2006 Product of the Year Awards Download

2006 Product of the Year Awards
S T E R E O • M U LT I C H A N N E L A U D I O • M U S I C
CD Player
The best deal
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The King
A New Reference SPEAKER?
Speakers from
Definitive Technology
Bolzano Villetri
January 2007
Cover Story
126 H
P’s Workshop
Hansen Audio’s the King V.2 loudspeaker system, plus an interview with designer Lars Hansen.
The Absolute Sound’s 2006 Product of the Year Awards
Our annual picks for the year’s best gear.
Equipment Reports
Robert E. Greene reports.
Cayin Audio A-88T Tube Integrated Amplifier and SCD‑50T SACD Player
Paul Seydor takes a trip down memory lane.
Parasound Halo A21 Stereo Amplifier
Jonathan Valin on a terrific and affordable amp.
ProAc Studio 140 Loudspeaker
Neil Gader on a small British speaker.
Legenburg Hermes S Interconnect and Loudspeaker Cables
Neil Gader reports.
VTL IT-85 Integrated Amplifier
Jacob Heilbrunn on a sweet little integrated.
TacT 2.2 XP Room-Correction System
Anthony H. Cordesman on an innovative DSP.
MartinLogan Vista Loudspeaker
Dick Olsher makes his TAS debut.
Absolute Analog:
Marantz TT-15S Turntable
Pathos Endorphin CD Player
Wayne Garcia listens to an Italian hybrid.
Bolzano Villetri Torre 3005 Speaker and Vecchio Subwoofer
Jacob Heilbrunn on an Italian omni.
January 2007 The Absolute Sound
137 Manufacturer Comments
From The Editor
Industry News
Future TAS
Player and Usher V-601 and V-604
Chris Martens and Barry Willis.
Definitive Pro Cinema 1000 Loudspeakers
Chris Martens.
TAS Journal
Basic Repertoire: Hard Bop
Bill Milkowski.
Absolute Multimedia, Inc.
chairman and ceo Thomas B. Martin, Jr.
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MTM Sales
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141Rock Etc.
Reviews of the latest albums by Tom Waits,
John Legend, Robert Randolph, The Who,
David Grisman, and Kasey Chambers. Plus,
reprints and e-prints: Jennifer Martin, Wrights Reprints
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Frisell, John Patitucci, Omer Avital, and Ray
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and an audiophile LP by Wes Montgomery.
184TAS Back Page
11 Questions for Bob Stuart of
Meridian Audio
Neil Gader.
January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Torquil Dewar
managing editor, Monica M. Williams
web producer Ari Koinuma
Mark Feldman: What Exit.
lowdown on 2006’s best box sets.
Neil Gader
hp’s equipment setup Danny Gonzalez
168Recording of the Issue
and Tony Joe White reissues. And, the
Robert Harley
Wayne Garcia
Jonathan Valin
Bob Gendron
reviewers and
contributing writers
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33Mainstream Multichannel
Harry Pearson
senior writers
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Paul Seydor, Alan Taffel
26Start Me Up
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2007 Absolute Multimedia, Inc., January 2007. The Absolute Sound
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Harder to Read
have been a subscriber to and a reader of The Absolute Sound
since Issue 17 and have since seen any number of design and
format changes to the magazine. But with the latest, Issue
166, the layout and design has reach its nadir. Page after page
after page of 8 or 9 point type superimposed over out-of-focus
halftone backgrounds and blocks of tiny unreadable white sanserif type against red panels disrespect the written words. Your
designer should issue an apology to Kevin Voecks for messing
up his shirt and tie in the virtually unreadable column of the
Back Page layout. I do not know what audience you are trying
to reach by presenting your magazine laid out in this manner,
but 18–24 year-olds don’t seem to fit your demographics. Golden
Ears: Put your glasses on. We are interested in what you have to
say and are never bored by reading the well-written word.
Steve Rosenblatt
’ve been through a couple of format changes at TAS and,
from an aesthetic point of view, I don’t feel strongly one
way or another about the one inaugurated in Issue 165.
However, from a practical point of view, there is a problem. A
large percentage of high-end audio readers are at or over the age
(40s) when presbyopia occurs, which makes reading small fonts
difficult. The new font in TAS is smaller than it used to be and
harder to read than the prior one, which was not very large or
distinct itself. On another matter, in Issue 163 Andrew Quint
reviewed Edgar Meyer’s latest CD. In “Further Listening” at the
end of the review, he suggested “Meyer/Ma/Marshall: Uncommon
Ritual.” Uncommon Ritual did feature Meyer and Mike Marshall,
but the third performer was Bela Fleck, not Yo-yo Ma. Ma did
appear with Meyer and Mark O’Connor on two CDs, Appalachian
Waltz and Appalachian Journey.
Doug Crowley
We have revisited the new graphic design and made some
changes, starting with this issue, which include larger type
and improved type contrast. —Robert Harley
Mysteries of
he review of Iron Maiden’s A Matter of Life and Death in
Issue 166 (November), says, “At co-producer Harris’ suggestion, Kevin Shirley did not master Maiden’s record.”
Since mastering is essentially the creation of the part used for
January 2007 The Absolute Sound
replication, if the CD (of LP) was truly not mastered, there
would be no record to review. Many years ago, I encountered a
similar situation where all the tracks on the album I was working
on required some EQ, except for one, which sounded fine as it
was. The producer asked, “So you’re not mastering that one?”
The decision to not change something is as valid a
mastering decision as boosting a given frequency by so many
decibels. And if the recording gets mass produced, be assured
that someone, somewhere did in fact master it.
Mr. Gendron said, “While customary frequency boosts are
absent and levels require an additional turn of the volume knob,
the results have wonderful bite....” To me that suggests the
mastering engineer did a good job.
Barry Diament
Balanced Circuits
noted with interest Mr. Tomlinson’s comments about the
Ampzilla in the August issue [TAS Retrospective]. There is
a comment in the second to last paragraph that is blatantly
untrue, however: “While ‘so-called’ balanced amps are common
today, not one carries it this far.”
In fact, our amplifiers use a similar operating principle (the
Circlotron, fully differential and balanced from input to output),
and have since their inception in 1978. More recently, BAT has
been using this principle too, as has Graff and a few others.
I would appreciate it if you would pass this information on to
Mr. Tomlinson. If he is interested we have information on our
Web site, which has been there for about the last 13 years: http://
Ralph Karsten
CEO, Atma-Sphere Music Systems, Inc.
What Is High End?
read both the letters in the latest edition (November 2006)
on “growing the high end,” and while I found many of the
ideas interesting there is one point that is never taken up.
What makes a high end? It certainly is not mass production,
which always diminishes quality. Yet that is what these writers
seem to suggest we need. I for one do not care about full
acceptability by the masses. I do care that what I purchase has
the quality and sound that I am looking for—and not whether
others feel it’s worth the price. I can only make comparisons to
things I know. I am a very small ice cream manufacturer in the
Northeast. We individually batch our ice cream and because we
do I am limited in the quantity I can produce, but I know the
quality is exceptional. I could move up to a continuous batch
freezer and produce 10 times the amount in one-quarter the
time, but not with the same result in taste and quality. Which is
truly the high end? I am a true believer that the quality of the
product comes first and the rest will take care of itself. People
always seek out the best, maybe not all people but enough to
make it worth the trouble. If affordability is your goal, great.
Mine is to be the best at what I do.
P. Kogan
Where Have All
the High-End
Dealers Gone?
n the November 2006 issue, Letters section, Eric Landau
asks, “Where have all the dealers gone?” Eric, I can tell you
they have gone out of business. I started in the business in
1976. At that time our small upstate NY area supported four
audio shops at one time. Today we are the only business left. I
will spare you our success story. I can tell you that in the last
25 years we have witnessed two major factors that make your
search for Rega and VPI frustrating. The first problem is that
today’s basic audio products are way too good for the money. The
second is that the vast majority of shoppers patronize Best Buy,
Circuit City, and the Internet.
These places are only interested in one thing, volume. They
won’t sell high-end products because they can’t sell enough boxes.
Why? Because the $500 Denon receiver and $399/pair Polks or
Klipschs sound pretty good.
As a matter of fact, most sales are made without an audition.
As you know the stores are all very loud and most of the product
is hooked up wrong or broken. In 2005, the top 10 electronics
dealers made 72% of the sales in the U.S. By the year 2010 that
will most likely move pretty close to 80%. The slice of pie left is
pretty small for a small dealer, and the business model is not real
good for new audio shops.
I hope you will keep the faith, Eric. Over the last few years
independent dealers are working hard to separate themselves
from the Best Buys of the world. You will find most successful
dealers adding new upscale products every year.
Keith Zoll
ric Landau’s recent letter lament of “Where Have All the
Dealers Gone” as a query into the death of audiophilia is
a point I’ve often read about and heard [made] in current
audiophile circles. However, maybe can it be both “the worst of
times and the best of times.” While I’m not normally an optimist
on all matters, let me try to convince you that actually it is a
Dickensian “Worst and Best of Times.” There are three reasons:
people, product, and place.
By people, I mean the youth listening to music today on iPod
equipment from on-line sources. Do they listen to emasculated
MP3s, yes; do they listen on small low-quality speakers attached
10 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
to personal computers, yes; do they listen through earplugs at
volumes that may damage hearing, yes. Is it all dreck [that spells
the end of] the true audiophile, well, maybe. But if they do
appreciate music and can learn about quality, there is hope.
My son recently discovered Dave Brubeck. I heard him listening
one day on his little computer speakers by MP3. I said, “Hey, you
know I actually have that CD (as well as vinyl…but I didn’t want
to be way over the line), and it sounds a lot better than MP3 on
your computer.” “Oh, yeah, it does?” “And, say, let’s get you some
better PC speakers.” “Wow, that does sound a lot better!” Then
I made my move, “How about listening to this on my system?”
“Yeah, I’d like to, but not right now. I’m in the middle of a raid in
World of War Craft”—an on-line computer game. Nevertheless, I
considered that a victory; the seed had been planted.
The opportunity is out there, and others see it, too. Just look
at Apple and its “hi-fi system” for the iPod. Some might snarf,
“Oh, it’s not much more than half of a Bose 901.” But it’s a start.
And it’s a lot better than the Magnavox console that many of
us used when growing up. So the opportunity is there. This is a
responsibility for current audiophiles (a child who grows up with
audiophiles becomes an audiophile) as well as manufacturers.
That brings us to product. I am astounded by the breadth
and depth of audiophilia today; the number of really esoteric
high-end choices in electronics, turntables, and speakers, not
to mention the voodoo of cabling and interconnects. Just look
at the product reviews and advertising in any audio mag. Lots
of small companies trying to flog the new and the best. And
undeniably, the high-end sound is wonderful today and sounds
better than the past.
However, I do wonder, “How are these guys going to survive,
make money, and grow?” And that is the rub—most won’t. The
audiophile landscape today is all about R&D funded by cottage/
garage operations, with some good ideas and seed money from
friends and family, that turn out incredible products (in quality
and price) with no chance of ever really being a big commercial
success. It’s just like the high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley:
Deferred R&D by all the little guys on shoestrings for whom an
exit strategy is not commercial success (much less an IPO) but is
being licensed or acquired by somebody bigger. Because… only
the big have the revenue stream to fund large-scale sales, marketing,
and support of products to end-customers. R&D is usually no
more than 20% of revenue, while sales and marketing are 70%.
So it really is the game of the little fish getting eaten by the big
fish: all the big retailers owned by conglomerates like Federated,
Allied, etc. And we’ve also seen this in audiophilia of the 60s and
70s, where the Japanese consumer electronics industry reached
critical mass by accretion (Marantz, HK, Sherwood, Scott, KLH,
AR, etc.). Just look at the brands that Harman International has
today (Infinity, JBL, Mark Levinson, Revel, Crown, etc.). They
have the muscle and resources to produce then market, sell,
and support products. The reality is that the dealer channel only
works to fulfill existing demand of a relatively few standardized
products. Retail pretty much always follows the product model
of “good, better, and best.” Anything more is too complicated
to stock, sell, and support. So for audiophilia, this means that the
dealer channel is viable when there are relatively few standardized
products following the three-step model and manufacturers are
big enough to generate their own product demand. Current
product conditions are way too atomistic and complicated for
the dealer channel. We may never see a big dealer channel again
in audiophilia.
The question becomes how does any audiophilia get sold?
Well, it’s either by accretion where an organization gets scale, has
a three-step model, and can support dealer-channel marketingand-sales programs (e.g., Harman International), or the sales and
marketing model is changed for the “long-tail phenomenon,” as
Amazon has done in books. This means an on-line store.
There are today several fine on-line audiophile stores carrying
all manner of audiophilia. One major difference is that you can’t
hear it before buying. (You technically could with high-quality
podcasts, but not at the moment.) The way to get around this is
by more trust in respected listeners read in product reviews, in
print as well as on-line. (As well as periodic trade-show events
for in-the-flesh experiences.) There will be a market, albeit small,
for “listen before you buy in person,” but it will be high-priced,
high-margin, low-volume equipment on an “appointment-only”
basis. One will probably have to travel hundreds of miles for
this, as Eric has found, but this is the same well-proven model
used if you want to test-drive a Rolls-Royce or a Ferrari. The
enthusiast would say, “That’s fine.” The old-style corner, momand-pop audio dealer does not have the working capital, in-store
expertise, or sales volume to float demo equipment and the cost
of looky-loos. Is this bad? Not at all! When really good product
gets good reviews and is available on-line, it takes off. Look at the
new brand Outlaw. So there you are: people, product, and place.
Why today can also be the best of times!
Does this mean it might be hard to buy Rega turntables? Yes, if
Rega continues to buck the trend of on-line marketing and sales in
order to maintain a dealer channel, or maybe Eric needs to accept
that if he wants to “test drive a Rolls,” he may have to travel.
Does this all mean that new audiophiles can be found and
grown amongst the home-theater-MP3 crowd? Yes, absolutely.
But the “voice of the customer” is different than the audiophile
voice of today defined in the 1950s model. The new voice is: online, mobile, MP3s (will become lossless like WAV when all have
T1-fast broadband), and is mostly built around home theater.
(The turnover expected in the U.S. alone of nearly 300 million
TVs in the next few years by the crossover to digital broadcasting
is “the elephant sitting in the butter dish” for home theater
crowding out most other audio/visual product accumulations for
budgetary and space reasons. This is the opportunity that today’s
AV dealers are lining up to go after.)
Join the discussion of all
things audio with fellow
readers and the TAS
editors and writers at the
AVguide.com forum.
12 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Am I sorry to see Tower Records go? Yeah, sort of. But I have
to admit that the on-line experience of retailers like Amazon is
better, for a much deeper catalog at less cost than the old brickand-mortar models. So to use the line from Candide, “It (might
be) the best of all possible times.” Of if you like, “The future’s so
bright we gotta wear shades.”
Joe Eschbach
Class D(igital)
appreciate your well-balanced editorial, but I’m a bit
disappointed about the discussion of the Class D title story
in the November issue. I really can’t follow what the experts
are talking about and have the feeling that they are comparing
apples with peaches. My initial question is: Did they compare
analog outputs of digital and analog sources via Class D and
Class A amps, or did they compare “digital chains” versus analog
I listen to digitally stored (hard-disk recorder!) music via a TacT
TCS II (for room correction) and Millennium Mk III—all cabled
and filtered with Shunyata accessories (Anaconda/Orion/Hydra)
plus PS Audio Noise Harvester (a must!) and analog-stored
music via a passive preamp and Einstein monoblock tube amps
both reproduced by Acapella horn speakers. My idea is to have
a reproduction chain with a minimum of signal transformation
and disturbances.
My experience: The weakest links in the reproduction chain are
the A/D converter and/or the D/A converter—an aspect that is
not focused on in your discussions. The quality level of the “pure”
digital chain is comparable with the “analog chain”; however, I
often prefer the analog chain, depending on the music. But the
digital chain (without conventional A/D-D/A conversion and
without read-out failures of a laser [real-time] pick-up) also has
some virtues I wouldn’t miss.
I listened to the most expensive CD transports. Their digital
output signal-quality can`t surpass the digital output quality of
the (Audio Physic-modified) hard-disk recorder! (I am looking
for solid-state storage of “digital” music to get the best out of
Thus I don`t feed the “digital” gear with analog signals and
vice versa, because the result is suboptimal.
The “Class D impedance” problem really does not exist with
my (6 ohms) horn speaker and their nearly ideal impulse response
(time-corrected design). I am totally irritated by the description
of the listening experience in a kind of evaluating the musical
quality by analytically dissecting (vivisecting?) the listened music.
I personally experience music in a more holistic sensation and
liked to hear the dynamics, spatiality (of stereo-reproductions),
and details of “real music”—and not in midbass, treble, and so
I hope you can follow my listening experience, and I am really
highly interested in your experience with a “puristic” approach
to Class D.
Dr. Michael Graw
Class D Amps
enjoyed the Class D power amplifier primer, Designer
Roundtable, and reviews in Issue 166. I have long been
enthusiastic about the potential of Class D and T and was really
hoping you guys would discover one that fulfilled all expectations.
Unfortunately, I have to agree with the overall conclusion of
the reviewers—it’s just not there yet. Of the amps reviewed, I
have only auditioned the Cary, Audio Research, and Nuforce.
I didn’t like any of them, especially the Audio Research. Like
the reviewers, however, I too was most disappointed in the Cary
A306. Since I own a Cinema 5, I had much higher expectations
for the Cary product. Like Wayne Garcia, I don’t understand why
they would even release the A306. It’s priced competitively with
its own MB-500s (pair) and has about the same power but, it
sure doesn’t sound like a pair of MB-500s! I was a little surprised
at the selection of samples in your article. I thought surely you
would have included the D amps from Edge and Halcro since
several of their linear products [are on] your solid-state TAS list.
Another consideration (for me at least) would have been the new
Bel Canto amps that are getting so many rave reviews.
Although the article was not personalized for me (an obvious
oversight on the part of TAS), it was very informative. Thank
you for publishing it.
P.S.—I like the new look!
John Garland
picked up the October issue this weekend and was saddened to
see the obituary about John Garland. It would appear that
Wayne [Garcia] and I are about the same age and went through
the same experiences at Garland Audio. I purchased my first
system from John around 77 or 78 on a friend’s recommendation
about his shop. Even though my meager funds were not on a par
with what most people were spending at Garland Audio, he spent
time and gave me an education and fueled a fire that goes on to
this day. I was sad to see him close, but could see the writing on the
wall for that business model in the Bay Area at that time. So many
people want instant gratification and cannot or will not spend the
time to learn some basics about building a system today. That must
be the reason there are so many Frys/Best Buys/Circuit Cities
and so few Analog Rooms/Garland Audios today. I truly feel
John Garland did more for high-end audio in the San Jose Bay Area
that anyone else did. Yes, there were other high-end shops in Palo
Alto and San Francisco (all now defunct), but John never looked
down on you if you couldn’t afford the WAMM system and
just had enough for Dick Sequerra’s system. Anyway, thanks for
the mention of John in TAS and enjoy life and music.
Chris Hardy
14 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Still Here
n response to Mr. Landau’s letter, “Where have all the
dealers gone?” we are still here, but we are selling mostly
high-quality, high-performance home-theater systems
instead of high-performance two-channel audio. In my past
life, I operated a two-channel-only high-end store, and I can
tell you that I am glad that I no longer depend on that client
to be successful. It was exhausting. “Well, those speakers are
good, but the soundstage isn’t deep enough. Can you change the
speaker and interconnect cable? If not, can I hear those other
speakers with that CD player?” “If not, can I take the equipment
home for a week to listen to it at my house?” It seems to me that
the perception of the two-channel client is that they really do not
need me. They can hook all of their equipment up themselves,
run the big ugly speaker cables across the floor, and purchase the
equipment slightly used on Audiogon for 35% less than I sell
it. Good riddance. On the other hand, my home-theater clients
want me, need me, love me, and cherish their retail experience.
They bring their entire family to my store to see the new HD
projectors and plasma TV’s surrounded by wonderful audio. Michael Klein
ot only is it true that the group review of Class D
amplifiers couldn’t have been handled any better, it also
illustrated The Absolute Sound’s greatest strength. Getting
different takes from different reviewers on the same product
made all the difference in the world. It felt like much of what
was best of the early days being updated to the present. Class
D is not necessarily a fascinating area to me, but it was handled
with flair visually and quality of writing. I learned something. To
whatever extent you can continue to offer multiple opinions on
everything else, you will not only eclipse the competition but
also set the standard that will be definitely noticed by all.
John Penturn
Upcoming in TAS
• London
Reference phono cartridge
• Levinson Nº436 monoblock amps
• Quad 2805 loudspeaker
• Avid Acutus Reference turntable
• Pioneer S2 EX loudspeaker
• Nuforce S9 loudspeaker
• Wadia System 9 digital player
• Polk iSonic system
• A report from the Rocky Mountain
Audio Fest
Changing Times
’m thrilled to welcome Dick
Olsher to the staff of The Absolute
Sound. Dick makes his debut this
issue with an appraisal of the
MartinLogan Vista loudspeaker.
After you read his review, I’m
sure you’ll share my enthusiasm for Dick’s
writing. He combines deep technical
understanding of audio technology with
a keen musical sensitivity—and the rare
ability to draw correlations between the
technical and the aesthetic. His Vista
review also left me with a vivid impression
of how the product sounded, always the
hallmark of great audio writing.
I briefly shared a listening room with
Dick back in 1989 when I had just joined
Stereophile as Technical Editor. I was new
to high-end reviewing, and looked up
to Dick’s reviews as models of clarity,
technical insight, and high standards for
what products could be recommended.
His reviews significantly shaped the way
I approached product evaluation. Watch
for more of Dick Olsher’s writing in
upcoming issues of The Absolute Sound.
Many of you wrote to me in the past
month expressing frustration with the
new graphic design, specifically text
legibility. Although the overall design is a
big step forward, I agree that the type was
too small and didn’t always have adequate
contrast with the background illustrations.
Beginning this issue, we’ve increased the
font size, given the text more room (no
more use of “condensed” type), and
made sure that there’s adequate contrast
between the text and the rest of the page.
This approach brings greater readability to
the type while keeping the overall graphic
elements that work so well. Thanks to all
of you who wrote for your feedback.
16 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
I’m also happy to report that beginning with Issue 170, I will be able to devote my
full time and attention to The Absolute Sound. I’ve been Editor-in-Chief of both TAS
and our sister publication, The Perfect Vision, since becoming EIC of TAS more than five
years ago. When I took on both roles we published six issues of each magazine a year,
making the job only a little more challenging than editing a traditional 12-times-per-year
publication. But the success of both magazines has allowed us to increase that rate to
ten issues of each title per year, a schedule that is best served by separate editors of each
Bob Ankosko, the former editor of Sound & Vision, has been appointed Editorin-Chief of The Perfect Vision, allowing me to return to my first love: music and the
technology that brings it into our homes. Consequently, I will be able to increase my
editorial contribution to TAS, including more reviews, interviews, Roundtables, and
feature articles.
As part of my increased presence in TAS, I’ll be writing a weekly high-end audio blog
on our Web site, AVguide.com. The blog will embrace widely diverse topics, including
first impressions of products we’re working on, follow-up reports on previously reviewed
products, behind-the-scenes news from TAS, manufacturer and designer anecdotes,
technical tidbits, tweaks and set-up hints, discoveries in accessories and music, and
whatever else comes to mind. The weekly blog makes its debut December 1. I also invite
you to join our reader forum at AVguide.com and post questions or exchange ideas with
other audiophiles as well as with The Absolute Sound’s writers and editors.
As part of our increased use of the Web to communicate with our readers, we’ve begun
posting show reports live from show venues. Rather than waiting ten weeks between the
show and our print report, you can now log onto AVguide.com and see daily updates
from our editorial team of interesting new products and great-sounding systems. Our
first effort in that direction is our report from last October’s Rocky Mountain Audio
Fest. If you can’t wait for our print report in the next issue, check out our coverage at
AVguide.com. You can even post comments and questions about specific products right
in our reports, and get answers from our editorial team.
We’ll be posting our coverage of the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show on
AVguide.com starting January 9, 2007. Of course, we’ll still bring you a comprehensive
print report, which will appear in Issue 171. Until then, see you on the Web.
Robert Harley
Chris Martens
Reshare: A Smart Way to Facilitate
High-End Audio Sales On-line?
inneapolis, Minnesota-based Reshare Corporation
was founded in 1999 and has spent the past seven
years developing and refining a revolutionary, and
now patented, business process that allows manufacturers to
sell products directly to end-user via the Internet, without cutting
regional distributors or local dealers out of the loop.
Reshare Chairman and CEO Adam Southam explained that his
firm’s business process has been applied successfully in the fitness,
beauty products, furniture/lighting, snow sports, and automotive
aftermarket accessories industries. In each case, Reshare found
manufacturers wanted to open direct on-line sales channels with
consumers, but were reluctant to do so for fear of damaging
valuable relationships with established dealers. To tackle this
problem, Reshare created a process that encourages factory-direct
sales, but also provides clear-cut, ironclad mechanisms whereby
distributors and dealers are credited with, and compensated for,
on-line sales. Recognizing that this process
might be relevant for our industry, Reshare
has now begun marketing its “Distribution
Relationship Management” software and
strategic services to various high-end audio
From the end user’s point of view, the
Reshare process is essentially invisible. The
customer simply visits the manufacturer’s
Web site, opens an electronic product catalog, and then selects
and orders whatever components he wishes to buy. Sales are
handled through conventional eCommerce systems, but with
a twist. At check-out time, the customer is shown a list of
dealers and asked to pick the dealer to whom the sale should be
credited. Typically, the customer is advised that his chosen dealer
will become responsible for after-sales support and installation
assistance. Then, once the transaction is completed, the product
ships directly from the manufacturer (or a fulfillment house) to
the customer’s home, with the local dealer providing whatever
installation help has been agreed upon.
In the background, Reshare software applies predetermined,
manufacturer-defined business rules to calculate the manufacturer,
distributor, and dealer’s shares of the proceeds from the sale,
plus any sales commissions that may be owed. Reshare software
places the customer’s payment into an escrow account where
funds are held until the sale is officially completed (typically when
the product ships to the customer). Once the sale is finalized, the
Reshare system releases, divides, and electronically distributes
funds from the sale to all involved parties. The system provides
extensive and secure on-line sales reporting functions.
In our analysis, high-end audio manufacturers, distributors,
dealers, and customers alike can benefit from the Reshare process,
though in different ways.
Customers enjoy the security that comes with controlling
their own order-entry processes and dealing directly with the
manufacturer, plus the convenience of shopping from home,
24/7/365. They also have the satisfaction of knowing that local
dealers (or the dealer of their choosing) will receive credit and
compensation for the sale.
For manufacturers, the Reshare process helps open new online sales channels, while improving cash flow and reducing
concerns about late payments or bad debts. More importantly,
the process lets manufacturers offer on-line sales initiatives that
should win active grass-roots support from
current distributors and dealers. Finally,
the Reshare process helps manufacturers
gather immediate customer feedback on
can use to adjust product strategies and
make smarter manufacturing decisions. Ed
Ambrose, Reshare’s director of business
development, points out that Reshare
software also provides special features whereby manufacturers
can test market response to new products by allowing pre-release
orders for products that are not yet in production.
For distributors and dealers, the Reshare process ensures
that factory-direct on-line business will complement, and not
cannibalize, traditional in-store sales. Reshare business rules also
can be set up to discourage unscrupulous out-of-territory dealers
from attempting to steal sales from local dealers. In theory, the
Reshare process frees dealers to focus on stocking top-selling
products, because it provides a safe, profitable mechanism for
placing special orders on-line. Finally, Reshare’s automated system
ensures that profit margin and/or commission payments resulting
from on-line sales will be issued promptly and accurately.
In principle, the Reshare process offers high-end audio
companies a viable mechanism for increasing sales, with win/
win/win benefits for manufacturers, distributors/dealers, and
customers. It also holds the promise of helping to impose much
needed order on the often-chaotic world of high-end audio sales.
Reshare promises to
help impose order
on the often-chaotic
world of high-end
audio sales
18 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Industry News
CES 2007: New High-End
Venue, Rules Alienate
Music Vendors
or years, the Consumer Electronics Show’s high-end
exhibits were held in Las Vegas’ Alexis Park—a sprawling
venue that made on-site security a relatively relaxed affair.
But for 2007’s show these exhibits will move to the Venetian
Hotel, where security will be much tighter, and where rules
prohibiting on-site sales of equipment and music software will
be strictly enforced.
In the past, a few equipment manufacturers quietly sold
off demo products as shows came to a close, reasoning that it
was cheaper to sell components at a discount in Vegas than to
pay drayage/shipping charges to transport them back to their
warehouses. These sales not only violated CES rules, they also
failed to meet legal requirements for collecting Nevada sales
taxes. At the Alexis Park, there was no effective way to monitor
traffic entering or exiting the site. But traffic at the Venetian
Hotel will be easier to monitor.
This situation poses especially serious problems for specialty
music vendors, who for years gathered at the Alexis Park to sell
their wares. Several music vendors told us that, at past CES shows,
they had made appropriate arrangements to collect Nevada sales
taxes, though it is not clear whether all did so. The move to the
Venetian prompted CES management to address the sales tax
issue in a more proactive way, one in which all on-site music sales
would be handled under CES’ own Nevada business license.
Under the plan, buyers would make selections at music vendors’
booths and request invoices for the material they intended to
buy. Then, buyers would take the invoices to nearby CES Music
Stores (essentially check-out kiosks) to pay for purchases. Finally,
buyers would return to the music vendors with official CES sales
receipts in-hand to collect their merchandise.
Music vendors have voiced strenuous objections. Many argue
that it would inhibit spontaneous purchases that account for a large
percentage their sales. Others think customers will be turned off by
potentially long lines at CES check-out counters. Many complained
that CES regulations allow sales of music software, but not of related
accessories. And almost all objected to an imposed “transaction
fee” that gives a small percentage of each music sale to CES. The
final straw, many said, was that music vendors would not receive
full payment for their music sales until 90 days after the show.
Given these objections, a large number of vendors, including
AIX Records, Cisco Music, Elusive Disk, M-A Recordings, and
Reference Recordings, have decided not to exhibit at CES 2007.
Others, such as Acoustic Sounds and Music Direct, have decided
not to bring music to sell at CES, though they will exhibit on
behalf of the high-end audio equipment brands they represent.
While no one can fault CES for attempting to find a solution to
the complicated sales tax problem, it appears the proposed plan has
succeeded only in driving off what was once one of the best-loved
features of CES’ high-end exhibits. TAS
20 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
lastair Robertson‑Aikman:
SME founder Alastair Robertson‑Aikman passed away on October 29
at the age of 82, following a two‑year struggle with cancer. AR‑A,
as he was affectionately known to friends and colleagues, founded
Scale Model Equipment Company Limited in a shed in his parents’
garden in 1946. For the next decade and a half the factory made
precision models for the engineering trade, eventually branching
out into automobile parts (for Rolls‑Royce, Formula 1, and others),
business machines, and medical and aircraft instruments, activities
the company pursues to this day.
AR‑A’s real passion, however, was music, especially opera.
Dissatisfied with existing tonearms, he set about designing one for
himself in his own factory. He made about a dozen for friends, and
in 1959 the inevitable became a reality when he brought his first
tonearm to market. Its moniker derived from the acronym from his
company’s name, with the adjective “precision” prominent in its
designation: “SME Models 3009 & 3012: Precision Pick‑Up Arms.”
Variations on these arms dominated the market for nearly twenty
years, but with the rise of moving‑coil cartridges in the late 70s it
became evident that a new approach was required to cope with
moving coils’ higher mass and lower compliance.
The SME Series V was introduced in the mid‑80s, gimbal bearings
replacing the knife‑edged ones in the 3000 series and a single‑piece,
supremely rigid casting from magnesium instead of the earlier
models’ stainless steel and aluminum. SME was once more a leader
in arm design. Next came a turntable. Like SME arms, the Model
30 (now 30/2) set a new benchmark for performance, managing
by an ingenious use of elastic O‑rings and fluid damping to make
a tuned, hanging suspension that does not oscillate. Two more
models followed, joining variations on the original Series V arm,
all designed to bring the performance of SME’s flagships to more
affordable prices. Despite its high price, the Model 30/2’s demand
so outstripped supply that AR‑A rarely had one for personal use
at home. “It would be unfair to deprive a customer,” he once told
a journalist. No wonder the audio reviewer Ken Kessler lamented
that with AR‑A’s passing the industry has “lost one of its last true
Despite illness, AR‑A managed to upgrade his turntable line and
introduce the 312S, a 12‑inch version of the Series V, and the 20/12
turntable to accommodate it. Kevin Wolff of Sumiko, SME’s U.S.
distributor, will never forget the “youthful enthusiasm with which
AR‑A showed off these new products in his home earlier this year.
This was the perfect experience to remember him by.”
On a personal note, along with Quad electrostatics, the closest
things to constants in my various systems throughout nearly four
decades as an audiophile are SME arms, of which I’ve owned three
with greatest satisfaction. And the SME products I’ve reviewed for
TAS belong to the tiny handful of truly standard‑setting reference
AR‑A’s legacy and the company he founded survive in the capable
hands of his son, Cameron. Paul Seydor
Chris Martens
Rega P1 Turntable, Arm, and Cartridge Combo
For years, the appeal of Rega ’tables and arms has centered on their back-to-basics,
essentials-first design approach, which strikes a resonant chord with many value-minded
audiophiles. The only problem is that Rega’s lineup has never included a true entry-level model—until now.
Rega has just announced the P1 turntable/arm/cartridge combo, which will sell for a very manageable $350.
The British-made P1 ’table (yes, it’s still built in the U.K.) features a 12" platter and clear dustcover, and comes
with a Rega-built RB100 tonearm already installed. To make the transition to the analog world as smooth and
stress-free as possible for newcomers, the P1 also features an Ortofon OM5E moving-magnet phono cartridge
that comes mounted and aligned in an RB100 arm. Rega’s sole performance claim for the P1 is short and
sweet: “’Makes more music than the competition.” regaresearch.co.uk
NAD C 325BEE Integrated Amplifier and C 525BEE CD Player
NAD has updated a pair of budget classics. As in the past, NAD’s BEE
nomenclature denotes the design influence of NAD technical guru Bjorn Erik
The C 325BEE is a 50Wpc solid-state integrated amplifier featuring a DC
servo circuit said to eliminate “sound-coloring capacitors in the signal path,”
a distortion-canceling circuit that applies both feedback and feed-forward
techniques, and a proprietary “BEE Clamp” circuit that improves high-frequency
stability when driving difficult loads. The C 325BEE will sell for $399.
The C 525BEE CD player offer evolutionary improvements, including 20-bit Burr-Brown Delta/Sigma DACs, very-low-noise Burr-Brown opamps, and high-quality metal-film resistors and polypropylene capacitors in key areas. The output impedance of the C 525BEE is a low 300
ohms, meaning the player should be relatively insensitive to cables and other components in the system. The C 525BEE will sell for $299.
Both units should be shipping by the time this issue reaches newsstands. nadelectronics.com
Krell FBI Integrated Amplifier
Audiophiles were wowed when Krell announced its flagship
Evolution One amplifier. Now, that product’s proprietary CAST
(Current Audio Signal Transmission) technology has found its way
into a mammoth Krell integrated amplifier called the FBI (for Fully
Balanced Integrated).
Krell describes its CAST amplifier design as “circuitry which
utilizes current gain topologies allowing the signal to remain in
the current domain from input to output.” According to Krell, the
benefit of keeping signals in the current domain is avoidance of
“unnecessary current-to-voltage conversions that add distortion,
require heavy feedback, and severely limit bandwidth.”
In the FBI, CAST circuitry “connects the source, preamp,
and amp, reducing voltage gain stages to the minimum—one,
resulting in a noise floor that approaches the theoretical limit of
technology.” The FBI features a 3kW toroidal power supply, and
puts out 300Wpc at 8 ohms on up to 1200Wpc at 2 ohms. Price is
$16,500. krellonline.com
The Absolute Sound January 2007 23
Future TAS
Scoop! Gallo Acoustics Reference 5LS “Statement
Class” Loudspeaker
At CES 2007, Gallo Acoustics will release a statement model
called the Reference 5LS.
The Reference 5LS is a 78"-tall line source whose forwardfacing side features a totem pole-like stack of drivers consisting
of seven of Gallo’s patented CDT semi-cylindrical piezo tweeters
(offering 270º+ horizontal dispersion), interspersed between
eight of the firm’s 4" carbon-fiber mid/bass drivers, which are
housed in semi-spherical enclosures. Neither the tweeters or
the mid/bass drivers support bi- or tri-wiring, or allow bi- or
tri-amplification. End users can bypass the woofer crossover to
use Gallo’s dedicated SA subwoofer amplifier, which provides its
own volume, phase, and crossover controls.
Pricing is expected to fall in the $12k–$15k range. In an
interview with TAS, designer Anthony Gallo said that the 5LS
Minus K Technology NASA-Grade
represents a substantial step forward from his award-winning
Tabletop Vibration Isolation
Reference 3.1s, and that he was particularly pleased with the
even, well-balanced way the line-source woofer array loads
Minus K Technology builds NASA-grade
low-frequency energy into the listening space. roundsound.com
vibration-isolation devices for the
scientific community. But audiophiles have
discovered that Minus K platforms make
superb isolation systems for turntables and
other components—purely mechanical
devices that operate without electricity or
air. Minus K claims its platforms deliver “10
to 100 times better performance than a
full-size air table,” yet take up much less
Best suited for audio applications are
the BM-6 and BM-8 tabletop isolation
platforms. The units are similar and offer
identical 1.5Hz horizontal isolation, but
the BM-6 provides 2.5Hz vertical isolation,
while the more expensive BM-8 provides
“true .5Hz isolation” in the vertical axis.
Both measure 4.6" x 18.6" x 20", and can
be ordered to support loads of 25, 50,
NHT Power2 Class D Amplifier
or 100 pounds. BM-6 models range from
Joining the Class D movement, NHT has announced its new Power2 200Wpc stereo
$1800–$1900, while BM-8s range from
power amplifier, which will sell for $1200. Obviously, the Power2 offers a compelling
watts/dollar ratio, but it is also a compact, cool-running unit said to offer very low
distortion, extremely flat frequency response, and audiophile-pleasing sound.
Thinking ahead, NHT has designed the Power2 to complement its own controller
(a high performance, audiophile-oriented 7.1-channel A/V controller) and Power5 5channel power amplifier (essentially, a 5-channel version of the Power2). Interestingly,
NHT’s controller, Power2, and Power5 are able to communicate with each other via
a built-in, Ethernet-enabled, NHTbus ports. Power2 shipments are slated to begin
around the beginning of October 2006. nhthifi.com
24 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Minus K can provide custom versions
that can accommodate oversized loads.
minusk.com (check out Applications, Audio
Start Me Up
A $149 giant killer?
Chris Martens
Oppo Digital
DV-970HD Universal
Disc Player
Specs &
Oppo Digital, Inc.
453 Ravendale Drive, Suite D
Mountain View, California 94043
(650) 961-1118
Formats: DVD-Audio/Video,
SACD, HDCD, CD, Kodak Picture
Audio outputs: One 5.1-channel
analog audio, one stereo analog
audio, two digital audio (one
optical, one coaxial)
Video outputs: One each,
composite video, S-video,
component video, and HDMI
Other inputs/outputs: Flash
memory card reader, USB
Dimensions: 16 ½" x 1 5/8" x 10"
Weight: 4.85 lbs.
26 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Oppo Digital is earning a reputation for building products that are
modest in price and appearance, but turn out to be giant killers. The
$149 DV-970HD supports DVD-Audio/Video, SACD, HDCD, and CD, and provides HDMI
outputs with 720p/1080i upconversion. What makes it unexpectedly good—and not just “for the
money”—is sound and video quality characterized by excellent overall transparency and detail, a
good measure of treble smoothness, taut, clean (though occasionally too lean) bass, and a persona
that emphasizes clarity more than it does warmth. As a result, the Oppo effortlessly reveals
variations in production techniques from album to album and song to song.
On Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions [A&M, multichannel SACD], “My Favorite Mistake” offered
the focused, up-close perspective of a studio recording. But “There Goes the Neighborhood”
presented an altogether different soundscape whose huge, raw, reverb-soaked sound created the
illusion of hearing Crow and her band performing in a giant garage. The Oppo’s ability to delineate
the textural and spatial differences between tracks was impressive.
Better still, the Oppo delivers evenly-balanced performance across all disc formats—something
that can’t be said of many inexpensive universal players. For instance, it sounded equally masterful on
“At the Gazebo,” from Trey Anastasio’s eponymous solo album [Elektra, DVD-A], simultaneously
capturing Anastasio’s delicate plucking and the buttery sonority of the bowed strings, and giving
each instrument its proper place on stage.
Alongside more expensive CD-only players, such as the Rega transport and Musical Fidelity
DAC combo I had on hand, the DV-970HD was less smooth in the upper midrange/treble region,
a touch more forward and less fine-grained in the midrange, and somewhat less full-bodied and
three-dimensional. But these drawbacks seem minor considering that the Oppo is the more
versatile player, and that it cost less than one tenth what the CD combo does.
The Oppo fits equally well in home-theater or two-channel audio systems, though for best
results in the latter, connect the player to a display when performing initial setup, and consider
leaving the display connected to take advantage of the Oppo’s graphical user interface. And use
high-quality interconnects—ironically, its sound merits cables that may cost more than the player
does. Finally, the SACD controls are a bit unorthodox. When SACDs are loaded, users must first
press the Play button before using the traditional Skip Forward or Skip Backward buttons.
Despite its few quirks and sonic imperfections, the Oppo DV-970HD is the best low-priced
universal player I’ve heard. It does so much, so well, for so little, that it makes many higherpriced players seem like underachievers by comparison. Whether you are a newcomer looking
for an excellent starter player or a veteran looking to sample high-resolution formats, the Oppo
represents a fine way to get in the game.
Start Me Up
Usher Audio
V-604 and V-601
A step up from one
company’s entry level
Barry Willis
Usher Audio designs and
manufactures loudspeakers,
preamplifiers, power amps,
and accessories. In consultation
with audio industry legend Dr. Joseph
D’Appolito—whose name is synonymous
with the “D’Appolito Configuration,” a
driver array used by dozens of speaker
produces five lines of loudspeakers, from
the entry-level “Usher” Series to the
exotic “Dancer” Series.
A step up from the “Usher” line, “V”
Series products include the two models
reviewed here, plus the $620 V-603
center channel speaker, and the V-602, a
two-driver/two-way floorstander retailing
for $1040. The largest of the line, the
$1480 V-604 is an attractive and robustly
built column featuring a 1" fabric-dome
tweeter flanked by two 7" compositecone woofers, while a rectangular port
extends the speaker’s low-end response.
The back panel has a recess with two
pairs of binding posts, connected via
supplied jumper straps. A nice touch is
a small graphic showing three hookup
possibilities: single wire/single amp,
bi-wire/single amp, and bi-amplified.
For most of the several weeks that I
had the Ushers, I chose the bi-wire
On 28" sand-filled Target stands, the
28 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
$700 V-601s were within an inch of the
height of their bigger brothers, but their
tweeters were above my listening axis,
whereas the V-604’s were right at ear
level. With some speakers, the tweeterto-ear height relationship can have
pronounced effects on perceived spectral
balance, imaging, and detail. That proved
to be true with both Usher models, but
not to any severe extent. They both seem
to have relatively large horizontal and
vertical dispersion patterns. Placement
wasn’t critical for getting the best sound
from either speaker.
Alternating between the two Ushers
was a fascinating exercise, in that they
appear to use the same drivers—the
difference being that the V-604 has two
woofers and a much larger cabinet, and
therefore better, deeper low-frequency
potential, which affects not only the
speaker’s musical authority, but also
its midrange clarity. The V-604’s better
bass extension immediately made it my
preference of the two. It doesn’t have
world-class bottom-octave impact, but
rolls off smoothly below a perceptible
midbass hump that makes the speaker
especially effective with a bass/baritone
voice like Leonard Cohen’s, the moody
jazz of Patricia Barber, and rock, pop, and
country thumpers—The B-52’s Good Stuff
[Reprise], Turkish pop star Tarkan’s Dudu
[HITT Muzik], or Guy Clark’s Boats to
Build [Asylum]. Rocking out at moderately
loud levels, the V-604 is totally enjoyable.
Danceable even.
The downside to this is that regardless
of the material, the V-604 tends to sound
thick in the mids and a bit veiled on
top. There’s a laborious darkness about
it that lingers over every recording like
rain clouds over Nebraska cornfields. It
doesn’t have that open, airy, effortless
quality that lets string instruments leap
to life in your listening room or makes
female vocals so hauntingly compelling.
“Caracol,” Strunz & Farah’s extravagant
guitar duet on Americas [Mesa], lacked the
dimensionality that I’ve heard with many
other loudspeakers.
Likewise, Kathleen Battle’s small-voice
interpretation of the Gershwin classic
“Summertime,” from Kathleen Battle at
Carnegie Hall [Deutsche Grammophon],
was short on delicacy and shimmer.
Nuance was also not this loudspeaker’s
strong suit—Steely Dan’s “Third World
Man” on Gaucho [MCA] contains details
that simply weren’t fully filled in by the big
Ushers. The song depends on poignant,
fading instrumentals to underscore the
impression of a suburban desperado’s
hopeless absurdity, but the Ushers failed
to deliver the poignancy.
Their smaller siblings were brighter
Start Me Up
and more open sounding, and especially
enjoyable with female vocals—Kiri
Te Kanawa’s glamorous treatment of
Cole Porter’s “So in Love,” from Kiri on
Broadway [London], Bernadette Peters’
lovely cover of “Blackbird” on I’ll Be
Your Baby Tonight [Angel], or the echoheavy “Llorando,” Rebekah Del Rio’s a
cappella Spanish language version of Roy
Orbison’s “Crying” from the Mulholland
Dr. soundtrack [Milan].
There’s no downside to bright, open
top octaves, of course, but like the V604, the V-601’s has a midbass hump, in
this case made more pronounced by the
sharper low-frequency cutoff. This tended
to give bass instruments a lightweight
doublebass on Adagio d’Albinoni [Cisco],
for example, sounded more like a cello
through the smaller Ushers and more like
the real thing through the bigger ones.
1/3 ad
Both models
good at low to
moderately loud
Recordings with no deep bass were
totally enjoyable through both speakers—
the Capitol Collectors Series Louis
Prima disc, or the original-recording/
low-fi compilation Big Band Reverie
[Direct Source]. Moderately demanding
contemporary recordings like the Ben
Folds Five’s Whatever and Ever Amen [Epic]
were also good through the V-601’s and
better through the V-604’s, thanks to their
better bass and dynamics.
Both models sounded good at lowto-moderately loud levels, but got shrill
and glassy-hard when pushed—partly,
I surmise, because of a phenomenon
called compression distortion, in which
a loudspeaker can’t respond linearly to
an increase in drive signal. A tip-off to
this possibility is both speakers’ relatively
low power-handling specification: The 4ohm V-604 has a sensitivity of 90dB, and
a power handling rating of 100 watts; the
smaller 8-ohm V-601, at 86.5dB (low, but
30 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
not an unusual spec for a small monitor),
can handle only 70 watts. This means
there’s a narrow power band at which the
speakers sound best. As a result, coupling
either model to a powerhouse won’t be a
marriage made in heaven, but a smaller
amp won’t be the ideal solution either,
because both Ushers have relatively low
Bottom-line advice on these two
Usher loudspeakers: They are worth
investigating, but their limitations don’t
win them a recommendation from me.
Specs &
MUsikmatters, inc.
1303 Motor Street
Dallas, Texas 75207
(214) 638-3500
Type: Ported, three-driver/two-way
floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: One 1" fabric-dome
tweeter, two 7" composite cone woofers
Frequency response: 34Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 90dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Power handling: 100 watts (continuous)
Dimensions: 9.37" x 46.73" x 11.5"
Weight: 75 lbs.
Price: $1480
Type: Front-ported two-way monitor
Driver complement: One 1" fabric-dome
tweeter, one 7" composite cone woofer
Frequency response: 42Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 86.5dB
Impedance: 8 ohms
Power handling: 70 watts (continuous)
Dimensions: 9.37" x 17.52" x 11.50"
Weight: 32 lbs.
Price: $700
Associated Equipment
Lexicon RT-20 universal disc player; Marantz
CC-65SE CD changer; April Music Stello
DA-100 DAC; Margules Audio “Magenta”
ADE-24 harmonic sweetener; Parasound
Halo C2 preamp/controller; Parasound
Halo A51power amp; Red Rose Music
“Spirit” integrated amp; APC S15 power
conditioner; Nordost SPM speaker cables
and interconnects; Nordost Quattro-fil and
Kimber Kable “Hero” interconnects; Shakti
stones; James 10 SG subwoofer
There’s nothing generic about the sound
Chris Martens
Definitive Technology enjoys a hard-won reputation for offering
innovative loudspeakers that deliver high performance at modest
prices. A good example would be its $1649 ProCinema 1000 5.1-channel speaker system,
Definitive Technology
ProCinema 1000
Speaker System
which in the deluxe configuration we tested comprises four ProMonitor 1000 mini-monitors, a
ProCenter 2000 center-channel speaker, and a ProSub 1000 powered subwoofer. From the outside
the ProCinema system looks much like any number of other good “generic” sat/sub systems on
the market. But appearances are deceiving, because once you hear the ProCinema system you’ll
know there is nothing generic about its sound.
From the outset this compact system sounded much bigger than it looks. I tried a variety of
multichannel orchestral recordings with vigorous dynamic themes and came away impressed by
the grace the system showed under pressure. On the “March to the Scaffold” movement from
Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique [Järvi/Cincinnati, Telarc SACD], the ProCinema system boldly
reproduced the bright sheen and bite of the orchestra’s brass section, even as it forcefully recreated
the concussive waves of bass energy from the battery of percussion instruments. Similarly, the
system did a fine job with Sheryl Crow’s “My Favorite Mistake,” from The Globe Sessions [A&M,
SACD], capturing the choppy bark of the electric guitar, the hard pop of the snare drum, and
chunky, propulsive rumble of the bass guitar. Though the ProCinema system does not offer the
seemingly limitless dynamic clout that certain large floorstanders do, it latches on to high-energy
orchestral and rock passages with a compelling, exuberant verve.
The ProCinema system’s dynamic strengths also helped convey the drama, tension, and
explosive impact of good film soundtracks. I trotted out a series of familiar cinematic blockbusters—
the “Echo Game” scene from House of Flying Daggers [Sony], the “Sky” scene from Hero [Miramax],
The Absolute Sound January 2007 33
Mainstream Multichannel
“The Flying Boat” scene from The Aviator
[Warner Bros.], and the “Under Attack”
scene from Master and Commander [20th
Century/Fox]—and was struck by the way
the system simultaneously reproduced
delicate textural details while answering
the abrupt, even brutal, low-frequency
demands these passages impose. Many
small systems can play loudly, but few do
so while conveying any real sense of poise
Specs &
11433 Cronridge Drive
Owings Mills, Maryland 21117
(410) 363-7148
ProMonitor 1000 2-way satellite speaker
Driver complement: One 5.2" mid/bass
driver, one 5.2" passive radiator, one 1"
aluminum-dome tweeter
Frequency response: 47Hz–30kHz
Sensitivity: 90dB
Impedance: 4–8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power:
Dimensions: 6.2" x 10.9" x 6.5"
Weight: 7 lbs.
ProCenter 2000 2-way center-channel
Driver complement: Two 5.2" mid/bass
drivers, two 5.2" passive radiators, one 1"
aluminum-dome tweeter
Frequency response: 42Hz–30kHz
Sensitivity: 91dB
Impedance: 4–8 ohms
Recommended amplifier power:
Dimensions: 17" x 6.5" x 6.5"
Weight: 12 lbs.
ProSub 1000 powered subwoofer
Driver complement: One 10" polymercone woofer, one 10" infrasonic (passive)
Integrated amplifier power: 300 watts
Dimensions: 12" x 14.4" x 17.9"
Weight: Not specified
System Price: $1649
Oppo Digital DV-970HD and NAD Masters
Series M55 universal players; Toshiba HDA1SN HD-DVD player; Marantz SR9600 A/V
receiver; JVC HD-70FH96 HD-ILA 1080p
RPTV; RGPC 1200S power conditioner;
Ultralink/XLO video, interconnect, and
speaker cable system; Auralex and RPG
acoustic room treatments
34 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
or dynamic authority. The ProCinema
system was an exception. Only when
driven to excessive volumes did it exhibit
traces of hardness and compression.
I attribute the system’s fine dynamics
to two design innovations incorporated
in the ProCinema satellite and centerchannel speakers. First, the speakers
introduce evolutionary mid/bass drivers
whose diaphragms are supported both
by outer and inner suspension rings
(traditionally, diaphragms are supported
by outer surround rings only). The drivers
also incorporate cylindrical waveguides
that double as heat sinks. These new
mid/bass drivers may be the finest that
Definitive has produced—delivering
terrific dynamic punch with very low
distortion. Second, the designs incorporate
small passive radiators mounted in the
tops (or, for the center channel, in the
ends) of their cabinets. These give the
speakers a smoother, more full-bodied
sound, especially in the mid- and upperbass regions—areas where many small
monitors tend to sound somewhat thin.
More importantly, the passive radiators
help the ProCinema satellites integrate
well with their companion subwoofer.
In talks with Definitive’s president,
Sandy Gross, and chief technology
officer, Don Givogue, I gathered that the
new ProCinema mid/bass drivers and
passive radiators were developed with
the primary aim of enhancing dynamic
capabilities—a design goal that has
been well met. But the new drivers also
provide a collateral benefit that, to my
way of thinking, is huge. Specifically, they
reproduce midrange textures, details, and
nuances like nobody’s business, giving the
ProCinema speakers the sort of high-end
resolving power I never expected to hear
from a budget-priced surround system.
The ProCinema system serves up
clean, clear highs and a midrange that
is shockingly detailed and nuanced. In
fact, sophisticated midrange sound is this
system’s crowning achievement, revealing
small instrumental and vocal textures and
details that many small systems simply
cannot reproduce. For example, the
ProCinema system captured the almost
subliminal upper-range inflections of
Valerie Joyce’s voice on New York Blue
[Chesky]. What makes Joyce’s vocal
inflections tricky, and the Definitives’
ability to reproduce them impressive,
is that they fall in that elusive region
where midrange fundamentals are just
starting to melt into high harmonics and
overtones. What the ProCinemas reveal
is that Joyce controls her upper register
expertly, using it to add a breathy touch of
expressiveness where appropriate. Lower
in the audio spectrum, the speakers also
nailed the fingering noises, plucked string
sounds, and deep, almost butterscotchsmooth tone of Charlie Haden’s acoustic
bass in Nocturnes [Verve].
One small criticism I would offer,
however, is that Definitive’s aluminumdome tweeters, though respectable, are
not in the same performance league
as the new low-distortion ProCinema
mid/bass drivers discussed above.
While the two drivers generally integrate
well, the tweeters sometimes exhibit a
slightly coarse, hard-edged quality that
stands out in contrast to the mid/bass
drivers’ smooth, open sound. Though
these discontinuities are relatively
minor in an absolute sense, they do at
times undercut the system’s otherwise
fine imaging. But remember that the
ProCinema tweeters are arguably as good
if not better than those found in most
competing surround systems at this price.
Completing the system is the 300watt ProSub 1000, which draws much
of its technology from Definitive’s
award-winning SuperCube subwoofers.
In practice this means that the ProSub
goes very low and produces energetic
bass with dynamic capabilities that are
well matched to the rest of the system.
Pitch definition is good, though not quite
on a par with the best I’ve heard, either
from full-range speakers or other subs in
this price range (for example, from Epos’
highly articulate ELS sub). But that said, I
would observe that the ProSub1000 also
offers considerably greater bass wallop
than most of its competitors, putting a
solid midbass foundation beneath music
and film soundtracks alike.
Overall, I consider the $1649
ProCinema 1000 system a bargain. It
looks small, plays big, and gives listeners a
substantial taste of the revealing midrange
qualities normally associated with higherend two-channel speaker systems. TAS
Following tried and true
design principals
Robert E. Greene
Marantz TT-15S
36 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Vinyl sound is somehow natural. This intrinsic naturalness means that even
relatively inexpensive vinyl playback systems can sound, if not perfect, at least very musically
A case in point is the Marantz TT-15S Reference Series turntable. Marantz’s first turntable in
more than twenty years, the combo is a joint project with Clearaudio and includes a turntable,
tonearm, and Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood Ebony moving-magnet cartridge. The TT-15S reminded
me of the historic AR—a no frills-design that also provided musically satisfying sound at a
reasonable price. But progress happens, and the Marantz is a much better turntable.
The Marantz combo is a lot closer to more expensive ensembles than one might expect—a
cliché to say, but the simple truth here. If you have a large vinyl collection and need something
to play it on, or if you are just interested in getting into the modern vinyl renaissance without
spending a month’s (or a year’s) pay, this is a fine way to go.
The Marantz follows patterns of design that are largely tried and true—emphasize the “true”
in that phrase. A motor that geometrically fits within the turntable but is not in contact with it;
the three isolation feet that give a solid support while lowering the transmission of vibrations; the
Souther clamp system; the optional soft mat; the acrylic plinth and platter, which are largely nonresonant; the ultra-smooth belt-drive mechanism, and so on. Nothing comes as an engineering
revelation, but everything is very well executed, and remarkably so at the price.
Everyone ought to know by now that vinyl sounds musical. If you listen to a test record, you
can hear that channel separation is never absolute, that dynamic range is somewhat limited, and
Absolute Analog
so on. Vinyl has its limitations. But its
overall sound is so very attractive. What a
potential customer for a playback system
needs to do is separate the limitations
of the medium from what is going
wrong in the particular playback system.
Fortunately, very little goes wrong in this
Marantz system.
Take the matter of limiting the
inevitable energy that a stylus puts into
the record as it plays. How well this is
or isn’t achieved is not hard to check. If
you tap on the record label with a hard
object while a record is playing, what
ought to come through the speakers is
a dull clunk, with no higher-frequency
content to speak of. The Marantz, with
its mat and Souther clamp is dandy in this
department. (Without the mat, not so
great—use the mat.)
This is a real test, nothing esoteric,
Specs &
1100 Maplewood Drive
Itasca, Illinois 60143
(201) 762-6500
Type: Belt-drive turntable, with anodized
aluminum arm and Clearaudio Virtuoso
Wood Ebony moving-magnet cartridge
(other cartridges also usable)
Cartridge output: 3.6mV
Speeds: 33-1/3 & 45rpm
Dimensions: 16.5" x 5.4" x 14.2"
Weight: 19.6 lbs.
Price: $1699
Associated equipment
Nakamichi TX1000 and Dragon CT;
Townshend, original AR, and Beogram
8002 turntables; Morch DP-6, UP4, and
anisotropic (prototype), Musical Fidelity,
SME III and V, and Graham tonearms.;
Bang and Olufsen MMC1 and MMC4
(Soundsmith rebuild), Audio Technica
ATML 150, Technics 100C Mark IV, ELAC
ESG 896, Promethean Green, and Shure
V15MRV cartridges; Classé Audio CD-1
transport and DAC-1 converter, Benchmark
DAC1 converter; Plinius and Bryston BP-25
preamplifiers; Z Systems RDP-1 and RDQ
digital preamplifiers/EQ devices; Bryston 14
B ST and Carver A-220 amplifiers; Harbeth
Monitor 40 and Gradient 1.3 loudspeakers;
Audio Physic Minos subwoofer;
Liberty Audio Suite and Liberty Praxis
measurement systems
38 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
not some sort of now-you-hear-it-nowyou-don’t thing. But does it count? You
bet! The banishing of vinyl-borne energy
makes for finer resolution. Sometimes
it reveals things you might wish weren’t
there—print-through comes through very
well here. But that resolution also reveals
the fine structure of the music. Resolution
is not a thing unto itself. Rather, it is
absence of noise and, in particular, of
vinyl-borne energy—probably the worst
noise in vinyl playback, since it can be
strong in the frequencies of maximum
hearing sensitivity. Here it is all but gone.
On Sheffield Labs’ Confederation, the
micro-detail of what the musicians are
doing and saying comes through superbly.
Hearing one of my father’s favorites, “Old
Joe Clark,” was like being back home in
my native Tennessee, hanging out with
the boys. Josh White’s guitar on One Meat
Ball [Elektra] was very natural. And the
complex orchestral textures of Griffes’
Pleasure Dome of Kubla Kahn [New World]
were clearly revealed.
Speed stability of the Marantz is fine.
Again, any little pitch variations you hear
are going to be record-related. A much
heavier platter might smooth out the
sound a bit—at a price.
The Marantz has no suspension, but its
feet seem to isolate it well. Setting it on a
firm support in my (mostly carpeted) tilefloored audio room, I had no problems.
On a floating shelf, such as a Townshend
Seismic Sink, the turntable would
probably benefit from some additional
The Marantz combo is outstanding,
nearly unique even, in its ease and
accuracy of setup. If you use the included
cartridge, everything is locked in correctly.
Just follow the clear instructions, and in
ten minutes or less you are underway with
the certainty that everything is perfectly
adjusted. While vinyl fanatics may enjoy
tweaking, this is a really good thing for
people who just want to get down to the
music. The cartridge, however, appears
to be very delicate, with a long fragilelooking cantilever. And the super-tight
fit of the cartridge connectors to the arm
wire pins makes installation and removal
of the cartridge a bit hazardous. Watch
The anti-skate is done by a magnetic
system, which in my first sample of the
arm was installed backwards, reversing
the direction of the anti-skate torque.
Check this out on your sample: The
screw-in stationary magnet should attract
the front magnet on the arm and repel
the back one. Try this with the stationary
magnet not yet installed to be sure things
are right.
The Clearaudio Virtuoso Ebony
Wood cartridge is a moving-magnet,
a type I am a fan of. It has a distinctive
sonic character, being rather “soft” and
rather attractively recessed in the
upper mids, with a built-in “BBC dip.”
Comparison to CDs made from the
same masters as the records (and to
other cartridges) verified the overall sonic
character. The cartridge is uncolored but
forgiving—in practice perhaps not a fault,
given that many records were historically
a bit overbearing by contemporary (and
absolute) standards. Even Mercuries
sound almost reasonably mellow with
this cartridge.
The cartridge tracks very well at two
grams, which is higher than usual for
mm’s, sailing cleanly through the Shure
test-record torture tracks. And Ellen
Westberg Andersen’s Grieg Songs [Simax],
fabulous if there is no mistracking, was
fabulous indeed. Flawless tracking is
vitally important, and not all audiophile
cartridges have it.
The arm/cartridge resonant frequency
of approximately 8Hz, slightly lower
than the usual figure, gives good bass
extension, but also adds some warprelated low-frequency noise on occasion.
And the bass, while well extended, is not
quite as firm as damped tonearms can
Much more importantly, however,
in musical terms, the sound is correctly
warm farther up in the middle bass. Josh
White’s and Sam Gary’s voices were
properly full-bodied, and orchestral music
sounded correctly full.
The overall sonic results here are
mostly positive. This system is cleantracking, low in distortion, detailed, low in
noise and high in resolution, pitch-stable,
and musically agreeable. I do not see how
one could ask for a lot more at the price.
I pulled out many a vinyl favorite with
much satisfaction. You will, too. TAS
Basic Repertoire: Hard Bop
Bill Milkowski
Every musical movement is invariably a reaction to some style or genre
that preceded it. Bebop, with its frenzied tempos, jagged darting lines, and myriad of
A look at the
movement that
brought church
phrasing and
funky grooves into
cerebral jazz, with a
particular focus on the
drummers that drove
the beats
40 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
challenging chord changes that pioneers like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk,
and Bud Powell felt obliged to blow over with virtuosic abandon, was in essence a reaction to the
rather staid attitude of the Swing Era. And even as the beboppers’ onslaught of energy, chops, and
rhythmic invention was perceived as some kind of insurrection by hard-core jazz traditionalists
(also known, derisively, as “moldy figs”), this modernist strain of music carried a visceral appeal
that the younger generation immediately picked up on (a situation not unlike the onslaught of
early rock n’ roll in the face of tame pop, by such musical upstarts as Little Richard, Chuck Berry,
Jerry Lee Lewis, and Elvis Presley).
One could make the argument, then, that the Swing Era of the mid-to-late 30s begat the Bebop
movement of the mid 40s, which begat Cool Jazz in the late 40s and early 50s, which in turn begat
the Hard Bop scene of the mid 50s. While Cool Jazz—spearheaded by the likes of Dave Brubeck,
Chet Baker, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan, Chico Hamilton, and the Modern Jazz Quartet—came
along to provide a “chill” sensibility as an antidote to what the incendiary beboppers had to offer,
Hard Bop injected funky, hard-driving grooves, gospel-inspired phrasing, and an earthy, bluesy
feeling into the music that came out of the black church experience (readily apparent on such
post-bop anthems as Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” and Charles
Mingus’ “Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting”). For some, it served as an antidote to the more
subtle, cerebral, and often “bloodless” music of the Cool Jazz movement. By distilling elements
of the Bebop movement into a more accessible music based on simpler melodies, repetition of
TAS Journal
themes, and distinct, toe-tapping grooves,
Hard Bop became the new mainstream
music during the latter half of the 50s
and through the mid-60s.
As writer Del Shields put it in his liner
notes to alto saxophonist Lou Donaldson’s
1962 Blue Note classic, The Natural
Soul: “The past ten years have seen the
jazz world filled with anxious musicians
experimenting with new sounds while
peering over their shoulders at the critics,
hoping for critical acceptance. Their
musical message has been geared to the
pseudo critics who have done everything
possible to remove jazz from its
real roots. And in this craze to
make jazz supposedly respectable,
jazz was taken from the people.”
Shields went on to project that,
with the release of The Natural
Soul: “Nineteen sixty-two might
well be the year that jazz historians
will call ‘the year jazz returned to
the people.’”
Actually, the foundation for the
Hard Bop movement had been
laid eight years earlier with the
1954 release of Horace Silver and
the Jazz Messengers on Blue Note.
Led by pianist Silver and drummer
Art Blakey, this landmark session
is notable for containing the
original versions of Silver’s catchy,
riff-inflected numbers like “The
Preacher” and “Doodlin’,” along
with Hank Mobley’s upbeat “Hankerin’,”
Silver’s blues-drenched “Creepin’ In,” and
his grooving “Hippy,” all of which were
uncomplicated and pleasing to larger
audiences without alienating the hardcore jazz aficionados. And the warhead
for this Messengers juggernaut was its
charismatic drummer. As Horace Silver
recalled in his autobiography, Let’s Get to
the Nitty Gritty (University of California
Press, 2006): “Art Blakey is one of the
great jazz drummers of all time. He
and Doug Watkins and I used to lock in
rhythmically and swing so tough that we’d
inspire the horn players to great heights.
We were constantly kickin’ them in the
ass rhythmically. With all that fire we were
puttin’ up under their asses, they had to
take care of business and cook. And they
sure did just that. That was Art’s motto:
When you hit the bandstand, be prepared
42 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
to cook! Art always gave one hundred
percent of himself to the audience. I’ve
seen him when he was sick or when he
had hung out for three days gettin’ high
and hardly had any sleep. But he always
gave one hundred percent of himself
when he got on the bandstand. We used
to refer to him as the ‘Little Dynamo.’”
The initial Jazz Messengers unit of
Silver, Blakey, tenor saxophonist Hank
Mobley, bassist Doug Watkins, and
trumpeter Kenny Dorham would stay
together for one year, recording the live
At the Cafe Bohemia for Blue Note in
1955 before going their separate ways in
1956. As Silver states in his autobiography:
“I worked and traveled with the Jazz
Messengers for about a year and a half
before I left the band. I left not because
I didn’t like the music or because of any
personal friction with anyone in the band.
I left because of the drug addiction that
was prevalent among the band members.
Bassist Doug Watkins and I were the
only one that didn’t have a drug habit.
Almost everywhere we played, the vice
squad came to check us out for drugs. I
was always worried that they would catch
one of the guys holding and we’d all get
busted. It seemed the word had gone
out from police department to police
department in all major cities that the
Jazz Messengers were drug addicts. Yet I
didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs.”
After leaving the Jazz Messengers,
Basic Repertoire: Hard Bop
Silver went on to release a series of
acclaimed Blue Note albums that further
established him as one of the most
distinctive and prolific small-group
composer-bandleaders in jazz during the
50s and 60s. Funky Hard Bop anthems
like “Sister Sadie,” “Juicy Lucy,” “Senor
Blues,” “Song For My Father,” “Opus
De Funk,” and “Filthy McNasty” were
perennials in Silver’s band book and
have since become part of standard jazz
repertoire, covered countless times by
generations of musicians.
Blakey was allowed to keep the
Jazz Messengers name, and for
the next four decades, he created
a musical dynasty with his Art
Blakey and the Jazz Messengers,
which became a kind of Hard
Bop academy that produced a
virtual Who’s Who in jazz from
its ranks, including saxophonists
Lou Donaldson, Benny Golson,
Wayne Shorter, Billy Harper,
Carter Jefferson, David Schnitter,
Bobby Watson, Branford Marsalis,
Bill Pierce, Donald Harrison, and
Javon Jackson; trumpeters Kenny
Dorham, Freddie Hubbard, Bill
Hardman, Donald Byrd, Woody
Shaw, Valery Ponomarev, Wynton
Marsalis, Terence Blanchard,
Wallace Roney, Phillip Harper,
and Brian Lynch; pianists Cedar
Walton, James Williams, Joanne
Brackeen, Mulgrew Miller, Donald
Brown, Benny Green, and Geoffrey
Keezer, among many others.
Blakey, who died in 1990, was Hard
Bop’s undisputed drumming guru.
A ferocious player with a seemingly
inexhaustible supply of energy, he drove
the Jazz Messengers with unparalleled
dynamism on the kit while kicking the
band along with forceful snare and bass
drum accents. As former Jazz Messenger
Freddie Hubbard once said of the
irrepressible bandleader, “Blakey had a
heavy foot, and he kept his foot in your
ass. With him, you had to play!”
In his San Francisco Chronicle column,
critic Ralph Gleason described the
drummer’s explosive style this way:
“Blakey is like a man on fire. When he
drums, every inch of his body is involved
in it. He can get a greater variety of
TAS Journal
counter rhythms going at any one time
than any drummer I have ever heard. At
times, he seems able to create a sort of
phantom circuit of rhythms by getting
them firmly established, leaving them
and going on to something else. But they
were laid down so solidly in the first place
that they continue in your mind while he’s
moved ahead to another pattern.”
Blakey’s volatile approach to
drumming—a compelling synthesis
of the ride cymbal sizzle and hi-hat
pulsations of bebop with African
polyrhythms, assertive backbeats,
infectious shuffle-swing grooves, and
occasionally, in the case of Benny
Golson’s “Blues March,” militaryband press rolls—created a blueprint
for post-bop drumming. One
drummer who followed in Blakey’s
authoritative wake was Detroit
native Louis Hayes, a stalwart of the
Cannonball Adderley Quintet from
1959-1965 (appearing on such Hard
Bop classics as Cannon’s “Sack O’
Woe” and “The Chant,”
Nat Adderley’s “Work
Song,” Sam Jones’ “Del
Nasser,” and Bobby
Timmons’ “Dis Here”
and “Dat Dere”). The
also recorded Hard Bop
sessions with Silver,
Oscar Peterson, Sonny
Clark, Blue Mitchell,
Wynton Kelly, Sonny
Generally regarded as
one of the architects of
bebop, Kenny “Klook”
Clarke was one of the
first drummers to shift
the time-keeping function
from the bass drum (as it
had been throughout the
Swing Era of the 30s) to the ride cymbal
(an early 40s innovation). A flexible
and highly interactive drummer whose
swinging ride cymbal work rivaled that of
his Bebop colleague Max Roach, Clarke
pared down his busy approach to the kit on
two memorable Miles Davis recordings—
1954’s Walkin’ and 1955’s Bags’ Groove,
both of which featured Silver on piano
44 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
and became cornerstones of the postbop movement. Clarke’s replacement in
Miles’ group, Philly Joe Jones, combined
slick syncopation and earthy grooves with
hip, over-the-barline phrasing on a batch
of influential Hard Bop recordings from
1956, released consecutively as Steamin’,
Relaxin’, Workin’, and Cookin’. Jones would
later bring his early blues experience to
bear on quintessential Hard Bop sessions
with Rollins, Mobley, Clark, Adderley, Lee
Morgan, and Freddie Hubbard.
Tony Williams, who followed Jimmy
Cobb in the Miles Davis Quintet, brought
a new sensibility to the kit on classic
Miles recordings from the mid-60s. His
combination of power and precision
Basic Repertoire: Hard Bop
provided an explosive momentum to
adventurous shape-shifting fare like
Nefertiti, Sorcerer, and E.S.P. During his
tenure with Miles, Williams also appeared
on a few influential Hard Bop sessions
for Blue Note, paring down his audacious
polyrhythmic burn for a simpler, harderhitting approach on Herbie Hancock’s
Empyrean Isles (which included
the funky anthem “Cantaloupe
Island”), Kenny Dorham’s
Una Mas, Wayne Shorter’s
Soothsayer, and Andrew Hill’s
Point of Departure.
While Detroit native Elvin
Jones is most widely known
as the force of nature who
fueled John Coltrane’s classic
quartet with his polyrhythmic
whirlwind on the kit, he was
also a frequent sideman on
Hard Bop sessions for Blue
Note during the 60s, alongside
the likes of guitarist Grant
Green, trumpeter Hubbard,
pianist McCoy Tyner, and
tenor saxophonist Shorter.
Another percussive stalwart,
Billy Higgins was renowned for
his brisk, highly interactive, and buoyantly
melodic approach to the kit with free-jazz
revolutionary Ornette Coleman—heard
on such avant-garde classics as Something
Else! in 1958, Tomorrow Is The Question! and
The Shape of Jazz To Come in 1959, Change
of the Century and Free Jazz in 1960—and
was also one of the most widely recorded
drummers during Hard Bop’s heyday.
Starting out in Los Angeles with R&B
star Amos Milburn and rock pioneer Bo
Diddley, Higgins was a natural pocket
player who brought his earthy instincts
to bear on countless Hard Bop sessions.
He provided the infectious groove on Lee
Morgan’s popular 1963 recording, The
Sidewinder (whose title track, an unusual
24-bar blues with a syncopated backbeat
pattern and a funky turnaround, became
a bona fide Hard Bop hit) and also
fueled follow-up outings with Morgan,
including 1964’s Search for the New Land
and a string of three recordings from
1965—The Rumproller, The Gigolo, and
Cornbread. Higgins also demonstrated
a knack for shuffle grooves and funky
boogaloo backbeats, as well as an infinite
Basic Repertoire: Hard Bop
capacity to swing, on a string of 60s Blue
Note sessions with saxophonists Mobley,
Jackie McLean, and Gordon, trumpeter
Donald Byrd, and pianists Hancock and
Clark. Higgins had been a long-standing
member of pianist Cedar Walton’s trio at
the time of his death in 2001.
Other significant Hard Bop drummers
from the 60s include: Ben Dixon
(a mainstay with Grant Green who
also recorded with alto saxophonist
Donaldson, organist Jack McDuff,
and tenor saxophonist Harold Vick);
Art Taylor (a frequent sideman with
pianist Clark, trumpeter Morgan, and
saxophonists Donaldson, Mobley, and
Jackie McLean); Al Harewood (guitarist
Grant Green and saxophonists Stanley
Turrentine and Dexter Gordon); Pete
LaRoca (trumpeter Hubbard and tenor
saxophonist Joe Henderson); Roy
McCurdy (saxophonists Adderley and
Rollins); Roy Brooks (pianist Silver and
trumpeter Mitchell); and Otis “Candy”
Finch (tenor saxophonist Turrentine).
Their ability to make the music feel
good while propelling it forward with a
requisite blend of swinging momentum
and earthy funk distinguished them as
Hard Bop drumming mavens.
A vast majority of albums made during
Hard Bop’s Golden Age (1955 to 1967)
appeared on Blue Note, the label formed
in 1939 by the blues-loving German
emigré Alfred Lion, who would later
team with his childhood friend Francis
Wolff to establish the small independent
label as a prime player on the jazz scene.
While some significant recordings during
that time were made for other labels, Blue
Note essentially midwifed the Hard Bop
sound and was clearly acknowledged as
the preeminent imprint for the genre
for those 12 glorious years. And since
virtually all of the Hard Bop sessions
recorded at the time on Blue Note (or
other labels, for that matter) took place
at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in
Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, there is a
uniformity of sound on these recordings
that is characterized by a warm, clean,
sonically impeccable quality with natural
separation between the instruments. Van
Gelder is also particularly renowned for
the big drum sound that he was able
to conjure up in his Englewood Cliffs
TAS Journal
studio. Originally an optometrist who
worked as a part-time engineer out of
his parents’ living room in Hackensack
before moving to Englewood Cliffs in
1959, Van Gelder’s sharp recordings were
expertly balanced and set a new standard
in accurate reproduction that defined
the Blue Note sound and would forever
redefine the way jazz was heard.
A frequent visitor to Van Gelder’s
studio during the Hard Bop’s heyday was
alto saxophonist Donaldson. Originally
a Charlie Parker disciple, he veered into
post-bop and funky soul-jazz in the early
1960s. While his solos always reflected
his bebop heritage, he was never above
playing the blues or dealing with funk
vamps (generally supplied by New Orleans
drummer Leo Morris, who later took the
name Idris Muhammmad after moving to
New York in early 60s). Donaldson had
some hits with prototypical funk outings
like 1967’s Alligator Boogaloo, 1968’s Say
It Loud! (an homage to James Brown),
1969’s Hot Dog, and 1970’s Everything I
Play Is Funky, all on Blue Note.
With the advent of jazz-rock in the
early 70s, Hard Bop fell out of favor with
the jazz-buying public. But the genre’s
founders, Art Blakey and Horace Silver,
continued waving the flag for the music.
Today, that Hard Bop aesthetic is being
carried on by jazz elders like the 78-yearold Silver, 80-year-old Donaldson, 74year-old Walton, and 71-year-old tenor
saxophonist James Moody, along with
a bevy of veteran drummers including
the 80-year-old Roy Haynes (who gigged
with everyone from Lester Young and
Charlie Parker to Bud Powell, Thelonious
Monk, and John Coltrane), 77-year-old
drummer Jimmy Cobb (formerly with the
Miles Davis Sextet, Wynton Kelly Trio,
and currently leading his own Cobb’s
Mob), 69-year-old Louis Hayes (formerly
with the Horace Silver Quintet and the
Cannonball Adderley Quintet, currently
leading the Cannonball Legacy Band),
73-year-old Ben Riley (formerly with
Thelonious Monk Quartet, currently with
Monk Legacy Septet), and Mickey Roker
(a 60s session man for Blue Note who
currently plays with vibist Joe Locke’s
Milt Jackson Tribute Band). They join
a batch of young post-bop upstarts
like trumpeters Nicholas Payton and
Jeremy Pelt and tenor saxophonists Eric
Alexander, Jimmy Greene, and Marcus
Strickland in keeping the Hard Bop flame
burning bright. TAS
Essential Listening:
Horace Silver: And The Jazz Messengers [Blue Note] (1954)
Art Blakey: Moanin’ [Blue Note] (1958)
Horace Silver: Finger Poppin’ [Blue Note] (1959)
Jackie McLean: New Soil [Blue Note] (1959)
Art Farmer/Benny Golson: Meet the Jazztet [Chess] (1960)
Jimmy Smith: Back at the Chicken Shack [Blue Note] (1960)
Grant Green: Grant’s First Stand [Blue Note] (1961)
Freddie Hubbard: Hub Cap [Blue Note] (1961)
Lou Donaldson: Natural Soul [Blue Note] (1962)
Lee Morgan: The Sidewinder [Blue Note] (1963)
Hank Mobley: No Room For Squares [Blue Note] (1963)
Blue Mitchell: The Thing To Do [Blue Note] (1964)
Cannonball Adderley: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy [Blue Note] (1966)
The Absolute Sound January 2007 45
of the
Year Awards
Neil Gader, Wayne Garcia, Robert Harley, Chris Martens, Jonathan Valin
elcome to the latest edition of our annual Product of the Year Awards.
On the following pages you’ll find our editors’ picks for the most outstanding
components reviewed in 2006. Our Product of the Year Awards range from
wonderful affordable components to cost-no-object gear that defines the state of the art. In
every case we’ve selected those items that we feel best combine outstanding sonic performance,
design excellence, technical innovation, and value for the dollar. Most of our categories have
more than one entry—one affordable, and one less so—reflecting the broad sweep of the
high end.
We also give an Overall Product of the Year Award to the component we consider the single
most impressive achievement of the past 12 months.
Full reviews of most of our POY winners can accessed via our Web site, AVguide.com.
The Absolute Sound January 2007 49
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Digital Sources of the Year
Rega Apollo CD Player
Rega’s Apollo CD player does more things well than any other player in its price class. Probably the most striking of the
Apollo’s virtues are its resolution and detail, which are pretty spectacular for the money; however, the longer you listen, the
more you’ll also appreciate the Rega’s focus and extended response at both frequency extremes. Though perhaps not the last
word in high-frequency smoothness or three-dimensionality, the Apollo decisively outperforms similarly-priced competitors by
telling listeners more of what they need and want to know about their favorite recordings. The Apollo achieves breakthrough
performance via some fairly radical design advancements, including an all-new transport mechanism, CD control chipset,
and operating system software. The transport’s servo-controller, for example, optimizes laser focus spot size and tracking
position on a disc-by-disc basis. In turn, the control chipset incorporates a whopping 20MB of RAM and a 32-bit DSP engine
that, together, provide the extra time and computation power necessary for extremely precise error correction. Most of all,
what earned the Apollo a Digital Source Component of the Year award is the way its overall gestalt reminded us of the sonic
presentation of even more accomplished, higher-end players. (Reviewed by Chris Martens, Issue 165)
MBL 1521 A CD Drive and 1511 E DAC
$9130; $8910
Expensive they certainly are, but when paired with the finest associated components this exceptional transport and DAC
combination from Germany’s MBL demonstrates how beautiful-sounding and musically involving compact discs can be. The
1521 A and 1511 E project rich lifelike tone colors, the kind of transparency that allows you to imagine you’re “seeing” into a
recording and “around” the players and their instruments, a convincing sense of “bloom,” the lingering decays of notes, and
a deeply layered soundstage. Note, however, that MBL has not achieved this level of sonic performance by adding euphonic
colorations or otherwise trying to pretty up the truth. Instead, MBL has taken all that’s good about digital—the noisefree backgrounds, bottom-end grip and extension, dynamic impact, transient speed, and pitch stability—and refined the
mechanical and electrical mechanisms that turn a stream of numbers embedded in polycarbonate into musical information.
It helps, of course, that MBL’s products are engineered and built like the famous automobiles produced in the same country,
and that the people who design these items know what music sounds like. This gear is highly detailed yet never clinical
sounding—and is, in fact, gorgeous to listen to. It reveals harmonic, textural, ambient, dynamic, and tonal complexities in
music to a degree matched by few, and in our experience exceeded by none. (Reviewed by Wayne Garcia, Issue 164)
The Absolute Sound January 2007 51
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Analog Sources
of the Year
Pro-Ject RM 9.1 Turntable System
Designed in Vienna and built at Pro-Ject’s factory
in the Czech Republic, this revised edition of the
original RM9 turntable takes an already good design
and improves on it, without raising the cost. The
single-piece arm tube is now molded from carbon
fiber and not only dissipates energy better than the
older version but is also lighter and stiffer. The older
model’s rubber-plastic-felt feet have been replaced
by massive machined aluminum cones that use a
Sorbothane layer between the plinth and the foot.
Though the plinth’s size and shape haven’t changed,
a steel plate has been added to its underside to
significantly increase mass and focus the dissipation
of energy around a single point. Even the fit and
finish of this new version makes it look like a more
expensive turntable. The 9.1’s sound is smooth yet
detailed, the soundstage is wide, and the low end
has authority. Images are stable, and transparency,
transient quickness, and inner detail are all good.
The RM-9.1 also has a surprising lack of groove
and surface noise, and it’s easy to listen to for hours
without any aural fatigue, making its performance
much closer to that of a costly rig than to an entrylevel one. (Reviewed by Jim Hannon, Issue 164)
Walker Proscenium Black Diamond turntable and tonearm
The best source component that JV has heard just got a good deal better with the addition of an entirely new arm made from
a “mystery” material that is claimed to be almost as hard as diamond and twenty-two times stiffer than Walker’s previous
(carbon-fiber) arm. Whether its arm is twenty-two-times stiffer or twenty-one, Lloyd Walker’s new air-bearing-tonearm’d,
air-bearing-platter’d, air-suspended record player—redubbed the Proscenium Black Diamond (because of the color and
rigidity of its new arm)—sounds more like the real thing on first-rate sources than any hi-fi component, analog or digital, JV
has heard, with huge staging, life-sized imaging, terrific front-to-back and side-to-side clarity, extraordinarily natural timbres,
realistic top-to-bottom dynamic authority, and the kind of bloom that makes for in-the-room-with-you presence. The Walker
doesn’t just run on air; it adds air to everything, moving stage walls back and to the sides, separating instruments and layering
them in space, and filling instrumental images out with three-dimensional body and bloom. Although scarcely cheap at $40k,
for that money it comes (as well it should) with a home visit from its designer Lloyd Walker and his partner Fred Law, who
will set up the massive table and tweak it to perfection in your listening room. (Reviewed by Jonathan Valin, Issue 167)
52 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
of the Year
Mark Levinson No.326S
Phono Cartridges
of the Year
Lyra Dorian
Lyra’s Dorian is a $750 mediumoutput moving-coil cartridge with
a nicely balanced and easy-to-like
sound that will satisfy in a wide range
of systems, especially those that
benefit from a model with higher
than usual output (0.6mV). The
hand-built Dorian does what you
want a moving coil to do—it’s fast,
dynamic, and remarkably detailed—
yet it lacks the thin, sometime bright
sound that plagues lower-priced
designs. Instead, the Dorian has an
overall neutral balance, with a nice
sense of an individual instrument’s
tone and texture, an extended yet
smooth top end, and impressive
bottom-end weight and power.
Voices are likewise well served by
the Dorian, as are the dimensions
and air of recorded spaces. A terrific
tracker, the Dorian is able to navigate
treacherous grooves without breaking up, and its combined depth,
speed, rhythmic precision, and
overall neutrality make it a honey of
a deal. (Reviewed by WG, Issue 166)
Air Tight PC-1
Until he heard the Air Tight PC-1,
JV thought the new $4500 London
Reference moving-iron cartridge was
the best on the market, because of its
amazing transient speed and natural tone
color. (Indeed, the London Reference
would have been co-winner of this year’s
award had it been formally reviewed.)
But the Air Tight moving coil goes the
London one better in several aspects of
sound reproduction, flat out beating it in
staging, trackability, and, even, transient
response (though not in lifelike timbres).
How the PC-1 manages this has to do
with its extremely low internal impedance
and the high-saturation flux density and
permeability of its magnets. Folks, you’ve
never heard attack like this before in
an analog playback system. Pizzicatos
and sforzandos are reproduced with a
“rightness” that simply sets a new standard
of speed and resolution in moving coils.
Like the London Reference, the Air Tight
PC-1 is a hi-fi gem that raises the stakes
(on the analog side) in the great, ongoing,
analog-versus-digital horse race.
(Reviewed by JV in Issue 167)
Robert Harley’s reference, the
No.326S preamplifier from Mark
Levinson is world-class in every
respect—build-quality, features, user
interface and ergonomics, and most
importantly, sonics, which takes a
huge step forward for Levinson
preamps in resolution, transparency,
and dimensionality. Unlike previous
Mark Levinson preamplifiers, which
had a certain sonic signature that
you either clicked with or didn’t,
the No.326S is astonishingly neutral
and truthful to the source, adding
very little coloration to the music.
It shines, however, in two areas that
are characteristically Mark Levinson
strong suits: soundstage dimensionality and spatial precision. The No.326S
excels at delineating instrumental
images from the surrounding space,
as well as at conveying an uncanny
impression of being transported to
the original acoustic. The No.326S
has a very clean, precise sound,
presenting music against an utterly
silent and velvet-black backdrop.
Dynamics seem to emerge suddenly
from this inky blackness, with deep
silences between notes. There is
a distinctive lack of haze, in the
background and overlaying musical
textures. This quality, combined with
the dimensionality described earlier,
fosters a deep feeling of engagement
and involvement with the music. The
No.326S is outstanding in all the
audiophile criteria, but beyond that,
it’s a superbly musical and engaging
product that makes one forget about
everything but the music.
(Reviewed by Robert Harley, Issue 161)
The Absolute Sound January 2007 55
2006 Product of the Year Awards
of the Year
PrimaLuna Prologue Six
monoblock power amplifier
Designed for those who want to enjoy the
musicality of tubes without having to be
tweaks, PrimaLuna’s 70-watt Prologue Six
represents a significant breakthrough in highperformance audio. Not only is it a hasslefree and easy-to-operate tube unit, it sounds
really good. The Six rivals many (but not
all) of the best attributes of transistor amps
and also enjoys the compelling sonic virtues
tubes deliver, while largely minimizing their
drawbacks. You won’t find any homogenization
of sound with this amp, since it reveals even
minor system changes, so you’re out of luck
if you expect to use the Six as a tone control
to tame bright speakers. While it may lack the
ultimate sweetness, palpability, and absence of
grain of some far more costly triode designs,
or the absolute quietness, inner detail, and
power reserves of some expensive transistor
amplifiers, the Six is as at home reproducing
the sounds of Audioslave as it is with Miles
or Mahler. To get this combination of natural
musicality, power, reliability, flexibility, and
build-quality, one would expect to spend far
more. This surprisingly good tube monoblock
should keep many demanding audiophiles
satisfied, but also encourage lots of music
enthusiasts to take the plunge into the tubeside of the pool. (Reviewed by JH, Issue 165)
Audio Research Corporation Reference 210 monoblock power amplifier
Unless the as-yet-unreviewed ARC 610T beats it, the Reference 210 stands as the finest pentode amplifier ARC has made in
better than thirty fabled years of amp-building. William Z. Johnson has added bandwidth, subtracted noise and coloration,
and beefed up energy storage to the point where the Ref 210 better holds its own in transient speed and low-level resolution
with the finest solid-state amplifiers, while besting them in neutrality, soundstaging, imaging, tone color, air, and bloom. In
combination with Audio Research’s own Reference 3 preamplifier (last year’s TAS Preamp of the Year Award winner), the
Ref 210 “fills in the blanks” between notes, hanging harmonics in space like faint aural after-images between the dying off
of one tone and the utterance of another. (The Ref 210 also fares well with top-flight solid-state preamps, like MBL’s killer
6010 D.) Perhaps the Ref 210’s greatest virtue is its bloom; it projects colors and dynamics “out at you” as the music swells
in the same way that instruments themselves do in life. In combination with superb reproduction of tone colors, the 210’s
bloom goes a long way toward creating a remarkably lifelike presentation. (Reviewed by JV, Issue 159)
56 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Integrated Amplifiers
of the Year
Cambridge Azur 540A v2
Who would have guessed that this unassuming 60Wpc British-designed and Chinese-made integrated amplifier could be so
wonderfully musical? We usually associate $439 integrated amplifiers with a brittle treble, glassy midrange, and anemic bass.
Not the Cambridge. This integrated has a tube-like liquidity in the mids, a smooth and unfatiguing treble, and surprising bass
weight and depth. It even drives the mighty Wilson MAXX 2 loudspeakers with aplomb to moderate-to-high playback levels.
The 540A’s large power transformer and generous heatsinks allow the amplifier to sound more powerful than its 60Wpc
rating (it can deliver 90Wpc into 4 ohms). The Cambridge’s high-end design and parts-quality were easily audible, adding up
to an engaging musicality that belied the 540A’s price. Throw in a slew of speaker and amplifier protection features, minimalist
circuitry, and a wonderful remote control, and you’ve got a slam-dunk for the first of The Absolute Sound’s Integrated Amplifier
of the Year Awards. (Reviewed by RH, Issue 162)
Chapter Précis
Few components can satisfy every audiophile’s palette, but the Chapter Précis comes awfully close. This remote-controlled,
130Wpc integrated amplifier is equal parts slam, seduction, and luxury. Its retro-chic appearance is eye-popping—the topmounted internally lit peek-a-boo portal not only reveals first-rate fit and finish, but also Chapter’s proprietary Class D
modules. And thanks to some clever software engineering, front-panel command and control are slick as can be. The Précis
is remarkably quiet during low-level passages—a lot of RF-rejection and resonance control is built into the chassis—and the
lack of background hash pays huge musical dividends. Sonically, the Précis is almost Rubenesque in its proudly full-bodied
character—not plummy or thick by any means, but ripe in all the right places. Transient speed is a special strong suit, but
the amp also has a grip on low-level pitches, and exhibits the kind of dynamic punch and harmonic energy that accurately
suggest the largest acoustic spaces. In a perfect world, orchestral string sections would sound less tightly wound and not as
forward, and the Précis might convey the same command over soundspace and dynamics in the mid-treble that it does in the
rest of the frequency spectrum. But this in no way diminishes the achievement. Chapter has created a component that joins
the exclusive company of some of the finest integrated amplifiers we’ve heard. (Reviewed by Neil Gader, Issue 167)
58 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Loudspeaker of
the Year
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
this substantial floorstander never sounds small in any
negative way. 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 clearly 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. It delivers guitars with 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. Although the speaker’s overall
balance is quite smooth, the midrange comes a bit
forward in the mix. If power, substance, and clarity
are meaningful to you, the IKON 6 is one to hear.
(Reviewed by Robert E. Greene, Issue 164)
Mid-Priced Loudspeaker of the Year
Revel Performa F52
The Performa F52 is such a complete product that it might be the Roger Federer of loudspeakers. This three-way, bassreflex design with multiple bass drivers is classically striking yet not especially imposing. Performance is stealthy, and at
times near balletic. Even though no single aspect of its “game” overwhelms its rivals, the Performa’s cunning confluence of
attributes begins with broad-shouldered dynamic contrasts and an infinitely variable palette of micro-information. It goes
without saying that Chief Designer Kevin Voecks hits the target in terms of neutrality, but the F52’s musicality across the
octaves trumps all. Driver integration is nothing short of seamless (no mean trick with five drivers), with an overall smooth
response. It will easily distinguish a nine-foot Steinway from a Bechstein, but if your tastes run a little more to smash-mouth,
no worries; the F52 will deliver biting speed-metal with the venom of a wall of Marshalls. And Revel includes a couple of
contour controls on the back panel to smooth away a recording’s more pernicious artifacts. Build-quality and finish are
superb. Maybe best of all, the F52 could easily cost a lot more than it does. (Reviewed by NG, Issue 162)
The Absolute Sound January 2007 61
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Cost-No-Object Loudspeaker of the
Kharma Mini Exquisite
Editor Wayne Garcia’s reference, the Dutch-made Kharma Mini Exquisite is true
to its name. Standing just 36" tall with a moderate footprint, the Mini is arguably
the finest floorstanding loudspeaker one can buy for smaller listening spaces. And
it is certainly the most purely beautiful-sounding model we’ve heard. Inside the
Mini’s superbly built, 30mm-thick, high-pressure-laminate enclosure resides a 1"
diamond-dome tweeter, a 7" ceramic mid/bass driver, and a cryogenically treated
minimalist crossover made of silver coils and Kharma’s own Enigma wiring. The
Mini’s soundstage is anything but, and the entire presentation has the coherence
of a Quad electrostatic. But with a rated bandwidth of 30Hz–100kHz and the
ability to play at lifelike levels (again, in smaller rooms), the Mini serves all music
with equal fidelity, from the small-scaled beauty of chamber music or jazz quartet,
to the large forces of a Wagner opera, to the rawest rock and roll—and excels at
transporting the listener to a recording’s site. Its balance is silky, warm, and rich,
and its detail exceptionally revealing of recordings as well as of upstream source
components. Though only a lucky few can afford this level of excellence, the Mini
is actually less costly in the U.S. than it is in Europe, where it commands €45,000, or
roughly 30% more than it sells for in the States. (Reviewed by WG, Issue 167)
Multichannel Component of the Year
Arcam FMJ AV9
In philosophy, features, and sonic priorities, Arcam’s AV9 is all about analog, though its digital performance is respectable.
Consider its approach to analog bypass, which is available for each and every analog input. The Arcam doesn’t just circumvent
digital processing, as do most controllers; instead, it actually shuts down its digital circuits to protect analog signals from digital
noise contamination. Only the thrice-as-expensive Theta Casablanca with Six Shooter goes further. In the area of bass
management, the AV9 offers provisions for up to three subwoofers (though stereo subs aren’t supported). Moreover, the AV9
allows users to independently set subwoofer levels for music and film sources. The AV9’s features clearly reveal its designers’
devotion to music, and that orientation holds for the unit’s sound. In the bypass mode, the stereo analog inputs deliver a
warm yet vibrant presentation. Rhythms contribute to the sound’s inviting appeal, as does imaging, which can be as focused
or expansive as the music demands. Vocals betray a slightly “steely” quality, and the AV9 shaves high frequencies just enough
to sacrifice some air and immediacy. But these shortfalls are more than compensated for by the unit’s virtues, which include
engaging dynamics and crisp transients. 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 home-theater/music system.
(Reviewed by Alan Taffel, Issue 164, and RH in TPV Issue 69)
62 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Subwoofers of the Year
REL Britannia 3B
In our view, the best subwoofers operate invisibly. They should
be indistinguishable as a source and create the illusion that the
main loudspeakers have merely gained an octave or so of lowfrequency extension. Although REL subwoofers have always
been good at this, the Britannia B3 is the best REL we’ve heard
to date. Although it’s a reflex system, you’d hardly know it—
there’s little response lag and no chuffing, suspicious pulsations,
or overhang. What this means, beyond mere extension, is
pitch definition that describes musical details that you wrote
off as missing-in-action years ago. Credit the heavily braced
enclosure and some savvy port design for the quiet cabinet. The
essentially colorless tonal signature of the Britannia B3—the
most compact in the Britannia line, though still by no means
tiny—will make your existing speakers more of what you
always hoped they could be. If you own a compact two-way,
for example the B3 will make you believe you now own a fully
integrated three-way speaker system. Integration is the key,
and the REL system employs a series of 24 fine/coarse lowpass adjustments to optimize the blend with existing speakers.
Hewing to REL tradition, there is no high-pass filter, so those
expecting to boost the dynamic output of their main speakers
will be disappointed. But this loss is minor compared to what is
gained in the sheer pleasure of realizing how much more music
you’ll now be hearing. (Reviewed by NG, Issue 163)
Wilson-Benesch Torus Infrasonic Generator
$9500 (with crossover and amplifier)
This must be the year for hi-fi breakthroughs. First, we saw the
MAGICO Mini, then the Walker Proscenium Black Diamond, and
now the Wilson-Benesch Torus Infrasonic Generator—the first
“subwoofer” (a name that W-B dislikes, for good reasons) that
successfully combines the speed of a small-diameter cone with the
air-moving power and authority of a large-diameter one. The Torus
suspends a lightweight 18" carbon-fiber diaphragm between two,
huge, very-high-tech magnets in a genuinely brilliant design that is
a bit like a cone version of a Magneplanar. The result is a driver
with a very low moment of inertia, very low mass, very large area,
and very nimble, low-distortion, linear response that, because of its
drum-shaped, super-stiff, acoustic-suspension, high-tech-carbonfiber “enclosure,” launches virtually all the music into your room,
while grounding to the floor all the extraneous noises and vibration
that usually “slow” down the subwoofer (and the speaker it is mated
to). The first “sub” that a certified sub-hater like JV can recommend
without serious qualification, and a super combination with the
MAGICO Mini. (JV, review forthcoming in Issue 170)
64 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Budget Component of the Year
Oppo DV-970HD
What can one say about a $149 universal player that does so much so well for a price that is affordable to almost anyone?
Bravo, for starters. Based in the Silicon Valley, Oppo Digital may be a relative newcomer, but the company is fast building a
reputation for affordable excellence. The DV-970HD will play DVD-Audio/Video, SACD, HDCD, and CD, and also delivers
HDMI with 720p/1080i upconversion. As reviewer Chris Martens points out in his review, what makes this unit so surprisingly
good—and not just “for the money”—is sound and video quality characterized by excellent overall transparency and detail,
a good measure of treble smoothness, taut, clean (though occasionally too lean) bass, and a character that emphasizes clarity
more than it does warmth. (Reviewed by CM, in this issue)
Interconnects &
Speaker Cables of the Year
Kimber Kable Hero Interconnect
and 8TC Speaker Cable
Interconnect: $160/one-meter pair;
speaker: $270/eight-foot pair
Okay, we’re cheating a bit here. These items from Kimber were not reviewed in 2006.
But these favorites are so good our editors decided they deserved special recognition.
The Hero interconnect’s bass lives up to its name—powerful and well-defined. The 8TC
speaker cable has the rare ability to remain musical no matter what is happening before
or after it. Large and small-scale music are projected openly, with fine detail, liveliness,
tonal neutrality, and dynamic contrasts. The soundstage is holographic and convincingly
lifelike. Perhaps the 8TC’s award should be for “cable of the decade,” as reviewer Paul
Seydor has used it for well over 15 years. (Reviewed by PS, Issues 138 & 146)
TARA Labs RSC Air 1 and Air 1 Series 2 Interconnect and Speaker Cable
Interconnect: $995/one meter pair; speaker: $2350/ ten-foot pair
The Tara Labs RSC Air 1 and Series 2 interconnect and cable costs but a fraction of critically lauded stalwarts like the brutally
expensive Nordost Valhalla and Tara’s own Zero interconnect and Omega speaker cable, but the bloodline runs true. You
won’t fail to hear the family voice in its expressive full-bodied midrange, the dark-chocolaty mids and upper bass—appealing
traits if you enjoy cello and doublebass. Only the treble seems a bit diminished in comparison to the best. Not that it grows
strident (it doesn’t), but there is a bit of fine white powdering to the treble—a characteristic typical of cables in this range,
although, in this instance to a lesser extent. Its soundstage is expansive in depth and width, and instrumental images settle
onto the stage like a live performance—you can clearly sense the dampening qualities of the hall as it reflects and diffuses
reverberant sound. Of the recent collection of midrange cables NG has been listening to, it’s the RSC Air that seems to play
a little louder, smack dynamics a little harder, and tunnel a little deeper into the low frequencies. As a specialist in larger-scale
dynamics it literally seems to glory in the lower octaves of the spectrum. Rarely have a cable and interconnect been more
aptly named, as they seem to find “air” in even the tightest spaces between notes and images. Even better, they won’t air out
your wallet. (Reviewed by NG, Issue 164)
The Absolute Sound January 2007 67
2006 Product of the Year Awards
AC Power Products of the Year
Shunyata Hydra-8 and Hydra-2 Power Conditioners,
Python Power Cords
$2495; $395; $995
Shunyata’s Hydra-8 AC conditioner and accompanying Anaconda and Python AC cords rendered the biggest improvement in
sound quality of any AC conditioner system Robert Harley has auditioned. All the things we value in music reproduction—
resolution of low-level detail, image focus, depth and space, smooth and liquid timbres, and wide dynamics—were improved
with the Shunyata gear, some dramatically so. The sense of clarity and soundstage transparency, in particular, was elevated
to an entirely new level. Although the review system included both Anaconda and Python AC cords, auditioning of each
independently suggests that the half-the-price Python delivers 98% of the Anaconda’s performance. You can also get most
of the Hydra’s performance in Shunyata’s new less expensive Guardian line. The Shunyata package isn’t cheap, but if you’re
looking for the state-of-the-art in AC conditioning, look no further. (Reviewed by RH, Issue 163)
Accessory of the Year
Ray Samuels Audio The Hornet Portable Headphone Amplifier
After reviewing a group of portable headphone amplifiers suitable for use with an iPod back in Issue 155, we were ready
to leave the category behind—until we heard The Hornet headphone amplifier from Ray Samuels Audio. This tiny, bricklike unit knocked our socks off by transforming the iPod’s sound. Other headphone amplifiers have improved the iPod
listening experience; The Hornet took it to another level, delivering a huge increase in bass definition, bottom-end extension,
and dynamics. Suddenly, we heard a sense of weight and authority that the iPod alone—or the iPod with other headphone
amplifiers—simply didn’t provide. The soundstage opened up, presenting instruments as individual images in space rather
than across a flat, homogenized canvas. The midrange and treble were sweet, liquid, and highly musical. The Hornet is built
like a high-end preamp, but on a miniature scale. The circuit board uses 4oz oxygen-free copper traces; all resistors are .1%
tolerance Dale Vishay types; and capacitors are Tantalum and film. The unit is supplied with a rechargeable 9V battery and
charger. Three gain settings optimize the unit for a wide range of headphones. The front-panel volume control is a rotary
knob, which is easier to use than thumbwheel controls or the iPod’s jog wheel. The Hornet is built like a tank, with an allmetal case, heavy-duty jacks and hardware, and a solid feel. The three-year warranty tops off an outstanding product. (RH)
68 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
2006 Product of the Year Awards
Overall Product of the Year
MAGICO Mini Loudspeaker
$22,000 with stands
The market for two-way loudspeakers has never been more crowded with contenders than it is at the moment (see our CostNo-Object Loudspeaker of the Year, for instance). At the very top sits TAS’ Overall Product of the Year Award winner,
Alon Wolf ’s MAGICO Mini. An all-out effort, the Mini is a revolutionary design that trades euphonious coloration for the
flattest frequency response and lowest distortion yet in a stand-mounted speaker. The net result of this fabulous on-paper
performance is fabulous transparency to the source, in-room. The Mini reports on what’s upstream of it, be it hardware or
soft, with lower coloration and higher fidelity than any mini-monitor we’ve heard. If a record is great, the Mini makes it
sound great. If a record isn’t, the Mini tells you that, too (although it never sounds cold or analytical when doing so). Limited
by the size of its superb enclosure and titanium mid/bass driver to about 40Hz—unless you add a pair of Wilson-Benesch
Torus Infrasonic Generators to create a Mini SuperSystem (for which, you’ll have to wait until Issue 170)—the MAGICO
is everywhere else a model of limitlessness, of what is possible when price is no object, with standard-setting resolution,
neutrality, imaging, and soundstaging. Capable of the most complete disappearing act JV has yet heard from a direct-radiating
speaker and a dynamic range and scale that simply belie its size and driver complement, it is, without doubt, the best minimonitor the high end has yet seen and one of the handful of truly great loudspeakers. (Reviewed by JV, Issue 163)
70 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Cayin Audio A-88T Tube
Integrated Amplifier and
SCD‑50T SACD Player
A trip down Memory Lane
Paul Seydor
was tickled pink by Cayin Audio’s A-88T all‑tube integrated amplifier from the
moment I began to unpack it. The inclusion of white gloves signaled an attention to
detail in the presentation that puts to shame several super‑expensive items I’ve seen.
It was even more impressive out of the box—handsome in an unapologetically retro
style; ruggedly built using high‑quality parts and point‑to‑point wiring; hand‑assembled,
hand‑numbered, and hand‑signed by the QC inspector. All this plus remote operation
for $1900 indicates Cayin’s determination to give buyers more than just a taste of truffles
at mushroom prices.
Nor is the retro style merely faceplate deep. Go to the “About Us” page on the Web site
of the importer, VAS Audio Industries, and you read: “We are a group of middle‑aged
die‑hard audiophiles, looking for some old ‘toys’ from our younger audiophile days.” VAS
got in touch with a Chinese electronics manufacturer and designed a series of products
deliberately voiced after the sonic characteristics of classic American tube‑products. A
Cayin preamp is said to mimic a Marantz 7; a VAS amplifier, a Harman‑Kardon Citation
II; the A‑88T integrated under review, a McIntosh MC275. When I told a couple of
TAS colleagues about this, one said, “How cool!” The other, rolling his eyes, countered,
“How silly!”
Whatever your reaction, it certainly hands the reviewer a conundrum. Nobody
buying this product is doing so for “the absolute sound,” i.e., fidelity to some absolute
standard of accuracy. It’s being bought for nostalgic reasons, to reproduce what is itself
a reproduction—making it in effect a reproduction of a reproduction—one that gains its
legitimacy because it harks back to the so‑called Golden Age of Audio, vinyl the primary
source, vacuum tubes the only means of amplification with their glowing warmth, cozy
intimacy, and distortions benign (relatively high second-order harmonic) as opposed to
noxious (the crossover notch of early transistors).
The Absolute Sound January 2007 73
Cayin Audio A-88T Tube
Integrated Amplifier and
SCD‑50T SACD Player
This nostalgia also has its sociological
aspect. Not only is a sonic aesthetic being
called back into existence, but evoked as
well is the era of what might be called
Romantic Individualism in audio, where
corporations were virtually nonexistent
and both equipment and sound were
the visions of pioneering individuals.
Fire up one of these Cayin amplifiers,
watch the tubes come softly to life, Ella
dreamily spinning out a melody while Ben
Webster’s tenor encircles her in ribbons
of smoke and whiskey…and before you
know it the whole chaotic modern world
of multichannel, home theater, format
wars, iPods, and computers just fades
Of course, those early pioneers were
trying to approach the original sound
as closely as they knew how given the
state‑of‑the‑art as it existed back then,
not someone else’s idea of it. But how
can I cast the first stone—a guy who’s
just bought Quad 57s for the fourth time
and an Acoustic Research XA turntable
for the second?
For now, let me narrow my focus to the
A‑88T alone. The preamp section features
a volume control, but no balance or mono
circuits—odd omissions given the vintage
inspiration—and three high‑level inputs; a
fourth, misleadingly labeled “Preamp In,”
bypasses the volume control, allowing the
amplifier section to be driven by external
devices (no preamp‑out jacks, however).
ayin Audio SCD‑50T
Two‑Channel SACD player
Using a Sony transport and boasting the same high‑quality fit and finish
as the integrated, the SCD‑50T has two features that set it apart from the
crowd: two pairs of outputs, one transistor, the other tube; and, unique
in my experience, a circuit that folds the back channels of multichannel
discs into the stereo pair, the effects being to reduce level considerably
and bathe everything in swimmy, confused reverberation, i.e., worse than
useless. As for the outputs, when I first compared them, I thought, “Why’d
they bother?” But after some break-in and a variety of sources, predictable
differences emerged: the tubes warmer, softer, rounder; the transistors
smarter, crisper, more articulate. The tubes also suggest a slightly more
opulent tonal palette (especially paired with Cayin’s integrated), and
more dimensionality, the transistors better grip, control, and resolution
of fine detail. But these differences were never, ever obvious and always
highly source‑dependent. Sonny Rollins’ Way Out West [Contemporary]
points them up, the Anonymous Four’s Gloryland irons them out. As a
16/44 player, the SCD‑50 is good—stronger on smoothness, color, and
resolution than dynamics and tonal neutrality—but as an SACD player
it’s up there with some of the best I’ve heard. Disc after disc left me
wondering anew at the indifference of the industry, the press, and the
consumer to this superior medium. SACD reproduction here is outstanding
enough to warrant acquiring the Benchmark DAC‑1—a superlative D/A
converter from the pro sector, costing a mere $975—to kick the Cayin’s
Red Book performance up to equivalent level. Together the combination
totals $2875, still excellent value considering how vanishingly close the
Benchmark brings the SCD‑50T to state‑of‑the‑art playback of 16/44. PS
74 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Power into 4, 8, and 16 ohms is 45Wpc in
ultralinear mode, 22 in triode, conveniently
switchable from the handset. Even by the
standards of their time, triodes seem to
me little more than coloration generators,
their principal effect to push the presence
region back even further than many
tube units already do, providing phony
“depth” and otherwise glamorizing the
I conducted most of my evaluations
in ultralinear, beginning with a glorious
recital of Beethoven’s last three sonatas
by Mitsuco Uchida on Philips. This was
recorded in the famously reverberant
Concert Hall at Snapes Malting, where
Uchida applied a lot of pedal to radiant
effect—no one else in my experience
suggests the other‑worldly character of
this music so transcendently. Driving
Quad 988s, the A‑88T opened a window
upon the venue and revealed Uchida’s
ethereally delicate touch and exquisite
tone with especially nuanced resolution
of dynamics. Next up Gloryland, the
new Anonymous Four recording from
Harmonia Mundi, with which the A88T spread the four singers out slightly
behind the plane of the speakers in an
ideal perspective that let me hear deep
into the soundfield yet concentrate on
the unique timbre of each voice if I cared
to. No problems, then, with imaging and
soundstaging, and a quite extraordinary
Ray Brown’s doublebass on Soular
Energy [Groove Note SACD] is
satisfyingly extended and well articulated,
albeit perhaps plummier than is likely to
be literally accurate. This is fine with my
flat‑through‑the‑midbass 988s, but less
so with LS3/5as, which don’t need bogus
warmth. The A‑88T handles orchestral
Cayin Audio A-88T Tube
Integrated Amplifier and
SCD‑50T SACD Player
Specs &
VAS Audio Industries
1 Bethany Road, Building 1, Suite 16
Hazlet, New Jersey 07730
(732) 888-3288
A-88T integrated amplifier
Power output: 45Wpc (ultralinear), 22Wpc
Inputs: Four line‑level (but see text)
Tube complement: Two 6N9P/6SL7,
two 6N8P/6SN7 (preamp), one Electro‑
Harmonix 6550EH /KT88 (power amp)
Dimension: 16" x 7.8" x 14.9"
Weight: 55 lbs.
Price: $1900
SCD‑50T SACD player
Formats: SACD and Red Book CD
Dimensions: 17.3" x 5.1" x 13.1"
Weight: 30 lbs.
Price: $1800
Associated Equipment
SME Model 30 turntable; Sumiko
Celebration and Dynavector 17D II
cartridges; Phonomena phonostage; Sony
XA777ES SACD player, McIntosh MDA1000
D/A converter, MCD 1000 transport, and
861 universal player; Pathos Classic One
integrated amp; Quad 99 and 303 preamps;
McIntosh MC‑275 Series IV amplifier;
Quad 988, ESL-57, Harbeth Compact 7,
and Spendor SP3/5 speakers; Audio Physic
Minos subwoofer; Kimber Select and 8VS
interconnects and speaker cable
76 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
music impressively, the ample bottom‑end
actually an advantage in late‑romantic
symphonies; on recordings with plenty
of ambience (many Telarcs), it conveys an
altogether lovely bloom. Andrew Manze’s
new CD of symphonies by C.P.E. Bach
(also from HM) is robust, vigorous, and
close-up, with bracingly tart instrumental
colors and textures that could easily
become confused but for the A‑88T’s
unruffled composure—everything clean,
well‑ventilated, and involving (note how
the harpsichord cuts through without
seeming to be spotlit).
Overall the A‑88T is a little midrange
dominant, albeit attractively so. But there
is one tonal aberration I don’t like: a
tendency to emphasize sibilants (which
triode mode worsens). On Let No Man
Write My Epitaph [Verve], Ella Fitzgerald’s
sibilants sound almost free-floating. I
can’t explain this, but I was not alone in
noticing it.
Owing to the A‑88T’s colorations—for
the most part the euphonic sort adored
by tube fanciers—the more neutral
a speaker’s tonal balance, the better I
liked the amp, no doubt because mutual
colorations aren’t exacerbated. It formed
beautiful synergies with my 988s and
a pair of borrowed Harbeth Compact
7s. I know many audiophiles will love it
with Quad 57s, but not I: this is another
speaker that doesn’t need any help in the
warmth region.
Henry James once said that you
must grant the artist his subject, a
critical precept I’ve always held dear.
Substitute “designer” for “artist,” “goal”
for “subject,” and I suppose it means
I shouldn’t mention Quad’s 99/909
preamp/amp combination, which offers
superior tonal neutrality (plus greater
flexibility and three times the power for
$400 more). But surely it’s fair to ask how
the A‑88T stacks up against the McIntosh
MC275 it’s voiced to resemble. I don’t have
a vintage sample around but I do have the
Series IV, released a couple of years ago
and reviewed in Issue 151. And? Well,
maybe forty years ago an MC275 sounded
like an A‑88T now, but it sure doesn’t
in its Series IV reincarnation. They’re
about equal in transparency and tactile
immediacy, but the IV’s tonal balance is
more neutral, which I prefer no matter the
source or associated equipment. “Maybe
it’s too neutral?” asked one of my group.
“Perhaps the Cayin is a little . . . tastier?”
I’ve never understood the concept
of “too neutral” as applied to audio
reproduction, but I think I know what lies
behind the suggestion. Many audiophiles
don’t want accurate, they want pretty
or warm or lush or sweet. Fair enough:
Cayin’s philosophy values beauty above
truth and designs its products by mixing
memory with as much nostalgia as desire.
No, the A‑88T isn’t an amp I’d settle down
with, but it was certainly a big‑hearted
houseguest I’d always welcome back.
1. But bypassing the A‑88T’s preamp section
brings its amp sonically closer to the MC275,
though who’d buy it to use it that way?
Parasound Halo A 21
Stereo Amplifier
Terrific-sounding, and affordable, too
Jonathan Valin
very January at CES I make my
annual pilgrimage to the Sound Lab
room to hear the latest iteration
of Dr. Roger West’s M-1 electrostats, and
every January I come away thinking that
the M-1s are, along with the Magneplanar
20.1s, the best value in a full-range highend loudspeaker—fast, rich, life-sized,
transparent, highly detailed, unbeatably
coherent, and blessed with bottom-end
extension like no other ’stats.
Good as the M-1s are, part of the credit
for their sterling showings at CES has to
go to the electronics Dr. West uses. Like
Maggie, Sound Lab demo’s its speakers
with reasonably priced solid-state gear,
and for the past several years that gear
has come from Parasound—the San
Francisco electronics company that had
the eminent good sense to hire John Curl
to design its “Halo” line of monoblock,
78 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
stereo, and multichannel solid-state
For those benighted few who don’t
already know this, Curl is the guy who
first put transistors on a competitive
footing with tubes in the mid-1970s with
his classic ML-1 and ML-2 amps and JC1 and JC-2 preamps (designed for Mark
Levinson Audio Systems, back when
Levinson was a Mark and not a marque).
Since then he has designed many other
amps and preamps for numerous highend companies, as well as making his own
Vendetta Research phonostage and CTC
“Blowtorch” preamp.
At CES, Sound Lab mates its M-1s
with Parasound’s top-rank $7000 JC 1
monoblocks. The component under
review, the $2000 Halo A 21 stereo amp,
is slotted in further down the Parasound
line. Nonetheless, it is still very much a
Curl design, with his customary J-FET
input stage, MOSFET driver stage, and
beta-matched bipolar-transistor output
stage—each arrayed in a complementary
configuration, making for a more linear
and lower distortion circuit. Both input
and driver stages are biased Class A, while
the output stage is biased Class A to about
10W and Class AB beyond that. Though
superior build-quality is something I take
for granted in the products I review in
Exotica, I was genuinely surprised by
the superior fit ’n’ finish of the A 21,
which looks almost identical to a JC
1 and, at 60 pounds, weighs only four
pounds less. With its thick uncluttered
faceplate and heavy-gauge brushed steel
chassis, finned at either side with heat
sinks, this is one clean, hefty, handsomelooking component. The amp’s innards
are just as impressive as its outers—1%
Parasound Halo A 21
Stereo Amplifier
resistors, polypropylene caps, doublesided FR4 glass-epoxy circuit boards,
a 1.2kVA encapsulated toroidal power
transformer, and 100,000µF of powersupply filter capacitance. On its back
panel, the A 21 has pairs of balanced
and unbalanced inputs (each with their
own discrete circuitry), a strip with 24kgold-plated five-way binding posts, and
volume controls for both output channels
(presumably so the amp can be driven
directly by a CD/SACD player, although
the amp’s volume controls also allow
you to match the gain of a preamp or
controller to the A 21). When the amp’s
volume controls are turned all the way
to the right (clockwise), they are out of
the circuit. With the throw of a switch,
the A 21 can also be bridged for mono
Specs &
Parasound Halo A 21
Type: Solid-state stereo power amplifier
Power: 250Wpc into 8 ohms, 400Wpc into 4
ohms, 750W into 8 ohms (bridged)
Dimensions: 17.25" x 7.625" x 19.125"
Weight: 60 lbs.
Price: $2000
Parasound Products, Inc.
950 Battery Street, Second Floor
San Francisco, California 94111
(415) 397-7100
Associated Equipment
Walker Audio Proscenium Black Diamond
record player, Kuzma Stabi XL turntable,
Kuzma Air Line tonearm; Phono cartridges:
Air Tight PC-1 and London Reference
cartridges; MBL 1621 A transport, MBL 1611
DAC; Audio Research Reference 3, MBL 6010
D linestage preamps; Audio Research PH-7,
Lamm Industries LP-2 Deluxe phonostages;
Audio Research Reference 210, MBL 9008,
MBL 9011, Edge 12.1 power amplifiers;
MAGICO Mini loudspeakers with (2) WilsonBenesch Torus subwoofers, MBL 101 E
loudspeakers; Tara Labs “Zero” interconnect,
Tara Labs “Omega” speaker cable, Tara Labs
“The One” power cords; Shakti Hallographs;
Walker Prologue Reference equipment
stand; Walker Prologue amp stands;
Richard Gray Power Company 600S/Pole
Pig line/power conditioner; Cable Elevators
Plus; Walker Valid Points; Winds Arm Load
meter; Clearaudio Matrix record cleaner;
HiFi-Tuning silver/gold fuses
80 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
operation, though Parasound doesn’t
recommend mono use with speakers
lower than 8 ohms in impedance.
There was some talk in our Special
Report on Class D in Issue 166 about
how these new-technology amps stomped
comparably priced older-technology
Class AB amps. Well, if you want to
make an apples-to-apples comparison
between Class D and Class AB, look no
further than the Parasound A 21. At $2k,
it’s priced about the same as (actually, less
than) a typical Class D entry and offers
similar power (250Wpc into 8 ohms and
400 into 4), similar control (a damping
factor of >1100 at 20Hz), and superior
bandwidth (2Hz–120kHz ±3dB). I, for
one, found the comparisons to Class D
and to much pricier Class AB amplifiers
Swapping the Parasound in for the
$20k Class AB Audio Research Ref 210
tube and $40k Class AB MBL 9008 solidstate monoblocks that are my references
was somewhat less of a horizon-lowering
experience than I anticipated. Putting
aside the usual differences between tubes
and transistors, all three amps sounded
fundamentally similar, and I had to listen
carefully to sort out what I was hearing.
Differences certainly weren’t as marked
or as dramatic as, say, those between Class
D/T and top-line Class AB.
Nonetheless, it soon became apparent
that the A 21 did not have quite the air,
sweetness, bloom, and liquidity in the
upper midrange and treble of the ARC
tube amp or the MBL 9008 solid-state
amp. As a result the orchestral bells on
the Classic/Everest reissue of The Pines
of Rome were a bit less airy, open, and
delicately nuanced, the London Symphony
strings a little less silken in their upper
octaves than they were through the two
Class AB super-amps. On the other hand,
the A 21 had a high end—and a quite
respectably good one. Unlike the $4995
Class D Rowland 201 or the $3995 Class
T ARC 300.2, its treble wasn’t rolledoff, airless, bloomless, or dead, nor was
its upper midrange notably bright and
aggressive or caramel-colored.
In the midband, the differences
between the Class AB super-amps and
the A 21 (once the A 21 was warmed up)
were somewhat similar to those in the
treble. In imaging the super-amps had
more body, dimensionality, and air than
the Parasound, so that instruments were
rounder and fuller and bloomier. Largescale dynamics were also livelier and
small-scale ones subtler and more fully
articulated than they were through the A
21. Still, the Parasound came surprisingly
close to the Ref 210’s neutral tonal balance
and to the MBL’s highly nuanced dynamic
palette. Where I would easily have heard
the timbral and dynamic signatures of the
Class T ARC 300.2 and Class D Rowland
201 in the playback of something like
John Shirley-Quirk’s baritone and the
Los Angeles Philharmonic’s strings,
winds, and brass on the great Columbia
recording of Lutoslawski’s Les Espaces du
sommeil, I was harder put to hear major
differences between the A 21 and the
two super-amps. In the broadest strokes,
and in some of the finer ones, all three
Class AB amps sounded more alike than
different—and to my ear more like the
real thing.
As with its midrange, the A 21’s
bottom end was excellent. Though not as
realistically full and bloomy as the ARC
tube amp or as consummately explosive,
extended, and finely detailed as the MBL
9008, the Parasound, nonetheless, went
deep with enough power, resolution, and
bass-range air to reproduce the 16-foot
pipes of the E.&G.G. Hook organ on
Parasound Halo A 21
Stereo Amplifier
the Mendelssohn Sonata No. 1 [Sheffield]
with lifelike solidity and room-shuddering
authority. Ditto for the bass-range
workout provided by the contrabassoon
and tam-tam on New World’s superb
recording of George Crumb’s A Haunted
Landscape—a record you will be hearing
more about when I review the WilsonBenesch Torus subwoofers in Issue 170.
The Class D amps I reviewed were also
remarkable in the bass—with particularly
fine “grip” and power in the bottom
octaves. That said, I don’t think any of the
ones I auditioned had much of a leg up
on the A 21, which not only had similar
grip and power but also didn’t seem to
store most of its dynamics in the bottom
The A 21’s resolution of low-level
detail was across-the-board high.
While not the near-world-beater that
the Class D Rowland 201 was in the
midrange, neither was it as euphonically
colored as the Rowland. It reproduced
that buried-in-the-mix snare drum in
the “The Pines of the Villa Borghese”
segment of The Pines of Rome clearly
(though not as clearly as the Rowlands)
and caught the atypical and hard-to-hear
vibrato in Mary Travers’ voice on “Blowin’
In The Wind” [Warner] with admirable
clarity. It did not sustain harmonics,
however, with the lifelike duration of
the Class AB super-amps or the Rowland
201 (which was simply remarkable in this
regard), making for slightly leaner (though
nothing like threadbare) timbres. Nor
was soundstage width quite as broad as it
was with the super-amps, though depth
and layering were comparable.
I’m not going to kid you: In spite
of family resemblances, the Parasound
Halo A 21 is not as “good” as either
of the two ten-to-twenty-times-moreexpensive Class AB super-amps. What
the A 21 is is a very fine amplifier
at an exceptionally fair price—more
lifelike, I think, than much of its more
expensive Class D competition. Bottom
line: I could not only recommend the A
21 enthusiastically to audiophiles on a
budget (what a combo it would make with
the Maggie 1.6QRs!), but could live with it
myself—in a system that costs fifty times
what it does. TAS
82 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
ProAc Studio 140
Genetically joined at the hip
Neil Gader
hen ProAc released the original
Tablette in 1979, it was the kind
of breakthrough product that
challenged conventional wisdom about minispeaker performance. Designed by Stewart
Tyler, the Tablette (iterations of the original
continue to this day) was the consummate
two-way overachiever, and set standards for
transparency and soundstaging that are still
emulated. It catapulted the ProAc brand into
the high end’s consciousness. The rest, as they
say, is history.
84 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
ProAc Studio 140
I was also swept up in the groundswell,
and over the years have owned ProAcs—
the Studio One, the Response 2, and
the larger three-way Studio Three of
the 1980s, a speaker whose midrange
performance HP deemed state-of-the-art
in cone-driver technology. In every case
and across the decades, ProAc speakers
seemed almost genetically joined at
the hip, consistently delivering a rich
midrange, deep soundstage, and a brand
of transparency that often caused them
to disappear as the source of the music.
ProAc’s latest, the $2995 Studio
140, makes it clear that time has not
diminished Stewart Tyler’s deft touch.
The profile of the Studio 140 is classic
ProAc, a narrow columnar design with a
stabilizing plinth at the base, pre-drilled
for (included) adjustable spikes. Edges
are crisp, the natural wood veneers near
impeccable. Derived from the two-way
Studio 130, the Studio 140 adds an extra
midbass driver to boost bass output and
sensitivity. The result is a two-and-ahalf-way configuration in a bass-reflex
enclosure with a downward-firing port.
The tweeter, a silk dome of the type
Specs &
Modern Audio Consultants
(410) 486-5975
[email protected]
Type: 2.5-way floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: 1" silk-dome tweeter,
two 6.5" mid/bass drivers
Frequency Response: 25Hz­­–30kHz
Sensitivity: 91dB
Nominal impedance: 8 ohms (4 ohms
Dimensions: 7.5" x 41" x 11"
Weight: 42 lbs.
Price: $2995
Associated Equipment
Sota Cosmos Series III turntable, SME V
pick-up arm, and Shure V15VxMR cartridge;
MBL 1531 and Simaudio Moon Supernova
CD players; Tara Labs Omega, Nordost
Baldur, and Kimber Kable BiFocal XL
cables; Wireworld Silver Electra and Kimber
Palladian power cords; Richard Gray line
conditioners; Sound Fusion Turntable stand
86 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
that ProAc has traditionally preferred, is
offset to the inside of the front baffle—a
technique often employed by ProAc and
others to reduce baffle diffraction artifacts
and enhance soundstaging quality. It
also serves the dual purpose of aiding
placement relative to nearby sidewalls—
some listeners prefer reversing the
speakers so that the tweeter is positioned
at the outside of the baffle, a choice that
can expand the soundstage. Dual binding
posts allow for optional bi-wiring or biamping, but with the Studio 140’s 91dB
sensitivity a well-designed stereo amp in
the 100-watt range does quite nicely.
To my mind, successful speaker
designers and musical instrument makers
share an instinct or “touch” that confers
on the creations of each the designer’s
signature sound. It’s a quality only
achievable by the experienced ear—one
that is intimately acquainted with live
music. The Studio 140—like nearly
every ProAc speaker I’ve heard—is no
exception. Tyler’s touch is no better
expressed than in the vivid, uninhibited
character of the midrange; the virtual
strike zone between 100Hz and about
4kHz. Its overall personality veers to
the warmer side of the spectrum. The
critical upper-bass region possesses good
dynamic expression and bloom, and
there’s a surprising amount of punch and
control built into the midbass. The upper
mids—the presence range—is slightly
recessed but a lack of energy is certainly
not an issue with the Studio 140. When
the speaker is set up properly, the treble
range falls into line with the midbass
drivers, but there’s a bit too much tweeter
when the speaker’s positioned directly
on-axis to the listening position.
In the Studio 140, there’s a sense of
harmonic unity that focuses your attention
on the music rather than the speaker.
Images have a fleshy physicality that
makes them seem to stand in space. A jazz
vocalist like Holly Cole or the Australian
country-songbird Kasey Chambers is
reproduced with the sensation of sound
emerging from chest and throat and
being radiated to a waiting microphone.
Listen closely and you can divine what
part of the vocal is the singer’s and what
coloration you can attribute to the mic
and equalization and compression.
However, compared to a traditional
two-way layout the driver configuration
of the Studio 140 adds a weight and
magnitude that bolsters the presentation,
whether it’s the vivid orchestral
soundstage of the Saint-Saëns Cello
Concerto No. 1 [Channel Classics] or the
dry studio environs of Dylan’s latest CD
Modern Times [Columbia]. Two factors
contribute to this extra body—extension
and dynamics. In terms of sheer lowfrequency extension and output there’s
little doubt that the Studio 140 has
come a long way from Tablette territory.
Response drops confidently into the
40Hz region, with perceivable output
trickling into the upper 30Hz range. But
bass extension alone is only impressive as
a mere specification. It’s the wide dynamic
envelope that underscores the bass that
brings the Studio 140 to life when the
organ rumbles into the hall and the winds
blaze, as in Vaughn-Williams Antarctica
The profile is
classic ProAc
Through the Studio 140, this
symphony takes on a completely different
dimension—the movement’s crescendo
is more bone-rattling, the sense of
orchestral scale is more accurately stated,
and as the organ comes to life the hall’s
energy is much more forceful.
These same virtues also allow the
Studio 140 to easily change musical
hats. There’s a lot of air and space to be
mined in the converted barn where Tom
Waits recorded Mule Variations [Epitaph].
When he roars out the lyric “come down
from the cross/we could use the wood”
in “Come On Up To The House,” the
accompanying big drum kit and bar-room
piano have a weight and bloom that few
speakers in this price range other than
the ProAc could muster. And let’s face it:
If you can’t crank Slayer’s “Jihad” from
Christ Illusion [American Recordings] to
toe-curling levels, then one of the primal
elements that gives metal its true meaning
is missing.
That’s not to say that realistic
symphonic or rock concert levels and
ProAc Studio 140
scale are actually achieved by the
140. They aren’t. A larger room
than mine and a much larger
speaker—perhaps from ProAc’s
premium Response line—would
be needed for that.
The Studio 140 does an excellent
job illuminating high percussion
information. The microdynamics
and transient speed elicited from
the many delicate ticks and pings
of the percussionist during Holly
Cole’s “Train” on Temptation
[Alert] flirted with some of best
reproduction I’ve experienced
with this disc. But on Sinatra’s Only
the Lonely [Capitol], “Angel Eyes”
had a bit of edge where the Studio
140 adds some extra mid-treble
sparkle. This undermines Sinatra’s
natural chest resonance and creates
a bit of driver discontinuity. It’s
not an issue I was keying on with
every recording, but it is something
to be aware of. Also keep in mind
that, as robust as the Studio 140
is compared with a two-way of
similar internal volume, it cannot be
pushed in the same way that a threeway might be. When the Studio 140
is played hard, particularly during
heavy-handed rock or large-scale
orchestral passages, lower-level
details can be over shadowed as the
bass thickens somewhat. Massed
basses and kettledrums reveal a
bit of the port, which dampens
Images have
a fleshy physicality
In terms of placement, the Studio
140 is worth fussing over. The tried
and true toe-in method created a
discontinuity between tweeter and
midbass drivers that was not typical
of my experience with ProAcs.
However, firing them straight out
into the room achieved far more
harmonious driver integration,
a warmer overall balance, and
wider soundstaging. Keep in mind that
wall reflections might become more of
88 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
an issue when toe-in is reduced, so I
drew the Studio 140s slightly closer
together (to further reduce the first
sidewall reflection).
I’d also add that, depending on
your listening biases and room
requirements, it would be worth the
effort to have a listen to the standard
two-way Studio 130. While it isn’t
the subject of this review, I’ve had
enough experience with that ProAc
to allow the rough comparison, which
is interesting, because something’s
gained and something’s lost with
each model. Though the Studio 130
lacks the output and slam of the
dual midbass Studio 140, it offers
other virtues, such as the improved
point-source-style coherence and
articulation that have always made
purist two-ways hard to beat. The
Studio 140, however, is probably the
more versatile of the pair, better able
to handle the dual-purpose imperatives
of today’s multichannel-dominated
In true ProAc fashion, the Studio
140 captures the excitement and
electricity of the live event. It sings
with a musical authenticity that calls to
mind the finest British studio monitors.
But it is also a speaker for our time,
capable of handling the demands
of new formats in the volatile A/V
marketplace. The only bit of old news?
The Studio 140 is yet another ProAc
speaker that should be added to any
audiophile shopper’s short list. TAS
Legenburg Hermes
S Interconnect and
Loudspeaker Cable
A clinic on the art of soundstaging
Neil Gader
Specs &
Capativa Technology, Inc.
310 S. Twin Oaks Road, Suite 107-129
San Marcos, California 92078
(877) 708-7805
Prices: Interconnect: $971/three-foot
pair; speaker: $2635/eight-foot pair
See page 86 for Associated
90 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
f nothing more, the Hermes S
interconnects and speaker cables
from Legenburg could be used
to conduct a clinic on the art of
soundstaging. Of course there is more
to the story, but this wire’s ability to
reproduce the dimensionality of acoustic
spaces is arresting, to put it mildly. Even
on a recording as familiar to me as the
Rutter Requiem on Reference Recordings,
new deep spatial details are revealed. The
presentation of the soprano soloist during
“Lux Aeterna” is not only defined in relation
to the audience and the embrace of the
Turtle Creek Chorale and Dallas Women’s
Chorus, but in the context of the width,
depth and, most astonishingly, height of the
venue surrounding her. Her performance
also originates further upstage and comes
in at a lower level than I’d previously heard,
rising incrementally in volume and power,
like a locomotive building up steam. Even
a studio cut like “Workingman’s Blues #2”
from Bob Dylan’s latest CD Modern Times
[Columbia] reveals faint details layered
amongst multiple planes of sound—not the
least of which are the last couple words of a
conversation bleeding into the song’s intro.
The Legenburg reveals some of the most
delicate dynamic gradations I’ve ever heard.
However, as delicate as the sound might
be, there’s something defiantly Old School in
a cable that specs out at a serpentine 3"+ in
diameter. For the record, Hermes S cabling
utilizes mono-crystal rectangular copper
conductors in a Teflon FEP/Microporous
Teflon dielectric. The regal gold outer
jacketing is formulated of polyvinyl chloride
coated with a high density braided shielding.
Connectors are 24K-gold-plated. Build-
quality is exquisite—right down to the
wooden presentation box the cables arrive in.
In many ways the tonal character of the
Hermes S tells an even more interesting
story than its soundstaging prowess. It’s a
richly midrange-weighted cable, and not
purely neutral across the spectrum—a trait
that also finds expression in a rounded
treble and languid transients. It lends most
music an almost rose-like complexion. It’s
an incredibly flattering sound, even while
it gently chamfers off the burrs and edges
of recordings. Cellos and doublebasses
are beautifully realized, and violin sections
have a deeper resonance that rivals the
neighboring violas. Even Elton John’s
vocal on the ballad “The Bridge” from The
Captain and the Kid [Island] seems to drop
a little deeper in his chest and soften the
middle-age throatiness of his high notes.
His trademark piano punctuations grow
warmer, with less transient urgency, and the
keyboard’s sustained harmonics are a bit
softer on top. Mid and low bass is energyfilled and bloomy, but pitch definition could
be improved. For example, stand-up bass
or a pianist’s thundering left hand playing
deep into the keyboard’s bass clef could use
a bit more control. Said another way, the
middle range of the Hermes S reminds me
of the cushiony warmth of moving-magnet
phono cartridges. Like the early Grados, the
sound is true to the music in spirit, but with
a gentle roll-off at the frequency extremes.
The Legenburg Hermes S may not be your
cup of tea if anvil-flat tonal balance toots
your horn. If, however, you’re looking
to sweeten up your system or touch and
reclaim its soundstaging mojo, then you may
want to look no further. TAS
Integrated Amplifier
Nothing fancy, but it sure sounds seductive
Jacob Heilbrunn
hen you think of VTL, the
first things that spring to
mind aren’t low-powered
amplifiers. This is a company that
specializes in building the Hummers
of the audio industry. VTL offers
hulking amplifiers that are named after
brawny Norse gods—Siegfried, Wotan,
Brunnhilde, and the like. These were
amps built to power the Ring Cycle
into your living room so that it sounds
almost as if Richard Wagner’s ghost is
hovering in the room. VTL head honcho
Luke Manley’s credo, as he put it to me,
is, “You can never have enough power.”
Those are words that he certainly lives
by—this is a man who once tri-amplified
MartinLogan Statement speakers with
1250-watt Wotan monoblocks at a
hi-fi show. He also happens to be right.
92 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
If you want a massive soundstage
and Stygian bass, high-current amplifiers
will light up your room (and, by the
way, most loudspeakers are less sensitive
than their manufacturers would like to
So it came as something of a jolt (no
pun intended) to realize that VTL also
makes a low-powered amplifier—the 60watt integrated IT-85, to be precise. And
for the latest version of VTL’s integrated
amplifier, the factory actually cut the
power to 60 watts in order to gain a purer
sound. Still, when the diminutive IT-85
landed on my doorstep, I wasn’t sure
what to expect. It sure looked handsome.
Nice glass plate in front, big VTL legend
emblazoned on it, solid metal chassis,
some Svetlana El34, 12AT7, and 12AU7
tubes inside, and a small remote. Nothing
fancy, but it certainly sounded seductive.
While this integrated amp doesn’t have
the muscle of the powerhouses further
up the VTL feeding chain, it is incredibly
sweet and relaxed sounding. If you want,
you can even just use the preamp section
inside to run another amplifier or to drive
a separate powered subwoofer. And by
engaging the processor loop, you can
bypass the preamp section altogether and
have the surround processor in a hometheater system directly drive the amplifier
in the IT-85. Nifty, isn’t it?
This amplifier was really built for the
apartment dweller, who isn’t going to
be playing music at head-banging levels.
As someone who used to lived on a
sprung wooden third floor with a stereo,
I vividly remember inciting the ire of
my downstairs neighbor, who would
VTL IT-85 Integrated
stand at my door, arms akimbo, fairly
quivering with indignation when I played
some orchestral passage too loudly. Isn’t
Mahler worth a few chandeliers swinging
from the ceiling? Alas, for most people,
apparently not. This VTL amplifier is the
equivalent of a governor on a rental car;
it’s just not going to let you exceed, in this
case, sound limits that will antagonize
your neighbors. I used the IT-85 with a
small system next to my office. (Running
it on the Magnepan MG 20.1s would
have crippled it, and I’m not into abusing
equipment.) Designed for someone
who doesn’t want to spend a lot of
time messing around with cables, it slid
perfectly into my system upstairs. Given
how well it performs, I’d be surprised if
anyone who uses it really feels tempted
to start rolling tubes. It’s not an amp that
cries out for changes. Designed to mate
with high-sensitivity mini-monitors, the
IT-85 is a no-brainer for someone who
just wants to listen to music without any
One of those hassles can be taming
a hot tweeter. Many of the super highend systems I’ve heard tend to have
a less than linear treble. The culprit
may be a particular recording or it may
be a room that has been insufficiently
treated. Whatever. The fact is that it’s an
aggravating problem, and the better the
system, the more revealed it will be.
Specs &
VTL Amplifiers Inc.
4774 Murrieta Street, Suite 10
Chino, California 91710
(909) 627-5944
Power output: 60Wpc into 5 ohms
Inputs: Five analog inputs, one tape loop,
one headphone, one preamp out, one
preamp/processor in
Dimensions: 16" x 7" x 12"
Weight: 60 lbs.
Price: $3250
Associated Equipment
Sony NS700P CD/DVD player; Snell
E/IV loudspeaker; MIT Terminator Two
interconnects and loudspeaker cable
94 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
This amplifier does not suffer from that
particular problem. It’s all midrange. The
treble is soft and forgiving and rolled-off.
Never did I hear even a trace of sibilance
on familiar recordings. On jazz, this
ended up blunting the impact of cymbals
a little bit, and bass extension wasn’t as
taut as it might have been. These amps
simply were not built to power substantial
woofers in the bass. They get tubby and
boomy awfully fast.
None of this, however, should come
as a surprise. Low power means that you
simply will not get the same kind of grip
and extension that a bigger amplifier
delivers, or is supposed to deliver. But
there is a trade-off in big amps. The more
tubes you use, the more distortion you’re
listening to. One way to think about it
might be the difference between a single
voice and a chorus. The full chorus is
more majestic, but it will never, no matter
how good it is, stop and start perfectly in
unison. It just can’t happen. Low power
can often mean tonal richness, and that is
what this amplifier offers.
The midrange I alluded to above
sounded glorious. This was a luscious and
smooth presentation with an ease that
was to-die-for. Listen to Jay McShann’s
initial, low, and dragged-out “Yeah” on
the song “Piney Brown Blues,” from
What a Wonderful World [Groove Note
SACD]. It emerged from nowhere,
and the palpability was superb. But it
wouldn’t be fair to say that the tubes were
smoothing out transients in the midrange.
As McShann’s performance went on, it
became clear that his voice had lost much
of its robustness. Similarly, on The Beatles
[EMI], Paul McCartney’s vocal on “Oh!
Darling,” sounded strained—just as he
wanted it to (story has it that he showed
up early in the morning to record because
he didn’t want his voice to sound too
smooth). On Maurice Andre’s Trumpet
Concertos [EMI], I was impressed by the
way the VTL captured both the initial
attack and fluidity of Andre’s piccolo
trumpet. (Andre was perhaps the greatest
performer of the piccolo trumpet, an
unbelievably lyrical player with total
command of the instrument.) One thing
that happens with a trumpeter like Andre
is that you get almost an explosive attack
from his instrument. If you think of a
note as diamond-shaped and you hit the
center, you get maximum resonance out
of the note, and a kind of “pop” as the
note is enunciated. That’s part of what
makes a good orchestral trumpet section
sound not only powerful, but also able
to produce such a burnished sound. Hit
the note too low or too high and it can
VTL IT-85 Integrated
start to sound tinny and harsh. The VTL
nailed it on the Haydn trumpet concerto.
Andre’s crystal clear attacks sounded right
on target to me.
This clarity also helped ensure that
the soundstage, while never cavernous,
never strayed or wandered. Instruments
were securely in their place with a good
sense of space. The somewhat rolled-off
treble, of course, helped focus attention
on the midrange, since a hot treble will
almost invariably seem forward and
overshadow the midrange. The VTL’s nice
sense of accuracy in the midrange was
complemented by a lack of grain and also
by an ever-present feeling of continuity.
This seamless flow is something I think
VTL amplifiers provide more than their
competitors; that may even be a VTL
“house” sound. There is a sense of
ease that seems almost unrivaled. They
don’t have quite as billowy a soundstage
as Audio Research products—a guilty
pleasure if there ever was one—but the
VTLs let the music flow so effortlessly.
To put it another way, they sound organic.
In fact, this is one of the most amiable
amplifiers I’ve ever heard.
But to hear those qualities, the IT-85 has
to be run at reasonable levels. This isn’t
an amplifier that wants to be pushed too
hard, or it loses its composure. It’s about
affability, not assaults on the ear. I don’t
think solid-state equipment at this price
level will offer as much of the ineffable
grace that tubes provide. The tubes just do
so many things right that you won’t find
yourself thinking about the shortcomings
of this little number. Unlike most
solid-state equipment, however, the IT85 needs a goodly amount of room
for ventilation because the numerous
tubes inside will heat up the chassis; to
make sure that they’re running properly,
it’s important to bias the tubes with a
voltmeter upon receipt (or your dealer
can take care of it for you). Other amps,
including VTL’s top-of-the-line Siegfried,
feature auto-biasing, which remains
controversial in some quarters. The amp’s
binding posts and RCA jacks are of high
quality, but I was mildly disappointed
to discover that it doesn’t have any
balanced connections. Then again, this
is an entry-level amp in the VTL line.
To pack this much into a single unit,
VTL had to forego some of the
luxuries that can be taken for granted at
higher prices.
VTL has been around now for a
couple decades, offers reliable and
friendly service, and is always there
if something should go wrong. For
anyone wanting more than a taste of the
high-end, this is one sweet integrated
amplifier. TAS
The Absolute Sound January 2007 95
TacT 2.2 XP Dynamic Room
Correction Preamplifier
Reinventing the art of the high end
Anthony H. Cordesman
hesitate to call the TacT 2.2 XP the
“component of the year,” since I’ve
recently reviewed two superb sets
of components from Krell and Pass
Laboratories, and the Krell Evolution
series is a breakthrough in conventional
analog stereo. So, let me put it differently.
The TacT 2.2 XP is one of the few
high-end products on the market that
can fundamentally change your listening
experience as well as solve most listening
room and speaker problems. It provides a
superb combination of a stereo preamp,
equalizer, room equalizer, phase corrector,
and digital-to-analog converter with up to
192kHz/24-bit resolution and advanced,
highly accurate re-clocking. It now does
so with vastly improved computational
capability that allows it to measure room
and equipment problems from your
listening position, and correct frequency
response, and phase without the use of a
separate computer. And you also can use
the TacT 2.2 XP to provide a corrected
electronic crossover with virtually any
crossover configuration and slope for
driving two amplifiers and separate
speakers and subwoofers and fully correct
96 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
both the woofer and main speakers in the
same way you can a separate full-range
In an audio world where tweaking
is often mindlessly expensive, relies on
technological nonsense, and does more
harm than good, the TacT 2.2 XP allows
really meaningful adjustment of sound
quality and musical performance.
This is not a simple product; it crams
an immense amount of technology into
a small box. In broad terms, however,
you can buy the TacT 2.2 XP in several
basic configurations. The first is a purely
digital unit that only accepts digital
signals, provides 48-bit processing, has
five digital inputs with sample rates up to
192kHz/24-bit, and has a digital output
for digital amplifiers. The second adds
a digital-to-analog output for use with
conventional analog amplifiers. The third
adds a 192kHz/24-bit, analog-to-digital
converter to provide four stereo RCA
inputs and one XLR balanced input.
Regardless of which configuration you
need and buy, the added computational
capability in the TacT 2.2 XP allows it
to perform room correction with 0.8Hz
resolution by using the display and pushbuttons on the front panel without need
of a PC or separate software. For many
audiophiles the resulting immediate
improvements in timbre and detail will
be more than enough to make them stop
and actually listen to music.
Sooner or later, however, true
audiophiles will take advantage of the fact
that a PC can be used with the 2.2 XP.
The displayed graphs help users design
their own optimum EQ curves and take
exact control over the TacT’s ability to
memorize ten user-designed frequency
correction or target curves, detect objects
in the sound path that may be coloring the
signal at the listening position, equalize
speaker response, and play around with
different crossover configurations. With
a PC, you become the on-screen master
of all you survey—and more importantly,
all you hear.
The TacT 2.2 XP calibration process
is relatively straightforward. The 2.2
XP sends a number of impulses to
the speakers. The (supplied) calibrated
microphone picks up the impulses at
the listening position. As TacT puts it,
TacT 2.2 XP Dynamic Room
Correction Preamplifier
“both the frequency-domain and the
time-domain response can be accurately
determined based on the deformation
of the resulting pulse. The system then
calculates a filter for each speaker, which
will give the desired frequency response
with the best possible time behavior,
and no sacrifice of dynamic range. All
processing is done with floating-point
precision so that no noise or distortion
is generated by the system. The system
measures and calibrates the left and right
main speakers and one or two subwoofers,
so any difference between the left and
right channels is also compensated.” Try
doing that with a 12AX7!
The TacT 2.2 XP also offers another
feature that initially I was ready to dismiss.
Loudness controls have invariably done
more musical harm than good since they
were first introduced during the second
Buchanan Administration. Accordingly, I
wasn’t exactly impressed when TacT first
advertised that its new room-correction
software was the only one “in the world
to address the issue that sound perception
is both frequency and level dependent. By
taking into account your natural hearing
characteristics and by adjusting for them
Specs &
TacT Audio
201 Gates Road, Unit G
Little Ferry New Jersey 07643
(201) 440-9300
Inputs: Five digital with sample rates up to
192kHz/24-bit; balanced and single-ended
analog inputs
Features: Digitally controlled analog output
level; digital crossovers for subwoofer(s);
high-quality re-clocking on all inputs; triplestage power supply with separate grounds;
192kHz upsampler at inputs; integrated
measurement system with 0.4Hz resolution
and calibrated measurement microphone;
time-delay correction with 10-microsecond
resolution; optional A/D converter with
192kHz/24 bit
Dimensions: 17.1" x 3.5" x 14.5"
Weight: 16 lbs.
Prices: TacT 2.2 XP base unit: $4490; ADC
module: $549; DAC module: $449
See page 122 for Associated Equipment
98 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
dynamically with every 0.1dB change
in level, giving you the closest possible
approximation of live music in your
Well, kill the copywriter and not
the product. This is not some halfassed effort to force digital versions
of the Fletcher-Munson curves on the
technically naïve. It allows the user to
make individual adjustments to his or her
unit to compensate for the fact that sound
perception is both frequency- and leveldependent and to make the tonal balance
of music seem closer to the natural
balance heard in live music. The downside
(or up-) is that you have to do this by ear.
It is just the reverse of the time-andphase-correction procedure. It requires
personal judgment and listening to get it
right, and for most audiophiles, it won’t
mean coming close to the exaggerated
corrections required at low levels to
match Fletcher-Munson. (Remember,
the original Fletcher-Munson research
occurred at a time when measurement
equipment was primitive and when major
differences in the results by sex and age
did not have to be correlated and applied
to a consumer product.)
I can’t tell you how you will sound
when you finish tailoring to your taste,
how you will choose and alter correction
curves, how you will set up the dynamic
room correction, and whether you will
ever make use of the equalizer. I can tell
you that the more you work at using the
features in the TacT 2.2 XP, the more you
and your music will benefit from the result.
I also can assure you that even if you do
nothing other than run the automaticcorrection feature you will get major
improvements. I have been doing room
and speaker interaction measurements
for more than 30 years with steadily
more sophisticated equipment, and I can
guarantee you from practical experience,
that even in the best rooms with the best
equipment, the end result is always going
to involve glaring problems in response
below 350–400Hz. With most equipment,
there are also audible problems in the
frequency domain at higher frequencies,
especially around 3kHz. In the majority
of rooms, the combination of modern
digital recordings, digital reproduction
technology, and steadily improving
tweeters produces excess energy in the
top two octaves, and most moving-coil
cartridges have a peak or rising response
in the top octave, as well.
TacT is, of course, not the only firm
to succeed at digital room correction.
Meridian and Lexicon have also done so,
although only in dealing with the lower
frequencies. But the TacT 2.2 XP is the
only unit I’ve tested that works at all
frequencies, and in my opinion, it does
a notably better job of this, even in the
bass, than the Meridian and Lexicon. It
provides a much large and more precise
level of correction, and it really does
provide the ability to reproduce accurate
timbre at the listening position and
prevent bass time-smear.
My only reservation about the TacT’s
performance is that I don’t think it is as
transparent in handing analog inputs as the
very best analog preamps. Units like the
Krell Evolution Two and Pass Labs X0.2
have a level of purity that simply pushes
the envelope slightly more in providing
analog detail than the combination of
A/D and D/A converters in the 2.2XP.
But the differences are slight, and analog
preamps cannot do speaker correction
in frequency, time, or phase. It is a rare
recording where you can really hear an
analog preamp’s superiority over any
length of time.
If I have any other serious reservations
about the TacT 2.2 XP, they lie in the
potential difficulty of getting all of the
musical benefits I’ve touched upon earlier.
The TacT manual, to put it bluntly, just
sucks in explaining what to do from a
practical viewpoint, what nominal curves
or settings to start with, and how to
listen for the proper result. You can learn
how to make the necessary adjustments
at a narrow technical level using the
instructions, but you then have to fly
blind in an area where few audiophiles
have experience or know-how.
I’d like to see the unit come with a
full set of initial curves and correction
adjustments that are each shown in
frequency graphs in the manual. I’d like
to see some “how to” instructions that
cover both how to use a PC to set the
TacT up and how to listen. TacT hasn’t
TacT 2.2 XP Dynamic Room
Correction Preamplifier
done this (yet). Accordingly, all I can
suggest you do is sit down, create a set of
different correction curves, start listening
to your favorite music, and simply keep
adjusting for the best illusion of realism.
Usually, you will need a minimum of
bass correction and a wide variety of
upper-octave roll-offs. After a couple
of hours, you’ll have curves for favorite
records, favorite CDs, problem CDs, and
record-noise or tape-hiss problems if
you’re still heavily into vinyl. Then, spend
some time in a concert hall, go back, and
adjust again. It’s amazing what just a little
adjustment can do to create an added
sense of realism, and just how much
getting timbre right really matters.
As for dynamic room correction, I’d
trot out the Fletcher-Munson curves and
use about one-third the correction in
the bass and one-quarter in the treble. I
haven’t come across anyone with anything
approximating normal hearing who
hasn’t found that a “loudness” correction
based on the original results of FletcherMunson grossly over-corrects. If you
keep adjustments moderate, you are
going to hear a more lifelike and realistic
set of dynamics with far more of a sense
of “being there.” I should note that TacT
does provide one potential source of
help for the novice. It is creating a user
database where other audiophiles can
send their target and dynamic correction
curves and suggestions to TacT—and
you can try them out. This feature wasn’t
working when I wrote this review, and it is
not clear how much detail or description
will come with another audiophile’s
ideas. Moreover, if you do download
someone else’s curves, loading a report
file will overwrite the existing content
data, including the target curve, dynamic
target curves, CRO, measurements, and
correction-filter buffers. All in all, TacT
would be much better advised, as noted,
to give you a well-documented set of
starting curves.
To sum up, the 2.2 XP is not the
perfect component in terms of ultimate
analog transparency with analog signal
inputs. You also have to be literate and
moderately patient, have grade-school
computer skills, and need a pair of ears
and some musical taste to use it. But
damn! I don’t know another component
that offers anything close to this level of
performance at the price, does so much
to improve the music, and allows you to
play with the sound in ways that can be
so constructive. The TacT 2.2 XP isn’t
just an outstanding piece of high-end
equipment; it is one hell of a lot of fun!
Highly recommended, and in many
listening rooms, essential. TAS
The Absolute Sound January 2007 99
Vista Loudspeaker
’Logan’s latest electrostatic-hybrid sporting a passive woofer
Dick Olsher
artinLogan’s revamped hybrid
electrostatic line comprises
a trio of models all sharing
the company’s trademarked XStat
electrostatic panel technology. At the top
(not surprisingly) is the Summit, and one
notch below it, the Vantage. The smallest
and most affordable family member
is the Vista, which presumably offers
a sonic glimpse of its bigger brothers,
but uses a passive instead of a powered
bass section. The notion of being able to
control both drivers with a single power
amplifier attracted me initially to the
Vista, on the basis of the dictum “simpler
is better.” But frankly, the Vista rekindled
fond memories of the old Aerius, with
its powered woofer, and I began to
wonder if the Vista’s 8" aluminum cone
actually would improve bass precision
and integration with MartinLogan’s
electrostatic panel.
Bass-reflex loaded with a box tuning
frequency of about 28Hz, the Vista’s
crossover frequency is centered at 450Hz,
and both the low and high-pass slopes
102 January
January 2007
2007 The
The Absolute
Absolute Sound
are said to be 12dB per octave. In my
experience, aluminum-coned woofers
blow plastic types out of the water in
terms of pistonic precision and speed.
Now, I know that the term “quick bass”
is a bit of a technical oxymoron, as a bass
transient’s rise time is actually defined
by its upper frequency content, which is
not reproduced by the woofer in a multiway system. However, in the context of
a musician’s vocabulary, I think the term
makes a lot of sense. It refers to a lack
of undamped enclosure or suspension
resonances, which by their nature exhibit
a long time signature. A decay time in
the hundreds of milliseconds translates
to muddy bass (when bass lines are
obscured by the continued outpouring
of sound energy at one or more resonant
frequencies). In the extreme, this can lead
to one-note bass reproduction, where
pitch definition is obliterated.
It’s hard to overlook the see-through
transparency of the XStat panels—they
have no grille cloth for the sound to pass
through. I can think of several ESLs that
MartinLogan Vista
come fully clothed, but treble attenuation
is a factor with any sock, and the ML
solution offers the closet proximity to
the diaphragm, and hence the sound
source. Some designs even incorporate a
Mylar dust bag to protect the diaphragm,
which is typically sensitive to dust,
smoke, and moisture. ESLs, by virtue of
electrostatic attraction, do accumulate
airborne particulates. In the case of the
XStat, periodic vacuuming is possible
and recommended. The diaphragms are
strong enough to handle it. And since they
charge up extremely quickly (within a few
seconds), they may also be disconnected
during long idle periods to minimize the
collection of dust and other pollutants
such as smoke particles.
The elegant Vista should cause few
ripples as far as the domestic acceptance
factor is concerned, but take note that
as with other dipole radiators, sufficient
breathing space from the rear wall is
required for optimum performance. My
standard recommendation is for a fivefoot spacing from the rear wall, though
Specs &
MartinLogan Ltd.
2101 Delaware Street
Lawrence, Kansas 66046
(785) 749-0133
Type: 2-way electrostatic/cone hybrid
Frequency Response: 43Hz–22kHz ±3dB
Sensitivity: 90dB
Nominal Impedance: 4 ohms (1.2 ohms
minimum at 20kHz)
Recommended amplifier power: 100–
Dimensions: 10.7" x 57" x 16.8"
Weight: 54 lbs.
Price: $3695 (in black and dark cherry; $300
more for natural cherry and maple veneers)
Associated Equipment
Kuzma Reference turntable; Graham
Engineering 2.2 tonearm; Symphonic Line
RG-8 Gold MC phono cartridge; Air
Tight ATE-2 phonostage; Altmann Micro
Machines Attraction DAC; Gamut D3
linestage; Gamut D200, EAR 534T, Prima
Luna KT88 monoblock amplifiers: Acrotec
6N and 8N copper; Kimber Select KS-1030
interconnects: Fadel Art Streamflex Plus,
Acrotec 8N copper speaker cable
104 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
MartinLogan Vista
you might be able to get by with as little
as three feet, especially if the rear wall
is treated with acoustically absorptive
material. The idea is to delay the dipole’s
reflected energy by a time window of
about 10 milliseconds relative to the direct
sound. It’s the critical time period during
which our auditory system does most of
its processing. Since sound travels about
one foot in one millisecond, a five-foot
spacing automatically delays rear-wall
reflections by the requisite time period.
I’m not implying that a dipole’s rear
wave is a liability or that the ideal listening
environment is highly absorptive. No one
should be happy listening in an anechoic
chamber, and much of the magic of
a concert-hall experience results from
being enveloped by ambient sound. But
having both the direct and ambient sound
propagate from the plane of the speakers
is not a good thing, and the absence
of room reflections gives an artificial
window on the sound.
The Vista takes a long time to break in.
So let them simmer for a few days before
attempting any critical listening. The bass
range tightens up significantly during this
process as the cone suspension breaks in.
You might as well plan on bi-wiring since
image focus benefits noticeably. Follow
instructions in the manual and be sure
to remove the shorting strips from the
Driving the Vista
I’ve been on a soapbox for over a decade, preaching the importance of
the amp-speaker interface, and no where is that of greater relevance than
in the case of an electrostatic speaker. An ESL presents a capacitive load,
demanding what has been dubbed “wattless power.” Power is stored but
not dissipated in the speaker, and is eventually kicked back to the amp’s
output stage. Amplifier power dissipation and stability are major concerns,
and I have personally witnessed several amplifiers brought to their knees
by the Sound Lab A-1. Some solid-state power amps insert a coil in parallel
with a resistor at the output stage to protect the amp against instability
induced by capacitive loads. (The Gamut D200 Mk. III amplifier even features
Normal and Direct outputs, where the Normal output is protected by such
a filter network and is recommended for use with ESLs.) In the case of the
Vista, which allows bi-wiring, the electrostatic panel may be connected to
the Normal outputs while the bass is connected to the Direct outputs.
Another issue, which is not necessarily confined to ESLs, has to do with
the interaction of the amplifier’s source impedance with the speaker’s
impedance to induce frequency-response deviations. If the speaker’s
impedance magnitude were flat, then the amp’s source impedance
would not matter at all. But that’s not what happens in the real world.
Speaker impedance magnitudes are typically far from flat, and the
amp’s source impedance acts as a voltage divider, reducing the speaker’s
response proportionately more at those frequencies where the speaker
impedance is lowest. If the source impedance is a few tenths of an ohm
and the speaker impedance does not dip very low, the effect is minimal.
However, for low or no global-feedback designs, source impedance may
approach and even exceed 1 ohm. Such amps may significantly affect the
speaker’s frequency response. Take a look at Fig. 1, which shows the Vista’s
impedance magnitude.
Starting at about 1.3 kHz, the impedance drops from 14 ohms to about
1.7 ohms at 20kHz. The specifications state an impedance minimum
of 1.2 ohms, which is probably more accurate as I did not subtract the
lead cable resistance from
the Vista with the Prima Luna
perform extremely well with
conventional loads, resulted in
a severe loss of treble response.
The best frequency response
was obtained from the 2-ohm
taps, but even here the response
was down 6dB at 20kHz relative
to the response obtained with
the Gamut D200. The EAR 534T
solid-state integrated amplifier
also performed well in this
application, and I actually found
its warmer sound (relative to
that of the Gamut D200) more
2k Hz
suitable to the needs of the
Ax: 19765.3000 Hz Ay: 1.7384 Ohm
CHB Ohm Resolution 1/24 Octave Unsmoothed Delay [ms] 0.000 Dist Rise [dB] 30.00
Vista. DO
106 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
MartinLogan Vista
binding posts before bi-wiring or else you
run the risk of shorting the amplifier.
To my ears, the Vista’s most compelling
attribute was imaging cohesiveness,
which extended across the frequency
spectrum. The soundstage unfolded
almost independently of the speakers,
and with excellent depth and width
perspectives. Many speakers, and large
planar types in particular, create a
soundstage that perceptually resembles
an arch, as sound preferentially pools
near the speakers with reduced center
fill. In contrast, the Vista painted the
soundstage with linear brush strokes that
caused the speakers to virtually disappear.
Soundstage dimensions remained stable
as musical lines ebbed and flowed and
the music’s harmonic tapestry bloomed
across the spectrum. This in itself was
proof positive that the marriage of
dynamic bass and electrostatic midrange
was nicely consummated. Transparency,
or the ability to visualize every recess of
the soundstage, was world-class. Image
outlines were nicely focused, but without
the spatial compactness generated by
ordinary box speakers. Audiophiles who
are accustomed to pinpoint imaging
might be taken aback by the more realistic
presentation of the Vista. It’s about width
and height, and from my perspective
planar drivers create the more lifelike
image size.
The midrange was both suave sounding
and low in distortion, capable of voicing
the core of the music with harmonic
purity and sweetness. There was never
a hint of harshness or brightness that
sometimes is confused for enhanced
resolution. Yet, low-level detail was easily
retrieved. Clarity and delineation of
individual lines in complex passages were
superb. Decay of musical transients was
discernible down to the noise floor of
a recording. There was plenty of speed
in evidence—but always with exquisite
I am so weary of speakers that divide
the frequency spectrum at around 3kHz
and then try to reconstitute a believable
presentation with separate mid and treble
drivers. In fact, it’s fair to say that I am
allergic to most dome tweeters. A dome
tweeter pushed too low or rolled off
108 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
too slowly can sizzle or sound acidic—
the sonic equivalent of a mouthful of
jalapenos. But the Vista speaks in one
voice. It radiates all overtones in-phase
and in a coherent wave launch. There
is plenty of treble extension to above
20kHz, but without a bump in the
presence region or lower treble. With a
gently sloped roll-off above 5kHz, the
sound was always natural in character
rather than hyped up. As a consequence,
recordings that are aggressively equalized
in the lower treble sounded respectable
through the Vista.
Clarity of individual
lines was superb
Given a solid-state amplifier with
a power reserve of at least 100Wpc,
dynamic shadings were quite convincing,
shifting gears from soft to loud with
little compression. And this is an area
where the Vista clearly outperforms
full-range electrostatics. At my altitude
of 6400 feet, between sea level and an
absolute vacuum, Quads and Sound
Labs have always struggled to reproduce
symphonic playback levels. Relieved of
the need to reproduce most of the power
range of the orchestra, which peaks
around 400–500Hz, the XStat can play
louder and cleaner without the dreaded
problem of arcing. And there was also
plenty of microdynamic finesse. The
micro-modulations in pitch, volume,
and rhythmic intensity that code the
music with feelings and emotions were
communicated with little loss of the
music’s drama.
Bass extension was into the 40s, which
is plenty for most types of music. There
was, however, plenty of tight and precise
midbass, though the 8" woofer lacked
the punch and slam of a larger driver.
From a practical standpoint, it is almost
impossible to achieve uniform deep bass
extension in a small domestic listening
environment, and I have never been a fan
of subwoofers partly for that reason. In
my experience, most of the dissatisfaction
with the bass range appears rooted in
either the midbass (60Hz–120Hz) or
the upper bass (120Hz–240Hz). In the
case of the Vista, it was in the octave
between 180Hz and 360Hz, spanning the
upper bass and lower midrange, where I
experienced the most difficulty. I recall
a jazz listening session during which my
attention was drawn to an anemic tenor
sax sound, distinctly lacking in body and
weight. Upon further review, I discovered
that all woodwinds share a first spectral
peak around 260Hz and that a sax has
its most intense spectral peak around
500Hz. In-room frequency-response
measurements were consistent with my
listening impressions and showed a deficit
of about 3dB over this range. (Because
in-room measurements are susceptible to
distortion by room modes, I decided to
perform a near-field measurement of the
woofer, as well, moving the mic to about
1" in front of the woofer’s protective
cover. These measurements suggest
that the woofer is shelved several dB in
the upper bass relative to its midbass
The bottom line is that the Vista’s
tonal balance is lean, maybe acceptably so
for baroque music, but too much so for
symphonic music. For my taste, I would
prefer a few more dB of upper bass/
lower midrange. Note that this is not the
sort of problem that can be resolved by
throwing a subwoofer into the mix. Most
subwoofers augment the range below
100Hz, which is not where the problem
resides. Use of a warm-bodied tube
preamplifier at the head of the signal
chain did help a bit, as did use of the
EAR 534T integrated amplifier, which
projects an authoritative lower midrange.
But at the end of the day, there was no
escaping the fact that the Vista is a lean,
clean, sound machine.
To my mind, the Vista represents the
confluence of technology and materials
in the service of sound. Its electrostatic
virtues do offer a slice of sonic heaven,
and I usually prefer a speaker that
approaches the real thing in several
respects to one that fails to excel in any
particular category. Yet, its lean tonal
balance impacts timbre accuracy and
diminishes the authority of big ensemble
music. On balance, this is a speaker that
merits a careful audition. It is up to you
to decide whether its virtues overcome its
deficits. TAS
Pathos Endorphin
CD Player
The unorthodox approach
Wayne Garcia
t’s a fair bet that any company named
Pathos and any product named
Endorphin did not originate with
conformists. And indeed, this Italian
company’s motto is “the unorthodox
Founded in the northern city of
Vicenza in 1994, Pathos is the audio
love-child of three close friends—Paolo
Andriolo, an industrial designer schooled
in Venice; Gaetano Zanini, a high-end
audio retailer; and Gianni Borinato, a tech
guy who came up with the idea for a new
type of Class A amplifier circuit. As the
rather romantic story goes, Gianni built a
prototype amplifier, and using Gaetano’s
shop as a testing and listening lab, the
three quickly decided that Borinato’s
circuit was so superior to anything else in
the shop that the design should go into
production. The zero-feedback circuit
was dubbed INPOL (Inseguitore a Pompa
Lineare, or Linear Pump Tracker), and
ended up in Pathos’ first production unit,
the unfortunately named but beautifullooking T(win) T(ower) amplifier. That
amplifier is still in production—the latest
version is called the TT Anniversary—
and it helped define two of the company’s
ongoing themes.
One is a horror of rectangular boxes
and the “ugly” look the Pathos guys see
110 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
as rampant in the audio industry. As
U.S. importer Garth Leerer of Musical
Surroundings told me, “Their goal
from the beginning was to make highperformance ‘lifestyle’ products that are
as beautiful (or more so) than B&O’s,
but with the very finest sound.” Andriolo
and friends needn’t worry about their
stuff looking like anyone else’s. Pathos
electronics, like the Classic One MK II
integrated amplifier reviewed by Paul
Seydor in Issue 160, utilize a striking
combination of metals, woods, and
dramatic accents such as red capacitors
and black acrylic, and are handmade in
the company’s three-year-old Vicenza
factory (prior to that, Pathos was leasing
a manufacturing facility).
As for the ziggurat-shaped Endorphin,
which retails for $8000, its aggressively
modern appearance is not only a
departure from Pathos’ more romanticlooking earlier products, but is also
radically different from any other CD
player I’ve seen. A model of uncluttered
design, the Endorphin adheres to the
philosophy of “form follows function.”
Having determined that anything but
a dedicated CD-only transport would
result in a sonic compromise, and being
disinterested in the then-ongoing but
ultimately moot format war between
Specs &
Musical Surroundings
5662 Shattuck Avenue
Oakland, California 94609
(510) 547-5006
Type: Top-loading hybrid CD player
Drive: Philips CDM Pro
Tube complement: Two 6H30
Type of outputs: Stereo XLR and RCA; coax
and optical digital
Dimensions: 19.75" x 4.3" x 15.75"
Weight: 28 lbs.
Price: $8000
Associated Equipment
Avid Acutus Reference turntable, SME
V arm, and Mobile Fidelity cartridge;
Redpoint Model D turntable, Graham
Phantom arm, and Transfiguration Temper
V cartridge; MBL 1521 A CD transport, and
1511 E DAC; Artemis Labs LA-1 linestage
and PL-1 phonostage; MBL 5011preamp
and 9007 monoblock amplifiers; Kharma
Mini Exquisite loudspeakers; Kubala-Sosna
Emotion interconnects, speaker cables,
power cords, and Expression digital cable;
TARA Labs Zero interconnects and digital
cable, Omega speaker cables, The One
power cords, and AD-10B Power Screen;
Finite Elemente Spider equipment racks;
Furutech DeMag; L’Art du Son CD cleaning
Pathos Endorphin
CD Player
SACD and DVD-A, Pathos built the
Endorphin around the popular Philips
CDM Pro transport, which is also used
by the likes of Zanden, Audio Research,
and others. The ziggurat-ish part of the
player is a solid chunk of cast aluminum,
a material also found in the clamp that sits
atop the disc. These provide mechanical
stability to the CD and make a striking
visual contrast to the player’s black top,
which is composed of clear acrylic
layered over black. The clamp itself takes
a little getting used to. The first few times
I tried to seat it I couldn’t get the player to
recognize that it had been fed a disc. But
once I began easing the clamp on, gently
rolling it from the back onto the front
of the disc, I never again caused a glitch.
The (manual) flip-up display window
adds another nifty touch, as do the five
unmarked control buttons, which, once
used, are a snap to remember, so intuitive
is the layout (Play, Pause, Stop, Forward,
Back). Two remotes are supplied—one
regular plastic type chock-full of buttons
and one custom unit with the same five
(still unmarked) function buttons found
on the player.
A peek at a photo of the unit’s inside
layout reveals the Philips transport device
and its stainless steel chassis mounts, as
well as a toroidal transformer that resides
under the transport, an arrangement
which is said to aid the player’s mechanical
grounding. The analog outputs are mirror-
112 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
imaged, and a dense field of filter caps is
spread across the circuit board, reflecting
the Endorphin’s use of 12 independently
regulated power supplies. The 24-bit DAC
is a chipset from Crystal, with low clock
jitter and upsampling to 192kHz. But the
main reason Pathos selected this DAC is
that it is able to feed a balanced output
directly to each of two Russian-sourced
6H30 tubes (one for each channel). This
balanced-out capability has generated
quite a buzz in the DIY world, and leads
to the second Pathos constant: Except
for the company’s battery-powered solidstate phonostage, where tubes are too
noisy to use with such low-level signals,
all Pathos components are zero-feedback,
fully balanced, hybrid designs, using a tube
voltage-stage and solid-state (MOSFET)
current amplification. Leerer also told me
that, “Pathos does not use tubes because
they sweeten the sound, but because they
choose their devices based on what’s best
for each application.”
And that, he says, also goes for the
Endorphin. Although one naturally
imagines a sweeter high from tubes than
from solid-state (especially with a name
like this one), the Endorphin—whether
due to tubes or not—is one very sweetsounding compact disc player. This
was evident from the first disc I placed
in the unit’s top-loading well, Louis
Andriessen’s recent opera, Writing To
Vermeer [Nonesuch]. As (film writer
and director) Peter Greenaway’s libretto
imagines it, while the great Delft painter
is away from his family, he receives letters
from his wife, mother-in-law, and model.
Two sopranos and a mezzo sing the roles
of the three letter writers, and along
with a supporting chorus of women and
children the opera is scored for orchestra
and electronic music by Michel van der
Aa. For lovers of the female voice, this
is about as close to heaven as you’ll get
outside of Strauss’ Four Last Songs or the
Verklärung (Transfiguration) from Wagner’s
Tristan und Isolde. In the opera’s dreamy
sounding prelude, the Endorphin gave
an appropriately airy, slightly soft, almost
impressionistic presentation of this quite
good recording. The chorus was nicely
laid out across a wide soundstage of
impressive depth, and Susan Narucki’s
soprano was truly beautiful, with excellent
projection and the kind of bloom that
helps bring recorded music to threedimensional life.
These qualities were further supported
by one of Harry Pearson’s perennial
faves, Howard Hanson’s “The Composer
Pathos Endorphin
CD Player
Talks,” from Howard Hanson Conducts…
[Mercury], where the Endorphin’s depth,
air, three-dimensionality, and large-scale
dynamic capability made for a thrilling
On terrific live rock recordings, like
the Grateful Dead’s Fillmore West 1969
[GD/WEA], I was also taken by the
Endorphin’s ability to differentiate the
size and ambience of different recording
venues, and its way with the tone and
texture of bass instruments, from Phil
Lesh’s rumbling electric bass to the
complex two-drummer arrangement the
band used over most of its career. But I
also noticed that the overall dynamic range
didn’t seem to be as free as I normally
hear it, and that the “impressionistic”
quality I heard with the Andriessen opera
Moving on to avant-garde guitarist
Nels Cline’s recent take on the music of
Andrew Hill on the CD New Monastery
[Cryptogramophone], the Endorphin
displayed a wide palette of tone colors
with the accompanying cornet, clarinet,
accordion, bass, and percussion.
Instrumental bodies were nicely fleshed
out, with a richly layered if not superweighty bottom end. And while Cline’s
guitar work was never less than involving,
it lacked the whip-like precision and
dynamic bite I’m used to hearing from my
reference MBL 1521 A CD transport and
1511 E DAC, which, granted, are more
than double the Endorphin’s price.
All components have a sonic signature,
and in my system I would characterize
the Endorphin’s as consistently lovely,
rich in color and never dark or thick, with
a beautiful harmonic expression, but not
the last word in detail, transparency, and
dynamic contrast.
For example, on one of my old
favorites, pianist Martha Argerich’s
excellent recording of Ravel’s Gaspard
de la nuit [Deutsche Grammophon], the
Pathos revealed the ravishing beauty and
complexity of Ravel’s tone shading, and
filled the air with overtones that seemed
to linger forever, but the notes did not
emerge from absolute silence, nor was
there the same degree of air around
individual notes or of the dynamic
excitement I’m used to hearing from this
piece. It’s not that the Endorphin wasn’t
good—as the above examples illustrate, it
is quite good. It simply fell short when
compared to the best I know.
The Endorphin is an exciting first
source component from a company that
has managed to build its distribution to
some 30 countries in roughly a decade.
And while its sound may not match my
reference, its strikingly original looks and
beautiful sound will win over plenty of
music lovers. TAS
The Absolute Sound January 2007 113
Bolzano Villetri Campanile
Series Torre 3005 Loudspeaker
and Vecchio Subwoofer
Designed with a 360-degree radiation pattern
Jacob Heilbrunn
ots of products have been designed
to “tune” the room—from bass
traps to diffusers to tuning “forks”
to electronic room-correction devices
that are inserted directly into the audio
chain to attenuate troublesome peaks.
The ultimate step is to redesign the room
itself. I recently went through this process,
and it is not for the faint of heart. (It also
turned me into an expert on, among other
things, an amazing product called “Green
Glue” that acts as a viscoelastic polymer
between two layers of sheetrock. It is far
more effective than soundboard.)
What if there was a loudspeaker
designed to take the room into account,
or, to put it more precisely, to render
it superfluous? The Italian company
Bolzano Villetri has designed a line
of omnidirectional loudspeakers that
attempts to accomplish this feat. The
$10,500 Campanile Torre 3005 uses
technology to produce a 360-degree
radiation pattern. Bolzano calls it a
symmetric deformation of air that is
supposed to result in increased field
uniformity—in plain English, a bigger
sweet spot than that provided by most
other loudspeakers, one that permits you
114 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Bolzano Villetri Campanile
Series Torre 3005 Loudspeaker
and Vecchio Subwoofer
to sit wherever you please without losing
any musical information—at least in
theory. To achieve this goal, two vertically
opposed mid/bass drivers—one mounted
at the base of a large enclosure at the top
of the speaker, facing down, and the other
mounted at the top of a large enclosure
at the base of the speaker, facing up—fire
into the open space between them. Two
Morell tweeters are also suspended in
this open space between the mid/bass
drivers. Together the two opposed mid/
bass drivers and the two tweeters are
said to produce a 360º wavelaunch. The
crossover frequency between mid/bass
and tweeter is a pretty high 4.5kHz, which
should, again in theory, make it hard to
hear the transition between midrange and
treble. Deep bass frequencies are handled
Specs &
HBI Distributions Ltd.
40 Rector Street
Suite 1502
New York, New York 10006
(201) 563-3549
Campanile Torre 3005
Type: Two-way floorstanding vented-box
system with “Roundstream” radiation
Driver complement: Two 8" polypropylene
mid/bass drivers; two 1.1"soft-dome
Frequency response: 32Hz–20kHz
Sensitivity: 92dB
Impedance: 4 ohms
Dimensions: 16.3" x 63.1" x 16.3"
Weight: 120 lbs.
Price: $15,000 with powered subwoofer
Vecchio Subwoofer
Drive Unit: 12" polypropylene woofer
Frequency response: 26–140Hz
Dimensions: 19.7"x 19.7" x 16.9"
Weight: 99 lbs.
Associated Equipment
VIP HR-X turntable with JMW 12.6
tonearm; Dynavector XV1-S and Lyra
Titan mono cartridges; EMM Labs DCC2
DAC/preamplifier and CDSD transport;
Messenger preamplifier and phonostage;
VTL 750 and Classé Omega monoblock
amplifiers; Magnepan 20.1 loudspeaker
with Mye stands; Jena Labs Symphony and
Valkyre interconnects and speaker cable;
Shunyata Hydra-8 line conditioner
116 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
by the $4500, 500-watt, powered Vecchio
subwoofer, which can be run with its own
internal crossover or an external active
crossover. (I took the latter approach
with a Marchand crossover.)
But forget about the technology and
even the music for a second. The blunt
fact is that the first thing anyone notices
about these loudspeakers is their looks,
which are stunning. The workmanship
is unsurpassed. There are no corners on
these loudspeakers. To improve the sound,
the beautiful burled wood enclosure is
rounded on the sides. It’s also a nice fillip
that the speakers don’t devour much floor
space; the design’s all vertical and built to
resemble an Italian bell tower, and, boy,
does it ever.
Proper setup is critical. There are
designated left and right speakers, the
ports of which must face each other on
the inside. Positioning them this way is
absolutely essential to hearing the Torres
at their best. And their best is very good,
indeed. Within their limits, they offer a
lovely, shimmering, expansive sound.
As a longtime fan of planar speakers, I
figured I would have a handle on how the
Torre speakers would sound when I fired
them up. Wrong. While they did produce
the large soundfield I’d anticipated, they
offered a detailed and precise sound that
I hadn’t. Most planars and electrostats
tend to produce a somewhat diffuse
image field, relying on the sheer scale and
majesty of the presentation to overcome
any lingering objections from fans of
detail and more detail. Box speakers
often sound shutdown or overly confined
by comparison, though the Kharma
and Aerial loudspeakers that I’ve heard
recently go a long way toward overcoming
this objection. The Torre loudspeakers
split the difference. They don’t throw
as vast or open a soundstage as the
Magnepan 20.1s, which seem to energize
the air in the room itself even when
there’s a silent moment in the music, but
the Torres have more shimmer and sheen
on the notes, partly because of what I
perceive as greater accuracy. Listening to
Rudolf Serkin’s recording of the Mozart
Piano Concerto No. 27 [Deutsche
Grammophon], I was bowled over by the
gossamer-like sound of the violin section.
Serkin, whom I saw perform once at
Oberlin College, was about as old school
as they come: He was relentlessly precise,
but always in the service of musical
beauty and truth. When he performed at
Oberlin, I’ve never forgotten how, in the
middle of the concert, he was so agitated
Bolzano Villetri Campanile
Series Torre 3005 Loudspeaker
and Vecchio Subwoofer
by the orchestra slowing down the tempo
that he literally stamped his feet to get it
moving again, while he was playing. The
Torre loudspeakers vividly conveyed his
taut and graceful sound with the piano
firmly anchored in the soundstage.
Listening to Missy Elliott’s Under
Construction CD [Warner], I was intrigued
to hear her introduction. Once again,
the Magnepans offer a much bigger
soundstage, but the Torres gave her voice
more focus and revealed the walls of the
studio in which she was speaking more
clearly than I had ever heard before.
Big speakers tend to offer larger-thanlife instruments. The Torres didn’t. Did
it really not matter where I sat while
listening to the Torres? Well, I wouldn’t
go that far. That’s manufacturer’s hype,
which you always have to discount. Still,
the speakers unquestionably threw out a
larger sweet spot than many loudspeakers
I’ve heard.
When it came to a black background
and dynamics, the Torres also split the
difference. To call their background jetblack would be an exaggeration, but the
noise-floor of these speakers was very
low. Notes didn’t so much emerge from a
black space as hover in the air. The Torres
were also not as explosively dynamic as
box speakers, but had more drive than
planars or electrostats. Part of this was
probably due to the relatively small size
(and speed) of the drivers, but I’d bet that
it was also a result of the fact that they
don’t fire directly at the listener.
The Torres are not as well suited for
massive orchestral works like Mahler’s
Symphony No. 5 as some other speakers.
Dynamically, they don’t seem to expand
endlessly like the Magnepans, which can
almost literally have you jumping out
of your seat with bass drum whacks.
In playing Missy Elliott, I cut back the
volume for fear that the rap music might
blow out the drivers. Maybe part of this
was that I was using the Torres in a large
room. I was also, it must be said, delivering
a ton of current into the speakers via
the Classé Omega monoblocks, which,
according to Classé, will drive almost a
dead short. Most owners of the Torres
will likely not be using such powerful
amplifiers, and they’re not necessary
118 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
because the speaker is fairly sensitive.
The fact that the powered subwoofer is
handling low frequencies helps.
The Vecchio sub is downward-firing,
which tends to allow a more even
distribution of sound through the room.
Using the sub is not an option with these
loudspeakers. In my view, it is essential.
Nevertheless, though the Vecchio is
fairly powerful and tight in the bass, it is
somewhat lean in the midbass compared
to a traditional enclosed speaker. If you’re
a headbanger or a bass freak, the Torres
are not for you. Rather, I was immediately
and most favorably impressed by the
refinement of the Torres. These speakers
don’t wallop you over the head; they
are, as one would expect from an Italian
production, seductive.
The drivers blend very well together,
though some care must be taken
to integrate the subwoofer. The
discontinuities that sometimes rear their
ugly heads with multi-driver speakers were
banished by the Torres. The treble was
never strident or shrill, and the midrange
possessed a beautiful, translucent quality.
The sound was about as good as it gets
when it comes to a seamless presentation.
This came home to me most clearly on
two recordings of chamber works—the
Leopold String Trio’s recording of
Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor
[Hyperion] and members of the Chicago
Symphony playing Mozart’s Quintet
on Erato. On the former work, the
piano isn’t just accompanying the other
instruments; it’s also the authoritative
driving force from the very first chord.
The Torre reproduced it with real heft and
weight. On the latter, Dale Clevenger’s
French horn—one of the most glorious
sounds ever produced—came across
burnished and full. The notes were
given their full, lingering value as they
trailed off, rather than sounding smeared
or abruptly terminated. The Torres
excelled at capturing the nuances of each
note, its timbre and decay, in a manner
that was deeply moving. The palette of
tonal colors it rendered would be hard
to surpass. Were they sumptuous? No.
Elegant? Absolutely.
Picking loudspeakers is about as
personal a choice as an audiophile can
make. They probably contribute more
to the sound than any other component.
The Torres are not for everyone—but
then what loudspeakers are? My own
suspicion is that the top-of-the-line,
larger and, of course, more expensive
5000 series Cita Ideale, which is only
made by custom order, would have mated
to my room even better than the Torres.
If you have a really big room like mine,
the Torres might be a question mark. But
as it was, I was most impressed by their
sophistication and ease of presentation.
I defy anyone not to be drawn into the
music the instant they hear the smooth
and luminous sound of the Torres. For
anyone with a medium-sized room and a
hankering for the planar sound without
the hassles of requiring a lot of amplifier
power, the Campanile Torre 3005 is a
must-hear. TAS
Gershman Acoustics
Black Swan Loudspeaker
Anthony H. Cordesman
A $30,000 pair of speakers
has to be more than good.
It has to be exceptional. The Gershman
Black Swans meet this standard, not only
to my ears but also to those of some
other very demanding critics. As an audio
reviewer, you can’t raise three children
to adulthood without raising three highend cynics. I’ve ended up with three kids
who have no concern for hype and no
tolerance for “subtle sonic differences”
that don’t actually enhance the musical
What is really striking about the
Gershman Black Swans, therefore, is that
they proved to be as much of a “music
magnet” for my three cynics as they were
for me. Each quickly ended up praising
the Blacks Swans, and each went back to
listen to his or her own music at length—
perhaps the finest compliment to any
speaker that I can think of.
I found myself as caught up in the
Black Swan as they did, and I have biases
of my own. Even in the best of times,
I don’t get involved in a speaker all that
easily. When I listen to recorded music, I
want a speaker that gets as close to what
I hear from live music as possible, and
with a wide range of recordings, not just
those that meet high-end standards for
recording and production values. I focus
almost exclusively on acoustic music that
could actually fit in a large home—not
a concert hall. I prefer my symphonies
and operas live; sonic spectaculars and
specialist audio recordings are at most
about five percent of my listening, and
I almost never listen to music involving
120 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Getting to the
core of the music
The Cutting Edge
electronic instruments. I’m not a fan of socalled audiophile recordings—too much
upper-octave energy, musical detail you’ll
never hear live, imaging that is too threedimensional to be realistic, and boring or
overblown performances of third-rate
music. I am not an “information” junky—
I want my music to have the warmth it
has in a live performance, with natural
detail, not a distorted mess designed to
show off the recording.
I say all of this because the Black
Swan truly is an exceptional path to
enjoying music, not a glorified toy for
detail freaks. It gets the best out of all
recordings, rather than being tuned to
the “high-end” ear. One key indication
is its ability to accurately reproduce
Bach, Vivaldi, and Teleman played with
period instruments. Far too many highend speakers are voiced too brightly for
the period strings, brass, and woodwinds.
Bach becomes tiring rather than inventive
and complex. Listening fatigue sets in
with Baroque music, often compounded
by the impact of close-miking and over-
Specs &
Gersham Acoustics
1054 Centre Street, Suite 638
Thornhill, Ontario
L4J 8E5 Canada
(905) 862-2882
Type: Three-way, floorstanding loudspeaker
Driver complement: 1" tweeter, 6"
midrange, 12" woofer
Frequency response: 18Hz–24kHz
Sensitivity: 89dB
Nominal impedance: 6 ohms
Dimensions: 21.5" x 48" x 20.5"
Weight: 180 lbs.
Price: $30,000
Associated Equipment
VPI TNT HX-X turntable and HWJr 12.5
tonearm; Sumiko Celebration and Koetsu
Onyx Cartridges; Krell SACD/CD player; PS
Audio Lambda CD transport (modified);
Tact 2.2X digital preamp-room correctionequalizer-D/A converter; Pass Xono
phonostage; Pass X0.2 linestage; Pass
X600A power amplifiers; TAD Model
1 and Thiel 7.2 loudspeakers; Kimber
Select, Transparent Audio Reference XL,
and Wireworld Super Eclipse and Eclipse
interconnects and digital cables
122 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
bright recordings. Instrumental details
and differences are disguised, particularly
in the midrange and lower midrange.
Several hundred years of music becomes
analytical, rather than impassioned.
In contrast, the Black Swans rivaled
the realism of my far more expensive
TAD-1s. They brought these kinds of
classical recordings convincingly to life.
brass, and piano were
not only “right” in terms
of timbre, but detail
was exceptional where
the recording actually
provided it, and not in
terms of exaggerated
treble energy. Imaging
was as natural as the recordings permitted,
without being etched or exaggeratedly
wide. Depth is as important as width, and
the far-too-wide soundstage that many
modern audiophiles seem to want from
every recording was only audible when it
was actually on the recording.
If you’re in a jazz mode, the Black Swans
are equally excellent. To date myself in
jazz as firmly as I have in classical music,
I still relax to groups like the Modern
Jazz Quartet, though the Black Swans
do equally well with the best
modern recordings, too. Pick a
good AIX or Chesky jazz disc,
or any other state-of-the-art
recording you like, and the
Black Swans will show them
off to their best without
losing the soul of the music.
I could not fault them on
any type of voice, and I was
particularly impressed with
their performance in what I
call the “Judy Collins test.”
Many of her recordings
are close-miked, and
have exceptionally loud
aspirants. After a few
tracks, many speakers
began to sound hard and
sometimes annoying.
This is almost always
a warning that the
same speaker will
have trouble with
demanding soprano
Gershman Acoustics Black Swan Loudspeaker
voice and demanding female jazz singers,
as well as pushy female pop singers who
tend to swallow their microphones. The
Black Swans get voices right.
Much of this superior performance is
clearly due to the unique design of the
Black Swan, which also helps explain
their cost. Virtually all modern speaker
designers emphasize the enclosure and
controlling its vibrations. Eli Gershman,
architect of the Black
Swan, has taken these
efforts to a new level.
The Black Swans
are constructed as
two entirely separate
enclosures, with one
placed above the other
in such a manner that the treble and
midrange enclosure rests just above the
bass enclosure beneath it without actually
touching it. The woofer enclosure is a
remarkably solid unit placed on metal
cones. An A-shaped midrange and
treble enclosure is suspended above
and straddles the woofer cabinet. Both
cabinets are made with two 2"-thick layers
of MDF to further reduce resonances.
An external silver connecting cable joins
the top enclosure to the bass unit.
The use of two separate
enclosures is intended
to do more than deal
with the problem of
enclosure vibrations and
the attendant colorations
added to the sound of
the midrange and treble;
the sub enclosure can be
moved by a couple of
inches to fine-tune time
alignment with the midand
drivers. While the use
of two enclosures
may sound awkward,
it makes the speaker
easier to ship and set
up (not a minor issue
with enclosures this
heavy), and once
setup is complete
the speaker appears
to be a single
cabinet. The end
Not a
glorified toy
for detail
The Cutting Edge
result is a speaker styled in a way that is
both distinctive and relatively compact.
Each loudspeaker is finished on all sides
in a high-gloss piano lacquer finish. (The
standard finish is black, but the Swans
can be ordered in any color.)
I should also make it clear that this is
not simply a speaker for those who love
chamber music or acoustic jazz. I did
listen to all of the usual horrible sonic
spectaculars, “power” symphonic music,
and full-blown (or blowhard) Wagner.
The dynamics rank with the best, and
I was a little stunned by the quality
of bass performance. First, the Black
Swans were easier to set up and place
than virtually any speaker I’ve reviewed
in several years. I can’t promise you how
transferable my experience is, but their
deep bass performance locked in almost
immediately. I was also able to set up the
Black Swans for best imaging as well as
treble and midrange performance with
minimal trade-offs to bass response.
The low bass was exceptionally deep,
even with a friend’s test recordings of
the deepest organ music. Overall the
bass was exceptionally flat and revealed
the differences between the low, mid,
and upper bass with no audible peaks or
suck outs, and an exceptionally seamless
transition to the midrange. Bass viol,
percussion, and grand piano were truly
musical and balanced, and my children
assured me this was equally true of bass
guitar and synthesizer.
Though the Black Swans can
vibrate your furniture before they have
problems with bass dynamics, I don’t
want to exaggerate this aspect of their
performance. They are not designed
to blast you out of the room with bass
energy. However, no sane listener trying
to avoid hearing loss is going to push the
bass or overall dynamic envelope this far.
If you want any listening level you can
hear in live music, and you want to grow
old with functioning ears, the Black Swan
meets every practical test.
Quite frankly, this quality of bass
performance surprised me, as did the
quality of midrange and treble detail
and air. Putting cabinet designs aside,
I’ve always had a bias towards exotic
drivers. My TAD-1s use an integrated
Beryllium midrange and tweeter driver,
124 January
January 2007
2007 The
The Absolute
Absolute Sound
Gershman Acoustics Black Swan Loudspeaker
and I’ve had several past love affairs with
ribbons and electrostatics. The Black
Swans are far more conventional. The top
enclosure holds a 1" dome tweeter and a
6" midrange driver made by Scanspeak.
The bass enclosure accommodates a
single 12" Peerless woofer. These are
“conventional” drivers, but they don’t
sound conventional. Perhaps part of the
reason is that the crossover is superbly
made. It uses matched, tight-tolerance
capacitors and polypropylene caps wired
point-to-point with silver cable throughout.
Crossover occurs at 150Hz and 2kHz with
third- and second-order slopes.
As for system compatibility, the Black
Swans were relatively cable-indifferent,
although in this case I got the most
musically natural results with Kimber
Kable Select speaker cable. The Black
Swans are rated at a system sensitivity
of 89dB with a nominal impedance
of 6 ohms. This is not particularly low
sensitivity, and the Black Swans are not
particularly demanding. They will work
with vacuum-tube amplifiers, but they
really come alive with a high-powered
transistor amp with good current
capability and damping.
I don’t regard these caveats as a
limitation. No full-range speaker I know
of, other than a horn, can really do its
best in the deep bass without a lot of
power and damping. The Swans also
offer the plus that they do not need any
artificial warmth from the amplifier. You
may be surprised to hear how good your
transistor amp really is with the Black
Swans. Their musically natural timbre and
excellent upper-bass and lower-midrange
performance show up the shortfalls of
most competing designs.
All in all, the Black Swans are one of
those few speakers really worth a long
trip to audition and whose high price is
matched by real-world musical sound
quality. TAS
RH and JV’s impressions of the Gershman
Black Swan at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest
can be found on AVguide.com (http://www.
HP’s Workshop
Hansen Audio’s The KING V.2
Loudspeaker System
Interview by HP • Photography by Wes Bender
This is going to be a difficult review for me to write.
It isn’t because I find serious flaws with Lars Hansen’s The KING speaker system;
no, it’s just the opposite—the speaker is so coherent that it is a thing unto itself.
It is a five-driver three-way design, said to extend from the low 20s in Hertz, up to and past
the point of good hearing. Its sensitivity is rated at 89dB (referred to the usual specs) and
all of its drivers, save the mystery tweeter, are designed, formulated, and manufactured inhouse, at Hansen’s Ontario facility. As you may see, if you stop now and read my interview
with Hansen, the aim here was to reduce conventional moving-coil speaker/enclosure
colorations to an unprecedented degree, thus allowing more of the sense of music, its
timbre, to shine through.
126 January
TAS Cover Story
Sound January
2007 127
HP’s Workshop
he $55,000 KING is intended
to be used in a larger room than
I installed it in, since I didn’t
wish to surrender my reference
speakers in Room 3, at least not
for the moment. And, anyway, speakers
as large as Infinity’s Reference Standard,
the IRS, had coupled more than nicely
(and to their designer’s approval) in Music
Room 2, where even the largest Maggies
of Audio Research vintage found a happy
It took considerable care in placement
to couple the system to the
room in a way that maximized its
strengths. We were able to achieve
a significantly wide soundstage,
with a considerable illusion of
soundfield depth, as well as robust
response flat down to at least
32Hz. When I say robust response,
I mean highly articulated definition
of instruments located in the
bottom octave (which I define as
20 to 40Hz). And thanks to its
twin 289mm woofers, The KING
can move air, which lends a sense
of bigness when a symphony
orchestra plumbs the depths. We
could have squeezed out a few
more cycles, I suppose, if we had
positioned the speaker a bit farther
back in the room, where a resonance
would have lifted the bass, but also
introduced unacceptable boom
in the midbass, at about 60Hz
or so. As it was, the position we
found best was close to what I call
the Pearson Rule of Thirds (my
rediscovery—folks knew about
this in the Thirties), i.e., positioned
a third of the way into the room,
with each speaker a third of the
way from the sidewalls.
Once we wound our way through the
set-up blues, we began more than a few
rounds of listening, using some of our
most cherished compact discs. (We did not
use analog in this round of evaluations,
which, I might add, is not our last.) We
relied quite heavily on the Mercury
recording The Composer and his Orchestra,
now available from Philips on a fourCD set of Howard Hanson’s music—
and specifically the first 15 minutes or
so, in which we get a tour of orchestral
instruments, placed on the stage as they
128 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
might be in the hall, with their dynamics
faithfully rendered. Then, on to the
wondrous JVC XRCD transfer of Zubin
Mehta’s recording of Holst’s The Planets,
with heavy emphasis on “Mercury” for
delicacy of string tone and a fortissimo
midway through that can challenge the
best electronics, “Saturn” for its ethereal
woodwinds, high bells and chimes, and
low organ pedal notes, and “Uranus”
for a sonic blast, including a sensational
upward glissando by the organ that could
curl your toes. Also in heavy rotation was
the RCA/BMG transfer of Leinsdorf ’s
reading of Mahler’s Third (the first
movement), a recording that sounds far
superior to the two-disc Dynagroove LP
version (is that a misspelling for “grove,”
the wooden sound?). Here you’ll find
subtle and eerie pianissimos, punctuated
with rear-stage taps on the big bass drum,
and climatic fortissimos like thunder over
the mountains.
There were others, as well, including
the two Carmina Burana cuts from the
Telarc/SACD sampler I produced. In
this case, I not only know the sound of
Atlanta’s Woodruff Hall but more than
a few members of its chorus, so I have a
firm reference (and the recording, even in
the two-channel layer, is just gorgeous).
Just a brief interruption to let you
know what was doing what. We found the
resolution of the system so high that we
decided to use the Lab 47/Pi tracer CD
playback unit, the 04 Burmester linestage,
and an all-Nordost cable, interconnect,
and power-distribution system.
The first thing that struck me about
these speakers was their coherency,
which, in this case, made the system
sound as if it were a singularity—
that is, one thing. Note, I am not
saying it is perfect in this regard,
nor does it have the seamlessness
of, say, a full-range electrostatic,
but it is, for a cone/dome hybrid
design, an accomplishment. It is
also frighteningly revealing.
We found ourselves listening,
at the outset, to the amplifiers
we had on hand. Meaning: We
could identify the colorations and
character of each amplifier, some
of them more congruent with the
gestalt of The KING, even as minor
shortcomings stood unmistakably
revealed. The Conrad-Johnson
Premier 350 suffered most by
comparison. Now, I really do
have to say, without apology, that
taken by itself, and at its (relatively)
modest price of just over seven
grand, the 350 is, like the Hansen,
of one piece. It is almost perfectly
coherent throughout its range, and
with a distinctive gestalt. It suffers,
but not a lot, at the frequency
extremes, and I suspect its Passion
would not be as obvious with a
speaker less revealing than this one (rated,
by the way, at 6 ohms impedance). The
speaker just adored the Burmester 911
Mk III, whose tonal neutrality, airiness
at both frequency extremes, and retrieval
of ambience (with almost no audible
grain) were greatly to The KING’s liking.
It might sound as if I am suggesting an
overly threadbare quality. But, no, no. The
Burmester is, perhaps, a bit to the yang
side (as opposed to the slightly colored
yin of the C-J), but that “yang” may
simply be a function of its high degree
HP’s Workshop
of transparency. You can hear through all
the way to the backwall and, seemingly,
beyond. (I have not yet divined what went
wrong in our experiments with the ASR
hybrid amplifier, which worked well when
the Burmester 04 was in the system as a
linestage, but not in its supposedly optimal
setup sans any linestage at all.) However,
to my great surprise, what sounded, given
the unreality of all reproduced sound
from speaker systems, most “alive,”
and most nearly “real,” and, particularly
throughout the vital mid-frequencies was
a new (at least to us) 60-watt single-endedtriode design from Antique Sound Labs,
makers of the monoblock Hurricanes I
so admire. It’s called the Cadenza DT and
from the first playback, I knew I was in
the presence of something special.
The importer, also a Canadian,
Tosh Goka, told a disbelieving
me that the Cadenzas would have
no problem driving The KINGs,
despite the seeming mismatch in
power versus sensitivity. And, as
they say at revivalists meeting, lo
and behold, we couldn’t get it to
clip while driving The KINGs
(we used the amplifier’s four-ohm
tap), even though I suspect that
combo would not fare so well in
the kind of baronial music room
designer Hansen seems to have
had in mind. I should add that
Hansen, who heard both this
and the Burmester electronics at
two separate sessions, was seemingly
astonished by the Cadenzas.
With the Cadenzas and the Hanson
disc, what we could divine before now
stood nakedly revealed—that Hanson
was taped in an empty hall—and we could
tell that because of the way the amplifiers
captured each and every ambient cue.
This almost took my (metaphysical)
breath away because I felt as if I knew
this recording from the inside out, and yet
there were still levels of information to
be revealed. The massed string sound, so
sour and threadbare on top, was no longer
sour, but rather with the sweetness of a
small string ensemble, and the brass…
well, another world. And there was a
pinpoint degree of focus throughout the
orchestral spectrum that I thought rivaled
and even surpassed the best of the solidstate stuff. More than that, suddenly
130 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
the Hansens were exhibiting a kind of
continuousness they had not before. (I
said the speakers were coherent, but I
did not say they sounded “continuous,”
which they had not up until the Cadenzas
entered the room.) So what is the
difference here? I thought, at first, to write
that the Cadenzas had a slight liquidity
throughout their range. And, mind you,
the real thing, coming at you through the
air, has that same sort of liquidity, that is,
an uninterrupted flow of waves—sound
waves. There must be, I have begun to
think, a seemingly inaudible, because
of the short duration of its time span,
interruption in the flow of information,
even from the best solid-state gear, to wit,
the Burmesters, that is just not there on a
brilliantly designed tubed unit. Normally,
I would have shrugged off an SET amp
as having too much “liquidity,” a most
definite coloration which may well arise
from excessive second-order harmonics
or transformer colorations or even circuit
I would have expected these SET
units to show up short at the frequency
extremes, but they did not. The midbass
strings (of, say, the Boston) had a
delectable and true-to-life richness, and
the top octave was genuinely delicate
and open in the way it reproduced both
timbre and harmonic overtones. (The
Cadenzas were like a higher-power sonic
twin to the Wyetech Sapphire I so admire,
and can find so wanting in driving most
of the speaker systems chez Sea Cliff.)
And so, with the seemingly unlikely
Cadenzas, I found another dimension to
the performance of this speaker. I confess
that more work is to be done here. I must
listen to the system with vinyl and with a
range of linestages, not to mention some
of the latest designs in amplifiers and
The resolution herein is of such an
order that differences I would have
found difficult to detect (and thus
requiring longer and more arduous
listening sessions) just aren’t anymore.
The KING’s level of coloration is just
that much lower than the elements in the
system that precede it.
What I can tell you that I think could
be done to make the speakers even better
is this: I still think the dome tweeter
sounds a bit discontinuous with the
speakers below it in the enclosure.
True, it allows you to hear “into”
the uppermost frequencies with a
clarity and definition beyond that
of any domes I have heard, but it
does not approach the diamond
tweeter I heard in the Marten
Coltranes, nor does it have some
of the capabilities of the Heil
configuration used in the Burmester
B-100s. And, true, it sounds more
coherent than un- with the other
drivers, but as “a string” (to quote
Hansen from the interview) it is
not perfectly tuned. And I am
wondering about the response in
the 40 to 80Hz midbass zone, which
does not sound quite as quick and
lively as the speaker does elsewhere in its
range. And this may be a function of my
decision about room placement, because
I opted for best soundstage and dynamic
contrast response. We shall see.
As Joe E. Brown says in his famous
last line in Some Like It Hot, “nobody’s
perfect,” and nothing else is either—not
even perfect sound forever. But, as I see it
from here, The KINGs come closer than
almost all of their competition, excluding,
just maybe or maybe not, those big, big
expensive setups that cost more than a
house in the North Carolina mountains.
(I have opted not, in this review, to crosscompare the other speakers upon which
I have recently reported.) The KINGs
certainly set a new standard for vanishingly
low coloration from a moving-coil design
of my experience and, as such, let us who
love the music get closer to the truth.
Lars Hansen interview
HP’s Workshop
Harry Pearson: What did you want to
achieve in the design of this speaker?
Lars Hansen: As the industry has
grown, and up until about two decades
ago, it’s become very easy to reproduce
frequency response and all the other
things you can measure. That’s not hard
any more; we technically can do that,
but we still can’t recreate the magic of
music. A simple thing like the timbre of
an instrument still is not done correctly.
I have to reproduce what the instrument
sounds like in its totality—not how it
measures. You can’t measure that part,
which means you have to know what
that instrument sounds like to be able
to recreate it. I think that’s a fault in the
industry right now: We don’t know what
instruments actually sound like, what live
music sounds like any more. A lot of
people still go to concerts, but they’re not
the technical people who can bring it to
life via hi-fi.
HP: So how does one go about capturing
timbre? Are there technical clues here?
LH: We first start with the cabinet, the
enclosure. The enclosure is one of those
things that is never silent. Even when it’s
absolutely inert, it’s still not silent, because
it’s still interfering.
HP: How?
LH: The easiest way to talk about it is
what’s happening in the high frequencies.
If you mount a tweeter on a baffle and
the baffle is inert, the baffle won’t sing
[resonate]. That’s great; that’s a big plus.
That’s hard to do. But we still haven’t
gotten the baffle out of the way of the
tweeter. It’ll still interfere because the
sound will come off that tweeter, get
onto that baffle, and the baffle will radiate
what’s on it. It won’t resonate, but it will
still radiate.
HP: If it radiates, what do you hear?
LH: I think the easiest way to say it in a
brief sentence is: The silence between the
notes isn’t silent.
HP: So the decay has to be wrong, because of
the baffle?
HP and Lars Hansen on the porch at Sea Cliff
LH: There is that—and that’s one aspect
that people aren’t taking into consideration with their enclosures, particularly in
high frequencies. So, when The KING
was designed, the cabinet was designed
around the tweeter.
that’s needed to get it to interface with the
other layers to make the cabinet as inert
as it should be…. In the Version 2, what
we’ve done is added a fourth layer, and it
is an acoustical damping material applied
to the internal part of the enclosure.
HP: The KING was designed to make sure the
HP: You have separate cabinets for the drivers
in The KING?
LH: —performed as well as a tweeter
could perform. Exactly. The entire cabinet
was designed around the tweeter, because
the way the cabinet interfaces with those
short high-frequency waveforms is the
most critical part of getting the cabinet
to disappear once you’ve made inert.
LH: Yeah, the two lower-woofer
subwoofers are totally isolated from the
upper-mid woofers.
HP: There are three layers in your cabinet
design. And in the one I’m reviewing, Version
2, there is a fourth layer with an almost goo-like
substance on the innermost layer.
LH: Yes. The cabinet, which is what we
call Hansen Composite Matrix Material,
comprises three layers. Each layer has
up to six components in it, and each of
those layers is hand-applied onto a mold.
Not sprayed, not poured. Hand-applied.
So each layer is getting the exact thickness
HP: Why did you use a D’Appolito
configuration for the upper section?
LH: There are two ways of mounting
moving-coil devices that work. One is
as a point source, where you get the
tweeter and the one mid as close together
as possible. The other is to do an MTM
design, which we’ve done in The KING:
(M)idrange, (T)weeter, (M)idrange. The
advantage of the latter is that you have
twice the power-handling capacity of
those mid units without sacrificing any
imaging or any soundstage presentation.
The one thing you do sacrifice by moving
from a point source to MTM is that you
The Absolute Sound January 2007 133
Lars Hansen interview
HP’s Workshop
can’t listen as nearfield as you can with a
point source.
HP: Because you hear the separate drivers?
LH: Yes.
HP: What, then, is an ideal listening distance?
LH: The best should be at eight feet
plus, but they can work fine down to
six, though not much closer or you
come too physically close to a radiation
pattern that’s large—about eighteen
inches end-to-end—and the drivers don’t
integrate well. My smaller speakers—I
say smaller, though they’re still quite
large—all use point source. Point source
in a smaller room is maybe even the ideal
way to go, but in large rooms, and
The KING will operate into a room that
is forty by sixty, MTM will better fill that
HP: So what about the tweeter itself?
LH: Hansen Audio manufactures its own
drivers except for the tweeter. We brought
in what I consider the state-of-the-art
tweeters from around the world, and one
of the ones we brought in is the one we
ended up using. To my astonishment, I
could not improve upon it. I couldn’t do
what it does, and what it does exceptionally
well—better than any tweeter I’ve heard,
particularly when you take into account
the enclosure’s designed around it—is
reproduce the silence between the notes.
It stops when it should stop.
HP: You mean it doesn’t ring?
LH: Ringing is a gross example of not
stopping. Like anything in motion: You
can’t stop it immediately. This particular
tweeter is designed so it stops faster
than anything I’ve ever heard. Period. And
that’s one of the magicks surrounding this
tweeter. But you have to apply it correctly.
It’s a system. Nothing stands alone.
You can put violin strings on numerous
violin bodies, and it’s not going to tell you
the quality of the violin by knowing the
strings. And the tweeter’s really just the
HP: (laughs) So the tweeter’s just a string.
LH: One of the reasons I say that, Harry,
is that when you use a tweeter that is
available to other people, there are many
people in this industry who think that they
can duplicate something just by taking
that one component and using it, when
that’s just a small part of engineering the
final product.
course, as everybody should know by
now, is used to allow the voice coil in the
tweeter to dissipate heat so it will not blow
up. That’s what ferrofluid does, and it’s a
wonderful way of getting more power
handling into a tweeter. The downside
is that the voice coil is not free to move
100% because there’s a fluid around it!
HP: Did the OEM manufacturer make any
modifications to the tweeter for you? [Hansen
did not wish to reveal that name of the tweeter’s
manufacturer and I have respected that wish.]
HP: So it slows it down?
LH: No.
HP: How do you terminate the tweeter?
LH: It’s totally enclosed by the
manufacturer. But let’s back up, I think,
because one of the really important
things about the tweeter is that there’s
no ferrofluid being used. Ferrofluid, of
LH: It slows it down. The other thing
this manufacturer has designed with
this tweeter is the way the dome is free
to move within the area behind it. Also,
they’re using a configuration of magnets
that was not possible a few years ago. The
little things that happen in this tweeter
are so well thought out that I wish I had
designed it, but I didn’t. That’s why I’m
using it, because I can’t improve upon it
yet. I say, “yet.”
All the other drivers are designed by
The Absolute Sound January 2007 135
HP’s Workshop
Hansen Audio to mate with the tweeter.
And that’s one of the real secrets here:
Everything is designed to mate. We start
with the cone. The cone is what’s going
to add the most coloration, and there
is always a sonic signature to whatever
that cone is made out of; whether it’s
paper, polypropylene, or whatever, you
get that “boink-boink” sound. In fact,
one of the materials I like the best for
sonic signature happens to be paper. It
has the least sonic imprint around. But
it has other problems that eliminate it
from high-end use. It deforms the sound
wave. So the two things you have to look
for in a cone are absolutely zero sonic
signature and no wave deformation when
pushed hard. That’s a hard task. That’s an
extraordinarily hard task. We could not
come up with any material that met that
criteria. None. Zero.
And, so, we went back to making a
sandwich. The first layer of that sandwich,
the visible layer, is a resin mixed with
glass fibers that allows it to be as inert as
you could possible make anything. Then
we mix it with a second layer, which is
Rohacell, which is the lightest material
that we know of, and the back material
of the 10-inch (we’re just talking about
three layers) is similar to the first but
with different density so it resonates
in a different place. When you put that
sandwich together, you have the most
inert material that any cone’s been made
of, and stronger than anything that’s on
the market. So less wave deformation and
less sonic signature.
HP: Is that common to the midrange drivers,
LH: The difference between the woofers
and the midrange is that the midrange
driver uses only two layers because we
want it to be as light as possible.
HP: So it’s faster.
LH: Yes, faster.
HP: Did you pay a price on that in terms of
lack of coloration?
LH: No. Where we would pay a price is
that it would deform the wave sooner
than the larger driver with three layers,
136 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Lars Hansen interview
but it’s not asked to move that much air,
so the equivalency is exactly the same.
HP: It’s operating over what range?
LH: It’s pushed in at about 125Hz and
we roll it out at about 2500. So 125Hz
to 2500Hz.
HP: And you use first-order crossovers on the
whole system?
LH: One of the signatures of a Hansen
product is all first-order crossovers.
HP: Why?
LH: Two huge reasons: First, the fewer the
components, the less corruption occurs.
HP: The simpler the better.
LH: Absolutely. The second huge
improvement is in phase problems, the
other things that complex crossovers add
to the scenario.
HP: Then how do you get a smooth roll-off
with using first-order crossovers?
LH: This is one of our huge advantages:
we’re not taking an off-the-shelf
midrange, off-the shelf woofer, off-theshelf tweeter and trying to mate them by
using the crossover to try to resolve the
mating problems. We don’t have to do that.
Each driver is made to mate specifically
for this system and this tweeter, so the
roll-off for the 6dB/first-order crossover
happens to work beautifully, and the
driver works within two octaves of what
it’s designed to do—two octaves beyond
where it’s asked to by the crossover. The
crossover is simply gently rolling it off
so that it doesn’t interfere with the driver
that does the better job. We don’t need
to protect the tweeter; we don’t need to
protect the mids; none of that’s necessary.
This is the first system that I know of
with first-order crossovers that plays full
dynamics, full power, and is not a wussy
“audiophile” speaker. TAS
An extended version of this interview can be
found at AVGuide.com.
Biography: LARS HANSEN,
CEO Hansen Audio Inc.
Lars Hansen has been an audio enthusiast since in his teens, when his system
included a Dynaco preamp and power amp, and top of the line Dynaco speakers.
From there, it was a succession of upgrades (while his friends were buying cars, he
was constantly spending more and more money on audio). One of those upgrades
was to the Dahlquist DQ10 speaker in the mid-1970s. The DQ10 ignited his passion
to design and build loudspeakers. He began to think about how to improve upon
the performance of this already great speaker. When Lars graduated from university, he began to formally study electronics and
acoustics. In the late 70s, he designed his first speaker line under the brand name
Legacy (no relationship to the current company or product now being produced).
As Lars became more involved and successful in the business end of the audio
industry, he drifted away from speaker design. In the 90s, Lars returned to the
speaker industry much wiser. He eventually took on the role of President of the
Dahlquist Corporation, the company that had started his passion for loudspeaker
design so many years ago. (Jon Dahlquist himself had long since sold his company.)
Lars headed up the project to introduce the new DQ10, which he showed in Las
Vegas (during CES) to invited reps and dealers. But it became apparent that the
corporation was not going to fund the transition to higher end, so Lars decided to
leave and start a new company, one that produces only the finest products available,
and Hansen Audio was born.
Letters to the Workshop should be sent to me in care of [email protected]
Hansen KING Loudspeaker
Thanks to HP for a well-written and insightful review. As he continues
to explore the KINGS with analog and various cables etc., I think that
he will find the tweeter (and its integration with the rest of the system)
to be performing at an even higher level than the initial impressions he
writes about. I do want to point out that the reason for not disclosing the
manufacturer of the tweeter does not stem from trying to hide anything.
This tweeter is easily the most expensive and best-made soft-dome tweeter
in the world, and I strongly believe that this well-executed soft-dome
tweeter stays closer to the truth of music overall, especially when the
system is designed around the tweeter, as in this case.
Lars Hansen
VTL IT-85 Amplifier
We at VTL are impressed with Jacob’s lively
and fresh approach to writing—as a serious
music lover with solid journalism credentials
he is a great addition to the TAS team.
We designed the IT-85 for the audiophile requiring
a full active preamp and amp in one package, and
envisioned this person being in a smaller living space,
for which 60Wpc ought to be sufficient power for
most stand-mounted monitors. The headphone
output is driven from the amplifier’s output stage
(and automatically mutes the subwoofer output
whenever headphones are inserted). The new
current limiting circuitry conserves tube life under
heavy loads, and with the softer clipping comes a
smoother sound, and other sonic improvements.
Luke Manley
Pathos Endorphin CD
Thanks for the review. Pathos may be the largest
Italian electronics exporter in the high end. Its
products have been featured on covers of both
U.K. and German audio magazines and received
many positive reviews around the world, including
here in the U.S. Pathos may be the best-recognized
company worldwide for high-end integrated
amplifiers. It definitely is recognized for some of
the best-looking audio components, period. The
Endorphin was just honored as a recipient of the
Design and Innovations Award for CES 2007 and
given the Diapason d’Or 2006 award by the French.
It was envisioned to provide musical enjoyment
and be the ideal companion to Pathos’ beautiful
sounding and looking amplifiers.
Garth Leerer
The Absolute Sound January 2007 137
Tom Waits:
Waits and Kathleen Brennan,
producers. Anti 86677 (three CDs).
An undertaking of colossal scope and
uninhibited vision, Tom Waits’ Orphans
functions as a sonic autobiography of a
singular artist, the experience doubling
as a jumped-aboard rail-car ride across
rural plains, underneath urban jungles,
and inside pawnshop walls. Waits is our
narrator, and he’s the ideal hobo for the
job—a husky multi-voiced singer who
doesn’t give a damn about mainstream
culture or materialism but whose sole
concern is where he’s finding that next
swig of cheap whiskey and when he’s
pulling the next drag of a discarded, halfsmoked cigarette. Immersed in Bukowskiinspired worlds, the 56-year-old sniffs out
the flophouses, cozies up to dive bars,
spends nights in jail, and risks enough
to know the feeling of anvil-weighted
Three years in the making, three-plus
hours in length, and 56 songs (30 brandMusic
new recordings, the others rare tracks
from collaborations) strong, Orphans
is divided by style into a trio of discs:
“Brawlers,” featuring roadhouse blues and
juke-joint tumblers; “Bawlers,” claiming
country, Celtic, pedal-steel, and piano
ballads; and the roaming experimentalism
of “Bastards,” spanning avant-garde
storytelling to creepy rants.
Waits went to great lengths to give the
set an intentionally detailed and defined
look; the 94-page book is designed as a
durable letterpress collection of poetry
and verse, its inner elements taken
from thrift stores, swap meets, library
discards, and newspaper clippings. Karl
Defler, an engineer at Bay Side Studios,
recorded the new material and mended
the old. Expectedly, the sonics are
erratic, the recent music up to Waits’
normally excellent standards, his voice an
oscillating magnet around which swishing
rhythms hover and bent-angle jazz beats
circle. Some selections creak and wobble,
the compressed dynamics afflicted by
poor plumbing, although, given Waits’
weathered form and gritty swagger, the
outhouse quality is apropos. Despite its
audacious surplusage, Orphans remains
digestible and coherent thanks to the
genre-oriented structure.
On “Brawlers,” Waits’ huffing,
puffing, nail-file timbre presides over a
rag-tag allotment of red-hand-clapped
delta blues, shuffling stomp, rockabilly
mischief, and cell-clanging garage rock.
He excitably tells of an inmate’s escape
from prison with a fishbone on the
chugging “Fish In the Jailhouse,” tackles
twisted politics on the fractured “Road to
Peace,” and belches like a soot-clogged
furnace on the drunkenly stumbling
cover of the Ramones’ “The Return of
Jackie and Judy.”
The Absolute Sound January 2007 141
A riveting centerpiece that will cause
even the driest ducts to run with tears,
“Bawlers” is a testament to Waits’
unparalleled interpretation of song.
Assuming a litany of guises, the singer
conveys loneliness, betrayal, beauty, and
loss with riveting emotional investment
and melodic sensibility. He hums,
moans, whispers, coughs, cries, serenades,
and confesses, inhabiting soul-touching
narratives of hope and belief, sadness
and death, dreams and disaster,
youthfulness and age. Here are the
gravestones of widow’s husbands, the
endlessly parallel tracks of long-gone
trains, the empty bottles of helpless
boozehounds, the dirty beds of indemand prostitutes. Plucked stand-up
bass notes, wheezing accordions, and
gently tapped snares stir environments
of magical romance, cold rains, and
morphine-numbed bliss. Waits even turns
the standard “Goodnight Irene” into
a cautionary, don’t-follow-my-example
drinking song for the indulgent, and
pledges faithfulness on the wasted waltz
“Never Let Go.”
An expansive riff on Waits’ sciencefiction fascinations, oddball personas,
and beatnik allegories, “Bastards” may
not warrant frequent repeat listens but
its disturbed genius and backwoods
humor show off the Pomona native’s
transformative ability to marry words
with atmospheric sound effects—not
to mention his love for old, spokenword radio mysteries. “Heigh Ho” does
time as a gravedigger’s anthem and “Home
I’ll Never Be” is a transient’s last rites.
But it’s “On the Road” that captures
the very core of Waits’ ugly grace
and wallpaper-peeling gruffness. Always
the sinner and sometimes a repenter,
he’s a song and dance man for all ages—
past, present, and future.
Bob Gendron
Further Listening: Mark Lanegan:
Whiskey for the Holy Ghost;
Nick Cave: Abbatoir Blues/
The Lyre of Orpheus
142 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Various Artists:
Plague Songs.
Various producers. 4AD 2616.
Plague Songs begins with a back-alley
prayer and ends with a woozy piano
ballad. In between, frogs rain from the
sky, black clouds of buzzing locusts
swarm the countryside, and rivers run
red with blood. The album, a musical
journey through the ten Biblical plagues,
is an extension of The Margate Exodus, a
contemporary recreation of the book
of Exodus commissioned and filmed by
the British arts organization Artangel in
September 2006.
A number of name musicians were
recruited for the project’s soundtrack,
varying from natural selections (Scott
Walker, in full operatic mode, channels
the bombast of Richard Wagner on
“Darkness”) to head-scratching oddities
(Rufus Wainwright, fresh from recreating
Judy Garland’s 1961 performance at
Carnegie Hall, waltzes through the death
of the first-born on “Katonah”), though
a majority of artists hit the mark.
Laurie Anderson’s voice hovers like
an apparition on “The Fifth Plague,”
a subtle string arrangement evoking a
moonlit, midnight landscape. Brian Eno
and Robert Wyatt’s “Flies” opens with
Wyatt emitting playful buzzing noises
before Eno rides in on a gorgeous wall of
electronic feedback. 69 Love Songs auteur
Stephen Merritt displays a playful side on
“The Meaning of Lice,” a new-wave ditty
that sounds like it could have been lifted
from a mid-80s John Hughes film. But the
best and most unlikely entry comes from
neo-soul crooner Cody Chesnutt, who
resurrects the ghosts of New Orleans on
“Boils,” a funky funeral procession that
lurches down cracked, red-brick streets.
Wainwright delivers one of the album’s
few missteps, spinning his wheels with
yet another boozy turn on the piano.
But it’s King Creosote that offers up the
biggest dud; “Relate the Tale” is a softrock take on the plague of frogs that
sounds like a medieval bard (or is that
Sting?) strumming his lute and regaling
an expressionless crowd with grandiose
tales of romance.
As with most compilations, sonics vary
from track-to-track. “Relate the Tale”
and “Hailstones” suffer from a limp
production and a miniscule soundstage,
while the sharpest cuts (“Flies”) are a
firestorm of Biblical proportions, waves
of sound enveloping the listener like the
Final Days. Andy Downing
Further Listening: Tricky:
Pre-Millenium Tension;
Scott Walker: The Drift
John Legend:
Once Again.
will.i.am, Kanye West, Raphael
Saadiq, Craig Street, producers.
Sony Urban Music/Columbia 80323.
Being Kanye West’s go-to vocalist goes a
long way toward getting a person through
the music industry’s revolving door.
John Legend’s smoky vocals and stellar
arrangements on his potent debut, 2004’s
Get Lifted, which yielded the hits “Used
To Love U” and “So High,” a moving
ballad, showed that West’s allegiance was
well deserved.
With his second strong album, Once
Again, the Ohioan Legend establishes
himself as a marquee player in the R&B
world. The opening “Save Room” has
a bit of a Doors influence, as the organ
sample, guitar ramping, and Legend’s
Morrisonesque cadence combine for
a stellar cut where Legend pleads for
his lover to be there for him. Similarly,
the whispery “Show Me,” which sultrily
grooves along with a comforting guitar
and lush strings and horns, features
Legend singing in a hushed tone about
solidifying his romance and easily doubles
as a search for spiritual clarity.
Legend, a former music and choir
director, also infuses many of his tunes
with classic gospel and soul music elements.
The laid-back, breezy “Each Day,” for
instance, features choral harmonizing
with a comforting female troupe. As he
does on much of the album, Legend sings
here about his love for his lady with a
wide-eyed optimism and excitement, as if
he’s just discovered the joy of being in a
meaningful relationship; check the equally
spry “PDA (We Just Don’t Care).” He
applies the same energy to the far more
gritty “Heaven,” whose sharp cymbal
crashes mesh well with Legend’s tale of a
relationship in a tailspin.
The argument-recounting “Again,”
propelled only by a piano and bass, is
a sequel of sorts to Get Lifted’s smash
“Ordinary People.” Even when Legend
has minimal instrumentation backing
him, the sonics are sharp, bursting
forth when they need to and oozing
comfortably when Legend turns on the
charm. It all makes for a stellar experience.
Soren Baker
if it could have been made in the 70s.
Wah-wah pedals and backup vocals
are prominent, as are horns, deep funk
grooves, and lyrics about peace and love,
brothers and sisters. But in a departure
from his energetic stage performances
and excellent first recordings, Randolph
seems to have taken advice from his
touring buddies (Eric Clapton and Dave
Matthews) to go the pop route, because
Colorblind is a major disappointment.
The record sounds like a 70s parody,
with Hendrix-style licks, gooey-sounding
ballads, and only rare glimpses of
Randolph’s church-trained pedal steel
and classic soul singer’s voice. Only
a few tracks work—a straight-ahead
cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “Jesus
is Just Alright,” though the song gets
sliced just as Randolph starts displaying
his brilliance on the pedal steel, and the
sappy love ballad “Stronger.” Though
the latter’s lyrics are corny as can be, it
features the rich and smoky-throated
Leela James, whose equal love of classic
soul fits perfectly here, while adding a
welcome dash of sexuality.
Further Listening: D’Angelo: Brown
Sugar; Kelly Price: Priceless
Robert Randolph
& The Family Band:
Tom Whalley, producer.
Warner Bros. 44393
Guitarist, pedal-steel virtuoso, and
vocalist Robert Randolph fronts a funksoul-gospel-inflected group that gained
recognition with 2002’s Live at the Wetlands.
In quick succession, Randolph earned
the #97 spot on Rolling Stone’s 2003 “100
Greatest Guitarists of All Time” list and
was selected by Eric Clapton as opening
act for his 2004 tour.
Claiming influences of Sly & the Family
Stone, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Stevie
Ray Vaughan, Randolph and company
play a style of music that sounds as
144 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
The recording is a huge wash of sound,
but the quality is only so-so. It comes
across as highly processed, dynamically
and spatially compressed, with a narrow
stage and no depth to speak of. The
bottom end, which should dig deep,
sounds weak.
Let’s hope this talented musician
regains his focus before his next release,
because the world needs only one Lenny
Kravitz. Wayne Garcia
Further Listening: Sly and the
Family Stone: Stand!;
Robert Randolph: Live at the
The Who:
Endless Wire.
Pete Townshend, producer.
Universal 7846.
The Who’s first studio album in 24 years
kicks off in almost identical fashion to
its 1971 classic, Who’s Next, guitarist/
songwriter Pete Townshend laying down
an oscillating guitar riff that sounds like
it could have been cribbed from “Baba
O’Riley.” But that’s not the only reminder
of the band’s storied past; the album
closes with a 10-song mini-opera—shades
of Tommy and Quadrophenia.
For the last 20 years, The Who has
toured as a nostalgia act, cashing in with
mammoth stadium tours and leasing its
songs (and legacy) to countless television
advertisements. It took bassist John
Entwistle’s sudden passing in 2002 for
Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey,
both now in their 60s, to give up the
Vegas-style charade and resume their
creative partnership.
While no songs on Endless Wire
resonate like “I Can’t Explain” or
“Won’t Get Fooled Again,” the band’s
surviving members don’t embarrass
themselves in their return. “Fragments”
is steeped in the bombast of the band’s
past work, all windmill power chords
and epic choruses. From there things
mellow significantly. “In the Ether”
finds Townshend doing an over-thetop Tom Waits impression on a thorny
ballad that mistakes melodrama for actual
feeling, like Sandra Bullock hamming it
up in Crash. “A Man in a Purple Dress,”
ostensibly about the evils of organized
religion, sounds like the band’s take on
the media circus surrounding Townshend
after the police hit the guitarist with a
warning for accessing child pornography
in 2003. “You are all the same/Gilded and
absurd,” Daltrey sings in defense of his
longtime mate/sparring partner. “Regal,
fast to blame.”
The sonics are fair throughout. Daltrey’s
vocals, though at times noticeably
battered by age, are captured with
exceptional clarity. The soundstage is not
particularly wide; on the electric numbers
the separation between instruments is
often nonexistent. The acoustic numbers
fare much better, maintaining an in-room
intimacy that radiates from the speakers.
Relationships are a constant theme,
the push-and-pull between Daltrey and
Townshend revealing itself in heartfelt
ballads (“You Stand By Me”) and guitarfueled blowouts (“It’s Not Enough”). The
Wire & Glass operetta further explores
the pair’s sometimes contentious past,
touching on fame, fortune, and death as
it traces the path of a fictitious rock band
from the basement to the world stage
before closing with a melancholy “Tea &
Theatre,” Daltrey delivering what could
well be the band’s epitaph: “A thousand
songs still smolder now/We played them
as one/We’re older now.” AD
Further Listening: The Who: Live at
Leeds; Tom Waits: Small Change
The David Grisman
Experience: DGBX.
Grisman, producer. Acoustic Disc 65.
The David Grisman
Quintet: Dawg’s
Grisman, producer. Acoustic Disc 66.
It’s been 30 years since the debut of the
David Grisman Quintet, and to mark the
occasion, the head Dawg has released two
new albums: the all-instrumental Dawg’s
Groove, featuring a new incarnation of
the Quintet hard at work bluegrassifying
a multicultural repertoire; and DGBX,
an acronym for the David Grisman
Bluegrass Experience, a new quintet
performing mostly evergreens from the
bluegrass canon. On balance, the former
is a more scintillating proposition.
Songs from or associated with Flatt
& Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley
Brothers, the Carter Family, and the
Monroe Brothers form the bulk of the
DGBX repertoire, and the musicians
pretty much stick close to the standard
arrangements of these tunes. Well
played though these are—and fiddler
Chad Manning impresses with a deft
touch throughout, and Grisman himself
cuts loose on more than a few striking
mandolin interjections—there’s a certain
intensity deficit. Jim Nunally and Keith
Little are serviceable tenor vocalists,
but neither projects great emotional
investment in their stories. The chilling
report of a doomed engineer’s tragic
demise originally articulated with stoic
poignance by the Carter Family in
“Engine 143” here becomes something
of an academic exercise in tasty, spare
instrumental support and clean, unruffled
harmony singing. All the parts are right,
but they don’t add up to a compelling
By comparison, Dawg’s Groove
(comprised of originals by Grisman and his
mates) grabs you from the first, ominous
thumps of George Marsh’s drums, and
dazzles as the arrangement opens up
into a fanciful, jazzy flight borne aloft
by Grisman’s sprightly mandolin lines
and Matt Eakle’s discursive flute
observations, before settling into an
insistent, driving dialogue between
mandolin and flute—ambitious and
out there in a way uncommon to the
staid renderings on DGBX. So it is for
the compelling Groove, which wends
its way from an Irish reel/ballad (the
spirited, textured conversation on
“Ella McDonnell”), to a witty samba
(“Zambola”), to “Blues for Vassar,”
a mellow, Irish-tinged tribute to the
late Vassar Clements, which finds
Grisman’s winsome mandolin commentary shadowed by Eakle’s funerary
penny whistle in a dignified, heartfelt
salute to a fellow traveler now departed.
Recorded live to 2-track, Dawg’s Groove
boasts striking clarity and spaciousness—
intimately big, to coin a phrase, in the
sense of the soundscape having an
austere, chamber-like ambience, but at the
same time a robustness more appropriate
to a concert-hall recording. DGBX, on
the whole a more upbeat enterprise, has
an engaging sonic spirit in its precision
blend of voices and acoustic instruments
locked into the center channel rather than
moving around the aural horn. David McGee
Further Listening: The Del McCoury
Band: The Company We Keep; Old
& In the Way: Old & In the Way
Kasey Chambers:
Nash Chambers, producer. Warner/
Essence 44388.
The promotional sticker on the front
of Kasey Chambers’ newest album,
Carnival, describes the singer/songwriter
as Australia’s most beloved female artist.
The Absolute Sound January 2007 147
From this tag, you’d think Chambers was
shakily sipping Geritol after a concert
rather than throwing back a pint of
Fosters. Fact is, Chambers is barely thirty
years old, and since her 2000 debut The
Captain, has demonstrated time and
again that she’s a quick study and mature
beyond her years.
Carnival, Chambers’ fourth record and
the follow-up to 2004’s Wayward Angel,
hews closely to the proven course she
set for herself. The twelve original tracks
occasionally dabble in rock territory, but
the artist’s Nullarbor twang keeps the
message firmly rooted in the heart of
Hank Williams/Patsy Cline country. She’s
also in great voice, the years having added
throatier depth. Chambers music has
slowly evolved from pure retro-country
and has tapped the drive and energy of
country rock with occasional blues and
soul inflections. But she can still grab
listeners with a juicy, melodic hook.
The best songs trod Chambers’
familiar territories of self-discovery
and regret, and the redemptive power
of love. Standouts include the bluesy
independence of “Light Up A Candle”
and “Hard Road,” a tasteful duet with
fellow Aussie singer Bernard Fanning.
However, when Chambers steps out of
her comfort zone, the results are mixed.
Her native coo is a little too cuddly to
play the seductress in a slinky track like
“You Make Me Sing.”
Producer Nash Chambers returns, and
the tour-honed band’s solid musicianship
is evident throughout; the rhythms and
tempos couldn’t be tighter or more
polished. The sonics are smooth and
studio dry, with articulate vocals and
acoustic detailing. But even though
Carnival is likely to be comfort food
for her loyal base, it’s not wrong for
her devoted audience to expect greater
insights as the albums and years roll by.
Neil Gader
Further Listening: Tift Merritt:
Bramble Rose; Allison Moorer:
The Hardest Part
148 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Tony Joe White:
Swamp Music:
The Complete Monument
Billy Swan, and White, producers.
Rhino Handmade 7731 (four CDs).
A poor white southern guitar picker who
distilled all the styles of music indigenous
to his home turf into something singular
in his time, Tony Joe White was born in
the swampland of Oak Grove, Louisiana
and raised on country and religious music.
His imagination fired by Lightin’ Hopkins’
stomping blues, White eventually made
his way to Nashville and wound up in
the Monument Records orbit. In a most
fortuitous mating, he was backed by
David Briggs, Norbert Putnam, and Jerry
Carrigan, Nashville session hands who
migrated from Muscle Shoals and knew
a thing or two about swamps—you can’t
make this stuff up.
And you can’t teach what White laid
down in the 1969-1970 Monument
sessions documented on the first three
discs of this limited-edition set. The music
comes up out of the soil he knew from his
raising, from the characters who stirred
his imagination such as a couple of funky,
scheming cats named “Roosevelt and Ira
Lee,” and from a spiritual connection to
God’s good earth, a feeling bred deep in
the bone of native-born southerners and
articulated with piercing, rich feeling by
White in a desperately lonely moment
he turned into art called “Rainy Night
in Georgia.” White had only one hit, but
he made it count: Applying his earthy,
groaning baritone moans and grunts,
and buttressing those with snarling,
blues-inflected guitar lines enhanced with
a souped-up wah-wah pedal he called
the Whomper Stomper, White brought
the swamp to the mainstream in 1968
with “Polk Salad Annie,” a lubricious
slice of rock n’ soul that was one of
the all-time great diversionary tactics.
On the surface, it was a tale of a lazy
bunch of white-trash ne’er do wells, but
White’s affection for Annie betrays the
point of this exercise when he moans,
“Lord, have mercy—pick me a mess of
White himself didn’t have a lot of luck
on the charts post-“Polk Salad Annie.”
No matter. He made wonderful music at
Monument, and it’s all here, along with a
slew of unreleased sides. The unexpected
gem is Disc 4, which includes ten newly
unearthed tracks from a 1969 solo
session White cut in Paris. The rest of
the disc is completed with seven hot live
tracks from White’s 1970 set at the Isle
of Wight festival. In many ways, this is
the best part of the package—recordings
that are as raw as demos but profound in
their soulful expressiveness.
Billy Swan produced the original
recordings with a sure touch for a sound
that was crisp and clean but not so much
as to diminish the high humidity of the
music. Reissue producers Bill Inglott
and Mason Williams are true to Swan’s
approach, and cleaned up the Paris
recordings so that they have a dramatic
immediacy and intimacy, while the live
tracks capture the incendiary nature of the
artist’s smoldering onstage presentation.
Further Listening: Sonny Landreth:
Down in Louisiana; Creedence
Clearwater Revival: Bayou Country
Lucinda Williams:
Car Wheels on a
Gravel Road (Deluxe Edition).
Bill Levenson, producer.
Mercury/Universal 7378 (two CDs).
Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda
Williams’ alt-country masterwork, is a
detailed tour through emotional and
geographical back roads. Originally
released in 1998, the album opens with
Williams sipping coffee in Macon,
Georgia and cooing “Not a day goes
by I don’t think of you.” By its close,
she is wandering the streets of Jackson,
Mississippi, refusing the urge to cry as
love fades in the rearview. In between
she passes through numerous Southern
towns, her mind alternately clouded and
sharpened by heartbreak and longing. As
with most failed relationships, the album
doesn’t offer a clear-cut resolution.
For her efforts, Williams was rewarded
with career-best sales and a slot atop the
Village Voice’s influential Pazz & Jop poll.
Now the album has been remastered and
expanded into a deluxe two-disc set that
supplements the original recording with
a pair of unreleased cuts (both essential)
and a live disc that captures Williams at
her fiery best.
The remastering by Greg Calbi is firstrate, with the reworked tracks displaying
much improved imaging and a wider,
more natural soundstage. Williams
labored over the recording of Car Wheels
for nearly six years, and the original
release showed some of that strain. While
the vocals were initially handled with
necessary care, the supporting players
often faded into the background, lending
the slightest emotional distance to the
proceedings. That is corrected here, as
all performers now feature prominently
in the mix. Charlie Sexton’s dobro guitar
swoons on “Lake Charles”; Gurf Morlix’s
electric slide guitar plays counterpoint to
the whiskey boogie of “Can’t Let Go”;
and Roy Bittan’s accordion drifts through
“2 Kool 2 Be 4-Gotten” like a dandelion
caught in a summer breeze.
The improved mix brings out even
more of the subtleties in Williams’
nuanced, powerful vocal performance.
The Louisiana native remains in complete
control throughout, whether she’s
elongating notes like a cat stretching out
in the summer sun or growling with a
150 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
preacher’s conviction, hellbent on losing
the road in order to find her way. AD
Further Listening: Lucinda Williams:
Live at the Fillmore;
Loretta Lynn: Van Lear Rose
Johnny Cash:
At San Quentin
(Legacy Edition).
Bob Johnston, producer; Bob Irwin,
reissue producer. Columbia/Legacy
82876 (two CDs, one DVD).
The second of two live albums that
helped vault Johnny Cash into mainstream
superstardom, At San Quentin, released
in February 1969, followed the previous
year’s At Folsom Prison. But the Johnny
Cash show was never solely about Cash;
rather, when he added Carl Perkins, the
Statler Brothers, and the Carter Family, it
became a journey through 20th Century
American music, an exploration of the
deepest roots of folk, gospel, traditional
country, and rock n’ roll as well as a
musical discourse on various aspects of
love, the wages of sin, and the prospect
of redemption. You knew this if you’d
attended Cash’s shows back then, but it
was only suggested on previous versions
of At San Quentin. On this deluxe edition,
the record is set straight.
The back-cover liner copy on the 2004
release trumpeted it as being the “complete
concert,” available for the first time. Nay,
this here is the complete concert, in
sequence, starting with Perkins warming
up the crowd with a blistering “Blue
Suede Shoes” (his snarling guitar solo is
a marvel of trebly, fuzzed-out fire and
fury, driven in part by Perkins’ growing
frustration with his stalled solo career)
before offering a warm intro to the Statler
Brothers, who later yield the stage to the
Carter Family. Everyone is later gathered
together at the end for a gospel mini-set
comprised of Perkins’ “Daddy Sang Bass”
and two stout hymns. In between it’s pure
Cash, dominant and indomitable, but also
warm and empathetic—when seen on the
accompanying DVD, his sturdy voice and
body language radiate pure joy at being in
the moment.
Cash always loved entertaining, but the
prison crowd stirred something elemental
in his nature, engendering a response
marked by feral energy and engaging,
slightly salacious sense of humor. This
is where he introduced the newly written
“San Quentin” and crafted the onthe-spot rendition of Shel Silverstein’s
poem “A Boy Named Sue” that became
one of his signal songs. But those are
really among the lesser efforts here—
his emotional investment in the gospel
numbers is doubly powerful, and the
depth of feeling he brings to “I Still Miss
Someone” can move a listener to tears
now, and one can only wonder what the
inmates were feeling during this dramatic
Sonically, the sound has been brightened
and sports a solid balance of instruments
and voices, with the Carters’ harmonies
standing out in terms of clarity and edge.
The original vinyl release has less of a
live feel, owing to the audience response
being muddy and muted, and Perkins’s
guitar less robust than the forceful voice
it is here. DM
Further Listening: Johnny Cash: At
Folsom Prison; Johnny Cash:
At Madison Square Garden
Music Editor
Bob Gendron’s system
BAT VK-300x integrated
amplifier; Gallo Nucleus
Reference3 loudspeakers;
Rotel RSX-1065 receiver;
Sony SCD-CE775 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
Just in time for the holidays, reviews of 2006’s best box sets
Bob Gendron
The Doors: Perception.
Rhino 77645 (six CDs,
six DVD-As). Bruce Bottnick, producer.
The Clash: The Singles.
Tricia Ronane, producer. Sony Legacy 87628
(19 CDs or 19 45rpms).
Collecting each of the 19 U.K. singles released by The Clash, The Singles
is the latest entry in what’s become an irresistibly cool nostalgia market
that seeks to repackage history in a meticulously detailed, chronologically
accurate fashion. Reminiscent of the similarly tailored Blondie and
Buzzcocks singles sets released in 2004, The Clash’s limited box comes
in an ergonomically correct rectangular container, with compact discs
with black finishes and textured vinyl grooves, paper inner liners, and
thick replica outer sleeves that mirror those of the originals. A 44page booklet loaded with personal commentary on the A-sides by
contemporaries such as Pete Townshend, Shane MacGowan, Bernard
Sumner, and Nick Hornby—as well as rare photographs—gives it a leg
up on its predecessors. But The Singles goes even farther, serving as the
model for all future singles-themed sets. Presumably to ensure superior
control, it was produced in the
band’s native England. And it’s
also available on vinyl, in the
same 45rpm format that nursed
rock, punk, and hardcore. This is
the first occasion of remastered
Clash being available on vinyl,
the sonics here the same mixes
taken from Legacy’s overhaul
of the band’s catalog in 2000.
Alas, there’s a slight wrinkle.
Those who go the digital route
get a total of 24 B-sides and
promotional tracks that don’t fit
on the 45s. Yet, the latter is the
choice for fans wanting the singles as originally issued as well as those
who want a warmer, more vibrant sound. Moreover, there’s a delight
in hearing just one song per side. Each version costs $80—a bargain
for the vinyl edition and about a third less than would be charged by
specialty companies. As for the music, it’s a no-brainer. Not only do
The Clash own one of the finest singles’ runs in music history—a
span that saw the trio go from being punks to rockers to reggaeroots trailblazers—smart politics remain in the spotlight without
becoming preachy or self-righteous, allowing cuts such as “Lost In the
Supermarket,” “Police On My Back,” and “Hitsville UK” to remain as
relevant today as they were nearly 30 years ago.
Yep, another Doors box set. It’s the latest among a
dozen other anthologies and retrospectives, ranging
from 1985’s über-popular The Best of The Doors to
1997’s The Doors Box Set to 1999’s The Complete Doors
Studio Recordings to 2001’s The Very Best of The Doors
to 2003’s Legacy: The Absolute Best, which, if you’re
following this, replaced the first title listed here. Just
how many times can a band’s catalog be recycled?
Infinitely, if the group in question is led by one
deceased Lizard King whose pop-culture celebrity will
never die as long as rebellious teenagers, stoned rebels,
and Dionysian wanna-be poets look to him as a Christ
figure. And that’s not likely to change. To Rhino’s
credit, short of Jim Morrison’s resurrection, it’s hard
to imagine any other Doors retrospective topping
Perception. Housed in a lavish package wherein the box
cover doubles as a door that opens up to a fold-out
shelf holding six gorgeously accented digipaks, one
each for the band’s studio records—1967’s The Doors,
1970’s Morrison Hotel, and 1971’s L.A. Woman truly
great; 1967’s Strange Days and 1968’s Waiting for the
Sun above average; and 1969’s The Soft Parade mostly
junk. A master-quality concept piece, the front even
includes a peephole through which images can be
observed and rotated. The main attraction is the new
The Absolute Sound January 2007 153
Box Sets
remastering and mixing, all done with the
band’s original engineer, Bruce Botnick,
at the controls. The six CDs present the
albums in remastered stereo sound, and
all claim bonus tracks, including a variety
of unreleased material, encompassing the
good (a version of Tommaso Albinoni’s
“Adagio in G Minor”) and bad (false starts
and dialogue to “People Are Strange”).
The six DVDs greatly expand the sonic
options, showcasing the records in 5.1
surround, DTS 5.1, DTS stereo, and
Advanced Resolution stereo. A photo
gallery and two videos from each album
emphasize the video content; many of
the DVD-V tracks are live, including
a 1967 take of “The End” in Toronto.
Suffice it to say, Botnick’s remixes present
the Doors in a new light. Purists may
have problems with some of the balances
and modern-technology-aided moves.
For example, Botnick makes no apologies
for transferring the original masters on
The Doors at 96/24 to ProTools HD, or
utilizing digital equalizers and digital
reverb. Yet the producer’s copious liner
notes about the original recording of
each album prove fascinating, and while
hearing rock in surround still feels
unnatural, it’s difficult to argue with the
two-channel results, particularly when
they result in the restoration of words or
the correction of speed, which applies to
the entire landmark debut. The DVD-A
stereo programs are exquisitely rich, the
imaging lifelike, and while diehards will
doubtlessly debate the merits of the new
mix versus the old, Perception settles the
argument of which Doors collection is
A Life Less Lived:
The Gothic Box.
Liz Goodman,
compilation producer. Rhino 73374
(three CDs, one DVD).
Long before mall-retailer Hot Topic coopted the culture’s bricolage as fashionable
and network-television serials used its
look to stereotype troubled youth, Goth
was more than a type of music—it was a
154 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
way of life. The soundtrack to a gloomy
underworld imaginatively populated by
vampirish figures, black-mascara-caked
zombies, and cloak-clad horror-film
junkies, Goth was the decidedly moody
alternative to punk’s frantic pulse and
politics. Initially arising during the late 70s
in England, it exploded with Joy Division,
The Cure, and Bauhaus. Numerous
compilations have chronicled the
movement, none more attentively than
the A Life Less Lived, which spotlights not
just key artists but those on the fringes.
Encased in a stitched black-leather corset
and featuring an impeccably detailed 60page book, the 53-track collection also
showcases the sense of humor that’s
often overlooked in an assortment of
bands otherwise obsessed with sex, death,
and sadness. The humor helps mitigate
the morose subjects, as well as grave
vocals that, in combination with a dense
atmospheric fog of murky bass lines,
shifty guitars, and drum-machine beats,
are roundabout excuses to dance on cuts
like Love and Rockets’ “Mirror People”
and Specimen’s hypnotic “Kiss Kiss
Bang Bang.” Of course, these strengths
also expose the movement’s weakness.
Goth was, indeed, too dependent on
appearances, and though many of the acts
here—Ministry, Misfits, and Nick Cave,
to name but a few—touch on Goth’s
thematic sensibilities, they are married
to a different style. There are also several
serious omissions, particularly from
England’s influential 4AD imprint. But
debates are always a sign that a variousartist box has achieved its purpose,
and A Life Less Lived is assembled with
such care (a bonus DVD demonstrates
why Goth is such an immediately visual
form) that it functions as a time capsule
for those who missed out on the era or
don’t have a burning desire to explore the
Virgin Prunes catalog. Bill Inglot and Dave
Schultz handled the remastering, bringing
clarity and oomph to tracks that have never
registered a blip on the dynamics radar.
That said, prime cuts such as Siouxsie
Box Sets
and the Banshees’ “Spellbound” and Red
Lorry Yellow Lorry’s “Walking on Your
Hands” are of a DIY ethic, adding to the
sonic unevenness of a compelling work
that spans the period from 1978 to 1998.
Frank Sinatra:
Charles Pignone, producer. Rhino
74075 (four CDs, one DVD).
Frank Sinatra’s relationship with Las
Vegas requires no elucidation. Ol’ Blue
Eyes helped put the desert oasis on the
map, touting its leisurely riches long
before the Sin City he knew became
a family-friendly theme park. Sinatra’s
Vegas—free booze, scantily clad broads,
top-shelf club shows, sleepless 36-hour
days, classy big bands, sweep-you-offyour-feet romance—is heard and felt on
this scintillating box, wrapped in a foilaccented clamshell package much like a
mint on a pillow of a high-rolling gambler’s
hotel suite bed. Despite
building up a catalog
thick as a metropolitan
phone book, Sinatra
didn’t release a live album
until 1962. Vegas includes
sessions taped for that
release (Sinatra at the
Sands) but this is much
more than a rehash.
Here are five previously
unreleased performances
from Sinatra’s famed
stomping grounds: a 1961 set from The
Sands; a January-February 1966 run at The
Sands with Count Basie & His Orchestra,
Quincy Jones at the helm; a March 1982
document of a two-week engagement at
Caesar’s Palace; a 1987 program from The
Golden Nugget with pianist Lou Levy;
and, on the DVD, a complete concert
from May 1978. Expectedly, the 60s
material wows. Sinatra is captured in all
his center-of-attention glory, cracking offcolor jokes, ribbing crowds, improvising
lines, even indulging in parody. The Basie
set swings even harder. “We’re gonna take
this here building and move it three feet
that way,” Sinatra claims before a surging
156 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
horn break during “I’ve Got You Under
My Skin,” as Basie and Company prepare
to make every chandelier in Nevada sway.
And there’s no reason not to believe
they did. As for Sinatra’s singing—his
phrasing, coloring, and timing with the
ensembles—yowsa! Sinatra’s timbres are
perfection, his demeanor the quintessence
of ease. Which is why the 1982 recording,
an era during which Sinatra replaced the
traditional strings with an upbeat “hot
band,” and experimented with stretched
passages and scatted verses, is a slight
disappointment. Ironically, the pairing
seems too Vegas, the results forced. Yet
the 1987 show, considering the autumnof-his-years era, is a glorious surprise. A
finger-snapping groove persists, and the
passionate readings of standards such as
“For Once In My Life” and “Mack the
Knife” are nothing short of triumphant.
None of the discs is a single concert, but
an assembly of material from various
shows constructed in the order they
would have been performed. Aside from
a few noticeable divides, the sonics are
consistently good, the range of Sinatra’s
voice, carry of the orchestras, and echoes
of the rooms remarkably present. As is
outlined in the competent producer’s
notes, mastertapes existed for these
performances for a variety of reasons,
the labors of love now paying off some
40-plus years later.
Robert Plant:
Nine Lives.
Plant, producer. Rhino 78778
(nine CDs, one DVD).
Jimmy Page might be the most-oftreferenced member of Led Zeppelin,
but he’s done close to nothing since the
iconic hard-rock ensemble busted up
in the wake of drummer John Bonham’s death. On the contrary, vocalist Robert
Plant has quietly gone about making a second career. Granted, Plant’s license to drift
and do as he pleases is directly related to the lines of credit he accumulated with
Zeppelin. Yet it’s also due in no small part to that voice—an instantly identifiable
instrument that cries, shrieks, curls, wails, sympathizes, crawls, contemplates, pleads,
shatters, scats, moans, and does everything short of having intercourse with the
listener. Few have used their pipes to such primal, sensual, and liberating effects.
Plant’s pushing, pulling, and piping singing is the nerve tissue that runs through the
extensive dialects on display throughout Nine Lives, a majestic box that collects all of
his studio solo projects to date—beginning with 1982’s Pictures At Eleven, reaching
midpoint with 1988’s boogie-basted Now and Zen, and climaxing with 2005’s mindshattering Mighty Rearranger—and functions as a hike through a sonically enchanted
landscape. Rather than revisiting the past or falling back on the sure thing, Plant has
dived head-first into pools of world music, unearthing Arabic, Morrocan, Indian,
West African strains, as wells as intensifying early bonds with Celtic folk, psychedelic
rock, and symphonic elements. Such experimentation comes with risks. Plant’s
excursions into electronica and keyboard-based atmospherics on 1985’s Shaken ‘N’
Stirred don’t always gel. Similarly, excessively stacked with oversized grooves and
overstated riffs, 1990’s Manic Nirvana is sonically and structurally bloated. Still, none
of Plant’s efforts are without merit, the majority revealing dimensional textures,
border-crossing arrangements, and a joyous soulfulness that correspond with the
artist’s vagabond spirit. Even Plant’s tribute to vintage R&B on Honeydrippers, Volume
I conveys his love of wanting to discover and wander—the very same passion and
curiosity that inspire some to amass backbreaking record collections. Plant is a music
lover first and foremost; he’s also a constantly moving hitchhiker who is aware that
myriad cultures offer countless treasures. True to these themes, Nine Lives is graced
with stunning artwork and a water-based color scheme outfitted with beautiful blues,
greens, and browns. Liner notes annotate each album, and bonus tracks augment
every record, all remastered. Given the multiple producers and studio locations, the
sonics vary; the early 80s albums are stamped with that period’s empty beats, but
details, images, and presence have never been better. Enchanting, surprising, and
masterfully assembled, the set picks up where 2003’s Sixty Six to Timbuktu left off
and serves as a near-secret history of 20th century pop music.
What It Is! Funky
Soul and Rare
Grooves (1967-1977).
Matt Abels and Mason Williams,
producers. Rhino 77635 (four CDs).
Given the recent explosion of interest
in old R&B records, it’s surprising that
What It Is! Funky Soul and Rare Grooves
(1967-1977) wasn’t released earlier. A
chronologically ordered collection of funk
pulled from the Atlantic,
Atco, and Warner Bros.
vaults, this 91-track
treasure arrives at a time
when specialty labels
such as Numero Group
are digging up dusty
45s from crawlspaces,
locating original artists,
and writing what this very set aims to
expose—“the shadow history of funk.”
Sure, vocals arise amidst the constant
pulse of wah-wah guitar clips, stepladder
bass lines, towering horn sections, spry
piano bars, and bright clavinets, but for
the most part, the grooves contained here
are primarily instrumental affairs that
shoot for the hips and feet. Despite the
intentional lack of focus on household
names, there’s a wealth of firepower,
with many of the known participants
remaining behind the curtains. At least
one member of the Meters plays on
seven tracks; New Orleans legend Allen
Toussaint wrote and/or produced eight
cuts; Bootsy Collins guests on the three
tunes, including Eddie Hazel’s funkified
cover of “California Dreamin’”; Duane
Allman contributes licks to Lulu’s “Feelin’
Alright”; Sonny Sharrock
appears on Brute Force’s
“The Deacon”; organist
Grant Green helps out
Grassella Oliphant on
“Get Out of My Life
Woman.” More times
than not, the inside
stories and hypnotic
sounds of the lesser-known artists stand
on their own. The lyrics of Eugene
McDaniels’ “Headless Heroes” originally
prompted then-Vice President Spiro
Agnew to call Atlantic honcho Ahmet
Ertegun and request that the single be
pulled; Claudia Lennear’s “Everything I
Do Gonna Be Funky” allegedly was the
inspiration behind the Rolling Stones’
“Brown Sugar”; and the Memphis Horns
on “Soul Bowl” are the very same that
served as the horn section on nearly every
Stax classic. The percolating spirit and
flowing vibes act as a mix tape that doesn’t
quit, and while it’s too much for the casual
funk lover, anyone interested in rhythm,
sass, and syncopation will be hooked.
That the material was recorded for major
labels gives this collection the upper hand
in sonics. While the music is generally fine
to great, most scavenger anthologies are
taken from here-today/gone-tomorrow
labels whose production rooms, consoles,
and microphones were lacking. Bill Inglot’s
fine remastering captures the glass-sharp
guitar tones, bodies of shakers, clicking
of Hammond organ keys, and in several
places, echoes of the studios. A textured
brown box, thematic 45rpm detailing,
and song-by-song liner notes complete an
excellent project. TAS
Recommended 2006 sets reviewed in
previous issues: The Byrds: There Is A Season;
Waylon Jennings: Nashville Rebel; Various:
The Harry Smith Project; Various: Rockin’
Bones: 1950s Punk and Rockabilly; Fats
Waller: If You Got to Ask, You Ain’t Got It!;
and Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys: The
Legends of Country Music.
The Absolute Sound January 2007 157
Music by Honegger,
Martinu, Bach,
Pintscher, Ravel.
Frank Peter Zimmermann, violin;
Heinrich Schiff, cello. Manfred
Eicher, producer; Stephan
Schellmann, engineer.
ECM New Series 1912.
The spirit of Bach pervades this
stimulating release, even though he’s
represented only by a pair of canons
from his Art of the Fugue arranged for
violin-cello duo. Both are played with
stunning artistry by violinist Frank Peter
Zimmermann and cellist Heinrich Schiff.
At first glance, the lineup of works
seems odd, three composers in the French
tradition plus Bach and an Austrian avantgardist. Paul Griffiths’ notes argue that
the canon, with its endlessly intertwining
musical lines, attracts composers and
audiences for its glimpse of infinity.
The major work is the large-scaled
Ravel Sonata for Violin and Cello. Ravel, the
master colorist, draws an infinite number
of shadings from the instruments while
stressing linear development, creating a
modern masterpiece played by the duo
with consummate authority, technical
assurance, and vigorous forward
movement. But unless you’re looking
for that promised glimpse of infinity, the
odd-man-out in what I persist in viewing
as a collection of fine French neo-classic
works of the 1920s, is Matthias Pintscher.
His spacey Study 1 for “Treatise on the Veil”
is nothing I plan to return to soon.
158 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Heinrich Schiff
Typical for ECM, the engineering is
excellent. The disc boasts big, bold sound,
with unexaggerated wide dynamics. The
instruments are clearly defined with
immediacy despite the church venue.
Zimmermann’s violin is accurately
portrayed with the warmth and bite of
the real thing, the plucking in the Ravel
leaps from the speakers, and the size and
timbres of Schiff ’s cello are truthful.
Dan Davis
Further Listening: Shostakovich:
Cello Concertos (Schiff); Beethoven:
Piano Sonatas, Opp. 2 & 7 (Schiff)
projects. It’s hard to say whether this
represents artistic restlessness, boredom
with performing 30-year-old hits for
arenas full of graying fans, insecurity
with newer pop idioms, or a belief that
such undertakings somehow increase
their status as “serious” musicians. The
results vary enormously: from threadbare
pretension (Billy Joel’s Fantasies &
Delusions) to well-meaning miscalculation
(the recent disc of Dowland lute songs
from Sting); from spirited overreaching
Ecce Cor Meum.
Kate Royal, soprano; London
Voices; Academy of Martin-in-theFields, Gavin Greenaway, conductor.
John Fraser, producer; Arne
Akselberg, engineer. EMI 70424.
Perhaps you’ve noticed a trend in recent
decades for no-longer-so-young rock/
pop personalities to take on “classical”
(Linda Ronstadt’s go at Puccini) to
compositions that actually do succeed
on their own terms (Roger Waters’ Ça Ira
and Elvis Costello’s Il Signo).
Paul McCartney has ventured into this
terrain before, first with 1991’s trite and
tedious Liverpool Cantata and subsequently
with the equally unremarkable Working
Classical and Standing Stone discs. It’s
no secret that Sir Paul’s abilities of
musical notation and orchestration are
rudimentary; that he’s depended on others
to render his ideas in the past, the result
being that his own wonderfully expressive
voice gets lost amidst boilerplate bombast
and hackneyed filigree. On Ecce Cor
Meum—Hear My Heart, there are indeed
five “musical associates” listed. But the
collaboration here seems more akin to
that of George Martin and the Beatles,
160 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
when the former, invisibly, brought to life
the intentions of the latter. This is, by far,
McCartney’s best non-pop effort.
The five-movement oratorio for chorus,
boys’ choir, soprano soloist, and orchestra
had an eight-year gestation during which
McCartney’s wife Linda died of breast
cancer. That tragedy informs the spirit
of Ecce Cor Meum, nowhere more than
in the central “Lament,” which features
a yearning oboe solo and wordless
chorus. The work has a very personal,
spiritual glow. “Here in my music, I show
you my heart,” sings the chorus in the
finale. The last two movements, each a
quarter-hour in length, gather strength
to arrive at a culmination of illuminated
All the participants are first-rate,
including soloist Kate Royal and the boys‚
choristers from Cambridge and Oxford.
There’s a real sense of commitment,
with absolutely none of the dreaded
professionals-for-hire kind of vibe. We
get a mid-hall aural perspective, providing
excellent choral/orchestral balances and
minimizing annoying vocal sibilants. The
soprano is slightly spotlighted, but no
more than with most classical recordings.
Tonally, the CD is very appealing,
convincing as a real-time performance
even though overdubs were utilized,
including the Tower of London’s weighty
organ. Andrew Quint
Further Listening: Costello: Il Signo;
Waters: Ça Ira (SACD)
Renée Fleming:
Homage—The Age
of the Diva.
Renée Fleming, soprano; Orchestra
of the Mariinsky Theatre, Valery
Gergiev, conductor. David Frost,
producer; Wolf-Dieter Karwatky,
engineer. Decca 475 8068.
Homage—The Age of the Diva is a tribute
to some of the great sopranos of the first
half of the 20th century, among them
Emmy Destinn, Mary Garden, Maria
Jeritza, Lotte Lehmann, Geraldine Farrar,
Rosa Ponselle, Magda Olivero, and
Viorica Ursuleac. The program features
mostly less well-known numbers—“lost
jewels,” Decca tells us—that were
associated with these stellar figures. An
exciting proposition, for sure.
It takes only a few phrases of Fleming’s
Marschallin to make this opera lover’s hair
stand on end, and I had hoped for more
of that electricity here. Unfortunately, the
scorecard for this mixed bag is mixed,
too. Of the twelve roles Fleming touches
on, only one, Jenufa, is a role she has
performed on stage. You can tell that
immediately from the extra intensity she
brings to her account of “Mamicko, mám
tezkou hlavu…,” the terrifying scene
in which Janácek’s heroine realizes her
infant son has been taken away and killed.
In the other piece of Czech repertoire on
the disc, “Dobrá! Já mu je dám!...” from
Smetana’s Dalibor, Fleming struggles with
the dramatic fireworks.
Fleming’s top may not be as free and
radiant as it once was, her amplitude not
quite as great, but the technique is superb,
the artistry always evident in her seamless
phrasing and exceptional command of
line. The voice is now perfect for Strauss
and Korngold, and Fleming’s accounts of
“Wie umgibst du mich mit Frieden” from
Strauss’ Die Liebe der Danae and “Ich ging
zu ihm” from Korngold’s Das Wunder
der Heliane are indeed ravishing (though
her tone goes a little white at the end of
the Strauss). Gergiev and the Mariinsky
players are on their best behavior, too,
but the Russian strings don’t quite
get Korngold’s palette, and lack the
shimmering beauty that comes naturally
to a Viennese or Czech section. With
“Tsvetï moi!” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s
Servilia and “Pouchudilis mne budto
golosa” from Tchaikovsky’s surprisingly
Wagnerian Oprichnik, they are totally in
their element, dark-hued and dramatic;
Fleming’s treatment of both is lovely. Her
account of “J’ai versé le poison dans cette
coupe d’or” from Massenet’s Cléopatre
is outstanding, expressively delivered
with beautiful French diction. But the
other French selection here, “Ô légère
hirondelle” from Gounod’s Mireille proves
the biggest misfire on the disc; Fleming
gets every note, but there’s nothing légère
about this barn swallow.
The three Italian numbers—“Poveri
fiori” from Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur,
“Tacea la notte” from Il trovatore, and
“Vissi d’arte” from Tosca—are familiar
fare, and interesting territory for Fleming.
She’s artful if under strain in the Puccini,
but her account of the Verdi is quite
good. Even if she’s not up to the standard
of Leontyne Price (to name another
soprano who was every inch a diva in her
day), one would welcome a Leonora from
her. Here, and throughout the program,
the Mariinsky ensemble retains something
of the sound of orchestras of a bygone
era, the strings showing a softer edge, the
winds a bit more distinct in their color,
the brass recessed except in forte. The
recording captures a rather deadened
acoustic, and while there is not a great deal
of depth to the image, the tone is natural.
Fleming, who turns 48 this year, can
be forgiven for stretching herself past the
point of comfort on this outing. That’s
what great artists do. What’s harder to
forgive is Fleming’s decision to pose as a
The Absolute Sound January 2007 161
1920s-era movie goddess—in headband,
art deco ear pendants, gold lamé shawl—
for the publicity photos by Snowdon that
are part of Decca’s over-the-top hyping
of this disc. Her justification: “Everything
in music to me is about style.” Perhaps
that explains what’s missing here. One
can look like the divas of old—one
can even sing like them—but electricity
has to be generated. It’s not something
that comes from a costume shop.
Ted Libbey
Further Listening: Renée Fleming:
Strauss Heroines; Dvorák: Rusalka
Rossini: Matilde di
Juan Diego Flórez, Annick Massis,
Symphony Orchestra of Galicia,
Riccardo Frizzi, conductor. Ernesto
Palacio, producer; Michael Seberich,
engineer. Decca 6859.
Rossini must have had a barrel full of
fun writing this opera. Ditto for librettist
Jacopo Ferretti, whose text is chockfull of
witty lines. In 1821, Rossini already had
a cavalcade of hits on his resumé when
he turned to Matilde di Shabran, a “comic
melodrama” whose music mocks various
Italian operatic styles including his own.
It also boasts some of the most complex
ensemble set pieces in Rossini’s output,
including prime examples of his patented
slow crescendos, like the breathtaking
Act I octet.
A decade ago, tenor Juan Diego Flórez
162 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
became an overnight sensation in this
opera at the Pesaro Rossini Festival.
Returning to the scene in this 2004
live performance, he’s spectacular. His
voice is in its full glory; snarling as the
misogynist tyrant, Corradino Ironheart,
melting as Corradino turns into a hapless
lover, all the while flinging high notes and
impossible coloratura runs with an ease
that defies belief. His entrance number
alone is enough to convince anyone that
Flórez is without peers in this repertory.
If Corradino’s a cartoon figure, so is
everyone else in the opera; the zany crew
includes the spunky maiden who tames
him, a weepy prisoner, a demented poet
manqué, a scheming Countess, and others.
But Flórez inhabits his role so completely
you almost believe in the character. The
same can be said of the Matilde, soprano
Annick Massis, who’s no slouch when it
comes to spinning long coloratura lines
herself as she ensnares Corradino and
turns his iron heart into one of love
and forgiveness. The rest of the cast is
uniformly excellent; it would be invidious
to mention one without mentioning all.
The orchestra is sprightly, the chorus
incisive, and conductor Riccardo Frizza
leads with a sure Rossinian touch; he even
ensures the long recitative passages move
with dramatic urgency. The engineering
is admirable—close-in miking generally
captures the singing well, though Flórez is
sometimes overmiked. Strings are nicely
caught, and there’s enough orchestral
detail for Rossini’s deliciously subtle wind
writing to be heard clearly. This one is a
must if you love great singing. DD
Further Listening: Rossini Arias
(Flórez); Meyerbeer: Semiramide
Wagner: Der
Fliegende Holländer.
Soloists, Bayreuth Festival Chorus
and Orchestra, Joseph Keilberth,
conductor. Gordon Parry, producer;
Roy Wallace, Kenneth Wilkinson,
engineers. Testament 1384.
Hard on the heels of Testament’s
outstanding issues of Decca’s long-buried
stereo Wagner operas from the 1955
Bayreuth Festival comes this excellent
Flying Dutchman from Joseph Keilberth,
whose posthumous reputation is further
burnished by his taut, propulsive
conducting. Previously issued on mono
LP, this is the first release of the stereo
version recorded by Decca’s all-star
producers and engineers, including the
legendary Kenneth Wilkinson.
Discreetly miked, in accordance
with the Bayreuth principle that the
Festspielhaus is more a holy shrine than
an opera house, Decca’s team captures the
singers in voice-friendly close-up along
with the venue’s air, and the sound of the
orchestra in the covered pit. Testament’s
remastering preserves unexpected detail
in a fifty-year-old recording, with good
stage depth and string sound, and clear
if slightly tubby percussion. In all, a fine
facsimile of the performance, though
lacking the full detail and impact of later
recordings made in the hall.
It’s also one of the best available
performances of the work. As in his
Ring operas thus far released, Keilberth’s
tensile strength and headlong thrust
replace the shroud of mysticism that too
often engulfs the composer. Even when
Keilberth slows down, as for Senta’s
ballade, he displays exciting rhythmic lift
and accented phrasing.
Mid-50s Bayreuth had extraordinary
casts and this Dutchman is no exception.
The title role is done to near-perfection
by Hermann Uhde, whose dark-textured
voice conveys the anguished pain and
fragility of the figure condemned
to eternal wandering until he finds
redemption through loyal love. Only
Hans Hotter (for Clemens Krauss in
1944) has created so moving a character.
Senta, whose willing death liberates the
Dutchman from his curse, is sung by the
then-reigning Wagnerian soprano, Astrid
Varnay. Her passionate Senta is no lovestruck teenager but a determined, even
willful, woman of steely resolve. Varnay
hones her big voice down much of the
time, but when she lets loose, you feel
she can bring the roof down. The smaller
parts are well taken, especially Senta’s
greedy father, Daland, portrayed with
gusto by bass Ludwig Weber. DD
Further Listening: Wagner: Der
Fliegende Holländer (Krauss) and
Elfman: Serenada
John Mauceri, conductor. Danny
Elfman, producer; Armen Steiner,
engineer. Sony Classical 89780.
Disclosure: John Mauceri, the conductor
here, was my teacher (orchestration,
conducting) 35 years ago at Yale. Record
collectors will be familiar with his
name thanks to his uniquely glamorous
contributions to Decca’s “Entartete
Kunst” series, as well as the many fine discs
he made during 16 years as music director
of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. While
he stepped down from that post this past
summer, he has scarcely left Hollywood
behind; witness this new recording of
soundtracker Danny Elfman’s first concert
work for orchestra, Serenada Schizophrana.
Elfman is best known for providing the
music for Beetlejuice, Batman, Spiderman,
Men in Black, and The Simpsons, to name
just five of the 100 or so films and TV
series he’s worked on during a career that
goes back to 1980. He created Serenada
Schizophrana on a commission from the
American Composers Orchestra.
Scored for large orchestra, electronics,
two pianos, and female voices, this
“schizophrenic serenade” is clearly of a
piece with Elfman’s film music, charged
with snarling brass, insistent ostinatos,
and a manic energy. And it pays homage
to some of Elfman’s musical heroes. The
Hermann-esque lineage (Bernard, not
Pee-Wee) is clear, and we catch little riffs
on Rachmaninov and tips of the hat to
Prokofiev. Much of the piece stands in
the shadow of Orff.
Yet, as the composer himself concedes
in the liner notes, the notion of any
connectedness between its movements
is absurd. Whether you think of them
as improvisations or as a series of
Batman-esque musings, the components
here have the character of machines—
little perpetual-motion machines with
workings that are reiterative, flashy, and
not very deep. If the pages of a comic
book could take on musical life, colorful,
but paper-thin, this would be it.
The orchestra is not identified, but
players are listed by name, and there
are enough (43 violinists, 21 cellists) to
suggest that the recording was made in
multiple sessions with different pickup squads. The venue is The Newman
Scoring Stage at Fox Studios, and we get
just what you would expect: a dry, sonically
inert ambience that offers plenty of detail
in certain situations—e.g., a flute solo in
which we are close enough to hear the
key pads contacting the body of the flute,
and the jet of the player’s breath across
the embouchure—but not much warmth
or sense of orchestral “glow.” TL
Further Listening: Korngold:
Between Two Worlds (Mauceri);
Elfman: Batman
Mahler: Symphony
No. 5.
San Francisco Symphony, Michael
Tilson Thomas, conductor.
Andreas Neubronner, producer;
Peter Laenger, engineer. Hybrid
multichannel. SFS Media 821936.
Symphony No. 9
Helena Juntunen, soprano; Katarina
Karnéus, mezzo-soprano; Daniel
Norman, tenor; Neal Davies, bassbaritone; Minnesota Orchestra,
Osmo Vänskä, conductor. Robert
Suff, producer; Ingo Petry, engineer.
Hybrid multichannel. BIS 1616.
Why are these two SACDs being
considered together? Because they
are the latest installments in Mahler
and Beethoven symphonic cycles that
represent the best such “completes”
from American orchestras since Leonard
Bernstein’s of the 1960s. And both are in
excellent sound, to boot.
While we’re on the subject of
superlatives, the case can be made that
the San Francisco Symphony under
Michael Tilson Thomas is currently the
U.S.’s finest symphonic institution. It’s
not just that, collectively and individually,
the musicians play so well, but the
extraordinary chemistry they continue to
develop with their music director. This
Mahler intégrale that began nearly five
years ago is approaching its conclusion—
only symphonies Nos. 8 and 10 have yet
to be released—and there’s not been a
weak performance yet.
The Fifth’s opening Trauermarsch
evinces a melancholy tone, yet it isn’t
The Absolute Sound January 2007 165
pathologically depressed. There’s a
resigned, worn-out feel to the movement’s
tread, ending with a dull thud instead of
a bitter punch to the gut. The conductor
and instrumentalists deftly negotiate the
frequent mood changes of II, and the
scherzo that follows has a gracious lilt.
The much-loved Adagietto doesn’t drag,
beautifully shaped and emotive without
becoming overwrought. The finale—
problematic for so many who can’t seem
to fathom its pointed humor—provides
for a rousing conclusion to a work that
began 73 minutes earlier in such a worried
frame of mind.
In surround, the recording is very
atmospheric, with the solo trumpeter at
the very beginning defining the space of
Davies Hall, seconded by the orchestral
tutti that follows his fanfare. It’s a midhall perspective that, for some, may put
too much in the rear channels; if that’s
you, the stereo DSD program has plenty
of spaciousness in addition to great
coherency at climaxes.
Osmo Vänskä was highly regarded as
a specialist in Scandinavian repertoire
(especially Sibelius) before he signed on
as the Minnesota’s tenth music director—
a lineage that includes Eugene Ormandy,
Antal Dorati, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski,
and Neville Marriner. Beethoven’s
“Choral” symphony follows SACDs of
Nos. 4 and 5 and Nos. 3 and 8, which have
been justifiably well received. The Ninth
is always thought of as a monumental
piece, but Vänskä doesn’t start off at a
fever pitch, instead developing a growing
sense of grandeur and spiritual lift over
the span of work.
The first movement Allegro offers
firmly coiled rhythms and the second
movement Molto vivace Presto has the
dance-like feel of the Seventh Symphony.
Vänskä’s Adagio brings to the table a
gentle lyricism as he creates exquisite
instrumental textures and blend; toward
the end of the movement, there are
intimations of the powerful eruption
to come. The finale is cunningly paced,
166 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
with the initial presentation of the “Ode
to Joy” melody slyly understated. But
with the first entrance of the chorus,
after the bass-baritone’s “O Freunde,”
we’re moving inexorably heavenward to a
soul-satisfying finish. The dependable
production team of Robert Suff and
Ingo Petry offer a pleasingly transparent
recording of the Minnesota ensemble,
choral forces, and solo vocal quartet with
no sense of strain at the mighty conclusion.
The multichannel program’s soundfield is
exceptionally realistic. “Layered depth”
is probably an audiophile conceit; here,
there’s a continuous representation of
the musicians on stage from the upfront
soloists, back through the sections of the
orchestra, to the singers behind. AQ
Further Listening: Mahler:
Symphony No. 6 (Tilson Thomas)
(SACD); Beethoven: Symphonies
Nos. 3 & 8 (Vänskä) (SACD)
Symphonies 1-9. Leonore
Overture No. 2. Triple
London Symphony Orchestra,
Bernard Haitink, conductor. James
Malllinson, producer; Jonathon
Stokes and Neil Hutchinson,
engineers. Hybrid multichannel.
LSO Live LSO0598 (six SACDs).
Given a top-flight orchestra led by a
noteworthy conductor with a halfcentury of experience, you’d think that
it would be hard to do too badly by
Beethoven’s nine symphonies. And you’d
be right. Bernard Haitink—who recorded
an admirable Beethoven intégrale with the
London Philharmonic for Philips back in
the 1970s—delivers performances that
are invariably tasteful, musically cogent,
and stylistically correct. Haitink utilizes
the now-standard Bärenreiter edition
as his text. But it’s not as though we’re
hurting for Beethoven cycles, even on
high-resolution formats.
Haitink’s performances sometimes
lack the edge and feeling of adventure
that these pieces surely had when they
were new and should possess even now.
Beethoven doesn’t have to be brusque and
severe, of course, but you don’t want too
many sharp corners rounded off. There’s
a certain complacency to the “Eroica’s”
first movement and its scherzo is rather
flat-footed. Likewise, the Fifth’s opening
Allegro con brio could be more intense.
Still, there are many instances when
Haitink does hit the mark. The second
movement of the Fifth combines a silky
lyricism with ceremonial pomp, while
No. 1’s finale achieves a marriage of
Haydnesque lightness and Beethovenian
substantiality. The conductor’s weightier
approach works out well in No. 8,
concluding in high spirits. Haitink paces
the Ninth splendidly, always keenly aware
of just where he is in the emotional arc
of this monumental work. The conductor
creates an unearthly stillness in the
Adagio, a dreamy repose preceding the
grandeur of the choral finale.
Bonuses include the Leonore Overture
No. 2 and a very successful rendering of
the Triple Concerto (Gordon Nikolitch,
Tim Hugh, and Lars Vogt play violin, cello,
and piano)—second-drawer Beethoven,
for sure, but Beethoven nonetheless.
The performances were recorded
before very quiet audiences at London’s
Barbican Center in November of 2005 and
April of 2006. The stereo DSD version
is robust sounding, with good dynamic
impact and decent soundstage depth and
width, though short on air. Multichannel,
as expected, adds spaciousness but
the front-to-back soundfield isn’t as
continuous as the very best—there’s not
a sense of music in the air between the
players and listening position. The offstage trumpet in Leonore is appropriately
distant in a rear channel.
Most, but not all, of these performances
are available on single discs. You might
want to first sample No. 7 plus the Triple
Concerto before springing for the entire
“Special Edition” set. AQ
Further Listening: Beethoven: Symphonies 1-9 (Karajan)(SACD) and
Symphonies 1-9 (Abbado)
with his fingers, rolling sticks across
the snare heads, or playing with his
hands to attain a wide vocabulary of
tones, textures, and colors. A consummate
accompanist, he can also summon up a
deftly swinging ride cymbal pulse while
simultaneously commenting on the
proceedings with polyrhythmic aplomb.
Recorded at Avatar Studios in New
York by engineer James Farber, this
ECM outing brilliantly captures the
clarity of Taylor’s sparse accompaniment,
the gorgeous tone of Feldman’s
violin, and the sheer warmth and woody
tones of Jormin’s upright bass. With
such crystalline production, you also hear
every nuance of Rainey’s remarkably
dynamic approach to the kit. A dream
band, a transcendent sound.
Bill Milkowski
of the Iss
Further Listening: John Abercrombie:
Cat ‘n’ Mouse; John Abercrombie:
Class Trip
Mark Feldman,
What Exit.
Manfred Eicher, producer.
ECM 1928.
Leave it to ECM founder Manfred
Eicher to open one of his typically
uncompromising productions with an
imposing 23-minute track. No thoughts
about radioplay there. But Eicher
has never been concerned about the
commercial potential of any of his
artists since forming ECM in Cologne,
Germany, back in 1969. The fact that
Keith Jarrett’s The Koln Concert became a
mega-seller in 1975 was purely incidental
to Eicher’s ultimate goal of presenting
authentic art music. And Feldman’s What
Exit is art music of the highest order.
A violinist of astounding virtuosity,
Feldman has rightly been called “the
Heifitz of our generation.” And while
he does, indeed, have a classical pedigree,
having performed with several symphony
orchestras over the past 25 years, he
is also adventurous and open-minded
enough to have gigged with country
stars Loretta Lynn and George Jones and
done sessions with such diverse artists as
pop groups They Might Be Giants and
Joe Jackson, jazzers Dave Douglas and
Joe Lovano, and avant-garde icon John
On What Exit, Feldman dives
headlong into a new classical aesthetic
on the stunning 23-minute “Arcade,”
168 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
a work of breathtaking beauty that
travels from turbulent minimalism to
mournful fragility. On that chamber-like
opus and other pieces like the darkly
introspective “Cadence,” the spacious
“Elegy,” and tango-flavored “Maria
Nuñez,” Feldman arrives at an organic
integration of classical and modern
jazz. An inveterate swinger, the violinist
also reveals his sizzling jazz chops on
the quirky, free-bop romp “Ink Pin”
and the surging title track, which
contains a swinging, walking bass
section that Feldman wails over with
British pianist Taylor weaves an
introspective spell with cascading lines
and a Zen-like use of space, while Swedish
bassist Anders Jormin demonstrates
some amazing arco work along with
a remarkably melodic penchant as a
soloist. But the revelation here is the
extraordinary drumming of
criminally underrated Tom Rainey. A
ubiquitous figure on New York’s rarefied
Downtown-improvisers scene, Rainey
reveals a skewed, wholly unconventional
rhythmic sensibility on the kit.
Throughout What Exit, he engages in
freewheeling dialogues without ever
relying on stock jazz-drumming phrases.
A superb listener, he reacts strictly
in the moment with keen instincts
and wide-open creativity, often resorting
to such devices as scratching the skins
Bill Frisell, Ron
Carter, Paul
Motian: Bill Frisell, Ron
Carter, Paul Motian.
Lee Townsend, producer.
Nonesuch 79897.
On first listen, guitarist Bill Frisell’s
democratically billed collaboration with
bassist Ron Carter and drummer Paul
Motian feels conservative, especially
coming after such recent genre-blending
projects as The Intercontinentals, Unspeakable,
and Richter 858. But repeated dips into
the aurally lush program of angular bop
(Thelonious Monk’s “Raise Four” and
“Misterioso”), pop standards (“On the
Street Where You Live”), country (“You
Are My Sunshine” and “I’m So Lonesome
I Could Cry”), traditional folk (“Pretty
Polly”), and originals (two from Frisell,
one from Motian, and Carter’s “EightyOne,” co-written with Miles Davis) lead
to the conclusion that this trio date is a
consolidation of Frisell’s strengths, not a
retreat from them.
On such pivotal 90s albums as Have a
Little Faith, This Land, and Nashville, Frisell
positioned himself as the preeminent
“Americana” jazz musician. (One might
retroactively apply the same tag to
Ellington, Mingus, Davis, and Rollins.)
New York-based Telecaster wiz Jim
Campilongo and northern California
guitarist John Schott (in his Junk Genius
partnership with clarinetist Ben Goldberg)
have both created brilliant country- and
folk-based improvisations, but Frisell has
elevated the amalgam to a personal plane
that he alone occupies. The pleasures of
Bill Frisell, Ron Carter, Paul Motian are subtly
delivered. The sonics are pristine and
precise, but a faint sheen on the surface
slightly diminishes the instruments’
presence, keeping the listener one step
removed from the compact soundstage.
Fifteen to twenty years the junior of his
collaborators, Frisell plays to their level of
maturity and restraint, reaching a higher
state of communication than he did five
years earlier with Dave Holland and Elvin
Jones. Eschewing the looping, delays, and
skronky feedback that mark his edgiest
work, he adorns his Jim Hall-inspired
golden tone and harmonic inventions with
his trademark bends, sustains, and chordal
shifts. Carter’s steady-time and harmonic
support is easy to take for granted—at
least until he solos and puts his genius
up-front—while Motian’s mind-boggling
rhythmic and textural complexities are
typically understated, helping seal an
airtight case in favor of this trio’s relaxed
approach. Derk Richardson
Further Listening: Jim Campilongo
Electric Trio: Heaven Is Creepy; Junk
Genius: Ghost of Electricity
170 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
John Patitucci:
Line by Line.
Patitucci, producer. Concord Jazz
A virtuoso on both upright and electric
basses, John Patitucci first made a name
for himself during the 80s as the resident
bass monster in Chick Corea’s Elektric
and Akoustic Bands. In recent years he
has anchored Wayne Shorter’s working
quartet while continuing to distinguish
himself as a first-rate composer with
a personal vision as a leader in his own
right. Line by Line, his sixth for Concord
Jazz, is his most winning and artistic
offering to date.
With a core trio consisting of guitarist
Adam Rogers and the extraordinarily
sensitive drummer Brian Blade (his rhythm
partner in Shorter’s group), Patitucci
alternately explores free-flowing group
interaction with chamber-like precision
on dynamic pieces that straddle the jazzclassical divide. Patitucci and Rogers
engage in a tightly woven contrapuntal
conversation on the buoyant opener, “The
Root,” which is underscored by Blade’s
keenly intuitive approach on the kit. The
trio blazes through a funkified rendering
of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence,”
with Blade providing crisp fills between
the cracks of that renowned stop-time
anthem. Rogers unleashes with uncanny
fleet-fingered facility, while Patitucci kicks
in a stunning solo of his own on 6-string
electric bass. Rogers, one of the most
outstanding technicians on the modern
jazz guitar scene (check out his dazzling
solo on “Circular”), offers a change of
pace on his sparse, hauntingly beautiful
Egberto Gismonti-esque acoustic ballad
“Dry September.” Tenor saxophonist
Chris Potter, a long-standing member
of Dave Holland’s group and frequent
collaborator of Patitucci’s, guests on three
tracks, exchanging brisk unison lines with
Rogers on “Agitato,” blowing poignantly
on the tender heartland number “Folklore,”
and breaking loose for passionate soloing
on the swinging title track.
Patitucci demonstrates his remarkable
arco technique in a touching acoustic
duet with Rogers on the Manuel de Falla
classical piece “Nana,” and he digs in
with soulful authority on a solo upright
rendition of the old spiritual “Jesus Is
On The Mainline.” The multi-directional
bassist-composer also reveals his
classical side on three magnificent pieces
augmented by string quartet (featuring
his wife Sachi on cello)—“Incarnation,”
“Soaring,” and the moving “Theme and
Variations for 6-String Bass and Strings.”
The resonant, woody tones of
Patitucci’s Vuillaume doublebass are very
present in the mix, recorded at Avatar
Studios in New York. The blend of strings
is sublime, and nearly every nuance of the
telepathic interaction between the core
trio is clearly articulated on this brilliant
offering. BM
Further Listening: John Patitucci
Communion; Brian Blade: Fellowship
Omer Avital:
The Ancient Art
of Giving.
Avital and Luke Kaven, producers.
Smalls Records 14.
Despite releasing only a handful of
albums, Omer Avital is already being
mentioned in the same sentence with
Charles Mingus and William Parker. Like
the latter, Avital is a jazz bassist who leads
his own groups and composes his own
music. His force-of-nature attack on the
instrument combines power, articulation,
and musicality.
Avital’s 2005 Asking No Permission was
recorded at Smalls in New York City in
1996 and featured four saxophonists
blowing against Avital’s bass and Ali
Jackson’s drums. Jackson and tenor saxist
Mark Turner are the only holdovers for
The Ancient Art of Giving, recorded at New
York’s Fat Cat in January 2005. Israeli
trumpeter Avishai Cohen completes this
quintet’s front line, and pianist Aaron
Goldberg (Avital’s collaborator in the
OAM Trio with drummer/percussionist
Marc Miralta) enriches the rhythm
section. Avital’s originals are informed
by American blues as well as Middle
Eastern, North African, and Spanish
motifs, bringing a contemporary, globally
conscious sensibility to a classic form that
others wear like straightjackets.
The bassist’s solo chops stand out on
the absorbing 15-minute centerpiece “Ras
Abu-Galum (for Elvin Jones)” and the
two-minute “Bass Introduction” to the
closer, “Yes!” Avital’s playing is riveting
throughout, and so is that of every
member of this exciting ensemble. As
strong as the individual personalities may
be, what impresses most are the written
and spontaneously generated harmonies,
reminiscent of mid-1950s Mingus and
early 60s Oliver Nelson.
Luke Kaven is a wizard at location
recording. The music has a warm,
intimate live ambience (you can hear the
audience at a respectable distance), the
instruments have clearly defined physical
presences in realistic relationship to one
another, and the lows, mids, and highs are
democratically and robustly represented,
without any artificial exaggeration.
Although Avital’s itinerary has been
mostly confined to his native Israel, New
York City, and European festivals, if he
keeps putting out recordings like this, he
will soon be a household name. DR
Further Listening: Omer Avital:
Asking No Permission; Charles
Mingus: Changes One
172 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
Ray Charles
and the Count Basie
Orchestra: Ray Sings, Basie
Concord 30026. Gregg Field,
Surprised to learn that Ray Charles
recorded with Count Basie? You should
be—it never happened. Well, at least
not until the advent of modern studio
technology. John Burk, head of A&R at
Concord Records, was searching through
the vaults when he stumbled upon a box
of tapes labeled “Ray Charles and Count
Basie,” one of the label’s many acquisitions
that came with its purchase of Fantasy
Records in 2005. Initially, Burk thought
he’d found the holy grail. However, the
tapes contained separate sets recorded
during the mid-1970s. Charles’ vocals were
prominent, the band’s sound unusable. So,
Burk thought, why not record the current
Basie Band, headed by Bill Hughes, with
new charts to get what Burks calls “an
atomic-explosive Ray-Basie feel”? Enter
state-of-the-art studio wizardry.
It works, primarily because Charles’
music always was steeped in Basie’s blues
style. Although Charles never performed
with the Count, he used many of Basie’s
personnel on Genius Plus Soul Equals
Jazz. Producer Gregg Field doesn’t miss
a beat; he even employed R&B vocalist
Patti Austin to recreate the patented
Raelettes backup vocals and organist
Joey DeFrancesco to sweeten the sound
with his Hammond B-3. The result
is a seamless session that unites two
titans of R&B and jazz. And sonically,
everything is first-rate. There’s a strong
sense of presence—from the warmth
of the driving horns to the punchy
rhythm section—and the 26 singers and
musicians are skillfully blended.
Charles’ skill as a savvy song interpreter
lies at the heart of these 12 tracks. The
new charts allow his sensational vocals
to shine, whether on the Rodgers and
Hammerstein show tune “Oh, What a
Beautiful Morning” or the George and
Ira Gershwin chestnut “How Long Has
This Been Going On?” (not released
officially until 1977) or one of Charles’
staples (“Busted,” “Crying Time”).
Other highlights include a rollicking
cover of folk-rocker Melanie’s “Look
What They’ve Done to My Song,” a
sympathetic rendering of the Beatles
“Long and Winding Road,” and a bluesy
take on Little Milton’s “Feel So Bad.” By
the closer, “Georgia on My Mind,” you’re
a believer. Greg Cahill
Further Listening: Ray Charles:
Genius Plus Soul Equals Jazz;
Ellington/Basie: First Time! The
Count Meets the Duke
Stu Goldberg and
Cassius Khan:
Dark Clouds.
Goldberg, producer. Hybrid
multichannel. Dedication 2181.
Stu Goldberg is no stranger to musical
exploration, especially when it comes
to Indian influences. For five years in
the mid-1970s, he manned the keyboard
stool in the Mahavishnu Orchestra and
has also teamed up with such daring
fusion artists as John McLaughlin,
Wayne Shorter, Al DiMeola, Jack Bruce,
and Alphonse Mouzon. His recent solo
albums, including 2002’s straight-ahead
jazz releases Going Home and Dedication,
have included stints with his saxophonist and flutist brother
Kenny Goldberg. Of late, Goldberg has been composing film
and TV scores.
A striking acoustic-fusion outing that features tabla and vocal
virtuoso Cassius Khan, and vocalist Jennifer Lauren Goldberg,
his 21-year-old daughter, Dark Clouds finds Goldberg exploring
a variety of genres ranging from jazz to Indian classical, New
Orleans R&B to blues. Goldberg, on acoustic piano and
percussion, is in a somewhat introspective mood. Two of the
four songs reflect on or evoke the pensive emotions of a rainy
day. The opening and closing pieces, each averaging 20 minutes,
are built around classical Indian ragamala style. For the title track,
Khan and Jennifer sing in Hindi and English, respectively, turning
in a hauntingly cathartic performance.
These songs are a far cry from the experimentation of Goldberg’s
youth, yet there is an understood maturity to his latest compositions.
Case in point is “Keherwa,” a six-and-half minute drum jam built
on a traditional eight-beat rhythmic cycle, where Goldberg plays
frame drum and udu igbah, trading licks with Khan, who uses two
different tunings of tablas. The scintillating session climaxes with the
percussionists in unison, each delivering a powerful one-two punch.
Goldberg obviously takes pride in his work, from the intricate
structure of his song craft to the high-caliber performances to
the 24-bit digital surround sound. You hear it in the crystalline
purity of his piano playing, the thunderous vibrancy of the
percussion, and the sheer beauty of Jennifer’s vocals. Behold the
joyful noise. GC
Further Listening: Stu Goldberg: Going Home;
Mahavishnu Orchestra: Inner Worlds
Creed Taylor,
producer. Cisco/
Verve CLP-8672
(180-gram LP).
Recorded in September 1966 at
Rudy Van Gelder’s
studio, California Dreaming is one of those curious late-period
Wes Montgomery albums that combine straight-ahead jazz with
jazzy takes on some of the era’s cheesier pop songs. Moreover,
although the Montgomery group’s basic lineup is stellar—Herbie
Hancock on piano, Richard Davis on bass, Grady Tate on drums,
and Al Casamenti and Bucky Pizzarelli on second guitars—these
musicians are frequently joined by brass and winds under the
leadership of arranger Don Sebesky, and the results often sound
like the theme from a 60s sitcom. While Montgomery was never
less than a fluid and tasteful player, with his signature soft, warm
tone (generated by playing his Gibson L-SCES hollow-body
electric with his thumb rather than a pick), single-note runs, and
mastery of octaves and block chording, even he sounds half-bored
playing the Mamas and Papas’ title track, or the Bobby Hebb hit
“Sunny,” or the Mexicali-flavored “South of the Border.”
Cisco’s 180-gram pressing is immaculate, but the sonics are
as mixed as the music. When only the main group is playing, the
sound is immediate and natural, with a nicely spaced soundstage
and good depth. Montgomery’s guitar sounds truly beautiful,
drums are dynamic, and there’s a nice illusion of a small jazz
group before you. Things get dicey, however, when the brass
band kicks in. At times the trumpets have the brightness and
bite they have in life, which is good, but at others it sounds as
if the meters had crossed into the red once too often, saturating
the tape. Fortunately, this happens on only a few tracks, and on
“Mrs. Walker” one gets a taste of the entire ensemble recorded
at its best.
The finest cuts here are the least adorned ones, where
Montgomery and his guys get to play without interference from
the orchestra. For Montgomery fans, that makes at least half of
California Dreaming worthwhile. Wayne Garcia
Further Listening: Charlie Christian: The Genius of the
Electric Guitar; The Montgomery Brothers: Groove Yard
(Analogue Productions 45rpm)
174 January 2007 The Absolute Sound
11 Questions for Bob Stuart,
Chairman and Technical Director, Meridian Audio
Neil Gader
What prompted your interest in
The first time I was tweaked by an interest
in hi-fi was at a radio show. When I heard
a demonstration by the BBC, I realized
I could get much closer to the live event
than things I’d been hearing up to that
point. I guess I was about fifteen.
Did you have a dream system at
that time?
In my dreams I designed one. I never
actually bought a hi-fi. I designed and built
my first amplifier, my first loudspeaker,
too. When I went to university I designed
and built a tape recorder and that’s where
my music came from—a reel-to-reel
machine. I think the first thing that I
actually bought was a turntable.
What do you think you’ll be listening to music on in ten years?
Meridian speakers.
And the source?
In ten years? I expect we’ll be listening to music on CD, CD-related sources, and highquality downloads. And new types of music distribution—one of the interesting things
happening there is that new bands are able to express themselves without having to have
a label support them.
Many audiophiles are born tweakers. Your active systems are
considered untweakable in the audiophile sense. How does that square
with their sensibilities?
Some audiophiles haven’t squared with it. We don’t make audiophile equipment; we
make music-playback systems. We’re selling to people who really care about sound
quality and don’t want to fuss with the details. They like the music. That’s Meridian’s
target audience.
Did you always feel the compact disc would have the impact it has had?
Yes, I did. You see, I was a frustrated audiophile who couldn’t tolerate deficiencies in
vinyl. That probably separates me from a good deal of your readers. When I first heard
it [CD] I recognized there were a lot of things wrong with it. But we’d been working
with digital audio for about four years before CD came out. Digital audio had certain
qualities that I find personally very, very important—like tonal stability. It was pretty
clear that it was not only good for sound but that people would like it because it was
such a convenient format.
I’ve said it before—SACD and DVD-A
had a war and the winner was the iPod,
where the consumer began drifting
toward “CD-quality.”
Now vinyl, that’s a different thing. I see
that as a fashion thing. There are some
people who believe it sounds better—it
absolutely sounds different. But it’s not
about sound quality or catalog in my view.
It’s about being a rebel—you listen to LPs
in the same way you wear certain kinds
of shoes.
What about the rollout of HDDVD and Blu-ray? Are they facing
the same issues that sunk SACD
and DVD-A?
Absolutely, I think so. There are a lot
of parallels. Fact is you can get fantastic
results out of a standard DVD disc if
you do the right video processing. The
question is whether the customer will
pay more for the new disc and whether
Blockbuster will stock three different
versions of the new movie. I’m skeptical.
Whilst I don’t think the new formats will
die necessarily, I do think they will have
quite a struggle to attain a significant
marketshare because the DVD catalog is
already huge. The other factor that makes
it even muddier is movies-on-demand,
downloads, local hard-disc-storage rental.
I think we’re close to the end of the time
that a disc format like DVD could be
launched and you could expect it to be
What has been the biggest
innovation in your field in the
last ten years?
Throughout my lifetime, it’s been the
continuous progression of integrated
electronics and digital ways of doing
What are its untapped frontiers?
The area for the biggest improvement
is still the loudspeaker and the room. I
don’t see a breakthrough rather than a
continuous refinement. What needs to
be solved is getting reproduction systems
to make you believe the instruments are
really there. And there’s an increasing gap
in the way designers and engineers are
trained these days. They seem to know
less and less about psychoacoustics and
the way we perceive things.
Does it strike you as ironic that SACD and DVD-A are effectively dead,
yet vinyl continues to be embraced by the audiophile market?
Best advice from an old pro?
The music companies didn’t support either SACD or DVD-A wholeheartedly. They
didn’t bring out a catalog, and when you haven’t got a catalog you haven’t got a format.
All you can do is go listen—and find
someone you trust as a dealer. TAS
184 January 2007 The Absolute Sound