford, so
in 1999 he acquired ExpoPUL, partly
because of the strong niche business
opportunity the firm represented, and
partly to ensure a long-term source of
high-quality tubes. Over the past eight
years under Matthews’ guidance ExpoPUL’s production has quadrupled and its
workforce has doubled, with the firm now
selling approximately $600,000 of tubes
per month. ExpoPUL would be a happy
audio success story had not the threatened
R.B.E. takeover appeared on the horizon.
In fall of 2005, R.B.E. offered
Matthews $400,000 for his company—an
offer that Matthews, for obvious business
reasons, politely declined. Since then,
R.B.E. has stepped up pressure on
Matthews to sell, both through legal
means and, Matthews alleges, otherwise.
One problem is that, as Andrew Kramer
of The New York Times notes, “just near
ExpoPUL is a factory that makes electronic components for military hardware.”
Apparently, if Matthews does not agree to
sell, R.B.E. may try to invoke a Russian
Federal Security Service (or F.S.B., successor to the K.G.B.) regulation which stipulates that a military factory cannot exist
beside a company with foreign capital.
Matthews said in an interview with
Preston Mendenhall of NBC News that,
apart from actions threatened through
F.S.B. regulations, agents presumably acting on behalf of R.B.E. had “used jackhammers to stir up dust in the facility”
(which requires clean-room-like conditions for precision tube assembly), had
shut down the elevator used for removing
toxic waste materials from the plant, and
had illegally shut down electricity to the
factory. For these and other reasons,
Matthew’s characterizes the would-be
buyers of his company as “racketeers.”
Of particular concern is the suggestion
that R.B.E. seeks ExpoPUL, not to assume
control of tube-manufacturing operations,
but to acquire and then re-sell the land and
factory building that ExpoPUL occupies.
Kramer reports that “R.B.E.’s director in
Saratov, Vitaly V. Borin, said he wanted to
buy (the ExpoPUL) factory for the
building it occupies and then sell it to
an unidentified investor.” Reinforcing
this idea, Mendenhall says that, to
R.B.E., “the (ExpoPUL) factory and its
production capabilities represent a
prime piece of real estate.”
If the takeover occurs, ExpoPUL’s new
owners would likely shut down all tubemanufacturing operations, and re-sell the
property. If this happens, not only would
specialized tube-manufacturing processes
and equipment be lost, so would the priceless expertise of ExpoPUL’s 930 employees—some of whom have been in the tubemaking business for more than 30 years.
The outcome of the issue is not yet
settled, but representatives of three of
Matthews’ largest long-term clients—
Fender, Korg, and Peavey—have written
to the Russian government on ExpoPUL/Sovtek’s behalf.
For additional information, see
Andrew E. Kramer’s article “From Russia,
With Dread,” which appeared on May 16,
2006, in the International Business section of The New York Times. See also
Preston Mendenhall’s article and videotaped interview “On the Volga, key to
rock ’n’ roll sound faces ax,” which was
updated on June 6, 2006, and is archived
on the MSNBC Web site.
Audyssey’s Audiophile-Grade
Room EQ System: Fuzzy Logic
for Clearer Sound?
n May 30, 2006, Los Angeles, California-based Audyssey Laboratories
announced the Audyssey Sound Equalizer and Audyssey MultiEQ Pro software
package—a room-equalization system that could have significant implications for audiophiles. In an interview with TAS,
company co-founder Dr. Chris Kyriakakis (Associate Professor
of Electrical Engineering, University of Southern California)
explained that while the Audyssey system is targeted primarily toward high-end home-theater and multichannel-music
enthusiasts, it offers clarity and resolution sufficient to satisfy
audio purists (e.g., users of systems based on low-powered SET
amplifiers and high-sensitivity loudspeakers). While room EQ
systems, per se, are nothing new, the radical Audyssey system
breaks new ground both in terms of the technologies it applies
and of the end results it aims to achieve in the listening room.
Unlike other EQ systems, the Audyssey Sound Equalizer
corrects both for time and frequency-response problems with
remarkable precision, creating correction programs that provide a whopping 1024 correction points per speaker. What is
more, the system provides correction not just for one central
“sweet spot,” but for every listening position in the room. If
that claim sounds far-fetched, it helps to know that the
Audyssey system was born out of an intensive five-year,
greater-than-$5M research program conducted at the
Immersive Audio Laboratory within the USC Integrated
Media Systems Center. A central objective of the research program was to develop a comprehensive understanding of the
negative effects of room acoustics on sound reproduction, and
then to address those negative effects.
The resulting system uses MultiEQ Pro software and a
calibrated microphone/mic preamp to take elaborate, in-room,
channel-by-channel measurements of time/frequency response
characteristics from up to 32 different listening positions.
Then, MultiEQ Pro applies advanced proprietary “fuzzy logic”
techniques to calculate custom, 1024-point EQ correction programs for each speaker in the system—programs that offer
much more precise equalization than competing graphic or
parametric EQ systems. Correction programs, in turn, are
downloaded into the powerful, DSP-driven Audyssey Sound
Equalizer, which is inserted in the signal path between preamps (or multichannel controllers) and power amplifiers.
Having briefly auditioned the Audyssey EQ system in two
different settings, we can offer some preliminary observations
on its performance. First, the system works as advertised,
smoothing tonal balance and improving frequency-response
accuracy across multiple listening locations. But beyond these
changes, two of the system’s most striking effects are improved
image localization and significantly improved soundstaging.
Second, the system gives positive results in systems based both
on mid-tier and on higher-performance equipment.
Nevertheless, we found the system’s effects seemed clearer and
easier to appreciate when heard through better-quality speakers and electronics. While the Audyssey EQ system helps midgrade components sound their best, it cannot and does not
turn sonic sows’ ears into silk purses. Third, the system compensates for many, though not all, room problems such as “hot
spots” or “dead zones.” Wisely, Audyssey limits the amount of
boost that can be applied at any one of its 1024 correction
points per speaker to a maximum of 9dB. Audyssey CEO
Michael Solomon points out that the Audyssey system is best
used in conjunction with, and not as a substitute for, highquality room-acoustic treatments.
The eight-channel Audyssey Sound Equalizer sells for
$2500, and must be installed by the dealer (or a custom
installer). Installation/set-up fees, if any, are determined by the
dealer. Once installations are complete, dealers provide clients
with a detailed set of before/after response graphs to document
the beneficial effects of the EQ system. Systems can be calibrated for maximally flat frequency response, or given some
degree of response-curve shaping to suit users’ tastes. A complete set of each client’s system-correction programs are stored
on a server at Audyssey Labs so that, in the event of an accident, the programs could be re-installed at a later date.
Audyssey Labs was founded in 2002 by Prof. Kyriakakis
(co-founder and now director of USC’s Immersive Audio
Laboratory), Prof. Tomlinson Holman (Professor of Film
Sound at the USC School of Cinema & Television, cofounder of the USC Immersive Audio Laboratory, developer
of the THX system, and designer of the classic Apt/Holman
stereo preamplifier), Dr. Sunil Bharitkar (DSP specialist and
lead researcher behind the Audyssey system), and Philip
Hilmes (a systems-engineering specialist formerly associated
with DirecTV).
new products on the horizon
chris martens
Onkyo A-9555 Digital
Integrated Amplifier and
DX-7555 CD Player
For those adept at reading between the lines, the
opening sentence of Onkyo’s press release says a
mouthful: “In a break with the consumer electronics industry’s long-standing infatuation with multichannel audio, Onkyo has introduced a high-end two-channel digital integrated amplifier and a CD player.”
Onkyo says its $699, 100Wpc A-9555 integrated amplifier offers “a unique implementation of hybrid class ‘D’
amplification,” termed VL Digital, which will eventually appear in many more Onkyo products. The A-9555 features
seven stereo inputs, including a high-quality phonostage with “discrete RIAA equalization.”
The $599 DX-7555 CD player features a “super-precision clock circuit” with tolerances of ±1.5ppm. Interestingly,
users can even manually adjust the clock frequency “for a degree of sonic imaging control.” The
DX-7555 incorporates a Wolfson DAC circuit
with user-selectable profiles for Sharp (flat to
20kHz) or Slow (gradual high-frequency roll-off)
response curves.
Usher Audio V-Series Loudspeakers
We suspect Usher Audio’s new V-Series speakers will enhance the company’s already
strong reputation for delivering excellent value for money.
Usher USA’s Stan Tract says the V-models were designed for two-channel and
home-theater applications, incorporating “the same caliber drivers as in (Usher’s
higher-priced) 6-Series” speakers. V-models feature solid wood veneer finishes, but
also are “front-slot-ported to allow for in-cabinet installation.” Models include the
V-601 monitor ($700/pair), V-602 and V-604 floorstanders ($1040 and $1480/pair,
respectively), and the V-603 L/C/R speaker ($620 each).
True story: At a recent hi-fi show, Usher played the V-601s alongside its
$14,400/pair BE10 floorstanders, accidentally leaving a “Now Playing” placard
atop the BE10s. No one caught the discrepancy until an Usher representative figured things out and moved the placard to the small monitors. When he did, gasps
of astonishment could be heard from the audience. It’s a good sign when $700
speakers get mistaken for models twenty times their price.
Oppo Digital DV-970 HD Universal Player
For the unimposing sum of $149 Oppo Digital offers its DV-970 HD universal player, which plays DVD-Audio/Video,
SACD, HDCD, CD, DivX, and Kodak Picture CDs. It also provides an HDMI interface and supports HD video upconversion to 720p/1080i. Impressive though these features are, they would mean nothing to most TAS readers but for one simple fact: This little player sounds astonishingly good for the money (so say audio-oriented colleagues at our sister magazine,
The Perfect Vision). Is the Oppo a world beater? No. Will it leave listeners shaking their head in happy disbelief? Yes.
If you’ve not yet listened to high-resolution digital audio in DVD-Audio or SACD formats, the DVD-970 HD gives
you a remarkably inexpensive way to get in the game. The only hitch is that you’ll soon discover the Oppo needs (and
deserves) high-quality interconnect cables likely to cost more than the player does. Deal with it.
Valve Audio Predator
Hybrid Integrated Amplifier
From Doornpoort, South Africa come Valve Audio products, which are distributed in this country through
Music Direct. Valve Audio was founded in 1994 by
Schalk Havenga, who cites an in-depth discussion with
Jeff Rowland (of Jeff Rowland Design Group) as a source of inspiration that led him to launch the company.
Valve Audio specializes in hybrid tube/solid-state, “best of both worlds” amplifiers. A perfect example would be
Valve’s new $3000 200Wpc Predator hybrid integrated amplifier. The Predator is a “true dual-mono design” (only a
transformer is shared between the two channels) based on “four Sovtek 6922 dual-triode tubes, plate-loaded directly
to four pairs of new generation MOSFET transistors.” The result, Valve says, is an amplifier that delivers “fast-paced
timing, solid bass, and natural tonality.” The Predator provides three RCA inputs, one XLR input, and an RCA tape
Naim Audio and
NetStreams Create
NaimNet—a High-End,
Multiroom Audio System
The British firm Naim Audio is well respected
for its purist audio components, while Austin,
Texas-based NetStreams has been making waves
with its StreamNet distributed audio/video system, which sends uncompressed digital audio signals via local networks to any room in the house (or even to remote locations). Joining forces, the firms have created NaimNet, one of the most performanceoriented multiroom audio systems yet offered.
NaimNet components are built by Naim and adhere to Naim sound-quality
standards, but embed NetStreams’ network interface, data transport, and system control technologies. NaimNet-enabled components include four different NaimNet
music servers (including the two-box, audiophile-oriented NS REF server), the
NNT01 DAB/FM four-zone tuner, the NNC01 multi-input preamplifier and room
player, the NNP01 room amplifier, and the NNP01 concealed room amplifier.
Assemble these components under the guidance of a qualified installer, and you’ll
have a multiroom audio system even audiophiles can embrace.
Canton Vento Reference 1 DC Loudspeaker
Standing 56.3" tall, and weighing 194 pounds, the five-driver, 3-1/2-way Vento
Reference 1 DC floorstander is the “largest, most accurate, and best performing loudspeaker” the German firm Canton has built.
The speaker’s more-than-1"-thick, curved sidewalls are constructed of seven layers of fiberboard pressure-laminated to form a “monocoque structure.” Inside, the
cabinet is divided into four isolated chambers, the largest of which forms a bottomvented bass-reflex enclosure for two long-throw 12" aluminum woofers. Higher up, a
pair of 7" midrange drivers flanks a single ADT-25 aluminum-manganese tweeter.
The lower midrange driver operates from 180Hz to 3kHz, while the upper driver
covers only the range from 180 to 400Hz, to “supplement output in the demanding
midbass range.”
Canton’s engineering head Frank Göbl says the $30,000 speaker “is intended as
a definitive statement—the ultimate expression of Canton’s design philosophy and
manufacturing capabilities.”
s t a r t
m e
u p
Rotel RX-1052 and Outlaw Audio RR 2150
Stereo Receivers
Jim Hannon
All but forgotten in the age of the audio/video receiver,
two stereo-only models focus on the music
uring the audio boom period of the late 1960s and
70s it was quite common
to see stereo receivers, not
only as part of dorm-room
systems but also in more sophisticated
and costly setups. The audio shops of the
day, often located outside the gates of
local colleges, moved these audio equivalents of a Swiss army knife like hotcakes, and GIs were able to buy hulking
receivers made in Japan for ridiculously
low prices. While most of these flashy
receivers suffered sonically compared to
their separate counterparts, they made it
very easy for many music enthusiasts to
jump on the audio bandwagon. That’s
how I got my start in this hobby. The
market’s enthusiasm for receivers waned
in the 1980s and early 90s, and with the
advent of home-theater systems, sales of
multichannel AVRs
took off and the venerable stereo receiver
practically disappeared from sight. When
I was asked to review a couple of new
receivers from Rotel and Outlaw specifically designed for two-channel applications, I thought, “Are these guys nuts?”
Both Rotel and Outlaw Audio may
be crazy like foxes. Rotel recognizes that
many audiophiles and music enthusiasts
prefer stereo sound for their serious listening (and rightly so). For its part,
Outlaw Audio suggests that although
millions of AVRs have been sold, only a
small percentage of households use more
than two speakers. I can’t verify this
claim, but with the explosive growth of
two-channel digital sources like the iPod,
a high-quality stereo receiver makes a lot
of sense from both a practical and sonic
standpoint. Indeed, what sets these two
receivers apart from most AVRs is the
quality of their sound, and that is the primary focus of this comparison.
Over the past several
decades, Rotel has gained a
solid reputation among
audiophiles for goodsounding gear that’s reasonably priced, and the
$899 RX-1052 definitely
fits this mold. It is an
interesting synthesis of the
“tried and true” and the
“new.” This stereo receiver
employs proven techniques
to produce better sound,
like using good internal parts and external binding posts, and a beefy, custom
toroidal transformer mated with highquality storage capacitors. Pick this
unit up and you’ll realize you’re not
dealing with a lightweight. Appealing
to analog lovers, Rotel includes a decent
moving-magnet phonostage, so there’s
no need to add an external phonostage if
you want to spin vinyl.
As for the new, the Rotel can distribute audio and composite video to
four rooms or different locales in and
around your house, but you’ll need to
add amplifiers to power the other three
pairs of loudspeakers. What’s very slick
is that each “zone” has independent
source selection and volume adjustment,
so you can play jazz in one room from a
CD while others listen to vinyl or the
radio in different rooms, or switch to
“Party Mode” and play the same source
throughout the house. While I consider
the basic video capability a bonus convenience feature in a stereo receiver that
sounds this good, some videophiles will
be disappointed that the Rotel is limited to composite-video switching.
The first thing you’ll notice about
the Outlaw is its unique industrial
design, reminiscent of a large art-deco
table radio. It has a thick, multilayered
front panel and its customized knobs
and controls all have a solid feel. For its
$599 price I would have expected the
Outlaw to deliver around 60 watts per
channel, but like the Rotel it’s rated at
100Wpc, which is sufficient to drive
most loudspeakers you’re likely to throw
at it. Both receivers have AM/FM
tuners, independent source selection for
listening and recording, balance controls, and headphone jacks.
Despite its retro looks, the Outlaw
Audio RR2150 is a thoroughly modern
design. While it lacks the whole-house
audio-video functionality of the Rotel,
the Outlaw outpoints its more expensive
rival on a bunch of other features. It
allows easy connections to an iPod or
other MP3 player via its 3.5mm frontpanel AUX input, or streaming audio
from a computer via a USB connector on
the rear. The “RetroReceiver” almost
begs you to hook up your iPod and computer to step up your sound quality. The
Outlaw also has a separate subwoofer output along with analog
bass management to help integrate
satellite speakers with a sub. (I
never expected to see this in a stereo
receiver.) While both the Rotel and
Outlaw have good moving-magnet
phonostages, the Outlaw can also
drive moderately-low-output moving-coils, like my Koetsu. In contrast to
the Rotel, the Outlaw sports an external
processor loop, a headphone jack with a
level control, and preamplifier and amplifier stages that can easily be decoupled to
allow use with other electronics.
Since Outlaw Audio’s products are
only available factory-direct, they can be
sold for less than if they went through a
distribution channel. For some, the substantial cost savings will be worth the
tradeoff of not having a dealer nearby. But
although the Outlaw provides a boatload
of features at a modest price, how does its
sound stack up against the Rotel?
Comparing these two receivers may
seem a bit unfair, like a welterweight
fighting a middleweight. For many, a
$300 savings can mean the difference
between being able to afford an audio
component or not. Yet the Outlaw is
good enough to move up in weight class
and compete toe-to-toe with the Rotel.
The Outlaw’s sound is smooth, big and
bold, dimensional, and engaging,
whereas the Rotel’s is more refined, neutral, and detailed, with better pace,
rhythm, and timing.
Yet, despite these differences, these
units have a lot in common musically. I
tried them with the Eben X-3 speakers,
which cost over $17,000, and was surprised at how musical they sounded.
While neither receiver is reference quality, each possesses sonic attributes associated with high-end gear. Both have
reasonable dynamic range, with good
timbre, detail, and imaging. In stark
contrast to most AVRs in this price seg-
ment (and many far beyond), these
receivers do not sound electronic,
bright, flat, or anemic. Yes, each can lose
its composure on some dynamic peaks,
but so do several more-costly units.
Each of these receivers reproduces
massed strings and voices more naturally than most integrated amplifiers in
this price class, and you can listen to
either for hours without feeling like a
dentist is taking a drill to your ears. The
Outlaw’s harmonic richness at times had
me thinking I was listening to tubes,
but this smoothness comes at the
expense of blunting the leading edges of
transients on instruments like piano and
drums. This is much better, in my opinion, than the lean, hard sound one often
hears with modestly priced transistor
gear. It also masks some of the faults of
many less expensive sources and speakers. The Rotel is more neutral and transparent, and has slightly less distortion
than the Outlaw on dynamic peaks.
On phono, while the Outlaw had
enough gain to drive my Koetsu quietly,
this combo had enough warmth to melt
ice. However, the Outlaw really seemed
to come into its own with the higheroutput Sumiko Blackbird cartridge.
Compared to the Rotel, the Outlaw had
a fuller, richer sound from the lower
midrange down, but the Rotel was superior from the midrange through the
highs. Cymbals had more shimmer and I
preferred some of my favorite female
singers, like Ella Fitzgerald or Mirella
Freni, on the Rotel. Still, it was pretty
close. Both of these phonostages easily
outpoint many of the inexpensive separate phonostages I’ve auditioned.
While the Outlaw’s tuner has slightly better specs, which may make a difference if you live in the boondocks, the
tuner competition was essentially a
draw, with both units performing well
and sucking in my favorite regional stations. Substituting a better antenna
arguably makes more of a difference
than can be found between these two
tuner sections. Voices were natural,
without excess sibilance, and I found
myself enjoying the wide range of repertoire offered on the FM dial. But those
blasted commercials made me seriously
think about a satellite subscription.
Soundstaging is likely to be an
area of disagreement among those
moving into the hobby. Both
receivers spread the soundstage nicely
between the speakers, but the Outlaw
throws the image somewhat forward
which creates the sensation of more
depth. Although instruments and
voices are somewhat “supersized” by
the Outlaw, the presentation is more
dramatic, particularly when coupled
with its richer lower registers. I can
see many saying, “Yeah, baby!”
However, images are more accurate
and stable with the Rotel, and its
better pace, rhythm, and transient
speed produces a different brand of
excitement. While I found my toes
tapping more with the Rotel, you
may prefer the somewhat bigger presentation of the Outlaw.
I would be remiss if I did not
report my first Outlaw review sample,
an early production unit, failed after a
week, but no harm was done to the
speakers. Unfortunately, it took several
months to get another unit as the production issues had to be resolved and
demand for the unit was high. The second unit has performed flawlessly. For
those of us who must get their hands
on new audio components as soon as
they start to ship, my advice is that it
often pays to wait a few months. And
wait I did. The Rotel was not without
fault either. It occasionally had an
audible transformer hum if I left it on
for awhile with no music playing,
rather than in standby mode. However,
after inserting a Chang Lightspeed
power conditioner, the problem disappeared and hasn’t returned. Better still,
there was less grain and blacker backgrounds when both receivers were
plugged into the Chang.
The Outlaw Audio RR-2150 and
the Rotel RX-1052 are attractive and
compelling entry points for all those
who desire musically engaging sound
at a modest price; both prove that
stereo receivers can be viable for critical
listening. Their overall sonic performance is much better than the AVRs I’ve
heard in this price class, and their
flaws, compared with far more costly
separates, are typically sins of omission.
The Outlaw Audio’s broad feature set
seems more “in tune” with today’s dig-
ital lifestyle; yet, for whole-house audio
and basic video the Rotel is the answer.
Although the Outlaw has suffered
slightly in this comparison to the more
refined sound of the Rotel, make no
mistake—the RetroReceiver is competitive with some of the best integrated
amplifiers I’ve auditioned at its price,
like the NAD C 352. When you consider that the Outlaw has a tuner,
phonostage, bass-management functionality, and more power, you begin to
appreciate what a great bargain it is. Its
appealing warmth and larger-than-life
sound may just knock you out. Those
listeners who demand a more neutral
balance with slightly better detail,
transparency, and transient quickness,
will dig a bit deeper into their wallets
and spring for the Rotel. Either way,
it’s really good to discover a couple of
stereo receivers that are legitimate
entries into the world of high-performance audio.
Rotel RX-1052
Power output: 100 watts per channel into
8 ohms
Audio only inputs: Phono (MM), CD, tape,
and tuner (internal)
A/V inputs: Four audio and composite
video for A/V sources
Dimensions: 17" x 4 .5" x 14.25"
Weight: 30.4 lbs.
Outlaw Audio RR 2150
Power output: 100 watts per channel into
8 ohms
54 Concord Street
North Reading, Massachusetts 01864
(978) 664-3820
Price: $899
P.O. Box 975
Easton, Massachusetts 02334
(866) 688-5297
Price: $599
Audio inputs: Phono (MM/MC), video, CD,
tape, external processor loop, 3.5 mm
aux, 1 USB input, tuner (internal)
Dimensions: 17.1" x 5.75" x 15"
Weight: 27 lbs.
a b s o l u t e
a n a l o g
Pro-Ject RM-9.1 Turntable System
Jim Hannon
A very good turntable just got better—
a look at the latest from Pro-Ject
everal years ago
I purchased a
Kiseki Purple
Heart Sapphire
cartridge (then
distributed by Sumiko) from former Bay Area audio retailer dB
Audio. Its set-up guy, John
Hunter, mounted the Kiseki on
my SOTA Star and ETII rig, and
then recommended that I leave it
with him for 24 hours so he could
run the cartridge in, allow it to
settle, and then make final adjustments. Hunter’s setup was so good
that I didn’t make any changes to it
for a few years. Now John Hunter is
Sumiko’s President, and he has assembled a team that shares his passion for
all things analog.
Among Sumiko’s latest imports is
the $1499 Pro-Ject RM-9.1, which is
designed by Heinz Lichtenegger in
Vienna and built at Pro-Ject’s factory in
the Czech Republic. A revised version
of the RM-9 that was reviewed a few
years ago in these pages, this massloaded, belt-driven turntable differs
from the original in ways that are significant but not always obvious. The
inverted bearing, tear-drop-shaped
plinth, separate motor pod, acrylic
platter, solid-brass record clamp, and
tonearm-bearing structure are the same
in both the RM-9 and the RM-9.1. So
what’s left? Well, enough that this new
entry might instead have been called
the RM-90. The single-piece arm tube
is now molded from carbon fiber. It not
only dissipates energy better than the
old version but is both lighter and
stiffer, as well. The “jointless” armtube
and headshell evoke memories of the
SME V that I once owned, but the arm
is actually closer to a Wilson Benesch
design because of the carbon-fiber
application. The old plinth’s simple
foot arrangement of rubber, plastic, and
felt has given way to a more massive
machined-aluminum cone that uses a
Sorbothane layer between the plinth
and the cone foot. And though the size
and shape of the plinth remain the
same, a steel plate has been added to
the underside to significantly increase
mass and to focus the dissipation of
energy around a single point.
Additionally, the MDF material and
processing are changed to insure that
the plinth will not break due to the
extra weight of the steel
plate. These differences are said to
reduce noise, resulting
in blacker backgrounds
and better bass articulation and extension. Due
to improvements in the
fabrication and painting
processes, the fit and finish of this new version
makes it look like a more expensive ’table, too. Unfortunately,
these revisions are not available as
upgrades for current RM-9 owners,
but stay tuned—there are others
that are.
So how does this new Pro-Ject
sound? The short answer is that its performance is much closer to that of a
costly rig than to an entry-level one.
Coupled with the Sumiko Blackbird
cartridge, a high-output moving-coil
that is sold along with the RM-9.1 at a
$300 discount,1 the sound is smooth
yet detailed, the soundstage is wide,
and the low end has authority. Massed
strings lack the upper-midrange glare
one hears with some moving-coils in
this class, and can even sound lush.
Voices and saxes are particularly seductive; images are stable; and transparency, transient quickness, and inner detail
are all good. The RM-9.1 rivals the
Rega P5/Exact combination in its surprising lack of groove and surface noise,
and it’s easy to listen to for hours with-
1 Packages are also available with the Sumiko Blue Point No. 2 or the Blue Point Special EVO III.
out any aural fatigue, even with modest
electronics like the Rotel and Outlaw
receivers I review elsewhere in this
issue. Yet because it doesn’t really do
anything wrong and is true to the
music, the RM-9.1 wasn’t out of place
in my reference system. Admittedly, it
fell short of the reference’s performance,
primarily in the areas of soundstagedepth, delicacy, air, and timbre.
However, when you consider that you
can buy the entire Pro-Ject system for
less than the price of my Graham tonearm, I was surprised that the performance gap wasn’t wider.
While I enjoyed the sound of the
stock configuration, the performance
of this Pro-Ject can be taken up another level with the addition of a few
“options.” The RM-9.1’s invertedbearing design produces speed stability that is quite good for a model in this
class. On demanding material like the
Chopin Ballades [RCA] and the
Carmen Fantaisie [Decca/Speakers
Corner], it allowed both Rubinstein’s
piano and Ricci’s violin to “sing” more
than “warble.” Several higher-priced
’tables I’ve heard couldn’t match this
level of performance, unless one used
an outboard speed-control box. And,
yes, Pro-Ject offers an optional Speed
Box SE ($549), which adds a larger
power supply, electronic speed regulation, and pitch control. Since I didn’t
“Ground-It Deluxe” is still being finalized, but should be under $400). It
matches the beautiful dark grey lacquer
finish of the RM-9.1 and is filled with
“granulate” (metal shavings). Just place
it on a level surface and use either three
or four of the supplied cones. In combination with a speed controller, it made
the music emerge from a blacker background, with more rhythmic drive and
transient quickness, and more articulate and controlled bass. These options
definitely narrowed the performance
gap with my reference.
As much as I liked the RM-9.1,
there are a few things I would recommend doing right away to improve its
performance. First, swap out the supplied phono cable with a higher-quality interconnect and a piece of grounding wire. (Since the tonearm terminates
into a set of gold-plated RCAs on the
back of the plinth, swapping interconnects is easy.) Next, put something like
a mouse pad or a sheet of Sorbothane
under the motor housing (if you have to
wait to purchase the “Ground-It
Deluxe” base). Last, use a gentle touch
on the tonearm cueing lever or else
you’ll miss the first few notes on the LP.
While the carbon-fiber arm has a lot
going for it, with adjustable VTA (but
not during play) and azimuth, its
“hanging weight” anti-skate mechanism is not as refined as some you’ll
on entry-level turntables, and the
Sumiko Blackbird’s performance comes
close to that of some higher-priced and
lower-output moving-coils. Better still,
the sound of this combo can be taken to
new heights by adding the “Ground-It
Deluxe” base and a good external speed
controller. The low noise of this RM9.1 system might even fool you into
thinking you’re listening to a digital
front-end until you notice how rich,
natural, and engaging the music
sounds, and how long your listening
sessions last.
RM-9.1 turntable
Bearing: Inverted thrust
Type of drive: Belt
Tonearm: Pro-Ject 9cc with adjustable VTA
and azimuth
Speeds: 33-1/3 and 45 rpm
Dimensions: 17.7" x 7.1" x 11.9"
Weight: 30 lbs.
Blackbird cartridge
Type: High-output MC
Output: 2.5mV
Weight: 9.6 grams
Recommended Tracking Force: 1.8 to 2.2
MFA Venusian preamp (modified); VPI
Aries (updated with TNT V platter/bearing); Graham 1.5 tonearm with 2.2 bear-
With the RM-9.1, Pro-Ject has made an already good
design much better, and without raising the price
ing; Koetsu Black cartridge; Musical
Fidelity Tri-Vista 21 DAC; Prima Luna Six
power amplifiers; Eben X-3, Hyperion
HPS-938, and Quad ESL-57s (PK modi-
have the Speed Box on hand, I used my
VPI SDS with the RP-9.1 and the
pitch became utterly stable, the bass
more solid, and the soundstage better
focused. I would definitely try out the
Speed Box SE and see if it produces
similar gains in your system.
Placing Pro-Ject’s new base, the
“Ground-It Deluxe,” under the RM-9.1
tightened up the bass, lowered the
overall noise floor, and improved both
focus and clarity (pricing on the
find on more costly arms. But this is a
minor quibble.
I am reminded of the 1980s when
companies like SOTA, Linn, and Oracle
continually refined their ’tables in
order to leapfrog each other. With the
RM-9.1, Pro-Ject has made an already
good design much better, and without
raising the price. Like some of its competitors, notably the Rega P5 and VPI
Scout, it includes an arm that is far
superior to the stock arms you’ll find
fied) loudspeakers
2431 Fifth Street
Berkeley, California 94710
(510) 843-4500
Prices: $1499 ($1999 as tested with
Sumiko Blackbird cartridge, which is
$799 when sold separately)
t a s
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Munich High End 2006
Roy Gregory
or readers familiar with the shows organized by dealers or magazines that typify the U.S. scene outside of
CES, High End 2006 in Munich offers quite a contrast. Whilst it started life as a hotel-based event in
Frankfurt, it moved three years ago to a modern,
ultra-high-tech convention center on the outskirts of the
Bavarian regional capital. The original Frankfurt event was a
pillar of the European scene and the most important show this
side of the Atlantic. The change in venue as well as the change
in the nature of that venue sent understandable ripples of consternation through the community here, but now, and despite
a couple of missteps along the way, the organizer, The High
End Society, has hit its stride and its show is back at the top.
The show itself is spread across three floors, two offering a
range of large conference rooms and the ground floor a huge
area divided into booths and prefabricated sound rooms. I
know, the very idea of demonstrating hi-fi in the equivalent of
a giant trailer park sends a shiver down the spine, but in reali-
ty the sound is no better or worse than a lot
of hotel shows I’ve endured. It also allows a
tremendous density of exhibits, cutting
down on the walking that made a visit to the
Frankfurt show double up as a hiking holiday. Add the availability of a large, open
seating area and pleasant, naturally bright
environment, helped by the massive atrium,
the sheer variety of food options on offer, and
regular live music drawn from all genres, and
you can begin to understand the number of
honest-to-God family groups (yep, including
wives and children) visiting the show, something you rarely if ever see in the U.K. or U.S.
As if feeding on that theme, several exhibitors
were also offering live music to supplement
their demonstrations or displays, while
Bosendorfer and Elac both offered live-versusrecorded comparisons. Back that up with a full
program of lectures and presentations on subPIEGA TC70X
jects as varied as first-order crossover slopes
in theory and practice and the sound of
cables and the effect of different drive systems on turntable sound (with
speakers/demonstrators drawn from manufacturers and magazines), and you can appreciate why this show manages to combine the
interests of trade and public alike.
When it comes to the sounds on offer,
the best results were to be heard in the conference rooms, which are spacious and airy,
all pale grey minimalism and expanses of
glass, providing the perfect backdrop
against which to project a brand identity. It
was apparent that some companies exploited
the potential rather better than others. The
same is true of the sonic challenges, so nothing new there then.
Frankfurt always seemed to attract
more than its fair share of impressive
loudspeakers, a trend that has happily
transferred to Munich. Big news from
Avantgarde was a complete revision and rationalization of its
range. The Uno is no more, replaced by a pair of models, the
Picco and incredibly cute Nano, which serve to demonstrate the
basic building blocks. Two active subs are offered, the SUB225
drawn from the Duo, and the larger SUB231. The Nano lodges
its tweeter trumpet in the front face of the sub, the mid trumpet held on a framework above. In contrast the Picco sees both
the mid and treble horns piercing the taller box of the 231, a
construction first seen in the Primo with its stacked, hybrid
horn subs.
Moving up the range, the Duo is joined by the Duo Grosso,
employing the 231 in a Nano-style configuration. Then comes
the Mezzo, a single-sub Primo. But the really big news is the
application of the Short Basshorn modules developed for the
Primo to the top of the range Trio. This pairs the familiar
three-trumpet arrays with a pair of hybrid horn woofers that
extend the range covered by the horn-loaded drivers without
resorting to the cost and impracticality of the massive, quarterquadrant Basshorn modules. The Short Basshorns offer the
same active drive system and electronics in a cabinet of nearly
the same volume but far more conventional shape and finish.
Factor in a 6500 Euro price difference between a pair of
Basshorns and the Short versions and suddenly the Trio starts
to look like a lot of speaker for the money. (
KEF surprised audiences with a “secret” demo in which its
prototype speakers were hidden within cylindrical fabric shrouds
hung from the ceiling. At the end of each day it unveiled the
monsters within, massive columns—ovoid in section—with no
fewer than five bass units flanking a refined version of the established Uni-Q mid/treble driver. Round the back were a further
two bass units which could be switched on, not to augment the
bass output but to cancel it, resulting in a cardioid low-frequency
dispersion pattern offering greater continuity with the midband.
The “with and without” demonstration was persuasive, with a
more lucid, transparent, and communicative quality to the
midrange, underpinned by a lighter, more agile and tactile bass.
The examples on show were a long way from being a product, but
this approach looks extremely promising when allied with KEF’s
other technologies. (
More conventional in appearance and certainly more compact, the Piega TC70X speakers were delivering superb sound
driven by a complete suite of the excellent and often underrated Cyrus electronics. Their slim cabinets contain a pair of 8"
slotted pulp-cone woofers, loaded by a rectangular port and
teamed with an extremely unusual two-way, concentric ribbon
driver. Resolution and transparency were the order of the day,
rather than floor-rattling bass extension, but there was a
beguiling fluidity and ease to the music from this superbly
integrated system. (
Another brand showing innovative and high-value product
was DALI, with its new IKON range. With a choice of three
floorstanders, two mini-monitors, two center-channels, a sub,
and a rear surround, DALI covered most bases, whilst employing the combination soft-dome/ribbon-tweeter technology seen
in the Helicon series in much more affordable packages. Equally
appealing for multichannel or two-channel applications, these
look ready to shake up the mid-market. (
Bolzano Villetri added a newer, lower-priced range below
its extensive and sumptuously finished 5000 and 3000 series
omnis. Aimed at the A/V and surround-sound market, the
front pair plus subwoofer offered an interesting alternative to
more conventional approaches, with an expansive and notably
relaxed sound, even using a basic DVD player as source. I can’t
comment on the veracity (or otherwise) of its extravagant
claims regarding the novelty and efficacy of its unusual
opposed-driver configuration, but if it can build on these
results then the performance of its products will speak for itself.
Finally, Burmester was playing the new B30, smaller brother of the B100 that has so impressed HP of late. At a Euro asking price of 7900 this was doing a fabulous job of showcasing
Burmester’s new 061 upsampling CD player. Again, the emphasis was on wide-open, high-resolution sound, but just when you
thought that was all that was on offer, this system surprised you
with some real rhythmic drive and musical authority—all delivered with effortless grace. (
Naturally there were hordes of heavy-weight turntables on
show, most of which will never (and probably should never)
escape their home borders, But two items
that really stood out were a re-engineered
and now 12" version of Brinkmann’s
( and a very neat box from
AXISS distribution that looks for all the
world like a digital stylus balance (well, it
makes one of those, too), which actually
works the suspension of your new cartridge to run it in without trashing the
stylus. Admittedly more of a
dealer/reviewer tool, I’ve just got to get
me one of these. (
Present only as a prototype but fascinating for all that, a record cleaner was
shown by Audiodesk (makers of the CD
lathe and washing machine). It’s compact,
cleans both sides simultaneously and quickly, and, if it can be
made to work, represents the first truly novel solution to cleaning discs since Harry Weisfeld launched the original HW16.
U.K. stalwart Naim Audio continued its relentless move
upmarket with the appearance of production samples of the
CD555/555PS combination first seen at last September’s
London show. The player and external power supply retail for
nearly twice the price of Naim’s previous flagship, the
CDS3/XPS, although in Naim tradition the CDS3 player can
be upgraded with the 555PS, somewhat easing the pain of transition for existing owners desperate to stay at the top of the
Naim tree. The sound of the new player is significantly more
detailed, focused, and dynamically sophisticated than older
Naim machines, with impressive stability to its staging.
Whilst the dedicated fan will need no convincing, this is one
Naim product that seems set to find its way
into non-Naim systems, rubbing shoulders
with audio’s elite. Meanwhile, for those on a
budget Naim has also launched the Hi-Line
interconnect, based around its novel, mechanically decoupled 5-pin DIN Air-PLUG. (
The show also provided first sight of Rotel’s
revamped 06 budget electronics, a totally revised
development of the excellent 02 series backed up
by the matching RDV-1092 DVD player and
RSX-1057, an A/V receiver that combines
HDMI inputs with 75 watts of power (all chan-
nels driven). For the seeming minority who want quality over
quantity from its A/V setup, this Rotel looks like a seriously
interesting proposition. Meanwhile those who just want quality
two-channel sound can rest assured that old faithful is keeping
ahead of the game. (
This report only scratches the surface of a crowded and
incredibly busy show, packed with interesting product old and
new. However, it would be remiss of me not to leave you with
a brief taste of one of the real highlights, one that isn’t currently
distributed in the U.S. Gryphon is an established name in
high-end circles, renowned for both sound quality and the
excellence of its visual design. The latter was perfectly embodied in a prototype preamp with a portable front panel operating
via wireless connectivity—stylish, practical, and oh-so-impressive for your non-audiophile friends (and their wives). But the
real star was its new Trident speaker, a
250kg behemoth that nonetheless represents a chopped down version of the fourbox Poseidon system seen at last year’s
CES. The two massive cabinets each contain four actively driven 8" bass units
that combine remote-control operation
of their adjustable Q-factor with a -3dB
point at 16Hz. Meanwhile, the high sensitivity and easy drive characteristics of
the symmetrical mid/treble array make it
compatible with high-quality/low-powered amps—although Gryphon was
using a massive Antileon stereo chassis.
The sound was everything you’d want from a 70,000 Euro price
tag and a product of this quality and capability is enough to
make its omission from the U.S. scene a major oversight. The
combination of the sheer power and scale of a full orchestra at
one with the intimate presence, delicacy, and emotional range
of the solo cello breathed life into Jacqueline du Pre and the
BBC symphony. More than worth the airfare on its own.
t a s
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Basic Repertoire
Bluegrass’ Modern Manifestations
and New Traditions
David McGee
The second and final part documenting the recorded essentials of bluegrass.
The first part, “The Golden Age of Bluegrass,” appears in Issue 160.
ven as a younger generation of bluegrass players—
musicians who were raised on rock ’n’ roll from the
1950s and 60s and discovered roots music either
through exposure to Harry Smith’s Anthology of
American Folk Music or via the early 60s folk revival
and subsequent emergence of Bob Dylan—was coming of age,
Bill Monroe continued to cast a long shadow over the music he’d
created and nurtured over the course of a couple of decades.
Membership in Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys became a rite of passage,
a sure-fire ticket to bluegrass respectability.
Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt were the most
influential of the early Monroe graduates (see
Part One of this article for a detailed examination of that duo’s legacy), but many others
passed through the Monroe ranks and went
on to make significant contributions to the
bluegrass canon. If the list included only
Jimmy Martin, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, and Ricky Skaggs,
it would be breathtaking. But there are many others who also
cut their teeth on the Monroe doctrine.
In 1963, Monroe factored into the beginning of an important
career that wasn’t launched from the Bluegrass Boys’ platform. At
the time his path crossed Monroe’s, Arthel “Doc” Watson, from
Deep Gap, North Carolina, and blinded by a childhood illness,
was creating a stir among young audiences captivated by his
authenticity and deeply soulful singing and guitar picking. In an
association that was to endure for some 17 years, Monroe and
Watson were booked as a package on the college and festival circuits, each artist helping to expand the other’s audience, as well as
illustrating by example the intimate relationship between Watson’s
rural old-time music and Monroe’s classic bluegrass.
Smithsonian Folkways documented this historic twin bill in
1993 on Volume Two of a set titled Live Recordings, 1963-1980:
Off the Record. Apart from his brother Charlie (okay, maybe Del
McCoury too, who can be heard on Volume 1), Monroe had his
ideal harmony singer in Watson, whose bass support to Monroe’s
high lonesome wail on “What Would You Give In Exchange For
Your Soul” makes for a chilling entreaty, just as the tenderness in
the two men’s voices meshing on Monroe’s “Memories of You”
perfectly evokes the heartache of good love gone wrong. What
Monroe wrought in his disciples’ lives is dramatically emphasized on 2003’s The Three Pickers, which teams Watson with
Scruggs and Skaggs in a show that was televised as part of PBS’s
Great Performances series. Gospel, traditional country, breakdowns, folk tales, and a heaping helping of Monroe songs and
reminiscences form the night’s repertoire; needless to say, hot
picking is the order of the day—check out the fiery licks these
instrumental masters trade on Monroe’s “Feast Here Tonight,”
and the vocals brimming with emotive power. The Three Pickers
was one 2003’s best albums, proof enough that the then-80year-old Watson, an American treasure, had yet to lose a step.
Watson’s distinguished recording career has yielded a deep,
powerful catalog. A partial checklist of essential Watson
albums would include his first commercial recordings made
during a brief association with old-time fiddler Clarence
Ashley, Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, The Original Folkway
Recordings: 1960-1962; his debut as a solo
artist, preserved on Doc Watson at Gerdes’
Folk City, recorded, produced, and remastered by Peter K. Siegel, who captures Doc’s
intricate flatpicking style and harmonics, as
well as every shading of his warm, laid-back
singing and between-songs patter. Some of
the earliest Ashley-Watson recordings are a
bit muddy, but Siegel gives Watson great presence on the Gerdes’
disc, making it easy to understand why the word went out from
these shows that an important artist had come down from the
mountains. Watson’s decade-plus tenure on Vanguard Records,
from the early 60s to the early 70s, is the focus of the must-have
four-CD box, The Vanguard Years, which features 16 previously
unissued tracks; and though most of his legendary collaborations with his late son Merle remain in print, a good place to
start assessing the unusual synergy between father and son is
with a two-fer, 1977’s Lonesome Road and 1978’s Look Away.
Backed by a band that includes Texas fiddler Johnny Gimble
and Gove Scrivenor on harmonica, Doc and Merle step it up
and go on these LPs—the band’s propulsive drive lending the
affair a discernable oomph.
hereas it’s a no-brainer to pinpoint Monroe as the father
of bluegrass, determining the origins of the late 60s to
early 70s progressive or urban or “newgrass” movement is a
dicey proposition. Maybe it was even earlier than historians
have figured; maybe it started with Jim and Jesse McReyolds,
who always seemed to cotton to the thrust of straight-ahead
rock ’n’ roll, and in 1964 cut an entire album of Chuck Berry
songs with a bluegrass treatment. Or maybe it started with one
of the greatest bluegrass groups of all time, the Country
Gentlemen, who were at the forefront of a fertile
bluegrass/country scene in the Washington, D.C.-Baltimore
area in the 50s and 60s. Boasting
two of the most inventive instrumentalists in bluegrass history in
mandolin player John Duffey and
banjo man Eddie Adcock, the
Gentlemen were known to venture into jazz progressions and
advanced approaches to soloing
while bringing a fresh point of
view to the bluegrass repertoire,
by embracing material from nonbluegrass songwriters such as
Bob Dylan and Paul Simon.
Check out the essential four-CD
box set, The Early Rebel
Recordings: 1962-1971, for an
idea of how far ahead of the game
the group was in its heyday.
This much is fact: 1971
through 1973 were fertile for the
progressives, although storied
outfits such as J.D. Crowe & the
New South, New Grass Revival,
and the Seldom Scene (with Duffey) lasted well beyond that
abbreviated time frame. What happened in those two years is
amazing judging by the sheer quality of the playing, the bravado with which young pickers attacked their new music, the
depth of the original songs, and the number of important musicians who emerged then and continue to be productive and in
demand today as elder statesmen in a revitalized bluegrass field.
Listen today to the driving sound of Rhonda Vincent and The
Rage, the tender, pop-influenced stylings of Alison Krauss and
Union Station, or the out-there workouts of those upstart
young ‘uns Nickel Creek, whose music references sources as
varied as Bill Monroe, J.S. Bach, and Pavement. All are directly descended from events that happened long before any of
these artists emerged (literally in the case of the 20-something
Nickel Creek trio, the oldest of whom was born in 1977); all
are indebted to some degree to the ideas that sprang from the
minds and music of John Hartford, Peter Rowan, David
Grisman, Clarence White, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake,
Sam Bush, John Duffey, J.D Crowe, Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice,
Mike Auldridge, and others who had a moment, or many
moments, of note in the rise of progressive bluegrass as a viable
offshoot of the Monroe doctrine.
Hartford, for instance, in 1971 put together the Aereoplane
Band in Nashville, with Norman Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on
dobro, Vassar Clements on fiddle (Randy Scruggs, Earl’s son,
played bass in the studio but was not a touring member) and,
with David Bromberg producing, came forth with a freewheeling, concise masterpiece of barnburners and wry
Hartford-penned love songs (“Blame It On Joann,” a song in
Del McCoury
which the irony is as deep as Tom T. Hall’s on “Pamela
Brown”) that blazed like Monroe’s finest breakdowns, stomped
like classic rock, and sprouted counterculture attitude at every
turn. Long out of print, the original recordings, plus outtakes
and previously unissued tracks, were returned to market in
2002 on Rounder Select’s Steam Powered Aereo-Takes, an album
without which, according to Sam Bush, “there would be no
‘newgrass’ music.”
Bush wasn’t laying around watching things happen in 1971.
That was the year he assembled Courtney Johnson (banjo), Curtis
Burch (guitar), and Harry
Shelor (a.k.a. Ebo Walker,
bass) as New Grass Revival.
(Walker bowed out and was
replaced by John Cowan, not
only a solid bass player but
one of the finest male vocalists
to emerge from the progressive world.) Avatars of the
progressive movement, New
Grass Revival held forth for
18 years, adding guitarist Pat
Flynn and banjo-barrierbreaker Bela Fleck to its lineup when Johnson and Burch
hung it up. In all configurations, NGR was fearless, daring, and entertaining; and
with a taste for pop-influenced melodies, the group
clearly set the stage for the
90s bluegrass explosion spearheaded by Krauss. NGR’s catalog is rich and varied, but a
splendid double-CD overview
recounts the magnitude of the
group’s achievement. Appropriately titled Grass Roots: The
Best of New Grass Revival, the
album includes most of the
vital studio cuts as well as
seven previously unissued live
Many a progressive bluegrass road runs through Peter Rowan, the former Bluegrass Boy
who has demonstrated a Zelig-like quality for participating in
momentous musical events. In 1973, shortly after he and fiddler Richard Greene had left the rock group Seatrain, he joined
with guitarist Clarence White (late of the Byrds), former
Kweskin Jug Band banjo player Bill Keith, and mandolin player David Grisman (who had departed from the rock group
Earth Opera, which had also been a stop for Rowan) for a onetime-only appearance on a nationally televised bluegrass show
emanating from Los Angeles’ KCET. Warner Bros. promptly
offered a deal to the band billed as Muleskinner; two weeks
later, supplemented by Jerry Garcia’s bassist John Kahn, the
group cut a self-titled album that was released and deleted from
the catalog in record time. Muleskinner’s influence was negligible—it came and went so quickly—but its lone studio
album, Muleskinner, and the TV show soundtrack, Muleskinner
Live, prove the outfit was thinking way outside of the bluegrass
box. On the studio album, for instance, the Rowan-Jim
Roberts-penned “Runways of the Moon,” concerning a tortured
soul’s journey through life,
boasts a beautiful close harmony sound reminiscent of
the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the
Rodeo approach (which
White had a major role in
shaping), but ends in a flurry
noodling unlike anything
heard on a bluegrass album
prior to Nickel Creek’s most
recent record.
Rowan next popped up,
also in 1972-73, with
Grisman, Clements, and
Kahn, as charter members of
the Garcia-led roots outfit
Old & In the Way, playing a
repertoire spanning the classic bluegrass of Monroe and
the Stanley Brothers, to the
forward-looking stylings of
the Country Gentlemen, to
the ornate 50s pop of The
Platters (via a cover of “The
Great Pretender”), to the
hard-edged rock of the Stones
(by recasting “Wild Horses”
as an easygoing shuffle, less
tortured than the original
but possessing a certain
bucolic charm, nonetheless).
Alison Krauss Old & In the Way existed for
some nine months and 30
gigs (which have produced two live albums, both released on
Grisman’s Acoustic Disc label), but Garcia’s high profile in the
rock world drew attention to the group’s efforts, and especially
to its attitude, explained succinctly by Rowan in liner notes to
the live Breakdown: “We felt instinctively that this robust style
could handle any type of tune. If we could pick it or sing it, then
it was ours.”
Such was West Coast progressive bluegrass—a fleeting
moment of creativity and inspired playing. On the East Coast,
traditionalist veterans J.D. Crowe (who spent six years in
Jimmy Martin’s band) and the aforementioned Duffey assembled bands built to last, i.e., New South and the Seldom Scene,
In 1975, J.D. Crowe & the New South (band and eponymous
first album) made its Rounder debut, and Crowe subsequently
became a Monroe-like magnet for a new generation of top-drawer bluegrass and country artists. His original New South lineup—by far his most versatile—included Rice on guitar, Skaggs
on mandolin, Douglas on dobro, and Bobby Sloan on fiddle and
bass. All were virtual unknowns at the time they joined New
South; all have gone on to distinguished careers (especially
Skaggs, who had massive mainstream country success in the 80s,
before returning to bluegrass full-time and winning Grammy
Awards as a matter of course).
Formed by Duffey in 1971, the Seldom Scene achieved
commercial success far beyond that of its friendly newgrass
competitors. Never big on touring (the group name is
telling), the band’s influence rests almost solely on its
recordings. An esteemed mandolin player and tenor vocalist, Duffey surrounded himself with a Murderer’s Row of
artists in guitarist John Starling, bassist Tom Gray, banjoist
Ben Eldridge, and, most crucial of all, dobro virtuoso
Auldridge. When they get going, the Seldom Scene players
attack their music with verve and intellect, finding new
ways to energize traditional bluegrass fare and taking unexpected approaches to pop, rock, and blues. A box set is sorely and conspicuously missing from the Seldom Scene catalog, but the group’s first three albums, titled Act I, Act II,
and Act III are essential. Act I, released in 1972, features
interpretations of Steve Goodman’s “City of New Orleans”
and James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” as well as a jawdropping take on Monroe’s “With Body and Soul.” Act II,
from 1973, is notable for a cool rendition of Ricky Nelson’s
“Hello Mary Lou” and a moving reading of John Prine’s
poignant lament, “Paradise.” Act III, also from ’73, contains
a haunting treatment of Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back
Home” and a lovely cover of Bob Wills’ “Faded Love.” As
an alternative to buying three albums, the 1994 single-disc
Best of the Seldom Scene, Vol. 1 contains several of the abovementioned songs as well as numbers from the band’s fourth
album, Old Train.
The highest-profile artist to emerge from the first class
of progressives has been Bela Fleck, whose solo career has
taken him far away from bluegrass into eastern and third
world musics, into jazz (Tales From An Acoustic Planet, Vol.
2, released in 1975, teams him with Chick Corea, Edgar
Meyer, and Branford Marsalis), and even into classical,
where he’s won a Grammy for his 2001 Perpetual Motion
album recorded with classical guitarist John Williams,
Nickel Creek’s mandolin wunderkind Chris Thile, and the
most celebrated young violinist of the day, Joshua Bell. His
band the Flecktones (Howard Levy on interstellar harmonica, Victor Wooten on bass, and Roy “Futureman” Wooten
on his mad-scientist drum machine/guitar-synth combo)
plays anything and everything with consummate ease and
enthusiasm. The mere appearance of this odd character in so
many strange musical lands can only be seen as a positive
(though classical critics deride him as a dilettante), because
wherever he lands, bluegrass tends to surface in some form.
And that ain’t a bad thing, for the music or for folks who
might not have taken an interest in bluegrass prior to
Fleck’s arrival.
rogressive bluegrass injected its traditional sire with contemporary fervor, propulsion, and attitude while fully respecting
the parent style’s fundamentals. Commercially, it wasn’t much of
a factor in the larger world of contemporary country. It was then
as it had been since the mid-50s—a niche music, popular at festivals and fairs but otherwise lacking much media presence or
sales juice.
This changed
swiftly in 1987
with the arrival of
16-year-old prodigy Alison Krauss
with her first
Rounder album,
beautiful Too Late
to Cry. Hailing
from Champaign,
Illinois, Alison and
were encouraged by supportive parents in their childhood musical
pursuits. First taking up violin, Alison gravitated to fiddle after
discovering bluegrass, and it was her prowess as a player that
spurred Rounder to sign her at age 14. What might not have been
so evident when Krauss was that age certainly was by the time her
solo debut was released: She had a magnificent, crystalline voice
and an advanced sense of a song’s narrative and emotional arc. Hers
was neither a high lonesome bluegrass voice nor a rural, country
voice nor a wispy pop voice, but something almost beyond categorizing—ethereal, airy, fragile, but sturdy, it could put the hurt in
a heartbreaker like no one else’s.
Her 1989 album, Two Highways, introduced her band,
Union Station. Its current longstanding members include guitarist Dan Tyminski (who gained considerable attention for his
role as George Clooney’s singing voice in O Brother, Where Are
Thou?, notably for his keening version of “I Am a Man of
Constant Sorrow” on the soundtrack), bassist Barry Bales, Ron
Block on banjo and guitar (his 2001 solo debut, Faraway Land,
is an overlooked gem), and progressive dobro master Jerry
Douglas, the only musician who remains from the original
Union Station lineup. No matter who’s backing her, though,
Krauss sticks to her expansive definition not merely of bluegrass
but of all music (maybe too expansive when it includes covering
Todd Rundgren, but if you buy the premise you buy the bit, as
Johnny Carson once noted). In addition to traditional tunes and
originals, Krauss draws material from contemporaries such as
Shawn Colvin and Karla Bonoff, and has championed promising
new songwriters such as Robert Lee Castleman, now a regular
contributor to the Krauss songbook, with two of his most penetrating numbers, “Let Me Touch You For Awhile” and “The
Lucky One,” featured on New Favorite—the most essential of
several potent Krauss long-players. A single-disc retrospective
of the first five albums, 1995’s Now That I’ve Found You: A
Collection, sold five million copies—an unprecedented number
in bluegrass history—and is a must-own retrospective of the
artist’s formative work, populated as it is with a lovely cover of
Lennon-McCartney’s “I Will,” a lilting treatment of the
Foundations’ 1968 pop hit “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You,”
and a funky, bluesy take on Little Feat’s “Oh Atlanta.”
Krauss was at the forefront of another unparalleled development in bluegrass history. On her third album, she began producing herself and in doing so opened the door for other female
artists-as-producers in country and bluegrass. She works at highend Nashville studios (Seventeen Grand is a long-time favorite)
and favors one of the top engineers in the business, Gary Paczosa,
as her right-hand man (referring to him in liner credits as “the
sixth member of the band”). Remastering has done wonders for
the bluegrass recordings of the 40s and 50s, when the standard
practice was to emulate in the studio a band’s live presentation of
playing around one microphone. This “one mic” concept is hallowed in bluegrass lore, but has its limits as a studio concept.
Krauss’ recordings have always been remarkable sonically for
their clarity and delicate balance between instruments and voice,
as well as for a heady, atmospheric quality that serves only to
enhance the music. That greater care is now taken—and more
money spent—to assure a state-of-the-art soundscape for bluegrass artists is a direct result of Krauss’ success.
After Krauss, Rhonda Vincent is the most recognizable and
commercially appealing female bluegrass artist. Like Krauss,
she has taken control of her music in and out of the studio,
either co-producing or producing all of her recordings since
going back to pure bluegrass in 2000, following a couple of
mainstream country recordings. Her band The Rage has shifted personnel far more than Union Station, but top-notch players are always on board, notably Vincent’s brother Darrin, with
fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton also making
appearances. No longer a plain, conservatively dressed country
girl from Missouri, Vincent sports blonde highlights and outfits herself in black leather and slinky low-cut dresses. Still, her
music remains basic bedrock bluegrass with a progressive
thrust. The finest version of The Rage is found on 2001’s The
Storm Still Rages, when the lineup included the dynamic young
fiddler Mike Cleveland and banjoist supreme Tom Adams, and
the repertoire ranged from Ernest Tubb’s “Driving Nails In My
Coffin” and Hank Williams’ “My Sweet Love Ain’t Around” to
two Vincent-penned gems, the urgent love song “Cry Of the
Whippoorwill” and a feisty tribute to Monroe, “Is The Grass
Any Bluer,” everything blessed by expressive musicianship and
Vincent’s aching cry of a mountain voice.
Krauss also connects the traditional to the progressive via
her production on the first two Nickel Creek albums. Siblings
Sean (born 1977) and Sara Watkins (born 1981) teamed with
mandolin prodigy Chris Thile (born 1981) when all were mere
sprights, initially playing in a San Diego pizza parlor before
building an enthusiastic following on the festival circuit.
Signed by Sugar Hill, the trio found a simpatico producer in
Krauss and two Grammy nominations for its eponymous
debut. A New York Times article gushed over the youthful trio’s
“pan-cultural” ethos and all but declared Nickel Creek the
bluegrass Beatles.
Close, perhaps. On the essential Nickel Creek debut, the musicians cull stylistic statements from folk, classical, pop, country,
Celtic, and jazz, adeptly deploying these elements over the course
of a dozen mostly original songs that are by turns haunting and
exhilarating. Krauss is all over Nickel Creek, especially in the sustained dreamy ambience that pervades most tracks.
Yet Nickel Creek is a band that prides itself not on rising to
the challenge but in redefining the challenge each time out.
Hence, the deserved critical ballyhoo and emotional investment in
the work of three young people who weren’t even born when the
progressive movement flourished, but who have gone back and
picked up the basics from Monroe on, then added stylistic
approaches from outside the bluegrass realm to become a kind of
new progressive movement all their own. The band’s third album,
2005’s Why Should the Fire Die?, produced not by Krauss but by
Eric Valentine and Tony Berg, is driven by tales of troubled relationships and wrenching interior monologues addressing love
gone awry, with the producers packing the soundscape with information in the form of sonic buzzes, clicks, sighs, and bleeps that
serve as an electronic Greek chorus signaling another relationship
shorting out. There is a countrified, jubilant instrumental
(“Stumptown”) and an unsettling, melancholic bluegrass-based
instrumental rumination titled “Scotch & Chocolate,” but musical explorations lean heavier towards folk and dark edgy pop.
Even as Nickel Creek and Thile explore new turf, the traditional very much has its place in contemporary bluegrass. After
serving a near-year-long tenure in 1963-64 as one of Monroe’s
Bluegrass Boys, North Carolina native Del McCoury set out on
a solo career, working the burgeoning Pennsylvania-MarylandVirginia circuit in his spare time away from his day jobs. In
1987, he cut an album (The McCoury Brothers) for Rounder with
his brother, but the course of his career was altered first in 1981
when he welcomed into his band his then-13-year-old son
Ronnie, a mandolin whiz who has been named the International
Bluegrass Music Association’s Mandolin Player of the Year for
eight consecutive years, and again in 1987, with the arrival in
the professional ranks of his other son, Rob, a banjo-picker par
excellence. As the Del McCoury Band, this quintet—rounded
out by engaging bassist Mike Bub (replaced by Alan Bartram on
the group’s stirring new gospel album, The Promised Land) and
fiddler Jason Carter—has made the distinctions between progressive and traditional irrelevant, so advanced is the soloing, so
compelling is the musicians’ emotional commitment, and so
piercing is Del’s quintessential high lonesome tenor.
Del has written solid originals (his “I Feel the Blues Moving
In” from 1990’s Don’t Stop the Music should become a bluegrass
standard), and Ronnie McCoury, who has also become the band’s
producer, always has a barn-burning instrumental to add.
Otherwise, the McCourys range far and wide for material, from
usual suspects to mainstream country writers such as Lefty
Frizzell and Harlan Howard, to folk rockers on the order of
Richard Thompson (whose “1952 Vincent Black Lightning” has
become a beloved McCoury standard) to classic American pop a
la Frank Sinatra (“Learnin’ the Blues”), even embracing renegade
country in cutting Steve Earle’s “If You Need a Fool” and then
collaborating with Earle on The Mountain. In addition to the
must-have Promised Land, Rounder’s single-disc overview of
McCoury’s 1987-1995 tenure with the label, High Lonesome and
Blue, offers a succinct portrait of Del and the boys coming of age,
as well as including some interesting Del solo cuts from back in
the day. An essential McCoury collection might well contain
every album the band has released, but most certainly has to
include 1996’s The Cold Hard Facts, 2001’s Del and the Boys, and
1992’s Blue Side of Town, incorporating the Patty Loveless title
tune, Earle’s “If You Need a Fool,” and Arthur “Big Boy”
Crudup’s “That’s Alright Mama.” Basically, any Del McCoury
Band album is a primer in bluegrass that at once looks forward
even as it embraces the music’s core values of yore.
And McCoury isn’t alone. Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless,
Mountain Heart, Ricky Skaggs, the Grascals, Blue Highway,
Ralph Stanley, Jim Lauderdale, Marty Stuart—bluegrass
embraces its elder statesmen, draws in established country
artists who revitalize their careers by returning to the source of
their inspiration, and welcomes young practitioners steeped in
tradition but ready to move the music into the future. It’s a true
and timeless thing, as Mr. Bill knew way back when.
Audio Systems
You Can Afford
Chris Martens
Does high end always mean high-priced?
We think not, as these six affordable
systems demonstrate
ost veteran audiophiles
can recall watershed audio systems that
helped turn them into lifelong devotees
of music reproduction in the home.
Those systems were probably as diverse in configuration as the individuals who put them together, yet
they had three characteristics in common. First, they
raised sound quality to threshold levels that triggered “Eureka!” moments, serving up listening experiences so fine (and refined) that we found them irresistible. Second, they brought music alive as never
before and became for us true music-discovery
machines. And finally, they were affordable and
played—to borrow a sports phrase—above the rim;
that is to say, they offered extraordinary performance, but at ordinary (or at least manageable)
prices. Once these factors come together, there can
be no turning back. Or can there?
Today, music and music playback systems vie with
many other art forms and entertainment options for
individuals’ discretionary incomes and their even more
precious free time. As a consequence, ownership of an
audio system is no longer a given, as it might have
been two or three decades ago. In fact, a good many
people (and especially young people) have had no firsthand exposure to high-quality music systems. Worse
still, some who have had a first taste of the high-end
experience have walked away with mixed feelings, the
joy of hearing lifelike sound combined with the trauma
of acute sticker shock. Stated simply, it’s hard for others to fall in love with a hobby they’ve either never experienced or believe they could not possibly afford.
Things ought not to be this way because today’s best
entry-level and mid-priced components are sounding
better than ever. What may be lacking, though, is the
know-how necessary to put together synergistic systems
that are affordable and exceed sonic expectations. And
that’s where we come in. The staff of The Absolute
Sound has come up with six proposed affordable highend audio systems, each of which holds the potential to
play above the rim—in some cases way above the rim.
We hope our recommendations will benefit those looking to assemble great first systems or planning high-performance system upgrades at reasonable costs. Prices
for our suggested systems range, in even thousand-dollar increments, from $1500 to $6500.
System One: $15OO
Cambridge Audio 540A integrated amplifier
Review, Issue 162
Cambridge Audio 540C CD player
Review, Issue 162
ERA Design 4 loudspeakers
Review, Issue 162
ambridge Audio’s 60Wpc 540A integrated amplifier and 540C CD player are
modestly priced, but they neither look
nor sound like entry-level components.
Both offer tube-like smoothness in the
upper midrange and treble, clear and grainless
midrange, and rich, full bass that conveys the roundness of acoustic basses and the dynamic punch of
electric ones. Unlike many low-priced components, the
Cambridge pair delivers an open and spacious soundstage, giving listeners a sense of the air and space
between instruments and voices. What makes these
components sound so good? Build-quality, for one
thing. The amplifier, notes TAS Editor-in-Chief Robert
Harley, features “a sizeable toroidal transformer, generous heatsinking, metal-film resistors throughout,
gold-plated jacks and quality binding posts,” and even
a “high-quality motorized Alps-brand volume control.”
The CD player, in turn, features a scratch-built,
Cambridge-designed transport mechanism and control
circuit (with a laser and optical pickup sourced from
Toshiba). The player offers a streamlined signal path,
with circuitry including a custom, low-jitter
clock and very-high-quality Wolfson 24bit/96kHz DACs—the same ones, says
Harley, “found in some players costing
$3000.” In audio as in pizza, better ingredients make for better results.
The Era Design 4 loudspeakers,
whose design was influenced by Michael
Kelly of Aerial Acoustics, offer unexpectedly big sound from a small package. What
usually floors listeners about these
diminutive two-way mini-monitors are the
huge, open soundstages they present, and
the remarkably hearty and potent midbass
dynamics they deliver. Style-conscious buyers will
be interested to know that all Era speakers feature
exquisite furniture-grade wood finishes, and can be
ordered with matching audio furniture from Era’s sister
company, Sona Design.
This little system is all about conveying the
nuances and inherent warmth and richness of live
music—for not a lot of money.
Considerations: System One does not offer deeply
extended bass, nor can it play extremely loudly for sustained periods of time (but Cambridge Audio’s clever
“CAT5” circuit will eventually intervene to prevent damage should the amplifier be driven too hard for too
long). Note that the Era speakers should be used with
rigid, high-quality speaker stands. For these reasons,
System One works better in small-to-mid-sized rooms,
and will be most satisfying for listeners who enjoy
music played a moderate volume levels.
For a system that offers a bit deeper bass extension, that can play somewhat more loudly, and that
requires no speaker stands, consider the $699/pair
Epos ELS 303 floorstanders (reviewed in this issue) as
an alternative to the Eras.
System Two: $25OO
Music Hall a25.2 integrated amplifier
Review, Issue 163
Music Hall cd25.2 CD player
Review, Issue 163
Revel Concerta F12 loudspeakers
Review, Issue 157
usic Hall provides the core electronics for System Two in the form of its
50Wpc a25.2 integrated amplifier
and cd25.2 CD player, both of which
offer midrange clarity and nuance, as
well as sparkling, crystalline highs. Stated simply,
musical transparency is the strong suit of these components, meaning that both have the ability to tease
out the delicate inner details that can spell the difference between good and great sound.
TAS reviewer Sallie Reynolds found both Music
Hall components had merit, but that the cd25.2 was
“the star” overall—especially once she replaced the
CD player’s standard power cord with a beefier, higherquality aftermarket cord. With that upgrade in place,
Sallie found the cd25.2’s sound opened up considerably, achieving even better tonal balance and
resolution. (Newcomers,
we realize how strange
this power cord discussion must seem. But
the fact is that the
sound of most components improves significantly with power cord
The only significant
weakness of the Music
Hall components is a
tendency toward midbass thinness (more
noticeable in the amplifier than the CD player),
but this is where the
underlying synergies of
System Two come into
play. Revel’s three-way,
four-driver Concerta F12
floorstanders are near
full-range loudspeakers that are extremely easy to
drive, and that offer hearty and surprisingly extended
bass. Though the F12’s bass can sound a hair under-
damped at times, these speakers make the most of
the bass drive capabilities of modest amplifiers. What
is more, the F12s are blessed with real, dedicated
midrange drivers that give the speaker an unexpectedly lively and refined sound. Finally, the F12’s highs
are clear and smooth, though somewhat dry.
In pairing the Revels with the Music Hall components, our thought was that each would benefit from
the complementary (and offsetting) strengths and
weaknesses of the others, leaving listeners to enjoy
the best of all three products: the rich, powerful bass
of the Revels, the midrange subtlety of all three components, and the pure, shimmering highs of the Music
Halls. Best of all, listeners enjoy near full-range sound
for under $2.5k.
Considerations: To get
the most from the Music
Hall pair consider using
a good, modestly-priced
power conditioner, and
also try upgrading the
cd25.2’s power cords.
enhancements, some
might want an amplifier
with more vigorous bass
than the a25.2 affords.
Two alternatives that
offer decent measures
of transparency and better bass would be NAD’s
C320 BEE (50Wpc,
$399) or C352 (80Wpc,
AVguide Monthly 9) integrated amplifiers.
System Three: $35OO
Arcam Solo stereo receiver/CD player combo
Review, Issue 156
DALI IKON 6 loudspeakers
Review, this Issue
ystem Three leverages the strengths of
Arcam’s remarkable 50Wpc Solo—a combination stereo receiver/CD player. The word
TAS reviewer Chris Martens chose to
describe the 50Wpc Solo was “suave,”
meaning that it offered “smooth, cohesive, and selfconfident” midrange with generous amounts of resolution and articulation. The Solo will appeal to enthusiasts who want to enjoy musical details, but without the
pain of inappropriate brightness or edginess. While
the Solo may sacrifice the “nth” degree of transparency, it does achieve a sophisticated, well-balanced
sound that will never turn and bite the listener. Finally,
unlike many cost-constrained receivers, the Solo incorporates an excellent FM tuner that easily reveals quality differences between the playback systems used at
local radio stations. It’s fun to have the option of sampling new musical material over the airwaves.
Rounding out the system are DALI’s easy-to-drive
IKON 6 floorstanders. To appreciate what DALI has
achieved with this speaker, we urge you to hear a pair
of DALI’s excellent multi-thousand dollar per pair
Helicons first, and then sample the IKONs. Are the
award-winning Helicons the better speakers? Certainly.
But, is Helicon design “DNA” readily and sonically
apparent in the IKONs? You’d better believe it is, and
in spades. In particular, the IKONs—like the
Helicons—use a two-driver upper midrange/treble
module based on a fabric-dome tweeter plus a ribbon
driver to generate airy, extended, and beautifully
defined highs. They also use Helicon-inspired wood
pulp/composite mid/bass drivers to reproduce
midrange and bass frequencies in a soulful, expressive way. The IKON 6’s bass extends to just below
40Hz, but TPV reviewer Barry Willis observed that they
create the illusion of going even lower than that. Best
of all, the IKON 6s offer sufficient articulation to take
full advantage of all the finesse the Arcam Solo has to offer.
System Three achieves
sophisticated sound where,
especially through the broad
midrange of the music,
details emerge with a gentle,
unforced clarity that brings to mind the sound of even
higher-performance systems.
Considerations: Because it is based on a combination receiver/CD player, System Three can be tricky to
upgrade in an incremental way. This may not be a
concern for you, but it is a point to bear in mind for
individuals who can’t resist tinkering with a good
thing (you know who you are). Bear in mind, however,
that you may have to invest quite a bit more than the
price of the Arcam Solo to achieve decisively superior sound.
If you prefer a system based on separate components, however, consider the core electronics packages
we recommend for Systems Four, Five, or Six, below.
Some Guidelines for Newcomers (and
Reminders for Veterans)
Make live music your standard. Train your ears by exposing them
to plenty of live music (preferably unamplified—or at least lightly
amplified—live music), and then trust what they tell you about the
sound of hi-fi components.
Listen, listen, and listen. Our recommendations will point you in
directions that produce delightful sonic results, but remember that our
words are no substitute for you going out to hear components for yourself. You may have to travel a ways to audition the less common products we recommend, but the end results will be worth the extra effort.
Work with a competent dealer with whom you have good rapport. A good dealer can add a huge amount to the equipment buying experience, provided he or she is well attuned to your needs and
tastes. Great dealers often have the uncanny ability to come up with
system solutions neither you (nor we) might have considered. Some
also offer in-home product-trial programs.
Don’t forget necessary accessories. Interconnect and speaker
cables can have a huge impact on sound quality, as can power conditioners. We do not provide specific cable or conditioner recommendations here, but recommend setting aside an additional
10–20% of your budget (beyond the cost of core system components) for cables and other necessary accoutrements.
System Four: $45OO
Naim Nait 5i integrated amplifier
Rotel RCD-1072 CD player
Paradigm Reference Studio 100 v3 loudspeakers
aim’s Nait 5i is a superb integrated amplifier, not just “for the money,” but also in a
broader, absolute sense. AVguide Monthly
reviewer Tom Martin observed that the
solid-state Nait 5i provides the harmonic
richness and rightness of a good tube amplifier, so that
“each instrument sounds like itself, playing in a real
acoustic space,” adding that it gives “the sense of the
freeing the instruments or opening
them up.” At the same time, the
amplifier also offers the clarity and
definition of a good transistor
design, yet without etching or
overemphasizing the leading edges
of notes. Finally, Martin says, the
50Wpc Nait 5i delivers an unexpectedly powerful sound, even “on big
orchestral or rock dynamic swings.”
The award-winning Rotel RCD1072 CD player offers good clarity
and remarkable freedom from
noise. TAS reviewer Alan Taffel
says the RCD-1072 “has the lowest noise level of any CD player I’ve
heard at any price,” noting that it
“presents an unimpeded path to
the music.” Because the Rotel
presents music against a silent
backdrop, Taffel notes, “musical lines and instrumental
details stand out as if in basrelief,” as do tonal colors and
transients. The only drawback is
that the Rotel somewhat de-emphasizes
the sense of air surrounding instruments. The RCD1072’s bass and dynamics may be slightly softer than
those of more costly players, but overall the Rotel is, in
Taffel’s words, a player that “allows music, and the
instruments that make it, to emerge in stark glory.”
Paradigm’s Reference Studio 100s are brilliant doall floorstanders whose diverse strengths The Perfect
Vision reviewer Gary Altunian (a confirmed multichannel enthusiast) credits with “rekindling my interest in
Review, AVguide
Review, Issue 146
Review, TPV 57 & 69
stereo.” The Studio 100 is a three-way, five-driver
design that features an aluminum-dome tweeter, a
mica-polymer mid/bass driver, and three mineral-filled
polypropylene woofers. Together, these drivers produce
near full-range sound that is evenly balanced from top
to bottom, with excellent transient speed that makes
the Studio 100s sound quick and articulate across the
board. Over time, these speakers win listeners’ hearts
by gently revealing layer upon
layer of midrange and treble
textures, while delivering
bass that is tight, tuneful,
woofers sharing the workload—unstrained. Two small
drawbacks are that the
Studio 100s offer good, but
not entirely holographic imaging, and occasional hints of
dryness in the highs. But
these shortcomings pale
alongside the many things the
speakers do well.
System Four offers essentially full-range sound, with good
measures of focus and definition,
plus a welcome touch of magic—
courtesy of the Naim amplifier.
Considerations: For best results,
upgrade the Rotel’s power cord
and try placing the player on
ceramic tone cones such as those
offered by DH. These upgrades help
clean up a slightly hard-edged quality
the player occasionally exhibits.
The system will play loudly enough to satisfy many
listeners, but for extra headroom try the 100Wpc YBA
Design YA201 integrated amplifier we recommend for
System Five.
Finally, for maximum openness and optimal imaging, use high-quality speaker cables with the
Paradigms, and experiment with bi-wiring.
System Five: $55OO
YBA Design YA201 integrated amplifier
Review, this issue
Rega Apollo CD player
Review pending
Spendor S8e loudspeakers
Review, Issue 155
BA Design’s 100Wpc YA201 integrated
amplifier combines stunning industrial
design, terrific build-quality, and engaging
and sophisticated sound. The sophistication flows from the amplifier’s exceptionally
expressive midrange, which effortlessly reveals intimate inner details within the music. Moreover, the
YA201 offers good transparency and lively dynamics
that span most of the audio spectrum, making the
amplifier a leader in its price class. One other area
where the amp shines is in reproduction of soundstage depth, contributing to a satisfyingly three-dimensional presentation. Only in direct comparison to toptier components does the YA201 show a slight degree
of softness at the frequency extremes, good but not
fabulous bass definition, and a missing smidgeon of
overall resolution. But when heard on its own, the
YA201 impresses listeners as the accomplished, polished, well-balanced performer it is.
The best CD players in the $2500–$4000 range
routinely uncover hidden levels of information in familiar CDs, but the amazing thing is that Rega’s sub$1000 Apollo player does the same thing, and almost
as effectively as premium-priced players do. The Rega
offers much greater transparency, sharper focus, and
better resolution than other players we’ve heard at its
price. Yet for all its definition, the Apollo has a delicate, almost feathery way of handling high-frequency
details, plus foundational bass that is rock-solid and
beautifully controlled.
Completing System Five are a pair of British
Spendor S8e two-way floorstanders, which, as TAS
reviewer Sallie Reynolds pointed out, are “among the
heirs to the BBC true monitors of yore.” The S8e is not
Spendor’s most expensive S-series model, but it may
be the best-balanced speaker in the range. The S8es
do all things well, offering what Reynolds termed “gorgeous midrange and treble,” and “clean, clear, dramatic bass.” Add to these virtues seamless driver integration, fine imaging and soundstaging, and the ability
to play loudly without strain, and you have a speaker
that’s easy to love and live with over time. The only
caveats are that the S8es can’t do the bottom 3/4ths
of an octave of low bass, and that they like, as
Reynolds says, “a few extra watts.” But overall, this
speaker’s magic-per-dollar quotient is high.
Drawing on the strengths of three truly special
components, System Five takes listeners well down
the road toward top-tier sound—and for less than the
price of a not-so-nice used car.
Considerations: The Spendor S8es offer ample bass,
but low-bass aficionados might want some bass reinforcement. To supplement the S8es, try adding a REL
Q108e subwoofer (reviewed in TAS 156).
The YBA YA201 is a fine solid-state amplifier, but
for those who prefer tube-powered front ends for their
added harmonic richness, consider Vincent’s SV-236
hybrid integrated amplifier (reviewed in TAS 156).
The Rega Apollo is an exceptional player, but one
area where more costly players can beat it is in reproduction of front-to-back depth cues. If you crave this
quality, and are willing to trade off some detail and resolution to get it, consider YBA Design’s $1499 YC201
CD player (reviewed in this issue).
System Six: $65OO
Naim Nait 5i integrated amplifier
Review, AVguide
Rega Apollo CD player
Review pending
Acoustic Zen Adagio loudspeakers
Review, Issue 162
rom the outset, we planned to
base our top budget system on
Acoustic Zen’s exceptional
Adagio loudspeaker, and to help
those speakers achieve optimal
sound in a still-affordable system, we
turned once more to the same Naim Nait
5i integrated amplifier used in System
Four. What makes this match work is the
fact that the Adagios are easy to drive,
fairly sensitive, and—in our experience—
surprisingly responsive when powered by
really good small amplifiers. And the Naim
is good—so good, in fact, that it easily
holds its own even in lofty company (for
example, TAS Editor-in-Chief Robert Harley
once recommended a system that paired
the Naim with an $11,700 pair of Wilson
Audio Sophia loudspeakers!).
For our source component, we again
chose Rega’s Apollo CD player. Our
thought: The Apollo is surpassed only by
players that cost substantially more.
This brings us to Acoustic Zen’s beautifully-made, three-driver, two-way Adagio
transmission-line loudspeakers. The
Adagios’ strengths parallel those of the
Spendor S8es, but go further to achieve
better bass extension (down to about
30Hz), more expansive dynamics, and
even higher levels of sonic purity. TAS
reviewer Sallie Reynolds said, “The
Adagios are so free of distortion that
sounds usually lost in ‘noise’—soft
sounds that get masked all too easily—
were coming through.” Like the Rega CD
player, the Adagios push the edges of the
high-resolution envelope hard, yet they
remain, notes Reynolds, “tolerant if not
completely forgiving of badly recorded
music.” The beauty is that the Adagios
give listeners more of what they buy good
recordings for, yet without punishing them
with strident, rough edges. Reynolds
adds that the Acoustic Zens “handle full
orchestras better than any speakers I
have had in my house.” One small note of
caution: Because the Adagios sound
unstressed at high volume levels you may
be tempted to play them more loudly than
is wise. But that, as they say, is a highquality problem to have.
System Six dazzles listeners with the
pure, undistorted sound of live music, giving a very satisfying taste of what highend audio is all about.
Considerations: Give the Acoustic Zens a
minimum of 100 hours of break-in for
maximum openness, and be aware, during setup, that they are extremely heavy
(ask a friend to help you position them).
We think you’ll like what the Rega
Apollo does, but for even higher performance (at a considerably higher
price) try Musical Fidelity’s A5 CD player
with vacuum tube output stage
(reviewed in TAS 155).
The Naim does a lot with its 50 watts
per channel, but for more power (or the
harmonic characteristics of a tube-powered front end) try Vincent’s 100Wpc SV236 hybrid integrated amplifier (reviewed
in TAS 156).
equipment report
DALI IKON 6 Loudspeaker
Affordable excellence from one of Denmark’s finest speaker companies
Robert E. Greene
hate small speakers,” a
famous audiophile-recording producer once
said to me, and who
could fail to understand
his point? For decades, the high end
seemed to think that the way to make an
entry-level speaker was to offer the top
two-thirds of a speaker that would have
been good if its bottom third were added
back in. Not the DALI IKON 6. Its
$1600 price may be modest, but it is a
substantial floorstander that never
sounds small in any negative way.
The first thing I listened to was
Barenboim’s Tristan und Isolde [Teldec].
Its brooding Wagnerian darkness and
occasionally overpowering intensity all
came through on the IKON 6. At last, an
affordable speaker with heft and guts!
The bass and dynamics allow orchestral
music to have real power, and they let
rock music rock out, too.
While it is the bass and dynamics
that separate the IKON 6 most obviously from the mini-monitors of similar
price, the treble is where the IKON 6
most obviously exhibits innovation.
Because here you’ll find the unique DALI
dome/ribbon hybrid tweeter that was
originally developed for the company’s
far more expensive Euphonia line.
And very successful it is. Guitars, for
example, have the combination of precision and treble snap they have in real life,
without any nastiness. And high percussion is unusually convincing. The top
notes of the piano also have their natural
plangency. And though the treble actually rises somewhat on the “hottest” axis, it’s
only a problem if you aim the speakers directly
at your listening position. Toeing the speakers
slightly out will largely if not quite entirely
bring it down to smooth and flat. (In my
experience, DALI speakers are designed for
listening without toe-in). The IKON 6 puts
quite a bit of high-frequency energy into the
room—wide dispersion is one of DALI’s
mottos—so you will probably want to have
your room quite “soft” acoustically. But
within that context, the intrinsic sound of
the treble is excellent.
The IKON 6 really delivers the goods
dynamically. DALI gives a figure of 111dB as
a maximum SPL. While I did not push to
levels nearly that high, the IKON 6 is effortless sounding; I was getting realistic orchestral dynamics with no sign of incipient stress.
Try that with a mini-monitor! And the
IKON 6 is high sensitivity—91dB/1W/1m.
I was using one of my usual high-powered
amplifiers, but it was never working hard. A
few watts will already get you rocking, and
one can even use this speaker with an SET. It
is a benign amplifier load, too, according to
the manufacturer. If you have yet to make
your fortune, here is a speaker that will run
fine off an inexpensive receiver. And the
IKON 6 is ideal for those who want to experiment with the sound of tube classics like the
Quad II (old or resuscitated) or Marantz 8B.
No speaker, and certainly no inexpensive speaker, is really completely neutral,
and the IKON 6 is not without sonic character, having, as it does, a forwardness in the
midrange as well as in the treble as I noted
above. Although the speaker’s overall balance is quite smooth, the midrange is projected a bit in the mix. This may be a deliberate choice. While using a multi-thousand
dollar EQ like the Z Systems with a budget
speaker might seem odd, I could not resist
pulling down the mid (and the middle-tohigh-treble) a bit. And I did prefer the
result, even when the EQ was with an inexpensive analog device from DOD. For many
equipment report
The IKON 6 is surprisingly detailed for what is,
after all, almost a mass-market-priced speaker
people this may not be a major point,
nor perhaps even a disadvantage. After
all, British reviewers have managed to
turn this kind of sound into an apparent virtue by semantics: code word
“agile,” for which read “a little leaner
in the low mids and upper bass than it
really ought to be.”
In any case, the midrange-forward
character is not extreme in the IKON 6,
but it is there. I suppose that people who
are involved in midband neutrality
above all else, whose main and almost
only goal is audio life is absolute perfection of the soprano voice (and I was once,
to some extent, one of these) may instead
decide to spend this kind of money on
the LS3/5a or one of its derivatives and
successors, with their nearly perfect
midrange, even at the penalty of giving
up realistic dynamics and bass extension.
The IKON 6s do not plumb the very
bottom octave to any extent. This is,
after all, a middle-sized speaker with two
6.5" woofers. But the port tuning (the
port is huge) is at 36Hz, and the speaker
goes firmly down to around 40Hz in
room, enough to give solidity to piano
sound and orchestral music, as well as
most rock. To the very small extent that
the IKON 6s sound lightweight at all,
one is really hearing the midrange
prominence. Certainly one is again in
another world here from the mini-monitors, whatever their midrange virtues.
Watch out for Allison effect,
though. Like all floorstanders, the
IKON 6 needs careful position to avoid
creating a hole somewhere in the midbass. This is nothing to do with the
IKON 6 as such—it’s just acoustics.
Careful placement is always good. Note,
too, that the IKON 6 is sensitive to the
listener’s vertical position, and the best
sound may require tilting the speaker, in
my case back slightly to match my listening height and distance. When you
have it right, you’ll know it. Images
lock in and tonality is optimized. The
IKON 6s, like all wide dispersion speakers, needs some room to the sides to realize their full imaging potential. Away
from walls, they do the vanishing and
soundstaging tricks of narrow-fronted
speakers very nicely, while retaining
good center focus.
To return to the sensitivity question, there is at least some evidence
that a certain dynamic linearity at low
levels is attached to drivers with high
sensitivity. Whether this is an overriding concern is a question for each
listener, but speakers that have high
sensitivity might also be expected to
equipment report
be linear at very low levels, which
some people believe is connected to
perceived detail. But for whatever reason the IKON 6 does provide a
detailed picture of things, such as the
intricacies of piano note decay, the little rings and shifts attached to the
dying of the tone, and is surprisingly
detailed for what is, after all, almost a
mass-market-priced speaker.
Of course, it would be more than a
little extraordinary if a speaker at this
price point offered anything like the
performance of speakers many times the
cost. And switching back to my Harbeth
M40 or to the now discontinued DALI
Grand did give a more neutral and
smoother sound, increased coherence
and refinement, more bottom-octave
extension, and all the other things that
people who spend much more money
expect, and sometimes even get.
On the other hand, to my ears, the
IKON 6 gets a lot closer than one might
suppose. With careful placement and
setup (and for a balance freak like me a
little reduction of the mid-prominence
and a mild treble cut) the results are a
lot closer to the more expensive designs
than most speakers in the IKON 6’s
price range.
The whole thing is rather surprising. These speakers are manufactured
not in China but in DALI’s own
European factory—and DALI also has to
deal with the decimated dollar when it
comes to U.S. pricing. Yet here they are:
amazing quality, and a true bargain for
the price. As I listened to the 6’s effortlessly reproducing the orchestral music
of Rachmaninoff and Richard Strauss, I
thought how power, substance, and clarity really matter with the orchestral
music of the late 19th and early 20th
centuries. If these sonic qualities are
similarly meaningful to you, I think you
will like these speakers very well,
indeed, just as I did.
Type: 3-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: Two 6.5" wood-fiber
cone woofers, one 1" soft-textile dome
tweeter, one .75" x 1.75" ribbon supertweeter
Frequency response: 37Hz–30kHz
Sensitivity: 91.5dB
Impedance: 6 ohms
Recommended amplifier power: 25–150 watts
Dimensions: 7.5" x 39.4" x 13"
Weight: 41 lbs.
3957 Irongate Road
Bellingham, Washinton 98226
(360) 733-4446
[email protected]
Price: $1600
equipment report
A Cable Survey
On the Upgrade Trail? Winning wires from Crystal Cable, Nordost,
and TARA Labs
Neil Gader
he high-end pastime known as “upgrading” comes as naturally to an
audiophile as breathing in and out. While no one category can be singled
out as the most cost-effective upgrade, cables—so easy to swap—might
be the most instantly gratifying. Even though some of my colleagues consider wire-reviewing about as much fun as a sleep-over at Camp Gitmo, I
enjoy the process. The cables assembled here, from Crystal Cable, Nordost, and
TARA Labs, all have pedigrees that are unassailable. And upgraders take note—they
each hit significantly different price points. Please also consider that the cables were
tested as speaker-wire/interconnect tag teams. They were designed as partners, and
that’s generally how they tend to be sold.
Crystal Cable: CrystalSpeak Micro and CrystalConnect Micro Interconnect
rystal Cable of the Netherlands
describes its wire as “micro-sized,”
and it ain’t kidding. Jewel-like, this
skinny-mini could be mistaken for piano
wire, and if you’re not careful it will tan-
gle as easily as a necklace from
Cartier or Tiffany.
Preconceptions about physical size aside, the CrystalSpeak
Micro plays big and clean. Like a
sonic windshield wiper it sweeps
the soundstage clear of dust and
grime. Orchestral images snap
into focus, and the sensation of
pace and speed is immediately
apparent. Tonally, the Micro
combo is midrange-neutral with a
little lift in the treble and lag in
the bass. It’s ultra-swift in transient response with a turbine-like
smoothness that rhythmically
propels the music forward, as if
tempos had been increased. There is no
blurring or smearing of notes, even when
Evgeny Kissin unleashes a series of lightning-strike piano arpeggios or summons
a swirl of harmonics from his Steinway
during Glinka’s The Lark [RCA].
However, there’s a region in the treble where the Micro suggests a modest
coloration. It can be heard in the harmonic structure of a voice like that of a
cappella artist Laurel Massé. A bleached,
silver quality overlays the fabric of her
vocals; it implies “detail,” but unless your
speaker is rolled in the treble, the added
presence isn’t welcome. Also the Micro’s
not as authoritative in the bass as I’d like,
and at the lowest volume levels there’s
some loss of character in instruments like
tympani, bassoon, or acoustic bass.
In terms of soundstage perspective
the Micros always sounded as if the
microphones were a couple of inches
closer to the orchestra or soloist—an
impression that slightly diminished
the reverberant nature of larger
acoustic spaces. Soundstage width was
excellent, but, while depth is better
than average, I found myself wanting
more-complex layering of string sections. On balance, however, the Micros
are arguably one of the most transparent cables I’ve heard to date.
Nordost Baldur Speaker
Cables and Baldur
s the most affordable cables in the
survey the Baldurs performed
uncommonly well. They were evenly
balanced, with the tonal composure and
midrange solidity that I’m so fond of
with Nordost wire. Baldur improves on
Blue Heaven in every respect,1 and by
virtue of its greater resolution and transparency draws ever closer to Valhalla.
Whereas the Blue Heaven can sound a
bit whitish and hair-trigger, Baldur has
greater effortlessness, with a welcoming
1 A budget staple of my reference system for years.
equipment report
midrange warmth and treble bloom. It
imparts a firmer more extended low-frequency undercarriage which benefits a
wide range of orchestral material. And
with its class-leading low-level resolution I found myself isolating the smallest acoustic details in very specific areas
of the soundstage. Baldur also has a buttery way with transients, making them
rounder, without etch or hardness.
Tonally, Baldur has a small
emphasis or “push” in the
midrange that can energize
violin sections a mite. Also,
during Glinka’s Russian
and Ludmilla Overture from
Reiner’s Chicago [RCA],
the violin section pushes
forward as if gently spotlit. Soundstaging in general was solid, but the rear of
the soundstage lacked some
definition, and various
orchestral sections often sounded a little
crowded together.
Perhaps my most interesting conclusion during this survey was the way each
of the cables seemed to emphasize a different treble coloration. For example,
when Emmylou Harris hits the upper
octave of her range (in her duet with
Mark Knopfler from All The
Roadrunning [Warner Bros.]), the
Nordost closes down slightly, as if
there’s a narrow ridge in the upper frequencies where it peaks and settles back
down. Likewise, brass sections tend to
congeal a bit, and celli had a more wiry
All in all, the Baldur may not be as
focused as the Crystal Micro or as
weighty as the TARA RSC Air 1, but its
possesses a rewarding balance of criteria
(and extreme affordability) that makes it
tough to beat on this playing field.
TARA Labs RSC Air 1
Speaker Cables and RSC
Air 1 Series 2 Interconnects
he TARA Labs RSC cabling arrived
on my doorstep in the wake of a transcendent listening experience with
TARA’s brutally expensive Omega
equipment report
cables—an event that has
proved to be both a blessing
and a curse.2 With expectations
running well into the red, how
would the RSC Air 1 measure up? In
fact, I can hear a great deal of Omega in
the voicing of the RSC, particularly in the
effortless way that it plays louder, hits
dynamics a little harder, and digs a little
deeper. Of this trio it’s also the mellowest
wire, imparting a resonant, darker character. This is an appealing trait if you enjoy
cello and bass viols like I do.
Complementing its lower-midrange tonal
performance, the RSC Air 1 is also a specialist in larger-scale dynamics and seems
to glory in the midbass octaves. Of all the
cables I’ve listened to recently, with the
exception of the preternatural Omega, the
RSC exhibits a dynamism that verges on
the propulsive. It has a way of extracting
the micro-dynamic “touch” (even in the
lower octaves) heard on pianist Warren
Bernhardt’s So Real [DMP]. And its open
character seems to find “air” in the tightest spaces between notes and images.
But unlike the more forward Crystal
and the Nordost, the TARA establishes
a different relationship with the orchestra/soloist and the venue. Its soundstage
is the most expansive
(depth and width). Instrumental images
seem more settled onto the stage, like a
genuine performance where you can
sense the dampening qualities of the hall
as it reflects and diffuses reverberant
sound. The trait was also consistent
during Dianne Reeves’ “One For My
Baby” from the Good Night, and Good
Luck soundtrack [Warner], where the
ambience retrieval of acoustic piano and
bass becomes thicker, the macro- and
micro-elements of the performance
more fully revealed.
The TARA is dynamically lively on
vocals of all stripes. But there is still a
dry quality to Emmylou Harris’ vocal
during “If This Is Goodbye.” It never
grows strident, but there is a bit of fine
white grit powdering the treble—a
characteristic that all the cables of this
survey shared to varying degrees.
It’s an American pastime, crowning
winners and vanquishing losers whenever competitors take the field. But in all
What’s in a Cable?
rystal Cable’s Micro Series (developed in cooperation with Siltech) uses multiple silver conductors and a clever innovation—in order to increase surface
area (and improve current flow) Crystal injects gold to fill the gaps between
conductors. Isolation is achieved with a triple wrap of Kapton film, and finished with
a silver-braided shield, wrapped in a Teflon jacket. Crystal also uses an ingenious
splitter that allows the user to add cable length or swap terminations (or go from single wire to biwire) with the twist of the splitter ring.
Nordost’s Baldur is one of three models that make up Nordost’s new Norse line.
It brings reference-line technology (think Valhalla) to down-to-earth prices. The 26
individual silver-on-copper conductors are manufactured and insulated using
Nordost’s proprietary Class 1 FEP extrusion process and widely spaced into
Nordost’s trademark flat-ribbon style. The interconnects use Nordost’s Micro-Mono
filament technology with twin silver-plated copper conductors.
TARA Labs’ RSC Speaker cables are designed around 10+ gauge 8N copper with
24 individually insulated conductors (48 for each channel) helixed around Teflon airtubes in separate positive and negative runs for each channel. The Series 2 version
of the RSC Air 1 interconnect includes upgrades to the Air-Tube core technology that
is central to TARA Labs’ designs. It includes an increased separation between the
shield and the central Air-Tube that houses the OF8N copper conductors.
2 The blessing is that I heard them; the curse is that I can’t afford them!
good conscience, I would
have no problem living with
any of these wires for the long
term. Although they have differences,
they are all uniformly excellent
upgrades. There are no losers in this
bunch, but there is, happily, one winner—you.
Sota Cosmos Series III turntable; SME V
pick-up arm; Shure V15VxMR cartridge;
MBL 1531, Sony DVP-9000ES, and
Simaudio Moon Supernova digital players;
Plinius 9200 and MBL 7008 integrated
amplifiers; ProAc Studio 140, ATC
SCM20-2, MBL 121, and Pioneer 2EX
loudspeakers; REL B3 subwoofer;
Synergistic Research Spec REL interconnect and power cord; Vitrual Dynamics
Master, Wireworld Silver Electra & Kimber
Palladian power cords; Richard Gray line
conditioners; Sound Fusion
turntable stand
29 Sunrise Lane
Upper Saddle River, New Jersey 07458
(201) 785-1055
Prices: CrystalSpeak Micro, $2600/3m
($2725, biwire); CrystalConnect Micro,
$599/1m, $1119/2m
550 Clover Lane
Ashland, Oregon 97520
(541) 488-6465
Prices: RSC Air One, $2350/10' pr
($1950/8' pr); RSC Air 1 Series 2
Interconnects, $995/1m, $1195/2m
200 Homer Avenue
Ashland, Maine 01721
(508) 881-1116
Prices: Baldur speaker, $1379.99 3/m;
interconnect, $499.99/1m, $674.99/2m
equipment report
YBA Design YA201 Integrated Amplifier
and YC201 CD player
Listening with the eyes…as well as the ears
Chris Martens
he French high-end audio
firm YBA, which takes its
name from owner and
André, has just launched
YBA Design—a brand-within-a-brand
whose components are performance oriented, yet affordably priced. YBA
Design replaces YBA’s former Audio
Refinement line, offering components
developed in France, but manufactured
in Asia to hold costs down. In terms of
aesthetics and sound quality, however,
YBA Design products are significantly
more ambitious than the Audio
Refinement models they replace. Two
great examples are the YC201 CD player and YA201 integrated amplifier—the
first YBA Design components to reach
our shores.
Even before you hear these units,
they make a strong impression with their
exotic appearance. All YBA Design components share common chassis sizes and
faceplate designs; to add a touch of mystery, YBA deliberately omits traditional
silk-screened product names, model
numbers, and switch-function labels.
Powered down, the units look nearly
identical, with nothing to detract from
their sculptural simplicity save for the
logo, a stylized letter “Y.” Once the units
are powered up, their normally blackedout display windows are bathed in soft
blue-gray light, with graphics and text
that make component identity and control-button functions clear.
The designers at YBA clearly
burned midnight oil to get the appearance of its components just so, an effort
the firm’s Web site explains through this
slogan: “We also listen with the eyes….”
When I first saw the YC201 and
YA201, I found them so beautiful (and
beautifully made) that I thought they
surely would cost a small fortune. But
they don’t. Selling for $1649 apiece,
both are highly credible mid-tier offerings. Over time I’ve come to perceive
the amp as the stronger performer of the
two; but let’s start by discussing the CD
player, since its sonic strengths form the
core of what is also special and right
about the amplifier.
The YC201 is a 24-bit/192kHz
upsampling CD player whose most distinctive characteristics are terrific
midrange finesse and liquidity—a certain smooth, urbane, soulful sound that
sweeps listeners into the flow of the
music. The player is so beguiling, I
would sit down planning to listen for
just a few minutes, only to look up and
realize I was halfway through a disc and
completely engrossed in the music.
Interestingly, the YC201’s midrange
strengths are not born of exceptionally
high resolution. Oh, the resolution is
certainly good, perhaps very good, but it
is not the main event. The midrange
excellence flows from an elusive combination of factors, including timbral
accuracy, tonal richness, a hint of
warmth, and the ability to allow sounds
to emerge from and recede back into a
quiet noise floor in a strikingly realistic
way. More than many players in this
price range, the YC201 reminds listeners that air is a fluid medium, in which
the reverberations of various instruments interact in complex ways, much
like the ripples generated when a handful of pebbles is thrown into a still pool.
Put all these qualities together and you
have a player whose sound is sumptuous
and seductive.
This is quite clear on a high-quality
recording of complex orchestral material, such as David Chesky’s Concerto for
Violin and Orchestra from Area 31
[Chesky]. The first movement starts
with a complicated rhythmic theme carried by tympani, handclaps, and a
celeste, and then unfolds into an angular
and yet strangely sweet opening statement from the solo violin. The YC201
would highlight, in turn, the earthy
punch of the tympani, the sharp “pop”
of the handclaps, and the mysterious
ring of the celeste, and then shift gears
to nail the incisive sound of the violin.
At the same time, it did an excellent job
of portraying the decay of the various
instrumental voices within the reverberant recording venue, and an exceptional
job of reproducing soundstage depth
cues, so that the soundstage seemed to
extend far behind the loudspeakers,
equipment report
almost making me feel as though I could
get up from my chair and walk out into
the stage.
My favorable assessment was tempered by two small but noticeable sonic
acoustics of the recording space became
clear and the guitar seemed almost eerily present. Increased volume levels also
made for clearer low-level dynamic
contrasts, and an across-the-board
A certain smooth, urbane, soulful sound that
sweeps listeners into the flow of the music
shortcomings. First, the YC201 lacks a
bit of the resolution that today’s best
mid-priced CD players achieve. Rega’s
sub-$1000 Apollo, which I had on hand
for comparison, retrieved significantly
more musically relevant information.
Second, the YC201 slightly softened
details and dynamics at the frequency
extremes—a characteristic that may be
part of the player’s almost eerie smoothness, but that was not, strictly speaking,
accurate. Neither of these is a damning
flaw by any stretch of the imagination,
but together they made me think the
YC201 was leaving some sonic potential
on the discs unfulfilled.
The YA201 amplifier is a 100Wpc
solid-state integrated design whose
sonic strengths parallel those of the
YC201, but with two important differences. First, at its best, it offers substantially more transparency and resolution;
second, it delivers crisper response at
upper and lower frequency extremes. I
say “at its best,” because the YA201
could sound almost like two different
amplifiers, depending on playback volume. At low-to-moderate levels, it
sounded pleasing, but overly polite,
with tone colors that seemed somewhat
washed out. But with the volume turned
up, the amplifier’s character changed
dramatically for the better. With added
volume tone colors became richer and
more vibrant, and instrumental and
vocal timbres were infused with life.
One recording that crystallized this
impression was Philip Hii’s classical
guitar rendition of the Chopin
Nocturnes [DSG]. At low levels, both
Hii’s guitar and the acoustics of the
recording venue sounded flat and a bit
like high-end “elevator music.” But
with the volume turned up, the
improvement in focus and resolution.
As for tonal characteristics, down
low, the YA201 sounded hearty and
warm yet clear, though without the last
word in low-frequency transient
response or “traction” (that is, the ability to control woofers firmly and precisely). Several class D amplifiers I’ve evaluated lately offer better bass performance than the YA201 does, though I
think this amp could hold its own
against like-priced integrated amplifiers and separates (e.g., the NAD C
162/C 272 pair). Highs were delicate,
sweet, and pleasantly extended, though
the YA201 did not provide the razorsharp treble transient response and
transparency that some listeners crave
and that certain higher-priced amplifiers deliver. Even so, the YA201’s treble characteristics make it somewhat
forgiving of overly bright associated
components, while still preserving a
healthy measure of clarity.
As with the YC201, the broad center of the midrange is where the YA201
shines, delineating layers of musical
subtleties in ways that make many midpriced components sound simplistic.
What makes the YBA’s midrange special
is an extraordinary expressiveness. For
example, it reveals how the notes of Paul
Winter’s saxophone on Icarus [Epic, LP]
begin with a rise in pressure at the
mouthpiece, followed by initial bursts of
sound as the reed starts to vibrate, and
finally bloom as the air column inside
the sax begins to resonate. Granted,
many good integrated amplifiers catch
these distinctions to some degree, but
not with this kind of assuredness on
inner details. This midrange sophistication and richness make the YA201 an
awful lot of amplifier for the money.
One minor glitch: My review sample
came with faulty control logic, making it
respond to remote control buttons meant
for use with the YC201 CD player. YBA
will probably have this problem straightened out by the time you read this.
Summing up, YBA Design’s YC201
is a lovely CD player to look at and one
blessed with seductive midrange sound.
The only thing holding it from class
leadership is stiff competition from new
mid-priced entries. The YA201 integrated amp, on the other hand, is a class
leader because it offers the same
midrange magic as the YC201, plus
greater transparency and better response
at the frequency extremes. Most importantly, these components convey real
musical joie de vivre.
YC201 CD player
Outputs: One stereo analog (RCA), one
digital (coaxial)
Dimensions: 15.35" x 5.1" x 15.35"
Weight: 25.35 lbs.
YA201 integrated amplifier
Power output: 100 Wpc @ 8 Ohms
Inputs: Six stereo analog (RCA)
Dimensions: 15.35" x 5.1" x 15.35"
Weight: 33.07 lbs.
Rega Apollo CD player; Musical Fidelity
Tri-Vista SACD player; Wilson Benesch
Full Circle analog system; Musical
Surroundings Phonomena phonostage;
Epos ELS 303 and Paradigm Reference
Signature S8 loudspeakers; RGPC power
conditioner, Cardas interconnect and
speaker cables
156 Lawrence Paquette Industrial Drive
Champlain, New York 12919
(800) 633-9352
Prices: $1649 each
equipment report
Aerial Acoustics Model 9 Loudspeaker
The latest offering from designer Michael Kelly delivers the goods
Jacob Heilbrunn
cientists say that we’re not supposed to
anthropomorphize objects, which is a fancy
term for ascribing human qualities to things
like cars or computers. But in the case of the
Aerial Model 9 loudspeaker, it’s pretty hard
to resist that temptation. Like its designer Michael Kelly,
a veteran loudspeaker builder, the 9 is tall and slim, and
reserved but surprisingly powerful.
I can say this with some confidence because when I
first met Kelly I was slightly apprehensive. Would he
have the strength to help me carry the two imposing
boxes containing his new babies into my living room?
Not to worry. Kelly easily helped me heft the not-inconsiderable weight of the Aerials into my room. Similarly,
I wondered, at first glance, whether the Model 9s with
their relatively small drivers would be able to pack a
punch. Score another one for Kelly. They delivered the
musical goods in spades. Although it’s imperfect, the
multi-driver tower Model 9 represents a big advance over
the venerable 10T, and I would rank it among the most
The first thing that leaps out
at you is how much shrewd
engineering went into the 9
enjoyable loudspeakers I’ve heard. The Model 9, which is
the little brother of the 20T, is an extremely coherent
speaker that doesn’t err to any extreme. It’s calm, controlled, unflappable, simply a pleasure to listen to. It
does very little to the signal, but that gives you the
chance to tailor the sound to your liking.
The first thing that leaps out at you is how much
shrewd engineering went into the Model 9. Kelly has
gone to some lengths to keep the front of the speaker as narrow as possible. This not only helps the
speaker disappear quite nicely, but also, as he
explained, helps avoid reflections. He’s also created a
deep cabinet to control resonances. The cabinet itself
is extremely inert to avoid, as much as possible, colorations that impinge upon the sound. Of course, it’s
impossible to eliminate resonances completely, but
equipment report
the Model 9 goes a long way toward
accomplishing that goal. Kelly is a big
fan of using spikes to tighten up the
bass; he has constructed a special base for
the loudspeaker and also supplies footers
in case you have delicate floors. If you
do, use ’em. The weight of the loudspeaker will plunge the spikes through
hardwood. Kelly, like many other speaker designers, also uses a port that fires
downward onto the floor for more constant loading.
When Kelly set up the speakers in
my living room, he was far from satisfied. The bass was boomy and the
sound got aggressive when we turned
up the volume. He was frustrated. I
wasn’t. My usual space for listening is
in the basement, which was being gutted. The living room was almost a per-
fect square, about the worst area you
could devise for a stereo. What’s more,
the speakers weren’t really broken in,
which compounded matters. After I ran
them in for a week, they began to sing
(notice that I said “began”—it takes
hundreds of hours before they’re really
ready for primetime). Later on, I moved
them downstairs into the basement,
where they went from sounding good
to superb.
Having lived with planars for such a
long time, I was eager to hear the raw
power of dynamic drivers. The Model 9
did not disappoint. Whether I was listening to Led Zeppelin, the Rolling
Stones, or Lil’ Kim, the speakers displayed excellent authority. Drum and
cymbals came through with pop and sizzle, driving the music forward propul-
sively. The splendid linear character of
the speaker meant that no one frequency
spectrum overshadowed another, particularly on rock, which could reach deafening levels on the Aerials with no sense
of strain.
One reason that the speakers played
so effortlessly was that they are quite
high in sensitivity at 90dB. There’s
something to be said for a higher-efficiency loudspeaker—I had the volume
about half of where I usually do on the
big Magnepans. After experimenting
with both tubes and solid-state, I ended
up running all tubes on the Aerials. The
combination of the Messenger preamp
and the VTL 750s on the Aerials was
sublime. The midrange was creamy and
luscious without being bloated.
Listening to the Aerials, I was riveted by
equipment report
I would rank it among the most enjoyable
loudspeakers I’ve heard
their combination of detail and smoothness. I came away in disbelief, not only
of the quality of the amazingly musical
products VTL makes but also of the neutrality of the Aerial loudspeakers. They
provided a translucent window into
whatever equipment preceded them.
So well did the speakers image that
you can hear precisely when a singer has
shifted a few inches from the microphone. This isn’t the kind of thing that
I obsess about, but it does let you know
that the speaker is doing a great job on
overall image stability, which, in the
case of the Aerials, was rock-solid. The
soundstage itself is not forward with the
Aerials—it hangs right between the
speakers and can billow into a vast canvas, when a recording calls for it. The
crunch of an orchestral string section
playing fortissimo had an undeniable
heft to it that made it sound achingly
close to the real thing. When you hear
that kind of dynamic oomph come out
of nowhere, it has a jump factor that’s
always a thrill. Ears aquiver, I almost
shot out of my seat when I heard it.
Consistent with the Aerials linearity, the highs never sounded etched or
astringent. On the contrary, the Aerials
soared into the upper parts of the hemisphere with great sang-froid. Some
might feel that the highs were rolled
off. I didn’t. The highs on the Aerials
were integrated into the rest of the
sound, which, I think, is exactly how it
should be. The tweeter should never
stick out, even if it initially sounds
more exciting that way. After an hour or
so, it will sear your ears. I wholly
admired the fact that it was impossible
to hear where the tweeter was crossed
over, and that it didn’t appear to rise in
volume as it ascended in frequency.
Having worked overtime to tame the
Magnepan ribbon tweeter, I’m always
wary of a hot treble that can really
impact the midrange—that is, obscure
it—to a greater extent than you might
think possible.
No, my nit to pick with the Aerial is
in a different area: bass. While the midbass was taut, I never felt that the downward-firing port was an unmitigated
blessing. In my living room, it was very
difficult to tame the bass, but I chalked
that up to lousy room dimensions. In the
basement, which is significantly larger,
the bass was indeed tighter, but not
beyond reproach. There is a slight tendency to bloat and boom in the nether
regions, and I suppose Herculean efforts
at finding the right spot for room cancellations might have solved the problem. But I never could. Don’t get me
wrong: On rock music, the added
emphasis supplied by the port was a
guilty pleasure. But on classical and
jazz, I wasn’t as convinced. The port didn’t swallow up the midrange or treble,
but it was a mite intrusive at times.
Alas, this, I suspect, is one of the
inevitable drawbacks of the double-duty
that loudspeakers have to play nowadays
since home theater has become such an
important part of the marketplace. My
own druthers are for sealed loudspeakers
and subwoofers—I want them to sound
as tight as possible.
It’s also the case that the Model 9
was not as open, transparent, and fast as
the Magnepans or SoundLab loudspeakers. Nor did the Model 9 have as big a
front-to-back soundstage as those two
critters. But then what does? The tradeoff—ah, that ugly word that always rears
its head in the audio world—is that
dynamic speakers have more pop and
slam than their planar brethren. Plus,
they’re much easier to drive and don’t
take up the space of planar behemoths.
However much I may remain addicted to planars, I was bowled over by the
overall performance of the Aerials. I’m
hard-pressed to think of a better value,
which is what Kelly seeks to supply. He’s
not interested in creating megabuck
loudspeakers (depending on finish, the
Model 9 ranges from $8800–$9800).
What he supplies is decades of hardearned engineering experience, coupled
with a rock-solid line of products.
That’s nothing to be sneezed at: a
few years ago, before I was a reviewer, I
called Aerial with a question about a
subwoofer that wasn’t behaving properly. Kelly answered the phone and
promptly analyzed the problem in the
most affable manner. I was extremely
impressed both by his precise diagnosis
and his professional courtesy.
With Aerial’s long history of producing and standing behind its products, I
have no hesitation about recommending
the Model 9; it recommends itself. When
an acquaintance who isn’t an audiophile
but loves music recently dropped over to
hear the speakers, he sat down and listened. And listened. Then he looked at
me and asked, “Where can I buy them?”
How much more needs to be said?
Type: Three-way, six-driver floorstanding
Driver complement: Four 7.1" bilaminate
woofers; one 6" bilaminate midrange;
one 1" titanimum-dome tweeter
Frequency response: 30Hz–22kHz
Sensitivity: 90dB
Nominal impedance: 4 ohms
Recommended amplifiers power: 50–500
Dimensions: 11" x 47.7" x 18.1"
Weight: 116 lbs. (bases: 27 lbs.)
EMM Labs Meitner CDSD Transport and
DCC2 dac/preamp; Messenger preamplifier; Classé Omega monoblock and VTL
750 monoblock amplifiers; Magnepan
20.1 loudspeakers with Mye stands; Jena
Labs cabling and power cords; Shunyata
Hydra-8 power conditioner
100 Research Drive
Wilmington, Massachusetts 01887
(978) 988-1600
Price: Variety of finishes, from smooth
black, $8800 to Titanium Gloss, $9800
equipment report
Cary CD 306 CD/SACD Player
Not another “me-too” player, but one that adds some interesting twists
Robert Harley
ary Audio made a name for
itself with vacuum-tube
power amplifiers, primarily the single-ended triode
variety. Indeed, it was a
passion for SET amplifiers that inspired
Dennis Had to found Cary Audio
Design in 1989. The company now
makes a wide range of tubed and solidstate power amplifiers and preamplifiers, including multichannel units.
With this background rooted in a
nearly 100-year-old technology, it comes
outputs, can be used as a digital upsampling device or as a digital-to-analog
converter for external sources, and even
lets the user select the upsampling rate.
If that weren’t enough, the transport
mechanism is a gorgeous piece of engineering created from scratch by Cary.
Throw in a slew of purist design techniques and high-end parts and you’ve
got the makings of one fascinating player (see sidebar for technical details).
I’ll start with the 306’s CD performance. The player was musically seduc-
Much of the CD 306’s appeal, I think, stems
from its gorgeous rendering of the lowermost
four octaves
as a surprise that Cary Audio has joined
the digital party with an extremely
interesting and sophisticated new
CD/SACD player—the CD 306
reviewed here.
The CD 306 is no ordinary CD player. Rather than a “me-too” unit based on
conventional parts, techniques, and feature sets, the CD 306 adds some interesting twists. The machine plays SACDs
(two-channel), has digital inputs and
tive, yet I find it difficult to describe
why. The player didn’t sound overtly
spectacular in any one area, but exhibited a fundamental musical rightness of
the kind that results in listening sessions
extending well into the night. There was
an ease to the presentation reminiscent
of a great tubed amplifier, although the
CD 306 was anything but “tubey.” The
ease was not the result of an overly
romanticized interpretation or of a soft
sound that puts smoothness ahead of resolution, but rather the result of a tubelike rendering of midrange timbres,
warm and full bass, and spacious soundstaging.
Much of the CD 306’s appeal, I
think, stems from its gorgeous presentation of the lowermost four octaves. The
entire bottom end had a weight,
warmth, and lushness that served as the
foundation of the player’s overall excellence. Acoustic bass had a wonderful
round and resonant quality that conveyed the instrument’s size and construction. Listen to Edgar Myer’s bass on
the disc Skip, Hop & Wobble [Sugar Hill]
with Jerry Douglas and Russ Barenberg.
Through the CD 306, the instrument
was richly textured, harmonically
nuanced, and reproduced with a full
measure of weight and depth. Despite
the CD 306’s tilt toward a warm and
rich bottom end, it was articulate,
detailed, quick, and clean. This wasn’t a
big, sloppy bass that emphasizes weight
at the expense of detail. The 306’s combination of tremendous bottom-end heft
and fullness with precise pitch definition and dynamics was addictive. These
qualities of the 306 were exploited to
equipment report
Features and
he 306 incorporates a host of features that blur the line between conventional product categories. In addition to playing CD and SACD (two-channel
only), the 306 offers digital inputs for
decoding external digital sources. The
306 can thus function as a digital-to-analog converter for up to four digital sources.
Signals connected to these digital inputs
can alternately be routed to one of the
three digital-output jacks, with the 306
performing upsampling in user-selectable
increments. Put in 44.1kHz at the input
and get 44.1kHz, 96kHz, or 192kHz at the
output for decoding by an external digitalto-analog converter. In addition to the
standard digital inputs (AES/EBU, coaxial,
TosLink), the 306 has an i.LINK input for
connection to an SACD machine with
i.LINK output (i.LINK is Sony’s implementation of FireWire [IEEE1394], which in
this case is used to transmit high-resolution digital audio from an SACD player to
the CD 306).
The 306’s upsampling circuit will,
however, most often be used when simply
using the CD 306 as a CD player. You can
select upsampling rates of 96kHz,
192kHz, 384kHz, 512kHz, or 768kHz (in
addition to no upsampling) from the front
panel or remote control. Upsampling is
used only for CDs, not SACDs.
I didn’t understand the front-panel
button marked “2-Ch/Multi-Ch.” As a twochannel-only player, the button seemed
superfluous. The SACD format mandates
that multichannel discs also contain a
two-channel mix; one would expect a twochannel player to default to the two-channel version. (By contrast, many DVD-As are
multichannel only, with a two-channel mix
created on the fly in the player based on
control codes contained on the disc.)
The CD 306 is also unusual in that it
incorporates decoding of High-Definition
Compatible Digital (HDCD) discs. In my
view, HDCD is a worthwhile technology that
should be incorporated in more players.
A large and comprehensive frontpanel display shows all the usual information, as well as the oversampling rate and
whether the disc is a CD, SACD, or HDCDencoded CD. Output is on balanced XLR
jacks and unbalanced RCAs.
the fullest by the BAT VK-600SE
monoblocks and Wilson MAXX 2 loudspeakers, products with stunning bass
presentation in their own right.
It’s also hard to describe the 306’s
sound because it changed with the
upsampling. I found myself using different upsampling ratios depending on the
The CD 306’s HDCD decoding
was a welcome touch. Decoding
HDCD titles brings out a greater sense
of space and low-level detail. This is
particularly true of Keith Johnson’s
recordings on the Reference Recordings label. There are a surprising number of HDCD-encoded discs available
because the Pacific Microsonics Model 1
and Model 2 professional HDCD
encoders are also regarded by many mastering studios as the state-of-the-art in
analog-to-digital conversion.
As great as the 306 sounded on CD,
the player was absolutely spectacular on
SACD. All the qualities I enjoyed about
the 306 with CD were taken to another
level when playing the best-sounding
discs the SACD format has to offer. I’m
invariably disappointed with the SACD
sections of CD/SACD players because
I’ve lived with what is considered by
general consensus to be the state-of-theart in two-channel SACD playback: the
EMM Labs/Meitner DCC2 processor and
CDSD transport, linked by a proprietary
interface and separate clock lines. The
Cary machine was clearly in a different
league compared with other SACD
machines, and sounded much closer to
what I hear from the EMM gear.
Compared with the excellent and beautifully built $3000 Sony SCD-XA9000ES
multichannel player, the CD 306 was
considerably smoother in its rendering of
instrumental timbre and more spacious,
and had more satisfying bass weight and
definition and greater overall clarity. The
SCD-XA9000ES is, however, multichannel and half the price of the Cary.
The EMM Labs gear was a different
story. In my past experience, SACD
playback quality fell into two categories:
the EMM products and everything else.
Ed Meitner’s SACD products were simply better.
In a head-to-head comparison of the
EMM Labs and CD 306 playing very
high-quality SACDs (the TAS/Telarc
sampler, and discs from Chesky and
DMP), I found that the Cary was the
first player in the same company as the
EMM Labs. The EMM had a smoother
and softer treble with a greater sense of
overall ease, but the Cary’s bass was
warmer, fuller, and more musical. I also
thought the Cary surpassed the EMM
on orchestral fortes; the Cary maintained its composure and refinement
during big dynamic swings, while the
EMM tended to harden textures on loud
and complex passages. Significantly, the
CD 306 is the first SACD playback I’ve
heard in my system to challenge the
EMM Labs’ gear.
equipment report
Under the 306’s Hood
ary Audio is one of only six true SACD licensees in the
world. This allows them to buy the dual CD/SACD laser
assembly from Sony and build the transport mechanism from scratch. The transport appears to be quite a piece
of work, at least looking at it from the top through the top
panel’s round glass window that proudly showcases the
gleaming machined-aluminum transport. The sled, drawer,
and other parts are all custom-machined with what appears
to be fine precision.
The chassis is simply stunning. The rounded faceplate
merges with the side and top panels, with no screws visible
from anywhere on the chassis front, sides, bottom, or back.
This structure sits on four machined isolation cones. The
machine exudes taste and class.
The player has two separate decoding chains, one for CD
and one for SACD. Unlike many players that convert SACD’s
Direct Stream Digital (DSD) bitstream into pulse-code modula-
tion (PCM) for conversion to analog by PCM DACs, the DSD bitstream has its own dedicated electronics and DACs. When
playing original DSD recordings through the 306, the signal
never undergoes PCM conversion. This is how the SACD format
should be judged and compared with CD.
The digital signal processing for the upsampling is performed by an Analog Devices ADSP. This chip is used in conjunction with a Pacific Microsonics PMD200 HDCD decoder.
Each of the two signal paths (PCM and DSD) employs four
DACs for fully differential operation. The digital bitstream for
each channel is split into a balanced signal, and then converted to analog with two DACs per channel. This differential operation creates a truly balanced output at the XLR jacks. In CD
players without differential DACs, the single DAC’s output is
split into a balanced signal in the analog domain, adding an
additional active stage to the signal path. An additional advantage of differential DACs is that any noise or distortion com-
equipment report
mon to the DACs will cancel when the signal are eventually summed. This means the
CD 306 has a whopping eight digital-to-analog converters: left +, left –, right +, right –
for the PCM signal path, and an identical configuration of different DACs for the SACD
signal path.
The CD 306 also has eight analog output stages, all of them discrete (no op-amps,
save for the mandatory current-to-voltage converter in the PCM signal path). The analog circuits are direct coupled (no capacitors in the signal path).
The power supply is also impressive. It features two large transformers and all-discrete regulation for the digital and analog circuits (IC regulation is used on the supplies
to the control electronics).
As a result of all this circuitry—two separate signal paths, differential DACs, eight
analog output stages, lots of discrete power-supply regulation—the CD 306 runs very hot.
In fact, this is the warmest-running CD player or digital product I’ve encountered. The
entire chassis acts as a heat sink and is warm to the touch. Power consumption is 65W.
Given the extremely high build-quality, custom transport mechanism, gorgeous metalwork, tweaky design and implementation (the eight DACs, for example), I would have
expected the CD 306 to cost much more than $6000.
It was hard to put my finger on exactly
why I found the CD 306 so musical, but
about its fundamental musicality there
was no doubt. It’s easier to describe what
the Cary CD 306 isn’t: dry, thin, hard,
cold. Find your own antonyms to those
descriptors and that’s what the CD 306
is. In addition, the 306 is the Swiss army
knife of CD players: It upsamples for
output on its analog audio jacks and
upsamples for conversion by an outboard
processor, acts as a digital-to-analog converter for other digital sources, and
decodes HDCD discs. The player is also
gorgeous to look at and use, with metalwork that would be at home in much
more expensive products. Finally, the
attention to detail in the circuit design is
exemplary. The fact that Cary went to
the trouble and expense of eight DACs
and analog output stages so that they
could provide separate and optimized
signal paths for CD and SACD, as well
as fully differential DACs for both formats, says much about the designer’s
commitment to sound quality.
In short, the Cary 306 is highly recommended not just for its sound quality,
features, and build, but also because in
today’s world $6000 for a machine of
this caliber is a stone-cold bargain. &
Type: Two-channel CD and SACD player
Analog outputs: Balanced on XLR jacks,
unbalanced on RCA jacks
Digital inputs: Coaxial (RCA jack),
AES/EBU (XLR jack), TosLink optical,
i.LINK (FireWire)
Digital outputs: Coaxial (RCA jack),
AES/EBU (XLR jack), TosLink optical
Control port: RS232 remote-configuration
Dimensions: 17.75" x 4.5" x 14.5"
Weight: 37 lbs.
Price: $6000
Loudspeakers: Wilson Audio MAXX 2;
Amplification: Balanced Audio
Technologies VK-600SE monoblocks;
Mark Levinson No.326S preamp; Cables
and interconnects: Nordost Valhalla, MIT
Oracle. Power conditioning: Shunyata
Research Hydra-8, Hydra-2, Anaconda and
Python power cords; room by Acoustic
Room Systems
1020 Goodworth Drive
Apex, North Carolina 27539
(919) 355-0010
equipment report
Audio Research 300.2, Classé CA-M400, and
McIntosh MC 501 Power Amplifiers
Why are amplifiers so important?
Tom Martin
ower amplifiers are
perplexing beasts.
From experience I
know that a panel of
listeners can listen to
three different pairs of high-quality speakers and describe the differences between them as “significant” or even “huge.” But that
same panel, when listening to
three amplifiers back to back,
will rarely describe the differences with the kind of force and
magnitude they apply to descriptions of loudspeakers. I don’t
think that is too surprising, given that
the differences among speakers in frequency response, power response, and
phase response are much greater than
those one finds in amplifiers. The perplexing part is that, when you talk to
members of the listening panel over a
beer, you find that they often consider
the differences between amplifiers to be
as important as the differences between
speakers, if not more so. Assuming that
experienced listeners aren’t crazy, you
have to ask: “What about amplifiers is
so important, even if it is subtle?”
test group of amplifiers should have relatively mainstream prices (for high-end
audio that is). While it is interesting to
find that some esoteric and very expensive technology provides unusual benefits, I wanted to think about amplifier
differences in a way that would apply
more generally. Finally, I chose amplifiers with obvious circuit differences, to
maximize the chance that I would find
those important sonic differences.
Representing the traditional class
A/B transistor-amplifier camp for this
session was the Classé CA-M400
My first thought about these monoblocks was
that they sounded rich, warm, and relaxed
Recently, I rounded up a group of
amplifiers to shed some light on this
question. I wanted to work with amplifiers that are relatively high powered,
mainly because my speakers—MBL
101Es—are pretty inefficient (82dB) and
provide a 4-ohm load. With these speakers, I didn’t want clipping behavior to
dominate my listening. I thought the
monoblock. With 400 watts output into
8 ohms, and 800 watts into 4 ohms, the
Classé easily met my definition of highpowered. The CA-M400 retails for
$10,000 per pair, which from my
research was toward the high side of
average for this level of power. Next, I
tested the McIntosh MC 501
monoblock, which is a transistor design
with the unusual feature of having transformer-coupled outputs (as you would
typically find on a tube amp). The MC
501 delivers 500 watts into a 2, 4, or 8
ohm load, and is priced at $9400/pair.
With the burgeoning Class D market
getting some buzz, the Audio Research
300.2 stereo amp seemed a natural.
While ARC calls this a Class-T design
(because it uses the Tri-Path module), in
a broad sense it is a switching amplifier
with similarities to Class D designs. It
delivers 300 watts per channel into 8
ohms, and 500 watts into 4 ohms, and is
comparatively inexpensive at $3995 for
two channels. Finally, I included my reference Musical Fidelity kW 750,
because I am familiar with it and
because it easily fits into this power
spectrum (750 watts per channel at 8
ohms, 1100 at 4 ohms).
With all this power capability on
hand, a few of you will want to be
assured that adequate AC supply was
part of my test rig. To address this, I
connected each amplifier to a dedicated
20-amp circuit. This is relevant only
because many high-powered amplifiers
equipment report
will not meet their rated spec on a 15amp circuit. Logically a 15-amp circuit
tops out at about 300 watts per channel, continuous, for a traditional stereo
amp. I think it unlikely that the continuous demand during my listening
would ever have bumped up against
this limit, but I did my best to take it
out of the equation.
I could bore you with other aspects
of my test setup, but I won’t.
I started by listening to each amplifier for about a week, and then rotated
them in and out of my system in pairs.
This took some effort, but the differences were easy to hear, particularly in
longer listening sessions. That isn’t to
imply that the differences were what I
First up was the McIntosh MC 501.
The basic character of the MC 501
revolves around smoothness. This isn’t
achieved by rolling off the highs, which
by the way are appealingly delicate and
well delineated. Rather, the MC 501 has
less grain than we are ordinarily accustomed to. To put this in a positive sense,
the MC 501 sounds more continuous
than the typical amplifier, in that each
instrument seems whole and complete. I
think continuousness is a better descriptor of what you hear from amplifiers like
the MC 501, because other good amplifiers do not sound grainy. It is only by
comparison that you realize that the
continuousness of the MC 501 is on a
higher plane.
On strings, for example, you hear
what the bow is doing quite well, but
the sound of the bow and the sound of
the resonance from the body of the
instrument seem to be completely integrated. Similarly, as electric guitar notes
decay, you find that the sound just seems
to be there as one unified thing, rather
than a collection of elements.
The MC 501 sounds
more continuous than
the typical amplifier,
in that each instrument
seems whole and
In other respects, I would say the
MC 501 sounds as though it were voiced
with a very good tube power amplifier as
a reference. It isn’t the most transparent
amplifier, because instruments seem to
emerge from an ever-so-light fog. This,
for some, will resemble the sound of live
music. In the lower frequencies, the MC
501 delivers a firm foundation, though
the midbass lacks some of the control
one might wish for. Dynamically, the
MC 501 is on the polite side of things. I
am not sure, but it almost seemed
that MC 501 couldn’t completely
get a grip on the MBLs. No nasty
sounds were ever emitted, but the
MC 501 never came fully alive in
my setup, either.
I then switched in the Classé
CA-M400s. My first thought
about these monoblocks was that
they sounded rich, warm, and
relaxed. Like the McIntosh
amplifiers, the CA-M400s sound
smooth, though by comparison
they don’t quite have the sense of
continuousness that the MC 501s
deliver. At the same time, the
CA-M400s seemed very happy
with the MBLs dynamically,
sounding powerful, rhythmic,
and controlled. After extended listening, I came to think that these amplifiers offered plenty of transparency and
high-frequency delineation, but it was
as though their lower distortion in the
treble made them sound a bit darker at
first. Later on, this simply seemed natural and unforced.
I am a big fan of the Mahler symphonies. These are large and sometimes
densely orchestrated pieces that can put
components to the test. With the
Classé, as the sound ramps up (which in
Mahler is pretty frequently) it felt less
pinched and strained than it did with
some other amps, and yet at the same
time I could clearly hear what was
going on at the instrumental level. My
only reservation was that the Classé
seemed a little reserved, particularly in
the high frequencies.
At this point, I was excited to try
the Audio Research 300.2. The
McIntosh and the Classé sound different,
but not dramatically so. I figured a completely different amplifier technology
would shake things up, and I was right.
The Audio Research immediately
sounded more dynamic than the other
amps in this group. Drums and plucked
instruments like guitars really stood out
in the mix with this amplifier, and bass
was very well defined. I also appreciated
the sense of instrumental delineation
that the Audio Research provided,
equipment report
although by comparison I realized I
couldn’t really hear anything that I
couldn’t hear on the Classé. It just
seemed that some instruments had a
brighter light shining on them. This
brilliance came without a sense of stridency on, say, violin. Very impressive.
The troubling thing about the
300.2 is that I didn’t find it to sound
completely natural. Something about
the way it treats the leading edge of
transients seemed slightly too caffeinated. Exciting and even involving, but not
quite right.
I tried Neil Young’s Prairie Wind
er remarked on the uncanny way in
which piano seemed tonally and dynamically right. Those of you who have listened to live piano and then to recordings will know that piano is quite difficult to reproduce. This makes sense: The
piano has a very wide frequency range
and is extremely dynamic. I came to
think of the Musical Fidelity amplifier
as quintessentially well balanced. It isn’t
the most dynamic, or the most transparent, nor does it have the best bass, but it
does almost everything very well, with
the result that it sounds good on many
different types of music.
[Reprise] and even though this CD has a
very warm mix, on the 300.2 the sibilance of Neil’s voice was exaggerated.
Acoustic guitar sometimes was rendered
as a bit jangly sounding, as if it were
being played on an instrument with a
metal resonator. At the same time, some
reissues of analog recordings sounded
about as alive as I’ve ever heard them,
without sounding harsh or cold.
Whatever problem the 300.2 has, it
seems to occur in a very narrow band and
is reduced dramatically when the amp
has had 24 or 48 hours to warm up. TriPath claims that their modules adapt to
the characteristics of specific transistors,
so maybe this long warm-up period is
part of the technology.
I should mention the Musical
Fidelity kW 750, even though it wasn’t
under test per se. In one sense, the kW
750 can be summed up by its amazing
performance on piano. More than any of
the other amplifiers, the kW sounds
right on solo piano. Listener after listen-
At this point in the review process, I
started thinking that all four amplifiers
were really good: intelligently designed
by people with a real sensitivity to
music, but with different viewpoints
about what constitutes the ideal. From
this vantage, amplifier design has
reached such a high state of development that you can tweak the sound of
inevitably something is “off” and we’d
like to correct it. You can try this with
any element in the listening chain, of
course. However, after months of listening to these amplifiers, I would say that
power amplifiers lend themselves well to
this sort of adjustment, provided that
the tuning you need is in certain areas.
But, which areas?
The first thing I looked at was the
way the amplifiers treated the frequency
range. This seemed natural, because
many descriptions of how equipment
sounds attend to the handling of different frequencies—bright, warm, light,
etc. I’d have to say that I didn’t find big
differences in this arena. But, since we’re
talking about tweaking at this stage, I
would also say that the McIntosh and
Musical Fidelity were slightly warmer
sounding than the ARC, for example,
but not much. The Classé had a different
balance as well, with ever so slightly less
treble energy than either the McIntosh
or the Musical Fidelity. Still, across the
spectrum the emphasis on different
instruments was very similar from amp
to amp. Perhaps this is why, in a quick
A/B test, many people don’t sense that
amplifiers sound very different.
Much listening did highlight that
these four amplifiers do sound different
when you think about how extended
they seem to be at the frequency
extremes. I would say, for example, that
the Musical Fidelity and the McIntosh
have a more rounded sound, and the
Audio Research sounds more extended.
My overwhelming sense was that differences
in this area were more intellectual than
musically essential
your system by choosing the right
amplifier and the unfortunate side
effects will be pretty small. That’s nice
because many audiophiles, whether they
like to admit it or not, are interested in
choosing amplifiers to tune their systems. It is a fact of life that with all the
hard work and good intentions we put
into putting our systems together,
But before you rush to the conclusion
that one of these approaches is right, and
the other wrong, let me say that by
“rounded” I mean that I could imagine
the frequency response being slightly
“n”-shaped, and by extended I mean that
I could imagine the frequency response
being slightly “u”-shaped. Some might
imagine that the extended approach is
equipment report
more accurate, but one might equally say that the rounded
shape is more musically natural. In a particular system, one
approach might be more complementary than the other. My
overwhelming sense, though, was that differences in this area
were more intellectual than musically essential. Call me a
heretic, but my strong impression was that I could easily say
one amp was more extended than another, but it didn’t factor
into how musically involving the amplifier was.
As I let the sound of these amps sink in, the next thing I
noticed was how each amplifier handled the representation of
instruments in space. What became apparent rather quickly is
that some of the amplifiers, particularly the Classé, present a
deep soundstage perspective. In contrast, the Audio Research
and the McIntosh have a more forward presentation. I say forward here, not in the sense of aggressiveness, but in the sense
that you seem to be seated closer to the instruments. I don’t
mean to seem wimpy, but it isn’t hard to imagine a group of
people split over which approach is right. Depending on your
system one could be either helpful or problematic. Because I
use MBL speakers, which create a big, deep soundstage, I found
that the amps with a deep perspective fit with what I expected,
but the other amps didn’t really interfere with my listening.
I also noticed that the image specificity of each amp is different. I would call the Audio Research somewhat diffuse in its
imaging, meaning that instruments are not presented with pinpoint placement. By contrast, the McIntosh is more focused in
that instruments appear to have very specific locations. Possibly
because of my speakers, I tended to prefer the more focused
approach. However, I know from discussions with many
reviewers on our staff that the diffuse approach seems more like
what you hear in the concert hall, and that makes sense to me.
In any event, I wouldn’t rate the differences on this dimension
between these amps to be particularly large. For a really different approach to image specificity, you need to try a tube amplifier in my experience.
So, system-tuning is certainly abetted by amplifier selection. The only problem is that to do this you would be well
advised to drop the idea that any given amplifier is better or
worse than other amplifiers. In other words, you have to think
about certain sonic parameters in a new way—a way that is less
good-vs.-bad and more an attempt to get at the qualities being
delivered. An example may help. Think of hair. You could
think about it in terms of “dirty” or “clean.” One would be bad
and the other good. That, I think is the way we normally think
about audio equipment. But in the case of hair you could also
think of “blonde” and “brunette.” Here we are talking about
qualities, not about good and bad. You might have a preference, but it is hard to argue that one is universally better than
the other.
So, with well-engineered modern amplifiers, you have to
think in relatively neutral terms about what you really want to
do. To illustrate how this might be done, consider my listening
notes presented as three graphs:
I think you can get a reasonable idea about some aspects of
equipment report
these amplifiers from the graphs, but it
isn’t so easy to say which is “best.” To do
that, you have to know your system,
your preferences, and your needs. At
least if we’re in the tuning mindset.
That’s fine, and I stand by it, but
after another month of listening, I
sensed that there is another dimension
to the question of why experienced
audiophiles think of amplifiers as so
Having taken my listening notes
and written the first part of this review,
I had the chance to listen to some music
without thinking too much about it.
The great thing about this phase of the
process is that you can look down after
awhile and see which amplifier is connected the most. As I noticed which
amp got the most playing time, I was
struck by the fact that I really enjoyed
listening to it much more than the other
amps. I think part of that is because it fit
nicely with the strengths and weaknesses of my system. But I don’t think that
gets to another important matter.
An age-old concept is still at the
leading edge of amplifier design and,
under the right conditions, can make a
big difference in how musically involving a really good system can be. That
concept is transparency.
I am well aware that transparency
has a bad name in some circles. Certainly
we have all heard what might be called
fake transparency—as an example, the
elevation of the treble range to make
things sound clear. Yet certainly clarity
is what we’re talking about when we say
transparency, or in other words the sense
that the proverbial veil has been lifted
between the listener and the source.
From time spent with these four amplifiers I would say that modern amplifier
design has allowed a great step forward
in real transparency. That is to say, the
better amplifiers today sound clearer
than others, while oftentimes showing a
complete lack of the artifacts we associate with artificial transparency.
A critical sub-component of transparency is what has been called continuousness. Continuousness puzzles many,
as well, though more from a certain
vagueness about what it means. It perhaps does some damage to the full idea,
but by continuousness I mean a lack of
grain coupled with a sense of purity and
wholeness for each note. If transparency
most often is noticed at, say, the orchestral level, continuousness is an attempt
to describe transparency down at the
instrumental level. How does the bow
sound on the string? Does it sound real?
What unites these two related ideas
in this case is that both transparency and
continuousness seem to stem from the
dynamic behavior of each amplifier. I
got an insight into this while visiting
HP for a listen to the ASR Emitter II.
The ASR in Harry’s system renders
soundstage depth and width more clearly than on any other system I’ve heard. If
you think about it for a moment, the
cues that signal that a reflection is coming from, say, the right rear or the center
rear of the stage are relatively low level
in comparison with the initial sound
from the orchestra. So, rendering them
accurately requires handling very small
signals well. It seems consistent with my
experience that doing this isn’t so easy,
at least in big amplifiers.
Having observed this soundstaging
accuracy in HP’s system, in hindsight
I’m not surprised that I also observed
that the ASR sounded very clear, and yet
it has a timbre that makes tube aficionados happy. The key thing is that when
you get microdynamic behavior right,
you get improvements without tradeoffs.
I noticed a version of this with the
CA-M400 as well. It reaches back into
the hall quite well and presents each
instrument clearly, yet has a very natural, maybe even warmish, tonal balance.
The McIntosh has a similar tonal balance, but doesn’t seem to reach into the
hall as vividly. The Audio Research can
reach back into the hall pretty well,
though I always felt this ability varied
with the instruments being played.
Basses, cellos, and horns were very well
portrayed, but violin at times, and guitar more often, sounded more forward.
I noticed that the amps I had under
test had different performance on bigger
transients, with similar side effects or
lack thereof. The McIntosh seemed
slightly sluggish on big orchestral
dynamics, though it never sounded
harsh or unpleasant. The Classé, in contrast, did a good job of sounding punchy
while at the same time maintaining a
sense of control over the leading edges of
transients. By controlling the leading
edge of transients, the Classé avoids
sounding hashy, but at the same time
lets the instruments come through quite
clearly. The Audio Research provides an
instructive comparison, in that it puts a
little extra emphasis on each transient.
This nicely spotlights each instrument,
and sounds even more lively than the
Classé, but at times this transient-handling also creates a richness and some
fog over the whole presentation. This
can sound very nice, but it isn’t what I
would describe as ideal dynamic behavior (again, I should note that warm-up
time makes a big difference with the
ARC design).
Over time I concluded that amplifiers that don’t get the leading edge
right may initially sound more dynamic,
but they don’t sound as natural, and they
reduce the sense of musical involvement.
As the number of instruments increase,
this effect gets more problematic, so that
massed orchestral works can sound
slightly confused or congested.
I am describing this in technicalsounding terms because our language for
small dynamic events is rather threadbare. Language problems aside, the
important thing about the connection
between dynamics and transparency is
that it helps us to understand why transparency may now come without a tradeoff. In fact, better transparency comes
with better spatial presentation and better timbre. The lack of a tradeoff makes
the best new amplifiers very significant
when measured by their impact on
musical involvement.
There are some very fine amplifiers
on the market. In this small grouping,
none of the amplifiers sounded even
remotely bad, in the sense that I can say
some receivers sound bad. Even more,
each amplifier had attributes that make
you sit up and realize that each design-
equipment report
An age-old concept is still at
the leading edge of amplifier
design and, under the right
conditions, can make a big
difference in how musically
involving a really good system
can be. That concept is
McIntosh MC501
Type: Fully balanced mono transistor
power amplifier with autoformer output
Power Output: 500 watts into 2, 4, or 8
Inputs: One single-ended (RCA), one balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 17.5" x 9.5" x 14.75"
Weight: 91.5 lbs.
Classé CA-M400
er had a mission that was pursued with
real passion, making each amp special
in a way. The McIntosh is the champion
of liquid continuousness. The Audio
Research is amazingly dynamic sounding. The Musical Fidelity makes piano
and voice sound startlingly real. And
the Classé is relaxed. And those are simply examples.
From the perspective of tuning
your system, one or another amplifier
might prove a good match. But, for
some, that won’t be enough. If you are
interested in the quest for musical
involvement, then I think you’ll want
to start by looking for amplifiers that
take a step forward in real transparency
and continuousness. It might be that
such an amp isn’t the ideal match for
your existing system, but you’ll hear
new aspects of the music and you probably won’t feel punished by the process
as you might have been with amplifiers
as recently as a few years ago. Moreover,
I would suggest that any tuning mis-
match is the fault of some flaw in your
other equipment, your setup, or your
room, and thus additional changes for
the better will be required. This is a
harder approach than the tuning
approach, but probably the better one.
I had originally assumed that different amplifier technologies would be the
key to how this step forward in transparency would occur. Now I don’t think
that is quite right. Just as the advent of
solid-state amps pushed tube amp
designers and vice versa, I think we will
see Class D and probably true digital
amplifiers push more traditional solidstate designs. Certainly from this test
and other listening I’ve done recently,
the first generations of Class D (and similar) amplifiers show enormous promise.
At the same time, I’ve been amazed at
the excellence of age-old class A/B amps
in delivering transparency without pain.
No doubt there will be near-religious
battles over which approach is better.
But either way, it is real progress.
Type: Fully balanced mono transistor
power amplifier
Power Output: 400 watts into 8 ohms,
800 watts into 4 ohms
Number and type of inputs: One singleended (RCA), one balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 18.5" x 8.75" x 17.5"
Weight: 82 lbs.
Audio Research 300.2
Type: Balanced stereo class-T power
Power Output: 300 watts/channel into 8
ohms, 500 watts/channel into 4 ohms
Number and type of inputs: One singleended (RCA), one balanced (XLR)
Dimensions: 19" x 7" x 14.5"
Weight: 39.2 lbs.
Musical Fidelity A5 and Lector CD players; Musical Fidelity KW preamp,
Conrad-Johnson MET 1 preamp; Musical
Fidelity KW 750 and Nuforce Reference
9 amplifiers; MBL 101e loudspeakers,
Tara Labs The Zero speaker cable and
0.8 interconnects
3900 Annapolis Lane North
Plymouth, Minnesota 55447
(763) 577-9700
Price: $3995
5070 François Cusson
Lachine, Québec
H8T 1B3, Canada
(514) 636-6384
Price: $5000 per channel
2 Chambers Street
Binghamton, New York 13903
(607) 723 3512
Price: $4700 each
Meridian 808 Signature
Reference CD Player
Sue Kraft
From the company that made the first-ever
musical-sounding CD player—a new reference
model to dream about
Cover Story
alk about the mother of all dream
assignments. Ten years ago, as an
audiophile civilian, I had to literally beg the local hi-fi dealer for a
brief, in-home audition of the
now classic Meridian 508.24 CD
player. The store owner cautioned
he’d have to stand in my living room and wait
for me to finish during the demo, but changed
his mind when I (jokingly) mentioned how I
sometimes preferred the uninhibited freedom
of listening au naturel. (Trust me folks, this is
a near foolproof tactic to discourage pesky hifi dealers and manufacturers from hanging
around to watch while you listen.
Today, in a particularly delightful reversal
of fortune, TAS Editor Wayne Garcia nonchalantly dropped me an e-bomb wondering if I
might be interested in reviewing none other
than the Meridian 808 Signature Reference,
which just happens to be the best CD-only playback system ever offered by the world leader in
digital technology. Could anyone with more
than a single brain cell possibly say no?
The Meridian 808 couldn’t be more perfect for someone
like me, who has no need for a player with video capabilities
and two decades worth of compact discs sardined into every
nook and cranny of her house. I jumped on the SACD bandwagon early when the Sony SCD-1 was first introduced, only to
be sorely disappointed a year or two later when there were still
only a few hundred SACD titles available. Next time around,
I’ll keep a tighter grip on my wallet until there’s sufficient
music to go along with the new high-resolution formats.
At present, with SACD as well as DVD-Audio nearly
defunct, the 808’s only mission in life is to extract every last
bit of information possible from the millions of titles that are
available now—and for many years to come—on CD.
Celebrating its 20th anniversary as the inventor of the very
first audiophile-quality CD player, Meridian has marketed the
limited edition as the finest CD playback it presently has to
offer. Every component of this precision-built dream-machine
has been handpicked for its sonic merits, right down to the last
capacitor and resistor.
For comparative purposes, it would’ve been nice had I been
able to conduct a shootout of all the top-flight players currently available. But then in a perfect world, I’d be 30 years
younger and in a bikini on the cover of Sports Illustrated, instead
of bent over a keyboard trying to describe the indescribable. (If
you’re going to dream, you might as well dream big.) I’ve had
the opportunity to experience a number of upper-echelon CD
players in recent years, and although I wouldn’t complain if I
had to live with any one of them, overall, I’d easily rate the 808
as the best I’ve heard to date.
The toughest part of this review has been trying to decide
which of the 808’s qualities impressed me the most. There were
several that just plain skyrocketed off the charts. The first is a
spaciousness and three-dimensionality that I can’t imagine getting any better. The 808 has an eerily realistic soundspace that
Every component of
this precision-built
dream-machine has
been hand picked for its
sonic merits, right down
to the last capacitor
and resistor
can fool you into thinking you’re a fly on the wall in the recording studio. I say “fly on the wall” because, depending on the
recording venue, you can hear the walls, including the ofttimes
elusive backwall. As far as depth of soundstage is concerned, you
can’t get any deeper than that. Spatial cues and boundaries are so
clearly defined that you’ll sense air and (in live recordings) bodies in front of you. It’s rather uncanny at first, as I initially
thought my listening abilities had finally become so well honed
I could predict notes before they were played. What I was hear-
Cover Story
Inside Meridian’s 808
s with Meridian’s 800 CD/DVD player, the
808 starts with a specially selected triplebeam, multi-speed DVD-ROM drive. The
drive makes multiple passes over sections of the disc where errors are detected, reportedly reducing the need for error correction
by a hundredfold. The datastream from the disc is
then buffered by the first of four FIFO (first-in, first-out)
buffers. Data enter the buffer with imprecise timing
and are clocked out with a low-jitter clock. These FIFO
buffers are employed at various stages in the digitalprocessing chain. The output clock that controls the
DACs is located on the analog-output card right next
to the DACs. Because of these anti-jitter measures,
Meridian claims the 808 has the lowest clock jitter of
any CD player they’ve measured—less than 90
picoseconds, with the jitter frequency held below
0.1Hz. In most CD players and digital processors, the
jitter is highly correlated with the audio signal, increasing the audibility of jitter-induced sonic artifacts.
The 808 is also special in its application of proprietary digital signal processing (DSP) to upsample the
44.1kHz, 16-bit data to 176.4kHz, 24-bit for conversion
to analog. The DSPs also run Meridian’s “Resolution
Enhancement” algorithm. The player employs more
powerful DSPs (three devices with a combined computing power of 150MIPS) than any previous player,
which allows Meridian to run more sophisticated
upsampling and resolution-enhancement algorithms.
More powerful DSPs also provide greater precision in
the intermediate calculations (in the 808’s case, 72bit), resulting in less requantizing error in the final 24-bit
output signal.
The analog output stage is an all-new design, as is
the power supply. The balanced output signal is created in the analog domain after the DACs. This means
there’s an additional active stage in the analog signal path for the balanced outputs compared with
the unbalanced jacks.
The 808 is available with an optional built-in preamplifier (808i) for those who require the flexibility of
additional analog and digital inputs. Both versions
come with analog balanced and unbalanced outputs, which can be either fixed for connection to an
outboard preamplifier or variable to connect directly
to an amplifier. Either the 808 or 808i will output highresolution upsampled digital audio for connection
directly to Meridian’s digital loudspeakers. RH and SK
ing was the 808’s astonishing level of infinitesimal inner detail
tipping me off with the slightest bit of air or body movement
that a note was about to be played. I also thought I heard musical notes (some kind of percussive instrument) traveling down
the side wall in my listening room. One time it was so distinct,
I turned my head to follow it past where I was seated. Like I said,
uncanny. (Or perhaps, I’m finally ready for the rubber room.)
Next, but no less impressive, is the startling speed and
supremely powerful yet superbly effortless dynamics of the
808. In last issue’s review of the Credo loudspeaker, I attributed
nearly jumping out of my skin while listening to Stanton
Moore’s Flyin’ the Koop [Blue Thumb] to the McCormack
DNA-500 amplifier. Though 500W of power is certainly capable of turning your bass driver into a sledgehammer, the 808
deserves the credit for turning that sledgehammer into a wrecking ball. It isn’t the loudness that makes you jump, but the
lightning fast contrast between soft and loud. It’s like someone
sneaking up behind you in the dead of night and setting off a
firecracker. These stunningly natural dynamic contrasts were
also evident in the quietest passages—you didn’t need to be
blasting off cannons to hear the force, speed, and precision of
every last note. (To clarify, the use of the word “force” here doesn’t mean the music is forward or in your face. I am referring to
the way a note is naturally propelled from an instrument.)
With all due respect to the Meridian G08, in comparison
to the 808, the sound was rather crude, unrefined—and slow. I
couldn’t help but laugh the first time I did a side-by-side comparison. I wasn’t laughing at the G08, but rather at the dramatic difference between the two players. What’s scary is that
the G08 is still better than a whole lot of other CD players out
there. (It’s been my reference source since I first wrote about the
Meridian G Series system back in Issue 152.)
On track 17 of Andreas Vollenweider’s Cosmopoly [Kin Kou]
the flute sounded thin and shrill with the G08. Image outlines
were somewhat blurred and indistinct, even overlapping at
times. Funny thing, though: You’d actually think it sounded
pretty good until you plugged in the 808. When listening to
the same cut through the 808, I found myself wishing I knew
more about the intricacies of woodwind instruments so I could
better understand and describe what I was hearing. The identical notes were now full-bodied, clear, and distinct, while also
notably faster and propelled with greater force and precision
through the instrument. The comparison wasn’t even close.
Along with vocals, piano has to be one of the most difficult
instruments to accurately reproduce on a sound system. I can
recall in the early days always bringing a solo piano recording
along to auditions, as I believed if the piano was right, everything else would be right as well. I was almost always disappointed. Again, with all due respect to the G08, listening to Jeff
Bjorck’s Pure Piano Panoramas [BMI] I could hear notes, but there
was no piano. Or at best, the piano itself was relatively indistinct.
Through the 808, the front-to-back depth of the soundstage was
so clear I could “see” exactly where the piano was positioned
along with the performer playing it. I could follow hands mov-
Cover Story
ing along the keys. Each note had exceptional weight, clarity,
body, and extension at both frequency extremes. It sounded as if
the keys were attached to a massive instrument, instead of just
floating around in space—pretty spectacular, actually.
The only downside to this player (if you can call it a downside) is that results will vary according to the quality of the
recording as well as associated equipment. A bad recording is a
bad recording. As my grandmother use to say, you can’t make a
silk purse out of a sow’s ear. That said, I spent a fair amount of
time listening to vintage rock with surprisingly good results. A
body can only sit for so long like a statue in the sweet spot scribbling notes. This time around I stretched my legs with The Best
of Rare Earth [Motown]. It felt good to relive a few moments
from my youth, even if it meant walking hunched over for three
days until I could straighten my back again.
Before concluding, I’d like to briefly mention (with a spot
more detail) how the 808 compares to a few other players I’ve
heard, like the Wadia 861se and Audio Aero Capitole. I have to
rely on my aging memory here, so I can’t be too specific. While
the 861se is built like a tank and performs well in many respects,
it has a rather pronounced sonic signature that in my view prevents it from being a contender. There’s just too much coloration
for my taste. (With a whole slew of new Wadia products on the
horizon, it might be interesting to hear how those compare.) The
Capitole, on the other hand, is extremely detailed and musical,
but doesn’t hold a candle to the impressive dynamics of the 808,
at least not in the version that I auditioned. Without a direct comparison, it’s tough to say whether or not the Capitole trumps the
808 when it comes to musicality, but I’d venture it’s in the same
league in that regard.
So, at $12,995 does the Meridian
808 sound three times better than the
G08 retailing for just under $4k? I
wish I could conclusively say it does,
but how do we measure such things?
Some may think it’s more than three
times better. I do know you’ll have a
tough time going back to the G08
after hearing the 808, and I’m not
just saying that so you’ll run out and
re-finance your home to buy one. I’m
saying that because I’m having a
tough time going back to the G08,
and I can’t imagine any card-carrying
audiophile or music lover who
High-resolution aside, I’m astonished by the amount of information still left to be extracted from
a 20-year-old format, the compact disc. Based on two decades of
listening almost exclusively to digital, I feel confident in saying
there can’t be a company more qualified to do the extracting than
Meridian. For those who are wondering, I bought the 508.24 and
never looked back. If I could afford it, I’d already own the 808
Signature Reference.
Robert Harley comments on the
Meridian 808
I’ve had a Meridian 808 in my reference system for about three
months and frankly, can’t imagine my system without it. For
starters the 808 has a wonderfully detailed and highly resolved
presentation. I was simply floored by the 808’s ability to present
fine nuances of instrumental timbre, micro-dynamic shadings,
and low-level spatial cues. No detail, no matter how small,
escaped the 808’s scrutiny. Instrumental timbre was presented
with such a wealth of inner detail that the instrument sounded
more lifelike and less like a synthetic recreation. In fact, the 808
makes many other digital front-ends sound coarse by comparison.
This extremely high resolution is also responsible, I believe,
for the 808’s spectacular sense of soundstage size, depth, air
between images, and its vivid portrayal of the surrounding
acoustic. The impression of clearly delineated instruments
bathed in, but distinct from, hall reverberation was the best I’ve
heard from digital. Moreover, depth was presented along a continuum from the soundstage front to the deepest recesses of the
soundstage rear rather than along a few discrete steps. Quiet
instruments at the back of the stage were audible even in the
It sounded as if the keys were attached to a massive
instrument, instead of just floating around in space—
pretty spectacular, actually
Cover Story
presence of louder instruments. The 808’s spatial presentation
must be heard to be believed—and this from Red Book CD.
One might infer from this description that the 808 is analytical and cold, sacrificing musicality for resolution. But in what is
surely the 808’s greatest triumph, the player delivers this vast
amount of information to the listener in a totally natural, musical,
graceful, and involving way. In fact, the 808 had a somewhat laidback perspective, along with a tremendous sense of ease. There was
absolutely no hint of the etch, forwardness, or hype that one often
hears from digital that tries to be “high resolution.” Real musical
information is presented in the gentle way that one hears in live
music, not as hi-fi fireworks. The 808’s combination of ease and
resolution is unprecedented in my experience. The result was an
impression of physical relaxation on one hand and heightened
intellectual and emotional stimulation (by the music) on the other.
I must also comment on the 808’s extremely smooth,
refined, and liquid midrange and treble. Timbres were free
from grain and glare, and the top end lacked the metallic quality often heard from CD. Reproduction of upper-register piano
notes is often marred by a glassy sheen on leading-edge transients; the 808 exhibited less of this phenomenon, allowing
higher playback levels and a more involving experience.
Listening to the 808 and thinking about how it differs from
other highly regarded digital front ends I’ve heard reminded me of
the difference between hearing a microphone feed and then the playback of that feed from 1/2" analog tape. I had this experience often
when I was a working recording engineer. The excitement of getting
good sound from the microphones was inevitably tempered by the
degradation imposed by the storage medium, even high-quality analog. The microphone feed had a certain life, presence, and realism—
the result of its high resolution without exaggerated detail—that
was lost after storage on tape. The recording process scrubbed off a
bit of the low-level information and in the process, some of the
music’s magic. That’s how I feel about the 808 in relation to many
other digital sources—many of which cost more than the 808. It says
much about the Meridian’s combination of ease and resolution to
invite the prodigious comparison with a microphone feed.
Many British products, including those from Meridian,
could be described as polite and reserved, favoring refinement
over big dynamics, deep bass extension, and the ability to rock.
The 808 breaks free from this stereotype with an extremely big,
robust, and viscerally thrilling sound on rock and large-scale
orchestral music. The midbass leans toward articulation rather
than warmth, but the extreme bottom-end is solid and punchy.
The 808 also exhibited a remarkable sense of ease during loud,
dense passages; the music remained coherent rather than degenerating into a collection of sounds.
Finally, the 808 is an outstanding DVD-Audio player. Yes,
the 808 plays most DVD-A discs, although you’d never know
that from Meridian’s literature or even from reading the frontpanel logos. I tried more than a dozen DVD-A titles and every one
played. In fact, it was a joy to play DVD-A titles without navigating a menu system on a video display. It was with DVD-A
discs that truly revealed the extent of the 808’s resolving power
and musicality. As great as the 808 is on CD, DVD-A discs take
the machine’s sonic performance to the next level.
Formats: CD Audio, CD-R, CD-RW, MP3
Type of outputs: Analog balanced and unbalanced; digital S/PDIF,
coax with MHR plus aux coax
Dimensions: 18.9" x 6.9" x 16.2"
Weight: 40 lbs.
Meridian G08 and Marantz PMD-320 CD players; AVA Ultra DAC;
Meridian G02 control unit, Sonic Euphoria passive, and Van Alstine
Ultra preamps; Meridian G57, Atma-Sphere Novacron OTL, and
McCormack DNA-500 amps; Coincident Super Eclipse, Von
8055 Troon Circle, Suite C
Austell, Georgia 30168
(404) 344-7111
[email protected]
Price: $12,995
Schweikert VR4jr, B&W 800D and 704 speakers; Coincident TRS,
Paul Speltz anti-cable, and Harmonic Technology speaker cables;
Harmonic Technology and Audio Magic interconnects; Cardas RCA to
XLR adapters; Elrod, JPS power cords; Bright Star Audio and
Symposium Svelte shelves; Chang Lightspeed Encounter; PS Audio
Ultimate outlet; Echo Busters, ASC room treatment
The Cutting Edge
Music-Minded Controllers, Part 3:
Attractive Opposites
Alan Taffel
Can multichannel controllers satisfy the music
lover the way a good preamp can?
an two digital controllers with directly
opposed strengths and weaknesses both
qualify as being “music-minded”? That
is, despite divergent philosophies and
sonics, can both meet the challenge of
doing justice not only to film soundtracks, which are the raison d’être of these
components, but also to stereo and multichannel music? The
answer is yes—but it all depends on your sources.
All controllers exhibit some degree of sound variation,
depending upon the input in use. The standard hierarchy, from
best to worst, is: multichannel analog inputs, which typically
offer the most direct signal path and the fewest gainstages; the
nearly-as-pristine stereo analog inputs; digital inputs, which
necessitate one D/A format conversion before sending the signal through the analog stage; and lastly, stereo analog inputs not
set to bypass mode, for they entail two format conversions plus
DSP processing.
The new Arcam AV9 ($5749) and Halcro SSP100 ($9990)
could not be more at odds over how closely they adhere to this
hierarchy. The Arcam hews strictly to convention and, as if to
punctuate its chosen pecking order, exhibits an unusually wide
performance variance between inputs. In contrast, Halcro’s
flagship is a renegade, turning the normal hierarchy on its
head. The SSP100 delivers its best—and worst—performance
in wholly unexpected places. Yet given the right source components connected to the right inputs, each of these controllers
proves itself capable of making glorious music.
Arcam FMJ AV9
The AV9, like many freshly released controllers, owes its existence to the gush in popularity of HDMI, a digital interface
that can carry both high-definition video and high-resolution
multichannel audio over a single cable. After a year of sitting
on the sidelines while HDMI proliferated in DVD players and
HD displays, controllers are finally assuming their natural role
as HDMI transport and switching points. To that end, the AV9
sports no fewer than five HDMI inputs and one output.
But this controller is more than an HDMI-equipped successor to Arcam’s celebrated AV8. Although the latter’s basic
audio circuitry was untouched, the new model incorporates two
proprietary materials dubbed “stealth mats” and “masks of
silence.” Aside from proving that a geek contingent is alive and
well within Arcam, these technologies demonstrate the degree
The Cutting Edge
to which analog signals benefit from reductions in electromagnetic and RF interference. The AV9 also permits greater set-up
precision and flashes a more readable front-panel display than
did the AV8.
To appreciate how music-minded (and analog-minded)
the AV9 is, consider its approach to analog bypass. When
this mode—available for each and every analog input—is
invoked, the Arcam doesn’t just circumvent digital processing, as do most controllers. Instead, it actually shuts down its
digital circuits to protect delicate analog signals from digital
The AV9 once again goes
further by permitting users
to independently set
subwoofer levels for music
and film sources
noise contamination. Only the thrice-as-expensive Theta
Casablanca with Six Shooter goes further; it devotes a completely separate chassis to each domain. Arcam’s solution,
while not as extravagant as Theta’s, is undeniably elegant and
much more cost effective.
In the area of bass management, which invariably betrays a
controller’s commitment to music, the AV9 likewise excels.
There are provisions for up to three subwoofers (though they
must all play the same thing—stereo subs aren’t supported),
and the crossover point is settable to within 5Hz. This level of
granularity enables a far better blend than the crude ten—or
even twenty—hertz adjustments offered by competing controllers. But get this: The AV9 once again goes further by permitting users to independently set subwoofer levels for music
and film sources—another highly music-minded consideration.
The AV9’s features clearly reveal its designers’ devotion to
music—particularly analog music—and that orientation holds
true for the unit’s sound. When set to bypass mode, the stereo
analog inputs deliver a warm yet vibrant presentation.
Rhythms, as evidenced by the lively “Stumptown” track from
Nickel Creek’s When Will the Fire Die [Sugarhill], contribute
strongly to the sound’s inviting appeal, as does imaging, which
can be as focused or expansive as the music demands. In this
mode, vocals betray a slightly “steely” quality, and the AV9
shaves high frequencies just enough to sacrifice some air and
immediacy. But the experience is more than salvaged by the
aforementioned virtues, along with engaging dynamics and
crisp transients.
From this highly satisfying baseline, the sound can be made
either better or worse by changing inputs or modes. To go the
wrong direction, simply switch an analog input out of bypass
mode, thereby calling in the digital armada. The highs take an
unceremonious nose dive, and the sound becomes quite closedin. Sluggish rhythms, soft transients, and constricted dynamics
also rear their unwelcome heads. The sonic toll of this mode is
serious enough that I recommend using it only to synthesize
surround channels, if you must, from stereo sources.
Not surprisingly, given the Arcam’s strict adherence to the
standard controller hierarchy, its best sound derives from the
multichannel analog input. Compared even to the stereo
analogs in bypass mode, this input supplies noticeably meatier
bass, a more open top end, and a purer midrange (without a
trace of steel in vocals). On orchestral material, such as “Mars”
Usage Notes
he Arcam is refreshingly simple to set up.
Inputs and outputs are clearly labeled, the
manual is terrific, and the configuration
menus are straightforward. To borrow jargon
from the personal computer industry, the AV9
delivers a great “OOB” (out of the box) experience.
Nor is flexibility slighted by all this clarity. For example,
home-theater denizens will appreciate that speaker
distances can be set down to the inch, rather than the
usual feet. The unit does not feature a front-panel TFT
display, but its VFD (vacuum fluorescent display) readout is large and easily deciphered from a distance.The
universal remote, too, is a model of intuitive operation.
The Halcro’s flexibility—but not its OOB—is comparable to that of the Arcam. The crossover can be set
with 5Hz granularity, and there is even an oh-so-rare provision for stereo subs. For those collecting DVD-As, with
their menu-driven interface, the front-panel TFT display is
a godsend. However, the Halcro is not particularly intuitive to set up, and the manual is by turns confusing and
incomplete. This task is best left to the dealer.
I should also note that this is the second SSP100 we
received for testing. The original unit suffered from
strange sonic and operational anomalies. The manufacturer declared that sample defective and provided an updated replacement. Yet this second unit still
exhibits glitches. The front-panel display flickers whenever a new screen comes up, and midway through
the review process the remote “forgot” all its commands. There are also a few ergonomic design goofs,
including a touchscreen remote that spreads basic
commands across three pages, forcing constant toggling to access the desired screen. Halcro has indicated that the operational glitches have already
been addressed, and we have invited them to provide a third sample for evaluation.
The Cutting Edge
from the EMI LP of Holst’s The Planets, the Arcam proves a bit
darker tonally than my reference preamplifier, but no less
engaging thanks to a veritable smorgasbord of virtues.
Dynamics are a gripping combination of finesse and ferocity;
rhythms hold together no matter what else is going on; timbres
spill forth in a rainbow of colors; images assume stable positions upon a broad, deep (though not particularly high) soundstage; and neither grain nor glare mars the source’s analog purity. Did I mention the killer bass?
The differences between the Arcam in this mode and my
reference preamplifier fall into decidedly subtle territory. Sure,
The SSP100 was designed
to sound its best with
digital inputs, and it
delivers the best digital
sound I have heard from
any controller, at any price
the reference’s incrementally superior resolution allows me to
hear more air and longer hall reverberation, and renders transients more snappily. But this is a clear case of diminishing
returns. The Arcam’s lovely multichannel input delivers 90%
of the reference’s performance at one-fifth the price. Needless to
say, I would suggest using this input whenever possible,
including to connect your best stereo analog source.
My predilection toward the AV9’s analog inputs is reinforced by its digital performance which, as American Idol’s
Randy Jackson might say, is “just alright, man.” The internal
Wolfson DAC is very quiet, which nicely sets off the music, and
imaging is so good it can sort out even the most complex stage
plan. Detail resolution (except at the very lowest levels) and
rhythms are likewise excellent. However, both upper frequencies and dynamics feel squashed, leading to an airless, lackluster quality. Tonally, these inputs are skimpy in the bass, rendering them lightweight compared to their analog counterparts. And vocals once again sound slightly metallic, which
makes for less relaxing listening. The digital inputs’ transient
and imaging prowess do serve movies well, but they simply
don’t let music “breathe” in the manner of my reference
DAC—or the AV9’s own stellar analog inputs.
Halcro SSP100
The SSP100’s priorities and performance particulars differ not only
from the Arcam, but from every other controller I know. Rather
than viewing itself as principally an audio component with bareessential video connectivity and switching, the Halcro elevates
video to equal-partner status. Witness the scads of digital (four
HDMI inputs, one output) and analog video interfaces, coupled
with an unusually comprehensive ability to transcode between
them. Further, this controller can scale standard-definition video
all the way up to HDTV’s maximum resolution of 1080p. So in
addition to traditional audio-related duties, the SSP100 can credibly assume the role of an external video processor.
From an audio feature perspective, this controller is equally unconventional. Unlike the preponderance of its competition,
the SSP100 simply does not ascribe to an analog-über-alles credo.
Digital is its mantra. And so there are no analog bypass provisions for any of the single-ended stereo inputs. Analog purity, for
single-ended sources, can be had only by going through the
multichannel input. Balanced sources fare slightly better; there
are both multichannel and stereo inputs that support pure analog. (Why the balanced stereo input offers an analog bypass
while the more common single-ended inputs do not is a puzzle.)
The Halcro’s feature set is not the only thing biased toward
digital; so is its sound. Confounding expectations and logic, the
SSP100’s multichannel inputs are not its best sounding. Actually,
The Cutting Edge
they are its worst. That’s right: Even the non-bypass-able stereo
inputs, with all their underlying digital rigmarole, sound better.
While this is difficult to understand, it is easy to hear.
The multichannel inputs are sweet sounding but overly
restrained. Timbres and dynamics fall into too narrow a range
to be engaging, while high frequencies are too restrained to
sound open. Nor do the slack rhythms and weak bass help matters. To be sure, the sound is not all bad. Bass may be shy but
it’s tight, and transients are clear and clean. Another plus:
Background noise and grain are vanishingly low. Overall,
though, the negatives outweigh these assets, sabotaging the
grand gestures and timbral diversity of large-scale recordings,
like the aforementioned Planets LP, as well as the airiness and
expressivity of more intimate sessions, such as the Michael
Wolf Trio’s 2am [Cabana Boy].
But not to worry, because the analog stereo inputs, digitized though they may be, sound inexplicably better. They
retain the multichannel inputs’ warm liquid sound and detail
resolution, but are more tonally fleshed out and dynamic. So,
despite some digital degradation in the form of fuzzy imaging
and a loss of the multichannel’s analog ease and lack of grain,
the stereo inputs are the more satisfying and involving. Listen
to the opening track of Lucinda Williams’ superb Live @ The
Fillmore CD [Lost Highway]. The Halcro easily conveys the
small textural and timbral details that make this a riveting live
recording, and any high-frequency or dynamic reticence is mild
enough to only modestly dial back Lucinda’s almost uncomfortably close vocals. This track demonstrates just how little
these inputs betray their digital underpinnings, and makes a
strong case that an analog-bypass option is superfluous.
In a way, though, all this analog analysis is beside the point.
The SSP100 was obviously designed to sound its best with digital inputs, and it delivers the best digital sound I have heard from
any controller, at any price. Coming in digitally accords a major
uptick in the involvement factor, thanks to greater transient definition, a much more realistically airy high end, and sharper
dynamic contrasts. The unparalleled bass performance lends real
gravitas to the piano’s lower octaves, as on “The Conversation”
from the Michael Wolff disc, and highs and lows are in perfect
balance. Nor do the amped-up transients call undue attention to
themselves. The plucked mandolin passages on the Nickel Creek
CD, for instance, manage to be clean and crystalline without a
hint of unnatural hype.
Yet, for me, the most ingratiating element of the SSP100’s
Arcam AV9
Decoding Formats: Dolby Digital, Dolby
Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES, Dolby Pro
Logic II(x), DTS Neo:6, LPCM, THX
Ultra2, THX Surround ES and ES, THX
Inputs: Stereo analog (8), multichannel
analog (1), coax digital (5), optical digital (2),composite video (5), S-video (5),
component video (3), HDMI (5)
Outputs: Stereo analog (3), multichannel
analog (1), coax digital (1), composite
video (3), S-video (2), component video
(1), HDMI (1)
Dimensions: 17" x 5.2" x 14.2"
Weight: 20 lbs.
Halcro SSP100
Decoding Formats: Dolby Digital, Dolby
digital inputs is their way with musical
lines. Here I refer not merely to melodic
lines, though they are certainly important. Rather, I am speaking of the wondrous array of movement that music
embodies. Aside from melodic lines, there
are dynamic lines, and even lines created
by the shifting timbres within, say, a classical works’ orchestration. The Halcro
makes them all uncommonly lucid.
Following them becomes not only easy,
but a joy.
The Halcro’s internal DAC, which
outperforms my reference unit in several
respects, is bound to embarrass whatever is in your CD player. So if you have a
digital output on that thing, use it.
Ditto your DVD player, for the Halcro’s
digital prowess extends to film soundtrack decoding, where it dispenses
benchmark-caliber performance.
In philosophy, features, and sonic
priorities, the Arcam AV9 is all about
analog, though its digital performance is
respectable. If most of your music
sources are analog—including CD and
DVD players with analog outputs—the
AV9 would make a formidable centerpiece for a combined hometheater/music system. Contrarily, the
Halcro SSP100 prioritizes digital sonics
and features above all, and for appropriate sources the result is superb. Of
course, none of the SSP100’s digital
goodness would be audible if it didn’t
also encompass a truly fine analog stage.
Sadly, there seems to be no satisfactory
way to directly access it. If there were,
this controller’s analog source performance would presumably equal or better
that of its digital inputs. And that
would be quite something. As it stands,
those with primarily digital sources, and
the requisite cash, should place the
SSP100 at the top of their music-minded controller list.
Digital EX, DTS, DTS-ES, Dolby Pro
Logic II(x), DTS Neo:6, LPCM, THX
Ultra2, THX Surround EX
Inputs: Stereo analog (11), multichannel
analog (2), coax digital (4), optical digital (2), composite video (6), S-video (6),
component video (4), HDMI (4)
Outputs: Stereo analog (4), multichannel
analog (1), coax digital (2), optical digital (1), composite video (4), S-video (3),
component video (1), HDMI (1)
Dimensions: 17" x 7" x 16"
Weight: 30.9 lbs.
Audiophile Systems, Ltd
8709 Castle Park Drive
Indianapolis, Indiana 46256
(317) 841-4100
Price: $5749
871 Grier Drive, Suite B-1
Las Vegas, Nevada 89119
(702) 270-9307
Price: $9990
The Cutting Edge
MBL 5011 Linestage Preamp, 1521 A CD
Transport, and 1511 E DAC
Wayne Garcia
Can any solid-state and digital components
seduce a pair of grumpy ol’ tube ’n’ analog guys?
t’s no secret to followers of this hobby that solid-state
electronics and Red Book CD players have recently
advanced to previously unheard—and for some, perhaps, unimagined—levels of musical performance.
Indeed, recent articles in these very pages have discussed how the best of today’s solid-state electronics are
exhibiting far lower levels of noise (and its attendant
grain) and tonal darkness than designs of even the relatively
recent past, while at the same time showing large improve-
ments in low-level, tonal, and dynamic resolution. Likewise,
not only are the best CD players traversing a similar sonic pathway, they’re somehow piecing digits together in a way that
makes them musically involving to a degree most analog lovers
never thought possible. That said, there’s good…and then
there’s spectacularly good.
Which rather quickly brings me to the products made by
the German outfit MBL. But before I explain why the MBL
items under review here have for me redefined their respective
The Cutting Edge
categories, I need to touch on something that both reviewers
and readers should remember—unless you’ve heard something
either in your own system or one you know intimately well you
haven’t really heard it, or at least not to a degree that makes for
an authoritative opinion. So even though my amigo Jon Valin
has been touting MBL’s gear for the past few years, and I, along
with pretty much all who have heard them, have walked away
raving about the company’s presentations at the past few CESes,
it wasn’t until I actually heard these components in my own
room that I was able to comprehend just how astonishing
MBL’s achievements with electronics are. (At shows, after all,
it’s all too easy to be razzle-dazzled by the company’s exotic
looking Radialstrahler speakers.) For those who dare to dream
of components that marry the best of tubes with the best of
solid-state, who fantasize not about big-bosomed beauties but
about a CD player that will instead let them enjoy digital playback nearly as much as analog, MBL’s designs come closer than
any other I’ve heard.
As planned, this trio came my way when Bill Parish of
GTT Audio visited in March to deliver and set up the Kharma
Mini-Exquisite speakers, which were another highlight of the
last CES. But eager as I was to hear the Minis, I decided that
before we placed them in my listening room I first needed to
hear the MBL electronics on my reference speaker of the past 16
months, Kharma’s Ceramique Reference Monitor 3.2. One by
one Bill and I began replacing the gear I had been listening to
with the MBL components. Now, what I’d been living with was
hardly chopped liver. It was in fact the very fine and beautifulsounding Hovland HP-200 preamp I reviewed in Issue 162,
along with Hovland and Nordost Valkyrja cables, an Arcam
digital transport, and Musical Fidelity’s excellent Tri-Vista 21
DAC (Hovland’s RADIA and Kharma MP-150s did amplification duties). Each replacement—first preamp, then DAC, then
transport—resulted in similar ear-opening and eye-popping
experiences. For this phase of the process, we used but a single
piece of music—the gorgeously played and recorded
Stern/Bernstein version of the Barber Violin Concerto [Sony].
We’d play the first and second movements, switch in a piece of
MBL gear, and play them again. Each switch brought dramatically improved levels of transparency, resolution, depth, air,
tonal richness and beauty, dynamic shading as well as wallop,
and a riveting involvement with every aspect of the music making. (And by the way, this isn’t MBL’s most costly level, nor
even by a long shot the most expensive gear out there, though
at $8382 for the linestage, $9130 for the transport, and $8910
for the DAC, ’taint exactly cheap, either.)
Never before have I experienced solid-state and digital
components with the rich and lifelike tone colors I’m hearing
here, or ones with the kind of transparency that allows you to
imagine you’re “seeing” into a recording and “around” the players and their instruments. Never before have I known any solidstate and digital with such a convincing projection of “bloom,”
attended by a lingering, ghostlike decay of notes and as deeply
layered depth of soundstage. And perhaps most tellingly, never
before have I experienced the kind of emotional pull, intellectual involvement, and sheer musical joy with solid-state and
digital components than I am experiencing with this stuff.
Now, I’m not saying that the MBL components sound like
tubes. They do not in ways I’ll discuss below (and which
Jonathan tackles in some fresh ways in his companion piece
that follows on the 6010 D). What they manage to do is offer
a pretty wonderful mixture of what we appreciate in the sound
of both transistor and vacuum tube electronics. And rather than
say the MBL gear sounds “musical,” let me instead say that the
MBL gear brings the music and its recorded space into my
room in a way that frankly makes me care not a fig if the chassis are filled with tubes, transistors, or jellybeans.
For instance, if you were to play the beautiful-sounding
Deutsche Grammophon CD of the Mutter/Levine reading of
Berg’s Violin Concerto, you’ll notice a startlingly expansive
soundfield of tremendous depth—though not necessarily
width, the one area in which the MBL electronics are merely
good, as opposed to exceptional—gorgeously rich and convincing tone colors, and a remarkably tiered dynamic range that
finds Mutter’s violin sharing a dialogue-like exchange with
other string players before the entire orchestra rushes in for a
near chaotic and absolutely thrilling climax. This is a complex
and occasionally busy composition that the MBL stuff not only
handles with ease but conveys in a way that allows the composers intentions to shine through, unmolested. As JV points
The Cutting Edge
out, the MBL sound is a touch darker, perhaps a shade more
beautiful than life, but in tandem with its remarkable air,
transparency to the recording venue, and outstanding detail, I’d
say that’s a compliment.
And this ability to bring the recording site home is one of
the reasons the MBL designs bring music so fully to life. Take
György Ligeti’s brilliant dark comic opera Le Grand Macabre
[Sony]. This 1998 live recording from Paris presents a soundstage so magically laid before your listening seat, along with a
spooky-palpable sense of the theater’s ambience (there’s a bit of
audience noise and mild laughter) that makes you a part of the
event. Ligeti’s complexly scored orchestra and small ensemble
of singers are defined not only by exquisitely solid image placement but also by an unusual three-dimensionality—one that
layers the musicians and singers back from the front plane of
the Kharma Minis, and also allows you to track the singers
movements across the stage, next to and around one another.
This recording also highlights the virtues of solid-state—the
ability to deliver hard and fast transients with pistol-shot-like
speed, and a bottom end that has a mind-bending combination
of richness, weight, and explosive power. This is by far the most
“live” sounding system I’ve experienced in my home.
Now, this, and any review, is of course not only a review of the
items under scrutiny but of the entire system or systems it has
been part of. Therefore, credit must also be given to the associated items listed at the end of this article and especially to Kharma’s
marvelous Mini Exquisite, which I’ll report on next issue.
One final thing about the MBL sound—and this relates
especially to the 1521A CD transport and 1511 E DAC: Buyer
beware. Because these products make listening to CDs such a
fresh, lively, and deeply involving experience, you’re likely to
start spending large chunks of your discretionary income on all
kinds of new music. I know that I have.
MBL 6010 D Preamplifier
Jonathan Valin
ince I plan to compare the MBL 6010 D
linestage preamplifier—the big brother to the
5011 that Wayne just extolled—with the best
tube preamplifier I’ve heard, the Audio Research
Corporation Reference 3 (reviewed in TAS 159),
I want to start by talking a bit about tubes and
In our next issue, reviewer Jacob Heilbrunn notes that the
twain shall never meet, and he’s right. The trouble is he’s also
wrong. The two don’t sound more alike in important specific
ways, but they do sound more alike in important general ones.
Let me explain. If you were to map the anatomy of a musical note, it would divide neatly into three sequential parts or
phases: the attack or transient phase, the steady-state tone
phase, and the decay phase. All three are essential to creating a
lifelike semblance of the real thing, but all three are more or
less fudged by both the recording and playback process.
What typically goes wrong, to my ear, is something that
The Cutting Edge
might be called “timing errors”—that is,
errors in the realistic reproduction of the
duration of each event (and each event has
a different duration). As jitter does in
digital recording and playback, timing
errors in analog recording and playback
tend to distort—to artificially expand or
condense—the little slices of time (and
the dynamic/harmonic information that
is contained in them) that constitute
each phase of a note’s sound.
Typically tube playback makes
everything sound “longer,” like the sostenuto pedal on a piano—
i.e., it expands a note’s duration, enriching its colors and textures but softening its impact. Harmonics seem to linger in the
air longer with tubes; the air itself seems to be more present;
instruments seem larger and more forward on the soundstage.
At the same time the sharpness of instrumental attacks seems
slightly dulled—too spread out over time. Consequently,
instrumental outlines are more splayed out and fuzzier, bigger
and less focused.
Typically solid-state playback makes these same events
sound “shorter,” like the damping pedal on a piano—i.e., it
condenses a note’s duration, slightly desaturating tone color
and abbreviating slow-developing textures, but increasing clarity and focus in the way that the clean sharp lines of a penand-ink drawing do compared with the thicker, softer lines of
a pencil sketch. Harmonics don’t seem to be as richly developed as they are with tubes; the sense of air around each note
(and of air expanding and collapsing with the building up and
decaying of dynamics and tone—what I call “action” or
“bloom”) is lessened; instruments seem slightly smaller, more
focused, and less forward on the soundstage. At the same time
the sharpness of both starting and stopping transients is
enhanced; consequently, instrumental outlines are sharper and
more distinct, and large-scale dynamics have greater and more
lifelike speed and impact.
To put this difference more positively, transistors are faster
on the uptake, and better at reproducing that part of the note
where speed and concision matter most—the attack or transient phase. Tubes are slower to start, and better at reproducing
those parts of the note that develop more gradually over time—
the steady-state tone and decay phases. Both gain strategies
have trouble shifting speeds, and even at their best both only
approximate the actual durations of real-life musical notes.
This is the way things stood until fairly recently. Yeah,
some solid-state had begun to slow down enough to let you
smell the roses; and some tubes had gained significantly in
transient speed and clarity. But, as Jacob correctly notes, the
fundamental virtues (and vices) of tubes and solid-state have
remained more or less the same.
The arrival of the MBL 6010 D preamp and MBL 9011
MBL 6010 D
amplifier, followed shortly thereafter by the Audio Research
Reference 3 preamp and Reference 210 amplifier, shook my
faith in this paradigm. Not that you would mistake the sound
of MBL for ARC; they both still shine where transistors and
tubes customarily shine. The thing of it is they also shine where
transistors and tubes customarily don’t.
Although I’ve already used this musical example in my
review of the ARC Reference 3 and Reference 210, it is worth
repeating because it so clearly points up the difference between
the MBL 6010 D and every other preamp I’ve heard.
Towards the end of the first movement cadenza in
Montsalvatge’s Concerto Breve for piano and orchestra
[London], pianist Alicia de Larrocha plays a loud chord sforzando (i.e., suddenly and forcefully) and then uses the sostenuto
pedal to sustain the harmonics. The note goes on for several seconds, and at its finish, after each of the piano’s tone colors has
died away, a single very-low-level enharmonic overtone continues to sound for a time before it finally and unmistakably stops,
and the note ends.
This is a classic example of instrumental decay—the lowlevel harmonic and dynamic information at the tail end of a
note. In this case, decay is more marked because of the use of
the sustain petal and the moment of rest that follows it, but in
general it holds to the outline of any instrument’s decay.
In the past, tubes have been the indisputable champs of
decay, and of very low-level resolution of tone color and dynamics. Even though they are often noisier than solid-state, they
still hold onto notes longer, spinning them out more fully than
transistors do.
With the MBL 6010 D, this paradigm was, for the first
time, turned on its head. No other preamp that I’ve heard can
clearly and audibly sustain Alicia de Larrocha’s sostenuto (or preserve something like the back-of-the-stage echo of Ian and
Sylvia’s voices on the “Texas Rangers” cut of Northern Journey
[Cisco/Vanguard]) as fully and completely as the 6010 D—not
even the great (and it is) Audio Research Reference 3. As I’ve
The Cutting Edge
already noted, listening through the ARC Ref 3, you would be
hard put to decide exactly when that piano note ends and
silence begins; the sound just sort of dithers away into the
slightly higher noise-floor of the tube preamp. With the 6010
D, the end of that note is like a bank vault door closing.
Nor does the 6010 D’s uncanny grip on the timing of notes
just apply to decays. It does timbre (the steady-state tone phase)
with astonishing richness, and, of course, it retains solid-state’s
superb transient response on the attack phase. The net result of
the MBL’s very low level of “timing error” is a huge increase in
resolution with few or none of the usual solid-state penalties
paid in the desaturation of tone colors and loss of fine textures.
The 6010 D is the highest-resolution preamp I’ve yet heard—
and, simultaneously, the least analytical sounding. In fact, it is
downright gorgeous.
The truly wonderful thing about having all this beauty,
energy, and resolution on tap is how much the 6010 D can tell
you not just about where, when, and how individual instruments are being played, but also about the way in which an
entire piece of music is designed to work. By so clearly preserving
the timing of the dynamics and harmonics of pianist Robert
Miller’s Steinway in Mario Davidovsky’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Synchronisms No. 6 [Turnabout], for instance, the 6010 D
makes it plain that the composer is consistently using Moogsynthesized sounds to modulate the piano’s attacks and decays.
Likewise, when composer Luciano Berio has violinist Romuald
Tecco sound a quarter-tone to make a brief surprisingly askew
harmony with Dennis Russell Davies’ piano in “Due Pezzi”
[Philips], the 6010 D’s uncanny way with this “bent” note’s
color and duration gives you a crystalline sense of the Bartókian
wit of the piece—and of the virtuosity with which Berio typically writes for individual instruments.
What is the reason for this sudden increase in solid-state
resolution, particularly with longer-duration events, like the
build-up and decay of timbre? HP has recently argued that the
improved resolution of the best gear is due, across the board, to
a significant lowering of the noise floor. However, I’m not certain that the 6010 D’s very low noise and very high bandwidth
are all that make it such a standout, although I am sure that
these things contribute greatly to its excellence.
MBL makes a big deal about the quality of the 6010 D’s
power supply (so, BTW, does ARC with its Reference 3), and
I’m inclined to think that, in both instances, power supply is
the key. Part of the difference between solid-state and tubes—
part of the reason for their characteristically different timing
errors—is the speed with which they dispense their energy.
With their quicker rise times, solid-state preamps and amps
were always better at events that called for sudden bursts, like
transients or big dynamic swings, and because of their advantage in bandwidth this inherent speed was also available at the
frequency extremes. The “slower,” more bandwidth-limited,
but more continuously available power (because, unlike transistors, tubes have no on-off cycles) of tube preamps and amps
made them better at providing energy for slower-to-develop,
longer-duration events, like the buildup and decay of timbres.
This has now changed. It’s as if the MBL 6010 D has not
only much greater reserves of power on tap, but it has also developed another gear—a sostenuto pedal of its own, if you will—
so that it no longer treats everything like a transient and, thereby, shortchanges the development and decay of timbre. At the
same time, it is also fair to say that the ARC Reference 3—with
its greatly improved bandwidth, lower noise floor, and significantly beefed-up power supply—no longer blunts starting
transients to the extent that tubes once did; nor is it anything
like a slouch at the frequency extremes. While not quite the
inexhaustible dynamo that is the MBL 6010 D, the Ref 3
comes surprisingly close to that new paragon (closer, actually,
than I gave it credit for when I reviewed it), and exceeds the
6010 D in certain important respects (for which, see below).
So is the MBL 6010 D the “perfect” preamp? While it
comes closer to these laurels than anything else I’ve heard, no,
it is not.
First, it is persistently a bit darker and prettier than life. I
doubt if either of these colorations will bother anyone much,
but, for the record, they are there.
Second, while it has more detail overall than anything else out
there, some information escapes it. Here we come, again, to the
classic tube/transistor crossroads. The 6010 D cannot be beat from
the plane of the instruments—which, characteristically with the
MBL, are set back a bit in the soundstage—to the rear walls of the
hall or studio. It will reproduce any musical event that occurs in
this portion of sonic space more fully than any other piece of electronics I’ve heard in my home. But…from the plane of the instruments forward to the listener, the Audio Research beats it out.
The Cutting Edge
What I am referring to here is the way instrumental voices
are projected towards you and recede back as dynamics build
and wane—what I call action or bloom. The MBL 6010 D is
certainly not devoid of bloom, but compared to the ARC it is
just a bit more static in imaging, where the tube preamp is
alive with the ebb and flow of musical energy.
Third, the MBL’s soundstage depth and height are terrific,
but its stage width seems just a tiny bit narrower or, at least,
more compacted than the ARC’s. This is probably a psychoacoustic effect, because the ARC is a somewhat bigger imager
than the MBL and not as dark or warm as the 6010 D, and the
air between and around instruments is therefore easier to sense.
The difference between the sound of these two preamps is
actually small but profound: The MBL 6010 D reproduces LPs
and CDs in a way that seems to take you to the recording site—
with it you are there in the studio with the musicians. The ARC
Reference 3 reproduces LPs and CDs in a way that seems to
bring the instruments from the recording site into your
home—with it the musicians are there with you in your room.
Which presentation do I prefer? Well…that depends on
my mood. For the greatest transparency to the source, for that
time-warp feeling of being an eavesdropper at the recording
session, the 6010 D is nonpareil. For the greatest life-likeness,
for that chill-up-the-spine sense of hearing instruments sound
as if they are in the room with you, the ARC Reference 3 is
marginally superior—but only marginally. Frankly I can live
more than happily with either preamp—and do. (I should note
that the 6010 D gives you the option of a solder-in phonostage
board that is as good as anything short of top-line stand-alone
phonostages like the Lamm, Aesthetix, ARC, or ASR. The
ARC does not have this built-in phonostage option.)
Of course, if you want to get a taste of both contemporary
solid-state and tube strengths, just use the old-tried-and-true
method of pairing the 6010 D with the tube Reference 210 (or
the ARC Ref 3 with the solid-state MBL 9008); I’ve heard both
mix ’n’ match combos, and they sound fantastic.
5011 Preamp
Inputs: Seven (one balanced XLR, six single-ended RCA)
Outputs: Six in two groups. Group One: Two XLR, one RCA; Group
Two: One XLR, two RCA
Dimensions: 18" x 6.1" x 15.7"
Weight: 42 lbs.
Price: $8382
6010 D Preamp
Inputs: Eight (two balanced XLR, six single-ended RCA)
Outputs: Six in two groups. Group One: Two XLR, one RCA; Group
Two: One XLR, two RCA
Dimensions: 21" x 9" x 12"
Weight: 77 lbs.
Price: $18,920
1521 A CD Transport
Drive: Die-cast metal frame; 3-beam laser, glass lens
Type of outputs: One XLR, two RCA
Dimensions: 18" x 6.3" x 16"
Weight: 44 lbs.
Price: $9130
1511 E DAC
Type of inputs: XLR, RCA, BNC, TosLink (glass optional)
Type of outputs: One digital (RCA), three analog (two RCA, one XLR)
Dimensions: 17.7" x 4.4" x 15.7"
Weight: 33 lbs.
Price: $8910
6615 East Sleepy Owl Way
Scottsdale, Arizona 85262
(480) 563-4393
[email protected]
WG’s Associated Equipment
Redpoint Model B turntable; Tri-Planar VII arm; Shelter 90X cartridge; Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage and PL-1 phonostage;
Hovland HP-200 preamp and RADIA power amp; Kharma MP-150 monoblock amps; Kharma Ceramique 3.2 and Mini
Exquisite speakers; Kubala-Sosna Emotion interconnects, speaker cables, power cords, and Expression digital cable; Tara
Labs Zero interconnect and digital cables, Omega speaker cables, and The One power cords; Nordost Thor power distribution center; Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks; Hannl record cleaning machine, L’Art du Son LP and CD cleaning fluids
JV’s Associated Equipment
Walker Proscenium Gold record playing system and Kuzma Stabi XL turntable with Air Line arm; Clearaudio Titanium
and London Reference cartridges; MBL 1611 E transport/1621 A digital-to-analog converter; Lamm LP2 Deluxe and
Audio Research PH-7 phonostages; MBL 9011 and 9008 monoblocks and Audio Research Reference 200, and Lamm
ML2 amplifiers; MBL 101, Ascendo M, and MAGICO Mini loudspeakers; Tara Labs “The Zero” interconnect, Tara Labs
Omega speaker cable, Tara Labs “The One” power cords; Shakti Hallographs; Winds Arm Load meter; Clearaudio
Matrix record cleaning machine; Cable Elevators; Walker Audio Velocitors; Walker Audio Valid Points; Walker Custom
Equipment Stand; Richard Gray Power Company 600S/Pole Pig
The Cutting Edge
Pass Labs XA160 and X600.5
Monoblock Power Amplifiers
Anthony H. Cordesman
A Tale of Two Amplifiers
his is not a review for audiophiles who have blundered into the wrong magazine and think that all
amplifiers sound the same. It is an exploration of
two new amplifiers from the same designer and
firm, of how their sound differs in nuance, and how
they differ in terms of their interface with different
speakers. It also is in some ways a warning about
amplifier reviews and system interfaces, and about the need to
carefully listen to the synergy—or lack of it—between your
power amplifiers, speaker cables, speakers, and listening rooms.
I also should stress that the two amplifiers involved—the
Pass XA160 and X600.5—do sound very much alike. They
should. They are both made by Pass Audio Labs; they are
both designed by teams led by Nelson Pass; they are built on
the same chassis; they both have the same basic “super symmetry” and two-gainstage circuit topology. They also are
both expensive high-end products where cost is a minor constraint on performance; both sell for $18,000 the pair.
The Cutting Edge
Both designs are based on long evolutionary experience.
Nelson Pass is one of the most famous amplifier designers in
the high end, and the design teams he has led both at
Threshold and at Pass Labs have consistently pursued accuracy
and sonic purity, not gimmicks or fashion. Like most of the best
high-end designers, Pass has gotten
steadily better. Each generation of
amplifiers he has produced has been a
bit cleaner, has better low-level transients and dynamics, and is sweeter
and more detailed. He has also been
consistent in the way he “voices” his
amplifiers: open and detailed, not
warm and forgiving; extended highs
and flat levels of upper midrange energy; equally flat mid and upper bass,
with no gimmicks to give the sound
more punch and “rhythm.”
Like most audiophiles, I’m not
willing to make one more compromise
than I have to. I want both power and nuance. I want an amplifier that can drive virtually any speaker, regardless of character
and load. I want it to sound exactly the same every time I turn
it on, so I can be sure that I hear the real differences between
the components I’m reviewing in my reference system. I also
want it to be both neutral and “musical” in the sense that it is
revealing and does not color or exaggerate, but also is not “analytic” or fatiguing.
Pass Labs has delivered what I personally want in one of my
reference components ever since it introduced its Aleph series. I
have paid close attention to the Pass
X-series ever since, and when the
series of events that led to this review
began, I was using the Pass X600.
Shortly after the XA160 was introduced, however, I replaced my Pass
X600.5 with it. I chose the XA160s
over the X600.5s because—like many
preceding Class A designs and tube
designs—they offered a slight advantage in terms of nuance in low-to-midlevel passages. They improved the air,
life, harmonic integrity, and low-mid
level dynamics of the music. They also
tilted the timbre slightly towards the
upper bass and lower midrange—which helps compensate for
the bright upper midrange and close-in perspective of far too
many modern recordings. Plus my main reference speakers—the
TAD-1s and Theil 7.2s—have very extended highs and more
upper midrange energy than most reference-quality speakers.
Pass Labs has
delivered what I
want in a reference
component ever
since it introduced
its Aleph series
The Key Design and Technical Differences Between
the XA160 and X600.5
he primary design and
between the XA160 and
X600.5 are in their output
circuitry and power. The
differences in their specifications
for distortion, frequency range,
and flatness of response are virtually negligible. The X600.5, however, is a 600-watt amplifier into 8
ohms, and the XA160 is 160 watts;
the X600.5 has a maximum current of 25 amps and the XA160 of
7 amps. The X600.5 has a faster
slew rate.
The power output of the X600.5
increases to 900 watts into 4-ohm
loads. The power of the XA160
drops sharply into lower impedances. The X600.5 has a nominal
damping factor of approximately
1000, and the XA160 has a nominal
damping factor of 30. In terms of
basic design, the XA160 is a pure
Class A design while the X600.5 has
a Class A initial gainstage, but the
output stage only operates in Class
A at low-to-medium-low power levels before shifting to Class B.
I asked Nelson Pass to explain
the difference in design and sound
quality from his perspective, and he
put it this way: “The very first X
amplifier was the X1000 and was
intended to illustrate the capability
of the SuperSymmetric circuit by
delivering more high-quality power
with two gainstages than anyone
had ever seen. Of course, we followed that up with the rest of the X
product line.
“The Class AB X amplifiers did very
well for us, but this is a company that
usually has at least some Class A
amplifiers for sale, and as the Aleph
series faded, we looked to build Class
A X amplifiers. They would not have
the higher power of the AB circuits
and they would operate less efficiently. An XA160 would deliver 160
watts and the X600 output 600 watts,
but they both required the same
amount of resources and idled at 500
watts or so.
“The X.5 and XA have a slightly
different customer base. The X.5
delivers more power and a lot more
current. It is appropriate to tougher
loads and for more cost-sensitive
customers. The XA sounds better in
general, but this assumes 6-ohm
impedance or higher, and lesser
power requirements.”
The Cutting Edge
These differences between the X600 and XA160 occurred,
however, as much because of amplifier and speaker interactions
as because of the inherent sonic character of the two amplifiers.
Moreover, I gave something up in switching to the XA160s. As
any reviewer can tell you, there is often only a marginal correlation between the technical measurement of an amplifier’s
power and its real-world musical performance in a given system. The X600s, however, had much more apparent power
than the XA160s with my relatively power-hungry TAD-1s
and Theil 7.2s. There was a very clear loss of high-level dynamic capability and musical energy and life with full orchestral
music and grand opera, and not just with sonic spectaculars.
These differences were not significant with more efficient,
easier-to-drive, or less-capable speakers. The Polk LSi-15 is efficient enough in any actual system and listening room that
amplifier power is less important. It cannot reproduce the same
level of dynamics as the TAD-1 and Thiel 7.2. The Quad 989
is a very good speaker, but lifelike, high dynamic levels are also
simply not its forte. With the Polks and Quads, the XA160
was clearly the better choice, and one that did not involve any
meaningful sonic sacrifices.
At the same time, the XA160 did not do as well with a truly
difficult load like the Spendor BC-1. The amp loses nearly half
its rated power into four-ohm loads, and my reference speakers
are nominally 4-ohm speakers. It did not have the X600’s amazing capability to control the speaker almost regardless of load.
This became equally clear in terms of some aspects of the Thiel
C7.2’s performance at more moderate listening levels, and in
control over the bass in the TAD-1. The XA160 is not particu-
larly speaker- or cable-sensitive. In fact, it is much less sensitive
than many high-end solid-state amps and many vacuum tube
amps. It is, however, more sensitive than the X600.
Accordingly, when Pass announced the X600.5 and
claimed it had more of the virtues of the XA160, but still had
all the power I wanted, asking to audition it was an obvious
choice. You don’t have to be a reviewer, or even an audiophile,
to want the best of both or all worlds in a single option.
Well, I didn’t get the perfect solution or the ultimate best
of both worlds. The XA160 still outperforms the X600.5 in
the areas where it outperformed the X600. This comes through
if you compare the two amps with a highly revealing and calibrated recording like the new Dolby Labs “Resolution
Project”—an extraordinary musical test record that compares
the same selections of jazz and classical music at different digital sampling rates from the lowest up to 24-bit/192kHz.
The X600.5 is, however, a serious sonic upgrade from the
X600. It does everything better in the areas where the XA160 is
still better and is a very close match. It does better in high-level
dynamics and the deep bass than the X600. It also shows that
power really does make a difference. Music comes more alive.
What sometimes seems like a touch of hardness in your speakers
or source material is revealed to be the amplifier’s limitations in
handling sudden loud peaks. The same, strangely enough, can be
true of the softness or lack of detail in sustained organ swells.
High-power amplifiers almost always seem to have better
control over the speaker, particularly in the bass. This is true
even in tube amplifiers with low damping factors, but it is
especially true of solid-state amps with high damping factors.
The Cutting Edge
The low bass is more powerful and cleaner, the midbass is
tighter, and the transition from the upper bass to lower
midrange is cleaner.
If you have a speaker that can be biamped, you can have the
best of both worlds. Put a pair of X600.5s on the woofer and a
pair of XA160s on the midrange and treble. This was the ideal
solution with my TAD-1s, although I should stress I live in a
detached house with reasonably tolerant neighbors. There is the
little matter, however, of cost. The combination of a pair of
XA160s and X600.5s is some $36,000.
Moreover, biamping does impose some minor trade-offs of
its own. You’ll get an argument on this from some of the best
reviewers and designers in the business. But to me, biamping
always imposes at least some cost in the coherence of solo
instruments, solo voice, and great chamber music and jazz
recordings. Important as combining high-level dynamic contrasts with midrange air and sweetness can be at very high levels, there is no such thing as a free launch (pun intended).
We are talking about two great amplifiers here, some of the
best equipment around. The Pass Labs XA160 and X600.5
should definitely be on your auditioning list if your taste in
sound is anything like mine, and if it isn’t, you should audition
them anyhow simply to hear them and decide whether or not
your taste has changed.
Pass XA160
Power Output: 160 watts into 8 ohms
Dimensions 19" x 11.5" x 22"
Weight 150 lbs.
Pass X600.5
Power Output: 600 watts into 8 ohms
Dimensions 19" x 11.5" x 22"
Weight 150 lbs.
VPI TNT HX-X turntable and HWJr 12.5 arm; Van den Hul Black Beauty,
Sumiko Celebration, and Koetsu Onyx Cartridges; McIntosh MVP-861
SACD/DVD-A/DVD player; PS Audio Lambda CD transport (modified);
TacT 2.2X digital preamp-room correction-equalizer-D/A convertor; Pass
Xono phono preamp; Pass X0.2 stereo preamp
P.O. Box 219, Foresthill Road
Foresthill, California 95631
(530) 367-3690
Prices: $18,000 each
manufacturer comments
Aerial Acoustic Model 9 Loudspeaker
Our design goal for the Model 9 was to exceed the benchmark performance of its predecessor, the Model 10T, while
improving both sensitivity and appearance. As with the 10T,
we also wanted to provide performance comparable to speakers at double its price.
Exceeding the 10T’s midrange and treble openness, naturalness, and transparency was particularly difficult. The
result speaks for itself as Jacob’s comments reveal.
In the bass, we used 4 expensive, long-stroke 7.1"
woofers to provide exceptional quickness and control with
the cone area equivalent to a 14" woofer, but without the
larger driver’s limitations. This is also how we increased
power handling and achieved 90dB sensitivity. Low frequency extension was not sacrificed. Downward venting
was used to provide more constant loading and better
placement flexibility than rear venting. The front baffle is
8.5" narrow for good imaging. The slim profile cabinet is
well-braced for low coloration, and has large internal volume for deep bass extension.
Regarding overall performance, we appreciated Jacob’s
various comments such as “luscious midrange, overall
smoothness, detail, authority, image stability, splendid linearity, and dynamic ease.” We would like to add that these
characteristics are constant from quiet to thunderous levels.
During our visit, we did not have a chance to hear the
speakers in Jacob’s new listening room since it was under
construction. We set up temporarily in an untreated, square
room, which exhibited the usual glare and lumpy bass common to such rooms. Normally we like to verify that the final
setup is good. I can only guess that placement was not optimum (dynamic speakers generally require different positioning than planars), or that the new room, whose dimensions
and wall treatments were changed, was not yet familiar. Our
experience, and that of our customers, is that the Model 9
does not have the problems noted.
Once again, we appreciate this opportunity and welcome
any questions. We hope readers will seek out and visit displaying Aerial dealers so they can hear for themselves what
Jacob found so special in the new Model 9s.
Arcam AV9 Controller
We are so happy you like our AV9 processor. As to your
impressions of the sonics of the AV9 we see no issue with
Alan’s conclusions. He seems to have hit on exactly what
Arcam intended to do. John Dawson, the founder of Arcam,
writes “Arcam balanced the sound of analog inputs of the
AV8/9 to suit analog (i.e. mostly music) playback, whereas
[we] realized the digital inputs were most likely to be asso-
ciated with movie playback from DVD or a set-top box, so
[we] engineered the replay via these to be a little more forward in presentation, to suit the additional clarity required
by that medium.”
The only other comment we felt should be added is that
Arcam also offers an upgrade for all existing AV8 owners. They
only need to contact their local dealer to find out the details.
ARC 300.2 Amplifier
Thank you for including our 300.2 amplifier in your comparison. We are pleased that you saw fit to compare the 300.2
to the McIntosh and Classé amps which retail for $4200 and
$6000 more, respectively. I could afford a wonderful preamplifier or pair of speakers for the difference in cost!
Tom mentions several times that the 300.2 improved
dramatically after it had 24 to 48 hours of warm-up. We
think the improvement is even greater after a week, improving smoothness and image focus. Because it idles at a mere
50 watts, probably drawing less electricity than the light
bulb on your desk, the 300.2 is intended to be left on con-
tinuously for best sound. With its great efficiency the 300.2
runs cool and does not heat up your room.
“Many audiophiles… are interested in choosing amplifiers to tune their systems.” This is part of the system-building process in which the combined components must be
synergistic—they must sound right together, in the best
sense, not merely having two wrongs balance each other out
to make a right. Yes, we have a musically involving amplifier, but the other components that precede it in the system
must be as musically involving as possible, too, because an
amplifier as good as the 300.2 cannot compensate for their
And, thank you for buying the 300.2, Tom; we hope you
will enjoy it for many years to come.
MAGICO Mini Loudspeaker
I know this sounds terribly self-congratulatory, but we couldn’t
be happier with The Absolute Sound’s glowing review of the
MAGICO Mini (from Issue 163). Although we like to think that
we design and build loudspeakers to satisfy our own internal criteria for excellence, there is still no small measure of gratification
when an experienced and critical reviewer such as Jonathan Valin
so firmly places his stamp of approval on our efforts.
That said, I would like to acknowledge and say something
about the 800-lb. audiophile gorilla alluded to in this review
(and in Robert Harley’s wonderful take on the MAGICO
Ultimate that appeared in TAS 160), i.e., the “high-end” cost
of “high-end” equipment. I know this is a passionately argued
sticking point for many TAS readers for a wide variety of reasons, both economic and psychological. When I made the decision to re-envision MAGICO as a legitimate loudspeaker manufacturer after years of being known as an ultra-boutique
builder of cost-no-object one-of-a-kind projects, I had to face
that ugly (but perhaps obvious) economic reality that most
products in this and almost every other industry are designed
and built to some targeted price point determined by market
research, tea leaves, or the demands of investors, stock holders,
or corporate executives demanding a return on the dollar. But
when push came to shove, every time we tried to introduce
some compromise in design, parts/materials selection, or manufacturing quality for the sole purpose of making a MAGICO
speaker less expensive, I was unhappy. Why? Because by definition compromise means that some aspect of the speaker’s performance, whether functional or aesthetic, had to be less than
the best that I could imagine. And I just couldn’t live with
that. We decided that we would continue to make the best
loudspeakers possible, and quite frankly, live with profit margins that are substantially lower then the industry standard.
As a result, MAGICO is still an ultra-boutique builder
of cost-no-object projects, but now we just make a few more
of them for people who can look at our design, parts, materials, construction techniques, and most of all, sonic performance, and recognize that other ugly economic reality—
that in the end, most often, you do get what you pay for.
Crystal Cable
After our start, which was indeed made with the help of
Siltech, Crystal Cable is a separate, independent company,
with its own R&D, production and design team, and a completely different set of distributors.
Crystal Cable uses coaxial construction, with one silvergold solid-core conductor, Kapton isolation, silver shield,
and a Teflon outer jacket. We do not have multiple silver
conductors; our ultra-thin conductor is made of pure silver
with gold infusions to fill molecular gaps.
m u s i c
Classical Caps
Golijov: Ainadamar. Dawn Upshaw,
soprano; Atlanta Symphony Orchestra
and Chorus, Robert Spano, conductor.
Sid McLauchlan, producer; Wolf-Dieter
Karwatky, engineer. Deutsche
Grammophon B0006429.
Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH 1/2
s v a l d o
born in Argentina, trained in
Israel and the
one of most distinctive and immediately appealing
compositional gifts to come along in
some time. His sure dramatic instincts
are apparent in Ainadamar, an “Opera in
Three Images,” presented with the
strongest possible advocacy by a cast featuring Dawn Upshaw and supported by
the musically omnivorous Robert Spano
and his Atlanta forces.
“Ainadamar” is Arabic for “fountain
of tears.” It’s the name of an ancient well
near Granada where the Spanish poet
and playwright Frederico Garcia Lorca
was killed by Falangist soldiers in 1936.
The central character in Golijov’s work
is the actress Margarita Xirga, who
remembers back from the vantage point
of the late 1960s to her early collaborations with Lorca—with some guilt, as
she fears she might have saved him. In
the work’s central “image,” Margarita is
transported back to 1936 and her failed
effort to get Lorca to join her abroad.
The final part of the opera returns to
Margarita’s present: Lorca appears to
thank the actress for keeping his art, and
thus freedom, alive. She is redeemed,
and can then die herself.
Golijov’s advanced tonal language,
infused with Latin/Iberian and Middle
Eastern elements, is irresistible, the
music frequently driven along on hyp-
Star Ratings Key:
H Poor
René Jacobs
notic rhythmic grooves. The chorus
employs only women, who often function more like back-up singers in a pop
production than an operatic chorus.
There are flamenco guitars and percussion, and seamlessly integrated electronic effects. Upshaw sings with
sweep, tremendous emotional range,
and linguistic security—the libretto, by
David Henry Hwang (M Butterfly) was
translated into Spanish by the composer. Her final “Yo soy la libertad” (“I am
freedom”) is radiant. Lorca, who was
homosexual, is portrayed by mezzosoprano Kelley O’Connor with an
androgynous gracefulness.
DG’s sound is dynamic and timbrally smooth, with satisfactory dimensionality. When Lorca is shot, the spent
shells hit the ground with disturbing
verisimilitude, before the gunfire
morphs into a kind of hip-hop beat. A
(Upshaw); Kronos Quartet: Nuevo
HH Fair
HHH Good
Mozart: La Clemenza di Tito. Soloists,
RIAS Kammerchor, Freiburg Baroque
Orchestra, René Jacobs, conductor.
Richard Lorber, producer; René Möller,
engineer. Harmonia Mundi 801923.24.
Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH
a Clemenza di
Tito was, with
the concurrently
written Die Zauberflute, Mozart’s last
opera. Despite containing some of the
master’s finest music, it’s hard for modern
listeners to accept its acres of recitatives and
the unbelievable goodness of the Roman
Emperor, whose Enlightenment ideals of
morality and mercy lead him to pardon his
wife-to-be and his closest friend, who conspired to kill him.
So a willing suspension of disbelief is
required to imaginatively enter the plot and
characters, and to revel in Mozart’s music.
HHHH Excellent
HHHHH Extraordinary
m u s i c
Jacobs helps us by investing the opera with
dramatic fire that closes the temporal and
musical distance between the opera and
today’s listener. He takes liberties—adjusting dynamics and tempos, and modifying
the recitatives which the composer farmed
out to a student. Most of all, Jacobs makes
the opera come to life, his singers delivering
those recitatives with vibrant conviction.
The outstanding cast idiomatically
embellishes coloratura passages. Mark
Padmore is a firm-voiced Tito, convincing
as he wrestles with his conscience. The key
figure is Sesto, Tito’s impressionable young
friend seduced into betrayal by Vitellia, a
nasty piece of work who’s a walking bundle
of hate, greed, and jealousy until she, too,
sees the light at the end. Mezzo-soprano
Bernarda Fink is first-rate as Sesto, persuasive in her portrayal of a good man (it’s a
pants role) who does wrong and hates himself for it. Soprano Alexandrina
Pendatchanska’s Vittelia never overdoes
the villainous bit, and her change of
heart is as credible as the text allows. The
remainder of the cast and chorus is excellent, and the period orchestra digs in;
just listen to the rip-roaring Overture.
Heard in both CD and SACD stereo,
the engineering is lifelike, with plenty
of bite to the instruments and strong
bass; the period drums really register.
Voice-orchestra balances are excellent,
and the transparent studio sound emulates a small opera-house performance. A
boon for Mozartians.
FURTHER LISTENING: Mozart: Cosi fan tutti
(Jacobs); Mozart: Marriage of Figaro (Jacobs)
John Foulds: Dynamic Triptych, MusicPictures Group III, April—England, The
Song of Ram Dass. Peter Donohoe, piano;
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra,
Sakari Oramo conductor. Tim Oldham,
producer. Warner Classics 62999.
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH
n the liner
notes to this
impressive recording, British
composer John
Patrick recalls
spending time as a boy with his family
in Italy near Mount Etna. He remembers
the mountain sometimes puffing white
smoke from its restless depths, its snowcovered peak at other times cloaked in
soft pink light. That description aptly
sums up Dynamic Triptych for piano and
orchestra (1927-29), a piano concerto that
moves from pounding ostinati to beautiful serenity, all punctuated by a string
section that occasionally plays quarter
tones that evoke the sense of falling in a
dream. This is modern music that anticipates Bartók, Martinu, and Prokofiev
while remaining firmly grounded in the
Romantic era.
Written shortly after Foulds’ sprawling War Requiem (at the close of the
Great War), Dynamic Triptych is composed of three movements (in sonata
form) that alternately explore mode,
color, and rhythm. The seven-note mode
of the toccata-like opening movement
builds upon compositional explorations
of Foulds’ earlier “Old Greek Legend”
and creates a setting for Donohoe’s
bravura performance. The slow second
movement, with those dreamy quarter
tones, casts what Foulds called “rainbow
hues” as a backdrop for romantic piano
themes. The third movement is constructed around a persistent rhythm—
2/4 plus 3/4 plus 4/4—that drunkenly
swings from march to waltz time before
a dramatic climax.
The remaining works are much less
adventurous. April—England (Impression
of Time and Place) is a bubbling ode to
Spring. Music-Pictures III has been called
Foulds’ Pictures at an Exhibition. The Song
of Ram Dass is an exquisite miniature
based on an Indian-style melody. Keltic
Lament reflects Foulds’ reputation as a
composer for theater scores and light fare.
Sonically, this is a marvelously balanced recording that blends Donohoe’s
thrilling piano work with an orchestra
and conductor that have a firm grasp on
the demanding dynamics and compositional twists presented in Foulds’ works.
The only fault is the disappointingly flat
Mantras; Alwyn: Piano Concertos Nos. 1
and 2, Sonata alla toccata (with Donohoe)
Shostakovich: Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.
St. Petersburg Philharmonic, Yuri Temirkanov,
conductor. Anna Barry, producer;
Andrew Mellor and Neil Hutchinson,
engineers. Warner Classics 623544.
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHHH
and the St.
have this music in
their bones—the
orchestra, then
the Leningrad Symphony, premiered
both works back in 1937 (the 5th) and
1939 (6th) under the legendary
Yevgeny Mravinsky, and it’s often
played by the ensemble under the direction of many conductors, including
Temirkanov, Mravinsky’s successor at
the orchestra’s helm.
A decade ago, Temirkanov made
highly regarded versions of these works
for RCA, but this new Warner Classics
disc boasts comparable, if more expansive, interpretations. This Fifth was
recorded at a 2005 concert in
Birmingham, England. It’s a bit more
leisurely than it needs to be in some
places—not least in the opening movement, whose grotesque march parody
could have more edge, and in the Largo,
whose more flowing tempo in
Temirkanov’s earlier version more effectively sustained tension. The finale is
the slowest of seven CD versions I auditioned, but it’s hard to fault the measured buildup of its ominous march,
gaining power as it progresses to an
ambiguous if powerful ending. Much
ink has been spilled on Shostakovich’s
political intentions in this symphony,
but there’s no need to add to that rising
tide—Temirkanov makes it musically
coherent and moving.
The Sixth is as successful. An oddly
structured work, its first movement is
considerably longer than the remaining two combined. Temirkanov avoids
the pitfall of making those final movements seem like alien growths grafted
onto the first. The orchestra’s winds
shine with terrific solos, and the final
m u s i c
Presto finds Shostakovich at his
wildest after a Rossinian passage in
which the strings quote the William
Tell Overture (think Lone Ranger!).
Generally fine engineering, but you’ll
have to find the sweet spot on the volume
control to fully reveal the Fifth’s detail and
impact, as it lacks the RCA version’s
greater dynamic contrasts. The Sixth,
recorded live in St. Petersburg this
January, is as detailed, and the vivid,
upfront sound delivers greater impact. DD
Complete Symphonies (Barshai);
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (Ancerl)
Prokofiev: Complete Symphonies. London
Symphony Orchestra, Valery Gergiev, conductor. James Mallison, producer;
Jonathan Stokes, engineer. Philips
4757655 (four CDs). Music: HHHH
Sonics: HHH
f Prokofiev’s
seven symphonies, the most
popular are the
Mozartian First,
whose neo-classic
style helped dispel the composer’s image as music’s Bad
Boy, and the mock-heroic Fifth, for its
irresistible melodies and energy. The
Second’s a motoric 1920s “Age of Steel”
work that substitutes big bangs for
musical interest. The Third is drawn
from Prokofiev’s opera The Fiery Angel,
and though more interesting, it also
venerates noise. The Fourth, heard in
both its original 1930 version and its
1947 extended final form, is a reworking of Prokofiev’s The Prodigal Son ballet; many of the symphonies include
strokes typical of his stage music.
The Fifth’s melodic richness is
joined to ingenious orchestration and
firm structure, further enhanced by
rewarding complexities—like the way
the opening flute-bassoon theme
returns in menacing brass and percussion, and the finale’s ambiguous coda
whose false optimism is undercut by
bleating trumpets. The grim Sixth is
also outstanding, its Largo interrupted
by threatening rhythms and brass eruptions, and the finale’s triumphal ending
destabilized by an ominous march and
orchestral screams of pain. The Seventh,
from 1952, is more genial but with sarcastic touches such as the ominous bass
ostinato that contradicts the apparently
cheerful melodic line in the finale.
Gergiev’s not a subtle conductor, so
he’s in his element in the raw violence
of these works, less so in lyric passages
where he short-changes elements of
elegance and brooding slow movements defeat his ability to maintain
tension. Still, there’s plenty to admire.
The First may be a tad too heavy and
lacking in style, but the orchestral outbursts are handled well and the playing
superb. This set’s an attractive way to
own all of Prokofiev’s symphonies, but
individual works have more eloquent
exponents—Abbado in the Third,
Ancerl in the Fifth, Malko in the First
and Seventh, to mention a few.
Kuchar’s budget-priced Naxos is as
good, as is Jarvi’s on Chandos.
The 2004 concert was taped live at
the London Orchestra’s acoustically
challenged Barbican Center home, and
the sound is far from state-of-the-art,
imposing an aural scrim between stage
and listener. The wooly bass and slightly blurred details are scant progress,
since Dorati’s 1959 Fifth on Mercury
and Malko’s 1955 Seventh on EMI
sound more dynamic and immediate.
Still, the engineering is on par with
most of today’s orchestral releases and
better than many.
R. Luke DuBois: Timelapse. DuBois,
producer. Cantaloupe 1035.
Music: HH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH
ious idea: Take
every song that
hit No. 1 on the
Billboard “Hot
100” chart from
1958 to 2000
analyze each for its average timbre (or
what he calls the music’s “spectral average” of key and register); realize a sonic
equivalent of this average by means of a
statistical algorithm run through
Max/MSP and Jitter programs; allocate
one second of playback time for each
week the song occupied the No. 1 slot;
and voilà!, Billboard, a 37-minute
sound work in four parts, compressing
857 hit songs into a time-lapse
“overview of pop history in the United
States,” as DuBois calls it. He fills out
the CD with similar treatments of the
preludes and fugues from J.S. Bach’s
The Well Tempered Clavier and the
soundtrack from Casablanca.
Anyone suffering from a music-listening variant of OCD might have a whale of
time trying to identify the snippet that
represents Wayne Fontana & the Mind
Benders’ “Game of Love” or Culture
Club’s “Karma Chameleon” or any other
chart-topper during Billboard, for which
an imbedded video with artist names and
track titles is included. Everyone else will
have to settle for whatever intrigue they
find in the dense, chord-like stop-andstart swaths of texture and pitch.
Excellent sonics which render the
electronic tones in sumptuous velveteen
along a deep, narrow, vanishing-point
perspective between speakers greatly
enhance the listening experience and
especially help the ten-minute Casablanca
treatment achieve a kind of fog-like
mystery and ambient beauty lacking in
the other pieces. Ultimately, DuBois’
delicious sound and furious thinking
don’t signify “nothing,” but they don’t
draw us into the kind of experience the
concept promises.
ive-star concepts do not necessarily
yield five-star music. For Timelapse,
R. Luke DuBois came up with an ingen-
Further Listening: Brian Eno: Ambient 1:
Music for Airports, Plunderphonics:
Greyfolded 1969-1996
Symphonies (Kuchar); Prokofiev: Piano
Concertos (Gergiev)
m u s i c
The Cries of London. Theater of Voices;
Fretwork. Nicholas Parker, producer;
Parker and Brad Michel, engineers. Hybrid
multichannel. Harmonia Mundi 807214.
Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH
ostly, the actual sounds of daily life
accompanying the 99.999% of
human existence before Thomas Alva
Edison are forever lost. Here’s an excep-
tion. In the first
decades of the
seventeenth century, it became
the rage for
respected English
incorporate the distinctive vocalizations
of London’s working class, plying their
goods and services, into musical works.
This enchanting disc from Paul Hillier’s
Theater of Voices and peerless viol consort Fretwork offers several of these, all
from musicians born in the later 1500s.
The best-known composer here is
Orlando Gibbons, highly regarded in
his lifetime for sacred music. His twopart Cries takes us from the early morn-
New vinyl releases
Hindemith: Violin Concerto/Mozart: Violin Concerto No. 3.
Joseph Fuchs, violin; London Symphony Orchestra, Eugene
Goossens, cond. Bert Whyte, recording engineer. Classic
Records/Everest SDBB-3040 (200-gram LP).
Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH
Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition/Night on Bald Mountain.
London Symphony Orchestra, Malcom Sargent, cond. Bert
Whyte, recording engineer. Classic Records/Everest SDBB3053 (200-gram LP). Music: HHH Sonics: HHH
he first of Hindemith’s eight concertos, the Violin Concerto was composed
in 1939—the year that the Second World
War began—and yet, hearing it, one
would never guess that the world was
falling apart (as one would from, say, the
Divertimento for String Orchestra or the
whole of Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre
for Violin and String Orchestra, both of
which were also composed in 1939). Big,
raw-boned, and romantic, Hindemith’s
concerto has the soar and sweep of a great
nineteenth-century concerto and, in its
alternation of the violin part and the orchestral parts, some
of the concertante style of the eighteenth. Yet it couldn’t be
more twentieth-century in its expressively chromatic but
fundamentally tonal idiom, or more timeless in its joyous
energy and invention. Though he went into exile in the
U.S. to protest the Nazi regime, for Hindemith—as for
ing hours to midnight with dozens of
personages colorfully represented, as the
five singers continually alter the character of their voices and accents. Both sections end with an appealing, madrigallike summation. In the margins next to
the texts, Harmonia Mundi provides
explanations of terms that will certainly
be unfamiliar to contemporary listeners:
“frumenty” is cereal with milk; a “closestool” is a chamber pot.
The Cries set by Thomas Weelkes
and Richard Dering views the same
reality but is subtly different in effect.
Good humor abounds, as (in the
Weelkes work) the folks on the street
are not just hawking mackerel, salt, and
apple pie but also seeking information
Matthias Grünewald, the artist-hero of his great opera
Mathis der Maler—art and politics were, finally, separate
(though Hindemith was only too well aware that the fascists didn’t look at things this way). While the concerto has
been recorded often (most notably by Stern and Bernstein),
this exciting, expertly played, very-well-recorded (at
London’s Walthamstow Hall, no less) Fuchs/Goossens version is entirely worthy of purchase—the gem of these
Classic/Everest reissues.
Little needs to be said about Pictures at an Exhibition. It
is witty, colorful, evocative, and astonishingly original, and
Ravel’s orchestration of what was written as a piece for solo
piano is famously celebrated. Alas, this performance is pretty close to awful. Though Classic, in its PR, tries to spin
Sargent’s lethargic conducting into something interesting, it
is not. It is dull and torpid. This is one I would avoid—not
so much because of the sound, which is good but not great,
but because of the performance.
A word or two on Bert Whyte’s recordings. At his
Everest label, Whyte pioneered stereo recording on 35mm
film rather than 1/2" magnetic tape. (Mercury’s 35mm
recordings came later, though, like Whyte, Merc, too,
always used a minimalist miking setup.) The advantages of
the larger format offered by 35mm film were said to be better frequency response and linearity and higher signal-tonoise ratios, though some folks found the sound of original
Everests a bit hot and “glassy.”
Classics has taken great pains to get the tape-to-disc
transfer process just right, using a vintage Westrex 1551
tape machine, with specially built tube playback electronics.
To my ear, the results are a complete success. Classic’s Len
Horowitz and Bernie Grundman have tamed the hot high
end of Everests without touching their famously lovely textures and dynamics, and vast soundstaging. Bravo to both!
m u s i c
on a missing horse—blind, minus a leg,
and possessing “a great hole in her arse
and there your snout.” Dering also provides a slapstick rural version of this
slice-of-life treatment, The Country
Cries, and William Cobbold’s New
Fashions, in a more traditional verse setting, surveys the era’s interpersonal and
romantic terrain.
These quasi-documentary pieces are
broken up on the disc by purely instrumental selections by Gibbons and
Dering. The ensemble sonority produced by the six-member Fretwork is
intoxicating—rich, beautifully balanced, and technically secure, lending
flawless intonation and complete clarity
to the independent voices. Also programmed are two unaccompanied partsongs and three “echo duets” by Michael
Ravenscroft’s haunting ballad, The Three
Ravens, gorgeously sung by soprano Elsa
Torp and supported by the other vocalists and bowed instruments.
The sound is a pleasure, with both
voices and viols sumptuously reproduced. Multichannel possibilities are
knowingly exploited. In Gibbon’s Cries,
voices appear sparingly in the rear channels; in Weelkes’ work, a single vendor
approaches from the distance, passes by,
and then recedes behind the listener. You
don’t have to be an early music enthusiAQ
ast to thoroughly enjoy this gem
FURTHER LISTENING: Les Travailleurs de
la Mer (The Harp Consort); Bolivian
Baroque (Florilgium) (SACD)
Wagner: Die Walküre. John Bröcheler
(Wotan); Lisa Gasteen (Brünnhilde); Stuart
Skelton (Siegmund); Deborah Riedel
(Sieglinde); Richard Green (Hunding);
State Opera of South Australia, Asher
Fisch, conductor. Maria Vandamme and
Ian Perry, producers; Phil Rowlands, engineer. Hybrid multichannel. Melba
301091-94 (four discs). Music: HHH
Sonics: HHH 1/2
Walküre is the
first complete
Wagner opera to
appear on SACD.
It’s not, of course,
the first in surround sound: considering only the Ring,
there are six cycles on DVD, complete or
in progress, all with a multichannel
option. But those are relatively low-fi
DTS or Dolby Digital, which cheats the
listener out of some of the composer’s
luxuriant orchestral syntax.
Melba’s live recording was made
with 65 microphones. The final product
sounds like it was mixed for atmosphere
rather than attempting to document a
real-life acoustic, in this case the
Adelaide Festival Center. Voices, with
rare exception, are upfront, but the
orchestral recording allows Wagner partisans to wallow in the richly scored
strings and brasses as never before. The
rear channels occasionally output direct
sound—Hunding’s horns at the close of
Act II, or an arriving Valkyrie in Act III.
Timbrally, the sound is smooth with a
solid bottom end.
Most of the singers for the entire
Adelaide Ring, of which this set is the
Australians. There are two world-class
Wagnerians here, German John
Bröcheler and Lisa Gasteen (who hails
from Down Under). A good Wotan and
Brünnhilde count for a lot in Die
Walküre and things are best when
they’re on stage. Bröcheler’s nicely
paced second act monologue and the
opera’s last scene between father and
daughter are highlights; Brünnhilde’s
Act II encounter with the doomed
Siegmund is another. Act I—no Wotan
or Brünnhilde—is a disappointment.
Stuart Skelton’s voice has a baritonal
quality that’s appealing in quieter passages but, when the part’s high and
loud, lacks the ring and heft of the best
Sieglinde is richly and securely sung,
but, as Hunding, Richard Green doesn’t
sound nearly fearsome and abusive
enough. Asher Fisch, an experienced
Wagner conductor from Israel, favors
brisk tempos, sometimes to the detriment of the dramatic effect, as with
Wotan’s Farewell, which is robbed of a
little of its tender poignancy.
The lavish packaging includes useful
notes and a German/English libretto. AQ
Further Listening: Wagner: Arias (Bryn
Terfel) (SACD); Wagner: Orchestral Music
m u s i c
Jazz Caps
Frank Kimbrough: Play. Matt Balitsaris,
producer and engineer. Palmetto 2118.
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
rank Kimbrough is a
pianist of spare
His music sways
and swoons, not
because he embellishes a chord or throws in a triplet
but because he plays just the precise
notes and color tones to achieve his
effect—and nothing more. It’s a delicate
trick few have mastered, but
Kimbrough is one of them, and it lets
him get steamy with a lyrical ballad
without crumbling into sentimentality.
A longtime member of Maria
Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra and a coleader of Ben Allison’s various bands,
he’s headed only a few albums, and Play,
a trio session, is his best. One reason may
be the drummer, Paul Motian, sounding
as remarkably original and energetic as
he did in Bill Evans’ trio nearly a halfcentury ago. He keeps time, skips ahead
of and behind the beat, puts a pulse in
the rhythm, then electroshocks it. He
pounds the snare with brushes, whisks it
with sticks, all the time spicing, pushing, yanking, or sometimes just quietly
swooshing behind Kimbrough’s dreamy
meditations. They work best with the
ballads. Listen to “Lucent,” a stirring
number, where Motian speeds up the
pace while Kimbrough stays slow and
steady, building a fine, tense simmer.
The bassist, Masa Kamaguchi, isn’t
quite Scott LaFaro, or for that matter
Ben Allison, but he adds a jaunty twist
to the anchor.
The sonics match what we’ve come
to expect from this spirited indie jazz
label. Excellent balance, clarity, and
dynamics, but lacking a bit of body in
the bass and a bit of air in the spaces
around the instruments—just a bit
though, not enough to distract from the
Project: Love Is Proximity; Bill Evans:
Kidd Jordan, Hamid Drake, William Parker:
Palm of Soul. Steven Joerg, Parker, and
Drake, producers. Aum Fidelity 038.
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHHH
Anderson in
Vinny Golia in
Los Angeles, saxophonist Edward
“Kidd” Jordan
has been as overlooked by the general
jazz audience as he has been revered by
the fortunate players he’s mentored over
the decades. He’s been performing and
recording for nearly 50 years, with credits ranging as far a field as Ray Charles,
Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin,
Cannonball Adderley, and Cecil Taylor,
and yet he will still be considered a “discovery” by many.
Palm of Soul is an ideal place to make
the acquaintance of the 70-year-old New
Orleans native’s mature tenor saxophone
stylings. Recorded in Brooklyn a month
after Jordan was uprooted by Hurricane
Katrina, this trio date features the dream
rhythm section of drummer Hamid
Drake and bassist William Parker, players thoroughly versed in both Jordan’s
totally improvised approach and personalized musical vocabulary and syntax.
Jordan taps the tenor’s full range, from
meaty lower registers to squawky highs
and “split reed” polyphonics. Confidently toying with pitch, he weaves serpentine lines that often have an Eric
Dolphy-like conversational quality as
they slither through the kaleidoscopic
textures and spaces created by Parker
(adding guimbri, gongs, bowls, and
talking drum to his pizzicato and arco
bass) and Drake, whose percussion arsenal includes tabla and frame drum as
well as traps set, and who adds his voice
to “Unity Call.” African and Eastern flavors abound, and implicit tales of
anguish, contemplation, struggle, and
liberation emerge from improvisations
given such titles as “Living Peace” and
“Last of the Chicken Wings.”
A tightly centered soundstage
emphasizes the trio’s sticky interplay,
while its depth draws listeners in and
allows room for instruments to define
themselves. The sonics are clear, right
up to the sharpest percussion attack, but
especially warm in the mid and low
ranges where Jordan’s taut timbres and
Parker’s rubbery strings tend to operate.
Silva, William Parker: Emancipation Suite
#1; Billy Harper: Black Saint
Patricia Barber: Mythologies. Barber,
producer. Blue Note 0946359564.
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHHH
hen Patricia
B a r b e r
Erebus and Zeus
in the song “Moon”
on 2002’s Verse
album, fans might
have assumed she had at least a passing
interest in Greek folklore. Barber’s latest, Mythologies, shows that the
Chicago-based jazz singer, pianist,
and songwriter is not only well-versed
in archetypes and ancient tales, but
savvy enough to bring them into the
jazz idiom.
Composed in 2003 after Barber won
a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship
Award, Mythologies is an invigorating
and ambitious song cycle that draws
inspiration from the characters in Ovid’s
m u s i c
Patricia Barber
Metamorphoses. Barber had caught Mary
Zimmerman’s New York stage adaptation of the Roman poem and was so
moved that she started penning songs
built around its timeless themes. The
result—previewed on Verse and via the
politically charged “Whiteworld” on
2004’s live A Fortnight in France—is
beautiful and brilliant.
Here Barber largely foregoes her
characteristically dense, layered electric-guitar sonics, opting for an
acoustic-oriented quartet that provides
plenty of breathing space. The strippeddown arrangements—sometimes little
more than piano, bass, and brushes—
caress the oft-dreamy sentiments,
Barber purring her way through songs
about unrequited love (“Pygmalion”),
lust (“Hunger”), ambition (“Icarus: For
(“Narcissus”). Exceptions to the less-isbest rule are the eco-friendly rap
“Phaethon” (the album’s only misstep)
and funky “White-world/Oedipus,” the
latter featuring Neal Alger’s wah-wah
guitar, Michael Arnopol’s electric and
acoustic basses, and Eric Montzka’s militaristic drum beats.
The record’s closer, “The Hours,” is
an expressive piano ballad that blossoms
with the addition of the Choral Thunder
jazz choir, and is typical of the splendid
production that graces all of Barber’s
albums. As a producer and arranger, she
creates clean atmospherics that are
sparse yet richly textured—the piano
and vocals are lifelike, the guitar work
subtle, the bass resonant, and percussion
simmering. Give this girl another grant.
Verse; Cassandra Wilson: Thunderbird
Fats Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t
Got It. Orrin Keepnews, producer. Legacy
832672 (three CDs). Music: HHHH 1/2
Sonics: HHH
has earned
its position as
“America’s classical art form,” this
new three-CD
anthology, packaged with a
bonus DVD of
the wonderful
shorts known as
“soundies,” provides a vivid and thoroughly enjoyable reminder that jazz can
be hilariously fun as well as awesomely
artful. Though known to some as a brilliant pianist and the great composer of
such original songs as “The Jitterbug
Waltz,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” and
“Honeysuckle Rose,” Thomas “Fats”
Waller, with his bug-eyed mugging and
often-sardonic vocalizing, represents for
many the ultimate jazz comic. Had he
not died at age 39 in 1949, he might
have transcended that role and joined a
higher pantheon of humorous jazz artists
that includes Louis Armstrong, Cab
Calloway, and Dizzy Gillespie.
If You Got to Ask divides 66 performances from 1926 through 1943 into three
22-track discs: “Fats Waller Sings and
Plays Fats Waller,” “Fats Waller: Strictly
Instrumental,” and “Fats Waller Sings and
Plays Around with Tin Pan Alley.” It represents only a portion of the material
recorded by the stride-piano peer of Willie
“The Lion” Smith and James P. Johnson,
who also branched out on pipe and electric organ, led both the rambunctiousbut-tight combo known as “His Rhythm”
and an orchestra, and left behind a legacy
of timeless material. But it offers a wellrounded portrait of the rotund genius,
including favorites such as “The Joint Is
Jumpin’,” “Squeeze Me,” “African
Ripples,” “Hold Tight (Want Some
Seafood, Mama),” and “Your Feet’s Too
Big”; renditions of standards “St. Louis
Blues,” “Star Dust,” “I’m Gonna Sit Right
Down and Write Myself a Letter,” and “I
Can’t Give You Anything But Love”; a
bounty of dazzling piano solos; and buoyant collaborations with Jack Teagarden,
Benny Carter, Bunny Berigan, and others.
Miraculously free of tape hiss, the
sonics give Waller’s vocals full-blooded
presence right up front, and though the
slightly muted piano apparently couldn’t
be brought more forward in the mix, the
reeds and brass solos are hefty and bright,
the rhythm guitar, drums, and cymbals
crisply realistic. Most importantly, every
track bubbles with the serious fun that
makes this music equally worthy of rent
parties and concert halls.
Jumpin’ Punkins; James P. Johnson: The
Original James P. Johnson, 1942-1945
m u s i c
The Miles Davis Quintet: The Legendary
Prestige Quintet Sessions. Bob Weinstock,
producer. Prestige 4444 (four CDs).
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHHH
Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane:
The Complete Riverside Recordings.
Orrin Keepnews, producer. Riverside/
Concord 30027 (two CDs). Music: HHH 1/2
Sonics: HHH
half century ago, the jazz world
shimmered with the golden sounds
of Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, and
John Coltrane—a holy trinity of sorts.
During the mid to late 50s, they met on
stage and in the studio in much-celebrated unions that produced a handful of
now-classic albums. The common factor
on these two new compilations is tenor
player Coltrane.
The Miles Davis Quintet: The
Legendary Prestige Quintet Sessions gathers
five albums—The New Miles Davis
Quintet, Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’, and
Relaxin’—onto three 24-bit digitally
remastered CDs and includes a fourth
disc of previously unreleased radio and
TV broadcasts as well as embedded
sheet-music transcriptions. These legendary studio tracks were recorded
between May and October 1956 at a pair
of sessions before being parceled out
over a two-year
period. The bop
masterworks feature Davis’ celebrated first quintet of thenyouthful up-and-
comers: Coltrane, pianist Red Garland,
bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer
Philly Joe Jones. Coltrane and Garland
are brilliant throughout, as is Davis, and
the rhythm section establishes its place
in jazz history as one of the best.
Workin’, Steamin’, Cookin’ and
Relaxin’ already have been available on
vinyl, Red Book CD, 20-bit K-2 remaster CD, and 24-bit SACD. The material—which sounds spectacular—is
arranged chronologically according to
recording date, and repackaged in a
hardcover portfolio with a 40-page
booklet that includes period photos and
a comprehensive essay by Bob
Blumenthal. And then there’s that lowfi bonus disc. It features two tunes from
The Tonight Show with Steve Allen, a hardswinging romp through Oscar
Pettiford’s “Max is Making Wax” and a
lyrical version of Rodgers and Hart’s
ballad “It Never Entered My Mind,”
plus six other live tracks.
The two-CD Thelonious Monk with
John Coltrane: The Complete Riverside
Recordings fleshes out the original 1957
album with material that, for the most
part, appeared on the 15-disc Thelonious
Monk: The Complete Riverside Recordings,
and seems timed to ride the wave of
publicity that propelled the recent Blue
Note hit release Thelonious Monk Quartet
with John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall. The
20 stereo and mono tracks included here
represent Monk’s core repertoire, recorded between April and July 1957, and
finds pianist Monk in trio, quartet, and
septet settings with bands that include
Hawkins, and Gigi Gryce, as well as
bassist Wilbur Ware, and drummers Art
Blakey and Shadow Wilson.
The only previously unreleased
material is a 51-second septet rendering
of the spiritual “Abide with Me” (a first
take) and an alternate take of
“Crepuscule with Nellie” (which appears
five times). If you don’t already own the
bulk of this material, it’s well worth
checking it out in that it captures Monk
at a creative juncture when he recorded
his breakthrough Brilliant Corners.
Serious audio- and jazz-philes will
want to stick to Acoustic Sounds’ 45rpm
LP issues, but for the rest of us, as well
as those not inclined to spend $50 per
title, the sonics on both sets will get you
most of the way there.
Prestige Profiles: Mood; Charlie Mingus:
East Coasting
David Hazeltine, George Mraz, Billy
Drummond: Manhattan. David Chesky,
producer; Nicholas Prout, engineer. Duallayer SACD. Chesky Records SACD310.
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH 1/2
avid Chesky
seems finally
to be doing what
he has long wanted to do—putting out jazz
records that are
nearly as solid musically as they are sonically. Over the years, his audiophile
label has issued a handful or two of good
jazz albums and several cartloads of
dross. (Chuck Mangione, anyone?
Didn’t think so.) Now he’s throwing
commercial caution to the wind and
putting out a series of dual-layer SACDs
under the rubric “The New York
Sessions.” Top-notch New York jazz
musicians, very comfortable in one
another’s company, assemble before a
single-point microphone at the acoustically splendid St. Peter’s Church and
just do what they do, with no compression or manipulation, either in the circuitry or the music.
Manhattan, the first release in the
series, is nothing adventurous—a piano
trio playing standards—but it’s exemplary nonetheless, not at all a routine
walk-through. David Hazeltine is an
agile pianist, specializing in the sprightly single-note line with the chord tossed
in a bit short or long of the “right”
moment, for surprise. George Mraz, a
staple of straight-ahead jazz (he’s backed
Tommy Flanagan, Hank Jones, Stan
m u s i c
New vinyl releases
Nat “King” Cole & His Trio: After Midnight. Lee Gillette, original
producer; Ron McMaster, Steve Hoffman, Kevin Gray, remastering. Capitol/Pure Pleasure Records PPAN W782 (two 180gram mono LPs). Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHHH
at “King” Cole gained so much fame
and fortune as a tremolo crooner
backed by schmaltzy string orchestras that
few remember he practically invented the
modern jazz piano trio in the 1930s and
was a coolly dexterous pianist himself.
After Midnight, recorded in 1956, marked
his return to the trio format after a long stretch of big-band
sessions, and there’s no better place to start—or finish—for
catching a glimpse of his glow. His early trios usually consisted of piano, bass, and guitar. His later ones added drums
(hence the finessing phrase “and his trio”).
On this album, he adds a fifth man, rotating, track to
track, from Willie Smith on alto sax, Harry “Sweets” Edison
on trumpet, Juan Tizol on trombone, and Stuff Smith on
violin. The most vibrant songs are with Stuff Smith, a woefully overlooked jazzman (except to other jazz violinists,
who, to the extent they’re worth much, have emulated him).
Listen to “I Know That You Know,” where his gruff tone and
complex harmonies sharpen the edges of Cole’s flowing
arpeggios. The other Smith, Willie, plays lush lines behind
the King on his tunes. Strangely, Edison, who was hitting
new peaks elsewhere around this time, plays perfunctorily
Getz, Art Pepper, and Benny Carter, to
name a few), takes the album’s star turn,
walking up and down the 4/4 lane,
inverting chords as he goes in ways that
spin whole new angles on the melody.
Billy Drummond, the drummer, pushes
the hi-hat cymbals with spaciousness
and vigor.
If this disc sounded merely good, it
would make for very pleasant listening;
I’d recommend it. But it sounds fantastic, maybe better than any Chesky jazz
here. Tizol, a veteran of Ellington’s band, just doesn’t fit; his
vibrato smears with Cole’s, till they both drown in syrup.
Ah, but where the backdrop is straighter, the King’s voice is
irresistible—so warm and rich, such insouciant articulation
and unruffled storytelling passion.
The sound, like many Capitols from the era, is sweet and
warm. And the 180-gram remastered pressing, from the
British company Pure Pleasure Records, is superb. It’s mono,
but there’s no sense of horizontal squeeze; there’s plenty of
depth, every instrument sounds like itself, you hear all of
them plainly. Nat and each of the soloists are in the room.
The tracks are stretched across two LPs. One-and-a-half of
them are devoted to deleted tracks, none better than those
that were kept but none worse either.
FURTHER LISTENING: Nat Cole, Lester Young, Buddy Rich:
Giants Three; Stuff Smith: The Complete Verve Stuff Smith
Sessions (Mosaic box)
album. The standard CD layer sounds
excellent enough. But switch to the
SACD layer, and it’s like someone pulled
back a thick curtain. The music billows
with air. You can hear, practically feel, it
heaving forth from the instruments and
basking all around them. The piano has
that just-right mix of liquid and percussion; you sense the instrument’s size, and
the overtones linger overhead like a bouquet. The woody bass thumps and
plucks. The drum set rattles, sizzles, and
crashes. The ambience is palpable,
though the engineer, Nicholas Prout,
has taken care not to overdo it. It sounds
natural. Chesky has taken a leap with
this one, in all measures. Here’s hoping
the rest of the New York Sessions have
sound this good and music better still.
Manhattan marks a very auspicious
Remembrances; Hank Jones: Upon
Music Editor Bob Gendron’s System
BAT VK-300x integrated amplifier; Gallo Nucleus Reference3 loudspeakers; Rotel RSX-1065 receiver; Sony SCDCE775 SACD player; Panasonic DVD-RP91 DVD-A player; Clearaudio Champion turntable; Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood
cartridge; Bright Star Audio IsoRock GR3 speaker supports; Synergistic Research, MIT, Monster Cable, and
Audioquest cables and interconnects; SolidSteel 5.5 rack
m u s i c
Rock, Etc.
Comets on Fire: Avatar. Tim Green,
producer. Sub Pop 704 (CD and LP).
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
ursting forth
like a justdiscovered reelto-reel tape from
an Electric KoolAid Acid Test,
Comets on Fire’s
“Dogwood Rust” saunters out of its hazy
domain with a crooked bass line, thundering rhythm, and snorkeling distortion that remain in constant motion
while the psychedelic tune swims about,
physically doubling as amoeba-shaped
lava-lamp bubbles that projected
onscreen behind the Winterland’s stage
in the late 1960s. It’s now nearly 40
years later, but San Francisco’s Comets
on Fire remain at home in any era as
long as audiences are willing to take
spontaneously combustible cosmic trips.
As the opener to their fourth album
attests, the quintet hasn’t lost its proclivity for freak-out garage rock. Yet on
Avatar, they turn over a new leaf, surprising not only with intense, fast-paced
explosions—here in far lesser supply
than on 2004’s supreme Blue Cathedral—
but with tender-footed arrangements and
swirling soulfulness marked by
Hammond organ washes, waltzing piano
notes, and oven-warmed chords.
Anchored by the guitar tandem of Ethan
Miller and Ben Chasny, the Comets also
expand into Southern rock and moderncreative jazz territories on “Jaybird,” the
bridge a whipping post that’s roundly
flogged before radioactive feedback and
vacuum-tube-sucking distortion carries
the song towards a peaceful abyss. The
rhapsody “Lucifer’s Memory” climbs
aboard a gentle melody and a moaning
riff that momentarily references the
“Star-Spangled Banner,” Miller’s throaty
Comets on Fire
voice and words about demons,
vengeance, and judgments keeping the
otherwise gorgeous track swathed in
haunted darkness. Stretching out even
longer, “Sour Smoke” is similarly devoid
of out-of-control tendencies. An in-step
march, it follows the lead of an invisible
baton, the hypnotic sway seemingly
building and dragging onlookers out of
houses until, at the half-way mark, a
chant slightly alters the pace and adopts
a churchy undercurrent.
Although this is a band whose members refuse to limit themselves to one
outlet—Miller pairs with Sunburned
Hand of the Man’s John Moloney for
Howlin’ Rain; drummer Utrillo
Kushner is involved with Colossal Yes;
percussionist/echo electronics maestro
Noel Harmonson experiments with
Born on the Fourth of July; and most
famously, Chasny blows minds with his
Six Organs of Admittance—Comets on
Fire share a common denominator in
raw blues and freeform rock. The latter
styles are given a talking-to on the hardstomping “The Swallow’s Eye,” complete with squealing frequency waves,
beefy jamming, and dueling fuzz-blasted leads, as well as on “Holy Teeth,” a
gnashing throwback to the band’s earlier phases. Parked in the middle of
Avatar, they are foot paths for where the
quintet has been and is headed.
Recorded within spitting distance of
a chicken farm at Prairie Sun Studios,
the location where Tom Waits cut Bone
Machine, the album claims an everything-happens-in-the-room dynamic
despite the existence of select overdubs.
In the same way the band’s music
harkens back to but doesn’t replicate a
past period, the sonics avoid the artificially clean, digital hardness that
plagues many contemporary releases.
The soundstage isn’t the deepest, but
feel, temperature, texture, and balance
are just as they should be. BOB GENDRON
FURTHER LISTENING: Grateful Dead: Live/
Dead; High Rise: Live
m u s i c
Thom Yorke: The Eraser. Nigel Godrich, producer. XL Recordings 40200 (CD and LP).
Music: HHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
or over 15
years, Radiohead has confounded expectations. So it makes
perfect sense that
with the band
about to enter the studio to begin work on
its highly-anticipated seventh album, lead
singer Thom Yorke would quietly release
his solo debut, The Eraser.
Musically, the album takes its cues
from the Oxford quintet’s electronic forays (think “Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors”
and “The Gloaming”), Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich constructing a
technological forest where cold, crisp
beats are overgrown with lush synth
arrangements like warm Georgia kudzu
blanketing a craggily elm skeleton. The
tech-heavy angle is no surprise; Yorke
has long talked up the influence of Can,
Neu!, and Autechre on his band’s laterperiod work. More surprising is how
familiar the album sounds, as if it were
constructed Frankenstein-like from
Radiohead’s library of sonic fragments.
The plodding piano on the title track
echoes the delicate “Pyramid Song”; the
warped drum patter on “Cymbal Rush”
hints at the Dali-esque belches on
“Backdrifts”; the medic-alert blips that
close “Harrowdown Hill” could have
been lifted from “Idioteque.”
But unlike previous Radiohead
albums, where Yorke’s voice is often
looped, mashed, and chopped (and
sometimes extruded backwards, as on
the skittish “Like Spinning Plates”) to
become another just another part of the
musical tapestry, Godrich here convinces
Yorke to leave his vocals unblemished—
a wise decision, as Yorke responds with a
series of haunting performances. His
voice prowls like a skulker on “Skip
Divided,” hits that knee-buckling
falsetto on “Atoms For Peace,” and
grunts and growls through the propulsive tick-tock of “The Clock.” The
Thom Yorke
lyrics, which deal in crisis of identity
and existential observations, are typically cryptic, though lines like “I want to
eat your artichoke heart” make one hope
Yorke is saving some of his better material for his other project.
The sonics, as with every Godrichproduced Radiohead album, are universally excellent. The sympathetic handling of the vocals is especially welcome,
Yorke’s angelic pipes ringing out clear
and crisp. The soundstage isn’t particularly wide, though it seems to be by
design, as if to heighten the music’s
claustrophobic feel.
FURTHER LISTENING: Bjork: Vespertine;
Twilight Singers: Twilight
Frank Black: Fastman Raiderman. Jon Tiven,
producer. Back Porch 59695 (two CDs).
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH 1/2
eadline news
artists, word of a
Frank Black double album is
greeted in many
circles with casual albeit lingering curiosity. Since the Pixies initial breakup in
1993, the now-reunited quartet’s vocalist-guitarist has issued a whopping eleven
albums. Two of those, 1993’s Frank Black
and the subsequent Teenager of the Year,
are outstanding. The others are fair to
good. None are horrible, though nearly
every release would have benefited from
the selective paring lesser tracks and
waiting until a greater whole was in
place. If Black followed this approach,
he’d have four excellent records rather
than a hit-and-miss cornucopia.
But Black is anything but conventional, and while neither he nor the
Pixies have ever been the most exhilarating live performers, there’s never been
any doubting his songwriting skills,
which on Fastman Raiderman are the best
they’ve been in more than a decade.
There’s also another factor at play—
Black’s company, which includes The
Band’s Levon Helm, Buddy Miller,
Cheap Trick’s Tom Petersson, and a gaggle of legendary session players from
Motown, Stax, Muscle Shoals, and Phil
Spector’s Wrecking Crew. Comprised of
27 tracks cut at four different sessions,
this is the Memphis-flavored surprise of
the year—a rhythmic buffet of barstool
boogies, R&B shuffles, and country-rock
strummers unified by laidback tempos
and loose chemistry. What shines here
m u s i c
isn’t the bald artist’s affable weirdness
but the bands’ effortless musical blend,
punctuated with mellow tones, porchswing grooves, jazzy percussion, and
crisp harmonies.
With guitarists Steve Cropper and
Reggie Young joining saxophonist Jack
Kidney, Black and company stroll down
heartbreak row during “My Terrible
Ways” and kick up bluesy dust on
“Elijah,” a harmonica honking in the distance as the group sways to pedal-steel
twang. It’s one of the few occasions where
Black’s voice is urgent. Most of the time,
he’s as calm as the music, gorgeously
sewn together by rollicking pianos, simple beats, fluorescent organs, and cawing
slide accents. Black’s trademark absurdist poetry (“Kiss My Ring”), aw-shucks
luck (“It’s Not Your Moment”), and geographical travelogues (“The Real El
Rey”) are present throughout, yet nothing upstages an organic consistency that
gives the 41-year-old a credible blueeyed-soul-derived success.
Listeners that pay close attention will
be able to discern minor sonic differences
between material recorded at Dan Penn’s
Nashville studio and Cowboy Jack
Clement’s place, for instance, but Fastman
Raiderman possesses unforced warmth and
liveliness. Organically rich and relaxingly
dynamic, the production does everything
short of beckoning the listener to plop
down on a couch, close their eyes, and
become lost in the pick-up sounds made
by some of the best studio musicians the
world has known.
FURTHER LISTENING: Frank Black: Frank Black;
Wilson Pickett: The Exciting Wilson Pickett
Toumani Diabaté: Boulevard de l’Independence.
Nick Gold, producer; Jerry Boys, recording
and engineering. World Circuit/Nonesuch TK.
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
s much as
star, Toumani
forged innovative collabora-
tions without sacrificing the soulful
authenticity of his heritage. As compared
with his early-career collaborations with
the flamenco group Ketama and English
folk/jazz bassist Danny Thompson in the
group Songhai, and his 2004 jazz
crossover with trombonist Roswell Rudd,
the Malian master of the 21-string kora
(West African harp) pulls back on radical
experimentation on Boulevard de
l’Independence. But this gorgeous recording of variations on Afro-Cuban salsa and
traditional themes from West Africa’s
ancient Mandé culture is no less ambitious; overall, it may be his most exciting.
The second in a three-part series
called “The Hotel Mandé Sessions” (the
first was the Grammy-winning In the
Heart of the Moon with late guitarist Ali
Farka Touré), Boulevard features Diabaté’s
Symmetric Orchestra, a scintillating and
almost completely acoustic big band that
performs most Friday nights in Bamako’s
Hotel Mandé. Diabaté ranks as the
world’s greatest kora player by virtue of
extending the innovations of his father,
who took the instrument beyond its traditional role of accompanying praise
singers and perfected simultaneous bass
lines, rhythm parts, and melody solos.
Here, with an all-star band taking care of
business, Diabaté concentrates on singlenote runs and arpeggios that cascade atop
polyrhythmic flows, bounce against
hard-edged drums, engage in call-andresponses with thrilling singers (including Kasse Mady Diabaté) and lead electric guitarist Fanta Mady Kouyaté, and
get colored by soul-jazz legend Pee Wee
Ellis’ horn charts and Simon Hale’s
string arrangements.
The bright, crisp kora notes are
treated to clean, front-and-center representation on a wide and deep soundstage, as are the balafon and flute parts
and piercing lead vocals. The only quibble with the otherwise pristine sonics is
an artificial feeling of distance between
some of the percussion and choral vocals
and the rest of the natural-sounding
Toumani Diabate: Malicool; Mory Kante:
Rhymefest: Blue Collar. Kanye West, Just
Blaze, et. al, producers. J 70731 (CD and LP).
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH 1/2
elping Kanye
West write
and produce his
“Jesus Walks”
underground Chicago
hip-hop veteran Rhymefest a jolt of
recognition within rap’s inner circle. It
also set the stage for his long-delayed
major-label debut, overseen by West.
The 16-cut collection delivers on the
lyrical and sonic sides, but a few unfortunate missteps keep the release from
being top-shelf.
As one would expect because of his
affiliation with West, Rhymefest has
plenty of lyrical agility. On the bombastic, brassy “Dynomite (Going Postal),”
the rapper explains why he takes a
decidedly non-bling stance in his
music. “Blue Collar rap/Why I call it
that/[Expletive], I know more real
[brothers] at U-Haul than hall crack.”
These lines and this song represent
Rhymefest at his core best: punchy
lyrics delivered over a strong beat. He
accomplishes the same on the braggadocio “Fever” and on “More,” a pianodriven meditation on being a rapper
struggling and striving for success. “All
Girls Cheat” playfully and skillfully
examines games women run on men
when they’re being unfaithful while
“Build Me Up,” with a hilarious off-key
chorus sung by the late Ol’ Dirty
Bastard, features Rhymefest disappointed rather than devastated by a failed
Surprisingly, West delivers a bland
beat and sounds less than inspired on
his guest turn on “Brand New.” Then
again, even Rhymefest acknowledges
the throwaway sound of the song, rapping “This is just a old beat he had laying around” at the end of the last verse.
And when Rhymefest tries to sound
tough, as on the boasting session
“Chicago-Rillas,” he doesn’t sound
m u s i c
credible and lacks the flair that makes
his other material enjoyable.
A debut that possesses above-average lyrics and strong production, Blue
Collar fails to deliver only when
Rhymefest stretches beyond his common man raps.
College Dropout; Talib Kweli: Quality
Matthew Sweet: Girlfriend (Legacy
Edition). Fred Maher, Sweet, and Simon
Askew, original producers; Darren
Salmieri, reissue producer.
Volcano/Legacy 78549 (two CDs).
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
released in
October 1991,
Matthew Sweet’s
Girlfriend could
have come out
month, or in 1978. A zephyr of brightly strummed hooks, romantic moods,
smooth singing, and levitating dreaminess, the record gets thisclose to powerpop and pop-rock perfection.
Sweet’s harmless, edge-free voice
drips heartfelt emotion, his narratives
simple albeit collective tales that connect with anyone who’s ever contemplated relationships in a coffee shop or
scribbled wistful poems in a notebook.
For the singer, they were personal
thoughts, many of the emotionally turbulent verses concerning the simultaneous dissolution of his marriage and
embrace of a future wife. Yet Girlfriend
transcends time not due to lyrics but
because of effervescent melodies, cozy
harmonies, and diversified songwriting
that spoke off into balladic, countryand-western, blue-eyed soul, psychedelic, and post-punk territories without ever breaking their pop leash. Then
there’s the are-you-kidding-me cast of
accompanying guitarists, including
Television’s Richard Lloyd, k.d. lang
steel-player Greg Leisz, Richard Hell
and the Voivods’ Robert Quine, and
Lloyd Cole. The latter pair helped
Sweet on 1989’s Giant, an anythingbut bomb that figured in A&M’s decision to drop him.
On the follow-up, Sweet and company ditched the drum machines and
recorded the basics live. The six-string
wizards’ solos, spontaneous fills, and
colorfully stitched intros, as well as the
bass parts, were carefully overdubbed to
the point where it’s difficult to tell that
the whole isn’t live. The production
swings with radio-friendly promise and
cuts with electrified rawness, glows
with soft-to-the-touch warmth, and
blares with intentional dryness. Vocals
and guitars are placed front and center,
drums off to the sides, clearing a direct
route to feelings of bitterness
(“Thought I Knew You”), recovery (“I
Wanted to Tell You”), happiness (“I’ve
Been Waiting”), and hopefulness
(“Winona”). The remastered version
boasts a wider and deeper soundstage,
and rids some of the digital demons
common to releases of the era.
Legacy’s deluxe edition of Girlfriend
contains a second disc titled Goodfriend,
initially given away as a gift to grassroots supporters that helped push the
album. A mix of home demos, live
takes, and covers of Neil Young’s
“Cortez the Killer” and John Lennon’s
“Isolation,” it provides formative
insight and crackles with roughed-up
acoustic and plugged-in arrangements.
The pinnacle moment of Sweet’s career,
there’s never been a better excuse to fall
in love with Girlfriend.
Bellybutton; Pete Droge: Find A Door
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals: Nothing
But the Water. Potter and Matt Burr, producers. Ragged Company 590.
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH
race Potter
may be only
22 but her sassy
instincts and sizzling vocals summon inevitable
comparisons to a
fleet of hall of fame rock talents.
Displaying vocal colors and technique beyond her years, her singing
modulates between the raspy, notebending urgency of Janis Joplin and
the sly seduction of Bonnie Raitt.
Backed by her high-torque guitarbased blues band the Nocturnals,
Potter’s sophomore Nothing But The
Water is a rewarding homage to 70sera rock n’ blues.
Hailing from rural Vermont,
Potter was a film student at Upstate
New York’s St Lawrence University
when in 2004 she began playing covers with drummer Matthew Burr. The
band gradually added originals to its
setlists, fleshing out as a quartet with
the additions of singer/guitarist/harmonica player Scott Tournet and
bassist Bryan Dondero. Potter ably
accompanies herself on guitar and
Hammond B3 organ. Unadorned and
straightforward, the songs form a lyrical string of collisions and pile-ups
encompassing ex-boyfriends on parole,
obsessions, and tugs of war between
artistic independence and longing.
Standout themes include the assertive
adios of “Toothbrush and My Table,”
self-doubt and reappraisal in the
Memphis-soul-lined “Ragged Company,” and respect on the Bayou blues
burner “Treat Me Right.” Potter channels her inner Muddy Waters on
“2:22” and gives the title track backto-back interpretations.
Shooting for circa 1973 authenticity, the band laid tracks down in the
legendary Hayburn Theater, built in
1868 and located on the Goddard
College campus in Plainfield,
Vermont. The sound is natural and
reverberant, with lively dynamics,
adequate bass, and accurate instrumental textures. Dimensionality and
imaging are fine; drums are comfortably setback a couple feet. A DVD
containing five cuts from a performance captured by Vermont Public
Television is included as a bonus.
Shelby Lynne; Tift Merritt: Tambourine
m u s i c
Ramblin’ Jack Elliott: I Stand Alone. Ian
Brennan, producer. Anti 86814.
Music: HHH Sonics: HHH
n a year when
Bruce Springsteen captured
the vitality and
humanity of Pete
catalogue, it seems
only fitting that Ramblin’ Jack
Elliott—compatriot to both Seeger and
Woody Guthrie, and indefatigable
champion of the American folk song—
should have his own say in these matters. I Stand Alone, a title that has haunting resonance at a time when most of
Elliott’s contemporaries are absent voices, either dead or failing, doesn’t follow
the Springsteen model of injecting the
old tunes with a rock n’ roll muscularity; rather, Jack does what the Boss once
described as the modus operandi of the
poets of “Jungleland.” To wit, he stands
back and lets ’em all be, telling tall tales
in a straightforward, reportorial voice
that speaks/sings the lyrics according to
how the spirit moves him.
Ragged but right, his voice is an
instrument of gentle spirit and great
character. It strains at times—he almost
taps out vocally trying to reach for effect
in what remains of his upper register in
the traditional suicide ballad “Willy
Moore”—but never fails to hit the emotional markers. Elliott has a grand old
time turning T. Texas Tyler’s honkytonk heartbreaker “Remember Me” on
its head with rumbling, chortling choruses, yet never lets the tearjerk get
away. Most of the record is simply Jack
and his elegantly picked and strummed
acoustic guitar, but a few numbers find
him with supple, understated support
from Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea,
X/Knitters drummer DJ Bonebrake,
and guitarist/dobro player Nels Cline.
Lucinda Williams shows up for a boozy
duet vocal on Ernest Tubb’s “Careless
Darling,” and sounds like she belongs.
Conversely, Sleater-Kinney’s Corin
Tucker is completely out of her element
while warbling unsteadily on the evergreen “Driving Nails In My Coffin,”
realized here as a sturdy bluegrass shuffle fueled by Cline’s whimsical dobro
Sonically, producer Ian Brennan
close mikes Jack’s voice and guitar, dispenses with any aural embroidery, and
keeps all supporting instruments (heard
only on seven of the 16 songs) at a discrete distance in the background. He
understands it’s Jack’s show and, you
might say, stands back and lets it all be.
FURTHER LISTENING: Bruce Springsteen:
The Seeger Sessions; James Talley: Woody
Guthrie and Songs of My Oklahoma Home
The Handsome Family: Last Days of
Wonder. No producer credit. Carrot Top
Records 040. Music: HH 1/2 Sonics: HHH
ormer bigcity dwellers
now residing in
Albuquerque, the
Family is the
husband and wife
Tom Petty’s American Homecoming
Bob Gendron
Tom Petty: Highway Companion. Jeff Lynne, Mike Campbell,
and Petty, producers. American 44285 (CD and two-LP).
Music: HHHH Sonics: HHHH
arley-Davidson. Jack Daniel’s. Marshall
Amplifiers. Fender Instruments. All
are connected at the hip to rock n’ roll and
American tradition. To this list you can add
Tom Petty. An artist that prototypically
epitomizes pure American music, his recent
deal with the American Records imprint
couldn’t be more fitting. The move reunites the 55-year-old
veteran with label owner and producer Rick Rubin, who
helmed the boards for 1994’s Wildflowers, Petty’s timeless second solo album. Made only with Heartbreaker Mike Campbell
and longtime associate Jeff Lynne, the casual Highway
Companion is Petty’s first solo effort since, its dozen songs revisiting many of his traditional themes—mystery, exploration,
self-discovery, wandering, leisure.
In a great frame of mind, Petty has left behind the acrimony of 2002’s The Last DJ. Blacklisted by radio stations because
of its condemnation of corporate broadcast logistics and
unimaginative programmers, it remains Petty’s only album not
to achieve gold status. Kicked off with a variation on John Lee
Hooker’s universal “Boogie Chillin’” riff, the album-opening
“Saving Grace” hums like a trusty Ford Mustang cruising down
the Pacific Coast Highway, the protagonist running from place
to place in search of inner peace and salvation. Outfitted with
playful and vivid rhymes such as “Pretend I’m Samuel
Clemens/Wear seer-sucker and white linens,” “Down South”
witnesses more journeying, Petty reflecting as he plots a return
to his roots, a prolonged vacation that sees him offer up his stock
for a place to stay. “This Old Town” serves as a geographical
metaphor for busted dreams, while the chugging “The Big
Weekend” is the opposite, a kick-up-the-dust anthem for escaping life’s daily grind.
Throughout, Petty keeps arrangements simple and tempos steady, his nasally drawl in fine form. He turns inward on
m u s i c
team of Brett and Rennie Sparks.
Rennie writes dark and wittily wicked
lyrics filled with mystery, wanderlust,
and violence (Greil Marcus has said they
contain “everyday surrealism”), sings
backup and occasional lead vocals, and
has been known to gently strum an
Autoharp, banjo, or ukulele. Brett
writes the songs, plays a slew of instruments, and records most of the couple’s
music in their home studio on a Mac
computer. The prolific pair has racked
up seven CDs since 1995’s Odessa.
Last Days of Wonder is the duo’s latest, and it’s one of the partnership’s least
satisfying efforts. Oh, these two are talented enough. At their best, Brett’s
twangy voice, simple tunes that typically play to a country, waltz, or gentle
rock rhythm, and Rennie’s lyrics evoke
the ugly-beauty of the American underbelly. In the Handsome’s world, the
funhouse mirror is both cracked and
irresistible. The problem with the new
record is one that faces most duos, the
White Stripes among them: after a
while, it’s pretty much impossible to
not become repetitious.
The opener, “Your Great Journey,”
a song about death, sounds a lot like
many another Handsome title. The
music slowly chugs along to Brett’s
vocal while a plaintive pedal steel cries
behind. “Tesla’s Hotel Room” picks up
in a similar vein, as does “These Golden
Jewels,” which to these ears seems like
an ill-advised attempt to do Tom
Waits, complete with a three-wheeled
strummed banjo, and woozy saw.
Things pick up on occasion, but sadly,
the record never reaches lift-off.
The sound is remarkably good given
the low-fi-high-tech recording technology. Vocals are clear, the odd array of
instruments sound quite natural and are
nicely spaced, and the whole production,
which is basically Brett’s, has a warm,
almost creamy quality.
Family: Singing
Bones; Jenny Lewis:
Rabbit Fur Coat
Rockin’ Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly.
James Austin and Cheryl Pawelski, producers. Rhino 73346 (four CDs).
Music: HHHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH
eeking of sex
and Bardahl,
as sleek and swift
as a Harley, and as
fleeting as its
practitioners and
fans’ misguided
youth, rockabilly
has spent most of
its lifetime as an
phenomenon since surfacing in 1953 with
Bill Haley and breaking out in 1954 at
Sun Records. Until the Stray Cats rocked
this town in the early 80s, rockabilly’s lone
national hit had been Carl Perkins’s
epochal “Blue Suede Shoes” (included
here). So why this box set of four CDs and
101 cuts? Maybe because America has produced precious little music as original,
deceptive simple, timeless—even as culturally revealing of its time—as rockabilly.
the bare-bones “Square One,” a lullaby that along with the
mournful “Damaged by Love” recalls his Wildflowers moods.
Jangling chords, bushy acoustic strumming, and casual beats
supply the foundations for Petty’s rhythmic bridges and
punchy, to-the-point refrains. Campbell’s lead-, pedal- and
slide-guitar accents color the lyrical images, and Lynne’s bass
keeps grooves grounded. Cozy and warmly inviting, the music
blows like a summer breeze, country and rock elements lending looseness and snap. Petty sounds himself sounds rejuvenated, relieved of pressures and eager to relay soulful tales concerning drifting travels and weary experiences.
The producing collective takes a hands-off approach, the
sonics glowing with golden hues and organic tones. Organ
passages radiate; guitar strings have resonance and weight;
instruments remain individually separated. The soundstage
is open, wide, and airy, the brightly chiming intro to “Ankle
Deep” evocative of a reunion of Traveling Wilburys members. At the finish of the album-closing “Golden Rose,” a
keyboard echo fades into the distance, the music pulling
safely and soundly into the garage for the night.
FURTHER LISTENING: Tom Petty: Wildflowers; Tom Brosseau:
Empty Houses Are Lonely
m u s i c
Emerging largely from poor Southern
families, rockabilly artists chronicled the
mores and rituals of their world and, at
the same time, captured the zeitgeist of
post-war America like no other music of
its day. It was a mongrel music, its slap
bass having been a fixture in hillbilly
boogie and honky-tonk bands since the
‘40s. Its guitar stylings—and rockabilly
was about the guitar, pure and simple, as
Deke Dickerson explains in a terrific
liner-notes essay—beared witness to the
influence of masters ranging from T-Bone
Walker to Merle Travis to Les Paul.
Lessons learned from these giants, and
from long nights thrashing it out in
honky tonks, produced rockabilly’s own
six-string titans—Perkins, Scotty Moore,
James Burton, Cliff Gallup, Paul
Burlison—gifted, dedicated axemen who
stand toe-to-toe with the best in any
genre of American popular music, and
still touchstones for the pickers that have
followed. Their artistry leaps out of this
set, but most of the cuts are obscure
recordings by obscure artists made for flyby-night labels. And most are totally
wonderful, outrageous performances,
drenched in reverb in tribute to the true
king, Elvis, who’s smartly represented
here not by his most obvious contributions but rather by the pure-D explosion
“Baby Let’s Play House,” the hiccupping,
stuttering vocal model on which most
rockabilly singers based their style, and
the grinding “One Night of Sin.”
The tracks pulsate not only with sexual energy (although there’s plenty of that
in cuts like 1958’s “Little Girl” by John
& Jackie, the latter supplying multiorgasmic moans throughout and whispering “little boy” in a lascivious tone) but
with a zest for living life to its fullest
measure, rockabilly’s greatest gift to its
era. All the gods are accounted for—
Johnny Cash, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee,
Eddie Cochran, Ricky Nelson, Buddy
Holly—and so is the genre’s true rarity,
the female artist, represented by fiery
sides from Barbara Pittman (Sun’s lone
distaff signing), Wanda Jackson, Janis
“The Female Elvis” Martin, and a young
Jackie DeShannon, who covers Elvis’
“Trouble.” There’s more than a dollop of
undiluted weirdness in the form of, oh,
Hasil Adkins’ stripped-down howl
“Chicken Walk” and Freddie and The
Hitch-Hikers’ searing “Sinners.”
The sound is a magnificent yawp, the
producers making sure the guitars blaze
and roar like they’re in the room with
you, and pushing vocals way out front,
the better to stand up to the six-string
onslaughts. Much credit to Dave Schultz
and Bill Inglott for superb remastering
that erases any doubt as to the source of
rockabilly’s eternal allure.
Rockabilly Riot; Various: The Sun Records
The Byrds: There Is a Season. Various producers. Columbia/Legacy 77388 (four
CDs, one DVD). Music: HHHH
Sonics: HHH 1/2
Gram Parsons: The Complete Reprise
Sessions. Parsons and Rik Grech, producers. Rhino/Reprise 74669 (three CDs).
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH
etween their
inception in
1964 and unceremonious split in
1973, the Byrds
numerous lineup
prior to The
Notorious Byrd
Brothers, Gram
Parsons signing
on for Sweetheart
of the Rodeo—to
create a musical
legacy as enduring as the jinglejangle of Roger
McGuinn’s 12string Rickenbacker. The first such
effort since Legacy’s now out-of-print
1990 box set, There Is a Season, a comprehensive four-disc, one-DVD package, collects the best of these moments
from the band’s incomparable career.
Wisely presented in chronological
order, the tracks show the group’s
steady evolution from tuneful folkies (a
still-undeniable cover of Bob Dylan’s
“Mr. Tambourine Man”) to psychedelic
folkies (the towering “Eight Miles
High”) to dusty, country & western
folkies (the Louvin Brothers’ pious
“The Christian Life”). The first two
discs are comprised of must-haves like
“Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything
There Is a Season)” and “So You Want
to Be a Rock ‘N Roll Star,” which show
Crosby, McGuinn, and Gene Clark
exploring the range and power in their
majestic three-part harmonies. A surprising gem is the previously unreleased “Lady Friend,” a Crosby tune
that turns (turns, turns) heartbreak
into a horn-fueled call-to-arms. The
trio is equally impressive when it
reigns itself in, as on the eggshell-fragile “Goin’ Back.”
The third disc pulls cuts from the
oft-overlooked Sweetheart, a foray into
country music defined as much by
Lloyd Green’s mournful pedal steel as it
is by the presence of the enigmatic
Parsons. “I Am a Pilgrim” shuffles like
a pack mule traipsing across a desert
vista. Green’s pedal-steel playing—as
fluid as liquid mercury—drives “One
Hundred Years From Now.” “Hickory
Wind” sounds like the last dance at a
deserted Old West saloon. A collection
of hit-and-miss live cuts makes up the
final disc, the quality gap highlighted
by a pair of Dylan covers: a stark, harmonica driven “It’s Alright Ma (I’m
Only Bleeding)” and a surprisingly listless reading of “Positively Fourth
Street.” The sound quality is equally
spotty, especially on the live selections.
The album-culled tracks sound comparable to previous Legacy reissues, which
highlight the bright tones in
McGuinn’s guitar but don’t offer much
in terms of low-end swing. For pure
sonics, the Sundazed mono LPs still
provide the best value among Byrds
reissues, offering a depth and warmth
that the CDs just can’t match.
After his one-album stint in the
Byrds, Parsons tooled around Europe
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m u s i c
ed), with the lonesome sighs
of pedal steel captured especially well. The sound is a
noticeable upgrade from the
GP/Angel release, with a
wider, more natural soundstage, though it remains a
questionable investment for
those who already own both
albums. The third disc,
comprised of alternate
takes, is a bit grainy, though
it’s noteworthy for the performances of its inspired
Flying Burrito Brothers: The
Gilded Palace of Sin; R.E.M.:
New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Gram Parsons
with the Rolling Stones, experimented
with drugs, and generally acted like a
rock star before settling in to record a
pair of solo records before his death in
1973. These two albums, along with a
third disc of studio outtakes, are collected on The Complete Reprise Sessions, a box
set that begs a single question: Why?
That’s not a knock on the music,
which is universally excellent. Parsons’
voice—a windswept croon—has a
dreamy quality that adds a sense of
quiet desperation to Dust Bowl ballads
like “She” and “In My Hour of
Darkness.” But with GP and Grievous
Angel already available as an economic
single-disc set, this release reeks of a
cash grab, offering little in terms of
added value—the reason why its rating
is docked by a full star. Only Parsons
completists will be intrigued by the
pointless interview segments included
here as bonus tracks, though some casual fans might find the occasional thrill
listening while Parsons and backing
vocalist Emmylou Harris try to find
themselves on alternate takes of “That’s
All It Took” and “Streets of Baltimore.”
The sonics are fair to good on the
first two discs (radio interviews exclud-
Bob Wills and His Country
Playboys: Legends of Country
Music. Gregg Geller, producer. Columbia/Legacy 93858
(four CDs). Music: HHHH 1/2
Sonics: HHHH
arking the
of Bob Wills’
birth, this fourCD box set finally gives fans of
the King of
Western Swing a
s w e e p i n g
overview of an
American visionmusical
legacy in a cost-efficient, well-annotated
package. Though his work has been
anthologized to the hilt, no domestic
release approaches the ambition of this
It begins at the beginning, with
Wills’ 1932 recording debut with the
Fort Worth Doughboys (with Milton
Brown on vocals) on “Sunbonnet Sue”
and “Nancy Jane”; proceeds to embrace
the monuments the artist erected during
his productive tenure with ARC and
Columbia Records from 1935 to 1947;
and adds a sampling of the generally
solid body of work he produced for
MGM, Liberty, and Kapp, winding up
with three cuts from his final studio sessions with an all-star lineup of former
Playboys. In terms of telling the story of
Wills’ remarkable musical odyssey, the
only alternatives to this set are two Bear
Family import boxes, the 14-disc Faded
Love 1947-1973 and an 11-disc/oneDVD box San Antonio Rose, which features a thorough, diligently researched
biographical essay by Rich Kienzle, who
does the same for this release. However,
at $195 and $260, respectively, they are
strictly for completists.
Not so Legends of Country Music.
Produced by Gregg Geller and impeccably remastered by Vic Anesini, even the
threadbare Fort Worth Doughboys tracks
have been restored to a dynamic immediacy, and the vintage Wills and Playboys
recordings are clean and sonically riveting—Leon McCauliffe’s driving, distorted
guitar solo on the rambunctious “Get
With It,” which sounds like the moment
when Emmett Miller’s ebullient pop
stylings met the propulsive thrust of Louis
Armstrong’s Hot Five and Hot Seven outfits, pops right out of the speaker as if he’s
sitting in the room. Never mind that the
song also anticipates the advent of rockabilly by some 20 years. Five tracks are previously unissued, including a jazzed-up
big-band arrangement, lifted from
Tommy Dorsey, of Franz Liszt’s
“Liebestraum,” featuring a scintillating
steel-guitar scintillating solo by “Take ‘er
Away” Leon and a rollicking horn chart on
which players swing mightily. Otherwise,
the bill of fare is the essential canon of
blues, jazz, pop, Dixieland, and country
with which Wills defined western swing,
with assistance from some of the best
musicians ever to walk the planet, from
McCauliffe to the brilliant guitarist/arranger Eldon Shamblin, the wildeyed piano pounder Al Stricklin and towering vocalist Tommy Duncan. Not to
mention Wills himself, who belts out the
blues he loved, adds evocative fiddle lines,
urges the band on, and calls out solos like
no one before or since.
Legends of Country Music lacks only the
inclusion of any live cuts as found on the
W h e r e To B u y
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m u s i c
various volumes of The Tiffany
Transcriptions, which capture a great
band (circa 1946-47) in its element—
inventive and electrifying, undaunted
by any stylistic boundaries, improvising
at will, nothing prearranged in the way
of solos. Otherwise, stop by here to find
out both what made Bob holler and
American music great.
Wheel: Riding with Bob; Bob Wills & His
Texas Playboys: The Tiffany Transcriptions
New vinyl releases
Sonic Youth: Rather Ripped. Sonic Youth and John Agnello, producers. Goofin’ 011/Geffen 757. Music: HHH Sonics: HHH 1/2
Espers: Espers II. Greg Weeks, producer. Drag City 310.
Music: HHH 1/2 Sonics: HHH 1/2
wenty-five years into its conventiondefying career, Sonic Youth still boast
the same musical core—Thurston Moore
(guitar), Kim Gordon (bass, guitar) and
Lee Ranaldo (guitar)—all of whom contribute in some form to songwriting and
vocals. With the departure of producer/multi-instrumentalist Jim O’Rourke, Rather Ripped relies
on the chemistry of these founding members more than any
SY album since 1998’s A Thousand Leaves.
The band maintains many of its hallmarks—the alternate tunings, the sing-speak lyrics—but everything about
Ripped sounds tighter and, dare say, more conventional.
Tracks rarely stretch longer than four minutes, and where
guitars would once gnash and snarl they now practically
gleam, making this, in many ways, SY’s prettiest album.
Gordon takes the lead on the best of the songs—“Turquoise Boy,” “Reena,” and “Jams Run Free”—singing with
surprising confidence over the dreamy backdrops. “Turquoise
Boy” is especially charming, opening with a gorgeous keyboard melody and muted guitar line that passes through like
a welcome breeze before everything spirals out-of-control
four minutes in, the guitars building to a whirling cyclone.
Harder-edged tracks like “Sleepin Around” are less successful, the straight-ahead chug offering little of interest aside
from Moore’s pavement-scraping six-string and the steady
hand of drummer Steve Shelley. Better is woozy album-closer “Or,” the tune floating in limbo while drums rumble like
far-off thunder, chimes warn of unseen trains, and Moore
poses a series of rock n’ roll “chicken or the egg” questions
(“What comes first? The music? Or the words?”). The casual
development makes the cut sound as if it could stretch on for
hours, but it abruptly ends just three minutes in, a concise
close to an album that’s as taught as it is tuneful.
The acoustics on the LP are a slight improvement over
the CD, offering more separation between instruments and
giving a warm glow to the shimmering guitar work, each
chord ringing out in crystalline detail. The low-end isn’t
handled with nearly as much grace, the drums occasionally
coming across a bit muddied at best.
ccording to Wikipedia, the
Internet’s free-encyclopedia project, “…the term esper refers to an
individual born capable of using
telepathy and similar paranormal
mental abilities; it apparently derives
from extra-sensory perception (‘ESP’)
via the English occupational suffix, thus being literally
‘ESP-er’…also the name for…parapsychologists and ‘ghost
hunters,’ who take the name to mean ‘Extraordinary
Supernatural Phenomena Explored and Revealed.’”
This description reveals much about the music being made
by Espers, a psychedelic folk-rock group that began as a trio (its
self-titled debut appeared in 2004) and has since doubled into
a sextet of three men and three women. Recent photos of the
band show them attractively posed in the woods, standing near
and sitting atop a huge oak, variously longhaired, bearded,
booted, panchoed, and looking very late 1960s.
The group’s second LP opens with synth and twittering
atmospherics before “Stairway To Heaven”-like fingerpicked acoustic guitars, cello, and flute kick in to create a
droning acid-folk vibe that is only heightened by the high
harmony vocals that follow. “Crimson tides flowing fluid
and wild/Draw those tears and kneel to the day/Mud will
flow, greener grass to grow/Worry not, your time here was
well,” they sing. If this all sounds a little too precious (or
pretentious), Espers has more to offer—enough more to
make this record a highly enjoyable, nearly hypnotic experience. Some songs follow a similarly trippy track, but others,
such as “Children of Stone” and “Moon Occults the Sun,”
have a heavier, thicker, rock-driven feel. Fairport Convention
and Pentangle seem like obvious influences, but so at times
do Led Zeppelin and English minstrelsy.
Espers use a wide range of instruments to achieve their
sound, including recorder, electric bass, gongs, bells, dulcimer, 12-string and electric guitars, organ, and various
effects generators. The recording captures them all in a very
fine sounding and well-balanced mix that is reasonably
open and airy if not possessed of a lot individual detail.
Burn some incense, light a bong, switch on the black light,
and become transported.
FURTHER LISTENING: Dinosaur Jr.: Bug; Blonde Redhead:
Misery Is a Butterfly
FURTHER LISTENING: Espers: Espers; Fairport Convention:
tas retrospective
QUAD ESL-57 Loudspeaker
Jonathan Valin
f someone were to ask me to pick the single best
loudspeaker of the early stereo era, I’d consider
giving the nod to the Magneplanar I-U’s or,
maybe, the KLH 9’s. But, all things considered
(including the impact the speaker has had on
the design of subsequent loudspeakers), for
me there would be only one legitimate
choice: Quality Unit Amplifier Domestic’s ESL-57.
First marketed in 1957—although “Walker’s
little wonder” had been previewed (to the consternation of every other speaker manufacturer in Great
Britain) in 1955—the QUAD ESL-57 was the first
commercially available electrostatic loudspeaker. It remained in
production until 1981 and is still being sold used, refurbished,
and new, though QUAD no longer supports it or stocks
replacements parts.
Essays and books (most recently Ken Kessler’s QUAD: The
Closest Approach [IAG]) have been written about QUAD’s resident
engineering genius Peter Walker, and his brilliant solution to the
problem of building a loudspeaker that worked by means of electrostatic rather than magnetic force. The idea had been around
since before the turn of the twentieth century, but outside of
microphone applications no one had been able to turn it into a reality. As Chris Beeching notes, in his brilliant essay in the Winter
1998 issue of The Listener (, it was F.V. Hunt’s pioneering book Electroacoustics—
with its key suggestions that a ’stat’s diaphragm must have a constant charge (rather than just a constant voltage) and that two
stator plates with a central diaphragm in between them (rather
than a single stator plate with a diaphragm fixed in front of it)
would result in a superior “push-pull” design—that helped
Walker to the first successful electrostat. The miracle is that this
first electrostat also turned out, in my opinion, to be the best.
It isn’t much to look at—a squat “box” about three feet
wide and two feet tall that sits on three-inch wooden legs, like
a large space heater. Only the ESL-57 isn’t a box. The only
wooden parts, outside its feet, are the hardwood frame that
holds the three ’stat panels (two bass panels and one centrally
located treble panel), stators, and protective dustcover in place,
and houses the transformer and high-voltage power supply at
the speaker’s bottom rear. What looks like a three-foot-by-twofoot box is, in fact, one big, three-foot-by-two-foot driver.
Almost the entire front (and rear) surface area produces sound.
I don’t have the space to go into the advantages an electro-
stat has over other drive systems—in harmonic distortion
levels, in impulse response and
transient speed, in phase coherence, in mass and inertia. Happily,
you don’t have to know about these
things; you can hear them.
Issue in and issue out I (and
other TAS writers and editors) talk
about the ideal of a “single-driver”
sound—a sound that has no audible
seams, that has the same color,
speed, resolution, distortion (or lack
thereof) from top to bottom. What we’re
really talking about—at least what I’m really talking about—is the sound of the QUAD ESL-57. From an
honest 45Hz to about 12kHz, it is that veritable “window on
the orchestra” (the phrase was actually Peter Walker’s) that we
all aspire to possess, with a sound so clear, sweet, lifelike, and
beguilingly of a piece (someone once compared it to lying in a
hammock on a summer’s day) that it is hard, in some ways, to
contend that we’ve made substantial progress in loudspeaker
design since it was introduced.
Oh, I’ve certainly heard speakers that will outperform the
ESL-57s in the bass and topmost treble, that will throw a considerably wider and taller soundstage (though not a deeper
one), that will play louder and hit harder, that have more presence and inner detail, and that are far less demanding when it
comes to amplification and far less easy to break. But I haven’t
heard one yet that will go from the softest pianissimo to fortissimo with the same astonishing ease and clarity. Indeed, it is
the ESL-57s resolution at whisper-levels—its ability to play so
quietly so clearly and gracefully—that gives it such dynamic
jump on big crescendos.
When Jürgen Scheuring, designer of the excellent Ascendo
M loudspeaker, visited me a few weeks ago, I asked him what
speaker had most influenced his own designs. He (like so many
others before him) answered: “The QUAD.” For its unrivaled
influence on speaker design, for the still-unsurpassed sonic standards of midrange purity and single-driver coherence it set, the
QUAD ESL-57 deserves the honor I’ve bestowed on it. Now, go
forth and find a pair of used or refurbished ones, mate them up
to a fine low-powered amp, put on a record, and hear for yourself what the past fifty years of fuss have been all about.